Category Archives: Religion


2014-04-06

Daniel’s end time prophecies in context: 1

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Horsley in his 2007 publication, Scribes, Visionaries, and the Politics of Second Temple Judea, alerts us to ancient Mesopotamian prophetic texts that have remarkable similarities to our well-known Book of Daniel. I find it most interesting to read these other texts in order to appreciate better the context and nature of our canonical book that has played a key role in New Testament literature and subsequent apocalyptic and millenarian beliefs.

Recall Daniel 11, that detailed prophecy of the king of the north moving against the king of the south and the king of the south rising up and the manipulation of powers by flatteries etc etc etc, all a detailed “prophecy” of the political struggles between the Seleucid (Syrian) and Ptolemaic (Egyptian) empires over the region of Judea. . . . Interestingly there is a remarkably similar (generically and stylistically) type of prophecy from Hellenistic Babylon, an Akkadian text known as the Dynastic Prophecy. It’s survives in a fragmented state, but we can see its striking similarity to the kind of text we read in Daniel 11:2-45 nonetheless. I have copied this from the text found on Scribd, apparently derived from publications by Grayson and Longman.

[...] me. [...] me. [...] left. [...] great. [...]

seed. [...] he sees.

[...] a later day. [...] will be overthrown. [...]

will be annihilated. [...] Assyria. [...] silver (?) and [...] will attack and [...] Babylon, will attack and [...] will be overthrown. [...] will life up and [...] will come/go [...] will seize [...] he will destroy [...] will shroud [...] he (=Nabonidus) will bring ex[tensive booty] into Babylon. [...] he (= the Achaemenids/Elam) will decorate the Esagil and the Ezida . [...] he will build the palace of Babylon. [...] Nippur to Babylon. He will exercise kingship [for x year]s.

. . . .

read more »


2014-03-15

Bart Ehrman’s The Bible: An Undergraduate Textbook

by Tim Widowfield
The Bible

The Bible

Oh, I shouldn’t have . . .

I gave myself Bart Ehrman’s new textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, for Christmas. Here it is March, and I’m finally getting the chance to read it. I expect this overpriced volume has a pretty good chance of becoming the standard text in American undergraduate survey courses on the Bible. So it makes sense to find out what young students will be learning.

When I say young students, I mean the young ones sufficiently well off to be able to live on campus. As education costs here in the U.S. skyrocket, more and more first- and second-year university students are working at night and driving to junior colleges each morning. But this book speaks directly to first-year students living in dormitories. The audience is more likely Footlights College Oxbridge than Scumbag College.

Well done, Footlights! 10 points.

At the end of each chapter, Bart asks the posh kids living in dorms to “Take a Stand” on a few issues. Here’s a typical “Take a Stand” item:

Your roommate has not taken the class, but he is interested in the history of ancient Israel. He knows something (a little bit) about the time of the United Monarchy and asks which king you think was better, David or Solomon. What is your view, and how do you back it up? Give him way more information than he wants to know. (p. 112)

Which king was better? That’s a toughie. But not as tough as the questions on University Challenge.

Fortunately, when reading the core of the text, I can almost forget I’m reading a book targeted more at Lord Snot and Miss Money-Sterling than Mike, Rick, Vyvyan, and Neil. Unfortunately, it’s hard to overlook the mistakes I’ve found already in the early chapters.

I sweat the small stuff

It may seem inconsequential, and maybe things like this shouldn’t bother me. But I can’t help myself. On the spelling of the Hebrew word for God’s name, Ehrman writes:

read more »


2014-02-23

My Last Days In the Cult: My Exit Story

by Neil Godfrey

caf43cedf899d2c59372b595867434d414f4141About 15 years ago I placed online a short account of how I came to find a new life, a new way of thinking and of self-acceptance after too many years as a dedicated member of the Worldwide Church of God Armstrong cult. I was one of many ex-members of that cult to add their little bios to that site. We felt it worthwhile to share our experiences to encourage others who were grappling with the various stresses and challenges of unraveling the thought-habits of years and finding a much healthier way of life as we had done. Above all we wanted to assure them that there really was a better life beyond and it was never too late to change one’s life’s direction. Recently I realized that there was one aspect of my final years in that cult, the years immediately preceding my leaving that cult, that I have very rarely spoken about in public forums. Given that there has recently appeared in print a charming little account of my former life that conveys a bizarre image of my former and current psychological makeup I thought it might be worthwhile for me to share for anyone half interested what my final years in that former religion were like.  (I say it was a “bizarre” account. I must refrain from using the word “dishonest” because I am sure the author would certainly have taken the trouble to have interviewed me and asked a few basic questions had he the time. It is quite understandable that busy people would need to rely upon stereotyping and armchair psychoanalysis to find the profile they need to prove their points about someone they wish to denigrate.)

First chinks in the armour

The first slight cracks in my faith in the teachings of the cult came when I decided to study in depth each book of the Bible as a discrete unit, as if it were not part of the canon. I would even try to read it as if I knew absolutely nothing at all about anything else in the Bible. That is, I would try to read each book to try to ascertain what it was saying in its own terms — without any reference in my own mind to any other canonical work. Of course most books, especially in the New Testament, do contain references to other biblical books. But I did not want to read, say, Romans, with any baggage in my head from what any other letter or gospel said. That process led to some interesting results. I began to see that some of the church’s teachings were really founded on unjustifiable interpretations. What’s more, I began to notice many passages that I had once read so often but also passed over so often without realizing their full import for the message the author was trying to convey. I took a number of questions to our ministry and earned myself a few worried looks. I was beginning to realize I was coming to understand and know more about what the Bible says than our trained ministry. I could see that they had not been taught to study the Bible as such but only to study the church’s teachings in the Bible. read more »


2014-02-14

Once a Fundamentalist . . . Never Again

by Neil Godfrey

3295218This post is dedicated to all those who were once fundamentalists and are fundamentalists no more. I post here extracts from testimonies of a number of people who have described the changes in their lives since they left fundamentalism behind.

I initially thought I’d dedicate it to those informed lay and erudite scholars who contemptuously snort at anyone who had, let’s say, an ultra-conservative, somewhat extreme religious past and who currently has come to entertain questions about the historicity of Jesus. But are such persons really worth a dedication?

Once a fundie, always a fundie.

That’s their claim. They mean by it that a person who once was mixed up with a religious fundamentalist type of past will, on leaving that past, inevitably switch to some other cause with all the fundamentalist pig-headedness and fervour that characterized their former religious commitment.

It’s a vacuous slogan, of course. It’s nothing but a cheap way to dismiss someone holding a view or asking questions they have no time for.

The truth is that people do indeed change. The number of books that have been published about leaving a sect, cult or fundamentalist religion of one kind or another surely number into the hundreds. Right now I’m sure most people browsing through any sizable general bookstore in the English speaking world will scarcely be able to avoid seeing at least one work about someone having left behind the confines of a rigid Muslim past. Anyone who has recently left or is in the process of leaving a Christian-influenced cult or religion will soon become aware of dozens of helpful titles. Bibliographies on the web abound. Some of my favourite and most helpful authors were Steven Hassan, Edmund Cohen, Marlene Winell.

These names alone belie the trite slogan. They are all fundies who have done much to help others leave behind and rebuild lives after the fundamentalist experience.

Many readers here know of Dr Robert M. Price’s fundamentalist background, current very liberal “Christianity” and of his books such as The Reason Driven Life.

In a future post I should explain what experience and research shows about why people join these religious outfits. There are gross misconceptions about that, and about the sorts of people who do join and endure in them for any length of time.

Both Tim and I have written about our own changes in outlook since we each left our respective religious coffins. Links to them can be found in the Vridar authors’ profiles. I have since written an update to try to dispel some ignorant nonsense being written about me on Hoffmann’s blog.

Hoffmann point-blank refused to let it be posted there as a correction to what he and others were saying. Perhaps such people think anything coming from me cannot be trusted. So here for the sake of the record I want to bring to everyone’s attention the testimonies of thirteen others who have also left fundamentalism behind never to return . . . .

The extracts come from a book available online (or at least via Kindle), Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories, edited by G. Elijah Dann. Read them and know just how far ex-fundamentalists do indeed leave behind their former mind-sets. (Bolded emphasis is mine.) I know, I can’t resist my own comments throughout, either, sorry.

read more »


2014-02-03

O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #10: Josephus as Evidence & the Arabic Version of the Testimonium

by Neil Godfrey

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate

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Tim O’Neill (TO) rightly says of some of the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus:

quote_begin After all, no-one except a fundamentalist apologist would pretend that the evidence about Jesus is not ambiguous and often difficult to interpret with any certainty, and that includes the evidence for his existence. (O’Neill, 2011) quote_end

Yet curiously not a single aspect of evidence addressed by either David Fitzgerald (DF) or himself in his reviews of DF’s work has hit on anything that he finds ambiguous or difficult to interpret. In every point of disagreement TO suggests DF is nothing but a liar or a fool.

The first unambiguous retort TO makes to DF’s treatment of Josephus is the dogmatic assertion that Josephus mentions Jesus twice. No argument. No ambiguity. No uncertainty.

Josephus does mention Jesus – twice.  So any Myther book or article [arguing the Christ Myth thesis] has to spill a lot of ink trying to explain these highly inconvenient mentions away.

Then again,

[T]he passage has Josephus saying things about Jesus that no Jewish non-Christian would say, such as “He was the Messiah” and “he appeared to them alive on the third day”.  So, not surprisingly, Fitzgerald takes the usual Myther [Christ Myth] tack and rejects the whole passage as a later addition and rejects the idea that Josephus mentioned Jesus here at all.

Interpolation a “mythicist” argument?

This is most curious. The actual fact is that most mainstream scholars until after the Second World War generally agreed that the entire passage was an interpolation. Or if not entirely an interpolation, the fact that it had been tampered with at all rendered it useless as historical evidence. I have quoted the evidence for the prevalence of these views in my post, What they used to say about Josephus as evidence for Jesus.

Today, however, it seems that “the majority of scholars” accept the contrary view, that Josephus did indeed say something about Jesus beneath the obvious Christian overlay. Given that most New Testament scholars are ideologically predisposed to belief in Jesus, and that Josephus’s testimony is the only non-biblical evidence we have from the first century for Jesus, I would not be surprised if a majority did think this. But so what? If a significant minority still leans towards the view that the entire Josephan passages is a forgery or useless as evidence, then it hardly seems reasonable to dismiss this view as the preserve of Christ Myth supporters.

Sociological explanation for the revised view of Josephus as evidence

The evidence is essentially the same. (Although in 1971 Arabic and Syriac versions of the Testimonium were also brought to light.) What has changed are the trends in interpretation of the evidence.

One sees a possible explanation for this new trend in Alice Whealey’s 2003 book, Josephus on Jesus, and again in her article, “The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic” in New Testament Studies, Vol. 54, Issue 4, Oct 2008, pp. 573-590. In the latter she explains:

In fact, much of the past impetus for labeling the textus receptus Testimonium a forgery has been based on earlier scholars’ anachronistic assumptions that, as a Jew, Josephus could not have written anything favorable about Jesus. Contemporary scholars of primitive Christianity are less inclined than past scholars to assume that most first-century Jews necessarily held hostile opinions of Jesus, and they are more aware that the line between Christians and non-Christian Jews in Josephus’ day was not as firm as it would later become. (p. 575)

This says loads. It is a virtual confession that the shift in interpretation has been motivated to a significant extent as a reaction against both real and perceived strains of anti-semitism in earlier scholarship. The error here is that the personal bias and values of Josephus himself are trumped by an impulse to undo an earlier generation’s sins of negative stereotyping. The context in which the passage occurs is also bypassed. Josephus personally loathed any movement that stood in opposition to the political and religious status quo under Roman rule. Taking seriously both the personal bias of Josephus and the context in which the Testimonium Flavianum is found (it is in a list of calamities befalling the Jews in which the TF fits as comfortably as a pimple on one’s nose), even the so-called “neutral” core of that TF is problematic. read more »


2014-01-30

O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #9: Josephus, 1 – Dave Fitzgerald on the Testimonium

by Neil Godfrey

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate

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Tim O’Neill (TO) expresses a most worthy ideal in an exchange with David Fitzgerald (DF):

quote_begin What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis . . . . (O’Neill, 2013) quote_end

One would expect to find in TO’s review of DF’s book, Nailed!, therefore, at the very least, an honest acknowledgement of arguments in that book. Unfortunately anyone reading TO’s review would have no idea of DF’s overall argument on any point TO chooses to address.

Since I began these posts taking the trouble to expose TO’s bluff, ignorance and pretentious nonsense, the good man himself has responded by saying my posts are “nitpicking” and symptoms of a man “obsessed with him”. I can only smile with contentment over a job done reasonably well if that’s the best his vanity can muster in his defence.

Now it’s time to address TO’s criticism of DF’s discussion of the evidence of Josephus for the historicity of Jesus. This will take a few posts to complete. Let’s begin the way any honest reviewer of a work should always begin — that is, set out the arguments of the author one is reviewing. Since TO forgot this step I will outline the first of DF’s points here, and then we will compare TO’s initial critique.

I hope that these posts will have more value than they might if they were nothing more than responses to TO’s nonsense. Hopefully issues and arguments will be raised that some readers will find informative for their own sake.

DF’s chapter 3 is titled “Myth No. 3: Josephus Wrote About Jesus”. The first passage he addresses is the famous “Testimonium Flavianum” from book 18 of the Jewish historian’s Antiquities of the Jews. It translates as:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.

He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles.

He was (the) Christ.

And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.

And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. read more »


2014-01-27

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 8: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel (continued)

by Roger Parvus

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In the previous post of the series I proposed that the Vision of Isaiah was the source of Simon/Paul’s gospel.

This post will look at the place in the Vision that contains the major difference between the two branches of its textual tradition. Obviously, at least one of the readings is not authentic. But, as I will show, there are good reasons to think that neither reading was part of the original.

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Refer to the previous post for brief discussion of the various Latin and Greek, Ethiopic and Slavonic manuscript versions of the Ascension.

Refer to the previous post for brief discussion of the various Latin and Greek, Ethiopic and Slavonic manuscript versions of the Ascension.

The passages in question are located in chapter 11 of the Vision. In the L2 and S versions the Lord’s mission in the world is presented by a single sentence:

2… And I saw one like a son of man, and he dwelt with men in the world, and they did not recognize him.

In place of this the Ethiopic versions have 21 verses, 17 of which are devoted to a miraculous birth story:

2 And I saw a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name (was) Mary, and she (was) a virgin and was betrothed to a man whose name (was) Joseph, a carpenter, and he also (was) of the seed and family of the righteous David of Bethlehem in Judah. 3 And he came into his lot. And when she was betrothed, she was found to be pregnant, and Joseph the carpenter wished to divorce her. 4 But the angel of the Spirit appeared in this world, and after this Joseph did not divorce Mary; but he did not reveal this matter to anyone. 5 And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant. 6 And he did not live with her for two months.

7 And after two months of days, while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone, 8 it came about, when they were alone, that Mary then looked with her eyes and saw a small infant, and she was astounded. 9 And after her astonishment had worn off, her womb was found as (it was) at first, before she had conceived. 10 And when her husband, Joseph, said to her, “What has made you astounded?” his eyes were opened, and he saw the infant and praised the Lord, because the Lord had come in his lot.

11 And a voice came to them, “Do not tell this vision to anyone.” 12 But the story about the infant was spread abroad in Bethlehem.

13 Some said, “The virgin Mary has given birth before she has been married two months.” 14 But many said, “She did not give birth; the midwife did not go up (to her), and we did not hear (any) cries of pain.” And they were all blinded concerning him; they all knew about him, but they did not know from where he was.

15 And they took him and went to Nazareth in Galilee. 16 And I saw, O Hezekiah and Josab my son, and say to the other prophets also who are standing by, that it was hidden from all the heavens and all the princes and every god of this world. 17 And I saw (that) in Nazareth he sucked the breast like an infant, as was customary, that he might not be recognized.

18 And when he had grown up, he performed great signs and miracles in the land of Israel and (in) Jerusalem.

19 And after this the adversary envied him and roused the children of Israel, who did not know who he was, against him. And they handed him to the ruler, and crucified him, and he descended to the angel who (is) in Sheol. 20 In Jerusalem, indeed, I saw how they crucified him on a tree, 21 and likewise (how) after the third day he and remained (many) days. 22 And the angel who led me said to me, “Understand, Isaiah.” And I saw when he sent out the twelve disciples and ascended.

(M. A. Knibb, “Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J.H. Charlesworth, pp. 174-75.)

One Substitution or Two?

Most scholars think the L2 and S version of the Lord’s earthly mission is far too brief to be original. The foreshadowing in the Vision expects some emphasis on the Beloved assuming human form as well as some story of crucifixion” (p. 483, n. 56). But instead L2 and S give us what looks like some kind of Johannine-inspired one-line summary: “he dwelt with men in the world” (cf. Jn. 1:14). Those who think the Ethiopic reading represents the original see the L2 and S verse as a terse substitution inserted by someone who considered the original to be insufficiently orthodox.

But from the recognition that 11:2 of the L2/S branch is a sanitized substitute, it does not necessarily follow that 11:2-22 in the Ethiopic versions is authentic. That passage too is rejected by some (e.g., R. Laurence, F.C. Burkitt). And although most are inclined to accept it as original, they base that inclination on the primitive character of its birth narrative. Thus, for example, Knibb says “the primitive character of the narrative of the birth of Jesus suggests very strongly that the Eth[iopic version] has preserved the original form of the text” (“Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J.H. Charlesworth, p. 150)

Robert G. Hall

Robert G. Hall

It is true that the Vision’s birth narrative, when compared to those in GMatthew and GLuke, looks primitive. But there are good grounds for thinking that the original Vision did not have a birth narrative at all. A later substitution is still a later substitution even if it is a birth narrative that is inserted and its character is primitive compared to subsequent nativity stories. Robert G. Hall sensed this and in a footnote wrote:

Could the virgin birth story have been added after the composition of the Ascension of Isaiah? Even if we conclude that this virgin birth story was added later, the pattern of repetition in the Vision probably implies that the omission of 11:1-22 in L2 and Slav is secondary. The foreshadowing expects some emphasis on the Beloved assuming human form as well as some story of crucifixion. Could the story original to the text have offended both the scribe behind L2 Slav and the scribe behind the rest of the witnesses? The scribe behind the Ethiopic would then have inserted the virgin birth story and the scribe behind L2 Slav would have omitted the whole account. The virgin birth story is, however, very old and perhaps it is best not to speculate. (“Isaiah’s Ascent to See the Beloved: An Ancient Jewish Source for the Ascension of Isaiah?,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 113/3, 1994, n. 56, p. 483, my bolding)

I agree that both the E and L2/S readings at 11:2 could be replacement passages, but I think Hall’s advice not to speculate should be disregarded, for it is his very observations about the Vision that provide some good reasons to suspect that 11:2-22 did not belong to the original text. It is he who points out that foreshadowing and repetition characterize the Vision—except when it comes to the birth story! read more »


2014-01-17

Genre of Gospels, Acts and OT Primary History: INDEX

by Neil Godfrey

Genre can be a highly fluid concept. In studies of Gospels I’ve noticed that discussions of genre sometimes overlap with intertextuality. Moreover, we may conclude that an ancient narrative belongs to the genre “history”, but once we learn what “history” could mean to the ancients we quickly move into discussions about the place of fictional tales in such works. Midrash is another concept that easily intrudes into any discussion of the genre of the gospels.

By genre here I mean the general character of a work, whether it be history or biography, prose epic or novella — or at least the rough ancient equivalents of those. Questions of intertextuality (and its sister midrash) I have relegated to techniques of how certain literature was composed regardless of its genre.  Nonetheless I am sure I have succumbed to some blurring of the concept in the list chosen below.

Posts by Tim Widowfield are so indicated. All others are by me.

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Genre of Bible’s Historical Books

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2014-01-08

Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation

by Neil Godfrey

Some New Testament scholars have difficulty with the term “midrash”. Goulder stopped using it because of this, though his student Spong has not followed his lead here. I continue to use the term as generally as Spong does because Jewish scholars themselves, especially a number who are specialists in midrashic and Jewish literary studies, use it the same way as Spong and likewise refer to the Gospels as examples of midrashic literature!

There are different types of midrash. Midrash Halakah is a narrow legalistic type of interpretation; Midrash Haggadah can be expressed in creative and imaginative ways, including extended story-narratives not unlike the narratives found in the Gospels. See:

If, as some argue, the Gospels were really only parables (e.g. Crossan) or midrash (e.g. Goulder/Spong) about Jesus and not “true” histories or biographies, why is it that, as far as we know from the oldest surviving evidence, they have always been read as literal histories or biographies of Jesus? (I am not saying they were universally read as literal biographies of Jesus since we simply don’t know how the first readers interpreted any of them.)

In my previous post I suggested that a simple explanation for the Gospels being a mix of history and fiction is something quite different from the standard view that they are narratives that have been based on oral traditions stemming from historical events and that over time were piously exaggerated. If they are indeed “Jewish novels” not unlike so much other historical-fiction so popular in the Hellenistic era, then how was it that they appear to have been so quickly read as historical “reports”?

Chaim Milikovsky

Chaim Milikovsky

An interesting light has been thrown onto this question, I think, by Chaim Milikowsky in “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” a chapter in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. Milikowsky explores the question of the “truth status” of midrashic narratives compared with the “truth of the Bible”. If the Gospels are midrashic literature as Jewish scholars specializing in ancient Jewish and midrashic studies say they are, then Chaim Milikowsky’s chapter may be relevant to how we understand their early history, too.

In the side-box I have linked to some posts where I illustrate some of the narrative forms of midrash and to instances where Jewish specialist scholars describe the Gospels as midrashic literature. For convenience in this post I will illustrate a narrower (and more well known) form of midrash for those of us to whom the term is quite new.

Three examples of midrash

We know the Biblical story of Cain killing Abel. A midrash says that prior to this murder, it was actually Abel who overpowered Cain and was about to kill him when Cain cried out for mercy. Abel relented, giving Cain the opportunity to turn the tables and kill Abel instead. What was the source of this midrashic tale? The Hebrew says literally, in translation, that Cain “got up onto his brother”. The rabbis reasoned that for Cain to have “got up onto” Abel he must have first been “under” Abel. read more »


2014-01-07

Why the Gospels Blend History with Fiction

by Neil Godfrey
johnson

Sara Johnson

Associate Professor of Classics specializing in Hellenistic Judaism, Sara Johnson, may suggest an answer to the question implicit in this post’s title even though she does not address the Gospels directly. Johnson has a chapter in Ancient Fiction: the Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative (2005) discussing the way 3 Maccabees was composed to help shape Jewish identity in the Hellenistic world. One way it accomplishes its ideological goal is to blend history and fiction. Historical verisimilitude serves to anchor the Jewish reader to the “historical tradition” of the community, while the infusion of fictional elements ensure the correct message and proper identity are inculcated. A reader such as myself with a strong interest in questions of Gospel origins cannot help but wonder if the Jesus narratives were written for a similar purpose in the same literary tradition.

Sara Johnson’s chapter is “Third Maccabees: Historical Fictions and the Shaping of Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Period”. 3 Maccabees, if you have not yet read it, is available on the University of Michigan Digital Library site. It’s not too long. It opens with a scene of one of the “great” battles in the Hellenistic era, the battle of Raphia, in which the forces of Ptolemaic Egypt (King Philopater) routed the Syrian army of Antiochus III, 217 BCE. On the eve of the Battle there is an attempt on Philopater’s life but he is saved by a Jew.

Captive Jews in the hippodrome at Alexandria, engraved by Josiah Wood Whymper by Gustave Dore

Captive Jews in the hippodrome at Alexandria, engraved by Josiah Wood Whymper by Gustave Dore

In the euphoria of victory Philopater invites himself into the most sacred area of the Jewish Temple to offer thanks to the divinity. (It is the custom of victorious kings to enter temples that way.) The Jews protest, we we would expect and Ptolemy is prevented by some divine action to from carrying out his plan. He returns to Egypt, enraged, and orders the Jews of Egypt be rounded up and crushed to death by drunken elephants. God maintains the suspense by holding off his several rescue missions to the very last moment, and finally changes Philopater’s mind altogether so that he even tells the world what wonderful and loyal folk all those Jews are. Jews who had apostasized under his pressure are quite rightly slaughtered instead.

The tale is a rich mix of genuine historical details and fables. Historical persons talk with fictional ones. Accurate details of the battle and the preliminary attempt on Philopater’s life are as detailed and accurate as we find in the works of the historian Polybius. The same accuracy is found in the Egyptian’s tour of the cities of Syria and offering of thanksgiving sacrifices in their temples.

This prepares the reader for a tale firmly rooted in the known facts of the past. (p. 86)

But the historical and fictional sit side by side: read more »


2014-01-01

Classical Guidance for Bible Readers Recommended: David, Jonah and Rahab

by Neil Godfrey

How many of us who have read much classical literature have found occasions to pause and reflect on unexpected similarities between “pagan” works and what we recall from the Bible? Often, I suspect, we have wondered for a moment only to resume reading and let the curiosity be shelved without further attention.

It is unfortunate that some interesting scholarly works that do address such parallels are prohibitively priced so very rarely do they ever nudge the wider public consciousness. This post is offered here as encouragement for any reader who has wondered about such odd similarities that seem to have as many differences as points in common. It comes from a classicist, not a biblical scholar, of course. Unfortunately the word “parallelomania” seems to cast a cloud over such observations in Biblical studies if anyone dare suggest the Biblical writers did the borrowing, but they have less trouble if the argument goes the other way and the Greeks borrowed from the Hebrews. In that latter instance I doubt they ever raise the spectre of “parallelomania” — just as I suspect they avoid the same quibble when arguing that later mystery religions of the Roman era borrowed from Christianity!

This post looks at a small selection of similarities between Greek and Biblical heroes as discussed in The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth by classicist M. L. West. We know all the usual caveats about correlation and cause and effect. One things for sure emerges, however. The gulf between the thought-world of Greece and the Bible is not necessarily as wide as we may have imagined.

We compare Rahab of Jericho fame, Jonah and the exploits of David with their classical counterparts. read more »


2013-12-31

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 7: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel

by Tim Widowfield

Introduction

I’ll begin this post by acknowledging my debt to Earl Doherty. It was he who convinced me that the gospel Paul believed and preached was derived only from scripture and visions/revelations, and that it did not include a Son of God who lived a human life on earth. Doherty’s demonstration of those points in his The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man is, in my opinion, quite persuasive. And since some of his arguments for those contentions are available on Vridar (See part 19 of: Earl Doherty’s response to Bart Ehrman’s ‘Did Jesus Exist?’), I see no need to argue them further here. For this post I take as my point of departure that Paul did not believe in a Son of God who had wandered about Galilee and Judaea teaching and preaching, exorcizing demons, working miracles, and gathering disciples.

What the Son did do, according to Paul, was descend from heaven, get crucified by the rulers of the world (1 Cor. 2:8), and then rise back to his celestial home. But where did he believe the Son’s crucifixion had occurred? And what was his belief regarding how that event procured salvation for the faithful? And was there a particular scripture that led him to his core beliefs about the Son?

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But where did he believe the Son’s crucifixion had occurred?

And what was his belief regarding how that event procured salvation for the faithful?

And was there a particular scripture that led him to his core beliefs about the Son?

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abraham-and-the-three-angels

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo — Abraham and the Three Angels

My answers to these three questions are different from Doherty’s. He proposes that the crucifixion was believed to have taken place in “an unspecified spiritual dimension,” in a “dimension beyond earth,” or perhaps somewhere above the earth but below the moon (Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 112). But I think it was believed to have taken place in Judaea. I see the Son’s descent for crucifixion as being a limited particular task like those performed by disguised divine personages and angels who descended to earth in other Old Testament and intertestamental literature, e.g., the incognito visit by heavenly figures to Abraham and Lot; the angel Raphael’s incognito mission in Tobit.

In regard to Paul’s soteriology, Doherty holds that at least the seven so-called undisputed Pauline letters were largely the work of one man, and so he apparently finds ways to explain to his own satisfaction the presence of varying soteriological teaching in them. I, on the other hand, have a serious problem with their inconsistences and think, as I have explained in posts two through six, that they have been heavily interpolated. And so in the letters I would disentangle the rescue and redemption soteriology of Simon/Paul from the sacrifice and atonement soteriology of a proto-orthodox interpolator.

Finally, Doherty, as a prominent part of his argument for locating the Son’s crucifixion in a sublunary heaven, has recourse to the Vision of Isaiah, i.e., chapters 6 – 11 of the Ascension of Isaiah (see pp. 119 – 126 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man). I too think the Vision of Isaiah is key for understanding Christian origins. In fact, I go further and argue that it—in its original version—was already in existence by 30 CE and was—more than any other writing—the source of Simon/Paul’s gospel. But I am not convinced that it located the Son’s crucifixion somewhere other than Judaea.

In this post and the next I am going to discuss the possibility that Simon/Paul derived his gospel initially from the Vision of Isaiah and that in its original form it possessed a Son of God who descended to Judaea for only a few hours.I suspect the Vision depicted a Son who, having repeatedly transfigured himself to descend undetected through the lower heavens, transfigured himself again upon arrival on earth so as to look like a man. Then, by means of yet another transfiguration, he surreptitiously switched places with a Jewish rebel who was being led away for crucifixion. All this was done by the Son in order to trick the rulers of this world into wrongfully killing him.

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Preliminaries

The Ascension of Isaiah is a composite work made up of at least two parts.

  • The first, which consists of chapters 1-5, is usually referred to as the Martyrdom of Isaiah.
  • The second, the Vision of Isaiah, consists of the remaining chapters and is known to have circulated independently.

The Martyrdom section itself is, in the opinion of many scholars, a composite work. It is thought that its oldest element (the story of Isaiah’s murder) is Jewish and that 3:13-4:22 is a Christian addition to it. Whoever made the insertion, however, did so with an awareness of the Vision, for “3:13 clearly alludes to chapters 6-11, and there are also a number of other links between 3:13-4:22 and the Vision” (M.A. Knibb, “Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J.H. Charlesworth, p. 148). Finally, besides these three larger sections there are some short passages that may be the redactional work of the final editor who put the Ascension together.

ascisaiah2

Chronologically the Jewish source of the Martyrdom would be the earliest component of the Ascension, and may go back “ultimately to the period of the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167-164 BC.” (Knibb. P. 149).

The latest component would be the 3:13-4:22 interpolation and, if it is also the work of the final redactor, probably dates sometime from the end of first century CE to the first decades of the second.

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2013-12-11

The Devil’s Father and Gnostic Hints In the Gospel of John

by Neil Godfrey

184465687XApril DeConick has written an interesting article, Who is Hiding in the Gospel of John? Reconceptualizing Johannine Theology and the Roots of Gnosticism (published as a chapter in Histories of the Hidden God) that coincidentally ties in remarkably well with the view of Roger Parvus (posted in part here) that the Gospel of John is an orthodox redaction of the Gospel of an apostate from Marcionism, Apelles. Not that DeConick argues Parvus’s thesis. In fact she has a different explanation for the evidence she reads in the Gospel. But I think readers of Roger Parvus’s posts here may well think the doctrines April identifies in the Gospel do indeed match the teachings of Apelles the ex-Marcionite .

The Father of the Jews is the Father of the Devil

The passage that sparked April DeConick’s particular interest in the Gospel of John was the Greek working in 8:44

ὑμεῖς ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς τοῦ διαβόλου ἐστὲ
you of the father the devil are

DeConick explains (my bolding):

With the article preceding πατρός, the phrase του διαβόλου is a genitive phrase modifying the nominal phrase έκ του πατρός.. Thus: “You are from the father of the Devil.” If the statement were to mean, as the standard English translation renders it, “You are of the father, the Devil,” then ‘the article preceding πατρός would not be present.

Look at the complete verse as it is normally translated into English:

Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. (KJV)

“Father of it” does sound a wee awkward. Notice how Youngs Literal Translation treats that last phrase:

. . . . because he is a liar — also his father.

And that’s what April DeConick also points out is the “literal reading of John 8:44f

. . . . because he is a liar and so is his father.

So John 8:44 speaks the father of the Devil. read more »


2013-12-10

How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 1)

by Tim Widowfield

Part 1: Turning Mark Inside Out

In a comment to Neil’s post, Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 3 — Criteria, from way back in May of 2012, I introduced a way to explain how the Fourth Evangelist may have used the Gospel of Mark. It might not be a novel approach — there is no new thing under the sun — and I certainly don’t have access to all the commentaries and exegeses on John. However, it’s new to me.

English: John the Evangelist, miniature, Gospe...

English: John the Evangelist, miniature, Gospel Book, Vatopedi monastery, cod. 16 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For simplicity’s sake, here’s my comment, with some minor edits:

In Mark 15:37, Jesus “breathes his last.” In the following verse the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. And in verse 39, the centurion declares him to be the Son of God.

Key words to notice in verse 15:36 are (1) ἐσχίσθη (eschisthē) — “was torn” and (2) ἄνωθεν (anōthen) — “from [the] top.” A close, literal translation of the verse might be: “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom.”

In John, conversely, at the beginning of the crucifixion (19:23) the soldiers take Jesus’ belongings and split them among themselves. They divide his garments into four equal piles, but they notice that Jesus’ tunic is formed of a single piece of woven fabric without seams. John says that the tunic was “seamless from the top (anōthen), woven throughout all.” And in the next verse, they decide not to tear (σχίσωμεν (schisōmen)) the tunic, but cast lots for it instead. It was not torn.

The garment John describes has reminded several commentators of the priestly vestment described by Josephus: “Now this vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck; not an oblique one, but parted all along the breast and the back.” (http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-3.htm)

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