Monthly Archives: March 2011

What do biblical scholars make of the resurrection?

Or more specifically, what was the state of play around five years ago when Research Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University, Gary R. Habermas, had a chapter published in The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue? Habermas outlines four broad positions found among contemporary scholars and identifies a trend in which a strong majority of scholars do favour the idea that Jesus really was raised from the dead “in some sense”. I find his findings noteworthy for another reason that I will save for the end of this post. The link above is to the Wikipedia article on Habermas where he is described as an evangelical Christian apologist. Still, I was interested enough to know what the general state of biblical scholarship appears to be on the question, so I included his chapter in my reading.

“One of the indisputable facts of history”

Habermas writes (my emphasis throughout):

As firmly as ever, most contemporary scholars agree that, after Jesus’ death, his early followers had experiences that they at least believed were appearances of their risen Lord. Further, this conviction was the chief motivation behind the early proclamation of the Christian gospel.

These basics are rarely questioned, even by more radical scholars. They are among the most widely established details from the entire New Testament. (p. 79) read more »

Ascension of Isaiah as a mystic-visionary salvation myth

Jesus Christ saving the souls of the damned.
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This post continues a series I have been doing on the Ascension of Isaiah: the full set of posts are archived here.

The Ascension of Isaiah describes a vision in which Isaiah

  • is taken up through the firmament above the earth
  • and then through seven heavens until he sees the Great Glory on his throne,
  • and from where he sees the Beloved of God descending through those heavens
  • to be crucified by Satan,
  • plummeting further down to Sheol, before
  • returning glorified to his former place in the highest heaven,
  • having rescued the souls of the righteous in the process.

This vision or ascent belongs to chapters 6 to 11 of the longer text; the first five chapters are sometimes referred to as the Martyrdom of Isaiah, and are widely considered to have had an independent existence before various later Christian or “proto-Christian” additions.

Earl Doherty has brought this text of the Ascension (chapters 6 to 11) to some prominence with his argument that early Christianity (or even “proto-Christianity”) began with the idea of Christ as an entirely heavenly entity, with the idea of him living a life as a human on earth being a later development of the myth. Whether one accepts Doherty’s arguments or not, the text is nonetheless of interest as an indicator of ideas among early Christians and their Jewish thought-world. The idea of a visionary ascent through the heavens to see the glory of God, and thereby be transformed and be graced with salvation, was, as I have shown in recent posts, known among certain Jewish and Christian groups around the time (and either side) of the first and second centuries. I compare the details of this vision with those others in this post. read more »

Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera

Demand AlJazeera in the USA

US media coverage of Al Jazeera

 

Qumran and Paul: Echoes of Mystical-Vision Salvation

One of the reasons I have been looking at the visionary ascent experiences of Jewish and Christian devotees is to expand my understanding of the nature and place of the vision of Isaiah’s ascent and all that he saw and heard in the Ascension of Isaiah. I began to look at the Ascension of Isaiah in some detail a little while back because of the use made of it by Earl Doherty in his own case for the idea of a pre-gospel Christ being entirely a spirit entity whose saving act occurred within the spirit realm and not on earth. (Paul-Louis Couchoud argued for a similar conclusion.) Before returning to the Ascension — which describes another ascent, transformation and vision, as well as a descent of a Beloved of God to be crucified by Satan — I complete here the texts I have been looking at that help flesh out the context of such visionary ideas. I conclude with similar thoughts expressed in Paul’s letters, indicating that some of the teachings found there owe something to this form of religious experience as a way to salvation. Both the Qumran and Pauline references are from April DeConick‘s Voices of the Mystics. read more »

Vridar Readers and Vridar Futures

Well I can now more or less say that on the basis of a poll that contained a sample of over a 100 responses (I cannot affirm that there were 100 respondents) that I set up about a week ago that slightly fewer than 40% of the readership of Vridar identify themselves as “mythicists” in the sense of believing that Jesus was not historical in the sense of being a real person who acted out his career in first century Palestine.

Half the readers are either believers in the historicity of Jesus or undecided. read more »

Taking the Gospels Seriously

It seems to me that most scholarly studies that treat the Gospels as sources of historical information about Jesus and the early disciples do not always rely on the Gospel narratives to transmit historical information. Being post-Enlightenment minds (leaving aside the disturbing frequency with which I see anti-Enlightenment sentiments expressed among scholars, and not only biblical ones) we tend to rationalize and “naturalize” the claims of the miraculous.

Just as once Old Testament scholars would look for shallow waters or earthquake activity to explain Moses’ miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, or seek out evidence of Mesopotamian flooding to explain the story of Noah’s ark, so we have studies into psychological and mystical proclivities to explain the resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ. read more »

Renegade post – Qumran does not exist

After reading through a whole batch of Qumran Thanksgiving Hymns I turned back to continue my draft post only to discover it had for some time escaped into the real world of RSS feeds, emails, and this damn blog.

I have since shot it down from public view. So if you are trying to find it via a subscription link it ain’t here no more.

 

 

When literary analysis trumps historical analysis

The concluding paragraph of the first chapter of Mandell’s and Freedman’s The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History is worth framing. The principle it addresses would, if applied to New Testament studies, relegate to the scrap heap a good deal of scholarship investigating oral sources behind this or that detail in the Gospels.

Since the entire work is a literary artifice, we cannot use any part of it to confirm the orality of the . . . author’s sources. Consequently, the theory that the errors in History prove that the . . . author’s sources were primarily oral is not verifiable. Other hypotheses based on statements within the narrative . . . such as the commonly accepted belief that the . . . author relied on rumor and report must also be discarded. . . . The real author is after all a literary artist, not an historian . .  . . (p. 80) read more »

Ascents to the Celestial Temple and Heavenly Descents, and what any of this has to do with early Christianity

Stairway to Heaven
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One of the reasons I am interested in this topic of visionary experiences is that they help flesh out a tangible environment, on the basis of concrete evidence, from which Christianity emerged. This is in contrast to the model of “oral traditions” being the roots of the canonical gospel narratives. The gospel narratives stand at an opposing polarity from the idea of salvation through a heavenly vision of the divine. April DeConick’s book, Voices of the Mystics, around which this and my previous posts are put together, argues that in the Gospel of John we find strong indications of a debate with Thomasine Christians who did uphold a central importance of the visionary experience. (Note, for example, the criticism of Thomas for believing only because he has seen.)

Enochian traditions in the Synoptic Gospels

But there is a somewhat different story and approach to visions in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).  read more »

Vision Mysticism among first and second century Jews and Christians

April DeConick in Voices of the Mystics seeks to expand her readers’ knowledge of vision mysticism in early first-century Christianity, in particular arguing that the Gospel of John was written to oppose the practice as it appears to be endorsed in the Gospel of Thomas. In a recent post I discussed its apparent place in Paul’s experience. DeConick comments on the distinguishing feature of this experience among Jews:

Although the notion that the vision of a god makes one divine was Greek in origin, early Jewish mystics seemed to have welded this idea into their traditions about celestial journeys. Thus, in the Second Temple period, they taught that when one ascended into heaven and gazed on God or his enthroned bodily manifestation, the kabod or ‘Glory’, one was transformed. (p. 49)

Exceptionally righteous individuals like Moses, Ezekiel and Enoch had been transformed or glorified by their visions of God, and in the world to come all righteous were expected to be so transformed. read more »

Credulity, insecurity and sophistry in the “Did Jesus Exist?” debate

James McGrath links to a very straightforward article in The National Post that challenges head-on the inability of some people to even acknowledge the legitimacy of any serious case for the nonhistoricity of Jesus. It is Should Jesus Be Exempt From Historical Scrutiny?

The author, Jackson Doughart, indicates he is not a mythicist, since he writes that he believes there is not enough evidence to definitely determine if Jesus was a real person, and that the nature of the evidence that does exist at least suggests his existence is debatable.

He also points out why comparing the denial of the historicity of Jesus to denying the existence of Hannibal is “an illigitimate and absurd comparison”.

Doughart makes an interesting comparison of the evidence for Jesus with the evidence for Socrates. He notes, as I have also done, that the question of Socrates’ existence is immaterial to the bigger question of the rise of Greek philosophy, while the existence of Jesus is of paramount significance for believers.

A few excerpts read more »

Visions that laid a foundation for Christianity?

Engraved illustration of the "chariot vis...
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Following the publication of Alan F. Segal’s recent book, it is clear that Jewish mysticism must occupy a more central place than has previously been the case in any construction of the matrices of Paul’s experience and thought. (Morray-Jones, C. R. A. 1993, “Paradise Revisited (2 Cor 12:1-12): The Jewish Mystical Background of Paul’s Apostolate. Part 1: The Jewish Sources”, The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 86, no. 2, p. 178.)

A number of scholars have suggested that mystical visionary experiences appear to have played a foundational role in the emergence of the Christian religion. (Recently I mentioned Larry Hurtado’s proposal that visionary experiences were at the heart of early Christians coming to exalt Jesus to a divine status.) If the visionary experiences initiated Paul’s missionary work, and we find indications that there were other early apostles basing their authority on similar visions, are we really very far from suggesting that Christianity itself originated in such experiences? read more »

Pope tells you how to (mis)read the Bible so you clear the Church’s name

It’s news today that the Pope has reiterated 1965’s Second Vatican Council’s exoneration of the Jews’ collective guilt for killing Christ. A full transcript of the relevant passage in his soon-to-be-released volume can be read at http://saltandlighttv.org/blog/?p=20724

Jewish Mysticism and Heavenly Ascent Legends and the Context of Christian Origins

Moses Comes Down from Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:25,2...
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Some of the most interesting work I read to help expand my understanding of early Christianity comes not from traditional biblical scholarship but from classical literature and Jewish studies. Here are a few new questions about the religious world from which Christianity emerged I would like to investigate. They came to mind as I read an old article (1971) in the Jewish Quarterly Review by Dr Joseph P. Schultz, Angelic Opposition to the Ascension of Moses and the Revelation of the Law. I really do need to read a lot more from specialist Jewish studies that do not directly attempt to address New Testament literature. I feel such publications are giving me an unfiltered view of the broader context of religious thought contemporaneous with our earliest Christian records.

So what on earth led me to read a 1971 article in the JQR? Blame April DeConick for that. I was following up some footnoted articles, and footnoted articles in those articles, from her Voices of the Mystics (in which she discusses the relationship of the Gospel of John to mystic forms of Christianity), and one of those led me to the 1971 article. It is all interesting stuff when read alongside some of the New Testament epistles and the Ascension of Isaiah, too. But this post confines itself to general questions arising.

Ascension themes in Mesopotamian literature read more »