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Unexplained allusions: The sons of thunder

I have written in various places, as has my husband, Tim, about the argument for the historicity of the gospels and Acts from undesigned coincidences. I won't try to link all of those posts, but you can start here, here, and here. (One of these has links to a series Tim did on the subject.)

A related but slightly different line of evidence is the argument from unexplained allusions.

As it happens, one half of many an undesigned coincidence is an (otherwise) unexplained allusion. For example, Luke tells us that Pilate, prompted by the Jewish leaders' charge of sedition against Jesus, asks Jesus if he is a king. Jesus confirms that he is, and Pilate, surprisingly, returns and tells the crowd, "I find no fault in him." This is an unexplained turn of events which apparently alludes to some part of their conversation not recorded in Luke. And indeed, we find in John that Jesus says more, telling Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world" and assuring Pilate that his disciples are not going to fight to deliver him. The extra information in John explains what is unexplained in Luke: Why did Pilate say that he found no fault in Jesus after Jesus had apparently confirmed the charge that he was setting himself up as a king? The two passages fit together like two pieces of a puzzle to give us a realistic picture of a portion of Jesus' trial. Each one is written in exactly the casual way one would expect to find from a witness (in Luke's case, whatever witness was his source) who does not stop to explain every bit of his story but merely tells events as they now come back to him.

Sometimes, we find an unexplained allusion for which we never get an explanation. This, too, is evidence for the historicity of the text. In Mark (and only in Mark), we find the following, in a list of Jesus' twelve disciples:

And Simon he surnamed Peter; And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder. (Mark 3:16-17)

Nowhere else are we told that Jesus called James and John the sons of thunder. Nowhere is this surname expressly explained. In particular, it is not explained in Mark, and even more particularly, it is not explained when Mark mentions the nickname. Mark does not introduce this nickname (nor Simon's) by way of a story, nor does he follow either of them with a story in this passage. Not so much as an explanatory phrase in passing tells us how the nickname "Boanerges" came to be given by Jesus.

We may guess that a clue to "Boanerges" is found in Luke 9:53-54, where James and John suggest calling down fire on a Samaritan town after the people there refuse to receive Jesus. Perhaps this is an indication of their personalities. But that, though interesting, is not clearly the correct explanation. If Jesus gave the nickname earlier in his ministry, it cannot be the only explanation. There could in any event be many possible reasons for Jesus to give the nickname. One must consider that John in particular was almost certainly quite young at the time, possibly only a teenager. Anyone who has ever known teenage boys or even college-age young men can think of plenty of reasons for calling a pair of brothers "the sons of thunder"! Maybe they were especially loud and boisterous. Maybe they scuffled with each other and with the other disciples. Maybe the Samaritan incident was only one in a series of cases where they thought it would be cool to blow up a city--boom! The sons of thunder.

The fact is that we simply don't know for sure. But that is itself a fascinating point. The passage in Mark is a list of the names of Jesus' disciples. That's it. It's just a list. In its very bareness lies its verisimilitude. What other reason than truth, and truth remembered by one in a position to know, could there be for telling us en passant that Jesus nicknamed James and John Boanerges, the sons of thunder? The detail serves no literary purpose. It serves no theological agenda. Of course there must have been a reason, maybe several reasons, for the bestowal of this nickname, but Mark, following his source (probably Peter), feels no compulsion to tell us what that reason is. Perhaps Mark never found out from Peter what the reason was. The detail is taken to be worth mentioning in itself, but only as part of the list of the disciples. This is who they were. This was what Jesus, the Master, called them.

This is just one small, internal mark of truth (no pun intended) in the gospels. There are so many others. I want to suggest, too, that laymen may be cuing to these marks of truth unconsciously. The gospels read like memoirs. They don't read like abstract, ahistorical, pious "holy books." They don't read like made-up stories. It is no exaggeration to say that the relationship between the disciples who wrote or served as sources for the gospels and Jesus was like the relationship between Boswell and Johnson. Jesus emerges as an historical figure not only real, but real in remembered detail. I believe that people can see this even if they can't articulate what they are seeing.

This is in itself evidence for the truth of Christianity. For if this, this story, including the miraculous parts, including Jesus' resurrection and their meetings with him afterwards, is really what the disciples were claiming, and if they really were close to the events, really in a position to know, and if they were willing to die for their testimony, why? What explanation is there for it, since they had so little to gain and so much to lose?

It is little details such as this one in Mark that, in the aggregate, blow to smithereens the fantastical ideas of literary biblical criticism that would give us four gospels built by layers of unhistorical accretion.

The evidence for the historicity of the gospels (and of other parts of Scripture as well) is so strong in part because it is varied in type. Apologists should add the unexplained allusion to their toolbox of internal evidences.

Comments (28)

Excellent and useful, as usual, Lydia.

Wait a minute, who are these literary critics who argue that the gospels are unhistorical? I haven't read much literary criticism of the New Testatment (I've read more on the Hebrew Bible), but none of the literary critics I've read got into the main historicity questions of the gospels much if at all. Or maybe I just misunderstood your use of "literary."

But even source critics often try to avoid the question of the historicity of the story: just because the gospels were "built by layers of accretion" doesn't mean the events didn't happen. Among those who do deal in questions of historical fact, I don't think it's controversial nowadays that Jesus of Nazareth existed, that he had disciples, etc.

I think your point is undeniable that the "remembered" style of the gospels, as opposed to the fairy tale style of the Book of Esther or the omniscient narration of the Book of Genesis, is evidence in favor of historicity. But these "sons of thunder" allusions don't seem to add anything to the evidence, given that we already know the gospels are "remembered." I think you're right about the cues that laymen pick up unconsciously, but those are simply the indications that the gospels are written as remembered history.

"What reason other than truth?" Maybe the "sons of thunder" episode is historically accurate. Or maybe the disciples had somehow acquired that nickname (orally or in writing), and the evangelist felt it was significant enough in his community to mention it in the gospels. Or maybe he believed the story as narrated. At the other extreme, maybe he consciously invented it as a "just so" story to explain the existing nickname and add historical authority to his account. Or maybe anywhere in between those extremes. I think there are lots of plausible reasons other than truth.

At the other extreme, maybe he consciously invented it as a "just so" story to explain the existing nickname and add historical authority to his account.

That's actually extremely _implausible_. If you read things that are obviously or known to be non-historical from around that period, e.g., the gnostic "gospels" of the next century, you don't find anything like that at all.

And notice: There _is_ no just-so story. If he were inventing it, he would very probably have given a just-so story--this is how they came to have that name. It is precisely because no story is given that it is very implausible that it was invented. That is not how an inventor would be at all likely to do it. Inventors don't just drop little bits and pieces like that without explanation.

I find it interesting that for 3/4 of your comment you speak as though I am not making any controverted point at all and then in the last paragraph you suddenly imply that invention is perfectly plausible. It is that sort of incorrect judgement that this argument, along with many others, is intended to rebut.

I really mean "remembered history" in a strong sense. You imply that you and everybody else grants the point for which I am arguing, Aaron, but actually, I don't think you do grant it, as shown by the final paragraph.

just because the gospels were "built by layers of accretion" doesn't mean the events didn't happen.

Aaron, I don't know what books you are reading, but there are certainly critical accounts of the Gospels where the author basically asserts (without anything approaching actual direct evidence) that the gospels were begun (possibly in oral form) by people who did NOT ACTUALLY KNOW the historical facts from their own experience, nor working off of direct first-hand historical accounts by people who were there and saw what happened and could (and would) correct the stories' minutiae, and that they wrote what they wrote not intending to recount history but to account for _spiritual_ truths through allegorical stories. They shunt aside the question "but did the events ever happen this way" as a "wrong question," since (according to them) it starts at the wrong frame of mind - that "whether they happened" even matters in understanding the Gospels. If you have not encountered this sort of critical approach, lucky you, you have much to be thankful for. I have, and it grates on so many levels it is hard to know where to start in objecting.

Or maybe the disciples had somehow acquired that nickname (orally or in writing), and the evangelist felt it was significant enough in his community to mention it in the gospels.

Look at this more carefully. Suppose in the year 50 or 60 the two "Sons of Thunder" are known by that epithet in their communities. If a writer of fiction or allegory wishes to "account for" this current fact, he will "trace" it back to a prior event that 'makes sense' out of the epithet, so that it gives the story he is _otherwise_ telling verisimilitude. This sort of usage works if the account ties in the result - the name itself - with some sort of event fact that accounts for the name. This prior event works even better as a 'verifier' if it is already a known historical fact, something everyone knows independently. It hardly does anything at all as a verifier if all it does is to say "because he said so, privately where the only witness was me and my dear pals, none of whom happen to be here to confirm my account." That's not the sort of thing one does in well-made literature of fiction or allegory, that's the sort of thing one finds in really poorly made, really dull and mundane works. But the whole of this critical method attempts to treat the works as being beautifully crafted on many layers of meaning, many layers of symbolism, a work of divine art through whole generations of human writers...except where it is as dull as ditch-water, that is. They forget completely that God, the Artificer Transcendent, can and does use actual events with real people to generate the most central, most critical elements of His "story" that he wants told, and that said "story" has all the more impact and meaning *by being the literal historical truth*. Or, worse yet, they reduce God Himself to a mere allegory for the "world force" (read: 'The Force') of panentheistic gnosticism.

I think Aaron may think that when I use a word like "historical" I just mean in very general terms: Jesus existed, he had disciples, etc. Of course I know that actual Jesus mythers are very much in the kooky fringe in biblical studies. But I mean something much stronger than that. I mean that the gospels were either written by the close associates of Jesus or by those who were, at most, a *very small* number of removes (e.g., Mark listening to Peter, Luke interviewing apostles and perhaps Mary and other women) from Jesus and had as sources people in a position to be actual eyewitnesses of the events in question. And what I mean to say is that the accounts bear the marks of being from those in that sense very close to the events, those "in the know," who are artlessly recounting what they remember.

Moreover, I did not say this in the main post, but there is no distinction in the gospels in these marks of truth that falls cleanly along miraculous/non-miraculous lines. For example, the feeding of the five thousand has quite a few of such marks of truth, undesigned coincidences, surrounding it.

This is all very uncomfortable for _any_ notion (which is, of course, rife in New Testament studies) of separating a minimalistic historical Jesus from the Christ of faith, or any notion of various layers of added legendary content in the gospels, a gradual development and elaboration of a minimal historical core. It just doesn't look like it, upon examination.

Lydia's post reminds me of a passage from Andrews Norton's Internal Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels, pp. 192-94:

Among those proofs, then, equally of authenticity and of genuineness, which are found in the Gospels, one of the most important may be thus stated. In the narratives of the Evangelists, the existence of many facts which are not expressly mentioned is implied. In order to understand fully what is told, and to perceive its bearing and application, we must take into view very much that is not told. There is to be found in almost every part of the Gospels a latent reference to some existing state of things which is not described. But when we attend to the character of those facts with which different portions of the narrative are thus connected, we find that they are all probable or certain; that we have distinct evidence of them from other sources; or that, supposing the truth of what is related in the Gospels, and viewing this in connection with all our other knowledge on the subject in question, they are such as must or might have existed. The inferences from these histories, though many and various, are all consistent with the histories themselves, and with whatever we can learn from other sources. In tracing out the necessary or probable bearing of those actions and discourses which are recorded, or in assigning their probable occasions or consequences, we detect no inconsistency with the history itself, and find no contradiction of known facts; but, on the contrary, we are continually perceiving new marks of probability and truth. This coincidence between what is told and what is implied, this correspondence between the actions and discourses related and that state of things and series of events to which they refer as existing contemporaneously and running parallel with them, does not appear here and there only, but discovers itself throughout the Gospels. But this consistency of the narrative with itself, both in what is told and in what may be inferred from it, and its consistency with all other known facts having a bearing upon it, is evidently not the work of study or artifice. It is not worth while to inquire whether it could in any case be produced by such means; because there is no dispute that the whole character of the Gospels is opposed to such a supposition. They are very inartificial compositions. If, moreover, the coincidences of which we speak had been factitious, and intended to give an air of probability to the narrative, they would not have been left so latent and obscure as they often are. The writer would have taken care that they should be noticed by the reader. On the contrary, those to which we particularly refer are obviously undesigned. If, then, the appearances which have been described really exist, they can be accounted for only by the truth of the history. It is impossible that a fiction pretending to the character of true history, especially a fiction relating to such events as are recorded in the Gospels, should be so consistent with itself, with probability, and with known facts, in such a number and variety of latent coincidences.

In the case of the designation "sons of thunder," our lack of knowledge leaves the comment unexplained. Those addicted to purely literary criticism may find it tempting to suppose that there is some esoteric meaning here, deliberately hidden from all but the initiates to whom it will be divulged. Something similar is often done with other passages, e.g. the 153 fish in John 21, or the number of loaves and baskets in Mark 8, or the number twelve in the juxtaposed narratives of the woman with the issue of blood and the raising of Jairus' daughter in Mark 5. Their line of thought is that since the narrator does not explain these things to the reader, they clearly had a secret meaning, not written down but communicated orally to initiates of sufficient rank. But this way lies madness.

Thoughts, off the top of my head, to support Lydia's fascinating post.

1. The compelling portrait of Jesus comes to us through two writers who are NOT native speakers of Greek but who may have composed in Aramaic first, then trying to transmute it into Greek (Matthew, Mark); a writer who IS a native speaker of Greek and is an excellent writer, who yet has some Aramaic and who preserves some Hebraisms in Jesus' speech (Luke); and an excellent writer who is composing in a language that is foreign to him, and who imports a Hebrew poetic style into his Greek, without necessarily thinking first of Hebrew words (John). Now then, you can't find writers less likely to "organize" into a conspiracy....

2. It seems clear to me that unless you have external and frankly ideological reasons for supposing a late date for Luke, you have to suppose that ACTS has been written before the death of Saint Paul, since the story ends before then, and Paul is the major figure in the text, and Luke was WITH Paul in the latter part of his ministry. But that places LUKE before ACTS. But if LUKE is dependent upon Mark and Matthew, that puts MARK and MATTHEW before LUKE. All three gospels then must have been written no later than Paul's death in Rome; and in fact we'd have to suppose a good ten years of "space" between the earliest and LUKE. The idea that LUKE was written after 70, because Jesus prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem, is contemptibly silly, on several grounds: FIRST, we are talking about the Son of God; SECOND, it would hardly have required great powers of prophecy to predict that the Romans would someday destroy the city; THIRD, it is hard to believe that people who lived in Judea did not sometimes hear threats of such wholesale destruction.

3. Luke is a fine writer, but I don't mean to suggest that he was a master of characterization. He isn't. Matthew, Mark, and John are not, either. The character of Jesus comes through nevertheless, and the same character, too. His patterns of speech come through: "With what measure you measure, so shall it be measured out to you." That is HEBREW poetry. Nobody but a Hebrew could do that; and no Hebrew would salt his narrative with it if he was trying to preach to Greeks and other pagans.

4. I've had the odd experience of proceeding through JOHN and REVELATION with extreme care, slowly, in a most foreign language: early modern Welsh. That experience has persuaded me that we have the same author. There is simply NO way to imitate the back-and-forth interweaving of motifs, Hebrew-style, along with back-and-forth considerations of TIME, not in Hebrew but from the start in Greek, in a language that is obviously foreign to you. People have a hard enough time imitating a writer in their own language, let alone in a foreign language; nor would there be any reason to engage in it, since nobody would have cared for a moment about the "style" of JOHN and REVELATION...

Tony E., fascinating comment from a linguistic point of view. Thank you very much! Have you done I, II, and III John in Welsh also? It seems to me that the same stylistic points would come through there as well. The man leaves his stamp on everything he touches.

Tim has a guest post here on the authorship of the fourth gospel that you might also enjoy:

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2012/05/on_the_authorship_of_the_fourt.html

Do you think there is any scope here for those who advocate some sort of ‘pesher technique’, in trying to associate James and John, or more specifically, Zebedee their father, with the Qumran community?
If Zebedee had some rotating priestly/temple function, the appellation “sons of thunder” could be a means of joining the esoteric dots so to speak.

No. I think attempts to make up esoteric explanations are very ad hoc. Think of the nicknames we give each other. Sometime just imagine someone applying a heavy literary technique to a casual reference to the nicknames you give your children or the nicknames of your friends. Or for that matter to the street names or names of stores in your town that you might mention if telling a story. It would be a funny exercise, akin to the book _The Pooh Perplex_. But it would show the basic point: Reality is just like this. And as I said in the main post, one can even envisage several entirely non-esoteric reasons for calling two young guys "the sons of thunder."

Lydia, thanks for the reply. Your point about just-so stories is well taken. You're right of course that I shouldn't have called it a just-so story. I do stand by the point about historical context: if "sons of thunder" already had some meaning in the evangelist's community, then it's reasonable that the he would have put in a reference to it.

I hadn't known about critics who deny that "whether it happened" even matters. If they mean that theologically, then it just seems insane. I can imagine them bracketing that question to study the discourse, which seems very reasonable: studying what people at the time thought had happened given only what they themselves knew. But denying that it matters to us? Crazy.

If my comment seemed self-contradictory, first saying that your post is uncontroversially true and then that it's wrong, I'll try to explain. The uncontroversial part is that Jesus existed and at least some of the events happened, to some extent as described. Also, that the "remembering" style of the gospels or of any other historical text (i.e., a text that claims to be narrating what happened) is weight on the side of historicity. What I think is wrong is (to put it Bayesianly) that unexplained allusions like this add, conditionally, anything substantial to the evidence of historicity, given that we already know the gospels are written in a "remembering" style. In other words, I think your "what reason other than truth?" conclusion is very wrong, at least about this one reference.

Actually, I even think that your unexplained-allusions argument is precariously close to contradicting itself. You say that unexplained allusions, or this one at least, are very strong evidence of historicity ("what reason other than truth?"). But any author wanting to create the appearance of historicity could easily add unexplained allusions. A sign of truth that can easily be faked is not a sign of truth. I think your only way out of self-contradiction is to assume or argue that Luke would have been either unable to see what you see about this literary device, or unwilling to use it falsely.

This point about self-contradiction doesn't apply to other textual evidence of historicity that you and your husband have discussed. That's because things like unexpected agreement between texts can't easily be faked, unless one believes in some kind of a conspiracy theory.

I mean that the gospels were either written by the close associates of Jesus or by those who were, at most, a *very small* number of removes (e.g., Mark listening to Peter, Luke interviewing apostles and perhaps Mary and other women) from Jesus and had as sources people in a position to be actual eyewitnesses of the events in question. And what I mean to say is that the accounts bear the marks of being from those in that sense very close to the events, those "in the know," who are artlessly recounting what they remember.

If that's the case, then why didn't the evangelists - especially Luke! - say something like that? Why not introduce the gospels with, "These are events that I witnessed," or "This is the account told to me by Ploni, who was there"?

Just to be clear: I'm not saying that the lack of such an intro is strong evidence against your belief. I'm just wondering why the evangelists would avoid such an obvious and relevant means of establishing authority?

A quick note for Aaron above:

Nobody did that sort of thing. We have no evidence of such sprinklings, such unexplained allusions, in any other bits of strictly historical writing. You are projecting modern expectations backwards.

And also modern requirements. (By the way, John does say that he witnessed these things, as does Peter.)

Aaron, interesting comments, and I will answer a bit at a time.

I do stand by the point about historical context: if "sons of thunder" already had some meaning in the evangelist's community, then it's reasonable that the he would have put in a reference to it.

Unless by "meaning in the evangelist's community" you just mean that James and John existed and had this appellation, this conjecture is being made entirely out of thin air. If that is what you mean, then not only do we have no independent evidence that the name carried on beyond Christ's lifetime (and Acts records that James was executed very early anyway), but also there is no reason to think that the evangelist put in a *non-factual* account of the origin of the appellation. One might as well believe the simpler explanation--that if they were called that in the community, it was because Jesus had called them that.

The uncontroversial part is that Jesus existed and at least some of the events happened, to some extent as described.

Okay, but as I clarified, I mean something stronger and more controversial than that.

What I think is wrong is (to put it Bayesianly) that unexplained allusions like this add, conditionally, anything substantial to the evidence of historicity, given that we already know the gospels are written in a "remembering" style.

We only know that the gospels are written in a remembering style in a way that can be used in argument with skeptics (or NT critics) if we bring out that remembering style in detail and say what we mean. Conditionalizing on something vague is never as useful probabilistically as conditionalizing on evidence made specific and explicit. Moreover, I notice that you yourself say that you acknowledge that the gospels were written in a remembering style and yet question my stronger, more controversial conclusion. I think that itself shows that, in an important sense, you have not already fully conditionalized on what I would want to bring out as details of the remembering style. So what I'm doing here is really making a new argument (to you)and urging you to acknowledge the force of it, which is not an attempt to make an illicit Bayesian "double dip" or anything of that kind.

But any author wanting to create the appearance of historicity could easily add unexplained allusions. A sign of truth that can easily be faked is not a sign of truth. I think your only way out of self-contradiction is to assume or argue that Luke would have been either unable to see what you see about this literary device, or unwilling to use it falsely.

I think you mistake how easy it would be to do something (in one sense of "easy") for the probability that someone would do something. In one sense, it would be quite easy for me to do lots of things that I never actually do. (Post fake stories on Facebook, for example.)

As far as being unable to see something, I actually think there is some truth in that. There are many things that we cue to as signs of truth that liars don't think of and don't do. One does not find false witnesses in court doing the kind of thing I am talking about, for example. In fact, J.Warner Wallace of "Cold Case Christianity" has pointed out that liars tend to "go vague." I think it very unlikely that anyone forging a gospel would even *think* of this as a way of "making it look true," much less actually do it. The thing is that it really isn't a literary device. It is very boring and unliterary.

Also, if we take it that Mark was at least written within the lifetime of some of the people involved (Peter and John, for sure), then making up a nickname that Jesus gave them in a document that they and others in the community would read would be rather silly. It would be easily refuted.

It's also important to remember that it is anachronistic to attribute to the evangelists the desire to convince 20th and 21st century skeptics. The problems of their time were not the problems of our time. Nobody was doubting that, e.g., the disciples claimed that they personally met Jesus after he rose from the dead. Nobody was trying to argue that these accounts had heavy infusions of legend or "mutual storytelling." Modern skeptical criticism was unknown and no author would have tried to counter it by writing non-historical material in realistic style. The problems they were facing were far more particular to the time--false doctrines about the nature of Jesus, for example. Judaizing arguments that Gentiles had to be circumcised. Arguments over whether to keep the Sabbath. Eating meat offered to idols. Anger from the Gentiles over messing up the idol trade. Just nothing to which such a fakery would have been addressed.

If that's the case, then why didn't the evangelists - especially Luke! - say something like that? Why not introduce the gospels with, "These are events that I witnessed," or "This is the account told to me by Ploni, who was there"?

Just to be clear: I'm not saying that the lack of such an intro is strong evidence against your belief. I'm just wondering why the evangelists would avoid such an obvious and relevant means of establishing authority?

As Tony E. points out, John does say it in his gospel. Peter also says it in his epistles. It's important to remember that the knowledge of the authorship of the canonical gospels and Acts is very ancient. (Contrast with Hebrews, for example. I am not denying the canonicity of Hebrews. I'm simply pointing out that there is no similar, unanimous, ancient consensus on its authorship.) The acceptance by the community of documents was on the basis of known apostolic origin or origin very close to and in communication with an apostle.This is why people are wrong when they imply that the canon was only "made up" hundreds of years later. Actually, the canon of the NT was a recognition of what was already accepted on the basis of an historical criterion of apostolic origin.

Our modern ideas of signing or copyrighting or making sure your name was on an historical memoir are somewhat anachronistic for ancient documents.

"It's also important to remember that it is anachronistic to attribute to the evangelists the desire to convince 20th and 21st century skeptics. The problems of their time were not the problems of our time. Nobody was doubting that, e.g., the disciples claimed that they personally met Jesus after he rose from the dead. Nobody was trying to argue that these accounts had heavy infusions of legend or 'mutual storytelling.' Modern skeptical criticism was unknown and no author would have tried to counter it by writing non-historical material in realistic style."

Couldn't you take that one step further by noting that, as a matter of fact, apocryphal Gospels, apocryphal Acts of this or that Apostle, &c. were clearly *not* written in a realistic style?

Actually, there are many instances of a sign of truth that can be easily faked but is nevertheless evidence of truth.

Scenario: A check turns up signed apparently by John. Besides the signature, the check also has a jam smear on the corner. John has young children, making his life messier and jammier than that of people without little children and his checks more likely to have such a smear. The presence of the jam smear is the kind of thing that would not be physically difficult to fake, but the vast majority of forgers would not bother to add such a subtle, additional sign of truth. They would just forge the signature (assuming they had access to the check and some sample of John's handwriting) and leave it at that. So, again, "can be easily faked" does not translate to "is poor evidence of truth" or "is highly probable given an attempt at forgery."

It's also worth noting that my phrase "What reason other than truth" is meant to indicate a confirmatory argument. Whether the argument puts the conclusion "over the line" of belief depends upon one's prior probability based upon other evidence. Though even there, one has to why one would have a particularly low prior probability for Jesus' calling two of his disciples "the sons of thunder" any more than one has for _any_ particular fact. Yet, assuming that Jesus existed and had disciples (as Aaron grants), there must have been _many_ particular facts about them, their names, their interactions, and so forth.

Couldn't you take that one step further by noting that, as a matter of fact, apocryphal Gospels, apocryphal Acts of this or that Apostle, &c. were clearly *not* written in a realistic style?

Absolutely, and an important empirical point. The difference is vast.

And there's more: Notice how many issues that we find cropping up in Acts and the Pauline epistles do _not_ appear in the gospels. They simply are not addressed. Only a few decades after the events of Jesus' life, there were hot topics seething, yet nobody puts it into Jesus' mouth to address these topics! How easy it would have been to have Jesus say something more specific about the inclusion of the Gentiles and what rules they will have to follow, yet all we find are _general_ predictions in Jesus' parables and sayings of the eventual inclusion of the Gentiles. Nothing at all about whether they will have to keep kosher or be circumcised. Other examples could be given. The gospels are almost uncannily time-bound and space-bound in an extremely narrow period--those particular years in 1st century Palestine. This is a strong argument for their faithfulness to what Jesus actually said and what actually happened.

Lydia, I think a lot of our disagreement was cleared up by what you said about the "confirmatory argument." My argument was on burden of proof: I think it's quite plausible that the nicknames were given just as reported. Maybe that's even the most plausible explanation, I wouldn't know. But I thought you were arguing that it was the only plausible explanation, and of course I disagreed with that. As far as the probability of "pious fraud" (by Luke or by his source), I agree with some of your points. It's definitely not the most likely explanation. I gave the "pious fraud" possibility as just one counter-example to your "what reason other than truth?" argument as I (mis)understood you. There are plenty of others that I didn't bother going into.

I was puzzled by Tony's remark, and your agreement, that unexplained allusions were rare. I thought the Hebrew Bible was famously full of unexplained allusions. Bible critics are always saying, "What the heck is this guy talking about here?" But these are not taken as signs of truth. Is the difference only that (most of) the Hebrew Bible is not written in that reportorial style?

That relates to your point that any supposed meaning to the nicknames in Luke's community was made up "out of thin air." Of course it is. I'm not saying there was some meaning, only that it's a plausible explanation, given the prevalence of unexplained allusions in ancient writings. Even if it was only that the nickname was known, then saying that Jesus himself bestowed the nickname gives some honor to the recipients. Lots of stories in the Hebrew Bible were added (some critics argue) in order to honor or dishonor various historical figures associated with contemporary factions.

I think I'm already aware of the cultural differences in authorship, evidence, etc. between our time and the evangelists' time, but I thought that the truth of Jesus' resurrection was challenged from a very early time. (I don't know the history, correct me if I'm wrong.) Are you saying that the only challenges were that it was a conspiracy, not that it was an "urban legend"? Otherwise, "I heard this from one of the women who were at the tomb" would seem like a very relevant response to that challenge.

And the Gospels were written not only for the "Jesus community," but also for people who'd never heard of Jesus, for whom Judea was a faraway place. Again, that seems especially true of Luke. Wouldn't it be reasonable, even in that time, to assume that those readers might doubt such a fantastic story, and therefore to add that you were relating an eyewitness account?

Also, I've been corrected that John the Evangelist did in fact say that he was a witness to events. (By the way, do you believe that he really was?) So John must have had some reason. Why did that reason not also apply to the synoptic gospels? (Once again, I'm not saying this absence of testimony proves anything one way or the other.) I think you're trying to have it both ways, that people didn't think like that back then, and besides, this other guy back then did say he was there.

Anyway, it looks like we agree on a lot more than what I'd thought before.

I was puzzled by Tony's remark, and your agreement, that unexplained allusions were rare.

I'm not sure where I agreed with that or where Tony said it. Can you point me to something more specific?

Actually, I think unexplained allusions are extremely common in some books. In the Pauline epistles (which aren't narrative) you can scarcely open an epistle at random before coming upon one. (Okay, that's a slight exaggeration.) What the heck is being baptized for the dead? What wrong did Alexander the coppersmith do to Paul? And in those cases, yes, I do take them to be the marks of authentic epistles rather than forgeries in Paul's name or anything like that. Paul is clearly alluding to real things that he expects his audience to know about based upon other interactions with the intended audience of the epistle.

In the Old Testament, perhaps you could give an example of something you take to be an unexplained allusion that you definitely think has _zero_ value as a mark of truth.

Blunt has a fascinating discussion of one that I think _is_ a mark of truth: This concerns the narratives in Genesis surrounding the household of Laban and Rebekah and the arrangement of Rebekah's marriage to Isaac and a few others about that family. Blunt argues, convincingly in my view, that there are a number of indirect allusions that seem to indicate without saying so outright that Bethuel, the father of Rebekah and Laban, was alive for a period of time during which Laban was the head of the family and Bethuel was "out of the picture" though not dead. Bethuel may have had dementia or been disabled in some way. It's a very interesting discussion, and I believe that this is a mark of truth in that narrative because of the realistic way that the indirect evidence indicates a real fact simply by stating _other_ facts.

Are you saying that the only challenges were that it was a conspiracy, not that it was an "urban legend"? Otherwise, "I heard this from one of the women who were at the tomb" would seem like a very relevant response to that challenge.

I think that here you are conflating claims made by people with claims made for documents.

According to Acts, the disciples *repeatedly* claimed to have been eyewitnesses.

What was not considered as necessary as it is in the 21st century was _signing_ a narrative document or making an explicit claim to authorship within the text of the "published copy" of a document. The knowledge of the authorship (if important) could be based instead on tradition surrounding the document or on internal evidence other than explicit signature.


Again, that seems especially true of Luke.

Btw, the sons of thunder allusion is in Mark.


and therefore to add that you were relating an eyewitness account?

Maybe or maybe not within the actual text of the document.

So John must have had some reason. Why did that reason not also apply to the synoptic gospels? (Once again, I'm not saying this absence of testimony proves anything one way or the other.) I think you're trying to have it both ways, that people didn't think like that back then, and besides, this other guy back then did say he was there.

I think this is a simplistic way to look at evidence. It can easily be the case that some E is evidence for H but that it is not the type of thing that everyone in a similar position thinks important or necessary to do. John's explicit statement is not irrelevant and not evidentially null, but to my mind it is far more powerful when taken in conjunction with other evidence, external and internal, that in fact the fourth gospel was written by someone very close to the events. I think too that the narrative in Acts of what the historical characters Peter and John said and of the persecution the disciples faced is very powerful.

The claim by the author of the fourth gospel to have seen the events would just be a tacked on thing if it didn't fit so well into the rest of the warp and woof.

Remember, too, that even in our own time the named authorship of a document may be found on the title page and in the verification by the publisher (which we accept as reliable) rather than within the text.

In a world without formal publishers, the oral tradition surrounding a document which _shows_ eyewitnesses seeing something would serve a similar purpose.

By the way, do you believe that he really was?

Yes, I do.

Lots of stories in the Hebrew Bible were added (some critics argue) in order to honor or dishonor various historical figures associated with contemporary factions.

My opinion of critics is fairly low, as you will have gathered.

Tim (or someone else who knows):

In the Norton passage, are different meanings attached to "authenticity" and "genuineness"?

Thanks, Lydia, for the fine post.

RC, my resident expert says that "authenticity" and "genuineness" are flipped from the meanings I would have given, so I'm glad I didn't speak before checking. As Norton uses them, "authenticity" means truthfulness; "genuineness" means being by the person to whom the book is traditionally attributed. I usually hear "authenticity" used to mean what Norton means by "genuineness." So, yes, they are different.

In a small gem named "The Humor of Jesus," one theory suggested the "Sons of Thunder" remark was simply Christ affectionately teasing the two disciples after admonishing them for suggesting to raze any city that refused them.

Lauran, that could well be exactly why the epithet came about. I always thought that event was at least part of the puzzle, anyway. Literarily, though, the passages are unconnected: there is no overt reference that tells us to tie Luke 9:54 with Mark 3:17. So the passage stands as one of those odd comments that captures just the way we tell about something that actually happened to us.

It seems plausible to me that Jesus had already named them the Sons of Thunder _before_ the incident of the Samaritan city. I mention this in the main post. But the argument is weak either way--that is, we don't know. On the one hand, the Samaritan city episode would provide an explanation. On the other hand, the list in Mark comes much earlier in Jesus' ministry and _may_ indicate that he gave the nickname earlier in his ministry. But it could also be referring to a nickname given later but known by the time the book was written.

I seem to recall having researched how early Simon is called "Peter" and having concluded that he received that nickname early in Jesus' ministry. Of course, it's a bit of a stretch to conclude that James and John got their nickname early just because Peter did.

Tony's comment is spot-on: Even if the Samaritan city incident is the explanation, the two are from different authors and occur at different places in the narratives. Mark's source appears simply to have told the fact as a fact without particular reference to any story of its origin, and Mark records it in that way.

James and John are referred to as the "Sons of Thunder" because the Bible is Astrological allegory, and James represents the month of July, and John is August, the two months known for thunder and storms. Quite simple, actually, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus is the Sun, and the twelve "a-postles" are the 12 sign-posts, the signs of the Zodiac, the houses in the Mansion, etc., the same as the 12 Tribes of Israel.

Jesus is a word, not a name, JES-US, the -US being a Latin terminal, the same way they called August "Augustus" etc. JES is IES, or YES, another name for HELIOS or the Sun, which is why we nod our heads up and down for YES, signifying the up and down motion of the Sun through the sky.

Do you think that astrology is heresy? Job didn't: JOB 38:31-32

sleepers, awake!

Oh, dear. One can hope that is satire, but I fear it is not.

Fantastic work here--as always. Thanks!

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