dianoigo blog

Sunday 14 June 2015

Form, Genre, and Historicity of the Wilderness Temptations of Jesus in the Gospels: A Response to Jonathan Burke (Part 1)

1.       Introduction

Jonathan Burke has written an article entitled Literary genre of the wilderness temptation which is part of a larger apologetic series defending the Christadelphians’ non-mythological exegesis of Satan in the New Testament. He has expressed essentially the same ideas in another article which criticizes my own exegesis of the Synoptic wilderness temptation stories (TS). Burke regards my exegesis as “idiosyncratic”, a “litany of error” which “demonstrates a complete lack of familiarity with the relevant scholarship.”[1]

Burke’s main point is that the Synoptic wilderness temptation story should not be read as narrative. While Burke assumes “genuine historical events underlying the temptation accounts,” he does not think the passage is to be taken at face value. What then are we to make of the detailed exchange between Jesus and διάβολος contained in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13?
Rather than being read as historical narrative, the temptation account is generally understood to take the form of haggadic midrash (non-historical commentary used to illustrate interpretations of the sacred text).
This is the central claim of Burke’s short article. Similarly, in his critique of my claim that the Gospels (including the TS) belong to the narrative genre, Burke states, “This claim is contradicted by the scholarly consensus; the genre is haggagic [sic] midrash, not narrative.” However, these are untidy statements, for several reasons. The first reason is that Burke does not substantiate his claim that the scholarly consensus regards the TS as belonging to the genre of haggadic midrash. He cites three scholars, two of which refer to a resemblance between the temptation story and midrash, and only one of which claims that the TS is haggadic midrash. Moreover, none of these scholars say that this is the scholarly consensus, and as we shall see, there is debate about the extent to which ‘midrash’ is a helpful category for understanding the TS.

A further reason why Burke’s claim is untidy is that it conflates different kinds of biblical criticism. The claim that the TS is a haggadic midrash belongs largely to form criticism. This is quite distinct from, for instance, historical criticism, redaction criticism and narrative criticism. It may help to bridge the gap between history and the TS as a final literary product, but it is of limited value in determining the intended meaning of that final product. Similarly, by his repeated use of the term ‘historical narrative’, Burke conflates two issues: (1) whether the TS in the Gospels belong to the genre of narrative, and (2) the historicity of the TS. Along the same lines, some of Burke’s claims are exceedingly vague: he defends “the idea that Jesus’ temptation was figurative, symbolic, or visionary.” However, ‘figurative/symbolic’ and ‘visionary’ are two very different ideas, and Burke does not state which of them he endorses. Nor does Burke clarify whether this claim refers to Jesus’ temptation historically, in pre-Gospel tradition, or in the text of the Gospels (or all of the above?) Nor would the presence of symbolic or visionary elements in the TS conflict with it being a narrative, or with its historicity.

My thesis here is that the temptation stories in their final, canonical form in all three Synoptic Gospels[2] constitute a mythical narrative which the writers depict as actual events in Jesus’ life and which introduce a conflict between Jesus and Satan which continues through the story. It is in this form that the TS is authoritative for the teaching of the Church. I will further argue that, provided the interpreter presupposes a worldview which allows for the supernatural, there is no reason to doubt the basic historicity of the narrative.

2.       The TS as haggadic midrash

Among the most detailed recent critical studies on the TS has been Robbins' monograph, The Testing of Jesus in Q. He discusses two terms – midrash and myth – which in his view
have added as much smoke as substance to the discussion… Most scholars who talk about this narrative use both of these terms, but sometimes they mean different things by them, and sometimes it would seem that they mean nothing.[3]
He attributes the identification of the TS as haggadic midrash to Gerhardsson. He notes that “There is a confusion of referents among scholars when some speak of midrash as a literary genre and others speak of it as an exegetical method.”[4] Robbins subsequently declares:
I will largely refrain from referring to the Temptation Narrative as a midrash, though it is not because I feel it is entirely inappropriate. It is simply that midrash brings a messiness with it that seriously impugns its ability to serve as a useful index of literary function or form.[5]
Robbins goes on to refer to Chilton’s study, which states, “When one applies the word ‘Midrash’ generically, it is patent that the New Testament does not belong to this category.”[6] Chilton further criticizes Gerhardsson’s term ‘haggadic midrash’ (adopted by Burke) because it suggests a specific sub-genre yet Gerhardsson offers no other examples of it from the New Testament or rabbinic literature!

Robbins is prepared to countenance the TS as ‘midrash’ (lower case m) which is used in scholarship for “just about every kind of Jewish interpretation of Scripture,”[7] but he is not prepared to refer to them as ‘Midrash’ (upper case M), meaning “a very specific generic category of Jewish exegesis and exposition.”[8]

Another challenge to midrashic reading of the TS comes from Kloppenborg, who analyzes the pericope as it hypothetically existed in Q. He emphasizes that this dialogue has a “relatively detailed narrative framework” and that the TS belong “to a narrative genre which uses speech as the servant of the narrative.”[9]

He then turns his attention to form-critical matters. He notes of this pericope,
Some regard it as a sayings form and hence as little different from the rest of Q. Albertz called it a controversy story,[10] while others compared it with rabbinic exegetical debates or with haggadic midrashim.[11]
He challenges all of these claims. Of particular note, he states, “In view of the dramatis personae, the mythic setting and the fact that the purpose is not exegesis, the analogy of a ‘rabbinic dispute’ is not apposite.”[12] This clearly runs contrary to Burke’s claim that “the aim of the temptation account is to explicate the relevance of Biblical passages to Jesus’ messianic mission”. Kloppenborg regards the TS as “a scribal creation” rather than a product of oral tradition, and in terms of form he prefers “the motif of the temptation or ordeal of the wise and faithful man”, such as those in the biblical and extra-biblical stories about Abraham and Job.[13]

As for the (hypothetical) positioning of this pericope within Q, Kloppenborg remarks on its “conformity with a typical biographical pattern” which for him confirms “that Q was moving toward a narrative or biographical cast.”[14] In summary, already within Q, the TS has a mythic setting and approaches a biographical, narrative framework.

Gibson likewise notes, “It is often claimed that form-critically, the closest parallels to the Q temptation story are to be found in the accounts over the Law or the interpretation of Scripture in Haggadic midrash.”[15] He allows a limited element of truth in such claims, provided we limit ourselves to the dialogue part of the TS (though he does not claim that this dialogue is a haggadic midrash). However, he argues that
when we take the story in its entirety and consider form-critically and from a literary critical and thematic point of view, the shape given it both by the notice of the Baptism (Mt. 3.13, 16-17//Lk. 3.21-22) and by the frame of Mt. 4.1-2, 11//Lk 4.1-2, 13, then the story’s closest and most complementary parallels are those stories in biblical and related literature given over to portraying a ‘servant of God’ or the pious person subjected to trials in order to determine or display the nature or extent of his or her faithfulness[16]
Gibson further argues that “the narrative theme of Mt. 4.1-11/Lk. 4.1-13 – Jesus being subjected to a pre-ministry peirasmos carried out by the Devil – is not original to Q, but has been taken up by Q from an early, pre-Q, even possibly pre-Easter, tradition.”[17] He regards Mark’s TS as probably independent of that in Q.[18] Like Kloppenborg, however, Gibson takes the TS as it now appears in Matthew and Luke as “an original composition, created ‘at one go’ in its present form” (in Q).[19]

Finally, Stein, in listing various options for the source of the TS, states, "It is unlikely that the temptations simply arose out of midrashic reflections on various OT passages, such as Deut 6:10-16; 8:1-9:22."[20]

In short, the TS in its pre-canonical form was broadly 'midrashic' inasmuch as it contained exegesis of OT texts, but there is little support for viewing its literary genre as 'Midrash'. Matthew and Luke incorporated this traditional material within a wider biographical narrative about Jesus. Some formal similarity between the TS and midrash may be acknowledged, but this form-critical observation is not decisive for questions of narrative function in the Gospels nor of historicity.

[1] Unfortunately, Burke has chosen to interact only with a blog post in which I briefly outlined ten exegetical points without citing any sources. In the post, I referred the reader to more detailed treatments of these points which do cite scholarly sources (here and here). Burke neglects to cite either of these, so it is not clear whether he has even bothered to read them!
[2] We will, however, for the most part confine our discussion to the Matthean and Lukan versions.
[3] Robbins, C.M. (2007). The Testing of Jesus in Q. Bern: Peter Lang, p. 10.
[4] Robbins 2007: 12.
[5] Robbins 2007: 12.
[6] Chilton, B. (1983). Varieties and Tendencies of Midrash: Rabbinic Interpretations of Isaiah 24.23. In R.T. France & D. Wenham (Eds.), Gospel Perspectives (Vol. 3): Studies in Midrash and Historiography (pp. 9-32). Sheffield: JSOT Press. Here p. 10.
[7] Robbins 2007: 13.
[8] Robbins 2007: 13.
[9] Kloppenborg, J.S. (1987). The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, pp. 246-247.
[10] Stern is another advocate of this view; he likens the TS to “exegetical duels between rabbis and heretics” found in rabbinic literature (Stern, D. (2011). Midrash and Parables in the New Testament. In A.-J. Levine & M.Z. Brettler (Eds.), The Jewish Annotated New Testament (pp. 565-570). Oxford: Oxford University press, p. 567).
[11] Kloppenborg 1987: 257-258.
[12] Kloppenborg 1987: 258. Emphasis added.
[13] Kloppenborg 1987: 260.
[14] Kloppenborg 1987: 262.
[15] Gibson, J.B. (2004). Temptations of Jesus in Early Christianity. London: Bloomsbury, p. 84.
[16] Gibson 2004: 84. See the primary sources cited here by Gibson.
[17] Gibson 2004: 93.
[18] Gibson 2004: 41.
[19] Gibson 2004: 94.
[20] Stein, R.H. (1993). Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, p. 140 n. 40.