Category Archives: Jesus


2011-10-06

Was Jesus not a teacher after all?

by Neil Godfrey
Teacher

Image by tim ellis via Flickr

Every scholar engaged in Jesus research is by profession a teacher and so every construction of Jesus the Teacher is formulated by a teacher. These teachers, professors by trade, should wonder if there is not a bit of a Jesus-Like-Us in their constructions. (Stevan L. Davies in Jesus the Healer, 1995)

Most of the Jesus Seminar fellows think that Jesus was not an apocalyptic teacher, so they think that Jesus was a great wisdom teacher, and that helps them to actually preach Jesus, because you can go to the pulpit and say Jesus was a great teacher. (Gerd Ludemann in interview with Rachael Kohn 4th April 2004)

Most scholars, “practically all historical scholars engaged in Jesus research” (says Stevan Davies) “presuppose consciously or unconsciously that Jesus was a teacher.” Davies quotes E. P. Sanders as representative of Jesus research scholars generally and responds with what should be a most fundamental observation:

E. P. Sanders writes, for example, “I do not doubt that those who find the teaching attributed to Jesus in the synoptics to be rich, nuanced, subtle, challenging, and evocative are finding something which is really there. Further, in view of the apparent inability of early Christians to create such material, I do not doubt that the teaching of Jesus contained some or all of these attributes. In short, I do not doubt that he was a great and challenging teacher.” And so, it should follow, we know what Jesus taught. But we don’t. (p. 10, my emphasis) read more »


2011-09-04

Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names

by Neil Godfrey

 

Jason being regurgitated by the snake who keep...

Jason (=Jesus to the Greek) being regurgitated by the snake: Image via Wikipedia

Last year I posted an amateurish discussion about puns in the Gospel of Mark. During my recent break from blogging I stumbled across a classical scholar’s discussion of puns in the Gospels in an online scholarly journal. The subject is far richer than I had ever imagined. There are possibly major implications for our understanding of both the ways in which the Gospels have been composed and also for what the authors and readers thought they were doing when writing and reading/listening to the narratives.

The discussion certainly gives modern readers a whole new insight into the possible significance of the name of Jesus — “the name above every other name” as the Philippian hymn informs us.

The author is classicist Professor John Moles of Newcastle University. The article is Jesus the Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Early Christianity [clicking the link will download the pdf article] in Histos. John Moles is definitely not a mythicist and my interest in the article is primarily the light it sheds on the nature of the Gospels. What sorts of documents are they, what led to their creation and how were they initially understood and received?

Imagine Gospel narratives that hang together through a web of puns on the name of Jesus criss-crossing with specific acts that he was performing and whose dramatic tension and resolution operate primarily through the readers’ awareness of these puns. read more »


2011-06-19

Jesus: Myth of the Rebel Leader or Myth of a Saviour God — it’s all the same myth

by Neil Godfrey

Some scholars (e.g. S.G.F. Brandon) have opined that Jesus was something of a revolutionary or rebel leader; others (e.g. Thomas L. Thompson) that he was “a messiah myth” (the link is to an earlier post of mine listing the mythical traits of gods and kings of the Middle East).

Other scholars (e.g. Robert M. Price) have compared the Gospel narrative elements of Jesus against the various functional components of folk tales as extracted by Vladimir Propp.

One nonbiblical historian who, to my knowledge, has never written a word about Jesus, has written about a certain type of rebel leader, however, and compared the realities with the myth or legend that has universally attached itself to these sorts of people. Eric Hobsbawm has researched the phenomenon of social banditry (from China through Europe to Peru), or the Robin Hood types of figures. His list of characteristics of the “noble image” that attaches itself to these figures is interesting.

It bears a striking resemblance to the qualities of the kings and gods of Thompson’s messiah myth traits as much as to the heroic human outlaw. If the same qualities attach themselves to both the human outcast and a mighty god or king of another, much earlier, era, then one is entitled to suspect we are looking at some deeper psychological need/attraction at work here.

Here’s Hobsbawm’s list of characteristics (p. 47f of Bandits, 2000). read more »


2011-06-14

Jesus and Socrates

by Neil Godfrey

Here is another snippet here from classicist scholar John Taylor’s book, Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition. This time it is from a decontextualized comparison between Jesus and Socrates. I have only extracted those elements that relate most directly to Jesus as found in the Gospels themselves, and left behind those that relate to a more generic image of Jesus that embraces the descriptions of various Church Fathers and the apostle Paul.

I have not included discussion of any of these points of comparison. I have simply listed them as dot-points, so do with them what you will. I had once hoped to discuss them more meaningfully, but can see that I will not have an opportunity (given my balance of interests) to do that for at least twenty years.

I have given more online references to Socrates than to Jesus because I assume that most interested in such a topic would already know more about Jesus, and sources for references to Jesus, than Socrates.

The comparison falls in two parts, though these may seem contrived to many. The first is comparing Jesus and Socrates per se; the second list compares the sources of each, or as each is found particularized in specific sources, and scholarly reactions to each.

The comparisons of the deaths of each in the second bracket (#5, accounts of the last days or each) probably should really go in the first set of comparisons, but I have kept Taylor’s sequence to save time, even though Taylor makes this a part of a larger discussion about scholarly reactions to same.

Socrates and Jesus in history: read more »


2011-06-02

Aeneas and Jesus: how they were each created from mythical heroes

by Neil Godfrey
Luca Giordano, Enea vince Turno, Olio su tela,...

Image via Wikipedia

There should be nothing controversial in the title of this post. I understand “critical scholars” generally agree that the Gospel narratives of Jesus are largely fictitious, exaggerations, theological metaphors, expressing what Jesus “meant to the authors” rather than what he historically did or said. Many scholars agree that there are a few core events that really do lie behind the Gospel narratives, but except for one or two (the crucifixion and baptism) they do not all agree on what these were.

Classical scholar John Taylor, in Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition, shows us how the creators of both the Gospel narratives about Jesus and the Roman epic about Aeneas used the same technique for creating their respective characters (p. 85). read more »


2011-05-29

Doherty answers McGrath and others (continuation of ch. 6 criticisms)

by Neil Godfrey

Earl Doherty has responded in detail to criticisms by James McGrath and others over chapter 6 of Jesus Neither God Nor Man. I have collated them in this post, and may add any future ones here, too. (Compare comments on my outline of chapter 6)


Updated 31st May 2011

Brother of the Lord

By now we are all familiar with how much historicists rely on Galatians 1:19 and its “brother of the Lord” to find an historical Jesus within the epistles. It’s one of a small handful of life preservers thrown into the waters to try to rescue Paul from drowning in a mythical sea. I would like to put an additional emphasis on one of the arguments I have used to poke holes in this particular preserver. I have pointed out that Philippians 1:14 uses a similar phrase to Galatians 1:19, namely “brothers in the Lord” (ton adelphon en kurio). This can hardly be taken any other way than meaning “fellow-believers in the Lord” and indicates the usage of a phrase to describe a group of sectarians Paul is acquainted with. The very fact that it is so similar to the Galatians phrase should be a strong argument that the latter is likely to have the same meaning. read more »


2011-05-19

Some reasons to think there was no historical Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

My interest is finding the most satisfactory explanation for the origin or origins of Christianity, and it is that search that leads me to lay aside the likelihood that there was a historical Jesus behind it all.

  1. It is easier to understand how such “riotous diversity” of Christianities appear in the earliest layers of evidence if Christianity grew out of a worlds of ideas and beliefs of many thinkers in dialogue (creative or conflicting) with each other. A historical Jesus being the focus of a group of followers could more reasonably be expected to leave evidence in the earliest layers of monolithic (or nothing more complex than a two-branch) movement that over time branched out into various sects. The evidence suggests the reverse of this: early is associated with diversity; later we see fewer sects until one emerges the victor.
  2. Christian conversion, ecstasy, mysticism, do not need a historical Jesus at the start. Engberg-Pedersen has shown what I think is a strong case for understanding Paul’s theology and the experience of conversion and Christ-devotion and community-cohesion etc is very similar to the experiences of those who were attracted to Reason (=Logos) and Stoicism. I have posted on this once or twice to illustrate his model. Similarly there is evidence for mystical and visionary experiences, not unlike those apparently associated with mysteries, among the apostles and members. None of these needs a historical founder in the sense we think of Jesus as being. These sorts of things are more usually explained in terms of cultural happenings. read more »

2011-04-16

Logical confusion on the historical Jesus side of the debate

by Neil Godfrey

Various commenters have referred me to a list of pre-recorded responses, any one of which can be prompted to “reply” to any question raised that seeks a justification of an argument in favour of Jesus being historical. That sounds like a very efficient way for a Jesus historicist to completely avoid addressing the question of mythicism altogether. I am sure there are still plenty of self-help type books on the market that continue to advise readers that the best way to persuade someone against their point of view is to seriously listen to what they are really saying and avoid the trap of having a prepared response in your mind that you are simply waiting for the chance to release and end the discussion.

But recorded response number four is the one I want to address in particular because I simply do not understand it. This worries me a little because it appears to be an attempt to explain something major about the strength of the historicist argument, and if that is the case then there is something seriously askew in either a mythicist’s or a historicist’s grasp of logic.

This is “Beep: Recorded Response #4”:

#4. The quest for the historical Jesus and the criteria of authenticity do not presuppose the historicity of Jesus. They seek to demonstrate it in the only way possible. One cannot demonstrate the historicity of Alexander the Great in fashion separately from all evidence for things he may have said, done, or had inscribed. The same is true in the case of Jesus.

How can I search for the Yeti if I do not presuppose, even if only hypothetically, that it exists? I have never gone looking for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow because I presuppose it does not exist. I suppose if I ever came to believe that there is a possibility that there might be a pot of gold there then I just might think I have nothing to lose and go looking for it. read more »


2011-02-08

Blind Bartimaeus: some meanings of the story surrounding his healing

by Neil Godfrey

 

Christ cures Bartimaeus. Kussell. In the Bowye...

Image via Wikipedia

Slightly revised 9th Feb. 2010, 3pm

John Spong finishes off his chapter (in Jesus for the Non-Religious) about healings by discussing the healing of blind Bartimaeus as found in the Gospel of Mark and healing of the man born blind in the Gospel of John. I’ll be sharing material from an old article by Vernon K. Robbins about Mark’s treatment of the Bartimaeus episode. Spong covers much the same theme but in less depth. (The article I use is The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) in the Marcan Theology, published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, June 1973, Vol. 92, Issue 2, pp. 224-243.) Will also draw on Michael Turton’s Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark.

The story of Bartimaeus is constructed to inform readers that Jesus is greater than the traditional idea of the Son of David. The details of the story serve only to point out the identity of Jesus Christ and the meaning of discipleship. The healing of blindness is only the symbolic way in which these messages are conveyed. Take away the theological meanings of the story and it becomes a meaningless tale. There are no details left over that give us any reason to suppose that the story was ever anything more than a symbolic or parabolic fiction.

This is the story (Mark 10:46-52) read more »


2011-02-03

Jesus was not a healer (1)

by Neil Godfrey
Jesus heals the paralytic of Bethesda

Image by Nick in exsilio via Flickr

Jesus no more healed people than he was born of a virgin or walked on water or rose from the dead.

The Gospels do not portray Jesus as a physician or literal healer of some sort. They portray him as the Christ, or Messiah, and they introduce stories of healings only in order to portray him as that Christ and spiritual Saviour, not as a greater Asclepius. The Gospel authors did not use raw material from oral tradition or eye-witnesses to any healings. They relied on the Old Testament prophecy that in the messianic age the sick would be healed, the blind see, the cripples walk. And even that Old Testament prophecy was figurative. The healings in the Gospels are just as symbolic as the so-called “nature miracles” of Jesus stilling the storm and walking on water.

(I like the author of Jesus the Healer so I feel a bit awkward about the title of this post, by the way.)

Here is one of the healing prophecies that obliged the Gospel authors to introduce healing narratives into their Gospels: Isaiah 35:3-6 read more »


2011-02-01

How many stories in the gospels are “purely metaphorical”?

by Neil Godfrey
Resurrection: Son of God Jesus triumphs over d...

Image via Wikipedia

Dale Allison concludes his book Constructing Jesus with a discussion of the intent of the gospel authors. Did the gospel authors themselves think that they were writing real history or did they think they were writing metaphorical narratives, parables or allegories?

Allison refers to Marcus Borg and others (e.g. Robert Gundry, John Dominic Crossan, Robert J. Miller, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, John Shelby Spong, Roger David Aus) who have gone beyond their scholarly predecessors for whom the question was, “They thought they wrote history but can we believe them?”, to “Did they think they were writing something other than history and have we misunderstood them?”

They are not claiming that we must, because of modern knowledge, reinterpret the old texts in new ways, against their authors’ original intentions. They are instead contending that the texts were not intended to be understood literally in the first place. (p. 438)

I would love to read the books Allison cites but till then will have to rely here on his brief remarks.

Of O’Connor, Allison informs readers that he reasons that Luke’s two accounts of the ascension of Jesus are different because Luke did not think he was writing history (The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (4th ed., 1998)). read more »


2011-01-27

Origins of the Jesus myth (Thoughts)

by Neil Godfrey
Crucifixion
Image via Wikipedia

If the gospel narratives have no basis in historical reality then from where might the basic story idea have originated?

Do certain modern studies in the origins of the Old Testament narratives point towards possible explanations for the origins of the gospel narratives?

An explanation for the OT stories

The certain studies of OT origins I have in mind are those of scholars like Thomas L. Thompson and other “minimalists”. They have looked for historical circumstances and events that might explain some of the themes running through the various narratives found in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges and the books of Samuel and Kings. This search was triggered by archaeological finds that indicate there was no patriarchal migration from Mesopotamia to Canaan of the type suggested in the Genesis stories of Abraham, no great exodus of Israelites from Egypt, and no united Kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. And rather than there having been a “divided kingdom” with Israel in the north competing with Judah in the south as we read through much of the books of Kings and Chronicles, the kingdom of Judah did not emerge until after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians.

So if the archaeological evidence led to the conclusions that there was no Abraham, no Moses, no David or Solomon as per the biblical story, what can explain the origins of such stories?

First, look at the stories to see what they are about.

The stories of Abraham and Exodus are both about divinely commanded and divinely led migrations from gentile lands to a land of “Canaan” in which dwell peoples of a different religion and race. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as the Joshua led tribes, must negotiate with these neighbours to work out settlement arrangements with them, although the Israelites under Joshua do so only after the failure of Plan A which was to kill them all. The stories of Judges, Saul, David and Solomon also carry the themes of relationships with these neighbours: finishing off subjugating them, enlisting them as cheap labour, the importance of keeping God’s elect people “pure” and separate from them.

What sort of society can explain stories like these? read more »


2011-01-13

The occult art of constructing the historical Jesus

by Neil Godfrey
Mandala
Image via Wikipedia

While I was a believer I was fascinated by speculations that someone well-read in the Bible might conjure up by linking verses together in a way that no-one seemed to have thought of before. For example, someone might “prove” that Jesus was a well-to-do middle class businessman by noting that he

  1. seemed to have a particular house in Galilee that he regularly visited — so it was probably (therefore surely) his own house
  2. was a carpenter and son of a carpenter and carpenters then were stone-masons and highly skilled in a range of tasks including stone masonry (and being perfect he would have been very good at whatever he did)
  3. and he had a fine linen cloak of one piece of such quality that Roman soldiers preferred to gamble for it rather than tear it up among themselves

This is all nonsense, of course. It takes ambiguous data out of its original contexts and extrapolates from it to create a fiction. For example,

  1. the gospels do not unambiguously affirm that Jesus owned a house, and there is no indication at all who owned the house, or the arrangement he had by which he came to be found there from time to time; one senses middle-class westerners reading their own life-styles into Jesus here.
  2. The mere fact that he or his father was a “tekton” (translated “carpenter”) does not allow us to make any judgment about how successful he was financially; again one detects a western businessman making the judgement.
  3. The cloak story was expressly said to have been a fulfilment of prophecy, so the odds are stacked against the likelihood that this was historical.

One gets a strange sense that one is merely reading a more sophisticated or well-informed version of this same speculative process when one reads Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History by Dale C. Allison. read more »


2010-12-22

Double implausibility of the historical Jesus narrative

by Neil Godfrey

A number of biblical scholars have insisted that the historical Jesus narrative makes far more sense as an explanation for the rise of Christianity than the Christ myth alternative.

At the same time one observes that historical Jesus scholars are often preoccupied attempting to explain two central pillars of the historical explanation that they concede sound implausible.

One is: How to explain why a man who did and said nothing but good came to be crucified (while his followers were not) — such an idea does not make sense;

The other is: How to explain why a man crucified as a criminal was subsequently exalted to divine status by Jews and gentiles — this also does not make sense. read more »