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Aesop / 2, a Guide to a Late Gospel of Mark Date

by Neil Godfrey

Sleepy me forgot to include the main thought that led to the argument of the previous post. Reflecting on Hägg’s point about the Life of Aesop being produced at a time when interest in Aesop was the fashion of the day, the question I was asking myself was:

  • When do we see an interest in the pre-crucifixion earthly life-events of Jesus emerge in the record? When does that particular literary vogue begin?

Now that’s less subtle than an argument based on Paul’s influence on the Gospel of Mark.

The second century Pastoral epistle 1 Timothy speaks of Jesus testifying before Pilate.

Ignatius is among the earliest witnesses to an interest in biographical details of Jesus with his specifications of Mary’s pregnancy and Pilate’s role in the crucifixion. Though Ignatius’s martyrdom (and letter writing date) is said by Eusebius to be in the tenth year of Trajan (108 CE), we have reasons to think that the letters may really have been composed considerably later. As Roger Parvus writes:

Eusebius, in the fourth century, was the first to claim that the letters were written in the reign of Trajan (98 – 117 CE). A number of scholars have recognized that his dating is untrustworthy, and that the letters should be dated later. To give some recent examples:

  • Allen Brent says “we can…, if we like, place Ignatius’ work towards the end of Hadrian’s reign (AD 135)” (p. 318 of his 2006 book Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic.
  • And Paul Foster, in his chapter on Ignatians in The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers (2007), placed their composition “sometime during the second quarter of the second century, i.e. 125 – 50 CE, roughly corresponding to Hadrian’s reign or the earlier part of Antoninus Pius’ period in office” (p. 89).
  • Timothy Barnes, in a 2008 article in The Expository Times (“The Date of Ignatius”), concluded that the letters were written “probably in the 140s” (p. 128).
  • And Richard Pervo, in his The Making of Paul published in 2010 says “A date of c. 130 – 140 is the preferable date for Ignatius” (p. 135).
  • Earl Doherty too, in his Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, does not have a problem with dating the letters to the third decade of the second century. (p. 296).

Justin Martyr of the mid-second century, discussed in the previous post, is also the earliest of the Church Fathers to show a detailed interest in writing about events in the earthly life of Jesus. Most of his discussion is an attempt to prove that the Old Testament writings were prophesying cryptically about Jesus. Again, see the table I have posted on

Interestingly the literary focus on the life of Jesus first appears to gain wider traction around the same time as the interest in and heated controversy over Paul.

Sure we can date the gospels to the last decades of the first century, but by doing so we have to wait some decades (and Justin does not even appear to know any of the gospels in their final canonical form) before we find anyone appearing to take any notice of their contents or sharing their interest in Jesus’ life.

Justin is said to be the first witness to the existence of the gospels but we need to keep in mind that Justin also said that fire (presumably a spiritual fire) engulfed the Jordan when Jesus was baptized, that the infant Jesus was found in a cave, that Pilate conspired with the Jews to crucify Jesus, and indicates that he had no concept of any Judas character or betrayal of Jesus by a disciple.

Is it not interesting that “the church”, or at least the “proto-orthodox” side of Christianity, first appears to take an interest in writings about the earthly life of Jesus at the same time as heated arguments over the teachings of Paul?

The two interests, the teachings of Paul and the earthly life of Jesus, first appear in the wider record around the same time.

Justin, as we saw in the previous post, is certainly one of the more hostile of the “fathers” towards Paul and he it is who is the first to show a strong interest, most unlike Paul, in interpreting the Old Testament as a string of prophecies about the earthly Jesus.

I don’t think the Gospel of Mark was originally written as a literal testimony to the pre-crucifixion life of Jesus, though. The narrative is far too patently (in my view) symbolic to think that it was written with a mind to be read literally. The author does not attempt to proof-text his narrative in the same way the author of the Gospel of Matthew did by saying “Jesus did or said such and such so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (The only exception in English translations of Mark is in fact a gloss.) The Gospel of Mark was actually first associated with heretics (as was Paul) — with the followers of Basilides — though I suspect that Basilides’ followers knew of a kind of ur-Mark, not the form of the gospel we have today in our orthodox canons.

It is the Gospel of Matthew who is closest to the sort of narrative of Jesus that so engrossed Justin. Another point I find interesting is that the Gospel of Matthew, with its anti-Paul message and its focus on Jesus fulfilling passages in the OT, that was the most influential gospel in the second century while the Gospel of Mark was scarcely noticed among the proto-orthodox.

The point is that the mainstream view holds that the gospels were written between 70 and 90 and then forgotten or largely ignored until the mid second century.

Why not prefer to date them to a time when we find there was a more general interest in the sorts of things they write about?



More DNA testing: Ancient Greeks are still among Modern Greeks

by Neil Godfrey

We saw recently that the DNA of ancient Canaanites is found among modern Syrians; we now have further evidence that the DNA of the ancient Mycenaeans is found among modern Greeks, too. It’s in the Nature journal:

Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans

Here we show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically similar, having at least three-quarters of their ancestry from the first Neolithic farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean, and most of the remainder from ancient populations related to those of the Caucasus and Iran. However, the Mycenaeans differed from Minoans in deriving additional ancestry from an ultimate source related to the hunter–gatherers of eastern Europe and Siberia, introduced via a proximal source related to the inhabitants of either the Eurasian steppe or Armenia. Modern Greeks resemble the Mycenaeans, but with some additional dilution of the Early Neolithic ancestry. 

That abstract knocks out what I was taught at school about the Minoans being a distinct race from the Mycenaeans. The research overturns a few alternative theories about the origins of both peoples that have been floated over the decades.

What I find fascinating is just how many people do tend to “stay put and carry on” throughout all the historical migrations and conquerings and resettlements that we read about.

Who has the courage to test and publish the DNA research of Palestinian/West Bank bones throughout the millennia against the various populations in those regions today?


Ancient Canaanites Survive Today in Modern Lebanon’s Population

by Neil Godfrey

Skeleton of an adult whose DNA was sampled for the study (Supplied: Dr. Claude Doumet-Serhal) — the ABC site

Through the ABC news article, Canaanites survived Biblical ‘slaughter’, ancient DNA shows I was led to The American Journal of Human Genetics open access article, Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences, to read that the modern population of Lebanon contains the DNA of the ancient Canaanites.

The ABC article sums up for the TL;DR folk:

  • DNA reveals that modern Lebanese are direct descendants of ancient Canaanites
  • Despite tumultuous history, there has been substantial genetic continuity in the Near East across the past 3,000 to 4,000 years
  • European additions to Lebanese ancestry occurred around 3,750-2,170 years ago
  • Study also provides clues about ancient Phoenicians

Immediately I recalled Keith Whitelam’s book, Rhythms of Time, and I would suggest that the above DNA research does add support to his thesis that I discussed in 2015 at The Rhythms of Palestine’s History. (See also The Dark Resurgence of Biblical History.)

Here’s the abstract from the open access article:

The Canaanites inhabited the Levant region during the Bronze Age and established a culture that became influential in the Near East and beyond. However, the Canaanites, unlike most other ancient Near Easterners of this period, left few surviving textual records and thus their origin and relationship to ancient and present-day populations remain unclear. In this study, we sequenced five whole genomes from ∼3,700-year-old individuals from the city of Sidon, a major Canaanite city-state on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. We also sequenced the genomes of 99 individuals from present-day Lebanon to catalog modern Levantine genetic diversity. We find that a Bronze Age Canaanite-related ancestry was widespread in the region, shared among urban populations inhabiting the coast (Sidon) and inland populations (Jordan) who likely lived in farming societies or were pastoral nomads. This Canaanite-related ancestry derived from mixture between local Neolithic populations and eastern migrants genetically related to Chalcolithic Iranians. We estimate, using linkage-disequilibrium decay patterns, that admixture occurred 6,600–3,550 years ago, coinciding with recorded massive population movements in Mesopotamia during the mid-Holocene. We show that present-day Lebanese derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite-related population, which therefore implies substantial genetic continuity in the Levant since at least the Bronze Age. In addition, we find Eurasian ancestry in the Lebanese not present in Bronze Age or earlier Levantines. We estimate that this Eurasian ancestry arrived in the Levant around 3,750–2,170 years ago during a period of successive conquests by distant populations. (The bolding is mine.)

Oh the implications, the questions……




Oh Steven Pinker, please, you are better than this…..

by Neil Godfrey

Steven, I really do love your books, at least I loved all of the ones I had read (Stuff of Thought; Language Instinct; Blank Slate; How the Mind Works) up to Better Angels — though I cannot deny you did give a slight warning of what was to come in Blank Slate, iirc. (Better Angels came across to me as one extended apology for neoliberalism.)

So what’s with these words that The Guardian has attributed to you”

Harvard professor and author Steven Pinker came out in support of Dawkins, writing to KPFA that their decision was “intolerant, ill-reasoned, and ignorant”.

“Dawkins is one of the great thinkers of the 20th and 21st century. He has criticised doctrines of Islam, together with doctrines of other religions, but criticism is not ‘abuse’,” said Pinker. “People may get offended and hurt by honest criticism, but that cannot possibly be a justification for censoring the critic, or KPFA would be shut down because of all the people it has hurt and offended over the decades.”

Yes, I can agree that Richard Dawkins is a great communicator of science. Whether he is a “great thinker” I do not know. Was “the selfish gene” his own discovery or was he communicating to a popular audience the way others in his field had come to understand a process of evolution?

But even if “Dawkins is one of the great thinkers of the 20th and 21st century” in the field of biological evolution, he is no better qualified to speak about Islam or any other religion than any other articulate “village atheist”. Dawkins is definitely not one of the great thinkers on Islam, not even Christianity.

I have no interest in covering some of the other indignant ravings about this event, least of all the incoherent ignorance spilt by Coyne et al, so will conclude with some links to views of those I consider among the more sane, though I am sure most of you already have your own lists:

Dawkins being “deplatformed” — Siggy:

There are many things I find objectionable about Dawkins, but I am personally able to separate that from his science writing, which seems fine.  So I don’t really agree with KPFA.

But geez, by turning this into a free speech issue, you’re making me take the opposite side!  

Organizations have the right to not invite Richard Dawkins — or me — to speak (PZ Myers)






Peer Review may be problematic, but it’s not this bad….

by Neil Godfrey

Jim West, a biblical studies pastor whose name sometimes appears in publications alongside the likes of Thomas L. Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche, and who also runs a blog that I follow for its occasional titbits of news on recent publications, did not earn his academic qualifications at an accredited university, if I understand correctly, and periodically rails against accreditation itself. In a recent post he also attacks “scientific journals” for accepting a bogus paper for publication and uses this as an opportunity to rail against the value of peer review.

Don’t be misled, however. The article to which he refers is discussing makes clear are “predatory publishers” — that is, scam publishers who are not serious academic publishers at all but the same sort of scams as you get in your email from Nigerian bankers offering you millions from lost accounts, etc.

A list of these predatory journal titles is kept at Beall’s List of Predatory Journals and Publishers. They prey on the new academics, still wet behind their ears and eager to get published. — Or they prey on old academics like Jim West who isolates himself from standards of accreditation etc and is so keeps himself out of the loop, it seems.

The point is, don’t let anyone think that a bogus paper being published by a “scientific journal” that is actually a “predatory” title is kind of evidence, for or against, peer review. These publishers in all likelihood don’t have peer review at all — or lie if they say they do — and probably don’t even bother to have anyone read papers that they publish.


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 ….
read more »


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 »


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.




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?


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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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.




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.


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”.