Here’s an Easter post. Never let it be said I ignore the season.
I can’t recall where I first was introduced to the fact that the Gospel resurrection scenes show a distinct development of details according to the relative dates of the Gospels. Look at how each one appears to build on or surpass what had been written before.
Take One: Off-stage
The Gospel of Mark, the earliest Gospel, actually has no resurrection scene at all. The women come to the tomb, see a young man in the tomb, then run off in fear. (Bibles that continue the story past verse 8 are incorporating what most scholars acknowledge is a passage that was not original to the Gospel. Someone much later attempted to cobble details from both Matthew and Luke to create what they presumably thought was a more satisfying conclusion.) The young man does tell the women that Jesus can be seen again in Galilee if they go there. And that’s it. There is no actual appearance of a resurrected Jesus in this Gospel.
 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
 And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
 But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
 And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.
A few weeks ago I posted Islam – the Untold Story as a response to my introduction (through a radio program and an online video) to narrative historian Tom Holland’s controversial book on the rise of the Arab empire and the origins of Islam. I was interested in some of the comments expressing Muslim viewpoints but not having read the book, and not having studied Islamic history in any depth, there was not much I could say in response.
Now I can at least make a few comments on Tom Holland’s approach to the question after having read his 58-page introduction.
(Coincidentally today I heard another radio interview with Tom Holland, one in which he discusses the way he writes history, the modern relevance of his other historical works, Millennium and Rubicon, as well as further comments on In the Shadow of the Sword.)
But first, let me confess my bias: I believe the most reliable way for any historian to work is to begin with data that can be tested for its genre (hence likely authorial intent), its provenance, and the independent verification of its content. As a result I have come to lean towards the views of those scholars who are derisively labelled “minimalists” and who question the authenticity of the Bible’s account of Israel’s origins and the course of its kingdoms of Israel and Judah. I have also been persuaded by the view of at least one of those “minimalists” who — again via the same touchstone questions concerning sources — has come to think the Gospel narratives of Jesus are as fictitious as the Old Testament’s narrative of Israel.
I approach the origins of Islam with the same set of questions about sources.
Tom Holland knows how to surprise a western reader who has been fed a diet of Islamophobia. In the front pages we read words attributed to Mohammad from which the title is drawn:
Do not look for a fight with the enemy. Beg God for peace and security. But if you do end up facing the enemy, then show endurance, and remember that the gates of Paradise lie in the shadow of the sword.
Another quotation, this one at the beginning of the Introduction, is by Salman Rushdie. It will strike a chord with anyone interested in what we know of Christian origins, but it serves the cause of irony — and a warning that the nature of historical evidence is not always what it seems — since we know that the wealth of detail taken for granted about the life of Muhammad will soon be shown to be nothing more than a facade.
The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammad, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time.
Tom Holland writes with two voices, as he explains in his latest Radio National interview, and together they make for gripping reading. He writes as the historical researcher of cause and effect, commenting on the degree of certainty or less so of our knowledge, guiding readers to the raw materials and current scholarship upon which his narrative is built. At the same time he writes as a novelist, entering into the experiences of the actants, named and anonymous alike, drawing the reader into their world as inevitably as a Spielberg movie.
He knows how to write history for both popular and informed audiences.
Curiously only one of the five books in the New Testament attributed to John bears the name of John. Many believers and conservative scholars maintain that the Gospel of John, the first, second and third letters of John, were authored by the apostle John despite the author’s name nowhere appearing in those texts.
It is of course the nature of religious history that people will believe it without necessarily having the kind of source-based authentication that generally historians are looking for. And so there is always a tension between what a religious tradition may say about the past and what the historian may say about the past. (Tom Holland, in John Cleary in conversation with Tom Holland, about 26 mins)
And so it goes. Tradition has assigned the name of John to the Gospel and three letters of the New Testament. Perversely, it may seem, the book that does claim to be written by John is one that critical scholars doubt came from the same pen as anything else attributed to John.
A study of the authorship of the Book of Revelation opens up a number of interesting methodological curiosities of New Testament scholarship. But for most part here I will set out the reasons why critical scholars widely believe the book of Revelation is not from the same author, or even “theological school”, responsible for the Gospel of John.
The Book of Revelation makes unambiguous claims about the identity of its author. It came from God via Jesus Christ who commanded John to write it all down:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John . . . .
I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,
Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.
And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;
And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;
And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.
And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:
I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter . . . .
The setting on the isle of Patmos and the identity of an author (or scribe) as a persecuted exile appropriately sets an atmosphere of fear and dread, relieved by a moment of seclusion to be with God alone and to receive his messages uninterrupted. He identifies himself as one of the saints who is being trodden under foot — another motif common to this genre of literature. This is all part of the literary conceit of another Daniel (or any persecuted visionary prophet) being pulled aside by God and struck down to humbly soak up the glories and mysteries of the heavenly realms that would leave lesser mortals dead. The setting is as much atmospherics as are the eyes like fire and the seven headed beast. Yet New Testament scholars will so often be found referring to the author being a persecuted exile on Patmos as if this were a veritable fact of history.
Before we discuss Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s views on the genre of the canonical gospels, I want to present two parables that I hope will drive home some basic concepts. A review of the recent scholarship on the subject reveals a distressing amount of misunderstanding here. I hope the following illustrations will help clarify two of Schmidt’s fundamental ideas.
Imagine for the moment that Richard Burridge has a younger brother, Bucky Burridge, who is an up-and-coming zoologist. One day while visiting an Australian museum of natural history, he comes face to face with a stuffed and mounted platypus. He has never seen a platypus before, and he is struck by its features. In many ways, it is like nothing he has ever seen, but after careful consideration, he believes he knows the proper classification of this so-called “mammal.”
Bucky hunts down the curator of the museum and asks for a few minutes of his time. “Did you know,” he asks the curator, “that you have classified a duck as a mammal?” The curator is confused, so Bucky drags him back to the exhibit of the platypus.
He points at the display case, tapping the glass. “The placard identifies this duck as a mammal!” says Bucky with a frown.
In the letters of Peregrinus there are some passages that concern his gospel. If, as I have proposed, he was an Apellean Christian, we can expect to find here too some rough-edged and clumsy corrections by his proto-Catholic editor/interpolator.
TO THE PHILADELPHIANS 8:2 – 9:2
8:2. But I exhort you to do nothing in a spirit of faction—instead, in accordance with the teachings of Christ. For I heard some saying, “If I do not find [in] the archives in the gospel I do not believe.” And when I said to them, “It is written,” they responded, “That is what is in question.”
But my archives are Jesus Christ; the inviolable archives are his cross, his death, his resurrection, and the faith which is through him. It is by these that I desire to be justified, with the help of your prayers.
[9:1. The priests are good, but better is the high priest who has been entrusted with the holy of holies; he alone has been entrusted with the secrets of God. He is himself the door of the Father, through which enter in Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and the prophets and the apostles and the church. All these combine in the unity of God.
The gospel has a distinction all its own, namely the appearing of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, his suffering and his resurrection.
[For the beloved prophets announced him, but the Gospel is the completion of imperishability. All these things are good, if you believe with love.]
It seems incredible that Christians would not believe in the gospel if it could not be located in the Old Testament, so scholars have proposed radical alterations to the text.
The above passage begins by relating part of an exchange the prisoner had with his Judaizing opponents. There is almost universal agreement that the “archives” in the second sentence refers to the Old Testament. And most scholars are in agreement as to the general sense of the verse: The Judaizers were Christians but insisted that the gospel meet some Old Testament-related requirement of theirs. But beyond that, there has been much debate about the punctuation and precise interpretation of the verse. The biggest problem is that at face value it seems to say that if the Judaizers’ requirement is not met they do not believe in the gospel.
It seems incredible that Christians would not believe in the gospel. So, to avoid such a radical interpretation, a number of alterations have been proposed.
Some have wanted to simply delete the words “in the gospel” as a later gloss. Others, to arrive at the same result by another route, argue that the verse in question contains implied words that are lost in a literal translation. William Schoedel for example, proposes that
“the object (‘it’) should be supplied in the second part of the sentence just as it is in the first. And something like the verb ‘to be’ (or ‘to be found’) can also easily be supplied” (Ignatius of Antioch, pp. 207-8).
Thus Schoedel’s translation is:
“If I do not find (it) in the archives, I do not believe (it to be) in the gospel.”
In this way the Judaizers are made to reject only those parts of the gospel that are not found in the Old Testament. Michael Goulder, for one, considers that solution “implausible” (“Ignatius’ ‘Docetists’” in Vigiliae Christianae, 53, p. 17, n. 4), but to Schoedel it is definitely preferable to accepting at face value the statement that the Judaizing Christians do not believe in the gospel.
Ultimately, the problem with identifying the genre of the synoptic gospels as Hellenistic biographies or Graeco-Roman histories is that these terms are insufficient to describe their form, genesis, and purpose.
Published in 1989 by SCM Press, Studying the Synoptic Gospels remains one of the best resources for learning about the first three books of the New Testament. Not a week goes by that I don’t take it off the shelf and refer to it. Sanders and Davies cover most of the important subjects related to synoptic studies, and they do it in an engaging and evenhanded manner. Each subject receives appropriate coverage, with suggested “further readings” that can take you even deeper.
Studying the Synoptic Gospels treats the question of genre quite seriously, devoting one chapter for each gospel. The chapter on Matthew for example, continues for 14 pages, touching on its various features — how it resembles different forms of known, contemporaneous literature, how it uses the traditional material, etc. In the end, the authors conclude:
The most satisfactory definition of the genre is ‘a theodicy about the creation and recreation (see palingenesia, ‘new world’, 19.28) which is centered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.’ (p. 264, italics original)
The authors contend that although in some ways Matthew’s gospel resembles a βίος (bios), it also has some striking differences, and in the end, it is a wholly inadequate description. Mark has even less in common with ancient literary biographies. They write:
The form of the Second Gospel is, however, even less like a Hellenistic biography than that of Matthew. It does not begin with birth stories, and, if 16.8 is the original ending, it is quite without parallel. (p. 267, bold original)
The authors grant that Luke has even more in common with Hellenistic biographies than the first two gospels.
It is fair to say that Luke-Acts could not have existed in its present form without knowledge of Graeco-Roman texts. . . . But, to return to the preface, the truth for which the work offers Theophilus assurance is not just the accurate reporting of past events, nor the discernment of patterns of history, nor the exact depiction of a holy community worthy of imitation or admiration, but the story of the creator God who repeatedly offers people salvation, through prophets, through Jesus and through his apostles, and whose sovereignty is about to be finally established by replacing the kingdom of Satan on earth with that of God. Historical motifs are swallowed up by eschatological, and history is understood from the perspective of creation and recreation.(p. 297, emphasis added)
Ultimately, the problem with identifying the genre of the synoptic gospels as Hellenistic biographies or Graeco-Roman histories is that these terms are insufficient to describe their form, genesis, and purpose.
The gospel is a variant of the ancient ‘life’, which was widespread in the non-Jewish world: the gospel is an ancient bios (a better term to use than ‘biography’), though a bios of an unusual kind. (p. 16, Nook edition, 2004, bold and color emphasis added)
Jerry raises the obvious social implications for this theses, including one that has particularly interested me for some years now — the foundations of our entire legal system, based as it is on the concept that lawbreakers/anti-social criminals are freely (consciously) responsible for their actions, and the requirement to punish for making decisions that cause harm.
On the other hand, the enforcing of rules with threats of punishments is a fundamental part of all social behaviour in probably all social species. Is it possible, or is it even really ethical, for us to be able to accept that our Jack the Rippers should be treated and cured — as opposed to punished — when caught? I hardly think so.
What will a social species do when or if it is eventually confronted with the evidence that the decisions of its members are somehow determined and concluded before those decisions register in the consciousness?
When I presented my first contention — that the real author of the Ignatians was Peregrinus — I argued that a proto-Catholic editor/interpolator later, probably around 200 CE, made changes to the letters to disguise Peregrinus’ authorship. To make the letters acceptable for use by his church he had to remove the apostate Peregrinus from them.
In the last two posts I have begun to argue my second contention:
That the branch of Christianity to which the author of the letters belonged was Apellean.
If this second contention is correct, it is to be expected that the proto-Catholic editor/interpolator had also to make some doctrinal modifications to the letters. For although Apellean beliefs, compared to those of Marcion, were definitely closer to those held by the proto-Catholics, some would have still been unacceptable, especially to the proto-Catholic church of the year 200. Doctrinal positions had hardened in the 50 years that had passed since Peregrinus wrote the letters. The church was becoming more dogmatic as is evidenced by the appearance of the so-called Apostles Creed sometime toward the end of the second century.
Thus the need for occasional interventions in the letters to make them safe for proto-Catholic consumption.
From this survey of the teaching of Apelles it can be seen how closely his doctrine matches the combination of beliefs exhibited by the author of the letters. The most straightforward way to account for this is to conclude that their author, Peregrinus, was an Apellean.
In my previous post I called attention to the assortment of unusual beliefs held by the author of the so-called Ignatian letters. That assortment and the description of his Judaizing and docetic opponents have convinced me that he was a follower of Apelles, and that the churches he addressed in his letters were Apellean.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with that little-known early Christian and his sect I will start by reviewing what the extant record says about them.
Apelles, the founder of the Apelleans, was at first a disciple of Marcion. If, as is thought, he was born early in the second century, he could have been Marcion’s disciple as early as the 120s, assuming Marcion was already actively proselytizing at that time. It is not known how long Apelles was associated with Marcion, but at some point he broke with him and adopted doctrinal positions that were at odds with those of his teacher. Tertullian says the break was sparked by Apelles’ rejection of Marcion’s rigorist teaching regarding celibacy:
Apelles . . . deserted Marcionite chastity and withdrew from the presence of his most holy master to Alexandria. Returning after some years, he was in no way improved except he was no longer a Marcionite. (On the Prescription of Heretics, 7).
Their differences went beyond the issue of celibacy, however, and the split was likely not an amicable one. Apelles abandoned Marcion’s dualism and returned to belief in one supreme God. He repudiated Marcion’s docetism, emphatically insisting on the real and non-phantasmal nature of Christ’s body. From Marcion’s canon he retained only the Apostolicon, replacing Marcion’s Gospel with one of his own. He did continue to view the Old Testament negatively, and in a way his position in regard to it is, as will be seen, even more negative than Marcion’s. But on the other hand, Origen concedes that Apelles
did not entirely deny that the Law and the Prophets were of God (Commentary on Titus).
In breaking with Marcion, Apelles adopted new beliefs that unquestionably moved him closer to doctrinal positions held by the proto-Catholics, but his new beliefs still differed from theirs in significant ways. No complete exposition of his teaching has survived. Tertullian wrote a treatise against the Apelleans but it is no longer extant. However, the early record does contain enough information to permit at least a partial reconstruction of what Apelles taught. Elements can be found in the following:
Tertullian’s On the Flesh of Christ, On the Prescription of Heretics, On the Soul, and an extant fragment of Against the Apelleans (Migne’s Patrologia Latina, 42, 30, n. 1)
II. THE AUTHOR OF THE LETTERS WAS AN APELLEAN CHRISTIAN
In my previous posts I have presented my case for identifying Peregrinus as the real author of the so-called Ignatian letters. That case—if I may say so myself—is a strong one. And going forward, when I speak of the author of those letters it should be understood that I am referring to Peregrinus.
I want now to continue on to the second part of my theory and identify, from other passages in the letters, the branch of Christianity that was his.
To make that identification it is indeed the letters and not TDOP that must be examined, for Lucian simply calls Peregrinus a Christian. If he is aware that there were different types of Christians he doesn’t show it. He does not devote much of his treatise to what Christians believe, and the only Christian beliefs he mentions are ones that would apply to many of the various types:
They still worship the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. . . The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. (TDOP 11 & 13, Harmon)
The unique assortment of beliefs expressed in the letters can be closely matched with the known beliefs of one particular Christian church that existed in that same time period.
In contrast to TDOP, the seven letters provide information about their author’s beliefs that is more detailed. And the letters show that he and his confreres subscribed to many beliefs that were not held by proto-Catholic Christians, at least not in the combination that is found in the letters. I think the distinctive combination of those beliefs can reveal to which brand of Christianity Peregrinus adhered. The original letters, assuming I am correct in my identification of Peregrinus as their author, were written sometime between 130 and 150 CE, for based on the information provided by TDOP the arrest of Peregrinus almost certainly fell within that period. I will argue that the unique assortment of beliefs expressed in the letters can in fact be closely matched with the known beliefs of one particular Christian church that existed in that same time period.
‘ But I have been looking at scholarly arguments that maintain Paul’s letters were, indeed, carefully crafted works of theological instructions that were composed in the form of occasional correspondence. ‘
Why did Paul need to write letters? We already know that oral tradition was enough to answer questions by Christians about whether Jesus had turned the water into wine in Galilee or in Jerusalem, and to answer Christian questions about who exactly the 12 disciples were and to answer Christian questions about what Jesus had preached about divorce.
But strangely, as soon as it comes to answering Christian questions about practice in churches or all the other problems that Paul had to deal with, these oral channels suddenly become unavailable, and Paul has to write letters answering these questions. Those problems could not be dealt with by oral transmission.
And as soon as Christians stop asking questions about practice in churches or other stuff Paul deals with, and start to ask questions about what Jesus had told people to pray and whether or not Jesus had preached about giving tithes, these oral channels open up again, and Paul has no longer a need to write letters. Those problems could be dealt with by oral transmission.
This post inaugurates what I hope will be a long-running, informative (albeit tongue-in-cheek) series. In it, we’ll attempt to shine some light on the inner workings of the New Testament scholar’s brain.
There is no reason to doubt . . .
New Testament scholars fall back on stock phrases when they’re pushing a weak argument, presenting poor evidence, or stating an opinion as fact. Ironically, the stock phrases they pull out of the old filing cabinet usually have the opposite effect from what they intended. That is, they draw attention to the problem.
We might call this the Oz Distraction Disorder (ODD), as in: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” It could be an act of desperation, or perhaps it’s a subconscious thing. Maybe they want us to figure it out, much as Bugs Bunny purposely drew attention to the bank robbers he’d stashed in the gas stove.
One of the most common ODD phrases is: “There is no reason to doubt . . .” (TINRTD) Whenever you see this phrase, you should be on the lookout — the author is probably about to describe something you ought to doubt. We’re apparently supposed to shut off the skeptical parts of our brains when we hear this magic formula, triggering a kind of post-hypnotic suggestion.
So far I have called attention to the many similarities between Peregrinus and the author of the so-called Ignatians.
Failed explanations for the similarities
I have explained that, to account for the similarities, it is not enough to simply claim that Lucian, for his portrait of Peregrinus, probably borrowed from Ignatius.
It is not enough, for instance,
to say with William Schoedel that “Lucian (as Lightfoot and others have suggested) probably had Ignatius in mind when he wrote the following concerning Peregrinus: ‘They say that he sent letters to almost all the famous cities more or less as testaments, counsels, and laws; and he appointed … certain of his companions as ambassadors. . . for the purpose, calling them messengers of the dead and couriers of the shades . . . ” (Ignatius of Antioch, p. 279). . . .
Or to say with Allen Brent that “Lucian, as he describes Peregrinus, endows him with many of the characteristics of Ignatius as typical of an imprisoned Christian martyr.” (Ignatius of Antioch – A Martyr Bishop and the origin of the Episcopacy, p. 50).
That explanation doesn’t work. That kind of borrowing by Lucian would only have compromised his ridicule of Peregrinus. He couldn’t have expected to convincingly expose Peregrinus by substituting a lot of characteristics from someone else, especially when he was writing so soon after the demise of his target. People would have noticed that his portrait was false.
More convincing explanations
But I have also now shown that the letters themselves contain puzzling features that point to a different explanation for the similarities. The similarities exist because the letters were in fact written by Peregrinus, but the puzzles exist because changes were later made to the letters to disguise his authorship.
Fortunately, with help from TDOP, enough telltale traces of the true provenance of the letters remain so that the puzzles can be solved.
Authorship by Peregrinus provides a more convincing reason for the urgency of the request that Ambassadors of God be sent from Asia to Antioch.
And that request for Asian Ambassadors matches up with the presence of Asian delegates in Syria who, according to Lucian, helped, defended and encouraged Peregrinus.
My theory also provides a more convincing reason for the request that a most God-pleasing council be convoked.
And it can plausibly reconstruct the circumstances of Peregrinus’ arrest and detect the route that was originally in the letters.
It can give a definite meaning to the otherwise vague expression “May I have the joy of you.”
Moreover the theory can explain, for instance, why the name of Polycarp is not found in the letter to the Smyrneans, but is found awkwardly lodged in another letter.
And why, for instance, only in the so-called letter to Rome is there no mention of a bishop, presbyters and deacons.
And it can explain the ‘filtering out’ that has occurred in the church addressed by that letter.
Other lesser anomalies find similarly satisfying solutions.
And, of course, since Peregrinus at some point became an apostate, there is an overall plausible reason why a later Christian would have needed to disguise the letters if he wanted to use them.
Second Century Witness — or Lack Thereof — to an Ignatius of Antioch