Re: [XTalk] Chreiai Formation & Q
- Corey Liknes wrote:
> I have recently read an older article by Burton Mack in which he suggests<SNIP>
> that Cynic-like aphorisms associated with Jesus were elaborated upon or
> expanded by the Q community (or other Jesus communities I suppose) for the
> purpose of social formation. (Burton Mack, "Q and a Cynic-like Jesus" in
> _Whose Historical Jesus?_ , Michael Desjardins & William Arnal, Eds.
> Waterloo, ON: 1997).
> I have two questions about this thesis. First,
> I wonder where these original sayings came from. Geraldthe
> Downing and Robert Price point out the connections with cynical sayings of
> the time, but why would these sayings have to have been associated with
> teachings of Jesus? In other words, did someone just compile a compendiumof
> cynical sayings out of thin air as it were, and then apply the name"Jesus"
> to them? And what purpose would that serve the author?<SNIP>
> I guess I am just wondering how this concept of chreiai elaboration works.must
> It seems to me that the elaboration cannot take place in a vacuum, but
> instead be reliant to some degree on the original narrative context inwhich
> these statements were made -- unless of course the statements were neverI sympathize with your quandry Corey, since it is difficult to get Mack to
> made by Jesus at all.
commit himself on specifying what particular items in the sayings tradition
are traceable to HJ. One of the reasons he left the JS was his lack of
confidence in the project of distinguishing the voice of HJ from that of his
tradants. Since he was more interested in the social formation of knowledge,
he preferred to speak of communities rather than identifiable individuals
Without intending to champion Burt's reconstruction of Q or the social
history of the early Jesus movement, however, I think a couple of
clarifications will be help.
1. The Cynic hypothesis. Note that Mack postulates the sayings tradition as
originating with a "Cynic-like Jesus." He doesn't identify HJ as a Cynic.
But he calls attention to certain parallels to Hellenistic Cynic traditions
in the type of rhetoric (social critique), forms (aphorism & chreia), &
lifestyle (independence, itinerancy) found in the JS sayings tradition
(particularly the Q stratum but also Thomas). The fact that these
Cynic-like elements in Q are diluted, modified & transformed in -- or many
of those in GThom even excluded from -- the fully developed canonical gospel
tradition, leads Burt to conclude that these elements must be from the
original stages of the Jesus movement. Thus, Burt concludes that the founder
of that movement (HJ) must also have been Cynic-like (not "cynical" in the
popular sense of that word).
2. Social Formation. In *The Lost Gospel* Mack writes:
"If we ask about the character of the speaker of this kind of material,
it has its nearest analogy in contemporary profiles of the Cynic-sage. This
is as close to the historical Jesus as Q allows us to get, but it is close
enough for us to reconstruct a beginning of the movement that is both
plausible and understandable. One should not underestimate the attraction of
a Cynic-like sagery capable of enticing individuals into forming a
Thus for Mack the analogy works at several levels. On the one hand HJ, like
Diogenes, was remembered to have uttered several startling quips that
challenged social conventions. These were largely unpremeditated,
off-the-cuff responses to situations he encountered. The force of HJ's
wit/radical wisdom in such situations. however, attracted followers who
recalled these sayings & repeated them [analogous to Diogenes or Socrates].
HJ's original sayings were simple quips or aphorisms -- i.e., sharp pithy
comments as distinct from common proverbs or maxims. In repeating them &
transmitting them to others the people attracted to HJ *had to*
contextualize them by creating a brief description of a situation that
prompted them (since HJ did not himself describe the situtation that
prompted his response). This contextualizing creates the chreia. Once
formulated, it provides "the official" account of what prompted the sage to
say what he did.
Mack, however, remains reluctant to identify the setting of any chreia as an
accurate recollection of the *original* occasion that actually provoked the
*bon mot* simply because we have ample evidence in the gospels & in other
chreia collections of the same aphorism with very different chreia settings
or without any chreia frame at all. So Burt would deny your contention that
the "elaboration" of the chreia "must...be reliant to some degree on the
original narrative context."
The narrative context is precisely what is not original. Narrative contexts
are always invented after the fact. How long after & by whom (an eye-witness
or a later orator or scribe) is often impossible to tell. Even the
ascription of a particular aphorism to a particular sage is often
questionable since communities tend to credit their founder hero as the
source of all the wisdom that that community embraces. With the notable
exception of rabbinic tradition, *oral* communities generally resist
complicating loyalties thru multiplying the names/voices of authoritative
teachers. And they tend to preserve only those sayings that they find useful
(hence the name *chreia*).
Once things get reduced to writing, a greater variety becomes possible.
Chreia can be strung together & edited into definitive biographies like the
canonical gospels. But with the rise of scribalism one comes to a stage of
social formation that is even further removed from the actual original
social context of the radical itinerant "Cynic-like" sage -- in this case
Such are the observations/reasoning behind Mack's historical skepticism.
P.S. Criticism of the Cynic hypothesis (a la Horsley) or attempts to
identify HJ as a millennial prophet (a la Allison) only serve to increase
historical skepticism that the "Cynic-like" elements of the gospel sayings
tradition can be traced to HJ or force modern interpreters to
recontextualize these sayings by providing them with an apocalyptic
narrative frame that these sayings do not have in Q or even our canonical
Mahlon H. Smith
Department of Religion
New Brunswick NJ 08901
Synoptic Gospels Primer
Into His Own: Perspective on the World of Jesus