Category Archives: Religion


2015-03-28

Homer in the Gospels: Recent Thoughts

by Neil Godfrey

Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has posted an interesting discussion on Dennis MacDonald’s defence at the recent Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference of his thesis that a significant influence of the Homeric literature can be found in the New Testament writings, especially the Gospel of Mark and Book of Acts.

For those wondering what the status of his views currently are in the mainstream of biblical studies they will find this an interesting read. Some comments:

Not surprisingly, MacDonald’s thesis has had a number of critics, but has also received a good deal of praise. . .

Overall, the general consensus is that some of the parallels that MacDonald identifies are very strong and interesting, while others are weaker and more speculative. But, one thing that was generally agreed upon at the SBL conference is that mimesis criticism is working its way into mainstream biblical criticism. In fact, MacDonald’s mimesis criticism is likewise going to be discussed at the SBL Annual Meeting in Georgia later this year. . . .

The fact that MacDonald’s arguments will be a central part of this year’s annual SBL conference suggests to me that MacDonald’s new methods are, indeed, making headway into mainstream Biblical Studies. I am not sure whether mimesis criticism will necessarily be central to interpreting the majority of passages in the Gospels and Acts, but I do think that it is very applicable to select examples . . . .

Competing with OT influence? read more »


2015-03-26

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

by Neil Godfrey

A criticism of the view that Muhammad did not exist

Excerpts from an interview published in

Spiegel Online International  

Dispute among Islam Scholars: Did Muhammad Ever Really Live?

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

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

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?

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

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

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

. . . .

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

Marx: Precisely. . . .

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

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

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

Marx: That’s hard to imagine. . . .

. . . .

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

Marx: I wouldn’t know where.

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

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

Interview conducted by Yassin Musharbash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2015-03-21

The Dark Resurgence of Biblical History

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doubling the excitement

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

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

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

A Fight for history

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


2015-03-11

The Difference between Story and History in the Bible

by Neil Godfrey
James Barr

James Barr

In 1980 the influential biblical scholar James Barr produced a “seminal essay” that classified “the narrative complex of the Hebrew Bible as story rather than history” and contributed to “[many retreating] into an historiographic scepticism”(Whitelam, 1987, 2010). The focus of Barr’s essay (and Keith Whitelam’s reference to it) is the Old Testament. It is important to understand, however, that “historical nihilism” is not the inevitable destination if we find our sources are more story than history.

Certainty is not a prerequisite to understanding. It is the will to understand rather than simply the will to know for certain that is the driving force for the inquiry to be undertaken here. (Whitelam, p. 20.)

I think that the same principles carry over to the New Testament’s Gospels and Acts, too. That’s too controversial for many today, however. The Gospel narratives must stand firm as grounded in historical memory of some kind. Whitelam in his 2010 edition of his 1987 book lamented the failure of the critical potential to blossom in the field of Old Testament studies:

The rise of the biblical history movement and ‘new biblical archaeology’ means that the project envisaged a quarter of a century ago is even further away from realization today than it was then. (p. xiii)

How much further away we must be from applying the same critical questions to the stories of Jesus!

Following is how Barr explained the differences between history and story. It comes from “Story and History in Biblical Theology: The Third Nuveen Lecture” in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 1-17. Published in Explorations in Theology 7, 1980.

Old Testament narratives cannot be described as ”history” but rather as containing “certain of the features that belong to history”. Examples: read more »


2015-03-08

Shirley Jackson Case: Inadvertent Omissions

by Tim Widowfield

When I consulted my reading notes for the recent post on Case’s The Historicity of Jesus, I noticed a couple of things I had meant to comment on, but left out. In this post I seek to atone for my sins of omission.

read more »


2015-02-25

Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Norelli’s Argument

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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


2015-02-12

The Rhythms of Palestine’s History

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

Archaeological-Historical Periods in Palestine

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

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

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

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

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

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


2015-02-08

Evidence for a Pre-Christian “Christianity”?

by Neil Godfrey

spiritpossession

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

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

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

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

Distinctive features 

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

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

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

They do not mention

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

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

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

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

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

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


2015-02-07

What they’re saying about Religion & Atheism

by Neil Godfrey

Eleven very recent and less recent blog posts and news feeds follow. Take your pick.

HectorAvalos

Hector Avalos

Hector Avalos, known to most of us for The End of Biblical Studies and Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (discussed across 5 Vridar posts) has had a new article published in Ames Tribune . . .

Blaspheme or else …

Two paragraphs from the article:

Bill Maher, the atheist humorist, believes Islam is entrenched in the Middle Ages . . .  Thomas Friedman . . . believes that Islam needs the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation, while others deem Islam to be inherently incorrigible.

Many of these commentators overlook how much of the Muslim jihadist view of blasphemy derives directly or indirectly from the Bible, the foundational text of Christianity. Yvonne Sherwood’s Biblical Blaspheming: Trials of the Sacred for a Secular Age (2012) discusses some aspects of the long reach of biblical blasphemy laws in western culture.

Avalos, of course, supports efforts to repeal blasphemy laws, period.

For most secularists/pluralists, you must blaspheme — or else your freedom of expression will inevitably be hostage to one religion or another. 

Holy Jesus, I nearly forgot to cite my source for this story — h/t John Loftus on Debunking Christianity, thank God.

–o0o–

This one is not really about “religion and atheism” but it’s worth including here to get the message out the sooner – - – -  Peter Kirby has done us another favour by creating a Biblical Criticism Search Engine.

Now you can search the greater Biblical Criticism Blogosphere, a carefully curated collection of websites, blogs, books, articles, and resources containing about 30 billion web pages indexed and searchable with a Google Custom Search Engine. The search prompt can be found here:

http://bcharchive.org/

–o0o–

PZ Myers of Pharyngula alerts us to a bloggingheadsTV discussion where I find some of my own reservations re Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens brought out into the open:

Jeet Heer and the New Atheism

I don’t see the point of having an atheism that is pro-status quo, pro-imperialist, and which is indifferent to issues of inequality and patriarchy. If you’re going to have that, you might as well go to church.

That the New Atheism has already become part of a doctrinaire, anti-social justice attitude is troubling, but I think it was there from the beginning. The Thinky Atheist Leaders who carved out this niche clearly didn’t think those issues were important — even while some of us who happily jumped on the New Atheist bandwagon thought they were, and were simply oblivious to the indifference of the horsemen who were galloping into the fray. Now some of us who were trotting along with the rest of the cavalry are drawing back . . . . 

It’s very uncomfortable. Maybe I’m a New Atheist in some ways, but not in other ways, and maybe I need a new banner to rally under, or maybe we need to just let the leadership blunder into the cannons while the rest of us regroup and refocus. . . . 

It’s a tough place to be, sacrificing all that momentum while we mill about and try to figure out a rational approach. But that’s what atheists should do: think.

–o0o–

But there’s hope. Also h/t Loftus, and again with Hector Avalos gaining another mention:

The Second Wave of New Atheism is Here

Dr. Hector Avalos tells me that in his forthcoming book, The Bad Jesus, he speaks of a Second Wave of New Atheism, which he defines as atheist advocates “who have more formal training in philosophy, biblical studies and theology.”. . . .

–o0o–

Many of us have probably seen Stephen Fry’s delicious account of what he would say to God at the Pearly Gates:

It’s worth repeating until learned by heart.

The point here is that Mano Singham has found the pious intellect of Giles Fraser responding sagely to Fry. In the interests of fair play and equal time here it is:

I don’t believe in the God that Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either

–o0o–

without godGavin R or Otagosh has found one of those curious hybrids:

Another Atheist Theologian

Today I learned that this troublesome priest has outed himself as – shock, horror – an atheist.

In an interview with Religion Dispatches he talks about his new book Christianity Without God . . . and makes some memorable remarks.

“I think the main passion of the conservative mind is fear… Fear makes you reach for a supernatural insurance policy.”

Unlike all too many of those who have transitioned from various forms of Christianity to godlessness, Maguire retains the ability to engage in the conversation without the smug, tone deaf invective that shuts off communication rather than opening it up.

–o0o–

Here’s another story of a religious person meeting atheism but this time finding a different outcome. It’s by self-described “God-nerd” Christian Piattread more »


2015-02-03

So Jesus read Plato?

by Neil Godfrey

phaedrusAnother Aussie blogger, Matthew R. Malcolm of Cryptotheology, today posted published an interesting post, Plato and Jesus on inviting the poor. Matthew raises a question that emerges quite often to anyone who knows the Bible and reads widely among the ancient texts, Greek, Roman and Jewish. One regularly stumbles across passages that sound just like something in the Bible. I have posted on some of these “ah ha” moments and have many, many more lined up eventually to post about “one day”. Surely there must be reference books identifying these passages. Does anyone know of one?

I take the liberty of quoting the same edition of the Plato passage cited by Matthew:

If it were true that we ought to give the biggest favour to those who need it most, then we should all be helping out the very poorest people, not the best ones, because people we’ve saved from the worst troubles will give us the most thanks. For instance, the right people to invite to a dinner party would be beggars and people who need to sate their hunger, because they’re the ones who’ll be fond of us, follow us, knock on our doors, take the most pleasure with the deepest gratitude, and pray for our success. (Phaedrus 233d-e, Cooper’s edition)

Recall Luke 14 (NIV). The same ideal ethic (pie in the sky ethic in Plato) is taught as a necessity by Jesus: read more »


2015-01-31

Keeping Up with Richard Elliott Friedman

by Tim Widowfield

Somebody on Facebook today posted a link to TheTorah.com that leads to an interesting article by Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman. It’s called “The Historical Exodus: The Evidence for the Levites Leaving Egypt and the Introduction of YHWH into Israel.” In it, Friedman argues that the Exodus really happened, but it was just a small group (the Levites) who did the “exodusing.”

It turns out he has a book on the way that will explain his argument in detail. No word yet on its release date, but here’s a tempting preview:

[David Noel] Freedman added that this had implications for the historicity of the exodus. Many scholars and archaeologists say the exodus never happened. 90 percent of their argument is based on the lack of artifacts in Egypt or Sinai and on finding few items of Egyptian material culture in early Israelite sites, which we would have expected if the Israelites had lived in Egypt for centuries. But that isn’t evidence against the historicity of the exodus. At most, it is evidence (more correctly: an absence of evidence) against the tremendous number of participants that the Torah pictures.

I had included the idea of a non-millions exodus in my Who Wrote the Bible? back in 1987, and I raised the idea there, just as a possibility, that the smaller exodus group was just the Levites. That possibility looks substantially more tangible today than it did in 1987.

If you’re interested in this subject, you can read an interview from spring 2014 over at ReformJuaism.org in which Friedman argues that “The Exodus Is Not Fiction.” He says: read more »


2015-01-28

Was Christianity Born from a “Pentecostal” Movement?

by Neil Godfrey
william-seymour_crop

William Seymour, founder of modern pentecostalism, and the Azusa Street Revival, are discussed as relevant models by both Hanges and Davies.

I have just completed reading one scholar’s work that does argue that Paul spread Christianity throughout the Greek world by means of such a movement and have begun another that argues the same with respect to Jesus.

1. James C. Hanges

James C. Hanges, author of Christ, the Image of the Church and Paul, Founder of Churches, stresses the importance of cultural theory and the evidence for cultural movements in the Greek and Roman world as vital background to understanding Paul’s letters and career.

Wandering “spirit possessed” preachers of the ancient world

One popular stereotype in the era that saw the emergence of Christianity was the “spirit possessed” traveller who would disrupt communities with his bizarre “signs” of the spirit within him, including the babbling of “tongues”, attracting women predominantly to become his followers, and thought to be introducing new gods or unconventional religious observances.

Anyone familiar with that famous fifth century Greek play Bacchae by Euripides will recognize the above character. I had always thought this play was about the conflict that resulted from the introduction of the Bacchic mysteries (or worship of Dionysus) to Thebes. Hanges, however, references scholarship that suggests this surface narrative was originally understood to be representative of the controversies that accompanied the arrival of any (and many) new religious movements to challenge the status quo.  read more »


2015-01-25

Understanding the Nature of Religion and the Religious

by Neil Godfrey
Emile_Durkheim

Emile Durkheim

This post is in some ways a response to the Jerry Coynes and Sam Harris’s and others who blame religions for human actions; it is also a response to my reading a certain professor’s study of Christian origins from a perspective that yields no quarter to any explanation that resorts to “something unknowable to the modern historian”.

In this post I will outline a way of understanding the nature of religion — as well as an understanding of what religious believers are really engaged in with their beliefs and practices — from a considered empirical perspective. Religion is a human creation and should be understood like any other human activity.

Yet in reality religion is rarely seen as something so natural or as something that can be evidently explained in mundane human terms.

If someone religious does something crazy or cruel many of us are likely to blame the religion itself as a cause as if the religion is a monstrous force that took possession of willing or unwilling slave. Some even speak of religious memes as if there are free-floating genetic-like forces that can infect and plague the unwary.

If someone joins a bizarre cult many of us will likely say brainwashing was to blame.

Religions can appear to be mysterious powers, divine or demonic.

Religious scholars and even those not so religious can scarcely bring themselves to understand the origins of a great faith in terms of the same sorts of historical forces that are assumed to give rise to other institutions.

Despite the diversity of Christian views on the subject, Christians almost universally assume that something extraordinary stands at the very beginning of Christianity. Whether this extraordinary moment is understood in terms of the singular intrusion of the divine into history, or in terms of the revolutionary way in which the historical Jesus awakens the numinous in others, the origin of Christianity for Christians remains unique. [Citations here to works by Crossan, Borg, Keck.] Apparenty, as Rodney Stark’s recent account demonstrates, the power of this presumption of uniqueness is great enough to immunize the extraordinary nature of Christian origins against even the explanatory efforts of sociologists. (J.C. Hanges “Durkheim and Early Christianity” in Reappraising Durkheim for the Study and Teaching of Religion Today ed by T.A. Idinopulos and B.C. Wilson, 2002, p. 143, my bolding)

For James Constantine Hanges (quoted above) as a historian of religion this is not good enough. Christianity, indeed any religion, “must be explicable in terms of empirical processes, especially in terms of the processes of social formation.” (p. 144)

Returning to Durkheim cannot be done presently without recognizing the serious criticisms to which his theory of religion has been subjected. While we have started with Durkheim’s analysis of the totemic religion of clans, in light of Durkheim’s almost total dependence on what subsequent fieldwork has show to be fundamental misapprehensions of the ethnographic facts, we can continue only by extracting from Durkheim’s work the sociological principles that guided it. We must then speak of social groups and the unifying role of symbols, instead of clans and totems. If Durkheim’s system is to prove useful, we should find these funda- mental principles and observations helpful in understanding the truth of the social formation of early Christianity, as it is expressed in the cult itself. (Hanges, “Durkheim and Early Christianity”, p.144)

For this understanding Hanges turns to Émile Durkheim‘s sociological understanding of the nature and origins of religions. The beauty of this approach is that it enables a

a means by which to disrupt [our] accepted religious categories and to make something familiar seem suddenly very strange. (p. 144)

Reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s famous quote about travel:

The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.

Everything that follows is based on my reading of some of Hanges’ explanations of Durkheim’s sociological explanation of religion (from Reappraising above and other works) and a perusal of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (online). So understand these are elementary student notes cut very bare for a basic overview. With apologies to genuine students of sociology!

Here goes.

The Two Truths of Religion

To understand religion in modern societies Durkheim began by examining how religion worked in primitive societies. This way he expected to understand the fundamental principles of social institutions that become increasingly complex in the societies we know. Though religious ideas and institutions in modern societies are complex they can nonetheless be more easily understood if we can see the more primitive forms from which they have derived.

There are probably only two truths that are expressed in any stable religion –

  1. the nature of the individual

  2. the nature of society

Every individual is aware that he lives at two levels: as a private individual limited by his physical body and as a member of society, as part of a group that transcends any individual.

Society wields a power external to us and that is far greater than any of us. It represents an identity that is greater than any one person. Each of us has a very close (and subordinate) relationship with it. We each live in some sort of communion with this power.

I think we can see where this idea is headed with respect to the origin of “god”. read more »


2015-01-21

What they’re saying about The New Gospel of Mark Fragment

by Neil Godfrey

Tim linked to some background info on the reported discovery of the new fragment of the Gospel of Mark. Here is some further discussion that might be of interest:

By Roger Pearse (creator of the Tertullian Project website and the Additional Fathers collection)

Covers in serious depth some important aspects to what we have been reading about. Roger’s conclusion:

If the discovery is genuine, then it is wonderful.  Any recovery of lost texts from antiquity is a joy, and any very early witness to any important text is to be treasured.

But is it genuine?  We cannot say.  But the manner in which it is becoming known to the public does nothing to give me confidence.

So I think we need to hold our horses, and await proper publication.  To me, all this is too good to be true.  But let’s hope not.

image3

From http://phdiva.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/is-this-more-of-first-century-gospel-of.html

From Dorothy King of Dorothy King’s PhDiva:

Dorothy adds pics of something she thinks she recognizes from … — one of several attached here. Interesting comments, too, such as. . .

Interesting similarity of handwriting … between these fragments I posted photos of yesterday from the Turkish eBay seller “Zelis eksioglu” …and the newly discovered Gospel of Mark ;-)

These top three photos of material he was touting to sell “off eBay” and below the ones of the Gospel of Mark Josh McDowell recently ‘discovered’ … although frankly when the seller is boasting of what it is …

And more interesting observations on Dorothy’s blog.

Another scholar, Jim Davila of PaleoJudaica.com has some interesting background links via:

read more »