We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Eyewitness Accounts in New Testament Times (xl)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 40th in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

In an article on Jesus' resurrection as history, Wolfhart Pannenberg makes the following observation about Paul's evidence for the resurrection: "...Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, did not think a mere demand for faith was enough, but he gave the list of the witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. This is a proof as it was commonly used in legal proceedings. The Greek historians, for instance Herodotus, also gave their proofs in such a way. Historical evidence was obtained by an interrogation of the eyewitnesses. It is not without reason that Paul emphasized the point that most of the witnesses were still alive and could still be submitted to an interrogation (I Corinthians 15:6). The proof Paul gave was for his time a historical proof, a first-hand proof beyond doubt."

What I've been arguing is the possibility that the author of Mark based his History of the Life & Times of Jesus of Nazareth, in part, on "an interrogation of the eyewitnesses." Pannenberg's observations, assuming they're correct, makes that possibility yet more credible. Oral evidence had a certain legal standing in Roman times. Ancient historians made use of such data.

Those observations also throw into doubt the distinction between gospel and history. It's possible that the Gospel of Mark is a historical work, although one written according to the conventions of ancient rather than modern historiography. That is an intriguing possibility. It suggests that Mark's account just might take us closer to the "historical Jesus" than many scholars have allowed. It may also mean that the author of Mark took a view of the past not that dissimilar from our own. He didn't simply make up fictionalized accounts to package the "sayings tradition" of Jesus that, in turn, solved problems in his home church. He was, instead, communicating to his readers important information for their time and place about the meaning of events that really did take place in a past time and place.