I have been going through and reviewing the book Is This Not the Carpenter? which seeks to set out to treat the historicity of Jesus as hypothesis rather than fact and how best to interpret the data concerning earliest Christianity. I have already reviewed chapters by Thomas Verenna and James Crossley here, chapters by Robert M. Price, Emanuel Pfoh, and Niels Peter Lemche here, and chapters by Roland Boer, Lester Grabbe, and K. L. Noll here. Now I want to look at the last few chapters left in the volume by Thomas L. Thompson, Ingrid Hjelm, and Joshua Sabih.
Let’s start with Thompson, both author of a chapter, editor of the volume, and probably one of the most famous names in the minimalist school of the Old Testament (and now the New). Previously he wrote The Messiah Myth, arguing that the stories about Jesus are pretty much standardized tropes time-worn in the Ancient Near East (ANE). And here Thompson continues that trend.
Thompson goes at length to show how the elements of Psalm 72 helped become the backbone of the temptation story in Mark 1:12-13. In another book perhaps this would have only been a page, but Thompson goes at length to make the connection as solid as possible. Perhaps he is staving off the complains of parallelomania which many who doubt Jesus’ existence have been accused. Sure, certain parallels may be coincidence, some may be false (especially if they come from unreliable sources such as too many a pseudo-scholar), but there are genuine ones, and Thompson does what he can to convince the skeptical of at least one such emulation.
In addition, Thompson puts Mark’s story in context with tropes of the ANE and the OT. Two central tropes he notes are the proclamation of good news because of God’s salvation are comparable to Isaiah as well as Ramses IV. In particular, Thompson calls a trope the poor man’s song, giving the downtrodden hope and blessings to come. The second trope is that of the good and suffering king. The regal figure had past suffered to prove his worth and has divine appointment. By the time this trope got to Mark, it has been well-worn from centuries of use, including testing the future king in the desert.
Later on Thompson notes the victory over the dragon motif from Psalm 72:4 and compares it to several texts, especially Job. The point was about defeating some great enemy to prove ones worth. this reminded me of the Raglan hero scale that has been applied to Jesus a number of times (best in Alan Dundes in In Quest of the Hero). One of the points on that scale most figure does not fit the Jesus story is the killing of the dragon. But that also would exclude a lot of other Mediterranean heroes if believed strictly. But defeating a great enemy to prove one’s worth, that would probably be a better criteria for the Raglan scale than what was originally proposed.
All in all, Thompson makes his point well, and it would be very hard to argue against his conclusion that Mark 1:12-13 is deliberate fiction crafted from ancient tropes in Psalm 72; there weren’t any eye-witnesses to document Jesus’ time in the desert, so Richard Bauckham can’t save this one anyways.
Moving on to Ingrid Hjelm’s chapter about Luke, we get more of the same, the author first noting that Luke is more subtle in his use of the OT than other Gospel writers, namely Matthew. Ingrid considers several different parts of Luke, from the genealogies to the Good Samaritan and she notes the OT pedigree in all these cases. Ingrid spends the most time on the Good Samaritan, as it makes sense since she has written books on that very subject more than a decade ago. From the Deuteronomic historian to Josephus, we find a lot for the story to find itself in a literary context.
The chapter doesn’t stay in any one place for long, so it is hard to summarize. That means if you want to gain from Ingrid’s insights, you are going to have to get a copy of this volume. However, to do my best, what the chapter does try to seek out is Luke’s goal(s) with the Gospel, namely creating Jesus as a sort of new Moses or Elijah, though not the copy-paste way Matthew had done (“hey see, Jesus did this, just like the Bible told me so!”), while also seeking a uniting Christianity, bringing together Samaritan and Jew (and Gentile), thus superseding the prophets of old. Such work helps us better interpret Luke, but it also means this Gospel is less historical overall. Considering Luke is the only Gospel to talk as if it was a history book, that is significant when it comes to determining the historicity of the figure. Obviously it doesn’t prove it either way, but it limits how well we can use this (or any) Gospel to argue for historicity, let alone any particular reconstruction of the historical Jesus.
Lastly I consider a chapter about Islam and Jesus by Joshua Sabih. Specifically, he looks at how Jesus is referred to in the Qur’an, and perhaps more importantly how he is not.The key this is that Jesus is called ‘Isa, while students of Semitic language would have expected something else (such as Yasu’). But perhaps that is the point. Sabih here makes the point that the Qur’anic text is not trying to repeat Christian messages with adjustments, but it is trying to rehabilitate Jesus into a form palpable to the new religion. Jesus is no longer a son of God (how could Allah have a son?) who has to be killed as a ransom; so the first thing that goes is his name that means ‘Yahweh saves.’ But also interesting is the conclusion of some scholars that the names Jesus is not certainly original.
I don’t know if this debate in the works cited by Sabih take into consideration the Philippian hymn that some have suggested says that Jesus was not named so until after his passion and resurrection, such as Bob Price in his chapter of this volume (citing Couchoud). Bob actually considers the point more thoroughly in his last chapter of The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, including how the name is not used in other Christian literature. But if Sabih’ s cited scholars are correct, the name also indicates a non-Jewish origin, and thus the ‘Isa of the Qur’an is not a Jew.
But the other main task of Sabih is showing that the narratives of ‘Isa in the Qur’an are not derived from the New Testament.
It is clear that the ‘Isa narratives … do not emanate from the New testament. They are independent of them, in the sense that the Qur’an belongs to a different tradition.
There are some clear similarities between the NT stories of Jesus’ birth and Suras 3 and 9 as well as the other late antiquity stories of Mary. But these stories in the Qur’an are polemic and thus have a different aim and message. So Luke is not an Ur-text for Sura 3, for example. If I understand correctly, this would suggest that the version of Jesus found among early Muslims is not an off-shoot of 6th-century Christians or Jews, instead having their own beliefs about Jesus/’Isa (perhaps views from an earlier Christianity?). This certainly seems worthy of exploration; Muslims would at least think it correct as they believe they have restored the true understanding of Jesus.
Additional to Sabih’s considerations of the birth story of Jesus/’Isa as a new theological dialogue, I also see something similar in the other infancy gospels of Jesus that were written all the way up to the 10th century. Robert Miller’s Born Divine shows how freely later authors would work and re-work the materials given by the Gospels in manufacturing their own stories about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, and are clearly not trying to be historical but theological (or perhaps for edification?). This may also give some insight into what is going on with the ‘Isa narratives, though as Sabih points out the Qur’an gives the stories from Matthew and Luke little canonicity.
My only issue with the chapter were the untranslated passages in Germans or French. This seems a European practice, but it seems better to have English in the main body, but but the original language in the footnotes (something Hector Avalos does in his books). Mein Deutch ist schlecht, et mon français est tres mal. To me the whole point of writing is to make your ideas accessible, and that gets undercut by jumping to another language, leaving readers less sure about what they think they read. I don’t see an advantage other than showing everyone you are multilingual. Perhaps I would feel better if my skills were greater, but still there is no good reason to make your arguments less accessible. But if this is my only gripe with the chapter, that should say something.
And so, I have gone through all the chapters of this volume. I will give some final thoughts in my last post of this review because I know you just love to read everything I have to say. 😉