Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Reminder Concerning the Difficulties Involved in Attempting to Authenticate the Sayings Attributed to Jesus by the Gospel Writers

I have a lot of blogs that I keep up with as anyone who has perused my links has surely observed. This means that I've been doing a lot of catching up on my reading of them in the last several days which is why I haven't really posted anything lately (in addition to having been on a mission). So as I was catching up on Loren Rosson's blog (still a favorite of mine that I've been following since 2005) I came across his post concerning Mk 9:1 and the historical Jesus which was a poignant reminder to me of the difficulty involved in the historian's task of determining with any degree of certainty what the historical Jesus actually said. Here's the (in)famous saying:

"I say to you that there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power." (Mk 9:1)

For historical Jesus scholars this has always been a particularly difficult passage because a reasonable case can be made for settling on any of the following options:

(a) concluding it to be an authentic saying of Jesus due to its implication that Jesus made a false prophecy which the early Church surely would have found embarrassing making it highly unlikely that this saying was created by the nascent Christian community (this being based on the so-called criterion of embarrassment)

(b) determining that the early Church in fact created this saying as a means of comforting those bereft with disappointment that the "end" had not yet come (Loren cites I Thess 4:13-18 and I Cor 15:51-53 as early examples of this within the developing Christian community)

(c) asserting some sort of synthesis of the above, e.g., that the historical Jesus said something in substance akin to this saying but that the early Church modified it to fit the context of what they were going through at the time, namely, disappointment that the "end" had not yet arrived. (In the comments Dr. Goodacre suggests this last option by noting how Matthew, uncomfortable with Mark's version, subtly alters this saying to Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” emphasis mine, MT 16: 28)

Loren converts, via arguments of John Meier, from (a) to (b) while Dr. Goodacre, writing in the comments section, supports (c). For my own part I'm not sure which solution is most satisfactory given the data at hand. Part of the problem here has to do with other factors which could influence how one determines the solution such as the dating of the gospel writers' works. For example, depending on how one dates Mark's gospel (the consensus is typically 70 CE or around the Second Jewish Temple's destruction) can influence significantly how one views the authenticity or inauthenticity of this saying. To elaborate further, if one determines that Mark is written late into the 1st century then it might make more sense to view this saying as a creation of the Church because of the increasing delay between the time of the historical Jesus and the expected coming of his kingdom by his followers. Likewise, the closer to the events of the historical Jesus that one believes Mark to have been written would incline one to think the saying to be more original because the expectation of the "end" wouldn't be as prominent among the early believers.

Anyways, if I had to choose one of the three I would probably elect (c). However, as I noted in the comments the more I study the historical Jesus (and its related issues such as the Synoptic Problem whose preferred solution could also affect how one determines the authenticity of this saying) the more skeptical and pessimistic I become in regards to determining which sayings attributed to Jesus by the gospel writers actually originated with the historical Jesus. And thus after all these years I still am persuaded that E.P. Sanders' emphasis on giving priority to studying the actions of Jesus attributed to him by the gospels over the sayings of Jesus is the superior method in reconstructing the historical Jesus (here for more). This I should say is in marked contrast to where I started out in my studying of the historical Jesus so many years ago, i.e., much more sanguine about what I thought could be attributed to the historical Jesus which in my former pious Christian days (and when I was a fan of NT Wright) was just about everyone of the sayings. But that is a story for another time.

No comments:

Post a Comment