Scholars Claim Shortest Biblical Text an Impossibility

This is a guest blog by Professor Emeritus Vincent Pauro.

Dr. Klaus Schmidt, an expert on ancient funeral rites, has recently raised serious doubts regarding a key New Testament text. In his book, Rites of Passage, Schmidt questions the historicity of the shortest text of the New Testament describing Jesus response to the death of Lazarus. The active, aorist, indicative, third person – ἐδάκρυσεν, Schmidt claims is never used in contemporaneous Palestinian literature to describe a male peasant response to a non-familial death.  Schmidt points out that there would be severe social constraints arising from male social formation as we now know it to have existed from the upper Lycus Valley and extending into the regions of central Palestine surrounding Bethany.  Open weeping is known to have occurred among several classes and types of persons from professional female mourners, lower to middle class women, to more effeminate upper class males.  There is no extant record of open emotional outpouring having occurred among the trade or peasant class and, in fact, there is a definitive proof against it in Hebrew rites.

The root word θρῆνοι from which “wept” is derived was used in Greco-Roman culture, according to Schmidt, among participants of the cult of the souls.  The departure of the soul is marked with cries of lamentation from female mourners so as to bring pleasure to the departed.  Hebrew funeral rites were specifically formed to counter such notions of soul survival commonly linked with ancestor worship.  Also, the sort of open weeping depicted in John would have marked a definitive legal departure of the soul which could have created difficulty for Mary and Martha with Roman legal authorities in regard to proprietary land rights.  Schmidt concludes that the blurring of male/female social formation combined with Hebrew religious constraints and the threat of Roman legal action is conclusive evidence against the Johannine record.

Conservative apologist, Dr. Joshua Foster, contends that Schmidt has failed to take into consideration Homer and Euripides’ account of male mourners participating in ἐδάκρυσεν.  He also cites evidence from ancient Near Eastern sources of several instances of male ἐδάκρυσεν.  He specifically cites the case of Seneca who declares: “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”  The Stoic embrace of ἐδάκρυσεν and its pervasive influence over areas under Greco Roman influence mitigates, according to Foster, the Hebrew necessity to continually be on guard against the cult of the souls.

Foster also maintains that if one takes into account that Jesus walked approximately 15 stadia from the Jordan River to Bethany, apparently without food, and he is offered no sustenance or place to rest but is ushered immediately into the presence of the weeping Mary and Martha, this would have affected his emotional stability.  Considering that this would have coincided with the period of the summer solstice preceding Passover, temperatures around Bethany could have exceeded 100 degrees Celsius.  Foster sights a 1984 Harvard study that indicates intense emotional expression tends to increase with the temperature and persistent high or low temperatures shape emotional range.  Foster says, “Think here of stoic Scandinavians and emotive equatorial types.”  Given Jesus’ physical condition, the pervasive emotional atmosphere,the Stoic influence, and average temperatures and their impact on emotion and character formation, Foster contends we can continue to trust the Johannine record.

Former theist turned atheist, Robert Loft, claims he was at first convinced by Foster’s argument but came to question Foster’s defense of Jesus’ embarrassing loss of emotional control.  In spite of this, Loft continued to trust the evidence that Foster set forth, then, “It was nearing Christmas last year and a group of Christmas carolers came by during the visit of my Grandmother, a first-generation Norwegian emigrant,” Loft explained.  One of them happened to know the Norwegian carol, “There is light in Quiet Villages.”  He had only sung “Det Lyser i Stille Grender,” when his Grandmother broke out in tears – something Bob had never seen before and which he found highly embarrassing.  Loft, says, “At that moment I became an atheist.  Foster’s entire defense was thrown into question – the Harvard study, the distance from the Jordan to Bethany – for all we know Jesus stopped to eat lunch!  The whole defense was thrown into question and I could no longer believe.”

University of Chicago Theologian, Dr. Paul Kaputo, has responded to the controversy by noting that the Johannine account is not so much concerned to convey an actual historical ἐδάκρυσεν.  John’s account is aimed at eliciting a post-metaphysical authenticity in which the encounter with death and agape love arise simultaneously. It is not the particular occasion which must concern us, according to Kaputo, as this would be to mistakenly presume that the particular provides unique access to absolute truth.  The reverse is the case: the mythical occasion before the tomb of Lazarus reduplicates the existential condition which we all face and Jesus’ reaction points to an understanding of the transcendent that is universally available.

Calvin University theologian, Dr. Alvin Thomas, voiced strong disagreement with Kaputo’s notion that the weeping provides insight to the nature of the absolute. “Jesus may have only accommodated the cultural expectations of first century Palestinians, given his understanding of how Lazarus’ death fits the divine plan.  The weeping cannot have been an authentic lament over death, especially the death of Lazarus, as this would indicate a lack of divine control.” Thomas points out that there is nothing in the text that, of necessity, links the weeping to the demise of Lazarus three days earlier.  Thomas concludes, “One cannot presume to penetrate the divine motive in the human emotional manifestation. In fact, the practice of weeping at funerals in the Christian era is suspect and does not draw upon a proper apprehension of an absolute existential insight.”

For now, the question of the authenticity of the text and of the weeping must remain open.  The only way forward may be, following Kaputo, to suspend the need for the particulars recorded by John.  However, it is not clear, as Thomas points out, that the historical account provides an authentic insight into Jesus’ interior motives.  The historicity of the account and its meaning must remain in suspension until the next meeting of the International Theological Society.  Two sharply divided study groups (one considering the historical-critical proofs and the other debating the mythical or accomodationist nature of the weeping) plan to take up the issue and provide a definitive account of what took place before the tomb of Lazarus.  Meanwhile, it may be wise not to draw any sharp or absolute conclusions from the Johannine account.  The practice of weeping at funerals should probably be muted or constrained until this issue is resolved.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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