17+ Mantras of biblical scholarship

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

242px-Aum.svgThis post is being regularly updated with links to responses to each of the mantras. 

Here are some lines that seem to me to have acquired the “power” of mantras in biblical scholarship. I call them mantras because I have seen each of them so often in the books, papers, theses and articles I have read by biblical scholars, and they appear to be used as statements whose words carry unassailable potency in an argument. Like Motherhood Statements or the Apostle’s Creed they do not require justification. They are their own justification. And their presence in an argument is clearly intended to have the power to ward off all that is contrary. They may read like formulaic debating lines, but I see them as substitutes for rigorous argument. They are, for the most part, dogmatic and circular assertions that really ought to be made to justify themselves. (Some that may not be circular are simply false; or if not false, vacuous.)

If you can apply them to any particular argument you can say you have won without even having to do a surveillance of whatever might exalt itself against “fair-mindedness and reason”.

Of course, if some do toss in one of these mantras as a cherry on top of a major serious argument, that is fine (I think). But one so often encounters them as complete “arguments” in themselves.

The points that follow were all most conveniently found in a single four-page article. Hence their convenience for isolating and repeating here. (Now I don’t mean to put down their author. Many biblical scholars use these, many of whose works I learn much and highly value. And the particular scholar whose article I took them from is one I have particularly found to be insightful and informative reading in other respects.)

I substitute ZZZZ of COCO etc for the name of a text or person. They represent blanks to be filled in with just about whatever text or name you like.

  1. Any narrative which purports, on the face of it, to be telling about events that actually happened deserves to be treated as true unless it can be demonstrated not to be.
    (See pseudo-scholarly “hermeneutics” for response to this mantra #1)
  2. If we read all ancient historians the way skeptics read ZZZZ, we would have to throw out nearly all of ancient history.
  3. The argument the author is making requires that he and his audience believe what he is saying.
  4. Rejection of miracles or supernatural events is based on philosophical or ideological, not historical grounds.
  5. The restrained manner in which the narrative is told favors historicity. The stories have the tone of a simple report of fact. They “ring true.”
  6. Many of the stories fulfill what is known as the criterion of embarrassment. Thus these stories must be firmly rooted in early tradition.
    (See It is highly unlikely and related posts linked there.)
  7. Several stories exhibit a level of psychological realism that is not found in ancient biography. This shows an awareness of human development well beyond the narrative abilities of ancient writers of fiction;  to posit such is to posit the unique and unexampled.
  8. ZZZZ shows no indication of a late date, nor any sign of dependence on CCCC.
  9. Many of the details are extraneous to his alleged theological purposes, yet fit well with a Palestinian provenance and fail to show signs of later development.
  10. Thus he is careful to preserve the actual words spoken and not to substitute the terms he and his audience would normally use.
  11. Some would doubt the historicity of the events recorded by ZZZZ simply because they are not recorded in other sources.
  12. The fact that there are places where ZZZZ cannot be checked against CCCC by no means counts against its accuracy.
  13. To insist on outside support for all the stories is to require from ZZZZ a standard that is not required of other texts.
  14. The author identifies himself simply as, COCO. He does not need to identify himself further. A later pseudonymous writer would have made a point of explicitly claiming to be the COCO who was an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry.
  15. The frequent mentions of JOJO, and the remark that he quietly observed all that was done, suggests that JOJO was the source of ZZZZ.
  16. Skeptics will no doubt suggest that some stories are creative expansions of others. But this fails to take into account the vast differences between the stories.
  17. And even if the stories were told in SUCH AND SUCH a way, this would not by any means show that the incidents related were untrue or did not happen. 

    Added since the original post:

  18. The early Christians had no reason to invent this account.

I had thought at first of making a little “rebuttal” of each one of these, but 17 is too many for me to respond to this way and still keep out of trouble in real life. Maybe I will come back to these and fill in rejoinders to each one piecemeal over time. Or maybe comments can help fill this lack? Or even add more mantras. Maybe we could then post a list that is a combined effort, and call them The 17 Biblical Escapes from Real Argument or something like that.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

14 thoughts on “17+ Mantras of biblical scholarship”

  1. Something has been gnawing at the back of my brain for awhile now, and this post as made me think of it again. Let me see if I can coax it out. The proponents of Intelligent Design often say that certain living structures are “irreducibly complex.” What they really mean, of course, is that they can’t imagine what useful purpose a degraded structure would have. The problem lies not in the world, but in their lack of imagination.

    That lack of imagination or failure of conception seems to pervade NT studies, as well. Just for fun, I searched through Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, searching for the word “invent.” Check it out:


    Here are a few choice samples.

    “No one would invent Nazareth as a background for Jesus.”

    “[The story of the] women at the tomb is very likely historical, precisely because it was so offensive to the larger culture — not the sort of testimony one would invent.”

    “No one had a reason to invent the four’s [Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John] occupation as fishermen…”

    “Jesus’ followers would hardly invent a betrayer…”

    “For later followers of Jesus to invent such a title for him is inconceivable…”

    On the subject of what is or is not conceivable, here is one more illustrative quote:

    “[I]t is virtually inconceivable that early Christians made up a story of John baptizing Jesus.”


    If I had to boil it down to a mantra, I suppose what Keener is saying is this:

    Even though you can think of several reasons why XXXX would invent YYYYY, I’m telling you as a respected scholar, there is no conceivable reason why XXXXX would invent YYYYY. Therefore, YYYYY is true.

  2. Regarding the mantra of why the theologians deny that their consensus opinion is not “based on mere inventions”, the reluctance of the theologians to examine the literary data critically and independently, their blind adherence to the consensus opinions of “respected” scholars (they are respected because they do not deviate from the theological community’s dogmas), and their blanket condemnation of skeptical criticism as philosophically or psychologically unsound.

    For example, Nazareth/Nasorean are an unlikely place and an unlikely and unprecedented word, that had to be invented in spite of consensus opinion to the contrary.
    The words were invented by the creators of the Hellenic Jesus cult when the Greek “gospels” were composed.
    Subsequent professional scholars of theology call them unlikely inventions since the so called professional theologians are intellectually lazy and dishonest, not trained to be critical, constrained by inflexible dogmatic thinking, and unwilling to examine their sources too closely lest they uncover concepts contrary to the belief system they are trying to justify.

    The original Aramaic terms were embarrassing as they suggested the association of the Jesus sect with Zealot or nativist Judean independence movement. Therefore weasel words were invented to misdirect their intended Hellenic audience.

    Nazareth was a clever re-vocalization (use of alternative vowels) of NeTZeR , which can mean crown, scepter or staff (branch) and Nasorean came from tacking a belittling Greek suffix on the Hebrew NaSi, prince.

    The original sobriquets of the Jesus sect leader were Yeshua Netzer or Yeshua Nasi, or respectively in Aramaic : god’s Liberating Staff or perhaps a riff on god’s Crowned Liberator, and god’s Liberating Prince. In Aramaic Yeshua is save, rescue or liberate from.

    When I ran this by a couple of christian Aramaic “scholars” their reaction was not to tell me I was correct or incorrect, but incoherent fury. One when reduced to impotent stuttering tried to slap me, then spit on me.
    A Jewish Aramaic speaker, told me “Yes you might be correct, please do not contact me again, as I cannot afford to be associated with this line of inquiry.”

    What can I say?

    The so called scholarship associated with christism is rife with lies, misdirection and fear mongering. A PhD from a bible college coupled with a presentable personality and careful avoidance of impartial analytical thought are all it takes to win a life of tenured sloth. All that is asked in return is to pass off the fictions of christism as the received unquestioned truth to the next generation.

    Holders of degrees in theology should not be permitted to teach their fictionalized version of history at secular tax supported colleges and universities in the USA. Theology classes should be moved into the literature department and taught as fiction along side the Illiad, Odessey and Beowulf, or better yet, merged into the folklore department.

    The situation as it now stands is a violation of the doctrine of church/state separation. Religious propagandists should not be paid with tax derived funds nor should they be allowed to use a position at a tax supported institution as a pulpit from which they can present religious fictions as accepted fact.

    Anyone know a good lawyer willing to do some much needed pro bono work purging the apologists of christism from the public higher educational system.

    1. “Nazareth was a clever re-vocalization (use of alternative vowels) of NeTZeR , which can mean crown, scepter or staff (branch) and Nasorean came from tacking a belittling Greek suffix on the Hebrew NaSi, prince”

      There’s evidence for the existence of a town called “Nazaret[h]” in the 2nd century, but the word “Nazarene” is not related to it. Mark (presupposed as being the first gospel here) consistently refers to Jesus as a Nazarene, and never says that he is “from Nazareth”. Actually, he does but only at one point – at 1:9. Our earliest witness to Mark chapter 1 – Matthew chpt 3 – does not have the phrase “from Nazareth” in the same exact pericope even though they use almost exactly the same wording. This leads me to believe that Mark did not write “from Nazareth” when he said Jesus came from Galilee to get baptized — Matt’s version of Mark didn’t have it and that’s why it’s not in our current Matt.

      According to Epiphanius, there were a sect called Nasarenes who were anti-Torah Samaritans from the time of Jeremiah. It’s only one letter off from Nazarenes, and is the more consistent translation of the Hebrew N’tsrim, as tsades are usually transliterated into Greek with sigmas (like Isaac, Sion, Sadducee, etc.).

      As for Nazorean, this seems to be an invention of Matt. That word ΝΑΖΩΡΑΙΟΣ first appears in any literature anywhere in Matt 2:23. Worse yet, as we all know, this “prophecy” that Jesus would be called a Nazorean is not found in the Tanakh… or is it? Judges 13:5 (a book of the prophets, btw) says that Samson will be called a ΝΑΖΙΡΑΙΟΝ, one letter off from Matt’s invented word ΝΑΖΩΡΑΙΟ[Ν]. Corroborating the confusion that non-Jews had due to reading a Greek rendering of Hebrew scripture, Tertullian quotes Lamentations 4:7 and thinks that the author is talking about Christians when it says “her nazirites (ΝΑΖΙΡΑΙΟΙ) were whiter than snow”.

      There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Christians were calling Jesus a prince. And if there was a relation to the Hebrew NS[h]YA, it would probably be Hellenized similarly to how “consecrated” (NZIR) was Hellenized above as ΝΑΖΙΡΑΙΟΣ.

  3. I humbly submit that noble jack-of-all trades, that all purpose excuse for textual contradictions, that beautifully unfalsifiable assertion that can be relied upon when stuck for a logical answer, that wonderfully convenient concept which suits all sorts of otherwise paradoxical situations, ladies and gentlemen I give to you the star of our show…oral tradition.
    For example, rather than consider that a gospel author may have just ‘made it up’ [heaven forfend they could ‘invent’ as tim suggests above] a story or difference between authors can be explained, without any supporting evidence, to be ‘probably’ caused by a ‘well -known story circulating in the oral tradition about Jesus” [actual quote from well known author, strangely enough one who appears in Neil’s list of those who compare mythicism to holocaust denial].
    Try another, same author, different story:
    “but the oral tradition supplied the lack in an addition to verses 3-4”.

    Beautifully spun sir, rather than consider as a possible cause ‘creative fiction by an author’ variations in plot from one author to another can be explained [sic] by a mechanism [deus ex machina?] that purports to go back via an unknown ear-witness to the spoken words of a real live historical JC himself!
    A negative turned into a positive.

  4. Keener has a problem.

    The 1st century Epistles name a huge cast of characters – Apollos, Priscilla, Timothy, Luke, Phoebe,Andronicus, Junias, Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachus, Apelles, Tryphanus, Persis etc etc

    Not one Christian in the first century AD ever put his name to a document saying he had even heard of Judas, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, Arimathea, Bartimaeus, Lazarus, Nicodemus, Martha, Joanna, Salome, Simon of Cyrene, Barabbas, Martha, Jairus.

    As these people are totally absent from the conversation when Christians of the first century talked to each other, Keener is forced to say that they were not invented.

    Not even Christians saw that cast of characters in the Novels, so in the abscence of the most basic evidence, Keener has to resort to other types of arguments.

    It is a bit like the way 19th century police documents never mention Inspector Lestrade, so Keener has to say that nobody would invent Sherlock Holmes having a drug habit.

  5. That Paul was preaching the same message as Jesus and his followers.

    He clearly was not. There is the issue with the drinking of blood:

    Also, if the vow that Paul is depicted as paying for in Acts was a Nazirite vow, as indicated by the shaving of the heads, then it’s not likely the group at Jerusalem was practicing a ritual meal that included wine, even wine not considered to be the blood of Christ. The Nazirite vow prohibits the devotee from eating grapes or consuming any grape product. It is hard to conceive of a religious system in which entering into a higher state of piety would exclude one from participating in a sacramental ritual that is central to group identity.

    Herod Antipas paid the same fee – in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, Book XIX, Chapter VI. What does that prove? That Herod Antipas was also a pious Jew who would never do anything against the Law? Then what was John the Baptist’s problem? Didn’t he know that Antipas had paid the fee?

    Why did thousands among the Jews still think Paul was teaching the drinking of the blood, as in 1 Cor, and eating meat sacrificed to animals, as in 1 Cor and Romans, in violation of the customs when they saw that Paul paid the fee for some men undergoing a vow? Wasn’t James applying valid principles of justice when when he suggested it to prove Paul’s innocence? He was known as James the Just, so he must have thought the argument through. Unless our text depicts James as being analytically incompetent.

    Maybe it wasn’t him and it’s us. Why do scholars still think that Paul was a pious, law-biding Jew when we have so much evidence to the contrary?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading