Category Archives: Religion


2017-05-30

There is ALWAYS another interpretation: even of the Quran

by Neil Godfrey

Thou shalt not kill. 

Can’t argue with that, can we. It “speaks for itself”. No interpretation needed, right?

Except . . . .

People do indeed “interpret” the sixth commandment. They interpret it to mean that it does not forbid all killing, only the killing of persons; it does not apply to killing ants and flies. You can kill those. I think it is fair to guess that most believers in the Bible interpret the command to apply to killing that is not state-sanctioned. It is state-sanctioned, and therefore right, for soldiers to kill in war time. I imagine those who disagree with that interpretation and say it means we should not kill any other human under any circumstance are the minority. Pacifists, extremists. We might jail them in wartime or even shoot them.

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

Again, very clear and unambiguous. There’s simply no way you can “interpret” your way out of the blunt meaning of that commandment. It means you have to kill anyone who identifies as a witch. Christians included it in their Bible so why don’t they obey that command? Paul wrote that witchcraft ranks alongside idolatry which also requires the death penalty. So why don’t Christians put witches on death row along with murderers?

Somehow most Christians do find a way to interpret that command, not to change its meaning, but to relegate it to a status that is not relevant to them today.

When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you . . . and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them . . . and show no mercy to them. . . . And you shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God will give over to you, your eye shall not pity them. . . .

God commanded the native inhabitants of Canaan should all be killed, too. A few extremist Jews do still believe in that command and when opportunities permit carry it out. You can’t fault them for their understanding of and obedience to the Bible. But no-one except the extremists themselves would suggest that they speak for “true Judaism” today.

No doubt most adherents of the Jewish religion acknowledge the terror in that command, but at the same time the plain evidence before our eyes tells us that most of them do not interpret that command in a way that obligates them to kill all Palestinian Arabs today. A few do boast that they believe in keeping both the spirit and letter of that command and they do kill Palestinian Arabs when opportunities permit. But they are the newsworthy exception. We do not judge the entire religion of Judaism according to those few Israeli terrorists.

But what is the “correct interpretation”?

read more »


2017-05-18

Motivations of a “Mythicist”

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

read more »


2017-05-01

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2017-04-30

One Difference Between a “True” Biography and a Fictional (Gospel?) Biography

by Neil Godfrey

With the gospels in mind and thinking of them (for sake of argument) as biographical accounts of Jesus, how can we know if an ancient biography is about a genuinely historical person or if it is about a fictional character?

Let’s leave aside for now the claims of postmodernists who argue that there is no essential difference between histories and novels, between autobiography and fictional works. Enough historians and scholars of literature, at least to my satisfaction, have knocked these arguments down.

Many of us are familiar with the analysis of Richard Burridge that concludes that the gospels are of the same genre as ancient “bioi” (I’ll use the familiar term “biography”). The responses to Burridge’s arguments by Tim and me are collated here.

Before we take up the explanation, let’s look at some extracts from ancient biographers.

Biographer #1

Here is a passage about Socrates by Diogenes Laertius:

It was thought that he [Socrates] helped Euripides to make his plays; hence Mnesimachus writes:

This new play of Euripides is The Phrygians; and
Socrates provides the wood for frying.

And again he calls Euripides “an engine riveted by Socrates.” And Callias in The Captives:

a. Pray why so solemn, why this lofty air?
b. I’ve every right; I’m helped by Socrates.

. . . . . 

According to some authors he was a pupil of Anaxagoras, and also of Damon, as Alexander states in his Successions of Philosophers. When Anaxagoras was condemned, he became a pupil of Archelaus the physicist; Aristoxenus asserts that Archelaus was very fond of him. Duris makes him out to have been a slave and to have been employed on stonework, and the draped figures of the Graces on the Acropolis have by some been attributed to him. . . . . 

He was formidable in public speaking, according to Idomeneus; moreover, as Xenophon tells us, the Thirty forbade him to teach the art of words. And Aristophanes attacks him in his plays for making the worse appear the better reason. For Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History says Socrates and his pupil Aeschines were the first to teach rhetoric; and this is confirmed by Idomeneus in his work on the Socratic circle. . . . .

The significance of the highlighted phrases is that they indicate that the author is writing from the perspective of an outsider attempting to interpret and draw conclusions from and piece together pre-existing sources speaking of the past. The author’s narrative is constrained by the information that has already long been in existence.

Notice especially the caution expressed in the first line: we know that the author is not going to bet his life on the information being true because he tells us that the information is “thought” to be true on the basis of inference from the documents.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that such features in writing are a foolproof indicator of the factualness or genuine historicity of the subject. Obviously such phrases can be invented — and sometimes are invented — for the sake of creating verisimilitude for a fictional narrative. And such a presentation alone does not tell us with complete certainty that the person found in the sources was truly historical.

What we can establish from these literary indicators, however, is that on the face of it the author presents his work as an effort to relay to readers what is purported to be historical; furthermore, the author opens up to readers the means by which they can verify what he writes.

As I wrote in another post recently,

In her book Autobiographical Acts, Bruss formulates a number of interrelated “rules” . . . The rule that applies to this communication process on the author’s side reads:

“Whether or not what is reported can be discredited, . . . the autobiographer purports to believe in what he asserts.”

On the reader’s side, the rule-abiding expectation that the report is true implies a freedom to “check up” on its accuracy by way of appropriate verification procedures. 

In this perspective, the truth claim or autobiography in no sense implies the actual truth of an autobiographer’s statement. (Dorrit Cohn, 1999, The Distinction of Fiction, p. 31, italics original, my formatting)

So it is worthwhile asking why we find no comparable expressions in the earliest gospels, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. I should say “any of the canonical gospels” since the prologue to Luke and the eyewitness claims in John create special problems that have been discussed in other posts. Moreover, we will see that all four canonical gospels, on the contrary, are replete with perspectives and expressions that indicate fiction.

Biographer #2

read more »


2017-04-27

Did the Search for Meaning in Scriptures Really Lead to the Gospel Narratives?

by Neil Godfrey

To some extent, the followers of Jesus knew the basic facts: he was crucified by the authority of Pontius Pilate (with the complicity of the Jewish leadership?) outside the city of Jerusalem around the time of the Passover. Yet what was the meaning of those events? As Koester has noted, that question led the followers of Jesus back to the Scriptures, to familiar passages that seemed to describe some comparable situation. For example, according to Nils Dahl, “[E]arly Christians read Psalm 22, Psalm 69, and other psalms of lamentation, probably also Isaiah 53, as accounts of the passion of Jesus before there existed any written passion story.” 21 As Crossan explains, these believers did not read such passages “as referring exclusively and individually to Jesus but rather… to their original referents and to Jesus now as well.” 22 Thus, in addition to the examples cited by Dahl, one passage that helped Jesus’ followers make sense of what had happened was this verse from the Psalms: “The rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed” (2: 2). Another such passage— one that seemed to include what had happened to Jesus’ followers— was a verse from Zechariah: “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered” (13: 7b). And after reports of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers saw new significance in this verse from Hosea: “After two days [the LORD] will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up” (6: 2). According to Crossan, these “passion prophecies” led the first generation of Christians to develop the belief that Jesus’ suffering and subsequent vindication had all been part of God’s plan.

Chumney, David. Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts (Kindle Locations 1608-1621). Kindle Edition.

A new book titled Jesus Eclipsed has been introduced by its author, David Chumney, over three posts on John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity site (part 1, part 2, part 3). I have been reading both the book and David’s introductory blog posts and may discuss the work in more detail later. For now I can comment that Chumney is strongly opposed to mythicism (sometimes to the point of misrepresentation) even though his arguments are in all respects — except for two details — found at length in mythicist works by Robert Price, Richard Carrier and Earl Doherty. The two details on which he differs are that Josephus (his James passage) and Paul (his meeting with James) provide sufficient evidence to establish the historicity of Jesus. Unfortunately I think Chumney unwittingly slips into arguing from the same assumptions and with the same circularity as other New Testament scholars, perhaps not surprisingly given that Chumney has the same background in seminary studies. But here I address primarily a point that occurred to me just now as I read his sixth chapter.

Most readers will be familiar with the standard scholarly explanation for the passion narrative in the gospels being infused with allusions to “Old Testament”. The disciples were so stunned by the unexpected turn of events, it is said, that they turned to the scriptures to find some means of understanding the death of Jesus and their subsequent “Easter experience”. The passage by Chumney above sums up the idea.

The question that occurred to me this time on reflecting on this explanation for the scriptural echoes throughout the passion narrative was,

“But didn’t the scriptures provide a ready set of answers for exactly the sort of demise Jesus had met? Why were those traditional explanations apparently inadequate?”

We know the Bible and extra canonical Second Temple writings were riddled with laments and praise for the righteous one who suffers unjustly. Unjust suffering, persecution, martyrdom — such was the fate of the righteous man ever since Abel and on right through Job, the Psalms and to the Maccabees. Jewish scribes wrote plenty to remind readers of this “fact of life” and to console them, assuring them that God found their blood “precious in his sight”.

So why the need to take from Psalm 22 the line that spoke of dividing garments and casting lots for them? How did that passage add to the meaning of what had happened?

Did that really happen? Chumney’s argument is correct: he turns back to the nineteenth century and David Strauss’s point in The Life of Jesus:

 “[W]hen we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical.”

But the Psalm 22:18,

They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

I suggest, would have added no more meaning to their experience of loss than 22:17, 20-21

All my bones are on display;
. . . . .

Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.

Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

None of those lines has any association with a death by crucifixion and they are ignored by the evangelists who composed the passion narratives. Are we to infer that the disciples of Jesus did find deeper meaning for the death of Jesus in verse 18? If so, how could that be?

The obvious answer, of course, is that the disciples were reminded of that passage in Psalms when they learned from eyewitnesses that the clothes of Jesus were indeed taken by the soldiers.

Do we have a problem here?

But if that is what inspired the disciples to find meaning in Psalm 22:18 we run into a problem. read more »


2017-04-20

Continuing a case for an early Jewish belief in a slain messiah

by Neil Godfrey

The second of the three earliest references to the slain Messiah ben Joseph is a few lines further on in the same Talmud tractate, Sukkah 52a

Our rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be he, will say to Messiah ben David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of me anything and I will give it to you,” as it is said, “I will tell of the decree [of the Lord],” etc. “This day I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance” (Ps. 2). But when he will see that Messiah ben Joseph is slain, he will say to him, “Lord of the universe, I ask of you only life.”

Here the Messiah from the tribe of Joseph has been slain at some point towards the end time, but there is another Messiah involved in the drama, one who is descended from David who expresses concern over the death of his forerunner. We are not told how or why nor by whom the Messiah ben Joseph was killed. Readers or those who knew of this teaching of the rabbis presumably knew the details so there was no need to spell them out.

Interestingly the Messiah ben David in this passage has not till now made his mark in the end-time drama and in other passages (outside Sukkah 52a) his first act on his appearance is to forgo invitations to ask great things for himself and to request, instead, the resurrection of Messiah ben Joseph. In the Suk 52a, however, it appears that the sight of the dead Messiah ben Joseph stirs the Messiah ben David to ask for eternal life for himself — to which God replies that he already has eternal life (he had been living for ages in Rome unrecognised before the last days).

There are two clues in this passage that date the teaching to some time prior to 200 CE.

  1. The passage is written in Hebrew. See the previous post for the relevance of this: notice the Tannaitic period.
  2. The passage is introduced by the vague reference, “our rabbis taught” — instead of by a specifically named rabbi. Such an anonymous introductory formula is said to be typical of passages deriving from the Tannaitic period (the first two centuries of the current era) or earlier.

The last of the earliest three references to Messiah ben Joseph is from the same tractate, Sukkah 52b:

“And the Lord showed me four craftsmen” (Zech. 2.3). Who are these [four craftsmen]? Rav Hana bar Bizna said in the name of Rav Simeon Hasida: “Messiah ben David, Messiah ben Joseph, Elijah, and the Righteous Priest.”

This passage is not so easy to date on internal evidence though it is recorded as part of the later Aromaic tradition. The initial question is in Aramaic and the “ben” (son of) is Hebrew (rather than the Aramaic “bar”). External evidence helps more, says Mitchell. There are six other places where the “four craftsmen” appear, so let’s see how Mitchell analyses these variants to make an assessment on the date of the origin of the saying.

Note that there are three passages in Hebrew (that is, from the pre 200 CE Tannaitic period) and they all contain the same names in the same form:

  • Elijah
  • The King Messiah
  • Melchizedek
  • The War Messiah

Genesis Rabbah 99:2: “the War Messiah, who will be descended from Joseph;”

Midr. Tanhuma vol. I, p. 103a (§11.3): “in the age to come a War Messiah is going to arise from Joseph;”

Numbers Rabbah 14:1: “the War Messiah who comes from Ephraim;” [Ephraim is a son of Joseph]

Aggadat Bereshit, pereq 63 (A. Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrash [BHM], vol. IV, p. 87 [Leipzig, 1853–1877; photog. repr. Jerusalem, 1967]); “a War Messiah will arise from Joseph;”

Kuntres Acharon §20 to Yalkut Shimoni on the Pentateuch (BHM, vol. VI, p. 81): “a War Messiah is going to arise from Joseph;”

Gen.R. 75:6 applies Moses’ blessing on Joseph (Deut. 33:17) to the War Messiah.

The King Messiah of the early period (in Hebrew, before 200 CE) can be aligned with Messiah ben David that appear in what can be taken on balance as later texts (in Amorite, post 200 CE).

Since in biblical texts (Genesis 14:18-20 and Psalm 110:4) Melchizedek is known to be a priest, we can match the early reference to Melchizedek to the Righteous Priest in the later texts.

See the side box for the evidence that leads us to equate the War Messiah with Messiah ben Joseph.

Mitchell finds three key issues for dating the origin of the above third Messiah son of Joseph reference”: the Righteous Priest, the names in which the tradition is transmitted and the Qumran text 4Q175.

The Righteous Priest 

The prominence given to the Righteous Priest alongside Messiah ben Joseph as one of the Four Craftsmen is an indicator of pre-Christian era origins of the teaching: Mitchell’s argument is as follows.

We saw in The Priestly Messiah and the Royal Messiah the Jewish belief in a Priest Messiah or an end-time priestly deliverer. Biblical passages on Melchizedek and the anointed priestly companion, Joshua ben Jehozadak, to the Davidic prince Zerubbabel in the Book of Zechariah may provide some foundation for a belief in a priestly saviour, but post-biblical writings bring such a figure into sharper focus. Here we are entering the Hasmonean era, the period following the Maccabean revolt, or the Second Temple era.

The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (see Priestly and Royal Messiahs) sets up a priest messiah from the tribe of Levi as the foremost messianic figure without any rival from the line of David. The Qumran literature (Dead Sea Scrolls) likewise contains passages that promote the priestly messiah, sometimes as superior to the Davidic messiah (1QSa 2.14-20).

If the priestly deliverer was a pre-eminent figure in the Hasmonean era, after Christianity emerged Jewish writings lost interest in him.

 

The priestly Messiah therefore enjoys pre-eminence in Hasmonean times. But at the turn of the era, when Judaism and Christianity diverge, although he is taken up by Christianity and Gnosticism, particularly as Melchizedek, Judaism knows him no more. The only other talmudic reference to Melchizedek, apart from this one in B. Suk. 52b, derogates the priesthood of the Genesis figure (B. Ned. 32b). Later midrashim feature the other “craftsmen” — ben David, ben Joseph and Elijah — with great frequency, but have no place for the priest. . . . 

It therefore seems that the priestly messiah’s popularity rose with the Hasmonean dynasty who, keen to beget messianic acclaim, took Melchizedek’s title “Priest of El Elyon” from Gen. 14:18. But when their power was eclipsed and priestly status fell a century later with the Temple, the Priest Messiah, like his brothers, passed into obscurity, leaving only his former renown lingering among the “Four Craftsmen.” So the Righteous Priest’s presence among the “Four Craftsmen” must date from a time when he was still held in honor, that is, the Temple period. (Mitchell, p. 87f)

Variant source names

The Tannaitic texts cite relatively early names as the conveyors of the tradition. One source dates Rabbi Isaac to around 140 to 165 CE. The Rabbi Eleazar who is named in one of the early texts is dated even earlier, around 80 to 120 CE.

The names listed as sources for the four craftsmen tradition in the later Amoraic texts, Simeon Hasida and Hana bar Bizna, are dated to the late second and early third centuries.

Now the fairly short time-gap between these teachers hardly allows for the divergence between them. The different variants therefore derive from an earlier common source. In that case, we are taken back to the period before Isaac — or Eleazar– and, once again, find ourselves near the Temple era. (p. 88)

Qumran 4Q175 and a Joshua Messiah read more »


2017-04-19

How Early Did Some Jews Believe in a Slain Messiah son of Joseph?

by Neil Godfrey

If you are more interested in

  • why a second messiah in the first place? and
  • why the tribe of Joseph for a second messiah?

skip to the end of this post where I cite one of several explanations.

I don’t know the answer to the question in the title (in part because much depends upon how we define and understand the origins of “Christianity”) but I can present here one argument for the possibility that there was a belief among various Judeans prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE that a future messiah was destined to be killed. (This post goes beyond previous posts addressing messianic-like interpretations of the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 that we find in Daniel and the Enoch literature and builds upon other earlier posts addressing the evidence in later rabbinic and other Jewish writings.)

We focus here on a 2005 article by David C. Mitchell in Review of Rabbinic Judaism, “Rabbi Dosa and the Rabbis Differ: Messiah Ben Joseph in the Babylonian Talmud“. I find a number of aspects of the article questionable, but nonetheless Mitchell does present a somewhat technical argument in support of the possibility of a pre-Christian belief in a slain messiah.

Recall that in my recent post, Suffering and Dying Messiahs: Typically Jewish Beliefs, we read a Jewish narrative from the early 600s CE describing a Messiah son of Joseph being slain in battle against end-time forces of evil. The earliest surviving reference to the Messiah ben (=son of) Joseph is in the Talmud. If you are like me your first reaction to hearing that will be “How can writings up to several centuries into the Christian era possibly be used as reliable sources for events and ideas in first century Palestine?” But also if you are like me you will be at least open to hearing the case being made. So here it is as I understand it.

 

Talmud: Rabbinic writings made up primarily of two parts, the Mishnah and the Gemara.

The Mishnah purports to be the written collection of oral traditions of rabbinic debates and teachings. The Mishnah was completed around 200 CE.

The Gemara is rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah and is said to have been composed between 200 CE to 450 CE.

There are two broad chronological eras represented in the Talmud: the Tannaitic and the Amoraic.

The Tannaim is identified by Hebrew text and represents ideas prior and up to 200 CE.

The Amoraim is identified by Aramaic text and represents the period subsequent to 200 CE.

In the Mishnah we sometimes read both Hebrew and Aramaic text in the one section. We understand that the Aramaic text has been added by rabbis post 200 CE to fill out or clarify the earlier Hebrew account.

It will help to know some important terms relating to the Talmud. I explain these (hopefully not misleadingly simplified) in the side box.

The earliest known references to Messiah ben Joseph are found in a section (or tractate) called Sukkah. (Scroll through the Talmud page at http://www.halakhah.com to see where it sits in the broader collection.) The Sukkah tractate relates to the Feast of Tabernacles (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukkot).

I copy the first of these passages, Sukkoth 52a, as Mitchell himself sets it out, with the later Aramaic passages in italics, but I have added bolding to make it clearer:

“And the land shall mourn family by family apart. The family of the house of David apart and their women apart” (Zech. 12:12). They said: Is not this an a fortiori conclusion? In the age to come, when they are busy mourning and no evil inclination rules them, the Torah says, “the men apart and the women apart.” How much more so now when they are busy rejoicing and the evil inclination rules them. What is the cause of this mourning? Rabbi Dosa and the rabbis differ. One says: “For Messiah ben Joseph who is slain;” and the other says: “For the evil inclination which is slain.” It is well according to him who says, “For Messiah ben Joseph who is slain,” for this is what is written, “And they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him like the mourning for an only son” (Zech. 12:10); but according to him who says, “The evil inclination which is slain:” Is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not an occasion for rejoicing rather than weeping?

I understand from Mitchell’s discussion that the highlighted words above are translations of Aramaic text. The remainder is rendered from Hebrew.

Accordingly we have in this section of Mishnah, typically dated prior to 200 CE, later rabbinic additions in Aramaic. But the Aramaic text is quoting references to Messiah ben Joseph that are in Hebrew text.

Mitchell argues that the Aramaic script is the work of Amoraic (post 200 CE) rabbis commenting on a tradition from the Tannaitic era (prior to 200 CE). He disagrees with another scholar (Joseph Klausner) who believed we should interpret the passage as indicating that the tradition of Messiah ben Joseph itself originated some time in the later Tannaitic era (200-450 CE).

Let’s back up a little. Let’s see what light the broader context might be able to shed on the question of dating.

Immediately prior the section mentioning Messiah ben Joseph we read about worshipers at the end of the first day of the Feast going down to the Court of Women at the Temple where a significant change is encountered: read more »


2017-04-17

How Do People Respond to the Killing of Their Messiah?

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 


2017-04-16

The Priestly Messiah and the Royal Messiah

by Neil Godfrey

In the previous post we looked at ancient Jewish concepts of multiple messiahs, each with a distinctive role. There was Davidic messiah who for most of existence lives like a destitute vagabond or beggar, despised, rejected and unrecognized in the streets of “Rome”.  Then there was a messiah from the tribe of Joseph who emerged as a warrior to lead Israel in a battle against the ultimate forces of evil but who was killed in that battle. His death was the cue for the Davidic messiah to emerge from obscurity and call upon God for the resurrection of the fallen messiah.

We also saw other messiahs, one from the tribe of Levi or family of Aaron, who was a priest-messiah. Associated with these messiahs was a prophet, Elijah.

We looked at some reasons for believing such ideas were familiar (if not unanimously embraced) by Jews prior to the fall of the Temple in 70 CE. In a future post I will look at additional evidence for assigning such beliefs as early as the period from 200 BCE to 70 CE. I will also address the midrashic processes by which Second Temple era Jews could well have arrived at such characters and scenarios according to Daniel Boyarin.

And most interesting of all, at least for me, I will post on how all of these ideas relate to what we read in the Gospel of Mark about the figure of Jesus and the reason for his crucifixion.

But in this post we will look at other types of messiahs, or at least one other: the priest-messiah and his subordinate companion (political) messiah from Israel or Joseph.  read more »


Suffering and Dying Messiahs: Typically Jewish Beliefs

by Neil Godfrey

So Easter is here again and everybody is mourning the death of Tammuz and rejoicing in the new life to hatch from digested easter bunny eggs. But let’s be serious and respect the meaning of the season. Let’s talk about messiahs, especially suffering and dying ones.

Daniel Boyarin

There’s much to write about but I’ll try to keep to just a few highlights. They have a common theme: the idea of a suffering and dying messiah was not uniquely Christian; it was very much a Jewish idea. Let’s begin with the opening lines of Jack Miles‘ Foreword to a little book by Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ:

“Daniel Boyarin,” a prominent conservative rabbi confided to me not long ago, “is one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world,” and — dropping his voice a notch — “possibly even the greatest.” The observation was given in confidence because, quite clearly, it troubled the rabbi to think that someone with Boyarin’s views might have truly learned Talmudic grounds for them. As a Christian, let me confide that his views can be equally troubling for Christians who appreciate the equally grounded originality of his reading of our New Testament. . . . .

His achievement is . . . a bold rereading of the rabbis and the evangelists alike, the results of which are so startling that once you — you, Jew, or you, Christian — get what he is up to, you suddenly read even the most familiar passages of your home scripture in a new light. (p. ix)

Now read what Boyarin has to say about the commonplace idea that Christians reinterpreted Jewish scriptures to find in them their suffering messiah, supposedly an idea highly offensive to Jews. He is discussing that famous Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 (my own formatting and emphasis):

10Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.  11Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. 

If these verses do indeed refer to the Messiah, they clearly predict his suffering and death to atone for the sins of humans, but the Jews allegedly always interpreted these verses as referring to the suffering of Israel herself and not the Messiah, who would only triumph. To sum up this generally held view: The theology of the suffering of the Messiah was an after-the-fact apologetic response to explain the suffering and ignominy Jesus suffered, since he was deemed by “Christians” to be the Messiah. Christianity, on this view, was initiated by the fact of the crucifixion, which is seen as setting into motion the new religion. Moreover, many who hold this view hold also that Isaiah 53 was distorted by the Christians from its allegedly original meaning, in which it referred to the suffering of the People of Israel, to explain and account for the shocking fact that the Messiah had been crucified.

This commonplace view has to be rejected

This commonplace view has to be rejected completely. The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that—indeed, well into the early modern period.4 The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them un-Jewish. Whether or not one accepts their theology, it remains the case that they have a very strong textual base for the view that the suffering Messiah is based in deeply rooted Jewish texts early and late. Jews, it seems, had no difficulty whatever with understanding a Messiah who would vicariously suffer to redeem the world. Once again, what has been allegedly ascribed to Jesus after the fact is, in fact, a piece of entrenched messianic speculation and expectation that was current before Jesus came into the world at all. That the Messiah would suffer and be humiliated was something Jews learned from close reading of the biblical texts, a close reading in precisely the style of classically rabbinic interpretation that has become known as midrash, the concordance of verses and passages from different places in Scripture to derive new narratives, images, and theological ideas. (pp. 132-33)

But notice that little detail of an endnote reference in there. What does that say? It’s a call for support from Martin Hengel (whose applicable work I have discussed in How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?):

Martin Hengel

4. See Martin Hengel, “The Effective History of Isaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, trans. Daniel P. Bailey (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 137-45, for good arguments to this effect. Hengel concludes, “The expectation of an eschatological suffering savior figure connected with Isaiah 53 cannot therefore be proven to exist with absolute certainty and in a clearly outlined form in pre-Christian Judaism. Nevertheless, a lot of indices that must be taken seriously in texts of very different provenance suggest that these types of expectations could also have existed at the margins, next to many others. This would then explain how a suffering or dying Messiah surfaces in various forms with the Tannaim of the second century c.e., and why Isaiah 53 is clearly interpreted messianically in the Targum and rabbinic texts” (140). While there are some points in Hengel’s statement that require revision, the Targum is more a counterexample than a supporting text, and for the most part he is spot on.

So the argument rests on its explanatory power. I won’t repeat here the rabbinic texts Boyarin has in mind since they can be found in my earlier post, Suffering Messiah is a Very Jewish Idea. In that earlier post I also look at the evidence for the developing idea of a suffering messiah, one who identifies with martyrs, in Second Temple era books attributed to Daniel and Enoch.

But don’t think you’re wasting your time by reading a repeat post here. There is much more to add. read more »


2017-03-27

Muslim Profiling and Immigration

by Neil Godfrey

I like Maryam Namazie. I like her work. I like her ideas. I used to like George Galloway, especially for his blunt testimony to US senators ignorantly accusing him profiting from Iraqi oil sales, but in recent years he has alienated me with his support for Islamist ideology. He seems to side with political Islamist regimes and political movements because they are anti-imperialist or anti-American. That strikes me as comparable to supporting Hitler because of his declaration of war on the United States.

Just to be clear: Islamism is not Islam. I have spoken above of Islamist ideology which is a political ideology that denies the legitimacy of Western democracy and Enlightenment values. I consider Islamism as much a threat as politically active Christian fundamentalists and White Supremacist groups. Islamists have dangerous political ideas that need to be combatted as much as any other fundamentalist or extremist Western religious or political ideology. Most Islamists are no more violent than are most people who oppose abortion. Only a minority of pro-lifers blow up abortion clinics and similarly only a minority of Islamists support terrorism.

Most Muslims who are fleeing war-torn regions and oppressive Muslim regimes are fleeing the horrors perpetrated by Islamist ideology. Maryam Namazie — back to her — speaks of what she sees as a “tsunami of atheism” washing through Muslim regions today. I have heard elsewhere that atheism is on the rise in those places. Maryam Namazie herself was taken by her parents from Iran when they could see oppressive Islamists taking over the revolution against the brutal shah in 1979.

Last night I read the transcript of a Skype discussion between Sam Harris and Maryam Namazie and it helped clarify some issues for me. The following is taken from the ideas Maryam expressed there.

So what’s wrong with profiling Muslims? Everything. Most Muslims are Muslims for no reason other than that they were born to Muslim parents. That’s the only reason. Many persons in those countries may in fact be privately atheist or agnostic but by law they are officially identified as Muslims on identity cards or passports. Look at photographs of ordinary shoppers and students in Iran or Afghanistan thirty years ago and you will swear you are looking at modern Western cities. All of that freedom and secularism has been lost in Muslim regions because of the historically recent rise of Islamist regimes. That’s a horrific story that can be told another day.

Profiling people because of their Muslim religion is misguided and dangerous. It is misguided because it ignores individuals and sees only collective identities. It brands people as potentially dangerous on the basis of their being born to Muslim parents and ignores the reality of why individuals are fleeing those countries and what many of them unable to flee are suffering there.

It is dangerous (this is my addition) because it helps alienate collectives of people and makes their assimilation into Western society more difficult than it need be. Alienated groups are vulnerable to anti-social behaviour, crime, terrorism.

What is wrong with special provisions to put a halt to Muslim immigration? Don’t we need to protect our Western culture from being swamped by benighted aliens? read more »


2017-03-15

Bruno Bauer’s “Christ and the Caesars” Review

by Neil Godfrey

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

ANTECEDENTS OF NT MINIMALISM: 
BAUER’S ‘CHRIST AND THE CAESARS’

It begins deliciously:

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

 

 


2017-03-06

Well I never knew that was in the Bible

by Neil Godfrey

Circle of Juan de la Corte (1580 – 1663)
Title: The Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army

Despite having been familiar with the Bible for many years I have had to confess that much of my understanding has been at a layman’s level and only sporadically informed by more thorough scholarly insights. One assumption that most lay readers are likely to bring to the Bible is that it speaks with a uniform voice about a future time when a Messiah figure descended from King David will once again restore Israel to a power exceeding the comparable status she held in the days of King Solomon.

So I was taken aback when I read that one of the contributors to the book of Isaiah had no such vision about a future Davidic messiah, but on the contrary accepted that David’s dynasty had finished, been terminated. But don’t we read in 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 that God promised an everlasting dynasty for David? Did our Isaiah writer not know of this prophecy? How could that passage be included in the canon if it contradicted other “sacred scriptures”?

Part of the answer emerged when I recollected my earlier post, How Bible Contradictions Began. Notice what our author does to God’s eternal promises.

That second Isaiah was keen to reinterpret what he could of Isaiah’s oracles can be seen in his handling of the Davidic convenantal tradition. Though political realities would not allow him to simply repeat Isaiah’s promises to the Davidic monarchy, he skillfully actualizes this tradition by “democratizing” it, and applying the Davidic promises to the entire nation (55:1—5). (David Meade, Pseudonymity and Canon, 1986. p. 34)

Again 5 pages later,

We already saw how the Davidic promises were applied by second Isaiah to all Israel (55:1— 5).

If you’re confused by the above reference to “second Isaiah” then understand that scholars have long believed that the 66 chapters of our book of Isaiah are a composite of different writings: “first Isaiah” wrote chapters 1-39 during the time of the Assyrian empire; “second Isaiah” wrote the rest at the time of the Babylonian empire. Some even add a “third Isaiah” responsible for chapters 55-66.

The New Living Translation of the key passage: Isaiah 55:1-5 read more »


2017-03-03

How God “Spoke” to the Prophets

by Neil Godfrey

I post here an interesting snippet from my recent reading where I learn at least one way God spoke and revealed messages to the prophets of old, or at least those who wrote in the names of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. When they wrote they could declare that their revelation was the word of God as God himself spoke to them, or even as God himself speaking. Yet scratch the surface and we find that what the author has done has in fact studied Scripture, thought about it, and reapplied it to his own or a future day, and then presented it as a new direct revelation from God.

In fact, not all of the prophetic revelation was derived from an oracular source. Not only did the prophets interpret their own encounter with the divine, they also demonstrate a mark of “inspired” reflection on the traditions they had received. C. Buchanan has demonstrated that even some oracles described as “visions” or the “coming of the word” are in fact the result of an “inspired” midrashic examination of earlier traditions. (Meade, David G. 1986. Pseudonymity and Canon: An Investigation into the Relationship of Authorship and Authority in Jewish and Earliest Christian Tradition. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.)

Sadly I don’t have access to Buchanan’s article but fortunately David Meade tells us what passages Buchanan cites as evidence:

He cites 2 Isaiah’s midrash on Exodus 15:1-16 (cf. Isa 42:10-13; 43:14-17; 51:9-10) and Jeremiah’s midrash on Deut 28:26 (cf. Jer 7:32-33), Deut 28:64 (cf. Jer 9: 16), Deut 27:26; 4:20; 7:12 (cf. Jer 11.3-5), Deut 30:15 (cf. Jer 21:8), and Deut 4:9 (cf. Jer 29:13-14).

I set out those passages below to make it easier to see how this process of revelation works:

read more »