Monthly Archives: November 2018

“Now we know” — how ancient historians worked

In 1935 the foreign correspondent of a certain English newspaper, finding himself without much material to report, despatched to England stories which supposedly dealt with the build-up to the Abyssinian war but which were in fact derived from an old colonel’s military reminiscences, published several years previously in a book entitled In the country of the Blue Nile. The correspondent’s newspaper was delighted with the reception given to these stories by its readers, and accordingly sent him a series of congratulatory telegrams – whereupon a colleague remarked to him: ‘Well, now we know, it’s entertainment they want!’41 The colleague had only then come to realize what had been known long ago to Tacitus, to whom the foreign correspondent’s technique would have seemed very familiar.

41 For a full account of this amazing and instructive story see Knightley (1975), 176—7 (whose book should be recommended reading for those who wish to understand how ancient historians worked). The reporter who deceived his newspaper and the public on this occasion assumed (quite rightly) that no one could check his stories on account of the distance involved. The same is even more true of ancient historians (see above, p. 153), who lived in a world where communications were so much more difficult.

Woodman, Tony. 1980. “Self-Imitation and the Substance of History. Tacitus, Annals 1.61-5 and Histories 2.70, 5.14-15.” In Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, edited by David West and Tony Woodman, 155, 235. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Noah’s Birds and the Documentary Hypothesis

Noah, a few birds, and a mermaid

Neil recently posted about the Documentary Hypothesis, citing Thomas Brodie’s Genesis as Dialogue (2001), a book I enjoyed but in the end did not convince me to abandon the DH. While reading the post, one quotation caught my eye.

Nor do the two diverse types of bird (the raven and the dove, 8:6–12) mean two sources. In Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Noah-like Utnapishtim sends out three diverse birds—a dove, a swallow, and a raven (Brichto, 1998, 114) — but that does not mean three sources. (Brodie 2001, p. 182)

This sort of overstatement, which comes with implicit eye-rolling and foot-tapping, plays well to the converted, but falls flat among the rest of us. Do DH adherents think there are two sources merely because there are two species of bird? Surprisingly, no.

Here are the arguments, briefly:

  1. Gen. 8:7 is self-contained.
    • Noah releases the raven.
    • The bird goes out and returns, back and forth, until —
    • “the water dried up from the earth.” The flood is over; the narrative restarts at 8:8, wherein water still covers the earth.
  2. The language in 8:7 is different from the language in 8:8.
    • Noah releases the dove from him.
    • The words translated as “earth” in this passage and in 8:7 are different.

read more »

Is Josephus Evidence that a Messianic Movement caused the Jewish War?

A historian specializing in the study of Josephus, Steve Mason, presents a case that the war that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple was not prompted by any messianic movement among the people of Judaea. Rather, Mason suggests that the prophecy of a ruler to come out of the east and rule the entire world was a product of hindsight and that there is little reason to think that there was a “messianic movement” propelling the Jews to rebel against Rome.

I can’t hope to cover the full argument set out by Mason in A history of the Jewish War, AD 66-74 in a single post but I will try to hit some key points from pages 111 to 130 here.

To begin. It is a misunderstanding to think that we can read the works of Josephus as if they were a chronicle of facts happily shedding light on the background to the rise of Christianity.

History as Tragedy

To get the most reliable data from Josephus we need to study his works in the context of other historical writings of his day. In that context it is evident that Josephus is writing a “tragic history” — a narrative that he presents as a tragedy, a form of narrative with which his Greco-Roman audience was familiar. As a tragedy Josephus seeks to elicit tears of sympathy from his audience by using all of his rhetorical skills to portray graphic suffering and misfortune. In War Josephus opens with the proud Herod whose hubris is brought low by the misfortunes that follow. The audience knows how the story ends and knowing that only adds to their awareness of the tragedy in each scene. The irony of temple slaughter at Passover time would have been as clear to Roman as to Jewish readers: Passover was known to have been the festival of liberation.

A tragedy needs villains and Josephus fills his narrative with an abundance of “robbers” or “bandits” who polluted the temple, just as per Jeremiah 7:11 said they would.

Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?

Josephus was in good literary company since we find the same motif being drafted by the Roman historian Tacitus when narrating the destruction of the central temple in Rome:

Thus the Capitoline temple, its doors locked, was burned to the ground undefended and unplundered. This was the most lamentable and appalling disaster in the whole history of the Roman commonwealth. Though no foreign enemy threatened, though we enjoyed the favour of heaven as far as our failings permitted, the sanctuary of Jupiter Best and Greatest solemnly founded by our fathers as a symbol of our imperial destiny . . . was now, thanks to the infatuation of our leaders, suffering utter destruction. (Hist. 3.72 — I am using my Penguin translation and not the one used by Mason)

Josephus blends Jewish and Greek literary motifs in his tragic narration (Mason, pp. 114-121). A stock motif in tragic narrative were omens of imminent disaster and ambiguous prophecies that would mislead the hapless victims.

Tragedy’s Stock Omens and Prophecies

A motif that was virtually universal in ancient historiography was that a change of ruler should be preceded by omens and prophecies. We see it in the history of Tacitus describing the ascent of Vespasian (I quote from LacusCurtius, Histories, Book 2.78- the extract is not quoted by Mason): read more »

Did the Roman Emperors Use Josephus to Help Pacify the Jews?

The Caesar’s Messiah myth proponents appear to involve Josephus in some sort of conspiracy to pacify the Jews. Their primary method, according to their view, is that Josephus was involved in the creation of the Christian religion as a kind of pacifist-messiah cult to replace their traditional supposedly militaristic messiah cult said to be found in their Scriptures.

I recently had a difference of opinion with Joseph Atwill, author of Caesar’s Messiah, over whether Josephus’s history of the Jewish War was an “official” history. I had written that it was not an “official” history in the sense that it was commissioned or ordered to be written and vetted by the emperor. (The claim I was responding to was that “Josephus was employed to write the official history” and that is quite simply incorrect.) Joseph Atwill was nevertheless right to correct me insofar as I should have added that the emperor Titus, Vespasian’s son, at least did like Josephus’s history and ordered it published, at least according to Josephus’s own account. In his Life or autobiography Josephus boasted about his history of the Jewish War:

Now the emperor Titus was so desirous that the knowledge of these affairs should be taken from these books alone, that he subscribed his own hand to them, and ordered that they should be published; and for king Agrippa, he wrote me sixty-two letters, and attested to the truth of what I had therein delivered…

Why would Titus have done that if the Caesar’s Messiah theory of Atwill is correct and that history of the war apparently exposed the “truth” behind the gospels, that Jesus was a pacifist foil to Titus the conqueror?

Yet there were many other historians writing about that war at the time and Josephus compares his work with theirs:

Yet persons with no first-hand knowledge, accepting baseless and inconsistent stories on hearsay, have written garbled accounts of it; while those of eyewitnesses have been falsified either to flatter the Romans or to vilify the Jews, eulogy or abuse being substituted for factual record. . . .

Yet the writers I have in mind claim to be writing history, though beside getting all their facts wrong they seem to me to miss their target altogether. For they wish to establish the greatness of the Romans while all the time disparaging and deriding the actions of the Jews. But I do not see how men can prove themselves great by overcoming feeble opponents! Again they are not impressed by the length of the war, the vastness of the Roman forces which endured such hardships, and the genius of their commanders, whose strenuous endeavours before Jerusalem will bring them little glory if the difficulties they overcame are belittled.

However it is not my intention to counter the champions of the Romans by exaggerating the heroism of my own countrymen: I will state the facts accurately and impartially.

Josephus is telling readers what they would have expected to hear about other historians of the time, that they wrote flattering propaganda extolling the power and all-round superiority of the Romans while deriding the weakness and ineptness of their enemies, the Jews. Josephus, on the other hand, did point out certain failings of the Roman soldiers and the courage of his own countrymen. His own Judaeans, he writes, gave the Romans their money’s worth in order to win their victory.

The question must be asked, then, why did Titus, according to Josephus, prefer his work rather than one of the many other historians of the day? Why would Titus have ordered more widely disseminated a work that did not ostensibly flatter the Romans or denigrate the Jews?

I think Steve Mason in his study of the Jewish war gives a cogent answer to that question:

Why, then, might Titus have promoted Josephus’ work?

Titus was reportedly a man of the arts and letters (Suetonius, Tit. 3.2). Pliny’s dedication of his Natural History declares Titus an excellent judge of literature, with unmatched ability in oratory, letters, and poetic composition.226 Granted Pliny’s hyperbole, such interests might suffice to explain some level of support for his protege turned author Josephus. Titus recognized quality when he saw it, and might have preferred Josephus’ obviously knowledgeable account to the thin agitprop of the Flavianist hacks.227

Second, the obvious independence of Josephus’ War could have been useful. After all, Christians would exploit Josephus’ work precisely because it was so clearly Judaean that it could not be suspected of bias toward them (Chapter 1).

Third, after the war it was in the rulers’ interest to rehabilitate Judaeans, the dominant and traditionally stabilizing ethnos of southern Syria (Chapter 4). Would not such a mature political analysis by one of the region’s prominent aristocrats, written from realist premises, help everyone to settle down? Titus’ endorsement and broader dissemination of Josephus’ War could help to tamp down lingering hostilities and unproductive reprisals as in Alexandria and Antioch (cf. Ant. 12.122-24).

(Mason, pp. 129-130)

That to me sounds more likely than the Caesar’s Messiah hypothesis. Josephus was as prepared to point out failings of the Roman armies at times as well as the courage of his own people against them. read more »

Fishing for Parallels

“But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the LORD, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks. — Jeremiah 16:16

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And passing along by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. — Mark 1:16 -17

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They lay in heaps in the blood and dust, like fish that fishermen have dragged out of the grey surf in the meshes of their nets onto a bend of the beach, to lie in masses on the sand gasping for the salt sea water till the bright sun ends their lives. Thus, like a catch of fish, the Suitors lay there heaped upon each other. — Odyssey, Book 22, 380ff

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Nakht escapes from the clap-net in which the divine ‘fishermen’ seek to trap him (spell 153A). Papyrus of Nakht, late 18th or early 19th Dynasty, c. 1350-1290 bc.

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On this papyrus the illustrations to two spells, 153A and 153B, appear side-by-side. Both concern the deceased escaping from a net stretched by the gods to entrap her. The vignette of spell 153A, at the right, shows an open clap-net stretched between two pegs, one of which bears a human head. The text relating to this spell contains the deceased’s declaration of knowledge of the components of the net, by means of which she avoids being caught in it. . . . To the left is the vignette of spell 153B, ‘for escaping from the catcher of fish’. Three gods are shown hauling on a large net which they are dragging through the water to catch those who are unworthy of entering the next world.

 


  • Homer. 1946. The Odyssey. Translated by E.V Rieu. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books.
  • Taylor, John H., ed. 2010. Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead : Journey through the Afterlife. London: The British Museum Press.

 

 

When is a parallel a real parallel and not parallelomania?

The question of parallels has been raised in different posts and comments lately on Vridar.

Firstly, I questioned Joseph Atwill’s claim that there was a parallel between Jesus calling disciples to become “fishers of men” beside the “sea of Galilee” and a scene in Josephus’ War where Romans kill drowning Judeans in a battle that had spread to a the lake of Galilee. I also took exception to his parallel between the act of cannibalism that Josephus narrates in the same work and the gospel accounts of the Passover.

Soon afterwards, I posted about parallels between the Hebrews Bible and certain Hellenistic myths and other literature in relation to the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum. Further, I posted something by a classicist, Bruce Louden comparing a scenario in the Odyssey with the biblical story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to which I added further details between Greek myths and the Lot story identified by Wajdenbaum.

So am I being inconsistent in being critical of one of Atwill’s parallels but posting without critical commentary some of the work by Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum  and Louden?

One reader, Austendw, has posted a frequent criticism when this topic surfaces, and no doubt he speaks for many others. I copy just part of his comment:

And as for Saul in Mizpah, you relate Saul in hiding among the baggage, to Rachel hiding the teraphim in the saddlebag. The Hebrew says merely that Rachel “put” them in the saddle-bag; a nit-picking difference perhaps, but bearing it in mind reveals that, apart from the common place-name Mizpah, (a different Mizpah of course – it’s an extremely common place name in the OT), there isn’t a single verbal correlation between the two passages. Therefore your comment that Saul turns up like “Laban’s long-lost idol” (singular, though Laban’s teraphim were plural), strikes me as nothing other than your own imaginative eisegesis; you have imposed a meaning on the text and thereby constructed a parallel between the two stories that simply isn’t found in either of the texts themselves.

The details are indeed very different. But what is it, then, that makes it a “genuine” parallel in the minds of some others? Are we stretching different images almost to breaking point to make them seem somehow, even bizarrely, like one another? Is it reasonable to compare a person hiding in baggage and another person putting an incriminating object in a saddlebag?

Ideal Type compared with specific details

In order to try to understand what is going on here, to help us understand if we are manufacturing artificial parallels or discovering “real” ones, here is something written by Robert Price in The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. Price is addressing a concept developed by the sociologist Max Weber, the Ideal Type. (Ideal relates to the world of ideas, not perfect ideals.) read more »

Two Mini-Apocalypses, Greek and Biblical & A Common Mythic Grammar

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before….

There was once a very pious man who lived in a city that had been taken over by very wicked people.

Messengers from the deity came to visit that pious man and were very impressed with his hospitality toward them even though he did not know they were divine persons on a divine mission. These messengers also witnessed the wickedness of those around him.

So the divine agents stepped in to help that pious man in his troubles with the wicked ones

First, they (the messengers) warned the pious man that the deity was going to destroy all those wicked folk.

Meanwhile the wicked people not only ignored the warning that they also heard but continued in their wickedness, including forbidden sexual behaviour.

The pious man was so pious that he even tried to warn the wicked doers that they were about to be destroyed but they ignored him.

Finally, all the wicked perish.

Further destruction awaits those who ignore a specific divine interdiction.

I dare say most readers would have recognized the story of Lot, his daughters and wife, and the people of Sodom.

Ancient persons more familiar with Homeric epics would have recognized the story of Odysseus’s homecoming.

I should emphasize that I am not arguing for influence between the Odyssey and the biblical account, nor a common source. Rather, I suggest that as both accounts share a considerable number of motifs, a similar “grammar” underlies each myth.

(Louden, 96)

In Genesis 19 we read how Lot welcomed two strangers not realizing they were in fact angels. As we know, like Abraham before him he passed the hospitality test. Odysseus was similarly tested by a divinity in disguise:

Athene now appeared upon the scene. She had disguised herself as a young shepherd, with all the delicate beauty that marks the sons of kings. A handsome cloak was folded back across her shoulders, her feet shone white between the sandal-straps, and she carried a javelin in her hand. She was a welcome sight to Odysseus, who came forward at once and accosted her eagerly. ‘Good-day to you, sir,’ he said. ‘Since you are the first person I have met in this place, I hope to find no enemy in you, but the saviour of my treasures here and of my very life; and so I pray to you as I should to a god and kneel at your feet. (Odyssey, Book 13 Rieu translation)

The goddess Athene repeatedly helps and advises Odysseus in order for him to be able to reclaim his household from the evil suitors who have taken over everything of his. The suitors were all earnestly hoping to have Odysseus wife Penelope, but in the meantime they slept with Odysseus’s maidservants, wasting his resources, and acting violently towards strangers and guests, so that their “insolence and violent acts cry out to heaven.”

The evil suitors merely laughed at the warnings of their imminent doom. read more »

Deciphering the Gospels Webpage

And while we’re looking at updates to recent books, R. G. Price has an informative webpage for his book Deciphering the Gospels. It’s an active page, too, meaning Price is regularly adding to it in responses to common criticisms. Click on the image to pay a visit.

 

Time Shift Hypothesis Presentation

Youtube now has a PowerPoint presentation of Lena Einhorn’s hypothesis on Jesus and the Egyptian Prophet/the Shift hypothesis.

It is a somewhat longer version (45 min. ) of the presentation Lena made at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in 2012. I like the idea of visual presentations over text posts. I might do something similar one day.

We have posted a few times on Lena’s Time Shift hypothesis on Vridar.

 

 

A Balanced U.S. Policy in the Middle East

It’s nice to see some balance and even-handedness by the U.S. in the Middle East at last. Some of us had been somewhat concerned that the U.S. was the lackey of the state of Israel but recent events have served well to remind us that the U.S. is just as willing to advance the interests of the “the Arabs”, too.

Trump’s Saudi First Foreign Policy Strikes Again (by Daniel Larison)

citing

US ‘slams the brakes’ on UN Yemen ceasefire resolution (by )

The US has “slammed the brakes on” a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a limited ceasefire and increased humanitarian aid in Yemen over concerns about angering Saudi Arabia, two sources tell CNN.

Trump’s outrageous Saudi propaganda statement from last week confirmed that he would happily lie to defend Saudi Arabia from any and all criticism, and now he is shielding them from international scrutiny and pressure at the U.N. He is not just serving as a Saudi mouthpiece, but acts as their lackey as well.

Understanding Historical Evidence

Steve Mason

This post is a presentation of a few of the key points set out by Steve Mason in his 2016 study A History of the Jewish War, AD 66-74. The points are taken from the first part of his second chapter titled Understanding Historical Evidence. I found his explanation a most enjoyable read because it coheres so closely with the explanations of other historians I have posted about here and it offers a strong correction to the way so many historians, especially those in theology departments, have tended to do history.

Most of the post is a paraphrase or quotation of some of Mason’s points except where I have introduced my own voice or given examples relating to Christian origins or the historical Jesus and the uses of the gospels as sources. I have sometimes reformatted Mason’s text and any bolding added in the quotes is my own; italics are original. So let’s start.

–o–

It is mistake to pick up a primary source like Josephus’ War or Plutarch’s Lives or the Gospel of Luke and think we can just “extract raw facts” from them “while ignoring their nature, structures, and themes.” Before we can take anything as a fact we need to understand what, exactly, our sources are and if they are even capable of answering questions we would like to put to them. But too often

Historians are often impatient with theory. We feel that we know what we are doing, and abstract philosophizing can get in the way. We should just get on with the hard work.

(Mason, 61)

Too often historians and their readers think that all that is required is to follow wherever the evidence leads in order to produce an authoritative account of the past. If a historian or philosopher of history starts talking about analysing literary sources as literature before using those sources to elicit facts to tell us what happened in the past some voices will protest that such a procedure is only for the “literary types” and not relevant to the historian. Mason’s warning is worth taking seriously:

In the final months of preparing this book I have heard professional historians express such views as these: History is the past or an authoritative account of it; historians must follow the evidence and avoid speculation; history concerns itself with elite literary texts and neither material evidence or the life of ordinary folk, which are the province of archaeologists; historians are either maximalists or minimalists, realists or postmodernists, left-wingers or conservatives, or they fall in some other two-kinds-of-people scheme. A problem relevant to this chapter is the notion that those who care about the meaning of texts must be literary types unconcerned with the actual past. And these positions are held by historians. If we include more popular ideas about history, including those espoused by political leaders and school boards, the picture becomes bewildering.

(ibid)

Mason cites a reviewer of one his own works to illustrate the point. I can cite a critic of my approach studying the gospels who makes the same point graphically:

McGrath, James F. 2008. The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith. BookSurge Publishing. p. 57

(I was surprised to see that even Matthew Ferguson appears to accept that stark division of labour between historical and literary approaches to a source text so I have to suspect that this misleading concept is more prevalent than I would hope and that Mason acknowledges.)

Our job description

A common belief is that history can be discovered by a painstaking effort to sort through sources and extract the facts of the matter from them. Sometimes the sources will be contradictory and then we need to make a judgement about which set of facts to follow. The point that is taken for granted is that the point of the inquiry is to come to know what actually happened. Historians are expected to be able to give an authoritative account of the past. But there is a but: in ancient history the nature of the evidence simply does not allow us to “know” in the way we would like.

Ancient historians must make their peace with uncertainty because that is where the nature of surviving evidence requires us to live much of the time. Our job description is to investigate responsibly, not to know what happened.

(ibid, 63)

read more »

Why internet trolls mindlessly repeat . . . .

They’re merely trying to use the debate to show that they and their positions are superior.

Oh yes. And it explains why they resort to insult and ridicule when called upon to engage in a defence of their claims.

Oftentimes, she said, people aren’t really having a discussion when they argue about politics. They’re merely trying to use the debate to show that they and their positions are superior.

“An effective piece of rhetorical persuasion usually happens when people are trying to honestly resolve a conflict, otherwise, all you’re doing is just fighting—which we see all too easily in our society,” Matelli explained.

At this point, in her view, it might make the most sense to simply end the argument — instead of letting it devolve into insults and competing slogans.

H/T Alternet: A rhetoric professor explains why internet trolls mindlessly repeat ridiculous right-wing slogans

 

Telling lies for Jesus mythicism

[Josephus] was employed to write the official history that we have. The other histories from this period have been destroyed ruthlessly by the Romans. Josephus tells us this in very chilling passages how the Romans exerted complete control of the literature of this period. There were alternative histories of the Jewish war written, while the Romans rounded up the writers of those histories and executed them. They rounded up all the copies of those histories and destroyed them. That is to say they ruthlessly wiped out any alternative history, so that the only history we have is written by Josephus.” — Dr Rod Blackhirst, Lecturer in Religious Studies, La Trobe University

On my shelf I have a book titled Telling Lies for God by I.R. Plimer. I was a bit disappointed in it when I read it because I thought it was itself misrepresenting some of the apologist arguments and could have had more credibility by not sometimes garnishing the facts at hand.

Not long ago I took up a request to engage with a video on youtube, Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Christianity. The presentation contains so many exaggerations and falsehoods that it would take me forever to address in detail, but I did tackle some of them here and here. Some of the contributors interviewed, namely Dr Robert and Timothy Freke, did not make any extravagant claims, but others did — namely Joseph Atwill, Rob Blackhirst, John Hudson and D.M. Murdock/Acharya S.

One point I have not yet addressed in depth, however, and that is the claim I placed in the quotation box at the top of this post, the one made near the video’s beginning by Dr Rob Blackhirst. To fast forward to the conclusion, I am astonished that a serious academic employed at a bona fide university could mouth such total fabrication. Not a word of what is quoted is true, but that’s what he claimed for the “benefit” of viewers of the video.

Point #1. Josephus’s history of the Jewish war is not an “official history”. It was Josephus’s personal history that did not have to be submitted for approval to the emperor or his agents.

Point #2. We have no record to substantiate the claim that “other histories from this period [the period of Josephus in the time of Vespasian and Titus] have been destroyed ruthlessly” — or leave off the “ruthlessly” and just say “destroyed”. There is absolutely nothing in the sources that permits Rob Blackhirst to make that claim.

Point #3. Alternative histories were written? Romans rounded up their authors and executed them? These claims are absolute fabrication. There is not a shred of evidence in our records that any such things ever happened.

Not quite. There is another series of false claims from about the 17th minute. We hear the following: read more »

A Response to Dr Sarah, Geeky Humanist, on the Jesus Question

Dr Sarah of FreethoughtBlogs.com Geeky Humanist has posted two interesting posts in favour of the historicity of Jesus. It makes a wonderful change to read arguments on this topic that are expressed in a civil and calmly reasoned tone. Her first post is Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: an argument in favour of the latter; her more recent one, Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: a reply to R. G. Price. This post gives my take on her earlier essay. (All formatting and bolding in Dr Sarah’s comments is my own.)

If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers.

If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as an actual person who walked the face of the earth and did normal (as well as miraculous) things.

Dr Sarah finds the first option the more simple one.

My first thought is that the two options are embedded in faulty, or at least questionable, assumptions. If the gospel figure of Jesus did indeed reflect the life of an ordinary person then the two horns of the dilemma are both a quandary. If, on the other hand, we pause to reflect that the earliest gospel that we believe to have been written was the Gospel of Mark, then we have quite different options. That’s because in the Gospel of Mark the Jesus figure is most unlike any ordinary human figure in ancient (or modern) literature. He is a human, of course, with brothers and sisters and a mother, and he eats and drinks. But he is unlike any other figure in works that we know to be ancient biographies or histories. He is presented to us “cold”, that is, without us having any knowledge of who the biographer is or why he is even writing about him. Without any explanation of how the author came to know anything about his life, he is depicted as engaging in conversations and activities with spirit beings both in heaven and on earth. He calls and mere mortals drop all their livelihoods in a moment and obey. He reads peoples minds and hearts. He exercises God’s prerogative to forgive sins and rules the physical elements. He talks in mysteries so none can understand, and though he explains all his mysterious messages to his disciples, even they don’t truly believe. Even his disciples are far from genuine human beings: they walk as if mesmerized into obedience to follow him at his call; they are unrealistically stupid in not recognizing his power despite seeing it demonstrated time and again; they, along with the crowds in the narrative, come and go as the author needs them, not as per any realistic plot device. In other words, Jesus is depicted in the earliest gospel as a figure of a human but certainly something trans-human. The story-line is absurd — quite against the grain of the way real people really are and how real people really respond — if read “realistically”. But if read a ciphers, or symbols, or personifications, or mouthpieces for some particular set of beliefs and doctrines, if read as a parable or symbolically, the story makes perfect sense.

We have evidence to encourage us in our view that this earliest gospel’s Jesus and disciples (and even his enemies and other persons that appear in the narrative) are far from realistic or natural. That evidence lies in the way that the subsequent evangelists (“Matthew” and “Luke” — even “John”, some would argue) changed Mark’s Jesus and disciples into somewhat more realistic figures. (“John”, on the other hand, went in the other direction and made him even less human.) “Luke” even reduces Jesus to a martyr in the tradition of the Maccabees.

With that background, the two horns of the dilemma are modified somewhat:

  • If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers.
  • If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as a parabolic or allegorical type of person who walked the face of the earth conversing with humans and spirits and did many inexplicable things and spoke in ways that his hearers did not understand.

Or maybe I should make the dilemma a triceratops with a third horn:

  • If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how two of the three canonical evangelists who followed their earliest predecessor “corrected” his account and made him and his followers a little more realistically human.

Okay, you might think I’m playing with that second option a bit too loosely. But how else might it be worded given what we know about the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus and characters generally?

Dr Sarah proceeds to set out her reasons for embracing the historicity of Jesus in five dot points. I address each one. read more »