12 December 2007

On the Centenarian Defense as an Apologetic Strategy...

Posted by at 3:23 PM Read our previous post
I'd like to devote this post to a subtle apologetic technique that I've encountered in recent conversations and blogsurfs. Some Christian apologists seem to be fond of citing patristic writings and then linking these citations to specific New Testament characters. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. The warning flags fly, however, whenever one claims that the characters "could have" lived to an extremely old age, old enough to have had contact with said patristic writer. A few examples follow:

centenarian #1: John the Evangelist

We are told that the apostle John, the son of Zebedee (and brother of James) is the same person that composed the fourth gospel. We are told that he lived to be over a hundred years old. This would explain how an actual eyewitness to the life of the historical figure of Jesus could have waited until the turn of the century to write down his account of the events that had transpired seven decades earlier (dating the fourth gospel earlier than say 90–100 C.E. would be problematic for various reasons). His having lived to such a ripe old age would also explain how a peasant fisherman from the Galilee would have found the time to take up and master the Greek language to such high degree that he was able to write in a highly advanced poetic style. It would also explain how he could have found the time to develop the elaborate christology that his gospel is so replete with. We know (with a reasonable degree of certainty, we must admit that the consensus is nearly universal on this) that the Gospel of Mark was the first canonical gospel written, followed by Matthew and Luke, and eventually by that of John. So it's just as well if he lived to be over a hundred.
But . . .

problems with this . . .

While I accept that there existed a certain John "the Elder" who was a highly esteemed presbyter who was remembered as an influential figure in the Christianity at the turn of the century, I am convinced that this is neither the same John who wrote the fourth gospel, neither is it the same John who was one of Jesus' closest companions. I remember the moment I grasped this fact; I was reading chapter 3 of Loisy's "Origins of the New Testament" some years ago.

Adding to the problems raised from equating the three Johns, there is some internal evidence that suggests that John (Bar Zebedee) was martyred alongside his brother James sometime between Paul's writing his Epistle to the Galatians (the 50s) and the author of Mark's writing his gospel (circa 70). — (Galatians speaks of meeting with the "three pillars." Mark (10:30–41) implies that John died along with his brother—if you frown at this suggestion, ask yourself if Mark would have made reference to the death of John along with his brother—verse 39— had John not already suffered martyrdom?)

There is also some external textual evidence (e.g. Papias by way of Eusebius, Philip of Side and George the Sinner) that suggests likewise.

As R. Alan Culpepper points out in his "John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend" (2000, Fortress Press, p 174):

"The cumulative weight of the references just considered has been enough to keep alive the possibility of the early martyrdom of John but not sufficient to override the tradition of his long residence in Ephesus. As the tradition of the Ephesian residence becomes more suspect there has naturally been renewed interest in the testimonies regarding John's early martyrdom. It is not necessarily an either/or choice, however, between the traditions of a long residence in Ephesus or an early martyrdom in Jerusalem. Both may be legendary, and the circumstances of the death of John may simply be unknown, as are the circumstances of the deaths of most of the other apostles."

centenarian #2: Mary

A Catholic apologist recently insisted to me that the extant letter of Ignatius to the "virgin" Mary (and her reply to him, also extant) are quite possibly genuine Ignatian works, arguing that she could have lived to be a centenarian and thus "could have" (there's that magic phrase again!) communicated with Ignatius in this way.

problems with this . . .

First of all, the fact that neither Eusebius nor Jerome makes the least reference to these letters is a pretty good indication that they are spurious articles, written much later (in fact, the oldest manuscript of these letters dates to the 12th century).

That smoking gun aside, I reminded this fellow that, if Mary was about 15 years old when she gave birth to Jesus in approximately 4 B.C.E., and if Ignatius wrote his letters in 110 C.E., then Mary would have had to have lived to the age of at least 129! After pointing this out to my Catholic friend, he merely huffed and puffed and walked away. I haven't heard from him since. I wonder if he still believes those letters are genuine. Personally, I doubt that any of the Ignatian letters are genuine, but that is for another post altogether on another day.

centenarian #3: Jairus' daughter

I came upon a reference to Quadratus (a 2nd century apologist) the other day on a particularly pious blog that I sometimes read. The gist of the post was about Quadratus' testimony (preserved in Eusebius) that some of the people that Jesus had healed or brought back to life during his lifetime were still living at the time of his (Quadratus') writing (circa 125 C.E.). This blogger then went on to enthusiastically suggest that Jairus' daughter was likely who Quadratus was refering to.

problems with this . . .

Jairus asks Jesus in GMark to heal his "little daughter", so I'm guessing she was maybe 7 years old (give or take a year). This episode occurs early on in both the GMk and GLk narratives, so let's say for the sake of argument that it happenned somewhat early in Jesus' career—say the year 27. Therefore, in 125 C.E.—the time of Quadratus' writing—she would have been approximately 105 years old. Add to the probabilities involved in all of this the fact that the name "Jairus" can be translated from the Hebrew to something like "he will be raised", which suggests a mythic origin of the story.
Talitha cum, indeed.

Quadratus uses the plural too ("many of those healed"); I wonder who else was still alive at the time of Quadratus.
Maybe Lazarus?
Maybe the Gerasene demoniac? How old do you suppose HE would have been?. . . o_O

conclusion . . .

While I don't discount that a couple of the earliest Christians probably lived fairly long lives, I see a big red flag whenever I hear the "could have"-been-a-centenarian defense of some apologetic point or another. It all seems like special pleading to me. (If Mary lived to be 129, why has no one mentioned it?)

Anyway, I won't belabor this point further.

It would be nice, however, if apologists dropped the centenarian "could-have-been"s, which only serve to reveal a sense of urgent anxiety in the face of the enormous dearth of evidence regarding the apostolic period.


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