Review of Is This Not the Carpenter? (Part III)

Title: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus

Editors: Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna

Bibliographic info: viii + 266 + 13

Cover: Hard

Publisher: Equinox, 2012

Buy it at Amazon

With thanks to Equinox for the review copy!

Read Part II of the review.

The third and final section of this book, The Rewritten Bible and the Life of Jesus, consists of five essays. The first chapter in this section, the ninth in the volume, is James Crossley’s, “Can John’s Gospel Really Be Used to Reconstruct a Life of Jesus? An Assessment of Recent Trends and a Defence of a Traditional View.” Despite what the title may convey (“defence of a traditional view”), Crossley is not advocating that the Gospel of John provides an accurate presentation of the historical Jesus, as the traditional view is actually the opposite. This chapter is in large part a critical appraisal of the view that the Gospel of John is from an eyewitness to Jesus, specifically as it is put forth by Bauckham in his recent volume on the subject.

The second essay, “Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King”, is by one of the editors, Thomas L. Thompson. He begins by providing a four-point analysis of Mark 1.12-13, saying:

Although lacking a proper narrative, it, nevertheless, offers four clearly presented and distinct thematic elements of a plot-line: (1) the spirit who drives Jesus into the desert; (2) the forty days he is tempted by Satan; (3) he lived with the wild animals and (4) angels cared for him. Although each of these elements has been clearly related in what remains a mere paraphrase of a story, the significance and function of this clustering of motifs is uncertain, implicit or blind. (186).

Thompson then goes on to show how the Lukan (4.1-13) and Matthean (4.1-11) counterparts to Mark 1.12-13 incorporate these four points into the subject matter of their Gospels. He then turns to demonstrating how two ancient Near Eastern tropes are identifiable in Mark 1.1-13, tropes which “evoke an implicit mythic narrative” (192). The first is found in the opening proclamation of the Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1.1), key words being “good news.” Thompson says:

Supporting this opening with the story of John in the wilderness, allegorically illustrating Isaiah’s voice, which identifies Jesus as the promised messenger sent to guide Israel, is the trope, with historical roots in ancient Egypt’s royal ideology and specifically witnessed in celebratory proclamations of the accession to the throne by Pharaohs Merneptah and Ramses IV. […]

The ‘good news’ announced and inaugurated in the proclamation of Ramses IV are illustrated by an eightfold list of the reversals of fate and fortune. […] A typical list of such reversals is not used in Mark’s introduction, but is rather only implied by the proclamation of the ‘good news’. (193)

The second ANE literary trope that Thompson finds in the opening of Mark is the “plot-opening theme of ‘past suffering’” which is found in many royal biographies of the ANE. He goes on to explain that “in surviving and overcoming this crisis, the long-suffering king is presented as fit to take the throne, when he is called and chosen by the divine at a divinely appointed time” (194).

Thompson then goes on to explain how he thinks that the figure of Job supports his observation of these two tropes underlying the fourfold cluster found in Mark 1.12-13. This is then followed by a look at how Psalm 72 “can be seen as embodying the central thematic and interrelated character of various elements which we have seen in both John 29 and Mk 1:12-13” (198) and that that it “helps us to identify more clearly both the discourse and the mythic symbol system which Mark’s brief sketch of a narrative holds implicit” (198).

I wasn’t convinced that Mark 1.12-13 was an intentional invention based off of the ANE tropes found in Psalm 72. And I think saying that the proclamation of “good news” (euangelion) in Mark 1.1 is drawn from an ANE literary trope, as found in Psa. 72.1-4, is ignoring what is the more pertinent source for Mark’s use of euangelion, which is the use of euangelion in Roman imperial propaganda (and possibly its usage in Isa. 52.7), for one can marshal a strong case that Mark is deliberately rivaling the propaganda of the Roman imperial cult throughout his Gospel. Regardless, Thompson’s use of ANE literary tropes is interesting and I’m sure you can make many more links between the New Testament and the ANE, such as the concepts underlying NT Christologies (e.g. the divine warrior, priesthood, royalty). I think that Thompson’s book, The Messiah Myth, is essentially a longer and more comprehensive examination of Jesus and ANE tropes.

The next chapter is “‘Who Is My Neighbour?’: Implicit Use of Old Testament Stories and Motifs in Luke’s Gospel” by Ingrid Hjelm. This is similar to Thompson’s chapter in that she investigates the use of the Hebrew Bible in the creation of stories in the Gospel of Luke (with a particular focus on the story of the Good Samaritan). Her overarching thesis is that the author of Luke is attempting to create Jesus as a Moses or Elijah redivivus, albeit in a much more subtle way that the author of the Gospel of Matthew did so. This is followed by Joshua Sabih’s “The ‘Īsā Narrative in the Qur’an: The Making of a Prophet.” Sabih discusses the presentation of Jesus (‘Isa) in the Qur’an, arguing that the narratives of ‘Isa in the Qur’an do not stem from the New Testament portrayal of Jesus, his demonstration of which being quite informative.

The final chapter of this volume is K.L. Noll’s essay “Investigating Earliest Christianity without Jesus.” He opens the chapter by saying that “any quest for a historical Jesus is irrelevant to an understanding of the earliest social movements that evolved into the religion now called Christianity” (233). At first glance I thought this was going to provide what, for me at least, is a key deficit in Jesus mythicism – the failure to provide a scenario that explains how the figure of Jesus arose that is more plausible than simply positing the existence of a historical Jesus. Unfortunately this chapter doesn’t explore that question, as the author is instead attempting to demonstrate  that “Jesus, even if he existed, played no role in the formation of the movement that bears his name” (233).

The (novel) way Noll approaches this is by using the concept of memes to discuss how early Christianity could have evolved without a historical Jesus. By the way, the concept of meme is taken from the work of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkin, not those humorous meme pictures you see pop up on your Facebook feed. By placing Bauckham (and his work on eyewitnesses and the Gospels) in dialogue with Thompson (and his work of ANE literary motifs in the Gospels), Noll attempts to show that the search for this historical Jesus figure is, at best, a very difficult one, as “[t]he moment Jesus died, the memes that he carried in his head died with him, and he became irrelevant to the movement that he might have begun” (257). A pretty useful analogy Noll uses, which explains what he is driving at in his essay, is that “Paul was the father of Christianity just as mitochondrial Eve was the mother of all humanity” (258).

In his conclusion, Noll contends that:

This essay demonstrates that Jesus was irrelevant to the construction, consolidation and transmission of the various early Christianities known to us from the sources […] To the extent that the Jesus of the canonical Gospels preserves any DNA  from pre-Gospel stages of the religion’s evolution, that DNA derives from Paul, not from the Jerusalem pillars … and certainly not from a hypothetical historical Jesus” (266).

So the Gospels can’t be mined for any genuine information regarding a historical Jesus? Is that a correct implication from what he is saying there? I wasn’t sure, but if it is, I don’t think he presented a compelling case for such a strong conclusion.

All in all, I enjoyed reading this book, though it did not give me cause to doubt the existence of a historical Jesus. If anything, it only showed me how the case upon which mythicism stands requires forced, counter-intuitive, and strained readings of the data in order to arrive at the conclusion (such as arguing that Paul did not believe Jesus to be a historical person). Furthermore, the only real argument for mythicism seems to be the idea that since the New Testament authors use literary tropes and the Hebrew Bible in order to form their presentation of Jesus, that this means he must have been a created character with no underlying historicity. This, coupled together with a severely lacking and forced case for Paul not believing Jesus to be a historical person, is essentially what the force of the mythicist position seems to be. Nevertheless, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in historical Jesus studies, as some of the contributions in it are interesting to read and/or directly relevant to the issue. I don’t think, though, that it is going to lead to a paradigm shift in early Christian studies nor cause many to rethink their position on Jesus’ historicity.

One last thing. The price of this volume is ridiculously high. I wouldn’t recommended spending a hundred dollars on it (the only book I would personally spend so much on is a good reference book like a Greek lexicon). However, one can always go to the Amazon page for this page and click on the “I’d like to read this book on Kindle” link. Perhaps the publisher will get it done.

2 responses

  1. “Furthermore, the only real argument for mythicism seems to be the idea that since the New Testament authors use literary tropes and the Hebrew Bible in order to form their presentation of Jesus, that this means he must have been a created character with no underlying historicity.”

    Kevin, excellent series all the way around. Let me just say, Bonhoeffer was headed this direction, seeing Hebrew Bible tropes in the NT, and he affirmed the historical Jesus. Seems like this part of mythicism isn’t really a challenge for those who affirm narrative and theological continuity from Old testament to the New.

  2. Pingback: Around the Blogosphere (10.12.2012) | Near Emmaus

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