From The Archives: What Romania Has Taught Me About The Bible

I lived in Romania for three years, have been married to a Romanian for seventeen, and have had a lot of contact with Romania and Romanians. I love the surprised look on people’s faces when I tell them that I didn’t really understand the New Testament until I lived in Romania.

Romania was part of the Roman Empire at one point, but even had this not been the case, it still would be part of that region stretching along the Eastern Mediterranian, up into the Balkans, over into Turkey and North Africa and other places as well, which share a number of key cultural values in common, such as their honor-shame values systems, the importance of relationships (especially of blood) in all transactions, and many other features. It is cultures such as these that are used by social scientists seeking to understand the related values system of this part of the world in ancient times, including authors such as Bruce Malina and Kenneth Bailey who have sought to apply insights from the study of these cultures directly to issues of New Testament interpretation. No amount of time spent reading such books can substitute for time spent in relevant cultures; on the other hand, Americans and Western Europeans who spend time in such cultures will benefit greatly from these books. Indeed, on more than one occasion I lent Malina’s book Windows on the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea to colleagues from the U.S.. England and Wales, suggesting that it could just as easily have been entitled Windows on the World of Romania.

Let me offer just a few examples, including one that relates to my current research. First, I recall vividly a visit by Anthony Thiselton to the campus where I taught in Romania. He had recently published his commentary on The First Epistle to the Corinthians and spoke about those in Corinth who said “I am of Paul” and “I am of Apollos”. Thiselton emphasized that this was not merely party politics as we understand it nowadays, but the Roman patronage system. There were a very small number of individuals who had intrinsic power and status, and then others would gain influence by association with such individuals as retainers, like a vine climbing on a tree. It only took a few moments to realize that this was precisely what I had witnessed in the politics of the school I taught at. There were a couple of individuals who had their own churches where they were pastors and had PhDs. Then there were other individuals who associated with them, lacking the degrees and the status of senior pastor, but who became influential through the association. It was illuminating, and if I had had Thiselton’s commentary (or heard his talk) earlier, I might have better understood what was going on around me.

I also found myself wondering about the language of ‘brothers’ in the New Testament. In an American context, we tend to think of such language as egalitarian, and indeed there are uses in the New Testament that might lead one to that very conclusion. Yet in Romania, ‘brother’ can indicate distance and respect rather than intimacy. This raises the question of whether it is more likely that modern Romanians, with very similar cultural values to those reflected in the New Testament, failed to rise to the challenge of the Bible’s counter-cultural teachings, or whether they have indeed understood it and practiced it in the way the early Christians probably did, and it is the Americans and others who have failed to see that the seemingly egalitarian language did not in fact obliterate social differences. I still haven’t made up my mind on this particular question, but without this cross-cultural experience, I never would have asked it.

Finally (for this entry, at any rate), I have recently been reading about oral history and rumor transmission. On a recent visit to Romanian relatives in Canada, one of them told me how Tim Hortons coffee had been laced with tobacco to make it more addictive. I immediately spotted it as an unreliable rumor (it had all the signs), as a quick search at Snopes confirmed for me. Romania is a remarkable place when it comes to rumors – perhaps it was the lack of reliable news during the communist era, but the rumor mills seem to work as effectively and as rapidly as ever, in the present as in the past.

An important question that needs to be asked by anyone working on the historical study of Jesus is whether our information constitutes anything other than rumor, or more strictly speaking “legend” (which may be defined as rumor that persists for longer periods – just as we speak of “urban legends” for persistent rumors today). Those seeking a more mundane occurrence behind the miracle stories have long suspected that stories such as that about Jesus walking on the water could have arisen through a misunderstanding of a story about him walking beside the sea (since it is the same preposition in Greek). The version of the story in John chapter 6 lends plausibility to this – the focus there is on the rapid end of the storm and arrival at the other side once they have seen Jesus. But as in all cases of rumor transmission, while it can be asserted that there is often a historical core, studies show clearly that any original piece of reliable information gets obliterated in the transmission process, or at least obscured so badly as to be unrecognizable. The point, in the end, is that rumors circulate and we cannot know what basis, however slim, there may have been in history, or what it may have looked like.

One may think of the allusion in the Book of Revelation to the return of Nero from the dead, the beast whose “deadly wound was healed”. Roman authors from this period show just how widely such rumors were believed, and the chaos that ensued. While even today news reporting, official bulletins, television and the internet do not always succeed in stemming the tide of rumors, imagine in the situation in the ancient world where no such ‘reliable’ sources existed. If at least one New Testament author believed the Nero rumors, why would we expect them to not also provide us similarly rumor-based information elsewhere?

Realizing how unreliable the information that circulates among the populace is – whether the subject is science, politics, religion or coffee – makes me very concerned about the reliability of the New Testament’s information – perhaps moreso than any historical critical investigation could. Nevertheless, books such as Allport & Postman’s Psychology of Rumor, Vansina’s Oral Tradition As History, and DiFonzo’s Rumor Psychology: Social And Organizational Approaches, all confirm that oral reporting can at times be verified, but can often obscure the truth rather than inform us about it. One of my current research projects is to identify instances of texts reflecting oral transmission of a common saying and to seek to apply the insiguts of the aforementioned studies, as well as my own experiences.

For Christian faith, questions such as these are profoundly disturbing. It is easy to imagine how a misunderstanding could generate a story such as that of Jesus’ empty tomb. The practice of secondary burial was a distinctively Jewish one, and it is possible to imagine how a Gentile Christian pilgrim visiting Jerusalem could have misunderstood about this and sparked off the rumor that eventually became the empty tomb story found in Mark. This is not to suggest that Christian faith in the resurrection was based only on a rumor – Paul had such faith based on visionary and other experiences, and he doesn’t mention the empty tomb, and so the rumor – if there was a rumor – might have arisen later. My point is simply that it seems impossible to ever be certain, using the tools of historical study, that something like this scenario (misunderstanding leading to rumor) did not occur. As so often, historical study’s most troubling questions for religious believers do not relate to its disproving of things they hold dear, but of its inability to prove those things that are, for many Christians, of central importance – the resurrection and other stories of the miraculous being a case in point.

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  • Jay

    In the sixth paragraph, I believe you might have left out the word water in the second sentence ("Jesus walking on the…")Interesting post, James. We (Americans) frequently seem to lose sight of the fact that there are places in the world with vastly different cultural frameworks, and having the chance to see one of those different frameworks first hand is a wonderful thing.

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks for catching that!

  • Jay

    I think there's a lot of value in considering the historical aspects of the Biblical stories. There seem to be a lot of folks that want to claim that these stories are somehow exempt from analysis and discussion outside of their immediate context within the assembled Bible. Such an approach, in my opinion, tends to suppress much of the original intent and significance of the material by homogenizing it. One of the most useful things I've seen was the style of summary that Raymond Brown put at the front of each chapter in his Introduction where he outlined what we can detect about the authors, intended audiences, and social/political circumstances for each of the NT books.

  • James Pate

    On the "brother" issue, I wonder why Desmond on LOST always calls people "brother."

  • JD Walters

    There is no question that rumor psychology is relevant to the study of the historical Jesus. No doubt during his ministry and beyond casual observers were telling lots of stories about him, many of them completely fantastical. But at the same time I doubt that rumor was the basis for the Gospel accounts, or most of them anyway. Luke claims to have 'carefully investigated' everything so that Theophilus might know the 'truth', indicating precisely a desire to separate fact from fiction or rumor. From Matthew and Luke's use of Mark we have evidence of a generally conservative tendency in the transmission of Jesus tradition. From Paul we know that the early Christians had very efficient communication networks, so that the influence of 'false teachers' came very quickly to Paul's attention. We can imagine the same networks being used to inform pillars and apostles when a substantially different or incomplete account of Jesus' ministry was circulating (for example, the case of Apollos in Acts 18). All these and other considerations lead me to suspect that when the evangelists wrote their Gospels they did not go the street corner and casually ask what people were saying about Jesus. Their sources were found in apostolic preaching, catechism and liturgy, originating in a much smaller and more tightly focused group of people. As for the empty tomb, I highly doubt that it originated as a misunderstanding of secondary burial. Dale Allison has argued persuasively in my opinion that the best way to explain the early Christians' distinctive resurrection belief is because they actually found the tomb empty. And again as Allison argues, another factor which lends plausibility to many of the miracle stories is that we have similar reports, many of them credibly witnessed, today. Certainly we have reliable accounts of healings and exorcisms (see for example Philip Wiebe's "God and other spirits"), and we even have reports, as Dale Allison documents, of bodies of holy men shimmering with light, as in the transfiguration. As for the walking on water accounts, I also doubt here that we are dealing with a misunderstanding of Jesus merely walking by the shore. We have such an account involving a miracle in John 21 (?) and the distinction is clearly made compared to the other accounts. In Mark, arguably the earlier version of the story, it is clear that the disciples were in the middle of the lake and Jesus came walking and almost passed them by. Sorry this is a bit of a rambling comment, not very focused. I just don't think that the mechanics of rumor transmission are reason for despair in historical Jesus studies, however. We have lots of incidental, independent accounts that can be cross-check at least to a certain extent. I am finally in agreement with Dunn that in the Jesus tradition we have at least an accurate outline of the ministry of Jesus, even if not accurate in every detail.

  • James F. McGrath

    The points you make are excellent ones in countering "despair", but I do still remain somewhat "nervous". :)

  • Talon

    JD, what the author of "Luke" may have thought to be a careful consideration of the facts and how we might define that today are vastly different, I'd bet. And yes, there are stories about miracles and exorcism today, but now we know they are not true, so why would they be any more true back then? People are not inhabited by demons.

  • JD Walters

    Dr. McGrath,I do think that nervousness is unavoidable. I myself have been feeling the force of the plentiful evidence for people believing all sorts of supernatural claims based on the flimsiest of evidence. But I'll take nervousness over despair any day:) I am happy if historical research can show that the orthodox interpretation of Christian origins is at least as plausible as the alternatives.Talon,No, I don't think the difference is as great as you suggest. Ancient people were no more or less superstitious than we are today, and many writers exhibited a concern to discern fact from fiction just as we do. And as for miracles and exorcisms, I very strongly deny that we KNOW that they are not true. How thorough has your examination of the evidence been? Your dismissal seems to be very much along the lines of Bultmann's famous claim that the man who uses electricity simply cannot believe in miracles. I suggest you start with Rex Gardner's "Healing Miracles: A Doctor Investigates" and go on to Morton Kelsey, "Healing and Christianity" and for more advanced reading "Medical Miracles" by Jacalyn Duffin. As far as exorcisms, consult Philip Wiebe's "God and other spirits", Graham Twelftree's "Christ Triumphant" and Felicitas D. Goodman's "How about demons?" They're all scholarly works, not just lay summaries of testimonies.

  • Jay

    At risk of hijacking James' comment thread…JD -A quick and admittedly superficial review of the sources that you cite suggests to me that they aren't as scholarly as you might think, and may have some strong bias that limits their usefulness as objective resources.It might be more useful if you could cite a specific case that you think demonstrates a genuine miracle or exorcism, which we could then discuss in some detail. It also appears that you're conflating the concepts of superstition and scientific ignorance. It's very easy to see how a 17th century observer, when seeing someone in the grip of, say, an epileptic seizure or perhaps a psychotic episode, might conclude that the victim is possessed by some sort of spirit or demon, particularly if the observer has no knowledge of of the electrical and chemical nature of the brain. It's not so much superstition as it is the lack of a solid knowledge base that would lead to a conclusion like this, no matter how concerned the observer is with separating fact from fiction. I think Talon's dismissal of miracles and exorcisms is based more on the fact that such things don't hold up well under scrutiny, and tend to have much more mundane causes than supernatural ones.

  • JD Walters

    Jay,It's true that epileptic symptoms are particularly prone to being misinterpreted (even called the 'divine disease' in antiquity) but I don't think it takes a background in modern science to distinguish between natural and supernatural illness. Take the Gospels, for example:"So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them" (Matthew 4:24)"That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick and oppressed by demons…And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…" (Mark 1:32, 34)Note in both cases that the evangelists distinguish between people who are sick and people possessed by demons, and especially between epileptics and the possessed.As for case studies, why don't we start here: author is an acquaintance and is available to question. I trust his account. It's very sober and critical, nothing sensational, not being told for any sort of financial or other gain. Read it and see what you think.