Monthly Archives: November 2009

“Most critical scholars” confusing plot setting and character constructs with historical fact

When discussing the evidence for the historical Jesus in Honest to Jesus Robert Funk writes

What do we know about this shadowy figure who is depicted in snapshots in more than twenty gospels and gospel fragments that have survived from antiquity?

The short answer is that we don’t know a great deal. But there are a few assorted facts to which most critical scholars subscribe. (p. 32)

A layman introducing himself to this topic for the first time would be forgiven for understanding this passage as assuring him that “critical scholars” have been able to construct at least some meagre outline of an historical figure drawn from careful analyses of more than twenty independent pieces of evidence. Ironically Funk elsewhere complains that “biblical scholars . . . have learned to live in a limbo between the heaven of the knowledge we possess and the hell of the ignorance we have taken oaths to dispel . . . by cultivating ambiguity . . .” (pp. 54-55)

So it will be informative and in the interests of being honest to historical enquiry to take careful note of exactly what are these “assorted facts” about Jesus that Robert Funk lists, and their actual sources. It will also be instructive to compare the reasons for accepting some data as “facts” with those used for rejecting others as “fictional embellishments”.

Common misunderstandings of the mythicist argument

1. Before continuing, just to clear aside one common misperception raised any time the mythicist argument enters:

No one I know of has ever argued (and I certainly don’t) that someone made up a story about recent real historical events and invented persons, and that significant numbers of people (who could have known better) began to believe in this newly constructed history of the recent past.

As far as I know that is not how any new religion or myth emerges. The narratives usually evolve as post hoc explanations of rituals and beliefs. Historicization is often a relatively late phase. Compare the trajectory of evidence we have for Jesus: the earliest sources (Paul’s letters, let’s say, and his earlier sources such as creedal formulas and prayers) portray a divine Christ figure, and there is a gradual ‘humanization’ of this figure through to the relatively late gospel of Luke, and even more so with some of the later apocryphal gospels. Some scholars, significantly, read Mark, the first of the canonical gospels, as an intentional allegory or parable, not history. Some, also significantly, question the common early dating of the gospels. (I hate to disagree with certain assumptions underlying James Crossley’s public version of his doctoral thesis on this, but so be it.)

2. A second argument commonly thought to dispense with the mythicist position up front is that it is said no Jew would make up the idea of a crucified Messiah, hence there must be a historical basis for the belief that Jesus was the Messiah and that some remarkable experience must have enabled them to continue with this belief after his death. This is nothing less than the fallacy of the argument from personal incredulity. In response it should be enough to point out

(a) the logical fallacy and

(b) a work of the Jewish scholar, Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.

I have made available the general outline of his arguments in a series of posts here. One of my most accessed posts is from this archive, and titled, Jesus Displaces Isaac: midrashic creation of the biblical Jesus (6). Levenson provides the evidence and reasons for believing that the Christian narrative of the atoning and saving death and resurrection of the Beloved (Only) Son was borrowed from late Second Temple Jewish midrashic interpretations of their scriptures about Isaac, Joseph and others. While the cosmic significance of this event is attributed to Jewish apocalyptic, the story itself is a natural evolution or mutation of a Jewish idea that had been on the burner for some time. It is not a huge leap to merge known Jewish precedents relating to Isaac with Son of Man concepts from Daniel in the post-70 trauma of the Jews.

This synopsis of a caveat is still an oversimplification. A full explanation has been made many times elsewhere and I can reserve my own take for another post.

Funk’s list of assorted facts and figures

The words in parentheses are Funk’s own qualifications. Bold font indicates “facts” listed without qualification.

  • Jesus lived from around and between the death of Herod the Great to the end of Pilate’s governorship
  • Jesus lived in Palestine
  • Jesus “was attracted to” the “movement” of John the Baptist (“fairly certain” of this)
  • John the Baptist was a historical figure (“almost certain” of this)
  • Simon Peter, James and John, sons of Zebedee and known as “thunder brothers” were followers of Jesus (we “know” this)
  • Jesus is “linked” to the reign of King Herod by being “allegedly” born at this time
  • Herod Antipas ruled Galilee during the lifetime of Jesus
  • We have the name of Pontius Pilate under whom Jesus was crucified
  • Mary Magdala was one of a few women associates of Jesus

Beyond these few shadowy faces, we have very little hard information. Nevertheless, there is substantial evidence that a person by the name of Jesus once existed. (Funk, p. 33)

“Substantial evidence”? I submit that each one of the above “assorted facts” is taken ultimately from one of the theological narratives of the canonical gospels. This is nothing more than a presumption that some bare bones of the gospel narratives can be considered historical fact. We are given no reason for thinking why any of this narrative should be thought anything more than fictional.

I submit that the “substantial evidence”, if this is it, is a faith-based presumption about the nature of the canonical gospels.

It is not of the same order as “Caesar crossed the Rubicon”. Real historical facts derive from sources deemed trustworthy as conveying, shaded in varying hues, something historical in nature. Such sources are coins, public monuments, biographies, personal letters and histories.

Funk continues:

Some additional isolated facts can be gleaned from the surviving records. These are data that a disinterested, neutral observer could have attested.

“Surviving records”? Funk makes theological narratives full of the miraculous and midrashic retellings of older biblical stories sound like births and deaths registers or police records of interviews.

Recall “cultivating ambiguity”. . .

But the logical fallacy lies in the second sentence. This is just another way of saying that the details are backdrop and setting — the time of Herod, Pilate, the setting of Palestine — to the narrative. Funk implies that knowing the names of certain characters is itself significant. But he dismisses the details of personal names later (p. 235) in his book for being nothing more than “fictional embellishments” to create a sense of verisimilitude. (I quote his argument below.)

Adam had a wife and sons, and we know their names, Noah had sons, Moses had followers, even God and Zeus have followers in the literature. The fact of followers in a literary narrative, and names assigned to them, may well be the sorts of details a neutral observer could attest if they were historical facts. But to assume that this estalishes that the details are historical is begging the question. It is circular reasoning.

The critical methods used by “critical scholars” are not used consistently. This surely indicates that there is something else that is needed to maintain the justification for their scholarly interest. Ironically Funk himself hits the nail on the head in a savage critique of biblical scholarship (pp. 54-56) but fails to see in this instance his own failings.

  • Jesus lived in Galilee — a place of “mixed bloods” and hence despised by the “ethnically pure” southern Judeans
  • Jesus lived in Nazareth
  • Jesus “was probably” born in Nazareth
  • Jesus was a Jew
  • Jesus’ father was a carpenter or craftsman of some kind (“may have been”)
  • Jesus was a carpenter or craftsman of some kind (“may have been”)
  • Jesus’ mother was Mary
  • Jesus had four brothers, named James, Joses, Judas, Simon
  • Jesus’ mother and brothers were initially sceptical of Jesus but later became Christians (“according to Mark”)
  • Jesus had sisters (“may have had them”)

These details square with what we know of the period and place, and scholars see no reason why the Jesus’ movement would have invented them. (p. 33)

Scholars can see no reason why the Jesus movement would have invented details like Nazareth being his hometown, like appearing in Galilee, like having a family? Then they have missed Matthew’s gospel giving readers very good theological reasons for making up some of these things.

Matthew finds a Nazareth home for Jesus a convenient explanation for Jesus being known as a “Nazarene”. (This epithet may have related to an early sect for whom the term meant something like “observer” or “keeper”.)

The same Matthew also finds Galilee as a perfect setting for enabling Jesus to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2Matt. 4:13-16.

Mark earlier found a theological function for giving Jesus a family. To have a family who rejected him set Jesus in the wake of the likes of Joseph and Jephthah and David, the persecuted saints of old. As for the names of the brothers? Well, Funk fully endorses the argument for fictional verisimilitude being the reason for the appearance of the names Alexander and Rufus as sons of Simon who carried the cross of Jesus. On page 235 in relation to these and other gospel names Funk writes (with my emphasis):

The assignment of names and the particularization of place enhance verisimilitude in fiction. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are taken by millions to have had real existence, and 221B Baker Street is an actual address in London that tourists can go and see for themselves. Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham exist for many as certainly as do King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.

If “critical scholars” can reject the historicity of the likes of blind Bartimaeus, Jairus the synogogue official, Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene and Alexander and Rufus on grounds of theological interest or fictional verisimilitude, then consistency would require them to do the same for both the fact and names of Jesus’ family, and the Nazareth and Galilee “particularizations of place”. — At least they need to address the theological interests clearly visible as their underlays.

  • Jesus spoke in Aramaic (“suggested by Matthew’s account of the confrontation with Peter in the courtyard during Jesus’ trial”)
  • Greek “was probably” his second language (“now evidence suggests he may have been bilingual”)
  • Jesus was active in the towns and hamlets of Galilee

The critical reader must be constantly alert to fictional embellishments of the gospels (p. 34)

This statement implies the gospels originated as a dead straight factual historical or official report of Jesus that somewhere along the line some scribes were tempted to colour with a bit of a stretch here and there. He makes this remark in direct reference to stories sometimes used as evidence that Jesus was literate, such as his writing in the dirt at the Woman Caught in Adultery scene.

The statement is nothing more than a truism. It smokescreens the fact that the source of evidence is derived from documents whose provenance is unknown, and whose theological interests and fictional embellishments are all too obvious. I cannot imagine historians in other (nonbiblical) fields relying so heavily for “evidence” on documents of unknown provenance.

  • Jesus was baptized by John (“highly probable”)
  • Jesus left John to launch his own career (“relatively certain”)

These events are not likely to have been invented by Christian apologists. (p.33)

Why not? We once again encounter the fallacy of the argument from incredulity, referred to above.

Scholars well know that Mark’s view of the nature of Jesus is not quite “orthodox”. The “adoptionist” character of his opening baptism scene is widely commented on. I can see no reason for such a Christian apologist, particularly one of an adoptionist persuasion, being embarrassed about manufacturing a baptism scene for Jesus. The Spirit of God that made Jesus the Son of God is said to have entered Jesus after his baptism. Besides, any story of Jesus had to begin with a prior announcement by Elijah, as per the Malachi prophecy. To fulfil prophecy a story of a coming deity had to begin with an introduction by a lesser mortal or angelic figure.

The Iliad opens with the greater hero, Achilles, half man and half divine, being over-ruled and humiliated publicly by a mortal and character-flawed king, Agamemnon. Such a scene is “not likely to have been invented by Homeric apologists”? Ah yes, but that is how the plot gets going. Well, the same with the gospels. It is the baptism of Jesus that is at the end of the gospel brought in as testimony to his authority. The event is recalled repeatedly each time Elijah makes an appearance, and the career of John is a foil for that of Jesus. The baptism itself, given its Pauline meaning, is a metaphor for death and resurrection, and with the crucifixion and resurrection forms a neat bookend set for the gospel.

And in Mark it appears only the “man” Jesus is baptized, while the Son or Spirit of God enters him after his baptism.

If all this is the correct way to read Mark, then we would expect later more “orthodox” gospel authors to be embarrassed by the account and to downplay it. And that is exactly what we do find. Matthew has John apologize for baptizing Jesus, Luke sidesteps the scene, and John leaves no place for a baptism at all.

  • Jesus was an itinerant sage, teaching and healing and living on handouts
  • Jesus practiced exorcism
  • Followers gathered around Jesus
  • Jesus was popular
  • Jesus was opposed by some religious authorities (“although much of the controversy . . . may reflect later conditions”)
  • Jesus’ public career lasted one to three years (“implied” in the gospels)
  • Jesus went to Jerusalem, offended the authorities and was executed by the Romans
  • We have a compendium of Jesus’ teachings

So say the gospel narratives. All of Funk’s supporting footnotes in this section of Honest to Jesus direct the reader to Mark, Matthew and Luke.

I’m well aware of the tool of source criticism to attempt to get behind the gospel narratives. The answers that this tool delivers may enable us to glean prior sources, but that is not the same as establishing the provenance of those sources, let alone their historicity.

It seems to me that the base criterion used for “establishing bedrock historicity” is deciding what the plot or characterization cannot do without and still survive as a basic plot or characterization. If so, that is not establishing historicity. It is only establishing plot and character essentials in a tale that has a lot more in common with those of Elijah and Moses than those with Caesar and Alexander.

When a nobody Jesus became spirit possessed

Mark, the earliest of our canonical gospels, does not simply omit the details about Jesus before his baptism, but indirectly informs readers that nothing like the birth and boyhood stories we read in the gospels of Matthew and Luke could possibly have happened. Mark is clear: Jesus was a nobody until the day he was baptized by John.

He did not spend is youth travelling to the British Isles. He did not astonish his family or neighbours by turning clay birds into living sparrows or miraculously extending timber beams to help his father’s carpentry business. His birth was not marked by angelic visits to shepherds in the countryside or rich foreign elites paying his parents a visit. No one knew about angels or pious elderly folk at the Temple making public pronouncements about his destiny. He at no time as a boy demonstrated to the learned men of the cloth any astonishing wisdom. He was just an ordinary bloke like everyone else.

That’s why Mark says his mother and family thought he needed to be taken off and given a good lie down after he started becoming a bit of a public spectacle. Mark 3:21, 31-32

And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself. . . .

There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee.

Mark 3:21, 31-32

And it’s why all those who had lived with him and known him all his life thought it a bit over the top that he should start talking and acting as if he was somehow any different from them:

And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; . . . .

And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?

And they were offended at him.

Mark 6:1-3

And it is also why no-one seems to have bothered to collect “traditions” or details about anything remarkable in his pre-baptism life from former neighbours and relatives. (The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are clearly imaginative adaptions of pre-existing biblical and extra-biblical stories.)

So Who Is This Really?

But of course this raises another question about the nature of Jesus in the gospels, or at least in the earliest gospel. The question of “Who Is This?” permeates Mark’s gospel.

Jesus’ is introduced in Mark’s gospel in a secret scene known only to God and the readers. No other characters in the story know anything about the Holy Spirit falling into Jesus (not “upon” him, as in Matthew) and driving him into the wilderness, and certainly none hears the voice from heaven pronouncing his identity. The only characters in Mark’s gospel who know who Jesus really is are God and the demons. Only Jesus (and the reader) sees the heavens parting and only Jesus hears the voice (Mark 1:9-11).

His public entrance comes only after the curtain falls on John’s opening act. From then on people begin to ask, Who and what is this? People begin to talk about him far and wide.

And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him. And immediately his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee.

Mark 1:27-28

And ditto throughout chapters 2, 3, 5, 6 . . . .

Some say he his Elijah, and some John the Baptist. Following a chapter by Norman R. Petersen in Randal Argall’s For a later generation : the transformation of tradition in Israel, early Judaism, and early Christianity, “Elijah, the Son of God, and Jesus: Some Issues in the Anthropology of Characterization in Mark“, anyone familiar with the popular literature and mythical memes of the day would be reminded here of divine beings coming down to act among mortals by appearing in the bodies of known people. read more »

Resurrection Appearances and Ancient Myths

Revised: added Self-Opening Doors and P.S.

In the following I am not suggesting that the gospel resurrection appearance scenes were directly borrowed from ancient sources. Rather, that when we read of similar scenes in pagan literature we can recognize them as patently mythical. This is Robert M. Price‘s argument (Deconstructing Jesus, p.39), although Charles H. Talbert argues (What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels, p. 43) that the late sources for many of the following are known to have been drawing on much earlier (pre-Christian) narratives which, by implication, can be viewed as influencing the gospel authors. Influence does not necessarily mean direct literary borrowing: by definition no-one can evade the narratives of their culture.

On the one hand, his passing from mortal to immortal is attested by the absence of Jesus’ physical remains . . . reinforced by his appearances to friends and disciples in which further instruction is given . . . and by predictions made during his life . . . . On the other hand, Jesus’ ascent through a cloud is witnessed by the Galileans. . . There is no way a Mediterranean man could have missed this as a portrayal of Jesus in the mythology of the immortals (i.e. Asclepius, Hercules, Dionysus, and the Dioscuri, etc.) (What is a Gospel? p.41)

Jonathan Z. Smith‘s modern analyses of ancient myths notwithstanding, Justin Martyr in the second century (First Apology, ch.21) acknowledged that contemporary audiences could not avoid observing similarities between the gospel narratives and pagan tales of the likes of Asclepius and Heracles.

In some circles it is not politically correct to link gospel material with pagan memes. Some scholars (e.g. Ben Witherington) even link such arguments to late-nineteenth and early twentieth century anti-semitism. Ironically, there is another argument that links the current scholarly quest to explore the Jewishness of Jesus with a rebound against post-World War 2 anti-semitism and, in particular, with the West’s love affair with Israel since 1967 (e.g. James G. Crossley, Jesus in an Age of Terror). So with cannon to the right, cannon to the left, I’ll charge into the valley . . .

Leaving Earth Through Self-Opening Doors

Apollonius of Tyana

The guardians of the shrine arrested him in consequence, and threw him in bonds as a wizard and a robber, accusing him of having thrown to the dogs some charmed morsel. But about midnight he loosened his bonds, and after calling those who had bound him, in order that they might witness the spectacle, he ran to the doors of the temple, which opened wide to receive him; and when he had passed within, they closed afresh, as they had been shut, and there was heard a chorus of maidens singing from within the temple, and their song was this. “Hasten thou from earth, hasten thou to Heaven, hasten.” In other words: “Do thou go upwards from earth.”

From Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 30

Mark 16:3-6

And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here

One scholar (name escapes me at the moment) has noted Mark’s use of the tomb as a metaphor for the Temple in Isaiah 22:16, which would enhance the resonance of this ‘door’ detail between the Apollonius and Jesus story in Mark’s gospel.

(After a night’s sleep I recall that the scholar I had in mind was Karel Hanhart who argued the point on Crosstalk2 some years back. He also attributed the exegesis to other Dutch, Swedish and English scholars. — See also Frank McCoy’s comment below for more details.)

This particular echo of massive doors being miraculously opened to make way for the mortal to enter eternal life is pointed out by Robert Price in Deconstructing Jesus (p. 41). Matthew 28:2-4 changes the sequence so that the door is opened supernaturally to show that the body of Jesus has already left — presumably as spirit. If the story of the empty tomb had been known to the author of 1 Corinthians 15 (Paul, let’s say) he may have kept quiet about it because it indicated a flesh and blood body rose from the dead, while he was arguing that the resurrected body is not flesh and blood. (I think Price makes these points, too, elsewhere.)

Price also notes the way the chorus of maidens in the Apollonius story has a counterpart in the young man at the tomb in Mark’s gospel. Both announce what has become of the one for whom the doors were sealed and opened.

The Missing Body – Evidence of Apotheosis

Empedocles the philosopher

For Heraclides, relating the story about the dead woman, how Empedocles got great glory from sending away a dead woman restored to life, says that he celebrated a sacrifice in the field of Pisianax, and that some of his friends were invited, among whom was Pausanias. And then, after the banquet, they lay down, some going a little way off, and some lying under the trees close by in the field, and some wherever they happened to choose. But Empedocles himself remained in the place where he had been sitting. But when day broke, and they arose, he alone was not found. And when he was sought for, and the servants were examined and said that they did not know, one of them said, that at midnight he had heard a loud voice calling Empedocles; and that then he himself rose up and saw a great light from heaven, but nothing else. And as they were all amazed at what had taken place, Pausanias descended and sent some people to look for him; but afterwards he was commanded not to busy himself about the matter, as he was informed that what had happened was deserving of thankfulness, and that they behoved to sacrifice to Empedocles as to one who had become a God.

From Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers

Heracles (Hercules)

Heracles, having abandoned hope for himself, ascended the pyre and asked each one who came up to him to put torch to the pyre. And when no one had the courage to obey him Philoctetes alone was prevailed upon; and he, having received in return for his compliance the gift of the bow and arrows of Heracles, lighted the pyre. And immediately lightning also fell from the heavens and the pyre was wholly consumed. After this, when the companions of Iolaüs came to gather up the bones of Heracles and found not a single bone anywhere, they assumed that, in accordance with the words of the oracle, he had passed from among men into the company of the gods.

From Diodorus Siculus, Library of History

Aristaeus (a son of Apollo and the mortal Cyrenê)

Consequently among the inhabitants of Sicily, as men say, Aristaeus received especial honour as a god, in particular by those who harvested the fruit of the olive-tree. And finally, as the myths relate, he visited Dionysus in Thrace and was initiated into his secret rites, and during his stay in the company of the god he learned from him much useful knowledge. And after dwelling some time in the neighbourhood of Mount Haemus he never was seen again of men, and became the recipient of immortal honours not only among the barbarians of that region but among the Greeks as well.

From Diodorus Siculus, Library of History

Aeneas

A severe battle took place not far from Lavinium and many were slain on both sides, but when night came on the armies separated; and when the body of Aeneas was nowhere to be seen, some concluded that it had been translated to the gods and others that it had perished in the river beside which the battle was fought. And the Latins built a hero-shrine to him with this inscription: “To the father and god of this place . . .”

From Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities

Romulus

Others think that it was neither in the temple of Vulcan nor when the senators alone were present that he disappeared, but that he was holding an assembly of the people outside the city near the so called Goat’s Marsh, when suddenly strange and unaccountable disorders with incredible changes filled the air; the light of the sun failed, and night came down upon them, not with peace and quiet, but with awful peals of thunder and furious blasts driving rain from every quarter, during which the multitude dispersed and fled, but the nobles gathered closely together; and when the storm had ceased, and the sun shone out, and the multitude, now gathered together again in the same place as before, anxiously sought for their king, the nobles would not suffer them to inquire into his disappearance nor busy themselves about it, but exhorted them all to honour and revere Romulus, since he had been caught up into heaven, and was to be a benevolent god for them instead of a good king. The multitude, accordingly, believing this and rejoicing in it, went away to worship him with good hopes of his favour; but there were some, it is said, who tested the matter in a bitter and hostile spirit, and confounded the patricians with the accusation of imposing a silly tale upon the people, and of being themselves the murderers of the king.

From Plutarch, The Life of Romulus

Cleomedes

Cleomedes also, who was of gigantic strength and stature, of uncontrolled temper, and like a mad man, is said to have done many deeds of violence, and finally, in a school for boys, he smote with his fist the pillar which supported the roof, broke it in two, and brought down the house. The boys were killed, and Cleomedes, being pursued, took refuge in a great chest, closed the lid down, and held it so fast that many men with their united strength could not pull it up; but when they broke the chest to pieces, the man was not to be found, alive or dead. In their dismay, then, they sent messengers to consult the oracle at Delphi, and the Pythian priestess gave them this answer:—

Last of the heroes he, Cleomedes, Astypalaean.”

From Plutarch, The Life of Romulus

Alcmene

Not every good person was turned into a god. Alcmene was turned to a stone, but to Plutarch it was all a lot of rot for the gullible. 

It is said also that the body of Alcmene disappeared, as they were carrying her forth for burial, and a stone was seen lying on the bier instead. In short, many such fables are told by writers who improbably ascribe divinity to the mortal features in human nature, as well as to the divine.

From Plutarch, The Life of Romulus

In all four gospels the central evidence in common for the resurrection is the missing body of Jesus — the empty tomb. A missing body of a person renowned for a notable life was a well-known piece of evidence that the hero had become immortal and one of the gods.

Matthew 28:5-6

And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead . . .

John 20:3-9

Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. . . . And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.

After Death Appearances

Romulus

At this pass, then, it is said that one of the patricians, a man of noblest birth, and of the most reputable character, a trusted and intimate friend also of Romulus himself, and one of the colonists from Alba, Julius Proculus by name, went into the forum and solemnly swore by the most sacred emblems before all the people that, as he was travelling on the road, he had seen Romulus coming to meet him, fair and stately to the eye as never before, and arrayed in bright and shining armour. He himself, then, affrighted at the sight, had said: “O King, what possessed thee, or what purpose hadst thou, that thou hast left us patricians a prey to unjust and wicked accusations, and the whole city sorrowing without end at the loss of its father?” Whereupon Romulus had replied: “It was the pleasure of the gods, O Proculus, from whom I came, that I should be with mankind only a short time, and that after founding a city destined to be the greatest on earth for empire and glory, I should dwell again in heaven. So farewell, and tell the Romans that if they practise self-restraint, and add to it valour, they will reach the utmost heights of human power. And I will be your propitious deity, Quirinus.” These things seemed to the Romans worthy of belief, from the character of the man who related them, and from the oath which he had taken; moreover, some influence from heaven also, akin to inspiration, laid hold upon their emotions, for no man contradicted Proculus, but all put aside suspicion and calumny and prayed to Quirinus, and honoured him as a god.

Aristeas

For they say that Aristeas died in a fuller’s shop, and that when his friends came to fetch away his body, it had vanished out of sight; and presently certain travellers returning from abroad said they had met Aristeas journeying towards Croton.

Both of the above from Plutarch, Life of Romulus.

Plutarch concludes with some scepticism:

In short, many such fables are told by writers who improbably ascribe divinity to the mortal features in human nature, as well as to the divine.

Matthew 28:9

And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.

Luke 24:33-35

And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread.

Appearing Unrecognized to Dejected Followers Returning Home

Asclepius

Compare the following with the Emmaeus Road appearance of Jesus to disciples returning from Jerusalem after thinking their hopes had been dashed.

Sostrata of Pherae was pregnant with worms. When she was absolutely too weak to walk, she was brought into the sanctuary and slept there. When she did not see any clear dream, she went back home again. After that near Cornoi someone seemed to appear to her and her escort, a distinguished-looking man, who inquired about their misfortune; he told them to put down the litter on which they were carrying Sostrata. Then he cut open her stomach and removed a large multitude of worms, two washbasins full. Then he sewed up her stomach, and once he had cured her, Asclepius showed that it was he who had appeared, and ordered her to send votive offerings to Epidaurus

From the shrine of Asclepius in Epidaurus

Luke 24:13-31

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus . . . And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass therein these days? And he said unto them, What things? And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done. . . . Then he . . . . expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. . . . . And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

Materializing as Flesh and Blood, not a Ghost

Apollonius of Tyana

Damis’ grief had just broken out afresh, and he had made some such exclamation as the following: “Shall we ever behold, O ye gods, our noble and good companion?” when Apollonius, who had heard him -for as a matter of fact he was already present in the chamber of the nymphs- answered: “Ye shall see him, nay, ye have already seen him.”

“Alive?” said Demetrius, “For if you are dead, we have anyhow never ceased to lament you.”

Hereupon Apollonius stretched out his hand and said: “Take hold of me, and if I evade you, then I am indeed a ghost come to you from the realm of Persephone, such as the gods of the underworld reveal to those who are dejected with much mourning. But if I resist your touch, then you shall persuade Damis also that I am both alive and that I have not abandoned my body.

They were no longer able to disbelieve, but rose up and threw themselves on his neck and kissed him . . .

From Flavius Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius

The disciples of Apollonius were gathered together in a room grieving over what they believed was the death of their teacher, Apollonius. They believed that his trial before emperor Domitian had inevitably resulted in his execution. Apollonius made a miraculous appearance, apparently divinely teleported from the place of trial to where his disciples were

“How then,” said Demetrius, “have you accomplished so long a journey in so small a fraction of the day?”

And Apollonius replied: “Imagine what you will, flying ram or wings of wax excepted, so long as you ascribe it to the intervention of a divine escort.”

and showed them he was not a ghost, but flesh and blood. Like Jesus, he invited them to touch him to prove this.

John 20:19-20

Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.

Luke 24:36-40

And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet.

A Late Appearance to Convince the Lone Doubter

Doubting Thomas had his counterpart in a young disciple of Apollonius

Apollonius of Tyana

For there came to Tyana a youth who did not shrink from acrimonious discussions, and would not accept truth in argument. Now Apollonius had already passed away from among men, but people still wondered at his passing, and no one ventured to dispute that he was immortal. . . . The young man in question, however, would on no account allow the tenet of immortality of the soul, and said: “I myself, gentlemen, have done nothing now for over nine months but pray to Apollonius that he would reveal to me the truth about the soul; but he is so utterly dead that he will not appear to me in response to my entreaties, nor give me any reason to consider him immortal.

Such were the young man’s words on that occasion, but on the fifth day following, after discussing the same subject, he fell asleep where he was talking with them, and of the young men who were studying with him, some were reading books, and others were industriously drawing geometrical figures on the ground, when on a sudden, like one possessed, he leapt up still in a half sleep, streaming with perspiration, and cried out: “I believe thee.”

And, when those who were present asked him what was the matter; “Do you not see,” said he, “Apollonius the sage, how that he is present with us and is listening to our discussion, and is reciting wondrous verses about the soul?”

“But where is he?” the others asked, “For we cannot see him anywhere, although we would rather do so than possess all the blessings of mankind.”

And the youth replied: “It would seem that he is come to converse with myself alone concerning the tenets which I would not believe.

From Philostratus, The Life of Philostratus, 31

It looks quite mythical when told of Apollonius. How could ancients have seen the tale of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas any differently?

John 20:24-28

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

Witnesses to Heavenly Ascent

Alexander the Great

Alexander had prayed to Zeus (Alexander Romance, 3:30):

And if it be thy will, receive me too in heaven, as the third mortal.

The other two mortals who had been taken into heaven were Heracles and Dionysus, whose steps Alexander had been following in his conquests into India. These two (angelic divinities) made their appearance at his death in the form of a star and an eagle:

And when Alexander had said this and much more, a mist formed in the air, and a great star appeared, shooting  from heaven to the sea, and together with it an eagle, and the statue in Babylon that they said was of Zeus stirred. The star returned back up to heaven, and the eagle followed it too. And when the star was lost from view in the heavens, immediately Alexander sank into eternal sleep.

From Pseudo-Callisthenes, The Alexander Romance

Augustus Caesar

a certain Numerius Atticus, a senator and ex-praetor, . . . swore that he had seen Augustus ascending to heaven after the manner of which tradition tells concerning Proculus and Romulus.

From Dio Cassius, Roman History

There was even an ex-praetor who took oath that he had seen the form of the Emperor, after he had been reduced to ashes, on its way to heaven.

From Suetonius, The Life of Augustus

Luke 24:4

two men stood by them in shining garments

Gospel of Peter, 35-40

But in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven; and they saw that the heavens were opened and that two males who had much radiance had come down from there and come near the sepulcher. . . . and both the young men entered. . . . again they see three males who have come out from the sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one . . .  but that of the one being led out by a hand by them going beyond the heavens.

As for the loud voice, compare the moment the philosopher Empedocles was taken from this earth in the previous section.

Luke 20:50-51

And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.

Acts 1:9-10

And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel

Words Exchanged from Jewish Myth

Words to Mary

In Tobit 12:20, after the angel Raphael revealed his identity (after he had been thought a fellow mortal) he said:

for I go up to him that sent me;

Compare John 20:17 and Jesus’ words to Mary:

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father:

Words of Thomas

When Tobit rejoiced in experiencing the presence of Raphael, he said (13:4):

for he is our Lord, and he is the God our Father for ever

Compare John 20:28 when Thomas witnessed the resurrected Jesus:

And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God

Indications and Absurdities

To quote from an old article of Charles H. Talbert (JBL, 1975):

So . . . there are indications that some early Christians did think about Christ in terms of the mythology of the immortals. (p.433)

More bluntly, Robert M. Price (Jesus Is Dead, p. 168) writes:

The idea that these stories do not smack of mythology is just palpably absurd. Rather than functioning as an argument on behalf of faith, the claim has by now itself become an article of faith, so drastically does it contradict all manner of evidence.

Is there a worse example of the fallacy of special pleading, the double standard, than to dismiss all these mythical stories from other ancient religions and to claim that in the sole case of the gospels they are all suddenly true? Laughable in the one case, convincing in the other?

P.S.

There are more links between the gospel resurrection stories and various other myths. The famous example of Pythagoras knowing the exact number of fish being hauled in (Iamblichus’s Life of Pythagoras) and the Pythagorean number of 153 being the number of fish caught at Jesus’ command is one.


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God, the Army, and PTSD : Is religion an obstacle to treatment?

Tara McKelvey’s article discusses the impact of war on the faith of soldiers and how “religious ideology has played a central role in denying veterans access to treatment.”

Tara’s article is published in the Boston Review

Also accessible at Information Clearing House

The Embarrassing Honesty of Matthew

Updated with a new para near the end, Or if we take John 20. . .

In response to a few comments on previous posts (Funk’s mix and Cracked argument) I have been giving a few moments to reflect on “embarrassment” as a criterion to establish historicity of a narrative.

In Matthew’s gospel, after Jesus has been born of a virgin, performed all his miracles, preached good things, fulfilled prophecy and been crucified and resurrected, he makes one final appearance to his (presumably eleven) remaining disciples. But some of them doubted (Matt. 28:17). Not all of the remaining eleven disciples believed a resurrected Jesus really did appear to them. Some original disciples did not believe that they had ever witnessed Jesus resurrected.

That is surely an embarrassing admission for a Christian author to make at the conclusion of his gospel. The admission could do nothing to assist the cause of Christianity. It is a damaging admission. One must therefore assume (if we take the criterion of embarrassment seriously) that this is one of the truest of true facts facing the disciples and church after the death and burial of Jesus.

We cannot help but wonder how many is meant by Matthew’s “some”. John’s gospel gives as reason for thinking “some doubters” amounted to as many as four persons. In his last chapter he relates — again with surely stark embarrassment — that the response of the faithful disciples remaining, only seven in total, after supposedly seeing the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem was to think, “Well, that was an interesting little adventure. Fun and pain while it lasted. But now time to get back to real life and resume fishing.” The resurrected Jesus then appears to these seven. The author refers to this appearance as “the third” one to “his disciples”. Nowhere does the Gospel of John inform readers that the resurrected Jesus actually appeared to all eleven remaining disciples.  In chapter 21 John quietly passes over the missing four in silence.

The Gospel of Mark, likewise, is vague about the final fate of the disciples. It’s ending, like several other details in the gospel, is ambiguous at best. (I am assuming that verse 8 is the original ending. Also here.)

So, in summary, if we are taking the “criterion of embarrassment” seriously, here is how the different evangelists responded to the bedrock certain fact that “some” of the original disciples doubted the resurrection of Jesus.

Matthew openly admitted it. Most honest of all. Does this mean that some of the disciples Jesus sent out were actually false apostles, even from the original twelve? Presumably so.

Mark can be said to be playing with words, leaving readers to make of his narrative what they will.

John passes over the failures in silence. But he implies that only seven of the original Twelve were reliable witnesses. This did not stop him from expecting readers to believe his narrative even though four of Jesus’ real life companions appear not to have believed.

(Or if we take John 20 as the original concluding chapter of this gospel, then the situation is no better. The last we hear of Peter there is that he went home after seeing the empty tomb and not knowing what to make of it (John 20:10). We are given no hint about how many disciples were later in the locked room for fear of the Jews when Jesus supernaturally appeared before them. An early reader unfamiliar with other gospels might well conclude that Peter could not have been among them since he no longer had reason to be in fear of the Jews, having denied Jesus three times. Nor does John’s gospel suggest Peter had any remorse over his denials. Peter does not weep after the cock crows in John’s gospel – 18:26.)

Luke simply lies and implies they all believed. Well, not quite, maybe. He does say that “they could not believe for joy”, whatever that might mean exactly. Either way, they were all sent out by Jesus to preach in his name. Well, not quite that either. Luke for some reason remains quiet about the activities of all but Peter, James and John after Jesus left the earth.

And of Paul’s 500 witnesses to the resurrected Jesus? We are not informed how many of these believed such an appearance was the real thing. Given Matthew’s frankness we should not assume as fact what Paul implies. We do “know” that Paul was quite capable of suppressing uncomfortable details: in his resurrection chapter he hides the fact that the resurrected Jesus first appeared to silly women.

Saint Matthew, from the 9th-century Ebbo Gospels.
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Origins of the Israel of the Bible’s narrative (1)

After a couple or more years I’m finally completing the formatting of my notes from Philip R. Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel, the book that is said to have sparked the public debate between “minimalists” and “maximalists”. The earlier chapters are outlined on my In Search of Ancient Israel web page.

The first section, The Exile, is a bit of a recap of an earlier section that was dealt with more fully in the web page above. I’m pushing myself to get this completed and sense that I have clung too closely to Davies’ words and outline in too many places and not taken the time to stand back and find the most appropriate ways of both framing and expressing the ideas so their essences can be grasped quickly. I also need to give more time to smoothing its connections to the earlier sections. Have decided to post it here as a draft and with a view to editing it after a time before adding it where it will belong as the next chapter on my webpage notes.

The point of this post may not be clear unless one knows a little of the background, which is to be found in the earlier chapters (see the vridar.info page). The basic theme it is addressing is that the conditions — economic, social, political, ethnic, linguistic, cultic, geopolitical, cultural and literary — were never to be found in Palestine right up to the time of the exile of the kingdom of Judah. Davies argues that the requisite conditions to produce the biblical literature — indeed, the idea of “biblical Israel” itself — did not exist until the time of the Persian empire. (Some other background posts on this theme are also kept in my Jerusalem and Samaria and Old Testament Archaeology and Literature archives.)

The Exile

We do not know if the Babylonians deported from Judah only the ruling classes and their servants or also some of the peasants.

Although we cannot estimate the numbers deported, “the reduction of population [from deportation, refugees, deaths] may have been as much as fifty percent immediately.” (Davies, 1995: p. 75)

Deportation was a long-established custom, made an instrument of imperial control by Assyrians (though not at all monopolized by them), and used, as well as to punish, deter and pacify, also to import much-needed labour into the Mesopotamian heartland. (p. 76)

The custom was to remove temple furniture, including images of the gods.

Official archives would have either been confiscated and taken to Babylon, or, more likely, have been left behind in Judah which still had to be administered.

What is fairly certain is that the Judaean deportees will have had no further access to these administrative documents, and it is not easy to imagine that they were allowed to take with them privately any other scrolls (assuming such literature existed), since the point of deportation is to alienate people from their homeland. (p. 76)

The deportees, as displaced peoples normally do, quite likely established themselves as ethnic communities in their new lands. We need not assume that they had to gather literary documents from their homeland to reconstitute their national identity.

Of the life of the deportees, of refugees or of those remaining in Judah we actually know virtually nothing. . . . [I]t is biblical scholarship which has painted an entirely fanciful portrait of religious fervour and furious literary creativity among Judaeans in Babylonia. (p. 77)

The Return

The Persian empire replaced the Babylonian and the area of the old kingdom of Judah became the province of Yehud. Yehud province was part of the satrap “Beyond the River” that extended from Babylon and the Euphrates River to Egypt.

Perhaps significantly, this is the one historical period in which the land promised to Abraham in Genesis 15:18 exists as a political unit. (p. 77)

read more »

Cracked argument, rhetorical questions and women witnesses at the tomb

A wisdom-pearl in Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea reminded me of a host of gossamer arguments regularly touted by fundamenatists (not only Christian or religious fundamentalists, either).

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (p. 178)

Rhetorical questions used to paper over cracked arguments – yes, so often.

A popular argument in favour of the resurrection of Jesus goes like this:

A . . . problem for a made-up resurrection account is that the allegedly made up story relies on the presence of women witnesses at its start. In this culture females could not be witnesses. If one were making up this story, why would one create it with women as witnesses? The key role of women in the account suggests the women are there because the women were there at the start, not that the resurrection was made up. (Bock, 2006: p. 150)

N.T. Wright is a little more subtle (?) by embedding his rhetorical question in a barrage of rhetorical assertions.

Even if we suppose that Mark made up most of his material . . . it will not do to have him, or anyone else . . . making up a would-be apologetic legend about an empty tomb and having women be the ones who find it. The point has been repeated over and over in scholarship, but its full impact has not always been felt: women were simply not acceptable as legal witnesses. . . . The debate between Origen and Celsus shows that critics of Christianity could seize on the story of the women in order to scoff at the whole tale; were the legend-writers really so ignorant of the likely reaction? If they could have invented stories of fine, upstanding, reliable male witnesses being the first a the tomb, they would have done it. That they did not tells us either that everyone in the early church knew that the women, led by Mary Magdalene, were in fact the first on the scene, or that the early church was not so inventive as critics have routinely imagined, or both. Would the other evangelists have been so slavishly foolish as to copy the story unless they were convinced that, despite being an apologetic liability, it was historically trustworthy? (Wright, 2003: p. 607)

One might construe Wright’s reference in this context to the debate between Origen and Celsus as a little bit mischievous. Wright is discussing the empty tomb so his citation of Celsus reads as if this ancient sceptic attempted to refute the empty tomb story on the basis of its reliance on women witnesses. But Celsus nowhere critiques the empty tomb story on this basis at all. His critique in relation to the women as witnesses has to do with their claim to have seen the resurrected Jesus:

Speaking next of the statements in the Gospels, that after His resurrection He showed the marks of His punishment, and how His hands had been pierced, he asks, “Who beheld this?” And discrediting the narrative of Mary Magdalene, who is related to have seen Him, he replies, “A half-frantic woman, as you state.” (Contra Celsus, Book II, ch. 59)

Celsus’ critique of the empty tomb story was based on a comparison with pagan claims for the tomb of Jupiter on the isle of Crete (Contra Celsus, Book III, chapter 43).

It is worth comparing the billowing rhetoric of these “arguments” with the facts of the text they claim to be supporting.

Darrell Bock writes (and N.T. Wright strongly implies) that the resurrection account “relies on the presence of women at its start”. If by “resurrection account” he means the canonical narratives, then it is true that each of these speaks of women being the first at the tomb. But if he means the evidence for the resurrection itself, the women play no direct role at all. The women witnesses are – as per the rhetorical assertions – not believed by the men.

In Mark’s gospel, which rightly ends at 16:8, they do not even tell anyone what they had seen.

In Matthew’s gospel there is no account of the women reporting anything to the disciples – a strange oversight if the proof of the resurrection “relied” on their witness. Rather, this gospel informs the reader that the tomb guards reported what had happened to the chief priests, and implies that the chief priests believed the account of the resurrection. Next, the disciples themselves witness the resurrected Jesus. By inference the reader understands that Christianity began as a direct result of this appearance of Jesus to the disciples. The story of the women being the first to witness Jesus serves as little more than a nice message to assure the world that the new religion has a special place for women as well as the men.

Again according to Luke’s gospel, the women are far from necessary for belief in the resurrection. No-one believes the women (Luke 24:11, 25, 37-38). Jesus has to appear in person to convince the disciples and start the church.

Finally in John’s gospel, only one (unnamed) male disciple believes, and he does so only after he sees the empty tomb for himself (John 20:8).

In all gospels the apostolic founders of Christianity believed in the ressurrection because they had personally witnessed the resurrected Jesus. In all gospels the women were disbelieved or there is no narrative about their informing the male disciples at all.

When I was in Sunday school I learned that the reason Jesus appeared first to women after his resurrection was to offer them some sort of affirmative action or positive discrimination to undo their hitherto subservient place in society.

If the women witnesses were not even believed in the story there can be little basis to the assertion that their witness is central to belief in the resurrection as a fact of history.

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Honest to Jesus: Robert Funk’s mix of good, contradictory and overlooked “rules of evidence”

Jesus Seminar co-founder Robert Funk has a lot interesting insights into the gospel texts. But he (along with probably a vast majority of his biblical studies colleagues) also carries a few assumptions that set his historical studies a world apart from the methods of historians of nonbiblical themes.

But first the good rule that just about any historian of nonbiblical topics would support. It should be so obvious that it should not even need to be spelled out.

. . . storytellers may take their listeners to the time and place of the event and allow them to see and hear what went on — all by means of words, of course. . . . Because [this description seems] realistic — the words of participants in the story are quoted and their actions are described, sometimes in graphic detail — it is often assumed to be more historically reliable. That assumption is misleading: writers of fiction know how to narrate realistically . . . , and when they do a good job of it, readers willingly accept as true what they are being told. To be convincing, writers of fiction must of course achieve a high level of plausibility. (p. 3 of The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus — also somewhere in Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium)

Actually Funk does not list that as a “rule” but more as a base awareness before studies begin.

Before discussing the Passion Narrative Funk does indeed list “rules of evidence”. Here are the first two — and I will show how they actually contradict each other if applied consistently. (And if not applied consistently, they are Lenin pie crust rules made to be broken.)

Rule number one

This is the good old “criterion of embarrassment”: read more »

Kathy Kelly video — a “must watch” (yep, even I support some Church sponsorships!)

From Information Clearing House: Kathy Kelly co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a campaign to end U.S. military and economic warfare, and co-founded Voices in the Wilderness, a group which had openly defied economic sanctions from 1996-2003 by bringing medicines to children and families in Iraq.

Do go to this link to see the two videos of her very moving and inspirational presentation

From Gaza to Pakistan

The Cost of War Abroad and at Home

First Presbyterian Church, Binghamton, NY November 6, 2009

Two time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Kathy Kelly discusses her experiences in Gaza and Pakistan, and helps evaluate the costs of war-making from the perspective of those who bear the brunt of suffering caused by war.

Kathy Kelly co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a campaign to end U.S. military and economic warfare, and co-founded Voices in the Wilderness, a group which had openly defied economic sanctions from 1996-2003 by bringing medicines to children and families in Iraq.

Sponsor: St. James Church Peace and Justice Committee

Posted November 11, 2009

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So THAT’S why the U.S. was happy to see Kazai win in Afghanistan?

According to a report in AKI (Adnkronos International) Kazai’s erstwhile election rival Abdullah was obliged to withdraw from the race when the U.S. swung its full support behind Karzai. That sounds odd given the media publicity at the time over outrageously fraudulent pro-Karzai election officials (some polling booths reporting 100% votes for Karzai, many yielding results in nice round figures, and ghost polling booths etc) — but then one does have to find an explanation for Obama’s quickness to congratulate Karzai on his “win”. But it looks like Abdullah was not the right man to please the Pakistanis or be a useful addition to a scenario where Pakistan needs to find creative ways to remove its internal Taliban threats. So Karzai it was — the AKI report can be read here — Karzai Rival Withdrew Under U.S. Pressure.

 

 

 

 

A classicist’s insights into how Acts was composed and stitched together

I love to read fresh insights that potentially open new understandings on how a biblical author worked to produce what became a part of the foundational canon of western civilization.

I’ve recently been catching up with New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism by classics professor George A. Kennedy (1984).

Acts 1:1-15:35 seems to be a compositional unit and could be read as a complete work. The disciples have carried on the mission of Jesus and seem to have settled their internal differences; faced with Jewish opposition they have persevered, and the gospel is being extended to the gentiles. From 15:36 to the end of the book, focus is turned entirely upon the missionary activities of Paul; Peter and the other apostles are forgotten. (p.127)

I have frequently read the view that the Jerusalem Council is a climactic turning point in the book of Acts, but I think this is the first time I have taken note of the view that this episode also constitutes a satisfactory conclusion to a story that began in Acts 1.

Another take on the “we passages”

Kennedy adds some other interesting observations in support. The first of the “we passages” appears soon afterwards, in 16:10. Kennedy notes that scholars generally assume this marks the moment Luke joined Paul, but he himself points out that if this is the case, then it is odd that the author does not say that. Rather, Kennedy finds it interesting that the first “we passage” comes just after the introduction of Timothy as a companion of Paul.

Again in chapter 20 Timothy joins Paul and the narrative slips into the first person plural. . . . It is possible that Luke utilized Timothy’s account of his travels with Paul and did not alter “we” to “they.” This is unlikely to be an editorial oversight, considering the number of times it occurs and the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative. . . . Firsthand knowledge of what Paul said begins in chapter 20, when Timothy is present, and the speech there is rather different from what has gone before. (pp. 127-8)

I think there is a better accounting for the “we passages”, but I have not spent any time thinking through Kennedy’s suggestion here. It might be worth doing so, at least in respect to a source ostensibly claiming to be by a Timothy. (I don’t think I ever got around to completing my old notes on an alternative explanation for the we passages that I began here two years ago, darn it.)

Classical historiography — and classical endings

Kennedy suggests that the narrative from Acts 1 to Acts 15:35 “may represent a compositional unit which was all that was originally intended to be added to Luke’s Gospel.”

While I can readily accept that section of Acts is “a compositional unit”, I think it would be hard to sustain an argument that it was all that was originally intended to be added to Luke’s Gospel. The introduction speaks of the gospel going to all nations and the narrative presages Paul taking the message before kings and rulers. Both these are not fulfilled until the gospel reaches the capital and ruler of all nations (Rome) and till Paul has addressed Jewish and gentile rulers in Caesarea and Rome. But that the narrative up to 15:35 does represent an independent literary unit with a certain completeness in its own right is nonetheless interesting.

On the eminent suitability of Acts 15:30-35 as a classical ending to a work of ancient historiography, Kennedy writes:

Classical historiography generally does not employ a rhetorical epilogue and instead often concludes with a very brief reference to continuing events (as at the end of Acts 28). This well describes where we are left in Acts 15:30-35. (p. 128 – my emphasis throughout)

Here is Acts 15:30-35

So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.  And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them. And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles. Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.

I had not before noticed how this is so well echoed by the ending of Acts 28:

And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.

But what is particularly interesting is Kennedy’s observation as a scholar and professor of the classics:

The opening of 15:36 is reminiscent of the opening of Xenophon’s Hellenica, a work read in Greek schools. Xenophon attached his work on Greek history to the abrupt end of Thucydides (probably as left at the latter’s death) by the words meta de tauta, “And after this . . . .” Acts 15:36 begins “And after some days . . . .” An educated audience such as Luke had in mind might have perceived this.

I like reading of such fresh possibilities when someone more steeped in the broader literary context of the biblical books than in the confines of theological studies publishes his or her insights. If, as Kennedy notes, Xenophon’s Hellenica was studies in Greek schools, his case is quite plausible.

Putting it all together

If in fact the second half of Acts is Luke’s version of Paul’s travels, conceived as a separate entity and based on Timothy’s account filled out by Luke for those periods Timothy did not witness, the retention of the “we” is not an editorial oversight, but a stylistic rhetorical device to increase the authority of the account. No deceit need have been intended; Luke may have thought that the introduction of Timothy in chapter 16 made clear what he was doing, and it is possible that 15:36 was intended to be given a title such as “Luke’s Account of the Missions of Paul, after Timothy.” (p. 128)

If this is a credible option, Kennedy opines that the author originally had in mind a three part corpus:

  1. The Gospel
  2. The Activities of the Disciples from the ascension to the meeting in Jerusalem
  3. Second Acts: The Missions of Paul

Kennedy comments that although there is no real difference in the prose of the two halves of Acts, there is a significant difference in tone. The second half conveys an immediacy of a first-hand observation. I would qualify Kennedy’s observation by saying that this first-hand impression is itself a rhetorical device and not necessarily a fact of the sources at all.

I think that the difference in tone owes more to an additional explanation Kennedy offers — the movement beyond Palestine, Syria and Pisidia and to the Ionian coast, Greece, and beyond.

In this new setting Paul’s speech at Athens, the first address in what might be called Second Acts, takes on special meaning. Not only the Jews reject the gospel; so do the philosophers of the intellectual capital of the world. There is a dramatic movement from rejection in Athens, to rejection in Jerusalem and Paul’s trial, to rejection in Rome, but this rejection by leaders everywhere is shown against a pattern of acceptance by the people. (p.128-9)

I am not sure that Kennedy’s suggestion that the author originally intended a distinctly two part work for Acts is the only explanation for a Xenophon/Hellenica-like join at 15:36. The half-way cathartic ending in Acts with the Jerusalem Council and its aftermath, and the possible half-way kick-re-start at 15:36 could well have been the author’s way of informing his audience that one part of the story had finished and a new part, with a different theme, was to begin. Such rhetorical devices were the tools an author necessarily drew upon to speak his mind to an audience when he had adopted the voice of the anonymous narrator. As Jan-Wim Wesselius comments in The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible,

The almost complete absence of the personal aspect of the narrator makes it impossible to express personal thoughts and feelings . . . .  This apparently made it necessary to invent or apply various literary techniques that enable an anonymous narrator . . . . to introduce the programme of a book through purely literary means . . . . (p. 77)

Not much is changed if we do see the author having originally intended for Acts to be a two-part work, or if a rhetorical device at Acts 15:36 served to introduce a new thematic program. What it does offer, however, is an insight to the human processes and plans that were responsible for its creation. Anything that helps us see with sharper clarity the West’s primary canon as a human product is A Good Thing.

 

From http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ApostleFedorZubov.jpg
Ministry of the Apostles. Russian icon by Fyodor Zubov, 1660.
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Christian conversion – an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy

This is a continuation from Paul and the Stoics – 1, a look at Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s thesis.

The previous post introduced a model which enables us to see the stark similarities of the very structures and foundations of Paul’s theological thought with the Stoic philosophical teachings of his contemporaries. The source of these Stoic (and Pauline) concepts is traceable — not to a Palestinian itinerant or a blinding vision on a road to Damascus — but back to Aristotle.

The following synopsis is an overview of what Engberg-Pedersen’s model is all about. My discussion of it comes from me alone and is not part of E-P’s thoughts at all. Details will come in future discussions.

Aristotle’s Happiness :: the Stoic’s Reason :: Paul’s Christ

Whenever Paul in his letters turns to ethical discussions it is clear that he is intensely engaged in thought about the best form of human living, indeed, about the only right, overall shape of human life and behaviour in the here and now. When he bases his ethical discussions on the foundation of a full knowledge and grasp of Jesus Christ and the gospel, he is attempting to establish a general scheme or structure for the ideal and only right goal (ultimate point – telos) of how to live.

To this end Paul was engaged above all with practical thoughts and reasonings that lead to right actions or behaviours.

In doing this he is following in the footsteps of the Stoics who in this respect borrowed from Aristotle. Aristotle wrote that the good to which all aspects of one’s life should be directed was something final, perfect, indeed the most perfect thing. This “end” or “purpose” of a human life alone makes one’s life complete and self-sufficient. One reaches “perfection” in the sense of “being complete” and “having reached one’s end or goal” as a result of having lived a life in conformity with right behaviours, and right th0ughts that led to those right behaviours.

Aristotle and the later Stoics were strongly focussed on engaging in practical reasonings to understand how particular good acts could all be found to emanate from, and in turn be directed back towards, a single grasp or understanding of the “goal” or “directed end” of one’s life.

For Aristotle, this “end” was “happiness”. For the Stoics, it was “reason”. For Paul, it was “Christ”.

The Good in Relation to the World, Self and Others

For Aristotle the “good” that was the “end” of a human life consisted not only of justice (first of all), and moderation, courage, magnanimity, and more, but also of fundamental worldly goods that are needed to sustain life. Note that these qualities include not only “individualistic” virtues, but also “altruistic” ones too.

The Stoics modified Aristotle at this point, and excluded those worldly goods from the essence of what was “Good” for a human. The consequence of this was that Stoic philosophy extensively explored the question of how a “good” person was to relate to the material things of the world. But like Aristotle, Stoics also saw a virtuous life as consisting of qualities pertaining alone to an individual (e.g. moderation) as well as qualities that governed a person’s relations with others for the good of others (e.g. justice, magnanimity).

Paul clearly reflects the Stoic’s philosophy of ethics here.

To Know, To Will, To Do or Not To Do

Intellectual insight is of paramount importance to Aristotle when describing the moral person. For Aristotle, moral insight at the cognitive level is the key to controlling one’s desires and emotions. This intellectual insight is an ability to grasp what one’s life ought to be about and to accordingly understand the right acts one ought to do in order to achieve that end.

For Aristotle virtue is a state of mind that may not always be active. But thoughts — right understanding — can activate it and lead to perform right actions and behaviour.

This “activation” of virtue is Aristotle’s word “energeia”, and it is found in the same context in Paul’s address to the Galatians:

For in Christ Jesus . . . faith works (=is active; “energoumene”) through love (5:6)

Paul’s discussion in Romans 7 about mental conflicts over knowing what to do, knowing “the good”, yet failing to do it despite desiring to do what one intellectually knows to do, follows in the train of the same discussion initiated by Aristotle and developed by the Stoics.

Aristotle’s discussion concluded that there were three states of virtue:

  1. a fully virtuous person is one who has a state of desire and intellectual understanding that leaves no room whatever for a divided mind. By definition a fully virtuous person will always do what is required;
  2. a person who understands cognitively what is to be done, and desires to do it, but who simultaneously has countervening desires and thus has a divided mind, is the person who struggles against these pulls of the flesh and overcomes to do what is right;
  3. a weak-willed person is also of a divided mind, but gives in to their base desires.

Stoics placed even more emphasis on the cognitive understanding of the “end” or goal of one’s life and associated moral virtues than found in Aristotle. For the Stoics,

everything hangs on coming to see the good, on getting a proper rational grasp of it. Then all ‘passions’ will be blotted out. There will be no weakness of will. And one will always and only act upon one’s (new) insight. (p. 53)

That does not rule out the fact of human weakness or a life-long seeking after and growing in “perfection”. But the relevance of this Stoic teaching to Paul’s thought is surely obvious. E-P states

That is why the basic structure in Stoic ethics comes very close to describing a case of conversion. That that is one further reason why it is particularly relevant to Paul. (p. 53)

Comment

Much of what is described above may sound like bland truisms to some readers, but that is because we have been immersed in a culture rooted in Christian and Aristotelian traditions.

It is the cognitive foundation of Christian ethics and its related view of their place in the world, vis a vis God, other Christians and nonbelievers, that deserves examination and critique. A humanist (and more humane?) ethic, on the other hand, surely must be grounded in an integrated view of the whole person — thoughts and emotions, understanding and feelings. By pitting parts of our nature against other parts, I believe that our cultural and religious traditions have invited mental and emotional dysfunctions and abuses. I do not deny that some have also been led to lead better lives than they would otherwise have done also as a result of this tradition. But the tree needs examination for all the fruit it has borne, the good and the bad.

By reading Paul in the context of the ethical philosophical discussions that were part of his heritage one also potentially gains a clearer perspective of the nature of Christianity and its relevance for today. Do we really want to cling to an ethical, anthropological and cosmological system that is in excess of 2000 years old? Have we not made at least some progress morally since then?

I am also interested in viewing Paul through this perspective because of what it might well explain about the dichotomy between Paul’s letters and the Gospels. Paul’s Christ is surely a heavenly entity without any ties to this world apart from those of the core gospel message (his incarnation, death and resurrection). Paul’s ethics and Christ derive from reflection, thought, and a philosophical tradition, not from sermons on mounts or ministries of healing.

The Details

This introduces the overview of what E-P’s model is all about. Details of what happens at each point of the diagram to follow.

Appealing to Faith in a Search for Truth, Playing Tennis Without a Net

Before you appeal to faith when reason has backed you into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

(This quote and the following post are largely taken from page 154 of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Dennett.)

Many believers in God claim that their faith is something beyond reason and cannot validly be tested by the standards of science and rational thought. This is fine on a personal comfort level, but many believers also insist that it must apply just as meaningfully when they bring their faith into arguments about evolution, origins of life and the universe, and other pursuits for truth.

Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has a beautiful response to this faith claim. He begins by referring to philosopher Ronald de Sousa who described philosophical theology as “intellectual tennis without a net“, with the net being a metaphor for rational judgment.

Let the believer who insists that the rigour of scientific method or rational argument not be allowed to touch his faith have the first serve, Dennett begins. Whatever the believer serves, suppose the nonbeliever replies:

What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil. That’s not much of a God to worship!

The believer volleys back demanding to know how the nonbeliever can logically make such a claim that his (the believer’s) opening serve has such a preposterous implication. So the nonbeliever replies:

Oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves? Either the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down, there are no rules and anybody can say anything, a mug’s game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your time or mine by playing with the net down.

Not that Dennett is opposed to faith per se. What he wants to see “is a reasoned ground for taking faith seriously as a way of getting to the truth . . .”

Before you appeal to faith when reason has backed you into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

Dennett assists the reader in answering this question with a few thought experiments:

1. You and your loved one are touring a foreign land when your loved one is brutally murdered before you eyes. Now in this land the legal system allows friends of the accused to testify their faith in his innocence. The judge listens to friend after friend tearfully, sincerely, movingly testify to their complete faith in the accused’s innocence, and by the end of the hearing this judge is far more swayed by their faith claims than the evidence of the prosecution. Would you be willing to live in such a place?

2. You are about to be operated on by a surgeon who tells you that whenever he hears a little voice telling him to disregard his medical training and do something different, he listens to and follows that still small voice. . . . .

Dennett concludes:

I know it passes in polite company to let people have it both ways, and under most circumstances I wholeheartedly cooperate with this benign arrangement. But we’re seriously trying to get at the truth here, and if you think that this common but unspoken understanding about faith is anything better than socially useful obfuscation to avoid mutual embarrassment and loss of face, you have either seen much more deeply into this issue than any philosopher ever has (for none has ever come up with a good defense of this) or you are kidding yourself. (The ball is now in your court.)

From http://gssq.blogspot.com/2008_02_01_archive.html

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Paul and the Stoics – 1

In Paul and the Stoics (2000) Troels Engberg-Pedersen, building on major scholarly perspectives of Paul, argues for three new ways of understanding Paul’s thought and “theology”.

1. Historical reading

Following Malherbe (Paul and the Popular Philosophers, et al), E-P insists that Paul should not be seen as “against” some Greco-Roman background, but as “being ‘ part of a shared context’: a shared Greco-Roman discourse in which he participated as a Hellenistic Jew.” For E-P this means much more than compiling a stock-take of the points where Paul’s thought compares and contrasts with its religious-historical background. E-P goes much further than Malherbe by arguing that Paul’s overall thought shares the ancient ethical traditions of moral philosophers of his day.

In brief, the present work argues for similarity of ideas between Paul and the Stoics right across the board and fundamentally questions the widespread view that [there is a] basic, intrinsic difference between the perspectives of Paul the (Hellenistic) Jew and the ethical tradition of the Greeks. (p.11)

The basic similarity between Paul and the Stoics, argues E-P, is “not just with regard to a number of particular, relatively minor topoi, but to whole cluster of motifs that together constitute a major pattern of thought.” What does Paul share with the ethical view of his day, in particular with his contemporary Stoics? E-P argues that they both share “the idea of a ‘conversion’ or ‘call’ understood as a change in self-understanding“. More specifically, they share the idea of an ethical change as

a move away from identification with the self as a bodily, individual being,

via an identification with something outside the self,

and to a perspective shared with and also directed towards others,

[and this perspective will then also] issue immediately in practice.”

2. The validity of Paul’s discursive arguments apart from ideological critique

E-P describes his approach to Paul as a complement of Meeks’ study in The First Urban Christians. While Meeks interprets discrete ideas of Paul and metaphors he used through the actual community practices in relation to their wider social world, E-P focuses entirely on the discursive — sequential and logically knit — ideas of Paul. These, he believes, tell their own valid story without having to be subsumed under attention to arguments about social practice.

3. The consistency of Paul’s thought

Thirdly, E-P embraces the “Paul-was-positive-about-everything-distinctly-Jewish” arguments connected with Sanders and Räisänen. But where S and R see Paul struggling, even psychologically, from letter to letter to work out a consistent argument to accommodate a godly law with the saving power of faith in Christ, E-P, on the other hand, argues that there is far more consistency than S and R realized. This consistency is brought to light when the letters are read with an ancient Stoic’s perspective.

The Paradoxical Junction

So for all of Paul’s apocalyptic and religious terminology, Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s study of Paul’s epistles has concluded that, at core, Paul expresses a message that mirrors what contemporary Stoic philosophers understood as the human situation and the processes required for this to be exalted to an ideal norm.

Paul’s Christ, for example, serves the same function as Reason or “Logos” in the Stoic philosophy of Cicero and Seneca. One’s life is ideally to be found “in Reason/Christ”, conforming one’s life to that of the nature of Reason/Christ, with one’s fleshly desires and passions mortified, and in the process being found in a new community (whose polity is from above, not of this earth) of like-minded others.  Both Stoicism and Paul’s Christianity are normative. That is, both teach that one’s conduct is to be governed by clearly defined standards.

To take a trivial example, where the Stoics spoke of rationality and reason (though also identifying this with God), Paul speaks of God and Christ. Still, the claim is that it is the same basic structure that holds together Stoic ethics and Paul’s comprehensive theologizing. Only, where they set forth the structure in its transparent nakedness, Paul made use of the same structure, but in a welter of ways of speaking that were partly philosophical and partly metaphorical (though Paul himself probably considered them eminently ‘realistic’ and directly referential). (p. 47)

Of  course there are differences. Paul’s communities (churches) are more every-day realities than sought-for ideals; Stoic philosophy consistently enjoins compassion for a wider circle of humanity than do Paul’s letters.

Paul and the Stoics argues that the primary differences do not touch on the common substance underlying both Stoic and Pauline views of human nature and its transformation via a higher agent. The differences very often come down to being matters of expressive metaphors and presentation styles. Paul’s apocalyptic and religious language smokescreens the fact that his thought draws on the repository of Stoic philosophy. For all of Paul’s asserted concern for a time and event that is not yet here, but nonetheless imminent, and for “the Christ event” having initiated the time towards that final event, Paul remains committed and most concerned about the here and now, in particular about the cognitive understandings, self-identities, and behaviour and conduct of individuals and communities in the here and now.

The Model

E-P uses a diagram to illustrate his model to help readers follow the common thread in both Paul’s and Stoic writings. I have drawn a much simplified version of this:

ixs

E-P calls it the I-X-S model. Keep in mind that I have simplified E-P’s original diagram. I will also be compelled to somewhat simplify the explanation of the model.

The I box represents the individual before being converted (to either Stoicism or Christianity). This individual values and follows the basic self-centred desires, such as for food, clothing, pleasure and so on. It does not matter if this individual belongs to whatever other social groups, or even if he or she lives a life of isolation from others, the basic values of this person relate to the person’s bodily needs and interests.

The X box represents God, identified as Reason by the Stoics and with (sometimes as) Christ by Paul. When the individual (I) is “struck by” Reason/Christ (X) he attains a cognitive understanding of the nature of X, and responds with a desire to reach towards X. The individual begins to conform one’s values to those of X. This means that he comes to have an “objective” view of himself as a result of seeing himself in the same way X sees him. The individual’s desires and values now conform to those of X. The individual becomes of “one mind” with X.

The S box represents the quintessential social community. After the individual is “struck by” and reaches upward towards Reason/Christ, he or she is placed via X into this community of like-minded persons. This community is the one the individual comes to identify with, no matter what other attachments to former communities or groups remain. The individual now has the same values and objective outlook on himself and the world and all others in it. The individual now has the same concern for fellow community members as does X. He/she no longer primarily values her own interests, but the interests of all members equally. The community also reaches up towards X as it continues to seek to identify more with X and the values and mind of X.

The I box is placed lowest in the diagram to represent its “far removed from, or far below, the X” state in the cosmology. It is also placed on the left as an indicator that it is a condition that exists prior to its mutual relationship with X and being placed into the X-designated community.

Once an I is “in X” and then “in S”, one is “in” these absolutely, completely, as surely as black is black and white is white. In another sense, one is also progressing towards a fuller grasp of X and and a one-ness with S.

That’s enough for one post. Will continue with some specifics in another posting soon-ish.

Continued in Christian conversion — an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy

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