Tag Archives: Jesus

O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate, #6: Comparing Sources for Jesus and Hannibal

nailed

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.

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If Tim O’Neill (TO) is true to form he won’t let the fact that he insisted there is only one historian from antiquity who mentions anyone who might be considered a messianic claimant in the Jewish war of 66-73 CE dismay him. He will in all likelihood dismiss his oversight as insignificant, and claim that the opposite of the fact he was trying to make to support his case will be interpreted as equally strong evidence for his point! That’s how he responded when someone pointed out another claim of his — that we have no contemporary records of Hannibal — was also wrong. (O’Neill 2011)

TO’s sophistic analogy

Despite his fame then and now, we have precisely zero contemporary references to Hannibal. If we have no contemporary mentions of the man who almost destroyed the Roman Republic at the height of its power, the idea that we should expect any for an obscure peasant preacher in the backblocks of Galilee is patently absurd. (O’Neill 2011)

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman...

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman knights killed at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC). Marble, 1704. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But TO’s comparison of the evidence we have or don’t have for Hannibal is misleading. He is drawing a quite false and confused analogy when he says that we should not expect any contemporary evidence for “an obscure [and "unimportant"] peasant preacher in the backblocks of Galilee” because we don’t even have any surviving contemporary records of Hannibal and other famous ancient persons.

This is simply very bad reasoning. Sophism at its “best”. The first premise of the argument is that contemporary records of the great and famous like Hannibal and Boudicca and Arminius did not survive. The second premise is quite unrelated: there were no records that were ever made of Jesus. The reason we have no contemporary records of some famous people of ancient times is that they were lost. Yet the argument for the absence of records about Jesus is not that they were lost but that no-one bothered to make any in the first place.

For the analogy to work we would have to believe that there were records of Jesus made but that they also were lost in time.

But the fact is Christians themselves came to assume responsibility for what ancient writings were preserved, so there was a powerful motive and means for those interested to preserve records of Jesus if they did exist, or at least preserve mention and epitomes of such records.

Further, though we do not have contemporary records of a number of famous persons we do have records that are derived from contemporary sources about them. If we only had anything similar among secular sources for Jesus it is almost certain that no-one would ever have questioned the historical existence of Jesus.

Imagine if a Roman or Greek historian wrote something like the following about Jesus. The historian Polybius is discussing the cause of the second Carthaginian War:

Why, then, it may be asked, have I made any mention of [the historian] Fabius and his theory? Certainly not through any fear that some readers might find it plausible enough to accept: its inherent improbability is self-evident . . . My real concern is to caution those who may read the book not to be misled by the authority of the author’s name, but to pay attention to the facts. For there are some people who are apt to dwell upon the personality of the writer rather than upon what he writes. They look to the fact that Fabius was a contemporary of Hannibal and a member of the Roman Senate, and immediately believe everything he says must be trusted. My personal opinion is that we should not treat his authority lightly, but equally should not regard it as final, and that in most cases readers should test his assertions by reference to the facts themselves. (Polybius, Book 3, from Ian Scott-Kilvert’s translation, Penguin, pp. 186-187)

So we do, in effect, have more contemporary sources for Hannibal than TO want to concede, but they are explicitly conveyed to us through later historians such as Polybius. Yes, agreed we do not have direct access to them. But we do have evidence that they existed, that there were contemporary recorders of Hannibal. We have no evidence for the same with Jesus.

Why not treat the Gospel sources equally with the Historical writings? read more »

Jesus and Dionysus (3)

Continuing from the Jesus and Dionysus (2): Comparison of John’s Gospel and Euripides’ Play . . . .

It would be a mistake to confine our comparison of the Gospel of John’s Jesus with Euripides’ play. Bacchae has no reference to the Dionysian miracle of turning water into wine (see the first post in this series for details) yet numerous commentators on the Gospel’s Cana Wedding miracle of turning water into wine have pointed to resonances with the Greek counterpart.

Further, it would be shortsighted to dismiss any comparison of the Gospel’s Jesus with Dionysus on the grounds that there is no obvious link between Jesus’ crucifixion and the dismemberment (the sparagmos) of the enemy of Dionysus.

Suffering and Power

English: Dionysus (Richard Werner) in The Bacc...

Dionysus (Richard Werner) in The Bacchae, directed by Brad Mays, 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact, when the god’s enemy undergoes humiliation and dismemberment he is really sharing in or identifying with the sufferings of the god. His name is, after all, Pentheus, with verbal resonances with “pathos” (suffering); and we have seen that the purpose of the god is to come to relieve the suffering of humanity through his gift of wine, and the play itself speaks constantly of the suffering that Pentheus must undergo as punishment for his attempt to thwart the purpose of the god. It is through the suffering of Pentheus (identifying with the sufferings of the god) that the god who comes in apparent weakness, as an effeminate mortal, is exalted — his victorious and divine power is displayed for all!

The “discovery of Dionysiac echoes in John’s story as a whole” (Stibbe, p. 2) — in particular with the miracle of Cana, (the identification, one might add, of Jesus with the vine itself), the binding of Jesus, the dialogue with Pilate and the pathos of Jesus’ crucifixion — requires us to look beyond the tragedy itself and to look at all that the myth conveyed.

Indeed, there are other myths where Dionysus inflicted the same punishment upon others apart from Pentheus. King Lycurgus of Thrace also opposed the worship of Dionysus. Dionysus punished him by sending him into a mad frenzy during which he dismembered his own son; subsequently his citizens pulled him apart limb by limb in order to remove the curse of Dionysus from their land.

An early form of the myth is that Dionysus was originally born to Persephone, queen of the underworld (Hades). (It is not insignificant, for our purposes, that some of the myths tell us Zeus intended this new child to be his heir.) The jealous wife of Zeus (Hera) who had fathered the child persuaded the evil Titans to destroy the infant. Attempting to avoid capture by the pursuing Titans Dionysus changed himself into a bull, but was caught in this form and pulled limb from limb. The Titans then devoured these dismembered pieces of flesh. Zeus punished them by destroying them with thunderbolts, and from the ashes humankind was created, a mixture of the evil of Titans and the divinity of Dionysus.

Twice Born, from Below and Above

Through all of that chaos one piece of Dionysus was rescued, his heart, which was returned to Zeus. Zeus used the heart (the myths and means by which he did this vary) to give Dionysus a second birth, so he became known as the “twice-born” god.

A later version of the myth, the one that lies behind the play by Euripides, is that Zeus had fathered Dionysus with the mortal woman, Semele. Again Hera sought to kill the child, this time before it was born, by challenging Semele to see Zeus in all his glory. When Zeus showed himself in all his godliness Semele, of course, was struck dead. But Zeus rescued the child from her womb and sewed it into his thigh until it was ready to be born a second time, from the god himself.

Anyone familiar with the Gospel of John does not need to be reminded of Jesus explaining the mystery of being born a second time from above. read more »

Jesus and Dionysus (2): Comparison of John’s Gospel and Euripides’ Play

This post continues from my earlier one that concluded with Mark W. G. Stibbe’s “very broad list of similarities” between Euripides’ Bacchae (a play about the god Dionysus) and the Gospel of John. Stibbe discusses these similarities in John As Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel.

What Mark Stibbe is arguing

0521477654Stibbe makes it clear that he is not suggesting the evangelist

necessarily knew the Bacchae by heart and that he consciously set up a number of literary echoes with . . . that play (p. 137)

What he is suggesting is that

John unconsciously chose the mythos of tragedy when he set about rewriting his tradition about Jesus and that general echoes with Euripides’ story of Dionysus are therefore, in a sense, inevitable.

Stibbe firmly holds to the view that the Gospel of John is base on an historical Jesus and much of its content derives from some of the earliest traditions about that historical Jesus. The evangelist, he argues, was John the Elder, and he has derived his information from

  • a Bethany Gospel (now lost) that was based on the eye-witness reminiscences of Lazarus, who was also the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel;
  • a Signs Gospel (now lost);
  • the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke)

His final chapter in John as Storyteller consists largely of a point by point argument that the events of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospel are based on historical events.

At the same time, Mark Stibbe is arguing that the author, John the Elder, is constructing his supposedly historical source material in a quite literary manner. He has chosen to write about the life and death of Jesus as a tragedy, argues Stibbe, and this was quite a natural thing to do because, we are assured, Jesus’ life and death just happened to be acted out in real life like a tragedy. It was a natural fit.

That’s where Stibbe is coming from.

Mark Stibbe, a vicar of St Mark’s Church at Grenoside (Sheffield) and part-time lecturer in biblical studies at the University of Sheffield when he wrote this book, writes from the limited perspective of formal New Testament studies. So he writes from the viewpoint of a Christian studying why the Gospel of John wrote about the very real founder of his faith, Jesus, would echo aspects of a Greek tragedy.

What this post is questioning

I’m interested in a different perspective. A proper study of religion from a scientific perspective would be through anthropology, I would think. New Testament studies are primarily about analysing and deconstructing and reconstructing biblical or Christian myths. The end result must always be a new version of their myth, if we follow Claude Lévi-Strauss.

I last posted along this theme in 2011:

Since I began this new series I have found another who takes a similar perspective. Frank Zindler writes: read more »

Gospels as Parables ABOUT Jesus, part 4 of 4 (John Dominic Crossan)

powerparableLet’s conclude this series on John Dominic Crossan’s new book, The Power of Parable. Last time we looked at the Gospels of Matthew and Mark; this time Luke-Acts and John.

Crossan argues that the Gospels are not histories or biographies of Jesus but are fictional parables and Jesus is their central character. Now Crossan does not doubt that there was a real, historical Jesus. But you won’t find him in the Gospels, he says, at least not on a face-value reading of them. To see Crossan’s arguments that Jesus was indeed historical (even though the most important evidence about him is fictional) see the first post in this series: Crossan’s Proofs That Jesus Did Exist. (Did you “find it persuasive”? Nor did I.)

(For the uninitiated, “Find it persuasive” is a stock phrase used by biblical scholars to apply in the positive or negative to arguments they do or do not like. It replaces the tedious need to find an evidence-based and logically valid argument to address a view that supports or contradicts one’s personal beliefs and tastes.)

Question:

If the authors of the Gospels wrote fiction about Jesus, is it necessary to postulate an historical Jesus to explain the Gospels?

Now this question is more than just a “mythicist” question. Of course it has implications for the question of whether or not there ever was an historical Jesus. But can’t we ask that same question without any of the mythicist-historicist invective we have come to expect of it? Forget the mythical-historical Jesus debate. Let’s address the evidence, the Gospels, without fear or favour. First things first.

So let’s start with Crossan’s discussion of Luke-Acts.

In what sense is Luke-Acts a parable about Jesus and not a biography or history of Jesus? read more »

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 1: What Has History To Do With The Facts?

RottenDenmarkThere is something rotten in the state of historical Jesus studies. Ideology has long trumped inconvenient questioning. Postmodernist flim-flam has recently trumped any hope of sound methodology. Some on that side of New Testament studies have curiously accused me of being “a fact fundamentalist” or an antiquated positivist or one who has unrealistic demands for certainty. So before I justify my claim that HJ studies have fallen hostage to ideology and methodological nonsense, let me lay all my cards out on the table and tell you what history means to me.

History for me has never been “about facts and dates”. It has never been “one darned thing after another.” That’s a chronicle or an archival record. Not history. In hindsight I have come to appreciate so much my senior high school years as a history student when I was taught by two pioneers in the way history was to be taught throughout Australian secondary schools, J.H. Allsopp and H.R. Cowie.

challengeThe first thing we were taught was that history was an enquiry. It was a debate. It was all about exploring questions. We began our studies with the French Revolution and we were confronted with questions: Why did it happen in France? Why then? And instead of being given answers we were given competing explanations. We were forced to study up on the facts in order to try to answer these questions. Inevitably we soon discovered that the importance of certain facts varied according to the different points of view of the authors. One of the questions we were asked to test at our senior high school level of competence was historian Toynbee’s thesis that all history followed a pattern of “challenge and response”.

pirenneThen I took up history at university. We had been well prepared. First topic, the rise of feudalism. First book to read: The Pirenne thesis; analysis, criticism, and revision. We weren’t “taught” what led to the rise of feudalism in Europe. We were challenged and guided to explore the possible reasons, the competing explanations, and to show competence in the way we pursued historical questions.

What is history? What is an historical fact?

It was in the 1960s and we were required to engage with E.H. Carr’s radically challenging book on the nature of history, What Is History? His thesis — that history is essentially whatever the historian makes of it — was the hot debate of the day. One of his most famously quoted passages is found on the Wikipedia page and I copy it here: read more »

Gospels as Parables ABOUT Jesus: Crossan, part 3 of 4

powerparableThis post was to conclude my series on Crossan’s new book, The Power of Parable, but since it is taking longer to complete than I anticipated I’ll post here only on Crossan’s treatment of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Luke-Acts and John can wait.

The Parable Gospel According to Mark

According to Crossan the author of this Gospel was not writing a history or biography of Jesus but a parable about church leadership and the meaning of true Christianity.

The author, says, was probably writing in Caesarea Philippi to refugees from the recent war against Rome. These people, Crossan says, “had lost everything — their lands and possessions, their homes and their loves, their hope and maybe even their faith.” (p. 173) (I shake my head a little every time I hear a theologian or any believer write about loss of faith as if it were something worse than losing loved ones and homes.)

So what was Mark’s parabolic message to these people?

In his gospel, Mark claims that false prophecy led Jerusalem’s Christian Jews astray by promising them that the (second) coming of the Messiah would save them from . . . Roman destruction. And, says Mark — with parabolic hindsight and fictional creativity — Jesus had warned against that very delusion . . . .

Furthermore, Mark lays full responsibility for that mistaken conflation of the coming of Christ with the coming of Rome on the shoulders of the Twelve, that is, on their misunderstanding of Jesus . . . . (p. 171)

Mark is writing a story to castigate the Twelve for getting Jesus wrong in every way.

He criticizes the Twelve

  • for failing to follow the mode and style of (servant) leadership of Jesus;
  • for failing to lead a united Jewish and Gentile Christian community instead of an exclusively Jewish one from Jerusalem;
  • for failing to understand that performed miracles for both the Jews on the western side of the lake and the gentiles on the eastern side.

Mark is taking what he sees as the sins of the Twelve throughout the forty years after Jesus (from the late 30s to the early 70s) and re-writing them so they appear in a story setting of their time with Jesus.

But there’s a problem. Crossan also knows that almost all of those Twelve were dead by the time Mark was writing. He intimates that Mark is writing a parable about problems in his own day and that have relevance for all Christians since. read more »

How Could a Crucified Jesus Be Identified With God?

Bauckham

Bauckham

Richard Bauckham is not a mythicist. I have no doubt he would emphatically oppose the very idea. General readers probably know him best for his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony in which he argues the Gospel narratives were sourced from traditions guaranteed by eyewitnesses of Jesus. I happen to think that book was one of the worst pieces of nonsense I have ever read and suggested it might best be explained by issues related to an illness from which Bauckham was recovering at the time he wrote it. But when Bauckham is not attempting to do history he can be very interesting. So I’m thrilled to write something positive about a Bauckham book for a change.

Cover of "God Crucified : Monotheism and ...

Cover via Amazon

God Crucified was first published in 1998 and reissued as a chapter in a larger volume, Jesus and the God of Israel, two years after Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Bauckham argues that the New Testament consistently portrays Jesus as part of the Godhead itself. The earliest Christology was a “High Christology”. That is, views about Jesus did not gradually evolve from the time of “the resurrection appearances” through a series of graduating exaltations until he was eventually worshiped alongside, or as part of, God. He was identified with God by the earliest Christians before any of the New Testament was written.

This view of Jesus was derived from an interpretation of the passages in Isaiah where God is said to both reside in the highest places where he sits as supreme ruler over all creation, and also with the lowly on earth, in particular with the suffering Servant. God raises that suffering Servant from death to be with him in the highest places, too, thus identifying himself with that one who had been abased.

Bauckham believes that this view (that I address in more detail in this post) explains how the human Jesus came to be identified with ruler of the universe. I think Bauckham’s argument holds perfectly for “Christ crucified”, but runs into problems when one tries to relate it to a pre-crucified human Jesus. I wonder if his argument better supports mythicist scenarios that argue Jesus was initially a figure who only took on flesh or a form of flesh for the short time necessary to be crucified.

Understanding Early Jewish Monotheism

Bauckham begins by setting out the two main scholarly views of Second Temple Jewish monotheism: read more »

The Gospels Are “Only Parables” ABOUT Jesus: Crossan (Part 2 of 3)

powerparableCrossan would never say the gospels are “only” parables about Jesus. He would say something like: “The gospels are parables about Jesus and that’s what makes them so shockingly subversive and provocatively challenging for us today. They humble our prejudicial absolutes. They remind us that Jesus can never be fully trapped by our human imagination. Parables about Jesus delicately provoke us into a stunning paradigm-shift by means of a participatory pedagogy and a collaborative eschaton.” (I have mixed and matched phrases from Crossan here to produce this hypothetical “quotation”.)

But he does say that they are parables about Jesus nonetheless.

This post is part two of a series on Crossan’s 2012 book, The Power of Parable. Part one is here; part three to come.)

The Gospels as Parables

Crossan writes for believers who love to listen to well-educated and sophisticated theologians preach sermons that are introduced with rambling stories and then turn to paradoxical and punning turns of phrase (“It is never just about food. It is always about just food.” Even if ironic, [parables] are always irenic.”) that are served as spiritual wisdom. He uses imperatives to draw readers in to following his line of thought: “Watch now as I turn to . . .” “Think about this . . .” “Look at those words. . . ” “Hear that story against. . .” “Wonder for a moment why . . .”. He strains on every page to make the Bible relevant to the modern Western reader, even if that means leading readers to think of the words and deeds of Jesus through modern ideals and concepts of educational philosophy. Crossan’s Jesus remains the unblemished paragon who lived out his (Crossan’s) highest ideals at all times — “Think, therefore, about this: Does Jesus change his mind or does Matthew change his Jesus? (p. 187). Jesus’ God is always Crossan’s nonviolent God who seeks collaborative working relationships with humanity at all times.

For Crossan, the gospels are a particular type of parable. They are “Challenge” parables. He means they challenge their hearers to think and act differently. That sounds to me like a preacher injecting modern meaning and relevance into texts for the benefit of his parishioners who are looking for a reason to keep valuing the Bible. So, even though this “Challenge” theme predominates Crossan’s discussion, I will not make it the heart of my summary and will try to focus on his argument that the Gospels are themselves parables — although part of the reason Crossan sees them as parables is bound up in his interest in the theme of “challenge”.

Book-length parables read more »

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Reviewing chapter 11, Luke’s Sophisticated Re-Use of OT Scriptures

carpenterPrevious posts in this series are archived here. Another review of this chapter can be read at Aaron Adair’s blog.

I liked Ingrid Hjelm‘s chapter, “‘Who is my Neighbor?’ Implicit Use of Old Testament Stories and Motifs in Luke’s Gospel”, for several reasons:

  1. it presented the first cogent explanation I have ever encountered for why Luke’s genealogy of Jesus is so different from Matthew’s and why it avoided all mention of David’s son Solomon and the rest of the kings of Israel and Judah;
  2. it explained how a Davidic Messianic figure did not necessarily imply a worldly conqueror (at least not until the last days) but that the OT also contained a nonviolent priestly vision of David who united God’s people as a priestly, Moses-like figure;
  3. it showed how the Gospel of Luke is very much an extension of the same sort of literature that came to make up the Jewish Bible;
  4. it reminded me of the importance of the sacred meaning of numbers among biblical authors, something too easily overlooked today;
  5. it also indirectly prompted possible explanations for why Luke might have adapted and changed the Gospel of Matthew (if he did — but this is really a topic that belongs to another post entirely.)

(But it took some time to grasp what the chapter was about initially. It launches straight into a detailed discussion of details of Matthew’s genealogy and one is immediately wondering, “What the heck is this all about? Was an opening paragraph outlining her argument lost by an editor?” More likely, perhaps, it was cut and paste from other publications by Hjelm yet with insufficient re-editing to clarify the direction of the argument for readers completely new to her views. And there are several passages in the rest of the chapter that leave a reader unfamiliar with the contents of cited references bemused. (Only after tracking down online citations and catching up with some background reading was I able to make sense of some of Hjelm’s statements. Needless to say, some of her claims whose citations are not online remain obscure to me.) Unfortunately this chapter is not the only one in this volume that suffers from this sort of difficulty for those unfamiliar with some of the authors and ideas, — not to mention just a few too many typos. But as you can tell from my positive introduction it was worth making the effort to understand the flow of her argument.)

hjelm

Ingrid Hjelm

Hjelm shows us that the author of the Gospel of Luke interpreted and reused the Old Testament scriptures as a template for his own Gospel story of Jesus in quite subtle and sophisticated ways that are foreign to the ways most modern readers have come to understand the OT. Luke (we’ll imagine the author’s name was Luke) viewed the David figure embodied in Jesus not through the stained history in the books of Samuel, but through the idealized portrait in the books of Chronicles where a priestly David is portrayed as a second Moses, and as such reunites Samaritanism and Judaism once again into the theological ideal of a new Israel.

(I use the term “Judaism” here instead of “Jews” because it is worth keeping in mind what that word “Jew” actually describes at that time: see Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1, Part 2. Hjelm even concludes that Luke was not the gentile convert most readers have assumed him to be, but a Hellenized “Jew”.)

What we see in the Gospel are reiteration and paralleling of the motifs and themes of the older Scriptures. If that sounds a lot like the sort of argument we have come to expect from Thomas L. Thompson, we should not be surprised to find Hjelm is also from the University of Copenhagen and Thompson’s name appears frequently in her list of publications.

There is, of course, much more to be written about the Gospel of Luke’s use of the OT — see, for example, Origin of the Emmaus Road Narrative and More on Luke’s Use of Genesis — but this chapter by Hjelm gives readers an excellent insight into the way the author used Scriptures. Hjelm concludes ambiguously on the question of the implications of Luke’s use of Scriptures for the narrative’s historicity. What really matters is that we understand and accept the nature of the Biblical stories and what they meant for their original creators and audiences.

Against Hjelm’s references to Samaritans as the heritage of Moses in this chapter one should be aware that Ingrid Hjelm clearly has a special interest in Samaritan studies (see her list of publications) and last year was awarded The Samaritan Medal for Peace and Humanitarian Achievement by the Samaritan community. At one point she justifies the pivotal reference to Samaritans as well as Jews as an allegorical interpretation (Moses represents the Samaritans and Elijah the Jews) by citing an earlier (2004) publication of hers.

42 = the meaning of life*, David & Jesus read more »

Why were Jesus’ miracles told “plainly” in the Bible but “fancifully” in the Apocryphal Gospels?

One common argument of Christian apologists — both lay and scholarly — in favour of the Gospel accounts being based on “authentic” historical traditions and written by authors motivated by, or limited to, telling “the truth” as they understood it, is that the miracles of Jesus are told “plainly”, “matter-of-factly”, without any garish flourish. Miracles of Jesus in the much later “apocryphal gospels”, on the other hand, are rightly said to be told quite differently and with much embellishment that serves to impress readers with the wonder and awesomeness of Jesus’ power.

The difference, we are often told, is testimony to the historical basis of the Gospel record.

I used to respond to this challenge with a dot-point list of miracle types. What? Are you really suggesting that walking on water or stilling a storm or rising from the dead are not “fanciful” acts?

But I was trying to kid myself to some extent. Of course they are fanciful, but being fanciful in that sense is the very definition of a miracle, however it is told.

The point the apologist makes is not that miracles are indeed miraculous, but that the Bible relates them most simply and matter-of-factly quite unlike the presentations of miracles we read in the apocryphal gospels.

Read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and one quickly comes face to face with an infant from a horror movie. A child strikes mockers dead on the spot for mocking. His art-work steps out into reality and disbelievers are struck dead or blinded with no thought of asking questions later.

And the Gospel of Peter knows how to narrate a resurrection. None of this “Joseph sealed the tomb and they all went off to keep the sabbath and by the time Sunday-morning came around . . . .”. Nope. Let’s have Jesus emerge from the tomb with guards being awakened and rushing to call their commander to witness the spectacle, and great angels descending and re-ascending with their charge fastened between them and his head exalted through the clouds, all accompanied by a great voice from heaven and responses from below . . . . Now that’s a resurrection scene!

There is a difference in tone between the miracles of Jesus in the canonical gospels and those found in their apocryphal counterparts.

The apologist — even the scholarly one as I mentioned above — jumps on this difference as evidence that the “plain and simple” narration of the gospels is evidence of intent to convey downright facts.

Unfortunately, this conclusion is evidence of nothing more profound than the propensity of the faithful to fall into the fallacy of “the false dichotomy“. read more »

How Might Marcionite Questions Affect Mythicism? (Bob Price in “Is This Not the Carpenter?”)

This post concludes my treatment of chapter 6 of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, “Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?” by Robert M. Price.

Price concludes his article with a discussion of the place Marcion might have had in the history of gospel origins. Specifically, what if Marcion was responsible for much of the Pauline corpus or even wrote the letters himself? Would not this mean that the Gospels preceded Paul’s letters and would not one of the “pillars of the Christ Myth hypothesis” fall?

What follows is my outline of Price’s argument.

The conventional view of Marcion is that he appears controversially armed with a number of letters of Paul and a single Gospel. This Gospel, we are usually informed, was a shorter version of what we know as the Gospel of Luke, Marcion having deleted from the original Gospel all the passages he believed were falsely interpolated contrary to the original faith taught by Paul.

There have been other opinions. Some have argued that Marcion’s gospel was for most part an original and early version of what became our Gospel of Luke, an Ur-Lukas. Paul-Louis Couchoud argued this. More recently, Matthias Klinghardt argued a similar case. (Hence my previous post.) Price does not mention Joseph Tyson here, but he also argued much the same, and I linked to that series of posts on his book in my post on Klinghardt’s argument. The idea of a Proto-Luke stands independently of any Marcionite association, however. It has been argued by B. F. Streeter (link is to the full text online) and Vincent Taylor. G. R. S. Mead suggested Marcion had no Gospel but but only a collection of sayings, not unlike Q.

So what to make of this diversity of opinion over what Marcion actually possessed? Price has a suggestion: read more »

Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 4

Niels Peter Lemche is the author of the fourth chapter of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, “The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus”. He frames his case around the parable in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that tells of Christ being arrested on his return to earth in the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor informs the imprisoned Christ that he will have to be burned at the stake because he is a danger to the Church. But there is a subtle twist in the parable which is the key to understanding the paradoxical argument that follows.

But before starting, let me point out that this post is different from earlier ones discussing chapters of this book. Rather than sequentially paraphrasing the argument I take some core arguments in Lemche’s chapter as a springboard for discussion of my own observations. (So I omit all reference to the origins of historical-critical scholarship, liberation theology and third world exegesis, Philipp Gabler‘s famous lecture on the conflict between historical theology and ecclesiastical dogmatics, the various ways both Catholics and Protestants have historically controlled the reading of the Bible, Marcion’s and von Harnack’s complaints about the inclusion of the Jewish scriptures in the Christian Bible . . . . , that Lemche covers in this chapter.) Now back to the parable. . . .

Ivan Karamazov (John Malkovich)

The parable is told by Ivan Karamazov who appears to side with the Inquisitor in objecting to the Jesus Christ who walks straight out of the pages of the Gospels and begins performing miracles etc just as he did there. (There is much more to the original story, but let’s roll with the details Lemche selects for his analogy.) The irony for Lemche is that this same Ivan also represents those who in other ways question the Church. The Grand Inquisitor thus turns out to be something of a double-edged sword. “Perhaps there are more layers represented in this novel than appear at first sight.

For Lemche, the Grand Inquisitor represents “the position of the well-educated clergy of the Church“. The threats it faces come from two opposing sides, and one of these sides finds itself in an ambiguous position:

.

Threat #1 — the pious laity with their Bible

Yes, there is the threat from “the pious laity having read too much of the Bible”:

The difference between the Christ of the Church and the Jesus of the Gospels becomes dangerous when explained to the laity. (p. 77)

Elsewhere Lemche has argued that pious people should not be allowed within a hundred metres of the Bible. “Reading the Bible has not done them much good.” Some who would follow in Christ’s footsteps have been rendered harmless by being incorporated into the constraints of the Church itself (e.g. the Franciscans). Others have gone down in history as suicide cults. I and many others would add a vast array of dysfunctional mental, physical, financial and social legacies among too many of the faithful. read more »

The German Radical Theologians: Why did they happen and what is their relevance today?

The second chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter? is an interesting discussion by fellow Aussie Roland Boer titled “The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer”. (The link is to Australia’s University of Newcastle tribute page to Roland Boer as one of their “research achievers”.) It is easy to see where Leftie Red Roland is coming from with a quick glance at his blog, Stalin’s Moustache. There he has a most informative page, Marxism and Religion: Annotated Reading List, in which readers can survey the relationship between Karl Marx and Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach — two persons at the heart of his chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter? One also learns of his penchant for “arresting titles” (beside words like “Lenin nudist” and “psychic terror”, “German pestilence” is right at home), and that he enjoys occasional sparring with Jim West, author of the first chapter of this book that I discussed in the previous post.

So what is Roland Boer’s essay about?

  1. Why German philosophy and public debates about human, political and economic justice were so entwined with theology and especially the Gospels in the early decades of the nineteenth century;
  2. What was the importance of
    1. Ludwig’s Feuerbach‘s theory that God and religion were “mere” projections of the best in human beings;
    2. David Strauss‘s demolition of the orthodox understanding of the Gospels and argument that they were really mythical stories;
    3. and Bruno Bauer‘s radical sceptical approach to the New Testament along with his radical politics and militant atheism.
  3. What messages from all of the above might be found relevant today.

So let’s begin. I outline the core of Boer’s argument as I understand it. read more »

Sayings Manufactured For Jesus

Jesus Outside the Gospels is a small volume compiled by R. Joseph Hoffmann and published 1984. He argued that various sayings of Jesus found across a variety of sources (not only canonical ones) “put it beyond doubt that the church was capable of generating sayings to suit new situations, and did not hesitate to invent new “words” of the Lord”.

“Sayings” of Jesus—which might better be termed traditions about the sayings of Jesus—are not confined to the Gospels canonized in the New Testament- There exist scores of sayings (logia) for which there are no parallels, or only distant ones, in the Gospels. Collectively, these go by the misleading name agrapha—unrecorded words. As this title prejudices their analysis (the Gospels do not present a verbatim record of Jesus’ words), it is best to designate them “extracanonical” sayings or sayings-traditions. The significance of these sayings, it should be emphasized, is not that they present a more reliable picture of Jesus than the one given in the Synoptic Gospels. Rather, they put it beyond doubt that the church was capable of generating sayings to suit new situations, and did not hesitate to invent new “words” of the Lord in furthering their missionary work. The questions of proselytes and the accusations of enemies of the sect were the most prominent but by no means the only situations addressed by these sayings. (JOTG, p. 69)

Hoffmann was not saying that no sayings went back to Jesus himself, but that it was clear that any such sayings were adapted (revised, mutated) according to the needs of the church. This has long been a widely held view among scholars. It is also clear, though, that many sayings were invented and attributed to Jesus himself to give them added weight of authority. Earl Doherty argues that even the Q sayings evolved in a way that they were attributed to Jesus relatively late in their life-cycle.

I think some readers would be interested in seeing a list of some of these extra sayings attributed to Jesus by the early church writers, and the samples following are taken from Hoffmann’s book. I am including here only those sayings found among the “proto-orthodox” Church Fathers and omit those found in Gnostic and other literature.

He begins with sayings of Jesus that appear in Paul’s letters. read more »