Celestial or Earthly Christ Event? Why So Much Confusion About Paul?

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by Neil Godfrey

Arthur Droge

Arthur Droge has made available on his academia.edu page an article in which he presents

  • a strong case for that “rulers of this age … crucified the Lord of Glory” passage in 1 Corinthians not being part of the original letter
  • reasons to think the passage was added to the letter around 140 CE
  • evidence for a wide variety of early Christian views about the crucifixion (some had it on earth, some in the firmament, with and without suffering…)
  • implications of the above that point to Paul’s letters evolving through various hands over time and no more being penned by “Paul” than any of the surviving letters, acts, gospels and apocalypses bearing the names of Peter, James, John, Thomas, Barnabas, Mark, Matthew, Luke, etc were genuinely penned by those figures.

The article is Whodunnit? Paul’s Peculiar Passion and Its Implications. The link is to the article on academia.edu.

I will certainly have to write out the key points of Droge’s article and add it to my archived series “Rulers of this Age” in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 but till then I leave the above link for interested readers to check out the full 22-page article for themselves.

Some interesting excerpts.

What is an Interpolation?

By interpolation I simply mean a retrospective change in an older text, usually introduced with the intention of “clarifying” or “improving” it, or bringing out what was thought to be its “real” meaning. The change may have taken place when a work was copied and perhaps re-edited at some point after its original composition. That is to say, interpolations are an all-too-common feature of texts that have come down through a succession of manuscripts or handwritten copies. While the identification of interpolations is unremarkable in other disciplines, whose canons likewise derive from manuscripts, it is looked down upon by New Testament scholars. (p. 6)

Indeed. See, for example, a list of 30 ancient texts cited to justify the term “a culture of interpolations” see A Case for Interpolation Does NOT Rely On Manuscript Evidence. See also my 2009 post Forgery in the Ancient World for another list of mostly classical texts. Recall, further, most recently Greg Doudna’s proposal that the John the Baptist passage in Josephus is a “misplaced” passage — another type of “interpolation”.

Droge offers two criteria for identifying interpolations:

  1. significant differences in language, style, and subject matter.
  2. the removal of the suspect passage has to make the resultant rejoining of the surrounding material more cogent, smoother….

On the basis of those criteria Droge demonstrates a very strong likelihood of the “rulers of this age” being an interpolation.

No consensus in early Christian texts about who crucified Jesus, or about when, where, how, or why

For even a casual sampling of texts from the Christian archive makes it patently clear that there was no consensus about who crucified Jesus, or about when, where, how, or why Jesus was crucified. Indeed, as we shall see, there was not even a consensus about whether Jesus was crucified. Each of these questions was a point of conflict and contestation for centuries before the Christians finally managed to get their story (more or less) straight. (p. 12)

Ante Pacem / Snyder

I confess I was somewhat thrilled to see Droge make the use of some of the same archaeological evidence that has influenced my own thinking: the crucifixion of Jesus was not the primary focus of early Christian belief if one turns to early sarcophagi and catacomb art. Jesus is more likely to be depicted as a youth, a good shepherd, a healer than crucified. Droge adds the significant point:

The silence of the archaeological record in this case is a stark warning about extrapolating from texts ideas widely shared by the rank and file, or by the socalled “communities” supposedly lurking behind the texts we read and to which they provide access. (p. 12)

Droge directs readers to Stowers and Rüpke. I’ll quote a little from each:

The pervasive assumption that all Christian literature and history in the first one hundred years or so sprang from and mirrored communities inhibits historical explanation by social and psychological theory that is normal for the rest of the academy. A community in this sense is a highly coherent social formation with commonality in thought and practice. The idea that the Christian movement began with these communities derives from Christianity’s own myth of origins, but has been taken as historical reality. The myth can be traced to Paul, Acts and Eusebius. (Stowers, 238)


If the authentic letters [of Paul] (which might themselves be the result of later redactional combinations) are seen as an example of the formation of a network among like-minded persons in Jewish diaspora communities in Asia Minor and the Greek mainland, we could expect hundreds of letters – and we cannot exclude that they were in existence. The published corpus, however, is characterised not by the documentation of a network, but by a pseudepigraphical supplementation, which partially even theologically reflected on pseudepigraphy.  The different agents of this continuation had heterogeneous interests. They were engaged in the prolongation of Paul and contested others’ interpretations; they venerated and instrumentalised Paul. These conflicting views were certainly connected to the interest in and critique of the specific Pauline practices and beliefs which we find even more prominently outside of the corpus, in Lukan Acts for instance. All this indicates that we are not dealing with archives of communities and local identities, but with professional exegesis and philosophical schools (and with Marcion, even historical research). (Rüpke, 180)

Now that makes a lot of sense when we recall Justin Martyr’s identification of himself as a philosopher and recall Abraham Malherbe’s demonstrations that the Pauline writings suggest we are closer to the mark when we compare early Christian thought and propagation with the philosophical schools of the day than with “mystery cults”.

Droge brings the Ascension of Isaiah into the discussion and reaffirms the view that the section on the birth, miracles and crucifixion of Jesus is a later addition and that the original text depicted a crucifixion in the Firmament. We recall Earl Doherty’s and Richard Carrier’s works. I have lately gone a bit back and forth on that question so I am willing to resume a back seat for a while and watch and learn with more reading and reflection. A significant difference, however, is that Doge insists on the Ascension of Isaiah being a post-Pauline second-century work whereas Doherty was prepared to lean towards those who dated it as early as the late first century. Droge’s point is that an Ascension of Isaiah scenario of Rulers of this Age crucifying Jesus points to the Pauline passage being added in the second century.

The idea that Jesus did not actually die on the cross is traced from a very literal reading of the Gospel of Mark (it was Simon of Cyrene who was crucified), the related view of Basilides in the second century, through the Second Treatise of the Great Seth and Apocalypse of Peter. Ignatius and Justin further indirectly hint at this rival belief. The spiritual dimension of the event is presumably a reaction to a narrative set in the mundane realm.

But if that’s the case, why? We don’t normally expect sectarian branches to rewrite a historical tradition as having happened in the heavens. But it does make sense if that mundane narrative involving Galilee, Pilate, a lynch mob of Jews, etc. was built from a “midrashic” reading of Hebrew Scriptures. If so, there was room for others to disagree and propose other interpretations of those scriptures. Hence I found most intriguing Droge’s pointing out the way gnostic myths were derived from particular readings of Psalms. Psalm 2 has God laughing at rulers thinking they can defy God and his anointed. Enter the gnostic accounts of Jesus laughing at those who are thinking they are crucifying him on the cross. Similarly for the myth of descent and ascent through the heavens: Psalm 24 speaks of the King of Glory which is close to the Ascension’s Lord of Glory, and it also speaks of him progressing through “gates”.

But why?

Why were those verses about spirit beings crucifying Christ added? Best for you to read Droge’s article. Meanwhile, no, Droge does not suggest they were polemical or deviously attempting to undermine the original views of Paul. He sees the addition of the passage more as a commentary.

The more interesting and important consequence is the recognition that our passage was a second-century gnostic attempt to ventriloquize Paul, to make him say what he should have said – indeed, must have said – and to do so in a fashion not dissimilar to the way in which the modern guild of scholars continues to carry on the time-honored task of Pauline commentary.

Claude Lévi-Strauss is worth recalling at this point:

[A] myth is made up of all its variants, [therefore] structural analysis should take all of them into account. . . . . There is no one true version of which all the others are but copies or distortions. Every version belongs to the myth. (pp 435f)

Commentaries as expansions and explanations become another version of the myth. Droge points the finger at the Valentinian scholars of the second century,

for whom Paul’s letters were a major focus of their commentarial endeavors, and who succeeded in creating a Paul in their own image, and then esteemed him as the chief architect of their mythmaking. Our passage is one, very small, but precious, piece of that enterprise, which has managed, purely by chance, to survive as a page in the archive or dossier that only later would be called “First Corinthians.”

How the sausage is made

So how did the letter-making sausage machine work, according to Droge?

By recognizing that our passage is an interpolation of the second century, we can see that individual letters were still under construction well into that century, and we can begin to discern some of the ways in which that building process worked. Already at a pre-collection stage, Paul’s “letters” were far from static or inert data, moving through time under the guardianship of vigilant Christian scribes. Rather, the materials out of which individual letters would be constituted were still in flux, and provided occasions for innovative and improvisational interventions from a variety of sources, with a variety of interests, and in a variety of forms (e.g., emendations, deletions, glosses, interpolations, commentary, short narratives, and so on). As I have tried to suggest, it would be better to think of “First Corinthians” at the pre-collection stage as an active site or open file, more along the lines of an archive or dossier, and certainly not a unified, much less actual, letter. So conceived, the process that yielded the letter known as “First Corinthinas,” as well as the collection known as the corpus paulinum, would be analogous to the process of the composition of the gospels. In other words, at some point in the second century materials of heterogeneous origin, date, and provenance began to be fashioned into a loose epistolary form and attributed to a figure from the first century. (21f)

Droge, Arthur. “‘Whodunnit? Paul’s Peculiar Passion and Its Implications.’” Accessed May 10, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/43327375/_Whodunnit_Paul_s_Peculiar_Passion_and_Its_Implications_.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Structural Study of Myth.” The Journal of American Folklore 68, no. 270 (1955): 428–44. https://doi.org/10.2307/536768.

Rüpke, Jörg. “The Role of Texts in Processes of Religious Grouping during the Principate.” Religion in the Roman Empire 2, no. 2 (2016): 170. https://doi.org/10.1628/219944616X14655421286059.

Stowers, Stanley. “The Concept of ‘Community’ and the History of Early Christianity.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 23, no. 3 (2011): 238–56. https://doi.org/10.1163/157006811X608377.


Did Paul Quote Jesus on Divorce? — Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #5

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #4

An examination of the claim that “Paul refers to his teachings that Jesus made during in his earthly ministry, on divorce . . .”

Source-Data Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
1 Corinthians 7:10-11

To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 1 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.

Paul is recollecting the teaching of Jesus found in Mark 10:9-12 and Luke 16:18 that others had passed on to him. (“Paul cites Apostolic, Jewish-Christian tradition as his source of authority.” (Tomson, 117))

Mark 10:9-12

… Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. … Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.

Luke 16:18

Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.


Paul insisted he learned nothing from others about the gospel of Jesus

Galatians 1:11-12; 2:6

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. 

. . . As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message.

One wonders if it was possible that this rudimentary principle, which is alien to ancient society but was recognized by the whole of primitive Christianity, should have remained unknown in Corinth. At all events it is expressed in such a way that it sounds as if Paul was making it known for the first time. (Conzelmann, 120)

Baur has objected that if Paul had meant to cite a positive command of the Lord, he must have used the past παρήγγειλεν (He commanded), and not the present. . . . No doubt it might also be that the apostle meant to say he had received this command by revelation (Godet, 332f)

Paul omits the limitation put by the Lord on the command not to separate: “unless it be for adultery.” (Godet, 333)

Thus Paul not only corrects himself, but knowingly cites Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and passes it on in indirect discourse to married believers in an absolute, unqualified form, as coming from the risen Christ. Cf. 14:37, “a commandment of the Lord. (Fitzmyer, 292)

What can be said as to which of the Gospel traditions is closest to the Pauline formulation? There is hardly any agreement between the various discussions of this question. . . . the question as to which of the various Synoptic formulations seems presupposed by Paul’s formulation must be left open. (Dungan, 133-134)

Paul makes no attempt to cite the words of the historical Jesus  (Collins, 269)

[Elsewhere when delivering moral teachings] Paul … characteristically gives no indication that he is aware that he is using the language of Jesus, or acting in obedience to his precepts (Barrett, 112)

The context of I Cor 7:10 (vv 1-9) suggest Paul is addressing couples who are challenged by one party wishing to become an ascetic (an issue found frequently in second-century sources) so the situation is different from the divorce sayings in the gospels:

Paul’s specific references to the teaching of Jesus are notoriously few. . . Paul is dealing (perhaps not exclusively) with marriages that are threatened by an ascetic view of sexual relations. (Barrett, 162f)

Others think that the question of a possible divorce has arisen in Roman Corinth because some Christian spouses there were already abstaining from intercourse for ascetic reasons (Fitzmyer, 291)

It is undeniable that Paul felt sympathetic to the ideal proposed by the ascetics, but he could not permit it to be imposed as a general rule. (Murphy-O’Connor, 605)

Doubts against the historicity of the teaching of Jesus in Mark 10:9-12 —

The arguments against authenticity are: the Markan version reflects the situation of the early community; the variations in the tradition suggest that the community struggled to adapt some teaching to its own context; the appeal to scripture in vv. 6-7 is not characteristic of Jesus but reflects the Christian use of the Greek Bible; familiarity with Roman rather than Israelite marriage law in vv. 11-12 indicates a later, gentile context. Further, the roles of Jesus and the Pharisees seem reversed: here the Pharisees view the Mosaic law as permitting divorce, whereas Jesus cites the scripture in support of a more stringent view. (Funk, 88f)

and in Luke 16:18 —

Matthew adds infidelity as the one exception to the absolute rule on divorce. A different version is found in Mark 10:2-12//Matt 19:3-9, in which divorce is made contrary to God’s order in creation (‘What God has coupled together, no one should separate’). The confusion in the transmission of the tradition led many Fellows to designate this saying in Luke as gray [=”Jesus did not say this, but the idea is close to his own”] or black [=”Jesus did not say this. The saying comes from a later time”]. The confusion in the jesus tradition is matched by confusion in the lore of the period. (Funk, 360)


The above are not intended to suggest they are the only factors to be considered. Some of the sources quoted above attempt to answer the negative considerations I have cited. Example, in response to Baur’s point about the past tense, Godet writes,

But the command of Jesus is regarded as abiding for the Church throughout all time. (Godet, 332)

Opposed to the arguments against authenticity, Funk et al first lists those “for”:

The arguments in favor of authenticity are: remarks on the subject by Jesus are preserved in two or more independent sources and in two or more different contexts; an injunction difficult for the early community to practice is evidence of a more original version; Jesus’ response is in the form of an aphorism that undercuts social and religious convention. Further, the Markan version implies a more elevated view of the status of women than was generally accorded them in the patriarchal society of the time, which coheres with other evidence that Jesus took a more liberal view of women. (Funk, 88)

It’s an interesting question, the source of Paul’s appeal to “the command of the Lord” here. As one commentator remarks with some puzzlement, Paul only cites the command to offer a contradiction to it — accepting the possibility of divorce anyway. (The word “separation” is said to be used often enough for “divorce”.) The rationale of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark for forbidding divorce is an appeal to Genesis and creation — the same rationale we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some commentators say that Paul is appealing to Jesus’ command this time because he knows he is contradicting the Hebrew Scriptures, but it is also pointed out that the Scriptures themselves are contradictory: God hates divorce, he says through his prophets, but through Moses he permits it. Should we see here in this section of 1 Corinthians another allusion to the author presenting himself as a prophet of God, as another Moses, even — declaring the law of God but at the same time acknowledging some flexibility, as per the Old Covenant?

Re: “teachings that Jesus made during his earthly ministry, . . .  on preachers and on the coming apocalypse

Continuing in the next post.

Barrett, C. K. A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. 2nd ed.. Black’s New Testament Commentaries. London: Black, 1971.

Collins, Raymond F. First Corinthians. Sacra Pagina. Collegeville, Minn: Michael Glazier, 1999.

Conzelmann, Hans. 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Edited by George W. MacRae. Translated by James W. Leitch. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Dungan, David L. The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul; Use of the Synoptic Tradition in the Regulation of Early Church Life. Fortress Press, 1971. http://archive.org/details/sayingsofjesusin00dung.

Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1987.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. First Corinthians. New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2008.

Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus: New Translation and Commentary. New York: Polebridge Press, 1993.

Godet, Frédéric. Commentary on St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. Translated by A. Cusin. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1889. http://archive.org/details/commentaryonstpa01godeuoft.

Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. “The Divorced Woman in 1 Cor 7:10-11.” Journal of Biblical Literature 100, no. 4 (1981): 601–6. https://doi.org/10.2307/3266121.

Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000.

Tomson, Peter. Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles. Netherlands: Brill, 1991.

Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #4

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by Neil Godfrey

The point of this post is to demonstrate how easy it is to read documents from the perspective of commonly accepted knowledge and mistakenly misread them, thinking they say what we have always assumed they say, and to fail to register that the original texts are not quite as clear in their meaning — nor even as assuredly “authentic” — as we have always assumed.

A historian needs to work with facts to have any chance of proposing a narrative or hypothesis that is going to stand up to scrutiny. The facts lie in the sources we use. But sources must be interpreted and it is easy to read into a source what we think it must be saying.

We are taking as our starting point in these posts the youtube presentation of Tim O’Neill, Did Jesus Exist? Yes (Probably).


From 8 min 20 sec:

The key point here is that … Paul’s letters … do contain references that indicate Paul understood Jesus to have been a recent, historical, and earthly human being who was elevated to higher status after his death

Re “recent”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
In Romans we read it said that the revelation about Jesus is recent; it is the revelation of Jesus that happened in Paul’s time.

Romans 16:25-26

the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God 

The things revealed in that revelation happened “now”, “very recently”. 1 Peter 1:18-20

… you were redeemed … with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.

Belief in the recency of an event does not support its historical truth: Examples…

Ancient writings inform us that the ancients also believed gods and goddesses (sometimes in human form) were periodically seen by sundry eyewitnesses and not only in a mythical time.

The second-century author Lucian wrote a biography of his teacher, Demonax, whom many readers have subsequently assumedwrongly — to have been a historical figure.

Ned Ludd was understood to have been a recent figure, if not a contemporary, of protestors in eighteenth-century England.

Re “historical”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
No historical context is found for Jesus in Paul’s letters except for:

1 Thessalonians 2:14-15

in Judea … those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. 

but scholars are not agreed that this passage is genuinely from Paul so it is not a secure base from which to make a point about Paul’s thought. See https://vridar.org/tag/1-thessalonians-213-16/ for the scholars’ reasons for interpolation.

1 Timothy 6:13

Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession 

Overwhelmingly critical scholars agree that 1 Timothy was not written by Paul.

When the 1 Thessalonians 2 passage is cited, since not all scholars agree it is an interpolation, it is thought sufficient to casually dismiss the interpolation thesis as unlikely.

More generally, the simple fact that Paul wrote of the Christ event as reality is taken as proof that there was a historical person behind it.

Ancient historians, like modern historians, sometimes wrote about persons and events they believed to be historical but in fact weren’t.

Re “earthly”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
As above; additionally…

1 Corinthians 2:8

… the rulers of this age … crucified the Lord of glory.

Also “born of woman” — see below

Events imagined to have happened on earth are presumably historical.

“Rulers of this age” are assumed to have been the rulers of Judea and Rome we read about in the gospels who were responsible for the crucifixion.

Until Earl Doherty in the 1990s advanced his thesis that Paul believed “the Christ event” occurred entirely in a “heavenly realm”, albeit a sublunar one, the Christ myth idea generally understood Paul’s letters to speak of birth, life and death of Jesus on earth. Apart from a very early view that the entire gospel story was fleshed out from astrological beliefs, the only exception that I am aware of is the view of Paul-Louis Couchoud who anticipated Doherty’s views, though Doherty’s thesis was his own. Richard Carrier has further elaborated and popularized Doherty’s entirely “celestial Christ”. Such has been the success of the Doherty-Carrier Christ myth view that among some quarters it has become equated with the Christ Myth theory itself and it appears that some critics are unaware that there is an alternative. However, most Christ myth views over the decades have accepted Paul’s view of Jesus as an earthly human. The Christ myth thesis certainly does not stand or fall upon the thoroughly “celestial Christ” view of Doherty-Carrier. The “celestial Christ” hypothesis is not the foundation or reason Doherty became sceptical of the historicity of Jesus. Carrier raises many problems with the historicity thesis that stand apart from the “celestial Christ” idea.

*My own view of the question is different from above. I point out opposing arguments when I think they are unfairly ignored.

Re “human being” Continue reading “Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #4”


Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #3

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by Neil Godfrey

The “again” in the title harks back to another time I responded point by point to Tim O’Neill’s erroneous declarations: Bad History for Atheists #1, #2, #3, #4

Continuing here to respond to the youtube presentation at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_hD3xK4hRY — previous posts: #1 (wrongly saying it pays academics to find “different” and “new” or “contrarian” arguments), and #2 (wrongly saying historians can do nothing more than assess probabilities, not determine facts, about the ancient past)

After further saying that non-Christian (including “Jewish”) and Christian scholars have very different ideas about the historical Jesus (which is simply flat wrong, as I might show in a later post) in order to supposedly demonstrate that Christian influence is not a factor (again, which is flat wrong as can be easily demonstrated – but for a later post), and after conditioning the listener to think of “mythicists” as following attractive bait in defiance of common sense (ad hominem, well-poisoning), O’Neill says,

To begin with, all accounts or references to the origins of Christianity both Christian and non-Christian, say it began with him. And none of them describe him as anything other than a historical human being even if some of them — the Christian ones most obviously — say he was much more than just a human.

Here are a good number of those ancient accounts and references with the ones saying he is “anything other than” a historical human being:

Account or reference Saying Jesus was nothing more than a historical human
New Testament letters (Paul, pseudo-Paul, Catholic, Pastoral and Johannine) nil
Extra canonical letters (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp) nil
New Testament Gospels and Acts nil
Extra canonical Gospels and Acts (Thomas, Peter, Paul….) nil
Revelation and other apocalypses nil
Josephus nil (but many, not all, scholars hypothesize that Josephus did say he was only a man; arguments against authenticity)
Tacitus (late evidence reporting what was learned from early Christians — not used by historical Jesus scholars because “too late”; arguments against authenticity)
Pliny the Younger nil (not used by HJ scholars; says christ was worshiped as a god; several arguments against authenticity)

O’Neill argues that some of the above do present an entirely human Jesus behind the myth and I will respond to his claims as we come to them.

O’Neill says:

The mythicist . . . has to explain why they all depict him as historical and human with no traces of any earlier alternatives which have him as, say, purely mythic, allegorical or celestial.

Interesting. I am still waiting to hear O’Neill indicate which ones he means among the “all depict Jesus as historical and human with no traces of earlier … myth…”

O’Neill underscores his point:

there are elements in the early christian accounts of him that strongly indicate a historical person — that are very difficult to interpret any other way.

My curiosity is being whetted. Can’t wait to hear which sources these are “very difficult” to interpret as a merely human Jesus.

Before answering, O’Neill offers an interesting justification for using the Biblical gospels and letters:

The historian can and should examine them in the way that they examine any other source relevant to the question at hand in the examination of ancient history.

One thing other historians have noted, and that I certainly have commented on often enough here, is that biblical scholars only rarely study the gospels “in the way that ‘they’ examine any other source”. The narratives in the gospels are assumed — without confirmation of independent external confirmation — to be based on a real biography. The sources are assumed to have been primarily oral tradition. The authors are assumed to have been interested in telling the truth as they understood it about Jesus, diligently incorporating genuine “historical” material as they could. As far as I have been aware over many years of wide reading and study, I don’t know of any relevant scholarly study of ancient documents (or medieval or modern ones) that begins and ends with such uncritical assumptions.

But I want to keep these posts brief. Like small modules addressing each point. So next post addresses O’Neill’s claims about the evidence in Paul for the historicity of Jesus. Go to Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #4


more little gems from a Hillsong ex-insider — including some Christianese

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by Neil Godfrey

continuing from the previous post about Tanya Levin’s People in Glass Houses: An Insider’s Story of a Life In and Out of Hillsong:

The Amway technique:

“When couples are recruited into Amway, they are all treated pretty much the same.”

Prosperity gospel isn’t new. In the cult I was part of we would have deplored any suggestion we had anything in common with those “prosperity gospel” groups. With us, most of us struggled as a sign of humility, dedication and faith so that we could contribute to the prosperity of the elites, a prosperity that was needed for the doing of  “God’s work”

“Prosperity gospel isn’t anything new. It’s just since the nineties that it’s been really lapped up by a lot of the Western world as a standard part of Christianity. The late eighties were just awful for fundamentalist Christians.”

Selecting and focussing on the right bible verses . . .

“The Word of Faith movement had laid the perfect groundwork for prosperity gospel. It was as simple as ABC, and I don’t think they’d planned it at all. Number one, all of the bible is the Word of God and can be taken literally. Number two, you can take any verse of the bible and apply it to your life. Therefore, number three, you can take any verse of the bible and decide that that’s the one that counts, not the other ones. And finally, number four, we’ve been wrong about money all this time, when you look at the verses we can show you here.”

Each cult thinks itself distinctive, unlike any other. Take a step back and out, though, and you see how alike they all are:

“The Moonies are trained in exactly the same way, as are all cult devotees. Recruitment success ultimately depends on the quality of personal interaction with could-be members. The recruiter first learns something about the potential recruit. Then, to demonstrate that they have shared interests, the recruiter mirrors their target’s opinions. So, when an invitation to a workshop or a dinner is extended, it seems that the recruiter has something genuine to offer, based on the apparent compatibility of their beliefs or interests.”

This one is rightly elaborated on by Tanya in her book. I’ve addressed some other aspects of the process on this blog.

“They must be stupid’ is the reason given for cult involvement from many on the outside. Only the mentally ill, gullible or lonely would ever find themselves in a cult. Up close, nothing could be further from the truth.”

This one reminded me of the effect of the music, the light and temperature controls and visual layouts of major supermarkets to lower your resistance and encourage you to buy….

“These are altered state of consciousness techniques that initially induce calmness by giving the mind something simple to deal with and focusing awareness. Continued use brings on a feeling of elation and eventually hallucination. The result is the reduction of thought . . . .”

Today we see dire conspiracy theories about “them” — recall how it started….

“It was always a case of Us vs Them. The difference now is that We used to feel sorry for Them, and cheer on the day when They might be converted. Now, We are threatened by Them, the Great Unsaved, because They might take Our Freedom, Our Families, Our Profit Margins.”

Oh yes, and not just the Hillsongers…

“Many Hillsongers derive their beliefs about the world from anecdotal evidence, pastors’ ad-libbing and books written by Christians. The concept of applying usual logic to spirituality is abhorrent. My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways declares the Lord. ”

In an older post I used another word for this one, logicide:


The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.”

Tanya Levin calls it Christianese. Some examples:

Faith: The reason for all the things that don’t make any sense”

Love: Feeling really special on the inside about anything at all; being nice to someone ”

Grace: The whitewash process by which we only talk about the positive and no one has to be accountable for anything, for example,
‘When are you going to get a hold of the concept of grace?”

Suffering for Jesus: Missing your connecting flight”

Miracle: Anything that goes your way without trying too hard”

Purpose driven: Unashamedly self-obsessed”

Developing a negative, critical, defeatist attitude: Asking leadership why you’ve been told a bunch of lies”

In “my” old cult the equivalent of the next one was “Left the church” with the understanding that “they were never part of us to begin with” and “they are in the bond of Satan”:

Now worshipping at another church: Left in disgust and outrage over being conned”

Faithfulness to God’s will: Willing to put up with any amount of bad treatment from leadership and still go back to church”

This one, again, has wide application. In our cult it was a constant busyness with church activities plus fitting in a minimum of half-hour prayer and half hour bible study at home every day. But the principle applies even as far as society as a whole:

“Cult theorists argue that exhausting people helps maintain control. If all they’re craving is sleep and to see their kids, they’re not as likely to care where all the money’s going, or how nonsensical the ideologies are. The AoG calls it a commitment to the things of God.”


The Mind of a Hillsong Insider — Both Inside and Out

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by Neil Godfrey

Having made a decision to check out Hillsong a bit more after the release of those loathsome scenes of our Trump-loving Prime Minister boasting of “doing God’s work” and even “laying hands on” people and praying for them under the pretence of being empathetic, I searched “randomly” through Google algorithms and came across People in Glass Houses, An Insider’s Story of a Life In & Out of Hillsong by Tanya Levin. Tany Levin writes with such wry and dry wit and humour of her experiences that  I am finding the reading most enjoyable rather than depressing as I had feared it would be. I am only a little short of halfway through it at the moment and so far it is an excellent reminder of what it is like to be immersed in that kind of a God world. And though Hillsong is a very different church in many respects from the ones I was ever part of, much of the emotional and mental tensions and denials one goes through are very much the same. This read is the first time I have been enlightened on the experiences of a child and teenage girl in such a church.

If you really want to know what it’s like to grow up in a happy-clappy Jesus-loves-you church then you will be absorbed by this book as much as I currently am.

If you are currently facing some doubts or tensions over your involvement in a cult-like outfit, even if it’s not the pentecostal kind, you may well find some reassurance for your doubts and a real friend in this book. Tanya writes with understanding but also with compassion.

If it has been some years since you were part of such an outfit, it may not be amiss to be reminded of what it was like — just to help maintain compassion and understanding for others still bound to the world of God, demons and scripture.

Just to add a little more spice to my reading I took out another book that relates directly to the Worldwide Church of God experience and it was like reading and recollecting the cult-mind in 3-D — only with Tanya’s dry humour, one is also able to add the salve of laughter to the cruel memories. Electronic versions are available but it can also be read gratis on Scribd.


A few gems from the first half:

“As an aside, taking drugs will instantly open your mind as a demon playground, though only illegal drugs will do this. Valium’s fine.”

“My life was as close to without sin as I could possibly make it and I was going as close to insane as I had ever feared.”

“Tongues is spooky and I think it’s supposed to be.”

“They don’t like talking about stuff for too long or too deeply and where they have to use their own powers of reasoning.”

“I assumed when I considered leaving Hills that it would be hard, that everybody would notice me gone and would try to drag me back. I had justifications ready for such events, events which never came about.”

“One morning in church when I was sixteen, I looked around and saw a young man with his arms outstretched, singing in tongues to the Lord. Before I knew it, I thought, ‘He’s talking rubbish.’ ”

“The research shows that I was a textbook case for the children who emerge from highly restrictive thought-control groups and cults.”


Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again – and not just Probably) — #2

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by Neil Godfrey

Tim O’Neill makes a statement about history that I have never encountered in any work by any historian explaining to readers what he or she does. The only persons I have heard make the claim come from theological faculties when they try to place the evidence for Jesus on the same (or even higher) level that we have for other historical persons and events. O’Neill points his listeners to the title of his presentation: Did Jesus Exist? Yes (Probably) (link is to the 28 minute youtube video I am discussing). O’Neill explains:

It is … important to note the word “probably” in my answer to the question of whether this historical Jesus existed. Unlike some of the sciences, history can rarely arrive at definitive answers. . . . Historians are like detectives who examine evidence . . . and work out what probably happened. So when it comes to the pre-modern world, the sources, texts, passing references and documents and perhaps archaeology the historians analyse make it impossible for them to do more than than assess what is most likely. (from about 3 min 22 secs into the program)

Anyone who reads any work by historians discussing what they do will recognize that that remark is totally confused about what is the nature of history and the sorts of conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence — at least according to professional historians. At the very best the description might, with some slight modification, apply to a very narrow range of inquiries some historians undertake.

O’Neill continues:

People who like definite answers or proof are usually going to find ancient history pretty frustrating or perhaps disappointing. This means we can’t prove Jesus existed. But scholars can and do conclude that his existence makes most sense.

Given that we cannot give a definitive answer to the question there should be no surprise to learn that there’s no single piece of relevant evidence that definitely shows a historical Jesus existed. . . . The conclusion he most likely did exist depends on several vectors of evidence converging on that as the most likely conclusion.

I – nor you – have never read in a history book that “Rome probably or most likely — we can’t prove it, but it seems most likely from the convergence of several vectors of evidence — once had an empire stretching from Spain to Mesopotamia”, or “Julius Caesar probably existed and was probably assassinated”, or “A probable Spartacus probably led a probable slave rebellion and was probably defeated”.

Where there are questions with unclear answers, historians don’t fudge the odds and say “probably” if there is reason to doubt. They debate, or suspend judgement, or take clear sides because the evidence that does exist convinces them one way or the other. Did the ancient Greeks practice human sacrifice in historical times? Was the practice of temple prostitution practised in the ancient Near East? Did slaves build the pyramids? When questions like these were asked by historians, historians set out what they believed to be their answers — affirmative or negative — and cited the evidence supporting their beliefs. They didn’t fudge with a “probably”. Being intellectually honest types they were willing to concede that they were wrong and ready to change their minds when presented with new evidence or arguments. But that is still taking clear cut sides. It is not a position of “probability”.

Most history is narrative history. The facts are known and the problem for the historian is to decide how best to interpret them and judge the role they played in a narrative about, say, the lead up to a war, or progress toward social changes. That’s where “probably” enters the thinking. Would World War 1 have broken out even if the Archduke of Austria had not been assassinated? Probably. Was the Archduke assassinated? No probably about it.

Eric Hobsbawm

But enough of my words. Hear/read it from some renowned historians themselves:

Eric Hobsbawm

I strongly defend the view that what historians investigate is real. The point from which historians must start, however far from it they may end, is the fundamental and, for them, absolutely central distinction between establishable fact and fiction, between historical statements based on evidence and subject to evidence and those which are not.

There is a postmodernist question about truth but even here we are not dealing with probability but with whether objective truth can be known or not.

It has become fashionable in recent decades, not least among people who think of themselves as on the left, to deny that objective reality is accessible, since what we call ‘facts’ exist only as a function of prior concepts and problems formulated in terms of these. The past we study is only a construct of our minds. One such construct is in principle as valid as another, whether it can be backed by logic and evidence or not. So long as it forms part of an emotionally strong system of beliefs, there is, as it were, no way in principle of deciding that the biblical account of the creation of the earth is inferior to the one proposed by the natural sciences: they are just different. Any tendency to doubt this is ‘positivism’, and no term indicates a more comprehensive dismissal than this, unless it is empiricism.

In short, I believe that without the distinction between what is and what is not so, there can be no history. Rome defeated and destroyed Carthage in the Punic Wars, not the other way round. How we assemble and interpret our chosen sample of verifiable data (which may include not only what happened but what people thought about it) is another matter.

O’Neill compared historians to detectives. Hobsbawm extends that analogy to its logical conclusion: Continue reading “Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again – and not just Probably) — #2”


Is Efron Also Among the Mythicists?

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by Neil Godfrey


If the previous post was a repeat at least let me try to say something new with this one. I concluded the previous post with Joshua Efron’s final words on his case for the James passage being an interpolation:

External evidence thus complements and strengthens the findings of internal criticism. This passage is an insertion, and by its contents and style can only be a Christian interpolation. (336)

I did not quote the footnote Efron appends to that conclusion. Here it is:

Josephus obviously totally disregarded the young Christian congregations in their first stages of development, despite his extensive detailed descriptions of the period before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Great Revolt. As a historian and writer addressing non-Jewish readers, defending Judaism and aspiring to gain appreciation for it, he preferred to delete sensitive, inconvenient manifestations likely to arouse a negative reaction and controversy. The three “Christian” passages — the crucifixion of Jesus, the death of his brother James and John the Baptist’s death — are exceptional in spirit as well as in their artificial contextual interpolation. Similarly Josephus’ contemporary and rival, Justus of Tiberias, author of a Jewish history in Greek, who did not however renounce his people, made not the slightest mention of Jesus or the miracles he wrought, as noted in Byzantine Christian testimony of Photius, Bibliotheca, Codex 33, PG 103; Photius, Bibliothèque, ed. R. Henry, vol. 1 (Collection Bude-Paris 1959), p. 18f: τής Χρίστου παρουσίας και των περί αυτόν τελεσβέντων καί τών ύπ’ αύτοΰ τερατουργηθέντων ούδέν δλως μνήμην έποιήσατο. See also Τ. Rajak, “Justus of Tiberias,” CIQ 23 (1973): 345 ff. Philo’s complete silence is equally significant. (336f)

In Efron’s earlier outline of the gospel narratives about Jesus (319-324) it is very clear that he considers the entire story an ahistorical, anti-semitic theological drama through and through. In that context one’s eyebrow might be felt to raise just a little at the above footnote. I might be quite wrong, of course, so am very willing to retract this post if necessary.

Efron, Joshua. Studies on the Hasmonean Period. Leiden; New York: Brill, 1987.


Is the Entire James Passage in Josephus an Interpolation?

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by Neil Godfrey

A Jewish scholar, Joshua Efron, believes that the entire “stoning of James” passage — yes, that James who is said to be “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ” —  in Josephus is a Christian forgery.

Now Efron does get under the skin of a few scholars when he argues with a sometimes abrasive style contrarian views relating to the Hasmonean period of Jewish history,  Christian influence in the Pseudepigrapha and views on the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I have not read a rebuttal of his arguments about the existence, function and character of the Sanhedrin in the Second Temple period. I would be interested in doing so. Josephan scholar Louis Feldman acknowledges Efron’s “enormous learning”.

Of the New Testament references to the Jewish Sanhedrin Efron writes:

The New Testament Synedrion (Sanhedrin) was created in the bosom of Christian theology, nurtured by its characteristic tenets and trends in order to provide a concrete, albeit artificial representation of Jewish leadership that denies and contemns the wondrous heavenly savior. (337f)

Efron’s detailed survey of the evidence and all references to the word translated “sanhedrin” that the common image we have of a supreme ruling Sadducee body at the time of Second Temple Judaism is an anachronistic myth:

It is not purely terminological details but facts that prove the non-existence of the Great Sanhedrin at the end of the Second Temple period. Here Josephus appointed at his side in Galilee a high council of seventy in exercising his authority to judge criminal cases, and the zealots in Jerusalem set up a tribunal of seventy for capital cases. In these two salient cases there is no indication of any coordination or contact or of conflict with the sacred rights of the Great Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stones which alone was supposed to have seventy members. A Gerousia of the Jewish community of Alexandria, mentioned by both Philo and Josephus, had “seventy elders” in it according to the talmudic legend, with no reference at all to the supreme institution in Jerusalem. All these testimonies lead to the solid conclusion that from the time of the Return to Zion up to the destruction of the Second Temple there were representative, administrative, public bodies, intermittently appearing and disappearing as Gerousia, and Synedrion and Boule, but they were never identifiable with the talmudic Great Sanhedrin at the head of the judicial system that defines the law and disseminates the Torah among the people of Israel. (318)

With that background perspective, read again about the stoning of James in Josephus’s Antiquities. I have set Efron’s paraphrase alongside the Whiston translation. The sentences in italics are Efron’s introductory and concluding commentaries on the scene.

Josephus: Antiquities 20.9.1 (20:197-203) Efron’s paraphrase of Josephus: Studies, p. 334
AND now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests.

The second passage pictures an evil, harsh Sanhedrin, very similar to the one in the New Testament.

 But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, The younger Ananus (or Annas), the high priest, son of the elder Ananus, was extremely bold and brazen, belonged to the Sadducees, who were severe (“savage”) in trial more than any Jews, took advantage of Festus’ death and before the arrival of the new procurator Albinus, “seated a Synedriort (Sanhedrin) of judges,”
 and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: brought to trial James the brother of Jesus, “called the Messiah (Christ),” and also “certain others,” accused them of violating the law “and delivered them to be stoned.”
 but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified;  However, circles among the residents of the capital considered “the most fair-minded and most strictly law-abiding” did not wish to tolerate such an injustice and applied secretly to King Agrippa to obtain his order preventing such deeds, for Ananus did not act properly to begin with.
 nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Some of them set out to meet Albinus and explained that Ananus did not have the authority “to seat a Sanhedrin” without the procurator’s consent.
 Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest. “Albinus was convinced” and angrily wrote an irate and threatening letter to Ananus. That is why Agrippa also took the high priestly crown away from him.

So ends the episode, which at first glance seems free of weaknesses and faults. And yet a careful examination collapses this naive testimony.

Here are Efron’s objections to a naive reading of the passage. Continue reading “Is the Entire James Passage in Josephus an Interpolation?”


Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #1

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by Neil Godfrey

But the fact is this huge consensus exists. So in history, that means something. After all, academics work in an environment where it pays to find reasons to disagree with each other. — Tim O’Neill

Since watching Tim O’Neill’s 28-minute video Did Jesus Exist? Yes (Probably) I have been toying with the idea of bringing out lessons I learned from my teaching days and try making short podcasts or video clips in response. Why I think they need a response is, well, if this particular video is any guide, — almost everything he says in it is either factually wrong or logically fallacious.

Take the above quotation. That is made at about one minute in. The point is that if Jesus mythicism had any reasonable case at all then the academic environment would logically make significant room for it because, after all, academics are in an environment where it pays to present ideas that disagree with traditional or majority views.

That is wrong. Academics work in an environment where it pays to advance knowledge by testing and building on prior research. Think “shoulders of giants”.

But does it pay “to find reasons to disagree”? Recently I posted here some of the ideas of prominent economist, one who worked at the University of Sydney and later became a prominent Greek and then European political figure, Yanis Varoufakis. Varoufakis was a left-wing economist, one who disagreed with the relevant ideological status quo — though this was not known to the hiring committee at the university. He wrote of his appointment as an academic to the University of Sydney:

When I chose the subject of my doctoral thesis, back in 1982, I deliberately focused on a highly mathematical topic within which Marx’s thought was irrelevant. When, later on, I embarked on an academic career, as a lecturer in mainstream economics departments, the implicit contract between myself and the departments that offered me lectureships was that I would be teaching the type of economic theory that left no room for Marx. In the late 1980s, I was hired by the University of Sydney’s school of economics in order to keep out a left-wing candidate (although I did not know this at the time).

Note that. Ideological conformity was a key criterion in his academic appointment. And that’s in Economics. Imagine Biblical Studies!

Academic Arthur Bedeian explained how it works — the academic environment that “pays”:

Within academic disciplines, knowledge-claims are socially validated through negotiation and eventual consensus among experts, with recognition and esteem accruing to those scientists who, in Merton’s words, “have made genuinely original contributions to the common stock of knowledge” (1957/1973: 293). Writing in the field of biology, Myers (1990) shows how knowledge-claims are negotiated and, thus, socially constructed through the peer-review process, with its characteristic exchange of referee comments and author revisions. He illustrates this by analyzing the transformation and ultimate denouement of two manuscripts, each of which was revised multiple times in response to referees’ criticisms before being accepted for publication. In doing so, he describes the negotiations that unfold as the manuscripts’ authors try to make their claims to originality as strong as possible and the referees attempt to place the authors’ assertions within a body of existing literature. Myers documents that such negotiations are flexible, but only within limits. Authors must claim some minimum level of novelty (or have their work dismissed as unoriginal). At the same time, however, if they venture too far beyond a discipline’s established knowledge structure, they risk the charge that their work is irrelevant to existing research and, thus, unworthy of publication.

Let’s bring in an example directly relevant to Jesus mythicism. Here is what Mike Bird, one of the editors of the academic Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus wrote:

I serve on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, where we have an editorial team of people from all faiths and none, celebrated experts in their fields; and I can tell you that the Jesus mythicist nonsense would never get a foot in the door of a peer-reviewed journal committed to the academic study of the historical Jesus.

That’s as blunt as can be. No caveats to allow for an original or methodologically sound argument. Just a big red No sign on the door. (The remainder of Bird’s article is riddled with blatant misrepresentation of Lataster’s book but that’s another story. He makes it very clear that mythicism is to be excluded from any academic discussion without any acknowledgement that there could possibly be anything new to say about it since it first appeared over 100 years ago.)

Or is that example too extreme? What about Thomas L. Thompson’s thesis that the patriarchal narratives in Genesis had no historical basis, a view that challenged the consensus of the day (mid-1970s)? The view has since become the consensus but not because TLT “worked in an environment where it paid to disagree.” He explained:

During the whole of this period, the reaction in the States to my dissertation, both from within the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature, was consistently negative, with a large number of review articles, criticizing and rejecting my work, my competence and my integrity.

If challenging the historicity of the Genesis patriarchs met with such a determined response what can we expect to be the response to questioning Jesus’ historicity? Continue reading “Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #1”


John the Baptist — Another Case for Forgery in Josephus (conclusion)

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts in this series are archived at Nir: First Christian Believer

Here is the final post discussing the introductory chapter of Rivka Nir’s The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist where she sets out her case for the John the Baptist passage in the writings of Josephus being a forgery.

For readers with so little time, the TL;DR version:

  • The baptism of John that is described in Josephus’s Antiquities is shown to be significantly different from Jewish Pharisaic baptism (Pharisee baptism was for ritual cleansing of the body independently from any call for moral purity; the Josephan John’s baptism was for bodily purity but required moral purity as a precondition);
  • It is also significantly different from the baptism attributed to the Essenes (and the hermit Bannus) by Josephus — for the same type of reason it was different from the Pharisee baptism);
  • That baptism of John appears instead to be very like baptism we read about among Jewish sectarians as in the Qumran scrolls and the Fourth Sibylline Oracle (moral purity was a precondition for the bodily sanctification effected by baptism);
  • That same type of baptism we read about in the Dead Sea scrolls and Fourth Sibylline continues to appear among early Jewish Christian sects as witnessed in the Pseudo-Clementines (moral purity a precondition for bodily purification) — the early Christian baptism appears therefore to have emerged from the Jewish sectarians;
  • The Josephan passage is polemical, apparently attacking what we associate with the orthodox Christian Pauline baptism that was a ritual performed to effect the forgiveness of sins and new spiritual life. (The Pauline and gospel baptism — especially as in the Gospel of Matthew — has nothing to do with physical purity.)
  • Origen appears to have not known of the John the Baptist passage in Josephus but we first read of awareness of it in Eusebius. We can conclude that the passage was inserted by a member of one of the early Jewish-Christian sects late third or early fourth century.


To refresh your memory, here again is the Josephan passage with the description of his baptism highlighted:

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, called the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead righteous lives and practice justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by righteousness. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus. the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod (Ant. 18.116-19).

Not a Jewish Pharisaic Baptism

Nir sets aside any possibility that the account of John’s baptism as quoted above could be a typical Jewish Pharisee baptism of the time. The Pharisaic baptism, she explains, was entirely for the purpose of cleansing the body from ritual impurities — from contact with a corpse, skin diseases, bodily discharges, and such. It had nothing to do with moral purity or righteous behaviour. To achieve forgiveness for spiritual sins one had the sacrificial cult of the Temple.

What about those passages in the Prophets that speak about washing away sins? One of many examples:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’ (Isaiah 1:16-20)

Some scholars have speculated that such passages were interpreted by some Jews of the day as the basis of a new baptismal ritual, one that requires repentance and spiritual purity before being immersed in water:

The similarity between the initial immersion of the Qumran community and John’s immersion probably stems from a common use of the book of Isaiah. Thus, the idea that one could be made clean in body only if one was pure in heart is probably to be derived from an interpretation of the book of Isaiah that was current among several groups in Second Temple Judaism. (Taylor, The Immerser, 88)

Such passages as these attest the early association between physical and moral purification, such as meets us in the Johannine baptism. And the ideas are close. Whoever invented the epigram “ Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” it is a fair summary of Pharisaic conceptions on the subject under discussion. (Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism, 41)

Entirely speculative and contrary to the extant evidence, replies Nir. Jewish Pharisaic baptism was for the purification of the body “from natural and unavoidable states of impurity, such as contact with a corpse”. It was not “conditioned on inner moral repentance or spiritual purification.” (p. 53) The passages in Isaiah, the Psalms, Ezekiel, Jeremiah speaking of being cleansed or washed from sins are figurative. (I would add that such passages, if interpreted as the basis of a baptism ritual, would be more likely to prompt a baptism that is contrary to the one described in Josephus’s Antiquities because those passages speak of “washing away sins”, being “cleansed from sin” — as if the washing itself performs the moral purification.)

Yes, Philo did compare physical impurity with moral impurity, but at the same time he recognized the place of sacrifices in moral cleansing.

What of the Essenes and that hermit mentioned by Josephus, Bannus?

Rivka Nir does not assume the Essenes are to be identified as the group responsible for the Qumran practices. Essenes as described by Josephus are kept separate from the group known through the Qumran scrolls.

In War 2.119-61, Josephus describes the immersions of the Essenes. They bathed in cold water (άπολούοντοα τό σώμα ψυχροΐς ϋδασιν) for ‘purification’ (εις άγνείαν), and would wash themselves before meals (129), following defecation (149), or contact with a Gentile or person of inferior status in the sect (150). About Bannus, an ascetic hermit who lived in the wilderness, Josephus recounts that he would wash himself frequently in cold water, by day and night, for purity’s sake (λουόμενον πρός άγνείαν, Life 2.11) (Nir, 55)

That is, baptism for both is

  • self-administered
  • daily
  • in cold water
  • for physical purification

and Josephus uses similar terms for both.

With the support of an article by Bruce Chilton Rivka Nir observes of the baptism found here:

In response to a view found in some quarters that the Essenes’ baptism replaced the sacrificial cult, Nir explains at some length with multiple citations why such a view is based on a misreading of the original script of Josephus.

It has nothing to do with prior repentance or moral and spiritual purification: its administration requires no preaching or urging; it is no collective mass baptism and does not constitute an initiation rite into some elect group. Furthermore, the Essene and Bannus immersions were not a substitute for the sacrificial cult.


It may not be an “orthodox” Jewish baptism of the era, but Rivka Nir does see an overlap between the Josephan account and what we read in the Qumran scrolls. The key text is the Community Rule (dated by orthography and paleography between 100 BCE and 50 CE).

A Jewish-Christian Baptism

Rivka Nir’s argument is that Jewish sectarian baptisms stressing moral purity as a condition for ritually cleansing the body by immersion existed side by side early Jewish-Christian sects in opposition to the Christian baptism known to us from the Pauline tradition.

We start with the evidence for Jewish sects having a baptism in parallel with what we read about John’s in Josephus.

From https://www.textmanuscripts.com/blog/entry/11_16_deadseascrolls

Qumran scrolls

In the Community Rule 1QS 2.26-3.12 we see the same type of baptism that Josephus depicts for John — ritual cleansing of immersion into water is effective if one is first repentant:

And anyone who declines to enter the covenant of God in order to walk in the stubbornness of his heart shall not enter the community of his truth … For it is by the spirit of the true counsel of God that are atoned the paths of man, all his iniquities, so that he can look at the light of life. And it is by the holy spirit of the community , in its truth, that he is cleansed of all his iniquities. And by the spirit of uprightness and of humility his sin is atoned. And by the compliance of his soul with all the laws of God his flesh is cleansed by being sprinkled with cleansing waters and being made holy with the waters of repentance. May he, then, steady his steps in order to walk with perfection on all lhe paths of God, as he has decreed concerning the appointed times of his assemblies and not turn aside, either right or left nor infringe even one of all his words. In this way he will be admitted by means of atonement pleasing to God, and for him it will be the covenant of an everlasting Community.

Also as with the Josephan baptism of John we see the effect at a community level.

At Qumran, as in John’s baptism, justice (righteousness) was the means to purification and expiation of sins . . . And like John’s baptism, the Qumran baptism appears to have been one of the conditions for admission to the congregation: and it was similarly a collective baptism and a substitute for the sacrificial cult. (Nir, 60)

Also the Fourth Sibylline 

Another Jewish group, one responsible for the Fourth Sibylline (dated to about 80 CE), takes the same position: Continue reading “John the Baptist — Another Case for Forgery in Josephus (conclusion)”


Parallels — How to tell if they are “Real”

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by Neil Godfrey

Parallelomania — the term has been too often misunderstood and misapplied to serious work that deserves attention. On the other hand, there are a lot of proposed parallels that are, let’s say, eccentric. How to tell the difference?

Michael Goulder

I’ll use Michael Goulder’s explanation of what makes a meaningful parallel and in subsequent posts address how to identify a misleading parallel. (Some of us will be thinking of Samuel Sandmel’s famous article, Parallelomania. I made a link to that article available here because very often I have found people, including some professional scholars, misunderstanding what he wrote. Or perhaps they never read it carefully to begin with. In this post, however, we give Goulder a turn to speak.)

In Type and History in Acts Goulder is discussing typology which is a particular type of parallel. The key question of interest is,

What is in question is whether it is possible to assert that a type [or parallel] is understood by a New Testament author when the details of the story do not make it quite so obvious, and the type-antitype connection is much less real, or to modem eyes not real at all. (p. 2)

Nonsense, replies the critic

For Goulder, the answer is relatively simple.

Much criticism could be dispelled if it were realized that almost all typology is cumulative. The typologist may assert, for example, that the sermon on the mount is the antitype of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. Nonsense, replies the critic, there is no evidence of this: there are plenty of mountains in Galilee, and Jesus climbed one to instruct his disciples — that is all. (p. 2)

Here’s how Goulder justifies the view that the evangelist deliberately created a parallel between the Sermon on the Mount and the giving of the law to Israel on Mount Sinai. . .

It’s Cumulative all the way down

Okay, we read Jesus went up on a mountainside to give his sermon. Nothing to see here, the “parallel” critic says. And the critic is right. So far.

But then we must recall that a very few chapters earlier we read the story of a Herod massacring all the infant boys in Bethlehem and few of us could deny that that little episode did bring to mind the Exodus account of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s edict to massacre newborn Israelite boys. Obviously there are many differences between the two tales but we cannot deny that there are core similarities.

Differences Similarities
Jesus is not saved by being put in an ark fear inspires the tyrant
then floated on the river Jordan future saviour of Israel is delivered
and finally adopted by Herod’s daughter

If I can interrupt to add to Goulder’s discussion here: I suspect that if one had the two texts side by side one could itemize a list of differences that would be much longer than a list of similarities. Some critics reject proposed parallels on the basis that they can count more details of difference than they can of similarity. But what is surely important is the predominant theme or ideas in the stories and the idea of a miraculous saving of an infant saviour from a tyrant attempting to kill all and sundry in hopes of getting his babe must outweigh dozens or even scores of background, decorative, setting and scenery details. (Further, some critics dismiss parallels solely in the basis of a single obvious difference (many reject the Heracles-Jesus parallels solely on the basis that Jesus was not a “strong man” hero despite the many and often explicit similarities ancient authors made between Heracles and other Jesus-comparable figures like Socrates), but the “difference” game can logically come to a point where we say that nothing can be derivative of another unless it is the same in all points. But then, of course, we have the same thing again and not an analogue at all.) Back to Goulder…

Might we not simply say that the massacre stories are alike by coincidence? Yes, indeed. That is possible. An author may be aware of only a limited number of that type of legendary narrative and his imagination might not grant him access to many new ideas.

After all there may be a limited stock for the plots oflegendary stories, and we expect some coincidence. Peter’s discovery of the stater in the fish’s mouth is like the story of Polycrates’ ring, but this does not lead us to speak of types and antitypes. (p. 2)

But while reading Matthew we find that just before Herod’s murderous rampage gets underway Jesus is taken down to Egypt by his parents, Joseph and Mary. Are we allowed to let our minds wander and recall that preceding Pharaoh’s massacre of the infants in the book of Exodus Joseph took his family down to Egypt — in the final chapters of Genesis. Continue reading “Parallels — How to tell if they are “Real””


Peter, a real “son of Jonah” – part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

It may be that the pattern of events in the Old Testament sometimes foreshadows a similar pattern in the New, for the God of both Testaments is one. — C. S. C. Williams

C.S.C. Williams authored the 1958 Acts commentary from which the following parallels are taken. I think there are other explanations.

A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. — Matthew 16:4

Jesus replied, Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah — Matthew 16:17

Williams was possibly the first to draw attention to several of the parallels between the conversions of Nineveh and the Roman centurion listed in part 1. He also suggested that the king of Nineveh corresponded to Herod in Acts 12.

Jonah went down to the waters of death and appeared to the king of Nineveh as one risen from the dead; the king repented and (a) put off his royal apparel and put on sackcloth, (b) came down from his throne to sit in ashes, and (c) proclaimed a fast, Jonah iii. 6 f.; Peter was smitten on the side, symbolically re-enacting Christ’s Passion for Christ had been struck on the Cross in His side, while Peter lay in prison, which symbolizes the grave.

(Williams, 152)

I suspect that when “Luke” visualized the angel striking Peter on his side that he was posting a flag to draw our attention to the parallel with Jesus on the cross: he was signalling to the reader that the scene of Peter’s adventure in prison was a figure of death and resurrection. The Acts narrative stresses the heavy guard on Peter and the impossibility of him escaping except by miracle. He is indeed “in death” — see M. Goulder’s explanation for such as situation being understood as “a death”.

Jonah 3-4 Acts 12
Jonah was in the fish then spewed out after three days.



Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time, saying, Get up (ἀνάστηθι), go to Nineveh . . . — Jonah 3:1-2


Herod slew James the brother of John with the sword then had Peter arrested and imprisoned, intending to bring him to trial after the Feast of Unleavened Bread. An angel appeared to Peter at night, the chains fell from him and the doors opened of their own accord as he walked past the guards to freedom. Herod refused to believe the miracle of his escape so had the guards executed.

[The angel] struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up (Ἀνάστα)!” — Acts 12:7



When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh,

  • he rose from his throne,
  • took off his royal robes,

covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.

This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

(But at dawn the next day God provided a worm (σκώληκι), which struck the gourd so that it withered – Jonah 4:7)

After hearing news of Peter’s escape from prison, “King Herod”

  • wearing his royal robes,
  • sat on his throne


and delivered a public address to the people.

They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.”




Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms (σκωληκόβρωτος) and died.



Williams, C. S. C. (Charles Stephan Conway). A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. New York: Harper, 1958. http://archive.org/details/commentaryonacts0000will.


Peter, a real “son of Jonah” – part 1

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Jonah Peter 
Commission to the gentiles is the central theme

Commission to the gentiles is the central theme of Acts 10

Jonah was sent to Assyrian Nineveh, a representative of the oppressor of the Jewish people

Peter was sent to a Roman centurion, a representative of the Jewish people

Joppa is the location of the prophet’s conflict with God — Jonah 1:3

Joppa is the location of God’s encounter with Peter — Acts 9:43

Jonah thought it a scandal that the hated gentiles might convert and be saved (Jonah’s name “is emblematic of this problem in Jewish literature”)

Peter thought it a scandal that the hated gentiles might convert and be saved (Among the apostles Peter struggles the most with the idea of gentiles being converted)

The fame of Nineveh’s wickedness ascended (άναβαίνω) to God — Jonah 1:2 (LXX)

The fame of the piety of Cornelius’ ascended (άναβαίνω) to God — Acts 10:4

Jonah forcefully protested against God’s command

Peter forcefully protested against God’s command
God commands a reluctant Jonah twice to “Get up! … Go” (1:2; 3:2 – anastëthi kai poreuthèti) God commands a reluctant Peter twice to “Get up!” (10:13, 20 – anastas. .. kai poreuou)
God gives a miraculous sign to persuade Jonah — this sign of three days in the fish is crucial to the narrative (“the sign of Jonah”) (Jonah 2:1) God gives Peter a miraculous sign — the vision of unclean foods to eat (lowered from heaven three times) — to persuade him (Acts 10:16)
God offers reassurance to Jonah God offers reassurance to Peter
The gentiles believe (empisteuô – Jonah 3:5)
— and prove to be outstandingly pious
The gentiles believe (pisteuô — Acts 10:43)
— and prove to be outstandingly pious
Conversion of gentiles results in hostile response (Jonah 4:1) Conversion of gentiles results in hostile response (Acts 11:2; cf. 10:14)
God rebuts the hostile response (Jonah 4:2-11) God rebuts the hostile response (Acts 11:17-18; cf. 15:13-21)

Czachesz, István. Apostolic Commission Narratives in the Canonical and Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, 2002. https://research.rug.nl/en/publications/apostolic-commission-narratives-in-the-canonical-and-apocryphal-a.

Wall, Robert W. “Peter, ‘Son’ of Jonah: The Conversion of Cornelius in the Context of Canon.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 9, no. 29 (May 1987): 79–90. https://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X8700902904.

Williams, C. S. C. (Charles Stephan Conway). A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. New York: Harper, 1958. http://archive.org/details/commentaryonacts0000will.