Shaily Patel: Postcolonial Criticism

Shaily Patel, “Excursus: Methods of Ideological Criticism,” in Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 192.

Postcolonial criticism emphasizes the influence that empires and imperial policies, both ancient and modern, have on the texts, history, and scholarship of the New Testament. Postcolonial interpreters analyze how historical empires are depicted in biblical texts and how these texts both reflected and shaped the attitudes and concerns of the subjects of these empires. They read the New Testament by viewing the first Christians as subjects of the Roman Empire. A postcolonial critic might ask how being ruled by Rome configured the way the followers of Jesus understood themselves and their place in the world.

Evangelical Eisegesis: A Dalliance with Daniel, part 2

In this series we are exploring the claim made by pop-apologist SJ Thomason in her post “Did Daniel the Prophet Accurately Predict the Timing of Jesus’ Death?”1 that the prophetic utterance of Daniel 9:24-27 predicted Jesus’ death in 33 CE. There has been one previous post in this series:

This post will focus on the text of Daniel 9:24-27, attempting to understand it in its context.

DANIEL 9:24-27: AN OVERVIEW

It has been said that a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.2 Context includes not only the immediate literary context but also the historical circumstances in which a text was composed. Therefore, when analyzing biblical texts we must consider not only what it says and how it says it but also when and even why the texts were written.

As I discussed in the first post of this series, the book of Daniel can be divided into a cycle of stories (chapters 1-6) and a cycle of visions (chapters 7-12). The former contains legendary material that was likely composed long after the period it describes; the latter contains material that was likely composed in the second century BCE. Daniel 9 is firmly situated in the cycle of visions and therefore any exegesis of the text must take this into account. Consequently, we can be skeptical of any exegesis which doesn’t.

Daniel 9 and Its Context

The first vision in the cycle of visions begins with the words, “In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon” (7:1). Similarly, the vision of chapter eight begins with the words, “In the third year of the reign of King Belshazzar” (8:1). Similarly, 9:1 begins with the words, “In the first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus” (9:1). Why does the Danielic author preface these visions in this way? The answer is quite simple: to suggest that these visions are prophetic in nature. The irony of it is that the historical errors betray the notion that these are pure prophecies written in an age long before the events they describe. As we’ve already discussed, Babylon had no king named Belshazzar. Rather, Belshazzar was the name of the last Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus. The likely explanation for this error is that the author was writing long enough after the time period they describe to get so many of the pertinent details wrong.

The same can be said of what we find in 9:1 where we read of “Darius son of Ahasuerus, by birth a Mede, who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans.” Recall that in 5:30 we are told that once Belshazzar “the Chaldean king” is killed, it is “Darius the Mede” who takes over. But there never was a “Darius the Mede” and when Babylon was conquered by the Persians it was Nabonidus on the throne and Cyrus the Great who came and removed him. Here in 9:1 we read of Darius again who, in addition to being “born a Mede” was also “son of Ahasuerus.”  Of whom is the author speaking?

The Identity of Ahasuerus 

Let’s begin with the name “Ahasuerus.” The name Ahasuerus is one that features predominately in the story we find in the book of Esther. There it is likely a reference to Xerxes I who reigned over the Persian Empire from 486 to 465 BCE. Xerxes was the product of the union between Darius I and Atossa, the granddaughter of Cyrus the Great. To Xerxes was born four sons by his wife Amestris: Darius, Hystaspes, Artaxerxes I, and Achaemenes. Xerxes and his son Darius fell victim to a conspiracy hatched by Artabanus, an official who had served in Xerxes’ administration. Both Xerxes and Darius were murdered in 465 BCE. Artaxerxes I would then assume the throne.3

Assuming that the Ahasuerus of Esther is a reference to Xerxes I, how then does he relate to the Ahasuerus of Daniel 9:1? Is that Ahasuerus actually Xerxes I? If it is, then the author of Daniel has gotten Persian history completely wrong. Xerxes was never the father of a king named Darius. If anything, the Danielic author has the historical order reversed: Xerxes, the biblical Ahasuerus, was the son of Darius.

Darius the Mede

So the Danielic author has gotten the lineage of Persian kings wrong. So what do we make of Darius which 9:1 asserts was “by birth a Mede” and “who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans”? To whom is this referring?

It seems clear that the author intends for us to link the Darius of 9:1 with the Darius of 5:30. But as we already noted, the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire was caused by Cyrus the Great, a Persian, and not anyone named Darius and certainly not a Darius “the Mede.” There were three men named Darius who ruled over the Persian Empire: Darius I (522-486 BCE), Darius II (423-404 BCE) and Darius III (336-330 BCE) but they all appear after the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and are unrelated to the cause of that epic event. Furthermore, they are all Persians and not Medes. So what is going on?

One possibility is that Darius is intended to be a composite character.4 In an oracle against Babylon we find in the book of Isaiah the prophet we read that Yahweh was “stirring up the Medes against”  Babylon (Isaiah 13:17; cf. 21:2) causing its downfall. Similarly, in the book of Jeremiah we are told Yahweh “has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes” (Jeremiah 51:11; cf. 51:28) to destroy the city of Babylon. It seems that one of the expectations of the prophets was that Babylon’s demise would be caused by the Medes. Perhaps the Danielic author has combined the name of one of Persia’s most famous rulers, Darius, with the prophetic expectation of Isaiah and Jeremiah to create “Darius the Mede.” If this is the case, this is a literary creation that is disconnected from history.

Another possibility is simply that the Danielic author was just plain wrong and this, to me, seems the most likely explanation for what is going on. The author is writing long enough after the events about which he is writing that he simply gets some of the details completely wrong.

The Narrative Context

While the historical details surrounding 9:1 are quite problematic, this need not hinder our investigation into the narrative context of 9:24-27. As far as the narrative is concerned, the discussion of the seventy weeks takes place in the first year of the reign of Darius the Mede over Babylon. Let’s briefly consider the lead up to 9:24-27 that is found in 9:2-23.

9:2 

Daniel, the main character in the story, tells the reader that he “perceived in the book the number of years that, according to the word of the LORD to the prophet Jeremiah, must be fulfilled for the devastation of Jerusalem, namely seventy years.” The reference here to Jeremiah reflects the prophet’s words in Jeremiah 25:8-14 and 29:10-14. In the former we are told that the punishment on Judah would be destruction of the region and exile of its inhabitants at the hands of Nebuchadrezzar and the armies of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (25:8-9). This punishment would last seventy years and then Yahweh would punish the king of Babylon and end the Neo-Babylonian Empire (25:10-14). In the latter, Yahweh declares that at the end of the seventy year exile the deity would make good on his promise to his people that he would restore them to the land (29:10, 14).

Daniel believes he understands what the “seventy years” in Jeremiah actually means based upon the explanation given to him by Gabriel in 9:20-27.

9:3-14

Daniel begins to pray to the “great and awesome God” that he serves (9:4). He admits that the people have sinned (9:5), failing to heed the warnings of God’s prophets (9:6). The consequence of this failing – “the treachery that they have committed against” God – was that the deity drove them away into other lands, a reference to the period of the Exile (9:7).  Daniel emphasizes that this should not have been a surprise to the generation that experienced the fall of Judah for the consequence of failing to obey God was already “written in the law of Moses” (9:13). Thus, Yahweh was right to do as he did with his people (9:14).

9:15-19

Having spent a great deal of time admitting the guilt of God’s people, Daniel implores God to turn his anger and wrath from Jerusalem (9:16) and to cause his “face to shine upon [his] desolated sanctuary (i.e. the temple; 9:17). Daniel appeals not to the people’s righteousness since they have none but upon God’s “great mercies” (9:18). He also begs God to act for the sake of his name which Jerusalem and Israel both bear (9:19).

9:20-23

As Daniel is praying, Gabriel, the one who interprets Daniel’s vision of the ram and the goat (8:1-27), comes to give him “wisdom and understanding” (9:22). It is he who explains to what Jeremiah’s “seventy years” refers (9:23).

An Exegesis of 9:24-27

In 9:24-27 we read the words of Gabriel to Daniel interpreting Jeremiah’s “seventy years.” As we will see, this section does refer to a very specific period of time but it is not what SJ Thomason in her post thinks that it is.

9:24

  • “Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city….”

Jeremiah’s seventy years (9:2) are interpreted as seventy weeks. But it cannot be literal weeks since seventy weeks is less than a year and a half. Rather, the Hebrew word for “weeks” is “sevens” (šābuʿîm), making the interpretation of Jeremiah’s seventy years into seventy sevens of years, or four-hundred and ninety years.

  • “…to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.”

The purpose of the seventy weeks is laid out for Daniel. In essence, the vision is eschatological: when the seventy weeks are completed, a “most holy place” will be anointed wherein atonement for sin can be made that will end the people’s exile and restore the holy city of Jerusalem to its former glory. No longer would foreign powers rule over God’s people.

9:25 

  • “Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince, there shall be seven weeks….”

Gabriel begins to offer historical specifics to root the first seven weeks into history. The period begins at “the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem.” The “word” is a decree and decrees are typically issued by sovereigns. So to which sovereign is the Danielic author through the mouth of Gabriel referring?

Since we already know that Gabriel is offering a novel interpretation of Jeremiah’s words, it makes sense to look for a candidate during a period after the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire since the cause of the end of the exile is rooted in the fall of Babylon (see Jeremiah 25:12-14). So which sovereign, after the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, sent out a decree concerning Jerusalem? Well, the primary candidate is that of Cyrus the Great who declares in 539 BCE that Yahweh has ordered him to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2-4). And interestingly enough, the Chronicler asserts that the time from fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the exile to the decree of Cyrus is the seventy year period about which Jeremiah wrote (2 Chronicles 36:20-21).

So the seven weeks of 9:25 begins with the decree of Cyrus and ends with “the time of an anointed prince.” To whom is this referring? Before we try to answer that question there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

First, the Hebrew word translated as “prince” in the NRSV need not refer to a “prince” in the sense to which we are most accustomed, i.e. the son of a king. Rather, the word nāgîd can refer to a leader or ruler generally.  Second, whereas translations like the KJV and NASB render māšîaḥ nāgîd as “the Messiah the Prince” or “Messiah the Prince,” neither māšîaḥ (“anointed”) nor nāgîd have the Hebrew definite article attached. Therefore rendering them indefinitely as the NRSV has is the best way of handling them.

There are a couple of candidates that immediately come to mind in the period following Cyrus’ decree: Joshua (or Jeshua) the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor of Judah. Both men were part of the first group of exiles to return to Jerusalem when Cyrus made his decree (Ezra 2:1-2). They were also led the effort to rebuild the temple (Ezra 5:2) and are featured in the prophetic literature of Haggai and Zechariah (see Haggai 1:12-14, 2:2-4, 2:20-23, Zechariah 4:6-9). As high priest, Joshua would have had to been anointed and thus fulfills the notion of “an anointed leader.” Zerubbabel would also as he was apparently chosen by Cyrus to serve as governor of Judah (Haggai 1:1).

But now we run into a potential problem. The text says that the time from the decree to rebuild the city to the time of an anointed leader is “one week” or forty-nine years. If we begin with 539 with the decree from Cyrus and end with either Joshua or Zerubbabel, we have only a period of about twenty years at most. What do we make of this?

There are two possibilities. The simplest is to acknowledge that the Danielic author has already gotten his history wrong and this incongruity is no exception. Furthermore, we’ve already seen that the Chronicler believed that the roughly fifty year period between the exile to Babylon in 586 and the decree from Cyrus is 539 was seventy years. Given that authors writing long after the period about which they are writing will sometimes get details completely wrong, this may be what is going on here.

Another possibility is one proposed by George Athas who arranges Daniel 9:25 into three parts:

  • 9:25a – “Know and understand from the issuing of the word to return and rebuild Jerusalem:”
  • 9:25b – “Until an anointed leader there will be seven ‘weeks’.”
  • 9:25c – “In sixty-two ‘weeks’ you will have returned with street and conduit rebuilt, but with the anguish of the times.”

In essence, the seven weeks of 9:25b becomes included in the sixty-two weeks of 9:25c. The result is that there are still seventy weeks but some (i.e. the seven weeks of 9:25b) are subsumed by the sixty-two of 9:25c.5

  • “…and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time.”

The devastation wrought by Babylon in 586 BCE cannot be underestimated. The city’s walls were broken down, its temple to Yahweh decimated, and its population nearly wiped out by battle and exile. In the period between 593 and 450 BCE it has been estimated that the population of Jerusalem was no greater than five hundred people, only growing closer to two-thousand by 332.6 It took time for the city to return to its former glory. And all around Judea the world was changing. The Persian Empire gave way to Alexander the Great’s. Alexander’s empire ended upon his death and was divided into four with Jerusalem falling under the authority of Ptolemy I. But even that wasn’t to last as Antiochus III won Jerusalem after doing battle with Ptolemy V in 198 BCE.

These “sixty-two weeks” were indeed a trouble time in which Jerusalem was being restored. But the worst was yet to come.

9:26

  • “After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and have nothing….” 

Like we saw in 9:25 with the reference to “an anointed prince” (māšîaḥ nāgîd), here we read of “an anointed one” (māšîaḥ). Again, because māšîaḥ lacks the Hebrew definite article it makes sense to translate it indefinitely.

Who is this “anointed one” that is “cut off” and is left with “nothing”? The previous reference to one who was anointed in 9:25 was to either Joshua the high priest or Zerubbabel the governor of Judah. So it makes sense that this anointed one may be a religious authority. And since the phrase “cut off” probably refers to his death, we should probably look for a religious authority who met his demise. One candidate in particular stands out: Onias III.

Keep in mind that the vision of cycles can be dated to the second century CE and Onias’ death has already been alluded to in the vision of Daniel 11:22 where he is referred to as “the prince of the covenant.” Onias was murdered in 171 BCE by Andronicus, an official in the administration of Antiochus IV. The author of 2 Maccabees relates that following Onias’ death there was significant backlash such that Antiochus had Andronicus executed because of “the unreasonable murder of Onias” (2 Maccabees 4:35-38).

  • “…and the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed.

This portion of 9:26 belongs with what follows in 9:27.

9:27

  • “He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week…”

In 1 Maccabees we read of “certain renegades” among the Jews who were sympathetic to the Greeks. They told the people, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us” (1 Maccabees 1:11). So around 170 BCE, an agreement was reached between those Jews and Antiochus that resulted in a gymnasium being built in Jerusalem where Greek ideologies were discussed, much to the chagrin of more traditional Jews.

  • …”and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease…” 

In 167 BCE, about three and a half years after the death of Onias and the “covenant” between Hellenized Jews and Antiochus, the king sends his military to Jerusalem and ends sacrifices in the temple. But why?

First, in 169 Antiochus arrived in Jerusalem following his campaign in the Ptolemaic regions. He proceeded to take treasure from the temple treasury in the city which raised the ire of the faithful. When in 168 he was again in Egypt, a rumor spread that he had been killed. Jewish leaders in Jerusalem saw this as an opportunity to rid the city of their enemies, both Greek and Jewish, and to reassert control of the city. However, Antiochus was alive and well and in 167 sent his military to Jerusalem to put an end to the rebellion. They destroyed the defensive walls of the city and they also forbade the observance of Jewish customs.7

All Torah scrolls were to be seized and burned. All sacrifices and offerings to God at the Jerusalem Temple were abolished. Anyone who persisted in carrying out these or other Jewish rites was subject to the death penalty.8

And then they did the unspeakable.

  • “…and in their place shall be an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.”

In the temple of Yahweh in the city of Jerusalem Antiochus’ forces erected an altar to Zeus, a Greek deity and upon it they sacrificed a pig. The author of 1 Maccabees wrote that

the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances (1 Maccabees 1:44-49).

This altar to Zeus was called “a desolating sacrilege” (1 Maccabees 1:54). This event is mentioned by the Danielic author in Daniel 11:31 and it is reiterated here.

Gabriel’s explanation of the seventy weeks to Daniel ends with the demise of “the desolator.” In Daniel 11, that demise was to come between the Mediterranean Sea and Zion (11:45) but that did not happen. 9:27 is less specific in how it predicted Antiochus’ end but it is no doubt meant to be read in tandem with 11:45. In any event, this ambiguity as well as the erroneous prediction of 11:45 tells us that cycle of visions was written in 167 after the invasion of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Maccabean revolt but before the death of Antiochus IV.

Summary

This very brief and very poor look at Daniel 9:24-27 points to a “fulfillment” in a period long before Jesus’ day and the details found within fit specific historical markers in the period following the decree of Cyrus down to the events of 167 BCE. This is an example of vaticinium ex eventua frequent tool of the Danielic author. This demonstrates that the author was very interested in these specific events and how they fit into the grander scheme of God’s promise to restore Israel to her rightful place as Yahweh’s people. The traumatic events of Antiochus’ oppression of the Jews played an important part.

NOTES

1 SJ Thomason, “Did Daniel the Prophet Accurately Predict the Timing of Jesus’ Death?” (11.18.18), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 27 November 2018.

2 DA Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, second edition (Baker Academic, 1996), 115.

3 Joshua J. Mark, “Xerxes I” (3.14.18), ancienteu.com. Accessed 5 December 2018.

4 J.M. Cook, “Darius,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, editors, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (OUP, 1993), 153.

5 George Athas, “In Search of the Seventy ‘Weeks’ of Daniel 9,” The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (9.2), 14-15. Accessed 6 December 2018.

6 Mary Joan Winn Leith, “Israel Among the Nations: The Persian Period,” in Michael D. Coogan, editor, The Oxford History of the Biblical World (OUP, 1998), 289.

Leonard J. Greenspoon, “Between Alexandria and Antioch: Jews and Judaism in the Hellenistic Period,” in Coogan, 329.

8 Ibid.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Evangelical Eisegesis: A Dalliance with Daniel, part 1

“Fulfilled prophecies are what distinguish the Bible from other holy texts and are evidence of direct revelations by God.” – SJ Thomason.1


In a bid to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity and the significance of Jesus of Nazareth, pop-apologists often appeal to so-called prophecies found in the Hebrew scriptures that are “fulfilled” in the events described in the New Testament. Theirs is a hermeneutic born of the New Testament authors themselves as those first and second century writers frequently appealed to passages in the Tanakh as proof of Jesus’ divine authority.2 More often than not those appeals are eisegetical; they read into the text what they want to get out of it. This tendency has plagued Christianity for the entirety of its history as it sought to place itself into the Jewish stream in which the historical Jesus and his teachings first arose.

Not that long ago pop-apologist SJ Thomason wrote a piece wherein she claimed that the Triune God of Christian orthodoxy could be found in the items located in the Jewish tabernacle.I wrote a response demonstrating that Thomason’s claims were unfounded for a variety of reasons4 as did DM Spence, a blogger and YouTuber who is currently writing a book responding to Christian claims concerning Jesus’ resurrection and whether the Nazarene fits the description of a messiah.5 Thomason’s woefully inadequate exegetical skills were on full display in her piece and she has not (to my knowledge) responded to either Spence or to me.6 Consequently, she continues unabashed in her ignorance of the biblical texts and writes blog posts to that end. Recently she produced another example of evangelical eisegesis in a post entitled “Did Daniel the Prophet Accurately Predict the Timing of Jesus’ Death?” In it Thomason claims that the text of Daniel 9:24-27 predicted that the death of the messiah would occur in 33 CE.

This response to Thomason will be broken down into two posts: a general introduction to the book of Daniel and a brief examination of Daniel 9:24-27. I would ask readers to please excuse the length of these posts as I tend to be verbose in the interest of explaining things some of my readers may know little about and to make sure I am thorough in my response to Thomason.

DANIEL IN CONTEXT

The book of Daniel can be divided into two main sections: a cycle of stories (chapters 1-6) and a cycle of visions (chapters 7-12). The first cycle opens with the historical events of the fall of Jerusalem (1:1-2), though the Danielic version differs in some ways with the Deuteronomic version as well as that of the Chronicler. Regardless, the author wants us to envision the events of the first cycle as taking place during the Babylonian exile, mostly during the reign of Nebuchadrezzar.7 Daniel and a few others – children of nobility – were taken from their homes and sent to live in Babylon where they were to be “taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (1:4) and would be placed in prominent positions in the court of the king (1:5-6). It is clear from the get-go that Daniel is a legendary figure, the quintessential Jew living under the domination of pagans. He is described as one who is exceptional in every way: appearance, wisdom, knowledge, and insight (1:4, 1:20). Because of his exceptional abilities, Daniel serves from the time of Nebuchadrezzar all the way to Cyrus the Great (1:21).

Historical Errors

But within the cycle of stories we see a number of historical errors such that it has led many scholars to believe that the book of Daniel was not composed during the time period it describes. Let’s enumerate a few.

Jehoiakim and the Siege of Jerusalem

The Danielic story opens in the third year of Jehoiakim’s reign on the throne of Jerusalem around 606 BCE at which time Nebuchadrezzar brings the Babylonian army to the city and lays siege to it (1:1). Consequently, “[t]he Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into [Nebuchadrezzar’s] power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God” which he took back to Babylon (1:2). But there are a few problems with this sequence of events.

For starters, there was no siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar during Jehoiakim’s reign, let alone the third year of it. According to the Deuteronomistic Historian, it was during the reign of Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin that Nebuchadrezzar came and besieged the city (2 Kings 24:10-11). Jehoiachin, his family, and many others in Jerusalem were hauled off to Babylon as were both temple and palace treasures (24:13-16). Nebuchadrezzar places Jehoiachin’s uncle, Mattaniah, on the throne in Jerusalem and renames him “Zedekiah” (24:17). This all took place in the spring of 597 BCE.

In general terms, the report of the Deuteronomistic Historian is corroborated by Babylonian sources.

Year 7. The month Kislev. The king of Akkad [i.e. Nebuchadrezzar] mobilized his troops and marched to Hatti. He encamped against the city of Judah and in the month Adar, day 2, he captured the city; he seized the king. He appointed a king of his choice; he took its rich spoil and brought it into Babylon.8

Other Babylonian sources confirm that Jehoiachin and his children were provided for in their captivity.9

With regards to the first siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar, the author of Daniel is spectacularly wrong.

Belshazzar and Nebudchadrezzar

In Daniel 5:1 we read of another Neo-Babylonian king named Belshazzar who is described as the son of Nebuchadrezzar (cf. 5:11, 5:18, 5:22). Daniel suggests that because of his own pride, Nebuchadrezzar was “deposed from his kingly throne” and went insane (5:20-21), leaving Belshazzar to rule in his place. But this is problematic for a couple of reasons.

For starters, the Uruk King List makes it clear that Nebuchadrezzar’s successor was not Belshazzar but Amel-marduk, his son.10 And according to that list, there never was any king named Belshazzar. Nor was Belshazzar Nebuchadrezzar’s son; he wasn’t even related to him! Rather, Belshazzar appears to have been the son of Nabonidus, the final king of the Neo-Babylonian empire. While Nabonidus was away in the Arabian city of Tema, Belshazzar took control in his stead.11 But Belshazzar was not referred to as a “king” but as “the crown prince.”12 When Persian forces began to encroach upon Babylonian territory, Nabonidus returned to Babylon and relieved Belshazzar of his duties.

Darius the Mede

Also in Daniel 5 we read where at a feast Daniel tells Belshazzar that the kingdom would be taken from him and given to “the Medes and Persians” (5:28). That night Belshazzar is killed (5:30) and we are told that Darius the Mede takes over at the age of sixty-two (5:31). However, this simply doesn’t fall in line with the historical record.

The Chronicler notes that what Jeremiah had prophesied concerning the Babylonian exile (see Jeremiah 25:11-2; 29:10) was fulfilled in that the exile lasted for seventy years (2 Chronicles 36:20-21). That exile ended when the Persian empire took control of Babylon and its territories such that in the first year of Cyrus the people were authorized to return to Judah (36:22-23; cf. Ezra 1:1-4). So the portrait painted by the Chronicler and others is that Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great. This is in line with Babylonian sources which state that in the seventeenth year of Nabonidus’ reign over Babylon Cyrus attacked Babylonian forces at Opis, forcing them to retreat to the city of Babylon itself. Shortly thereafter, Cyrus enters Babylon, arrests Nabonidus, and appoints Gubaru as governor of the city.13 There is no mention of a “Darius the Mede” anywhere nor is there any indication that Cyrus was known as “Darius.” What is more is that we do know about Persian kings named Darius: Darius I also known as Darius the Great (522-486 BCE) and Darius II (423-404 BCE). And while Daniel 6:28 implies that Cyrus came after Darius’ reign, other biblical texts are aware of the correct chronological order of Persian kings (i.e. Ezra 4:5).

Dating Daniel 

Despite the attempts by various inerrantists to remedy these problem texts,14 these errors reveal that the cycle of stories probably does not date to the time of Daniel but is instead the product of a later era.15 But the cycle of stories is not the only thing to be found in the book of Daniel. As mentioned before, there is also a cycle of visions that makes up chapters seven through twelve. Can we date those?

In fact, we can. The eleventh chapter of Daniel contains a series of “prophecies” that make it very apparent that it was written during the second century BCE. They are an example of vaticinium ex eventu, a phenomenon whereby an author, writing after specific events, recounts them as if they are yet to happen.16 Daniel 11 is a textbook example of it.17

  • 11:2-4 describe the end of the Persian empire,18 the rise of Alexander the Great, and the aftermath of Alexander’s death (323 BCE) which caused his vast empire to become divided into four regions.
  • 11:5-6 describe the rise of Ptolemy I, “the king of the south,” as well as that of Seleucus I who rules in Syria. The “daughter of the king of the south” is Berenice whose father was Ptolemy II. She marries Antiochus II, the Seleucid king, in 252 BCE. However, she and the “offspring” she produces with Antiochus are killed in 246 BCE.
  • 11:7-9 describe how Ptolemy III, the brother of Berenice and the “branch from her roots” attacks the Seleucid kingdom (“the fortress of the king of the north”) and wins in 241 BCE. It also describes how Seleucus II (“the king of the north”) attempts to invade the Ptolemaic kingdom with mixed results.
  • 11:10-13 describe how Seleucus’ sons, Seleucus III and Antiochus III, continue to wage war which causes Ptolemy IV (“king of the south”) to respond in force. Ptolemy defeats Antiochus in 217 BCE but due to his pride his son, Ptolemy V, would face ultimate defeat at the hands of Antiochus in 198 BCE.
  • 11:14-19 describe how Jewish supporters (“[t]he lawless among your own people”) join forces with Antiochus to defeat the Ptolemaic forces. At the city of Paneas in 200 BCE Antiochus defeats Ptolemaic forces causing some of Ptolemy’s forces to flee to nearby cities, including Sidon, Jerusalem, and others. Antiochus then turns his attention on to other regions to conquer but is effectively cut down by Lucius Cornelius Scipio, a Roman general (“a commander”) in 187 BCE.
  • 11:20-28 describe how after the short-lived reign of Seleucus IV (“within a few days he shall be broken”) Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) takes the throne of the Seleucid kingdom by usurption (“obtain the kingdom through intrigue”). He kills the high priest Onias III (“prince of the covenant”) in 171 BCE. In 170 he invades Egypt successfully and on his way back to Syria he attacks Jerusalem (“his heart shall be set against the holy covenant”).
  • 11:29-35 describe how Antiochus attempts to invade the Seleucid kingdom again but is prevented by Roman emissaries (“ships of Kittim”). Following this Antiochus attacks Jerusalem in 168 BCE and his forces enter the temple, prohibit sacrifices to Yahweh, and “set up the abomination that makes desolate,” a reference to a foreign altar to a false deity (cf. 1 Maccabees 1:54). This results in the Maccabean revolt (“the people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action”).
  • 11:36-39 describe Antiochus’ terrible personality, in that he shows no respect for the true God or even his own ancestral gods.

In 11:40-12:13 we read material that is strictly prophetic in nature. That is to say, what follows is not something experienced by the author or in historical memory. This means that the writing of this and other visions in the cycle can be dated to around 168 BCE after Antiochus IV attacks Jerusalem in that year. This also means that the legendary material of the cycle of stories was probably combined with the cycle of visions sometime after 168.

Summary

Many of the so-called prophetic utterances in the book of Daniel are rooted in the historical circumstances around which the work was written and compiled. Various historical errors reveal that the cycle of stories was not written in the time period about which they describe and the very specific details of the vision of Daniel 11 gives us reason to believe that these texts originated in the second century BCE. This is important because it means that the prophecy of 9:24-27 is rooted in a specific historical circumstance and its interpretation depends on it. As we will see next time, 9:25-27 is another example of an ex eventu text.

NOTES

1 SJ Thomason, “Did Daniel the Prophet Accurately Predict the Timing of Jesus’ Death?” (11.18.18), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 21 November 2018.

2 For example, the author of Matthew’s Gospel explicitly quotes from the Hebrew Bible fourteen times (i.e. 1:22-23, 2:5-6, etc.) and makes numerous allusions to it.

3 SJ Thomason, “Is the Holy Trinity Found in the Old Testament?” (9.26.18), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 21 November 2018.

4 Amateur Exegete, “Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason, the Tabernacle, and the Trinity in the Old Testament” (9.30.18), amateurexegete.com. Accessed 21 November 2018.

5 DM Spence, “The Trinity IS NOT Found in the Old Testament” (10.8.18), dmspence.com. Accessed 21 November 2018.

6 She has, however, referred to me as a “drain on humanity.”

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7 The common spelling for the king of the Neo-Babylonian empire in the Hebrew scriptures is “Nebuchadnezzar.” However, unless quoting from the biblical texts themselves, I will use the more accurate rendering of Nebuchadrezzar.

8 “Chronicle of Nebuchadrezzar II, King of Babylon,” in Michael D. Coogan, A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts (OUP, 2013), 83.

9 “Administrative Text of Nebuchadrezzar II,” in Coogan (2013), 83.

10 Uruk King List,” livius.org. Accessed 26 November 2018.

11 Amanda H. Poday, The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2014), 121.

12 See “Chronicles of Nabonidus, King of Babylon,” in Coogan (2013), 83. See also Donald J. Wiseman, “Belshazzar,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (OUP, 1993), 77-78.

13 “Chronicles of Nabonidus, King of Babylon,” in Coogan (2013), 83-84.

14 For example, pop-apologists Josh and Sean McDowell devote an entire chapter in their recent edition of Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Thomas Nelson, 2017) dealing with some of the historical issues within the book of Daniel. Yet even they cannot escape the fact that their solutions are speculative:

Our survey of the critical claims about the historicity of the book of Daniel offers a brief series of possible solutions to the major objections made by critical scholars. In some cases, the best possible solutions are not concrete proofs that guarantee the validity of conservative, evangelical thought. (585)

15 Douglas A. Knight and Amy Jill-Levine note that the cycle of stories dates either to the Persian era (539-331 BCE) or the Hellenistic era (331-168 BCE). They write,

Chapters 2:4b-7:28 are written in Aramaic, the common language of Southwestern Asia from the Babylonian exile until the incursion of Hellenism; chapters 1, 8-12 are in Hebrew, which was experiencing a renaissance in the late second century. (Knight and Jill-Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us [HarperOne, 2011], 384.)

16 This phenomenon is found in various places throughout the Old and New Testaments. For example, in the Gospel of Luke we read of a siege against Jerusalem that results in the destruction of the city (Luke 19:43-44). This passage and others make sense if they were written after the events of 70 CE when Luke is writing to his community.

17 See Lawrence M. Wills, “The Lead Up to Chanukah in the Book of Daniel” (12.6.15), thetorah.com. Accessed 27 November 2018. See also Leonard J. Greenspoon, “Between Alexandria and Antioch: Jews and Judaism in the Hellenistic Period,” in Michael D. Coogan, editor, The Oxford History of the Biblical World (OUP, 1998), 317-351.

18 Though the claim that “three more kings shall arise in Persia” and a fourth would stir up trouble with Greece is problematic. Considering Daniel purportedly served under Cyrus (Daniel 6:29), there were far more than four kings who reigned over the Persian empire after him. It is possible that the author was not up to speed on his Persian history.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 1

Yesterday I posted a lengthy but necessary rebuttal to pop-apologist Heather Schuldt’s bewildering piece on the Documentary Hypothesis. As I was poking around on her blog I noticed she had recently written another piece, this time attacking New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, entitled “5 Examples Why Bart Ehrman Is Not a Gospel Expert.It is in many ways as bewildering as her post on the Documentary Hypothesis.

Schuldt’s post focuses on five areas where she believes Ehrman is wrong regarding the Gospel accounts.

  • The dating of the Gospel accounts.
  • The authorship of the Gospel accounts.
  • The passing on of oral reports.
  • The date of Jesus’ death.
  • The time of Jesus’ crucifixion.

As we will show in this post and the posts to come, Schuldt is hopelessly confused about so many things and it demonstrates just how little she knows about the New Testament generally and the Gospel accounts specifically. And since there is a lot of ground to cover, today we will cover only the dating of the Synoptic Gospels (and related issues).

DATING THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS

Schuldt alludes to but does not provide a link to a video wherein Ehrman discusses some of the aforementioned issues about which Schuldt thinks he is wrong. I have no interest in trying to track that video down and we don’t need to do so to assess Schuldt’s views on those issues. So let’s begin by quoting Schuldt and then offer some commentary.

She writes,

Ehrman claimed that the (publication) dates of the gospels are a problem. No, the publication dates and writing dates are not a problem. The early dating of the four gospels add credibility and reliability to the text so much so that we can be certain that God preserved the original texts.

What Schuldt is discussing is the fact that the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars think the Gospels were written long after Jesus lived. There are a variety of reasons for thinking this which we will get into shortly. It suffices to say that when Schuldt claims that there is “early dating” for the four Gospels and that this “add[s] credibility and reliability to the text so much that we can be certain that God preserved the original texts” she is speaking out of turn. But let’s see if she can defend her position. She offers three arguments to rebut Ehrman.

“Qualified Writers”

The first argument Schuldt marshals has to do with the period in which she believes the Gospels were written. She writes,

First, can Ehrman bring more value to the fact that the publication process and writing process was vastly different back then? He completely overlooks the entire writing process that took place from 30 AD-70 AD. While qualified writers at that time were able to use certain materials to write down specific texts, the serious nature of some Jewish priests hating Jesus, being jealous of Jesus, and calling for his death made the writing process even more protective. It is quite amazing that the four gospels survived at all under terrible authority figures. Ehrman cannot expect to apply a writing process and a publication process from 2018 to a time so long ago. I would expect that the original was significantly protected, and the task of reproducing the original was also significantly protected, both tasks which are completely ignored by Ehrman.

It is difficult to assess Schuldt’s claim given she hasn’t provided context in the form of a link to the video. But nevertheless, we can examine this poorly worded paragraph.

For starters, to what is Schuldt referring when she speaks of “qualified writers”? What does that even mean? The ability to read in ancient times did not entail the ability to write and literacy rates in first century Palestine have been estimated at anywhere from just three percent of the population to ten percent.2 Among Palestinian Jews, learning to read was for the most part a wholly unnecessary exercise unless one planned to become a scribe or a priest as on the sabbath the Torah was read aloud for the benefit of the illiterate.3 In first century Palestine, the lingua franca of the common people was Aramaic, a language related to but distinct from Hebrew, and so Jesus himself as well as his earliest followers would have spoken Aramaic. This is attested to in the Gospels themselves (i.e. Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 11:9-10; 14:36; 15:22, 34, 42). And therein lies the problem: the Gospels weren’t written in Aramaic but Greek. This means that whoever wrote the Gospels had to have been educated since they wrote fairly decent Greek.

This is a problem for Schuldt since we have no indication that the disciples were multilingual or even educated. Take the Gospel of John, for example. Tradition ascribes its writing to the disciple John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee. But what was John doing before he was called by Jesus to become his disciple? He was a fisherman! (Mark 1:18-20) He wasn’t a priest and he wasn’t a scribe. He caught fish for a living, an activity that required no ability to read or write Aramaic, let alone Greek. Furthermore, in the book of Acts the author tells us that both Peter and John “were uneducated and ordinary men” (Acts 4:13). And yet John’s Gospel is written in Greek. Ehrman observes,

Did the apostles go back to school after Jesus died, overcome years of illiteracy by learning how to read and write at a relatively high level, become skilled in foreign composition, and then later pen the Gospels? Most scholars consider it somewhat unlikely.4 

Schuldt is clearly confused on the authorship of the Gospels and the time period in which they were written.

Schuldt also discusses the survival of the New Testament Gospels but I have no idea why that is even important. It is unlikely any of the Gospels were written in Jerusalem where the Jewish religious authorities held the most sway. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest there was widespread persecution of Christians such that they sought to destroy Christian literature. Schuldt would need to provide evidential support if she wants to claim there was such a threat and that it did occur.

Confused on Q

Next Schuldt says in response to Ehrman,

Second, not only have the four gospels been dated to the lifetime of the author, biblical experts suggest that a fifth document most likely did exist, a document they often refer to as the Q document, which part of it may very well have been written during the life of Jesus, for example, soon after an event, sermon, or conversation occurred. Ehrman may be a leading expert in applying criticism to a text, but he is most definitely not a leading gospel expert by any means. He is not a biblical expert at all.

Let’s begin with the very first sentence. Schuldt presupposes without any warrant whatsoever that the Gospels were written by those men to which tradition ascribes them. She has made no case to support this.

More interesting is her comments on Q, the so-called “Sayings Source.” The great irony here is that she says that Ehrman is “not a biblical expert at all” and yet she exhibits absolutely zero understanding of what the Q source is or why scholars propose its existence. Let me explain.

Scholars have long noticed that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar. They tell many of the same stories and often in the same order. This is why they are referred to as the “Synoptic” Gospels. Early Christians believed that the first of the four Gospels to have been written was Matthew’s and that Mark and Luke wrote after Matthew’s Gospel had been circulated. Some believed that Mark utilized Matthew in his writing and was abbreviating his work. They also believed that Luke was using both Matthew and Mark to compose his narrative.5 This view on the order in which these books had been written as well as their literary relationship to one another held sway until the nineteenth century, at which time there was a shift away from Matthean priority (i.e. Matthew wrote first) to Markan priority (i.e. Mark wrote first).

With the reasonable assumption of Markan priority, scholars could see which passages were clearly Markan and which passages were not. For example, in Mark’s Gospel we read of the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4-8) which both Matthew (Matthew 3:4-6) and Luke (Luke 3:1-6) describe. However, both Matthew and Luke contain wording that didn’t come from Mark’s Gospel, specifically in Matthew 3:7-12 and Luke 3:7-9, 16-17. So where did these words come from if not from Mark? Well, their similarity led many scholars to suggest that a no longer extant source known as Q (German, Quelle – “source”) must have existed from which both Matthew and Luke got this bit of information. This source may have been one of the earliest written sources about Jesus to have been produced by early Christians, perhaps around 40 to 65 CE.6 

The existence of Q is held by the majority of New Testament scholars today though it has been contested.7 Regardless, the purpose of Q was to account for passages not found in Mark but found in Matthew and Luke and this leads to a huge problem for Schuldt. The existence of Q is tied to the notion of Markan priority. Markan priority entails that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources in composing their narratives. But why would Matthew – an actual disciple of Jesus – need to use any source, especially Mark’s who wasn’t even a disciple? If Matthew was an eyewitness then there would have been no need to utilize Mark (let alone Q) as his source! Schuldt then has undermined the very position she was trying to promote!

And she says Ehrman isn’t an expert.

The Destruction of the Temple

Schuldt moves on to an area that is frequently discussed when dating the Synoptic Gospels: the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE. She writes,

Third, since there is no mention of the temple being destroyed in 70 AD, we have yet another clue as to the early dating of the gospels, placed before 70 AD, because at least one of the authors, if not all of the authors, would have included the major historical event in the New Testament texts.

The is an odd way to argue for the “early dating” of the Gospel accounts. The stories we read in the four Gospels are set in the historical context of Jesus’ day and since Jesus died forty years before the destruction of the temple it would have made no sense for them to mention its destruction explicitly. It would be like an author writing about the life of someone living in the Antebellum South but also throwing in explicit references to the battle of Gettysburg. It makes no sense to do that.

The Olivet Discourse and Dating Mark’s Gospel

So what does the destruction of the temple have to do with the dating of the Gospels? It largely has to do with the words of Jesus in what is commonly referred to as the “Olivet Discourse.” This discourse is found in Mark 13:1-37 (cf. Matthew 24:1-44; Luke 21:5-33). Jesus has just left the temple for the last time and as they are exiting the grounds one of his disciples points out the buildings of the temple complex: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1) To this Jesus responds with an ominous warning: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13:2). In other words, the temple’s days are numbered. Jesus and the disciples then make their way to the Mount of Olives across from the temple where the disciples Peter, James, John, and Andrew inquire further: “Tell us, when will this [i.e. the destruction of the Temple] be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:3-4) Jesus then begins to explain what will take place before the temple’s destruction.

It is clear from Mark’s Gospel that the destruction of the temple is tied to “the end” (13:7), a term that implies the consummation of human history. In the context of Mark 13, the destruction of the temple is tied to the appearance of the Son of Man (13:24-27). And when will this all happen? According to Jesus, “[T]his generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (13:30). He even tells the religious authorities that they “‘will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven'” (14:62). In other words, the destruction of the temple and the end of the age is coming very soon. In fact, it would take place within a generation.

So what does this have to do with dating Mark’s Gospel? The language he uses seems to suggest that he is writing sometime during the Jewish War (66-73 CE). Because while Mark ties the destruction of the temple to the end of human history, he is careful to not make them synonymous. So there would be “wars and rumors of wars” (i.e. the Jewish War) but despite it and the ensuing destruction, “the end is still to come” (13:7). And “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” and there would be earthquakes and famines but these are only “the beginning of the birth pangs” (13:8). So then Mark is living in a time period wherein Rome has either begun to wage war against Jerusalem itself and destroyed the temple or not long after the destruction of the city and temple. Using Jesus’ metaphor of birth pangs, the labor has begun (i.e. conflicts) but the baby (i.e. the coming of the Son of Man) has not yet been born. This is one of the reasons that scholars date the Gospel of Mark to sometime around 70 CE.

Dating Matthew and Luke

The dating of Matthew and Luke is less complicated given Markan priority since they must have appeared after Mark had been written. Therefore the two Gospels are generally dated to sometime in the 70s or 80s CE. (though later dates for Luke have been proposed well into the second century). Therefore, these accounts were written after the destruction of the temple, rendering Schuldt’s point moot. But are there internal grounds upon which we can make that determination?

Within Matthew’s Gospel there are various hints that the text was written after the temple’s destruction. Recall that in Mark’s Gospel the disciples ask Jesus to tell them when the temple’s destruction would take place and what would be the signs it was about to happen. But in Matthew (Matthew 24:3) the disciples ask two distinct questions: “Tell us, when will this be [i.e. the destruction of the temple], and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Thus Matthew has made the issue of the temple’s destruction and the end of the age separate (though related) issues whereas Mark had intertwined the two. Furthermore, Matthew seems to allude to the destruction of Jerusalem in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:41) and the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (22:7).

Luke is far more explicit in his allusions to the destruction of Jerusalem. In his version of the Olivet Discourse, Luke discusses “wars and insurrections” instead of the Markan “wars and rumors of wars,” a nod to the Jewish War that was an insurrection against Rome (Luke 21:9). He also changes Mark’s reference to the “desolating sacrifice [to bdelygma tēs erēmōseōs]” that would be “set up where it ought not be” (Mark 13:14) to a desolating army: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation [hē erēmōsis autēs] has come near” (Luke 21:20). This reference to a siege makes sense if Luke had been writing after the fall of Jerusalem. Previous to this, following his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus weeps over the city and makes this ominous “prediction”:

Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God (Luke 19:43-44).

These are clearly very specific references to siege warfare that only make sense if Luke’s Gospel had been written after the destruction of Jerusalem.

Summary

As we’ve seen, Schuldt makes fundamental errors regarding Gospel authorship as it pertains to literacy and the disciples of Jesus who she believes wrote those Gospels. She has also misunderstood the Q source and undermines her own position on Gospel authorship in her discussion of Q, and, finally, she has misunderstood the issues surrounding the dating of the Synoptic Gospels and the relevance of the destruction of the temple.

How Schuldt ever came to the conclusion she was able to judge Ehrman’s expertise is a mystery to me.

NOTES

1Heather M. Schuldt, “5 Examples Why Bart Ehrman Is Not a Gospel Expert” (10.17.18), Ladyapologist.com. Accessed 2 Nov 2018.

2L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), 95.

3Paula Frederiksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (Vintage Books, 1999), 61.

4Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 93.

5For more, see my video “The Synoptic Problem: The Augustinian Hypothesis.”

6See the discussion on dating Q in Gerd Theissen, The New Testament: A Literary History (Fortress Press, 2012), 36-37.

7A recent episode of the fantastic podcast New Testament Review featured an episode discussing the work of Austin Farrar, a New Testament scholar who found the Q hypothesis to be unnecessary. Listen to it here.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Bart D. Ehrman: Defining “Greco-Roman Biography”

Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 99-100.

If I were to attempt a definition of the Greco-Roman biography, then, it might be something like this: ancient biography was a prose narrative recounting an individual’s life, often with a chronological framework, employing numerous subgenres (such as sayings, speeches, anecdotes, and conflict stories) so as to reflect important aspects of his or her character, principally for purposes of instruction (to inform about what kind of person he or she was), exhortation (to urge others to act similarly) or propaganda (to show his or her superiority to rivals).

Michael D. Coogan: The Quest for Historicity of the Patriarchs

Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, third edition (OUP, 2014), 89.

The further removed biblical writers are from the events they describe, the less secure are modern scholars’ attempts to determine whether these events actually happened. With regard to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and his family, we are for the most part in the realm of legend, and it is extremely difficult to determine if any of the traditions concerning them in Genesis 12-50 have a historical basis. An analogy from British history is King Arthur, who may have been an actual historical figure, but the repeatedly retold legends about him are our only sources, making historical judgments difficult.

The quest for historicity is complicated by several factors. First, biblical chronology for this period is unreliable; note especially the long life spans attributed to the ancestors. Second, because so many stages of composition and editing have shaped the narratives, they often contain anachronistic details, since each generation of storytellers, writers, and editors added elements from their own times. Third, because of the use of different sources in the final form of the narrative, many inconsistencies are found.

Bart D. Ehrman: What Are the Gospels?

Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 97.

What kind of literature is a Gospel? Or, to put it somewhat differently, when ancient persons read or heard one of these books, what kinds of expectations did they have? Until recently, modern scholars generally agreed that the New Testament Gospels were unlike anything else in all of literature, that they were an entirely new genre invented by the Christians and represented by only four surviving works. The Gospels were obviously about the man Jesus and thus were somewhat like biographies, but compared to modern biographies they appeared altogether anomalous.

In one respect, this older view seems reasonable; as we will see in some detail momentarily, the Gospels do indeed differ from modern biographies. Scholars have nonetheless come to reject the idea that they are totally unlike anything else. There is probably no such thing as a kind of literature that is absolutely unique; if there were, no one would have any idea how to read it or know what to make of it. If people in antiquity could read the Gospels and make sense of them, then we have to assume that these books were not in fact completely foreign to them.

The question of how people in antiquity would understand a book should itself give us pause. While it may be true that the Gospels differ from modern genres like biography, they may not have differed from ancient genres. In fact, scholars of ancient literature have found significant parallels between the Gospels and several ancient genres. Some of these investigations have plausibly suggested that the Gospels are best seen as a kind of Greco-Roman (as opposed to modern) biography.