Category Archives: Christian Origins


Early Christianity Looked Like a Philosophical School

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from the previous post on Stanley K. Stowers’ chapter, “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” . . .

To pre-empt predictable objections Stowers begins with three riders:

  1. His comparison study does not make claims about origins; he is not arguing that Christianity began as a Hellenistic philosophy.
  2. Comparison or similarity does not mean sameness; he is not arguing that Pauline Christianity was a philosophy.
  3. Similarities with philosophical schools do not exclude similarities with other social groups.

With that ground cleared, following are seven similarities Stowers identifies.

1. Hellenistic philosophies saw themselves as distinctive sects, each focused on a central value/good

There were, for example, Stoics, Cynics and Epicureans. Each of these had its own attitude toward life and idea of what is the single umbrella good to which one must strive.

Stoics taught that virtue was “the answer” to the question of life. Everything else, all the other values and attachments deemed to be good were subordinate to “unitary good” of virtue. Family, possessions, would always take second place in the event of any conflict in following the ideal of virtue.

For Epicureans the ultimate good was freedom from pain and friendship. And so forth.

For Paul, the single, overriding good was “life in Christ”. Other values such as marriage, the household, business, ethnicity, were secondary. Even the commandments of God in the Jewish scriptures were superseded by Christ.

Yes, Paul’s stress upon worship of only one God and not many, and his “apocalyptic intensification” of these beliefs was Jewish, but Paul ripped them away from their ethnic, cultic and legal Judean contexts.

2. Hellenistic philosophies were contrary to conventional thinking

Ordinary civic virtue and conventional values were not the way to “happiness” or the “good life” according to Hellenistic philosophies.

The philosophies taught new ways of thinking, new motivations and desires to cultivate. Asceticism was valued.

In this context Stowers believes it no accident that the founders of the Hellenistic schools were not married and that Jesus and Paul were not married either. Paul challenged both Gentile and Judean norms of culture. The wisdom of God was set in opposition to both Greek and Jewish values.

Again, the structural similarities with the philosophies are obvious. (p. 91)

3. Hellenistic philosophies led to a new life, a new orientation of the self, a conversion

Stoics taught that the conversion was instantaneous.

For a more detailed discussion of the similarity between Paul’s idea of conversion to a life in Christ and the Stoic conversion see:

  1. Paul and the Stoics – 1 (2009-11-04)
  2. Christian conversion – an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy (2009-11-08)

Other philosophies apparently ridiculed this Stoic idea of the way to attain virtue and taught, on the contrary, that virtue could only be attained gradually, over time, through a series of graduated steps.

Stowers adds that there is, moreover,

a literary tradition that becomes most prominent in the early empire in which writers give vivid descriptions of the turmoil and changes in the soul of those who convert to philosophy. Paul uses exactly the same language for conversion to the gospel. (p. 92)

4. Hellenistic philosophies required techniques to master and remake one’s self

read more »

Earliest Christianity Did Not Look Like a Religion

by Neil Godfrey

I have long been intrigued by the second century “church father” Justin Martyr identifying himself as a philosopher, not a “priest” or elder or bishop or other ecclesiastical type of title. He left it on record that he came to Christianity after surveying a range of other philosophies, not religions.

Time-warp forward to 2001 and the chapter titled “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” by Stanley K. Stowers in Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide (edited by Troels Engberg-Pedersen) and we find a rather solid explanation for Justin’s identification, I think.

Stop thinking of the “Jewish Synagogue” as the model for Paul’s churches

One of the first points Stowers sets down is that

We must remember that first-century Jews were Judeans. Interpreters should not, in principle, segregate Judeans from Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and so on by creating something suspiciously like a modern religion called Judaism. Even Jews who lived permanently in Rome or Alexandria were Judeans living outside of their traditional homeland and therefore similar to Syrians, Greeks, or Egyptians who lived abroad. (p. 83)

(Steven Mason makes the same point with his preference for the word Judeans in place of Jews in A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74.)

What Stowers is trying to get through to us is that we need to jettison any notion that when Jews were meeting in synagogues they were in some sense being astonishingly different from anyone else, and it therefore follows that scholars should be very careful before suggesting that Paul’s churches (and gentile Christianity itself) grew out of the synagogue.

A synagogue is a meeting place or meeting practices of Judeans. In our language Judeans were an ethnic people. Unfortunately the idea of “the synagogue” as a Jewish church still haunts much scholarship. (p. 83)

Judean worship was similar to the worship of other gods

Stowers argues that before 70 C.E. Jewish worship, even in the Diaspora, was centrally focussed on the temple in Jerusalem. The great temple festivals, tabernacles, pentecost, passover, were celebrated by Judeans throughout the empire. These were agricultural festivals that celebrated the gifts of produce and livestock that God gave his people, of success in trading and in acquiring the blessings of children.

Temple time with its agriculturally oriented calendar shaped the calendar of the Jews (sic) in general. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festivals and sacrifices was a major feature of the period. Many Judeans of the Diaspora directly participated in the temple cultus sometime during their lives. The temple tax that supported the daily sacrifices in the temple and the first fruit offerings that signified the ancient pattern of reciprocity and divine giving of productivity were among the major yearly efforts of Diaspora communities. (p. 84)

What of the place of the scriptures? It is generally agreed that the reading of scriptures was a very important for the religious life of Judeans. For Stowers,

The Torah, Prophets, and Psalms are . . . absolutely dominated by the centrality of the temple, priesthood and cult. The epics and myths of Judeans were about land, people, and socio-economic reciprocity with God and other Judeans. . . For Judeans, unlike for Christians, to study scripture was to be oriented toward an actual temple, a place where reciprocity with the divine was enacted in the imagined exchange of produce from the land and shop, womb and market. (p. 85)

Judean religion was focused on the idea of reciprocal exchange with God. God blessed his people; his people offered sacrifices and gifts and communal worship in return. And the temple was the focus of this exchange. Stowers writes that the religion of a Judean living 500 miles from Jerusalem differed little in principle from the one living 20 miles away.

Other cultural groups, those from places other than Judea, throughout the empire, recognized these Judean religious customs as counterparts to their own.

The dominant activities of the temple were sacrificial offerings of grain and animal products. Judeans shared these practices with Greeks, Romans, and most peoples of the Mediterranean world. Josephus proudly proclaims that Judeans share the practices of sacrificing domestic animals with “all the rest of humanity” (Ag. Ap., 2.137). (p. 85, my bolding)

Pauline Christianity did not look like a typical religion

read more »


Motivations of a “Mythicist”

by Neil Godfrey

From the Preface to The Evolution of Christianity by L. Gordon Rylands, 1927 (with my highlighting in bold):

The purpose of this book is to state as clearly and as concisely as possible, and to co-ordinate, the results lately obtained along different lines of inquiry by investigators of the origins of Christianity. The subject is wide and complex, and different inquirers have necessarily specialized in different directions. Sufficient results have now been secured to make a co-ordination possible and useful. I wish to say emphatically that the book is in no sense an attack upon religion in general, or upon Christianity in particular. There are, in fact, men who believe that the disappearance of the historical Jesus will have the effect of making religion more spiritual and more free. Professor Schmiedel has affirmed that his inmost religious convictions would suffer no harm even if he felt obliged to conclude that Jesus never lived; and I have no doubt that when advanced theologians have accepted this conclusion, as they have accepted many others which for a long time were bitterly resisted, they will discover that, nevertheless, Christianity can continue to exist. Kalthoff, indeed, argued that when an ideal—or, to use his expression, a prophetic—Christ has been substituted for the theological Christ, Christianity will be liberated from bonds which hinder its spiritual and ethical development, and will be capable of being raised to a higher plane.

The motive which prompted the writing of this book, however, was not to support that or any other point of view. I undertook the study of which it is the fruit solely with the desire of discovering the truth. And it should be obvious that that endeavour can be successful only in the absence of ulterior motive and of the wish to establish any particular conclusion. I was attracted to the subject of the book by its importance and fascination as a purely historical problem. So far as I had any bias at all, it was in favour of the historicity of Jesus, since I had not previously seen sufficient reason to doubt it; but I found this hypothesis untenable. And the farther I went the more impressed I became with the inadequacy of theologians and traditionalist critics, with whom the search after truth seemed to be subordinate to the maintenance of a particular point of view. So far as textual criticism is concerned, indeed, the work that has been done is admirable ; but in the treatment of the historical and mythological problems involved theological scholars have been lamentably superficial, if not sometimes wilfully blind. (pp. vii-ix)

read more »


A Case for the “Easter” Appearances of Jesus BEFORE the Crucifixion

by Neil Godfrey

There is an inconsistency in a fundamental argument, or assumption, rather, among critical scholars of Christian origins that has long been bugging me.

The principle was set down by David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century,

when we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of these prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical. (Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, p. 89)

Now that maxim is frequently and sensibly deployed by critical scholars. It is the reason that Burton Mack  (no doubt there are others, too) denies the historicity of Jesus charging into the Temple and expelling the “traders” there.

It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations. (Mack, Myth of Innocence, p. 292)

Many scholars, however, need the “Temple disturbance” to be historical in order to explain why Jesus was eventually arrested so many jettison the principle to make the narrative work as history. (Paula Fredriksen points out the flaw in their argument.)

David Chumney (whose book, Jesus Eclipsed, I have just completed, and which has many excellent points along with a few unfortunate flaws) makes the point loud and clear:

  • Matthew 8:16-17 (& 11:4-5) tell us that Jesus healed sicknesses in fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 53:4 (Unfortunately once again the Strauss’s criterion is put aside by most scholars who require Jesus to have been a healer in order to explain his “historical following”.)
  • The triumphal entry into Jerusalem is acknowledged by more scholars (e.g. E.P. Sanders, Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, David Catchpole) to be a fiction created out of scriptures such as Psalm 118:25-26 and Zechariah 9:9.
  • The magi following the star (Matthew 2:1-12) is based on Numbers 24:17 and Isaiah 60:3, 5-6.
  • Herod’s massacre of the infants (Matthew 2:16-18) is crafted from Exodus 1:15-22 and Jeremiah 31:15.
  • The angel’s announcement of John the Baptist’s birth (to be) (Luke 1:8-20) is woven from Genesis 18:9-15.
  • Mary’s prayer, the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) comes from 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

Robert Price draws attention to many more: the infant Jesus’ escape into Egypt; Jesus baptism; the 40 days in the wilderness and testing by Satan; the call of the disciples; the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and her response; Jesus healing of the paralytic; healing the withered hand; the appointing of the twelve disciples; the instructions given to them on how to go out and preach; Jesus calming the storm; the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac; the raising of Jairus’s daughter; Jesus’ family rejecting him; the execution of John the Baptist; the miraculous feedings of thousands; the walking on the sea; Jesus calling the people to listen to him; Jesus healing the daughter of the woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon; the transfiguration; the rivalry among the disciples for the most prestigious position; the story of the exorcist who did not follow Jesus; . . . . .

And the list could probably be just as long if we itemized each of the “prophesied” details in the Passion narrative. (See Price, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point” in The Historical Jesus: Five Views.)

John Shelby Spong concedes that pretty much everything in the gospels is fiction based a creative reworking of Jewish Scriptures. All except for virtually only one detail: the execution, the martyrdom, of Jesus.

That Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” as the Creed affirms, is historically the most stable datum we have concerning Jesus . . . (Joel B. Green, “The Death of Jesus” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 2383)

. . . not that there is the slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate . . . (John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, p. 375)

There is no doubt both that he was crucified and that after his death he was believed to have been restored to life. (John Shelby Spong, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. p. 236)

Yet it is the crucifixion of Jesus that is the MOST chock-full of Old Testament Scriptural allusions and citations.  read more »


How Do People Respond to the Killing of Their Messiah?

by Neil Godfrey

Entrance into an excavated cave used by Bar Kokhba’s rebels, Khirbet Midras — From Wikipedia

We know the story of how Christianity started. The scholarly explanation is essentially a paraphrase of the narratives we read in the Gospels and Acts. The disciples had been fully expecting Jesus to take charge and begin to drive out the Romans when he went to Jerusalem so were dismayed when he let himself by captured and crucified instead. Something happened in the ensuing days, something inexplicable, or at least beyond historical inquiry: the disciples came to believe that Jesus was still alive and were accordingly inspired to preach the good news of Jesus who really was the Christ (Messiah), that he died and rose again, etc.

(Funny that they never say the disciples “came to believe he had been crucified” because according to the gospels they all fled the scene, were not present at his trial and had no better word than the humble witness of a few ladies who claimed to have seen Jesus both crucified and resurrected.)

Anyway, as the conventional explanation goes, the disciples were so confused at first by the demise of their teacher and were struggling to make sense of their subsequent feelings that they delved into the scriptures for answers. How could the one they so believed was the messiah or christ be crucified?

Until then it had been inconceivable for any Jew to interpret those scriptures in a way that produced a messiah destined to suffer and die. The scriptures said the messiah would overthrow Israel’s enemies and establish the rule of God on earth. Nonetheless, the disciples were so moved by their recent trauma that they finally found a way to convince themselves they had been right all along: Jesus really was the Christ and he really did come alive again after his crucifixion. So cogent were their explanations of the scriptures that many others who heard them preach also believed.

Such a radical reinterpretation of the messiah and the scriptural grounds for its support was so scandalous to most other Jews and the Jewish authorities that they gave them a hard time, stoning them, whipping them, martyring them, and so forth. And that’s how Christianity and the New Testament writings were born.

So what do we make of the responses of the followers of another would-be messiah who was killed a century later?

There was a second Jewish rebellion against Rome in the early 130s led by Bar Kochba. Apparently many believed he was the messiah doing just what a messiah was supposed to do — fight Romans. There was a famous rabbi named Akiba (or Akiva) who is said to have even pronounced his messiahship and fulfilment of prophecies from the Pentateuch. But he was killed, too.

Now it happens that at some point (we don’t know when with any precision, but the first signs of it indicate it was some time within the first couple of centuries of the Christian era) a belief in a messiah who was to die in battle emerged among Jews. How do we explain the emergence of belief in a dying messiah among the Jews? Some have suggested the idea grew out of the experiences of the followers of Bar Kochba and was a response to their great disappointment when he failed.

It might be interesting for some to have a look at what a scholar from the Department of Hebrew Literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University had to say in an article published in 1975. He is outlining the views of some of his peers. It is interesting to compare the explanations with the conventional one for the emergence of the Christian myth.

J. Klausner categorically rejects the claim that the figure of the Messiah who  would be killed in battle came into being as a result of the exegesis of Zech 12:10 (and other texts), as Dalman, and others, had proposed; in his opinion, it is not through exegesis that important, new ideas or doctrines are created. Nor does he accept the hypothesis of Jacob Levy, that the concept of the Messiah ben Ephraim was created after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in order to make it possible to preserve the messianic faith in spite of this disaster and also in order “to save the honour of R. Akiva,” who had publicly proclaimed him the Messiah; by making Bar Kokhba, in the guise of Messiah ben Joseph, the forerunner of the “real” Messiah, his defeat could be accepted without denying his messianic function altogether. Klausner rejects this “rationalistic” view, because “articles of creed” are not created intentionally ad hoc, but originate in “deep inner needs” of the people. Moreover, the disappointment after Bar Kokhba’s defeat was so immense, as to make it inconceivable that the people (or the sages) should have continued to look upon him as a genuine messianic figure; and, indeed, there is no indication that this was the case. . . .  (Heinemann, Joseph. 1975. “The Messiah of Ephraim and the Premature Exodus of the Tribe of Ephraim”. Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 8, No. 1. p. 2)

Does the logic imply that Christianity began because the disciples were less disappointed in Jesus? But would we not expect a lesser disappointment to lead to disciples packing up everything and going back to their former routines?

Or do scholars really expect us to believe that there was some inexplicable “easter event” that was responsible for Christianity?





Bruno Bauer’s “Christ and the Caesars” Review

by Neil Godfrey

On The Mythicism Files blog Quixie has posted a review of Bruno Bauer’s Christ and the Caesars:


It begins deliciously:

Bruno Bauer was for a brief time in the nineteenth century the enfant terrible of New Testament scholarship. He was a brilliant man who crossed paths and kept company with such notable contemporary Germans as Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. He became professor of theology in 1834—first in Berlin then later in Bonn—but by 1842 his radical rationalism provoked his academic superiors to revoke his teaching license. Insolent and defiant, he pissed off a lot of academics. He never regained a formal teaching post, but he continued to write books on New Testament criticism (and many other subjects)  that challenged the orthodox narrative, particularly its view of Christian origins. He became even more scandalous than Strauss or Schleimacher, who had already begun the process of demythologizing the New Testament before Bauer came along, of examining scripture from a literary perspective rather than a devotional one.
He published Christ and the Caesars in 1877.  This particular book is noteworthy as an influence on what would come to be known as the Dutch Radical school (Loman, Van Manen, Pierson, van den Bergh van Eysinga, et al). The Dutch Radicals mainly focused on the problems with the dating, provenance, and/or authenticity of the Pauline corpus, but they were (at least indirectly) the precursors of the mythicist scholarship of the early twentieth century (c.f. Drews).  Bauer may have been scandalous, but he was far from obscure in his day. He was notorious. He was so widely known that Albert Schweitzer even dedicated a whole chapter of his seminal Quest of the Historical Jesus to discussing his view of Bauer’s place on the continuum of scholarship, but Bauer’s work has been all but ignored and neglected ever since. 




The Other Side of Early Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

Details of the funerary stele above can be seen here:



Highlights of the David Fitzgerald-Daniel Gullotta Discussion on Miami Valley Skeptics

by Neil Godfrey

For anyone who was too lazy or too busy or too technically challenged to listen to the discussion between David Fitzgerald and Daniel Gullotta on the historicity of Jesus here are my notes.

Of course things said on the fly are not always what we would exactly say in more considered writing so I welcome any corrections from both speakers. And we can always think of what we “should have said” in hindsight. (In a couple of places I have changed the original where an obvious slip of the tongue was made and in others added an amendment in square brackets without colour coding]. Daniel G has posted some corrections or clarifications on his blog.)

DF = David Fitzgerald [in bluish text]

DG = Daniel Gullotta [in reddish text]

HJ = Historical Jesus

JM = Jesus Myth or Jesus Myth theory

NT = New Testament

TF = Testimonium Flavianum

1:24 = approx time on audio file in minutes and seconds

Bold — the questions asked by the interviewer.

This is not really a transcription. Most of it is my own paraphrasing and precis. Only sections in quotation marks are actual “transcription”.


What led to your interest in the historicity of Jesus? 

2:30 DF: Never considered possibility of no historical Jesus until took an interest to know what he really said and did. Then red flags arose and discovered other people were also having same questions. Two years later realized he did not exist at all. Then wrote Nailed.

3:30  DG: Doing Undergrad degree in Theology specializing in Biblical Studies. Began with interest in how Jesus fitted in with his time historically, became bored with that so turned to Paul. In his undergraduate years the Zeitgeist documentary was making the rounds. That was his first intro. Then “3 Christmases ago” his younger brother re-introduced him to the to HJ notion — “If he existed!”

In same year Bart Ehrman released Did Jesus Exist? and Carrier was about to come out with his book, released a few months later.

With scholar Roland Boer at University of Newcastle (Australia) DG was more interested in studying the question of the reception of the JM.

6:30 Who has burden of proof?

DG — Burden of proof is on the one making the claim. Having said that, Paul’s letters, the Gospels, the writings of the later church and the sheer explanatory power are very weighty, so to argue against HJ is to go into an entirely different paradigm and for that one needs good evidence and the JM theory doesn’t have it.

DF – Agrees regarding burden of proof. It’s not really about HJ but about how Christianity started. It’s to make the best sense of the evidence we have.

9:00 Without HJ how could Christianity begin? read more »


Evidence for a Pre-Christian “Christianity”?

by Neil Godfrey


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 »


Was Christianity Born from a “Pentecostal” Movement?

by Neil Godfrey

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 »


The Rank-Raglan Hero-Type (and Jesus)

by Neil Godfrey

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

The 22 typical incidents in mythical tales

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

(2) His father is a king, and

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

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

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

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

(7) He is spirited away, and

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

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

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

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

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

(13) Becomes king.

(14) For a time he reigns uneventfully, and

(15) Prescribes laws, but

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

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

(18) He meets with a mysterious death,

(19) Often at the top of a hill.

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

(21) His body is not buried, but nevertheless

(22) He has one or more holy sepulchres.

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

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

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

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

Common errors in using the 22 points

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

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

1. When historical persons are on the list

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


The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

The Suffering Servant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 1:2-4

Even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

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

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

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

Sirach 48:1, 7, 10

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

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

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

Malachi 4:5-6
Isaiah 49:6

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

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

The Book of Zechariah interprets Isaiah 53?

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


Ten Elements of Christian Origin

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

and (not “or”)

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

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

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

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


Theologians as historians

by Neil Godfrey

Alvar Ellegård (November 12, 1919 – February 8, 2008) was a Swedish scholar and linguist. He was professor of English at the University of Gothenburg, and a member of the academic board of the Swedish National Encyclopedia.

. . .  He also became known outside the field for his work on the conflict between religious dogma and science, and for his promotion of the Jesus myth theory, the idea that Jesus did not exist as an historical figure. His books about religion and science include Darwin and the General Reader (1958), The Myth of Jesus (1992), and Jesus: One Hundred Years Before Christ. A Study in Creative Mythology (1999). (Source: Wikipedia)

He wrote “Theologians as historians”, now available online, published originally in Scandia the year he died, 2008. The article addresses arguments commonly advanced by theologians against the Christ Myth idea but it also has much to say about scholarly resistance to even being willing to debate such a thesis. I quote a few passages here from that section of his article. (Headings and bolding are my own.)

Theologians are not living up to their responsibility

It is fair to say that most present-day theologians also accept that large parts of the Gospel stories are, if not fictional, at least not to be taken at face value as historical accounts. On the other hand, no theologian seems to be able to bring himself to admit that the question of the historicity of Jesus must be judged to be an open one.

It appears to me that the theologians are not living up to their responsibility as scholars when they refuse to discuss the possibility that even the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels can be legitimately called into question. Instead, they tend to dismiss as cranks those who doubt that the Jesus of the Gospels ever existed.

Dogmatism is characteristic . . . under cover of mystifying language

It is natural that different historians come to different conclusions on questions for which our sources are late, scanty or biassed. Thus most historians, though skeptical about king Arthur, avoid being dogmatic about him, whatever the stand they are taking. But dogmatism is characteristic of the theologians’ view of matters which are held to guarantee the historicity of Jesus.

That dogmatism, however, is too often concealed under a cover of mystifying language. An instance in point is quoted by Burton L. Mack, who quotes Helmut Koester, characterizing him, very properly, as “a New Testament scholar highly regarded for his critical acumen” (Mack 1990, p. 25). Koester writes:

“The resurrection and the appearances of Jesus are best explained as a catalyst which prompted reactions that resulted in the missionary activity and founding of the churches, but also in the crystallization of the tradition about Jesus and his ministry. But most of all, the resurrection changed sorrow and grief into joy, creativity and faith. Though the resurrection revealed nothing new, it nonetheless made everything new for the first Christian believers” (Koester 19822, p. 84-86).

Mack comments drily:

read more »