Category Archives: Religion


2015-06-22

Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637

by Neil Godfrey
Cover of "Laws: Plato (Great Books in Phi...

Cover of Laws: Plato (Great Books in Philosophy)

I had long and often read and heard that the values of the Greeks and Jews were an entire world apart. The Greeks embrace the austere and the ribald gods, nudity, homosexuality, worldly wisdom, the arts, beauty and pleasure; the Jews embrace a caring yet moral god, modesty, family values, divine wisdom, spiritual pursuits.

But read one of Plato’s last written works, Laws, and those contrasting images begin to blur into monochrome.

Plato’s Laws is an exploration of what the ideal laws for a new state would look like. Plato presents his ideas through a three-way discussion involving an Athenian stranger, a Spartan named Megillos and a Cretan, Clinias, as they are traveling to the sacred site of the cave of Zeus on the island of Crete.  Anyone familiar with the Old Testament cannot help but be struck by many points of contact.

I have been wanting to write this post (or series) for a few years now and each time have been put off by the amount of work that organizing the material would take. I have decided now to take the easy way out and simply dot point similarities as one reads through the Laws even though this will involve repetition and disjointedness of themes. Take these posts, then, as a draft document for a more coherent presentation. I will often refer to biblical passages generally without quoting them since most interested readers will know of them anyway and they are details I can fill in later.

There is no reason to think that Plato, writing in the early fourth century BCE, was influenced by the Jewish writings. (Later church fathers did attempt to argue that Plato had indeed been indebted to Moses.) A number of scholars in recent decades have argued that the Pentateuch originated much later than has traditionally been thought — some arguing that the Pentateuch may date as late as Hellenistic (from late fourth century) times. I do not discuss explanations of the similarities of thought here. It is enough at this stage to set out apparent evidence for commonality.

I further comment from time to time on points of contact between Laws and the biblical literature that do not relate to legal content. I am not arguing that Plato’s work itself was a direct influence (nor do I deny the possibility) but do want to highlight the literary tropes, the wider literary culture, in which the biblical writings were produced.

I once posted on Hock’s admonition that New Testament scholars should read ancient novels; they should also read ancient philosophical works and acknowledge more fully than many of them currently do the extent to which the Bible is a product of its wider contemporary literary and ethical cultures.

We start with Book 1.

Benjamin Jowett translation at Internet Classics Archive is in dark azure.

R. G. Bury translation at Perseus Digital Library is in indigo.

The Purpose of the Law

Deut 28, Exod 19, Lev 26, Psalm 1 . . . . the law bestows blessings, both spiritual and material. Among these are good health and physical strength; also great wealth. Godly wisdom is the chief blessing.

Deut 4:6-8 – Law brings reputation for being a wise and understanding people, a light to the world.

Plato, Laws 1.631b:  read more »


2015-06-01

You Don’t Have to be Deprived, Suffering or Alienated to be an Apocalyptic Nutter

by Neil Godfrey

cookIt is easy for us to associate apocalyptic and millennial movements with people who are undergoing social or economic stresses, or suffering hostile treatment of some kind. The idea is that apocalyptic fantasies of divine judgment to be followed by a reversal of fortunes in a millennial setting are a compensatory mechanism. But that’s not necessarily so. Not everyone who experiences the stresses of these kinds embraces an apocalyptic cult; moreover, Stephen L. Cook in his book Prophecy & Apocalypticism lists ten historical millennialist groups or persons from quite well-to-do and relatively comfortable backgrounds. The following come from pages 35 to 40.

1. The Free Spirit Brethren

Where: Europe

When: From the thirteenth century onward

What: millennialists

Who: members of privileged strata of society; less affluent members of intelligentsia; from wealthy, well-established family backgrounds; “idle women from the elite of urban society”

Wirsberg_Siebmacher104_-_Franken2. The Wirsberg Brothers

Where: Europe

When: 1450’s and 1460’s

What: millennialsts

Who: Brothers Janko and Livin of Wirsberg were millennial catalyst figures even though they were rich and powerful

Girolamo_Savonarola

Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo, c. 1498

3. Savonarolan millennialism

Where: Florence

When: End of fifteenth century

What: The millennial instruction was taken up as the basis for the civic program of the Florentine republic

Who: Famous civic reformer Savanarola proposed a worldview addressed to political officials, the upper class, as well as the poor.

4. The Franciscan Spirituals

Where: Calabria

When: Twelfth century read more »


2015-05-31

Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies

by Neil Godfrey
Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the A...

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Akhenaten refresher

  • Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled for 17 years in middle of fourteenth century, up till around 1336 or 1334 BCE
  • originally known as Amenthotep IV (or in Greek, Amenophis IV); changed his name to Akhenaten
  • opposed the orthodox priests of Ammon-Re; redirected their income to his new god Aton
  • abolished traditional cults and idols of Egyptian polytheism
  • established the sole worship of a new god of light, Aton, (variously described as monotheismmonolatrism and  henotheism)
  • depicted Aton as sun disc with rays ending in hands, understood to be a universal god incapable of true representation
  • established new centre of worship at Akhetaten (today known as Amarna)
  • temples to Aten stressed worship in open sunlight (contrary to earlier custom of darkened indoor temples)
  • Akhenaten was the sole mediator between Aton and earth
  • affinities between Hymn to Aton and Psalm 104
  • son was the famous Tutankhamen

Unlike Moses, Akhenaten, Pharaoh Amenophis IV, was a figure exclusively of history and not of memory. Shortly after his death, his name was erased from the king-lists, his monuments were dismantled, his inscriptions and representations were destroyed, and almost every trace of his existence was obliterated. For centuries no one knew of his extraordinary revolution. Until his rediscovery in the nineteenth century, there was virtually no memory of Akhenaten.

Moses represents the reverse case. No traces have ever been found of his historical existence. He grew and developed only as a figure of memory, absorbing and embodying all traditions that pertained to legislation, liberation, and monotheism. (Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 23)

This current series of posts has arisen out of Professor Chris Keith’s references to Egyptologist Jan Assmann’s comments about social memory theory in history. Keith uses memory theory to “answer questions about the historical Jesus”. By starting with the gospel narratives as memories of Jesus that have been necessarily reinterpreted he attempts to uncover those narrative details that most likely point to a past reality about Jesus. In Jesus’ Literacy, for example, he judges the Gospel of Mark’s implication that Jesus was was not scribally literate to be more likely a memory reflection of the real historical Jesus than the Gospel of Luke’s suggestion that Jesus was able to competently read the Jewish Scriptures.

However, when I read the first two chapters of Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian I read an approach to social memory that is the opposite of the one used by Chris Keith. Keith begins with the Gospels that are assumed to record certain memory-impressions and attempts to work backwards to what those original events more or less looked like to observers. But as I wrote in my earlier post that’s not how the Egyptologist works:

The Egyptologist begins with “hard evidence” and originally genuine historical memories and works his way forward into the later literature to find out what must have become of these memories. The historical Jesus scholar, it appears to me, begins with the later literature and tries to guess what memories came before it.

The two methods look to me to be like polar opposites rather than “similar”.

It is a pity Chris Keith is too busy to engage with Vridar (no reason given in his personal email, just a copy of a cordial invitation to respond to a Nigerian banker-benefactor asking me for my account details) at the cost of public religious literacy. I would love to discuss these questions with him seriously but he’s clearly not interested. (Slightly revised)

The difference is potentially very significant. Take the different versions of the Moses-Exodus narratives that we have seen in the recent posts — each one a differently interpreted memory — and apply Keith’s method to those in order to arrive at information about “the historical Moses” and the “historical Exodus” and see what happens. As we saw in that first post Assmann has doubts that there even was a historical Moses in the first place and he does not believe there ever was a biblical-like Exodus led by such a figure. Applying Keith’s method to “answer questions about the historical Jesus” to these memory-narratives would produce a very false notion of Egyptian and Jewish history.

Assmann starts with something we lack in the case of the historical Jesus. The known events of Egyptian history according to the contemporary inscriptions. These are used to interpret the later “memory literature”. The “memory literature” is not used in an attempt to uncover past historical events. The past historical events are used to interpret the subsequent stories.

Keith may object that he does use what is known of the historical past in order to assess what is closest to historical reality in the Gospels. He does, for example, in Jesus’ Literacy delve into what we can know about the nature and extent of literacy in ancient Palestine. But this tells us nothing new or relevant to the actual historical Jesus. It is comparable to uncovering details about the historical Pilate, or the architecture of the Jerusalem Temple, or the geography of Galilee. No-one would believe we are coming any closer to “the historical Moses” by learning all we can about the Egyptian religious customs and beliefs, the social structures, ethnic groups or literacy in ancient Egypt and Palestine and applying this knowledge to any of the stories we have about Moses.

So here’s how Assmann uses social memory. read more »


2015-05-27

Moses and the Exodus: again, Moses as an Egyptian Priest

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing . . . . 

The final account to be considered is that of the Greek geographer and historian Strabo who was probably writing early first century CE. The passage is found in Book 16, chapter 2 of his Geography.

According to Strabo Moses was an Egyptian priest who established a religion that stood against the traditional focus on idols and sacrifices. “Superstitious” and “legalistic” regulations such as food laws, circumcision, etc. were only introduced after the death of Moses.

35 Moses, namely, was one of the Egyptian priests, and held a part of Lower Egypt, as it is called,

but he went away from there to Judaea, since he was displeased with the state of affairs there, and was accompanied by many people who worshipped the Divine Being.

For he says, and taught, that the Egyptians were mistaken in representing the Divine Being by the images of beasts and cattle, as were also the Libyans; and that the Greeks were also wrong in modelling gods in human form; for, according to him, God is this one thing alone that encompasses us all and encompasses land and sea — the thing which we call heaven, or universe, or the nature of all that exists. What man, then, if he has sense, could be bold enough to fabricate an image of God resembling any creature amongst us? Nay, people should leave off all image-carving, and, setting apart a sacred precinct and a worthy sanctuary, should worship God without an image; and people who have good dreams should sleep in the sanctuary, not only themselves on their own behalf, but also others for the rest of the people; and those who live self-restrained and righteous lives should always expect some blessing or gift or sign from God, but no other should expect them. read more »


Moses and the Exodus: Moses as founder of an alternative Egyptian religion

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing . . . . 

The following account of “the Exodus” and Moses’ place in history comes from Apion, another Greek who lived much of his time in Egypt. Again Josephus is our source, and a hostile one at that. Apion portrays Moses as an Egyptian priest who preserved a true form of Egyptian religion. The whole “Exodus/Moses” episode belongs to Egyptian (not Jewish) history in his writings.

I briefly take notice of what Apion adds upon that subject; for in his third book, which relates to the affairs of Egypt, he speaks thus:

“I have heard of the ancient men of Egypt, that Moses was of Heliopolis, and that he thought himself obliged to follow the customs of his forefathers, and offered his prayers in the open air, towards the city walls; but that he reduced them all to be directed towards sun-rising, which was agreeable to the situation of Heliopolis; that he also set up pillars instead of gnomons, under which was represented a cavity like that of a boat, and the shadow that fell from their tops fell down upon that cavity, that it might go round about the like course as the sun itself goes round in the other.” read more »


Moses and Exodus according to the Roman historian Tacitus

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing. . . . 

The Roman historian Tacitus (ca 56-117 C.E.) appears to combine several versions of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Most significantly,

In Tacitus, the characterization of Jewish monotheism as a counter-religion which is the inversion of Egyptian tradition and therefore totally derivative of, and dependent on, Egypt reaches its climax. (Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 37)

From book 5 of Tacitus’s Histories:

3 1 Most authors agree that once during a plague in Egypt which caused bodily disfigurement, King Bocchoris approached the oracle of Ammon and asked for a remedy, whereupon he was told to purge his kingdom and to transport this race into other lands, since it was hateful to the gods.

So the Hebrews were searched out and gathered together; then, being abandoned in the desert, while all others lay idle and weeping, one only of the exiles, Moses by name, warned them not to hope for help from gods or men, for they were deserted by both, but to trust to themselves, regarding as a guide sent from heaven the one whose assistance should first give them escape from their present distress.

They agreed, and then set out on their journey in utter ignorance, but trusting to chance. Nothing caused them so much distress as scarcity of water, and in fact they had already fallen exhausted over the plain nigh unto death, when a herd of wild asses moved from their pasturage to a rock that was shaded by a grove of trees. Moses followed them, and, conjecturing the truth from the grassy ground, discovered abundant streams of water.

This relieved them, and they then marched six days continuously, and on the seventh seized a country, expelling the former inhabitants; there they founded a city and dedicated a temple.

4 1 To establish his influence over this people for all time, Moses introduced new religious practices, quite opposed to those of all other religions. The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor. read more »


2015-05-26

Moses and Exodus: an Ancient Jewish Counter-History

by Neil Godfrey

Artapanus of Alexandria was a Jewish historian living in Egypt in the late third or second century B.C.E. We read the relevant excerpts of his work On/Concerning the Jews in another work by Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica (= Preparation of the Gospel). Artapanus gives a new twist to the narratives we have read so far by making Moses a Jew but also the founder of the Egyptian religion and civilization. (He is even identified with Hermes, the inventor of the sacred hieroglyphic script.) As Jans Assmann comments,

[Artapanus’s] picture of Moses is pure counterhistory . . . : it is the exact inversion of Hecataeus’ and Manetho’s Moses, written in contradiction to their texts and with very little reference to the Bible or other Jewish traditions. (Moses the Egyptian, p. 36)

Enjoy the Jewish counter-history! From Book 9, chapter 27 of Praeparatio:

AND Artapanus says, in his book Concerning the Jews, that after the death of Abraham, and of his son Mempsasthenoth, and likewise of the king of Egypt, his son Palmanothes succeeded to the sovereignty.

‘This king behaved badly to the Jews; and first he built Kessa, and founded the temple therein, and then built the temple in Heliopolis.

‘He begat a daughter Merris, whom he betrothed to a certain Chenephres, king of the regions above Memphis (for there were at that time many kings in Egypt); and she being barren took a supposititious child from one of the Jews, and called him Mouses (Moses): but by the Greeks he was called, when grown to manhood, Musaeus.

And this Moses, they said, was the teacher of Orpheus; and when grown up he taught mankind many useful things. For

  • he was the inventor of ships,
  • and machines for laying stones,
  • and Egyptian arms,
  • and engines for drawing water and for war,
  • and invented philosophy.
  • Further he divided the State into thirty-six Nomes,
  • and appointed the god to be worshipped by each Nome,
  • and the sacred writing for the priests,
  • and their gods were cats, and dogs, and ibises:
  • he also apportioned an especial district for the priests.

‘All these things he did for the sake of keeping the sovereignty firm and safe for Chenepbres. For previously the multitudes, being under no order, now expelled and now set up kings, often the same persons, but sometimes others.

‘For these reasons then Moses was beloved by the multitudes, and being deemed by the priests worthy to be honoured like a god, was named Hermes, because of his interpretation of the Hieroglyphics.

But when Chenephres perceived the excellence of Moses he envied him, and sought to slay him on some plausible pretext. read more »


Moses and Exodus according to an early Roman Historian

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing . . .

The first century B.C.E. (Celtic) Roman historian Pompeius Trogus wrote Historicae Philippicae (Philippic History), of which an epitome survives. The relevant section:

But a prosperous family of ten sons made Israhel more famous than any of his ancestors. Having divided, his kingdom, in consequence, into ten governments, he committed them to his sons, and called the whole people Jews from Judas, who died soon after the division, and ordered his memory to be held in veneration by them all, as his portion was shared among them. The youngest of the brothers was Joseph, whom the others, fearing his extraordinary abilities, secretly made prisoner, and sold to some foreign merchants. Being carried by them into Egypt, and having there, by his great powers of mind, made himself master of the arts of magic, he found in a short time great favour with the king; for he was eminently skilled in prodigies, and was the first to establish the science of interpreting dreams; and nothing, indeed, of divine or human law seems to have been unknown to him; so that he foretold a dearth in the land some years before it happened, and all Egypt would have perished by famine, had not the king, by his advice, ordered the corn to be laid up for several years; such being the proofs of his knowledge, that his admonitions seemed to proceed, not from a mortal, but a god.

His son was Moses, whom, besides the inheritance of his father’s knowledge, the comeliness of his person also recommended.

But the Egyptians, being troubled with scabies and leprosy, and moved by some oracular prediction, expelled him, with those who had the disease, out of Egypt, that the distemper might not spread among a greater number. read more »


Moses and Exodus According to the Egyptian Priest Manetho

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing to set out some of the many variants of the Exodus story as told in non-biblical sources . . .

At the conclusion of these I will tie them together with Jan Assmann’s argument that they reflect memories of traumatic events in Egypt’s past.

The Egyptian priest Manetho in the early third century B.C.E. wrote a history of Egypt in which he gives us two versions of an Exodus-like historical event. The following extracts are from the Jewish historian Josephus.

Here is the first one:

14. I shall begin with the writings of the Egyptians . . . . Now this Manetho, in the second book of his Egyptian History, writes concerning us in the following manner. I will set down his very words, as if I were to bring the very man himself into a court for a witness:

“There was a king of ours whose name was Timaus. Under him it came to pass, I know not how, that God was averse to us,

and there came, after a surprising manner, men of ignoble birth out of the eastern parts, and had boldness enough to make an expedition into our country, and with ease subdued it by force, yet without our hazarding a battle with them.

So when they had gotten those that governed us under their power, they afterwards burnt down our cities, and demolished the temples of the gods, and used all the inhabitants after a most barbarous manner; nay, some they slew, and led their children and their wives into slavery. read more »


2015-05-25

Moses and the Exodus according to . . . . the Egyptian Chaeremon

by Neil Godfrey

Chaeremon was an Egyptian priest who lived in Alexandria in the first half of the first century and who subsequently moved to Rome where he became the tutor to Nero. Josephus tells us of his version of the Exodus.

Chaeremon is the first to introduce distinctly biblical motifs into the story. The names of the 250,000 lepers being expelled are Moses and Joseph. In Pelusium they encounter 380,000 would-be emigrants who had been refused permission to emigrate with them. These two groups in fact combined forces and conquered Egypt. Later Ramses was able to drive them out of Egypt, pushing them back to Syria.

I omit Josephus’s criticisms of his account.

32. And now . . . I will inquire into what Cheremon says. For he also, when he pretended to write the Egyptian history, sets down the same name for this king that Manetho did, Amenophis, as also of his son Ramesses, and then goes on thus:

“The goddess Isis appeared to Amenophis in his sleep, and blamed him that her temple had been demolished in the war.

But that Phritiphantes [or Phritibantes, = “the scribe of the temple”], the sacred scribe, said to him, that in case he would purge Egypt of the men that had pollutions upon them, he should be no longer troubled with such frightful apparitions. read more »


Moses and the Exodus According to the Ancient Greeks. . . : Lysimachus

by Neil Godfrey

The next account is by another Greek, Lysimachus, possibly from the second century B.C.E. His account is preserved by Josephus in Against Apion

34. I shall now add to these accounts . . . somewhat about Lysimachus . . . [See Josephus’s account for his criticism of what he takes to be a most unfair and false account by Lysimachus]. . .  His words are these:

“The people of the Jews being leprous and scabby, and subject to certain other kinds of distempers, in the days of Bocchoris, king of Egypt, they fled to the temples, and got their food there by begging: and as the numbers were very great that were fallen under these diseases, there arose a scarcity in Egypt. read more »


Moses and the Exodus According to the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians: Hecataeus

by Neil Godfrey

After reading Jan Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian I’d like to set out here the various alternative versions of the story of Moses and the Exodus as written by ancient Greek and Egyptian historians. (These will be known to many readers but I want to have them all set out together and perhaps discuss their significance in relation to “what really happened” afterwards.)

Here is the apparently earliest non-Jewish record, written by the Greek Hecataeus of Abdera in the fourth and third centuries B.C.E. after he settled in Egypt. It comes to us via another Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus [= of Sicily] of the first century B.C.E. I will highlight significant sections that overlap (however obliquely) with the biblical narrative.

[3]  Since we are about to give an account of the war against the Jews, we consider it appropriate, before we proceed further, in the first place to relate the origin of this nation, and their customs.

In ancient times a great plague occurred in Egypt, and many ascribed the cause of it to the gods, who were offended with them.

For since the multitudes of strangers of different nationalities, who lived there, made use of their foreign rites in religious ceremonies and sacrifices, the ancient manner of worshipping the gods, practised by the ancestors of the Egyptians, had been quite lost and forgotten.

Therefore the native inhabitants concluded that, unless all the foreigners were driven out, they would never be free from their miseries. read more »


2015-03-28

Homer in the Gospels: Recent Thoughts

by Neil Godfrey

Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has posted an interesting discussion on Dennis MacDonald’s defence at the recent Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference of his thesis that a significant influence of the Homeric literature can be found in the New Testament writings, especially the Gospel of Mark and Book of Acts.

For those wondering what the status of his views currently are in the mainstream of biblical studies they will find this an interesting read. Some comments:

Not surprisingly, MacDonald’s thesis has had a number of critics, but has also received a good deal of praise. . .

Overall, the general consensus is that some of the parallels that MacDonald identifies are very strong and interesting, while others are weaker and more speculative. But, one thing that was generally agreed upon at the SBL conference is that mimesis criticism is working its way into mainstream biblical criticism. In fact, MacDonald’s mimesis criticism is likewise going to be discussed at the SBL Annual Meeting in Georgia later this year. . . .

The fact that MacDonald’s arguments will be a central part of this year’s annual SBL conference suggests to me that MacDonald’s new methods are, indeed, making headway into mainstream Biblical Studies. I am not sure whether mimesis criticism will necessarily be central to interpreting the majority of passages in the Gospels and Acts, but I do think that it is very applicable to select examples . . . .

Competing with OT influence? read more »


2015-03-26

Did Muhammad Exist? A revisionist look at Islam’s Origins

by Neil Godfrey

A criticism of the view that Muhammad did not exist

Excerpts from an interview published in

Spiegel Online International  

Dispute among Islam Scholars: Did Muhammad Ever Really Live?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is a group of prominent German Islamic scholars, who are becoming increasingly aggressive about questioning whether the existence of the Prophet is even historically accurate. The theory got its most recent backing from the University of Münster’s Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch, who is in charge of training teachers for Islamic education at the secondary-school level. The Ministry of Education of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is now planning to calm the waters by appointing an additional professor of Islamic pedagogy. Are we witnessing a split into two camps?

Marx: I don’t see it that way. But we should note that what we have from Kalisch at the moment are only the things he has allegedly said. From them, it sounds like he has decided to back the thesis of Professor Karl-Heinz Ohlig, which Ohlig publicized three years ago in his book “Dark Beginnings” (“Die dunklen Anfänge”). There, Ohlig posits that the Koran is a Christian text and that Muhammad probably never lived. But this group, which also includes the numismatist Volker Popp and some others, is very small. I’d say that their position isn’t really within the realm of accepted scholarship.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?

Marx: There are far too many pieces of evidence that make Ohlig’s thesis that the Prophet never lived untenable. In the 14 centuries of polemics between Christians and Muslims, this issue has never made an appearance. Even in Syrian-Aramaic sources, however, there is some documentation about the prophet from an earlier time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your scholarship focuses on the early period of Islam and the Koran. What is the evidentiary situation? How could we prove that the Prophet lived?

Marx: You have to be a bit delicate about it. In general, when it comes to history, you can’t point to any scientific proof. How would we, for example, prove the existence of Charlemagne? We can’t conduct any experiments; we have to work with evidence. And, for this issue, the evidentiary thread is the Koran. In this case, the evidentiary situation is better than it is for any other religion. We know of manuscripts of the Koran and Islamic inscriptions already 40-50 years after the Prophet died. It would be hard to explain the Koran, if you took the prophet out of the equation. Ohlig claims that Islam was actually a Christian sect up until the Umayyad Caliphate, that is, the eighth century. In this case, I run into this massive issue: It doesn’t match up with the text of the Koran. Why isn’t Christ a more central figure in the Koran, then? You hear about Abraham, Moses and Noah much more frequently.

. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In other words, if the Prophet did not live, in order to explain the literature, there must have been an enormous conspiracy.

Marx: Precisely. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you saying that Ohlig and his fellow combatants are either demagogues or pseudo-scholars?

Marx: It’s not for me to make that type of judgment. But that’s what it seems like to me. . . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Muhammad Sven Kalisch operates in a sort of border region, that is, between science and theology. And, then, he’s supposed to be training religion teachers, too. The Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany (KRM) isn’t going to support him anymore because they believe that Kalisch is questioning fundamental elements of the Islamic faith. Is it conceivable that a person can be a Muslim and at the same time say that the Prophet might not have even ever lived?

Marx: That’s hard to imagine. . . .

. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could we ever see the thesis — that the Prophet Muhammad might not have ever lived — brought up as a matter of discussion in an Islamic university?

Marx: I wouldn’t know where.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a researcher, how do you steer clear of this tense issue? You use what is a completely critical-historical approach. As long as your findings don’t contradict mainstream Muslim theology, it’s no problem. But what happens when it does?

Marx: Well, then it would probably be a problem. But we’re still a good way off from that situation. Don’t forget that what we’re doing here is basic research. The Koran deserves to be studied in a serious, scientific manner. I think it’s essential that we take these steps with Muslims. . . .

Interview conducted by Yassin Musharbash

In 2013 I read Tom Holland’s history of the rise of Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword, in which he argues in a most readable narrative that the astonishing spread of Arab conquests in the seventh century had more to do a series of tragic forces, in particular the Bubonic Plague, weakening the neighbouring Byzantine and Persian empires, than it did with the might of Arab arms. Moreover, those Arab conquests were not motivated by the Islamic faith; rather, the Islamic faith did not emerge until some decades after those conquests. I posted about Holland’s views at:

Since then I have been wanting to read more about the historical questions surrounding early Islam. Holland cited the works of several scholars I had hoped to engage with before I read Robert Spencer’s book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins, (But I distracted myself by reading another of Holland’s historical works instead.) Meanwhile Spencer’s book fell my way so I grabbed it.

Happily it turned out to be much more interesting as a historical exploration than I had expected. The most troubling flaw was Spencer’s rather poorly informed and stereotypical views of the nature of religions generally and Islam in particular as experienced in today’s world: he contrasts Christianity as an essentially peaceful religion ever since its origins with Islam as an essentially war-making and killing machine because of its historical origins. Some readers will love that summary and others will be dismayed by it (I am among the latter). Nonetheless, despite this botched conclusion much of the book is quite interesting and informative. How much of its information I will come to revise as I learn more I don’t know, so here I am writing up some general points that appear to be the views of a minority of Islamic scholars.

Anyone familiar with the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus will recognize some of the terrain here. Evidence cited over the years for the historicity of Muhammad has included:

  • the rich and vivid detail in the Islamic records of his life
  • the documenting of negative (embarrassing) features of his biography
  • the implausibility of anyone making up a character making such grandiose claims
  • only the personal inspiration of such a person could explain why so many others were motivated to found a vast empire in his name
  • how else can we explain the founding of a religion that went on to boast more than a billion adherents

Similar arguments have been made for the historicity of Jesus yet as we know not one of them truly withstands scrutiny.

But before I write more about the doubts raised about the traditional story of Islam’s origins I ought to make clear what scholars who dispute this minority view say about it.

Patricia Crone is professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. She writes:

True, on Arabic coins and inscriptions, and in papyri and other documentary evidence in the language, Mohammed only appears in the 680s, some fifty years after his death (whatever its exact date). This is the ground on which some, notably Yehuda D Nevo and Judith Koren, have questioned his existence. But few would accept the implied premise that history has to be reconstructed on the sole basis of documentary evidence (i.e. information which has not been handed down from one generation to the next, but rather been inscribed on stone or metal or dug up from the ground and thus preserved in its original form). The evidence that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, on the eve of the Arab conquest of the middle east, must be said to be exceptionally good.

Everything else about Mohammed is more uncertain, but we can still say a fair amount with reasonable assurance. Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur’an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt. Those who deny the existence of an Arabian prophet dispute it, of course, but it causes too many problems with later evidence, and indeed with the Qur’an itself, for the attempt to be persuasive.

For my own views on Crone’s argument about historicity see my post on historical method.

For further criticism see also, of course, the interview excerpts I have placed in the side-box.

I mentioned previously several other historians who have questioned the conventional story of Islam’s origins in my posts on Tom Holland’s book; here are a few of many more names listed by Spencer:

Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921): Lateness of earliest biographical sources on Muhammad along with tendency to invent stories to support later political and religious positions made it impossible to treat the biographies as historically reliable. Spencer lists many names of scholars who have raised questions about Muhammad’s historicity but I list only a few here;

Henri Lammens (1862-1937): Questioned the traditional dates associated with Muhammad; noted the “artificial character and absence of critical sense” in the earliest biographies of Muhammad.

Joseph Schacht (1902-1969): Impossible to extract authentic core of historical material from the earliest texts. Many documents claiming to be early were in fact composed much later.

John Wansbrough (1928-2002): Doubted the historical value of early Islamic texts. Qur’an was developed for political purposes to establish Islam’s origins in Arabia and to give the Arabian empire a distinctive religion.

Patricia Crone and Michael Cook: Noted lateness and unreliability of most early Islamic sources; reviewed archaeological, philological sources, coins from seventh and eighth centuries. Posited that Islam arose within and then split from Judaism. Argued the Arabic setting (including Mecca) was at a late date and for political purposes read back into the history of Islam’s origins. Later, however, Crone wrote that the evidence for Muhammad’s existence is “exceptionally good” (see the quotation above).

Günter Lüling: Qur’an originated as a Christian document; reflects theology of non-Trinitarian Christianity that influenced Islam.

Christoph Luxemberg (pseudonym): Qur’an shows signs of a Christian substratum; Syriac, not Arabic, resolves many difficulties in the text.

So what are the main points that prompt questions about the historicity of Muhammad and suggest that Islam emerged as a major religion some decades after the Arab conquests? Robert Spencer lists the following: read more »