History in the Bible

History in the Bible February 19, 2015

Dever quote

Along with the quote from Daniel Wallace which I shared previously, Yuriy Stasyuk also shared the above quote from William Dever – a graduate of Butler University! It nicely sums up the majority viewpoint on the Bible and history.

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  • histrogeek

    Thing that I always like to point out is that any historical source from the era’s covered in the Bible are bound to have lots of mythical and legendary overlays. Greek and Roman historians used the Iliad as a historical source and most historians of the era were happy to put in oracles and omens without any problem.

  • Alan Christensen

    That’s certainly a reasonable, nuanced middle position between “It’s inerrant” and “It’s all a bunch of fairy tales” (the only two positions, to hear it from fundamentalists and a lot of atheists).

    • Careful of how you characterize atheists. “lot of atheists”, maybe, but I doubt a majority of atheists. And when you look at atheist biblical scholars in particular the number who think “it’s all a bunch of fairy tales” would be 0.

      • Alan Christensen

        Duly noted.

  • john macdonald

    I would be a little more optimistic about finding history in The New Testament if the central event of the religion didn’t stink so much of midrash.________________________________________________________
    (1) It is likely that the passion and resurrection of Jesus are just made up historical fictions. In “On The Historicity of Jesus,” Carrier demonstrates the passion narrative may be constructed by a haggadic midrash rewrite of Isaiah 52-3, the Wisdom of Solomon, Psalm 22, Daniel 9 and 12, and Zechariah 3 and 6. ________________________________________________________________
    (2) Crossan and Miller & Miller point out the empty tomb is a midrash or pesher of Joshua chapter 10, and the vigil of the mourning women likely reflects the women’s mourning cult of the dying and rising god, long familiar in Israel (Ezekiel 8:14, Zechariah 12:11, Canticles 3:1-4, etc.)_________________________________________________________________
    (3) Jesus’ resurrection narrative is a pesher of Psalm 16. Peter stressed the significance of the resurrection and cited the prophecy predicting it in Psalm 16: “God raised him up, losing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it … Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:24, 29-32). Of course, Psalm 16 was not making a prophesy about Jesus, but rather Psalm 16 was used in a midrash to invent the story of Christ’s resurrection. Matthew also used the book of Daniel to construct the resurrection narrative.

    • This comment misunderstands what Midrash and Pesher are. They are ways of interpreting the Bible, not ways of turning stories from the Bible into other stories.

      There seems to be widespread confusion about this. Ancient Jews regularly interpreted their own experiences in light of scriptural stories and paradigms. But those interpretations would make little sense if we were to view them as something else, namely as invention of events in their experience on the basis of scripture.

    • SocraticGadfly

      Midrash, especially haggadah, is much more like homiletics than your ideas, John. Pesher is more like searching a scripture for multiple levels of meaning, like allegory, etc.

      If one wants to use “proof-texting” for things like what the gospel authors did, other Jewish religious writings of the era did this too.

      • John MacDonald

        I state the sources for my understanding of haggadic midrash in the New Testament in my post below. If you would like to explore this, buy a copy of “The Encyclopedia of Midrash ed. Jacob Neusner and Alan Avery Peck,” and “The Jewish Annotated New Testament, ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler”

        • SocraticGadfly

          Haggadah, or aggadah (since midrash of this nature wouldn’t be halakah) would be based on the presumption of a historic Jesus, then using past passages to relate to an action in his life. It wasn’t used to “invent history.” Neusner’s a fine source; Carrier’s claim that it was about inventing history isn’t.

        • I am familiar with both of those works. I think you have misunderstood the meaning of Midrash. To be fair, I’ve encountered some New Testament scholars who have misunderstood the term, and so you might well have gotten it from one of them. But neither of those Jewish sources is likely to have misused it. I certainly haven’t come across instances of them doing so.

          • John MacDonald

            Hi Dr. McGrath:
            Here is a quote about the use of haggadic midrash by the New Testament writers from “The Encyclopedia of Midrash,” edited by Jacob Neusner and Alan Avery Peck: “The line is thin between extrapolating new meanings from ancient scriptures (borrowing the authority of the old) and actually composing new scripture (or quasi-scripture) by extrapolating from the old. By this process of midrashic expansion grew the Jewish haggadah, new narrative commenting on old (scriptural) narrative by rewriting it. Haggadah is a species of hypertext, and thus it cannot be fully understood without reference to the underlying text on which it forms a kind of commentary. The earliest Christians being Jews, it is no surprise that they practiced haggadic expansion of scripture, resulting in new narratives partaking of the authority of the old. The New Testament gospels and the Acts of the Apostles can be shown to be Christian haggadah upon Jewish scripture, and these narratives can be neither fully understood nor fully appreciated without tracing them to their underlying sources … It has been customary to suppose that early Christians began with a set of remarkable facts (whether few or many) and sought after the fact for scriptural predictions for them, the goal being to show that even though the founding events of their religion defied contemporary messianic expectation, they were nonetheless in better accord with prophecy, that recent events clarified ancient prophecy in retrospect. Thus modern scholars might admit that Hosea 11:1 (‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’) had to be taken out of context to provide a pedigree for the fact of Jesus’ childhood sojourn in Egypt, but that it was the story of the flight into Egypt that made early Christians go searching for the Hosea text. Now it is apparent, just to take this example, that the flight into Egypt is midrashic all the way down. That is, the words in Hosea 11:1 ‘my son,’ catching the early Christian eye, generated the whole story, since they assumed such a prophecy about the divine Son must have had its fulfillment. And the more apparent it becomes that most gospel narratives can be adequately accounted for by reference to scriptural prototypes … the more natural it is to picture early Christians beginning with a more or less vague savior myth and seeking to lend it color and detail by anchoring it in a particular historical period and clothing it in scriptural garb. We must now envision proto-Christian exegetes ‘discovering’ for the first time what Jesus the Son of God had done and said ‘according to the scriptures’ by decoding the ancient texts. Today’s Christian reader learns what Jesus did by reading the gospels; his ancient counterpart learned what Jesus did by reading Joshua and 1 Kings. It was not a question of memory but of creative exegesis. Sometimes the signals that made particular scriptural texts attractive for this purpose are evident (like ‘my son’ in Hosea 11:1), sometimes not. But in the end the result is a new perspective according to which we must view the gospels and Acts as analogous with the Book of Mormon, an inspiring pastiche of stories derived creatively from previous scriptures by a means of literary extrapolation.”

          • Who is the author of that entry in the volume, I wonder?

        • Mo Kip

          If I recall, Harvard’s James Kugel speaks of the interpretive work of Midrash as absolutely integral to the authorship of the Judeo-Christian texts of the Common Era — calling such Midrashic work “exegetical narrative expansion” from the Hebrew scriptures. I haven’t time to go find the specific quotes — but — I think John MacDonald is not in left field on this …

  • SocraticGadfly

    Anyway, given Mr. MacDonald’s misunderstanding of midrash, and given his failure to look at a broad range of exegetical issues on matters like Ezekiel 8 and Zechariah 12, his use of the word “stink” in his first comment, and his note of how Carrier tries to to Zechariah 3 and 6 to the Passion (by some sort of exegetical violence?), I’ll work on the idea that he’s a mythicist and drop out of the comments.

    • John MacDonald

      Okay we’ll agree to disagree. I’m not a mythicist by the way.

      • SocraticGadfly

        OK … it seems weird that you’d that staunchly defend Carrier, otherwise, but, to each their own.

        • John MacDonald

          chacun à son gout – lol
          I can agree with some of what Carrier says without agreeing with all of what Carrier says.

  • Martin

    There are plenty of scholars other than Carrier and Spong who think that many gospel stories are invented from rewriting Septuagint stories. This goes back to David Freidrich Strauss and all the way through to the present day. The nativity stories are examples par excellence. No critical scholar that I know of thinks that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. I hope that Dr McGrath’s assertions to the contrary was just an oversight on his part.

    • John MacDonald

      As Bart Ehrman points out in “Did Jesus Exist?”, the nativity story of Jesus recapitulates the story of Moses. There is no reason think there is any historical memory there. And Ehrman certainly believes in the historical Jesus.

      • Gary

        Pg 198 “The fact that a story about a person has been shaped according to the mold of older stories and traditions does not prove that the core of the story is unhistorical. It simply shows how the story came to take its shape.”
        Pg 199 “In point after point, Matthew stresses the close parallels between the life of Jesus and the life of Moses. And his reason for doing so is clear: for Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses, who provides the authoritative interpretation of the Law of God to the people who choose to follow him. This portrayal is distinctive to Matthew: the other Gospels do not include all of these parallels… It is the way Matthew personally shaped the story, for reasons of his own.”…”But the fact that Matthew shaped the story in this way has nothing to do with the question of whether or not Jesus existed.”

    • There is no doubt that there are examples in the New Testament of (1) creation of stories patterned on precursors in the Jewish scriptures, (2) use of Jewish scripture to fill in the gaps in the story of Jesus, and (3) use of scripture to interpret historical events. But that is not Midrash (contra Spong) nor Pesher (contra Thiering), and neither of those two individuals’ idiosyncratic views ought to be a guide to what these form of Jewish scriptural interpretation entailed. The issue I am objecting to is that some start with the examples of this we have in the NT, then claim (wrongly) that this is the established genre known as Midrash, and then claim (implausibly) that the entire New Testament makes sense as examples of that misconstrued genre.

      • John MacDonald

        Then you are in complete disagreement with the team of scholars that published “The Jewish Annotated New Testament, ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler,” who affirm midrash as a major genre in New Testament writing.

        • I doubt that I am in complete disagreement with the team, but I suspect I disagree with the individual who penned the essay you quoted. Who was that? If you will not give me the name of the scholar, please at least cite a page number and I will look it up myself.

          Looking at the volume, David Stern’s essay on midrash and parables offers a good treatment of both the similarities and differences between NT texts and Jewish midrash. I recommend giving it a careful reading.

          • John MacDonald

            The encyclopedia article from “The Encyclopedia of Midrash?” It’s Price’s article. You’ve read it and commented on it a couple of years ago. It’s been on the internet for about a decade. Here is the article if you want to read it again: http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/art_midrash1.htm __________________________________
            Co editor of “The Encyclopedia of Midrash” and contributor to “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” Dr. Alan Avery Peck says Price is, on the whole, correct about the arguments made in this article and the instances of midrash that he identifies, and that “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” carries the midrash argument forward in a fruitful manner.

          • Ah, so you were quoting Price. What he is saying really isn’t the same thing as you’ll find articulated by mainstream scholars of Judaism with respect to Midrash. I recommend reading David Stern’s contribution to the volume which you apparently already have.

          • John MacDonald

            I am wondering what your opinion would be on the text box on page 89 of “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” entitled “Scripture Fulfillments” which describes how midrash was used to describe the crucifixion narrative. Do you think there is any historical material here? Just click on the link and scroll up to page 89: https://books.google.com/books?id=DZRJ5zXUI2QC&pg=PA93&dq=jewish+annotated+new+testament+mark+crucifixion&hl=en&sa=X&ei=UVXnVJXIJIOhgwSdl4K4DQ&ved=0CB8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=jewish%20annotated%20new%20testament%20mark%20crucifixion&f=false

          • I don’t understand why you insist on using the term “midrash” for that process. There is no way to seriously doubt that Jesus was crucified. It is unsurprising that those followers who didn’t abandon their belief that he was the Davidic messiah at that point turned to the Jewish scriptures to try to make sense of what happened, and tried to turn details in the Jewish scriptures into foreshadowings of the crucifixion. If that is what you envisage, that is a mainstream scholarly view.

          • John MacDonald

            Spong says an argument can reasonably be made on textual grounds that Isaiah 53, Wisdom of Solomon, and and Psalm 22 are the basis for the passion narrative.
            Spong points out that all Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians about the crucifixion is just one line: “Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.”Spong suggests Paul may have recorded no narrative details of that event because there were no narrative details at the time he was writing. That is quite possible, because Mark tells us that when Jesus was arrested ALL the disciples “took flight and fled (14:50).” There is no reason for Mark to recount the embarrassing abandonment if it were not true. This would mean Jesus in all probability died alone, without any eyewitnesses. This would, of course, have made the details of the crucifixion impossible to record, since no one witnessed the event.

            The story also seems fictional because of us being told what Jesus said from the cross, but also what Jesus and the high priest said to each other, and what Jesus and the crowd said to each other (who would have been around to record these conversations?).

      • Andrew Dowling

        I would disagree there isn’t “midrashic interpretation” (may have invented that word) in the Gospels, but agree that theories they’re complete fiction via authors simply “midrashing” the OT are laughable.