Monthly Archives: October 2012

Oral Tradition is Unnecessary to Explain the Gospels

This post concludes Thomas Brodie’s critique of the role oral tradition has played in Biblical studies, especially with respect to accounting for the Gospel narratives about Jesus. It is taken from chapter 6 of The Birthing the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings.

Even if a hypothesis is unclear in its foundation, and even if in practice there are serious difficulties with getting it to work, perhaps in some way it is still the only apparent response to a real need. It is appropriate therefore to ask whether the hypothesis of oral tradition is necessary to New Testament studies. (p. 60)


.Reasons for seeing Oral Tradition as Necessary. .Thomas Brodie’s responses.
“Gospel texts follow the rhythms of oral speech.” “Oral rhythms do not require reliance on oral tradition.
“Oral rhythms are a quality of both oral communication and much writing, especially ancient writing.”
“Someone sitting silently at a computer can compose oral rhythms with a view to being heard by the ear.”
“The variations between the gospels correspond to the variations that occur in oral communication.” This looks plausible at first glance.
But look closely at the differences between the gospels and one begins to see a very deliberate variation governed by a quite different and coherent theological strategy.
Differences that arise through oral transmission alone are not like this; they are accidental and haphazard.
Oral tradition fills the gap between the historical Jesus and the Gospels. “Oral tradition may or may not assure more historicity.
“From a historical point of view, the ideal is that the evangelist is an eye-witness to the gospel events – thus needing no tradition whatever – or else speaks directly to such a witness.
Interjecting an unpredictable chain of communication into a period of less than a lifetime has the effect not of promoting claims to historicity, but of dissipating them.”
Besides, it is “not appropriate” (I would say it is “invalid”) that “a desire for a particular type of historical conclusion should predetermine the idea of how the gospels were composed.”
If the idea of oral tradition is to stand, it must stand on its own inherent merits.
“Oral tradition is embedded in the fabric of New Testament studies, in the prevailing paradigm, and, for the moment at least, there is no alternative paradigm to replace it.” “It is true that oral tradition has been embedded in the fabric of NT studies and is central to the prevailing paradigm. But that situation is changing rapidly.
“The literary approach, despite its teething problems – its occasional obscurity, pretentiousness, and narrowness – is not an esoteric game.
“Rather, the literary approach provides the context which, when developed, offers the best prospect for future research. It restores the writings to their role as literature, even sacred literature, and it does not exclude theology and historical investigation. On the contrary, it sets history and theology on a firmer footing.”
The Gospels portray scenes of people speaking, often in the open air. It is a scene of oral simplicity.“Such simplicity corresponds with the simplicity suggested by oral tradition.” True, the gospels do depict scenes of simplicity far removed, most often, from the world of writing.
“However, the fact that a scene is rustic need not mean that the artist who portrays it is rustic. A film, for instance, may portray rural life but be produced in the countryside by city dwellers using highly technical methods. Likewise, the simplicity portrayed in the gospels need not indicate the way the gospels were composed.”

(The quotations are from pages 60 and 61 of The Birthing of the New Testament. Formatting is my own.) read more »

Oral Tradition in NT Studies is Unworkable

Thomas Brodie has shown that the theory that the Gospel narratives began as oral traditions is not founded on valid logical argument. Nonetheless, he recognizes that an idea that rests on little more than mere presumption “may still be useful as a working hypothesis.” So he proceeds to explore whether the theory of oral tradition works in New Testament studies. What follows is from Brodie’s chapter 6 of The Birthing the New Testament — all posts archived here.


First, here’s a chart of the arguments attempting to explain how oral tradition worked — as covered by Brodie. He covers many scholars in quick succession and it can be a bit numbing for someone wanting a quick blog read and who is unfamiliar with the topic to take it all in very easily. I use the many colourful images that have arise in the various attempts to explain how oral tradition is supposed to work:

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Oral Tradition is Unfounded: from Kelber to Koester

My last post in this series ended with Thomas Brodie’s question:

On what basis, then, is it possible to go on claiming oral tradition?

Brodie asked this after surveying how Hermann Gunkel’s paradigm of oral tradition came to dominate biblical, and especially New Testament, studies, while at the same time pointing out the logical fallacies and cultural prejudices that served as its foundation.

This post continues with Brodie’s responses to more recent arguments attempting to shore up the case that the Gospel narratives were preceded by their counterparts in oral traditions. They are taken from chapter 6 of his book The Birthing of the New Testament. (Before doing a post like this in the past I would often take time to read for myself the scholars being discussed so I could present their arguments independently and comment on, say, Brodie’s assessment of them. Unfortunately my circumstances at the moment do not permit that — otherwise I would never get to completing this post at all. So keep in mind that what follows are my presentations of Brodie’s summaries of the arguments of others.)


W. H. Kelber

Brodie summarizes Kelber’s argument as it appears in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992) as essentially saying

that ancient writing was particularly influenced by oral culture and rhythms (1992:30-31).

Brodie agrees. Ancient writing was so influenced. But he also notes that Kelber fails to take into account that all ancient writing “reflects the rhythms of oral speech.”

That does not prove that all authors depended on oral tradition; it simply means they wrote for the ear rather than the eye. (p. 55)

Recall in my previous post I paraphrased Brodie’s point here:

Ancient writing was largely governed by rhetoric. Rhetoric, the art of speaking, also became the art of writing. Writing was geared to oral communication. It was composed for the ear.

In this sense all ancient literature is oral, including the Greco-Roman classics and the Bible. (p. 52)

All Kelber is identifying, then, are the signs that the gospels, like all ancient literature, are dependent upon orality with respect to their form and thought pattern. read more »

Blogging Again: Some Thoughts on Methodology

Some like it in the pot, nine days old

Over the past several weeks, real life got in the way of blogging. I’ll spare you the boring details, but suffice it to say writing Java and Ruby all day turns my brain into so much porridge.


Oatmeal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Speaking of porridge, that reminds me of a story. Back in the late ’70s when I was attending language school at the Presidio of Monterey, I asked one of my instructors:

“Gospozha Kartsova, what does English sound like to a native Russian speaker?”



“It sounds like someone eating oatmeal.”

Through a lens, darkly

Humans in any culture tend to see things from their own perspective. Those of us in the English-speaking world perceive the world through an Anglo-American lens. Our news sources are based in the English-speaking world, produced by people who were raised and educated in the UK, the Commonwealth, or the US. It rarely crosses our minds that to someone in another culture, all of our self-righteous babbling might sound “like someone eating oatmeal.”

While I could easily take this thought-train down a geopolitical track, what concerns me at the moment is recent Biblical scholarship in the English-speaking world. For the past century and a half, when radically new methods for understanding the Bible emerged, they almost always arose first on the European continent, chiefly among German intellectuals.

Conversely, Anglo-American scholars have, for the most part, provided a traditional, conservative counterbalance. For the purposes of our discussion, it doesn’t matter which side is wrong or right; the point here is that in the English-speaking world, students as well as interested laymen have typically witnessed the rise of new methodologies through a porridge-smeared lens.

Learning Marxism from von Mises

Referring to English and American scholars simply as a countervailing force glosses over the open hostility frequently demonstrated by conservatives who viewed scholars like Bultmann as a threat to Christianity. And sadly, many of today’s Anglo-American scholars learned at the feet of these petulant pedagogues. They gained their understanding of form criticism and redaction criticism not from reading Bultmann, Dibelius, Marxsen et al., but by learning the accepted critique. They learned to debunk it before they could thunk it.

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Oral Tradition Behind Gospels and OT: Unfounded, Unworkable and Unnecessary

As signalled in a comment on my recent post on the single authorship of Genesis to 2 Kings, I have decided it best to back-track a little before continuing that series and posting a little on how oral tradition came to be a ruling paradigm among Biblical scholars and why an increasing number of scholars, especially those who study the Gospels, are coming to question whether it has any place at all in the creation of the biblical stories. This post begins to cover Thomas L. Brodie’s chapter, “Oral Tradition: Wonderfully Plausible but Radically Problematic”, in The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of New Testament Writings.


There was a time when the gospels were seen as the product of writing — of competent authors using some ancient form of pen and writing materials. It was presumed that the evangelists [i.e. gospel authors] had either been present at many of the events they described (like Matthew and John) or had received their information from authoritative sources (Mark from Peter, and Luke perhaps partly from Paul.) (p. 51, The Birthing of the New Testament, by Thomas L. Brodie)

Given that the time-gap between the events narrated and the gospels was at most fifty or sixty years, it was understood that eye-witness testimony in some form (oral or written) was available to even the latest of evangelists.

Hermann Gunkel

Enter Oral Tradition as the New Paradigm

Julius Wellhausen in 1876 made mention of oral tradition but it was Hermann Gunkel in his 1901 commentary on Genesis who

used it as a model and who thus introduced it to the center of biblical studies.

Gunkel went against the perceptions of those who had gone before by failing to see Genesis as artistic literature. Further, Gunkel implied that his model “could be applied to the life of Jesus.” (Brodie, p. 51)

In effect, he gave the twentieth century a new paradigm.

The Gospels become UNliterary

Soon the new idea of “form criticism” began to appear in New Testament studies. Wellhausen went beyond Gunkel’s implication and secured a central role for oral tradition in Jesus studies with his series of commentaries and introductions to the gospels 1905-1911. Bultmann summarized Wellhausen’s contribution:

The oldest tradition consisted almost entirely of small fragments . . . and did not present a continuous story of . . . Jesus. When these fragments were collected they were connected so as to form a continuous narrative. . . [Wellhausen] showed not only that they evangelists’ narratives . . . were secondary, but also that oral tradition was steadily producing more and more new sayings of Jesus. (Bultmann, 1926, quoted on p. 51 Birthing of the New Testament)

K. L. Schmidt introduced the model of the Gospel of Mark that has been widely embraced among scholars up to today and that has been discussed in recent posts reviewing Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity:

In 1919 he used Gunkel’s model to distinguish between Mark’s framework, which Schmidt reckoned came from the evangelist, and Mark’s various units, which Schmidt assigned to oral tradition . . . read more »

Part 3: Review of Acharya S’s “The Christ Conspiracy”

I decided to review this book after encountering commenters on this blog strongly asserting that Christian origins must be found in “astrotheology”. I had to confess I had never read Acharya S’s or D. M. Murdock’s book arguing for this position, The Christ Conspiracy, completely from cover to cover. I did, however, attempt to point out where the comments presenting this case here were logically fallacious. Each time, however, or at least very often, I was assured that there was “much more” to the argument. So I thought it might be a good idea — at least for the benefit of curious bystanders — to have a closer look at the book that I understand propelled a renewed interest in the apparent astrotheological roots of Christianity.

Unfortunately, the responses of both those earlier commenters, Murdock herself and other of her supporters, have been uniformly maliciously hostile towards me personally. I was regularly chastised for even deciding to review this book at all since it was an “old” book and Murdock has written other things since 1999, in particular Christ in Egypt. But as far as I can see Christ in Egypt does not address, at least not directly, the arguments for astrotheology as the basis of Christian origins. Moreover, that recent book refers its readers more than once (pp, vi, 575, and it is referenced in the index 20 times) to The Christ Conspiracy without any sense of embarrassment. So I think it is fair to say CC still has relevance.

As for the accusations that my reviews are riddled with personal insult and abuse towards D. M. Murdock, I leave it up to disinterested readers to decide their validity. What comes across to me is that Murdock’s supporters and Murdock herself interpret any criticism of their arguments, or any point at all that they deem not to be wholeheartedly supportive, even lighthearted irony and humour, as psychologically deranged personal attacks. Their leader has apparently even called upon them to find all the dirt they can about me — beginning with my past association with the Boy Cubs, or was that my childhood fantasies about Santa Claus? — no, no, I remember now, it was my time spent in the Anglican and Uniting churches after I left a cult, or was it the time I spent in the cult itself, or was it that cult-exit support group I started up for a while afterwards? Anyway, they apparently have my tortured past and my supposedly twisted psychological makeup all sorted out among themselves as a result of these reviews. (I now routinely divert their comments to my spam bin.)

Chapter 2. The Quest for Jesus Christ

D. M. Murdock (she used the name Acharya S on the book) points out the way Jesus Christ has been interpreted and reinterpreted in different ways to meet changing cultural needs. She writes: “Burton Mack says in The Lost Gospel of Q” — the actual title is The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins — that before Constantine Jesus was mainly seen as a good shepherd yet after Constantine as a great victor. Murdock updates this with a wide range of popular images of Jesus today. I have posted on Dieter Georgi’s in-depth study of these changing images of Christ: see How Jesus has been re-imaged through the ages to fit different historical needs. read more »

Old Testament based on Herodotus? Acts on the myth we read in Virgil?

Before continuing with the scholarship that questions the traditional view that many of the Old Testament books were stitched together from much older texts, let’s lay out on the table a very broad overview of the thesis of a Dutch scholar, Jan-Wim Wesselius (I love his homepage photo and caption), as published in The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’ Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible. (This was the most expensive book I had ever purchased in my entire life, so I continue to guard it well.)

In this post I select just one detail that is not meant to persuade the sceptical (and scepticism is a virtue) but only to stimulate thoughts anew among anyone who has not traveled this road before. There is much more to be said along with the snippet of data I present here, and I have posted one of those snippets on comparing Moses with Herodotus’ portrayal of the Persian king Xerxes (and the Plagues of Egypt with the catastrophes inflicting the army of Xerxes). A serious treatment comparing Herodotus’ Histories would need to start with a 1993 publication, The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History by Mandell and Freedman. One of the more fascinating insights is that the Greek history is in many ways a “theological” history like the Bible’s historical books. The same lessons of the the role of the divine in and over human affairs are found like a unifying thread in both works. But such details are for another time.

To appreciate what is to follow it would help to have some knowledge of both Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s epic poem of the founding of the Roman race, the Aeneid. G. N. Knauer sums up the way Virgil did not merely serendipitously draw upon recollections of what he had read in Homer’s epics, but he clearly studied the structures of Homer’s epics and built his own epic upon a reassembling of that structure, perhaps in an effort to surpass the artistry of the original.

. . . Vergil clearly realized how Homer conceived the structure of the Odyssey and . . . therefore did not simply imitate sporadic Homeric verses or scenes. On the contrary he first analysed the plan of the Odyssey, then transformed it and made it the base of his own poem.

What is especially significant is that this is one case-study of how ancient literature very often worked. Reworkings of earlier masters was a highly respected skill.

I don’t think I’m alone in also thinking Virgil reworked a single epic out of Homer’s dual effort. The Aeneid is an epic poem of the travels of Aeneas, founder of the Roman race, from the time he fled the conquered and burning Troy until the time he found a secure place in Italy after many battles with the local Latin tribes. The Roman epic begins with the adventures of a long voyage of Aeneas to his destined homeland — just as the second Homeric epic, the Odyssey, narrates the adventurous travels of the Greek hero. The second half of the Roman epic recounts many battles reminiscent of Homer’s first epic, the Iliad. Both conclude with the climactic death in battle of a warrior protagonist — Hector and Turnus. (Of course, the Odyssey likewise ends in much bloodshed, but this action is actually a small part in a larger narrative of deception, plotting and homecoming.) So a very broad comparison of the larger structures of these epics looks like this:

But there’s more. Much more. Knauf also writes (my formatting and emphasis): read more »

Did a Single Author Write Genesis – II Kings? (Demise of the Documentary Hypothesis?)

This post will open by taking us back thirty or forty years to a scenario in Old Testament scholarship that is remarkably similar to a debate taking place right now among New Testament scholars. I am currently reviewing a book, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, that spotlights the flaws of the traditional approaches of form criticism and authenticity criteria to the studies of early Jesus traditions and the historical Jesus respectively. The editors of that book, Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, argue that attempts to pull apart the Gospels into various strata, pre-gospel Palestinian traditions and stories added by the early Hellenistic Church compiler-author, don’t really work. What is needed is an understanding and study of the Gospels in their final form, they conclude.

Compare the outcome of criticisms of the Documentary Hypothesis — the thesis that the Old Testament books can be pulled apart into different sources or strata — Priestly, Jahwist, Elohist and Deuteronomist (and a later Redactor).

This post continues from an article I posted on Christmas Day last year, Who Wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. It continues with notes on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s case that the “Primary History” of the Bible (Genesis to 2 Kings) was inspired by the writings of classical Greek writings (especially Plato) and mythologies. It is, furthermore, best seen as the product of a single author writing in Hellenistic times. In my previous post on this book I included a quotation from chapter eight of Theological and Polical Treatise by seventeenth century Spinoza, to whom Wajdenbaum refers:

And when we regard the argument and connection of these books [Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings] severally, we readily gather that they were all written by one and the same person, who had the purpose of compiling a system of Jewish antiquities, from the origin of the nation to the first destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The several books are so connected one with another, that from this alone we discover that they comprise the continuous narrative of a single historian. . . . .

I have in the past posted in passing on another book with a similar theme, Jan-Wim Wesselius’ The Origin of the History of Israel : Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible, and I have posted an overview of a section of that book on It is a pity that these sorts of books are priced out of the hands of most potentially interested readers. I have always wanted to post more on the Old Testament books, especially in comparison with other Greek works, in particular works of Herodotus and Plato, and hopefully will do so soon. Too many topics. Not enough time.

Here we continue with Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert, picking up where we left off in December last year. Here he discusses the “collapse of the consensus” on the Documentary Hypothesis and introduces his rationale for proposing a single author for Genesis to 2 Kings.

It is necessary first to overlap with a point made in that earlier post. I elaborate upon it beyond Wajdenbaum’s own brief presentation that was intended for a readership familiar with the scholarly literature.


Biblical scholars borrowed the idea that the final text was the creation of a final redactor who “cut and paste” from earlier variant texts.


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Mythicism and Positive Christianity

Though several New Testament scholars have attempted to accuse mythicism of being invalid on the grounds that it is supposedly driven by an agenda hostile to religion generally and Christianity in particular, there is abundant evidence to demonstrate that this is an ignorant accusation. If I recall correctly Dr Robert M. Price has made no secret of his affection for religious trappings; René Salm (Myth of Nazareth) has clear sympathies with Buddhism; and Paul-Louis Couchoud, as I quoted in my recent series of posts on his work, expressed the highest admiration for the Christian religion. Now we have Thomas L. Brodie (Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus), writing compassionately of belief in God and Jesus as a literary symbol.

Recall from my earlier quotation from Brodie’s Prefatory Introduction, this time with different bolding:

The essence of what I want to say is simple. Having joined the Dominicans because it seemed right to do so, and having been assigned to study the Bible, there came a period in my life, 1972-1975, which eventually led me to overwhelming evidence that, while God is present in creation and in daily human life, the Bible accounts of Jesus are stories rather than history.

The accounts are indeed history-like, shaped partly like some of the histories of biographies of the ancient world, and they reflect both factual aspects of the first century and God’s presence in history and in people, but they are essentially symbolic, not factual.

Then later in the same introduction:

To say Jesus did not exist as a historical individual does not mean he has been eliminated. . . . He is not eliminated, but seen in a new way. . . . (After comparing the Copernican revolution that disturbed many people but did not do away with the earth — only leading them to see earth in a different way . . . ) Jesus too loses one aspect of his solidity. But he does not lose his central place. In fact, his central place as ‘an image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1.15) can become clearer than ever. read more »

Quest for History: Rule One — from Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus

The new addition to my bookshelf and I are going to get along just fine. I feel like I’ve found a long-lost friend, someone who has published exactly the point I have been making on this blog for so long now, only this new friend was saying it long before it ever crossed my mind.

Chapter 13, “The Quest for History: Rule One” in Thomas Brodies’ Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, begins:

On leaving the foggy swamp created by the theory of oral tradition I came again to the search for well-grounded history, and was brought back to the person who, amid hundreds of ancient rules, asked Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment?” And so amid the complexity of searching for history, I wondered if there was a Rule One.

This is not unlike my experience of wondering how historians can know anything at all about the existence of persons millennia ago. Few biblical scholars seem ever to have given this serious attention. The existence of certain persons seems to be mostly taken for granted. When Bart Ehrman attempted to grapple with this question (apparently for the first time) in his book, Did Jesus Exist?, it was clear he was merely opining off the top of his head and had never before seriously thought through the question in relation to a range of persons and sources. He began by saying a photograph would be proof — failing to grasp what should have been the obvious fact that a photograph is meaningless to anyone who has no idea of the existence and identity of the person in the first place. He had never thought the question through. Nor have scholars like McGrath and Hurtado who merely parrot as a given that scholars agree Hillel and Socrates existed so they did. When pushed, they can do nothing better than fall back on “scholars in their collective wisdom agree”. (Two posts in which I discuss this question: How do we know anyone existed. . . . , and Comparing the evidence. . . .)

Thomas Brodie speaks of an SBL meeting at San Diego in 2007 where Richard Bauckham

reminded his huge audience that he was unusually well qualified in history.

Accordingly, Brodie suggest, it seems that Rule One is to “attend to history”.

Brevard S. Childs

But Brodie also reminds us that another highly influential scholar, Brevard Childs, disagreed and would put “the meaning of the finished (canonical) text” as Rule One. The Bible’s historical background was too elusive to be a foundation, he said.

Brodie narrates a pregnant moment that registered with him in class:

I remember one day in class, as Childs was holding forth with strength and depth, he noticed how the text seemed to be structured or organized in a very specific way, and wondered if the structure was significant — in effect wondered if a purely literary feature, neither history nor theology, made any real difference. He paused, and then, almost verbatim:

‘We have no evidence that these things were important.’

The moment passed, and we returned to theology.

Recollect Churchill’s famous saying:

Occasionally he stumbled over the truth but he always picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened. read more »

“Jesus did not exist as an historical individual”: Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus

My copy of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus happily arrived today. I have a few other posts in the pipeline waiting final editing so that will give me a little time to prepare discussing some aspects of this new book here.

Meanwhile, here’s the back cover blurb, also found on the Amazon site — here with my own highlighting and formatting:

In the past forty years, while historical-critical studies were seeking with renewed intensity to reconstruct events behind the biblical texts, not least the life of Jesus, two branches of literary studies were finally reaching maturity.

  1. First, researchers were recognizing that many biblical texts are rewritings or transformations of older texts that still exist, thus giving a clearer sense of where the biblical texts came from;
  2. and second, studies in the ancient art of composition clarified the biblical texts’ unity and purpose, that is to say, where biblical texts were headed.

The primary literary model behind the gospels, Brodie argues, is the biblical account of Elijah and Elisha [My post on Brodie’s earlier book making this case is at The Elijah-Elisha narrative as a model for the Gospel of Mark], as R.E. Brown already saw in 1971. In this fascinating memoir of his life journey, Tom Brodie, Irishman, Dominican priest, and biblical scholar, recounts the steps he has taken, in an eventful life in many countries, to his conclusion that the New Testament account of Jesus is essentially a rewriting of the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible, or, in some cases, of earlier New Testament texts. Jesus’ challenge to would-be disciples (Luke 9.57-62), for example, is a transformation of the challenge to Elijah at Horeb (1 Kings 19), while his journey from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and beyond (John 2.23-4.54) is deeply indebted to the account of the journey of God’s Word in Acts 1-8.

The work of tracing literary indebtedness and art is far from finished but it is already possible and necessary to draw a conclusion: it is that, bluntly, Jesus did not exist as a historical individual.

This is not as negative as may at first appear. In a deeply personal coda, Brodie begins to develop a new vision of Jesus as an icon of God’s presence in the world and in human history.

And just one more tidbit for now — the second paragraph of Brodie’s Prefatory Introduction: read more »

Review – Part 2 – of Acharya S’s “The Christ Conspiracy”

Chapter one of The Christ Conspiracy [CC] is titled, reasonably, “Introduction”. In this chapter Murdock (known at the time as Acharya S) discusses history. Now my primary love as a student was history. I am still buying and reading books on history — ancient, medieval, modern, western, eastern, global, local. When I travel I often spend ages in a museum presenting the history of wherever I am. I have visited and lived among peoples of diverse races, languages and cultures. I also have a fascination for how the animal kingdom works. I love watching and learning about any number of other species. What I find so educational are the many similarities between us and other species. We are not alone when it comes to violence, savagery, love and sacrifice. Nor, I believe, can anyone isolate beliefs alone as a motivator of human behaviour. Beliefs, rather, may be used to rationalize or excuse behaviour, both good and bad.

Religious beliefs are, we have to face it, as much a “human universal” as are language, jokes, toilet training, tool-making and conflict itself.

So when anyone isolates and blames a single cultural factor, religion, for our crimes I just don’t buy it. Blaming religion alone, even primarily, as a cause of violence, is demonstrating a very shallow, one-dimensional view of human nature.

Sure there are times when religious belief is pernicious and destructive. I like to think we would all be better off without religion. But as Tamas Pataki reminded us, can we be sure that by killing off all the pests in our gardens won’t upset the entire ecosystem?

So when in chapter one of CC Acharya blames religion for the world’s violence and cruelty I cringe a little. Chapter one is nothing but a diatribe against the evils of religion and an identification of religion with evil. Religion is responsible for the inhumanity, the violence, the tortures, the deceptions of this world.

So in this chapter Murdock writes:

no ideology is more divisive than religion, which rends humanity in a number of ways through extreme racism, sexism and even speciesism.

In history classes as early as high school I learned the difference between “religion” and “ideology”, so this sentence confuses me. But she will go further and target Christianity in particular:

Few religions of any antiquity have escaped unscathed by innumerable bloodbaths, and, while Islam is currently the source of much fear in the world today, Christianity is far and away the bloodiest in history.

Murdock wont even let the Communists and Nazis escape the bile of religion. Lenin and Marx were “(religious) Jews”. Hitler was a Roman Catholic. Stalin an Eastern Orthodox. (She doesn’t tell us what Mao or Pol Pot were.) read more »

Review of Acharya S’s “The Christ Conspiracy” part 1

Recently I have been chastised by Acharya S (D. M. Murdock) and some of her followers for failing to give the attention and prominence (one of them wanted to do a guest post on my blog) to their views that they demand they deserve. This followed recent posts and comments of mine in which I tried to explain that I was not particularly interested in their approach to the question of Christian origins, but it also followed my trying to point out to them why I thought their approach to Christian origins was logically flawed and hence unscholarly or unscientific. Their thesis failed adequately to argue against alternative hypotheses and relied mostly upon the fallacy of seeing only what they believed could be used to support their views, and also because they failed to provide any direct or specific evidence to support their claims that ancient astrological or astrotheological views belief systems were responsible for the creation of Christianity.

Consequently I suddenly found myself accused of suppressing and banning astrotheology, of insulting Acharya personally, and of being under the influence of a cult mentality that pre-programmed me to adhere to certain conclusions and rendered me incapable of thinking for myself.

Thoroughly chastened, I have decided to go back and take the time to read more carefully The Christ Conspiracy than I did some years ago and to give it a full-scale chapter-by-chapter review.

Let’s start with the Preface. I take a little time on this because it introduces us to the author of the book and helps us get our bearings as we approach a work that stands outside the resources of mainstream scholarship.


The Preface is written by Kenn Thomas. I had no idea who Kenn was so I checked out a few sites where he explains himself, including one where he engages in a lengthy radio interview. Kenn Thomas is Mr Conspiracy Theorist Par Excellence and responsible for SteamshovelPress.Com – All Conspiracy – No Theory. Kennedy was assassinated because of what he was about to discover about UFOs. The Middle East riots are instigated by an FBI related plot. I also thought I heard something about “they” who are “trying to take away our enjoyment of life”, too. Most instructive was a moment in a radio interview when Kenn addressed those who reject such conspiracy theories: he could not remember or bring himself to spell out what their alternative explanations were and why they rejected the conspiracy option. read more »

What Makes a Good Bible Story?

Dr Eveline van der Steen

Let’s imagine that oral traditions among today’s bedouin Arabs may be able to guide us in understanding how oral traditions worked in the days when the Bible stories were being originally told. — But don’t misunderstand. The Bible stories, even if they were originally sourced from pre-literate oral tales, have been artfully constructed to convey theological messages. But even the pre-literate oral traditions among Arab tribes have been re-written (sometimes for modern film) in ways that bear little resemblance to the themes of the original. What I am trying to imagine here is the evidence for the original biblical tales and how they compare with what we know of

Let’s focus on one Bible story for exercise, the story of David, and compare its elements with what we know about story-telling among peoples with long traditions in the Middle East. Incidentally, let us ask how one can know if an oral tradition has any historical basis at all.

That’s what Eveline J. van der Steen did when she wrote “David as a Tribal Hero: Reshaping Oral Traditions”, a conference paper eventually published in Anthropology and the Bible: Critical Perspectives (edited by Emanuel Pfoh). (I’ve added my own little asides reflecting on potential relevance for what we read in the Gospels.)

Arabs had and have a plethora of vernacular traditions: various forms of poetry, genealogies, epic legends and tribal histories. Oral traditions are a rich source of information, provided they are eventually written down and preserved. (p. 127)

And written down and preserved many have been since the 20th century when literacy pervaded a critical mass of the Arab world. Until then they relied entirely upon storytelling, citing and singing for their preservation.

One form of oral tradition that can be traced back to pre-Islamic times is the akhbar, “short stories, recounting the adventures and battles of the various bedouin tribes.” Again going back to pre-Islamic times story telling competitions were held among the various tribes.


Features of the stories

  • Usually focused on one tribal hero
  • Eventually grew into tribal heroic cycles
  • Recited by professional storytellers
  • Recited in desert tents and coffeehouses of towns and villages
  • Told or chanted (often a mixture of both) in prose or rhyming prose, interspersed with poetry.

Every Arab knew parts of these stories: they were, and still are, part of the national culture. (p. 128)

Baybars was the Mamluk Sultan who fought Mongols, Persians and Crusaders. Abu Zayd was the hero in the Sirat Beni Hilal who led the exodus of the tribe from hunger-striken Arabia into the Maghreb in the 9th and 10th century. Antar was the black hero of the Beni Abs, in continual conflict with the Beni Fazara, and in love with Abla.

Nineteenth century Orientalist Edward Lane described how storytellers would come into coffee houses in Cairo, recite and/or chant their stories about tribal heroes, then — at an appropriate cliff-hanger moment — stop for the evening to ensure an audience for the next day.

That way a story session could last well over a year.

The storyteller would develop the story as he went along, borrowing from his repertoire of other stories and formulas, adapting the story to the audience and situation. So the audience itself played a critical part in the development of the story:

they expressed their approval or disapproval, and discussed the story with the narrator. In town the stories reflected life in the town, in bedouin camps the context would be the camp. Only the main storylines, and the heroes remained the same. (p. 128) read more »