The past few weeks at work have been heavy with getting my head around (1) various requirements for measuring research outputs from universities, and (2) requirements for curating and linking for re-use research datasets. It’s all about measurable data. Citation counts, journal rankings, figures from experiments, surveys, tests. And having an Arts and History background I am always attentive to how the less mathematical disciplines are handled in such processes, too. And when I think of publications by academic historians I know personally I recall the extensive research that they have undertaken to produce stories that are grounded in massive amounts of collected data. It comes from newspapers, police and town council records, diaries, etc. Even ancient histories I read — the development of Athenian democracy, for example — are based on masses of diverse documents and archaeological reports. (One almost gets the impression that topics are chosen, questions are asked, research is undertaken, in accordance with areas for which there is such evidence.)
And then I recall last night I was re-reading a few pages from Paula Fredriksen and Maurice Casey justifying their historical claims about the personal relationship Jesus had with John the Baptist. Neither has any real data about such a relationship on which to ground their discussions. The Gospels in fact don’t speak of such a relationship between them. It is all speculation. Note, for example, how Fredriksen manages to convey a sense of multiple sources for her conclusions, and note the smoke and mirrors at work:
What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews)
I often find myself wishing some knowledgable scholars who write about “the historical Jesus” would take their Gospel sources more seriously.
To take just one illustration, I don’t know if I have read any scholarly work addressing the baptism of Jesus that fails to make some reference to the “influence of John the Baptist on Jesus”, or to the “calling of Jesus”, or such. The presumption is always that Jesus was some sort of spiritual “seeker” who was profoundly moved in some way by John the Baptist and as a direct consequence was catapulted on his own solo career.
Here is one example of this:
What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. According to the synoptic tradition, Jesus in some sense received his calling during or just after his baptism. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, by Paula Fredriksen)
And another that is within easy reach on my desk:
We can now see what attracted Jesus to John. John exercised a large-scale and highly successful prophetic ministry of repentance to Israel. . . . He offered salvation and predicted judgement in terms which recreated the Judaism of the prophetic tradition. This explains why Jesus underwent John’s baptism. . . . Jesus thereby joined this vigorous movement of prophetic Judaism. . . . On the occasion of his baptism, Jesus had a visionary experience. . . . (p. 176 of Jesus of Nazareth by Maurice Casey.) Continue reading “Taking the Gospels seriously, part 2 (What John Baptist supposedly meant to Jesus)”
What sort of society, social or church groups would have had an interest in producing the narratives we read today in the canonical gospels, and where and when do we find evidence of such peoples in the historical record?
If we do find such a group, would we not have a reasonable case that the gospels were first composed among them?
I list here a few areas where one might consider whether there is a reasonable match between the gospels and corresponding evidence external to the gospels.
Obviously the immediate objection some will raise is that such questions are overlooking the “fact” that the earliest external evidence has long since gone missing. Of course that is always a possibility to be kept in mind and I do not reject it. The point of this exercise is to see what happens when we do work with the evidence that is available. The next step would be to see if the results of this little experiment are more satisfactory than explanations that rely on the assumption of historicity at the heart of the Gospel narrative.
The image we have from the Gospels of the death of John the Baptist belongs to the world of make-believe fantasy. A man out in the wilderness publicly complains that a king’s marriage is unlawful, so the king has him arrested and imprisoned. Later he is seduced by a dance into making an incautious promise so that he is honour-bound to deliver the head of John on a dinner plate to his new wife.
There’s another story in a historical work by Josephus about how John the Baptist met his death. John had a reputation for teaching people to be good towards one another and reverential before God. His teaching was so persuasive that Herod was frightened John might decide to tell all his followers to rise up and rebel against their king, so had him sent off to prison to be executed. (Antiquities 18.5.2)
Reading the closing chapter of The First Urban Christians by Wayne A. Meeks (a work that is cited somewhere in nearly every other book I read on early Christian studies) the disconnect between Paul’s Jesus and the Galilean Jesus of the gospels was driven home to me in a way that leaves me wondering how anyone could ever suspect any relationship between the two Jesus’s if they were not bound together in the same Bible.
I was led to this comment on the blog of Joel Watts (whose comments I have in the past filtered as spam on this blog because of his childish “nyaa nyaa” tripe that he once posted here)
When I was going through my confrontation with Atheism and doubt 20 years ago, “More than a carpenter” by Josh MacDowell gave the BEST explanation, that has preventewd my faith from faltering in tumultuous times. (Especially now when Atheism is the :in” thing. He used the fact that the disciples, were about to give up, seeing their “messiah” dead..they even went back to fishing…but after they saw the resurrected Christ, they all (save 10 died for Christ in horrible ways. Many people will die for a lie, but how many would die for a lie they KNOW is a lie? That statement alone changed me from disbelief to belief. I then read the 2 volumes of “Evidence that demands a verdict”
I highly recommend it.
There is nothing special about this comment. It is a sentiment often enough expressed. But being in a fortified-wine-induced reflective mood this evening it occurred to me to stop to ask some questions:
What is it that predisposes people to read a narrative in a bible-black bound book and assimilate it as “true history”, and not only “true history”, but as true history that has a direct relevance to a reader 2000 years later, rather than as just one of many other ancient tall tales of the miraculous?
What makes the commenter above apparently believe that at least some (if not many) people will die for a lie that they KNOW is a lie? (Note his or her “Many people will die for a lie, BUT. . . .”)
What is different between what the commenter says the disciples did than from what anything anyone else ever did who died for their beliefs?
So even assuming the story is “true”, and that the disciples really did see, let’s say, a vision of the resurrected Jesus. How does their dying for their belief in the “fact” of their vision have any meaning for anyone else?
Or let’s go one step further. Suppose Jesus really DID rise from the dead and appeared again to his disciples. How does THAT “fact” explain why the disciples themselves would have died martyrs’ death? (I am of course assuming the tales of the martyrdoms of the disciples as “true”.)
Had you seen someone you loved “alive” after their death, what would it take for you to die a cruel death on account of that conviction of yours?
In other words, the question might be framed more simply as “So what?”
Even if Jesus were alive, why should that compel me to die a similar fate?
Surely there has to be a lot more in the mix here than the simple fact of Jesus’ so-called reappearance after his death.
Or is this “more” really found only in the fortified-wine decline-into-sleep after a long week already after only two days?
Dr Jim West appears to despise all I stand for in this blog (atheism, serious consideration of the Christ myth theory in any explanation for Christianity) but I sometimes find more honesty among such “reactionary” or “conservative” scholars (I don’t know what descriptor really applies for American readers — and I am using “conservative” here in a more universally orthodox sense than in what it means in an insular U.S. context) than among some scholars who seem to pride themselves on more liberal (again in the non-U.S. sense) values.
He wrote: Without provenance, without context, there is no meaning. This is true of both texts and artifacts.
Now where were we in our discussion of the canonical gospels? Their provenance is . . . ? Their context is . . . ?
Or are some questions valid only when applied to that proverbial “Other”?
While one sometimes hears it said that the gospel message when first heard in the early Roman empire was “shocking” and “turned the world upside down”, it is in fact more correct to say that the gospel message was a product of its age.
In the century or so leading up to the common era and beyond, the idea of winning by losing, of conquering and gaining life through death, and the virtues of patient endurance and self-denial when faced with tyrannical powers and losses in this world, were emerging as a “new morality”. The Christian message of finding one’s life by losing it was the product of its age.
The Christian saviour who is a king who conquers by dying was the kind of hero that resonated with the popular figures of both serious and light literature of the day.
If in another time heroic figures were great conquerors of cities and slayers of giants — Agamemnon bringing down Troy, Dionysus and Alexander conquering Asia, Odysseus outwitting and slaying Cyclops, David felling and decapitating Goliath — there was another value emerging in those generations preceding the time of Christ that came to stand as an alternative virtue for the powerless.
I regularly argue on this blog for an appreciation of the literary nature of the leading characters, episodes and narrative structures in the canonical gospels. So I am looking forward to reading and reviewing Derek Murphy’s Jesus Potter, Harry Christ. My initial response to reading the title was that this was a joke of some sort. But I encourage anyone interested in the gospels and Jesus as literature to read the content below and see that it does seek to be a serious contribution to an understanding of the literary and mythical character of Jesus.
Neither is this a slur against Christianity. The author rightly explains that the fictional nature of characters does not detract from the positive influence that character can have on those who love them. The author also answers pertinent questions about his rationale for writing such a book, the status, history and grounds of Jesus-mythicism. I will introduce some of this discussion from the author’s perspective in this post.
I particularly like the main idea of this book: Our question then is not whether Jesus Christ existed, but whether the literary character recorded in the New Testament was primarily inspired by a historical figure or previous literary traditions and characters.
Not having yet read the book I can only present here material from the author. It certainly sounds like a different approach to the question of the origins of the Christ-myth, and though some details sound a bit strange I am certainly interested in reading and evaluating the arguments.
This post offers
an overview of the book,
an author’s identity statement,
an interview with the author,
a press release,
FAQs and links to online answers to FAQs about the book,
the book’s concept, how the book came about and a letter from the author,
and a link to several chapters that can be downloaded gratis.
One might encounter the suggestion among biblical scholars that it is highly unlikely that anyone would invent the idea of a saviour figure who is rejected by his own people and is killed at their hands — and especially if that saviour figure is in a Jewish context said to be a Son of David. Well, maybe some Jews who bothered to think about this did contemplate the possibility of a Davidic king one day ruling over all the world with Jerusalem as his capital. But when we read the gospels we quickly understand that there were other Jews who saw the David figure in the light of the other side of the biblical narrative, too — one who went mourning to the mount of Olives with a few faithful followers when being pursued – to the point of death – by his rebel son Absalom. This moment of imminent death was later reputed to have been the subject of a number of Psalms. (Of course, the Davidic figure is only one of a number who is associated with the “Messiah” label. It is most frequently associated with the priests — and it is noteworthy that it is the anointed (messianic) high priest who gives liberty to refugees from unintended capital sins when he dies.)
But even in non-Jewish literature, the concept of a saviour figure being scoffed at and even killed by those he would want to save. It is the central theme of the classic Greek hero, Achilles. The half-divine and half-mortal Achilles pursues what is right and honourable despite knowing that it will result in his own early death.
And the great Hellenistic thinker, Plato, composed a tale that has epitomized the best of Hellenistic values and Western values since. His allegory of the cave tells us how a would-be saviour of a people will do all he can out of compassion to rescue others. But at the same time those he loves and would save will not recognize him or his claims. They will even scoff at him, and even eventually seek to kill him if they ever have the chance.
This is the essence of the Gospel message about the nature, reception and fate of Jesus. Jesus is very much the classic Hellenistic (cum Roman) hero of the gentiles. He is like Achilles and like the saviour in the parable of the Cave.
And he gives hope to all those who would identify with him that they, too, can find heroic meaning in their lives.
The Jews of the later Second Temple Period were influenced by Hellenism (Greek ideas), as we see in the history of the Maccabees. Dying as a martyr was a means to salvation not only for oneself, but — by shedding one’s own blood for God and one’s people, one also became an atonement for them, too.
The Gospel of Jesus is a tale that found a ready welcome among Hellenized pagan and Jew alike. There is nothing mysterious about its invention or reception.
The classical Greek myths related to the founding of the colony of Cyrene in North Africa (Libya) are worth knowing about alongside the biblical narrative of the founding of Israel. This post is a presentation of my understanding of some of the ideas of Philippe Wajdenbaum found in a recent article in the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, and that apparently epitomize his thesis, Argonauts of the Desert.
My recent post drew attention to the following mythemes in common to both the Phrixus and Isaac sacrifice stories. I’m not sure if my delineation of them is guilty of slightly blurring the edges of a strict definition of a mytheme, but they are certainly common elements.
the divine command to sacrifice one’s son
real in the case of Isaac,
a lie in another in the case of Phrixus – P’s stepmother bribed messengers to tell the father the god required the sacrifice
the father’s pious unquestioning submission to the command
last-minute deliverance of the human victim by a divinely sent ram
direct command to the father in the case of Isaac
direct command to the sacrificial victim in the case of Phrixus
the fastening of the ram in a tree or bush
before the sacrifice of the ram in the case of Isaac
after the sacrifice of the ram in the case of Phrixus
the sacrifice of the ram
as a substitute for Isaac
as a thanksgiving for Phrixus
What is significant is that these narrative units in common to both stories exist at a level independent of the particular stories. They can be inverted and reordered to create different stories.
The question to ask is: Are these units similar by coincidence or has one set been borrowed from the other?
That particular detail about the ram in the tree or thicket is certainly distinctive enough to justify this question in relation to the whole set.
Firstly, given that it is no longer considered “fringe” (except maybe among a large proportion of American biblical scholars where the influence of ‘conservative’ and even evangelical religion is relatively strong) to consider the Bible’s “Old Testament” books being written as late as the Persian or even Hellenistic eras, and given the proximity of Jewish and Greek cultures, the possibility of direct borrowing cannot be rejected out of hand.
Secondly, the chances of the Jewish story of the binding of Isaac being influenced by the Greek myth is increased if both stories are located in a similar structural position within parallel narratives.
Both near-human sacrifice narratives serve as the prologues to larger tales of:
divine promises of a land to be inherited by a hero’s descendants
a special divinely chosen people
a pre-arranged time schedule of four generations before the land would be inherited
deliverance through a leader who initially protests because he stutters
an additional delay because of human failure to hold fast to a divine promise
a wandering through the desert with a sacred vessel
guiding divine revelations along the way
Not only are both tales of escape from human sacrifice prologues to these larger comparable narratives, but they also serve as a reference point in both. They hold the respective longer stories together by serving as the origin point of the divine promises that guide the subsequent narratives of journeying to a promised land, and that origin point is referenced by way of reminder throughout the subsequent narratives.
The Biblical narrative is about much more than the way the children of Abraham inherited the land of Canaan, and here is where Philippe Wajdenbaum, in his 2008 doctoral thesis Argonauts of the Desert — Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, draws attention to the extensive similarities between Plato’s writings and the Bible’s narratives. Both contain a general flood being the beginning of a new era in civilization, with a patriarchal age following, the rise of cities and kingship, and the development of laws and a description of an ideal state. The laws in the Pentateuch are often remarkably alike the laws proposed by Plato:
laws that require a central religious authority,
of a need for pure bloodlines (especially for priests),
laws that condemn homosexuality, witchcraft, magic,
laws of inheritance, boundary stones,
laws allowing slaves to be taken from foreign peoples only,
laws against the need for a king,
laws governing involuntary homicide,
laws regarding rebellious children,
laws against usury, against taking too much fruit from one’s fields,
and quite a few more, and often found listed in the same order between the Greek and Hebrew texts.
The ideal state, moreover, is divided into twelve lots of land given to twelve tribes. The king, it is warned, is subject to the vices of love, and this will lead to oppressive tyranny. One might think here of the sins of David and Solomon.
Wajdenbaum applies the structural analysis of myths as developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss to the Bible, and one can see his coverage is much more extensive than can be covered in a few blog posts. Here I am focussing only on structural place of the Phrixus/Isaac “sacrifices” in their respective wider narratives.
The Phrixus episode serves as the introduction to the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, and this set of adventures functions as an explanation of the founding of the Greek colony of Cyrene in North Africa (Libya).
The Argonaut epic and the Bible narrative
I had earlier written a series of six posts on resonances between the Argonautica as told by Apollonius of Rhodes (they are found by starting at the bottom of this Argonautica archive) but this post is addressing Wajdenbaum’s thesis.
The main sources for this epic relate it to the founding of Cyrene. (Pindar’s ode is even dedicated to the king of Cyrene.) This compares with the early Bible narrative from Abraham to Moses relating to the settling of Canaan.
Jason, leader of the Argonauts, belonged to the same extended family as Phrixus, all being descended from Aeolus.
Zeus was angry with the descendants of Aeolus over the attempted sacrifice of Phrixus by his father, and to appease his divine wrath Jason embarked in the Argo with a band of followers (the Argonauts) to retrieve the golden fleece. (This was the fleece of the ram that had saved Phrixus at the last moment from being sacrificed.)
Triton, son of the sea-god Poseidon, appeared in human form and gave one of the Argonauts, Euphemus, a gift of a handful of Libyan soil as a token of a promise that his descendants would return and colonize the land. Had Euphemus succeeded in keeping the soil to plant appropriately in his own home area, his descendants would have returned to colonize only four generations later. But since the soil was washed overboard and its particles landed on the island of Thera instead, seventeen generations would have to pass and Cyrene would have to be colonized by the descendants of the Argonauts after first settling in Thera.
This is the reverse of the order in which we read of the “sacrifice” and the promise in the Biblical narrative. There, Abraham is promised the land and afterwards prepares to sacrifice Isaac. The Argonauts seek to appease Zeus’s anger of the attempted sacrifice of Phrixus by retrieving the fleece of the ram that saved him, and the promise of the land of Cyrene for the descendants of the Argonauts is made afterwards.
Generations later, after the descendants of the Argonauts had settled on Thera, a direct descendant of Euphemus was commanded through the Delphic Oracle to lead his people to settle and establish Cyrene in fulfilment of the promise made at the time the Argonauts were retrieving the fleece of the ram that had saved Phrixus.
This descendant was known as Battus (a name that means “stutterer”). He argued against the divine command on the grounds that he was not a great warrior and that he had a speech impediment. But the Delphic oracle refused to listen to reason and made him do as he was told anyway.
Herodotus tells us that Battus ruled Cyrene for the familiar forty years.
We are reminded of the promise to Abraham that his descendants would settle in Canaan after four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. Egypt serves as a delaying detour on their way to their destiny as Thera was in the Greek myth.
God commands Moses to lead his people to Canaan by invoking his promise to give it to the fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses at first refuses by pleading that he stutters. If Battus ruled the Argonauts for forty years, Moses (also once called a king and known as a king in Philo), led his people for forty years also.
This narrative structure joining Abraham to Moses echoes with accuracy the promise made to Euphemus and its fulfilment by his descendant Battus. Both Moses and Battus invoked their trouble speaking in order to avoid their divine mission and both ruled over their people during forty years. Therefore, the similarities between the interrupted sacrifice of Isaac and that of Phrixos appear as part of a similar narrative structure. It seems as though Abraham plays two different characters from the Greek epic: King Athamas who almost sacrificed his son (Phrixos) — an episode from the beginning of the epic; and the Argonaut Euphemus who received the promise of land for his descendants — an episode from the ending of the epic. The order of the episodes has been reversed. In the same way, the detail of the ram hung on a tree after the sacrifice in the Greek version appears inverted to the account of the ram stuck in the bush before the sacrifice in Genesis. (p. 134, my bold)
To repeat a few lines I quoted in my earlier post, but this time without the omissions:
Parallelisms must not be analysed in an isolated way, but one must try to find out the possible narrative structure that links the similarities together. In other words, the similarity between Phrixos and Isaac is not sufficient by itself to speculate about any possible borrowing. But, when placed in the wider framework of the epic of the Argonauts and the foundation of the colony of Cyrene, it allows us to question a likely influence of the Greek mythical tradition on the writing of the OT. (p. 134)
But there is one significant clue thus far missing, Wajdenbaum remarks. What might the founding of a colony in Cyrene in Herodotus have to do with the settlement and kingdom established in Canaan by Israel? Wajdenbaum points to an answer:
We must investigate the writings of another famous Greek writer to find the description of a State meant to be a colony. A State that would be divided into twelve tribes and ruled by perfect god-given laws — the ideal State imagined by Plato in his Laws. (p. 134)
Mr Ishihara, 78, said yesterday that Japanese people were becoming “greedy” and highlighted the case of people who continue to pocket their parents’ pensions by delaying death notifications.
“It is necessary to wash away the greedy mind… by using the tsunami,” he told reporters.
“I think that it is divine punishment.”
Fortunately he had the good grace to “deeply apologise”, acknowledging the comments had hurt the victims.
Maybe it’s a cousin of the scapegoating propensity we fall into when things go wrong. Many of us have traditionally blamed the Jews, the socialists, progressive schooling, the foreigner, the down and out. But when the horror facing us is too much death itself, we have nowhere to look but to the divine executor. So why did this angel of death do this to us? Because of the Jews, the socialists, the down and out . . . . or whatever their appropriate substitute in the mind of the one trying to make sense of it all.
But there’s no sense to any of it. It’s all totally random. That ought to be the humbling fact that burns our flesh to share the pain and tenderness of our common humanity.
When I wrote a series of posts on resonances between the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes and several features of Old Testament narratives, I confessed I did not know how to understand or interpret the data. But someone else does. Philippe Wajdenbaum in 2008 defended his anthropology doctoral thesis, “Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible.” He applies the structural analysis of myths as developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss to the Bible, something Lévi-Strauss himself never got around to doing, although he did eventually encourage biblical scholars to do so. This post looks at one detail of a detail-rich article in the 2010 Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament (Vol. 24, No. 1, 129-142), “Is the Bible a Platonic Book?” (After a few more posts on this my next project will be to see if the same type of analysis can be used to suggest origins of the Gospel myths.)