Author Archives: Tim Widowfield

Just How Dangerous Is Mythicism?



In hindsight, I think we were unnecessarily cruel to Mr. Griffin, our misfit freshman science teacher. Behind his back, we referred to him by his initials, R.A.G., and sang that old “Rag Mop” song. He was a bit of a goof, but to RAG’s credit, he chose an innovative science text intended to take the student on an “odyssey of discovery.”

That high school textbook focused on a mysterious crystalline substance called bluestone. Over the course of the semester, we would test hypotheses and run several experiments trying to identify this stuff. I think it was my friend, Doug Simpson, who very early on sneaked a peak at the instructor’s edition lying on RAG’s desk and who shouted out, “It’s copper sulfate!

RAG was furious.


You could, of course, consider bluestone as a sort of MacGuffin. To be sure, we were learning basic chemistry; however, the main purpose of the text was to teach us the scientific method. At the beginning the book invited the student to consider the demon hypothesis, the notion that tiny invisible beings were causing our bluestone to react to exposure to heat, dilution in water, combination with other chemicals, etc. After each experiment we’d evaluate the results and alter our hypothesis. Eventually, we would develop a new, more scientific hypothesis — one that better predicted future experiments and more rationally explained our observations.

Our so-called demon hypothesis had some features in common with other early natural theories such as the chemical theory of phlogiston, which postulated an imaginary, immaterial substance released during combustion. But it had even more in common with prescientific theories that required supernatural intervention in the natural world to explain mundane phenomena. We could also draw similarities with the concept of the devil’s advocate, inasmuch as our placeholder hypothesis was obviously wrong and decidedly nonscientific (or even antiscientific).


To hear Dr. James McGrath tell it, no variation of the Jesus Myth hypothesis has merit. In fact, he consistently compares it to creationism. Actually, he always takes care to call it Young Earth Creationism, in deference to Old Earth Creationism and Guided Evolution, pseudo-scientific theories he finds perfectly acceptable.

Incidentally, here on Vridar we did not adequately mark the passage of The Exploding Cakemix, which McGrath has renamed “Religion Prof.” Of course, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Hereinafter, I shall refer to his blog by a moniker that will “retain that dear perfection,” namely The Pigeon Trough. read more »

29 October 2016: Planned Maintenance — Expect Outages

Hello, Vridarians. We’re about to undergo some changes here. You will likely see rather long outages this weekend as we move to a new platform.


Form Criticism: Modern Scholarship’s Blind Spot

Percival Gardner-Smith

Percival Gardner-Smith

In a recent post, Neil discussed Helen Bond’s paper, “The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John.” I can’t find a print version of the paper, but the video released by Biblical Studies Online on my birthday, brings me both pain and pleasure. Pleasure, because I also believe the author of the Fourth Gospel knew and used Mark. (See my series, “How John Used Mark.”) But pain, too, because Bond repeats the same mistaken views about form criticism that continue to dominate modern New Testament studies.

I agree completely with her thesis statement:

I see John as a rewriting of those written texts in light of both the cultural memories of his own group and a very particular set of historical circumstances. There’s no doubt that this gospel is distinctive in many ways, with its view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the unique Son of the Father, and the bringer of eternal life. And yet, it seems to me that many of these distinctive features can be seen to derive from a creative reflection on Markan material. (Bond, 0:55, 2016 — Note: In this post all bold emphasis in quotations is mine.)

An extremely slim volume

Further, she correctly observes that most scholars thought John knew and used the Gospel of Mark until the publication of Percival Gardner-Smith’s Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels in 1938. But notice who turns out to be the villain in this story.

So, while the extent of John’s familiarity with Matthew has often been debated, there was almost complete agreement, until the early 20th century, that the evangelist was thoroughly acquainted with Mark and very likely also with Luke. With the emergence of form criticism, however, things began to change. (Bond, 1:52, 2016)

I set those last four words in italics to indicate Bond’s ominous tone, reminiscent of Neil on The Young Ones, telling us that Vyvyan has escaped. She continues: read more »

What Is a Prophet?

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

In biblical studies, we continually read articles, posts, books, etc. in which authors use apparently ordinary words that on closer inspection turn out to be highly specific terms. And unfortunately, some authors will use these specific terms rather loosely, flitting between general and specific usage while blurring important distinctions.

I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before when discussing “memory.” Are they talking about ordinary human recollection, or are they talking about memory theory? Are they referring to the psychology of memory or the physiology of memory, or are they talking about social memory? I often suspect memory dabblers of deliberate obfuscation, but I suppose we should err on the side of charity and presume they simply find it difficult to write in ordinary, declarative sentences.

Uncertain terms

On the other hand, some terms are so fundamental that it seems almost insulting to define them for readers. We presume everyone knows what the term “scripture” means. But should we? The same goes for terms that may have multiple meanings, depending on the context. I might assume that you will know what I mean by the surrounding contextual clues. But that could be a mistake on my part.

Recently, while reading Neil’s excellent series on messianism in the first century CE, I started thinking about the terms messiah and prophet. And I wondered how many people know exactly what those terms mean in their various contexts. Both of these terms carry a lot of baggage with them — not only in their popular meanings, but also in the way they’re used in modern Christian churches.

In this post, I’m only going to focus on the term prophet, but we could probably spend the rest of the year churning out posts on terminology that we often gloss over but shouldn’t. Authors have an obligation to make sure their readers understand how we’re using these terms, but often fall short. read more »

September 11 and the Surveillance State

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. but at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized. (George Orwell, 1984, Chapter 1)

Our world, sixteen years after 11 September 2001, has changed dramatically in both subtle and obvious ways. We scarcely notice one of the most all-encompassing changes, namely the loss of privacy in almost every facet of our lives. Cameras track us everywhere we go. Our credit card payments betray our every purchase. Our cell phones share our GPS locations. We voluntarily tell people where we are, where we’re going, what we’re eating, and what we’re thinking on social media platforms.

Mostly, we relinquished our illusion of privacy without a peep. Our language shows the voluntary nature of our loss: We share with people, and simultaneously, we share with our governments. Once upon a time in the West, we trusted our governments to spy only on suspects. If they gathered enough evidence, they might arrest those suspects. But now our governments “surveil” those whom it deems “persons of interest.” If those persons act “suspiciously,” they may be “detained.”

Presumably, we allowed these changes to occur because of 9/11, specifically, because our intelligence agencies had failed. Surely, if a small band of terrorists could bring down skyscrapers in Manhattan and strike the Pentagon, someone must have failed somewhere. We can’t deny that. But exactly where did that failure occur? read more »

“Welcome on Board!”

I’ve been flying more than usual lately, and I can’t help but notice this new way of welcoming people aboard aircraft. Though not yet universal, at least half the time (presumably when following the company script) flight attendants smile and say, “Welcome on board.” The use of the locative instead of the accusative case sounds odd to my ears. It’s as strange as saying . . .

"Welcome in Sherwood!"

“Welcome in Sherwood!”

I have to remind myself, of course, that the phenomenon of case collapse has been slowly marching forward for decades, if not centuries. We still have, for example, the accusative forms “whither” and “thither,” but they sound so hopelessly old-fashioned that we rarely use them.  read more »

Anti-Historical History in Biblical Studies

I came across this today and thought I’d share it with Vridarians. Prof. Steve Mason of the University of Groningen writes:

Especially in biblical and religious studies, whose professors are among those most interested in Roman Judaea, there is a notable tendency to see history as a matter of conclusions or beliefs, no matter how those conclusions are reached. Do you believe that the Pharisees were the most influential pre-70 sect, that there was a standing Sanhedrin, that the James ossuary is genuine or a forgery, or that Essenes lived at Qumran? These kinds of questions one encounters all the time, though it is difficult to imagine similar camps forming in other areas of ancient history: over the reasons for Tacfarinas’ revolt in Africa or debating whether Boudica was motivated more by financial or sexual outrage. I do not know where this inclination comes from, but it seems to me inappropriate to history and indeed anti-historical . . . (Steve Mason, “What Is History?”, emphasis mine)

“Who Is It That Struck You?” — Minor Agreements and Major Headaches

Mathis Gothart Grünewald: Jesus Blindfolded

Mathis Gothart Grünewald: Jesus Blindfolded

In the late 1990s, I worked as a consultant at a technology company based in the midwestern United States. At one point, our team was rolling out a new version of a help desk solution. They needed to send someone to Europe to train new users, and, as luck would have it, they picked me.

When I landed in Milan, I discovered that the group I was supposed to train had gone out on strike. My contact, a mid-level manager for the branch in Italy, couldn’t hide his exasperation. He apologized many times that day, and I had to keep telling him it was all right. He felt so guilty about the whole thing that he took me on a tour of the city. There wasn’t much else to do; in countries that respect the rights of labor, you don’t cross picket lines.

No matter where you dig

Something he said that day as we were driving around Milan has stuck in my head ever since. We had to take a detour at one point, because a construction zone had recently become an archaeological site. He said, essentially, “You can’t dig anywhere in the city without finding artifacts from the past.” In fact, he said they tried not to move any earth if at all possible, because they know it’s going to happen — and it’ll throw off the schedule by months. In this case, the builders had gambled. They needed more parking within a densely populated section, and so they started in.

I often think about what he said when I start digging into the New Testament. No matter where you plant your shovel, you’re bound to find tons of material, layer after layer of articles, lectures, theses, commentaries, and books. The density of material is probably greater in the gospels than elsewhere, and though I have no hard data to back it up, I strongly suspect the volume of information in the passion narratives is greater still.

Any time I start to imagine that a superficial reading of a verse or a pericope will suffice, I have to remind myself that my opinion will surely change once I start digging. It will never be as simple as I expected, and my first impressions are often completely wrong.

Irresolvable rumps

Consider, for example, the supposed slam-dunk argument from Q (Q for Qwelle) skeptics that the minor agreements in Matthew and Luke represent intractable issues that advocates of the Two Source Theory cannot answer. They point to synoptic stories of Jesus’ mistreatment before being sent to Pilate a the prime example.

Mark Goodacre puts it this way: read more »

Bowling with Bumpers or How Not to Do Critical Scholarship

Note: I wrote this post back in February of 2012. I just never got around to adding a nice conclusion and finishing it. I offer it up now as a way to kick-start my blogging habit again.

Failure-proofing the world

I suck at bowling. I’ve tried. Heaven knows I’ve tried. I even bought a pair of bowling shoes, had a ball drilled to fit my hand, the works. Doesn’t matter. I still stink.

watching the ball go

watching the ball go (Photo credit: whatnot)

But hang on — help is on the way. There’s a surefire method for keeping your ball (if not your mind) out of the gutter. They call it “Bumper Bowling.” Just toss the ball down the lane and you’re at least assured of knocking down the seven or the ten pin.

In our “losing-is-too-hard” culture, which simply delays the age at which children learn that the world is a lonely, cold, hard place, we don’t want anyone to suffer the pain of failure, so we reward any effort. No more tears at the bowling alley. Any errant ball is gently kept on its course to the pins thanks to a set of railings, or in some cases, a gaudy pair of inflatable tubes.

Of course my problem isn’t landing in the channel, it’s missing the easy spares. So while the bumpers keep the very young, the weak, and the infirm from getting skunked, it won’t assure them of a decent score. Unless, that is, they start handing out strikes for knocking down eight or nine pins. “Close enough, Tyler! High five, Brianna!”

The Gospel of John as a beautiful, clumsy child

Pity poor John. If you wanted to explain Christianity to someone who knew nothing about it, wouldn’t the Gospel of John be the first thing you’d show him or her? It’s just so “right.” Jesus knows who he is from the very start. His disciples immediately know he’s the Messiah, even before they become disciples. “Peter, come quick! We have found the Messiah!”

And then there’s all that wonderful stuff in the discourses. “I go to prepare a place for you. In my father’s house there are many mansions.” That’s unforgettable. It’s sweet, poetic, and comforting.

But when it comes to historicity, the Gospel of John is the beautiful child who can’t throw, can’t catch, and runs like an eggbeater. From the very start, commentators on John’s gospel said it was a “spiritual gospel.” That’s like when your grandma cocks her head to one side and says, “Oh, bless his heart. He tries so hard.” read more »

The Motiveless Behavior of Fairy-Tale Characters

A picture by Gustave Doré of Mother Goose read...

A picture by Gustave Doré of Mother Goose reading written (literary) fairy tales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In true stories, as well as most conventional fiction, when characters move about, do things, say things, and interact with one another or with their environments, they operate logically. That is, we understand their motivations. The chicken crosses the road not simply to get to the other side, but because she wanted something over there.

Motiveless motion

On the other hand, characters in fairy tales operate differently. They don’t act like real people. In their book, Social Memory: New Perspectives on the Past, James Fentress and Chris Wickham explain that within folk tales (of which fairy tales are a subset), everything follows convention — the setting, the plot, the characters — all of it must follow the formula. And so people do things that in real life would raise serious questions. However, in their fairy-tale setting, we suspend disbelief.

In ‘The Juniper Tree’, the mother does not ask how and why she has become pregnant, nor how or why she is to die in giving birth. Similarly, there is no particular reason why Ann-Marie gathers her brother’s bones and buries them under the juniper tree; she just does so. The father is given no personality at all; he merely serves to accomplish the thematic business of eating the ‘beast’.

This motivelessness is typical. The behaviour of fairy-tale characters is governed by a set of themes which specifies the way in which a particular series of actions must be performed, and it is this thematic logic, rather than a character’s psychology, that is frequently behind the character’s action. Even though there is nothing in the story that gives Ann-Marie reason to know this, she must bury her brother’s bones at the foot of the tree that marks his mother’s grave because this is the way the particular narrative motif works. Unless the bones of the slaughtered beast are gathered in its ‘skin’ and placed beside its mother, it cannot be resuscitated. (Fentriss and Wickham, 1992, p. 65, emphasis mine)

Essentially, in these stories people serve functional purposes. As the authors put it, they are “embodied functions.” In fact we would be committing a categorical mistake if we focused on their psychological motivations. It’s much the same in the stories we read in the gospels. Consider the tale of the disciples walking through the wheat fields, deciding on the spur of the moment to eat some of the grain. read more »

The Memory Mavens, Part 10: Memory and History (1)

Jorge Luis Borges en 1963

Jorge Luis Borges en 1963 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ireneo Funes, the eponymous character in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “Funes, the Memorious,” lived the first part of his life completely in the moment. Recalling his first encounter with the enigmatic figure, the narrator relates an incident from long ago when he and his cousin Bernardo were racing on horseback, trying to outrun a storm. They heard, suddenly, the sound of footsteps on the brick footpath above. It was Funes.

Bernardo unexpectedly yelled to him: “What’s the time, Ireneo?” Without looking up, without stopping, Ireneo replied: “In ten minutes it will be eight o’clock, child Bernardo Juan Francisco.” The voice was sharp, mocking. (Borges, 1967, p. 36)

In those days, Funes always knew the exact time; he knew about now, but remembered nothing of the past. Later, when the narrator meets Funes, he explains how an accident changed everything.

For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything — almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. (Borges, 1967, p. 40)

A garbage disposal

The fall left Funes unable to walk, and that paralysis becomes a metaphor for the crushing weight of all remembrances, which immobilize and suffocate. For while he can remember everything, his mind is inundated with every detail about every moment that he has ever experienced — and not only the event itself, but the clear recollection of each time he has recalled that event. read more »

The Prodigal Son: Cultural Reception History and the New Testament

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 166...

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662–1669 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neil’s post from last year — “Why Does Jesus Never Do Anything Wrong?” — got me thinking about a story told by David Livermore in his course, Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. He tells of a New Testament scholar and minister who performed a small experiment in which he asked people of different cultures to tell him the parable of the Prodigal Son. Afterward, he compared the points of story to what people remembered, noting what they tended to remember as well as what they left out.

His results were somewhat surprising. It turns out that our cultural background, social context, and personal history can have a large impact on what we consider important. Without realizing it, our frame of reference profoundly distorts how we understand and recall information.

How did the Prodigal Son end up in a pigpen?

Although Livermore and others have used this anecdote (you can find many references on the web), I found it rather difficult to track down the original scholarship. Sadly, the book in which the paper first appeared, Literary Encounters with the Reign of God, is far too expensive for me; however, you can see bits of it in the Google Books preview. Fortunately, the author, Mark Allen Powell, recapitulates much of his paper in the book, What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew.

Powell, a narrative critic, frequently uses the term polyvalence, which for him has a specific meaning:

Simply put, polyvalence refers to the capacity—or, perhaps, the inevitable tendency— for texts to mean different things to different people. Literary critics differ drastically in their evaluation of polyvalence (i.e., friend or foe?), but virtually all literary critics now recognize the reality of this phenomenon: texts do mean different things to different people and at least some of the interpretive differences that have been examined (e.g., gender-biased interpretations) appear to follow fairly predictable patterns. (Powell, 2007, p. 12)

I would add that the situation might even be worse for those of us who were steeped in a particular tradition since childhood. Not only have I been hearing New Testament stories for over five decades, but I’ve been told what they mean, again and again. I even know them by titles that drive the reader or hearer to understand them from an orthodox point of view. For example, I knew the parable of the Prodigal Son long before I knew what the word “prodigal” even meant.

As I said earlier, Powell asked a number students to pair off, then read, and finally describe the parable to their partners. He then noted the details they emphasized or omitted. (The exercise comes from Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie’s Mark as Story.) Oddly enough, they all left out the part about the famine that struck right when the young man’s money ran out. Powell notes: read more »

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 5: Memory Distortion


Mnemosyne, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In our last post, we discussed the genre of the gospels. We saw that Bart Ehrman, at least for this book (Jesus Before the Gospels), chooses to gloss over the issue of genre, and simply assumes that the gospels contain memories of the historical Jesus. Of course, he concedes that those memories may be distorted.

But what exactly do we mean by “memory distortion”? And is it a big deal, or is it just a minor annoyance?

Human memory can fail in two ways. First, we can simply forget the past. Second, our memories of the past can become changed and distorted. These inaccurate memories can contain false details, or they can represent incidents that never happened. Our capacity for distortion affects not only our personal recollection but social memories as well.

The nature of collective memory

In the introductory chapter to Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, Daniel Schacter writes:

A prominent theme in this area of study is that societies often hold beliefs about their pasts that are based on stories and myths that develop and change over time, often bearing little resemblance to the events that initially gave rise to them . . . 

Thus, understanding the nature of collective memory is inextricably intertwined with understanding the nature of memory distortion. Yet here, too, issues pertaining to memory distortion are of more than purely academic concern. For example, recent attempts by various fringe groups to deny the occurrence of the Holocaust have alerted scholars and the lay public alike to the extraordinary dangers that are posed by willful distortion of collective memory . . . (Schacter, 1995, p. 3, emphasis mine)

At the end of the same book, Lawrence E. Sullivan offers some closing remarks in an essay entitled “Memory Distortion and Anamnesis: A View from the Human Sciences.” He writes: read more »

“In Most Worlds, You Don’t Even Exist” — Miracles and Probability

Jesus Walking on Water

Jesus Walking on Water (Ivan Aivazovsky)

Recently, while watching our favorite apoplectic antimythicist discuss “The Case of the Historical Jesus,” something the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature said caught my ear. Here’s what he said:

Historians tend to discount miracle claims and those kinds of things right off the bat, because even if they were to investigate them, the things that people call miracles tend to be things that are inherently improbable . . . But talking about things like walking on water, turning water into wine — most historians won’t even bother discussing those things, because the most a historian ever does is say something is probable. And a historian is never going to tell you that something inherently improbable is probable. And so those kinds of things can be set aside from the outset. (James McGrath, 2016)

Actually, two things drew my attention here. The first is the term inherently improbable, and the second is the claim that historians set aside miracle claims.

Inherently improbable

If you search among books, articles, and academic papers, you’ll find the term inherently improbable used quite frequently in the sciences, liberal arts, religious studies, and the law. But in philosophy (especially logic), you’ll also find people writing about it with some ambivalence.

What exactly do we mean by inherent probability? In his book, Acceptable Premises: An Epistemic Approach to an Informal Logic Problem, James Freeman cites John Nolt’s definition. read more »