Thursday, July 16, 2009

Goodacre's "Dating Game" 6: The Historicity of the Cornerstone Saying

***UPDATE***: As Mark Goodacre pointed out in the comment-box, the title of this post may be taken as inferring that he does not accept the historicity of the stone-saying. In fact, he has not dismissed its authenticity. In no way do I want to attribute to him a position that he does not take. The reason I address it here is that I believe it has crucial significance for our understanding of the historical Jesus, which, in turn, has ramifications for our understanding of the purpose of the temple-theme in Mark's Gospel--a matter that ulimately has significance for dating of the Gospel as a whole.

The Cornerstone Saying (Psalm 118:22-23)
Having examined Jesus’ Parable of the Vineyard an its authenticity we now turn our attention to the key allusion to Psalm 118:22–23 in Mark 12:10–11:

“‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; 11 this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
The major arguments against the authenticity of the saying can be summed up quite easily:
1. This passage is used in Christological statements in early Christian works (e.g., Acts 4:11; Eph 2:20; 1 Peter 2:6-8; Barn. 6:2-4; Justin, Dial. 36.1). In sum, the saying fails to meet the criterion of dissimilarity to Christianity. Thus this passage appears more likely to be the product of the community’s reflection than the teaching of the historical Jesus.
2. The quotation’s agrees with the LXX. This seems to point to a setting in the early Church.

These arguments however can be easily countered.
1. The criteria of authenticity cannot simply be used negatively. In fact, it is possible that the Church’s use of Scripture represents the historical effect of Jesus.
2. The second argument ignores possibility that an original quotation has come to be assimilated to the LXX, as has happened in, e.g., the allusion to Isaiah 6:9-10 in Matthew 13:10-17 (cf. Mark 4:12).

In fact, notwithstanding the early Christian use of the psalm, a number of scholars have explained that there are good reasons to believe the saying may be authentic.[1]

Multiple attestation. Not only does the logion appear in all three Synoptic Gospels, it also appears in Thomas―in all cases it appears at the end of the Parable of the Vineyard. It therefore appears deeply embedded in the tradition.

Dissimilar to Christian usage. The most common reason the saying’s authenticity is dismissed is that Psalm 118:22 was often used by the early Christians. But it should be pointed out that there is no explicit mention of the resurrection. What the psalm primarily points to is vindication. Indeed, nothing in the saying precludes the possibility of a dominical origin. In fact, the Psalm was well-known to ancient Jews, who frequently linked it to eschatological hopes.[2] In the Targumim it even links David to the “stone”.[3] The language of “builders” was also connected to the Jewish leadership (cf. 1QIsaa 54:13; CD 4:19; 8:12; b. Šabbat 114a; b. Berakot 64a; Song Rab. 1.5-3; Exod. Rab. 33.10; Targum Pss. 118:22-28; cf. also Acts 4:11), to whom Jesus is presented as speaking against in the immediate context.[4] Its use here is therefore entirely historically plausible.

In fact, we would propose that it is difficult to believe that Jesus only spoke of his coming death―the authenticity of which we discussed in our last post in this series―without some sort of word about final vindication. Are we really to believe that Jesus foretold his own death simply in terms of ultimate defeat? This picture is not only improbable, it would seem absurd. In light of this we can say the following: if Jesus expected to die―and as we have seen, this seems probable―it is also likely that he anticipated being vindicated in some sort of way, as the allusion to Psalm 118:22 indicates. In this then the saying is also coherent, particularly with other sayings which speak about future vindication.

The above point is so powerful it needs to be restated to underscore its weight. As we have explained, it is difficult to hold that Jesus expected to die but did not envision some sort of vindication. Given that reality, supposing Jesus actually did expect to be killed and later vindicated, we might ask another question: which other Gospel saying relating such expectations would one point to as being more likely authentic than this one? Here we can point out that among all the sayings in the Synoptics regarding Jesus’ future vindication, the well-attested saying about the stone has arguably the strongest claim to authenticity since it lacks any explicit reference to the resurrection. If this saying is rejected then one is left to defend the highly implausible view that while Jesus likely expected to be vindicated in some way the Gospels preserve no sayings of his which point to ultimate victory after his rejection.

Nonetheless, while Jesus’ resurrection is never explicitly mentioned, it does seem hard to believe that the saying is not to be related to this idea. After all, if Jesus’ rejection is to be understood in terms of death, one wonders how Jesus would have expected to be vindicated apart from a resurrection. Yet even if the resurrection is in view, such a recognition would not necessarily signal a Christian context. Clearly the hope of the resurrection of the dead preceded Christianity in Judaism.[5] In fact Jesus speaks of the resurrection in other sayings, widely regarded as authentic, which do not even speak of his own fate directly, such as the logion in Matthew 8:11-12//Luke 13:28-29[6] and his response to the question posed by the Sadducees (cf. Mark 12:18-27 and par.).[7]

Indeed, there are still other reasons to see the saying as authentic.

A Semitic wordplay. The saying comes on the heels of the story of the Parable of the Vineyard where the “son” is killed by the wicked tenants. By alluding to the “stone” saying there is a well-known semitic wordplay on words for “son” and “stone”. That the wordplay derives from a Hebraic linguistic tradition speaks strongly against the idea that it originated later in the Church.[8] In addition, the argument used by some that the wordplay would have been incoherent to an Aramaic-speaking audience is simply not sustainable since it is attested in the Greek text of Josephus’ work, which was first written in Aramaic.[9]

Continued cultic allusion. As mentioned in the exegesis of this passage, the saying can be seen as flowing naturally from the story; it is not unrelated. For one thing, the “stone” in Psalm 118 likely had cultic associations as did Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the vineyard. In fact, without the allusion it is hard to understand how the parable would have been understood as being directed at the Jewish leaders.[10]

Jesus and the Temple
The sayings’ authenticity fits well also with Jesus’ larger restoration project. As we have noted, by linking himself to the imagery of the cornerstone Jesus appears to associating himself with cultic imagery. In fact, as we have noted the concept of the eschatological temple played a key role in Jewish restoration hopes. It was to the temple that the tribes would be gathered. Indeed, it would seem that a restoration without a temple is inconceivable in Jewish literature. Moreover, such hopes were also connected to Davidic messianic hopes (e.g., Ezek 37:24-28; Zech 6:11; Amos 9:11; 4Q174 I 1:21:2).

More specifically, we should recall our treatment of Jesus’ temple action above. There we noted the presence of both eschatological temple hopes (=Isa 56:7) and an apparent allusion to the Jerusalem temple’s destruction (=Jer 7:11). This juxtaposition of imagery is odd: Jesus seems to be indicating that the temple would be destroyed while at the same time alluding to a passage which clearly placed the sanctuary at the center of the restoration.

This leaves the reader with one burning question: if the Herodian temple is not the eschatological temple, what is? The stone saying―which in all three Synoptic Gospels occurs after a parable told in the temple in the immediate aftermath of this demonstration―thus provides the answer to this critical question. In identifying himself with the cornerstone of Psalm 118 Jesus seems to link temple-building imagery in some way to his future vindication, most likely understood as in some way indicating his resurrection.

It seems then historically plausible to imagine that Jesus’ vision included the idea that he himself would in some way be associated with the eschatological temple.

This is hugely significant―as I will explain in the next post in this series.

[1] See, e.g., M. Black, “The Christological Use of the Old Testament in the New Testament,” NTS 18 (1971-72): 1-14; Snodgrass, Parable of the Wicked Tenants, 63-65; idem., Stories with Intent, 289-90; Hans Friedrich Bayer, Jesus’ Predictions of Vindication and Resurrection: The Provenance, Meaning and Correlation of the Synoptic Predictions (WUNT 2/20; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1986), 105; Charles A. Kimball, “Jesus’ Exposition of Scripture in Luke (20:9-19): An Inquiry in Light of Jewish Hermeneutics,” BBR (1993): 89-92 [77-92]; Gundry, Mark, 689; Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 251; Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 497-501; Brooke, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament, 256-58.; Bock, Luke, 2:1245; Kim, “Jesus―The Son of God, the Stone, the Son of Man, and the Servant,” 135-38; Evans, Mark 8:27―16:20, 228-30; Bird, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission, 158-59.
[2] The first line of Psalm 118 repeats the words of the song sung by those who come offering the todah in the eschatological ingathering in Jeremiah 33:10-11. The eschatological interpretation of the Hallel is also found in the Talmud: “The prophets among them enacted that the Israelites should recite [the Hallel] at every epoch and at every trouble―may it not come to them!―and when they are redeemed, the will recite it for their deliverance” (b. Pes. 117a). See also Midr. Ps. 118. For further examples and discussion see Brunson, Psalm 118 in the Gospel of John, 76-82.
[3] See the Targum of Psalm 118:22-23 which reads, “The architects forsook the youth among the sons of Jesse, but he was worthy to be appointed king and ruler. ‘This has been said from before the Lord,’ said the architects. ‘It is wonderful in our presence,’ said the sons of Jesse.” Of course, as we have seen, Jesus likely saw himself as the eschatological Davidide. The association therefore inferred between himself and the stone not necessarily imply a Christian setting―ancient Jews were perfectly capable of linking the psalm to Davidic traditions. See Kim, “Jesus―The Son of God, the Stone, the Son of Man, and the Servant,” 136 who cites B. Gärtner, “tali’a als Messiasbezeichnung,” STK 18/19 (1953-54): 99-104. See also Snodgrass, The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, 98-99.
[4] See n. 12 above for primary sources.
[5] See, for example, Isa 26:19; Dan 12:1-3; 2 Macc 7:14, 23, 29; 1 En. 22–27; 92–105; Jub. 23:11; 4 Macc 7:3; 4 Ezra 7:26-42; 2 Bar. 21:23; 30:2-5; Josephus, B.J. 2.154, 165-66; Ant. 18.14, 16, 18; 4 Macc 8-17.
[6] For arguments for the passage’s authenticity see, e.g., Meier, Marginal Jew, 2:311-317.
[7] For an argument for the episode’s authenticity see Davies and Allison, Matthew, 3:223.
[8] See Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 290.
[9] The world play appears in Josephus, B.J. 5.272. See Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 277.
[10] See Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 290: “…the parable needs the quotation. Far from being an early church addition, the quotation is the key to understanding the parable. The problem, unnoticed by most, is that we read the parable and quotation with the knowledge of post-resurrection history, but how would the parable have been heard by Jesus’ Jewish hearers? How do the hearers suddenly discern that the parable is about them… Even without the allusion to Isaiah 5 the listeners would know that the parable was about God and his people, but no Jewish listener would identify himself or herself with the tenants. Rather, the tenants would be evil people, possibly the Romans, who were violating God’s vineyard, his people, or at least the purposes of God with his people. Not until the stone quotation is the impact of the parable made clear, and two features of the quotation are the revealing agents: the well-attested worldplay between ’eben (‘stone’) and ben (‘son’) and the use of ‘builders’ to refer to the religious leaders.”


Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for another interesting post in the series. As usual, there is a lot that I agree with here. I wonder if the "Goodacre" bit in the title of each post might imply that you are arguing against claims I have made? I have not actually argued against the historicity of the cornerstone saying and your post might be taken to imply that I have. I look forward to future posts in this interesting series.

Michael Barber said...


When I started down this path I did not realize I would get so involved with it! However it's all going to come to a head in my remarks on dating at the end.

I realize that you have not argued against the historicity of the stone-saying. I'm sorry if I implied that you had--perhaps you are right, the title of the post might infer it. I've added an update to the post to correct that impression.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Michael, for the comment and the update to the post. I look forward to the developing series. I hope to provide some comments in due course too.

Graham said...

Hmm, does this very interesting set of postings come to its conclusion??