Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Christian Prophecy, the Jesus Tradition and Epicycles

I am very grateful for the response the previous post on the role of Christian prophets in the transmission of the Jesus tradition received. The post was picked up by other bloggers, including Metacatholic, Sean the Baptist, Exploring Our Matrix and Thoughts and Russellings.
I especially also appreciated the comments in the com-box, particularly those by Vinny, Kyle and Brant who had some very well-considered things to say.

When I wrote the post I wasn't really writing an in-depth treatment, but was rather highlighting some works that have raised key problems with the theory at hand. That theory, again, being that the Gospels contain not only the words spoken by Jesus but also sayings which came through Christian prophets which were placed on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels because such figures were truly believed to "speak in the name of the Lord." Again, some of those key discussions are found in Aune, Dunn, Hill, Bauckham, Hengel, Burridge, and Byrskog.

I simply quoted from the conclusions of these various scholars without really re-presenting their arguments. This is particularly true of Aune and Dunn.

In response to others who have commented, I'd like to raise a few of the following issues with the theory at hand, which are flushed out more in Aune and Dunn's discussion. For clarity's sake, let me restate the theory we are dealing with here briefly:

--Since early Christian prophets were believed to "speak in the name of the Lord" sayings which were believed to come from him through them were gradually incorporated into the Jesus tradition.
--When the Gospels were written the words of the prophets were placed back onto Jesus' lips.

Non-Prophet Statements: Distinguishing Between Prophetic Word the Jesus Tradition

First, while some may think the scenario regarding the inclusion of the sayings of Christian prophets is possible even plausible there is absolutely ZERO evidence to support such a claim. I realize that some point to the prophecies in Revelation or passages in the Odes of Solomon as examples, but, as Aune explains, such passages clearly identify such sayings as coming from the Risen Lord. Such passages could be considered the exceptions that prove the rule, for they are very clearly not presented as the words uttered by Christ during his public ministry. Moreover--and this point must also be stressed--it is very clear that the Apocalypse is of a different genre than the Gospels. The significance of this cannot be understated.

In short, there is really no indication that Christians failed to distinguish between the words of Jesus and the words of such prophets.

In fact, as many have observed--and as Doug Chaplin mentions on his blog--the evidence from Paul seems to show that distinction was made between words received in prophecy and words spoken by the Lord during his ministry. Take 1 Corinthians 7. In first 1 Corinthians 7:10 Paul explains the charge given by Jesus:

"To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife."

Here Paul is restating what had been passed down in the Jesus tradition, as reported in Matthew 5:32 and Mark 10:11-12.

But later Paul explains:

"A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I have the Spirit of God."

Notice that Paul believes he is prophesying--"I think that I have the Spirit of God"--but he does not present this teaching as being on equal ground with the commands of the Lord which he had received.

Indeed, facts are stubborn things--and the fact is, there is no indication that the early Church confused the teachings of Jesus with the words uttered by prophets.

Test Everything... Including the Prophets

Moreover, it seems clear that the words of the prophets were not simply accepted blindly, but were tested (cf. 1 Cor 12:3, 14:29; 1 Thess 5:20-22; 1 John 4:1). Even after Paul receives a revelation he recognizes the need to go up and meet with the apostles about it (Gal 2:1-10). Dunn writes:

"It could indeed be said that Paul's own claims to be an apostle, with a distinctive new or different emphasis in his gospel, had to be put to the same test and had to pass it if his apostleship and missionary work were not to be judged unacceptable variations of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the clear implication of Galatians 1-2, where Paul, having insisted on the independence of his apostolic authority from the Jerusalem apostles, nevertheless found it necessary to go up to Jerusalem to lay his gospel before the leading apostles, 'lest somehow I was running or had run in vain' (2:2). Despite his confidence that he was called by Christ, Paul recognized the necessity that his claim to exceptional revelation (Gal 1.12) had to be tested and accepted by those who represented the temporal continuity with Jesus. Which also implies that Paul's repeated insistence that he was indeed an apostle was in effect a claim to belong to that body which had responsibility to authenticate as well as to preach the gospel (1 Cor 15.8-11). In the light of all this, it must be judged unlikely that Paul for one woul dhave accepted any prophetic utterance as a word of Jesus simply because it was an inspired (prophetic) utterance."

There was a standard then that the words of the prophets had to be measured against--they did not themselves set the standard. In addition, if one reads Paul's understanding of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14 one does not give to prophecy the kind of weight one would expect had he believed that their words should be placed on equal footing as those uttered during Jesus ministry.

Generic Issues: Genre Matters

In the end, it seems to me that the idea of an annonymous transmission process is solely based on the speculation of scholars who, under the influence of Bultmann and the early form-critics, see the Gospels as related to folklore. The fact is, as Burridge and others (e.g., also Aune) have shown, the Gospels are bioi. The similarities between the Gospels and bioi are too numerous to be recounted here. Suffice it to say, Burridge highlights several points of contact, including: Subject (e.g., Verbal Usage; “Allocation of Space”), “External Features” (“Meter,” “Size and Length,” “Structure or Sequence,” “Literary Units”), “Internal Features” (e.g., “Style,” “Tone/ Mood / Attitude / Values”).

It is irresponsible to simply chalk these similarities up to coincidences. In fact, the vast majority of scholars have responded favorably to Burridge's work.

Again, the implications here are huge--the Gospels are written to tell us what Jesus himself taught. They were not written to simply describe the theology of the early Church.

Is That Kosher? The Absence of Sayings Addressing Early Christian Disputes

One of the key observations made by those who think the Gospels contain words spoken by Christian prophets is that they reflect the situation of the early Church. But I wonder about that as well. If the Gospel writers felt free to incorporate words from early Christian prophets who "spoke in the name of the Lord", you have to wonder: why didn't they ever put to rest some of the key controversies of the early Church.

The following is an obvious statement and everyone knows it to be true, but I think few have considered the implications of it: in the Gospels Jesus never speaks about circumcision. By all accounts this was a HUGE issue in the early Church. The fact that Jesus never speaks about it in the Gospels cannot simply be an oversight--especially given Luke's closeness to Paul. One would certainly expect something in Luke about it. And yet, there is nothing.

Moreover, there is really only one saying of Jesus in the Gospels on the kosher laws (Mark 7:18-23 (parr. Matt 15:17-20):

"Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”

Not only is the paucity of sayings on this issue striking, notice that it does not appear in Luke. Nor does it contain an explicit lifting of the kosher laws. In fact, it might be possible to read this without concluding the kosher laws could now be violated.

Other things could also be pointed out: the language of grace is absent in the Gospels, the explicit mention of Church offices, etc. Were there no prophetic utterances about such things? Or is it perhaps best to explain the absence of sayings about such things by recognizing that the Gospel writers distinguished between what Jesus said during his public ministry and what the prophets were saying in his name?

Naming Names: The Problem of the Annonymous Model

It should also be noted that the New Testament always links names with prophetic utterances (see Acts 11:27-28; 13:1; 21:9-14)--prophetic words do not come down annonymously. To simply assert that prophetic utterances were confused with words from Jesus' public ministry seems to me to be completely without warrant.

In addition, because form-critics assumed the Gospels were akin to folklore they had to make the case the titles of the Gospels--e.g., The Gospel According to Matthew--were later additions. Of course, this is pure speculation. As far as I know, there is not a shred of manuscript evidence to support such a claim. The fact is, the early Church was universally aware that the Gospels were associated with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John--four figures who were either eye-witnesses to Jesus' ministry themselves or associated with such witnesses.

As I mentioned before Martin Hengel--no slouch!--in particular has made a very compelling case the titles are original. Hengel highlights the fact that they are universally attested from the earliest times. How did this universal agreement come about? Why is there absolutely no evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was ever, in any place or in any work, attributed to, say, James? How could such titles emerge as universally attested if they were simply later additions? Keep in mind--there was no blogosphere back then!

Moreover, there is no evidence in any of the earliest manuscripts (including the pre-Constantinian codices!) that these titles were ever omitted or that they ever were associated with other figures. In light of all this it is difficult indeed to imagine that the titles were added after the fact and quickly disseminated. [See Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [trans. lohn Bowden; London: SCM, 2000]), 34-57; idem., Studies in the Gospel of Mark (trans. J. Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985; repr., Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 64-84; Theo K. Heckel, Vom Evangelium des Markus zum viergestaltigen Evangelium (WUNT 120; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999). One should also see the important exchange between T. C. Skeat, “Irenaeus and Four-Gospel Canon,” NovT 34 (1992): 194-99 and Peter M. Head, “Is P4, P64 and P67 the Oldest Manuscript of ‘The Fourfold Gospels: A Response to T. C. Skeat,” NTS 51 (2005): 450-7.]

So then, the Gospels appear not only to be biographies about what Jesus said--not simply what the Church later believed about him--but were also associated with specific individuals who would have been recognized as authorities on the matter.

Interestingly, the only major element of bioi that Burridge finds lacking in the Gospels are titles, which he assumes are later additions. Hengel's work would seem to solve that mystery.

Epicycles and Non-Prophet Conclusions

At the end of the day, I would argue that all of these pieces of evidence should give us very serious pause when it comes to simply accepting the idea that the utterances of the early Christian prophets were (1) not distinguished from what Jesus said during his public minsitry and (2) were placed on the lips of Jesus by the evangelists.

It seems to me that many scholars allow their own presuppositions about who Jesus was and what he could and could not have said to shape the way we actually interpret the evidence we have available to us. In fact, it seems to me that while there is absolutely no external evidence to support the form-critical model of a long annonymous transmission process scholars simply accept it because they can imagine something like that happening in the early Church. At the same time, where there is clear external evidence for how the early Church transmitted the teaching of Jesus that evidence is ignored or explained away.

Ultimately, it seems it has to be explained away because it doesn't fit the view preconceived model.

In the end, the whole situation reminds me of "epicycles." When Ptolemaic astronomy which held the earth to be the center of the universe began to run into problems calculating the movement of the stars Ptolemaic astronomers figured out a solution--there were cycles within cycles. As time went on astronomers had to incorporate more and more complicated cycles into their system to account for the way the stars moved. By the time of Copernicus such models were outrageous.

Copernicus explained that these extra cycles could all be eliminated if one recognized the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. What followed was the Copernican revolution.

When one looks at the form-critical models at work today and complicated theories suggested about the transmission of the Jesus tradition, I'm starting to wonder if we're looking at more epicycles.

Christian prophets might have said...

Their teachings might have been placed on equal footing with...

After a period of time, the Christians then came to believe...

Or perhaps the distance between Jesus and the evangelists is not as far as some have thought.

Perhaps all of these theories are epicycles which are propping up a failing dogmatic theory which is contradicted by evidence people are simply explaining away; perhaps the earth does not revolve around Bultmann and form-criticism.


Brant Pitre said...

Fantastic post, Michael!
In particular, your points about the anonymity and biographical genre of the Gospels are hugely significant, but continue to fall on deaf ears in some scholarly circles.

Martin Hengel wrote his first essay on this back in 1985, (when I was still anxiously awaiting getting the Millennium Falcon for Christmas, and "Dun(n)" was just one of the colors in my super-big crayon box!). Its high time the weight of his arguments and their implications were dealt with. I look forward to further discussion. Perhaps the uncritical acceptance of Bultmann's overall framework is finally coming to an end, but a lot of work will have to be done to put something else in its place.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that apostolic authorship of the Gospels was being defended by anyone these days. Why didn't I hear about this Hengel in my Intro to NT class? The prof just assumed that the titles were inauthentic.

This really pisses me off. Do you think people are just plain ignorant or feel too threatened to give actually consider positions that challenge the mainstream?


Anonymous said...


The sad state of affairs is that there is little interest in theories that oppose the "consensus" view. I teach an Intro class myself and have been presenting the Two-Source theory to my students without much thought myself. It's what I learned. Now that I have to teach on the Synoptics in a class by themselves, I discover Goodacre and the idea that gets rid of "Q". Needless to say, I'll be fixing that section of the Intro class when I come to it again.
The problem is that when a theory becomes entrenched, it is difficult for dissenting voices to be heard.

Anonymous said...

Michael and Brant,

A question for you. Do either of you know of any work done on why Ben Sira does not write in the voice of Solomon but in his own voice? I know it's off topic....

Vinny said...

Indeed, facts are stubborn things--and the fact is, there is no indication that the early Church confused the teachings of Jesus with the words uttered by prophets.

As a skeptic, I would argue that there are so few example of how Jesus' sayings were regarded in the early church that it would be extremely difficult to draw any conclusions on the relative importance of words that were attributed to Jesus himself.

In all of the epistles, there are only a handful of references to anything Jesus said or did during his earthly ministry. Almost every doctrinal point depends upon the authority of the letter writer or the authority of the Old Testament. In Clement's letter to the Corinthians, Jesus is only quoted twice, neither of which pertains to a significant doctrinal point. Polycarp seems to be the first person who cites the words of Jesus with any frequency and that is not until well into the second century.