Monthly Archives: December 2009

Dog resurrection

My previous post cited a first century mockery of the resurrection theme found in Plutarch’s Moralia. The section is from The Cleverness of Animals, 973-974. The full text is online here.

Still, I believe that I should not pass over one example at least of a dog’s learning, of which I myself was a spectator at Rome.

The dog appeared in a pantomime with a dramatic plot and many characters and conformed in its acting at all points with the acts and reactions required by the text.

In particular, they experimented on it with a drug that was really soporific, but supposed in the story to be deadly. The dog took the bread that was supposedly drugged, swallowed it, and a little later appeared to shiver and stagger and nod until it finally sprawled out and lay there like a corpse, letting itself be dragged and hauled about, as the plot of the play prescribed.

But when it recognized from the words and action that the time had come, at first it began to stir slightly, as though recovering from a profound sleep, and lifted its head and looked about.

Then to the amazement of the spectators it got up and proceeded to the right person and fawned on him with joy and pleasure so that everyone, and even Caesar himself (for the aged Vespasian ^ was present in the Theatre of Marcellus), was much moved.

The same text offers a footnote for the date of this pantomime:

^ Vespasian became emperor in a.d. 69 when he was 60 years old and died ten years later, so that this incident can be dated only within the decade.



(and i seem to recall some scholars seriously claiming that the very idea of a bodily resurrection was utterly unthinkable among these ancients)

Resurrection reversal

For the sake of completion to my recent posts on empty tombs and crucifixions being popular stuff of ancient fiction I should add the most well-known one here, the section from the first century Satyricon by Petronius. (Those recent posts are Popular novels and the gospel narratives and Another Empty Tomb Tale.)

The date

Michael Turton in his Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark includes the following comment on Mark 16:8

v8: Carrier (2004c) observes:

“But we have one definite proof that the resurrection motif in fiction predates the 1st century: the Latin satire of that very genre, The Satyricon by Petronius. This is positively dated to around 60 A.D. (Petronius was killed under the reign of Nero, and makes fun of social circumstances created by the early Caesars) and is a full-fledged travel-narrative just like Acts, with a clear religious motif. However, Petronius is making fun of that motif, and also writing in Latin, yet we know the genre began in the Greek language. Thus, in order for Petronius to move the genre into Latin and make fun of it, it must have pre-existed the time of his writing and been popular enough to draw his attention. Indeed, the satire itself may actually have existed in a Greek form before Petronius took it up: P. Parsons, “A Greek Satyricon?” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 18 (1971) pp. 53ff. It should be noted that Petronius pokes fun at the resurrection theme. Similarly, Plutarch relates a spoof of the motif in popular theatre, where a performing dog acts out its death and resurrection on stage to the delight of the emperor Vespasian (“On the Cleverness of Animals,” Moralia 973e-974a). In order to have something to spoof, the motif must predate the year 80.” in section 140.frg2, where the hero compares his restoration from impotence to the “resurrected Protesilaus,” and attributes it to Mercury’s known role in “bringing back the dead.”

The Widow of Ephesus tale

With permission from, and thanks to, the owner of The Above-average Typist site (Kenny), I am copying from his site the portion of “Chapter Thirteen” from: The Satyricon by Petronius. Translated by Alfred R. Allinson. (1930) pp. 193-218.  This site contains the complete text of the Satyricon.

In this instance we have not an empty tomb, but a “resurrection” from a tomb of a body that ended back on the cross!

But Eumolpus, champion of the distressed and author of the existing harmony, fearing that our cheerfulness should flag for lack of amusing anecdotes, commenced a series of gibes at women’s frailty,– how lightly they fell in love, how quickly they forgot even their own sons for a lover’s sake, asserting there was never yet a woman so chaste she might not be wrought to the wildest excesses by a lawless passion. Without alluding to the old plays and world-renowned examples of women’s folly, he need only instance a case that had occurred, he said, within his own memory, which if we pleased he would now relate. This offer concentrated the attention of all on the speaker, who began as follows:

cxi “There was once upon a time at Ephesus a lady of so high repute for chastity that women would actually come to that city from neighboring lands to see and admire. This fair lady, having lost her husband, was not content with the ordinary signs of mourning, such as walking with hair disheveled behind the funeral car and beating her naked bosom in presence of the assembled crowd; she was fain further to accompany her lost one to his final resting-place, watch over his corpse in the vault where it was laid according to the Greek mode of burial, and weep day and night beside it. So deep was her affliction, neither family nor friends could dissuade her from these austerities and the purpose she had formed of perishing of hunger. Even the Magistrates had to retire worsted after a last but fruitless effort. All mourned as virtually dead already a woman of such singular determination, who had already passed five days without food.

“A trusty handmaid sat by her mistress’s side, mingling her tears with those of the unhappy woman, and trimming the lamp which stood in the tomb as often as it burned low. Nothing else was talked of throughout the city but her sublime devotion, and men of every station quoted her as a shining example of virtue and conjugal affection.
“Meantime, as it fell out, the Governor of the Province ordered certain robbers to be crucified in close proximity to the vault where the matron sat bewailing the recent loss of her mate. Next night the soldier who was set to guard the crosses to prevent anyone coming and removing the robbers’ bodies to give them burial, saw a light shining among the tombs and heard the widow’s groans. Yielding to curiosity, a failing common to all mankind, he was eager to discover who it was, and what was afoot.

Accordingly he descended into the tomb, where beholding a lovely woman, he was at first confounded, thinking he saw a ghost or some supernatural vision. But presently the spectacle of the husband’s dead body lying there, and the woman’s tear-stained and nail-torn face, everything went to show him the reality, how it was a disconsolate widow unable to resign herself to the death of her helpmate. He proceeded therefore to carry his humble meal into the tomb, and to urge the fair mourner to cease her indulgence in grief so excessive, and to leave off torturing her bosom with unavailing sobs. Death, he declared, was the common end and last home of all men, enlarging on this and the other commonplaces generally employed to console a wounded spirit. But the lady, only shocked by this offer of sympathy from a stranger’s lips, began to tear her breast with redoubled vehemence, and dragging out handfuls of her hair, she laid them on her husband’s corpse.

“The soldier, however, refusing to be rebuffed, renewed his adjuration to the unhappy lady to eat. Eventually the maid, seduced doubtless by the scent of the wine, found herself unable to resist any longer, and extended her hand for the refreshment offered; then with energies restored by food and drink, she set herself to the task of breaking down her mistress’s resolution. ‘What good will it do you,’ she urged, ‘to die of famine, to bury yourself alive in the tomb, to yield your life to destiny before the Fates demand it?

“‘Think you to pleasure thus the dead and gone?

“‘Nay! rather return to life, and shaking off this womanly weakness, enjoy the good things of this world as long as you may. The very corpse that lies here before your eyes should be a warning to make the most of existence.’

“No one is really loath to consent, when pressed to eat or live. The widow therefore, worn as she was with several days’ fasting, suffered her resolution to be broken, and took her fill of nourishment with no less avidity than her maid had done, who had been the first to give way.

cxii “Now you all know what temptations assail poor human nature after a hearty meal. The soldier resorted to the same cajolements which had already been successful in inducing the lady to eat, in order to overcome her virtue. The modest widow found the young soldier neither ill-looking nor wanting in address, while the maid was strong indeed in his favor and kept repeating:

“Why thus unmindful of your past delight,
Against a pleasing passion will you fight?”

“But why make a long story? The lady showed herself equally complaisant in this respect also, and the victorious soldier gained both his ends. So they lay together not only that first night of their nuptials, but a second likewise, and a third, the door of the vault being of course kept shut, so that anyone, friend or stranger, that might come to the tomb, should suppose this most chaste of wives had expired by now on her husband’s corpse. Meantime the soldier, entranced with the woman’s beauty and the mystery of the thing, purchased day by day the best his means allowed him, and as soon as ever night was come, conveyed the provisions to the tomb.

“Thus it came about that the relatives of one of the malefactors, observing this relaxation of vigilance, removed his body from the cross during the night and gave it proper burial. But what of the unfortunate soldier, whose self-indulgence had thus been taken advantage of, when next morning he saw one of the crosses under his charge without its body! Dreading instant punishment, he acquaints his mistress with what had occurred, assuring her he would not await the judge’s sentence, but with his own sword exact the penalty of his negligence. He must die therefore; would she give him sepulture, and join the friend to the husband in that fatal spot?

“But the lady was no less tender-hearted than virtuous. ‘The Gods forbid,’ she cried, ‘I should at one and the same time look on the corpses of two men, both most dear to me. I had rather hang a dead man on the cross than kill a living.’ So said, so done; she orders her husband’s body to be taken from its coffin and fixed upon the vacant cross. The soldier availed himself of the ready-witted lady’s expedient, and next day all men marveled how in the world a dead man had found his own way to the cross.”

Blocked comments

Till now comments that have contained a URL link have automatically been queued for spam and easy for me to miss altogether.

I have finally found the long lost button that enables me to let these comments through routinely, and comments with up to 4 links should go through now.

Apologies to those who have been affected in the past.

Popular novels and the gospels

This post is a sequel to Another Empty Tomb Tale.

The Gospel of John has the most sermonizing or serious philosophical tone to it with its many figurative speeches of Jesus. It is natural for anyone not familiar with the literary world in which it was produced to remain unaware that it also reflects many features of the popular love stories of its day. That is, in fact, the point of most interest to me: in order to really understand the nature of the gospels one must understand the literary culture in which they were created.

I recently posted an extract of an empty tomb scene from Chaereas and Callirhoe that can scarcely fail to remind a modern reader of the scenes surrounding the empty tomb in the gospels, particularly the Gospel of John. In the Chaereas and Callirhoe love novella the empty tomb scene appears early in the plot and is the gateway to the main action that follows.


Continuing with the same Chariton novel, one finds that even an unjust crucifixion of a main character serves to add dramatic tension.

The hero (Chaereas) and his friend (Polycharmus) are falsely condemned as murderers and unjustly sentenced to crucifixion. The condemned are portrayed as carrying their own crosses to their doom. Chaereas’ nobility of character is demonstrated by his patient silence in the face of this injustice and suffering. (As in the earlier post, the extracts are from Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels.)

Some of the men in Chaereas’s chain gang . . . broke their chains in the night, murdered the overseer, and tried to escape. They failed . . . Without even seeing them or hearing their defense the master at once ordered the crucifixion of [all] the men . . . They were brought out chained together foot and neck, each carrying his cross — the men executing the sentence added this grim public spectacle to the inevitable punishment as an example to frighten the other prisoners. Now Chaereas said nothing when he was led off with the others, but Polycharmus, as he carried his cross, said: “Callirhoe, it is because of you that we are suffering like this! You are the cause of all our troubles!” . . .

Polycharmus is then whisked off to the governor who ordered the crucifixion, Mithridates, in the expectation that he can reveal more about names associated with the murder. In the course of the interrogation before the governor, Polycharmus said:

“. . . Now we put up with our misfortune patiently, but some of our fellow prisoners . . . broke their chains and committed a murder; and you ordered us all to be taken off and crucified. Well, my friend [Chaereas] didn’t utter a word against his wife, even when the execution was under way . . . . Sir, please tell the executioner not to separate even our crosses.”

This story was greeted with tears and groans, and Mithridates sent everybody off to reach Chaereas before he did. They found the rest nailed up on their crosses: Chaereas was just ascending his. So they shouted to them from far off. “Spare him!” cried some; others, “Come down!” or “Don’t hurt him!” or “Let him go!” So the executioner checked his gesture, and Chaereas climbed down from his cross . . .

Mithridates [the governor] met him and embraced him. “My brother, my friend!” he said, “Your silence almost misled me into committing a crime! Your self-control was quite out of place!(pp. 67-69)

The silence of Jesus in a similar predicament is generally read as an astonishing holiness of character. So it is instructive to see the same motif applied to the hero of a popular novel from around the same era.

Other novels likewise contain scenes of miscarriages of justice and crucifixions of the hero, or apparent scenes of sure death of the heroine, and which turn out happily nonetheless.

Here is one more example. This is from another love story, An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon ‘of Ephesus’, translated by Graham Anderson.

When the prefect heard the particulars, he made no further effort to find out the facts but gave orders to have Habrocomes taken away and crucified. Habrocomes himself was dumbfounded at his miseries . . . The prefect’s agents brought him to the banks of the Nile, where there was a sheer drop overlooking the torrent. They set up the cross and attached him to it, tying his hands and feet tight with ropes; that is the way the Egyptians crucify. . . . But Habrocomes looked straight at the sun, then at the Nile channel, and prayed: “Kindest of the gods, ruler of Egypt, . . .  if I, Habrocomes, have done anything wrong, may I perish miserably and incur an even greater penalty if there is one; but I have been betrayed . . . .”  The god took pity on his prayer. A sudden gust of wind arose and struck the cross, sweeping away the subsoil on the cliff where it had been fixed. Habrocomes fell into the torrent and was swept away; the water did him no harm . . . . (p. 155)

Innocent heroes, betrayals, unjust judges, crucifixions, patient endurance, empty tombs, faith in the gods to deliver . . . . They are all as much the stuff of ancient popular fiction as they are of the canonical gospels.

The focus on the character, not the pain

Another interesting detail that the gospels and these novellas have in common is their focus on the nobility of character of the hero through his unjust treatment and crucifixion. A modern reader expects a portrayal of crucifixion to convey the physical agony involved, that that is something quite absent from both the ancient novels and the gospels. (Mel Gibson fulfilled an obvious modern demand for that sort of detail with his The Passion of the Christ movie.)

Other novelistic motifs

Jo-Ann A. Brant is one academic who has published studies in the novelistic motifs and art in the Gospel of John. I have discussed some of her work in some detail previously. Here I will just point to some of the main ideas that she explains. The following are extracts from my earlier post Novelistic plot and motifs in the Gospel of John.

Abandoned child

The true father of Jesus, God himself, chose to leave his infant son in the foster care of humble parents from Nazareth. By doing this he was knowingly leaving his son to become a victim of false accusations, envy, abuse and death. But his motive was entirely good — it was done out of love and not any desire to see his son die. All blame for mistreatment falls on those who carry it out, and the father bears no responsibility for what his son suffers.

That the hero or heroine was abandoned by their parents and left to face death, and raised by others of a very lowly status, was a common theme in ancient mythology and novels: . . . .

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

Wanderings and signs

Novels would commonly begin with an opening conflict that led to a series of episodes in which the main character wandered from adventure to adventure, facing death, danger, conflict and temptation at every turn. The hero would also carry signs of their true parentage, and these signs would themselves often be the focus of the movement of the story. Some would be in awe of the signs (whether they were something about their physical appearance or tokens or some form of wealth) and want to protect the hero; others would be envious or greedy and want to kill them.

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

The first love scene

Can’t have a good novel without good love scenes. The gospel of John plays with some of the standard ones.

“There is near consensus among literary critics that the scene at Jacob’s well follows conventions of the betrothal type-scene found in Hebrew narrative.” (Husband hunting, 211)

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

The second love scene

At the commencement of the story of Lazarus the author informs readers that the Mary he is to refer to is the one who will later in the gospel anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume and her hair. Thus we are given a motive for Mary’s later act — she loves Jesus out of gratitude for raising her brother from the dead.

Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. (12:3)

The reader knows that the woman is preparing Jesus for burial, but the actors in the narrative do not know this. Rather, the scene is heavy with sensuality, and suggestive of a prenuptial ritual. At the level of the textual narrative (apart from its symbolic meaning) it appears that Mary is attempting to court Jesus, even asking him to marry her.

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

The resolution

At the end the main character must reconcile his own desires with those of his father. Jesus does not wish to die but acknowledges that that is the reason the father has left him to face the world (12:27-28). His obedience to the father’s will ultimately confirms that he truly is the obedient son of God.

Similar motifs are at work in An Ethiopian Story: a trial at the end, a daughter who must prove her obedience to her father, a father who feels obliged to sacrifice his daughter for the sake of the people — although in this case the crowd calls out for her to be set free, contrary to the demands of the crowd in the gospel.

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

Death and marriage, a popular couplet

In the opening miracle in the Gospel of John, there is again a strong association between marriage and death. The Cana miracle took place at a wedding, but the miracle itself, with its imagery of blood, pointed to the death of the bridegroom Jesus. Again in the Gospel of John we see the same ironic association when Jesus is anointed. The reader knows the sensual scene, one that ostensibly borders on a proposal of marriage, is in fact (and unknown to the characters involved) a preparation for the death of Jesus.

The metaphoric link between marriage consummation and an untimely death is common enough. Another example of it in ancient novels from the cultural era of the gospels is the second century novel by Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon:

And when will you marry, my son; when will I make the offerings to sanctify your wedding, O groom and bridegroom — unconsummated bridegroom, unlucky chevalier. Your bridal chamber is the grave, your wedlock is with death, your wedding march a funeral hymn, your marriage song this dirge. (p. 186)

What a resplendent wedding: your bedroom is a prisoners’ cell; your mattress is the ground; your garlands and bracelets are hawsers and wrist ropes; the bride’s escort is a brigand sleeping at the door! Instead of the wedding march we hear a funeral song. (p. 214)

(From Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels)

Music Families

Went walkabout through Singapore’s madly crowded Orchard Road on Christmas Eve and one of the most memorable images was this sign in a subway left over from promoting an art exhibition way back in January 2009 — I can understand why no-one had the heart to remove it: read more »

Christmas message

If I had to give a Christmas message this is it. The following news stories, one from Agence France-Presse and one from, are meant to be read as a couplet.

Iraq Christians mark Christmas under threat


Christians United for War

Both were published on the same day, 24 December, 2009

For what it is worth nowadays, this can be found on the Wikipedia:

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, which followed World War II, called the waging of aggressive war “essentially an evil thing…to initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Another Empty Tomb Tale

Just how unique are the empty tomb narratives in the gospels really?  Here is a narrative of a fictional empty tomb story from the same period, possibly slightly earlier, as the gospels.

Note the graphic details, the similarity of actions, settings and feelings to those found in the gospels; and even the conclusion that the missing corpse was a sign that the one buried had  been a divinity in the flesh, and was now a goddess in heaven.

It is from the story of Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton, translated by B. P. Reardon

The tomb robbers had been careless in closing the tomb – it was night, and they were in a hurry.

At the crack of dawn Chareas turned up at the tomb, ostensibly to offer wreaths and libations, but in fact with the intention of doing away with himself; he could not bear being separated from Callirhoe and thought that death was the only thing that could cure his grief.

When he reached the tomb, he found that the stones had been moved and the entrance was open. He was astonished at the sight and overcome by fearful perplexity at what had happened. Rumor – a swift messenger – told the Syracusans this amazing news.

They all quickly crowded round the tomb, but no one dared go inside until Hermocrates gave an order to do so. This man who was sent in reported the whole situation accurately.

It seemed incredible that even the corpse was not lying there.

Then Chareas himself determined to go in, in his desire to see Callihroe again even dead; but though he hunted through the tomb, he could find nothing.

Many people could not believe it and went in after him. They were all seized by helplessness.

One of those standing there said, “The funeral offerings have been carried off – it is tomb robbers who have done that; but what about the corpse – where is it?”

Many different suggestions circulated in the crowd.

“Which of the gods is it, then, who has become my rival in love and carried off Callihroe and is now keeping her with him – against her will, constrained by a more powerful destiny? That is why she died suddenly – so that she would not realize what is happening.

That is how Dionyus took Ariadne from Theseus, how Zeus took Semele. It looks as if I had a goddess for a wife without knowing it, someone above my station.

From pages 54/5 of Collected Ancient Greek Novels ed by B. P. Reardon, 1989

Of the date of this novel, Reardon writes that it was “written in the archaizing Greek fashionable from the late first century A.D. onward . . . and Chariton has been placed as early as the first century B.C. My own guess at his date is about the middle of the first century A.D.”  (p. 17)

Any study of the gospel empty tomb stories ought to be aware of the remarkably similar sorts of stories that were popular at the time.

For anyone not so familiar with the gospel narratives, the phrases I have highlighted are echoed in the following details of the gospels:

  • the women mourners coming early morning to the tomb of Jesus
  • to complete their mourning tasks
  • on reaching the tomb they are astonished to find the (stone) door open
  • and to find the tomb empty
  • in the Gospel of John Peter arrives first at the tomb but does not go inside
  • another disciple arrives soon afterwards and does go inside the tomb
  • and he sees for sure that there is no body
  • people (disciples) could not believe it
  • the empty tomb is a sign that Jesus was indeed divine and had returned to his place in heaven as a divinity

Taking Eddy and Boyd seriously (1)

A popular book cited by lay readers and scholars alike as presenting “a case for the historical reliability of the synoptic Jesus tradition” is The Jesus Legend by Eddy and Boyd. Richard Bauckham calls it “one of the most important books on methodological issues in the study of Jesus and the Gospels to have appeared for a long time.” Craig A. Evans says it “is the best book in its class. Eddy and Boyd demonstrate mastery of the disciplines essential for critical assessment of the Gospels and competent investigation of the historical Jesus.” Paul Eddy is cited as a professor of biblical and theological studies at Bethel University and Gregory Boyd, PhD, is a senior pastor.

These praises of this book are, simply, staggering to someone who has actually taken the time to read it with a view to better understanding the conservative or establishment side of the discussions about the historicity of Jesus. The book is, in fact, a hodge podge of misrepresentations, obfuscation of contrary arguments, dishonest footnoting, misleading assertions, . . . Well. Let’s take just two pages that I was consulting recently to dig into the arguments surrounding a passage in Thessalonians. . . .

Take their discussion The Case for 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 as a Later Interpolation (pp.211-214).

I only read as far as the second page (212) and found:

  • one instance of plagiarism
  • a footnote reference turning out to be supporting a view inconsistent, even opposite, what E&B used it for
  • oversimplifications and misrepresentation of opposing arguments
  • a failure to even mention let alone address published arguments contradicting their assertions — even though they cited the relevant authors and works for other reasons
  • a tendency to simply cite other authors as having the arguments readers need without actually explaining to readers a summary of what those arguments are

Eddy and Boyd’s methodology

Before discussing these, one introductory note is appropriate. E&B are open about their methodological approach to their arguments. They argue that it is quite legitimate to accept a “low probability” (“super-natural”) argument in instances where “an event . . . defies plausible naturalistic explanation.” (p.90)  That conjunction of “plausible” and “naturalistic” is interesting. One surely must wonder what ‘naturalistic’ explanation could possibly be ‘implausible’ compared with resorting to what is by definition the least probable of all explanations, a miracle. This assumption that miracles should be accepted as explanations for the claims of the New Testament literature has its impact throughout the remainder of their book. E&B explain:

This open approach to critical historiography will form a part of the methodological backdrop for the remainder of this book.

In stating this from the outset, E&B explain why they have been so inconsistent and less than fully intellectually honest in their arguments. They have made up their minds that the narratives of the Gospels and Acts, and the self-witness of the New Testament letters, are all basically “true”. One wonders then why they would really bother with gathering, therefore, “scholarly naturalistic” arguments to support their case. This must surely wear down their patience. From the outset they reject enlightenment methodologies of naturalistic reasoning and scientific approaches. So the rest becomes merely a matter of gathering any “naturalistic-reasoned” argument from any source, and even arguments that simply look good enough from a distance, and sticking them together in a book to appear to be a reasoned rebuttal of arguments against the historicity of Jesus. The alternative explanation for this shoddy and misleading book is less flattering.


On page 212 E&B write:

However, as I. Broer has effectively argued, the evidence from early Christian writings (e.g. 1 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp) suggests that the relatively widespread knowledge of the Pauline letters would naturally have served to hamper the easy acceptance and/or creation of interpolations.29

The even footnote this passage to:

29. I. Broer, “Der ganze Zorn ist schon über sie gekommen’: Bemerkungen zur Interpolationshypothese und zur Interpretation von I Thess. 2. 14-16,” in The Thessalonian Correspondence, ed. R. F. Collins (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1990), 142-45.

A reader would naturally think E&B here are pointing to I. Broer’s argument as something they have themselves read and with which they agree. They are clearly conveying the impression that they know Broer’s argument well enough to be able to describe and reference it in this way.

But their pants drop to their ankles when one happens to read an article by Jon A. Weatherly, The Authenticity of 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: Additional Evidence, in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 42 (1991) 79-98. There, on page 79, one reads:

I. Broer has argued persuasively that the evidence from 1 Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp indicates that knowledge of the Pauline Epistles in the post-apostolic church was sufficient to rule out the acceptance of large numbers of interpolations (‘ “Der ganze Zorn ist schon über sie gekommen’: Bemerkungen zur Interpolationshypothese und zur Interpretation von I Thess. 2. 14-16,” in R. F. Collins (ed.), The Thessalonian Correspondence, [BETL, 87; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1990], pp. 142-45.

What’s the bet E&B have never read I. Broer at all and that all they know of Broer is Weatherly’s 1991 claim?

I wouldn’t really care if so many people weren’t relying on E&B as some sort of authority, but they clearly are.

False footnote

It seems that E&B realize that lots of footnotes make a book look impressively well researched and authoritative. It also seems that they expect few readers to actually bother to check those footnotes to see that they are indeed really doing the job claimed for them. Again on page 212 E&B write:

. . . these verses seem stylistically uncharacteristic of Paul, but it is not clear that they are so to an extent that would warrant the conclusion that they are not Paul’s own words.30

Then the supporting footnote:

30. Schmidt’s linguistic arguments have been convincingly answered by J. Weatherly, “The Authenticity of 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: Additional Evidence”, JSNT, 42 (1991): 79-98; and J. W. Simpson, “The Problems Posed by 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 and a Solution.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 12 (1990): 52-54.

Now I read E&B here as affirming that the linguistic arguments for 1 Thess. 2:13-16 being an interpolation are not strong, and that all one has to do to confirm this is to turn to the cited articles by Weatherly and Simpson. So that’s what I did. I read Weatherly’s article first, and then Simpson’s. It turns out that while both authors do attempt to find reasons to think that the passage is not an interpolation, the two scholars directly contradict each other.

Simpson even summarizes many of arguments also advanced by Weatherly and shows them, often on linguistic grounds, to be either false or without substance. Specifically, Simpson trounces the following arguments found in Weatherly:

  • the linguistic arguments that the passage is not necessarily expressing hostility against the Jews;
  • that the passage can be reconciled conceptually with Romans 11;
  • that the words in the passage do not really say judgment has come with finality upon the Jews;
  • that the Greek does not really say that the Jews have completed all the sins required for an inevitable final judgment;
  • that the lack of textual witness for an interpolation carries much weight.

Yet somehow E&B have managed to claim that BOTH scholars have refuted the linguistic arguments!

Groucho Marx
Groucho Marx

This reminds me of Groucho Marx: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”

As for E&B’s claim that these two authors have “convincingly answered” the stylistic argument, here is what Simpson himself writes (p.43) in his article:

An argument against interpolation must meet the arguments for interpolation head-on; we cannot begin an argument against interpolation simply by noting lack of textual evidence,nor can we make the common assumption that the burden of proof faces the argument for interpolation. The virtue of the interpolation view, as it has been developed by Pearson and Schmidt, is, as we shall see, that it seeks to solve the broadest range of problems, that is, that it draws out in a valuable way the evidence which any view of 1 Thess 2:15f. must take into account.

Again Simpson writes (p.50):

Many form-critical solutions are plausible, both with and without 2:13-16, and all are to some degree problematic.

Simpson concludes (p. 62):

This is not to say that any of these arguments do not point to real problems in regard to 1 Thess 2:13-16, only that the interpolation view is not their best solution.

Simpson fully acknowledges the strength of many of the arguments for interpolation. He does not claim to have nailed the coffin on them. He does attempt to argue, against Pearson, for a plausible explanation for Paul expressing, over time, sharply contradictory words about Jews and their ultimate fate. His arguments against Schmidt are often technical and subtle. They are hardly mark a finality to the discussion as E&B suggest, and as unwary readers would too easily assume from E&B’s statements.

Ditto for Weatherly. Weatherly concluded his article (p.98) thus:

1 Thess. 2.13-16 remains a difficult passage for interpreters of Paul. That the apostle who wrote with such compassion and hope of his Jewish compatriots in Romans 9-11 could write so bitterly of some of them in 1 Thessalonians 2 is problematic, though hardly unprecedented. But another look at the data shows that the evidence for its inauthenticity is, at best, equivocal.

So these authors contradict each other in some key linguistic arguments. Each admits that any explanation, even their own, is not without difficulties. Yet E&B cite them both as having “convincingly answered” — as if they have put to rest — the linguistic arguments against inauthenticity of the Thessalonians passage.

Suppressing the contrary arguments

I opened in my “Plagiarism” section with E&B discussing the significance of a lack of textual evidence for an interpolation. E&B clearly consider the lack of manuscript evidence a major argument. They begin their argument with:

It is no minor problem for a textual theory when there is no textual evidence to support it. Yet this is the case here. Every ancient copy of 1 Thessalonians we have contains verses 13-16. The claim that this passage is an interpolation often rides on the coattails of a wider claim regarding a variety of Pauline interpolations, again generally without manuscript evidence. 28

Again one looks down to check the footnote:

28. See, e.g., Walker, Interpolations . . .

It happens that I have seen Walker, Interpolations, and some time ago wrote a summary of Walker’s discussion of a Literary Culture of Interpolations in which he shows why the lack of manuscript evidence is a virtual non-starter. Walker lists many classical and Christian texts that scholars can see, without any need for manuscript evidence, do contain interpolations.

I summarize here the evidence for the “culture of interpolations” that Walker argues must surely outweigh the paucity of manuscript evidence. They are more fully set out in post linked above.

  1. Homer’s Iliad
  2. Homer’s Odyssey
  3. Orpheus
  4. Musaeus
  5. Hippocrates
  6. Aristophanes
  7. Euripides
  8. Thucydides.
  9. Letters of Plato
  10. Letters of Aristotle
  11. Letters of Epicurus
  12. Letters of Seneca
  13. The Testimonium Flavianum or at least part thereof;
  14. The Sibylline Oracles,
  15. The Synagogal Prayers and such literature
  16. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,
  17. The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah
  18. 4 Ezra.
  19. The LXX
  20. Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth, claimed “heretics” had both added to and deleted from his letters.
  21. Irenaeus feared his writings would be interpolated.
  22. “Many Greek patristic writings” according to Rufinius
  23. Letters of Paul and gospel of Luke according to Marcion
  24. Pentateuch and gospels were likely built up layer by layer
  25. Epistles of Ignatius
  26. The adulterous woman episode in gospel of John
  27. The longer ending of Mark
  28. Perhaps final chapter of John
  29. The Western text of the Gospels and Acts
  30. And even the Western “non-interpolations”

E&B cite Walker as a support for their own claim that there is indeed a lack of manuscript evidence, but their integrity is open to question when they fail to address the fact that Walker himself argues that the manuscript evidence is clearly often not critical at all!

It is also slightly amusing to see E&B failing to address this argument over manuscript evidence and interpolations when one of their cited authors even argues against them:

An argument against interpolation must meet the arguments for interpolation head-on; we cannot begin an argument against interpolation simply by noting lack of textual evidence, . . .  (Simpson p.43)

— which is exactly how E&B do begin their argument against interpolations!

To continue in a future post. . . .

Latest interview with Richard Dawkins

A lovely interview with Richard Dawkins on the Australian ABC TV program Elders was aired this evening — interviewer Andrew Denton. Check out video excerpt and transcript here.

Returning from Freethought & Rationalism Discussion Board

I’ve been over at the FRDB’s Biblical Criticism & History discussion list the past week or so and it was the usual mix of the stimulating and tedious. One old retired scholar there (I’d also like to call him a gentleman but he’s anything but) I first encountered years ago on Crosstalk, and it was so painful to see someone could in all these years not have learned a thing or lessened his rabid obsession to pedantically fault anyone he takes an intestinal dislike to.

Here he was again, making the same claim he made quite some years ago when I was first learning how to go about introducing myself to the scholarly works on biblical studies. He said, once again, that the arguments against the historical existence of Jesus were soundly dealt with ‘many times’ and ‘years ago’. There was no need to revisit them. In support of this assertion he once again gave the same sources he had years before. By this time, however, I had become better read, so I challenged him. (He indicated in one discussion he had no intention of replying, which I thought was interesting.)

He had pointed to Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus (2nd and 3rd editions) as an instance where the “Jesus mythicist” arguments had been rebutted, and once again to chapter 2 of Weaver’s book, The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century: 1900-1950, to a discussion of the scholarship that he has said rebuts the mythicist case.

Schweitzer’s response to those who argued against the historicity of Jesus, according to Weaver (p.62), was that since “Christianity would likely always have to reckon with the possibility of Jesus’ non-historicity”, these debates should be bypassed by grounding Christianity in “a metaphysics”.

That does not sound like a secure rebuttal on historical grounds for the mythicist position.

To my shame I still have not read Schweitzer’s 2nd or 3rd edition in which he discusses the arguments against Jesus’ historicity, but I have since ordered the book and will do so.

The other point Weaver makes is that the “most able” arguments (p.69) against a nonhistorical Jesus are those forwarded by Shirley Jackson Case. The full text of Case’s book can be found online. It’s arguments for historicity are well known to the likes of “mythicists” such as Wells and Doherty and others who seem to lean towards mythicism, such as R. M. Price. They are generally simplistic and well and truly knocked flying and out of sight by anyone who has read Doherty or Wells, or even Price.

Maybe I should sum them up here again in a future post, too.

But the main point is that while there have been many discussing various images of the “historical Jesus”, none that I have seen takes a step back with a truly critical look at the core assumptions underpinning their model.

Meanwhile, thanks to “mcduff” who has kindly taken the effort to list up to nine points that cumulatively argue for a post-70 date (very post 70 — closer to the turn of the century) for Mark’s gospel in comments to an earlier post. I’d like some time to write them up in a comparative table with other arguments — those for dating Mark pre-70 and those that go a step further and date it around 130 c.e.

Poor Joseph, God was a hard act to follow

Never thought I’d see a church as progressive as St Matthews in Aukland, New Zealand.

Have a look at the Australian ABC news stories:

Mary and Joseph poster sparks unholy row


Church resurrects controversial billboard

but finally the inevitable . . .

Sexy God billboard removed

The Missing Testimony of the Earliest Gospel

Now that's what I call missing.
Image by robpatrick via Flickr

Of all the debates and controversies surrounding the Gospel of Mark, the one I find the most teasing is its absence from the record when it was supposed to be present.

No explicit clues till mid second century

There is no explicit hint that it was known to anyone until around 140 c.e. when Justin Martyr spoke of the names of three disciples being changed by divine fiat. It is widely assumed that he is referring to the passage in Mark that speaks of this.

140 c.e. is two generations after the date most New Testament scholars suggest it was composed.

But those scholars who still argue that Mark was the last composed of the canonical gospels appear to be a small minority now. At least one exponent of this late date that I have read seems to have a Church-based confessional interest in arguing this point and maintaining the argument for the primacy of Matthew.

But there is little doubt among most scholars, it seems from the range of literature and discussions I have encountered, that Matthew and Luke knew about Mark’s gospel, and used large chunks of it. Some strongly argue that John’s gospel also shows signs of using Mark. So whatever date we assign for Mark’s first appearance into the world, we need to allow room for the other gospels to follow.

Why the need to reuse Mark?

But why would Matthew and Luke lean so heavily on Mark when they clearly had a different agenda about Jesus, his teaching and his disciples to push? (Here I’m thinking within the parameters of my previous post, Tactics of Religious Innovation.) Mark’s gospel was originally almost certainly “Separationist“. (See also my Jesus nobody post.) Jesus the man was just a man, while the Son of God was a heavenly spirit that entered and possessed that man at baptism, but left him at the crucifixion, presumably reuniting with him in the resurrection.

So why would Matthew and Luke, pioneers of what became the orthodoxy, ever rely so heavily on Mark and bother to re-write him? Why not create alternative “correct” gospels without the taint of such an opposing theological agenda?

Does not heavy reliance on Mark imply that Mark was very well and widely known, and that it had a widespread authoritative status? Does it suggest that the authors of the later gospels felt a need to take on Mark and use his gospel against his theology? Was anything as innovative as a new gospel from scratch so unlikely to take hold that it was simply a non-starter? Was Mark so well established that subtly rewriting it, and expanding on it in ways that subtly overturned its message, the only opening for rival theologians?

But if it were so well grounded as the earliest gospel and for some time the only gospel, how is it we hear nothing of it — and that is only a hint of it — until the mid-second century c.e.?

Matthew or Matthew’s matrix?

Another significant fact is that early church documents show a decided preference for the Gospel of Matthew. But this is an interpretation of the evidence. There is a wealth of evidence for early church documents citing passages that also appear in Matthew.

How can we be sure that these sources really are quoting “our Matthew” rather than a collection of sayings, or that they are not simply drawing on a cloud of sayings in the culture that were later set down in Matthew’s gospel?

Mid second century Justin Martyr speaks of the Memoirs of the Apostles, and the little he speaks of their contents matches material in our canonical gospels. And when he describes the birth of Jesus he comes tantalizingly close to something we read in Matthew’s gospel, but he also even more frustratingly moves away from Matthew’s account and brings in other images from his interpretation of the prophets. In fact, his whole birth narrative is, not unlike Matthew’s, openly drawn from his interpretation of the Old Testament prophets. He does not appear to be citing a gospel or Memoir of an Apostle at all.

The earliest indisputable evidence

The earliest overt evidence we have of Mark’s gospel itself is from the first harmony of the four gospels to have been composed. This was by Tatian, sometime between 160 and 175 it is believed. So when we first see Mark clearly we also see the other canonical gospels at the same time — in a gospel harmony. And this is up to three generations after the gospels are widely assumed to have been composed.

One more question before I go

Now another question. Tatian’s harmony is touted as the earliest gospel harmony. Can we really imagine no widely distributed harmony following the appearance of four varying and contradictory gospels until after the passing of three generations?

It is human nature to establish patterns in what we see. We are creatures that like to tie things together as well as blow them apart. We don’t like leaving loose threads or contradictions hanging. I would think a harmony would be the very next publication to follow any general awareness and overlapping acceptances of four different gospels.

It is generally accepted that Mark was written soon after or around the time of the first Judean rebellion against Rome (around 70 c.e.) — the one led by Simon and John. Is it just barely conceivable that it was rather written soon after or around the time of the second Judean rebellion instead (around 135 c.e.) — the one led by Simon Bar Kochba?

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Tactics of Religious Innovation: Deuteronomy and Gospels

Of the authors of Deuteronomy Bernard M. Levinson writes

. . . their concern was to implement their own agenda: to reflect a major transformation of all spheres of Judaean life — cultically, politically, theologically, judicially, ethically, and economically. The authors of Deuteronomy had a radically new vision of the religious and public polity and sought to implement unprecedented changes in religion and society. Precisely for that reason, the guise of continuity with the past became crucial. The authors of Deuteronomy sought to locate their innovative vision in prior textual authority by tendentiously appropriating texts like the Covenant Code [esp in Exodus], while freely going beyond them in programmatic and substantive terms to address matters like public administration, the role of the monarchy, and the laws of warfare.

Deuteronomy’s reuse of its textual patrimony was creative, active, revisionist, and tendentious. It functioned as a means of cultural transformation. (Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, p.16)

The authors of Deuteronomy used the very texts they opposed to introduce a contrary set of rules to displace them. The legal code in Exodus knew nothing about an obligatory single cult centre. Sacrifices could be performed wherever the people were — in every place — just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sacrificed in every place where they found God’s presence. So Exodus 20:24:

An altar of earth shall you make for me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I record my name I will come to you, and I will bless you.

Twisting your opponent’s words

I cannot repeat here the richness of Levinson’s textual comparison: a broad overview will have to do, so where the detail sounds shallow Levinson is not at fault. The Hebrew for “In every place where” above literally reads: in every [the] place. The Deuteronomist has reused the same words with a slight restructuring in Deuteronomy 12:13-15

Take heed to yourself that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every place that you see; but in the place which the Lord chooses, in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you. However, you may slaughter and eat meat within all your gates, whatever your heart desires, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which he has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, of the gazelle and the deer alike.

The Deuteronomist appears to be explaining more fully the old law in Exodus while in fact he is contradicting its basic assumption and instruction. One of his tools for accomplishing this is to reuse but also restructure the targeted phrase in the Exodus law that he seeks to overturn.

The degree of technical scribal sophistication involved is remarkable. (p.33) read more »

An Explanation for the Gospels being Anonymous

Revised 6 Dec to add more on "denying originality" in Mark

The canonical gospel titles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are not original. They are much later attributions of authorship. But why did the original authors not declare their identities?

A year or more ago “N.T. Wrong” suggested here that I read Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation by Bernard M. Levinson as an example of how a text deliberately revises older traditions. One passage by Levinson hit me as potentially pertinent to the above question.

In a culture with a curriculum of prestigious and authoritative texts, how are legal innovation and religious transformation possible? The solution is to disclaim authorship and to deny originality. . . . They never speak in their own belated, seventh-century B.C.E. scribal voice. Instead, they defer to the voice of authoritative antiquity. . . (p.34)

In other words, they are written to be documents of which it could be said, “It Is Written”. The author(s) of Deuteronomy had the advantage of being able to use Moses as a character mouth-piece.

A personal name attached to the first gospel would loudly advertize its novelty. Antiquity, not novelty, was venerable and authoritative. A common, well-known example is the way Plato chose to write under the name of his highly respected teacher, Socrates.

Denying originality

But was not the first gospel starkly innovative anyway? The author of Deuteronomy could disclaim originality by putting his reformist religion in the mouth of Moses. The gospels of Mark and Matthew likewise wrapped the words and acts of Jesus in the words of the ancient prophets.

Mark embedded his new religious narrative from the outset in the ancient prophecies.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.  The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. (Mark 1:1-3 citing Isaiah and Malachi)

The teachings of Jesus in Mark are not new either, but presented as even older than those of Moses.

They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote this precept. But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; . . .Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:4-9)

Matthew introduces its Jesus through genealogy, a voice of antiquity, and prophecy.

Genealogy: there is a biological link to David and Abraham

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matt.1:1)

Voice of antiquity: there is a birth narrative told in a literary voice that echoes loudly the ancient narratives of the births of patriarchs and history of Moses

Compare angels announcing imminent miraculous births in both Matthew and Genesis; compare the massacres of the innocents by both Herod and Pharaoh . . .

Prophecy: Matthew riddles his narrative with references to fulfilled prophecies

1:23 (a virgin shall conceive); 2:6 (Bethlehem to be the Messiah’s birthplace); 2:18 (Ramah’s people weeping for the massacre of infants; 2:23 (Nazareth chosen as hometown to fulfil a prophecy about being called a Nazarene) . . .

The early chapters in Luke are redolent of the tone and settings of the birth narratives of Samuel and the patriarchs.

John even identifies Jesus with a being existing from the beginning with God.

The canonical gospels either used the voice, tone, structures and character types of the ancient biblical narratives to introduce Jesus, and/or ancient prophecies to validate their innovations. Something new was wrapped in the above ancient trappings.

Disclaiming authorship

Through these techniques the authors were creating documents that directed the reader to the written text, and to imagine links between the new text and the past sacred texts.

To announce the author’s identity would possibly have been counterproductive if in fact it was their purpose to introduce novelty to audiences with a suspicion of novelty and a reverence for the hoary. An author’s name in the introduction would deflect attention from such an aim and direct it in some part to the identity and reliability of the person of the composer. And the composer was undeniably contemporary, and probably identifiable with some position that was controversial.

Much of Deuteronomy is written as the words of Moses or the words spoken by God to Moses. So much so that it is easy to forget that the book speaks of Moses in the third person and to assume Moses wrote the book himself. And such is the tradition that attached itself early to not only Deuteronomy but to the other books of the Pentateuch as well.

Genesis to 2 Kings is known as the Primary History of Israel, and it is a collection of anonymous works. But anonymous works that assume authority arouse curiosity and cannot stay anonymous for long in the popular imagination. Just as Moses was soon assumed to be one author, Joshua and Ezra quickly became the assumed authors of the remainder of the books.

Similarly in the case of the gospels: anonymous authorities inevitably arouse speculations of authorship. It was inevitable that the names of apostles and close faithful associates of apostles were soon fixed on the superscription of each of the gospels.

The facade cracks and masks appear

Luke is arguably later than the other gospels (Matson et al.) and it does name a patron in its introduction. We don’t know if the patron’s name was historical or figurative, but with this later gospel we see a tentative early step away from the anonymity of the earlier gospels. Similarly with John, that hints at authorial identity, however fictional, by claiming to be written by the “beloved disciple”. Once the new had been established, other gospels could no longer attempt to vie with the originals by the same anonymity technique. They had to change tack and deploy the names of Peter, Philip, Thomas, et al, the way Plato masked himself behind the name of Socrates.

So thanks to “N.T.Wrong” for introducing me to Levinson’s book on Deuteronomy. Levinson’s explanation for the anonymity of Deuteronomy may not be the answer to the anonymity of the Gospels, but if it isn’t, I have not been able to think of a better possible explanation.

Masked and Anonymous
Image via Wikipedia