Discovering Why “Even Atheists” Deplore Jesus Mythicism. (Or, Thoughts on “Cult Atheism”)

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by Neil Godfrey

This is an exploratory essay, not much more than a diary of disorganized thoughts on my recent experience with an atheist discussion forum.

After much delay I finally enrolled as a member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) Forums to contribute to a discussion on the historicity of Jesus. I had been encouraged by the report that a growing number of members there appeared to be open to the view that Jesus possibly had no historical existence but I still should have done my own homework on the nature of the site and character of its members before submitting my first comment there. After thinking over my time there and doing some rather belated review of the forum (or congregation of forums) I believe that the best comparison I can make to that “atheist community” is that it is very like a religious cult. It is certainly a form of a religious or church substitute for the newly faithless or for the long-time faithless who have never managed to outgrow their childish level of thrill at discovering they can break rules and social norms (like, ooh, so very naughtily using offensive words as often as they feel like it) without the fear of hell hanging over them.

I also think I finally understand why so many atheists viciously attack the Christ Myth theory.

Before continuing let me list a little of the distant and immediate background to my thoughts. Firstly, I spent too many years in a religious cult in addition to a number of years doing a lot of reading of works by psychologists and others who explained the cult experience and provided assistance in recovery. (See the links in the side bar to Vridar profiles for a few details.) I know a little about cults and the cult experience. Secondly, I have recently read the following and these have no doubt more immediately helped crystallize certain thoughts on the AFA experience:

  • Do intelligent people realize that they are smarter than anyone else surrounding them?
  • Herwig, Holger H. 1987. “Clio Deceived: Patriotic Self-Censorship in Germany after the Great War.” International Security 12 (2): 5–44. https://doi.org/10.2307/2538811.
  • Benda, Julien. 2006. The Treason of the Intellectuals. Translated by Roger Kimball. New Brunswick, NJ: Routledge. (Originally published 1928 by William Morrow, NY.) 
    • —  I took up the Benda book in pursuing an argument made some time ago by Noam Chomsky. The Treason of the Intellectuals foreshadows Chomsky’s criticisms of today’s liberal intellegentsia. It was the Herwig article on German intellectuals that reminded me to finish reading Benda at last.

When I became an atheist I don’t recall ever having the slightest interest in searching for and associating with “an atheist community”. When I heard that such communities did exist I was perplexed. What could they possibly have in common? Atheism simply means not believing in the existence of supernatural powers. That’s hardly a basis for a club of any sort. Haven’t atheists been responsible for historic crimes against humanity? I am sure many atheists are as burdened with ugly prejudices and bigotries as anyone else. And one hardly needs to be a Stephen Hawking to come to the conclusion that “there is no god” so I squirmed in some pain when I read Richard Dawkins’ suggesting that atheists should call themselves “Brights”.

But look at the AFA Forums site. It’s like a church or cult website, a place where all the converted (or de-converted) can go to find “like-minded” people, others with presumably an accommodating perspective, to discuss any problem in life:

There is a place where you can introduce yourself and be welcomed; just like a church group where all new members are welcomed, or screened.

Then there is a “Getting Started” room for those “new to the [faith or lack thereof]” can find mutual assistance.

But I love the “conversion stories” page. “Coming Out Stories”, its called, and I am reminded of so many church gatherings where people stand up and share their stories about how they came to Christ.

Next we see a space where one can learn about an “atheists’ viewpoints on things . . . . to better understand the atheist worldview”! Do you see what is happening here? Atheism is being presented as a group identity that sets apart its members as different from others. How many atheists have really needed to consult a community or “nonspiritual” guides to learn the “atheist viewpoint or worldview” on things?

I should at this point backtrack to the site’s banner: AFA Forums is identified as “a celebration of reason”.

Ah yes, the place for the Brights. I will return to the irony of that banner’s logo.

And just like so many fundamentalist type churches we have community-run places where members can share and learn how to resolve

  • Family matters
  • Educational issues
  • Ethics and justice
  • Women’s issues
  • Sexuality issues
  • Mental health issues
  • Political issues . . .

How convenient. It sure helps to have a place to go to relieve one of the anxiety of having to think through such questions truly independently and with one’s own research and reflection. Safety, security, nurturing, … all in the group.

Again just as cults and evangelicals have literature and go-to persons for information on science questions (how do we answer this or that question, for example) AFA helpfully provides forums to share that sort of knowledge, too.

Of course there is also the obligatory magazine. Presumably this is in part meant to evangelize and in part meant to support existing members.

Nor, of course, is the enemy forgotten. There are places one can discuss the enemies of the Brights and the Free: places bearing signs such as read more »


Forbes Posts Article on the Cruelty of White Evangelicalism, Then Pulls It

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by Tim Widowfield

On 11 March 2018, Forbes posted Chris Ladd’s article, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel.” It didn’t last the day. You’ll probably want to read it, as well as Forbes’ weak-tea explanation for taking it down.

We’ve discussed many times here how censorship traditionally works in the West. The government rarely gets involved, nor does need to, since the press dutifully polices itself. Even in the digital age, our media gatekeepers still keep at it, perhaps out of habit, but mostly out of cowardice.

These dinosaurs, reaching the end of the line, stumbling toward extinction, haven’t given up yet. And when somebody crosses the line, they’re ready to scold the offenders and tell them their message is “way out of bounds.”

As we all know, the truth has boundaries.


The Other (Less Bloody) Side of Christian Origins

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by Neil Godfrey

Immersed as we are in the heritage of the Christianity of the Crucified Christ it is easy to forget (if we ever knew) that there was another side to Christian origins. Try to imagine what gave rise to a Christianity that knew nothing of the pierced, broken body and shed blood of Jesus as the way to salvation. Imagine their sacred writings said nothing at all about the members of the church being united by eating the body and drinking the blood of their saviour but instead enjoined the following:

Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way.

First, concerning the cup:

We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever..

And concerning the broken bread:

We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever..

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

But after you are filled, give thanks this way:

We thank Thee, holy Father, for Thy holy name which You didst cause to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever.

Thou, Master almighty, didst create all things for Thy name’s sake; You gavest food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us You didst freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Thy Servant.

Before all things we thank Thee that You are mighty; to Thee be the glory for ever.

Remember, Lord, Thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Thy love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Thy kingdom which Thou have prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever.

Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David!

If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.

That is from the Didache (did-a-kee), or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, that some (Wikipedia says “most”) scholars today date to the first century. That’s possibly around the same time Paul was writing his letters and the time the first gospels were being written.

Compare the instructions for our more familiar branch of Christianity (1 Cor. 11:23-26 NASB): read more »

When Schweitzer Changed His Mind and Nobody Noticed

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by Tim Widowfield

Albert Schweitzer

Recently, I was researching and preparing for the fourth chapter of the most recent Memory Mavens post. I wanted especially to resurrect, and then dismiss, Albert Schweitzer’s characterization of William Wrede’s work as “thoroughgoing scepticism.” I had already touched on this subject back in 2012 in our series on the Messianic Secret.

At the time, I quoted Wrede himself in his defense of reasonable skepticism.

To bring a pinch of vigilance and scepticism to [the study of Mark’s Gospel] is not to indulge a prejudice but to follow a clear hint from the Gospel itself.

In order to explain and defend Wrede’s method it seemed reasonable to me to compare it to Schweitzer’s (as Schweitzer himself had done, over 100 years ago). But then a funny thing happened. Try as I might, I could not find a single reference to “thoroughgoing scepticism” in the 2001 Fortress Press edition of The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

One of our shibboleths is missing

That seemed more than a little odd. Here is a catchphrase, set in stone within the hushed and hallowed halls of NT scholarship, and yet it was missing in action. Where had it gone? When did it leave?

The paper portion of my library, almost all of it, is miles away from me in a storage facility, so I’ve had to rely on electronic versions of Geschichte der leben-Jesu-forschung. The 1913 edition stored at Hathi Trust is in the public domain, and you should be able to read it, no matter what your country of origin is. (Sometimes Hathi Trust limits viewing to IP addresses from the U.S., because of unsettled copyright issues.)

As you probably already know, the first edition, in German, hit the streets in 1906, and it made a fairly big splash. NT scholarship in the English-speaking world took an immediate interest, which only grew when an English translation became available in 1910. Wrede’s The Messianic Secret would have to wait 60 more years. K. L. Schmidt’s Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu is still waiting.

In the first edition, Schweitzer pokes Wrede in the eye with the title of chapter 19: “Thoroughgoing Scepticism and Thoroughgoing Eschatology.” Anglo-American scholars were delighted to see Wrede’s troubling thesis dispatched by such a towering, highly respected, intellectual figure. Who could ask for more?

Digging for nuggets, but not too deeply

Of course, Schweitzer’s magnum opus is, other than the Bible itself, the ultimate quote mine for English-speaking biblical scholarship. Certainly, no other modern work is so frequently quoted yet so rarely read. The Quest quickly became an indispensable quarry for scholars who are far too busy to read Reimarus, Strauss, Renan, or Wrede. Half-hearted, indifferent, indolent excavators have continued even into the late 20th and early 21st century, as this simple Google Books search demonstrates.

Consider the following examples: read more »


Fundamentals of historical research and the difficulties faced by historical Jesus studies

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by Neil Godfrey

Some readers may have come across a very long list of ancient writers who “could or should” have made some mention of Jesus. That list surfaced in another forum discussion today and I found myself faithlessly writing a response to it there instead of spending my time on Vridar. To make amends, hoping Vridar will not feel offended or as if being treated second-class, I copy below what I wrote in the Afa forum.

Such a list serves as a reminder of the riches in sources that are available for the early Roman empire period compared with many other periods of ancient times.

What is fundamental to historical research is the necessity to independently corroborate sources and their claims. It’s not the only requirement but I have a hard time thinking of many ancient figures that are securely known to have existed without meeting that benchmark in the records.

I have listed below what I think are the fundamentals that historical researchers look for when examining the documentary sources. Independent corroboration is left to last

  • Documents need to be assessed for authenticity;

— that includes being able to trace their provenance, assess when they were possibly written, where, etc.

  • their authors ideally need to be identified in order for the investigator to have some idea of how likely they were to have access to certain information, what biases and agendas they may have had, etc;

— We have such information for a good number of ancient authors

  • the literary culture that forms the matrix of the document needs to be understood in order to guide analysis and interpretation;

— we need to understand the conventions of ancient historians and the proclivities of individuals: e.g. their tendency to invent historical accounts drawing upon classical epics and plays when their sources failed them

  • we need to be able to identify and evaluate the probable sources of ancient documents;

— were they relying upon historians before them and if so, which ones, when did they live, what reasons do we have for thinking their work to be reliable, etc

— part of this requirement is the acknowledgment that contemporary sources must form the basis of historical reconstructions. Sometimes later sources can be more reliable or act as checks but they can only rarely be a trusted starting point for historical inquiry

  • and claims made in the documents need to be independently corroborated

— e.g by archaeology, by ancient monuments and inscriptions, by contemporary documents by unrelated authors, etc.

These are the fundamentals. Obviously such processes leave the historian with less data than historians of more recent times have at their fingertips. That doesn’t mean that historians of ancient world lower their standards, however. It means instead that they ask broader questions or the sorts of questions that they know their sources will help them answer.

It also means there is often less certainty in some of their conclusions.

When it comes to the study of Jesus, historians are on the back foot with almost all of the above: read more »


The Abomination of Desolation in Mark 13: What Did the Reader Need to Understand?

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by Neil Godfrey

“Today, we know only too well the experiences of refugee treks, what such an escape can look like.” Yazidis of Iraq fleeing to the mountains.

When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.

Mark 13:14-19

What was that “abomination of desolation”? When we read “let the reader understand” we surely are right to think that it is some sort of mystery to be decoded or explained to us.

The following explanation comes from Der Weg Jesu by Ernst Haenchen (1968). Since it is in German I have had to resort to a machine translation. Fortunately, though, Ken Olson on the Biblical Criticism and History Forum set out the main argument to enable me to get started. I recommend reading his post for more detail than I will provide here.

To begin with Jesus is addressing an inner circle of his disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, “in private”. So it is secret teaching that we are reading.

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus said to them . . . .

Mark 13:1-5

For whom is Mark recording this warning?

Haenchen pulls us back from immersion in the story and confronts us with the question: Who was “Mark” writing this for? Was he writing a warning for Christians who were caught up in the Jewish war of 66 to 70 CE? If so, what was the point? The warning was recorded too late for them.

Further, the warning is for those who “see”, not “hear about”, the abomination of desolation. So was the abomination of desolation something that could be seen by all and sundry “in Judea”, not just in Jerusalem?

Common explanations suggest the abomination was something set up by the Roman army in or near the temple in Jerusalem. But if that were the case then what was the point in telling people throughout Judea to run for the hills at that point? If the Romans were already inside Jerusalem then they had already swept through Judea. Why wait to run until after the enemy has occupied your homeland?

Haenchen’s solution resolves such problems.

“Then the king’s officials came to the town of Modein”

Compare the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. Symbolic language is used, arguably to protect those who treasure the writing. It is proposed that explicitly anticipating the fall of Rome was not something to shout out about so Babylon was substituted for Rome. Those “in the know” knew the coded language. The Book of Revelation also speaks in its thirteenth chapter of a terrifying moment when God’s chosen would face an image of a beast and be ordered to worship it or be killed.

What situation in these early days of Christianity, in the days when the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Revelation were being written, would arouse such fear that the only way out was to drop everything and run immediately into the wilderness and hide in the hills?

The answer: the visit to one’s town of an imperial official setting up an altar and calling on all inhabitants to sacrifice to the emperor. Penalty for refusal was death. The mere possibility of such a moment was enough to generate fear.

Mark was not writing a warning for the people of Judea long after any danger facing them had passed. The war was over. What he was doing was couching (or coding) a warning to his readers in Italy, Syria, anywhere throughout the Roman empire, in the language of Daniel the prophet.

Haenchen writes, p. 446 read more »


The Hidden Messiah

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by Neil Godfrey

Just another mild-mannered reporter

Tim recently cited a few of my old posts in which I draw attention to evidence that Jewish ideas about the Messiah were far more varied in the Second Temple era than commonly supposed. Another variant I have not covered in any of those posts was “the hidden messiah”, the view that the messiah was thought to have been born and waiting somewhere in the wings, unrecognized, until the critical moment when God would bring him to the fore to answer a climactic hour of need.

In other posts I have addressed Jewish writings of the seventh century (CE, late antiquity) positing a messiah who was born a while back but was being kept hidden by God for “the right time”. But what I am interested in here is the Jewish idea that the messiah was born incognito and living somewhere on earth unrecognized. Not even he himself knew he was to become the messiah.

I refer to William Wrede’s discussion of “the hidden Messiah in Judaism” in The Messianic Secret. Wrede is addressing the possibility that the author of the Gospel of Mark knew of an existing idea that the messiah would live for a time on earth without anyone being aware of his true identity.

The first witness Wrede calls upon is Justin and his “Dialogue with Trypho” (written early to mid second century).

The idea is clearly expressed in Justin. Trypho the Jew says in the Dialogue, ch. 8:

But even if the Christ has already been born and lives somewhere (kai esti pou) he is unknown, and does not even know himself. Nor does he have any sort of power until Elias has come, and anointed him and revealed him to everybody.

Similarly in ch. 110 Justin cites as a Jewish idea the notion that even if the messiah had come nobody would know who he is but that they would rather learn this only when he is made manifest and appears in glory, hotan emphanes kai endoxos genetai.

(Wrede, p. 213)

That is, Superman has not yet appeared but a few people in Smallville, Kansas, know a Clark Kent who is an entirely ordinary nobody.

Wrede points out a similar idea in the Gospel of John:

A related idea is presupposed by the Gospel of John when in 7.27 the Jews say “When the Christ appears no-one will know where he comes from.” The hiddenness of his origin appears as a characteristic of the messiah. 

(Wrede, p. 214)

So we can conclude that the idea was known as early as the time the Gospel of John was being put together.

How much earlier? Wrede warns that Jewish ideas and speculations would have been influenced by Christian beliefs, but one must ask how likely it is that the Jews would have moved their ideas in the direction of accommodating Christian ones.

It appears, then, that at the time the gospels were being composed some Jews did hold a notion that the messiah was possibly alive somewhere, hidden, not recognized (yet) as the messiah.

(Does Mark’s claim that there would be false claims that the Messiah was to be found “there” or “over here” tie in with such an idea? Mark 13:21 — “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it…”)

Wrede, William. 1971. The Messianic Secret: Das Messiasgeheimnis in Den Evangelien. Translated by J. C. G. Greig. First Edition edition. Cambridge: James Clarke.

Three Mythicist Novels

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by Neil Godfrey

We have novels about Jesus or about people in his generation and now we also have novels that embrace mythicist arguments.

So if you would like to learn key mythicist arguments without a poring through academic style articles and books or even if you are just interested in seeing what others make of the possibilities that mythicist arguments generate then check out The Christos Mosaic by Vincent Czyz and Mythos Christos by Edwin Herbert.

“Vincent Czyz received an MA in comparative literature from Columbia University, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University. He is the author of the collection Adrift in a Vanishing City, and is the recipient of the 1994 Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Short Fiction and two fellowships from the NJ Council on the Arts. The 2011 Truman Capote Fellow at Rutgers University, his short stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah, AGNI, TheMassachusetts Review, Tampa Review, Quiddity, Louisiana Literature, Logos Journal, New England Review, Boston Review, Sports Illustrated, Poets & Writers, and many other . . . .”

The first of these novels, The Christos Mosaic by Vincent Czyz, is woven principally around the arguments of Earl Doherty Vincent adds at the end of his novel a biographical essay discussing mythicism more generally and specifically what led him to “the mythicist camp”. (He gives special credit to Earl Doherty and Robert Price; though also discusses other authors — along with Bart Ehrman’s attempt to refute the idea and the serious shortcomings of that attempt. Other names who find a place in Vincent’s thinking are Robert Eisenman, Frank Zindler, and non-mythicists like Helmut Koester and Walter Burkett.

You can read more details about the book and its author at the Christos Mosaic website.

The other novel, Mythos Christos by Edwin Herbert, is made up of what some might consider a more colorful (if less plausible) series of adventures than Vincent’s novel, but it does draw the reader into the life of Alexandria of late antiquity. I found those historical scenes recreating the conflicts between traditionalists and the newly emerging Christian forces some of the most memorable.

“Edwin Herbert is a freethought activist and avid writer on secular and non-theist topics, head of a group of writers with a regular newspaper column concerning related subjects which promote science and skepticism. He is also a healthcare provider in southern Wisconsin. Mythos Christos is his debut novel.”

Edwin takes a few liberties with his historical reconstructions but happily for the benefit of the unwary he confesses to these with explanations at the end.

Again, more details about both book and author are posted on the Christos Mythos website.

Some readers will be aware of a Greek mythicist site, ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ ΜΥ0ΙΚΙΣΤΕΣ / GREEK MYTHICISTS. See Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction by Minas Papageorgiou for an earlier post related to this site and a publication they produced that includes a section on yours truly and this blog. That same site is now proudly announcing the first Greek mythicist novel that translates into Paul’s Conspiracy. It is by Alexander Pistofides and is scheduled to be available this month. Hopefully an English version will appear soon.

The following description of the novel is from Minas Papageorgiou: read more »


A Redactional Seam in Mark 8:28?

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by Tim Widowfield

Raphael Keys

Raphael — Handing Over the Keys

In a recent comment, Giuseppe asked about Mark 8:27-30 (the Confession at Caesarea Philippi). At issue is a grammatical error in the text, mentioned in Robert M. Price‘s Holy Fable Volume 2, but first (apparently) noticed by Gerd Theissen in The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition. Both Theissen and Price argue that the error reveals a redactional seam in Mark’s gospel. Beyond that, Giuseppe suggests that the original text beneath or behind the existing text of Mark indicates that Peter confessed that Jesus was the Marcionite Christ, not the Jewish Messiah.

Lost in the weeds

I confess that I ruminated over the text in question for quite some time before I understood exactly what Theissen and Price were getting at. One can easily get lost in the weeds here, so I’ll try to break it down into small steps.

To begin with, we have two passages in Mark in which we find lists of possible identities for Jesus. The first happens when Herod Antipas hears about Jesus and thinks it must be John the Baptist raised from the dead.

14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”

15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”

16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

(Mark 6:14-16, NRSV)

The second happens just before Peter’s confession.

27 And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am?

28 And they answered, John the Baptist; but some say, Elias; and others, One of the prophets.

29 And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ.

30 And he charged them that they should tell no man of him.

(Mark 8:27-30, KJV)

John the Who?

I chose the NRSV for the first passage, because it stays very close to the original Greek, even to the point of “John the baptizer” vs. “John the Baptist.” In 6:14, we find the word βαπτίζων (baptizōn), the present participle. Put simply, the literal text would be something like “John, the Baptizing One.” (Note: this word, used as an appositive after John’s name, is found only in Mark’s gospel. The author of the fourth gospel uses it, but only as a participle describing an activity.)

On the other hand, in 8:28, Mark used a different word: βαπτιστήν (baptistēn), a noun in the accusative case. The NRSV helpfully gives us a verbal cue that something is different here by translating it as “John the Baptist,” which differs from the translation in 6:14. Unfortunately, the NRSV used “who” instead of “whom” in 8:27, so I went with the KJV there instead.

For our purposes here we need to know that at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks a question with an accusative “whom?” — τίνα (tina) — and so the answers need to be in the accusative as well. The point upon which Theissen builds his case will depend our understanding this error. In a stilted, word-for-word translation, we have something like: “Whom do the men pronounce me to be?” The words “whom” and “me” are in the objective (accusative) case; and in proper Greek, the answers should follow suit.

Two lists

The people haven’t figured out who Jesus is. They provide three wrong guesses. We see them listed in 8:28 — read more »


The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (3)

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by Tim Widowfield

In the previous post I promised to discuss a group of scholars who changed the perspective of biblical scholarship. I was referring to those whom we commonly group into the religionsgeschichtliche Schule. In English we call this the History of Religions School. The German term, religionsgeschichtliche, implies a secular, critical-historical approach toward religion. The reputation of the History of Religions School has not fared well over the past few decades.

A withering review

For example, in Ben Witherington’s scathing review of Robert Price’s Jesus Is Dead, he writes:

In any case, one of the things that movies like ‘The God who is not There’ and the Zeitgeist movie, and Robert Price’s book have in common is a reliance on the old, and now long since out-dated and refuted notions of the Religionsgeschichte Schule [sic] when it comes to the issue of Jesus and the origins of Christianity. It seems that my former Gordon-Conwell classmate, Bob Price, and various others as well did not get the memo that these sorts of arguments are inherently flawed, have often been shown to be flawed, and shouldn’t be endlessly recycled if you want to argue cogently that Jesus didn’t exist and/or didn’t rise from the dead.

What is the Religionsgeschichte Schule [sic], and why is this school now closed? The history of religions approach to early Christianity, and to Jesus himself, involved as its most foundational assumption that the origins of what we find in the NT in regard to Jesus, resurrection, etc. come from non-Jewish culture of various sorts, particularly from Greco-Roman culture, but also (as the Zeitgeist movie was to remind us) from Egyptian sources. In short, anything but an origin in early Judaism is favored when it comes to explaining the NT and Jesus. (italic emphasis Ben’s, bold emphasis mine)

Just for the sake of accuracy, Religionsgeschichte is a noun; religionsgeschichtliche is the adjectival form. He got it right in the title, but muffed it four times in the body of the review. Still, you have to hand it to him; he actually mentioned it. These days, you’d hardly know the History of Religions School had ever existed, and most scholars don’t — other than it was “flawed” and “refuted” and “outdated.” Just learning those pejorative modifiers would appear to suffice, or at least to keep you in good standing within the guild.

When is a school not a school?

We may find it somewhat difficult to describe a school whose members often insisted there was no school. In “The Dogmatics of the ‘Religionsgeschichtliche Schule,'” Ernst Troeltsch explained: read more »


Putting 4 sticking points on the historical/mythical Jesus argument into perspective

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by Neil Godfrey

On the AFA forum someone suggested I address the following 5 points often used to argue for Christianity originating with a historical Jesus.

how about addressing the main points of the evidence offered up by the historicists?

1. The Brother of The Lord
2. Born of a woman
3. Born in the line of David
4. Born of the flesh
5. Born as a Jew in Judea

In my previous post I copied my  response to point #1.

That leaves four to go, #2-#5. But they bore me.

The reason debates about them bore me is that they do nothing either for or against the question of whether Jesus was a historical person. Look at them. No-one goes around saying, “Hey, I think you should hear what I’ve got to say about this incredible guy I’ve heard about. He was actually born of a woman, and reckons he can trace his family tree all the way back to Adam. How cool is that! And he was born flesh and blood even. And just to stick it to all you folks who worship Heracles and Asclepius he was a Jew in Palestine. But here’s the thing: he now lives in me and I die daily in him and he’s gonna come and take us all up to the sky very soon now.

Sorry, but that’s not how one normally talks about people — even omitting that last bit about “here’s the thing”.

Those claims, being born of a woman and in the flesh etc, are theological claims. They are made to stress certain theological doctrines. Presumably some rival theologians were saying he was not born flesh and blood. And it was a Jewish theology, so it was important to identify the guy with David and Israel.

Even the crucifixion is only ever mentioned as a theological datum. The crucifixion is only ever introduced to talk about salvation and freedom from the Jewish law. It is always and only ever raised as a theological fact and never addressed as a “historical event” with dates, who, how, why, witnesses, etc. (The only “why” is again theological, not historical: it is to show how much the Jews are all wrong about their religion.)

None of that “proves” the guy was a historical figure. All it proves is that someone had a bunch of theological ideas about a certain figure he only heard about from others and who he claimed “revealed himself” mystically “inside” him.

So that’s why I tend to tune out whenever discussions start up about whether or not any of those four points above (nos. 2 to 5) are “proofs” for the historical Jesus.

Not one of them is a piece of historical evidence a historian can latch on to in order to get some sort of grip on what happened in Palestine around 30 CE.

Paul’s letters are all very fine for gleaning something of the beliefs of some of the early Christians but they are not much use for researching events he never claims to have witnessed and that he never reports on. He even says he has no interest in the “Jesus of the flesh” but is only interested in his “spiritual Jesus”. The only eyewitness reports he passes on are of the resurrection. So that’s not a promising start for the historian. He does say something about a tradition or words he heard but never gives us a clue as to what his sources are — unless it is his own imagination from reading Scripture or hearing/seeing some vision.

How historians (not theologians) work

So how does one go about doing historical research on the life of Jesus?

Why not use the very same methods of research, of analysing sources, as other historians follow? It is a pity that the question of Christian origins has been confined to an academic guild that has only clung on into the modern age by sheer force of tradition. Theology may have been the mainstay of universities in medieval days but we have lost out by leaving the whole business of Christian origins to theologians. We would have been smarter to have removed theological studies exclusively to seminaries and left historical questions to historians.

Historians aren’t perfect and there’s a lot of bad history out there, but at least the bad rubs shoulders with the good and we can compare and learn by comparing the two.

But one essential point historians are taught is to test the authenticity and reliability of their sources. (Pick up manuals for budding historians about to start their doctoral programs to see what I mean.) That means a source — both its origins and what it says — must be corroborated independently in some way.

Really that’s only common sense applied to scholarship. Depending on the degree of importance of knowing the truth of something we make sure we are being told the truth by checking such things as:

  • who is telling us this?
  • how do I know if I can trust them?
  • can their claims be confirmed somehow?
  • how do I know if this document is genuine?
  • etc.

Just to be really sure when people’s lives are at stake we have court systems set up to test claims and evidence, to cross examine them, to try to falsify them, etc.

A famous theologian who rejected the Christ Myth claims of his own day (Albert Schweitzer) nonetheless confessed that proving the historicity of Jesus cannot pass the above “common sense” tests:

read more »


Does “Brother of the Lord” settle the Jesus myth question?

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by Neil Godfrey

On another forum I recently posted a discussion of the passage in Galatians where Paul says he met James, “the brother of the Lord”, setting out why I believe the passage is not necessarily the “slam dunk” that many say it is to prove Jesus was a historical figure. I have other posts on other topics I want to do for Vridar but till I can sort those out I will double up and copy here what I posted on AFA.

Part 1

A passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is often touted as irrefutable proof that Jesus was a historical figure:

1:18 Then, after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days; 19 But I saw no other of the Apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 And the things I write to you— see!— before God, I am not lying.
(Hart’s translation)

All manuscripts of Galatians agree that James is said to be “the Lord’s brother”. No exceptions.

If Paul met James who was recognized as the Lord’s brother then obviously the Lord’s brother was a real person. And for good reason “the Lord” is generally assumed to refer to Jesus.

It is obvious, then, that Jesus existed.

Some have tried to object on the following grounds:

1. Paul often speaks of all Christians as “brothers” and “sisters” so in Galatians 1:19 he is simply singling out James as a Christian for some reason.


2. The Lord more commonly refers to God. Therefore “the brother of the Lord” is really some sort of spiritual title. Even if “Lord” did refer to Jesus the phrase was still a spiritual title that described an inner group of leaders or elites in the assembly.

Therefore, it is argued, Galatians 1:19 does not prove the historicity of Jesus.

Those objections are objected to, however:

1. It makes no sense to call James “the brother of the Lord” if that simply meant to point out he was a Christian like all other “brothers and sisters”. The context alone tells us James was a Christian. But so was Cephas (= Peter) whom Paul also met.

2. There is no evidence that an inner group known as “the brothers of the Lord” existed in the early church or that “brother of the Lord” was used as a title for anyone.

I think those objections are sound. (They are possible, but I think more evidence is needed to establish either one as a completely satisfactory alternative to the mainstream view that the passage is telling us that James was the biological brother of Jesus.)

So, then, we are left with a letter by Paul indicating that one of the three great leaders (Paul says they were reputed to be “pillars”) of the Jerusalem church was named James who was the sibling of Jesus.

But that’s where our problems start. read more »


Sex and Death

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by Neil Godfrey

Well I just had to laugh (I even saw the photographs) . . .

I first heard of the custom when living in Singapore. Strippers hired to perform before an image of the deceased as part of the ceremonies pending the actual cremation. I thought the idea was to give the deceased one last good time. Maybe it’s hard to grasp if we’re not familiar with the Chinese custom in crowded Singapore of setting up a marquee or special area for the coffin of the deceased on the property of the apartments where he or she lived, or nearby, with friends and relatives coming to visit over the days prior to the cremation ceremony. Candles, decorations of models of the things the deceased loved in life (paper cars, boats, money…), other religious paraphernalia all around, and lots of chairs and water bottles for the visitors. There would always be someone there to maintain the vigil, even through the night.

And some (by no means all — unless I was protected by the locals from ever finding out) of these spaces, I learned, even arranged for a private striptease dancer to perform before the picture of a male deceased.

And all of that was before the last day when crowds would assemble, with musicians and dancers, to drive the coffin off in a specially decorated truck leading a street procession to the place of cremation. What a send off.

Well, today I was reminded of all of the above with the following news:

China cracks down on funeral strippers hired to entertain mourners, attract larger crowds

Hired to attract crowds! Now that was different from the Singapore custom, that’s for certain. If I can ever remember where I filed it I will dig out the Singapore newspaper photo of the Chinese dancer there definitely facing and performing for the deceased. But in China the image is definitely indicative of a more general entertainment:

Now that’s definitely not what Singapore Chinese modesty was all about. Unless, as I said, I was protected because I was considered to be just another foreigner who would not understand.

What piqued my more serious interest in the story this time, however, was the suggestion that the ceremony might be traced back to “fertility worship”. One last ditch effort to ensure the deceased would still be able to, well… I’m not quite sure what. Anthropologists would be able to explain it, no doubt.

And given the eclectic interests of Vridar, I am further reminded of the Gospel of John. See Novelistic plot and motifs in the Gospel of John where I look at an article by Jo-Ann Brant discussing the way that gospel plays with the idea of a marriage anticipated by Jesus really being his death.

It all seems rather appropriate, I supposed, given that what made death possible (as opposed to evolving like ever dividing cells that go on forever and never die) was sex. Perhaps the story of Adam and Eve and their Fall is all about the way cell death evolved to remove and discard the less good bits from the mix.




The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (2)

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by Tim Widowfield

In the first part of this post, we examined some instances of New Testament scholars employing historical criteria before the advent of Formgeschichte, demonstrating that these criteria and methods did not differ significantly from what we would later call criteria of authenticity. In this post, we’ll look more closely at the ways source critics argued for the “genuineness” of passages, insisting that some terms, concepts, and sayings in the NT “must have” come from the historical Jesus himself.

Christ before the High Priest — Gerrit van Honthorst

Big Questions

Historical Jesus studies, like many historical endeavors, has several “big questions.” For example, Did Jesus think he was the messiah? Even the painfully pious Anglo-American scholars of the early twentieth century, who took as much as possible in the NT to be true, asked such questions. Granted, in most cases German (or perhaps Dutch or French) scholars spurred them to write what were essentially apologetic rebuttals; nevertheless, they dared to ask the questions.

Regarding the question: Did Jesus use the term “Son of Man”? Julius Wellhausen in Das Evangelium Marci, had said, “Er ist gleichzeitig mit der Erwartung der Parusie Jesu entstanden.” (It emerged simultaneously with the expectation of the parousia of Jesus.) In other words, only later in the church did the belief arise that Jesus must have foreseen his suffering and death, and that he predicted his return when he will “appear in the clouds of heaven.” (Wellhausen 1903, pp. 65-69)

But Willoughby Charles Allen disagreed.

Wellhausen, for example, argues . . . [The Church] put into His mouth the words, “The Man of whom Daniel spoke will appear in the clouds of the heaven.” This was soon interpreted as equivalent to “I will return.” The next stage was to make the Son of Man the subject in the prophecies of death and resurrection where it becomes necessarily a designation of Christ Himself. Finally, the phrase was introduced into non-eschatological sayings, where it becomes equivalent simply to “I.”

Now Wellhausen is a brilliant philologist, but he is often a very bad interpreter, and his exposition of the development of this phrase in the Church is contrary to all the evidence. (Allen 1911, p. 309)

In a footnote, Allen said he was happy to discover Adolf von Harnack believed the phrase was genuine and that its use by Jesus himself was a secure fact. We may note here that, despite what some Memory Mavens suggest, discussions about which traditions were authentic and which were apocryphal or secondary did not start with the form critics.

How should we evaluate the evidence in the New Testament to determine whether Jesus used the term Son of Man? And if we decide that he did, how do we know what he meant by it? Simply by asking these questions, we have admitted that what Jesus actually said and what the gospels have recorded might not be the same.

What we’re looking for, then, is the truth behind the text. read more »