Mark and the Historical Jesus

Over at the Facebook group for the Sheffield Biblical Studies, a certain individual who may not have been aware of what is entailed by the academic study of biblical literature left this fun message on the wall:

‎2012 is here. Signs suggest a highly destructive future. Good News is Light or Knowledge of Life and Nature. It is the only Hope for the world edging to great disorder and destruction to survive. It is time we awaken and know Calvary sacrifice of Jesus and Good News as a science beyond the boundary of religion. This is the only way to adapt to end time and survive 2012

Now, there will be the inevitable cognitive dissonance when 2012 does not turn out to be the apocalypse, but the evangelist “Mark” was similarily steeped in the expecation that the end of the age was at hand (see my posts under eschatology, though unlike the gentleman above I think Mark 13 discourages sign-watching by arguing all the preliminary signs will be fulfilled in a generation but not even the Son knows the day or hour of that great eschatological Day).  But did the historical Jesus share Mark’s imminent eschatological expectation?  A number of scholars since Albert Schweitzer would say yes (Geza Vermes, E.P. Sanders,  Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Paula FredriksenJohn P. Meier, Dale Allison, Bart Ehrman, Gerd Lüdemann, Maurice Casey, etc.), including many conservative Christian scholars who share the view in my last post on the historical reliability of the Gospels (Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, James Dunn, Scot McKnight).  This accords with the overall Synoptic presentation, is plausible in light of the baptism by an apocalyptic prophet (John the Baptist) and the earliest Christian sources as apocalyptic (Pauline epistles, including pre-Pauline fragments like the Aramaic prayer in 1 Cor 16:22 “Our Lord, come”), and fits many arguably authentic words/deeds of Jesus even if one demurs on the authenticity on some points (e.g., future kingdom sayings, reversal language such as “first will be last” or “blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom”, Lord’s prayer with petition “your kingdom come”, belief in general resurrection and warnings of divine judgement, many coming from east & west to dine with the Patriarchs, the Twelve symbolizing the regathering of the twelve tribes, the so-called “temple cleansing” as symbolic of eschatological destruction & restoration, Jesus’ forthcoming death interpreted as undergoing the tribulation and drinking the cup of wrath, Jesus as messianic king, apocalyptic Son of Man, etc.).

However, the other major option is to see the historical Jesus as a non-eschatological sage, with Jewish sapiential literature (traditional wisdom such as Proverbs or Sirach, or counter-cultural such as Ecclesiastes) or Greco-Roman Cynicism as analogies for comparative purposes (many critics of the “Cynic Jesus” miss this nuance) (see John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, Burton Mack, Stephen Patterson, Ron Cameron, collectively Jesus Seminar, etc).  According to Borg (Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, 87), Mark may be an intensification of Jewish eschatological expectation in light of tensions created by the Jewish War (he judges the apocalyptic Son of Man and Mark’s framing of Jesus’ message as the coming of God’s kingdom in 1:15 [cf. 9:1] as redactional).  In this group many scholars turn to “Q” (from Quelle or “source”, the hypothetical sayings source many argue underlies the non-Markan sayings shared by Matthew/Luke) and follow John Kloppenborg who argued on form critical grounds that the earliest layer (Q1) was non-eschatological (for explanation of the literary stratification of Q see this post by William Arnal, for critique see this post by Stephen Carlson), accept the independence of the Gospel of Thomas (a collection of 114 sayings) from the canonical Gospels and provides multiple attestation for many of the sayings in Q1, and see many of the aphorisms, parables and pronouncement stories do not need to be read in an apocalyptic light.

So did Jesus share Mark’s apocalyptic worldview or didn’t he, and what is to be done with this scholarly maze?  First, I think we need to get past the “Jesus Wars” and especially the unfair insinuation that Jesus Seminar types has argued for a “non-Jewish” Jesus (the essentialisms involved when some scholars invoke “Jewish identity” and some of the latent Christian triumphalist assumptions are ably deconstructed by William Arnal, Jonathan Z. Smith, James Crossley, more sources here).  Lets have an honest, charitable debate about why scholars differ, without creating strawmen and with a willingness to learn from other perspectives even as we seek to defend our own.  Second, as I tried to make this point in my review of Casey (see here, here, here, here, please share feedback in the comments?), I think before one makes a decision about the historical Jesus he or she must do their homework on source and form criticism:  is Mark the first Gospel on which Matthew/Luke depend or a later abridgement of Matthew/Luke, is Luke independent or dependent on Matthew, if Luke and Matthew are independent did they get their shared non-Markan material from a single source (Q) or multiple written or oral sources, is John independent or dependent on the Synoptic tradition, is Thomas independent or dependent on the Synoptic tradition, when do these sources date, can we detect earlier hypothetical sources behind the Synoptics (Q, pre-Markan pronouncement stories, pre-Markan parable collection [Mk 4], eschatological discourse, pre-Markan passion narrative?), how was the Jesus tradition transmitted in the oral period, etc.  Finally, to give my own general opinion on the reconstruction of the historical Jesus, I believe that both wisdom speech and eschatology are bedrock material and found in every layer – that is, Jesus challenged the contemporary status-quo of the socio-political order in Judaea under Roman imperialism with a counter-cultural wisdom and promised a dramatic reversal in fortunes when God’s empire comes in power.

8 Responses to Mark and the Historical Jesus

  1. [...] Mark 7:1 and Mark 13. There have been recent posts on this passage by Ken Schenck, Brian LePort and Mike Kok.Returning to Cee Lo’s reworking of “Imagine,” perhaps the biggest problem with [...]

  2. Brian says:

    Hmm…I feel as if this blog needs more activity, how about I contribute to it?

    This is rather insightful, as a student [an amateur actually] on Mark, I found this post to be really informative. Your post, as usual, are clear and very provacative. Thank you, for sharing this.

    • Mike K. says:

      Thanks Brian for the encouragement. I wish I had the skill of a Jim West, Joel Watts or James McGrath to put out multiple posts every day, but with life constantly busy (or I am just lazy) I find I am lucky if I can post once a week :) But hey, I am always open to contributors, so if you ever want to just send me an email (available on the link to the Sheffield department site from my About page), and I will be happy to include it with your name as a guest post.

  3. Brian says:

    Well that’s okay at least you tried. Though I would like to make one comment, in your post you seem to treat eschatology and wisdom speech as if it were distinct. Jewish eschatology provided the frame work for many of those counter-cultural tendacies in Jesus’ teaching. To me, they seem complimentary. Though I am inclined to agree with you if you are saying that Jesus cannot be reduced down to either. The source material in question depicts Jesus as addressing certain issues that somebody who operated with a strict eschatological world view wouldn’t nessecarily pay much attention to. Though I think the work of scholars like Allison, show that in comparitive studies, that isn’t unusual, since prophets like Jesus are inconsistant like that.
    Anyway, if I may. I’d like to point you to a rather interesting discussion that is taking place over at Brian LePorte’s [not to be confused with me] blog. We were addressing several issues that are relevant to your post. Including, the continuity between Jesus’ eschatology and the early church, the son of man, and etc.

    • Mike K. says:

      I agree with you and Dale Allison’s point that the wisdom and eschatological language do not have to be seen as incompatible (cf. book of Daniel) and that Jesus had much more to say than just all things eschatological. I will take a look at the Near Emanaus blog post (and I really think there is something to the whole group blogging thing, at least so someone is always posting something).

  4. Ron Price says:

    I agree very much with the need to do one’s homework on gospel sources before pronouncing on the historical Jesus. On the basis of “An Aramaic Approach to Q” (2002), Casey’s homework appears incomplete. For his five-fold “model of Q” is surely so lacking in detail as to be virtually worthless as a foundation for estimating the reliability of the Double Tradition material. However if he has filled in the gaps since 2002 then my criticism will obviously be invalid.

    Your summary of the historical Jesus as associated with both wisdom speech and eschatology is spot on in my opinion. And I have done my homework. The main results can be accessed here:

    • Mike K. says:

      Thanks Ron. My mind is not made up on the Synoptic Problem. I am convinced about Markan priority and have in the past defended the two-source hypothesis, but I am increasingly open to other views on “Q” (a single Greek document with Aramaic substratum? Multiple written/oral Greek or Aramaic sources? No need because Luke knew Matthew [Goulder-Goodacre]?). I had a brief look at your good website and am open to your Three-Source hypothesis. Dennis Macdonald is coming out with a similar solution as you (from the preview I have seen, he accepts a logia source for all 3 Synoptics, a 2nd century date for Luke-Acts which used Matt/Mark/logia source, Papias’ reference to Matthew’s logia refers both to our NT Matthew as contrast to Mark’s lack of “order” but the multiple translations of Matthew is an inference from the existence of the logia source). Could you comment more on your disagreements with Casey’s chaotic model of Q?

      • Ron Price says:

        Thanks for the information about the impending publication from Dennis MacDonald. My main objection to Casey’s model of Q (based solely on p.189 of “An Aramaic Approach to Q”) is that it appears to be unnecessarily complicated. His first three components (a Greek Q which included the preaching of John the Baptist, a Greek Q which included the Beelzeboul controversy, and a Greek Q which ended with some passion material) on the 3ST simply become parts of Matthew’s gospel accessed by Luke. The “Aramaic Q which included material from Luke 11 and Matthew 23″ could, if expanded, become a description of my reconstructed “logia”. This leaves only the “Greek multi-Q” component, which “may have included sayings which were transmitted orally”. I don’t see the need for such a component. In my radical form of the 3ST, the aphorisms would have been transmitted directly to Matthew, the editor of the logia, either from Jesus or from other members of the ‘twelve’. I see most non-aphoristic sayings attributed to Jesus as having been composed by the synoptic writers themselves. This includes Lk 22:48 which Casey claims is authentic, but which can’t be authentic if I’m right in seeing Judas the betrayer as a fictional creation of Mark!

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