The Emperor’s New Clothes
Eyewitness to Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence About the Origin of the Gospels
Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew d’Ancona
(New York: Doubleday, 1996) 206 pp., $23.95
Do three fragments of the Gospel of Matthew date to just after the time of Jesus? Does a Dead Sea Scroll fragment contain a text from the Gospel of Mark? To both these controversial questions, Carsten Thiede, the director of the Institute for Basic Epistemological Research, in Paderborn, Germany, and his co-author, Matthew d’Ancona, deputy editor of the Sunday Times of London, answer “yes!” The publisher has not been shy about making the most of Thiede’s claims—witness the “Amazing” in the book’s subtitle. The question, however, is how well has Thiede supported his claims?
Let’s look at the Dead Sea Scroll fragment 7Q5 first. It was found in Cave 7 at Qumran and so must have been written before A.D. 68 (when the Romans destroyed Qumran). Alas, it contains only a dozen complete letters and parts of eight others, and one cannot be certain what this text is.
As in his previous publications on the fragment, Thiede continues to defend the suggestion made in 1972 by the Spanish papyrologist José O’Callaghan that the text is from Mark 6:52–53. But to come to this conclusion, Thiede and O’Callaghan have had to make a number of assumptions concerning doubtful letters and variant readings of the fragment—assumptions that most other scholars have found quite unpersuasive. It is significant that the Münster Institute, established by Kurt Aland to maintain a world-wide catalogue of New Testament Greek manuscripts, has not registered 7Q5 as a New Testament papyrus text.
The three other fragments discussed by Thiede and d’Ancona clearly contain verses from the Gospel of Matthew, but the problem here is in ascertaining the date of the fragments, which are listed as p64 in the Münster register.
Known since 1901, when they were acquired by the library of Magdalen College, Oxford, these fragments were dated by C. H. Roberts and by other expert paleographers to the late second century. This date was challenged by Thiede in a sensational article written by d’Ancona for the London Times on December 24, 1994. The article dated the fragments to about A.D. 60, which would put them to just a generation after Jesus.a
Thiede and Ancona’s new volume is an extraordinary production, padded with whole chapters of irrelevant material, yet curiously reticent—not to say deficient—when it comes to crucial questions about dating of manuscripts. As with many newspaper accounts, one finds in this book occasional errors, such as “Heraclion” (pp. 19 and 195) instead of “Heracleon,” and a reference to “the late C. F. D. Moule of Cambridge University” (p. 17), who happily is still in the land of the living (I received a letter from him last week). More serious, however, is the slack scholarship of the authors as reflected in their paleographical comments concerning the dating of the Magdalen fragments of Matthew.
The dating of undated Greek manuscripts involves a comparison with the handwriting of other specimens, both dated and undated. The analysis of a hand depends not only on the shape of letters, but also on their formation—on the sequence of letter strokes and their comparative thickness, on the proportions of height and breadth in characters, and on 014the use of serifs and flourishes at the end of strokes (called Zierstil in German).
An important part in the comparison of two hands is that a comparison of all the letters of the alphabet is required. Twelve may be similar, but if the other twelve are dissimilar, one would be mistaken in claiming that the hands were the same. Because fashions in handwriting are unlikely to have changed everywhere at the same time and at the same rate, paleographers usually allow an outer limit of 50 years on each side of a proposed date for a manuscript. A careful paleographer, in other words, would not suggest so specific a date as “about 66” for the Magdalen fragments (p. 125).
One looks in vain for a sustained discussion by Thiede of recent work done on the style in which the Magdalen fragments are written, the Biblical Uncial style. Except for a casual reference in a footnote to G. Cavallo’s magisterial Richerche sulla maiuscola biblica (1967), Thiede presents no reasons for abandoning the consensus view that p64 is an early example of the Biblical Uncial style. In Cavallo’s portfolio of facsimiles Thiede would have found several that have a close resemblance to the script of p64 (e.g., plate 12a and plate 15a; compare also plate 14)—all from the end of the second century.
Thiede’s discussions do not increase one’s confidence in his reliability. At one point he writes, “Unlike typical examples of second-, third-, and fourth-century Uncials, the letters on [the Oxford fragments] are drawn in an even manner—the horizontal and vertical strokes are equally ‘thick’” (p. 120). This is simply untrue, as can be seen from a glance at Thiede’s own reproductions, which show that the vertical strokes are regularly thicker than the horizontal.
He also refers to the so-called Zierstil, stating that the small ornamental strokes that characterize it “occur in the Magdalen papyrus, for example in the letters alpha, gamma,delta, and lamda” (p. 121). This again is completely untrue.
Finally, Thiede remarks, quite correctly, that what is needed is a precisely dated manuscript that would corroborate his conclusions: “And such a manuscript, a dated papyrus resembling the Magdalen Papyrus almost like a twin—in general appearance and in the shape and formation of individual letters—does indeed exist” (p. 124). The linchpin for Thiede’s argument is none other than P. Oxy. 246 (a registration of livestock dated A.D. 66). Strangely enough, Thiede has not included a photograph of the manuscript so important to his argument. When one consults the plate of this papyrus in the second volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, it is plain why he has not done so. So far from being “almost like a twin” to the Magdalen papyrus, it is difficult to see any resemblance whatever!
Eyewitness to Jesus, which initially gives the reader the impression of being a careful, objective analysis of palaeographical details of early manuscripts, is instead an example of journalistic sensationalism and dubious scholarship.
The Sermon on the Mount
Hans Dieter Betz, edited by Adele Yarbro Collins
Hermeneia series (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) xxxvii + 695 pp., $72.00
Most Christian believers see the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) as embodying what is most distinctive, even radical, in Jesus’ teaching. One thinks immediately of the “hard sayings” about loving enemies and nonviolence (Matthew 5:38–48), and of the reversals of worldly standards represented by the Beatitudes. Considering Jesus’ Jewish background, many see the “antitheses” (Matthew 5:21–48) as an example of Jesus distancing himself from the religion of his hearers: Jesus seems to substitute an original and more heartfelt reading of morality for the old prescriptions of “the Law.”
These kinds of assumptions about the uniqueness of the Sermon on the Mount are laid to rest by Hans Dieter Betz. Betz uses historical-critical scholarship to describe the continuity between the Sermon and the Judaism familiar to Jesus and his first followers. (Betz similarly argues that the Sermon on the Plain 016[Luke 6:17–49] reflects moral ideals familiar to Luke’s Greek audience.) The resulting volume is massive and detailed, including extensive reviews of scholarly interpretations throughout Christian history.
Betz follows the emergent consensus that Jesus’ ministry and teaching are strongly indebted to his Jewish background and that the Sermon on the Mount appears in a gospel intended for a largely Jewish community. The two versions of the Sermon—in Matthew and Luke—are an epitome of the teachings of Jesus for instructing those who joined the Jesus movement: Matthew’s and Luke’s communities are two different branches of this “brand of Judaism.”
In Betz’s view, what might be distinctive about Jesus does not emerge in either Sermon as such but through the cumulative effect of the gospel as a whole in which each sermon is set. In line with this thesis, Betz denies that the Sermon on the Mount (SM) or the Sermon on the Plain (SP) was composed by either Luke or Matthew from some common, pre-existing collection of Jesus’ sayings, either oral or written. Instead, Betz argues that both SM and SP were composed by presynoptic redactors—highly indebted to Jewish and Greek religious and moral ideas—and were known independently to Matthew and Luke, possibly within two different versions of Q (a hypothesized source for Matthew and Luke). Taken by itself, then, “the SM contains a consistent Jewish-Christian theology of a period earlier than Matthew, a theology remaining in the context of Judaism.” Although “uncommon,” Jesus’ theology, of which the SM and SP give us two variants, was still within “the possibilities of Jewish theology in the first century C.E.,” Betz argues. Throughout his discussion of the SM, Betz elucidates parallels with Jewish belief.
Betz sees the Beatitudes as historically the best-known and most-valued portion of the Sermon. The SM views the world around the disciples in terms of Jewish piety, as, for example, in separating the unrighteous, who are defined as “the poor in spirit,” from the righteous. Betz also views poverty as a material and not merely a spiritual condition, resulting from un-just social conditions. However, the SM assumes that it is a general human predicament, which if accepted with humility, will merit reward in the future.
Betz maintains that a key function of the Beatitudes is to set out conditions under which disciples will enjoy a new existence, a salvation that will be completed at the end of the world if the necessary conditions are fulfilled. The “kingdom of the heavens” that they are promised by the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3, 10) implies God’s present rule over all creation (earth and heavens) as well as his judgment of the world to follow the end of the present world. Thus salvation or condemnation can be pronounced now in the Beatitudes because they are in a way present realities.
Some variant on the Golden Rule can be found in virtually every culture. While it is considered self-evident by Luke, Matthew backs it up by Jewish teaching (7:12). In Christian ethics, the more focused and challenging command to “love your enemies” is the nexus of longstanding debate about the meaning of the Christian way of life and about whether Jesus’ very radical demands can realistically—or even responsibly—be put into practice. Betz seems to see this entire controversy as misplaced because the principle of nonretaliation was a common ideal in ancient literature, both Jewish and Greek. For early followers of Jesus, the enemy is the fellow Jew who sees them as heretics. Betz also discerns Jewish roots in the belief that to forgo satisfaction or reward now will preserve it in the world to come.
Finally, Betz believes that the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:1–18) originated with the historical Jesus, but contrary to claims for the uniqueness of Jesus, it reflects merely his particular insights “into the Jewish religion and life as it was understood and practiced in his environment.” One distinctive—if not unique—note arises in the universality of Jesus’ view of the relation of God to humanity. God is “our” Father, including all human beings on earth.
Two fundamental ethical points emerge from this consideration of the Sermon on the Mount. First, the distinctive content of Christian discipleship should not be sought out primarily in relation to general norms and ideals (for example, “Love your neighbor”), whether Jewish or Greek, but as a reaction to the actual moral practices of human societies: If self-promotion, dominance and exploitation constitute the status quo, Jesus offers a vision in which compassion, forgiveness, mercy and solidarity are the transformative edge of an experience of God. Second, Jesus takes familiar cultural and religious values, and without introducing any unheard of moral value or norm, rearranges virtues into a new pattern, so that love, mercy and justice are at the very center of righteous existence under God. Neither totally unique nor reducible to cultural influences, this new pattern defines the experience of God that Jesus Christ mediates.
Betz has provided an immensly detailed commentary on every aspect of the Sermon on the Mount. Many will disagree with his thesis that a pre-Matthean author wrote the Sermon, which was then incorporated into the gospel. All will profit, however, from his careful analysis of the text and especially from the presentation of the Jewish and Greco-Roman sources and background of the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.
The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity
Debora Kuller Shuger
(Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994), 297 pp., $40
It has been said that the history of biblical interpretation is the history of Western thought. The ways in which modern scholars study the Bible have roots in many periods, but none deeper than those in the Renaissance.
Between roughly 1450 and 1650, European scholars, theologians and laypersons learned to address and think of the Bible in radically new ways. The medieval worldview, in which the Bible was the source of all knowledge, changed under the impact of new discoveries, including the rediscovery of Greek and Latin literature, the new availability of Jewish literature (including Targums and the Talmud), the astonishing findings of scientists and astronomers, and not least, the opening up of the New World.
The nature of European society and economy also changed, from a loose arrangement of medieval fiefdoms and empires to nascent cities with a vibrant merchant class. Centers of learning shifted from monasteries to new universities in Paris, Oxford and Leiden. Medieval Christianity splintered into myriad denominations, Protestant and Catholic. Each of these shifts carried implications for the interpretation of the Bible, which hasn’t been the same since.
Debora Kuller Shuger, a professor of English at UCLA, here provides the most penetrating view of Renaissance biblical interpretation to date. Shuger practices what is called in academic circles the New Historicism, which means that she is interested in English literature not as a group of texts but rather as one part of the whole mesh of culture, society, politics and economics of a particular place and era. If the New Historicism in English departments is generally tinged with a materialistic ideology derived from academic Marxism, Shuger’s approach is thankfully free of political baggage.
What Shuger has accomplished is a new view of the role biblical interpretation played in many of the changes in culture and mentality that characterized the Renaissance, including shifts in the concepts of the self, of sexuality and emotion, and of human reason. In other words, the “codes” that organized medieval culture and thought changed fundamentally in this period, making possible modes of thought previously unimaginable. As in so many periods of change, the practice of biblical interpretation was central to many of the shifts in argument and conception.
Shuger traces the changes in the sense of history among the Renaissance scholars, from the biblically derived conception of history as a series of covenants or empires, to what we recognize today as political or cultural history; in other words, the past becomes an “other,” a foreign zone approached from a chronological and emotional distance. At the same time, the past remains the place of cultural origins and biblical revelation. How can the past, including biblical history, be alien and foreign, yet holy? The status and authority of the past remains a central problem in much modern biblical interpretation.
Other important matters that first arose in Renaissance biblical interpretation, and with which we still struggle today, include the role of emotions and sexuality in religion. Passion and eroticism came to be excluded from religious discourse in the Renaissance, in sharp contrast to popular medieval texts, where the erotic and the spiritual often flow together. As biblical interpretation became “purified” of excess emotions and irrationality, the cultural and textual medium for exploring emotions, sexuality and subjectivity shifted increasingly to literature and away from religion. The work of Shakespeare is an exemplary instance of this shift in the representation of the self and human existence from religious to literary texts. The nature of modern literature is thus related to the shifts in biblical interpretation that occurred during the Renaissance. To this I would add that the new methods of reading the Bible as literature represent, in a sense, the ultimate extension of the Renaissance textual shift, closing the loop, as it were, between biblical and literary discourses.
This book and the period it explores are rich in insights into the origins of modern biblical interpretation and modern thought and culture generally. It is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one for the determined reader. Those interested in the complicated relationship between the rise of modern culture and modern biblical interpretation will find an illuminating guide in The Renaissance Bible.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
Eyewitness to Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence About the Origin of the Gospels