Category Archives: Christian Origins


2013-12-05

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 4)

by Tim Widowfield
Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...

When we minimize and explain away slavery or talk about it as an abstract concept, we demonstrate our lack of empathy for its millions of victims. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christianity and slavery: why does it matter?

As I made clear early on in this series, I contend that the institution of slavery in the Greco-Roman world was more terrible than we can imagine. In addition, we can’t deny the evidence that early Christians were generally ambivalent about it, or at worst, condoned it. Moreover, rich Christians continued to own slaves after they converted. We can, in fact, corroborate these assertions not only from ancient writings, but from certain artifacts that still survive.

Investigation of current Christian attitudes toward ancient slavery reveals a surprising number of people who prefer to remain in a state of denial. Recall from part one Thomas Madden’s unsubstantiated assertion that “Christianity . . . considered slavery — the institution of slavery — to be inherently wrong.” Not only can we find no clear written evidence from the New Testament or patristic literature to confirm his claim, but we have solid written and archaeological evidence that disproves it.

The crime of running away

Jennifer Glancy begins her book, Slavery in Christianity, with the following few sentences that, for Christians (and ex-Christians like myself) are as sobering as an ice-cold shower:

Sometime in the fourth or fifth century, a Christian man ordered a bronze collar to encircle the neck of one of his slaves. The inscription on the collar reads: “I am the slave of the archdeacon Felix. Hold me so that I do not flee.” Although the collar purports to speak in the first person for a nameless slave, the voice we hear is not that of the slave but that of the slaveholder. Felix, enraged by a slave’s previous attempts to escape, ordered the collar both to humiliate and to restrain another human being, whom the law classified as his property. The chance survival of this artifact of the early church recalls the overwhelming element of compulsion that operated within the system of slavery, with its use of brute paraphernalia for corporal control. (p. 9, emphasis mine) 

The words “chance survival” might lead the reader to think such collars — which gave license to the finder to detain the slave by any brutal means necessary, and which were lovingly adorned with crosses and chi-rhos — were rare. But they weren’t. True to form, some scholars have decided to interpret the existence of such collars as a good thing. They posit that it means Christian slaveholders stopped the practice of facial tattooing. In other words, “Baby steps.”

However, in the (ridiculously overpriced) book, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425, Kyle Harper notes:

read more »


2013-11-14

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 3)

by Tim Widowfield

Interpreting Philemon

English: The apostle paul reading by candlelig...

The apostle paul reading by candlelight, with a large open book leaning on a skull, seen from below. Mezzotint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had intended next to describe the wretched state of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world, but I promised we’d cover Philemon first. The epistle to Philemon is one of those few books you can refer to simply by verse number, because there’s only one chapter. With today’s online Bibles you’ll frequently see references to Philemon 1:1, but traditionally, you could just refer to Philemon 1. (Quick trivia question: What are the other four single-chapter books in the Christian Bible?)*

Because this tiny letter seems to offer a glimpse of real people and real events from the first century CE, Philemon remains one of the most tantalizing books of the New Testament. We can only guess exactly happened before and after the letter. How did Onesimus end up with Paul? What did Paul expect Philemon to do with his returned property, and did he do it? How had Onesimus, whose name means “useful,” become “useless” to Philemon? Was he a runaway slave? Or had he committed some act that displeased Philemon, who subsequently dismissed him?

Throughout the centuries, scholars have debated over Paul’s ultimate intentions, offering (as I mentioned in earlier comments) a wide range of interpretations. Did Paul want Philemon to free Onesimus or not?

Why didn’t he just come right out and say it?!

A voluntary act

Paul assures his recipients that he is certainly in a position to compel Philemon to “do the right thing” (whatever that is), but prefers that he reach this decision of his own accord.

24.  but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. (NASB)

So one could argue that Paul wanted Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother, and free him. And he wanted his slave-holding friend to come to that conclusion on his own, because a coerced good deed is less desirable than turning away from evil and carrying out a righteous act with a free and open heart.

That’s one way to approach it.

However, we should recall that normally when Paul learns of sinful behavior among his congregations, he does not gently prod them into changing their ways.  Consider the man in Corinth accused of incest (viz., fooling around with his father’s wife). Paul doesn’t coyly intimate what they should consider doing . . . maybe . . . perhaps, if it isn’t too much trouble.

No, he blasts them, and tells them exactly how to handle this guy:

read more »


2013-11-11

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 2)

by Tim Widowfield

Unlike other religions?

We noted last time that Thomas Madden in his course on early Christianity claimed, “Unlike any other ideologies at the time, Christianity also considered slavery — the institution of slavery — to be inherently wrong.” He said that attitude stemmed from their belief that: “Unlike other religions, Christianity held that all people, men or women, free or slaves, were the same in God’s eyes.

English: Remains of living quarters at Qumran.

English: Remains of living quarters at Qumran. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we will see, and as you probably already know, most Christians until relatively recently did not see slavery as inherently wrong. Further, despite Madden’s sweeping statement to the contrary, we do know of one Jewish sect that actually did condemn the practice. According to both Josephus and Philo, the Essenes did not keep slaves. As Philo wrote:

There is not a single slave among them, but they are all free, serving one another; they condemn masters, not only as representing a principle of unrighteousness in opposition to that of equality, but as personifications of wickedness in that they violate the law of nature which made us all brethren, created alike. (Quoted by the Jewish Encyclopedia from Philo, Vol. VI, Loeb Classical Library)

Granted, the Essenes set themselves apart from general society, dwelling in communes, keeping all things in common, and living as “free men.” So one could argue that since they lived in their own little world, they didn’t have to worry about letting loose a “frightful revolution” (in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia).

However, the fact remains that the Essenes, not the Christians, were one of the few (if not the only) communities or sects in the ancient world who, it was believed, unequivocally condemned slavery. Moreover, they put their money where their mouths were.

[T]hey emancipated slaves and taught them the Law, which says: “They are My servants (Lev. xxv. 42), but should not be servants of servants, and should not wear the yoke of flesh and blood.” (Jewish Encyclopedia)

They pooled their resources and purchased the freedom of enslaved Jews. That’s pretty remarkable. Of course, we should temper our respect with the textual evidence that the Qumran community may have indeed kept slaves. Jennifer Glancy writes:

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2013-11-09

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 1)

by Tim Widowfield

Not so great courses

Several months ago, I purchased a course on ancient Christianity through audible.com. You might find the title intriguing (I know I did) – From Jesus to Christianity: A History of the Early Church — which reminded me of Paula Fredriksen’s book, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ. In no other respect do these works resemble each other, not in clarity, accuracy, or depth.

English: Dr. Thomas Madden

English: Dr. Thomas Madden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thomas Madden may be an expert in medieval and renaissance studies, but his understanding of the Ancient Near East and early Christianity is superficial and slanted toward a confessional, orthodox, if not specifically Roman Catholic, viewpoint. As we’ve said many times here, bias does not inherently make somebody wrong. We all have particular points of view; however, we should acknowledge other points of view and strive to present them fairly. Madden, unfortunately, seems completely unaware of other perspectives.

When I buy courses and books, in the back of my mind I hope to find something new and interesting that I can blog about. However, as I alluded to above, Madden’s course is so superficial as to be devoid of blog-fodder — except for a few outright mistakes that made me shake my head and grumble. (I wonder how crazy I look, walking through airports, earbuds in place, muttering softly to myself in disgust — like Popeye in a Max Fleischer cartoon.)

What a ridiculousk situation!

What a ridiculousk situation!

As a brief aside, we should note that Madden’s wretched course is emblematic of a trend in publishing. The latest history and religion courses released by The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company) and The Modern Scholar (part of Recorded Books, LLC) are more conservative than ever — a comfort to a public that prefers confirmation of its beliefs over learning. Listeners to these courses will learn, to their relief, that Paul certainly wrote all of the epistles attributed to him and that the Documentary Hypothesis is false. Madden, a frequent contributor to such publications as The National Review and Crisis Magazine, as well as an apologist for the Crusades and the Inquisition, fits right in.

Comforting the comfortable

Given the underlying purpose of Madden’s course on the history of the church — namely, to comfort the faithful laity by regurgitating the party line — nothing should have surprised me. I thought I’d heard nearly all of the pious lies proffered by Christian apologists, but I wasn’t prepared for this one.

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2013-10-12

So this was “Kick Joe Atwill Week”

by Neil Godfrey

What a shameful week this has been. Three bloggers, Tom, Dick and Larry, have gone out of their way to heap personal attacks on Joseph Atwill, ostensibly in order to distance themselves from his views. What’s worse is that two of those bloggers have regularly censured the biblical studies and theology establishments for resorting to personal insults upon those who attempt to make a case for the Christ Myth theory — “intellectual bullying”, “verbal intimidation”, “unprofessional”, “shameful”, are said to describe this proclivity.

Clearly the abusive personal insults they have flung at Joe Atwill indicate these bloggers have no interest in winning over anyone sympathetic to Joe. So why do they do it? I can imagine two possible reasons:

  1. They want to prove to the establishment of respectable scholarly elites that they should not be associated with the ideas of Joe Atwill. That is, they kick Joe to be assured of the approval of those they personally want to impress or from whom they personally want respect; or/and
  2. They are desperate to bully or intimidate a wider audience from even being tempted to give serious consideration to the views of Joe Atwill.

None of this personal abuse is necessary. It only makes the perpetrators look as sick as the academic hypocrites they criticize for spewing the same types of ad homina against them.

This is comes with the free-speech we enjoy, but the original idea behind the ideal of free speech was that the best or truest ideas would eventually rise to the top as everyone had an opportunity to hear the arguments for and against them all. Our innate reasonableness would lead to the most reasonable ideas winning out in the end. But we can now see that Tom, Dick and Larry are just as prone to resorting to intellectual intimidation as those they criticize. Intellectual bullying was not the way a free speech society was meant to work.

But what if someone really is bonkers?

I think the Atlantis theory is bonkers. But if I were addressing someone who believed it I would not insult them by saying they were bonkers. If I felt it worth the effort I would argue the case just as soundly as I would expect an evolutionary biologist or palaeontologist to argue against Creationism with a fundamentalist. In fact, it was indeed because I discovered that someone I considered a friend did believe in the Atlantis myth (and a few other oddities besides) that I did take the time to do a bit of homework and make a serious effort to present a reasoned and evidence-based case against those ideas. One of them I eventually posted here. I don’t believe any of that effort was wasted. What would have been wasted would have been any energy expended in calling my friend a crackpot.

There is a place for certain kinds of language and expression. I do not speak at work planning meetings the same way or with the same language I use after work with friends over a few beers. I do not write policy or information sharing documents for work in the same language I use when expressing personal work frustrations with a trusted colleague. We have evolved to be social beings and we need to refine and maximize our social skills to the utmost if we want to achieve the best possible outcomes in the wider social context.

Now I think a number of readers here know I do not agree with the views of Acharya S. (D.M. Murdock). I have attempted to argue against her views and those of Robert Tulip on this blog. At no time did I utter a personal insult against either. Nor did I provocatively call their views “cow scat”. I did attempt to strictly address specific claims, words used, arguments made — and for my pains I was slandered like nobody’s business on the discussion forum of Acharya S. One does not argue against her or her followers in public and get away with it. I soon lost interest in continuing to argue my reasons for rejecting her thesis. I guess I let her win. She proved that personal insult and abuse can silence critics. Maybe I should continue.

There is much more to be said here (and yes, those in positions of power and responsibility should be held to higher standards than others), but I’ll save a more detailed discussion of the state of much of academia for another post.

Back to these “Let’s kick Joe Atwill” types.

Tom’s scatalogical critique

The first of these personal attacks came from Tom. He calls Atwill’s documentary (“what you are watching”) “golden cow scat”. He critiques the entire film before he has seen it (he only concedes that Joe Atwill has “apparently” made a documentary film) entirely from the blurb itself. Any blurb is, by definition, an attempt to persuade you to read or view the contents by suggesting they are something new and different. The blurb is not the argument itself. But that doesn’t stop Tom from writing an entire critique of what he calls the blurb.

If you are planning to go see this movie, please, bring a disposable bag so you can properly rid yourself of the dung that undoubtedly will be thrown at you during the presentation.

Now that’s a profound intellectual argument!

The personal character and mind-reading attacks continue:

Atwill clearly has no grasp of these concepts, probably because he didn’t bother reading anything related to this despite his self-acclaimed ‘bookish-ness’.

Like all sensationalist crap-dealers, Mr. Atwill claims to have discovered the secret, super-dooper, hidden code in the text. Amazing! I (sic) self-proclaimed “Biblical scholar”, with nor formal training in the material, has used his magic decoder ring and stumbled upon a code! How clever of him.

In the Dead Sea Scrolls, which Mr. Atwill seems to think he knows so well. . .

It is just so beyond absurd. It really is.

Here is the thing. It may be that Mr. Atwill is completely clueless about this. Maybe he isn’t just trying to scam everyone and sell a bunch of books to a group of gullible people. Maybe he legitimately hasn’t read anything relevant on this subject or any recent scholarship on it.

And then we glimpse that shameful Freudian slip beneath the skirt. Joe Atwill’s real sin is that he is “not one of us establishment intellectual elites!” He is an outsider! Shock, horror, ultimate scandal — he even uses the “Popular Media”! If anyone takes him instead of us seriously they are nothing but a gullible, ignorant rabble. Whoever takes us seriously is wise and virtuous! You can tell the difference between us. We have the power to kick him and keep him locked outside behind the gates of character attacks and personal insults.

[Atwill is] not using ‘Greco-Roman’ correctly. [Don't explain to the popular reader why Atwill's use is incorrect. That only adds to the aura of intellectual superiority of the critical reviewer.]

He makes claims but doesn’t seem to realize how ridiculous they actually are; it is that scholars find his work “outlandish”. . . . I mean it is still crazy talk. . . [DO scholars really find "his work" outlandish? Tom finds the blurb to his documentary film outlandish. Have any scholars actually read his "work" and critiqued it? Or do they just scoff at the conclusions because they are so incompatible with anything they have studied.]

Steven Mason, a real scholar, . . . .

The difference between what these scholars have written and what Mr Atwill have (sic) written is threefold:

(a) all of them have academic training in Greek,

(b) all of them published through an academic press . . .

(c) None of them make the illogical leap that similarities between Josephus (a Jew) and the Gospels (written by Jewish authors) mean that the Romans did it.

[Note that 2 out of 3 differences are that Atwill is "not one of us". The third is no doubt an unscholarly oversimplification.]

Despite Atwill’s unlearned claim that the Jewish people were expecting a ‘Warrior messiah’. . . . [Of course. Keep looking for mud. Never mind that one will read this misinformed claim in "Oh-how-many" scholarly works!]

He may sincerely believe he has discovered the secret code off a cereal box with his 3-D glasses he found inside; that doesn’t make him an expert in the subject. [Of course. His view is not our view. That is, he is not an expert like us!]

Mr. Atwill is just like all other amateur-Scholar-wannabes who refuse to put in the time and effort to earn a degree in the field who want to advance their pet theories to sell books and dupe you over. [I like the way "Scholar" is capitalized. We Scholars are superior in character because we are prepared to put in effort and time to earn degrees. Others are charlatans out to make money and dupe you poor ignorant peasant rabble who read their work.]

He relies on popular media and the ignorance of the layperson to score points rather than publishing in a credible academic journal or publishing academically. He knows he can’t do that, because he has no clue how academics work, how they think, or what they actually argue on the subject. [Tom knows all of this about Atwill? He must know him personally. But note that the main message here is that academics are a superior elite class and Atwill is not a member. Now I do accept that people who work in universities are the brightest and most learned of our populations. That's why they are there. But when someone aspiring to be a capital S Scholar starts treating outsiders like this then he has lost my respect. I'm with Tim Minchin's points #3 and #8 on this:

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2012-09-23

Mark’s Parables as Simonian Allegories

by Roger Parvus

AN ATTEMPT TO VIEW MARK’S PARABLES FROM THE INSIDE

Samuel Sandmel, in his The Genius of Paul (link is to full-text online), made this observation:

The parable of the sower in Mark (and in Matthew and Luke) is so presented in the Gospels as to have us believe that, clear as it was, the disciples did not understand it and they require explanation in private. The Gospel would have us suppose that there was more in the parable than meets the eye. Unhappily, there is not. The same is true in page after page of the Gospels. (p. 214)

Mark’s presentation of the parable of the sower does hint quite loudly that there is more to it and its gospel (“all things”, Mk. 4:11) than meets the eye. Its author asserts that his Jesus deliberately hid his meaning from those “on the outside”. And even though he makes his Jesus give a “private” explanation of the parable, his letting any and every reader and hearer of the narrative have access to that explanation shows that the beans have really not been spilled at all. Furthermore, he warns us that just reading or hearing the parable and its explanation will not be much help, for there are many who “look and see but do not perceive, hear and listen but do not understand” (Mk. 4:12). And he drives that point home in the rest of his gospel by relating how the Twelve themselves—even after being given their private explanation—still failed to perceive or understand.

To know what if anything is hidden [in the parables], one would first have to know who the Markan insiders were. Their identity is the key to correctly understanding their gospel.

But I think that Sandmel is wrong to rule out that there is really something more below the surface. To know what if anything is hidden there, one would first have to know who the Markan insiders were. Their identity is the key to correctly understanding their gospel. And, unfortunately, the provenance of Mark’s Gospel has never been securely determined.

I have explained in comments on a few other Vridar posts* why I think the Markan insider circle was Simonian, i.e., composed of followers of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria. As I see it, canonical Mark is a proto-orthodox reworking of a Simonian gospel, urMark, that sometime between the end of the first century and 130 CE was put together using two components:

  1. an earlier succinct myth about a divine figure, the Son of God, who briefly descended to this world to trick the princes of this world into wrongfully crucifying him. He did this by transforming himself and surreptitiously switching places, as Simon Kyrenaios, with a failed Jewish Messiah being led out by the Romans for crucifixion. To this was prefaced
  2. a cryptic allegorical portrayal of the apostolic career of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria.

The seam between the two parts is Mk. 15:15, the release of the Son of the Father (Barabbas).

That a Simonian would compose such a two-part life of the Son of God was fitting, for Simon claimed to be a new manifestation of the Son “who seemed to suffer in Judaea” (Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, 6, 19).

In this post I conduct a kind of experiment. . . . If the creators of the parables were Simonian, what was it they were looking to express by them, and what was it they were looking to hide?

In this post I conduct a kind of experiment. I assume— just to show where it can plausibly lead—that my identification of the insiders as Simonians is correct, and I examine how that identification changes our perspective of the parables in chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel.

I attempt to answer the questions: If the creators of the parables were Simonian, what was it they were looking to express by them, and what was it they were looking to hide? What was it they wanted outsiders to see but not perceive, hear but not understand?

.

Hippolytus, in a few short chapters of his The Refutation of All Heresies (which I will abbreviate, going forward, as RAH), describes the teaching of Simon of Samaria as it was presented by his Great Proclamation (the Apophasis Megale). Hippolytus’ exposition, short as it is, is the fullest explanation of Simon’s system that is extant. It provides enough, I submit, to reveal what the Markan parables are really about. The translation of the RAH I will use is that of G.R.S. Mead in his Simon Magus (link is to full-text online). read more »


2012-07-09

The Lost Half of Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

In a recent post I wrote that the Jews in Mesopotamia who were responsible for the Babylonian Talmud would quite likely have had very little contact with the Christianity Westerners are familiar with. An interesting book that gives us a glimpse into the sorts of Christianities these rabbis probably knew is The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins. But be warned. If you pick it up for snippets of references to that question you risk being drawn into a far more engrossing narrative than you anticipated about the shining lights of civilization in the east at the time all we Westerners know from our schooling is a Dark Age.

On the question of the Christianity that was known to the Jews behind the Babylonian Talmud, what I learned from this book is

  1. the Christianity of the Mesopotamian region was more directly linked historically and linguistically to the earliest Syrian forms of Christianity — with its focus on Thomas and mysticism; they were also known as Nazarenes and called Jesus “Yeshua”;
  2. when the Christianity became the ruling religion in the West (4th century) Christians in the Persian kingdom were initially persecuted because they were considered potential fifth columnists;
  3. but as the Western authorities sought religious unity by imposing strictures against “heretical” views, those “heretical” forms of Christianity found a refuge in the Persian dominated East.

The Jews who may have been responsible for those Yeshu and “Nazarene” references in the Babylonian Talmud almost certainly relied upon these Eastern/Syrian Christians who were outcasts from the West for their information about Christianity. (Jenkins does not discuss the relationship of these Christians to the Babylonian Talmud — I am only putting my two plus two together after reading the first few chapters of Jenkins’ book.)

Some excerpts of relevance to this question and that I found interesting follow. All the highlighting in the passages is my own. I have linked to names and terms that may not be so familiar to many of us. read more »


2012-03-04

Why early churches chose a Book over living prophets (Couchoud continued)

by Neil Godfrey

I have copied here the entire next chapter (by machine, not hand-typed!) by P.L. Couchoud in The Creation of Christ. My previous post in this series introduced the book section in which he will present his argument for the emergence of the Gospels and the New Testament collection as we know it. (Click Couchoud: Creation of Christ for the complete series.) In this chapter Couchoud gives his account of how the various Christian churches filled the gap left by the prophets. It was the vigour of the prophets, recall, that propelled the growth of the churches in the early days. But prophecy is also anarchistic and is not equipped to maintain control or future growth and stability of the churches.

How did the churches shift from being enthused by spirit-filled prophetic messages to bodies dominated by sober teachers and a Book?

I have slightly altered some of the formatting of Couchoud’s chapter (pages 114-118) by indenting longer quotations, moving footnotes inline and indicated by curly brackets {  } and by adding headings and highlighting here and there. read more »


2012-03-03

Christianity in the Gap Years: 70 – 120 CE (Couchoud continued)

by Neil Godfrey
Early Christian ichthys sign carved into marbl...

Image via Wikipedia

Continuing my series of posts from Paul-Louis Couchoud‘s The Creation of Christ. Full set of posts are archived at Couchoud: Creation of Christ.

We are now about to come full circle. I began this series of posts by looking at Couchoud’s account of Gospel origins. That led to his arguments for the origins of the remainder of the New Testament literature, with particular attention to the possible role of Clement of Rome. I then said, What the heck, and decided to go through the rest of his book, too, even if it meant going back to the beginning, with the place of John the Baptist at Christianity’s foundations, early divisions within the church, Paul’s letters and his opposition to the Christianity represented by the Book of Revelation. Next, Couchoud prepares for his discussion of the creation of our New Testament Gospels. And that is where I begin this post. He first surveys the “state of Christianity” in the Empire in the decades following the 70 CE destruction of Jerusalem — in particular, what various “Christianities” looked like in various quarters of the Roman empire: Ephesus, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome.

The passing of the prophets

Couchoud attributes the rapid growth of earliest Christianity to the zeal of its prophets. As the churches grew the prophets multiplied exponentially. But “prophecy does not tolerate mediocrity.”

Paul and John were the torch-bearers of the procession, and after them came a great multitude of minor prophets, who left nothing capable of survival. Their finest inspirations would have been utterly lost if it had not been for the flowering of the gospels. (p. 109)

The strengths of the prophets were also their undoing:

The prophetic gift is a principle of anarchy. Each prophet is divinely inspired, therefore of the highest authority. Where their divine inspirations disagreed, there was a dispute, and there could develop no common accord. What had brought about the end of the Jewish prophets of six centuries before now brought an end to the Christian prophets. The Lord was late in coming; the ekklesia which anxiously awaited the Advent became over-numerous and their adherents difficult to manage. Re-organization of bankruptcy became the word of the day. (p. 109)

So by the year 170 the church had reorganized itself and was in no danger of being undone when Montanus and his two prophetesses arose to disturb the ecclesiastical peace in Asia Minor. By then the church had a powerful weapon to defend itself against such spirit-inspired anarchy: a Book, or Books, of the Life and Teachings of the Lord Jesus. But what was happening to the churches before these gospels appeared? read more »


2012-02-07

Crucified God: origin and original meaning of the concept (Couchoud continued)

by Neil Godfrey
Peter Paul Rubens - The Crucified Christ - WGA...

Continuing the series of Couchoud’s The Crucified Christ – archived here. In this chapter Couchoud attempts first of all to account for the origin of the concept of Christ crucified and then to address what this meant for Paul and his churches, in particular its mystical and timeless character.

The greatest gift of Paul to Christianity was the Cross. Christians had been accustomed to interpret the prophecy of Isaiah that Jesus Christ had died for our sins. The usual notion — you might call it the orthodox interpretation — was suggested by the word Lamb in Isa. liii. The earthly temple had its counterpart in Heaven, and the Paschal Lamb has its celestial image in Jesus Christ. He was led to the slaughter in sacrifice, and his blood washes their sins from them who are bathed in it. Such is the picture drawn by John, the authorized prophet of the mother-church of Jerusalem. The Jew would understand how the sacrificial death of the Lord would wash away his sins. This idea would give new significance to baptism and to the Easter, which thus became interassociated and symbolic of the sacrifice of the Heavenly Lamb. In the general wreck of Jewish rites this preserved the Easter (Paschal) Feast among Christians. (p. 67)

Couchoud writes that Paul accepted this interpretation overall. In 1 Corinthians 5:7 he reminds Christians at the approach of Easter that “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.” Like John, he wrote that the shedding of blood brings redemption. Jesus Christ, he said, was a “ritual victim” or “propitiation”  — Romans 3:25.

But meditation on the sacred texts led him to enunciate a new interpretation of unheard-of boldness. 

Two years ago I posted “They pierced my hands and my feet”: Psalm 22 as a non-prophecy of the crucifixion. If the argument there is watertight then the first part of Couchoud’s view of what inspired Paul to imagine the crucified Christ falls apart. But see also the wikipedia article They have pierced my hands and my feet. I would need to revise that earlier article to see whether it is premised on the Septuagint being a translation of an earlier Hebrew text. If the Jewish scriptures were, as some scholars have argued (e.g. Thompson, Lemche, Wajdenbaum, Wesselius) Hellenistic products, then is it not reasonable to posit the Septuagint as the original version — the legendary letter of Aristeas notwithstanding? I have had other thoughts on a plausible catalyst for the concept but I’ll save those till the end. Will let Couchoud hold the floor for now.

Only the fist part would break down if the contents of the linked post hold. There are two parts to Couchoud’s view on what inspired the concept of the crucified God; the second half of the post is about the nature of this belief — its mystical character and its non-temporality (non-historicity).

The Origin of the Concept (Couchoud)

Psalm 22 depicts the bitter suffering of a god-fearing believer. Couchoud suggests these verses might be read as a companion to Isaiah’s depiction of the expiatory slaying of the Servant – especially since it is followed by Psalm 24 presenting the triumph of the King of Glory.

Here is the Septuagint of the Psalm in translation: read more »


2012-02-03

Earliest divisions in the Christian movement (Couchoud continued)

by Neil Godfrey

I liked this novel better than Couchoud's "Divisions" chapter. I suspect it gives some more realistic aspects of these early Christian years.

Unfortunately this is not my favourite chapter in Couchoud’s book The Creation Of Christ. But I’ve set myself a target and I have to get through this one to finish the book, so here goes. (The series is archived here.) (I personally suspect the stories in Acts are inspired more by Old Testament and Classical analogues than historical reminiscences, and motivated more by anti-Marcionite/pro-Catholic interests than disinterested archival dedication — though not totally bereft of historical re-writing at points here and there, but this post is for Couchoud so I’ll get out of the way for now.  Except to say I believe Earl Doherty’s model is a much more satisfactory explanation for the “riotous diversity” that characterized what emerged as “earliest Christianity”.)

But one point in C’s favour is his attempt to synchronize what he reads in Paul and Acts with political events in the broader empire.

Once again any emphases etc in the quotations is my own.

Couchoud says the apparitions of the Lord Jesus can be dated (via the writings of Paul) to the beginning of the reign of the reputedly “mad” Roman emperor Caligula  — 37-38 c.e.

These visions, he continues, all occurred in Palestine. Paul’s was the exception — and it was subject to doubt among his critics. (The last of the visions, according to Paul — says C — is to be dated 14 years before his own journey to Jerusalem, i.e. around 51 – 52 c.e.)

Of these visionary experiences, Couchoud suggests they conferred on the Jerusalem pillars a unique status:

They conferred on the community at Jerusalem and on its chiefs, Kephas, James, the Twelve, an unequalled title and right to decide all that might be postulated in the name of the Lord Jesus.

We know the names of some of these earliest visionaries: read more »


2012-02-02

The Swarming of the Prophets (A.D. 40 — A.D. 130) — Couchoud contd.

by Neil Godfrey
English: Apostles receive the gift of tongues ...

Image via Wikipedia

The previous three posts in this series covered section one of P. L. Couchoud’s The Creation of Christ : An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity that was headed The Apocalypses (168 B.C. – A. D. 40):

  1. Pre-Christian Foundations
  2. John the Baptist and the Foundation of Christianity
  3. First Signs of Christianity

These posts covered the first seven chapters and the foreward.

The next section is headed The Prophets (A.D. 40 — A. D. 130). The chapters here are titled:

  • The Swarming of the Prophets (an introduction to the remainder of the section)
  • Divisions
  • Struggles and Sufferings of St. Paul
  • The Crucified God
  • The Sacrificed Lamb

Following this Couchoud addresses the development of the Gospels, and it was in the midst of that section that I began this series of posts.  It is interesting to look at how Couchoud imagined Christian origins, but it is only an overview leaving many details tantalizingly unexplained in the depth some of us would like. The subtitle does say “an outline” after all. I have my own questions and disagreements with aspects of Couchoud’s arguments and others have commented with their own on this blog. That does not detract from much that is of interest in his views, and I try to keep many of my own thoughts to myself as I outline Couchoud’s outline.

The Swarming of the Prophets

This is an introduction to the remainder of the section covering the period from 40 to 130 c.e. All the quotations are from pages 39 to 41 and all bold type, emphasis etc is mine.

The theme of this chapter is the origin of the key concepts “gospel” and “church assemblies, the make up of those early churches and the nature and results of the zealous expectation of the end of the age. read more »


2012-01-31

The First Signs of Christianity: Couchoud continued

by Neil Godfrey

Couchoud thought that John the Baptist epitomized and popularized the Jewish hopes for a coming Judge from Heaven — as shown in my previous post in this series (the entire series is archived here).

Christianity was born of the travail of the days of John. The Baptist gave it two talismans with which to bind souls:

  1. the advent of the Heavenly Man in a universal cataclysm,
  2. and the rite of baptism which allowed the initiates to await, without apprehension, the Coming of the Judge.

(p. 31, my formatting)

At first the teaching spread like wildfire but without John’s name attached to it as its IP owner.

Before long the teaching became enriched with various kinds of additions. First among these additions were new names for the Heavenly Man: Lord, Christ, Jesus.

Lord as a title was derived from Psalm 110:1

The Lord said unto my Lord,

Sit thou at my right hand,

Until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

To whom could this have been addressed? Surely not to the Messiah, the Son of David, waited for by the Pharisees. David would not have called his son “my Lord.” It must have been to the Son of Man who, according to the Revelation of Enoch, was placed on the throne of his glory by God Himself. (p. 31)

Since David as an inspired prophet makes it clear that the Son of Man is enthroned at the right hand of God and calls him Lord. So believers could also call the Son of Man their Lord.

(Note that the title “Son of Man” was used as a Greek expression, too. Think of Christianity as moulded very largely by Greek speakers.)

Christ, Christos, “is a somewhat barbarous translation of the Hebrew word which means consecrated by unction, Messiah.” read more »


2012-01-29

Pre-Christian Foundations of Christianity (Couchoud)

by Neil Godfrey

Having traced Couchoud’s argument for the development of the New Testament it’s time I returned to the beginning of his two volume work, The Creation of Christ, and outline his views on the development of Christianity itself. (The entire series is archived here.)

I once posted links to pdf version of Couchoud’s opening chapters:

Foreword (approx 2.2 MB pdf)

Apocalypses (168 b.c. – a.d. 40)

I. Preliminary (approx 1.8 MB pdf)

II. Profaned Temple (approx 2.2 MB pdf)

III. The Dream of Daniel (approx 3.3 MB pdf)

IV. Revelations of Enoch (approx 6.7 MB pdf)

V. Revelations of Moses (approx 2.8 MB pdf)

I will comment on only a few aspects of some of these chapters. Read them — they are not long — to understand Couchoud’s argument for the background to Christianity and the references to much of what is below. I will only address a few points here.

These chapters are an overview of the pre-Christian development of the Jewish concept of the heavenly Son of Man figure. Daniel begins the process with a clearly symbolic figure, but later apocalypses turned that symbol into a more literal Heavenly Man. read more »