Monthly Archives: November 2016

Matthew Chapter 27:39-54

Jesus has been crucified and is now on the cross. This first section can be called the Mocking of Jesus.

39 Οἱ δὲ παραπορευόμενοι ἐβλασφήμουν αὐτὸν κινοῦντες τὰς κεφαλὰς αὐτῶν

40 καὶ λέγοντες, Ὁ καταλύων τὸν ναὸν καὶ ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις οἰκοδομῶν, σῶσον σεαυτόν, εἰ υἱὸς εἶ τοῦ θεοῦ, [καὶ] κατάβηθι ἀπὸ τοῦ σταυροῦ.

41 ὁμοίως καὶ οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς ἐμπαίζοντες μετὰ τῶν γραμματέων καὶ πρεσβυτέρων ἔλεγον,

42 Ἄλλους ἔσωσεν, ἑαυτὸν οὐ δύναται σῶσαι: βασιλεὺς Ἰσραήλ ἐστιν, καταβάτω νῦν ἀπὸ τοῦ σταυροῦ καὶ πιστεύσομεν ἐπ’ αὐτόν.

43 πέποιθεν ἐπὶ τὸν θεόν, ῥυσάσθω νῦν εἰ θέλει αὐτόν: εἶπεν γὰρ ὅτι Θεοῦ εἰμι υἱός.

44 τὸ δ’ αὐτὸ καὶ οἱ λῃσταὶ οἱ συσταυρωθέντες σὺν αὐτῷ ὠνείδιζον αὐτόν.

Those passing-by blasphemed him, shaking their heads (40) and saying, “The one destroying the Temple and in three days building it up, save yourself, if the son of God [and] come down from the cross”. 

quick note: the Greek word that gets transliterated as ‘blaspheme’ mostly has the connotations it does in Greek, but it can mean ‘slander’ or ‘speak ill of another’ The point is that the passers-by would not have thought themselves blaspheming, because they did not consider Jesus to be divine. The evangelist uses the word because he did believe this about Jesus. It’s a matter of perspective.

(41) In the same way the high priests with the scribes and elders mocking him said, (42) “He saved others, himself he is not able to save. The king of Israel he is, let him come down now from the cross and we will believe in him. (43) Persuade upon God, let him (G0d) deliver him (Jesus) if he wishes. For he said that ‘I am the son of God’.” (44) In the same way the thieves, they having been crucified with him threw shade at him.

This is pure drama. Ha-ha, all those people mocking Jesus, but we get the last laugh! And it’s an all-star cast: the ordinary Jews passing by and shaking their heads, the high priests, the scribes, AND the Elders! And note that both thieves mock him, too. It’s not until Luke that one of the brigands repents, and that is worth noting. It is another great example of how a story evolves and changes, generally growing in the telling as additional details, and anecdotes, and even entire characters are added. The Repentant Thief is just such a character and anecdote, but Luke is full of them.

Other than that, I’m not sure there’s much to say about this section.

39 Praetereuntes autem blasphemabant eum moventes capita sua

40 et dicentes: “Qui destruis templum et in triduo illud reaedificas, salva temetipsum; si Filius Dei es, descende de cruce!”.

41 Similiter et principes sacerdotum illudentes cum scribis et senioribus dicebant:

42 “Alios salvos fecit, seipsum non potest salvum facere. Rex Israel est; descendat nunc de cruce, et credemus in eum.

43 Confidit in Deo; liberet nunc, si vult eum. Dixit enim: “Dei Filius sum” ”.

44 Idipsum autem et latrones, qui crucifixi erant cum eo, improperabant ei.

45 Ἀπὸ δὲ ἕκτης ὥρας σκότος ἐγένετο ἐπὶ πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν ἕως ὥρας ἐνάτης.

46 περὶ δὲ τὴν ἐνάτην ὥραν ἀνεβόησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς φωνῇ μεγάλῃ λέγων, Ηλι ηλι λεμα σαβαχθανι; τοῦτ’ ἔστιν, Θεέ μου θεέ μου, ἱνατί με ἐγκατέλιπες;

47 τινὲς δὲ τῶν ἐκεῖ ἑστηκότων ἀκούσαντες ἔλεγον ὅτι Ἠλίαν φωνεῖ οὗτος.

48 καὶ εὐθέως δραμὼν εἷς ἐξ αὐτῶν καὶ λαβὼν σπόγγον πλήσας τε ὄξους καὶ περιθεὶς καλάμῳ ἐπότιζεν αὐτόν.

49 οἱ δὲ λοιποὶ ἔλεγον, Ἄφες ἴδωμεν εἰ ἔρχεται Ἠλίας σώσων αὐτόν.

50 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν κράξας φωνῇ μεγάλῃ ἀφῆκεν τὸ πνεῦμα.

From the sixth hour (noon), darkness became upon the entire until the ninth hour (3 pm). (46) About the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabnachthani?” Which is, “God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (47) Some of those there standing, hearing said that he was calling Elias (Elijah). (48) And immediately running one from them and taking a sponge filled with vinegar/cheap/bad wine and placing it on a reed gave him to drink. (49) The others said, :”Go away, let us see if Elijah comes saving him”. (50) And Jesus once again cried out in a loud voice and gave up the spirit.

The part about the darkness will be saved for a bit later. Other than than, most of the details listed here are very similar to what Mark has; Matthew adds almost nothing that is new. He transliterates the Aramaic a bit differently, the result being that it does sound more like the Romanized form of Elias. We discussed this in relation to Mark; it has to be Hebrew, since the members of the crowd would presumably have understood Aramaic, since that was the common, spoken language. This is a quote from a Psalm. The bit about the wine has always perplexed me; again, was it meant as an anesthetic? And at the end, Jesus gives up the spirit; that is, he exhaled his last breath, so the breath was gone. “Giving up the ghost”catches the idea.

Given the similarity to Mark, I suppose the question is why? Why did Matthew pretty much copy and paste Mark so faithfully? It occurs to me to suggest that the weight of tradition had already come down so hard with Mark’s version of the Passion Story that Matthew felt unable to change it. That is certainly possible, but Luke was under no such constraint. Generally, when one author follows another so closely, it’s because the second one doesn’t have anything new or different to add. Why he didn’t have anything to add is entirely a different question, and one that’s much harder to answer. 

51 Καὶ ἰδοὺ τὸ καταπέτασμα τοῦ ναοῦ ἐσχίσθη ἀπ’ ἄνωθεν ἕως κάτω εἰς δύο, καὶ ἡ γῆ ἐσείσθη, καὶ αἱ πέτραι ἐσχίσθησαν, 52 καὶ τὰ μνημεῖα ἀνεῴχθησαν καὶ πολλὰ σώματα τῶν κεκοιμημένων ἁγίων ἠγέρθησαν, 53 καὶ ἐξελθόντες ἐκ τῶν μνημείων μετὰ τὴν ἔγερσιν αὐτοῦ εἰσῆλθον εἰς τὴν ἁγίαν πόλιν καὶ ἐνεφανίσθησαν πολλοῖς. 54 Ὁ δὲ ἑκατόνταρχος καὶ οἱ μετ’ αὐτοῦ τηροῦντες τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἰδόντες τὸν σεισμὸν καὶ τὰ γενόμενα ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα, λέγοντες, Ἀληθῶς θεοῦ υἱὸς ἦν οὗτος.

 And behold, the curtain of the Temple was torn from top to bottom in two (pieces), and the earth was shaken, and the stones were split. (52) And the tombs were opened and many bodies of the holy ones having fallen asleep were raised, (53) and coming out from the tombs after the awaking of him, they can again to the holy place and appeared to many. (54) The leader of a hundred (= centurion) and those with him keeping watch on Jesus seeing the earthquake and the occurrences were greatly frightened, saying, “Truly, the son of God was this man”. 

Above, when we encountered the Praetorium, we found the word transliterated into Greek due to a lack of a corresponding word. Here, the Latin “centurion”, who was a leader of a hundred soldiers, becomes in Greek “a hundred leader”. The term is translated very literally, but it’s not just transliterated as “kenturion”, which was a possible solution.

Now for the important stuff. Let’s start by going back to the darkness from noon till 3:00 pm. That set the stage for the events described here. We have to remember that all of this is happening in darkness. Now, it could be the darkness of a very cloudy day, but that’s not how we would normally take this. There is more ominous sense to the description, more atmospheric, something portentous. And now we get to the payoff: as Jesus dies, the curtain is torn in two, the earth shakes, and stones split. Even more astonishing is that the dead saints come forth, and are seen by many. In sense, the darkness is the opposite pole of the star that appeared at his birth; that was shining and bright; this is gloomy and foreboding, and yet still managing to be life-giving. Of all the events described, the holy ones coming forth from their tombs is unique to Matthew, and it is of a piece with his description of Jesus as a cosmic event. The stars proclaimed him, the sending forth of his spirit (pneuma, not psyche) literally breathes life into the dead. That’s pretty darn cosmic.

In a way, it’s kind of surprising that this detail, the dead walking, does not get more emphasis than it does. It’s rarely discussed; in fact, I was a bit surprised to come across it when I actually read Matthew for the first time in toto. Biblical scholars blather on about how embarrassed the follows of Jesus were by the connexion to John–which is utter nonsense; they were proud of it and played it up–but the real embarrassment seems to reside in this event. And it’s not difficult to see why this is. Paul talked about Jesus as the “first fruits”, the first to conquer death. But not exactly. Yes, there were those who were brought back by Elijah and Jesus, but that was something different. This is the cosmos acting, not God through a human agent who is performing a miracle. These holy ones were, really, the first fruits. The difference between these holy ones and, say, the little girl, or Lazarus, or the widow’s son raised by Elijah (and another by Jesus). The difference is perhaps subtle, but it’s real and it’s significant. Just ponder the situations for a moment if you don’t agree with me. And if you don’t agree after that period to ruminate, that’s fine, too. But then explain why the miracle of Lazarus is so famous, and this one sort of gets swept under the rug. How many famous artists have depicted this scene? A cursory Google search turns up dozens of paintings of Lazarus. Has anyone depicted this scene? I tried to Google it, but without results. Part of the problem is how to enter it into Google. The scene really doesn’t have a name. Anything with “resurrection” in it comes up with Jesus, or the resurrection of the dead on Judgement Day. Hmmm. Judgement Day. There’s an interesting connexion, but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it at the moment.

45 A sexta autem hora tenebrae factae sunt super universam terram usque ad horam nonam.

46 Et circa horam nonam clamavit Iesus voce magna dicens: “Eli, Eli, lema sabacthani?”, hoc est: “ Deus meus, Deus meus, ut quid dereliquisti me? ”.

47 Quidam autem ex illic stantibus audientes dicebant: “Eliam vocat iste”.

48 Et continuo currens unus ex eis acceptam spongiam implevit aceto et imposuit arundini et dabat ei bibere.

49 Ceteri vero dicebant: “Sine, videamus an veniat Elias liberans eum”.

50 Iesus autem iterum clamans voce magna emisit spiritum.

51 Et ecce velum templi scissum est a summo usque deorsum in duas partes, et terra mota est, et petrae scissae sunt;

52 et monumenta aperta sunt, et multa corpora sanctorum, qui dormierant, surrexerunt

53 et exeuntes de monumentis post resurrectionem eius venerunt in sanctam civitatem et apparuerunt multis.

54 Centurio autem et, qui cum eo erant custodientes Iesum, viso terrae motu et his, quae fiebant, timuerunt valde dicentes: “Vere Dei Filius erat iste!”.

 

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Matthew Chapter 27:27-38

This is the story of the actual crucifixion. Crossan makes the point that this particular method of execution required a certain level of knowledge and technical expertise, which pretty much guarantees that the Romans performed it. Jews executed by stoning, or throwing people off a cliff. Josephus (supposedly, at least) gives this as a the method of execution of James, brother of Jesus. In either case, you can see that these methods of death more closely resemble mob action than they do juridical execution carried out by the official apparatus of the state. As such, the idea that Pilate handed Jesus over to anyone else as Matthew (perhaps) tried to imply is pretty much preposterous.

There is no really clean break point until the burial, but that is most of the rest of the chapter. My apologies if the one I’ve chosen is a tad awkward.

27 Τότε οἱ στρατιῶται τοῦ ἡγεμόνος παραλαβόντες τὸν Ἰησοῦν εἰς τὸ πραιτώριον συνήγαγον ἐπ’ αὐτὸν ὅλην τὴν σπεῖραν.

Then the soldiers of the governor taking Jesus led him to the praetorium, to the whole cohort.

Two things: perhaps I oversold the meaning “handed over”. It can have the sense of “remanded into custody”, so maybe Matthew wasn’t trying to fob this off onto the Jews. Second, the “praetorium” is a Latin word for the tent of the praetor, who was an official who acted as a military leader. The word has a military connotation: Lewis and Short (the other L&S) define it as the general’s tent, or the official residence of the governor. This is the obvious meaning here. The word is simply transliterated into Greek, since there was no corresponding word in Greek because there was no corresponding concept in Greek military thinking.

The other second thing is the cohort. This is a technical military term for a division of a legion. It refers to a tenth of a legion, or six centuries of a hundred men each, so it would be 600 men at its theoretical full strength. Six hundred Roman soldiers in a civilian town was a lot of firepower, especially given the variety of tactical measures in which they were trained. The Greek word here is a “band”, as in a group. Here again there was no corresponding word in Greek because they used the phalanx, which was as big as the number of soldiers at any given time. This was a weapon formidable enough to conquer the eastern world, but it lacked the tactical flexibility of a Roman legion, in no small part because the legions had these subdivisions which allowed some pretty sophisticated manoeuvres in the course of a battle. The Vulgate uses “cohort”, the proper Latin term.

27 Tunc milites praesidis suscipientes Iesum in praetorio congregaverunt ad eum universam cohortem.

28 καὶ ἐκδύσαντες αὐτὸν χλαμύδα κοκκίνην περιέθηκαν αὐτῷ,

29 καὶ πλέξαντες στέφανον ἐξ ἀκανθῶν ἐπέθηκαν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτοῦ καὶ κάλαμον ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ αὐτοῦ, καὶ γονυπετήσαντες ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ ἐνέπαιξαν αὐτῷ λέγοντες, Χαῖρε, βασιλεῦτῶν Ἰουδαίων,

30 καὶ ἐμπτύσαντες εἰς αὐτὸν ἔλαβον τὸν κάλαμον καὶ ἔτυπτον εἰς τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ.

31 καὶ ὅτε ἐνέπαιξαν αὐτῷ, ἐξέδυσαν αὐτὸν τὴν χλαμύδα καὶ ἐνέδυσαν αὐτὸν τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἀπήγαγον αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ σταυρῶσαι.

And dressing him in a scarlet cloak they surrounded him, (29) and weaving a crown from thorns they placed it on his head and (put) a reed in his right (hand), and genuflecting towards him they mocked him, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews”. (30) And spitting upon him they took the reed and struck him on the head. (31) And then they mocked him, removing the cloak and dressing him in his own garment, and they led him out to be crucified.

Crossan makes a big deal about whether it was the Romans or the Jews who abused Jesus in this way. He examines this carefully to see what the text can tell us about the attitude towards the Romans and/or Jews, and then attempts to use this as the basis for dating the various works, especially the Gospel of Peter. Here, it is clearly the Romans acting the part of the bad guys. Historically this is far and away the most likely occurrence; the Romans were not known for their forbearance to subject peoples, and since they have him in custody, it follows that they would be doing the abusing. Crossan is convinced that the exculpation of the Romans in the Gospel of Peter demonstrates pretty convincingly that it was written in the early 40s, in a period when the Romans were perceived as benevolent and the Jewish authorities were seen as persecutors. The argument is, shall we say, less than convincing. It is completely historically implausible; anyone at the time would have laughed at the way GPeter has the Jews and Herod running the crucifixion. Yes, there were theological reasons for this, but the level of historical implausibility would have gotten this laughed at. Even if it had been written in the 40s, the historical distortions are so enormous that trying to find anything of historical value in the narrative is a fool’s errand. Reading this sort of thing is why I despair of finding good historical analysis among biblical scholarship.

28 Et exuentes eum, clamydem coccineam circumdederunt ei

29 et plectentes coronam de spinis posuerunt super caput eius et arundinem in dextera eius et, genu flexo ante eum, illudebant ei dicentes: “ Ave, rex Iudaeorum! ”.

30 Et exspuentes in eum acceperunt arundinem et percutiebant caput eius.

31 Et postquam illuserunt ei, exuerunt eum clamyde et induerunt eum vestimentis eius et duxerunt eum, ut crucifigerent.

32 Ἐξερχόμενοι δὲ εὗρον ἄνθρωπον Κυρηναῖον ὀνόματι Σίμωνα: τοῦτον ἠγγάρευσαν ἵνα ἄρῃ τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ.

33 Καὶ ἐλθόντες εἰς τόπον λεγόμενον Γολγοθᾶ, ὅ ἐστιν Κρανίου Τόπος λεγόμενος,

34 ἔδωκαν αὐτῷ πιεῖν οἶνον μετὰ χολῆς μεμιγμένον: καὶ γευσάμενος οὐκ ἠθέλησεν πιεῖν.

Going out(side) they found a Cyrenean man named Simon. They forced (him) so that he would carry the cross of him (Jesus). (33) And going to the place called Golgotha, which is saying the Place of the Cranium, (34) they gave to him to drink wine mixed with gall. And tasting it he did not wish to drink.  

I wasn’t planning to stop until the end, but want to comment on a couple of things. First, the episode with Simon of Cyrene is a bit odd. He appears here and then is never heard of again. Why is it necessary for him to carry the cross? Of course, “everyone knows” it’s because Jesus was beaten so badly that he could barely stand, but this is one of those unchallenged assumptions that are just sitting there. In the end, there’s no matter; there is no impact to the overall story, but it’s just odd. Is it odd enough to be factual? Why would you make this up? If it is to convey the sorry state of Jesus, why not go into that a bit more. Yes, Pilate scourged him, but did that render him so physically weak that he needed help with the cross?

Briefly, the Greek is “topos kraniou”, from which “cranium” should be recognizable. The Latin is Calvary, which is “bald”. So the idea is pretty clear. The hill looked like a bald pate. Finally, the wine mixed with gall. I have no idea what gall is; it’s supposedly bile, taken from the gall bladder, which is notoriously bitter. It’s used in medicines. I have heard it suggested that it was meant to numb the pain of being crucified. That makes sense. But Jesus refused. Perhaps this is on the order of refusing a blindfold when being led before a firing squad? An act of bravery?

 

32 Exeuntes autem invenerunt hominem Cyrenaeum nomine Simonem; hunc angariaverunt, ut tolleret crucem eius.

33 Et venerunt in locum, qui dicitur Golgotha, quod est Calvariae locus,

34 et dederunt ei vinum bibere cum felle mixtum; et cum gustasset, noluit bibere.

35 σταυρώσαντες δὲ αὐτὸν διεμερίσαντο τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ βάλλοντες κλῆρον,

36 καὶ καθήμενοι ἐτήρουν αὐτὸν ἐκεῖ.

37 καὶ ἐπέθηκαν ἐπάνω τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτοῦ τὴν αἰτίαν αὐτοῦ γεγραμμένην: Οὗτός ἐστιν Ἰησοῦς ὁ βασιλεῦς τῶν Ἰουδαίων.

38 Τότε σταυροῦνται σὺν αὐτῷ δύο λῃσταί, εἷς ἐκ δεξιῶν καὶ εἷς ἐξεὐωνύμων.

Crucifying him, they divided his garment by casting lots, (36) and they being seated they observed him there. (37) And they put over his head the reason of him being written. “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews”. (38) Then they crucified with him two brigands, one on the right, and one on the left. 

We are used to seeing the INRI inscription. In Latin, Jesus of Nazareth king of the Jews is: (I)esus (N)azoreum (R)ex (I)udaorum. But note that the toponymic, “of Nazareth” is not included here. I think you can pick out the Latin translation below. “Here is Jesus & c”. Again, this whole king of the Jews thing is peculiar. It really only appears in connexion with the Passion story. Yes, Matthew has it connected to his birth story, with the magoi looking for the king of the Jews, but, aside from that and a few allusions to David, this is not a big part of who Jesus is supposed to be. Why is that? That is a question worth investigating. It’s another piece of historical analysis that needs, well, historical analysis.

BTW: the fact that the wording of the inscription varies between gospels doesn’t exactly help the case for biblical inerrancy. 

I have to say a word about the brigands with whom he was crucified. You all may remember that Reza Aslan argued that Jesus was a Zealot; hence the title of the book. A big part of that argument rested on the “fact” that crucifixion was reserved solely for rebels, and that the word used to describe the thieves (as they are usually called) here, in fact, means ‘rebel’. This is complete nonsense. As a Classicist, I was flabbergasted to read these things in a book intended for polite company. I had never, ever heard that about crucifixion, and neither the Greek nor the Latin word means ‘rebel’. Liddell & Scott and Lewis & Short provide instances of usage for the words being defined, and neither of these works suggests the word being defined means anything like ‘rebel’. Aslan’s contention was that a robber holed up in a cave–like the robber band in The Golden Ass–were actually revolutionaries. My apologies, but sometimes a robber is just a robber. That seems to be the case here. Aslan really, really reached with his hypothesis, which would have come and gone with barely a ripple if Christian media hadn’t taken to attacking him based on the idea that a Muslim simply cannot write a book about Jesus. Now, because of the notoriety, that idea has become lodged in the popular consciousness. I’ve come across it on various websites, or in Facebook groups. ‘Tis a pity.

35 Postquam autem crucifixerunt eum, diviserunt vestimenta eius sortem mittentes

36 et sedentes servabant eum ibi.

37 Et imposuerunt super caput eius causam ipsius scriptam: “Hic est Iesus Rex Iudaeorum”.

38 Tunc crucifiguntur cum eo duo latrones: unus a dextris, et unus a sinistris.

Matthew Chapter 27:11-26

Here we begin the trial before Pilate. Having provided my thoughts on the book in a separate entry, I won’t go over it again. At this point, suffice it to say that it was not terribly useful, and will play a decidedly minor role in the commentary on this section. Alas, I’d hoped for more.

11 Ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐστάθη ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ ἡγεμόνος: καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτὸν ὁ ἡγεμὼν λέγων, Σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἔφη, Σὺ λέγεις.

Jesus was stood before the leader. And the governor asked him, saying, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus replied, “You say (so)”.

Does the appearance of this question seem abrupt to anyone? I realize that the Messiah was associated in Jewish tradition with the kingship; but did Pilate realize this? A certain discontinuity does exist here, and this (like most things) has implications. When being tried before the chief priests, Jesus “confessed” that he was the Messiah. This word would have been meaningless to the Romans; or the implications of the word, at least, since being the ‘anointed’ is pretty vague. So, are we to assume that the chief priests told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews? We kind of have to assume that; there really is no other way for Pilate to get that information.

I need to pause here to emphasize just how strongly a man like Pilate despised subject peoples. This was during the reign of Tiberius, who was next in succession after Augustus, who established the imperial form of government, At this point, government was still largely in the hands of the old families who could trace prominent ancestors back for centuries. Tiberius was of the gens Claudius, and had produced its first consul in 495 BCE, just over a dozen years after the republic was founded. The Romans had become masters of the world only relatively recently; to their minds, their traditions and their heritage and their virtues were unmatched in the world. The mos maiorum, the ways of the ancestors were superior to any and all. Pilate, although belonging to the Equites, the level below the consular and senatorial families, would have shared this cultural arrogance. To Pilate, a subject people like the Jews–or anyone else, Greeks excepted–were fully beneath notice. A provincial like Jesus would have been a figure of contempt; the idea that Pilate would have understood anything about Judaism is just not credible. We are talking about levels of cultural chauvinism that are difficult to imagine in today’s world, and the First Century would have been the height of Roman arrogance. The Empire was still relatively new, the absorption of different peoples still rudimentary. And the Romans came to their chauvinism as the victors of many people over many centuries It was truly bred in the bone.

So the point is, if anything like this had occurred, it would have been necessary for the chief priests to feed it to Pilate. And that makes sense, within the confines of the story. It is consistent with the idea that the chief priests were trying to sell Pilate on the idea that Jesus was a political danger. Did anything like this occur? Probably not. I really and truly doubt that Jesus was important enough to warrant a personal trial in front of Pilate. This is especially true given there is no support in any source to indicate that there were troubles surrounding Jesus. Josephus talks about John, and the headache he was for Herod Antipas, and Josephus talks about unrest in Galilee and Judea, and Josephus (supposedly) talks about Jesus. But he never mentions Jesus in connexion with either of the other two topics. Why not? The simplest answer, of course, is that Jesus was not particularly involved in any sort of general agitation, nor was his connexion to John all that strong.

Given this, can we finally put aside the idea that the early Christians were embarrassed by Jesus’ ties to John. They weren’t. They played up the connexion, John’s role expanding as time went on. Yes, the evangelist John eliminates the actual baptism, but he more than compensates by adding a second interaction between Jesus and John. True embarrassment would have resulted in the complete elimination of the Baptist by Matthew and/or Luke, and certainly by the time John wrote.

But the point connected to this verse is that it’s most likely unhistorical. Which means that pretty much everything that follows is unhistorical.

11 Iesus autem stetit ante praesidem; et interrogavit eum praeses dicens: “ Tu es Rex Iudaeorum? ”. Dixit autem Iesus: “Tu dicis”.

12 καὶ ἐν τῷ κατηγορεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀρχιερέων καὶ πρεσβυτέρων οὐδὲν ἀπεκρίνατο.

And in the to accuse him by the high priests and elders he did not rebut anything.

Didn’t want to pause here, but a couple of notes on the grammar. “The to accuse” is a verb in Greek, an infinitive. This use of an infinitive in the place of what would be a gerund, or even a noun (the accusing; the accusation) in English is fairly common in Greek. It just handles the same situation differently. And the “he did not rebut anything”. The verb specifically means to “offer contrary evidence”, but that’s hard to work into a transitive form in English. Here, it’s literally “he did not counter-argue nothing”. That won’t do in English.

12 Et cum accusaretur a principibus sacerdotum et senioribus, nihil respondit.

13 τότε λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Οὐκ ἀκούεις πόσα σου καταμαρτυροῦσιν;

14 καὶ οὐκ ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ πρὸς οὐδὲ ἓν ῥῆμα, ὥστε θαυμάζειν τὸν ἡγεμόνα λίαν.

Then Pilate said to him, “Did you not hear how much they have provided witness against you?” (14) And he (Jesus) did not respond to him (Pilate), not one thing spoken. In this way the Leader marveled very much. 

I’m reading another book called The Backgrounds of Early Christianity (note the plural). In it, the author says that “hegemon”, here translated as “leader” was the proper Greek translation of the Latin equivalent. That makes sense, but the author’s background is in Biblical Studies, so I’m not entirely convinced. If I had come across it in Josephus, let’s say, I’d give it more credibility. “NT Greek” is such a closed and self-inferential subset of Greek studies that I don’t find them to have a lot of credibility. It’s too much like a club where the members all agree to do certain things that people outside the club would find bizarre. Sort of like wearing funny hats to go to a lodge meeting.

Probably more important is that Jesus was silent. Why did Jesus not respond? Well, even if he did, we couldn’t depend on its accuracy. Who was there to tell the later followers of Jesus what transpired? Or, more likely, Jesus said nothing to Pilate because he never appeared before Pilate.

13 Tunc dicit illi Pilatus: “ Non audis quanta adversum te dicant testimonia?”.

14 Et non respondit ei ad ullum verbum, ita ut miraretur praeses vehementer.

15 Κατὰ δὲ ἑορτὴν εἰώθει ὁ ἡγεμὼν ἀπολύειν ἕνα τῷ ὄχλῳ δέσμιον ὃν ἤθελον.

(15) And upon the feast the governor used to release one of the prisoners to the crowd, which they wanted.

Let’s stop right here. Absolutely the only place this custom is attested is right here in the gospels. There is absolutely no evidence for it anywhere else, in any source, whether Latin, Greek, or Aramaic. Nowhere. Nothing. Never. Given this absolute lack of corroborating evidence, it’s safe to say we should be highly skeptical about its authenticity. Make that extremely skeptical. And notice that the Greek says the governor was accustomed, was wont to do this. This means it happened more than once; it was not a one-off sort of thing. This means that there is more likelihood that it would have been mentioned by someone, somewhere, at some time. Since, despite the fact that there were multiple iterations of this practice, we still don’t have any evidence for it, we can, I believe, safely assume that this whole episode is made up from whole cloth.

And that, in turn, has additional ramifications. We have a fictitious custom tacked on to what is probably a fictitious trial. That so much of this is made up should make one consider that the cause of the trial, the reason for Jesus’ execution may not withstand historical scrutiny. I’ve now read at least two books by Crossan in which he avers that the cleansing of the Temple was the reason behind Jesus’ arrest based on charges trumped-up by the Jewish authorities because they feared that Jesus was offering an alternative to Temple ritual. Perhaps he was. But so were the Essenes. And we honestly don’t know exactly what Jesus’ teachings really were. I believe that the Sermon on the Mount was not among them. The point is that the fictions pile upon fictions, creating quite the house of cards that topples with even the slightest historical scrutiny.

15 Per diem autem sollemnem consueverat praeses dimittere turbae unum vinctum, quem voluissent.

16 εἶχον δὲ τότε δέσμιον ἐπίσημον λεγόμενον [Ἰησοῦν] Βαραββᾶν.

17 συνηγμένων οὖν αὐτῶν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τίνα θέλετε ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν, [Ἰησοῦν τὸν] Βαραββᾶν ἢ Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν;

18 ᾔδει γὰρ ὅτι διὰ φθόνον παρέδωκαν αὐτόν.

They had imprisoned then someone notable called [Jesus] Barabbas. (17)  Thus those of his having gathered, Pilate asked to them, “Whom do you wish I release to you, [Jesus the ] Barabbas, or Jesus called the Christ?” (18) For he knew that through jealousy they had handed him over. 

Assuming, with justice, that the story and character of Barabbas is fictional, we must then ask why it was created? It would seem to be obvious that the point is to compare and contrast the two men, which comparison is even more pointed since the other’s name was also Jesus–although that is more likely a later insertion, based on the textual evidence. A later copyist sought to heighten the drama and the distinction between the two by giving them the same name. We’ll get to the contrast a bit more in the next few verses.

Rather, let’s deal with the last sentence: the high priests handed Jesus over from jealousy. Or was it malice? Either way, this is an echo from Mark, so it goes to the foundation of the story. So let’s think about this. The word, << phthonos >>, is used by both Mark and Matthew. While at root the word means “malice”, in Greek tragedy, it is the << φθόνος >> of the gods, the jealousy of preserving their prerogatives,  that causes them to send retribution upon a mortal for overstepping his place; however, the word is mostly used for “normal” jealousy or envy as well. It is what we feel for another’s riches, or another’s success when we’re not exactly happy for them. I think a legitimate question to ask is whether Mark understood the literary implications of the word. How widely were the concepts of Greek tragedy disseminated throughout the culture? By using the word, did the evangelist–or the creator of the Passion Narrative, or the scribe who translated Mark into Greek–wish, consciously or not, to evoke the idea of tragedy? It needs to be said that Jesus does not fit the mold of the tragic hero: he is not blind to his tragic flaw, he does not overstep his human role and attempt to usurp the role of the gods.

Or does he? Boy howdy, here’s a thesis for some enterprising and aspiring Ph.D. scholar: The Passion Story as Greek tragedy. 

OK, coming back to earth, let’s be a bit more circumspect about this. Otherwise, it’s another of those moments when I take a flight of fancy based pretty much on nothing. Here, it’s a single word. That would be a very, very subtle evocation on the part of the author.

So let’s reel this in a bit and ask what the author meant by the word. It seems pretty obvious that, on a very human level, this cuts to the root of the high priests’ attitude towards Jesus: they felt he was horning in on their territory, and they didn’t like it. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of jealousy: losing what you have to someone else. As such, it goes along with the theme of the story. But there are two things to consider. First, how in the world would Pilate know this? Did his sources on the street keep him informed? Did Pilate even know who Jesus was? The short answer to that is, it’s doubtful. According to the narrative, Jesus has been in the city since Sunday; it’s now Friday. Has Jesus raised that much of a ruckus that he’s come to Pilate’s attention? Well, there was the procession into Jerusalem, but a close reading of Mark’s version of that event reveals Jesus coming into town surrounded by a group of followers that seemed to draw scant attention from anyone else. Aware of this low-key description, Matthew expands upon it, having children chanting “Hosanna” in the Temple precinct. But even there, it almost seems like the high priests are taking notice of Jesus for the first time. Then there is the “cleansing” of the Temple. At the very most, it would have been a minor occurrence, perhaps involving a single table, a nuisance rather than a threat. Anything larger would have likely resulted in Jesus’ immediate arrest. And the story, told in both Mark and Matthew, that he returned to the Temple the next day and conversed with Temple priests really undercuts any suggestion that he caused a significant disturbance the day before.

In other words, there’s very little for the high priests to be jealous about. Then, of course, there’s the second problem with the suggestion that Pilate understood the high priests’ motives: this trial probably did not happen. Pilate did not personally try every two-bit criminal who got himself arrested and crucified. Jesus very obviously committed no major crime; even knocking over a money-changer’s table would not cross that bar. Given that, why is Jesus being tried by Pilate? Answer, he’s not. This event did not happen.

16 Habebant autem tunc vinctum insignem, qui dicebatur Barabbas.

17 Congregatis ergo illis dixit Pilatus: “ Quem vultis dimittam vobis: Barabbam an Iesum, qui dicitur Christus? ”.

18 Sciebat enim quod per invidiam tradidissent eum.

19 Καθημένου δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τοῦ βήματος ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡ γυνὴ αὐτοῦ λέγουσα, Μηδὲν σοὶ καὶ τῷ δικαίῳ ἐκείνῳ, πολλὰ γὰρ ἔπαθον σήμερον κατ’ ὄναρ δι’ αὐτόν.

20 Οἱ δὲ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι ἔπεισαν τοὺς ὄχλους ἵνα αἰτήσωνται τὸν Βαραββᾶν τὸνδὲ Ἰησοῦν ἀπολέσωσιν.

While seated on the judgement seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Do not have anything (to do) with this just man, for many signs I have felt during a dream on his account”. (20) The high priests and the scribes persuaded the crown in order to cause this Jesus Barabbas to be released.

Here, I think, is where we come to the crux (no pun intended) of the matter. First, we have Pilate’s wife dreaming about Jesus, telling Pilate to have nothing to do with this just man. This is an addition to Mark’s story. And it’s addition is, I think, very telling. The Greeks and Romans took dreams very seriously. The Iliad says: << kai gar t’oner ek dios estin >> “For a dream, too, is from Zeus”. There are stories in the HS about dreams: the dream of pharaoh interpreted by Joseph, the dream of Nebuchadnezzar interpreted by Daniel, and I think Saul had a dream, too? But regardless, they dream was much more of a Graeco-Roman thing, much more tightly intertwined with the pagan culture than it was in Jewish culture. The gods visited ordinary people in a way that God did not. For example, medical shrines, like that of Asclepius, sort of the ancient version of Lourdes, drew pilgrims from far away. The healing process was to sleep in the temple compound until the god sent a dream to tell the supplicant of the necessary ritual needed to effect a cure.

The point is, Matthew’s insertion of this story was intended, I believe, to convince a pagan audience. It would have carried more weight with pagans than it would have with Jews. In effect, Matthew is telling his audience that some god was sending verification that Jesus was innocent. Jews could have understood this as well; there’s nothing exclusive about the idea, but it would have had more resonance, IMO, among pagans who were used to this sort of thing.

Then there’s the next verse, in which the crowd is incited to ask for Barabbas. First, why is there a crowd at all? It’s early morning on the first day of Passover. Why are Jews assembled in front of Pilate’s residence? This may be legitimate, but I’ve never heard an explanation for this. It’s especially odd considering that it’s early in the morning. Were they seeking to petition Pilate? To demonstrate to persuade Pilate to take some action or other? This seems like another of those many instances where some detail, or set of circumstances that furthers the action/plot is just asserted and never explained. And these sorts of details are rarely (if ever) questioned by any of the scholars who are supposedly considering the historicity of Jesus and/or the gospels. To his credit, Crossan does address this, at least indirectly. He dismisses the entire episode of Barabbas, which thereby eliminates the crowd shouting “Crucify him!”. The point of this couplet is very simple and very straightforward: the idea is to remove the guilt from Pilate and place it squarely on the Jewish authorities, if not exactly the Jews themselves. That will come shortly.

19 Sedente autem illo pro tribunali, misit ad illum uxor eius dicens: “Nihil tibi et iusto illi. Multa enim passa sum hodie per visum propter eum”.

20 Principes autem sacerdotum et seniores persuaserunt turbis, ut peterent Barabbam, Iesum vero perderent.

21 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἡγεμὼν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τίνα θέλετε ἀπὸ τῶν δύο ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Τὸν Βαραββᾶν.

22 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τί οὖν ποιήσω Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν; λέγουσιν πάντες, Σταυρωθήτω.

23 ὁ δὲ ἔφη, Τί γὰρ κακὸν ἐποίησεν; οἱ δὲ περισσῶς ἔκραζον λέγοντες, Σταυρωθήτω.

24 ἰδὼν δὲ ὁ Πιλᾶτος ὅτι οὐδὲν ὠφελεῖ ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον θόρυβος γίνεται, λαβὼν ὕδωρ ἀπενίψατο τὰς χεῖρας ἀπέναντι τοῦ ὄχλου, λέγων, Ἀθῷός εἰμι ἀπὸ τοῦ αἵματος τούτου: ὑμεῖς ὄψεσθε.

25 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς πᾶς ὁ λαὸς εἶπεν, Τὸ αἷμα αὐτοῦ ἐφ’ ἡμᾶς καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ τέκνα ἡμῶν.

26 τότε ἀπέλυσεν αὐτοῖς τὸν Βαραββᾶν, τὸν δὲ Ἰησοῦν φραγελλώσας παρέδωκεν ἵνα σταυρωθῇ.

Answering, the governor said to them, “Whom from the two do you wish I release to you?” They said, “Barabbas!” (22) Pilate said to them, “What therefore shall I do to Jesus called the Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!”  (23) And he said, “For what has he done (that is) bad?” They shouted more, saying “Let him be crucified!” (24) Pilate, seeing that he profited nothing, but more tumult became, taking water he washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am guiltless from the blood of him; you observe this for yourselves”. (25) And responded the entire people, “The blood of him upon us and upon the children of us!” (26) Then he released to them Barabbas, in contrast Jesus having been scourged he handed him over that he might be crucified.

Two things, one major, one fairly minor. The fairly minor one first. The last sentence is interesting. “Handed him over that he might be crucified”. First, the idea of “handing him over” is completely disingenuous. Pilate handed Jesus to no one. The Romans performed the crucifixion; it was Pilate’s soldiers who carried out the sentence. Jesus was not ‘handed over’. The word is the same that is used of Judas when Judas “handed Jesus over”. Except there, it is very often translated as “betrayed”. So this is a neat rhetorical trick whereby the author can put Pilate at a remove from responsibility. Of course, Pilate is the one who is responsible. It was his order, carried out by his soldiers.

But that is pretty much inconsequential compared to the line before: his blood on us and our children”. This is possibly the ugliest line in the entire NT. This is the Jews as Christ-killers, his blood on their hands and those of their children. Blood guilt, in perpetuity. To make things more emphatic, to make them worse, he changes what he calls those doing the shouting. Before, the were “the crowd”. Now, suddenly, they are “laos”, which I’ve translated as “people”. In The Persians, Aeschylus uses the word to mean, “all who are called by one name”; as examples, he cites the Lydians and the Phrygians. The term is a bit looser than “ethnos”, which has more of a unitary sense to it, and is probably closer to our sense of “a people” than “laos” is. However, given the use of Aeschylus, this is more than “a bunch of people”, which in English would be more or less synonymous with “crowd”.

The point here is that Matthew has placed collective guilt on Jews and their children. While this formulation is not as explicit as it will be in John, who speaks of “the Jews”, it’s the rhetorical and functional equivalent of that expression. “Laos” doesn’t do it, but adding “our children” certainly does. That converts it at least to the guilt of a religion, but given the interconnexion of religion and nationality with the Jews, this is, in essense, an ethnic guilt, and one that has had a long and ugly history in the Christian community.

There is a wrinkle to this that receives no attention. Since it is simply accepted that Matthew was a Jew, no one discusses this in terms of Matthew’s attitude towards Jews. Simply put, there is no discussion about why Matthew, a Jew, would put such blood-guilt on his own people. For me, there is no conflict in this because I believe Matthew was a pagan rather than a Jew. Do I believe this proves my point? No, it doesn’t prove the point; what it does do, I believe, is show that my point is at least worth serious consideration. This amounts to a very harsh condemnation of Jews everywhere and always. As a Jew, Matthew would most likely have been condemning members of his own family. Could he have turned so thoroughly against his relatives, his friends, his entire upbringing and heritage? Sure. He wouldn’t have been the first to do this, and he certainly hasn’t been the last. Rather, it’s the probability game: wouldn’t it be more likely for such a harsh condemnation to come from an outsider, rather than from a co-religionist? I find this pretty convincing, but only when added to the many other times we’ve had this discussion, such as the idea of the dream of Pilate’s wife. That is two clues within a very short space of text. So I do believe the idea cannot be dismissed out of hand, and that it deserves serious consideration. 

21 Respondens autem praeses ait illis: “Quem vultis vobis de duobus dimittam?”. At illi dixerunt: “ Barabbam!”.

22 Dicit illis Pilatus: “Quid igitur faciam de Iesu, qui dicitur Christus? ”. Dicunt omnes: “ Crucifigatur!”.

23 Ait autem: “Quid enim mali fecit? ”. At illi magis clamabant dicentes: “ Crucifigatur!”.

24 Videns autem Pilatus quia nihil proficeret, sed magis tumultus fieret, accepta aqua, lavit manus coram turba dicens: “Innocens ego sum a sanguine hoc; vos videritis!”.

25 Et respondens universus populus dixit: “Sanguis eius super nos et super filios nostros”.

26 Tunc dimisit illis Barabbam; Iesum autem flagellatum tradidit, ut crucifigeretur.

John Dominic Crossan: “Who Killed Jesus?”

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of the book Who Killed Jesus?, by prominent NT scholar JD Crossan. Professor Crossan (emeritus) is an eminent figure in biblical scholarship, with a number of highly-regarded books to his credit. I’ve read a couple of others by him, but exactly which ones I no longer recall. Since the book currently under discussion deals with the subject of, and comes at exactly the point in the narrative where we are–the Passion Narrative–I’ve held off forging ahead with my translation and comment while I read the book, the idea being to see if there were interesting and useful points that could inform and enlighten my understanding  and the discussion of the topic. But first, this is not a review of the book in any standard sense, for several reasons. First, the book is twenty years old, so a review is rather beside the point at this time. Second, the purpose of reading the book was to see if the scholarly argument provided further insight into the topic, not whether the book is worth reading. Finally, part–a large part–of the purpose of the book is  set out in the subtitle: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of The Death Of Jesus.  This is a worthy and necessary goal, but not one that is fundamental to our purposes here. This topic does overlap with our research, since it helps to provide possible motivation for why the authors of the gospels wrote what they did and in the way they did.

Having glanced at the Amazon review section for the work, it seems that “John D. Crossan is generally acknowledged to be the premier historical Jesus scholar in the world”. That is  a very weighty designation. Given this title, one should approach a confrontation with Crossan as one would approach the possibility of fisticuffs with the UFC champion of the world: she is the best; who the heck are you? Would you challenge LeBron James to a game of one-on-one? Personally, I would not challenge Rhonda Rousey, even though she’s no longer the champion, nor would I be so rash as to take on King James. Crossan? Absolutely. And why? Because he is/was a professor of Religious Studies, but he is writing history. That is to say, he’s on my turf; a pro athlete is great at whatever game he or she plays, but that does not mean they can play another game equally well, or even competently. Some pro athletes are also good golfers; most are not. (I am certainly not, but that’s irrelevant.)

One problem with this book, and pretty much every book I’ve ever read on the subject of the Historical Jesus is that these books are not written by historians. They are written by biblical, or religious studies people. They may know their NT textual analyses, but can they play golf? The other problem is that most of these books were written by people who, if not practicing Christians, were raised as such, and they approach the topic of historicity based on study of the Bible, and not study of history. Oh, they’ve read Tacitus and Josephus–at least, I’m sure, the relevant sections–but they’ve never studied Tacitus, or history in general, as an historian would study the text. These two problems–or, perhaps they are really only different facets of the same problem–is that their perspective is off; they never truly engage the topic as historians should. This is why all the books I’ve read by religious studies people sort of blur together. They have all come at the subject with the same approach, and so they, ultimately, make the same case. Oh, they may regard different stories as historical or non-historical for sound and valid and good reasons, but they never get themselves out of that single approach that largely predetermines their outcome: much of the NT is historically accurate.

The key aspect of this approach, this method that is unsound, is that they believe that all of the writers of the NT, and of at least some of they apocryphal texts, are writing to illumine and preserve a single, unitary, and ultimately factual account of the life and death of Jesus. That is, the scholars all assume that, ultimately, all of the evangelists and the authors of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter, are telling exactly the same story. And they never, ever challenge, even in their own minds, this assumption. I would hazard to guess that most–if not quite all–are fundamentally unaware that they are making this assumption. It’s the classic “buried assumption”: something that affects nearly everything, but is never acknowledged because almost no one realizes it’s there. This assumption, I would argue, is the direct result of coming into the topic from a background of biblical or textual or literary analysis, and not from a background in history.

There is a corollary to this assumption: it leads to positing the existence of shadowy texts for which there is not a shred of evidence, and then taking it as a given that these hypothetical texts did, in fact, exist. Of course, Q is the most famous, and the most pernicious, example of this. In Crossan’s book, we come across another, called The Cross Gospel. This is a text of the Passion Narrative that was put to paper in the 50s, or about the time that Q was. This narrative them became the basis for the four canonical gospels and, according to Crossan, the Gospel of Peter. The evidence for these texts is completely literary, and completely dependent on being able to get into the mind of the evangelist whose work is considered. This leads to a lot of, “well Mark really means”, and “Luke would never mess with a masterpiece like the Sermon on the Mount”, and “the Matthew changed Mark because it’s consistent with Matthew’s overall intention”, and other such things. This is what happens, I suspect, when living in a world of textual and literary analysis. I’ve studied enough literature qua literature to know how the process works, even if I was never very good at it.

With those two–or one-point-five–points, perhaps we can encapsulate the whole of Crossan’s case, just as one can deduce Hercules from just his foot*. The fatal flaw in Crossan’s case comes very early in the work, within the first 30 pages, as he’s setting out the evidence. He admits that the Synoptics are all dependent on Mark for their passion narrative. Indeed, he concedes that John’s passion narrative is based, largely, on Mark. As such, Matthew, Luke, & John are dependent sources; they cannot be assessed historically as anything but an appendage to Mark. More or less. That’s a bit strong, but in historical research, and “dependent” has a fairly specific, perhaps technical meaning. The most significant aspect of this is that one cannot take a variation in the dependent source as more historical than what the original source said. This simply means that if Matthew contradicts Mark on a point of fact, we should take Mark’s words as more likely to be accurate. Unless there is strong indication that Matthew also had access to a second source that was not Mark. Hence, Q becomes very, very handy, and the willingness to jettison Q turns into obstinance .

But, Crossan is not content to let John rest there. Noticing how different John’s treatment of the miracles of Jesus are, he goes on to posit that John is independent of Mark on these miracle stories. Since much of my case depends (pun?) on this assumption, or assertion, of Crossan, we need to be very clear on why this is a problem. To be blunt, I do not know, exactly, what Crossan means by “for me, (John) is independent of the Synoptics for the miracles and sayings of Jesus”. As mentioned, for historical studies, “in/dependent” has a fairly specific–almost to the point of technical– meaning. I do not know if Crossan understands and uses the word in this historian’s sense. If he simply means that John has a different take on the miracles and sayings, I don’t have a problem with that–in fact I’d agree with that–but I would not, could not accept the description of this as an “independent” source. From the historian’s perspective, an source that is truly independent is one that has access to knowledge that the first source does not. Given Q, Matthew becomes an independent source for the sayings of Jesus. So the question becomes, is Crossan saying that John had access to a second, now lost, collection of the sayings of Jesus that dated back prior to Mark, and that represented a tradition that was unaware of Mark, and of which Mark was unaware?

That is the essence of Q: the author(s) of Q were unaware of Mark, and Mark was unaware of Q. Is Crossan saying that John also had his own source? Reading this from the perspective of an historian, that is what I understand by him saying “John was independent of the Synoptics”. Is that what he means? If so, then the entire case becomes untenable because he provides no evidence that such a source existed, that it was independent of Mark, and that John was the sole evangelist (or epistle writer) aware of this source. Contrariwise, if that is not what Crossan means, then what he’s saying is that John (or someone) made stuff up. In which case, there is no historical validity in taking John as in any way independent of the Synoptics. People have been making stuff up about Ronald Reagan for a couple of decades now; that doesn’t mean that they can be used as historical arguments. Amity Shlaes argues that FDR had a time machine because the policies he implemented were able to cause the Great Depression after he took office in 1933, when, in fact, it started in 1930 (or thereabouts; the point is, it was several years before FDR took office). They’ve made this stuff up; it is not necessary to present an argument against these positions in an argument about history because they are not based on fact. In the same way, I don’t have to account for unicorns in the evolution of the modern horse.

Crossan then compounds this error, and then magnifies it. He freely admits that Gospel Peter (GPtr) is an independent source for the Passion Narrative. He claims that GPtr influenced the Synoptic gospel writers by influencing Mark. What’s more interesting is that he asserts this after admitting that there is no evidence for the GPtr before the end of the Second Century, at least a century after Mark wrote. How is this possible? It’s possible because GPtr retained traces, or even sections of something called the Cross Gospel. Apparently, he realized that the idea of arguing that this independent tradition survived, uninfluenced by the mainstream traditions for 150 (approx) years was a fool’s errand, so he credited it with being incorporated into Mark, and so the other three canonical gospels. I am not sure, exactly, what this encompasses or implies, or what purpose it serves. Yes, it pushes the beginning of the Passion Narrative back into the 50s, but so what? That’s still a generation after Jesus’ death. So late a date is more apt to produce legend than it is to record fact. It’s enough of a time lapse that real memories have been supplemented–or supplanted–by what people want to remember. But it remains that, if it influenced Mark, and so the other gospels, it’s no longer an independent source. Or rather, Mark is no longer independent. The net result is that we still have only one real source for the Passion Narrative, whether it started with Mark, or with GPtr. Crossan is trying to have it both ways, but the math just doesn’t work out. It’s still 1 + 0 = 1, whether the 1 is the Cross Gospel (so-called) or Mark.

Now, of course Mark–probably–had earlier material available to him. It seems like he must have. But we have no evidence that Paul was aware of any such available evidence, that he had any knowledge of a Passion Narrative. As such, there is no reason to believe that such a narrative existed. It’s certainly possible, and maybe there’s a 25% probability that such a story existed, but neither of those are proof. This, of course, is the argument from silence, and that is a dangerous bit of reasoning when applied to the ancient world, when there is so much evidence that is missing because it never existed. But the fact remains that our only written source from the 50s and into the 60s is Paul, and he provides no hints about the causes of Jesus’ death, no explanation of who ordered the execution–because it was no doubt carried out by the Romans–or why this happened.

Crossan is fully convinced that something like the cleansing of the Temple really did happen, and tries to tie Jesus into John’s programme of individual repentance divorced from the Temple structure, which in turn threatened the Temple structure, which is what caused the Jewish authorities to get nervous and connive for Jesus’ execution in the same way that Herod Antipas executed the Baptist. That is one serious causal chain of events. But we have no evidence for any of this. Josephus supposedly talks about Jesus, but he never, ever connects him to John. Really, Josephus short paragraph on Jesus does no more than repeat the gospel story: that the best men of the Jews had Jesus put to death. But this was written in the 9os, long after the orthodox story of the gospels had become The Gospel account. Josephus seems completely unaware of who these “best men” among the Jews were, even though he is well aware of Caiaphas and mentions him in other contexts. It’s this sort of selective use of Josephus that makes me say that biblical scholars, no doubt, have read Tacitus or Josephus, but they’ve never studied it and they may have only read the few paragraphs in question without understanding Josephus as an historian.

What are we left with? A bunch of stories that probably don’t date back before the 60s, if they are that early. There were, without doubt, a number of traditions about Jesus. While discussing Mark, I used the analogy of a weaver, taking many individual threads and weaving them into a whole cloth. Most of these threads were probably oral, stories and traditions. Most likely after that, what was recorded by Mark became dominant, what was not faded into the background and then faded away. In the meantime, other traditions sprang up, ones that resulted in the Sermon on the Mount; the social consciousness of many of these teachings may point to an origin with James the Just and the Jerusalem Assembly, but that is still a suspicion, or a perhaps a working hypothesis. It has not been solidified with a real argument.

Notice what I said up there: other traditions sprang up. We–and perhaps Professor Crossan in particular–need to bear constantly in mind that revelation did not end with John’s Apocalypse (which was probably not even the latest of the books of the NT). Revelation continued. We have an array of Gospels and Acts and stories attributed to all sorts of people: Peter, Pilate, and even Judas Iscariot. Elaine Pagels documented this decades ago in her Gnostic Gospels. This was why the Church eventually had to set which works were canonical, and which weren’t. The Gospel of Peter falls into this latter category. In a sense, all of these apocryphal sources present evidence that is “independent” of the canonical scripture, at least by Crossan’s use–or misuse–of the term “independent source”. No doubt you can see where this is going, even if Crossan can’t, or more likely, doesn’t want to see it. Making stuff up doesn’t make it evidence, or a viable source, or anything really useful, except to see the very broad range of interpretations that were attached to Jesus. This failure–perhaps willful–to see much of this as creative writing, couple with the way Crossan manipulates the word “independent”, dooms any argument that he can put forth.

Which takes us back to the first point I made above: that there is an assumption that all writers of Gospels and Acts that deal with Jesus or his close companions, whether they were determined to be canonical or apocryphal, set out to tell exactly the same story has had been told before, but using different evidence. This simply cannot be true. We have already seen the very significant differences between Mark and Matthew, and between the evangelists and Paul. They are telling significantly different stories. The biggest part of this goes back to the question of “Why did anyone after Mark sit down to write a new gospel?” Why indeed? The answer is simple, but, nevertheless, is often overlooked. New authors write new gospels because they believe that they have something new to say. That is, they either have new or different evidence or traditions to draw upon, or they have a different understanding of Jesus or the time after his death. In other words, they are writing to correct some aspect that they feel is missing, incomplete, or just plain wrong. We have to keep going back to the Arthur legend for our analogy: new characters were added as time passed, so that, by the time of Malory, there were dozens of new faces sitting around the Round Table. Even the Greek myths are disconcertingly unstable. The details and they understanding changed. Euripides did not tell the same stories as Hesiod had, half a millennium earlier. The difference is that we understand Arthur and Greek myth as literary creations, but we treat the NT as essentially fixed and singular and unitary. In fact, the variation in Greek myth can disconcert a modern neophyte reader because modern Christian neophyte readers approaches Greek myth as they approach the Bible and NT: as a single, unitary, and fixed account of Jesus. The author of the Gospel of Peter is not necessarily, or at all, interested in telling the same story as Mark or Matthew. If he had been, why did he even bother to write at all?

Just to be clear, Crossan believes that GPtr is early and has an elaborate argument for the date. In fact, it is so elaborate that he believes he can date it to a range of less than five years. If this were a proper scholarly paper, I  would set out his case and then demolish it. But this is a blog post. Suffice it to say that he insists that the progression towards anti-Judaism indicates a later date. John is the most anti-Judaic, so his gospel is the latest. In Crossan’s judgement, GPtr is the least anti-Judaic, so it must be the earliest. Q.E.D. Case closed. To put it mildly, this assumed progression is hardly an indicator set in stone. Yes, there does seem to be a progression to John, except that Luke is somehow less anti-Judaic than Matthew. So maybe this doesn’t work like Carbon-14 dating, where the progress is steady and inexorable. Bear in mind that the fragment that we have of GPtr is fairly small, so it’s impossible to assess the overall attitude of the author to Jews. Even if it were possible, there could be a myriad of reasons why someone in the late Second Century chose to depict the villains as the Jewish authorities while exonerating the Jewish people. The most obvious is that the author wanted to explain why there were still Jews. Well, it was all the fault of the rascally high priests and Herod (!) This limits the damage to Jesus’ reputation by keeping the number of doubters as small as possible. It’s pretty simple, after all, since by the end of the Second Century, the Jews were no longer the primary enemy; the Church was more concerned with explaining itself to pagans than it was to Jews. The Jews were no longer much of a threat, so it was easy to pull back on the vitriol against them. Oh, and yes, Herod. In the GPtr, the trial is conducted before Herod, and Herod and the high priests and Pilate and a bunch of Romans all witness the Resurrection. Really, that says all we need to say about the author’s understanding of the situation in the mid-First Century.

And really, from the historical point of view, I believe that nothing written after Luke, or even Matthew, can be expected to contain previously unreleased material. Luke was aware of Paul, which indicates a coalescence of Christian thinking. After that point it’s hard to credit that any Christian anywhere, sixty years after the fact, could have possessed knowledge of things that dated back to Jesus. Indeed, it seem unlikely enough with Matthew. By the time of Luke, the story of Jesus was well-enough known that Josephus takes it as true. So we have entered into the age where the basic story was set, even if it was still possible to tinker around the edges. I suspect that very little of Acts can be taken seriously as history. That it uses the names of actual Roman officials and titles and events does not mean that the rest of it is true. A Tale of Two Cities takes place during the French Revolution, which certainly happened; however, the events of the novel are just that: events in a novel. So looking for new historical information–aside from the incidentals that all writing includes–is probably not a terribly wise or effective thing to do.

As an aside, Crossan distinguishes between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, and rightly so, I think. Anti-Judaism is more of a conflict with, and denigration of, the religion qua religion. Anti-Semitism blatant racism. So they are not exactly the same thing, but anti-Judaism did eventually lead to full-blown anti-Semitism.

There are a few other useful bits to be gleaned from the book. They will be presented in the appropriate context since this has gone on way too long!

 

* “Ex pede, Herculem“, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ex_pede_Herculem