Category Archives: Uncategorized


2017-07-21

The Happy Coincidence Between Biblical Studies and Religious Convictions

by Neil Godfrey

It’s simply downright embarrassing, but here is a video of a biblical scholar making as explicit as he can that his scholarly research directly serves the interests of what he considers to be correct theological beliefs. Michael Bird wrote a book arguing against the view that the earliest Christians (none of them) believed Jesus was a mere mortal who had been adopted by God as his son either at the resurrection or at his baptism. He was asked by the interviewer what relevance his work had for people today. His reply was, in effect, that it knocked on the head various contemporary ideas that Jesus was akin to the “American” myth of the “local boy made good”, that Jesus attained his status through good works and that we, likewise, can attain heavenly rewards or salvation through works.

Larry Hurtado, another scholar, happens to have written along similar lines that happily demonstrate that scholarly research proves the orthodox teachings of the church after all.

Bart Ehrman, on the other hand, cynical agnostic that he is, argues for a more “evolutionary” development of Christ-worship. He was recognised initially as a man but from there the story grew with the telling and singing of praises.

Wouldn’t a more objective answer to the question of relevance be something like:

Each scholar interprets the evidence in a way to make sense of his personal religious (or non-religious) perspective?

Sure, no doubt many students who enter biblical studies find their orthodox ideas challenged, but it is also evident that the academic guild has many comfortable niches for them, anywhere from the liberal and mystical for the Crossans, Borgs and Spongs, to the heel-digging conservatives and apologists, to the secularist agnostics (or even atheist) such as the Ehrmans or Crossleys.

And let’s not even broach the question of the way publishers seduce such scholars so eager for the sake of their own profile to be exploited by their publishers in their pursuit of their own bottom line ….
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2017-07-20

Our Knowledge of Early Christianity — sifting interpretation from the raw data

by Neil Godfrey

Larry Hurtado has written “an observation for consideration (or refutation)” concerning the sources we have for earliest Christianity. I make my own observations (or refutations). Hurtado writes:

We have more evidence about the beliefs, behavioral practices/demands, and diversity in early Christianity in the first two centuries AD than for any other religious group of the time.  From within the few decades we have real letters sent from a known author (Paul) to named and known recipients (e.g., Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia), in which contemporary issues of belief and practice surface and are addressed, and in which also a whole galaxy of named individuals appears, along with information about them.

I think we can be more precise.

From [apparently] within the few decades [of the reported crucifixion of Jesus under Pilate] we have real letters [widely but not universally believed to be real] [that purport to be] sent from a known author (Paul) to named and known recipients (e.g., Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia), in which [supposedly] contemporary issues of belief and practice surface and are addressed [although often the same issues are also addressed in the second century], and in which also a whole galaxy of named individuals appears, along with information about them.

My qualifications are added for the purpose of keeping in mind that

  • we have no evidence of the existence of the letters until the second century when we find an array of competing versions of Paul as a focus of theological battles, some of them quite diametrically opposed to the Paul whose name is attached to the letters;
  • the letters of Paul are in several noticeable ways quite different from other personal and philosophical letters of the day; moreover, we have good reasons to believe that today’s manuscripts are the products of ancient editorial and other redactional practices;
  • we quite readily set aside some letters claiming to be by Paul as spurious and merely assume that a subset of the total corpus are simply because they appear to be expressed in a common style and with a common theological outlook.

Now I am quite prepared to accept the NT letters of Paul as genuine for various reasons, but at the same time I am always conscious of questions such as those above that continue to hover nearby. Accepting data provisionally for the sake of argument and for the testing of hypotheses is not a bad way to go, I think.  read more »


Wise Words from Larry Hurtado and Jim Davila

by Neil Godfrey

Two wise men from Raphael’s famous fresco

How does one go about questioning and engaging in discussion views that we find problematic. Jim Davila, Professor of Early Jewish Studies at the University of St Andrews, was impressed with words of wisdom posted by Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, to add good advice of his own for sake of completeness.

Jim Davila, Professor of Early Jewish Studies at the University of St Andrews, was impressed with words of wisdom posted by Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, on this question in relation to biblical studies, so much so, that he added an afterthought of his own for the sake of completeness.

I will start with Davila’s comment because it reminded me that I have not always lived up to it but it expresses an ideal I have nonetheless strongly believed in. I have attempted to apply this principle as consistently as possible in formulating my own views and arguments, but have sometimes kicked myself for failing to do the same in one-on-one discussions over particular points.

Davila writes:

Let me add one of my own, which I got from the philosopher of science and epistemologist Karl Popper. When I set out to respond to a position with which I disagree, first I look for ways to make the case for that position stronger. Can weak arguments be reformulated more clearly and compellingly? Can I find any evidence that my opponent has missed which offers additional support to the case I want to refute? I try to make sure that I am responding not just to my opponent’s case as presented, but to the strongest possible case I can formulate for my opponent’s position. I find that this approach helps me process positions with which I disagree more receptively and with better comprehension. Try it. I think you will find it works.

While it is one thing to apply that message to tackling hypotheses proposed in books, it might be another to apply it in personal discussions in online commentaries and exchanges. It takes patience, time, and effort to understand before clicking the “send” button.

Now back to Hurtado’s comment, On Representing the Views of Others, of which I quote the concluding section:  read more »


2017-07-12

Another hiatus

by Neil Godfrey

This evening I am leaving on another wayward excursion with some Thai companions beyond Thai borders and hope to become more proficient in their language by the time I return. It’s difficult to focus on blog themes at times like this — especially since learning the Thai language has to take priority for me at this time. We’ll see what I can do so hopefully Vridar won’t go into complete hibernation while I’m on walkabout again.

Expect to return to a “normal” routine back at my “holiday home” in Thailand between one and two weeks from now.

 

 


2017-07-09

The Buddha-Christ parallels

by Neil Godfrey

Ancient Origins has an interesting article listing similarities between the Buddha and Christ and the early history of their two religions.

The Christ And The Buddha: How Can You Explain the Uncanny Similarities?


2017-07-08

Postmodernist Values & Questions of Power: From Reality to Biblical Studies

by Neil Godfrey

I came across the 1971 debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky on human nature a couple of days ago; I last viewed it quite some years ago but found myself still fascinated enough to listen to it carefully through to the end once more. (There’s also a transcript online, I afterwards discovered.) And what memories — all that student long-hair!

What surprised me was that Foucault had lost none of his ability to leave me in some dismay with his insistence that a concept like justice is a social construct and instrument of class oppression.

I’ve been trying to get some little idea into the nature and origins of human ethics from the perspective of evolution and have come to see what we call ethical systems as phenomena found also in other social animals. No doubt Foucault would have said that what we observe in the animal kingdom generally is nothing more than displays of power struggles.

My own limited reading has suggested to me that a fundamental factor underlying ethical systems is the biological principle of reciprocity. Some readers no doubt have read more and can enlighten me further. Is not all ethics fundamentally about the well-being of living organisms so they can survive, flourish and reproduce? I will live at peace with you and not infringe upon your space as long as you respect my piece of territory that I need for my survival. From there we move to those experiments showing us monkeys throwing tantrums if they are not given the same rewards as their peers without any apparent justification for the inequity. Monkeys don’t talk about fairness or justice but they seem instinctively to understand the “fact” of what we describe with those labels.

Instruments of power? No and Yes

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2017-07-06

How to Improve Bart Ehrman’s Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

Matthew Ferguson has posted a very thorough article clearly setting out a weakness in Bart Ehrman’s argument with William Lane Craig over the probability of the resurrection of Jesus.

Simply to say, as Ehrman does, that the resurrection is the “least probable” explanation and therefore it can never qualify as a historical explanation really begs the question. Craig grants that it is indeed the least probable explanation a priori but that the evidence is strong enough to lead the disinterested mind to conclude that it does turn out to be the best explanation for the evidence available. As Ferguson points out:

I don’t think that Ehrman presents the strongest case against miracles (including the resurrection) when he defines them, from the get go, as “the most improbable event.” This kind of definition is too question-begging and it opens the door to the stock “naturalist presupposition” apologetic slogan. The reason we are looking at stuff like the texts that discuss Jesus’ resurrection is precisely to see whether such a miracle could ever be probable.

Ferguson’s article clearly demonstrates the application of Bayes’ theorem in assessing historical evidence for certain propositions and he links to another article discussion the way probability reasoning works in historical studies. (I especially like his opening point in that article pointing out that history is not something that “is there” like some natural phenomenon waiting to be discovered but is a way of investigating the past.) The article also links to another relevant discussion addressing apologist arguments against the likelihood that the disciples hallucinated the resurrected Jesus.

The article is Understanding the Spirit vs. the Letter of Probability.

I won’t steal Matthew’s thunder by singling out here where he believes the emphasis belongs in discussions about the evidence for the resurrection. Suffice to say that I agree with his conclusions entirely.

 

 


2017-06-30

Postings delayed

by Neil Godfrey

I have been wafted up into a strange land of night markets and street food, of friendly neighbours helping one another out, of different bird sounds and busy squirrels in trees and fish and monitor lizards in the tree-shaded canal, Thai long-tail boats taking people to work in the mornings and returning them in the evenings, of beautiful shrines and ancient temples. I am very lucky to be living where few “farang” (foreigners) are ever seen . . . the real Thailand. There’s a painful and ugly side, too, as there always is, even in Bhutan, but that makes the good all the more precious.

A halcyon holiday. More than another month to go here at Alcinous’s court.


2017-06-18

Distinguishing between “fiction” and “history” in ancient sources

by Neil Godfrey

I am copying here a comment I made in another forum a few moments ago. Don’t think I’m trying to present a complete answer to the question of how we can distinguish fiction and history. Rather, I am focusing on just one detail in the opening pages of an ancient biography, by Iamblichus, of Pythagoras. The quotations are from Thomas Taylor’s 1818 translation of the Greek.

It is said, therefore, that Ancaus who dwelt in Samos in Cephallenia, was begot by Jupiter, whether he derived the fame of such an honorable descent through virtue, or through a certain greatness of soul.

The author (Iamblichus) does not present himself as the omniscient narrator but informs his readers that he is limited by his sources: “it is said”.

The sources or “traditions” allow for various interpretations and Iamblichus, presenting himself as not having any reason to presume one over the other, cites both.

In consequence, however, of this nobility of birth being celebrated by the citizens, a certain Samian poet says, that Pythagoras was the son of Apollo. For thus he sings, . . .

It is worth while, however, to relate how this report became so prevalent.

Iamblichus expresses his reliance upon sources. Further, he seeks to understand the background to his sources; e.g. how did they come to express what they did?

Indeed, no one can doubt that the soul of Pythagoras was sent to mankind from the empire of Apollo, either being an attendant on the God, or co-arranged with him in some other more familiar way: for this may be inferred both from his birth, and the all-various wisdom of his soul. And thus much concerning the nativity of Pythagoras.

Again Iamblichus sets himself apart from his subject by relating what he knows of Pythagoras to what we could call today his (I’s) “religious beliefs”.

I further expresses his arms-length distance from his subject by informing the reader that he has completed the first detail of the life of Pythagoras, and implies he is now about to relate the next.

We are not immersed in a story from which the narrator hides his presence. We share Iamblichus’s distance from the subject, and are constantly reminded that we are being told information that our author has drawn from various sources and various “traditions” or accounts, and that we are studying the life in some sort of objective order.

I do not suggest that we therefore can conclude that what Iamblichus says is “historically true”. Obviously that is not always the case. For example, he writes in the next section:

But, when Mnesarchus considered with himself, that the God, without being interrogated concerning his son, had informed him by an oracle, that he would possess an illustrious perogative, and a gift truly divine, he immediately named his wife Pythais . . . .

Here we read the rhetoric of fiction. Here Iamblichus switches to the omniscient narrator conveying to readers even the inner thoughts and motivation for an immediate response to those thoughts of Mnesarchus.

I am commenting on what I see as the “rhetoric of historical” narrative and not on the historical reliability of the content itself. That’s another discussion. The point, I think, is that readers/hearers of Iamblichus’s biography of Pythagoras are being informed that they are hearing the results of the author’s investigations into the details of P’s life. That is, they are listening to/reading what we might call a “historical biography”.

 


2017-06-14

Humans!

by Neil Godfrey

Kensington council warned of ‘criminally lax’ safety standards years before Grenfell Tower fire

If only we would target criminally negligent authorities, managers and owners the same way we target terrorists.


Acts as a Rewriting of Gospels and Paul’s Letters, part 2

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from part 1…..

Expanding the Foundation Story

Notice how the author of Luke-Acts prepares for his second volume (Acts) from the outset of his new gospel:

  • Luke extends the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam and God themselves. Jesus no longer (as in Matthew) is contextualized within the Abrahamic family but comes with more universal credentials.

In the gospel Jesus is clearly the authority figure but our author manoeuvres the narrative to replace Jesus with the Holy Spirit as the new authority in Acts. To do so, Luke actually contrives a new concept of the Holy Spirit, at least one that is different from the spirit we read about in Paul’s letters and the Gospel of John. (That’s another topic of its own that I may write about soon, examining two works cited by Müller, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit by Engberg-Pedersen, 2010 and “It is the Spirit That Gives Life”: A Stoic Understanding of Pneuma in John’s Gospel by Buch-Hansen, 2010.)

The Holy Spirit to Jesus Becomes the Holy Spirit to the Church

Notice next how the author repeats the motif of the Holy Spirit with which he began Jesus’ work in Acts to begin the Church’s work.

As Jesus at his baptism became endowed with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3.21-22), thus the church is also first established at the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. (p. 106)

To extrapolate from Müller’s work, I wonder if we have here an explanation for why in the Gospel of Luke the account of Jesus’ baptism is so incidentally presented (as an afterthought). The focus of Luke’s narrative is the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus through prayer. In Luke 3:21-22

When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” (NKJV)

Luke’s image is repeated so it appears like two columns side by side: as prayer and the descent of the Holy Spirit opened Jesus’ ministry and gave him the authority, so prayer and the Holy Spirit opened and authorized the ministry of the Church in Acts.

This is but one of several demonstrations of how Acts is being built out of material in the gospel.

We saw in the previous post that other evangelists shoehorned subsequent church situations (the law, gentiles) into the story of Jesus. Luke-Acts delays the completion of the foundation story, however. The foundation story is not complete until “the new Israel” is established as the church is withdrawn from “Judaism”. A series of historical steps in the life of the church replace the sayings of the earthly Jesus (as in Mark and Matthew) as the explanation for the church’s final stance on the Mosaic Law.

The Holy Spirit remains the new authority throughout Acts.

As Passover was set as the time for the covenant made by Jesus in the gospel so Pentecost was introduced as the time of the covenant with the church in Acts, Pentecost being in the Judean religion a feast of covenant renewal. With the Holy Spirit come all the fulfillments of  Scripture: new hearts, obedience, and proofs of the resurrection as promised in the Scripture, and proofs that the Scripture had been fulfilled with the messiah son of David reigning on God’s throne.

Luke’s gospel concluded with Jesus pointing to all the scriptures that had been “fulfilled” in his life, death and resurrection and Acts opens with all the scriptures being fulfilled now with the coming of the Holy Spirit to the church.

The Twelve to Israel first

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2017-06-04

Happy Anniversary to Vridar!

by Tim Widowfield

Seven years ago, Neil registered with WordPress.com and Vridar was born. Thanks, Neil!


2017-05-30

Behave, Kid! This Is School!

by Neil Godfrey

Today’s Thailand photo — entrance to a primary school!

 

A local Thai tried to assure me that the character is not the badass school headmistress or head prefect but a character from a popular children’s story.

To be fair, I should add that on moving on I discovered a happier figure on the other side of the gate. . . .  read more »


2017-05-26

“True stories that didn’t happen” — OMG!, do stop the silly word games

by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman has been blogging about the quaint way too many biblical scholars (himself included) play games with the meaning of “myth” in relation to the gospel narratives. The message strikes me as being something like saying Aesop’s fables are true stories because they contain useful lessons.

Why can’t they just say, yes, Aesop’s fables and the Bible stories are fables or myths or fairy tales but they contain valuable lessons or moral guidance?

Why try to give the stories a fabricated status of “truth” simply because they supposedly contain what some people consider worthwhile lessons?