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A Return to the Historical Jesus

One of the most interesting developments within New Testament studies happened in the 1950s.  To set the development in context, I need to remind you that the long “quest” of the historical Jesus – trying to determined what Jesus said and did historically – was evidently put to rest by the work of Wrede and Schweitzer fifty years earlier, and not a whole lot was being done in that field, as scholars *either* thought that our sources were basically reliable and so should be simply be accepted for what they said, *or* realized that our sources were so highly problematic that we couldn’t actually say much about what had happened in Jesus’ life historically. And so scholars turned their attention to other things, first in examining the oral traditions about Jesus through form criticism, and then starting in the 50’s focusing on the distinctive *portrayals* of Jesus in the Gospels using redaction criticism.  (I’m simplifying things here, of course, since there were lots of scholars doing lots of different things at the time). In the [...]

The Gospel Writers as Editors Rather than Authors

Three weeks ago I started to give a response to a question about the Messianic Secret.  At first I thought I could handle the question in a post or two.  As seems to happen a lot on the blog, once I explained all the background that led up to the development of the idea, and then explained it, and then talked about its aftermath – Voila!  We had an entire thread.   All to the good, I suppose. I have now gotten to the point of talking about how in the 1950s, New Testament scholars moved away from focusing on the oral traditions behind the Gospels (the concerns of the “form criticism”) to looking at the theological and literary investments of the Gospels themselves (“redaction criticism”).  Scholars now had a renewed interest in seeing what these particular authors – the anonymous writers of the Gospels – wanted to emphasize, individually and distinctively, about Jesus.  It came to be realized afresh that each writer had his own emphasis, his own story, his own perspective – that Matthew’s [...]

2020-04-03T00:07:13-04:00February 26th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, History of Biblical Scholarship|

A New Way of Looking at the Gospels

In this long and complicated answer to the "messianic secret" in Mark I have explained how 19th century scholars were interested in "source criticism" -- the attempt to figure out what the sources of the Gospels were, and in particular, how to explain the "synoptic problem," that is, the problem of explaining how Matthew, Mark, and Luke have so many similarities, in terms of the stories they tell, often in the same sequence, and even at numerous points in precisely the same words.  The goal in this source analysis was to figure out which Gospel was closest to the time of Jesus and therefore most reliable. The answer: Mark.  But after some decades Wrede showed that even Mark was not a simple historical account of Jesus' life, but was driven by literary/theological purposes, causing the author to alter the traditions about Jesus' words and deeds he had inherited.  That killed for a time the Quest of the Historical Jesus.  Scholars turned to a different interest: what can we say about the traditions of Jesus *before* [...]

Non-Christian Sources for Jesus: An Interview with

I have recently had a written interview about the historical Jesus with Christopher Klein, correspondent with, the web site of the History Channel.  I’m not sure what the title of the article will be; it should be appearing relatively soon, as a lead up to Easter. He has graciously allowed me to post the questions and answers from the interview.  They all deal with the non-Christian evidence we have for the life of Jesus.   QUESTION: Can you say a few words about why it's not surprising that there is no archaeological evidence of Jesus?   RESPONSE: It makes sense that people today would think that we should have archaeological evidence of Jesus – after all, he’s the most important figure in the history of Western Civilization!  If he existed, surely we’d have some physical record of it, right?   The problems are that (a) we too quickly assume that someone who is important *after* his life must have been equally important *during* his life; but that’s absolutely not the case.  No one who has [...]

2019-02-24T07:22:05-05:00February 24th, 2019|Historical Jesus|

If the Quest for the Historical Jesus Failed… What Then?

In response to a question about the Messianic Secret in Mark, I have now shown how scholars (most signficiantly William Wrede) came to realize that not even the Gospel of Mark was a straightforward historical account of what actually happened in the life of Jesus. Some five years ago on the blog I talked about what happened next, in the scholarship on the New Testament.  It's a crucial element of the history of biblical scholarship.  Here is what I said. ***************************************************************************************************** Once it came to be realized that Mark’s Gospel – the earliest of our surviving accounts of Jesus – was driven not purely by historical interests in order to record biographical information with historical accuracy, but was (like the other Gospels) written in order to convey theological ideas in literary guise, the movement to use Mark to write a “Life of Jesus” more or less collapsed on itself, for a time and among most New Testament scholars. What arose from the ashes of this “Quest of the Historical Jesus” could not have been foreseen [...]

The Death Knell for the Study of the Historical Jesus

Once Wrede convincingly showed that the Gospel of Mark was not a literal, factual description of what Jesus said and did, in his 1901 book The Messianic Secret (but that it, like the other Gospels, had incorporated its own literary and theological concerns into its account), the cottage industry of Historical Jesus books pretty much collapsed.  Its entire foundation had for decades been built on the assumption that even if the other Gospels were not completely historical, but theologically biased, Mark was not.  Wrong.  It was. Contributing significantly to the collapse of this academic venture was the first full account of its history, Albert Schweitzer’s classic, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, produced five years later, and still very much worth reading.   As I have mentioned, Schweitzer discussed virtually all of his predecessors, starting with the first critical/historical attempt to figure out what Jesus really said and did (i.e., an account that didn’t simply think the Gospels were inspired and flawless in their reporting, but needed to be examined critically to establish the historical reality [...]

2020-11-08T00:17:09-05:00February 20th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Wrede’s Revolutionary Claim about the “Messianic Secret”

Yesterday I pointed out all the passages in the Gospel of Mark that repeat, time and again, the idea that Jesus tried to keep his messiahship a secret.  He doesn’t allow the demons to identify him when he casts them out; when he heals people he strictly instructs them not to tell anyone; he teaches his disciples the “secret of the Kingdom” privately when no one else is around; he teaches the crowds only using parables precisely (Mark indicates) so no one can understand what he means.  And he never publicly teaches about his own identity. This last point should be emphasized.  Unlike other Gospels (see John 4:25-26!) Jesus never tells anyone publicly that he is the messiah.  When he is acknowledged as the messiah by Peter in a private conversation with the disciples in Mark 8:29-30, Jesus orders them not to let anyone know.  And then he starts teaching that as the messiah he has to be rejected and executed.  That seems to be a complete contradiction of terms for Peter, who has just [...]

2020-04-03T00:09:07-04:00February 19th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Is It Plausible that Jesus Kept the Whole Thing a Secret??

Back to the Messianic Secret in Mark.  As we have seen, 19th century scholars by and large determined that Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written, and from that they concluded that it was a straightforward factual description of what actually happened in the life of Jesus.  In their view, unlike the other Gospels, Mark had not invested his story with any (or many) literary touches – i.e. fictionalized any of it – and he hadn’t imposed his own theology onto the account.  He laid out what really happened, and Matthew and Luke, then later John, took this factual account and modified it in light of their literary and theological interests. So if you wanted to know what happened in the life of Jesus: read Mark!   And for the various gaps (why did Jesus do this? Why did he start doing that?  What drove him to do this other thing?) you provided plausible, psychological explanations of what Jesus was thinking at the time. William Wrede’s book in 1906, Das Messiasgeheimnis (The Messianic Secret) called [...]

2020-04-03T00:09:16-04:00February 18th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Why Textual Criticism Seemed to Be on Death’s Door

  In last week’s readers’ mailbag I started to answer a question that I never finished – in fact, I never got around to the question!  Here it is again. QUESTION: Is there a story (post) about your move from textual criticism to other things? RESPONSE: In my two-part (non-)response to this question I first explained that my training in graduate school actually was not in textual criticism, but was mainly in the interpretation of the New Testament and the history of earliest Christianity.  But my passion was textual criticism -- that is, analyzing the surviving manuscripts of the New Testament – and related textual witnesses [early translations of the NT into other languages; and especially the quotations of the NT in the writings of early church fathers] – in order to determine both what the authors originally wrote and figuring out how, why, and when the text came to be changed by scribes who were copying it. It was precisely because my training was actually in something different from my passion that I ended [...]

Who CARES if Mark was the First Gospel Written?

When I teach students in my Introduction to the New Testament class about the Synoptic Problem, it becomes a bit like pulling teeth.  To be sure, at the very outset, students are intrigued.  When I set it up, it’s kind of like a detective story – who copied whom, and how would we know?  I make it as interesting and intriguing as I can: how can we figure this out? But then I have to get into the weeds to explain the evidence, such things as the patterns of verbal agreements among Matthew, Mark, and Luke in passages they all three have in common (such passages are called “the Triple Tradition”):  sometimes all three have exactly the same wording; sometimes all three have different wording; sometimes Mattthew and Mark have the same wording but Luke disagrees; sometimes Mark and Luke have the same wording, but Matthew disagrees; but only rarely do Matthew and Luke agree, and Mark disagrees.  I show this in detail with a particular passage (the rich man that comes up to Jesus [...]

2020-11-08T00:13:50-05:00February 15th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Editorial Fatigue in Luke: More from Blog Guest Mark Goodacre

Yesterday I published the first of two guest posts by Mark Goodacre fellow blog member and long time  colleague and New Testament scholar (at rival Duke) (Yes, we still are talking to each other here at the nearing climax of the basketball season) (Go Heels!). Mark has devoted a good chunk of his life to exploring the Synoptic Problem, and is completely committed to the idea that Mark was the first of the three Gospels to be written, used later then, independently, by Matthew and Luke.  In addition to the standard arguments that have been widely persuasive for over a century, Mark had developed a new insight from what he calls “editorial fatigue.” Yesterday he explained what it is and shows how it works with Matthew.  To show that it solves the problem of both Matthew *and* Luke, of course, he needs to demonstrate with examples it from the latter as well.  That’s what he does here, in another passage taken from his important book The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze. As I [...]

2021-01-29T02:37:30-05:00February 13th, 2019|Canonical Gospels|

A New Argument that Mark Was the First Gospel (Editorial Fatigue): Guest Post by Mark Goodacre!

In response to my post on why scholars have long thought that Mark was the first Gospel and that Matthew and Luke copied it for many of their stories (a view called Markan Priority), a blog reader asked how Mark Goodacre’s view of “Editorial Fatigue” contributed to the argument.  This is a new argument that Goodacre came up in his extensive work on the Synoptic Problem (the Problem of how/why Matthew, Mark, and Luke have so many agreements, often verbatim, and yet so many disagreements; the standard “solution” by far most widely accepted involves Markan Priority) – a Problem he has researched and taught on for many years of his academic career. This new argument is widely seen as very persuasive.   I didn’t trust myself to summarize and illustrate it, though, and asked Mark (Goodacre!) (a member of the blog, as it turns out) if he could post on it. He suggested simply giving the full summary of the argument, with illustrations, from his authoritative discussion, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (The [...]

2021-01-29T02:36:12-05:00February 12th, 2019|Canonical Gospels|

Pursuing My Passion for Textual Criticism

Yesterday I started answering the question of how I moved on from doing research principally on New Testament textual criticism to do other things, mainly involving different aspects of the literature and history of Christianity in the first three centuries CE.   I pointed out there that my training/education was actually not in textual criticism, but mainly in the exegesis (and theology) of the New Testament, and on various aspects of the history of earliest Christianity (from the historical Jesus to the formation of the canon to early heresy and orthodoxy etc.). But even though that was my *training*, my principal interest all along had been textual criticism, figuring out what the original wording of the New Testament in Greek was (verse by verse by verse), and seeing both how and why the text had been changed by scribes over the years.  This was an interest that was generated very early on in my academic career.  In fact, before I had an academic career.  Before I or anyone else could have imagined I’d have an academic [...]

On Being Just a Textual Critic

I’ve decided to address a question about my own academic life in this week’s Readers’ Mailbag.  It involves an issue that comes up a lot, but not in this form.   QUESTION: Is there a story (post) about your move from textual criticism to other things?   RESPONSE: I can’t remember if there is (though I’m sure someone will tell me!).  But I would like to say something about it, since it is an issue that seems to come up a good deal, not usually from people who are genuinely interested in knowing about my academic life per se (as this questioner is), but from critics who aren’t at *all* interested, but who want to inform their readers that my books are not written by an expert but by someone who was only trained as a textual critic. Most recently this was brought to my attention in a comment by the Christian apologist, himself a professional philosopher, William Lane Craig, who told his readers that I had no expertise on the question of whether Jesus’ [...]

2019-02-10T09:30:34-05:00February 10th, 2019|Reader’s Questions, Reflections and Ruminations|

Mark: The First Gospel in 19th Century Research

My custom/self-imposed policy is to re-post blog posts only when they are a few years old, in the expectation that most blog members will not have seen them and that some of those who have -- if they are at all like me -- won't actually remember them.  In this case I need to post one from 2017.  In a later post I am going to argue that when William Wrede published his book on the Messianic Secret, it disabused scholars of a long held assumption, that Mark, as the earliest Gospel, was a fairly disinterested straight-up report of what actually happened in the life of Jesus. To get to that, I have to explain why nineteenth century scholars thought Mark was the oldest, earliest, most original Gospel there was, and that Luke and Matthew both used it for many of their own stories about Jesus.  (John is a different kettle of fish: not as closely related to any of the other three as they are to each other.)  That view is called “Markan priority” (Mark [...]

2020-04-03T00:09:51-04:00February 8th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, History of Biblical Scholarship|

The Beginning of the Quest of the Historical Jesus

In 1901 William Wrede, a German Protestant biblical scholar, published his earth-shattering work, Das Messiasgeheimnis, “The Messianic Secret.”  It overturned in a rather devastating way the entire scholarly consensus about the Gospel of Mark and, more important and relatedly, undercut the whole enterprise scholars had undertaken to use the Gospels to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus. When five years later, Albert Schweitzer (later famous as a great humanitarian, medical doctor to Africa, who had abandoned his career as a biblical scholar and concert organist to engage in his mission; he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952) published his even-better known and justifiably classic study The Quest of the Historical Jesus, he gave it the rather uninspiring title Von Reimarus zu Wrede: “From Reimarus to Wrede.” This was a history of scholarship on the historical Jesus, written to explain the attempts scholars had made since the Enlightenment down to Schweitzer’s own day to describe what Jesus really said and did given the problem of our Gospel sources.  Starting with Hermann Samuel Reimarus in [...]

Mark’s Central Focus on Jesus’ Death

I began answer the question of “What Is the Messianic Secret?” – a term used to describe that distinctive feature of Mark’s Gospel, that Jesus repeatedly tries to hush up anyone who starts to know or realize he is – first by explaining what the traditional views of the messiah were in ancient Judaism (anything *but* a person who would be publically humiliated and tortured to death by his enemies – just the opposite: he was to be a figure of grandeur and power who destroyed the enemies) and then by laying out how Mark portrays Jesus as someone whom no one really understands.   What’s behind that interesting feature of Mark’s Gospel?  Why does he develop that idea? Mark himself, of course, understands Jesus quite well.  Jesus is the messiah who has to suffer and die.  I was about to simply to indicate that I’ve said this on the blog before a few years ago, but I’ve decided that to make my point more emphatically and make sense of my answer to the question about [...]

2020-04-03T00:10:13-04:00February 5th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

How No One Understands Jesus in Mark’s Gospel

In yesterday’s post I began to address the question: What is the Messianic Secret?  This is a term that scholars have applied for over a century to the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus repeatedly tells anyone who suspects his identity not to reveal it.  Why?   To make sense of this “Secret” of Jesus, it is important for us to have a fuller understanding of Mark’s portrayal of Jesus. One of Mark’s major themes, quite apart from how one explains the apparent “secret” of Jesus’ messiahship, is that no one in Mark’s Gospel (remember, I’m speaking ONLY of Mark now; not the other Gospels) seems to understand who Jesus is.  Here is how I explain that in my discussion of Mark in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. ******************************************************************** One way to establish misunderstanding as a Markan theme is to read carefully through the first half of the Gospel and ask, Who realizes that Jesus is the Son of God? The answer may come as a bit of a surprise. Clearly [...]

2021-01-05T01:07:58-05:00February 4th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

How Do We Explain the Messianic Secret?

What is the Messianic Secret - For this week’s Readers’ Mailbag, I address a question of central importance for understanding the Gospel of Mark, our earliest Gospel and often thought to be the one that best represents what actually happened in the life of Jesus.  I’ll have to *explain* the question before answering it (!).   Then most of this post will be setting up the answer with the crucial background information, which, as it turns out, the vast majority of casual Bible readers have never even thought of or heard.  QUESTION; I’ve looked back through the archives, but I can’t find anything on Mark’s “Messianic secret”. It’s possible I simply missed it, but if you haven’t dealt with it before would you consider doing a post on the subject, please?! Particularly on why it’s no longer accepted by scholars. What is the Messianic Secret RESPONSE: The “messianic secret” is a term that over a century ago came to be applied to the Gospel of Mark to explain one of its most distinctive and puzzling features.  [...]

2022-06-28T13:06:04-04:00February 3rd, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Guest Post! Joel Marcus on His New Book on the John the Baptist

Many readers of the blog will already be familiar with my long-time friend and colleague from Duke, Joel Marcus, one of the top New Testament scholars in America (or anywhere else, for that matter).  Joel and I have known each other for over thirty years -- since he started teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary, soon after I finished my PhD there.  He is especially well known for his massive and learned two-volume commentary on the Gospel of Mark for the Anchor Bible commentary series. Joel has now produced a full book on John the Baptist, both as he is portrayed in our Gospels (and Josephus) but also, of even more interest, as he can be reconstructed historically.  What can we actually know about him?  The book is the most authoritative account ever to appear, and will be the standard study for our generation.  It is called John the Baptist in History and Theology. Joel has kindly agreed to post a summary of the book and its key findings (some of them gratifyingly controversial) for us here [...]

2022-01-26T11:25:22-05:00February 1st, 2019|Book Discussions, Early Judaism, Historical Jesus|
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