Review of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Part 2


Yesterday I started a review of Is This Not the Carpenter? by Thompson and Verenna, which I continue here. For this part, I will look at the chapters by Robert M. Price, Emanuel Pfoh, and Niels Peter Lemche. Again, my order is a bit haphazard, but it’s just a matter of my preferences.

Starting with Bob’s chapter, he discusses two interesting points in my mind. First, he brings up the general assumption of both mainstream scholars and modern Christ Myth proponents that the Pauline letters are prior to the Gospels, and especially for Christ Myth theorists it shows a development from little to no knowledge of the historical Jesus to a biography created through retelling a tale in oral form or the machinations of the Gospel authors themselves. However, Bob challenges this as a necessary position, and one that wasn’t so solidly believed by earlier mythicists. This already brings value to the chapter because we learn something about these ideas of Jesus not being a historical person, with scholars perhaps forgotten today but nonetheless have a presence in the history of Jesus scholarship (Bruno Bauer especially, along with folks like G.R.S. Mead).

When it comes to challenging the assumption, Bob brings up another long-forgotten school of biblical scholarship, the Dutch Radicals, who questioned the authenticity of the entire Pauline canon and many of whom doubted Jesus’ existence as well. To explain the composition of those letters, many, including Bob here, consider the influence of Marcion, the 2nd century “heretic” that wreaked havoc for many that would form the Catholic tradition (Tertullian being a noted example of demonstrating the angst Marcion brought). But Bob’s consideration has added a fascinating wrinkle to the study of Marcion and his impact on the New Testament. Traditional sources would credit Marcion with making his own gospel that was a edited version of Luke, and some suggest Mark could have been a Marcionite gospel. But what if Marcion was not the author of any such work?

Robert Price makes a valuable insight here: Marcion effectively did away with the Old Testament because in his theology Christ was from a different God beyond that of the Hebrew Scriptures, so even though the OT was of divine import, it was not central to the new dogma. Hence, Marcion didn’t follow Torah law along with other things that were anathema for other early Christian groups. However, the Gospels are so dominated by the OT perhaps in the creation of most every pericope, so how can Marcion by it’s creator? Instead, Bob considers the possibility of later Marcionites writing a gospel that was to combat the other gospels being written which themselves were a response to the Marcionite position. Such a thesis has not been proposed elsewhere so far as I can tell, and this potentiality could break ground on a much clearer understanding of 2nd century Christianity. Marcion need not author such things and seem to be in contradiction with other details we learn of him, and we can have a more organic insight of how the NT developed. Scholars already have considered Marcion as a catalyst for the production of the NT the way we have it, but now we may be able to make even more sense of this history.

However, this may be a double-edged sword for any thesis that has Marcion as author of any of the epistles. As noted in Thomas Verenna’s chapter that I discussed yesterday, Paul’s letters are dripping with OT quotes, allusion, and influence. If Marcion couldn’t write any of the extant gospels because of their reliance on the OT, what of Paul’s letters that are similarly so? Then again, it may be the case that Marcion had “lecture notes” that later followers put into epistle form. I leave that to another discussion.

But even if one does not follow Bob and the Dutch Radicals about the authenticity of the Pauline corpus, this insight about Marcion and his compositions alone is worth reading and engaging this chapter. The influence of Marcion on the composition of the letters will probably be addressed at length in Bob’s upcoming book The Amazing Colossal Apostle, which had its publication date pushed back to early next year. I’m looking forward into what he will argue, though in the mean time I suspect the work of Hermann Detering will be close to what Bob will conclude.

Next, let’s consider Emanuel Pfoh’s chapter about the mythic mind in antiquity. Emanuel is not a NT scholar but rather specializes in the Levant literature of old. Nonetheless, he provides several insights that need to be not just considered but realized. What he points out is that the methods of modern scholars have been attempting to ‘demythologize’ the Gospels (the terminology coming from Rudolph Bultmann), take away the legendary and mythical and leave the historical kernel of who the real Jesus was.

But that is no easy task.

The problem of the figure of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, is, for the historian of ancient personalities, analogous to those made by ancient Egyptian or Assyrian depictions of the kings. If such personalities are constructed within the realm of mythic motifs, distant from an historicist recalling of reality, how can the modern historian deconstruct what is portrayed in the ancient stories and attempt a separation of ideological features of a given figure and its individual features, without ‘breaking’ it?

That has been the rub for a long time, and the method of criteria has not resolved the issue (it has in fact mired the field as shown most recently in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). The Gospels are not even trying to tell us what ‘really happened’, but they are concerned with theology and how to get that message across. While this has been understood to some degree with David Strauss called the Gospels “myth” over 150 years ago, the impact of what that means has yet to completely sink in. Then again, three failed quest for the historical Jesus should have done that as well.

Emanuel also has an insight he kept in a footnote, but it is very relevant to chapter in this volume about non-Christian witnesses to Jesus, especially Josephus and Tacitus. As he notes, if the Gospels are effectively mythological in nature, and if this was the sources from which Josephus and Tacitus learned about Jesus and the religion, or people that used the Gospels as their sources, then all we have is ancient testimony to the existence of the myth, not the man; we don’t actually improve historicity any significant amount. (Will Lester Grabbe in his chapter address this problem? Stay tuned!)

Now, the most likely counter to this would be that unlike the OT which most minimalists take as their jumping point into NT scholarship, the NT was written decades, not centuries, after the events it depicts. Could there really have been no memory of the original Jesus in the Gospels when word-of-mouth couldn’t be too many years after the time of the crucified one? (Such as argument assumes the NT chronology, though, and there were Jews and Christians that thought Jesus was born around 100 BC.) Emanuel also considers this with his discussion of cultural memory, something that Philip Davies has also been using with respect to the OT. But Emanuel notes that these efforts may reflect modern assumptions rather than proper analysis. His case here isn’t conclusion and general rather than specific (as he noted at the beginning of his chapter). Perhaps NT scholars can get to Jesus better than to King David (assuming either of these figures existed), but it seems that the looking glass is a dark fun-house mirror either way; one just had a faster manufacturing turnover. Again, this should lead to more discussion, and I think NT scholars need to be on the defensive; the Gospels really do seem more myth or novel than history, so it should be hard to justify anything said to have happened in them as true without outside confirmation.

Lastly for this post, a look at the chapter by Niels Peter Lemche, one of the pillars of Old Testament ‘minimalism’ as it has been called. His is less about early Christianity but more about modern liberal Christians and their attempts to find the Jesus of history. Not only is there a tension between liberal and conservative understandings of Jesus and what he did, there are limits to how far even the scholars will go, let alone the laity and clergy.

If historical-critical scholars came too close to deconstructing the biblical narrative as story and not history; that is, if exegetes dared to question the basic historicity of what was related in the Bible, including certain dogmatic issues, they would immediately have difficulties.

Niels gives several examples from the 19th century, though I was surprised he didn’t mention in his list David Strauss who lost his university position after publishing The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Nonetheless, Neils is correct when it comes to there being certain and perhaps haphazard limits to what scholars/theologians were and are willing to call story instead of history. His own experience with the OT bears that out, and Thomas Thompson also felt the brunt of that earlier in his career (not that it isn’t a problem today). And of course, the Church (most any church really) wants a god-mad at its center, not an over-inflated carpenter that got mixed up in the rabble.

What value does this chapter provide? It doesn’t argue for or against any given position about the evidence for or about Jesus. However, what it should do is provide the grounds for some metacognition  for us to think about how we think about Jesus, Christianity, history, and the theologies it provides (the latter isn’t a problem for me, but it is for about 2 billion other people). We need to realize what are the sacred cows to us, just as a historical Adam and Eve are to some today and a David and Solomon are to others still. It has been the best part of the so-called minimalist school to try and avoid having the blinders of Bible-tinted glasses (to abuse a term Early Doherty has used) when looking at the evidence. Biblical archaeology was said to have been done with a spade in one hand and a Bible in the other. How much does that reflect modern NT research? Perhaps more than we realize. And it’s because many don’t realize it that we need the metacognitive exercises that Niels is providing. Otherwise we just won’t get past our own dogmas.

This brings me to about half-way with all the chapters I want to talk about. Hopefully you are getting the idea that this volume is going to become essential for progress on the question of who Jesus was if he was anybody at all. More to come soon!

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5 thoughts on “Review of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Part 2

  1. Pingback: Review of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Part 1 | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars « The Musings of Thomas Verenna

  2. Oh, I agree that the argument is not decisive and can be well-parried. The Gospels are so full of things that no one can believe happened (zombie apocalypse!), except for perhaps N.T. Wright, yet made it into the texts. And lest we forget, we have good modern examples of whole, elaborate stories cropping up in a matter of decades with no foundation in fact (such as the Roswell incident or anything said by Glen Beck). However, Phof’s assessment didn’t make the points you do, so it leaves the discussion to happen elsewhere. I mean, you need to have something to say at the conferences, right?

  3. Pingback: Review of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Part 5 (Finale) | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

  4. Pingback: The Myth of Jesus–My Upcoming Talk | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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