Monthly Archives: April 2009

A spectrum of Jesus mythicists and mythers

First, a lesson in lexicology for some who wish to advertise their contempt  for the mythicist position. (Presumably a display of contempt serves as an excuse for neither understanding nor taking up the mythicist challenges.)

Myther is an alternative spelling of mither. Its meaning has nothing to do with one who thinks Jesus originated as a mythical character that was later historicized. It means nagger, whiner, annoying pesterer, irritator. I am reminded of Socrates seeing himself as a gadfly to the establishment. Maybe mythicists should embrace the label ‘myther’ after all, and keep up their Socratic challenges — the way WW2’s British Desert Rats embraced with pride Rommel’s contemptuous label for them.

Anyway, to continue a thought train begun in my last post and responding thoughts, maybe one can divide the mythicists into 4 broad categories:

read more »

The Real Battle in debates over the bible among non-believers

updated . . . .

Recently I quoted René Salm’s summary of the deeper psychological issues that believers of the bible often bring to the fore when engaging sceptical arguments — in the Real Battle in debates over the bible with believers.

What I am still trying to understand is why the same “group think”, the same “circling of the wagons”, the same intestinal reactions bedevil the responses of so many nonbelievers, scholars included, when “engaging” arguments and critiques of Jesus mythicists. “Engaging” in quotation marks because 99% of the time the responses of the “historicists” are red-herrings, ad-hominems, straw-men, whatever — anything but what the central arguments of those mythicists so often are.

Strange. I have never been able to bring myself to read a whole page of anything written by the fatuous reasoningsof the likes of Acharya S, but I do know that the best and well-known mythicist arguments are grounded in cultural and exegetical biblical studies, and are far more cogent, devoid of fatuous circularity and inconsistencies, than just about anything I have read by historicists about “the historical Jesus”.

A little while ago I wrote a detailed critique of Bauckham’s betrayal of true scholarship and logical and historical enquiry, and did so because of the astonishing popularity such a book was winning. I could have written as damning a critique of almost any other book on the historical Jesus. I have so many marginal notes of points to make in quite a number of prominent scholars — I may yet do this, when retired maybe.

It is easy to understand the knee jerk nonsense of committed apologists. I like to think I avoid going out of my way to debate them. They feel a need for their faith. That’s their business. Live and let live.

Maybe the irrational but nonetheless deeply meaningful needs of nonbelieving scholars who ridicule and scarcely hide their contempt for those they like to call “mythers”,  as if their position is not even deserving of a proper noun, have something to do with self-actualization, ego-needs from a certain academic circle, I don’t know. Strange.

For the curious, the above musings were prompted by a depressing series of exchanges among academic ‘historicists’ and those they contemptuously denigrate as mythers – even though it is patently obvious to anyone who has read the better “mythicist” arguments that such historicists have never bothered to apprise themselves of the basis of mythicist arguments in the first place. I can imagine if some of them tried, they’d find the books they hold as repulsive as a socialist tract might be in the hands of a Rockefeller. Got carried away in there with long winded sentences — the occasion of the above musings are the exchanges found in The Forbidden Gospels Blog posts, My decision about the Jesus project, and The Jesus Seminar Jesus project is bankrupt, part 4. Steven Carr’s basic questions that went to the core of the sham behind the historicists’ arguments were simply ridiculed or ignored — not once engaged seriously.

When confronted with the mythicist position, it seems erudite scholars and untrained fundamentalists respond as one.

Strange.

But maybe not really. Peer pressure is a powerful thing, especially when one’s livelihood and professional reputation depends on a certain base acceptance by one’s professional peers.

Depressing.

Not least because not so long ago I encountered historicists declaring as absolute fact that there is as much evidence for the existence of Jesus as for Julius Caesar or such. Now — and maybe it is a sign of some progress — scholars actually admit there is no real “evidence” to “prove” the existence of Jesus. Or even more depressing, when the flimsiest threads (a verse in Galatians open to several meanings and a debated passage in Josephus) serve as “bedrock” evidence for historicity.

I’m reminded of the intellectual dishonesty of the Catholic Church and its hired scholars to proclaim “proof” for the historical existence of Nazareth. I think I need to start hitting harder again so much of the nonsense that passes for “scholarship” in biblical studies – and not just the Bauckham fringe.

Narrative problems with the proposed endings of Mark

Some narrative inconsistencies with Mark 16:9-20

Quite apart from the difficulties with both the internal and the external evidence for Mark 16:9-20 being original to the gospel, questions would be raised about its authenticity purely on narrative grounds.

In verse 8 all the women, apparently led by Mary Magdalene (16:1), fled in such fear that they could say nothing to anyone about their experience.

Then in verse 9 the narrative awkwardly doubles back to pick up the time setting (we are told a second time both the time of the day and the day of the week) from the beginning of the chapter to continue a narrative that immediately contradicts the previous verse. Suddenly, without explanation, Mary Magdalene is mysteriously separated from her companions (did the three women helter skelter screaming blindly in 3 different directions in verse 8?), sees Jesus, and rushes off to tell the disciples after all.

Silly excursis:
At this point I keep imagining a Monty Python ending if
Life of Brian had another ten minutes to run — Mary and/or Mary cattily scold a look-alike they mistake for a resurrected Jesus/Brian for having them go and waste all that money on buying spices for his corpse when he goes and pulls a thoughtless stunt like that on them, . . . . . yeh, well, with the Monty Python crew it could have had potential.

Why didn’t the author simply say in verse 8 that Mary (the mother of James or Joseph or both) and Salome ran off never to be heard from again while Mary Magdalene etc etc . . . ? That would be a much more natural narrative flow. As it stands it sounds as if the author took a very long spell before adding these verses and came back to finish it having forgotten the details of what he had composed long before.

Then there is the unexplained reference to “the eleven” in verse 14. Why only eleven? It is clear in Matthew and Luke who used Mark why there would be only eleven disciples at this juncture — Matthew had Judas hang himself and Luke had Satan possess him — but in Mark’s gospel there is little to narrative reason to put such a huge gulf between Peter and Judas, or between Judas and the rest of the disciples. Peter’s last appearance was suffering anguish over having denied his Lord before men, and therefore presumably knowing his fate was thence to have the Son of Man being ashamed of him at his coming (8:38). (Other early gospel “traditions”, as known from Justin Martyr and the Gospel of Peter among others, iirc, did not appear to know of any of the twelve missing after the resurrection.)

Verses 9-20 only make narrative sense if read through what we know of the other synoptic gospels. They can scarcely be indigenous to the first gospel.

Inconsistencies with the “shorter ending”

The shorter ending (see the Wikipedia article) suffers the same narrative incongruities as the longer ending.

And they reported all the instructions briefly to Peter’s companions. Afterwards Jesus himself, through them, sent forth from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.

Here Peter looks as lost from view as Judas in Matthew and Luke. This would seem to flow against the earlier narrative point that the women were told specifically to tell Peter. It also, of course, flies against the previous verse that announces the women did the exact opposite — kept quiet and said nothing to anyone. (Maybe the author was self-consciously writing what he planned to be known as “the shorter ending”, hence omitting Peter and noting the women spoke “briefly”.)

And narrative inadequacies with the John 21 ending

John 21 (Luke 5), which is another proposed original ending, also runs into narrative anomalies if tagged on to Mark 16. If we had been reading a conclusion to Mark where Jesus appeared to his disciples again on the shore of the “sea” of Galilee, we would forever be wondering what on earth happened to the poor women.

Would not this ending condemn the gospel as the most sexist of all with salvation for men only, with women condemned forever to keep silence in the churches as hopeless witnesses. Not that modern values has anything to do with the question of authenticity, but the point remains that any happy ending would surely be expected to toss in some lifeline to redeem the women, too.

Another point that a John 21 ending fails to reconcile is the young man’s message to the women — at least as I understand it in the English translation.

But go and tell his disciples — and Peter — that he is going before you into Galilee, there you will see him as he said to you.

Is the young man saying here that Jesus is to appear to an inclusive “you” — inclusive of the disciples and the women?

If so, it would seem none of the proposed endings resolve this statement.

The chaos that settled with the conversion of Mark

If any of the above endings were original to the gospel of Mark we would be left with an additional perplexity — Why would any of the above have been detached from the original in the first place? None of them appears to be in violation of proto-orthodoxy. But if the gospel did indeed originally conclude with 16:8 then we do have a gospel that is arguably in opposition to the emerging orthodoxy.

Such a gospel would demand the fabrication of a catholicizing conclusion.

If Matthew and Luke represent branches of that emerging orthodoxy, it is surely a significant point that they both do not simply tag a narrative on to where Mark left off. They both change his last line, that presumably offensive or embarrassing verse 8. Both Matthew and Luke insist the women ran off to tell the disciples. They both change — not simply add to —  the Marcan narrative-ending that we do have.

If Mark 1:1-16:8 declares a non-orthodox Jesus and a tragic tale of failed discipleship, it appears that there were a number of early attempts to re-write this gospel. The re-writing touched on the character of Jesus, his teachings, his miraculous performances, and the status of the disciples. By the time the dust had settled it appears that two of the variant endings were stitched in part from Luke and Matthew, and another may have been cast out like an orphan till it found a home, with a few redactions, in the back room of the Gospel of John.

Gospel of Mark’s ending — I give up

It hurts, but having caught up with old news about Mark posted by David Ross (which I should have followed up long before now since it was referenced by Michael Turton in his commentary on Mark), I have to consider (again) revising my view about the ending of Mark. I think it’s time I gave up the question and left it on the shelf as “awaiting more evidence” before a definitive conclusion can ever be reached.

I recently expressed my view that the 16:8 ending of Mark is balanced neatly with the beginning of the gospel by common and inverted motifs. But the same argument of motif inversion and balance applies equally well if the original ending included a story currently found in both John 21 and Luke 5.

In both we have:

  • the disciples casting nets into the sea
  • in Mark a net is being mended, in the Luke/John pericope the net is being broken, or in danger of it
  • as an ending of Mark the problem of the disciples not apparently knowing Jesus had been resurrected in the John pericope is resolved
  • in both there is a calling beside the sea

Not that I am arguing that this was the original ending of Mark. Still many unresolved questions. But will have to be less confident about my view of Mark as based on the OT template of failure of Israel, and more. Now that hurts a bit. Wish I had more time to investigate this, but maybe it’s better I don’t — maybe one could die mad trying to resolve some questions.

What it really means to be human . . . the challenge before us all

Having quoted a passage I could relate strongly to from René Salm’s (The Myth of Nazareth) introduction, I have to follow up with his even better concluding paragraph:

When someone removes the idols from the temple, deep-seated resentment is likely to ensue. After all, mythology serves a purpose, and the Christian myth fabricated in late antiquity answers to basic human needs: the need to be watched over, protected, saved, loved — even the need to be immortal. The Christian faith, in its Pauline guise, has grown because ordinary people have sensed a profound affinity for its myths and have toiled untiringly, though misguidedly, on their behalf. It is to be hoped, however, that the human species is capable of taking thought, of looking squarely at the way things are, of removing myths and delusion, and of using the powers of reason that separate humanity from bestiality. In short, it is to be hoped that we are capable of living in a world which is not make-believe. That is what it really means to be human, and that is the challenge before us all. (p.308)

This reminds me of a lunch-time discussion with a work colleague. She told me her faith, and I reciprocated that I had no “faith” in that sense, but had come to prefer honesty to happiness, and that if being happy meant believing in a delusion then I would rather be honest. I prefer the pain of the honesty of facing things as they are, with all their unpredictability and unfairness, than the comfort of a make-believe.

She replied: That takes a very strong person.

I wish I had replied: No, it is in one’s genes. It is simply having the courage to accept one’s humanity. To be honest is all it takes.

But she was a work colleague and friend and all I felt I should say was something like: We are all where we are at, and that’s that. (Dr Seuss?)

Well, I actually said a bit of both.

The Real Battle in debates over the bible with believers

My copy of The Myth of Nazareth (René Salm) has arrived and I love this paragraph in its Introduction:

The real battle, however, is not empirical, nor even about how we view the evidence of Nazareth or of any other site in biblical archaeology. The battle is not between postmodernists and conservatives, minimalists and maximalists, nihilists and positivists. It has nothing to do with facts but has to do with human needs, for if need be, man will invent. He desires comfort, not facts. The two thousand years of Christian tradition have nothing to do with the facts of history. They never did. They have to do with human desires and needs. (p.xv)

Misquoting Ahmadinejad to isolate Iran (in prep for the next war?)

Western governments happily have mainstream media to report their pronouncements uncritically (saves media corp money to rely on press releases) and one has to dig a little to learn that those nations that have protested against President Ahmadinejad of Iran the loudest . . .

  • are but a minority (unfortunately a powerful minority), and
  • that their protests are in fact propaganda misrepresentations or outright lying translations of what Ahmadinejad has actually said — at least on two occasions.

So for those interested:

Full Text of President Ahmadinejad’s Remarks at U.N. Conference on Racism

Iran’s President Did Not Say “Israel Must Be Wiped Off The Map”

Gospel of Luke, reconciler of the Herod and Pilate gospel narratives?

Further thoughts from earlier post on rival gospel traditions. . . . .

It is easy to overlook that the gospels of John and Luke say that the Jews themselves, not Roman soldiers, crucified Jesus with Pilate’s permission. This is as is narrated in the Gospel of Peter and elsewhere, as per the above post.

Luke also, like the Gospel of Peter, assigns Herod a leading role in the circumstances of Christ’s death. In the following I’m assuming, as I have presented arguments elsewhere, both a late (second century) date for the gospels, and Luke being the last gospel written (as per Matson, Shellard, et al).

I am exploring here the possibility that while John was strongly influenced by the eastern narratives, it was the author of the Gospel of Luke who, after many who had composed narratives before him, attempted the most “catholic” (albeit anti-Marcionite and anti-Ebionite/Nazarene) gospel. Luke is famous for his introduction in which he declares that “many” have preceded him.  This alone points to a late date for the gospel.

If, as per Tyson et al, canonical Luke was composed in the mid second century, it is possible that the Gospel of Peter was known to its author.

John and Luke declare the Jews carried out the crucifixion:

John 19:14-16

And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King! But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priest answered, We have no king but Caesar. Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away.

(Thanks to Joe Wallack, who in a comment on the earlier post, alerted me to this John passage that prompted the thoughts of this post.)

Luke 23:24-36

And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required. And he released unto them him that for sedition and murder was cast into prison, whom they had desired; but he delivered Jesus to their will. And as they led him away, . . . .

Taking this passage in Luke “seriously”, as many like to say, will also prompt us to read more literally the passage in Acts where the Jews are declared to be the ones who crucified Jesus. After all, Acts was very likely written by the same final author of canonical (not the original) Luke (as discussed in my notes on Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts).

Acts 3:13-15

. . . his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; and killed the Prince of life . . .

Mark and Matthew say the Romans did it

Of course it is the narratives of Mark and Matthew that have carried the day and through which we too easily read John and Luke. We are also persuaded to read all four gospels through the perspectives of Mark and Matthew because they appear to be comport more closely to what would have been the historical reality of the event — if it were historical.

Mark 15:15-16

And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified. And the soldiers led him away into the hall, called Praetorium; and they call together the whole band.

Matthew 27:24-27

When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers.

The Role of Herod vis a vis Pilate

The Gospel of Peter, and other writings associated more with the eastern Roman empire, agree with John and Luke. But they also say that Herod was the ruler primarily responsible for Christ’s execution.

The earliest gospel, Mark, makes three mentions of Herod or his supporters. Twice Mark speaks of the Pharisees and Herodians colluding to trap Jesus. The first time Jesus escaped their joint plot to kill him, and the last time he outwitted their envoys in a game of riddles:

Mark 3:6

And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.

Mark 12:13

And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words.

In between Herod executed John the Baptist as a foreshadowing of the fate awaiting Jesus, and subsequently confused Jesus for John. (Mark 6

At the end of the gospel when Jesus is on trial the Pharisees and Herodians are nowhere to be seen. Their narrative function has been fulfilled. The climax of the gospel is when the Jerusalem and Roman leaders, the representatives of Jerusalem and Rome, take centre stage.

Matthew has nothing to add to what is written in Mark about Herod’s role.

Mounting anti-semitism

But Matthew does introduce a new anti-semitic twist. In Mark, Pilate relished the chance to please the Jews and deliver Jesus up to be crucified (see Mark 15:15 quoted above). Matthew changes Pilate to a “horribly nice” weakling and coward who declares himself innocent of the blood of Jesus, and who orders Jesus to be crucified (by his own soldiers) simply because he is haplessly intimidated by the loud noises from the crowd and the clenched teeth of their religious leaders. It is the Jews who let Pilate off the hook with “clean hands” by declaring,

His blood be on us, and on our children. (Matthew 27:25)

John’s gospel carries us further into the pit of anti-semitism. Of the Jews Jesus in GJohn says:

Ye are of your father the devil (John 8:44)

John’s gospel regularly identifies the persecutors of Jesus as “the Jews”.

The Gospel of Peter has been interpreted by many as firmly in the same swamp of anti-semitism as John and Matthew. I have prepared a table where one can see easily where and how the Gospel of Peter compares in this and other respects to the canonical gospels. See Gospel of Peter Compared with Canonical Gospels.

Gospel anti-semitism climaxes with Herod replacing Pilate in centre-stage?

At the same time the Gospel of Peter has removed Pilate from centre stage to make room for the Jewish “king”, Herod, to take direct responsibility, with the rest of the Jewish judges and people, for crucifying Christ.

Gospel of Peter, 1:1-2

…but of the Jews no one washed his hands, neither did Herod nor any one of his judges. Since they were [un]willing to wash, Pilate stood up. 2 Then Herod the king orders the Lord to be taken away, saying to them “Do what I commanded you to do to him.”

Enter canonical Luke

Luke’s gospel concedes, with Mark’s, that Herod wanted to kill Jesus. Unlike Mark’s gospel, however, Luke’s gospel portrays an uncowered Jesus who brazenly declares that Herod cannot kill him, at least not for a while.

Luke 13:31-33

The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee. And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.

Then, just as in the Gospel of Peter, Luke presents Herod in Jerusalem at the time of the final Passover.

Luke 23:7-12

And as soon as he knew that he belonged unto Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem at that time.

The Gospel of Peter paints a friendly relationship between Pilate and Herod. The disagreement over the justice of killing Jesus was not a big enough obstacle to come between them that way. In GPeter Herod addresses Pilate as “Brother”. Luke’s gospel points to the same relationship unfolding:

Luke 23:12

And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.

And as per the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Luke concurs that Herod at some point not only stood in judgment upon Jesus, but also

Luke 23:8-11

And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see him of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him.  Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing. And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused him. And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate.

Compare Gospel of Peter 3:1-2 which describes the Jewish soldiers of Herod treating Jesus:

They took out the Lord and kept pushing him along as they ran; and they would say, “Let’s drag the son of God since we have him in our power.” And they threw a purple robe around him and made him sit upon the judgment seat and said, “Judge justly, King of Israel.” . . .

Luke has more to say about Herod’s encounter with Jesus, but unfortunately a corresponding section is missing from the Gospel of Peter.

It seems a nice fit to have the Gospel of Luke at the end of a long trajectory of gospels that

1. began in a Pauline-like gospel with Rome and Jerusalem colluding equally in the murder of the Christ (GMark),

2. reacted with a legalistic bend where Jesus was portrayed as a new Moses, while lurching towards anti-semitism that distanced Pilate from blood-guilt (GMatthew),

3. dived deeper into anti-semitism, while incorporating other aspects of the eastern/Asian Passover tradition, and in particular replacing the Roman executioners with Jewish ones, as per GPeter (GJohn)

(thanks to M. W. Nordbakke for alerting me to the common thread uniting the Gospels of John and Peter here in a comment on the earlier post)

4. Pulled the Roman governor out of the direct line of responsibility altogether by having the Jewish soldiers under Herod’s command, yet retaining a Psalm 2 type collusion between Jewish and gentile rulers (GPeter)

5. Restored Rome’s authority, but still gave the direct Christ-killer role to the Jewish soldiers, and still found room to maintain some of the Herod “tradition”, while also critiquing Matthew’s Mosaic legalistic type of Jesus, and perhaps even finding a place for elements of a birth narrative from the Proto Gospel of James (but that’s all another story) (GLuke).

And I can’t prove a bit of it. At least not yet. But it’s a start for something new to think about. 🙂



Politics of Josephus alive and well today

Josephus detested political dissidents. He saw nothing good in anyone going out of their way to protest against the government.

All sorts of misfortunes also sprang from these men, and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree  . . . . This was done in pretense indeed for the public welfare, but in reality for the hopes of gain to themselves; . . . . (Antiquities, 18.1)

The same meme that equates politial protest with selfishness is, of course, alive and well today. From a Singapore newspaper:

The timely enactment of the Public Order Act will be an effective legal tool to check groups out to disrupt the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit scheduled to be hosted in Singapore in November.

We should not allow others to hijack these pro-Singapore events to satisfy their own selfish political agendas.

and then again in a Malaysian newspaper:

He said it was only a tiny group of irresponsible and selfish individuals who had been pushing this line of civil disobedience in Singapore.

Of course the same meme is with us wherever — even whenever — we live.

3 types of miracles: Mark’s, Matthew’s and Mary MacKillop’s

Comparing miracles in Mark and Matthew

Getting physical

The first healing miracle narrated in the earliest canonical gospel (Mark) says that Jesus physically lifted the patient up before she was healed:

But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever, and anon they tell him of her. And he came and took her by the hand, and lifted her up; and immediately the fever left her, and she ministered unto them. (Mark 1:30-31)

For the author of the Gospel of Matthew, who copied much of his material from the Gospel of Mark, this was apparently not a fitting way for a god on earth to do things. To his mind, a mere touch ought to suffice:

And when Jesus was come into Peter’s house, he saw his wife’s mother laid, and sick of a fever. And he touched her hand, and the fever left her: and she arose, and ministered unto them. (Matthew 8:14-15)

Through spiritual warfare

The second healing miracle in the Gospel of Mark was of the leper.

And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus, moved with anger (orgistheis), put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean. (Mark 1:40-41)

Bible translations follow other manuscripts that read splanchistheis, meaning compassion, in place of orgistheis (anger) for obvious reasons. But the authors of Matthew and Luke who copied Mark here omit this word, strongly suggesting that what they found in the original also sounded offensive to them.

And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.  And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. (Matthew 8:2-3)

Newcomers to this original text (according to more than one criteria used, including priority being given to the more difficult reading) of Mark’s gospel will find it easier to embrace when they recall Mark’s Jesus from the beginning is unlike any found in the other gospels. Thus from the first Mark’s Jesus is possessed (entered into, not “lighted upon” as in Matthew) by the spirit at baptism and is then “cast out” by that same spirit into the wilderness. At every point subsequently this Jesus is seen breaking apart the present “cosmos”, or world order — whether by

  • casting out demons with violence and torment,
  • wrestling with the very elements of nature (waves, storms, wind),
  • restoring physical wellness by strange charms, physical applications or conflict with contrary (demonic, spiritual) forces in the background
  • denying death through crucifixion.

Healing only Many or healing All?

Gospel of Mark’s next reference to healing is a less personal en masse occasion:

And at even, when the sun did set, they brought unto him all that were diseased, . . . And all the city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many that were sick of divers diseases, . . . (Mark 1:32-34)

Matthew’s author is apparently offended by the suggestion in Mark that of “all” who came to Jesus only “many” were healed, so he changed that to a more satisfying:

When the even was come, they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick . . . (Matthew 8:16)

We get the picture

Where Jesus in the Gospel of Mark heals either

  • through strenuous or dramatic physical actions and applications
  • or through conflict with spiritual ‘attitudes’ and forces,
  • or heals only “many” but never “all” of those who come to him,

Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew heals like a serenely supreme being

  • with a mere touch,
  • or in a context where “bad attitudes” and evil forces are nothing more than a foil for the goodness of Jesus,
  • or he heals all who come to him, leaving none behind.

Matthew was helping Mark’s Jesus evolve into the supremely aloof being we associate with him today. Mark’s Jesus was the being who came to tear apart and overturn the old order as one possessed from the beginning. Matthew’s Jesus was heavenly aloof and all compassionate while in the flesh and only had to show up for evil fell to fall away before him or for all to be healed.

Enter Mary MacKillop read more »

Rival gospel traditions: Herod or Pilate the executioner of Christ?

I listened in on a Good Friday service in St Joseph’s church in Singapore last night, while standing amidst hundreds of others holding magic or holy candles, and during the reading of the Gospel of John’s passion narrative I was struck to suddenly hear echoes of thematic details also found in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter.

Now the Gospel of Peter is generally taken to have been written after the Gospel of John, but some have dated the Gospel of John towards the middle of the second century, and others have dated the Gospel of Peter to around the same period. What is a more tenable scenario, however, is that the “traditions” behind the Gospel of Peter do go back quite early. (See various online sources, including Wikipedia.)

I have compiled a comparative table of the Gospel of Peter with the canonical gospels.

Most of my argument assumes a late (very late – second century) dating of the gospels. I believe I can defend this view, and argue that most (not all) earlier datings rest more on apologetic assumptions and interpretations than hard evidence.

The common explanation for the variant view that Herod crucified Jesus is that it was an outgrowth of rising anti-semitism. That may be true. But there might also be another explanation – that the Herod story was the original one, and a more complex narrative involving Roman involvement was a later evolution. Either model will do — my views of rival narratives do not rely on either one.

One of the most significant differences is that in the Gospel of Peter it is Herod, the King of the Jews, who orders the crucifixion of Jesus, not the Roman Pilate. Pilate is clearly narrated as leaving Herod to carry out this deed. It is Jewish guards, not Roman soldiers, who do the dirty work. The same narrative appears to be in the mind of the Christian author who wrote the vision in The Ascension of Isaiah

And after this the adversary envied him and roused the children of Israel against him, not knowing who he was, and they delivered him to the king [presumably Herod], and crucified him. . . . (Ascension 11:19)

Justin Martyr, a church father who spent much time in the eastern churches (Syria, Samaria. . . ), who wrote about the middle of the second century, also believed it was Herod, not Pilate, who crucified Jesus. See my comparative table of Justin and the canonical and apocryphal gospels for details.

We also have the Slavonic Josephus with a Christian insertion that must be traced back to an eastern tradition that Pilate was bribed by the Jews (with 30 pieces of silver) to hand Jesus over to them for execution.

The teachers of the Law were [therefore] envenomed with envy and gave thirty talents to Pilate, in order that he should put him to death. And he, after he had taken [the money], gave them consent that they should themselves carry out their purpose. And they took him and crucified him according to the ancestral law.

See my earlier blog post Gospel of Peter and the Slavonic Josephus for discussion.

The Acts of Peter, from Asia Minor, may be assuming a similar narrative when we read:

Thou didst harden the heart of Herod . . . . thou didst give boldness unto Caiaphas, that he should deliver our Lord Jesus Christ unto the unrighteous multitude (Acts Peter VIII)

Eastern and Western rival narratives?

Was it an eastern “gospel tradition” that it was “the Jews” under their king Herod who crucified Jesus? Was the gospel tradition that became canonical, that Pilate killed Jesus, of western (Roman?) derivation? Was the eastern tradition expanded by what became the canonical gospel “tradition”, with the gospels of Mark and (canonical) Luke being western, even Roman, in origin? The Gospel of Matthew, I think, also assumed prominent status among western theologians. And was not John’s gospel on the cusp of the two — being traced to Asia Minor centres that were crossroads of dialogue between east and west?

Both the Gospels of John and Peter place heavy emphasis on the culpability of the Jews as Jews for the death of Jesus. “The Jews” are addressed as a race apart from Jesus.

Both the Gospels of John and Peter place extra heavy emphasis on Jesus’ death being the fulfilment of scriptures. (All the gospels do this to lesser and greater extents, but this trope is given particular emphasis in these two gospels, I think.)

But the alarm started ringing when I heard in the reading Pilate twice attempting to pass Jesus back to the Jews for punishment, with each attempt proving to be a narrative foil to explain why it really was Pilate, and not the Jews, who took over the role of crucifying Pilate.

Then Pilate said to them, “You take him and judge him according to your law.” Therefore the Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” (John 18:31)

Therefore, when the chief priests and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “You take him and crucify him, for I find no fault in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.” Therefore when Pilate heard that saying he was the more afraid, and went again into the Praetorium. . . (John 19:6-9)

Why does “John” introduce these exchanges? Is he attempting to rebut an alternative gospel tradition that it was indeed the Jews who crucified Christ?

Is he attempting to tackle head on what the Gospel of Mark had attempted to dismiss with a sideways glance? GMark told a story that while Herod (or Herodians) had sought to kill Jesus, Jesus eluded them.

Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against [Jesus], how they might destroy him. But Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea. (Mark 3:6-7)

The Gospel of Luke (which in its canonical form I often suspect is later than the other three gospels) addresses the issue with a revised narrative insert that might appear to explain how the confusion arose in the first place:

When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked whether the man were a Galilaean.  And as soon as he knew that he belonged unto Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem at that time.  And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see him of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him.  Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing.  And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused him.  And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate.  And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves. (Luke 23:6-12)

The advantage of the Pilate narrative?

If this was the case, and there was a rival narrative in which the Jews, led by their King and High Priest, crucified Jesus, how might we account for the eventual takeover by the canonical version?

One answer may be alluded to in another post of mine in which I discussed thoughts arising from two strange bedfellows: John Carroll’s The Existential Jesus and Michael Patella’s The Lord of the Cosmos. See Pilate and the Cosmic Order in Mark.

The canonical narrative with its complex interrelationship of Jewish and Roman court hearings is certainly a more sophisticated structure than the more direct linear tale of Herod killing Jesus. This alone might reasonably suggest it was of later origin. Add to this the apparent references in Mark, Luke and John (cited above) that appear to be in dialogue with another tradition. But we can’t be sure.

I would think that the canonical version involving Rome had the long-term sustainable advantage of bringing into the myth the notion of Jesus’ death being linked to a new cosmic order on earth (not just in heaven), and involved the spiritual overthrow of all earthly powers. Pilate, as the representative of Rome, and the close involvement of the Roman soldiers in his death, alongside Jewish culpability, broadened the message of the gospel into a well, more “catholic” one. It was more than an anti-semitic diatribe. Pilate’s reluctance, the centurion’s recognition of Jesus, the soldier’s role in opening up another “sign” of Jesus by piercing his side, — these introduced somewhat relatively more neutral (merely doing the job, not motivated by envy like the Jews) and “ready to be converted” non-Jews into a central gospel role.

The role of Rome also gave the gospel a clearer focus on “the cosmos”, the world, represented by Rome, and its leading role that emerged through the second century.

Besides, the gospels of Matthew and John preserved enough that was of value for anti-semitic fodder without the need for the blunter Gospel of Peter.

St Josephs on Good Friday, Singapore, where the above thoughts suddenly hit me :-)

St Josephs on Good Friday, Singapore, where the above thoughts suddenly hit me 🙂

The Nazareth myth

I’ve just discovered Rene Salm now has a a page introducing his argument for the archaeological evidence (or lack of it) for the existence of Nazareth as a village at the time of the early first century c.e. (Am I the last to know about this?)

www.nazarethmyth.info

.Another page of his addresses the establishment arguments against his case.

An Essential Nazareth Bibliography

For those who like James Randi, there is also a Youtube endorsement by Randi.

I recall reading lengthy exchanges of a wide cross-section of biblical scholars with Rene Salm on Crosswalk (or Crosswalk2) some years ago and was a bit dismayed at the way the most pro-historical-Nazereth arguments were flimsy attempts to draw definitive, even dogmatic, facts from vague propositions and ‘minimalist’ evidence.

An interesting summary of exchanges seeking an explanation for the origin of the connection of Nazareth with Jesus can be found in a post (13031) on Crosstalk2 by Bob Schacht.

Good Friday and Thaipusam, and the common DNA of religions

What does it say about the nature of religion when we observe that, just as human culture and language are at the same time the same thing yet richly diverse, so the world’s diverse religions share so many of the same themes, metaphors and motifs? This post looks at rituals from two religions by way of convenient illustration.

(Caveat etc: Scholarship has rightly moved on beyond Sir James Frazer, but Jonathan Z. Smith has missed the forest while studying the trees.)

A month or so ago I stumbled across the Hindu Thaipusam procession. Last night I went to see the famous Good Friday procession at St Joseph’s cathedral in Singapore. The sameness of its motifs with the Christian and other religions reinforced my view that religions all share a common mindset, a common consciousness, a common set of motifs. They are all part of a singular cross-cultural psychological family in the same way. The concepts they share, and which vary only in their ritual and mythological details, are like the biological similarities that point to a common genetic base that unites the animal kingdom.

Both the Hindu and Christian processions dramatize

  • suffering,
  • symbolic or momentary ego or literal death,
  • and glory and victory of spirit through both suffering and death,
  • including sharing the glory of the divinity — some form of identity with the deity.
  • a special place of the mourners, especially the women and family, of those who follow or otherwise accompany their loved one through his burdens or ‘suffering-passion’.

Common motifs of that suffering include

  • Physical torment, piercing of the flesh,
  • Emphasis on the role of blood — whether the value of it being shed or the value of it not being shed,
  • Fasting, a denial of food for relief in the midst of suffering, special foods and drinks.
  • And of course, not forgetting a solemn attention to the forsaking of sin and the embrace of righteousness through this suffering.

Devotees in the Thaipusam festival bear the pain themselves for their god:

Pierced penitent bearing cross-shaped kavadi and the glory of the god, followed by family women

Pierced penitent bearing cross-shaped kavadi and the glory of the god, followed by family women

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Christian devotees prefer to vicariously suffer through their god:

The body of Jesus, followed by Mary, after being taken down from the cross.

The body of Jesus, followed by Mary, after being taken down from the cross.

Good Friday procession at St Joseph’s cathedral, Singapore, 2009.
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It is all about suffering, death, and overcoming these in body, spirit or both. And I wonder if it all has common roots in the evolution of religion and human consciousness, and if the same motifs can be found in our earliest art still found in “cave-cathedrals” — See Mind in the Cave for earlier discussion.

Inside St Joseph's Singapore, Good Friday 2009

Inside St Joseph's Singapore, Good Friday 2009

The image of a tortured body, no less gruesome than the Hindu  flagellents, likewise glorified by devotees. This same effigy was lowered from the cross and placed in the bier captured in the photo above that also shows Mary following.

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A Christian does not need much imagination to understand the essential meaning underlying one of the rituals caught on this video

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Our languages differ, but they are all the one thing, language. Maybe it’s the same with our religions. Yes?

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Some things I like about living in Singapore

First list — more to come lah.

Singaporeans are normal — they break rules and disregard silly signs

Please Do Not Wait Here

Please Do Not Wait Here

Buses have signs warning commuters not to bring their durians on board.

No Durians

No Durians

Bus drivers stop to let you on board even after they have left the bus stop. (In Australia bus drivers take off faster with sadistic chortles if they see you running to catch their bus.)

They do laugh at themselves while being discreet enough not to risk going too public

Some court areas (like those in Geylang at evening) have the same welcoming camaraderie found in Australian pubs. (Am sometimes shouted a free beer by locals.)

Food is inexpensive and even their sweets taste healthy. (Easy for me to avoid sweets, like corn-flavoured ice-cream.)

Beer and wine are obscenely expensive. (Helps me reduce intake.)

I hate line dancing and gambling for myself but I love to see Singaporeans line dancing en masse in main streets and gambling in side streets.

The mosaic of Buddhists, Taoists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus all doing their things side by side.

Public holidays for each of the faiths, with room still left over for Labour/May Day.

And lion dancers doing business with the hawkers and others.