Baker Academic

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Sean Freyne and the Common Intertext—Chris Keith

Sean Freyne was one of those Jesus scholars from the previous generation who somehow never quite stole the limelight in the fashion of a Crossan or Wright but was an original thinker whose research is always illuminating.  Somewhat like Gerd Theissen, he was wedding historical criticism and sociological analyses well before most.  I've recently been revisiting some of his work as I prepare a paper on the portrayal of Jesus as a Galilean in the Gospel of John for SBL.  I found a place where he was, once more, way ahead of the field in general.

In my opinion, one of the more important emphases in more recent historical Jesus research, associated with the so-called "memory approach" and other approaches, concerns the "pressure of the past."  Without launching into an article here on the blog, what I mean by this is simply that scholars take seriously the fact that the tradents responsible for the Gospels were not making things up in a truly wholesale manner but were strategically emphasizing, de-emphasizing, crafting, re-crafting, etc., a past that preceded them.  They were not, in other words, working with a blank slate; they were working with prior interpretations of Jesus, joining a hermeneutical trajectory that came before them and would proceed beyond them.  Rather than focusing upon how early Christians rewrote the past in a unidirectional manner, then, scholars should be asking how the past impacted them as well as how their present impacted their reception of that past.

Neither I nor colleauges such as Rafael Rodriguez or Anthony Le Donne or others who emphasize these points in publications think (to my knowledge) that we came up with them on our own.  We got them from people like Alan Kirk and Jens Schroeter, who made similar points in earlier publications.  And one does not have to search hard to find scholars like Barry Schwartz, Jeffrey Olick, Yael Zerubavel, and Hans-Georg Gadamer, all of whom make these points in their own way.

Already back in the Neirynck Festschrift in 1992, however, Freyne was making this point.  Before I had a driver's license, before "memory" made an impact in Jesus studies, and even before Schroeter's Erinnerung an Jesu Worte, Freyne said this about the "common intertext" of the remembered past of Jesus that all the Gospel authors shared:

"All the canonical gospels share a common intertext, the actual career of Jesus as this was      remembered and narrated in various circles."

"It should never be forgotten that John wrote a gospel, not a revelatory discourse, and this means that the common intertext of Jesus' earthly career was important for his purposes."

(Both from "Locality and Doctrin: John and Mark Revisited," in his collection of essays, Galilee and Gospel, WUNT 125, pp. 288, 292 respectively.)

I think that viewing the received interpretations of Jesus' career as an "intertext" with which the Gospel authors engaged is a helpful way to think about the pressure of the past.  And importantly, this is not directly a historical point; it's a hermeneutical one.  Jesus was already interpreted long before the Gospel authors decided to cast their portrayals of him.  If we seek to understand the multitude of forces that influenced their portrayals, the interpretations they received, that "common intertext,"
must play a key role in the discussion.


  1. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Assuming that the Pauline mission and related writings were a pre-gospel phenomenon, it seems quite amazing that there was any pressure from the past, any interpretations which formed a life-events memory base, any intertext which the gospel writers further shaped. What is even more curious is how both memory bases, whether paltry (Paul)or rich (gospels), got so quickly to the educated elite, which is really the only way to describe Paul and the gospel writers as compared to their peers. And why is the memory base so paltry in the Pauline traditions and so rich in the gospel traditions? Both types of intertext were apparently alive and formative in a forty year period.
    Was Jesus "one" or not?

    The fact that the rich memory base persisted in spite of being overwhelmed by Pauline cross theology on the one hand, and lack of interest due to belief in a soon to occur second coming on the other, is strong evidence to me that history was very real to the Jesus followers, which seems to have been a particular attraction for the educated Jew who was not wrapped in the Pauline mythology of the dispersion. It was here that the Jesus who walked the earth was saved.

    1. Gene, you are awash in a sea of assumptions and unsubstantiated claims. I'm not sure I even know where to start. But thanks for contributing to the blog.

  2. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Neither do I know where to start. I attempted to write in support of your comments on the "common inter-text." I don't have your IQ or scholarly training, but I do have five years of graduate theological and biblical studies, so I'm pretty sure that I'm not totally "awash in a sea of assumptions and unsubstantiated claims." Unless you have time to clarify what's the point of saying it.

    A couple months ago I read your Jesus Against the Scribal Elite, a very positive experience, and it certainly wasn't "awash in a sea of assumptions and unsubstantiated claims," for which I was very grateful.

  3. Gene, it's late (for me) and perhaps I misread your comments. I'll come back to this tomorrow and explain what I mean. I apologize for being so curt, but did mean what I said about appreciating your contributions to the blog.

  4. From Dr. G:

    Possibly the concept of an "intertext" itself should be read as not definitively indicating a certain solidly assured person. As preferred by theological doctrine. But should be allowed to suggest a vast sargasso sea of conflicting human perceptions, dreams, legends, agendas, cultures and subcultures.

    If we firmed that up too prematurely, that would probably defeat the major purpose of what we social/literary historians intended by explorations of literary "intertextuality"; to be open to seeing a myriad of interconnected but often conflicting claims. Or claims linked by social agendas, as much as by any definite physical realities.

    1. Freyne means it precisely along these lines. He engaged with intertextuality studies in several places.

  5. Gene, once again let me apologize for my quick response earlier. There are a number of things that you bring up, though, that are perhaps less clear than may appear, at least to me. For example, I don't think it's necessarily the case that the Pauline mission and Pauline epistles were a "pre-gospel" phenomenon. They might have been earlier than the written Gospels, but what Freyne is pointing out is that the "common intertext" would have begun as soon as people started interpreting Jesus in any way at all. In that sense, interpretations of Jesus pre-date Paul and the Pauline mission, and indeed inform it. For a similar reason, I'm not sure that I would consider the "memory base" to be paltry in either case. To the contrary, it seems very rich and has been already interwove with the "master commemorative narrative" (Zerubavel) of ancient Judaism in both cases. In light of this, I don't think I'd say that the Pauline theology of the cross "overwhelmed" the memory base at all. That theological perspective was part of the memory base, and I'm not sure that it did overwhelm anyting because the Gospel narratives all have their distinct approaches on the theological interpretation of the crucifixion.

    I hope this adds some specificity to what I said earlier. Please let me know if perhaps I've misunderstood you.

  6. From Dr. G

    But if the "memory" of Jesus is from the start richly interwoven with Jewish - or roughly Old Testament - ideas, this could be taken at least two ways.

    As either 1) indicating a real. Very Jewish Jesus, borrowing his thought from this tradition. But for now, equally, 2) a writer well acquainted with Jewish writings, inventing a new character who would be consistent with that earlier Jewish background. Even as, it turns out, he modified it into a subtly different religion. A "new covenant" and so forth.

    If we're going to give academic skepticism an honest tryout, and intertextuality too, then I note that they demand that we should consider both theses. In particular, intertextuality overall in fact, favors the thesis that any given character in literature or a text, is more likely to be more a literary artifact or fiction, than an actual physical person.

  7. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Chris, thanks for what I take to be an excellent explanation of your concerns regarding my views on the nature of the intertext.

    I'm sure, indeed, that "the 'common intertext' would have begun as soon as people started interpreting Jesus."

    Your original post quoted Freyne as saying, "All the canonical gospels share a common intertext, the actual career of Jesus as this was remembered and narrated in various circles."

    I guess I was thinking of the "career of Jesus" as what we see of the human being Jesus in the gospels interwoven, as you put it, with "the master commemorative narrative of ancient Judaism." I was not so much including Paul's cross theology in that memory group, which of course is also interwoven with the master commemorative narrative of ancient Judaism. "Cross theology" and related phrasing would be a somewhat strange way to characterize the word "career."

    Even though both Paul and the gospels are interwoven with the master commemorative narrative, and some emphases in one can be found in the other, I think I'm correct to say that the evidence doesn’t show a whole lot of overlay between Paul and the gospels (Perhaps you could recommend a text.).

    And so I reached the conclusion that the gospel intertext was largely not common to the Pauline intertext. And against the mythological trends of the times, the gospels’ intertext survived Paul's cross and return of Christ theology and their own coming Son of Man theology.

    In my opinion, the double intertext never has been fully resolved. The differences were highlighted in the career of Marcion and were placed side by side in the choices for a canon. It seems to me that the one came together in the transformation of an individual educated mythology oriented Jew, the other came together in a complex grouping of history oriented educated Jews.

    Do you think that folks converted from the "scribal elite" might have been involved in the formation of the gospels?