If you run out of time or can’t find the time or need more time … stop worrying:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Image from IndiaTimes

Time might not exist, according to physicists and philosophers – but that’s okay ….. (the link is to article in The Conversation by Sam Baron)

….. developments in physics suggest the non-existence of time is an open possibility, and one that we should take seriously.

How can that be, and what would it mean? It’ll take a little while to explain, but don’t worry: even if time doesn’t exist, our lives will go on as usual.

and it gets somewhat philosophical….

…. we know we need a new physical theory to explain the universe, and that this theory might not feature time.

Suppose such a theory turns out to be correct. Would it follow that time does not exist?

It’s complicated, and it depends what we mean by exist.

and then….

There is a way out of the mess.

While physics might eliminate time, it seems to leave causation intact: the sense in which one thing can bring about another.

Perhaps what physics is telling us, then, is that causation and not time is the basic feature of our universe.

So Jesus has already come and if someone says I’m late I can reply on the grounds of a good physics hypothesis that I am not and if someone wants to book me for parking over-time I will tell the judge….





Emperor Worship and the Book of Revelation

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

A reader of the previous Revelation post commented,

But at first glance, Emperor worship seems a pretty minor issue compared to the other shit that was going down in that period.

Detail of cover of Rituals and Power by S.R.F. Price. Coin from Ephesus showing temple with statue of emperor inside.

Agreed — “at first glance”. Why would the Book of Revelation make such ado over a cult that had been part and parcel of everyday life throughout the empire since the days of Augustus? Surely Christians could just stay at home or hide themselves behind the latrines when the day came for the city officials to offer their cultic devotions to the emperor. But is there evidence that something about emperor worship changed in a major way at a relevant time?

From the discussion that I outlined earlier Thomas Witulski raises the following question:

  • When, specifically, in the Roman province of Asia and between 45/50 and 155/160 CE, can we find a massive intensification of cultic-religious emperor worship accompanied by the propagation of the emperor’s divine salvation role?

Emperor worship was introduced into the province of Asia during the principate of Augustus between 30 and 10 CE. Witulski takes the extent and practices of Augustan worship as the yardstick by which to measure subsequent forms of the cult. After Augustus the emperor cult remained fairly much the same for most of the period up to the early years of the second century. During the time of Vespasian (69-79 CE) and his son Titus (79-81 CE) there even appears to have been a waning of the frequency and magnitude of the cult practices associated with emperor worship. Domitian (81-96 CE) took some steps to revive it but he did so by instituting it as the cult of the ruling Flavian family, not that of a sole emperor. This Flavian cult, Witulski notes, did not give rise to any “new cultic-religious situation for the inhabitants of the province of Asia as a whole.” It was confined to Ephesus.

In view of Domitian’s reign, there can be no question of a significant intensification of the cultic-religious veneration of the reigning regent and of his accompanying inappropriate deification in the Roman province of Asia. (Witulski, p. 135, – translation)

Trajan (98-117 CE) established a provincial cult of Zeus Philios in the city of Pergamon with himself, the emperor, to be worshiped alongside Zeus. The intention was to establish a cult in the province of Asia that was peer to Rome’s cult of Dea Roma and Divi filius Augustus. An inscription informs us that Trajan was propagandizing himself as a “new Augustus”. There is no evidence that there was any wider magnification of the cult of emperor worship in the province.

So in the opening years of the second century we find Trajan presenting himself as an equal of Augustus but the emperor cult does not go beyond anything that Augustus himself had inaugurated over a century before.

In view of this and in view of the fact that the cultic-religious veneration of the Roman emperors belonged to the everyday life of the inhabitants in the province of Asia on the provincial, but especially also on the municipal and private level, it is difficult to claim that with the inauguration of the cult of Ζεύς Φίλιος and Trajan in Pergamon a fundamentally new cultic-religious situation arose for those inhabitants of Asia who did not live in Pergamon. (p. 136 – translation)

With Hadrian, everything changes. Continue reading “Emperor Worship and the Book of Revelation”


The Deer in Acts of the Apostles and the Aeneid

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

So I have not been the only one to pick up on the meaning of the name of a woman Peter raised from the dead and associate it with Virgil’s Aeneid. Her name is given as Dorcas, meaning a “deer”, and her healing follows immediately after Peter’s healing of Aeneas. Michael Kochenash has written a chapter on the same intertextual link in Roman Self-Representation and the Lukan Kingdom of God.

We have a different emphasis, though.

In Acts, Peter raises from the dead a well-loved disciple named Tabitha, “Greek name Dorcas”, who had won renown for her caring work of making woven clothes. This scene takes place on the cusp of expanding the Christian mission from the Jews to the gentiles. Since that miracle took place just after the healing of Aeneas, the namesake of the famed mythical founder of the Romans, I was reminded of the dramatic scene in Virgil’s Aeneid where a slain deer is the cause of war between Aeneas’s company and the Latins. It was that war that marked the beginning of a place for the ancestors of Rome in Italy. Like Dorcas, the deer was well-loved by all around her and associated with woven decoration.

Acts 9:

32 As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the Lord’s people who lived in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, who was paralyzed and had been bedridden for eight years. 34 “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and roll up your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.

36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”

39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.

40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.

Dido with Aeneas on the hunt for deer; Dido will become the victim deer (image from myartprints.co.uk)

Virgil’s epic poem about the odyssey of Aeneas from Troy to Italy where he founded the settlement that would become Rome sustains the image of deer throughout books 1, 4, 7, 10 and 12. A crisis in the epic occurs when Aeneas is in danger of being diverted from his divine mission by falling in love with Dido, the queen of Carthage. After Aeneas finally breaks free and leaves for Italy, the distraught Dido kills herself with the sword Aeneas had gifted her. Kochenash discusses at some length the deer similes in these episodes and their resonances in the Acts passage that I had completely overlooked. The emotionally wounded Dido is compared to a wounded deer. Her death is caused by Aeneas in two senses: by his leaving her and by her taking the sword he had left her. The metaphor Virgil uses is that of arrows of the hunter slaying the deer, an ironic twist on the arrows shot by Cupid.

There are other deer comparisons in the Aeneid that Kochenash addresses in the same context. One of these is the climactic end of the epic where Aeneas, compared with a savage hunting dog, slays the king Turnus who is likened to a helpless deer.

What does all of this have to do with Acts and Peter’s healing of Dorcas, apart from the fact that Dorcas means “deer”?

First of all, the author of Acts drew special attention to the name Dorcas by presenting it as a translation of the Aramaic Tabitha. Secondly, and I think most significant, is that the healing happens at Joppa, the place known from the story of Jonah who took God’s message to the gentiles of his day. Jonah tried to flee from his task by taking a ship from Joppa but God redirected him back to Assyria. And third, the reader is primed to “think Roman” by the immediately preceding healing of Aeneas.

Or in Kochenash’s words,

The three Petrine narratives within Acts 9:32–11:18 represent a transition in the mission of the kingdom of God: the inclusion of those beyond the margins of Jewish religion and society (i.e., Gentiles). Tabitha lives in the city of Joppa, a detail emphasized by Luke to foreshadow the Gentile mission that begins in the next narrative. The tragedy of Dido reflects a Roman attitude that human life is expendable when it impedes the progress of Rome’s empire. When Luke’s Peter is thus read as contrasting with Virgil’s Aeneas in a pivotal narrative concerned with the expansion of the kingdom of God, the character of God’s kingdom becomes evident by contrast to that of Rome.

This interpretation coheres with a Greco-Roman literary ethos, wherein Greek writers relished the opportunity to encrypt arcane messages within their narratives. While a general readership would be able to read the narrative with sufficient comprehension, those with the appropriate cultural competence would enjoy noticing the subtle references that augment such a reading. According to Dennis R. MacDonald, “In most cases, imitations disguise a rewarding sensus plenior—a fuller meaning below the surface, somewhat like allegory—that is intended for the more sophisticated. Discovering a clever, obscure twist on a popular tale often produces a smile, as though in the cryptic allusion the author has winked.” Luke’s use of the names Tabitha and Dorcas—in proximity to the name Aeneas—can, I suggest, be read as a wink to his readers. (p. 116 – author link is to the cited work in archive.org)

Here is Kochenash’s summary of his longer discussion:

The Romans could not completely obscure the fact that its touted Pax came at the expense of (human) collateral damage. Even Rome’s foundation epic, Virgil’s Aeneid—written under the patronage of Augustus himself—includes two such fatalities: Dido and Turnus. According to Mary Thornton, by comparing these two to deer, “Vergil is guaranteeing that although we see the faults and the responsibilities of Dido and Turnus for their misfortunes, we will not fail to give them our sympathy just as we would do for any wounded deer.” Luke’s narrative constructs a matrix consisting of a man named Aeneas, a dead woman whose name means “deer,” and the theme of the expansion of the kingdom of God, all of which can be read as an allusion to the tragedy of Aeneas and Dido. This allusion prompts readers to understand the kingdom of God through the framework of Roman self-representation. By raising Tabitha from the dead, Peter enacts the expansion of the kingdom of God, performing an action that has the opposite effect of Roman expansion. Whereas the expansion of the Roman Empire brings death, that of the kingdom of God brings life. (p. 118 – author link is to the cited work in Jstor)

Even if many of the early readers of Acts had not read Virgil’s Aeneid the stories of Aeneas and Dido were well known throughout the empire as artworks and papyri remains testify.

There is one detail, however, that I do find myself wondering if Kochenash has overlooked. Why does Acts point out all of the garments that Dorcas had made? Continue reading “The Deer in Acts of the Apostles and the Aeneid”


Why was the Book of Revelation Written?

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things. – Rev 1:19

My intent in this post is to give an overview of the key points argued by Thomas Witulski [TW] in Part 2 of The Revelation of John and Emperor Hadrian [translated from the German: Die Johannesoffenbarung und Kaiser Hadrian]. I include links to works that he critiques so you can follow up the other side in their own words.

Most interpreters of the above verse (Rev 1:19) consider it to be the key to understanding what Revelation is all about. But after that, opinions are divided. Does it mean that the first part of the book that introduces letters to seven churches is describing “the things that are” leaving the remaining chapters to cover future events?

In short, though TW takes four pages to say it, the answer is ‘no’. The messages to the seven churches contain prophecies of the future and the main body of the book includes flashbacks to events past. Furthermore, both parts of the book dwell heavily upon what is happening now.

So why did the author write it? TW engages with four main views.

Continue reading “Why was the Book of Revelation Written?”


The Necessity of Scepticism Contra Cynicism

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Mention scholarly research into a matter that someone feels deeply about while holding contrarian or conspiracy theory views, and one is likely to be told that the academies are filled with institutional bias that compels them to ignore or hide or tell untruths about “the real facts” of a matter. Sometimes the criticism can go deeper than certain perceptions of institutional bias and target the scientific method itself:

The scientific method is what is wrong with the world

I mentioned once to Harold, the friend mentioned earlier who falls constantly for quack medical remedies and diagnostic methods, that the scientific method is based on a demand for evidence and that he should think about being a little more scientific (i.e., skeptical) about unverified claims. Harold replied that “the scientific method is what is wrong with the world and with people like you.” I suppose what he was saying is that by being skeptical I am cutting myself off from various mystical and creative aspects of the human experience. That is certainly a possibility, but I think that Harold may have been overreacting to the word “skepticism” (and to my implicit criticism of him) and assuming that I meant something other than what I actually meant.

His cynicism, ironically, contributes to his gullibility

I believe that Harold is confusing skepticism with cynicism and thinks that I am saying that one should never believe in anyone or anything. In fact, Harold is probably much more cynical than I am (he sees the evil hand of conspirators everywhere). His cynicism, ironically, contributes to his gullibility, in that he champions alternative medicine in part as a way of saying “screw you” to the more mainstream medical establishment. To my mind, a knee-jerk reaction of “no” (the cynical stance) is no more justified than a knee-jerk reaction of “yes” (the gullible stance) and the essence of skepticism is nothing more than saying “I will maintain an open mind but I want to get a better understanding of the truth of the matter before I commit myself.” However, the evidence is often ambiguous and incomplete, and the skeptic is someone who holds out for a higher and more rigorous standard of proof (and of one’s own understanding) than the fact that you like someone or want what he says to be true.

Our author is zeroing in specifically on quack remedies and “spiritual forces” and “mysterious agents” in the world but the same reasoning applies to anyone seeking “confirmation” that governments of the western world have come under the powers of conspiratorial elites who are using the fear of Covid-19 as a pretext to introduce controls that will eventually lead to new totalitarian tyrannies. The result of that kind of thinking is either a complete disengagement from the political processes or attempts to sabotage them: either way, positive action to defend and deepen democratic processes is the loser.

Perhaps what Harold was really saying is “I pity people who do not believe in magic.” Skeptics are people who believe that the laws of nature and probability underlie all phenomena, and are dubious about claims that there are realms of functioning that are immune from such laws. Harold definitely believes in magic (the real, not the conjuring, kind) and his evidence for this belief is likely to take such a form as “I was thinking about an old friend and the next thing I knew I got a phone call from her.” Harold is not likely to be persuaded by the argument that “you thought of 500 other things or people during the same day without such a congruence, but you are focusing on a single congruence that confirms your belief in magic and then holding it up as proof that it couldn’t have been a coincidence.

The passage addresses belief in magic but the same “intellectual laziness” applies to beliefs in conspiracy theories and any other belief that avoids the drier texts based on the scientific methods of research. Conspiracy-theory believers may consider themselves more astute, sceptical and informed than others but in fact the opposite is true.

one can absolve oneself of any obligation to master complex reality by passing it off to forces that are unknowable

Belief in magic is an intellectually lazy stance to take, as one can absolve oneself of any obligation to master complex reality by passing it off to forces that are unknowable. Belief in magic contributes to gullibility as one can be too easily influenced by misleading external realities or superficial explanations. Just as Harold pities me for not being more intuitive, I pity him for not being more rational. People who eschew skepticism are people at the mercy of charlatans, bogus experts, and false claims. Although I generally admire and like people who are trusting more than people who are distrusting, I think trust needs to be tempered with an understanding that it can be misplaced. Blind trust can be a formula for disaster, as countless stories in this book illustrate. One needs to be alert to warning signs of untruth, whether or not it emanates from conscious deception. To refuse to heed those signs, and to refuse to ask for proof when proof is needed, may be to put oneself in harm’s way. 

On reading the above passage I am reminded of little questions that arose along the way of my journey into a religious cult many years ago. Little points of errors in facts seemed to be only minor and unintentional glitches in the literature I was reading. I should have stopped and stood my ground and demanded to find out why and how such “little errors” were there in the first place. It might have led me to discover behind all that glossy, free literature was an institution that was geared towards psychological manipulation.

The following depicts the end result of what I have come to call “ideological” or “principled” thinking. Now there are good ideologies and there are good principles to live by. The problem is when people espouse “ideological” or “principled” ideas that at some level treat those principles as more important than the full lives of real people (either by thinking of most people as stupid or as faceless numbers to be manipulated in a power and control game) then we have the seedbed of vicious totalitarianism.

Trofim Lysenko

An example of how cynicism is compatible with gullibility can be found in the life of Joseph Stalin, the ruthless dictator who ruled the Soviet Union through periodic murder sprees for several decades. In a review of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s (2005) Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Ian Buruma (2004) described Stalin, and the equally murderous ruler of China, Mao Zedong, as extraordinarily cynical, that is motivated by power rather than Communist ideology, and generally distrusting of everyone, including family members. There was one area, however, in which both Stalin and Mao were overly trusting, and that had to do with agriculture policy. Driven by an emotional commitment to the notion that Marxism–Leninism had made possible a “creative Darwinism,” both men “appear to have been completely taken in by the crackpot science of Trofim Lysenko” (p. 5). Lysenko’s experiments in high-yield wheat proved to be a complete disaster in both countries, “but these failures were blamed on ‘saboteurs’ and ‘bourgeois scientists’, many of whom were killed, even as people were dying of hunger in far greater numbers than ever. Such things might not have happened if Stalin and Mao had been complete skeptics. But they were gullible as well as cynical, and that is why millions had to die” (Buruma, 2004, p. 6).

Greenspan, Stephen. Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It. Westport, Conn. : Praeger Publishers, 2009. http://archive.org/details/annalsofgullibil0000gree. pp 181-182


Christ Before Christianity, 3: Revealer of Wisdom

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Someone reminded me that I have yet to complete a series I began in 2013!

Never let it be said I cannot be relied upon to keep my word, so here goes  . . . .

* I use the term Judean for the same reason Steve Mason uses the term in A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74), p. 90. Mason explained that his reason was

not because I have any quarrel with the use of Jews. . . . But our aim is to understand ancient ways of thinking, and in my view Judeans better represents what ancients heard in the ethnos-polis-cult paradigm. That is, just as Egypt (Greek Aegyptos) was understood to be the home of Egyptians (Aegyptioi), Syria of Syrians, and Idumaea of ldumaeans, so also Judaea (Ioudaia) was the home of Judeans (loudaioi) — the only place where their laws and customs were followed.

(Mason, Steve. A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. p. 90)

The aim of this series is to explore the ideas “in the air” among Judeans* at the time Christianity was born. In other words, we are looking at the matrix from which Christianity emerged. The guiding text we are focussing on is The Messiah: A Comparative Study of the Enochic Son of Man and the Pauline Kyrios by James Waddell.

In what we generally hold to be the earliest texts addressing the nature of wisdom — Job and Proverbs — Wisdom is presented as a goddess or divine attribute. But those ideas were only part of the picture.

Sirach and Baruch

In the second century before the Christian era a work known as Sirach taught for the first time that Wisdom (unlike the goddess or divine attribute of earlier traditions) was a heavenly being who lived in heaven with the angels and who asked God for a place to live on earth. The real estate chosen for Wisdom was the Temple in Jerusalem; as an annexe Wisdom was also to be found abiding “in the Torah”. That is, Wisdom showed herself in the priestly cult and in the commandments of the Torah. (Not that Torah and Wisdom were identical, though. The two remain separate: the Torah does not become one with Wisdom as a pre-existent and heavenly being.) Similar ideas about Wisdom were repeated in the Book of Baruch soon afterwards.

Sirach and Baruch (from Pre-Roman era) — Wisdom showed herself living in the Temple cult and the Torah.

Daniel and early Enoch

A quite different view of wisdom was portrayed in the Book of Daniel and early works of Enoch (before the Parables of Enoch). As if in direct rebuttal of Sirach and Baruch, Enoch declared that Wisdom will never depart from God or his throne in heaven.

Yes, Enoch and Daniel are wise men who teach wisdom, but their wisdom is a secret, something hidden, and only revealed to a small chosen elect group. Hence Daniel and Enoch are mediators of God’s wisdom but they do not make that wisdom available to everyone.

Wisdom in these texts is not for all of Judea and most certainly not for all of humanity. Rather, wisdom has existed from the beginning of time (Enoch was given to know it in the days before the Flood) and it will be revealed universally in the end time. Until that time of revelation (“apocalyptic” time) Wisdom remains secret except for the chosen few.

A wisdom-filled messiah is not found in these texts. The Son of Man of Daniel and the “snow-white cow” in the Dream Visions of Enoch may be understood as quasi-messianic figures at best but they are certainly not Davidic messiahs. Power and dominion belong to them but not “Wisdom”. Wisdom, as we have seen, is given to the mediators Daniel and Enoch who pass on the secret knowledge of the times to come.

Enoch and Daniel: mediators of secret heavenly wisdom

Psalms of Solomon

In the first century B.C.E. the Psalms of Solomon mention a Davidic messiah to appear in the “last days”. The seventeenth psalm pictures this messiah Son of David wiping out sinners and ruling the survivors with “Wisdom and Righteousness” and “Wisdom and Happiness”.

Here, Wisdom resides neither in the Torah nor in the Law. Nor is it found in a mediator between God and humankind. The Psalms of Solomon drew upon the scriptural Isaiah 11:2

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

The “shoot” from the stump of Jesse is, of course, David, but given that Isaiah is a prophecy we must read it as a Davidic figure destined to make an appearance in the future.

The relevant passages from the Psalms of Solomon 17 and 18:

According to PsSol 17, the Messiah will drive out the sinners “in wisdom and righteousness” (17:23), “will rule peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness” (17:29), and “will bless the Lord’s people with wisdom and happiness” (17:35). , , ,  “God made him … wise in the counsel of understanding with strength and righteousness” (17:37); “those born in these days… (will live) in wisdom of spirit and of righteousness and of strength” (18:7).

(Boccaccini, 274)

So the hope is in the advent of a Davidic Messiah to rule with wisdom. The point to take away from all of this is:

Both wisdom and power are given to the future Messiah, the Son of David.

Psalms of Solomon: Wisdom will appear in the last days with Davidic king. (Image: David as Byzantine emperor with Wisdom)

The Wisdom of Solomon

Righteous Zacharias Killed Between the Temple and the Altar

But there were other viewpoints alongside the above among the Judeans in the years preceding the eruption of Christianity. The Wisdom of Solomon, like the Psalms of Solomon, was composed during the early Roman period but it contained a very different understanding of the place of wisdom. Here wisdom belonged to every righteous suffering person in this world. (And by definition, the righteous always suffer.) There was nothing “end-time” about it. It was not hidden in heaven. It was with every righteous person who asked God to grant it.

Unlike the Psalms of Solomon, the Davidic traditions are not associated with a future Messiah, the Son of David, but are used to describe “a typical figure who is persecuted and put to death by rich and powerful opponents but vindicated in the heavenly court”29 — a symbol in the chain of the children of Wisdom on earth. This is the way Wisdom reveals herself — not secretly, not indirectly, but acting in the first person, directly, in human history. There is not one particular mediator, not even Solomon, but a series of mediators. “In every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God and prophets” (7:27). Wisdom is not remote but easily accessible to humankind: “she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her” (6:12).

(Boccaccini, 275)

Contrast Sirach and Baruch above. In those texts Wisdom had an indirect salvific role, “realized through observance of the priestly law”. In the Wisdom of Solomon Wisdom has a direct salvific role.

The Parables of Enoch

If perchance you have forgotten what you read back in 2013 about the Parables of Enoch you can refresh your memory at Christ Before Christianity, 1: Dating the Parables of Enoch

Not so, according to the Parables of Enoch. For the Parables, Wisdom could not find any place to dwell on earth. She did go out looking for somewhere to live among the people of Israel but failed. Result: she was obliged to return to heaven.

There is no room in this world for the salvific role of Wisdom, both directly (as for the Wisdom of Solomon) or indirectly through the priestly Law (as in Sirach or Baruch). (Boccaccini, 276)

For the first time we find wisdom clearly and unambiguously associated with the Son of Man Messiah. (In the Parables of Enoch there is no doubt that the pre-existent Son of Man figure is also the Messiah.)

Part of this Messiah’s job description is to reveal wisdom to humanity. Here is the opening of the Parables:

The vision of wisdom that Enoch saw. . . . This is the beginning of the words of wisdom, which I took up to recount to those who dwell on the earth. . . .  let us not withhold the beginning of wisdom. Until now there had not been given from the presence of the Lord of Spirits such wisdom as I have received according to my insight . . . . (1 Enoch 37:1-5)

The Son of Man figure in the Parables is a revealer of hidden treasures:

This is the son of man who has righteousness, and righteousness dwells with him. And all the treasuries of what is hidden he will reveal; for the Lord of Spirits has chosen him . . . . (1 Enoch 46:3)

The Son of Man is not only destined to reveal wisdom; he himself will be revealed by wisdom: 

And in that hour that son of man was named in the presence of the Lord of Spirits, . . . And the wisdom of the Lord of Spirits has revealed him to the holy and the righteous; (1 Enoch 48:2, 7)

The Son of Man will have all the secrets of wisdom and will reveal wisdom to the truly devout:

For the Chosen One has taken his stand in the presence of the Lord of Spirits; and his glory is forever and ever, and his might, to all generations. 3 And in him dwell the spirit of wisdom and the spirit of insight, and the spirit of instruction (1 Enoch 49:2-3)

And the Chosen One, in those days, will sit upon my throne, and all the secrets of wisdom will go forth from the counsel of his mouth, for the Lord of Spirits has given (them) to him (1 Enoch 51:3)

The Parables of Enoch draws us in to witness a remarkable scene. Enoch is presented as its author. That is, Enoch is the one to whom angels are granting heavenly visions. But something mysterious happens as we read on: Enoch himself becomes gradually transformed into the pre-existent Son of Man figure that he sees in vision, and as the pre-existent Son of Man Enoch is at the same time the Messiah, too.

This is not an incarnation of the Son of Man and Messiah, however. As James Waddell notes pointedly: “This is the opposite of ‘incarnation.’” (p. 87) The earthly Enoch is changed into the spirit Messiah Son of Man figure.

And out of that house came Michael and Raphael and Gabriel and Phanuel and many holy angels without number. And with them was the Head of Days, and his head was white and pure as wool, and his apparel was indescribable. And I fell on my face, and all my flesh melted, and my spirit was transformed.

And that angel came to me and greeted me with his voice and said to me, “You are that son of man . . . . (1 Enoch 71:9-11, 14)

As the Messiah Son of Man, the heavenly Enoch becomes the destined revealer of divine wisdom.

. . .

Such were some of the ideas talked about in the world from which Christianity was born.

Next post (hopefully before nine years from now) we’ll look at pre-Christian Judean ideas about the Messiah’s relationship with Salvation.

Boccaccini, Gabriele, ed. Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man: Revisiting the Book of Parables. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2007.

Nickelsburg, George W. E. 1 Enoch: A New Translation; Based on the Hermeneia Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

Waddell, James A. The Messiah: A Comparative Study of the Enochic Son of Man and the Pauline Kyrios. London; New Delhi: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013.


The Crucifixion of Jesus as Implicit History of the Jewish War

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

The letters of Paul that are understood to have been written some twenty to ten years before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE speak about the crucifixion of Jesus as a simple fact. There is never any elaboration of when or where it happened (unless one treats 1 Thess 2:13-16 as genuine). The message of death and resurrection of the son of God by itself is sufficient to lead to conversion. For Mark, though (and for the sake of convenience and convention I’ll call the author of the second gospel Mark), this was not enough. A detailed story involving betrayal, abandonment, a trial, physical abuse and crucifixion with attendant miracles had to be told. I side with those critical scholars who conclude that all of those details are fabrications since the narrative was created out of various passages in the “Old Testament” and none of Jesus’ followers could have witnessed anything that happened once he was in the hands of the Jewish priests and Roman guards. But even if we concede for the sake of argument that the Passion account of Jesus did hold some “historical core” at its base, there can be no denying that the way Mark has shaped the story with its many allusions to OT scriptures is his own creative work.

Why? Why did he write that narrative and why did he write it the way he did?

Some years back I wrote a series about Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, by Clarke Owens. Clarke Owens was analysing the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a literary critic and argued that it was necessary to see the gospel as a product of its time, and that time was in the wake of the Jewish War that condemned untold numbers of Jewish victims to crucifixion around the city of Jerusalem.

In the past few months I have caught up with another work, or two of them, by a German New Testament scholar who makes much the same argument from his perspective:

  • Bedenbender, Andreas. Frohe Botschaft am Abgrund: Das Markusevangelium und der Jüdische Krieg [= Good News at/from the Abyss: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish War]. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2013.
  • Bedenbender, Andreas. Der Gescheiterte Messias [= The Failed Messiah]. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2019.

Andreas Bedenbender’s view is that the author of the earliest gospel was writing from a place of trauma and was struggling to come to terms with the fate of his people that he had just witnessed. Had not the gospel being preached about Jesus promised the soon-to-arrive Kingdom of God? Now this!? By a “failed messiah” he means a messiah who failed in the same sense that the OT prophets had failed when they preached their warnings about Assyrian and Babylonian captivity if the people of the northern and southern kingdoms did not mend their ways. This position of trauma, Bedenbender believes, explains the dark and confronting features and outright contradictions in the gospel: a messiah who now does, now does not, seem to care for his people, such as when he heals them at one moment but deserts them when they are trying to find him; who terrifies rather than comforts others by wielding his power over demons and the elements; who like a ghost is seen walking on water past his disciples instead of rushing to help them in their distress; who condemns his disciples for an unnatural blindness that they cannot help; who orders silence when a crowd has just heard and witnessed all; and whose story closes with the only witnesses to news of his resurrection fleeing dumb with fear (the earliest manuscripts of the gospel conclude at Mark 16:8).

For Bedenbender the crucifixion of Jesus is a kind of allegory of the fate of Jerusalem. The messiah is made to share in the fate of the Jewish people. From the Jewish historian Josephus we learn that those who did not die from starvation or factional violence or the slaughter of the advancing Roman soldiers or who were not enslaved were crucified:

Scourged and subjected before death to every torture, they were finally crucified in view of the wall. . . . The soldiers themselves through rage and bitterness nailed up their victims in various attitudes as a grim joke, till owing to the vast numbers there was no room for the crosses, and no crosses for the bodies. (Josephus, Jewish War, Book 6: 449-451 – G.A. Williamson translation)

We saw a similar argument in the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier. The Gospels created the figure of Jesus in part as a personification of the people of Israel.

Bedenbender goes beyond the events of the crucifixion, though. Right from the beginning of the gospel, we read of “a wilderness place” that is the frequent abode of Jesus. It is easy enough to relate the “wilderness” image to other wilderness scenes in the OT, most especially the “wilderness” through which Moses led the Israelites for 40 years. But Mark repeatedly refers to a “wilderness place” — έρημος τόπος = erēmos topos — and that brings to the minds of readers of the Greek translation (the Septuagint) of Jeremiah, Daniel and the Psalms the desolate ruin of God’s “place”, Zion and where the Temple had once stood. This is one of the ways in which the Jewish War is woven into the Gospel of Mark from its opening chapter.

Place names and names of persons are related to scenes and leaders that became well-known in the Jewish War of 66 to 70/73 CE. In the OT women are very often personifications of nations and cities and Bedenbender identifies the same figurative tradition in the names of Salome, Jairus’ daughter, Mary Magdalene (Magdala is another name for Tarichea, the scene of one of the bloodiest slaughters of Jews described by Josephus) and the others. Simon, of course, is probably the most prominent name in the gospel and here Bedenbender suggests that we see in this figure an encapsulation of the Jewish rebel movement from its beginning with Simon Maccabee through to Simon bar Giora. Simon Maccabee’s son Alexander became famous for his enforced Judaizations and mass crucifixions of his Jewish enemies, and the names of Tiberius Alexander and Rufus are readily associated with the Roman military confronting Jerusalem. (I can’t help wondering — I know this must seem outlandish to many who have more conservative views of Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, who carried Jesus’ cross — that the Gospel of Mark could have been written as late as the second century in the wake of horrendous Jewish rebellions in Cyrene and when yet another Simon, with the support of a rabbi “James”, defied Rome. The result of that rebellion in the days of Hadrian really was the ultimate end to Jerusalem and any hopes for a rebuilt temple. Would not that timeline place the author far closer to catastrophic events with a greater likelihood of writing in a pall of trauma than if he had been writing a few years after the events of 70?)

Andreas Bedenbender begins with a study of the meaning of allegory and related literary devices and examines why we should think of the entire narrative, and not merely isolated scenes, as containing a reference to the fate of Judea and what that meant for those who believed in Jesus as their messiah. He analyses the narrative to demonstrate, I think successfully, that not only the parable sayings but the miracles themselves are symbolic and take on a special depth of meaning when read in the context of the war. I believe we can go beyond the miracles and understand other narrative features (beginning with the baptism and call of the first disciples) as rich in “allegorical” references. Bedenbender has an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ debating confrontations with the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees and scribes after his entry into Jerusalem that focuses on Jesus’ attempt to disabuse them (and readers) of any notion of a messiah who was destined to wage a physical war against earthly opponents.

I look forward to posting more details about these works. In the meantime, I cannot ignore my resolution to address Witulski’s case for a Hadrian-era date for the Book of Revelation; and someone else has recently reminded me that I have yet to finish a series I was doing back in 2018 on the Parables of Enoch and the Jewish concept of a heavenly messiah.

And as Tim pointed out in his latest post, more needs to be said about “the insidious nature of agnotology” that poses a potential threat to our futures. We have to remain optimistic if we are to take the necessary actions and I think there are many reasons to be optimistic: look at what these ninthgraders can do! — this and this!



Cutting Ties with Robert M. Price

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

As an affirmed denier of all things supernatural, I must consider my recent deep dive into Critical Race Theory and Bob Price’s latest “troubles” to be entirely coincidental. To show you how far out of the loop I’ve been, I hadn’t the slightest inkling something was amiss in Priceland until I saw his rebuttal to Derek Lambert on Facebook. Oh, look. He’s being “canceled” again. Dear me.

First, I need to apologize to any and all for trying to compartmentalize for so long — gaining insights from Price’s religious research while ignoring his extremist authoritarian political, economical, and social views. I had held Price at arm’s length for many years, having at first approached him by email and then by phone, with the hopes of learning at the feet of the master.

He gave me a list of books to read, and we worked out a preliminary syllabus. At the time, I was working a lot on the road, which made things difficult, and then, late in the year, my mother’s health took a turn for the worst. She had been battling multiple myeloma. In 2010 I took a great deal of time off work to look after her. I fell into a profound melancholia. Continue reading “Cutting Ties with Robert M. Price”


Modern-Day Witchcraft Conspiracy Fears

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

It’s one of the more disturbing results of the Covid pandemic and it’s real. Too many western democracies have been in bad enough shape before the pandemic and the need to roll back the power of global corporations has been pressing enough but Covid has catalyzed a new threat: a new level of anti-government and anti-establishment conspiracy thinking that can only weaken democratic institutions as well as undermine confidence in sound scientific processes that are aimed at general health and well-being.

A survey report commissioned by the New South Wales government has been released by Macquarie University, Online Far Right Extremist and Conspiratorial Narratives During the COVID-19 Pandemic, to help us understand and counter the rise of this growing extremist outlook. The major threat that it singles out is the ability of far-right extremists to mainstream their narrative with the broader community and so increase their audience scope and potential support for anti-social actions.

In this post I single out just one item in one of the sources the report cites:

  • Leach, Anna, and Miles Probyn. “Why People Believe Covid Conspiracy Theories: Could Folklore Hold the Answer?” The Guardian, October 26, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2021/oct/26/why-people-believe-covid-conspiracy-theories-could-folklore-hold-the-answer. [Check the waybackmachine archive.org link if the above does not work]
Prof. Tim Tangherlini

Researchers have mapped the web of connections underpinning coronavirus conspiracy theories, opening a new way of understanding and challenging them. . . . .

Using Danish witchcraft folklore as a model, the researchers from UCLA and Berkeley analysed thousands of social media posts with an artificial intelligence tool and extracted the key people, things and relationships. . . . 

Gates is a persistent figure in the anti-vaccine stories. “He’s a great villain,” says the folklorist Prof Timothy Tangherlini who collaborated with Roychowdhury on the research. It’s Gates’ world-spanning influence in tech and then health that lodges him at the heart of a lot of conspiracies. . . . 

Folklore isn’t just a model for the AI. Tangherlini, whose specialism is Danish folklore, is interested in how conspiratorial witchcraft folklore took hold in the 16th and 17th centuries and what lessons it has for today.

Whereas in the past, witches were accused of using herbs to create potions that caused miscarriages, today we see stories that Gates is using coronavirus vaccinations to sterilise people. A version of this story that omits Gates but claims the vaccines have caused men’s testicles to swell, making them infertile, was repeated by the American rapper Nicki Minaj.

(bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)

I’m sure that not all anti-vaxxers are interested in Bill Gates, especially in Australia. But the conspiratorial responses concerning elites taking over our governments and threatening our freedoms are the same. A “covid-sceptic” might hear a story about Bill Gates but adjust it to what fits his or her version of the conspiracy. To quote from Tangherlini in the article once more:

In folklore, we have this law of self-correction. So if something doesn’t quite fit, you go back to the way you heard it from 15 other people. I might be saying Jeff Bezos. But if three other people are saying Bill Gates, it’s going to be Bill Gates.

From The Copenhagen Post

The Guardian article’s conclusion is worth quoting, too:

Why do people believe things that seem so wrong?

Conspiracy theories often crop up after catastrophic or unusual events and they thrive in environments where there is a lack of trusted information, says Tangherlini.

In 16th and 17th century Denmark, catastrophic events from floods to poisonous algae mixed with the massive change brought by industrialisation. For those isolated on small farms, access to trusted, consistent information was scarce and stories about witches start to take hold.

Today it’s clear that coronavirus has been a catastrophic event that has impacted everyone’s lives. On the face of it, a lack of information is not a problem in wealthy countries. However, the overload of information online can produce the same effect that Danish farmers faced several centuries ago – a lack of trusted information.

This is where conspiratorial storytelling comes in and these stories start to get created. Then, as now, stories are a powerful way of talking about what we fear.

In my other posts about propaganda I have attempted to underscore the point that a glut of information can have the same effect as too little information. Most of us don’t have the time to take in all the information available, let alone analyse or check it all. It can be too easy to not bother even trying to sift wheat from chaff and fall back on simplistic narratives that offer easy to understand answers.

To quote one section from the report with which I opened this post, pp 38-39:

Conspiracy theories provide simplistic answers to complex problems such as the current global health crisis, and present experts and traditional systems of authority and government as malevolent and untrustworthy. Belief in a conspiracy theory is not a reliable indicator of an acceptance of far right extremism, but conspiratorial thinking is prevalent within far right extremist (and many other extremist) movements, and may provide a vulnerability for pathways into these.

While conspiratorial thinking is detrimental and corrosive to liberal democracy, in sum there are three qualities of conspiratorial thinking that make it particularly concerning for social cohesion:

First, conspiracy theories concerning COVID-19 present a global narrative that can be linked to a host of diverse local issues and grievances. This allows far right extremists to exploit local tensions for their broader political agenda by connecting their narratives with world affairs.

Second, conspiracy theories form an alternative reality. This alternative reality serves as a framework under which multiple fringe movements, ideologies, and concerns can be mobilised. This allows far right extremists to mobilise among new social groups not traditionally receptive to their narratives or aims.

Third, by presenting the crisis as caused or exacerbated by the actions of a sinister and malevolent out-group, conspiracy theories justify an implicit solution in neutering or removing the out-group. This can present pathways towards anti-establishment civic dissent and violence.

A positive response to this growing threat to our societies that the report advises is to respect and engage productively with all those with concerns about covid, medical and vaccine advice, and government policies and to be careful not to label them with the far-right extremists who espouse the same views. To fail to do so risks driving them towards those extremists.


Leach, Anna, and Miles Probyn. “Why People Believe Covid Conspiracy Theories: Could Folklore Hold the Answer?” The Guardian, October 26, 2021

Waldek, Lise, Droogan, Julian, and Ballsun-Stanton, Brian. “Online Far Right Extremist and Conspiratorial Narratives During the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Government report for Department of Communities and Justice, NSW. Sydney, NSW: Macquarie University, March 22, 2022. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.5732611.


Trying to make sense of Simon Magus

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I have always found the account of Simon Magus in the Acts of the Apostles empty of any real significance. It contains nothing to advance the plot. The “magician” wants to buy a bottle of holy spirit from Peter so he can perform miracles, he says, but that leaves me cold: it lacks any sense of psychological realism even by ancient novelistic standards; and besides, I was a baptized member of a church who also had the holy spirit and it didn’t let me do miracles, so what was going on here?

To refresh your memories, here’s the scene: Acts 8:9-25 (NIV)

9 Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, 10 and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” 11 They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. 12 But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.

14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

18 When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money 19 and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

20 Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23 For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”

24 Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”

I have read Hermann Detering’s and Robert Price’s proposals that second century “proto-orthodox” authors created Simon Magus as a fictional embodiment of the unorthodox side of the “real Paul” at a time when Paul was at the centre of theological disputes. My response to that argument has been to regard such a hypothesis as a curious possibility but nothing more. More to the point for me has been that, quite apart from any purported association with Paul, it has been all too easy to think of Simon Magus as a lampoon-like fiction: he is oafish enough to offer money for spiritual goods, has beside him a woman who is both an ex-prostitute and an “Ideal Creative Thought” of his mind, and in later stories he flies through the air until Peter causes him to fall ignominiously to earth.

How could anyone take such a figure seriously? Certainly not as a historical reality!

Jan Bremmer

But something pulled me up when I was reading Jan N. Bremmer‘s 2020 article “Simon Magus: The Invention and Reception of a Magician in a Christian Context“. His initial point is to “elucidate the gradual emergence of the main features of Simon Magus in the course of late antiquity” and to this end he begins,

The invention of the figure of Simon Magus started in the canonical Acts of the Apostles. In Chapter 8 of the Acts . . . [followed by a quotation of Acts 8:9-13] (p. 248)

Okay…. but there’s a wrinkle in there somewhere. On the next page Bremmer writes,

Our next sighting of Simon is in the First Apology of Justin (1.26.2-3, ed. Munier), dated to the early 150s:

Here was a certain Simon, a Samaritan, and a native of the village called Githon, who in the reign of Claudius Caesar, and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic (δυνάμεις ποιήσας μαγικής ) with the aid of the demons operating in him. He was considered a god, and as a god was honoured by you with a statue, which was erected on the river Tiber, between the two bridges, with this Latin inscription: Simoni Deo Sancto (Σίμωνι δεῳ σάγκτῳ). And almost all the Samaritans, and even a few who belonged to other peoples, confess him as the first god and worship him; and a certain Helena, who accompanied him at that time, and had formerly been standing on the roof (i.e., had been a prostitute), they say is the first idea generated by him.

[note: “By curious chance, a statue was pulled from the Tiber in 1574 with the inscription SEMONI SANCO DEO FIDIO SACRUM. It is obvious, as has often been recognised, that Justin’s reference to a statue of Simon is based on a misinterpretation of a statue of Semo, an old Sabine god.”]

No, something is amiss there. Justin clearly had no knowledge of our canonical Acts of the Apostles. He knows nothing of Paul. In his mind it is the twelve apostles (the same twelve whom Jesus appeared to after his resurrection — leaving no room for a lost and replaced Judas) who took the message to all the gentiles. And his account of Simon Magus betrays no awareness of anything in Acts 8.

Jan Bremmer also acknowledges the possibility, even plausibility, of a date later than the early second century:

I realise that the date of the canonical Acts of the Apostles is debated and might even be later than Marcion but no evidence has yet been produced to date it after Irenaeus; cf. Gregory 2003.  (Bremmer, p. 247)

Gregory in Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period Before Irenaeus concludes nothing more definite than that our earliest evidence for knowledge of Acts comes with Irenaeus in the late second century (p. 349)

In years past I posted often on Acts of the Apostles and the one conclusion that has endured in my mind is that Acts could not have been written before the middle of the second century. The arguments of those such as Joseph Tyson and the Acts Seminar have posited a date in the early second century, 120s-130s,  but that date is the earliest possible date that the data allows. There is no reason it could not be dated a few decades later. But even if we accept the 120s-130s, it was surely written in isolation from Justin who knew nothing of it.

Now when we compare the two accounts of this Simon, the one in Acts and the one by Justin, it is the latter account, Justin’s, that reads with more “realism” than the sparse and strange narrative in Acts. The Acts narrative, as I said, adds nothing to the plot. Today’s readers have to assume that its author was addressing an audience who had some knowledge of this Simon figure that has long been lost to us. The Acts portrayal tells those readers that Simon was greedy to maintain power and influence in the church and crass enough to think money could buy his way into the ranks of the apostles.

Why did the author of Acts tell this story? One would expect that the episode would be followed up at some point with Simon’s fate or other kinds of influence somewhere — at least something to indicate to readers why he was introduced in the first place.

But there is another strange detail: the conclusion, Continue reading “Trying to make sense of Simon Magus”


Historical Research: The Basics

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Hello again everyone. It’s been too long since I’ve posted here. One of the reasons for my absence was that I have been working my way through several new works in other languages that I have had to scan and translate mostly “by machine” as I go. Reading one work led to several more and so it went. One result: I now have many new perspectives and questions relating to the New Testament and related literature, especially (but not only) to the Gospel of Mark, Book of Revelation and the Ascension of Isaiah.

Leopold von Ranke (“father of modern source-based history”) — still relevant today: see the last quotation by Richard Evans in this post.

While I was reading I sometimes sought escape by kind of doodling on and off on the Biblical Criticism & History Forum – earlywritings.com. While there, I had occasion to list what historians themselves have explained are the building blocks of historical research. That is, their own explanations of how they determine the facts of what happened long ago. From these raw facts historians reconstruct history itself and develop hypotheses about causes and the nature of the cultures and so forth, but “bedrock facts” come first. (Not that the information I posted on the forum had much impact since certain persons continued to discuss historical questions according to their long-held habits of thought that break all the rules for determining “facts”. They’re having fun and maybe that’s what matters most to some of them. C’est la vie.)

In sum, the methods common to historians and that they themselves have explained are these:

  • Look for a “primary source”, generally meaning a source that is contemporary with the person or event to which it testifies.

One example: Accounts of events and persons are found in writings that we have valid reasons to believe were produced by contemporaries of those persons and events.

  • Look for reasons to have some level of confidence in those sources — or not: e.g. do we know who wrote them and why?

Above all:

  • Look for independent corroboration of the information in the sources or for general trustworthiness of the source.

An example I like to use is Socrates. How do historians know Socrates existed?

We have writings about Socrates that we can determine were written by his students (e.g. Plato, Xenophon), other writings that confirm that those texts are indeed by whom they say they are (e.g. Aristotle’s references to Plato’s works), and we also have contemporary works that are critical of Socrates, mocking him (e.g. by the playwright Aristophanes) — that is, confirmation of Socrates that appears to be independent of the works of Plato and Xenophon.

Those principles are not always spelled out by historians in their publications but they are generally noticeable to any reader who is looking for “how they know” what they are writing about.

Below is a collation of various quotations by historians and philosophers of history that do make the above principles explicit. It is a revised copy of what I posted on the BC&H forum.

Rules of historical reasoning

The New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has argued that a historian should give the benefit of the doubt to any testimony. That is a fine starting principle when one needs to get along with neighbours and colleagues, but few nonbiblical historians would agree that it applies to the sources from long ago. Continue reading “Historical Research: The Basics”