Monday, September 14, 2015

There is hope, but not for us

There are stock arguments for the traditional authorship and dating of NT books like the Gospels, James, and Revelation. I think these are good arguments. But I'd like to explore a neglected line of evidence.

Moderate to liberal scholars typically date the Synoptic Gospels (esp. Matthew and Luke) to after the Jewish War (c. 67-73). I think that's easier to say if you're not a Jew who lived through the Jewish War. 

Admittedly, there's a sense in which that disqualifies me as well. But this is less about being Jewish or having a particular experience, then cultivating an awareness of the relevant sensibilities. 

Let's take a comparison. George Steiner and Edmund Wilson are both great literary critics. Steiner regards Kafka as a major writer, whereas Wilson regards him as overrated and ephemeral. Why the difference?

Simply put: Steiner is Jewish and Wilson is Gentile. Steiner is reading a Jewish author through Jewish eyes. He sees Kafka as a prescient allegory of the Shoah.

That's magnified by the fact that Steiner is, himself, haunted by the Shoah. His father had the wisdom to get his immediate family out of Dodge, but he couldn't save his extended family. He wrote them pleading letters. They ignored the threat and perished in the death camps. Steiner has the psychology of a Holocaust survivor (whether or not he meets the technical definition, which is disputed). 

By contrast, Wilson just doesn't get Kafka. He can't. Kafka doesn't speak to him at that level. It's too alien to his own experience. He has a waspish, patrician background. Hobnobbed with F. Scott Fitzgerald. He has no ear for Kafka. I don't necessarily say that as a criticism. It's not as if I can directly relate to Kafka's experience either. 

Let's draw another distinction. When people look back on their youth and childhood, there's often a sense of loss–assuming they had a happy childhood. But that can take either one two very different forms:

i) They may wax nostalgic about the past. Take writers like Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer) and Ray Bradbury (Dandelion Wine). Although that's tinged with a sense of regret, because it's irrecoverable, the loss was natural and gradual.

ii) But then you have writers whose happy youth or childhood was torn from their arms. Prematurely ripped away. Take Giorgio Bassani. His novels are set in pre-war Ferrera. And they reflect that place and period. They reflect his actual experience, making allowance for artistic license. 

Yet they are told with a view to the Shoah. Although the historical setting is prospective, the narrative viewpoint is retrospective, as a chain of events leads inexorably to the abyss. 

This is Holocaust literature. And it has Biblical precedent in exilic literature (e.g. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Lamentations). In Jeremiah you have escalating despair as he foresees his people doomed by their own obduracy. What makes it so maddening is the self-fulling nature of their fate. They bring it upon themselves by their defiance. Ezekiel oscillates between elation and bitter rage.  And Lamentations gives voice to the unspeakable. 

Now, the Jewish War was an event similar in significance to the Holocaust and the Babylonian Exile. Even for Jews outside Palestine, Jerusalem was the epicenter of Judaism. It's hard to overstate the psychological impact that would have on survivors. There's medical evidence that children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors suffer from transgenerational trauma. And you'd have the same dynamic for analogous events. 

And that's a basic problem with the post-70 date for Matthew. If it was written after that cataclysm, why does it not read like Lamentations, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel? Although ostensively set in the time of Jesus, we'd expect the calamity of the Jewish War to cast a long backward shadow, just as we find in exilic literature and Holocaust literature. That's assuming it was, in fact, written after 70 AD. 

But Matthew doesn't begin to have the emotional register of someone who wrote from that harrowing vantagepoint. Yes, there are storm clouds on the horizon in the Olivet Discourse. But that lacks the direct transparency and intensity of searing personal experience. It's abstract. Future. Not the past as future.

Instead, the reader is treated to academic debates about Halakha and competing theories of the afterlife–from forty years before. And that's perfectly consistent with Matthew being precisely what it purports to be–rather than a retrojection. 

Compare that to Paul Celan, who lost both parents in the death camps. Who was repeatedly hospitalized for clinical depression. Who eventually committed suicide–unable to overcome the grief and guilt. Likewise, Primo Levi was another Jewish chronicler of the Shoah who survived the death camps, but succumbed to suicide. Ditto: Jean Améry. The memory was just unbearable. 

Conversely, the tone of Revelation calibrates very well with exilic literature and Holocaust literature. It's easy to imagine John writing that after the Jewish War. The emotional register parallels Ezekiel. 

But what about the Gospel of John? I think it might well have been written in the 60s. 

But suppose it was written in the 90s. Is that consonant with what I've been discussing? Possibly. People have different coping strategies. One way is to become more withdrawn. And, indeed, John's Gospel is detached and otherworldly. If the life you knew has been obliterated, that's one way to adapt. 

If Matthew was composed before 70 AD, and is literarily dependent on Mark, then Mark is however much earlier. 

The letter of James is written in a serene style that bears no trace of trauma to the collective psyche of 1C Jewry which you'd anticipate if it was penned sometime after the Jewish War. 

Luke is less susceptible to this style of analysis. Likely a Gentile convert to Judaism, and then to Christianity via Judaism. Although he's profoundly invested in Messianic Judaism, that's not a part of his formative experience, so even if his Gospel was written after 70 AD, I wouldn't necessarily expect it to reflect the same traumatization. There are, however, other arguments for dating its composition prior to 70 AD.

I've been using Jewish comparisons, but we could cast a wider net. Dabney was so demoralized after his side lost the Civil War that he moved to Texas. He just couldn't stand to live in Virginia any more. The life he'd known and loved was literally shot to pieces. Or consider the enduring psychological impact on dispossessed American Indians, driven from their ancestral lands.  

Finally, this may touch on the question of what happened to most of the apostles. After being listed in the Gospels, why did many melt away? You have traditions and legends, but that has an apocryphal flavor. A way of validating a national sect. 

One explanation may be that some of them perished in the siege of Jerusalem. Not because they were too devoted to the city, or nostalgic memories, but because they had relatives there, or because they had house-churches there where they ministered. Like missionaries who stayed behind in China during the Japanese invasion. Rather than abandon their flock, they suffered with them and died with them.  


  1. excellent analysis of the literary atmosphere of the NT books that points to most of the NT books being written pre- 70 AD - thanks Steve!!

  2. Wow - this is a poignant and insightful analysis, and I'd gladly read a book-length treatment of it. Thank you.

  3. Amazing thoughts here Steve.