Category Archives: Book Reviews & Notes


2014-07-15

The God and Dying Messiah Debate Preceded Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

In my last post I finished off with some reservations about Boyarin’s interpretation of the two heavenly figures in Daniel 7 as two deities. This post lets Boyarin explain a little more what he thinks is going on here.

We have on the one hand the two figures, one like a son of man and the other an Ancient of Days, in heaven. Thrones are set for both. The Ancient of Days is clearly God; yet the one like a son of man enters upon the clouds — an evident sign that he is also a divinity.

Against this view stands the continuation of the story in Daniel 7. The one like the son of man appears in the train of four symbolic beasts that represent gentile kingdoms. The vision ends — after the appearance of the one like the son of man — with the downfall of those kingdoms and the rise of a kingdom of the holy people. From this perspective it seems clear that the one like the son of man must be symbolic after all.

Daniel 7:15-28 (NIV)

15 “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. 16 I approached one of those standing there and asked him the meaning of all this.

“So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: 17 ‘The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. 18 But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.’

19 “Then I wanted to know the meaning of the fourth beast, which was different from all the others and most terrifying, with its iron teeth and bronze claws—the beast that crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. 20 I also wanted to know about the ten horns on its head and about the other horn that came up, before which three of them fell—the horn that looked more imposing than the others and that had eyes and a mouth that spoke boastfully. 21 As I watched, this horn was waging war against the holy people and defeating them, 22 until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the holy people of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom.

23 “He gave me this explanation: ‘The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it. 24 The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. 25 He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time.

26 “‘But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. 27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’

28 “This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.”

Boyarin continues with the imaginary argument between Aphrahat (see previous post) and his Jewish opponents:

Those Jews who were Apharat’s opponents could clearly have retorted, then: “Is a heavenly being or junior God subject to oppression by a Seleucid king who forces him to abandon his Holy Days and his Law for three and a half years? Absurd! The Son of Man must be a symbol for the children of Israel! (p. 43, my bolding, as always)

So we have a quandary. Boyarin arbitrates:

read more »


Room for Two Gods in the Book of Daniel

by Neil Godfrey

jewishgospelsHere is an argument for interpreting Daniel 7′s scenario of “one like a son of man/Son of Man” coming on clouds to the Ancient of Days as a reference to two divinities. It’s from Daniel Boyarin’s small book, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (2012). But be warned. I suspect many New Testament scholars would not agree with Boyarin. So who is this Boyarin? Jack Miles introduces him in the Foreword. (We met Jack Miles in an earlier post on gospel genre and narrative here in Vridar.)

“Daniel Boyarin,” a prominent conservative rabbi confided to me not long ago, “is one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world,” and — dropping his voice a notch — “possibly even the greatest.” The observation was given in confidence because, quite clearly, it troubled the rabbi to think that someone with Boyarin’s views might have truly learned Talmudic grounds for them. As a Christian, let me confide that his views can be equally troubling for Christians who appreciate the equally grounded originality of his reading of our New Testament. . . . .

His achievement is . . . a bold rereading of the rabbis and the evangelists alike, the results of which are so startling that once you — you, Jew, or you, Christian — get what he is up to, you suddenly read even the most familiar passages of your home scripture in a new light. (p. ix)

Let’s begin with the passage in question, Daniel 7:9-14 (NIV)

9 “As I looked,

“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.

10 A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.

. . . . . 

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man [a human being] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

So we have two figures here: an old one and another with the appearance of a young human being.

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2014-07-14

Why did they put contradictory gospels together in the New Testament?

by Neil Godfrey

trobisch1The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the Gospel of John contradict each other on the date of the crucifixion of Jesus. The Synoptics tell us Jesus ate the Passover sacrificial meal with his disciples the evening before he died; the Gospel of John that Jesus was crucified at the same time of the Passover sacrifice. In the Gospel of John there is no description of a ritual meal — “take, eat, this is my body, etc” – on the eve of Jesus’ arrest.

Whoever was responsible for collecting those gospels with such a blatant contradiction and placing them side by side in a holy canon? What on earth were they thinking?

David Trobisch in The First Edition of the New Testament offers an intriguing explanation. His explanation is in fact only one small point in a small volume that raises several major new ways of understanding the evidence for the origins of the New Testament canon. The back cover blurb sums it up:

The First Edition of the New Testament is a groundbreaking book that argues that the New Testament is not the product of a centuries-long process of development. Its history, David Trobisch finds, is the history of a book — an all Greek Christian bible — published as early as the second century C.E. and intended by its editors to be read as a whole. Trobisch claims that this bible achieved wide circulation and formed the basis of all surviving manuscripts of the New Testament. 

In the first part of his book Trobisch argues that certain characteristics of the surviving manuscript trail are best explained if they all originated from a carefully edited collection. That is, from a canonical New Testament very similar to the New Testament with which we are familiar today. The traditional understanding has been that the New Testament canon was a relatively late development and many of the surviving manuscripts originated solo long before the various works were collated into the NT. Trobisch points to features in common across most of these manuscripts that indicate otherwise –

  • English: Folio 115 recto of the codex with the...

    English: Folio 115 recto of the codex with the beginning of the Gospel of John (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    the common use of the nomina sacra,

  • the adaptation for a codex form of publication,
  • the uniform order and number of writings in the manuscript tradition;
  • the common formulation of the titles,
  • and the evidence that the collection was known as the “New Testament” from the beginning.

The second part of his book is another fascinating exploration, this time of the “editorial concept” of the New Testament. Trobisch alerts us to many features many of us who have grown up with the New Testament know all too well but have tended to take for granted. I am thinking of those many little cross-references and “coincidental” positions of the books in relation to one another. The NT is collated like a little code book in some ways. There is just enough information placed strategically to allow us to discern a real historic unity behind all of the books and to see who has written what and what the historical relationship of each of the authors was with one another. (I’m talking about a naive popular reading of the NT.) So towards the end of 2 Peter and 2 Timothy we find Peter and Paul writing in ways that lead us to think all their earlier differences (e.g. in Galatians) were patched over and they ended up as spiritually affectionate brothers. There are enough references here and there to Mark to alert us to identifying the apparent author of the second gospel as the companion of Peter. Similarly Luke is given enough “incidental” references for us to identify him as a beloved physician and companion of Paul and author of Luke-Acts. In a codex form it would have been a thrill to explore back and forth to see how all of the works do relate to one another, how their authors’ histories with one another can be discerned, and above all, how all the various ideas and teachings were really from the one spirit and pointed to real underlying harmony in the church from its beginnings.

As we have seen, Trobisch believes the best explanation for the details of the manuscript evidence is that the New Testament as we know it was collated much earlier than generally thought. He places around the middle/latter half of the second century.

Now we come to our little detail of the contradiction over the date of the crucifixion.

read more »


2014-07-13

Mark, Canonizer of Paul

by Neil Godfrey

dykstra1Until recently I have had little interest in arguments that our apparently earliest written gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was composed as an attempt to teach the ideas of Paul as found in his letters. After reading Mark, Canonizer of Paul by Tom Dykstra I am now more sympathetic to the possibility that the author of this gospel really was writing as a follower of Paul.

Dykstra introduces his argument by pointing out how curiously uninterested the author of the Gospel of Mark is in the contents of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is said to teach with authority and crowds are said to be impressed with his teachings but exactly what he taught in the synagogues or to those who crowded around to hear him in a house is left unsaid. Jesus does teach a lot of parables warning hearers of the consequences of not believing the gospel but the content of that gospel, the detail of what they must believe, is never stated. About the only teaching Mark’s Jesus is said to have delivered is little more than “Keep the commandments”.

Then there is the curious ending: why does Mark virtually leave the resurrection details out of the story altogether?

Dykstra sums up his argument:

The explanation I offer in this book can be summarized as follows. Mark’s primary purpose was to defend the vision of Christianity championed by Paul the Apostle against his “Judaizing” opponents. He undertook this defense because epistles written in the Apostle’s name were no longer deemed adequate, possibly because Paul himself was no longer around to personally defend his authority. Mark didn’t report any new teachings of Jesus because none were available to him: his main sources were the Old Testament, the Homeric epics, and Paul’s epistles, not the disciples or oral tradition. And so he wrote a Gospel that implicitly validated the authority of Paul and his epistles. . . .  My goal in this book is mainly to present the evidence for a literary relationship between Mark and Paul’s epistles. (p. 23, my bolding)

This situation makes sense, Dykstra suggests, if Paul had died and his teachings were in danger of being eclipsed by his opponents.

In chapter two and relying primarily upon Michael Goulder’s argument in St. Paul vs. St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions Dykstra presents a scenario of a sharp divide between two different types of gospels. Goulder was reviving (and responding to criticisms of) an 1831 interpretation by Ferdinand Baur.

Peter’s mission believed that the heavenly kingdom had already arrived and believers were already enjoying the resurrected life, while Paul stressed that the resurrection was yet to come and believers’ present life was more like the crucifixion. . . . Peter’s mission stressed tongues and visions and gifts of the spirit, while Paul’s stressed love and charity; Peter’s mission stressed the need to give away all of one’s possessions since the end had already come, while Paul’s mission advised people to keep working and earning a living. As will be seen, some of these differences are reflected in the text of Mark’ Gospel. (p. 35)

If the evangelist wanted to create a narrative to bolster the embattled teachings and authority of Paul he would need to project a dispute of his own and Paul’s day back into that narrative. The narrative would also need to show that apostles who came prior to Paul, even those claiming to be his brothers and those who were reputed as “pillars” in the church, failed to understand Jesus.

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2014-07-03

The Pre-Christian Jewish Logos

by Neil Godfrey

Probably most people with more than a casual knowledge of Christianity recognise the following words as quintessentially Christian yet are completely unaware that when first penned these words were Jewish to the core:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Daniel Boyarin explains in Border Lines how these words came to be formulated through a Jewish literary process he calls “midrash” and how they are embedded in a first and second century CE Jewish religious culture that had room in which perhaps most Jews assumed a belief in what we might loosely call a second God or a Logos theology. This second God was variously known as Logos (Greek for “Word”), Memra (Aramaic for “Word”), Sophia (“Wisdom”), Metatron or Yahoel. Not that all these names are equivalent. They aren’t. They are a mix of genders for a start. But Daniel Boyarin conflates them all for purposes of his argument because he believes they are “genetically, as well as typologically, related.” (p. 275, and see also the previous post on the wave theory model of religious ideas.)

I’ll try to explain in a future post the actual midrashic process by which the author of the Gospel of John appears to have woven together passages from Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 (and why he did this) to produce the above opening verses.

Where did the Logos come from?

Erwin Goodenough gave a definitive answer to that question in his 1968 book The Theology of Justin Martyr: An Investigation into the Conceptions of Early Christian Literature and Its Hellenistic and Judaistic Influences:

The Logos then in all circles but the Stoic . . . was a link of some kind which connected a transcendent Absolute with the world and humanity. The Logos came into general popularity because of the wide-spread desire to conceive of God as transcendent and yet immanent at the same time. The term Logos in philosophy was not usually used as a title or a unique attributed of God, but rather as the most important single name among many applicable to the effulgent Power of God which reasonably had shaped and now governs the world. (pp. 140-1)

Boyarin goes a step further and stresses

how thoroughly first-century Judaism had absorbed (and even co-produced) these central “Middle Platonic” theological notions. . . . The idea that the Logos or Sophia (Wisdom, and other variants as well) is the site of God’s presence in the world — indeed, the notion of God’s Word or Wisdom as a mediator figure — was a very widespread one in the world of first- and even second- century Judaic thought. (p. 112, my bolding)

Here is where Boyarin (and a good many other scholars of early Jewish thought) parts company with many scholars of the New Testament. (It seems to me that the latter have a tendency to find ways to dismiss the relevance of Jewish ideas if and where they rob early Christianity of its distinctiveness.) Yet the evidence for first century Jews being familiar with

  • the notion of a great being alongside God himself and acting as God’s vice-regent,
  • or with the idea that such a figure was actually a hypostasis or alternative manifestation of God,
  • or with earthly notables like Adam, Israel, Enoch, Moses and others having pre-existing spiritual forms with especially exalted status in heaven and to which their earthly counterparts returned at death,

is very strong. These sorts of ideas were apparently common in first century Judaism.

read more »


2014-07-01

A Lesson from Scholars of Judaism, Linguistics and Physics

by Neil Godfrey

ripplesIt’s been a long break from blogging for me. I can scarcely recall even writing some of the posts I have returned to see here under my name. But here I am living in a new unit and with a clean bill of health from a doctor so time to resume.

Here’s something I found interesting in the early pages of Daniel Boyarin‘s Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (one of the works I was catching up with while absent). Boyarin is discussing a framework through which we can compare various religious groups. It was of interest to me because it led me to think of alternative ways of comparing other ideas, beliefs and literature, especially when exploring the questions related to Christian origins.

Think of the squabbles over whether or not the death and resurrection of Jesus owes anything to myths of Osiris, Heracles, Romulus and others. Or over whether miracles of Jesus are derived ultimately from tales in Jewish Scripture and if so does that mean there is no room for their derivation from oral tradition? Or whether aspects of Hellenistic and Latin literature inspired any of the gospel narratives? When we think about comparisons in these fields it is easy to default to family tree models. Each tree can only produce variations of its own kind (whatever that happens to be) and that’s that.

Boyarin is surveying the panorama the Judaeo-Christian landscape as it was in the second and third centuries with Marcionism and its utter rejection of anything Jewish (Scriptures included) in its Christianity at one far end of the horizon and many Jews who had not the slightest interest in anything to do with Jesus at the opposing end, with every permutation and graduation of belief systems imaginable in between. Instead of the family tree model he proposes a linguistic metaphor — wave theory.

Wave theory posits that linguistic similarity is not necessarily the product of a common origin but may be the product of convergence of different dialects spoken in contiguous areas, dialects that are, moreover, not strictly bounded and differentiated from each other but instead shade one into the other. Innovations at any one point spread like waves created when a stone is thrown into a pond, intersecting with other such waves produced in other places leading to the currently observed patterns of differentiation and similarity. 

So how does this differ from the family tree model?

read more »


2014-06-09

Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple: Rationalizing a Miracle

by Tim Widowfield
Christ Cleansing the Temple, c 1655 (J. Paul G...

Christ Cleansing the Temple, c 1655 (J. Paul Getty Museum) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disorderly Conduct

While researching the similarities and differences between Mark’s and John’s account of the Cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, I came across some fascinating observations by David Friedrich Strauss in The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. As you no doubt already know, the cleansing of, or what many Historical Jesus (HJ) scholars today often call a disturbance at, the Temple is an event recounted in all four gospels, which imagines a lone Jesus disrupting all business occurring in the outer courtyard.

HJ scholars who claim Jesus was some sort of apocalyptic prophet prefer to believe the event really happened, because it fits in with the eschatological message of their reconstructed Jesus. On the other hand, taking the stories at face value raises many issues. Bart Ehrman, in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, writes:

Most scholars recognize that some aspects of our accounts appear exaggerated, including Mark’s claim that Jesus completely shut down the operation of the Temple (if no one could carry any vessels, it would have been impossible to sacrifice and butcher the animals—which was after all what the Temple was for). As we have seen, the Temple complex was immense, and there would have been armed guards present to prevent any major disturbances. Moreover, if Jesus had actually created an enormous stir in the Temple, it’s nearly impossible to explain why he wasn’t arrested on the spot and taken out of the way before he could stir up the crowds. For these reasons, it looks as if Mark’s account represents an exaggeration of Jesus’ actions. But exaggerations aside, it is almost certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple — for example, overturned some tables and made at least a bit of a ruckus. (Ehrman, p. 212, emphasis mine)

So for Ehrman, the Temple “disturbance” almost certainly happened, but not the way the gospels tell it. Instead, he would argue, the gospels contain a nugget of truth inside an otherwise unbelievable story.

Meanwhile, other NT scholars don’t buy into the historicity of the event. For example, in A Myth of Innocence Burton Mack called the story a “Markan fabrication.” (See p. 292.) For more on the historical aspects of the cleansing, read Neil’s excellent post: “Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical.”

Identifying the form

Before we go any further, let’s recall an often forgotten rule in biblical studies: To understand what a story means, you must first determine what it is. And so I come back to Strauss’s analysis of the alleged Temple event. With respect to Origen’s take on the Temple tantrum, he wrote:

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2014-06-08

“It is absurd to suggest. . . . ” (A rare bird among the anti-mythicists)

by Neil Godfrey

3D Book cover_aGood old reliable Professor James McGrath and a few of his peers*, blissfully unaware of some of the highly respected names both within and outside New Testament scholarship who have happened to be bold enough to declare their maverick suspicions that there was no historical Jesus, make it clear that if you come out as seriously pondering such a view in their presence they will shut you up immediately scornfully mocking and insulting you. If you dare to ask why they insist the view is such a stupid one they will often enough declare that the arguments have been dealt with and laid to rest long ago.

In our previous post we introduced another early author who tackled mythicism, A. D. Howell Smith. We covered his overview of the various mythicist authors and ideas extant, along with their contemporary critics, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This post continues a little series responding to the assertion that the Christ myth notion has long ago been dealt with and demolished. Rather, we will conclude that it has been more generally ignored. The most recent attempts to have dealt with it (McGrath, Casey) are more about character-assassination of those who post anything sympathetic to the idea and about ridiculing caricatures of the arguments. (Ehrman, as has by now been well demonstrated, appears not to have even read, or at least read incredibly superficially, the arguments he set out to refute.) I myself have never posted an argument for the Christ myth theory, but along with a good many others I can see some gaping logical holes in the arguments used to defend the assumption that Jesus did exist. In addition to rationalisations of this assumption we often encounter even liberal scholars resorting to rhetorical questions that essentially appeal to the expected ignorance or lack of imagination of their lay audience.

Of the names carelessly assumed to have long ago accomplished the intellectual demolition of mythicism we have seen that our first two, Goguel and Wood, explicitly stated at the outset of their works that they were NOT going to seriously address the arguments of the mythicists.

In our previous post we introduced another early author who tackled mythicism, A. D. Howell Smith. We covered his overview of the various mythicist authors and ideas extant, along with their contemporary critics, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Howell Smith was not a professional scholar so perhaps that is why his book arguing against the mythicists of his day is not so well known. His book, Jesus Not a Myth, however, is well informed by the scholarship of his day. As we saw in the previous post Howell Smith in 1942 noted how very few scholars in the English speaking world had taken up the case against mythicism and those who had were flawed by their conservative religious bias. It was for that reason he wrote the book I am discussing in this post, Christ Not a Myth.

Howell Smith’s work stands out for its occasional acknowledgement of strengths in some of the mythicist argument. I am not sure I have encountered any contemporary scholar who is prepared to concede any ground whatever to mythicist arguments, a trait that smells like polemics born of insecurity and fear rather than genuine engagement with the arguments. Here are some of my earlier posts covering Howell Smith’s refreshingly honest arguments.

James the Brother of The Lord

Yes, it really is possible to question that famous passage in Galatians where Paul speaks of the “James, the brother of the Lord” — a phrase that is most commonly misquoted as “brother of Jesus” by those using it to rhetorically hammer mythicists. Howell Smith, however, is confident enough to openly concede that scholarly arguments are not uniformly and utterly watertight:

read more »


2014-05-20

Interview with Reza Aslan (Not the Fox one)

by Neil Godfrey

There is an interview with Reza Aslan where he really does address details of his argument in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth more than his “suspect motives as a Muslim” as we heard in the Fox interview. There is some discussion of his background, too, but not in the Fox manner.

Aslan is visiting Australia at the moment so that’s the occasion. I find his thesis problematic at several points but at least here he is given a chance to explain his argument and a little about his own background.

RN: Late Night Live, Was Jesus of Nazareth a Zealot?

 

 


“It is absurd to suggest. . . “: The Overlooked Critic of Mythicism (+ A Catalog of Early Mythicists and Their Critics)

by Neil Godfrey

3D Book cover_aThis continues the little “It’s absurd to suggest that most historians have not considered the strongest case for mythicism” series inspired by the unbearable lightness of the wisdom of Professor James McGrath. The previous post saw how Professor Larry Hurtado’s source for the comprehensive rebuttal to all arguments mythicist, H.G. Wood’s Did Christ Really Live?, in reality explicitly points out to the reader that it is not a comprehensive rebuttal to all arguments mythicist. The next candidate for a publication having considered “the strongest case for mythicism” that I consider is A. D. Howell Smith’s Jesus Not a Myth (1942).

Curiously I have not seen this book mentioned by any modern scholars who emphatically declare that mythicist arguments have long since been addressed and decisively demolished. This is curious because Howell Smith really does address the major mythicist arguments of his day. Similarly surprisingly few anti-mythicists today cite Schweitzer as having delivered the death-knell to mythicism. We will see an interesting similarity between ways S and H-S each argue their case for Jesus’s historicity.

I will save some of the details of Howell Smith’s arguments for my next post. Here I want only to introduce A. D. Howell Smith to those of us who only dimly recall my post on his Preface three years ago. I have reformatted it and added subheadings and bolding. Jesus Not a Myth was published in 1942, not long after the appearance of H. G. Wood’s title with the same purpose.

I conclude with a summary of the various Christ-myth views widely known at the time.

Something was sometimes different back then

Notice the way our author actually has some positive things to say about the mythicists he is about to debate. It sounds surreal to read such things given our familiarity with the demonization and gratuitous insults we routinely expect from the McGraths, the Hurtados, the Caseys, the Hoffmanns etc. McGrath, Hurtado and Casey would have readers think mythicism is no more rational or informed than are flat-earthers or moon-landing hoaxers. Seventy years ago Howell Smith (along with Goguel and Wood and Schweitzer and other critics) actually acknowledged the rational spirit infusing mythicism and the names of several prominent and esteemed scholars and others who at the very least toyed with the plausibility of the Christ myth idea. Today’s critics — are there any exceptions? — are far more universally savage in their personal attacks and far more dogged in their refusal to allow any mythicist proposition to be accorded the faintest touch of rationality. Is this a sign of some desperation that the idea just won’t ever seem to go away? Or is it a symptom of the crudeness of an American-Christian dominated scholarship by contrast with the kind of religious ambience of Europe in an earlier generation?

Within perhaps the last twenty years the denial that Jesus ever existed has been changed from a paradox to almost a platitude for an increasing number of Rationalists, and occasionally a Christian of strong modernist leanings shows himself more or less sympathetic to it.  read more »


2014-05-19

“It is absurd to suggest . . . . “: Professor Hurtado’s stock anti-mythicist

by Neil Godfrey

This post continues on from It is absurd to suggest. . . . It’s about a much lesser known anti-mythicist than Goguel but I will excuse myself for that anomaly on the grounds that Goguel’s book is freely available on the web and many would have read it already. Maurice Goguel is evidently R. Joseph Hoffmann’s favourite anti-mythicist; this time we look at the man in Larry Hurtado’s corner.

3D Book cover 2Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, turns to Herbert George Wood as the author of the once-and-for-all answer to mythicism.

But another reason for feeling it less than necessary to spend a lot of time on the matter is that all the skeptical arguments have been made and effectively engaged many decades ago. Before posting this, I spent a bit of time perusing my copy of H. G. Wood, Did Christ Really Live?, which was published in 1938. In it, Wood cites various figures of the early 20th century who had claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was a fiction, and patiently and cordially engages the specifics of evidence and argument, showing that the attacks fail.

So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot. It’s a bit wearying to contemplate! (My emphasis)

Hurtado can no more imagine Jesus being non-historical than he can imagine believing the earth is flat. He would even find the very prospect of trying to demonstrate “the obvious” “a bit wearying”. Once again we see a theologian equate his discipline with complexities and certainties found in the hard sciences like astronomy. Anyone who disputes the claims of either is a kook. (We addressed this fallacy in the first post of this series.)

Evidently Hurtado has never felt any need to update himself with mythicist arguments of today, nor even does it appear he has ever acquainted himself with any of them at any time. He read a book published in 1938 and that clearly put the whole question at rest as far as he is concerned. That book, he informs us, “engages the specifics of evidence and argument”, so what else can possibly be said?

Herbert George Wood, 1938

The dedication of Wood’s book reads:

To
BLIND LEADERS OF THE BLIND
in the hope that both
may open their eyes

In his Preface Wood worries about young people being led astray by the Christ Myth theory of his day:

More young people than we often realize are troubled or misled by the suggestion that Jesus never lived. We cannot rightly ignore the subject. And revivals of interest in the Christ-myth are not unlikely.

In Chicago Wood visited a Russian Workers’ Club and observed the equation of the Christ-Myth idea with “any Marxist anti-God campaign” . . . .

and this book may serve as a kind of spiritual air raid precaution — a preservative against poison gas.

I have thought it best not to traverse the stock arguments of Christ-myth theorists

Recall that Goguel made it clear in his preface that he had no intention of actually engaging with the Christ myth arguments themselves. Wood begins the same way: read more »


2014-05-15

The Confessional Epilogue: Christians and Acharya

by Neil Godfrey

Scholarship motivated by confessional interests

Most of us are familiar with the confessional reflections that so many biblical scholars drop in at the close of their scholarly works on Jesus. Sometimes this confessional is found in the prologue or preface as well. It is like a little prayer uttered by the devout believer thanking and praising the Lord for the academic study he has produced. It is particularly obnoxious when found in the dedication of a formal higher degree thesis. “Obnoxious” because it betrays an interest and motivation that is not entirely scholarly: it is scholarship motivated by confessional interests.

Examples (my bold emphasis throughout):

  • “Indeed, for Christians, the unending conversation about Jesus is the most important conversation there is. He is for us the decisive revelation of God. . . .” (last paragraph of Borg’s Jesus)
  • “And yet, despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only one worth dreaming. . . .” (Allison, last paragraph of Jesus of Nazareth)
  • “Jesus will always be for me the way to God. . . .” (Spong, last paragraph of Liberating the Gospels)
  • “For a believing Christian both the life of the Word of God and the text of the Word of God are alike a graded process of historical reconstruction. . . . If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in.” (Crossan, final words in The Historical Jesus)

ChristInEgyptAnd so on.

Confessional statements and astrotheology

So it occurred to me that if I am correct in coming to realize that D.M. Murdock (Acharya S) is just as devoted to a religious view of Christian origins and writes with a view to sharing her belief system in the same way, then in her more neutral and “academically” minded books I should find the same confessional statements, most probably in the epilogue.

I have read sections of Christ in Egypt before but this time I turned to conclusion and here is what I found:

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2014-05-14

What Do They Mean by “No Quest”?

by Tim Widowfield
Albert Schweitzer, 1952

Albert Schweitzer, 1952 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dazed and confused

As you no doubt recall, scholars frequently divide the quest for the historical Jesus into phases or periods. The first period, following Albert Schweitzer‘s analysis, began with Hermann Samuel Reimarus and ended with William Wrede and Schweitzer himself. Conventional wisdom holds that the quest took a breather at that point, with scholars somewhat shell-shocked by the implications of the works by Wrede, Schweitzer, and Karl Ludwig Schmidt.

This same conventional wisdom marks the beginning of the “Second Quest” (or, at the time, “New Quest”) in the early 1950s with Ernst Käsemann’s lecture, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” (published in Essays on the New Testament). The supposed hiatus between Schweitzer and Käsemann is sometimes called the period of “No Quest.”

Miffed scholars

Recently, just out of curiosity, I was Googling “no quest”, and I found several references to indignant conservative and not-so-conservative biblical scholars. They just don’t like that term. It’s dishonest, they insist, and if it’s one thing they can’t stand, it’s dishonesty.

Are they right? And if the pause or moratorium in the first half of the 20th century is a myth, then where did the idea come from and why does it persist?

A “No Quest” period?

First of all, here’s the typical description we get from survey courses and books on the Quest. The front matter for the Fortress Press “First Complete Edition” of The Quest of the Historical Jesus contains Marcus Borg’s “An Appreciation of Albert Schweitzer,” which ends with the following paragraph:

[Schweitzer's] claim that historical Jesus scholarship has no theological significance has been very influential, contributing to a relative lack of scholarly interest in the historical Jesus for a major portion of this [i.e., the 20th] century. His work was thus not only the highwater mark of the “old quest” for the historical Jesus, but brought the quest to a temporary close. Only in the past few decades — with the “new quest” of the 1950s and 1960s and the “third quest” of the 1980s — has substantial interest in the historical Jesus revived. (Quest, p. ix, emphasis mine)

Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz (The Historical Jesus, A Comprehensive Guide) divide the quest into five phases in which two phases comprise the First Quest. Hence for them “No Quest” is the Third Phase, which they describe as “the collapse of the quest of the historical Jesus.” (Theissen and Merz, p. 9)

“Just not true”

Next, here’s a response from an offended, “anti-no-quest” scholar. In his essay, “The Secularizing of the Historical Jesus” (downloadable PDF), Dale Allison complains about N.T. Wright’s characterization of the first half of the last century as experiencing a “moratorium” on the quest:

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2014-05-05

Jesus and the “Great Men” View of History

by Neil Godfrey
Crossley's portrait as a Che Guevara Jesus crucified?

Crossley’s portrait as a Che Guevara Jesus crucified?

This post is an overview of chapter 4 of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism by James Crossley and is part of the series reviewing this book.

Crossley’s stated purpose of this chapter is

to show that a dominant feature of the quest for the historical Jesus — Jesus as Great Man — works in harmony with a dominant capitalist understanding of causality, particularly the importance of a freely acting autonomous individual with little concern for material conditions as historical mover. (p. 68)

(Once again we see the ambiguity and and vagueness of definition coming through as so often in Crossley’s works: “a dominant understanding”, “Jesus as Great Man”, “working in harmony with” — these leave lots of room for many exceptions, qualifications and imprecision and even inconsistencies in hypothesized relationships.)

What troubles Crossley is that the traditional focus of historical Jesus studies has concentrated on the qualities and actions of the person of Jesus in order to explain the formation of Christianity and tended to either overlook or minimize the role of larger historical forces (sociological, economic, political) in Christianity’s emergence.

Most historical Jesus studies attempt to identify sayings and doings of Jesus the individual. They assume he personally is the decisive factor, effectively independent of other historical forces or trends, that produced the Christian religion. Crossley links this approach to what he calls “individualism” or “individualistic history”, both in this context said to mean that the historian writes as if the individual acts all powerfully and autonomously in apparent disregard for larger forces in the material world.

So far I can sympathize with Crossley’s concern. This contrast between historical Jesus studies and the sorts of historical studies in other fields (including historical biographies) was the first thing that struck me when I began to read works about the historical Jesus. To anyone who is even slightly familiar with other historical biographies it is very clear that the study of Jesus is in a class of its own.

But Crossley goes further and directly associates such an “individualism” with capitalist values. read more »