Monthly Archives: February 2011

A Poll — just for the sake of killing my cat

Curious to know where visitors of this blog stand on the question. I get the impression most are fence-sitters. This poll may confirm that, or it may disconfirm it, — either way I will probably always wonder if I can trust this poll.

Vridar, not a mythicist blog, but a blog for Christian origins and the nature of the early evidence

Updated  an hour after initial posting.

There is no historical inquiry comparable to: “Did Julius Caesar exist?” That ought to tell us something about the nature of mainstream historical investigations — and also something about the evidence for a historical figure of Jesus as an originator of the Christian religion.

I have posted far more in depth articles and discussions from mainstream scholarly publications on this blog than anything by or about “mythicists”, and I have never posted what aspires to be a comprehensive argument for mythicism. I used to say I rejected the label “mythicist” because such a label implied that I was somehow dedicated to presenting arguments for the idea that Jesus was not a historical person. (How, then, to explain that I have posted very little on mythicism per se or on publications by mythicist authors, opting overwhelmingly for non-mythicist publications? I have actually read very little on mythicism. One can get some idea of my reading range and interests on my librarything page.)

I certainly do think those arguments that claim Christianity originating with a historical person of Jesus and a few followers after his death are implausible, romantic and circular. And I do believe that many mainstream biblical scholars are in denial over the circularity of their methods, and have opted to bypass and denigrate rather than address serious challenges to their culturally sanctioned historicist paradigms.

So I finally realized it is less confusing if I do not attempt to disown the label “mythicist”. But my interest is not with arguing a case for a mythical Jesus per se. read more »

Lighter Literary Intellections on the Gospels

John the Baptist
Image by jimforest via Flickr

Let’s keep it simple and consider the Gospel of Mark only. No heavy analysis this post; only a moment to look out the window and think over how the arguments of recent posts would affect our reading of Mark.

Firstly, we open with the prophetic announcement. What we are about to read is a fulfilment of prophecy as framed and announced in the opening of the book. The anonymous implied narrator is addressing an implied audience that reminds the real reader of the apparent audience of the prophets of Isaiah and Malachi. (Woops, that does not sound the least bit light. I will avoid repeating the “implied readers/narrators” and “real readers/authors” for the rest of this post, though I am certainly framing everything within those four points of view, and considering how it is all working out between them all.)

That is the way stories in novels and tragedies and epics are guided. Prophecies from the divinity announce what is to happen, and the audience then is held in suspense till they see how it all happens just as predicted.

These same genres use the same device to offer course corrections or details along the way in the middle of the plot. And that’s exactly what happens in Mark, too. read more »

How to read the Gospels

Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman give us some valuable tips on how to read

  1. the pagan Greek work of “History” by Herodotus
  2. much of the biblical history of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings)
  3. and the Gospels

in their 1993 volume The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings).

Among several threads tying all these three pieces of literature together:

  1. all three are about human affairs being directed by divinities
  2. all three contain strong theological themes and messages
    • and this message is reinforced with somewhat nebulous endings that contain a mix of optimism and uncertainty as to the future (i.e. Herodotus, 2 Kings, Mark)
  3. all three ostensibly present themselves as “histories”
  4. all three contain a mix of mythical (including nonhuman) characters and historical persons
  5. all three relate miraculous and supernatural events as significant functions in their narratives
  6. all three contain a similar narrative structure in that there is a significant change in tone and types of events and course of action once the setting moves to a traditional homeland or theologically charged centre (e.g. the Greek mainland, the Promised Land, Jerusalem)
  7. all three are predominantly prose narratives, yet at the same time all three contain a mix of genre elements such as epic, tragedy, novella and poetry.

In my previous post (or the one before that) I cited two key points that are fundamental to understanding any literary work. I repeat them here and add one more: read more »

Correlations between the “Histories” of Herodotus and the Bible’s History of Israel

Torah inside of the former Glockengasse synago...
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Both HerodotusHistory and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings)

  1. are national epics
  2. had been divided into nine books at some time in their history
  3. are both about the same length
  4. begin with a prehistory that includes myths, fables, folk-tales, and legends that are treated as factual
  5. and continue in this vein until well into historical time
  6. consist of a basic format that changes concomitantly and abruptly under similar circumstances:
    • in Herodotus’ History this happens when Persians are about to fight on the Greek mainland
    • in Primary History this happens when the Sons of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land
  7. take on a semblance of historical narrative once the “homeland” becomes the locus of action
  8. — albeit one that includes miracles, marvels, and divinities who act in or at least guide history
  9. think of historic causation as being intimately tied to the will of the divinity

This is from the preface (p. x) to The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History by Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman, 1993.

There’s much more. But this is just for starters to justify my previous post’s speaking of Herodotus and the Bible’s core historical narrative in the same breath.

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Reading an ancient historical narrative: two fundamental principles

It is a naive mistake to approach every ancient narrative that purports to be about past events on the assumption that we can take it at its word — unless and until proven wrong.  Even the famous “father of history”, the Greek “historian” Herodotus, turned fables into history. The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) does the same. If we are to understand how to  interpret the New Testament literature we might find it useful to study ancient Hellenistic literature in general. Knowing how ancient authors worked across a wide spectrum of genres in the cultural milieu preceding and surrounding the time of the Gospels might lead to an understanding otherwise lost to us. If nothing else, a broad understanding of how ancient texts “worked” will alert us to possibilities that need to be considered and evaluated when we do read the Gospels.

I focus in this post on Herodotus and draw out lessons from modern critical studies that might profit us in reading the Gospels and Acts, perhaps even the New Testament epistles.

In school I learned that Herodotus was “a credulous collector of anecdotal data”. That was wrong. That perception was the result of taking his writings at face-value and making modern-reader judgments about that face-value reading. That’s not good enough and leaves the door open to many misreadings of the text. read more »

Is it necessary for “mythicists” to date the gospels late?

No, not at all.

My own interest in dating the gospels late has nothing to do with arguing for a mythical Jesus. I am not interested in arguing for a mythical Jesus as I have said many times in the past. My interest is in explaining the literature and evidence for Christian origins using the same basic methods I learned as a student of ancient, medieval and modern history some years ago now, and as I still see in vogue in history books currently being published. They even apply the same fundamental rules of evidence and inquiry that I imagine crime detectives or court-room judges understand. Generally self-testimony means little unless you can back it up with supporting independent evidence. If the external supporting evidence all points to a late date for the gospels, then why knock it? (External evidence may not always mean an explicit identification or testimonial, and it can take a range of forms, including prevailing ideologies, debates, literary styles and language, etc.)

The results of my approaches to investigating the origins and nature of the gospels, and the evidence for dating the literature, lead me to believe that the best explanation for the narratives of the gospels is that they originated as creative theology. I don’t know when, but suspect from the time of the early second century.

But it would not make any difference if the gospels were all dated conclusively between 70 and 100, or even between 35 and 65. That would not change certain facts about the gospels themselves, such as their literary and theological borrowings from earlier Jewish (and non-Jewish) literature, and their genre when analyzed from the perspective of ideological messages and communications rather than externals such as style or topics and language used.

Such an early date would raise questions in other ways, such as how to explain their stress on persecution at such an early date. But the historicity of their narrative contents stands independent of when they are dated.



How Late Can a Gospel Be?

Nativity scene
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Would it not be wonderful if our Gospels were all signed and dated so there could be no debates about who wrote them or when?

The hermeneutic of charity would rule and only the hypersceptical and “minimalists” would entertain any doubts.

Well, there is one gospel that is signed, addressed and dated. It was written by James the step-brother of Jesus in the very year in which Herod died and Jesus was born. At the end of this gospel it is written:

And I James that wrote this history in Jerusalem, a commotion having arisen when Herod died, withdrew myself to the wilderness until the commotion in Jerusalem ceased, glorifying the Lord God, who had given me the gift and the wisdom to write this history. And grace shall be with them that fear our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory to ages of ages. Amen.

What more could any student of the Bible want? Except maybe to have that sort of information tagged on to the Gospels in the Bible. This is from what is known as the Infancy Gospel of James (or the Protevangelium of James).

The problem appears to be that this identification is attached to a gospel that did not make it into the Bible. I am sure no biblical scholar and probably no serious Christian really believes what they read here. But there is more to it than simply not being in the Bible. This Gospel is about Mary and her own miraculous birth as well as her perpetual virginity. Jesus only appears at the very end as a little babe born in a cave. Probably most scholars would place this belief about Mary and her exaltation well into the second century. But Luke’s prologue itself points to much the same idea.

So why not place this Infancy gospel around the same time as Luke in the first century?

The basic ideas in what follows, and the title of this post itself, are all drawn from pages 340-1 of Dating Acts : Between the Evangelists and the Apologists by Richard I. Pervo. I have played a little with the way in which the ideas are presented but not much more. Just to be perverse, this post is not really about the Infancy Gospel of James at all despite the surface-discussion speaking of that Gospel most of the time, but about the dating of the Gospel of Luke. read more »

Historical Imitations and Reversals in Ancient Novels — and the Gospels?

Daphnis et Chloé
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If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, but doesn’t quite quack like a duck, then maybe it is not a duck. Just because we see one or even a few features in the gospels that we recognize from historical or biographical writings, we cannot assume that the gospels are therefore history or biography. Formal features can be easily copied from one genre and applied to another.

Mere formalities of style — word-choice, content, syntax — that appear to be trademarks of one particular genre can and often are copied and re-used in other genres for special effects.

There can be no such thing as a completely new genre emerging on the scene. No-one would know how to understand any such beast. New genres emerge through borrowing one or two elements at a time from other genres and repackaging them into another genre so they convey new meanings.

To understand the gospels it is a good idea to have a reasonable grasp of the wider literary world of the gospels. How else can we evaluate a study that purports to argue that the gospels are “ancient biographies” by means of drawing attention to certain formal features in common? I suggest the reason Burridge’s Are the Gospels Really Biography has apparently won widespread acceptance among biblical scholars is that relatively few such scholars have given much time to studying ancient literature. What accord hath Christ with Belial?

This post looks at how ancient Greek novels — fictional narratives — borrowed some of the literary formalities of well-known works of history. It is worth keeping such examples in mind whenever one encounters arguments that the gospels themselves are some form of history on account of similar formal resonances with non-fiction literature of the day.

As in the preceding posts, much of the following draws upon Cueva’s The Myths of Fiction, although Cueva does not himself discuss biblical literature at all. Those comparisons here are mine alone. read more »


How irrelevant is all this shite about Paul and the gospels. read more »

Did Paul receive the gospel the same way the other apostles did?

Not long ago I skimmed through an online discussion over whether or not Paul learned about the gospel of Jesus from other apostles like Peter and James, or whether he relied entirely on direct revelation from the spiritual Lord.

One side pointed to the letter to the Galatians where Paul said that he was not impressed with the status of “pillars” in the Jerusalem church like Peter, James and John, and insisted that all he knew about the gospel he knew because he was taught it by (the heavenly) Jesus Christ himself. So Galatians 1:11-12, 15-17

read more »

Novels like Gospels (3) : How a Hero is Created from Myths and Meets Historical Persons

The previous post covered some of the indications that the heroine of Greek novel Chaereas and Callirhoe was modelled on Ariadne of Theseus and the Minotaur fame. This post looks at the way the author Chariton has constructed his hero, Chaereas, from cuts of other mythical and legendary figures, in particular from Achilles.

Once again, of equal significance is that these fictional characters whose creation was inspired by mythical figures interact with real historical characters in the novel. This is similar to what we find in the Gospels: fictional characters and events modelled on Jewish and Greek stories interacting with historical persons such as Pilate, Caiaphas and Herod. read more »

Ancient Novels Composed Like Gospels continued (2)

Relief of Ariadne and Theseus in the Parc del ...
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This continues the previous post that introduced Edmund Cueva’s study in the way our earliest surviving Greek novel was composed by combining historical persons, events and settings with fictional narrative details and characters that were inspired by popular myths.

Cueva is not comparing these novels with the gospels, but I do think it is important to compare them. There are quite a few studies that do argue that many of the details in the gospels narratives, even some of the characters, were copied from older stories found in both the Old Testament and in popular Greek literature. This would mean that the gospels are not unlike some popular Greek novels to the extent that they are stories that combine both historical and fictional characters and events in their story, with those fictional characters being conjured up by imaginative extrapolations of mythical characters.

In the previous post I focused mostly on the historical characters and events that are major players in Chariton’s novel Chaereas and Callirhoe.

In this post I outline some of the evidence that the heroine of the novel and her adventures were imaginatively inspired by popular Greek myths, especially those about Ariadne and Theseus. (I do so with apologies to Cueva, too, because what I include from his discussion is necessarily a savage simplification of his arguments for mimesis. Cueva includes in his discussion verbal echoes between Chariton’s novel and Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, and discusses more characters than just the heroine, Callirhoe.) read more »

Ancient Novels Like the Gospels: Mixing History and Myth

Statue of Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican Museums.
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The earliest ancient novel we have is a tale of two lovers, Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Chariton. A summary of its plot can be found here. It is dated to the early second century.

I have discussed or alluded to this novel in the various posts found on this page as a comparison to the Gospels, and this time I will show that its characters, plot and setting are drawn from a mix of historical and mythical sources.

Not a few scholars today who specialize in literary analysis of the Gospels have argued that this is how the Gospels were also constructed: from a mix of history and myth. Most recently along these lines I have posted a few times on Spong’s arguments that Gospel characters like Judas, even the “Twelve Disciples”, Jairus’s daughter who was raised from the dead, blind Bartimaeus, and Zechariah and Elizabeth (the parents of John the Baptist) are all cut from literary fictions. The character of Jesus himself is based on Moses in the Gospel of Matthew and on Elijah in the Gospel of Luke. At the same time, however, we have obviously real people — e.g. Herod and Pilate — appearing in the Gospel narratives.

Some criticisms of these posts have been along the lines of saying that ancient authors did not write stories with historical characters mixed up with fictional characters whose creation was inspired by mythical tales.

Well, that particular criticism is wrong. Chariton is evidence that ancient authors did indeed make up stories that included a mix of historical persons, events and settings along with character and plot details drafted from popular myths and older fictional literature.

This post draws its details from The Myths of Fiction: Studies in the Canonical Greek Novels by Edmund P. Cueva. read more »