Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End….

Kyle Harper

I’ve finally caught up with a radio/online interview with the author of The Fate of Rome: climate, disease and the end of an empire, Kyle Harper, on Late Night Live.

Advances in studies of genetics and climate history have opened new vistas of understanding what was happening in our past.

Some horrific data emerges: life expectancy at birth was somewhere in the 20s. One third of newborns died in their first year. Upper classes were not much better off overall though they had more pleasant surroundings while surviving.

Nutrition was not the problem so much as disease. There was no concept of germs, of course.

Public toilets did little for public health. They were not covered and acted more like storm culverts than healthy waste disposal systems. Without toilet paper a sponge on a stick was the common tool of all members of a household. And then there was all the animal waste.

I learned in high school that the average Roman was quite short compared with us. That in some ways sounded almost cute back then. Kyle Harper tells us that people in the Roman empire were shorter than both their pre-empire ancestors and post-empire descendants. Roads and cities were disease bearers.

And then the climate changed seriously. Volcanic eruptions were so frequent that the planet cooled significantly but then reduced solar output compounded the cooling. Diseases like Ebola were carried in from the Tibetan region.

I’m reminded of another work I read a few years ago, Justinian’s Flea, by William Rosen. That flea carries a large measure of responsibility for the collapse of the Byzantine empire before the onslaught of Persian and Arab “conquests”. I use inverted commas because there is very little to “conquer” when a population is so drastically reduced in so short a time.

I have now begun reading Kyle Harper’s book since listening to the author’s discussion on Late Night Live with Philip Adams. So far it is presenting an even more horrific picture of “life” in Roman times. Sobering.



Why is the Bible So Badly Written?

An enjoyable, lighthearted article by Valarie Tarico — Why is the Bible So Badly Written?

Excerpt ….

A well-written book should be clear and concise, with all factual statements accurate and characters neither two-dimensional nor plagued with multiple personality disorder—unless they actually are. A book written by a god should be some of the best writing ever produced. It should beat Shakespeare on enduring relevance, Stephen Hawking on scientific accuracy, Pablo Neruda on poetry, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on ethical coherence, and Maya Angelou on sheer lucid beauty—just to name a few.

Then this ….

But why is the Bible so badly written? Falling short of perfection is one thing, but the Bible has been the subject of literally thousands of follow-on books by people who were genuinely trying to figure out what it means. Despite best efforts, their conclusions don’t converge, which is one reason Christianity has fragmented into over 40,000 denominations and non-denominations.

And then this ….

Long lists of begats in the Gospels; greetings to this person and that in the Pauline epistles; instructions on how to sacrifice a dove in Leviticus or purify a virgin war captive in Numbers; ‘chosen people’ genealogies; prohibitions against eating creatures that don’t exist; pages of threats against enemies of Israel; coded rants against the Roman Empire. . .

As a modern person reading the Bible, one can’t help but think about how the pages might have been better filled. Could none of this have been pared away? Couldn’t the writers have made room instead for a few short sentences that might have changed history Wash your hands after you poop.Don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to.Witchcraft isn’t real. Slavery is forbidden. We are all God’s chosen people.

Have a read if you are in a mood for a lighthearted musing (with an underlying serious intent): Why is the Bible So Badly Written?

Translating the New Testament: N. T. Wright vs. David Bentley Hart

First, N. T. Wright reviewed David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament. Then Hart responded. I haven’t enjoyed a near slap-fight between intellectuals this much since William F. Buckley offered to sock Gore Vidal “in the goddamned face.”


N.T. Wright: “The New Testament in the strange words of David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart: “A Reply to N. T. Wright

It’s worth reading both with care and thoughtful reflection. Here’s a taste from Hart (with my emphasis added): read more »

The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (1)

[This post has been waiting in draft status since 19 February 2015. This year I’m going to try to finish up some of the series we’ve left dangling on Vridar. –taw]

A considerable number of New Testament scholars have recently jumped on the memory bandwagon (see, e.g., Memory, Tradition, and Text, ed. Alan Kirk). Characteristics of this movement include an appeal to social memory and cultural memory as a way to explain ancient literary documents, combined with an often strident rejection of the criteria of authenticity used by many Historical Jesus scholars.

Neil and I generally agree that the criteria approach is useless for uncovering the “real” Jesus. However, besides debunking the criteria on the justifiable grounds that they are circular and do not work, the Memory Mavens also attempt to delegitimize them by tarring them as the misbegotten progeny of the form critics (see Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). To put it more crudely, they view them as Bultmann’s Bastards.

In this post we’ll demonstrate how the criteria of authenticity actually grew out of the existing criteria of antiquity — i.e., the arguments that source critics employed to address the Synoptic Problem. Further, we’ll note that early historical Jesus scholars used nearly identical criteria in an attempt to prove the authenticity of some parts of the written gospels. We’ll show how the form critics adopted those criteria to try to identify material that came directly from Jesus by way of oral tradition. And we’ll see once again that this new crop of NT scholars is curiously unaware of their own heritage.

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted ...

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted on the left, Joseph of Arimathea depicted on the right (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What’s in a name?

Recently, while out on my daily walks, I’ve been listening to Bart Ehrman’s course, How Jesus Became God, from The Great Courses (don’t pay full price; use, and something he said struck me. While discussing the legendary Joseph of Arimathea, he noted that the apparently older tradition found in Acts 13:29 has a group of unnamed Jewish leaders take Jesus down from the cross an bury him in a tomb.

What appears to be happening here is a phenomenon that occurs throughout the gospel tradition. As people tell stories about things that happened, they start providing names for the nameless. This can be traced throughout our long Christian tradition. There are a number of people in the gospel stories who are left nameless.

So, who were the three wise men that came to Jesus, if there were three of them? Later traditions named three people. Who were the two robbers killed with Jesus? Later traditions named the two robbers.

When people are nameless, later in the traditions people add names to them. The earlier form of Jesus’ burial was the unnamed they — the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin — but as the tradition developed later, the nameless got named. That would suggest that the Joseph of Arimathea story is a later tradition. (“Lecture 9: Jesus’ Death—What Historians Can’t Know,” bold emphasis mine)

This line of thinking reminded me of the discussions surrounding the Synoptic Problem and the methodology for determining which gospel predates the others. In one sense, Ehrman is right: For any story or parable in the New Testament with anonymous characters, Christian tradition (especially post-canonical) will eventually provide names. Besides the names of the “Three” Wise Men and the robbers at Golgotha, Christians eventually supplied names to a host of unnamed people, such as the shepherds in Luke’s Nativity, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the rich man in the parable of Lazarus.

Of course, you’re probably already thinking to yourself, “What about Jairus and Simon of Cyrene?” You’d be right to ask. These names appear in Mark’s gospel, but they’re missing from Matthew. Does that mean Matthew predates Mark? Ehrman clearly thinks not, because he invariably calls Mark “our earliest gospel.” So what’s going on here?

read more »

On Provisional Judgments and Operational Atheism

In a recent blog post, I said I don’t believe in the supernatural. This statement, I realize, takes a pretty broad swipe at the universe. But if you have read my previous statements on belief, unbelief, atheism, etc., you’ll understand my lack of belief is, for the most part, not characterized by active disbelief. Instead, I consider it a provisional judgment on how to deal with life. To me, the natural world is the world.

Similarly, when I say I don’t believe in gods, angels, demons, leprechauns, elves, or any other magical beings, I’m not saying I positively know they don’t exist; I’m merely saying I lack belief in them. Operationally, I find no need for them. Can I prove they don’t exist? No, I cannot — nor do I wish to waste time trying.

A commenter on Vridar, John MacDonald, recently wrote:

It’s just as much a paralogism to think (i) There is sufficient evidence to conclude there is such a thing as the supernatural, as to think (ii) There is sufficient evidence to conclude there is no such thing as the supernatural. Both theism and atheism are factually incorrect and intellectually lazy. Agnosticism is the “Thinking-Person’s Position.”

If you haven’t studied for the SAT, the LSAT, or the GRE recently, a paralogism is “A piece of illogical or fallacious reasoning, especially one which appears superficially logical or which the reasoner believes to be logical.” [OED] In the realm of logic, it normally refers specifically to an argument that is invalid, but unintentionally so. However, in the general sense, it has come to refer to any invalid argument as well as any invalid conclusion. I’ll assume he means that I have reached an incorrect conclusion, since I presented no formal argument. read more »

Does Christianity Need Evidence?

A straw man takes a break.

Neil offered his “Four Atheist Responses to a ‘Theist’s Three Easy Questions,’” and I was tempted to chime in myself, but I just don’t have it in me. The days of arguing on CompuServe and Usenet about this or that esoteric point in Christian belief or even general theism are over. The time has passed.

I was telling my wife just recently that the older I get, the less comfortable I am with the terms atheist and atheism. I’m weary of being defined by what I am not. You will recall, I’m sure, the old discussions about being called a “non-stamp-collector.” Letting others define you by what they are is to live your life in the shadow of the majority culture.

I’m just a guy who’s curious about the world. True, I don’t believe in anything supernatural, but it’s all right. I won’t bite. And I don’t wish to change your mind. We’re just not wired the same way.

A straw man atheist would doubtless be much more fun to spar with than me — especially one who “hides the goalposts.” I’ve heard of moving the goalposts, but never hiding them. I suppose it must mean something like demanding that theists kick the ball without knowing where the goalposts are. And then I, the mean, nasty atheist, will call out, “Nope, you missed! Try again. . . . Oh! So close!” read more »

6 More Reasons to Question Josephus’ “James the brother of Jesus” passage

Josephus does, in Jewish Antiquities, have two passages on the emergence of Christianity and the persecution of its followers, involving Jewish jurisdiction, but both are suspected of being interpolations. (Efron 1987, p. 333)

Warning: this post addresses a small section of a work by Jewish scholar, Joshua Efron, Studies on the Hasmonean Period, that was not been well received by all reviewers. John Collins, for example, wrote of the section that I cover here:

The final chapter, on the Great Sanhedrin, is peripheral to the main theme of the book. E. denies that there was any uniform tradition about the Great Sanhedrin, but finds that the NT Sanhedrin “was created in the bosom of Christian theology” (p. 337).

Efron’s book shows extensive familiarity with the history of scholarship and is richly documented, but it is a work of apologetics rather than of history. For E., the solidarity of pietism and the Jewish state is primary. Any contrary view is “distorted.” Equally, anything that seems to anticipate Christian theology cannot be Jewish. (Collins 1990, p. 373 — my emphasis)

Louis Feldman is less harsh in his review but nonetheless identifies the bias. Efron attacks contemporary scholarly reconstructions of various intra-Jewish political rifts and conflicts in “a strident tone” and dismisses anything that would blur Jewish distinctiveness from Christianity:

The main, and most controversial, thesis of this work is that the Hasidim and the Hasmoncans cooperated throughout their revolt against the Syrian Greeks, and that this cooperation continued with the later Pharisees. The reconstruction of this period often rests upon the Pseudepigrapha, notably the Psalms of Solomon. But Efron dismisses such evidence as betraying a hidden Christian viewpoint . . . (Feldman 1994, p. 87)

You have been warned. Read at your own peril. Read critically (as you always do).


About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (Antiquities, 18.3.3)

Many readers are familiar with the passages. The first, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, describes Jesus as “a wise many if one ought to call him a man” and even states that “he was the Messiah” and his followers were righteous “seekers of the truth”, he performed miracles, was unjustly condemned to death at the instigation of the Jews, appeared to have been resurrected three days later, etc. If Josephus wrote the passage as we have it then he was clearly himself a Christian and we are left perplexed over everything else he wrote in defence of “Judaism”.

The fourth century bishop Eusebius quoted the passage but the third century Origen did not see it in his copy of Josephus.

But don’t many scholars agree that the passage as it stands cannot have been written by Josephus while remaining certain he must have written something about Jesus nonetheless? Many do. Efron’s opinion of these efforts:

Various proposals, speculations and attempts to reconstruct from it some authentic core have produced only dubious hypotheses.213

213 . . . . The scholars positing authenticity (complete, partial or emended) have recourse to casuistic speculations or arbitrary textual alterations. See R. Laqueur, Der jüdische llistoriker Flavius Josephus (Giessen 1920), p. 274ff.; H.St. J. Thackeray, Josephus the Man and the Historian (New York 1967, repr. of 1929ed.),p. 125ff.; F. Dornseiff, “Zum Testimonium Flavianum,” ZNW 46 (1955): 245ff.; A. Pelletier, “Ce que Josephe a dit de Jesus,” KEJ 124 (1965): 9ff.; D. Flusser (see n. 190), Yahadut u-Mekorot ha-Natzrut, p. 72ff .; F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Gr. Rapids Mich. 1974), p. 32ff.

And once more:

Classic examples of the practices of Christian copyists and editors in transposing suitable additions and adding them to Josephus can be found in the Slavonic version of Jewish War.

The arguments have gone back and forth “for generations” (Efron’s words) and we have posted at length on them here.

And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest. (Antiquities, 20.9.1)

We have also discussed the second passage at length. But Efron has more to add and the rest of this post sets out why he also rejects this passage as genuine to Josephus.

Efron observes that this second passsage (see inset) portrays the Sanhedrin in a way very similar to the New Testament’s viewpoint: very harsh, even evil. Likewise the Sadducees are said to be “very rigid” or “severe”, translatable as “savage” (Efron), more than any other Jews. And Ananus belongs to this “savage” sect and is further described as “extremely bold and brazen”.

Enough good citizens, however, complained to the authorities about the injustice against James committed by Ananus and had him removed from the priesthood.

1. Unfavorable portrait of Ananus is polar opposite to Josephus’ views

Efron sees in these portrayals of the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees and Ananus too much New Testament. In Josephus’s earlier work on the Jewish War we find Josephus expressing the “polar opposite” view of Ananus, “overwhelming him with praise”, “devoting an emotional eulogy to him”. As for the Sadducees, Josephus in the earlier work never betrayed a hint that they were in any way to be faulted for their religious practices and views.

Could not Josephus have changed his mind by the time he wrote Antiquities?

It is true that opinions and evaluations sometimes change in Josephus’ second and more critical version. Thus, in his apologetic autobiography, Josephus in self defense somewhat dims Ananus’ lustre, but there is no trace of a diametrically opposite view of him.216 Acts of the Apostles, however, in a picture resembling the dubious episode outlined above, stresses the unfavorable aspects of Ananus (Annas) the high priest, and his Sadducee retinue, avidly persecuting the Christians without pity.218

216 Bell. II 563, 648, 651, 653; IV 151ff., 162ff. 193ff., 208ff., 288ff., 316ff.; Vita (38) 193ff.;(44) 216, (60) 309.

218 Acts 4:6ff.; 5:17ff.; Luke 3:2; John 18:13ff. To the two forged passages should be added the extremely suspect testimony in Josephus (Ant. XVIII 116 ff.) on John the Baptist carrying out a baptismal ceremony in the Christian spirit to atone for sins, without a sacrifical offering and without the Temple, contrary to the Torah. The term “the Baptist” and the man, unknown in Jewish tradition, as is baptism to obtain forgiveness for sins through purification of the body after purification of the soul (as in Heb. 10:22) show this to be a Christian version. A number of scholars came to this conclusion long ago: D. Blondel, Des Sibylles (Paris 1649), p. 28 ff.; Richard Simon (Mr. de Sainjore), Bibliotheque Critique, vol. 2 (Paris 1708), p. 26ff.; H. Graetz, Geschichle (see n. 8 above), vol. 33, p. 293 ff. Origen (n. 223 below) already knew the dubious passage: Contra Celsum 147. (Efron 1987, pp. 334-35)

2. Another “astounding connection with … Acts”

Who are the “most equitable of citizens” who opposed the Sadducees? The Josephan passage is vague. To Efron, read more »

Witch Hunts, an Economic Explanation

I just read an interesting article, How Medieval Churches Used Witch Hunts to Gain More Followers, by Becky Little discussing another article by two economists arguing that “the Catholic and Protestant churches promoted themselves by persecuting witches.”

The original article, Witch Trials, is by Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ and is available as a pdf download. Their abstract:

We argue that the great age of European witch trials reflected non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share in confessionally contested parts of Christendom. Analyses of new data covering more than 43,000 people tried for witchcraft across 21 European countries over a period of five-and-a-half centuries, and more than 400 early modern European Catholic-Protestant conflicts, support our theory. More intense religious-market contestation led to more intense witch-trial activity. And, compared to religious-market contestation, the factors that existing hypotheses claim were important for witch-trial activity — weather, income, and state capacity — were not.<

No doubt historians will debate the economic interpretation, but it looks like one more perspective to consider. I have not yet read the original article since I will need to set aside some decent time for it given the detailed datasets attached to it that would need to be analysed.

One interesting point at a glance is that the Catholic nations appear to be significantly “less guilty” than the Protestant ones.

Four Atheist Responses to a Theist’s “Three Easy Questions”

Since we’ve entered James Bishop’s territory with So far, but no farther… or maybe the journey has just begun let’s respond to one more of his blog posts before moving on. This time James relays a post that originally appeared on Shadow to Light: How to Defeat Modern Day Atheism With Three Easy Questions. (James points out that he does not agree with all of the views expressed so I will focus entirely on the core argument itself and ignore the character slurs.)

No doubt some readers are more practised at this sort of discussion and can provide better responses than mine.

Question 1: What would you count as “actual, credible, real world evidence for God?” If the atheist refuses to answer, he/she will be exposed as Hiding the Goalpost, demonstrating the inherent intellectual dishonesty in such a demand. If the atheist finally answers, there is a very, very high likelihood he/she will cite some dramatic, miraculous, sensational demonstration of God’s power. And that leads to the second question.

Response 1: First define what you mean by “God”. Without a clear definition we can hardly proceed with a meaningful investigation.

Response 2: What I would count as evidence for X (whether a particular God or law or event or person or anything) is the setting up of tests or predictions of what we would expect to find in the evidence given that X is true. That is, I would accept any evidence that was derived from the scientific method.

So if our God is one who is defined as the source of all ethical or moral awareness or consciences, then what would we expect to find in the universe that is evidence of this particular type of God?

We would then look for those sorts of things we expect to find if God was the creator of the universe. The scientific method also requires us to test our findings against alternative explanations so we would need to see in each case if there are simpler explanations for the sorts of evidence we find. The same method requires us to look for evidence that contradicts our thesis, too.

Whatever passes these tests would be evidence that God as a source of morality exists.

Question 2: Why would that dramatic, miraculous, sensational event count as evidence for God? At this point, the atheist will likely try to change the topic. But persist with the question. What you will find is that the reason why the atheist would count such an event as evidence for God is because it could not possibly be explained by natural causes and science. In other words, because it was a Gap. Modern day atheism is built on God of the Gaps logic.

Response 3: A hypothesis becomes acceptable when it accounts for the observed data more simply or more comprehensively than any other hypothesis. If our hypothesis of a particular defined God explains data that no other hypothesis can explain, then yes, that God hypothesis is a great advance in our knowledge. But if other hypotheses can explain the data, and a greater range of the data, than the God hypothesis, then other hypotheses “fill the gaps”.

Question 3: Is the God of the Gaps reasoning a valid way of determining the existence of God? If the atheist has not bailed on you yet, he/she will likely run now. For if he/she answers NO, then it will become clear that nothing can count as evidence for the existence of God. Why? Because if the only “evidence” the atheist “Judge/Jury” will allow in his/her kangaroo court is a Gap (something that cannot be explained by science/natural law), and God-of-the-Gaps reasoning is also not allowed by the atheist, then it is clear the atheist demand for evidence is a sneaky, dishonest game of “heads I win, tails you lose.

Response 4: All scientific is provisional and subject to revision in the light of new findings. That’s the nature of human knowledge. Evolution and gravity are laws that are arrived at by “gaps logic” insofar as they derive from the hypotheses that best explain the evidence to date. In other words, those hypotheses can be said to have filled the “gap” left by the failure of other hypotheses to explain the observed data.

I am reminded of Arthur Koestler’s biography of Johannes Kepler’s search to explain the orbits of the planets. Kepler was bugged by some minute discrepancy in the observations and struggled for a very long time trying to make all sorts of geometric shapes explain the movement of the planets in a way that removed this discrepancy. He worked with orbs, circles, cubes, — all kinds of mixings and matchings of “perfect shapes” that surely had to define the heavenly spheres. Eventually, exhaustingly eventually, he conceded that no “perfect” shape or movement would work. The gap could only be explained by positing an elliptical orbit! And it worked. The gap was filled by the hypothesis of elliptical orbits of the planets and by no other hypothesis.

Now if that elliptical orbit can best be explained by angels who like to move the planets in less than a perfectly circular motion…..


A Scholar’s Gift of Discernment Between Truth and Fiction

When he was twelve years old . . . . they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:42, 46f)

How might a historian determine if there was any historicity to Luke’s story of Jesus at twelve years old sitting in the temple impressing the teachers with his understanding?

Moses I. Finley, a historian of ancient times, confessed to not knowing of any way a historian today could establish the happenings we read about in the works of ancient historians unless we have some independent corroborating evidence from the time contemporaneous to the event. Ancient historians, he said, were faced with huge gaps in their knowledge of the past and very often they simply could not resist the urge to fabricate stories to fill in those gaps. Consequently,

For the great bulk of the narrative we are faced with the ‘kernel of truth’ possibility, and I am unaware of any stigmata that automatically distinguish fiction from fact. . . . .

However, there are biblical scholars who do have the gift of discernment that Finley lacked and who are able to apply it ably to the gospels:

If I may quote my former article (see note 3), I still hold the view there expressed (p. 362) : Jesus shows, in the story in Lk. 2, 42-50, ‘just such self-reliance and intelligent interest in the religion of his country as might be expected in a boy of genius and deep natural feeling. . . . The hero of a folktale would have found his way by some mysterious guidance to the Temple. … A wonder-child in a popular story would have confuted the doctors of the Law, or at least made it clear that he knew all they did and more. … To my mind, the tale cries aloud that it is a perfectly authentic happening.

(Page 131 of Rose, H. J. (1938). Herakles and the Gospels. The Harvard Theological Review, 31(2), 113–142. Retrieved from

That was in 1938, I admit. Surely scholarship has advanced since then and we would not expect to find such naivety tolerated today, would we?

So far, but no farther… or maybe the journey has just begun

I recently read something I liked on a blog run by someone (James Bishop) I would think of as a fundamentalist or certainly very conservative Christian. The article is Why I No Longer Hold to Inerrancy & The Need For A New Model of Inspiration. I was reminded so vividly of my own days of doubt and struggles with faith and attempting to be as honest as I believed I could be with myself.

James was faced with conflicts and at some point had the honesty to acknowledge that they were real:

As a Christian student in New & Old Testament Studies approaching the end of his time at university, I have discovered a number conflicts between conservative, fundamentalist Christian views of biblical inspiration (of which we will refer to as “classical inerrancy” or “inerrancy”) and what I have come to deem, more often than not, sound biblical scholarship.

He acknowledged that

these arguments require serious consideration especially if one wishes to take the Bible seriously and authoritatively.

Honesty. But the commitment remains. Faith is strong.

But here’s the part I particularly liked — with my emphasis:

Prior, however, I used to hold to inerrancy. I also once believed that every single challenge to the Bible was easily answered and refuted, and, for a time, thought that conflicts an inerrant view had with scholarship was a result of some anti-Christian “agenda” or “hate” towards Christianity. That was until I actually examined the alleged errors themselves, and soon realized that the answers provided on conservative apologetic websites were often grounded on little more than revisionist historical theories, fringe scholarly interpretations, fringe science, and contrived explanations attempting to explain away biblical inconsistencies.

What a welcome acknowledgement! The implication is that James Bishop no longer presumes that every challenge to the Bible is motivated by hate or an attempt to destroy Christianity.

It is a welcome acknowledgement because too frequently I read scholars and others accusing those who question the very foundations of the history of Christian origins of surely being driven, as “atheists”, by a hatred for Christianity and with a dedication to attempt to undermine all that is good about it. I refer in particular to those who entertain the possibility that Jesus was not a historical figure, of course.

Later in the post James explains why he parts ways with Bart Ehrman:

Long story short, as result of his discoveries that were in conflict with a conservative, inerrant view of biblical scripture, he [Bart Ehrman] is now one of Christianity’s biggest critics. He has sowed doubt in the lives of many Christians who have too come to realize the falsity of inerrancy. Inerrancy is spiritually dangerous in this way (see my argument in point 4e in this article). I have witnessed instances of Christians falling away from faith as a result of buying into the false dichotomy that one either embraces full blown inerrancy or rejects the Bible (a strawman caricature often embraced by both critics of the Bible/Christianity and inerrantists). Christian scholar Michael Bird captures this well explaining that this “means that if some young Christian comes across a passage of Scripture that is historically or ethically challenging, then they are faced with the choice between belief and unbelief,” and there lies the problem.

The point I want to make is that unlike Ehrman I wish to build up fellow believers in the faith. Unlike Ehrman, I also haven’t thrown in the towel, so to speak. I haven’t rejected Christianity or the inspiration and authority of the Bible.

I was not aware that Ehrman is one of Christianity’s biggest critics. In his recent Christmas posts he came across as still in love with the “fullness of meaning” of the Christmas story as found in the Bible. See Finding “unbelievable fullness of meaning” in the Christmas stories?

The problem, in James Bishop’s view, is that Christians who begin to see flaws in the Bible might toss it out completely. A fair reading of Ehrman’s views shows that even an agnostic or atheist can still express appreciation for the “unbelievable fullness of meaning” found in the Bible. Same for various Christ Myth theorists who have also expressed strong admiration for Christianity (e.g. Couchoud) and who even remain Christians (e.g. Brodie).

Reading James Bishop’s post is a déjà vu experience for me. It stirs old memories of my own past conflicts and strivings for both honesty and faith.

Many people struggle with the same conflicts. I think some of us find a solution to one particular conflict and rest satisfied with their resolution of it. Thus finding a new definition or understanding of what divine inspiration means is one way to reconcile certain facts about the Bible with one’s faith.

Others of us continue to question and don’t just stop when one conflict is resolved. They do not deny other conflicts as they arise. They confront them, and perhaps find new ways of reconciling opposites. Hence a few Christ mythicists, for example, find a way to maintain their belief in God and remain deeply devoted to the Christian message.

Some even go so far as to question why they believe in God at all. Is it true that morality cannot be justified or explained without God?

Some question the Bible and stop there when they find an answer. Some go further and question their faith and some might find a new set of definitions they are comfortable with there, too. Others go further still.

But at no point do any of us need to presume that those who go further with their questioning are necessarily driven by “some anti-Christian “agenda” or “hate” towards Christianity.” Or does that charge arise as a defence among those who cannot, for whatever reason, take their questioning any further? I can imagine believers having a very real fear of atheism and of atheism being a logical consequence of ongoing questioning. All I can say to those believers is, There is no need to fear. I can understand why someone only takes their questioning so far and no farther. We each stop where we feel most comfortable and it’s not for me to tell others they are wrong in choosing to find some solace in a level of religious belief in the short time they are on this planet.

I’d just like to reassure believers that being an atheist, and even having strong views about Christianity itself, does not mean we atheists all condemn individual believers for their choices or that our beliefs are driven by a “some anti-Christian agenda”.


Luke Makes Jesus More Patient with the Fig Tree

Just after posting Why Did Luke Replace the Anointing of Jesus at Bethany with the Sinner Woman Washing His Feet? I came across a similar explanation for why Luke removed Mark’s episode of Jesus cursing the fig tree and replaced it with a far more merciful one.

By sandwiching his story on either side of the Cleansing account, Mark indicates that he wishes the fate of the unfruitful tree to be seen as a proleptic sign prefiguring the destruction of the Temple cultus. The Markan import of the story, therefore, is both eschatological and symbolic.

The harsh import of Mark’s story was recognized by Luke who decided to omit it. The third evangelist replaced the pericope with a characteristic lament for Jerusalem and earlier has Jesus recount a parable of a barren fig-tree to which a period of grace was granted. The Lukan parable intimates that in Jesus’ ministry a time for repentance was offered to Israel and its Holy City. An allegorical tendency is hence discerned in Luke, in keeping with his view of salvation history.

(Telford, W. R. (1980). Barren Temple and the Withered Tree : A Redaction-Critical Analysis of the Cursing of the Fig-Tree Pericope in Mark’s Gospel and Its Relation to the Cleansing of the Temple tradition. Sheffield: JSOT Press. pp. 238f)

Once again, “Luke” evidently did not think he was reading historical memories or traditions about Jesus worthy of preservation and felt at liberty to create a quite different story to teach what he believed to be a more appropriate lesson.

Mark 11:12-14, 20 Luke 13:6-9
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, May no one ever eat fruit from you again. And his disciples heard it. . . .
20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.
And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

As Tim concludes in the previous post,

As you will recall, many scholars think of Luke as a historian and a biographer. The preamble to his gospel, they insist, shows how much he cared about his many sources. Well, perhaps. But we see here that he was quite comfortable with inventing stories, freely repurposing and reusing his sources for his own needs.

How the Author of Acts Rewrote Stories from Luke

As we discussed several months ago, Michael Licona wrote a book about the differences in the gospels in which he tries to explain them away by comparing the evangelists to Plutarch. However, his attempt was stillborn, since his methodology contains a deadly flaw. He proposes that by examining how Plutarch changed stories as he recounted them in different Lives, we can gain some insight as to how the author of Luke, for example, edited Marcan stories.

In the latter case, of course, we can see only how Luke dealt with one of his sources. In the former, we discover how Plutarch rewrote himself. These are two different things. But before we toss Licona’s book aside, let’s consider how we might apply his methodology correctly. Is there any place in the New Testament in which an author created a second work and plainly rewrote one or more stories in a way that might resemble Plutarch’s process?

Resuscitation Redux

Peter: “Tabitha, arise!”

Yes. In the Acts of the Apostles, the author (whom most scholars believe is the same person as the author of Luke) recycled stories told about Jesus and applied them to Peter. You probably already noticed long ago that Jesus raised a young girl (Mark provides the Aramaic talitha) in Luke 8:40-56, while Peter raised a female disciple named Tabitha (Aramaic for antelope or gazelle) in Acts 9:36-42. And no doubt you thought to yourself, “That sounds familiar.”

The author (we’ll call him Luke for the sake of convenience) has left other clues that we’re reading the same story, albeit with different characters set in a different locale. By examining the Greek text, we can discover textual affinities between the two stories.

Acts 9:36  Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. (NASB)

Acts places several important events in Joppa, because historically this town acted as the port city for Jerusalem. Legend has it that the cedars of Lebanon floated via the sea to Joppa, and then were shipped overland to Jerusalem. Joppa is the physical and metaphorical gateway from Judea to the Greco-Roman world.

Luke tells us Peter learned all animals are now clean while visiting Simon the Tanner in Joppa. This fable seeks to explain the change from a faction based in Judaism, with its understanding of what is ritually unclean to God (pork, blood, foreskins, etc.), to something new — a splinter cult on the path to a separate religion that fell back on the so-called Noahide Covenantread more »

Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s “On the Historicity of Jesus”: that “born of a woman” passage (again)

Just in case anyone missed it. . . .  Tim Widowfield of Vridar posted a rather insightful and well-researched article addressing a slight weakness in Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus.

The Function of the Term: “Born of a Woman”


The TW post incidentally addresses a very common deficiency in biblical scholarship that has long been noticed by a few lay readers but that has yet to be addressed by the mainstream scholarly elites who have a vested interest in correcting “misperceptions” about their arguments as they appear on the world wide web.

I will be adding this post in due course to our archive on related articles @ The “Born of a Woman” / Galatians 4:4 INDEX