Monthly Archives: April 2018

Reconstructing Papias and a new look at the Synoptic Problem

After five years of guilty looks at my unread copy of Dennis R. MacDonald’s Two Shipwrecked Gospels: The Logoi of Jesus and Papias’s Exposition of Logia about the Lord, I finally overcame my fear of reading its 700 pages of radically new argument addressing the “synoptic gospel problem” — and was very pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed it. It was not fearsomely complex at all. It was a positively challenging and thought provoking read. Speculative in places, yes, but speculation is always tethered to the rocks of data; it is not free-floating speculation. And much of the discussion is a close examination of composition and density of those data rocks with a view to testing the explanatory power of the thesis.

Before I outline MacDonald’s suggestions let’s refresh our memories of the most common prevailing views of the synoptic problem. The most common view is that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke independently drew upon the Gospel of Mark and another (mostly sayings) source now lost to us, Q:

Still a minority view, but one that appears to be gaining a little more ground since Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q is a revamping of the Farrer thesis:

You can see other proposed solutions to the question of the relationship between the synoptic gospels if you go to the wikipedia link I have added to each of the above models.

Enter Dennis MacDonald and his thesis that includes the writings of Papias. Papias? We know about him from what others like Eusebius and Irenaeus have said about him. You will remember that he was the early second century name associated with a rather bizarre story about Judas (he swelled up until he exploded) yet more soberly with discussions he held with certain elders and accounts of the gospels of Mark (it was a record of Peter’s memories but Mark got the order of events all mixed up) and Matthew (Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew but he got the order of events right).

Papias was said to have written The Expositions of the Logia (sayings and stories) about the Lord in five books. With the benefit of other scholars’ research (especially Norelli’s) into the ancient references to these five books of Expositions MacDonald has attempted to reconstruct some idea of the contents of these respective five volumes.

In the following outline of MacDonald’s resulting suggested (he is far from dogmatic) “reconstruction” I have mostly incorporated extracts from Ben C. Smith’s Textexcavation site.


The Five Books of the Expositions of the Logia of the Lord

read more »


A thought-provoking read:

The search for truth in the rubble of Douma – and one doctor’s doubts over the chemical attack


Postscript on Atheist Tribalism

I am an atheist but for the life of me I cannot see how atheism is any basis for a social community. There are good atheists and bad ones; atheists on the political left and atheists on the political right; classical-music-loving atheists and hard-rock-loving atheists; atheists who loathe anything associated with any religion and atheists who highly respect the religious mindsets of others; atheists who live by conservative moral standards and atheists who are libertine.

If I want to do my bit to help alleviate suffering among victims of a natural disaster or help raise public awareness of the needs of a disadvantaged group, join a political pressure movement or support a charity, I will not do so as an atheist. I will do so because it is the cause that is my prime concern and my atheism, I believe, is irrelevant.

Churches (and government agencies) may well advertise their identity when they send food and medicines to places wracked with famine but I have no interest in exploiting such opportunities to make a statement about my personal belief system. I am sure churches are often sincere when they give but to do so in a way that draws attention to their church identity strikes me as a little compromised. There are few logos apart from that of the International Committee of the Red Cross that I can support.

Last month I wrote what a piece attempting to think through my experience with an online atheist community. I used the term “cult atheism“. On further reflection I wonder if “tribal atheism” or “atheist tribalism” would have been more appropriate. Soon after I wrote that post a number of people informed me that that atheist community site had begun a somewhat heated discussion about me personally. I thought that was strange since so few persons had attempted to engage me in discussion during my time there. So yesterday I finally caught up with that discussion on the AFA site. That’s one more to-do item I can now cross off my list.

Comment: The Vridar Discusses AFA thread seemed to underscore the comparison I made in my earlier post between cultish (should I rather say tribal?) behaviour and that atheist community. Recall in my first post I spoke of excommunication. Let me expand on that. When one is excommunicated from a cult or fundamentalist sect the members pull together and opine on how bad, how “in the grip of Satan”, the banished person both “is” and “always was”. It is as though the one who is excommunicated takes the place of the Azazel goat of the ritual on the Jewish festival of atonement: all the sins of the community are placed on that goat as it is driven into the wilderness.

The same generally (there may be rare exceptions) occurs when a member leaves the fold, willingly, without any formal excommunication announcement. For the group to engage in introspection, to try to examine if their own behaviour may have been at least partly responsible, is rarely part of the script. Rather, the “lost sheep” will be portrayed according to the stereotypes set out in the Bible: they were never truly part of us to begin with; they are in the grip of all sorts of sins; they are in the bond of bitterness; and so on. I find the parallels with the AFA community’s discussion about me after I left the group to be so very familiar.

Anyway, there was one remark made towards the end of that discussion thread that sparked my curiosity. It was suggested that I should have engaged in an “Ask Me Anything” session prior to leaving. Curiosity did get the better of me and I volunteered to do just that and face my accusers and any others also curious. The AFA Forum rules say that “AFA members especially have a duty to portray to the public a disciplined attitude in postings.” We’ll see what happens, if anything.

Part of me would like to try to contribute where I can and no doubt there are many lurkers or members of the forum who do not share the inconsistent and hostile attitudes of a some of the more outspoken voices there. (We’ll see. If anything.)


Democracy, data and dirty tricks —

Are any readers old enough to recall Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders? I see Amazon sells a reissued 2007 edition of it. My copy was already old, published 1960, when I first read it. Hidden Persuaders was my introduction to the way the science of psychology was used by the marketing industry to influence potential buyers by subtle manipulation of emotions.

Much later I finally caught up with Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky; then Taking the Risk Out of Democracy by Alex Carey. Many other works on media have followed and I can now say I have some awareness of the history and methods of how stealthily propaganda has worked to guide “the masses” ever since Edward Bernays and the World War 1 era.

Tonight I watched Four Corners play the ITN documentary Democracy, data and dirty tricks. The promotional blurb reads

Four Corners brings you the undercover investigation that has left social media giant Facebook reeling through the unmasking of the secretive political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

Four months in the making, this ITN investigation for Channel 4 in Britain used hidden cameras to reveal the tactics used by the UK firm Cambridge Analytica to influence elections and undermine the democratic process in several countries.

Propagandists know the importance of avoiding any message that looks like propaganda. Soviet and Nazi propaganda was too crude to genuinely persuade millions. Hence control by fear was even more important than the message. Propagandists in western style democracies are far more successful because they are far more subtle. They know how to manipulate behaviour by appealing to emotions. Head arguments and cold facts are irrelevant.

In the program key persons in Cambridge Analytica are filmed boasting how they won the election for Trump by a mere handful of 40,000 votes in key states. It was their research that led them to target those states and focus on the margin of potential swing voters.

Can we begin to raise awareness and push for the role of propaganda to be taught in high schools as part of a core civics curriculum? Without such community awareness how can we expect democracy to ever survive surface.






The Secret Power of Psychics, Astrologers, Tarot and Palm Readers . . . .

I used to do astrological birth charts for people and I thought I was pretty good at it. Each one required hours of work, too, since I was able to work with so much detail: sun signs, ascendants, house cusps, positive and negative angular relationships, etc etc etc. Even people who did not believe in astrology admitted that my birth chart readings were often accurate. Some sceptics, on the other hand, pushed what I considered to be an unreasonably narrow interpretation on what I had said to “disprove” my claim. My interest in the field was sparked by a hitch hiker I picked up one day while driving through “hippie” commune territory in northern Queensland: just like the Samaritan woman who was astonished when Jesus was able to tell her all about her life, so I was astonished that this stranger was so quickly able to tell me “all about myself”, even my time of birth. I had to find out how he did it and that eventually led me to believing I was investigating how astrology worked.

I was too smart, of course, in my own mind to believe that the planets had some sort of mystical powers on persons so I convinced myself that I was trying to understand the apparently hidden scientific reasons it “really worked”.

With that background I bookmarked Mano Singham’s blogpost, Are all mentalists frauds?, back in January this year and finally today I managed to catch up and read it.

[T]he psychology department chair called me into his office one day, closed the door, sat me down, and proceeded to dress me down for doing palm reading, for taking people’s money under false pretenses, that there was nothing to this paranormal stuff, etc. I sat there listening to him and after he calmed down I said, “would you like me to read your palm?” So he stuck his hand out and I did a reading on him. Then I left.

Two weeks later he called me back into his office, shut the door, sat me down, stuck his hand out, and said “tell me more”!

This really showed me how powerful this stuff can be. — Ray Hyman in the interview.

Mano nails what lies at the core of their “powers”. At least what he says coheres perfectly with my own experience and explanation. At one point Mano quotes Ray Hyman, an erstwhile palm reader, in an interview with a psychologist:

By high school, even though I was a skeptic about most things, I believed in palm reading because it seemed plausible to me since the palm is physically connected with the body.

[T]he late Stanley Jaks convinced me to do a palm reading on someone and tell them the exact opposite of what I would normally say. So I did this. If I thought I saw in this woman’s palm that she had heart trouble at age 5, for example, I said, “well, you have a very strong heart,” that sort of thing. . . . . She told me it was the most impressive reading she had ever had.

(My emphasis)

We see what we expect to see.

The scales began to fall from my own eyes when I faced up to the fact that the more details I included in my birth charts the more opportunities I was creating to find points of contact with the subject.

I also undertook detailed comparison of the various sun signs and what I had till then too often swept to the back of my mind finally came thuddering to the fore: if we removed the headings (Pisces, Gemini, Taurus…) from each description and put all of those anonymous character profiles in a bucket, then have persons pull them out one by one until they found “the one” that describes them, I think we would more often than not have a problem. Without the birth date identifiers attached to each description I believe most people would have great difficulty assigning any one of them to themselves.

In other words, it is the recognition of the birth date that predisposes one to recognize and identify with the connected character description. Yet if we mixed up the birth date labels I think many of us would identify with much of what the new description has to say.

Are you diplomatic? You fit the Libra profile. But if you are adaptable, you are a Gemini, or a Pisces. The different terms can and do apply to pretty much the same personal habits of behaviour, at least close enough for a sensitive and thoughtful person to fit with any of those profiles. Are you analytical? Then you must be Virgo; but if understanding, then Pisces. Or if intellectual, then Gemini or Aquarius. And so forth.

If your sun sign was significantly wrong in some respects then we had your moon sign, or triangular or square patterns between “significant” points in the chart, or the overall shape (bucket, cluster, splay…) of the points on the chart, or which planets were in retrograde, and on and on and on. There is always something there to explain whatever needed explanation.

And if someone didn’t fit a description at all we would suspect his birth was premature or delayed, and sure enough, we’d find out we were right even about that!

Here’s an exercise I would love to try out on a group of people. Write out each character trait used in all twelve astrological sun signs (preferably get a few authorities so we are not relying upon one author alone) and then have each person select, say, 6 traits that best describe them. Next step: see which sun sign those 6 selected attributes match and ask if they are the same as their sun sign. No doubt there will be some matches, so the next step is to assess whether the number of matches are statistically better than mere chance.

Ray Hynam’s account (I have truncated a longer passage that Mano Singham quoted and linked to) hits the mark. I presume a book he addresses, The Full Facts About Cold Reading by Ian Rowland, does the same.

A Well Known Historian Praises Bart Ehrman’s History of Christianity’s Triumph

I have enjoyed and learned from two historical tomes by the popular historian Tom Holland: In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire and Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom. Holland knows how to garnish historical detail and interpretation with narrative colour.

Whose face is the model for this image?

Some days ago Holland reviewed Bart Ehrman’s new book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World in The Spectator: How Christianity saw off its rivals and became the universal church. He had the highest praise for both Ehrman as a scholar and his newest publication:

This is the work of a great scholar, sifting sources, placing them in their historical context, interrogating the assumptions that may condition how we interpret them. There are even some graphs. Indeed, so determined is Ehrman not to be mistaken for a theologian that he makes a point of refusing to speculate as to whether the rise of Christianity was a Good or Bad Thing. . . .

Ehrman is a great scholar, and this — as one would expect — is a book full of learning and nuance.

Larry Hurtado blogged a notice of Tom Holland’s review of Ehrman (while parenthetically noting Holland’s positive words about his (Hurtado’s) own book, Destroyer of the Gods.)

It is nice to see scholars getting along so well, especially from different areas of speciality. We can for a while at least put behind us those times biblical scholars complain that outside critics are not qualified to properly assess the worth of publications of “historian-theologians”. If some readers were becoming just a tad uncomfortable with the inordinately(?) prodigious output of a scholar who simultaneously carries a full-time teaching load they are surely reassured by the confirmation that Ehrman’s new book is further evidence of his scholarly greatness. Now I do not question that Ehrman has made notable contributions to both scholarship and popular knowledge of early Christianity and its sources. Can I be forgiven, however, for suggesting that some of his most informative and valuable publications (e.g. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Lost Christianities…) are some decades old? His recent work that purported to address memory theory in Jesus studies for a popular audience was Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior unfortunately disappointed his peers who are specialists in the current application of memory theory to historical Jesus studies. I am reminded of the ancient historian Michael Grant who wrote more books than he had active years as a classicist. Obviously there has to be a relationship between quantity and quality at some point.

Tom Holland

And not even the most popular of historians and theologians, neither Tom Holland nor Bart Ehrman, are without biases and professional flaws. Holland laid out his own bias when he wrote the following in September 2016:

Why I was wrong about Christianity

It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian. . . .

. . . .

The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. . . . .

Holland, T. (2016). Why I was wrong about Christianity. Retrieved September 16, 2016, from

I have suggested before that Tom Holland has overlooked something that even biblical scholars have noted: that Christianity not only contained novelty; it also encapsulated values that appealed to ancient ideals. See, for example, some of the work by Gregory Riley discussed on this blog.

Since bias is inevitably with us all what we look for in an author is awareness of one’s biases. If Holland appears not to notice his own neglect of an alternative narrative he does at least pick up Ehrman on this point:

Indeed, so determined is Ehrman not to be mistaken for a theologian that he makes a point of refusing to speculate as to whether the rise of Christianity was a Good or Bad Thing. ‘I do not celebrate it either as a victory for the human race and a sign of cultural progress on the one hand, or a major sociopolitical setback and cultural disaster on the other.’ Historians rarely proclaim their neutrality with quite such emphasis.

Perhaps, though, Ehrman protests too much. Neutrality on the topic of Christianity, for historians brought up in the West, can present peculiar challenges. That Christians are parti pris does not mean that agnostics and atheists are necessarily any the less so. No scholar today writing about Isis or Mithras has skin in the game; but Ehrman, when he writes about early Christianity, most certainly does. A one-time evangelical who found the experience of studying biblical texts so destabilising to his faith that he is now an agnostic, he is also an American — and therefore, simply by virtue of being a professor of religious studies, a participant in the US’s ongoing culture wars. Neutral he is not.

What of professional competence, even consistent skill in maintaining the distinction between evidence and justified interpretation on the one hand and more free-wheeling extrapolations on the other? If at least one scholar has found fault with Ehrman’s at times cavalier approach to his material so has at least one other found fault in Holland’s desire to tell an acceptable story outstripping due care to maintain professional standards:

In “Dynasty,” his history of the first five emperors, another British historian, Tom Holland, admits quite candidly, citing Tacitus, that “even when it comes to notable events, we are in the dark.” The Roman historians themselves were well aware of this. Tacitus begins his “Annals”: “The histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified, while they remained alive, out of dread — and then, after their deaths, were composed under the influence of still festering hatreds.” Alas, Tacitus himself was not immune to similar prejudices, nor was our other prime source, the gossipy Suetonius. Holland, too, itches to get on to the juicy bits, quoting Suetonius: “But enough of the emperor; now to the monster.” He always perks up when, as he puts it in his breathless way, “fresh and murderous novelties were brewing,” and he does not always stop to catch his breath and assess just how true it all is. Did Nero really murder his mother and two of his wives, sodomize his stepbrother and deliberately set fire to Rome to make room for his new palace, putting in some lyre practice the while? Did the austere and high-minded Tiberius really spend his retirement in Capri cavorting with nymphets and toyboys in the most esoteric debaucheries? — (my emphasis)

Mount, F. (2015, November 20). Mary Beard’s ‘SPQR’ and Tom Holland’s ‘Dynasty.’ The New York Times. Retrieved from


It’s very nice to have the commendations of scholars from a field outside one’s own. Surely the praise of a “non-biblical historian” can add prestige to the work of a “historian-theologian”. It is worth being reminded, however, that even the most popular historians and theologians are not beyond serious criticism.


Hermann Detering on the place of Gnosticism and Buddhism in Jesus Cult Origins

Recall a post now six months old: The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult — Hermann Detering

René Salm has begun a commentary series on Detering’s article. See

H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 1)

I look forward to doing my own discussions of Detering’s views as a result of a reader very generously working on an English translation in association with Dr Detering himself.


Why Does the Resurrection Happen Off-Stage in the Gospels?

Oedipus Rex

In one of the more memorable scenes in Greek drama, Oedipus reacts to the sudden revelation of his actions by moving off-stage and blinding himself. Critics over the centuries have pointed out the tragic meaning of his inner blindness before, contrasted with his outer blindness afterward. But while Oedipus’s blinding occurs out of sight, a messenger describes the gruesome details.

Jocasta has committed suicide. Oedipus has at long last fully understood the awful truth:

Bellowing terribly and led by some
invisible guide he rushed on the two doors, —
wrenching the hollow bolts out of their sockets,
he charged inside. There, there, we saw his wife
hanging, the twisted rope around her neck.
When he saw her, he cried out fearfully
and cut the dangling noose. Then as she lay,
poor woman, on the ground, what happened after.
was terrible to see. He tore the brooches—
the gold chased brooches fastening her robe—
away from her and lifting them up high
dashed them on his own eyeballs, shrieking out
such things as: they will never see the crime
I have committed or had done upon me!
Dark eyes, now in the days to come look on
forbidden faces, do not recognize those
whom you long for—with such imprecations
he struck his eyes again and yet again
with the brooches. And the bleeding eyeballs gushed
and stained his beard—no sluggish oozing drops
but a black rain and bloody hail poured down.
So it has broken—and not on one head
but troubles mixed for husband and for wife.

(Oedipus the King, Sophocles Translated by David Grene)

Some dispute surrounds the etymology of the word “obscene,” although many insist that it comes from the Greek ob-skene — referring to actions such as explicit sex and violence that must occur off-stage. But while the death of Jocasta and the blinding of her son-husband may be obscene to look at, the Greeks apparently did not find them too obscene to describe.

Oddly, however, the death of Jesus in the canonical gospels occurs “on-stage” and “on-camera,” while his resurrection does not occur within the narrative, nor is it described in a flashback. In Mark, generally believed to be the first narrative gospel, Jesus is crucified, and the people pass by, mocking and deriding him. And when he dies, it happens in full view of Jewish and Gentile witnesses. read more »