Category Archives: Religion


2014-12-17

Transvalued Folktales & Classifying the Bible’s Narratives

by Neil Godfrey

sinai7Recently I posted on the twenty-two typical incidents Lord Raglan found in certain types of mythical tales and that Richard Carrier uses to classify Jesus. I avoided dwelling upon “spiritualizations” of the elements. So when we come to Raglan’s point twelve,

(12) He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor

I resisted addressing the early Christian symbolism of Jesus marrying the Church or the “New Israel”, the “daughter” of the previous Israel who had been metaphorically married to God (Ezekiel 16).

So I was surprised to find another classification scheme for similar stories being transvalued (“spiritualized”) by a scholar responsible for a very well received commentary on Exodus and accordingly earning very high praise indeed in the reviews of his work.

Vladimir Propp

Vladimir Propp

While Lord Raglan identifies elements typical of the hero in the sorts of myths that can be associated with religious rituals, Vladimir Propp analyses the plots and structural elements of folk tales. (Lévi-Strauss takes another step and examines the relationships between such tales and how they reflect different cultural mores.)

William H.C. Propp

William H.C. Propp

Among the structural elements in the plots of folk tales identified by Vladimir Propp are the hero being assigned a difficult task, passing an ordeal, vanquishing rivals, undergoing a change of status, marrying a princess and ascending a throne. Another Propp (no relation), William Propp, a professor of history and Judaic studies, finds these elements in the story of the Exodus. He begins by explaining that the biblical narrative is more complicated than many folk tales given that it has three heroes — Moses, Israel and Yahweh. With reference to the elements just mentioned he writes on page 34:

In some fairy tales, when the Hero returns, he is assigned a difficult task (function M). After passing an ordeal (function N) and vanquishing all rivals (function Ex), he undergoes a change of status (function T), marries a princess and ascends the throne (function W). 

Now where is any of that in Exodus? William Propp continues: read more »


2014-11-29

The Rank-Raglan Hero-Type (and Jesus)

by Neil Godfrey

heroHis mother is a virgin and he’s reputed to be the son of a god; he loses favor and is driven from his kingdom to a sorrowful death—sound familiar? In The Hero, Lord Raglan contends that the heroic figures from myth and legend are invested with a common pattern that satisfies the human desire for idealization. Raglan outlines 22 characteristic themes or motifs from the heroic tales and illustrates his theory with events from the lives of characters from Oedipus (21 out a possible 22 points) to Robin Hood (a modest 13). A fascinating study that relates details from world literature with a lively wit and style, it was acclaimed by literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman as “a bold, speculative, and brilliantly convincing demonstration that myths are never historical but are fictional narratives derived from ritual dramas.” This book will appeal to scholars of folklore and mythology, history, literature and general readers as well. (Blurb from online edition of The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama by Lord Raglan) 

The 22 typical incidents in mythical tales

(1) The hero’s mother is a royal virgin;

(2) His father is a king, and

(3) Often a near relative of his mother, but

(4) The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and

(5) He is also reputed to be the son of a god.

(6) At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grandfather, to kill him, but

(7) He is spirited away, and

(8) Reared by foster-parents in a far country.

(9) We are told nothing of his childhood, but

(10) On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.

(11) After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,

(12) He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor, and

(13) Becomes king.

(14) For a time he reigns uneventfully, and

(15) Prescribes laws, but

(16) Later he loses favour with the gods and/or his subjects, and

(17) Is driven from the throne and city, after which

(18) He meets with a mysterious death,

(19) Often at the top of a hill.

(20) His children, if any, do not succeed him.

(21) His body is not buried, but nevertheless

(22) He has one or more holy sepulchres.

The first thing that needs to be clear is that Lord Raglan has drawn these parallel motifs from what he terms “genuine mythology” — meaning “mythology connected with ritual”. That excludes mythical tales of the King Arthur sort. Raglan is interested in myths that appear to have been associated with ancient rituals as acted out in dramatic shows (e.g. the Dionysia, May Day rituals, Passion plays) and religious ceremonies. The sorts of myths under examination should be clear from the following words in chapter 13 of The Hero:

The theory that all traditional narratives are myths—that is to say, that they are connected with ritual—may be maintained upon five grounds: 

  1. That there is no other satisfactory way in which they can be explained. . . .
  2. That these narratives are concerned primarily and chiefly with supernatural beings, kings, and heroes. 
  3. That miracles play a large part in them. 
  4. That the same scenes and incidents appear in many parts of the world. 
  5. That many of these scenes and incidents are explicable in terms of known rituals.

The Hero is close to a century old now so much of Raglan’s discussion is dated, but not all. It is still worth reading, I think, especially where he discusses misconceptions that lead moderns into assuming historicity of many ancient persons and arguments for the link between rituals and myths. It is certainly essential reading for anyone who intends to take up a serious discussion on the relevance of the twenty-two motifs identified as parallels across so many myths.

Common errors in using the 22 points

Often discussions of Raglan’s 22 characteristics of the myth-hero falter for the following reasons:

  1. Discussions are often about counting points and deciding the historical or non-historical likelihood of a figure according to a number total.
    • Raglan makes it clear, however, that the numbers alone do not address something else that is far more important for assessing someone’s historicity.
  2. Discussions very often fail to account for the real meaning or significance of the 22 characteristics.
    • They therefore make assessments based on the letter rather than the spirit of mytho-types.
  3. Discussions centre around the truncated list form of the 22 points.
    • As a consequence the full meaning of some of those points is lost and discussions go awry on misunderstandings.

1. When historical persons are on the list

The emphasis many place upon the number count for assessing historicity no doubt derives from Raglan’s own assessment early in his book: read more »


2014-11-24

From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel)

by Neil Godfrey
Maccabean martyrs

Maccabean martyrs

These posts trace the evolution of Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” from a poetic symbol for the nation of Israel into a dying and rising Messiah even before Christianity emerged on the scene. (See the Wikipedia article for background on the Servant Songs in Isaiah.)

The previous post showed theapparent influence of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 upon the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira. This post pauses to look at some background before resuming with the way the Book of Daniel adapted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant idea in the light of contemporary events – around 165/164 BCE. My source for these posts is

Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 75-146. (Bailey is responsible for translating Hengel’s essay into English and updating it in consultation with the author.)

Just as the author of the Book of Zechariah looked for fulfilment of prophecies in his own day so did the author of the Book of Daniel and the chaotic times of Antiochus IV Epiphanes — armed struggle, persecution, temple defilement — supplied much material to fuel imaginations for this sort of thing.

The events of 165/4 and the Maccabean revolt changed the way that unique passage in Isaiah 53 came to be interpreted by many. New ideas about the glorification of martyrs and even the ability of the blood of martyr heroes to take the place of atoning sacrifices entered the world of Judaism and its various sects.

The Greeks had long held comparable ideas about human sacrifice and suffering. From the archaic period we encounter in Greek literature the pharmakos motif (see also the EB article). Many of us are aware of the sacrifice of the virgin Iphigenia bringing about the favour of the gods on the eve of the Trojan War.

We see a new stage of heroizing fallen warriors with the Persian Wars. Those who died for their city-state and its holy laws came to be glorified as martyr saviours of their people.

The closest to anything like these practices and cultural attitudes in the Old Testament are the stories of Jephthah’s daughter, Samson and the song of Deborah. The Old Testament condemned the child sacrifice of neighbouring Canaanites and Phoenicians. Those who died died because of their own sin — that was the dominant message in the OT. Prophets were slain but their deaths were not glorified or studied in any great detail as we might expect among their Greek counterparts.

The Maccabean revolt changed everything. read more »


2014-11-23

The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

The Suffering Servant

13 Behold, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
14 As many were astonished at him—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the sons of men—
15 so shall he startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they shall see,
and that which they have not heard they shall understand.

53 Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him;
he has put him to grief;
when he makes himself an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand;
11 he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous;
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant is a major text for Christianity (in the New Testament it is used to interpret Christ’s death) but what did it mean to adherents of Judaism before Christianity?

Did any Jewish interpretations anticipate the meaning it held for later Christians?

To what extent were the authors of the gospels innovative in their use of Isaiah 53 (and Isaiah as a whole)? To what extent were they simply employing ideas they absorbed from their surroundings?

Is it possible that Christianity itself evolved in part from earlier sectarian understandings of Isaiah 53?

Martin Hengel brings us a little closer to answering these questions when he offers insights into the influence this text had on various ideas in Second Temple Judaism:

Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 75-146.

Scholarship is used to thinking of the book of Isaiah as a collation of works originally by a number of authors (e.g. chapters 1-39 labelled Proto-Isaiah; 40-55 Deutero-Isaian; 56-66 Trito-Isaiah) but in the context Hengel is addressing the book was understood to be the unity we know today. Not only a unity but of prophetic significance as a whole. Hengel establishes early in his essay the point that from the Hellenistic period on the book of Isaiah (as a whole) was often treated in Judaism as work prophetic of the last days. So in Sirach (composed around 200 BCE — prior to the Maccabean era) we read of Isaiah the prophet:

24 He comforted the mourners in Jerusalem. His powerful spirit looked into the future, 25 and he predicted what was to happen before the end of time, hidden things that had not yet occurred. (Sirach 48:24-25 GNT)

Ben Sirach interprets Isaiah’s Servant — and prepares for the Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark opens with a blend of prophetic passages from Isaiah and Malachi and allusions to the Exodus that lead directly into an Elijah scene. Two centuries earlier Ben Sirach similarly linked Isaiah, Malachi and Elijah in a pivotal prophetic time. Hengel does not draw the comparison with the Gospel of Mark (a comparison enriched by Elijah’s own association with Exodus and wilderness motifs) but I’m sure someone has:

Mark 1:2-4

Even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, Who shall prepare thy wayThe voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight;

John came . . . clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist . . . [i.e., in role of Elijah]

Malachi 3:1
Isaiah 40:3
Exodus 23:20

Sirach 48:1, 7, 10

Then the prophet Elijah arose like a fire . . . who heard rebuke at Sinai and judgments of vengeance at Horeb . . .

You [=Elijah] who are ready at the appointed time, it is written,

to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

Malachi 4:5-6
Isaiah 49:6

Hengel cautiously expresses some doubt as to whether Sirach “wished to identify the Servant [of Isaiah] directly with Elijah redivivus.” He does, however, along with other scholars he cites recognize that Sirach has given Isaiah 49:6 “a messianic or at least an individual interpretation”. (The significance of an “individual” interpretation lies in the various interpretations of the Servant passages: some reading the Servant as an individual but others at the time viewing the Servant as a literary figure representing Israel. Compare how the “son of man” in Daniel 7 was originally composed as a representative of the nation of Israel — in contrast to gentile nations represented by wild beasts — yet came to be interpreted by some as a literal, heavenly individual.)

Was the author of the Gospel of Mark writing in the context of a long-known intellectual tradition that played with piecing Isaiah’s Servant, Malachi’s Messenger, Exodus liberation and adoption tropes, and Elijah into scenarios of messianic end times?

The Book of Zechariah interprets Isaiah 53?

Martin Hengel takes us further back than the Book of Sirach and to the period of the immediate successors of Alexander the Great, the Diadochi. read more »


2014-11-16

Ten Elements of Christian Origin

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

and (not “or”)

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

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

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

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


2014-11-15

How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 3)

by Tim Widowfield
Cleansing the Temple (Quarter from Augustinian...

Cleansing the Temple (Quarter from Augustinian polyptych). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part 3: John Displaces and Rewrites the Cleansing of the Temple

All four evangelists recount Jesus’ cleansing of the temple at Jerusalem. The Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) place the event during the week before the crucifixion, while John sets it near the very start of Jesus’ ministry. In the ancient church, many, if not most, commentators assumed these accounts of disturbances at the temple described two different events. In fact, you can find apologists today who claim Jesus did it every time he went to Jerusalem, which — if we harmonize John with the other three — suggests that it happened three times or more.

At this point, we’re not going to cover all the detailed reasons that most scholars now believe the pericopae in John and the Synoptics refer to the same event. Nor will we dwell for long on the arguments concerning whether John knew Mark or a pre-Markan oral tradition. As I’ve said many times before, I maintain that John knew the written gospel of Mark. In this case, he used Mark’s account of the cleansing, but he moved it in time and changed it in form and substance for theological reasons.

Background

John agrees with the Synoptics on several basic elements. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem during the time of the Passover, enters the temple’s outer courtyard, and begins to make a scene. We have similar vocabulary in both versions, including the words for “tables” [τράπεζα (trapeza)] and “money changers” [κολλυβιστῶν (kollybistōn)].

In the Johannine and Markan versions, Jesus is wholly successful. John says he drove them “all” [πάντας (pantas)] out, while Mark claims that nobody could carry a vessel through the temple. Both evangelists concur that for a period of time, just before Passover, Jesus single-handedly blocked all temple trade. On the other hand, parts of John’s story diverge from the Markan source. For example, in John’s version we have not just birds and money changers, but large, domesticated animals: sheep and oxen. Did you ever wonder whether they really had livestock pens in the temple courtyard? Andrew Lincoln, in his commentary on the Gospel of John notes:

John’s addition of animals as large as cows has produced some questions about its verisimilitude. Jewish sources fail to mention such animals in the temple precincts and their excrement would have caused problems of pollution of the sacred site. (Lincoln, 2005, p. 137, emphasis mine)

For scholars who think John contains actual eyewitness material, these sorts of puzzles usually elicit a shrug and a “Why not?” However, those of us who are unencumbered by the anxiety of historicity may rightly ask: “Why did John embellish upon the legend? What is the significance behind Jesus’ driving out the sacrificial animals? Is it a portent of the passing of the age of sacrifice (post 70 CE) or is it something else?”

read more »


2014-11-10

How the Gospel of Mark Portrays Jesus as High Priest

by Neil Godfrey
Crispin Fletcher-Louis

Crispin Fletcher-Louis (CrispinFL Blog) See the previous post for the bibliographic details of the article this post is exploring.

Continuing from Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah in the Gospel of Mark . . . .

The Holy One of God

In the first dramatic miracle performed by Jesus, the expelling of the demon from a man in a Capernaum synagogue, Jesus is addressed as “the holy one of God”.

Mark 1:

21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God (ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ)!

Who or what is “the holy one of God”? It’s not a title of a king. Nor of a prophet, although in 2 Kgs 49 and Judg 16.7 we read of Elisha and Samson respectively being called “a holy one”. Crispin Fletcher-Louis:

God is Israel’s Holy One. And angels are often called holy ones. But the only precedent for a singular ‘the Holy One of God’ is Aaron (Ps. 106.16; Num. 16.7 ‘the holy one (of the LORD’), who dramatically wins the right to the title in the battle with Korah and his rebellious company in Numbers 16. (p. 63)

It might prove interesting to study this exorcism in Mark in comparison with the Korah-Aaron contest. That’s an aside, however.

Three Forms of Impurity; Three Healings

Numbers 5 lists together three forms of impurity that require anyone becoming defiled to be removed from the Israelite camp:

The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Command the Israelites to send away from the camp anyone who has a defiling skin disease or a discharge of any kind, or who is ceremonially unclean because of a dead body. 3 Send away male and female alike; send them outside the camp so they will not defile their camp, where I dwell among them.” 4 The Israelites did so; they sent them outside the camp. They did just as the Lord had instructed Moses.

In the same sequence Jesus read more »


2014-11-09

Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah in the Gospel of Mark

by Neil Godfrey

Holman_The_Holy_of_HoliesI am going to have to re-read and re-think the Gospel of Mark. I have just read a two-part article in 2007 issues of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, “Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah”, Parts 1 and 2, by Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis.

The article adds some weight, I think, to the plausibility of the existence of pre-Christian Jewish sects who expected a messiah who must die. But the article doesn’t go that far at all. That’s an inference I draw from it.

This post skims the surface of a few of the points raised by Fletcher-Louis. (Caveat: F-L is interested in assessing what the historical Jesus himself must have thought of his own identity and role; my take is entirely on how and why the same data has been woven by the author into the Gospel’s larger theme.)

We know the importance of the Book of Daniel to Gospel of Mark. Jesus identifies himself with the Son of Man figure of Daniel 7 before the high priest; Jesus infers he is the same figure who will return from the heavens in the end-times in Mark 13; and there are other allusions. The evangelist introduces the Daniel 7 Son of Man figure early: we learn from the beginning that Jesus, speaking as the Son of Man, has the power to forgive sins and is Lord of the Sabbath. (I am aware scholars interested in a presumed historical figure behind the narrative argue that the “son of man” in these early chapters is an Aramaic circumlocution for an ordinary mortal. My interest is in the thematic significance of the phrase in the gospel itself, however.)

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. (Daniel 7:13)

So what is the connection between Daniel 7 and a high priest? read more »


2014-11-08

Jewish Expectations of a Slain Messiah — the Early Evidence

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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


2014-11-04

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin

Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin

What evidence does Richard Carrier cite for this claim?

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

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

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

read more »


2014-11-01

McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 2, Ascension of Isaiah

by Neil Godfrey

Related pages:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ascisaiah

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

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

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

Significance of the AoI

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

How Early is the AoI?

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2014-10-27

The Fictions of the Laws of Moses, Hammurabi and the Gospel Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

The following words were written by a scholar of the Bible.  To what historical scenario of the Bible do you think the words were referring?

The fact that so many scholars work with the “historical” hypothesis does not make it the correct one. 

Bible scholars can get away with saying things like that about books in the Bible as long as they are not talking about the Gospels. Some even question the entire historical basis of David and Solomon. But the Gospels are sacred windows opening out to the historical details of Jesus Christ. Not that critical scholars for a moment think that the narrative details themselves are historically accurate; they apply various methods in efforts to divine traditions, memories and sayings that supposedly lay behind those stories.

The author of the above words also wrote in the same chapter:

This particular thesis [that the text is describing genuine historical events] is protected from critical scrutiny because we lack the means of corroborating the historical reconstruction . . . 

I am skeptical about the conventional approach not only because its results are beyond the reach of examination. The problem is also that the approach too readily assumes that the texts straightforwardly lend themselves to historical . . . analysis. 

That is, the author is expressing disagreement with the practice of merely assuming that the contents of an ancient text are informing us about a genuine historical past. The problem with this assumption is that we have no way of corroborating the supposedly historical account. Is it possible that what we are reading was not written as historical memory at all? How can we tell? read more »


2014-10-14

For Whom Were the Gospels Written?

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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


Jerry Coyne, meet Hector Avalos

by Neil Godfrey

I don’t know if Jerry will permit the following words appear on his blog. He has trashed my comments in the past. I submitted the comment in response to Heather Hastie on female genital mutilation: Is it Islamic?  I avoided specific reference to FGM and spoke instead more generally of barbaric practices. (We all know the real instigation of all that has contributed to the current outrage is 9/11 and that FGM is just one more opportunity to kick Islam to the exclusion of other religions.)

Am I permitted to post an alternative view here?

Associate professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and author of The End of Biblical Studies and Fighting Words, Hector Avalos, shows us how ALL religions that are grounded in unverifiable beliefs are at various times and places susceptible to being used to justify a host of barbaric behaviours.

Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Taoism, ancestor worship — all have been used to justify horrific practices.

By focussing on just the one religion that is being used by certain peoples in certain times and places and with certain experiences to justify evils we are focusing on the symptoms and missing the real reason for the problems.

No-one blames Christianity or ancestor worship for the barbarisms that drenched pre-Communist China in blood even though these beliefs were used to justify all sorts of hideous tortures and cruelties. We did not always have terrorist Muslims crazed to kill Westerners.

There are reasons that prompt people to flick switches and use religion to justify horrors. The common factor in all of these contingencies is the way we give social respectability to belief systems that are unverifiable.

If we don’t recognize the causes (the real causes) of religious violence and barbarism we are not going to help progress civilized values but could in fact be contributing to the ignorance and chaos.

See, Muslim Violence: Understanding Religion and Humanity.