Sunday, April 05, 2009

On the third day

Earlier this year, I put my ipod through the washing machine. It was an accident, of course. Not surprisingly the ipod was completely dead. I didn't throw it away immediately, though. I kept pushing the button every time I got in my car just to see what would happen if anything. For two days, it was completely dead. Then, on the third day, it came back to life. The screen didn't light up like it was supposed to, though. It was dim. But it played just fine, and I was happy and relieved. Ipods are expensive. About a week later, the screen lit up, and the ipod was just like new. At that point, I was pretty impressed with ipods. But then somebody stole it out of my car. Bummer!

Of course anybody who does some studying knows this story couldn't possibly be true. I'm a Christian, and I've been a Christian for many years. The Bible is full of third day motifs, not least of which is the resurrection of Jesus. The story of the dying and rising ipod has too many parallels with the dying and rising myth of Jesus to have been a coincidence. Why, even the ipod being stolen is similar to Jesus' ascension where the disciples could see him no more. Clearly, the story about the ipod was borrowed (perhaps even subconsciously) from the story of Jesus.

But the ipod story is true.

8 Comments:

At 4/07/2009 12:06 PM , Blogger Paul said...

That's a cool (but expensive) anecdote. Have you considered that it was intended for your benefit? Just goes to show that similarity to other stories does not equal contrived from said stories.

 
At 4/07/2009 3:58 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...

Have you read anything of Dennis R. MacDonald? (WARNING: PDF File) He proposes a method to determine whether one story “borrowed” from another during this period of history.

Wondered what method you would propose as an alternative; if any…

 
At 4/08/2009 12:35 PM , Blogger Sam said...

I'll read it later and get back with you.

 
At 4/09/2009 9:11 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...

Sam,

ONLY if you are interested in the topic. I wasn’t being confrontational—just wondering about your own input.

I think I understand the point of this blog, regarding claims of similarity necessitating the Gospels being fiction. If there was a tale circulating regarding virgin births, Jesus alleged Birth MUST be fiction…and so on. The point is accurately stated: Correlation does not mean causation.

And I agree with you heartily. I abhor these claims of how Jesus’ story comes from Mithra, or the supposed 12 (if I remember correctly) resurrected saviors. I have yet to see a convincing proof the stories have anything to do with Christianity.

However, we do see “borrowing” from other stories. The Synoptic Problem demonstrates this. Or Euripides and Luke. There is also the midrashic Tanakh use in Mark. And Dr. MacDonald’s theory Mark used Homer. Paul borrows a Creed in 1 Cor. 15 that is unlike Gospel accounts. Matthew borrows heavily from the Tanakh to either create prophecies, or attach Jesus’ life to prophecies (depending on one’s view of the Matthew’s historicity.)

In my constant pursuit of methodology, I admit respect for Dr. MacDonald at least laying his out on the table. While I am not convinced…yet…at least he gives me something.

 
At 4/09/2009 12:01 PM , Blogger Sam said...

No problem, Dagoods. It's just that I've had the flu lately, and I haven't felt like reading anything or concentrating.

 
At 4/20/2009 7:14 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Sorry for taking so long. I just read MacDonald's article, so I'm going to respond while it's fresh on my mind.

It's hard for me to come up with a list of criteria to determine whether one document borrowed from another because there's such an element of subjectivity to it. I can come up with a few criteria that might increase or decrease the probability of dependency, but that's about it.

The first thing I would look at is whether there are any reasons to think the later story is true. If there is good reason to think the later story is true, then no amount of parallels can demonstrate that the later author borrowed from the earlier author. That's why I don't think the parallels between Lincoln and Kennedy have any significance regardless of how striking they are.

On the other hand, I think it is possible for a later author of a true story to borrow style and wording from an earlier work of fiction. It's also possible for a later author to embellish a true story with elements from a similar work of fiction.

One of the most obvious signs of borrowing is the use of exact or very closely paraphrased wording. That's how teachers detect plagiarism. I think it's pretty obvious that there is some literary dependency between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, regardless of which solution to the synoptic problem you subscribe to. And the gospels don't even hide the fact that they are using the Old Testament.

I agree with MacDonald's first criteria, which is that the later author had to have access to the earlier author. In spite of the parallels one can find between the sayings of Jesus and the sayings of Buddha, I don't think there's any dependency. And in spite of the parallels people draw between Christianity and the Aztecs or the Iroquois, I don't think there's any dependence. Some people make so much of the parallels that they suppose a missionary must've crossed the sea in a canoe or something and succeeded in spreading his message wide enough to influence those cultures. I think that's highly unlikely.

MacDonald's article is a good example of why I'm skeptical of any theory about borrowing. And I'm skeptical, not just when it involves the gospels, but other things, too. I'm also skeptical of the claim that Joseph Smith borrowed from another work of fiction to write the Book of Mormon. Two different books that have no relation to each other have both been proposed as the source upon which Smith drew. The reason I'm skeptical is because you see these sorts of claims all the time among conspiracy theorists, and conspiracy theorists are creative enough to make coincidences look pretty spectacular in spite of their dubious nature. Many people have claimed that Christianity borrowed from pagan sources, but when it comes to figuring out which ones they borrowed from, well you can find parallels in ALL of them. And then you can find parallels between the pagan sources--even ones that seem to have been done in isolation from each other, such as the Homeric myths and the oldest myths about Isis and Osiris. I find it hard to believe that there's almost no originality at all out there, which makes me suspicious of all these supposed parallels.

 
At 4/21/2009 10:19 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...

Sam,

Thanks for taking time to read the article and responding. I hope this means you are well, and the flu is long-forgotten. (Until I just mentioned it, of course. *grin*)

And I agree with your skepticism on MacDonald. I am not convinced. Yet. It seems every theory we have on Mark (regardless of what camp it comes from) always has a few exceptions, or a bit of stretch. Much of Mark is in the form of Chiasm, yet I see a few that seem to be pretty thin. Much of Mark takes from the Tanakh in midrashic form—yet again, some of those claims are not very convincing to me—too flimsy.

And here we have MacDonald arguing Mark is using Homer—and while some arguments seem strong, others appear to be more coincidence.

Sam: It's also possible for a later author to embellish a true story with elements from a similar work of fiction. Absolutely. Gone with the Wind is a good example of taking a true story—Civil War and Battle of Atlanta—and the author embellishing it into a work of fiction.

Herein is the rub and constant itch within New Testament Studies—what part of the Jesus story is “true” and what part is a work of fiction? We all agree fictionalized stories of Jesus developed. Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Perhaps the story of the Adulterous woman. Gospel of Peter and so on. So we all categorize Stories of Jesus into (at least) two groups—fact or fiction. [Yes, we could add more groups, “probably fact” and “probably fiction” and so on. But at least these two groups exist.]

We already do it—the categorization—the question is whether we can come up with a consistent method in doing it. To simply accept the canonicals as “true” and the non-canonicals as “fiction” is too ad hoc. What we want to know, particularly in the canonicals—is there a method of determining what is fact and what is fiction within them?

What bothers me is how much borrowing we DO know about. We see Matthew borrowing from Mark. Luke borrowing from Mark and either Matthew or Matthew’s source. We see all three borrowing from the Tanakh. Luke borrowing from contemporary writers. The author of the Pastorals equally borrowing from contemporary writers. Jude borrowing from contemporary apocryphal writing. Possibly Luke borrowing from Josephus.

It seems…dangerous…to me to assume we of the 21st Century have recognized ALL of the borrowing that occurred. Surely it is possible there was other borrowing occurring, including borrowing of Homer.

Further, it bothers me Mark is writing in chiasmic form. Does it mean a story written in iambic pentameter is not true? Of course not. But the question is raised whether the author took…liberties…with the story to maintain the form. Used certain descriptions that fit the form, more than accuracy. In the same way, did Mark transfer or add events in order to fit chiasmic form?

Mark’s inaccuracies are troubling. Such things as the commandments, geography, trial at night, name of the high priest, etc. Are those indications this was not true? It was fiction?

Mark also has some oddities. The naked man running from Gethsemane. The necessity of Judas to identify Jesus. The identification of Jesus as a Nazarene.

When “borrowing” answers some of these inaccuracies and oddities—it is difficult for me to ignore.

Sam: The first thing I would look at is whether there are any reasons to think the later story is true. If there is good reason to think the later story is true, then no amount of parallels can demonstrate that the later author borrowed from the earlier author. I agree. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Gospels, we are left with the Gospels themselves in determining whether they are true. They are both self-authenticating and self-refuting with the same knife edge.

Using my Gone with the Wind example—the way we can determine what is true or fiction is by comparing it to other sources. We look to other documents, persons, pictures, events, etc. to say, “The Civil war did happen, but this event did not” and so on.

The Gospels are much harder. It would be an interesting blog article (to me, if no one else), if you are interested, to lay out the facts you would use to claim the Gospel of Mark, as the later story, should be thought of as true.

 
At 4/21/2009 8:26 PM , Blogger Sam said...

I read an article one time that argued that chiasms happen even when people don't intend them. They sort of work subconsciously. We sometimes think in chiasm without realizing it. One of the examples it used was the Book of Mormon. It's highly doubtful that Joseph Smith intentionally put chiasms in there. Mormon apologists point to the chiasms as evidence of the authenticity of the BOM.

I don't think it's possible to verify or falsify every episode of the life of Jesus in the gospels. There are some pretty well-known criteria that can help in discovering historical information, though. There's criteria like dissimilarity, multiple attestation, embarrassment, etc. There are some things I think are more certain than other things. I think about the most certain thing in the life of Jesus is his crucifixion. I have a difficult time taking anybody seriously who doubts that (or that he existed).

But to a certain extent, I don't know if you can really come up with a perfect list of criteria where everything falls neatly into place. There is an element of subjectivity to it. Historians sometimes go on hunches. Sometimes an argument can be made in specific cases, and you have to judge the arguments on an individual basis.

It seems…dangerous…to me to assume we of the 21st Century have recognized ALL of the borrowing that occurred. Surely it is possible there was other borrowing occurring, including borrowing of Homer.You have a good point there. If there is a dependency on sources we know about, perhaps there is also a dependency on sources we don't know about.

It would be an interesting blog article (to me, if no one else), if you are interested, to lay out the facts you would use to claim the Gospel of Mark, as the later story, should be thought of as true.I don't know how I would go about proving that the whole gospel of Mark is true. I guess I'd have to make an argument for the general reliability of Mark (Craig Blomberg does that in The Historical Reliability of the Gospels) or an argument for the divine inspiration of Mark (which isn't easy to do) or something like that. What I'd be more likely to do is argue that specific events in Mark are true, and I wouldn't be able to make arguments for every event in Mark. I think you're right that the gospels are harder than Gone With the Wind.

What I have intended to do since I first started this blog is write a series first going through the historical development of messianic expectation in post-exilic Judaism, then show that Jesus thought of himself as the fulfillment of those expectations, then make an historical argument for his resurrection. I haven't done it because it's going to take a lot of work, and I'm lazy, but if I ever get around to doing that, you'll get a feel for the methods I use. But my views are very similar to N.T. Wright's views in Jesus and the Victory of God.

 

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