Monthly Archives: December 2014

Archaelogical Finds 2014 — But Beware Christians Bearing Gifts

We feed your body and take your soul!

Much has happened in the world of archaeology this past year but little of it has been related to themes biblical. Two interesting pages are up for comparison and review. The advertisement that appears on the biblical one is obnoxious. Try not to get distracted (though I won’t help at all by re-posting the offending images here) but then finish up with the page listing some really interesting discoveries of wider relevance and interest.

The boring list of “bible-related” archaeological finds:

Biblical Archaeology’s Top Ten Discoveries of 2014 by Gordon Govier, on Christianity Today.

This includes the tomb of St. Stephen (who almost certainly was a myth) and the theatre where Polycarp was (very likely not) martyred.

No, I lie — there is something there of a little interest after all. Something about Noah’s ark being round like a giant version of one of those bath-tubs. And the animals going in two-by-two even on a Babylonian text. (Add it to your trivia list.) The curator of the tablet wears a beard to suit the part, too.

But this shameless plug on the page smacks your face:

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The link takes you to a list of all the things your donation can do: provide clean water, a bible in his language and the good news of Jesus. And don’t forget that by giving to this child you are really giving to God himself so you’ll get a really great reward in heaven.

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That sort of “compassion” I can do without.

There’s a similar boring list at Bible History DailyTop 10 Biblical Archaeology Discoveries in 2014 by Robin Ngo. This one has more interesting graphics for the Noah’s ark story here. And it does not have obnoxious ads telling you how to exploit the sufferings of others or how to get a bigger reward in heaven.

But let’s get real. The most interesting archaeological news for the past year is at Coolest Archaeological Discoveries of 2014.

The biggest one is, of course, the tomb from the era of Alexander the Great. Then there’s the Richard III find, more news from Stonehenge, the glamour and cheese mummy in China, the mummified erection of King Tut in Egypt, and most interesting of all (well, to me anyway) is the indication that homo erectus produced some form of “art” designs half a million years ago.  read more »

A Hi Turnover 14/15

Just to say Hi to readers, glad you stopped by whether to comment or just lurk, and wishing you well for the coming year.

 

 

If your comment does not appear

If your comment does not immediately appear the reason is very likely that it has been caught up in moderation for some reason (probably an unfathomable one) — Apologies to those whose comments I have just discovered and released from there only now.

 

The Churlishness of a Christian Soldier Scholar

John Dickson
John Dickson

I was appalled to read the following on Raphael Lataster’s Facebook page just now. Raphael Lataster, we recall, was the author of the Washington Post article questioning the existence of Jesus. The article was also on the scholarly blog, The Conversation. See The Jesus Myth Question Comes to The Washington Post. John Dickson is a reasonably well-known Australian Christian evangelical apologist who once taught Raphael in a class on “The Historical Jesus to the Written Gospels” at Sydney University.

Incensed, John Dickson wrote a piece for the Australian national broadcaster, It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas … Mythicism’s in the Air.

In response James McGrath predictably jumped on the opportunity to fan more flack against mythicism with A Professor on His Mythicist Former Student. He singled out this little misleading piece:

As his former lecturer, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that Raphael’s 1000 words on Jesus would not receive a pass mark in any history class I can imagine, even if it were meant to be a mere “personal reflection” on contemporary Jesus scholarship. Lataster is a better student than his piece suggests. But the rigours of academia in general – and the discipline of history, in particular – demand that his numerous misrepresentations of scholarship would leave a marker little choice but to fail him.

Misleading? Raphael was not writing a “history” essay and he was not so much addressing “scholarship” as he was unaddressed questions relating to the evidence. But Tertullian-like misrepresentation is par for the course in this business. (I have read two of Dickson’s books on “history” and have found them too shallow and trite to bother posting about here. Maybe I should.)

Anyway, this is the disturbing development I have just read on Raphael’s Facebook page: [* 8th January 2014 I was notified the following was a misunderstanding; John Dickson had not defriended Raphael as it appeared. See comment by Andy.]

Raphael Lataster
December 26 at 8:13pm ·

John Dickson surprisingly (we have always been very friendly) defriended me after he wrote a (grossly inaccurate) reply article to my own on Jesus’ possible ahistoricity, and continues to refuse to debate with me on Jesus’ resurrection (i.e. the Jesus he actually believes in). I would think that believers would relish the chance to show their courage and defend their faith. I’m not that scary… If anyone would like to see this debate happen, do let John and I know. John’s contact: read more »

Evidence for Pre-Gospel Oral Traditions and Related Questions

jesus_disciples_iconIt’s easier for me to address these thoughts posted as a comment to my previous post with a new post here.

I’ll try to take a crack at it. I’m not saying I agree with all of the following, but I think it’s essentially how we got here.

How we got here (i.e. to the conclusion that oral tradition is the necessary and best explanation for the source material of the Gospels) or how we rationalize our assumption? The Gospels-Acts narrative itself leads us to expect an oral tradition between Jesus and the gospels — we are led to picture evangelist and apostolic activity as well as ordinary church members spreading the word — so I suspect oral tradition is a default assumption.

Now it is important, of course, to find evidence in the support of any hypothesis like this and your following list reminds me of several of the supporting arguments used to support it.

But without wanting to sound like a nefarious “hyper-sceptic” it is also my understanding that good method requires us to seriously evaluate counter-evidence, too. How does one raise this question without sounding like some nihilistic anti-god anti-Christ atheist who hates Christianity and everything that is good and decent in the world, all sound critical biblical scholarship and wants to see every religion wiped off the face of the earth?

I am an atheist but like Tamas Pataki I don’t know if eliminating religion would really make the world a better place any more than eradicating all insect pests would really be in humanity’s best interests. Moreover, I can’t imagine how establishing that there really were oral traditions between a Jesus event and the written gospels would make the slightest difference to me personally. I would want to learn and know more about them if we had some basis for establishing their existence.

I will omit the “must’ve” argument that tries to explain away the decades between the historical Jesus and the first gospel. Since scholars assume the HJ and they concede that the gospels were written by non-eyewitnesses much later and in a different language, they conclude that the traditions “must’ve” floated around, passed on orally for many years. That’s a circular argument at best. At worst, it’s a deus ex machina that rescues the gospels from their suspicious circumstances.

Yep, that’s the nagging doubt that obliges one to raise the question (without being a “hyper-sceptic”.) read more »

How do we know the stories of Jesus were preserved by oral tradition before the Gospels?

dykstra1One book I enjoyed reading this year was Tom Dykstra’s Mark, Canonizer of Paul. (The link is to an earlier post of mine on this title.) I see the book has been promoted on the Bible and Interpretation site, too. Tom Dykstra begins with a discussion of Mark’s sources and purpose referring to about half a dozen books that were still fresh in my mind from recent reading and introducing me to as many more that by and large I followed up subsequently. His third chapter is titled The Chimera of Oral Tradition.

“Oral Tradition” is a term one soon learns to take for granted when reading any scholarly work that attempts to explore the possible sources used by the authors of the gospels. If one wants to pursue this concept further one will soon enough find interdisciplinary studies drawing upon the works of anthropologists, oral historians — names like Ong, Vansina, Foley, Dundes, Kelber will soon become familiar. There is no shortage of information about “how oral tradition works” but none of it directly explains how we know the gospel authors (evangelists) drew upon it.

(There are arguments that certain structures in the gospels are paralleled in oral recitations but these arguments are off-set by even more detailed and supported demonstrations that the same structures are found in literary works, too. They are not unique to oral story-telling.)

This becomes all the more frustrating as one continues to read widely and learns that there are numerous studies that easily demonstrate that the evangelists drew upon certain other written literature for some of their episodes. It is very difficult to deny that the account of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead owes nothing to the similar narrative of Elisha raising a young boy from death.

Numerous commentaries suggest that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was emulating the story of the ancient Law being presented to Israel through Moses on the mountain when he composed the Sermon on the Mount. One scholar even published an entire book arguing for numerous links between the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel and Moses — clearly leading us to acknowledge that the evangelist was consciously drawing upon the story of Moses to write his gospel.

So how do we reconcile these studies with the claim that oral traditions were the gospel sources? read more »

Blocked by the Exploding Cakemix

James McGrath has finally got rid of the one gad-fly who continually sought to keep him honest in his reviews of mythicist works and to pull him up when he substituted ad hominem for reasoned argument. No wonder, most recently one of his supporters complained to me that I was making him look incompetent. But since McGrath has begun to review Richard Carrier’s book I have been posting more frequently on his blog — especially since I have found him to be almost as unprofessional as he was with Doherty’s book. I guess I’ll have to return to re-posting my comments on his reviews here, now, instead.

The two reviews of Carrier’s book to which I have responded on both the Bible and Interp site and McG’s blog are

 

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I attempted to deliver this post shortly after I sent James McGrath the following email in response to his spamming another comment of mine. I was bemused that there were so many comments expressing indignation over Valerie Tarico referring to her three interviewees as “scholars” at one point and nothing addressing the actual points raised for discussion and exploration:
read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 15:  Simon/Paul and the Law of Moses (continued)

For all posts in this series: Roger Parvus: A Simonian Origin for Christianity

Previous post in this series:  A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 14: Simon/Paul and the Law of Moses (continued)

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The Apostle, in Gal. 3:7, asserted that “It is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham.”

In Galatians the Apostle apparently viewed the Mosaic covenant as ordained by enslaving angels. If so, Israel was never God’s chosen people.

What, then, ought we make of the contrary claim in Romans 9-11?

And we have seen in the two previous posts that, according to one respectable reading of Galatians, the Apostle viewed the Mosaic covenant as being ordained not by God but by enslaving angels. That would seem to mean that of the “two covenants” (Gal. 4:24) allegorically represented by Sarah and Hagar, God was a party to only one.

It is “you, brothers, like Isaac” who “are children of the promise” (Gal. 4:28). Israel, represented by the child of Hagar the slave woman, was promised nothing. In this scenario it is incorrect to say that Israel was no longer God’s chosen people, for it was never that in the first place.

But even if this interpretation is correct, there are many scholars who think that Paul, for one reason or another, went overboard in Galatians. It is often said that from Romans one can get a better idea of what Paul really thought about the Law.

In Romans, Paul takes the time to explain his views more clearly (or perhaps to state his altered views), and in doing so he backs away from the more negative things he said about the law in Galatians. (Dale B. Martin, New Testament History and Literature, p. 241)

So in this post I will go to Romans and consider what is said there about Israel’s status. The most pertinent section is Romans 9-11. As we have come to expect, it is yet another passage that zigzags.

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Two voices

The voice in much of Romans 9-11 is recognizably the same one that in Galatians is critical of the Law. It insists that justification is by faith apart from works of the Law and, as in Gal. 3:28, it says that applies to both Jew and Gentile:

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. (Rom. 10:12)

But at other times we seem to hear a different voice, one that says there are important distinctions after all. It tells us in Rom. 9:4-5 that God gave seven gifts to the Jews. Those gifts they still retain, for “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). And we learn that God keeps for himself a “remnant” (Rom. 9:27; 11:5) of Israel, and that at some point in the future he will see to it that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26). No similar guarantee is extended to the Gentiles. In fact, they are warned to watch their step.

One voice says that “not all who are of Israel are Israel” (9:6). It redefines elect Israel to mean all those called by God whether from the Gentiles or the Jews (9:24). But the other voice still considers Israel “according to the flesh” to be God’s people.

quote_begin Instead of the Apostle trying “to have it both ways,” it may be that an interpolator had his way with the Apostle’s letter!   quote_end
chdodd
C.H. Dodd: “Paul tries to have it both ways.”

So what is going on here? Is Paul letting his emotional attachment to his kinsmen cloud his thinking?

From our standpoint, with a far longer historical retrospect than Paul could have dreamt of, the special importance here assigned to the Jews and their conversion in the forecast of the destiny of mankind appears artificial. It is doubtful whether it is really justified on Paul’s own premisses. The fact is that he has argued from the promise to Abraham on two divergent and perhaps inconsistent lines. If the promise means ultimate blessedness for ‘Israel,’ then either the historical nation of Israel may be regarded as the heir of the promise, and Paul is justified in saying that “all Israel will be saved,” or its place may be taken by the New Israel, the Body of Christ in which there is neither Jew nor Greek; but in that case there is no ground for assigning any special place in the future to the Jewish nation as such. Paul tries to have it both ways. We can well understand that his emotional interest in his own people, rather than strict logic, has determined his forecast. (C.H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, pp. 182-183, my bolding)

Perhaps, but in line with my Simonian hypothesis, I would like to consider another possibility. Instead of the Apostle trying “to have it both ways,” it may be that an interpolator had his way with the Apostle’s letter!  If the original author of Romans was Simon of Samaria, he did not view Israel’s failure to believe in Christ as in any way bringing into question God’s fidelity to his promises. The Jews may have thought they entered a covenant with God at Sinai, but Moses mediated that arrangement not on behalf of God, but of the angels who made the world. The proto-orthodox, however, held that God had instituted the Mosaic covenant, and so it reflected badly on him that his chosen people had failed to embrace the gospel. Much of Rom. 9-11 could be the work of a proto-orthodox interpolator dealing with that theological problem.

Let’s see if these chapters can be plausibly untangled along the lines of this hypothesis. read more »

Savior? Shaman? Myth? Ink Blot? — Views of Lataster, McGrath and Godfrey

Raphael Lataster has been making his mark recently on The Conversation and The Washington Post along with the predictable response by James McGrath. Yours truly has also put in a cameo appearance now alongside these two rivals in The Humanist and on Valerie Tarico’s blog.

The longer version of the interview on Valerie’s website:

Savior? Shaman? Myth? Inkblot? — Why Christianity’s Main Man Remains So Elusive

Posted on December 26, 2014by Valerie Tarico

Historical JesusWas there a man behind the myths? — Three Bible scholars* debate the question.

(* As everyone who knows me knows I am not a “professional scholar” but my request to change this moniker was politely declined for mainly editorial reasons and the option to use the term in its most generic sense. My status is nonetheless clarified in the article anyway.)

A few days earlier a “slightly abridged” version appeared in the January-February 2015 issue of TheHumanist.com  read more »

The Memory Mavens, Part 3: Bethlehem Remembered

As you may recall from the first part of this series, Maurice Halbwachs wrote an important and detailed treatise on social memory and its relation to memorialized places (les localisations), which he called The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: A Study of Collective Memory (La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective). In it, he chronicled the succession of Christians who memorialized various key places in Palestine: Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, etc. Pilgrims, as well as those who could only imagine those places, combined the shared memory of events in the gospels with the ritual observance of those events within the social framework of their religion.

O, little town of Bethlehem

Grotto of the Nativity
Grotto of the Nativity, west part. Bethlehem.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Note: Edited on 20 April 2015. The earlier version erroneously said that La topographie was unfinished and published posthumously. That is incorrect. It was, rather, the work entitled La mémoire collective (1950), which was published after Halbwachs’s death in Buchenwald. We need to be careful not to confuse the English translation, The Collective Memory, with On Collective Memory. The latter is a collection, consisting of excerpts from Les Cadres Sociaux de La Memoire (The Social Frameworks of Memory) and the Conclusion (only) of The Legendary Topography of the Gospels.]

I must stress two points at the outset. First, for Halbwachs, the individual recollections of the disciples (imperfect, distorted, and incomplete as they may have been) formed the basis of the collective memory of later Christians. History, as we understand it today, is the product of critical research, and we shouldn’t confuse its results with our study of the collective memory of Christianity. Halwachs writes:

Collective memory must be distinguished from history. Historical preoccupations such as we think of them, and which each author of a work of history must be concerned with, were alien to Christians of those periods. It is in the context of a milieu comprising believers devoted to their religion that the cult of the holy sites was created. Their memories were closely tied to rites of commemoration and adoration, to ceremonies, feasts, and processions. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 222)

How still we see thee lie

The second point we should keep in mind is that the work in French contained extensive notes by the author, with each chapter representing a different locale. The English version omits these earlier sections. Coser explains in a footnote:

The whole thesis and documentation of La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective is found in the conclusion, which has been translated in full. Earlier chapters are preparatory in character, discussing sources, documentation, and the like. They are primarily of interest to specialists in the area, and have not been translated here. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 193, emphasis mine)

Anyone seeking to engage Halbwachs’s conclusions and criticize them needs to take those words to heart. It struck me after writing my first post on the Memory Mavens that I had perhaps been too harsh with Barry Schwartz. After all, according to Anthony Le Donne, he is peerlessread more »

Dignity

I liked this latest by Reba Riley on her Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome blog. The title “The Special Forces Guide to Surviving Christmas” might sound overblown but the post has some useful tips especially for one still feeling raw wounds from certain kinds of church experiences.

See also A Great Blog For Anyone Abused by a Church

Once more: Professor Stumbles Over the Point of Rank-Raglan Mythotypes and Jesus

Part two of a scholar’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus has appeared on the Bible and Interpretation site and once again the reviewer has deftly avoided any mention of Richard Carrier’s argument. More positively, however, he has managed to insinuate the possibility that Carrier is “deliberately misleading” (character smear is de rigueur for some anti-mythicists) and incompetently demonstrated his own ignorance of the nature and origin of twenty-two elements commonly listed in the “Rank-Raglan” hero archetypes. But he is a renowned “credible scholar” and is called upon to deliver papers against mythicism at conferences, so no doubt among his peers will be those who read exactly what they want to read in his review.

Here is the response I posted at Bible and Interpretationread more »

This looks interesting

Anyone who subscribes to Richard Carrier’s site will know about this already. If I could be sure I could make the time I’d more than likely enrol, too. Meanwhile I can at least go through the text book and perhaps be more prepared for a future opportunity.

January – Critical Thinking in the 21st Century: Essential Skills Everyone Should Master, with Dr. Richard Carrier

More Reading: Breakthrough in Argentina; Death without God

Sandra, the first legally recognized non-human person
Sandra, the first legally recognized non-human person

One of the books that helped me on my way to atheism was Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative. That work enabled me to grasp the idea that our sense of morality really does have a biological foundation, that a moral sense is not unique to humans, and our ethical nature can indeed be explained without recourse to God. I have continued to have a fascination for any observations throwing further light on the nature of us all — human and non-human animals.

So I was immediately drawn to Steve Wiggins blogpost reviewing Can Animals Be Moral? by Mark Rowlands. I can recall as child struggling to accept the more learned notion of some scientists that animals have no feelings in the sense that humans do; we must not impute our feelings into their charades. The more I have observed the less able I am to believe that.

Then only days after Wiggins’ review I read that a court in Argentina has reportedly recognized for the first time the reality of “a non-human person”.

Another book that did not interest me personally but that I see is gaining considerable attention on the web is Greta Christina’s Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God. Personally I have no problem with the idea of death as the cessation of everything. But evidently we all have different perspectives on this and Greta’s book does meet a wider interest. And given its electronic version only costs $3 I thought, “what the hell” and have downloaded it for future reference. Now I can find out what all the fuss is about when I have a spare moment.

I see Richard Carrier has also given this one a plug.

Comforting-Thoughts-book-cover-oblong-200-JPG

(This post is by Neil, not Tim.)