Κυριακή, 19 Μαρτίου 2017

Neil Godfrey : Genre of Gospels, Acts and OT Primary History (3)

Second thoughts on the Gospel of Mark as Biography

by Neil Godfrey

Understanding the nature of a text is a significant factor in knowing how to interpret it and how to use it as historical evidence. Many scholars today, following Burridge, accept that the Gospel of Mark is a biography of the life of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark is widely considered to be the first written of the canonical gospels and the one that strongly influenced the making of the other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke. Some scholars also think John’s gospel was built upon a knowledge of Mark.
Some scholars see Mark as the original written composition of the Jesus narrative. But why it was written, by whom and for whom, and where and when, all remain open questions. Understanding even “what” it is remains open to debate. Is is a biography of Jesus? A novel? A history? A parable? A tragic drama? An anti-epic? A definitive answer to this question of its genre has the potential to assist with how we should understand and interpret it.
In a recent post I outlined the main features that Richard Burridge raises to support his view that the Gospels should be understood essentially as Biographies. (There are a few differences between the modern idea of biographies and those of the ancient Graeco-Roman time, but the idea is close enough the same. My post also specifically addressed Burridge’s arguments in relation to the Synoptics – Matthew, Mark and Luke – but he also uses much the same features to argue John is also a Biography.)
This post looks generally at a range of other scholarly viewpoints that are not satisfied with Burridge’s conclusions. These voices are probably a minority today since Burridge’s work has been very influential among scholars.
I take these dissenting voices from The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel by Michael E. Vines. (And thanks to Michael Nordbakke and Gilgamesh for alerting me to this book in various comments.)
Vines addresses Burridge’s argument with specific application to the Gospel of Mark.

Two major motifs in Mark that fall outside biography

Vines writes that the following major motifs “cannot be subsumed under the rubric of a biographical account of Jesus.”
  • “Jesus’ activity is significant primarily as an earthly manifestation of divine presence and action. Jesus receives a divine commission from God to act as God’s agent (1:11; 9:7).”
    • crowds are amazed and glorify God when he heals a paralytic (2:12)
    • demons recognize the power and authority of God in Jesus (1:24; 3:11; 5:7)
    • centurion at the cross declares Jesus’ special relationship with God (15:39)
In these passages, the central concern is not a biographical interest in the earthly deeds of Jesus per se, but a soteriological interest in the way Jesus manifests God’s presence through his earthly activity. (p. 12)
  • The predictions concerning the eschatological Son of Man (8:38; 13:26; 14:62)
By identifying Jesus with the Son of Man who will in the future return in divine power to judge the world, Mark extends his Jesus beyond the norms of biographical time and out into the future end-time judge.
Therefore, the content of Mark, with its themes of Jesus’ divine commission and his role as the eschatological Son of Man, exceeds the generic limitations of Greco-Roman biography.

Jesus is not a representative or idealistic type

David Aune has also argued for the gospels being thought of as biographies, although along different lines from those of Burridge. But there is a significant difference between the gospels and Hellenistic biography that Aune does note. The latter share an interest in portraying a hero as an idealistic type, an exemplar of traditional virtues worthy of being followed. Vine quotes Aune contrasting the gospels in this respect:
Unlike Hellenistic biography . . . Jesus is not presented as a paradigm of virtue, at least not in the Hellenistic understanding of the term. Nor is there a great deal of explicit information suggesting that lives of Jesus were intended to serve as models for early Christian readers. (p. 13)

Lingering doubts about biography and the genre of Mark

This post will not dig into specific arguments for an alternative genre of Mark. What it will do is cite voices questioning Burridge’s view (and the majority scholarly view, as I understand it) that the Gospels (the Gospel of Mark in particular) are not adequately explained as biographies.

Eric Auerbach: Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

For Auerbach it is the realism of the gospel narratives that stands them apart from other ancient genres, in particular biography.
For Auerbach, the striking realism of the gospels makes any connection with the standard Greco-Roman genres impossible. Commenting on the depiction of Peter’s denial, he observes that it could not possibly fit within any of the ancient genres: “It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history — and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity.”
And the key form on which this difference hangs, says Auerbach, is “the pronounced use of direct discourse in the gospels.”
Auerbach claims that there is no similar use of direct discourse in classical literature. Biographies often contain anecdotal dialogues, but their function is quite different from that of the gospels. In biography, these dialogues only serve to buttress the controlling rhetorical and ethical interests of the author. The use of dialogue in the gospels, however, has a dramatic tension and immediacy that is “rare in antique literature.” (pp. 15-6)
Norman Petersen: “Can One Speak of a Gospel Genre?” Neot 28, no. 3 (1994):139
Petersen rejects the idea of seeking a common genre for the gospels altogether. Just because they are all about Jesus does not mean we should assume they belong to the same literary sub-type. For all we know the gospels may stem from different generic antecedents, and therefore we should investigate each one separately.
Petersen sees Mark as subverting whatever generic models we can see in it.

Willem Vorster: “Mark: Collector, Redactor, Author, Narrator?” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 31 (1980): 57
Vorster argues that attempting to understand Mark’s genre through evolutionary models or through analogies is too focussed on the history behind the text rather than attending to the text as “a meaningful ‘autosemantic  unit.'” It is best, he says, to concentrate on Mark as a self-contained narrative. Vines finds points of worth in Vorster’s position, but also considers narrative as “too broad a category to qualify as a genre.”

Roland Frye: “The Jesus of the Gospels: Approaches through Narrative Structure,” in From Faith to Faith . . . ed. by Dikram Y. Hadidian, 1979: 77.
Like Vorster Frye stresses “the importance of reading the gospels as unified narratives and rejects atomistic and reductionist approaches that try to analyze the gospels piecemeal.” For Frye, the gospels are “dramatic history” that bring readers “into contact with the living personality of Jesus.” He does not point to anything similar in other ancient literature.

Adela Yarbro Collins: “Genre and the Gospels,” Journal of Religion 75 (1995): 241, and Is Mark’s Gospel a Life of Jesus? : The Question of Genre (1990) reprinted as The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context (1992)

Collins is critical of Richard Burridge’s failure to compare the gospels with Jewish literature and does not accept his comparison with Greco-Roman biography.
Collins insists that the formal similarities which exist between Mark’s depiction of Jesus as the agent of God who comes to institute the fulfilment of God’s salvation. According to Collins, the Gospel of Mark is only secondarily interested in presenting Jesus as an ethical and paraenetical model. As Collins sees it, Mark is primarily “an apocalyptic historical monograph.” Collins finds antecedents for this apocalyptic perspective in the “Apocalypse of Weeks” in 1 Enoch, Daniel, the pesharim of the Qumran community, and the histories of Josephus. All these works share an “apocalyptic view of history,” the belief that “earthly events are controlled by heavenly powers.” (p. 21-2, my emphasis)
I return to Vines’ discussion of the apocalyptic theme in Mark at the end of this post, where he raises this aspect in his criticism of Tolbert’s analysis.
Vines agrees with Collins’ emphasis on the apocalyptic-historical character of Mark’s gospel. At the same time, however, he notes that it does not explain the narrative form of the gospel.
Thus 1 Enoch and Daniel 7-9 may find resonance in Mark 13, but nowhere else in the gospel. Vines sees Daniel 1-6 as seemingly coming closer to Mark’s narrative sequences, and Collins describes this section of Daniel as “historical romance or historical fiction.”

Second thoughts on the Gospel of Mark as parable/a new genre

Mary Ann Tolbert: Sowing the Gospel
Here I depart from outlining Vine’s summaries and base the following on my own reading of Sowing the Gospel, pages 55-59. Note that Mary Tolbert wrote this book before Richard Burridge published What Are the Gospels?, the starting base of this series of posts (see post dated 17th January 2011). Burridge does address some aspects of Tolbert’s arguments.
It is important for what follows that Tolbert has in her discussion of the definition of genre has earlier written:
If we understand genre as a repertoire of shared conventions that guides readers and writers, we immediately resolve two issues prevalent in earlier discussion of the Gospels’ genres. First, no unique genre can exist almost by definition, for as a set of agreed expectations , a genre that is unique would also be unfollowable. Second, genres, as opposed to institutionally prescribed “kinds,” are fluid patterns, capable of adopting and adapting aspects of earlier works:
New genres are formed from realignments of existing genres. . . . [quoting Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy, 162]
Thus, biography, memorabilia, and other related forms need to be studied for what they suggest about the conventions shared by the author and hearers of the Gospel of Mark. (p. 50, my bolding throughout)
No Grec0-Roman literature that can be described as similar to the gospels was written before the gospels. Tolbert points to three possible deductions to draw from this:
  1. The canonical gospels, especially Mark if it was the first, broke ground as a new literary genre;
  2. There was Greco-Roman literature similar to the gospels but it has been lost;
  3. The Gospels do resemble ancient texts but we fail to recognize this because they do so “in a debased or altered manner”, a result of their author’s lack of technical skills.
Discussions on the genre of the gospels generally fall narrow the above three options into 1 versus some combination of 2 and 3. The first option was more commonly embraced prior to Burridge’s work on the gospels as biographies. It is worth noting Tolbert’s summary criticism of it, however.
Tolbert attributes much of the preference for option 1 (Mark being a new literary genre) to “the theological temper of the post-World War 1 Christian world.
The unique, utterly unparalleled divine revelation in Jesus Christ, so fiercely and persuasively proclaimed by Karl Barth, could hardly be expressed by any previously existing, pagan literary forms, mutated or not. Rudolf Bultmann’s conclusion that the Gospels, as Christian kerygma expanded into narrative form, were distinctive Christian writings was a persuasive position in such a theological climate. Moreover, the development of the “New Hermeneutic” in the 1950s and 60s, following the philosophy of the later Heidegger that language was “the house of Being,” placed increased stress on the unique nature of Christian writings required to fit the unique nature of the Christian revelation in Jesus. However, without that theological impetus and with a clearer understanding of the sociological function of genre in providing the common ground necessary to make texts intelligible to readers, the assertion of a totally new, or unique, genre for the Christian Gospels has little to recommend it. (p.56)
One “somewhat covert” example of the claim that the Gospel of Mark was a new genre appeared in The Oral and Written Gospel by Werner Kelber. Kelber argued that Mark is a parable. Tolbert’s response:
While parables did exist in both Greek and Jewish writings of the time, neither culture supports any literary form longer than a brief illustrative story, riddle, oracle, allegory, or fable, and if characters are present at all, they are rarely named, historical, or specific. So, although parables are present in the historical milieu, to describe the genre of Mark as parable is not a recognizable historical use of the term.
Tolbert sees the interpretation of Mark as parable as “thoroughly comprehensible, perhaps even insightful, to contemporary theologians and students of the Bible who have already come to understand parable as a metaphor for Jesus’ message and life.
However, “parable” has come to have a metaphorical meaning in current theology for a paradoxical, open-ended, and participatory nature of the Christian message. It is this metaphorical use that is being drawn upon in calling the Gospel a parable, and it is an understandable designation in a theological situation where the distinctive revelation of Jesus Christ is seen as “parabolic.” . . .
In other words, Gospel as parable does fit the shared expectations of twentieth-century readers, and herein may rest the real crux of the matter.”
Modern readers are familiar with the terms kerygma and parable and so they find they are meaningful designations of the Gospel of Mark for them.
But Tolbert’s interest is not in modern readers’ expectations and understandings of the gospels, but in how the original audiences understood them. Tolbert refers to these as the “authorial audience” of the Gospel of Mark.
This means that the only options for consideration of Mark’s genre must be restricted to known Greco-Roman and Jewish forms.

Tolbert’s doubts about Mark as biography, aretalogy, memorabilia

So is Mark midrash (cf Goulder’s midrashic lectionary) or apocalypse (e.g. Perrin’s apocalyptic drama)?
Both may describe types of material in Mark, or a point of view, but neither term as a description of an ancient genre fits the text of Mark.
Aretalogy? — miracle working accounts of divine men may have existed prior to Mark, but no such complete text is known, and the term does not appear as a clear designation of such a group of texts;
Biography? — “its dominant and essential focus on the special character of the central figure seems to miss Mark’s interest in the various responses to Jesus of the disciples, Jews, and crowds.”
Memorabilia? –Vernon Robbins has argued for Mark being ‘memorabilia’ (apomnemoneumata) in Jesus the Teacher: Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates is the sole surviving ancient example: it focuses mainly on the adult life and death of the hero famed as a teacher of wisdom, and emphasizes the relationship of this sage to his disciples through teaching and deeds. The Amazon link opens up access on pages 60 to 67 to notices of other pre Markan instances of this genre (Lynceus, Stilpo, Zeon, Dioscurides, Empodus, and a near Markan contemporary, Favorinus) and also of examples of early Christians sometimes speaking of the Gospels as “memorabilia” (Justin, Tatian, Eusebius).
Tolbert has “two basic objections” to all of the above being assigned to Mark as its genre:
  1. While each of them cover some aspects of the gospel, they necessarily omit or give insufficient attention to other parts. Tolbert even suggests that if one could combine aretalogy, biography and memorabilia into one then one comes close to covering the whole of Mark’s characteristics.
  2. The surviving examples of all three of these genres are far superior to Mark’s gospel in terms of literary and philosophical sophistication. The difference between Mark and Xenophon’s Memorabilia, for example, is as stark as night from day.
Back to Vines’ summary of Tolbert’s discussion of genre

I would like to discuss Tolbert’s discussion myself in some depth in the future, but till then I will return to Vine’s synopsis of her argument that Mark is best seen as a popular narrative.
Tolbert is interested in understanding the original readers’ experience of Mark, or more correctly, the “implied reader” or “authorial audience”.
Tolbert attempts to understand a “typical” reader in the social environment of the first century Mediterranean world, and to compare Mark’s gospel with other popular literature at the same time and place.
1. Social setting of the implied reader
  • increased mobility and a shared culture and exchange of ideas and beliefs throughout the Mediterranean made possible by
    • a common language (Koine Greek)
    • a standardized approach to education (rhetoric)
  • breakdown of traditional social structures occasioned by
    • imperial intrusion upon local identities and practices
Governed by a foreign power and increasingly under the influence of alien ideas and practices, the identity of the individual, traditionally rooted in clan and polis, began to erode. The cumulative effect was a heightened sense of alienation and anxiety among the inhabitants of the Roman Empire.
Neither Vines nor Tolbert makes this suggestion, but if one places Mark’s gospel after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce one can find a more trenchant situation of a traumatic loss of identity among tens of thousands of Jews; and if one factors in various Jewish rebellions and massacres around the eastern Mediterranean in the wake of this even, and the devastating plagues that periodically swept through the empire we have a terrible mix that cannot have done much to assist the holding together of longstanding collective identities. I have often suspected these situations in the decades post 70 ce must have had a profound effect on the shapes and holds of Christianity.
2. Comparison with contemporary narrative literature
  • Tolbert sees the closest fit to Mark is popular narrative; two examples roughly contemporary with Mark are An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon of Ephesus and Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton. These novels
    • reflect a similar popular style
    • a common myth — that is, “the Hellenistic myth of the isolated individual in a dangerous world.”
    • a common heritage
    • a common conventionalized style
Tolbert does not propose that Mark is a Greek novel. She only suggests that the same general tendencies that influenced the Greek novels may also have influenced Mark and its audience. The connection between Mark and the Greek novel is most apparent in the “rhetorical, stylistic, and linguistic similarities” that they share.
Mark’s popular and unsophisticated Greek and fast-moving narrative style are closer to popular novels than they are to biography.
Vines thus sees Tolbert’s evidence as sufficient to establish Mark as an example of popular Hellenistic literature. But popular narrative is too broad a category to be seen as a genre.
(Lawrence Wills in The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World has suggested that Tolbert could have strengthened her argument had she appealed to examples of popular narrative even lower down the social scale, such as Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance.)

Vines responds to Tolbert: a comparison with Jewish literature

Mark may share the same social environment with the popular romances, but it does not respond to it in the same way.
Compare the response to the myth of the “isolated individual in a dangerous world”:
  • Greek popular novels focussed on the plight of the alienated individuals.
    • Jewish and Christian literature responded in a way that upheld a central concern for the large community. A central figure may be spotlighted by the novel, but the community concern is always strong at the same time.
  • Greek romances found solace from isolation and alienation in romantic love and devotion to the gods. To overcome their despair, the characters find comfort in romantic love for one another and in regular prayers to the gods and in waiting patiently for their fortunes to change in a hostile world.
    • Jewish and Christian literature the isolated individuals (and community) are expecting deliverance and vindication “now”, and they cry out to God for it and live in constant expectation of it.
Thus Tolbert comes closer to capturing the essence of Mark’s Gospel when she describes it as an “apocalyptic message in a popular narrative framework.” It is the apocalyptic perspective that makes Mark’s story qualitatively different from the Greek novel. In Mark, salvation comes for the “isolated and alienated individual,” not as romantic love, but as divinely inaugurated deliverance. (p. 21)
Vines thus argues that the cultural difference between the Greco-Roman and the Jewish/Christian literature is wider than Tolbert seems to allow.
Mark may reflect a style that was popular among a broad segment of that ancient society, but its ideological interests were not the same. Tolbert can place Mark within a broad category of popular literature, but falls short of explaining its form and function.
Tolbert, like Burridge, offers us studies at a “high level of generality” but do “not resolve questions about the gospel’s generic influences.”

Vines’ Conclusion — and the need for explaining the apocalyptic in Mark

  1. Mark can only at most be said to be loosely related to Greco-Roman biography
  2. Mark’s syntax and style suggest it is some form of popular literature
  3. Any explanation of Mark’s genre must account for its apocalyptic understanding of history
An apocalyptic sense of time and an awareness of divine purpose are at the very center of Mark’s Gospel. This apocalyptic perspective makes it much more likely that we will find a generic match for the gospel within Jewish, rather than Greco-Roman, literature. (p. 22)
One reason I am sometimes wary about attributing to Mark too much in the way of pioneering genius and largely unappreciated literary sophistication beneath the surface of his apparent crudities is the likelihood that his audience was “popular”. One does not expect to find the work of a history-shaking genius circulating amongst such an audience. Maybe Mark’s audience was not of the “lowest popular denomination”. But if not, would we not be increasing the difficulties of explaining his syntax and style?
I think it is reasonable to lean towards an explanation that allows for a “common” author rather than a genius if that option is available.


The First Gospel was a Jewish Novel?

by Neil Godfrey

Though most scholars of the gospels appear to regard the gospels as a form of ancient biographies of Jesus, there are a number who continue to doubt that “biography” really does describe their genre. One of these is Michael E. Vines, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lees-McRae College, North Carolina, who wrote The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel.
In order to know how to interpret and understand a literary work it is important to understand its genre and the conventions associated with that genre. A work will expect to be read in a certain way according to its genre, whether it is a biography, history, historical novel, romance novel, epic, tragedy, satire, etc.
I outline here in gossamer thin dot points some of Vines’ reasons for reading the Gospel of Mark as a Jewish novel rather than as another ancient biography. Much of Vines’ book is a discussion of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin‘s analysis of what constitutes a literary genre. That is (for me at least) a fascinating study that I would love to explore in greater depth and one that I will probably post on in future discussions of Gospel (especially the Gospel of Mark’s) genre. So what follows cannot possibly be a communication of a full grasp of Vines’ understanding of the genre of the Gospel of Mark. But I will try to present salient points without denying some justice to both Vines’ and Bakhtin’s analysis.
I have only now completed reading Vines’ book so have not yet had time to digest it and compare its propositions with alternative perspectives. So what I give here is Vines “in the raw”. I expect in relatively short time I will see some details slightly differently.

What indicates a particular genre?

Vines draws on Bakhtin to argue
that genre is primarily about how an author shapes time and space in conversation with preceding works of literature. (p. 153)
That is very abstract. So think of movie setting for a western. The viewer is told that she is taken back to a time only a few generations before now as she is presented with images of Arizona landscapes and a frontier town. This conjunction of time and space informs her of the story values to expect: the rule of the gun, the wild west, lawlessness, danger.
Or more personally (and this may capture the idea better) imagine yourself returning to the town and house that still enshrines your earliest memories as a very young child. Imagine that house is still standing and you are there in the same street where you once walked as a young child and looking at it once again. All the memories of the values which were everyone’s values then and there (time and place) come rushing back to you. The patriarch, the seasonal celebrations, the childhood-lore, the community. . . . It is that conjunction of time and place that bring back all those nostalgic memories of what life was like back then (time) and there (place).
That coming together of a particular time and place to conjure up a clear expectation of certain values and ideas is what is technically known as a “chronotope”. This is the English rendering of Bakhtin’s хронотопа or khronotopa. Einstein had spoken of a time-space concept in another context and Bakhtin applied the duality to imaginative literary creations. There is a Literary Encyclopedia definition here, and a Wikipedia one here.
And chronotope, says Bakhtin (through Vines), is the essence of a literary genre. Formal similarities such as the topic, the linguistic style, the theme, characterization, etc. are not the defining attributes of genre. Such formal similarities may be coincidental across different genres. What distinguishes one genre from another is the value-world grounded in the type of time-place setting a literary work, and how this is associated with other works of a similar chronotope.
A particular chronotope creates a field of activity for the hero that is different from the possibilities that might exist in another chronotope.
This is the briefest of sketches. I won’t attempt here to develop this concept further. The key point for this post is that Vines proposes
that the chronotope of the Gospel of Mark most closely resembles that of the Jewish novels. This is not to deny other influences on the composition of the gospel. It does mean, however, that the Gospel of Mark shares its most important literary relationship with the Jewish novels rather than some other type of Greco-Roman literature. (p. 153)
Following are the values elicited by the time-place setting of Mark and that compare with those of Jewish novels.
Jewish novels include titles like:
  • the Greek Daniel (longer than the Hebrew/Aramaic version)
  • Tobit
  • Greek Esther
  • Judith
  • Joseph and Aseneth
After discussing each of these Vines concludes of the key indicator of their genre, their “chronotope”, that is the values associated the particular time-space of the novel:
The chronotope of the Jewish novel reflects a world open to divine intervention. Nevertheless, direct divine intervention is rare. God more often acts by sending a faithful and pious emissary. In the Jewish novel divine deliverance is characteristically accomplished by means of weakness, or passive obedience. Women representatives, like Esther and Judith, achieve victory on God’s behalf in spite of their inferior position as women in a patriarchal culture. Men like Daniel are passive in the face of opposition. These pious heroes risk their lives in obedience to God’s call. Their complete dependence upon God only serves to add greater emphasis to God’s unassailable sovereignty and power. (p. 152, my emphasis)
The time setting of Jewish novels is a time of crisis.
The space setting of Jewish novels is a hostile and ironic space.
Within this chronotope, human and divine interests overlap, yet, for most part, God refrains from acting directly in human affairs. Instead, God brings about the salvation of the Jewish people, not through overwhelming divine force, but through the faithfulness and vulnerability of a single individual. The expectation of imminent divine intervention that these heroes embody, in turn, creates a story-world filled with surprising reversals and topsy-turvy values. The sovereignty of God undermines all human authority and manifests itself in unexpected ways for those who trust in God’s deliverance. In this sense, the Jewish novels possess an awareness of the immediacy of divine sovereignty similar to that of apocalyptic literature. God can and will break into human time and space to assert the divine will and save those loyal to God’s kingdom. However, unlike more overtly apocalyptic works, the time and space of a Jewish novel is realistic, and thus we might characterize the chronotope of the Jewish novel as realistic-apocalyptic: the anticipation of divine deliverance and the actualization of divine sovereignty within a realistic time and space. (my bold and underlining)

How all this compares with the Gospel of Mark:

1. Time and place are permeated by an expectation of divine deliverance

Jewish novels of the Hellenistic era were characterized by the expectation that God would deliver the hero through some (apparently very humanly weak) human agency.
As with the Jewish novels God remains in the background, with only occasional intrusions into the story.

2. The “novelistic” perspective of past glory and future hope

The Jewish novels, like Mark’s gospel, were products of cultural instability. The setting of the Jewish novels was wedged between a time of past Jewish glory and hope for a new time when God would once again make them great. The Gospel of Mark opens with ancient prophecies that spoke of a restoration of the kingdom of God. The disciples are anticipating an overthrow of the Romans and establishment of the messianic kingdom soon after Jesus enters Jerusalem, and Jesus himself prophesies of a future return when he will judge the earth.

3. Response to this “in between” time is to focus on present concerns

The Jewish novel does not nostalgically long for the past glory of the Davidic or Solomonic kingdom, nor do its characters pine away waiting for the time of future restoration. Rather, the plot is always centred upon the troubles of the here and now threats to the Jewish people or heroes. Mark’s Jesus likewise gives his primary attention to those who need his healing or feeding or deliverance from demons now. In Jesus the kingdom of God is not a distant hope but “at hand”, here now, between the past glory and the future hope.

4. God is at the centre of the plot with a benevolent plan for those who serve him

This is one area where the Jewish novels are decidedly at variance with their Greco-Roman counterparts. The deities in the latter often act arbitrarily or whimsically. In the Jewish novel time-space God acts with favour towards those who obey him, and he does so through human agents. Through Jesus the reader sees that God’s will is all pervasive and always benevolent to his servant.
God works his benevolent will through the quiet obedience of Jesus to God. There are no dramatic displays of God’s power for all to witness, yet the presence of God is ever present throughout the Gospel through the quiet service of Jesus.

5. The presence and power of God is displayed through the human agency of Jesus

God’s presence pervades the gospel, but the presence is rarely overt. For most part it is channeled through Jesus who uses it to serve and help, never to over-awe people into obedience. Jesus comes to serve, and it is through his service and sacrifice that God will deliver salvation to all and victory over all who oppose God.

6. The progression of events in the Gospel is controlled by divine necessity, not chronological or biographical concerns

Historical or biographical concerns do not enter the story-world of Mark. Rather, this world fuelled by divine significance and concerns. The time-setting of the Gospel world is between the time of the Propthets and the anticipated time of the fulfilment of the Prophets. The gospel begins with the announcement that “time is at fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand”. So God in this time is in the process of working out a great victory for the inauguration of the kingdom.
The time of the story world is thus a time of repentance and choosing before it is too late. It is God’s actions that govern the time of the gospel.

7. God’s people face a crisis of decision

In Jewish novels foreign leaders create crisis moments for the people of God by demanding obedience that would mean turning their backs on God. Similarly in Mark the people must decide if they will follow Jesus or the religious leaders and religious traditions.

8. Dialogic interaction expresses the different sides of the conflict

In Jewish novels the heroes debate the superiority of God and benefits of God’s laws over the alternatives they are being pressured to accept. So also in the Gospel of Mark Jesus and his opponents are used to present the issues through dialogue.
This dialogic juxtaposition of ideas is the primary manifestation of the gospel’s “novelistic” character. (p. 156)

9. A world of conflict as the organizing principle of the gospel narrative

From the moment Jesus announces the kingdom he is met with opposing forces from demons and authorities. He addresses this fact by speaking of the need to bind the strong man so he can continue to liberate those bound by the demonic forces. In Mark’s story-world people are oppressed by both demons and religious leaders who become enemies of God and of Jesus.

10. In the chronotope of crisis and expectation the hero wins through his weakness and vulnerability

Heroes in Jewish novels don’t win because of their own great feats of strength or cunning, but as submissive conduits of divine intervention.
In the Jewish novel only God can save. The hero cannot be allowed to distract from God’s greatness.
Jesus is this sort of hero. He belongs to no great family and has no respected position in society. His followers are, like him, itinerant laymen. He associates with the marginal groups of society. For such reasons the authorities see him as a threat, even though his ways bring glory to God and not himself. His final act of salvation (or his act of allowing God’s salvation to work) is through his own self-renunciation and being abandoned by all. He wins by placing complete trust in God as he lays down his life.

11. Mark is set in a realistic historical time, unlike Jewish novels that are set in pseudo-historical time (?)

Here Mark departs from the Jewish novel chronotope, according to Vines. This is a significant change. He thus “concretizes” the victorious conclusion of the gospel — the inauguration of the new age of salvation.
Greco-Roman novels conclude by a restoration of the correct order of things as they should have been from the beginning. Jewish novels conclude with a reversal of the status quo. Enemy powers fall and the humble are exalted. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus not only heals the sick, but in the end he establishes a new age of eschatological salvation.
I am not so sure Mark does set his story in realistic historic time. The characters such as the Pharisees and even Pilate are not their historical counterparts but unrealistic distortions for narrative purposes. The setting in Galilee derives from the Isaiah prophecy of the great light appearing in the land of “Galilee of the gentiles/nations”. The itinerary of Jesus make little realistic sense. Names, both personal and topographic, are chosen for their values as puns appropriate to the miracles Jesus performs in their presence (e.g. Bethphage, place of figs, where he curses the fig tree; Jairus, meaning “awakens”, the father of the girl awakened from sleep/death). The anachronisms of Pharisees and synagogues sprinkling the land of Galilee also point to a pseudo-historical time.
But to the extent that there was nonetheless a genuine attempt to link the death of Jesus with a real historical event (the fall of Jerusalem — Mark 13), the story did take on a powerful meaning among its earliest readers. The inauguration of the age of salvation, the kingdom of God, was seen as a reality that did begin with the death of Jesus and was demonstrated to have replaced the old economy by the events of 70. The fall of the old order was thus supplied with an explanation that simultaneously buttressed faith in its spiritual replacement.
(The association of Jesus’ death with the fall of Jerusalem might also be seen as an indicator that the Gospel was not composed until some time after a contrary belief had gained some currency — that Jerusalem fell because of the murder of James.)

12. Another difference? Attitude towards Jewish piety

Jewish novels extolled the value of traditional Jewish piety. The heroes are godly heroes because of their devotion to the Mosaic customs. Jesus, however, raises challenges to this by his acts of healing on the sabbath and the controversies he generates over legal observances.
Mark’s gospel portrays Jesus as challenging the “highmindedness” of legal observances and focussing himself on the immediate needs of everyday reality.
In this respect Mark’s Jesus follows the convention of a certain type of Greco-Roman satire that challenged the irrelevant and pompous philosophical preoccupations of the upper classes and upheld the superiority of the everyday wisdom of the common person. Abstractions were lampooned and the value of attending to immediate reality was lauded.
In this respect, then, the Gospel of Mark subverts one of the main features of the Jewish novel. (p. 159)


Both the Jewish novel and the Gospel of Mark are “engaged in a similar conversation about the nature of the divine presence and action in the midst of crisis.” For Bakhtin, it is the conversation of literature with the literature that has gone before that serves to identify a works identification with a particular genre. (Formal similarities can be entirely coincidental.)
Both Mark and the Jewish novels are convinced of God’s willingness and power to save those who trust him. But Mark differs in his view of the nature of the crisis. For Mark it is not a foreign power that is the problem, but the religious leaders and their misguided piety. The irony (subversion) here is that it is this piety that is normally considered the strength of the heroes in Jewish novels.
There are other differences from the Jewish novel:
  • the episodic structure of chapters 1-10 is uncharacteristic of Jewish novels
  • the significant amount of chreia and anecdote is unlike the Jewish novels
But these are superficial differences, says Vines. (One can see these features in other types of genre from which Mark has borrowed, but such formal characteristics do not define a genre, according to Bakhtin.)
What establishes a generic connection between Mark and the Jewish novel is their use of realistic-apocalyptic chronotope. Mark and the Jewish novel create narrative worlds characterized by a conflict between divine and human sovereignty. God’s response to this conflict is immediate and dramatic. By means of vulnerable human agents, God’s sovereign authority is reestablished. . . . Considered chronotopically, the Gospel of Mark is a story of divine deliverance accomplished through human agency, set in an eschatologically charged time. (p. 159-60)
Thanks to Gilgamesh and M. W. Nordbakke for alerting me to Vines’ book in earlier comments on this blog. Sorry JW — still to address full on the Greek tragedy option.


How many stories in the gospels are “purely metaphorical”?

by Neil Godfrey

Dale Allison concludes his book Constructing Jesus with a discussion of the intent of the gospel authors. Did the gospel authors themselves think that they were writing real history or did they think they were writing metaphorical narratives, parables or allegories?
Allison refers to Marcus Borg and others (e.g. Robert Gundry, John Dominic Crossan, Robert J. Miller, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, John Shelby Spong, Roger David Aus) who have gone beyond their scholarly predecessors for whom the question was, “They thought they wrote history but can we believe them?”, to “Did they think they were writing something other than history and have we misunderstood them?”
They are not claiming that we must, because of modern knowledge, reinterpret the old texts in new ways, against their authors’ original intentions. They are instead contending that the texts were not intended to be understood literally in the first place. (p. 438)
I would love to read the books Allison cites but till then will have to rely here on his brief remarks.
Of O’Connor, Allison informs readers that he reasons that Luke’s two accounts of the ascension of Jesus are different because Luke did not think he was writing history (The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (4th ed., 1998)).
Here is how Luke wrote of the ascension at the conclusion of his Gospel (Luke 24). The event is said to have happened on the same day Jesus was resurrected. I have also highlighted some of the places where the two accounts most obviously differ.
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Here is his account in Acts 1
3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with[a] water, but in a few days you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
I have covered in recent posts a few of Spong’s explanations for specific narratives as being based on a “midrashic” or literary borrowing of Old Testament texts.
Allison quotes Crossan where he writes:
When I looked at the so-called nature miracles of Jesus [i.e. walking on water, stilling the storm], . . . . those stories screamed parable at me, not history, not miracle, but parable. They shouted at me: “It’s a parable, dummy.” They were never intended to be about a miraculous walking on the water, a miraculous stilling of the storm, or a miraculous catch of fishes. They were not historical stories about Jesus’ power over natural forces, but parabolic stories about Jesus’ power over community leaders. With him they could do anything and get anywhere; without him they could do nothing and get nowhere. . . . When Jesus wanted to say something very important about God he went into parable; when the early church wanted to say something very important about Jesus they too went into parable. It seemed to me terribly obvious: the more important the subject, the more necessary the parable. (Crossan, Long Way from Tipperary, 167-8; p. 438 in Allison, my emphasis)
Does not one wonder about the relative importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Was not this something with which believers were meant to identify themselves and live now as citizens in the kingdom of heaven? Does not the crucifixion and resurrection scene also “scream parable” for some of us? After all, we know all the historical implausibilities associated with the trial etc, the literary borrowings, the trappings of the fantastic tied to the narrative.
Is not the death and resurrection of a Son of God as much a “nature miracle” as stilling a storm or walking on water?
Back to Allison. He then quotes Aus who speaks of haggidah as Spong speaks of midrash. Particularly interesting is that Aus is quoted as making a similar lament as I noted in earlier blog posts: that it was the church’s departure from its Jewish roots that led to the misinterpretation of the gospels as literal history.
It is one of the tragedies of the Christian church that the number of the Palestinian Jewish members dwindled so rapidly after the very successful missionizing of the Gentiles. The latter soon made the former into small sects such as the Palestinian Ebionites. Early Palestinian and later even Hellenistic Jewish Christians, however, could have conveyed to Gentile Christians the nature of Jewish haggadah, and the centuries-old Gentile Christian debate about the “historicity” or “facticity” of haggadic sayings or narratives [in the canonical Gospels] would have been basically unnecessary. (Quoted from The Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus, and the Death, Burial, and Translation of Moses in Judaic Tradition, 2008).
Allison further quotes Aus as explaining that the question of historicity of the gospel narratives (or the narratives in their pre-gospel forms)
was simply not asked by the first Palestinian Jewish Christian hearers of the incidents before they entered the Gospels. Instead, they greatly appreciated the respective narrator’s creative abilities in reshaping traditions already known to them in order to express a religious truth (or truths) about Jesus, their Lord, the Messiah of Israel. (pp. 297-8 of The Death, cited in Allison p. 439)
Allison does not cite Thomas L. Thompson, but this is very much the argument expressed in The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. This book extends the discussion begun of Old Testament narratives in The Mythic Past. It is very similar to the views of Spong who learned (and adapted) them from Michael Goulder. The metaphor of the dividing of the waters at creation to bring forth new life was reiterated in the narrative of the Flood that brought new life from the death of the old, and again in the Exodus and Red Sea crossing that saw the birth of Israel as the people of God after they had been “dead” in Egypt, and again in the narrative of Joshua’s crossing the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, and again in the departure of Elijah and the initiation of Elisha, and again in the baptism of Jesus and the rending of the heavens and the arrival of the new era of salvation as foretold by the Prophets, and again in the walking on the water. One sees such reiterations again in Jesus’ healing and other miracle stories that echo the same performed by Elijah and Elisha. And so forth.
So the question that arises is, of course, “how does one determine which narratives are wholly metaphorical and which are not?” (p. 439)

Which are wholly metaphorical and which are not?

Note Allison’s slipping in of that word “wholly”. This is understandable. If the nature miracles are wholly metaphorical, we hardly want to say the same of the healing miracles or else there would not be much left at all of the acts of the Gospel Jesus.
But Thompson (not discussed by Allison here) sees it differently. Remove the miraculous from any of the miracle stories and you are not left with a historical event: you are only left with a ruined story robbed of its whole point. Remember Douglas Adams: If you take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you get is a non-working cat. Well, maybe it’s not quite the line I want, but the general idea is there somewhere.
Allison says Borg suggests two criteria by which one might detect “purely metaphorical narratives” in the canonical Gospels. I take the wording from Mark Allan Powell’s review of Spong’s midrashic idea where he also discusses Borg’s criteria from a title of Borg’s different from Allison’s source:
  1. Sometimes a story just doesn’t “look as if it is reporting something that happened”, perhaps because it is overly rich in “symbolic motifs drawn from the Hebrew Bible”.
  2. Narratives may be deemed exclusively metaphorical when they stretch “the limits of the spectacular” and report “things that never happened anywhere”.
Powell quotes Borg explaining these:
I think Jesus really did perform paranormal healings and that they cannot simply be explained in psychosomatic terms. I am even willing to consider that spectacular phenomena such as levitation perhaps happen. But do virgin births, multiplying loaves and fishes, and changing water into wine ever happen anywhere? If I become persuaded that they do then I would entertain the possibility that the stories about Jesus reporting such events also contain history remembered. But what I cannot do as a historian is to say that Jesus could do such things even though nobody else has ever been able to. Thus I regard these as purely metaphorical tales. (Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, p. 47)
Powell sees #1 as dubious but #2 as “decisive”.
Here is Allison’s wording of Borg’s criteria (p. 440):
  1. We may deem a story [metaphorical] when so-called mainstream scholars no longer find a historical event behind it;
  2. A narrative may “look like” it “belongs to the literary genre of metaphorical or symbolic narrative.”
Allison’s judgement is that “neither criterion is of use.”
But Allison also offers an extract from Borg by way of explanation with a discussion of the infancy narratives:
Angels abound. In Matthew, they speak frequently to Joseph in dreams. In Luke, the angel Gabriel speaks to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer, and then goes to Nazareth to speak to Mary. Another angel speaks to the shepherds and is then joined by a host of angels singing in the night sky. Characters burst into memorable hymns. A special star moves through the sky leading wise men from the East to the place of Jesus’ birth. In both, there is a divine conception. When we find features like these in a story, we commonly conclude that its literary genre is not a literal-factual report, but a metaphorical or symbolic narrative. (Borg, Uncovering the Life, p. 67)
Allison then proceeds to discuss authorial intent as understood through literary genre. He concurs with the view that the gospels ar biographies and that authorial intent would therefore normally be expected to be to relate historical events. But I will not cover Allison’s views here in this post. I expect to cover them again when I return to posts on gospel genre. (My most recent one was a consideration of the genre of Mark as a Jewish novel.)

Why stop at the beginning of the tale, or its middle?

The above points raise for me the following questions:
Do the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke indicate that their narratives of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms are to be understood as anything more “factual/historical” than their narratives of the virgin birth?
If not, and if we find reasons to think the authors understood they were writing symbolic narratives (or narratives that originated as symbolic creations) in one, on what grounds do we justify thinking they shifted gears with the healing miracles?
Do not the healing miracles in Mark “scream parable”, too? That miracle in which Jesus needed two attempts to heal the blind man is surely symbolic of the doubled efforts of Jesus to impart spiritual insight to his disciples through the double miracle of the feeding of the multitudes. There was one feeding of 5000 and another of 4000. This is not a clumsy redactional double-up. The second miracle begins with the narrator explaining that Jesus was faced “again” with a similar situation (8:1).
The healing of blind Bartimaeus in response to his “seeing” who Jesus really was is surely symbolic, too.
Remember Adams, or Thompson. Take away the miraculous and we are left with some pretty banal deeds of Jesus. He becomes just like any other charismatic faith-healer. Isn’t the point of the gospel narrative to show how unique Jesus was, how unlike any other charismatic faith-healer he was?
If so, then are not the miraculous healings just as parabolic as the virgin birth narratives?
What grounds do we have for seeing historicity in one and not the other?
And then there is the greatest nature miracle of all, though it is not normally called a nature miracle – the raising of the dead.
To depart again from Allison here, Spong is unequivocal. The three resurrection narratives in the gospels are “midrashic” or symbolic tales.
  1. The raising of Jairus’ daughter
  2. The raising of the son of the widow of Nain
  3. The raising of Lazarus
The first is drawn from Elisha’s raising of the Shunammite woman’s son. See comparisons and discussion on my vridar.info notes. Spong observes even additional points of contact between the stories than I have listed there, such as the fact that in both cases the one requesting the healing had to travel some distance to find Elisha/Jesus who was walking that way, and that there were delays in each case before their arrival.
The raising of the widow’s son is drawn from the raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath by Elijah. I will outline the points of contact here in a future post.
The raising of Lazarus in John’s gospel is drawn from Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and has many details that resonate the details of Jesus’ own burial and resurrection. Again, will discuss details in another post.
The symbolic meaning is made explicit in John’s Gospel. The whole point of the miracle was to symbolize that Jesus is the power of life and gives (spiritual/eternal) life to all.
So why stop at these three miracles?
Why not follow where this argument must inevitably lead — to the cross and empty tomb of Jesus himself?
We don’t have angels singing at the moment of a virgin birth, but we do have the sun going black at noon at the time of a full moon, the tearing of the temple veil from top to bottom, in Matthew even the earthquake and zombies (saintly ones) climbing out of their graves and terrorizing (unintentionally) the city by walking through its streets. We have all the details cut and paste from Psalms and Isaiah. And a fundamental point of the crucifixion was the same as the deaths of Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son and of Lazarus, and that was to demonstrate the power of Jesus over death be restoring to life.
Surely by any standard that is as much a “nature miracle” as a virgin birth!
I agree with where the thoughts of Borg, Crossan, Spong et al are going.
I am reminded of my days discussing the Bible doctrine with some mainstream Church of Christ ministers or preachers and such after I left a fundamentalist religious cult. I recall telling them that I had learned to question so much, and I was sharing my questions with them, but I assured them that one thing I would never question was that the Bible was the word of God. Something must have happened along the way that made me ask myself why I was willing to question so much but then to stop at that point.
Later I found others who questioned as much as I had, but they had stopped short of questioning God, too. That was the last line where questioning stopped.
If we have valid reasons for understanding that the gospel authors understood knew they were writing symbolic narratives about the birth of Jesus, why we do stop at his death and resurrection? That’s a misleading question. Many do understand the resurrection as a symbolic narrative. But that only leaves that death bit of the equation screaming “parable” all the more loudly for being the only bit missed out.


Historical Imitations and Reversals in Ancient Novels — and the Gospels?

by Neil Godfrey

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, but doesn’t quite quack like a duck, then maybe it is not a duck. Just because we see one or even a few features in the gospels that we recognize from historical or biographical writings, we cannot assume that the gospels are therefore history or biography. Formal features can be easily copied from one genre and applied to another.
Mere formalities of style — word-choice, content, syntax — that appear to be trademarks of one particular genre can and often are copied and re-used in other genres for special effects.
There can be no such thing as a completely new genre emerging on the scene. No-one would know how to understand any such beast. New genres emerge through borrowing one or two elements at a time from other genres and repackaging them into another genre so they convey new meanings.
To understand the gospels it is a good idea to have a reasonable grasp of the wider literary world of the gospels. How else can we evaluate a study that purports to argue that the gospels are “ancient biographies” by means of drawing attention to certain formal features in common? I suggest the reason Burridge’s Are the Gospels Really Biography has apparently won widespread acceptance among biblical scholars is that relatively few such scholars have given much time to studying ancient literature. What accord hath Christ with Belial?
This post looks at how ancient Greek novels — fictional narratives — borrowed some of the literary formalities of well-known works of history. It is worth keeping such examples in mind whenever one encounters arguments that the gospels themselves are some form of history on account of similar formal resonances with non-fiction literature of the day.
As in the preceding posts, much of the following draws upon Cueva’s The Myths of Fiction, although Cueva does not himself discuss biblical literature at all. Those comparisons here are mine alone.
I look at three novels from the early to mid second century. I believe a reasonable case can be made for dating the composition of our canonical gospels to the same era, and have discussed several studies that specifically set Luke in this period. Even the date of Mark to around 70 is based more on theological  modeling than tangible external controls.
I wrote a few posts ago that our earliest Greek novelist mimicked the opening lines of well known historians when he opened the story of Chaereas and Callirhoe. To recap those —

Chariton‘s opening sentence in Chaereas and Callirhoe:

My name is Chariton, son of Aphrodisias, and I am clerk to the attorney Athenagoras. I am going to tell you the story of the love affair that took place in Syracuse.
This introductory line follows the “my name is X and I am from Y and I am going to write about X” formula that was well known from the opening lines of two of the most influential Greek historians of this period, Herodotus and Thucydides.
These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.
Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.
Edmund Cueva in The Myths of Fiction follows Tomas Hägg in suggesting that Chariton is consciously preparing his readers to find historical characters and events in the fictional work. And as discussed recently, this novels is filled with historical characters and historical events themselves have a “tremendous effect on the behavior of the characters.” I have discussed this in more detail in a recent post so won’t repeat it here.
In this way Chariton imitates the classical historians in technique, not for the purpose of masquerading as a professional historian, but rather, as Hagg (1987, 197) suggests, to create the “effect of openly mixing fictitious characters and events with historical ones.” (p. 16)

Xenophon’s opening line of Ephesian Tale

The next novelist who appears to have written soon after Chariton is known as Xenophon. We are familiar with the Greek historian named Xenophon, but would not expect the novelist to be using this as a pen-name without some reason. Well, it may be coincidence, or it may be a clue, but the opening line of his novel, An Ephesian Tale (Ephesiaca) follows the same pattern as does the historian’s namesake’s work, Anabasis 1.1.1
Darius and Parysatis had two sons born to them, of whom the elder was Artaxerxes and the younger Cyrus.
Unlike Herodotus and Thucydides Xenophon does not open with his own name, etc. but rather introduces the name and family of his subject. Compare, then, “Xenophon’s” opening line in An Ephesian Tale:
Among the most influential citizens of Ephesus was a man called Lycomedes. He and his wife, Themisto, who also belonged to the city, had a son Habrocomes.

History in Xenophon’s novel

Unlike the setting of Chariton’s novel that of Xenophon’s is set in a quite recent time. There are fewer specifically historical characters and events, too.
This is in keeping with the trend, discussed by Cueva in The Myths of Fiction, for novels to take on a stronger mythical flavour as they lessened the amount of historiographical elements in their works. This may have significance if we think of the gospels as being composed within the time of the earliest novels, since it was the earlier stages of their development where we see a heavier use of historical characters and settings.
Xenophon’s novel refers to the office of an eirenarch, an office that we know was not instituted until the time of Hadrian in the early second century. So Xenophon’s novel does have a relatively recent historical setting.

Longus’s introduction to Daphnis and Chloe

Longus was writing later in the second century, and composed a very erudite novel for a presumably equally learned audience. The novel is a pastoral-fantasy tale of a young couple, in particular the girl Chloe, being “metamorphosed” into sexual maturity. A series of quaint origin myths or etiologies are associated with each stage of the story, and these are meant to be read as parables or metaphors through which the story of Daphnis and Chloe is to be understood. More than this, even, Longus explains at the outset that the novel is to instruct readers in an understanding of human life.
But the focus of this post is on the novelist’s use of historiographical conventions.
Longus toyed with the famous discussion by Thucydides about historical method. Thucydides opening paragraphs of The Peloponnesian War are technically known as the archaeologia.
This archaeologia of Thucydides discusses the pre-history or very early historical course of Greece, but mainly as a means for Thucydides to explain his approach to historical writing. He insists on writing only that which can be known from eyewitnesses and investigating the reports of other eyewitnesses.
Thucydides therefore says he will not include “romance” or myth in his contemporary history, but only observable facts as far as he can assess them through conflicting reports.
He apologizes for the absence of enjoyment readers may suffer by reading his work because it omits the element of romance. But he justifies his approach by saying that what he will produce will be something of value for mankind for all time. It will be a means by which they can understand their own future by understanding the past.
The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time. 1.22.4
Longus the novelist takes up and partly reverses, partly imitates, these points discussed by Thucydides. What prompts Longus to write his story is not a historical event in the real world, but a picture of an idyllic pastoral scene. Upon this imaginary world Longus will seek to exercise his interpretative powers to create a story that will enable his readers to understand life, and to enjoy the experience of reading at the same time. He will fill his tale with the romance so deliberately eschewed by Thucydides. (Thucydides was very likely attacking his predecessor Herodotus by this complaint, and Longus is surely siding here with Herodotus himself.)
But the main point of Longus is his assurance that he wishes to create with his novel a possession that will be of lasting benefit to mankind. This, of course, recalls Thucydides’ intention for his work of history. From this work of fiction Longus expects readers to understand more of themselves and what to expect in the course of life, and to understand it better when it does happen.
I searched out an interpreter of the picture and produced the four volumes of this book, as an offering to Love, the Nymphs, and Pan, and something for mankind to possess and enjoy. [The Greek words in this phrase echo Thucydides, although “enjoy” was a negative trait for the historian.] It will cure the sick, comfort the distressed, sir the memory of those who have loved, and educate those who haven’t.
Longus reverses Thucydides historical structure, too. Thucydides began with brief introductory background to what was a mythical history of Greece, and from there launches into the main work that he considers to be of real worth, the true history of his own time based on what he and others he has met have seen for themselves.. Longus, on the other hand, begins with what he has seen, which is the picture of the pastoral scene, and then begins his real story of myth and imagination. Longus is consciously reversing the dry reality of the work of Thucydides.
One of the most tragic episodes of Thucydides’ history is the war involving Mytilene, and war involving Mytilene is a central event in Longus’s tale. But the treatment by Longus is anti-Thucydidean. Thucydides did not write to please; the possession he was leaving for mankind was a an unpleasant pill. Longus fantasizes the war into an enjoyable tale of very simple adventure that is all over a simple misunderstanding and is happily ended at the critical moment of the plot.
Thucydides goes to pains to avoid the mythical, the romance, the pleasantries of his medium. Longus takes Thucydides head-on to reverse all this, and to exalt the mythical and the romantic, and to embed it all in a most enjoyable tale for the here and now as well as being a valuable lesson for the future.
Cueva demonstrates the many points where Longus clearly makes textual and ideological contact with Thucydides. Other scholars have discussed many of the same relationships between Longus and Thucydides, too, and Cueva builds his own discussion on these.

Summing up

The more one reads and studies ancient literature from the period of the early Roman empire the more one learns to become a little cautious when reading biblical studies that seem quick to suggest the Gospels are “history” or “biography” because they contain introductions reminiscent of historical works, or include historial persons or settings and events in their narratives, speeches and dialogue. (I bypass here the study by Loveday Alexander that showed that the prologues in Luke-Acts have been found to have more in common with medical, mathematical and mechanical works than with historical ones. Most commentaries seem to take Luke’s prologue naively at face value as a signal that genuine history must follow.)
Those studies that insist that the gospels must be based on eyewitness reports because of certain graphic details in some portions of their narrative are, quite simply, ignorant of the wider literary world and what it contains.
Verisimilitude, imitation of historiographical style, historical persons and events — none of these alone are necessarily indications of the genre of a work, or indicators as to whether there is any historical ‘tradition’ as its source.
The above case-studies of novelistic works that do draw on historiography — both to imitate it and ironically to overturn it — warn us that attempting to understand any literature, in our case the Gospels, by reference to external formalities, can be a misleading adventure. These examples also warn us how sophisticated the ancients could be in their literary artifice. And previous posts have shown that novelists were quite adept at conjuring up fictional narratives and characters, including leading characters, out of a range of mythical tales and personalities, and even mixing them up with real events and historical persons.
Much literary analysis of the Gospels has tended to be naive, in my view, if it has existed at all given the traditional emphasis on breaking up narratives into subunits to study their presumed “tradition”-sources. There has been a growing interest in literary analysis of the Gospels and Acts within the wider literary context of the relevant ancient period, fortunately.
Hope to do another post or two on Cueva’s book in the future. But in the meantime I must get back to the Ascension of Isaiah.


Lighter literary intellections on the Gospels

by Neil Godfrey

Let’s keep it simple and consider the Gospel of Mark only. No heavy analysis this post; only a moment to look out the window and think over how the arguments of recent posts would affect our reading of Mark.
Firstly, we open with the prophetic announcement. What we are about to read is a fulfilment of prophecy as framed and announced in the opening of the book. The anonymous implied narrator is addressing an implied audience that reminds the real reader of the apparent audience of the prophets of Isaiah and Malachi. (Woops, that does not sound the least bit light. I will avoid repeating the “implied readers/narrators” and “real readers/authors” for the rest of this post, though I am certainly framing everything within those four points of view, and considering how it is all working out between them all.)
That is the way stories in novels and tragedies and epics are guided. Prophecies from the divinity announce what is to happen, and the audience then is held in suspense till they see how it all happens just as predicted.
These same genres use the same device to offer course corrections or details along the way in the middle of the plot. And that’s exactly what happens in Mark, too. Half way through the narrative it is Jesus himself, after demonstrating his “SonOfGodness” at the transfiguration and being audibly certified as God’s spokesman on earth, who delivers the next prophecy that will be acted out in the second half: his rejection, suffering, death and resurrection.
The drama is about the fulfilment of prophecies about the kingdom of God. The message, the story itself, is a theological one. It opens with scenes of Elijah from the Biblical History of Israel, in particular the northern kingdom that rejected the true worship. But this Elijah setting strikes the real reader as a striking twist on the old tale. Jerusalem and Judea were not the audiences of the original Elijah. This is real “restoration” stuff as per the prophecy of Malachi. Yet the implied reader is taking this in as the implied narrator is delivering it: without any sense of irony. It is all how the new story for the new people of God should read.
Modern readers miss all of this (at least the stuff that was mostly in my head about the four agents involved) if they pick up the bible-black-bound text as the relic of the report of the historical foundation of Western religion. The iconic story is that the early disciples were overawed by Jesus and wrote about him in strange and impossible ways. So we believe. So we impute this belief into Mark, and begin with the doctrine that no-one-can-doubt that if Mark sounds like he is writing about real events in biblical sounding ways and is making a bit of a novice and jumbled job of it all, then all we can do is try to unscramble the egg and see what the real story behind the words must really have looked like to have so affected this author this way.
In other words, modern readership (like most past readership) is trapped in the doctrinaire ideology that the narrative myth is itself proclaiming. To question this ideology is to set oneself as a target for labels like “hypersceptic”.
But back to the lighter stuff. (Those so inclined can insert the 4 agents at the appropriate places below, realizing that some sentences will need to be repeated two or three times to consider their function for each in turn.)
We have a story that begins with a Jewish Scripture prophecy, with a Jewish scripture setting, and with a mix of human and nonhuman persons. The setting shifts from the Jordan to the heaven where God is looking down through a tear he has ripped through the sky and having words to say as a Spirit Dove flies down and enters right into the body of Jesus.
Several scholars actually — in defiance of any hint in the story itself — write seriously that this is a vision that Jesus had. In obedience to the prevailing ideology the story must be salvaged as “history” no matter the text itself or how texts like this came to be according to scholarly analysis rather than ideological assumption.
There follow a series of encounters with other nonhuman characters, and with the elements and disabilities of persons that the audiences understood were under the control of the same nonhuman personalities. This is mixed with some teachings that are necessarily cryptic — to all but the implied (and presumably real) audience. So this is how the prophecy is working out!
There are also dramatic hints of the denouement that will fall in the final chapters.
Then comes the second half of the story with the new prophecy to propel it all along.
The core message is all very familiar. The rise of the hero through challenge after challenge, till the turning point is reached. This is where, like Antigone, the extremity (of “hubris”) snaps the tolerance levels of the opponents and the doom of the hero is sealed. But in dying, like Achilles, like Socrates, is found glory and honour — and the salvation of the spirit, the ultimate vindication and saving act of the Jewish martyrs; the atonement that once came only through the death of the high priest or the blood of Isaac or of the lamb is now made through the personification of the new temple itself.
The real author was piecing together verses from the prophets to deliver this message. But the implied narrator took all these words naively as the simple words of “how it was”. And biblical scholars and believers have been fooled into thinking that the implied narrator was the real author ever since!
Enough window-gazing. Have other real life things to do for a while now.


Why (Not) Read the Gospels as Fiction?

by Neil Godfrey

A blog reader has alerted me to a book by Clarke W. Owens, Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, that I have found contains some very worthwhile nuggets for anyone interested in understanding the nature of the Gospels as either literature or historical documents.
The Amazon page says Clarke Owens has “three degrees in English and a law degree”. Ever since the appearance of lawyer Frank Morrison’s Who Moved the Stone I would have thought a law degree in biblical studies would have been a liability when it came to the credibility stakes, but I am impressed with anyone who has three degrees in English. (A website says one of them is a doctorate.) Such a person ought to understand how literature works, whatever the language. So I purchased the Kindle version and have up till now read a third of the work. I have liked most of what I have read so far and I’ll tell you why.
And these notes are only from the Introduction! So I am hoping for even more rewards as I read further.
But first, the motive. . .
I do not advance this idea with the purpose of antagonizing the devout, but out of a genuine and long-standing interest in the nature of the Bible as a literary artifact. (Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 149-150). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)
My motive is the same. I am not the least interested in attacking anyone or the sincerity or the devout faith of anyone. This post is made public for the interest of likeminded people who wish to discuss the matter critically and to deepen our understanding of the nature of the Bible.

1. Use of Fantasy

Fantastic details are the most obvious indicator that we are reading fiction. Clarke reminds us that even many Christian believers consider the virgin birth (a narrative created in an effort to fulfill a supposed prophecy in the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14) to be pious fiction.
Of course biblical historians are quick to defend the Gospels by asserting that they are no different from other ancient historical works in that accounts of miracles are found in both. This is a point Clarke addresses in his next chapter. For now, however, I would point out that the Gospels are very different types of literature from historical writings of the day, and the way miracles are presented in surviving Greek, Roman and Jewish historical writings bears little comparison with the way they are presented in the Gospels.
When theologians and historians of the New Testament say otherwise — as they often do — I think they are demonstrating either their ignorance or their disingenuousness. I will discuss this in more detail when I come to Clarke’s next chapter.
In a future post we will look at Clarke Owens’ closer comparison of the Gospels with the writings historians rely upon to conclude the historical existence of other ancient persons and see exactly how different the two types of literature are — a chorus of a thousand theologians notwithstanding.

2. Revisions of stories for theological agendas

The second indicator of fictionality is the evidence, seen in comparisons among the gospels, of the reworking of themes and episodes without regard to reliability or stability in the fact pattern, but with great emphasis placed on putting across one’s lessons. (Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 58-60). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)
Indeed, a story in one gospel is re-written in another in a way that conveys a different theological message. One is reminded of Levi-Strauss’s explanation of the cross-cultural relationships between myths. The same motifs in myths are found across cultures but rearranged within the stories to tell different (but oddly similar) tales. Clarke Owens draws attention to the way the story of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany is restructured and even split apart by later evangelists to suit their particular theological messages. I have reduced his discussion to a table:

Mark 14
Matthew 26
Luke 7
Luke 16
John 11
John 12
Two days before Passover Two days before Passover Unrelated to Passover
Ten days before Passover Six days before Passover
Jesus stops at Bethany Jesus stops at Bethany Apparently in Galilee
Before Jesus arrives at Bethany — then at Bethany At Bethany
In house of Simon the leper In house of Simon the leper In house of Simon the Pharisee Lazarus a leper at gate of rich man’s house In town of his sisters Mary — who anointed Jesus — and Martha, Lazarus is sick. In house with Lazarus, Mary, Martha and disciples
Unidentified woman enters with alabaster jar of myrrh Unidentified woman enters with alabaster jar of costly ointment A local woman, a “sinner”, brings alabaster jar

Mary, sister of Lazarus, anoints Jesus with expensive ointment
Breaks the jar and pours myrrh on Jesus’ head Breaks the jar and pours myrrh on Jesus’ head Anoints Jesus’ feet, with tears and kisses and her hair

Anoints Jesus’ feet with her hair
“Some” were angry at this extravagance “The Disciples” criticize Jesus Simon the Pharisee is critical since the woman is a sinner The rich man had no mercy on the leper; his brothers remain in sin. Lazarus dies; Jesus to go to Lazarus, and devotedly loyal disciples will go “to die” with him. Judas, son of Simon, is angry but hypocritically — no concern for the poor
Jesus’ responds that the woman’s act is justified because she was anointing him for burial Jesus’ responds that the woman’s act is justified because she was anointing him for burial Jesus responds that the woman loves much (unlike Simon) and is therefore forgiven much Jesus’ lesson is forgiveness of sin and love Jesus proves his power and love for all by raising Lazarus from the dead Jesus’ responds that the woman’s act is justified because she was anointing him for burial
Judas Iscariot leaves to conspire with priests to betray Jesus Judas Iscariot leaves to conspire with priests to betray Jesus
Since we know now it was the disciples who were critical of Jesus Judas’s act is given motivation.

Rich man is tormented in Hades, his brothers have been warned, and the leper is comforted Jews plot to kill Jesus — one to die to save the nation from turning to Jesus and against Rome. Chief priests plot to kill Lazarus too.
Owens comments:
The constantly shifting details, the shifts in characters, the alteration of a parable to an incident, and the wide variation in both meaning and event from the first version of this episode to the last, reveal beyond doubt that the foremost urgency in the minds of the writers was not giving an accurate account of events, but rather shaping a tale for its best didactic purpose.
All of us who have read the Gospel of Mark have at one time wondered how the disciples can be so obtuse. We can see Jesus perform miracles before their eyes yet after repeated performances they still don’t believe! Their disbelief defies normal narrative logic. The reason is simple. The disciples, Owens point out, “inhabit a world of free-flowing magic, and yet . . . exhibit difficulty in . . . believing in the magical powers of the very leader they profess to follow, against the evidence of their senses.” Such a problem
can only arise from construction and invention of a fictional nature.
Clarke Owens finds the explanation in the words of the critic Tzvetan Todorov who explained that this sort of narrative is created to establish an identification between the doubting character and the reader of the narrative. Such a technique is a “defining characteristic of fantastic literature”.

3. The figurative use of language

The third indicator that we are reading fiction is a figurative use of language. It is usually allegory. How else does one explain characters whose names exactly matches the role they play in the story? I bypass Owens’ example of this and point to the more abundant cases of this practice that I have pointed out in posts here:
We conclude, then, that the gospels are actually a form of fiction, or are at least enough like fiction to be analyzed as fiction.


The Twelve Disciples: their names, name-meanings, associations, etc

by Neil Godfrey

This post is nothing more than a bit of idle trivia per se. But maybe Kakadu Dreamtime wisdom somewhere says “Clever bower bird can find something among trivia to relocate so it has power to attract a mate.”
The data comes primarily (not exclusively) from two sources:
The Gospel of Mark as Midrash on Earlier Jewish and New Testament Literature by Dale and Patricia Miller (marked with *)
The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition by Robert M. Price (marked with *)
Both these works discuss some of the following name-meanings within a broader context of what the various gospel authors were attempting to convey through their characters. But for most part here I’m skipping that side of the discussion.

Note throughout:
The theme of brothers and twins*
  • Peter and Andrew are signified as brothers at their calling, but this signifier is dropped in the list of the Twelve;
  • James and John are signified as brothers in both places.
  • Thomas = Twin;
  • Levi and James are both sons of Alphaeus
Theme of supplanting*
  • Alphaeus is a designator given to a child thought of as a substitute for one lost. Levi, son of Alphaeus, is called in Mark 2 but then appears to be substituted (Mark 3) in the list of Twelve by another son of Alphaeus, James.
  • James (Jacob) = One who supplants
Theme of gifts, giving and grace*
Physical (geographical, political, ethnic) versus Spiritual Israel*
Also gentile and jewish names*
Also noteworthy in the name allusions are the “pillar themes” associated with Simon/Peter, James and John (compare Galatians 2:9).*


Simon is the Hellenized (Greek) form of Simeon. In Genesis Leah, the mother of the first Simeon, used the name to mean “God has heard”.
Possible allusions: Simon hears at first but is deaf at the end?*
In The Testament of the Twelve Patriachs (dated anywhere between 100 b.c.e and 200 c.e)
In the Testament of Simeon 2:2-4
  • Simeon has become hardened, very hard hearted (c.f. Simon’s name being changed to Peter, Rock)*
  • and his right hand was half withered 7 days (c.f. Jesus’ miracle in the synagogue)
  • he repented and wept (TS 2:10-13) (c.f. Peter after his betrayal of Christ)
  • Simeon is worse than Judas in seeking Joseph’s death*
1 Hearken, my children, to Simeon your father, And I will declare unto you what things I have in my heart.
2 I was born of Jacob as my father’s second son; And my mother Leah called me Simeon, Because the Lord had heard her prayer.
3 Moreover, I became strong exceedingly; I shrank from no achievement, Nor was I afraid of ought.
4 For my heart was hard, And my liver was immovable, And my bowels without compassion.
5, 6 Because valour also has been given from the Most High to men in soul and body. For in the time of my youth I was jealous in many things of Joseph, because my father loved him beyond
7 all. And I set my mind against him to destroy him, because the prince of deceit sent forth the spirit of jealousy and blinded my mind, so that I regarded him not as a brother, nor did I spare even
8 Jacob my father. But his God and the God of his fathers sent forth His angel, and delivered him
9 out of my hands. For when I went to Shechem to bring ointment for the flocks, and Reuben to Dothan, where were our necessaries and all our stores, Judah my brother sold him to the Ishmaelites.
10 And when Reuben heard these things he was grieved, for he wished to restore him to his father.
11 But on hearing this I was exceedingly wroth against Judah in that he let him go away alive, and
12 for five months I continued wrathful against him. But the Lord restrained me, and withheld from
13 me the power of my hands; for my right hand was half withered for seven days. And I knew, my children, that because of Joseph this had befallen me, and I repented and wept; and I besought the Lord God that my hand might be restored, and that I might hold aloof from all pollution and envy
14 and from all folly. For I knew that I had devised an evil thing before the Lord and Jacob my father, on account of Joseph my brother, in that I envied him.
In 2 Maccabees the impious Simon betrayed the legitimate high priest to the Greek emperor (3:4-12)
4 But one Simon of the tribe of Benjamin, who was made governor of the temple, fell out with the high priest about disorder in the city.
5 And when he could not overcome Onias, he gat him to Apollonius the son of Thraseas, who then was governor of Celosyria and Phenice,
6 And told him that the treasury in Jerusalem was full of infinite sums of money, so that the multitude of their riches, which did not pertain to the account of the sacrifices, was innumerable, and that it was possible to bring all into the king’s hand.
7 Now when Apollonius came to the king, and had shewed him of the money whereof he was told, the king chose out Heliodorus his treasurer, and sent him with a commandment to bring him the foresaid money.
8 So forthwith Heliodorus took his journey; under a colour of visiting the cities of Celosyria and Phenice, but indeed to fulfil the king’s purpose.
9 And when he was come to Jerusalem, and had been courteously received of the high priest of the city, he told him what intelligence was given of the money, and declared wherefore he came, and asked if these things were so indeed.
10 Then the high priest told him that there was such money laid up for the relief of widows and fatherless children:
11 And that some of it belonged to Hircanus son of Tobias, a man of great dignity, and not as that wicked Simon had misinformed: the sum whereof in all was four hundred talents of silver, and two hundred of gold:
12 And that it was altogether impossible that such wrongs should be done unto them, that had committed it to the holiness of the place, and to the majesty and inviolable sanctity of the temple, honoured over all the world.
In 2 Samuel 16:13 Shimei, a sound-a-like, threw stones at David and cursed him. C.f. Peter cursing Christ.
And as David and his men went by the way, Shimei went along on the hill’s side over against him, and cursed as he went, and threw stones at him, and cast dust.
Sem, Shem, or Shamash was the same name with reference to the Sun, as found in Samson (“little sun”). Sem was also another name for Hercules. There is much more to be said in connection with Simon Magus and the detail that Simon Peter is the only apostle named with a wife. But a full discussion of this would fill a chapter. Another time.
But till then, just one more point: The sun-god was linked with the symbol of the heavenly pillar — upholder of the vault of heaven, so that the Mid Eastern god could also bear the name Khon, Khiyun, Khwean, or Keiwan = “the upright standing one” or “pillar” (kion in Greek). (Drewes) The Pseudo-Clementines say that Simon Magus was “the Standing One” or Pillar and was worshipped as a stone pillar on Mount Gerazim in Samaria. Compare also the central place of pillars in the narratives of Samson and Heracles. (And compare the Pillar association with the name Boanerges below.)


Petros = an Aramaic name, apparently meaning “firstborn”*
But Matthew 16:18 implies we should think of it as a Greek name meaning “the rock”:*
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Possible allusions: Rocky soil of the parable? (Begins well but withers under threat of persecution when realized Jesus is to die at hands of Romans, not kill Romans). See hardness of hearing (understanding) in relation to Simeon above.
Also: Deut 32:18; 30-31; Ps 118:22; Isa 8:14-15; 1 Pet 2:7-8*
Compare Abraham in rabbinic Judaism, Yalkut, Numbers 766:*
But when [God] perceived that Abraham would one day arise, he said, ‘Behold, I have found the petra on which to built and base the world.
Compare Mithra also being called “Rock-god”, “Rock-born” (Petrogenes, ho ek petras, Saxigenus). He was called simply, “the Rock”, (Petros, Peter), presumably with reference to his birth as sparks of fire struck from a rock. (Drewes, p.21)
Think also of the cosmic foundation stone on which the Temple was supposed to have been built.
Further, “just as Moses (Moyses) strikes water from a rock with a staff, and just as his analog Dionysus (Sabazios) — who also bore the name Myses (an allustion to the invigorating liquid) — causes wine to flow from a rock with his Thyrsus staff, so too Mithra conjures water or wine out of rocks, and supplicants come to refresh their palates.” (Drewes, p.22)


Matthew 16:17-18 addresses Peter as Simon Barjona. (Though sometimes thought to mean “son of Jonah”, note that John 21:15-17 says his father was Jonathan.)* Robert Eisler suggests the reference is not originally to a proper name, but to the Akkadian/Aramaic loan-word barjona or baryona, meaning something like “militant/revolutionary”.* Compare Simon the Canaanite/Zealot? Compare Peter believing in the temporal Kingdom of God, that Jesus ought to overthrow the armies of Rome?
(Was double name Simon-Peter an attempt to combine two separate characters, as we find in other religious and mythological traditions? Detering suggests that the double name may be an attempt to conflate Simon Magus (=Paul) and the Jerusalem apostle who originally opposed him.)*


Cephas is Aramaic for “the rock”.
Cephas is a leading apostle in 1 Corinthians 1:12, 9:5; 15:5; and is used interchangeably with Peter in Galatians 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14.*
The Apostolic Church Order, the Epistula Apostolorum, and Clement of Alexandria (Outlines 5, cited in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 1.12.2) all considered Peter and Cephas different apostles.*


Andrew = Adam, man, manly
Possible allusion: new man?*


John = God is Gracious
Possible allusion: Compare Zebulun/Zebedee, below, proclaiming himself as a good gift.*
With reference to John the Baptist, Joseph Campbell pointed out in Occidental Mythology the fact that John bears the same name, and practices the same rite, as Ea (= Oannes, Ionnes, Johannes, Yohanan) the water god.


James/Jacob = Israel or He Who Supplants His Brother
Possible allusion: c.f. the meaning of Alphaeus, and the theme of supplanting*


Zebedee = Gift of God
Possible allusions: Compare Zebulon. In the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs Zebulon describes himself as “a good gift”, which could be considered as bringing his name close to the etymology of Zebedee.*
Genesis 49:13: Zebulon = by the sea*
Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon
Deuteronomy 33:18-19*
And of Zebulun he said, Rejoice, Zebulun, in thy going out; and, Issachar, in thy tents. They shall call the people unto the mountain; there they shall offer sacrifices of righteousness: for they shall suck of the abundance of the seas, and of treasures hid in the sand.
In The Testament of Zebulun (see above for date) Zebedee catches fantastic amounts of fish, just as in the miraculous catches of fish in John 21 and Luke 5:*
5. . . . And when I was in Canaan, by the sea-coast, I caught spoil of fish for Jacob my father; and when many were choked in the sea, I abode unhurt.
6. I was the first who made a boat to sail upon the sea, for the Lord gave me understanding and wisdom therein; and I let down a rudder behind it, and I stretched a sail on an upright mast in the midst; and sailing therein along the shores, I caught fish for the house of my father until we went into Egypt; and through compassion, I gave of my fish to every stranger. And if any man were a stranger, or sick, or aged, I boiled the fish and dressed them well, and offered them to all men as every man had need, bringing them together and having compassion upon them. Wherefore also the Lord granted me to take much fish: for he that imparteth unto his neighbour, receiveth manifold more from the Lord. For five years I caught fish, and gave thereof to every man whom I saw, and brought sufficient for all the house of my father. In the summer I caught fish, and in the winter I kept sheep with my brethren.


Boanerges = Sons of Thunder / Cult of Twins
Possible allusion: Some suggest the word means Sons of Rage, but Bar/Son is Aramaic and Orges/Rage is Greek.*
Another suggestion is that Boanerges represens an old Sumerian term, Geshpuanur (swap the prefix to suffix – puanur-gesh), “upholder of the vault of heaven”.* That is, the same title as one of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux (Polydeuces). Compare the Pillar association in the discussion under Simon.*
Also compare the Dioscuri myth. Zeus, the father of these twins, was the God of Thunder.* The Dioscuri were the sons of Thunder. Castor was killed while his brother Pollux was granted immortal life. But Pollux refused to accept this and persuaded Zeus to allow him to share death — and life — with his brother Castor. They alternated their time in heaven and hades. Compare James who was killed early, and John his brother of whom it was said that he would not die.*


Levi = joined. Levi was the ancestor of the Priests.
Possible allusions: Priests are “joiners” — joining humanity to the gods. Levi was both a tax collector for the Romans and the bearer of the name of Jewish priests. Both Rome and Jew meet in Levi?*
Note also that in Mark’s Gospel Levi’s call begins a series of narratives about controversies over violations of priestly laws. The apostasy of Israel began when Jeroboam cast out the Levites from his priesthood (1 Kings 12:31). Jesus is calling a new spiritual Levi?


James son of Alphaeus = (Jacob was a supplanting twin in genesis) — cf Levi supplanted


Alphaeus = Chalphi in the Hebrew 1 Maccabees 11:70
All the men with Jonathan fled; not one of them was left except Mattathias the son of Absalom and Judas the son of Chalphi, commanders of the forces of the army.
Meaning and possible allusion: “The Designation Given to a Child Thought of As a Substitute for One Lost”*


Thomas = Twin, Gemini (the constellation)
Not a proper name but an epithet.
The Acts of Thomas, The Gospel of Thomas, The Book of Thomas the Contender and some manuscripts of John call him Judas Thomas. (Greek for Twin is Didymus)*
Possible allusions: In the Syrian church Judas Thomas was believed to be the Twin of Jesus. This may have been meant to indicate spiritual likeness, but note also that Jesus had a brother named Judas! (Mark 6:3)*


Matthew = Gift of God


Thaddeus (Theudas ,,,, Theodosios, Theodotos, Theodorus) = Gift of God


Simon the Cananaean or (Aramaic for Zealot) — or Jealous One*
Possible allusion: Compare Simon Barjona above.
Compare also the jealousy of the Ten against James and John (Mark 10:41)*
Genesis 49:5-7*
Simeon and Levi are brethren; weapons of violence are in their habitations. O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.
Compare Simon Maccabee who led a rebellion against Greek rule.*
Another question has been raised: Are the Twelve Names variations on Messianic Themes?* Is the hope of a new military Israel compared with the spiritual Israel? (Miller) Compare the names in 1 and 2 Maccabees. The Maccabee family is the prototype of the Zealot party. Mattathias used the root for “zealot” 5 times in 1 Macc 2:23-68.*
The Maccabee names were both priests and soldiers
Father Mattathias (Matthew) began revolt against Greeks. His priest-sons were surnamed:*
John (Gaddis: Fortunate)
Simon (Thassis: Burning)
Judas (Maccabaeus: Hammer-headed or Hammerer or Designated by Yahweh)
Eleazar (Auaran: Awake)
Jonathan (Aphphus: Favorite)
All preferred to die than be unfaithful to Jacob/James/Israel.*
Jonathan’s only 2 faithful followers were (1 Macc 11:70) Judas Son of Chalphi (Alphaeus) and Mattathias (Matthew) son of Absalom*
2 Macc 14:19 — Theodotus (Thaddeus) was sent on a mission concerning a gift of God.*
2 Macc 9:29 — Philip, a Greek general, was a ‘bosom friend” of Antiochus Epiphanes*
Canaanite also sounds like Canaanite — Canaan — people of the land: In Gen 46:10 one of Simeon’s sons is born to a Canaanite woman.*
Judges 1:17 — Simeon with Judah defeated the Canaanites in Zephath*


Andrew = Manly (New Man?) — no longer designated a brother of Simon here*
Possible allusion: A Greek name. Inclusion of the Greeks in the Kingdom?*


Philip = Lover of Horses
Possible allusions: Greek name. In John the Greeks sought Jesus through him (John 12:21) as he himself sought a vision of the Father (John 14:8). As here, and again in the Gospel of Philip and in Acts in the mission to the Samaritans, Philip is some kind of revealer.*
A Greek name. Inclusion of the Greeks in the Kingdom? Also the name of several rulers in Macedonia and Israel. His name represents the opposite pole of Simon the Zealot.*
(Compare the other namesake of a Macedonian emperor, Alexander, as the son of Simon the Cyrenian — and the note on Rufus in relation to Judas Iscariot, below.)*


Bartholomew = Son of Talmai*; or Son of Ptolemy*
Possible allusions: Talmai is a Canaanite giant in Numbers 13:22, Joshua 15:14 and Judges 1:10 — driven out after Joshua. Judah and Simon fought against the Canaanites (in Kiriath) and defeated Talmai.*
2 Samuel 3:3, 13:37; 1 Chronicles 3:2 — Talmai is king of Geshur, one of David’s fathers in law. Thus David is a son of Talmai? David killed a giant. Talmai and otherl giants frightened the twelve spies sent to spy out Canaan. Joshua (God Saves) was to destroy them.*
Or referenced to the Ptolemies who had the Jewish scriptures translated into Greek?*


Judas = Judah, the Jews (praise or praised one)
Possible allusions: Judah was the betrayer of Joseph, persuading his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery rather than kill him — for money.*
Iscariot is often translated “from Kerioth”, a city in Judah. In Joshua 15 it is a prefix meaning ‘city’. C.f. Judges 1:10. But Iscariot also means “Red Dyer*
Possible allusions: James/Jacob’s twin is Esau. Genesis 25:25-30*
  • Esau is Red,
  • he eats red pottage,
  • his region Edom is ‘the red region’
Iscariot is a midrash on Esau who rejected God’s love as gift to Jacob*
Genesis 27:41-42 — Esau made plans to kill James/Jacob.
Compare also the other son of Simon the Cyrenian, Rufus.* Simon the Cyrenian who was compelled to assist with the execution of Jesus (in place of the Simon Peter whose duty was to carry his cross) was the father the namesakes of a world conqueror and red-betrayer. (The Markan procession of the cross is also based on a Roman Triumph, and it may be of interest that in that procession the emperor’s face was dyed red.)
On Iscariot meaning “red dyer”:
In Gittin 56a, it is noted that the head of the revolutionary party (the Siqarii) in Jerusalem during the great Jewish revolt against Rome in 70 C.E., was a certain Abba Saqqara, the nephew of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. Since Abba Saqqara is specifically named as the Reysh Biryoney di-Yerushalayim, it was but natural that many scholars would interpret his name as meaning “Head of the Siqarii.” But against these scholars, Louis Ginzberg has argued, quite persuasively, that Abba Saqqara can simply not mean Rosh Siqrin (Head of the Siqarii) because Abba is never used in the sense of “chief” or “leader” anywhere in Rabbinic literature. Moreover, Gittin itself renders Rosh Siqrin with Reysh Biryoney. Nor should it be overlooked that throughout the Mishnah, Siqari is written without an alef and with a yod’0 whereas Abba Saqqara is written with an alef and without a yod.
Ginzberg, therefore, having demonstrated the non-connection between Saqqara and Siqari, declared unhesitatingly that Saqqara means the “dyer.” . . . . . . (necessarily deleting discussion requiring Hebrew characters unable to be produced here) . . . . . . Saqor does not mean to be “of red color”; saqor means “to dye or paint red.” Judas Iscariot and Abba Saqqara were not “redheads”; they were both (red) “dyers.”

Would the historical Jesus of Nazareth really have been named Jesus of Nazareth?

by Neil Godfrey

Turning to a genuine work of scholarship in biblical studies, even one 80 years old, can be such relief after enduring time in search of a stimulating and challenging argument among so much contemporary theological debate with apologetics always lurking in the subtext. One theologian has scoffed at mythicism by glibly asserting that no-one would have made up a saving deity and given him such a common name as “Jesus”. No research required, no argument necessary, it is enough to bounce off one’s mouth whatever falls off the top of one’s head.
But one scholar did give this matter of the name “Jesus” some serious thought. Unfortunately, perhaps, this scholar was (a) French and (b) not at risk of confusing his academic integrity with a defence of his personal faith. His scholarly interests were entirely secular and rationalist. Some might like to be reassured that he was also a defender of the historicity of Jesus, attacking mythicist arguments with bitter sarcasm. In all of these he could be seen to be following Alfred Loisy’s footsteps.
Charles Guignebert, Professor of the History of Christianity in the Sorbonne, did see “a problem” with the name “Jesus of Nazareth”, and not just with the “Nazareth” epithet.
Granting the historical existence of Jesus, we are at once confronted with the problem of his name, Jesus the Nazarene. (p. 76 of Jesus, English translation 1956 but first published in French in 1933. My emphasis)
Before I continue with the reasons Guignebert finds a problem with the name “Jesus the Nazarene”, I must refer once again to a contemporary scholar, a classicist, who has approached the name of Jesus from a perspective of the wider classical literary and mythological world from which the Gospels emerged. John Moles has written an extensive article titled Jesus the Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and early Christianity for the online journal of ancient historiography, Histos. I have discussed some aspects of his article in Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names (compares the meaning and role of the name Jason) and Creativity with the name Jesus the Healer in the Gospel of Mark. Of course Jesus was not an uncommon name as we learn from Josephus, but anyone who attempts to dismiss the name of Jesus merely as a common name (that by mere lucky coincidence happened to prove apt for  the one who was exalted to divine status by his followers) needs to tackle the article of John Moles and the literary evidence that testifies otherwise.
But back to Guignebert now and why he finds the simple explanation so often parroted as the reason for the name is “suspicious”.

The suspiciously simple explanation

Why not simply accept what most surely consider the simplest explanation? Surely it is easy enough to accept that his name was, well, Jesus and that “the Nazarene” supplement was tagged on to indicate his birthplace or at least his place of origin?
Sleuth Guignebert is suspicious because he remembers that
ancients in general, and the Jews in particular, attached to names, both of men and of things, a peculiar value, at once metaphysical, mystical, and magical.
Names were believed to express the special power or virtue of whatever it was they designated. Recall the potency of the name of the Jewish God.
The true name of a god, for example, whose revelation to the initiate or the believer endowed him with knowledge (gnosis), was supposed to contain, so to speak, the essence of his divine being.
We have the words of a worshiper of a pagan god beginning his prayer with: I know thy name, Heavenly One.” The Bible speaks of God naming before they were born certain persons who were destined for great things. Josephus makes the same point. The Rabbi Eliezer cited six persons who received their names before they were born:
  1. Isaac
  2. Ishmael
  3. Moses
  4. Solomon
  5. Josiah
  6. the Messiah
The name of the Jewish Jahweh was well known as imbued with powers in magical incantations in the wider world (beyond Israel). In Israel the name was the centre of a cult. In the Pauline community the cult of the name of the Lord was substituted for that of the name of Jahweh among the Jews. Guignebert need refer to only one passage to illustrate the point, Philippians 2:9-10:
Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those in hell. 
Guignebert’s comment:
In other words, the name of Jesus has a peculiar power over the whole of creation, so that the spiritual beings of the world, who rule the elements and the stars, prostrate themselves at the sound of it.
Origen further reminds us (Contra Celsum 8:58) of the power of the name of Jesus over demonic powers and spirits.

Thus warned . . .

The above references only touch on the question of the importance of names, and in particular the name of the Messiah and of Jesus, and Guignebert will elaborate on them in the coming pages. Though brief, they are nonetheless
sufficient to warn us against any purely human, obvious, and popular interpretation of the name of Jesus the Nazarene. The most reasonable and probable explanation, if we reflect for a moment, is that the original followers of Christ, those, that is, who first recognized him as Christ, the Messiah, gave him a name which set him above humanity and expressed his divine nature. (p. 77)
Paul certainly understood the name of Jesus in this light. And if the later authors or redactors of the Gospels did not appear to have this view “it is perhaps because they belonged to an environment in which the meaning of the Aramaic had been lost.”
Note also that according to Paul the followers of the Lord Jesus are “those who call upon his name” — 1 Cor. 1:2.
To the author of John 1:12 those who are given the right to become children of God are those who “believe in his name.”

The Greek Ἰησοῦς

The Greek word in our Gospels and Paul “is only the transcription of the post-exilic Hebrew word, Jeshuah, which is derived from the more ancient form Jehoshua, or Joshua, the Joshua of our Bibles.” In the Greek Bible Ἰησοῦς is used for Joshua (Exodus 17:10), Jehoshua (Zechariah 3:1) and Jeshuah (Nehemiah 7:7; 8:7, 17).
The old name, after a long period of obsolescence, reappeared in its new form about 340 B.C., and became very common towards the beginning of our era. Its original, etymological meaning is “Jahweh is help,” or, “the help of Jahweh”; obviously, for a prophet, a vessel of the Holy Spirit, a name preordained. So thought, certainly, the editors of Matthew and Luke, both of whom attributed the choice of this name to the will of God, and associate it with the divine work which he who bore it was destined to accomplish. (p. 78, my emphasis)
Note the way “Matthew” introduces the name:
The angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream and said, “. . . . You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)
In the Gospel of Matthew, then, the name is pre-ordained and its meaning (i.e. Saviour) is given special emphasis.
Compare Luke 1:30-32:
The angel said to [Mary] . . . “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”
For this author, “it is the quality of Son of God which is in some way implied by the name Jesus.”

And Emmanuel (“God is with us”)

It is to be observed that Matthew (i.23), citing in reference to Jesus the passage of Isaiah (vii.14) which prophecies the birth of a miraculous child who shall be called Emmanuel (“God is with us”), betrays no surprise at the divine command which assigned to the son of Mary a different name, from which it is to be inferred that he regarded Jesus and Emmanuel as equivalent.
Guignebert anticipates the argument that this mention of Emmanuel actually is an indicator that Jesus really was given the name of Jesus at his birth.
Otherwise, had his followers christened him, they would have sought to make the application of the prophecy more direct by calling him Emmanuel rather than Jesus. The answer to this is that the Christians were not immediately aware of the use to which the text Isaiah could be put, and that apparently before they discovered it, the name Jesus had already become established as signifying the Messiah, the Soter, and, in Paul, the great Instrument of God’s work. (pp. 78-79)

It is very probable

We cannot say positively that [the substitution of a sacred name for his human one] did take place, but it is very probable.
It would be perfectly consistent with the process of “mythication” which the whole figure of Christ underwent, and which is already manifest in the Gospels.
From its very beginning, the tradition tended to efface the facts of the life of Jesus prior to the commencement of his mission. (p. 79, my formatting and emphasis)
Guignebert is using here an argument that is consistent with what has since been formulated as a “criterion” of authenticity. CG is pointing out the reason we should doubt, or certainly question and only accept tentatively, the authenticity of the name “Jesus”.
Robert Funk’s second criterion by which we might assess the authenticity of some detail in the Gospels states:
On the other hand, anything based on prophecy is probably a fiction. It is clear that the authors of the passion narrative had searched the scriptures for clues to the meaning of Jesus’ death and had allowed those clues to guide them in framing the story: event was made to match the prophecy. (p. 223 of The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus)
Paula Fredriksen expressed the same principle in another context this way:
Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention. (p. 210 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jew)
In other words, if Joseph and Mary really did give the name Jesus to their baby it was a stroke of good luck that the name proved to be so apt for one who, after his death, was thought to be the Son of God, Saviour, Healer of mankind and suitably named successor to the Mosaic order. On the other hand, it would be perfectly consistent, whether one believes in the historical Jesus or not, for the name to have been especially chosen and applied to the one who was to be signified as Saviour, Healer, successor to the Mosaic cult, etc.

And the Nazarene?

A full discussion of this (and related) terms is not part of my agenda for this post. I will sketch only a few points.
There is no doubt that the authors of the Gospels (at least those of Matthew, Luke and John) indicated to readers that “Jesus the Nazarene” meant that Jesus came from Nazareth.
But Guignebert is thoughtful and reluctant to jump quickly to the “obvious” conclusions.
The first disturbing observation which forces itself upon the scholar is that no ancient pagan or Jewish writing mentions Nazareth. The pagan texts may readily be disposed of, for since the straggling little Galilean village neither played an important part in the Jewish rebellions, nor attracted Greek or Roman colonists, the obscurity which surrounds it is hardly surprising. But with regard to the Jewish texts, there is no such explanation, yet the name of Nazareth is to be found in the Bible, nor in the Talmudic literature, nor in works of Josephus, though the latter is particularly well informed on Galilean affairs, and enumerates a number of towns and villages in that country.
The damaging effect of this unanimous silence may be mitigated, but it cannot be entirely done away with. The mythicists have naturally made the most of it . . .  Their argument, however unconvincing [Guignebert wrote before the publication of Salm’s study of the archaeological reports of the area], has at least performed the service of stating the problem and illuminating its various aspects. (p. 80)
It is refreshing to read a scholar intellectually honest enough to concede an argument of the mythicists points to a genuine problem in the evidence instead of knee-jerking from any side that opposes a point made by mythicists almost on principle.
Guignebert discusses the various arguments that have been used to mitigate the silence of the name in Jewish literature and comes to this conclusion:
In other words, there still remains room for doubt as to its existence in the first century. (p. 81)
This is a refreshingly honest grappling with the evidence. Nor is it what some might today call “hyper-scepticism”:
Doubt, however, is not conviction. Moreover, in default of external evidence we still have that of the New Testament, which is not to be despised. Here Guignebert raises as another problem the fact that the name appears only in Acts and the Gospels and nowhere else in the canonical literature. This would be strange if any of the epistles really were written by Galilean followers of Jesus (though CG acknowledges this is most unlikely) but Paul’s reluctance to use the term is strange if he knew of it.

Derivation of the word?

Guignebert from here moves on to the philological discussion of the derivation of the term we generically cover by “Nazarene”.
Could it apply to one from a town called Nazareth?
First of all, assuming that the name of the town was really Nazareth, none of the three forms in question [Nazarenos, Nazoraios, Nazorenos] seem capable of being derived from it. . . .

The smaller the town the bigger the question

But now we come to a most significant question that must bear a crushing weight even if Nazareth was a Galilean town in the time of Jesus:
If it is conceded, as it must be, that Nazareth or Nazara was, at the time of Jesus, an obscure little town unknown and unnoticed, the question arises why a surname derived from it should have seemed so characteristic as to become attached to the name of Jesus in the gospel tradition. To indicate the country of the prophet it would have sufficed to call him Jesus the Galilean, just as the first leader of the Zealots was called Judas the Galilean . . . . To distinguish a certain Simon, it is quite natural to call him Simon of Cyrene (Mark xv.21 . . . ) for everyone had heard of Cyrene. But a reference to Nazareth conveys no information. Simon or Andrew are not designated as “of Capernaum.” (p. 83, my emphases)

Strong indicators Nazarene did NOT refer to a village

i. Mark 1:21 ff and 5:7
There are passages in the Gospels where the expression “Jesus of Nazareth” simply does not sound like it refers to a town. Guignebert cites Mark 1:21 ff where the demons confronting Jesus cry out to him, “What is there [in common] between thee and us, Jesus the Nazarene? Dost thou come to destroy us? I know who thou art: the Holy one of God“.
Now compare that passage with Mark 5:7 in which another demon cries out, “What is there in common between thee and me, Jesus, Son of the most High God?
[W]e shall notice, first, that the expression, “Son of the most high God,” stands in the same place in the second passage as “the Nazarene” does in the first, and seems to be equivalent to it; second, that “the Holy One of God” and “the Son of God” express similar conceptions, which shows that the former is simply and expansion of “the Nazarene.”
CG continues:
It looks very much as if it were a kind of Greek gloss, introduced by the editor for the benefit of readers ignorant of Aramaic. It must not be forgotten that Mark i.21 ff. is recounting the first miracle of Jesus, his début, as it were, in the rôle of lord and master of evil spirits. This is the first act of hostility against the Enemy who rules over the terrestrial world. Hence it is natural, and even necessary, for the all-powerful name to be announced, or more accurately confessed, at the very beginning, by the one who is to be defeated by its supreme power. This name is essentially bound up with the divine mission to which the new prophet, “son of God” like all prophets, is dedicated. It would be contrary to all custom to hail Jesus by a name signifying nothing but his place of origin, while, on the other hand, it seems as if he must necessarily be given, on such a momentous occasion, the title expressive of his true nature and function. (p. 84, my emphasis)
This is not completely removed from my earlier claim that religious cults are simply not named after the birth-places of their founders.
ii. John 18.5 ff
In John 18’s presentation of the arrest of Jesus the soldiers come to arrest him and he pre-empts them by asking: “Whom do you seek?” They reply, “Jesus, the Nazarene.”
[It is] as if the surname possessed a kind of official value and was not to be detached.
The scene continues with an even more dramatic demonstration of the power of one confessing the name. Jesus met them with the answer, “I am he”, causing them all to fall back,
as if the avowal of the personality expressed by the name in some way at once actualized its inherent power.
Guignebert takes the time to think this through.
It is not easy to see how a mere mention of the town of Nazareth could account for this. To oppose Jesus the Nazarene is “to oppose his name,” (c.f. Acts 26:1) and his supreme name displays its irresistible power at his will. (p. 84)
True, the author of this gospel (at least one of them) acknowledged elsewhere that Jesus came from Nazareth. Nevertheless, the scene narrated here informs us that the memory of the original tradition in which “the Nazarene” evoked something more than an obscure Galilean village was not forgotten.
iii. Other
Guignebert refers to other passages that he says point to the same conclusion:
Mark 16:6 in which “the angel” in the tomb tells the women they are seeking Jesus the Nazarene;
Luke 24:19 where one of those who went to Emmaus uses the name Nazarene as if it expressed a personal and essential characteristic of Jesus;
Acts 2:22, with Peter in his preaching using the name in the same way;
Acts 22:8, where Christ himself speaks to Paul on the road to Damascus, ditto.
iv. The magic formula of the name
Acts 3:6 and Acts 4:10 clearly “exhibit the miraculous power of the sacred name in action.” Peter declares to the lame man, “In the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, arise and walk.” Then in justifying his miracle before the Sanhedrin Peter declares: “In the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, whom you crucified and God raised from the dead, behold him before you, whole.”
It is of no importance in this connection whether the events actually occurred as related in Acts, and Peter really uttered the words that are put in his mouth. The interest of the two passages lies in the fact that they exhibit an ancient Christian spell, full of beneficent magic power, for it is the formula itself which is supposed to have performed the miracle. It is composed of the name of Jesus, the title Christ, which proclaims the Messianic rank of the Lord, and the surname, the Nazarene. The power of these three words is, so to speak, united in an inseparable combination. Clearly the market town of Galilee has no relevance here. (p. 85, my emphasis)
Guignebert even suggests that if the epithet did refer to Nazareth originally, that understanding of its origin must quickly have been lost and it came to much more intelligibly indicate a surname expressing a significant quality of Jesus.
Probability is on the side of the oldest form of the name being an Aramaic equivalent of the Greek Nazoraios and indicating a special quality of Jesus. Only after the meaning of this word was lost among Hellenistic Christians did it come to be associated with the town and took the form of “Nazarene”. (Perhaps, but I also wonder about the possibility that the original meaning was also suppressed by the evangelists.)
At this point I am short-circuiting Guignebert’s discussion. I bypass his explorations of the various possible meanings of the original Aramaic word. These have been addressed in many other places. Do a word search in the Freethought & Rationalism Discussion Board, for example.
Perhaps I can make a separate post of this another time. (CG sees the Aramaic Christian communities continuing with the name of “Nazarenes” while the Greek speaking churches called themselves “the saints” or “Christians”.)

Name and surname: what they meant to the first Christians

All, then, that we venture definitely to conclude, is that the first followers of Christ, when they called him by his name and surname, Jesus the Nazarene, did not signify by it Jesus of Nazareth, but an all-powerful divine name accompanied by a distinctive epithet, which meant approximately, “the One sent by Jahweh,” “the Holy One of God.” (p. 89)
Sure the simple and generally accepted explanation is possible, but given the above considerations, is it the most probable explanation?

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