Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Passover Hypothesis and Acts 12:1-4

Acts 12:2-4 has a passage that would be otherwise strange, unless you recognize the sort of multivalent usage that Brant Pitre identifies in chapter four of his Jesus and the Last Supper (cf. my previous post). In the NRSV, this passage reads as follows
1 About that time King Herod [Agrippa] laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. 2 He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. 3 After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) 4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover.
It is commonplace among New Testament scholars to suppose that "Passover" refers only to 14 Nisan, the day on which the initial sacrifice is slaughtered. It is then followed by the Feast (or Festival) of Unleavened Bread, from 15-21 Nisan. On such an understanding you have a very strange narrative here, wherein James is arrested and executed either before or during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, followed by the arrest of Peter during the Feast and an intention to kill him after the Passover (it is not clear if the statement that this happened during the Feast refers only to Peter's arrest, or also to the arrest and execution of James. I suspect the latter, but the narrative leaves some ambiguity). In other words, on the typical usage, you would have Peter arrested between 15-21 Nisan, with Herod Agrippa planning on executing him once 14 Nisan was past. The only way this would work is if he was arrested sometime during 15-21 Nisan one year, held for a full year until the following 14 Nisan had past. This seems somewhat unlikely.

This problem disappears entirely if, with Pitre, we recognize that "Passover" can also refer to the entirety of the festal week i.e 15-21 Nisan. Then we would have James arrested and executed no later than 21 Nisan, followed by Peter's arrest sometime between 15 and 21 Nisan, with Agrippa planning to have him executed at some point subsequent to the 21 Nisan. The timeline is suddenly not a problem at all. Insofar as a hypothesis' capacity to resolve indirectly-related difficulties should generally be reckoned as confirmatory, Pitre's understanding of the New Testament usages of the term "Passover" seems to receive confirmation from Acts 12:1-4. (Pitre, incidentally, has indicated that Acts 12:1-4 were originally intended to be in chapter four of Jesus and History, but ended up on the chopping-room floor. Quite understandable: as it is, the chapter weighs in at over 120 pages. Sometimes one simply has to let things go).

Incidentally, as I am somewhat obsessive-compulsive about such matters, the events in question probably occurred no earlier than 41, the first Passover during which Agrippa had control of Judea, and no later than 44, the last Passover before his death. Based upon what we know about Peter's movements during these years independent of this passage, I am inclined to favour 41 or 42, with the former seeming more probable to me than the latter. 43 and 44 generally strike me as non-starters.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Brant Pitre and Functional Specialization

As the godly know, there are few things more sublime than solid chronological work. That's what makes chapter four of Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Last Supper a thing of beauty. In this chapter Pitre addresses the ever-vexed question about the date of the last supper. He rightly notes that this question is the single most disputed chronological issue in NT studies. The issue turns upon a perceived contradiction between the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels, which indicate that the Last Supper took place on 15 Nisan, and the account in John's, which is typically thought to indicate that it took place a day earlier, on 14 Nisan. This perceived contradiction has become a significant point of contention in New Testament scholarship, as 15 Nisan is typically identified as being self-identical with Passover. The questions of whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal and whether Jesus was understood as a Passover sacrifice are both related integrally to this matter. Pitre's contribution is to show that the historical problem is based wholly upon questionable exegesis.

Pitre argues that scholarship has made the error of supposing that in all cases, when the gospels refer to Passover, they are referring to 15 Nisan. Against this, he argues that in late Second Temple Judaism, "Passover" could refer to at least four different things: the Passover lamb, sacrificed on 14 Nisan; the Passover meal on 15 Nisan, at which the lamb was consumed; the Passover peace offering, consumed over the period from 15-21 Nisan; or Passover week, also from 15-21 Nisan. Without getting into the complicated details, which span more than forty pages in Pitre's work, suffice it to say that he demonstrates quite persuasively that when the differing uses of the term are kept in mind, the appearance of contradictory claims between the Synoptics and John evaporates.

In Lonergan terms, what Pitre has done is recognize that interpretation must precede history. Before one can on the basis of ancient texts infer what happened in the past, one must first establish what said texts actually say on the relevant matter. The question "On the date of the Last Supper, is John correct or are the Synoptics?" is meaningful only if John and the Synoptics diverge on the dates that they report for the event. If they converge then certainly one can still ask whether or not Jesus ate his Last Supper on the date mutually indicated (Pitre argues that this date is 15 Nisan), but the question of whether to prefer John or the Synoptics becomes meaningless as there is no substantive difference. The historical problem--whether real or chimerical--is entirely the fruit of exegesis.

Incidentally, the potential objection that Pitre is "conflating" texts holds no water, as it supposes what remains to be proven, namely that the texts present divergent data on the matter of the Last Supper's date. If exegesis demonstrates that they do not, then no conflation is possible because there is nothing to conflate. If exegesis demonstrates that they do, then no conflation has occurred because one recognizes that they diverge. Also incidentally, of course our understanding about the possible meanings of the term "Passover" is itself the fruit of previous work. That literally goes without saying, and entails nothing more than the paired and really quite banal insights that one never comes to any question with an empty head and that what fills one's head is the fruit of previous discoveries.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Pre-70 John

Among the New Testament texts, the date of John's Gospel is, IMHO, one of the hardest to define. It's no Hebrews, which was pretty obviously written sometime between 50 and 70, and certainly no Romans, which written indisputably written c. 56-57. Given 21:18-19, it seems probable that the gospel was completed sometime after Peter's death. But in principle Peter could have died as early as 54. We know that he died under Nero, who reigned 54-68, and although this is often linked with the Christian persecution said to have broken out after the fire of July 64 there are reasons to disassociate his death from the fire. If so, then the Neronian datum can stand without locking us into July 64 as a terminus post quem. 1 Cor. 9:6 seems to suppose that Peter yet lives, and although it seems to be the latest text that references Peter as still living it can't be dated much later than 55 or 56. At most, it might increase the terminus post quem for John's Gospel to the late-50s. That said, given that the most concrete dates we have on Peter's death associate it with events of the mid- to late- 60s (the fire, Paul's death), a date of death at 65 ± 1 or 2 years is probably to be preferred. In terms of a terminus ante quem, Ignatius of Antioch--writing sometime between 98 and 117 (I'm wary of efforts to narrow the range down more precisely)--almost certainly knows John's Gospel. Given that Ignatius seems to suppose that his readers are also familiar with John's Gospel, one suspects that the gospel predates his use by a few years at least. As such, John's Gospel should not be dated earlier than the late-50s, or later than the 110s, with perhaps a more likely range from c. 65 to c. 100. A more precise date requires a very close examination of certain relevant texts.

If determining a date where simply a matter of determining the average of the possibilities than a "middle" date (i.e. one from c. 70-100) would be preferred. But that is not adequate historiography. A more robust procedure would inquire into whether there is evidence for whether John should be located before the 70 divide or after. Let us begin by considering the evidence for a post-70 date, beginning with 4:21. When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that "a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" must he not surely be referring to the destruction of the temple in 70? Two observations are in order. One, it's reasonably clear that the point of 4:21-24 is not the destruction of the temple but rather the soteriological consequences of Jesus' ministry. Two, that the statement is a prophecy after the fact referring to the destruction of the temple during the Jewish War seems highly unlikely given that it is mated with a prophecy that worship would also cease on Mt. Gerizim...something that did not happen during the war. A prophecy after the fact that reports blatant non-facts seems curiously strange. 4:21 probably tells us nothing about the date of the gospel. Similarly, 2:19-22 probably tells us nothing either. Yes, Jesus is reported to have uttered a prophecy that the temple would be destroyed and rebuilt, and yes, we read that the disciples eventually interpreted that as a reference to his own body. That reinterpretation could have occurred after the destruction in 70, in order to explain why the temple was not rebuilt, but it could have just as easily have occurred after the resurrection: exactly as 2:22 states. Indeed, I see no reason to doubt John on this matter, which suggests that the reported reinterpretation could have occurred as early as 30. Again, in turns of defining the date of John's Gospel, 2:19-22 is probably non-probative.

Sometimes it is argued that the Gospel must post-date 70 because 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 clearly suppose the existence of the rabbinic prayer Birkat ha-Minim, which dates to the post-70 period. This is a non-starter, on so many levels. In fact, it is a non-starter on so many levels that I've written an entire book on the matter. The argument ignores a series of facts. For instance, we can be more confident that John's Gospel dates to the first century than we can be that the Birkat ha-Minim does. Or, we cannot be confident that it was originally an anti-Christian prayer, as this reading of 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 must suppose. Or, 9:22, 12:42, 16:2 refer to expulsion from the synagogue with no references to prayer, while the material surrounding the Birkat ha-Minim refer to prayer with no references to expulsion from the synagogue. We are left trying to offer as background to 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 by invoking a text that more likely post-dates John's Gospel than not, probably did not have the aim that it must have had if it is to speak to these Johannine passages, and in fact lacks almost any actual parallel with John 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2. New Testament scholarship's fascination with the Birkat ha-Minim is mischief best laid to rest.

In sum, I see nothing in John's Gospel that should incline us towards a post-70 date. Is there data that should incline us towards a pre-70 one? I think that there is. A key datum is 5:2, which tells us that "Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes." Note the present tenses here. This is exceptional for John. Typically, he assimilates his topographical descriptions to the narrative, typically using the imperfect. The slippage to present tense makes best sense to me if the author most spontaneously thinks about the Sheep Gate as a present reality, and that such thought has led him to neglect assimilating this description to the time of the narrative. Such spontaneity makes far better sense before 70 than after.

One might object that 5:2 cannot bear this much weight, and of course in a fuller treatment I would furnish more data than just this, but I would suggest that if there are no data that points at a post-70 date but there is a datum that seems more "at home" prior to 70, then pre-70 is the safer bet.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Eyewitnesses and the Hellēnistai

Reading the second edition of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses today, I came across an interesting suggestion. Building upon the idea that the "John" of the Gospel of John was a Jerusalem-based follower of Jesus (and that he is also the Beloved Disciple who features in the gospel), Bauckham suggested that the book's distinctive character might stem from its ultimate origin among a different "circle" of eyewitnesses than the Synoptic Gospels. I was already quite convinced that Johannine distinctiveness was largely a consequence of an author who was a disciple of the earthly Jesus was Jerusalem-based but not one of the Twelve, but the idea that he was a representative voice of a circle of eyewitnesses outside the Twelve had not occurred to me. It is is not without certain attractions.

One such attraction: this hypothesis makes good sense of the Johannine "we-passages." These passages talk in the first-person plural about having witnessed Jesus' glory (1:14b) and knowing that the author's testimony was true (21:24). When I reflect upon these passages in light of Bauckham's suggestion, it occurs to me that they are most naturally read as indicating that at least three eyewitnesses were involved in the development of John's Gospel: John, the Beloved Disciple, the two or more who know his testimony is true in 21:24, and all three or more of these who claim to have witnessed Jesus' glory in 1:14b. As I think about it, I suspect an implicit claim to eyewitness status in 21:24 because the gospel generally links knowing and seeing. For John, to know is to have seen, and if one knows that something is true that is typically because one has seen it. With regard to 21:24, this would only be true of those who had seen the things to which John testifies.

Another attraction: we actually do know of at least two distinct groups of Christians present in Jerusalem during the first year or two after Jesus' life, namely the Hebraioi and the Hellēnistai, the Hebraists and the Hellenists. It doesn't seem that they lived separate institutional lives, but the early Christians were cognizant that there were distinctions between them. While the majority of Jesus' Galilean followers were likely among the Hebraists, it is not unreasonable to expect that at least some of his Jerusalem-based followers were among the Hellenists. It strikes me as hardly inconceivable that the distinctions between Hebraist and Hellenist might not in part have been the grounds for the literary distinctions that we find in the Synoptic and Johannine traditions. Of course, it doesn't follow that either tradition closely resembled their written form at this point, but the idea that the developments that led to those written forms should be located in this first year or two should perhaps not be ruled out.

Interestingly, the above hypotheses (which is all they are: untested hypotheses) would have the consequence of grounding early Christian diversity at least in part in the pre-Easter period. Distinctions between Synoptic and Johannine traditions that can be seen clearly decades after Jesus' death could be in part the consequences of his operations. Put otherwise, following the traditional Lukan narrative that sees Christianity as initially expanding from a relatively small group Jerusalem does not require one to assume that Christianity was homogeneous. It was in principle as diverse as the people who joined Christianity during this period.