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Thursday, July 31, 2003

That ain't no way to treat a lady.

My main problem with Prof. Fredriksen, et al., is the too-superior dismissal of the Gospels:

We already knew that Gibson's efforts to be "as truthful as possible" (his own words in the Times) would be frustrated by the best sources that he had to draw on, namely, the Gospels themselves. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, whose texts were composed in Greek between 70 C.E. and 100 C.E., differ significantly on matters of fact.

* * *

The evangelists wrote some forty to seventy years after Jesus's execution. Their literary problems are compounded by historical ones: it is difficult to reconstruct, from their stories, why Jesus was crucified at all....But the historical fact behind the Passion narratives--Jesus's death on a cross--points to a primarily Roman agenda.

"But the historical fact behind the Passion narratives"....As though everything but the Crucifixion itself was a pastiche of fancy and wishful theologizing. Midrash for the goyim, I suppose.

However, to be fair, this speculative skepticism is hardly unique to Prof. Fredriksen. Flip open your NAB to the Gospel introductions and footnotes, which assert on the basis of unverified hypotheses that the Gospels (with the possible exception of Mark) are all post-70 AD, and calmly inform the reader that the early Christians were clever fabricators. Consider, for example, this event from Matthew 17:24-27:

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said, "Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?"
"Yes," he said. When he came into the house, before he had time to speak, Jesus asked him, "What is your opinion, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax? From their subjects or from foreigners?"
When he said, "From foreigners," Jesus said to him, "Then the subjects are exempt.
But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and for you."

An interesting story, but the NAB's background is even more "interesting." According to footnote 20:

Like Matthew 14:28-31 and Matthew 16:16b-19, this episode comes from Matthew's special material on Peter. Although the question of the collectors concerns Jesus' payment of the temple tax, it is put to Peter. It is he who receives instruction from Jesus about freedom from the obligation of payment and yet why it should be made. The means of doing so is provided miraculously. The pericope deals with a problem of Matthew's church, whether its members should pay the temple tax, and the answer is given through a word of Jesus conveyed to Peter. Some scholars see here an example of the teaching authority of Peter exercised in the name of Jesus (see Matthew 16:19). The specific problem was a Jewish Christian one and may have arisen when the Matthean church was composed largely of that group.

Chew on that for a moment. Underneath all that calm dry prose is a rather startling assertion: it never happened. Instead, it was a story made up after the fact to justify continued payment of the temple tax. Now, to be sure, there is record of Peter getting the word on how to guide the early Church from visions (see Acts 10:9-16), but this isn't presented as a vision. It's presented as an actual event in Jesus' life, just like that "distinctive table fellowship" we're always hearing about. But on the basis of...well, nothing at all, really, we're supposed to accept the latter as "historical" and the former as unhistorical. Why? You could just as easily say dinnertime was another invention of the early Church justifying its decision to broaden its base amongst the marginal figures of second temple Judaism. If you keep playing in this house of mirrors, you are left with nothing verifiable at all.

Here's the analogy: when the Jesus Seminar folks belly up to the counter and order the supersize double Quarter Pounder with Cheese combo meal, a large chocolate shake, a cherry pie and a cheeseburger on the side, our scholars simply order the medium size combo meal with a Diet Coke and pass on the desserts. As if that makes a real difference in the long run.

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