The Shameless Hussy of Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28

In one of the RBL reviews of David Rhoads’ Reading Mark, Engaging the Gospel, Sean Kealy describes the story of the Syrophoenician woman who finds Jesus despite his efforts to hide, gets him to change his mind, and opens the way for the Gentile mission. In an earlier review (same page), Ira Brent Driggers describes Rhoads’ account of Mk 7:24-30 as “one of the best” in “articulating how Mark advances the theme of Gentile inclusion” — and doing so through a conflict that Jesus loses.

Mk 7:24-30(/Mt 15:21-28) is intriguing for being the single reported instance where Jesus loses in challenge-riposte. And of all things, he loses to a Canaanite woman, who has no business asking him for help, or publicly engaging him at all. John Pilch has discussed the Matthean version of the account here. Jesus rightfully ignores the woman, and when she persists he refers to her as a lowly dog. But instead of shamefully retreating, she shamelessly embraces the insult and one-ups the messiah in a clever rejoinder: “Lord, even the dogs get to eat scraps.” To which Jesus concedes defeat: “For saying this you may go your way; your daughter is healed.”(Mark) / “Great is your faith! Your daughter is healed.”(Matthew) Translation: “Touché, woman; you dish out what you take, so God grants your favor.”

Jesus was apparently amused by the fact that a heathen woman beat him this way. Never mind any supposed compassion and mercy. He had none here. If Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28 is at all historical, and has been co-opted by Mark as the pivotal account by which grace came to the pagan nations, then it’s indeed amusing that it all happened (as Mark believes) on account of that shameless hussy who gave as good as she got, and gratified Jesus because of it. I’ll have to add Rhoads’ book to my reading list.

Blurb of Carlson’s Gospel Hoax

Publisher’s Weekly reviews the book we’re all waiting for with bated breath: Stephen Carlson’s The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark. The reviewer concludes,

“Utilizing sound historical and linguistic methods, Carlson presents a convincing case for Smith’s authorship of Secret Mark. While readers unfamiliar with the critical apparatus scholars use to evaluate ancient texts will find the book challenging, Carlson’s presentation of the evidence strongly supports his views.” (PW, July 25, p 70).

Not that PW is an authority on these things. This simply confirms what we knew all along but, unlike Stephen, couldn’t prove.

Moral and Ethical Alignments

Here’s another test from quizfarm, a spin-off of the alignments defined in some fantasy role-playing games. Once again my result was easily predictable, but I’m a bit disconcerted that I scored high marks in chaotic evil — third ranking!

“You are Chaotic Good: someone who has little intrinsic respect for laws or authority, seeing them as insufficient to sustain what’s right. These people work according to their own moral compass which, while good, is not necessarily always aligned with that of society. Despite their chaotic tendancies, these people are good at heart.”

Chaotic Good — 75%
True Neutral — 75%
Chaotic Evil — 65%
Neutral Good — 65%
Lawful Good — 60%
Chaotic Neutral — 40%
Neutral Evil — 40%
Lawful Neutral — 20%
Lawful Evil — 20%

The Good Alignments

“A Lawful Good person acts as a good person is expected or required to act. They are dedicated to upholding both what is right and set down in law.”

“A Neutral Good person tries to do as much good as possible. These people are willing to work with the law to accomplish their goal, but if the law is corrupt, they are just as willing to tear it down. To these people, doing what’s right is the most important thing, regardless of rules, customs, or laws.”

“A Chaotic Good person is someone who has little intrinsic respect for laws or authority, seeing them as insufficient to sustain what’s right. These people work according to their own moral compass which, while good, is not necessarily always aligned with that of society. Despite their chaotic tendancies, these people are good at heart.”

The Neutral Alignments

“A Lawful Neutral person respects law and order above all. These people are often very organized, and frequently don’t have time for moralistic debates. Though not evil, these people also value law and order above the common good.”

“A True Neutral person has two faces — either these people are apathetic, preferring to focus their minds on more important things, or they truly believe in a balance of all things. To these people, there can be no light without some darkness. These people also have no dedication to, or intrinsic distrust of, laws.”

“A Chaotic Neutral person is someone who is self-motivated to the extreme. Thier actions may sometimes confuse others, due to their lack of moral affiliation. They have little respect for laws, and avoid both the temptation of evil and a feeling of duty to do good. These people can go along with either side of an argument — as long as they benefit from the result.”

The Evil Alignments

“A Lawful Evil person is someone who respects laws, customs, or traditions, but will try to bend them to suit their own needs. These people have little concern for others they hurt, being intrinsically self motivated. Despite this, they value order and obedience to authority.”

“A Neutral Evil person is primarily self-centered. These people are interested in getting ahead, whether through legal, questionable, or illegal means. They have little to no concern for others they hurt in the process.”

“A Chaotic Evil person is destructive to the extreme. These people put no value in life or beauty, taking pleasure in destroying both what is good and what is ordered. They have little to no respect for laws and the rights of others. Revenge is a powerful motivator for these people.”

Seven Deadly Sins

I have an abiding interest in the seven deadly sins — David Fincher’s film Seven is a favorite of mine — and so this test from quizfarm was fun. No surprise, I scored as Sloth.

Sloth 75%
Lust 62%
Gluttony 50%
Wrath 38%
Greed 6%
Pride 6%
Envy 0%

I hope I escape the notice of any serial killers like the one in Seven. The sloth victim had the worst punishment by far.

Criteria for Authenticity

Lately I’ve been pondering the classic criteria used to derive portraits of the historical Jesus. Some appear to remain more useful than others. Here I use a rating scheme of 0-4, where

4 = very useful; can hardly go wrong with it
3 = useful guide; helpful in getting at probabilities
2 = some limited use
1 = poor criterion; may need redefinition
0 = completely useless; wrong in principle

and come up with the following:

Embarrassment — 3
Dissimilarity to the early church — 3
Rejection/execution — 2
Multiple attestation — 1
Coherence — 0
Dissimilarity to Judaism — 0

I continue to find the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity (to the church, not Judaism) helpful, even if what sometimes appears embarrassing or dissimilar may not be. For the most part, when things cut against the grain of what later Christians believed about Jesus, the likelihood increases that we’re onto something historical.

They’re useful guides, not skeleton keys. A good illustration of their limits can be seen when they conflict with each another, as in the case of Mk 9:1/Mt 16:28/Lk 9:27: “I tell you, there are some standing here who won’t taste death before they see the kingdom of God come in power.” It’s embarrassing as an unfulfilled prophecy, but could have served the needs of the early church by answering concerns about first-generation Christians dying before the apocalypse — offering, in effect, the assurance that at least some first-generation Christians won’t die before the kingdom comes. It puts one in mind of the kind of concerns behind I Thess 4 and I Cor 15. (See for instance Meier, Marginal Jew, Vol II, pp 342-344.) That embarrassing accounts can serve the church despite themselves advises caution.

In view of the crucifixion, I’m attentive to anything which passes the criterion of rejection/execution. Three noteworthy candidates include Jesus hailed as a messianic liberator during passover, his threat against the temple, and his oblique opposition to Caesar/taxation. It’s a useful criterion in getting at the end result, but that’s about it. Jesus obviously did plenty of things which didn’t call for blood.

Other criteria leave me cold. Coherence is too elastically defined, and on top of that wrong in principle. Early Christians obviously would have come up with ideas which echoed and cohered with their savior’s. And Jesus could have been as inconsistent as the next person (like Paul). As far as I can tell, “coherence” as an index for authenticity is useless.

Multiple attestation seems terribly overrated, not only for depending on precarious reconstructions and datings of independent sources, but for pointing toward nothing more than what is multiply attested by the time of the sources. What are our earliest? The seven or eight letters of Paul; maybe James. If Q is a phantom (I’ve believed so since my second reading of Goodacre), that removes a cherished pre-70 source. Thomas may have predated one or more of the canonical gospels, but I doubt it (or a form of it) traces to the pre-70 period. Since there’s not much early attested material, the question of multiple attestation seems almost moot.

Dissimilarity to Judaism is misguided and question-begging from so many angles. (1) Jesus was an (ethnic) Judean but a (geographic) Galilean. Does this mean he was “dissimilar” if he took a callous attitude to the purity codes which codified southern Judean practice (Mk 7:1-13) distinct from Galileans? (2) Or, if a tradition like Mk 7:1-13 isn’t against purity per se, only a sectarian disagreement about how much of priestly purity should be brought into everyday life of non-priests, is this again “dissimilar”? To whom and what? (3) The premise that an historical figure is chiefly characterized by differences to his/her heritage makes no sense in any case.

Such is my take on the classic criteria at present. I’ve drawn up an appendix of how they’ve been used in recent years by scholars. It’s interesting to compare the results.

Appendix: How scholars have used the criteria

Here I assign my 0-4 ratings, based not only on how the criteria are explicitly assessed, but how they actually play out in the scholar’s methodology.

John Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol I, esp. pp 167-184.

Embarrassment — 3
Dissimilarity — 3
Multiple attestation — 3
Coherence — 3
Rejection/execution — 3
Traces of Aramaic — 1
Palestinian environment — 2
Vividness of narration — 1
Tendencies of the developing synoptic tradition — 0
Historical presumption — 0

Meier thinks the first five criteria are useful to get “from the merely possible to the really probable” (p 167). They are helpful when used this way but have limitations: embarrassment is useful, but “what we might consider an embarrassment to the early church was not necessarily so in its own eyes” (p 170); dissimilarity (or discontinuity) is fine, but “a complete rupture with religious history just before or after him is apriori unlikely” (p 172); against multiple attestation, it’s possible that invented sayings can meet the needs of the church so that they rapidly enter into a number of different strands of tradition” (p 175); etc.

The next three can only “act as secondary, supportive criteria, reinforcing the impressions gained from one or more of the primary criteria” (p 184), though Meier acknowledges that the criterion of Palestinian environment “is much more useful in its negative guise”, meaning what applies outside the domain of a Palestinian environment may likely be a later church creation (p 180). And the last two are (rightly) dismissed as useless (p 184).

E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus.

Embarrassment — 3
Multiple Attestation — 3
Rejection/Execution — 2
Dissimilarity — 0

The criterion of embarrassment guides many of Sanders’ findings — the baptism of Jesus by John (p 94), unfulfilled prophecies (pp 180-182), the promise that Judas will participate in reigning over the twelve tribes (p 190). He also invokes multiple attestation, as in the “best-attested saying” against divorce (pp 198-200). Finally, his entire reconstruction of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem rests on an implied use of the criterion of rejection/execution (pp 258-275).

Dissimilarity goes out the window with Sanders. “Similarity” is his implied criterion, which is why, for instance, he rejects most of Jesus’ Torah-breaking behavior as later invention.

John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.

Multiple Attestation + Early Dating — 4

Crossan’s use of this dual criterion is heavy-handed. He refuses to consider anything singularly attested — regardless how it might pass other criteria — and entertains material only from sources which he dates earlier than 60 CE (pp xxxi-xxxiii).

Sometimes, however, he supports arguments derived from multiple attestation with the criterion of embarrassment (“theological damage control”), as in the case of Jesus’ baptism by John (p 232). Other times he sidesteps his own dogmatic reliance on multiple attestation (when he wants to get authenticity out of something he really likes) by appealing to the criterion of intertextual linkage: for example, the “Q” saying about Jesus being called a glutton and drunkard (Lk 7:31-35/Mt 11:16-19), while singularly attested, contains an ascetic theme which squares with the doubly attested saying in Mk 2:18-20 and Thom 104 (pp 259-260).

N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God.

Double (Dis/)Similarity — 4

Like Crossan, Wright relies on a pet criterion which he wields with abandon. He defines “double similarity and dissimilarity” as

“When something can be seen to be credible (though perhaps deeply subversive) within first-century Judaism and credible as the implied starting point (though not the exact blueprint) of something in later Christianity…Double similarity and double dissimilarity must characterize any analysis that claims history.” (pp 132, 220)

The problem is that virtually everything in the synoptic tradition ends up (almost magically) fitting this elastically-defined criterion. Wright’s Jesus is a “double-revolutionary”, fulfilling Israel’s promises while undermining them at the same time. Not only is the criterion too elastic to be of much use, it seems tailored to accommodate a (Christian) promise-fulfillment approach to the Old Testament.

Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, esp. pp 51-58.

Apocalyptic eschatology — 3
Embarrassment — 3
Dissimilarity (to early church) — 3
Themes and motifs* — 3
Intertextual linkage — 3
Dissimilarity (to Judaism) — 0

*parables, antithetical parallelism, rhetorical questions, prefatory “amen”, divine passive, exaggeration/hyperbole, aphoristic formulations, unexpected or paradoxical

Allison believes that the Jesus tradition shows every sign of characterizing a failed apocalyptic movement, marked by embarrassing unfulfilled prophecies and later accommodating church revisions. He says the above indices (criteria) are fallible, “suggestive but not demonstrative” (p 51), and that “after we have passed portions of the Jesus tradition through the indices, we should feel no moral certainty about the outcome” (p 57). They raise the level of plausibility — “but that is all historians will ever have, higher and lower levels of plausibility” (ibid).

Donald Akenson, Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, esp. pp 186-197.

Dissimilarity — 2
Embarrassment — 2
Multiple Attestation — 0

Akenson dismisses dissimilarity as worthless (p 188), but then allows some value to it when redefined — “if applied,” he says, “in cases where Jesus’ words and deeds go against Judaic practices as understood in the New Testament” (p 189).

He makes slim allowances for embarrassment, saying that what appears to be embarrassing usually isn’t. Of four classic examples — the baptism of Jesus by John, the betrayal by Judas, Peter’s denial, and the crucifixion of Jesus — only John’s baptism is truly embarrassing. The crucifixion was a badge rather than embarrassment to the Christians; and the denial of Peter and betrayal of Judas work well in the passion narratives (see pp 191-192).

Multiple attestation then goes out the window in a confusing caricature: “The New Testament is composed of many separate texts, but all of them have been filtered, homogenized, and censored in their construction and in the weeding-out process that finally permitted each of them to be included in the canon. Thus, as historical evidence, the New Testament must be treated as comprising multiple repetitions of material from a single source…A single source cannot produce multiple attestations of anything.” (pp 195, 194). Uh, no.

William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, esp. pp 36-44.

Rejection/execution — 2
Multiple attestation — 1
Coherence — 1
Dissimilarity — 0

Herzog registers impatience with the criteria. Commenting on dissimilarity: “dissimilarity is dissimilar to something, and that something needs to be spelled out” better than it has been (p 41). He then dismisses it on grounds that a Jesus alien to Judaism and the early church is “nothing more than a historical version of the docetic Christ” (p 42).

Multiple attestation “may yield a likelihood that material traces back to an early stage in the tradition, but there is no certainty that it traces to Jesus” (ibid). And “of what good is the criterion of coherence when the materials in relation to which coherence is measured are themselves established on such weak ground?” (ibid)

Herzog has nothing to say about embarrassment, but he does rely on an implied use of rejection/execution in discussing Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem (see pp 218-246).

In the end, he resists criteria in favor of simply “proposing a view of Jesus and testing it by analyzing the Jesus tradition in light of it” (p 43). But of course, almost any proposal can be vindicated when tested against what has proven to be a malleable tradition.

RBL reviews: Kloppenborg and Rhoads

Many reviews have just been added to the Review of Biblical Literature. The following are of particular interest.

Kloppenborg, John S. and John W. Marshall, eds.
Apocalypticism, Anti-Semitism and the Historical Jesus: Subtexts in

Reviewed by Thomas Kraus

Kloppenborg, John S. and John W. Marshall, eds.
Apocalypticism, Anti-Semitism and the Historical Jesus: Subtexts in

Reviewed by Daniel Smith

Rhoads, David
Reading Mark, Engaging the Gospel
Reviewed by Sean Kealy

Rhoads, David
Reading Mark, Engaging the Gospel
Reviewed by Joseph Verheyden

Witherington on The Fantastic Four

On XTalk Jim West mentioned Ben Witherington’s blog, on which the author recently commented on The Fantastic Four:

“What sets the Fantastic Four apart from most comic books, except for Spiderman perhaps, is there are actually characters who generate some pathos… [they] remind us that even if we had super powers, this would definitely not solve all of our problems — indeed they would create a whole new set of problems. Perhaps the lesson for us is that after all what is really needed is not juiced up humans, but an incarnational deity to handle the Evil problem.”

Tolkien thought the same about his own “hopeless” heroes from Lord of the Rings (as I’ve argued here). For him, history — including Middle-Earth’s mythic pre-history — was nothing more than a “long defeat”, demanding the Judeo-Christian victory at its consummation.

Parallels with Tolkien continue in Witherington’s observations:

“What is especially interesting is that it takes all of the Fantastic Four to handle one Von Doom. Each of the four has a specific power or ability, but it is the team work which insures that good triumphs over evil. In other words, evil is too powerful for even one robust super hero to handle.”

In the antique pagan world of Middle-Earth this is even more true, where “Black is mightier than White” (says Gandalf), its heroes must rely on efforts in fellowship, and Sauron is only defeated by apparent accident (or fateful intervention) when Frodo ultimately fails and claims the Ring.

But the Middle-Earth and Marvel heroes needn’t show a need for “something greater”, as Tolkien/Witherington would have it. The tragic is uplifting in and of itself, for teaching us hard and real truths. One of my favorite quotes comes from Eugene O’Neil: “the tragic alone has that significant beauty which is truth”; indeed, the tragic is the meaning of life. Depressing as it sounds, it’s true. So let’s push on to greater failures. More than Witherington’s incarnational deity, that’s what it takes to understand and address the problem of evil.

Post-script: It was a lousy film anyway.

Millenialism or Myth?

Turton has written a formidable post, as expected. It will be interesting to see reactions to his work from other Markan experts if it gets published. I still say that whatever the chiastic features indicate, Mark is the most oral of the gospels. It has an abrupt beginning and ending, hurtling pace, and rather limited ease with syntax and grammar. Repeated uses of “and”, “immediately” (43 times compared to 8 times in Mathew and 3 times in Luke), “again” (28 times compared to 17 times in Matthew and 3 times in Luke), and especially the historical present tense (150 times compared to about 20 times in Matthew and once in Luke), indicate we’re not exactly dealing with high literature (on which see, for instance, John Painter’s Mark’s Gospel, p 8).

Given Turton’s view of Mark’s historical value as a window onto Jesus (zero), it would help to clarify certain assumptions. We’re faced with two options. The first is the one I take, that early Christianity was a failed apocalyptic movement which evolved in a manner typical of millenials, in fact much like the way preserved in the New Testament. Critics like Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman are spot on here. If we can’t trust these apocalyptic traditions, then we really can’t trust anything in the sources, and Christ-mythers like Michael Turton and Bill Arnal (but not Jesus Seminarians like Funk and Crossan) are right: the historical Jesus is lost (and/or insignificant), if he ever existed; there’s virtually nothing reliable we can say about him.

That’s our choice: millenialism or myth. Or in Schweitzer’s lingo, “thoroughgoing eschatology or thoroughgoing skepticism”. If the dominant features of the New Testament tradition don’t reflect significantly the sorts of things Jesus said and did, then the search for him is completely futile. The attempts of minimalists to salvage a non-apocalyptic Jesus are flawed for according weight to traditions less secure than those denied. Mythers play a safer and saner game.

But it’s unreasonable for anyone, mythers included, to remain so skeptical here. Millenarian groups and cargo cults are real and common phenomena, and if their defining characteristics happen to fit the Christian tradition so neatly, why resist the natural conclusion? As Allison has illustrated (see Millenarian Prophet, pp 81-94), apocalyptic groups (like the Jesus/Christian movement of NT tradition) appeal to disaffected people; they’re revivalistic; they think they will be saved, and others damned; they break taboos and defy sacred custom; they’re nativistic; they thumb their noses at clan and family in favor of “fictive kin”; they demand rigorous and unconditional loyalty; they think the coming utopia can be experienced partly in the present; and they constantly cope with failed expectations, and revise accordingly.

It’s better to be a mythicist than a minimalist, but wiser to be a millenialist than a mythicist. That’s what the sources teach us when critically considered. In this light, it would be worth reassessing some of the classic criteria used for determining authenticity.

A Feast for Crows

It looks like the U.K. will be releasing the fourth installment of George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, A Feast for Crows, about three weeks before the U.S. Knowing impatient me, I’ll probably order from abroad. It’s been a long time coming for this installment (in what now promises to be a seven-volume series), and opposite to the trend in most fantasy, Martin only gets better with each book.

He’s gone a long way toward restoring my faith in a genre plagued with pastiche and formula. Along with Stephen R. Donaldson and Guy Gavriel Kay, he’s a rare talent (and overtaking Kay, in my opinion). Song if Ice and Fire reads like an historical-fantasy version of England’s War of the Roses. There are no good and bad guys in this world; the character you like one moment you’ll despise the next. Magic is rare and used sparingly — never as a deus ex machina — and protagonists (if they can be called that) mercifully stay dead when killed. You can never predict what’s going to happen next; political intrigue gets increasingly convoluted; people suffer considerably.

It also looks like Martin has started a journal called “Not a Blog”, so he now has a separate place to sound off on politics, as he has done in the past (much to the pain of some his more conservative readers). It’s probably just as well he isn’t succumbing to the blog mania and making a habit of this. He’s three books away from finishing Song of Ice and Fire, and it took five terribly long years to get Feast for Crows finished. I don’t want him to have to Fed Ex any of the next installments from beyond the grave.

More on the Jesus Seminar, and methodologies

Continuing the thread from yesterday (into which Mark Goodacre has injected observations), Michael Turton responds to Stephen Carlson’s remarks, concluding:

“That’s exactly what the Seminar is doing: finding a streetlight. And yes, the continuing failure to develop sound methodology for sussing out the historical Jesus is a strong indication that the search is futile. At least in the Gospels. The Gospel of Mark was created off of the Old Testament and the writings of Paul, and its author knows no traditions of Jesus. It is work of fiction.”

Michael sounds like Donald Akenson. In Saint Saul Akenson too uses the infamous streetlight analogy:

“No wonder questors for the historical Yeshua dislike Saul. Yet, Saul actually tells us a lot about the historical Yeshua; however, he does so almost unintentionally and he does so by writing non-narrative history. That is hard history to read, but we have to be careful of privileging the Synoptic Gospels and thus becoming the investigative equivalent of the drunk-and-car-keys.” (pp 173-174)

I appreciate warning lights like these, especially since I’m one of those errant anti-Q heretics who believes that a certain pre-70 sayings community is a mirage. In my view Paul and (perhaps) James are the pre-70 documents we have to work with, though I do see a significant amount of history preserved in the synoptic tradition despite its later dating, owing largely to oral tradition. But at the very least, Michael has underscored the need for better and less question-begging methodologies.

Some of the classic criteria are more useful than others in assessing authenticity of sayings and deeds. I still find “embarassment” to be one of the most helpful (though not without its own problems), while “discontinuity” one of the worst and most heavily abused — and probably in need of redefinition given what we know about the diversity of early Judaisms (or Judeanisms). After reading Bill Arnal’s Symbolic Jesus, one is left with the impression that the criterion of (dis/)continuity serves deeply covert agendas, whether used in the service of a “Jewish” or “non-Jewish” Jesus.