2015-05-17

Did Paul See a Fireball on the Road to Damascus?

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by Tim Widowfield

the Conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus...

The Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus — by Michelangelo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, David Ashton commented here on Vridar:

May I annoy our totalitarian mythicists even further by suggesting that Paul, also a real person, experienced a reparative hallucination, precisely because of a pre-crucifixion hostility to Jesus and his activists, although he may not have engaged Jesus in debate or observed him directly in person. Jacob Aron suggests that Paul’s Damascene Light was the result of a fireball (“New Scientist”, April 25, 2015, pp. 8-9); not so much a medical epilepsy as a meteoric epiphany.

I’m not a mythicist, but I do think the Doherty/Carrier theory is worth considering. I confess I did bristle a bit at the term “totalitarian.” You’d think that ten years as a cold warrior would inoculate me from such charges. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a blog with a more permissive comment policy than Vridar’s. So, I suppose that’s why I responded with the flippant:

Oooh, a fireball! I don’t see why a story invented by the author of Acts requires an ad hoc explanation as to “what it really was.”

But perhaps I was too hasty. Let’s take a look at this story more closely and see if we can learn anything from it. When I checked on line, I could find only brief summaries, so in the end I had to rent the article, Chelyabinsk, Zond IV, and a possible first-century fireball of historical importance (Meteoritics & Planetary Science, 50, Nr 3), for 48 hours. Yes, even stuff like this gets trapped behind paywalls.

A flash and a crash

The author, William K. Hartmann, holds a PhD in astronomy and works at the Planetary Science Institute. He suggests that the narratives of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus accurately describe an atmospheric encounter with some object that produced a bright light and a big boom, similar to the Tunguska Event of 1908 or the more recent encounter with the Chelyabinsk meteor. For your entertainment, we present a video compilation from the Chelyabinsk event.

Hartmann presents himself as an expert in such events, and asks us to consider the possibility that what Luke (the supposed author of the Acts of the Apostles) described during Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was similar to what happened in Tunguska or Chelyabinsk. Recognizing that he may ruffle some believers’ feathers, he writes:

Because the event on the road to Damascus marked a crucial step in a major world religion, iconographic or symbolic circumstances have accumulated that make the case rather different from most known fireball events. I make two responses to this: First, this article is not intended to address religious or theological issues, but merely to compare a set of reported first-century observations with what is now known, as we might do with any other reports in historical texts. Let us assume for the moment a working hypothesis of a fireball event, and test it against modern knowledge. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 369)

I admit that I’ve deliberately prejudiced the jury by showing (above) what an actual large meteor event looks like. Later on, you’ll see how Hartmann distorts and harmonizes the stories in Acts to fit his thesis. He continues:

Second. a fruitful “scholarly/historical” approach to first-century Biblical texts can be traced back to 1774-1778, when the writings of a German professor of Oriental languages, Hermann Reimarus, were posthumously published (Schweitzer 1906, Ch. 2). Reimarus had developed the then revolutionary idea that New Testament texts can be addressed and analyzed as surviving copies of historical memoirs “written by believers” (his words), perhaps with various later interpolations, rather than as divine dictations. Reimarus’s approach led to better understanding of the historical settings and origins of the surviving texts themselves (Schweitzer 1906; Ehrman 2003), and allowed the possibility that at least some specific, unusual events, described as supernatural at the time, could have been rare natural phenomena. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 369)

I find it odd that Hartmann chooses Hermann Samuel Reimarus as a starting point for his understanding of Acts, but then declines to read or quote from his Fragments, even though this work is freely available on the web, and it’s a quick, fun read.

Scholarly sources

Hartmann’s paper relies on Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus (not the latest revision) and Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities. I’m not saying these books aren’t worth reading — just that if you’re an amateur who’s interested in the NT in general and in Acts specifically, you would do better picking an introductory text on the New Testament and a few commentaries on Luke and Acts. And by all means, resist the urge to pick up the first copy you can find of The Quest. Get the Fortress Press edition with the extra chapters on the historicity of Jesus. True, Hartmann does at one point cite Delbert Burkett’s gigantic volume, An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity, but only in reference to the authentic letters in the Pauline tradition.

Hartmann’s case rests on the assumption that Luke did not invent the story (or stories, since he repeats it three times) of Paul’s conversion in Acts, and that it probably really did happen. In this respect, his attitude reminds us less of Reimarus and more of the great rationalist, Heinrich Paulus. Both Hartmann and Paulus seem peculiarly predisposed to the rationalist position, which depends on a kind of childlike acceptance of the texts as eyewitness reports of real events, combined with an excitable imagination.

Paulus even had a rational explanation for the supposed resurrection of Jesus. Schweitzer explains:

The lance-thrust, which we are to think of rather as a mere surface wound, served the purpose of a phlebotomy. The cool grave and the aromatic unguents continued the process of resuscitation, until finally the storm and the earthquake aroused Jesus to full consciousness. Fortunately the earthquake also had the effect of rolling away the stone from the mouth of the grave. The Lord stripped off the graveclothes and put on a gardener’s garments which he managed to procure. That was what made Mary, as we are told in John 20.15, take him to be the gardener. (Schweitzer, 2001, p. 52)

In Biblical studies, the great wave of rationalism pretty much ended with David Friedrich Strauss, but in the mind of the general public, it never faded away completely. Every Christmas some amateur crackpot wants to explain how the Star of Bethlehem was really a comet, and every Easter that same crackpot tells us that the darkness during the crucifixion was really a solar eclipse.

Can we trust Acts?

So, how does Hartmann assess the reliability of Acts? First, he argues that the book must have been written in the 60s, since it never mentions the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. And we can probably trust the stories inside since:

As mentioned above, the main author/compiler is believed to be Luke, a physician who accompanied Paul on at least some of his proselytizing journeys (ca. 40-60 C.E.) throughout much of the Mediterranean world, including Turkey, Greece, and Rome. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 371)

Here, he’s reiterating his earlier assertion:

This third-person account [of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9:1-9] may have been written by Luke, a physician and later acquaintance of Saul, who probably heard Saul describe his adventures. Luke is usually cited as the author/compiler or Acts. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 369)

As a source for those two sentences, Hartmann cites Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, but provides no page number. A paper that cites another work without specific page numbers should never pass scholarly review. Yet I’ve seen this practice more often than you might expect. Authors who do this sort of thing are tacitly saying they’re just too busy to find an exact reference, and they raise the suspicion that they have never read the book in question.

In fact if Hartmann had read Lost Christianities, he would have known that Ehrman refers to Luke as the “supposed” or “alleged” author of Acts, and that the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters frequently disagree. For example:

The apostle Paul consistently portrayed himself as the apostle to the Gentiles and insisted that they not keep the Law (e.g., Gal. 2:15, 5:2–5). As to who may have been responsible for teaching that Peter himself urged “the dissolution of the law,” one again does not need to look far: The New Testament book of Acts, allegedly written by Paul’s own traveling companion Luke, portrays Peter as taking just that position (Acts 10–11, 15).

Ehrman, Bart D. (2003-10-02). Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (pp. 183-184). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Hartman appears completely unaware of Ehrman’s acknowledgment that “Acts, like the Gospels, is driven by a theological agenda that sometimes affects its historical accuracy,” and that “there are also major discrepancies in important issues involving Paul’s activities, the nature of his proclamation, and the overall portrayal of his character.” (Ehrman, 2003, p. 172, italics mine)

Ehrman concludes:

The significance of this evidence for our survey should be obvious. Scholars widely recognize that the Acts of the Apostles may be driven as much by a theological agenda as by a concern for historical accuracy. For that reason, it cannot be used uncritically to provide a historical basis for the classical understanding of the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2003-10-02). Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (p. 172). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis mine.)

Nor would Ehrman agree with the idea of Acts being written in the 60s CE. Instead, he argues for 80-85 CE. He also notes that “there are many reasons for doubting that the author of Acts was really one of Paul’s companions” (Ehrman, 2004, p. 148, bold emphasis mine).

Paging Dr. Luke

I bring up these points, because Hartmann could easily have found an apologist posing as a conservative scholar who believes in the historicity of Acts, rather than a critical scholar who has refuted every one of Hartmann’s assertions.

Finally, Ehrman would not agree with Hartmann’s assertion that Luke was a medical doctor.

For a long time, scholars were convinced that corroborating evidence could be found in the vocabulary used throughout Luke-Acts. It appeared at first glance that the two books used an inordinate number of medical terms (compared to other writings of the New Testament), indicating, perhaps, that the author was a physician. As it turns out, this impression is altogether false. When scholars actually went to the trouble of comparing the medical terminology with that found in works by other Greek authors of the period, they discovered “Luke” uses such terms no more frequently than other educated writers of his day. (Ehrman, 2004, p. 150, emphasis mine).

On this point I highly recommend “Luke and the Horse Doctors” (JBL, Vol. 52, No. 1), in which Henry J. Cadbury gently suggests that, based on his vocabulary, the author of Luke-Acts could just as easily have been a large animal veterinarian as a physician.

I bring up these points, because Hartmann could easily have found an apologist posing as a conservative scholar who believes in the historicity of Acts, rather than a critical scholar who has refuted every one of Hartmann’s assertions. I won’t feign surprise here, since this sort of thing is common in Biblical studies — whether it’s common in the study of meteors is another question.

Hartmann uses a familiar argument which we might term selective historical accuracy. Apologists deflect our attention away from Luke’s historical mistakes — such as the worldwide census or the anachronistic references to Theudas and Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:36-38) — and focus our attention instead on the things he got right.

In support of our use of Acts as a source, the accounts of Paul’s travels include at least some details that have testable historical veracity. For example, Acts 18:12-17. describing one of Paul’s frequent arrests by local authorities, mentions that during a case in the Achaia, near Corinth, he was judged by a Roman official named Junius Gallio. Latin inscriptions confirm that Gallio was the proconsul in Achaia in the interval 51-52 A.D., or possibly 53 A.D.; Gallio is known also as the brother of the famous Roman philosopher, Seneca, mentioned above [Encyclopedia Britannica 1990]. (Hartmann, 2015, pp. 371-372)

The author of Acts got Gallio’s name right; ergo we should trust Acts? No, the problem remains: In the absence of external corroboration, how do when know when “Luke” is historically accurate and when he is not?

Three versions

We could ask the same question about the stories of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Acts provides three versions of the story, all of which differ on particular points. Does this bother Hartmann? Not at all:

The fact that the book of Acts contains three separate accounts of the same event suggests the book was assembled from multiple documents recounting Paul’s story, synthesized into one “book” by Luke or later editors. At the same time, it suggests that the author/compiler kept all three versions because of the importance of the event to Paul’s story. The three versions work to our advantage, as they give us three quasi-independent accounts. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 372, emphasis mine)

English: Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul

English: Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that’s some real weapons-grade apologetics. See, if you find inconsistencies in the text, you don’t despair; you just claim multiple attestation and take a victory lap. And there’s more:

[Luke] asserts that Paul’s “light from heaven” appeared in the presence of other travelers, and that his resulting temporary blindness was witnessed by the community in Damascus, and that Paul told the story in public gatherings, in front of Roman officials and even in Herod Agrippa’s court. To fabricate such a story a few decades later would have been risky, since details might have been subject to confirmation with the other surviving witnesses and/or perhaps with Roman court records. Based on such evidence, we proceed with our working hypothesis that some anomalous event did happen, and that modern scholars, knowing what we know today about celestial events and human responses, might usefully attempt to analyze it. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 372, emphasis mine)

Against this rationalization, I would counter that the evangelists, including Luke, invented many stories and didn’t worry at all about getting caught. The worldwide (πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν) darkness at the crucifixion never happened. The census that forced Joseph to travel to Bethlehem never happened. Herod’s slaughter of the innocents never happened. The zombie parade in Jerusalem never happened.

The proper way to proceed is not to sweep the discrepancies in the three versions of Paul’s conversion under the proverbial rug, or even to try guess which of the three stories is “authentic,” but to assess what purpose they might serve. What do these differences tell us about the author’s narrative and theological intentions?

Hartmann’s assessment of the versions

But rather than worry about those authorial intentions, Hartmann would rather treat the three versions as if they were witnesses in an attempt to figure out what actually happened. In the section called Key Observations, he asks what he considers “important questions,” and analyzes the text for a plausible answer. These questions and discussions start on p. 373 and continue until p. 377.

I’m going to separate these questions into two types: those in which all three stories generally agree, and those in which they contradict each other. Then I’ll compare Hartmann’s (H) and my (T) analysis.

Agreement

  • Did all the witnesses see the bright light?

H: “The available data imply that the whole party saw the light.” (p. 373) Hartmann notes that the first version is “noncommittal.”

T: Two versions say Saul’s companions did see it; one says nothing. I conclude Luke imagines a scene in which the traveling party stops abruptly. Now, whether that’s because they saw a light or because Saul, their leader, apparently saw something and fell to the ground simply doesn’t matter. The traveling companions are peripheral characters.

  • What was the nature of the light?

H:All three accounts say the light came ‘from heaven.‘” (p. 373) Hartmann believes that the descriptions of light shining or flashing all around them proves that the light came from the sky and was brighter than the sun. He also infers that since Luke used the words “flashed” and “shown [sic] round” it could mean that the “light source was moving, and that the travelers first noted shadows swinging around them (a striking, disorienting effect also well seen in some videos of the Chelyabinsk event).”

T: Luke is describing a christophany, and like theophanies of the Old Testament (e.g., the manifestations of YHWH at Sinai) he’s naturally going to describe a bright light, shining (past tense, shone, not shown) from on high. Hartmann raises an intriguing question as to whether Luke conceived of this light as moving. The author of Acts describes it using the two Greek verbs:

περιαστράπτω (periastraptō) — Strong’s Concordance is spot on with “to envelope in light.”
περιλάμπω (perilampō) — To illuminate all around.

The second verb also appears in Luke’s gospel, when the glory of the Lord shines around the shepherds. We should not imagine a moving light, sweeping around the shepherds, but rather a cylinder or cone of light that surrounds them. The same is true for the character of Saul in Acts. Hartmann wants the light to move like a rapidly streaking meteor, but Luke’s terminology as well as the descriptions of other divine encounters would argue against it.

  • Did the witnesses encounter or report a human figure?

H: “No. In spite of the fact that medieval religious imagery, mentioned earlier, propagates images with celestial personages in the sky, we have a specific assertion from the original manuscript [sic] that the witnesses around Saul ‘saw no one.'” (p. 374)

T: I agree with Hartmann that Saul’s companions saw no one, but not because of the testimony of supposed witnesses in the “original manuscript.” I hope that he realizes that all NT texts are reconstructed, and that we have no autographs, but I suspect he might not. No, the traveling companions do not hear a voice (in version 1) or see a figure because this is Paul’s christophany. They play a minor role, chiefly to make sure Saul’s conversion has witnesses and to explain how he makes it all the way to Damascus despite his blindness.

The bigger question, which Hartmann’s article addresses only indirectly, is whether Saul saw a human figure. For quite some time, I had thought that Luke consistently wrote that the light was so bright that it immediately blinded Saul. And so we have the passage in Acts 9:8, in which he gets up and opens his eyes, but can see nothing. Similarly, in the second version, Paul says:

And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus. (ESV)

For Luke’s overall story, this plot contrivance makes sense. In Paul’s letters, he insists he has seen the Lord and that he has received his instruction by direct revelation. However, Luke will have none of that. Paul may have been called, but seeing the figure of Jesus was reserved for the original apostles.

However, a closer reading of Acts reveals less agreement among the various passages. In the last version of the Road to Damascus story, Paul tells King Agrippa nothing about the supposed blindness discussed in the other two versions. (Hartmann also notices this discrepancy.) In fact, Paul informs the king that Jesus told him:

15b.  “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.
16.  But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you,
17.  delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles — to whom I am sending you
18.  to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (ESV, emphasis mine)

Rather than Saul becoming blind, in the final version he becomes the means by which the Gentiles will open their eyes. In the first two versions of the story, Saul is instantly struck blind by a light greater than the midday sun. In the third, he sees the risen Lord. Not only that, but he gets his entire set of orders from Jesus all at once. Since he isn’t blind, and he knows exactly what he’s supposed to do, the third story makes the mythical character of Ananias superfluous.

Moreover, back in chapter 9 when describing Saul’s experience, Ananias says:

9:17b.  “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (ESV, emphasis mine)

And Barnabas says essentially the same thing:

9:26  And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.
9:27  But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. (ESV, emphasis mine)

Perhaps Luke himself was harmonizing the stories. He may have been trying to find a compromise between the Pauline Christians, who swore that Paul saw Jesus in the same way that the apostles did, and other Christians who believed that the Twelve had special access to the living Jesus and that a select number of disciples saw the risen Lord, but only before the ascension. The middle ground would entail the following: Paul saw the risen Lord as a bright light, and heard his voice from heaven.

But even that explanation may not set the issue completely straight, because in Acts 23:11, Jesus appears right next to Paul:

23:11  The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” (ESV)

We should note that the text does not say that Jesus stood before Paul but at his side. Did Paul actually see Jesus in the dark of night? Maybe not. It seems we’re being told it was night and that Jesus was next to him so that we will infer that Paul only heard him.

But then consider the words of Ananias in Luke’s second telling of the story.

22:14  “And he [Ananias] said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth.” (ESV, emphasis mine)

Acts, then, remains ambiguous. Selected readings could theoretically please any faction. Did Paul see Jesus? No, he was immediately blinded by the light. Or yes, since Jesus literally tells Paul, “You have seen me.” No matter how you ultimately decide this matter, you will need to approach it using theological, narratological, redactional, form-critical, and source-critical tools. If you follow Hartmann’s method — treating the conflicting stories as if they were witnesses to an actual event seen from different perspectives — you’ll miss the point entirely.

  • What was the nature of the sound?

H: In all three versions, the sound is mentioned in the sentence after the celestial light flashes around them.” (p. 374) Hartmann wants the stories to read as if the light appears suddenly, moves around Saul and his companions, and then goes away. This reading, may be correct, but it goes against other stories of divine encounters in which the light remains shining down from heaven until the theophany has concluded.

He also claims the stories tell us that they heard a loud sound (rather than a voice from heaven). He writes: “This is typical of a fireball explosion, in which the sounds of the explosion, and/or shock wave, arrive after the luminous phenomena.” (p. 374) At this point Hartmann digresses into a discussion of the Greek used in all three stories, the aim of which is to harmonize the three accounts. For his naturalistic rationalization to make any sense, he needs the text to say that there was a loud noise that Saul/Paul, as a religious zealot, mistook as the voice of the Lord, while his companions understood nothing.

T: Hartmann wants it both ways. He wants the Greek to mean a loud sound to the people standing close to Saul, but a loud voice to Saul himself. The problem for Christian fundamentalists is that the stories are inconsistent.

At this point, we need to address a problem in Hartmann’s paper. He cites various Greek experts from the past — Archibald Thomas Robertson, Marvin Richardson Vincent, Joseph Henry Thayer, and Ray Summers — in an attempt to show that all three versions of the story say the same thing with respect to some sort of sound from heaven. Before I started researching the issue, I did not fully appreciate the extent to which the conversion stories in Acts have aroused so much anxiety among conservative inerrantists. Longtime readers of Vridar may recall that I enjoy language quirks, and this one is no exception.

The question at hand has to do with whether the voice (or sound) is in the genitive or the accusative case. Here we see how far and how long apologists will go in order to harmonize disparate accounts. Hartmann concludes his analysis with a quotation from Ray Summers. He says that it’s “widely cited,” which is true, but almost exclusively in apologist literature. As to whether the words in question refer to a sound or a noise he writes:

“[Ray Summers] discusses the correct translation of the two versions . . . and concludes ‘both constructions say the same thing; the companions of Saul did not understand what the voice said to Saul; to them it was unintelligible sound.'” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 374)

Oddly enough, although he refers to Summers’ book, Essentials of New Testament Greek, in the text, he does not do so in the bibliography. He appears to be quoting from online apologists’ pages. I was baffled, because I couldn’t find this quotation anywhere in Summers’ works using online resources, so I ordered the 1950 printing of Essentials of New Testament Greek, which arrived yesterday (16 May). Here’s what it says:

Some verbs take their [direct] object in a case other than the accusative. ἀκούω [akouō] may take its object in the genitive or the accusative. Usually, ἀκούω with the genitive means “to hear without understanding,” while with the accusative it means “to hear with understanding.” This probably explains the difficulty involved in Acts 9:7 and 22:9. The incident is the experience of Paul in seeing the light and hearing the voice on the road to Damascus. Acts 9:7 states that Paul’s companions hear the voice (ἀκούω with the genitive); Acts 22:9 says they did not hear the voice (ἀκούω with the accusative). Thus both constructions say the same thing: the companions of Paul did not understand what the voice said to Paul; to them it was an unintelligible sound. (Summers, 1950, p. 51, emphasis mine)

These few sentences have provided aid and comfort to the apologist cause for decades, but Summers’ fanciful argument is incorrect. Note that in the 1995 revision, heavily edited by Thomas Sawyer, this part was excised. Now we’re merely told that a certain class of verb can take either the genitive or the accusative, and that:

A parallel to this exists in English where one states “I have heard of that” in contrast to “I heard that.” (Summers, 1995, p. 52).

In point of fact Koine Greek apparently allowed for the use of the genitive or accusative with no difference in meaning. On the other hand ancient Greek did differentiate between the two. In Attic Greek, the accusative refers to a “thing heard,” while the genitive refers to the “person from whom it is heard.” (See Liddell and Scott online at the Perseus Digital Library.) According to Blass and Debrunner:

The classical rule for ἀκούειν [akouein] is: the person whose words are heard stands in the genitive, the thing . . . about which (or whom) one hears is in the accusative. . . The NT wavers between genitive and accusative in phrases meaning ‘to hear a sound’ . . . (Blass and Debrunner, 1961, p. 95, § 173.)

Hartmann summarizes by claiming that if we harmonize the three accounts, the smashed-together combo tells us “that all of the party witnessed the phenomenon, but that, excluding Saul, the other witnesses saw no one and heard no one speaking — consistent with a fireball.” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 374) He argues that they all saw the light and heard a loud sound of some sort. But that is not what the text says.

Version 1: Saul’s companions saw the light and heard the voice.
Version 2: Saul’s companions saw the light but did not hear the voice.
Version 3: Not mentioned.

The NIV and many other modern English versions translate the Greek word for heard (ἤκουσαν [ēkousan]) in Acts 22:9 as understood. But let’s be honest. If they weren’t trying to harmonize the accounts, they wouldn’t do that. The verb to hear (ἀκούω [akouō]) occurs in some form or other 430 times in the NT. The NASB and the NIV translate it as “understand” only twice: once here in Acts and once in 1 Cor. 14:2.

True to form, the NIV carefully harmonizes versions 1 and 2 by having the men (V1) hear a sound but (V2) not understand a voice, even though the words are the same in both cases. If we would venture to make any distinction at all between the two versions, we might appeal to the ancient Greek custom of using the genitive case for people and the accusative case for things.

Version 1: The object of hearing is in the genitive — φωνῆς (phōnēs). Genitive is for people, but the NIV translates it as “sound.”
Version 2: The object of hearing is in the accusative — φωνὴν (phōnēn). Accusative is for things, but the NIV translates it as “voice.”

As mentioned above Greek experts generally agree that this case distinction was not as common among speakers of Koine Greek. Whether Luke was following this rule or not, the meaning in Acts 9:7 is plainly obvious: “. . . but they did not hear the voice of the one talking to me.

Hartmann fantasizes that “voice” in these contexts “may have a usage here something like English idiomatic usages, such as ‘the voice of the guns,’ or ‘the thunder told us to go inside.’” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 374) However, the grammar of 9:7 indicates the opposite. We have the present participle “speaking” as part of a prepositional phrase “of the one speaking,” which describes “the voice.” It is not an idiomatic expression; it literally means “the voice of the one speaking.”

  • Do New Testament precedents exist for one witness conceiving of a divine voice speaking to him while others heard only a thunderous sound?

H: “Yes. . . John 12:27-29 portrays an incident . . . in which Jesus is speaking to a crowd, and some enthusiasts among them said that ‘a voice came from heaven,’ possibly an angel, speaking about glorifying the name of God. John then remarks, however, that ‘The crowd standing by heard it and said that it had thundered.'”(Hartmann, 2015, p. 374) Hartmann argues that this passage in John “greatly strengthens” his fireball hypothesis. In particular it means that we have a first-century Christian writer who thought a sound from heaven could be interpreted by one person as an intelligible voice and by others as a meaningless roar.

T: At first blush, Hartmann’s argument here seems to make sense. But his superficial analysis begins to break down on closer examination. First, the scene in the Fourth Gospel is a highly stylized, highly formalized refutation of Mark’s story about Jesus praying for the cup to pass from him. In John, he says exactly the opposite. Why would he turn away from the path to the crucifixion, when that’s his purpose for being on Earth?

Hartmann wants us to assume that Saul’s companions also heard thunder, so that the two authors are describing the same sort of event:

[W]e have here a first-century writer portraying as plausible the idea that some people in a crowd might hear what could be described as a thunderous noise, yet others in the same crowd could conceive and report it as a divine voice. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 374) 

The main point to understand is that we’re reading a stylized, carefully structured myth, intended to convey theological truths.

The crowd (ὄχλος [ochlos]) appears unexpectedly in v. 29. It serves a particular theological purpose, namely to show that the mob cannot understand the voice of God. A few in the crowd thought they heard an angel’s voice, but apparently did not comprehend the message. Only the disciples near Jesus (according the preceding text, Philip and Andrew) actually heard and understood the voice, which is the point of the entire exercise.

We might think at first that the voice is talking to Jesus and for his benefit, but as always John’s Christ has a direct line to his father (“I and the father are one”), and the purpose of such communication is to edify others.

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.” (John 12:30, ESV)

The main point to understand is that we’re reading a stylized, carefully structured myth, intended to convey theological truths. Further, even if we concede the general point that a first-century author imagined a sound from heaven could be perceived as a voice to some, but as thunder to others, the point is moot. There is no “thunder” in any version of the Paul’s conversion story. In each case, it is a voice from heaven. The only question is whether that voice conveys a private message from Jesus to Saul, or whether the delegation traveling with him heard it as well.

Disagreement

  • Who fell to the ground and when?

H: “Perhaps the most plausible synthesis is that most or all of the travelers, including Saul, were knocked to the ground by a shock wave, and/or fell from fear and emotional shock, but that in the first moments after the flashing light and noise, some of the others began to stand before Saul did.” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 375) Hartmann imagines the traveling companions slowly getting up, probably grumbling and scratching their heads. He reminds us that in the Chelyabinsk event, the blast was strong enough “to blow people off their feet.

T: Hartman tries to find harmony where there is clear disagreement.

Version 1: “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless . . .” (Acts 9:7a, ESV)
Version 2: “And when we had all fallen to the ground . . .” (Acts: 26:14a, ESV)

Again, these discrepancies exist because for the author and first readers of Acts, it doesn’t matter what these peripheral characters do. Did they remain standing, or did they fall to the ground? Did they hear the voice or not hear the voice? Both. Neither. Take your pick. Who cares? They exist only for their narrative and theological functions. The number of people in the party doesn’t matter. Their names don’t matter. They have no lines. They have no backstory. What happened to them after they took Saul to Damascus? They did what all fictional, peripheral characters in legends and myths do: they disappeared.

  • What was the nature of Saul’s blindness?

H: “[The second version in Acts 22] is important because it indicates that the blindness was caused specifically by looking at the bright light. The others, not blinded, must have avoided this problem, presumably by looking away or shielding their eyes, as was common at Chelyabinsk.” Hartmann also addresses the problem of time. In V1, Saul is blind for three days, but in V2, he receives his sight as soon as he meets with Ananias in Damascus. He dances around the problem with creative arithmetic and hand-waving.

Hartmann’s approach requires creative ways to explain away conflicting details. As we’ve seen above, that requirement has led him to the less-than-adequate scholarship of apologists. Of course, their goal is to prove the foregone conclusion of biblical inerrancy, while his is to generate evidence that will prove a rationalistic explanation for a supposed supernatural event.

Perhaps the strangest of Hartmann’s assertions comes next. He imagines that Saul (unlike any of his companions) suffered from a case of photokeratitis — what we commonly call “snow blindness.” Prolonged exposure to intense light can cause the cornea to become sunburned. He writes:

Roughly 45-54 [hours] later [i.e, after the “fireball”], in Damascus, as Saul began to recover his vision, “something like scales” fell away from his eyes. This striking phrase beautifully matches severe photokeralitis, with epithelial desquamation. This match is one of the strongest lines of evidence that the first-century accounts are reporting, as best they can, real phenomena. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 380)

T: The New Scientist article brings us back to reality.

Raj Das-Bhaumik of Moorfields Eye Hospital in London says the condition is common among welders whose eyes are exposed to bright sparks, but the symptoms aren’t exactly as Hartmann is suggesting. “You wouldn’t expect bits of the eye to fall off; I’ve not come across that at all,” he says. It’s possible that the thin skin of the eyelids could burn and peel off, he says, but that is unlikely to happen in isolation. “If this were a meteorite, I’m sure you’d have other damage as well.” (Jacob Aron Magazine issue 3018)

What are the odds?

Hartmann anticipates our reaction to his thesis. How likely is it that someone like Paul would have seen a once-in-a-century event that blasted him to the ground and blinded him? (An event, by the way, that nobody else saw or reported.) But he wants to turn the question around:

If such a dramatic atmospheric explosion happens over land areas on the order of once every century, then from the asteroid’s point of view, one might note that some entry events will be visible to thousands of persons, so we should ask, “What are the chances that no influential figures in history have ever been emotionally affected by such events, especially in eras when people spent more time outdoors in contact with nature?” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 380)

Really? Is that what we should ask? We can easily concede that some famous persons saw and were emotionally affected by comets, meteors, eclipses, etc. But that concession tells us nothing about whether Paul saw this particular event at this particular time.

Conclusion

We have shown that Hartmann has distorted the evidence in Acts to fit his thesis. He misinterprets the light “shining around” Saul as a light in motion. He misinterprets the voice from heaven (also heard by his companions, or not heard by them, depending on the version) as a loud sound, namely the blast of a massive object roaring across the sky. He imagines that people recovering from snow blindness have “scales” fall from their eyes.

We’ve further shown that Hartmann may have cited Ehrman, but he could not have read the book that he cited, since it refuted all of his points about Luke and Acts. Indeed, later in the paper Hartmann cited an erroneous passage in the 1950 version of Summers’ Greek textbook, lured to it by apologists who continue to use it as “proof” of inerrancy.

Finally, he seems completely unaware that many scholars have pointed out the similarities between the conversion stories in Acts and their obvious parallels in the OT (Ezekiel 1:4), the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 3), and even in pagan works (Euripides’ The Bacchae). For more details see Robert M. Price’s “The Legend of Paul’s Conversion.”

We find one of the strongest parallels in the New Testament itself, in Luke’s own story of Jesus’ baptism:

But the sequence as a whole parallels the baptism of Jesus by John. Why does Luke bother to tell us that Paul was staying on the well-known “street called Straight” (Acts 9:11), if not to hint at John the Baptist’s urging to “prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight” (Luke 3:4)? Paul’s vision of Jesus reflects Jesus’ own vision of the descending Spirit (Luke 3:22). As Jesus receives the Spirit at his baptism, so does Paul at the hands of Ananias (Acts 9:17). And Ananias even administers a baptismal rite aimed at washing away sins (Acts 22:16), just as John does (Luke 3:3). Finally, the very name Ananias (Hananiah, Hanan-yahu) is the merest disguise for John (Yah-hannon), the theophoric suffix replacing the identical prefix. (Price, 2009)

Critical scholars long ago discarded the practice of rationalizing events in scripture, an exercise we now recognize as naive and pointless. If you want to understand these myths, you cannot harmonize them and hammer them into what you want them to say; you must confront them as they are. The stories in Acts finally make sense when you take the time to learn where they come from and what function they serve. That is your source of illumination, not some make-believe fireball that streaked across the sky two thousand years ago.


Blass, Friedrich and Debrunner, Albert

A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, 1961

Ehrman, Bart D.

Lost Christianities, Oxford University Press, 2005

The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Oxford University Press, 2004

Hartmann, William K.

Chelyabinsk, Zond IV, and a possible first-century fireball of historical importance, Meteoritics & Planetary Science, 50, Nr 3, 2015

Price, Robert M.

The Legend of Paul’s Conversion,” rmp at Mindvendor (web site), 2009

Schweitzer, Albert

The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2001

Summers, Ray

Essentials of New Testament Greek, Broadman Press, 1950

Essentials of New Testament Greek (with Thomas Sawyer, ed.), B&H Academic, 1995

69 Comments

  • David Ashton
    2015-05-18 00:33:41 UTC - 00:33 | Permalink

    By “totalitarian” I was not referring to the policy of this and other websites which allow dissent and discussion at all, but to the notion that “myth” provides a total or near-total explanation of the NT narratives, to the resolute exclusion of evemerist or near-historicist positions. As for “cold war” politics I have been an unapologetic active anti-communist all my life.

    As for Paul’s infirmity, there are of course many alternative speculations.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-05-18 06:55:11 UTC - 06:55 | Permalink

      You should be aware the word “totalitarian” has a conventional meaning that refers to autocratic, dictatorial, tyrannical, repressive, and undemocratic regimes. If you’re going to give words idiosyncratic definitions, you should probably let your targets know about it.

      • David Ashton
        2015-05-18 08:31:36 UTC - 08:31 | Permalink

        Apologies due for the way I used “totalitarian”. Your detailed comments on Paul’s “vision” are most valuable, and I greatly appreciate the time and care that you have put into them. It always struck me as interesting that the “Risen Christ” reproached his persecutor with a pagan proverb, presumably translated into Aramaic or Hebrew! Paul’s motivation in starting a new religion, or adapting an existing one, remains an important question, as also his “thorn in the flesh”. Again, apologies and thanks.

        • Tim Widowfield
          2015-05-18 12:33:53 UTC - 12:33 | Permalink

          Apology accepted. You’re welcome. Thanks.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-05-18 07:34:02 UTC - 07:34 | Permalink

      Actually I see shades of grey between the two poles. There have been and still are Christ Myth theories that postulate a historical Jesus of an indeterminate time past; others that accept a historical Jesus who was a teacher only and whose death had no salvific significance; others that suggest the gospel figure was based on a contemporary political figure’– and then there are historical Jesus theories that argue that everything in the gospels is mythical and that nothing can be known about the real HJ that inspired those stories; while many HJ theories argue that at least much and probably most of the gospels is mythical. Meanwhile the HJ theories also range from an HJ who was a political figure, a religious figure, a philosophical… etc.

      Some HJ proponents are open to the mythicist possibility and some MJ writers are open to the HJ possibility.

      Can a sharp line really be set to divide the two?

      • Tim Widowfield
        2015-05-18 15:51:51 UTC - 15:51 | Permalink

        Any nonbeliever who studies the NT is, to some extent, a mythicist. A lot of what we read in the NT must be mythical and legendary. The question then is: “How much of it is a myth?”

        • David Ashton
          2015-05-18 17:57:10 UTC - 17:57 | Permalink

          Sorting it all out is the task. Can it be done with reasonable success at this distance in time and with the limited material available?

          • Bee
            2015-05-20 09:23:27 UTC - 09:23 | Permalink

            I think we can use existing records of myths to show that the key, influential Jesus of the Bible was overwhelmingly mythical. While any historical Jesus was and is irrelevant to Christianity.

            It was always just the Christ of Faith who was influential. And he was overwhelmingly mythical.

  • buttle
    2015-05-18 03:02:51 UTC - 03:02 | Permalink

    Great post.

    “We can easily concede that some famous persons saw and were emotionally affected by comets, meteors, eclipses, etc.”

    Maybe Hartmann means the opposite? Since there are impacting asteroids like the Chelyabinsk event roughly every century and we don’t have reports from famous persons emotionally affected by every one of them this means that the event witnessed by Paul went unreported like the other 19 since the first century or so. But the argument is so bad that i may be misreading him. Or maybe i am misreading you. Or both…

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-05-18 04:37:44 UTC - 04:37 | Permalink

      Hartmann’s argument, as you say, is very bad.

      I am willing to concede that anyone, famous or not, may be affected by the vision of some celestial event. But so what? There are people out there who think Paul was an epileptic and had a seizure on the way to Damascus. And, yes, it is possible. But possible does not mean probable.

      Unfortunately, many people are still impressed by an argument that magically makes use of “all the evidence,” as if every scrap of evidence we glean from scripture reflects reality, even if in some distorted way. That’s a fallacy, and it needs to be called out and debunked.

  • Bee
    2015-05-18 13:55:52 UTC - 13:55 | Permalink

    “Fireball” might be silly. But what about “reparative hallucination “?

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-05-18 15:46:37 UTC - 15:46 | Permalink

      Depends. First of all, what is it?

      • Bee
        2015-05-18 19:45:17 UTC - 19:45 | Permalink

        Sounds like a something like a compensatory or masking delusion. That Freud might say was motivated by suppression of guilt feelings. From Paul persecuting or even killing Christians.

        In that case we could have a real Simon or Paul. But one having delusions.

        • Bee
          2015-05-18 21:24:38 UTC - 21:24 | Permalink

          Freud said “all religion is delusion.” (Relating to narcissism, etc.) Temporary blindness is a common reaction to strong emotional stress; possibly an attempt to black out threatening sights.

          Building on psychiatry, the social sciences suggested religion came from say, psycho/social, emotional “needs.” Rather than from hard factual truths.

      • Bee
        2015-05-19 09:31:25 UTC - 09:31 | Permalink

        Paul felt emotionally guilty about killing Christians. But if they can resurrect, that is fixed. So his mind makes up a resurrecting Jesus?

        • David Ashton
          2015-05-19 11:11:47 UTC - 11:11 | Permalink

          The general: The explanation of religion(s) is too great a subject, even for Vridar comments. (Psychoanalysis itself is a sort of “substitute”religion.)

          The particular: The following assertions seem more than mere possibilities: (1) Paul existed, traveled and argued in support of a “Christ” religion. (2) He had originally believed in a form of Judaism. (3) He had opposed the early followers of a messianic claimant called Jesus. (4) He had feelings of doubt and guilt about that opposition. (5) He changed his mind, probably under the impact of one or more “mystical” experiences. (6) These subjective experiences related to a personal biological condition (rather than say a solar flare in the Arabian desert). (7) He put at least as much energy into his new mission as he had put into his previous “persecution of the church” (such reversal is well-known in modern cases e.g of Christian believers who become atheist activists). (8) His story was later written up with bits of fact and fiction by the author of “Acts”. “He says he saw Jesus, but doesn’t confirm Luke’s details, which may not be historical” (James F. McGrath, 24 April 2010).

          • Bee
            2015-05-20 07:25:47 UTC - 07:25 | Permalink

            Turnabout, role reversal, is simply a useful teaching method.

            For a month’s worth of explication of religion as delusion, with annotated bibliography, see the recent discussion in Democratic Underground, “religion” section.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2015-05-19 13:14:55 UTC - 13:14 | Permalink

    As I’m sure some readers of Vridar are aware — the evidence for Paul ever having persecuted the church and having done a 180 degree turnabout is arguably quite thin: one passage in Galatians that appears unknown to a major branch of Christianity (Marcionites) and for which there is no clear evidence as being known in “orthodox” circles until well into the second century. McGrath’s points are merely an uncritical overview of the canonical story.

    Sociology is a more productive instrument for explaining religious movements (i.e. social phenomena) in history than individual psychology or psychoanalysis — unless we are looking at social psychology. The psychoanalytical explanations depend entirely on events for which we have the most threadbare of evidence.

    But the myth of the reformed zealot knocked down in his tracks and made to do a complete turnabout is a powerful myth that serves many of us well.

  • David Ashton
    2015-05-19 20:05:41 UTC - 20:05 | Permalink

    The apparent silence of some may not answer the actual noise of others. Marcionites made their own bizarre ideology-driven revisions of the “canon”. However, you have a point. I quoted your adversary McGrath as an amusing “admission against interest” but clearly should have added the exclamation marks I also omitted from the “New Scientist” reference that did interest your colleague after all.

    I am not impressed by Freud, except for the lucidity of his general essays. The main feature of religion has been belief in powerful supernatural beings. The validity of “sociological” explanations depends on their range and content. Please provide a short list of major recent in-depth studies you consider most helpful.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-05-19 21:56:15 UTC - 21:56 | Permalink

      The enemies of Marcion accused him of revising the Paul’s letters. Marcion himself accused his enemies of doing the very same thing. Marcion claimed to be removing the “orthodox” interpolations from Paul’s letters. (We do know that there were “orthodox” interpolations and Paul’s letters are often self-contradictory, and that interpolation and redaction of texts was a common ancient practice — as was the practice of others to remove those interpolations in attempts to restore the originals.) How do we decide who was correct?

      • David Ashton
        2015-05-19 22:19:48 UTC - 22:19 | Permalink

        Your guess is better than mine, but can we defer to an independent textual analyst of Marcion’s selection of Paul’s letters?

        • Neil Godfrey
          2015-05-20 02:13:20 UTC - 02:13 | Permalink

          I’d want to know the analyst’s methods and the details of her arguments. The evidence for Paul the persecutor as a historical reality is virtually non-existent. The sole passage in Galatians is so insecure as to be useless and the romantic novella of Acts is both demonstrably sourced from other popular literature and late. The evidence we have — and the testimonies we lack — are not what we would expect IF Paul had indeed been permitted to harry others in middle of the Pax Romana. The more I think about it the more convinced I am the story is complete fiction.

          • David Ashton
            2015-05-20 09:12:35 UTC - 09:12 | Permalink

            Your point about harrying others in the local circumstances of Roman governance is a good “historical” objection, though there have been responses to it by modern apologists. As for your view of the texts, especially Luke and Acts, proposed for comparative linguistic analysis, I fear that this could be a matter of “Pyrrho of Elis meets Saul of Tarsus”; and it may not be worth the trouble and expense to locate a qualified lady (?) or gentleman. Meanwhile, laymen like me must make do with any specialist reviews of e.g. Joseph Tyson that we can find.

        • Scot Griffin
          2015-05-20 06:56:01 UTC - 06:56 | Permalink

          If the integrity/authenticity of the underlying document is in question, the answer is no, you cannot defer to an independent textual analyst of Marcion’s selection of Paul’s letters. Why? Because we cannot determine whether “these” are “Paul’s letters” or “Marcion’s selection” thereof.

          But that’s just me. I treat an inauthentic document, at best, as hearsay whose evidentiary value is limited to what it says about the author and has little/nothing to do with the subject. To be clear, my legalistic criteria are far more strict than any historian’s, biblical or otherwise, so my criteria are likely to be rejected by “experts” because experts are likely to mistakenly believe that my criteria lead to their unemployment, but that is not the case (if you think it through).

          Best regards,

          –Scot

          • Bee
            2015-05-20 07:12:36 UTC - 07:12 | Permalink

            Interestingly, the character called “Paul,” warned about himself. Calling himself the worst of sinners. And admitting his or our knowledge and prophesy would pass away. So to me, whether he is real or false, makes no difference. In either case he cancels himself out.

          • Neil Godfrey
            2015-05-22 07:11:19 UTC - 07:11 | Permalink

            I fully agree with you that New Testament historians studying the historical Jesus or the origins of Christianity from the perspective of the Eusebian-Acts model (which is most of them, of course) lack any historical standards worth speaking about — but historians doing the real work in other areas know what they are doing. Interesting that lawyers were selected for some reason to debate the question of the resurrection of Jesus recently — https://cryptotheology.wordpress.com/2015/05/22/judging-the-resurrection-of-jesus/ Why not doctors, morticians, executioners and historians? (But not biblical “historians”, of course. Real ones.)

  • John
    2015-05-21 02:09:18 UTC - 02:09 | Permalink

    “As I’m sure some readers of Vridar are aware — the evidence for Paul ever having persecuted the church and having done a 180 degree turnabout is arguably quite thin: one passage in Galatians that appears unknown to a major branch of Christianity (Marcionites) and for which there is no clear evidence as being known in “orthodox” circles until well into the second century.”

    Paul says he persecuted the church in 1 Cor. 15:9:

    “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

    http://biblehub.com/1_corinthians/15-9.htm

    And Php. 3:6:

    “… as for zeal, persecuting the church.”

    http://biblehub.com/philippians/3-6.htm

    • Bee
      2015-05-21 09:29:45 UTC - 09:29 | Permalink

      This. is not to say Paul was real though. He could be a composite of many converts, or apostates, who started or ended as partial opponents of the church. Like Marcon. Early versions of Tertullian, and Augustine.

      • David Ashton
        2015-05-21 10:21:31 UTC - 10:21 | Permalink

        There is no escape from a “methodology” which holds that Paul was as imaginary as Jesus and that any contradictory item must ipso facto be an interpolation or a fictional composition.

        • Giuseppe
          2015-05-21 10:56:35 UTC - 10:56 | Permalink

          Jesus is imaginary because he is and remains basically a god even when you dress and put him into the more ‘realistic’ historical context of your creation.
          But Paul becomes imaginary only when you see him as a mere ventriloquist for later christians.
          Under these conditions, it would be easy to see who of these is more immaginary.

          • Bee
            2015-05-21 20:49:01 UTC - 20:49 | Permalink

            Clearly Paul’s core project of spiritualization was a Marcionite project. So in that way even a real Paul was the ideological creation, a character created by say, proto Marcionites.

          • David Ashton
            2015-05-22 09:34:36 UTC - 09:34 | Permalink

            Whether Jesus “remains a god” is irrelevant. The idea that a celestial being was given an earthly biography fits the Fourth Gospel fairly well, but I am not so sure about many items in the Synoptic gospels, notwithstanding Robert M. Price’s ” midrash” analysis. Much depends on when, were and why the Markan and so-called Q material were written.

            As for Paul being a “character created by say, proto Marcionites”, more substantial data would be needed than a forceful yet imprecise assertion that is not to my albeit finite knowledge held by many authorities on Marcion and his “heresy”.

            • Bee
              2015-05-22 13:48:39 UTC - 13:48 | Permalink

              Many see an earlier, deeper historical root for all spirit beliefs. In ancient animism. Then seconded by Plato’s heavenly forms. Then Philo. Then Paul and Marcion. And Origen. Who turned physical fruits into spiritual metaphors.

              • David Ashton
                2015-05-22 18:31:17 UTC - 18:31 | Permalink

                A fairly defensible sequence for western religion(s) perhaps, allowing for overlap and adaptation. Not excluding a physical messiah-magician from Galilee or an historical missionary-theologian from Tarsus. A notable mytheme in both Indo-European and Semitic cultures is the Cosmic Battle between a Divine Hero and an Evil Reptile. Religion itself probably arises from human awareness of being in a universe we cannot explain but which we need to control.

                To quote again the tale of the taxi-driver: “I ‘ad that there Bertrand Russell in the backer me cab the uvver week. Very clever gentleman. ‘Bertrand,’ I says, ‘Bertrand, wossit all abaht?’ And d’you know wot? ‘E ‘adn’t an effin’ clue. Then last night I ‘appened to pick up that Farver Copleston at the Jesuits in Farm Street wiv ‘is dog collar on. So I says to ‘im too: ‘Reverend,’ I says, ‘wossit all abaht?’ An’ all he could say woz ‘God dunnit.’ Still, ‘e gave me a generous tip.”

            • Bee
              2015-05-23 06:58:59 UTC - 06:58 | Permalink

              Granted, most religion is probably half truth at best. But the point here would be that if Paul and Marcion resemble each other, it might be that one borrowed from the other. Or that they both originated from a source that came before both of them. Being, likely, the sort of spiritual Platonism mentioned by, say, Doherty. In that model, we largely ignore this earth or world, and try to match our minds or spirits, to the ideal models or forms in heaven.

              • Bee
                2015-05-23 07:14:51 UTC - 07:14 | Permalink

                Which forms or Ideas thus coming down to earth, in part.

              • Giuseppe
                2015-05-23 14:33:09 UTC - 14:33 | Permalink

                But the point here would be that if Paul and Marcion resemble each other, it might be that one borrowed from the other.

                until a certain point, not beyond, in my view. Because at last any difference is reduced to principal one: Paul did believe in YHWH= Higher God, Marcion didn’t.
                If Paul didn’t believe in YHWH, then he would a man ~ ”Simon Magus” and therefore, under that case, ”Paul” as we knew him more likely never existed.

              • Bee
                2015-05-23 15:28:27 UTC - 15:28 | Permalink

                I am not sure Paul really was the loyal believer in Yahweh. he sometimes claimed to be. Finally he plays far too many legalistic word games with the old beliefs, to have had any real attachment to them.

                Especially, he was eager to turn Judaism into mere spiritual metaphor. Which was the chief platonistic project.

                Given that intellectual dishonesty, it is plausible to me that he was a fraud in every single way. Maybe he was even a total fiction.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-05-22 07:15:10 UTC - 07:15 | Permalink

      @ John

      Yes, I’m aware of the passages you cite. But critical and informed readings lead us to question those passages:

      http://vridar.org/2014/12/20/paul-the-persecutor-the-case-for-interpolation/

      http://vridar.org/2014/12/15/paul-the-persecutor/

  • John
    2015-05-22 22:26:51 UTC - 22:26 | Permalink

    Neil,

    In the big picture I’m inclined to suspect that the Marcionites took out the references in Paul to all things pertained to the Jewish roots of Christianity rather than the orthodox adding them (not to say that I think the orthodox didn’t add things, just not these kinds of the things).

    I would add to the “persecution” question 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul compares his imprisonments and beatings that he received from Jews with that of Jewish Christians:

    “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones … I have been in danger … from my fellow Jews …”

    • David Ashton
      2015-05-22 23:14:53 UTC - 23:14 | Permalink

      Has anyone here evaluated E. Bammel’s “Jewish activity against Christians in Palestine according to Acts”? References from Google.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2015-05-23 00:36:27 UTC - 00:36 | Permalink

    @John — Being tried for religious “crimes” and punished through the judicial system of authorities (as implied by the floggings) is not the sort of murderous mayhem Paul is said to have gone out and inflicted on Christians. In Acts Paul is persecuted by being brought before legal authorities and occasionally by a spontaneous riot that had to be dispersed as soon as it started. The legend we have from orthodoxy is that Paul persecuted the church in quite another way.

    I find it difficult to imagine Roman authorities — or any civil authorities such as that of Herod or other governors etc — permitting the scenario of a man being allowed to haul off dissidents to prison, torture and murder. That’s a scene from a movie, not real life.

    There is no doubt that Paul did suffer from his fellow Jews as he himself says and I’ve written about this here, too. (e.g. http://vridar.org/2014/08/02/was-paul-really-persecuted-for-preaching-a-crucified-christ/

    As for the Marcionites, Marcion was not “anti-semitic” in our sense of the word. He did not “reject” the Jewish Scriptures as such but did oppose an allegorical reading of them. He insisted they be taken literally. Thus the Messiah would come to introduce a kingdom on the earth — not introduce this “citizenship in heaven” idea that Paul taught. The Jewish Messiah to come was not the Saviour Christ sent by the Alien/Unknown God according to Marcion. (It was the literal reading of the OT that demonstrated the inferior nature of the Demiurge or God of the Jews.)

    So Marcion did not deny Jesus visited the Jews or that he had a “Jewish ministry”, etc. These were not the things Marcion accused the orthodox of adding to Paul’s letters. Rather, passages requiring obedience to the law that stood in contradiction to the message of salvation by faith were the infelicities Marcion sought to remove. “Judaizing” tendencies that he rejected (even in Colossians, for example) included readings of the OT that introduced “genealogies” and “Jewish myths”. There is some suggestion furthermore that he may have accepted a few passages in the Jewish Scriptures because he said that the God behind them did sometimes (however erratically) speak truth at times.

    @David — Not yet but maybe if I can locate a copy sometimes soon-ish.

    • Giuseppe
      2015-05-24 06:26:14 UTC - 06:26 | Permalink

      As for the Marcionites, Marcion was not “anti-semitic” in our sense of the word…

      Marcion was even considered an ally with Jews by Tertullian. According to Tertullian, Marcion’s claim that Christ was not the Messiah the Jews expected according to their prophecies made them allies. This is curious, because in Toledoth Jeschu we see that Paul is described not as in a anti-christian famous talmudic story – like a hater of Judaism because scorned & enamored of the daughter of the high priest, etc – but as even an agent of Rabbis, seeking to secretely sabotage Christianity. If the original ”Paul” was only a pure, marcionite propaganda, then we would have by necessity the nascent rabbinism in pacific alliance with the nascent marcionism against their common political enemy (of which both are different reactions): the Jewish messianism of Zealots.

      • David Ashton
        2015-05-24 11:12:13 UTC - 11:12 | Permalink

        The most interesting thing for me is that we have no record of Jews ever dismissing Jesus as a completely non-existent person.

        • Giuseppe
          2015-05-24 14:31:47 UTC - 14:31 | Permalink

          Not just interesting, for me. The Jew Tripho of apologist Justin thought otherwise.

          ”But Christ–if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere–is unknown…

  • David Ashton
    2015-05-24 16:52:33 UTC - 16:52 | Permalink

    I read this differently in context. Trypho argues that this “crucified man” does not fulfill the criteria of the true Messiah, and could not be God. The true Messiah, if born, is yet unidentified.

    • Giuseppe
      2015-05-24 16:57:58 UTC - 16:57 | Permalink

      In my view Trypho agrees with Justin in expectation of a Jewish Messiah, but says he is skeptical and even hostile about allegorical stories at that time being spread saying that the messiah had died crucified in Jerusalem under Pilate, etc. The reality of Christ is not in discussion, but only the truth of these allegorical stories, likely marcionite in nature. . .

      • Giuseppe
        2015-05-24 17:16:31 UTC - 17:16 | Permalink

        . . . the implicit logical implication is that if the Jew Trypho had heard allegorical stories of Christ that were not antithetical a priori to Judaism, probably would have been more sympathetic to Justin in addressing them in a more positive manner.

        • Giuseppe
          2015-05-24 17:29:55 UTC - 17:29 | Permalink

          I think it was surely possible to persuade a Jew that a messiah has come realizing all the Scriptures in invisible manner. While I think that it is impossible to persuade a Jew in accepting a messiah that has come to disprove one by one all the Jewish Scriptures.

          If a historical Jesus existed and simply failed to realize the prophecies (i.e. the most plausible historicist paradigm), it is more likely that the Earliest Written Gospel was written as an allegorical apology for his failure, inventing something like the invisible realization of his prophecies (and here I have in mind Mark), while it would be highly unlikely that the first written gospel boasted exactly the failure of ALL the Jewish prophecies (and here I have in mind Mcn).

          • Bee
            2015-05-25 13:52:46 UTC - 13:52 | Permalink

            That sounds about right to me.

  • David Ashton
    2015-05-24 17:37:00 UTC - 17:37 | Permalink

    The question was whether Jesus had existed as a personality whose activity led to his execution. Trypho and Celsus some years later do not deny this. Daniel 9.24-27 may be relevant to “allegorical” applications.

  • Giuseppe
    2015-05-24 18:11:33 UTC - 18:11 | Permalink

    According to Celsus was more effective attack the myth of Jesus taking it literally (i.e. reading in a so too literalist way the Gospels, not dissimilar from modern activist atheists who mock Jesus as a delusional apocalyptic failed and don’t like know the Jesus myth theory) and viceversa Trypho was annoyed by the so too anti-Jewish allegorical point behind the stories he heard. But Celsus didn’t say if was possible attack Christians via other strategy.

    and then I ask you: to what extent did sound precisely ”historicist” the Talmudic Jews who put Jesus under Jannaeus, precisely 100 years before Christ ?

  • David Ashton
    2015-05-24 18:41:02 UTC - 18:41 | Permalink

    The Talmud & Toledot Yeshu collect all sorts of unhistorical items but nowhere dismiss Jesus as someone who never existed.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2015-05-24 20:41:21 UTC - 20:41 | Permalink

    I don’t understand the problem. History is peppered with fictitious/mythical personages without records of disputes over their existence — even in cases of supposedly contemporary figures (e.g. Ned Ludd, John Henry). Why would anyone/How would anyone dispute the existence of a person supposedly having lived in an earlier generation, especially in a generation prior to a destructive war? The ones most likely to have disputed historicity would have been other Christians who thought differently. We have no record of anyone disputing Paul’s approx 500 living witnesses to the resurrection, either. Herodotus could fabricate all sorts of stories of contemporary witnesses and monumental inscriptions without leaving any trace of ancient disputes as to the evidence he supposedly cited. Recall Prester John, William Tell, Juan Diego, Tokyo Rose, . . . . . Others have addressed this question in more depth.

  • David Ashton
    2015-05-24 22:47:05 UTC - 22:47 | Permalink

    The problem is how to determine whether or not Jesus was a “Palestinian” personage constructed by literary fiction after that destructive war, and if so, why.

    Please elaborate on your third sentence about other Christians.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2015-05-25 03:54:34 UTC - 03:54 | Permalink

    I don’t see anything problematic about the Gospel of Mark being written after the destruction of the Temple. That’s the most economical and natural explanation for so many of its features. Whether or not Mark’s Jesus was based on a historical figure (Paul/Simon Magus) or not, the character is not biographical or historical but I would argue (have argued) entirely symbolic. Virtually nothing in Mark makes any sense as history unless (as many scholars do) they read into the gospel words and settings that are simply not there. — That is, they read it in the light of Matthew and Luke and later theological beliefs.

    Once one reads Mark “historically” or “biographically” then its theological meanings are lost, or sacrificed in the interest of “realism”. I imagine those who first understood Mark would have felt themselves to have a superior understanding to those who read it literally. But quite apart from Mark, we know there were different levels of spiritual understanding. Spiritual or allegorical interpretations were considered superior to literal readings. Matthew and Luke are doing their damnedest to re-write the “spiritual Christ” or a man possessed (as in Mark) into a genuinely earthly one, albeit with a god-spirit secreted inside him from birth. The voices of those who knew only the heavenly Christ (or symbolically told one) have been lost and their echoes remain only in the rebuttals of the orthodox.

    • Giuseppe
      2015-05-25 06:24:14 UTC - 06:24 | Permalink

      However far you want to read symbolically Mark, you will never dispel entirely, however, the strong suspicion that all that symbolism masked actually an apology for the failure of the prophecies of a Jewish prophet of first century: the apology in question would be in fact make INVISIBLE, symbolic, the apparent VISIBLE, concrete failure of those prophecies (the markan Messianic Secret, for example).

      This simple suspicion does not raise if was Mcn the Earliest Written Gospel (and not Mark), because in that Gospel you see a continuous satisfaction, not at all an apology, in seeing shattered every Jewish prophecy, both of scriptures and of every past prophet, at least for the period in qeustion: I CE. Something of impossible if there was a historical Jesus.

      Therefore, paradoxically, I am putting forward the idea that the supporters of Mcn priority have more reasons to call themselves ”mythicists” than those who follow the traditional dating with Mark before.

      • Neil Godfrey
        2015-05-25 23:57:17 UTC - 23:57 | Permalink

        I don’t think it’s so much a matter of “wanting” to read Mark symbolically as the text itself making the point that parable/symbol is the primary medium and then reading a host of unnatural episodes, literary ironies and clear symbolic use of numbers and names throughout.

        The midrashic element suggests to me that the “prophecies” were created by the author and far from being “failed” they are constructed from the outset as ironical subversions of other prophecies by contemporaries relating to a hope to expel Rome from Judea.

        • Giuseppe
          2015-05-26 06:18:14 UTC - 06:18 | Permalink

          Neil, I agree with you when you say that obviously ”parable/symbol is the primary medium” etc without no forced reading of Mark, but I would like clear my point. I think that were failed precisely the ”other prophecies by contemporaries relating to a hope to expel Rome from Judea” (not the prophecies construed by Mark, that by definition were realized in a invisible way) therefore moving ‘Mark’ in ‘realizing’ them by using parable/symbol/allegory, etc, in a word: making them realization INVISIBLE and not rebuttable, and realized on this heart. This would raise the legitimate suspect (and only the suspect, not beyond and more of that) that the hypothetical historical Jesus was one of those people that did prophecies ”relating to a hope to expel Rome from Judea”, or something of that kind, a suspect entirely removed if Mcn was the Earliest Written Gospel.

          In other terms, in my view, ‘Mark’ was a (not failed) prophet reacting another’s prophetic failure (an HJ?).
          The author of Mcn was not a prophet a priori (because he was not interested in a Kingdom invisible or visibile on this heart). Therefore it’s plausible and possible to see Mark as a reaction to prophetic failure of another people (maybe a historical Jesus himself!), while it’s entirely impossible to see Mcn in this way (and this has implications depending on who consider the oldest gospel).

          • Neil Godfrey
            2015-05-26 08:40:32 UTC - 08:40 | Permalink

            I do agree with you insofar as the Gospel of Mark appears at several points to be responding to memories of prominent persons who had fought desperately against Roman occupation, presumably in hopes of restoring “God’s rule” once more.

            • Giuseppe
              2015-05-26 10:17:30 UTC - 10:17 | Permalink

              Precisely. I would call ”allegorical apology” exactly the attempt by Mark of realizing symbolically and invisibly on Earth what others have failed to achieve concretely on Earth. And I can claim that in Mcn there is not apology of that kind. Therefore no possible point of contact with the people that first ”had fought desperately against Roman occupation, presumably in hopes of restoring “God’s rule” once more”.

              • Bee
                2015-05-26 11:06:38 UTC - 11:06 | Permalink

                No point of contact with Jewish Zionist nationalists. But some overlap with Christians. By way of say, Greek spirituality or Platonism.

              • Giuseppe
                2015-05-26 12:53:42 UTC - 12:53 | Permalink

                Someone failed his prophecies (the prophets? The HJ? The Zealots? All the Jews?).

                Mark ‘realized’ these prophecies using the simbolic/allegorical way, therefore Mark can be seen as apology for the concrete failure of these prophecies (in a material sense) and this is pacific.

                Mark doesn’t imply alone the Historical Jesus, but IF a historical Jesus existed, THEN Mark could still be seen as an allegorical apology for the historical failure of HJ (if Mark was the Earliest Written Gospel).

                Now, suppose for sake of argument that was Mcn the Earliest Written Gospel and not Mark. In that case it’s impossible a priori to see Mcn as an apology for the failure of someone, because Mcn has no need of a realized prophecy on heart in no possible way, neither simbolic nor realistic. Therefore IF Mcn was the Earliest Written Gospel, THEN even the hypothesis of an historical Jesus as possible indirect cause/origin of the first Gospel becomes virtually impossible, not only unlikely (insofar you could expect that the first Gospel was an apology for the failure of an apocalyptic Jewish prophet or zealot or healer, etc).

                This would raise a objection against the declared agnosticism of Richard Carrier about the relation Gospels/historicity of Jesus, because depending on what was the Earliest Gospel, the consequent probabilities became affected. Not more fifty-fifty, this time.

                If Mcn was the earliest Gospel, the apology of Mark would be better seen as a reaction to the cold marcionite pessimistic judgment of anything found on heart.

    • David Ashton
      2015-05-25 23:28:30 UTC - 23:28 | Permalink

      I have no special interest in or insight into the actual date when Mark was composed, and you would not accept the verdict of “sociologist” James Crossley. Much depends on how chapter 13 is understood. What puzzles me is the motivation behind its composition with respect to its possible readership (in Rome?) late in the 1st or early in the 2nd century.

  • John
    2015-05-25 14:16:51 UTC - 14:16 | Permalink

    Neil,

    You wrote:

    “Being tried for religious “crimes” and punished through the judicial system of authorities (as implied by the floggings) is not the sort of murderous mayhem Paul is said to have gone out and inflicted on Christians. In Acts Paul is persecuted by being brought before legal authorities and occasionally by a spontaneous riot that had to be dispersed as soon as it started. The legend we have from orthodoxy is that Paul persecuted the church in quite another way.”

    The implication of 2 Cor. 11 is that Jewish Christians were being imprisoned and punished too. This scenario is supported by James 2:6 and 5:6:

    “Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?”

    “You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.”

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-05-26 00:43:52 UTC - 00:43 | Permalink

      I think I’ve addressed these points. I don’t see how the passages support a maverick extra-judicial campaign to attack and murder Christians. I have nothing more to add and fail to see how your references support the historicity of the sort of persecutions by Paul that we read about in Acts.

      (Few critical scholars accept the historicity of Stephen’s martyrdom or the gospel explanations for the execution of Jesus, either.)

      The rich have always and still today continue to harrass the poor through the legal systems. That’s how the world has always worked.

  • Grabrich
    2015-05-30 01:46:24 UTC - 01:46 | Permalink

    To all:

    Just a general question, but has anyone been watching the TV show “AD, The Bible Continues”? It’s Sunday nights on NBC in North America:

    http://www.nbc.com/ad-the-bible-continues/about

    In the most recent episode, Saul just had his “Road to Damascus” moment. Simon Magus has also been featured. IMHO, the show is a bit uneven. Maybe a case of trying to please everyone, i.e. catering to Catholics, Protestants, politically correct, etc.

    Richard G.

  • David Ashton
    2015-05-30 20:33:25 UTC - 20:33 | Permalink

    Just out of interest, do any of you see the TV “evangelism” by the Cerullos, Murdock & Hinn, which use Biblical jabber to persuade viewers to donate their “seed” of $XXX (or more) on a regular basis in order to authorize God to release the “harvest” of greater financial (NB) return in their lives. “Go to the phone now. Remember, delayed obedience to the Lord is disobedience.” Yes, fools readily part with their money, but surely scams so evil should be illegal?

    • Grabrich
      2015-05-31 06:05:35 UTC - 06:05 | Permalink

      It’s sad how those hucksters can get away that!

      Richard G.

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