Category Archives: Religion


2014-07-08

The Evolution of the Son of Man, the Human & Divine Messiah

by Neil Godfrey

Throne3This post outlines the way Jewish ideas about God appear to have developed until they found a new form in the Christian Messiah, the heavenly Son of Man. I base it on a range of scholarly articles and books (including Black, Boyarin, Erho, Fossum, Knibb, Rowland, Wolfson) but will not reference each detail in this overview.

In the beginning God

Let’s start with the visions of God on his throne in 1 Kings 22:19-22 and Isaiah 6:1-8.

In the Kings passage the prophet Micaiah tells king Ahab of a vision he had of the Yahweh sitting on his throne in heaven. In this vision God commissioned an evil spirit to go and inspire false prophets to tell lies and lure the wicked king to his doom. The significant detail for our purposes here, though, is that Yahweh himself ordered the commissioning of the prophets through a lower angel. One angel from among the multitudes of angels volunteered to carry out God’s request.

So God clearly acts from above and without equal.

The second passage tells us of Isaiah’s vision of God on this throne, but this time the throne is in the Temple — on earth. This time God is accompanied by a presumably higher order of angel called seraphim. Again God is high above and has no equal. A seraphim approaches Isaiah to place a burning hot coal he has taken from the altar of the temple on his lips and prepare him for God’s call. God then commissions Isaiah to take his message of judgment to Israel.

So far we have seen God act exactly as we would expect him to act given our clear monotheistic understanding of how God is supposed to be.

Now we come to Ezekiel and suddenly something seems to go slightly askew.

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2014-07-06

Jesus Evolved From an Angel?

by Neil Godfrey
Ezekiel by Raphael

Ezekiel by Raphael

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

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

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

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

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

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2014-04-30

The Myth of Judean Exile 70 CE

by Neil Godfrey
English: Jews in Jerusalem

English: Jews in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While we have “sacred space” and religious violence in our thoughts, it’s high time I posted one more detail I wish the scholars who know better would themselves make more widely known.

The population of Judea was not exiled at the conclusion of the war with Rome when the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Nor was it exiled after the second (Bar Kochba) revolt 132-135 CE. The generations following that revolt witnessed the “golden age” of Jewish culture in the Palestine (as it was then called) of Rabbi HaNasi, the legendary compiler of the Mishnah.

In the seventh century an estimated 46,000 Muslim warriors swept through Judea and established liberal policies towards all monotheists. Arabs did not move in from the desert to take over the farmlands and become landowners. The local Jewish population even assisted the Muslims against their hated Byzantine Christian rulers. While the Jews suffered under the Christian rulers, no doubt with some converting to Christianity for their own well-being, many resisted as is evident from the growth in synagogue construction at this time. Under Muslim rule, however, Jews were not harassed as they were under the Christians, yet there appears to have been a decline in Jewish religious presence.

How can we account for this paradox? Given that Muslims were not taxed, it is reasonable to assume that the decline in Jewish religious constructions can be explained by many Jews over time converting to Islam. Certainly David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi in 1918 published their hopes that their Muslim Jewish counterparts in Palestine might be assimilated with their immigrant cousins.

There never was a mass exile of Jews from Judea/Palestine. At least there is no historical record of any such event. Believe me, for years I looked for it. In past years my religious teaching told me it had happened, but when I studied ancient history I had to admit I could not see it. Sometimes historian made vague generalized references to suggest something like it happened, but there was never any evidence cited and the evidence that was cited did not testify to wholesale exile.

Who started the myth?

It was anti-semitic Christian leaders who introduced the myth of exile: the “Wandering Jew” was being punished for his rejection of Christ. Justin Martyr in the mid second century is the first to express this myth.

So where did all the Jews that Justin knew of come from if they were, in his eyes, “a-wandering”?

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2014-04-29

Fighting Words: How Religion Causes Violence

by Neil Godfrey

FightingWordsI have just completed reading Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence by Hector Avalos. The argument is not quite what I expected but it was certainly clear and logical and has given me a new perspective on the way religion and religious conflicts function in our communities and the world at large.

Now I have been one of those atheists who does not see religion in and of itself as evil; I quite understand and to an extent sympathize with people’s attachments to their faith. There was a brief time in my past when I had an essentialist view of religion and saw its irrational and exclusivist belief systems as an evil blight on our society but I have long since tempered my outlook. Too soon, I think I can hear Hector Avalos objecting. Not that religion necessarily causes violence. Clearly it doesn’t always and there are times when religion is used for the benefit of others. But “as a mode of life and thought” Avalos argues that religion is “fundamentally prone to violence”.

Avalos begins with the axiom that it is scarcity of resources that so often lead to violence. Even the fear of imminent scarcity or the mere perception of an imagined scarcity can be enough to provoke war. Land can be a scarce resource. (We might add “oil” as another and let myself be sidetracked for a moment by referring to a recent Guardian article that has appeared on the web, Tony Blair’s Islamist obsession is a smokescreen to defend ‘blood for oil’, by Nafeez Ahmed.) Resources do not have to be tangible. A sense of security, for example, can be a scarce resource.

Hector Avalos argues that many scholars have misunderstood the nature and function of religion in conflicts by thinking of it as “essentially good” while violence associated with it is considered a perversion of its true values. Rather, Avalos argues, we need to understand that religion itself has the ability to create scarcity of resources — imaginary ones, or at least those that are unverifiable by normal methods — and it is this function that can be the trigger to violence.

The difference between scarcity caused by religious beliefs and other types of scarcities is that the former are unverifiable while the latter are clearly real to all. This is what makes religious violence morally worse than other forms of violence: religious violence is about imaginary or unverifiable resources (e.g. an offended deity) while other types of violence are seeking to exchange blood for something real (e.g. self-preservation).

Religion, as a mode of lie and thought that is premised on relationships with supernatural forces and/or beings, is fundamentally prone to violence. . . . Since there are no objective means to adjudicate unverifiable claims, conflict and violence ensue when counterclaims are made. As such, the potential for violence is part of every religious tradition. . . . (Loc. 5119)

The solution, Avalos, argues, must begin with

making believers aware of how religion can create scarce resources. (Loc. 4834)

Let’s explain. It was a new concept for me, too.

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Castration of Ouranos and the Drunkenness of Noah

by Neil Godfrey

cronos-003This post complements my previous one about the Ham “seeing his father’s nakedness” story developing in three stages:

  1. Originally the story was an adaption of the myths of the youngest son castrating his father (the motive: to maintain an inheritance)
  2. Then it was more delicately shifted to a story of illicit sex
  3. And finally most bashfully of all the story left readers wondering if all Ham did was “have a look”.

Philippe Wajdenbaum (whose book, Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, I have discussed a few times before) gives a more detailed comparison between the Ham-Noah narrative and the Greek myth.

Recall that a number of scholars — Wajdenbaum among them — argue that Genesis was written relatively late, even as late as the second century by which time the Greeks had spread throughout the Near East. Such a late date opens a window for another perspective on how the story found its way into the Bible.

First recap the Genesis narrative — Genesis 9:20-27 (KJV)

20 And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. 21 Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.

24 So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. 25 Then he said:

Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brethren.”

26 And he said:

“Blessed be the Lord,
The God of Shem,
And may Canaan be his servant.
27 May God enlarge Japheth,
And may he dwell in the tents of Shem;
And may Canaan be his servant.”

Japheth is to be enlarged. That is, expanded — even into the tents of Shem. Hence the argument that this prophecy reflects a time after Alexander the Great’s conquests and the Hellenization of the Near East.

Greeks migrated everywhere -- the dark green and more. Map from http://www.atlasofworldhistory.com/

Greeks migrated everywhere — the dark green and more. Map from http://www.atlasofworldhistory.com/

Now we have more justification to compare the Greek myth as found in Hesiod’s Theogony. (I suspect Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, our authors discussed in the previous post, were less enthusiastic about the comparison with the Greek version of the myth if they embrace a more traditional date for Genesis.)

Here is Hesiod’s account of the birth of the youngest son who was destined to castrate his father, Uranus (Heaven), and his older brother Iapetus:

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2014-04-28

What Did Ham Do to Noah?

by Neil Godfrey

Ksenophontov_noahNow for something light. It comes from a book by two professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, titled From Gods to God: How the Hebrew Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths & Legends, published 2004 by the Jewish Publication Society. Chapter 14 explores the curious episode that led a hungover Noah to curse Canaan, the fourth son of Ham.

We know the story in all its vagueness. After the flood Noah became the first in the new world order to plant a vineyard, to make wine, and to get blind drunk. We read that while drunk the good saint

was uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.

And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. (Gen. 9:22-23)

So we are being told that there is something so terrible about seeing one’s father naked that it needs to be recorded in the Bible for all posterity to read.

But look at the punishment that follows:

And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.

And he said, Cursed be Ham Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. . . . (9:24-25)

I added and crossed out Ham there to draw attention to the bizarre detail that it was not Ham, Noah’s younger son who saw him naked, who is cursed, but Ham’s son. And not just any son, but his fourth son:

And the sons of Ham: Cush, and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan. (Gen. 10:6)

The mystery thickens.

Now many of us savvy sophisticates know that when the Bible speaks of “seeing the nakedness” of someone it is euphemism for having sex. Leviticus 20:17 leaves no doubt:

If a man takes his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a wicked thing. And they shall be cut off in the sight of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness. He shall bear his guilt.

So this makes a bit more sense than Ham merely peeping at his naked father. Noah did, after all, know what Ham had “done unto him”. That’s a bit stronger than having a peek.

But that still doesn’t explain everything. Why did Noah curse Canaan, Ham’s fourth son?

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2014-04-20

How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 2)

by Tim Widowfield

Part 2: A Markan Sandwich in John’s Gospel

The Denial of St Peter

The Denial of St Peter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scholars have long noted that both the gospel of John and the gospel of Mark interrupt the story of Peter’s denial with Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin (Mark) or interrogation before Annas (John). Both authors begin with Peter in the courtyard of the high priest late at night, pause the story to describe Jesus’ initial questioning before the Jewish authority, then resume the denial narrative. In other words, the author of John’s gospel has apparently used the same literary device found in Mark.

For New Testament scholars who think that John knew the Synoptics, especially Mark, this situation poses no problems. However, scholars who believe John did not know Mark must explain this evidence, which tends to indicate literary dependence. For example, they might argue that John and Mark:

  1. independently chose to use the intercalation (sandwich) technique to tell the two stories,
  2. used a pre-gospel Passion narrative in which this literary device existed,
  3. or knew the same oral tradition, which happened to contain the sandwich.

Comparing sandwiches

For the purposes of discussion, it’s helpful to see the sandwiches side by side.

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2014-04-18

Jesus’ Crucifixion As Symbol of Destruction of Temple and Judgment on the Jews

by Neil Godfrey
From http://worryisuseless.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/yeshuaadvent.jpg

From http://worryisuseless.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/yeshuaadvent.jpg

This post advances another reason to think that the author of the Gospel of Mark depicted the final days of Jesus as a metaphor for the fall of Jerusalem. If so, it follows that the resurrection of Jesus symbolized the emergence of a new “body of Christ” and “Temple of God” in the “ekklesia” or assemblies of Christians (what we think of as the “church”). I owe a special debt to Clark W. Owens whose book on a literary-critical analysis of the gospels, Son of Yahweh, I posted about recently. I also owe much to a few insights advanced by Karel Hanhart in The Open Tomb, on which I have also posted a little.

To begin, let’s recapitulate some of the essentials from those earlier posts.

I am persuaded that the Gospel of Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ tomb was based on a reading of the Greek version of Isaiah 22:16 that describes the destruction of the temple. In Isaiah 22:16 the temple is likened to a tomb carved out of a rock:

What hast thou here? and whom has thou here, that thou hast hewed thee out a sepulchre here, as he that heweth him out a sepulchre on high, and that graveth an habitation for himself in a rock.

Compare Mark 15:46 speaking of the tomb Joseph of Arimathea used for the body of Jesus:

. . . and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock . . . .

Recall at this point that we know ancient authors of the era in which the gospels were composed loved to imitate, draw upon, rearrange, allude to, transform, other well-known literature. We have numerous examples of this being done in the Gospel of Mark. The author has regularly taken passages from the Book of Daniel, the Psalms, other prophets, 1 and 2 Kings, Genesis and Exodus, and woven them into a new story so that they take on new meanings. We see this at the beginning with the introduction of Jesus through the announcement of John the Baptist. That opening chapter is replete with allusions to Elijah, the exodus of Israel from Egypt and the forty year wandering in the wilderness. The Passion scene at the end is equally rich with allusions to Daniel and Psalms, such as the cry of desperation from the cross, the mocking of Jesus as he was dying, the dividing of his garments, the promise of a return on the clouds in glory. read more »


2014-04-06

Daniel’s end time prophecies in context: 1

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Horsley in his 2007 publication, Scribes, Visionaries, and the Politics of Second Temple Judea, alerts us to ancient Mesopotamian prophetic texts that have remarkable similarities to our well-known Book of Daniel. I find it most interesting to read these other texts in order to appreciate better the context and nature of our canonical book that has played a key role in New Testament literature and subsequent apocalyptic and millenarian beliefs.

Recall Daniel 11, that detailed prophecy of the king of the north moving against the king of the south and the king of the south rising up and the manipulation of powers by flatteries etc etc etc, all a detailed “prophecy” of the political struggles between the Seleucid (Syrian) and Ptolemaic (Egyptian) empires over the region of Judea. . . . Interestingly there is a remarkably similar (generically and stylistically) type of prophecy from Hellenistic Babylon, an Akkadian text known as the Dynastic Prophecy. It’s survives in a fragmented state, but we can see its striking similarity to the kind of text we read in Daniel 11:2-45 nonetheless. I have copied this from the text found on Scribd, apparently derived from publications by Grayson and Longman.

[...] me. [...] me. [...] left. [...] great. [...]

seed. [...] he sees.

[...] a later day. [...] will be overthrown. [...]

will be annihilated. [...] Assyria. [...] silver (?) and [...] will attack and [...] Babylon, will attack and [...] will be overthrown. [...] will life up and [...] will come/go [...] will seize [...] he will destroy [...] will shroud [...] he (=Nabonidus) will bring ex[tensive booty] into Babylon. [...] he (= the Achaemenids/Elam) will decorate the Esagil and the Ezida . [...] he will build the palace of Babylon. [...] Nippur to Babylon. He will exercise kingship [for x year]s.

. . . .

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2014-03-15

Bart Ehrman’s The Bible: An Undergraduate Textbook

by Tim Widowfield
The Bible

The Bible

Oh, I shouldn’t have . . .

I gave myself Bart Ehrman’s new textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, for Christmas. Here it is March, and I’m finally getting the chance to read it. I expect this overpriced volume has a pretty good chance of becoming the standard text in American undergraduate survey courses on the Bible. So it makes sense to find out what young students will be learning.

When I say young students, I mean the young ones sufficiently well off to be able to live on campus. As education costs here in the U.S. skyrocket, more and more first- and second-year university students are working at night and driving to junior colleges each morning. But this book speaks directly to first-year students living in dormitories. The audience is more likely Footlights College Oxbridge than Scumbag College.

Well done, Footlights! 10 points.

At the end of each chapter, Bart asks the posh kids living in dorms to “Take a Stand” on a few issues. Here’s a typical “Take a Stand” item:

Your roommate has not taken the class, but he is interested in the history of ancient Israel. He knows something (a little bit) about the time of the United Monarchy and asks which king you think was better, David or Solomon. What is your view, and how do you back it up? Give him way more information than he wants to know. (p. 112)

Which king was better? That’s a toughie. But not as tough as the questions on University Challenge.

Fortunately, when reading the core of the text, I can almost forget I’m reading a book targeted more at Lord Snot and Miss Money-Sterling than Mike, Rick, Vyvyan, and Neil. Unfortunately, it’s hard to overlook the mistakes I’ve found already in the early chapters.

I sweat the small stuff

It may seem inconsequential, and maybe things like this shouldn’t bother me. But I can’t help myself. On the spelling of the Hebrew word for God’s name, Ehrman writes:

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2014-02-23

My Last Days In the Cult: My Exit Story

by Neil Godfrey

caf43cedf899d2c59372b595867434d414f4141About 15 years ago I placed online a short account of how I came to find a new life, a new way of thinking and of self-acceptance after too many years as a dedicated member of the Worldwide Church of God Armstrong cult. I was one of many ex-members of that cult to add their little bios to that site. We felt it worthwhile to share our experiences to encourage others who were grappling with the various stresses and challenges of unraveling the thought-habits of years and finding a much healthier way of life as we had done. Above all we wanted to assure them that there really was a better life beyond and it was never too late to change one’s life’s direction. Recently I realized that there was one aspect of my final years in that cult, the years immediately preceding my leaving that cult, that I have very rarely spoken about in public forums. Given that there has recently appeared in print a charming little account of my former life that conveys a bizarre image of my former and current psychological makeup I thought it might be worthwhile for me to share for anyone half interested what my final years in that former religion were like.  (I say it was a “bizarre” account. I must refrain from using the word “dishonest” because I am sure the author would certainly have taken the trouble to have interviewed me and asked a few basic questions had he the time. It is quite understandable that busy people would need to rely upon stereotyping and armchair psychoanalysis to find the profile they need to prove their points about someone they wish to denigrate.)

First chinks in the armour

The first slight cracks in my faith in the teachings of the cult came when I decided to study in depth each book of the Bible as a discrete unit, as if it were not part of the canon. I would even try to read it as if I knew absolutely nothing at all about anything else in the Bible. That is, I would try to read each book to try to ascertain what it was saying in its own terms — without any reference in my own mind to any other canonical work. Of course most books, especially in the New Testament, do contain references to other biblical books. But I did not want to read, say, Romans, with any baggage in my head from what any other letter or gospel said. That process led to some interesting results. I began to see that some of the church’s teachings were really founded on unjustifiable interpretations. What’s more, I began to notice many passages that I had once read so often but also passed over so often without realizing their full import for the message the author was trying to convey. I took a number of questions to our ministry and earned myself a few worried looks. I was beginning to realize I was coming to understand and know more about what the Bible says than our trained ministry. I could see that they had not been taught to study the Bible as such but only to study the church’s teachings in the Bible. read more »


2014-02-14

Once a Fundamentalist . . . Never Again

by Neil Godfrey

3295218This post is dedicated to all those who were once fundamentalists and are fundamentalists no more. I post here extracts from testimonies of a number of people who have described the changes in their lives since they left fundamentalism behind.

I initially thought I’d dedicate it to those informed lay and erudite scholars who contemptuously snort at anyone who had, let’s say, an ultra-conservative, somewhat extreme religious past and who currently has come to entertain questions about the historicity of Jesus. But are such persons really worth a dedication?

Once a fundie, always a fundie.

That’s their claim. They mean by it that a person who once was mixed up with a religious fundamentalist type of past will, on leaving that past, inevitably switch to some other cause with all the fundamentalist pig-headedness and fervour that characterized their former religious commitment.

It’s a vacuous slogan, of course. It’s nothing but a cheap way to dismiss someone holding a view or asking questions they have no time for.

The truth is that people do indeed change. The number of books that have been published about leaving a sect, cult or fundamentalist religion of one kind or another surely number into the hundreds. Right now I’m sure most people browsing through any sizable general bookstore in the English speaking world will scarcely be able to avoid seeing at least one work about someone having left behind the confines of a rigid Muslim past. Anyone who has recently left or is in the process of leaving a Christian-influenced cult or religion will soon become aware of dozens of helpful titles. Bibliographies on the web abound. Some of my favourite and most helpful authors were Steven Hassan, Edmund Cohen, Marlene Winell.

These names alone belie the trite slogan. They are all fundies who have done much to help others leave behind and rebuild lives after the fundamentalist experience.

Many readers here know of Dr Robert M. Price’s fundamentalist background, current very liberal “Christianity” and of his books such as The Reason Driven Life.

In a future post I should explain what experience and research shows about why people join these religious outfits. There are gross misconceptions about that, and about the sorts of people who do join and endure in them for any length of time.

Both Tim and I have written about our own changes in outlook since we each left our respective religious coffins. Links to them can be found in the Vridar authors’ profiles. I have since written an update to try to dispel some ignorant nonsense being written about me on Hoffmann’s blog.

Hoffmann point-blank refused to let it be posted there as a correction to what he and others were saying. Perhaps such people think anything coming from me cannot be trusted. So here for the sake of the record I want to bring to everyone’s attention the testimonies of thirteen others who have also left fundamentalism behind never to return . . . .

The extracts come from a book available online (or at least via Kindle), Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories, edited by G. Elijah Dann. Read them and know just how far ex-fundamentalists do indeed leave behind their former mind-sets. (Bolded emphasis is mine.) I know, I can’t resist my own comments throughout, either, sorry.

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2014-02-03

O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #10: Josephus as Evidence & the Arabic Version of the Testimonium

by Neil Godfrey

–o0o–

All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate

–o0o–

Tim O’Neill (TO) rightly says of some of the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus:

quote_begin After all, no-one except a fundamentalist apologist would pretend that the evidence about Jesus is not ambiguous and often difficult to interpret with any certainty, and that includes the evidence for his existence. (O’Neill, 2011) quote_end

Yet curiously not a single aspect of evidence addressed by either David Fitzgerald (DF) or himself in his reviews of DF’s work has hit on anything that he finds ambiguous or difficult to interpret. In every point of disagreement TO suggests DF is nothing but a liar or a fool.

The first unambiguous retort TO makes to DF’s treatment of Josephus is the dogmatic assertion that Josephus mentions Jesus twice. No argument. No ambiguity. No uncertainty.

Josephus does mention Jesus – twice.  So any Myther book or article [arguing the Christ Myth thesis] has to spill a lot of ink trying to explain these highly inconvenient mentions away.

Then again,

[T]he passage has Josephus saying things about Jesus that no Jewish non-Christian would say, such as “He was the Messiah” and “he appeared to them alive on the third day”.  So, not surprisingly, Fitzgerald takes the usual Myther [Christ Myth] tack and rejects the whole passage as a later addition and rejects the idea that Josephus mentioned Jesus here at all.

Interpolation a “mythicist” argument?

This is most curious. The actual fact is that most mainstream scholars until after the Second World War generally agreed that the entire passage was an interpolation. Or if not entirely an interpolation, the fact that it had been tampered with at all rendered it useless as historical evidence. I have quoted the evidence for the prevalence of these views in my post, What they used to say about Josephus as evidence for Jesus.

Today, however, it seems that “the majority of scholars” accept the contrary view, that Josephus did indeed say something about Jesus beneath the obvious Christian overlay. Given that most New Testament scholars are ideologically predisposed to belief in Jesus, and that Josephus’s testimony is the only non-biblical evidence we have from the first century for Jesus, I would not be surprised if a majority did think this. But so what? If a significant minority still leans towards the view that the entire Josephan passages is a forgery or useless as evidence, then it hardly seems reasonable to dismiss this view as the preserve of Christ Myth supporters.

Sociological explanation for the revised view of Josephus as evidence

The evidence is essentially the same. (Although in 1971 Arabic and Syriac versions of the Testimonium were also brought to light.) What has changed are the trends in interpretation of the evidence.

One sees a possible explanation for this new trend in Alice Whealey’s 2003 book, Josephus on Jesus, and again in her article, “The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic” in New Testament Studies, Vol. 54, Issue 4, Oct 2008, pp. 573-590. In the latter she explains:

In fact, much of the past impetus for labeling the textus receptus Testimonium a forgery has been based on earlier scholars’ anachronistic assumptions that, as a Jew, Josephus could not have written anything favorable about Jesus. Contemporary scholars of primitive Christianity are less inclined than past scholars to assume that most first-century Jews necessarily held hostile opinions of Jesus, and they are more aware that the line between Christians and non-Christian Jews in Josephus’ day was not as firm as it would later become. (p. 575)

This says loads. It is a virtual confession that the shift in interpretation has been motivated to a significant extent as a reaction against both real and perceived strains of anti-semitism in earlier scholarship. The error here is that the personal bias and values of Josephus himself are trumped by an impulse to undo an earlier generation’s sins of negative stereotyping. The context in which the passage occurs is also bypassed. Josephus personally loathed any movement that stood in opposition to the political and religious status quo under Roman rule. Taking seriously both the personal bias of Josephus and the context in which the Testimonium Flavianum is found (it is in a list of calamities befalling the Jews in which the TF fits as comfortably as a pimple on one’s nose), even the so-called “neutral” core of that TF is problematic. read more »


2014-01-30

O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #9: Josephus, 1 – Dave Fitzgerald on the Testimonium

by Neil Godfrey

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate

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Tim O’Neill (TO) expresses a most worthy ideal in an exchange with David Fitzgerald (DF):

quote_begin What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis . . . . (O’Neill, 2013) quote_end

One would expect to find in TO’s review of DF’s book, Nailed!, therefore, at the very least, an honest acknowledgement of arguments in that book. Unfortunately anyone reading TO’s review would have no idea of DF’s overall argument on any point TO chooses to address.

Since I began these posts taking the trouble to expose TO’s bluff, ignorance and pretentious nonsense, the good man himself has responded by saying my posts are “nitpicking” and symptoms of a man “obsessed with him”. I can only smile with contentment over a job done reasonably well if that’s the best his vanity can muster in his defence.

Now it’s time to address TO’s criticism of DF’s discussion of the evidence of Josephus for the historicity of Jesus. This will take a few posts to complete. Let’s begin the way any honest reviewer of a work should always begin — that is, set out the arguments of the author one is reviewing. Since TO forgot this step I will outline the first of DF’s points here, and then we will compare TO’s initial critique.

I hope that these posts will have more value than they might if they were nothing more than responses to TO’s nonsense. Hopefully issues and arguments will be raised that some readers will find informative for their own sake.

DF’s chapter 3 is titled “Myth No. 3: Josephus Wrote About Jesus”. The first passage he addresses is the famous “Testimonium Flavianum” from book 18 of the Jewish historian’s Antiquities of the Jews. It translates as:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.

He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles.

He was (the) Christ.

And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.

And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. read more »