Category Archives: Religion


2013-12-10

How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 1)

by Tim Widowfield

Part 1: Turning Mark Inside Out

In a comment to Neil’s post, Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 3 — Criteria, from way back in May of 2012, I introduced a way to explain how the Fourth Evangelist may have used the Gospel of Mark. It might not be a novel approach — there is no new thing under the sun — and I certainly don’t have access to all the commentaries and exegeses on John. However, it’s new to me.

English: John the Evangelist, miniature, Gospe...

English: John the Evangelist, miniature, Gospel Book, Vatopedi monastery, cod. 16 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For simplicity’s sake, here’s my comment, with some minor edits:

In Mark 15:37, Jesus “breathes his last.” In the following verse the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. And in verse 39, the centurion declares him to be the Son of God.

Key words to notice in verse 15:36 are (1) ἐσχίσθη (eschisthē) — “was torn” and (2) ἄνωθεν (anōthen) — “from [the] top.” A close, literal translation of the verse might be: “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom.”

In John, conversely, at the beginning of the crucifixion (19:23) the soldiers take Jesus’ belongings and split them among themselves. They divide his garments into four equal piles, but they notice that Jesus’ tunic is formed of a single piece of woven fabric without seams. John says that the tunic was “seamless from the top (anōthen), woven throughout all.” And in the next verse, they decide not to tear (σχίσωμεν (schisōmen)) the tunic, but cast lots for it instead. It was not torn.

The garment John describes has reminded several commentators of the priestly vestment described by Josephus: “Now this vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck; not an oblique one, but parted all along the breast and the back.” (http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-3.htm)

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2013-12-05

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 4)

by Tim Widowfield
Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...

When we minimize and explain away slavery or talk about it as an abstract concept, we demonstrate our lack of empathy for its millions of victims. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christianity and slavery: why does it matter?

As I made clear early on in this series, I contend that the institution of slavery in the Greco-Roman world was more terrible than we can imagine. In addition, we can’t deny the evidence that early Christians were generally ambivalent about it, or at worst, condoned it. Moreover, rich Christians continued to own slaves after they converted. We can, in fact, corroborate these assertions not only from ancient writings, but from certain artifacts that still survive.

Investigation of current Christian attitudes toward ancient slavery reveals a surprising number of people who prefer to remain in a state of denial. Recall from part one Thomas Madden’s unsubstantiated assertion that “Christianity . . . considered slavery — the institution of slavery — to be inherently wrong.” Not only can we find no clear written evidence from the New Testament or patristic literature to confirm his claim, but we have solid written and archaeological evidence that disproves it.

The crime of running away

Jennifer Glancy begins her book, Slavery in Christianity, with the following few sentences that, for Christians (and ex-Christians like myself) are as sobering as an ice-cold shower:

Sometime in the fourth or fifth century, a Christian man ordered a bronze collar to encircle the neck of one of his slaves. The inscription on the collar reads: “I am the slave of the archdeacon Felix. Hold me so that I do not flee.” Although the collar purports to speak in the first person for a nameless slave, the voice we hear is not that of the slave but that of the slaveholder. Felix, enraged by a slave’s previous attempts to escape, ordered the collar both to humiliate and to restrain another human being, whom the law classified as his property. The chance survival of this artifact of the early church recalls the overwhelming element of compulsion that operated within the system of slavery, with its use of brute paraphernalia for corporal control. (p. 9, emphasis mine) 

The words “chance survival” might lead the reader to think such collars — which gave license to the finder to detain the slave by any brutal means necessary, and which were lovingly adorned with crosses and chi-rhos — were rare. But they weren’t. True to form, some scholars have decided to interpret the existence of such collars as a good thing. They posit that it means Christian slaveholders stopped the practice of facial tattooing. In other words, “Baby steps.”

However, in the (ridiculously overpriced) book, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425, Kyle Harper notes:

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2013-11-19

Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . The Evidence of Josephus

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.

In chapter 17 Brodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailWe saw from the opening post on Brodie’s seventeenth chapter that John Meier rests his case for the historicity of Jesus on the evidence of Josephus. Josephus is independent witness to the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels and therefore is decisive, or in Meier’s words, “of monumental importance.”

Brodie, “with a prayer to heaven, along with many saints and scholars, and also to Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Watson”, undertakes to examine how Meier came to this critical conclusion about the nature and significance of the evidence of Josephus.

Brodie sees two problems with the references to Jesus in Josephus:

  1. Authenticity: Do they really come from Josephus or from some later Christian writer/s?
  2. Independence: Even if the references are authentic, are they truly independent witnesses, of did Josephus get his information from other Christians or the Gospels?

The Question of Authenticity

Bypassing the Jesus reference in The Jewish War as spurious according to virtually all scholars, Brodie zeroes in on Meier’s case for the evidence in Antiquities of the Jews.

In Book 20, in a passage about a certain James, there is a passing reference to Jesus in order to identify this James: James was “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”. Meier reasons that this passage appears to be referring to a Jesus mentioned earlier. It is very likely, then, that Josephus had earlier written about this Jesus.

And there is an earlier passage, in Book 18, known as the Testimonium Flavianum (the “Witness of Flavius (Josephus)”) that

  • summarizes the work and character of Jesus
  • tells us that Jesus was accused and crucified under Pilate
  • says Jesus still in Josephus’s own day maintained a following, the Christians

and in the course of that summary the same passage says

  • Jesus should perhaps be thought of as more than a man
  • that Jesus was the Christ
  • that Jesus appeared to his followers alive again three days after his crucifixion as the prophets had foretold.
For alternative views of the passage in Book 20, especially those arguing against its reference to “the Christ” being original, see the posts in the James Passage archive.

Some scholars still see the entirety of this passage as a total interpolation. But given the implication of the passing reference in Book 20 Meier believes it cannot be a complete forgery. Josephus must have said something about Jesus here.

We have, then, three possibilities to explain this passage:

  1. It is entirely original to Josephus
  2. It is entirely an insertion by a Christian hand
  3. It is a mixture of original and insertion.

Meier excludes the first two options:

  1. It cannot be entirely by Josephus because it proclaims Jesus as the Christ
  2. It cannot be entirely inserted because Book 20 implies something was said earlier about Jesus

Therefore #3 is Meier’s conclusion. Josephus said something, but he would not have said Jesus was more than a man, that he was the Christ, or that he rose from the dead.

That is, omit the phrases that Josephus would not say and, presto, we are left with what Josephus would have said! And with these omissions “the flow of the thought is clear”, Meier adds.

Brodie is happy to provisionally accept Meier’s conclusion as “a reasonable working hypothesis”. So he moves on to the next question.

Thus Brodie presents Meier’s case for authenticity positively (if somewhat provisionally). In this Brodie argues a case that is unlike that of any other mythicist argument that I know of concerning the Testimonium. So his argument should be of special interest. read more »


2013-11-14

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 3)

by Tim Widowfield

Interpreting Philemon

English: The apostle paul reading by candlelig...

The apostle paul reading by candlelight, with a large open book leaning on a skull, seen from below. Mezzotint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had intended next to describe the wretched state of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world, but I promised we’d cover Philemon first. The epistle to Philemon is one of those few books you can refer to simply by verse number, because there’s only one chapter. With today’s online Bibles you’ll frequently see references to Philemon 1:1, but traditionally, you could just refer to Philemon 1. (Quick trivia question: What are the other four single-chapter books in the Christian Bible?)*

Because this tiny letter seems to offer a glimpse of real people and real events from the first century CE, Philemon remains one of the most tantalizing books of the New Testament. We can only guess exactly happened before and after the letter. How did Onesimus end up with Paul? What did Paul expect Philemon to do with his returned property, and did he do it? How had Onesimus, whose name means “useful,” become “useless” to Philemon? Was he a runaway slave? Or had he committed some act that displeased Philemon, who subsequently dismissed him?

Throughout the centuries, scholars have debated over Paul’s ultimate intentions, offering (as I mentioned in earlier comments) a wide range of interpretations. Did Paul want Philemon to free Onesimus or not?

Why didn’t he just come right out and say it?!

A voluntary act

Paul assures his recipients that he is certainly in a position to compel Philemon to “do the right thing” (whatever that is), but prefers that he reach this decision of his own accord.

24.  but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. (NASB)

So one could argue that Paul wanted Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother, and free him. And he wanted his slave-holding friend to come to that conclusion on his own, because a coerced good deed is less desirable than turning away from evil and carrying out a righteous act with a free and open heart.

That’s one way to approach it.

However, we should recall that normally when Paul learns of sinful behavior among his congregations, he does not gently prod them into changing their ways.  Consider the man in Corinth accused of incest (viz., fooling around with his father’s wife). Paul doesn’t coyly intimate what they should consider doing . . . maybe . . . perhaps, if it isn’t too much trouble.

No, he blasts them, and tells them exactly how to handle this guy:

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2013-11-11

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 2)

by Tim Widowfield

Unlike other religions?

We noted last time that Thomas Madden in his course on early Christianity claimed, “Unlike any other ideologies at the time, Christianity also considered slavery — the institution of slavery — to be inherently wrong.” He said that attitude stemmed from their belief that: “Unlike other religions, Christianity held that all people, men or women, free or slaves, were the same in God’s eyes.

English: Remains of living quarters at Qumran.

English: Remains of living quarters at Qumran. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we will see, and as you probably already know, most Christians until relatively recently did not see slavery as inherently wrong. Further, despite Madden’s sweeping statement to the contrary, we do know of one Jewish sect that actually did condemn the practice. According to both Josephus and Philo, the Essenes did not keep slaves. As Philo wrote:

There is not a single slave among them, but they are all free, serving one another; they condemn masters, not only as representing a principle of unrighteousness in opposition to that of equality, but as personifications of wickedness in that they violate the law of nature which made us all brethren, created alike. (Quoted by the Jewish Encyclopedia from Philo, Vol. VI, Loeb Classical Library)

Granted, the Essenes set themselves apart from general society, dwelling in communes, keeping all things in common, and living as “free men.” So one could argue that since they lived in their own little world, they didn’t have to worry about letting loose a “frightful revolution” (in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia).

However, the fact remains that the Essenes, not the Christians, were one of the few (if not the only) communities or sects in the ancient world who, it was believed, unequivocally condemned slavery. Moreover, they put their money where their mouths were.

[T]hey emancipated slaves and taught them the Law, which says: “They are My servants (Lev. xxv. 42), but should not be servants of servants, and should not wear the yoke of flesh and blood.” (Jewish Encyclopedia)

They pooled their resources and purchased the freedom of enslaved Jews. That’s pretty remarkable. Of course, we should temper our respect with the textual evidence that the Qumran community may have indeed kept slaves. Jennifer Glancy writes:

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2013-11-09

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 1)

by Tim Widowfield

Not so great courses

Several months ago, I purchased a course on ancient Christianity through audible.com. You might find the title intriguing (I know I did) – From Jesus to Christianity: A History of the Early Church — which reminded me of Paula Fredriksen’s book, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ. In no other respect do these works resemble each other, not in clarity, accuracy, or depth.

English: Dr. Thomas Madden

English: Dr. Thomas Madden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thomas Madden may be an expert in medieval and renaissance studies, but his understanding of the Ancient Near East and early Christianity is superficial and slanted toward a confessional, orthodox, if not specifically Roman Catholic, viewpoint. As we’ve said many times here, bias does not inherently make somebody wrong. We all have particular points of view; however, we should acknowledge other points of view and strive to present them fairly. Madden, unfortunately, seems completely unaware of other perspectives.

When I buy courses and books, in the back of my mind I hope to find something new and interesting that I can blog about. However, as I alluded to above, Madden’s course is so superficial as to be devoid of blog-fodder — except for a few outright mistakes that made me shake my head and grumble. (I wonder how crazy I look, walking through airports, earbuds in place, muttering softly to myself in disgust — like Popeye in a Max Fleischer cartoon.)

What a ridiculousk situation!

What a ridiculousk situation!

As a brief aside, we should note that Madden’s wretched course is emblematic of a trend in publishing. The latest history and religion courses released by The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company) and The Modern Scholar (part of Recorded Books, LLC) are more conservative than ever — a comfort to a public that prefers confirmation of its beliefs over learning. Listeners to these courses will learn, to their relief, that Paul certainly wrote all of the epistles attributed to him and that the Documentary Hypothesis is false. Madden, a frequent contributor to such publications as The National Review and Crisis Magazine, as well as an apologist for the Crusades and the Inquisition, fits right in.

Comforting the comfortable

Given the underlying purpose of Madden’s course on the history of the church — namely, to comfort the faithful laity by regurgitating the party line — nothing should have surprised me. I thought I’d heard nearly all of the pious lies proffered by Christian apologists, but I wasn’t prepared for this one.

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2013-10-12

So this was “Kick Joe Atwill Week”

by Neil Godfrey

What a shameful week this has been. Three bloggers, Tom, Dick and Larry, have gone out of their way to heap personal attacks on Joseph Atwill, ostensibly in order to distance themselves from his views. What’s worse is that two of those bloggers have regularly censured the biblical studies and theology establishments for resorting to personal insults upon those who attempt to make a case for the Christ Myth theory — “intellectual bullying”, “verbal intimidation”, “unprofessional”, “shameful”, are said to describe this proclivity.

Clearly the abusive personal insults they have flung at Joe Atwill indicate these bloggers have no interest in winning over anyone sympathetic to Joe. So why do they do it? I can imagine two possible reasons:

  1. They want to prove to the establishment of respectable scholarly elites that they should not be associated with the ideas of Joe Atwill. That is, they kick Joe to be assured of the approval of those they personally want to impress or from whom they personally want respect; or/and
  2. They are desperate to bully or intimidate a wider audience from even being tempted to give serious consideration to the views of Joe Atwill.

None of this personal abuse is necessary. It only makes the perpetrators look as sick as the academic hypocrites they criticize for spewing the same types of ad homina against them.

This is comes with the free-speech we enjoy, but the original idea behind the ideal of free speech was that the best or truest ideas would eventually rise to the top as everyone had an opportunity to hear the arguments for and against them all. Our innate reasonableness would lead to the most reasonable ideas winning out in the end. But we can now see that Tom, Dick and Larry are just as prone to resorting to intellectual intimidation as those they criticize. Intellectual bullying was not the way a free speech society was meant to work.

But what if someone really is bonkers?

I think the Atlantis theory is bonkers. But if I were addressing someone who believed it I would not insult them by saying they were bonkers. If I felt it worth the effort I would argue the case just as soundly as I would expect an evolutionary biologist or palaeontologist to argue against Creationism with a fundamentalist. In fact, it was indeed because I discovered that someone I considered a friend did believe in the Atlantis myth (and a few other oddities besides) that I did take the time to do a bit of homework and make a serious effort to present a reasoned and evidence-based case against those ideas. One of them I eventually posted here. I don’t believe any of that effort was wasted. What would have been wasted would have been any energy expended in calling my friend a crackpot.

There is a place for certain kinds of language and expression. I do not speak at work planning meetings the same way or with the same language I use after work with friends over a few beers. I do not write policy or information sharing documents for work in the same language I use when expressing personal work frustrations with a trusted colleague. We have evolved to be social beings and we need to refine and maximize our social skills to the utmost if we want to achieve the best possible outcomes in the wider social context.

Now I think a number of readers here know I do not agree with the views of Acharya S. (D.M. Murdock). I have attempted to argue against her views and those of Robert Tulip on this blog. At no time did I utter a personal insult against either. Nor did I provocatively call their views “cow scat”. I did attempt to strictly address specific claims, words used, arguments made — and for my pains I was slandered like nobody’s business on the discussion forum of Acharya S. One does not argue against her or her followers in public and get away with it. I soon lost interest in continuing to argue my reasons for rejecting her thesis. I guess I let her win. She proved that personal insult and abuse can silence critics. Maybe I should continue.

There is much more to be said here (and yes, those in positions of power and responsibility should be held to higher standards than others), but I’ll save a more detailed discussion of the state of much of academia for another post.

Back to these “Let’s kick Joe Atwill” types.

Tom’s scatalogical critique

The first of these personal attacks came from Tom. He calls Atwill’s documentary (“what you are watching”) “golden cow scat”. He critiques the entire film before he has seen it (he only concedes that Joe Atwill has “apparently” made a documentary film) entirely from the blurb itself. Any blurb is, by definition, an attempt to persuade you to read or view the contents by suggesting they are something new and different. The blurb is not the argument itself. But that doesn’t stop Tom from writing an entire critique of what he calls the blurb.

If you are planning to go see this movie, please, bring a disposable bag so you can properly rid yourself of the dung that undoubtedly will be thrown at you during the presentation.

Now that’s a profound intellectual argument!

The personal character and mind-reading attacks continue:

Atwill clearly has no grasp of these concepts, probably because he didn’t bother reading anything related to this despite his self-acclaimed ‘bookish-ness’.

Like all sensationalist crap-dealers, Mr. Atwill claims to have discovered the secret, super-dooper, hidden code in the text. Amazing! I (sic) self-proclaimed “Biblical scholar”, with nor formal training in the material, has used his magic decoder ring and stumbled upon a code! How clever of him.

In the Dead Sea Scrolls, which Mr. Atwill seems to think he knows so well. . .

It is just so beyond absurd. It really is.

Here is the thing. It may be that Mr. Atwill is completely clueless about this. Maybe he isn’t just trying to scam everyone and sell a bunch of books to a group of gullible people. Maybe he legitimately hasn’t read anything relevant on this subject or any recent scholarship on it.

And then we glimpse that shameful Freudian slip beneath the skirt. Joe Atwill’s real sin is that he is “not one of us establishment intellectual elites!” He is an outsider! Shock, horror, ultimate scandal — he even uses the “Popular Media”! If anyone takes him instead of us seriously they are nothing but a gullible, ignorant rabble. Whoever takes us seriously is wise and virtuous! You can tell the difference between us. We have the power to kick him and keep him locked outside behind the gates of character attacks and personal insults.

[Atwill is] not using ‘Greco-Roman’ correctly. [Don't explain to the popular reader why Atwill's use is incorrect. That only adds to the aura of intellectual superiority of the critical reviewer.]

He makes claims but doesn’t seem to realize how ridiculous they actually are; it is that scholars find his work “outlandish”. . . . I mean it is still crazy talk. . . [DO scholars really find "his work" outlandish? Tom finds the blurb to his documentary film outlandish. Have any scholars actually read his "work" and critiqued it? Or do they just scoff at the conclusions because they are so incompatible with anything they have studied.]

Steven Mason, a real scholar, . . . .

The difference between what these scholars have written and what Mr Atwill have (sic) written is threefold:

(a) all of them have academic training in Greek,

(b) all of them published through an academic press . . .

(c) None of them make the illogical leap that similarities between Josephus (a Jew) and the Gospels (written by Jewish authors) mean that the Romans did it.

[Note that 2 out of 3 differences are that Atwill is "not one of us". The third is no doubt an unscholarly oversimplification.]

Despite Atwill’s unlearned claim that the Jewish people were expecting a ‘Warrior messiah’. . . . [Of course. Keep looking for mud. Never mind that one will read this misinformed claim in "Oh-how-many" scholarly works!]

He may sincerely believe he has discovered the secret code off a cereal box with his 3-D glasses he found inside; that doesn’t make him an expert in the subject. [Of course. His view is not our view. That is, he is not an expert like us!]

Mr. Atwill is just like all other amateur-Scholar-wannabes who refuse to put in the time and effort to earn a degree in the field who want to advance their pet theories to sell books and dupe you over. [I like the way "Scholar" is capitalized. We Scholars are superior in character because we are prepared to put in effort and time to earn degrees. Others are charlatans out to make money and dupe you poor ignorant peasant rabble who read their work.]

He relies on popular media and the ignorance of the layperson to score points rather than publishing in a credible academic journal or publishing academically. He knows he can’t do that, because he has no clue how academics work, how they think, or what they actually argue on the subject. [Tom knows all of this about Atwill? He must know him personally. But note that the main message here is that academics are a superior elite class and Atwill is not a member. Now I do accept that people who work in universities are the brightest and most learned of our populations. That's why they are there. But when someone aspiring to be a capital S Scholar starts treating outsiders like this then he has lost my respect. I'm with Tim Minchin's points #3 and #8 on this:

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2013-10-08

Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: How Our Focus on the Bible Can Distort Our View of the Past

by Tim Widowfield

“The Book of Genesis”

An angel prevents the sacrifice of Isaac. Abra...

An angel prevents the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham and Isaac, Rembrandt, 1634 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, Gary Rendsburg’s audio course on Genesis became available at the The Great Courses web site for just $29.95, and I couldn’t resist. In future posts I would like to review this series of lectures more completely, but for now let me just say that it’s pretty good — especially with respect to internal literary analysis — but it does have some serious problems.

Professor Rendsburg, a self-confessed maximalist who believes Abraham was a historical figure and rejects the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), does acknowledge that many of his positions are not currently the consensus viewpoints, but he does an inadequate job of presenting other viewpoints. I don’t criticize him for holding contrary opinions. After all, this is Vridar. But if a lecturer is going to discuss minimalism or the DH, then he or she should at least present them fully and correctly.

Through a glass, darkly

As I said, I want take a more detailed look at Rendsburg’s course in the future, with special emphasis on the DH. However, this post is about something else altogether: namely, the way scholars steeped in either the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, if you prefer) or the New Testament seem to have a limited, if not skewed, understanding of the surrounding contemporaneous world.

We should of course err on the side of forgiveness, say, when a New Testament scholar expresses surprise on discovering that for many decades people have theorized that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays or the sonnets. Sure, you thought everybody knew that, but it isn’t his bailiwick. And if that same NT scholar thinks the DH can be proved by comparing variations of the divine name in the Psalms, well even there we could make excuses (but I won’t), since the OT is also not his within his realm of expertise.

However, we cannot countenance the lack of knowledge when it comes to the surrounding cultures of the subject matter that an academic claims to know on a professional, scholarly level. If you assert that you know how the ancient Hebrews or Israelites compared to their neighbors, then you’d better understand those other cultures as well as possible.

Immortality: The “ultimate quest”?

Specifically, how much emphasis did the religions of the Ancient Near East place on the attainment of eternal life? According to Rendsburg:

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2013-09-28

Why the Gospels are Historical Fiction

by Neil Godfrey

.

A recent book by Jacob Licht, Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem, 1978), proposes that the “historical aspect” and the “storytelling” aspect of biblical narrative be thought of as entirely discrete functions that can be neatly peeled apart for inspection — apparently, like the different colored strands of electrical wiring.

This facile separation of the inseparable suggests how little some Bible scholars have thought about the role of literary art in biblical literature. (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 32)

.

By “historical fiction” I mean a fictitious tale, whether it is a theological parable or not, set in a real historical time and place. Authors of “historical fiction” must necessarily include real historical places and real historical persons and events in their narrative or it will be nothing more than “fiction”. Ancient authors are known to have written “historical fiction” as broadly defined as this. We have the Alexander Romance by Heliodorus that is a largely fictitious dramatization of the person and exploits of Alexander the Great. Of more interest for our purposes here is Chariton’s tale of Chaereas and Callirhoe. These are entirely fictitious persons whose adventures take place in world of historical characters who make their own appearances in the novel: the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes II; his wife and Persian queen, Statira; the Syracusan statesman and general of the 410s, Hermocrates. There are allusions to other possible historical persons. Sure there are several anachronisms that found their way into Chariton’s novel. (And there are several historical anachronisms in the Gospels, too.) Chariton even imitated some of the style of the classical historians Herodotus and Thucydides.

In this way Chariton imitates the classical historians in technique, not for the purpose of masquerading as a professional historian, but rather, as Hagg (1987, 197) suggests, to create the “effect of openly mixing fictitious characters and events with historical ones.” (Edmund Cueva, The Myths of Fiction, p. 16)

A word to some critics: This post does not argue that Jesus did not exist or that the there is no historical basis to any of the events they portray. It spoils a post to have to say that, since it ought to be obvious that demonstrating a fictitious nature of a narrative does not at the same time demonstrate that there were no analogous historical events from which that narrative was ultimately derived. What the post does do, however, is suggest that those who do believe in a certain historicity of events found in the gospels should remove the gospels themselves as evidence for their hypothesis. But that is all by the by and a discussion for another time. Surely there is value in seeking to understand the nature of one of our culture’s foundational texts for its own sake, and to help understand the nature of the origins of culture’s faiths.

Cover of "The Art Of Biblical Narrative"

Cover of The Art Of Biblical Narrative

This post is inspired by Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter believes that the reason literary studies of the Bible were relatively neglected for so long is because of the cultural status of the Bible as a “holy book”, the source of divine revelation, of our faith. It seems gratuitously intrusive or simply quite irrelevant to examine the literary structure of a sacred book. So the main interest of those who study it has been theology. I would add that, given the Judaic and Christian religions of the Bible claim to be grounded in historical events, the relation of the Bible’s narratives to history has also been of major interest.

But surely the first rule of any historical study is to understand the nature of the source documents at hand. That means, surely, that the first thing we need to do with a literary source is to analyse it see what sort of literary composition it is. And as with any human creation, we know that the way something appears on the surface has the potential to conceal what lies beneath.

Only after we have established the nature of our literary source are we in a position to know what sorts of questions we can reasonably apply to it. Historians interested in historical events cannot turn to Heliodorus to learn more biographical data about Alexander the Great, nor can they turn to Chariton to fill in gaps in their knowledge about Artaxerxes II and Statira, because literary analysis confirms that these are works of (historical) fiction.

Some will ask, “Is it not possible that even a work of clever literary artifice was inspired by oral or other reports of genuine historical events, and that the author has happily found a way to narrate genuine history with literary artistry?”

The answer to that is, logically, Yes. It is possible. But then we need to recall our childhood days when we would so deeply wish a bed-time fairy story, or simply a good children’s novel, to have been true. When we were children we thought as children but now we put away childish things. If we do have at hand, as a result of our literary analysis, an obvious and immediate explanation for every action, for every speech, and for the artistry of the way these are woven into the narrative, do we still want more? Do we want to believe in something beyond the immediate reality of the literary artistry we see before our eyes? Is Occam’s razor not enough?

If we want history, we need to look for the evidence of history in a narrative that is clearly, again as a result of our analysis, capable of yielding historical information. Literary analysis helps us to discern the difference between historical fiction and history that sometimes contains fictional elements. Or maybe we would expect divine history to be told with the literary artifice that otherwise serves the goals and nature of fiction, even ancient fiction.

The beginning of the (hi)story

The great Latin poet, Virgil, holding a volume...

The Latin poet, Virgil, holding a volume on which is written the Aeneid. On either side stand the two muses: “Clio” (history) and “Melpomene” (tragedy). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take the beginning of The Gospel According to St. Mark. Despite the title there is nothing in the text itself to tell us who the author was. This is most unlike most ancient works of history. Usually the historian is keen to introduce himself from the start in order to establish his credibility with his readers. He wants readers to know who he is and why they should believe his ensuing narrative. The ancient historian normally explains from the outset how he comes to know his stuff. What are his sources, even if in a generalized way. The whole point is to give readers a reason to read his work and take it as an authoritative contribution to the topic.

The Gospel of Mark does indeed begin by giving readers a reason to believe in the historicity of what follows, but it is has more in common with an ancient poet’s prayer to the Muses calling for inspiration and divinely revealed knowledge of the past than it does with the ancient historian’s reasons.

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger . . . .

That’s the reason the reader knows what follows is true. It was foretold in the prophets. What need we of further witnesses?

Yes, some ancient historians did from time to time refer to a belief among some peoples in an oracle. But I can’t off hand recall any who claimed the oracle was the source or authority of their narrative. I have read, however, several ancient novels where divine prophecies are an integral part of the narrative and do indeed drive the plot. Events happen because a divine prophecy foretold them. That’s what we are reading in Mark’s Gospel here from the outset, not unlike the ancient novel by Xenophon of Ephesus, The Ephesian Tale, in which the plot begins with and is driven by an oracle of Apollo.

Note, too, how the two lead characters in the opening verses are introduced. read more »


2013-08-24

So John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus? One more argument for the forgery case

by Neil Godfrey

jm_baptism_1Many of us are aware of the arguments of Frank Zindler that the John the Baptist passage in Josephus is an interpolation, but we leave those aside here and look at what Rivka Nir of the Open University of Israel offers as reasons for doubting the genuineness of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities. The following is drawn from “Josephus’ Account of John the Baptist: A Christian Interpolation?” by Rivka Nir in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2012) 32-62.

Rivka Nir’s article also suggests her own answer to the old question of the origins of the idea of baptism as we read it in connection with John the Baptist.

To begin, let’s refresh our memory of what we read about John the Baptist in Josephus. The translation following is as it appears in Rivka Nir’s article:

(116) But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist.

(117) For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead [ἐπασκοῦσιν] righteous lives and practice [χρωμένοις] justice [δικαιοσύνῃ] towards their fellows and piety [εὐσεβείᾳ] toward God to join in baptism [be united by baptism] [βαπτισμῷ συνιέναι].

In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism [βάπτισιν] was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying [or: on condition] that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by [righteousness—R.N.] [δικαιοσύνῃ].

(118) When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused [ἤρθησαν] to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. (Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119)

Rivka Nir first gives us the three pillars upon which the authenticity of this passage rests (I omit supporting details in the footnotes and add bold format):

  1. In view of dissimilarities or even contradictions between the Gospel and Josephus versions about John the Baptist, it is reasoned that had the passage been interpolated by a Christian, the interpolator would most likely have accommodated the account to its version in the Gospels.
  2. The passage’s correspondence in vocabulary and style to Josephus’ Antiquities in general and books XVII–XIX in particular.
  3. The presence of the text in all the Josephus manuscripts and its mention by Origen in his Against Celsus (1.47), dated to 248 CE.

Early suspicions of a brazen forgery

1893: Herman Graetz called the passage “a brazen forgery”.(Geschichte der Juden, III, p. 276, n. 3) read more »


2013-08-19

The Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt

by Neil Godfrey

rahimExactly one week before the Egyptian military’s removal of the Morsi government I received a copy of Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from Within, edited by Lily Zubaidah Rahim. One of my particular interests at the time was in Turkey and I posted some interesting observations in the book about the Muslim government there: Can Democracy Survive a Muslim Election Victory? (That chapter raises the question of how valid are the fears of Muslim victories in democratic elections. The way the Muslim party has ruled in Turkey provides an instructive contrast with what happened recently in Egypt.) Other posts discussing Rahim’s book are archived here.

This post has been sitting half or less done in my drafts for some weeks now, and since the Egyptian military removed Morsi this post feels very academic and pointless ancient history. Patrick Cockburn’s view that Egypt has begun to enter a new dark age with the forces that had backed Mubarak’s bloody dictatorship more entrenched than ever.

povey

Tara Povey

Anyone following Egypt’s events in any detail will not find anything new here. The author is Tara Povey. Her chapter is titled Voices of Dissent: Social Movements and Political Change in Egypt. There is an earlier version of this chapter (published before Tara Povey moved to the University of London, and so not with the same details I cover in this post) here. Tara’s chapter in Muslim Secular Democracy is a much revised and augmented version of that online post. But let me post one section from it that overlaps with the new print chapter:

Islamic movements are generally portrayed in the West as undemocratic and are equated with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

In reality they are far from being homogenous and uniformly conservative.

Islamic reformism, modernism and dynamic jurisprudence have a long history in the region, beginning in the 19th century when reformers sought to strengthen and reform Islam and oppose colonialism. Today, diverse Islamist frameworks exist which are not based on opposition to the ‘West’ as a whole but rather oppose the West’s support of undemocratic regimes, the prosecution of wars in the region and highlight the importance of a society founded on the principles of social justice and equality.

In many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, Islamic groups have participated in t he democratic process and are playing the role of a genuine political opposition.

Since the 1990s a number of Islamist movements such as the al-Nahda movement in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbullah and HAMAS have entered electoral politics and have actively campaigned for democratic reform. This has prompted one author to note that in some countries Islamist movements “have been more strident in pressing for democratic change than have non-religious political parties.” Women’s activism has played a vitally important role in these movements and diverse strands of Muslim and Islamic feminisms have been formulated through which women have fought for gender equality as well as democracy, social justice and freedom from foreign domination. (my bolded emphasis.)

After the fall of Mubarak Western and other pundits were expressing fears that the events would lead to the takeover of Egypt by the MB.

The forces involved in the uprisings, however, says Tara Povey, “have been broader than any one organization or political party.”

Povey explains that the events surrounding the removal of Mubarak have forced out into the open generational and ideological splits within the MB. read more »


2013-08-16

The Literary Artistry of Genesis

by Neil Godfrey

alterRobert Alter opens his book, The Art of Biblical Narrative (winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought), with a fascinating analysis of a small vignette that for most of us appears to interrupt the larger story of Joseph.

He takes the Hebrew texts of the Jewish bible and subjects them to the kind of critical analysis one might apply to Shakespeare or Proust. He tries to show, on the whole with success, that the astonishing literary effects often achieved by the Authors of the Bible are the results of art and not of artlessness. – J. M. Cameron, New York Review of Books, cover blurb.

So here we are, reading the book of Genesis and enjoying its familiar series of tales, and nearing the climactic final chapters we come to the story of Joseph. Joseph the young lad is given his famous coat of many colours; he’s then sold by his jealous brothers into slavery. But then just as we want to know what happens next we are diverted by a seedy chapter that has given us the word “onanism”. The chapter goes on to relate the patriarch Judah’s misdeeds, his daughter-in-law acting as a prostitute and the birth of his grandchildren. We then return to the Joseph drama with Joseph being taken to Egypt as a slave where he is purchased by Potiphar.

Why did the Genesis author break the Joseph story like that? (Or for those who are more discriminating with their sources, Why did the author of the J document break up the Joseph story like this?)

Robert Alter begins with the few verses preceding the Onan and Judah story. I have used much of Alter’s translation because he maintains the Hebrew word order and meanings that are significant for his argument.

Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery then stained his tunic in goat’s blood to deceive their father.

32 They had the ornamented tunic, and they bring it to their father, and say, `This have we found; recognize, we pray thee, whether it [is] thy son‘s coat or not?’

33 And he recognized it, and saith, `My son’s tunic!

an evil beast hath devoured him;
torn — torn is Joseph!’

34 And Jacob rendeth his raiment, and putteth sackcloth on his loins, and becometh a mourner for his son many days,

35 and all his sons and all his daughters rise to comfort him, and he refuseth to comfort himself, and saith, `For — I go down unto my son, to Sheol, mourning,’

and his father weepeth for him 36 and the Medanites sold him

unto Egypt, to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh, his chief steward . . .

The phrases highlighted in bold are the focus of Alter’s argument. read more »


2013-08-10

Making of a Mythicist, Act 3, Scene 2 (Discovering the Crucial Bridge) — With a note on “Parallelomania”

by Neil Godfrey

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailContinuing Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery

This post follows on from my earlier one on Chapter 8 where Brodie is beginning to appreciate the nature the literary artistry of the biblical books.

Chapter 9

The Third Revolution Deepens: 1992-1995

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Reminder: This series is skipping over many of the personal details related to Thomas Brodie’s intellectual odyssey. It also needs to be kept in mind that generally this book does not present Brodie’s detailed arguments but rather traces how his understanding of the nature and origins of the Biblical literature emerged.

If a Jesus narrative were based on the Elijah-Elisha story (see “That Is An Important Thesis“) one had to ask why. Would not the story of Moses or David have been more appropriate as a model? This question perplexed Brodie until his further studies on Genesis opened up a new awareness of the nature of the biblical literature. But let’s digress a moment to consider an objection that has on some theologian’s blogsites recently been flung at Brodie’s arguments since he has claimed they lead to a “mythicist” conclusion.

Parallelomania: the facts

“Parallelomania” has once again been flung as a dismissive epithet by a number of theologians and religion scholars at Christ myth arguments in general and Thomas Brodie’s arguments in particular, so it is worth taking a moment to revisit the article that introduced the notorious notion of “Parallelomania”. It can be read on this Vridar.org page; I have taken excerpts from it in the following discussion.

Samuel Sandmel

Samuel Sandmel

I don’t think James McGrath has ever had the time to read that article that he invites others to read. If he had, he would know that its author (Samuel Sandmel) points out that by “parallelomania” he means plucking passages from the vast array of, say, rabbinical literature or from a work of Philo’s out of their broader contexts and using them (thus decontextualized) to claim they have some direct relevance to similar sounding passages in the New Testament. That is not what what Brodie is doing. Sandmel even explains that the sort of detailed analysis done by Brodie to explore questions of literary indebtedness is indeed justified and is not to be confused with something else that he is addressing.

The key word in my essay is extravagance. I am not denying that literary parallels and literary influence, in the form of source and derivation, exist. I am not seeking to discourage the study of these parallels, but, especially in the case of the Qumran documents, to encourage them. . . . .

An important consideration is the difference between an abstract position on the one hand and the specific application on the other. . . . . it is in the detailed study rather than in the abstract statement that there can emerge persuasive bases for judgment. . . . . The issue for the student is not the abstraction but the specific. Detailed study is the criterion, and the detailed study ought to respect the context and not be limited to juxtaposing mere excerpts. Two passages may sound the same in splendid isolation from their context, but when seen in context reflect difference rather than similarity.

Note the problem with taking excerpts from a corpus of literature and using them as parallels with something else. This results in

confusing a scrutiny of excerpts with a genuine comprehension of the tone, texture, and import of a literature.

In Brodie’s analyses, on the other hand, it is as much the tone, texture and import of the respective documents that is being analysed as the individual words and phrases.

One of the greatest sins of “parallelomania” is

the excessive piling up of . . . passages. Nowhere else in scholarly literature is quantity so confused for quality . . . . The mere abundance of so-called parallels is its own distortion . . . .

I recently posted chapter 7 of Brodie’s book to demonstrate that Brodie does not make his case by a mere piling up of matching words or ideas. The structure, the theme, the context, the motivation — these are all part of Brodie’s argument.

Finally, the crowning sin of parallelomania is one that I not too long ago identified in the work of historian Michael Grant about Jesus. I’ll first quote Sandmel:

On the one hand, they quote the rabbinic literature endlessly to clarify the NT. Yet even where Jesus and the rabbis seem to say identically the same thing, Strack-Billerbeck manage to demonstrate that what Jesus said was finer and better. . . . . Why, I must ask, pile up the alleged parallels, if the end result is to show a forced, artificial, and untenable distinction even within the admitted parallels?

Grant followed many theologians who insist that though the golden rule was known in some form among the rabbis (and in other civilizations), Jesus expressed it better than anyone else.

Sandmel’s article on “parallelomania” is actually an endorsement of the sort of work being done by scholars who work seriously on literary analysis of texts and a warning against the sins found too often among the mainstream scholars. Unfortunately some theologians, McGrath included in his Burial of Jesus, are on record as saying that literary analysis has no place in the work of historical inquiry. On the contrary, without literary analysis the historian has no way of knowing how to interpret literary documents.

It is that very detailed study that Sandmel said is necessary, and the study of the context, both immediate context and the wider cultural context of literary practices of the day, that Brodie is undertaking. He is not plucking passages out of context from disparate sources and making an abstract claim that they can be read as a “parallel” to, and by implication source of, what we read in the gospels. (Such “extravagance” is the characteristic fault of “astrotheology”, but not of the scholarly work of Brodie and MacDonald.)

This is not the same as saying that MacDonald’s and Brodie’s arguments are necessarily correct. They still need to be studied and engaged with. There may be alternative explanations for some of the data they have addressed and believe points to literary borrowing. But it is not particularly scholarly to simply reject an argument one does not like by dismissing it with a pejorative label.

Now back to Beyond the Quest read more »


2013-08-07

Christ Before Christianity, 2: A Man Ascended to Heaven

by Neil Godfrey

The Messiah figure (or Christ) in the Book of Enoch, specifically in the Parables or Similitudes section of that book, has several attributes and performs certain functions that make him a precursor of the Christ figure who became the focus of Christianity.

Paul’s understanding of who and what Christ was appears to have been influenced by the Book of Parables in 1 Enoch. Paul says that his gospel was revealed to him so it is easy to assume that either God revealed Christ to him in a vision or that he developed his own Christ concept to preach. However, the similarities of his Christ with the Christ/Messiah in Enoch are striking. Moreover, the same Enochic literature teaches that Christ is a figure unknown except to those to whom he is revealed from heaven. Or was he revealed to Paul, at least in part, through the Book of Enoch?

This account of at least one Jewish group’s beliefs about the Messiah before the time of Paul (and Jesus) is taken from The Messiah: A Comparative Study of the Enochic Son of Man and the Pauline Kyrios by James A. Waddell. The previous post in this series is here.

First things first. Let’s establish where in the Parables of Enoch (or Book of Parables, BP) we read the actual term “Messiah” or “Christ” — meaning “Anointed One”. The word occurs twice:

1 Enoch 48:10

And on the day of their affliction there shall be rest on the earth,
And before them they shall fall and not rise again:

And there shall be no one to take them with his hands and raise them:
For they have denied the Lord of Spirits and His Anointed.
The name of the Lord of Spirits be blessed.

1 Enoch 52:4

And he said unto me: ‘All these things which thou hast seen shall serve the dominion of His Anointed that he may be potent and mighty on the earth.’

We shall see through this series that this Christ, the Anointed One, is also named the Righteous One, the Chosen One, the Son of Man, and Name of the Lord of Spirits. We begin to look at some of the attributes or nature of this being in this post, and then we will (courtesy of Waddell) study the functions, the role, of this Messiah.

A Human Being

The Messiah in the Book of Enoch is a human being. It is the man Enoch himself who is (near the end of the book) declared to the Messiah himself. Enoch is the sixth human generation after Adam, or the seventh, counting inclusively. The human nature of Enoch is driven home in the following:

1 Enoch 37:1

The second vision which he saw, the vision of wisdom — which Enoch the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, saw.

Compare 60:8 (Noah speaking)

the garden where the elect and righteous dwell, where my grandfather was taken up, the seventh from Adam, the first man whom the Lord of Spirits created.

So Enoch, we are emphatically assured, belongs to the human race. He is a descendant of Adam.

Then at the end of the BP this same human Enoch is explicitly identified with the Son of Man: read more »