2011-10-23

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:

  1. Scholarly argument that Paul received the words of Jesus at the Last Supper by revelation and not from apostles who had known Jesus: see pp 113-114 of The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity by Hyam Maccoby.
  2. Scholarly argument that many of the Gospel narratives are entirely metaphorical and not based on historical memories at all: see a discussion of the range of scholars who hold this view in Dale C. Allison Jr’s Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination and History, pp 437-8 and footnote 7. This includes scholars who argue the entire Passion scene is midrash or creative fiction.
    • (Many scholars, including Allison himself, refer to such narratives as “midrash” or a specific type of midrash known as “haggadah”. But at least one scholar has ridiculed mythicists when they use the same word for their supposed ignorance of its meaning. Yet this scholar failed to respond to requests for clarification of his accusation when it was pointed out to him that his scholarly peers used the word no differently.)
  3. Scholarly arguments that Jesus was not baptized by John the Baptist: see discussions of Burton Mack, Willian Arnal and Leif E. Vaage here.
  4. Scholarly arguments that Jesus did not “cleanse the temple”: see discussions by Burton Mack (pp. 291-292) and Paula Fredriksen (p. 210) or here.
  5. Scholarly acceptance that Robert Price’s argument that 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 is to be taken “seriously”: pp. 18-19 of William O. Walker’s Interpolations in the Pauline Letters.
  6. Scholarly argument (or at least one by a serious student writing against mythicism) for the plausibility of  “James the Lord’s Brother” being an interpolation: see James Brother of the Lord: Another Case for Interpolation.
  7. Paul deliberately shunned the concept of a historical Jesus: see Geza Vermes, The Changing Faces of Jesus.

There are no doubt others. I am sure I had more in mind before I started this post. I recently posted on a scholarly publication that argues Jesus was not a teacher — and quoted two scholars (Gerd Ludemann and Stevan Davies) who have made this point.

The irony becomes farcical when my own arguments concerning historical methodology are dismissed as mythicist nonsense when they are in fact nothing more than an enunciation of the principles used by historians generally across all historical studies (historical Jesus studies being probably the one notable exception). Even quoting Albert Schweitzer’s words summing up his own acknowledgment of the validity of the method despite its failure to give theoretical support for a historical Jesus only elicits rebuke from various quarters. I can recall at least three scholars who have told it is shameful to mention Schweitzer’s name in a post that also includes a mention of Earl Doherty, for example — even though Doherty does not even address the method. It is not the rationality or validity of the argument that offends.

Even scholar Richard Carrier is castigated for arguing a point that at least one scholar feared could be used in favour of mythicism. Fortunately, however, Carrier is a fellow scholar so an apology was forthcoming when it was pointed out that the post addressed neither mythicism nor historicism and the author even felt the matter could even more strongly support historicism.

Meanwhile, serious scholarship can reliably inform us of such intimate details of Jesus’ life and training under John the Baptist. Such extrapolations from generic sociological and psychological interpretations are some of the first things we learned to eschew in my own formal studies of history. Some Jesus scholars still have a little way to go to catch up with such basics.

Mary knew that her own survival depended upon her ability to climb the social ladder, and she was shrewd enough to do it. More importantly, she actually believed that her son was destined for great things. It is only natural for a mother to project high aspirations onto her oldest son. But if you asked her, Jesus’ path to the top was divinely preordained.

Jesus had never known life without absurd expectations. His mother was convinced that he would be a leader like Moses. Like Moses! The expectations could hardly have been higher or more unreasonable. Moses was the archetypical liberator, lawgiver — mediator of the very acts of God! Did she really want him to do miracles, divine signs?

Mary knew that her son just needed a nudge. Moses provided water from a dry rock in the wilderness, so why couldn’t her son turn water into wine? . . . .

Jesus did his best to distance himself from his mother and brothers. . . .  (pp. 51-52 of Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? by Anthony Le Donne.

This is not history. This is little more than a Jesus-studies equivalent of a pop psychologist dissecting the story of Cinderella.

John taught Jesus and his other disciples to meditate on Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot. . . . Jesus learned to become Ezekiel’s text, embody its imagery, and master (as John had before him) the many other complex texts within Jewish tradition . . . As Jesus mastered the techniques of envisioning the Chariot, John began to teach him the secrets of God’s Spirit, which flowed from the Chariot through all creation. (Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography by Bruce Chilton)

Again, this is not history. It is imaginative stream of consciousness by means of haloes — the halo effect gone psychedelic.

As I posted recently, since there is no secure starting place for historical Jesus studies it all depends on where one enters the circle. (Scholars say that — it’s not a mythicist quote.)

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Neil Godfrey

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24 Comments

  • ROO BOOKAROO
    2011-10-23 23:42:15 GMT+0000 - 23:42 | Permalink

    Excellent article as usual. The examples of fictional stream-of-consciousness by Mary or John are truly hilarious.

    However I have a quibble about the simple difference between “is’ and “are”, and the need to avoid confusing them.

    “Every one of the arguments below are taken from scholars who are opposed to the Christ Myth argument.”
    Cannot be. If I have a basket full of red apples, every one of them IS red, the attribute of redness is automatically transferred to the set of all the apples. The sentence should read “Every one of the arguments below IS taken…”

    This is made clear by the following line in the following paragraph:
    “But every one of the following arguments IS soundly attacked without quarter…”,
    which betrays an innate sense of logical thinking.

    But the sentence continues
    “… when they are suspected of serving a mythicist argument”,
    indicating that some demonic possession is now inducing the writer to revert to his erroneous ways.
    The thought is still about “every one of the following arguments”, which cannot be forgotten just because it has been left ten words behind. The unity of thought requires
    “… when it IS suspected of serving a mythicist argument.”

    I am only following the recommendations of Robert Graves in his remarkable 1944 book: THE READER OVER YOUR SHOULDER, an indispensable manual for editors
    VOhttp://www.hull.ac.uk/php/cetag/3igraves.htm

    • 2011-10-24 07:05:09 GMT+0000 - 07:05 | Permalink

      I have removed the offending little buggers. (Or should I say “beggers” for more refined American souls?) It smarts a bit since I have the misfortune of being an ex-English teacher and so I myself suffer more than most over the grammatical infelicities of others. I’d like to plead for forgiveness given that I was writing under the dark cloud of a mid-afternoon whisky hangover.

      But I admit I do hate proof-reading my posts and nearly always write in haste. (Look at my appalling over-use of — dashes!) Rather than burden me with yet another book on grammar and editing (I have collected quite a number of them already) maybe you should call for volunteers to proof-read my posts before they go live! 😉

  • ROO BOOKAROO
    2011-10-24 05:37:39 GMT+0000 - 05:37 | Permalink

    Reading the article “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science”, which in fact should read “The Psychology of Why We don’t Believe Science”, I particularly selected the following excerpts which emphasize that, the more expert is the person with whom we dialogue or debate, the less chance we have to convince him (her?) of new facts that do not jibe with his system of views.

    “One insidious aspect of motivated reasoning is that political sophisticates are prone to be more biased than those who know less about the issues. [a vital point. ROO] “People who have a dislike of some policy—for example, abortion—if they’re unsophisticated they can just reject it out of hand,” says Lodge.

    “But if they’re sophisticated, they can go one step further and start coming up with counterarguments.” These individuals are just as emotionally driven and biased as the rest of us, but they’re able to generate more and better reasons to explain why they’re right—and so their minds become harder to change….

    Cherry-picking is precisely the sort of behavior you would expect motivated reasoners to engage in to bolster their views….

    Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.”

    That is why it becomes crystal-clear, in case we were not already convinced of it, that all those debates like for instance Neil Godfrey (or Richard Carrier, etc..) vs James MacGrath, or vs JP Holding, etc..will never reach any kind of making a point over the other side.

    The last Neil-James acrimonious debate about only what was exactly quoted by Neil of a passage of Dale Allison is instructive. At the expert level, dialogue is all-out dueling with no taking of prisoners.

    The monumental controversy between apologists and deniers of Jesus Christ existence over the centuries is certainly another instance where the controversy will probably never come to an end. Pure rationality alone cannot overcome the power of emotions of fear and hope.

    As a girl once remarked: “Poetry alone is not enough, you have to add flowers and chocolate.”

  • pearl
    2011-10-24 07:03:39 GMT+0000 - 07:03 | Permalink

    Sometimes even added flowers and chocolate are not enough if there is a lot at stake, such as a job, a worldview, or toying with some foundations of a culture. Such discussions, however, might have an effect on some audience members open to new information, if not one or more of the debaters.

  • 2011-10-24 07:22:35 GMT+0000 - 07:22 | Permalink

    I have written on this topic and cited other articles to the same effect before and now see a new tagging system is long overdue so I can find the damn things. I even know a man — whether in his mind or out of it I know not — who rationalized being a devout member of an authoritatian religious cult while excelling in a post-graduate course that studied the workings of propaganda and indoctrination!

    On the point of picking a fight over merely quoting a right scholar for a wrong argument, I am far from being the first to be faulted for directly quoting anti-mythicist scholars. To avoid referencing them is to avoid the scholarship. To quote them is to be charged with “quote mining” or “misrepresentation” or simply being “tiresome”.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the point about couching the argument within values that are acceptable to the other side. That is why I think it is far more potentially productive to speak of studying Christian origins rather than batting between mythicism and historicism. But this has to come from persons whose reputations are not already muddied by having “myth balls” splattered all over them.

    Current scholarship is already more than half-way there. To the extent that it is acknowledged that the Christ of faith is a myth and it is this myth that is the foundation of Christianity, all that is necessary is to open up a wider investigation into the origin of this myth. If those studies lead to a historical Jesus (as opposed to being led by him) then that’s fine. If not, no problem. People can still believe in a historical Jesus as strongly as they believe God either made Adam and Eve or guided their evolution and accept that Enlightenment historical studies are irrelevant to their faith.

  • 2011-10-24 07:55:05 GMT+0000 - 07:55 | Permalink

    I have written on this topic and cited other articles to the same effect before and now see a new tagging system is long overdue so I can find the damn things. I even know a man — whether in his mind or out of it I know not — who rationalized being a devout member of an authoritatian religious cult while excelling in a post-graduate course that studied the workings of propaganda and indoctrination!

    On the point of picking a fight over merely quoting a right scholar for a wrong argument, I am far from being the first to be faulted for directly quoting anti-mythicist scholars. To avoid referencing them is to avoid the scholarship. To quote them is to be charged with “quote mining” or “misrepresentation” or simply being “tiresome”.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the point about couching the argument within values that are acceptable to the other side. That is why I think it is far more potentially productive to speak of studying Christian origins rather than batting between mythicism and historicism. But this has to come from persons whose reputations are not already muddied by having “myth balls” splattered all over them.

    Current scholarship is already more than half-way there. To the extent that it is acknowledged that the Christ of faith is a myth and it is this myth that is the foundation of Christianity, all that is necessary is to open up a wider investigation into the origin of this myth. If those studies lead to a historical Jesus (as opposed to being led by him) then that’s fine. If not, no problem.

    People can still believe in a historical Jesus as strongly as they believe God either made Adam and Eve or guided their evolution and accept that Enlightenment historical studies are irrelevant to their faith.

  • Evan
    2011-10-24 13:43:30 GMT+0000 - 13:43 | Permalink

    Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

  • Steven Carr
    2011-10-24 16:27:34 GMT+0000 - 16:27 | Permalink

    It is really hard to believe that writing like that of Anthony Le Donne can be taken seriously by New Testament scholars.

    But then , most of New Testament scholarship is pseudo-scholarship.

    Even Anthony Le Donne writes ‘One of the staples of the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus, “authenticity criteria” cannot deliver authenticity. To this end, our book addresses the philosophical and methodological pitfalls of the pursuit for an “authentic” past.’

    People like McGrath talk about the ‘rigour’ of their profession, but even NT scholars admit the junk nature of their methodologies.

    But James McGrath’s raison d’etre is that he is a scholar. Therefore, what he studies must be scholarship.

    But what McGrath studies is no more rigorous than phrenology. His criteria no more deliver authenticity than the criteria used by phrenologists.

    But I’m sure phrenologists will be the first to claim that their techniques of measuring the sizes of areas of the brain are used by neuroscientists, just as McGrath claims he used techniques used by other historians.

    • 2011-10-24 17:43:40 GMT+0000 - 17:43 | Permalink

      One might almost suspect that he is freudulently projecting when he casts the creationist stones at others.

      • Steven Carr
        2011-10-24 19:51:40 GMT+0000 - 19:51 | Permalink

        I was being a bit unfair comparing the methods of McGrath to phrenology.

        One discipline is trying to produce a character analysis of a person , based on dubious techniques, not even agreed upon by other practitioners, and the other is measuring bumps in the skull.

      • 2011-10-25 09:55:49 GMT+0000 - 09:55 | Permalink

        McGrath: “I think that most Christians, when it comes down to it, actually want to be able to discuss relevant evidence and adjudicate between ideas. But doing that only works if your own claims and ideas are also open to scrutiny and potential disproof.”

        He that is without sin among you…. and so on.

        It’s interesting that in McG’s recent post — “Can Creationism Be Disproven [sic]?” — he brings up the issue of falsifiability. Exactly how would one go about falsifying a historical reconstruction of Jesus? We have multiple reconstructions that are at odds with one another; surely there must be some criteria that we can use to prove one or the other. Sadly, all I see are appeals to the number of scholars who adhere to one theory over another.

        While we’re on the subject of truth by ballot, I’d like to propose that from now on when we talk about scholars weighing in on an issue, we take it literally. That is, instead of counting raised hands, we should use aggregate mass.

        • 2011-10-25 11:02:45 GMT+0000 - 11:02 | Permalink

          That would be a sure way to establish the weightiness of an argument.

        • 2011-10-28 04:32:42 GMT+0000 - 04:32 | Permalink

          Truth by ballot is fallacious (as I suspect most of us know). Even when appealing to scholarly consensus, it is still fallacious. What we should be doing to guage “truth” is trying to find trends in scholarship. We can talk about a “consensus” in scholarship all we want, but this is a moving target. The consensus, especially in the humanities, can move with the times depending on cultural zeitgeists, wars (or rumors of wars), civil/social upheavals, new technologies, findings in the hard sciences, etc.

          • 2011-10-28 10:29:13 GMT+0000 - 10:29 | Permalink

            NT scholars rely on multiple independent attestation as a fundamental criterion to judge whether an act or saying of Jesus is likely to be true. Recently I’ve been reading and re-reading scholars’ arguments for the historicity of the Jesus’ baptism by John. Robert L. Webb says there are “probably four independent witnesses”: Q, Mark, John, and the Gospel of the Hebrews.

            How do we know John is an “independent witness”? Webb writes: “It is generally acknowledged that the Fourth Gospel is independent of the Synoptic Gospels.” So there you have it. In a footnote he points to a survey of the current debate and dismissively names “two scholars who hold to a minority view on the subject.” (Actually, there are more than two, despite the Webb’s subtle implication.)

            Such jumping to conclusions is considered careful, diligent, work in the realm of NT scholarship. The majority of scholars are swayed by the arguments that the Gospel of John is not dependent on the Synoptics in a literary sense. That majority viewpoint gets translated into: “John was an independent witness.” They immediately assume John must have been quoting from his very own, special, “rich oral tradition,” faithfully conveying an eyewitness account.

            Since Webb believes the event really happened, he says that John’s gospel “alludes” the baptism. I would argue that an unbiased reading would conclude that John says there was no baptism. It’s odd to count John as an independent witness” when he says it didn’t happen, and when it seems clear (to me, anyway) that John is deliberately contradicting the Synoptics, providing his own alternative gospel.

            Of course a discussion of whether John’s account differs because of authorial or community invention is off the table. Instead it has to be a case of embarrassment. We’re told it must be that John knew of the entire tradition but omitted the parts he didn’t like. That facile argument is simply a different kind of harmonization. The apologists harmonize the texts, while sophisticated scholars harmonize the chain of events — dreaming up clever ways in which the baptism, which we “know” must have happened, came to be written down differently by the so-called witnesses.

            http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bbr/jesus_webb.pdf

            • 2011-10-28 11:00:29 GMT+0000 - 11:00 | Permalink

              I agree, but is there anything in the Gospel of John that at the same time contradicts or logically excludes Jesus being baptized by John?

              • 2011-10-28 11:55:55 GMT+0000 - 11:55 | Permalink

                It is not absolutely impossible, but it would not logically follow. The purpose of John the Baptist is to herald the coming of the one who is greater than he, who existed before him. In the presence of the contingency from Jerusalem, the baptizer affirms that he saw the sign of the dove, which God himself had revealed to him. He tells everyone that Jesus:

                1. Is far greater than John.
                2. Existed before John.
                3. Brings a greater baptism than John’s, that of the Holy Ghost.
                4. Is the Son of God.
                5. Is “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”

                John’s role is to announce Jesus. Some of John’s disciples immediately recognize Jesus as the Messiah and leave the Baptizer.

                Where in the narrative would the baptism fit? John thinks he isn’t worthy to unlatch Jesus’ sandals. Jesus, says John, comes to the world with a superior baptism, and he will save the world from sin. Why would he need to baptize Jesus?

                If John’s were the only gospel we possessed, would we have any reason to think Jesus submitted to John’s baptism?

              • pearl
                2011-10-28 13:22:40 GMT+0000 - 13:22 | Permalink

                Footnote 31 in John D. Turner’s Ritual in Gnosticism:

                In Mark 1 par. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by John, and coming out of the water, he sees the heavens opened and the spirit of God descending upon him and hears the heavenly voice pronounce him as Son of God. The parallel in Matthew agrees, but has reservations about Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism. The Fourth Gospel, like Luke, suppresses Jesus’ explicit baptism by John, and furthermore demotes John to a mere Voice of one crying in the wilderness, whose only subsequent function is to bear witness to the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus (cf. Heracleon, Frg. 5, apud Origen, Comm. in Joh. VI, 20-21). Rather than being the subject of John’s water baptism, the Fourth Gospel (Jn 4:7-15) understands Jesus as the source of Living Water, which to drink means eternal life; although he has baptized Judaean people in water (3:22; 4:1), there will be a time when he will baptize with the Holy Spirit, which the author identifies with living water (Jn 7:37-39). In John 3:3-5, rebirth as a condition of seeing the kingdom is equated with being born of water and spirit; one thus reborn through baptism is uniquely empowered to “see” the Kingdom. While the obvious reference seems to be to Johannine Christians, the Fourth Gospel’s lack of explicit accounts of Jesus’ birth and baptism on the earthly plane combine with this conception of being born from above as an additional reference to the untraceable–and thus divine–origin of the Savior who brings light into the world. The parallel with the explanation of the origins of the Illuminator in the Apocalypse of Adam is obvious. Like the Johannine Gospel’s conception of Jesus as the one who will provide living water, the Trimorphic Protennoia regards the Logos who descends with the Five Seals as the one who pours forth Living Water upon the Spirit below out of its source, which is the Father / Voice aspect of Protennoia, called the unpolluted spring of Living Water. Perhaps it would not be going too far to suppose that Johannine and Sethian conceptions of baptism had a common origin.

              • 2011-10-28 14:38:56 GMT+0000 - 14:38 | Permalink

                Interesting stuff. I think it’s significant that the fourth gospel takes great pains to say the Jesus never baptized anybody with water (John 4:2). However, in John 20:22 after the resurrection, he finally baptizes with the Holy Spirit:

                And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost…

                It makes you wonder if this is an insight into the early secret mysteries of the cult. The word ἐνεφύσησεν is a hapax legomenon in the NT. However, it’s the same verb the LXX uses in Gen. 2:7 when God animates Adam:

                …καὶ ἐνεφύσησεν εἰς τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ πνοὴν ζωῆς καὶ ἐγένετο ὁ ἄνθρωπος εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν.

                …and breathed into his face (nostrils?) the breath of life and the man became a living being.

              • pearl
                2011-10-29 01:26:40 GMT+0000 - 01:26 | Permalink

                Yes, it is an interesting comparison, Tim.

                In the Genesis passage there is description of man’s creation in an animate sense, as you say. Just before that is mention of a physical stream of water that would rise from the earth and cover the ground. Man is made of dust of the ground and God breathes into man’s nostrils the breath of animate life.

                I wonder if there is significance that the word chosen for John’s passage is the same as used in the Septuagint translation of Genesis 2:7.

                John’s gospel takes this imagery further into a scenario of spiritual rebirth. The holy spirit has been associated with “living water” (John 7:37-39). Instead of water rising from the earth, we see an image of rivers of water flowing from a believer’s heart (or belly). Man is already a “living being” and in Jn. 20:21-22 Jesus sends the disciples as he was sent from the Father now with the holy spirit — living water, not a physical stream (as you say is emphasized in Jn. 4:2).

              • 2011-10-29 18:08:51 GMT+0000 - 18:08 | Permalink

                That image in John of “breathing” the spirit onto the disciples has always struck me as a real anti-climax, even somewhat unhygienic. The image just does not compare with fire and wind coming down from heaven as in Acts. But as a throwback to Genesis 2:7 it suddenly becomes very respectable.

                I would like to see studies that seek to identify the earliest strata of this gospel.

              • 2011-10-29 22:58:44 GMT+0000 - 22:58 | Permalink

                If there are strata, it probably predates the rough treatment that Thomas gets. John has an awful lot of “oh-by-the-ways” in his gospel, which I think point to redactional seams. He tells us after the Johannine Pentecost that Thomas wasn’t present. They were all hiding from “the Jews” behind a locked door. Oh, by the way, Thomas was out shopping.

              • pearl
                2011-10-30 01:38:01 GMT+0000 - 01:38 | Permalink

                I would like to see those studies, too. Tim earlier mentioned Bultmann. He attempted to identify sources and later redactions in commentary on The Gospel of John seventy years ago.

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