Monthly Archives: January 2020

Guest Post: Further Thoughts on the “We Passages” in Acts

[I have copied the following comment by Greg Doudna to a post here so the thoughts do not get lost in the comments section and are easier to read and engage with. Format slightly changed — Neil]

–o–

The argument that the “we” passages of Acts are an origin story of the church at Rome starting from Troy, sort of like the way (here in the northern hemisphere) the Pilgrims on the Mayflower is a foundation story told each Thanksgiving of how “we” Americans came to North America from Europe . . . is intriguing. Without gainsaying the intriguing positive part of your argument, an objection is that in its present form, Acts does not make a point of starting from Troy. Yet the “we” from Troy to ending up in Rome is sufficiently striking that it seems there must be something to what you suggest, here and in your previous series on this on Vridar (all of which I went back and read). That is, on the one hand, something seems to be there, but on the other hand it seems so subtle it seems questionable that the author of Acts intended it or that ancient first readers would have noticed. Therefore let me make some probings that might address this objection, basically in terms of a source interpretation.

1.

First, that the “we” is the final author of Acts, despite the presentation of Acts that that is the case, cannot be correct on chronological grounds of the dating of Acts. Much literature and argument here with which you and most here are familiar, but here is one that I have not seen cited here or receive much attention anywhere yet, but which appears solidly and independently to argue for, indeed may establish, a mid-second CE dating of Acts: Laura Nasrallah, “The Acts of the Apostles, Greek Cities, and Hadrian’s Panhellenion”, JBL 127 (2008): 533-566. Also and separately arguing for the same mid-2nd CE dating, David Trobisch, “The Book of Acts as a Narrative Commentary on the Letters of the New Testament: A Programmatic Essay”, pp. 119-127 in Gregory and Rowe, eds, Rethinking the Unity and Reception of Luke and Acts. Andrew F. Gregory, C. Kavin Rowe (University of South Carolina Press, 2010).

2.

Second, that the “we” reads as the author or the author’s circle inviting readers’ identification vicariously–an inclusive authorial “we”–is the portrayal, yet that cannot be correct historically, therefore it is deception on the part of the actual author. Third, while earlier comments you have made show well that Acts is not history in the sense of Thucydides or Josephus, and is fiction-like, at the same time I question that it is properly called fiction either. Were not ancient romances and actual ancient fiction understood by readers to be just that–entertaining stories, not to be taken too seriously, not history? (Like Jesus’s parables or Aesop’s fables.) But Acts reads as intended by first authors and readers to be understood as history, tendentious history, but history, analogous to the way colonists’ might answer outsiders if asked “where do you come from? how did you get here?” Acts seems to be analogous to conscious writing of a foundation story, constructed history, not meant to be objective but to establish a shared foundation story understood emically as history . . . “our history”, “history as we have decided it to be” . . . in a text which explains–as a claim of history–why salvation history has come to where it now is, in Rome. (With the harmonization of Peter and Paul founding figures and the golden age of the first generation all part of this.) The “we” device works with this in Acts’ final form literarily.

3.

From here I now move to increasingly tentative conjecture. The starting point is the “we” passages may be from a source reworked. It is generally understood that Acts has worked from and reworked other sources, such that it is not unreasonable to suppose the “we” itinerary may be one more. I am not going to try to prove that, but assume that for purposes of conjecture going forward, in which, if that assumption is correct, some interesting possibilities may or may not emerge.

4.

Fourth, it has been brought out (Hyldahl, Justin Taylor and others) that the “we” passages connect together in what reads as originally a single itinerary, despite reading in present-form Acts as separated in narrative over a period of years. The conclusion seems to be that an original itinerary has somehow been “exploded” with narrative filler in between sections of an original connected “we” source itinerary.

5.

Fifth, though I do not have space to go into this point here, suffice it to say I am convinced the ship voyage from Jerusalem to Rome of Acts, and the ship voyage of Josephus to Rome in Vita, are the same ship and shipwreck. I do not find fully convincing that the similarities in details are explicable in terms of literary tropes; instead, it is two versions of the same ship and voyage. I perceive that the only reason this is not more recognized is because of a perception of a chronological discrepancy of ca. two years. Yet the dating of Paul’s voyage to Rome in Acts depends on the datings of the Felix/Festus and Festus/Albinus accessions which continue to be recognized as problematic, uncertain, and debated as to specific years. The argument for identity of the two ship voyages seems to me to be sufficiently strong as to itself justifiably introduce weight on the still-unresolved issues of the dating of the Felix/Festus accession.

6.

Continuing, sixth, the strong study of William Sanger Campbell, The “We” Passages in the Acts of the Apostles: The Narrator as Narrative Character (Leiden: Brill, 2007) is of interest, in arguing that “we” replaces the role of Barnabas narratively. As Acts has it, Barnabas exits the picture at 15:39 before the “we” narratives begin at 16:10, but Acts has arguably mixed up and rearranged story fragments and doublets in its narrative construction. I suggest (this is not Campbell) that the long-disputed mystery of who “we” is may be resolved as: it is the voice of Barnabas. The voice is that of Barnabas, of the original source where we read “we” in the second part of Acts.

7.

This then raises the question of who was Barnabas? I suggest consideration, seventh, that Barnabas could be none other than Josephus, and that the “we” source, which ends at the point of Paul’s trial in Rome, could be something of an ancient account, in first-person voice, of a legal advocate for Paul, namely Josephus, somehow related to Paul’s trial in Rome.

Begins and ends with Josephus?

read more »

Repeat notice: Your Comments and Our Spam Problem

Repeating this post for any commenters who may have missed it the first time. We are still experiencing the spam tsunami and sometimes genuine comments get caught up in trash but be patient and I will get to them even if it takes some hours. Otherwise, do contact us if your comment does not appear after “a significant amount of time.”

Tim posted a fortnight ago:

Please accept our sincere apologies if any of your comments aren’t posted to the blog immediately. Recently, we have been weathering a spam tsunami, and our current settings may be triggering some false positives. As we work things out, you could experience delays.

If a significant amount of time goes by, and you still haven’t seen your comment appear, drop us a line via email or ping us on Facebook.

  • Neil: neilgodfrey1 [AT] gmail [DOT] com
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As always, thanks for reading Vridar. We always appreciate your input and your support.

Dangerous Charisma, 2: How the Leader (Cult, Trump . . .) Unlocks the Followers

What follows is not an attempt to explain every person who supports Trump. But if the shoe fits, wear it, as the saying goes. What is uppermost in my mind as I read Post and Doucette’s analysis of the dynamic between a certain kind of charismatic leader and his/her followers is my own experience of strong attachment to a cult leader. Does it fit? Does it seem to apply in non-religious settings? I have posted much about the process of radicalization (especially why people join terrorist groups) and found strong similarities in the psychology involved there and the process of conversion to cults. Let’s see what Post and Doucette say about “the charismatic leader-follower relationship”. This post is a survey of their chapter 7. Bolding and formatting are my own in all quotations. Page references are from the electronic version.

Our authors do not believe much can be gained by either a study of the psychology of Trump or the psychology of his followers, but what is of interest is a study of how the two feed off each other, the dynamic between the two.

The relationship between Trump and his hard-line followers represents a charismatic leader-follower relationship, whereby aspects of the leader’s psychology unlock, like a key, aspects of his followers’ psychology.

Remember the Jonestown massacre. Post and Doucette cite work by Abse and Ulman who studied the psychological dynamic between Jim Jones and his followers.

[I]n times of crisis, individuals regress to a state of delegated omnipotence and demand a leader who will rescue them, take care of them.

(p. 110)

I have skipped past Post and Doucette’s analysis of Trump himself so permit me to simply state things will have to be justified in a future post. The idea expressed is that Trump “feeds off the adoration of his followers”. What has led to this type of personality is an “injured self” that finds remedy in the confirmation and admiration of others. Where does an “injured self” come from? Two roads lead to it:

  • the individual who has been deprived of mirroring adoration from rejecting parents,
  • and a more subtle variant, the individual who has been raised to be special, contingent upon his success.

In the second pathway, a very heavy burden can be placed on a child. Expectation of success can generate troubled insecurity. That’s the kind of person who “feels compelled to display himself to evoke the attention of others.” The attention seeker who is never satisfied, who is constantly seeking new audiences for ongoing recognition.

People who are constantly craving attention and admiration do best when they have the ability “to convey a sense of grandeur, omnipotence, and strength.

And here’s the hard part for many of us:

Leaders such as Trump, who convey this sense of grandiose omnipotence, are attractive to individuals seeking idealized sources of strength; they convey a sense of conviction and certainty to those who are consumed by doubt and uncertainty.

(p. 111)

I recall the many stories of fellow members of the cult of how “God called” each of us through some crisis in our lives. We were ready for the taking, experiencing doubts and uncertainty.

Now obviously not everyone who goes through a time of “doubt and uncertainty” is going to join a cult or vote for Trump. But it is a factor for many and it is at those times that most of us are vulnerable:

This was evident in Trump’s support from rural areas and the working class, where Trump’s motto “Make American Great Again” (MAGA) had a strong resonance. Despite his lack of any concrete policy, his tweets concerning “JOBS, JOBS, JOBS” had resonated with many of his followers, especially those who are struggling and feel abandoned by the last administration.

(p. 111)

We all see how Trump loves large rallies; even after the election was over he has continued with them. In the cult I don’t think we were disloyal enough to commit the thought-crime that our grandiose leader, “God’s Apostle”, “God’s End-Time Apostle”, was basking in the admiration of his followers even when the stood to applaud whenever he entered and left an auditorium on a speaking tour.

The leader thrives off the admiration of the crowd; his insecurity and self-doubt are buried in it. But the crowds need the leader as much as he needs them.

There is a quality of mutual intoxication for both sides, whereby Trump reassures his followers who in turn reassure him of his self-worth. Even before current rallies, his followers will line up hours early, waiting to fill even sports stadiums that can seat 10,000, continuing to chant “Lock her up!” During the rallies, Trump continues to use his externalizing rhetoric attacking any opponents or focusing on the immigrant crisis, despite calls from fellow Republicans to focus on issues like the economy. But it is this rhetoric that draws in his followers, who chant, “Build the wall! Build the wall!” One can compare it to a hypnotist mesmerizing his audience. But the power of the hypnotist ultimately depends upon the eagerness of their subjects to yield their authority, to cede control of their autonomy, to surrender their will to the hypnotist’s authority.

(p. 112)

read more »

Rome, Troy and Aeneas — model for the story of Acts?

In a former life back in 2006/2007 I wrote a series of posts suggesting that the “we passages” in the Book of Acts were the author’s technique of vicariously bringing his Roman readers into his narrative as they followed the story of the founding of a second kingdom in Rome. Rome was replacing Jerusalem as the “headquarters” for God’s people and Acts was written primarily for a Roman audience. Those “we passages” begin with Paul leaving the region of Troy, or “the Troad”, and beginning a wandering mission that saw a temporary delay in Jerusalem where his destiny was almost brought to an end, before finally reaching Rome where the book ends. I suggested, encouraged by the views of Marianne Palmer Bonz iirc, that the structure of the narrative was built around the Roman founding epic of Aeneas leaving Troy to found Rome, being detoured on the way via Carthage where his destiny was almost overturned.

Twelve years later and here I am with two new books that encourage me to wonder if that interpretation of Acts, and in particular the “we passages”, had something going for it.

The first one:

Henry Gibbs, 1654

Erskine confirms that the Aeneas epic and Trojan origins of Rome was certainly a major propaganda myth during the time of emperor Augustus and was still being popularized throughout the period of the Julio-Claudian emperors. That’s the era of the “dynasty” stemming from Julius Caesar (more specifically from his distant nephew Augustus Caesar) through to emperor Nero. Speaking of the “Augustan preoccupation” with Aeneas, . . . .

Many ancient writers are introduced into his discussions about how Aeneas escaped from Troy, his route to Italy and especially on the foundation of Rome itself. . . . 

Aeneas is leading his son Ascanius by the right hand, while his father Anchises sits perched upon his left shoulder. This image has been found in many parts of the empire on coins, finger rings, and lamps, in painting, relief sculpture, and statuary, and the most likely explanation for this uniformity is that they are all based on a common model, namely the statue of Aeneas in the Forum of Augustus.

(Erskine, pp. 29 f)

That was in the Augustan period. That technically ended with the death of Augustus in 14 CE. The preoccupation with the story of Aeneas fleeing Troy and being destined to be responsible for the founding of Rome was the consequence of the victory of Julius Caesar’s “nephew” Augustus Caesar over Mark Anthony concluding the civil war period:

The predominance of the Trojan myth may have been the result of the political rivalries of various families; just as the Mamilii favoured Odysseus and the Fabii Herakles, so the Iulii [=Julians] and the Memmii favoured the Trojans. Aineias’ [=Aeneas’] martial prowess could perhaps have appealed to the militaristic Romans more than Odysseus’ cunning, or maybe the attraction lay in Aineias’ piety.66

66 On the piety of Aeneas see Bömer 1951: 39–49, esp. 47–9.

. . . . .

Ilion [=Troy] had a special place in the ideology of the Iulio-Claudians, a dynasty that invoked Trojan ancestry to justify its ascendancy in Rome. . . . In acting as patrons of Ilion Caesar and Augustus were acting in the same way as successive rulers in the east had done before them over the centuries. . . . Support for Ilion and promotion of Trojan ancestry may have gone some way towards repairing relations with Asia Minor at least.

(pp. 145, 245 — I have not had access to the Bömer reference. Virgil certainly dwells heavily on Aeneas’s piety in his epic poem The Aeneid)

Troy remained significant to Romans after the death of Nero in 69 CE, though. The emperor Hadrian paid a special visit to Troy in 124 CE. If Trojans did feel they were being neglected in the imperial propaganda they made up for it by reasserting their distinctive place in the mythohistory of Rome:

In response Ilion [=Troy] may have felt the need to reassert its Trojan identity; it is in the reign of Hadrian that Hektor makes his first appearance on Ilian coins, the first new Trojan hero to do so since Aineias and Anchises about 150 years before. Caracalla’s visit in the early third century was more a homage to Alexander and Achilles than to Troy or Rome’s Trojan past.Nevertheless, Rome’s Trojan origins are again in evidence when Constantine is planning his new city in the East. He is said to have begun construction of the city on the plain in front of Ilion before God intervened and directed him to Byzantion. The story, however, may merely be the product of later mythologies about the foundation of Constantinople.

(p. 253)

But concerning the time of the composition of Acts we have more concrete evidence in the epic poem of Lucan. Lucan was forced by Nero to commit suicide in 65 CE. He was not allowed to live long enough to complete his epic poem Pharsalia about the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. That poem is a total opposite of everything Virgil wrote about the journey of Aeneas from Troy to Italy. Lucan’s epic has even been called an anti-Aeneid because it strongly appears to be an attempt to undo all the idealism in Virgil’s epic about Aeneas.

On Lucan’s poem as ‘anti-Aeneid’, Conte 1994: 443–6.

(p. 249. Google Books gives access to 443-444, 446, but not 445. Anyone has access to p. 445 will gain my appreciation if they could forward it to me.)

Lucan’s witch of Thessaly, Erichtho

Lucan evidently knew of Virgil’s Aeneid and sought to undo what to him was its sickening idealism. That is, as late as the reign of Nero (54-68 CE) the ideal of the pious Aeneas fleeing the great city of Troy to found the Roman nation was known well enough for Lucan to write an “anti-epic”, an “anti-Aeneid”, in response.

One passage in Lucan’s epic, Pharsalia, speaks of a Thessalonian witch who can raise the dead and speak in horrific sounds to tell the future (book 6). It is difficult not to be reminded of Paul exorcising a demon-possessed girl in the same region who speaks of the future with respect to Paul in Acts 16:11-15.

So the Aeneid, the grand propaganda epic of the heroic and pious Aeneas fleeing Troy to commence his God-ordained destiny to found the imperial city of Rome, was “a topic of conversation”, let’s say, towards the end of the first century CE at least. The point was, of course, that the Roman rulers, and then Rome itself, were the spawn of the great Troy.

The second: 

I’m not alone in proposing that the “we” in Acts is an attempt by the author to draw the readers into the story and its destiny.

I will argue that the use of the passages is probable evidence of the presence of the author or his source along with Paul . . . and that the we-passages serve the additional function of pulling the reader into the story by implying ‘our’ presence and participation, at least in spirit, in the Gospel mission. Parallels for this device can be found elsewhere, especially in early Christian literature. Often in such visionary passages, the narrator identifies the person reporting the dream as ‘he,’ but this is quickly followed by a reference to the effect which the vision has on ‘me’ or ‘us’, and thus the vision or prophecy is linked to the work at hand: its truth is established by a divine blessing, or the author (distinguished from the one who reports the vision) chooses this moment to step into the narrative with a personal reflection or mention of mission: a mission into which the reader may be implicitly drawn. The emergence of the author into his narrative gives permission for the extension of his message out to include the community of which he is a part.

(Smith, pp. 171 f.)

It’s time . . . read more »

Once more on Jesus’ humble origins and that presumed criterion of embarrassment

Concerning Aesop’s lowly origin:

While Aesop is defined βιωφελέστατος in the incipit of the Vita, meaning ‘very useful for life’, ‘great benefactor of mankind’, he is, in effect, an ugly and misshapenslave of Phrygian origin who, throughout most of the biography, is at the service of his master, Xanthus. In his case too, it is the modest, or better, lowly, origins which make the hero’s life so remarkable.

Andreassi, Mario. 2015. “The Life of Aesop and the Gospels: Literary Motifs and Narrative Mechanisms.” In Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel, edited by Stelios Panayotakis, Gareth Schmeling, and Michael Paschalis, 151–66. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 19. Barkhuis. p. 154
It’s almost as if Jesus had grown up in Bethlehem the evangelists, who wanted to give him the most remarkable career imaginable, would have invented his move to a one donkey hick town like Nazareth just to make his splash on the world even more astonishing.

Review, part 11. Comparing the Lives and Deaths of Aesop and Jesus (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

Chapter 11 of How the Gospels Became History again makes for fascinating reading as M. David Litwa explores in some depth the idea of the scapegoat in Greek myth as one part of the cultural and mythical context in which the gospels were written. The technical (Greek) term is pharmakos [link is to a brief Wikipedia definition and discussion of the term]. I first came across the idea in ancient Greek myth way back in high school when I read Mary Renault’s The King Must Die. My recollection of the impact that novel had on me was a kind of awe or horror. The idea is that to save a people from some sort of divine vengeance their king must be sacrificed to make way for a life-promising replacement. But the king is too noble to die so he must in some way be made worthy of death and that led to his being defiled and humiliated through some sort of maltreatment.

Litwa discusses the Greek myths of the Athenian king Codrus and the Theban Menoeceus who were two such scapegoats. A person of royal blood had to be sacrificed to save the city. In the case of Codrus,

To do so, he must change his form; he must go from the one highest in honor to the lowest. So the king dresses himself in the rags of slaves.

and in that of Menoeceus,

Twice the poet Statius (a contemporary of the evangelists) called Menoeceus a “sacrificial animal,” led “like a silent sheep from the flock.” Yet the hero’s heart is possessed by heavenly power. Before he sacrifices himself, he prays, “O gods above . . . and you who grant me to die by so great a death, Apollo, give constant joy to Thebes. This joy I have covenanted to give and lavishly bought with the price of all my blood.” When Menoeceus plummets to his death, his spirit rises before the high deity. In the city, the hero is worshiped with altars and temples.

(Litwa, p. 137)

We can see overlaps with the way the evangelists have structured the story of Jesus. The theme of such a death was part of the cultural heritage of the authors of the life of Jesus.

Another similarity Litwa addresses in some depth is that often the scapegoat is convicted of a religious crime of some sort:

The pharmakos is often convicted of what moderns would call a religious crime. He or she is accused of robbing a temple or somehow damaging it. Alternatively, the pharmakos may criticize how temple rituals are carried out and so incur the charge of blasphemy (hostile speech against a god). The perceived crime leads to a violent response on the part of the temple staff and city officials. They attempt to capture the pharmakos by deceit. When they capture him, they often beat him, parade him around the city, try him in a kangaroo court, and murder him. The willing pharmakos dies sac- rificially to safeguard the community. Yet the unjust death of the pharmakos incites divine punishment against the civic leaders — a plague, famine, or invasion.

(138)

At this point Litwa draws readers into a detailed comparison of the lives and deaths of Aesop and Jesus. For other comparisons online see first of all a post by Matthew Ferguson on his blog,

Others on Vridar,

Litwa shows how, like Jesus, Aesop had the humblest of beginnings, yet was able to utter sorts of “parables” to confound and outsmart those who believed they were his betters, and in the end goes to Delphi, the sacred city of Apollo, is welcomed at first but soon his hosts turn against him, exacerbates the situation by speaking “parables” against the sins of the people and the priests in particular, is dragged out to his death outside the city, is subsequently worshipped as a god. Furthermore, the city of Delphi is sacked by enemies as punishment for their crime.

Litwa draws attention to the fact that Aesop was generally assumed to have been a historical figure. I find it difficult to think of the surviving versions of the Life of Aesop as “historical” narratives, however. Yet I have to grant that genres in ancient Greco-Roman literature were not so neatly defined as they are today, and “historical” accounts were not histories in the same sense moderns think of historical works. Ancient historical narratives were generally aimed to teach moral lessons and perhaps just as importantly, were aimed at entertaining their audiences. (Even Thucydides, usually upheld as the exemplar of dry detailed fact reporting, used devices from the poets and dramatists to add colour to his work.) The same techniques that Litwa identifies as adding an air of plausibility to ancient historical accounts (the death of Aesop was accompanied by earthquakes and other signs of divine displeasure) were also used by Greek novelists, dramatists and poets in their accounts of past heroes and the activities of gods in their lives and deaths.

It’s a fascinating chapter. It shows how the story of Jesus fit cultural paradigms of the first and second centuries CE Mediterranean world. We may look on the pharmakos theme as myth but it could be real enough in the minds of ancient audiences, as it is for many today.

To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.


Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


Woops!

H/T Ophelia Benson @ Butterflies and Wheels


President Trump told his national security adviser in August that he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens, according to an unpublished manuscript by the former adviser, John R. Bolton.

The president’s statement as described by Mr. Bolton could undercut a key element of his impeachment defense: that the holdup in aid was separate from Mr. Trump’s requests that Ukraine announce investigations into his perceived enemies, including [the two Bidens].

Mr. Bolton’s explosive account of the matter at the center of Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial, the third in American history, was included in drafts of a manuscript he has circulated in recent weeks to close associates. He also sent a draft to the White House for a standard review process . . . 

Fake news, of course.

Over dozens of pages, Mr. Bolton described how the Ukraine affair unfolded over several months until he departed the White House in September. He described not only the president’s private disparagement of Ukraine but also new details about senior cabinet officials who have publicly tried to sidestep involvement.

For example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged privately that there was no basis to claims by the president’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani that the ambassador to Ukraine was corrupt and believed Mr. Giuliani may have been acting on behalf of other clients, Mr. Bolton wrote.

But but, . . . read more »

Review, part 10b. Why Jesus’ Miracles Appear Historically Natural (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

I am continuing my discussion of M. David Litwa’s book, How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, in the light of my two recent posts* that theorize why Greco-Roman myths were so believable and why it was widely accepted that divine heroes and gods had even acted on earth in historical, even contemporary, times**.

Litwa makes an interesting claim:

It was a historical judgment that in the so-called heroic age, men were bigger, faster, and stronger than people are today. They were also more pious, which earned them the right of dining with deities and even (as in the case of Heracles) being changed into them. Today one can label the heroic age a “mythic” one, but for the Greeks it was a real time in the past that gradually melted into our own time with its known dates and calendars.10

(Litwa, p. 137)

Endnote 10 is to Pausanias, 8.2.4, which I quote:

I for my part believe this story; it has been a legend among the Arcadians from of old, and it has the additional merit of probability. For the men of those days, because of their righteousness and piety, were guests of the gods, eating at the same board; the good were openly honored by the gods, and sinners were openly visited with their wrath. Nay, in those days men were changed to gods, who down to the present day have honors paid to them – Aristaeus, Britomartis of Crete, Heracles the son of Alcmena, Amphiaraus the son of Oicles, and besides these Polydeuces and Castor.

Pausanias. 2014. Complete Works of Pausanias. Delphi Classics. 8.2.4
What story is it that Pausanias claimed to believe?

For Cecrops was the first to name Zeus the Supreme god, and refused to sacrifice anything that had life in it, but burnt instead on the altar the national cakes which the Athenians still call pelanoi. But Lycaon brought a human baby to the altar of Lycaean Zeus, and sacrificed it, pouring out its blood upon the altar, and according to the legend immediately after the sacrifice he was changed from a man to a wolf (Lycos).

Pausanias, 8.2.3

Despite Litwa’s wording (“it was a real time in the past that gradually melted into our time”) it is evident that he is relegating the age of mythical heroes and gods on earth to the remote past. But we have seen that though some things changed (the monsters were cleansed from the earth, for instance) those figures were widely believed by the “common people” (as distinct from the highly educated and literate elite) to have had recent, and even contemporary, appearances on earth among mortals.

What is interesting is Litwa’s next two paragraphs because they fit so neatly into Sarah Iles Johnston’s explanation for why Greek myths were so “real” and easy to believe: read more »

“Nothing in what [mythicists] write is authoritative or trustworthy”

Quite some years ago I sat listening to a sabbath sermon by a Worldwide Church of God minister in which he made some very misleading assertions about the history of U.S. foreign policy. I approached him afterwards to point out what I had learned in an undergraduate course on the history of the United States. The minister had been trained at one of “God’s colleges” and told me that “the authority for” the point in question was one particular author and title I can no longer remember. What shocked me was that he claimed to have the equivalent of a B.A. in history yet spoke of one book being “the authority” on a historical question. My own education had led me to think of historical studies as an enquiry into the sources to attempt to evaluate the various points of view expressed in the literature on historical questions. There was no such thing as “the authority”. Perhaps the minister viewed my education as inspired by Satan.

Since someone drew my attention to James McGrath’s following comment I have been thinking back on that experience:

[T]here is nothing in what they [Christ mythicists] write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy.

I can’t read McGrath’s mind so I don’t know what he means by “authoritative and trustworthy” studies. The most I can suggest is that he is setting mythicist works in contrast with mainstream scholarly works on the historical Jesus and in the process somehow implying that the bulk of mainstream scholarly historical Jesus books are in some sense “authoritative and trustworthy”.

What is an “authoritative and trustworthy” book of historical explanation?

To me, an authoritative work is a trustworthy work. Authority implies trust, confidence, in whatever it is that the authority proclaims. I am sure McGrath does not believe that any particular historical Jesus study is “authoritative” in the sense that it replaces the need for any other study.

If I were to point out what I consider to be trustworthy books on any subject here are the markers of trustworthiness that I would identify:

  1. the work never makes an assertion without providing evidence for that assertion;
  2. that evidence will be discussed in the context of other evidence;
  3. and a representative range of views or interpretations about that evidence will be shared with readers;
  4. and citations will be given to enable readers to follow up those different interpretations for themselves;
  5. especially, I will look for a fair presentation of opposing views to the one the author favours;
  6. and a fair and complete discussion of those opposing views — again with citations to enable readers to check details for themselves and make their own assessments;
  7. I will look for evidence of a wide knowledge of the field in which the discussion is taking place so that the author can demonstrate he or she is not approaching a question with some sort of limited tunnel vision.

That’s seven points. The perfect or authoritative number, yes? What else should be added to complete an explanation of what makes a work “trustworthy”?

Note that according to the above a work can be called trustworthy (some might even say “authoritative” in one sense of the word) but it would not be “the final answer or the ‘true’ opinion. It would be authoritative in the sense that it presents fairly and accurately the relevant evidence and enables readers to form their own judgments based on relatively complete information and understanding of the debates in the field; it will be a model of good scholarship.

It is possible, often likely, that one will find a scholarly work ‘trustworthy’ in the above sense yet still find room to disagree with its overall thesis. An alternative viewpoint and conclusion can be expressed through another ‘trustworthy’ work of scholarship, whether the author is a professional or amateur scholar.

Yes, there has been much poor work published by mythicists, but there has also been some exemplary scholarship, trustworthy and authoritative in the best sense as per above. In that sense, mythicist publications are no different from publications by those who write about “the historical Jesus”. There are some exemplary works in that field, too, as mythicists like Doherty, Price, Carrier have well noted. I would love to read an “authoritative and trustworthy” work that challenges certain mythicist views, so if anyone knows of one that meets the above understanding of what makes a work trustworthy do inform me.


This post is an extension of the earlier Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists


Interview with God

Image courtesy of Michael Leunig

 

 

Dangerous Charisma, Cults and Trump

Hypotheses:

“in times of crisis, individuals regress to a state of delegated omnipotence and demand a leader (who will rescue them, take care of them)”

and that

“individuals susceptible to (the hypnotic attraction of) charismatic leadership have themselves fragmented or weak ego structures.”

Jerrold Post believes the above hypotheses find support in clinical studies of persons who join charismatic religious groups, those with narcissistic personality disorders, and “psychodynamic observations of group phenomena”. Post and Doucette in Dangerous Charisma

describe the consequences of the wounded self on adult personality development and emphasize how narcissistically wounded individuals are attracted to charismatic leader-follower relationships, both as leaders and as followers.

As I read Dangerous Charisma I was regularly reminded of the time I joined a religious cult years ago and the stories that were regularly shared among members of “how God called us into his church”: certainly most, if not all, of the personal narratives involved tales of some kind of crisis each of us experienced and how “God rescued us” through leading us to encounter his “end-time Apostle”. After I left the cult I attended several other churches for a time and found the same sorts of experiences being “witnessed” even among less extreme fundamentalists or evangelical type Christians. Another perception that hit me, disturbingly, after having left the cult was seeing many of the same vulnerabilities, errors in thinking and willingness to rationalize the irrational and unprovable in society generally. Indeed, Post and Doucette make the point that the model they describe can work for good as well as evil: in times of crisis many turned to the charismatic Churchill, but that after the crisis was over the need for that sort of leader also passed and he was voted out. Other positive instances of such relationships involved Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi. But we all know there are weeds in the garden as well as fruit.

Two types of personality are described:

The mirror-hungry personality

This is the cult leader, whether religious (Herbert W. Armstrong) or political (Donald J. Trump)

The first personality pattern resulting from “the injured self” is the mirror-hungry personality. These individuals, whose basic psychological constellation is the grandiose self, hunger for confirming and admiring responses to counteract their inner sense of worthlessness and lack of self-esteem. To nourish their famished self, they are compelled to display themselves in order to evoke the attention of others. No matter how positive the response, they cannot be satisfied, but continue seeking new audiences from whom to elicit the attention and recognition they crave.

The ideal-hungry personality

This is the follower who is nourished by the above leader and who in turn nourishes that same leader:

The second personality type resulting from “the wounded self” is the ideal-hungry personality. These individuals can experience themselves as worthwhile only so long as they can relate to individuals whom they can admire for their prestige, power, beauty, intelligence, or moral stature. They forever search for such idealized figures. Again, the inner void cannot be filled. Inevitably, the ideal-hungry individual finds that their god is merely human, that their hero has feet of clay. Disappointed by discovery of defects in their previously idealized object, they cast him aside and searches for a new hero, to whom they attach themself in the hope that they will not be disappointed again.

The wounded self can arise from social, economic, personality crises. Job and economic and health insecurities, fears of one’s neighbours and newcomers and of conspiracies of powerful forces in government.

Post and Doucette emphasize that this model does not tell the whole story of Trump or political movements arising from the dynamics of the two types feeding off each other, but it does offer some insight into “charismatic leader-follower relationships.”

The charismatic leader as the mirror-hungry personality

The mirror-hungry leader requires a continuing flow of admiration from his audience in order to nourish his famished self. Central to his ability to elicit that admiration is his ability to convey a sense of grandeur, omnipotence, and strength. These individuals who have had feelings of grandiose omnipotence awakened within them are particularly attractive to individuals seeking idealized sources of strength. They convey a sense of conviction and certainty to those who are consumed by doubt and uncertainty. This mask of certainty is no mere pose. In truth, so profound is the inner doubt that a wall of dogmatic certainty is necessary to ward it off. For them, preserving grandiose feelings of strength and omniscience does not allow acknowledgment of weakness and doubt.

The leaders love the adulation of the crowds and can often speak for hours basking in their admiration; and the crowds love to be there, feeding and feeding off them.

The Language of Splitting is the Rhetoric of Absolutism

Central to the rhetoric is the “us-them”, the “me-not me”, the “good versus evil”, “strength versus weakness”, you are “with us or against us”. There’s nothing new here:

Maximilien Robespierre: “There are but two kinds of men, the kind that is corrupt and the kind that is virtuous.”

Hitler dwelt on the themes of strength and weakness, purity and impurity, the chosen (Germans) and the not chosen (Jews). The world is divided and one must conquer the other or be conquered.

We see this mindset in leaders who are convinced, and whose followers are also convinced, they are called on a religious mission. Followers often see the power of God behind them and the entire world of Satan is their opposition. read more »

Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists

Recently James McGrath has addressed a point I have regularly made about a key difference between the canonical gospels and historical and biographical narratives by ancient authors: the latter generally attempt to assure readers of the validity of their accounts by mentioning their sources; the former generally do not. McGrath has put an anachronistic slant on the question by making comparisons with the modern practice of formal citations and bypassed the reasons and techniques that belonged to ancient literary culture. Perhaps it is a good thing that he has done so because he does provide a warning to us today to be careful not to confuse modern academic practice with ancient literary interests. Before I respond specifically to some of his points I will focus on what seems to be the key question he poses in his “challenge” to “those who give credence to mythicists”:

The mythicist claim that the Gospels are thoroughly untrustworthy – or more ridiculously, that they are written intended to be taken as allegories that don’t describe anything remotely historical – are really problematic. Perhaps the best way to put it is to ask those who give credence to mythicists this:

  • Why trust modern-day mythicists and their claims about what is important, what is valuable, what is reliable, or anything else, while giving no credence even to the broad outlines of what various ancient authors have written?
  • Is it anti-religious bias?
  • Chronological snobbery?
  • A preference for their conclusions?

I ask these questions because there is nothing in what they write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy. And so the same questions that apply to ancient sources, apply to modern ones as well. If it is the fact that they (well, some of them at any rate) mention scholars and sources regularly, then that is also true of mainstream scholars who conclude there was a historical Jesus, and it is true of conservative Christian apologists who are demonstrably untrustworthy even when they provide ample citations. And so my appeal to Jesus-mythicists is the appeal I’d make to any and all conspiracy theorists. By all means be skeptical – but be even-handedly skeptical, including of those you’re inclined to be persuaded by, and most importantly, of yourself.

(my formatting and highlighting)

“Trust” is a faith word.  So my answer to McGrath’s first and primary question is this: No-one should “trust modern-day mythicists and their claims” about anything.

“Credence” is also a faith word. “Anti-religious bias” and “snobbery” and self-serving (implied) “preferences” for certain conclusions are all well-poisoning terms.

McGrath also speaks of mythicist writings that contain “nothing . . . that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy”, dismissing any citations by mythicists to mainstream scholarly works as unimpressive for some reason — because some apologists also cite mainstream scholars and produce arguments that are, well, apologetic. The analogy is fatuous, of course. Citations are used by good and bad scholars, good and bad amateurs, in good and bad ways. Therefore, in McGrath’s view, mythicists must for some reason he does not explain and for which he provides no examples be making pointless citations. Yet we know McGrath has excoriated mythicists for not engaging with mainstream scholarship yet when they clearly do engage with mainstream scholarship he allows their conclusions to inform him that their arguments are unreliable. Is it religious bias? Intellectual snobbery? A preference for other conclusions?

Here’s how scholarly inquiry, any serious rational inquiry, works.

We look for evidence that helps us understand the nature of the claims made by ancient (or any) authors. That generally means we begin by analysing the form and context in which the statements are made. We often do this subconsciously. We let the tone of voice or writing help us decide if someone is being serious or joking. We allow the medium on which a message is written (a royal inscription, an officially stamped letter) to tell us if it is an official statement or not. (Official statement indicates that its primary audience is expected to believe what is written; we need other grounds for deciding if we should believe what is written.) The source of what is said is another important factor. A source can mean the person responsible for the words we read; it can further mean the sources available to that author. Provenance can refer either the original source of the document or it can refer to where the physical manuscript or tablet was found and by whom and what we know about how it reached us. All of those factors are important to understand when it comes to reading and interpreting any ancient work.

Where we have prose narratives about events and persons it is necessary for us to know something about how they were understood by their authors and original audiences. I have sometimes half-joked in frustration that no-one should be allowed to undertake studies in the biblical literature until they have first done a major course in classics: biblical studies should be offered only as part of a larger course in early Jewish/Judean literature studies and only as a post-grad course for those who are well-grounded in the wider literature of the ancient world.

In other words, we ought to interpret and evaluate biblical literature in the context of the wider literary world of that day. Biblical scholars will no doubt say that they certainly do that, but my experience with studies in biblical literature tells me that many only do so patchily and over-selectively at best.

If anyone (mythicist or mainstream biblical scholar) makes any claim one should always look for the evidence that supports the claim. No claim should be “trusted”, either. The most positive approach we can have with any claim is to accept it pending further discussion, analysis and evidence. That means continual reading and discussion, learning new perspectives, becoming familiar with more data. It means engagement especially with those who have the most experience with the data, usually the professional scholars, and we find that the most insightful authors of mythicist ideas are the ones who do engage seriously and thoroughly with that scholarship. Leaving the mainstream scholarly field behind and restricting one’s reading to unorthodox views that only sporadically touch on mainstream scholarship is not a healthy pursuit.

Mainstream scholars also have a responsibility to address questions raised about their work without sneering dismissals, elaborate appeals to authority, or misrepresenting the questions and arguments posed to them.

A mythicist claim should not be trusted but should be carefully assessed against the evidence offered and serious discussion about alternative interpretations and other evidence in the mainstream scholarly literature. The most positive response to any claim by a mythicist ought to be tentative acceptance pending further information.

Mainstream scholars need to keep in mind that some mythicist authors have had no axe to grind against Christianity (some have even remained very positive towards it) and that some (one might say many) mythicist authors were for some years believers in a historical Jesus even as atheists and that believing in the historicity of Jesus would make no difference to them ideologically, personally, in any way. Indeed, a number of us have said that mythicism is the worst way to try to undermine or attack Christianity. There are other more effective ways of going about that enterprise.

–o0o–

Back to the specifics of referencing sources. read more »

Identity Fusion, Cults and Trump

“Why do we do destructive things—to others, and to ourselves? Why do we so often act against our own interests?”

I’ve been catching up on a number of research articles exploring the psychology of Trump followers and am surprised how closely some of the ideas cohere with what I have experienced and learned about the reasons people get mixed up in religious cults. One book I have started and that has me totally in its thrall at the moment is Dangerous Charisma: The Political Psychology of Donald Trump and His Followers by Post and Doucette. I will be sure to write more about that work before too long. But for now, I am keeping it simple and will address just one idea that in part has an overlap with what I have read so far in Dangerous Charisma. What follows is from an article in a September 2019 issue of The Atlantic, “The Most Dangerous Way to Lose Yourself: ‘Identity fusion’ might explain why people act against their own interests.”

The main idea is

that people are always striving to create a world in which their ideas of themselves make sense. We are motivated, sometimes above any sense of morality or personal gain, simply to hold our views of ourselves constant. This allows us to maintain a coherent sense of order, even if it means doing things the rest of the world would see as counterproductive.

William Swann

It has been developed by Professor William Swann and claims that

we tend to prefer to be seen by others as we see ourselves, even in areas where we see ourselves negatively. As opposed to cognitive dissonance — the psychological unease that drives people to alter their interpretation of the world to create a sense of consistency — self-verification says that we try to bring reality into harmony with our long-standing beliefs about ourselves.

Think of those who tend to sabotage their relationships and withdraw from others who genuinely appreciate them. Their view of themselves is negative and they find it unbearable that others should not agree. That sounds crazy (maybe because it is) but Swann suggests that such behaviour

might actually be part of a fundamental “desire to be known and understood by others.”

That makes sense to me. Maybe it’s not so crazy.

We naturally form bonds with others, whether with family or a religion. Others in this context can be extremely important to us but we don’t generally “identify” with them to the extent that we lose our own separate identity.

Sometimes (and that’s the word that will need to be understood) people do lose their identities to the group, though. Swann posits that the 9/11 terrorists totally lost their personal identities to a group identity that enabled them to die and kill on a horrendous scale. The concept Swann talks about is identity fusion.

The phenomenon is sometimes described as a visceral feeling of oneness with a group or person, and sometimes as an expansion of the self.

“When people are fused, your personal identity is now subsumed under something larger,” says Jack Dovidio, a psychology professor at Yale. One way researchers test for fusion is to ask people to draw a circle that represents themselves, and a circle that represents another person (or group). Usually people draw overlapping circles, Dovidio explains. In fusion, people draw themselves entirely inside the other circle.

“This isn’t the normal way most people think about identity,” says Jonas Kunst, a psychology researcher at the University of Oslo.

Rational discussion that challenges the views of someone whose identity is so fused with a collective or another is impossible. Most people (surely) are open to accepting and debating challenges to their groups’ identities but someone whose personal identity is so fused and lost wholly within the group will see such questions as threats to their identity, a personal threat to themselves.

Arguments about climate change, for example, might not actually be about climate change, and instead about people protecting their basic sense of order and consistency.

Identity fusion is not merely blind obedience to group expectations or submission out of fear, but something much more dangerous:

Fusion is not a bunch of individuals contorting their way of thinking, but a bunch of individuals suspending their way of thinking. “It makes us more likely to do extreme things that aren’t consistent with our normal identity,” Kunst says. “It allows you to do things you couldn’t conceive of doing.”

Oh yes. I bitterly recall some cruel and hurtful things I did, even life-threatening things, when I was totally one {fused) with a religious cult years ago. I think of the pain I hurt my parents, and how I almost allowed a child to die from refusing medical treatment.

Does identity fusion help explain Trump supporters? A set of studies that used an “identity fusion scale” found that

Americans who fused with Trump — as opposed to simply agreeing with or supporting him — were more willing to engage in various extreme behaviors, such as personally .ghting to protect the U.S. border from an “immigrant caravan,” persecuting Muslims, or violently challenging election results.

Why do people who stridently oppose “big government” suddenly find themselves cheering on acts of “extreme authoritarianism”? No problem, according to identity fusion theory:

Value systems are only contradictory if they’re both activated, and “once you step into the fusion mind-set, there is no contradiction.”

Enter the charismatic leader

read more »

How Mythic Story Worlds Become Believable (Johnston: The Greek Mythic Story World)

Sarah Iles Johnston

This is the second of two articles by Professor of Religion Sarah Iles Johnston. (The first article was addressed in Why Certain Kinds of Myths Are So Easy to Believe) I have been led to Johnston’s articles and books (along with other works addressing related themes by classicists) as I was led down various detours while reviewing M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. I expect interested readers will see the relevance of Johnston’s thesis to Christian myths in the gospels and understand more deeply the mechanics at work that make them so believable for so many people.

Many Greek mythical narratives (whether poetry, drama or prose) appear to have no necessary relationship with a particular festival or other special occasion. They appear to have a life of their own and can be recited in quite different contexts and often with variations of details and even basic storylines. Variations, hearing only parts of a story that must be somehow fitted with a larger narrative, but with some difficulty because of certain differences of character or details, such presentations of the myths had the potential to arouse intense curiosity and discussion, with individuals surely acquiring their own understanding, view and relationship with a god or hero.

Who would ever imagine any similarity between Socrates and the Homeric hero Achilles? Johnston does not raise this illustration but it is one that illustrates her point well. Plato informs us that Socrates compared himself with Achilles. The philosopher with the warrior? Yes, because Socrates could explain to his audience that like Achilles, he likewise heroically followed what he believed to be the right or pious course of life even knowing it would result in his premature death. Variations in narratives encouraged deeper reflection and personal relationships with what the gods and heroes represented.

As Johnston points out, Greek myths generally were not point by point analogies to the real world but were metaphorical tales that were subject to reinterpretation and different functions or applications. The myth of Persephone, as we saw in the previous post, served equally well for a celebration of the hope for a good harvest and hope for a happier afterlife for initiates into the mysteries.

From Wikimedia

There is a poem by a fifth-century BCE poet, Bacchylides, that offers us another instance such devices that encouraged curiosity and engagement with the myths. In the centre I outline the thought-flow of the poem (in paraphrase) and beside it I have circled all the points that the poem in references in the wider world of Greek myth. Notice how much detail is left to the audience’s imagination, how many questions are potentially raised among those who are perhaps not fully acquainted with all of the associations or who are aware of differences with other accounts, or what questions of character arise when set in the wider mythical world. And why is Heracles been honoured at a festival in honour of Dionysus anyway? The Greeks evidently did not find any strong need to bind each story to a specific or analogous occasion (Johnston). The conclusion is surely designed to provoke much thought and discussion about the death of Heracles and his relations with his first wife, and the role of the Centaur.

One detail not brought out in the following diagram is that several of the related myths are linked to familiar places in the Greek peninsula: the city Heracles razed was in Eritrea, the place where he offered to Zeus was Cape Lithada, for example.

Click on the diagram if it does not appear in full in normal Vridar page setting.

The point of the above? Johnston explains:

. . . . the Greeks cared less about always making tightly logical connections between festivals and myths than we have imagined—or to put it otherwise, that the contributions that mythic narratives made to creating and sustaining belief in the gods and heroes could be more broadly based than we have previously acknowledged. More specifically, I suggest that an essential element that enabled this breadth of applicability was the tightly woven story world that was cumulatively being created on a continuous basis by the myths that were narrated. The closely intertwined nature of this story world validated not only each individual myth that comprised it but all the stories about what had happened in the mythic past, the characters who inhabited them, and the entire worldview upon which they rested. Because it was embedded in this story world, a skillfully narrated myth about Heracles, for example, had the power to sustain and enhance belief not only in Heracles himself but in the entire cadre of the divine world of which he was a member, including those divinities to whom the festival at which the myth was performed was dedicated.

(Johnston, Greek Mythic Story World, 284)

It should be kept in mind that these myths were often performed publicly, at temples and festivals in honour of certain gods.

The audiences were primed by these conditions to open their minds to the ideas that the myths conveyed, and thus the two, festival and myth, mutually supported one another.

So what is it that “makes story worlds in general coherent and credible”, Johnston asks.

Story Worlds

A Secondary World: https://melissamcphail.com/worldbuilding/

According to J.R.R. Tolkien there is the Primary World, the world in which we live, and then there is a Secondary World, one that an author creates and into which a reader enters — through “willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge?)? through “willing activation of pretense” (Saler)?, or, as Johnston prefers,

truly well-constructed story world requires no conscious decision at all on the part of audience members who participate in it — neither the suspension of disbelief nor the activation of pretense. It immerses readers or viewers so completely, yet so subtly, that they pass into it without even noticing that they are doing so.

(286)

A Secondary World needs to have a fence, a partition of some sort to separate it from our quotidian Primary World (Wolf). Dividing walls include wardrobe doors, rabbit holes, deserts traversed by houses carried in cyclones, interdimensional travel technology. Secondary Worlds are very different from Primary Worlds by virtue of strange inhabitants, strange landscapes, strange technology, and so forth. Greek myths are not exactly like that, nor are the gospels or other biblical stories. Yes, they do contain monsters, talking snakes and donkeys, but these oddities are placed in “our world”, a “real world”, the Primary World in which we all exist. They are the oddities in our “real” world; in Greek myths and biblical stories we have not, as a rule, entered worlds that are entirely strange in every way. (There are a few exceptions such as when Odysseus is on an island with a witch who changes his crew into wild beasts but such stories are set in a larger more recognizable world — with normal geographical, botanical and zoological features.)

Even when a monster does enter a Greek myth the author tends to indicate only minimal interest in its oddities. They are described as if in passing. The story is set in “a real-world” that we recognize as our own, or as the Greeks recognized as theirs: read more »