Monthly Archives: January 2015

Fresh Evidence: The Forged Jesus Passage in Josephus

Paul Hopper

Paul Hopper

A volume on linguistics and literary studies published last year contained a chapter by Paul Hopper, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities Emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University, titled A Narrative Anomaly in Josephus: Jewish Antiquities xviii:63. The chapter can now be downloaded from (I was alerted to this through a post by Peter Kirby on Biblical Criticism & History Forum.)

Here is the abstract of the chapter:

Abstract: Josephus in the Jewish Antiquities introduces Jesus the Messiah into his history of the Jews, and appears to report events corresponding closely to those of the Gospels, including Jesus’s crucifixion on the orders of Pontius Pilate. A longstanding dispute exists about the authenticity of this text. The present article offers a narratological analysis of the passage, comparing the styles of event reporting in the passage with the three other episodes in Josephus’s Pontius Pilate sequence. The study concludes that the uses of the Greek verb forms such as aorists and participles are distinct in the Jesus passage from those in the other Pilate episodes, and that these differences amount to a difference in genre. It is suggested that the Jesus passage is close in style and content to the creeds that were composed two to three centuries after Josephus. (my bolding in all quotations)

Hopper’s conclusion is even more direct: read more »

Bible Prophecy Only In the Eye of the Beholder

Here’s another piece of recommended reading. It’s the sort of article I wish I had thought to write. So thanks to Gavin Rumney of Otagosh for

The Prophecy that Wasn’t

He addresses the Christian tendency to read into God’s curse on the serpent in the Garden of Eden a prophecy of Jesus Christ one day coming to destroy Satan through his own death (symbolized by a snake-bite on the heel).

Gavin introduces the key term metanarrative into his discussion. That’s another useful expression I am sure to borrow for Vridar in future. So read Gavin’s post so you’ll be prepared. But since you’re here now here’s a preview (but you have to promise to read Gavin’s article, too) and some additional thoughts of my own: read more »

New Online Course: Intro to Biblical Scholarship on NT

Richard Carrier is offering a month-long course online this February. From his blog description of the course:

Official Course Description:

Richard Carrier (Ph.D.), who has years of training from Columbia University in paleography, papyrology, and ancient Greek, will teach students the basics of how to investigate, criticize, and study the New Testament from the perspective of how its text is constructed from manuscripts, as well as how to work from the original Greek without learning anything more than the Greek alphabet and the international terminology of grammar, and how to investigate and make the best use of academic and peer reviewed biblical scholarship.

Students will learn how to: locate words in the Greek text of the Bible, and find their definitions using online resources, and to use that skill to critically examine English translations; check if the manuscripts disagree on what the text says at that point, and what to make of that if they do; talk and reason about disagreements in the manuscripts, as well as the differing valences of words between modern translations and ancient originals; discern what kinds of errors and deliberate alterations are common in the biblical manuscripts; and how to use scholarship on the New Testament critically and informedly.

This course will also be a basic introduction to the contents of the New Testament and its composition, textual history, and assembly. After a month you will have a much better understanding and skill-set for studying, discussing, and arguing over, the content and history of the Christian Bible, as well as learn fascinating and interesting things about ancient history and how we know what we know about it from the perspective of how all ancient writing has been preserved yet distorted in transmission.

As usual, these courses are one month long, and you learn at your own pace and on your own time, and participate as much or as little as you want (many just lurk and read the assigned readings and resulting discussion threads).

Registration details.

Looks interesting.





Interview with Robert M. Price

Today on Ed Brayton’s blog, Dispatches from the Culture Wars (Thoughts from the Interface of science, religion, law and culture), there is “a guest post by Kile Jones, a grad student at Claremont School of Theology, creator of the Claremont Journal of Religion” interviewing Robert Price:

In this interview I got to ask Dr. Robert Price (a.k.a. “The Bible Geek”) some questions about his life and how religion and the Bible played a part in it. His new book, “The Human Bible New Testament” should be available on Amazon shortly.

Here is a link to the interview.



Explaining Christian Origins Without Any Theological Baggage


James C. Hanges

I wasn’t sure at first what to make of an unusual article currently being hosted on the Bible and Interpretation site. It’s header is certainly interesting enough —

Looking to the Future of the Study of Christian Origins

But then it continues with reference to something that definitely has very little interest for me — that word “ecstasy” in a religious context:

The Ecstatic Perception of Evolving Complexities

Tongues? Trances? No thanks. But what’s the catch with that “future” word? I do like studies of visionary experiences to explain texts and certain belief systems but am less enthusiastic about the wider world of “religious ecstasies”.

It begins with reference to postcolonial studies. Suspicion deepens. Another anachronistic model being applied to the ancient world? Is this going to be something like a Marxist interpretation of Shakespeare?

But then the author, Professor James Constantine Hanges, writes something scandalous. (Scandalous, at least, to most contemporary biblical scholarship I have read.) He seems to be saying that scholarship should be studying early Christianity as something that emerged from within not only a Jewish world but also a pagan context. The pagan world should be seen as a matrix of Christianity’s emergence, not as “the other” against which early Christianity fought tooth and nail:

Smith’s razor sharp point in the book is that the history of modern Euro-American study of Christian origins . . . was never a genuine attempt to acquire new knowledge and to more accurately describe and understand the formation of earliest Christianity. Rather, modern Euro-American biblical scholarship has been simply an exercise in apologetics, using comparison to shore up the uniqueness of Christianity against a so-called “parallelomania” for ancient polytheistic cultures. 

read more »

The Ostrich War On Mythicism

head-in-sand-1024x808After opting to respond to Raphael Lataster in a less than fully civil or professional manner for daring to publicly raise legitimate questions about the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus, Christian gentleman and scholar Michael Bird has followed up with a two minute video-clip of Bart Ehrman addressing a mythicist’s question. Needless to say Bart Ehrman is once again vague and lost in his reply, doing nothing more than appealing to authority, incredulity, disinformation and false analogies to “make his case”.

If you have been wondering how Bart Ehrman has been able to avoid engagement with mythicist questions since his book Did Jesus Exist? so emphatically demonstrated that he had not even read with any seriousness the mythicist books he claimed to be addressing you can find his explanation for this disengagement in his most recent post, Defending Myself.

Ehrman simply keeps himself shielded from any serious critique that does not come through channels he modulates himself. His blog is set up to ensure mostly sympathetic readers only will engage with it and he chooses to avoid public engagement with critics as a rule. Curiously he can say that though he by and large avoids any serious communication with mythicists (he apparently will read the odd email from one, it seems) he can nonetheless affirm that:

And I know that the attacks by these conservative Christians pale in comparison with the attacks by the mythicists

read more »

Ideological Archaeology in Israel, Greek beauty, Coffee and the Paranormal

Some articles I’ve found interesting this past week:

The Connection Between Archaeology and Ideology in the Middle East in Counterpunch (h/t Otagosh)

Uri Avnery

Uri Avnery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a speech/article by Uri Avnery. In the desperation to find confirmation of the Biblical stories after the 1967 war Moshe Dayan and others swept away all the top layers of Ottomans, Arab/Crusader, Byzantine, Roman, Greek and Persian eras and found nothing. They had very likely pushed aside their real history. Excerpt:

Even if one would like to believe that the Bible only exaggerates real events, the fact is that not even a tiny mention of the exodus, the conquest of Canaan or King David has been found.

They just did not happen.

IS THIS important? Yes and no.

The Bible is not real history. It is a monumental religious and literary document, that has inspired untold millions throughout the centuries. It has formed the minds of many generation of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

But history is something else. History tells us what really happened. Archeology is a tool of history, an invaluable tool for the understanding of what took place.

These are two different disciplines, and never the twain shall meet. For the religious, the Bible is a matter of belief. For non-believers, the Hebrew Bible is a great work of art, perhaps the greatest of all. Archeology is something entirely different: a matter of sober, proven facts.

Israeli schools teach the Bible as real history. This means that Israeli children learn only its chapters, true or fictitious. When I once complained about this in a Knesset speech, demanding that the full history of the country throughout the ages be taught, including the chapters of the Crusades and the Mamelukes, the then minister of education started to call me “the Mameluke”.

If that’s too political for you you might prefer more philosophical reading. has an extract from David Konstan’s book, “Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea” :

The secret history of beauty: How the Greeks invented Western civilization’s biggest idea — (People think of beauty as universal to the human experience. But the truth is actually much more complicated)

Conclusion — some interesting openings into understanding the breadth of human experience: read more »

Death Without God

Comforting-Thoughts-book-cover-oblong-200-JPGLast year I mentioned a book about death from an atheist perspective that has been getting wide attention among various Freethought and other blogs. My first reaction when I learned about it . . . .

Another book that did not interest me personally but that I see is gaining considerable attention on the web is Greta Christina’s Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God. Personally I have no problem with the idea of death as the cessation of everything. But evidently we all have different perspectives on this and Greta’s book does meet a wider interest. And given its electronic version only costs $3 I thought, “what the hell” and have downloaded it for future reference. Now I can find out what all the fuss is about when I have a spare moment.

I’ve been an atheist long enough and I have long since worked through my questions about the “meaning of 42” and godless foxhole deaths that I felt little personal interest in reading it at first. But it’s a bandwagon thing. I had to find out what everyone else thought I was missing, so I read it.

I managed it easily in my spare moments — walking to/from work; waiting for someone in a car — and it was the best $3 I’ve ever spent since my $3 haircut in Bali.

Greta Christina is a pleasure to read. It’s always nice, too, to read someone of a like mind about the fundamentals of life. One always hopes little gems will be tucked away in one’s mind and available for future reference when next conversing with anyone who wants to talk about stuff like this.

There are two audiences (or two additional audiences) Greta is addressing here. For religious believers who are curious, especially if they are rethinking their own faith, this book is a perfect layout of the healthy atheist dispositions towards death and life. I was a little surprised to read that Greta is also addressing an apparently not insignificant number of atheists who seriously thought religion is the better option when it comes to facing death. I don’t know too many of those, or at least I don’t know if I do know any such people.

I have scarcely been aware of atheist communities and related support groups, in particular some tailored to offer support for anyone finding well-meaning (or sometimes less kindly) religious people burdening them in their times of grief with overwhelming religious sentiments. Greta’s mentioning of these reminded me how lucky I am that atheism is not the big deal in Australia that it obviously is in America.

Greta writes with humour, compassion, understanding and simplicity. It really is a great $3. You’ll remember and talk about it as long as you would the very beautiful hairdresser giving very good $3 haircuts in Bali.


Ascension of Isaiah: Contents, Manuscripts and the Question of its Composition

Hi Neil,

I have a copy of Norelli’s Ascension d’Isaïe and I consulted it when I wrote parts 7 through 9 of my blog series on a Simonian origin for Christianity. In part 7 of the series I noted in passing that Norelli put the date of composition for the Vision of Isaiah at the end of the first century. And in post 8, as part of my Jan. 30, 2014 response to George Hall, I quoted from page 52-53 of Norelli’s book.

However, just judging from this one book of Norelli’s, I’m skeptical that his work will prove to be, as Bauckham says, “definitive.” And I don’t see that Bauckham himself really considers it all that definitive either for, as I recall, Bauckham argues that Norelli is wrong about assigning a different author to each of the two parts of the AoI and about Norelli’s dating of the second part (theVision of Isaiah) earlier than the first (chapters 1-5).

In regard to the AoI’s chapter 11 “pocket gospel:” I explain in post 8 my reasons for questioning whether it was part of the original Vision. As you know, I share Carrier’s and Doherty’s suspicions that it was not, but we have different guesses about what was originally there. I proposed that some kind of early passion narrative like the one now found in gMark would fit in better with the rest of the Vision.

Roger Parvus

Continuing from A New (Completely Revised) Look at the Ascension of Isaiah . . . 

Roger Parvus has thankfully reminded me that he addressed aspects of Enrico Norelli’s book on the Ascension of Isaiah in his earlier posts. See his comment on my previous post (in side-box) for links to these and for his more general response to Norelli’s work.

This post overviews the contents of the AoI, a little of how we came to possess it, and what I understand to be Norelli’s argument for a fresh approach to the study of the text.

Ascension of Isaiah: Contents

The AoI was most likely originally composed as a Greek text but its most complete version today is in the Ge’ez or classical Ethiopic script. This has come down to us as part of the Ethiopian Old Testament that has preserved a number of books rejected from the canons of Jews and Christians (such as Enoch and Jubilees).

In its present form the AoI consists of two parts.

The first part (chapters 1-5) borrowed the Jewish tradition of the death of Isaiah who was sawn in two by King Manasseh.

King Hezekiah, the father of Manasseh, summoned his son to hear Isaiah recount his vision — the one that we will read about in part 2. But Isaiah informed Hezekiah privately that Manasseh would lead Israel astray from the true faith and that he would kill the prophet.

After Manasseh became king he was influenced by the false Samaritan prophet Belchira to capture Isaiah and saw him in half. We also learn that the real power behind these two men inspiring them to murder Isaiah was the devil, named Beliar.

Beliar was incensed against Isaiah because the prophet had exposed the his scheme to deceive and be worshiped by humanity.

Isaiah’s vision that had so enraged the devil is summed up in between the arrest of Isaiah and his martyrdom. In this section we read additional material that is not found in the later account of the vision (3:13-4:18):

  • after the resurrection and ascension of Christ the church will flourish uncorrupted for a time

  • a time will come when sinful pastors and elders who reject the Holy Spirit and the prophecies (including Isaiah’s prophecy) will lead the church astray

  • the future coming of the Beliar, the devil, in the form of the Antichrist who will persecute the true believers

  • the second coming of the Christ who puts an end to the work of the Antichrist.

The second part (chapters 6 to 11, except for 11:41-43) brings us to the vision so often referred to in the first half. This vision, therefore, is a flashback to the twentieth year of Hezekiah’s reign and the vision of Isaiah that angered the devil.

Chapter 6 begins with Isaiah leading the prophets in worship in the king’s house in Jerusalem. Isaiah falls into a trance and is transported in vision through the seven heavens up to the presence of God (7:2-9:26). There he witnesses heavenly worship in progress, this one led by Christ (who had not yet visited earth) and the Holy Spirit (9:27-10:6).

Isaiah is then shown God’s plan of salvation:

read more »

The Memory Mavens, Part 4: The Analytical Power of Failure

Another lifetime ago, back when I was a U.S. Air Force field training detachment commander, one of our instructors came into my office with a worried look. He told me he had been teaching basic circuitry to a group of enlisted students. “Lieutenant,” he asked, “when you were in school what did they teach you about the flow of electricity? That it goes from the negative terminal to the positive, right?”

When I agreed, he continued, “Well, I’ve got this squid in my class, and he said in the Navy they taught him it goes from positive to negative!” He was flummoxed. (At the time our detachment on Beale AFB was the only certified DoD training facility from Sacramento up through Oregon, so we often played host to reservists and military members from other branches.)

I said, “But the math works both ways, right? I mean in circuit models it doesn’t really matter.” He found the whole thing terribly unsettling. It was as if I’d told him up was down and down was up.

Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.

— George E. P. Box

George E.P. Box

Statistician George E. P. Box (1919-2013)

All models are wrong

Often while trying to understand how processes work, we build representational, mental constructs or “models” to help us understand them better. These models don’t correspond identically to the real world; instead, they’re subsets of the world — small enough to fit inside our brains. Our models of simple electronics are like that.

What can we can learn from our little story above? First, the fact that we can swap logical current flow in a circuit diagram and still make it “work” (for our purposes) might suggest that our model doesn’t fully correspond with reality. It’s just a representational subset, after all. It’s fiction. But that’s all right, as long as our model gives us the answers we need.

Sometimes a model we know is wrong around the edges can still serve us adequately in general circumstances. We’ve refined the standard model of gravitation quite a bit since Newton’s day. However, if our only task is to launch a projectile at a castle wall, then the older, simpler model will probably suffice. On the other hand, if we want to launch and maintain an array of geosynchronous satellites for precise global positioning, we’re going to have to take into account the effects of relativity — trading in Newton for Einstein, so to speak.

Whenever we use a scientific or mathematical model to help us make real-world predictions, we need to be aware of its limits. We need to know the range of conditions within which it works reliably. And we need to know whether and how its performance degrades as it approaches those limits.

Actually, we can apply that last lesson to the real world, too. That’s why car manufacturers slam their vehicles into walls. We can’t fully understand a system’s range of acceptable behavior until we find the points at which it fails. Moreover, we can learn a great deal from discovering where and how a system begins to degrade. We don’t smash cars because we want their safety systems to fail; we do it to find out where those failure points are. read more »

A New (Completely Revised) Look at the Ascension of Isaiah


“Ascension du prophete d’Isaie” by Enrico Norelli (1993)

Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier have suggested that there is an ancient text outside the Bible that stands as direct evidence for some early Christians believing that Jesus Christ was crucified by demons in a celestial realm. That text is The Ascension of Isaiah (AOI), believed to be a composite document whose earliest parts were quite likely authored as early as the late first century.

Scholarly work on AoI has been on the move. 1995 saw two pivotal Italian works that have paved the way for a new consensus. Enrico Norelli has been a key player in this research.

  • Ascensio Isaiae: Textus, ed. P. Bettiolo, A. Giambelluca Kossova, E. Norelli, and L. Perrone (CCSA, 7; Turnhout, 1995);
  • E. Norelli, Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius (CCSA, 8; Turnhout, 1995).

These were both included in volumes 7 and 8 of the Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum in 1995.

I don’t have access to those but yesterday a copy of Norelli’s 1993 Ascension du prophète Isaïe arrived in the mail.

I have only struggled through chapter 2 with my very rusty French so far but it is already clear that the old views are being challenged.

Here are the highlights:

  • The work is not nearly so fragmented as earlier studies have believed. Both the first part, chapters 1 to 5, depicting the martyrdom of Isaiah, and the second part, chapters 6 to 11, portraying Isaiah’s vision of the descent of the Christ figure (the Beloved) down through the seven heavens to be crucified, harrow hell and return to sit beside God again, are Christian works.
  • The Christian sect responsible for the AoI (all of it) was exalted revelations through visions and saw themselves competing with rival sects, each blaming and persecuting the other as false prophets.
  • The account of the birth of the Beloved to Mary in Bethlehem is not a late addition but was original to the vision chapters (6-11). That means The Beloved did indeed descend to earth and was crucified on earth — unrecognized by the demons.
  • The details of the nativity scene draw on a source also known to the evangelist responsible for the Gospel of Matthew. The AoI does not know the canonical gospel but both are using a common source. The two nativity versions — Matthew’s and the AoI’s — represent competing theologies. That is, the AoI was (and several reasons are given for this conclusion) written around the same time or environment that produced the Gospel of Matthew.
  • The reason for the Beloved appearing to be flesh and dying was to save humanity by means of conquering their demonic rulers.

To me this is fairly mind-blowing stuff if true. We would need to account for a view of the “gospel” that stood in stark contrast to all the assumptions and “traditions” behind Matthew appearing on the scene at around the same time. That question alone poses enormous questions for the traditional view of gospel origins, surely.

Further, if we accept Norelli’s revisions to our understanding of the AoI then it would appear that the AoI might support in part Roger Parvus’s interpretation of the original (“mythicist”) gospel: that Jesus descended to earth to be crucified before ascending again. Except that Roger, I think, argued for Christ only appearing for a short time on earth for this purpose. The AoI has the Beloved hiding his identity from the demons by means of slipping into the world through Mary.

Okay, my head is still spinning. Keep in mind that the above is my impression as discerned through some very fuzzy memories of my French. I would like to roughly paraphrase (not translate!) the different sections of chapter 2 to share with others here over the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, here is a diagram I prepared for an older post of mine (before I had a copy of Norelli’s book) that shows something of the complexities of the history of interpretations of the AoI:  read more »

People have been murdered in Paris: This is what I don’t want to discuss…

There’s nothing I can say that would be of any worth. I can only link to the one comment that sits alongside my own feelings. It’s on Tauriq Moosa’s The Indelible Stamp Freethought Blog:

Harmless people are dead. Gunned down in one of the most prosperous cities, in one of the most stable countries in the world. What we know is that the gunmen are scum and thugs, that Paris is on lockdown, that people are dead.

We know basically nothing else.

Here’s what I don’t want to discuss:

  • How evil Islam is

I am an apostate. An ex-Muslim who, for many, deserves death for abandoning Islam. I know very well what Islam is, firsthand. I don’t want to talk about how evil you say Islam is, how terrible you think Muslims are, how dumb you think religion is. Talk among yourselves,  but don’t expect me to be alongside when I’m interested in conveying solidarity and waiting for more information. read more »

A Historian’s Explanation for Bible Contradictions

David Fitzgerald has been reading through Matthew Ferguson’s post on the Κέλσος [=Celsus] blog and has singled out this one from 2013:

Bible Contradictions: Why Are They There? What Do They Entail?

It is a refreshing read for anyone who has become mired in the sorts of apologetic nonsense too many believers who like to call themselves “historians” write. Here is a sample from his post:

The biographer Suetonius Tranquillus (Vit. 17.2) records the following [about the death of emperor Vitellius]:

“At last on the Stairs of Wailing he was tortured for a long time and then despatched and dragged off with a hook to the Tiber.”

However, the historian Cassius Dio (64.21.2-22.1) writes:

“At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city. His wife later saw to his burial.”

Wait! What happened to Vitellius’ body? Was his body thrown into the Tiber like a condemned criminal or did his wife have the opportunity to bury his body?  read more »

When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?

PhD student Matthew Ferguson on Κέλσος blog has just posted When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?. It’s reassuring to see some of the same fundamental principles that we have expressed here for some years now. But now you can read the fundamentals from someone in the process of completing his PhD in the classics and ancient historiography.

His article begins

One of the most misunderstood methodological issues that surrounds debates over the historical Jesus is the relevance of contemporary or early written sources to reconstructing a reliable biography of Jesus’ life. Very often comparisons are made to other historical figures, such as Alexander the Great, who (allegedly) do not have any contemporary sources for their lives, despite the reliability of our historical information about them. Apologists thus argue that the lack of contemporary sources for Jesus, and the fact that all ancient writings that mention Jesus date to a gap of decades and centuries after his death, do not make the historical Jesus more obscure or less knowable than other famous figures from antiquity.

As I exposed in apologist Lee Strobel’s interview with Craig Blomberg in The Case for Christ, this mistake is usually made by apologists confusing the earliest extant sources (those that have survived medieval textual transmission) with the earliest sources that were written (and available to subsequent historians) in antiquity.

Thanks to Leucius Charinus on the Biblical Criticism and History Forum for drawing attention to this blog article.