Monthly Archives: January 2017

Religion and Understanding the Zealots, Theirs and Ours

A few weeks ago in the course of explaining why I called this blog “Vridar” I posted a few remarks about American author Vardis Fisher. The name “Vridar” was Vardis Fisher’s fictionalized autobiographical name in the last novel of his Testament of Man series, Orphans of Gethsemane. I was pleased to read last evening that I am not alone in my interpretation of some key aspects of Vardis Fisher’s life and interests . . . and I wonder if I even share some of his reasons for taking a special interest in the violence and trauma arising from the politics of the Middle East. The bolding in the critic’s quotation is, of course, my own.

In a period of the resurgence of fundamentalist religions in many parts of the world, Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man may be a text of some significance.

Fisher, raised by a strict Mormon mother on a solitary Idaho homestead, commanded a more sympathetic view of zeal than could most American intellectuals of his time. Possessed of a dual consciousness, Fisher rejected the rule-bound exclusivity of any self-appointed “chosen” people, but was all the same drawn to the passion of the prophet. In Testament of Man, he carried out his own arduous quest — to understand the moral development of western humanity. He donned the prophet’s mantle to warn against the dangers of fanaticism. Chronicling the spiritual development of his forebears, Fisher created a prophetic work [i.e. the Testament of Man series of novels] mourning the lost opportunities of Judeo-Christian tradition. He identified those points at which, in his opinion, a wrong turn was taken, a wrong road chosen.

In dishonoring the Mother, demonizing the “other,” [in  privileging law over ethics, and failing to synthesize love of wisdom with love of God, humanity set a course that has led to Inquisition and Holocaust. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, that course has yet to be adequately altered. Religion and reason have yet to be reconciled, and Reuben’s passionate appeal in The Island of the Innocent has yet to be answered: “But there’s a job to be done or there’ll be no Alexandrias. We’ll have a world of Jerusalems”(63).

Zahlan, Anne R. 2000. “A World of Jerusalems”: The Middle East as Contested Space in Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man.” In Rediscovering Vardis Fisher: Centennial Essays, edited by Joseph M. Flora, 191-207. Moscow, Idaho; University of Idaho Press.

The four novels set in historical Palestine that Anne Zahlan discusses are

  • The Divine Passion (1948)
  • The Valley of Vision (1951) — set in the kingdom of Solomon
  • The Island of the Innocent (1952) — set in the time of the Maccabean revolt
  • Jesus Came Again (1956)

Although it can be tiresomely didactic, The Island of the Innocent serves as the philosophical centre of Fisher’s monumental sequence. At novel’s end, all hopes for a marriage of the best Judaic and Hellenic principles are buried with Judith and Philemon. The work’s repeated debates as to the merits of reason and faith, beauty and righteousness end in violent encounter and the tragic failure of synthesis at the heart of the Testament of Man. Zahlan, pp. 201f.

The anthropology and sociology that informed Fisher’s views have been superseded in the academic world but read as human dramas they have not lost their relevance for today. Of The Island of the Innocent Zahlan writes,

The Island of the Innocent is a daring book. Perhaps only someone raised among Mormons withdrawn from a world of “Gentiles” could, in the last 1940s and early 1950s, have written such a work. In the years after World War II when the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust were being exposed, Vardis Fisher had the courage and clear-sightedness to maintain an adamant opposition to exclusivist religion and politics. Having been exposed as a boy to theocratic-fortress mentality, he could insist on the need to resist the powerful temptation of a tribalist response to even the most extreme persecution. (p. 201)

The tribalism permeating so much of Israeli society and politics is no less problematic today.

Rejecting or misunderstanding teachers such as Joshua [Jesus], the people of Vardis Fisher’s Holy Land continue in the erroneous ways of their ancestors and base three major religions on rejection of the Mother and deification of the Word.

Fisher’s Middle East focuses on Jews and centers on Jerusalem. . . . His concentrating of theological, ethical, and political struggle on the Jews does not, however, unreasonably privilege Jewish perspectives. In fact, he dwells on dissensions among Jewish believers as, in later volumes of the Testament, he emphasizes divisions among Christians: Hasidim contend with Letzim, and Essenes with Pharisees, as do the factions of the early church among themselves. A onetime citizen of the Mormon Zion, Fisher no more endorses ways of thinking such as those that underlie right-wing movements in contemporary Israel than he does any other exclusivist ideology. To the degree that he deals with the historic relationship of the Jews with other peoples, Fisher foregrounds tensions similar to those that plague the Middle East today.

Interestingly Anne Zahlan introduces another scholar who has also influenced my views, Edward Said, and as I have done in posts here singled out a tragically ironical point that Said makes about antisemitism:

In the second half of the twentieth century, Said explains, the “myth of the arrested development of the Semites” underwent a curious bifurcation: “[O]ne Semite went the way of Orientalism, the other, the Arab, was forced to go the way of the Oriental.”15 In the aftermath of World War II, anti-Semitic hostility has been redirected to Arabs; Israelis now serve the western imagination as new colonial heroes who stand in for “white men” in a depraved Orient. Some of Fisher’s depictions of “the Syrians” and “Antiochus of Corinth” fit an updated Orientalist model of cruel barbarians besieging devout Hebrews, but the author of the Testament of Man takes no stand above or distant from the Semitic peoples he describes. . . . 

Portraying the Middle East as he does, Fisher looks not only back but also “ahead” to . . . his own [world]. He depicts the birthplace of western civilisation was a battleground, painting a picture colored by pained awareness of the failings of his own culture. (pp. 205f)

So I’m not alone in my dual interest of religion and politics, in particular seeking to understand the roots of religion and the violence of religiously minded people today — all the while idealistic enough to do my little bit for a world of Alexandrias competing with the Jerusalems.





How sayings came to be attributed to . . . David, Ben Sirach, Jesus

Continuing to read Eva Mroczek’s The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity and have come across another interesting snippet with relevance to the way the gospel-Jesus tradition took shape.

An intriguing feature found in the writings of the earliest Christian “fathers” is that frequently sayings that we know from the gospel are used by these early authors without any attribution to Jesus or the gospels. Why is that?

Well, Eva Mroczek’s discussion of the Ben Sirach sayings offers a very similar scenario along with a very plausible explanation. Ben Sirach, we have learned, is more than a flesh and blood author sitting in a room writing wise sayings. He is in fact “a representative of a tradition of wise sayings.” So a teacher who somehow developed or learned of a fresh saying that was particularly apt for the needs of his pupils might feel it notable enough to be added to an anthology of Ben Sirach sayings. There was no such thing as a single edition of a closed book of sayings by Ben Sirach. Ben Sirach served as a representative figure of a source of wisdom that flowed like channels and rivers, that grew like fruit on a tree, and so forth. Ben Sirach’s wisdom was not static but always open to new insights and understanding through the wisdom that no one person would ever be able to grasp in all its fullness.

One of many interesting passages explaining one effect of this king of fluid literary culture:

Just as David was considered not so much as the author of a book of Psalms but as an exemplary liturgist, linked to a more amorphous tradition of liturgical material, Ben Sira was considered not only as the author of a concrete and particular book but more generally as a representative of a tradition of wise sayings.

Because of this character’s reputation, new sayings “accumulated around and circulated in his name,” some of which made it into the “popular anthologies.”94

Other sayings found in Ben Sira circulated without attribution to this figure, as part of a large “amorphous body of sayings” that circulated “atomistically and anonymously.”95

Labendz summarizes this complexity: “The contents of Ben Sira were spread within the rabbinic community. They were preserved and remembered with varying degrees of accuracy, and sometimes they were conflated with other wisdom sources. The title of the work was attached to a variety of wisdom traditions, only some of which were actually in Ben Sira.”96

(p. 112, my formatting)

Gospel revisions — as we see from Mark to Matthew and Luke, and Mark to John — with variants in sayings attributed to Jesus, sayings in Fathers that appear to come from non-gospel sources yet are found in the gospels, and the anonymity of the gospels in their original form . . . . So many simplistic explanations have been popularized through “faith-based scholarship” or apologetic writings, but more enlightening explanations come from a growing understanding of the literary culture of the Second Temple era and century following.


Jesus Loves Trump, (a man after his own heart)

The Bible’s ethics are not for our time. They represent an age when policies like those of Trump’s “extreme vetting if immigrants” were whitewashed as inspirationally loving.

Take the “beautiful” and “touching” story of Ruth . . . .

The story of the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman is akin to that of Ruth, which many scholars see as an example of Hebrew inclusiveness. However, Laura Donaldson, who identifies with Native American peoples in the United States, reads Ruth as a case where a woman must reject her Moabite identity and religion to be accepted into the Hebrew community. For Donaldson, Ruth’s story is not really about altruistic acceptance, but rather another story of cultural imperialism. Her study reveals that benign interpretations of cultural assimilation in the book of Ruth may reflect the privileged social position of Christian feminists who have not experienced forced assimilation and integration into another culture. Avalos, Hector, 2015. The Bad Jesus, p. 239

Similarly, as Avalos points out,

Jesus’ acceptance of the [Syrophoenician] woman was contingent on her declaring his dominion. She calls him “Lord, Son of David’ and repeats the title of “Lord” after he refuses to help her the first time. (p. 238)

To be welcomed into Jesus’ community a Canaanite must demonstrate “worshipful reverence” of the leader. The Canaanite woman is required to “adopt the cultural premises of Jesus.”

That’s the only way the aliens can become “good people”, “wonderful people”, “the best people”.




The Teacher of Righteousness and Understanding the Authority of Fiction

One of the books I am currently reading is The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek and I was intrigued by her discussion of how the scholarly community have debated the historicity of the “Teacher” who speaks powerfully of his experiences in the Thanksgiving Hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many scholars have identified the Teacher of Righteousness (otherwise known from the Damascus Document) as the author of these hymns. Notice, for instance, the introduction to the Thanksgiving Hymns by Wise, Abegg and Cook:

The intensely personal tone of the songs known commonly as Thanksgiving Hymns stands in sharp contrast with the rest of the scrolls. The author speaks of himself in the first person and recounts an agonizing history of persecution at the hands of those opposed to his ministry. In addition, the writer describes having received an empowering spirit granting him special insight into God’s will (1QH3 4:38), opening his ears to wonderful divine mysteries (9:23), using him as a channel of God’s works (12:9), and fashioning him as a mouthpiece for God’s words (16:17). Indeed, in col. 26, he claims that no one compares with him, because his office is among the heavenly beings. These are bold affirmations for any leader, reminiscent of various messianic claimants of both ancient and more recent history.

The unique personal presentation of the work and the self-conscious divine mission of the author have led many researchers to conclude that the psalms were written by the Teacher of Righteousness himself. Some students have attempted a more refined analysis in order to isolate “true” Teacher psalms at the center of the collection (cols. 10—16 according to one, 13—16 in the eyes of another; see Hymns 10—13,15—20,23), noting that the themes of personal distress and affliction as well as the claim of being the recipient or mediator of revelation are especially strong here. Only one thing is sure: the debate will continue.

Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr, and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, 2005. pp. 170-71.

Eva Mroczek is writing about literary/philosophical character of Ben Sirach and finds a parallel with the Teacher of Righteousness who is sometimes said to be the author of the Thanksgiving Hymns among the Dead Sea Scrolls. From pages 98 and 99:

Another example of such a rhetorical strategy is the so-called Teacher Hymns in cols. 10-17 of the Hodayot or Thanksgiving Hymns from Qumran. These first-person compositions have been read by some Qumran scholars32 as the ipsissima verba of the Teacher of Righteousness, an enigmatic figure who appears as a founder and leader of the sectarian community in some Qumran texts. The hymns, then, were imagined to be the creative autobiographical work of this putative individual, and were mined for information about this mysterious figure’s life. For example, Michael Wise has extracted from these hymns not only data about the Teacher’s life, persecution, and exile but also insights into his spiritual life—and even his name.33

But over time, as Max Grossman has shown, scholars began to question the idea that the Teacher of Righteousness is the “author” of these texts—that this figure is a historically locatable individual who can be imagined as an individual creator of the textual products of the Qumran community.34 With regard to the poetic Thanksgiving Hymns, it is doubtful that they can be used to reconstruct the historical and interior life of a specific individual. An excellent critique of the tendency to read the Hodayot as autobiography comes from Angela Harkins,35 who argues that such a reading is rooted in Romantic ideas of individual authorship that are foreign to Jewish antiquity. . . . 

But no specific historical figure can be reconstructed from poetic hymns: they use familiar images and literary tropes, including first-person references to suffering and persecution that are not to be understood as biographical accounts of specific historical experiences. The “I” of the hymns can, instead, be understood in other ways . . . . The first-person voice is perhaps representative of the “office” of an inspired community leader and the ideal, exemplary teacher, rather than reflective of a specific historical personality.37 Or, as Harkins suggests, it is a “rhetorical persona” to be actualized by the reader in ritual performance: the reader embodies the “I,” and the text becomes an “affective script for the reader to reenact.”38

Okay, time to check out some of those end-notes. read more »

The Mystery of the 14 Generations — not only to Jesus

Chains of tradition buttressing the right to rule the school were commonplace among the Greek philosophers.

Each of these “chains” shares an odd common trait with the others: no matter what the actual chronology may be, each chain of tradition is fourteen links from the founder to the newest head of the academy.

It does not make any difference whether those fourteen generations took one hundred years or five hundred years— accuracy in counting years is not the point. Getting from the newest head of the academy back to the founder of the school in but fourteen links is what it’s all about.

This oddity also can be observed in the New Testament, where Jesus’s lineage is traced in groups of fourteen (father to son, rather than teacher to disciple). And were we to laboriously count out the chain from Moses at Sinai to Rabbi Yohanan and his disciples, we’d get the same magic number: fourteen. No one knows why fourteen seems to be the “correct” number of links, but Pirke Avot joins with all the philosophical schools in tracing its newest leader’s lineage back to the founder in fourteen generations.

Visotzky, Burton L.. Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It (Kindle Locations 2037-2045). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition. (My formatting and highlighting)

Now that’s an intriguing mystery. Here is a truncated portion of the opening two chapters of that Mishnah tractate, Pirke Avot (=Chapters of the Fathers):

  1. Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua.
  2. Joshua gave it over to the Elders,
  3. the Elders to the Prophets,
  4. and the Prophets gave it over to
  5. the Men of the Great Assembly. . . .
  6. Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. . . .
  7. Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. . . .
  8. Yossei the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah, andYossei the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem, received the tradition from them. . . .
  9. Joshua the son of PerachiaandNitai the Arbelite received from them. . . .
  10. Judah the son of TabbaiandShimon the son of Shotach received from them. . . .
  11. Shmaayahand Avtalyon received from them. . . .
  12. HillelandShammai received from them. . . .
  13. Rabban Yochanan the son of Zakkai received the tradition from Hillel and Shammai. . . .
  14. Rabban Yochanan the son of Zakkai had five disciples: Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hurkenus, Rabbi Joshua the son of Chananya, Rabbi Yossei the Kohen, Rabbi Shimon the son of Nethanel, and Rabbi Elazar the son of Arach.

We all know about the curious genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew and the way it points out the fourteen-fold division of the line from Abraham to Jesus:

Matthew 1:17Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.

I would be very interested to see examples of the fourteen teachers/pupils links among the Greek philosophical schools.

Is there anyone who can help locate instances of that tradition?




Similarities between Biblical and Greek Judicial Systems

This post covers just one small set of details addressed by Russell Gmirkin in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, legal proceedings. I am keen to get to the next chapter where laws themselves are compared, but to take the question of “Biblical” links with the Greek world as distinct from the Near Eastern culture in its entirety I need to pause and grasp the particulars of each argument. I try to present as much information as necessary for each of us to come to our own conclusions — or questions.

This second chapter of Gmirkin’s book, “Athenian and Pentateuchal Legal Institutions”, is not for light recreational reading. It is a serious text packed with detail. Gmirkin’s approach is to set out paragraphs detailing various Greek practices and institutions, each within its historical context, followed by packed paragraphs of comparable data found the Bible. Without some graphic aids like multiple numbered subheadings or tables it is not always easy to connect the details of Greek practices (sometimes Athenian, sometimes non-Athenian) with those in different parts of the Bible (sometimes, but not always, the Pentateuch, and if the Pentateuch then sometimes with differences found in Deuteronomy.) And then there are the copious end-notes that frequently clarify and support the main text.

As a result I find myself having to take out pen and paper and set out the details in a table form to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the case being made. And having gone to that trouble it seems only natural that I should tidy up those tables and share them here.

We are talking here about “the judiciary”. Judges, juries, court hearings.

Relatively little direct comparison and contrast is made with Near Eastern legal processes and institutions. My conclusion is that while some aspects in the biblical judicial systems no doubt overlap with Near Eastern ways, Gmirkin’s point is to show that the biblical processes strongly match Greek ones as well, or perhaps even more completely.

Here is the table setting out some (not all) of Gmirkin’s comparisons, stripped of many details for sake of simplicity:

read more »

The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions?

Russell Gmirkin continues to argue for much of the Old Testament having been written as late as around 270 BCE in his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. (He first made the argument in Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus, – link is to archived posts addressing various points in that work.) The book is priced for academic institutions so thankfully the publisher (Routledge) sent me a review copy that I am still reading. I have been relocating, renovating and slowly building up a new home office so progress has not been lightning fast, but small steps as opportunity arises are better than no steps so here’s the next instalment.

Biblical laws have been compared often enough with those from the ancient Levant and Mesopotamia and Gmirkin continues to make the same sorts of comparisons. But he also compares the biblical laws with ancient Greek laws and law collections and finds the similarities on the whole to be more striking than with those of the Near East. Not only laws themselves but also the narratives in which they are embedded resonate strongly with Greek literature. Gmirkin’s explanation is that the authors of the biblical texts were informed of legal ideals through Greek writings stored in the Great Library of Alexandria in the Hellenistic era.

Before addressing specific laws Gmirkin sets out comparisons of biblical (especially Pentateuchal) legal institutions with those of Greece. The chapter is thick with endnotes and citations and many of these have kept my reading at a snail’s pace, but such slow reading is an enriching journey. I do find detailed discussions of legal, civil and religious institutions and offices becoming something of a blur, however, unless I take pen and paper and set out what I am reading in diagram form, and that’s what I have been doing especially in the second half of the second chapter. So for my own benefit and the interest of anyone else I set out here tables of data collated by Gmirkin in his comparisons. (Diagrams would be far too time-consuming.) Not all details or explanations are set out here by any means, but I hope I include enough to grasp the main ideas that are argued for the primacy of Greek influence on what we read in biblical narratives. I attempt to give enough detail for readers to form their own questions and assessments.

I am sure I am not the only one who has become so familiar with terms like “elders” and “all the people of Israel” and imagined them in their “exclusively  biblical” context that it will come as something of a shock to make unfamiliar comparisons with Greek institutions and processes. Yet that’s what Gmirkin does and the results are by and large interesting. Here’s the first table; more to follow: read more »

Schweitzer in context

My response to Cornelis Hoogerwerf’s post on Γεγραμμένα, Misquoting Albert Schweitzer, has raised the question of the intended meaning of Schweitzer’s words in relation to historical probability, common sense, and more. Cornelis has said my own explanation of S’s words is wrong; I attempted to explain why I disagreed. But rather than leave the discussion hanging with as a “you are wrong; no I am not wrong” exchange I copy a fairly large section of the relevant section from the Fortress Press edition of Schweitzer’s Quest so that readers can hopefully have a more secure handle on the evidence in order to make up their own minds about the meaning and significance of S’s words.

Before I do let me comment on a new post by Bart Ehrman in which he explains that “some” biblical scholars are also “historians”. The gist of his explanation appears to me to be that if a scholar chooses to study and write about “history” then s/he can be called a historian. Of course that makes perfect sense. But is such a scholar any better at “doing history” than an amateur historian without training or background knowledge in the philosophy and methods of historical research and history writing? I have found that some of the best history writing about “biblical times” has come from those pejoratively labelled “minimalists”. It is their work, and in particular their explanations of their methods, that resonates with the best historical research I read among those writing in other (non-biblical) areas. Most significantly, (a) they do not begin with the assumption that a text’s provenance can be understood entirely from its own self-testimony; (b) they understand the importance of independent confirmation of its contents in order to establish its degree of reliability; and (c) they “take seriously” the question of genre and wider literary matrix of the text prior to deciding how to interpret it, and do not assume that its content is essentially a window through which readers can look to see “true history” in the shadow of its narrative. These may sound like simple basics but they are very often overlooked by many biblical scholars who aspire to write “history” from the Gospels. Unfortunately Bart Ehrman fails on all three of those points. Among some of the best historians working with the “Old Testament” texts are, in my view, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson and Russell Gmirkin. There are a few names I would consider genuine historians among later biblical-related history, Steve Mason being one.

It is in that context that I read with interest Schweitzer’s words. Even though Schweitzer was not a mythicist and argued extensively against the Christ Myth theory, he did acknowledge the theoretical importance of the above historical principles, especially point (b).

To return to Cornelis’s post, I do see that he has since acknowledged his debt to Bart Ehrman for the views and complaint he expressed in the first part of his post. Given his failure to cite a single “mythicist” who has misquoted Schweitzer in an attempt to mislead readers into thinking S himself presented an argument against the historicity of Jesus, I conclude that no-one has done so and that efforts from certain quarters to mislead readers and repeat baseless rumours related to my own quotations of S are entirely mischievous.

In our recent discussion on my post Albert Schweitzer on the Christ Myth Debate other differences arose. Cornelis believes that scholarship since Schweitzer’s day has indeed raised the level of probability that Jesus was historical to as close to 1.0 as one might wish. Again, his reasons unfortunately indicate a poor grasp of how historical methods and epistemology is understood outside the field of biblical studies.

Schweitzer, pages 400-402

read more »

Robert M. Price Doing Satan’s Work

Robert M. Price sees himself as acting the role of the original Satan who was God’s envoy tasked with testing the true character of those who professed fealty to God. I’ll leave you to read his post where he explains the analogy. What interested me were the following sentiments:

I have too much experience, much of it quite positive, with religion in general and Christianity in particular, simply to fight against it tooth and nail. It would be pathetic and quixotic. It would say more about me than about Christianity. I would have turned into a crazy, bitter ex-boyfriend. No thanks.

Ditto for me.

I have seen so much of Christians of all stripes and of Christianity in its many variations that I cannot pretend there is no good side to it. There is much to be loved, and I still love it. And this sentiment seems to me basic to any study of religion, period. You have to try to understand Islam, Buddhism, etc., from all sides including the inside. Unless you see what is loveable about it, you will never see why its adherents love it.

Mmm … I’m not quite in sync here. No, I can’t say I “love” any of it, still, though I am awed at the architecture of some of the older churches I’ve seen in Europe. But yes, one does need to try to understand religion “from the inside” in order to appreciate why people do love it — and that’s where I do think too many anti-theists fail. My perspective is more from the psychological side, though. What is it that happens in our brains when we imagine and pray to other-worldly beings? Such questions don’t lead us to love religion so much as they lead us to a deeper appreciation for our fellow creatures, for an acceptance of what we ourselves are made of. Maybe that has more to do with “self-love” or “self-understanding” and appreciation than “love for any aspect of religion”.



Bishop John Shelby Spong Update

Westar Institute has posted an update on the health of John Shelby Spong by Cassandra Farrin. Back in September Episcopal Café announced that he had had a stroke.

Spong’s book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism had a major impact on my understanding of the Bible at a time I was breaking away from belief in Christianity altogether. In some ways that book was my 101 introduction to critical studies of the Bible.

What I found of particular interest was learning how the differences among the gospels reflected quite different theological perspectives and how later ones attempted to amend deficiencies they perceived in earlier ones. I even wrote up a series of mock “newspaper reports” of the resurrection of Jesus as an attempt to put together what I had learned from Spong’s discussions. (This was all long pre-blog days.)  So one paper reported the resurrection as a rumour based on the hearsay of an unknown guy sitting in a tomb (Gospel of Mark); later gospels added reports of the resurrected Jesus eating fish, etc; and so forth.

The same book also introduced me to the arguments that allowed for gays to be accepted into Christian fellowship. Until then I had no idea how anyone could make such an argument from the Bible, certainly not from Paul’s writings.

Around the time I was reading Rescuing I was moving towards atheism and when Spong came to visit the Anglican church near to where I lived (I think Spong was a friend of Gregory Jenks, another Jesus Seminar Fellow and the pastor (or whatever the correct title is) there at the time. I was blown away by the experience of a congregation of whom nearly all were as radically minded as Spong or anyone else on the very liberal end of the Jesus Seminar. What I simply had to do was personally thank Spong for his assistance in leading me out of belief into atheism — a destination where I felt far more at ease, comfortable, relaxed, than I had as a somewhat “uptight” Christian. We had a little discussion about the uptightness of believers in general: Spong volunteered that it was his sad experience that most Christian believers do have an uptightness about them. (I put it down to those who are serious enough about their faith to take the Bible seriously and always be striving to “put on the new man” — living the life of a “put-on”, in other words, as Edmund Cohen explained it in The Mind of the Bible Believer.)

Spong’s next book, Liberating the Gospels, introduced me to the main principles of Michael Goulder’s arguments about the gospels being written as lectionary readings for churches. What struck me about this book was his case for the “midrashic” rewriting of Old Testament figures throughout the gospels: see the Spong: Liberating the Gospels archive of posts. But what I found truly astonishing was that Spong could argue essentially for the “fictionality” of so many of the gospel figures yet not allow Jesus himself to have been just as fictional, even though the same types of arguments he used for Mary, Joseph, and others were many times more applicable to the Jesus figure. That’s when I learned that Spong’s Christianity is far more “mystical” than anything I was used to — perhaps not unlike Thomas Brodie’s (who does not accept the historicity of Jesus) or Albert Schweitzer’s (who did).

All in all, Spong has had a significant impact on my life and understanding of religion and the Bible. I welcomed the update on Westar’s site.



The Gospels as Creative Rewriting (like rewritten biblical books)

Back in 2010 the University of Copenhagen published news of a project to “map the development of the four gospels in order to establish that the Gospel of Luke is not, as believed so far, a contemporary of the Gospel of Matthew, and that the shared content of the two is not to be explained by the existence of a lost scripture [i.e. Q], but by the fact that the author of St. Luke’s Gospel used St. Matthew’s Gospel as well as that of St. Mark as basis for his own scripture.” See Scholars will explode the myth of the New Testament.

(For yet another work by Morgens Müller discussed on this blog, see Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus.)

A Facebook reader reminded me of this post a few days ago and asked me what the outcome of this project had been. One outcome appears to be Luke’s Literary Creativity – a work edited by Mogens Müller and Jesper Tang Nielsen that I look forward to reading in the coming months. Meanwhile I can discuss another essay by Mogens Müller that appears to be related to the same project,

The New Testament gospels as Biblical rewritings : On the question of referentiality

By “the question of referentiality” Müller means the question of “whether the story told refers to real incidents.” To what, exactly, do the narrative’s episodes refer? How much is historical? How much fiction? Are our attempts to make such black and white distinctions anachronistic? Müller draws upon Ulrich Luz’s Studies in Matthew in which the gospel is compared with Greek literature that intends to reference and describe “historical” or “factual” events. Luz believes that the author of the Gospel of Matthew

must have known that in his writing, to some extent, he reshaped the Jesus-tradition or even invented it. (p.22)

Müller’s article led me to Luz’s study but it soon became obvious I would not be able to merge the two discussions into a single post. Luz’s book requires separate treatment so I will restrict this post to Müller’s article and a few of his references to Luz. The argument that arises is that the Gospel of Matthew is a re-writing of the Gospel of Mark much as

  • 1 and 2 Chronicles are re-writings of the books of Samuel and Kings,
  • or as Deuteronomy is a rewriting (possibly in King Josiah’s time?) of the Covenant narrative found in Exodus-Numbers,
  • or as Jubilees is a rewriting of Genesis-Exodus,
  • or as the Genesis Apocryphon is a rewriting of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis,
  • or as Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities and
  • Josephus’s first eleven books of Antiquities are rewritings of biblical narratives.

Some scholars have even seen parts of Genesis 1-11 as a rewriting of the Epic of Gilgamesh. A re-writing can be found in the same book with a single narrative repeated in different ways: the Abraham and Isaac / Sarah and Rebecca narratives contain three narratives that are all duplicates – Gen. 12:10-20; 20; 26:1-11 – changing to gradually conform more and more closely to Mosaic law.

What is going on here? Why do authors feel at liberty to take existing texts and change them here and there, keeping the original outline more or less in tact but feeling free to add details and to omit others, and changing the way some stories are told so that they present readers with a new lesson that contradicts the original one?

What is going through the authors’ minds as they are reading Genesis or the Gospel of Mark and deciding what elements to change or omit and where to inject new material? Can they really be thinking that Genesis or the Gospel is a true account of historical events that must be preserved for posterity in the way a Greek or Roman historian felt a desire to preserve for posterity the best and most authoritative account of a people’s past?

To try to answer these questions it is useful to identify the characteristics of a “rewritten bible” and here Müller uses the nine characteristics singled out by Philip S. Alexander on the basis of Jubilees, Genesis Apocryphon, Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities and Josephus’s Antiquities.

  1. “Rewritten Bible” texts are narratives following a sequential chronological order;
  2. On their face, they are free-standing compositions replicating the form of the biblical books on which they are based;
  3. Despite superficial independence of form, these texts are not intended to replace, or to supersede the Bible;
  4. “Rewritten Bible” texts cover a substantial portion of the Bible;
  5. They retain the biblical order of events but can be very selective in what they represent;
  6. The intention is to produce an interpretative reading of Scripture;
  7. The narrative form means, in effect, that they can impose only a single interpretation on the original;
  8. The narrative form also precludes making clear their exegetical reasoning;
  9. “Rewritten Bible” texts draw on non-biblical sources, whether oral or written.

Müller’s conclusion:

This means that rewritten Bible texts, by their very existence, document that the texts they are rewriting have not exclusively been understood as being referential with regard to the events which have really taken place. This would have precluded the freedom of their “rewriters.”

Apparently, they are foremost perceived as theological texts, not so much aiming at information as at preaching.

Put another way: In their rewriting they intend to mirror the heavenly forces that, according to these authors, are active in their readers’ lives. Thus it is this “truth” and not some “historical” fact, they are aiming at describing. (p. 23, my bold and formatting in all quotations)

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Albert Schweitzer on the Christ Myth Debate

Without citing any instances to support his claim, Bart Ehrman charged “mythicists” as sometimes guilty of dishonestly quote-mining Albert Schweitzer to make it sound as if Schweitzer supported the view that Jesus was not a historical person. Ehrman’s unsubstantiated allegation has been repeated by Cornelis Hoogerwerf on his blog (without any acknowledgement to Ehrman); Jona Lendering of has reportedly alerted Jim West of Cornelis’s “observation” and Jim has in turn informed his readership of Cornelis’s “excellent post”.

The tone in which the debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus has been conducted does little credit to the culture of the twentieth century. (Albert Schweiter, p.394, the 2001 Fortress edition of Quest) — and ditto for the 21st century!

Here’s an excellent post . . . on the way the Jesus mythicists misrepresent Schweitzer to further their unhinged, maniacal, idiotic goals. (From The Crazy ‘Jesus Mythicists’ Lie About Schweitzer the Way Trump Lies About Everything)

If anyone knows who has quoted Schweitzer to support a claim that Jesus did not exist please do inform me either by email or in a comment below. I am not suggesting that no-one has mischievously or ignorantly misquoted Schweitzer to suggest he had doubts about the historicity of Jesus but I have yet to see who these mythicists are of whom Ehrman, Hoogerwerf and West speak. I do know that my own blog post quotations of Schweitzer have been picked up by others and recycled but I was always careful to point out that Schweitzer was no mythicist, and indeed that was a key reason I presented the quotations: the strength of their contribution to my own point was that they derived from someone who argued at length against the Christ Myth theory.

So I would like to know the identities of the “quack historians” of whom Cornelis Hoogerwerf writes:

To no surprise for those who are a little bit familiar with the contrivances of quack historians, Albert Schweitzer is getting quote mined to bolster the claims of the defenders of an “undurchführbare Hypothese” (infeasable hypothesis), as Schweitzer himself called  the hypothesis of the non-existence of Jesus (p. 564). Part of it is due to the English translation, but another part is certainly due to the fact that quotations of his work circulate without context, and moreover due to the lack of understanding of Schweitzer’s time and his place in the history of scholarship. Perhaps some light from the Netherlands, in between the German and the Anglo-Saxon world, could help to clarify the matter.

There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus.

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence.

. . . .

Now, without context, it seems that Albert Schweitzer rejects the whole project of historical Jesus research. But nothing is further from the truth, for Schweitzer criticises the liberal scholarship that was current in the nineteenth century, which, according to Schweitzer, tried to make the historical Jesus a stooge for their modern religious predilections. That Jesus had never any existence. Schweitzer’s own historical Jesus was the eschatological Jesus, who remained strange, even offensive, to our time.

(Misquoting Albert Schweitzer, my bolding in all quotations)

What is the source of this claim? Has Cornelis Hoogerwerf really read any post, article or book in which Schweitzer has been so quoted for such a dishonest purpose? He cites none. But his wording does have remarkable similarities to the text of Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? when he made the same charge — also without citation of supporting sources.

To lend some scholarly cachet to their view, mythicists sometimes quote a passage from one of the greatest works devoted to the study of the historical Jesus in modern times, the justly famous Quest of the Historical Jesus, written by New Testament scholar, theologian, philosopher, concert organist, physician, humanitarian, and Nobel Peace Prize-winning Albert Schweitzer:

There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus.

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence.

. . . .

Taken out of context, these words may seem to indicate that the great Schweitzer himself did not subscribe to the existence of the historical Jesus. But nothing could be further from the truth. The myth for Schweitzer was the liberal view of Jesus so prominent in his own day, as represented in the sundry books that he incisively summarized and wittily discredited in The Quest. Schweitzer himself knew full well that Jesus actually existed; in his second edition he wrote a devastating critique of the mythicists of his own time, and toward the end of his book he showed who Jesus really was, in his own considered judgment. For Schweitzer, Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who anticipated the imminent end of history as we know it. (Did Jesus Exist? p. f)

I hesitate to suggest that Ehrman’s accusations were made without substance but I have yet to find any “mythicists” quoting the above passage by Schweitzer for the intent that Ehrman and Hoogerwerf claim. Is this an entirely manufactured accusation? Is West alerting readers to Hoogerwerf’s “excellent” relaying of a baseless rumour?


Cornelis Hoogerwerf adds a second part to his post: read more »

Pros and Cons of Antitheism

My thoughts exactly, as posted by Trave Mamone on his By Any Means FreeThought blog . . . . The Pros and Cons of Antitheism

So does that make me an antitheist? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. . . . I just do whatever I can to make the world a less shitty place. Sometimes it includes calling out religion’s bullshit, and sometimes it’s working with a religious person for a common goal. Sometimes it’s having conversations with people who disagree with me, and sometimes it’s telling them they’re full of shit. Make of it what you will.


When I first became an atheist . . . . . After seeing so many angry atheist trolls online, I didn’t want to join their camp. Plus, shortly before deconverting, I was (loosely) involved with the liberal Christian scene, so I knew not all Christians were fundamentalists.

. . . There is literally no need for religion in the 21st century. That doesn’t mean religious people are fools; most of them just don’t know you can have a fulfilling life without a god.

. . . even though I’m happy to work with progressive believers for secular social justice work, progressive religion still has a lot of fucked up theology. . .  I’ve seen way too many progressive Christians turn it into another form of shame.

. . . So does that make me an antitheist? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. I find labels like “antitheist, “faitheist,” “firebrand,” and “diplomat” to be superficial. I just do whatever I can to make the world a less shitty place. Sometimes it includes calling out religion’s bullshit, and sometimes it’s working with a religious person for a common goal. Sometimes it’s having conversations with people who disagree with me, and sometimes it’s telling them they’re full of shit. Make of it what you will.



The Australian Magpies

I loved this program when it was first broadcast a few months ago and appreciated the ABC’s Radio National “re-releasing” it as a podcast. I always love watching magpies and so often notice fascinating behaviours. For some years many times I went outside to hang the washing out the same magpie would fly down and perch on the clothes line, looking intently at me as if to greet me and spend some time with me. In Australia we easily take their beautiful song for granted so I was pulled up with some surprise when an overseas tourist expressed amazement at the sound.

Anyone interested who hasn’t yet heard the program, do listen to

The colourful life of the Australian Magpie

The opening seconds is all you need to hear their sound.

Other details that fascinated me:

  • they are listening for the sounds of grubs etc beneath the grass
  • they recognize individual human faces
  • in the event of the loss of the male partner the female soon accepts another male replacement who continues to care and provide for her chicks
  • their black and white colour is no camouflage but functions as a highly visual signal for territorial purposes