Category Archives: Uncategorized


2015-05-23

Award for Public Religious Literacy

by Neil Godfrey

Westar Institute Inaugurates Award for Public Religious Literacy

In a move that embodies its conviction that knowledge about religion is essential to healthy public discourse, the Westar Institute has inaugurated a new award to honor members of the public who demonstrate an outstanding commitment to fostering religious literacy. The new Advocate for Public Religious Literacy (APRL) award seeks to recognize the courage, commitment, and contributions of people who cultivate thoughtful discussion and disseminate learning about religion in their communities. Westar invites nominations at this time. . . . 

See the Westar site: http://www.westarinstitute.org/blog/westar-institute-inaugurates-award-for-public-religious-literacy/ (The Westar Institute is best known for its Jesus Seminar led by Robert Funk some years ago; since then a work on Acts has been published and posted about here.) 

It will be interesting to see who does win the award.

Can anyone think of any blog-authors who deserve to be nominated! ;-)

But then again I think the world deserves an honest discussion about religious and biblical scholarship. Too many scholars shun any public engagement that does not foster the parameters of the conventional wisdom as we have experienced.

 


2015-05-17

Truth and History

by Neil Godfrey

Come on, Bart. You can do better than this. Think through this postmodernist jargon.

In my recent post in which I made a paean to memory – which will be the way I end my current book dealing with memory and the historical Jesus — I said the following.

MY REMARK:  “The comment that I sometimes get from readers that I find puzzling or disheartening is when they tell me that if there is something in the Gospels that is not historical, then it cannot be true, and if it is not true, then it is not worth reading.  My sense is that many readers will find it puzzling or even disheartening that I find this view puzzling and disheartening.   But I do.

Please call me a prophet if you must, but I would like to point out that a number of readers on the blog did indeed find my view puzzling and disheartening.   Mainly puzzling.   The following was a very well reasoned response from a reader, to which I would like to reply:

READER’S COMMENT:  Indeed, stories that aren’t true are no less worthwhile to read. The Bible most definitely is an important part of literature that should be read and studied (I wouldn’t want you to be out of work!). However, I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the word ‘truth’. To me (and I am not a native English speaker so maybe this is a linguistical problem), truth has always meant something that corresponds to reality. If a story didn’t happen, I don’t see how it can be true. The very definition of a true story is that it happened. It can still be important, have significance in our lives, etc, but I don’t see how it can be called truth.

I completely understand this point of view.  It is a point of view that I myself had for a very long time.  It’s not one that I hold now, and I want to explain why.

In my view, there can be true stories that never happened. . . . 

(From http://ehrmanblog.org/truth-and-history/)

That’s postmodernist semantic confusion. (The remainder of the article turns on the example of the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, but you have to donate to Bart’s own favourite charities in America to read this.)

To say a story that never happened is nonetheless a true story renders the word “true” meaningless. I know what is meant. The moral of the story is relevant to the readers, for example. Aesop’s fables tell us about many true real-life principles. The story of Pinocchio teaches the “true” principle that lying can lead to trouble. I learned in primary school that tales about talking animals and lies causing noses to grow embarrassingly long are not true. I also learned to enjoy these stories and knew well the “truths” they taught: that I should beware of tricksters, be prudent and not tell lies.

As Paul Boghassian has observed [in another context]: “To say some claim is true according to some perspective sounds simply like a fancy way of saying that someone, or some group, believes it. (Cited in Richard Evans, In Defence of History, p. 220)

I recall years ago Christians expressing abhorrence at the relativism being espoused by postmodernism. That was quite some time ago. I have since seen Christian scholars embracing postmodernism as their own intellectual saviour and defender. It enables them to argue for the relevance of the Bible by means of semantic confusion such as Ehrman is recycling.

Let’s not lose grip of semantic and logical coherence and consistency.


2015-05-16

But WHY Does It Not Convince?

by Neil Godfrey

An unexplained or unjustified phrase that I encounter with depressing regularity in works of Biblical scholars is “so and so’s argument does not convince” or “is not persuasive” — and the various equivalents of these, of course. This blot is too often found even in what can be the most informative of academic works. Of course I don’t have a problem with someone not being persuaded by an argument but I expect from scholars an evidence or logically based rationale to justify their reaction to a colleague’s assertions, conclusions or arguments. The unfortunate guilty piece of writing that has most recently crossed my path is an aspiring scholar’s blog review of Dennis MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. This post’s criticism is not targeted at the author but at the all-too-common practice found throughout the literature of his field.

Dennis MacDonald’s controversial thesis is that the Greek epic poems of Homer, well known among both the literate and non-literate populations of the Greek speaking Hellenistic and Roman worlds, can explain many of the narrative details in the Gospel of Mark. (If you are unfamiliar with the idea and are interested in an overview I have posted details at The Gospel of Mark & Homer’s Epics on vridar.info.)

The blog review in this instance, as many other reviews have done, outlines MacDonald’s list of six criteria that he uses hopefully to establish whether a literary passage has been shaped in some way by the author’s awareness of a completely different work. (In a more recent work MacDonald has since added a seventh criterion, “ancient and Byzantine recognitions”.) So far so good, but when it comes to the details we slip in the mud.  read more »


2015-05-04

Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction by Minas Papageorgiou

by Neil Godfrey

jesus-mythicismMinas Papageorgiou, freelance journalist,  managing director of a Greek publishing group and a founding member of the Hellenic Society of Metaphysics (metafysiko.gr), has made his Greek language survey of a wide range of contemporary Jesus mythicist views available in English as an ebook on Amazon. And it’s not exorbitantly priced, either.

Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction was originally written for readers in the religiously conservative nation of Greece where the very existence of the mythicist debate has scarcely registered, both historically and today. The book is an attempt to introduce Greeks to a wide range of Jesus mythicist ideas currently being published and discussed in the English speaking world and now that it is available in English it is also an interesting introduction for English speakers.  

Before the main interviews Papageorgiou covers some of the more general or foundational arguments of mythicists such as those addressing the earliest references to Christianity in the non-Christian sources. He segues from this discussion into details of René Salm‘s arguments about the archaeological evidence for the inhabitation of Nazareth in the early first century, Raglan’s list of “hero archetypes” found among mythological figures, and material such as supposed ancient correspondence about Jesus that has been long understood to be forgeries. Some of this was new to me.

The first interview is with Gerd Lüdemann, the scholar who suffered professionally for publishing a work calling into question the authenticity of many of the sayings of Jesus. Lüdermann also expresses his views on the Christ Myth hypothesis, too. (Hint: I’ve updated the Who’s Who list of mythicists and mythicist agnostics/sympathizers.)

While I have been interested in a few Jesus myth arguments (in particular Brodie’s, Carrier’s, Doherty’s) and have known something of a tiny handful of others (e.g. Atwill’s, Murdock’s), there are others I knew about only vaguely or not at all.

Minas Papageorgiou from the start seeks to reassure readers that mythicism is not opposed to spirituality or faith but that it even has the potential to “enhance the essential messages of faith” by separating myth from historical truth. He points out that the first “Jesus mythicists” appeared with the emergence of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century but that this intellectual movement largely bypassed Greece. Only two groups, he writes, have anything to fear from mythicism: members of organized clergy and some of the academic guild who have made their reputations and livings through supporting the traditional Christian narrative.

This publication is not a critical evaluation of the various mythicist ideas but leaves the reader to judge and follow up what he or she personally prefers. The result is that some readers with a more serious scholarly interest may be dismayed to see the views of Carrier and Atwill given much the same billing. Carrier has criticized Atwill’s approach as decidedly unscholarly and fallacious and the two are scarcely comparable in terms of intellectual rigour. However, it is good to see Papageorgiou has given his interview with Richard Carrier priority.

In his introduction to Richard Carrier he writes: read more »


2015-04-27

Two Quotations from Hal Childs

by Neil Godfrey

From Hal Childs’ The Myth of History and the Evolution of Consciousness I addressed in my previous post:

Everything we know about Jesus is at least second- and third-hand. There is no way to confirm that material from multiple, independent witnesses actually goes back to Jesus. The scholar can only assume or hope it does — it is a question of probability but not necessity. But how reliable is the probability? There are no reliable epistemological procedures by which to determine this either. It remains a matter of personal preference. (p. 35)

And the following is from page 501 of “Jesus, Historians, and the Psychology of Historiography: A Response to My Respondents” by Hal Childs, Pastoral Psychology, Vol. 51, No. 6, July 2003. There was a special issue of Pastoral Psychology devoted to Hal Childs’ book.

Yet we only need to look at Saint Paul to realize the historic Jesus is not required by, nor necessary for, Christianity. Paul was transformed by his encounter with a Christ, and his own work with his encounter, in turn, transformed a Christ image that also became a cultural phenomenon. But Paul never knew the historic Jesus and it didn’t seem to matter in the least. Whenever Paul needed authorization for his views and experience he went directly to divine revelation.  read more »


2015-04-17

How To Date Early Christian Texts

by Neil Godfrey

A new post has appeared on the Weststar Institute’s blog, 8 tips for dating early Christian texts. It covers considerable detail for both relative and absolute dating.

My earlier post, Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels, was a summary of Niels Peter Lemche’s explanation of valid methods to arrive at an absolute date range for the gospels. The Westar Institute post by Cassandra Farrin gives much more detail — most of it applicable to relative dating.

Her headings — but you must read her post to grasp the full meaning of each:

1. Does the writer refer to any historical figures and events?

2. What other texts does the writer know and refer to?

3. What is the earliest known reference to this text in other sources?

4. Does the text contain special terms or words that changed in meaning from one era to another?

5. Does the text copy the mistakes or variations of other, earlier texts?

6. Is the text concerned with questions or themes that were also popular in other texts of a certain historical period?

7. What genre is this text? Is it a letter, a gospel, an apocalypse? In what sorts of wider contexts was this style of writing useful and popular?

8. Is there any archaeological, socio-cultural, or paleographic research to back up your best guess?

The post links to another set of interesting ones, including one titled 5 Quick and Dirty Rules for Interpreting Paulread more »


Unrecognized Bias in New Testament Scholarship over Christian Origins

by Neil Godfrey

From time to time someone – lay person or New Testament scholar – publicly insists that there is no more bias among the professional scholars of the Bible than there is among any other academic guild. The question arose recently on the Bible Criticism and History forum and I found myself scrambling quotations from members of the guild themselves to point out what surely is obvious to most outsiders. There are individuals who recognize in greater or lesser degrees just how bound in hidden bias on the question of the historical Jesus are the majority of their peers.

Of course most scholars will openly confess to acknowledging bias to some extent but in practice few appear to truly grasp the extent to which the historical Jesus question is grounded in interests that are not fully scholarly.

Here is the list that came most readily to hand.

Hal Childs, “Myth of the Historical Jesus

If interest in Jesus, whether historical or theological, has a strong, if not predominant, emotional dimension, this is usually not acknowledged, nor named as such. Emotion has a bad name in scholarship, and both methods and literary style have been designed to apparently exclude it from scholarly pursuits and results. If scholarship can be said to have repressed emotion, then, as Freud said, it returns in other forms, perhaps as ideology or dogmatism. It is always present as an invisible hand guiding interest, commitment, choice, judgement, and the framing of meaning. (p. 15)

Scot McKnight, “Jesus and His Death

Since I have placed Carr and Elton in the same category of modernist historiographer, I must add that many if not most historical Jesus scholars tend to make a presentation of Jesus that fits with what they think the future of Christianity holds, as E.H. Carr so clearly argued. While each may make the claim that they are simply after the facts and simply trying to figure out what Jesus was really like—and while most don’t quite say this, most do think this is what they are doing— nearly every one of them presents what they would like the church, or others with faith, to think about Jesus. Clear examples of this can be found in the studies of Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, and B.D. Chilton—in fact, we would not be far short of the mark if we claimed that this pertains to each scholar—always and forever. And each claims that his or her presentation of Jesus is rooted in the evidence, and only in the evidence. (p. 36)

From James Crossley: To date the study has been approached too narrowly, “being dominated by Christians”.

As it stands presently, NT scholarship will always get largely Christian results, be they the nineteenth-century liberal lives of Jesus, the Bultmannian dominated neo-Lutheranism, or the results of smaller subgroups, such as the social reformer/critic Cynic Jesus associated with the Jesus Seminar: all different but all recognizably Christian. (p. 23)

Crossley quoting Maurice Casey:

But when 90 percent of the applicants [to New Testament studies] are Protestant Christians, a vast majority of Christian academics is a natural result. Moreover, the figure of Jesus is of central importance in colleges and universities which are overtly Protestant or Catholic, and which produce a mass of books and articles of sufficient technical proficiency to be taken seriously. The overall result of such bias is to make the description of New Testament Studies as an academic field a dubious one. (p. 23) read more »


2015-04-06

Jesus, Enfant Terrible in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas?

by Neil Godfrey

Not all early Christian gospels made it into our Bibles. One non-canonical second century gospel is known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas [IGT] and it presents a terrifying image of Jesus as a boy.

The child Jesus strikes another boy dead for merely bumping into him by accident.

IV. 1 After that again he went through the village, and a child ran and dashed against his shoulder. And Jesus was provoked and said unto him: Thou shalt not finish thy course (lit. go all thy way). And immediately he fell down and died. But certain when they saw what was done said: Whence was this young child born, for that every word of his is an accomplished work? And the parents of him that was dead came unto Joseph, and blamed him, saying: Thou that hast such a child canst not dwell with us in the village: or do thou teach him to bless and not to curse: for he slayeth our children.

V. 1 And Joseph called the young child apart and admonished him, saying: Wherefore doest thou such things, that these suffer and hate us and persecute us? But Jesus said: I know that these thy words are not thine: nevertheless for thy sake I will hold my peace: but they shall bear their punishment. And straightway they that accused him were smitten with blindness. 2 And they that saw it were sore afraid and perplexed, and said concerning him that every word which he spake whether it were good or bad, was a deed, and became a marvel.

When a teacher punishes Jesus for insolence he strikes him dead, too. Another time Jesus is playing idly on the sabbath with pools of water (we was making clay sparrows) and when an older child attempted to stop him Jesus caused him immediately to wither away like a desiccated stick. Not that he was all bad. When Jesus is blamed for pushing a child to his death from a roof Jesus resurrects the boy in order to have him testify to his innocence: readers swinging in the mood of the gospel are left to assume he was then dropped back down dead.

Why?

But if the storyteller(s) of IGT wanted to illustrate Jesus’ divine identity, why would they portray him as a (sometimes) arbitrary, mischievous problem child? This would seem to be a “very naive or crude” and “unsophisticated” way to portray Jesus’ divinity, in the words of Larry Hurtado. 

Or in the words of John Meier

The portrait of this sinister superboy belongs more in a horror movie than a gospel.  

That we find the IGT’s portrayal of Jesus so shocking serves as a warning to how far removed we are from understanding the world that gave us the stories of Jesus — indeed, that gave us the very concept of the Biblical God.

M. David Litwa researches several specific ways in which early Christians depicted Jesus as a Mediterranean god in Iesus Deus. He devotes one chapter to the IGT.

One of Litwa’s striking interpretations is that the Jesus in the IGT is more comparable to the Jesus in the Gospel of John than the Jesus in any of the Synoptic Gospels. The point he is making is that the signs Jesus performs (in both the IGT and Gospel of John) are performed as signs to demonstrate that Jesus really is a divinity.

But this Jesus did do some good for others, too. (Isn’t that the way of the evil personas in horror movies?)

XIII. 1 Now his father was a carpenter and made at that time ploughs and yokes. And there was required of him a bed by a certain rich man, that he should make it for him. And whereas one beam, that which is called the shifting one was too short and Joseph knew not what to do, the young child Jesus said to his father Joseph: Lay down the two pieces of wood and make them even at the end next unto thee (MSS. at the middle part). And Joseph did as the young child said unto him. And Jesus stood at the other end and took hold upon the shorter beam and stretched it and made it equal with the other. And his father Joseph saw it and marvelled: and he embraced the young child and kissed him, saying: Happy am I for that God hath given me this young child.

Yet the horror movie image is still with us, is it not?

The ferocity and ambiguity of Jesus’ character are not compensated by his acts of benevolence. One must face head-on the disturbing character of Jesus in this gospel. Attempts to tame the wild child remain unsatisfying. 

M. David Litwa compares like with like. How are other child divinities depicted at this time? How is it that anyone — apart from a horror movie script writer — imagine a god to be so malevolent? Why would anyone compose a story of Jesus like this?  read more »


2015-04-02

Speaking of memory . . . .

by Neil Godfrey

A timely post has appeared on Bible and Interpretation, Memory and the Knowledge of Things Past, by Daniel Pioske. He asks some fundamental questions about the whole exercise. I had not realized it was also being applied to the Hebrew Bible — memories of “the exodus” and “king David”, apparently. I say it’s timely because it comes so soon after my recent post.

It seems few scholars among those studying biblical history at any rate have really stopped to seriously consider how we know what we know about the past. We saw the embarrassing gaffe by Bart Ehrman in this respect when he even opined that a photograph would be enough to establish the historicity of a past figure! And I won’t link again here to Larry Hurtado’s dismaying confusion between primary evidence and extrapolated interpretations from the data. (If you missed it and want it check my recent post on Memories of Jesus.) If you want my own views in summary form (I’ve done surely dozens of posts on the topic by now — check my Historical Method page linked in the right column here.)

 

 


Why Scholars Now Argue for an Early High Christology

by Neil Godfrey

It seems that a growing number of scholars (thinking in particular here of Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham and others who approvingly cite them on this question, and now even Bart Ehrman) have in recent years been taking up the argument that the followers of Jesus took up the view that Jesus was exalted to a very high divine status almost from the moment he was believed to have stepped out of his tomb.

Why is this happening? One would think that the gradual evolutionary view that Jesus’ exaltation to the godhead would accord more with a “plausible historicity”. We are regularly reminded how Jews abhorred the notion of a human being considered divine (though with many qualifications given the Second Temple evidence for persons like Moses being thought of as divine by at least some Jewish authors) and that it must have been with the increase in numbers of gentiles joining the church that the notion of a divine human was conceived and grew.  read more »


2015-03-30

Two new book versions available

by Neil Godfrey

The English language edition of Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction [Kindle Edition] by Minas Papageorgiou is now available. It is a broad overview of a range of authors who have expressed arguments in support of the Christ Myth. The good, the bad and the ugly make their appearance, though Minas leaves it to readers to decide which is which, I believe. Even Vridar and yours truly are honoured with a mention.

And Richard Carrier’s tome on the historicity of Jesus is now available on audio for those who like to catch up when stuck in traffic jams or for those whose eyes don’t work as they should any more: On the Historicity of Jesus Now on Audio!


2015-03-18

Reading Mythicist Arguments Cautiously

by Neil Godfrey

ChristInEgyptI recently posted the following on the Biblical Criticism and History Forum. I post it here to explain the main reason I am very cautious about the works of one group of Christ Myth advocates and hopefully to encourage them to a more constructive and critical approach to the debate. I do hope that the supporters of this perspective will try to understand that my failure to take their views on board is not motivated by any sort of hostility towards the author or their proposed thesis itself but is based upon their failure to appreciate the fundamentals of sound argument and critical thinking.

Let’s start with the positive. In defence of D. M. Murdock’s (aka Acharya S’s) discussion in Christ in Egypt about “crucified” Egyptian gods I think she does an interesting job of detailing the evidence for the various deities, especially with respect to Osiris, including the function of the djied cross or pillar, and early Christian interpretations of these — pages 336 to 352.

I think this is interesting background information that should rightly be factored into any historical and literary analyses that considers the origins of the Gospel of John’s miracle of the raising of Lazarus (as addressed in detail by Randel Helms in Gospel Fictions), Secret Mark (with its patent links to the raising of Lazarus story in John’s gospel) and the stories of Alexandrian provenance for certain early Christian authors.

But then on pages 353 to 356 it seems Murdock crashes into a brick wall by trying to overstate her case.

Or am I missing something that she has explained elsewhere to justify her argument?

We come to the heading “Divine Man” Crucified in Space. Referring to Massey’s discussion of the phrase “crucifixion in space” Murdock writes:  read more »


Why Religious Believers Want Atheist Seal of Approval

by Neil Godfrey

Why Religious Believers Are So Desperate for the Atheist Seal of Approval

By Greta Christina / AlterNet

Excerpt:

I’ve been getting into these debates with religious believers for many years now. I’ve seen how they start out, and where they end up. I’ve seen many, many theists desperately try to get the Atheist Seal of Approval for their religion. And I’ve reached two conclusions about why they’re doing it.

    • They think atheists have higher standards than most believers, so our approval will mean more.
    • And they don’t want to think their religion has anything in common with those other sucky religions… and getting atheists’ approval would let them keep on thinking that.

2015-03-15

Now for something light (or heavy if you prefer)

by Neil Godfrey

As an interlude till the next post on Vridar –

How did Jesus get to be so hot? (Or the historical origins of images of Jesus and what they say about their creators and us.) This is also on AlterNet. It’s by Valerie Tarico.

screen_shot_2015-03-12_at_3.18.51_pm

Was Jesus resurrected naked? – and is that how he appeared to Mary and the others? Though James Tabor insists the question has serious implications for theology!

Tizian-Post-Resurrection