Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review - New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash - my initial thoughts

Review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert M. Price

New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash – my initial thoughts

This is, by far, the longest article in Robert Price’s anthology, The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems, and therefore it must be given the most attention in this review.  The article New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash takes up over 200 pages of the entire book, and there is no way I can cover it all in a single article.  I plan on breaking up my review of this section over several separate blog articles.

Based on the length of the article alone, it is obvious to me that Price places great emphasis on his claim that practically every Gospel episode of the life of Jesus can be shown to be a narrative extrapolation from some Old Testament passage.  That concise description is over-simplifying a bit.  Let me clarify.

The Gospel writers often tell us that Jesus did something so that ‘Scripture was fulfilled’ (e.g. Mark 15:28, Luke 4:21, John 13:18, etc., )  Now, when the typical Christian believer reads Biblical passages like these, they imagine that the Gospel authors are accurately reporting some event or tradition from the life of Jesus.  It may then be noticed only in hindsight the parallel to that event or tradition in the Old Testament, and finally conclude that the Old Testament parallel was actually a prophetic reference to the event they saw Jesus perform.  This pattern of all poetic allusion in the Old Testament find its fulfillment in Jesus is one of the features that makes the Bible so powerful.  It is what binds the Old and New Testaments together, gives the whole narrative a structural backbone, and gives the Christian a sense of supernatural wonder.   But what Dr. Price is proposing that the Christian believer is putting the cart before the horse.  The Gospel authors (the Evangelists)  are not basing their information of Jesus from living testimony or sacred tradition.  The Evangelists are reading the sacred Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, and extrapolated an invented history of Jesus from these sacred texts.  Dr. Price attempts to make the case that nearly every story and narrative of Jesus that is found in the Gospels can be shown to have a parallel in the Old Testament or other sacred writing.  What Christians think of as Messianic Prophecy in the Old Testament were actually the seeds from which the “history” of Jesus was extrapolated by the Evangelists.  This process of creating stories to explain or expand on established Scriptures was a common practice known as midrash.

Most Christian apologists are likely to acknowledge the existence of these parallels, but then claim that the Evangelists re-worked the Old Testament to fit around the actual life of Jesus.  To illustrate this point a little more, I will quote this lengthy passage from a recent book by apologist, Craig Blomberg:

“…the question has been raised whether the Old Testament passages might not have given birth to the narratives and teachings associated with them.  In other words, the Gospel writers would not be recording actual historical events but imaginatively involving Jesus in fictitious narratives and teachings inspired by Old Testament texts and/or subsequent Jewish traditions related to those texts…The fundamental flaw with this position emerges from a paradoxical observation.  When ancient Jewish authors invented unhistorical narratives inspired by Old Testament texts, they generally quoted and interpreted Scripture quite literally.  Since they were composing fiction they were free to tailor their creations to the texts that generated them.  Precisely the opposite is the case for most of the Gospel passages in question.  In many cases the Old Testament references are reworded or reapplied in ways that make it much more likely that the gospel writers were trying to show how the Old Testament fitted the events of Jesus’ life and not the other way around." (p78-79 – The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Craig Blomberg)

Clever, but Price is taking the theme of Midrash much further than Blomberg’s more obvious method.  Most readers will notice when the Evangelist describes an event from the life of Jesus and explicitly cite an Old testament reference.  So when Mark 15:27-28 says, “And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left.  And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors,” we can easily see that it is explicitly referencing an Old Testament passage - in this case Isaiah 53:12.  The citation is explicit.  But Price is claiming that most parallels are unstated, uncited and only inferred.  They can only be noticed once they are pointed out!  Robert Price is reminding us that the reasoning of the ancient Evangelists was different from what modern readers would expect.  These authors from an ancient and alien culture did not think of history in the same way we modern westerners do.  History to the ancients was not necessarily a consolidation and interpretation of documented facts.  It could also be derived through what they believed to be the truth of their own sacred scriptures.  A common practice among this ancient culture was to explain curious or troublesome portions of their scriptures with invented narrative solutions.  That is, that derived stories to explain and expand on their own Sacred Scriptures.  The revered scriptures that we call the Old Testament contained psalms, prophets, poetry and epics that described history through allusion, metaphor and cipher.  The four Evangelists channeled the earthly history of their new Messiah from their own Sacred Scriptures.  Their rationale for doing so was their belief that their Scriptures not only foretold history, but described it in detail for those who “had an ear to hear”.

So in a culture where midrash is common, perhaps the Gospel authors employed reasoning that is completely at odds from what the modern rational critic would expect.  Through the process of midrash, Price hypothesizes that ancient Scriptures were not used to “predict” events in the life of Jesus, rather they were used to “describe”, in advance, the life of Jesus through the mystical eye of faith.  For instance, when the author of the Gospel of Matthew read Hosea 11:1, “… Out of Egypt I have called my Son …”, he knew, through the process and tradition of cipher code, midrash and mysticism, that somehow, Jesus the Son of God, was called out of Egypt in His worldly sojourn.  Somehow he sees a place in his existing narrative of Hosea where there was a gap, a place which describes that the Messiah must have come up from Egypt at some point in his life.  This was just one point among many that the Gospel author used as a skeleton to his historical narrative of Jesus.

I am convinced that a thought process at least similar to this was at play during this, and many of instances of supposed ‘Messianic Prophecy’.  After all, if the evangelist was not working by this method, then we have to wonder why he made Jesus the fulfillment of so many unrelated, non-sequitur Old Testament citations.  If not midrash, then what other option is there?

This takes on a whole new meaning when the Evangelist Mark tells us that Jesus did something to fulfill scripture.  Maybe ‘to fulfill scripture’ meant ‘to know via midrash’ from scripture.  At this point I confess that I find the overall concept and process extremely plausible, even if I am not convinced by every proposed midrashic parallel.  After all, when Jesus scolds the Roman soldiers who come to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane with: ‘Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me.  But let the Scriptures be fulfilled”, Jesus must be referring to something!  Price spends over 200 pages attempting to demonstrate that almost every Gospel narrative is extrapolated midrash from their ancient Scriptures or sacred traditions.

As intriguing and even plausible as I find this hypothesis, I have to say that on the whole I am not fully convinced.  To tell the truth, I am not sure that Dr. Price is fully convinced either.  I suspect that what he is doing is to test a model to see how it works as an overarching model over the entirety of the Gospels.  Even if every Gospel narrative can be conclusively shown to be the product of midrash, I don’t see how this advances an overall Christ Myth Theory.  Oh no, there it is again.  The same complaint I have had since the beginning of this review.  I will repeat – demonstrating that the Gospels are fiction does not necessarily make a Christ Myth Theory.  It certainly deconstructs what we think we know of a historical Jesus, and makes the historical reliability of the Gospels extremely implausible, but it does not advance a particular theory of Christ’s mythical existence.  I am sorry that I continue to make this complaint, and it is still my main criticism of this book.

I also have a problem imagining the transmission of texts that were assumed to be historical, that were in fact completely derived from the process of midrash.  The transmission of these Gospel texts as history seems very implausible.  It assumes that our four Evangelists knew and understood the process of creating history from midrash, wrote their respective Gospels with the same methodology and without personal collaboration; then every subsequent reader of the Gospels from that point on forgot about midrash and accepted the Gospels as history.  This seems highly unlikely to me.  It gives the original four Evangelists, authors who borrowed each others’ work but were not likely collaborators, identical methodologies of writing history - extrapolating and creating history via the process of midrash from ancient scriptures.  But it also gives subsequent readers and scribes a very different methodology of understanding - this was actual history of based on events that were witnessed, not based on history derived from mystical extraction from ancient scriptures.  The consistent methodologies of the four Evangelists contrasted with the very different but still consistent methodologies of all subsequent readers makes this process seem highly unlikely to me.  This question of transmission will remain a lingering doubt throughout this review.  Some midrash here and there?  I can buy that.  Midrash to create the whole thing?  No - that seems too much for me to swallow.

Robert Price’s long essay New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash originally appeared in something called Encyclopedia of Midrash: Biblical Interpretation in Formative Judaism, which I suppose can be found in the reference section of your nearest seminary.  But an abbreviated form of this article also exists on Price’s own website (LINK).  Since Price has placed New testament citations with their supposed Old Testament parallels online, I will not feel like I am giving anything away by going over a few of the examples that are offered by Dr. Price for our consideration.  So since I am not aware of anybody who has gone through these examples of midrash, then I guess I will.  I will give my gut reaction and grade each example based on my thoroughly subjective measure of plausibility.  Am I thoroughly convince, for instance, that Mark 6:1-6 was written as a ‘historical’ narrative extrapolated from 1 Samuel 10:1-27?  After I compare the two passages, some kind of narrative borrowing seems very likely to me.  That alleged parallel gets a grade of A in my personal grading scheme.  How about Luke 9:59-62?  Is it possibly derived from 1Kings 19:19-21?  I seriously doubt it!  It gets a grade of F from me.  Grades B, C and D fall somewhere in between.  Remember, I am doing no outside research besides reading the texts in question, doing a little comparing, and giving my initial determination of its plausibility and a quick rationale.  I am just shooting from the hip.  There are about 200 pages or so of alleged parallels to critique.  I am not sure how far I will go before I get tired of it - but I think at least a sampling of a few will at least give an idea of what Dr. Price is driving at.  Ready?  

NEXT: More New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash

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