Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Twelve Apostles had to be a very late invention, surely

Greek Icon of the Twelve Apostles

Almost as fundamental to the Christian narrative as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is surely the calling, election and sending forth of the twelve disciples to preach the gospel.

But of all the evangelists to which our canonical gospels have been attributed, only one unequivocally delivers this message. Only the author (or final canonical-redactor) of Luke-Acts unambiguously pronounces that the twelve disciples called by Jesus were endowed with power and sent forth (with only one name-switch) as the twelve apostles to be witnesses of Jesus from Jerusalem “unto the uttermost parts of the earth.”

The Gospel of Mark concludes (at 16:8) with the question left hanging as to whether the twelve disciples ever received the message and were converted at all; the Gospel of Matthew concludes (28:17) with the possibility that some of the disciples did not believe that they saw the resurrected Jesus; the Gospel of John’s post-crucifixion scenes portray a rivalry between Peter and John in the race to the tomb and as regards who was the one of these to have faith (20:3-8), and then a diminution of the authority of Thomas (20:24-29). (For reasons I will delay for another post, Thomas appears to be criticized as the leader of a rival sect to the Johannine Christians — Gregory Riley sees the rivalry being prompted over the nature of the resurrected body; April DeConick argues the rivalry is over the need for a vision as opposed to the need for faith. Either way, John’s gospel is written as a rebuttal of another apostle’s – or even apostles’ – doctrines.)

And then we finally have Luke-Acts,  . . . . (I ought to explain that I lean towards the final “canonical” Luke-Acts being completed after the composition of our canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew and John — following Matson, Shellard, Wills . . . ) . . . . and then we see a most diligent effort not only to establish the authority of Twelve Apostles, but even to push the idea that Paul, too, was on the side of the Twelve, and as good as a “thirteenth”, such is the unity proclaimed in this Gospel-Acts narrative. read more »

Dog ate my post or an excuse as good as

My dog ate my homework

I had a really good post gestating in my mind while I was visiting Hanoi the last couple of days, and had it all worked out what I would write up. It was based on April DeConick’s ‘Voices of the Mystics” and her interesting (also very persuasive) accounting for the intrusion into John’s last supper scene of those disciple names so nondescript in the Synoptic gospels, Judas and Thomas, and how they were originally the one and the same disciple, and the conflict between vision (visio Dei) and faith Christianity and what this led me to wonder about the larger question of the narratives and “tradition” of the 12 disciples in the first place, and how it would finally answer all the big questions about how Christianity arose, – – – –

but on my way to my home computer I discovered I had left my book with notes at the hotel in Hanoi so I can’t do the post after all till the hotel staff mail it to me and it will take about two weeks to arrive and it has to be sent to my Australian address because I’m moving back there this week so I can’t do the post till after then!

Hanoi and UN

I’ve had a lucky chance to be in Hanoi right now. (The observant might have noticed my last 3 posts all scheduled in advance to appear at same time each day.) it’s nice to see the United Nations honoured here — as it is also in Cambodia — with national and UN flags together adjacent images of handshakes and doves.

The UN has had a rough trot since the Security Council has become the plaything of just one superpower. It’s like old times seeing nations like Vietnam and Cambodia still hoping for something of worth through the UN.

What would it take to have a system where the General Assembly had the real power over war and peace instead of the inSecurity Council? Too daunting for me to think about realistically.

But something has gone wrong somewhere when one sees the UN so often ignored or rejected or criticised in a rich exploitative nation which is my own nation, and honoured in countries we used to see as alien.

Two Adams – and never the twain did meet

Continuing from my post Divine human-like figures in Hellenistic Judaism . . . .

During the period that saw the early evolution of Christianity (or Christianities — a range of beliefs that eventually coalesced into what we would recognize as Christianity today) there was a rich diversity of Jewish sectarian beliefs. Most of these vanished as rabbinic Judaism extended its influence throughout the first few centuries of the Christian era. But some of these early Jewish beliefs offer tantalizing clues to the matrix of Christianity in its formative years. Alan F. Segal notes that

Adam traditions are especially important in this regard. . . . Philo identifies the heavenly man with the logos, which is identified with God’s archangel and principal helper in creation. There is an extraordinary amount of Adam speculation in apocalyptic and pseudepigraphical writings, often including descriptions of Adam’s heavenly enthronement and glorification. The traditions can be dated to the first century, if an early dating of enthronement of Adam in the Testament of Abraham ch. 11 can be maintained. Adam legends are certainly well ramified later in Jewish, Christian, gnostic, Mandaean and other documents, and even appear at several important junctures in the ascent texts of the magical papyri. . . . (p. 189 of Two Powers in Heaven)

Philo justified his view that there were two Adams in the Garden of Eden by interpreting Genesis 1:26 to refer to two separate creations:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; read more »

Melchizedek, the Saviour of Israel

Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

Continuing from my earlier post, Divine human-like figures in Hellenistic Judaism, based on notes from Alan F. Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven. Segal discusses several divine mediators and archangels that once formed part of the kaleidoscope of Jewish sectarian belief systems. Some Jews even believed there were two Adams in Eden at creation. Segal wrote the following in response to Paul’s linking of a similar Adam idea with the Messiah:

This leads one to suspect that Christianity was the first to synthesize the various divine agents at creation by identifying all of them with the Christian messiah. (p. 190)

Another divine mediator of certain early (intertestamental, including first century) Jews was Melchizedek. The New Testament canon includes a book declaring Jesus Christ to be a Melchizedek priest.

I outline here Segal’s account of some of the details of this pre-Christian Melchizedek belief, with additional quotations from the Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) literature.

Melchizedek, the archangel, may be identified in Qumran texts with The Prince of Light, the Angel of His Truth, the Spirit of His Truth, and with the archangel Michael.

The return of Melchizedek brings about the end-time judgement of God and the salvation of Zion. read more »

Israel (Jacob/James), an archangel created before all other creation

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
Image via Wikipedia

If Christianity mutated out of Jewish beliefs it is good to understand just how different many Jewish beliefs were before rabbinic Judaism came to dominate. (This post follows on from Divine human-like figures in Hellenistic Judaism.)

Origen preserves for us a Jewish text that offers us a glimpse of beliefs about angels and the nature of biblical heroes among the Jews in the late second century/early third century, and that appear to be consistent with what we know of Jewish sectarian views throughout the Second Temple period (that is, at the time of the emergence of Christianity.) While we have no evidence that this prayer is itself older than the second century, it is certainly Jewish and not Christian, and does serve to illustrate how different were early Jewish beliefs from what most of us tend to assume. I conclude with a few questions that one might ask in connection with early Christianity.

The prayer speaks of an archangel who is identified with the biblical patriach Israel (Jacob). Alan F. Segal in his Two Powers in Heaven draws out some significant details: read more »

The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche)

Diversionary tactics
Image by tompagenet via Flickr

In 2003 Niels-Peter Lemche posted a blunt article addressing the unscholarly tactics of conservative scholars. He noted how even historical-critical scholars had come to resort to the same polemics as conservatives in their efforts to “crush so-called ‘radical’ critical scholarship.”

There may be a number of explanations for this strange fact. One may be that the majority of critical scholars originate within a religious milieu and at the bottom of their hearts are conservatives without probably realizing this. Thus, critical scholarship represents a kind of breaking away from one’s own background. The changing attitude towards even more critical scholars questioning, e.g., the very existence of King David, may have to do with the fear of totally losing the tradition-after all Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem so the new David could be born there! Somehow there seem to be questions that we are not allowed to ask.

The above is cited from Niels Peter Lemche’s 2003 post, Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion on Bible and Interpretation.

Surely we find the same motives for these same tactics among those biblical scholars who are most vociferous in their polemics against the very idea of questioning the existence of Jesus Christ, also.

I quote sections from Lemche’s article here that look very like the same sized shoe that fits the reactions of biblical scholars against Christ-mythicism. read more »

Divine human-like figures in Hellenistic Judaism

Damiane. The Ancient of Days. A fresco from Ub...
Image via Wikipedia

If we rely on the Gospels and Josephus for our understanding of Jewish religious beliefs of the first century we would miss some of the most colourful and relevant details that were the background to the emergence of Christianity. Summing up Jewish religion in terms of a neat threefold division of Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes probably had more to do with Josephus’s interest in portraying Judaism as a respectable, even superior, counterpart to non-Jewish philosophical systems of his day. Alan F. Segal lists some of the varieties of beliefs that appear to go back to the time before rabbinic Judaism established itself after the destruction(s) of Jerusalem and throughout the second century. I bypass his arguments for the pre-rabbinic (pre 70 CE) provenance of these beliefs in this post and simply list here some of the ideas making up the rich constellation of “Judaism” at the time.

Four “Dangerous” Scriptures

Later rabbinic evidence points to four Scriptural passages in particular at the centre of beliefs that proved to be heretical at least to those later rabbis.

It is worthwhile to point out that many of these dangerous exegetical traditions may never have been entirely separate at any point in their development. Biblical scholars have recently noticed the relationship between all works describing the divine warror figure (including both Exodus 15 and Daniel 7) and ancient Near Eastern mythology. (p. 184) read more »

A Saturday afternoon walk along the riverside in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

No doubt about who has the right of way here.

Jesus Not Being Good Is No Embarrassment

Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me
Image via Wikipedia

Matthew was embarrassed by Mark’s Gospel that had Jesus effectively saying that he was not good. Only God is good

And . . . . a person ran up to [him], and kneeling to him asked him, Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?

But Jesus said to him, Why callest thou me good? no one is good but one, [that is] God. (Mark 10:17-18)

Matthew deftly shuffles the word order to have them come out of Jesus’ mouth with a sleightly different meaning.

And lo, one coming up said to him, Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have life eternal? ‭

And he said to him, What askest thou me concerning goodness? one is good. (Matthew 19:16-17)

Modern theological scholars are also said to be embarrassed by Mark’s Jesus, and no doubt it remains a puzzling point for many other Christians, too: read more »

Goguel’s critique of the Christ Myth. Hoffmann’s response. And Doherty

I discuss here Goguel’s critique of the Christ Myth as seen through the eyes of two biblical scholars, mainly R. Joseph Hoffmann, and very briefly Christopher Price. I conclude with my own understanding of the reason (bias) underlying Hoffmann’s perspective of Goguel in his anti-mythicist arguments, and an alternative perspective from Earl Doherty.

Hoffmann compares this book by Goguel with the one discussed in the preceding post by Case:

Whatever its argumentative shortcomings, this section of Goguel’s work [attempting to show that the theology in Paul’s letters and in the apocalypses presupposes the gospel tradition] is especially important in setting out the assumptions and terms of the debate between the myth theorists and defenders of historicity. Goguel is by far superior to other defenders* of historicity because he is willing to acknowledge the serious aporiai of locating fugitive biographical details in a swirl of theological and mythological embellishment. He does not deny, for example, the missionary purpose of the gospel writers. He does not suggest that the reporting of “objective” fact (“natural supernaturalism”) is a part of any evangelist’s agenda. . . . (p. 32-3)

  • In this paragraph Hoffmann footnotes to Shirley Jackson Case’s The Historicity of Jesus in its 1928 edition as an example of “other defenders.” read more »

Publications Against the Christ Myth: Scholarly Links and Reviews

Two publications critical of the Christ Myth idea have recently been brought to the general public’s attention by two mainstream biblical scholars. This post and the next compare the two books, and what each indicates about the nature of the mainstream scholarship’s responses to arguments that Jesus had no historical existence.

First is the newly linked book by Shirley Jackson Case, The Historicity of Jesus, published in 1912.

It is encouraging to see an associate professor whose area of expertise is Johannine Christology and not any form of history, and who has regularly expressed a serious personal concern about what he regards as the fallacious and creationist-like attitudes, ignorance and arguments by Christ-Myth proponents, catching up with some of the extant publications addressing this controversial issue.

The second book I address is Goguel’s Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?, first published in 1926. This has been republished recently with a lengthy introduction by a historian of religion, R. Joseph Hoffmann.

These two posts are an attempt to illustrate the existence of a wide gulf in understanding of the Christ Myth idea and the divergent levels of serious academic acumen that is brought to bear upon the question.

read more »

The things Jesus could foresee: history versus story

The Last Supper of Jesus Christ
Image via Wikipedia

Understanding how the Gospels came to be written, understanding what they are as literature, is surely a critical part of understanding the origin of Christianity. Surely one of the most central images of Christianity is that of Jesus knowingly traveling voluntarily to his death in Jerusalem. What I find strange is the extent of scholarly argument or assumption over the historicity of this particular image.

One discussion one sometimes encounters among scholars of the “historical Jesus” is the question of whether Jesus really expected to die as he did the last (and/or first?) time he visited Jerusalem. I focus here on the one iconic event that presumably demonstrated this, the Last Supper. read more »

The Family: fundamentalist threat to American democracy

An article recently published in AlterNet:

The Family: Secretive Christian Group of Conservative Lawmakers Building a ‘God-Led’ Government

Jeff Sharlet, the journalist who helped expose a cohort of powerful lawmakers promoting a Christian Agenda at home and abroad, discusses his new book.

The Family, also known as the Fellowship, is a cohort of powerful lawmakers seeking to create a “God-led government” at home and abroad. Chief among the journalists who brought the Family to light is Jeff Sharlet, author of the new book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. (The title of the book refers to the Washington townhouse that serves as the gathering place and sometime residence of Family members.)