Category Archives: Book Reviews & Notes


2016-08-28

Where religious beliefs come from

by Neil Godfrey
Tylor and Frazer

Tylor and Frazer

Previous posts in this series:

  1. Sam Harris: Wrong (again) about Religion and Radicalization
  2. Religion: It’s more than we often think
  3. Was Religion Invented to Explain Things — or to Compound Mystery? . . . Or. . . ?

Since we tend to take it for granted that beliefs in spirit beings and associated myths were invented to explain the world around us I was surprised to read in Pascal Boyer‘s Religion Explained that this assumption is problematic and no longer accepted by all anthropologists:

[T]he theme of religion-as-an-explanation was developed by a school of anthropology called intellectualism, which was initiated by 19th-century scholars such as Edward Burnett Tylor and James Frazer and remains quite influential to this day. (p. 15)

It is not true, Boyer argues, that humans naturally try to find some speculative explanations for commonly experienced phenomena that they lack the conceptual means to understand.

The mistake of intellectualism was to assume that a human mind is driven by a general urge to explain. That assumption is no more plausible than the idea that animals, as opposed to plants, feel a general “urge to move around.” Animals never move about for the sake of changing places. They are in search of food or safety or sex; their movements in these different situations are caused by different processes. The same goes for explanations. From a distance, as it were, you may think that the general point of having a mind is to explain and understand. But if you look closer, you see that what happens in a mind is far more complex; this is crucial to understanding religion.

There’s a lot to think about here. Certainly for me there is. Boyer gives an example of one of the most common everyday experiences of every healthy person that is very hard for us to think requires any explanation at all.

Nervous_systemNow, expressed in this blunt and general manner, the statement is plainly false. Many phenomena are both familiar to all of us from the youngest age and difficult to comprehend using our everyday concepts, yet nobody tries to find an explanation for them. For instance, we all know that our bodily movements are not caused by external forces that push or pull us but by our thoughts. That is, if I extend my arm and open my hand to shake hands with you, it’s precisely because I want to do that. Also, we all assume that thoughts have no weight or size or other such material qualities (the idea of an apple is not the size of the apple, the idea of water does not flow, the idea of a rock is no more solid than the idea of butter). If I have the intention to lift my arm, to take a classic example, this intention itself has no weight or solidity. Yet it manages to move parts of my body. . . . How can this occur? How could things without substance have effects in the material world? Or, to put it in less metaphysical terms, how on earth do these mental words and images pull my muscles? This is a difficult problem for philosophers and cognitive scientists . . . but surprisingly enough, it is a problem for nobody else in the entire world. Wherever you go, you will find that people are satisfied with the idea that thoughts and desires have effects on bodies and that’s that. (Having raised such questions in English pubs and Fang villages in Cameroon I have good evidence that in both places people see nothing mysterious in the way their minds control their bodies. Why should they? It requires very long training in a special tradition to find the question interesting or puzzling.)

That illustration got me thinking and wondering. Is it too clever? I can certainly see myself as one of Boyer’s English pub companions thinking there is “nothing mysterious” at all about the process. But of course that’s his point. Then I recalled the (apocryphal) story of Isaac Newton wondering why the apple he had just seen fall from a tree did not instead fall upwards or hang suspended.

If we can throw things up skyward why do they decide at some point to come back down again?

Why does food appease my hunger but then too much food make me feel sick?

Why do babies grow up and not just stay as babies? Why do we get weaker as we age? Why do we age?

Why do we and every other living thing have matching right and left sides?

It takes a little effort at first, but once one starts on that track it does seem there is a point here. And I can only think of some of those questions because I need first to refer to what I have learned from my reading of science. Religious explanations are indeed limited to only certain types of stories and never touch many potential questions for the pre-scientific mind.

The more I think about it the more I think it is true that our minds are not “general explanation machines”.

Boyer’s point is that the mind consists of lots of specialized explanatory engines or “inference systems”. I have hummed and harred whether to set out my own explanations and have finally opted to quote more of Boyer’s own words but with my formatting:

Consider this:

It is almost impossible to see a scene without seeing it in three dimensions, because our brains cannot help explaining the flat images projected onto the retina as the effect of real volumes out there.

If you are brought up among English speakers you just cannot help understanding what people say in that language, that is, explaining complex patterns of sound frequencies as strings of words.

People spontaneously explain the properties of animals in terms of some inner properties that are common to their species; if tigers are aggressive predators and yaks quiet grazers, this must be because of their essential nature.

We spontaneously assume that the shape of particular tools is explained by their designers’ intentions rather than as an accidental combination of parts; the hammer has a sturdy handle and a heavy head because that is the best way to drive nails into hard materials.

We find that it is impossible to see a tennis ball flying about without spontaneously explaining its trajectory as a result of a force originally imposed on it.

If we see someone’s facial expression suddenly change we immediately speculate on what may have upset or surprised them, which would be the explanation of the change we observed.

When we see an animal suddenly freeze and leap up we assume it must have detected a predator, which would explain why it stopped and ran away. 

If our houseplants wither away and die we suspect the neighbors did not water them as promised—that is the explanation.

It seems that our minds constantly produce such spontaneous explanations.

Inference Systems

read more »


2016-08-24

Was Religion Invented to Explain Things — or to Compound Mystery? . . . Or. . . ?

by Neil Godfrey

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_coverThunder, earthquakes, droughts, a good harvest, the movements of the sun, moon, planets — we know that ancient people had hosts of myths to explain how all of these things “worked”. It is easy to assume that religious ideas were developed out of primitive attempts to explain these sorts of natural phenomena.

Then there are dreams, and feelings that our beloved deceased are somehow still with us, hallucinations, “bad vibes” . . . These surely puzzled our pre-scientific ancestors. Was it a need to understand these mental phenomena that led to a belief in spirits as an explanation?

Where did everything ultimately come from? Musical instruments? Metal working? Mountains? The sky? Did religion arise by deciding a God or ancestral hero was “the first cause” of all these things?

What about illness? Premature death? A flood sweeping one’s village away? Surely it is only “natural” to want to understand why evil, why suffering. Was religion developed as an explanation for these calamities? Did religion create the ideas of devils, fate, God, to explain all of this?

Pascal Boyer argues that there is something wrong with the above assumptions that religions arose to explain the mysteries of the world and life. He writes:

Now anthropologists have shown that

(i) explaining such general facts is not equally pressing in all cultures and that

(ii) the explanations provided by religion are not at all like ordinary explanations.

Not seeking to explain evil, but a particular evil

Evans_Pritchard_(1902–1973)_in_Sudan

E. E. Evans-Pritchard with a group of Zande boys in Sudan. Picture taken in the period 1926–1930 (Wikipedia)

Take the case of explaining evil and misfortune in the world. In an earlier post I referred to the classic anthropological study by E. E. Evans-Pritchard of the Zande people in the Sudan. They had no interest in explaining evil in general. They had no interest in what to us was the obvious explanation of why the roof of a hut collapsed. They could all see very well that termites had eroded the supporting structures. They knew very well that termites will cause the timber to give way and collapse at some point. But that wasn’t the answer to what they wanted to know.

They were not interested in asking why the roof collapsed. They wanted to know why the roof had collapsed at that particular moment with certain persons beneath it.

There is no curiosity over the origins of evil in general. The obvious explanation does not interest them.

What they wanted to know was why the persons beneath the roof had such powerful enemies and why witchcraft was being used against them.

What they wanted to know was why certain enemies had it in for these hapless victims of the collapsed roof. The explanation they sought was for a particular instance. They wanted to know why assumed spirits were acting in a certain way.

Not seeking to explain origins in general, but particular disruptions

A similar interesting point is made with what we take to be myths of origins.

The origin of things in general is not always the obvious source of puzzlement that we may imagine. As anthropologist Roger Keesing points out in describing myths of the Kwaio people in the Solomon Islands: “Ultimate human origins are not viewed as problematic. [The myths] assume a world where humans gave feasts, raised pigs, grew taro, and fought blood feuds.” What matters to people are particular cases in which these activities are disrupted, often by the ancestors or by witchcraft.

The unlikely explanations of myths

Mårten_Eskil_Winge_-_Tor's_Fight_with_the_Giants_-_Google_Art_ProjectRecall that “the explanations provided by religion are not at all like ordinary explanations.” Recall the complete lack of interest in termites being the explanation for the collapse of the roof.  Take the explanation of thunder as an example:

The explanations one finds in religion are often more puzzling than illuminating. Consider the explanation of thunderstorms as the booming voice of ancestors venting their anger at some human misdemeanor. To explain a limited aspect of the natural world (loud, rolling, thumping sounds during storms), we have to assume a whole imaginary world with superhuman agents (Where did they come from? Where are they?) that cannot be seen (Why not?), in a distant place that cannot be reached (How does the noise come through all the way?), whose voices produce thunder (How is that possible? Do they have a special mouth? Are they gigantic?). Obviously, if you live in a place where this kind of belief is widespread, people may have an answer to all these questions. But each answer requires a specific narrative, which more often than not presents us with yet more superhuman agents or extraordinary occurrences—that is, with more questions to answer.

Boyer then cites another case study, this time of an attempt to cure a mentally disturbed person:

As another illustration, here is a short account of shamanistic ritual among the Cuna of Panama by anthropologist Carlo Severi:

The [shaman’s] song is chanted in front of two rows of statuettes facing each other, beside the hammock where the patient is lying. These auxiliary spirits drink up the smoke whose intoxicating effect opens their minds to the invisible aspect of reality and gives them the power to heal. In this way [the statuettes] are believed to become themselves diviners.

That short passage introduces loads of problems for the “religion is an attempt to explain stuff” model. I’ll quote Boyer’s own commentary: read more »


2016-08-23

Religion: It’s more than we often think

by Neil Godfrey
conte-sufc3ad0001-copiaeng (1)

Sufi Story…Elephant & blind sages by Blanca Marti for Equilibre. From wildequus.

Religion is more than the faiths most of us grew up with. Christianity, Judaism, Islam — these represent only one family branch of religion. If we want to understand “what religion is” and explore why it is that religion is so pervasive among humanity then it’s a good idea to have as complete a picture as possible of this thing called “religion” and not limit ourselves to just one part of it. Remember the parable of the blind men describing the elephant.

Here are some reminders of why we should not limit our view of religion to certain features of Christianity or the Muslim faith. They are taken from Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, 2001.

Supernatural agents can be very different

Religion is about the existence and causal powers of nonobservable entities and agencies. These may be one unique God or many different gods or spirits or ancestors, or a combination of these different kinds. Some people have one “supreme” god, but this does not always mean that he or she is terribly important. In many places in Africa there are two supreme gods. One is a very abstract supreme deity and the other is more down-to-earth, as it were, since he created all things cultural: tools and domesticated animals, villages and society. But neither of them is really involved in people’s everyday affairs, where ancestors, spirits and witches are much more important.

Some gods even die. Boyer reminds us that many Buddhists think gods themselves go through the cycles of reincarnations. The only reason generations of humans worship the same gods is because the gods take a lot longer to get around to dying.

Many spirits are really stupid

We think of religion as devotion to an all-knowing and all-wise being and perhaps his angelic agents. But

In Siberia, for instance, people are careful to use metaphorical language when talking about important matters. This is because nasty spirits often eavesdrop on humans and try to foil their plans. Now spirits, despite their superhuman powers, just cannot understand metaphors. They are powerful but stupid.

In places in Africa people guard against praising the good looks or good nature of children by telling their parents how ugly or unpleasant they are. The idea is to keep their attributes secret from witches who would otherwise try to eat them. Sometimes children are even given names with disgraceful associations for the same reason.

In Haiti one of the worries of people who have just lost a relative is that the corpse might be stolen by a witch. To avoid this, people sometimes buried their dead with a length of thread and an eyeless needle. The idea was that witches would find the needle and try to thread it, which would keep them busy for centuries so that they would forget all about the corpse. People can think that supernatural agents have extraordinary powers and yet are rather easily fooled.

Salvation is not always a central preoccupation

read more »


2016-08-04

A Must Read! Steve Mason’s A History of the Jewish War

by Neil Godfrey

mason-warGentle reader, you must promise not to tell my wife what I am about to confess to you. Yesterday I threw thrift behind me and recklessly purchased an electronic copy of A History of the Jewish War, AD 66-74 by Steve Mason. And I do not regret the guilty pleasure.

Extremely rare among historical works we tend to associate with topics related to biblical studies, this work is written by an author who clearly understands what history is and how to use historical sources. Steve Mason laments his publisher’s insistence that he remove an entire chapter explaining all of this to an audience he acknowledges will belong primarily to departments in “religious studies, Jewish studies, archaeology, biblical studies, or theology.” He knows that

If even those who understand themselves to be historians and nothing else differ significantly in method, the potential for disagreement over aims and methods is likely to be all the greater in this field. On top of that lie all the potential stakes in this period held by Jews and Christians of various kinds, religious and non- and anti-religious scholars, Zionists, post-Zionists, and anti-Zionists.

So the excised chapter was replaced by a shorter discussion in his second chapter, and I would love every biblical scholar and theologian who thinks she or he is a historian yet who has never read R.G. Collingwood or E.H. Carr. Too often I have seen a theologian mocking what he calls an old positivist view of history yet ironically failing to realize that he only has a superficial grasp of what historical positivism really is. I myself have been lampooned for discussing the problems raised by E.H. Carr for historians by theologians who only know that Carr had communist sympathies and accordingly seem to think that anyone who refers to him must be seeking to undermine every good and decent value in modern society.

But here is Steve Mason discussing the problems facing historians as they are addressed by Carr.

To get to the point: Mason explains the importance of first knowing and understanding what our sources actually are. A historian cannot simply read Josephus, for example, at face value. One must understand the type of world that had produced him and the type of writing he has given us. One must understand the worldview he shares with his contemporaries. And one must understand why he wrote the way he did and what he did.

Moreover, one must understand what history is and what it is not. The past is dead. It is gone. It no longer exists. So how can we know anything about the past?

The past is not a set of facts that exist “out there” and that the historian can look at and talk about. The past really is dead. It is not preserved in some sort of hologram or series of floating imprints for our imaginations to look at and learn.

What we read in history books are the creations of historians. Creations.

I hesitate to use the detective analogy because it has been done to death before even though it is very often misapplied or misunderstood or not understood nearly well enough.

But in one sense history really is like detective work in that it seeks to understand what happened/a crime — who, how, what — from whatever bits and pieces left at the scene might be able to convey. That sounds banal, but the principle is not often understood among many historians tied to theology and biblical studies. Here is the difference:

All detectives start with some known facts that are indisputable. A cadaver with a knife in its back, a diary of a missing heiress, invoices and tax records. They then seek to uncover more evidence from these established facts. Interviews are recorded and attempts are made to independently corroborate them, etc.

But if detectives work like historical Jesus scholars they would not work like this at all. They would read a few popular anonymous publications about a long-ago murder at a nearby uninhabited hill that locals believed to be haunted. They would dismiss most of the anecdotes about hauntings, but they would study the publications to try to determine who the murder victim was and what was the motive for his murder.

That’s from an older post of mine.

In other words, far more often than not, scholars familiar only with biblical studies all too often do not understand the relationship between their sources, the events narrated in them, and what really happened.

Steve Mason, at least as far as I have read since yesterday, does understand. I feel like I am reading the work of a “real historian” so rare in this particular field of research.

I hope to be able to share my guilty pleasure over coming months and longer as time and opportunity are both kind to me.

 


2016-08-02

Questioning Carrier and the Conventional Wisdom on Messianic Expectations

by Neil Godfrey

Here for convenience is an annotated list of the recent posts on “the myth of messianic expectations”.

1. Questioning Carrier and the Common View of a “Rash of Messianism” at the time of Jesus

Carrier’s claim “Palestine in the early first century ce was experiencing a rash of messianism” is introduced. His assertion that “The early first century ce was in their prediction window” is tested against his footnoted authority, “The Expectation of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls” by John Collins.

2. Questioning Claims about Messianic Anticipations among Judeans of the Early First Century

Carrier’s claim that “That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread, influential, and very diverse . . . has been well established by experts on ancient messianism” is tested by examining seven of the nine “experts in messianism” cited by Carrier.

3. Questioning Carrier and the “Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah” (#3)

An examination of the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospels and various purported “messianic” figures (the Samaritan, Theudas, the Egyptian and the anonymous “imposter”) in Josephus. Argues that reading what Josephus does say about the prophetic role of these figures, as opposed to what he does not say about their supposed messianic role, has too often been overlooked.

4. Origin of the Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah

I put Richard Carrier’s arguments on hold to point out what J. H. Charlesworth calls “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.” I would even say William Scott Green‘s “Messiah in Judaism: Rethinking the Question” . . . is obligatory reading and discussion for anyone interested in this question.

5. How Do You Spot a Messiah? — Myth of Jewish Messianic Expectations continued

Examines Carrier’s dismissal of Horsley, Freyne and Goodman’s views; shows Carrier inconsistencies in the application of his definition of “messiah”; and surveys Goodman’s analysis of the “ambiguous oracle” in Josephus and messianism in the first Jewish war with Rome, and the evidence for “messianism” between 70 and 132 CE.

6. Questioning Carrier: Was the Book of Daniel Really a “Key Messianic Text”?

Another look at origins of the “myth of messianic expectations” in the “apocalyptic hypothesis”; a companion argument to Green’s discussion in post #4 Origin of the Myth. Considers the evidence used to claim Daniel was a popular messianic text in the early first century. Also refers to evidence for attempts to calculate the time of the arrival of messiah from Daniel’s prophecies.

The posts also stress the difference between apocalypticism and messianism. Apocalyptic literature was for most part unconnected with messianic expectations.

Note, also, that there is no dispute about the existence of a wide variety of messianic concepts. In fact it is the research into these that has been a significant contributor to undermining the conventional view that Second Temple Jews were experiencing messianic fever.

 


2016-08-01

Questioning Carrier: Was the Book of Daniel Really a “Key Messianic Text”?

by Neil Godfrey
Johannes_weiß

Johannes Weiss first proposed the apocalyptic hypothesis in Die Predigt Jesu Reiche Gottes, 1892.

I expect this post will conclude my series challenging Richard Carrier’s arguments in On the Historicity of Jesus attempting to justify the common belief that early first century Judea was patchwork quilt of messianic movements. This belief has been challenged by specialist scholars* (see comment) especially since the 1990s but their work has still to make major inroads among many of the more conservative biblical scholars. We have seen the Christian doctrinal origins of this myth and I discuss another aspect of those doctrinal or ideological presumptions in this post. Carrier explicitly dismissed three names — Horsley, Freyne, Goodman — who are sceptical of the conventional wisdom, but I think this series of posts has shown that there are more than just three names in that camp. Many more than I have cited could also be quoted. Their arguments require serious engagement.

Richard Carrier sets out over forty social, political, religious and cultural background factors that anyone exploring the evidence for Christian origins should keep in mind. This is an excellent introduction to his argument, but there are a few I question. Here is one more:

(a) The pre-Christian book of Daniel was a key messianic text, laying out what would happen and when, partly inspiring much of the very messianic ferver of the age, which by the most obvious (but not originally intended) interpretation predicted the messiah’s arrival in the early first century, even (by some calculations) the very year of 30 ce.

(b) This text was popularly known and widely influential, and was known and regarded as scripture by the early Christians.

(Carrier 2014, p. 83, my formatting and bolding in all quotations)

The current scholarly approach to the origins of Christology has been guided by the apocalyptic hypothesis. The apocalyptic hypothesis is that Jesus proclaimed the imminence of the kingdom of God, a reign or domain ultimately imaginable only in apocalyptic terms. Early Christians somehow associated Jesus himself with the kingdom of God he announced (thinking of him as the king of the kingdom) and thus proclaimed him to be the Messiah. If Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, as the logic seems to have run, it was only natural for early Christians to conclude that he must have been the expected Messiah and that it was therefore right to call him the Christ.

With this hypothesis in place, the field of christological “background” studies has naturally been limited to the search for “messianic” figures in Jewish apocalyptic literature.2

…..

2. A theological pattern has guided a full scholarly quest for evidence of the Jewish “expectation” of “the Messiah” that Jesus “fulfilled.” Because of the apocalyptic hypothesis, privilege has been granted to Jewish apocalyptic literature as the natural context for expressing messianic expectations. The pattern of “promise and fulfillment” allows for discrepancies among “messianic” profiles without calling into question the notion of a fundamental correspondence. Only recently has the failure to establish a commonly held expectation of “the” Messiah led to a questioning of the apocalyptic hypothesis.

(Mack 2009, pp. 192-93)

Part (b) is certainly true. Part (a), no, not so. The apocalyptic book of Daniel was popular but it was not a key messianic text.

The book of Daniel was a well known apocalyptic work but most apocalyptic literature of the day contained no references to a messiah. Apocalypticism and messianism are not synonymous nor even always conjoined. Messiahs were not integral to the apocalyptic genre. It was more common in apocalyptic writings to declare that God himself would act directly, perhaps with the support of his angelic hosts. Very few such texts contain references to a messiah. Even when reading Daniel you need to be careful not to blink lest you miss his single reference to an anointed one (messiah). And even that sole reference, as we learn from the commentaries and to which Carrier himself alludes, is a historical reference to the high priest Onias III. There is nothing eschatological associated with his death.

Yes but, but ….

…. Didn’t the Jews in Jesus day believe that that reference was to a messiah who was soon to appear?

This is where a search through the evidence might yield an answer.

The evidence supporting “this fact”?

According to Carrier there is an abundance of evidence supporting “this fact” — by which he appears to mean both parts (a) and (b) in the above quotation.

This fact [i.e. a+b] is already attested by the many copies and commentaries on Daniel recovered from Qumran,45 46 but it’s evident also in the fact that the Jewish War itself may have been partly a product of it. As at Qumran, the key inspiring text was the messianic timetable described in the book of Daniel (in Dan. 9.23-27). (pp. 83-84) . . . .

. . . .

45. See Carrier, ‘Spiritual Body’, in Empty Tomb (ed. Price and Lowder), pp. 114-15, 132-47, 157, 212 (η. 166). The heavenly ascent narrative known to Ignatius, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr (see Chapter 8, §6) may have alluded to this passage in Zechariah, if this is what is intended by mentioning the lowly state of Jesus’ attire when he enters God’s heavenly court in Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 36.
46. On the numerous copies of Daniel among the Dead Sea Scrolls, including fragments of commentaries on it, see Peter Flint, ‘The Daniel Tradition at Qumran’, in Eschatology (ed. Evans and Flint), pp. 41-60, and F.F. Bruce, ‘The Book of Daniel and the Qumran Community’, in Neotestamentica et semitica; Studies in Honour of Matthew Black (ed. E. Earle Ellis and Max Wilcox; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. 1969). pp. 221-35.

I suspect some oversight at #45 because I am unable to locate a related discussion in Empty Tomb. So on to #46. I don’t have Bruce’s book chapter but I do have Peter Flint’s. Here is his chart setting out the Daniel texts in the Qumran scrolls (p. 43):

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 10.30.22 amNotice what’s missing, apart from any certainty regarding Daniel 9 as explained in the side-box. There is no Daniel 9:24-26. No reference to the anointed one. (We might see a flicker of hope with those few verses from chapter 9 in that table but sadly Flint has this to say about those:

However, the eighth manuscript, 4QDane, may have contained only part of Daniel, since it only preserves material from Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9. If this is the case — which is likely but impossible to prove — 4QDane would not qualify as a copy of the book of Daniel. (Flint 1997. p. 43)

But wait, it may not be lost, because another scroll, 11Q14 or the Melchizedek scroll, has a line that stops short where we would expect to find it, or at least a few words of it: read more »


2016-07-30

How Do You Spot a Messiah? — Myth of Jewish Messianic Expectations continued

by Neil Godfrey

I continue to examine the arguments mounted in favour of the view that Jewish messianic expectations at the time of the founding of what became Christianity as set out by Richard Carrier.

Even ‘John the Baptist’ (at least as depicted in the Gospels) was a mes­sianic figure (e.g. Jn 1.20; Lk. 3.15), or otherwise telling everyone the messiah would arrive in his lifetime (Mt. 3.1-12; Mk 1.1-8; Lk. 3.1-20; Jn 1.15- 28). And he was enormously popular (the Gospels and Acts claim so, and Josephus confirms it), thus further exemplifying the trend of the time. This messianic Baptist cult may even have influenced or spawned Christianity itself (see Element 33). The cult of Simon Magus might likewise have been promoting its own messiah. Acts certainly depicts Simon Magus as a mes­sianic pretender (Acts 8.9-11), again with enormous popularity, just like the others in Josephus. The historicity of this Simon has been questioned, but the historicity of his worship as a divine being has not.26 If the biblical account of him reflects the truth (of the historical man or the celestial demi­god he once was) he would be another example confirming the same trend. (Carrier 2014, p. 71)

Previous posts have alerted us by now to the flaws in appealing to the New Testament for supporting evidence that the NT was itself a product of one of many messianic movements in the early first century CE. Once again we see the proclivity to find messianic underlays in any figure who happens to be popular or speaks of the future, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Two of the scholars I have quoted in previous posts are Richard Horsley. and Sean Freyne. Their works are included in the volumes that Carrier himself cited as supports by specialists in this field for the common view about messianic expectations. So how does Carrier respond to their views?

Horsley still insists these are not messianic movements, but that assertion depends on an implausibly specific definition of ‘messiah’ (or an excessively irrational denial of obvious inferences): see my discussion of definitions (§3). Similarly in Sean Freyne, ‘The Herodian Period’, in Redemption and Resistance (ed. Bockmuehl and Paget), pp. 29-43: like Horsley, Freyne is only skeptical in respect to an over-restrictive definition of ‘messiah’: whereas given my definition, his evidence completely confirms my conclusion. The same can be said of Martin Goodman, ‘Messianism and Politics in the Land of Israel, 66-135 C.E.’ in Redemption and Resistance (ed. Bockmuehl and Paget), pp. 149-57.

That is, with a little unfortunate muddying of the waters and an appeal to overly-restrictive definitions and obvious inferences. As for inferences, what we have seen in this series so far is that all the evidence for messianic movements has been inferential from data that is anything but obvious. Recall Geza Vermes made the same claim, that “obviously” such and such would have been interpreted in a certain way, but then proceeded to set out four other possible interpretations!

Carrier supplies his own definition of what he means by messiah and to my mind it is no different at all from what Horsley and Freyne themselves accept. The problem is not in an “overly restrictive definition” but in an overly-liberal approach to seeing messiahs in the writings even when no mention of such a figure is present. As we saw, for example, with the rebel Athronges at the time of Herod’s death, we read twice of his interest in wearing a crown but nothing at all about an anointing. An attentive reading of Josephus’s description demonstrates that Athronges is emulating Herod as a king and there are no hints of any messianic pretensions. And so forth for all the other figures, as we have discussed in previous posts.

To be clear, here is Carrier’s definition of messiah:

I shall mean by messiah (the Hebrew word of which ‘Christ’ is a translation) any man in fact, myth, or prophecy who is (a) anointed by the Hebrew God to (b) play a part in God’s plan to liberate his Chosen People from their oppressors and (c) restore or institute God’s true religion. This means ‘anointed’ in any sense then understood (literally, figuratively, cosmically or symbolically), ‘liberate’ in any sense then claimed (physically or spiritually), ‘oppressors’ in any sense then identified (whoever or whatever they may be) and ‘religion’ in the fullest sense (cult, mores, sacred knowledge, and the resulting social order)— and I specify only ‘play a part’, not necessarily bring to fruition. All Jewish kings and high priests were, of course, ‘messiahs’ in the basic sense of being anointed to represent God. But here I shall mean a messiah conforming to (a) through (c). Yet I do not assume there must be only one messiah of that kind. Neither did the Jews . . .

I’ve seen some scholars question or deny that the Jews had any prior notion of a messiah before the advent of Christianity. But such a denial is accomplished only by proposing an implausibly hyper-specific definition of ‘messiah’, then showing no such thing was previously imagined, and concluding ‘the Jews had no prior notion of a messiah’. This is a textbook fallacy of equivocation: start with a term defined one way, then end with the same term defined in a completely different way, often without noticing a switch has been made. To avoid this, I shall stick to my minimal definition, since I am certain anyone meeting criteria (a), (b) and (c) would have been regarded by at least some ancient Jews or Judaizers as a messiah. I attach no other baggage to the term— no particular eschatology or scheme of liberation. Jews of antiquity were clearly quite flexible in all such details, as everyone agrees . . .

(Carrier 2014, pp. 60-61)

I doubt that Horsley, Freyne or Goodman would have any problem with that definition. Forget quibbles over semantics and precise meanings. The problem is that Carrier’s definition itself is thrown to the winds when looking for evidence of popular fervour for the appearance of a messiah as defined by Carrier with the result that the de facto definition becomes “anyone who commands a popular following”. Even if the context and details described point to a quite non-messianic figure (on the basis of Carrier’s definition) it does not matter.

In other words, even though Carrier insists that a messianic figure must be defined by “a through c”, if a figure conforms only to b and/or c then the most essential component, a, the anointing, is assumed to have been present. Of course it is the most essential detail that we should look for first.

Martin Goodman

Martin Goodman

Carrier does not name the scholars who “deny that the Jews had any prior notion of a messiah before the advent of Christianity”. Even Carrier concedes that messiahs were common enough in Jewish ontologies as kings and priests; and as I have demonstrated in my previous posts scholars such as Horsley and Freyne, far from denying the Jews any pre-Christian notion of a messiah, do indeed address the references to messiahs in the inter-testamental writings.

Since Carrier introduces another name I did not cover in earlier posts, Martin Goodman, I think this is a good time to quote some of his article that Carrier finds objectionable. The chapter is titled “Messianism and Politics in the Land of Israel, 66-135 C.E.” I did not use it earlier because as we can see it applies to the late first century and early second.

Goodman seeks to answer the question

how many Jews in Judaea shared … beliefs about the imminent arrival of the messiah, and what impact such beliefs had on the political actions which led Judaean Jews into two disastrous wars against Rome, in 66-70 C.E. and 132-5 C.E.

Goodman responds to William Horbury (Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ) as one of the more influential exponents of the idea that

  • Jews of Jesus’ day were waiting for a messiah;
  • this expectation was so strong that it was a significant factor in leading to the war with Rome;
  • and the reasons the evidence for these two beliefs is so scanty are
    • the sources have been lost with time
    • and Jewish authors (esp Josephus) suppressed the evidence of messianic hopes among their people.

read more »


Origin of the Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah

by Neil Godfrey
William Scott Green

William Scott Green

I put Richard Carrier’s arguments on hold in this post in order to point out what another scholar I have not yet cited has had to say about what J. H. Charlesworth calls “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.” I would even say William Scott Green‘s opening chapter, “Introduction: Messiah in Judaism: Rethinking the Question”, in Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, is obligatory reading and discussion for anyone interested in this question.

Green’s chapter helped me identify much of the fallacious reasoning and unfounded assumptions that underpin all efforts I have encountered attempting to prove that Second Temple Jews gave much attention to messianic hopes. What we tend to see in the arguments is, in Green’s words, a form of “proof-texting” carried out to justify one’s a priori assumptions about Second Temple religion and attitudes. Worse, most of the arguments attempting to demonstrate a messianic fever are based on texts where there is no mention of the messiah idea at all and in spite of other clear and explicit statements in the documents to the contrary.

The irony here is that Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, and others who identify the fallacious presumptions scholars bring to their reading of the New Testament epistles fail to see that they share with many of those same scholars the same type of fallacy at the heart of this particular question.

Green’s chapter needs to be read in its entirety, but I single out a few sentences.

The major studies [of the messiah at the turn of the Christian era] have sought to trace the development and transformations of putative messianic belief through an incredible and nearly comprehensive array of ancient literary sources – from its alleged genesis in the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament, rabbinic literature, and beyond – as if all these writings were segments of a linear continuum and were properly comparable. Such work evidently aims to shape a chronological string of supposed messianic references into a plot for a story whose ending is already known; it is a kind of sophisticated proof-texting. This diegetical approach to the question embeds the sources in the context of a hypothetical religion that is fully represented in none of them. It thus privileges what the texts do not say over what they do say.

(Green 1987, p.2)

The term “messiah” has scant and inconsistent use in early Jewish texts. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Pseudepigrapha, and the entire Apocrypha, contain no reference to “the messiah.” Moreover, a messiah is neither essential to the apocalyptic genre nor a prominent feature of ancient apocalyptic writings.

(Green 1987, p.2)

The Myth’s Origins

So what has led to today’s situation where it is taken for granted that

“In the time of Jesus the Jews were awaiting a Messiah.” (Mowinckel, He That Cometh, p. 3)

“from the first century B.C.E., the Messiah was the central figure in the Jewish myth of the future” (Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), p. xxvii.

“belief in the Messiah [is one of the four] good gifts which the people of Israel have left as an inheritance to the entire world.” (Klausner, Messianic Idea, p. 13)

Green’s explanation for this misguided state of affairs is that the academic study of “the messiah” derived not from an interest in Judaica but rather from “early Christian word-choice, theology, and apologetics.” First, he points to the problem faced: read more »


2016-07-29

Questioning Carrier and the “Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah” (#3)

by Neil Godfrey
James_H._Charlesworth

James H. Charlesworth criticizes Helmut Koester for assuming “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.”

This is part 3 of my series arguing against the popular notion that the time of Jesus as narrated in the gospels was ablaze with various cults and movements eagerly expecting a messiah to appear as per prophecies or even time-tables found in the Jewish scriptures. My depiction of this supposition as a myth in the title of this post is taken from James H. Charlesworth whom I quote below.

I am focusing on Richard Carrier’s presentation of this view because he goes further than many others by attempting to set out the evidence for this idea. So far I have addressed these passages in Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus:

That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread [and] influential . . . has been well established by experts on ancient messianism.15 . . . .

Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. . . . .

The Dead Sea Scrolls attest to one or several such cults around that same time. Indeed, messianic apocalypticism was intense at Qumran, where the keepers of the scrolls were already expecting the imminent end of the world, and attempting different calculations from the timetable provided in the book of Daniel (see Element 7) to predict when the first messiah would come – and many of their calculations came up ‘soon’. The early first century CE was in their prediction window.18

(Carrier 2014, pp. 67-68)

We have seen in the previous posts (addressing footnote 18 and footnote 15) that scholars who specialize in the texts in question and who are footnoted by Carrier as his supports do not support the above claim.

I continue now to address four more points made by Carrier that he uses to argue that it is not a myth that the Jews of the early first century CE expected a messiah.

-0-

1. Evidence from a thousand years later

And many of [the Qumran] texts were used by other cults of the time. A copy of the so-called Damascus Document, for instance, turns up a thousand years later in a stash of Jewish texts at Cairo Geniza.19

(Carrier 2014, p. 68)

Again we do not find support for the belief that the early first century witnessed a “rash of messianism” here. Citing but one example of a text composed in the mid first century BCE and appearing a millennium later cannot support the view that early first century CE cults were seizing copies of the Qumran community’s texts to fuel imaginations feverishly anticipating the imminent appearance of the messiah. (Moreover, even that text, the Damascus Document, the mention of the messiah is but incidental to other concerns.)

-0-

2. Evidence of the Gospels

The Gospels likewise assume (or, depending on how much you trust them, report) that ‘messiah fever’ was so rampant in Judea then that countless people were expecting Elijah to be walking among them, some even believed that Jesus, or John the Baptist, was that very man, risen from the dead, which many Jews believed presaged the imminent coming of a messiah and the ensuing end of the present world order (which many believed had become corrupted beyond human repair), because this had been predicted in Mal. 4.5-6, the very last passage of the traditional OT.21 . . . .

21. See Mk 9.9-13; 8.27-28; 6.14-16; Mt. 17.10-13; 16.13-14; Lk. 9.18-19; 9.7-9.

(Carrier 2014, p. 68)

The synoptic gospels are arguably riddled with anachronisms (e.g. synagogues and regular contact with Pharisees in Galilee) betraying their date of composition in the post 70 CE world. We do have independent evidence in the writings of Josephus for messianic hopes among Judeans at the time of the 66-70 CE war with Rome. Messianic hopes are placed in Bar Kochba seventy years later with another rebellion against Rome. We know from the Mount of Olives prophecy (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) that the synoptic gospels were written to address the turmoil immediately preceding and following destruction of Judea’s political and religious centres. We know that the evangelists responsible for the gospels created scenarios to demonstrate theological points both about and through Jesus. We also know that crowds are concocted to appear and disappear whenever an evangelist needs them for a narrative function, quite without regard for narrative plausibility.

The gospel narratives require a popular response to a fantastic hero, who can perform all sorts of wonderful miracles, that falls short of recognizing him as a messiah. We have no more justification for assuming the scriptural citations used by Carrier reflect historical plausibility or reality than we do for gospel narratives of the Massacre of the Innocents or bumping into critical Pharisees while nibbling grain in a cornfield or that the Temple in Jerusalem was as small as a small pagan temple so that a single man could to stop all traffic as per Mark 11 or that in the early first century CE steep cliffs were found where they are no longer present (e.g. Nazareth has no steep cliff from which Jesus could have been thrown as per Luke 4 and Gardara is miles from the lake of Galilee and there are no cliffs on the lake’s shore from which pigs could have hurtled themselves as per the exorcism of Legion.)

-0-

3. Evidence of the so-called “false messiahs” in Josephus

The only surviving historian of early-first-century Palestine confirms this picture. Josephus records the rise and popularity of several false messiahs in the same general period as Christianity was getting started. He does not explicitly call them messiahs – he probably wanted to avoid reminding his Gentile audience that this was the product of Jewish ideology, and instead claimed it was the product of fringe criminals and ruffians (he likewise catalogues various other rebel bandits and demagogues as well). But the descriptions he provides belie the truth of the matter. As David Rhoads put it, ‘Josephus tends to avoid messianism when he relates the history of the first century’; in fact he deliberately ‘suppressed the religious motivations of the revolutionaries by ascribing [to them] evil and dishonorable intentions’ instead. But their messianic basis remains unmistakable. Scholarly analysis confirms this.22 

(Carrier 2014, pp. 68-69)

A careful reading of the sources suggest the opposite picture to the conventional assumptions expressed here by Carrier. To begin, let’s examine the footnoted citations.

Carrier cites Rhoads as quoted by Mendels in Charlesworth’s The Messiah Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity:

22. See D. Mendels, ‘Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, the ‘Fourth Philosophy’, and the Political Messianism of the First Century CE’, in The Messiah (ed. Charlesworth), pp. 261-75 (quote from Rhoads: p. 261 n . 4)

Consulting Mendels’ chapter one learns that in fact Rhoads argues the contrary to Carrier’s main point: the rebel groups in question did not have messianic expectations:

Two major trends can be discerned in the scholarship of the last fifty years concerning so-called messianic groups in Palestine in the first Century C.E. up to 70. One view . . . put forward by L. I. Levine, D. M. Rhoads, and others, is that all the groups terrorizing the Romans acted separately and that few, if any, had a messianic ideology

(Mendels 1992, p. 261)

read more »


2016-07-28

Questioning Claims about Messianic Anticipations among Judeans of the Early First Century

by Neil Godfrey

Let’s take another set of references Richard Carrier cites to support the claim

That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread, influential, and very diverse . . . has been well established by experts on ancient messianism.15
Carrier 2014, p. 67
qumran

Qumran caves

I am referencing Carrier because he sets out to explicitly justify this belief that is widely expressed in both scholarly and popular publications about Christian origins, but the view is widespread among scholars and lay people alike.

With respect to the above quotation I have no problem with the statement that messianic views were very diverse in the Second Temple period. But let’s look at the works listed in footnote #15. I set them out as a numbered list:

  1. Stanley Porter (ed.), The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007);
  2. Markus Bockmuehl and James Carleton Paget (eds.), Redemption and Resistance: The Messianic Hopes of Jews and Christians in Antiquity (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2007);
  3. Magnus Zetterholm (ed.), The Messiah in Early Judaism and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007);
  4. Charlesworth, James. et al. (eds.). Qumran-Messianism: Studies on the Messianic Expectations in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. 1998);
  5. Craig Evans and Peter Flint (eds.), Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997);
  6. James Charlesworth (ed.), The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992);
  7. Jacob Neusner, Messiah in Context: Israel ‘s History and Destiny in Formative Judaism (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984);
  8. and Jacob Neusner et al. (eds.), Judaisms and their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
  9. See also C. A. Evans, ‘Messianism’, in Dictionary of New Testament Background (ed. Craig Evans and Stanley Porter; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pp. 698-707.

Let’s start.

#1 — Stanley Porter (ed.), The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007)

Two chapters are of relevance: “The Messiah in the Qumran Communities” by Al Wolters and “Messianic Ideas in the Apocalyptic and Related Literature of Early Judaism” by Loren T. Stuckenbruck. Neither discusses popular messianic expectations in the Judea of early first century CE. Both discuss the various nuances of what a Messiah meant to various authors but there is no discussion of time-tables or expectations that such figures were eagerly expected to appear at any particular time.

Al Wolters writes

I am struck by a number of points that call for comment. The first is how sparse and ambiguous the evidence is. The Qumran Scrolls speak very little of an eschatological messiah — even of a messianic figure broadly defined — and when they do it is always incidental to other concerns and usually subject to multiple interpretations. In short, it is clear that messianic expectation was not central to the religious worldview of the Qumran sectarians, and what little such expectation there was is hard to pin down. (p. 80 — bolded emphasis is my own in all quotations)

read more »


2016-07-27

Questioning Carrier and the Common View of a “Rash of Messianism” at the time of Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

It is widely accepted that around the time Jesus is said to have appeared the people of Judea were eagerly anticipating a Messiah to come at any moment and deliver them from their Roman conquerors. I have sought for evidence to support this claim expressed so often in the scholarly land popular literature. To date, data that is used as evidence, in my view, does not support that view — unless one reads into it the interpretation one is looking for.

Though there is much of great value in Richard Carrier’s book, The Historicity of Jesus, I was disappointed to see him repeat what I suspect is an unfounded assumption and to employ an invalid argument in its support. The same applies to Carrier’s predecessor, Earl Doherty. It looks to me as if on this point Christ myth authors have imbibed the common assumptions of mainstream scholars. I use Carrier’s work in this post to illustrate my point. Carrier writes:

(a) Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individu­als to announce they had found the messiah. (b) It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults. (c) That it among them would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection: so many variations of the same theme were being tried, odds are one of them would by chance be successful, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the right bullets. The lucky winner in that contest just happened to be Christianity.16

This element is often denied, or its basis not well understood, so I will pause to establish it before moving on. ‘Messiah’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘the Righ­teous One’, and ‘the Elect [or Chosen] One’ were all popular titles for the expected messiah used by several groups in early-first-century Judaism, as attested, for instance, in the Book of the Parables of Enoch, a Jewish text composed before 70 CE. 17 The Dead Sea Scrolls attest to one or several such cults around that same time. Indeed, messianic apocalypticism was intense at Qumran, where the keepers of the scrolls were already expect­ing the imminent end of the world, and attempting different calculations from the timetable provided in the book of Daniel (see Element 7) to predict when the first messiah would come – and many of their calculations came up ‘soon’. The early first century CE was in their prediction window.18 And many of their texts were used by other cults of the time. A copy of the so-called Damascus Document, for instance, turns up a thousand years later in a stash of Jewish texts at Cairo Geniza.19

Carrier 2014, pp. 67-68

After consulting several of the works Carrier cites in these paragraphs I remain unpersuaded. I will continue to consult the others and post about anything that does change my mind.

Let’s take footnote #18 for now. That’s the cited authority for the claim that early first century sects such as the Qumran community were calculating the time of the messiah’s arrival in “the early first century CE”.

18. See John Collins, ‘The Expectation of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls’, in Eschatology (ed. Evans and Flint), pp. 74-90 (esp. 76-79, 83).

On pages 76 to 78 John Collins discusses the attempts by the author of the Book of Daniel to set dates for “the end”. This writer was working in the second century BCE at the time of the Maccabee uprising against the Seleucid empire.

On page 78 Collins begins a discussion of the Apocalypse of Weeks in 1 Enoch, explaining that this work, too, was

written about the time of the Maccabean revolt.

Then on page 79 we begin a section titled “The End of Days in the Dead Sea Scrolls”. On page 82 we read:

This “end” was not in the vague and distant future but was expected at a particular time in the sect’s history.

Was this time in “the early first century CE”? No. Collins explains:

It is reasonable to infer, then, that the “end” was expected shortly before the pesher was written. While we do not know the exact date of the pesher, all indicators point to the middle of the first century BCE. 

Then again on the same page (83)

Our other witness to the expectation of an end at a specific time, the Damascus Document, also points to a date towards the middle of the first century BCE.

That’s a couple of generations before the time of Jesus according to canonical writings. It’s also in a quite different political setting.

There’s more. On page 84:
read more »


2016-05-28

Hermann Detering’s Review of Lena Einhorn’s “Shift in Time” Part 2

by Neil Godfrey

Rene Salm translates from the German:

http://www.mythicistpapers.com/2016/05/27/a-shift-in-time-l-einhorn-book-review-pt-2/

 


2016-05-25

Jesus and “The Egyptian”: What to make of the Mount of Olives parallel?

by Neil Godfrey
Christ on the Mount of Olives: Andrea Mantegna, 1459

Christ on the Mount of Olives: Andrea Mantegna, 1459

Once more exploring a question raised by Lena Einhorn in A Shift in Time — this time with doubts….

Was Jesus originally the Egyptian prophet we read about in the works of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus? Lena Einhorn seems to think so in A Shift in Time where she lists seven points in common between them. I won’t discuss those seven points but will look at her seventh:

And last, but not least, “the Egyptian” is defeated on the Mount of Olives, which is where Jesus was arrested. It is also from there that both men have declared their prophecies [that the walls of Jerusalem would fall down].

Actually Jesus predicted the walls of the buildings, in particular the Temple, would be pulled down, not the walls of Jerusalem. I have thought of the Egyptian as attempting to re-enact Joshua’s feat of miraculously having the walls of a great city collapse while Jesus (the Greek form of Joshua) spoke of the destruction of the Temple. But that’s a caveat we’ll set aside for now but return to later.

To begin, let’s be sure we have the picture. Josephus writes about the Egyptian twice, first in Wars (written about 78 CE) and second in Antiquities (about 94 CE). Here’s what he tells us:

But there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a sorcerer, and pretended
to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him;

these he led round about from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives, and was ready to break into Jerusalem by force from that place; and if he could but once conquer the Roman garrison and the people, he intended to domineer over them by the assistance of those guards of his that were to break into the city with him.

But Felix prevented his attempt, and met him with his Roman soldiers, while all the people assisted him in his attack upon them, insomuch that when it came to a battle, the Egyptian ran away, with a few others, while the greatest part of those that were with him were either destroyed or taken alive; but the rest of the multitude were dispersed every one to their own homes, and there concealed themselves.

War of the Jews 2.261–263

Then about fifteen years later Josephus wrote:

There came out of Egypt about this time to Jerusalem one that said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the Mount of Olives, as it was called, which lay over against the city, and at the distance of five  furlongs.

He said further, that he would show them from hence how, at his command, the walls of  Jerusalem would fall down; and he promised them that he would procure them an entrance into the city through those walls, when they were fallen down.

Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons, and came against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem, and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He also slew four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive.

But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight, but did not appear any more. 

Antiquities of the Jews 20.169–172

The story has changed in some details over those fifteen years. The event itself is set in the 50s CE. Josephus first writes about it around 20 or more years later. That’s about the same time span between today and the catastrophic raid on the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas. Josephus appears to be saying that the Egyptian’s plan was to attack Jerusalem without any thought of a miracle to open the gates for them.

Approximately thirty five years after the event (compare today’s distance from the assassination attempt on President Reagan) Josephus introduces the Egyptian’s prophecy to command the walls of Jerusalem to do a Jericho.

So unless I am missing something hidden by a poor translation it seems that there is room for doubt that the Egyptian really was known at the time to have told his followers that the walls would obey his voice. One can imagine people talking about this fellow and mockingly asking how he could possibly have seriously thought he would take over Roman occupied Jerusalem, and how from such scoffing someone suggests he probably thought he could repeat the Jericho miracle. Or maybe he really did make such a declaration and Josephus simply failed to mention it in his first account. However that may be, years later when the event was recalled this detail did become part of the story. Who knows if it was Josephus’s memory or if he picked up the detail from someone else?

What, then, connects the Mount of Olives setting in the story of the Egyptian with our accounts of Jesus?

There are two links. read more »


2016-05-21

Another Lena Einhorn Observation — Anachronistic Crucifixions in the Gospels

by Neil Godfrey
56cb93da50

Josephus and the war

In my previous post I said I was wanting to explore in depth some of Lena Einhorn’s observations. One that I consider most striking concerns the climactic crucifixion itself. We are so used to hearing that crucifixion was a very common method of execution for rebels in Roman times that we don’t pause to ask questions when we read about Pilate’s crucifixion of Jesus along with two “thieves” or “robbers” (translated “bandits” in the NRSV):

Mark 15:27 — And with him they crucified two bandits [λῃστάς – lestes], one on his right and one on his left.

Matthew 27:38 — Then two bandits [λῃσταί – lestai] were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.

In the Gospel of John we find Barabbas, the one freed in exchange for Jesus, described the same way:

John 18:40 — They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit [λῃστής – lestes].

Now λῃστής (lestes) is the Greek word for “robber”, but the historian who has left us an account of the Jewish War with Rome and the many decades prior to that event, Josephus, uses λῃσταί (the plural of λῃστής) to describe anti-Roman Jewish rebels. Josephus was writing around the same period that many scholars believe the evangelists were composing the our canonical gospels.

The gospel use of “lestai/rebels” to describe Barabbas and the two who were crucified with Jesus is not new. It is found in the scholarly literature readily enough.

Einhorn takes the next step and examines the times Josephus tells us the lestai were active. I have summed up Einhorn’s observations in the following table.

Accounts of “lestai” activity by Josephus

63-37 BCE 15 times Beginning of Roman occupation
37-4 BCE 22 times
4 BCE – 6 CE 6 times Crushing of Census revolt
6-44 CE No references of lestai activity Time of Jesus
44-48 CE 2 times Return of direct Roman rule after death of Agrippa I
48-59 CE 20 times
59-66 CE 21 times Lead up to the war with Rome, 66-70/73 CE

There is an exception that Einhorn points out:

The only hint about activity during Jesus’s time is a sentence in War, saying that “Eleazar the arch-robber,” active in the 50s, together with his associates “had ravaged the country for twenty years together.” In Antiquities, however, it only says that Eleazar “had many years made his abode in the mountains.” (A Shift In Time, p. 45)

At this point I am reminded of my earlier posts, Did Josephus Fabricate the Origins of the Jewish Rebellion Against Rome? and Josephus Scapegoats Judas the Galilean for the War?. In those posts we saw reasons to think that Josephus in Antiquities was compelled to revise certain aspects of his earlier account (War), presumably under pressure from other Jews in Rome who took umbrage at his earlier portrayals of other parties involved. Recall Josephus himself was a less than admirable self-serving traitor. If so, when thinking about Einhorn’s comparison in the quotation above we have a little more reason to give more weight to the Antiquities reference.

None of this data proves there was no “lestai” activity in the time of Jesus, but compare this datum with other general background information. read more »