Monthly Archives: December 2019

Review, part 6a. Litwa on Dream Prophecies, both Biblical and Greco-Roman

Chapter six of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History : Jesus and Mediterranean Myths is an engaging discussion comparing dreams and prophecies in the gospel stories surrounding the birth of Jesus with similar happenings relating to the births of pagan heroes. Of course, Litwa is not suggesting that the gospel accounts borrowed directly from the pagan myths. Rather, his thesis is that such stories were acceptable among ancient audiences as compatible with historical narratives.

Part of Historical Narrative

Litwa sketches the bare outlines of these comparable pagan dreams and prophecies but the interest his discussion inspires me to quote more extensively from the ancient sources themselves. Notice in the first passage Cicero’s strong linking of what we would call a fanciful tale with “history” and “historians”.

Cicero, On Divination, 1.55

“But why am I dwelling on illustrations from Greek sources when—though I can’t explain it —those from our own history please me more? Now here is a dream which is mentioned by all our historians, by the Fabii and the Gellii and, most recently, by Coelius:

During the Latin War when the Great Votive Games were being celebrated for the first time the city was suddenly called to arms and the games were interrupted. Later it was determined to repeat them, but before they began, and while the people were taking their seats, a slave bearing a yoke was led about the circus and beaten with rods. After that a Roman rustic had a dream in which someone appeared to him and said that he disapproved of the leader [viz, the slave just beaten] of the games and ordered this statement to be reported to the Senate. But the rustic dared not do as he was bid. The order was repeated by the spectre with a warning not to put his power to the test. Not even then did the rustic dare obey. After that his son died and the same vision was repeated the third time. Thereupon he became ill and told his friends of his dream. On their advice he was carried to the Senate-house on a litter and, having related his dream to the Senate, his health was restored and he walked home unaided. And so, the tradition is, the Senate gave credence to the dream and had the games repeated.

And the Roman historian Livy gives us more details of the same, in his History of Rome, 2.36

It so happened that at Rome preparations were making to repeat the Great Games. The reason of the repetition was as follows:

at an early hour of the day appointed for the games, before the show had begun, a certain householder had driven his slave, bearing a yoke, through the midst of the circus, scourging the culprit as he went. The games had then been begun, as though this circumstance had in no way affected their sanctity. Not long after, Titus Latinius, a plebeian, had a dream. He dreamt that Jupiter said that the leading dancer at the games had not been to his liking ; that unless there were a sumptuous repetition of the festival the City would be in danger; that Latinius was to go and announce this to the consuls. Though the man’s conscience was by no means at ease, nevertheless the awe he felt at the majesty of the magistrates was too great ; he was afraid of becoming a laughing-stock. Heavy was the price he paid for his hesitation, for a few days later he lost his son. Lest this sudden calamity should leave any uncertainty as to its cause in the mind of the wretched man, the same phantom appeared again before him in his dreams, and asked him, as he thought, whether he had been sufficiently repaid for spurning the gods ; for a greater recompense was at hand unless he went quickly and informed the consuls. This brought the matter nearer home. Yet he still delayed and put off going, till a violent attack of illness suddenly laid him low. Then at last the anger of the gods taught him wisdom. And so, worn out with his sufferings, past and present, he called a council of his kinsmen and explained to them what he had seen and heard, how Jupiter had so often confronted him in his sleep, and how the threats and anger of the god had been instantly fulfilled in his own misfortunes. Then, with the unhesitating approval of all who were present, he was carried on a litter to the consuls in the Forum ; and thence, by their command, to the Curia, where he had no sooner told the same story to the Fathers, greatly to the wonder of them all, when — lo, another miracle ! For it is related that he who had been carried into the senate-house afflicted in all his members, returned home, after discharging his duty, on his own feet.

Jupiter sounds as cruel as Yahweh. Do any biblical dreams come to mind here, and tardy responses to them?

Contradictory Accounts Not Necessarily a Stumbling Block


Plutarch wrote of the birth of Alexander the Great (2.2-4), at the same time remarking on different versions among the historians. I find it interesting that contradictory accounts did not undermine the conviction that there was historical ‘truth’ behind either tale or both.

Other interesting details of note are that magi from afar appear at the site of the birth of the divine infant; divine lights and signs are seen at least in dreams; and the mortal father of the child divinely conceived if kept from having sexual relations with his wife at the time. Again, notice any similarities with biblical births divinely conceived?

II. All are agreed that Alexander was descended on his father’s side from Herakles through Karanus, and on his mother’s from Æakus through Neoptolemus.

We are told that Philip and Olympias first met during their initiation into the sacred mysteries at Samothrace, and that he, while yet a boy, fell in love with the orphan girl, and persuaded her brother Arymbas to consent to their marriage. The bride, before she consorted with her husband, dreamed that she had been struck by a thunderbolt, from which a sheet of flame sprang out in every direction, and then suddenly died away. Philip himself some time after his marriage dreamed that he set a seal upon his wife’s body, on which was engraved the figure of a lion. When he consulted the soothsayers as to what this meant, most of them declared the meaning to be, that his wife required more careful watching; but Aristander of Telmessus declared that she must be pregnant, because men do not seal up what is empty, and that she would bear a son of a spirited and lion-like disposition. Once Philip found his wife asleep, with a large tame snake stretched beside her; and this, it is said, quite put an end to his passion for her, and made him avoid her society, either because he feared the magic arts of his wife, or else from a religious scruple, because his place was more worthily filled. Another version of this story is that the women of Macedonia have been from very ancient times subject to the Orphic and Bacchic frenzy. . . and perform the same rites as do the Edonians and the Thracian women about Mount Haemus, from which the word “threskeuein” has come to mean “to be over-superstitious.” Olympias, it is said, celebrated these rites with exceeding fervour, and in imitation of the Orientals, and to introduce into the festal procession large tame serpents, which struck terror into the men as they glided through the ivy wreaths and mystic baskets which the women carried on their heads.

Magi in the place where Alexander was born predicted the new child would be a great king who would destroy the Persian Empire. Has the author of the Gospel of Matthew been inspired to emulate or transvalue or simply reapply the function of the magi from the Alexander tradition?

III. We are told that Philip after this portent sent Chairon of Megalopolis to Delphi, to consult the god there, and that he delivered an oracular response bidding him sacrifice to Zeus Ammon, and to pay especial reverence to that god: warning him, moreover, that he would some day lose the sight of that eye with which, through the chink of the half-opened door, he had seen the god consorting with his wife in the form of a serpent. The historian Eratosthenes informs us that when Alexander was about to set out on his great expedition, Olympias told him the secret of his birth, and bade him act worthily of his divine parentage. Other writers say that she scrupled to mention the subject, and was heard to say “Why does Alexander make Hera jealous of me?”

Alexander was born on the sixth day of the month Hekatombæon, which the Macedonians call Lous, the same day on which the temple of Artemis at Ephesus was burned. This coincidence inspired Hegesias of Magnesia to construct a ponderous joke, dull enough to have put out the fire, which was, that it was no wonder that the temple of Artemis was burned, since she was away from, it, attending to the birth of Alexander. All the Persian magi who were in Ephesus at the time imagined that the destruction of the temple was but the forerunner of a greater disaster, and ran through the city beating their faces and shouting that on that day was born the destroyer of Asia. . . . .

Post-Birth Confirmation Prophecy

read more »

Challenging Steven Pinker’s Better Angels View of Human Nature and the History of War

So by this measure too, states are far less violent than traditional bands and tribes. Modern Western countries, even in their most war-torn centuries, suffered no more than around a quarter of the average death rate of nonstate societies, and less than a tenth of that for the most violent one.

Thus concludes Stephen Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2012). He supplies tables to illustrate his point (click on the images to read larger text):

Pinker concludes from the above statistics that concerning warfare there has been a historical “retreat from violence”. Over millennia our species has transitioned

from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history to the first agricultural civilizations with cities and governments, beginning around five thousand years ago. With that change came a reduction in the chronic raiding and feuding that characterized life in a state of nature and a more or less fivefold decrease in rates of violent death. I call this imposition of peace the Pacification Process.

But there is a problem.

Still, there are many ways to look at the data—and quantifying the definition of a violent society. A study in Current Anthropology published online October 13 acknowledges the percentage of a population suffering violent war-related deaths—fatalities due to intentional conflict between differing communities—does decrease as a population grows. At the same time, though, the absolute numbers increase more than would be expected from just population growth. In fact, it appears, the data suggest, the overall battle-death toll in modern organized societies is exponentially higher than in hunter–gatherer societies surveyed during the past 200 years. 

Stetka, Bret. 2017. “Steven Pinker: This Is History’s Most Peaceful Time–New Study: ‘Not So Fast.’” Scientific American. November 9, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/steven-pinker-this-is-historys-most-peaceful-time-new-study-not-so-fast/.  (Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations.)

Here is some detail from that Current Anthropology study by Dean Falk and Charles Hildebot.

The objection raised by Stetka above is that Pinker overlooks the scaling factor when he interprets the raw statistics.

Psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that humans “started off nasty and . . . the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction” (Pinker 2011:xxii). Figure 1 [Figure 2-2 above], reproduced from Pinker, illustrates his main evidence for asserting that states are less violent than small-scale “hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history” (Pinker 2011:xxiv); however, because this figure depicts annual rates of war deaths suffered per 100,000 people, these ratios are blind to actual population sizes. (Falk and Hildebot)

By factoring in population sizes, F&H observe that the numbers of war deaths have increased exponentially as populations increase. Their studies were based on direct war or inter-group conflict deaths relative to population sizes of

  • 11 chimpanzee communities,
  • 24 human nonstates,
  • 19 and 22 countries that fought in World War I and World War II.

Clicking on the following F&H image will enlarge it to allow for clearer detail:

The chimpanzees make an interesting comparison. Chimpanzee communities engage in deadly violence against one another but the numbers of absolute deaths suffered are unrelated to the sizes of their communities.

A Cochran-Armitage trend test indicates that, as mean chimpanzee population sizes increase, the percentages of mean annual deaths from external aggressors that are observed, inferred, or suspected decrease . . . . A reduced major axis regression . . . shows that the absolute number of annual deaths suffered by a population is unrelated to its size . . . . 

Image by Jack Mobley

To come full circle, assertions that humans living in states have become less violent than those living in nonstates, with the assertions being based on blind ratios of annual war deaths relative to population sizes (e.g., war deaths per 100,000 people), are parallel to the untenable assertion that squirrel monkeys are smarter than humans because they have relatively large (blind) ratios of brain sizes divided by body sizes. (F&H)

Are state societies less war-mongering than nonstate societies?

[N]onstates should be viewed as neither more nor less fundamentally violent than the countries that fought in World War I and World War II, because severity of war deaths scales nearly identically with population sizes in all three groups.

The more severe the anticipated casualties in a war the less frequent war occurs.

. . . thus, in 97 interstate wars that occurred between 1820 and 1997, “a 10-fold increase in war severity [war casualties] decrease[d] the probability of war by a factor of 2.6” (Cederman 2003:136; fig. 3). Importantly, wars causing relatively few absolute numbers of deaths occurred frequently; those with moderate deaths occurred less often; and highly disastrous wars (e.g., World War I and World War II) occurred rarely (fig. 3). . . . .

F&H cite other studies that conclude the likelihood of a third “rare” world war is “a distinct possibility” (because decisions to wage war are found to “[depend largely] on innovations in military technology and logistics and alterations in contextual conditions”) . . .

This is especially so because the onerous liability of weapons of mass destruction has failed to obviate further developments in war technology

The relative periods of peace between “rare major wars” is a sign of how extremely severe the next such war will be rather than a hopeful sign that we have become less violent somehow.

. . . not that larger populations are less prone to violence than smaller ones; rather, larger communities are less vulnerable to having large portions of their populations killed by (or entirely wiped out by) external enemies compared with smaller ones (i.e., there is safety in numbers). . . . 

. . . people living in small-scale societies are not inherently more violent that those living in “civilized” states. Our analyses demonstrate that war deaths scale similarly with population sizes across all levels of human society. 

Other scholars have uncovered the same results:

Based on our results, we conclude that trends in proportions of war group size or casualties in relationship to population are, in fact, described by deeper scaling laws driving group social organization subject to contingencies, such as logistical constraints, expedient needs, and technology. . . . 

Indeed, while the probability of being involved in conflict as a member of a war group or as a casualty of conflict in large and/or contemporary societies is lower than in small-scale societies, it might not be driven by any better or worse angels of our nature. This probability might merely be an emergent outcome of differential logistical constraints and group populations. This probability may also change rapidly based on group conflict needs, expedience, and contingency. The demographic investment of any society in its own conflict issues or the lethality of any conflict then is not a matter of proportions but of scale. (Oka et al.)

Prehistoric Warfare?

read more »

Questions for James McGrath: Seeking Understanding

Professor James McGrath of Butler University recently posted on his blog a tantalising article, The Gospel of the Gaps (and the Gaps of the Gospels). I describe it as tantalising because it seemed to promise so much but left readers without answers to the questions it raised.

The post began:

One of the things that mythicists regularly mention is the (in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest copies of texts that mention them.

Yes, that is true. But it is also true that the very same question is raised by many more mainstream biblical scholars. And they suggest different hypotheses to explain that “(in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest . . . texts that mention them.” (I don’t know of any mythicist — and I am sure McGrath knows of none — who argues a case that Jesus did not exist because we have a large gap between purported events and the earliest manuscript copies describing those events. It’s a big world and there are probably some who do argue that but I don’t think they are any more widely accepted than someone who argues for the non-existence of Priam, Agamemnon, Achilles etc on the bases that our earliest manuscripts of Homer are many centuries subsequent to their time.)

But back to the point. Mythicists like Earl Doherty and Thomas Brodie and others do indeed “regularly mention” the gap between events described in the gospels and the apparent fact that the gospels were not written until a generation or two after those events — but they do so by addressing the problem as raised by mainstream biblical scholars. McGrath has read Doherty’s book so only needs to consult its index and bibliography to refresh his memory.

But McGrath’s point is bigger. All of the above is only pointing out the tendentious nature of McGrath’s approach to the question.

The next question is most interesting and one I hoped to see answered:

They clearly have no sense of what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally.

Now that reminds me of a time some years back when I grappled with “How do we know certain persons/events existed/happened” in ancient times? I had studied ancient history for three years as an undergraduate and knew how we knew what we did about Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, for example. Books and lectures would usually begin by setting out and explaining the sources our studies were to rely upon. With the presentation of those sources there was no question, “Did Julius Caesar exist?” We could all see the evidence and the question never arose.

So what is different about the gospels as sources for Jesus?

When McGrath raised the question of “what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally” I was looking forward to at least a summary to explain what that typical thing is. But it never appeared. I suspect the reader is meant to assume that all ancient sources are written long after the events they describe and, well, if we believe them, then we should believe the gospels, too.

But if that was what the reader was meant to assume then the message is a misinformed one.

So here are questions I would like someone to present to Professor McGrath to offer him a chance to encourage serious dialogue. Perhaps his responses could be copied here in the comments.

  • Question 1: What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which our known sources are entirely very late (by a full generation of forty years or more)? By sources, I include here the sources mentioned by the later authors: thus, for example, we have, say, a very late history of Alexander the Great but the author of that source explains how he acquired his information and that it comes from such and such a biographer who lived at the time of Alexander. (The gospels have nothing comparable: Luke’s prologue is as vague and ambiguous as ancient historian prologues are specific and clear.)
  • Question 2: And this is a slightly extended form of the above question. What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which we have no independent evidence to help verify our written sources? By independent supporting evidence, I include here not only archaeological evidence but also other writings that are independent yet testifying to the same event/person.

There are many other questions I could ask but those are the key ones. I have discussed the above points — and many other related questions — about historical methods, in particular the methods of ancient historians and about the writings of ancient historians themselves in many posts. I have also raised the above questions before, but years ago, directly with McGrath. (Just click on the tags related to this post for scores of such posts.)

Maybe add one more question here:

  • Question 3: What are the different explanations biblical scholars have advanced in scholarly works for the gap of 40 to 80 years between the canonical gospels and the time setting of the events they narrate — and in what area of ancient history are there comparable gaps (bearing in mind the relevance of Q’s 1 and 2 above) for which classicists and historians of ancient times propose similar explanatory hypotheses? Or are the canonical gospels in some ways unique and not comparable to the methods normally accepted in the field of ancient history?

Now I certainly admit that some answers may be new to me and I may be forced to revise or at least modify my past conclusions. But I need clear examples to demonstrate the comparability between the generally accepted methods of historians of ancient times and those of biblical scholars. Looking forward to new knowledge and understanding.

Review, part 5 (Litwa on) Jesus’ Genealogy and Divine Conception

My earlier posts on M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History were not my favourites. Negatives about assumptions and methods tended to predominate. But I would not want that tone to deflect readers from the many positives and points of interest in the book. Chapter four discusses Jesus’ genealogies in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the context of genealogies in ancient literature and culture more generally; chapter five looks at Jesus’ divine parentage in the same contexts. Litwa offers a treasure chest of citations for further informed reading to flesh out many of his points. In this post I only follow up a tiny handful.

Litwa refers to a work of Plato that mocked as sheer vanity and ignorance the claims of those who prided themselves in being able to trace their family tree back many generations to someone great like Heracles. But Litwa follows this up by evidence that many of the hoi polloi failed to heed Plato’s admonition. The historian Polybius, for example, made it clear that many readers indeed did love to read about lineages that demonstrated a prominent origin of a heroic protagonist. I have followed up the citations Litwa offers quote both views here:

Plato in Theatetus:

And when people sing the praises of lineage and say someone is of noble birth, because he can show seven wealthy ancestors, he thinks that such praises betray an altogether dull and narrow vision on the part of those who utter them; because of lack of education they cannot keep their eyes fixed upon the whole and are unable to calculate that every man has had countless thousands of ancestors and progenitors, among whom have been in any instance rich and poor, kings and slaves, barbarians and Greeks. And when people pride themselves on a list of twenty-five ancestors and trace their pedigree back to Heracles, the son of Amphitryon, the pettiness of their ideas seems absurd to him; he laughs at them because they cannot free their silly minds of vanity by calculating that Amphitryon’s twenty-fifth ancestor was such as fortune happened to make him, and the fiftieth for that matter. In all these cases the philosopher is derided by the common herd, partly because he seems to be contemptuous, partly because he is ignorant of common things and is always in perplexity.

The historian Polybius confesses he writes for a limited audience in Fragment 9:

For nearly all other writers, or at least most of them, by dealing with every branch of history, attract many kinds of people to the perusal of their works. The genealogical side appeals to those who are fond of a story, and the account of colonies, the foundation of cities, and their ties of kindred, such as we find, for instance, in Ephorus, attracts the curious and lovers of recondite longer, while the student of politics is interested in the doings of nations, cities, and monarchs. As I have confined my attention strictly to these last matters and as my whole work treats of nothing else, it is, as I say, adapted only to one sort of reader, and its perusal will have no attractions for the larger number. I have stated elsewhere at some length my reason for choosing to exclude other branches of history and chronicle actions alone, but there is no harm in briefly reminding my readers of it here in order to impress it on them.

Since genealogies, myths, the planting of colonies, the foundations of cities and their ties of kinship have been recounted by many writers and in many different styles, an author who undertakes at the present day to deal with these matters must either represent the work of others as being his own, a most disgraceful proceeding, or if he refuses to do this, must manifestly toil to no purpose, being constrained to avow that the matters on which he writes and to which he devotes his attention have been adequately narrated and handed down to posterity by previous authors.

You can get a taste of Roman mythical genealogical work from around the era of the gospels at a Classical Texts Library: Hyginus, Fabulae: and another by (Pseudo-)Apollodous on the same site.

But then Litwa reminds us that a post-Pauline letter condemned particular interest in genealogical lines:

Pay no attention to mythoi and endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4)

Elite males spent a great deal of time and money “discovering” and advertising their noble ancestors.15

15. The ability of a genealogy to express male (productive) power is highlighted by the presence of a penis with testicles etched onto a genealogical inscription found at Dodona (in western Greece). In this inscription, a certain Agathon of Zacynthus recorded the link of proxeny between himself and the community of Molossians on Epirus through the mythic ancestress Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess. See further P. M. Fraser, “Agathon and Kassandra (IG IX.12 4.1750),” Journal of Hellenic Studies 123 (2003): 26-40

(pp. 79, 241)

Litwa does not draw attention to the point, but this passage, although post-Pauline, must surely have been penned before our canonical forms of the gospels of Matthew and Luke found wide acceptance. He does, however, point out the close association of myths and genealogies in both this pastoral epistle and in the words of Polybius (quoted above). Good reason underlay the association. Genealogies were very often social constructs (with various tweaks and outright fabrications) to make political points. Litwa explains:

Genealogies show that the line between mythos and historiography is often quite thin. About 100 BCE, the grammarian Asclepiades of Myrlea divided the historical part of grammar into three categories: the true, the seemingly true, and the false. There is only one kind of false history, said Asclepiades, and that is genealogy. It is genealogy that he expressly called “mythic history” (muthike historia). In his system, genealogies were even less true than the stories presented in comedy and mime. (p. 79)

Litwa discusses other historians (Herodotus, Livy, Josephus) and literati (Aristophanes, Hyginus, Cicero) who mocked lofty genealogical claims. Nonetheless, they carried serious import, too, as when the kings of Sparta established their right to rule by tracing their families back to Heracles himself. The Spartans were not alone in such “legitimizing” genealogical claims. Alexander claimed descent from the last native Pharaoh of Egypt, the family of Julius Caesar claimed descent from Aeneas of Troy, and therefore also from the goddess Venus, and so forth. The Roman emperor Galba claimed descent from Jupiter. Another emperor better known to many of us, Vespasian, was well known to have had relatively humble origins and accordingly mocked certain flatterers who attempted to assign a lineage back to Heracles.

What of that “little problem” in the gospels that trace Jesus’ genealogy through to Joseph who was not, according to the story, the literal father of Jesus? No problem, Litwa points out:

Yet when we compare other mythic genealogies, these kinds of hitches did not seem bothersome to the ancients. The Greek biographer Plutarch, for instance, fleshed out the genealogy of Alexander the Great. Plutarch recorded the common tradition that Alexander, through his father, Philip, was a descendant of the god Heracles. One would think that this impressive genealogy would be ruined by the fact that, according to widespread perception—and Plutarch’s own report—Philip was not Alexander’s biological father. Plutarch himself narrated that Zeus impregnated Alexander’s mother, Olympias; and Olympias supposedly acknowledged this point directly to the adult Alexander.

Yet these conflicting reports did not seem to impose cognitive dissonance. A concept of dual paternity was possible. As most people in the ancient world knew (and perhaps believed on some level), Alexander’s real father was the high God Zeus, though he was also the “son of Philip.” (p. 84)

Litwa suggests that the evangelists responsible for the genealogies of Jesus in our Gospels of Matthew and Luke were creating a “mythic historiography” that had a strong appeal to certain readers and served to exalt the status of Jesus in a way comparable to the myths or legends associated with other potentates.

And yet the point of a genealogy is to show that an author was at least trying– despite innacuracies — to use the tropes of historiography. (p. 79)

Divine Conception

read more »

Memory and History: Christmas Football in No Man’s Land

We tend to forget that before the First World War broke out, pundits of all stripes debated as to whether workers in European nations would actually fight. That is, would they align themselves to their nations or to their class? In the end, the socialists decisively lost that argument, with the overwhelming majority of workers marching to the frontlines, dying in unheard-of numbers in a futile struggle.

Culture, language, religion, and the land itself bound workers to the nation-state, whether or not the existing governments protected their interests. The common bond of labor meant little in comparison to the granfalloon of the state.

Still, one can hardly blame the intelligentsia, the ruling classes, the capitalists, the bankers, and others for doubting whether the lower classes would fight. After all, the upper classes of Europe and America had enjoyed a long tradition of camaraderie and mutual understanding. The Tsar of Russia had much more in common — culturally, economically, and politically — with a factory owner in Paris than with some faceless peasant breaking his back in Ukraine.

One can easily understand the French workers’ response in 1914 since the very survival of France was at stake. But what of the British? Would they fight for “the integrity of Belgium”? In short order it became clear: They would fight and die in the trenches alongside the French.

From the start, the fighting was furious and deadly, with casualty rates unknown in previous wars, including the American Civil War, which had hinted at the coming horrors of mechanized, industrialized warfare. So when the nations in the Western Front agreed to a Christmas truce, the combatants on the ground appreciated the time figuratively to lick their wounds.

Neither side, apparently, had expected what happened next. read more »

A “Be Best” Dimmerick

Melania said, “It’s mind-numbing,
This incessant media drumming.
I’ve explained it all fully.
Barron must not be bullied,
But that bitch, Greta, she had it coming.”

Rereading Literature and History — Some Thoughts on Philip R. Davies

The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.

–Harry S. Truman

You have to start somewhere. That’s a distinct problem. How do we go about learning a subject as vast as biblical studies or biblical history? We could dive right in with some of the classics of text and form criticism, but we probably won’t fully understand them, because we don’t have the proper foundations.

Some of you may have taken survey courses at university in world history or American (or whatever your native country might happen to be) history. These courses tend to serve two purposes. First, they provide a means for students majoring in other studies to have some sort of foundation in “how we got here.” Second, they serve as a jumping-off point for those of us who continue on to our degrees in history.

Learning and unlearning

Every historian (amateur and professional) in America knows or at least should know our dirty little secret: that freshman history students face a serious disadvantage, because they must unlearn most of what they learned in high school. They must clear away the happy, feel-good history in which we are always the good guys and everything turns out well in the end. Imagine, for a moment, that you had learned medieval alchemy in high school only to discover in Chemistry 101 at your university that you don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

Survey courses in biblical studies or NT studies in some universities purport to do the same sort of thing. That is, they expose students to another way of thinking about the Bible other than what they learned in Sunday School. I took such a class in 1978 at Ohio University, and in many ways, I would consider it a positive experience. However, I would later discover that much of what I had accepted as bedrock could not stand up to stronger scrutiny.

I admit that my work in history in the mid-1980s at the University of Maryland should have alerted me to the obvious problems with biblical studies. However, it took the work of the so-called minimalists to push me in the right direction. I stumbled onto Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past completely by accident while wandering around a Barnes and Noble somewhere in Atlanta. (My job took me on frequent road trips back in the ’90s and the aughts.) The book (in hardback) apparently had not sold well, and they marked it down significantly. Lucky me.

Reading and rereading

Philip Davies (1945-2018)

Thompson asked questions I had never considered. It soon became clear that I had never asked these sorts of questions, because I had been properly trained not to. Beyond that, American education generally favors the notion of “moderation” as a virtue in and of itself. Surely only an extremist would question the historicity of Moses or Solomon. And extremism in the pursuit of anything is a vice. Surely.

Despite my proper training, one simple question — “How do we know?” — began to gnaw at me, the way a steady drip wears away stone. For me, Thompson more than anyone else gave me permission (so to speak) to ask even more dangerous questions. However, it took me longer to get up to speed with Philip R. Davies. (See Neil’s tribute to the late, great scholar here.)

For example, I had started In Search of Ancient Israel but never finished it until this past summer. Longtime Vridar readers will recall that Davies, and especially this book had a huge impact on Neil. You can find much more detail about this work over at the vridar.info site. For more related posts here on vridar.org, follow the tags above. (Below, I’ll be referring to the second edition of this work.) read more »

Trumpian Style Response to Mythicism

I am catching up on too my long-neglected RSS feeds and came across this post from James McGrath: Jesus, James and Peter Mythicism.

It is worth noting precisely what it is that mythicists do with Paul’s references to Jesus in his letters, and just how easily the same could be done with James, the brother of Jesus, whom most mythicists accept was an actual person, while denying that he was actually Jesus’ brother.

Now there is a sweeping confidence about what “mythicists” — a whole block of persons — believe and “precisely” do, or at least “most of them”. Maybe most do. I don’t know. But there are a lot of crackpot mythicists just as there are even more crackpot “Jesus historicists” (usually called fundamentalists, creationists, biblical literalists). Lumping them all together with blanket assertions about what “they” do does not seem like a useful way to open up a discussion.

They emphasize that he is not called “the brother of Jesus” but “the brother of the Lord” as though the Lord, for Paul, were not clearly Jesus. Some have even tried to claim that he was the brother of Yahweh, showing that mythicists are clutching at straws and have no real understanding of what ancient Jews and early Christians believed. (My emphasis)

Again, notice how we begin with the universal “they” and how that elides to “some” but then returns to that same starting point, “the whole bang lot of them”. No need for citations, of course, because the message is that “they all” think and argue the same way. Would McGrath be content if a “mythicist” lumped together all authors of books about the life of Jesus by believers, apologists and others?

“Some have even tried to claim that he was the brother of Yahweh”, writes McGrath. Regretfully he provides no citation. The ones I can recollect who do argue for this do not merely “claim” it; they present a reasoned argument referencing the sources. But let’s move on. The message is that because “some claim” this point it follows that we can see that “mythicists clutch at straws with no real understanding of what ancient Jews and early Christians believed.” “Some” is evidence of what the entire collective is like. (Two points: is McGrath seriously suggesting that “ancient Jews” did not equate Lord with Yahweh, but with Jesus, and that “mythicists” are showing their ignorance on this point? Second point: never mind that the evidence used by that “some” sometimes includes a comparable letter by Paul, the one to the Romans, in which very often, not always, uses “Lord” alone to refer to God, Yahweh, and as a rule makes it explicitly clear whenever he wants us to think that “Lord” applies to Jesus instead. One might be tempted to turn the tables and ask who is showing their lack of “real understanding” of the evidence of what Jews and early Christians believed”.)

And so why don’t they go further still? Paul went up to Jerusalem. Surely this could refer to a heavenly journey to the heavenly Jerusalem, during which he met Jacob, Yahweh’s brother. Simple! After all, Paul himself says that he was taken up to the third heaven.

Perhaps the answer is that mythicists, like McGrath, take the context as a primary pointer to meanings of particular words. Perhaps also because the word for “went up” ἀνῆλθον (anēlthon) is the normal word used for someone traveling up to a town, or a mountain (as in John 6:3) while a “real understanding of what ancient Jews and Christians believed” would inform us that when visionaries “went up” to the heavens they never “walked up” or “went up” as if on a journey of their own: they were seized, grabbed, swept up by an outside force — a different concept and a different word (ἁρπάζω (harpazó) ) is used by Paul to describe his being taken up to the third heaven.

I like reading the works of biblical scholars because I generally have lots to learn from them. I get disillusioned when I find some of them write as if they can get away with spouting misinformation to the generally less informed public.

My objection to this (in case you are starting to think maybe I’m onto something) is that it is the same approach religious fundamentalists take to the text, deciding what it is allowed to mean in advance, and then accepting any interpretation that provides that desired meaning, without discussion or consideration of whether the text more likely means what they think it should. Mythicists prooftext rather than exegete.

Again, where is a citation to support this statement? My own experience has been that I always began with the assumption that James was a real person and that he was believed to have been the brother of Jesus. It never occurred to me — even as an atheist — that Jesus never existed or that there was any reason to question the face-value of this passage in Galatians. It is only on closer examination that some — not all — some mythicists have raised the alternative question. McGrath claims to have read (presumably completely read) Richard Carrier’s book on mythicism, so he knows that Carrier even concludes that this passage in Galatians does indeed add significant weight to the argument for the historicity of Jesus. (The difference between Carrier and McGrath, though, is that Carrier does not turn to this or any other passage as a proof-text and use that one text, like a fundamentalist, to prove a much larger point. Context, and understanding the totality of the writings and manuscript histories are important in any scholarly — genuinely scholarly — analysis.)

I happen to think that the passage does mean exactly what McGrath says it means. I also happen to agree with another author who, in the process of arguing against — against — Jesus mythicism, had the honesty to admit that the patristic history of that passage really does raise serious questions about its authenticity. But that’s a discussion for serious scholarship. I trust McGrath won’t just pooh-pooh those arguments but seriously engage with the evidence as honestly as possible.

No, I am not saying that Howell Smith’s arguments are a slam dunk. There is room for honest doubt and question. What I am saying is that arguments from “proof-texting” — as it seems McGrath is accusing mythicists and of which I believe he himself is guilty — is not the way to go in any serious and informed exploration of the question.

I titled this post “Trumpian response”. I define a “Trumpian” as an attempt to persuade followers through disinformation not to read critical views of his position on things; to persuade followers that all “other views” are by definition “fake news”, and to be ridiculed and rejected out of hand. Certainly, one should never waste time actually reading both sides of a question for oneself and seriously raising the sorts of questions I have raised here among die-hard supporters.

 

 

The First Edition of John as the Dionysian Gospel

Highlighted citations are my additions to footnotes.

4 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 28-29, 30-32.  — John 1:1-5, 14, 16, 18 Bacchae 1-4 ….

5 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 29.  — John 1:6-8 Bacchae 10-12

6 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 29-30.  — John 1:9-12 Bacchae 26-30

7 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 38-40.  — John 1:19-51 …..

8 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 40-44, 67. — John 2:1-11, 20:30-31  Bacchae 142, 704-7, 712-13

9 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 46-49. — John 5:2-9  Bacchae 180-98, 204-09

10 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 48-49. — John 3.1-24  Bacchae 187-89, 193

11 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 51-55. — John 4:1-42  Bacchae 704-5; 216-223

12 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 64-67. — John 6:53-66  Bacchae 139, 735, 739, 1133-36

13 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 68-71, 89-95. — John 8:12-19; 18:28-19:16 Bacchae 460-506

14 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 71-73. — John 8:32-37, 58-59  Bacchae 498, 641, 432-518

15 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 73-75.  — John 9:1-41  Bacchae 319…

16 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 75-76. — John 10:39-42 Bacchae 636-37

17 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 79-81. — John 11:6-44 Bacchae 498, contra 1374-76

18 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 81-82. — John 11:45-50, 53-57  Bacchae 677-774, 778-80, 784-85, 352-56

19 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 82-83.  — John 12:12-15, 17-19  Bacchae 216-20

20 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 83-85.  — John 13:1, 31-35; 14:4, 6, 31; 15:1-2, 4  ….

21 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 85-87.  — John 18:1-13  Bacchae 434-46

22 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 96-100. — John 19:17-30  Bacchae 1115-21

23 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 102-08. — John 20:1, 11-18  Bacchae 1212, 1298…

24 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 108-09. — John 20:19, 21-23 Bacchae 1340-41, 1354-56; John 20:30-31 Bacchae 1388-92

25 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 79.
26 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 102-08

Numerous and dense parallels rise to the level of highly probable to certain indications of dependence on the Bacchae of Euripides. Such dependence can be seen in a wide range of ways, from identical and unique word choice, to themes and dramatic settings, to character developments and plot twists.

• Like Dionysus, Jesus is a god who comes to earth in mortal disguise.4

• He has a champion heralding him.5

• The people’s leaders reject him.6

• His symbolic names abound.7

• Jesus’s first, stage-setting miracle is clearly a Dionysian one; both bring forth wine miraculously.8

• Yet that is only one of numerous, identity-establishing miracles that the two share in common. Jesus and Dionysus both make old men move as if they are young again.9

• Both prompt devotion from old men in spite of competing family loyalties.10

• The Johannine Jesus provides his own miraculous supply of water and attracts women followers known for their promiscuity, just as Dionysus was famed to do.11

• Both vex their initiates/disciples with the requirement of eating the god’s raw flesh and drinking his blood.12

• Iesus Dionysos is harshly interrogated as to his provenance and paternity.13

• He is the liberator of slaves.14

• He is the one whom his opponents cannot see but the formerly blind clearly can.15

• He is the one who can miraculously escape arrest.16

• He is the one whose initiates travel safely into the underworld and are brought back to life.17

• Jesus and Dionysus are similarly opposed by god-fighters.18

• Yet both are equally acclaimed by many groups of people.19

• Jesus imitates Dionysus even as he rivals him as the true grapevine.20

• Both willingly meet their own arrest.21

• Though the ignominy of the crucifixion and lack of vengeance are uncharacteristic of Dionysus, the Johannine Jesus still plays a Bacchae-inspired role in his imitation of Pentheus, the murdered king.22

• The Johannine resurrection interweaves characteristics of Dionysus and Pentheus in its depiction of the defiled, royal corpse being raised within a garden and women followers who surround him but also do not initially recognize his body.23

• The disembodied apotheosis of the first edition of John is hallmark Dionysus.24

Other adduced parallels run the gamut from uncertain to puzzling. In these occasions, it may simply be that MacDonald knows these texts far better than readers like I do and that he sees connections that have to be explained point by point to the uninitiated. For example, Mary’s anointing of the feet of Jesus is adduced as John’s depiction of Jesus as “a different kind of lover from Dionysus.”25 Yes, Jesus is a murdered king like Pentheus, but why is it that Mary Magdalene rather than Mary the Mother plays the part of the mother of Pentheus, who cannot recognize her son’s body?26 Caveats notwithstanding, these minor quibbles and questions do not impair MacDonald’s Dionysian argument in the least.

(Bilby, 49-51. Formatting is mine)


Bilby, Mark G. 2018. “The First Dionysian Gospel: Imitational and Redactional Layers in Luke and John.” In Classical Greek Models of the Gospels and Acts: Studies in Mimesis Criticism, edited by Mark G. Bilby, Michael Kochenash, and Margaret Froelich, 49–68. Claremont, Calif: Claremont Press.