Category Archives: Christian Origins


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 »


Jewish Foundations: The Divine Name & Heavenly Beings Become Human

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Jewish Foundations of Christianity — Significance of God’s Name  . . . . .

We have seen how pre-Christian ideas within something we might loosely call “Judaism” could conceive of a clear connection between a “Son of God” (who is a Saviour figure) and an “image of God” and how both of these entities could receive the exalted name of God himself.

The Name Above All Names

This brings us to the famous hymn cited by Paul in Philippians 2 and its declaration that the Son of God was, at his exaltation, honoured with the name exalted above all names. What is this name? Here is one train of thought:

The second prominent angelomorphic tradition in this pericope is the teaching of the Divine Name and its investiture: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the Name [το ονομα] which is above every name“. The referent of “the Name” is not the name ‘Jesus”, but the Divine Name. This is clear from his inclusion of κυριος [=Lord], which the LXX [=Septuagint or Greek Old Testament] uses to translate the Tetragrammaton [=YHWH], in the confession of 2.11: κύριος Ἰησοῦς χριστός [= Lord Jesus Christ]. The significance of this ascription cannot be overestimated. It is indisputable evidence that lays bare the ancient roots of this Christology in angelomorphic traditions that grew from the Divine Name Angel of Exod 23.20-21. The unparalleled status and enthronement of the one who possesses the Divine Name is also emphasized in Eph 1.12-23:

[. . .] the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints [. . .] which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

That is from Charles A. Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents & Early Evidence (p. 339 – my own bolding as always).

Here’s another take, this time from Darrell D. Hannah, Michael and Christ: Michael Traditions and Angel Christologies in Early Christianity (pp. 143-144)

On Fitzmyer’s opposing view that pre-Christian copies of the LXX did not use κύριος for יהוה  Hannah says “Fitzmyer is too cautious. he does not take into account the evidence of Philo, whose text of the LXX clearly renders יהוה with κύριος. Nor can Fitzmyer account for the overwhelming substitution of κύριος  for the tetragrammaton in Christian MSS if it were not the traditional rendering. 

The earliest text which implies Jesus possessed the divine Name is Phil. 2.6-11. After recalling Jesus’ death on the cross followed by his exaltation, the hymn continues, God καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα, ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ . . . [=has given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . ]  Many commentators agree that “the name above every name” can only be κύριος, which in the LXX renders יהוה, and which is explicitly attributed to Jesus in vs. 11. The phrase ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ must then be translated “at the name of Jesus”, i.e., the name which belongs to Jesus, rather than “at the name Jesus”. In other words, the Lordship of God, and His Name which guarantees that Lordship, now belong to Christ.

Significantly, the hymn culminates in transferring to Christ an OT text (Isa. 45.21-23) which declares the universal worship of the one God, but does it in a way which does not set up Christ as a rival to that one God (vs. 11).

In many ways this text parallels 1 Cor. 8.6, where Paul seemingly modifies the Shema to include a confession of Christ as κύριος. The deutero-Pauline Eph. 1.20-21 and the author of Hebrews 1.4) provide later but important parallels to Phil. 2.6-11. The three texts taken together imply a conjunction between Christ’s exaltation and his possession of a new name. 

This bestowal of the divine Name upon Christ at his exaltation and in consequence of his obedience, it must be admitted, differs significantly from the Exodus angel who possesses God’s Name so that he can take God’s place in leading the Israelites (Ex. 23.20-21, 32.31-33.6), and from Michael’s being given knowledge of the Name as the secret oath by which the world was created (1En. 69. 13-25), and even from Yahoel’s (ApAb.) possession of the Name as the key to his status as the principal angel. However, there is a significant similarity with Metatron’s reception of the Name on the occasion of his exaltation to heaven and his elevation over the heavenly hosts in 3 Enoch 4-12 (= §§5-15). Two other NT passages, Rev. 19.11-16 and John 17.11-12, offer parallels to the Exodus angel’s, Michael’s and Yahoel’s possession of the Name. 

(I’m not quite sure I understand why Hannah says “it must be admitted” that the bestowal of the divine Name upon Jesus “differs significantly” from the other instances.)

Moshe Idel, in Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism, notes the possibility that the name Jesus itself is related to its “Hebrew theophoric form Yehoshu’a” (יהושוע) which contains (significantly according to many readers in ancient times) the letters of the divine Name — y-h-w. Page 24:

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Jewish Foundations of Christianity — Significance of God’s Name

by Neil Godfrey

tetraThere is something unusual about the way the name of God is treated in the Old Testament books. The name itself sometimes appears to have an existence of its own apart from God himself. It’s natural for us to take this kind of usage as a literary personification. But is it? This post is one more update of some of the new things I have been learning as I try to catch up with scholarly studies into ancient Judaism.

God does things with his name as if it were an entity “out there”. He places his name in the temple. We read that his name saves his people and is worthy of praise.

The first text to examine in order to understand what’s going on here is Exodus 23:20-34 (NIV). We find it is foundational in several ancient works — Philo, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and various other early Christian and Jewish texts — that treat the name of God in unusual ways —

20 “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. 

21 Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.

22 If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you.

23 My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.

24 Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. 

The angel, like most angels in the Bible, is anonymous. But he does have God’s divine name in him. So God can call him “my angel”. The command is to listen to what he says and obey him. So he appears to have a voice of his own yet at the same time his voice is that of God. Moshe Idel explains it this way:

Although God is the speaker, it is the angels voice that is heard. Thus it seems the angel serves as a form of loudspeaker for the divine act of speech. (p. 17)

Similarly, as we see in verse 23, this angel is said to lead the Israelites while at the same time God explains he is the one who is acting.

But the phrase that has attracted most attention in Jewish studies is “my name is in him”.

Compare Exodus 33:14

The Lord replied [to Moses], “My Presence/Face will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Is this the same angel as we met ten chapters earlier? If so, the same angel has the name of God in him and also has the outward appearance of God. He is both a loudspeaker of God and a face-mask for God.

We find this same angel again in Isaiah 63:9 and once again he is helping or rescuing his people from trouble:

In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence [=Face] saved them.

What is most significant in this discussion is that this angel appears to be a container for the name of God. He is an ambassador or messenger for God and his presence announces the presence of God himself — by virtue of God’s name being in him.

This angel is one to be feared and obeyed. He will not forgive those who rebel against him.

Now the angel is not the only receptacle for God’s name. In Deuteronomy we learn that God is present in the Temple when his name dwells there. Indeed, as we read of the wanderings of Israel being led by this angel we eventually come to the time when they settle and have a stable place of worship. The wandering angel who contains God’s name is followed by the eventual resting place of that name (and angel?) in the Temple.

This same angel was understood by the Jewish philosopher Philo to be God’s “firstborn Son”.

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Jesus Evolved From an Angel?

by Neil Godfrey
Ezekiel by Raphael

Ezekiel by Raphael

Some passages in the Old Testament throw up bizarre riddles for those of us who have always thought its various authors were strict monotheists in the same sense as we expect modern Jewish rabbis to be no-nonsense monotheists. For starters, there are those most curious passages where we read of an angel engaging earthly mortals in conversation and suddenly speaking as if they are God himself. Sometimes after such a conversation the human characters are even made to say they have just met or spoken with God. Then there are those passages in Ezekiel that read as if God were a human figure who gets off his throne and starts to guide Ezekiel around his temple. There are other riddles but let’s stick with these two types for now.

Now something even stranger happens when we turn to other Jewish writings from the centuries either side of the BCE/CE point. Various writings from that period appear to have picked up these riddles in the Scriptural canon and run with them into places we could never imagine any truly monotheistic rabbi would dare follow. They bring us into a heavenly world where it is often difficult to decide who is God and who is an angel. Sometimes there appears to be an angel so exalted that he appears to be God’s proxy or principal agent who does all of God’s work. That angel is sometimes depicted as very much in the form of a man.

To put it most bluntly, this literature introduces us to a “man” in heaven (or celestial figure in the form of a man) who is a manifestation of God Himself. That same angelic or celestial Man sometimes appears on earth — still as a manifestation of God — to communicate with mortals. He is sometimes called the Angel of the Lord but at other times he calls himself by the name of God. Further, this celestial “man” figure or divine manifestation) is known and experienced in visions.

This most highly exalted angel sometimes starts to look very much like the image we have of Jesus Christ, the “Son of Man”, at the right hand of God in heaven from our readings of the New Testament epistles and book of Acts. These Christian sources likewise speak of that Christ being revealed in visions.

It has taken me longer than usual to prepare this post because the territory is so new for me. I’ve read about the various angelic figures in extra-canonical Jewish literature and I’ve read probably most of the apocryphal writings in which these figures prominently appear but I’ve never deeply studied this literature or its angelophany as a whole or in any depth. I’ve read Margaret Barker’s The Great Angel and other works of hers but their implications do not appear to register in the wider studies of Christian origins. Professor Hurtado’s argues that Christianity’s heavenly Christ does not truly bear a valid comparison with them because there is no evidence that any of these “Jewish” angels were ever worshiped. In my previous post I quoted Professor Boyarin’s response to that “criterion of dissimilarity”.

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“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:

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