CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Part 1 of this Round can be found here. (With links tracing back to previous Rounds.)


The concept being promoted by Bishop Spong for his fifth piece of evidence for suspicion of Judas Iscariot being a fictional character, is that "Judas" was too common a name among Jewish men in Jesus’ day, and therefore is too convenient to be used as the name of the traitor. Or, as he prefers to put it instead: it’s too convenient that the traitor is named after the whole Jewish nation. (The way a vast number of other Jewish men were named in that time. But he never bothers bringing that up.)

His theory therefore is that Iscariot was created by Christians, starting around the time of GosMark’s composition (i.e. after the fall of Jerusalem), in order to bring orthodox Judaism into contempt in the minds of Jewish Christians; and then, from GosMark through Matt, Luke, Acts and John, the authors progressively develop Iscariot into an ever-more-sinister character, for the purpose of assassinating the character (so to speak) of orthodox Judaism itself.

But do the actual textual characteristics fit this theory?


Bishop Spong tries to link Judas Iscariot with the betrayal of Joseph by the Patriarch Judas; but as I pointed out toward the end of the previous entry, there are only two or (if a particular detail of GosMatt is included) maybe three parallels between the two stories; and those parallels are pretty shallow on examination. (Worse, the Matthean extra parallel would run directly against a supposed intention of vilifying Judaism--something Bishop Spong seems completely, if not conveniently, oblivious of!)

But perhaps the Patriarch Judah is treated as a nit in the Gospels?--as the betrayer of Joseph for example? (Not that Bishop Spong claims this, but it might have helped his theory.)

In fact, he’s almost never mentioned at all, except in those infancy narratives during the genealogies. GosMatt tactfully nods in the direction of some pagan and/or adulterous women in Christ’s geneology, but he doesn’t single out Judah for any calumny while doing so. Nothing bad is ever said about the Patriarch in the few places he’s even mentioned in the Gospels.


I’ve already shown that proper names like “Judah” are never used as “the very name of the Jewish nation” in the Gospels. But is “Judah” mentioned as the very name of the Jewish nation elsewhere in the canonical New Testament documents? (Not that Bishop Spong claims this, but it might have helped his theory.)

Eh, once. Hebrews 8:8. The few other times are either as the name of the particular tribe (Rev 5:5) for genealogical purposes again, or probably as a particular tribe reference (Heb 7:14), again genealogically.


But at least those few times the tribe or nation of Judah is treated in some violent and persecuting anti-Jewish fashion! Or anti-Semitic! Whatever! Right!? (Not that Bishop Spong claims this, but it might have helped his theory.)

Sorry, no. As noted, two of those times the usage is genealogical for Christ’s lineage. And one of those times (Rev 5:5), the reference includes a term that was considered rather flattering, and still is, among Jews: Christ is the “Lion” out of the house of Judah, who was typified in the OT as a lion starting with Jacob’s own inheritance blessing of him. The third time, Heb 8:8, is promising that God will set up a new covenant with the house of Judah--which by context has to mean the whole Jewish nation.

(Note that Heb 8:8 also illustrates what the use of the personal name of “Judah” as referencing the whole Jewish nation, would look like. Had the Gospel authors been intending to draw an overt typological link between the personal name of Judah and the whole Jewish nation, this is how they would have done it: by routinely, or at least ever-more-frequently, describing the whole Jewish nation in this fashion.)

True, the necessity of setting up a new covenant is because Israel (which is how “the house of Judah” is described, in nationalistic terms, pretty much everywhere else in the New Testament, and especially in the Gospels) is considered to have broken the original covenant many many times over. But that happened long before the story of Christ (as did the promise of a new covenant with Israel), and if the Old Testament is “anti-Semitic” or (more accurately) “anti-Jewish” for saying that, then there is nothing that isn’t “anti-Jewish”. Which is ridiculous.


But surely all the other uses of “Jud-“ names in the canonical New Testament are all pernicious slandery characters of low moral, uh, somethings... that... (Not that Bishop Spong claims this, but it might have helped his theory.)

Nope. Judas the Galilean is briefly mentioned once, as a false Messiah, but we know he was historical. Why would it be anti-Jewish for Christians to report Jewish authorities being against a known false Messiah whom the Christians had to be against, too? (Moreover, the character who brings this up, in Acts, is no less than the ultra-honored and beloved Jewish rabbi Gamaliel I!--in the process of pleading for clemency for the apostles from the other Jewish leaders! And who was supposed to be the teacher of Saul of Tarsus. But who is never claimed to have converted to Christianity by the supposedly fictionalizing authors.)

All the other Jud-s are nice faithful Christians. Sure, Jesus’ brothers think he’s crazy at one point in GosMark, but that changes later. (And, frankly, their comment was kind of a colloquialism even in that one place where they say it: the family is exasperated because Jesus hasn’t come home for lunch but is still out preaching on the shore. Nor is the name “Jude” mentioned in that particular Markan detail. When GosJohn says that Jesus’ brothers didn’t really believe in Him, as explanation for their challenge for Him to operate openly in Jerusalem, “Jude” isn’t the brother specifically mentioned either.)

Moreover, Jude is the brother of Christ with whom the canonical epistle is traditionally identified. A canonical epistle largely devoted to religious concerns from what is, to all appearances, a faithfully Jewish perspective. (Except for the whole thing about identifying Jesus as our only Lord and Owner and as the YHWH Who guided Israel out of Egypt, etc. Obviously non-Christian Jews would have some understandable problems with that! But Jude isn’t dissing them for doing so; he’s busy warning lax Christians that God, Who loves them, will punish them for being lax, as He punished the Jewish people of old. Punished for what? For being too Jewish?! No, for lapsing into paganism.)


Okay, so the Gospel authors must at least be making links between Judas Iscariot and “the Jews” per se, right?

No again. That term shows up only rarely in the Synoptics, and never in connection to Judas Iscariot. Nor is the term ever used in direct connection to Judas Iscariot in GosJohn. (It’s used twice in connection of Jews rejecting Jesus and His message, near reference to Iscariot; but it’s also used once in connection to Jews accepting Jesus in near reference to Iscariot. The chief priests and authorities are called “the Jews”--a very normal habit of the Johannine author--during the arrest, and by narrative logic Judas must be standing with them, but the author doesn’t emphasize this connection.)


But surely in the Gospels, the authors must be making direct connections between Judas Iscariot and the whole Jewish nation. Right? RIGHT?! Surely Bishop Spong couldn’t have been pulling this entirely out of his--!

Nope. Not even once.

And yes. Basically, he was.

There isn’t even any connection in the Gospels between Iscariot and Jewish religious law--unless one counts Iscariot’s attempt at returning money given for betraying an innocent man! If the reader is wondering how this one vague link constitutes calling the whole of orthodox Judaism into blame through Iscariot as a character per se, and is expecting Bishop Spong to help with answering that, the reader will have to get used to disappointment. (And maybe should just set aside her critical thinking and assume Bishop Spong’s theory is correct from here out--as he specifically expects his reader to do in the subsequent chapter.)


[Next time, part 3 of 4 for Round Five: does even Bishop Spong himself think Christians, decades after Jesus’ death, invented the rejection of Jesus by the leaders of orthodox Judaism?]

Please see here for Round Four material (and links tracing all the way back to Round One).


Absolutely nothing in the preceding four appeals to suspicious innuendo (or “easily identifiable, documentable facts” as Bishop Spong prefers to call them) could be even distantly supposable as amounting to some kind of “rise of anti-Semitism”. (As if anti-Semitism wasn’t around before canonical Christianity but Christians somehow invented it. And as if anti-Semitism, a racial prejudice typically connected in modern days to a secular theory of evolution, is supposed to be the same as anti-Judaism, a religious prejudice. And as if anti-Judaism wasn’t around before canonical Christianity either, but Christians somehow invented it. Etc.)

By the power of deduction, then, one could reasonably (and, as it happens, correctly) expect: if it wasn’t in the first four points it’ll be in this one.


“My fifth and final source of suspicion is the name of the traitor itself.”

Well, at least he gets some credit for having an actual easily identifiable, documentable fact this time as his “source of suspicion”: the texts do all agree the name of the traitor was Judas Iscariot. That textual characteristic is, in fact, a documentable fact which is easily identifiable.

Bishop Spong waits until immediately after listing his “fact”, this time, to begin his suspicious innuendoizing.


So, why is Judas’ name supposed to be suspicious in itself; so suspicious in itself, that in itself it contributes to a suspicion that Iscariot didn’t even exist but was fadged up for polemical purposes by Christians in or before the 70CE?

Because... “Judas” is a fairly common variant of one of the top five most popular names in 1st Century Judaism? Right? That has to be the reason.

“Judas is nothing but the Greek spelling of Judah. The name of the traitor is the very name of the Jewish nation.”

Oh.

Actually, the name of the Jewish nation in the Old Testament was usually “Israel”; sometimes “Jacob” or even “Ephraim”. And sometimes “Judah”, too, because the tribe of this patriarch became so powerful in the south that it rivaled the collected territories of the other tribes in the north (collectively known as “Israel” during the schism of the kingdoms after Solomon).

Judah was the chief inheriting brother of the sons of Jacob--but not due to being oldest, which he wasn’t. (Jacob disqualified Reuben for sleeping with one of Jacob’s harem; and disqualified Simeon and Levi for being too violently vengeful.)

Despite Judah’s role in handing over Joseph to pagan slavers (and his embarrassing liaison with his own daughter-in-law Tamar, which she initiated when he delayed rendering justice for her by providing her a replacement for her dead husband), he was pretty well thought of anyway, largely thanks to the blessings of his father--and the Messianic promise of a redeemer of Israel from the house of Judah through the lineage of King David (for whose sake, not to say Solomon’s, too, Judah was also pretty well thought of). There was one more reason he was highly regarded in Judaism, too (as well as among Christians today, to the extent that they think of him as a particular person at all)--which I'll explain soon, as it has a huge bearing on an important detail of Bishop Spong's attempted theory.

The Messianic promise, meanwhile, was why Judah was such an especially popular name for boys in early 1st century Palestine time. People could add up the years prophesied in the scroll of Daniel, which by one reckoning would be fulfilled around the time of Jesus. Naming one’s son “Judah” was a hope that he might be the King Messiah to come; and at least was honoring the Messiah and the hope of deliverance to come from God.


Bishop Spong tries to make a lot out of supposed parallels between the apostle Judas Iscariot (of whom practically nothing is said in the texts aside from him being a traitor and, in one text, an embezzler) handing Jesus over to chief Jewish religious authorities for trial to the death on charges of blasphemy; and the patriarch Judah (eventually receiving the lion’s share of inheritance from his father for being less violently vengeful than Simon and less horny than Reuben) handing Joseph over to pagan slavers in order to save Joseph from starving to death in a pit. (His other rationale, to his brothers, is that at least they’ll make some money on doing this; but his primary emphasis is on not killing their own brother. The payment rationale sounds like a sop he thinks they’ll accept, since after all the whole point of throwing Joseph in the pit to begin with was to kill him in some fashion that doesn’t literally involve his blood on their hands.)

If that doesn’t sound like it would fit very well as a parallel, to anyone actually familiar with the story of Judah and Joseph, keep in mind that Bishop Spong just sort of elides past some of those details!


Nor are those the only details he elides past: not only does Judah later risk his freedom and even his life acting to protect Joseph’s brother Benjamin from harm, specifically in repentance for his role in Joseph’s slavery, but Joseph himself mercifully exonerates his brothers from guilt in what happened, attributing it instead to the providential authority of God for all their sakes.

Bishop Spong can only make an intentional connection between the two characters sound like a momentuous slur by simply ignoring huge portions of the story that would have been both familiar and highly meaningful to a Jewish audience, including to the Jewish Christian audience whom Bishop Spong specifically imagines this anti-Jewish propaganda conspiracy technique being aimed at. Remember: according to his theory, this Jewish Christian audience would never have even heard of Iscariot before; they’re naturally going to be vastly more familiar with a story they’ve been taught to positively appreciate for its ethical and dramatic beauty: Judah’s repentance, self-sacrifice and eventual reconciliation in relation to Joseph. Trying to forge some connection between the two characters would naturally work entirely against Bishop Spong's theorized goal for the people involved.

It shouldn’t be surprising to note, as an aside, that when the Greek begins to be translated into other languages, “Judas” routinely begins to be spelled some other way than “Judah”, the admired patriarch. So much for the success of that supposedly obvious thematic link!--the end result, as Bishop Spong himself is well aware and tries to make use of for shock value, is that many Christians aren’t even aware that ‘Judas’ and ‘Judah’ are basically the same name!! It doesn’t occur to Bishop Spong that the fact he can appeal to this unexpected disparity and that it would even be a disturbing connection for Christians to consider, counts against his theory about the reason for someone inventing the character of Iscariot to name him “Jud”.

It might be retorted that GosMark, as well as GosLuke and GosJohn, show signs of having been written for a Gentile audience; and even GosMatt in a couple of places. But this is going to cut against Bishop Spong’s theory again, because a Gentile audience, already culturally prepared to accept religious elements syncretistically piecemeal, isn’t going to need some special character fictionally invented to help them reject orthodox Judaism. Circumcision and dietary laws and several other things of that sort would do and did do just fine. (Especially circumcision!) Not to say any already existent historical prejudices against Judaism or even racially against Semites.

(Bishop Spong seems aware enough of this problem: he focuses pretty strongly on the concept of the Gospel authors having to imaginatively work at turning Jewish Christians against orthodox Judaism. Still, considering the strong Jewish-mission thrust of all four Gospels, not to say GosMatt’s apparently primary audience being maybe Jewish, I’m willing to not simply reject on primary audience grounds, the theory that the authors are trying to undermine Jewish loyalty to mainstream Judaism.)


The topical connections between the two stories (Judah vs. Joseph, and Iscariot vs. Jesus) are equally shallow, and are mainly restricted to (a) some kind of betrayal of a son beloved by a father, and (b) money of some kind being received for the deed. (To this might be included (c) repenting of the deed to the point of being willing to die. But aside from the fact that, once again, the actual story details diverge strongly even here, this would hardly make Iscariot look more villainous to Jewish Christians who, apparently unlike Bishop Spong, would know and care and positively cherish the story of the Patriarch Judah’s heroic repentance!)


Meanwhile, here’s a fun experiment. Try to find how often “Judah” is used as the name of the Jewish nation in the Gospels. Or “Judas”, either one. “Jude”, too, if you’d like. (All three names are basically the same in Greek.) I’ll wait.

Here’s a hint: it’ll either take you a very long time, or a very short time.



(still waiting)



Done yet? Did you find them all?

If you found ZERO, then yes: you found them all.

“Judah” (much less “Judas” or any other cognate used as a personal name) is never once used as the name of the Jewish nation as a whole in the Gospels. It’s used as the name of a territory (in the form of Judea, usually--a form not used as a proper name anywhere in the Gospels), both in the sense of a geopolitical territory current at the time (this is where “Judea” is usually referenced, based roughly on the old geopolitical territory combination of Judah and Benjamin as the Southern Jewish kingdom) and, a couple of times during the infancy narratives, as a more localized territory reference near Jerusalem where (as the most pertinent example) Bethlehem is located. (Interestingly, those couple of times do use the personal-name-version of the word.) The Jewish nation, however, whether for praise or for criticism, is almost always called “Israel”. Never “Judah”.

So, the theory being proposed for acceptance here, is that the authors of the Gospels chose the name of Judah (a super common name of the time, of a highly respected patriarch from whom the Messiah was supposed to come and who had shown at least as much mercy in the Joseph affair as the eldest brother Reuben) as a way of denigrating the Jewish nation, nearly always called Israel in the texts of these same Gospel authors and never Judah, because Judah was the very name of the Jewish nation. Or something.


Now, to be clear: the term “Jew” (and plural “Jews”), as a description of someone living (more or less nominally) within a religiously based family descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is found very frequently in GosJohn--although very much less frequently in the Synoptics. And this word is a cognate from the name “Judah”. It’s also something of an innovation at the time of Jesus: in the Jewish Scriptures, they would be called Hebrew or Israelite or something of that sort. These terms are still used in the Gospels, but “Hebrew” is only used outside GosJohn once in GosLuke (for one of the languages of Christ’s superscription nailed to the cross) and several times in Acts. (And isn’t used often in GosJohn either.) “Israel” is typically used in the Synoptics to talk about the Jewish people. “Israelite”, on the other hand, shows up once in GosJohn, and several times in Acts, plus the Pauline Epistles, but never in the Synoptics.

This is all important to keep in mind, because despite Bishop Spong’s sloppy way of putting it, he’s probably thinking of “Jew” and cognates as a description of the Jewish people in the Gospels, when he talks about how overly “convenient” it is that the traitor is named after a super-popular and ultra-common name of that day... or, as he prefers to put it, after the “whole Jewish nation”.

But then his accusation has to synch up with the actual facts of the textual data; or else his accusation is worthless. So, does his accusation synch up with the actual facts of the textual data, especially in the order of Gospel composition that he accepts and to which his theory is utterly tied?

(The preceding few paragraphs easily hint at the answer to at least one facet of this question...)


[Next time, part 2 of 4 for this Round: starting a cross-check of the textual data.]

Please see here for Round Three material (and links tracing all the way back to Round One).


We’re now down three out of five pieces of speculative innuendo (or as Bishop Spong calls them, “easily identifiable, documentable facts”); we’re at the next to last one now.

“The fourth reason for my suspicion is that the story of the act of betrayal is set very dramatically at midnight.”

And there’s number four.


I’ll try to make it better by quoting the full extent of his argument on this point.

“It is just too neat a detail to have what the gospel writers believed was the darkest deed in human history occur at the darkest moment of the night. That looks more like a liturgical drama than it does a fact of history.”

That’s it. The end.


Apparently he thinks we won’t remember (or maybe he himself doesn’t remember) what he himself stated, not three minutes ago (when he was desperately trying to make GosLuke details look like legendary accretion): that the Sanhedrin could have followed Jesus back to homebase and snapped Him up then “apart from the crowds”. Well, not really apart from the crowds (although Bishop Spong thought so), but the point was that this could have plausibly happened anytime (he thought)--so long as it was at night. Why? Because crowds wouldn’t be around then (in the limited way Bishop Spong is thinking about.)

So the first (too overly) simple detail in favor of a plausible arrest scenario, was an arrest at night--back when this looked like a way to make an explanation supposedly introduced in GosLuke (except it had been used in both the other Synoptics, too) look “weak” as an “excuse”. But now an arrest at night is too neat a dramatic detail to be historically plausible.


But what about at mid-night? Isn’t that “too dramatic”? Wouldn’t any other time of night be less dramatic and more plausibly historical?

Well, the later it gets the less plausibly historical it’s going to be--if mere timing is the only cultural consideration in view. (Which obviously it is for Bishop Spong here.) But maybe midnight is also the earliest time that people would be off the streets in bed and also not so late that an arresting mob would be too sleepy to be effective.

But this is still ignoring story contexts, as well as cultural contexts. The story is being presented in the texts as a historical event. (And not in the form of liturgical drama or doctrinal kerygma, by the way.) So, what could we be expecting to be happening the night before Passover? And does that fit the data stereoscopically?

As it happens, at midnight the crowds would be rocking at a major celebration at the Temple as the culmination of the evening’s festivities, where the chief priests and religious authorities (or most of them) would have to be in attendance. After this, everyone would be going to bed. Until then, they’re up late partying in the streets (or in the case of the chief priests, preparing for the midnight ceremony.)

Remember, this isn’t the night that the quiet and private seder services would normally be done. Which is why Jesus, holding such a service one night early, would look super-scary weird to people who are worried about this guy starting a rebellion against Rome after all: rabbis are allowed to do that in an emergency situation when they think they won’t be able to do it the following day, such as when they’re expecting a major battle. A precedent most popularly known, and praised and appreciated, from the Maccabean rebellion.

Any relatively quiet arrest, in other words, not to say an ad hoc preliminary inquiry (before a formal trial at dawn the next morning), would have to wait until after midnight--or until a little before midnight (for reasons that should already be obvious but which I’ll explain presently.)


Ah ha! So the texts are inaccurate after all! Because they say it happened at midnight, which would be--!

Which would be pretty danged overpicky if the arresting party was dispatched just after midnight to bring Jesus to a compound. Or if the arresting party was dispatched just after the final ceremonies that night had started (i.e. the time when they could be sure most people were distracted) and the ad hoc inquiry didn’t get started until a little after midnight (when the priests were free to move around). These people don’t have clocks, and even roosters have to guess.

In point of fact, the arrest and informal inquiry time happens more-or-less when it makes the most sense for people in a rush to catch Jesus, but who are worried about riots (and worried Jesus already is gathering troops), to snag Him--keeping in mind what would historically be happening that night in other regards. Caiaphas can’t come himself, so he sends his servant as authoritative representative (a detail of all four texts); but some of the chiefs could plausibly slip away to keep tabs on the arrest (as mentioned in some of the texts). Annas and Caiaphas live in the same compound (Caiaphas is his son-in-law, and Annas is the reason Cai has the chief priest position at all); it isn’t implausible for Annas to have a preliminary meeting with Jesus while waiting for enough other leaders to arrive to have fair representation, pro and con, in an informal hearing. A rooster would have crowed the first time that night, sometime during all this.

(As a sidenote: roosters, at least in the Middle East, have a habit of crowing twice during the night, once near midnight. The detail of a rooster crowing first at the end of Mark 14:68 is a late textual addition, but it’s accurate to the setting: the inquiry would most plausibly start around midnight; and they would be taking Jesus to the Temple for the formal trial and sentencing at the earliest possible legal moment, dawn--when the rooster crows again. While the first crowing is a late textual addition, the prediction of two crowings is a stable and uniquely Markan detail; also uniquely accurate to the setting in an understated way. The other three Gospels only mention the rooster that dramatically matters the most, in prediction and in fulfillment: the one at dawn, at the completion of the denials.)

The background, which anyone seriously looking into the matter ought to be able to find details on, makes sense of the odd details of the textual characteristics; which, in turn, aren’t going out of their way to spell out why the details are happening this way. That kind of unstated background interlocking is a good mark of underlying historicity in the source material for the disparate texts.


All of which is aside from the fact that not even one text says the act of betrayal happened AT MIDNIGHT!!

Where is Bishop Spong getting that detail from? He doesn’t bother to say. It can be kind of roughly guessed from the details of the texts, true; but “very dramatic” “liturgical dramas” don’t typically leave such a mythopoeic detail, if it’s supposed to be so thematically important, to kind-of-roughly-guessing. Heck, GosJohn, supposedly the latest and most ‘developed’ of the stories (on Bishop Spong’s legendary development theory), doesn’t even mention Jesus waiting in Gethsemene for some protracted period of time before the arresting party shows up! As far as it’s concerned, the arrest might have happened at 8:00!


But doesn’t Jesus Himself call this the hour of the power of darkness?

Not in GosJohn: there’s nothing even remotely like that there. Not in GosMark: ditto. Not in GosMatt: ditto. (Quite a lot of legendary development not going on again here, hm?)

GosLuke 22:53b is the only place this concept comes from; and it reads “but this hour and the power of darkness are yours.” Or more literally “this is your hour and power of darkness.” Either way, the hour belongs to the arrestors; and the power of darkness belongs to the arrestors.

It’s certainly a dramatic statement; one similar to Matt 26:45 and Mark 14:41. “Behold, the hour is at hand”; “The hour has come”. The hour of midnight? No, Jesus is talking in a generally dramatic way about the event of the betrayal and arrest occurring, not in a literal way about the timing of the event. One of the authors could have similarly said (though they didn’t), “in that very hour, Jesus was arrested and given up into the hands of sinners”. (GosMatt’s statement from Jesus is closest to this form of description.) True, as a historical plausibility this is most likely happening around midnight; but Jesus isn't presented in any Gospel (even GosLuke) as making any big deal about the importance of that specific hour.

(Granted, later liturgical dramas etc. may make a big deal out of it. But Bishop Spong is supposed to be assessing the textual data, not later liturgical dramas or 20th century Southern Baptist Passion musicals or whatever.)


Moreover, who does Jesus say this to, in GosLuke? Surely, it must have been to Judas Iscariot, right? I mean, that’s Bishop Spong’s whole point: he’s suspicious of the man’s entire existence, much moreso his role as a traitor, based on what this detail says about Iscariot, right?

Uh, no. GosLuke has Jesus saying this specifically to the chief priests and officers of the Temple and elders who had come out against Him. Not at all to Judas. Iscariot’s last contribution to the story in Lukan material (until the Petrine/Lukan hindsight recap of till-then-unheard-of-material, near the beginning of Acts--which doesn't mention the hour of the betrayal, by the way) happened a few verses previously when he tried to kiss Jesus.

(And GosLuke isn’t overly clear whether he even succeeded in that! And in GosJohn, supposedly the next ‘stage’ of ‘development’ of Iscariot, Judas doesn’t even get to do that much!)


So, to recap: the “easily identifiable, documentable fact” is that all four texts say the arrest happened at night sometime. Three of the texts very roughly and far from specifically indicate it happened around midnight, maybe: Jesus is in Gethsemene for several hours at night, and there’s still time for a protracted informal hearing before dawn. The fourth text (the latest one on Bishop Spong’s reckoning) doesn’t even give that much of a clue, other than it was night and the arresting party needed torches. If someone really digs into the historical contexts, and dovetails those with various story details and character motivations, the arrest makes the most historical sense as having happened shortly before midnight. But, while this might be a good historical inference, it’s far from being an easily identifiable, documentable fact. Nor does the timing of the arrest have anything at all to do with Judas Iscariot per se. (Other than he was with the arresting party. At night. Sometime. Sometime around midnight as a historically most plausible guess.)

The suspicious innuendo, on the other hand, is that the (supposed) textual detail of an arrest “at midnight” feels too strongly and dramatically perfect for Judas Iscariot to be a traitor or even a real person. (Yes, read that sentence again. This is what Bishop Spong wants his readers to consider for rational acceptance. I have reprinted the total extent of his commentary on this point, above, for comparison.) It feels more like liturgical drama instead. Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it!!? Right, so, moving quickly along then, now that that “easily documentable fact” is established...


[Next time, the beginning of Round Five: wasn’t this evidential set and argument supposed to be establishing Iscariot as a fictional invention for the purpose of creating and developing “anti-Semitic” bias among Jewish Christians? Oh, right... better include something about “anti-Semitism” somewhere then...]

I ended Part 3 of this Round with the conclusion: "When the only clear development in a proposed series of accretion, across three (not even four) sets of the data, is something this minor, legendary accretion theory as a primary explanation for the material is toast."

So why does Bishop Spong think otherwise?

Briefly put: he focuses pretty simply on some (not all) apparent things, without really going into the details, and without considering alternate hypotheses.

His case, as might be expected, looks 'strongest' (in a simplistically uncritical fashion) when moving 'from' GosMark 'to' GosMatt, simply because there's obviously more 'stuff' in GosMatt. He lists the data in these two texts well enough (though still not quite as extensively as I did in Part 2), but he doesn't bother to talk about differences in any detail (as I did). If any reader, unfamiliar with the material, happens to wonder just how presenting Iscariot in a pitiably sympathetic tragic light is supposed to be a development of the villainy of a purely fictional character whose only (or at least chief) reason for existence at all is (supposedly) to help Jewish Christians hate Jews and Judaism, they will receive no help from Bishop Spong (in this chapter anyway) as to how this counts as evidence for his theory. The mere existence of the material is presented and adduced as though its existence is all that is required, or counts, for evidence.

(To be fair, I am curious whether Bishop Spong addresses the tragically sympathetic portrait of the penitent traitor in his subsequent chapter of The Sins of Scripture; I don't have access to all its material yet. But Bishop Spong's own proposed topical scope for the chapter doesn't look promising, and such a discussion of this element in relation to his theory attempt isn't found in what material I do have access to. Anyone with more information about the subsequent chapter material, particularly in regard to this element, is certainly welcome to post it in a comment!)


Also, Bishop Spong tries to adduce evidence of accretion that has exactly nothing to do with details about Iscariot per se: specifically, the cutting off of the high priest’s ear. Now, this is an example of something that might be legendary accretion. It starts out as X in GosMark, and is X again with an added interesting detail in GosMatt. But then Bishop Spong neglects to mention that while GosLuke includes one more important and highly interesting detail (healing the ear) and one more irrelevant detail (asking Jesus if they should strike), the account loses almost all of Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples. (This is the part Bishop Spong neglects to mention.) Whereas GosJohn, while specifying who does the striking (Simon Peter) and the name of the slave (Malchus), has a completely different rebuke (longer than Luke’s, much shorter than Matt’s), and loses the healing again. So even this falters, on closer examination, being an especially clear example of legendary accretion per se. (Besides which Bishop Spong never mentions that the result of simply reporting more historical detail than before could easily be indistinguishable from the results of carefully inventive legendary accretion.)

But even if the incident with the slave’s ear might be legendary accretion (at least from GosMark to GosMatt, if not farther), most of the Iscariot material (even involving the explanation about Satan’s influence) looks less like accretion, on close examination, than that incident does! Which is my guess for why Bishop Spong includes it, even though it isn’t technically about Iscariot at all.


To be blunt: either Bishop Spong isn’t interested in fully assessing the details, even when he manages to report them, and/or he simply isn’t capable of doing so; or else he’s playing a shell game. And, unfortunately, there is some evidence of the latter--especially when he begins trying to extend the evidence set for his theory into GosLuke and GosJohn.

For example: he mentions GosLuke’s detail of the chief priests and scribes wanting to lay hands on Jesus (not Luke’s wording, by the way), without mentioning that this detail doesn’t materially change from GosMatt (where the wording is exactly identical to GosMark, “to seize Jesus by stealth and kill”, “plotting” to do this in one case, “seeking” in the other--only Caiaphas’ name and house is added as a detail in GosMatt for where the plotters seek); he tries to claim that the wording is stronger in GosLuke when arguably it’s weaker (“seeking how they might put Him to death” vs. “plotting/seeking to seize Jesus by stealth and kill” from the previous two Gospels); he mentions fear of Jesus’ popularity with the people as though it's a new detail in GosLuke, without mentioning that back in GosMark and GosMatt there was fear of the people, too (“not during the feast, lest a riot ensues!”); and he doesn’t bother to mention that this detail drops back out again (insofar as Iscariot material per se is concerned) in GosJohn. (The Sanhedrin’s worry about the crowds rioting is earlier in GosJohn, at no direct connection to Judas Iscariot who never is shown plotting with them in GosJohn; and the Sanhedrin is more specifically concerned about the threat of Jesus starting a coup that would then be crushed by Rome.)

Or again: Bishop Spong presents Judas being introduced in GosLuke against the background of the chief priests and scribes wanting to kill Jesus as though this is different (it isn’t); and as though it’s a new detail for the leaders to send spies pretending to be righteous to entrap Him, which isn’t a new detail either: this detail and the one reported attempt, where the spies pretend to be Herodians, are both found in both GosMatt and GosMark, too. There is no accretion here at all!--the details are exactly the same, with irrelevantly minor wording differences, as in the other two Synoptics!

Or again: Bishop Spong presents Judas’ plan to hand over Jesus away from the crowds, in GosLuke, as though it’s an entirely new detail (like the explanation about Satan leading Judas to strike the deal with the Sanhedrin.) But this concern is in fact a detail of all four Gospels; it just isn’t specifically said about Judas in any of the others (including GosJohn). It is, however, specifically said to be a concern of the Sanhedrin in Synoptic material which Bishop Spong has already mentioned.


While we’re on this point, Bishop Spong thinks the plan to hand over Jesus apart from the crowd is “a rather weak explanation.” If so, it’s a rather weak explanation characteristic of all four Gospels, not just introduced in GosLuke! But the timing issue should have been obvious enough to anyone who has seriously studied the material: if you’re an unpopular group of religious leaders who have just recently decided (again, after being flamed publicly by Jesus in the Temple disputes) that Jesus is a danger to be eliminated, YOU DON’T TRY TO DO IT AT PASSOVER when the crowds are hoping a Messianic prophet will arise to lead them to military victory over their oppressors. (Especially if, per GosJohn, you don’t think he’ll win but will lead to zorching by Rome instead.) It isn’t a question of “following Jesus at night and discovering where he slept apart from the crowd” (which per a harmonization timing of GosJohn and the Synoptics they only had one night to try anyway--less than that, if the Synoptics are strictly stuck with! The night of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus was holding a secret seder somewhere first.) It’s a question of letting the holiday get by and then doing it some other time. Sure, if you could manage to get it mostly done before the general population knows what’s happening, they’ll see God isn’t showing up to save him, and then the crowd will be on your side instead (or, if not exactly on your side, at least they’ll hate Jesus just as much as a false Messiah). But the Sanhedrin knows Jesus has no intention of rebelling against Rome, or anyway they’re unsure if that’s really his plan. Leave Judas in place, and pick Jesus up later; unless of course he looks for sure like he’s going to--OMG JESUS IS HOLDING A SEDER EARLY LIKE HE’S EXPECTING A BATTLE TOMORROW AND WORSE HE KNOWS JUDAS IS A TRAITOR ALREADY!! We’ve got to start moving NOW or all is lost!! (But first we’ve got to get Rome in on this, so our own butts are protected... Plus other rituals for that day are happening, so it takes some time to even get enough conspirators together to get hold of Pilate, hire or assign a mob for arrest that they can trust not to go rebel on them, make plans to meet for an informal pre-trial emergency meeting that night after the rituals when no one will suspect their absence, etc.)

It isn’t a weak explanation, except insofar as it highlights how precariously weak the Sanhedrin thought their position between Rome and the populace was.

True, what they did could have been accomplished without Iscariot’s assistance, if they knew for sure where Jesus would be going that very night. And they could have fairly easily known already. But that wasn’t the point of hiring Judas; the point was to keep getting good information about where Jesus would be later after Passover, and to meanwhile keep tabs on whether Jesus was really going to try starting a rebellion in Jerusalem that holiday or not. Up until the early seder service, (and whatever hint Judas got out of it concerning what Jesus somehow seemed to know about a traitor in the group) the resolution of the chief priests to kill Jesus after His flaming of them during the Temple disputes, is pretty much consistent with any prior resolutions or desires to kill Him in the material (harmonized or otherwise, Synoptic or Johannine): they’ll get around to it later. Someday. When it’s safe. (And meanwhile they’ll seek to completely undo Him or “destroy” Him in the eyes of the people.)


What’s mainly worth noting, is that Bishop Spong has to ignore a bunch of information to make it look as though GosLuke counts as “growing” the story of Judas. Most of what he mentions doesn’t count as “growing” (because it shows up in the earlier Gospels, too); and he just kinda forgets to mention that, oh, yeah, the most blatantly obvious piece of “growth” from GosMatt is now totally missing.

Amusingly, Bishop Spong tries to cover this omission by saying that in Acts Luke “adds” that it was Judas rather than the Jewish authorities who bought the Potter’s field. This is more properly called “changing”, if anything, not “adding”. (Historically it could be called “an understandable mistake made by Peter and/or Luke” instead.) I would say it rather papers over the vast differences between the Matthean and Lukan material on this point, except that Bishop Spong mentions this, too, when he thinks it looks impressive (merely by mentioning it). But whatever “quite specifically contradicting the hanging account” (as he puts it) may mean, it cannot and doesn't count as evidence of legendary accretion per se. If Judas had only hanged himself in GosMatt and then in the Lucan material he had hanged himself and also then fell bursting himself wide open, that might count as legendary accretion. Or it might be an extra historical detail that Matt didn’t include for whatever reason. The only thing Bishop Spong sees as important, though, is the bowel gushing being “a rather more gross way to die than simply hanging”. “The story obviously was still growing” he concludes. Yeah!--except for all those parts where it was shrinking or totally changing or staying the same or whatever.


The GosJohn author “paints Judas with an even more sinister brush”, according to Bishop Spong. How so?

Judas was really a thief! (Admittedly, that’s more sinister in a way, I guess, although to me stealing from the charity bag seems more pitiably evil than sinister, compared to handing over Jesus to be tortured to death.)

Judas was filled by a satanic spirit! (uh... that’s more sinister than Satan entering into him back in GosLuke?)

Judas is never shown conspiring with the Sanhedrin in any way, unlike all three previous Gospels! (Whoops--that doesn't sound more sinister. Better ignore that textual detail then.)

Jesus honors Iscariot by handing him the sop at the table!--the other apostles wonder which honorable deed Iscariot is leaving to go do on Jesus’ orders! (Oh, wait, that doesn’t sound more sinister, although it does sound dramatically ironic. But Bishop Spong needs “more sinister”, so some of those details are conveniently ignored.)

It was night when Judas leaves! (And night when he shows back up again, in all four Gospels. How sinister-er! But I'll grant, mentioning this adds dramatically to the departure of Judas, as I myself do at the end of my harmonization chapter here. It should be noted that if GosJohn is ignored, Judas still had to have left the group even later that night.)

When Judas shows back up at Gethsemene, he doesn’t try to do anything to Jesus but just stands there with the arresting group whom Jesus then proceeds to scare the crap out of in an unbearably cool fashion! (dang, wait, that doesn’t sound more sinister of Judas... good thing Bishop Spong ignores that detail, then.)

He shows up with armed soldiers in the mob! (Yeah, that’s actually sinister-er, in a way. As long as Bishop Spong ignores why armed soldiers might in fact be there in real history, which would be to keep things from getting too rowdy at an especially volatile time. Which he does, in fact, ignore.)

Judas does nothing else in GosJohn after just standing there waiting for the arrest to be complete! (agh, no, that doesn’t sound more sinister again; which may explain why Bishop Spong doesn’t mention this. But yeesh, there has to be something else he can come up with...)

Peter is the one who fights back with a sword, cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest! (Yeah! Naming Peter as the guy who did that deed reported in the other three Gospels will “paint Judas with an even more sinister brush!” Heck, I’m surprised Bishop Spong doesn’t mention that that Jesus goes back to not healing the slave’s ear (as GosLuke had managed to come up with), as a way of painting Iscariot “with an even more sinister brush” in GosJohn.)


There’s a little rampup of sinisterosity to note in GosJohn; but relatively very little. It should be obvious that the “John” who is most concerned to be painting Judas Iscariot with “an even more sinister brush” in GosJohn is (ironically) John Shelby Spong.

(This is aside from an interesting speculation, only available from GosJohn material, about a disciple--not named as the Beloved Disciple, in the midst of a bunch of Beloved Disciple material--who follows the arresting party from Gethsemene and gets Simon Peter into the courtyard of the Annas family compound in Jerusalem. Really, we know of only one disciple for sure who was both there at the arrest and who would surely be able to accomplish that if anyone could; and certainly there is only one character in GosJohn who clearly fits this criteria: Judas Iscariot! But that’s only an interesting speculation; I know better than to hang anything on it.)


“The distinctions are fascinating!” Bishop Spong gushes. I agree; but he has barely covered the distinctions: only enough (and rather misleadingly so) to make it seem as though “clearly the story was evolving”. “The whole story of Judas has the feeling of being contrived.” Well, someone is contriving some feelings concerning the whole story of Judas; I’ll give him that.


To recap this round: the “easily identifiable, documentable facts” are the textual characteristics I have gone to a lot of trouble to detail, in each of their marked paragraphs during this Round (with discussion after each of them: GosMark and GosMatt in Part 2; GosLuke, Acts and GosJohn in Part 3.)

The speculative theory, which does not in fact fit the facts very well (unless the facts are shortshifted and twisted around quite a bit), is that the Judas account grows in some kind of progressive way indicative of legendary accretion as the primary means of its growth. (Not that Bishop Spong ever uses the term “legendary accretion”, but this is clearly what he’s thinking about: the story is supposedly “evolving” as “each phase enters the tradition”.)

And this is completely aside from noting that if any of many scholars across the ideological board are correct about the popularized composition order used by Bishop Spong being wrong (Mark, Matt, Luke, Acts, John), his theory of legendary accretion might be even more toasted than it already is. As familiar with the details as I am, I have a hard time imagining that any other compositional order will look more like legendary accretion of the Judas story.

This probably is the best order--from which to rather shallowly squint an impression of legendary development in the story of Judas Iscariot.


[Next time, Round Four: how midnight makes Judas Iscariot seem suspiciously fictional. Or not, as the case may be.]

In the previous post I began my critical review of Hermann Detering's Falsified Paul, in which he argues for the inauthenticity of the entire NT Pauline corpus. He begins the book with an examination of our sources for the historical Paul, the letters written in his name and the book of Acts, trying to argue that they are both highly suspect. Instead we have so far found his reasons for skepticism themselves highly suspect. In this post we will continue to examine his reasons for rejecting the book of Acts as historically reliable, even though the burden of proof has shifted in light of the fact that he has not given good reason to doubt that the author of Acts was a companion of Paul (see the previous post).

Detering begins with Paul's claim in Acts that he received his religious training from Rabbi Gamaliel I, one of the most respected Jewish scholars of the 1st half of the 1st Century CE. He notes that "The Jewish-rabbinic tinge that one notices in many passages in the Pauline letters is usually explained from this background," and of course "The name of Rabbi Gamaliel is well-known in Jewish tradition." However, he does not think that Paul's connection to Gamaliel is historical because "in Jewish writings of the first two centuries CE there is no mention of a rebellious student of Gamaliel named Paul or Saul." (17) But he does not explain why we should have found one. Even though Gamaliel was highly regarded by later Jewish authors (one going so far as to say that "Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, there has been no more reverence for the law, and purity and piety died out at the same time," Tractate Sotah 15:18), we have very little information about him, including the bulk of his teaching. In fact, "Tradition does not represent Gamaliel as learned in the Scriptures, nor as a teacher, because the school of Hillel, whose head he undoubtedly was, always appears collectively in its controversies with the school of Shammai, and the individual scholars and their opinions are not mentioned" (The Jewish Encyclopedia). The only information we have about any of his pupils is a saying he supposedly spoke comparing them collectively to different classes of fish (see ibid.)! And given that Saul/Paul was probably only one of many pupils, and that his own account of being "far ahead of my fellow Jews in my zeal for the traditions of my ancestors" (Gal 1:14) may not have been shared by everyone he encountered, it is not at all surprising that the rabbinic writings, which in any case are already fragmentary and obscure, should not have mentioned him.

Another problem Detering finds with Paul being a student of Gamaliel is that "It is...very remarkable that the supposed student of Gamaliel, who certainly would have received instruction from him in the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament, cites passages from the Old Testament exclusively from the Greek version-as if in his life he had never learned Hebrew!" (17) Whether Paul knew Hebrew or not is obviously hard to tell because all his letters are in Greek, and we should note two things: 1) Paul was first and foremost a diaspora Jew, living in the Gentile world for most of his life despite having received his formal education in Jerusalem (see further Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, pp.323-335), and 2) The Greek version of the Bible, the Septuagint, was itself a translation from the original Hebrew (though we should be cautious in speaking of THE original, since the Hebrew Bible itself circulated in various manuscript traditions even in late antiquity) done by Jewish scholars in Alexandria, many of them from Judea (see here for a convenient summary). Given that Paul's primary ministry was to the Gentiles (i.e. Greeks) and that the Septuagint was fully accepted in the 1st Century as a legitimate translation there is no reason for Paul's extensive use of the Greek Bible to puzzle us. What's more, Paul writes as a theological innovator, making free use of many different authoritative sources in his work, including the LXX, Jesus tradition, common Hellenistic wisdom, etc. An interesting parallel may be drawn with Philo, who although he was born in Alexandria to a Diaspora family who had lived there for generations, was educated in both Jewish and Hellenistic culture and combined elements of both in his writings. Furthermore, there is also scholarly controversy over whether he actually knew Hebrew because he too cites mostly the LXX, despite being trained by Jewish scholars and his family having close connections with the Jerusalem religious leadership (see the Wikipedia entry here and here).

Detering then argues against the historicity of the stoning of Stephen and Paul's participation in it on the grounds that the scene is "theatrical and histrionic" and it "produces very little for a biography of Paul," other than "as evidence for which side the pre-Christian Saul-Paul was on, namely, on the side of fanatical, anti-Christian Pharisaism." In light of the portrait in Paul's own letters as persecutor, this would seem to be pretty important evidence for a biography of Paul! It is hard to see what exactly Detering's problem with this passage is. He mentions H.J. Schoeps' criticisms of the account, namely that "in spite of great significance as an archetypal martyr, Stephen plays no great role in early Christian literature and that his martyrdom falls entirely into the background next to that of James the brother of the Lord in 66 C.E." He overlooks the fact that Stephen may have been an archetypal martyr only in certain circles, and that Luke's perspective should not be taken as that of the early church as a whole. JP Holding further notes that "in terms of honor ratings, priority to someone like James over Stephen is completely intelligible. Schoeps' mindset is that of the modern individualist who thinks every individual deserves equal time; just as CNN sees fit to report in depth the deaths of single soldiers in war and stories of their families. Schoeps is off target sociologically, and so is his criticism. Stephen would not become a leading example versus someone like James simply because he was not a community leader whose example would be the one to be followed."

Detering also notes that "the material Luke uses for developing his destined death-Stephen is stoned after his speech against the Temple-contains the same motifs as the account of the stoning of James the brother of the Lord." (17-18) The implication is supposed to be that Luke is dependent on the James account. He does not say which account he is referring to, the one in Josephus or the one in Eusebius drawing on Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria. In any case neither of these mentions a speech against the Temple, but there are two similarities, both things that James says. In response to the Jews' request that he warn the people not to "entertain erroneous opinions concerning Jesus," James instead proclaims openly that Christ "sitteth in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven." When the Jews angrily rush to stone him, James prays "I beseech Thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." These sayings are both indeed reminiscent of Luke's account of Stephen's martyrdom, but it seems that the dependency should be the other way around, given that Hegesippus was a late 2nd Century author. In fact, James' last word seems drawn, not from Acts 7:60 (where Stephen says "Lord, don't hold this sin against them!") but from Luke 23:34 ("Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing"), which however has a complicated textual history (see footnote 1 here). In any case, Detering does not further argue for this dependency and Schoeps' suggestion that "The retouching of the facts [transferring details from the account of James' death to Stephen] allowed Luke...to unload the anti-cultic disposition, which was entirely foreign to him" is just that-speculation. If anything, if the 'anti-cultic' disposition was foreign to Luke, the fact that he included Stephen's speech is evidence of historicity: Luke includes the story even though it may not have fit his theology because it was handed down to him from his sources, whom he had thoroughly investigated and consequently trusted to be reliable (whether Luke actually had a 'cultic' disposition is a subject too big for this series).

Detering then takes issue with Acts' account of Paul's persecution of Christians in Damascus, forecfully insisting that "Paul did not have the slightest authority to undertake a persecution of Christians in Damascus, which was an independent city and not subject to the jurisdiction of the Jewish central authority (Sanhedrin)." (19) First, we should note that the scope of Paul's authority was quite limited. He obtained letters from the high priest for the synagogues, not the city officials, so this would have been an entirely local affair. Paul's persecutions may not have even been public arrests. He might have kidnapped the followers of the Way and taken them out of the city furtively. C.K. Barrett notes that "Given the good will of the synagogues in Damascus [towards Jerusalem leadership] it would be quite possible for Jews known to be Christians to 'disappear' (our own age is familiar with the phenomenon, and the word) and subsequently to find themselves in unfavorable circumstances in Jerusalem." (Barrett, Acts, Vol.1 pp. 446-447) Second, Acts does not tell us just what the letters would have told the synagogue officials. It may not have been an order so much as a 'firm request'. Professor Dunn's comments on this episode are worth quoting in full:

"For one thing, Luke attributes the initiative to Saul himself: it was he who went to the high priest and asked for letters of commission (cf. Acts 22:5)...Now, it is quite true that the high priest had no formal jurisdiction over synagogues, least of all in other countries. But he had at least two considerable constraints which he could bring to bear on archisynagogoi and synagogue elders. One was that he was responsible for much of the content and timing of lived-out Judaism; he and his councilors were the ultimate authority in matters of dispute, and it is not at all unlikely that Jerusalem authorities occasionally wrote to diaspora synagogues to encourage them to maintain the traditions and possibly to take sides in some dispute on timing of festivals and the like. The high priest might even have been willing to claim jurisdiction over a 'greater Judea' which included Damascus. In any case, the high priest was not a person whose envoy could be lightly disregarded or dismissed with his mission unfulfilled. The other is that the Temple in Jerusalem held an amazing range of financial deposits for Jews at home and abroad; it was Judaism's 'central bank'. It is quite conceivable, therefore, that any requests were backed, explicitly or implicitly, with threat of financial sanctions." (Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, p. 337)

This of course does not prove that Luke's account of Paul's persecution is accurate, but it does remove the taint of suspicion from this episode on account of its historical implausibility, and hence removes another reason to doubt Acts' reliability.

Detering then moves on to the accounts of Paul's conversion. He promises that"We will see below in more detail that Luke's presentation is clearly not to be understood as a rendering of historical events, but as a tendentious rejection of the claim put forward by the writer of the letters to be an eyewitness and thereby a legitimate apostle of Jesus Christ." We will deal with this argument when it comes up, but already there is a serious problem with this suggestion: even though Luke does not describe Paul as actually seeing the form of Jesus in the bright light that surrounds him in the first conversion account (Acts 9:3-8), later in Acts Ananias is reported as telling Paul the following: "The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and hear him speak" (Acts 22:14). If Luke really meant to 'tendentiously reject' Paul's claim to having seen the Lord he would not have included this testimony. In any case there is really no doubt that Luke means to convey that Paul encountered Jesus and received a commission from him, as is evident again from Ananias' testimony to what Jesus told him about Paul: "this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel" (Acts 9:15) Luke may have defined the term 'apostle' more strictly than Paul did, but in terms of its general meaning, 'one who is sent', Paul is clearly an apostle in Acts and whatever else Luke would have called him, he was clearly 'legitimate'. Again we should say though that even if Luke meant to undermine Paul's claim to being an apostle, this does not preclude him being the companion of Paul, only that Luke and Paul understood Paul's status differently.

The only other reason Detering gives for doubting the conversion narrative is that "some of the material from which the author constructed his conversion story shows remarkable similarity with other well-known conversion stories in ancient literature. This too does not exactly speak for the historicity of the Lukan presentation." (21) Actually, the only thing it doesn't speak for is Detering's familiarity with historical scholarship. As JP Holding documents in detail, the recasting of stories in terms of previous stories was "a normal practice and an admired skill in this day" (see here, point 2). One important parallel we can point to and which Detering should have mentioned is Justin Martyr's conversion account in his Dialogue with Trypho, chs. 1-8, which also follows standard conversion narrative conventions. Some scholars appeal to this fact as reason to doubt the accuracy of Justin's portrayal of his own conversion, but they do not deny that Justin himself wrote it, or that this was his own understanding of his conversion!

In any case, the one example Detering gives of a parallel falls far short of establishing his argument. In one of Luke's accounts Paul describes the voice he heard as saying, "It hurts you to kick against the goads." This is reminiscent of a scene in Euripides' Bacchae, in which the god Dionysios counsels King Pentheus that "Instead of kicking against God's goads as a mortal, you should rather offer sacrifices." Detering quotes Uta Ranke-Heinemann as concluding that "This Dionysius episode has obviously been taken over into the Damascus scenery. An ancient persecution saying is taken up in a Christian persecution saying." (21) There are two problems with this: 1) as documented above, speakers often recast their stories in terms of other stories, so even if Paul is borrowing from the Bacchae this would not mean the account is ahistorical and 2) by Paul's time the expression 'kicking against the goads' was a common one, not necessarily alluding to Euripides' play. When we take into account Paul's audience in this scene, the Hellenistically inclined King Agrippa and his court, Paul's use of common Hellenistic images seems entirely appropriate.

Detering's further comments on Acts are even less substantial, noting only that "The apostle is portrayed by the writer of Acts primarily as a miracle worker and missionary (not as an independent theological thinker)" and that "At the Areopagus in Athens the apostle preaches the message of the resurrection, which stands at the center of his preaching (The Paul of Acts has never heard anything about justification by faith alone)." (22) As to the former, he seems to have no inkling that these two portraits are not mutually exclusive (see again Christopher Price's discussion of this issue in his extended Acts article, linked to in the previous post); this is just another feeble attempt to twist the difference in perspective between Luke and Paul, which even conservative commentators acknowledge, into an absolute incompatibility which makes Acts useless as a historical source for the life of Paul. As to the latter, we should note two things: 1) Paul was speaking on the Areopagus to a thoroughly Hellenistic audience for whom the dispute over the righteousness of the Law would have been meaningless and irrelevant, in contrast to his audience in the letters for whom the issue IS important, indeed crucial and 2) Paul's doctrine of justification by faith is inextricably linked to, and is in fact founded upon, the fact of Jesus' crucifixion and then resurrection from the dead. One wonders what Detering makes of this passage: "Therefore [Abraham's] faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. Now the words, 'It was reckoned to him,' were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification." (Romans 4:22-25)

Detering then briefly wonders why Acts ends so abruptly "although there would certainly have been many wonderful stories to tell here" (22) before dramatically concluding that "After working intensively on Acts, I realized that the attempt with its help to get closer to the person of Paul had failed miserably. The biographical information it contained about the apostle seemed to be mostly legendary in character...anyone who would base his historical knowledge of the Apostle on Acts must tumble into the deep, golden abyss of fairy tales and legends...The question whether anything at all in the presentation of Acts could have historical value could basically not be answered by a historian who was aware of his responsibility." (23-24)

As we have seen in some detail, however, nowhere does Detering offer the kind of thorough discussion which would legitimate this radical skepticism about Acts, and his interaction with mainstream scholarship-which again and again clarifies and demystifies Detering's supposedly insurmountable challenges-is almost non-existent. Nowhere does Detering discuss the work of Martin Hengel, for example, one of the most highly regarded modern historians of antiquity, who has extensively argued for the reliability of Acts in its original context. And he does not discuss the other reasons scholars have given for trusting the author of Acts, such as his vast and detailed familiarity with features of mid-1st Century geography, politics and culture that would have been hard to come by for someone who was not familiar with them first-hand, in an age when "there were no almanacs providing ready information regarding titles and dates of officials and no easy access to official records by someone of Luke's likely rank and status." (for a full documentation, see Christopher Price's article on Acts, pp.20-35) Thus Professor Dunn's judgment seems justified, that the accuracy of detail "can hardly be better explained than by Luke's own involvement with those caught up in the events (or with the events themselves), or by his having access to eyewitness accounts of the events." (Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, p.81)

We conclude then that there are no good reasons for thinking that the author of Acts was anything other than a sometime companion of the historical Paul, a contemporary whose account can be corroborated by external sources and by Paul's own letters to a remarkable degree. This by itself should make any further discussion superfluous, and our contact with the historical Paul secure. But the main thrust of Detering's book is his reasons for skepticism of our other important source for knowledge of Paul: the letters written in his name. And since historians work in a dialectical way with the letters and Acts, each being compared with the other, and further that Paul's letters are universally taken to be a more secure historical starting point than Acts, we will still have to look at those reasons. That will be the task of subsequent posts.

Just over a year ago I started a series to critique the Dutch Radical (DR) interpretation of the Pauline corpus. In the first post I laid out a brief summary of the arguments of that school, which I won't reproduce here. In the second I looked at Albert Schweitzer's critique of DR from over a century ago, written when DR scholars were still very much the focus of scholarly attention. Even though Schweitzer praised them for their spirit of honest investigation he still found their arguments less than convincing. In the meantime I have not been idle, and in fact have been expanding my knowledge of Pauline scholarship in order to deal with DR as thoroughly as possible. Now, at the prompting of a skeptical blogger who was wondering where the rest of my critique was, I'm continuing the series.

In this post I'd like to start looking at the most sophisticated contemporary DR interpretation, put forward by Hermann Detering in his book, Falsified Paul: Early Christianity in Twilight (hence FP; translated by Darrell Doughty). When I started work on this series I intended to deal with each argument separately, in the order that I summarized them in my first post. But re-reading Detering's book made me realize how important its rhetorical structure is to the argument, so I'm going to go through it section by section, more like a review.

I must admit that going through the book again knowing what I know now about Pauline scholarship decreased my estimation of the author. He is clearly a smart, honest person who writes extremely well, with an elegance reminiscent of the 19th Century scholars he is so enamored of. He clearly believes that his work is scholarly and that the DR position is worth defending. But in light of the radical challenge he puts to mainstream Pauline scholarship, he really should have engaged with it more thoroughly than he does in FP. It is ironic that early on in the book he cautions against being dependent "only on reports, conjectures or opinions of others" (11), when in his own arguments he does little more than regurgitate the opinions of the DRs as well as those of the limited cross-section of mainstream Pauline scholarship (mostly German) he seems to be familiar with. This is evident in his treatment of Acts as a source for knowledge about the apostle Paul, as we will now see.

Detering points out that our two most important sources for information about Paul are the letters written in his name, and the book of Acts. He sets out to examine the latter first, perceptively observing that it is still "the best known and most popular source of information" about the apostle (11). Its importance for our reconstruction of Paul's missionary career cannot be overestimated. NT scholars Stanley Porter and Lee McDonald note that "it is not often recognized how much of what is tacitly assumed to be reliable knowledge of Paul is dependent upon the book of Acts"; indeed, "it is impossible to formulate any coherent understanding of the early church, from whatever perspective or stance one has regarding authorship and date, without considerable dependence on Luke-Acts." (Porter and McDonald, Early Christianity and its Sacred Literature, pp. 337, 297) Understandably, then, in order for DR to become even initially plausible the historical value of Acts must be decisively undermined.

Detering begins by claiming that "Acts has a decided drawback in that its historical value is questioned today by an increasing number of scholars" (11). He does not give even the most cursory survey of Pauline scholarship to substantiate this claim, and it is clearly rhetorical, a mere appeal to authority. In fact, the tide has actually turned from the radical skepticism of the 19th Century in the direction of a greater trust in Acts' reliability. The point is not to counter an argument from authority with another, merely to show that, even on his own grounds, Detering is out of touch with current scholarly trends. But on to the actual arguments.

Detering begins by sounding a note of skepticism based on Acts' supernatural content: "can a work that begins with an extensive description of the ascension of Jesus that in no way sounds particularly symbolic be regarded as a reliable historical source?" (13) Well, yes actually. This is an unvarnished statement of metaphysical bias, of the kind that Christian scholars tire of pointing out. The presence of the supernatural in an account has NO bearing whatsoever on whether it is fact or fiction (for further reflections, see my post here). Even if one does not accept the possibility of miracles, it is obvious from even a cursory look at the sources that even the most careful and critical historians of antiquity had no qualms about relaying supernatural occurences and even endorsing them. Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius all include miracle stories, but modern historians continue to regard them as (more or less) reliable sources. Reliability should be judged based on proximity to the events, access to earlier reliable sources, a clear intent to be critical and thorough, etc., and NOT (at least prima facie) on whether the document makes reference to miracles. That Detering fails to adhere to these scholarly standards is clear when he characterizes Acts as "an imaginary marvelous romance" despite the fact that "in the preface the writer takes on the appearance of an historian and follows the customs of an ancient historian in his presentation," a judgment with which most commentators are in agreement (13).

Detering then briefly addresses the question of whether Luke was an eyewitness to Paul's ministry. His verdict, naturally, is negative. Amazingly, he thinks that this is "self-evident from what has just been said [on Acts' supernatural content]. One should reckon that an eye-witness would hardly find it necessary to relate legends for the reader instead of historical events" (13). This is just another demonstration of his blatant metaphysical bias and clearly begs the question of whether Luke or his sources actually thought the events surrounding Paul's career were 'legends'. He is also under the curious impression that "it is recognized...even by conservative scholars, that...the author was not a travelling companion of Paul" (13). Apparently Gasque, Bruce, Hemer, Hengel, Barrett, Dunn, McRay, Witherington, Bock, Porter and many others didn't get the memo (admittedly, some are more cautious than others in affirming that the author was definitely Paul's companion; all, however, argue that Luke had access to excellent contemporary sources). Again an argument from authority without substantiation, and which is actually demonstrably false.

His reasons for rejecting Luke as eye-witness, again, are less than compelling. He asks why "Luke presents a picture of Paul that is entirely different from the picture of the apostle in his letters." He also quotes Philip Veilhauer as observing that "The writer makes historical mistakes regarding the life of Paul that no companion would make...apart from all the rest...A man who reserves the title and honor of an apostle exclusively for the twelve and consistently denies this for Paul, even though Paul claimed the apostolate for himself and defended it, cannot be a companion of Paul." (14) It was indeed Veilhauer who established something of a consensus in mainstream scholarship that Paul in the letter and Paul in Acts cannot be reconciled, but his views have been vigorously challenged by Stanley Porter in his Paul in Acts, as well as all the conservative commentators listed above. Christopher Price has an excellent discussion of the relationship between the two portraits of Paul in his extended article on Acts, pp. 81-100 and concludes that "none [of the objections to Luke's being an eyewitness to Paul] are convincing." Even if the portraits were substantially incompatible, however, this argument wrongly assumes that a companion of Paul would share down to the last detail Paul's own estimation of himself. As Mr. Price points out, however, "even a companion of Paul would write with his own purposes and his own understanding of theology and events. A companion of Paul who was apparently not a convert of Paul, who traveled with him only occasionally, who had significant contact with other early Christian leaders, and who was possibly writing decades after Paul's death, should not be assumed to share slavishly Paul's perspective and view of events." (pp.86-87)

Detering explains away the 'we' passages in Acts, which have long been interpreted as evidence for Luke's authorial participation in the events being related, as a literary device: "it is clearly recognized today...that the 'we-accounts' are a skillful literary fiction." He again quotes Vielhauer's opinion, which he takes to be representative (what was that again about not relying too much on other people's opinions?), that the author "employed the literary means of the personal report in order to feign eyewitness character for some passages concerning Paul." (14) This dismissal is far too easy. We have to ask why, if the author wanted to feign eyewitness authority for some events in Paul's career, he did not do so for all of them, especially the crucially important ones like the account of Paul's conversion. C.J. Thornton further points out that this 'literary fiction' did not exist in antiquity: "The We-narratives of Acts contain nothing which readers in antiquity would not have held to be completely realistic. In them they would be able to recognize only an account of actual experiences of the author" (quoted in Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, p.66n51). A similar argument of Vernon K. Robbins to the effect that the 'we' passages are an ancient literary device has been subjected to devastating criticism by Christopher Price in another article, but will not be examined here. Suffice it to say that the 'literary device' explanation of the 'we' passages is completely unconvincing and there is no reason to take them as anything else than evidence of Luke's participation in the events of Acts as Paul's companion. All that is clearly recognized from Detering's discussion is, again, that he is out of touch with most mainstream scholarship.

If the author of Acts is accepted as a companion of Paul, then our estimation of Acts' historical value should increase, as this is one of Detering's main reasons for skepticism about the historical Paul, viz. the lack of contemporary accounts. But Detering presents further reasons to be skeptical of the Acts account, which will be examined in the next part of this post (next post of this part??).

In Part 2 of this Round, I looked at the Iscariot data found in GosMark and then in GosMatt, with an eye toward assessing whether the differences in GosMatt could clearly be identified as only legendary development. Aside from the difficulties inherent in identifying legendary development vs. increased historical detail without a clear historical exemplar for comparison (and aside from noting that such a theory is totally dependent on GosMatt having been composed after GosMark), there are portions of the text which might, or might not, be the result of legendary embellishment. However, the larger and more detailed the portions, the less proper it is to infer a process of legendary development per se (in lieu of clear developmental links between the two data points, which we certainly don't have in this case.) Ironically, the portion most impressive to the casual and (paradoxically) uncritical observer--the extended anecdote involving the 30 pieces of silver--is least likely to be the result of legendary embellishment per se. Moreover, the three increasingly largest substantial variations from GosMark all have a tendency to be proportionately more sympathetic to Judas Iscariot; which cannot very well fit any theory of Iscariot having been invented and increasingly detailed for purposes of libeling anyone by his mere existence as a representative fictional character.

Which, unfortunately for Bishop Spong, doesn't bode well for his attempted theory in The Sins of Scripture to the effect that Judas Iscariot was a fictional character invented by Jewish Christians in order to help Jewish Christians hate Jews and Judaism.

But, perhaps adducing data from GosLuke, Acts and GosJohn, will make his theory of a legendary development process, running progressively through the texts in sequence, look stronger. (Certainly Bishop Spong seems to think so, in his presentation!)


So: how well does GosLuke and/or Acts fit into the theorized pattern?

GosLuke: Satan enters into Judas Iscariot before Judas goes looking to betray Jesus. No even vague connection to the anointing of Jesus by a woman at the house of Simon the Leper. The detail about the chief priests and scribes wanting to kill Jesus is still in play; their reason for killing Him is that they’re afraid of the people. This time (without the anecdote of Mary’s anointing in the way) Judas goes off to plot with them right after we’re told the chief priests are wanting to kill Jesus. They’re glad for Judas’ deal and agree to give him money. No amount is mentioned. In fact, the whole complex anecdote about the 30 pieces is totally missing. Judas begins looking for a good opportunity to betray Jesus to them; “apart from the crowds” is added to the phrase found in the other Synoptics. Jesus knows the hand of the one betraying Him is with Him on the table, and (as in GosMark and GosMatt) wails a lament about him. (Same lament.) Unlike Mark and Matt, Luke puts this bit after the Lord’s Supper is instituted! (But Luke also reports Jesus curiously neglecting to say just how many thrones the apostles, who have stood by Him in His trials, will be sitting on in the kingdom to come--despite numbering the tribes of Israel as twelve. This speech isn’t found in the other Synoptics at all here, although GosMatt has something suggestively similar on the road out of Jericho during the final approach to Jerusalem.) There is a brief description of discussion among the apostles as to who might be betraying Jesus. Unlike GosMark and GosMatt, there is no dialogue about this, including from Iscariot. After Jesus has spent some hours at Gethsemene (the olive press) on Olive Hill, Judas comes up (having departed the group at some unspecified point) with a mob. The detail of Jesus knowing Judas is coming is omitted. The detail of the mob being sent by the chief priests is omitted. (The slave of the high priest, who gets his ear cut off, is still on scene however. In GosLuke Jesus heals his ear.) No explanation is given for why Judas is kissing Jesus. No greeting from Judas is given. It’s unclear whether the kiss even occurs, or whether Jesus forestalls it with a comment very different from the comment found in GosMatt. Iscariot is not mentioned again in GosLuke.

Acts: Peter, while explaining why they need a new apostle, tells the gathering of 120 brethren (now in Jerusalem for Pentacost) that David had somehow foretold the betrayal of Judas. Two extremely vague references to Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 are given; neither are obviously about Judas (or about the Field of Blood either). Peter (or possibly the author) says that Judas bought the field with the money he received for betraying Jesus; then afterward Judas fell in the field bursting his innards open so that his bowels gushed out, thus explaining why the field became known in Jerusalem in Aramaic as Hakeldama (or Hakeldamach in some early texts) or “Field of Blood”. Iscariot is not mentioned further in Acts.

(There is serious grammatic evidence, by the way, that Acts 1:19, at least, is commentary by the author for his reader(s), not dialogue from Peter, who would not likely be expected to be telling 120 disciples in Jerusalem that the field was thus known “in their own language” as such-n-such, and then translating it into Greek. If verse 19 is commentary, which is exceedingly likely, the whole parenthetical explanation from verse 18, possibly through the Psalm ref in verse 20, is commentary, too.)


So!--how fares this new progression? Is it even a progression?!

GosLuke contains fewer details overall than GosMatt, concerning Iscariot; and in some pericopes (narrative scenes) even fewer than GosMark, too! Where Luke shares topical details with Matt not mentioned at all in Mark, the details vary quite widely. The overall result is one of fidelity and new variation, not of clear developmental progression.

The only detail that might feasibly count as legendary accretion per se, is the brief explanation about Satan entering into Judas: a small throwaway detail of which nothing else is made in GosLuke. If this is legendary accretion, it’s a first small step. It’s somewhat doubtful that the detail necessarily indicates a fault of Judas, either. On the other hand, it must be admitted that where variations occur elsewhere in GosLuke they tend to be either neutral as to motivation or else more condemning of Iscariot compared to previous data (mostly compared to GosMatt); so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect that this brief explanation is meant along that line, too.

I will take a moment to point out, however, that the lamentation of Christ in all three Synoptics, “It were better for him [or maybe for Him] if that one [the traitor] had not been born”, can be culturally construed as a cry of pity for the object, not of condemnation. (The classic Old Testament example is Job crying “Oh why was I even born? Better that I had died before leaving the womb!” etc.) Whether the authors received it that way or not, who can say?--perhaps Matthew, who has much more to say sympathetically about Judas than anyone else, understood it so.


The divergent details, combined with faithfulness to the wording of GosMark in many places, indicates that Luke was working from GosMark (or a source used by GosMark) plus some kind of tradition concerning Judas, mostly in Acts, quite independent of GosMatt’s specific material--even though the same basic topic (an explanation of the name of a field, the fate of Judas, and a belief that scripture predicted the betrayal) is in view. Moreover, while the small detail about Satan entering into Iscariot might be original to the author as an explanatory gloss, it is difficult to figure out why Acts 1:18-20 would be created out of whole cloth--and yet share the topic of explaining the Field of Blood.


Beyond this, it is entirely possible to harmonize the unique Matthean and Lukan material in a plausible way, even though the texts themselves give little help for this: Judas is paid 30 shekels, decides later Jesus was innocent, wants to be exculpated for his crime, is frustrated when his own religious authorities refuse to do so; hangs himself from a tree dangling over a claypit; the rope breaks at some point afterward, dropping him onto sharp rocks; the potters won’t want this cursed ground anymore for their wares; the Sanhedrin’s accountants don’t want to have a record of Judas trying to return their disbursement anyway; so they treat it as a donation from Judas, and buy the field in his name as a cheap grave for (non-Jewish) strangers: one of the few uses the claypit now would be considered appropriate for.

There is no reason why a complex historical event of this sort might not be fractionally remembered in two distinct traditions, especially if one of those traditions was more aimed at being sympathetic to Judas. It is at least realistic for a man (whether Peter or Luke), upset by a heinous betrayal, not to bother reporting sympathetic details, even if he knew about them--which Peter, at the point of the Iscariot scene in Acts, might easily not have known about yet anyway. (He might have already known about nasty details concerning Iscariot’s death, as in verse 18, and reported those for shock effect however. Why morally complicate things by adding that this happened because Judas hanged himself from a tree over the field that was bought, on public record, with his donation to the Temple? That would only be confusing.)

The actual facts, then (i.e. the textual characteristics) do not match well with a theory of legendary accretion so far. On the other hand, they match well enough with a painful memory of betrayal among Jesus’ own chosen apostles, combined with morally complex and confusing circumstances surrounding his own subsequent death. How much would any author want to talk about this? What details would he focus on? Which details would he even know about to report on? Which details serve his own interests in writing? These are realistically nuanced issues which could easily explain the spread of the data.


So, does GosJohn look more like legendary accretion per se than the other works so far? And/or does it fit a realistically nuanced consideration of authors deciding which parts of a confusing and painful bit of history they want to try to report? (I say and/or, because results either way might be indistinguishable from one another causally, too; or there could be a mixture of causation leading to the result.)


GosJohn: Jesus knows one of His apostles is going to betray Him one year before it happens, although it is the author, not Jesus, who mentions exactly who (in a scene completely unique to GosJohn in other regards, too); “Iscariot” is mentioned, in that scene, as being the surname or nickname of Judas’ father Simon, as a passing bit of information (a textual habit of this author in regard to Judas); Judas is directly connected to the anointing of Jesus in Bethany by Mary, as giving a specific complaint about her anointing (other texts have the disciples in general grumbling generally about it); the author explains that Judas’ complaint itself was false, and that Judas only was annoyed that there would be less for him, as the staff accountant, to steal for himself, since Mary didn’t sell her gift and donate the money to their charity fund; Judas is not shown going out after this scene, or at any other time, to strike a deal with the Sanhedrin; Satan puts the idea of betraying Jesus into Judas’ heart sometime between this point and the Lord’s Supper; the author explains a small cryptic comment from Christ during the meal on that final night (during a scene thematically linked to Luke 22:24-30, but different in actual content, where Jesus tries to teach them one more time about humility) to mean that Jesus knows Judas is going to betray Him; Jesus Himself quotes Psalm 41 as a prophecy that the one who eats His bread shall betray Him; the apostles are not shown debating among themselves or protesting to Jesus that it isn’t them individually (although they are shown looking at one another in confusion of what He is talking about); the author is asked by Simon Peter to ask Jesus who it is; Jesus privately tells the author that it is the one to whom Jesus dips the morsel and gives (which He does, giving it to Iscariot); Satan enters into Judas at this point; Jesus tells Iscariot “what you are doing, be doing it more quickly”; the author explains that different people there had different ideas for why Judas was leaving at that time, but weren’t expecting treachery from him; the Lord’s Supper isn’t mentioned at all per se; during the Final Discourse (completely unique to GosJohn) Jesus while praying to the Father says He (Jesus) has lost none of them except the one He was going to lose anyway, the ‘son of perdition’; Judas (still not having been shown striking a deal with the Sanhedrin) leads the mob (stiffened with Roman soldiers and officers from the Temple) to Gethsemene; Jesus is sort-of presented as knowing they are coming, and going out to meet them; and Judas is shown standing with the arresting party. No sign from Judas for identifying Jesus is shown; no kiss or greeting from Judas is attempted; and Iscariot is never mentioned again in GosJohn.


Several things should be noted. First, three of the new pieces of material (Jesus knowing Judas will betray Him a year ahead of time; Judas being briefly referenced during the High Priestly Prayer; and Judas being briefly hinted at by Jesus after the foot-washing) are minor elements of larger pericopes completely unique to GosJohn anyway. In order for these to count as evidence for legendary accretion they would have to be compared to instances of these same pericopes which either don’t have the refs about Judas or else which have the same kind of refs but less detail. But we don’t have such instances for comparison. (Even if we did, the addition of the details would not itself be conclusive evidence of legendary accretion, remember. But without such instances, a legendary accretion theory, properly speaking, cannot even get started!--not in regard to these particular details anyway.) They could be historical reminiscence, or accretion to previously transmitted material (of which we know nothing about), or part of something invented wholly by the author to begin with. A judgment either way will have to be built by careful consideration of other evidence. There is, at least, nothing in this material overtly preventing the refs from being historical.

Second, the author’s repeated habit of mentioning “Iscariot” in connection with Judas’ father Simon, has no apparent apologetic agenda; if it isn’t historicity, it is only verisimilitude (and, if so, would admittedly count as one minor step of accretion in itself. But there is no way to tell from the texts.) On the other hand, the GosJohn author does have an established habit of trying to add historical detail and even at least once to overtly correct a received historical detail--meaning other alterations to details found in the Synoptics may (or may not) also be correction attempts for accuracy.

Third, one key scene features very much less detail about Iscariot than in the other Gospels (the arrest), and many key scenes and details from other Gospels are outright missing (Judas going to the Sanhedrin to plot; Judas being paid by the Sanhedrin; the amount paid; Judas asking Jesus, along with the other apostles, whether he himself is the traitor; Jesus replying to Judas’ question/protest; Judas repenting when Jesus is condemned and trying to return the money, seeking absolution; Judas hanging himself when his religious authorities refuse to absolve him of guilt; Judas falling and splitting himself wide open, throwing his innards all over the ground; the claypit being bought in Judas’ name, with Judas’ rejected money; Judas being replaced by another disciple.) The question of timing in regard to the Lord’s Supper is also completely mooted by the absence of the Supper scene itself (per se). (Other Gospels seem to indicate Judas was around for the Lord’s Supper, especially GosLuke; but GosJohn doesn’t even have that detail.)

Fourth (and most substantially), only two pieces of new Judas material happen in material directly shared by other Gospels; but even then there are peculiar lapses and unexpected details.

GosMark suggests Judas went to plot with the Sanhedrin after the anointing by a woman in the home of Simon the leper (and Jesus’ rebuke to grumbling disciples). GosMatt more directly says so, in his grammar. GosLuke has Judas going to plot, in language much closer to Mark than Matt, but no mention at all of Mary’s anointing Jesus. (Maybe earlier in the narrative in an almost completely different scene, but not here; and not connected with Iscariot there, either. It’s unclear whether any disciples per se at all, including the apostles, are even present for that Lukan scene!) GosJohn doesn’t show Judas going to plot with the Sanhedrin at all, but does connect Judas even more directly with the anointing by Mary (identifying Mary in the process, but not having a reference to Simon the leper per se), by having Iscariot be the one giving a specific grumble. (And, by the way, specifically claiming a very different time for the anointing than apparently given by Mark or Matt.) This admittedly doesn’t help Judas’ representation any; yet the extra detail leads to the huge irony of Iscariot being the only named Christian bishop in the New Testament! (The main duty of the episkopos elsewhere in the NT is that he is elected from other authorities to, in effect, keep track of the communal money bag for giving alms to the poor.) Moreover, Jesus’ retort in defense of Mary is arguably softer than in other accounts; the author is hardly heaping up calumny on Iscariot per se by that method.

In the other shared incident between Gospels, where substantial new material is included, the saying about the traitor eating with Jesus is given some authoritative prophetic connection (by no less than Jesus Himself) to a scripture (but not at all the same scriptures reffed by Luke or Matt); and, even more overtly, Judas is shown literally eating with Jesus, ultra-literally demonstrating him to the Johannine author as the traitor by Jesus’ express explanation. Also, Jesus’ exhortation for Judas to be about his business is, if I may say so, quite the essence of understated macho coolness! But the absence of the Lord’s Supper itself is striking: here is a detail apparently intended to clarify when exactly Judas went out to get up the mob (a public mob being the usual arresting force in the ancient Near Middle East--a realistic detail in all four Gospels, stiffened with Roman soldiers from the garrison cohort as another realistic detail in GosJohn, who would want to be on site to keep the arrest as un-riotous as possible); but this detail was hardly needed before. Jesus in the other Gospels is shown spending several hours at the press (and its cave, per GosLuke) on Olive Hill, with overtly unattentive disciples; Judas could have left and come back at any time. This Johannine detail gets Iscariot out of the way early for no good reason, insofar as a theory of invention goes, other than that the author isn’t going to include the prayers at Gethsemene! (But not because the author finds such a thing thematically inappropriate; he uniquely relates something similar back at 12:27ff.) The logically expected reason for Iscariot’s early departure, insofar as a “progression” would be concerned--so that Judas won’t be clarified as sharing in the Lord’s Supper--simply isn’t shown at all.

Beyond this, Judas (as with the moneybag detail earlier) is shown receiving special honor from Jesus; the sop is traditionally given to the most honored guest by the host (a tacitly ironic counterpoint to the disputation among the apostles as to which of them is greatest in GosLuke!) Also, the apostles figure Jesus means for Judas to go out and do one of two responsible or ritually honorable things: buy more things for the upcoming seder (if they aren’t having the seder early after all) or giving money to the poor (if they’re having the seder right now after all--an honor typically given to the beloved son by the father during that ceremony.) Whereas, on the other hand, the “woe to that one” declaration is completely missing.


The confusion among the apostles, by the way, as to why Judas is leaving, happens to dovetail nicely (if tacitly) with the somewhat confusing question, still retained in the four Gospel accounts, of when exactly the Passover holiday is supposed to be occurring. What many commentators don’t know to take into account, is that a rabbi was allowed to hold the Passover seder one night early in special emergency situations, the archetypical example being if a battle was expected to interfere with holding it the next day! (A precedent established by the Maccabean revolution, if not earlier.) This detail has already been a tacit factor earlier in GosJohn, when (as in GosMatt and GosMark, but not GosLuke) hotheads want to crown Jesus by force after the feeding of the 5000. GosJohn is the text to mention that this feeding happens very close before Passover (also tacitly explaining why so many men, women and children were on the lakeroad that day traveling without food--they expected to be with family that night), without overtly explaining why a rabbi holding an early seder (or something understandably mistaken for it, such as with the miraculous feeding) would mean so much for people hoping for the Messiah to deliver them from bondage to the pagans at such a time.

A historical solution can be seen in the background; the details synch with the solution without directly calling attention to it: why do the apostles have differing opinions about why Jesus has sent Judas on his way? Why does Judas even go at all? Because now he knows for sure that Jesus is onto his plot, and (if I may be allowed to put it this way), Jesus Christ there is gonna be a fight tomorrow!! Jesus is planning to start a revolution after all!--just what the Sanhedrin is afraid of! They can’t wait till after the holiday, they’ve got to stop Jesus now, tonight, before it’s too late!

The Gospel details don’t spell this all out, but the cultural details synch up with the Gospel details (Synoptics and GosJohn both) stereoscopically.

And that’s a mark of strong historicity in the background. From which, understandably divergent accounts could reasonably arise according to the intentions (and resources) of the various authors.

What the actual data isn’t, though, is clearly indicative of legendary accretion per se; not as any kind of primary explanation for the variant details (much less for the lack of details from text to text!) Details change too radically too often, or drop out unexpectedly for no stated reason (not even overt correction by authors); and they often end up acting against a theorized intention of increasingly vilifying Judas Iscariot in some supposedly progressing fashion.

As is typically the case with the Gospels’ Passion narrative material, the Iscariot data is actually a textbook example of four (at least partially) independent strands of data hearkening back to a primary source. Whatever else it is, the data is not a textbook example (overall) of legendary accretion--a few possible minor exceptions here and there aside: the only one of which survives more than one proposed iteration, being the explanation that it’s somehow Satan’s fault. (And practically nothing is ever made of this development, insofar as it may be reckoned as slightly developed at all.)

When the only clear development in a proposed series of accretion, across three (not even four) sets of the data, is something this minor, legendary accretion theory as a primary explanation for the material is toast.


[Next time, part 4 of 4 for this Round: so, why does Bishop Spong think otherwise? And recap for this Round.]

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