Category Archives: New Testament


2016-03-22

Scrutinizing the Case for Q: Why Luke Sidestepped the Baptism of Jesus by John

by Neil Godfrey
Jesus Resurrecting the Son of the Widow of Naim (oil on canvas) by Bouillon.

Jesus Resurrecting the Son of the Widow of Nain (oil on canvas) by Bouillon.

Michael Kok is addressing the arguments for and against Q on his blog where he explores the “history and reception of New Testament writings”. In his latest post he raises the question of whether Luke knew Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus. Unfortunately his comment policy does not encourage responses from outsiders hence this post.

My own view is that Q is too easily dismissed with assertions like “it is only a hypothetical document” and “Occam’s razor suggests Luke knew Matthew” without actually investigating the arguments in its favour. The questions debated by those who are more aware of the arguments also can often by narrowly focused; historical inquiry ought to begin with a clarification of the broader context of the evidence being evaluated.

I argue below that an anti-Marcionite agenda explains well the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s baptism scenarios.

Before comparing the Gospel of Luke with anything it is worth clarifying what we understand by that Gospel and the scholarship surrounding its genre, its development and its appearance in the historical record. If we find the arguments of Joseph Tyson plausible then we begin with the probability that our canonical gospel emerged in two stages: first a proto-Luke; followed by a heavily redacted treatment of that earlier document to give us our Luke-Acts. Tyson does not dispute Q, by the way, and his model does have “Luke” use Q and Mark, but at the same time he brings together a wealth of other scholarship relating to the question of Luke’s development and emergence in the record that is of relevance to Kok’s discussion.

It is relatively uncontroversial to suggest that an early form of the Gospel of Luke began at 3:1, which has been described as “a very good place to begin a gospel”:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene . . . .

This is also the place where Marcion’s gospel began. Marcion’s gospel did not include the John the Baptist narrative, however. The opening verse was followed with Jesus’ entry into the world (probably starting at Capernaum) preaching the gospel.

For readers not familiar with Marcion: The Marcionite “heresy” flourished in the early/mid second century and taught that Jesus was sent by a Higher God than the lesser Creator God of the Jewish Scriptures. Marcionite teaching held that the Law and Prophets had nothing to do with the true Messiah and were in fact given to the Jews by a fickle god and prophesied of some other earthly messiah of relevance to the Jews only and who was of no account beside the Son of the Highest God.

Although the “tradition” of the Church Fathers held that Marcion’s gospel was a mutilated form of the Gospel of Luke we really don’t know whether or not the original form of Luke contained the baptism episode. The “proto-orthodox” had a motive for arguing Marcion deleted the passage; Marcion had a motive for arguing his gospel was the original one. (One can explore more deeply the related evidence on either side at this point but I am skimming the surface of the argument for the sake of a relatively short blog post.)

If the subsequent stage of the Gospel of Luke was indeed an anti-Marcionite embellishment (as Tyson and several other scholars have argued) — and the evidence for this canonical version of Luke only makes its appearance after the mid-second century — then it is surely safe to conclude on chronological grounds that the “canonical redactor” did indeed know of the Gospel of Matthew.

Further, it is surely relatively safe to think that our redactor had an interest in shaping the baptist scenario to rebut Marcionism.

The question to ask then is whether canonical Luke functions as an anti-Marcionite document, and in particular to ask whether the treatment of Jesus’ baptism functions the same way. If so, does the suggested political context (anti-Marcionite) explain Luke’s differences from Matthew’s baptism scenario?

I think a case can be argued that they do indeed. read more »


2016-02-24

Is Ehrman’s Pre-Pauline Quotation an Anti-Marcionite Interpolation?

by Neil Godfrey

howJesusRecently Bart Ehrman debated Michael Bird the question of how Jesus became God. Just as he had written in his book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee Erhman argued that

  1. the earliest devotees of Jesus viewed him as a normal man, a human messiah, who had been exalted to become God’s son at the resurrection.
  2. Later, Christians came to think that he was the Son of God prior to the resurrection and reasoned that he had been adopted as God’s son at his baptism, as we read in the Gospel of Mark.
  3. Still later others moved his divine sonship back to the time of his birth in Bethlehem. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus only came into existence as God’s son when born to Mary.
  4. Later still Jesus was thought to have been always divine, even before appearing as a man, as we read in the prologue to the Gospel of John.

My first response to this argument was that it ran counter to the pre-gospel evidence, the writings of Paul. But I double checked and saw that Ehrman does find stage #1 above in the writings of Paul. Paul does open his epistle to the Romans with a clear statement of #1 — Romans 1:3-4

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, 

A1 who was descended

  A2 from the seed of David 

    A3 according to the flesh 

B1 and was appointed 

  B2 the Son of God in power

    B3 according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead

Ehrman is well aware that the rest of Paul’s writings inform us that Paul had a much higher view of Jesus than we read in these opening verses of Romans. So I think his larger argument still founders on the reef of Paul. But my interest here is Ehrman’s use of Romans 1:3-4 as the starting point from which he builds his case.

Ehrman informs his readers that many scholars have long considered these verses, 1:3-4, to be pre-Pauline creed that Paul is quoting. Indeed, Ehrman writes (p. 223) that

it could represent early tradition . . . from the early years in Palestine after Jesus’s first followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead. 

Why early?

Part of the reason Ehrman thinks the passage is so early is because of the words translated “spirit of holiness”: such a turn of phrase is an Aramaicism and since Jesus and his first followers spoke Aramaic it follows that they probably formulated the creed. (I will leave the identification of the flaws in this argument up to readers.)

Another reason to judge the passage early appears to be the focus on Jesus as the Davidic Messiah. Ehrman calls upon the much later gospels to support him here. He uses their late testimony (in the belief that true historical data can be gleaned from them via criteria of authenticity) to affirm that the disciples of Jesus believed he was the Davidic messiah in his own lifetime and that they continued to believe this after his death (even though he failed to overthrow Rome as the Davidic messiah was supposed to do) because of the power he attained with his resurrection.

Why think the words are not Paul’s own but a quotation of a well-known creed?

Why does Ehrman (presumably following widespread and long-held scholarly opinion) believe these verses are pre-Pauline words being quoted by Paul? read more »


2016-02-03

The Jewish Jesus as a Christian Bias

by Neil Godfrey

mofficJesus and Jews have not always got along well together in Christian scholarship but today (and for some decades now, especially since Geza Vermes published Jesus the Jew) they have been rollicking along just fine. So close are they that some scholars have been known to censure anyone who attributes to Jesus Hellenistic tropes of “latent anti-semitism”.

Scholars like April DeConick and Louis Painchaud have suggested that the modern tend to find some good in Judas is an outgrowth of a powerful cultural need to absolve our collective guilt over the treatment of the Jews in the wake of World War 2 and the Holocaust and the widespread anti-Semitism preceding those years. Both scholars argue that the National Geographic presentation of the Gospel of Judas portrayed Judas as a hero as a result of wishful and tendentious translations the text. Both argue that in fact the Gospel of Judas by no means presents him as a would-be saint.

But back to Jesus. Of course Jesus was a Jew. But traditionally many Christians have been taught to think of him as opposing what was essential Judaism of his day, that is, the self-righteous, legalistic and judgmental Pharisees. That concept has probably historically fed in to waves of antisemitism throughout history.

Now I fully agree that that traditional perception of Judaism is a misplaced caricature, the product of hostile Christian invention. That that simplistic notion has been replaced by more nuanced reality in the scholarly literature is a good thing.

But does the emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus also indicate that Christian scholars are working outside the zone of their natural Christian biases? By no longer claiming Jesus “for themselves” and by implication as having no part with Judaism, are Christian scholars necessarily working towards a more neutral scholarly venture?

I think not. The reason is a new book I came across, What every Christian needs to know about the Jewishness of Jesus : a new way of seeing the most influential rabbi in history by Rabbi Evan Moffic.

Notice this passage from the Foreword to the book by Kent Dobson, Teaching Pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church:

And discovering a Jewish Jesus is not just an academic exercise; it has widespread implications for the health of Christianity. In some sense, we cannot claim Jesus as our own anymore. He was Jewish, we need to hear him in his own Jewish context, and we need to hear from Jewish voices about how they read this rabbi from Galilee.

Personally, I learned more from my Jewish brothers and sisters about Jesus and his world than I ever learned in church. . . . 

I believe we are better people of faith when we bring our experience into a real conversation with those from other faith perspectives and convictions. The Jewish-Christian dialogue is not a politically correct game. We are conversing about meaning and truth, beauty and love, family and forgiveness, and the mystery of God. What could be better! . . . 

Jewish perspectives on Jesus clarify, strengthen, and take further some Christian convictions about his mission, teaching, and life. . . . 

This new era of Jewish-Christian dialogue is just dawning. In some sense, it’s still very fragile. It started in academia and now is spilling out into the Synagogue and the Church.

Moffic, Rabbi Evan (2016-02-02). What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus: A New Way of Seeing the Most Influential Rabbi in History (Kindle Locations 62-83). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

read more »


2016-02-01

The Madness of King Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

H/t a BCHF thread: A book due out in a few months from now, The Madness of King Jesus: The Real Reasons for His Execution by Justin Meggittmadness

Given the understanding that the crucifixion of Jesus is “one of the most secure facts” we have in history Justin Meggitt tackles one of the perplexing conundrums that the crucifixion has left us: why did Pilate crucify Jesus yet not lift a finger against his followers, even allowing them to continue preaching about Jesus after his execution?

Some of us will be familiar with Paula Fredriksen’s answer to this question in Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Fredriksen’s argument is that Pilate knew Jesus was harmless — he had, according to the Gospel of John, travelled to Jerusalem for several years running where he preached quite harmlessly. For some reason on that last journey, however, the crowd got out of hand in their response to his preaching about the coming kingdom, and Pilate needed to nip in the bud early signs of trouble. Jesus was the one they were agitated over, so a quick crucifixion solved the problem. The disciples were of no account according to this equation.

Meggitt explains his confidence in the historicity of the crucifixion on page 380:

  1. multiple attestation in earliest Christian and non-Christian sources (Josephus, Tacitus);
  2. the absence of doubt by any of the early critics of the new religion;
  3. and “it is hard to imagine anyone in the early church would have wanted to fabricate [such a datum] about their founder”

These points (based on criteria of authenticity; an ideologically framed chronology; and the appeal to incredulity) are virtual mantras that are too rarely seriously questioned.

Another scholar, Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, in a 2013 article in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, “(Why) Was Jesus the Galilean Crucified Alone? Solving a False Conundrum”, resolves the dilemma by denying that Jesus was crucified alone but was indeed crucified with followers:

The view that those crucified with Jesus had nothing to do with him is not only exceedingly improbable from a historical standpoint, but it uncritically relies upon the story told in biased sources: only the theological necessity to distance Jesus from any rebellious connection can account for the tenacity with which this view is held.

Meggitt proposes a different solution. The book is not yet published but he has had an article on the same theme published in the same journal in 2007 (JSNT 29.4: 379-413), “The Madness of King Jesus: Why was Jesus Put to Death, but his Followers were not?” The abstract:

To argue that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by the Roman authorities because they believed him to be a royal pretender of some kind, fails to explain satisfactorily why he was killed but his followers were not. A possible solution to this conundrum, which is supported by neglected contextual data, is that the Romans thought Jesus of Nazareth to be a deranged and deluded lunatic.

The first part of the article outlines the evidence that it was standard practice for Roman rulers to pursue and execute followers of would-be insurrectionists along with their leaders. read more »


2016-01-25

Crucifixion Portrayed Before the Very Eyes of Galatians

by Neil Godfrey

Surely you have taken leave of your senses, you men of Galatia! Who has cast this spell over you, before whose very eyes Jesus Christ has been exposed to view as nailed on a cross? — Galatians 3:1, Cassirer’s translation.

Recent comments on Vridar prompted me to recheck what we know about this odd-sounding verse. Here I’ll quote the ancient sources that provide an explanatory context but I’ll also go one step further and (in debt to Thomas Brodie) look at a plausible inspiration for this expression and how it relates to the Gospel of Mark’s Passion Narrative. When we put this together and embrace the possibility of the Gospel’s debt to Paul’s letters then an interesting relationship between the two emerges over this very verse — of the Galatians apparently seeing Jesus Christ crucified before their very eyes.

But let’s begin with how Jesus was crucified “before their eyes”.

Hans Dieter Betz explains:

One of the goals of the ancient orator was to deliver his speech so vividly and impressively that his listeners imagined the matter to have happened right before their eyes. (Galatians, p. 131)

The evidence for this claim?

Aristotle

aristotle-rhetoricAristotle for one, Rhetoric, 3.11. I quote the passage at some length because Aristotle includes in his discussion a particular feature that we find in abundance throughout the Gospel of Mark — puns and other forms of wordplay .

It has already been mentioned that liveliness is got by using the proportional type of metaphor and being making (ie. making your hearers see things). We have still to explain what we mean by their ‘seeing things’, and what must be done to effect this. By ‘making them see things’ I mean using expressions that represent things as in a state of activity. Thus, to say that a good man is ‘four-square’ is certainly a metaphor; both the good man and the square are perfect; but the metaphor does not suggest activity. On the other hand, in the expression ‘with his vigour in full bloom’ there is a notion of activity; and so in ‘But you must roam as free as a sacred victim’; and in

“Thereas up sprang the Hellenes to their feet, “

where ‘up sprang’ gives us activity as well as metaphor, for it at once suggests swiftness. So with Homer’s common practice of giving metaphorical life to lifeless things: all such passages are distinguished by the effect of activity they convey. Thus,

“Downward anon to the valley rebounded the boulder remorseless; and “

“The (bitter) arrow flew; “

and

“Flying on eagerly; and “

Stuck in the earth, still panting to feed on the flesh of the heroes; and

“And the point of the spear in its fury drove

“full through his breastbone. “

In all these examples the things have the effect of being active because they are made into living beings; shameless behaviour and fury and so on are all forms of activity. And the poet has attached these ideas to the things by means of proportional metaphors: as the stone is to Sisyphus, so is the shameless man to his victim. In his famous similes, too, he treats inanimate things in the same way:

“Curving and crested with white, host following

“host without ceasing. “

Here he represents everything as moving and living; and activity is movement.

Metaphors must be drawn, as has been said already, from things that are related to the original thing, and yet not obviously so related-just as in philosophy also an acute mind will perceive resemblances even in things far apart. Thus Archytas said that an arbitrator and an altar were the same, since the injured fly to both for refuge. Or you might say that an anchor and an overhead hook were the same, since both are in a way the same, only the one secures things from below and the other from above. And to speak of states as ‘levelled’ is to identify two widely different things, the equality of a physical surface and the equality of political powers.

Liveliness is specially conveyed by metaphor, and by the further power of surprising the hearer; because the hearer expected something different, his acquisition of the new idea impresses him all the more. His mind seems to say, ‘Yes, to be sure; I never thought of that’. The liveliness of epigrammatic remarks is due to the meaning not being just what the words say: as in the saying of Stesichorus that ‘the cicalas will chirp to themselves on the ground’. Well-constructed riddles are attractive for the same reason; a new idea is conveyed, and there is metaphorical expression. So with the ‘novelties’ of Theodorus. In these the thought is startling, and, as Theodorus puts it, does not fit in with the ideas you already have. They are like the burlesque words that one finds in the comic writers. The effect is produced even by jokes depending upon changes of the letters of a word; this too is a surprise. You find this in verse as well as in prose. The word which comes is not what the hearer imagined: thus

“Onward he came, and his feet were shod with his-chilblains, “

where one imagined the word would be ‘sandals’. But the point should be clear the moment the words are uttered. . . .  This is also true of such lively remarks as the one to the effect that to the Athenians their empire (arche) of the sea was not the beginning (arche) of their troubles, since they gained by it. Or the opposite one of Isocrates, that their empire (arche) was the beginning (arche) of their troubles. Either way, the speaker says something unexpected, the soundness of which is thereupon recognized. There would be nothing clever in saying ’empire is empire’. Isocrates means more than that, and uses the word with a new meaning. So too with the former saying, which denies that arche in one sense was arche in another sense. . . .

. . . . The more a saying has these qualities, the livelier it appears: if, for instance, its wording is metaphorical, metaphorical in the right way, antithetical, and balanced, and at the same time it gives an idea of activity.

Successful similes also, as has been said above, are in a sense metaphors, since they always involve two relations like the proportional metaphor. . . .

Cicero

Maccari-Cicero

Then there is Cicero’s On the Orator (De Oratore), 3.40

Here almost every thing is expressed in words metaphorically adapted from something similar, that the description may be heightened. . . .

but, even in the greatest abundance of proper words, men are much more charmed with such as are uncommon, if they are used metaphorically with judgment. This happens, I imagine, either because it is some manifestation of wit to jump over such expressions as lie before you, and catch at others from a greater distance ; or be cause he who listens is led another way in thought, and yet does not wander from the subject, which is a very great pleasure ; or because a subject, and entire comparison, is dispatched in a single word ; or because every metaphor that is adopted with judgment, is directed immediately to our senses, and principally to the sense of sight, which is the keenest of them all. For such expressions as the odor of urbanity, the softness of humanity, the murmur of the sea, and sweetness of
language, are derived from the other senses ; but those which relate to the sight are much more striking, for they place almost in the eye of the mind such objects as we can not see and discern by the natural eyes.

read more »


2016-01-16

The Function of “Brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19

by Tim Widowfield
James the Just

James the Just

It seems hardly a month passes without somebody on Vridar bringing up Galatians 1:19, in which Paul refers to James as the “brother of the Lord.” Recently I ran a search for the phrase here, and after reading each post, it struck me how much time we’ve spent wondering what it means and so little time asking why it’s there in the first place.

What is the function of “brother of the Lord” in that sentence? Notice we can ask this question without raising the hackles of either the mythicists or historicists. Forget what it might mean. Forget (at least for the moment) who you think wrote it. It could have been Paul. It might have been the very first reader who added it as a marginal note or a scribe at some point along the transmission path. Instead, let’s ask why.

It would appear on the surface, at least, that “brother of the Lord” is a kind of descriptor. In other words, it tells us which James Paul met. Since 1:19 is the first time Paul mentions James in Galatians, perhaps that’s why we see it here. But then why didn’t Paul do the same thing in 1 Corinthians, which he probably wrote in the same year?

1 Cor 15:7  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (ESV)

One could argue that since he’d already referred to “the twelve” in 1 Cor 15:5, Paul didn’t need to explain which James he meant. In fact, he may have been reciting an early resurrection credo, and as such everyone would already have known who all the characters were — Cephas, the Twelve, the 500 brothers. They needed no introduction, so to speak.

Which James?

On the other hand, one could argue that in Galatians Paul could only have meant one James. He was, after all, starting an extended tirade against the Jerusalem pillars, and his Galatian audience would surely have known who he meant. He probably told that story all the time — “Then James sends a bunch of his thugs up to Antioch, and old Cephas is like, ‘I’m not eating with those Gentiles. No way!'” read more »


2015-12-10

Metonymy, Messianism, and Historicity in the New Testament

by Tim Widowfield
Jesus uppväcker Lazarus, målning av Karl Isaks...

Jesus Raising Lazarus from the Dead — Karl Isaksson, 1872-1922 Kategori:Målningar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I happened to notice a post on James McGrath’s site concerning a paper by Tom Thatcher about Jesus as a healer and a “controversialist.” As I take it, that term describes a figure who is no mere contrarian, but rather one who makes controversial statements or engages in controversial actions to stimulate debate or to educate and elucidate.

Thatcher presented his paper, which apparently isn’t yet available to the public, at the Society of Biblical Research’s 2015 Annual Meeting in Atlanta. His session, entitled “Jesus as Controversialist: Media-Critical Perspectives on the Historicity of the Johannine Sabbath Controversies,” bears the following abstract:

Apart from scattered sayings with clear parallels in other texts, it remains the case that the Johannine discourses are almost categorically disregarded as useful sources for the message of Jesus. Consistent with this approach, the dialogues of Jesus in John 5–10, which include some of the most significant Christological statements in the Gospel, are generally discounted whole as reflections of the Johannine imagination. The present paper will utilize insights drawn from media-criticism to propose a more holistic approach that seeks to identify broad patterns in John’s presentation that reflect widely-accepted themes in the message and program of the historical Jesus. Close analysis reveals that the discourses in John 5-10 are prompted by specific acts of protest by Jesus (the two Sabbath healings) that are directed toward the brokers of the Jerusalem great tradition. Against the establishment claim that he is a “sinner,” Jesus contends that his widely-documented activity as a healer would be impossible were it not sanctioned by God: If God objected to healing on Sabbath, then how could Jesus do so? One may reasonably conclude that the more elaborate theological statements in this central section of the Gospel are in fact grounded in three widely accepted conclusions: that the historical Jesus was a healer; that he challenged conventional views of Sabbath; and, that he openly opposed the Judean religious establishment. (Thatcher, 2015, emphasis mine)

read more »


2015-11-01

Peter as Apostate Apostle in the Gospel of Matthew?

by Neil Godfrey

Peter2Robert Gundry in a newly published book, Peter: False Disciple and Apostate according to Saint Matthew, describes himself as “a conservative evangelical Christian” with an interest in “the understanding that makes best sense of Matthew’s text when it comes to Peter.” His argument is that

Matthew portrays Peter as a false disciple of Jesus, a disciple who went so far as to apostatize; that Matthew does so to warn Christians against the loss of salvation through falsity-exposing apostasy; that this warning fits the Matthean theme of apostasy-inducing persecution; and that the danger of apostasy fits the further Matthean theme of the ongoing presence of false disciples in the church . . . till the end. 

That’s quite a daring proposal for most of us who have long viewed the Gospel of Matthew as the one gospel that does more than any other to exalt the role of Peter in the foundational history of the Church. Some of us have wondered if the Gospel of Mark was meant to be having a dig at the disciples for their faithlessness, and some have seen the Gospel of John as subtly suggesting that Peter’s spiritual qualities were somewhat inferior to those of “the Beloved Disciple”. But the Gospel of Matthew (henceforth “Matthew”) is famous for Jesus pronouncing that he was giving Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and “upon this rock I will build my church”.

So any suggestion that Matthew viewed Peter as an apostate is going to have some explaining to do.

First question: if Matthew thought Peter was a false apostle then why didn’t he say so directly? read more »


2015-07-10

Understanding the Emotional Jesus: temple tantrums, name-calling and grieving

by Neil Godfrey

This is the continuation of the previous post, Saving Jesus From Hypocrisy: Explaining Jesus’ temper tantrum and mudslinging.

We have already seen how his teachings conform to Stoic concepts but what about his behaviour? Is he a hypocrite for teaching his followers to call no-one a fool only to subsequently turn around and call the Pharisees fools? And what about that infamous “temple tantrum” (Fredriksen, 2000)? How did Jesus in Gethsemane feel about facing the crucifixion?

This post will conclude by explaining how the author of the Gospel of Matthew may have shaped Jesus as a Stoic sage, sometimes by subtly modifying aspects of Jesus’ behaviour in the Gospel of Mark. If I don’t answer your questions I hope at least to have left a few more questions.

Before we start, however, we need to be sure we have a basic understanding of what Stoicism in Roman times taught about law, emotions and the Stoic sage.

Divine Law

We spoke of the law of God/Zeus in the previous post. For the Stoic philosopher divine law was not a set of precepts nor even a set of principles as we might expect.

socratesI’m reminded of the time I came to believe that “people are more important than principles” — meaning that even the noblest of principles (e.g. never lie, never use violence), followed wholeheartedly, can sometimes cause more harm to people than the breaking of them. Some of us who have read several of Plato’s dialogues will recall Socrates arguing the same thing. Socrates accosts a well meaning young man and asks him a question about virtue; the young man might enunciate a principle that is an absolute virtue; then Socrates proceeds to unravel this view with a series of questions raising all sorts of situations where the principle is clearly not a virtue at all. Example,

Courage will sometimes require standing one’s place in battle, but sometimes will require retreat or some other action; justice will sometimes require returning deposits, but sometimes will forbid it. (Brennan, T 2005, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate, p.194)

Tad Brennan explains:

Thus in Stoic parlance, ‘law’ does not refer to a system of general principles, but to the particular injunctions of ethical experts. This is clear from their official definition of ‘law’.

Nothing about the standard Stoic definition of law says anything about generality or universality; it simply says that a law is a prescription or imperative (prostaktikon) that prescribes (prostattei) or forbids action. [The Stoic concept applied] not to the orders codified in the general and ‘law-like’ principles that are followed in the second-best constitution, but to the exceptional, anomalous over-riding prescriptions of the kingly expert. The essential nature of the law, in Stoicism, is that it prescribes, that is, issues imperative orders or commands, and the act of prescribing carries no assumption of generality or ‘law-likeness’; a reader . . . would assume that a prescription is an imperative or order, which, if anything, is more likely to be an ad hoc, one-off order that contravenes a standing system of general principles. Thus the centrality of ‘law’ to Stoic ethics has nothing to do with any interest in general, universal, or ‘law-like’ moral principles. (Brennan, T 2005, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate, pp.193-194)

The Stoic Sage

Heracles one one of a very rare few considered to have been a Stoic sage

Heracles one one of a very rare few considered to have been a Stoic sage

Recall from the previous post that only a Stoic sage, that most rare of persons, is the only one who is truly capable of living such a godly life. The sage follows not a set of precepts like civic codes but the will of Zeus expressed in universal law. And that universal law is not a set of rigid principles nor even a mind-set on ‘intentions’ to do right. One might say that even the Pharisees followed biblical principles and the wicked could borrow money with every intention of repaying it. The Stoic sage, like Zeus or God, embodied a far higher ethic.

One can see where this Stoic view is leading in relation to our theme of the Stoic Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. A Stoic sage-like Jesus is vulnerable to being accused of violating righteous principles and law even though the reader can see he is the true embodiment of the highest law.

One might also understand at this stage that Jesus’ own commands cam only be truly understood and followed if one possesses godly wisdom and true virtue. That is, one is not spiritually mature if one reduces a teaching of Jesus to an ‘inviolate principle’ for all time and circumstances.

The above helps us understand more clearly the following explanation by Stowers in relation to Jesus:

Ultimately, there is only one way to know what is the right thing to do in a particular circumstance or what Zeus requires: consult a sage. According to circumstances, the sage might even go against what convention and local law deemed to be appropriate actions in order to perform an appropriate and perfect action. The sage’s action, obedient to reason/Zeus, ultimately defines what constitutes a perfectly appropriate action in any particular circumstance. On this view, moral authority requires a perfect moral expert. Only the sage, then, stands as an authoritative interpreter of these common norms, codes, and local laws. . . . . 

I suggest that Matthew’s Jesus, who, unlike the traditional Judean experts on the law, interprets the law with total authority and embodies God’s own wisdom, is a figure shaped by the Stoic idea of the sage.  (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1653-1661). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And again,

[T]he sage’s action, although always following the will of God, the universal law and reason, might in particular circumstances be contrary to what the accepted moral norms of non-sages indicated was right, even for sages.  (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1844-1845). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But isn’t a Stoic supposed to have the full emotional range of Startreck’s Spock? Again, another learning curve I’ve been taking on since Stowers’ chapter and his various references.

Second, contrary to popular and scholarly conceptions of the Stoic, the sage was to be a highly “passionate” person who had and expressed strong feelings.(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1853-1855). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

“Impressions”, Pre-emotions

By the end of this post we will see just how important this concept is.

stoicismemotionThe emotions of mere mortals (those of us without the full understanding of the Stoic) are said to derive from false values. These emotions are responses to self-interested events and attachments to ephemeral possessions and are therefore not “good”. Stowers finds a more rounded picture, however, in the work titled Stoicism & Emotion by Margaret R. Graver. Graver explains that for the Stoic anyone, even a sage, could be suddenly “struck” against their will by an initial feeling for a situation — an “impression” (i.e. a pre-emotion, a preliminary awareness of the emotion), but the wise will deflect that “impression” be means of right reason and will power; the foolish will assent to it. Experiencing the initial “impression” of the emotion is not itself a wrong.

Normal human emotions can be either good or bad: delight and desire are better than distress and fear. But even good emotions are mundane because they arise out of false values. One is delighted to see a poor person being given a generous gift, for example, yet this is an emotional response over an entirely transient material gain.

The Stoic on the other hand will learn to embrace the “corrected” version of these emotions, or “proper feelings” that have been trained by right reasoning and understanding. (The term for these higher Stoic emotions is “eupathic” responses.) Rather than delight at seeing a poor person receive a handful of money the true Stoic will have joy (chara) in seeing the act of generosity itself, not the money in the hand of the poor. The corrected emotion is towards the “genuine good” and not the false good.

I use the example of joy because it is “preeminent among eupathic responses” for the Stoic.

An “ignorant” person will express the bad emotion of fear (of death, say). The Stoic on the other hand will rise above this emotion — after all, death at a certain time may in fact  be God’s will — and correct it into “caution”.

The unreasoned emotion of “desire” (which includes anger as a subset of desires in the Stoic taxonomy) will have its higher counterpart in the Stoic’s “wish” for the true values and the true good.

The evidence, I believe, following recent scholarship, shows that these good emotions might involve intense feeling such as in joy, religious reverence, and even erotic love. A sage would never have grief, anger, or fear. (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1861-1863). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Stoic sage interpretation of Jesus

So with this understanding of law, emotions and the sage in Stoic thought, let’s have another look at the behaviour of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.  read more »


2015-07-08

Saving Jesus From Hypocrisy: Explaining Jesus’ temper tantrum and mudslinging

by Neil Godfrey

stoicismWe have recently seen how Hector Avalos argues for the irrelevance of biblical ethics in today’s world but this post looks at how and why Jesus emerges for the first time as a supremely ethical figure in the Gospel of Matthew. Stanley Stowers (Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Brown University) argues that the author of this gospel refashioned the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark into a Stoic sage and thereby was responsible for giving the Christian world its figure of Jesus as the defining moral teacher of all time. And a Stoic sage, a truly godly person, might at times appear to act against worldly understandings of right and wrong but nonetheless maintain a truly virtuous authority.

So what is a Stoic sage? A Stoic Sage was a most rare phenomenon. The ancient Stoics

either doubted that a sage had ever lived or thought that maybe one or two had existed — perhaps Socrates, Heracles, or the earliest humans. Philo of Alexandria makes Moses into such an authority, a sage who embodies the law. 

(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1658-1659). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

That’s not exactly a definition of a Stoic sage but it does prepare us for the distinctive portrait of Jesus that we find in the Gospel of Matthew. Before we can plunge into more details about this sage we need to grasp the broader argument that Matthew was creating an idealistic Stoic teacher figure for his gospel despite sometimes being challenged by some very unStoic Jesus passages in his Gospel of Mark source.

Since reading Stowers’ argument I have come to think that this explanation potentially accounts for a significant number of the differences between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that till now have widely been understood as evidence of differences in the ways two authors have used a common source, Q. But I am jumping ahead of myself here.

Let’s start at the beginning, with the Jesus in our earliest records. (I’ll speak of Matthew as the author of the Gospel of Matthew for convenience even though this traditional attribution is questionable at the very least.)

Jesus emerges for the first time as a teacher of ethics in the Gospel of Matthew. Before this Gospel we meet Jesus in the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark where he is portrayed in a quite different role. Stowers explains:

In the earliest sources, the only sources that precede and are not definitively shaped by the Roman destruction of the Judean temple and Jerusalem, one cannot even determine that Jesus was a teacher of ethics. If Paul knew that Jesus was such a teacher, he does not use either the teachings or the idea that Jesus was a teacher of ethics, even though the teachings from the later Matthew and Luke would be very relevant and overlap with his own teachings. 

(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1597-1601). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

We find the same observation in Stevan Davies’ book (Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity) that we recently discussed,

We do not know what those teachings were. Our sources are as confused as we are and two of them, Mark and Thomas, indicate that they thought his public teachings basically incomprehensible. Paul shows no interest in them, nor do the other letter writers of the New Testament, and Jesus’ teachings play no role in the spread of the Christian movement according to the Acts of the Apostles. John freely makes up teachings for Jesus to teach. . . . 

Two of our principal sources of information about Jesus did not believe in Jesus the Teacher at all. Paul refers on occasion to teachings, generally as proof-text support for his own opinions, but Jesus the Teacher is otherwise of no interest to him. Paul swears to the Galatians “Before God I am not lying!” that he made no effort to learn about Jesus and his teachings from the eyewitnesses easily accessible to him (Gal. 1: 1-2: 15). John’s gospel, similarly does not contain the teachings of Jesus as that phrase is understood in contemporary scholarship. . . . 

It might be argued that Jesus was a great teacher but, thanks to radical changes in his followers’ view of him after his death, his teachings were no longer relevant to their enterprise. But Q, Thomas, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (in the Gospel) do give us teachings; indeed, it may well be that the very idea that Jesus was primarily a teacher came into being only after his death.

Davies, Stevan (2014-12-19). Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity (pp. 21, 45, 46). Kindle Edition. (Italics original; bolding and formatting mine in all quotations)

Matthew’s sources

Matthew’s main source was the Gospel of Mark. We know this because he reproduced the bulk of it in his own gospel. Mark’s Jesus, however, was more dark than light:

Mark presents Jesus as a teacher of mysterious teachings about the coming kingdom of God, a mystery so obscure that none of Jesus’ disciples are able to understand it. Jesus in Mark is about as remote from a guide about how one ought to live day to day as one can imagine.

(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1604-1605). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Matthew’s other source in Stowers’ argument is Q, the source for much of Jesus’ teaching material. Q is coming under increasing questioning in now but I don’t think the removal of Q makes a significant difference to Stowers’ larger argument. (Stowers compares sayings in Q with Matthew’s modifications to argue for Matthew’s intent to make Jesus a Stoic teacher, but since the “more primitive” Q sayings are derived from the Gospel of Luke, one can also argue that Luke was opposed to the Stoic ethic found in Matthew’s Jesus.)

What is the evidence that Matthew was inspired by Stoic philosophy when he decided to shape a new Jesus out of this material, one who both teaches and personifies the essence of the highest morality imaginable? read more »


2015-06-07

The Historicity — and modern liberalism — of Paul

by Neil Godfrey

No doubt  many readers have already been alerted to Richard Carrier latest blog post: The Historicity of Paul the Apostle.

Our Kiwi friend at Otagosh has also posted an alert to this post with his own commentary.

I am traveling and it’s too awkward to elaborate with my own response at the moment. In sum, I do accept Paul as a historical figure but exactly who or what he was behind the letters is not entirely clear. Roger Parvus also raises interesting questions, as many of us know.

Skimming Richard’s arguments my first impression is that some are more solid than others (as with most things); some strike me as discussion starters more than conclusions. read more »


2015-04-20

The Memory Mavens, Part 6: How Did Paul Remember Jesus?

by Tim Widowfield

We have covered the subject of the apostle Paul’s silence on Jesus’ life many times on Vridar. But for quite a while now, I’ve been thinking we keep asking the same, misdirected questions. NT scholars have kept us focused on the narrow confines of the debate they want to have. But there are other questions that we need to ask.

Last Judgment panel Diest 001

Last Judgment panel Diest 001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pretty apocalyptic prophets, all in a row

For example, Bart Ehrman, defending his claim that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, has habitually argued that we can draw a sort of “line of succession” from John the Baptist, through Jesus, to Paul. In Did Jesus Exist? he explains it all in an apocalyptic nutshell:

At the beginning of Jesus’s ministry he associated with an apocalyptic prophet, John; in the aftermath of his ministry there sprang up apocalyptic communities. What connects this beginning and this end? Or put otherwise, what is the link between John the Baptist and Paul? It is the historical Jesus. Jesus’s public ministry occurs between the beginning and the end. Now if the beginning is apocalyptic and the end is apocalyptic, what about the middle? It almost certainly had to be apocalyptic as well. To explain this beginning and this end, we have to think that Jesus himself was an apocalypticist. (Ehrman, 2012, p. 304, emphasis mine)

Dr. Ehrman sees the evidence at the ends as “keys to the middle.” For him, it’s a decisive argument.

The only plausible explanation for the connection between an apocalyptic beginning and an apocalyptic end is an apocalyptic middle. Jesus, during his public ministry, must have proclaimed an apocalyptic message.

I think this is a powerful argument for Jesus being an apocalypticist. It is especially persuasive in combination with the fact, which we have already seen, that apocalyptic teachings of Jesus are found throughout our earliest sources, multiply attested by independent witnesses. (Ehrman, 2012, p. 304, emphasis mine)

You’ve probably heard Ehrman make this argument elsewhere. He’s nothing if not a conscientious recycler. Here, he follows up by summarizing Jesus’ supposed apocalyptic proclamation. Jesus heralds the coming kingdom of God; he refers to himself as the Son of Man; he warns of the imminent day of judgment. And how should people prepare for the wrath that is to come?

We saw in Jesus’s earliest recorded words that his followers were to “repent” in light of the coming kingdom. This meant that, in particular, they were to change their ways and begin doing what God wanted them to do. As a good Jewish teacher, Jesus was completely unambiguous about how one knows what God wants people to do. It is spelled out in the Torah. (Ehrman, 2012, p. 309)

Unasked questions

However, Ehrman’s argument works only if we continue to read the texts with appropriate tunnel vision and maintain discipline by not asking uncomfortable questions. Ehrman wants us to ask, “Was Paul an apocalypticist?” To which we must answer, “Yes,” and be done with it.

But I have more questions. read more »


2015-04-05

Curious Contacts Between John’s Gospel and the Asclepius Myth

by Tim Widowfield

I’ve been trying to think of something worthy of posting on this Easter Sunday, 2015. All I can come up with at the moment is a subject I’ve had on the back burner for some time, namely the handful of references in the Fourth Gospel (FG) that remind us of Asclepius. Longtime readers may recall Neil’s description from his review of Jesus Potter Harry Christ.

Asclepius the gentle and personally accessible deity, lover of children, gentle, exorcist and healer, and one whose cult was considered at certain times the greatest threat to Christianity.

Several scholars have remarked upon the parallels in terminology and legends that surround both Jesus and Asclepius. Of course, the most obvious things that come to mind would include the designations of savior (sōtēr | σωτήρ) and healer or physician (iatros | ἰατρός). But I’m more interested for now in the specific events or ideas presented in the Gospel of John.

Rod of Asclepius

Rod of Asclepius (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Bronze Serpent and the Rod of Asclepius

I’ll start with the most obvious connections and proceed to the more tenuous. The most prominent correlation between Asclepius and the FG has to be the brazen serpent.

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. (John 3:14-15, KJV)

In the United States, especially, we tend to confuse the caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius. We should associate the caduceus with the god Hermes; hence, it’s a symbol for traders, heralds, or ambassadors. The Rod (or Staff) of Asclepius, on the other hand, is a symbol of healing.

The bronze serpent or Nehushtan in the Hebrew Bible also had specific healing properties.

And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:9, NASB)

Oddly enough, we read that during Hezekiah’s reign, the bronze serpent was destroyed as a part of his reform movement. read more »


2015-03-29

Why Is the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament?

by Neil Godfrey
Lion of St Mark by Vittore Carpaccio

Lion of St Mark by Vittore Carpaccio

I recently completed Michael J. Kok’s exploration of why the Gospel of Mark came to be associated with the apostle Peter and included in our canon despite appearing at first glance to be little more than a synopsis of the other gospels and little used by the early church according to the extant records, and despite having a “questionable past” among the “heretics”. His book, The Gospel on the Margins: the Reception of Mark in the Second Century, is a published version of his PhD thesis.

When I first read the Gospel of Mark I was stunned. I was a devout young Christian attending the local Methodist church and had decided to read the four gospels in sequence for the first time. I had a nifty paperback new English translation of them that made the project appealing for a young teenager. The Gospel of Matthew was pretty much as I had expected. But the Gospel of Mark left me confused. It was not light. It was dark. Foreboding. Nothing like Matthew at all and nothing in my Sunday school classes had prepared me for it. Lucky Luke came next and restored my image of an approachable and compassionate Jesus with a loyal following with whom I could identify.

Fast forward many years and I am no longer a Christian but I have chosen to follow through my earlier interest in the Bible and now enjoy learning what I can about its origins from a historical perspective. One thing I have learned is that the Gospel of Mark appears to have been cited very rarely in the early literature of the Church Fathers. The Gospel of Matthew appears most frequently. However, most scholars have concluded that Mark was the earliest gospel that was written. Matthew and Luke repeat — generally with subtle but significant modifications — large portions of it; many scholars also believe the Gospel of John was composed in some sort of dialogue with Mark and a little digging quickly shows us why they have come to this conclusion.

So if the Gospel of Mark does so easily disturb one immersed in orthodoxy and if it was so little used among the earliest Fathers then why was it copied with revisions by later evangelists and even incorporated into our New Testament canon?

Recall some of its “strange” features:  read more »