Category Archives: Knowable historical Jesus

Another Jesus for Josephus’ James

Godard's Destruction of Jerusalem

Jerusalem with Jesus ben Ananus, upper right

In Book 20 of his Antiquities, Josephus briefly mentions a man named James who was unlawfully condemned to death in 62 CE, about eight years before the Roman sack of Jerusalem. Josephus says that this James’ brother was named Jesus. In all extant source manuscripts of the Antiquities, that Jesus is said to be “called Christ.” If Josephus wrote that description, then he’d have left us compelling evidence that a historical Jesus of Galilee really existed.

Modern scholars generally accept that Josephus did describe James’ brother as “Jesus called Christ,” largely because Origen wrote that that’s what he’d read in Antiquities. Origen also remembers reading a lot more about this James there, about his character and about God’s pay-back to Jerusalem for the injustice of his death. In fact, however, Josephus tells us almost nothing else about James, not even whether his death sentence was actually carried out, much less claiming divine retribution for it.

Given that Origen misrecalls so much so vividly, what weight should be placed on his recollection of the few words which allegedly identified James’ brother? Two other Jesuses appear in the story that includes the trial incident, a story which makes perfect sense if James’ brother were either of those Jesuses (link).

This post recalls still another Jesus who appeared in Josephus’ first book, The Jewish War. This Jesus is familiar to many because of remarkable parallels between his story and the Gospels’ passion. Let us first consider the merits of his candidacy to be the brother of Antiquities’ James. If it turns out that he wasn’t James’ brother, the tragedy of Jesus ben Ananus still contributes to our understanding of how Origen’s memory so badly scrambled and improved what Josephus wrote about James and his trial.

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Historians and probability: Is Bayes a blunder?

Greek mosaic of a Christian fish symbolProfessor James F. McGrath (Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana) blogs as Religion Prof at Patheos. In a recent post (link), McGrath reviews another blogger’s review of Richard Carrier’s work concerning Saint Paul’s mention of James as “the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19). McGrath alleges

In essence, Carrier’s approach commits the same blunder that undergraduate students sometimes do before coming to grips with how historians work.

Your obedient servant holds no brief from Dr. Carrier, but the essence of Carrier’s approach is that Bayesian methods can and should be applied to historical questions. I agree with that essence (link).

This post considers whether Professor McGrath has identified some hidden incompatibility between “common sense reduced to calculation,” as Laplace described Bayesian techniques, and normative post-graduate history.

Let’s hope not.

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Mark dramatized “If Paul had met Jesus”

Paul and Jesus are said to be contemporary figures. Nevertheless, Paul’s surviving writings never say whether he ever met the natural Jesus. In a usual “argument from silence,” scholars generally conclude that Paul probably didn’t meet Jesus, assuming that Paul would have said so if he had. Furthermore, Paul strongly suggests that his first-ever meeting with any associate of Jesus (although Paul doesn’t identify them as such) occurred years after his conversion (Galatians 1:17-18). The absence of Paul as a character in any of the canonical Gospels reinforces the impression that he never met Jesus.

Mark wrote his Gospel approximately one or two decades after Paul’s letters. A major theme of Mark is the breathtaking variety of human reactions to Jesus’ earthly ministry of wisdom, signs and wonders.

A literary problem arises from the gap between when Mark was writing and when his story is set. Both Paul’s churches and the disciples’ disciples are presumably contending for prominence within the second-generation movement, but Paul has no role in the story Mark is writing. Peter, James, John and the other “inner circle” disciples who traveled with Jesus dominate Mark by default. Mark has no simple way to include both “sides” of the subsequent drama playing out around him.

The principal finding of this post is that Mark found a solution to maintain the timeliness of his story. He represented a hypothetical “Paul’s” reaction to the natural Jesus using the character of an unnamed scribe at verses 12:28-34. This character more readily understands and appreciates Jesus’ message than the probably mostly younger and less educated disciples. However, the scribe declines to join Jesus. If he did join the movement later on, he may well have required some additional sign first, just as Paul himself did.

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The longer ending of GMark, III: Verses 8 to 14 cohere

portrait of Mark

Mark – moody loner with a pen?

The previous post in this series discussed how Mark twice used a literary device, the “Markan hand grenade,” to continue his story beyond a satisfactory stopping place. The apparent third use of that device at verse 16:8 supports the hypothesis that an “authentic” performance of Mark may include the verse but needn’t end there.

Suppose Mark doesn’t end at 16:8. If Mark‘s true ending is simply lost, then there is nothing concrete to discuss. Of what is available to us, no argument is made here against the scholarly consensus that 16:15-20 is inauthentic, for reasons presented in the series’ first post. There is no constituency for the Freer Logion or the so-called “Shorter Ending,” either. That leaves only verses 16:9-14 to search for a satisfactory ending.

As argued in the first post of the series, 16:9-14 form a recognizable unit of Markan composition, a “build of three.” The finding of this post is that the seven verses 8 to 14 form a compound unit, grenade then build, that executes a purposeful and coherent development of the story beyond the rousing announcement that Jesus has left the tomb. Therefore, verse 14 is an admissible, even attractive, candidate for Mark‘s authentic ending.

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The longer ending of GMark, II: Mark’s many boffo curtains

Joseph tomb JerusalemThis is the second post which searches out an “authentic” ending of Mark. Twice in chapter 15, Mark could have finished his Gospel to hearty applause, but he didn’t. What we read both times is what we see for the third time at 16:7-8. No sooner has Mark reached a fine place to send the audience home than he immediately brings up some new issue that justifies the show continuing.

We’ll call that abrupt new development a “Markan hand grenade.” Think not of a loud BOOM, but hear instead the tinny ping of a pulled pin hitting the floor and then something solid rattling around down there. However satisfied the audience was just a moment before, now they want to hear what happens next.

The finding of this post is narrow: just as acceptably real Mark doesn’t end some place in chapter 15, it probably didn’t end at verse 16:8, either. That’s weaker than finding that real Mark continued on to 16:14 specifically, but there is good reason to estimate that if true Mark made it as far as 16:8, then it also continued on to somewhere. The case for that somewhere being 16:14 will be for a future post.

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The longer ending of GMark, part I: Were verses 16:9-20 written as one unit?

Mary_Magdalen_Mark_16Many academics estimate that Mark’s Gospel in its “authentic” form (however they define that slippery word) ends at the eighth verse of the sixteenth chapter. Three women enter Jesus’ tomb, find a living young man there instead of Jesus’ corpse, and promptly exhibit symptoms of clinical shock.

Well they might. They had watched the Romans spend the day-before-last torturing Jesus to death. Since then the women had been counting on performing the funeral rites of their faith. Now suddenly, they learn that that is impossible. The narrator states with emphasis that the frightened women didn’t talk about their experience in the tomb to anyone. The end.

Actually, not the end, not since the Second Century at the latest. The “earliest and best” surviving manuscripts (mainly two from the Fourth Century, link and link, whose testimony about Mark‘s ending may be mutually dependent) do end at 16:8. However, comments from early authors support awareness of additional verses after 16:8 having been part of Mark, including pieces from 16:9-20. The “third oldest” surviving high-quality manuscript includes 16:9-20, and a bit more besides, see below. Even so, two generations separate Mark‘s estimated composition date from the earliest surviving mention of what may have been composed.

This post is the first of three considering whether 16:14 is an admissible estimate for an “authentic” ending of Mark. The finding of this first post is narrow. Verses 16:9 through 16:14 differ enough from verses 16:15 through 16:20 to suggest separate authorship. Whether or not verses 16:9-14 may actually be “authentic” is left for later posts.

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