2014-10-18

Why Was the Gospel of Matthew Written?

by Neil Godfrey
English: Folio 9 from the codex; beginning of ...

English: Folio 9 from the codex; beginning of the Gospel of Matthew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Goulder’s thesis that the Gospel of Matthew was composed specifically to be read out week by week in churches (assemblies) may not have been widely adopted yet I am convinced that the core of his arguments is worth serious consideration. Of course Goulder applies his thesis to the Gospels of Mark and Luke, too, but I focus here on Matthew.

Here is the essence of Goulder’s argument as he himself sums it up in Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar (2009). I also build on a simplified table Goulder uses to illustrate his argument in The Gospels According to Michael Goulder: A North American Response (2002).

  • The gospel can be divided up into discrete units or more or less the same length. It ends with the story of the resurrection, a suitable reading for “Easter Day”. (I can hear many of us wondering when “Easter Day” began to be observed and when does the gospel itself appear to have been written. Those questions require more detailed discussion for another time.)
  • Let’s imagine the gospel’s story units were intended to be read serially, week by week, throughout the year, with thematically relevant units meant for their appropriate seasons (such as the resurrection story at “Easter”).  If so, we would expect to begin reading the opening chapter of the gospel after Easter (or after the more Jewish sounding Passover/Wave Sheaf Offering). We would expect to find seven narrative units to coincide with the seven weeks leading up to Pentecost.

Here is what we find:

read more »


2014-10-16

The Origin of the Good Samaritan Parable and Other Lucan Favourites

by Neil Godfrey

David Teniers the Younger (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

John Drury, DD, in The Parables of the Gospels, explains why it is very doubtful that Jesus ever spoke the parable of the Good Samaritan. The evidence points towards the real author of this parable being the same person who was responsible for the work of Luke-Acts. For convenience we’ll call him as Luke.

The parables of Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew are strongly allegorical. In the Gospel of Luke their allegorical character takes a back seat. The parables in this third gospel are found to be more “realistic stories which are rich in homely detail and characterization.” (Drury, p. 111)

It is not likely that different traditions, one recalling allegorical parables spoken by Jesus and the other more realistic stories of his, went their own distinct ways so that Matthew heard one sort and Luke the other. I think it’s more reasonable to suggest that we see the creative hands of the authors at work.

The All Important Mid-Turning Point

Another indicator that Luke’s creative imagination was responsible for the parables unique to his gospel is their structure.

L [i.e. unique to Luke] parables have a characteristic shape of which the most striking feature is that the crisis happens in the middle, not, as so often in Matthew’s parables, at the end. (Drury, p. 112)

It is this “middle” part of the story, or the mid-point in time, that is the turning point. Not that this observation is original with Drury. It is a familiar pattern to students of Luke’s parables ever since Conzelmann’s The Theology of Saint Luke.

This pattern is in fact a characteristic of all of Luke’s work, so much so that Drury can say

The pattern in the L parables is deeply embedded in Luke’s mind. It is the pattern of the whole of his history. Jesus in his Gospel is not history’s end but its turning point, setting it on a new course in which Judaism drops away and the Christian Church goes triumphantly forward. (p. 113)

So the story of Jesus begins in a narrative rich in allusions to the patriarchal stories of Genesis and Judges, proceeds to portray Jesus as the new Elijah (contrast Mark and Matthew who gave this role to John the Baptist), and follows up Jesus’ mission with the growth of the church as seen in his parables and in Acts. Jesus is the mid-point or turning point of the grand narrative.

This carries over to Luke’s eschatology. In Luke we read less of the end of the age, period, than we do of the end of a person’s life. But that end of the individual’s life is not the end of the story. Consequences of the life led follow. The individual’s end is the turning or mid-point. In the parable of the rich fool, for example, the crisis comes with his unexpected death and this is followed by the punishment he must receive in his afterlife. For Luke the “end” is moved from the cosmic to the individual level.

It’s the way Luke thinks and the way he designs narratives. He didn’t just happen to inherit a subset of parables from Jesus that coincidentally matched his own literary-narrative style and no-one else’s. The parables of Jesus in Luke’s gospel are Luke’s own creations.

If only by symmetry of pattern, the L parables fit perfectly into Luke’s perception of the historical significance of Jesus’ biography. 

By contrast Matthew was “very ready to end his parables with the end of time.”

The All Important Individuals

read more »


2014-10-14

For Whom Were the Gospels Written?

by Neil Godfrey

the-gospels-for-all-christiansBefore Richard Bauckham wrote Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006) he had challenged another common assumption among his peers with The Gospels for All Christians (1998). Since the 1960s it had been the common assumption that each of the canonical gospels had been written for a local religious community. Each gospel had been written for a small “group of churches . . . homogeneous in composition and circumstances.”

Each gospel was generally thought to have addressed the particular situation facing its community. Accordingly the gospels could be read as allegories that told us more about those communities than they did about the events in the life of Jesus.

  • James Louis Martyn led the way in 1968 with History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel. He argued that the Gospel’s account of the excommunication from the synagogue of the man healed of blindness was about ”the formal separation of the church and synagogue” occasioned by the decision of the rabbis at Jamnia to reformulate a standard curse against heretics to include Christians in the late first century.
  • Theodore Weeden followed in 1971 with Mark: Traditions in Conflict which persuaded many that when the Gospel of Mark characterized the disciples as completely failing to understand Christ it was in order to criticize Christians in the author’s own day who taught that Christ called them to perform signs and miracles to demonstrate the truth of the gospel. The author represented those in his community who believed Jesus called his followers to suffer and die with him.
  • Philip Esler, 1987, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts, finds in the image of the “flock” in both Luke and in Acts (the church at Ephesus) a symbol of  a small church that is beset by dangers both within and without. The implication (as described by Bauckham) is that the author is addressing that one small troubled community and not the entire church.
  • Andrew Overman, 1990, Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism, explained the gospel as an expression of the struggle of a Galilean Jewish community in conflict with another Jewish sect moving towards what was to become rabbinic Judaism.

What grounds does Richard Bauckham offer for us to think that the gospels were not written for local churches but rather for “all Christians” in all churches everywhere? Or at least a very generalized Christian audience wherever its churches were to be found. read more »


Jerry Coyne, meet Hector Avalos

by Neil Godfrey

I don’t know if Jerry will permit the following words appear on his blog. He has trashed my comments in the past. I submitted the comment in response to Heather Hastie on female genital mutilation: Is it Islamic?  I avoided specific reference to FGM and spoke instead more generally of barbaric practices. (We all know the real instigation of all that has contributed to the current outrage is 9/11 and that FGM is just one more opportunity to kick Islam to the exclusion of other religions.)

Am I permitted to post an alternative view here?

Associate professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and author of The End of Biblical Studies and Fighting Words, Hector Avalos, shows us how ALL religions that are grounded in unverifiable beliefs are at various times and places susceptible to being used to justify a host of barbaric behaviours.

Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Taoism, ancestor worship — all have been used to justify horrific practices.

By focussing on just the one religion that is being used by certain peoples in certain times and places and with certain experiences to justify evils we are focusing on the symptoms and missing the real reason for the problems.

No-one blames Christianity or ancestor worship for the barbarisms that drenched pre-Communist China in blood even though these beliefs were used to justify all sorts of hideous tortures and cruelties. We did not always have terrorist Muslims crazed to kill Westerners.

There are reasons that prompt people to flick switches and use religion to justify horrors. The common factor in all of these contingencies is the way we give social respectability to belief systems that are unverifiable.

If we don’t recognize the causes (the real causes) of religious violence and barbarism we are not going to help progress civilized values but could in fact be contributing to the ignorance and chaos.

See, Muslim Violence: Understanding Religion and Humanity.


2014-10-13

The Politics of the Muslim Controversy

by Neil Godfrey

Salman Rushdie condemns ‘hate-filled rhetoric’ of Islamic fanaticism, The Telegraph:

It’s hard not to conclude that this hate-filled religious rhetoric, pouring from the mouths of ruthless fanatics into the ears of angry young men, has become the most dangerous new weapon in the world today.

If the rhetoric is the weapon then let’s find out why are we seeing so many taking it up today? Recent generations have seen several enemies — the rhetoric of nationalism, the rhetoric of corporate capitalism, the rhetoric of state socialism – and this is a new one. What has led to its emergence?

A word I dislike greatly, ‘Islamophobia’, has been coined to discredit those who point at these excesses, by labelling them as bigots. . . . 

It is right to feel phobia towards such matters. . . . To feel aversion towards such a force is not bigotry. It is the only possible response to the horror of events.

I can’t, as a citizen, avoid speaking of the horror of the world in this new age of religious mayhem, and of the language that conjures it up and justifies it, so that young men, including young Britons, led towards acts of extreme bestiality, believe themselves to be fighting a just war.

Salman Rushdie does not like the word Islamophobia but at the same time he self-servingly (probably without realizing it) distorts its meaning and the way it is used. I return to this word below where I address a Sam Harris quote.

Salman Rushdie is telling us that it is ”language that conjures it up”. The image is one of Islamic violence that has been smouldering for centuries like a vulcanic demon impatiently waiting beneath the surface of a bubbling geothermal mud pool for someone to chant the terrible magic words to unleash it.

Rushdie’s failure to reference any historical thinking, or any political-social understanding, is distressing and a little frightening. read more »


2014-10-11

A Secular Approach to Christian Origins Compromised by Faith and Theology

by Neil Godfrey

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This post concludes my series on Crossley’s Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE).

The previous post is here.  All posts on this book, both the recent ones from 2014 and those from 2010-11, are archived here.


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Misguided equivalence

How is one meant to respond to the words of a secular historian who says it would be “foolish and arrogant” to claim that his approach is “inherently superior” to one used by a Christian apologist? How is it possible for a secular rationalist to engage with a faith-grounded apologist as if both perspectives should be evaluated on an equal footing? Does the virtue of ”mutual tolerance” require persons with opposing intellectual agendas to somehow find a way to exchange views constructively and productively? Does the pointlessness of ”preaching to the converted” mean one’s efforts to exchange ideas among others with a similar philosophical outlook is also pointless?

Imagine the impact if more and more nonreligious, secular-minded historians were to become NT scholars. But if such a hypothetical collection of scholars were to make its impact felt, there must be mutual tolerance and the avoidance of . . . preaching to the converted. It would be foolish and arrogant to claim that one approach is inherently superior to opposing ones. . . . (p. 32)

How can a nonreligious, secular-minded historian possibly not claim his or her approach is inherently superior to an opposing one that “proves” the bodily resurrection of Jesus?

How can a leopard change its spots? How can the Christian apologists ever agree that their methods and faith-assumptions are not superior to those of the secular-minded nonreligious rationalist? What would be the point of being a secular-rationalist if one did not believe that such an outlook was indeed superior to the methods that are justified by faith?

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 11.13.56 pmCrossley confuses particular historical methods and approaches with the philosophical underpinnings most of them have in common: a belief that testable knowledge is more reliably accumulated through secular-rational methods rather than through enquiry guided by and seeking to serve the agenda of religious faith:

Richard Evans has pointed out that the history of history is littered with examples of different hegemonic claims by a given historical theory or practice wanting to dominate the world of historical study but usually ending up as legitimate subspecialities. 

Richard Evans was not addressing faith-histories versus secular histories. He was referring to the various approaches within secular history: postmodernists, psychohistorians, Marxists, feminists, social historians. Crossley has badly misunderstood and misapplied Evans’ point. (See Kindle version of Evans’ In Defence of History, locations 2744 and 3688)

It is not a question of one new method claiming hegemony only to be sidelined to a subspeciality. The real issue is well expressed by Niels Peter Lemche: read more »


2014-10-08

Good Bias, Hidden Bias and the Phantom of Jesus in Christian Origin Studies

by Neil Godfrey

whychristianityhappenedThis post continues on from The Secular Approach to Christian Origins, #3 (Bias) and addresses the next stage of Professor James Crossley’s discussion on what he believes is necessary to move Christian origins studies out from the domination of religious bias and into the light of secular approaches.

In the previous post we covered Crossley’s dismay that scholarly conferences in this day and age would open with prayer, look for ecumenical harmonizations through all the differences of opinions and tolerate warnings against straying from the basic calling to feed Christ’s flock with spiritual nourishment. Theologians can even seriously publish arguments that would never be found in other fields of history as we see with N.T. Wright’s arguments for the historicity of the bodily resurrection and the widespread acclaim that his scholarship has attracted among his peers.

Crossley argues that the solution to Faith’s domination of Christian origin studies is for more practitioners to take up a solid secular approach. There should be more scholars in Theology or Religion departments doing history the way other historians do. Or more specifically, they should take up social-scientific methods of history.

In fact, however, the social scientific approach to historical inquiry is only one of many types of historical studies open to other historians but Crossley does not address these alternatives in this book. Crossley is concerned with applying only models of economic and social explanations for the rise of Christianity. He wants to avoid the common current approaches that explain Christian origins as the accomplishments of a unique man or the inevitable victory of a superior belief system.

Having addressed the way Christian bias (or more politely, partisanship) has produced “unnatural” historical explanations for Christianity Crossley turns to two examples of how “partisanship” has actually worked to produce positive results and taken historical studies a step closer towards a more “human” or “natural” account.

A Tale of Two Scholars

Two biographies are his primary exhibits.

What I will do here is show how details and biases of a given scholar’s life can affect the discipline — in other words, how partisanship can work in practice. . . . I think the [biographical] details are important because they provide crucial insights into the ways in which the discipline has been shaped and can be shaped. I also feel a bit naked without them. (p. 27)

read more »


2014-10-06

Who’s Who among Mythicists . . . : Completed (for now)

by Neil Godfrey

I’ve more or less “finally” completed the page WHO’s WHO: Mythicists and Mythicist

Newly added:

  • annotated lists to identify the viewpoint and methods of each of the authors,
  • a second table to illustrate the different schools of mythicist thought,
  • and several more names of prominent public sympathizers with mythicist arguments, along with links to their public declarations. 

Of course the table showing the religious/philosophical background of each mythicist and mythicist agnostic or sympathizer is maintained.

I’m sure the page will be an ongoing editorial maintenance project.

After seeing the extent to which the list is growing I am beginning to understand the consternation among devout scholar-theologians that public confidence in their authority might be being increasingly undermined.

Any assistance by way of information of new names in any of the categories or updates on existing names will be greatly appreciated. 

(The page will alway be found listed in the right-hand column of this blog.)

 

 

 


2014-10-05

Muslim Violence: Understanding Religion and Humanity

by Neil Godfrey

Jerry Coyne has posted Resa Aslan’s response to claims that the Muslim religion is inherently bad. He labales Aslan as “the Great Muslim Apologist”.

Listening to the two sides of this discussion I’m pushed to try to understand why they appear not to be truly communicating with each other. I have in the past argued the same points as Aslan makes. So watching Aslan is somewhat like watching myself.

It forces me to ask what’s gong wrong here.

Listening to the two sides of this discussion I’m pushed to try to understand what is going wrong. I have in the past argued the same sorts of clearly empirical facts as Aslan presents:

fightingwords

  • 1.5 billion Muslims cannot be all painted with the same brush — terrorism and violence, female genital mutilation, denying women’s rights such as not allowing them to drive — since Muslim countries like Turkey and Indonesia cannot be compared with Saudi Arabia and Somalia.
  • Muslim majority countries have elected seven women heads of states.
  • In Christian countries like Eritrea and Ethiopia we find nearly 90% and 75% prevalence of female genital mutilation.
  • Women participate fully in political and educational opportunities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and others.
  • Buddhists massacre Muslims in Myanmar (Burma).

But as we see in the video arguing such facts obviously does not easily persuade. The problems are still seen as Muslim problems.

Others like Jerry only see Resa as “the Great Muslim Apologist”.

After reading Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence by Hector Avalos I have been trying to think through the question afresh. A response by Hector Avalos to one of my posts is pertinent. In response to a crude interpretation of my own Avalos replied as follows. The caps are Avalos’s and the bolding and is mine: read more »


2014-10-02

Updated Who’s Who

by Neil Godfrey

I have updated the Who’s Who of Mythicists page to include brief descriptions of the arguments of each mythicist author in the table.


2014-10-01

Theologians as historians

by Neil Godfrey

Alvar Ellegård (November 12, 1919 – February 8, 2008) was a Swedish scholar and linguist. He was professor of English at the University of Gothenburg, and a member of the academic board of the Swedish National Encyclopedia.

. . .  He also became known outside the field for his work on the conflict between religious dogma and science, and for his promotion of the Jesus myth theory, the idea that Jesus did not exist as an historical figure. His books about religion and science include Darwin and the General Reader (1958), The Myth of Jesus (1992), and Jesus: One Hundred Years Before Christ. A Study in Creative Mythology (1999). (Source: Wikipedia)

He wrote “Theologians as historians”, now available online, published originally in Scandia the year he died, 2008. The article addresses arguments commonly advanced by theologians against the Christ Myth idea but it also has much to say about scholarly resistance to even being willing to debate such a thesis. I quote a few passages here from that section of his article. (Headings and bolding are my own.)

Theologians are not living up to their responsibility

It is fair to say that most present-day theologians also accept that large parts of the Gospel stories are, if not fictional, at least not to be taken at face value as historical accounts. On the other hand, no theologian seems to be able to bring himself to admit that the question of the historicity of Jesus must be judged to be an open one.

It appears to me that the theologians are not living up to their responsibility as scholars when they refuse to discuss the possibility that even the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels can be legitimately called into question. Instead, they tend to dismiss as cranks those who doubt that the Jesus of the Gospels ever existed.

Dogmatism is characteristic . . . under cover of mystifying language

It is natural that different historians come to different conclusions on questions for which our sources are late, scanty or biassed. Thus most historians, though skeptical about king Arthur, avoid being dogmatic about him, whatever the stand they are taking. But dogmatism is characteristic of the theologians’ view of matters which are held to guarantee the historicity of Jesus.

That dogmatism, however, is too often concealed under a cover of mystifying language. An instance in point is quoted by Burton L. Mack, who quotes Helmut Koester, characterizing him, very properly, as “a New Testament scholar highly regarded for his critical acumen” (Mack 1990, p. 25). Koester writes:

“The resurrection and the appearances of Jesus are best explained as a catalyst which prompted reactions that resulted in the missionary activity and founding of the churches, but also in the crystallization of the tradition about Jesus and his ministry. But most of all, the resurrection changed sorrow and grief into joy, creativity and faith. Though the resurrection revealed nothing new, it nonetheless made everything new for the first Christian believers” (Koester 19822, p. 84-86).

Mack comments drily:

read more »


2014-09-30

What Did Paul Know About Jesus?

by Neil Godfrey
Gregory Jenks

Gregory Jenks

Gregory Jenks has posted a new article on academia.edu, What did Paul know about Jesus? Jenks is a senior lecturer of theology at Charles Sturt University. Among other things he is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar and has a blog with the byline revisioning faith . . . shaping holy lives. I met Gregory Jenks in Toowoomba some years ago now when John Shelby Spong dropped in for a visit at his Anglican parish. He’s a nice bloke so I hope I don’t do any injustice to his article.

So first up let me give you the message Jenks wants to leave with sympathetic readers. He begins with this question for believers:

Does the historical Paul provide any help for contemporary people wondering to what extent information about the pre-Easter Jesus is relevant to the project of discipleship and faith?

After showing how little Paul addressed “Jesus traditions” he closes with the following answer that amplifies the message of his blog’s byline:

Paul appears to have exercised considerable flexibility and creative license in using whatever Jesus traditions may have been known to him and his readers. Christians today can claim that same freedom with respect to the Jesus tradition and the Pauline legacy.

Paul demonstrated that the priority always lies with direct life experience—interpreted within the context of one’s faith community and in the light of its tradition. Those who wish to honor the sage of Galilee might do it best by moving beyond veneration to the more challenging project of embracing life with openness and trust here and now.

I think I’ve been fair in presenting what Jenks sees as the importance of his article. I’ve no problem with his question or answer and respect his efforts in working towards a more tolerant and understanding society with that kind of message.

But what about the question of historicity and origins?

I was fearing that Jenks’ article would be yet one more “reading Paul through the Gospels” exercise but there was no need. Jenks is smarter than that. read more »


2014-09-28

Turning Awful Prose into Bad Poetry

by Tim Widowfield
English: William McGonagall, scottish poet

William McGonagall, Scottish doggerel poet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t expect to get much out of this post; I’m just letting off some steam.

This afternoon while we were channel-surfing among several games on DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, I paused and asked my wife to listen to a sentence from a book I was reading. When I finally finished, she admitted she didn’t understand any of it and asked me if the author was a native English speaker.

Sadly, the sentence was not the product of a single foreign author, working hard to compose in an alien tongue, but of two authors — one from Canada, one from the U.S. — both with PhDs. You might think that having two educated minds working on the same essay would result in better prose, with the excesses of one writer being held in check by the other.

In this case it didn’t work out that way. If anything, Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher appear to have been engaged in a competition to write the most obscure prose imaginable. As a result, reading their essay, “Jesus Tradition as Social Memory” (Memory, Tradition, and Text, 2005, pp. 25-42) is like watching random words splash over your brain. You recall the act of reading, but you have no memory of the content.

I then recalled ex-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s impenetrable prose, which when re-formed as poetry, somehow took on an almost zen-like quality.

The Unknown

As we know, 
There are known knowns. 
There are things we know we know. 
We also know 
There are known unknowns. 
That is to say 
We know there are some things 
We do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns, 
The ones we don’t know 
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense news briefing

So, I wondered if perhaps Kirk and Thatcher’s word-piles might fare equally well if given the same treatment. Here’s the versified sentence I read to my wife. read more »


The Secular Approach to Christian Origins, #3 (Bias)

by Neil Godfrey
monastic2

Quite possibly a scene from a modern New Testament academic conference

The previous two posts in this series:

  1. Why Christianity Happened — Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins
  2. Why Christianity Happened – The Secular Approach, 2

The Necessity and Problem of Bias in Christian Origins Studies

James Crossley (Why Christianity Happened: A Sociological Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE)) examines the role of bias in historical studies, in particular in the studies of Christian origins. He uses the less pejorative term “partisanship”. This discussion appears necessary given what Crossley himself observes of the dominance of religious bias among New Testament historians and their traditional suspicion of the secular “social-scientific” approach he himself applies to Christian origins.

The general points are made: what is important is to recognize one’s own perspective and to be able to appreciate, understand and write objectively about the perspectives of others as well as one’s own. Acknowledging the impossibility of a purely unbiased God-perspective does not mean there can be no objective facts and explanations. (Crossley uses the term “hyperrelativism”.) He quotes a portion of following by the historian Richard Evans in In Defence of History:

While historians are certainly swayed, consciously or unconsciously, by present moral or political purposes in carrying out their work, it is not the validity or desirability of these, but the extent to which their historical arguments conform to the rules of evidence and the facts on which they rest, by which they must stand or fall in the end. In other words, they have to be objective . . . (Kindle loc. 3981-3984)

I sometimes devour books discussing history like this so I immediately purchased the Kindle version and pretty much read most of it on the spot. read more »