Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Elijah-Elisha narrative as a model for the Gospel of Mark

The Crucial BridgeThomas L. Brodie presents an argument that the Gospel of Mark was in its basic outline, plot and structure based on the Elijah-Elisha narrative in the Old Testament. I am not quite sure what to make of his case at times, but cannot deny its interest. I have no problem accepting that Mark used some of the miracle stories from Elijah and Elisha as templates for his Jesus miracles, but Brodie goes much further than this. His book is The Crucial Bridge: The Elijah-Elisha Narrative as an Interpretative Synthesis of Genesis-Kings and a Literary Model for the Gospels. It is published by the Order of St Benedict, Minnesota, 2000.

His discussion of the Elijah-Elisha narrative’s link with the Gospel of Mark consists only of ten of the last dozen pages of a 114 page book. The earlier section explains the reasons to see the Elijah-Elisha section of 1 and 2 Kings as a cohesive single narrative unit within the Primary History of Israel (Genesis-2 Kings), and also to argue that this section is a synthesis of the entire Primary History itself. I’m have a few questions about his overall thesis but need time to explore these. There are good reasons to opt for other models for Mark, too, and Brodie does not seem to deny this. There appear to have been a range of sources available to Mark and that potentially influenced the final mix that became his Gospel. read more »

Stronger evidence for Publius Vinicius the Stammerer 2000 years ago than for Jesus

Publius who? That is the point of this post. Assertions that there is as much evidence for Jesus as for any other person in ancient times, or that if we reject the historicity of Jesus then we must reject the existence of everyone else in ancient history, are based on ignorance of how we really do know about the existence of ancient persons.

This is my postscript to the previous post and suggests a case study on the relevance of literary criticism (and a few other things, like primary evidence and external controls) to historical methodology. I have argued the negative side of this in relation to Jesus many times, and won’t repeat those arguments here. Instead, I focus on one case where the methodology I discuss is used to positively establish historicity of ancient persons. read more »

Brodie (almost) versus McGrath on historical methodology in NT studies

Missed it by that much

Missed it by that much

Thomas L. Brodie has a chapter (“Towards Tracing the Gospels’ Literary Indebtedness to the Epistles” in Mimesis and Intertextuality) discussing the possibility of the Gospel authors using the NT epistles among their sources, but what I found of most interest was his discussion on methodology and criteria. The difference between Brodie’s discussion of historical methodology and that espoused by James McGrath comes close to being starkly different as day is from night. But it is not clear that Brodie is fully aware of what I think are the implications of what he writes. read more »

Christian crock

Having been a Christian myself once or twice, it would be hypocritical of me to put down anyone for their religious beliefs. I have even posted a few nice-ish things recently and in the past about the relevance of religion for many people. But lest it be thought I’m going all marshmellowy on the topic, here are a couple of mundane tidbits that have recently come my way. It’s too easy to ridicule some things, so I really should just let them speak for themselves.

I few weeks ago I received this email from the developers of a new Christian website: read more »

Christianity won over paganism by epitomizing pagan ideals
Image via Wikipedia

This continues my previous post, which was slightly misleadingly titled Why Christianity Spread So Rapidly . . .. It is for most part a distillation of Gregory J. Riley’s chapter, “Mimesis of Classical Ideals in the Second Christian Century”, found in Mimesis and Intertextuality edited by Dennis MacDonald. A related post is my discussion of Paul’s Christ crucified message and its relationship to Stoic philosophy, Why Paul did not need “the historical Jesus”. (Riley himself, however, is certainly not a Jesus-mythicist as far as I am aware.)

Riley is attempting to redress what he sees as an imbalance in the scholarship of early Christianity by pointing out that key Christian themes and messages originated in the Greco-Roman world, and were tacked on to Jewish heroes. Christianity’s attraction to many in the Roman empire lay in the way it epitomized the best and noblest of Classical ideals as it narrated these through very “paganized” Jewish characters.

Anyone familiar with the New Testament who reads the classical literature of Greece and Rome cannot help but notice the many coincidences of thought and expressions. This was certainly my own experience. Questions inevitably begin to arise as one sees this so often the more one reads. It is refreshing and enlightening to see Riley address this question head on.

This part 2 post looks at “what made the Christian Gospel something familiar and alluring, even captivating, for the masses of people of the Roman world.” (p.99) I flesh out some of Riley’s notes with quotations from the classical sources themselves. read more »

Why Christianity spread so rapidly to become the main religion of the Roman empire

Constantine's Conversion, depicting the conver...
Image via Wikipedia

Why did the number of Christians go from zero in the year zero to become the numerical majority of persons in the Roman world by about the year 350? How does one account for its dramatic success?

Many Christians themselves like to answer that question by appealing to the way Christian martyrdoms inspired the admiration of others, or to the power of witnesses who persuaded many that Jesus really had been raised from the dead. It was the miraculous work of God against all human odds that brought Christianity to the top.

A more plausible reason?

But would it make more sense if the reason was that Christianity itself encapsulated all the highest values of the Roman world as we find them expressed in their pagan traditional literature and stories. What if it was a religion that was increasingly seen as the epitome of what most people came to recognize as all that was good and noble in their pagan traditions?

The opening question is posed by Professor of Religion Gregory J. Riley and the answer he submits to it is:

It was the appeal of the early Church to the wider Greco-Roman society that fueled its rise, and that appeal was very much a result of its success in modeling the ideals of the culture as a whole. The early Christians imitated and copied the fundamental values found in the literature and stories of its wider culture as it formed its self-image and presented itself to the world. . . .

Christianity took hold in the empire as no foreign cult could (for example, Judaism, the Isis cult, and Mithraism) precisely because it was not foreign, but an expression and imitation of the best the empire had to offer.

(Riley, G. J. (2001) Mimesis of Classical Ideals in the Second Christian Century. In MacDonald, D. R. (Ed.) Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity (pp. 91-103). Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International.)

But isn’t Christianity Jewish? read more »

Charity, suspicion and categorization — exchange with Rick Sumner contd

Rick has posted another constructive response, “Charity,” “Suspicion” and the Dangers of Categorization. Or, What I Learned from John Hughes, to my posts on historical method in the context of NT historical studies. Another is expected to follow discussing the nature of facts. (Previous post addressing Rick is here.)

I suspect we are drawing closer together in understanding of our respective positions, and perhaps even not far from a point where we might be able more comfortably accept our mutual disagreements. Or maybe I’m presuming too much here.

Rick has pointed out that I at least give the appearance of “rhetorical excesses and false dichotomies” and that I “grossly overstate the case”. He sums up the message that apparently comes across in my posts:

Biblical Historian/Bad Historian/Hermeneutic of Charity
Other Historians/Good Histtorian/Hermeneutic of Suspicion

I have not re-read my posts to check whether or not I did attempt to qualify my statements well enough, but obviously this is the impression they have conveyed to Rick and no doubt someone else who might have read them, too.

To begin with, the terms “hermeneutic of suspicion” and “hermeneutic of charity” are not mine. read more »

Why Paul did not need “the historical Jesus”

Chrysippus, Greek Stoic philosopher

Paul’s gospel is the revelation of Christ in the scriptures. What God has revealed “in these last days” to Paul is an understanding of the mystery of Christ long hidden in the Law, Psalms and Prophets.

The saving event that Paul continually exhorted his readers to grasp for themselves was the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — especially the death part. He could say he was determined to “know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified”.

I have found a very complex discussion by Troels Engberg-Pedersen (EP) of the relationship between Paul’s theology and the argument of contemporary Stoicism particularly interesting. EP does not attempt to explain every aspect of Paul’s thought as derivative of Stoic thought.  That obviously cannot be done. But EP does attempt to demonstrate through a detailed analysis of Romans, Galatians and Philippians in Paul and the Stoics that the basic structure and pattern of Paul’s Christ-event focus, and how it relates to conversion and new life among believers, follows the same logical argument that Stoics used of Reason or the Logos. (I use the term “Christ event” here to refer specifically to the death and resurrection of Christ.) (Other posts on EPs thesis are filed under the Engberg-Pedersen category linked above.)

To dangerously oversimplify, the similarity is this. Paul’s Christ performs the same function as Stoic’s Reason or Logos.

What happens is that the nonbeliever or self-centred “natural” person who lacks any awareness or comprehension of the Logos/Reason (for the Stoic) or Christ (for Paul) is living a benighted and vain life that leads nowhere worthwhile. read more »

What if Jesus said not a single word we are told he said?

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...
Image via Wikipedia

Historical Jesus scholars are quite capable of discerning when a saying of Jesus has been made up by a Gospel author for narrative effect. But when they explain why other sayings are not likewise fabricated, but are traceable to a real Jesus, I think they are jumping the rails of straight consistent logic.

If a saying is integral to the flow and liveliness of the story, such as “Who touched me?”, “Hold out your hand”, “Pick up your mat and go home”, “Get up”, then it can safely be judged as “suitable only for the occasion . . . not particularly memorable . . . not aphorisms or parables, and would not have circulated independently during the oral period.” (p. 62 of  The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus)

But isn’t there something inconsistent or arbitrary about this explanation?

Sure, I can fully accept that a narrator will manufacture words to be put into any character’s mouth for the effect of adding a touch of life to the story.

But when the scholar declares a more formal saying, such as a parable or aphorism, is different, and by its nature is potentially traceable to the historical Jesus, are we not being a tad arbitrary?

The Gospel author is, after all, not simply narrating a series of little anecdotes with their “Get ups” and “Go forths” and “Feed them” touches. He is also telling the story of a divine man who came to bring a message and introduce a new kingdom. So are not the parables and aphorisms equally there in the story for the purpose of making the story work? Aren’t they even moreso designed to bring the speaking character into the consciousness of the readers?

Of course parables and aphorisms are, by simple definition, capable of being lifted out of the story and finding  independent applications. That simple fact of their definition does not mean that they are any more likely to have originated from somewhere or someone long before the author penned them. read more »

How Jesus Christ outclassed Julius Caesar

One of Jesus’ more impressive tricks was to command a raging storm at sea to be quiet and go away so his disciples could continue their sea crossing without fear. Many readers of this tale are reminded of another about Jonah who, like Jesus, was caught sleeping in the boat while the crew were desperately bailing out water. The captain wakes Jonah up, words are exchanged, and the storm immediately ceases — the moment Jonah was tossed overboard.

But there was another very popular story about Julius Caesar attempting something similar, but not quite succeeding.

It was long the literary fashion for authors to show the superiority of their particular hero to other well-known heroes from older stories. The Roman poet Virgil composed an epic about Aeneas, father of the Roman race, basing many of  his adventures on those of the earlier Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. Where Odysseus fell foul of monsters and lost his crew, Aeneas more prudently (or with more favourable divine blessings) avoided such dangers and brought his crew to their destination, thus demonstrating his more masterful leadership qualities to those of the well known Odysseus.

But while the Jesus story of stilling the storm borrows a few details from Jonah’s adventure, it is nonetheless a wild leap from one hero commanding the storm to cease and another begging to be sacrificed.

But then I read Wendy Cotter’s citation (Miracles in the Greco-Roman World) setting the Jesus story alongside another that was evidently very popular throughout the Roman world around the era the Gospels were composed. Julius Caesar was famously reported to have disguised his identity, clambered into a boat and demanded its pilot to take him to the opposite shore. When storm and winds threatened their safety, Caesar declared his real identity and commanded the crew to have no fear, but to know that with Caesar on board the storm could do them no harm and that they would make it safely to their destination. Unfortunately for Caesar’s ego, the storm refused to cooperate and the boat was forced to return to safety. read more »

Two Adams, Human-Divine Mediators and Angels, and a very different view of early Judaism

The point of this post is to highlight, with reference to the sources, some of the less widely known beliefs among Jews around the time Christianity was emerging, and that would seem to have some resonances among Christian ideas we find in Paul and other early letters and gospels.

The Jewish world from which Christianity emerged is infinitely more complex than our traditional readings of the Old Testament and the beliefs of current Judaism. I would love to compile an outline of all its variations — or better still, find a book where this is already done. Till then, here are a few snippets that are worth keeping in mind whenever the subject of Christian origins is addressed.

  1. The human form of the Logos, God’s first-born, and Heavenly Man
  2. The Heavenly Man and the Earthly Man
  3. The human form of Wisdom
  4. The heavenly Adam
  5. Melchizedek and other vice-regents of God
  6. Divine Heavenly Patriarchs

The following is taken primarily from a chapter on Jewish sectarian texts (and from a few references in a chapter on Philo) in Alan Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven. read more »

Historical proof that Isis healed more than Jesus

Originally, the goddess Isis was portrayed as ...

Image via Wikipedia

First of all, let’s apply sound historical method, that of biblical historians which is no different, so biblical historians assure us, from historical methods practiced by any other historians.

So to begin with, we will dispense with that cynical, hypersceptical, anti-supernaturalistic, post-Enlightenment hermeneutic of suspicion, and follow the dictates of the progressive, pre-Enlightenment (middle-dark age?), Christian ethic of the hermeneutic of charity. This means that if we read a statement by a fellow brother or sister then it is only a matter of civility at the very least to give his or her words the benefit of the doubt. That means that we can assume that the author of our text was, like ourselves of course, zealous to tell nothing but the truth, and to convey accurate historical information for the edification of their own and future generations.

Next, we will bring into play various criteria of authenticity as they may apply to our text in question.

So here is the text. It was written around fifty years before Jesus began his preaching and healing career by Diodorus Siculus. I copy the passage from the LacusCurtius site:

In proof of this, as they say, they advance not legends, as the Greeks do, but manifest facts; for practically the entire inhabited world is their witness, in that it eagerly contributes to the honours of Isis because she manifests herself in healing. For standing above the sick in their sleep she gives them aid for their diseases and works remarkable cures upon such as submit themselves to her; and many who have been despaired of by their physicians because of the difficult nature of their malady are restored to health by her, while numbers who have altogether lost the use of their eyes or of some other part of their body, whenever they turn for help to this goddess, are restored to their previous condition.

Now how is a historian to respond to this testimony?

Note that here we have a historian appealing to “proof” and “manifest facts” as opposed to mere “legends”, and above all to “the entire inhabited world [as] their witness”! Obviously no historian could have written such words, and to have others preserve them until this very day, if there had been any attempt at exaggeration or outright falsehood. Obviously there were witnesses, or if you are hypersceptical, readers who were not witnesses who would obviously have called the author to account for such a statement unless it were known to be true! read more »

Historical facts and the nature of history — exchange with Rick Sumner

Rick has posted an interesting discussion titled What is History? The Nature of “Facts” in response to my Historicist Hocus Pocus post. This follows a short exchange between us in the comments beneath my own post, and is an extension of earlier blog posts of his own on the same theme. I appreciate Rick’s response and the opportunity it gives me to explore my own argument in a little more depth.

If I understand Rick correctly, he disagrees with my view of the nature of facts when I assert that biblical studies have no “historical facts” to work with that are comparable to what are generally conceded as facts in relation to, say, the history of Julius Caesar. read more »

Seed of David, born of woman, and mythicism

I have been recently addressing some common misconceptions about mythicist arguments. Another one is that “mythicism” places strained interpretations on passages that refer to Jesus as “the seed of David” and as being “born of a woman.” This post does not explore all the ins and outs of the arguments, but briefly points to what is overlooked by many of the historicist critics.

Other misconceptions I have recently addressed:

Mythicism’s alleged reliance on arguments from silence and too many assumptions:

Mythicism’s alleged reliance on arguments for interpolations and metaphors (this includes a comment on the specifics of this post – seed of David and born of woman):

James the brother of the Lord:

Doherty’s sublunar realm discussions:

So what about the “seed of David” and “born of woman” readings?

Mythicism per se does not hang on any particular reading of either of these passages in Romans and Galatians. read more »