Monthly Archives: November 2012

Carrier on Brodie and Rene Salm, at SBL, on Nazareth, Pious Fraud, James McGrath and others

Richard Carrier has posted a review of Thomas L. Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery. It is here on the freethought blog. I will be posting more of my own thoughts on the book in future posts here. While I agree with much of Carrier’s assessment I do hold back from some of his more “jaded” (his term) expressions: Of course the book is not written as an argument to prove Jesus never existed. It is, as Carrier rightly notes (though I think he loses some balance here in overstressing what the book is not) an autobiographical journey of how Brodie came to conclude Jesus did not exist. While it is certainly logically valid to insist that it is not valid to conclude that Jesus did not exist if all one has is evidence that Jesus was a literary character, but at the same time, in the absence of positive evidence for Jesus’ historicity, it is certainly valid to conclude that there is no reason to accept Jesus as a historical figure. If the only extant evidence is literary metaphor or a theological concept then it is valid to conclude that Jesus was a literary metaphor until other evidence comes along to the contrary. (Carrier will possibly object here by pointing to Paul’s letters, but this is a discussion I will have to leave for another time.)

I do agree with Carrier that Brodie does make some excellent points on the scholarship that has attempted to find historicity in oral tradition, and I have posted in depth on that aspect of Brodie’s book.

René Salm has posted the paper he delivered at the SBL conference recently. I like the way he nails from the outset common dismissals of his thesis that Nazareth did not exist in the time of Jesus (my emphasis):

Not being an archaeologist myself, I am often asked: “How can you date evidence, Mr. Salm?” or: “How can you presume to correct professional archaeologists?” or: “How can you have any opinion on these matters?” However, there is a misunderstanding inherent in these questions, for I have never dated anything at all. I have simply identified the relevant archaeological experts and quoted their published datings: Hans-Peter Kuhnen on kokhim tombs, Varda Sussman on bow-spouted oil lamps, Roland Deines on Jewish stone vessels, Amos Kloner on circular blocking stones, and so on. The case regarding Nazareth does not rest on my opinion at all. Anyone who disagrees with The Myth of Nazareth is not disagreeing with me but is taking issue with the leading archaeological experts in the world. As we shall see, this is fatal for traditional conclusions regarding Nazareth.

and on those popular reports of the house and bath supposedly from Jesus’ time: read more »

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (7)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 7: “The Self-Concealment of the Messiah” — The injunctions to keep the Messianic secret

This unit continues Part 1, Section 2 (p. 34ff.) of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret (covering other features of the motif and the defense of a single coherent theory).

Demons in retrospect

Jesus Confronts Demons

Last time in Part 6 we finished up Wrede’s discussion of the demons’ recognition of the Messiah. At this point, we should probably mention why Wrede wrote about exorcisms first. And here, once again, I will refer to James D.G. Dunn’s 1970 paper, “The Messianic Secret in Mark” (PDF).

I rather suspect that Wrede was misled by taking the exorcisms as his starting point. It was natural that a nineteenth/twentieth century man should fasten on to these incidents which were to him among the most bizarre and incredible, and which for that very reason gave him immediate access to the theological viewpoint of the primitive Church — that is, to the way the primitive Church had viewed and worked over the historical facts. No psychological argument could explain how, for example, the Gerasene demoniac came to hail Jesus as Son of the Most High God, and recourse to a supernatural explanation was unacceptable. Therefore, Wrede concluded, we are in the presence of a legendary development in the tradition which leads us straight into the heart of the Messianic secret. Leaving aside the issue of demon possession and the possibility of supernatural knowledge, which I personally hold to be a far more open question than Wrede allowed, it still seems to me that Wrede’s approach was methodologically suspect. (p. 97 of the Journal, p. 6 of the PDF, bold emphasis mine)

Dunn thinks Wrede latched onto the stories of demonic possession (1) because they were “bizarre and incredible” and (2) because they give modern, critical scholars a window on the “theological viewpoint of the early church.” Yet Dunn is suspicious of Wrede’s methodology. Why would that be? Dunn is intimating that Wrede’s post-Enlightenment, scientific, naturalistic biases drew his focus to the exorcism stories, and that these biases further clouded his judgment, causing him to overstate his case.

read more »

Greek Novels Casting Light On New Testament: Part 2 of “Why NT Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels”

A week ago I posted thoughts from a chapter by Ronald Hock, Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels. This post is based on an earlier article by Hock (“The Greek Novel”, a chapter in Greco-Roman Literature and the New Testament, edited by David E. Aune) and looks at many more ways novels can offer us “real-life” glimpses into the world of the New Testament.

That last post was a slap-dash effort. This post provides more illustrations of the way these novels can throw light on both the Gospels and letters of Paul; it concludes with a special focus on the Philippian Hymn in which Christ was abased in order to be exalted above all creation. Further, this time I’m less rushed and have had time to quote passages from the novels themselves.

Hock first explains the point of comparing popular Greek romances with New Testament literature:

The number and variety of parallels between the Greek novels and early Christian literature are legion. The following sampling of these parallels only hints therefore at what a thorough investigation of this genre might accomplish . . . .

Ronald F. Hock

But first a word of justification: The evidence for earliest Christianity is too fragmentary and culturally alien to be fully understood without recourse to a clarifying and complementary set of roughly contemporary evidence. Typically, however, scholars have sought this evidence largely in Jewish sources; seldom has any scholar looked at the evidence of the novels. But whatever the Jewish roots of Christianity, the earliest Christians lived in a traditional culture and specifically that of the Hellenized oikoumene of the early Roman Empire. The novels, products of this oikoumene, often set their action precisely where Christianity first took root and flourished: Barnabas’ Antioch, Paul’s Tarsus, John’s Ephesus, Mark’s Alexandria, Polycarp’s Smyrna.

But the point of comparison is not mere propinquity, for the novels provide an extensive, concrete, and coherent account of the traditional culture of the New Testament world. It is the novels’ very comprehensiveness — their documenting the habits of thought and action that regulated life in the cities, agricultural areas, and outlying wilderness areas — that justifies their use for interpreting the parallel, but briefer, accounts in the New Testament and other early Christian literature. (p. 139, my emphasis and formatting)

Hock, for space reasons, restricts his parallels to the Gospels and letters of Paul. He compares only novels dated to the first and second centuries.

To depart from Hock for a moment and intrude with my own comments: The examples here are only a smattering of what one recognizes when reading the novels for oneself. The novels are also an especially potent cure for anyone who has the notion that peoples in days before Christianity were somehow especially morally depraved. They are a great invitation to meet our ancestors and to see how like us they were, how humans are not only the same the world over, but the same through the ages. read more »

Biblical Scholars, Symbolic Violence, and the Modern Version of an Ancient Myth

This post continues my series on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s doctoral thesis adapted for publication as Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. For the previous post see Collapse of the Documentary Hypothesis (1) & Comparing the Bible with Classical Greek Literature. I begin here with my concluding lines from that post:

We will find very accurate parallels [between the Bible and Plato’s political dialogues] that make that hypothesis [that the Bible is based on those and other Greek classical texts] certain. Therefore one must ask why such a comparative study with Plato has not been done before. (p. 28)

Wajdenbaum says the answer is simple:

The Bible could not resist such an analysis [comparing the Bible with classical Greek literature] as it demonstrates how almost every biblical narrative finds accurate parallels with Greek myths. If believers of Jewish and Christian faiths were aware of this, then the Bible could lose its credibility. Biblical scholarship has done all it could to maintain the Bible as a sacred text that is still relevant to modern society, as Hector Avalos argues. (p. 29)

How can such ancient texts continue to hold such an authoritative status for so many today? Wajdenbaum believes that one significant reason is that “the Bible has not yet been the object of a consistent and genuinely scientific analysis.” (p. 30)

Of course there has been a long tradition of scholarly analysis of the Bible, but that’s not necessarily the same thing. In an earlier post in this series I showed how Wajdenbaum argues that biblical criticism has generally been the construction of a variant of the Bible’s myth. Following Claude Lévi-Strauss, he argues that any retelling of a myth is itself a variant of the myth, and in rationalising the Bible’s story and self-witness of divine inspiration scholars have, in fact, only created alternative versions of those myths.

Here Wajdenbaum brings in Pierre Bourdieu:

“Symbolic violence is the self-interested capacity to ensure that the arbitrariness of the social order is either ignored, or posited as natural, thereby justifying the legitimacy of existing social structures.” – Wikipedia

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has explained how university scholars use symbolic violence to ensure their authority in their field. By presenting themselves as a legitimate institution, university scholars impose an arbitrary knowledge that is recognised by the masses as legitimate.

But this intellectual domination is not completely passive; it comes from the demands of society. As both Avalos and Bourdieu . . . have put it, the media industry — the press, movies and television — plays an important role in the continuation of either the sacred character of the Bible or symbolic violence. read more »

Why Some Scholars Accept the Independence of John’s Gospel

Recently, while reading Dwight Moody Smith’s John Among the Gospels, I came upon a reference to an interesting book by Hans Windisch. Long out of print and never translated into English, Windisch’s seminal work, Johannes und die Synoptiker (John and the Synoptics: Did the Fourth Evangelist Want to Complement or Replace the Older Gospels? [1926]), stands as one of the earliest and most complete arguments for the Displacement theory. It’s odd that so many important critical twentieth-century works from the continent either never made it into English or were translated decades later.

Hans Windisch (1881-1935)

I’ve ordered Windisch’s book and expect it to arrive in a few days. In the meantime, I’ve been scouring the web for references to Windisch and the Displacement theory, hoping to find out more. This search has led me to several other promising titles. For example, Steven A. Hunt’s Rewriting the Feeding of the Five Thousand, a recently published book that merits consideration (were it not for its astonishingly high price tag), explores the ways in which the fourth evangelist re-imagined the well-known picnic pericope.

The road to independence

Both Moody’s and Hunt’s works recapitulate the history of scholarship regarding John’s relationship to the Synoptics. Moody, of course, has much more detail; in fact Hunt cheerfully acknowledges Moody in his introductory chapter. Traditionally, of course, Christian scholars had espoused the Supplementation theory — the idea that John knew the three earlier gospels and merely intended to add to them. Beginning with Reimarus, scholars began to view only the Synoptics as containing useful historical information, while John represented a wholly theological work written by the early church “from faith to faith.”

Hence, John became thought of as independent of the Synoptics, but essentially not historical. Early in the twentieth century scholars, especially C.H. Dodd, turned the Independence theory on its head. Yes, John is independent, they said; however the fourth evangelist’s independence of the Synoptics proves the author relied on a different, separate, authentic historical tradition.

read more »

The Genesis Creation Story and its Third Century Hellenistic Source?

Tiamat on a Babylonian cylinder seal Nederland...

Tiamat on a Babylonian cylinder seal Nederlands: Tiamat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The influences of Mesopotamian creation stories in Genesis are clear. But how those stories came to be re-written for the Bible is less clear. Russell E. Gmirkin sets out two possibilities in Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch:

The traditional Documentary Hypothesis view:

Around 1400 BCE the well-known Babylonian Epic of Creation, Enûm Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh and other stories found their way through Syria and into the Levant where the Canaanites preserved them as oral traditions for centuries until the Israelites learned of them. Then around the tenth or ninth centuries these Israelites incorporated some of those myths into an early version of Genesis (known as J in the Documentary Hypothesis).

About four centuries later, around the fifth century, the authors of that layer of the Bible known as P took quite independently orally preserved overlapping Mesopotamian legends and used them to add additional details from those myths that had been preserved by the Jews orally throughout to the J stories.

Now one remarkable aspect of this scenario (accounting for the Mesopotamian legends underlying Genesis 1-11) that has been pointed out by Russell Gmirkin is that though they had been preserved orally for centuries by the Canaanites, in Genesis they are completely free from any evidence of Canaanite accretions. This should be a worry, says Gmirkin, because Canaanite influences are found throughout the rest of the Bible.

Gmirkin suggests that this traditional model of how the Babylonian legends came to be adapted in the Genesis narrative is strained, so he proposes an alternative.

The author/s of Genesis 1-11 borrowed directly from the early third century (278 BCE) Babyloniaca of the Babylonian priest Berossus. The sources for this work show that Berossus himself drew upon the Babylonian epics of Creation and Gilgamesh, and Gmirkin argues that some of his additions and interpretations found their way into Genesis. Moroever, the Epic of Creation that resonates in Genesis, the Enûm Elish, was quite unlike other Babylonian creation myths:

  • the standard Babylonian myth of creation (e.g. Atrahasis Epic, Enki and Ninmeh) began with earth, not with waters;
  • Enûm Elish was specifically associated with the cult of Marduk, localized in Babylon — its purpose was to explain why the Babylonian patron god, Marduk, had been promoted over the other gods.

Note also:

  • during the late Babylonian period and Seleucid times, the Enûm Elish likely increased in significance, but was still only recited in Babylon’s New Year Festival;
  • Berossus was himself a priest of Bel-Marduk in Babylon at this period. For Berossus, the Enûm Elish would have been the definitive creation epic.

The Enûm Elish was very likely unknown beyond the region of Babylonia until Berossus himself drew attention to its narrative for his wider Greek audience. Gmirkin believes the simplest explanation for the Enûm Elish’s traces in Genesis is that they were relayed through Berossus’s Babyloniaca.

Here is a table comparing the details of the Genesis Creation with those found in the Babylonian Creation Epic and in Berossus’s third century work: read more »

The Star of Bethlehem — the “common-sense view”

Edward Burne-Jones Star of Bethlehem detail

Edward Burne-Jones Star of Bethlehem detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is an interesting excerpt from Early Christianity and Ancient Astrology by Tim Hegedus. (I learned of the book through fortuitous serendipity via astrotheology supporters who describe the book as “a good one”, though their view appears to be based on the cover description alone. It doesn’t do anything to support astrotheology. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I agree it is an interesting book. I had a chance to catch up with it at the University of Queensland library yesterday.)

[The Magi] ask for “the newborn king of the Jews” whose star they have seen “at its rising” (ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ) (v. 2, cf. v. 9). (This translation is preferable to “in the east” of older versions [so KJV and RSV], which would be properly ἐν [ταῖς] ἀνατολαῖς.)

The statement of the Magi is not a reference to a time of day, but rather is calendrical (cf. the phrase “the time of the star’s appearing” [τὸν χρόνον τοῦ φαινομένου ἀστέρος] in 2.7): “rising” means the star’s heliacal rising, i.e. the first time in the year that it was visible rising ahead of the sun before dawn. The usual technical term for this was έχιτολῇ but ἀνατολῇ could be used for the heliacal rising as well; the latter seems to be the case in Matt 2.2.

According to the narrative, the heliacal “rising” of the star held significance for the Magi as an astrological omen. It was this more ancient form of astrology, rather than horoscopic astrology, in which the Magi were engaged.

A recent study by Michael Molnar argues that the most likely horoscope in which professional astrologers such as the Magi would have been interested was the appearance of the Sun, Moon, Jupiter and Saturn (all regal signs) in Aries on April 17, 6 B.C.E. However, Molnar’s conclusions are overly sophisticated: there is no need to interpret the Matthean text in terms of technical or sophisticated astrology such as that of Ptolemy and Firmicus Maternus. Rather, the star of Matthew 2.1-12 derives from the widespread belief (found already in Plato) that all people have a “natal star” which appears at their birth and passes away with them, a belief according to the elder Pliny was commonly held among the general population. read more »

The assumption of orality behind written texts

Traveling again, but have brought along with me for spare-time reading Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4 by Barry W. Henaut. Henaut argues in depth something many of us have surely wondered about from time to time. How can we really be so sure of an oral tradition behind our canonical Gospels? Have scholars really examined closely the literary forms against what is known of oral practices and truly eliminated the likelihood of literary creations?

Henaut does just such a close examination of the text of Mark against the various theories and research related to oral transmission. He demonstrates that many of those supposedly distinctly oral features of the Gospel of Mark are more simply explained as illustrations of the common techniques of ancient literary practices. At the same time he shows the inadequacies of several of the oral hypotheses to explain them.

I am unable at the moment to post details, but here are a few pointers of interest: read more »

Revival Fellowship churches

I’m interested in learning more about the Revival Fellowship churches. If anyone knows of any reliable sources of information its governance model, history, strategies and methods of promotion, conversion methods, personal experiences, please do respond here or, if you’d prefer, email me directly at neilgodfrey1 [AT] gmailDOTcom

Many thanks,
Neil

Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels

The best way to understand just how ‘non-religious’ or ‘non-biblical’ are the books of the New Testament — that is, to understand just how much a product of their own wider Greco-Roman literary culture are those books — is to read the popular novels of that era.

I enjoy both literature and ancient history so I loved reading the Collected Ancient Greek Novels edited by B. P. Reardon. They are called novels here, but they are otherwise labelled ‘novellas’, ‘erotic novels’ (from their theme of love at the behest of the god Eros), or ‘romances’.

So I was pleased to find that New Testament scholars have indeed been studying these and publishing on what they can teach us about the New Testament. (This was some years ago, but I am trying to catch up on years of reading on this blog.) One of these academics is Ronald F. Hock (I referred to him in my previous post) and it is my take on his chapter, “Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels” appearing in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative that I share in this post.

The Shepherds, Daphnis and Chloe

The Shepherds, Daphnis and Chloe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The novels most cited here are

Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton

An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon

Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius

Daphnis and Chloe by Longus

On the value of these novels for New Testament studies, Hock writes the following — and I have rearranged his paragraph-mass into an easy to skim column format:

they . . . provide the reader with a remarkably detailed, comprehensive, and coherent account of the social, economic, and religious institutions of the people and regions that witnessed the spread of Christianity into the Greek East of the early Roman Empire. (123)

The romances are set in Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Ephesus, Miletus, Alexandria, Paphos, Xanthus, and Tarentum, to name just a few of the cities mentioned in the New Testament, and in these cities we observe first-hand all sorts of people in ordinary and extraordinary situations — from the activities of the leading aristocratic families in the πόλις to those of the most marginalized shepherds and brigands in the χώρα and ἤρεμος. (124)

We see householders

  • hosting symposia
  • offering sacrifice
  • visiting rural properties
  • speaking in the theatre
  • taking on public duties
  • arranging marriages
  • and making wills;

we see their wives read more »

Why the Gospel of John Depicted John the Baptist So Differently

John the Baptist is almost unrecognizable in the Gospel of John to those who have known him only from the Synoptic Gospels.

Apart from the Gospel of John’s Baptist never baptizing Jesus, (and apart from the possibility that in John’s Gospel Jesus himself uniquely does some baptizing for a time), one major difference between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics is that in the latter there is a clearly laid out sequence while in John’s Gospel Jesus and John work alongside each other.

The reason that the Gospel of John treats John the Baptist so differently from the way he is depicted in the Synoptics is, I suggest, because that sequential pattern in the Synoptics implies something about the nature of Jesus that the last evangelist flatly rejected. So this post looks firstly at what that sequence implies about Jesus and that might have been at odds with the theology or Christology of the Fourth Gospel.

In the Gospel of Mark, first John the Baptist appears to Israel; John is then imprisoned; only then does Jesus appears to Israel. In the Gospel of John, however, John the Baptist and Jesus are carrying out their respective baptizing ministries in tandem. The only difference is that the followers of Jesus are increasing while those of John are diminishing. So the Baptist is said to explain:

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)

That’s not how it is in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark a sequence is clear. First John the Baptist, then Jesus who announces the Kingdom of God, then (we must wait for it) the Kingdom of God is about to arrive (at hand). read more »

Did Jesus Baptize? – A Test Case for Brodie’s ‘Unity of John’ Thesis

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. — John 3:22

And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” — John 3:26

The Gospel of John here says that Jesus baptized. “There is no ambiguity: the verb is singular and refers to Jesus.” (Brodie, 219)

Then at the beginning of the next chapter the same idea is expressed:

Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John. (4:1)

But then, immediately, there is a further comment: “Although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples. (4:2)

Did he or did he not? The contradiction seems so glaring that some commentators have regarded 4:2 as an insertion, as reflecting an editorial process. In fact, Dodd and Brown see 4:2 as one of the gospel’s best examples of the whole phenomenon of editing. For Brown (164) it serves as almost indisputable evidence of the presence of several hands in the composition of John. . . . (Brodie, 219-220)

So Brodie acknowledges that if this is the one of the best pieces of evidence for John being a work that was composed layer by layer over several authorial or editorial processes, then it should also be taken as a test case for his own thesis that this Gospel was composed as a unitary work by a single author.

In my previous post on Brodie’s Commentary on John I explained that Brodie argues that the jarring intrusions or contradictory statements that pop up unexpectedly throughout this Gospel are placed there as deliberately by the original author to shock and confront the reader just as much as the words he puts into the mouth of Jesus to shock the narrative’s characters. That is, they point to a higher spiritual theological meaning that goes against the surface flow of the narrative. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that these apparent intrusions and contradictions are indicators that this Gospel was the product of many authors or redactors adding, over time, additional “layers” or “insertions” to the original composition. read more »

John’s Wedding at Cana — Chronicle or Parable?

The Wedding at Cana (1820)

The Wedding at Cana (1820) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Gospel without Parables?

We all know the standard line: the synoptic evangelists tell us that Jesus’ ministry heavily relied on parables, while the Fourth Gospel contains none. It’s a striking conundrum. However, for a long time now I’ve been considering the possibility that John is itself entirely a parable gospel.

That is to say, each pericope may stand primarily as an allegorical story, regardless of whether it is based on historical events. The story of Jesus changing the water into wine, for example, seems to contain so many obvious references — narrative points and objects that have direct theological allusions — that resemble the parables in the other gospels.

Rudolf Bultmann in The Gospel of John: A Commentary (1971, pp. 114-121) counsels us not to overstate the significance of the water as referring to baptism, blood, or the new covenant. On the other hand, F.F. Bruce writes:

Jesus’ action was, in C. S. Lewis’s terminology, a ‘miracle of the old creation’: the Creator who, year by year, turns water into wine, so to speak, by a natural process, on this occasion speeds up the process and attains the same end. But if it is a miracle of the old creation, it is a parable of the new creation. (p. 45, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, Notes, emphasis mine)

John as “Megaparable”

If Bultmann gave us a red light, Bruce at least changed that light to amber. Earlier this year in The Power of Parable, John Dominic Crossan changed it to full-on green. He subtitles chapter 10: “The Parable Gospel according to John,” writing:

John interprets all the physical or restorative miracles of Jesus as symbolic of what God is in Jesus rather than of what God does in Jesus. Look back, for example, at John 4 and note how physical drinking in 4:7-15 and physical eating in 4:31-38 become spiritual symbols of Jesus. Or, again, do you really think that Cana was just about wine? (Kindle location 3748, bolding mine)

read more »

Some interesting book titles

Funny things sometimes happen browsing the web. In searching for what others were saying about a book highly recommended to me as a solid case for astrotheology (I found that the book makes no case at all — no, it’s not by any author I have reviewed on this blog before) I stumbled into a rather suspect discussion group whose moderators have made recent notorious appearances here. Along with some highly dubious titles they include some works that look like real gems:

Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross by Martin Hengel. This includes an interesting discussion of Prometheus and an ancient use of the technical term for crucifixion. read more »