Would a “mythicist Paul” need a lot of mythical story detail?

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by Neil Godfrey

This is a reasonable question that was unfortunately asked by one who is searching for the one question that mythicism cannot answer. (Earl Doherty responded in detail but this was simply ignored by the questioner who found another question to set up in its place in a game of cat and mouse. Or maybe Earl Doherty has conspired with James McGrath for James to pretend he hasn’t read or understood Doherty’s book and to keep dropping the Dorothy Dixers so that he can use his blog as a platform for a clear and unopposed exposition of mythicism. 😉

I have had my own thoughts on the question, however.

For Paul there is one central focus of his faith and that is Christ crucified. There is not a complex detailed mythological narrative attached to this as far as we can tell. And this stands to reason. For one thing complex mythical tales of gods are traditionally the result of centuries of cultural mixing and matching and evolution responding to changing social and cultural interests. What we appear to have in the case of Pauline “Christianity” is something of a theological-philosophical development with emphasis on the theological. It is a faith that is founded not in a rich literary tradition of mythical tales but in revelation and vision-mysticism. Revelation is spiritual and its matrix appears to be the Jewish sacred writings. And this was an era of flourishing religious and philosophical mutations.

But the research of scholars like Engberg-Pedersen and Niko Huttunen open up the indebtedness of Paul’s theology to Stoic philosophy. I am not referring to Stoic ethics but to the philosophical framework itself. (I’ve posted on some aspects of Engberg-Pedersen before and will be doing more posts on Huttunem soonish.) Paul’s Christ crucified is a theological version of Seneca’s (and Stoic’s) Reason or Logos. It converts and saves the individual — transforms the individual into a new person — by virtue of being grasped, apprehended. Continue reading “Would a “mythicist Paul” need a lot of mythical story detail?”

More responses from Earl Doherty

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by Neil Godfrey

I see Earl Doherty is back into engaging with certain critics of mythicism:

  1. On the Freethought and Rationalist Discussion Board: http://www.freeratio.org/showthread.php?p=6967160#post6967160
  2. On Exploding Our Cakemix (© by T.W.): http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/2011/10/14/doherty-mythicism/#comment-350717525


The First Edition of the Gospel of John (1)

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by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of John is notorious for its several awkward transitions and these have led a number of scholars to argue that the present Gospel we know is quite different from what must have been its first edition. A recent discussion led to the question of what scholarly publications there are on the original version of the Gospel of John. That sent me back scrambling to dig out what I was sure I must have read a few years ago in a work commended as a must-read to anyone interested in serious studies of the Gospel of John.

A leading scholar on the Gospel of John, John Ashton, has proposed the passages I list below were not part of the original work. Ashton is not suggesting that a later edition had a different author — at least not in its entirety. The stylistic argument indicates that in several instances the same author returned at a later date and under different circumstances to his work to add additional material.

Most interesting is the proposal that the “Cleansing of the Temple” scene was originally in the same place as it is found in the Gospel of Mark — just prior to the Passion of Jesus — and that it was later moved to its present location (chapter 2) to make way for the later addition of the Raising of Lazarus.

At the end of the list of passages that did not belong to the author’s original draft I set out a scholarly reconstruction of the sequence from chapter 10 on. A future post will hopefully complete what I begin here. (Quotations are from John Ashton’s Understanding the Fourth Gospel.)

Continue reading “The First Edition of the Gospel of John (1)”

Is Jesus portrayed as “a type” like Alexander or Obama?

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by Neil Godfrey

The Gospels often portray Jesus in stories that remind readers of Moses or Elijah or other Old Testament heroes.

Some scholars of the historical Jesus attribute these narratives to creative fiction. The authors have taken a story about Elijah and adapted it to convey a similar one about Jesus. The point of this pious fiction is said to be to lead readers to think of Jesus as being like the old prophets or even greater.

Other scholars (I suspect a majority) see the matter differently. They say Jesus really did consciously imitate the OT heroes or else his earliest followers interpreted the things Jesus did by comparison with these past figures.

Which one of these views has the strongest argument in its favour? In this post I attempt to compare and address the reasons used to support each view. In particular I will focus on a few places where the author of the Gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as Elijah and compare this with the way “typologies” are applied to other modern and ancient historical figures.

Continue reading “Is Jesus portrayed as “a type” like Alexander or Obama?”


Back in ’68 . . . . reminder of my old university days

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by Neil Godfrey

I have just stumbled across a blog that brings my university student days back to me with vivid memories of personalities and events that were affected me deeply at the time — forcing me to face up to how the world really works. I have since lamented the fading of radical and direct action from university life but this blog brings back some disturbing memories that no-one would really want repeated.

Most of the names mentioned — especially on the second part of the blog — I knew personally, one even from school days. We were not close buddies but he did share with me his experience of being taken by Commonwealth police in a car down to an isolated wharf. My recollection is that the police were being publicly humiliated by their failure to locate the ones who were printing banned political tracts and to find one student in particular who had retaliated against police in a frightening mob situation with a series of vicious punches. He told me how the police pulled out a gun as he sat in the back seat of their car that night at that wharf and told him they could make it look like suicide.

I wonder if I ever crossed paths with the author of the blog while I was at the same university in the same years as he. I don’t recall his name and probably didn’t. But we could share memories if we did ever meet (it’s sad to see his health circumstances as explained in his blog):

Vietnam and Damascus via Coronation Drive

Vietnam and Damascus, via Coronation Drive part 2

In the first part he even has a photo of Diane Cilento. I recall being mesmerized by her stage performance in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew a few years afterwards.

In part 2 I see Bob Katter there. I never knew who he was on campus though I did know of one small firebrand who led a minority student reactionary (pro conservative) viewpoint. Now I see that it was the same Bob Katter who is something of a populist independent in politics today. The names more memorable to me are those of Dan O’Neill, Brian Laver, Jimmy Prentice and Dick Shearman.

Dick shocked the establishment of the day by visiting North Vietnam and returning in a black Viet Cong suit. When the Vice Chancellor met students at a courtyard rally (memorable for the constant blaring of the Beatles new and subversive White Album) he insisted that they could not, as they had been seeking to do, erect tents in the courtyard. Jimmy took the mike and calmly sought clarification from the VC: “So are you saying we are not allowed to have an erection in the courtyard?”

Ah, those were the days.

As for the politics and the way the media worked then, now that was a real education. I can’t surpass Dennis Wright’s portrayal of it in his blog.

One more detail. I stumbled upon this blog while looking to see what happened to a philosopher lecturer whose post-graduate classes I once enjoyed so much. Ted d’Urso. I liked Dennis Wright’s account of him, too, except that I found he had more humour than he appears to have displayed in Dennis’s class. Maybe he had learned to relax more by the time I met him. He was not wearing a white shirt and tie then, either.

Dennis recalls some words he spoke to his class then:

‘Some of you in this room are going to be sitting in a paddy field in Vietnam in two years, and when you come under fire for the first time, you’re going to say “What the hell am I doing here?” All I want to discuss with you are some facts you can check with any reliable source, Then you’ll know why someone in a black t-shirt and pants, someone you won’t even see, is going to try their best to kill you….’

In another online article (2007) Ted (now retired) cites a prophecy of Rosa Luxemburg:

As long ago as 1918 Rosa Luxemburg predicted that the alternatives to capitalism were socialism or barbarism, the latter now well under way. With the defeat of the hopes for humanistic socialism, the plans now in progress by the Pentagon for military supremacy in an increasingly resource-scarce future (the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq is a foretaste of future conflicts) . . . . 

How depressing. Especially since observing all that has happened since then and especially with the most recent media and political gloating over the barbarism we have all witnessed in the past few months in Libya and that looks like extending its bloody life into the weeks to come. It’s all tied up with Western resources and economics, of course. I can never forget another memorable phrase I picked up in one of his classes: the nazi years in central Europe described as “barbarism empowered by technology.”

God I hope something can come out of these new Occupy movements. We are seeing similar (not quite as bad?) sorts of violence now in Melbourne as we saw back in 1968 in Brisbane. But there has been real progress and that’s clear, too. Back in ’68 the mere act of walking down a street with a placard really was considered orc-centric as Dennis reminds us.



Is history a trial?

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by Neil Godfrey

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Image by mtkr via Flickr

History as most generally practiced is about interpretation of the “facts” (or data or evidence — the distinction is important and was discussed at some length in comments here).

Historians seek out evidence from sources of identifiable provenance: diaries, police records, government papers, newspapers, etc. The nature of the sources, the provenance of the sources, are important for the historian in knowing how to assess the reliability or biases of those sources.

The debate among historians of Australian history over the extent of massacres of aboriginal peoples is about interpretation of the “facts” — the facts being the tangible documentary evidence.

It is the same with ancient history. An ancient inscription may be very clear in the tale it tells, such as the rise of Syrian king Idrimi. But how should that tale be interpreted? Is it a true narrative or a piece of mostly fictional propaganda? External witnesses are brought in — what do other texts, remains or monuments indicate? What do we know of the literary style and its purposes elsewhere? Continue reading “Is history a trial?”


Gnostic Ebionites?

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by Neil Godfrey

This is a postscript to my recent post The Circumcising Gnostics . . . in Galatia. For what it’s worth I quote a section from a more recent (1996) work on Gnosticism, Princeton University Press’s Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category by Michael Allen Williams.

Elsewhere, Hippolytus’s use of the term gnostikos is quite ambiguous. It is possible that at one point he applies it both to the teacher Cerinthus and to the “Ebionites.” This is worthy of special note because the Ebionites, at least, are virtually never included in the modern category “gnosticism.”

Speaking of Theodotus of Byzantium, a second-century C.E. Christian, Hippolytus says that this teacher was in partial agreement with those belonging to the true church, in that Theodotus confessed that all things were created by God. On the other hand, “borrowing from the school of the gnostics and Cerinthus and Ebion,” Theodotus claims that “Christ had appeared in a certain manner, and that Jesus was a human born from a virgin by the will of the Father” (Ref. 7. 35.1-2).

Now one reading of this would be that Hippolytus has in fact distinguished Cerinthus and Ebionites from the “gnostics,” though the problem then would be identifying the “gnostics” to whom he refers. The similarity between the alleged doctrine of Theodotus and what had been reported of Cerinthus and the Ebionites is clear, but neither the Naasenes nor Justin the “pseudognostic” provides  a very good parallel.

The most recent editor of the Refutatio has suggested that the text in 7.35.1 should be emended to read, “borrowing from the school of the gnostics Cerinthus and Ebion,” which would then apply the label directly to Cerinthus and the Ebionites. Such an emendation is possibly supported by the recapitulation of these sectarian positions in book 10. There the summaries of the teachings of Cerinthus and the Ebionites are once again followed directly by an account of Theodotus’s doctrine, but this time we encounter the simple remark that the latter’s teaching about Christ resembles that of “the aforementioned gnostics” (Ref. 10.23.1). This remark is obviously a rewording of 7.35.1, and therefore Cerinthus and the Ebionites seem to be included among the “aforementioned gnostics,” and they could even be the only “gnostics” intended by this particular reference. (pp. 38-39, my paragraphing)

I recommend Rene Salm’s research into the Nazarenes and the origin of the term (linked below), too, for anyone interested in the likelihood of the “gnostic” character of one of the earliest forms of Christianity.

Related articles

The deception of the creationist’s God; the cruelty of the God who guided evolution

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s a silly question but it’s raining cats and poodles outside so here’s my filler till I can get off to work.

One learned scholar has chastised creationists or ID Christians for implying that their God is a deceiver:

Why is it that some Christians consider it more important to argue that God did not create by means of evolution than to maintain that God is loving and truthful? To engage in denial of mainstream science sooner or later leads one to accuse God of deception or at least ambiguity . . .

But the many liberal Christians who so chastise their “weaker brethren” must necessarily believe that at some level God has guided evolution to produce a being “like him” in some sense. I would have thought that their God is far more reprehensible than a trickster or master of ambiguity. I kind of like watching clever illusionists. But my stomach turns whenever I read of, or worse still witness, cruelty. And the vile cruelties of “nature” (what an anaesthetizing word “nature” is!) that are happening every day and have been for the millions of years of sentient life-forms are simply too unspeakable to dwell upon — or to associate in any way with a God worthy of respect.

Creationists may embarrass their more learned liberal believers. But it is the other God most nonbelievers find repulsive.

(At least the Creationist’s god was loving enough to create all life forms in a nonviolent paradise.)



Anti-mythicist scholars shooting their own side

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by Neil Godfrey

I don’t really do comedy so I start out with a very serious link to an even more substantively serious article: The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science by Chris Mooney. It’s a four page article so don’t forget to continue after reading page one. It explains what most people reading this blog understand anyway, but there are some ideas that are always welcome for a return visit. But if you insist on its return being brief here is its conclusion:

In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.

For the more indulgent here are a few more excerpts – tabled to facilitate a quick bypass:

In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers(PDF).Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial. . . . .

And that undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument.In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.

But here is some sure evidence that in the studies of Christian origins scholarly intestines are quite often more active than cranial synapses.

All of the arguments below are taken from scholars who are opposed to the Christ Myth argument. Let’s re-word that. They are taken from scholars who for all I know are opposed to “any and every” Christ Myth argument. They are presumably, then, arguments that anti-mythicists can take seriously IF they are discussed within a context that is not threatening to their fundamental paradigms. Presumably they need only be dismissed with subjective epithets like “unpersuasive” or “too sceptical” if they come as part of a mythicist’s kit. If they come from the pen of “scholars” who do not question the historicist paradigm they may be described as scholarly arguments and their proponents may be called scholars. But if they are found in the writings of those who argue for a different origin of Christianity more ribald descriptors can be found.

But every one of the following arguments is soundly attacked without quarter when the one using them is suspected of elsewhere entertaining mythicist sympathies: Continue reading “Anti-mythicist scholars shooting their own side”


The Circumcising Gnostic Opponents of Paul in Galatia

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues from the previous two that argue for an unconventional understanding of Paul’s — and his contemporaries’ — understanding of what it meant to be an apostle and how this related to the truth of a gospel message being preached.

This post examines an argument that Paul’s opponents in Galatia were Gnostic Jewish Christians. It also incorporates a view of Paul that defines him, too, as embracing a certain Gnostic view of Christianity. In the course of discussion I discover reasons to refer to both Earl Doherty’s discussion of Paul’s view of Jesus being a son of David and Roger Parvus’s argument that the Ignatian correspondence was from the pen of an Apellean Christian who broke from Marcionism.

A minority view among biblical scholars holds that Paul’s opponents in the Galatian churches were not “judaizers” trying to persuade the Galatian followers of Paul to keep the whole law but were gnostics who (as we know several major gnostic groups did) practised circumcision for symbolic or “spiritual” reasons. Paul’s opponents in Galatia, these few scholars argue, were not siding with the Jerusalem pillar apostles, James, Peter and John against Paul. They were rather accusing Paul of being a subservient extension of these Jerusalem apostles and for that reason claimed he was both no apostle at all and that his gospel was a false one.

I have not yet sought out criticisms of this argument so what I post here is a raw (uncritical) summary of it as presented by Walter Schmithals in Paul & the Gnostics. (Some asides I enclose in tables and some of when I do include my own thoughts I type them in bracketed italics.) Continue reading “The Circumcising Gnostic Opponents of Paul in Galatia”


Paul’s Gnostic heritage & Gnostic opposition

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from my last post — and in particular responding to the earlier commenters — here are some more shorthand notes from Walter Schmithals. Schmithals argues that Paul has a very Gnostic view of his apostleship in that for him an apostle is one who has a direct revelatory/visionary calling by God or Christ. In this he insists he is no different from those who were apostles before him, such as James the Lord’s brother, Peter/Cephas and John.

But there are other ways in which Paul separates himself from other Gnostic apostles who are apparently opposed to both Paul and the Jerusalem pillars.

In 2 Corinthians we read of

the demands which the Gnostic apostles in Corinth make upon Paul if they are to recognize him on an equal basis as an apostle, 44 . . . (p. 30 Paul & the Gnostics) Continue reading “Paul’s Gnostic heritage & Gnostic opposition”


Reading Galatians afresh: a Gnostic Paul, James, Peter and John?

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by Neil Godfrey

Ron Goetz posted a comment elsewhere that reminded me of the works of Walter Schmithals on Paul’s letters. The one I have read most of, Paul & the Gnostics, is not the easiest of reads but is packed densely with detailed argument and detailed references to the scholarship of his day. But it does force one to re-think what is commonly written or assumed in other studies on Galatians.

Schmithals argues that Paul’s critics or opponents among the Galatian churches are not “orthodox” judaizers from the Jerusalem leadership of James. I won’t repeat those arguments here but will go through the way of reading the first two chapters of Galatians his arguments opened up to me. What follows is a mixture of Schmithals and my own interpretation, but I conclude with a quotation from Schmithals.

Paul’s Galatian church is being persuaded to embrace a different gospel (a perverted form the gospel) from the one he presented to them.

I marvel that ye are so soon removed from Him, that called you into the grace of Christ, for another gospel. For this is not another; but there are some who trouble you and would pervert the Gospel of Christ. (Gal. 1:6-7)

But then there is something unexpected for anyone who is reading within the perspective of disciples who have gone out from Jerusalem after believing they had seen the resurrected Christ. The gospel is something that can conceivably be preached by an angel from heaven. Continue reading “Reading Galatians afresh: a Gnostic Paul, James, Peter and John?”


Jesus: the Same in Both Paul and the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Revised and updated 3 hours after the original posting.

Both the letters of Paul and the narrative in the Gospels speak of Jesus crucified. Jesus’ death is significant. The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus’ blood and Paul refers often to his blood. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke in particular stress his birth from a woman and we find a passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians saying Jesus was born of a woman. The Synoptic Gospels indicate Jesus was descended from David and in Paul’s letter to the Romans we likewise read Jesus was connected with David.

The contexts are quite different, of course. The Gospels are portraying a past narrative of an earthly mission of Jesus and Paul is addressing Jesus’ saving power in the “here and now and soon to be”.

And all of those references to Jesus’ crucifixion, blood, Davidic relationship, flesh, etc are derived from the same source. They are all speaking about the same thing. Continue reading “Jesus: the Same in Both Paul and the Gospels”