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". 


2 comments:

Jeff Cate said...

This intrigues me. I ran some google searches and sent it through some online plagiarism checkers and I too am not seeing anything earlier than Nineham in 1977. Only six years later, a similar but not identical statement is found in Benjamin Walker, Gnosticism: Its History and Influence (The Aquarian Press, 1983) p. 70, but without citation or attribution. In Walker's bibliography, he included two Streeter works, The Four Gospels (1924) and The Buddha and the Christ (1932), neither of which has this statement. Walker didn't include any mention of Dennis Nineham or John Hick in his bibliography.

Interestingly, John Hick, who edited and contributed to the volume in which Nineham's statement appears, published The Fifth Dimension in 1999 and notes Nineham but not Streeter:

"‘[The New Testament scholar] G.H. Streeter [sic] 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 or 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’3 — and many more recent scholars would put the known time-span at considerably less than three weeks."
n.3 Nineham, 1977, pp. 188-9.
(John Hick, The Fifth Dimension, Oneworld, 1999, p. 174)

Hick also doesn't note who are those "many more recent scholars" who "would put the known time-span at considerably less than three weeks."

I'm thinking Nineham misunderstood the Streeter quote you cite. Both statements use the term "[un]recorded." I don't think Streeter is saying Mark's Passion Narrative (presumably Mk 14-16 or even 11-16) is 3 weeks. Streeter's wording is a bit convoluted, especially with the phrase "at the outside." I think Streeter was implying the journey and the end (Mk 10-16) is at the most (i.e., "at the outside") three weeks. And maybe Nineham misunderstood Streeter's remark "at the outside" to refer to the events outside/apart from the journey to the end (Mk 1:14-9:50), which couldn't possibly include the temptations (Mk 1:12-13) since 40 days is far more than 3 weeks. Streeter does go on to then mention that the total number of incidents in the rest of Mark is few which may have caused Nineham's misunderstanding. Just my two cents.

Unknown said...

Well sleuthed. I would agree with Jeff here. Otherwise the coincidence with (a) the precise figure of 3 weeks, AND (b) the fact that attention is drawn to its shortness, AND (c) the fact that no other writer is known to make a point about any particular brief 3 weeks of Jesus - this coincidence is just too great. In this sort of way we can make a rudimentary calculus of likelihoods.
Both were at Queen's Oxford so there may have been oral traditions about Streeter passed on to Nineham; also, Streeter and Nineham will have had common acquaintances (whether or not friends) such as RH Lightfoot and Farrer. Chris.