Monday, December 29, 2008

On the Fourth Day of Meier

On the fourth day of Meier, his Marginal Jew brought to me, 4) agrapha and Nag Hammadi, 3) Tacitus and other Jewish sources; 2) Josephus and the books of the canon; and 1) and an introduction to the historical Jesus.

"Agrapha" is a term used for scattered sayings attributed to Jesus that appear here and there, "unwritten" sayings. Joachim Jeremias, mid-twentieth century German scholar, found eighteen candidates he accepted as genuine words of Jesus found elsewhere than in the gospels. Meier is not so optimistic. Jeremias' arguments amount to Jesus could have said this. "Hypothesis is piled on hypothesis" (114) and "even when all eighteen are accepted, nothing new is added to our picture."

The rest of the chapter dives into two bodies of literature that are potential candidates for Jesus material independent of the gospels. The first are the "apocryphal gospels" like the Protoevangelium of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of the Nazarenes, the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel of the Hebrews, etc... He leaves the Coptic Gospel of Thomas for the final section.

Meier rightly dismisses the Protogospel of James and the Infancy Gospel as fanciful and bizarre second century speculation about Jesus' childhood. Then he considers the Jewish Christian fragments of the Gospel of the Nararenes, the Gospel of the Ebionites, and the Gospel of the Hebrews. All, he believes are dependent on the canonical gospels rather than relayers of independent Jesus tradition.

Finally, this section treats some of the sources that have been favorites of John Dominic Crossan. Meier finds Crossan's theory that the Gospel of Peter reflects a earlier "Cross Gospel" that was used as the basis of Mark's passion story unnecessarily complicated. Basically, "the simplest theory that explains the most data is to be preferred" (116). And the simplest explanation of the Gospel of Peter is that "it is a 2d century pastiche of traditions from the canonical Gospels" (117). He does offer linguistic evidence as well.

As far as the Egerton Papyrus 2, Meier similarly concludes that we get no new information about Jesus and that it is nevertheless still more likely than not that they are based on the canonical gospels.

The final possibility in this section of the chapter is the Secret Gospel of Mark. Once again, Meier finds the hypotheses of Crossan and Helmut Koester ridiculously complicated in comparison to the simplest hypothesis that it is based on the canonical gospels. Further, "to use such a small fragment of dubious origins to rewrite the history of Jesus and the Gospel tradition is to lean on a reed" (121).

His summary of these 2nd century gospels is basically that they come from the "overheated imaginations of various 2d century Christians" (122) and that "they belong in a study of the patristic Church from the 2d to 4th century" (123).

The final section of the chapter deals with the Nag Hammadi discoveries of 1945. He defers to the study of others like Christopher Tuckett who find no independent information on Jesus. He quickly dismisses works like the Gospel of Philip and gets right down to the real point of interest, namely the Gospel of Thomas. Of all the material in the chapter with any likelihood at all to give us information about Jesus independent of the canonical gospels, it is the Gospel of Thomas.

Meier in the end concludes, "I think that the Synoptic-like sayings of the Gospel of Thomas are in fact dependent on the Synoptic Gospels and that the other 2d-century Christian gnosticism" (139). My conclusion, for whatever it's worth, is similar. The most distinctive sayings in Thomas are later and represent a gnosticizing tendency--far too realized an eschatology for the historical Jesus. The remainder could very well be independent Jesus tradition, but it doesn't really add anything startling to our understanding of him.

1 comment:

Ken Schenck said...

This piece in the Nation, dated January 7, 2009, discusses the long suggested possibility that Morton Smith forged Secret Mark. That's my hunch, but I'm waiting for the movie. Jim West is emphatically sure. Jared Callaway is waiting till he has a tenured position somewhere to say what he thinks. :-)

I have a student who I can see trying this one day :-)