Category Archives: Book Reviews & Notes


2015-04-01

Memories of Jesus? (Or False-Memory Syndrome?)

by Neil Godfrey

The Jesus historian’s proper task is to explain the existence of the Jesus memories in the Gospels. (Chris Keith, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, p. 66)

literacyThe question Chris Keith appears to overlook is how we know the Gospels do in fact contain “Jesus memories”. In fact, Keith’s book demonstrates, at least to my mind, just how far removed “Jesus historians” are from the mainstream of nonbiblical historical studies. (I am aware many biblical scholars would either deny or excuse this but that’s a topic I won’t address again in this post.)

Keith rightly leaves aside the tool of authenticity criteria as a means of determining “what happened” (I have addressed core aspects of Keith’s argument on such criteria before) but has left a gaping hole at centre of his attempt to reconstruct the origins of Christianity.

While some would argue that Jesus did not “start” Christianity that seems not to be Keith’s view. As I read him he associates Christianity’s beginnings with the impact Jesus had in his (pre-resurrection) lifetime on his disciples. Indeed, he even blurs the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith:

The overall implications of the Jesus-memory approach are significant. They challenge nothing less than the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. . . . [T]he Jesus-memory approach denies scholars’ abilities to separate cleanly the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith and properly returns historical investigation to why early Christians remembered Jesus in the manners they did. (pp. 69-70)

Keith’s colleague, Anthony Le Donne, at least acknowledged the necessity to somehow establish with some degree of independent verification (not just assumption) the existence of Jesus and reality of certain types of things he did. Le Donne admitted he had nothing but authenticity criteria to accomplish this, however, and Keith expresses some dismay over this return to a flawed method:

I disagree with Le Donne’s surprising appeals to criteria of authenticity. (p. 67 — Keith does acknowledge, however, that Le Donne modifies the claims he makes for these criteria by conceding they “cannot verify what actually happened” – p. 65 — only what “may have” happened, in effect)

Here is where I find biblical scholarship to be so removed from historical studies more generally. Ever since my undergraduate days I took it as a truism that all “facts” are at some level interpretations. Yet Keith attempts to explain at length why he believes that an “interpreted” event is somehow not, per se, necessarily “authentic”. He stresses what I and I am sure many historians have taken to be an obvious point — that every event we know about is transmitted through interpretations. Of course they are, but that does not deny the possibility of some sort of “objectivity” to the reality of those events. All we know about the Holocaust has come to us through interpretations of experiences and observations. But that does not mean we can say nothing stronger than that the Holocaust “plausibly happened”.

Keith speaks of our inability to have any “objective apprehension of past reality” and how the historian is always reduced to assessing “what is more or less plausible” (p. 66). I think Holocaust survivors have wanted something more than a claim like this in their defence.

Of course all human experience is interpreted, but that does not deny its objective reality at the same time. read more »


2015-03-26

Did Muhammad Exist? A revisionist look at Islam’s Origins

by Neil Godfrey

A criticism of the view that Muhammad did not exist

Excerpts from an interview published in

Spiegel Online International  

Dispute among Islam Scholars: Did Muhammad Ever Really Live?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is a group of prominent German Islamic scholars, who are becoming increasingly aggressive about questioning whether the existence of the Prophet is even historically accurate. The theory got its most recent backing from the University of Münster’s Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch, who is in charge of training teachers for Islamic education at the secondary-school level. The Ministry of Education of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is now planning to calm the waters by appointing an additional professor of Islamic pedagogy. Are we witnessing a split into two camps?

Marx: I don’t see it that way. But we should note that what we have from Kalisch at the moment are only the things he has allegedly said. From them, it sounds like he has decided to back the thesis of Professor Karl-Heinz Ohlig, which Ohlig publicized three years ago in his book “Dark Beginnings” (“Die dunklen Anfänge”). There, Ohlig posits that the Koran is a Christian text and that Muhammad probably never lived. But this group, which also includes the numismatist Volker Popp and some others, is very small. I’d say that their position isn’t really within the realm of accepted scholarship.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?

Marx: There are far too many pieces of evidence that make Ohlig’s thesis that the Prophet never lived untenable. In the 14 centuries of polemics between Christians and Muslims, this issue has never made an appearance. Even in Syrian-Aramaic sources, however, there is some documentation about the prophet from an earlier time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your scholarship focuses on the early period of Islam and the Koran. What is the evidentiary situation? How could we prove that the Prophet lived?

Marx: You have to be a bit delicate about it. In general, when it comes to history, you can’t point to any scientific proof. How would we, for example, prove the existence of Charlemagne? We can’t conduct any experiments; we have to work with evidence. And, for this issue, the evidentiary thread is the Koran. In this case, the evidentiary situation is better than it is for any other religion. We know of manuscripts of the Koran and Islamic inscriptions already 40-50 years after the Prophet died. It would be hard to explain the Koran, if you took the prophet out of the equation. Ohlig claims that Islam was actually a Christian sect up until the Umayyad Caliphate, that is, the eighth century. In this case, I run into this massive issue: It doesn’t match up with the text of the Koran. Why isn’t Christ a more central figure in the Koran, then? You hear about Abraham, Moses and Noah much more frequently.

. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In other words, if the Prophet did not live, in order to explain the literature, there must have been an enormous conspiracy.

Marx: Precisely. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you saying that Ohlig and his fellow combatants are either demagogues or pseudo-scholars?

Marx: It’s not for me to make that type of judgment. But that’s what it seems like to me. . . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Muhammad Sven Kalisch operates in a sort of border region, that is, between science and theology. And, then, he’s supposed to be training religion teachers, too. The Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany (KRM) isn’t going to support him anymore because they believe that Kalisch is questioning fundamental elements of the Islamic faith. Is it conceivable that a person can be a Muslim and at the same time say that the Prophet might not have even ever lived?

Marx: That’s hard to imagine. . . .

. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could we ever see the thesis — that the Prophet Muhammad might not have ever lived — brought up as a matter of discussion in an Islamic university?

Marx: I wouldn’t know where.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a researcher, how do you steer clear of this tense issue? You use what is a completely critical-historical approach. As long as your findings don’t contradict mainstream Muslim theology, it’s no problem. But what happens when it does?

Marx: Well, then it would probably be a problem. But we’re still a good way off from that situation. Don’t forget that what we’re doing here is basic research. The Koran deserves to be studied in a serious, scientific manner. I think it’s essential that we take these steps with Muslims. . . .

Interview conducted by Yassin Musharbash

In 2013 I read Tom Holland’s history of the rise of Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword, in which he argues in a most readable narrative that the astonishing spread of Arab conquests in the seventh century had more to do a series of tragic forces, in particular the Bubonic Plague, weakening the neighbouring Byzantine and Persian empires, than it did with the might of Arab arms. Moreover, those Arab conquests were not motivated by the Islamic faith; rather, the Islamic faith did not emerge until some decades after those conquests. I posted about Holland’s views at:

Since then I have been wanting to read more about the historical questions surrounding early Islam. Holland cited the works of several scholars I had hoped to engage with before I read Robert Spencer’s book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins, (But I distracted myself by reading another of Holland’s historical works instead.) Meanwhile Spencer’s book fell my way so I grabbed it.

Happily it turned out to be much more interesting as a historical exploration than I had expected. The most troubling flaw was Spencer’s rather poorly informed and stereotypical views of the nature of religions generally and Islam in particular as experienced in today’s world: he contrasts Christianity as an essentially peaceful religion ever since its origins with Islam as an essentially war-making and killing machine because of its historical origins. Some readers will love that summary and others will be dismayed by it (I am among the latter). Nonetheless, despite this botched conclusion much of the book is quite interesting and informative. How much of its information I will come to revise as I learn more I don’t know, so here I am writing up some general points that appear to be the views of a minority of Islamic scholars.

Anyone familiar with the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus will recognize some of the terrain here. Evidence cited over the years for the historicity of Muhammad has included:

  • the rich and vivid detail in the Islamic records of his life
  • the documenting of negative (embarrassing) features of his biography
  • the implausibility of anyone making up a character making such grandiose claims
  • only the personal inspiration of such a person could explain why so many others were motivated to found a vast empire in his name
  • how else can we explain the founding of a religion that went on to boast more than a billion adherents

Similar arguments have been made for the historicity of Jesus yet as we know not one of them truly withstands scrutiny.

But before I write more about the doubts raised about the traditional story of Islam’s origins I ought to make clear what scholars who dispute this minority view say about it.

Patricia Crone is professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. She writes:

True, on Arabic coins and inscriptions, and in papyri and other documentary evidence in the language, Mohammed only appears in the 680s, some fifty years after his death (whatever its exact date). This is the ground on which some, notably Yehuda D Nevo and Judith Koren, have questioned his existence. But few would accept the implied premise that history has to be reconstructed on the sole basis of documentary evidence (i.e. information which has not been handed down from one generation to the next, but rather been inscribed on stone or metal or dug up from the ground and thus preserved in its original form). The evidence that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, on the eve of the Arab conquest of the middle east, must be said to be exceptionally good.

Everything else about Mohammed is more uncertain, but we can still say a fair amount with reasonable assurance. Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur’an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt. Those who deny the existence of an Arabian prophet dispute it, of course, but it causes too many problems with later evidence, and indeed with the Qur’an itself, for the attempt to be persuasive.

For my own views on Crone’s argument about historicity see my post on historical method.

For further criticism see also, of course, the interview excerpts I have placed in the side-box.

I mentioned previously several other historians who have questioned the conventional story of Islam’s origins in my posts on Tom Holland’s book; here are a few of many more names listed by Spencer:

Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921): Lateness of earliest biographical sources on Muhammad along with tendency to invent stories to support later political and religious positions made it impossible to treat the biographies as historically reliable. Spencer lists many names of scholars who have raised questions about Muhammad’s historicity but I list only a few here;

Henri Lammens (1862-1937): Questioned the traditional dates associated with Muhammad; noted the “artificial character and absence of critical sense” in the earliest biographies of Muhammad.

Joseph Schacht (1902-1969): Impossible to extract authentic core of historical material from the earliest texts. Many documents claiming to be early were in fact composed much later.

John Wansbrough (1928-2002): Doubted the historical value of early Islamic texts. Qur’an was developed for political purposes to establish Islam’s origins in Arabia and to give the Arabian empire a distinctive religion.

Patricia Crone and Michael Cook: Noted lateness and unreliability of most early Islamic sources; reviewed archaeological, philological sources, coins from seventh and eighth centuries. Posited that Islam arose within and then split from Judaism. Argued the Arabic setting (including Mecca) was at a late date and for political purposes read back into the history of Islam’s origins. Later, however, Crone wrote that the evidence for Muhammad’s existence is “exceptionally good” (see the quotation above).

Günter Lüling: Qur’an originated as a Christian document; reflects theology of non-Trinitarian Christianity that influenced Islam.

Christoph Luxemberg (pseudonym): Qur’an shows signs of a Christian substratum; Syriac, not Arabic, resolves many difficulties in the text.

So what are the main points that prompt questions about the historicity of Muhammad and suggest that Islam emerged as a major religion some decades after the Arab conquests? Robert Spencer lists the following: read more »


2015-03-21

The Dark Resurgence of Biblical History

by Neil Godfrey

emergence_Biblical history and biblical archaeology have fought back to a new ascendancy after surviving the double-edged scrutiny of opponents they disparaged as “minimalists”.

For a moment it looked like genuine historical inquiry into ancient Palestine had the potential to displace the paraphrasing the Bible and the tendency to interpret nearly every archaeological artefact through the Bible. “Biblical History” and “Biblical Archaeology” blanket the archaeological remains of Palestine with the tapestry of the Bible’s story of Israel. Naturally this means that the tapestry’s tale appears distorted in places but the primary structure remains clear:

  • Israel emerged in Canaan as a distinctly religious and ethnic identity in the early part of the first millennium
  • After a period of some kind of unity culminating in David’s rule, Israel split into two political entities, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and continued to dominate the region up until the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities
  • The Jews returned after the Persians “liberated” them from their Babylonian exile and continued as a distinctly “Jewish” civilization up until the time the Romans dispersed them; the religions of Judaism and Christianity emerged from the religious thought and writings of this Second Temple era.

Other groups who make an appearance in this biblical history for most part do so as external conquerors to be overcome or as indigenous corrupters to be left behind.

This kind of history begins with the Bible and archaeological discoveries are significant insofar as they can add some colour or modification to that biblical narrative.

Is this comparable to beginning with the tales of King Arthur’s Camelot and using those to recreate the history of early Britain?

Doubling the excitement

Valid historical investigation should always ensure the horse is positioned in front of the cart.

Start with the “hard” evidence like the carved stones, baked clay and forged metal found in the ground. What can be reconstructed from these? After having done that we can compare the results with literature that first appeared in considerably later strata.

If we find that the literature describes just what we have found and calls it Camelot then that’s exciting. On the other hand, if the literature’s narrative of Camelot is significantly at odds with what we have found then we have double excitement: before us lie two quests — the quest to learn more about the real world history found through the hard evidence in the ground; another quest to understand the origin of the Camelot narrative.

A Fight for history

Twenty to thirty years ago a few scholars opened up the first challenges to the dominance of “Biblical history” in Biblical studies. Here is how one of those scholars, Keith Whitelam, looking back described what happened in the wake of the publication in 1987 of The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective by Robert Coote and himself: read more »


2015-02-25

Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Norelli’s Argument

by Neil Godfrey

ascension-norelliLast month I began posting on Enrico Norelli’s arguments concerning the Ascension of Isaiah:

I am quite sure Norelli’s new perspective won’t be the final word. Before I can come to any view myself, however, I obviously need first to understand at least the core of his analysis. So as I plough through the slim French language popular summary of his argument I will copy chunks of my bad translation and semi paraphrase here. This section covers pages 48 to 52 of Ascension du prophète Isaïe and continues on from the post AoI: Contents, Manuscripts and the Question of its Composition. I have added translated text from the AoI at earlychristianwritings.

In this section Norelli is explaining why be believes the AoI is independently adapting a source also known to the author of the Gospel of Matthew. That the composer of the AoI could do this is a sure sign that he was writing before a time when the Gospel of Matthew took on any authoritative status.

The heavenly ascent through a distinctive genre (7-11) read more »


2015-02-22

Expulsion of the Palestinians – Pre-War Internal Discussions

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series from Nur Masalha’s Expulsion of the Palestinians. . . .masalha

The reason for this series is to make readily accessible the evidence that helps us understand the current situation in Palestine. This evidence informs us of the intentions and goals that the Zionist leadership had for the way their Jewish state would look and operate into the future. (Once complete I will compile the posts into a single block.) Some readers have asked me to focus on the events of the 1948 war between Israel and the Arab states because that is where the real roots of the current problems are found and I do hope to write about the 1948 war and detail the origins of the refugee. One of the several Jewish historians of this period that I will refer to will be Benny Morris who fully justifies the events that led to the dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs. It should go without saying that nothing in these posts can validly be construed as anti-semitism or justification for the murderous crimes of any form of terrorism.

Deep breath. Here we go again.

The Population Transfer Committee

The previous post, The Necessity for Mass Arab Transfer, outlined the responses of the various Jewish factions towards the British government’s Royal Peel Commission Report in 1937. This post covers the Jewish Agency’s response to the question of Arab transfer after their rejection of the Peel Commission’s plan for partition of Palestine.

The Twentieth Zionist Congress empowered the Jewish Agency to negotiate on the precise terms of the future Jewish state. To prepare for this the Agency established several advisory bodies including one (November 1937) named the Population Transfer Committee. Some of the members are listed below. Notice how many of the names became prominent leaders of the new state of Israel once it was established.

The Weitz plan

Josef Weitz

Josef Weitz

At the 21st November 1938 meeting Weitz introduced his plan for Arab transfer explaining it was based on two main assumptions:

the transfer of Arab population from the area of the Jewish state does not serve only one aim — to diminish the Arab population. It also serves a second, no less important, aim which is to evacuate land presently held and cultivated by the Arabs and thus to release it for the Jewish inhabitants.

For the above reasons most agreed that any evacuation had to start with the most difficult challenge: the transfer of the peasants and rural population. Only then would the new government turn its efforts to removing the townspeople.

The second assumption arose out of Britain’s backing away from any idea of compulsory transfer in its submissions to the League of Nations. This left the Jewish committees without any visible force necessary to carry out Arab transfers.

Weitz calculated that this first transfer phase would remove 87,300 Arabs and the purchase of 1,150,000 dunums mostly in Transjordan for their resettlement. A further 10 to 15 thousand Bedouins living on livestock could also be removed in this phase.

That would give to the Jews an extra 680,000 dunums that included 180,000 dunums of irrigated land.

Such a plan would see the Arab population reduced by one third within two to three years.

The chairman of the committee, Thon, agreed with Weitz that the plan was practical as a first step.

Bonné opposed plan. He wanted to see a plan for the removal of all the Arabs within ten years. He also recommended that the committee not give up so easily on the idea of compulsion. Compulsion had been first suggested by the English, he said, and besides, they were not talking about “full” compulsion since they wanted as much cooperation as possible helped along by the application of some pressure.

The solution, Bonné suggested, was to link Arab transfer to new agrarian legislation when the Jewish state was established. They would need to decide on a target date for removal of the Arabs so they would know how quickly to move against them.

Moshe Shertok

Moshe Shertok

Bernard Joseph agreed that partial transfer was not the answer.

According to Weitz’s account of the meeting both Bonné  and Joseph wanted to use force to remove the entire Arab population.

Eshbal argued that it would be necessary to first move not only the cultivators of the land but along with them all those directly or indirectly dependent upon them.

After the above discussion the plan was forwarded to Shertok.

Shertok identified two flaws in the plan in his letter of 31 December 1937 to Bernard Joseph: read more »


2015-02-20

Inside the Minds of Flat-Earthers

by Neil Godfrey

flatearthUntil I read Christine Garwood’s book Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea my idea of people out there who really believed the earth is flat was that they could only be as mysterious and unfathomable as leprechauns. But they really have existed these past 200 years and courageously taken on the whole world in what they have believed is their fight for sanity and reason.

The most enlightening insight I took from Garwood’s history is that flat-earthers for most part have been motivated by the same noble ideals as the best of us. It’s just that, well, they see things a little differently. Or rather, they see the same things we see but they want the rest of us either to use more common sense and/or have more faith in the Bible. They hate the idea that most of us are gullibly swallowing what the professional elites are trying to sell us. They want science democratized and the demos to be more true to God.

How can we fault anyone for living by such ideals?

Christine Garwood further informs us that much of the ridicule we direct at flat-earthers is fueled in part by our own ignorance. When we assume that flat earthers are no more advanced than the people of the dark ages or even earlier primitive times then we are actually demonstrating a key point of the flat-earthers. Flat earthers argue most of us blindly accept, uncritically and without any request for supporting evidence, whatever the professionals tell us. We trust too readily. Even many of the professionals are deluded. The fact is, and Garwood explains the evidence for this extensively, that since the fourth century BCE most people who are on record as having given the question any thought have believed the earth is round. How we came to think otherwise and how myths about Columbus became common knowledge is explained in the prologue and first chapter of Flat Earth. Hint: Washington Irving of Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle fame is largely to blame for the mischief.

That should be a mildly discomforting thought. If so, it segues into the questions of the relevance of the history of the flat earth movements. (We can’t have a history book that’s written just for entertainment alone, after all.) read more »


2015-02-19

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (11)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 11: Luke Abandons the Secrecy Motif

While we may have had to wait until the end of Mark’s story for the denouement of the secrecy gospel, Luke removes all suspense early on with the scene in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-30). In The Messianic Secret, William Wrede writes:

Here Jesus reads out the words of Isaiah 61.1f. regarding the anointing for messianic vocation and then goes on to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. But this is nothing other than a messianic self-proclamation, and if Luke in all probability made up this scene himself in so far as it is at variance with Mark, and certainly thought of it as an introduction determining the character of the presentation of the story which follows, yet one gains the impression that here he is doing something which Mark would hardly have done. However many contradictions may be found in Mark along with the idea of secret messiahship, this is on a different footing. It looks like a denial of the idea itself. (Wrede, 1901/1971, p. 178, emphasis mine)

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

The Sermon on the Mount (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is the Sermon on the Mount private instruction?

Luke’s Jesus does not hide his light under a bushel. He lets everyone know who he is. We can see the extent to which Luke has embraced this public, openly messianic Jesus even in the way he teaches the crowd.

Wrede makes the point that in Matthew, much of the instruction Jesus imparts to his disciples remains private. The Transfiguration, the prophecy of the passion, the meaning of parables, the “question about the last things,” etc. happen away from the crowds and sometimes away from the majority of the disciples. But that’s not all.

We may also mention that even the Sermon on the Mount is regarded as instruction of the disciples. For according to 5.1, when Jesus sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain and then the disciples approach him[*] in order to receive his teaching. This, of course, is again forgotten at the end of the sermon in 7.28.

[*] prosēlthan autō hoi mathētai, Matthew is very willing to say, even although they were already together with Jesus. Proserchesthai [coming near to, approaching] is generally used by him more often than in all the other New Testament writings put together. (Wrede, 1901/1971, p. 178)

In other words, Jesus is moving away from the crowd and up the mountain where he will give private (secret?) instruction. Apologetic and traditional commentators haven’t seen it that way, of course. Instead of retreating, they imagine that Jesus is simply getting a better vantage point from which to address the crowd. But the text is quite clear. read more »


2015-02-17

Jesus the Seed of David: One More Case for Interpolation

by Neil Godfrey

Romans 1:1-7 (YLT)

1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, a called apostle,

having been separated to the good news of God –

2 which He announced before through His prophets in holy writings –

3 concerning His Son,

(who is come of the seed of David according to the flesh,

4 who is marked out Son of God in power, according to the Spirit of sanctification [=Holy Spirit], by the rising again from the dead,)

Jesus Christ our Lord;

5 through whom we did receive grace and apostleship, for obedience of faith among all the nations,

in behalf of his name;

6 among whom are also ye, the called of Jesus Christ;

7 to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called saints; Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father, and [from] the Lord Jesus Christ!

Interpolation is a four letter word for some scholars: it can only be justified under extreme provocation such as when all the earliest witnesses leave not a shadow of doubt.

Such a standard flies in the face of what we know about the transmission of ancient manuscripts, especially the canonical ones. See Forgery in the ancient world and List of scholars believing Paul’s letters were interpolated. Nonetheless I can understand why some authors play it safe by being very reluctant to treat any passage in Paul’s letters as an interpolation unless supported by widely acknowledged arguments. I’m not so conservative. If only one scholar produces very sound arguments that his or her peers fail to address then I’m willing to take the possibility of interpolation seriously.

So much for the preamble.

Sparks have flown between Christ Myth advocates and their opponents over the opening passage in Paul’s epistle to the Romans that declares Jesus Christ to be “of the seed of David according to the flesh” but these verses may have another significance for our understanding of how early Christian ideas evolved. So forget the mythicist debate for a moment.

Many of us are aware of Hermann Detering’s arguments for Romans 1:2-6 being an interpolation laden with anti-Marcionite innuendo. I won’t repeat those here. Consider this a related post.

I have also posted the 1942 argument of A. D. Howell-Smith for Romans 1:3 (who is come of the seed of David) being an interpolation. Again, consider this post related.

Alfred Loisy (1935) makes a passing reference to Romans 1:3-4 (see the bolded passage in the side box) being a likely interpolation in Remarques sur la littérature épistolaire du Nouveau Testament, p. 9. These lines are anomalous padding within a standard introduction.

J. C. O’Neill in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (1975) published a detailed argument for why we should consider all of verses 1b to 5a as an interpolation. (See the indented lines in the side-box. He also found the words I have italicized intrusive.) It is O’Neill’s discussion pages 25 to 28 that I set out below.

Normal Letter Introductions

Normal introductions were as simple as possible. Example:

Demophon to Ptolemaeus, greeting.

Affectionate and official letters could be elaborated a little:

Apion to Epimarchus his father and Lord, heartiest greetings. 

Polycrates to his father, greeting.

Claudius Lysias to his Excellency the governor Felix, greeting. (Acts 23:26)

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion, greeting. (James 1:1)

Paul’s Introductions

read more »


2015-02-12

The Rhythms of Palestine’s History

by Neil Godfrey

whitelamThe reality of Palestine’s long history from the Bronze Age to the present has been lost behind the myths of the Bible.

Think of Palestine’s past and images of Israel displacing the Canaanites from around 1200 BCE, establishing a united kingdom, even an empire, under King David and then his son Solomon slip easily into our minds. We think of the divided kingdom: apostate Israel in the north ruled from Samaria and Judah in the south with its Jerusalem temple. We know these kingdoms were removed by the Assyrians and Babylonians by around 600 BCE and that the Jews returned once again after a period of captivity.

And they re-returned to “the land of their fathers” to “re-establish the Jewish State” as proclaimed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence of 1948. The historical right of the Jews to the land of Palestine remains evident today to possibly most Christians and anyone taught this historical outline.

Archaeological-Historical Periods in Palestine

  • Early Bronze Age 3150-2000 BCE
  • Middle Bronze Age 2000-1550 BCE
  • Late Bronze Age 1550-1200 BCE
  • Iron Age 1200-587 BCE
  • Persian 538-332 BCE
  • Hellenistic 332-63 BCE
  • Roman 63 BCE – 330 CE
  • Byzantine eras 330-636 CE
  • Early Caliphates 636-661 CE
  • Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Seljug 661-1098 CE
  • Crusaders 1099-1291 CE
  • Ayyubid and Mamluk 1187-1517 CE
  • Ottomans 1517-1917 CE
  • British 1920-1948 CE
  • Israeli 1948 – present

The question we might ask, then, is what is the history of the Palestinians? The biblical narrative leaves them no room for a history in the land. Are they late trespassers? Are they rootless Arabs with no genuine attachment to any land in particular?

Until his retirement Keith Whitelam was Professor and Head of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Stirling and Professor and Head of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. His recent publication, Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past, surveys the archaeological evidence for the history of Palestine from the Bronze Ages through to the end of the Iron Ages and compares what he sees with the Palestine from more recent times according to travelers’ reports and current geo-political maneuverings.

He concludes that our Western view of Palestine’s history has been determined by the biblical narrative and conflicts with the archaeological evidence before us.

The past matters because it continues to flow into the present. However, Palestine has been stripped of much of its history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is as though Palestine only came into being with the British Mandate (1920-48) and came to an end with the declaration of the modern state of Israel (1948). The growth of towns, the shift in villages, or the population movements of three millennia before have become divorced from this ‘modern’ Palestine. (Kindle Locations 42-46).

Whereas others who have been gaining their independence from imperial domination ever since the nineteenth century and especially since World War 2 have been able to construct their own national histories as an essential part of their national identities, read more »


2015-02-08

Evidence for a Pre-Christian “Christianity”?

by Neil Godfrey

spiritpossession

Professor Stevan Davies has re-published his book Jesus the Healer under a new and probably more appropriate title, Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity, a new introduction on the pentecostal origins of the Christian movement (including an account for comparative purposes of the origins of modern pentecostalism since 1906) and added a couple of chapters on the possible evidence that Christianity emerged out of a form of Judaism we find expressed in the Odes of Solomon. Although some scholars have seen these poems as having been influenced by Christianity Davies argues for the traditional view that they are pre-Christian. And if pre-Christian, they are evidence of beliefs held by certain Jews that eventually had a profound influence on Christianity.

Scholars today (Charlesworth, Lattke) have dated the Odes to around 125 CE, at “the overlap of early Judaism, early Gnosticism and early Christianity.” Davies argues with others (e.g. Jack Sanders) that they influenced Christianity rather than the reverse and that they date from the period 50 – 25 BCE.

Western Syria (which includes the region of Galilee) is the most likely place of their origin.

It should be, but often is not, obvious that there were cultural influences on Galilee, and Samaria, and even Judea that come from the north, from Syria, Tyre, Sidon, Damascus, Antioch, influences on Judaism that were not Judean in origin. (p. 260)

Distinctive features 

While the Odes speak of a Christ figure they convey no hint of any awareness of a Jesus. If we define them as “Christian” they are of a quite different type of Christianity we read about in the New Testament.

Their Christ figure is a human who becomes Christ and who has no particular historical identity.

The Odes share vocabulary and phrases that appear in early Christian documents but the ideas conveyed by these shared expressions are quite unlike anything we associate with Christianity.

They do not mention

  • forgiveness
  • atonement
  • sin
  • resurrection
  • ascension
  • baptism
  • eucharist
  • the name of Jesus
  • any sayings of Jesus
  • any event in the life of Jesus
  • cross or crucifixion

The word “cross” supposedly appears twice in the Odes of Solomon (Odes 27 and 42), but only when translators such as Charlesworth take the Syriac (qaysa) or Greek (xylon), the word for tree or wood and translate it as “cross.” Less tendentious translators do not do this. . . .

Davies suggests that those passages should probably be translated to convey the image of a suppliant stretching his arms upward in prayer like tree branches. They do not depict arms stretched out as if on a cross.

The Odes do remind us of the Gospels with their references to:

  • a virgin and a virgin birth
  • a dove fluttering above the Messiah

But notice how unlike the ideas found in the Gospels these expressions are: read more »


2015-01-25

The Memory Mavens, Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance (1)

by Tim Widowfield
The Historiographical Jesus

The Historiographical Jesus

Earlier this month on The Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne, one of the main Memory Mavens let us know that he had publicly posted a chapter of his monograph, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David. (You can, incidentally, read the original version of Le Donne’s thesis at the Durham University web site.) While I expect to have more to say about Le Donne’s book in a later post in this series, for the time being I would like to focus on three criticisms he has about Maurice Halbwachs‘s study of the sacred sites of Palestine.

Before going further, we should note that Halbwachs’ study was seriously deficient in several ways. The first is that he relied heavily upon the account by pilgrims of Bordeaux and neglected any part that Constantine played in the localization of holy sites.[14] Also, he inexplicably presupposed that the Synoptic Gospels took written form in the second century and perhaps over a century after the events to which they attest.[15] This poorly defended position was foundational to Halbwachs’ conclusion that the Gospels are mostly invented and fictive in nature.[16] Halbwachs also misrepresented (and oversimplified) the relationship between Jewish and Christian religious belief.

[14] Eusebius, Vita Constantine, 2.46; 3.30–32. Constantine’s wife Helena is also reputed to have traveled to Bethlehem and Jerusalem to establish monuments at the place of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives. See H. Lietzmann, From Constantine to Julian: A History of the Church, vol. 3 (London: Lutterworth, 1950), 147.

[15] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 209.

[16] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 213.

(Le Donne, 2009, p. 44, emphasis mine)

Constantine’s . . . er . . . wife?

Before continuing, we ought to address the elephant in the room. Seriously? Constantine’s wife? Helena was, of course, the mother of Constantine. How is it possible that “the first book-length treatment of Social Memory for historical Jesus research” managed to undergo intense scrutiny from a PhD examination board, extensive peer review, editing by a major publishing house, glowing reviews from scholars around the world — all without noticing this strange little error?  read more »


2015-01-11

Death Without God

by Neil Godfrey

Comforting-Thoughts-book-cover-oblong-200-JPGLast year I mentioned a book about death from an atheist perspective that has been getting wide attention among various Freethought and other blogs. My first reaction when I learned about it . . . .

Another book that did not interest me personally but that I see is gaining considerable attention on the web is Greta Christina’s Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God. Personally I have no problem with the idea of death as the cessation of everything. But evidently we all have different perspectives on this and Greta’s book does meet a wider interest. And given its electronic version only costs $3 I thought, “what the hell” and have downloaded it for future reference. Now I can find out what all the fuss is about when I have a spare moment.

I’ve been an atheist long enough and I have long since worked through my questions about the “meaning of 42” and godless foxhole deaths that I felt little personal interest in reading it at first. But it’s a bandwagon thing. I had to find out what everyone else thought I was missing, so I read it.

I managed it easily in my spare moments — walking to/from work; waiting for someone in a car — and it was the best $3 I’ve ever spent since my $3 haircut in Bali.

Greta Christina is a pleasure to read. It’s always nice, too, to read someone of a like mind about the fundamentals of life. One always hopes little gems will be tucked away in one’s mind and available for future reference when next conversing with anyone who wants to talk about stuff like this.

There are two audiences (or two additional audiences) Greta is addressing here. For religious believers who are curious, especially if they are rethinking their own faith, this book is a perfect layout of the healthy atheist dispositions towards death and life. I was a little surprised to read that Greta is also addressing an apparently not insignificant number of atheists who seriously thought religion is the better option when it comes to facing death. I don’t know too many of those, or at least I don’t know if I do know any such people.

I have scarcely been aware of atheist communities and related support groups, in particular some tailored to offer support for anyone finding well-meaning (or sometimes less kindly) religious people burdening them in their times of grief with overwhelming religious sentiments. Greta’s mentioning of these reminded me how lucky I am that atheism is not the big deal in Australia that it obviously is in America.

Greta writes with humour, compassion, understanding and simplicity. It really is a great $3. You’ll remember and talk about it as long as you would the very beautiful hairdresser giving very good $3 haircuts in Bali.

 


2015-01-10

Ascension of Isaiah: Contents, Manuscripts and the Question of its Composition

by Neil Godfrey

Hi Neil,

I have a copy of Norelli’s Ascension d’Isaïe and I consulted it when I wrote parts 7 through 9 of my blog series on a Simonian origin for Christianity. In part 7 of the series I noted in passing that Norelli put the date of composition for the Vision of Isaiah at the end of the first century. And in post 8, as part of my Jan. 30, 2014 response to George Hall, I quoted from page 52-53 of Norelli’s book.

However, just judging from this one book of Norelli’s, I’m skeptical that his work will prove to be, as Bauckham says, “definitive.” And I don’t see that Bauckham himself really considers it all that definitive either for, as I recall, Bauckham argues that Norelli is wrong about assigning a different author to each of the two parts of the AoI and about Norelli’s dating of the second part (theVision of Isaiah) earlier than the first (chapters 1-5).

In regard to the AoI’s chapter 11 “pocket gospel:” I explain in post 8 my reasons for questioning whether it was part of the original Vision. As you know, I share Carrier’s and Doherty’s suspicions that it was not, but we have different guesses about what was originally there. I proposed that some kind of early passion narrative like the one now found in gMark would fit in better with the rest of the Vision.

Roger Parvus

Continuing from A New (Completely Revised) Look at the Ascension of Isaiah . . . 

Roger Parvus has thankfully reminded me that he addressed aspects of Enrico Norelli’s book on the Ascension of Isaiah in his earlier posts. See his comment on my previous post (in side-box) for links to these and for his more general response to Norelli’s work.

This post overviews the contents of the AoI, a little of how we came to possess it, and what I understand to be Norelli’s argument for a fresh approach to the study of the text.

Ascension of Isaiah: Contents

The AoI was most likely originally composed as a Greek text but its most complete version today is in the Ge’ez or classical Ethiopic script. This has come down to us as part of the Ethiopian Old Testament that has preserved a number of books rejected from the canons of Jews and Christians (such as Enoch and Jubilees).

In its present form the AoI consists of two parts.

The first part (chapters 1-5) borrowed the Jewish tradition of the death of Isaiah who was sawn in two by King Manasseh.

King Hezekiah, the father of Manasseh, summoned his son to hear Isaiah recount his vision — the one that we will read about in part 2. But Isaiah informed Hezekiah privately that Manasseh would lead Israel astray from the true faith and that he would kill the prophet.

After Manasseh became king he was influenced by the false Samaritan prophet Belchira to capture Isaiah and saw him in half. We also learn that the real power behind these two men inspiring them to murder Isaiah was the devil, named Beliar.

Beliar was incensed against Isaiah because the prophet had exposed the his scheme to deceive and be worshiped by humanity.

Isaiah’s vision that had so enraged the devil is summed up in between the arrest of Isaiah and his martyrdom. In this section we read additional material that is not found in the later account of the vision (3:13-4:18):

  • after the resurrection and ascension of Christ the church will flourish uncorrupted for a time

  • a time will come when sinful pastors and elders who reject the Holy Spirit and the prophecies (including Isaiah’s prophecy) will lead the church astray

  • the future coming of the Beliar, the devil, in the form of the Antichrist who will persecute the true believers

  • the second coming of the Christ who puts an end to the work of the Antichrist.

The second part (chapters 6 to 11, except for 11:41-43) brings us to the vision so often referred to in the first half. This vision, therefore, is a flashback to the twentieth year of Hezekiah’s reign and the vision of Isaiah that angered the devil.

Chapter 6 begins with Isaiah leading the prophets in worship in the king’s house in Jerusalem. Isaiah falls into a trance and is transported in vision through the seven heavens up to the presence of God (7:2-9:26). There he witnesses heavenly worship in progress, this one led by Christ (who had not yet visited earth) and the Holy Spirit (9:27-10:6).

Isaiah is then shown God’s plan of salvation:

read more »


2015-01-08

A New (Completely Revised) Look at the Ascension of Isaiah

by Neil Godfrey
ascension-norelli

“Ascension du prophete d’Isaie” by Enrico Norelli (1993)

Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier have suggested that there is an ancient text outside the Bible that stands as direct evidence for some early Christians believing that Jesus Christ was crucified by demons in a celestial realm. That text is The Ascension of Isaiah (AOI), believed to be a composite document whose earliest parts were quite likely authored as early as the late first century.

Scholarly work on AoI has been on the move. 1995 saw two pivotal Italian works that have paved the way for a new consensus. Enrico Norelli has been a key player in this research.

  • 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.

I don’t have access to those but yesterday a copy of Norelli’s 1993 Ascension du prophète Isaïe arrived in the mail.

I have only struggled through chapter 2 with my very rusty French so far but it is already clear that the old views are being challenged.

Here are the highlights:

  • The work is not nearly so fragmented as earlier studies have believed. Both the first part, chapters 1 to 5, depicting the martyrdom of Isaiah, and the second part, chapters 6 to 11, portraying Isaiah’s vision of the descent of the Christ figure (the Beloved) down through the seven heavens to be crucified, harrow hell and return to sit beside God again, are Christian works.
  • The Christian sect responsible for the AoI (all of it) was exalted revelations through visions and saw themselves competing with rival sects, each blaming and persecuting the other as false prophets.
  • The account of the birth of the Beloved to Mary in Bethlehem is not a late addition but was original to the vision chapters (6-11). That means The Beloved did indeed descend to earth and was crucified on earth — unrecognized by the demons.
  • The details of the nativity scene draw on a source also known to the evangelist responsible for the Gospel of Matthew. The AoI does not know the canonical gospel but both are using a common source. The two nativity versions — Matthew’s and the AoI’s — represent competing theologies. That is, the AoI was (and several reasons are given for this conclusion) written around the same time or environment that produced the Gospel of Matthew.
  • The reason for the Beloved appearing to be flesh and dying was to save humanity by means of conquering their demonic rulers.

To me this is fairly mind-blowing stuff if true. We would need to account for a view of the “gospel” that stood in stark contrast to all the assumptions and “traditions” behind Matthew appearing on the scene at around the same time. That question alone poses enormous questions for the traditional view of gospel origins, surely.

Further, if we accept Norelli’s revisions to our understanding of the AoI then it would appear that the AoI might support in part Roger Parvus’s interpretation of the original (“mythicist”) gospel: that Jesus descended to earth to be crucified before ascending again. Except that Roger, I think, argued for Christ only appearing for a short time on earth for this purpose. The AoI has the Beloved hiding his identity from the demons by means of slipping into the world through Mary.

Okay, my head is still spinning. Keep in mind that the above is my impression as discerned through some very fuzzy memories of my French. I would like to roughly paraphrase (not translate!) the different sections of chapter 2 to share with others here over the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, here is a diagram I prepared for an older post of mine (before I had a copy of Norelli’s book) that shows something of the complexities of the history of interpretations of the AoI:  read more »