JRP vs. Bishop Spong vs. Judas Iscariot: Round Two (1 of 3)

Please see here for Round One, where I assess Bishop Spong’s claim about “suppression” of an early Christian memory of a non-traitorous Judas in the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.

“The second source” of Bishop Spong’s suspicion that Judas Iscariot was created as a fictional character as part of the rise of Chrisitan anti-Semitism, “comes from the fact that the act of betrayal by a member of the twelve disciples is not found in the earliest Christian writings.”

This of course depends totally on the strength of whatever dating and source theories Bishop Spong holds concerning Gospel composition. If any of them (all of which contain detailed narrative affirmation about Judas Iscariot’s treachery) date before 64 CE, then the character and treachery of Judas is contemporaneous with what he accepts as the Pauline corpus. While pre-70 dates for Gospel compositions are controversial, they aren’t quite as rare in the field as a casual reader might excusably think; and except for a few hypersceptical Jesus Myth proponents (who are busy trying to resuscitate some old fringe theories about mid-2nd century compositions), the general trend (insofar as there has been a trend) in the past several decades has been toward earlier and earlier dating of the Gospels as completed works--a trend made somewhat socially acceptable even among liberal scholars by the now-classic work of J. A. T. Robinson (who in his Redating the New Testament argued that there was no compelling reason to date any of the NT texts as having been composed after 70CE--while grousing about how he knew this was going to give comfort to “the conservatism of the committed” if not to “the fundamentalism of the fearful”! It should be fairly noted, too, that he did not consider any inferences he reached to conclusively close the issues, but rather intended the whole work to open discussion and educate readers on the wider range of opinions that have always been held in the scholarly fraternity concerning the compositional dating of the texts: a goal he can fairly be said to have accomplished.)

While arguing on various grounds for the acceptance of dating of any (or all?) the Gospels pre-70 would obviously weigh against Bishop Spong’s theory on this point (even conclusively, insofar as those dates are accepted), I have no intention of doing so in this analysis; mainly because that would be a book-length effort in itself, but also partly because I doubt the effort would conclusively succeed. For purposes of immediate analysis, I have no problem provisionally accepting the compositional order and dating which Bishop Spong himself is willing to accept; which, it must be fairly said, is far from controversial in the field.

On the other hand: if any of the Gospels, although composed (and/or collected) post 70, involve source narrative details in existence between 50 and 64 (not to say earlier!), then those source narrative details might just as easily include the treachery of Judas Iscariot as data contemporaneous with (or even prior to) the Pauline corpus. Scholars all across the ideological spectrum (except for the very far right--and, ironically, on the very far left) typically agree that the Synoptic Gospels (at least, and maybe GosJohn, too) are largely or completely composed of pre-70 source material. Considering the principle of historical charity (where ancient source data, at least where it demonstrates intent of histiography, is given preliminary credence unless we have solid reason to doubt it); and considering that the existence and treachery of Judas Iscariot would hardly seem challenging to anyone’s worldview (such that his existence and behavior would be constrained against--and Bishop Spong certainly gives no indication that the historicity of Iscariot would be constrained against by his worldview); the burden of proof, or at least of suspicion, has to be on the historical detractor. Do we have good reasons for considering the Iscariot material to absolutely not predate the composition of the first Gospel (i.e. GosMark, on the standard popular reckoning accepted by Bishop Spong)?

Bishop Spong does consider the existence of source material prior to the authorship of the Gospels. But he does this by leaning heavily on Q, a hypothetically reconstructed sayings source text. Why exactly anyone would expect to find much narrative detail, in a text (if it existed at all) primarily dedicated as a sayings repository (somewhat like the Gospel of Thomas and many later apocryphal Gospels), is not discussed in his suspicions for why the narrative of Judas Iscariot isn’t found in this hypothetical sayings source.

Bishop Spong also neglects to mention that the Q-material, where GosMatt and GosLuke share material not found in GosMark, has plenty of narrative bits and isn’t only a sayings source unless it is stratified according to various presuppositional theories of composition (classically exemplified by Kloppenborg). Be that as it may, the basic criteria for suggesting Q in the first place excludes by hypothesis any mention of the treachery of Judas Iscariot--since GosMark talks as much about that as anyone! (Not only in the Passion narrative, which is itself excluded from Q even before comparing Matt and Luke to find inclusions apart from Mark, but in the Synoptic accounts of the calling of the Twelve which due to their triple-tradition similarity are again excluded by the criteria.)

It can be retorted that the Q criteria isn’t trying to exclude Judas; it just happens to do so, thus showing that the treachery of Iscariot isn’t part of this early Christian document.

This would carry more weight if, first, the Q theory was supposed to be exhaustive of what the Q doc contained--but it cannot be, except again by hypothesis: a point obviously illustrated by the fact that modern scholars have themselves ‘created’ a ‘Q doc’ from written sources used in teaching and worship by congregations, which sources obviously contain very much more than Q! (Plus, on any composition scheme, the Synoptic authors obviously didn’t rely on Q alone, either, assuming they used a Q doc in the first place and assuming Q was only the sapiential sayings, micro-narrative pericopes and temptation narrative common to Luke and Matt minus Mark--and minus the Passion narrative material.)

And second, this would only carry weight if the Q doc of the Q theory was supposed to be exhaustive of the material (oral or written) used by the early church. There are theories of Q (mainly deployed by super-liberal scholars) which do go this distance, but the weight can only be as strong as those theories--which are widely regarded as very weak outside super-liberal scholarship (such as the former Jesus Seminar.)

Here, a point from Round One resurfaces again as well: Bishop Spong doesn’t mention, that on his accepted and applied dating/composition scheme, the non-traitorous Judas doesn’t appear (assuming he “replaces” Thaddeus) until substantially after the first appearance of the traitorous Judas in textual composition (i.e., in GosLuke, a good 15-20 years after GosMark’s composition). If a lack of mention of some traitor in pre-Gospel non-narrative material is supposed to be evidence for suspicion of his actual historicity, why isn’t the historicity of the other non-traitorous Judas apostle (who never appears in Q material either) even more suspicious?!

If Bishop Spong knows why not, he doesn’t bother to say so in this chapter. (Though perhaps he does so elsewhere.)

So, insofar as “Q” goes, the lack of mention of Iscariot (much moreso his treachery) is not weighty. For that matter, strictly speaking, on Bishop Spong’s dating scheme for the actually extant Gospels, the only extant “Q” material we know of postdates the first appearance of Iscariot in the New Testament material! And by as much as ten whole years!--maybe fifteen! (Bishop Spong accepts a date for GosMatt’s composition at 82-85 CE.) The “sayings source” material could have been “invented” after GosMark was written--if we are going to be “suspicious” about purportedly “historical” material in the Gospels on the ground of it being “introduced” in some sort of "developing" sequence. (Assuming the popularly accepted composition order of Mark, Matt, Luke and John is even correct, of course.)

An appeal to Q material will turn up again, by the way, later in this Round. But first, Bishop Spong will be going to the Pauline corpus.

[Next time, in part 2 of 3 for this Round: Bishop Spong positively argues from what St. Paul doesn’t say about Iscariot.]


Jason Pratt said…
Just registering for comment tracking purposes.

Anonymous said…
Nice article Jason.

The trend continues to move away from those who hold to a Q source (Goodacre being of course the most well-known post-Q scholar), but a main reason for the move has been a better knowledge of Aramaic among NT scholars. The simple fact of the matter is that much of the Second Quest (and its descendants in the Jesus Seminar) are woefully ignorant of Aramaic and its influence on the NT (with rare exceptions such as Bruce Chilton). Thus, they inadequately continue to filter the NT through a much later Greek lens.

It should be noted that those who focus on the Aramaic aspects underlying Mark (Maurice Casey, James Crossley, Steph Fisher, et. al.) keep pushing the date earlier and earlier. They argue for a Markan date in the 30s or early 40s. Just to clarify against those who may claim Christian bias, it should be noted that Casey, Crossley and Fisher are non-Christians, but are forced to follow the Aramaic evidence toward an earlier date.
Jason Pratt said…
I've seen a lot of criticism about Q source theories, but I have to admit a crit via Aramaic is new to me. If you can think of a good link for a representative article on the subject, I'd be curious to check it out.

(In part 3 of this round, I'll be clarifying that I have nothing against Q theory per se, by the way; I just don't like sloppy and overconvenient use of it. But I'm hardly wedded to the theory, either.)

There are of course some other reasons for at least suspecting a Markan composition date in the 40s or even 30s, too; but I think after a while the push for such early composition starts to run into problems. Source material for the text (in several ways, back to underlying historicity) going back that far, makes more sense to me. At this time. {g}

Good refs, though; thanks!


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