‘Fabricating Jesus’, Craig Evans Fabricating Scholarship — Marked F pending . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

If Craig Evans had been in my class when I was a high school history teacher and if he handed in his essay on “Criteria for evaluating the Gospels” (as published in his Fabricating Jesus) I would have liked to have given him fair marks for his description of some of the criteria, but would have held back any mark at all until I had

  1. questioned him orally on his comprehension of what he had just described;
  2. and required him to repeat his assignment and resubmit it without the glaring contradictions that left a reader confused over whether he was arguing for against the criteria.

How could any senior high school teacher accept an essay that began:

Thoughtful people rightly apply criteria in evaluating claims . . . .

So also historians apply criteria for assessing the historical worth of documents. . . .

Over the years, biblical scholars have developed historical and literary criteria for assessing biblical literature. . . .

But concluded:

Here is where I think many skeptical scholars, especially among the prominent members of the Jesus Seminar, go wrong. They not only misapply some of the criteria (such as dissimilarity) and ignore or misunderstand others . . . , they tend to assume that sayings and deeds not supported by the criteria must be judged as inauthentic. This severe, skeptical method leads to limited results . . .

Either this student has not understood what he was writing about, or he wrote very late at night and went off the rails under addling weariness. Earlier he had chastized Robert Price’s conclusions and methods for not being acceptable to anyone “trained in history”. Yet here Evans concludes a discussion on historical criteria, tools of historians, with a statement implying that the best historical standards will discard them if they do not support his religious beliefs!

Or maybe he was just playing a game of Let’s Pretend at the beginning of his essay, pretending to sound as if he did agree with the logic underpinning the criteria and the functions they served. Maybe then his third person “historians” were in his mind very much a very distant third party far removed from anything he himself felt affinity with. But under weariness he finally let his guard down and it became clear that the only criterion he really understood as a budding historian was the authority of the Bible. If the criteria don’t support a particular biblical narrative, so much the worse for the criteria! They suddenly become a false method, no longer “thoughtful criteria”, but instruments of “severe scepticism”.

If the latter, he would have to be confronted for his intellectual dissembling.

Criteria problems nonetheless

Not that I don’t have some qualms with such criteria myself and how easy it is sometimes to read too much into them. I will discuss them in future posts, hopefully, along with the apparent “necessity” for them in the absence of primary sources. (Compare discussion in previous post on historical methods.)

Meanwhile, I should leave the reminder that would best be whispered in Evans’ ear on the side (to avoid embarrassment for all) that he was overstated his complaint by claiming scholars do not as a rule deem “inauthentic” words and deeds unsupported by the criteria, but rather as unable to be assigned as authentic. Perhaps in his evangelistic enthusiasm he got carried away and way overstated his case (to the point of unfortunate misrepresentation) unintentionally.

But till then, I by no means deny that the criteria do have some merit. For example, if I were to advise anyone wishing to write an historical novel I could do no better than to direct them to these “criteria for authenticity” and advise them to construct only fictional scenes that complied with any number of them. A novelist who did so would have the flavor of unassailable authenticity guaranteed.

Criterion of ignorance

Meanwhile, the teacher in me skimmed ahead through the later chapters looking for this student’s use of the criteria but found little that stood out.

I did expect he was about to discuss the criteria, however, when I came to this passage:

When the gospel writes that Jesus said “No prophet is without honor, except in his own country” (Mark 6:4), we can likely trust this to be truly historic because “it is hard to understand why early Christians would make up a saying implying that Jesus’ relatives and acquaintances did not treat him with respect.” (p. 224)

Unfortunately no. Rather, this student of mine was guilty of the most unforgivable sloppy laziness. He knew very well the arguments explaining why Christians would most certainly “make up” such a saying. Or maybe he was asleep and did not do his homework on those earlier lessons. I’ll have to remind him of the basics and require him to discuss in his re-written essay the arguments for and against the following well-known reasons for such a passage in Mark:

The author of the gospel was portraying Jesus with the same motifs as were used of the most prominent chosen people of God in the past — family rejection. Remember Joseph? Remember David? Both were deemed unworthy of any special status by their brethren. I would have thought Craig Evans would have known Psalm 27:10 well and would have taken it to be a Psalm of David, and would have taken Jesus to be a son of David, and would have been moved by David’s proclamation in that Psalm that even his mother and father rejected him. Not to mention the more colorful narrative of how David’s father and brothers never thought him worthy enough to be thought kingship material.

It is hard to understand why this student, Craig A. Evans, would put to writing a statement implying that early Christians saw no reason to think that Jesus’ relatives and acquaintances might have been unlike those of Joseph or David, especially when such comparisons are regularly drawn even in weekly church sermons without the aid of any scholarly apparatus. With all his learning, has he just lost sight of the necessary scholarly balance beneath the mass of data he as accrued for his faith-based purposes?

Criterion of biblical authority

There was another opportunity for Evans to appeal to a discussion of some or even one of the criteria of authenticity again, but again he failed to seize his opportunity.

Beginning on the same page Craig Evans complained about those scholars who see in the gospels’ use of the title “rabbi” for Jesus an anachronism, since “rabbi” did not become a title till after 70 c.e. (Although Evans refuses to use the c.e. designation, insisting throughout, for reasons not hard to imagine, on the anachronistic and theologically charged A.D. Stubborn pupil. Obviously thinks he is above scholarly conventions and norms.)

And what is Evans’s argument contra? Well, simply that the Gospels use it of Jesus, therefore it cannot have been anachronistic after all. In other words, the Gospels are true and all other so-called evidence should be evaluated in the light of literalist and fundamentalist interpretation of them. Gospels do not need any further corroboration — faith is all they need. Scholarly controls are useful for other textual studies, but are “misguidedly suspicious” if applied to the Gospels!

Evans says “the use of rabbi in the Gospels is informal and evidently reflects Jewish usage in the first century, before its later, formalized usage.” He does not, however, offer the reader an example to demonstrate his claim that the word is used “informally” in the Gospels. It simply isn’t. Nor does he discuss the Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus forbidding the use of the term for his disciples (Matt. 23:9) — clearly he considered it a formal term, even “in the first century”!

How could bible-believing Evans have honestly overlooked this passage? Will he need to be confronted for his intellectual dishonesty on this count too? Stressful. Teachers have enough stress without having to confront situations like these.

Nor does he offer any evidence that it reflected informal Jewish usage in the first century. One witness — even an anonymous witness that has been dated anywhere between the mid first century and the early second century, what we know as the canonical Gospel of Matthew — is enough, he thinks, to settle his claim. In other words, Evans seems to be trying to slip into this classroom essay a view something like:

The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!

I will have to have a talk with the principal and then with Craig’s parents to see if he really should continue in a school that seeks to inculcate a “training in history” in all its students – a matter discussed in this previous post.


Could Jews never have imagined a crucified Messiah?

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by Neil Godfrey

This question is often enough presented rhetorically in one form or another as if to settle the question of the historicity of a Jesus whose presence was so inspiring that his followers continued to exalt his status after his death into a divine messiah status. It would be inconceivable that anyone would have completely made up such a story as a crucified messiah, the assertion goes.

I disagree.

If the Jews of the Second Temple period could imagine . . .

  1. their father Isaac saving their nation by his blood,
  2. by offering himself as a willing sacrifice that atoned for the sins of his descendants;
  3. and if they could identify with him as the archtypical martyr so that they could also face death, with hope of a resurrection;
  4. and if their historical narratives spoke of other favoured and beloved only sons, also fated for real or symbolic deaths,

— who were disbelieved and betrayed by their own brethren,

— but only as part of a divine plan to bring them through humiliation into exaltation and authority

. . . if Second Temple Jews (who were by no means as monolithic as they became in rabbinical times) could construct such a saving theology of Isaac and the Beloved Son, then some of them were definitely not far removed from a crucified messiah concept at all.

Not only do we have a plausible matrix for the Jesus theology, but even for the narrative of the blind and failing disciples who from the first gospel accompanied it.

Continue reading “Could Jews never have imagined a crucified Messiah?”

‘Fabricating Jesus’, ch1. Evans on Bart Ehrman

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing this little series of posts on some aspects of Evans’ book Fabricating Jesus . . . .

Evans discusses Bart Ehrman’s “faith biography”, as he did for Funk, Robinson and Price, as if this is critical to understanding why scholarship of such people “distorts the gospels”.

It was the study of textual variants — the usual myriad of scribal errors and glosses that are found in handwritten books from antiquity and the Middle Ages — that caused Ehrman to question his faith. . . . Errors in Scripture, thinks Ehrman, mean that the words of Scripture can no longer be viewed as God’s words.

Rather rigid ideas about the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture underlie Ehrman’s problem . . .

Because for Ehrman the Bible became a human book and therefore no longer could be viewed as God’s words, he lost confidence in it. (pp.26-27)

Craig Evans even quotes a few passages from Bart Ehrman confirming all this. Once again he will argue that Ehrman’s loss of faith is not the result of honest enquiry but “grows out of mistaken expectations of the nature and function of Scripture, mistaken expectations that he was taught as a young, impressionable fundamentalist Christian.” Yes, well, this sort of condescension and avoidance of Ehrmans’ own words has been dealt with enough in my previous posts.

But then Evans proceeds to fly sky high above the issues to a point from where Ehrman’s argument can no longer be seen. Continue reading “‘Fabricating Jesus’, ch1. Evans on Bart Ehrman”

Jesus displaces Isaac: midrashic creation of the biblical Jesus . . . (Offering of Isaac . . . #6)

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series the evolution of the offering of Isaac into a Jesus story; earlier posts here.

Levenson argues that much of the early christology derives from a midrashic combination of verses associated with

  1. Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham,
  2. the suffering servant in Isaiah who went, like Isaac, willingly to his slaughter,
  3. another miraculous son, the son of David, the future messianic king laden with hopes of restoring the nation and establishing justice and peace throughout the world.

As outlined in my earlier post, Levenson shows that the “Beloved Son / Only Begotten Son” label can at times be used as a technical term for a son who is destined to be sacrificed or in some way given up to death or slavery by his father. Christians attributed this status to Jesus in relation to the twin themes of humiliation and exaltation.

While I am essentially here outlining notes from Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, I cannot claim that I am accurately reflecting the nuances of Levenson’s thought. It is inevitable that my personal interest will govern the subtext and organization of these notes. (Although I do clearly make notes where I depart from Levenson with other material altogether.)


The Beloved Son

So when Jesus is declared by his heavenly Father to be “my beloved son with whom I am delighted” (as one reads in Mark 1:11 and 9:7, Matthew 3:17 and 17:5, Luke 3:2 and 9:35 and 2 Peter 1:17 and compares with John 3:16), an audience familiar with the story of Isaac and its Jewish interpretations from the second Temple period would hear God identifying Jesus with Isaac.

An earlier heavenly voice similarly had bestowed the same honour on Isaac: “Take your beloved son, the one you love, and offer him up as a burnt sacrifice” (Genesis 22:2). This narrative of the binding of Isaac (the aqedah) took on evolving importance in the Second Temple period, as discussed in previous posts (see my Levenson tag). Isaac came to be seen as a willing participant in his sacrifice that took on atoning significance for the sins of Israel. Isaac’s “sacrifice” even came to be recalled as a meaning of the Passover lamb.

With this background, as Levenson notes, “it is reasonable to suspect that the early audiences of the synoptic Gospels connected the belovedness of Jesus with his Passion and crucifixion” (p.200).

The Suffering Servant

The “beloved son in whom I delight” in Mark and the other New Testament passages cited above owed as much to the figure of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah:

This is My servant, whom I uphold,
My chosen one, in whom I delight.
I have put My spirit upon him,
He shall teach the true way to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 further depicts the servant of YHWH as “an innocent, humble, and submissive man who was, nonetheless, persecuted, perhaps even unto death. These persecutions were not meaningless, however: they served a redemptive role, for through them the servant atoned vicariously for those who maltreated him. . . . The identification of Jesus with the suffering servant of the Book of Isaiah . . . became a mainstay of Christian exegesis” (p.201).

Levenson observes that the Christian interpretation of this passage was not broken within their ranks until the twelfth century when Andrew of St. Victor interpreted the suffering servant as referring to the sufferings of the Jewish people during their Babylonian exile. This view led to him being accused of “judaizing” the Bible.

The suffering servant was also imagined as a sheep about to be slaughtered:

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)

Isaac Bound and the Suffering Servant

We don’t know whether the Christian community was the first to relate the aqedah and suffering servant images to each other, of if the Christians were drawing on earlier Jewish exegesis. “Either way, the equation of Isaac with the suffering servant has its own potent midrashic logic” (p.201):

Sacrificial lambs

The binding of Isaac was seen as prefiguring the Passover lamb; the suffering servant was compared with a lamb to be slaughtered

Willingly accept their fate

Isaac came to be seen as willingly accepting his fate; the suffering servant also willingly accepts his fate

Their deaths give God complete pleasure

Both Isaac and the suffering servant provide their heavenly father with complete pleasure when faced with death (c.f. Isaiah 53:10-11)

The meaning of the chosen and beloved status

The chosen and beloved status of both Isaac and Jesus meant that each was fated to humiliation and exaltation, death and glory

Their deaths are redemptive

The blood of Isaac was seen in place of that of Israel and so saved Israel; the stripes of the suffering servant healed many, his soul was made an offering for sin


Beloved Son and the story of Joseph

At the transfiguration of Jesus where select disciples and the chosen readers glimpse the glory of Jesus to come, they hear him designated the Beloved Son, and are reminded again of his lot to be humiliated and sacrificed. But they hear something else in addition. He has authority. He is the one to be listened to and obeyed:

Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” (Mark 9:7; c.f. Matthew 17:5 and Luke 9:35)

The beloved son to be sacrificed is to receive the homage of others.

This has less to do with Isaac or the suffering servant than it does with the Joseph story in Genesis 37-50.

The starting point must be the fact that Joseph was singled out as the most beloved son of his father. He was the son of his old age and from his favoured wife. (Genesis 27:3).

Levenson has earlier discussed this narrative in depth. In sum, it is in part a story of how its hero came to be catapulted into the status of privilege and authority as had been promised him as a child, and how before this promise was granted he had to suffer many symbolic deaths (the first which his father took to be a real death). His final status of authority meant that even his older brothers had to listen to him and obey.

Transfiguration as an analog of the Joseph report to his father and brothers

In both the narrator depicts a future grandeur that seems completely out of place at the moment

Before the realization of this glory, both beloved sons must confront death, and experience betrayal and abandonment, apparently never to be seen again.

The contributions of the Joseph story to the Gospels

“What the Joseph story more than any other tales of the beloved son contributes to the Gospels is the theme of disbelief, resentment, and murderous hostility of the family of the one mysteriously chosen to rule” (p.202)

In the gospels the betrayal is principally by Judas who takes 30 pieces of silver in exchange for Jesus. Levenson remarks that it would seem more than possible that this episode was drawn from the sale of Joseph, as proposed by Judah (the namesake of Judas), for 20 pieces of silver.

The amount or 20 pieces of silver appears to be based on the price for a male Joseph’s age in Leviticus 27:5. The Gospel amount of 30 pieces may come from Zechariah 11:12

The same passage in Zechariah speaks of the shepherd breaking his staff, named Unity, to demonstrate the annulling of the brotherhood between Judah and Joseph. In the Joseph story Judah is the most important of Joseph’s brothers, and is the one who seeks to heal the rift in the family. (Another passage, Ezekiel 37:15-28, also speaks of 2 sticks, representing Judah and Joseph, and wants them reunited.)

Levenson comments: “In light of these biblical precedents, it was not an unlikely move for the Gospels to associate the fatal rift among the twelve disciples with the betrayal of Joseph, their father’s beloved son and the one among the twelve destined to rule despite his brothers’ enmity and perfidy.” I would suggest, rather, that the original account of the betrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark does not depict such a rift among the twelve disciples as Levenson seems to assume. It was well been argued that Mark’s gospel depicts all Twelve in some way betraying Jesus: Judas directly, Peter by denying him, all by abandoning him. They may be seen as just as collectively responsible for the betrayal of Jesus as all of Joseph’s brother are for his betrayal.

Beloved Son and the Messianic King

“The theme of authority [the command to “Hear Him!” at the transfiguration] draws the traditions of the beloved son into relationship with another important stream in Jewish tradition, that of messianism” (p.203).

Again, the messianic oracles resonate with the same terms of identity given by God to Jesus:

You are my son, today I have begotten you

(It is going beyond Levenson’s comments, but early Christians such as Justin testify to this same expression being used of Jesus.)

Royal theology of the House of David

The literature spoke of a divine commission to the Davidic king of heir, even if the latter were newborn or unborn. This literature calls for submission to the new king at a time when his rule seemed shaky:

The kings of the earth take their stand
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the LORD and against His Anointed/Messiah (Psalm 2:2)

God responds by mocking the plotters and establishing his anointed king:

“But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain.” (Psalm 2:6)

The king then speaks, reciting the terms of his commission from God:

“I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.
‘You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.’ ” (Psalm 2:7-9)

The king rules as Son of Yahweh.

This may be nothing more than a literary metaphor, since treaties establishing suzerainty and vassalage likewise used the terms “father” and “son” as diplomatic conventions to indicate that status.

Or it could be more than a convention of language. It could be “a living metaphor” in which the King hears the voice from heaven that gives him his authority to rule as God’s Son on earth. The Davidic King could be the manifestation of the universal rule of God on earth. The command is to Hear Him, or face the severest consequences.

Some of the messianic literature with its emphasis on the birth of the Davidic king appears to confirm this latter interpretation. The king is not an ordinary person who is a metaphoric son of God according to the diplomatic jargon of the covenant, but is a miraculous figure, and his accession transforms the world by ushering in a new age of the justice of God. Once enthroned he really was the divine son.

For unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given:
and the authority shall be upon his shoulders:
He has been named
“The Mighty God is planning grace;
The Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler” —
In token of abundant authority
and of peace without limit
upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom,
That it might be firmly established
In justice and equity
Now and evermore. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

The above points to the miraculous birth of the Davidic King, and this functions as yet another link with the Beloved Son . . . .

Beloved Son and Miraculous Birth

So if the birth of the king (regardless of the chronological age of the king at the time this was declared) was a miraculous event, we have another link with the tradition of the Beloved Son in the Genesis narratives. For in those stories are all born of a miracle, as a direct result of divine intervention. In the cases of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, they were all born of barren women, in one case even of a woman who was well beyond child-bearing years at the time — Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel.

It is a very common trope for heroic figures to be born outside the course of nature. (e.g. Samson in Judges 13; Samuel in 1 Samuel 1)

“One function of these stories is to legitimate the special status of the person to whom miraculous birth is attributed. His authority is not something that he has usurped: a gracious providence has endowed him with it, thus to the benefit of the entire nation” (p.205). Hence:

For unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given

Isaac’s priority lineage ahead of his older brother, Ishmael, and Isaac’s priority ahead of his older brother Esau, and the younger brother Joseph’s right to supremacy, were all legitimated by the miraculous circumstances of their births. They were bestowed authority, against all natural expectation and concourse, by the authoritative grace of God.

The New Testament equivalent of the beloved son being born to a barren woman is the birth of Jesus to a virgin.

In the Gospel of Matthew the virgin birth derives from a midrashic link to the Septuagint (Greek) text of Isaiah 7:14, where a Greek word often meaning virgin is used of the mother of the son to be named Immanuel (God with us) is to be born.

In the Gospel of Luke the virgin birth is associated much more directly with the titles of the one to be born “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God” – and with Jesus’ claims upon the Davidic throne (Luke 1:32-35).

The Gospel of Luke therefore draws on a very literal understanding of “son of God” in the Judean royal theology described in the previous section.


Levenson, p. 206:

Within the overall structure of the Gospels, however, the two vocabularies of sonship, that of the beloved son and that of the Davidic king as the son of God, reinforce each other powerfully. They yield a story in which the rejection, suffering, and death of the putatively Davidic figure is made to confirm rather than contradict his status as God’s only begotten son.


All four canonical gospels link Jesus’ death with the Passover. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) coincide the Last Supper with the Passover meal. Thus when Jesus declares the bread and wine to be his flesh and blood (or emblematic of them) these have to be judged as having a paschal significance.

The Gospel of John has the distinction of placing Jesus’ death itself on the Passover, so the Last Supper the evening before took place without any paschal associations. (Contrary to Levenson, however, I would note that the author of this gospel does associate bread and wine with Jesus’ paschal body – only at his implicit commentary on the feeding of the 5000 (John 6) — not on the Passover eve.)

The Gospel of John

So the author of GJohn links the body of Jesus on the cross, not the meal eaten the evening before, with the Passover. Thus in John 19:31-37 we see a gospel author relating the crucified body of Jesus

  1. to Numbers 9:12 (not a bone was to be broken in the Passover meal)
  2. and to Zechariah 12:10 (they will look upon him whom they pierced)

In the case of the latter reference to Zechariah 12:10, Levenson notes: “Here it is useful to remember that the relevance of a verse often extends beyond the words that the midrashist cites. In the case of Zech 12:10, it is highly suggestive to note that the words that follow those cited in John 19:37:

. . . wailing over them as over a favorite son and showing bitter grief as over a first-born. (Zech. 12:10c)

In the Septuagint (Greek) “Old Testament”, the word for “favorite son” is rendered, in the Greek, agapetos, “beloved one”. This is the same word the Septuagint used to translate the Hebrew “favorite son” (yahid) in the story of the binding of Isaac, the aqedah, in Genesis 22:2, 12, 16. (See fuller discussion in previous post.)

It thus appears that the author of GJohn is equating the first-born and beloved son with the paschal lamb, and all three of these with Jesus.

The Baptism of Jesus scene in the Gospel of John is not really a baptism of Jesus. Rather, it is a proclamation of the Baptist about the identity of Jesus — with no baptism. John declares Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Strictly the Passover lamb was not a sin offering. Levenson replies to this: “We must not assume that the fine technicalities of sacrificial classification weighed heavily upon the minds of the evangelists as they drew upon biblical materials for their own purposes. More importantly, the unclassifiable passover sacrifice of Exodus 12 does indeed have much in common with the sin offering, for it is through the blood of the lamb that lethal calamity is deflected, as the mysterious Destroyer is prevented from working his dark designs upon the Israelite first-born . . . ” ( p. 208 )

So the author of GJohn does not repeat the Synoptic words, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.”

But he did equate the beloved son with the paschal lamb.

And he has John the Baptist equate the Lamb of God with the Son of God (John 1:34).

The equation of the Son of God with the Lamb of God takes us back to Exodus 34:20 where the lamb was destined as a substitute for the firstborn to be sacrificed. Previous posts in this Levenson series have demonstrated the identification of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:13) with the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:11-15).

Revelation 12:10-11 also points to an early Christian understanding that the blood of the lamb overpowers the “accuser”, or Satan, and enables Christ to come to power. Levenson notes that this accuser in Revelation has “a striking analogue” in Jubilees 17:15-16, previously discussed for its relationship to the Exodus Destroyer and the Passover.

Thus John’s Gospel can be seen as both opening (1:29) and closing (19:36) with Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Paschal Lamb, and both of these brackets are taken from the story of the Passover — “the story of how the preternatural forces of death were foiled and the doomed first-born miraculously allowed to live” (p. 209).

Next to look at Paul’s contribution to this, and its significance for the self-identity of the church and relations with Jews.


Some “training in history” for Craig A. Evans, Richard Bauckham, et al.

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by Neil Godfrey

final editing about 2 hours after first posting . . .

In my last post on Fabricating Jesus I discussed Craig Evans’ put-down of sceptical conclusions on the grounds that “no-one trained in history” would entertain such “extreme” doubts as to whether we can know anything historical about Jesus at all or even if he existed. Evans isn’t the only bible scholar who has made such a comment, and my last post was not my final word on the subject. Will elaborate a little on that earlier post here. I’ve included Bauckham in the heading because his “historical” reconstruction of the gospels in another series of posts I submitted here also displays an abysmal ignorance of the most basic historical “training”. Since my last post began with von Ranke, a natural segue would be a discussion drawn from Niels Peter Lemche in The Israelites in History and Tradition. He, too, begins with von Ranke. (See earlier post for discussion of one of von Ranke’s contributions to historiography.)

Fundamentalists will dismiss Lemche because his methods do not lead to conclusions supporting their beliefs, but I challenge them to find historiographical, or even simply logical, rationales for overturning the historical principles he works by. But Lemche is by no means a one-off. After I finish with Lemche I hope to dig out a list of other names from my notes and edit them to post here with similar discussions about valid historical methodology, from both ancient and modern history. Continue reading “Some “training in history” for Craig A. Evans, Richard Bauckham, et al.”

Death and Return of Baal: a reply to a near consensus

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by Neil Godfrey

Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Bible at Lund University, Sweden, takes issue with the “near consensus” (in the wake of J. Z. Smith’s assault on Frazer’s work) that ancient “dying and rising gods” do not really return from the dead or rise to live again.

Since I made reference to Baal in this death and resurrection context in a recent post, have decided to summarize here Mettinger’s reasons for arguing that Baal in Ugaritic mythology did indeed die and return to life again. Mettinger’s book is The Riddle of the Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (2001). Continue reading “Death and Return of Baal: a reply to a near consensus”

Ignatius and the Gospel of Luke: In a relationship or just distant cousins?

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by Neil Godfrey

In an earlier post outlining notes from Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle I mentioned Tyson’s reference to Andrew Gregory’s conclusion that Ignatius did not make use of The Gospel of Luke:


The passage in Smyrnaeans 3:2 has striking resemblances to Luke 24:39. See the table on Glenn Davis’s site.

Tyson refers here to Andrew Gregory, The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Irenaeus: Looking for Luke in the Second Century, WUNT 2:169 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003). I have not yet seen this work so can only quote Tyson:

After calling attention to similarities between the two texts in terms of setting and language, Gregory finally agrees with William R. Schoedel in rejecting the view that Ignatius knew and used the Gospel of Luke. (p.82)

I have since caught up with the details of Andrew Gregory’s discussion in The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Irenaeus: Looking for Luke in the Second Century, 2003: Continue reading “Ignatius and the Gospel of Luke: In a relationship or just distant cousins?”


‘Fabricating Jesus’, ch1. Evans on Robert Price, and comments on “trained” historians

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by Neil Godfrey

(revised a bit of an hour after first posting)

Craig Evans writes of his astonishment that Robert Price concludes that

  1. the Jesus Seminar is too optimistic in attributing even as much as 18% of the Gospel sayings and deeds of Jesus really were said and done by Jesus
  2. the evidence for the historical Jesus is so weak we can know nothing certain or meaningful about him
  3. he is even willing to entertain the possibility that there was no historical Jesus

Evans replies

Virtually no scholar trained in history will agree with Price’s negative conclusions. (p.25)

Of course, such a response is a cop-out from dealing honestly with the arguments. Those who use this dismissal do not, in my experience, explain what it is about a trained historian’s skills that makes the difference. Is it because they think their lay audiences will be awed into unquestioning acceptance of this put-down by its implication that the requisite “training in history” is something only an elite can master?

Credible history begins with primary sources. There are no primary sources for the sayings, deeds or even the existence of Jesus. There are only what historians can best call secondary sources. I would like Evans and others who rely on this dismissal to list all the historical research areas those “trained in history” undertake in the absence of primary sources. The only disciplines I know where this is done is in the field of biblical studies.

Leopold von Ranke: ‘The founder of the science of history’. “The authoritative criticism of sources which he mainly developed is still valid today as a method of working in history . . .” – Humboldt University, Institute of History.

Where the only sources are folk tales of earlier days, then what the historian has at her disposal are the primary sources of the society that recorded those tales. They are not primary sources of the earlier days which are the topics of their narrative contents. As primary sources of the societies that produced or recorded them, they inform the historians of those societies’ respective interests, values, beliefs, myths, literacy, etc. As primary sources of these societies, they enable the historian to study those societies and what they believed or fancied.

I myself was “trained” in modern history, and we dealt at length with primary sources. I was also “trained” in ancient history, and the scope of the questions we could explore about ancient societies and movements and historical actors were so much more limited and qualified by virtue of the nature of the primary sources. Historians do not waste time discussing the impacts of people for whom there is only questionable or legendary or mythical (or theological) evidence. The Macedonian and Roman empires are undergirded by primary evidence, including primary evidence for some of their leaders, Philip, Alexander, Julius Caesar. There is no comparable primary evidence for the biblical empire of David and Solomon.

When it comes to great teachers like Socrates and Jesus, they may be notorious for not leaving any primary evidence, and not even writing down anything for posterity. In the case of Socrates this hardly matters, because what philosophers and historians of philosophy study are the writings of Plato. That he used the name of Socrates to express his views is widely acknowledged — the literary Socrates is used to inform us about the thoughts of Plato, not those of a historical Socrates. Even IF Socrates turned out to be nonhistorical nothing would be lost by that. Not much hangs on trying to sift through Plato and Xenophon and Aristophanes to try to discover “the historical Socrates”.

A comparable study in the case of Jesus would mean that historians of theology would study the gospels as sources of theological beliefs of a particular period.

As for the writings of Paul, we have only their self-reference until the mid second century. Without the controls historians are “trained” to look for when it comes to all other evidence they work with, we simply lack the necessary assurances about provenance and context that will enable us to use them confidently as a basis for “historical” research. “Trained” historians treat with caution any evidence that appears without controls that will enable a proper assessment of its nature and value. This caution has enabled historians to expose forgeries.

Secondary sources of historical events are of course studied by historians, and in some cases may well tell us more accurately of the past than the primary sources. A king might set up a monument to tell misleading propaganda about his reign, for example. Secondary sources may well help us detect the lies in the primary sources.

But there is simply not enough data for historians to do real history about the origins of Christianity. If they rely on Acts and the letters of Paul they are working with documents that lack the controls for a historian to assess their true provenance and value. We don’t even know — we can only make a variety of educated guesses — the authors or provenance or dates or audiences of the gospels. To rely on such documents to create history is not good history. We cannot professionally do what our tools will not allow us to do.

And/or they can apply anthropological and sociological and economic and literary models and attempt to fit all those over scant data, but there is simply not enough evidence to work with for historians to do anything much more than make educated guesses about how Christianity originated. Historians can work with primary and secondary evidence to attempt to explain the nature and development of Athenian democracy or the Roman empire. But some topics simply lack the requisite data that would enable a true historical enquiry.

Or they can study the documents as they are and attempt to analyze them for what they reveal about those who produced them, the sort of conditions that must have prevailed for them to have been produced in those ways, and how they appear to have influenced the development of one another. That is the closest to “real history” of any worth one can come.

That state of affairs — the application of the methods of “trained” historians — would not serve the religious interests of Craig Evans so he simply dismisses Price’s work as being animated by “a philosophical mindset that is at odds with historical research — of any kind.” In other words, Price’s methods, along with his justifications for them, are simply ignored as useless because there is no way anything Evans believes could be substantiated by them. If they don’t support his beliefs then they are useless for anything.

Evans also complains that Price “uncritically embraces the dubious methods and results of the Jesus Seminar”, but he also said on the previous page that Price is critical of the results of the Jesus Seminar. So one is left wondering if Evans is simply reacting intestinely rather than cranially to Price.

Evans further says Price “adopts much of the (discredited) Christ-Myth theory from the nineteenth century”. That struck me as a bit at odds with my recollections so I double checked the indexes in a couple of Price books and found the scantest references, usually footnotes, to any such nineteenth-century proponents. Price does discuss J. Z. Smith’s work on Frazer, and I would have liked Evans to have made a comment about that for fairness.

I also wish Evans had added a footnote to inform me of just one source that verifies his claim that much of that nineteenth century scholarship to which he refers has been “discredited” — as opposed to ignored. A biblical scholar once directed me to Walter P. Weaver’s The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century (1900-1950) but in addition to historical description I found there nothing more than synopses and brief statements of disagreement with some of the positions of those earlier authors.

And of course Evans tosses in info about Price’s background “with a fundamentalist Baptist church” — presumably to sustain his theory that scholars turn against the faith because of a misguided confusion of the true faith with errors in the church.

And a postscript to this:

Of course there are “trained historians” who write about their research in nonbiblical areas but who also draw on their peers in biblical studies. But their focus is not on exploring “the historical Jesus”, and they are really using shorthand as they must when making reference to some of the branches and twigs of the tree trunk they are examining. It is impossible for a single person to examine in the same depth every single datum, but that does not necessarily affect their main theses.

A link to Robert M. Price’s webpage here.

Next in this series — Evans on Ehrman . . . .