The Historical Pompey v. The Historical Jesus

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First, I’m not going to get into the full discussion – I will side with McGrath because I happen to trust his scholarship, and what’s more, that his scholarship is not driven by an agenda; however, I do find that a study of the way history was recorded, used, and promoted is one which helps the conversation with those who have somewhat of a sane view of the acceptance of facts.

One of those ways is Lucan’s use of the Roman civil wars several generations before his to create a hope for a return to the Republic. In writing De Bello Civili, Lucan uses several rhetorical techniques of the time, and some he seemingly invented, to juxtapose tyranny and freedom. He develops historical characters of which little is actually known, into full fledged heroes of the Roman people – if only the Roman people could accept them as such. Lucan’s hero, his one out of the many, is Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Pompey, the great Roman general. But, Pompey is nearly a complete fabrication of the author’s mind. It’s not that Pompey didn’t exist, but Lucan’s Pompey (we’ll call him LPompey) never did as Lucan portrays him. Lucan creates LPompey to be his hero, to play up the themes of honor, laws, and a host of other issues which the author needs symbolized in a shorten manner. Bartsch writes,

One Pompey is more or less the narrator’s creation; his presence relies on the frequent intervention of the narratorial voice to praise his achievements and his character and to paint them in as tragic a light as possible. For the narrator, Pompey is in the end a hero and Rome’s darling; his death is the last gasp of the moribund Republic.

Pompey is brought to life, and perhaps a different life than his actual one, by the voice of the narrator. Different LPompeys exist for the different crowds. Lucan is not so much concerned with the historical figure of Pompey, but for the reception of LPompey. LPompey appeals to the many because he is the one who stood against Caesar. Lucan quietly asks the audience to do the same, with the warnings and caveats of martyrdom and the like. I would go so far as to suggest Lucan’s Republic (LRepublic) which he is desperately fighting to restore hope for is itself a creation of the author. Yet, they exist because not because of the historical situation, but because they are constructed first in the mind of the audience and then in the mind of the author (the reverse is true in propaganda, after all. The author is not just telling a story, but crafting a story which the audience will accept; therefore, it is only proper that the audience comes first in story creation). Why does Lucan’s story work? Because LPompey and LRepublic were known to exist, but their memories are resurrected in such a way as to allow the author to shape them into his creation, so that they fit his need.

The same must be said for the Historical Jesus. Paul’s Jesus (PJesus) was no doubt a historical figure. But, when we come to the Gospels, we begin to see a development of Jesus – MJesus, MatJesus, and LJesus along with JJesus. The new reauthors of PJesus use an existing pattern in the mind of the audience, their audience which they know quite well, and rebuild the main character and his story in such a way as to effect something in them. For Lucan, it was the hope of the Republic. For the Evangelists, they sought to renew their communities in PJesus (which no doubt is why Mark seems to have something of Paul in his story. It’s about Plato’s patterns, after all).

For those unconvinced that PJesus existed, there is really no hope for you.

Post By Joel Watts (10,045 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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2 thoughts on The Historical Pompey v. The Historical Jesus

  1. I’m glad you brought this up because I was going to ask you about it. Do you think there were limits on the gospels writers as to how many liberties they could take when it came to reconstructing PJesus? I would think that there would be people there who actually knew Jesus in the communities that first read the Gospels.

    • I think so – and I think that’s why we get straight teaching, basis on deeds of power, and the passion

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