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The Infant Jesus in Art: Is He Jewish?

My wife is an art historian (specializing in 19th century British sculpture), so I’ve come to look more closely at art, and one of the things I’ve noticed in the many paintings of the infant/child Jesus is that he’s usually depicted as uncircumcised.

One is able to consider such a topic because the many paintings of the infant/child Jesus typically show him nude or semi-nude, with his pudenda showing quite deliberately.  Now it may seem odd to be focused on the matter of the depiction of Jesus’ pudenda, but one would expect artists to have known that Jesus is Jewish!  And so, as with Jewish male infants, was circumcised on the eighth day.  One could expect artists, therefore, to reflect that in depictions of Jesus (typically with his mother, and often with the child John the Baptizer).  But, so far as I can tell, this isn’t typically the case.

So, how are we to take this?  Were the artists unfamiliar with what circumcised male infants look like?  Or was this deliberate?  Were they trying to avoid depicting Jesus as a Jewish male?  The artists are all long dead, of course, so we can’t inquire of them.  And I don’t know that they left any notes.  I also don’t know if my observation about the matter has been noticed and commented on by analysts of the art in question. But, with an interest in such historical matters, I was struck by this.

Comments by qualified art historians welcome.

“Scribal” Changes?Or Readers’ Changes?

Reviewing Pardee’s otherwise excellent new book about “scribal harmonizations” in the Synoptic Gospels (here) led me again to think about the terms that we use in studying variant readings in texts.  In particular, Pardee, along with many other NT textual critics (including myself in earlier years), refers to changes as made by “scribes”.  Indeed, it appears that this is done without thinking much about it.  But I believe that we should give the matter more thought.

In an earlier posting (here), I commented on the topic, and I refer readers to that posting.  Essentially, the act of reading and studying a text is not the same thing as copying that text.  To be sure, the actions might be combined in a given individual.  For example, when someone copies out a text for one’s own study, he/she might take the time to ponder the text as he/she copies it, and so might well make conscious changes to clarify the text or to correct what he/she may regard as mistaken readings.  But in many (most?) other instances the person copying a text is responsible simply for doing that.  Indeed, taking time to study the text would hold up the copying process.

I’m persuaded that a good many variants, especially major ones that seem to have been deliberate changes, were more likely introduced into the textual tradition by serious readers of the texts in question, not in the process of copying them.  In my earlier posting I referred to other scholars of the same opinion.  With the papyrologist, Peter Parsons, therefore, I refer now to “copyists” rather than “scribes,” to designate those individuals who copied texts.  And I distinguish the process of copying texts from the activities of readers and students of those texts.  The activities are distinguishable, even if in some cases they are combined in a given person.

“Scribal Harmonization”: A New Study

I commend a newly-published study of what is called “harmonization” of texts of the Gospels:  Cambry G. Pardee, Scribal Harmonization in the Synoptic Gospels, NTTSD, 60 (Leiden: Brill, 2019).  I have just completed a larger review for Review of Biblical Literature which won’t appear till November this year, but the book deserves to be noticed sooner than that!

“Harmonization” is a term commonly used to refer to the influence of the wording of one Gospel upon the wording of another.  We could also refer to the “influence” of the text of one Gospel upon another.  There are various questions involved.  For example:  How frequent is this phenomenon?  Was it systematic or sporadic?  Was it more characteristic of the earliest period or not?  What did it involve, and how much textual material was changed?

Pardee does an excellent job of analysis of the evidence and produces persuasive general conclusions.  He surveys all the Greek manuscript evidence from the first four centuries AD.  He classifies the types of variants produced.  He judges the comparative degrees of likelihood that any given variant is an instance of harmonization to another passage.  He compares the frequency and nature of such variants in each manuscript studied (37 of them) from the first four centuries.

Among his conclusions are these.  Harmonization of one Gospel passage to a parallel in another Gospel is actually not very frequent.  According to the data that Pardee marshals here, about 5% of the 7,405 verses of the manuscripts studied reflect harmonization, meaning that about 95% are free from it.  Moreover, the overwhelming number of variants involving harmonization amount to one or two words, and scarcely ever affect the meaning of the passage.  There is no indication of any programmatic effort to create variants to promote this or that doctrinal stance.  There is no discernible difference in the frequency or extent of harmonization across the period studies.  That is, manuscripts of the second and third century reflect no more harmonization that manuscripts of the fourth century (when we would expect there to have been greater ecclesiastical control of copying).

Furthermore, the frequency of harmonization varies with the copyist/scribe.  Some manuscripts, such as P75 and Vaticanus, show very little harmonization-variants, whereas others, such as P45 and Sinaiticus, show noticeably more such variants.  Even in the case of those manuscripts that exhibit comparatively more such variants, there is no indication of any systematic or consistent effort to align the text of one Gospel with another.  Instead, Pardee contends, all but a very few variants were created unconsciously.  Familiarity with the wording of a passage from one Gospel (e.g., Matthew) influenced the copying of a parallel passage in another Gospel (e.g., Mark).

The Gospel of Matthew exerted the greatest influence upon the other Synoptic Gospels.  But Pardee contends that there is evidence also of the influence of Mark and Luke.  This is particularly interesting.  For, despite the indications that Mark was copied and circulated less frequently than the other Gospels, it seems to have been known and so in some cases influenced the copying of a parallel text in other Gospels.

This book is a valuable contribution to our view of how the text of the Gospels was transmitted in the earliest centuries.   Overall, the impression is one of relatively stable transmission of the Gospels.  Unfortunately, the price ($192) will mean that it will be acquired largely by libraries.  But any library serving research in Christian origins should acquire it.

New Book on Eusebius’ Canon Tables

Matthew Crawford informs me that his book on the Eusebian canon tables and their significance has just appeared:  The Eusebian Canon Tables:  Ordering Textual Knowledge in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2019), the publisher’s description here.

Eusebius (d. ca. 340 AD) was the author of several major works, the most widely used and known being his Ecclesiastical History, which charts Christianity from its beginnings to his own time.  He appears to have thought that Constantine’s legalization of Christianity was practically the arrival of the kingdom of God (a bit of a misjudgement there!).  But he preserves for us large quotations of texts otherwise lost.

In the study of the Gospels, his great contribution was devising what are called his “canon tables.”   Essentially, he went through the texts of the four Gospels, identifying material that he regarded as paralleled in all four, any three or two, and material unique to each.  Then, he created lists, “tables” of such material, each list/table given a Latin number, and the units of text within each table given a number.  Users of the Nestle-Aland Greek NT will note these canon and section numbers in the margins of the Gospels, and the tables themselves are given in the introductory material.

It was a big task, and it facilitated the comparative study of the Gospels greatly.  Unlike the Gospels synopses or harmonies, which involved the necessity of using such a tool in place of the texts of the Gospels, Eusebius’ tables allowed for detailed comparison without rearranging the texts.

Chapter two of Crawford’s book is a revised and enlarged version of his article referred to in my previous post yesterday (here).

Early Christian Scholars/Scholarship: Ammonius, Origen, and Eusebius

In a number of publications over the last several years, scholars have drawn attention to the ground-breaking work of several early scholars who date from the late second through the early fourth centuries AD.  In particular, the massive and innovative projects of Origen (ca. 184-253 AD) are noteworthy (see, e.g., the lengthy entry on him in Wikepedia here).

Origen’s most famous project is perhaps his “Hexapla”, which was a multi-columned arrangement of the Old Testament writings, a work that perhaps comprised 40 codices of about 400 folios each.  But his total literary output is simply astonishing.

The review of Origen’s works in the valuable catalogue by Moreschini and Norelli takes up a chapter on its own.[1] Drawing on the rich tradition of Alexandrian textual scholarship, Origen then created works that were innovative and took the physical form of such scholarship still further.  In particular, Origen developed the use of the codex bookform in remarkable ways to enable the layout of the material in the Hexapla.[2]

In a recent journal article, Matthew Crawford lays out a case that Origen also drew upon a now-lost work by an Ammonius of Alexandria, who may also have been a teacher of Origen at one time.[3]  Crawford posits that this Ammonius (not Ammonius Saccas) was a Peripatetic-trained scholar who likely became a Christian, and produced an early Gospels synopsis, arranging texts from the four Gospels in columns with Matthew as the standard.  If accepted, Crawford’s argument means that a serious tradition of Gospels scholarship emerged in Alexandria at least as early as the late second century AD.

At about the same time or earlier, there was also Justin Martyr, teaching in Rome, and likely making use of scholarly tools such as a Gospels harmony or synopsis.[4]  So, a growing tradition of Christian scholarship was beginning to flourish across the second and third centuries AD.  This included a number of Christian “apologists” who wrote defences of Christianity, often addressed to the Emperor and elite members of Roman society.[5]

All across this period, in addition to this industrious literary output, there was a vigorous intellectual engagement with the larger philosophical environment.  Indeed, Eric Osborn argued that the vigor of Christian scholarly work of this period was a major factor in the ensuing “success” of Christianity.[6]  Given the status of Christianity at the time, often attacked and at times under persecution by the state, this effort is all the more remarkable.  There was no effort to hide.  Instead, there was this open and aggressive effort to present Christian faith and make it credible in the intellectual world of the time.

[1] Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli, Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature:  A Literary History, Trans. Matthew JU. O’Connell (2 vols., Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 2005), 1:268-303.

[2] See, e.g., the discussion of Origen’s work by Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book:  Origen, Eusebius and the Library of Caesarea (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006).

[3] Matthew R. Crawford, “Ammonius of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, and the Origins of Gospels Scholarship,” New Testament Studies 61.1 (2015): 1-29.

[4] See, e.g., the papers from the conference on Justin held in Edinburgh:  Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, eds., Justin Martyr and His Worlds (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), and L. W. Barnard, Justin Martyr:  His Life and Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967); Paul Parvis, “Justin Martyr,” Expository Times 120.2 (2008): 53-61.

[5] R. M. Grant, “Five Apologists and Marcus Aurelius,” Vigiliae Christianae 42 (1988): 1-17.

[6] Eric Osborn, The Emergence of Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), and earlier Eric Osborn, The Beginning of Christian Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).



The Use of “Scriptures” in NT References to Jesus’ Death

David Allen’s recent study of the appropriation and influence of OT texts on NT references to Jesus’ death is very much worth noting:  According to the Scriptures:  The Death of Christ in the Old Testament and the New (SCM Press, 2018).  I’ve just finished a short review of the book for Expository Times, and I can commend it.

The study shows impressive acquaintance with scholarly studies (and includes a sixteen-page bibliography).  The discussion is detailed and Allen threads his way carefully through the often difficult exegetical issues that result from the often indirect and allusive use and sometimes novel appropriation of OT texts.

Allen examines the treatment of Jesus’ death in the four Gospels (and Acts), Paul, Hebrews, and 1 Peter.  Recommended.

Heilig’s Paul & Empire Book in “Open Access”

In an earlier posting I mentioned Christoph Heilig’s book assessing claims about Paul’s stance vis-a-vis the Roman imperial regime (here).  He has just notified me that the book is now available “open access”, i.e., free to read.  See his note about the matter here.


Review: Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion

I note with appreciation James McGrath’s newly-published review of my collection of essays, Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion (Baylor University Press, 2018), in Review of Biblical Literature here.

As I’ve sometimes complained about reviews of my books that seemed to me unfair or inaccurate, it’s such a pleasure to acknowledge McGrath’s review.  It’s irenic, accurate, and also appreciative.  In return, I appreciate the care with which it is written.

Even Higher Christology in the Gospel of John: Frey’s Edinburgh Essay

Another of the stimulating essays given in the recent colloquium in Edinburgh is by Jörg Frey, “Between Jewish Monotheism and Proto-Trinitarian Relations:  The Making and Character of Johannine Christology.”  I can’t do justice to this rich and thought-packed discussion, so I will simply try to indicate some of his major points here.  The essay and others from the colloquium are to be published in due course in a multi-author volume.

Frey (Professor of NT, University of Zürich) is today one of the leading NT scholars, and more specifically one of the most productive scholars on the Gospel of John.  Those concerned with the Gospel of John must really give Frey’s works their attention.  Fortunately for English-speaking readers, there are now a couple of volumes of his available in English:  The Glory of the Crucified One: Christology and Theology in the Gospel of John, trans. Wayne Coppins and Christoph Heilig (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018); and Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel: Tradition and Narration (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018).

In the essay under review here, Frey contends that the Gospel of John reflects significant development in christology beyond what we see in earlier texts such as Paul’s letters.  In particular, Frey points to the Johannine reference to Jesus as “Theos” (e.g., John 1:1; 20:28).  Also, Frey posits that distinctively in the Gospel of John Jesus, the Logos, “clearly belongs to the realm of the creator, uncreated.  He is divine in the sense that he is uncreated.”

Nevertheless, Frey insists that this development proceeded from earlier christological claims, not from some “foreign” influence.  In particular, Frey considers the similarities to, and differences from, Jewish Wisdom speculation, and also Philo’s Logos notions.  One crucial distinction is that in the Gospel of John the Logos becomes “incarnate,” fully and authentically (indeed, irreversibly) a human being.  This same point makes for an even stronger distinction from all forms of Stoic and Middle Platonist thought about a Logos or other intermediary figure.

Frey also discusses the Johannine emphasis on the Spirit-Paraclete, rightly observing that in John there is a quite noticeably personalized role and status given to the Spirit.  So, in Frey’s judgement, the Gospel of John presents what can be seen in retrospect as a “proto-Trinitarian” theology in which “the Father,” “the Son,” and “the Spirit” are presented in a more vividly personal union.  Another aspect of Frey’s discussion is how the Gospel of John reflects the “post-resurrection” revelatory work of the Spirit, which the author of John has self-consciously drawn upon in the narrative, especially in the distinctive ways that the Jesus of John speaks about himself.

The central question that Frey weighs, however, is whether this Johannine development in christology (in which Jesus is treated as explicitly divine as well as human) represents a departure from Jewish tradition, or is, instead, a distinctive variant form of Jewish tradition.  In this question, he expresses agreement with the conclusions of an earlier colloquium on Johannine Christology, that it should be seen as “a variant of first-century Jewish messianism,” and not as “a document that marked the parting of the ways.”[i]

I take issue with this fine essay on only a couple of matters.  Most importantly, I dissent from Frey’s too-easy acceptance that the actions that placed Jesus so central in the cultic and devotional life of earliest Jesus-circles are paralleled at all in the Enoch material, and so are not as significant as I have claimed.[ii]  When judged in historical context, the dyadic devotional pattern already presupposed in Paul’s letters is a remarkable development that has no true precedent or parallel, and surely places the risen Jesus alongside God in a distinctive manner.

But, to be sure, the Gospel of John certainly is distinctive (especially among the Gospels) in the explicit and even occasionally combative ways that Jesus’ divine status is articulated.  The application of the term “theos” to Jesus is one obvious example.  Moreover, Frey rightly observes that the Gospel of John was particularly important in later debates about the relationship of “the Son” and “the Father,” and, although John doesn’t reflect the philosophical questions and categories of the third and fourth centuries, John does reflect the issues and tensions that later christological discussion sought to address.

[i] The papers from that colloquium are now published:  Benjamin Reynolds and Gabriele Boccaccini, ed., Reading the Gospel of John’s Christology as Jewish Messianism:  Royal, Prophetic and Divine Messiahs (Leiden: Brill, 2018), citing here the Preface, ix-x.

[ii] See, e.g., my reservations stated in the conclusion to my essay, Larry W. Hurtado, “Paul’s Messianic Christology,” in Paul the Jew:  Rereading the Apostle As a Figure of Second Temple Judaism, ed. Gabrielle Boccaccini and Carlos A. Segovia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 107-3.  The pre-publication version is available on this blog site here.


New Volume on “Digital Humanities” and Ancient Manuscripts

A multi-author volume on “digital humanities” and ancient manuscripts has appeared:  David Hamidović, Claire Clivaz and Sarah Bowen Savant, ed., Ancient Manuscripts in Digital Culture: Visualisation, Data Mining, Communication, DBS 3 (Leiden: Brill, 2019).   The further good news is that it is published “open access” and so available online here.

“Digital humanities” refers to the use of computer-related technology in the conduct of scholarly work in traditional Humanities subjects.  In this case, we’re looking at the use of this technology in the study of ancient manuscripts.

Of the many interesting articles in the volume, I cite two in particular:

H.A.G. Houghton, “Electronic Transcriptions of New Testament Manuscripts and Their Accuracy, Documentation and Publication,” reviews the use of transcription of NT manuscripts in the work of NT textual criticism, and proposes areas for improvement.  The download link is here.

James F. McGrath, “Learning from Jesus’ Wife:  What does Forgery Have to Do with the Digital Humanities?” cites the process by which the initial claims for the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment were assessed and shown to be false, noting that various individuals and types of expertise were involved, including, crucially, investigative journalism.  He also explores briefly how digital technology might be used in the future both to create further forgeries and to detect them.  But also he notes how technology might be used in the near future in acquainting students with manuscripts and other artifacts.  The download link for his article is here.

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