Category Archives: Book Reviews & Notes


Ten Elements of Christian Origin

by Neil Godfrey

pentecost1Richard Carrier addresses the question of the historicity of Jesus in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt in the following order:

First, he defines the points that will identify a historical Jesus and those that will be signs of a mythical one.

Second, he set out 48 elements that make up all the background information that needs to be considered when examining the evidence for Jesus.

Third, only then does he address the range of evidence itself and the ability of the alternative hypotheses to account for it.

What Carrier is doing is enabling readers to think through clearly the different factors to be assessed in any analysis of the question: the details of the hypotheses themselves, our background knowledge (none of it must be overlooked — we must guard against tendentious or accidental oversights) and the details of the evidence itself. The book thus sets out all the material in such a way as to enable readers to think the issues through along the following lines:

– given hypothesis X, and given our background knowledge, are the details of this piece of evidence what we would expect? how likely are these details given hypothesis X and our background knowledge?

and (not “or”)

– are the details of this particular evidence what we would expect given the alternative hypothesis (and all our background knowledge)? how likely are these details given our alternative hypothesis and our background knowledge?

That, in a nutshell, is what his Bayesian analysis boils down to. The point of the assigning probability figures to each question and simply a means of assisting consistency of thought throughout the entire exercise. (At least that’s my understanding.)

I’ll put all of this together in a more comprehensive review of Carrier’s book some time in the not too distant future, I hope.

Meanwhile, I’d like to comment on the first ten of his background elements: those of Christian origins. read more »


Jewish Expectations of a Slain Messiah — the Early Evidence

by Neil Godfrey

This post is a companion to Messiah to be Killed in Pre-Christian Jewish Expectation — the Late Evidence. It’s a topic I have never explored in any depth before but Richard Carrier points to the evidence for anyone interested to follow up for themselves. I learn things when I set them out for others to read also hence these posts.

What are the chances of Christians and Jews independently arriving at their respective scenarios of a messiah as a son of David as well as a messiah as a son of Joseph, with both having to suffer, one of them to die and be resurrected, with a messianic victory at the end — and all extrapolated from same scriptures such as Isaiah 53 and Zechariah 12? (The previous post addressed the likelihood that Jews would have borrowed and adapted such an idea in a way that lent support to Christianity’s beliefs.) The more plausible explanation, Carrier suggests, is that both the Christian and Jewish scenarios grew from a single set of concepts found within Second Temple Judaism. (Carrier discusses an item of possible evidence for such a pre-Christian era strand but I need to do more reading on that before I can know if or how to present it here.)

Alternatively we might think that such a notion was quite easy to arrive at so there was nothing special or unusual about the Christians discovering such ideas in the scriptures as a mere academic exercise. Either way,

Clearly dying messiahs were not anathema. Rabbinical Jews could be just as comfortable with the idea as Christians were. (p. 75)

So what is the pre-Christian evidence listed by Carrier?

The most obvious evidence is well-known to all Christians who have ever taken a serious interest in the Bible. It is, of course, the prophecy of the death of the Messiah in Daniel 9:26. read more »


Messiah to be Killed in Pre-Christian Jewish Expectation — the Late Evidence

by Neil Godfrey

There is no reasonable basis for denying that some pre-Christian Jews would have expected at least one dying messiah, and some could well have expected his death to be an essential atoning death, just as the Christians believed of Jesus. . .

Such a concept was therefore not a Christian novelty wholly against the grain of Jewish thinking, but already exactly what some Jews were thinking — or could easily have thought. (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 77, 73)

Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin

Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin

What evidence does Richard Carrier cite for this claim?

Part (not all) of his evidence includes, ironically, texts that some assume have no relevance at all. So let’s first of all hear the justification for referring to passages that were written some centuries after the birth of Christianity:

There is no plausible way that Jews would invent interpretations of their scripture that supported and vindicated Christians. They would not invent a Christ with a father named Joseph who dies and is resurrected (as the Talmud does indeed describe). They would not proclaim Isaiah 53 to be about this messiah and admit that Isaiah there had predicted this messiah would die and be resurrected. That was the very biblical passage that Christians were using to prove their case. Moreover, the presentation of this ideology in the Talmud makes no mention of Christianity and gives no evidence of being any kind of polemic or response to it. 

So we have evidence here of a Jewish belief that possibly predates Christian evangelizing, even if that evidence survives only in later sources. (pp. 73-74, my bolding and formatting in all quotations)

read more »


Summing Up: On McGrath’s Review of Carrier (Short Version)

by Neil Godfrey

onhistoricityA summary of the main points I attempted to bring out in my previous two posts has been posted as comment #24 on Bible and interpretation in response to McGrath’s review there. (McGrath has additionally discussed his review on his blog.)

For convenience here is the shorter version of my previous two posts that appears on Bible and Interpretation. (I am well aware it scarcely reads with much fluency. Something had to be sacrificed to time and other pressures.)

McGrath stresses that Carrier’s thesis depends on the strength of the details but by focussing on an introductory discussion of the AoI he does not address any of arguments in support of the basic myth hypothesis. Carrier makes it clear that his discussion of the AoI is part of his definition of the mythicism he will be arguing and that his arguments will be given in future chapters.

When McGrath suggests there is a problem with Carrier’s approach given that many details are compatible with a historicist or mythicist scenario, he is failing to register the very point Carrier is making: his book intends to explore the probabilities of those respective contradictory reconstructions. read more »


McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 2, Ascension of Isaiah

by Neil Godfrey

Related pages:

After addressing the introduction to James McGrath’s initial post reviewing Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus I now discuss his primary focus — the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI). I should be able to say that I will discuss McGrath’s treatment of what Carrier himself writes about the AoI but just as we saw with McGrath’s treatment of Earl Doherty’s mythicist case McGrath gives readers very little idea of what Carrier himself is actually arguing.

One does read at length McGrath’s own viewpoint but without fairly addressing Carrier’s own point the reader has no way of understanding the potential validity of McGrath’s criticisms. No-one reading McGrath’s review would realize, for example, that Carrier includes strong arguments for believing that significant sections of the original text describing the details of Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath (including a one and a half year span of time in the lower firmament) have been lost.

Anyone who has read Carrier’s book also quickly realizes McGrath has read little more than the pages he is discussing.

Carrier introduces the AoI as part of his definition of “the minimal Jesus myth theory”.

For those not aware of the AoI, the AoI is an early Christian composite text:

  1. chapters 1 to 5 describe Isaiah’s altercations with false prophets and culminate in his martyrdom;
  2. the second half (6 to 11) narrates a heavenly vision in which a Beloved Son, one who is predicted to be called Jesus on earth, descends to the lower regions to be crucified, resurrected and exalted again in the highest of the seven heavens;
  3. nested in this second part is another section (11:3-22), in the view of many scholars evidently much later and quite out of character with the style and theme of the surrounding vision, that pictures graphic details of Jesus’ nativity and his crucifixion outside Jerusalem.

That outline is a simplified overview (other verses are also thought to be interpolations and there is some debate about sequences of interpolations) but the general idea can be grasped from this image (also simplified). I have also tried to capture the different viewpoints one is likely to encounter in the various studies on this text:


1995 was a turning point in the study of the AoI. That year saw two pivotal Italian works that have paved the way for a new consensus:

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

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

Significance of the AoI

Richard Carrier, like Earl Doherty, argues on the basis of the New Testament epistles that the earliest Christian belief about Jesus was that he was understood to have carried out his works of salvation in the heavenly realm and not on earth. Other texts from the era are drawn in as supporting evidence for this belief. Both Carrier and Doherty see in one of these supporting texts, the AoI, direct evidence external to the epistles for an early Christian belief that Jesus was crucified by demons in a region above the earth.

How Early is the AoI?

read more »


McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 1, the Introduction

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 8.43.31 amJames McGrath has begun to review Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus at the Bible and Interpretation site. The tone of his review makes a striking contrast to his “review” or Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. McGrath explains that he will cover Carrier’s book in several posts. This opening assessment, Did Jesus Die in Outer Space? Evaluating a Key Claim in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, McGrath explains, will

seek to interact with one key element, and a central one at that – a core part of what Carrier calls the “basic myth hypothesis” or the “minimal Jesus myth theory.”

That “key element” is the Ascension of Isaiah.

I will address the details and rationale for McGrath’s choice of Carrier’s pages 36-48 discussing this text in my next post. For now I am only commenting on McGrath’s introduction. This first instalment of McGrath’s review exceeds 3400 words and the introductory paragraphs 500. I single out his introduction here because is an ominous warning that despite McGrath’s new-found professional tone in his criticism of mythicism we are still going to encounter the same failure of logic and explanation of the arguments he claims to be critiquing.

And a great many details are compatible with more than one scenario. This is one reason why Carrier’s claim, that multiple contradictory reconstructions show that there is a methodological problem with mainstream historical methods, is actually disproven by his own book, which acknowledges time and again that certain details are true of the evidence regardless whether there was a historical Jesus or not.[1] If the same historical data can be compatible with more than one interpretation – and all historians know that this is often the case, particularly when it comes to matters of ancient history, when the evidence is often piecemeal – then a plurality of interpretations is bound to be par for the course. . . 

[1] Carrier p.11; see also for instance pp.85-88.

McGrath’s point is simply wrong. Carrier is not contradicting himself or disproving his own point in his book. The fact that certain evidence is decisive for neither historicity or mythicism is not a question of “interpretation” in the sense McGrath uses the word but a question of fact and logic that can and must be agreed upon by both sides. read more »


Casey’s Calumny Continued: Response Concluded

by Neil Godfrey

Maurice Casey continues:

A number of Godfrey’s comments on himself when he was a member of the Worldwide Church of God are sufficiently similar to his comments on scholars as to give the impression that not only has he no clue about critical scholars, which is obvious from his many comments, but that he is basically expressing rejection of his former self. For example, he comments:

‘Only by lazy assumptions about their sources can biblical “historians” declare Jesus’ crucifixion a “fact of history”…” [Link is to the original source for this quotation]

Godfrey, however, comments on his previous self:

‘As a fundamentalist WCG believer I believed I had all the big answers to the big questions of life. I simply shut my mind to any idea that questioned those answers. In a little more detail, he comments on his movement out of the Worldwide Church of God in the 1980s, ‘So I seriously studied the origins and nature of the Bible for the first time in my life. Strange (or just lazy or cowardly or both?) that I had spent my whole life studying its content . . . but all that time I never before thought to study in any real depth, and with true open-minded honesty, the origins of that content.’

I do not doubt that these are fair comments on Blogger Godfrey, but that is no excuse for him to attribute similar habits to critical scholars. (p. 31)

(Well I’ve never accused biblical scholars of being cowardly but it would strengthen Casey’s argument if I had.)

When Casey originally posted this criticism on Hoffmann’s blog I pointed out — see the subsection Did Not Give Proper References in Concluding Response of Blogger Neil Godfrey to Blogger Maurice Casey of TJP®©™ – how he had so badly mangled the citation that he was in fact misrepresenting my words. In his book he has corrected the error but in so doing he has self-servingly removed all context entirely from my words.

Whether it’s laziness or something else I cannot say, but Casey does not address the context of the words he has quoted from my post. My laziness remark was a direct quotation from a biblical historian — one of Casey’s own academic peers.

I was actually quoting two of Casey’s peers making the “laziness” charge. One of them had been working at a university quite near to Casey’s.

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.” — Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28. From my post:  Lazy historians and their ancient sources

There has been a very strong tendency to take the Biblical writing at its face value and a disinclination to entertain a hermeneutic of suspicion such as is a prerequisite for serious historical investigation. It is shocking to see how the narrative of the Nehemiah Memoir has in fact been lazily adopted as a historiographical structure in the writing of modern scholars, and how rarely the question of the probability of the statements of the Nehemiah Memoir have been raised.(Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help, p. 164) From my post: Naivety and laziness in biblical historiography (Nehemiah case study 5)

The “laziness” of building a case upon “unquestioned assumptions” is a point regularly surfacing in the scholarly debates on research into the history behind the biblical narratives.

One thing my cult experience taught me: Never assume what you read or hear is true. Always check the sources for yourself. If scholars assume what they read is true (such as assuming what Casey writes is true) despite their training to know better then they deserve to be faulted.

Am I imputing my own past habits to critical scholars? There is no way anyone can compare the process by which I embraced the teachings of the WCG and the scholarly processes of critical scholars.

Casey could have read my little biographical statements on this blog where I happily admit that I have brought some positives with me out of my negative religious past. One of these is an acute awareness of just how easy it is for me to be wrong despite my best intentions otherwise. Another was a resolve to always strive to double check my assumptions and learn how to validly evaluate everything. If I see a failure to question assumptions in some historians’ works I am reassured to find others who are similarly aware and who avoid those pitfalls. Would Casey accuse scholars like Liverani and Childs of likewise expressing rejections of their former selves?

Always the anti-semitic innuendo
read more »


Maurice Casey’s Calumny: My Reply

by Neil Godfrey

jesuscaseyWhen I first read Maurice Casey’s descriptions of me and this blog I couldn’t take them seriously. Anyone who knows me — even if only online — knows what absurd nonsense his accusations are. They are nothing but the malicious payback over my temerity to address critically what I believe are the unfounded assumptions and fallacious reasoning behind some of his and his friends’ arguments. Perhaps my biggest sin of all was that I sometimes resorted to “entertaining and somewhat naughty comments”, a bit of gentle satire, to drive home my points when they seemed to elicit nothing but abusive insults in response. “Entertaining satire”, I thought, was more appropriate than repaying insult with insult. “Entertaining and somewhat naughty comments” is Maurice Casey’s way of describing a colleague’s words. He has a different description for mine.

A few scholars, among them Jim West, James Crossley, Joseph Hoffmann and James McGrath, have indicated that they seriously believe Casey’s “research” (sic) into the biographical details of various “mythicists” is “valuable” and “informative”. This post tests their evaluation against the evidence relating to one case-study in Casey’s book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myth?

Casey accused this Vridar blog of being

ignorant, opinionated, rude and malicious. (p. 27)

Anyone can make up their own mind on that one just by reading a few posts.

Of me he has said that I

do not understand scholarship. . . love to misrepresent scholars, especially by portraying [them] as ignorant (p. 27)

And if you’re not just a lurker but sometimes comment on Vridar Casey says “most of” you are no different.

On this blog’s right hand column there is drop down box from which readers can select an archive on any specific topic I have posted about. Listed there are posts to 156 books by various authors, 223 posts in all. Anyone curious enough can select any one of those posts see how often I have ”loved to misrepresent” the work discussed and how many times I loved to portray the authors as ignorant.

I hardly have to defend myself where anyone interested can see for themselves the facts of the matter. read more »


New Blog by Author of Son of Yahweh, Clarke Owens

by Neil Godfrey

One of the most interesting and informative books I have read about the gospels is one that is probably (and most unfortunately) not widely known among biblical scholars, at least not yet. It is a study of the gospels from the perspective of literary criticism. Clarke W. Owens shows us the way literary criticism works and the insights it gives us into the nature of texts and to a certain extent the original intentions of their authors.

Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels demonstrates clearly the role literary criticism plays in ascertaining the historical value of narrative contents. It is on this point that Owens is in sharp disagreement with many New Testament scholars who seem to assume that literary criticism has little or no value for the historian. Scholars using the gospels as historical sources for the study of Jesus sometimes mistakenly professes little or no need for the insights of literary criticism.

Several posts on Owens’ book appear in the Vridar archive.

We can catch up with more of Clarke Owens now on his website Clarke W. Owens and Blog

read more »

Bible Scholars’ Inability to Handle Mythicism: No Meek Messiah by Michael Paulkovich

by Neil Godfrey

nomeekmessiahRecently we have seen on the web more instances of otherwise reputable New Testament scholars demonstrating their apparent inability to actually read with any serious attempt at comprehension or publicly discuss radical views that originate from unwashed outsiders.  (The second case I will discuss here involves a quite unexpected and unexplained banning of comments from me on a certain blog.)

  • We have seen the way Professor James McGrath boldly wrote that Doherty said or did not say certain things in his “review” of his book and the way I could demonstrate word for word, page for page, that McGrath clearly had not read as much of Doherty’s book as he claimed he had.
  • Then we saw Bart Ehrman making so many gaffes in his self-proclaimed first-ever scholarly “sustained argument that Jesus must have lived”: among the very many howlers were attributing to G. A. Wells an argument he flatly opposes (that Jesus was crucified in the heavenly realm my demons) and attributing to Doherty as “one of the arguments he makes in his book” the actual central thesis of his book!
  • Next appeared an anti-mythicist book by Maurice Casey that erroneously accused several non-mythicists of being his hated targets and that again accused others of sustaining arguments they in fact do not hold.
  • Most recently I have experienced James Crossley ignoring titles, sub-headings and opening words of my sentences in order to lift part sentences out of context to sarcastically accuse me of writing the very opposite of the point I was making.

Why do scholars, professors, seem to be incapable of reading with minimal comprehension certain types of works they seek to refute or that they presumably merely fear they might find offensive?

Is there a certain measure of fear there? Fear that others might see that their research careers have been built on sand? Or is it just plain old intellectual arrogance?

For whatever reason it seems to me that such scholars approach certain types of works so emotively that they are incapable of reading the words on the page with any normal faculty of calm comprehension. Sometimes I’ve opened a letter or email I’ve expected to be outrageous in some manner and I’ve read it with that presumption and reacted just as I expected to react after glancing over it. Only later after calming down have I been able to see that I read my initial expectations into the words and that it was not nearly so bad as I had originally thought. Is that how scholars read works by mythicists (or even from me in some cases?) — except that they never return later for the second reading in a calmer frame of mind?

Earlier this month Candida Moss (noted recently for her Myth of Persecution) and Joel Baden (The Historical David), both reputable professors, combined to produce a bit of sarcastic “comedy” for The Daily Beast– ostensibly a review of a crazy mythicist publication. James McGrath couldn’t resist a good guffaw and immediately invited all of his readers to take a look and get a good belly laugh, too. Aren’t those mythicists such incompetent ignoramuses! That was the message and presumably the entire intent of posting the review and notice of it.

Maybe I’ve been around this business for too long now but I sensed something was not quite right. None of these professors actually explained what the book was about but only mocked a particular claim giving us all the distinct impression (but without actually explicitly saying so!) that this risible point was the central thesis of the book. So I bought a copy of the book to read for myself.

(Meanwhile I came across another criticism of the book,The Wrong Monkey, this time by a fellow atheist. This review was also critical, but again of just the one point magnified by Moss and Baden.)

The article I’m referring to was in the Real Deal section and given the title So-Called ‘Biblical Scholar’ Says Jesus A Made-Up Myth. In the article Moss and Baden (and subsequently the others) mock a list of 126 ancient names apparently presented as authors from whom we “should” have some evidence about Jesus had he existed. The book being targeted was No Meek Messiah by Michael Paulkovich.

Did anyone who wrote about No Meek Messiah ever read it?

I don’t think so. Or if they did they hid their guilt well from the public.  read more »


Why Was the Gospel of Matthew Written?

by Neil Godfrey
English: Folio 9 from the codex; beginning of ...

English: Folio 9 from the codex; beginning of the Gospel of Matthew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Goulder’s thesis that the Gospel of Matthew was composed specifically to be read out week by week in churches (assemblies) may not have been widely adopted yet I am convinced that the core of his arguments is worth serious consideration. Of course Goulder applies his thesis to the Gospels of Mark and Luke, too, but I focus here on Matthew.

Here is the essence of Goulder’s argument as he himself sums it up in Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar (2009). I also build on a simplified table Goulder uses to illustrate his argument in The Gospels According to Michael Goulder: A North American Response (2002).

  • The gospel can be divided up into discrete units or more or less the same length. It ends with the story of the resurrection, a suitable reading for “Easter Day”. (I can hear many of us wondering when “Easter Day” began to be observed and when does the gospel itself appear to have been written. Those questions require more detailed discussion for another time.)
  • Let’s imagine the gospel’s story units were intended to be read serially, week by week, throughout the year, with thematically relevant units meant for their appropriate seasons (such as the resurrection story at “Easter”).  If so, we would expect to begin reading the opening chapter of the gospel after Easter (or after the more Jewish sounding Passover/Wave Sheaf Offering). We would expect to find seven narrative units to coincide with the seven weeks leading up to Pentecost.

Here is what we find:

read more »


The Origin of the Good Samaritan Parable and Other Lucan Favourites

by Neil Godfrey

David Teniers the Younger (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

John Drury, DD, in The Parables of the Gospels, explains why it is very doubtful that Jesus ever spoke the parable of the Good Samaritan. The evidence points towards the real author of this parable being the same person who was responsible for the work of Luke-Acts. For convenience we’ll call him as Luke.

The parables of Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew are strongly allegorical. In the Gospel of Luke their allegorical character takes a back seat. The parables in this third gospel are found to be more “realistic stories which are rich in homely detail and characterization.” (Drury, p. 111)

It is not likely that different traditions, one recalling allegorical parables spoken by Jesus and the other more realistic stories of his, went their own distinct ways so that Matthew heard one sort and Luke the other. I think it’s more reasonable to suggest that we see the creative hands of the authors at work.

The All Important Mid-Turning Point

Another indicator that Luke’s creative imagination was responsible for the parables unique to his gospel is their structure.

L [i.e. unique to Luke] parables have a characteristic shape of which the most striking feature is that the crisis happens in the middle, not, as so often in Matthew’s parables, at the end. (Drury, p. 112)

It is this “middle” part of the story, or the mid-point in time, that is the turning point. Not that this observation is original with Drury. It is a familiar pattern to students of Luke’s parables ever since Conzelmann’s The Theology of Saint Luke.

This pattern is in fact a characteristic of all of Luke’s work, so much so that Drury can say

The pattern in the L parables is deeply embedded in Luke’s mind. It is the pattern of the whole of his history. Jesus in his Gospel is not history’s end but its turning point, setting it on a new course in which Judaism drops away and the Christian Church goes triumphantly forward. (p. 113)

So the story of Jesus begins in a narrative rich in allusions to the patriarchal stories of Genesis and Judges, proceeds to portray Jesus as the new Elijah (contrast Mark and Matthew who gave this role to John the Baptist), and follows up Jesus’ mission with the growth of the church as seen in his parables and in Acts. Jesus is the mid-point or turning point of the grand narrative.

This carries over to Luke’s eschatology. In Luke we read less of the end of the age, period, than we do of the end of a person’s life. But that end of the individual’s life is not the end of the story. Consequences of the life led follow. The individual’s end is the turning or mid-point. In the parable of the rich fool, for example, the crisis comes with his unexpected death and this is followed by the punishment he must receive in his afterlife. For Luke the “end” is moved from the cosmic to the individual level.

It’s the way Luke thinks and the way he designs narratives. He didn’t just happen to inherit a subset of parables from Jesus that coincidentally matched his own literary-narrative style and no-one else’s. The parables of Jesus in Luke’s gospel are Luke’s own creations.

If only by symmetry of pattern, the L parables fit perfectly into Luke’s perception of the historical significance of Jesus’ biography. 

By contrast Matthew was “very ready to end his parables with the end of time.”

The All Important Individuals

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For Whom Were the Gospels Written?

by Neil Godfrey

the-gospels-for-all-christiansBefore Richard Bauckham wrote Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006) he had challenged another common assumption among his peers with The Gospels for All Christians (1998). Since the 1960s it had been the common assumption that each of the canonical gospels had been written for a local religious community. Each gospel had been written for a small “group of churches . . . homogeneous in composition and circumstances.”

Each gospel was generally thought to have addressed the particular situation facing its community. Accordingly the gospels could be read as allegories that told us more about those communities than they did about the events in the life of Jesus.

  • James Louis Martyn led the way in 1968 with History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel. He argued that the Gospel’s account of the excommunication from the synagogue of the man healed of blindness was about ”the formal separation of the church and synagogue” occasioned by the decision of the rabbis at Jamnia to reformulate a standard curse against heretics to include Christians in the late first century.
  • Theodore Weeden followed in 1971 with Mark: Traditions in Conflict which persuaded many that when the Gospel of Mark characterized the disciples as completely failing to understand Christ it was in order to criticize Christians in the author’s own day who taught that Christ called them to perform signs and miracles to demonstrate the truth of the gospel. The author represented those in his community who believed Jesus called his followers to suffer and die with him.
  • Philip Esler, 1987, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts, finds in the image of the “flock” in both Luke and in Acts (the church at Ephesus) a symbol of  a small church that is beset by dangers both within and without. The implication (as described by Bauckham) is that the author is addressing that one small troubled community and not the entire church.
  • Andrew Overman, 1990, Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism, explained the gospel as an expression of the struggle of a Galilean Jewish community in conflict with another Jewish sect moving towards what was to become rabbinic Judaism.

What grounds does Richard Bauckham offer for us to think that the gospels were not written for local churches but rather for “all Christians” in all churches everywhere? Or at least a very generalized Christian audience wherever its churches were to be found. read more »


A Secular Approach to Christian Origins Compromised by Faith and Theology

by Neil Godfrey


This post concludes my series on Crossley’s Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE).

The previous post is here.  All posts on this book, both the recent ones from 2014 and those from 2010-11, are archived here.


Misguided equivalence

How is one meant to respond to the words of a secular historian who says it would be “foolish and arrogant” to claim that his approach is “inherently superior” to one used by a Christian apologist? How is it possible for a secular rationalist to engage with a faith-grounded apologist as if both perspectives should be evaluated on an equal footing? Does the virtue of ”mutual tolerance” require persons with opposing intellectual agendas to somehow find a way to exchange views constructively and productively? Does the pointlessness of ”preaching to the converted” mean one’s efforts to exchange ideas among others with a similar philosophical outlook is also pointless?

Imagine the impact if more and more nonreligious, secular-minded historians were to become NT scholars. But if such a hypothetical collection of scholars were to make its impact felt, there must be mutual tolerance and the avoidance of . . . preaching to the converted. It would be foolish and arrogant to claim that one approach is inherently superior to opposing ones. . . . (p. 32)

How can a nonreligious, secular-minded historian possibly not claim his or her approach is inherently superior to an opposing one that “proves” the bodily resurrection of Jesus?

How can a leopard change its spots? How can the Christian apologists ever agree that their methods and faith-assumptions are not superior to those of the secular-minded nonreligious rationalist? What would be the point of being a secular-rationalist if one did not believe that such an outlook was indeed superior to the methods that are justified by faith?

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 11.13.56 pmCrossley confuses particular historical methods and approaches with the philosophical underpinnings most of them have in common: a belief that testable knowledge is more reliably accumulated through secular-rational methods rather than through enquiry guided by and seeking to serve the agenda of religious faith:

Richard Evans has pointed out that the history of history is littered with examples of different hegemonic claims by a given historical theory or practice wanting to dominate the world of historical study but usually ending up as legitimate subspecialities. 

Richard Evans was not addressing faith-histories versus secular histories. He was referring to the various approaches within secular history: postmodernists, psychohistorians, Marxists, feminists, social historians. Crossley has badly misunderstood and misapplied Evans’ point. (See Kindle version of Evans’ In Defence of History, locations 2744 and 3688)

It is not a question of one new method claiming hegemony only to be sidelined to a subspeciality. The real issue is well expressed by Niels Peter Lemche: read more »