Friday, May 19, 2006

Does Inclusion of Irrelevant Details Show the Gospels to Be Non-Mythological?

An interesting article this morn over at OpinionJournal on the Taste Page, by Joseph Loconte, sparked in part by "the da Vinci Codes." The article is called "Debunking the Debunkers," and discusses C.S. Lewis' debunking of the debunkers in his own day who claimed the gospels were myth. From the article:
In a short yet brilliant 1959 essay, "Fern Seeds and Elephants," Lewis debunked the debunkers of his own day--those who held that the Gospels were the product of myth, legend and outright deception. He began by drawing attention to the "shattering immediacy" of the Gospel stories, the often brash realism of Jesus' encounters with ordinary people.
Mark's Gospel, for example, sets the scene of Jesus' arrest this way: "A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind." We're never told who the man was or what happened to him. Luke describes a tax collector named Zacchaeus, who was too short to see over the crowds following Jesus. "So he ran ahead," Luke reports, "and climbed a sycamore tree to see him." It's irrelevant to what follows. Likewise, the Gospel of John tells of a woman caught in adultery and dragged before Jesus, who "bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger." Nothing, absolutely nothing, comes of it.

Any serious reader of the Gospels knows that their many references to the divinity of Jesus are thoroughly embedded in these earthy details. Here is a narrative style that anticipates the modern, realistic novel. "I have been reading poems, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life," Lewis wrote. "I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this."
The first example seems to be akin to an open canon approach. Since we hear of this man only here and nowhere else, he does not occur anywhere else (naturally), and so the inclusion of this random person, for no purpose whatsover, lends credence to the idea that an actual historical story is being related. The same for the other examples. Why have him draw in the dirt? Why have a short man climb a tree, when we hear nothing further about him.

This does not seem to me particularly convincing. The first case in particular, of the young man who abandons his garment is eerily reminiscent of Joseph when flees Potiphar's wife, leaving his garment in her hand. Genesis 39:

יא וַיְהִי כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, וַיָּבֹא הַבַּיְתָה לַעֲשׂוֹת מְלַאכְתּוֹ; וְאֵין אִישׁ מֵאַנְשֵׁי הַבַּיִת, שָׁם--בַּבָּיִת. 11 And it came to pass on a certain day, when he went into the house to do his work, and there was none of the men of the house there within,
יב וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂהוּ בְּבִגְדוֹ לֵאמֹר, שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי; וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ, וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה. 12 that she caught him by his garment, saying: 'Lie with me.' And he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out.
יג וַיְהִי, כִּרְאוֹתָהּ, כִּי-עָזַב בִּגְדוֹ, בְּיָדָהּ; וַיָּנָס, הַחוּצָה. 13 And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth,
יד וַתִּקְרָא לְאַנְשֵׁי בֵיתָהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר לָהֶם לֵאמֹר, רְאוּ הֵבִיא לָנוּ אִישׁ עִבְרִי, לְצַחֶק בָּנוּ: בָּא אֵלַי לִשְׁכַּב עִמִּי, וָאֶקְרָא בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל. 14 that she called unto the men of her house, and spoke unto them, saying: 'See, he hath brought in a Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice.
טו וַיְהִי כְשָׁמְעוֹ, כִּי-הֲרִימֹתִי קוֹלִי וָאֶקְרָא; וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ אֶצְלִי, וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה. 15 And it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment by me, and fled, and got him out.'
טז וַתַּנַּח בִּגְדוֹ, אֶצְלָהּ, עַד-בּוֹא אֲדֹנָיו, אֶל-בֵּיתוֹ. 16 And she laid up his garment by her, until his master came home.
I would argue that it is a common tendency to echo details of Biblical (="Old Testament") stories, given a viewpoint of the Bible as a setup for the sequel. One of the clearest examples of this is the placing in Pontius Pilate's mouth words from the Biblical eglah arufa ceremony, and having him wash his hands, just as in the eglah arufa ceremony. Thus, that a young man (just as Joseph is a young man) flees the scene, leaving his garment in their hands, is not unexpected, and is not an irrelevant detail. Just because the import of a specific action is not immediately understandable to the modern reader does not mean that it had no relevance to the ancient reader.

Similarly with drawing in the ground. Who knows what the relevance of this action was back then. To me, at least, it is a critical element of the story. It seems meant to show nonchalance. He is occupying himself with other matters, craftily getting out of the "trap" set for him by the questioners. Is he going to agree with Leviticus 20:10 (though perhaps a very literal and non-Pharisee interpretation of it) and condemn the woman to death? Or will he nullify the Law, making clear that he rejects Mosaic law? Thus he draws on the ground initially rather than answering them, seemingly occupied with his own matters, and only answers when pressed. Thus (John chapter 8),
"But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking Him, He lifted up Himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground."
It is clear from context that this act is done in both instances to show nonchalance. In the latter case, he pretends to agree to the Mosaic law, and so appears unconcerned as they go off to stone her. For he knows that there is none without sin.

Of course we don't find out what he is writing. The contents of the writing is in fact irrelevant to the story. But the fact that he wrote with his finger on the ground, an act which within the cultural norms of the day showed nonchalance, is absolutely relevant.

The story with the short man who ascends the sycamore might have some metaphorical meaning, or else simply shows how much Zacharias wanted to see Jesus. This calls to mind a similar story told about Hillel, who was poor and could not afford the fee to enter the study hall (imposed to provide for the upkeep of the study hall.) Therefore he ascended on the skylight and listened in, and one time nearly froze to death when it snowed upon him. The story of ascending the sycamore presents the image of a devoted follower, and thus certainly is not irrelevant in terms of narrative role.

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