If BR Is Bad, BAR Must Be Worse
Thank God my subscription finally expired. It will no longer clutter up my mailbox. I found your sister magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review, to be a fairly intelligent and informative magazine. I subscribed to BR because I thought that a high level of intelligence and information would be found in that magazine also.
Boy, was I wrong. It didn’t take much more than a couple of articles to realize that BR is not about intelligence and information; it appears to be a forum to dispense ungodly, unbiblical and un-Christian propaganda.
In fact, the highlight of your glossy rag was the letters from those who were so offended by your garbage that they canceled their subscriptions.
Well, I didn’t cancel my subscription—I let it run out. In fact, I am so offended by BR’s garbage that when my subscription to BAR runs out, I may not renew it either. BR contains stories and disinformation on such a level that I must have been fooled as to BAR’s real agenda in promoting both magazines.
As the Bible says, you can tell a tree by the fruit it bears. Biblically, a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. Since the fruit—BR—is bad, the tree—BAR—must also be bad.
A Welcome Balance
BR is one of the very few magazines I subscribe to. For many years I have been delighted (and occasionally disappointed) by its articles. Recently it appears that you are making more of an attempt to include some conservative scholarly perspectives, which is only fair to your readers. Your
BR’s Demise Forecast
BR has become a mere outlet for whimsy created by authors whose chief accomplishment consists of having served time in some academic institution. This is a sure prescription for BR’s demise as more and more readers come reluctantly to the same conclusion as I.
Apalachin, New York
Jesus in Galilee
The Difference Between History and Midrash
I found Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s article “Why Jesus Went Back to Galilee,” BR 12:01, very interesting. But his analysis of Jesus’ baptism by John makes me wonder if the baptism, as described in the Gospels, occurred at all.
Looking at the baptism, Murphy-O’Connor states that Jesus’ vision of the Holy Spirit coming down from heaven and his hearing of a heavenly voice are more than likely “theological interpretation[s]” of the baptism. Far from taking these accounts of “a vision and a voice” literally, first-century Jewish and Christian theologians would instead have asked “what the symbols were meant to convey.” In this case, “the evangelists’ descriptions were designed to evoke the great prayer of Isaiah 63:7 through 64:11.” In this manner, the Gospels presented “the beginning of the public life of Jesus as the response of God to the petition of his people.”
But if the vision and the voice from heaven are “midrashic expansion[s],” then could the baptism itself be looked at in the same way? Mark’s account may be “the most primitive,” but since Paul makes no mention of Jesus’ baptism by John—makes no mention of John the Baptist, period—then it would appear that Mark’s is the first account of the baptism. Further, if, as scholars argue, Matthew and Luke incorporate Mark into their gospels—smooth out and correct him, according to Murphy-O’Connor—then 005would not this in a sense make Mark’s the only account of the baptism? We would therefore have to determine exactly what the intent was of the author of the only book in the New Testament that actually calls itself a gospel.
The question then arises: If a part of the account of the baptism of Jesus, if not all of it, is to be considered a “theological interpretation,” then what other events in the Gospels can be looked at in the same way? James Dunn says that the Sermon on the Mount, mentioned only by Matthew, “is in fact not historical.” Rather, the Sermon is “simply an editorial device to hold together a range of similar and closely related teaching material derived from Jesus.” Again, use of such a technique would not have caused an uproar in the first century, but was instead “quite familiar and acceptable.”1
Similarly, Bishop John Spong emphasizes the midrashic approach to the Gospels. The flight to Egypt? Young Jesus in the Temple? “Haggadic midrash! You do not ask of midrash, Did it happen? You ask, What was there about Jesus that caused him to be incorporated into the midrashic tradition?”2 The purpose of Bishop Spong’s book, of course, is to apply midrash to the accounts of the resurrection. After examining the Gospels, he concludes that it would be quite wrong to take the resurrection literally. The accounts “are not the truth,” but rather “pointers toward the truth.”3
How historical can the Gospels be? Are Murphy-O’Connor’s speculations concerning Jesus’ baptism by John simply wrong-headed? How can we really know if the baptism, or any other event written about in the Gospels, is historical? What makes “the vision and the voice” midrash, yet the baptism historical, at least according to Murphy-O’Connor? Is there a way to separate midrash from history?
This is not the first time I have asked this question concerning not only the New Testament, but the Bible as a whole. Since I am partial to the midrashic approach, and most of the people I have asked have been literalists, instead of an answer I usually have 1 Corinthians 3:19 foisted on me—“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” Aside from noting that this quotation is a double-edged sword, I still await an answer.
N. Royalton, Ohio
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor responds:
Blanket judgments that everything in the New Testament is historical or that everything is fabricated should be rejected by common sense. The historicity of episodes and sayings in the Gospels have to be evaluated in each case, and no shortcuts are possible. I personally have a bias towards history in that I assume that an event or a saying is historical unless I am forced to conclude the opposite. Thus I assumed that Jesus had in fact been baptized by John and confirmed that assumption by showing that no Christian theologian had any incentive to make up the fact of Jesus’ baptism. On the contrary, they must have wished it had never happened, because it only created difficulties. It assigned Jesus to the same category as others who needed repentance and thus raised the question of his sinlessness. It 006put him in an inferior position to John the Baptist, which raised questions regarding the real status of Jesus.
I started with the same assumption regarding the opening of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit and the voice, but in that case the assumption was overturned when I recognized that Jewish theologians at the time were inventing just such elements to explain events in the Old Testament. This made it more probable that Christian theologians, who were of Jewish origin, used the same technique to explain an event in the life of Jesus. It fitted the expectation of their readers.
The assumption that Christian writers regularly created midrashic narratives out of whole cloth is entirely gratuitous. There was always a fact that directed attention to a similar event in sacred history. Then the fact was written up (embroidered, if you will) in such a way as to invite the reader to make the same connection. This is how a midrash comes into being. In the case of the flight to Egypt, for example, the fact evoked the memory of the journey of Jacob to Egypt, and the story was told in such a way as to make Jesus the representative of his people, who also returned from Egypt.
Midrash is a narrative technique, which in itself proves nothing about the historicity of the event recorded, and in this case there is no doubt about the fact. As Herod’s grip weakened through illness, opposition to him began to manifest itself. He repressed it brutally. Micah 5:1–3 had predicted that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of a messianic ruler. It was quite in the cards that Herod might decide to wipe out the town completely, just in case. In such circumstances, there could be little doubt in anyone’s mind that leaving Bethlehem was a prudent decision. I would be extremely surprised if Joseph was the only one to have played it safe. A Bethlehemite male, however, would not be safe anywhere in Herod’s territory, and Egypt was the traditional place of refuge for Judeans. Anyone wishing to deny the flight to Egypt has an uphill task! But, it might be objected, could not the story have been made up just to evoke the parallel with Jacob? In theory, yes! But in that case, why make Jesus a child, who is simply an appendage of Mary and Joseph? The parallel with Jacob is gravely weakened by the fact that it is not Jesus who makes the decision.
What Baptism Was For
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s article was stimulating (see “Why Jesus Went Back to Galilee,” BR 12:01). It provided some new insights on the historical relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist and the reason for Jesus’ return to Galilee.
At the end of the article, Murphy-O’Connor writes, “If in Mark’s source Jesus was thought to be the resurrected John, it can only have been because Jesus was doing and saying the same things that John had said and done in Galilee.” I have no major problem with this statement, but I do question the next sentence on historical grounds: “Jesus was proclaiming and performing a baptism for the remission of sins.” I would argue that Josephus is a more accurate source than the Gospels on this point, and Josephus is explicit that John’s baptism was not for the remission of sins, as later Christian theology would have it. Josephus wrote that John “was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not 007employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they had committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already cleansed by right behavior” (Antiquities 18:117).
Fort Lewis College
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor responds:
The formulation you question is so abbreviated that it certainly gives rise to the misunderstanding that the baptism of John remitted sins. I should have used the New Testament formula “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Here forgiveness is related to repentance, and not directly to baptism. I doubt there is any real difference between Mark’s and Josephus’s view of John’s baptism.
Who Copied Whom?
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor made a crucial lapse of judgment in claiming that “no good reason can be postulated” for the omission within Mark and Luke of the verse in Matthew in which John says, “I need to be baptized by you,” which would allow that Matthew could have been the first of the Gospels (see “Why Jesus Went Back to Galilee,” BR 12:01). With the latter possibility, we see that the writer of Mark was abbreviating Matthew heavily, and did so extra heavily in paring down Matthew’s 81 verses before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to 14 verses within Mark.
Quite plausibly, then, he could spare no more than one verse to mention Jesus’ baptism by John, having already included John’s admission that he who came after him was mightier than he. The Matthean verse in question then was excess baggage to the writer of Mark, who was writing a gospel for gentiles. This latter is consistent with the external evidence suggesting Mark was written in Rome.
The writer of Luke evidently greatly preferred Mark over Matthew, since he followed Mark’s order and content where it deviated from Matthew’s. Thus in using Matthew to fill in important items that he desired to include in his universal gospel but which do not occur in Mark, he did so with little regard for preserving Matthew’s order and context. So his statement about the baptism and the descent of the Spirit (Luke 3:21b–22) parallels Mark 1:10–11 more closely than it does Matthew and is similarly terse. At the same time, one sees that the writer of Luke added the reverential touch of Jesus praying (Luke 3:21), lacking in the other two gospels.
With Matthew postulated to have been first, one may understand that the editorial behaviors directed by the writers of Mark and Luke against Matthew stemmed from Matthew’s many anti-gentile statements.
Research professor emeritus
Oregon State University
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor responds:
I find it hard to believe that Matthew was Mark’s source for the narrative of Jesus’ baptism. It is certainly possible that Mark abbreviated Matthew, but to make this hypothesis probable it would have to be shown that Mark consistently abbreviates Matthew, and this is not the case. On the contrary, in the miracle stories it is Matthew who abbreviates Mark. For example, compare Matthew 8:1–4 with Mark 1:40–45, and Matthew 8:14–15 with Mark 1:29–31.
Deuteronomy’s Real Revolution
I am grateful to Moshe Weinfeld, who, in his article “Deuteronomy’s Theological Revolution,” BR 12:01, clarified for me that the progression of theological thought in the Bible, far from being gradual and orderly, is beset by revolution. But why hold up Josiah’s Reform of 622 B.C.E. as the paragon of revolutionary change? Josiah’s Reform barely outlasted the reformer. After 609 B.C.E., as Jeremiah (7:18, 31; 8:2; 11:12–13; 44:17–18) tells us, the fruit of reform was scarcely visible.
A theological reform of truly revolutionary proportions did occur, however, just 36 years later. Its impact was felt not just for 13 but for 656 years—and even beyond. The immediate impetus for this reform came in 586 B.C.E. with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and its royal palace, Temple, and populace, and with the attendant exile of the surviving ruling elite to Babylon. This post-exilic reform transformed Israelite society from a populous pre-exilic dictatorial monarchy with an out-of-control, laid-back, democratic, pluralistic, syncretistic and idolatrous religion into a tentative post-exilic economic theocracy in which the dictatorial monarch was replaced by a powerful, no-nonsense priesthood that, unlike Josiah’s, incontrovertibly controlled the now truly centralized cult from Jerusalem.
Had Israelite worship undergone a “transition from sacrifice to a kind of abstract worship” by 586 B.C.E., Weinfeld claims, this post-exilic reform could not have taken root. For precisely monopolistic control over the cultic pratices—which often implies also control over the sacrifices—is the indispensable prerequisite from which coercive power of any priesthood is ultimately derived.
In ancient Israel, sacrifice was never intended to be a means of self-denial or to appease an angry deity. Instead it sought to include with gratefulness a gregarious God in a joyous and homey (no priest) celebration of the good life, such as an unexpected find (1 Samuel 6:13–14); a pregnancy (Judges 13:6–7, 15–24); a family gathering (1 Samuel 9:11–13, 19, 22–25); or any occasion where meat is slaughtered to be eaten (1 Samuel 14:31–35).
Similarly in post-exilic Israel, the sacrifice of unblemished animal and grain offerings of considerable economic value (2 Samuel 24:22–24; Deuteronomy 14:23–26) was intended as a grateful gratuity or token rent to the ultimate land-Lord (“The land is mine, and you are but aliens who have become my tenants,” Leviticus 25:23 [New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition, 1970]). Such sacrificially motivated economic production generated a material prosperity (Deuteronomy 8:1, 7–14, 17–18; Leviticus 26:3–13) sufficient to pluck—to redeem and save—an ethnic tribe and its patron God from the brink of post-exilic racial extinction and consequent oblivion (Numbers 14:11–12a, 15–20).
Brian Peckham (History and Prophecy [Doubleday, 1993], p. 2), applying a “literary criticism” technique heretofore foreign to the dominant scholarly tradition, has dated—thus independently and in my opinion convincingly so—the flourishing of the “Deuteronomic School,” not in the decades preceding Josiah’s Reform, but in the decades following 586 B.C.E. The implication here is that the Deuteronomic Historians were not the authors of the fleeting Josiah’s Reform, as Weinfeld would have it, but rather the very architects of the enduring post-exilic theocratic revolution.
Joseph Blenkinsopp (The Pentateuch [Doubleday, 1992], p. 239) dares suggest that the Pentateuch—and by inclusion Deuteronomy—is not merely a religious document but also a “constitutional” document of post-exilic vintage. The implication here is that the “Deuteronomic School” had a hand in juristically codifying that cultus and in politically legitimizing those sacrifices.
Far from paving the way for a religion of “prayer and book,” Deuteronomy’s Theological Revolution, in my opinion, transformed Israelite religion into a religion of sacrifice and constitution—into a religion of earthly redemption through priestly coercion and backbreaking work. This religion was spectacularly successful. It subsequently saved a decimated, leaderless, demoralized and impoverished (Haggai 1:5–11) racial remnant and its by now only God from ethnic collapse. It did so by converting a devastated promised land of marginal agricultural productivity into an adequate life-sustaining land of milk and honey—not in an “abstract” world of “prayer and book,” but in the real world.
Santa Barbara, California
Slighting a Female Prophet
In the article, “Deuteronomy’s Theological Revolution,” BR 12:01, Moshe Weinfeld states that the high priest “Hilkiah ‘found’ an important scroll” given by “the hand of Moses.” What is left out is that the scroll was included as Scripture based on the declaration of Huldah the Prophetess.
You’re right. See William E. Phipps, “A Woman Was the First to Declare Scripture Holy,” BR 06:02.—Ed.
I enjoyed Luke Johnson’s article, “The Search for (the Wrong) Jesus,” BR 11:06 and Dominic Crossan’s response, “Why Christians Must Search for the Historical Jesus,” BR 12:02. Johnson rightly challenges much of what passes for critical scholarship nowadays in research on the Gospels and the historical Jesus, and Crossan rightly challenges what seems to be an underlying assumption on Johnson’s part that historical Jesus scholarship is theologically illegitimate. Readers of BR may be interested in an article of mine on the same subject but written from a somewhat different perspective: “The Gospel According to the Jesus Seminar,” published in Religion 25 ( 1995), pp. 317–338. A slightly expanded version has also recently been published as an occasional paper of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in Claremont, California, with an afterword by James M. Robinson.
In my article I avoid theological debate and tackle head-on the claim of the Jesus Seminar, of which Crossan is co-chair, to be acting in a non-biased way, as they put it, “in accordance with the canons of historical inquiry.” The Seminar’s uncritical rejection of eschatology as a feature of Jesus’ teaching not only leads to a rejection of 82 percent of the Jesus tradition as “inauthentic,” it also leads to a gross distortion of the 18 percent they assign to the historical Jesus.
In addition, the Seminar’s historical presuppositions, for example, that Jesus was a Cynic-like sage frequenting the gentile cities of “urban Galilee,” habitually flouting the Jewish Law and demanding that his followers do the same, lead to a non-Jewish Jesus the “scholars” have forcibly wrenched out of his own first-century context.
In Germany in 1940 Walter Grundmann published a notorious book entitled Jesus der Galiläer und das Judentum (“Jesus the Galilean and Judaism”), arguing that Galilee was predominantly gentile and that Jesus’ ancestry was Aryan; Jesus drew on his ancestral Aryan traditions in espousing an anti-Jewish message.
I argue in my article that the Jesus Seminar’s project is likewise an ideologically driven one, in this case involving what I call an ideology of “secularization.” The Five Gospels (New York: Polebridge, 1993), as I conclude in my article, is the end-product of six years of highly publicized work that the critical eye can see as an attempt on the part of secularized theologians and secular academics to create a secular Jesus, a “‘party animal’ whose zany wit and caustic 011humor would enliven an otherwise dull cocktail party.”
University of California
Santa Barbara, California
Jesus and the Law
I was surprised to read in Helmut Koester’s column (“The Son of David and King of the Jews,” BR 12:01) that “the first to confess that Jesus is truly the Son of God is…a Roman centurion…(Matthew 27:54).” In fact, Matthew accords that honor to Peter, who in 16:16 says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Also unsettling was the simplistic assertion that “because of this claim to the kingship of Israel…Jesus was crucified by the Romans as a political criminal.” Matthew pretty directly identifies the arresting party as acting under orders of the religious authorities who, after a drumhead proceeding, handed Jesus over to Pilate “with prejudice.” Indeed, Jesus does seem to have done a rather good job of earning their disapprobation. Koester’s easy dismissal of their role as “another matter” buttresses his thesis but undermines his credibility.
Finally, one could wish that having broached the issue, Koester might have done more to resolve the apparent astigmatism in Matthew’s portrait of the Prophet-as-King who insists on the sanctity and inviolability of the Law but on occasion nullifies several of its fundamental demands.
Even if it meant a little more length, a bit more depth would have been nice.
Foster, Rhode Island
Helmut Koester responds:
Yes, if one takes the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, Mr. Hall is right when he says that Peter had already confessed Jesus to be the Son of God in Matthew 16:16. I was primarily concerned with the whole process of the trial of Jesus, where the confession of the Roman centurion, in Mark’s and Matthew’s descriptions, gives the final answer to the question of who this Jesus really is.
The dilemma of the author of the Gospel of Matthew is evident, but problematic. Matthew is a Jewish Christian who insists that the followers of Jesus obey the Law—and not just the Law but the Law in a radicalized form: “Not one letter, not one stroke of the law will pass away from the law” (Matthew 5:18)—and that the disciples’ righteousness must be better than that of the scribes and the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). This radicalization of the Law is then spelled out in the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:21–48). Matthew doubtlessly understood that such was indeed the fulfillment of the entire Law and that Jesus and the disciples were not breaking the Sabbath law; rather, “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12). The authority of the scribes and Pharisees as interpreters of the Law is acknowledged: They “sit on the throne of Moses; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it” (Matthew 23:2–3). The final mission command of the Gospel of Matthew (28:16–20) includes the explicit command that the disciples should teach the Gentiles to obey everything that Jesus has commanded them, to wit, to obey the Law of Moses. On the other hand, those 048missionaries to the Gentiles who only say “Lord, Lord” and do not obey the will of the Father, that is, do not obey the Law, will be rejected, even though they can boast that they have prophesied in Jesus’ name and have cast out demons in his name and have performed many miracles in his name: “Then I shall declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21–23; note that modern translations inaccurately render this phrase as “you evildoers”).
The solution proposed by Matthew—that followers of Jesus, even those from among the Gentiles, should obey the Law and thus qualify as true Israelites—has not been successful.
Matthew was convinced that the chief priests and elders could not come up with any charge against Jesus as a lawbreaker. He is condemned because of the accusations of false witnesses and because of the (ludicrous) charge of blasphemy. It is true that, according to Matthew, the Jewish council in Jerusalem was ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death; he presents the Roman governor Pilate as a somewhat innocent but willing tool of these Jewish authorities. There are, however, weighty reasons to doubt the historicity of that description of the trial and condemnation of Jesus. Both the punishment of death by crucifixion and the inscription on the cross point to the Romans as both the initiators of Jesus’ arrest and the executioners of Jesus—contrary to what Matthew and other Christian writers have reported.
None of the accounts of Jesus’ trial and the involvement of the Jerusalem authorities can be understood as historical reports. The Jewish historian Josephus makes clear that Roman administrators were always nervous and always quick to act whenever they suspected any political or religious unrest or uprising. It seems also evident that the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem were often eager to collaborate with the Romans. However, the character of the Christian passion narratives does not allow us to be certain to what degree this was true in the case of Jesus.
Understanding the Opposition
In the February issue, Howard Clarke, professor emeritus at the University of California, objected that almost all the people who write for BR are professors. Like Clarke, I too am an emeritus professor. Judging from his amusing and intelligent letter, Clarke may be near the top of his particular professional specialty, so I would not expect him to protest. More tellingly, Clarke mentions the relevance of the writer’s point of view. He is right in asserting that everyone has an axe to grind. This even includes him, you and me, slow though we may be to admit it. Of course, BR has a point of view, which I would characterize as middle-of-the-road. BR likes to be controversial and expose its readers to opinions sure to generate heated controversy. Even if we should find a particular article offensive, BR performs a valuable function in alerting us that those “contrary” views are out there. This will enable us to sharpen our ability to argue against them, whether in a letter to the editor or in our conversations with fellow worshipers. I believe that one can never be a truly effective advocate of any position until one thoroughly understands the contrary arguments of the opposition.
If BR Is Bad, BAR Must Be Worse