Monthly Archives: July 2009

Feeling the hate from “our” side

Posting two links that coincidentally attracted a similar header despite being experiences of two very different people from different parts of the world (Australia, USA) in contact with two quite different facets (university students, ultra-orthodox) of the one country (Israel). Posting the links in the interest of providing one more avenue for letting the other side of the story get an airing among western audiences.

Reporter feels mob’s hate in Holy City — raining spit.

Feeling the hate in Tel Aviv — cosmopolitan Israelis share their views.

For a more positive view of Israelis and slivers of hope I recommend Googling the words Jews and peace or Jews for peace.

Was forgery treated seriously by the ancients?

In relation to my earlier post Forgery in the ancient world:

It is sometimes argued by scholars of the New Testament that forgery was so common in the ancient world that no one took it seriously: since the deceit could normally be easily detected, it was never really meant to fool anyone. (p.115 of Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman 2009)

Ehrman continues:

I have spent the past couple of years examining the ancient discussions of forgery and have come to the conclusion that the only people who make this argument are people who haven’t actually read the ancient sources.

Ancient sources took forgery seriously. They almost universally condemn it, often in strong terms.

(My original post was an outline of Anthony Grafton’s first chapter of Forgers and Critics discussing the extent of literary forgeries in the ancient world — I picked this title up after reading a citation from it in Ehrman’s book.) 

Ten reasons for ancient forgeries (adapted from Ehrman’s list):

Money: Major libraries paid well to acquire “original” copies of texts since later hand-copies too often contained too many errors. “If librarians were paying cash on the head for original copies of treatises of the philosopher Aristotle, you’d be surprised how many original copies of treatises would start to turn up.” (p.116)

To denigrate opponents: A philosopher Diotemus was said to have forged and circulated 50 obscene letters in the name of his philosophical opponent Epicurus — to damage the reputation of Epicurus. Ehrman wonders if some of the more bizarre claims of Christianity’s “heretical sects” were similarly forged to discredit them.

To oppose other teachings: One of many examples is 3 Corinthians claiming to be by the apostle Paul to counter gnostic teachings that the general resurrection would not be “in the flesh”.

To give divine authority to one’s own teachings: Ehrman cites the ancient Sybylline oracles. Christians put their own teachings (e.g. the coming of the Messiah) into the mouth of ancient pagan oracles.

Humility – maybe but maybe not: A late argument is that followers of a famous teacher would write their own treatises under the name of their revered teacher or school’s founder since their arguments are what he would have said anyway. Ehrman observes that this argument is a late one rationalizing the many treatises written under the name of Pythagoras, and cites studies questioning its validity.

Love? Tertullian claims (in On Baptism) of the bishop who was found guilty of forging the stories of the Acts of Paul and Thecla: 

But if certain Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named, claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize, let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position. How could we believe that Paul should give a female power to teach and to baptize, when he did not allow a woman even to learn by her own right? Let them keep silence, he says, and ask their husbands at home. 

The fun of fooling others: Both Grafton and Ehrman retell the story of the 4th century b.c.e. philosopher Dionysius who claimed a play he wrote was actually by famed dramatist Sophocles. His intention was to ridicule a notable contemporary, Heraclides, who believed the play to be a genuine work of Sophocles. When Dionysius alerted Heraclides to an acrostic pattern in the text spelling out Dionysius’s own boyfriend, Heraclides responded that the pattern was purley coincidental Dionysius led Heraclides through other clues until he was forced to see a final acrostic that spelled out an insult against Heraclides personally. “When Heraclides had read this, we are told, he blushed.” (Grafton, p.4.)

To fill in the gaps: Many later Christian forgeries were of this kind. The missing childhood years of Jesus were filled in by accounts of Jesus’s childhood supposedly by “Thomas” (meaning Twin) and apparently referring to Jesus’ disciple brother, Jude. In Colossians Paul had mentioned a letter to the Laodiceans. A couple of letters claiming to be this work of Paul’s finally turned up in the second century.

To fight fire with fire: 4th century Emperor Maximinus ordered that a text, the Acts of Pilate in which Pilate is vindicated as justifiably crucifying Jesus, be read in all schools throughout the Roman empire. Christians responded with their own Acts of Pilate in which Pilate is said to have expressed his belief in the innocence of Jesus. The Apostolic Constitutions, a fourth century book claiming to be written by the Twelve Apostles, warns readers against reading anything falsely claiming to be by apostles. 2 Thessalonians, another forgery claiming to be from Paul, warns against reading letters falsely attributed to Paul.

To authenticate one’s own views: The most effective way to convince others of one’s own doctrinal views was to write a book expressing those views but claiming it is authored by an apostle. Hence early Christianity has produced many works among both the “orthodox” and “heretics” alike all claiming to be written by apostles or women followers of Jesus.


How the Jewish leaders could have wiped out Christianity the day it started

There is one explanation for the crucifixion of Jesus that seems to be almost taken for granted in much of the literature I read on the origins of Christianity, and that is that Pilate had Jesus crucified as a political rebel. The gospel accounts deny this, of course, but that is explained by their authors wanting to present their crucified leader in the best possible light. So they depict Pilate as pressured against his own better judgement to allow the crucifixion of an innocent man. Since the gospels were written long after the events they narrate, let’s leave them aside for a moment and ask again how the Christian movement could ever have started if Jesus really had been crucified as a suspicious crowd attractor who was seen by some as a potential King.

Firstly, here are some of the more obvious reasons for the argument that Jesus was executed by Rome for a political crime.

  1. The crime was written above the cross, except that in the Gospel’s case what was written was not, “He claimed to be King of the Jews”, but that he was the King of the Jews.
  2. Pilate asked Jesus at is trial if he were the King of the Jews, and not, oddly, whether he claimed to be their king. Furthermore, the rest of the hearing before Pilate simply ignores this charge and goes on to dramatize Pilate becoming mesmerized by Jesus over his silence in the face of a host of other charges, the nature of which we are left ignorant.
  3. Jesus is said in the gospels to have attracted crowds of thousands, and spoken about a kingdom of God, and in one gospel it is even said that the crowds hoped to make him their king on the spot. But Jesus fled.
  4. Josephus informs us of a few other messianic type leaders who attracted large followings, and how the Romans came in and liquidated them without bothering with questions or formal proceedings of any kind.

Scholarly reconstructions generally paint the following steps as taking place to get Christianity up and running

  1. Close followers of Jesus had been so deeply impressed by him that after his shocking death many came to still sense that Jesus was still a present force with them.
  2. They came to think of him as still alive — within them.
  3. They could not help but c0ntinue to preach about Jesus, and to convert others over time to their faith.
  4. A few fundamentalist tract authors who are accepted as part of the scholarly guild even insist their hundreds of pages of publications prove Jesus really did miraculously rise from the dead and appear to his disciples, as per a mix of the gospel accounts.

One feature in common with all scenarios presented is that the Jewish politico-religious establishment wanted Jesus dead, or at least out of the way. It is generally accepted that they knew they were bringing a false accusation against Jesus when they accused him before Pilate of political treason. This was the one charge they calculated would stick and trouble the Roman governor.

So now we come to where this all leaves us concerning the question of how Christianity ever got off the ground.

When those disciples started preaching to others about Jesus, and explaining how they believed he was still alive, and how they were continuing to dedicate their lives to him and his work, then what was to stop the Jewish leaders from sending a quick missive off to Pilate or the new Roman governor charging his followers with attempting to stir up a renewed following of one crucified as an enemy of Caesar?

Or when/if they had their own Temple police arrest the disciples, as we are told they did in Acts, then why not simply march them off to the Roman judge and ask him to finish off phase 2 of the job? He’d crucified the head, now it was necessary to crucify the limbs. No problems.

And when Paul faced Jewish persecutors at every turn, why did not a single one of those persecutors seem to think to bring the one charge that could have put a very abrupt end to Paul’s influence: Paul was attempting to build up a following for an enemy of Caesar!

We know why that never enters the New Testament narrative, of course. The authors were writing a certain plot and were controlling the actions and dialogues of the characters they were bringing to life through pen and ink.

The author of Acts ensured that the disciples themselves maintained the initiative in all the debates with the Jewish authorities. The latter were so overwhelmed by the power of these renewed lives and all the miracles from God that attended them, that they were, let’s see, simply too dumbstruck to think of the more logical and practical responses that would normally have happened in any historical real life circumstance. — that is, repeat the charges that had led to their first victory, and the second time around maybe have them all crucified upside down for good measure for daring to have such stubbornness.

I seem to recall I read Paula Fredriksen’s book about the crucifixion of Jesus — and addressing the question of why the disciples were ignored — some years back, and recall pencilling in remarks on nearly every page since I found the book as shoddy a piece of scholarship as some of the worst of Bauckham and N.T. Wright’s. I hope to get access to that book again in a month or two and will have to see if she adds anything that I should recall in the above argument.

Till then, the scholarly view that Jesus was crucified as a political rebel only serves to explain how Christianity could never possibly have got a leg up in the first place.

But I suppose that’s why miracles and divine intervention are such handy narrative tools.

So we are left with options. Either take the NT as it is, more or less; accept an historical analysis that raises more questions than it answers; . . . . or or or . . . .

My Zemanta tried to find me a picture of twelve crucifixions and this was the closest it could retrieve. A 12 (string) Passion — quite clever for a machine, I thought 🙂

My twelve string's passion/ Mi pasión de doce ...
Enhanced by Zemanta

Forgery in the ancient world

Anyone who suspects graphic details in a narrative are a sign of authenticity of a text or eye-witness source needs to read Anthony Grafton’s Forgers and Critics : Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship (1990). In this blog post I’m shgraftonaring my notes from his first chapter.

According to Anthony Grafton, there are two claims that remind readers of the possibility of forgery at work:

  1. the claim that a writer had copied accurately every word of the ancient texts before him (how could readers know? is the assertion intended to put readers off the scent of something suspicious?)
  2. the claim that a document was found in miraculous or extremely lucky circumstances (e.g. the High Priest Hilkiah just happened to find in the Temple for King Josiah the Book of Deuteronomy that had eluded all priests before him; Egyptian medical texts claim to have been found “under the feet of Anubis”, etc. — see my notes on Davies’ discussion of the Book of Deuteronomy re the book’s fraudulent provenance.)

Greece, 6th and 5th centuries b.c.e.

Solon and Pisistratus, Athenian statesmen, were suspected of interpolating lines into Homer’s Iliad to give Athens a more prominent role in the Trojan War than Homer had originally given that city.

Acusilaus of Argos, author of an account of gods, demigods and human heroes, claimed his source of information was a set of “bronze tablets discovered by his father in their garden.”

He thereby created one of the great topoi of Western forgery, the motif of the object found in an inaccessible place, then copied, and now lost, as the authority for what would have lacked credibility as the work of an individual. (p.9)

Ctesias, an historian who wrote a gossipy account of Persian history that regularly contradicted another famous historian, Herodotus, claimed to have superior sources. He claimed he had accessed and read the official archives of Susa.

He thereby enriched forgers with another of their favourite resources, the claim to have consulted far-off official documents, preferably in an obscure language.

Greece, 5th and 4th centuries b.c.e.

Public inscriptions declaring the rights and possessions of cities, and producing documentary evidence to support these claims, sprang up during an era of city-state rivalries.

Antiquaries compiled from local tradition, logical inference, and thin air full lists of their cities’ early rulers, their temples’ early priestesses, and their games’ early victors.

When such claims could be supported with a bit of padding out from details of ancient treaties and other documents, historians and orators would come to the rescue and find just the texts they needed to publicly quote in the inscriptions.

Temples were also in rivalry with one another, so the more records that could be “found” that supposedly demonstrated that gods themselves had visited them in the past, or that miraculous cures had been performed by their gods, the better. To meet the need appropriate historical inscriptions were found, and so were relics discovered that “proved” the cures.

The Peace of Callias. Mid 5th century b.c.e., the Greek Battle of Marathon hero, Callias, was sent to Persia to conclude a peace treaty. During the 4th century the stone monument claiming to be this peace treaty came under question. Suspicions were aroused by Theopompus who noticed that the script it was carved in, the Ionian alphabet, had never been used by the Athenians until the end of the 5th century. Anachronisms thus made their appearance as a tool for detecting forgeries.

Why the historian Thucydides preferred Oral Testimony. Thucydides is famous well known for asserting that direct oral testimony was always to be preferred by an historian to written testimony. This suggests, of course, that written records could not be interrogated and established in the same way oral reports could.

The irony here is that Richard Bauckham in his “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” uses this claim of Thucydides to assert that ancient historians (pre-Enlightenment characters) used more reliable evidence than (post-Enlightenment) moderns, and writes of “eyewitness testimony” as if it were something holy, unquestionable, raw experience — and writes at length about the “testimony” of holocaust survivors. So it is interesting to read Grafton’s take on Thucydides’ method here: written testimony could not be questioned the way oral testimony could. I can’t imagine Bauckham seriously suggesting that the gospel authors spent time “interrogating” their eye-witnesses.

The Literary, Library and Book market revolutions

The Ancient Library of Alexandria.

By the fourth century b.c.e. educated people were aware that literary works by specific individuals carried distinctive styles and sets of concerns.

Canons of classic texts began to emerge as exemplars of the best in prose and poetry. Schools taught pupils to imitate these. A favourite school exercise was to give students an assignment of writing letters in the style of, and expressing the interests of, well-known authors. Some of these could easily have become accepted as genuine once they went into circulation.

According to Galen, the demand for texts from the literary masters in the canons soon outgrew supply. Libraries, schools, and wealthy individuals sought new and old works at great expense. Forgers produced hitherto unknown works (supposedly) by famous authors and sold those to the major libraries as well.

At public orations and dramatic performances audiences would as likely as not be being treated to forgeries. (p. 12) The famous names sold.

Libraries contained multiple copies of works by the famous playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and prose works by Plato, Hippocrates and Aristotle, but many of the titles attached to these names were outright forgeries.

Librarians reacted by compiling lists of what they judged to be genuine works in their collection, and other judged as spurious. Librarians and literary scholars devised various tests to attempt to determine which works were genuine and which spurious.

So, for example, at a time when there were 130 plays in circulation claiming to be by the playwright Plautus, scholars such as Varro judged only twenty or so to be genuine.

Sectarian rivalries to prove the greatest antiquity

Orphic and Pythagorean sects. Members of groups or sects such as these chose to live by authoritative texts of their so called founding masters who had supposedly lived in distant antiquity.

The need for ancient texts by such groups was met by those willing to make the effort to supply it.

Egyptian, Babylonian and Jewish pride produces more “proof texts”. After being conquered by Alexander the Great and ruled by Greek dynasties, scribes and priests from these peoples restored some of their cultural pride by managing to prove that their histories and famous texts showed that they were older and more prestigious in literary, philosophical and religious accomplishments than the Greeks.

These “proof texts” were meant to impress a Greek audience since they were written in Greek, although they claimed to have been translations of earlier texts.

The Jews, for example, produced a Greek version of the Bible, although they claimed it was a translation of an earlier Hebrew one. They went further, however. They also claimed that their Hebrew Bible was the very source of inspiration for those famous Greek philosophical ideas of Plato etc.

Epicurean, Pythagorean and Zoroastrian sects, not to be outdone, had to offer texts that could claim the same or greater antiquity than the Middle Eastern ones.

How to create a text with the glamour of divine authority

  • It must appear to come from a respectfully distant historical past
  • It could be written in the first person as if spoken by either
  • a divine figure
  • or one of his human companions
  • or an authoritative interpreter of his teachings
  • It should (unlike “normal” literary genres) preferably offer a variety of functions, instructing in both methods of worship and daily life conduct

Forgeries of this kind abounded, and the methods used to detect them grew in sophistication as the complexity of the forgeries became ever more baroque. (p. 15)

Not questioned by Grafton, but surely entitled to the question, is the traditional scholarly dating of the Pauline epistles and the canonical gospels. Scholars who rely on internal evidence only to say that Paul wrote in the 50’s or the gospels were written not long after 70 c.e. seem to me to be leaving the door wide open for the trap Grafton warns against here. Surely external evidence — when we can see OTHERS first knew of these texts — should surely carry much more weight than it currently does. But to be this careful, it would mean ascribing the letters of Paul — and all the gospels — to the second century! Oh no – impossible – . . . . That would change EVERYTHING! Yup! Especially if we can see how they so conveniently met the “timely needs” of those others! Woops . . . .

A sophisticated forgery classic: the Letter of Aristeas

Date: probably 2nd century b.c.e.

Purpose: to explain the origin of the Greek version of the Old Testament or Jewish Bible, the Septuagint, the LXX.


  1. Librarian of the Egyptian Alexandrian library, Demetrius, writes to his king Ptolemy Philadelphus “about acquisitions policy”. He points out that the library lacks a copy of the “Books of the Laws of the Jews”, and that the only extant ones are in Hebrew and of inferior quality since they have not had royal warrant to guarantee their accurate transmission.
  2. The king responds giving Demetrius permission to ask the Jewish high priest, Eleazar, to send 6 representatives from each of the twelve tribes of Israel “to prepare a perfect, official translation.”
  3. The letter defends the ritual codes of the Jews in the Law, explaining that these are all allegories for deeper philosophical conduct and are not meant to be interpreted literally. The ethical standards of the Book are praised.
  4. The letter concludes with the acceptance of the new translation by all the Jews at Alexandria.

Evidence of forgery:

The Demetrius in question was never the librarian of the Alexandrian library under Ptolemy Philadelphus (who disliked him). Grafton cites Pfeiffer, History, 100-101 for other errors as well, but I have not yet had a chance to consult this.

Sophistication of the lie:

The author uses the methods that Alexandrian critics had developed to correct texts and detect fakes to make his own text seem all the more credible.


  1. he uses the allegorical method to “explain away” or justify the crude dietary and other ritualistic codes of the Jews just as other contemporary scholars had used allegory to rationalize the more barbaric and tasteless sections of Homer.
  2. he discusses how the correct translations were arrived at in part through standard textual criticism — collating all the variant manuscripts and emendations available — to suggest the most scholarly methods of determining accuracy were used and to strengthen the credibility of his narrative
  3. rather than just tell a narrative story about the negotiations between Demetrius and Ptolemy, he “quotes word for word” from Demetrius’ memorandum. Adding a touch of realism like this (a lie within a lie) enhances the credibility of his letter.
  4. he writes for two audiences: for Jews of Palestine to demonstrate that the Greek translation is superior to their Hebrew version; for gentiles to demonstrate that the Jewish ritual laws are not meaningless but allegorical philosophical codes.
  5. his motive is not money, but a desire to assert the spiritual authority of the Septuagint over the Hebrew bible.

Grafton comments that this forgery is one of the most complex to survive, but it is really but one example of a very large population. “The early Christians produced them by the dozen” (p.17)

Christian forgeries

Scholars have long recognized that 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, are forgeries, just as much as the Apostolic Constitutions. Their intent, of course, was to use the names of old authorities, and first person accounts, to attempt to settle doctrinal disputes within the church.

The more exotic the claimed origin, and language, the better

Publics could be more impressed if a document could be said to have originated in a foreign (holy — e.g. Egyptian, Etruscan) language, with an explanation that its Greek translation could only partially capture the full power of the original.

This was the case with the text of the demigod Hermes Trismegistus, which was in fact written in Greek for Greek reader, despite its claim to have had an Egyptian origin. It still impresses some people today, although it was originally a pastiche of Greek philosophical tags and poorly understood Egyptian sayings and traditions — but it seemed exotic and appeared to have had an Egyptian origin.

Another case was the “thunder calendars” of supposedly Etruscan origin. These explained the meanings of thunder on any given day of the year. The text claimed to have been composed word for word from primeval demigods, Tages and Tarchon. Its claim for Etruscan provenance was enough to persuade many of its value.

Augustan History (Scriptores Historiae Augustae)

This (4th century c.e.) is another classic sophisticated forgery that may have no other purpose than the amusement of its author (although it claimed to be a compilation of works of six scholars). To strengthen its claims for authenticity it even cited the very shelf-number of a non-existent text:

“the ivory book” containing a senatus consultum signed by the emperor Tacitus. It was in bookcase 6 at the Ulpian Library, where the “linen books” containing the deeds of Aurelian were also housed.

Nothing could have done more to enhance the credibility of this dedicated but self-mocking imaginary scholar, whose curiosity embraced even the smallest details of imperial lives and works — who ironically represented himself as admitting to Junius Tiberianus, the prefect of Rome, that “there is no writer, at least in the realm of history, who has not made some false statement. (p.19)

Forgery under the nose of the true author?

Would forgers even have dared to pass off spurious works under the very noses of the authors they were forging? It happened.

Galen is best remembered as a medical writer. He wrote a complaint that he could walk through the streets of Rome and see on sale books claiming to be by himself (Galen Physician) that he had not been responsible for at all. He went on to attempt to explain how readers could tell the difference between his works and the spurious ones circulating under his name.

But this is a point that those familiar with the letters of Paul know, although this comparison is my own, and not Grafton’s that I am inserting here. In a letter that is judged by many scholars to be a forgery itself, “Paul” warns his readers to beware of letters circulating that claim to be from him. So the idea of forgeries within the time and area of their namesakes was certainly a plausible one at the time. See 2 Thessalonians for discussion, and 2:2 in particular.

Galen was also a textual critic who wrote analyses of earlier medical works. In his preface to Hippocrates, On the Nature of Man, he addresses different views of the work, some that had argued the whole book was a forgery and others who had argued but a single line was an interpolation.

Galen argues that the first part of the work was genuine, but the latter part was certainly forged. His arguments:

  1. the first part was referred to by Plato in Phaedrus, so had to have been in existence then
  2. the second part contains anachronisms, such as technical terms for “unbroken” and “urines” that early Greek doctors never used but that were only otherwise used by recent medical practitioners.

Julius Africanus, Christian scholar and Roman librarian

Julius Africanus wrote a letter to Origen demolishing any hope of any thoughtful person accepting the story of Susanna as belonging to the original Book of Daniel — which it is attached to in the Greek, though not in the Hebrew version.

Again, his arguments are interesting for their “modernity”:

  1. The Jews in the disputed text enjoy more freedom than was in fact the case during the Babylonian captivity
  2. Daniel in the disputed text prophesied in direct speech, unlike the Daniel in the other text who spoke via angelic visions
  3. The story was too silly to be a Greek mime
  4. The story contains two crucial elaborate puns — in Greek — so it could not have been a translation from the Hebrew.


Anthony Grafton continues with a discussion of Jerome’s detection of forgeries, even in the supposed canon of Biblical works, and then moves into the Middle Ages, and on to the present day.

It is interesting to see that the tools or arguments used today for detecting forgeries were in use even in ancient times. It is equally interesting to see that the arguments that exposed forgeries then failed to persuade those who wanted to believe they had the genuine literature, just as much as the same tools today fail to convince any Mulder who “wants (or needs) to believe”.

Can recommend an earlier companion post to this one, Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions.

Recognizing the Triumphant Conqueror in Mark’s crucifixion scene

Continuing from Reasons, 3 . . .

This post owes almost all of its details to T. E. Schmidt’s Jesus’ Triumphal March to Crucifixion. So if you’ve read that there is no need to read this. I have a few additional points here, but nothing substantial. I only attempt a slightly different perspective, that’s all.

Firstly, I am going to try to avoid using the word “irony” in connection with Mark’s narrative here, since I have recently been alerted to the fact that the literary use of irony is a relative latecomer in the history of literature, and that what authors of Mark’s era were taught and practiced was the good old Aristotelian gradually unfolding “recognition” scenes. These were the stuff of ancient Hellenistic creative literature.

Paul makes the analogy between Christ and the Roman Triumphator plain and direct in 2 Corinthians 2:14-15

Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.

The Triumphators’ followers were saved, and some of his prisoners were sent off for execution.

The conquering general or emperor was hailed as the epiphany of God. Initially he was the god Dionysus, but later was identified with Zeus. The crowds who came to see this event would repeatedly cry out “Triumpe”, a call for the god to make himself manifest.

The Roman Triumphal March

Mark 15:16

Then the soldiers led him away into the hall called Praetorium, and they called together the whole garrison.

The Praetorium was, in Rome, the common designation for the place and personnel of the imperial guard. It was the imperial guard who made and unmade emperors. (It could also refer to a military HQ in general, but throughout this post I am going to be assuming Mark was written in Rome for a Roman audience.)

The soldiers call for the whole cohort of 200 men minimum. It is unimaginable to think of 200 soldiers being called out to make fun of one man. It appears that Mark is signalling to his readers that Jesus about to embark of a triumphal procession as a sign of his power over all his enemies, and he is doing this by bringing in the props that were used for a Roman emperor’s procession.

Mark 15:17

And they clothed him with purple, and they twisted a crown of thorns, put it on his head,

The Roman emperor wore purple. It was a colour forbidden to lower ranks. Schmidt remarks that in Jerusalem the only purple cloak available for this mockery of Christ would have been Pilate’s, and Pilate is hardly likely to have lent his out for this occasion to be spat on.

Mark instead is signalling to his readers in the know that Jesus is the true imperial conqueror, in particular at this very moment.

The Roman triumphator would be clothed in purple, wear a crown of laurel, and hold a staff in his right hand. Another anomaly here is the notion that there would be right nearby a handy clutch of thorn branches for soldiers to make an impromptu crown. The details are signalling to the reader that this moment of humiliation is in fact the moment of Jesus’ Triumph over his enemies.

Mark 15:18

and began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!”

Before embarking on the triumphal procession the Roman conqueror would stand before his soldiers to receive their adulation. Again, this is the author’s way of adding more detail to verify the truly conquering identity of Jesus, though this is obviously hidden from the actors in the narrative.

Mark 15:20

And when they mocked him . . .

This point is not discussed by Schmidt, but I think it is a significant detail nonetheless. Roman triumphators, even though appearing as a god, would be accompanied in by those whose task it was to mock, ridicule and insult them in their ears — in order to remind them, we are informed, that they were but men. To keep them humble.

Mark 15: 21

Now they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear his cross.

The triumphal procession included the sacrificial animal being led by its executioners carrying the double-bladed axe, the instrument of their execution.

Not mentioned by Schmidt, and a detail that is testified (in a historical novel by Heliodorius) a good century after this narrative was written, is that these butchers or executioners of the triumphal sacrifice were taken from the countryside. That was their “craft”, after all — butchering their animals for sale.

Again not mentioned by Schmidt, but I can’t help but wonder about the names Alexander and Rufus in this context. Who was Alexander but the archetypical Greek conqueror, and who is Rufus (meaning Red) but the Roman conqueror in such a procession whose face was painted red in imitation of Zeus for this march. And Simon a Cyrenian, is, of course, the namesake of the Simon who failed Jesus at this moment. Instead of taking up his own cross and following Jesus, he is assisting with the execution of Jesus.

Mark 15:22

And they brought him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of the Skull/Head.

Schmidt explains that a more accurate translation is Head rather than Skull. Citing Schmidt, here:

Mark may be offering this translation simply to heighten the sense of the macabre. But there is a remarkable coincidence in the name of the place that may constitute another allusion to the triumph. Dionysius of Halicarnassus records the legend that, during the laying of a foundation for a temple on a certain Roman hill, a human head was discovered with its features intact. Soothsayers proclaimed:

“Romans, tell your fellow citizens it is ordered by fate that the place in which you found the head shall be the head of all Italy,” (and) since that time the place is called the Capitoline hill from the head that was found there; for the Romans call heads capita.

The temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, or more simply the Capitolium, was the terminus of every Roman triumph. The procession would wind through the streets to the Forum, culminating in the ascent of the triumphator to the place of sacrifice—the place named after a death’s-head. The name “Golgotha” (head) may simply be a linguistic and historical coincidence, but to an audience prepared by the context of Mark’s gospel to look for double meanings, it would be a glaring and meaningful coincidence: Golgotha was the Capitolium (head) to which the triumphator ascended.

I used to disagree with Michael Turton’s suggestion that Mark’s gospel was indicating that Jesus was crucified in or at the Temple. I am not so sure I should disagree any longer. If Mark was writing for a Roman audience, and this is often suggested by scholars, then he gives no reason to think that his readers would picture any scene other than Jesus being crucified at the Jerusalem temple. It is worth recalling that some early Christian texts (e.g. the last part of the Ascension of Isaiah and the Book of Revelation) did indeed say that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem.

I know the suggestion seems crazy, but surely that is only because of our familiarity with all the paintings of the crucifixion scene — AND because of our convictions that there is an historical basis to this fabulous story. (It would also make a little more sense of the remark that “someone noticed” that the temple veil was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death.)

Mark 15:23-24

Then they gave him wine mingled with myrrh to drink, but he did not take it. And when they crucified him. . .

Expensive wine is offered at the moment he is to be sacrificed, but he does not take it. Roman readers familiar with the Roman triumphal procession knew that at the moment of the sacrifice of the bull the emperor was offered wine, which he poured out on the bull itself. The bull was the god dying and the emperor was the god living at this moment of the pouring out of the wine.

Mark 15:27

And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and the other on his left.

Roman readers would have recognized this from triumphal processions also — as in the following examples of Triumphs:

  1. Tiberius took his seat beside Augustus between two consuls
  2. Claudius in his triumph with his sons-in-law supporting him on either side
  3. Vitellius placed his conquering generals, Valens and Caecina, on either side of him
  4. Vespasian rode with his son Titus on one side in his chariot and with his other son, Domition, riding on his other side

Historical or rhetorical?

It ought to be obvious that the original author was not interested in narrating history. Historical reconstruction is not on his agenda. The whole structure is composed of implausibilities and oddities (the fact of the crucifixion itself with Pilate releasing a rebel and crucifying Jesus just to please a crowd, the crown of thorns, cloak of purple, 200 soldiers called out for one man, offering a very expensive wine — not a pain killer — with myrrh; and more is to follow, with noon turning to dark, etc.) that serve to inform insider readers that Jesus was, at this moment of humiliation, undertaking his conquering procession.

And this, note, is the first narrative of the crucifixion after Paul’s many references to it as a theological (only) event.

Reasons to question historicity of crucifixion, 3

I began this series with

  1. Reasons to question . . .
  2. Grounds to question . . .

Historicity of the crucifixion cannot be in doubt simply because Paul writes of the crucifixion as a theological event. But when the theological meanings attributed to the crucifixion defy historical realities, then we are entitled to question the historicity of the event. In my last post on this I presented this fact in relation to Paul’s first letter to Corinth: a historical crucifixion simply does not sit with mere ‘foolishness’ to Greeks nor ‘unimpressive weakness’ for the Jews. See the previous post (Grounds, above) for details.

Nor am I arguing that these factors disprove the historicity of the crucifixion. Of course they don’t. But in the absence of any historical context in these earliest references to the crucifixion, and in the presence of mystical and angelic direct involvement in the event, then it is simply not honest with the evidence to claim that the crucifixion is “a bedrock fact of history”.

Moving on to Romans.

Paul begins his discussion of the death of Jesus here by pairing it with the sin of Adam (Romans 5).

In the next chapter Paul teaches that the Christian’s “old man” is crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). Again, the crucifixion of Christ is portrayed as an everpresent reality with which humanity within the earthly sphere can continue to relate.

In Romans 7 Paul argues that the mere fact of the body is a form of death, because it is enslaved to sin. Similarly in Romans 8, it is death to have the mind of the flesh. The hope of Christians is some form of mystical identification with an everpresent reality of a crucified and resurrected Christ.

The same can be shown for other letters of Paul, or those attributed to him. (That is, we are omitting the Pastorals which, I believe, have sufficient reasons for most scholars to question their authenticity as from Paul’s hand.) I’ll avoid here the repetition of all of these. The facts are in everyone’s Bibles to read for themselves.

The first crucifixion narrative — the Gospel of Mark

Many modern texts place the Gospel of Mark twenty to ten years after the letters of Paul. There are several significant points to note about this narrative when we are evaluating its value as a source for an historical event underlying the narrative.

  1. Mark’s account contains reasons to believe it was written as fictional recognition scene — that is, if followed the common novelistic style of playing winks with his readers who pick up his clues about the identity of Jesus at this crucial moment, while at the same time composing a narrative in which the actors remain dim-witted. In other words, the author’s interest is rhetorical, not historical.
  2. Early accounts also suggest the crucifixion story was driven by a need to find a fulfilment of a particular OT scripture regarding the Son of Man, and to preach variant theologies.
  3. The narratives surrounding the crucifixion are riddled with historical implausibilities and inaccuracies.
  4. Subsequent noncanonical literature flatly contradicted some of the core details of Mark’s account, and some appeared to deny a crucifixion at all.
  5. Subsequent theological debates were about the theological meaning of the crucifixion, with no interest in its historicity, or using historical data to support their theological arguments.
  6. All subsequent nonChristian references to the crucifixion as an historical event add nothing more than what was believed among proto-orthodox or orthodox Christians, and appear to have been unknown until some centuries after they were supposedly first penned.
  7. One, possibly two, earliest nonChristian (Roman) references to Christianity make no reference to a crucifixion, even though they had every reason to bring up as much hostile detail as possible.

I’ll start with #1 first — in the next post.

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