Were the Canonical NT Authors Bowing to Popular Pagan Converts? (1 of 2)

This past January (gosh, it is almost September already??), I saw an interesting question asked on a Facebook group against Jesus Mythicism: "Could the gospels (and particularly the infancy narratives) be, in part, orthodox responses and redactions of stories by early pagan converts that simply got out of hand and became too popular to ignore? Could this be a fair compromise between mythicism and historicism?"

FB being FB, after I posted a reply, I never noticed that Alexander, who asked the question, replied to a basic answer from me with a further question, and that particular thread soon dropped out of sight.

I think it's a respectable question, and I meant and still mean no disrespect in giving a short answer there and a longer consideration of it here. It's a somewhat vaguely broad question, of course, but it's still precise in the basic concept being proposed, and its broadness allows a lot of flexibility for fulfillment options: perhaps it could be true this way, or if not this way then that way, or the other way. This allows the proposal a lot of leeway to fit with various other theories and with established facts.

I think the specific concept, however, will end up sinking the theory when it's compared to established facts: I don't think it can lead cleanly to the shape of those facts. Its broadness, while helpfully flexible (and I mean that as a compliment to the proposal), also fogs in problems with the specific concept.

The proposal at hand can be stated (out of its initial question form): "The canonical Gospels (and particularly their infancy narratives) are, in part, orthodox responses and redactions of stories by early pagan converts that simply got out of hand and became too popular to ignore."

I'm specifying a little more, because it ultimately doesn't matter whether some of the non-canonical Gospels (and non-canonical Acts etc.) were developed this way; although strictly speaking I doubt any of them were. But since that's another discussion I'll leave it aside.

So, first, is the proposal intrinsic nonsense? Nope, not as far as I can tell: it isn't built from mutually exclusive contradictions; it isn't self-refuting; it isn't a circular rationale; nothing like that.

Next, what do the points of the proposal involve?

1.) The proposal suggests an explanation for some (not all) details in the canonical Gospels (and I'll suppose the proposal can be extended to thematic and historical claims in canonical Acts and the canonical Epistles). This is important because the theory of the proposal does focus on trying to arrive plausibly at a set of actual facts: the shape and (to some ascertainable degree) the content of those textual details. (The theory allows plenty of flexibility about what the textual details were originally supposed to mean, but Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, to pull a random example, isn't supposed to be about a boat trip to Scandanavia to fall in love with a woman who likes seals but who dies in a tragic boating accident thanks to a 200 foot long serpentine-skinny seal, for example; nor is it supposed to be about whatever the heck that might 'represent'! It's supposed to be about something substantially relevant to the details on the page.)

2.) The idea is that these details (but not all the details) are fictional, and the proposal proposes a theory of how these fictional details got into the stories.

3.) The proposal is flexibly broad about what might or might not be included in the category of fictional details to be explained this way. Nor does the proposal require all of any fictional details to be explained this way; other fictional details, whatever they are, might not be explainable this way but in other ways. So the proposal has that kind of flexibility, too.

4.) The details to be explained this way, are of a sort that the two canonical birth narratives (in GosLuke and GosMatt) can be regarded as examples and even as specially relevant examples. By comparison with other sceptical theories proposing details fictionally borrowed from prior or contemporary stories and ideas, we're talking not only about supernatural events like the virgin birth and angelic announcements and celestial signs, but also maybe about more mundane ideas like being born in a stable and being visited by wise foreigners at or soon after birth and a king wanting the newborn child to die. So again it's a flexibly broad mix, maybe focused more on the supernatural details but able to incorporate more mundane details, too.

5.) These fictional innovations happened at an early date, and got incorporated into the historical story at an early date, too. But "early date" could be pretty flexible, anywhere from the late 30s to the late 130s or whenever 'clear' signs of the existence of the canonical texts start showing up in the historical record. The proposal is even flexible enough to work with a historical Jesus much earlier than the early 30s, earlier than the eventual canonical setting (during the offices of Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate, in the reign of Tiberius and the tetrarchy of specific sons of Herod the Great, etc.)

6.) These fictional details came from paganism, not from Judaism. Maybe other fictional details came from Judaism, but these details (whatever they might flexibly be) came from one or more paganisms. This concept is quite normal for sceptical theories about the Christian story and thematic developments of course.

7.) "Orthodox" writers are responsible for incorporating these fictional pagan details into the canonical texts. Pretty much any sceptical theory (up to and including Jesus Mythicism variants) has to include this detail, since the authors would at least have to count as proto-orthodox by the standards of the later authorities promoting what eventually succeeded (for whatever reason(s), which this theory can broadly incorporate) in being the majority belief set.

Still, this detail does start to involve more conceptual particularity than its broad similarity to other sceptical (but still relevantly historical) proposals so far: we aren't talking about a theory where 'orthodox' authorities after the canonical compositions managed to wrench ideas substantially around into a new form very conceptually different than what the canonical Gospel authors had in mind. The theory acknowledges serious levels of conceptual continuity between the Gospel authors and the later orthodox authorities. There's still some flexibility allowable for the later authorities to do some innovating of concepts fictional to the actually historical Jesus that the Gospel authors themselves didn't have in mind, but that flexibility has sharp limits. Those limits will be somewhat important later.

Now the proposed explanation for those textual details in the canonical Gospels (and Acts etc.), gets even more conceptually particular. Because now we're getting to the topic of why innovations from these authors would be so broadly accepted to survive and compete so well against equally fictional details and ideas in other texts.

8.) The orthodox authors felt or believed they had to include these new fictional pagan details. At the very least, they felt like the risks of not including the details were unacceptable (whether those risks were only of their work being too rejected by the people whom the authors wanted to accept their work, or other risks -- the proposal can be flexible about this).

Okay, so where did this pressure come from?

9.) The pressure came about due to pagan converts to Christianity.

This introduces some sharp limits to the flexibility to the proposal. It necessarily implies that, at the time of Gospel composition, Christianity has been going through important changes, from one kind of form, into a substantially pagan form.

From what kind of form? Not from another pagan form, and besides the textual details are massively strong about the Jewish character of the socio-cultural setting of the stories, and about the ideas and emphases of the story.

This element of the proposal can only require that Christianity had been very substantially Jewish before -- and had already become very substantially pagan before the Gospel authors wrote (or the pressure to include pagan novelties, even with Jewish redactions, wouldn't matter or even exist enough to be a factor) -- and yet demonstrably all four Gospels (and Acts, and any historical bits in the epistles) are still heavily invested in Judaism, too.

So why, on this proposal, did the Gospel authors cooperate with this pagan pressure from within the Christian movement? Was it because they thought these new innovations were the actual truth of the original historical situation? Was it because they didn't care about whether the ideas were true, or even knew them to be false, but found them useful for their own goals? Was it because the authorities whom the authors were working for had become substantially pagan and were forcing the authors to include this stuff now? Was it because this was now just the status quo of how things worked and the authors didn't even know any better?

10.) The Gospel authors included these fictional pagan innovations, because these fictional pagan innovations had gotten out of hand.

Okay, that necessarily implies not only that the authors knew differently (even if they had Jewish fictional myths that they were knowingly or unknowingly incorporating), but also that there was authoritative pressure, a hand of control analogically speaking, against these pagan fictional innovations: a hand of control which the authors nominally agreed with and nominally would have supported.

So why didn't the authors support the authority over-against the fictional pagan innovations?

11.) These out-of-control pagan innovations introduced by pagan converts, had become too popular to be ignored. Or to be successfully censured any more either. They must have become so popular, on this theory, that either the authorities behind the authors were bowing to the pressure and allowing the innovations over-against their own preferences and any knowledge of theirs (directly or by reliable prior sources) of what did and didn't really happen; or perhaps the authors chose to throw in with the popular pressure to save their own personal relevance, or even to create their own personal relevance thereby -- even to become the new authorities themselves, or the authorities behind the new authorities.

I will suppose that the proposal is flexible enough to allow that maybe by GosJohn's composition, this was the new solidly established status quo, and so that Gospel author may have just been going along with any amount of pagan fictional innovations (which the proposal could again be flexible about the extent of). But by the terms of the proposal, that can't be the situation of the authors of GosLuke and GosMatt (and evidently also GosMark's author before or contemporary with them, although I suppose the theory could be flexible enough for GosMark to be a subsequent creation afterward). They're reacting to a change in administrative policy which the administrators feel forced to implement against their preferences otherwise; and maybe these authors are even taking the opportunity (by popular pagan convert pressure) to change the administration themselves.

That's the total shape of the proposal, as an explanation for why a flexibly broad set of textual details actually exist in the canonical historical texts -- a set of textual details which the proposal regards (for any of various reasons) as fictional and not historical, but wedded in various ways and in various degrees to a still-historical core about Jesus Christ (of Nazareth or Galilee or Judea or wherever, the proposal being flexible about that, too.)

So does the proposal, as a theory, fit cleanly with actual established facts such as those textual details?

Next time: if you guessed I'm going to answer "no"...


Jason Pratt said…
...then you remembered one of my first paragraphs, yay!

Also, duh.

Also, registering for comment tracking. {g}

Joe Hinman said…
good post Jason. It depends upon what details you are talking about. The PMPN evidence that Koester talks about shows that the material they drew upon in writing the Gospels was around from an early period, I doubt they had meany gentile coverts before Paul. Scholars are now dating the canonical to the 60s, a5t least Mark and Matt. Paul died in 64. so would the communities that produced the Gospels have that many Pauline circle people in them? The evidence is clear that most of that material was part of the story when Paul began.
Don McIntosh said…
Interesting. I appreciate your patience and charity in conceding this variant of mythicism to be "deductively possible."

That way you're giving mythisicsts plenty of rope... err, slack. :-)
Jason Pratt said…
Thanks, guys.

I don't know that I'd call this "mythicism", which is more of a modern movement (for various values of "modern", since it has a few precedents back in the 19th century) that denies any historical value to the Gospels (and Paul when desperate {cough} I MEAN WHERE APPLICABLE! {g})

This theory isn't that. It's a pretty standard sceptical developmental theory with an unusual angle. It's only a "compromise" with mythicism from the perspective of someone who started with that and doesn't realize Jesus Myth theories are a recent radical synthesis of long-running sceptical theories which themselves acknowledge some historical value to the texts (be that as minimal as Schweitzer or as relatively maximal as, let's say, a neo-Arian version of Christianity which thinks Jesus' divinity was myth'd up later by someone else maybe Paul but otherwise the texts are reliably historical on almost all points including miracles.)

Those kinds of theories aren't a compromise between historicism and mythicism; mythicism is a radical version of those theories uncompromisingly rejecting any relevant historicism (at least about Jesus, maybe also about disciples.)

I originally had a preliminary digression talking about this, but snipped it for length since it doesn't really bear on the topic.

Jason Pratt said…

I think this theory is flexible enough that it could accept something like Koester's Pre-Markan Passion Narrative as preceding pagan convert pressure. Koester himself (much moreso Crossan) might be appealed to for suggestions about where the pressure starts to be applied in layers even before GosMark's composition. We're talking about people who try to argue what a hypothetical Q community did not believe based on what a hypothetical Q text did not say, partly on a (circularly argued) redactional reconstruction of 3 to 5 to 7 multiple hypothetical layers of addition to the hypothetical development of Q. Almost all of which is driven by a desire to trim out the fictional-myth material of various kinds and reach a historical core. Koester is cake for such people.

Also, while there are independent dating schemes for GosMark and GosMark pre-70, there's also one for them (which can somewhat overlap the independent schemes for strength) based on Acts being written before the death of Paul; GosLuke some time before that; and then GosMatt before that as a source for GosLuke; then GosMark before that as a source for the other two Synoptics.

In my experience I usually hear about GosLuke early dating before going to the other two as a consequence or comparison. So hey, don't exclude GosLuke from the 60s love-fest! {ggg!}

Don McIntosh said…
It's only a "compromise" with mythicism from the perspective of someone who started with that and doesn't realize Jesus Myth theories are a recent radical synthesis of long-running sceptical theories which themselves acknowledge some historical value to the texts (be that as minimal as Schweitzer or as relatively maximal as, let's say, a neo-Arian version of Christianity which thinks Jesus' divinity was myth'd up later by someone else maybe Paul but otherwise the texts are reliably historical on almost all points including miracles.)

I'll have to confess that I understood almost none of that. But if your argument is (basically) that the authors of the canonical Gospels were not caving in to pressure to include "fictional pagan innovations" (as opposed to the broad thesis of "mythicism" per se), then I still agree with you. :-)
Jason Pratt said…
I only meant that the person who originally proposed the idea as a "compromise", hasn't really understood the development and ideals of Jesus Mythcism per se as a modern movement. His proposal is an interesting variant of a standard sceptical theory; mythicism borrows hyper-radically from all sceptical theories wholesale to go beyond normal sceptical theories. There is no compromise for Jesus Mythicism; that's practically its whole point: it goes so far against compromise as to run sceptical theories inside out, putting the (fictional) myth entirely first and then the (fictional) historical claims afterward. Theories where the resultant data is partially historical, partially fictional/mythical, with the history having come more-or-less first and the myth more-or-less later, are not a compromise with that.

Anyway, that's a whole other article someday maybe. {g}

And yes, in Part 2 I'll be arguing that the canonical authors and authorities were, on the actually extant evidence, doing something very different from caving in to popular pagan convert pressure.


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