Book Review: Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (Part IV)

Part IV of my review of the gigantic volume Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (ed’s Stanley Porter and Tom Holmén). Read Part I, Part II, and Part III).

This part of the review will just be a look at just two chapters. The first is Petr Pokorný’s contribution titled, Jesus Research as Feeback on his Wirkungsgeschichte (pp. 333-59). Pokorný begins by briefly discussing the sources on the historical Jesus and their nature (e.g. the Synoptics, Q, John, Thomas, a few papryi fragments, some agrapha, Paul, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, the Letter of Mara bar Serapion, Josephus, and a few rabbinic sources). However, he does note that “much of our material is found in only one source” (as Mark, Q, M, and L only overlap in a few places).

A feature in this essay I found particularly interesting was Pokorný’s application of the criterion of dissimilarity. He uses it in regards to the analysis of “the stylistic and rhetorical peculiarities of the early Jesus traditions”. He mentions that while the criterion of dissimilarity has been heavily criticized in recent times, it “does not mean that [it] should be abandoned” (338). But regarding the criterion of multiple attestation, Pokorný notes that its validity “is limited” and that he “would almost warn against it” (339).

In an attempt to sketch an image of Jesus, Pokorný analyzes the Pauline evidence, the Synoptic traditions, and the Johannine traditions. I will quote the first paragraph on Paul because it is an nice little incisive jab against Jesus mythicism:

Paul is a meager source with regard to Jesus’ life. Jesus was important to Paul as the crucified and Risen Lord. Yet, Paul’s letters were written about twenty years earlier than the Gospel of Mark, and he may have obtained some first-hand knowledge about Jesus from Peter, whom he is said to have interviewed (Gal 1:18) (Historesai means to get information [testimony]; cf. historia). According to Gal 1:19, Paul also met James the Righteous, and did not hesitate to mention that James was the brother of the Lord (ho adelphos tou kuriou). This is a decisive argument in favor of Jesus’ historicity. When Paul proclaimed that “we do not know Jesus according to the flesh (kata sarka)” in 2 Cor 5:16b, the “according to the flesh” must refer to the act of knowing (ginoskein – to know), instead of to Christ, as many older translations suggested. (340)

Pokorný has a discussion on Paul’s lack of direct quotes of Jesus’ sayings, from which is the following snippet:

Paul’s reluctance to use Jesus’ sayings to support his arguments may partially be influenced by the way in which some Christian thinkers used Jesus’ (the Lord’s) sayings to argue against Paul’s interpretation of the gospel. It would have been difficult for Paul to argue against the enthusiasts’ use of Jesus’ sayings and to use the same weapons against his adversaries. If he had done this, Paul would have raised questions about his own firm foundation: the kerygma of the crucified and Risen Lord. (343)

Pokorný provides a list of some “widely accepted data regarding Jesus’ life”. Here are a few things he includes on the list that I found interesting:

Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee. The narratives about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in the gospels of Matthew and Luke are legends supporting the confession regarding his Davidic origin and his messianic role. Their authenticity is theological, rather than historical. The literary nature of these texts does not allow us to use the star, the census, or Herod to date Jesus’ life. (344)

Aramaic was Jesus’ mother tongue; however, as a pious Jew, he also read Hebrew and probably spoke Greek […] (344)

Jesus became a follower of John the Baptist, a prophet, and the most popular representative of the Baptist movement […] Unlike John, Jesus chose a positive strategy […] (345)

Jesus performed miraculous healings and exorcisms, which, according to our contemporary criteria, could be interpreted as shamanism […] (346)

Pokorný then discusses the message and teachings of Jesus, the self-understanding of Jesus, the reason for his death, and finishes with his application of the criterion of dissimilarity to analyze “the lexical and stylistic singularities” of texts containing the oldest Jesus traditions.

The next chapter is Stanley Porter’s, The Role of Greek Language Criteria in Historical Jesus Research (pp. 361-xx). If you are familiar with the criteria of authenticity in historical Jesus studies, you no doubt have heard of the criterion of Aramaic. There is another language criterion, though it is probably lesser known, which is the criterion of Greek. Porter has developed three Greek language criteria which he lists as, “the criterion of Greek language and its context, the criterion of Greek textual variance and the criterion of discourse features”. (362) In this chapter, Porter provides a look at the history and development of language criteria (Greek, Aramaic, and Semitic), develops those three criteria I quoted earlier, and then applies them to some passages. Regarding Jesus’ use of language, Porter says:

All of the three criteria assume that the Palestinian linguistic milieu was multilingual, and that Jesus could have spoken Greek. […] Greek was the first language for many in Palestine, but certainly a second or acquired language for many more. […] The evidence indicates that, while Jesus’ first language was Aramaic, he was productively bilingual, with Aramaic and Greek, and possibly Hebrew, with Greek and possibly Hebrew being acquired or second languages. This sociolinguistic description best reflects the linguistic situation of Mediterranean life in the first century. (377)

He then applies these criteria to Mark 7.25-30, 8.27-30, 12.13-17, 15.2-5 (and parallels). Porter summarizes: “In these four passages, I believe that we have found the words of Jesus in Greek (as well as the words of Pilate). They not only fulfill traditional criteria for authenticity, but they can be analyzed on text-critical grounds to establish a stable core tradition that indicates the ipsissima verba of Jesus” (389). He then goes on to give a brief analysis of the Sermon on the Mount, in which he sees at least two levels of core tradition present. All in all, quite an interesting contribution!

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