Monthly Archives: June 2011

The worst historical Jesus “argument” of all

Bart Ehrman says ‘If you want to make up a story about the Messiah, will you make up the story that he got squashed by the enemy and got crucified, the lowest form of execution in the empire? No! If you’re going to make up a story about the Messiah, you’d make up that he actually overthrew the Romans and he’s the King in Jerusalem now…Why didn’t [early Christians] make up that story? Because everybody knew Jesus was crucified…this is why Christians had the hardest time convincing people that Jesus was the Messiah.’

It must be true because nobody would make it up….. (Cited from a recent Carr comment)

What pathetic drivel is capable of coming from the pens of some biblical scholars! This is a rhetorical question that is advanced as a substitute for an argument. There is no argument. The evidence actually belies the very assumptions upon which the rhetorical question is grounded. read more »

Strengths of the mythical Jesus theory

A week ago (22nd June) I posted a draft list of points one might expect a historical Jesus hypothesis would explain or predict. I have still to make the time to work on that list along with some suggestions that were posted to it. But here is a similar list for what might be seen as the strengths of the mythical Jesus view:

A mythical Jesus theory

1. Would expect to find either no account of the eye-witness or authoritative transmission of words and deeds of Jesus in the early record, or vague/contradictory/politically-theologically-tendentious (only) accounts of such a transmission to fill the gap between Jesus and the earliest written accounts; read more »

Lifting the rug on heresy in the Gospel of John

sweep-under-rugRoger Parvus has published a fascinating study of the letters of Ignatius and proposes that they originated from one who belonged to the breakaway group from Marcionism that was led by Apelles. Towards the end of his book (A New Look at the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch and Other Apellian Writings) he addresses the similarities other scholars have observed between the Johannine and Ignatian communities, and suggests that some of those “little contradictions and oddities” in the Gospel of John may also reflect an Apellean origin. (Hopefully I am not stealing too much of his thunder with this post, since I am hoping Roger will be able to argue his case for himself. But a touch of eagerness to write up at least little bit of one facet of his book has got the better of me here.)

I won’t write up much of the detail in the book in this post — just enough to share with others some of the details one can easily read over in John’s Gospel yet fail to notice the contradictions, and the implications of the contradictions, in some of the most familiar passages. Familiarity has a lot to answer for.

This is not an attempt to argue for a particular reading or redaction history of John. That would require much more serious depth. The point of this post is simply to show the possibilities of questions, of alternative understandings, relating to the origin of the Gospel of John from a not widely encountered perspective. read more »

Unsettled, settling

I’m at the blue dot — Darwin

I have recently moved (again) to take up a better position, still in the field of making research publications, cultural and other resources available online to the widest target audiences possible or appropriate into the long-term future, his time at the top end of Australia. So recently blogging has been much more of an ad hoc distraction than usual. My job is one of those new fangled types that can never be really explained to those not in the know, and I have been very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, and to have met the right people, to have a forefront seat in the way everything is moving with digitized research and cultural collections globally. And some exciting directions are being initiated up north here in Australia. But my professional life has nothing to do with my Vridar hobby-horse so I maintain quite distinct online accounts.

Once I’m settled (again) I hope to resume more systematic blogging following through coherent themes. If others kindly contribute with a post or two to this blog, then of course they do so without implying they concur with any other topics I blog about here, in particular those with a political or social commentary.

A Darwin local told me that this region is one of the most egalitarian in Australia. If so, I wonder if the geography has something to do with encouraging that. Where there are no hills, where the landscape is flat and the same dry in all directions, and where one cannot help but sense a vulnerable isolation from the major cities amidst green hills and rivers, where all 119 ethnic and cultural groups here feel the same heat and humidity, and prepare annually for the same cyclone season, how much room can there be for class conscious uppitiness. This is one city where rich and poor can be found alongside each other in the same neighbourhoods, even the same streets.



Turning Blooms to Desert

Now it’s all gone —

It’s not making headlines here but it should.

“Now it’s all gone”: Women cope with siege in Jordan Valley

Nora Barrows-Friedman

The Electronic Intifada

24 June 2011

 Israeli military forces have demolished 27 houses in the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank over the last two weeks. More than 140 Palestinians have been rendered homeless by the demolitions, while Israeli settlement expansion continues to threaten more land and restrict water access — affecting the vitality of dozens of Palestinian villages in the area. read more »

The God Who Comes

In my previous post I quoted John Taylor where he referenced chapter 5 of Dionysus: Myth and Cult by Walter Friedrich Otto. That chapter is titled “The God Who Comes”. It is about this distinctive characteristic of the god Dionysus — that, unlike other gods, he comes to mankind visibly, that is, “in the flesh”. That post pointed to a strong theological or religious meaning that such a “historic presence” promised for ongoing and future intimate relations (even entering into the persons of devotees now) in the cults of both Dionysus and Jesus.

For those who are too impatient to read that chapter online (it is available in its entirety on Google books) here are a few excerpts.

One could almost substitute “Jesus” and “Gospel of Mark’ or such for Dionysus and his narrative in the following discussion and one would continue to nod in assent with all that is said. Jesus is far from the violent figure towards humans that Dionysus is, but one reads commentaries on Mark speaking of the “violence” with which Jesus enters “history”, with his overpowering of demons and in other ways suddenly turning the world upside down. The same commentators speak of the urgency with which Jesus acts and demands responses from those he encounters. read more »

The mythical meaning of gods (Dionysus, Jesus) being given historical settings

Pentheus torn apart by Agave and Ino. Attic re...
Image via Wikipedia

Theologians draw out spiritual lessons from the tale of God sending his Son in the flesh, performing miracles and teaching truths incomprehensible to most, and then dying and returning once again to heaven so he can be with many more followers here and now who do understand and appreciate his fleshly advent. The same theologians even explain history in terms of this theological drama. Followers of Jesus were so shocked by the unexpected demise of their hero on the cross that they feverishly set about fabricating this spiritually meaningful tale to compensate for their disillusionment by restoring among themselves a new faith and hope for a future life.

The possibility that that spiritually meaningful story might have been the original source of the tale of the historical advent of Jesus seems not to occur to them. (No, I am not saying the story was fabricated overnight ex nihilo. All stories and genres have their antecedents, and such antecedents to the Gospel story and genre are a lot more in evidence in the record than we are conditioned to quickly acknowledge.)

But let’s do a little comparative religious study to see if another ancient cult can shed any light on the question of Jesus’ historicity. read more »

The strengths of the historical Jesus theory

As anyone who has read a good book on the theory of evolution will appreciate, the strength of the theory lies in its

  1. explanatory power, and
  2. predictive ability

Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish is one such book. Shubin explains simply and elegantly how evolution explains both the fossil record and genetic patterns across all species, and even how the same theory enables paleontologists to know where to look for certain kinds of fossils.

Let’s outline what a rough draft of these two tests might look like when applied to (a) the theory that Jesus was historical, and (2) the theory that he was a myth. Only have time to begin work on the first one this post.

I’m sure there is much more that could be said than I outline here, but a rough draft has to start somewhere.

Historical Jesus theory: read more »

The fallacy that invalidates historical Jesus studies, conspiracy theories and creationism

“You aren’t allowed to make up your own facts.”

That’s a brilliant piece of wisdom that is lost on many of us from time to time because a certain familiarity with habitual ways of thinking prevents us from seeing that we sometimes really do just make up our own facts — or at least just accept “facts” that others have simply made up for us.

The words come from The Uncensored Bible by Kaltner, McKenzie and Kilpatrick after they have presented an original argument that explains that bizarre episode in Exodus where God is said to meet Moses on his return to Egypt and tries to kill him, following which his wife Zipporah circumcises her infant son, tosses the foreskin at Moses and accuses him of being a bloody husband — after which God leaves him alone. This, at least, is one way the passage is translated for us. But as the authors explain, the original is riddled with so many unlinked pronouns no one can be really sure how to translate the passage, let along make any sense of the story.

A suicidal Moses

The occasion of the opening passage — “You aren’t allowed to make up your own facts” — is the explanation of Pamela Tamarkin Reis. She suggests the confusing phrases are not intended to be understood literally but are idiomatic expressions. They indicated, Reis says, that Moses was contemplating suicide. He had presented himself until this moment as an Egyptian fugitive of high standing, but on his return to Egypt after being called by a voice out of a burning bush, he had to face up to his being a Hebrew and one with a slave people. His wife, Zipporah, mocked him by performing a circumcision on their son in contempt. read more »

How doing real (nonbiblical) history compares with historical Jesus studies: a case study

In the process of moving recently I discovered one of my long-boxed copies of a history book researching the lives of renegade leaders of small bands generally considered to be Robin Hood type bandits. What is interesting about this particular field of history, and that is worthy of note among those interested “how history works” in fields other than among theologians and other biblical scholars studying the historical Jesus, is the way the historian treats literary evidence of legendary tales of famous outlaws.

The earliest figure in the literature referenced is Robin Hood himself. But the historian does not discuss Robin Hood as a historical figure at all.

For the purposes of this book Robin Hood is pure myth. As it happens, though ballads about him go back to the fourteenth century, he was not commonly regarded as a hero until the sixteenth century. The question whether a real Robin Hood existed, or what medieval English bands were like in the greenwoods, must be left to experts in the history of the Middle Ages. (p. 46, Bandits, 2000)

This historian is interested in investigating the careers of real people who can be established as having existed and acted in real history quite apart from the legends told about them. read more »

Jesus: Myth of the Rebel Leader or Myth of a Saviour God — it’s all the same myth

Some scholars (e.g. S.G.F. Brandon) have opined that Jesus was something of a revolutionary or rebel leader; others (e.g. Thomas L. Thompson) that he was “a messiah myth” (the link is to an earlier post of mine listing the mythical traits of gods and kings of the Middle East).

Other scholars (e.g. Robert M. Price) have compared the Gospel narrative elements of Jesus against the various functional components of folk tales as extracted by Vladimir Propp.

One nonbiblical historian who, to my knowledge, has never written a word about Jesus, has written about a certain type of rebel leader, however, and compared the realities with the myth or legend that has universally attached itself to these sorts of people. Eric Hobsbawm has researched the phenomenon of social banditry (from China through Europe to Peru), or the Robin Hood types of figures. His list of characteristics of the “noble image” that attaches itself to these figures is interesting.

It bears a striking resemblance to the qualities of the kings and gods of Thompson’s messiah myth traits as much as to the heroic human outlaw. If the same qualities attach themselves to both the human outcast and a mighty god or king of another, much earlier, era, then one is entitled to suspect we are looking at some deeper psychological need/attraction at work here.

Here’s Hobsbawm’s list of characteristics (p. 47f of Bandits, 2000). read more »

Christianity’s history myth and myth of innocence

I could retitle this “Religion’s history myths” and write about Judaism and the Moslem religions, too, and probably a few others. But it’s safest to stick to what we know best.

I was reminded while writing about the last chapter of Jesus Christ Harry Potter what miserable times inflicted so many in the Roman world that saw the growth and eventual dominance of Christianity. I get the impression that for many people the best means of escape was to escape life completely: celibacy, asceticism and martyrdom were for many the highest ideals one could aspire to in “life”. And one reads the with some pain the intolerance and hatred that sears through so many of the writings of the Church Fathers, and reflects on the brutality that must have accompanied the archaeological evidence of wanton destruction and humiliation of the religious and artistic works of the former era.

As I wrote in my previous post, I can’t help but be reminded of the reasons so many willing martyrs (e.g. suicide-bombers) have been found among certain groups today. When life is thought to be no longer worth living under certain conditions, when personal despair, humiliation, hopelessness, mean that an individual’s “real life” has effectively ended, when all this is so unbearable, some people prefer to swap their physical existence for a symbolic existence. (Compare my review of Ghassan Hage’s Against Paranoid Nationalism).

Martyrs are supposed to be shining beacons through the ages. But how can anyone respect the mentality that produced the letters of Ignatius. Do these express anything more inspiring than pornographic lusts for self-immolation?

The winners write their history, and Christianity’s birth and early growth have been upheld as times of glorious purity and heroism.

There are many sincere and good Christians today as there were then, no doubt. But try as they will to cover or explain away or even rebuke the sins of their brethren, does not their primary allegiance continue to offer a silver lining of respectability for the irrational and the darkness that has been at the core of this religion since the creation of that myth of innocence in the Gospel of Mark.


Jesus Potter Harry Christ, ch. 10: From Mystery to History . . . .

This post covers the final chapter of Derek Murphy’s Jesus Potter Harry Christ. All chapter by chapter reviews are collated here and on the Jesus Mysteries discussion group. I will do one more overview review of the entire book, but that may not be on this blog, but on amazon or such. A special thanks to Derek Murphy for sending me a review copy. His book has opened up for me a broader perspective on the question of Christian origins than I had till now been used to. (Recent posts on the place of “astronomics” in the ancient world may have been prompted by questions Derek Murphy has raised in my mind.)

Having argued in the preceding chapters that Christianity began as another type of mystery religion, or really a spread of “interactive and heterogeneous communities”, and not with a historical Jesus, Derek Murphy in this final chapter explains why such “mystery” type religious communities were displaced by something quite different based on a belief in the historical truth of the Jesus narrative. Murphy shows that the rise and spread of what became the orthodox Christianity that we know had very practical political and psycho-social causes, and can hardly be said to be the result of any miraculous forces. One of the main sources Murphy draws upon for this chapter is the reputable The Rise of Christianity by W.H.C. Frend.

The message of the literalness of the Jesus story was simple to grasp. Its message was uncomplicated: have faith in this historical event. Justin Martyr, for example, as Murphy points out, describes his conversion to Christianity explaining that its attraction lay in it being a much simpler set of understandings than other complex philosophies of his day. read more »

Jesus and Socrates

Here is another snippet here from classicist scholar John Taylor’s book, Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition. This time it is from a decontextualized comparison between Jesus and Socrates. I have only extracted those elements that relate most directly to Jesus as found in the Gospels themselves, and left behind those that relate to a more generic image of Jesus that embraces the descriptions of various Church Fathers and the apostle Paul.

I have not included discussion of any of these points of comparison. I have simply listed them as dot-points, so do with them what you will. I had once hoped to discuss them more meaningfully, but can see that I will not have an opportunity (given my balance of interests) to do that for at least twenty years.

I have given more online references to Socrates than to Jesus because I assume that most interested in such a topic would already know more about Jesus, and sources for references to Jesus, than Socrates.

The comparison falls in two parts, though these may seem contrived to many. The first is comparing Jesus and Socrates per se; the second list compares the sources of each, or as each is found particularized in specific sources, and scholarly reactions to each.

The comparisons of the deaths of each in the second bracket (#5, accounts of the last days or each) probably should really go in the first set of comparisons, but I have kept Taylor’s sequence to save time, even though Taylor makes this a part of a larger discussion about scholarly reactions to same.

Socrates and Jesus in history: read more »