Monthly Archives: March 2011

More games played by (some, many?) biblical scholars with “research data”, and personal reflection on why I post this stuff

Linking Open Datasets
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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)

That is a strong statement. But now look at what it is based upon: read more »

Taking the Gospels seriously, part 2 (What John Baptist supposedly meant to Jesus)

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.) read more »

Finding a home (provenance) for the Gospels

Aachen Gospels
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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.

read more »

When neither the Gospel nor Josephus makes sense

Execution of John the Baptist
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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 of to prison to be executed. (Antiquites 18.5.2)

Paula Fredriksen, author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, is one scholar who acknowledges that neither account makes much sense. read more »

Finding Jesus Under the Stone: The Gospel of Thomas Guide to the Scholarly Search for the Historical Jesus

Sefurieh - Plain of Buttauf, Palestine, 1859
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Edited to add quotation from Dale Allison on the circularity of the method used by scholars in historical Jesus studies. -- March 27, 2011

There is a passage in the Gospel of Thomas that would seem to encapsulate the historical methodology some scholars use to reconstruct the historical Jesus:

77 Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained.

Split a piece of wood; I am there.

Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

Professor Bruce Chilton‘s book Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography is a classic case study of how biblical scholarship can be so consumed by its idée fixe that “the historical Jesus” will be found everywhere the faithful scholar looks:

  1. beneath every stone the archaeologist lifts in Galilee,
  2. behind the fabulous tales of miracles and supernatural characters in the canonical gospels,
  3. wedged within every extra-canonical text one cares to split apart. read more »

Why Paul had no need for a Galilean Jesus, and no need for a body resuscitated from a tomb

Christ Ascending into Heaven
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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.

For all practical purposes Paul’s Jesus was nothing more and nothing less than a crucified and resurrected Son of God. All the spiritual qualities that Paul wanted his fellow-believers to live out were encapsulated in Jesus’ dying and rising act. Paul had no need to appeal to anything about Jesus other than his giving up his life and being restored again in exaltation beside God. read more »

They saw Jesus alive! — But does that mean I will be happy to die too?

A glass of port wine.
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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?

 


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Refreshing honesty of Jim West, part 2

So there’s a supposedly new discovery that is about to shatter everything we thought we knew about early Christianity etcetera etcetera blah blah blah. No, no, that’s just the headline or header paragraph to grab readers on the cheap: Are lead tablets discovered in a remote cave in Jordan the secret writings about the last years of Jesus? I read nothing in the article about Jesus. But ho hum, that’s headlines and marketing of news media.

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”?


Related post:

http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/09/20/the-refreshing-honesty-of-jim-west/

Christianity and the “let’s turn the world upside down” bandwagon

Central panel of the Triptych of the Crucified...
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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.

Here is what a non-Christian Jewish text from around the same era as Christ wrote of heroic figures. The conquering king is the loser; the victor is the one who yields up his body to be a public spectacle as it is tortured to death. The blood of the martyrs is even said to be the salvation of the nation. read more »

Jesus Potter, Harry Christ

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

  1. an overview of the book,
  2. an author’s identity statement,
  3. an interview with the author,
  4. a press release,
  5. FAQs and links to online answers to FAQs about the book,
  6. the book’s concept, how the book came about and a letter from the author,
  7. and a link to several chapters that can be downloaded gratis.

read more »

Don’t forget Plato’s Cave: It helps explain the invention and reception of the Gospel

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.

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Greek Myths Related to Tales of Abraham, Isaac, Moses and the Promised Land

Golden Fleece Sochi
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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 acticle 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. read more »

It’s inevitably human

crop of :File:MemlingJudgementOpen.jpg
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Some events are just too horrific to comprehend, we all know, so I suppose it’s only human to invoke the gods, or ancestors.

Tokyo Governor Sorry For “Divine Punishment” Comment

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 in to 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.

 

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The Bible’s roots in Greek mythology and classical authors: Isaac and Phrixus

Phrixos and Helle
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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.)

Lévi-Strauss and structural analysis of myths

In Wajdenbaum’s words,

For Lévi-Strauss, a version of a myth is always derived from an existing adaptation, originating most of the time from a different culture and language. A myth must always be analysed in comparison to its variants within the same cultural area where contacts between populations are proven. (p. 131) read more »