Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Jesus' Activity in the Gospels: "only some three weeks"?

There is an idea attributed to B. H. Streeter (1874-1937) that attempts to articulate how much time Jesus' narrated ministry, in the canonical gospels, actually takes up. He is reported to have said that the action described in the gospels, with the exception of the Temptation story, would actually only occupy about three weeks. The point he is apparently making is a good if rather obvious one -- that what is narrated about Jesus' life in the Synoptics and John, even if it is were all historical, amounts to the tiniest fraction of Jesus' life. 

But did Streeter actually say this, and if so, when and where? I have been searching for the origins of the idea, and the earliest reference I can find is the following:

"They [the gospels] are extremely brief - B. H. Streeter once cal­culated that, apart from the forty days and nights in the wilderness (of which we are told virtually nothing) everything reported to have been said and done by Jesus in all four gospels would have occupied only some three weeks, which leaves the overwhelmingly greater part of his life and deeds unrecorded."

This is from Dennis Nineham, "Epilogue", in John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977), 186-204 (188-9). I can't find the idea that he attributes to Streeter in any of his written works, and Nineham himself does not reference it, so is Nineham reporting an oral tradition? As far as I can tell, Nineham himself did not learn directly from Streeter. Although Nineham did go to Oxford, he was too young to have met Streeter -- only 16 years old when Streeter died in a plane crash in 1937.

On twitter, Brandon Massey speculated that Nineham might have picked it up from his teacher, R. H. Lightfoot, who perhaps reported this as a Streeter comment, which I think sounds quite plausible. 

It is also possible that the "three weeks" comment is a mis-remembered or mis-applied distortion of something that Streeter actually said. What is making me wonder here is that Streeter does in fact talk about "three weeks" in a related context:

Now of the last journey to Jerusalem, and the events of Passion Week, Mark presents a clear, detailed, and coherent account; and this, dealing with the events of, at the outside, three weeks, occupies about one-third of the whole Gospel. The rest of the Gospel is clearly a collection of detached stories as indeed tradition affirms it to be; and the total number of incidents recorded is so small that the gaps in the story must be the more considerable part of it. (B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (London: Macmillan, 1924), 424).
And if Streeter thought that Mark's Passion Narrative occupied "three weeks", could he also have maintained that "everything reported to have been said and done by Jesus in all four gospels would have occupied only some three weeks"? So we are now at at least six weeks, and there is clearly a contradiction here, unless the oral tradition also forgets the "three weeks" of the Passion Narrative.

Chasing down oral traditions is notoriously difficult since they only survive, before and outside of oral / aural recordings, in the writings in which they are represented, but this case provides an interesting analogy to first century Jesus research. Nineham's comment in 1977 is at least forty years removed from when the historical Streeter may or may not have made these remarks, rather as Mark is at least forty years removed from what he reports about Jesus, whose actual lifetime contained a great deal more activity than is reported in (pseudo?)-Streeter's "three weeks". 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Interview with Ariel Sabar on the NT Pod

Ariel Sabar, Veritas
Over on my podcast, I enjoyed a conversation earlier today with Ariel Sabar, author of Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife. It is an hour and thirteen minutes long and you can find it here:

NT Pod 95: Interview with Ariel Sabar, Author of Veritas (mp3) 

Or go to that page to find links to Apple Podcasts, Duke's Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, etc. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

"Tahime . . . She's true and not fake!"

Over the last eight years or so of blogging about the Gospel of Jesus's Wife, I have occasionally thought about posting a piece of fun speculation. Every time I think about it, I think "Shall I post this?" and then I think, "Nah; it's stupid. Move on." To be fair, I often think that about a lot of things. 

I probably would have forgotten all about it if it were not for one of the journalists covering the Jesus's Wife story seriously wondering if there might be something in it when I told her about it for a laugh. Even so, they wisely did not publish on something so speculative. Andrew Bernhard and I have talked about this occasionally, and after chatting about it this morning, I have decided there is nothing to lose at this point in airing my fun speculation.

So I preface this with the comment: this speculation is probably ridiculous! 

But here's the thing. The Urban Dictionary allows people to go in and create words and definitions of the kind of everyday slang that would never find its way into proper dictionaries. Back in September 2012, I was wondering how easy it would be for a forger to find the Coptic phrase tahime ("my wife") on the internet given that it would not have been possible for the forger to find it in Coptic Thomas. So I googled the transliterated tahime and found very little except this, in Urban Dictionary:


She is a girl that is very unique, cool ,calm, and a little bit loud. She has a temper. She is so pretty and very beautiful. She always has little self-confidence because she doesn't feel accepted or pretty. She thinks nobody likes her. That isnt [sic] true. She is loved by everyone! She is a sensitive girl and tries to make everyone happy. She doesn't bitch at people. SHE IS SOOO FUNNY!!! She is true and not fake. She will be your best friend till forever. She sometimes may act a little cocky and nerdy. She is so random at times but it will make you laugh. She loves friends.

"Hey that girl is so Tahime." "You mean she's unique?" "HELL YEAH BRO! "

I wouldn't have given it a second look but for a couple of things. "She is true and not fake" made me wonder, and then there is the author / date stamp:

 by goo goo gaa gaa 456 December 07, 2011

Karen King's article gave the date of the owner's visit to Harvard, to hand over the fragment, as "December 2011", the same month that this entry was added to Urban Dictionary by "goo goo gaa gaa 456". Sabar dates the visit to December 14, 2011, within a week of the entry appearing.

There is no evidence that I can find anywhere that Tahime has any such meaning. Absolutely nobody uses it that way. And in so far as Tahime crops up, it is as a male name (e.g. the character "Tahime Sanders" in Life of a King), and not a female slang term.

It is, of course, highly likely to be a coincidence. This is just some random entry by who-knows-who? about who-knows-who? in what is probably an in-joke that will never be known to others.

Yet one of the things that made me dismiss the possibility of a link every time I considered it was that I couldn't imagine the forger of the fragment being so playful, and imitating, in a rather irritating way, how he imagines young people speak. I was working on the assumption that his motivation was financial given all the talk about selling the manuscripts in King's article. But now, having read Sabar's Veritas, I can't help wondering again if Fritz might just have done this in another attempt at humour. There are so many playful elements that Sabar reveals, including Fritz's love of Monty Python, and his use of "abdicate" in his interlinear, that I am now wondering if it is really quite as ridiculous as I had first thought that this too could be a playful addition by the forger himself.

This blog post will self-destruct as soon as someone points out the flaw in the comments below!

* "The current owner contacted Karen L. King via email requesting that she look at the fragment to determine its content. The owner then delivered the papyrus by hand to Harvard Divinity School in December, 2011, and generously gave permission to publish" (Karen King, "Jesus said to them . . . " draft, September 17 2012, p. 3).

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Ariel Sabar's Veritas, and the latest on the Gospel of Jesus's Wife

Regular readers will know that I have posted many, many times over the years on the Gospel of Jesus's Wife, whether breaking news, offering round-ups of the latest news, or hosting contributions from others like Andrew Bernhard and Francis Watson. I have just finished reading Ariel Sabar's remarkable new book about the affair, and I realized that it's time, once again, to return to this topic.

The new book is out today, and I strongly encourage you to read it. It's very, very good: Ariel Sabar, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife (New York: Doubleday, 2020). I have podcasted my thoughts here:

NT Pod 94: Review of Ariel Sabar's Veritas (mp3) 

In providing this update, I realized that I hadn't also drawn attention to earlier podcasts in the series, which I released as classes were all going online in March in the wake of the pandemic. (I was at the time teaching my Non-canonical Gospels class). Here are some links to those podcasts:

I realize that podcasts are not to everyone's tastes, and the good news is that there is already some excellent academic commentary on the release of Sabar's book. I would draw special attention to the following:

James McGrath (ReligionProf Blog)

Candida Moss (Daily Beast; not her title!)

Brent Nongbri (Variant Readings Blog)

More to come!

Friday, July 24, 2020

Trump and Fatigue

Over the last twenty years or so, I have occasionally drawn attention to "the phenomenon of fatigue", according to which one can see an author making characteristic changes to a source at the beginning of a passage, only to lapse into the wording of the source later on. I have argued that one can see this in Matthew's use of Mark, Luke's use of Mark, Luke's use of Matthew, the Protevangelium of James's use of Matthew and Luke, and Hypostasis of the Archons's use of Genesis (the latter forthcoming). [*Links at the bottom of this post.]

When I am teaching, I of course like to use contemporary analogies for the phenomenon, and one of my favourites comes from the adaptation of one of Enid Blyton's Noddy books for television. But yesterday, I noticed a good example of the phenomenon in Trump's remarks on the coronavirus in his Press Briefing.

Trump likes to call coronavirus "the China virus". It is a typical (and profoundly problematic) trope of his, and although in the earlier briefings, he was beginning to drop the use of the term, it has come back in a major way in the renewed briefings this week.

In yesterday's briefing, Trump was clearly reading from a script that had been prepared for him, but he also appeared to be editing it on the hoof, substituting "China virus" every time that "coronavirus" appeared. Until, later in the speech, he lapses into the wording of the script, and he accidentally says "coronavirus". I quote here from the relevant sections of the speech, in order (full transcript here):
Thank you very much.  Thank you, everybody. Thank you. 
We’ve had a tremendous week uniting the country in our fight against the China virus.  I have reminded people of the importance of masks when you can’t socially distance, in particular.  A strong message has been sent out to young people to stop going to crowded bars and other crowded places . . . . 
. . . .And I said, “There’s nothing more important in our country than keeping our people safe, whether that’s from the China virus or the radical-left mob that you see in Portland” — where I want to thank Homeland Security and others in law enforcement for doing a fantastic job over the last few days . . . . 
. . . . Our goal is to protect our teachers and students from the China virus while ensuring that families with high-risk factors can continue to participate from home.  Very important . . . .  
. . . . Fortunately, the data shows that children are lower risk from the China virus, very substantially.  When children do contact the virus, they often have only very mild symptoms or none at all, and medical complications are exceedingly rare.  Those that do face complications often have underlying medical conditions.  Ninety-nine percent of all China virus hospitalizations are adults.  And 99.96 percent of all fatalities are adults.  That means that children are a tiny percentage — less than 1 percent, and even a small percentage of 1 percent. 
In a typical year, the flu results in more deaths of those under 18 in the United States than have been lost thus far to the coronavirus.  Many different names.  Many, many different names . . . . 
. . . . We’re asking Congress to provide $105 billion to schools as part of the next coronavirus relief bill.  This funding will support mitigation measures, such as smaller class sizes, more teachers and teacher aides, repurposing spaces to practice social distancing, and crucially, mask-wearing. 
Trump uses his idiosyncratic, problematic term "China virus" five times in the speech, and I think that each time he is editing "coronavirus" on the hoof, substituting the Trump term for the normal, accepted term. But then he lapses. He uses the correct, universally accepted term "coronavirus", and immediately realizes what he has done, and qualifies with "Many different names. Many, many different names", a standard Trump qualification for when he has veered away from his intended language. From here, he then uses "coronavirus" one more time, in the name of the "coronavirus relief bill", and "China virus" does not recur.

* Links:

Mark Goodacre, "Fatigue in the Synoptics", New Testament Studies 44 (1998): 45-58
NT Pod 39: "Fatigue in the Synoptics

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Letter from Edwin A. Abbott to Percival Gardner-Smith

I was recently noodling around for some biographical information on Percival Gardner-Smith who is well known in the field of NT studies as the author of St John and the Synoptic Gospels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938), and the subject of Ian Mills's and Laura Robinson's recent NT Review Podcast, on which I guested.

I came across this lovely piece of correspondence sent to Percival Gardner-Smith by another scholar well known in our field, Edwin A. Abbott:

Letter from Edwin A. Abbott to Percival Gardner-Smith
Letter from Edwin A. Abbott to Percival Gardner-Smith dated Jan. 26, 1892. In the letter Abbott enclosed a circular on behalf of his sister, offering a home for young Indian children. Abbott also alludes to a "big book" he has in the press. He writes that the book will be too big to send and requests that Gardner-Smith get a copy from Mudie's.
The letter is reproduced in high quality at the above link, in Brown Digital Repository. But the date given, 26 January 1892, is surely wrong. Gardner-Smith was born on 3 February 1888, so he was not even 4 years old at the time. The letter asks Gardner-Smith:
". . . to pigeon-hole the enclosed circular which my sister has recently issued, in case any of your pupils' parents may want a home for young Indian children."
No doubt Gardner-Smith was a precocious child but he is unlikely to have had pupils, or to have been interested in "a big book in the press" that Abbott goes on to mention.

So what is going on here? The date of the letter certainly looks like 26 Jan. 92:

The only sense I can make of it is that the date is in fact 26 Jan. 12, i.e. 1912, when Gardner-Smith would have been 23, and curate of St Mark's Milverton, Leamington. But could that digit be a "1"? The loop at the top is certainly odd, but this is the way that Abbott wrote the capital "I", as in this letter:

Or from another letter, see here:

That "I" does look a bit like a "9".

These are not perfect analogies, especially as the digit drops below the line, so I'm not sure if this is the solution. But certainly a date in 1912 would work, and it is surely preferable to the idea that Abbott was writing to a three year old.

The letter features the following annotation in a different hand:

This is presumably an inference that the mentioned "big book in the press" is The Anglican Career of Cardinal Newman (1892), unlikely to be of interest to a three year old. But if the letter is 1912, the book would be Light on the Gospel from an Ancient Poet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912), a book that would certainly have been of interest to the twenty-three year old Gardner-Smith.

That's my suggestion. I wondered if it could perhaps be a different "Percival" but I can't find a friend of Abbott's other than Percival Gardner-Smith, and it may be Gardner-Smith himself who provided the letter to Thomas Banchoff, who has a lovely picture of Gardner-Smith in his eighties, also in the archive.

Update 1: here is my attempt at a transcription of the letter (with thanks to Graham Gould for help with reading lines 2-3):
Willow Road
Hampstead N.W. 
26 Jan. 92
My dear Percival, 
After all good wishes, and deprecations [for "depredations"?] of influ-enza  — this is to ask you to pigeon-hole the enclosed circular which my sister has recently issued, in case any of your pupils’ parents may want a home for young Indian children. My sister is ?bright or motherly, and my niece is fond of children — almost to excess: so I think the little people wd be happy with them. At the same time she does not limit herself to the very young children, nor to those of Indian parents.  
I hope you will hear of me again soon in the literary sphere. I have a big book in the press, so big that I shall not be able to afford to send it to you: but you must get it from Mudie’s. I think it will be interesting; I hope it will not be too irritating.  
Yours ever 
Edwin A. Abbott

Update 2:  I am grateful to Graham Gould who points out that "other letters from Abbott in the Brown Digital Repository suggests that Abbott had moved from Braeside, Willow Road, Hampstead to Wellside, Well Walk, Hampstead, by 1895 and so would not have been living at Braeside in 1912." And having run through the archive now myself, I notice that Abbott was already living at Wellside by 1893, and was still there in 1913. So the letter above, sent from Braeside cannot be from 1912 unless he was using old notepaper! Graham also points out that there are letters where the "1" digit is written with a straight line, and not with the loop that he used in writing a capital "I".

So the mystery is not solved!

I wondered if the "big book in the press, so big that I shall not be able to afford to send it to you" could help us out some more. How big was The Anglican Career of Cardinal Newman, the 1892 book, which is written in a note on the letter? It is indeed absolutely massive -- 440 pages in volume 1 and 500 pages in volume 2! So it really does seem likely that we are looking at 1892. The 1912 book that I was suggesting, Light on the Gospel from an Ancient Poet is also huge (600 pages), but it seems impossible to get the 1912 date to work given the address on the letter.

Either Abbott is writing to a three year old about getting a book on Cardinal Henry Newman from Mudie's (an old lending library), or this is a different Percival.

Update 3: This is a very enjoyable case of collaborative research. Many thanks to Graham Gould, Tony Bellows, and Deane Galbraith, for some really helpful contributions.

It is beyond reasonable doubt that the letter was written in 1892, when Abbott was still living at Braeside, and that rules out my suggestion above about trying to relocate the letter to 1912. But the letter is not written to a three-year old Percival Gardner-Smith. That much is true. So could it be Bishop John Percival, a known colleague and friend of Abbott's? He seems like the ideal candidate, but I had earlier balked at the suggestion (a) because I could not imagine someone addressing an esteemed colleague by his surname; and (b) because I assumed that Thomas Banchoff, whose collection this is in, had received the letter from Percival Gardner-Smith himself, with whom Banchoff had had conversations. John Percival certainly seems like a very strong candidate in that in 1892 he is still headmaster of Rugby School, and so the reference to "your pupils' parents" would make excellent sense.

Update 4 (June 22 2020): Many thanks again to Graham Gould, Tony Bellows, and Deane Galbraith, and thanks now also to Michael Strickland: there is more! It is beyond reasonable doubt that this letter is in fact written to Bishop John Percival. It turns out that addressing people by their surname in this way, "My dear Percival" was indeed common in the era. Moreover, there are specific examples of "My dear Percival" in William Temple's Life of Bishop Percival (London: Macmillan, 1921), which one can read in toto on Google Books.

Moreover, having enjoyed digging a little into this fascinating Life of Bishop Percival, another piece falls into place -- he would indeed have been interested in a book on Cardinal Newman. He was a fan (if that's the right way to put it), and had him to dinner at Trinity College, Oxford, where he was president, in 1880. Temple adds this note:
"The Cardinal stayed with Percival for a few days. From this time onwards Percival often wrote to him, and being in Rome in 1887 sent him a painting of his Church — San Pietro in Vellabro, — which Newman always kept in his room and caused to be hung at the foot of his bed when he was dying." (p. 78).
So of course Percival would have been interested in Abbott's massive book about Newman.

This has been a lot of fun to unravel, and huge thanks to my collaborators.

Update 5 (June 23 2020): Today I received a voicemail from Prof. Thomas Banchoff, the curator Flatweb,  the wonderful collection of material located in Brown's Digital Repository, and he confirms what we had surmised, that the letter is indeed a letter to John Percival. I am hoping to speak to Prof. Banchoff later in the week. I will also get in touch with Brown Digital Repository about correcting the title and data for this letter in their records.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019


Samuel Sandmel's invocation of the problems of "parallelomania" in 1961 has become legendary in the field, to the point of truism, misrepresentation and cliché. It even has its own Wikipedia page.

Much less well known is sourceomania. I heard it for the first time earlier this week. Nobody even quotes it. And up until I started tweeting about it this week, even Google did not seem to know the term ("Did you mean source romania?")!*

The term "sourceomania" was coined by Morton Scott Enslin in a little known article published posthumously in 1985, “Luke and Matthew: Compilers or Authors?” ANRW II.25.3 (1985): 2357-88. The article reflects on the scholarly inclination to see the evangelists more as archivists than as authors, and to default to hypothetical sources to explain variation at every turn. Enslin uses the term twice. I quoted the first use in yesterday's post. Here is the quotation in context:
In sum, it cannot be too strongly emphasized that the only support for this hypothetical Q, which so mysteriously completely vanished and of which no slightest mention is to be found in any of the Fathers, is the assumption that neither Matthew nor Luke could have been satisfied to use the other, had he known it, so meagerly. What that really means is that we could not have so done. It is easy to forget that none of these writings, which we prize so highly today, was "Holy Scripture" or "canonical" to the other writers. Obviously, both Matthew and Luke found Mark of great use, but neither hesitated to alter, shorten, or correct to a degree that a modern critic might weIl hesitate to follow. I cannot avoid the conclusion that these hypothetical sources which no one has ever seen -- be they Q or L or proto-Luke or M -- are simply the consequence of the very modern notion that one holy evangelist could not deliberately have altered or violated the writings of another. Thus these deviations, as notably Luke's flat contradiction of Mark's account of the Passion, with the Galilee chapter deftly avoided and the disciples remaining in Jerusalem awaiting their reception of the Spirit, are commonly explained as due to the utilization of a different source. Sourceomania, if I may so phrase it, is a disease from which many critics have suffered. The point to be remembered is that each of the evangelists was apparently dissatisfied with the work of his predecessors and thought he could do a better job. Else he would not have written. They were not joining with respected colleagues in contributing chapters for a Festschrift (2364; emphasis added).
 The second use of the term comes when Enslin is discussing Luke 9.51-6 (Samaritan Village):
To me the basic weakness in much source analysis is the assumption of the use of some different source every time one author alters or changes another. Luke corrects Matthew because he thinks Matthew incorrect, not because he chances to find a different version of the event in some source which he chances to have in his hand or in his memory. One of the fatal symptoms of what I have styled "sourceomania" is the inability to recognize the evangelists as authors who had ideas and were ready to express them. They did not conceive themselves as weighted down by the awesome responsibility of preserving unaltered a series of facts for future generations who would study them under the critical magnifying glass as contained in Holy Scripture (2374; emphasis added).
Although Enslin himself does not provide a definition of the term, it seems pretty clear that his problem relates to the instinctive appeal to imagined sources in lieu of even considering the possibility that a given feature might come from the author of the work one is reading. If I might attempt a definition, it would go something like this:

Sourceomania: the unnecessary and obsessional evocation of sources to explain elements in a work at the expense of considering authorial creativity.

Perhaps that definition can be improved upon, but I think the gist of what Enslin is saying is clear. As a minimum sources person, I am of course more sympathetic to the point than my maximum sources friends will be, but as a descriptor of a feature that I have seen time after time in the literature, asserted as if self evident rather than carefully argued, I think it's pretty great.


* When I composed this draft yesterday, "sourceomania" returned no proper hits at all on Google. Now, as well as this blog, it has found a lovely example from a book by Finn Damgaard, Rewriting Peter as an Intertextual Character in the Canonical Gospels (Copenhagen International Seminar; Abingdon: Routledge, 2016): 2:
The "sourceomania" (the word is taken from Enslin. . .) that has characterized New Testament scholarship for so long has paradoxically minimized the most obvious sources, namely the canonical gospels themselves, with the result that important insight into early Christianity has been neglected.