Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
Excluding gospel material:
Mark, Chapter 8

Many may wonder that large slices of Mark's Gospel can be cut out by some reputable scholars. What they might ask has happened to the feeding of the 4000, for example? The answer is not simple. Many scholars will say that it's not right to take out such huge chunks.

Perhaps the first point to make in this connection is that the parts which have been omitted may well date back to before the gospels were written down.  Mark's Gospel was probably put together soon after the year 70; Matthew and Luke (and the Acts of the Apostles) date around 80; and John's Gospel was written about the year 100 or soon after. The early Christian communities may have thought that the written and oral information they had about Jesus it was history in the modern sense. Insofar as it occurred to them to think about it at all, they probably though that the events in the gospels "really happened". 

But we're concerned here with what we today can consider highly probable in an historical sense. The material in Mark 8 was used as a source by the author of Matthew, who altered it for his own purposes. It was not used by the author of Luke's Gospel, whose source for Luke 9.28-36 was based on another "feeding" story in Mark 6.35-44 (this author skips all the Markan material from 6.45-8.26).  

The author of John's Gospel seems to have used an independent source for his story of the feeding of five thousand people, according to scholars who have analysed the language of his version. This has led some to wonder if both Mark and John may have had access to a common source of some kind, perhaps an oral tradition circulating widely through Christian communities.

In Mark 8 we have a feeding of the 4 000 very like the feeding of the 5 000 in Mark 6.35-44. There's a general consensus that these are probably two different versions of the same original oral tradition. What we don't know for sure is why whoever put Mark's Gospel together included both versions in his gospel. (In this regard, watch out for the speculations various scholars get up to. They freely use words like "may", "might", "could" and so on to mask what is actually very uncertain.)

To decide what is good history in this chapter and what isn't, it's here necessary to decide "what really happened." To get around the apparent miracle, some think there was another explanation for the event - such as the possibility that what Jesus actually did was to persuade everyone to share what food they had with them. But good history requires evidence and there isn't any for this or similar speculations.

It's worth remembering that this gospel was assembled less with "what really happened" in mind, and more to put across "what it really means". Interpretation of the meaning of the early traditions about Jesus was in the forefront of the author's mind.

So it's important to note obvious patterns in Mark's Gospel. It turns out that this is not the only duplication. For example:

1. Feeding of the 5 000 (6.35-44)
2. Crossing the Lake (6.45-46)
3. Pharisees (7.1-23)
4. Feeding (7.24-30)
5. Healing/spitting (7.31-37)
1. Feeding of the 4 000 (8.1-9)
2.Crossing the lake (8.10)
3. Pharisees (8.11-13)
4. Feeding (8.14-21)
5. Healing/spitting (8.22-26)

Many commentators since the 4th century have noted the likelihood of Mark's intention to convey theological meanings (rather than to recount "what really happened") such as:
  • Feeding 5 000 - giving the bread of life to the Hebrews because the event took place in Galilee where most people were Hebrews;

  • Feeding 4 000 - giving bread of life to the Gentiles because it was near Decapolis ("Five Towns"), which were of Greek and Roman foundation, not Hebrew (though many Hebrews would have lived there);

  • Five loaves - the five books of the Jewish Law;

  • Seven loaves - the sacred number seven referring to the "seventy nations" of the Gentile world, and the mission of the seventy (Luke10.1) to the Gentiles.

  • Seven baskets - the same allusions probably apply.

  • Twelve baskets - the twelve tribes of Israel.

One consideration applies to all similar instances in the Bible. History is a holistic discipline. That is, its methods and standards apply just as much to the 1st century as to the 21st. This is sometimes known as the principle of historical analogy. The historical method usually accepts the rules of evidence which apply to other analytical disciplines, while always allowing that exceptions may occur. But if extraordinary events such as miracles do occur, then the evidence for them has to be equally extraordinary.

The principle of historical analogy states, then, that if I think that miracles can't happen today, then I should be prepared to think that they couldn't have happened at any time in history - and vice versa. It's not enough to advance ingenious explanations for the feeding of the crowds in order to get rid of the miraculous element. 

The rest of the chapter contains elements of "what really happened" - but the history is overlaid by the material the author thought important to put in for his own theological purposes.

The saying about gaining the whole world is a good example. In the light of the sources and other versions elsewhere, it's likely to be exactly the kind of thing Jesus would have said - even if the context given here is unlikely.

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