Monthly Archives: December 2017

Jihad and Death, the global appeal of Islamic State

Now that Islamic State has been defeated in the most prominent of its several bases it may not be a bad idea to extend our understanding of what we have just witnessed and its likely ongoing ramifications.

Olivier Roy

There is something terribly modern about the jihadi terrorist violence that has unfolded in the past twenty years or so.

Of course, neither terrorism nor jihad is a new phenomenon. Forms of “globalized” terrorism . . . developed as early as the late nineteenth century with the anarchist movement, culminating in the first manifestation of global terrorism with the alliance formed by the Baader-Meinhof gang, Palestinian extreme left groups, and the Japanese Red Army in the 1970s. As for the reference to jihad, it is found in the Quran and regularly resurfaces in the Muslim world—particularly through the term mujahid, characteristic of the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and the Afghan resistance.

What is new is the association of terrorism and jihadism with the deliberate pursuit of death.

Those are the opening lines of Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State by Olivier Roy, translated from French by Cynthia Schoch. The book has been noticed with reviews easy to find on the web — in Church Times, The Economist, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, Haaretz, Jihad WatchMiddle East Media and Book Reviews Online, The National, New York Journal of Books, Our Daily ReadThe Times. . . .

Most of history’s terrorists are on record as carefully planning their escape. Olivier Roy sees the current wave Islamic State inspired terrorists as fundamentally a nihilistic youth movement. The perpetrators are not as a rule long and deeply immersed in Islam; on the contrary, their sentiments of fervent religiosity are expressed by a smattering of decontextualized “proof texts” and surface only in a matter of weeks or months before those perpetrators embark on their ultimate goal of a suicide mission. Before that time, and even during that same period, their lives are stained by unreligious practices — petty crime, alcohol, sex, drugs — but suicide, they believe will atone for all of their sins and even grant apostate family members a path to paradise.

It is a generational movement, Roy argues, comparable to the terror once wreaked by China’s Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution and by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The old Islam of their parents is to be wiped out to make way for the original faith and practice. But they are not even making room for a new society; they seek death.

The caliphate is a fantasy. It is the myth of an ideological entity constantly expanding its territory. Its strategic impossibility explains why those who identify with it, instead of devoting themselves to the interests of local Muslims, have entered a death pact. There is no political perspective, no bright future, not even a place to pray in peace.

Roy speaks of the Islamization of radicalism. He rejects the notion that it is Islam that is being radicalized. No, it is the other way around today. Fundamentalism, he argues, does not produce violence. Other factors contribute to violence. Islam, moreover, condemns suicide missions of the type longed for by modern day Islamist terrorists, because it anticipates God’s will. The suicide bomber does not allow God to decide the time of his or her death and is for that reason condemned by even Salafi Muslims.

But while the concept of the caliphate is indeed part of the Muslim religious imaginary, the same is not true for the pursuit of death. Salafism, accused of all kinds of evils, condemns suicide because it anticipates Gods will. Salafism is primarily concerned with codifying individual behavior: it regulates everything, including the use of violence. Salafis are not out to die. Instead, obsessed by salvation, they need life in order to prepare to meet their Lord at the end of an earthly existence led according to its rites and rituals. (Roy, p. 4)

There is no military or strategic advantage to be won by ongoing suicide operations. Yes, we know about asymmetrical warfare and the power and even success achieved by small bands against organized national armies. But suicide attacks lose trained and hardened warriors every time. The goal as set out in radical manifestos is to fan further radicalization, especially among Muslim communities. Hence most targets are Muslims in the Middle East, not Westerners.

I believe that the systematic association with death is one of the keys to today’s radicalization: the nihilist dimension is central. What fascinates is pure revolt, not the construction of a utopia. Violence is not a means. It is an end in itself. It is violence devoid of a future. If this were not the case, it would be merely an option instead of a norm and a conscious choice.

But what about the lone wolf nutter?

The genius of ISIS is to offer young volunteers the narrative framework within which they can achieve their aspirations. So much the better for ISIS if other volunteers to die—psychopaths, people with suicidal tendencies, or rebels without a cause—have little to do with the movement, but are prepared to play out a scenario that lends their personal despair a global dimension. (p. 5)

It’s not easy reading interpretations like Roy’s. I look forward to what other specialists in the field have to say about his book, but so far he does not seem very far removed from what several of them have written.

If so, it will surely pass, just as other nihilistic and suicidal “fashions” among youth in the past have passed. That doesn’t make the present any easier, of course, and it leaves us apprehensive of what might follow.

This association of course does not cover the entire issue. It is perfectly conceivable that other, more “rational,” forms of terrorism might soon emerge on the scene. It is also possible that this form of terrorism is merely temporary and that the protest will take on other forms, perhaps more political ones. (p. 5)

 

 

Could a common name like Jesus really be “a name above all names”?

Here is a modified form of an exploratory essay I posted at another forum. It was in response to the question raised by the “Philippian Hymn”: was the name of Jesus itself “the name above all names” that was bestowed on God’s Son after his exaltation after crucifixion?

6 [Christ Jesus], being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.  (NIV)

That looks like Jesus is the name that is “above every name”. But that seems so strange. We know the gospels tell us that Jesus had the name from birth. Besides, the name was the sixth most common male name at the time according to Tal Ilan’s Lexicon of Jewish Names (part 1, Palestine, 330 BCE – 200 CE, p. 56)

Table 7: … MOST POPULAR MALE NAMES
  NAME NUMBER
1 Simon 257
2 Joseph 231
3 Judah 179
4 Eleazar 177
5 Yohanan 128
6 Joshua = Jesus
103
7 Hananiah 85
8 Johnathan 75
9 Mattathias 63
10 Menahem 46

According to Wikipedia’s lists of most common given names in the last 100 years in the UK, Australia and USA, the equivalent would be Harry, Thomas and Benjamin.

We certainly don’t expect a “name above all names” to be a very common personal name, but then we don’t expect a very common personal name — the name itself — to have magical power when associated with a particular deity, either. Yet we do find the name of Jesus itself being chanted as having a magical power. From The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation:

Place olive branches before him, I and stand behind him and say:

“Hail, God of Abraham; hail, God of Isaac; hail, God of Jacob; Jesus Chrestos,
the Holy Spirit, the Son of the Father, who is above the Seven, / who is within
the Seven. Bring Iao Sabaoth; may your power issue forth from him, NN, until
you drive away this unclean daimon Satan, who is in him. I conjure you, daimon, —- p. 62

After placing [the patient] opposite [to you], conjure. This is the conjuration:

“I conjure you by the god of the Hebrews, / Jesus, IABA IAE ABRAOTHA ….. etc. p. 96

A phylactery for fever:

“SARICH “Of Jesus Christ, son of IAO (?),
AORKACH quickly, quickly,
/ ROUGACH heal!…”

……………. p. 323

Ditto in Acts 3:16 — healing was performed by or in the name of Jesus

It is his name—that is, by faith in his name—that has healed this man whom you see and know. (ISV)

But in Acts 19:13 some mere nobodies or charlatans tried to use the name of Jesus to perform a miracle but they were punished and made to look complete idiots. The magical power of the name only worked if deployed by people with the right credentials.

Then some Jews who went around trying to drive out demons attempted to use the name of the Lord Jesus on those who had evil spirits, saying, “I command you by that Jesus whom Paul preaches!”  Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit told them, “Jesus I know, and I am getting acquainted with Paul, but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit jumped on them, got the better of them, and so violently overpowered all of them that they fled out of the house naked and bruised.

Otherwise it was nothing more than a powerless common name. read more »

The Year of the Nativity: Consensus, Harmonization, and Plausibility

Herod the Great

Yes, it does seem odd for Vridar to have so many Christmas posts this year. I normally watch the holidays go by and think to myself, “I should have written something about that.”

In any case, I promise this will be my last Christmas post of the year, which should be an easy vow to keep, since it’s already the 28th.

In a previous post, I wrote about the date of the nativity. This time we’ll look at the year of Jesus’ birth. Considering all the ink scholars have spilled over this subject, and all the contortions many of them have gone through to push for specific dates that “work” (even so far as to move the death of Herod to 1 BCE), it’s a wonder there is a consensus. And yet, almost everywhere you look, you’ll find the date range of 6 to 4 BCE.

Only the most diehard apologist would try to harmonize Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the nativity. They diverge at nearly every point. Moreover, most critical scholars recognize the birth stories as legends. Both Matthew and Luke contain two momentous events which, had they actually occurred, would have given us a precise date for Jesus’ birth. In Matthew, Herod the Great slaughters all the young children in Bethlehem. In Luke, Augustus calls for “all the world to be taxed.”

Neither of these events happened, and therein lies the problem. They are legendary accounts told for religious, doctrinal reasons. And here’s a good rule of thumb: Once you’ve tossed rotten fruit into the dumpster, don’t climb back in to see if you can find some edible bits. In other words, resist the temptation to find a kernel of truth in fictional accounts, especially when you have absolutely no corroborating external evidence. There’s no shame in saying, “We don’t know, and we may never know.read more »

The Most Important Story in the World

Now you will know that I really do, as I have tried to point out a number of times, read sources from the full range of the political spectrum. The desperate headline of a story from The American Conservative reads:

Yemen’s Humanitarian Catastrophe: The Most Important Story in the World

The American Conservative has possibly published more stories on the ongoing and deteriorating crisis in Yemen than any other media organization I know. I think they have done so daily. So I can understand the addition of “The Most Important Story in the World” to get attention.

From the latest by Daniel Larison,

The country’s humanitarian crisis was already one of the world’s worst by the end of 2015, and by this time last year it had eclipsed every other catastrophe on the planet. Today the multiple, overlapping disasters of mass starvation and a record-setting cholera epidemic easily make the suffering of Yemen’s civilian population the largest crisis and most important story in the world. More than eight million people are on the verge of famine, and at least another nine million don’t have enough to eat. Over one million have contracted cholera, and that number will keep rising if things remain as they are. All of this has come about in large part because of the deliberate choices of the Saudi-led coalition and their Western patrons, including the U.S. . . . .

The United States of America is around about the bottom of my priority list of countries I would like to visit, sorry. The reasons are many. But when I read the above then for a moment I find myself wishing I really were in the United States right now.

If I were in the USA today then I would be pulling out all stops to find and establish contacts with other persons concerned about what the Yemenis are suffering right now, and then work with those like-concerned persons to begin to raise local awareness of what is happening and why; and then to establish links with like-minded groups across the nation; and then to co-ordinate and brainstorm ideas for raising public (and media) awareness; and to organize, step by step, ways to bring crowds out into the streets, to get media attention, with a view to making the entire movement seriously national — and trying to damn well put serious media pressure on f..king Trump to use the power and influence he claims to have with the Saudis to actually DO something positive … for those Trump and co probably don’t really even know are real people because they are so low on his scale of what is indicative of relevance and importance …. for the Yemenis.

 

 

 

What’s the Matter with Biblical Scholarship? Part 3

Horse Racing Near Apsley House, London  by Francis Elizabeth Wynne

The horses are on the track

In Daniel Gullotta’s “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts,” we see a phenomenon common in nearly every apologetic debate, but comparatively rare in print: namely, the Gish Gallop. It works better in a live, oral/aural environment, of course, because the wave of information washes over and stuns the opposition, while on the other hand, it impresses supporters with its sheer volume of facts.

However, it loses its power on the page, since we all read at our own pace. We can pause. We can look away and reflect. I still, nevertheless, must offer Gullotta kudos on giving it the old college try. Here’s just a portion of a Daniel Dash:

In conjunction with the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion by Romans is depicted in every one of the earliest narrations of his death, one can also examine the reaction to early Christianity by Greco-Roman critics to see a widespread reception of Jesus as a crucified man. Lucian called Jesus a ‘crucified sophist’; Suetonius describes Jesus as ‘the man who was crucified in Palestine’; Celsus depicts Jesus’ death as a ‘punishment seen by all’; and Marcus Cornelius Fronto scoffed at how Christians could ‘worship a crucified man, and even the instrument itself of his punishment’. One of the earliest visual representations of Jesus carved into a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome (ca. late second century CE), the Alexamenos graffito, is one of mockery, depicting the Christian Alexamenos paying homage to a naked figure on a cross with the head of a donkey, scrawled with the words: ‘Alexamenos, worship [your] God!’ (Gulotta 2017, p. 333, emphasis mine)

There’s even more after that; the paragraph continues. But slow down. Take a breath. The power of the Gish Gallop is its sudden rush of data points, so many that the listener will be lucky to recall any one of them once the flood has subsided. Bewildering the opponent adds to the mystique of the speaker. “He knows so much!” they whisper among themselves.

The weakness with the Daniel Dash is persistence. We can look away. We return to the page, and it remains. The Gallop is ephemeral, but the Dash hangs around. When I read the above passage, I immediately thought to myself, “Suetonius never wrote that.” I had the luxury of pausing in mid-dash. I could take time to think. I could even stop and shoot Neil an email.  read more »

Once more (final time) on Gospel Nativity Harmonization. Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem today . . . .

What a slew of Christmas themed posts have bedecked Vridar this year. I feel a bit bad and wonder if I should apologize. It’s not my usual form. But no, there’s one more, another follow up to the two posts we’ve had here on the question of harmonizing Matthew’s birth narrative with its magi and flight into Egypt with Luke’s shepherds and babe in a manger scenario.

This one is another collation of web discussions or debates on the question: Can the Christmas Stories be Reconciled?

Meanwhile, I seem to have read very little about the current activities among the present day inhabitants of Bethlehem and its refugee camp. Christmas seems to be that wonderful time when we turn our backs on everyday reality and lose ourselves in hopes for happy memories of another time. Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem . . . .

A Palestinian dressed as Santa Claus stands in front of Israeli troops during a protest in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RC17AECC9740

 

 

Why Is Christmas on the 25th of December?

The Catholic Liturgical Year

While researching this post, I came upon an item from 2015 about the sad and untimely death of Acharya S. on Christmas Day. Readers of Vridar may have noticed that I’ve avoided writing about Acharya’s theories or writings, mainly because they did not and do not interest me, but secondarily, because I’d rather not tangle with her fans, many of whom take any critique of her brand of mythicism as a personal attack.

I must decrease

Recently, however, I recalled something I heard on a podcast featuring Robert M. Price and Acharya. I suppose we’re allowed to call her Dorothy Murdock now. Murdock was explaining to Price that the role of the Forerunner helped to determine when in the liturgical calendar to commemorate the birth of John the Baptist. She reminded Price that in the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is confronted by his disciples about what to do concerning this upstart Jesus fellow. He says:

[28] “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ [29] The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. [30] He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:28-30, ESV)

A typical reader would look at that last sentence and take it at face value. In other words, John the Baptist realizes his role must diminish as Jesus takes on the mantle of Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Savior of the World. The Baptist is signaling the winding down of his business, having fulfilled his purpose.

But Murdock said it was a mysterious thing to say, and that it had to do with the days getting shorter after the solstice. And this is precisely why John’s birth was commemorated near the first day of summer, while Jesus’ was celebrated near the winter solstice. When Christ is “rising,” I am “falling.” Hence, the notion that John was born on 24 June, six months away from Christmas.

The virgin . . . tomb?

At the time I did a little research, which fell by the wayside as other subjects took my attention. I recall coming across some early discussions about the incarnation and how some early Christians believed it had to have occurred on the same calendar date as the death of Jesus. For example, Augustine wrote: read more »

Another reason not to harmonize the gospel nativity narratives

In nice timing with my earlier post on one problem that arises when we try to harmonize Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ arrival on planet Earth, Deane Galbraith has posted a clear explanation of why the two accounts don’t harmonize anyway:

The Two Stories of Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem

And since Christmas is a time for reminiscing, here are some older posts addressing the differences from yet another perspective:

 

Bible scholars: the degeneration continues

If I were a biblical scholar I hope I would be ashamed to be associated with peers who descend to the level we see in the latest blogpost by Michael Bird. I hope I would publicly dissociate myself from their puerile level of discourse and make efforts to speak out for a professional standard at all times both in public and scholarly engagements. After calling anyone who denies the historical existence of Jesus a “crank” or “bad historian” and in effect hitting on them to pay around $40 to read an article in a subscription-only journal, Bird concludes with

Finally, let me add, for all those former Jesus Mythicists out there who suddenly feel their bowels becoming loose because this Jesus thing just got “real,” don’t worry, even if Jesus existed, you can still be an atheist, just not a dogmatic dumbass one.

Very profoundly Bird begins his post with the same shocking information that Larry Hurtado was recently presenting to the public. Did you know that mainstream biblical scholars on the whole do not accept the Jesus myth view? Hard to believe, I know, but that is the message that these scholars seem have thought is so badly needed lately that they have posted claims to just that effect. No doubt many readers will now be better informed and no longer believe the contrary!

If Jesus mythicism were such a crank, fringe notion then one does really have to wonder what prompts such scholars to make such a fuss about it. And why, oh why, would a peer-review journal run by editors who all think the Jesus myth notion to be arrant crankery publish a 37 page review by a scholar critical of its latest publication?

These constant insulting attacks on anyone who thinks or writes the wrong things, and even a 37 page review by a scholar who admitted he did not understand key sections of the argument of the book he was reviewing and who failed to explain to readers the significance the author assigned to the arguments he was criticizing in his review, all of this looks to me like a circling of the wagons, as Earl Doherty used to say. read more »

Finding “unbelievable fullness of meaning” in the Christmas stories?

Very strange. I don’t understand how an atheist or agnostic (Bart Ehrman in this instance) can “absolutely adore” the Bible’s stories of Jesus’ birth and find them “so deep … and so unbelievably full of meaning”.

Is the Christmas Story a Myth?

……………..

Even so, I have to say that I absolutely adore these stories. They are simultaneously so simple and so deep, so matter-of-fact and so unbelievably full of meaning. As is this season. Even for me as one who personally stands outside the Christian tradition. Or do I? I suppose I’ll always be inside it. It’s in my DNA. I completely resonate with it. I relate to it. In my own secular way I embrace it. I’ll say more about that in my next post.

What deep meaning can there possibly be in those stories unless it is one for those who believe God became incarnate? That message has no meaning, surely, for anyone who is not a Christian, certainly not one for any atheist.

To me the stories have no meaning at all except as part of our cultural heritage, like May Day or having weekends off. Christmas is certainly no part of my DNA. I suppose I am expected to find the answer in the next post Bart Ehrman promises. Since I refuse to play his game of justifying the maintenance of a paywall around access to his knowledge I guess I’ll remain in ignorance. Maybe a kindly disposed reader who does have access will be able to pass on the message of how a secular-minded person can bring absolute adoration to the bible stories and find unbelievable fullness of meaning in them. Very strange.

Oh you hapless United States of Americans, is this really what it means to make (your part of) America great again? By David Cay Johnston of DCReport.org:

Deducting a CEO’s Jet, But Not a Cop’s Uniform

What the Republicans’ Tax Bill Really Means for People Like Us

. . . . .

Buried in the hastily drafted tax bill’s more than 500 pages are provisions eliminating “miscellaneous” deductions taken by almost 28 million taxpayers in 2015. Those are costs you bore to support your job or an investment you own or to pay a professional to prepare your income tax return.

This year cops and other first responders can write off the costs of buying uniforms and dry cleaning them. But in 2018, cops who buy their uniforms or are required to buy their own guns and ammunition will no longer be able to deduct those costs as reasonable and necessary expenses to support their earning a paycheck, thanks to Trump and Congressional Republicans.

But that’s not all. Cops and anyone else who belongs to a union will no longer be allowed to deduct their union dues. People who must bear travel costs without reimbursement from their employers will just have to suck it up starting in January.

The new law takes special aim at teachers who seek advanced degrees, which typically qualifies them for more pay. Tuition, books and related costs of getting advanced degrees will not be deductible after the end of this year.

Why are Trump and Congressional Republicans dinging first responders, teachers, nurses, traveling salespeople and even those who pay someone to prepare their income tax returns? So the rich can get bigger tax breaks, of course.

. . . . .

What Congress left intact are the rules that let Trump write off his Boeing 757 jet . . . . Similarly, untouched are the bar tabs of corporate sales agents or the costs of executive retreats at resorts like Trump golf courses.

It’s a good thing you’ve all got your guns. Looks like time for a coup against the plutocracy and time to establish a real democracy.

 

 

Is there anything good to be said about Richard Carrier?

What is the probability (think Bayesian if you like) that any scholar, any author, any person, has nothing to say that is worth an honest response or engagement? How likely is it, really, that a person who holds a view that you strongly disagree with is also a person of such a bad character that you can never imagine in them a single redeeming quality?

Can you really know that a person who is arguing something you find detestable is also insincere, a hypocrite, driven by some pernicious secret motivation?

When you see a person you don’t like react or act in an uncivil or unprofessional or even dishonest manner, does it follow that everything that person is on record as doing and writing is also dishonest?

There’s another side to this question, too, of course. Someone once said to me that “mythicists must stick together”. I disagree. We all must be honest with each other and with those who we disagree with or engage with in any way at all.

A little while ago I posted that the debate between Hurtado and Carrier had become unpleasant. The unpleasantness went well beyond Hurtado and Carrier themselves. Several other scholars posted very nasty accusations, outright dirty insults, against both Carrier and anyone who went along with his ideas.

I said there are two sides to this question, but right now the fault is primarily on the side of those opposing Carrier. I find it very difficult to read a critical comment on Carrier’s book that does not at some point declare that they believe Carrier to be a liar or a hypocrite when he says something that might be construed as a positive point in favour of his motivations and interest in the debate. No evidence is required for the motivation imputed except the fact that what he said is not what we believe or want to believe to be true.

If Carrier makes an argument for a point that we believe is going too far or is ill-informed then it seems to give us licence to ignore all the rest of his arguments or to bracket them all as equally fallacious.

No-one has to like Carrier as a person. But I am sure we don’t seriously believe that everyone we dislike is simply bad in all their ways and in every fibre of their being, a total arsehole in every imaginable way and situated beyond the ability of any decent society to accept them. Yet that is the impression that one begins to gain when one reads of criticisms of Carrier’s work. It’s all bad, all of it, nothing good in it at all, every argument is either absurd and/or fundamentally motivated by deception.

I think when we get to that point about anyone’s work we ought to be honest with ourselves and admit we are being unreasonably hostile, unreasonably biased, or simply unfair.

 

 

How John Used the Synoptics: The First Temptation vs. The First Sign

Ivan Kramskoi: Christ in the Desert

Anyone wishing to harmonize the gospel of John with the Synoptics will have a great deal of trouble explaining the beginnings of Jesus’ career. In the Fourth Gospel, on his way back to Galilee, Jesus has already poached many of John the Baptist’s followers. In fact, he has started up his own dunking franchise, luring away John’s customers. However, in the Synoptics, after Jesus’ baptism, the spirit drives him into the wilderness, where he sits in solitude. He hasn’t even met any of the Twelve yet.

Different “traditions”?

Such differences might compel us to posit that the two origin stories have so little in common that they must emerge from wholly unrelated traditions. And yet if we look just a bit harder, we see some common threads, at least on a symbolic level.

In my brief series on How John Used Mark, I discussed how John apparently took ideas from the Gospel of Mark and turned them inside out. But in the case of John inverting the temptation stories, the source must be either Matthew or Luke, since Mark has only this to say:

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13, NRSV)

For details concerning those temptations, we must turn to the other two gospels. Oddly, Matthew and Luke list the second and the third in different order, but the first temptation remains the same. (All of the following verses come from the NASB.) read more »

Harmonizing the the Gospel Birth Narratives Raises A Problem

Professor Jim West brought back memories of my fervently believer days (when I “knew” that the gospels, being words of Truth, could and did not contradict themselves) with his post, There are No Contradictions Between the Matthean and Lucan Birth Narratives: It’s a Matter of Time. West recycles the old assertion that in Luke we read of the birth of Jesus (the angels directing the shepherds to cause a commotion in the village until they eventually found the babe in the manger) while in Matthew we read of the magi visiting Jesus two years later when he was more securely resided in a solid house. See? No contradiction at all. It’s only a matter of time.

Except . . .

The general idea among many biblical scholars today seems to be that the gospels are ancient forms of biography. That is, the authors, like other biographers of the day, were devoted to writing what they knew about the life and teaching and significance of their subject.

Matthew’s gospel is generally said to have been written around 80 CE. How likely is it that its author (we’ll call him Matthew) at such a late date apparently had never heard of the angelic circumstances surrounding the actual birth of Jesus? If there is one detail ancient biographers loved to seek out and narrate about famous persons (e.g. Apollonius of Tyana, Julius Caesar …) was some great prodigy that marked the moment of their birth and another at their death. How plausible is it that Matthew by around 80 CE had never heard (presumably made very little effort even to seek out!) of the “tradition” that was surely circulating by then about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth?

After all, Luke, we are told, knew only that tradition of the miraculous circumstances of Jesus’ birth and had never even heard of the dramatic events only two years later — the slaughter of the innocents, the state visit of prominent persons from the East, the miraculous star that presumably hovered only meters above the earth so as to point out a particular house, etc — even though he was writing, again we are assured, only ten years or so after Matthew.

And we know, don’t we, that Luke insisted that he knew “everything” that had been written and rumoured about Jesus before he started to write and that his biography was going to be the one to set out everything “in order”.

(By the way, for another view of what Luke’s prologue actually does say, see What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See? and “Eyewitnesses” in Luke-Acts: Not What We Think.)

A harmonization of the two narratives, the events of Jesus’ birth and of two years subsequently, are exactly what we would expect of a genuine ancient biography written a generation or two after the biographee. Biographers are interested in recording what they know about their subject and believe their readers will find both entertaining and profitable. It is very difficult to imagine both Matthew and then Luke somehow deciding that either the birth details or the details two years later would not have been of interest or potential instruction for their audiences.

Totally different accounts, each with their distinctive theological flavour and themes, is exactly what we would expect from a form of literature that Roger Aus labels “etiological haggada”¶, or from creative theology.

No doubt scholars have pondered this question in their literature. If anyone knows of some of the more interesting critical discussions addressing the problem I have raised here do feel free to add a comment.

read more »