Category Archives: Religion


2016-09-20

Tragedies of the Bible Believing Mind

by Neil Godfrey

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-6-27-40-amTerrible déjà vu hit me as I recently watched the BBC doco Return to the Most Hated Family, also known as The Most Hated Family In Crisis (sequel to The Most Hated Family in America) with interviewer Louis Theroux. Australians at least can catch the documentary over the next few days at iview. My own cult was never as offensive as the subject of this film: we certainly never publicly demonstrated at funerals gloating over dead soldiers in the belief we were righteously rejoicing in God’s judgments. But I could understand how these devout believers could bring themselves to do just that.

But that’s not the point of this post. What really pained me was the way Theroux was able to expose the deep human tragedy inflicting these people trapped in their conviction that they were doing God’s will.

Parents had thrown their children out of the church for “choosing the way of the world/Satan”. Mothers, fathers, they were clearly straining with all their power to put on a stoical front, to not buckle emotionally, to show the world that they were truly so God-fearing and God-loving that even when their own children were “the lost” they still “rejoiced in the judgments of God”.

Of course they had to give their suffering meaning and that’s the only way they could do it. But Theroux’s questions were so compassionate and direct that the camera could not deny viewers the signs — gestures, facial tensions, slight voice quavering — of deep pain denied.

Among Theroux’s concluding remarks was a line that went something like this: “People who deny their own feelings believe they have a right to trample on the feelings of others.” And I was reminded of the pain I had caused my own parents when I joined a cult.

–o–

A few days earlier while driving I was listening to a local radio interview of a woman compassionately talking about her late Bible-believing mother. They had been a military family so always on the move, never having the opportunity to build long-lasting relationships with others. The mother’s strong devotion to God, the daughter suggested, had become a substitute. It was her one constant and close friendship. To me that came across as a moving attempt to understand her mother, to avoid judgment that could have come so easily. And that’s how I remembered dark years of my own past (don’t misunderstand — my entire life was certainly not spent in the cult and I experienced other far more benign forms of Christianity as well before becoming an atheist): we loved others, were bonded to others, as they themselves were bonded to our God. Ties could be severed as quick as an axe blow once they lost hold of the centre that was their God. But that was not this woman’s experience as far as I know. It was enough to suggest that her life lost in God was in fact a sad symptom of an inability to establish a comparable relationship with her own kind.


2016-09-16

Tom Holland: Still Wrong About Christianity

by Neil Godfrey
holland

Tom Holland

Historian Tom Holland has made a public confession that when it comes to his morals and ethics he is “thoroughly and proudly Christian”. (Tom Holland is a very talented writer and historian whose study of the rise of the Arab empire and birth of Islam I have discussed here. I was also fascinated by another work of his, Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom — a period of history I specialized in when studying history as an undergrad.)
Now Christian blogs are crowing that the renowned historian has “come out” in defence of Christianity. The Enlightenment philosophes got the Church all wrong, he implies.

Dr. Platypus, Darrell J. Pursiful’s Bible and Faith Blog, posts Tom Holland Was Wrong about Christianity and Michael Bird on Euangelion posts Tom Holland: Why I Was Wrong about Christianity. I imagine there will be many more to follow. The excitement is over Tom Holland’s article just published in New Statesman, also titled Tom Holland: Why I Was Wrong about Christianity.

Holland tells us of his younger fascination with the great empires and generals of ancient history (an interest he says morphed out of his boyhood love of dinosaurs) and how they made the Bible’s heroes looked so anemic in comparison.

He had long embraced the view of history bequeathed us by the Enlightenment era (via Gibbon, Voltaire, etc) that Christianity ushered in an age of intolerance, superstition and ignorance. One had to look further back to the ancient “classical era” to find values more worthy of humanist ideals.

His epiphany dawned over time as he reflected upon the barbarism of Sparta and Rome:

The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.

For once I can say something I have never written before and never imagined myself saying. A historian from outside the guild of biblical studies can learn something from a Professor of New Testament; in this instance the professor is Gregory J. Riley. (There are surely many others; but as an outside amateur I think of Riley as the most well known scholar addressing the contribution of ancient “classical” values to Christianity.)

Christianity was not born mysteriously out of a womb unrelated to the body of which it was a part. Every human creation is a product of a human environment. It would be unique, unnatural even, if Christianity emerged from a virgin birth.

gregory-riley

Gregory Riley

By way of explanation I think the titles of two of the following posts on Gregory Riley’s works should tell the story, though the titles are also hyperlinked to their original content:

See also Peter Kirby’s page: Historical Jesus Theories: Gregory Riley

Then there are the scholarly works addressing Paul’s debt to classical ethics with nary a word of credit to Jesus. I mention just a handful that I can identify quickly from my own collection:

  • Engberg-Pedersen, T. (2000). Paul and the Stoics. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.
  • Engberg-Pedersen, T. (2006). Paul’s Stoicizing Politics in Romans 12-13: The Role of 13.1-10 in the Argument. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 29(2), 163–172. http://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X06072836
  • Lee, M. V. (2009). Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Malherbe, A. J. (1989). Paul and the popular philosophers. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
  • Rasimus, T. (2010). Stoicism in early Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic.
  • Thorsteinsson, R. M. (2006). Paul and Roman Stoicism: Romans 12 and Contemporary Stoic Ethics. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 29(2), 139–161. http://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X06072835

Julius Caesar and Leonidas were not the only figures to speak for ancient values. Seneca was ordered by Nero to commit suicide, if my memory serves.

And as for the utter callousness of Caesar’s treatment of the Gauls and Sparta’s legendary treatment of helots, yes, it would be soul-destroying to think humanity has made no progress in two thousand years. Yet we do ourselves a serious injustice if we fail to recognize that our Christian nations have on the whole fully approved the extermination of entire cities of innocents for what they believe was the purpose of saving the lives of their own soldiers, and continue to approve of the slaughter of innocents in order to achieve specific national and strategic goals.

Tom Holland might be advised to turn his attention to historians of modern realities (his compatriot Jason Burke comes to mind) and learn that enormous strides in propaganda and hypocrisy have possibly exceeded advances in morality. No, that’s not quite fair or true. It really is a lot harder today for national leaders to do what they want without regard for public opinion and I have little doubt that leaders today really do have consciences more refined than those of their ancient counterparts (except for the psychopaths, of course). But, but…. it does pay sometimes to look behind the headlines.

 


2016-09-07

Two Caliphate Myths

by Neil Godfrey

dulac-rubaiyat03It’s time to confront a Muslim myth that has widespread currency even among Westerners who are not favourably disposed towards the Muslim religion. And for good measure for the benefit of those readers who seem to think the historical Caliphate was the ideological precursor of Islamic State, I will toss in a second measure of historical fact. The subtext here is that certain facts pull the rug from beneath certain myths embraced by certain Westerners who have certain negative attitudes towards Muslims. Don’t get me wrong. I have no love for the Muslim faith any more than I do for any other religion. And yes, there is no doubt that Islam has a long way to go to catch up in all respects with contemporary Western values grounded as they are in humanism, secularism, rationalism, what have you. (I’m speaking idealistically of Western values, of course. I also roll my eyes sometimes at the hypocrisy of some anti-Muslim Westerners given that Westerners themselves have only oh so very recently come to some of their own more enlightened perspectives.)

Fact one: there is no evidence to support the story that the seventh century Arab conquests were inspired by Muhammad and with the goal of spreading the Muslim religion. None. Zilch. Forget that porky you have carried around for years now that says the Muslim religion was born and weaned in bloody jihad. There is no evidence to support this claim.

Abbasids850Some Zionist Jews cling to the myth that God ordered their ancestors to kill off or expel all native inhabitants of Palestine and that the Bible records this command and first (incomplete) effort to carry it out. This myth validates their contemporary efforts to push out and replace the Palestinians from their West Bank holdings. Historians know the original story is a myth, so where did it come from? I personally side with the scholarship that places the emergence of this myth to the Second Temple era in order for the new settlers (settled at the behest of the Persians) to justify their displacement of the locals. But that’s another story for another time. My point is that the story of Arabs mounting their horses and riding out with swords raised to conquer the bulk of the Middle East and North Africa all in the name of Allah and Muhammad his prophet with the intention of converting every male to praying five times a day and every woman to wearing the burqa is without any foundation. It’s a myth. The story is a religious myth, a little like the story of Joshua conquering Jericho and the promised land. I say “a little like” because there is some truth there. Only one has to pull apart the story to find it. I have posted about this before, so permit me to quote myself at this moment:

So were the Arab conquests inspired by Muhammad and their zeal to spread the Muslim faith? For that we have no evidence. I don’t mean there is no evidence for the seventh century Arab conquests. They are not doubted. But what is open to question is whether these Arabs were adherents to Islam at that time. Or did the Muslim religion appear subsequent to those conquests? When the Romans or Persians conquered territories they left indisputable evidence of who they were and what they believed. When the Arabs conquered both Christian and Jewish peoples they left no evidence that at that time they belonged to any particular religion. Apparently some Christians feared they were in league with the Jews because they allowed Jews to return to some of their places of prayer. Particularly curious is that there is no mention of Muhammad in any of their coins or other records pertaining to this period. Another curious datum from the documentary (not in the interview) is that the earliest known mosque in the Palestine region is not facing Mecca, but east, for prayer. The first coin with the name Muhammad on it does not appear until around fifty years after the conquests of Palestine.

Check the original and related posts for the details. Or if you’d rather simply disbelieve any of this and prefer to repeat stories of the bloody and barbaric intrinsic nature of the very essence of the Islamic religion itself then please go away and do something more useful with your time than fuming in anger over what you are reading here. Okay, now what about this business of “the ideology of the Caliphate” as if the Caliphate is some apocalyptic foreshadowing of Islamic State with all its beheadings and other obscenities and horrors towards women, men, young, old, everyone….?

William McCants

William McCants

Fact two: I am compelled at this point to quote someone who is highly respected author and scholar, William McCants. I have read two of his books, Founding Gods and The ISIS Apocalypse, and several of his published articles and have cited him several times before on Vridar so can assure you he won’t bite, so it’s safe to read his stuff. Here is an extract from a post in which he reminded his more well informed readers about the “historical caliphate” (excuse my own bolding):

But take a look at the Islamic State’s propaganda, and you will see that from its founding the group has sought to restore the glory days of the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad, especially the era of Harun alRashid of 1,001 Nights fame. “Know that the Baghdad of alRashid is the home of the caliphate that our ancestors built,” proclaimed an Islamic State spokesman in 2007. “It will not appear by our hands but by our carcasses and skulls. We will once again plant the flag of monotheism, the flag of the Islamic State, in it.” That same year, the Islamic State’s first ruler, the aptly-named Abu Umar al-Baghdadi announced IS’s claim to the city: “Today, we are in the very home of the caliphate, the Baghdad of alRashid.” Even after the Islamic State established its primary base of operations in Syria’s Raqqa province, once home to Harun alRashid for several years, and captured Mosul in Iraq, its spokesman still referred to “the Baghdad of the Caliphate” and “the Baghdad of alRashid.” poemswinerevelryThe Islamic State’s plan to revive the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad has two problems. The first is ideological: Harun alRashid was not terribly pious — he enjoyed poetry about wine and young boys — and his court valued unfettered intellectual debate and pagan Greek learning, which are anathema to ultraconservative Salafis like those running the Islamic State. But it is alRashid’s power the jihadists remember, not his impieties. The second problem is demographic, which cannot be resolved by selective memory: most of Baghdad’s inhabitants are Shi’a. They will not give it up without a fight. Neither will Baghdad’s patrons in Iran.

Tales of the Arabian Nights, poetry, wine, young boys, Baghdad itself . . . . not quite the template of today’s Islamic State! Time is long overdue for a few more Westerners to learn the facts and kick aside their former ignorance and blind-hostility to the mere echo of the word “Muslim”, or “Islam”. And of course Qutb could have learned a bit more had he lived to read the critical historical works available today. But what good would reading have done if his mind had been as closed as the minds of many Islamophobic (perish the term!?) Westerners today! Arabian-Nights-Edmund-Dulac-Illustrated


2016-09-04

Religion Explained: how to make a good religious concept

by Neil Godfrey

fsmLet’s try to understand what religious beliefs are. What makes a religious belief work, take hold, and are found across cultures and generations? In these posts I’m continuing to focus on Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer whose explanation is grounded in cognitive theory. That is, this is a cognitive explanation for religion.

Religious beliefs — gods, ghosts, virgin births, etc — are not randomly fabricated nonsense. (I included ghosts as an example of religious beliefs because I’m discussing religion in its most generic sense and not confining myself to mainstream Western religions.) Religious concepts actually follow certain rules or recipes. They have specific types of properties. The Flying Spaghetti Monster, on the contrary, is a concoction made to look like “randomly fabricated nonsense”; the ingredients that go into the making of real religious concepts could scarcely produce a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I cannot possibly explain in depth how this recipe works in a blog post. To get the details one ought to read the first two chapters of Boyer’s book. I will try to hit key highlights. (And of course the terms used in describing cognitive processes are necessarily metaphorical.)

There are two essential ingredients that go into making a viable religious concept, and they need to be mixed in the right proportions. Boyer discusses the experimental research behind it all but I won’t address any of that here.

Take the overall understanding of what we all have by the idea of “animal”. We have all constructed since infancy an common set of ideas of what being an “animal” means, such as:

  • animals grow and die
  • animals have typical shapes or body plans
  • animals need food to survive
  • animals reproduce “after their own kind” or species

In fact we have “minitheories” about what it means to be an animal. As soon as we understand something is an animal we immediately infer many things about it that we do not need to check or test each time: e.g. it consists of the same sorts of innards, digestive tract, nervous system, as any other animal; that it will have a symmetrical shape; that it eats to survive — either plants or other animals; that if it kills and eats other animals it does so because it gets hungry, and so forth.

If you never heard of an Invisible Rail but were told it was an animal creature of some sort, then you would instantly know all of the above about it before even knowing what sort of animal it was or what it looked like.

An animal category in our heads enables us to make sense of “natural concepts” and to make all sorts of inferences about their behaviour without ever being told such details again each time we learn about a new animal.

In other words, we have a whole range of expectations that come into play whenever we are told about a new animal. If you heard that an Invisible Rail laid eggs from which baby Invisible Rails hatched you would not be surprised. If in addition you learned that it had wings, you would know it is a bird, and you would assume it has a beak and feathers. All of this would be consistent with the sorts of details you would have expected to hear about a something belonging to the animal category of knowledge.

But if you hear that an Invisible Rail had the ability to suddenly materialize anywhere and anytime when a child was deeply distressed, that would be unexpected information. That ability would violate all that you know about the properties of physical bodies. It would not be something your understanding of animals allowed to happen.

In fact, you would almost certainly recall that unexpected detail about the Invisible Rail because it is so unusual, so unexpected. You would imagine the Invisible Rail is a very unusual sort of animal.

But at the same time everything else about the Invisible Rail — laying eggs, feathers, wings, beak — would be exactly as you expect.

A religious concept consists of these two things:

  1. it violates certain expectations from what we call “ontological categories”
  2. it preserves other expectations.

There are a few more rules surrounding these two details, but first let’s understand “ontological categories”. 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 »


2016-08-22

Sam Harris: Wrong (again) about Religion and Radicalization

by Neil Godfrey
Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 6.49.04 pm

Waking Up Sam Harris? I wish! 😉 But “waking up with Sam Harris” is more like a drifting off into pre-scientific fantasies about the nature of religion.

At about the 40th minute in Waking Up with Sam Harris:#43 — What Do Jihadists Really Want? Sam Harris explains his understanding of the nature and origin of religion. The same fundamental error is made by New Atheists more generally according to my understanding of the writings of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Harris explains what lies at the root of the evil of Islam and terrorism and any other religion that has wreaked terror and stupidity on the world:

Whenever human obsession gets channelled in these ways we see the same ancient framework upon which many religions were built. In our ignorance and fear and craving for order we created the gods and ignorance and fear and craving keep them with us.

I am surprised that one with strong interests in religion and neurology should fail to indicate awareness of serious research into the nature and origins of religious thought and instead continue to recycle the old myth that belief in gods came about because of fear and a desire to explain the world in an age without the scientific method.

Ignorance: did a desire for explanations to replace ignorance lead us to create gods? Is it ignorant explanations that keep gods with us?

Anthropological studies have demonstrated that this notion is false. Only certain types of explanations for certain types of questions are sought, and the explanations that are derived this way are on the one hand increasingly baroque (many myths on top of one another to explain related points) and on the other hand they inspire no desire for an explanation at all. To believe, for example, that thunder is explained as the voices of ancestors requires a host of many other beliefs to make sense (e.g. how do their voices sound so loud if they are so far away, etc) but there is no desire to explain these “problems”.

A classic illustration was provided by E. E. Evans-Pritchard with the Zande people of the Sudan. They knew very well that white-ants caused the collapse of a hut but that did not answer the question as to why the hut fell at the particular time it did with a certain person inside. Only witchcraft could explain that. And how to explain witchcraft? No curiosity arises there. That question never arises. So it’s certain types of concepts that we are talking about, and scientific explanations are not so much rejected as they are irrelevant.

There is much, much more to this topic that needs several posts of its own. I would expect a scientist interested in religious belief to be devouring all he can by his peers researching this very question.

Fear: did a desire for dispelling fear through comfort and reassurance lead us to create gods? Is it the same need for comfort and reassurance that keeps them with us?

This is another myth. Many religions certainly do not dispel fear of death or other misfortunes. Anthropologists even raise the possibility that it is religious rituals that create the fears they are meant to allay. So in a society that performs many, many rituals to guard against witchcraft, the fear of witchcraft is strong, while in other societies there is no such fear — and no rituals either. This brings us to questions of psychology to explain ritualistic behaviour.

Again, to simply say that religion gives us fantasies to take away our fears is in reality extremely problematic. If that were really true then it is hard to imagine the human species surviving long enough at all to evolve towards our current state of progress.

Again, I am not pretending to answer this myth fully at all. Several posts would be required.

Craving for order: did a desire for social order lead us to create gods? Is it the same craving for order that keep gods with us?

Here we enter the realm of what is best described as a series of ad hoc rationalizations rather than real cause and effect. It can be shown that morality is not per se a product of religion, and that there are many moral values attributed to religion that people in fact hold regardless of religion.

And so forth. I’ve mentioned the books before and they are certainly not the last word but they are great introductions:

  • Barrett, Justin L. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.
  • Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Basic Books.

If you know of others just as good or better as introductions do leave a comment

I take that remark by Sam Harris at around the 40th minute of his talk as the premise from which he builds the rest of his case. It is a false premise and his edifice cannot stand. read more »


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 »


2016-07-31

The Other Side of Early Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

So Christianity and paganism were not at all necessarily incompatible in the Roman empire. Our focus on biblical texts, the writings we have inherited from selected “church fathers” and sporadic persecutions in the later empire do not prepare us for early third century tombstones like this:
Funerary stele of Licinia Amias, one of the most ancient Christian inscriptions. ΙΧΘΥC ΖΩΝΤΩΝ Ikhthus zōntōn fish of the living

You recognize the fish, and possibly the inscription IXΘYC, ichthus, which means fish as well as being an acronym for Jesus Christ Son of God, Saviour.

So what’s it doing parallel to D.M. above, Dii Manes, To the Spirits of the Dead? It reminds me of a sarcophagus I used as an illustration way back in another post which depicts a series of Christian reliefs either side of the pagan image of the Orante or Orans female figure at prayer. Notable also on that sarcophagus is the absence of Jesus crucified. No crucifixes at all. The only suffering figure appears to be Jonah who is recovering beneath a pleasant gourd tree after his regurgitation from a great fish. Fish again. Jesus is a boy being baptized by an elderly John.

So much we don’t know. Thanks to Mary Beard’s documentary on Rome I am reminded of artifacts like these.

Details of the funerary stele above can be seen here:

 


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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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 »