2014-11-23

The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

The Suffering Servant

13 Behold, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
14 As many were astonished at him—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the sons of men—
15 so shall he startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they shall see,
and that which they have not heard they shall understand.

53 Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him;
he has put him to grief;
when he makes himself an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand;
11 he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous;
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant is a major text for Christianity (in the New Testament it is used to interpret Christ’s death) but what did it mean to adherents of Judaism before Christianity?

Did any Jewish interpretations anticipate the meaning it held for later Christians?

To what extent were the authors of the gospels innovative in their use of Isaiah 53 (and Isaiah as a whole)? To what extent were they simply employing ideas they absorbed from their surroundings?

Is it possible that Christianity itself evolved in part from earlier sectarian understandings of Isaiah 53?

Martin Hengel brings us a little closer to answering these questions when he offers insights into the influence this text had on various ideas in Second Temple Judaism:

Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 75-146.

Scholarship is used to thinking of the book of Isaiah as a collation of works originally by a number of authors (e.g. chapters 1-39 labelled Proto-Isaiah; 40-55 Deutero-Isaian; 56-66 Trito-Isaiah) but in the context Hengel is addressing the book was understood to be the unity we know today. Not only a unity but of prophetic significance as a whole. Hengel establishes early in his essay the point that from the Hellenistic period on the book of Isaiah (as a whole) was often treated in Judaism as work prophetic of the last days. So in Sirach (composed around 200 BCE — prior to the Maccabean era) we read of Isaiah the prophet:

24 He comforted the mourners in Jerusalem. His powerful spirit looked into the future, 25 and he predicted what was to happen before the end of time, hidden things that had not yet occurred. (Sirach 48:24-25 GNT)

Ben Sirach interprets Isaiah’s Servant — and prepares for the Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark opens with a blend of prophetic passages from Isaiah and Malachi and allusions to the Exodus that lead directly into an Elijah scene. Two centuries earlier Ben Sirach similarly linked Isaiah, Malachi and Elijah in a pivotal prophetic time. Hengel does not draw the comparison with the Gospel of Mark (a comparison enriched by Elijah’s own association with Exodus and wilderness motifs) but I’m sure someone has:

Mark 1:2-4

Even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, Who shall prepare thy wayThe voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight;

John came . . . clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist . . . [i.e., in role of Elijah]

Malachi 3:1
Isaiah 40:3
Exodus 23:20

Sirach 48:1, 7, 10

Then the prophet Elijah arose like a fire . . . who heard rebuke at Sinai and judgments of vengeance at Horeb . . .

You [=Elijah] who are ready at the appointed time, it is written,

to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

Malachi 4:5-6
Isaiah 49:6

Hengel cautiously expresses some doubt as to whether Sirach “wished to identify the Servant [of Isaiah] directly with Elijah redivivus.” He does, however, along with other scholars he cites recognize that Sirach has given Isaiah 49:6 “a messianic or at least an individual interpretation”. (The significance of an “individual” interpretation lies in the various interpretations of the Servant passages: some reading the Servant as an individual but others at the time viewing the Servant as a literary figure representing Israel. Compare how the “son of man” in Daniel 7 was originally composed as a representative of the nation of Israel — in contrast to gentile nations represented by wild beasts — yet came to be interpreted by some as a literal, heavenly individual.)

Was the author of the Gospel of Mark writing in the context of a long-known intellectual tradition that played with piecing Isaiah’s Servant, Malachi’s Messenger, Exodus liberation and adoption tropes, and Elijah into scenarios of messianic end times?

The Book of Zechariah interprets Isaiah 53?

Martin Hengel takes us further back than the Book of Sirach and to the period of the immediate successors of Alexander the Great, the Diadochi. read more »


2014-11-18

Vridar Site Maintenance — Email, Again!

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by Tim Widowfield

Greetings!

Here at Vridar we’ve changed our WordPress email subscription/notification plugin yet again.

If you have received an email and you wanted us to alert you when we publish new posts, then you don’t have to do anything. However, if you have received an email alert and you don’t want it, you’ll need to unsubscribe. (See the email for a link with instructions to stop receiving notifications.)

For anyone reading this post who subscribed in the last eight months, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to subscribe again if you want to receive email notifications when we publish new posts. We have no way of subscribing blog readers by proxy.

We apologize for any inconvenience.

Thanks for reading Vridar!

–Tim Widowfield and Neil Godfrey

P.S.  We have stopped using Subscribe2 and re-enabled JetPack Subscriptions. If anyone wants to know the gory details behind the change, ping Tim privately here:  widowfield “at” gmail “dot” com

 


2014-11-16

Ten Elements of Christian Origin

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by Neil Godfrey

pentecost1Richard Carrier addresses the question of the historicity of Jesus in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt in the following order:

First, he defines the points that will identify a historical Jesus and those that will be signs of a mythical one.

Second, he set out 48 elements that make up all the background information that needs to be considered when examining the evidence for Jesus.

Third, only then does he address the range of evidence itself and the ability of the alternative hypotheses to account for it.

What Carrier is doing is enabling readers to think through clearly the different factors to be assessed in any analysis of the question: the details of the hypotheses themselves, our background knowledge (none of it must be overlooked — we must guard against tendentious or accidental oversights) and the details of the evidence itself. The book thus sets out all the material in such a way as to enable readers to think the issues through along the following lines:

– given hypothesis X, and given our background knowledge, are the details of this piece of evidence what we would expect? how likely are these details given hypothesis X and our background knowledge?

and (not “or”)

– are the details of this particular evidence what we would expect given the alternative hypothesis (and all our background knowledge)? how likely are these details given our alternative hypothesis and our background knowledge?

That, in a nutshell, is what his Bayesian analysis boils down to. The point of the assigning probability figures to each question and simply a means of assisting consistency of thought throughout the entire exercise. (At least that’s my understanding.)

I’ll put all of this together in a more comprehensive review of Carrier’s book some time in the not too distant future, I hope.

Meanwhile, I’d like to comment on the first ten of his background elements: those of Christian origins. read more »


2014-11-15

How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 3)

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by Tim Widowfield

Cleansing the Temple (Quarter from Augustinian...

Cleansing the Temple (Quarter from Augustinian polyptych). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part 3: John Displaces and Rewrites the Cleansing of the Temple

All four evangelists recount Jesus’ cleansing of the temple at Jerusalem. The Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) place the event during the week before the crucifixion, while John sets it near the very start of Jesus’ ministry. In the ancient church, many, if not most, commentators assumed these accounts of disturbances at the temple described two different events. In fact, you can find apologists today who claim Jesus did it every time he went to Jerusalem, which — if we harmonize John with the other three — suggests that it happened three times or more.

At this point, we’re not going to cover all the detailed reasons that most scholars now believe the pericopae in John and the Synoptics refer to the same event. Nor will we dwell for long on the arguments concerning whether John knew Mark or a pre-Markan oral tradition. As I’ve said many times before, I maintain that John knew the written gospel of Mark. In this case, he used Mark’s account of the cleansing, but he moved it in time and changed it in form and substance for theological reasons.

Background

John agrees with the Synoptics on several basic elements. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem during the time of the Passover, enters the temple’s outer courtyard, and begins to make a scene. We have similar vocabulary in both versions, including the words for “tables” [τράπεζα (trapeza)] and “money changers” [κολλυβιστῶν (kollybistōn)].

In the Johannine and Markan versions, Jesus is wholly successful. John says he drove them “all” [πάντας (pantas)] out, while Mark claims that nobody could carry a vessel through the temple. Both evangelists concur that for a period of time, just before Passover, Jesus single-handedly blocked all temple trade. On the other hand, parts of John’s story diverge from the Markan source. For example, in John’s version we have not just birds and money changers, but large, domesticated animals: sheep and oxen. Did you ever wonder whether they really had livestock pens in the temple courtyard? Andrew Lincoln, in his commentary on the Gospel of John notes:

John’s addition of animals as large as cows has produced some questions about its verisimilitude. Jewish sources fail to mention such animals in the temple precincts and their excrement would have caused problems of pollution of the sacred site. (Lincoln, 2005, p. 137, emphasis mine)

For scholars who think John contains actual eyewitness material, these sorts of puzzles usually elicit a shrug and a “Why not?” However, those of us who are unencumbered by the anxiety of historicity may rightly ask: “Why did John embellish upon the legend? What is the significance behind Jesus’ driving out the sacrificial animals? Is it a portent of the passing of the age of sacrifice (post 70 CE) or is it something else?”

read more »


2014-11-13

“The Jesus Story Cannot Possibly Have Been Fabricated”

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier presents a “mock analogy” to illustrate the absurdity of so much of the reasoning that lies at the heart of the bulk of serious historical Jesus scholarship today. In fact the analogy is similar to ones Tim and I have independently made here. (One scholar who took himself far too seriously was so offended that he even accused me of extreme disrespect for drawing the analogy. I was reminded of the embarrassed crowds shushing and scolding the boy who dared yell out “The king is not wearing any clothes!”)

Here is Carrier’s version (with my formatting and bolding):

Imagine in your golden years you are accused of murdering a child many decades ago and put on trial for it. The prosecution claims you murdered a little girl in the middle of a public wedding in front of thousands of guests. But as evidence all they present is a religious tract written by ‘John’ which lays out a narrative in which the wedding guests watch you kill her.

Who is this John?

The prosecution confesses they don’t know.

When did he write this narrative? 

Again, unknown. Probably thirty or forty years after the crime, maybe even sixty.

Who told John this story?

Again, no one knows. He doesn’t say.

So why should this even be admissible as evidence?

Because the narrative is filled with accurate historical details and reads like an eyewitness account.

Is it an eyewitness account?

Well, no, John is repeating a story told to him.

Told to him by an eyewitness?

Well . . . we really have no way of knowing how many people the story passed through before it came to John and he wrote it down. Although he does claim an eye witness told him some of the details.

Who is that witness?

He doesn’t say.

I see. So how can we even believe the story is in any way true if it comes from unknown sources through an unknown number of intermediaries?

Because there is no way the eyewitnesses to the crime, all those people at the wedding, would have allowed John to lie or make anything up, even after thirty to sixty years, so there is no way the account can be fabricated.

(On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 251)

It does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation

Below is a comparable absurdity set out by Tim back in 2011. For me his punch line is “Our imaginary detective rejected the case because it does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation.” read more »


Who Were the Hellenists in Acts?

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by Neil Godfrey

23730

By Fra Angelico, “Life of Stephen: Ordination and Distributing Alms” — making sure the Hellenist widows get a fair deal.

Larry Hurtado’s Blog is a sincere effort to share biblical scholarship with a wider lay readership. He has most recently pointed to a site that promises to address biblical issues for a general readership and even has an “ask a scholar” section: Bible Odyssey. Hurtado’s interpretations are (in my view) quite conservative. I think one should raise questions when a scholar’s explanations for so many questions coincidentally support traditional Christian dogma. I don’t suggest that all of his views should be suspect for that reason alone: I have found some of his analysis into how soon Jesus was worshiped as an exalted divine figure to be very strong. But I think Biblioblogs fail to fully respect readers when they present just one view of scholarly research as if that one view were “the correct” one.

Vridar was started as an attempt to share “the other side” of so much scholarly research in biblical studies. When I first took up learning so much about scholarly studies into the nature and origins of the Biblical literature I found that it was so difficult to wade through so much that was logically suspect or short on clear evidence. There was so much assumption, specious reasoning, possibilities that were transformed to probabilities and then to facts, circular argument . . . . and most of it was (suspiciously) essentially consistent with conventional religious dogmas.

So when I read The “Hellenists” of Acts: Dubious Assumptions and an Important Publication – a post in which Larry Hurtado argues that the only difference between the Hellenists in Acts and other Jewish members of the first church was that they hailed from the Diaspora and hence spoke Greek – I felt compelled to submit the following comment:  read more »


2014-11-11

Turning Remembrance Day into a New Myth to Justify War

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by Neil Godfrey

last_postI recall as a little boy at school grown men leading solemn ceremonies pleading with us in prayerful tones never to forget the sufferings and horrors of war — Never again. Futility was a word I learned the meaning of. It was a moment for tears. The message was clear. Hate war. The idea of following the “example” of those who suffered (both those dead and living) was the very antithesis of what the day was all about.

Today Remembrance Day falls at a time our government is eager to send more soldiers to war, to be part of the fight, to show our loyalty to the cause. Volunteers in the services are sent with good pay.

How the message has changed today.

The Great War which we remember today . . . was also the crucible in which our nation was formed.

Of a population of under 5 million; more than 400,000 volunteered, more than 300,000 served overseas, more than 150,000 were wounded and more than 60,000 never came home.

It was sacrifice on a stupendous scale. . . . 

As well as suffering, there is another legacy; a legacy of comradeship under fire, of service and sacrifice, of duty in a good cause.

Of the original ANZACs the official war historian Charles Bean said, “their example rises, as it will always rise, above the mists of ages; a memorial to great hearted-men and for their nation, a possession forever.”

And so today we remember all of them, we remember all who have worn our country’s uniform – we remember them – and dedicate ourselves to be worthy of their example.

Lest we forget.

Now the suffering is presented as not an obscene horror never to be repeated but a noble nation-making, character-building experience.

It was not a horrific waste; it was all for a good cause. It was a duty.

The voices of those who led services when I was a little boy are lost. They are replaced by the words of the leading propagandist historian of the day, the one whose accounts were carefully censored so as to encourage more volunteers to go and kill and die, Charles Bean. read more »


2014-11-10

Addendum: the Power of the Death of the Anointed High Priest

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by Neil Godfrey

I should have added the following to my latest post.

In previous posts I’ve discussed the implication of an anointed one (i.e. messiah, or in Greek, christ) being identified with the high priest:

If some Jewish groups in the early first century identified a messianic figure with the high priest as his template then then one must almost inevitably consider the possibility that they accepted that such a messianic figure would die. And that death would have a saving power if precedent be any guide:

Numbers 35:25

and the congregation shall deliver the manslayer out of the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall dwell therein until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil.

Barabbas the murderer was freed at the time of the death of Jesus. If Jesus were being depicted as a high priestly messiah then that would perhaps be ironically appropriate. read more »


How the Gospel of Mark Portrays Jesus as High Priest

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by Neil Godfrey

Crispin Fletcher-Louis

Crispin Fletcher-Louis (CrispinFL Blog) See the previous post for the bibliographic details of the article this post is exploring.

Continuing from Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah in the Gospel of Mark . . . .

The Holy One of God

In the first dramatic miracle performed by Jesus, the expelling of the demon from a man in a Capernaum synagogue, Jesus is addressed as “the holy one of God”.

Mark 1:

21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God (ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ)!

Who or what is “the holy one of God”? It’s not a title of a king. Nor of a prophet, although in 2 Kgs 49 and Judg 16.7 we read of Elisha and Samson respectively being called “a holy one”. Crispin Fletcher-Louis:

God is Israel’s Holy One. And angels are often called holy ones. But the only precedent for a singular ‘the Holy One of God’ is Aaron (Ps. 106.16; Num. 16.7 ‘the holy one (of the LORD’), who dramatically wins the right to the title in the battle with Korah and his rebellious company in Numbers 16. (p. 63)

It might prove interesting to study this exorcism in Mark in comparison with the Korah-Aaron contest. That’s an aside, however.

Three Forms of Impurity; Three Healings

Numbers 5 lists together three forms of impurity that require anyone becoming defiled to be removed from the Israelite camp:

The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Command the Israelites to send away from the camp anyone who has a defiling skin disease or a discharge of any kind, or who is ceremonially unclean because of a dead body. 3 Send away male and female alike; send them outside the camp so they will not defile their camp, where I dwell among them.” 4 The Israelites did so; they sent them outside the camp. They did just as the Lord had instructed Moses.

In the same sequence Jesus read more »


2014-11-09

Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah in the Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

Holman_The_Holy_of_HoliesI am going to have to re-read and re-think the Gospel of Mark. I have just read a two-part article in 2007 issues of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, “Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah”, Parts 1 and 2, by Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis.

The article adds some weight, I think, to the plausibility of the existence of pre-Christian Jewish sects who expected a messiah who must die. But the article doesn’t go that far at all. That’s an inference I draw from it.

This post skims the surface of a few of the points raised by Fletcher-Louis. (Caveat: F-L is interested in assessing what the historical Jesus himself must have thought of his own identity and role; my take is entirely on how and why the same data has been woven by the author into the Gospel’s larger theme.)

We know the importance of the Book of Daniel to Gospel of Mark. Jesus identifies himself with the Son of Man figure of Daniel 7 before the high priest; Jesus infers he is the same figure who will return from the heavens in the end-times in Mark 13; and there are other allusions. The evangelist introduces the Daniel 7 Son of Man figure early: we learn from the beginning that Jesus, speaking as the Son of Man, has the power to forgive sins and is Lord of the Sabbath. (I am aware scholars interested in a presumed historical figure behind the narrative argue that the “son of man” in these early chapters is an Aramaic circumlocution for an ordinary mortal. My interest is in the thematic significance of the phrase in the gospel itself, however.)

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. (Daniel 7:13)

So what is the connection between Daniel 7 and a high priest? read more »


2014-11-08

Jewish Expectations of a Slain Messiah — the Early Evidence

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is a companion to Messiah to be Killed in Pre-Christian Jewish Expectation — the Late Evidence. It’s a topic I have never explored in any depth before but Richard Carrier points to the evidence for anyone interested to follow up for themselves. I learn things when I set them out for others to read also hence these posts.

What are the chances of Christians and Jews independently arriving at their respective scenarios of a messiah as a son of David as well as a messiah as a son of Joseph, with both having to suffer, one of them to die and be resurrected, with a messianic victory at the end — and all extrapolated from same scriptures such as Isaiah 53 and Zechariah 12? (The previous post addressed the likelihood that Jews would have borrowed and adapted such an idea in a way that lent support to Christianity’s beliefs.) The more plausible explanation, Carrier suggests, is that both the Christian and Jewish scenarios grew from a single set of concepts found within Second Temple Judaism. (Carrier discusses an item of possible evidence for such a pre-Christian era strand but I need to do more reading on that before I can know if or how to present it here.)

Alternatively we might think that such a notion was quite easy to arrive at so there was nothing special or unusual about the Christians discovering such ideas in the scriptures as a mere academic exercise. Either way,

Clearly dying messiahs were not anathema. Rabbinical Jews could be just as comfortable with the idea as Christians were. (p. 75)

So what is the pre-Christian evidence listed by Carrier?

The most obvious evidence is well-known to all Christians who have ever taken a serious interest in the Bible. It is, of course, the prophecy of the death of the Messiah in Daniel 9:26. read more »


2014-11-04

Messiah to be Killed in Pre-Christian Jewish Expectation — the Late Evidence

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by Neil Godfrey

There is no reasonable basis for denying that some pre-Christian Jews would have expected at least one dying messiah, and some could well have expected his death to be an essential atoning death, just as the Christians believed of Jesus. . .

Such a concept was therefore not a Christian novelty wholly against the grain of Jewish thinking, but already exactly what some Jews were thinking — or could easily have thought. (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 77, 73)

Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin

Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin

What evidence does Richard Carrier cite for this claim?

Part (not all) of his evidence includes, ironically, texts that some assume have no relevance at all. So let’s first of all hear the justification for referring to passages that were written some centuries after the birth of Christianity:

There is no plausible way that Jews would invent interpretations of their scripture that supported and vindicated Christians. They would not invent a Christ with a father named Joseph who dies and is resurrected (as the Talmud does indeed describe). They would not proclaim Isaiah 53 to be about this messiah and admit that Isaiah there had predicted this messiah would die and be resurrected. That was the very biblical passage that Christians were using to prove their case. Moreover, the presentation of this ideology in the Talmud makes no mention of Christianity and gives no evidence of being any kind of polemic or response to it. 

So we have evidence here of a Jewish belief that possibly predates Christian evangelizing, even if that evidence survives only in later sources. (pp. 73-74, my bolding and formatting in all quotations)

read more »


2014-11-03

Summing Up: On McGrath’s Review of Carrier (Short Version)

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by Neil Godfrey

onhistoricityA summary of the main points I attempted to bring out in my previous two posts has been posted as comment #24 on Bible and interpretation in response to McGrath’s review there. (McGrath has additionally discussed his review on his blog.)

For convenience here is the shorter version of my previous two posts that appears on Bible and Interpretation. (I am well aware it scarcely reads with much fluency. Something had to be sacrificed to time and other pressures.)

McGrath stresses that Carrier’s thesis depends on the strength of the details but by focussing on an introductory discussion of the AoI he does not address any of arguments in support of the basic myth hypothesis. Carrier makes it clear that his discussion of the AoI is part of his definition of the mythicism he will be arguing and that his arguments will be given in future chapters.

When McGrath suggests there is a problem with Carrier’s approach given that many details are compatible with a historicist or mythicist scenario, he is failing to register the very point Carrier is making: his book intends to explore the probabilities of those respective contradictory reconstructions. read more »


2014-11-01

McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 2, Ascension of Isaiah

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by Neil Godfrey

Related pages:

After addressing the introduction to James McGrath’s initial post reviewing Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus I now discuss his primary focus — the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI). I should be able to say that I will discuss McGrath’s treatment of what Carrier himself writes about the AoI but just as we saw with McGrath’s treatment of Earl Doherty’s mythicist case McGrath gives readers very little idea of what Carrier himself is actually arguing.

One does read at length McGrath’s own viewpoint but without fairly addressing Carrier’s own point the reader has no way of understanding the potential validity of McGrath’s criticisms. No-one reading McGrath’s review would realize, for example, that Carrier includes strong arguments for believing that significant sections of the original text describing the details of Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath (including a one and a half year span of time in the lower firmament) have been lost.

Anyone who has read Carrier’s book also quickly realizes McGrath has read little more than the pages he is discussing.

Carrier introduces the AoI as part of his definition of “the minimal Jesus myth theory”.

For those not aware of the AoI, the AoI is an early Christian composite text:

  1. chapters 1 to 5 describe Isaiah’s altercations with false prophets and culminate in his martyrdom;
  2. the second half (6 to 11) narrates a heavenly vision in which a Beloved Son, one who is predicted to be called Jesus on earth, descends to the lower regions to be crucified, resurrected and exalted again in the highest of the seven heavens;
  3. nested in this second part is another section (11:3-22), in the view of many scholars evidently much later and quite out of character with the style and theme of the surrounding vision, that pictures graphic details of Jesus’ nativity and his crucifixion outside Jerusalem.

That outline is a simplified overview (other verses are also thought to be interpolations and there is some debate about sequences of interpolations) but the general idea can be grasped from this image (also simplified). I have also tried to capture the different viewpoints one is likely to encounter in the various studies on this text:

ascisaiah

1995 was a turning point in the study of the AoI. That year saw two pivotal Italian works that have paved the way for a new consensus:

  • Ascensio Isaiae: Textus, ed. P. Bettiolo, A. Giambelluca Kossova, E. Norelli, and L. Perrone (CCSA, 7; Turnhout, 1995);
  • E. Norelli, Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius (CCSA, 8; Turnhout, 1995).

These were both included in volumes 7 and 8 of the Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum in 1995.

Significance of the AoI

Richard Carrier, like Earl Doherty, argues on the basis of the New Testament epistles that the earliest Christian belief about Jesus was that he was understood to have carried out his works of salvation in the heavenly realm and not on earth. Other texts from the era are drawn in as supporting evidence for this belief. Both Carrier and Doherty see in one of these supporting texts, the AoI, direct evidence external to the epistles for an early Christian belief that Jesus was crucified by demons in a region above the earth.

How Early is the AoI?

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