Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 3b: How One Popular Historian Follows Jesus to Historiographical Perdition (Part 2)

jesusThis continues the previous post on Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels by Michael Grant. Why two posts on this? Since some New Testament scholars point to Michael Grant as evidence that academics outside biblical studies employ the same methods and reach the same conclusions about the historicity of Jesus as they do, won’t hurt to address his work in some detail.

For Michael Grant, Jesus was better and greater than any other person in the history of the world. If the Gospels say he did or said something that reminds us of what other persons have said or done, Grant is always quick to expostulate that Jesus said or did it with such greater force or power that he made it sound or look unprecedented. Usually he just makes this declamation of Jesus’ superiority as if it must be a self-evident truth. At the same time he generally informs readers exactly what was in the mind and feelings of Jesus, too. Recall from my earlier post:

He felt an immovable certainty that he was the figure through whom God’s purposes were to be fulfilled. This absolute conviction of an entirely peculiar relationship with God was not unknown among Jewish religious leaders, but in Jesus it became a great deal more vigorous and violent than theirs. (Jesus, p. 77)

and

Jesus’ extreme obsessional conviction of a unique relationship with God makes any attempt to fit him into the social, institutional pattern of his time, or into its habitual concepts of thought, a dubious and daunting proposition. (Jesus, p. 78)

When in the Gospel of Luke we read of Jesus making an observation well known from rabbinical literature, that a poor woman giving her few pennies was making a greater sacrifice than any of the rich donors, Grant explains:

This story is exactly paralleled in rabbinical literature. And yet Jesus applied it more aggressively, for according to Luke, he accompanied his utterance by an attack on the Jewish scribes or doctors of the Law who ‘eat up the property of widows.’ Jesus carried his championship of the underdog beyond the bounds set by other Jews of the age. (p. 57)

Even the most banal teachings attributed to Jesus are said to be given a sharpened edge by Jesus:

Nor were Jesus’ ethical precepts for the most part original or novel, since ninety per cent of them were based upon injunctions that had already been offered by other Jewish teachers.

However, Jesus sharpened certain of these themes. (p. 25)

This is all Grant’s own imaginative fantasies being projected into the literary Jesus, of course. Gospel sayings of Jesus are quite trite so Grant attempts to rescue them by saying Jesus said or felt them “more vigorously”, “more powerfully” or “more sharply” than anyone else.

By now I think some readers will begin to understand why Grant’s biographies of ancient persons are generally for popular, more than scholarly or graduate student, consumption.

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A New Testament scholar’s evaluation of Michael Grant’s “historical Jesus”

One New Testament scholar points out exactly what Michael Grant is doing and it is not history. It is outdated New Testament hermeneutics.

read more »

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 3a: How One Popular Historian Follows Jesus to Scholarly Perdition (Part 1)

Michael Grant

Michael Grant

Sometimes when attempting to demolish the arguments of the Christ myth theory historical Jesus scholars point to a popular biography of Jesus, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, by a scholar situated well outside the faculties of theology or biblical studies, the classicist Michael Grant. The reason they point to Michael Grant’s book is to be able to say, “See, even a non-theologian, a secular historian, knows Jesus really existed.” The implication is that the normal methods of everyday historical inquiry (quite apart from anything theologians might bring to bear on the topic) are sufficient to “prove” that the person Jesus is a fact of history.

So this post looks at what Michael Grant himself said about the evidence, his methods and why he believed Jesus to be an historical person.

I wonder how many of these Jesus scholars have taken the time to read Grant’s book since none, as far as I am aware, has ever pointed to Grant’s own argument in that book against the Christ Myth view and his own justification for believing Jesus to have been historical. Or maybe it is because they have read it that they choose to remain quiet about Grant’s arguments.

Who was Michael Grant?

Michael Grant was a classicist specializing in the study of Roman coins who was responsible for over 70 books on historical topics.

Immensely prolific, he wrote and edited more than 70 books of nonfiction and translation, covering topics from Roman coinage and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to the Gospels. He produced general surveys of ancient Greek, Roman and Israelite history as well as biographies of giants such as Julius Caesar, Herod the Great, Cleopatra, Nero, Jesus, St. Peter and St. Paul. (Wikipedia, accessed 2nd Feb 2013)

His reputation as an historian of ancient history was mixed:

As early as the 1950s, Grant’s publishing success was somewhat controversial within the classicist community. According to The Times:

Grant’s approach to classical history was beginning to divide critics. Numismatists felt that his academic work was beyond reproach, but some academics balked at his attempt to condense a survey of Roman literature into 300 pages, and felt (in the words of one reviewer) that “even the most learned and gifted of historians should observe a speed-limit”. The academics would keep cavilling, but the public kept buying.

(Wikipedia, accessed 2nd Feb 2013)

The work of his that I remember most clearly as an undergraduate was a collection of translated readings of Roman literature. This was supplemented by many other more comprehensive readings.

The “notoriously hard and challenging task”

At the end of Grant’s book on the life of Jesus he asks how we know if anything he has written is truly historical. read more »

Invitations to Watch a Martrydom: The Letters of Ignatius (or Peregrinus) continued

This post is a continuation of Solving a Puzzle (or four) in the Letters of Ignatius: The Christian Years of Peregrinus

IN MY PREVIOUS POST I argued that the Asian delegates to Antioch mentioned in the letters to Philadelphia and to Smyrna should be identified as being part of the Asian delegations that, according to Lucian, were sent to encourage Peregrinus when he was imprisoned by the governor of Syria.

The author of the letters was Peregrinus, I maintain, and when he wrote them he himself was being led in chains to Antioch for imprisonment and— he hoped—martyrdom.

And having heard that the recent factional turmoil in the church of Antioch had ceased, he wanted the churches in Philadelphia, Smyrna and other cities in Asia to appoint delegates to go Antioch for his martyrdom.

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THIS POST will inspect the other letter that he wrote after learning that peace had been restored in the Antiochene church.

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That letter is the letter to Polycarp, and although it was written at the same time as the letters to Philadelphia and Smyrna, it differs from them in several significant particulars. As will be seen, these differences are the clue to its true character.

Solving the many puzzles of this letter will confirm that the would-be martyr was indeed being led to Antioch, not Rome.

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The Letter to Polycarp

Polycarp is identified as the bishop of Smyrna in the letter addressed to him but, strangely, not in the letter to the Smyrneans that was written at practically the same time.

one would never guess that the two men had just parted

The prisoner wrote the two letters just a short while after his departure from Smyrna, having visited with Polycarp and his church during his stop there. Yet, from the kind of advice contained in the first five chapters of the letter to Polycarp, one would never guess that the two men had just parted. One could legitimately wonder why they didn’t discuss the material in those chapters when they talked face-to-face presumably just days before. And the advice to Polycarp regarding his responsibilities to the members of his church who are widows, or married, or slaves (IgnPoly 4 & 5) looks like advice for a newly installed bishop.

It looks like most blessed Polycarp has been forced into a text where he was not originally present.

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The Myth of Disinterested Scholarly Research

sickwomanI can understand laypersons indignantly jumping to the defence of their favourite biblical or historical Jesus researcher whenever the suggestion arises that any scholar inevitably succumbs to ideological and career pressures. When scholars themselves proclaim their pureness of heart disinterested approach to their research, however, we are witnessing the problem of self-deception.

Tonight I was listening to an interview with a health researcher who was explaining that even in the field of health researchers were constantly pressured — and even taught the skills to do this — to sex up their research findings for regular publications. Researchers are compelled to publish and publish frequently to survive, and that means finding ways to dress up what once would have been regarded as rubbish into something that has the appearance of worth. That is, peer reviewed health journals are in the business of making money so they do publish what will sell well. See and listen to the segment of The Media Report: The Pitfalls of Health News, for the details of how this is possible.

If that sort of pressure is influencing what practitioners of one of the “hard sciences” write, can we really expect academics in biblical studies to be free from similar pressures? And that’s just the pressure of the daily business of surviving in one’s job. We haven’t even touched on ideology, yet. (Although ideology certainly is a factor in what academic journal publishers know is necessary for staying in the reputation business.)

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Recently I was pulled up on the second page of the Preface to Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity where Daniel Boyarin writes:

On one occasion, when I had delivered a lecture based on some of the work below on the Gospel of John, a very upset undergraduate arose from the audience to inquire: Who are you and why are you trying to take our Gospel away from us?

On another occasion, a group of Christian ministers asked me why I was not a Jew for Jesus (not in an effort to convert me to that movement but rather to understand what it is that makes me not one).

At still another time, in Jerusalem on one memorable occasion, I was asked explicitly by the organizer of a conference, Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein, to reflect on the implications of this work for the present and future.

On all of those occasions, I disengaged from the question that was being asked, falling on the last resort of the scholarly scoundrel: “I’m just trying to figure out what really happened!” (Border Lines, p. x, my formatting and emphasis) read more »

Solving a Puzzle (or four) in the Letters of Ignatius: The Christian Years of Peregrinus

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This post is a continuation of The Letters of Ignatius: Originally Written By Peregrinus?

In my previous post I showed that Peregrinus, as described by Lucian, bears great resemblance to the man who wrote the letters commonly ascribed to Ignatius of Antioch, and I proposed that the reason for their similarity is that the real author of the letters was Peregrinus.

In his adult life he was first a Christian, but later abandoned Christianity to become a Cynic philosopher. So, some of the similarities noted are those that existed between those two periods of his life.

Similarities

Glory-seeking

According to Lucian, what characterized Peregrinus was that he “always did and said everything with a view to glory and the praise of the multitude.” (TDOP 42, Harmon).

And his glory-seeking was already clearly present in his Christian days when the governor of Syria freed him because he realized that Peregrinus “would gladly die in order that he might leave behind him a reputation for it.” (TDOP 14, Harmon). So I see it as quite plausible that many of the ways he pursued glory as a Cynic would be similar to the ways he pursued it earlier as a Christian.

Publicity letters

When, as a Cynic, he sought to die a fiery death, he sent out letters to publicize the event. Earlier, I maintain, when he sought to die a martyr’s death as a Christian, he sent out letters too, among which are the seven so-called Ignatians.

Bestowing titles on his messengers

As a Cynic enamored of death, he gave titles to the messengers who spread the news of his upcoming leap to glory. I submit that the similar titles present in the letter collection are an indication that earlier, as a Christian enamored of martyrdom, he had already engaged in that practice. The specific titles were different, of course, because of the difference in his affiliation. But the very idea of giving titles to the messengers is the same.

Desire to imitate the gods into the invisible realm

And as a Cynic he proclaimed his desire to dissolve into thin air via fire so as to imitate Heracles. To this would correspond his earlier proclamation, as a Christian, that he desired to be visible no more, and to be — courtesy of a painful execution by the Romans — an imitator of the passion of his God.

A new name

And, as I see it, his adoption of new names to mark important moments in his life was not something he only began once he became a Cynic. No, the greeting at the head of each of the seven letters from “Ignatius who is also Theophorus” shows that it was already there during his Christian period. His becoming a prisoner in chains for Christ was one of those moments that called for a new name. (In a later post I will come back to this and look more closely at the name he took to mark the occasion).

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An Objection

One could object at this point that Lucian did not appear to notice the specific parallels I have indicated between Peregrinus the Christian and Peregrinus the Cynic.

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Strange Bedfellows — Evolution and Christianity

Illuminated parchment, Spain, circa AD 950-955...

Illuminated parchment, Spain, circa AD 950-955, depicting the Fall of Man, the scientific cause of original sin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grants for serious studies

Yesterday (13 February), James McGrath posted a congratulatory note to two winners of the latest Evolution & Christian Faith (ECF) grant competition. The ECF panel faced some hard choices. They fielded requests from scores of applicants, but had only about $3 million to shell out.

You’ll be happy to learn that a number of the fortunate grantees will be working on important projects related to “questions about Adam and Eve, the Fall, human identity, and Original Sin—some of the most critical interpretive issues for evangelical theology.

BioLogos: Who are these guys?

I suppose on the face of it, nonbelievers shouldn’t care if Christians want to embrace biological evolution. In fact, it sounds like a promising idea. However, if that embrace suffocates the scientific method, then we can hardly call it a victory. Indeed, if we look at the BioLogos charter do we find science and religion viewed as a partnership of equals? Hardly.

Under the heading “What We Believe,” they state:

7. We believe that the methods of science are an important and reliable means to investigate and describe the world God has made. In this, we stand with a long tradition of Christians for whom Christian faith and science are mutually hospitable. Therefore, we reject ideologies such as Materialism and Scientism that claim science is the sole source of knowledge and truth, that science has debunked God and religion, or that the physical world constitutes the whole of reality. (emphasis added)

All right. It isn’t something I would sign onto. And I confess I get a little uncomfortable when Christians use the term Scientism, since it’s clearly an invented derogatory term that doesn’t mean much outside their echo chamber.

Science is useful, as long as it conforms to what we already “know”

But it’s their deal. So if it gets them on board, “no harm, no foul,” right? Maybe not.

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Did Jesus Have A Body?

atheisteyesFrank Zindler’s Through Atheist Eyes: Scenes From a World That Won’t Reason is a treasure chest of reflections on religion, Christianity in particular. I’m sure he won’t mind if I share a few of them here from time to time.

In chapter 15 of volume 1 he captures the essence of a curiosity in the New Testament that seems to generally fly right over the heads of anyone prone to take reputed Holy Writ far too seriously. How often do we hear even professors of religion declaring that the Christ Myth is patently false because the apostle Paul wrote that Jesus had a body! They are usually more specific than that. They’ll say Paul wrote that Jesus was born to a woman! And that Jesus had flesh and blood. There it is! In plain print! Jesus was no myth!

The sorts of passages they’ll usually quote are:

Galatians 4:4-5   But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,to redeem those under the law

Romans 1:3   concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh

Romans 8:3  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,

Colossians 1:21-22  Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because ofyour evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death

1 Timothy 3:16  Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

1 Peter 3:18   For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,

1 Peter 4:1   Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,

1 John 4:1-3   Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

2 John 1:7  For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.

Frank Zindler delves a little into the consensus dates for these texts and other extra-biblical writings expressing similar thoughts. I’m in the mood for a much simpler post for now so here’s the pertinent point: read more »

Is the Christ Myth a Threat to the Christian Faith? (If not, what is?)

Updated with an added final paragraph 40 minutes after posting

You’ve got to be kidding!

Of course not. Not even the fact/theory of evolution and advances in biological science can undermine any of the “religions of the book”. John Loftus of Debunking Christianity made it clear that one of the worst things he could take up in his efforts to debunk Christianity was to argue Jesus did not exist.

In one of his more recent statements to this effect he wrote:

Christians will be more likely to listen to me than someone who claims Jesus probably didn’t exist at all. (The Christian Reaction to Jesus Mythicism)

John Loftus

John Loftus

He follows with this (my bolding and formatting):

I am a focused, passionate man, who is single mindedly intent on debunking Christianity. This issue [mythicism] will not do the job for the simple fact of what evangelicals like David Marshall think of such a claim. It’s too far removed from what they will consider a possibility.

I’d like to hear of the vast numbers of Christians who abandoned their faith because they were convinced Jesus didn’t exist. I just don’t see that happening at all.

Christians will not see their faith is a delusion until they first see that the Bible is unreliable and untrustworthy, and that the doctrines they believe are indefensible, which is my focus.

Now it might be that Christians could come to the conclusion the Bible is unreliable upon reading arguments that Jesus never existed, but they will be much less likely to read those very arguments because that thesis is too far removed from what they can consider a possibility.

Exactly. I agree 100% with what John Loftus writes here about the value of the Christ Myth idea for debunking Christianity.

The logic of Loftus’s understanding is that espousing the Christ Myth must inevitably be counter-productive for any attempt to “debunk” Christianity.

If the Jews can get along without a literal Abraham . . .

I once asked a member of the Jesus Seminar (long time readers move on, you’ve heard this story before) if he thought Christianity could survive or what the effect might be on Christianity if Jesus turned out not to have been historical. After a moments reflection he began, “I suppose Judaism can get along with out an historical Abraham, so . . . . .”

With mythicists like these . . . . read more »

The Charge of Denialism and Cognitive Dissonance

An argument to end all arguments

David Hillman recently commented:

Hangin' From Albert Einstein's Proof

[Dice] Hangin’ From Albert Einstein’s Proof (Photo credit: voteprime)

In real intellectual arguments the accusation of denialism does not help at all. In the argument for example over the philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics, was Einstein a dice denier, Bohr a reality denier. Such accusations would not have advanced the argument.

I do actually suspect that McGrath’s use of the term is an immoral smear to avoid addressing the arguments, and if I could ever work out what Hoffmann is attempting to communicate I might suspect the same of him.

Of course, advancing the argument is not the aim, is it? They charge mythicsts with denialism in order to terminate the argument. “There is nothing to argue about,” they mean to say. “Talk to the hand.”

Being lumped in with conspiracy theorists, climate-change hoaxers, birthers, and Holocaust-deniers isn’t some unfortunate afterthought or an unintended consequence; it’s the main reason they do it.

As far as what Hoffmann is attempting to communicate — well, it’s essentially this: He doesn’t like “Mythtics.” His tirade from 8 February makes it clear. His dislike seems to have gone well beyond any rational explanation. It has certainly dissolved all norms of polite social behavior. I, for one, would forgive his departure from normal, sane human discourse — if any of what he was saying were true.

A Godfrey of his own creation

Hoffmann has created his own mythical Godfrey who lives in the enchanted land of Vridar. Hoffy doesn’t like this Pseudo-Godrey.

green-eggs-and-ham

I do not like that pseudo-Godfrey

He does not like his posts on Paul.

He does not like them, not at all.

Hoffy tells us all day long,

Pseudo-Godfrey is quite wrong.

He does not like his exegesis.

He does like his take on Jesus.

Even quoting Shelby Spong,

Pseudo-Godfrey’s very wrong.

He hates his manner, so uncouth.

He hates how he distorts the truth.

Hoffy ever sings this song,

Pseudo-Godfrey’s always wrong.

(He would forgive them all, you know,

If only they’d agree with Joe.)

However, you can’t blame Pseudo-Godfrey; he’s just like every other mythicist. They are all:

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Our Moral Nature

An infant

An infant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another fascinating Radio National program worth sharing is Babies and a Sense of Morality in the latest edition of the Health Report.

Highlights:

Babies can recognize good and bad behaviour, and demonstrate that they believe good behaviour is preferable, and even believe that it is right to punish bad behaviour.

The experiment involved exposing babies to puppet shows — no words — in which there were three actants. One was attempting to do something such as push a ball up a hill or open a box to get a toy. Another was a helping agent who assisted the first one with the task. The other was bad, attempting to thwart the first one achieving what he wanted.

The babies demonstrated their preference for the helper.

When they saw a show in which someone was bad to the bad puppet, and another was good to him, they demonstrated a preference for the one who was “rightly bad” for punishing the bad guy.

These are behaviours in babies from 3 to 8 months old.

Check the audio file to find out how they conducted the experiments.

I’m not surprised by the findings. (I am surprised that they could figure out how to do experiments to test for such things.) Anyone who has spent time observing the animal kingdom knows that among social birds and animals there are the same basic moral norms governing their social systems as we have in ours. And they have their own protocols for administering punishments for the rule-breakers, too. The same fundamental morality seems to be part of our nature. It’s all about helping our neighbour and punishing behaviours that are harmful to that ethic. There are human universals that cross all cultures that confirm the same thing.

We don’t need no commandments from gods and preachers to teach us what’s right and wrong. read more »

The Letters of Ignatius: Originally Written By Peregrinus?

This post is a continuation of The Letters of Ignatius: Originally Written By a Follower of an Ex-Marcionite?

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I. PEREGRINUS WROTE THE SO-CALLED IGNATIAN LETTERS

My first contention is that the real author of the Ignatians was Peregrinus Proteus. Before examining the letters themselves it will help to first review what is known about him.

Almost all of our information about him comes from Lucian of Samosata’s satire, The Death of Peregrinus. (I will indicate quotes from this work by the abbreviation ‘TDOP’ and will use the translations of either A. M. Harmon or Lionel Casson).

Lucian was a contemporary of Peregrinus. They were at one point passengers on the same ship. And Lucian was present at Peregrinus’ spectacular self-immolation. He considered Peregrinus to be a charlatan and a vain publicity seeker. We need to keep that in mind and be aware that to some extent Lucian’s portrait of Peregrinus may be a caricature. However, Donald Dudley’s assessment is representative of that generally held by scholars, that

though one must always suspect Lucian’s imputation of motives, somewhat more reliance can be placed in his mere statements of fact… It is therefore a fair assumption that the main outlines of Peregrinus’ career as given by Lucian are trustworthy. (A History of Cynicism, pp. 171-172)

Peregrinus

Peregrinus is thought to have been born at the beginning of the second century. His hometown was Parium on the Hellespont.

Parium of Hellespont

Parium on the Hellespont

Of his early life little is known. After the death of his father—a death neighbors suspected the son had caused by strangulation—Peregrinus imposed on himself a sentence of banishment from Parium and took to the road.

A wandering we will go

The name ‘Peregrinus’ means ‘wanderer,’ and it is possible that it was not his given name, but rather a name he chose for himself when he began his self-imposed exile. Later, at other turning points in his life, he assumed other names (Proteus and Phoenix). Lucian mockingly calls him “He with the most names of all the Cynics.”

Onward Christian soldier

During his wanderings Peregrinus visited Palestine and became a Christian. He soon attained a position of authority among them, becoming their “prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many…” (TDOP 11. Harmon).

Locked up read more »

The beauty and the pain of fundamentalist religion

sufficientGraceI happened to catch a fascinating interview with an American writer now living in Australia, Amy Espeseth, talking about her first novel, Sufficient Grace.

It captured my attention for two reasons:

One, I can’t help but take notice when I hear anyone speaking of experiences similar to mine;

Two, the recent suggestion that I and anyone who questions the existence of Jesus and the arguments of “Jesus historicists” is necessarily driven by a need compensate for some past bad experiences with religion and is thus on a vendetta to attack and undermine religion by any means possible.

I have not read the book but I was captivated by, and definitely related to, Amy’s sympathetic approach to the people who are bound to their cult. There is a beauty in their lives. The first half of the novel, I understand, explores this rewarding and charming existence. Then half way through a darkness appears. The child everyone in the community believes to be so wonderful and destined to be their new leader is seen by his cousin as he really is, and it is not pretty.

On the outside the lives of the members appear to be so beautiful. At the same time, however, they are cut off, cocooned from the rest of the world, and in that isolation every family seems to have a dark secret that must be hidden at all costs.

I was surprised by Amy Espeseth’s response when asked if she had any regrets about writing the book. She said Yes, she did. She unavoidably caused pain to some people she loved. read more »

Jesus and the Dove — how a Roman audience may have read the Gospel of Mark

SonOfGodRomanWorldThis post presents a snippet from The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context by Michael Peppard. There is much more in this book that deserves closer attention and that will probably be given in the coming year. Till then, I think some of us may be interested in the following.

At one point Peppard “tries to imagine how a listener attuned to Roman culture might understand the dove”, the bird associated* with the Spirit as it descended from heaven at the baptism of Jesus. (Peppard’s approach stands in contrast to most interpretations in that they have sought to explain the dove in terms of Palestinian and Babylonian Jewish traditions.) After discussing bird omens in Roman culture generally, he comes to a survey of the dove in particular. In Roman literature the dove was often regarded as standing in opposition to the eagle, that bird of prey well known as the symbol of Roman imperial power.

Romans Read Omens Like Jews Read Scriptures

One could say that Romans used omens to interpret and explain their experience of the world in analogous ways to how Jews used Scriptures to interpret and explain their experience of the world. (The Son of God in the Roman World, p. 116)

Augur

Augur

There were the official readings of the flights of birds in the quadrants of the sky by colleges of augurs. There were also interpretations of individual flights of birds that were sanctioned by common opinion.

As for the meaning of the dove descending at the baptism of Jesus, Peppard suggests the widely varying views found in the literature are possibly the consequence of scholars failing to study this image within the full range of the cultural milieu of the earliest evangelist and his readers.

Peppard brings forward “the Roman historian and collector of tales” Suetonius. In his several “lives of the emperors” Suetonius speaks of many bird omens, and according to Peppard, they are all related to two themes, “and two only”:

the rise of imperial power and the fall from it. (p. 116) read more »

Dear Joseph Hoffmann, . . . . P.S. . . .

I love this remark by classicist Michael Grant:

[A]s J. B. Bury remarked, it is essentially absurd for a historian to wish that any alleged fact should turn out to be true or false. Careful scrutiny does not presuppose either credulity or hostility. (Jesus, p. 200, my emphasis)

This sounds to me like a simple truism. Occasionally someone (even a scholar) may express some question about the historicity of Socrates or Hillel, more recently even of David. There’s no question in those instances of being labelled a “mythicist” or “historicist”. The reason, I suggest, is that those questions are far less invested with cultural ideology and vested institutional interests (at least outside Israel in the case of David).

I don’t know too many “Christ Myth theorists” who stand to lose anything should they eventually be found to be wrong. And I don’t know of any of them who seriously engage with the scholarship who have made a good $$ from mythicism. But no-one can deny that many careers and institutions have been founded upon the belief in the historicity of Jesus.

I don’t even think of “Did Jesus Exist?” as an historical question. Historical questions, in my mind, are directed at explaining the evidence. So we have evidence for the emergence of Christianity. Okay, so the historical question is, “What caused the emergence and growth of Christianity?” (That question, incidentally, is the underlying motif of most of my blog posts. Not mythicism per se.)

The only Jesus that matters is the Jesus in the evidence that we have at our fingertips, and that’s obviously a literary and theological figure. I can understand how genre and criss-crossing strands of evidence can help us flesh out historical characters behind the archaeological and literary evidence of people like Julius Caesar, and of others whom we conclude must have been part of their lives. But let’s be serious. We really do know that the stories of Jesus are not in that range of genre and external corroboration.

Oh, and by the way. I mentioned in my last post that I think belief in Christianity (let’s say the Bible or the Qu’ran/Koran — let’s cover all three “people of the book” religions while we’re at it) has been responsible for much harm. It has. I know. Millions of people know, surely. I’m not talking about just the big issues like war, racism, sexism and slavery. There’s also the “silent” damage it has done to millions of individuals who suffer daily in cities, suburbs and beyond.

But what I want to add here in this P.S. is that I can also look back on my life and see that even in the worst times there is something I can salvage of value and ongoing worth for me and others. Check my posts on “fundamentalism” — see this blog’s Index of Topics — and you will also see that I have made the most of good things that also came out of my religious past and have encouraged others who have likewise suffered to do the same.

The Message: read more »