Author Archives: Neil Godfrey

Our Knowledge of Early Christianity — sifting interpretation from the raw data

Larry Hurtado has written “an observation for consideration (or refutation)” concerning the sources we have for earliest Christianity. I make my own observations (or refutations). Hurtado writes:

We have more evidence about the beliefs, behavioral practices/demands, and diversity in early Christianity in the first two centuries AD than for any other religious group of the time.  From within the few decades we have real letters sent from a known author (Paul) to named and known recipients (e.g., Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia), in which contemporary issues of belief and practice surface and are addressed, and in which also a whole galaxy of named individuals appears, along with information about them.

I think we can be more precise.

From [apparently] within the few decades [of the reported crucifixion of Jesus under Pilate] we have real letters [widely but not universally believed to be real] [that purport to be] sent from a known author (Paul) to named and known recipients (e.g., Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia), in which [supposedly] contemporary issues of belief and practice surface and are addressed [although often the same issues are also addressed in the second century], and in which also a whole galaxy of named individuals appears, along with information about them.

My qualifications are added for the purpose of keeping in mind that

  • we have no evidence of the existence of the letters until the second century when we find an array of competing versions of Paul as a focus of theological battles, some of them quite diametrically opposed to the Paul whose name is attached to the letters;
  • the letters of Paul are in several noticeable ways quite different from other personal and philosophical letters of the day; moreover, we have good reasons to believe that today’s manuscripts are the products of ancient editorial and other redactional practices;
  • we quite readily set aside some letters claiming to be by Paul as spurious and merely assume that a subset of the total corpus are simply because they appear to be expressed in a common style and with a common theological outlook.

Now I am quite prepared to accept the NT letters of Paul as genuine for various reasons, but at the same time I am always conscious of questions such as those above that continue to hover nearby. Accepting data provisionally for the sake of argument and for the testing of hypotheses is not a bad way to go, I think.  read more »

Wise Words from Larry Hurtado and Jim Davila

Two wise men from Raphael’s famous fresco

How does one go about questioning and engaging in discussion views that we find problematic. Jim Davila, Professor of Early Jewish Studies at the University of St Andrews, was impressed with words of wisdom posted by Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, to add good advice of his own for sake of completeness.

Jim Davila, Professor of Early Jewish Studies at the University of St Andrews, was impressed with words of wisdom posted by Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, on this question in relation to biblical studies, so much so, that he added an afterthought of his own for the sake of completeness.

I will start with Davila’s comment because it reminded me that I have not always lived up to it but it expresses an ideal I have nonetheless strongly believed in. I have attempted to apply this principle as consistently as possible in formulating my own views and arguments, but have sometimes kicked myself for failing to do the same in one-on-one discussions over particular points.

Davila writes:

Let me add one of my own, which I got from the philosopher of science and epistemologist Karl Popper. When I set out to respond to a position with which I disagree, first I look for ways to make the case for that position stronger. Can weak arguments be reformulated more clearly and compellingly? Can I find any evidence that my opponent has missed which offers additional support to the case I want to refute? I try to make sure that I am responding not just to my opponent’s case as presented, but to the strongest possible case I can formulate for my opponent’s position. I find that this approach helps me process positions with which I disagree more receptively and with better comprehension. Try it. I think you will find it works.

While it is one thing to apply that message to tackling hypotheses proposed in books, it might be another to apply it in personal discussions in online commentaries and exchanges. It takes patience, time, and effort to understand before clicking the “send” button.

Now back to Hurtado’s comment, On Representing the Views of Others, of which I quote the concluding section:  read more »

Another hiatus

This evening I am leaving on another wayward excursion with some Thai companions beyond Thai borders and hope to become more proficient in their language by the time I return. It’s difficult to focus on blog themes at times like this — especially since learning the Thai language has to take priority for me at this time. We’ll see what I can do so hopefully Vridar won’t go into complete hibernation while I’m on walkabout again.

Expect to return to a “normal” routine back at my “holiday home” in Thailand between one and two weeks from now.

 

 

How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?

I have been posting insights from Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (archived here) in which he argues that both many core and peripheral features of the text of the Hebrew Bible bear closer similarities to Classical Greek writings and practices than to what we find in ancient Mesopotamian and Levantine culture. Gmirkin’s hypothesis is that the authors of the biblical texts shared the wider intellectual ethos of the Hellenistic era with its interest in exploring ideal constitutional and legal systems. The Great Library at Alexandria, Egypt, was a repository of these ideas and resources that Judean scribes were known to access as freely as any other scholar of the day.

Another scholar who has argued for a Hellenistic provenance of the Biblical literature is Niels Peter Lemche, although his proposals have pointed Mesopotamia and Syria as possible centres where Judean scribes were exposed to Greek ideas and writings rather than Egypt. No doubt Judeans were exposed to Greek culture throughout the Middle East but Russell Gmirkin focuses on the Alexandrian library because we know that specific Greek texts (e.g. Plato’s Laws, Aristotle’s Politics) that contain some striking echoes in the Biblical literature were housed there and we further know that Judean scribes worked there.

In this post I thought it worthwhile addressing some of the context to Gmirkin’s book by reference to a chapter by Lemche from 2001, “How Does One Date an Expression of Mental History? The Old Testament and Hellenism” in Did Moses Speak Attic? Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Period edited by Lester L. Grabbe, pp. 200-224.

Lemche begins by reminding readers of the traditional circularity of the way scholars have dated the texts:

I have set out in table format the fundamental circularity underlying the scholarly arguments for not only the dating but also for the historicity of the Biblical narratives as argued by P.R. Davies (1992) at vridar.info.

A text that seemed to include historical information might well belong to the age when this historical referent seemed likely to have existed. At least this was the general attitude. The historical referent was the decisive factor. If the information included in the historical referent was considered likely or even precise, the text that provided this information was considered more or less contemporary with the event—that is, the historical referent—although the only source of this event was often the text in question that referred to it.

In those days, everybody knew and talked about the ‘hermeneutic circle’. It was generally accepted that the study of ancient Israel was from a logical point of view based on a circellus logicus vitiosum, a false logical circle, but nobody within biblical studies believed that it was possible to avoid this logical trap. (p. 200)

But there are ways to recognize general cultural matrices of certain texts. Intellectual topics come and go like fashions, to somewhat oversimplify the point. I was reminded of this point when recently listening again to the Foucault-Chomsky debate: scientific progress, they agreed, is not linear but lurches in fits and starts as new ideas arise and old problems that once preoccupied the community are simply forgotten.

Every period in the history of humankind will give birth to a number of questions— within philosophy, religion or simple politics—that are specifically related to this period, hot subjects for a while and then forgotten. (Lemche, 2001, p. 207)

Lemche illustrates with micro-references to the scholarly dialogues of recent generations: read more »

The Buddha-Christ parallels

Ancient Origins has an interesting article listing similarities between the Buddha and Christ and the early history of their two religions.

The Christ And The Buddha: How Can You Explain the Uncanny Similarities?

Crazy but Serious Theories of Consciousness

So is consciousness like space, time, mass, an irreducible fundamental element of the universe? If so, should we be trying to discover the laws by which it operates and integrates with the rest of reality since it is a fundamental element that cannot be explained in terms of more complex parts?

Or does everything that exists, even down to photons, contain the property of consciousness to some degree? Are higher degrees of consciousness the product of higher amounts of information inputs and processing? If so, what are the ethical questions arising?

Or is it all an illusion?

Interesting questions — I was alerted to them by the following article on abc.net.au

Philosopher David Chalmers on consciousness, the hard problem and the nature of reality

A little followup told me I am in fact quite late to this party.

Anyone who can bring me up to speed with any further developments in this field please do so. (I am referring to serious scholarly research — not wacko new age or spiritual type theories.) I see also David Chalmers has a page linking to his articles. Yet more reading (sigh)!

 

 

 

Postmodernist Values & Questions of Power: From Reality to Biblical Studies

I came across the 1971 debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky on human nature a couple of days ago; I last viewed it quite some years ago but found myself still fascinated enough to listen to it carefully through to the end once more. (There’s also a transcript online, I afterwards discovered.) And what memories — all that student long-hair!

What surprised me was that Foucault had lost none of his ability to leave me in some dismay with his insistence that a concept like justice is a social construct and instrument of class oppression.

I’ve been trying to get some little idea into the nature and origins of human ethics from the perspective of evolution and have come to see what we call ethical systems as phenomena found also in other social animals. No doubt Foucault would have said that what we observe in the animal kingdom generally is nothing more than displays of power struggles.

My own limited reading has suggested to me that a fundamental factor underlying ethical systems is the biological principle of reciprocity. Some readers no doubt have read more and can enlighten me further. Is not all ethics fundamentally about the well-being of living organisms so they can survive, flourish and reproduce? I will live at peace with you and not infringe upon your space as long as you respect my piece of territory that I need for my survival. From there we move to those experiments showing us monkeys throwing tantrums if they are not given the same rewards as their peers without any apparent justification for the inequity. Monkeys don’t talk about fairness or justice but they seem instinctively to understand the “fact” of what we describe with those labels.

Instruments of power? No and Yes

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How to Improve Bart Ehrman’s Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus

Matthew Ferguson has posted a very thorough article clearly setting out a weakness in Bart Ehrman’s argument with William Lane Craig over the probability of the resurrection of Jesus.

Simply to say, as Ehrman does, that the resurrection is the “least probable” explanation and therefore it can never qualify as a historical explanation really begs the question. Craig grants that it is indeed the least probable explanation a priori but that the evidence is strong enough to lead the disinterested mind to conclude that it does turn out to be the best explanation for the evidence available. As Ferguson points out:

I don’t think that Ehrman presents the strongest case against miracles (including the resurrection) when he defines them, from the get go, as “the most improbable event.” This kind of definition is too question-begging and it opens the door to the stock “naturalist presupposition” apologetic slogan. The reason we are looking at stuff like the texts that discuss Jesus’ resurrection is precisely to see whether such a miracle could ever be probable.

Ferguson’s article clearly demonstrates the application of Bayes’ theorem in assessing historical evidence for certain propositions and he links to another article discussion the way probability reasoning works in historical studies. (I especially like his opening point in that article pointing out that history is not something that “is there” like some natural phenomenon waiting to be discovered but is a way of investigating the past.) The article also links to another relevant discussion addressing apologist arguments against the likelihood that the disciples hallucinated the resurrected Jesus.

The article is Understanding the Spirit vs. the Letter of Probability.

I won’t steal Matthew’s thunder by singling out here where he believes the emphasis belongs in discussions about the evidence for the resurrection. Suffice to say that I agree with his conclusions entirely.

 

 

The Declaration of Independence Disconnect

It’s a rainy day here where I am in Thailand and I’ve had the house to myself so with no other distractions it’s a time to return to blogging. My rss feed informs me that a number of biblical scholars have chosen today to write about (or simply quote) the Declaration of Independence as if it were a sacred document. I hate being left behind so I’ve been catching up on some American history myself and one piece of research that seems to make a lot of sense to me is Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity (2010). So here are two extracts.

The first reminds me of my undergraduate studies of interest-groups behind Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and that have continued to hold power up to today:

For more than two hundred years, citizens of the United States have followed Timothy Dwight in proclaiming their nation “the favorite land of Heaven,” a place of “peace, purity and felicity.” The rolling cadences of the Declaration of Independence, we insist, proclaim us a land of liberty and equality, our Constitution, a government of law and justice. But, shadowing the image the founders sought to project as wise and disinterested statesmen, observers caught sight of the hidden figures of speculators, price gougers, embezzlers, deceivers, and rogues.

The economically and politically discontented — Daniel Shays’s hardscrabble farmers, the Whiskey rebels of western Pennsylvania, Antifederalist critics — were not the only ones to see the new nation’s mercantile and political elite in this light. Many European Americans across the economic and regional spectrum continued to hold dear the civic ideals of classic republicanism: its fears of credit and speculation, its commitment to disinterested heroism and Spartan discipline. Others espoused the commercial republican celebration of industry and frugality.

Both groups watched with mounting ill ease as the national elite grew increasingly at home with the new ways of fiscal capitalism, their embrace of spectacles and the spectacular, of risk and, yes, deception. (p. 414, my bolding and formatting)

The second extract from the conclusion to the book hits a nerve — social divisions, rhetorical and literal violence — that is far more exposed today than it was when the book was first published:  read more »

Postings delayed

I have been wafted up into a strange land of night markets and street food, of friendly neighbours helping one another out, of different bird sounds and busy squirrels in trees and fish and monitor lizards in the tree-shaded canal, Thai long-tail boats taking people to work in the mornings and returning them in the evenings, of beautiful shrines and ancient temples. I am very lucky to be living where few “farang” (foreigners) are ever seen . . . the real Thailand. There’s a painful and ugly side, too, as there always is, even in Bhutan, but that makes the good all the more precious.

A halcyon holiday. More than another month to go here at Alcinous’s court.

Believers more childish than childlike

Professor of New Testament Craig Keener writes very long and very detailed scholarly books about Jesus. He also presents himself as having converted from atheism to Christianity. Do a web search on Keener and atheist and you’ll find many sites likewise presenting him as a poster-boy for how atheism stood no chance against the intellectual inquiries of Keener into the Christian faith. But then you read Keener’s own testimony about his “atheism” and conversion and you learn he became an atheist at the ripe age of nine and converted to Christianity at the mature age of fifteen. A lost soul in search of a home?

Keener addresses the “problem of evil” for believers in God in Where was God when tragedy happened?—Exodus 1:22. He begins by reciting the most common of religious mantras: goodness and justice will always win in the end. Every child is taught this to be true in order to protect them from the traumatic reality of the real world.

Keener’s conclusion is the saddest of all, the fantasies of childhood have never left the adult:

God does not always prevent tragedy—but he does ensure his plan for the future of his people and for ultimate justice.

Indeed, Exodus resounds with the recognition that God, while not always stopping human wickedness, does not look the other way:

Adult view: God looks at the suffering of people having their children murdered now but can think only of his “long-term plan” so watches them suffer and die. Don’t worry, you Jews dying in Auschwitz; some of those responsible will be hanged at Nuremberg! Comforting — except that God won’t even tell them that much!

Consider how God would return against the next generation of Egyptians what Pharaoh had done. Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); the first plague would turn the Nile to blood (7:20).

Lovely. “Next generation” who were not responsible for the suffering he had just witnessed get to be punished, not to mention the killing of entire species of Nile-dwelling creatures. A professor of New Testament seriously writes that this is the beginning of “God’s justice”!

Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); the last plague would strike Egypt’s firstborn children (12:29).

Of course. Kill the sons, whether infants or mature adults, of the generation who bore no responsibility for the earlier crime against humanity. Kill the innocent, even adult first-born. Rob the innocent parents of their firstborn children.

And a mature adult who writes serious books about the historical Jesus teaches fellow-believers that this is God’s justice.

Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); God would drown Egypt’s army in a sea of reeds (14:28).

Only a child could imagine this as “justice”.

Though long-delayed, justice would come. As we often say in the African-American church, “God doesn’t always come when you want Him to, but He’s always right on time.”

“Always comes right on time” — like, a generation after the cruel deaths and pain inflicted on an entire race, so late that he finds he has only innocents left to kill. “Always comes right on time”.

Thus are the teachings of a serious adult professor of New Testament and author of academic works.

A soul having found a home remains protected from the realities of life by means of the perpetuation of childish fantasies.

 

 

Distinguishing between “fiction” and “history” in ancient sources

I am copying here a comment I made in another forum a few moments ago. Don’t think I’m trying to present a complete answer to the question of how we can distinguish fiction and history. Rather, I am focusing on just one detail in the opening pages of an ancient biography, by Iamblichus, of Pythagoras. The quotations are from Thomas Taylor’s 1818 translation of the Greek.

It is said, therefore, that Ancaus who dwelt in Samos in Cephallenia, was begot by Jupiter, whether he derived the fame of such an honorable descent through virtue, or through a certain greatness of soul.

The author (Iamblichus) does not present himself as the omniscient narrator but informs his readers that he is limited by his sources: “it is said”.

The sources or “traditions” allow for various interpretations and Iamblichus, presenting himself as not having any reason to presume one over the other, cites both.

In consequence, however, of this nobility of birth being celebrated by the citizens, a certain Samian poet says, that Pythagoras was the son of Apollo. For thus he sings, . . .

It is worth while, however, to relate how this report became so prevalent.

Iamblichus expresses his reliance upon sources. Further, he seeks to understand the background to his sources; e.g. how did they come to express what they did?

Indeed, no one can doubt that the soul of Pythagoras was sent to mankind from the empire of Apollo, either being an attendant on the God, or co-arranged with him in some other more familiar way: for this may be inferred both from his birth, and the all-various wisdom of his soul. And thus much concerning the nativity of Pythagoras.

Again Iamblichus sets himself apart from his subject by relating what he knows of Pythagoras to what we could call today his (I’s) “religious beliefs”.

I further expresses his arms-length distance from his subject by informing the reader that he has completed the first detail of the life of Pythagoras, and implies he is now about to relate the next.

We are not immersed in a story from which the narrator hides his presence. We share Iamblichus’s distance from the subject, and are constantly reminded that we are being told information that our author has drawn from various sources and various “traditions” or accounts, and that we are studying the life in some sort of objective order.

I do not suggest that we therefore can conclude that what Iamblichus says is “historically true”. Obviously that is not always the case. For example, he writes in the next section:

But, when Mnesarchus considered with himself, that the God, without being interrogated concerning his son, had informed him by an oracle, that he would possess an illustrious perogative, and a gift truly divine, he immediately named his wife Pythais . . . .

Here we read the rhetoric of fiction. Here Iamblichus switches to the omniscient narrator conveying to readers even the inner thoughts and motivation for an immediate response to those thoughts of Mnesarchus.

I am commenting on what I see as the “rhetoric of historical” narrative and not on the historical reliability of the content itself. That’s another discussion. The point, I think, is that readers/hearers of Iamblichus’s biography of Pythagoras are being informed that they are hearing the results of the author’s investigations into the details of P’s life. That is, they are listening to/reading what we might call a “historical biography”.

 

Humans!

Kensington council warned of ‘criminally lax’ safety standards years before Grenfell Tower fire

If only we would target criminally negligent authorities, managers and owners the same way we target terrorists.

Acts as a Rewriting of Gospels and Paul’s Letters, part 2

Continuing from part 1…..

Expanding the Foundation Story

Notice how the author of Luke-Acts prepares for his second volume (Acts) from the outset of his new gospel:

  • Luke extends the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam and God themselves. Jesus no longer (as in Matthew) is contextualized within the Abrahamic family but comes with more universal credentials.

In the gospel Jesus is clearly the authority figure but our author manoeuvres the narrative to replace Jesus with the Holy Spirit as the new authority in Acts. To do so, Luke actually contrives a new concept of the Holy Spirit, at least one that is different from the spirit we read about in Paul’s letters and the Gospel of John. (That’s another topic of its own that I may write about soon, examining two works cited by Müller, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit by Engberg-Pedersen, 2010 and “It is the Spirit That Gives Life”: A Stoic Understanding of Pneuma in John’s Gospel by Buch-Hansen, 2010.)

The Holy Spirit to Jesus Becomes the Holy Spirit to the Church

Notice next how the author repeats the motif of the Holy Spirit with which he began Jesus’ work in Acts to begin the Church’s work.

As Jesus at his baptism became endowed with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3.21-22), thus the church is also first established at the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. (p. 106)

To extrapolate from Müller’s work, I wonder if we have here an explanation for why in the Gospel of Luke the account of Jesus’ baptism is so incidentally presented (as an afterthought). The focus of Luke’s narrative is the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus through prayer. In Luke 3:21-22

When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” (NKJV)

Luke’s image is repeated so it appears like two columns side by side: as prayer and the descent of the Holy Spirit opened Jesus’ ministry and gave him the authority, so prayer and the Holy Spirit opened and authorized the ministry of the Church in Acts.

This is but one of several demonstrations of how Acts is being built out of material in the gospel.

We saw in the previous post that other evangelists shoehorned subsequent church situations (the law, gentiles) into the story of Jesus. Luke-Acts delays the completion of the foundation story, however. The foundation story is not complete until “the new Israel” is established as the church is withdrawn from “Judaism”. A series of historical steps in the life of the church replace the sayings of the earthly Jesus (as in Mark and Matthew) as the explanation for the church’s final stance on the Mosaic Law.

The Holy Spirit remains the new authority throughout Acts.

As Passover was set as the time for the covenant made by Jesus in the gospel so Pentecost was introduced as the time of the covenant with the church in Acts, Pentecost being in the Judean religion a feast of covenant renewal. With the Holy Spirit come all the fulfillments of  Scripture: new hearts, obedience, and proofs of the resurrection as promised in the Scripture, and proofs that the Scripture had been fulfilled with the messiah son of David reigning on God’s throne.

Luke’s gospel concluded with Jesus pointing to all the scriptures that had been “fulfilled” in his life, death and resurrection and Acts opens with all the scriptures being fulfilled now with the coming of the Holy Spirit to the church.

The Twelve to Israel first

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