The Assyrian genocide in Iraq

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by Neil Godfrey

The Assyrian Christian population of the Middle East – Antiochian, Catholic and Orthodox – is now a fraction of what it once was, and the story of the genocide practised upon them remains largely untold. — blurb from repeat broadcast on Australia’s ABC Radio National’s Religion Report

Check the link to the podcast and / or the transcript now available.

Also check April DeConick’s Forbidden Gospels blog. I know April has taken a special interest in the fate of the Assyrians and posted more extensively on their plight.

I posted an alert to this same broadcast when first aired back in May last year, along with a fuller treatment of the meaning of the word genocide. The same program at that time discussed Christian minorities more generally throughout the Middle East, also linked on that earlier post. The podcast for this other interview is no longer available but the transcript is. For the earlier program and the additional discussion and links to Christian minorities in the Mid East see the post titled Unknown Genocide and Christians in Iraq.

Did Marcion mutilate the Gospel of Luke?

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by Neil Godfrey

This was the claim of Irenaeus, Tertullian and Epiphanaeus.

Besides this, he mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord, in which the Lord is recorded as most dearly confessing that the Maker of this universe is His Father. Irenaeus AH 1:27.2

Now, of the authors whom we possess, Marcion seems to have singled out Luke for his mutilating process. Tetullian, AM 4:2

But these claims are questionable when we think about the times in which they were recorded. Irenaeus was writing in the late second century, Tertullian in the early third, and Epiphanaeus much later still. “The ecclesiastical situation for all these writers was very different from that in Marcion’s time.” (Tyson, p.39 — This blog post is mostly derived from Tyson’s book)

Contrast the date of Marcion, especially as revised by Hoffmann to the early part of the second century: — See previous posts beginning with Dating Marcion Early (2). (This revised earlier date for Marcion is based primarily on a rejection of the the ideologically tendentious date assigned by Irenaeus and an assigning greater weight to the contrasting contemporaneous observations of Justin Martyr.)

Irenaeus saw the need for authority to redress the “riotous diversity” that characterized Christianity till his time. That meant an authoritative canon and a clear genealogy of bishops from the apostles to his own day. And that canon of four gospels had to be four because the world — throughout which the church was scattered — had four corners and four winds. (Irenaeus AH 3:11.8)

Tyson refers to Bauer’s conclusion:

Walter Bauer has convincingly shown that the early part of the second century was a time of great diversity in terms of Christian thought and practice. He observed that heterodoxy probably preceded orthodoxy in many locations and that, particularly in the East, Marcionism, or something closely resembling it, was the original form of Christianity. (Tyson, p.39)

Bauer’s work is online. Tyson refers particularly to his discussion from p.194, his chapter 8. To cite one section from Bauer’s chapter 8:

One final point. The reckless speed with which, from the very beginning, the doctrine and ideology of Marcion spread can only be explained if it had found the ground already prepared. Apparently a great number of the baptized, especially in the East, inclined toward this view of Christianity and joined Marcion without hesitation as soon as he appeared, finding in him the classic embodiment of their own belief. What had dwelt in their inner consciousness in a more or less undefined form until then, acquired through Marcion the definite form that satisfied head and heart. No one can call that a falling away from orthodoxy to heresy.

Tyson discusses the implausibility of Marcion, living at a time when there was no gospel canon as called for by Irenaeus, being faced with an authoritative list of 4 gospels, selecting one of those four, excising large chunks from it, and then elevating it to a level above the others, “in full consciousness of having chosen a practice opposed to the worldwide church”. Such a notion is what Irenaeus suggests, but it is anachronistic.

If the scenario of Marcion knowingly mutilating one of the gospels upheld by his peers to be of the sacred four is implausible, what did Marcion do?

If he did select a gospel from among many known to him, then we must think of unstable texts with various editions, certainly not formal or even quasi-canonical collections.

It may be objected that Marcion would naturally select the text written by the companion of Paul, Luke. However, there is no evidence that the gospels were assigned author names until the time of Irenaeus. The first evidence we have that a gospel was authored by Luke, a companion of Paul, is from Irenaeus. (In a future post I hope to discuss Hoffmann’s suggestion for how Luke came to be assigned the authorship of the gospel and Acts.)

Tyson asserts the most likely scenario is that Marcion worked with a gospel that was originally a text known to his locality (the Pontus).

The evidence for local texts at this time is strong, and the use of one gospel in a specific church is manifest. (Tyson, p.40)

Tyson’s footnoted support for this assertion:

B. H. Streeter, “The Four Gospel: A Study of Origins” (1924), 27-50.

Harnack, “Marcion: The Gospel” (1921), 29. Harnack accepted the idea that Marcion did use the Gospel of Luke, but believed that this gospel may have been the only one known in the Pontus region.

Yet clearly there was significant overlap between Marcion’s gospel and the canonical Luke. For this reason the opponents of Marcion, writing from a very different time and context, accused him of mutilating the canonical gospel.

A follow-up post will outline what Marcion’s gospel must have looked like, with an evaluation of Harnack’s reconstruction of Marcion’s text.


Literal and allegorical Scriptures in Orthodoxy and Heresy

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by Neil Godfrey

Marcion’s “heresy” was justifiably seen as the main threat to Christian “proto-orthodoxy” in the second century, but I suspect the reason had less to do with his doctrine of two gods and some form of docetism and more to do with what might have been branded his “Jewish error”.

That will sound like nonsense to many who think of Marcion as being opposed to the Jewish scriptures and the god of creation. (Marcion claimed that there was a higher god than the god revealed in the Pentateuch, an Unknown or Alien God, a god of love who sent Jesus to reveal his existence and offer of forgiveness and salvation for Jews and all humanity.)

Marcion certainly was known for his rejection of the Jewish scriptures as a guide to salvation. Irenaeus and Tertullian were among the first to attack him for rejecting the idea that our Old Testament contained any sort of salvific value or prophecies of the Saviour Jesus. Marcion was definitely not one of those who expected Christians to follow Jewish customs. But his “Jewish error” was nonetheless “real” and probably far more threatening to the foundation of “orthodox” Christian beliefs.

Marcion read the Jewish scriptures the way many orthodox Jews did — literally. In modern parlance some might say he took them “seriously”.

According to Tertullian, Marcion accepted that the Christ of the Jews would:

  1. be known as Emmanuel (AM 3.12.1; Isa. 7:14)
  2. take up the strength of Damascus and the spoils of Samaria against the king of Assyria (AM 3.13.1)
  3. be by nature the son and spirit of the Creator (AM 3.6.8)

Jewish scriptures could be read to hold out a hope for a conquering and liberating Messiah for the Jews. Marcion accepted this reading as the literal and truly intended meaning. Marcion taught that the Creator god (a subordinate god to the higher god of love, the ‘unknown’ and ‘alien’ god who sent Jesus) in a moment of compassion for the Jews promised them a future all-conquering redeemer king and saviour. He did not deny this prophecy found in the Jewish scriptures. But he had no choice but to concede that its fulfilment was still in the unknown future. In other words, Marcion did not deny the Jewish scriptures and their prophecies. He upheld them but did not apply them to Christians.

Marcion read the Jewish scriptures as literally as any “Judaizing-Christian” who insisted on circumcision as much as baptism for new believers. The only difference was that Marcion did not believe the injunctions of the Jewish scriptures should be applied to Christians. Christians should believe the Jewish scriptures were the product of the Creator God and accept them at face value for what they said. But salvation was the gift of the hitherto unknown God who sent his son Jesus to reveal his existence and die for the salvation of all humanity.

According to Marcion and his followers, the original disciples of Jesus failed to grasp Jesus’ revelatory message of the higher god and of his (Jesus’) true provenance, and continued to hope for a “second coming” of their Savior to judge and destroy the evil powers oppressing the Jews.

According to Marcion, there was no Jewish prophecy that the Messiah would suffer and die on the cross. (Tertullian’s AM 3.18.1f; cf. ad Nat. 1.12; Justin’s Trypho 91, 94, 112)

According to Marcion the Jews had every right to expect a future Messiah who would be sent by the Creator God to restore and save the Jewish nation. That was what their Creator God promised them. Marcion had no dispute with that belief and or its teaching as found within the Jewish scriptures. Marcion’s “problem” was that the Jews failed to recognize the Messiah sent from a god higher than the creator god, that is the Messiah he believed was preached by the apostle Paul.

But in fact the failure of the Jews to recognize their saviour was truly far less of a problem for Marcion than for the likes of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian or any other “proto-orthodox” teachers. For Marcion, the Jews who crucified Jesus truly were ignorant of his provenance and identity. They had no knowledge at all of any god higher than their Creator God. According to Marcion’s belief system, the Jews could by no means be held accountable for “despising the Word of God” or “rejecting his Spirit”. They were truly ignorant and thus not accountable of anything so condign. It was “proto-orthodox” belief, as represented by the likes of Irenaeus and Tertullian, who held the Jews reprehensibly and culpably responsible for knowingly rejecting their Saviour. Marcion, backed by his god of love, was much more merciful.

If anyone was to blame it was the god of the Jews, the Creator God, who kept them blinded from, in ignorance of, the higher god. (AM 3.6.8, 9; cf. 1 Cor. 2:8) The Jews were, Marcion conceded, only trying to obey their god according to his and their lights. (AM 3.6.8; 2.28.3; Haer. 4.29.1)

According to the merciful doctrine of Marcion, “Christ comes not to his own, but for the sake of all nations (AM 4.6.3); he comes to the Jews as a stranger (AM 3.6.2) because they have suffered the most under the ‘Creator’s terrible threatenings’ (AM 2.13.3). Had they known that he came from a God of mercy and in order to free them from the law, they would have spared him (1 Cor 2:8).” — Hoffmann, pp.228-229.

Marcion’s threat to orthodoxy:

Marcion’s brand of Christianity was certainly dominant throughout Asia Minor in the early and mid second century, and possibly beyond that area. His threat to what was to become “orthodoxy” was couched in his literal (serious?) reading of the Jewish Scriptures. He read them literally, not allegorically.

As early as the Gospel of Matthew Christian readers of the Bible learn that the Christian dispensation is meant to read the “Old Testament” allegorically.

Justin Martyr, ‘Barnabas’ and the author(s) of Luke-Acts and the Pastoral epistles clearly all agree that the Jewish scriptures must be interpreted “allegorically” or typologically to divine the Truth. Any other (literal) reading is blindness. (Barnabas 1:7; 4:7; 7:1; Justin, Trypho, 7, 11, 12, 44, etc.; 1 Tim 1:7; 3:8a, 16 a; Titus 1:10b, 14, 3.9b)

“Proto-orthodoxy” needed roots. Antiquity was vital for respectability. By embracing the very ancient Jewish scriptures, and then further adopting Philo’s and other allegorical methods of interpreting them — so that a literal Israel could be turned in to an allegorized and “prophesied” Christ — those Christians on the side of Irenaeus and Tertullian had grounds for promoting the “depth” and “truth” of their faith.

What Marcion threatened was to position Jewish scriptures back where they originated — with Jewish literalism. This was far more dangerous than any effort in the past to have male Christians circumcised. Marcion challenged the very foundation of “orthodoxy” — that is, an allegorical reading of Jewish scriptures. (See Siker.)

Ironically(?) even today fundamentalists insist on a literal interpretation of their New Testament and cherry-picked parts of the Old (e.g. Genesis 1) but will settle for nothing less than an allegorical treatment of prophecies that they believe verify the Messiah identity of the Jesus sent by the “Creator” deity.


Making judgments about hypotheses

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by Neil Godfrey

What makes an historical or scientific explanation a good or bad one? I’m thinking in particular here of the various hypotheses applied to biblical studies and early Christian history.

  • Of course there are many competing hypotheses about the origins of Christianity, the nature of Jesus, and how biblical texts should be read and understood. (See for starters Peter Kirby’s Historical Jesus Theories page.)
  • If my blog stats are any guide, Bauckham’s hypothesis that the gospel authors drew on eyewitness reports to compile the gospels still holds strong ongoing interest.
  • It has been a long time since I have bothered to visit fundamentalist blogs whose authors seem unable to refrain from insulting and talking down to those who dare question their hypothesis that the Bible is the word of God and as such cannot contradict itself or be falsified in any way.

David Lewis-Williams has set out a very convenient list of criteria for making judgments between hypotheses in The Mind in the Cave. He is directly interested in evaluating explanations for Upper Paleolithic cave art, but in the course of this discussion he discusses scientific hypotheses at the theoretical level and draws on specific examples from both the physical, life and social sciences.

Of course there are many discussions about what makes a good scientific hypothesis but I am referencing this summary by Lewis-Williams here for convenience. I happen to be reading his The Mind in the Cave at the moment and so his discussion falls easily at hand.

I have broken the quote (indented and in bold type) from Lewis-Williams (pp 48-49) below with a few comments that relate to certain hypotheses in the area of biblical studies: Continue reading “Making judgments about hypotheses”


Dating Marcion early (2)

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by Neil Godfrey

Following from previous post re Hoffmann’s arguments for an early date for Marcion:

Marcion is generally said to have launched his heresy from the mid-second century — that is, long after the completion of our New Testament writings. Some of the Pastoral epistles are said to have been completed as late as the early second century. Some arguments exist that Acts itself, and even possibly some of the gospels, were also completed after the first century.

Hoffmann challenges this late date, and Tyson picks up Hoffmann’s arguments. Tyson in fact argues that Marcion was influential, if not always directly, in the shaping of what became our canonical Gospel of Luke as well as the book of The Acts of the Apostles.

It is not difficult to challenge the generally assumed (late) dates for Marcion. They are based on a face-value reading of Irenaeus (ca 180 c.e.) in particular. Yet the earlier author, Justin Martyr (ca. 150 c.e.) gives a very different account of the time of Marcion’s activity. Continue reading “Dating Marcion early (2)”


Tradition and Invention: & the date of Marcion

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by Neil Godfrey

The “heretic” Marcion is a significant figure in the history of early Christianity but the sources for our dates for his activity are contradictory. It is quite possible that if we attempt to understand the reasons for these contradictions in the sources we will see that Marcion’s influence on our canonical New Testament texts as far more influential than it is generally portrayed today in histories of early Christianity. (For more background on Marcion see the Center for Marcionite Research and at Early Christian Writings.)

One recent fresh look at the date — and influence on the New Testament writings — of Marcion is found in Tyson‘s Marcion and Luke-Acts. (See the tag tyson-marcion-luke-acts/). Tyson argues that Acts was composed in the second century as a response to Marcionite Christianity, which was possibly the largest brand of Christianity at the time and which claimed Paul as its sole apostle.

The ideological bias for dating Marcion late

Part of Tyson’s argument is the possibility that Marcion himself began his work considerably earlier than is often assumed. The generally accepted dates for Marcion are based on a face-value reading of Church Fathers’ polemics against his doctrines. Tyson and others remind us that these authors had an ideological reason for placing Marcion as late as possible: their theological constructs dictated that Christianity heresy infected Christianity late, sometimes as late as 117 c.e. (the accession of emperor Hadrian). The idea was to keep false teaching far removed from what they believed was the “original purity” of the Church and the time of the twelve apostles.

Hoffman’s reasons for dating Marcion earlier

Tyson draws in part on R. Joseph Hoffmann’s argument in his discussion of the possibility of a much earlier date for Marcion.

Following is a dot-point outline from R. Joseph Hoffman’s Marcion, on the restitution of Christianity. It’s all from Hoffmann’s second chapter and my numbering matches the original chapter sections.

Continue reading “Tradition and Invention: & the date of Marcion”


Richard Bauckham’s “holy” awe of Auschwitz revisited (Niall Ferguson’s War of the World)

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by Neil Godfrey

Having just completed Niall Ferguson’s “The War of the World“.

Nial Ferguson’s explores the ethnic conflicts that he argues have been spawned by economic instability and imperial disintegration, beginning with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 right through World Wars 1 and 2 and their aftermaths up to the closing years of the twentieth century. It is depressing reading. I was reminded of reports not long ago that Iris Chang committed suicide partly as a result of the personal depression she suffered as a result of her meticulous research into the Nanking Massacre.

Also could not help but be reminded as I read of Richard Bauckham’s obscene use of the Holocaust to argue for a unique historical place for both the place of the Jews in human history and the miracles of Jesus.

Has there been outrage among academic circles over Bauckham’s claim that Auschwitz was such a “uniquely unique” horror that to acknowledge it as such is to logically admit the possibility of its polar opposite, a “uniquely unique” wonder of the miracles of Jesus?

Bauckham’s claim is testimony to the power of religious faith to suppress and distort normal human perception, comprehension, compassion and one’s sense of common human identity with both perpetrators and victims. That sort of suppression and distortion of our makeup is what makes killing and abuse without qualm possible in the first place.

Of the Holocaust and Auschwitz, Ferguson writes:

Himmler himself did not much relish the sight of the one mass execution he witnessed, at Minsk in August 1941. . . . . [Eichmann was asked about the possibility of using a “quick acting agent” as a “most humane solution to dispose of the Jews”] . . . .

It is its efficiency that makes Auschwitz so uniquely hateful . . . .

Though it was the most efficient, Auschwitz was not necessarily the cruellest of the Nazi death camps . . . . [at Auschwitz the gas used killed most victims in 5 to 10 minutes, compared with the use of diesel fumes elsewhere that required half an hour to kill] . . . .

Gassing victims was pioneered by the Nazis in their disposal of the mentally ill. It was only later applied to the Jews. But the point is that Ferguson documents enough other cases of horrendous mass killings by “less efficient” and more primitive means. Many were committed on horrendous scale in the Ukraine, largely against Poles there. . . . cats sewn into the abdomens of eviscerated pregnant women, “mixed Polish-Ukrainian” victims being sawn in half, fathers feeling compelled to murder their own sons in order to prevent them from murdering their own mothers under life-threatening pressure, infants being smashed or burned before the eyes of their mothers before they were raped and dismembered, both before the eyes of the fathers and husbands before they were brutally murdered.

Niall Ferguson’s book is long enough to be inevitably faulted at points and debated at several levels, but one humane service it does accomplish is to place twentieth century violence within the broader context of our collective humanity. The Holocaust was but one of a host of genocides and ethnic cleansings perpetrated in the twentieth century, and it was by no means “more” horrifying than many many others. To speak of it as “uniquely unique” is, at best, to speak in ignorance of history.

Some online reviews of The War of the World:

Guardian Unlimited (Tristram Hunt)

California Literary Review (David Loftus)

Washington Post (James F. Hoge Jr)