Gary Greenberg's blog on biblical studies and related matters

Theology, History and Law: Different disciplines with different methodologies

Although it is generally recognized that Theologians and Historians attempt to reconstruct history utilizing the tools of their professions, it is not quite appreciated that lawyers, too, have to interrogate the past and use their legal training to do so. I thought it might be of interest to do a brief comparison of how each profession proceeds.

Theologians start from a fixed position, that everything in the bible is true and that events of the past must be explained in such a way that it doesn’t conflict with biblical teachings. At the same time, theologians have to explain the vast archive of conflicting biblical passages in some way to harmonize them. This can often lead to a conflict between how theologians view history and how historians assess the past. Similar problems unfold with respect to science and other disciplines.

The early church fathers were quite aware of these types of problems and one of the principles they developed to cope with these problems was that if your understanding of a biblical passage conflicted with observed reality, then you have probably misunderstood the passage. This practice occasionally leads to the idea that certain biblical passages that appear to be factual claims are actually allegories. Nevertheless, theologians arguing about biblical truth often disagree with each other as to what that truth is. To a large degree, this fueled centuries of violent war and persecution between rival groups of Christians, all of whom knew the one and only truth. A similar construct would apply to wars among Muslim sects.

Historians proceed from a very different perspective. They start from the proposition that certain forms of evidence exist (or don’t exist) and set out to find what interpretation of events best explains the historical situation under investigation. A chief difficulty, of course, is that sometimes insufficient evidence exists such that a reasonably “probable” description of what occurred can not be found. Other times, their may be conflicting evidence, such as multiple documents, sometimes from different time frames, that present conflicting stories, and it may be difficult, if not impossible, to decide which source is more credible. At best, historians can only judge their conclusions on the basis of probability. Is the conclusion “almost” certain, “very” likely, somewhat likely, plausible, possible but improbable, or not determinable on the basis of the present evidence.

Lawyers present a hybrid of these two disciplines. The fixed position is what is best for the client, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the client is right. Each task must be determined according to that principle. In order to carry out that practice, the lawyer must examine every past legal case, where the facts or decision touches on his client’s interest. The lawyer is assembling a set of existing facts and then proceeds to determine what interpretation of these past events best serves the client’s interests.

Since no past case is always exactly alike in every single particular relevant fact, the lawyer needs to look at what court decisions look like they support the client’s interest and what court decisions oppose the client’s interest. Then, the lawyer has to tear apart both set of cases. For cases that harm the client, the lawyer must look at every single detail to find some way to distinguish that case from the client’s case such that the court shouldn’t apply that negative principle to the client’s situation. The lawyer must also look at every detail of cases that support the client’s interest to see how the opposing lawyer might distinguish them and argue that it is not applicable to the client’s case. Obviously, counter-arguments have to be conceived. Often times, a client’s case is sufficiently unique that there are no clear guidelines in past decisions, and the lawyers have to take the meager evidence and extrapolate arguments for and against the client’s interest, a form of exegesis perhaps. They key here, however, is not to find just any detail, but rather “relevant” details that can influence the case one way or another.

For a lawyer interested in biblical studies, the bible (or bibles) are like large collections of legal cases with frequently conflicting facts and decisions. If the lawyer has a particular theory about how to understand a portion of the bible, that theory serves as the client. The lawyer would then have to examine every relevant detail in the texts and from commentators outside of the text, and see what facts support his theory and what undermine it. This enables him to make the best case possible for his theory/client. That isn’t to say that the theory is the best explanation for what is true; it is only the best case that can be made for the theory. That best case, however, may be woefully inadequate, and like real-world legal cases, the lawyer must recommend that the client abandon the case or settle on some compromise.

Sometimes, however, members of one discipline cross over to one of the others and adopt the tools of the others. Sometimes, all three factions can come together on some past historical understanding and sometimes one  might be in conflict with the other two, who in turn might disagree with each other. So, whose right in the long run? Make your best case.

John’s Baptism of Jesus

A while ago, I posted a piece titled Were Early Christians Embarrassed by John’s Baptism of Jesus? In it, I challenged the traditional view that this was an embarrassing event. A key issue was the contrast between the Jewish historian Josephus, who said John’s baptism was not about the remission of sin, and the Synoptic gospels, which argued that it was. While John did not include that claim in his gospel, I hadn’t thought much about why he omitted that explanation. I was recently reminded of the issue and I realized what happened. John’s theology holds that only Jesus can forgive sin (an authority later passed on to the Apostles.) Therefore, John specifically rejected the idea that John’s baptism was for the remission of sin. This aligns John’s gospel with Josephus against the synoptic gospels. What’s puzzling, however, in John’s gospel, the baptist first says that he baptized in order to reveal the one who was to come, but after he revealed that Jesus was the one, John says the baptist continued to baptize. Why? John doesn’t say.

The Case for a Proto-Gospel

My new book, The Case for a Proto-Gospel: recovering the common written source behind Mark and John, should be going to press sometime in December and be available shortly thereafter. There’s an Amazon link to the book in the right sidebar (somewhere else in Mobile displays).

Barrie Wilson,  Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar, Religious Studies, York University, Toronto, had this to say about the book.

Gary Greenberg is a superb intellectual detective, following up on tantalizing clues in ancient texts to uncover sources and insights that others have missed. In this latest work, Gary traces similarities between the Gospel of John and the earlier Gospel of Mark. In so doing, he makes a remarkable discovery — lurking behind both gospels is an earlier document that each has used, independently of the other. Here is a new source document that sheds important light on the crucial decades following Jesus’ death.


Carefully crafted, well written, based on historical and literary analysis, Gary’s book enhances our understanding not only of the Gospels of John and Mark but the process whereby the gospels themselves came to be.

ASOR and SBL Conferences

I spent the week before Thanksgiving in San Diego at the overlapping conferences of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). I presented a paper at ASOR titled Enoch and Sothis: Is there a connection between Genesis chronology and Egyptian King-lists? I also attended several interesting panels at SBL. One intriguing presentation came from Mark Goodacre, who demonstrated some places where Matthew’s underlying Greek matched that in John or Mark in similar stories. I also enjoyed some book panels One focused on Paula Fredriksen’s new book When Chrisians Were Jews: The first generation. Another focused on Joel Marcus’s new book John the Baptist in History and Theolgy.

I’m not sure about this but it seemed that the traditional SBL book sellers’ exhibition was somewhat smaller than usual. There were ten aisles but four of them were only half aisles. I think past exhibit halls had more aisles, almost all full. I’d have to check past program guides to see how many exhibitors there were.

Biblical Studies Carnival # 165. October 2019

Welcome to my Biblical Studies Carnival. It’s my first stroll down the midway and there sure has been a lot to see. Couldn’t catch everything, so I might have to come back another time. I’m assuming you have lots of handy candy from last night’s trick-or-treating. Hope you enjoy the show.

Commentary

Bruce Chilton has some questions about early Christian developments regarding the “empty tomb” teachings. Based on his recent book, Resurrection Logic.

The conventional presentation [empty tomb] has become so prevalent that it needs to be mentioned in order to be set aside because it flies in the face of the fact that “the empty tomb” is a latecomer to the traditions regarding how God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection was conceived of as bodily by Jesus’ disciples, but they did not all assert a single origin story, nor did they always conceive of his body in a physical way.

Alex asks: Did the disciples see the son of man coming in his kingdom in AD 70?

From Nijay Gupta. An Interview with Joseph R. Dodson, Co-Editor of Paul and the Giants of Philosophy.

Religion Prof, otherwise known as James McGrath, has some observations on how modern perspectives from literature and other sources can mislead us as to how we interpret the bible in the context of its own time.

Bill Heroman has some book notes on the Gospels as Biography.

An interview with Michael Bird on his collaboration with N. T. Wright for The New Testament in Its World, and the keys to fruitful New Testament study.

Scriptures

Joy? No joy? Dr. Claud Mariottini discusses translation conflicts with respect to Isaiah 9:3

Another translation question. Bill Mounce asks, “Was Moses Exposed, Abandoned, or Thrown Out? (Acts 7:19)

Lynne Moss Bahr explores time concepts in the Jesus stories in light of continental philosophy. She has a book on the subject.

Over at Zondervan Academic. Who wrote 1, 2, & 3 John?

Paul’s Opposition in Corinth in 2 Corinthians from Reading Acts by Phil Long, who has heroically kept the monthly carnivals going for these many years.

Robert Cargill argues that Melchizedek of Salem was actually King of Sodom and that Salem was not a toponym for Jerusalem. Controversial, yes. He also has a book length study of this and related issues.

Is there a connection between Jesus and Elisha and leprosy? Brant Pitre at The Sacred Page thinks so. He might want to consider Luke 4:24-27 in future discussions of the issues he raises here.

How is disagreement resolved in the Council of Acts 15? Ian Paul at Psephizo,

Revelation Roundup, from Religion Professor.

On my blog, I ask, Did God rest on the Seventh Day or the Eighth?

Text Criticism

Larry Hurtado discusses 1 Enoch: An Update on Manuscripts and Cautionary Notes on Usage. Also, an exploration of the differences in how Muslims and Christians do text analysis on the New Testament and the Qur’an.

Arthur Hunt, Harold Idris Bell, and Edward Maunde Thompson on the Date of Codex Sinaiticus From Brent Nongbri at Variant Readings.

Bart Ehrman tells us about “Crazy Things Textual Scholars Say.” I’m old enough to remember the TV prequel, Kids Say the Darnedest Things.

At Aeon: An early influential bible critic you probably never have heard of.

History

God in Conflict: Images of the Divine Warrior in Ancient Jewish and Early Christian Texts, by Scott C. Ryan. From Bible and Interpretation.

Evie Gassner asks: How Jewish was Herod?

Historian Linda Zollschan Challenges World Opinion about the Roman Coin inscription “Judaea Recepta.”

Solving the Mystery of the City in Isa 24-27: The Fall of the Assyrian Palace at Ramat Raḥel:

 “Who built these impressive structures in the seventh century and used them as a base to oversee Judah and its economy? It was a period of major historical and political changes in Judah.”

Mythism debate. Back in 2016, Craig Evans and Richard Carrier debated whether or not Jesus existed. Evans Yea and Carrier Nay. No surprise there. Shortly thereafter, Evans published an assessment of the arguments, which was reprinted in March of 2018. Carrier recently learned of the publication and responded.

Book Reviews

To Cast the First Stone by Jennifer Knust and Tommy Wasserman. It is widely accepted among biblical scholars that John’s account of Jesus and the Adulterous Woman (John 7:53-8:11) was not original to the Fourth Gospel, although a number of Evangelical text critics disagree. (I don’t say that as a put down.) At the 2018 SBL annual conference, in a panel discussion of this work, Bart Ehrman declared that he was sad to report that he had nothing critical to say about this book and considered it the definitive work on the story of Jesus and the Adulteress. Many scholars agree, but not James Snapp, Jr, who provides a lengthy critique.

The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation. H. H. Drake Williams review’s Rick Brannan’s book. The text focuses on a translation that adheres more closely to the underlying Greek.

The Emperors and the Jews, by Ari Lieberman. Favorably reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein.

That All shall be Saved by David Bentley Hart.  Reviewed by Andrew Perriman. (O.K. I admit. I had to look up “magniloquent.” Thought it was a Disney Princess. Guessed again. Still wrong.)

“I’ve done a couple of posts so far critically reviewing aspects of David Bentley Hart’s magniloquent anti-infernalist treatise That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation. My interest has been mainly in his use of the biblical material; I am not convinced that the theological arguments against hell and for universal salvation need to be made.”

Essential Companion to Christian History from Zondervan. Reviewed by Jim West.

The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History by Weston W. Fields. Reviewed by Anthony Ferguson at Evangelical Textual Criticism.

Miscellaneous

Bart Ehrman is leading a tour to Rome and other sites April 14–24, 2020, featuring lectures on pagan-Christian relationships in the early centuries. Interested?

The Evangelical Textual Criticism blog-folk are organizing their annual dinner gathering at SBL 2019 in San Diego. Details here.

This is troubling. More here. And here. And here.

A is for Apple, Alef Beth is for Learn Wisdom. A chart based on Talmudic teaching for learning the Hebrew Alphabet.

Some video lectures on Christian History by Diarmid MacCollough. These were recommended to me for inclusion in the roundup but due to time constraints I haven’t viewed them yet.

And lastly,I shamelessly plug my forthcoming book, The Case for a Proto-Gospel: Recovering the Common Written Source Behind Mark and John. From Peter Lang, tentative release in November or December.

So. That’s it. Gonna stroll down the midway, catch some of the verse jugglers, hop on the camel ride through the eye of the needle, and check out that leopard-bear-lion thingie with the ten horns and seven heads.

Upcoming Carnivals

#166 November 2019 (Due December 1) – Derek DeMars, Theology Pathfinder 

#167 December 2019 (Due January 1) –  Alex Finkelson,  Scribes of the Kingdom

#168 January 2020 (Due February 1) –  Jim West  on Twitter as @drjewest,  Zwinglu Redivivus

And: If you’d like to host a future carnival, contact Phil Long at this email plong42@gmail.com or @plong42 on Twitter.

Did God rest on the seventh day or the eighth?

This is a follow up to my earlier post, A Genesis editing error? Separating the second and third days of Creation. The earlier post argued that with the exception of the second day, God declares at the end of each day’s work that “it was good.” On the second day, the expression is missing but on the third day it is used twice, in the middle and at the end. I suggested that thematically, the activities occurring in the first part of the third day fit better with the second day’s activities than the third’s, and suggested that there was an editing error in which the second day’s activity should have included that part of the third day’s activities that occur prior to the first of the two notices that “it was good,”, and that notice originally signaled the end of the second day.

If correct, that would leave us with six days each including the phrase “it was good.” But the sixth day also includes two separate claims that the day’s activities were good. The first part of the day brings forth the animals “And God saw that it was good.” Then God created “man.” Several translations substitute “humankind” for “man” but the underlying Hebrew uses Adam, meaning “man.”

The problem here is that if the phrase “it was good” is used to mark off a day’s activities, as it does for five of the six days (and all six days per my analysis of the second day), then we should consider that the double use of “it was good” should indicate that there were two separate days of activities combined into one day. The creation of the animals happened on the sixth day, as the text indicates, but the creation of Adam, after the first statement that “it was good” should have occurred on the seventh day. If this is the case, then God rested on the eighth day, and we have the Sabbath traditions all wrong.

I’m doing the October Biblical Studies Carnival round-up

I’ve been tasked with doing the October Biblical Studies Carnival round-up, due to be published here on or about November 1st. If you have any recommended posts you think I should know about or biblioblog sites I should check in on, perhaps you can mention them in the comments section or use my site link to send me an email.