Monthly Archives: September 2011

Keeping (Biblical) Scholars Honest

In a recent post I drew attention to Mark Goodacre’s remark that the work of the mythicists helps keeps “scholars like him honest”. It is always good, he said, to go back and see how we really do know that Jesus existed. But is that what they are doing? Why are New Testament scholars failing to cope with the new potentials and challenges of the internet in the same way that scholars from certain other disciplines are?

One of the best things that has happened to challenge scholars in recent years is the internet and the internet’s potential to democratize knowledge as well as challenges to established conventional wisdoms.

One still sees a few scholars complaining about the internet’s ability to pollute, dilute, dispute, disrepute, confute and prostitute all that is holy and good in their field of research.

Some woolly mammoths are even still caught out poo-poohing Wikipedia on principle simply because it started out as a democratically created encyclopedia. Even when they do mention it favourably they betray their guilt by adding some scoffing remark like a mantra. (See and related links for comparison of Wikipedia with Encyclopedia Britannica)

I have not done a study of who the main culprits of all this esoteric anti-democratic fear-mongering are, but I do wonder if most of them belong to the non-science fields. read more »

Lights turning on in the U.S. again?

It’s great to read good news from the U.S.A. again. All the inspiring stuff has been coming out of south-east Asia, the Middle East, north Africa, Latin America, southern Europe. And now in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street and its sister movements I read of Elizabeth Warren, a voice of reason amid the madness, saying the obvious in a way that it needs to be communicated. Australia’s richest man, now dead, boasted that the one dollar he paid as tax was quite justified because it was he who was the one giving everyone else their jobs and incomes! Few at the time were able to reach the public media with the obvious retort that that blind arrogance deserved and that Elizabeth Warren is now saying according to the linked Al Jazeera opinion piece:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear:

You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

I read one sarcastic piece about the Wall Street demonstrators but many conservative minded people fail to understand what even small protest actions can often do. They don’t bring the targets they are opposing down to their knees. But they do often spark the publicity, the attention, and initiate the public-discussion and awareness that does eventually mount the pressure to effect the change.

It’s great to see activism and clearly understood outspokenness in the U.S. once again. The U.S. has been under a very dark shadow for too many years now and all the wonderful lights have been burning elsewhere all this time. I find it very encouraging to see some flickering sparks once again from a region has had very little good news for so long now.



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Mark Goodacre on Jesus mythicism

I have finally caught up with Mark Goodacre’s podcast “Did Jesus Exist?”

For the benefit of others who don’t always find the time or opportunity to listen to a podcast and whose interests may overlap with some of mine here are some of the points he makes.

He asks of a mythicist (Timothy Freke):

Was it just Jesus as a first century figure that he was sceptical about or was he sceptical about other figures that are mentioned by the sources of the first century, by people like Josephus and so on? Is he sceptical about the existence of Herod or Caiaphas or Pilate or some of these characters.

In a follow up comment to the podcast Mark Goodacre made explicit the intent of his question:

When I put the question to Tim Freke, I was more interested in finding out if he was also sceptical about the existence of other first century figures from that region than anything else. In other words, I was trying to get to the root of the hyper-scepticism. Is it a general scepticism about ancient history and the limits of our knowledge, or is it something else?

Goodacre’s question assumes that the evidence for Jesus is comparable to what we find for other figures in ancient history generally. (I have argued that if this were the case there would be no debate about the existence of Jesus at all.) It also infers that there is something wrong with the one asking the question, but I return to this at the end of the post. read more »

Essential Guide to the Historical Jesus: Introduction (James H. Charlesworth)

This book is an essential guide to the life and thought of Jesus . . .

That’s James H. Charlesworth’s opening line in the preface to The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide, one title in Abingdon Press’s Essential Guide series.

James H. Charlesworth is George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature and Editor and Director of the Princeton Theological Seminary Dead Sea Scrolls Project, an internationally recognized expert in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old and New Testaments, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Jesus Research, and the Gospel of John.

In the twenties of the first century C.E., this man walked out of the hills of Nazareth and into world culture. (p. xiii)

Scholars say Jesus avoided large and cosmopolitan cities (until the last week of his life) so I look forward to learning what Charlesworth means by Jesus stepping out into “world culture”. At the same time Charlesworth describes Jesus as one who happened to “stand out as one of the most Jewish Jews of the first century”.

Jesus was driven by one desire: to obey God at all times and in all ways. For him, not a word of Torah may be ignored or compromised.

I’m not quite sure how one “stands out” for being “most Jewish” among other Jews. But the message Charlesworth wants to convey is clear.

More accurate historical knowledge

Charlesworth explains that today it is possible to “more accurately retell the story of Jesus” than it was 2000 years ago. read more »

Is it a “fact of history” that Jesus existed? Or is it only “public knowledge”?

I have sometimes discussed how we know what happened in the past or who existed as historical persons. Most of what I have said is my own reflection and inference from what I understand of how “history works” beginning with my own studies in university history majors. Part of our required reading was What Is History? by E. H. Carr and it was this book that introduced me to the question of “what is a historical fact”, and very soon other works on the same questions, some of them responding to Carr, were added to my reading list.

But the question of “historical fact” was rarely addressed at the level at which it is addressed when asking “Did Jesus exist as a historical person?”

What is often addressed in works on historiography is the nature and reliability of sources used by historians and the need for testing these for bias, genuineness, etc.

But I don’t think I ever read a discussion by historians that raised the question about how we know anyone (say, Julius Caesar) existed in ancient times. Many histories will explain how we know anything at all about the person and events they cover and will cite the various primary and secondary sources used.

But I don’t think there are very many history classes in the world that systematically train students how to know if Caesar or Churchill actually existed.

The closest would be classes that teach students to know how to evaluate sources used for a study of such persons.

What I think generally happens when the question of the historicity of Jesus is raised is a blurring of different ways of knowing about things in history, or simply a failure to stop and think through how we do know what we know.

There are different types of knowledge and it helps to distinguish them when we are addressing a question like whether a particular person existed in history.

Public Knowledge

There is first of all “public knowledge”. We know stuff because it’s what we are taught very early and what everyone knows. read more »

[10] THE LETTERS SUPPOSEDLY WRITTEN BY IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH: 10th and final post in the series

10th and final post in the series by Roger Parvus. The complete series is archived here.

In posts one through five I showed why Peregrinus should be regarded as the author of the so-called Ignatian letters. In posts six through nine I argued that he was an Apellean Christian. In this post I will tie up some loose ends, adding some thoughts regarding the date of his letters, and taking a somewhat speculative last look at his community, the Apelleans.


Using the chronological indications that Lucian provides in his sketch of Peregrinus, the year of the would-be martyr’s arrest can only be very roughly pegged to have occurred sometime between 130 and 150 CE. Peregrinus was a Cynic by the time of the Olympic games held in 153 (see note 22 of Harmon’s translation of “The Death of Peregrinus’). And at least a few years must be allowed for his dismissal by the Christians and his trips to Egypt and to Rome (“The Death of Peregrinus,” 16-18). That would yield a terminus ante quem of 150 CE for his arrest and the composition of the letters. The terminus post quem is more difficult to pin down. G.A. Harrar, in his “Studies in the Roman Province of Syria,” would tentatively date the arrest to no earlier than 135 CE (p. 28). But since Lucian provides little guidance on that point, I would add a few years cushion to what Harrar proposed and thus arrive at a comfortable 130 to 150 CE window.

If the year of Marcion’s break with Rome were known with certainty, the date that Peregrinus composed his letters could be further narrowed down, for the schism mentioned in IgnPhil. 3:3 appears to be related to that break. read more »

15 ways of recovering reliable information about Jesus


What serious enquirer after the historical Jesus can bypass a title like The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide by James H. Charlesworth?

Chapter 2 addresses ways of “obtaining reliable information” about Jesus and about two thirds of this chapter discusses a number of “methodologies” that include our familiar criteria:

  1. Embarrassment
    • deeds and sayings embarrassing to the evangelists would not have been fabricated by them
  2. Dissimilarity
    • teachings unlike environmental Jewish thought and unlike those of his followers probably originated with Jesus
  3. Multiple attestation
    • a saying or deed of Jesus found in two or more independent sources is more probably original to Jesus than something found in just one source
  4. Coherence
    • when a deed or saying of Jesus is virtually identical to one that is shown to be very likely (on the grounds of the other three criteria above) then we may think of it as probably reliable
  5. Historical plausibility (Palestinian Jewish setting)
    • a tradition may be authentic if it reflects the culture and time of Palestine in the early first century.

We know the arguments for these and their logical flaws. But happily Charlesworth is offering readers more than the commonplace and familiar. He adds “ten additional supporting methods” to provide “supporting insight and information” about Jesus: read more »

What Mark’s Episodes Do For Readers (and the real historiographical question to ask)

As with any magic the spell works best when the audience does not know how it is done. On the other hand, understanding the way literary and rhetorical devices play with how we respond to what we read does help remind us that we are reading a creation of the human mind. Even if the words we read are telling a “true story” the words used to convey that information have been chosen to convey a certain meaning or feeling in relation to what we read.

One characteristic of the gospels, particularly the Gospel of Mark, that we sometimes hear is a mark of unsophistication and primitive literary skills, is the episodic nature of the first half of the Gospel — up to the Passion narrative.

Well, this post is an attempt to rescue something of the reputation of that part of the Gospel by pointing out what that episodic structure manages to achieve from a literary perspective. I am not going to argue that episodic writing is a sign of genius. But it did have an honourable history in ancient literature, at least from the time of Homer’s Odyssey (or even the Epic of Gilgamesh), so it must have been doing something right for many readers.

Whitney Shiner has a chapter titled “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark” in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative. The comparison is helpful but I will confine this post to the comments on Mark. read more »

Acts, the Areopagus and the Introduction of New Gods

The south side of Areopagus in the ancient ago...

Areopagus: Image via Wikipedia

Literary allusions and influences are generally not about one-to-one correspondences of plot or character details. Authors are for most part motivated to write something new, something that interests them and their audiences, and that means drawing upon familiar written and oral words and weaving them into new creations. Perhaps a good comparison could be drawn from those music programs that trace the history of certain genres of music through the decades. One soon learns that even “the new and different” is really a re-mix of the old from here, there and somewhere else that has been repackaged and presented in a very new way.

Nor does the fact of literary allusion of itself suggest that the topic being written about is fiction. One is quite entitled to write a history of a modern event and draw on allusions from Shakespeare or Homer in the process. Where the line is crossed is where the entire narrative can be most simply explained in terms of literary allusions and ideological interests. Whether that line is crossed is the case with Paul before the Areopagus I do not know. I have not taken the time to give it proper consideration. But surely Lynn Kauppi’s discussion is one part of the discussion that cannot be ignored. (Nor am I suggesting that Kauppi himself rejects the historicity of Acts 17. I have no idea if he does or not and his thesis I am addressing here does not allow me to know his thoughts on the question of historicity.) And in the process of preparing these posts I have had opportunities to catch up with what others have had to say about this Areopagus episode — e.g. Talbert, Kirsopp Lake, Haenchen — and have uncovered a range of ideas that are too broad to include in these posts here. The question of historicity is another one I may take up in another post when I have time to collate the contributions of these and Lynn Kauppi among others.

But in the meantime let’s continue with what I intended to be just one quick post but that has turned itself into some sort of mini-series now. I am discussing the thesis of Lynn Kauppi that the author of Acts 17 (let’s call him Luke) was writing with conscious allusions to (among other literary sources to be discussed another time perhaps) the fifth century BCE play Eumenides by Aeschylus. This post follows on from the previous two posts. read more »

Paul and Orestes before the Areopagus: the resurrection

Continuing from my previous post . . . .


Resurrection ἀνάστασιςin both Acts and Eumenides

A number of scholars have remarked upon the reference to the resurrection in Eumenides by Aeschylus when commenting on the reference to the resurrection in connection with Paul’s appearance in the Areopagus before the Athenians.

F. F. Bruce, in The Book of Acts, p. 343, when commenting on the scoffing Paul received after mentioning the resurrection, recalled the scene in Aeschylus’ play that likewise mentioned the resurrection in connection with a hero appearing before the Areopagus. Most Athenians, Bruce said, would, on hearing of Paul’s mention of the resurrection, have agreed with the sentiments expressed in the play by

the god Apollo, . . . on the occasion when that very court of the Areopagus was founded by the city’s patron goddess Athene: “Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.” Some of them, therefore, ridiculed a statement which seemed so absurd.

The footnote supplied points to Aeschylus, Eumenides, lines 647-8, where the same Greek word, ἀνάστασις, is used in both the play and Acts 17:18, 32.

Similarly Charles H. Talbert in Reading Acts, p. 157, makes note of the same observation:

Scoffing is a typical response to speeches by fringe figures . . . Given the assumptions of Paul’s auditors, scoffing is an entirely appropriate response. Aeschylus, Eumenides 647-48, relates how, on the occasion of the inauguration of the court of the Areopagus, the god Apollo says, “When the dust hath drained the blood of man, once he is slain, there is no return to life.”

Lynn Kauppi sees more in the link between Aeschylus and Acts than a background pointer to a common belief among Athenians of the day. He suggests that the way “Luke” weaves the allusions into the scene of Acts 17:16-34 gives reason to think that his audience “may have observed an allusion to the Athenian literary tradition.” (The Greek text is from Perseus and the English translation from Kauppi’s manuscript.) read more »

Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus inspired by the Muses

Erinyes (Furies)

Some years ago I somehow stumbled into an email exchange with a doctoral student on the other side of the world who kindly let me preview a chapter of the thesis he had been working on. Since I recently noticed his thesis has since 2006 been commercially published as Foreign but Familiar Gods: Graeco-Romans Read Religion in Acts I feel free to share the contents of that chapter now.

Lynn Kauppi argues that the scene in Acts where Paul is brought before the Areopagus to explain himself partly on the impression that he is introducing new gods to Athens was inspired by a scene in a play well-known to Greek speakers of the day.

The play is Eumenides, the third in a trilogy of plays composed by Aeschylus around the 450′s bce. The name Eumenides refers to devotees of the Furies (Erinyes). These Furies pursued and tormented one who had murdered his own mother.

In the first play of the series King Agamemnon returned home victorious from the Trojan war but was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. In the second play their son Orestes was moved by his sister and the god Apollo to avenge his father’s death by killing his mother.

The third play, the one said to contain the influences on the author of Acts, contains the resolution of the moral conflicts built up in the first two plays. On Apollo’s advice Orestes flees to Athens seeking escape from the torment of the Furies. Meanwhile the ghost of Clytemnestra rises up from the dead to rebuke the Furies for not completing their just vengeance on her son.

In Athens Orestes is met by the goddess Athena who listens to his case and also hears the counter-claims of the Furies. Unable to determine the rights and wrongs of the matter alone she founds the court of the Areopagus to help her decide the case. Orestes appears at this court, the Areopagus, along with his prosecutors, the Furies, and his defender, the god Apollo. The court is divided so the goddess Athena casts the deciding vote in favour of Orestes, thus cleansing him from the stain or pollution of blood-guilt and setting a precedent for mercy over justice. When the Furies threaten to destroy Athens in retaliation a shrine is established for them and a procession is held in their honour by the Athenians.

The outline of the play does not encourage the modern reader to suspect it may contain an influence on the author of Acts.

But Kauppi argues that the play was well-known in the early Christian era and did influence other writings of the time; and that a Graeco-Roman reader of Acts would likely recognize allusions in the play to “the resurrection” from the dead, the role of the Areopagus in examining the central character and the theme of the introduction of new gods into Athens. read more »

How did early Christians [not] convince others Jesus was the Messiah?

Icon of the Pentecost

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been going through Geza Vermes’ The Changing Faces of Jesus and here I’ll focus on just one more detail: the way the scholar learns how the early “Jewish church tried to prove that Jesus was the Messiah”.

Vermes points us toward the journey he is to lead for his readers:

The best way to grasp the primitive Christians’ picture of Jesus is by reconstructing the content and style of their preaching. How did they present their gospel, and how did they endeavour to convince their first listeners . . . . The approach they adopted seems to have been substantially the same, whether the message was delivered in Jerusalem or in the very different setting of the Gentile mission of Paul . . . . (p. 121)

The one exception Vermes singles out was Paul’s address to the Athenians from the Areopagus in Acts 17:16-32. I will discuss this in a future post but not from Vermes’ viewpoint. Rather, I will look at the possible inspiration for this scene in a classical Greek tragedy by Aeschylus.

But this post is a case-study in how New Testament scholars mistakenly think they are doing genuine history.

Geza Vermes’ approach in his own mind is genuinely “historical”:

This view . . . . is that of a scholar, of a detached historian, in search of information embedded in the surviving sources. (p. 7)

So, according to the surving sources, how did the early Jewish Christians try to convince others that Jesus was the Messiah? read more »

Paul’s “Mystical-Mythical” Christ the real — or rival? — foundation of Christianity

Géza Vermes is not a mythicist. He believes in the historical reality of Jesus to be found beneath the Gospels. But in the context of any mythicist debate what he writes in The Changing Faces of Jesus about the “myth” of Christ Jesus in Paul’s writings is noteworthy. It shouldn’t be. What he writes is noncontroversial. What makes his remarks noteworthy in the context of a mythicist debate is that he is not addressing mythicism at all and so his comments are not tainted with anti-mythicist polemic.

Consequently readers interested in an honest debate are free to see where traditional mainstream scholarly views and mythicist arguments do in fact coincide. One also encounters a reminder that certain stock responses to mythicist arguments are akin to tendentious “proof-texting”.

There are more things in the mainstream scholarly literature, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your stock anti-mythicist proof-texts.

Firstly, why are Paul’s views so significant? Vermes writes:

Paul can be seen as the father of the Jesus figure which was to dominate as the true founder of Christian religion and its institutions, and even such a sound and solid publication as The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes Paul as ‘the creator of the whole doctrinal and ecclesiastical system presupposed in his Epistles’. (p. 59) read more »

How easily do historical Jesus scholars drop in that “interpolation card” when it suits

Cover of "The Changing Faces of Jesus"

Cover of The Changing Faces of Jesus

Catching up with Géza Vermes’ The Changing Faces of Jesus I was surprised to find Vermes suggesting that the entire Philippian Hymn (2:6-11) is an interpolation inserted probably around the early second century!

I guess anti-mythicist crusaders have been on my back so much that I had begun to lose sight of what is acceptable and respectable fare in the works of mainstream biblical scholars.

For those not in the know Géza Vermes, according to the Wikipedia article (and I don’t apologize for using Wikipedia since, for all its many faults, it has been recognized by a study published in Nature as no less authoritative than the Encyclopedia Britannica in science articles, so we may reasonably feel entitled to some confidence in the rest) is described as:

a noted authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient works in Aramaic, and on the life and religion of Jesus. He is one of the most important voices in contemporary Jesus research,[1] and he has been described as the greatest Jesus scholar of his time.[2] (I retain the linked footnotes)

In the prologue Vermes reinforces his well-groundedness within the scholarly mainstream:

I have read a great deal over the years and learned much, positively and negatively, from other scholars. I have assimilated their learning and understanding and stored everything up in my heart. (p. 4) read more »