Burton L. Mack

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Burton L. Mack is an author and scholar of early Christian history and the New Testament. He is John Wesley Professor emeritus in early Christianity at the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California.[1] Mack is primarily a scholar of Christian origins, approaching it from the angle of social group formation. Mack's approach is skeptical, and he sees traditional Christian documents like the Gospels as myth as opposed to history (here, "myth" is not meant to imply "falsehood" or "lie" but "in the sense of narratives that reflect and advance specific ways of representing the world and, along with it, one's place in it"). He sees the gospels more as charter documents of the early Christian movement than as reliable accounts of the life of Jesus.

In the field of religious studies more generally, Mack is known for popularizing the term "Social Formation," originally coming from the work of Louis Althusser, as a descriptive category for religion. This stems from his development of a theory of religion as "social interests." Along with his close friend Jonathan Z. Smith, Mack is active in the Redescribing Christian Origins Group of the Society of Biblical Literature.[1]

Works[edit]

Though he does not regard himself as a Historical Jesus scholar, he suggests that Jesus was a wandering sage, similar in style to the Greco-Roman Cynics, and that the earliest "Jesus Movements" followed a similar model. He is a noted scholar of the hypothetical Q Document, and is confident that it can be sifted into three layers: one containing primarily wisdom sayings, another giving details on how the community ought to behave, and another containing apocalyptic pronouncements. This model of Q is highly controversial.

The Lost Gospel[edit]

The Lost Gospel develops the hypothesis of the "Q" source for the common material of Luke and Matthew not found in Mark. Mack develops the thesis that this was the earliest writing about Jesus, developed over decades by a community which he describes with unwavering confidence. Following John S. Kloppenborg, he believes that there are three major layers to it, each of which coincides with a stage in this community's life. The layers are significantly structured - the earliest material is spaced out and bracketed by later material, the later material showing awareness of the earlier sayings, but not vice versa.

The earliest layer, called Q1, is composed of sayings attributed to Jesus and addressing the audience directly. These are mostly instructions on how to behave. The main teachings are to live in poverty, to lend without expecting anything in return, to love your enemies, not to judge, and not to worry, since God will provide what you need. Mack posits that Q1 itself can be broken into two historical stages, the first being simple maxims containing the core of the teachings, and the later stage being developments by the community giving illustrations and arguments for these maxims. Mack suggests that at this time Jesus was seen simply as a teacher by the community which produced the text, with many similarities to a sage in the Cynic tradition.

The next major development, Q2, comprises the major portion of the Q document as reconstructed by Mack. In this layer the figure of John is introduced (he is not called a baptist in the Q document), as is the eschatological theme of judgement at the end of time, and also opposition to outsiders: the Pharisees and scribes are criticised. Mack sees in this layer an increased anxiety on the part of the community, a need to define itself against others, and also intimation that the community itself was causing tension: there is reference to father turning against son, brother turning against brother etc.

The final layer, Q3, is very scant and thought by Mack to have been written after the Roman-Jewish war from 66-73AD. Passages added at this time include the temptations of Jesus, and a lament for Jerusalem. The remainder consists of stern warnings and threats to keep the law, the first reference to Gehenna (hell fire) occurs at this stage. The severity of the language and the paucity of material compared with the earlier stages is thought to reflect the losses suffered by the community during the war.

Criticism[edit]

Mack's hypothesis presenting Jesus and the earliest Christians within the frame of Greco-Roman cynicism is controversial. While most scholars have recognised finding Jesus within the context of first century Palestinian Judaism, Mack and other proponents go against the majority arguing that Jesus be understood in a Hellenistic context. According to Craig A. Evans "The Cynic hypothesis will in time assuredly be consigned to the dustbin of ill-conceived hypotheses, but it will be useful nonetheless to appeal to it as our point of departure."[2]

Mack follows the lead of Kloppenborg in reconstructing Q in layers, focusing on Q communities. This sort of reconstruction has been criticised by a number of scholars such as Maurice Casey. On Jesus as a Cynic, Casey states that "When all the evidence is taken into account, supposed parallels of this kind show that Jesus was quite different from a Cynic philosopher, not that he was like one." [3]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Mack, Burton L., The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy, back cover. (Continuum:2001) ISBN 0-8264-1355-2
  2. ^ Craig A. Evans, "The Misplaced Jesus: Interpreting Jesus in a Judaic Context" in The Missing Jesus: Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament by Bruce Chilton, Craig A. Evans and Jacob Neusner.
  3. ^ Maurice Casey, An Aramaic Approach to Q

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic: Ben Sira's Hymn in Praise of the Fathers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) (1986)
  • A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins Fortress Press (1988)
  • Mack, Burton L. (1993). The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins (1st ed.). Harper Collins. p. 275. ISBN 978-0-06-065374-3. 
  • Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth HarperSan Francisco 1996. ISBN 0-06-065518-6 The gospels as fictional mythologies created by various communities.
  • Christian Origins and the Language of the Kingdom of God (with Michael L. Humphries)
  • The International Lost Gospel
  • Rhetoric and the New Testament
  • Patterns of Persuasion in the Gospels, Polebridge Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-944344-08-8
  • The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy, The Continuum International Publishing Group 2001. ISBN 978-0-8264-1355-0

External links[edit]

Notes[edit]