Category Archives: New Testament


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 »


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 »


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 »


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 »


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 »


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 »


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 »


Did Jesus’ Mother and Brothers Lose Faith in Jesus?

by Tim Widowfield
Max Zerwick

Max Zerwick

He said, she said, they said

Sometimes I like to lull myself to sleep at night by reading obscure books about Biblical Greek. I recently picked up a real snore-fest by Maximilian Zerwick called Biblical Greek: Illustrated Examples. Early in the book Zerwick talks about a phenomenon in Greek, which also exists in English, in which the third person plural refers to some general, anonymous group, usually best translated as “they say” or “people say.”

In German and French, there’s a singular form (“man sagt” and “on dit“), but in English we have the same sort of thing as in Greek. For example:

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance. –Terry Pratchett (Equal Rites, emphasis mine)

As Zerwick rightly points out, we usually see the indefinite plural with verbs of telling, hence in Latin: “dicunt, ferunt, tradunt.” It’s possible that indefinite plurals were common in Aramaic, which Zerwick suggests may have influenced Mark. He writes:

This is perhaps why it occurs with especial frequency in Mk, often, in parallel passages, corrected by Mt, and still oftener by Lk. . . . [I]n Mk (3,21) we read a text which seems offensive to the honour of the Mother of God: ἀκούσαντες οἱ παρ’ αὐτοῦ ἐξῆλθον κρατῆσαι αὐτόν, ἔλεγον γὰρ ὅτι ἐξέστη [akousntes hoi par’ autou exēlthon kratēsai auton, elegon gar hoti exestē]. These παρ’ αὐτοῦ [par’ autou] are later (v. 31) said to be “His mother and his brethren.” Were they necessarily the ones who thought Jesus was deranged? (Zerwick, 2011, p. 2)

In most English translations, the meaning seems to be that Mary and Jesus’ brothers thought he had come unhinged.

And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21, ESV)

His family heard” . . . “they went out” . . . “they were saying.” Simple, right?  read more »


Mary’s Strange Question (and stranger anatomy!)

by Neil Godfrey
By John Collier - From

By John Collier – From

Familiarity with the stories of Jesus’ birth can blind us to recognizing just how bizarre are some of their details. Okay, maybe the virgin birth itself is bizarre but I recently read one reasonably well-known scholar opining that even that may not be so bizarre when we stop and recollect the ability of certain animals such as Komodo Dragons to reproduce by parthenogenesis. The scholar stopped short of speculating how it was that Mary came to be born human-like yet presumably with reptilian internal organs or the nature of the children she later bore to Joseph.

The Gospel of Luke opens with the angel Gabriel dropping in on two earthlings without the courtesy of advance notice. The first was the very elderly priest, Zechariah. Gabriel interrupted him during work hours in the Temple causing a religious ceremony to be unceremoniously held up in midstream, told Zechariah that he and his equally elderly wife were going to have a child and then cursed him with the inability to speak for daring to ask how any couple well beyond menopause could possibly bear children.

Six months later the same Gabriel dropped in on Mary. Now Mary, Luke tells us, was a virgin engaged to be married to Joseph. We are not told when they were planning to marry but no doubt Mary spent a lot of time thinking about that day and what married life with Joseph would be like.

There Be DragonsGabriel told Mary that she was going to have a baby boy and that she was to name him Jesus.

Mary immediately forgot she was engaged to be married and so asked Gabriel how that was possible since she was, well, not married. Mary’s question was as dumb as Zechariah’s was smart.

Mary’s question is very puzzling: why should a woman about to marry wonder at the notion that she will soon conceive? (Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions, p. 51)

So what’s going on here? Why does Luke make Mary look so absurdly naive?  read more »


Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (11)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 11: Luke Abandons the Secrecy Motif

While we may have had to wait until the end of Mark’s story for the denouement of the secrecy gospel, Luke removes all suspense early on with the scene in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-30). In The Messianic Secret, William Wrede writes:

Here Jesus reads out the words of Isaiah 61.1f. regarding the anointing for messianic vocation and then goes on to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. But this is nothing other than a messianic self-proclamation, and if Luke in all probability made up this scene himself in so far as it is at variance with Mark, and certainly thought of it as an introduction determining the character of the presentation of the story which follows, yet one gains the impression that here he is doing something which Mark would hardly have done. However many contradictions may be found in Mark along with the idea of secret messiahship, this is on a different footing. It looks like a denial of the idea itself. (Wrede, 1901/1971, p. 178, emphasis mine)

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

The Sermon on the Mount (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is the Sermon on the Mount private instruction?

Luke’s Jesus does not hide his light under a bushel. He lets everyone know who he is. We can see the extent to which Luke has embraced this public, openly messianic Jesus even in the way he teaches the crowd.

Wrede makes the point that in Matthew, much of the instruction Jesus imparts to his disciples remains private. The Transfiguration, the prophecy of the passion, the meaning of parables, the “question about the last things,” etc. happen away from the crowds and sometimes away from the majority of the disciples. But that’s not all.

We may also mention that even the Sermon on the Mount is regarded as instruction of the disciples. For according to 5.1, when Jesus sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain and then the disciples approach him[*] in order to receive his teaching. This, of course, is again forgotten at the end of the sermon in 7.28.

[*] prosēlthan autō hoi mathētai, Matthew is very willing to say, even although they were already together with Jesus. Proserchesthai [coming near to, approaching] is generally used by him more often than in all the other New Testament writings put together. (Wrede, 1901/1971, p. 178)

In other words, Jesus is moving away from the crowd and up the mountain where he will give private (secret?) instruction. Apologetic and traditional commentators haven’t seen it that way, of course. Instead of retreating, they imagine that Jesus is simply getting a better vantage point from which to address the crowd. But the text is quite clear. read more »


Jesus the Seed of David: One More Case for Interpolation

by Neil Godfrey

Romans 1:1-7 (YLT)

1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, a called apostle,

having been separated to the good news of God —

2 which He announced before through His prophets in holy writings —

3 concerning His Son,

(who is come of the seed of David according to the flesh,

4 who is marked out Son of God in power, according to the Spirit of sanctification [=Holy Spirit], by the rising again from the dead,)

Jesus Christ our Lord;

5 through whom we did receive grace and apostleship, for obedience of faith among all the nations,

in behalf of his name;

6 among whom are also ye, the called of Jesus Christ;

7 to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called saints; Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father, and [from] the Lord Jesus Christ!

Interpolation is a four letter word for some scholars: it can only be justified under extreme provocation such as when all the earliest witnesses leave not a shadow of doubt.

Such a standard flies in the face of what we know about the transmission of ancient manuscripts, especially the canonical ones. See Forgery in the ancient world and List of scholars believing Paul’s letters were interpolated. Nonetheless I can understand why some authors play it safe by being very reluctant to treat any passage in Paul’s letters as an interpolation unless supported by widely acknowledged arguments. I’m not so conservative. If only one scholar produces very sound arguments that his or her peers fail to address then I’m willing to take the possibility of interpolation seriously.

So much for the preamble.

Sparks have flown between Christ Myth advocates and their opponents over the opening passage in Paul’s epistle to the Romans that declares Jesus Christ to be “of the seed of David according to the flesh” but these verses may have another significance for our understanding of how early Christian ideas evolved. So forget the mythicist debate for a moment.

Many of us are aware of Hermann Detering’s arguments for Romans 1:2-6 being an interpolation laden with anti-Marcionite innuendo. I won’t repeat those here. Consider this a related post.

I have also posted the 1942 argument of A. D. Howell-Smith for Romans 1:3 (who is come of the seed of David) being an interpolation. Again, consider this post related.

Alfred Loisy (1935) makes a passing reference to Romans 1:3-4 (see the bolded passage in the side box) being a likely interpolation in Remarques sur la littérature épistolaire du Nouveau Testament, p. 9. These lines are anomalous padding within a standard introduction.

J. C. O’Neill in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (1975) published a detailed argument for why we should consider all of verses 1b to 5a as an interpolation. (See the indented lines in the side-box. He also found the words I have italicized intrusive.) It is O’Neill’s discussion pages 25 to 28 that I set out below.

Normal Letter Introductions

Normal introductions were as simple as possible. Example:

Demophon to Ptolemaeus, greeting.

Affectionate and official letters could be elaborated a little:

Apion to Epimarchus his father and Lord, heartiest greetings. 

Polycrates to his father, greeting.

Claudius Lysias to his Excellency the governor Felix, greeting. (Acts 23:26)

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion, greeting. (James 1:1)

Paul’s Introductions

read more »


Why Luke Changed a Jesus Miracle Story

by Neil Godfrey

centurion-kneeling-at-the-feet of JesusIn Luke 7 we read about Jesus being urged by his fellow Jews to have special sympathy for a Roman centurion whose beloved servant was at the point of death “because he (the centurion) loved” the Jewish people and had built them a synagogue.

The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them. (Luke 7:3-6, NIV)

A story so similar it is generally believed to be of the same event is found in Matthew 8. (Now if you do not believe the author of the Gospel of Luke knew the Gospel of Matthew then mentally re-adjust what follows to apply to the way Luke changed a tradition known to Matthew or to the way a tradition known Matthew’s spawned a mutation that eventually found its way to Luke.)

Matthew’s tale reveals a very different centurion. Not a word about his affinity with Jews. Rather, in Matthew’s account it is the centurion’s distance from Jews that establishes the whole point of the story. read more »


Drowning the Gerasene Swine: A Mock Sacrifice?

by Tim Widowfield
Portrait of the king of Pontus Mithridates VI ...

Portrait of the king of Pontus Mithridates VI as Heracles. Marble, Roman imperial period (1 st century). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Appian of Alexandria’s The Mithridatic Wars, we read that in preparation for the third war against Rome, Mithridates VI of Pontus performed sacrifices to Zeus Stratius “in the usual manner.” Then he propitiated the god of the sea by sacrificing “to Poseidon by plunging a chariot with white horses into the sea.”

Adrienne Mayor, author of The Poison King, embellishes upon Appian’s laconic narrative. [Note: Both spellings, Mithradates and Mithridates, are commonly found in the literature. The first is more common in Greek inscriptions, while the Romans preferred the latter.]

Four snow-white horses pulled the golden chariot, encrusted with gems flashing in the sun’s first rays. There was no driver. The beautiful horses galloped at full speed across the windswept cliff and plunged into the sparkling sea below.

Mayor, Adrienne (2009-09-28). The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (Kindle Locations 4605-4607). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Mayor recounts how this startling image captivated peoples’ imaginations over the centuries.

Some five hundred years later, for example, the early Christian writer Sidonis Apollinaris described a splendid castle in Gaul adorned by a dramatic painting of Mithradates’ sacrifice. In 1678, the English playwright Nathaniel Lee pictured Mithradates sending “a chariot, all with emeralds set, and filled with coral tridents, [and] a hundred horses, wild as wind” over the precipice.

Mayor, Adrienne (2009-09-28). The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (Kindle Locations 4610-4612). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

While reading Mayor’s book over two years ago, I immediately began to wonder whether this act of Mithridates might have been on Mark’s mind when he wrote the story of the Gerasene demoniac. Off and on since then, I’ve half-heartedly searched for scholarly articles that might link the two stories, but so far to no avail.  read more »


A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 15:  Simon/Paul and the Law of Moses (continued)

by Roger Parvus

For all posts in this series: Roger Parvus: A Simonian Origin for Christianity

Previous post in this series:  A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 14: Simon/Paul and the Law of Moses (continued)


The Apostle, in Gal. 3:7, asserted that “It is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham.”

In Galatians the Apostle apparently viewed the Mosaic covenant as ordained by enslaving angels. If so, Israel was never God’s chosen people.

What, then, ought we make of the contrary claim in Romans 9-11?

And we have seen in the two previous posts that, according to one respectable reading of Galatians, the Apostle viewed the Mosaic covenant as being ordained not by God but by enslaving angels. That would seem to mean that of the “two covenants” (Gal. 4:24) allegorically represented by Sarah and Hagar, God was a party to only one.

It is “you, brothers, like Isaac” who “are children of the promise” (Gal. 4:28). Israel, represented by the child of Hagar the slave woman, was promised nothing. In this scenario it is incorrect to say that Israel was no longer God’s chosen people, for it was never that in the first place.

But even if this interpretation is correct, there are many scholars who think that Paul, for one reason or another, went overboard in Galatians. It is often said that from Romans one can get a better idea of what Paul really thought about the Law.

In Romans, Paul takes the time to explain his views more clearly (or perhaps to state his altered views), and in doing so he backs away from the more negative things he said about the law in Galatians. (Dale B. Martin, New Testament History and Literature, p. 241)

So in this post I will go to Romans and consider what is said there about Israel’s status. The most pertinent section is Romans 9-11. As we have come to expect, it is yet another passage that zigzags.


Two voices

The voice in much of Romans 9-11 is recognizably the same one that in Galatians is critical of the Law. It insists that justification is by faith apart from works of the Law and, as in Gal. 3:28, it says that applies to both Jew and Gentile:

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. (Rom. 10:12)

But at other times we seem to hear a different voice, one that says there are important distinctions after all. It tells us in Rom. 9:4-5 that God gave seven gifts to the Jews. Those gifts they still retain, for “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). And we learn that God keeps for himself a “remnant” (Rom. 9:27; 11:5) of Israel, and that at some point in the future he will see to it that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26). No similar guarantee is extended to the Gentiles. In fact, they are warned to watch their step.

One voice says that “not all who are of Israel are Israel” (9:6). It redefines elect Israel to mean all those called by God whether from the Gentiles or the Jews (9:24). But the other voice still considers Israel “according to the flesh” to be God’s people.

quote_begin Instead of the Apostle trying “to have it both ways,” it may be that an interpolator had his way with the Apostle’s letter!   quote_end

C.H. Dodd: “Paul tries to have it both ways.”

So what is going on here? Is Paul letting his emotional attachment to his kinsmen cloud his thinking?

From our standpoint, with a far longer historical retrospect than Paul could have dreamt of, the special importance here assigned to the Jews and their conversion in the forecast of the destiny of mankind appears artificial. It is doubtful whether it is really justified on Paul’s own premisses. The fact is that he has argued from the promise to Abraham on two divergent and perhaps inconsistent lines. If the promise means ultimate blessedness for ‘Israel,’ then either the historical nation of Israel may be regarded as the heir of the promise, and Paul is justified in saying that “all Israel will be saved,” or its place may be taken by the New Israel, the Body of Christ in which there is neither Jew nor Greek; but in that case there is no ground for assigning any special place in the future to the Jewish nation as such. Paul tries to have it both ways. We can well understand that his emotional interest in his own people, rather than strict logic, has determined his forecast. (C.H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, pp. 182-183, my bolding)

Perhaps, but in line with my Simonian hypothesis, I would like to consider another possibility. Instead of the Apostle trying “to have it both ways,” it may be that an interpolator had his way with the Apostle’s letter!  If the original author of Romans was Simon of Samaria, he did not view Israel’s failure to believe in Christ as in any way bringing into question God’s fidelity to his promises. The Jews may have thought they entered a covenant with God at Sinai, but Moses mediated that arrangement not on behalf of God, but of the angels who made the world. The proto-orthodox, however, held that God had instituted the Mosaic covenant, and so it reflected badly on him that his chosen people had failed to embrace the gospel. Much of Rom. 9-11 could be the work of a proto-orthodox interpolator dealing with that theological problem.

Let’s see if these chapters can be plausibly untangled along the lines of this hypothesis. read more »