‘The Mystery of the Nazarenes’ - Dick Harfield & Peter van 't Riet - 2020

Discussion with Dick Harfield (Australia) about his article ‘The Mystery of the Nazarenes’ [2020a].

Peter van 't Riet - October the 4th 2020

Dear Dick,

I’ve read your interesting article about the Nazarene and Nazareth problem. My impression is that you’ve tried to make a reconstruction of certain historical events and developments starting from the viewpoint that the evangelists presented more or less historically reliable information. In my view however the historical information of the gospels is secondary and subordinated to the “narrative theology” the evangelists expressed in their stories. They were Jewish scribes and story tellers which used midrashic methods to explain the significance of Jesus for the coming of the promised messianic age. They completely adapted the historical information they used to build up their stories, to the argument they would like to express. So, if there had never existed a village with the name Nazareth in Galilee, but they needed it for the message of their story, they would have invented it. This means that the question whether Nazareth did or didn’t exist in Jesus’ time, has little importance for the explanation of its meaning in the gospels.

From the above it also follows that historical argumentations aren’t decisive to determine the altitude and interdependency of the gospels. Literary argumentations are the most important ones in this discussion. And not to forget, the general rule of science that the most preferable theory is that which explains the most data in the simplest way. Furthermore I suppose that the evangelists were Jewish scribes, very well educated in different kinds of Jewish scholarship and creative narrative theologians which didn’t hesitate to disagree with their fellow scribes and evangelists. In my opinion this leads to the theory that the gospel of Mark was the first one. Matthew rewrote it and added his own stories, whereas Luke was acquainted with both of them (Luke 1:1). He used Mark, saw how Matthew had used Mark, took over some stories of Matthews (the so-called Q-materials) and added several stories of his own. Q has never existed. It’s a superfluous hypothesis. The Q-materials form a wholly incoherent set of traditions and last but not least, comparison of the Q-materials of Matthew and Luke leads to several contradictions if they should be explained from a common source. I wrote about it in my book Luke versus Matthew (http://www.petervantriet.nl/article.php?articleID=33), alas not translated in English yet.

What consequences do I see for the problem you’ve tried to solve? First of all that you needed some problematic sustainable hypotheses to build up your argument. For example that Matthew would have seen the gospel of Mark as a prophetical book, what is very improbable. Both evangelists as well as Luke knew what all Jews knew and acknowledged in that time, that written prophesy had ceased in the time of Ezra. Even all apocalyptic writers were convinced of this idea. So there must be another explanation for Matthews appeal on the prophets in 2:23. The most simple one is the following. Matthew (as well as Mark) was convinced that Jesus was a messianic figure like the sprout or branch (netsèr) in prophecies like Isaiah 11:1. You’ve mentioned it in your article. The argument that this Hebrew word is not frequently used for Jesus elsewhere, is only a minor problem as I see it. The evangelists aren’t very consistent in there linguistic usage. And if Matthew could use the word netsèr for his argument in that story he wouldn’t have avoided it for reason that elsewhere another word is more frequently used to render the sprout. Words like Nazarène and Nazoraios are word-plays on the word netsèr or its plural in Hebrew or Aramaic and each even in the own Greek dialect of the concerning evangelist.

Another help-hypothesis you needed is that there must have been a sect of Nazoreans as mentioned in Acts 24:5, of which Jesus could have been a member. But in the only mentioning of such a group (in Acts 24:5) the name is used for the adherents of Jesus and there is no evidence there for the existence of another sect. It’s a historical speculation too, but I suppose that because of the fact that – after his death - Jesus’ adherents saw him as the prophetic sprout, the people in their surroundings began to give them the nickname ‘sprouters’ of ‘branchers’ (Nazoraioi). In the course of time the Jesus community took over this name as an honourable title. Later on it became a title of Jesus himself. I admit, this is a help-hypothesis too, but one that’s simpler and closer to the text of Acts. There’s no need to suppose a non-Christian sect of Nazoreans. I hope my comments will be stuff for further discussions.

Dick Harfield - October the 4th 2020

Hi Peter,

Thank you for your comments, which I appreciate. In partial reply:

- Far from believing that the evangelists presented more or less historically reliable information, I have written elsewhere to the effect that little or nothing in the gospels can be regarded as historically reliable.

- As the gospels were written anonymously in Koine Greek, I see no reason to believe the authors were Jewish scribes, except that they were, to a greater or lesser extent, familiar with Jewish culture.

- I agree that whether Nazareth did or didn’t exist in Jesus’ time has little importance. I believe it existed when Matthew was written (probably 80-90 CE), but even that is not necessary for my thesis to be correct.

- I agree that 'Q' can be dispensed with if Luke's author knew Matthew, but that is a side issue that I brought up briefly to explain why Luke's mention of Nazareth. I am a firm proponent of Q.

- You say it is very improbable that the author of Matthew saw Mark as a prophetic book.
<1> We see from Paul's epistles that the term 'prophet' was used differently than we do today and than you are canvassing there (cf 1 Cor 12:28-29: "And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers...Are all apostles? are all prophets? Also 1 Cor 14:29,32).
<2> The author of Matthew probably had no idea who wrote Mark or how old it was. Given that we can not say the authors were Palestinian Jews, we can not say the author of Matthew believed written prophesy had ceased in the time of Ezra.
-Perhaps the author of Mark and/or the author of Matthew at some stage saw Isaiah 11:1 as referring to Jesus, but that is unclear.

-I acknowledge that the Nazoreans of Acts could have been named after Jesus, but I raise the real possibility that they, or a similar sect (Nazarenes) could have existed long before Jesus. I do not readily rule out alternative possibilities.

-As for what is the simplest explanation, I submit that if Matthew was substantially copied from Mark - as you agree - then the author already knew from that source that Jesus was "called a Nazarene".

BTW - as we both know, the evangelists read the LXX, not the Hebrew scriptures. In the LXX Isaiah 11:1, they would have read ράβδος - not netsèr. Do you think they (or the mainly gentile Christian communities) would even have been aware of the Hebrew play on words?

Peter van 't Riet - October the 6th 2020

Dear Dick,

Thanks for your reaction on my comments. I’ve listed my replies per bullet line of yours.

First - : I agree with you that little or nothing in the gospels is historically reliable but that’s mainly true with respect to historical details as dates, sequences of events and exact wording of sayings. There is however religious- and cultural-historical information in them which is reliable. I’m curious about the kind of literature you think the gospels are and why you are interested in a historical reconstruction about the Nazoraios prophecy.

Second - : The knowledge of Greek was widespread in the first century land of Israel which had been under Greek-Roman occupation for more than 300 years. Many translations of Hebrew books into Greek were made in Jerusalem for the Jews in the diaspora. Many Aramaic speaking Jews knew at least a little bit Greek because that language was omnipresent in the country. In the gospels and Acts there are little or no translation problems among people of different ethnical groups. So I don’t see why a Jewish scribe couldn’t have written a book in Greek meant for his Greek-speaking adherents in the dispersion.

Third - : I agree. No comments.

Fourth - : You are a firm proponent of Q. That’s your right. But did you ever put the Q-materials together? What kind of source could that have been? Aside from the fact that there is no supporting evidence for the existence of such a writing. In my view the source theory is a caricature of how Jewish authors of haggadic stories and halachic arguments operated. The most simple theory, which is able to explain all differences between the gospels is: (Mark --> Matthew)(Mark + Matthew --> Luke) with creative Jewish authors writing in the discussion tradition of contemporary Judaism. Fifth - point <1>: The term ‘prophet’ in the letters of Paul is fairly unclear. He never defined what he meant with it. It looks like an educational function in his Christian congregations (1 Cor. 14:31). In my view it’s about interpreters of Scripture, especially the Prophets, reading them allegorically - just as Paul himself did - and searching in the text for hidden references to the heavenly Christ. In that case it has little to do with what Judaism saw and sees as a prophet.

Fifth - point <2>: Three comments: a) The idea that prophecy had ceased in the time of Ezra was not limited to the Jews of the land of Israel. Aside from the canon of Tora and Prophets there are – as far as I know – no other Jewish books which pretended to be prophetical Scripture, not also in the LXX. The apocalyptical literature is constantly revealing mysteries from the time and the writings of the prophets, but doesn’t present itself as contemporary prophecy in the proper sense of the word. So if the gospel of Mark would have been seen by Matthew as a prophecy, it would have been an extremely important piece of work for him. Why should he rewrite it?
b) From my research on the gospels I frequently draw the conclusion that the evangelists – especially Matthew and Luke – were very well informed about Jewish matters of their time and very skilled in putting their messianic idea in an literary form of high quality. Unfortunately, their stories have often been misinterpreted by Christian exegetes who consider them as Christian instead of Jewish authors.
c) Let’s follow your argumentation: If Matthew saw Mark as a prophetic book, it’s not quite understandable why he rewrote it, often changing, improving and extending his stories and even extending Mark’s gospel as a whole. Please follow my argumentation: If Matthew was a Jewish scribe, then it’s quite understandable why he did so: he was of a different opinion from Mark, just as Jewish sages often disagree about all kind of issues. So in my opinion Matthew was critical about Mark. Which means that one of the pillars of your argument – Mark as a prophet – falls.

Sixth - : There is only one link of Nazarene in Mark and Nazoraios in Matthews 2:23 with the Prophets to be found and that’s the Hebrew word ‘sprout’ (netsèr). Furthermore, its meaning is most significant in the context of both gospels which present Jesus as an alternative messiah contrary to the military messiah son of David many Aramaic Jews had expected in the days of Jesus. What’s more, such word-plays are frequent in the Hebrew and Aramaic literature. It’s in my view the only satisfying explanation of Matthew’s text. His use of Scripture is very extended and often so subtle that many of his references go unnoticed by exegetes.

Seventh - : A sect of Nazarenes in and before the days of Jesus is unknown (as far as I know; and otherwise you would have referred to it). It’s never a strong argument to explain a difficult text from an unknown historical phenomenon disregarding other existing evidence.

Eighth - : You are right. Mark was the first who called Jesus a Nazarene in writing. He could have made the link with netsèr himself (creating his own word-play) or have picked it up from the oral tradition about Jesus which preceded the process of gospel writing. Matthew, as a Jewish scribe, could have omitted it, avoiding the association with the sprout of Isaiah. But contrary he took it over explicating the link with the Prophets and changing it into Nazoraios, obviously a form which fitted in better with his own linguistic usage. It’s the way he frequently made use of Mark’s text. By the way, just like Mark also Matthew could have edited oral traditions about Jesus.

Your BTW : You are right that the evangelists used the LXX in the majority of their quotations from Scripture. If a Jew wrote a book for the Greek speaking Jews in the diaspora he of course used the LXX, because it was already for almost three centuries the Holy Scripture of the Greek speaking Jews and of the God-fearers from the Gentiles. And yes I think that the evangelists and many of their Jewish adherents in the dispersion had enough knowledge of Hebrew to appreciate such a word-play. Let’s have a historical exercise. The oral tradition about Jesus began in Aramaic in the thirties of the first century after Jesus’ death. In the seventies Mark made a written tradition about Jesus in Greek. When, where and how did the translation from Aramaic into Greek occur? Probably that was a gradual process. Stories circulated for a long time in both languages and these versions “interacted” with each other. Mark was the first to collect many of them from this interlinguistic surrounding and to write down a systematic long story in Greek. Matthew took on the task to improve Mark’s writing and in the same time to bring in his own messianic idea about Jesus into his stories. He systematically presents Jesus as a messianic Torah teacher in the footsteps of Moses and with the peaceful side of David (see my book Luke versus Matthew, unfortunately only published in Dutch). The gospels contain far more semitisms than for example the letters of Paul. So, did the evangelists know Hebrew and Aramaic to some extend? Yes, that’s very probable.

Sincerely yours, Peter

Dick Harfield - October the 6th 2020

Thank you for your comments, Peter. I note that how well Greek was known in Palestine is still a matter of discussion, particularly at the level of being able to write fluently in Greek.

Mark's author writes Greek not only as if it is his first language, but shows a considerable mastery of Greek rhetorical techniques far beyond what I would expect to find in Palestine. Matthew's author is a different story, but he only refers to the LXX and does not indicate a knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and may not have had a good command of Hebrew at all. That is relevant to your "Furthermore I suppose that the evangelists were Jewish scribes, very well educated in different kinds of Jewish scholarship..." I suppose we agree the LXX was translated in the diaspora (probably Egypt) for the diaspora. The Hebrew scriptures were used in Palestine by the literate elite.

It is true that I prefer Q over the main alternative Mark ->Matthew->Luke, but that is not relevant to a discussion on Matthew 2:23, so I will leave this and perhaps discuss it with you in a more relevant Discussion.

My reference to Paul's "prophets" was almost an aside, to show that we should not limit Matthew's author to what we, or perhaps biblical Jews, thought "the proper sense of the word" should be. The real issue is that if Matthew's author was copying a substantial amount of material from Mark, then he thought Mark was it was authoritative, so it is a short step from there to regarding its anonymous author as a prophet.

Your Fifth - point <2>b) relies on an assumption that the evangelists were Jews, which is at least as much a presumption as that they were gentiles.

I particularly take issue with your Fifth - point <2>c), because I do not believe Matthew's author disagreed with Mark, although he did make some minor corrections. He was responding to the needs of Christian communities in his own time. To digress: for whatever reason, John's author did not regard his synoptic sources as so authoritative that he could not alter them, Matthew's author tended to keep what he found in Mark, merely elaborating on it and adding new material.

Mark's author appears to have known some Hebrew, but he consistently used the LXX, as of course Matthew's author did. Neither Mark's author nor Matthew's author is likely to have noticed the Hebrew word ‘sprout’ (netsèr) unless it was in the LXX, which it is not. Even if they did, it would require some mental gymnastics to go from there to "spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene."

Peter van 't Riet - October the 7th 2020

Hello, Dick, thanks for your new contribution to our discussion. My reactions I listed per paragraph of yours.

1. In my opinion the language skills of Jewish scribes/authors of the first century shouldn’t be underestimated. Jerusalem had been a tri-linguistic city for centuries (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). Every year big crowds of Greek-speaking Jewish pilgrims from the diaspora visited Jerusalem. There were permanently Greek synagogues in the city to facilitate them and the LXX was used by them for liturgical and scholarly purposes. Jewish authors from the land of Israel could write their books in Greek. For example Flavius Josephus, a contemporary of Mark and Matthew, indeed with the assistance of Greek friends. Rabban Gamliel II, also a contemporary of the evangelists, taught many of his students in Greek. Luke (who was a Jewish author in my view: see my ‘Luke the Jew’ at Amazon.com) wrote the introduction verses of his gospel in perfectly Greek and after it switched immediately to the most Semitic coloured part of the NT, three chapters long. David Flusser even gave Luke priority in the gospel-chain on linguistic grounds. So, in my eyes philological argumentations are rather dubious to build on the exegesis of the gospels.

2. I don’t agree with your remark that “the Hebrew scriptures were used in Palestine by the literate elite” [only; you’ve probably meant]” They were used in the Aramaic speaking synagogues, where in the sabbatical services the meturgeman translated the readings into Aramaic for the less educated people. Nevertheless all religiously educated Jews in the land of Israel had an elementary knowledge of Hebrew if it only were to read or point out their Torah portion in the lectures.

3. Okay, Q could be set aside in this discussion.

4. Your persistency in the prophet discussion inspired me to do a little inquiry to the way Matthew uses the words ‘prophet(s)’ and ‘prophecy’. Mark used these words 9 times, Matthew more than 40 times. So prophecy played a much more important part in his thought than in Mark’s. A quick scan in Matthew tells me that he uses these words mainly as a term for the prophets of Tanakh/LXX (including one time for a psalm of David and one time for Daniel, who both were seen as prophets of the time before Ezra). Two other meanings of these words in Matthew are ‘false prophets’ and the ‘expected prophet of the messianic time’, certainly based on Deuteronomy 18:18. And then some occurrences rest in general admonitions. My conclusion from this material is that it’s very unlikely that Matthew saw his fellow-scribe Mark as a prophet.

5. My thesis that the evangelists and especially Matthew and Luke were Jewish scribes, is more than an assumption. It’s based on my research into the midrash character of both gospels. In the case of Luke you can even say that his Jewishness isn’t an assumption but a conclusion of my research.

6. Your remark that “Matthew's author tended to keep what he found in Mark, merely elaborating on it and adding new material” is largely right. But disagreement in a Jewish scholarly discussion never is about a total disagreement. I think Matthew rewrote Mark because he had a better gospel in mind, a gospel in which the messianic strategy of Jesus, as Matthew saw it, was worked out more fundamentally. Certainly he has founded Jesus’ ministry more firmly on the prophets. Just as one can rewrite a draft version of a publication to a more mature version. The case of Luke is different however: he disagreed with Matthew about their messianic strategies. As you mentioned the same is true for John who from my research wasn’t John but a disciple of Lazarus (forgive me this digression).

7. In conclusion: Our mental gymnastics we perform on different exegetical devices, I think. Your knowledge base differs from that of mine. That’s no problem. It have led to an interesting discussion.

Thanks so far.

Dick Harfield - October the 7th 2020

Hi Peter

Thank you for these comments, which I can see were written after much thought.

I am especially intrigued regarding your comments about Luke having a Jewish background as he has always, since the Early Church Fathers, been regarded as the most gentile of the evangelists. In my own research, I have always regarded Luke as the least important evangelist (other than as a link to John) but your comments may change that.

In your comment #4, you note that Matthew uses the term prophet(s) quite liberally, mostly in respect to the past. He also several times has the people think Jesus was a prophet and has Jesus warn of false prophets (present tense) - useful information in considering what Matthew understood by the term. For my thesis I consider it inconvenient but not fatal that 2:23 refers to prophets in the plural - it may have been done for emphasis (he knew of one, but assures his readers there were others).

Your comment #6 is something I would probably agree with point by point.

Thank you again.

Peter van 't Riet - October the 10th 2020

Hello Dick,

Thanks for your reply three days ago. I’ve been busy writing a chapter of my next book about Paul.

First your question about Luke. My view on the gospels and the evangelists is based on the literary analysis of their stories and especially the midrashic elements in them. That’s not only about overt citations from Tanakh/LXX or about the philologically correct usage of words and expression, but even more about their use of images and the structure of their stories compared with those of stories in the OT.

Next, a thorough comparison between parallel stories in the gospels brings to light the different midrashic approaches of the evangelists. Matthew for example described Jesus as a Moses-figure, but Luke removed almost all Matthews’ links to Moses and made a Joshua-figure of him. In Matthew John the Baptist is an Eliah-figure, but Luke removed those links, because for him Jesus was an Eliah-figure. These are some examples of haggadic midrash elements in their stories.

Furthermore, the analysis of the halachic elements of the gospels have shown me that both evangelists were rather close to the Pharisaic School of Hillel and opposite to the School of Shammai, which was dominant in Jesus’ days. In this respect, Luke isn’t less Jewish than Matthew, but both present Jesus as a model for a different messianic strategy. Luke had indeed to write a second book, which ends not in the Christian church of Rome, but in the Jewish community of Rome! Space is lacking here to elaborate on this. In my book ‘Luke the Jew’ (for sale at Amazon.com in an English version) I discussed it extensively. I hope I’ve made you curious about it.

Secondly, your reply to my comment #4. I think the plural ‘prophets’ in Matthew 2:23 should also be inconvenient for you. Indeed, in your opinion Matthew knew one prophet as a source in this case (Mark) and maybe some more, but there are no indications that other books circulated in those days which were seen as prophetical, except the canonical Prophets. So what else could the plural mean than the Prophets of the OT? And that’s very well explainable in my eyes.

As I’ve expounded in the former paragraph the evangelists often made use of images from the OT, more than exact wordings. That’s understandable from the Hebrew thought and the parallelism in the Hebrew literature. Now the image of the ‘sprout’ or ‘branch’ occurs not only in Isaiah (11:1 Hebrew chotèr as well as netsèr), but also in Zechariah (3:8 and 6:12 Hebrew tsèmach). In the eyes of the midrashist Matthew Nazoraios and Nazareth were not only related to netsèr in Isaiah, but via netsèr also with the comparable image in Zechariah. This explains the plural ‘prophets’. An exact citation from the LXX – as Matthew regularly applied elsewhere - had no sense in this case, because the link was built on the word stem of netsèr and the images of its equivalents in Hebrew, and not on the Greek words the LXX uses as their translations. That’s the way midrash can work.

I hope you’ll appreciate my present contribution.

Dick Harfield - October the 10th 2020

Hi Peter I very much appreciate your comments -- that is why I presented my paper for discussion.

You would need 'Matthew' and/or 'Luke' to be Jewish and literate in Hebrew for them to be aware of netsèr. As soon as you acknowledge they almost invariably used the LXX for their OT source, you break the link that gives them the opportunity or reason to consider that meaning.

Luke did not "removed almost all Matthews’ links to Moses" unless he was using Matthew as a source. I would reckon this difficulty to be a point in favour of Q, and not Matthew, as his second source (after Mark).

Peter van 't Riet - October the 11th 2020

Hello Dick,

A short reply on your both comments.

1. I don’t understand your first point. Most of the midrash approaches of Matthew as well as Luke are semantical instead of philological. They use comparable images from their sources irrespectively whether their sources used the same words. So using the LXX in the most cases is no argument at all for their knowledge or lack of knowledge of Hebrew. But there is enough evidence from other parts of the gospels than only Mat. 2:23, that they had knowledge of Hebrew and/or Aramaic to some extent. Several times they improve the text of the LXX in the direction of the Hebrew MT. For Matthew you can find the examples in M.D. Goulder’s Midrash and Lection in Matthew. Goulder even keeps open (with argumentation) that Nazoraios could be derived from the Hebrew Nazir. In my view there are no indications that Matthew saw Jesus as a Nazir. Contrary, there is enough data that he could have seen him as the sprout from the house David. Finally, Nazareth and Nazoraios are words from a Hebrew stem. So Matthews reference to the Prophets could have been to the Hebrew text of the Prophets only.

2. Luke removes Matthew’s references to Moses not only in the so-called Q-materials, but also in the common materials of Mark and Matthews. The same he does with their Eliah references to John the Baptist. There are much more arguments why Luke could have used Mark as well as Matthew. Often he adds something to the text of Mark, that also Matthew had added to it already. Luke found the Q-materials in Matthew and applied them in the quite different context of his own gospel in the meantime changing them in accordance with his own view on Jesus. The so-called M-texts he omitted and the so-called L-materials (his own stories!) he added. It’s the way many other Jewish books in those days came into existence.

[End of the discussion]

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