for the sake of peace, think of ourselves as animals

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by Neil Godfrey

Australian Customs ship, Oceanic Viking, has just returned with film footage of recent Japanese whaling for government ministers to study.

Campaigners against cruelty to animals know how to get their message across. Graphic footage works. It is even said to have helped turn public support against the Vietnam war.  Nothing worse than eating dinner and being confronted with footage of clubbing seals that look so damnably cute, mulesing sheep which still have that damnable iconic image of innocence, spearing and shooting whales until they eventually stop struggling against their fate, screaming naked children fleeing napalmed villages.

I can’t quite fathom the ethics that prohibit the publication of graphic pictures of humans being dismembered at times when governments call on publics to back their next war.

Why don’t we campaign for community standards that will favour the contempt of media for failing to show — “show”, that is, graphically — both sides of a story?

Anti-war campaigns rightly need to be salted with comedy, funny masks and silly costumes. But we anti-war campaigners could also take a leaf from the campaigners against cruelty to animals. Sure it upsets people. But that’s good. It should.


“They pierced my hands and my feet”: Psalm 22 as a non-prophecy of the crucifixion

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by Neil Godfrey

It is an axiom among fundamentalists and even many mainstream conservative Christians that Psalm 22 contains an incontrovertible prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus, and that the key verse establishing this “fact” is the one that reads: “They pierced my hands and my feet” — Psalm 22:16

There is no doubt that two of the gospel authors took the first verse of this Psalm — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — and placed it in the mouth of Jesus on the cross. All four gospels used the 18th verse too, which says, “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” And one drew on the mocking: “All those who see me laugh me to scorn . . . saying, He trusted in the Lord, let him rescue him, let him deliver him, since he delights in him!” (22:7-8 )

All of these verses are found in the gospels as part of the crucifixion scene:

And when they crucified him, they divided his garments, casting lots for them . . . . (Mark 15:24; Matt 27:35; Luke 23:34; John 19:24)

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “. . . . My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46)

Likewise the chief priests, also mocking with the scribes and elders, said . . . . “He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he will have him, . . . .” (Matt. 27:41-43)

Is it not strange that the verse in that same Psalm that says “they pierced my hands and my feet” should not be used at all in any of the gospels? This verse, after all, is the one singular verse that would establish that it is speaking, at the very least metaphorically, of a crucifixion. Yet it is totally absent from the gospels. There is not even any narrative detail that makes special mention of nails going through the hands and feet of Jesus at the time he is being crucified. (The closest any gospel comes to this is at the time of the resurrection when Thomas refers to nail-prints in Jesus’ hands. But there is no whiff of allusion to the Psalm.)

The rest of Psalm 22

But one might as well ask, Is it not strange that the Psalm spoke of hands and feet being pierced (presumably a crucifixion image) at all? Such a verse does not sit well at all with the rest of the Psalm. The psalmist begins with a cry to God and a complaint that he has been uttering that cry for days and nights without an answer:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? . . . . I cry in the daytime, but you do not hear; And in the night season, and am not silent. (22:1-2)

Jesus was not on the cross for days and nights, and the Gospel of Luke informs us that God certainly heard the prayer Jesus uttered the previous night. He sent an angel to help bolster his courage. Yet this Psalm opens with a cry that is the desperation felt from having no answer for, at the very least, a whole day and night.

This cannot be reconciled with the crucifixion scene of the gospels.

Then there is the verse that says the Psalmist was attached to God from the time of his birth.

From my mother’s womb you have been my God (22:10)

That surely must raise some eyebrows among those who believe that Jesus was, and knew he was, part of the Godhead from eternity. But it gets worse for those who assume this Psalm is depicting a man on a cross:

Be not far from me, for trouble is near . . . (22:11)

Um, yes. A person nailed to a wooden stake to die a slow agonizing death cries out, “I see trouble up ahead”?? Now that is an optimist. Always thinking that no matter how bad the present situation it could always be worse. “Please God, I can handle you deserting me at this moment, but I do hope you hurry up and come to help me when I’m in real trouble!”

Then there is that strange plea to be saved from the sword!

Deliver me from the sword . . . (22:20)

Always worth remembering to ask God to deliver you from a sword when he lets you experience the niggling inconvenience of being crucified.

So the broader context of the Psalm speaks against it being a foretelling of a crucifixion.

But there is metaphoric imagery throughout that also needs to be appreciated to understand it fully. Wild animal imagery dominates.

Many bulls have surrounded me;

Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me.

They gape at me with their mouths,

As a raging and roaring lion.

For dogs have surrounded me

Deliver . . . my precious life from the power of the dog.

Save me from the lion’s mouth

And from the horns of the wild oxen!

It is not surprising therefore to find that the Hebrew Bible contains a passage with the same wild lion imagery that happens to be missing from a Greek text of this Psalm that was preserved and copied by a later generation of Christians:

Like a lion they are at my hands and my feet

In place of this Hebrew verse the Greek translation of this Psalm (which has been the work of Christian, not Hebrew, scribes) reads: “They pierced my hands and my feet”. “Pierce” has replaced “Like a lion”.

“like a lion” or “pierced”?

How could that have happened? A Rabbi Singer on the Outreach Judaism site writes:

The word kaari, however, does not mean “pierced,” it means “like a lion.” The end of Psalm 22:17, therefore, properly reads “like a lion they are at my hands and my feet.” Had King David wished to write the word “pierced,” he would never use the Hebrew word kaari. Instead, he would have written either daqar or ratza, which are common Hebrew words in the Jewish scriptures. . . .

Bear in mind, this stunning mistranslation in the 22nd Psalm did not occur because Christian translators were unaware of the correct meaning of this Hebrew word. Clearly, this was not the case. The word kaari can be found in a number of other places in the Jewish scriptures. Yet predictably, the same Christian translators who rendered kaari as “pierced” in Psalm 22 correctly translated it “like a lion” in all other places in the Hebrew Bible where this word appears.

For example, the word kaari is also found in Isaiah 38:13. In the immediate context of this verse Hezekiah, the king of Judah, is singing a song for deliverance from his grave illness. In the midst of his supplication he exclaims in Hebrew. . . . . [Hebrew text missing here]

Notice that the last word in this phrase (moving from right to left) is the same Hebrew word kaari that appears in Psalm 22:17. In this Isaiah text, the King James Version correctly translates these words “I reckoned till morning that, as a lion . . . .” As I mentioned above, Psalm 22:17 is the only place in all of the Jewish scriptures that any Christian Bible translates kaari as “pierced.”

Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures

Among those who know a little of the Greek Old Testament known as the Septuagint such an explanation seems problematic. Did not the Jews themselves translate their Hebrew scriptures into Greek long before the Christian era? Yes they did, but according to legend gleaned from the letter of Aristeas and the preface of Josephus to his Antiquities, only the Torah, the Pentateuch, that is, the first five books of Moses. Singer in the same article referenced above also cites the Talmud, Jerome and the 12th book of Antiquities.

The broader context of the setting of the Psalm as discussed above is strong evidence in support of this. A verse speaking of a literally crucified Psalmist simply would not make any sense in the context of the other verses.

The first appearance of “they pierced my hands and feet”

Christians first began to use this Greek translation after our gospels were written. Justin Martyr refers to this passage (they pierced my hands and feet) in his Dialogue of Trypho, paras 97 and 104. The Gospel of Peter likewise appears to know of it. At least it says explicitly narrates a scene where nails are being pulled from Jesus’ hands. (It is possible, of course, that this is taken from the allusion to the nail prints in the hands of Jesus in the Gospel of John — which also may have been written much later than the other gospels.) Whatever the case with this gospel, it is clear that the earliest indisputable knowledge of this Greek text of Psalm 22:16 is from the mid-second century with Justin Martyr.

It appears that some time between the time the canonical gospels were written and the time of Justin Martyr, this famous “prophetic” verse was introduced in a Greek translation of the Psalms by Christian scribes.


The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 6 – capacity for humility and trust

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Leaving the Fold Marlene Winell’s encouraging list of some of the good one can take away from the fundamentalist or cultic experience, mingled with my own thoughts . . . . (See also her newly established Recovery from Religion website.) — earlier posts under the Winell and Fundamentalism categories linked here.

Fundamentalists and cultists generally reject certain aspects of mainstream society that are to their benefit. “[A] sense of exaggerated self-importance and responsibility is the result of the value our society places on achievement, self-determination, and power. As a result, most people experience some amount of ongoing anxiety.” (p.108 )

With the old dysfunctional belief system the down side was that one would not care enough about the larger material needs of family and self, or trust too much to the care of God or even do damage one’s prospects and needs by giving too much away or assuming that there would be no tomorrow but God’s kingdom. Jobs, family, personal development and interests and more often suffered. Normal responsibilities were too often “sacrificed” by irresponsibility under the rationale of “trusting God”. But there is a good legacy to be salvaged from that. Those of us who have been through that at least know how to accept the things we can’t control in life, and to face situations with a calm and relaxed outlook. That even means accepting our own shortcomings from time to time without overly self-absorbed self-doubts and hates. As often as not this is also the way to finding what we really would like and need in life anyway.

This is the “let it be” legacy that some lucky ones find without having to experience the extremes of fundamentalism.

Recently I heard a most entertaining radio interview with Nigel Latta, a clinical psychologist who has recently authored Before Your Kids Drive You Crazy, Read This! Battlefield Wisdom for Stressed-Out Parents. I know I would have saved myself, and my kids, some good measures of stress along the way had I been open to Nigel’s wit and wisdom when a new parent. Check out the interview here. One part of his message is that parents need to accept what kids will do no matter what.

Acceptance born of understanding of self and our limitations is not a bad way to go.


“Heaven above and Hell below” : a cosmos in the brain and genesis of religion?

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by Neil Godfrey

Heaven above, Hell below, and the level of anxious humanity in between appear in one form or another across the globe. Why should this be so? In the materiality of daily life there is, after all, no evidence whatsoever of hidden spiritual realms above and below. (David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave, p.144)

David Lewis-Williams, in his pioneering The Mind in the Cave, argues that the universally held beliefs of a three-tiered cosmos, with spirit worlds above and below the here and now of daily life, are best explained by the wiring of the human brain, in altered states of consciousness, to generate the experience such a cosmos.

Laboratory experiments and reports from “an extremely broad range of shamanistic (and other) societies” point to this near universal concept originating in certain experiences of an altered state of consciousness.

The ubiquity of institutionalized altered states of consciousness is borne out by a survey of 488 societies included in Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas. Erika Bourguignon, who carried out this survey, found that an overwhelming 437, or 90 per cent, of these societies were reported to have ‘culturally pat­terned forms of altered states of consciousness’. She concluded that ‘the capacity [necessity] to experience altered states of consciousness is a psychobiological capacity [necessity] of the species, and thus universal, its utilization, institutionalization, and patterning are, indeed, features of cultures, and thus variable.’ (p.131)

Lewis-Williams adds that the Ethnographic Atlas defined altered states of consciousness too narrowly so that sub-Saharan African societies were excluded from being counted among those who recognized the importance of altered states. The difference is that they do not create the same overt institutionalization around them as other cultures.

It seems, then, that Bourguignon’s ‘capacity’ should be changed to ‘necessity’, if the full range of altered states is recognized and the ways in which they may be institutionalized are seen as highly variable. (p.131)

Cultural bias against these altered states has led to an undervaluing in scientific studies of their significance as a valid experience of being human. These experiences of a state of consciousness frowned upon by modern western institutions have nonetheless formed a fully valid and important role in the institutions, beliefs and ways of living in other societies.

Altered states of consciousness — the genesis of religion?

Lewis-Williams: “I am not alone in emphasizing the importance of making sense of altered states of consciousness in the genesis of religion.”

Peter Furst: “It is at least possible, though certainly not provable, that the practice of shamanism . . . may have involved from the first — that is, the very beginnings of religion itself — the psychedelic potential of the natural environment.”

James McClenon: “Shamanism, the result of cultural adaptation to biologically based [altered states of consciousness], is the origin of all later religious forms.”

Weston La Barre: “All the dissociative ‘altered states of consciousness’ — hallucination, trance, possession, vision, sensory deprivation, and especially the REM-state dream — apart from their cultural contexts and symbolic content, are essentially the same psychic states found everywhere among mankind; . . . shamanism or direct contact with the supernatural in these states . . . is the de facto source of all revelation, and ultimately of all religions.”

(All cited from The Mind in the Cave, p.135)

The spectrum of consciousness

The normal trajectory from Alert to Autistic states of consciousness, although like the light spectrum there is no clear dividing moment between any of the stages:

  1. Waking, problem-oriented thought
  2. Daydreaming
  3. Hypnagogic states
  4. Dreaming
  5. Unconsciousness

But there’s another far more intensified spectrum that leads to hallucinations. This one can be induced by sensory deprivation that leads to the compensatory release of internal imagery, certain psychopathological states and drugs.

  • meditation techniques shutting out of the environment
  • audio-diving with prolonged drumming
  • sustained rhythmic dancing
  • fatigue
  • pain
  • fasting
  • psychotropic substances
  • schizophrenia
  • temporal lobe epilepsy

The intensified trajectory that results:

1. Waking, problem-oriented thought
2. Daydreaming
3. Entoptic phenomena (see entoptic images here and also a pdf view of normal and pathological images)
4. Construal (brain attempts to decode these entoptic images by fitting them into its store of recognized images (e.g. a circle becomes an orange to one who is hungry, a breast to one sexually aroused, cup of water to one thirsty, or a bomb to one who is fearful)

between #4 and #5 there may be the experience of a swirling vortex or rotating tunnel drawing the person down into it; its walls are marked by a lattice of squares like tv screens displaying spontaneous hallucinatory images; sometimes a bright light in the centre creates this tunnel effect, with images moving into and/or away from the centre

5. Hallucinations (in any of the 5 senses) — i.e. “altered states of consciousness”

The imagery of the tunnel (between #4 and #5) is also a western construct. It can be similarly called a funnel, an alley, a cone, a corridor, a pit. In other cultures it is often seen as a hole in the ground; or as a falling through a tube; gliding down through the sea; following roots of a tree down into the ground . . .

The imagery the hallucinations #5 are largely derived from memory and hence vary across cultures. An Inuit will see talking seals or bears; Hildegard of Bingen saw angels and strange creatures from scriptures, medieval wall paintings and illuminations. They are vivid. Not described as being “like” something, but as the real things themselves. Sometimes entoptic phenomena remain as part of the image, as geometric patterns behind or framing the images, or blending with them (e.g. a man with zig-zag legs). The hallucinator blends with the geometric and iconic imagery, sensing him or herself changing into an animal and other transformations.

The spectrum of consciousness is ‘wired’, but its content is mostly cultural. (p.126)


Characteristics of hunter-gatherer shamanism:

  • it deploys a range of institutionalized altered states of consciousness
  • the visual, aural and somatic experiences of those altered states lead to perception of a tiered alternative reality (spirit realms above and below)
  • the shamans are believed to have the powers to access this alternative reality
  • the human nervous system in certain altered states creates the illusion of dissociation from one’s body (sometimes understood as posses­sion by spirits)

These altered states are “used” for the purposes of:

  • contacting spirits
  • healing the sick
  • controlling the movements and lives of animals
  • changing the weather

Spirit helpers assist the shamans to enter their altered states and perform the above duties. These helpers include:

  • various supernatural powers
  • animal-helpers and other spirits

Altered states of consciousness are not restricted to one form of trance. Some “contact the spirits” in visions and out-of-body travel in a number of states, ranging from “light trance” in which the shamans are aware of their surroundings (healing the sick, divination, etc); in ordinary dreams; and “deep trance” where they appear to lie dead while their souls travel elsewhere. Some societies place great importance on the entoptic imagery; others on the full hallucinations where contact is made with the figures they know from myths.

I’m not saying Jesus was a shaman, but that is how he appears in the gospels. Some scholars have suggested that. With those in mind it is interesting to note that Jesus is said to have spoken to spirits, healed the sick, kept wild animals at bay while in the wilderness and sent 2000 pigs hurtling into a lake, and stilled a storm and darkened the earth at his death. He began his career with the power of the spirit entering into or upon him in the form of a dove.

Brain wiring creates the upper-lower spirit world cosmos

One form of altered consciousness state is the wired neuropsychological experience of weightlessness, dissociation and the sense of one’s body being stretched out with superlong limbs. This experience is readily felt or understood to involve a sense of flight or floating — into a spirit world above.

Another form of altered consciousness state that is the wired-into-the-human-nervous-system is the experience of travel through a vortex, often accompanied by a difficulty in breathing, hearing sounds, distorted vision, weightlessness and a sense of being in another world. This experience is readily felt or understood to involve a sense of travel underground or underwater — past spirits talking or singing and into a spirit world below. Some cultures speak of entering caves through this experience, others of following the roots of a tree, or of going down animal burrows (Alice in Wonderland?).

However they are interpreted, the fundamental sensations of being underground or underwater remain universal: they are the most obvious, most logical explanations for the effects created by the behaviour of the nervous system in altered states. An ‘introcosm’ is projected onto the material world to create a cosmology. (p.146)

In sum:

Taken together the neurologically generated experiences of travelling underground and flying are, I argue, the origin of notions of a tiered cosmos.

This is, I believe, the best explanation for so universally held beliefs that have no relation to the material experience of daily life.

Such beliefs were not inferred from observations of the natural environment.

Nor did they easily and swiftly diffuse from a single geographically located origin because they made excellent sense of the world in which people lived.

Rather, they are part of the in-built experiences of the full spectrum of human consciousness.


(p.147 — formatting mine)

Beyond Paleolithic cave art

David Lewis-Williams is proposing an explanation for Paleolithic cave art. There is, of course, much more to the explanation but what is summarized here is a fundamental part of his hypothesis.

He also discusses the positioning of various artistic depictions within the caves, their relationship to natural protuberances and cavities on the cave walls (the spirits of these lay just behind those cave walls?), their inclusion of geometrical and boatlike (entoptic?) shapes, and what appear to be swarms of bees or enormous numbers of spears in some human forms (palaeolithic interpretations of the experience of the stinging of the skin as one “descended through the earth”?), the bleeding noses, the phallic signs of sexual arousal (sometimes accompanying hallucinogenic states), the elongated limbs (an hallucinatory experience), the animals and humans that seem to be a mixture of different creatures in the one body (hallucinations of turning into other animals?), the overlapping of some images, and more. As I read The Mind in the Cave I felt those decorated caves taking on a Paleolithic equivalence to a cathedral in Rome. The meaning of the art in both is drenched in religious experience. The neuropsychological roots of the earlier one are more obvious and less controversially explained.

Not everyone in societies that value these alternate states of consciousness experiences them. But everyone does experience enough (dreams, entoptic images) to validate the experiences of those who do.

Moving on from Paleolithic times, we encounter the Delphic oracle and other Sybils. We know the image of the old woman at the cave mouth who communed with the god within.

So what emerges with such an explanation is a template for the earliest myths from historical times.

The legends of Orpheus, Odysseus and Aeneas and earlier Mesopotamian heroes and divinities descending into the underground abode of spirits and returning are familiar — and would appear to go back to the earliest experiences of homo sapiens’ consciousness. (Evidence suggests that Neanderthals and other pre homo sapiens hominids lacked consciousness of the extended past and future in order to experience the same.)

The concept of a human able to communicate with the spirits, to travel to and from the upper and lower places of spirits, of being possessed or infused with the power of the spirits, may well be an inevitable universal part of the way the brain of homo sapiens is wired.

And what is equally interesting to me is that such a template foreshadows the pattern of a human departing this world, appearing to die, and suffering piercings of the skin as they descended down to the underworld, before finally “returning victorious” to their bodies.

Many modern scholars have attempted to distance themselves from the “parallelism” of Sir James George Frazer (of The Golden Bough fame) by lurching with a vengeance into the embrace of Jonathan Z. Smith (Drudgery Divine, Map is not Territory, To Take Place, Imagining Religion, etc.). But as Robert M. Price has noted, and without denying the real weaknesses in Frazer’s work, Smith’s “demolition” of the apparently obvious is based on a denial of the broader conceptual notion of similar ideas. By attributing greater weight to the subsidiary culturally bound details than to the larger whole one can in effect deny the possibility of any comparison at all.

But how can one fail at least to wonder at the possibility of a template of a man who dies and returns, spirit empowered, to an even more respected and higher role from which to guide a community to health and safety, perhaps even eventually salvation from death?

Perhaps all religions with motifs of suffering, death and redemption or resurrection of some form are all essentially congenital in origin and appeal.


The literary genre of Acts. 10: historical novels – ancient cyrogenics and lost cities

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by Neil Godfrey

Following is my own elaboration of Pervo’s introduction to a discussion of ancient historical novels. My Stadter citations are independent of Pervo’s book. I do not refer to Acts in this post. Others can think through the comparisons. But will discuss a few more historical novels before returning to Acts.

The Cyropaedia by Xenophon – the first historical novel

The author Xenophon, ca 400 b.c.e., wrote histories of Greek wars (Hellenica) and of his expedition in the Persian empire (Anabasis). Some of his works have been translated as modern Penguin classics and all can be found online.

He also wrote “a historical biography” of the Persian king Cyrus. In this account we read of historical characters who at times are true to known historical actions. The Cyropaedia reads like history.

He begins by explaining how careful he was to research his facts:

Believing this man to be deserving of all admiration, we have therefore investigated who he was in his origin, what natural endowments he possessed, and what sort of education he had enjoyed, that he so greatly excelled in governing men. Accordingly, what we have found out or think we know concerning him we shall now endeavour to present. (From the Perseus Project text.)

That sounds impressive and reassuring enough to a first time reader.

But Philip Stadter (Fictional Narrative in the Cyropaideia) compares this research-statement by Xenophon with others written by Herodotus and Thucydides (p.462):


  • noted his desire to preserve and understand the past
  • gave a sample of the oral traditions upon which he would draw
  • claimed he would start from what he himself knew, showing no partiality


  • stressed the analytical and investigatory effort needed to get to the truth
  • presented a schematic example of his mode of inquiry by analyzing the growth of unified action and maritime power re the Trojan War

Contrast Xenophon

  • makes no overt claim to factual accuracy
  • no statement on the difficulties of ascertaining the truth in a distant time and country
  • no allusions to the weaknesses of memory or the reliability of informants

Stadter writes:

In telling his story, Xenophon composed the first extant novel, and demonstrated the power and flexibility of fictional prose narrative. His work is heavily influenced by earlier narrative in poetry and prose, and yet developed new possibilities and emphases. (p.461)

The Cyropedia was an ancient historical novel.

Xenophon does on occasion accurately preserve customs – such as wearing high-soled shoes – or names, at least within the limitations of his own knowledge. But these items are subservient to the narrative, the source of which is Xenophon’s invention, not historical tradition or research. . . .

Xenophon shapes a story of Cyrus which is composed of dialogues that were never spoken, battles that never took place, and people summoned and dismissed from the written page without any shadow of historical reality. . . .

The creation and selection of narrative episodes, the temporal and geographical framework in which they are set, and the mode in which the reader is expected to respond are fictional. (p.463-4)

The purpose of this historical novel? To teach readers the principles of an ideal government and the qualities of an ideal ruler.

Yet as Stadter points out, the reader is assured from the beginning that the story is based on the author’s diligent enquiries into the facts. It is not until one reads “some 21 pages” of unrelenting success stories that one begins to dsicern the fictional nature of the work. (Stadter, p.462). Not that any one story is incredible on its own, but it is the steady avalanching of success stories that eventually collapses under its own weight, at least in the minds of savvy readers.

Ancients recognized its fictional character.

Cicero wrote:

Take the case of the famous Cyrus, portrayed by Xenophon, not as an historical character, but as a model of righteous government, the serious dignity of whose character is represented by that philosopher as combined with a peculiar courtesy. (Letter to Quintus)

In Diogenes Laertius we read:

Then, too, the one wrote the Cyropaedia and the other a book on Politics ; and Plato in his Laws says, that the Cyropaedia is a mere romance, for that Cyrus was not such a person as he is described in that book.

Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight, p.177) adds a third citation, the letter to Pompey 4 by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, to the same effect.

The power of the historical novel format

Stadter lists the following advantages (not necessarily his words) of the narrative format:

  • A long narrative is an effective way to convey complicated information or concepts.
  • Narrative also permits the interweaving of a number of themes.
  • Narrative replicates the human experience of “one durn thing after another”, creating a vivid sense of reality in the telling of each piece of information.
  • Narratives are a form of teaching by example rather than abstract precepts or summary statements, and thus naturally more memorable and even plausible.
  • If the events are credible, the reader may accept them as possible. If the events are contrary to common experience, the reader will either place them in a distant time and place (e.g. The Odyssey) or treat them as allegory or parable (e.g. Aesop’s fables). Either way, narrative is persuasive by its nature.
  • Narratives (good ones) are enjoyable, and listeners generally want to hear more.
  • Narratives are memorable. The lessons or messages they convey are easily recalled.

One can add three points to Stadter’s list the value of historical fiction:

  • added verisimilitude
  • added verisimilitude
  • added verisimilitude

Recall how all the more enthralled we were as children when a fairy tale ended with words like, “And we know this really happened because you can see to this very day . . . ”

That eternally persuasive “historically-true” story of Atlantis

Pervo does not discuss Plato’s story of Atlantis but Stadter helpfully brings it in to the discussion.

The history of Atlantis is a fictional morality tale within a larger work by Plato, Timaeus. But it has taken a life of its own, as everyone knows. Most of us treat the story as a fable. But that was not how it is introduced, and those people today who believe it was real have a good case, at least by the standards often set out for believing the historicity of ancient writings accepted into religious canons.

Plato goes to great pains to explain through Critias how he carefully he decided to introduce the story in the first place, since his concern was to get the true details right in his own mind before expounding it. For though it might be seen as a quite extraordinary story, it nonetheless definitely “was true”. To remove any doubt from readers’ minds Plato writes that

  • the story is actually documented by custodians — in Egypt — who can be trusted to preserve such records
  • the story was passed on via a chain of highly reputable and credible named witnesses
  • these witnesses took pains to be sure they got the story exactly right and passed it on without deviation
  • the transmitters were conscious of the risk of normal memory lapses so took specified preventive measures to minimize this risk

Plato insisted in his writing through his characters that the story was definitely and without a shadow of doubt true and factual. An abundance of references to what appear to be the records of eyewitness details follow.

And many remain persuaded even today. And many more, though not persuaded, are open to wondering if maybe there was some truth to it after all. And it all started with Plato’s simulation of history — his mini historical novel within Timaeus.

Such is the power of a narrative that reads like history.


Dating the Book of Acts: Characterization of Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing notes from reading of Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts. . . .

After discussing the shifting directions of the scholarly debates over Paul’s characterization in Acts vis a vis the Paul we find in the epistles, Tyson asks if a more definitive answer is to be found to the question of whether the Paul of Acts is a most appropriate response to the Paul of the Marcionites.

Parallell Lives
Tyson first addresses the contribution of Clark’s Parallel Lives to understanding the author of Act’s intention to portray Paul in both continuity and unity with Peter and the Twelve. He adds to Clark’s work the observation that the influence of Plutarch’s influence on the author of Acts “is more credible if we date Acts after ca. 115 c.e., since it is probable that the Parallel Lives [by Plutarch] was not published before that date.” (p.63)

Objective reference
But more significantly, Tyson notes that Clark’s work on the reasons for the author’s creation of parallels between the lives of Paul and Peter is based on internal criteria alone and lacks an objective external reference. Clark’s argument for certain themes and reasons for his parallels would be more credible if one could show how they were a fitting response to a known historical challenge. Tyson is, of course, arguing that the Marcionite challenge was the appropriate historical situation which would best explain Clark’s understanding of Luke’s characterization of Paul (through parallels with Peter et al).

Tyson looks at the history of attempts to reconcile the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the letters.

F. C. Baur
Author of Acts rewrote the characters of Paul and Peter to show them united theologically — in support of the Law. Contrast “the real Paul” who was anti-Torah.

Adolf von Harnack
Paul’s attitude to the Torah was complex and not a blanket opposition to it. Luke had not found the Torah the same theological challenge that Paul had, and in his portrayal of Paul he brings out the more Jewish side of Paul as he (Luke) knew him.

Philip Vielhauer
In natural theology, Luke portrayed Paul as a Stoic philosopher for whom knowledge of God could be acquired naturally and positively, apart from revelation — which was the view of the Paul of the letters.

In Christology, Acts is adoptionist, and the cross of Christ was a wrongful murder of an innocent man for which the Jews were culpable — unlike Paul of the letters for whom the cross was a saving event, a means of judgment and reconciliation.

In eschatology, Paul relegates the coming judgment and resurrection to a tail end position in his message — unlike the Paul of the letters who whom it was central and imminent.

In the law, Acts avoids the real complexities of Paul’s attitude toward the Torah, and presents him as a faithful Pharisee in practice, as demonstrated by:

  • his missionary practice of going to the synagogue Jews first and only turning to gentiles after a formal rejection there
  • his submission to Jerusalem authorities
  • his circumcision of Timothy
  • his spreading the apostolic decrees
  • his vow
  • his trips to Jerusalem to observe religious festivals
  • his concurring with James in participating in a Nazirite vow
  • his emphasizing his Pharisee status when on trial

Ernst Haenchen
The author of Acts justified the gentile mission as simply being God’s will, unaware of Paul’s more complex justification from his arguments about the Law. Author of Acts also missed the real contention at the heart of Paul’s theology. To Luke, this was the resurrection. The real issue, the Torah, was only alluded to in Acts as a false accusation against Paul. Also, to Haenchen, Acts differed from the letters by presenting Paul as a miracle worker and great orator, but not as an apostle.

Jacob Jervell
The letters of Paul addressed specific issues and do not present a full biography. Acts and the letters are needed for a complete picture. Except for Romans 9-11, the points of theological contact are between the Paul in Acts and the marginal notes in the letters.

Stanley E. Porter
Disputes Haenchen’s and Vielhauer’s interpretations of the wide gulf between the Paul of the letters and of Acts. The Paul of the letters can also be seen as a miracle worker and orator. Porter also argues more weight should be given to the two times in Acts when Paul is called an apostle. And the accusations in Acts that Paul taught against Torah argue for the author’s knowing of the importance of the Torah in Paul’s message, and that the different emphases between Acts and the epistles are the result of different genres.

Mark D. Nanos
The letter to Galatians is an “ironic rebuke” of the converts. “Judaizers” are not opposed to belief in Christ but only to the idea that circumcision (becoming a full proselyte) is not also necessary to be part of Israel. Paul had taught them that belief in Christ was all that was necessary. He does not attack Torah observance or question its appropriateness for non-Christian Jews. The issue is not faith in Christ versus Torah observance. Nanos’s understanding of Galatians is that of a Paul close to the one in Acts.

Joseph B. Tyson
Despite interpretations that appear to lessen the divide between the Paul of the letters and Acts, it is difficult to reconcile:

  • Paul’s views in Galatians with the Paul in Acts 16 who would circumcise Timothy
  • Paul’s rejection of his past in Phil 3:1-11 with his maintenance of it in Acts 23:6
  • Paul’s vehement defining of himself as an apostle in Gal 1:1, Rom 1:1; 1:13; 1 Cor 1:1; 9:1, 2; 15:9; 2 Cor 1:1; 12:12 with the almost total denial of the title to him in Acts

A final settlement of the apparent conflicts between the Paul of the epistles and the Paul of Acts still escapes us.

But if “Acts was written in the first half of the second century, . . . its characterization of Paul and Pauline theology may be understood as an extraordinarily appropriate attempt to correct the teachings of Marcionite Christianity.” (p.68 )

Whatever role Paul played during his own lifetime, there appears to be a struggle for his legacy in the second century. (Compare post comparing Pastorals with Acts of Paul and Thecla.) Marcionites used Paul as their authority for rejecting the Torah, Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish customs. Acts responds(?) by representing him as a faithful Jew and Pharisee.

Tyson then singles out three major features of Paul’s characterization in Acts, drawing on features Vielhauser believed were divergences from the epistles, and including observations of their themes and literary patterns, to show how they qualify as responses to Marcionism.

1. Paul’s Missionary Method

Tyson has earlier covered the literary pattern used for the missionary narratives and the themes they support. See Marcionite Context 1 for an elaboration of this and what follows.

The narratives of Paul’s mission work regularly consists of the same fourfold patterning of the following four themes:

  1. fidelity of the believing community to the Jewish traditions and practices — Paul always begins with the synagogue
  2. the community’s inclusion of Gentiles
  3. Jewish rejection of the Christian message
  4. Jewish opposition to the community

Further, “the heart of Paul’s message in the synagogues is that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish expectation and prophetic promises.” (p.69)

Note how these themes fit hand in glove with the Marcionite challenge:

Marcion insisted that the Christian message consisted of a rejection of the Jewish Torah and Scriptures. Yet in Acts Paul is found returning again and again to the synagogue. There is a rift between Jew and Christian, yes, but the reason for this is clearly the fact that the Jews themselves are rejecting the message. And they are doing so not because the message is anti-Jewish, or anti-Torah or anti-Hebrew-Scriptures, but because of their hard stubborn hearts. The Christian message is that Jesus is the fulfillment of their Scriptures and Messianic hopes, and this is what angers them.

Paul’s repeated attempts to convert the Jews by showing them he was sympathetic and obedient to their customs and by preaching that Jesus was the fulfillment of their Scriptures was the perfectly apt response to Marcionite claims that Christianity had no link with Jewish traditions and that the Jewish scriptures had no relevance for the new message from the Alien God.

Hoffmann, I recall, somewhere makes the point that the irony is that it was the “pro-Jewish” Christianity of the orthodox that was fundamentally anti-semitic, accusing the Jews of congenital hard heartedness; while Marcionite Christianity placed Jews and Gentiles on an equal footing before the nonjudgmental higher God introduced by Jesus.

2. Paul and the Jerusalem Apostles

2 issues here: Paul’s apostleship and his relationship to the Jerusalem leaders.


To Marcion, Paul was the only true apostle and Peter and the other Jerusalem leaders were false apostles.

Acts disputes this divide by its technique of paralleling Peter and Paul. But the parallel is not complete. In Acts the title of apostle is almost exclusively confined to Peter and the Jerusalem leaders. Only twice does the term apostle appear in relation to Paul and Barnabas — Acts 14:4, 14.

Note however that 14:14 in the Western text (Codex Bezae) omits the word “apostles”, and if this is accepted as the original then we only have one reference to Paul as an apostle. Yet even here the word apostle is removed by many verses from the actual names of Paul and Barnabas. Tyson asks if this indicates a subtle distancing of the title from those names. Clark in Parallel Lives thinks the title apostle in Acts 14 serves to equate Paul and Barnabas with the other apostles, only in an an alternate geographical area.

But the author of Acts clearly defines the number of apostles as being limited to Twelve; and that to qualify for the title one must also have been a witness of Jesus from the beginning of his ministry to his resurrection. This clearly disqualifies Paul from the title. Is Paul simply being logically inconsistent? Tyson compares scholars approaching Acts without preconceived ideas about the author’s historical accuracies with their reluctance to presume he might be at least once logically inconsistent. They are willing to concede he is not always accurate in detail — why not also that he is not 100% consistent with his use of this title?

But Tyson comes down with a different bottom line explanation for this inconsistency found in Acts 14:4 (14). In a Marcionite context, the problem facing the author was not Paul’s apostleship but the apostleship of Peter and the Jerusalem leaders. He needed to rebut Marcion’s claim that the Jerusalem Twelve were not true apostles. His purpose was not to argue Paul’s apostleship but to prove that the Twelve were also apostles — to rehabilitate the Twelve. (Compare my earlier post on Tracing the evolution of the Twelve.)

To fulfill this task he “rehabilitated” the Twelve as the authorized bearers of tradition, and he showed that Paul was in every respect in line with them and at some points subservient to them. If he occasionally used the title apostle for Paul, this is only because of the fact that, despite his own definition that would exclude Paul from the group, he never doubted its appropriateness. We may regard the author of Acts as inconsistent at this point, but his inconsistency is understandable. (p.72)

Relationship with Jerusalem leaders

A major theme in Acts, the inclusion of Gentiles, is introduced by Peter. Not by Paul. Yet Paul is the primary leader of the gentile mission. So why is Peter chosen for the role of opening up this theme?

Tyson finds the answer at the conclusion of the lengthy and complex narrative of Peter’s conversion of Cornelius. The narrative concludes with Peter being required to have his actions authorized by the Jerusalem leaders, including the rest of the Twelve. This is important for the maintenance of one of the primary themes of Acts — internal harmony under the collective leadership of the Jerusalem apostles:

the story is not over until the Jerusalem apostles have agreed that Gentiles may be members of the community and that their admission will not create disharmony. (p.72)

It should also be noted that permission for the church to go to the gentiles came to Peter, the leader of the Twelve, and not to Paul, and that the first gentile was a lover of the Jews, observing their times of prayer and fearing their God. Tyson does not single out the point here, but God-fearer in the context of Cornelius here is a clear reference to the Jewish Creator God — the one rejected by Marcion as inferior in preference for the higher Alien God.

So the inclusion of the gentiles opens as a pro-Jewish act and is authorized by the Twelve before the story can continue.

The Acts 15 Jerusalem conference
See How Acts subverts Galatians for details. That a companion of Paul would subvert Galatians in this way is implausible. How could such a one put the words of Paul into the mouth of Peter, as in Acts 15:7-11? Tyson finds it hard to disagree with the Baur and the Tübingen school’s case that the author of Acts was attempting to rewrite history in order to promote a belief that there was harmony between the followers of Peter and those of Paul.

A Marcionite challenge that stressed the gulf between Paul and Jewish-Christians would explain why the author of Acts sought to rewrite the Galatians meeting the way he did. Unlike Marcion’s assertions based on Galatians, there was no rift between Peter and Paul. They were in complete harmony despite an initial hiccup. Paul left proclaiming the decrees ordained by the Jerusalem authorities (16:4), and gentiles and Jews were bound together even by certain (minimal) requirements from the Torah.

3. Paul as a faithful Jew and Pharisee

The Paul of the letters relegates his Pharisee identity to a dead past. Tyson sees the claims in Acts that Paul continued to think of himself as a Pharisee as anti-Marcionite propaganda. Acts also turns Paul’s speeches into anti-Marcionite proclamations: the relevance of the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets and Jewish messianic expectations to Jesus.

Tyson sees a major objective of the trial scenes is to portray Paul as a Torah-abiding Jew:

  • Before the high priest he quotes from Exodus (Acts 23:5)
  • Before Felix he describes himself as a loyal Jew (24:14)
  • He calls attention to his preaching of the resurrection as a Jewish hope (24:15)
  • He emphasizes his return to Jerusalem to bring alms and make sacrifices in the temple (24:17)
  • He reminds us he was seized while in ritual of purification (24:17-18 )
  • Before Festus he says he has done nothing against the Jewish law or people (25:8, 10)
  • Before Agrippa and Bernice he proclaims at length his Jewish allegiance (26:4-8 )
  • He says he preaches nothing except what Moses and the prophets proclaimed (26:22) — a statement in direct opposition to what Marcion believed

The practices of Paul preceding these trial scene proclamations have prepared the reader for this portrayal of Paul:

  • Acts 16:1-3, the circumcision of Timothy — it is debatable whether this would have been performed by the Paul of the letters, but there is no doubt that this was in opposition to Marcion’s Paul. Marcion taught release from the God of the Torah, and from the Creator God of this (fleshly) world.
  • Acts 21:18-28, Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem — tells us there are multitudes of Christians there who are all zealous for the law (an impossible concept for Marcion); and that the accusations that Paul taught Jews to forsake the laws and customs are false, as evidenced by his compliance with the advice of James. The message to readers familiar with Marcionite teaching is that Marcion’s claims about Paul are false.
  • Compare also Acts 18:18 — cutting his hair because of a vow would have suggested a Jewish practice opposed to Marcionite teaching
  • And Acts 20:16 — Paul eager to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost. Again in opposition to Marcion’s Paul.

Tyson concludes his discussion of the characterization of Paul:

The characterization of Paul in Acts is internally consistent. He is a loyal Jew, obedient to Torah and faithful to Jewish practices. His message is that Jesus fulfills the words of the Hebrew prophets: he is the Messiah of Israel. Paul does not act unilater­ally but only in harmony with Peter and the Jerusalem apostle. It is they who establish the authentic Christian tradition, and Paul neither adds to it nor subtracts from it. The characterization of Paul is also consistent with the major themes that the author used in writing Acts, among them: the order of the community; the internal harmony of the community; the community’s inclusion of Gentiles; Jewish rejection of the Christian message; and the community’s fidelity to Jewish traditions and prac­tices. The author of Acts has made use of these characterizations and themes to pro­duce an engaging narrative that responds, almost point by point, to the Marcionite challenge. Readers of Acts learn that the God of Jesus is the God of the Jews, that Jesus was the fulfillment of Jewish expectations as announced by the Hebrew prophets, and that the early Christian leaders continued to observe Torah and Jewish practices. (pp 75-76)

In other words, Tyson’s argument is that the question of reconciling the Paul of the letters with the Paul of Acts is the wrong question to ask. The problems that arise in attempting to answer it are the inevitable result. Acts is not addressing the letters of Paul per se, but addressing the Marcionite challenge and the use the Marcionites made of Paul’s letters. This hypothesis leads to a much tidier explanation of the way Paul is portrayed in Acts.

continued at this post


Prison escapes in Acts — and the non-escape at the end

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by Neil Godfrey

Have just begun reading Plots of Epiphany: Prison-Escape in Acts of the Apostles by John Weaver. What persuaded me to pick this title up for my next read was its concluding chapter. Continue reading “Prison escapes in Acts — and the non-escape at the end”

Clark’s criteria for valid parallels (continuing Tyson on Marcion and Luke-Acts)

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by Neil Godfrey

Tyson draws on the criteria devised by Andrew Clark in his Parallel Lives to further his discussion of Peter’s and Paul’s characterization in Acts. (Have been discussing Tyson’s argument that our canonical Luke-Acts was largely a second century response to Marcionism.) Before continuing with notes from Tyson, am listing here Clark’s criteria. Continue reading “Clark’s criteria for valid parallels (continuing Tyson on Marcion and Luke-Acts)”

That “strange” end of Acts and its equally “strange” middle

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by Neil Godfrey

Revisiting Talbert’s “Literary Patterns” I was reminded of that ending of Acts that continues to bother sometimes. I’ve written on the endings before (see Endings post) and think that half of the problem is our literary tastes, matured on an evolving heritage long since distanced from its ancient roots, and the other half is our preconceived ideas about the theme and purpose of Acts having more to do with our sense of what the book should be about than with what the author may have had in mind. Continue reading “That “strange” end of Acts and its equally “strange” middle”

Luke’s Marcionite source for Paul’s Jerusalem and trial experiences?

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

by Neil Godfrey

In Literary Patterns, Theological Themes, and the Genre of Luke-Acts (1974) Charles Talbert compiled lists totalling about 40 literary and narrative resonances between the Gospel of Luke and Acts. (He called them parallels back in 1974 but that word has since acquired for many a bad name — sometimes justifiably, but other times less so.)

From his comparisons of some of these he concluded that Luke had generally made changes sometimes to the gospel narrative he knew and sometimes to his narrative of Paul to make the two form a set of parallels to each other.

This explained, for example, why Luke’s narrative of Jesus included a hearing before Herod, thus giving him a total of 4 separate hearings (Sanhedrin – 22:26, Pilate – 23:1, Herod – 23:8, Pilate – 23:13) unlike the narratives found in the other gospels. Talbert indicates that Luke edited Mark’s gospel to write a narrative of Jesus’ Passion that conformed to events in Paul’s life. Compare Paul’s 4 trials: Sanhedrin – ch.23; Felix – ch.24; Festus – ch.25; Herod Agrippa – ch.26). But this is based not simply on the matching fourfold hearings. Within these Talbert points to distinctively Lucan additions to Mark’s narrative also being found in similar positions in Acts: the threefold declarations of innocence of the one on trial; the directly positive claim Jesus can be released; the crowds shouting “Away with this man”; the centurion proclaiming the one charged as “innocent”; et al.

Another example is Luke’s adding to Mark’s description of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem a description of the way the crowds praised God for all the mighty works they had seen done through Jesus (Luke 19:37 – cf. Mark 11:1-10). Talbert notes how this corresponds with the reception Paul received when he also entered Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-20a).

Another change in Luke’s gospel is his removal of Mark’s reference to Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree. In Mark’s gospel, the fig tree episode strongly suggests Jesus’ rejection of and pronunciation of doom on the Temple. Luke deletes this, and gives readers a Jesus who stays entrenched in the Temple, preaching daily from it. (19:45-48). Talbert compares this with Paul’s favourable attitude toward the Temple. (e.g. Acts 21:26)

I would add here that this wish to have a less judgmental Jesus, one favourably disposed to the Temple in his efforts to save, not condemn, the Jews, may also have something to do with Luke’s changes to the Little Apocalypse. In place of Mark’s condemnation of a Temple being stained by the presence of an abomination he envisions “only” a city besieged by armies.

There are other points Talbert lists but this is enough to get the main idea of the case he argues.

But what if we relook at Talbert’s discussion of the strands linking the events in Paul’s life with those in Jesus’ last days in the light of recent studies on Luke and Acts that I have been summing up in bits and pieces in blog posts here?

Klinghardt has recently raised the possibility that canonical Luke’s gospel used Marcion’s gospel as one of its sources. See Marcion Enters the Synoptic Problem and subsequent follow up posts. Tyson argues that canonical Luke likewise was a reworking of Marcion’s gospel. See the Tyson and Marcion archives. Pervo also argues that Luke was a late document.

Given the possibilities raised by Kinghardt and Tyson in particular, one is justified in rethinking the sources Luke used for his last chapters of Acts.

The possibility is opened that Luke was modeling his Paul’s entry into Jerusalem and subsequent four-fold trial sequence on the life of Jesus as found in Marcion’s gospel.

In fact, given the absence of any other known source for Luke’s narrative here, this must be seen the most economical and plausible solution to the question of Luke’s sources for this phase of Paul’s career.