Monday, November 01, 2010

chronology and the gospels

I admit I'm persuaded that we simply cannot develop a chronology of Jesus' life on the basis of the four gospels. It isn't that I don't "trust" the gospels on this account. But as far as I can tell, the gospels just don't intend to present Jesus' life in chronological order. And if the gospels don't even try to narrate Jesus' life chronologically, I don't see how we can reconstruct a sequential "life of Jesus" from them. Perhaps if more information had been preserved we could arrange a few pericopae in relative order (e.g., perhaps Jesus' adventures in Judea and Samaria [John 2.13–4.42] occurred before his return to Galilee in Mark 1.14 parr.). But in general the data simply doesn't enable us to do more than speculate. Despite my "high view" of the gospels (whatever that actually means), I also don't turn to them to understand aerodynamics or how to bake snicker doodles. If the gospels don't present a certain type of information, in general I try not to divine that information from them. And as I read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I just don't find either snicker doodle recipes or a chronological life of Jesus. Would that either were there!

Cornelis Bennema's narratological analysis of the characters in the Fourth Gospel, Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009), recognizes John's relative freedom to move events around in his account of Jesus' life and ministry. Even an event as significant as the Temple incident, which in the synoptic gospels precipitate Jesus' arrest and execution can be moved to much earlier in Jesus' story. Bennema acknowledges,
Most scholars agree that there was only one cleansing of the temple, towards the end of Jesus' ministry (as we find in the Synoptics), and that John has brought this incident forward for theological reasons. Thus, the incident mentioned here reflects a situation at the end of his ministry when the chief priests come to the fore. (39–40)

Admittedly, Bennema's immediate purposes here are different than mine. I am questioning the feasibility of ordering the Jesus tradition; he is setting up his analysis of "the Jews" as a character in John. Even so, he clearly recognizes the thematic (or "theological") presentation of pericopae in the gospels.

So I'm a little unsure what Bennema intends when he uses temporal language. Here are two examples. The first may not be actually temporal, but it occurs in an important context (indeed, immediately after the text quoted above). He detects a shift from religious-theological conflict with the Pharisees early in Jesus' ministry to a religious-political conflict with the chief priests later on. When does this shift occur? Bennema calls it "halfway" (40). Without pressing the temporal aspect of "halfway," I can't help but wonder, What does halfway mean with texts like these? If all he means is "halfway through the story," then fine. But if he intends a more historical "halfway through Jesus' ministry," then problems ensue.

The second example is more problematic because it's more clearly temporal. In his analysis of Andrew and Philip Bennema says, "The disciples have been with Jesus for just over two years, seen him perform several miracles and heard most of his teaching" (49). In a footnote he explains,
Both 2:23 and 6:4 mention the Passover, occurring in March/April, and 5:1 may refer to the Feast of Weeks around May/June. Then, 4:35 mentions that the summer harvest in May/June is four months away, putting the context of 4:35 around January/February. Hence, another, unrecorded Passover must have gone by between 4:35 and 5:1 so that the period between 2:23 and 6:4 is two years. (49, ftn 5)

Perhaps. But remember that the Passover in 2.23 (and the Temple incident that the passage narrates) was moved by the Johannine author from the end of Jesus' ministry. How, then, we can infer the types of chronological relationships between texts that Bennema infers eludes me.

But I'm nitpicking. I don't agree with Bennema's analysis here, but his discussion of John the Baptist and of "the Jews" (Bennema always uses inverted commas here; see 38, ftn 1) provides helpful nuance to scholarship's somewhat "flattened" reading of these characters as simply "witness" or "opponents," respectively. And his analysis of Philip and Andrew (47–52) raises some interesting questions that I hope to pursue in a future post. Encountering Jesus is an easy book to read, and so far I don't have any reservations recommending it to anyone interested in the characters of John's gospel and how they respond to Jesus.


Anonymous said...

Janene makes excellent snickerdoodles! said...

I am also interested in early christianity and patristics, and am always happy to talk with others.


Tyler Stewart said...

So much of the misinformation about Christian scriptures comes from reading them with questions they have no interest in answering. I will definitely use this statement in the future:

"Despite my 'high view' of the gospels (whatever that actually means), I also don't turn to them to understand aerodynamics or how to bake snicker doodles."

As much as well meaning Christians do this with the gospels, the most victimized text is probably Genesis 1-11.

In our attempts to "defend" scripture we distort it into something it was never intended to be.

Good stuff.

Rafael said...

@Wes: Indeed she does, but she didn't get her recipe from the Good Book.

@Webulite: Huh?

@Tyler: I'm glad you found my comment helpful. Wouldn't an inspired snicker doodle recipe be awesome?! Even . . . divine?! [sorry]

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