Monthly Archives: January 2014

Jesus Forgotten: Faulty Memory or No Memory?

We have deep depth.*

In a recent interview focused on Jesus mythicism, Dale Allison said:

Re memory: My wife and I disagree about our memories all the time. About things that happened years ago, months ago, weeks ago, days ago, or hours ago. It happens so often that it’s a standing joke, and we’ve reconciled ourselves to the fact that, when there is no third witness, we can’t figure out who is right and who is wrong. Heck, sometimes we both must be wrong. But we’re not mythographers, because what we are almost always misremembering is related to something that happened. It’s faulty memory, not no memory. (emphasis mine)

Dale Allison
Dale Allison

He likens the issue of reliable memory in Jesus studies to the problem of how Socrates was remembered differently by his contemporaries. But Socrates, he asserts, still existed. He then likens the problem of the historical reliability of the New Testament to a court case. (I refer to Neil’s recent post on the Criterion of Embarrassment as to why a court case is a terrible example.)

It’s also worth thinking about conflicting testimony in court. When people disagree on their recollections of an accident or crime scene, we don’t conclude there was no accident or no crime. We just say that memories are frail and then try to find the true story behind the disagreements. I’ve argued in Constructing Jesus that we can try a similar approach with the sources for him.

That concept — finding “the true story behind the disagreements” — leads us to the notion that the gospels (and Paul) provide the gist of the stories about Jesus. They can tell us, Allison imagines, what Jesus was really like, even if the details have been changed over time because of our “frail” memory.

English: New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra i...
English: New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra in a 1956 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s like déjà vu all over again.*

As our pal McGrath wrote:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

Or as Yogi Berra put it:

I really didn’t say everything I said.

I’d like to believe that Yogi really said most of the things he said, but I also know that we humans love our myths. And one of my favorite myths is that Yogi is some sort of unwitting Zen master who spontaneously utters cryptic, timeless Yogi-isms: nuggets of wisdom wrapped in apparent nonsense.
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O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #9: Josephus, 1 – Dave Fitzgerald on the Testimonium

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate

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Tim O’Neill (TO) expresses a most worthy ideal in an exchange with David Fitzgerald (DF):

What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis . . . (O’Neill, 2013)

One would expect to find in TO’s review of DF’s book, Nailed!, therefore, at the very least, an honest acknowledgement of arguments in that book. Unfortunately anyone reading TO’s review would have no idea of DF’s overall argument on any point TO chooses to address.

Since I began these posts taking the trouble to expose TO’s bluff, ignorance and pretentious nonsense, the good man himself has responded by saying my posts are “nitpicking” and symptoms of a man “obsessed with him”. I can only smile with contentment over a job done reasonably well if that’s the best his vanity can muster in his defence.

Now it’s time to address TO’s criticism of DF’s discussion of the evidence of Josephus for the historicity of Jesus. This will take a few posts to complete. Let’s begin the way any honest reviewer of a work should always begin — that is, set out the arguments of the author one is reviewing. Since TO forgot this step I will outline the first of DF’s points here, and then we will compare TO’s initial critique.

I hope that these posts will have more value than they might if they were nothing more than responses to TO’s nonsense. Hopefully issues and arguments will be raised that some readers will find informative for their own sake.

DF’s chapter 3 is titled “Myth No. 3: Josephus Wrote About Jesus”. The first passage he addresses is the famous “Testimonium Flavianum” from book 18 of the Jewish historian’s Antiquities of the Jews. It translates as:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.

He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles.

He was (the) Christ.

And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.

And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. read more »

Ending of the Gospel of Mark (16:8) — ANNOTATED INDEX

I’ve added a new page in the side-bar:

IN DEPTH ARCHIVES, Annotated

This is the start of an attempt to gradually go over old Vridar posts and get them organized in some useful manner. We’ll see how it goes. It won’t be completed overnight, though. I’ll keep updating the “updated date” notice each time I add something new. The following post is now in the archives. read more »

Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment?

Dr McGrath posts a brief comment on the criterion of embarrassment at Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment? He makes the following statement that I believe strikes at the core of the methodological flaw in scholarly inquiries into the historical Jesus and Christian origins:

As with a trial in a courtroom, the fact that flawed deductions are sometimes drawn does not mean that the methods we use ought to be discarded. Doing our best with evidence, reason, and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything that has to do with the past. Wouldn’t you agree?

The courtroom analogy is a false one. Courtroom trials deal with known historical events. Something bad happened to someone. The only questions are ones such as “who did it?” and “why?” The courtroom analogy begs the question of historicity.

The next sentence sets up another fallacy — the false dilemma. It goes without saying that “doing our best with evidence, reason and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything”. Of course I agree and everyone else does, too. The question is rhetorical and falsely portrays the alternative as unreasonable silliness.

The core question is summed up perfectly by Todd Penner in his In Praise of Christian Origins when he wrote of the Stephen episode in the book of Acts:

Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.

The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises. read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 8: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel (continued)

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In the previous post of the series I proposed that the Vision of Isaiah was the source of Simon/Paul’s gospel.

This post will look at the place in the Vision that contains the major difference between the two branches of its textual tradition. Obviously, at least one of the readings is not authentic. But, as I will show, there are good reasons to think that neither reading was part of the original.

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Refer to the previous post for brief discussion of the various Latin and Greek, Ethiopic and Slavonic manuscript versions of the Ascension.
Refer to the previous post for brief discussion of the various Latin and Greek, Ethiopic and Slavonic manuscript versions of the Ascension.

The passages in question are located in chapter 11 of the Vision. In the L2 and S versions the Lord’s mission in the world is presented by a single sentence:

2… And I saw one like a son of man, and he dwelt with men in the world, and they did not recognize him.

In place of this the Ethiopic versions have 21 verses, 17 of which are devoted to a miraculous birth story:

2 And I saw a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name (was) Mary, and she (was) a virgin and was betrothed to a man whose name (was) Joseph, a carpenter, and he also (was) of the seed and family of the righteous David of Bethlehem in Judah. 3 And he came into his lot. And when she was betrothed, she was found to be pregnant, and Joseph the carpenter wished to divorce her. 4 But the angel of the Spirit appeared in this world, and after this Joseph did not divorce Mary; but he did not reveal this matter to anyone. 5 And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant. 6 And he did not live with her for two months.

7 And after two months of days, while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone, 8 it came about, when they were alone, that Mary then looked with her eyes and saw a small infant, and she was astounded. 9 And after her astonishment had worn off, her womb was found as (it was) at first, before she had conceived. 10 And when her husband, Joseph, said to her, “What has made you astounded?” his eyes were opened, and he saw the infant and praised the Lord, because the Lord had come in his lot.

11 And a voice came to them, “Do not tell this vision to anyone.” 12 But the story about the infant was spread abroad in Bethlehem.

13 Some said, “The virgin Mary has given birth before she has been married two months.” 14 But many said, “She did not give birth; the midwife did not go up (to her), and we did not hear (any) cries of pain.” And they were all blinded concerning him; they all knew about him, but they did not know from where he was.

15 And they took him and went to Nazareth in Galilee. 16 And I saw, O Hezekiah and Josab my son, and say to the other prophets also who are standing by, that it was hidden from all the heavens and all the princes and every god of this world. 17 And I saw (that) in Nazareth he sucked the breast like an infant, as was customary, that he might not be recognized.

18 And when he had grown up, he performed great signs and miracles in the land of Israel and (in) Jerusalem.

19 And after this the adversary envied him and roused the children of Israel, who did not know who he was, against him. And they handed him to the ruler, and crucified him, and he descended to the angel who (is) in Sheol. 20 In Jerusalem, indeed, I saw how they crucified him on a tree, 21 and likewise (how) after the third day he and remained (many) days. 22 And the angel who led me said to me, “Understand, Isaiah.” And I saw when he sent out the twelve disciples and ascended.

(M. A. Knibb, “Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J.H. Charlesworth, pp. 174-75.)

One Substitution or Two?

Most scholars think the L2 and S version of the Lord’s earthly mission is far too brief to be original. The foreshadowing in the Vision expects some emphasis on the Beloved assuming human form as well as some story of crucifixion” (p. 483, n. 56). But instead L2 and S give us what looks like some kind of Johannine-inspired one-line summary: “he dwelt with men in the world” (cf. Jn. 1:14). Those who think the Ethiopic reading represents the original see the L2 and S verse as a terse substitution inserted by someone who considered the original to be insufficiently orthodox.

But from the recognition that 11:2 of the L2/S branch is a sanitized substitute, it does not necessarily follow that 11:2-22 in the Ethiopic versions is authentic. That passage too is rejected by some (e.g., R. Laurence, F.C. Burkitt). And although most are inclined to accept it as original, they base that inclination on the primitive character of its birth narrative. Thus, for example, Knibb says “the primitive character of the narrative of the birth of Jesus suggests very strongly that the Eth[iopic version] has preserved the original form of the text” (“Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J.H. Charlesworth, p. 150)

Robert G. Hall
Robert G. Hall

It is true that the Vision’s birth narrative, when compared to those in GMatthew and GLuke, looks primitive. But there are good grounds for thinking that the original Vision did not have a birth narrative at all. A later substitution is still a later substitution even if it is a birth narrative that is inserted and its character is primitive compared to subsequent nativity stories. Robert G. Hall sensed this and in a footnote wrote:

Could the virgin birth story have been added after the composition of the Ascension of Isaiah? Even if we conclude that this virgin birth story was added later, the pattern of repetition in the Vision probably implies that the omission of 11:1-22 in L2 and Slav is secondary. The foreshadowing expects some emphasis on the Beloved assuming human form as well as some story of crucifixion. Could the story original to the text have offended both the scribe behind L2 Slav and the scribe behind the rest of the witnesses? The scribe behind the Ethiopic would then have inserted the virgin birth story and the scribe behind L2 Slav would have omitted the whole account. The virgin birth story is, however, very old and perhaps it is best not to speculate. (“Isaiah’s Ascent to See the Beloved: An Ancient Jewish Source for the Ascension of Isaiah?,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 113/3, 1994, n. 56, p. 483, my bolding)

I agree that both the E and L2/S readings at 11:2 could be replacement passages, but I think Hall’s advice not to speculate should be disregarded, for it is his very observations about the Vision that provide some good reasons to suspect that 11:2-22 did not belong to the original text. It is he who points out that foreshadowing and repetition characterize the Vision—except when it comes to the birth story! read more »

Acts 1-7 as Creative Literature, not History — Illustrated

InPraiseChnOrigns2I’ve been preoccupied with catching up with what certain New Testament scholars have writing about the way ancient Greek and Roman authors wrote history and the relevance this has for how we interpret Acts and the Gospels and what they can tell us about Christian origins. This all started after I began reading and posting on some works from the Acts Seminar. One work has led to another and back again and I think I’m ready to resume.

In an earlier post I quoted something written by Dr Todd Penner that encapsulated a conclusion I have been persuaded to reach not only about one episode in Acts but about the entirety of Acts also about the Gospels:

There is nothing in Acts 7 to suggest that there lies behind them anything but an adept ancient writer, someone extremely well-versed in Jewish traditions and styles of rewriting the biblical story.

The narrative portions of Acts 6:1-8:3 leave one with the same impression.

Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.

The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises.

Attempts by Hengel and others to intuit their way behind the stories aside, the unit is too tightly knit to allow one to go beyond what is given in the narrative itself. If the dominant view in Acts scholarship is that one can separate out the core historical events from the Lukan redaction, this study argues for the futility of such attempts. (In Praise of Christian Origins, pp. 331-332, my formatting and bolding)

Dr Penner covers a lot of ground, surveying ancient commentaries on what made for good and bad writing of historia/history. I cannot cover any of that in this post. What is particularly significant about his argument, for me, is the assumptions and logic he brings to his reading of Acts. He takes readers back through a time tunnel to show them the origin of modern scholarly assumptions that Acts is fundamentally (beneath all its fantastical tales of miracles and romantic adventures) based on historical sources. If we read “beneath” the text then we will begin to glimpse genuine historical data related to Christian origins.

In so doing he leaves the alert reader with the awareness that the a priori assumption of historicity cannot be justified. At the same time, being able to explain narrative details in terms of literary artifice does not mean that they are not also, at some level, based on genuine historical events. What we are left with, however, is an explanation that does work and that can be justified (the creative literary one), and the question of historicity left hanging. Readers who approach Acts with Christian faith need not be alarmed.

As I read Penner’s arguments I wondered if he would be prepared to apply his same pertinent critical questions to the Gospels. As far as I can see there is no reason to confine his approach to Acts.

Not yet, but scholars like Thomas L. Thompson, Neils Peter Lemche, Philip Davies have demonstrated the literary (non-historical) character of much of the Old Testament, and a few have now published similar arguments about Acts. Surely, eventually, the methods applied in these instances will have to catch up one day with our analysis of the Gospels.

As I was reading Penner’s In Praise of Christian Origins I was imagining illustrative diagrams that would capture some of the multilayered complexity of the author’s literary creativity. I’ve added the result below. read more »

Genre of Gospels, Acts and OT Primary History: INDEX

Genre can be a highly fluid concept. In studies of Gospels I’ve noticed that discussions of genre sometimes overlap with intertextuality. Moreover, we may conclude that an ancient narrative belongs to the genre “history”, but once we learn what “history” could mean to the ancients we quickly move into discussions about the place of fictional tales in such works. Midrash is another concept that easily intrudes into any discussion of the genre of the gospels.

By genre here I mean the general character of a work, whether it be history or biography, prose epic or novella — or at least the rough ancient equivalents of those. Questions of intertextuality (and its sister midrash) I have relegated to techniques of how certain literature was composed regardless of its genre.  Nonetheless I am sure I have succumbed to some blurring of the concept in the list chosen below.

Posts by Tim Widowfield are so indicated. All others are by me.

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Genre of Bible’s Historical Books

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The “Born of a Woman” / Galatians 4:4 INDEX

Proper indexing of my posts has fallen behind. One small step towards correcting this has been to collate all Vridar posts that have dealt with Galatians 4:4 and the famous “born of a woman” phrase.

First I list persons whose various views have been presented here. Then . . .  well, you can see how the list is structured.

If you want to know what my own view on the passage is then I can only say I am not dogmatic on any position. Even the absence of the text from Tertullian’s rebuttal of Marcion’s copy of Galatians is not necessarily decisive given that the word translated “born” could even more validly be rendered “made”. That is, Tertullian may have ignored the passage because it potentially favoured a docetic interpretation. See the Ehrman entry below for details.

Nonetheless, I do strongly favour the view that the expression is, as Hoffmann himself once wrote, “the language of myth”. No-one but a poet or a theologian explains that so-and-so “was born of a woman”! If anything in this context it is a credal statement. And if it’s a credal statement then it is not the quotidian data New Testament scholars like McGrath and Hurtado (and now Hoffmann) insist is evidence for a fact of history.

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Paul-Louis Couchoud

2012-01-22

Epistle to the Galatians — Couchoud’s view  

This post makes special reference to Couchoud’s article (in which he says that Gal 4:4 is an echo from the Gospel of Luke’s first chapters to counter Marcion’s view of Christ) posted in full on Herman Detering’s site:

“And again in a passage about the descent of Christ he includes a profession of faith in the birth of Christ in the flesh as a Jew among Jews. Gal. 4 : 4:

“God sent his Son,
to redeem those under law.”

Between those two lines he interpolates: “born of a woman, born under the law,”, a line which comes from the same current as the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke.

Christ’s birth in the flesh stands in contradiction to the passages that proclaim his celestial, not terrestrial birth, e.g. to 1 Cor. 15 : 45; 47 . . . .”

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“Born of a Woman” — Sober Scholarship Questioning the Authenticity of Galatians 4:4

J. C. O’Neill (1930-2004) was a well respected critical scholar with some controversial views and always offering stimulating argument. Possibly the most controversial was his Who Did Jesus Think He Was? in which he argued that Jesus did believe he was the Messiah and that even the doctrine of the Trinity could be detected in the Gospels. He also wrote The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (1972). In that work he found himself forced to conclude that the passage declaring Jesus was “born of a woman” was not original to Paul. This should be quite a surprise to anyone who has encountered scholars scoffing at any doubts about the historical existence of Jesus because the passage in Galatians averring that Jesus was “born of a woman” is invariably declared to be iron-clad evidence that Paul had good reason to know that Jesus was, well, born of a woman. Presumably these scholars are convinced that no-one would ever suggest a fictive person would have come into the world by means of a birth or that the gender through whom he was born would be female.

Authority of the epistle remains

But don’t let me misrepresent J.C. O’Neill. Though O’Neill believed Galatians was riddled with “interpolations” he nonetheless hoped that his analysis would

clear the way for a fresh conviction that Paul was in fact an apostle of the Son of God. (p. 13 — my bolding and formatting in all quotations)

If our final text of Galatians was not entirely Paul’s original writing then the authority of the whole letter was only minimally affected as far as the Church is concerned:

This book (“The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians”) should make it easier to accord to Paul the authority due to him, and also make it easier to accord to the later theologians (i.e. those responsible for the interpolations and glosses in Galatians) the lesser authority due to them for their insights into the doctrinal consequences of the apostle’s teaching. (p. 13)

Cannot return to the older approach

English: Baruch de Spinoza (1632 -1677)
Baruch de Spinoza

O’Neill may have been true to what we might see as a conservative faith, but was also true to critical principles in the study of the Scriptures.

We cannot simply return to the older approach; we are bound to accept Spinoza and Locke for, whether we like it or not, we are heirs of the whole modern awareness of history. We must, at all costs, discover what Paul himself wrote, and we must discover, as precisely as we can, the history of the text of his epistles, from the time they were received by those he first addressed until the time when they were gathered together, in a more or less fixed form, into the Christian canon. (p. 12)

Spinoza? Locke?

SPINOZA LOCKE
“The universal rule . . . in interpreting Scripture is to accept nothing as an authoritative Scriptural statement which we do not perceive very clearly when we examine it in the light of its history.” Paul must have been “a coherent, argumentative, pertinent Writer; and Care, I think, should be taken, in expounding of him, to show that he is so.”
The “history” of a scriptural statement comprises:

— nature of its original language
— analysis of a book and its arrangement
— background of the book: author, occasion, reception.

The starting point for studying Paul is therefore to read the epistles through from beginning to end many times to see the coherence of the argument.
Portrait of John Locke.
John Locke.

Why think there are any interpolations at all?

Why can we not assume that the text we have was all Paul’s to begin with? J. C. O’Neill explains why: read more »

Earliest Christians fulfil Plato’s Utopia

The following is not an argument in itself for Luke’s imitation of the utopian community in Plato’s Republic but it does provide the raw materials for such an argument. In another post I plan to elaborate on explanations for the points in common between the earliest Christians in Acts and Plato’s description of the guardians in his ideal state. Hint: they have to do with the relatively recent advances in studies of the way ancient authors imitated master-works and re-wrote them through a process we call “intertextuality”.

Community-early-Christians
Laurent De La Hyre, Community of the first Christians

The table comes from “The Summaries of Acts 2, 4, and 5 and Plato’s Republic” by Rubén Dupertuis, a chapter in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. After the table I Dupertuis suggests that several inconsistencies in the Acts narrative may be explained most simply if the author was emulating the narrative of the ideal society led by Plato’s philosopher-kings. Traditional explanations for these inconsistencies have suggested the author was switching sources and/or not concerned about consistency. I’ll also cover these explanations in a future post.

First, have another look at those utopian summaries of the first Church. All quotations are from the 21st Century King James Version:

Acts 2:42-47

42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and in prayers.

43 And fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common,

45 and they sold their possessions and goods and divided them among all men, as every man had need.

46 And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,

47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Acts 4:32-35

32 And the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any one of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.

33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

34 Neither was there any among them that lacked, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold

35 and laid them down at the apostles’ feet. And distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

Acts 5:12-16

12 And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people, and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch.

13 But of the rest, no man dared join himself to them, but the people magnified them.

14 And more believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women,

15 insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.

16 There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks and those who were vexed with unclean spirits; and they were healed, every one.

Dupertuis concludes his discussion on context, structure, terminology, density of parallels, with the following summary tables:

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Support of the Guardians / Apostles

[table “” not found /]

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O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #8.5: Who did make it into the historical record?

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate

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I have been neglecting to include David Fitzgerald’s (DF) own responses to some of Tim O’Neill’s (TO) diatribes against Nailed. Let’s make amends here. After all, TO did post a reply last year to DF’s response, so it’s only reasonable to see how the debate went. My own weariness with addressing TO’s rhetoric is also showing. I stated earlier that I intended to point out some of the small fry personalities that are recorded in our sources, making it doubly mysterious why Jesus should not have gained any attention, and it is time I kept my kept my promise. (Will do Josephus in the next post.)

TO skips around DF’s response above by saying all these other would-be messiahs are irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant to TO is that DF has been caught out on a semantic trap. The details were covered in Part 5 — clicking HERE will take you directly to the relevant section headed Manipulator or Debater. In that section we see how TO ignores the clear argument of DF and instead directs his readers to DFs initial ambiguous wording, and in 2013 he simply repeats his same tactic:

But the flaw in Fitzgerald’s argument does not lie in the lack of “would-be messiahs”. As he says, I listed plenty of those. What Fitzgerald skips around here is that the problem lies with the complete lack of these alleged (dare I say it mythical) “plenty” or even “scores” of writers who mention these other figures but fail to mention Jesus. He claims these writers exist and then backs that claim up with … nothing.

Never argue a substantive point if you can find an ambiguity in the original wording that you can twist for your own advantage. Of course DF “backs that claim up with …. nothing” because it is clear to anyone reading the book that he makes no such claim and TO’s entire rebuttal is based on an interpretation that goes against the grain of DF’s entire argument.

DF writes (2012) in response to the points TO made in his 2011 review:

. . . . O’Neill makes my point for me. He proceeds to name a few would-be messiahs from the first century:

  • Athronges (Athronges the Shepherd);
  • the unnamed Samaritan Taheb/messiah;
  • Theudas (also known as Theudas the Magician) . . . .:
  • and “the Egyptian” another failed Jewish messiah . . .

In actuality, as I alluded to in the section he quoted, there are many more loser messiahs and messiah-like figures that he could also have brought up:

  • Simon of Peraea,
  • Judas of Galilee,
  • John the Baptist,
  • Simon Magus/Simon of Gitta,
  • Yeshua ben Hananiah,
  • Jonathan the Weaver,
  • Apollonius of Tyana,
  • Carabbas,
  • Simon bar-Giora and still more.

(And if you’re interested, I do go into more detail on many of them in “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?”) None of these failed messiahs, prophets and rabble-rousers succeeded anywhere near as well as our Jesus of Nazareth. But every one of these loser messiahs did beat Jesus on one crucial matter: all of them managed to leave a trace in the contemporary historical record – so why couldn’t Jesus? If O’Neill is right, the real Jesus was just “small fry” and his exploits and supposedly radical new teachings were ignored by history for his entire life – actually, for over a century. But if that’s so, O’Neill (or rather, those historians whom he’s parroting) can’t explain what for me is the central paradox of the Historical Jesus:

Either: he did and said all these amazing, earthshaking things – and no one noticed.

Or: he was just one more failed messiah of the early first century – and yet after his death, a fringe cult springs up, scattered all across the Roman Empire from Spain to the Egyptian Desert to Asia Minor, made up of bickering house churches that can’t agree about the most fundamental basics of his life and teachings.

This oft-encountered “Stealth Messiah” approach to the problem simply doesn’t hold up. (DF:2012 My formatting and bolding)

None of this is addressed by TO. He repeats (2013) his “gotcha” argument over the ambiguity of DF’s wording when he spoke about “many writers” and tells readers that all of the supposed would-be messiahs in the historical record attracted attention because they were responsible for major military confrontation with Roman armies. So let’s look at a few of these and compare with the record for Jesus.

Comparison with Athronges the Shepherd-King

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O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #8: Why should anyone have noticed Jesus?

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.

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What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis . . . . (O’Neill, 2013)

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Tim O’Neill (TO) repeats, and repeats again and again in both 2011 and 2013, another common apologist mantra in his review of David Fitzgerald’s Nailed: Why would any Greek or Roman or even Jewish author have even noticed Jesus, let alone have bothered to write about him? After all, Jesus was just another nobody Jewish peasant and miracle worker — they were a dime a dozen — and this one was, even worse, in the “backblocks of Galilee”. Why, no-one apart from Josephus even mentions much more politically significant Jewish figures (various Jewish rebels) — (not true, as we saw in an earlier post) — so why would a Jewish peasant who didn’t even lead an armed rebellion against Rome have attracted any notice?

As I explained earlier, I have struck out some of TOs manipulative language and substituted more civil terms. In an effort to make an honest man of TO I have also struck out some blatant falsehoods and substituted statements that are verifiable.

  • Given that these historians make no mention of any other Jewish peasant preachers or miracle workers, it is hard to see why Fitzgerald thinks they should have done so with this one. As for things like his entry into Jerusalem, his trial and his crucifixion, it is equally difficult to see why they would be more than a one day wonder even locally. Why Fitzgerald thinks such minor events would be the talk of the whole Empire is a mystery. (2011)
  • A chanting crowd greeting his entrance to Jerusalem, a trial that no-one witnessed and a run-of-the-mill execution are hardly big news compared to mass movements that required the mobilisation of troops and pitched battles. Yet how many other historians so much as mention Athronges, the Samaritan, Theudas or the Egyptian? None. (2011)
  • Like many Mythers [Christ Myth theorists], he seems to think that the lack of any contemporary reference to Jesus is somehow a particularly telling point . . . (2011)
  • But in every case his argument suffers from the same fatal flaw: given that none of these writers mention any other Jewish preachers, prophets and Messianic claimants, there is absolutely no reason to think they “should” have mentioned Jesus. (2011)
  • None of his writers mention any such figures for the same reason they do not mention Jesus: because these writers had no interest in any such Jewish preachers and prophets. (2011)
  • Like most Mythicists, Fitzgerald attempts to make an argument from silence to support the idea that Jesus did not exist. These arguments usually boil down to this:
    • 1. Jesus is not mentioned by {insert First Century writer/writers here},
    • 2. {First Century writer/writers} should have mentioned Jesus if he existed,
    • 3. Therefore Jesus did not exist. (2013)
  • The key point to note here is that the weakness of the Mythicist argument from silence lies in its second premise: in order for the argument to work, it is not enough for the Mythicist to merely note that the writer/s in question don’t mention Jesus, but they have to also show they should have done so. That is slightly more tricky [and DF to his credit has managed to do just this]. This is why kooky Mythicist claims that, say, because Marcus Annaeus Lucanus [more than a dozen ancient names with an interest in the sorts of things Jesus was noted for, names listed below] makes no mention of Jesus he therefore didn’t exist [it is reasonable to ask why] are so utterly ridiculous. It is very difficult to show why a Roman poet from Spain whose sole remaining works are a single poem and a history of the war between Caesar and Pompey (in the century before Jesus was even born!) “should” have mentioned Jesus when he shows zero interest in Jewish affairs and makes no mention of any other Jewish preachers, prophets, wonder workers or Messianic claimants [so it should be noted that DF makes no such assertion and my example here is merely a cheap shot presented as a silly substitute for the many pertinent examples of authors DF does list and explain. I have no intention of mentioning any of the names he uses to make his case lest anyone think he might have a case after all]. (2013)
  • This [DF’s supposedly “inferred claim” that there were scores of writers who spoke of failed messiahs — see part 5] is because they don’t exist and his claim is complete garbage [flawed — if one ignores the Roman historian exceptions who do indeed mention some messianic hopefuls and whom I completely forgot about]. Which means his whole argument collapses. . . . . (2013)
  • And these people [Christ Myth theorists like DF, at no time I know,] pretend [have ever claimed] they can’t get taken seriously by real scholars because of some vast academic conspiracy [– we all know people like DF are not “conspiracy theorists” and that they do no more than point to the fundamental conservatism of the academy as explicitly addressed often enough by their own peers: Crossley, Hoffmann, Avalos . . . ]. Any rational person can see that someone like Fitzgerald can’t [can] be taken seriously because he can’t [can and does] back up his claims and keep his key arguments from collapsing in a heap. [My] Bluster doesn’t obscure[s the] basic [arguments that DF has presented — and I think I have done a good job of suppressing them completely with my bluster. No reader of my review would have the slightest notion of his real case.] incompetence. (2013)

In case you didn’t get TO’s message:

  • There was nothing distinctive about the public acts of Jesus so we should not expect any contemporary to have noticed him
  • Other writers had no interest in any Jewish preachers and miracle-workers anyway — so why would they have noticed Jesus?

read more »

Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation

Some New Testament scholars have difficulty with the term “midrash”. Goulder stopped using it because of this, though his student Spong has not followed his lead here. I continue to use the term as generally as Spong does because Jewish scholars themselves, especially a number who are specialists in midrashic and Jewish literary studies, use it the same way as Spong and likewise refer to the Gospels as examples of midrashic literature!

There are different types of midrash. Midrash Halakah is a narrow legalistic type of interpretation; Midrash Haggadah can be expressed in creative and imaginative ways, including extended story-narratives not unlike the narratives found in the Gospels. See:

If, as some argue, the Gospels were really only parables (e.g. Crossan) or midrash (e.g. Goulder/Spong) about Jesus and not “true” histories or biographies, why is it that, as far as we know from the oldest surviving evidence, they have always been read as literal histories or biographies of Jesus? (I am not saying they were universally read as literal biographies of Jesus since we simply don’t know how the first readers interpreted any of them.)

In my previous post I suggested that a simple explanation for the Gospels being a mix of history and fiction is something quite different from the standard view that they are narratives that have been based on oral traditions stemming from historical events and that over time were piously exaggerated. If they are indeed “Jewish novels” not unlike so much other historical-fiction so popular in the Hellenistic era, then how was it that they appear to have been so quickly read as historical “reports”?

Chaim Milikovsky
Chaim Milikovsky

An interesting light has been thrown onto this question, I think, by Chaim Milikowsky in “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” a chapter in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. Milikowsky explores the question of the “truth status” of midrashic narratives compared with the “truth of the Bible”. If the Gospels are midrashic literature as Jewish scholars specializing in ancient Jewish and midrashic studies say they are, then Chaim Milikowsky’s chapter may be relevant to how we understand their early history, too.

In the side-box I have linked to some posts where I illustrate some of the narrative forms of midrash and to instances where Jewish specialist scholars describe the Gospels as midrashic literature. For convenience in this post I will illustrate a narrower (and more well known) form of midrash for those of us to whom the term is quite new.

Three examples of midrash

We know the Biblical story of Cain killing Abel. A midrash says that prior to this murder, it was actually Abel who overpowered Cain and was about to kill him when Cain cried out for mercy. Abel relented, giving Cain the opportunity to turn the tables and kill Abel instead. What was the source of this midrashic tale? The Hebrew says literally, in translation, that Cain “got up onto his brother”. The rabbis reasoned that for Cain to have “got up onto” Abel he must have first been “under” Abel. read more »

Why the Gospels Blend History with Fiction

johnson
Sara Johnson

Associate Professor of Classics specializing in Hellenistic Judaism, Sara Johnson, may suggest an answer to the question implicit in this post’s title even though she does not address the Gospels directly. Johnson has a chapter in Ancient Fiction: the Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative (2005) discussing the way 3 Maccabees was composed to help shape Jewish identity in the Hellenistic world. One way it accomplishes its ideological goal is to blend history and fiction. Historical verisimilitude serves to anchor the Jewish reader to the “historical tradition” of the community, while the infusion of fictional elements ensure the correct message and proper identity are inculcated. A reader such as myself with a strong interest in questions of Gospel origins cannot help but wonder if the Jesus narratives were written for a similar purpose in the same literary tradition.

Sara Johnson’s chapter is “Third Maccabees: Historical Fictions and the Shaping of Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Period”. 3 Maccabees, if you have not yet read it, is available on the University of Michigan Digital Library site. It’s not too long. It opens with a scene of one of the “great” battles in the Hellenistic era, the battle of Raphia, in which the forces of Ptolemaic Egypt (King Philopater) routed the Syrian army of Antiochus III, 217 BCE. On the eve of the Battle there is an attempt on Philopater’s life but he is saved by a Jew.

Captive Jews in the hippodrome at Alexandria, engraved by Josiah Wood Whymper by Gustave Dore
Captive Jews in the hippodrome at Alexandria, engraved by Josiah Wood Whymper by Gustave Dore

In the euphoria of victory Philopater invites himself into the most sacred area of the Jewish Temple to offer thanks to the divinity. (It is the custom of victorious kings to enter temples that way.) The Jews protest, we we would expect and Ptolemy is prevented by some divine action to from carrying out his plan. He returns to Egypt, enraged, and orders the Jews of Egypt be rounded up and crushed to death by drunken elephants. God maintains the suspense by holding off his several rescue missions to the very last moment, and finally changes Philopater’s mind altogether so that he even tells the world what wonderful and loyal folk all those Jews are. Jews who had apostasized under his pressure are quite rightly slaughtered instead.

The tale is a rich mix of genuine historical details and fables. Historical persons talk with fictional ones. Accurate details of the battle and the preliminary attempt on Philopater’s life are as detailed and accurate as we find in the works of the historian Polybius. The same accuracy is found in the Egyptian’s tour of the cities of Syria and offering of thanksgiving sacrifices in their temples.

This prepares the reader for a tale firmly rooted in the known facts of the past. (p. 86)

But the historical and fictional sit side by side: read more »