Can Life Mirror Art?

I once had a New Testament professor who thought that the Gospels and Acts were largely unhistorical. His reason was that they seem to mirror stories from the Hebrew Bible.

For example, in Matthew 26-27, Judas delivers Christ to the high priest for thirty pieces of silver. In Genesis 27, Judah (or, in the Septuagint, Judas) sells Joseph for twenty shekels of silver.

In Matthew 27:5, Judas hangs himself because he feels bad about betraying Jesus. In the Septuagint of II Samuel 17:23, Ahithophel hangs himself, and he was the betrayer of David.

My professor also saw a parallel between Saul the Benjamite in the Book of Acts, and Saul the Benjamite in I Samuel. As far as he’s concerned, Paul wasn’t called “Saul” in real life, but the author of Acts is calling him that because he has the Old Testament figure in mind. And there is a similarity, for King Saul hunted down David, and Saul of Tarsus hunted down the early Christians.

Here’s an example my professor didn’t use in my class, but others have cited it: In Acts 10, God shows Peter a sheet with unclean animals, which he commands him to kill and to eat. Peter responds that he never ate anything common or unclean. Similarly, in Ezekiel 4, God instructs Ezekiel to eat defiled bread that’s been cooked with cow dung (I always thought Ezekiel’s Bread tasted funny!). And Ezekiel reacts much like Peter: “Ah Lord GOD! I have never defiled myself; from my youth up until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by animals, nor has carrion flesh come into my mouth” (4:14 NRSV).

For my professor, the New Testament authors must have made up these stories, for they so obviously resemble tales from the Old Testament. As far as my professor was concerned, the Gospel authors got their ideas from the Hebrew Bible, not from real life.

But I noticed something when I was reading the Book of Acts. In Acts 9:23-25, the Jews plot to kill Paul, so his disciples help him escape by lowering him down a wall. In its commentary on this passage, The HarperCollins Study Bible cited Joshua 2:15 and II Corinthians 11:32-33.

Both passages are significant. In Joshua 2:15, Rahab rescues the Israelite spies from the wrath of the king of Jericho, and she does so by lowering them down a wall. That allows them to escape from the city. This sounds a lot like what the believers do for Paul in Acts 9:23-25.

In II Corinthians 11:32-33, we read: “In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.”

As far as I know, the vast majority of New Testament scholars treat Paul’s letters as historically accurate. After all, they are primary sources from an apostle who talks about his own life. So if Paul says that he was “let down in a basket through a window in the wall” to escape the wrath of a ruler, then it most likely happened.

But it sounds so much like the story in Joshua. Does that matter? It’s in a primary source, so it probably happened!

Can life ever mirror art? Is it possible that betrayers can hang themselves more than once in human history? Or that a man named Judas can sell someone? Or that God can appear to two separate people and tell them to eat non-kosher food? Why can’t these things happen more than once? Why is something unhistorical just because it resembles an Old Testament story.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Can Life Mirror Art?

  1. Anonymous says:

    A question like this requires close knowledge of the documents in question (a lot closer knowledge than I myself have), and I don’t think it’s susceptible to objective answers that everyone will agree on, like a science experiment that should be replicable in anybody’s lab.

    I will say, though, that it seems to me you’re slightly misinterpreting what it means to call Paul’s letters “historical” — again, I know nothing about the arguments for that but will accept the characterization for the sake of discussion. I presume that what people mean by this is that the letters were actually written by Paul and intended for their purported purpose. Obviously, the claim that a particular incident mentioned in the letters actually happened would probably become weaker if the letters are not historical in that sense; on the other hand, if they are historical, that doesn’t really doesn’t guarantee the authenticity of their details at all. Paul may make simple factual errors, or he may invent things entirely.

    The recently notorious cases of invented memoirs such as that of James Frey’s are examples of “historical documents” whose details are nevertheless fabricated in large measure.

    I don’t mean to suggest Paul is in any sense the James Frey of antiquity. It certainly does seem possible he may be have considered his letters to have a purpose higher than the recording of mundane reality and wanted to incorporate echoes of scripture.

    To repeat once more, judging such a question requires a close engagement with documents with which I am barely acquainted, nor do I know the literary conventions Paul was working with. I am just suggesting some general considerations that would apply if someone was trying to do that.


  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Anonymous,

    I know I’m about to make an argument from authority, which is pretty weak. My experience in New Testament scholarship is that virtually all scholars–maximalist and minimalist–treat the authentic Pauline letters as historically accurate. Sure, Paul colors things with his perspective. But when he says that he persecuted the church, or that he was let down a wall in a basket, my impression is that most scholars take these things at face value.

    But I’m interested in hearing from those who don’t, if they exist. I do remember getting into a little debate with a Jewish-Christian who didn’t believe in Paul’s divine authority, and he denied that Paul’s letters were even sent to specific churches. In his mind, they were made up to serve as Scripture for the church as a whole. I wouldn’t go that far, since they do appear to address specific situations.


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