My friend and occasional academic patron Dennis MacDonald is a genius and all NT scholars need to start taking his work seriously, damnit.
That said, I don’t go as far as Dennis does with mythopoesis. I can’t accept that Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea were fabricated out of whole cloth to fit into Homeric storylines. Mary “Tower-Town” does certainly play a role highly similar to Andromache and Joseph “Correct-Disciple” does indeed come across as a Priam redivivus.
It just occurred to me how my discovery of the First Gospel (Qn) and its reconstruction together with the Third Gospel (Early Luke or the Gospel of Marcion) might just be the key to reconcile MacDonald’s Mimesis Critical insights with the actual, historical followers of the historical Jesus.
Qn was written between 50 and 65 CE, then later used as the main source by Early Luke / Gospel of Marcion in the 80s. It just so happens that the mention of Joseph in the Qn/GMarc passion and burial of Jesus appears without the surname Arimathea.
While the text of Qn/GMarc is missing in the passages where Late Luke (117-138 CE) speaks of Mary Magdalene (8:1-3; 24:11-12), Mary was almost certainly there. What might not have been there, if Qn follows the same pattern for Mary as for Joseph, is the surname Magdalene!
Miryam, they called her, just Miryam. Not “Tower-Town Maria.”
Iosef, they called him, just Iosef. Not “Correct-Disciple Josephus.”
The same pattern also apparently holds in Qn for the names of Simon and Judas: no reference to Peter or to Iscariot, which surnames enter into the Gospel strata starting with Mark.
Miryam, Iosef, Shimon, Iuda–such were the pre-Markan names of the Jewish, Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark in the 70s gave them proper dramatic masks from Homeric epic to make them more respectable.
Miryam as Yehoshua’s first follower? Hmm, where have I heard those names before? Wait, didn’t Moshe/Moses have Yehoshua/Joshua/Iesous/Jesus as his faithful friend and future successor? And didn’t Moshe have a sister named Miryam who led the people in worship at Yam Suph and in the wilderness?
Yehoshua and Miryam–that suspiciously sounds to me like the perfect pair of co-leaders to bring about a New Exodus, a new slave revolt.
But the use of these names didn’t stop with the first Gospel (Qn), did they?
Interesting, don’t you think, that the First and the Third Gospels have no parents for Jesus?
Interesting, don’t you think, as the Jesus legends grew that the names Miryam and Iosef were repurposed as the names of Jesus’ parents? I’ve read Bauckham and know that Miryam/Mary and Iosef/Joseph were very common names at the time, but still, the pairing does make one wonder whether the parents of Jesus were later fabrications, ones that fit traditional gender and respectable family roles and especially and effectively displaced the original Miryam from her place as Jesus’ kingmaker, patron, revolutionary partner, and community leader and tradition bearer after his death.
While I realize it sounds highly scandalous and unorthodox, perhaps the time has come for us to take seriously the possibility that the Historical Jesus was an illegitimate child, having no known father or known mother.
Rabbinic Jewish tradition and texts maintained that Jesus was illegitimate, even for it to be well-known enough to appear in the writing of the Greek philosopher Celsus.
While the specific Rabbinic accusation of the illegitimacy of Jesus was demeaning and dismissive–that his mother was raped by a Roman soldier–perhaps underneath the vitriol we can find a kernel of historical truth.
Perhaps the Historical Jesus was simply an orphan.
His first story, his first Gospel (Qn), lacks the parentage and familial legitimacy befitting of Greco-Roman biographies (bioi), especially for great political leaders or heroes.
With each successive layer of Gospel texts written, Christological heightening grew, with each text trying to outdo its immediate precursor by making Jesus a legitimate child:
Mark (70s): Jesus’ mother is Mary; she thinks he is crazy, but at least she was there at his funeral and burial
Matthew (90s): Jesus’ parents are Mary and Joseph; he’s got a royal genealogy spanning back to all the greats in Jewish royal and ancient history; three rich foreign rulers acclaim him as king and Herod fears him as a future rival to the throne; his birth amidst persecution puts him in the company of Moses, his virgin birth makes him a new Alexander the Great (h/t Richard C. Miller), and both of these legends are recalled by his sojourn in Egypt
Late Luke (117-138): Jesus’ mother comes from a family of priests and she herself is a prophet; Jesus was not just a planned child, he was a divinely planned child, who was born and circumcised fully in keeping with Jewish ritual traditions, and also apparently educated in keeping with aristocratic Hellenistic traditions; Jesus not only has a genealogy going back to Abraham, but to Adam and even God himself; as divinely conceived and divine in ultimate lineage, Jesus has double divine-paternity (h/t Michael Kochenash); indeed, Jesus rivals Caesar Augustus (Octavian) in having a mother pictured like Caesar’s pious temple-visiting and virgin-birth giving mother Atia
For those of you deeply offended by these critical ideas and discussions about the Historical Jesus being an illegitimate or orphaned child, please consider how every illegitimate and orphaned child in the world might feel when they hear this original good news. Ask them how they feel and then explain to them why they are not allowed to find familiarity and solidarity with the actual, historical founder of what became the world’s largest and most influential religion.