Monthly Archives: June 2014

Jesus and the Relationship Between Sin and Disease

Nicolas Poussin, The Plague of Ashdod.

Nicolas Poussin, The Plague of Ashdod. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spiteful, jealous, and full of love

The God of the Old Testament had a habit of making people sick, often as a form of punishment. My favorite is the story of the poor Philistines who captured the Ark of the Covenant. In 1 Samuel 5:6, we read:

Now the hand of the LORD was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He ravaged them and smote them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territories. (NASB)

The word “tumors” is a nice way of saying hemorrhoids, or, as the KJV translators put it, emerods. In other words, God gave them a wicked case of the piles. Eventually, the populations of Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron wouldn’t sit still for it any longer, and returned the Ark to the Israelites.

More deadly, of course, were the diseases God inflicted upon the Egyptians during the period of bondage. But in the promised land, the Israelites would be safe. In Deuteronomy, he promised to keep his chosen people free of disease.

The LORD will keep you free from every disease. He will not inflict on you the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt, but he will inflict them on all who hate you. (Deut. 7:15, NIV)

So God has complete control over who gets sick and who stays well. What happens if his beloved people stray from the straight and narrow path?

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Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple: Rationalizing a Miracle

Christ Cleansing the Temple, c 1655 (J. Paul G...

Christ Cleansing the Temple, c 1655 (J. Paul Getty Museum) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disorderly Conduct

While researching the similarities and differences between Mark’s and John’s account of the Cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, I came across some fascinating observations by David Friedrich Strauss in The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. As you no doubt already know, the cleansing of, or what many Historical Jesus (HJ) scholars today often call a disturbance at, the Temple is an event recounted in all four gospels, which imagines a lone Jesus disrupting all business occurring in the outer courtyard.

HJ scholars who claim Jesus was some sort of apocalyptic prophet prefer to believe the event really happened, because it fits in with the eschatological message of their reconstructed Jesus. On the other hand, taking the stories at face value raises many issues. Bart Ehrman, in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, writes:

Most scholars recognize that some aspects of our accounts appear exaggerated, including Mark’s claim that Jesus completely shut down the operation of the Temple (if no one could carry any vessels, it would have been impossible to sacrifice and butcher the animals—which was after all what the Temple was for). As we have seen, the Temple complex was immense, and there would have been armed guards present to prevent any major disturbances. Moreover, if Jesus had actually created an enormous stir in the Temple, it’s nearly impossible to explain why he wasn’t arrested on the spot and taken out of the way before he could stir up the crowds. For these reasons, it looks as if Mark’s account represents an exaggeration of Jesus’ actions. But exaggerations aside, it is almost certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple — for example, overturned some tables and made at least a bit of a ruckus. (Ehrman, p. 212, emphasis mine)

So for Ehrman, the Temple “disturbance” almost certainly happened, but not the way the gospels tell it. Instead, he would argue, the gospels contain a nugget of truth inside an otherwise unbelievable story.

Meanwhile, other NT scholars don’t buy into the historicity of the event. For example, in A Myth of Innocence Burton Mack called the story a “Markan fabrication.” (See p. 292.) For more on the historical aspects of the cleansing, read Neil’s excellent post: “Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical.”

Identifying the form

Before we go any further, let’s recall an often forgotten rule in biblical studies: To understand what a story means, you must first determine what it is. And so I come back to Strauss’s analysis of the alleged Temple event. With respect to Origen’s take on the Temple tantrum, he wrote:

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“It is absurd to suggest. . . . ” (A rare bird among the anti-mythicists)

3D Book cover_aGood old reliable Professor James McGrath and a few of his peers*, blissfully unaware of some of the highly respected names both within and outside New Testament scholarship who have happened to be bold enough to declare their maverick suspicions that there was no historical Jesus, make it clear that if you come out as seriously pondering such a view in their presence they will shut you up immediately scornfully mocking and insulting you. If you dare to ask why they insist the view is such a stupid one they will often enough declare that the arguments have been dealt with and laid to rest long ago.

In our previous post we introduced another early author who tackled mythicism, A. D. Howell Smith. We covered his overview of the various mythicist authors and ideas extant, along with their contemporary critics, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This post continues a little series responding to the assertion that the Christ myth notion has long ago been dealt with and demolished. Rather, we will conclude that it has been more generally ignored. The most recent attempts to have dealt with it (McGrath, Casey) are more about character-assassination of those who post anything sympathetic to the idea and about ridiculing caricatures of the arguments. (Ehrman, as has by now been well demonstrated, appears not to have even read, or at least read incredibly superficially, the arguments he set out to refute.) I myself have never posted an argument for the Christ myth theory, but along with a good many others I can see some gaping logical holes in the arguments used to defend the assumption that Jesus did exist. In addition to rationalisations of this assumption we often encounter even liberal scholars resorting to rhetorical questions that essentially appeal to the expected ignorance or lack of imagination of their lay audience.

Of the names carelessly assumed to have long ago accomplished the intellectual demolition of mythicism we have seen that our first two, Goguel and Wood, explicitly stated at the outset of their works that they were NOT going to seriously address the arguments of the mythicists.

In our previous post we introduced another early author who tackled mythicism, A. D. Howell Smith. We covered his overview of the various mythicist authors and ideas extant, along with their contemporary critics, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Howell Smith was not a professional scholar so perhaps that is why his book arguing against the mythicists of his day is not so well known. His book, Jesus Not a Myth, however, is well informed by the scholarship of his day. As we saw in the previous post Howell Smith in 1942 noted how very few scholars in the English speaking world had taken up the case against mythicism and those who had were flawed by their conservative religious bias. It was for that reason he wrote the book I am discussing in this post, Christ Not a Myth.

Howell Smith’s work stands out for its occasional acknowledgement of strengths in some of the mythicist argument. I am not sure I have encountered any contemporary scholar who is prepared to concede any ground whatever to mythicist arguments, a trait that smells like polemics born of insecurity and fear rather than genuine engagement with the arguments. Here are some of my earlier posts covering Howell Smith’s refreshingly honest arguments.

James the Brother of The Lord

Yes, it really is possible to question that famous passage in Galatians where Paul speaks of the “James, the brother of the Lord” — a phrase that is most commonly misquoted as “brother of Jesus” by those using it to rhetorically hammer mythicists. Howell Smith, however, is confident enough to openly concede that scholarly arguments are not uniformly and utterly watertight:

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On Intellectual Property and Other Random Thoughts

As we draw near to the anniversary of the death and resurrection of Vridar, a time of commemoration and solemn reflection, I’ve been thinking again about how easy it was for us to get shut down, simply on suspicion of a DMCA violation. We’re hardly unique, of course; these takedowns keep happening, and they’ll continue to occur, because the law holds the poster of the content (i.e., us) and the agency hosting the content (i.e., WordPress.com) equally responsible.

You may have read earlier this year how AIDS-deniers tried to censor Myles Power (a warrior against pseudoscience) by getting Google to take down some YouTube videos that debunk their false claims. As Techdirt put it, “This is censorship in its purist form, and it’s using the law to get away with it.” True, Google did eventually restore the videos, but this disturbing series of incidents shows how malicious people can use the law to their own advantage without any fear of repercussion. Cory Doctorow at boingboing wrote:

The DMCA’s takedown procedures have no real penalty for abuse, so it is the perfect tool for would-be censors. What’s more, the entertainment companies — who are great fans of free speech when defending their right to sell products without censorship, but are quite unwilling the share the First Amendment they love so dearly with the rest of us — are pushing to make censorship even easier, arguing that nothing should be posted on Youtube (or, presumably, any other online forum) unless it has been vetted by a copyright lawyer.

I used to bristle at the idea of lumping copyrights and patents into the larger category of “intellectual property,” but that ship has sailed. And in a larger sense the intellectual property that modern corporations jealously guard, as evidenced by the DMCA, which forces content providers to act first and ask questions later, is in fact real property of the purest kind. Specifically, I’m talking about possessions to which legal entities (i.e. people or corporations) claim exclusive title and which generate wealth.

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