Saturday, April 23, 2011

Another Important Parallel Between the Samaritan Book of Joshua and Mark's 'Gospel of Jesus': Both Tell the Story of a One Year Ministry of 'Jesus'

As a representative of the unbaptized, I have to confess to have always found it strange that Christians inevitably miss a lot of what is strange and wonderful about their religion.  The gospel narrative is an example of this.  Doesn't it ever strike people as strange the way the story of Jesus's ministry develops?  At some point Jesus 'comes down' to a particular town of little importance.  A most confusing journey begins - the kind that is usually only pieced together after a hangover - which at first seems to have little or no rational purpose.  Tiberias, the only great Galilean city is avoided and instead we are taken through a procession of forgettable hamlets and fishing villages until it is just as suddenly announced that Jesus has to die in Jerusalem.

My point is that there is no apparent logic to the arrangement of the narrative.  Most believers of course think that Mark is faithfully preserving 'the ministry of Jesus.'  But if the evangelist is just developing his narrative from accurate 'notes' of this historical journey why aren't days and months given for the events?  I will avoid the question of whether Mark was an eyewitness for the sequence he recorded (cf. Muratorian canon).  The notes came from somewhere.  There should be no question that this surely couldn't have been the extent of Jesus's travels nor of Jesus's teachings.

Clement of Alexandria tells us that Jesus's ministry lasted a single year.  This is the same opinion associated with the heretical Marcosians which Irenaeus attacks in Book Two of Against Heresies.  The Diatessaron supposes a two year ministry and Irenaeus goes so far as to claim that it actually lasted almost twenty years.  The point however is that the longer we suppose that it was, the more puzzling the narrative appears.  For there is no getting around the fact that aside from the references to Jewish festivals the gospel was not meant to be a 'travel journal' of Jesus' ministry.

So what is the gospel, then?  There is no question that the narrative more closely resembles the early Jewish pseudo-historical genre (i.e. the Torah, the Book of Joshua etc) than any surviving pagan text.   Yet there are important differences here too.  If we follow Clement's interpretation for the moment, the gospel is the story of a single year in the life of an individual living in Palestine.  The Torah concerns itself with countless generations of history spanning the creation of the world down to the death of Moses.  There can be no denying that the gospel of Jesus much more closely resembles the book of Joshua which - in the Jewish version of the narrative - tells the story of the conquest of Canaan which began in a Jubilee year and lasted a full seven years after that.

Yet the Samaritan version of the Book of Joshua stands actually much closer to the description of the gospel of Jesus insofar as the conquest is explicitly said to have lasted exactly one year:

And he (Yush’a) continued descending upon one city after another, and taking possession of them, and doing with the rebellious like unto what we have already mentioned, until he had completed the subjugation of the territories, and then he returned in the first month of the second year. And it resulted, that he, in one year, took possession of all their territories, and this was the region of the seven Kana’anites, whose fame is enduring, well known and spread abroad. Then he and all who were with him removed apart for purification; now there descended from the blessed mountain a great river which watered the lowlands, and to it the king went down with all his army. And when he had completed his purification, el-Azar the imam offered up for the sacrifices, and they celebrated a grand feast, the carrying out of which was complete and consummate. Never was there witnessed a better feast than it; for the people were united, not having as yet dispersed throughout their territorial sections, and when they did shout, and praise, and exult with halleluiahs, they were heard in the most distant and remote places. And when the feast was over, the king and his assembly gathered together, and began to arrange the distribution of the territories among their people; and they asked God, Mighty and Powerful, for His favor and guidance. [chapter 21]

The Jewish version of Joshua by contrast avoids all reference to the number of years the conquest lasted. We only arrive at the number of seven years by references to the age of Caleb and the allusion in chapter 13 that "Joshua was old and advanced in years when the Lord said to him, 'You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land remains to be possessed.'" Yet the Samaritan text has none of this and as noted assigns a single year to the entire conquest.

The natural question of course is why should any of us believe that the Samaritan account was known to Mark. Can it even be argued that the Samaritan text goes back to an older and better source than the Masoretic MS? My friend Ruaridh Boid has already proved that this is true in his monograph on the subject (cf. I.R.M. Bóid, The Transmission of the Samaritan Joshua-Judges, DS-NELL vol. VI, pp.1-30). As he notes we should be careful not to confuse all the different surviving material related to the Book of Joshua in Samaritan sources. One text extant in an Arabic translation of an Aramaic abridged translation from Hebrew, is not to be confused with the book in Hebrew touted as the Samaritan Book of Joshua by John Macdonald and since 1964 by A.D. Crown, which was written at the start of the 20th century by a known author as a guide for Europeans interested in the Samaritans! The fact has been demonstrated in print several times starting in 1908.

For our present purposes it is enough to note again that there seems to be an unrecognized very important similarity between the gospel of Jesus and the Samaritan Book of Joshua in that both text actually describe a 'one year ministry' as it were of a figure named 'Jesus.' This should go alongside the notice we made of the Passion narrative of 'Secret Mark' (really the longer version of the 'Gospel of Jesus' originally written by Mark) more closely resembling Samaritan Joshua too. It is a very nice day today so I want to catch some sun. I hope this is enough to get people interested in pursuing this topic some more ...

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