Thursday, September 17, 2015

Christological Use of the Old Testament - Part 3

Before proceeding, let's revisit our central question: To what extent did the earliest Christians "use" the Hebrew scriptures in their telling of the story of Jesus? Did these Christ followers have genuine memories of the actual words and events of the life of Jesus that they, in turn, recast and embellished by referring to parallel words and stories from the Hebrew scriptures? Or did the early Christians know little of the actual words and actions of Jesus, so they turned to the familiar stories of the Hebrew scriptures to help "create" the stories—or at least, the details of the stories—they told about Jesus? Are the gospel stories genuine remembrances that the Christians framed, structured, and expounded in the language of the Hebrew scriptures? Or are they simply fictions built around scriptural precedents?

The scholars associated with the Jesus Seminar affirmed the latter position: early Christians knew little beyond the "brute facts" of Jesus' life and "filled in the details" with creative reflections and appropriations from the familiar and authoritative stories of the Old Testament. The gospel writers took the "raw materials" of earlier biblical texts and drew details from them, stringing together sometimes wildly divergent ideas and words, to "construct" stories about Jesus. This creative process not only filled the gaps missing in the memories of the early Christians about the details of the biography of Jesus, it also imbued the telling of his story with the authority "inherited" from its close parallel with the authoritative texts of the past.

John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg explained this phenomenon—dubbed "prophecy historicized"—in their The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus' Final Week in Jerusalem (2006).

The Jewish Bible was the sacred scripture of early Christians, and many of them knew it well, whether from hearing it orally or being able to read it. Thus, as they told the story of Jesus, they used language from the Jewish Bible to do so.

This practice produced what we call "prophecy historicized." A passage from the past (in this case, from the Jewish Bible) is "historicized" when it is used in the narration of a subsequent story (the gospels and the New Testament). "Historicizing" here does not make something historical or historically factual. It simply means using an older passage in a newer story in an attempt to connect that newer story to the earlier tradition and lend credibility to it. . . . It is sometimes difficult to discern whether "prophecy historicized" is being used to comment about something that actually happened or whether it is being used to generate a narrative or a detail within a narrative.

The overall conclusion of the Jesus Seminar is even more bluntly stated: the details of Jesus' final week were "the fabrication of Christian storytellers." (The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (1996)

[You can find more detailed discussion of "prophecy historicized" in Crossan's The Birth of Christianity (1993) and Who Killed Jesus? (1996).]

Crossan—and other representatives of the Jesus Seminar—argue that the only real alternative to their view of "prophecy historicized" is a naive literalism that holds that the many Old Testament passages applied to Jesus by the Christian storytellers actually and intentionally point beyond their contemporary settings to a literal fulfillment in first-century CE Palestine in the life and words of Jesus of Nazareth. Such interpretation is obvious wrong and wrong-headed—here they are correct about this type interpretation—and they conclude that since their opponents are so obviously wrong, the opposite position must be right.

This is a classic "straw man" argument if there ever was one!


Actually there is a third, "more nuanced" alternative to a na├»ve literalism and "prophecy historicized." Mark Goodacre of Duke University describes a middle position—that he calls "tradition scripturalized"—that better explains the continuum of memory, tradition, and scriptural reflection that lays behind the construction of the gospel stories.

The multiple echoes of Biblical themes and the varied allusions to Scriptural precedent are plausibly explained on the hypothesis that from the beginning there was an intimate interaction between event, memory, tradition and Scriptural reflection. Events generated Scriptural reflection, which in turn influenced the way the events were remembered and retold. And the process of casting the narrative in this language might be described, to utilise a somewhat cumbersome but nevertheless illuminating term from Hebrew Bible scholarship, scripturalization. . . . What I suggest is happening here is that the events themselves were generating scriptural reflection from the earliest times as the first Christians attempted to come to terms with these extraordinary events, and that the scriptures then, in turn, influenced the formation of the tradition. It was an interactive process in which history, scripture, memory and tradition were mutually influencing one another as the narrative was being born. (When Prophecy Becomes Passion: The Death of Jesus and the Birth of the Gospels)

Goodacre argues that early Christians took a genuine memory of events they witnessed and passed these stories to others in the form of tradition. As part of this tradition-building, the early Christians reflected on the Jesus stories in light of their well-versed scriptural knowledge. They drew all sorts of parallels and found all sorts of allusions. Some were fulfilled predictions—passages in the Hebrew scriptures that genuinely looked ahead to a messianic age. Others were simply parallels between the events of the life of Jesus and those of his Hebrew predecessors. The early Christians especially found in the words of the Psalms—the songbook of the second temple, widely known and widely loved—strong language to express the depths of Jesus' motives, emotions, and suffering.

With "tradition scripturalized," the gospel stories become interactions between genuine memories of the historical Jesus and reflections on authoritative scripture. Again and again, the gospel writers cast the story of Jesus by drawing parallels with the Old Testament: Jesus is the new David, Jesus is the new Moses, Jesus is the new Jonah.

The "scripturalization of tradition" best fits the evidence that we find of the christological use of the Hebrew scriptures by the New Testament writers. The intermingling of genuine memory and scriptural reflection provides a clear understanding of how the gospel writers quoted, alluded to, "cherry-picked', and even twisted and re-interpreted familiar scriptural texts to accomplish their christological ends. The Old Testament references did not create the Jesus stories, but they greatly influenced the forms and ways in which these stories were remembered and transmitted through time.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Joe, for such a carefully nuanced treatment of both the historical Jesus, the ancient tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and the writing of the canonical gospels! One relatively recent work that that also speaks to this process is Richard Bauckham's "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" (2007). Bauckham, a senior scholar (now retired) at the University of St. Andrews, has dug deeply into the traditions surrounding the production of the gospels and makes what I believe to be a powerful case that they all were written within the lifetimes of living witnesses to the words and deeds of Jesus. These witnesses served as guarantors of the oral tradition before and after it was codified, something not available, for instance, to the later Gnostic gospel writers with which so many contemporary scholars are enamored. A few years ago while at a conference in St. Andrews, I had the privilege of chatting briefly with Dr. Bauckham about this work (and Chad, my son, had a beer with him at a local pub). He is a first-rate scholar and a gentleman. I would highly recommend this work if anyone has not yet accessed it. It's not for the faint-hearted--it is robust, high level scholarship--but it is indispensable.