Burton Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament

Yet another entry in my reading list hits the dust.

I’m of two minds about Mack’s writing. On one hand he’s clearly brilliant. On the other hand, he’s very sure about things he can’t honestly be sure about.

He dates Luke to 120, for example – and I mean he DATES Luke to 120, not “Most scholars contend that Luke was written around 110-120″, but ‘Somewhere in the Aegean, around the year 120 C.E…” That doesn’t make any sense, especially since he’s a big believer in Q. The farther back one dates Luke, the more likely Luke has a copy of Matthew, which makes Q unnecessary. And he doesn’t say how he arrived at this extremely late date, either, or mention that the consensus is more like 80-90 or 75-95. Luke may have had a copy of Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities (which I am beginning to believe he did, and that Mark possibly had The Jewish Wars, in 75, giving impetus to the composition of ‘historical’ gospels) which would make the date of composition 93+, but why 120? Anyway, my discomfiture probably stems from his reliance on Q, so I’ll go on to the parts I liked.

His picture of the nascent Christian community is very well developed, although of course I wasn’t thrilled with the ‘Q community’ making an appearance. And I liked the idea that Christianity offered a new governmental system, as opposed to three failed systems – the temple-state, the Roman republic/empire, and the Greek city-state, post-Alexander. That dovetails with the Gibbon I’ve managed to get through so far; it is Christianity that sinks the pluralistic Romans (although I’ve always had a soft spot for the crazy theory that Paul was a Roman spy sent to disrupt the Jews by infiltrating one of their sects – it’s a clever explanation for all those weird escapes in Acts).

I also like how Mack treats citation of the OT in the new. First there is a period of largely opportunistic and desperate citing (what we see in the gospels and Paul’s letters) then there is a 2nd century period where apostolic forgeries start cropping up with more elaborate citations. But it is not until Marcion and Valentinus show up that figures like Justin Martyr, Ignatius, and Origen appear and go on the attack with a barrage of citation of the Hebrew scriptures. Where there were simple one-act citations before, now the cited text is transformed into the “Old Testament,” an entirely new text, theologically, creating an incredible compare/contrast pattern that can be used to divine/explain almost anything via cross-reference.

I did that this afternoon, actually. H mentioned the other day that someone had asked her if homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible. I didn’t remember it until today while I was finishing off Mack; then I looked into it. I ended up writing a little monograph just to keep all the citations straight in my head. Depending on what verses you cite, which translation you use, and how you interpret them, one could claim the Bible says all homosexuals should be put to death, or that the Bible has little or nothing to say about homosexuality at all. In this sense, all the textual inconsistencies grant the virtues of ambiguity. What we have is a handy divining pool that can produce whatever answer is needed/wanted – a very useful cultural tool, especially in America’s case.

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