Author Archives: Neil Godfrey

Neil Godfrey

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The Question of Historicity Need Not Be Raised

The question whether Orpheus himself existed or not need not be raised. There was, in general, no doubt of it in the ancient world. Indeed, it makes very little difference in the history of human thought whether the great and influential personalities ever actually lived in human bodies. Personalities like Zeus, Odysseus, and Zoroaster, and even Hamlet and Don Quixote, have been more important in the world than millions of men who have lived and died. Their reality is the reality of an idea, and the best that we can know about them is what men have thought about them. The reality of Orpheus is to be sought in what men thought and said about him. 
Linforth, Ivan M. 1973 (c 1941). The Arts of Orpheus. New York: Arno Press. xiif
Death of Orpheus (1494) by Dürer

Midrash and the Gospels, Conclusion

We saw in the previous post through Philip Alexander’s description of midrash that the term really only applies to early rabbinic exegesis of the Scriptures. The purpose of midrash was to tie oral tradition to certain scriptural texts and to make the tie to those texts explicit. Accordingly, the rewriting of biblical stories — whether the Chronicler’s rewriting of the books of Kings or gospel allusions to Old Testament passages — can scarcely be classified as midrash.

So I am not impressed when I see scholars lumping together as ‘midrash’ texts as diverse as Chronicles, the Testaments of the XII Patriarchs, Enoch, Jubilees, Philo, Josephus, the LXX and the Targumim, the Qumran Pesharim, the Genesis Apocryphon, and the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael. The only effect of such total lack of discrimination is to evacuate midrash of any real meaning: midrash becomes simply a fancy word for ‘Bible interpretation’. (Alexander, pp. 11f)

Further, the term is not helpful when applied to the gospels, in Alexander’s view:

If our definition of midrash becomes too attenuated, then in using the term we may not, in fact, be saying anything new: we may simply be telling the reader that what lies before him is a specimen of early Jewish Bible interpretation—which may be crashingly self-evident! If midrash means no more than ‘Bible interpretation’, then it would be advisable to drop the term. And if we insist on using it so broadly then we shall have to consider subdividing the category, and speaking of Rabbinic midrash, Qumranic midrash, Philonic midrash, apocalyptic midrash and so on. The study of the subject can only be advanced through refinement. I certainly perceive important differences between Rabbinic Bible exegesis and that of Philo, or of the Dead Sea Sect. The way forward lies in trying to define these distinctive styles of Bible interpretation, rather than in treating them as an undifferentiated mass. (p. 12)

We began this discussion with Michael Goulder’s influence on John Shelby Spong. Spong for a time described the gospels as midrash and acknowledged Goulder as his mentor in this respect:

I remember my joy when I came to the conclusion that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a midrashic creation, with his name stemming from the fact that John had been identified with the prophet Malachi, whose immediate predecessor in the Bible was the prophet, Zechariah. So John’s immediate predecessor was called Zechariah. I remember even better Michael [Goulder]’s amusement and his twinkling smile when he showed me that he had not only come to, but written about, this possibility years before it even dawned on me to explore the issue. (Spong, xiii)

We saw that Spong chose to use the term midrashic rather than midrash but that Goulder eschewed the word entirely as a description of the way the evangelists composed their accounts of Jesus. Goulder had even used midrash to account for the way Matthew was a re-write of Mark. Alexander points out how unsupportable is that classification:

  1. Midrash is generally performed on a canonical text and the canonical text is left standing firm and uncompromised. But Matthew frequently changed Mark’s text and changing the source text was not the way of midrash. Midrash was also expected to stand alongside the canonical text, not to replace it. Yet it appears that Matthew was written not to be read alongside Mark but to replace Mark.
  2. Goulder understood Matthew as creatively adding to or modifying Mark’s text. Midrash, on the other hand, hewed closely to exegetical traditions and authorities and dialogue with other masters. It was not a free-for-all creative exercise.
  3. Alexander further alerts readers to other “more obvious parallels” in rabbinic literature to the gospels than midrash.
    • Rabbinic literature has also a synoptic problem. This exists at the level of short, individual aggadot (cf. the four versions of Rabbi Eleazar’s Merkavah sermon), and at the level of extensive ‘literary’ compositions (cf. the problem of the relationship between Mishnah and Tosefta, between the Gemarot of the Bavli and the Yerushalmi, between the various recensions of the Palestinian Targum). Why does Goulder say nothing about the Rabbinic synoptic problem? Since most of Matthew’s ‘alterations’ of Mark can be paralleled just as easily in the synoptic Rabbinic texts as in midrash, it is surely fair to ask him why he talks only about midrash. . . . There is a host of questions regarding the Rabbinic material which Goulder has simply not considered. . . . [T]he Rabbinic texts are bedevilled by exactly the same difficulties as have proved so intractable in the study of the Gospels. (Alexander, 14f)


Alexander, Philip S. 1984. “Midrash and the Gospels.” In Synoptic Studies: The Ampleforth Conferences of 1982 and 1983, edited by Christopher M. Tuckett, 1–18. Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press.

Spong, John Shelby. 1997. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne.

Missing post content: Do any long-time readers have it?

I have lost images from a number of older posts, including this one, Merry Midrash from 2012:

We had problems with software I once used in connection with uploading images and too many images have simply disappeared altogether, it seems. With the post in above most of them are even missing from the Wayback Machine ( — which only captured the post once, in 2015, presumably after images were lost.

I know some blog readers have copied older posts. If anyone reading this happens to have a copy of I’d very much welcome being sent the images again.

With thanks once again,


Meaning of Midrash (Are the Gospels Midrash?)

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

We know that the gospels contain many stories that are based on Old Testament narratives. Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter is clearly developed on similar miracles by Elijah and Elisha; Jesus stilling the storm has rewoven core elements of the story of Jonah; the miraculous birth of Jesus finds its mirror opposites in the miraculous births of patriarchs and judges. Frequently we find New Testament scholars describing this building of stories upon earlier “biblical” accounts to be a special form of Jewish composition called midrash. The term comes with some controversy, however, and it can be helpful if we understand what it means to different people if our intention is to communicate as smoothly and agreeably as possible.

I first became aware that its meaning and usage was not so straightforward in a discussion forum back in 2000 when Mark Goodacre pointed out to his colleagues the following:

Spong should indeed be expected to observe correct scholarly definitions of the term midrash.

(1) Spong is (explicitly) dependent on the work of Michael Goulder who in 1989 had withdrawn his previous usage of the term “midrash” to describe the creative work of the evangelists (see my previous message for bibliographical information). This was as a direct result of Philip Alexander’s critique.

(2) About eight years ago I went to a paper Spong gave in Oxford at which he repeatedly used the term “midrash” to describe Matthew’s creative work in the birth narrative. It was pointed out to him publicly that his use of the term was inaccurate and that his source for the usage, Michael Goulder, had withdrawn it.

(Goodacre, XTalk, 5207)

So Michael Goulder introduced the term to John Shelby Spong but subsequently stopped using the term as a result of a criticism by Philip Alexander. I will return to his criticism that influenced Goulder.

Spong was not as completely tone-deaf to all voices, however, since he did explain afterwards that he himself had decided to at least change the way he used the word:

I became convinced that I wanted to write my next book on the Jewishness of the Gospels. . . . . My first working title of this new book was The Gospels as Midrash. My editor at HarperCollins, however, discouraged that title for two reasons:

  • First, midrash is not a familiar word  to the general reader, he said,
  • and second, Jewish people use the term midrash in a very strict and limited sense, which was quite different from the way I was using the term.

I had seen that reaction in my closest rabbi friend, Jack Daniel Spiro, the first time I used the term in a public lecture that he attended. I do not ever want to be offensive to my fellow pilgrims within the Jewish tradition, so in this book I have used the word midrash only as the modifying adjective, midrashic, both to indicate the broadness of the way I am employing this concept and also to leave the word midrash to its special Jewish understanding.

(Spong, p. xi)

In Edwin C. Goldberg’s Midrash for Beginners we read at the outset

Suffice it to say that there are two general meanings of the term “midrash”: 

  1. It can refer to a process of interpreting Scripture. According to this definition, any comment which is directly or indirectly related to the Bible is midrashic. (There are even those who claim the term for the general process of commenting on any text.)
  2. The term can also refer to a specific body of classical rabbinic commentary on the Bible, edited from approximately the year 200 of the Common Era (C.E.) to the ninth century. For instance, one can go to a well-stocked Jewish library and find in English translation such works as the Midrash to the Book of Genesis. 

(Goldberg, pp. xif)

Note the first meaning brings us back to Spong’s use of the word form “midrashic”. We might wonder, though, if that first meaning is rather too broad. Why not just speak of “interpretation” or “literary borrowing” instead of “midrash”?

We find a similar question arising with the Encyclopedia of Midrash. In the second volume we find an article New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash by R. M. Price. Price views the gospels as a special form of midrash, haggadic midrash:

The line is thin between extrapolating new meanings from ancient scriptures (borrowing the authority of the old) and actually composing new scripture (or quasi-scripture) by extrapolating from the old. By this process of midrashic expansion grew the Jewish haggadah, new narrative commenting on old (scriptural) narrative by rewriting it. Haggadah is a species of hypertext, and thus it cannot be fully understood without reference to the underlying text on which it forms a kind of commentary. The earliest Christians being Jews, it is no surprise that they similarly practiced haggadic expansion of scripture, resulting in new narratives partaking of the authority of the old. The New Testament gospels and the Acts of the Apostles can be shown to be Christian haggadah upon Jewish scripture, and these narratives can be neither fully understood nor fully appreciated without tracing them to their underlying sources, the object of the present article.

(Encyclopedia, p. 534)

That article follows directly upon another by Gary Porton, Midrash, Definitions of. The opening definition that I quote here clearly excludes the gospels as a form of midrash. With my emphasis… read more »

New French Mythicist Book

My routine was interrupted this week with the arrival of a new book in the mail, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier by Nanine Charbonnel. Nanine Charbonnel is an emeritus professor of philosophy who describes herself as a specialist in hermeneutics. The publisher of her new book has given prominence to the fact that it contains a preface by Thomas Römer.

I once posted on another French philosopher who contributed articles and books presenting a case that Jesus originated as a mythical figure, Paul Louis Couchoud, and would like to do the same for Nanine Charbonnel. Unfortunately, my high school and one year of undergraduate French is very rusty indeed and I rely heavily on machine translation as my first foray into what lies before me. Expect me to appeal to readers more fluent in French to help out from time to time.

I think I can post a machine translation (with minor corrections, added fluencies and clarifications from me) of Römer’s preface without infringing copyright. I have changed the formatting (paragraphing, highlighting) totally, though:

This book which will surprise and undoubtedly also disturb many readers could also have been entitled “The Invention of Jesus”. Its author, Nanine Charbonnel, professor of philosophy breaks a taboo that has existed for more than a century in academic research on Jesus of Nazareth, the origins of Christianity and the New Testament.

From the beginning of the so-called “historico-critical” exegesis arises the question of the “historical Jesus”. His virgin birth, his encounter with the devil at the beginning of his activity, his miracles, even his resurrection of the dead, are understood by the Rationalists as mythical reinterpretations of a human figure.

  • Thus, Ernest Renan, in his inaugural lecture at the College de France, spoke of “the man Jesus” who “reached the highest religious level that ever before man attained” was “deified” after his death (OEuvres Complètes, n, 329-330). In 1862 these words caused a scandal and provoked the temporary dismissal of Renan from his professorship at the College de France.
  • Renan’s statement is part of what is now called “the first quest” of the historical Jesus, which began in the eighteenth century with the posthumous publication of the texts of Hermann Samuel Reimarus by the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Reimarus highlighted the historical Jesus who never wanted to found a new religion, even the Church, but who was an eschatological preacher. His failure was transformed by his disciples who created the myth of his resurrection and ascension. A distinction was made between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith”, a distinction accepted until today by the totality of university researchers and historians.

At the beginning of the research on the historical Jesus, the question of the proofs of his existence (outside the New Testament texts) was nonetheless posed.

  • In the middle of the nineteenth century, Bruno Bauer argued that Christianity born in the second century was a sort of syncretism combining different religious ideas (Jewish, Greek, Roman). Jesus is not at the origin of this Christianity, but a literary fiction to give this “new religion” a founder.
  • At the beginning of the twentieth century the German philosopher Arthur Drews published a book The Christ Myth, in which he considered the figure of Jesus as the personification of an earlier Christic myth, showing that all the epithets of Jesus were borrowed from mythologies Jewish and Greek.

These theories remained marginal however and, despite the fact that in the 1st and 2nd centuries there are no texts outside the New Testament clearly attesting to the existence of a Jesus of Nazareth, the historicity of such a character is almost no longer questioned.

  • Thus Daniel Marguerat, eminent exegete of the New Testament, says: “the meaning of his deeds and actions, not his existence, is debated today” (p.13, in his Introduction to the edited volume Jesus de Nazareth. Nouvelles approches d’une énigme, Geneva, Labor and Fides, 1998).

According to Nanine Charbonnel, author of this book, this distinction between the historical Jesus and the reinterpretations of his life and death in the Gospels has been detrimental to research. Relying on a “rationalization” of evangelical texts, it has prevented the deep understanding of these texts by questioning them almost exclusively from this idea of ​​a historical core and thus seeking the historical basis of certain pericopes as well as indications of borrowing from Judaism or reinterpretations after the death of Jesus in others. Faced with the affirmation shared by believing scholars and agnostic intellectuals that Jesus is a historical figure of whom we know almost nothing historically, the author of this book proposes to read the New Testament texts from the idea that Jesus Christ would be a “paper figure”. The philosopher’s approach includes a severe critique of hermeneutics, and in particular the current called “hermeneutic phenomenology”.

This book proposes to read the Gospel tales as midrashim, reminding us rightly that it is impossible to read the New Testament texts without locating them in their relation to the Old Testament (in Hebrew and Greek). As a midrash, an exegesis and reinterpretation of earlier texts, evangelical tales set up a theology of fulfillment through narratives, drawing largely on the texts and themes of the Hebrew Bible. Nanine Charbonnel shows it in pedagogical tables indicating the different borrowing and rewriting that can be found behind the tales of the Gospels. She then details the function of the characters appearing in the Gospels, like the twelve apostles, representing the twelve tribes of the new Israel, and Mary, the Jewish people who begets the Messiah. Jesus is the new Adam, the new Moses, the new Elijah and the new Elishah, but also the new Joshua and the incarnation of the “suffering servant”, a messiah who brings together different messianic traits. The Gospels no longer appear as compilations but as creative works repeating and transforming statements in the Hebrew Bible.

To understand the figure of Jesus Christ as a sublime invention of the human mind is the main thesis of this book. It is possible that many readers are reluctant to follow the author in this way. Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny the midrashic character of many pericopes of the Gospels. Everyone will be free to draw conclusions from this midrashic reading which will have the great merit of going beyond the dichotomy between “myth” and “history”.

Charbonnel and Römer

Before I post an outline of Charbonnel’s discussion in her opening chapter I want to address the word “midrash” and how it has been related to the gospels. I don’t believe this will seriously detract from her presentation, or from the theses presented by others who have used the term in similar ways, but I think we should be aware of scholarly differences pertaining to the term whenever we see it.


Bart Ehrman’s Motive

Someone emailed me part of a recent post by Bart Ehrman with a suggestion that I comment. The key paragraph by Ehrman:

I am not saying I have no agendas and no biases. Let me be emphatic. I DO have an agenda and I DO have biases. My agenda is to propagate a scholarly understanding and appreciation of the Bible. And my bias is that a scholarly understanding can NOT be determined by theological dogmas. Scholarship may affect what you choose to believe, theologically. But what you choose to believe, theologically, should not determine the results of your scholarship. That’s my very strong bias. Your historical or literary views should not be pre-determined by your religious beliefs.

I have no doubt that Ehrman’s words are sincere and I believe him. I would suggest, though, that there is something unstated but implied in his words that he also believes and that is part of his professional agenda. His fourth sentence could be rewritten as

My agenda is to propagate a scholarly understanding and appreciation of the Bible — meaning that I wish to propagate a respect for the fundamental methods and assumptions of the mainstream institutional critical scholarly study of the Bible. 

The reason I believe the added words are implied in Ehrman’s statement is that he does not afford the same respect for the declaration of the motives of those who question the most fundamental assumptions from which critical biblical studies operates.

I should add that there is nothing wrong with wishing to propagate respect for one’s standard methods and assumptions, but respect is professionally attained with one allows them to be addressed in open critical inquiry without resort to personal attacks and character denigration. We have a right to expect scholars in fields most clearly associated with ideologies — the arts and humanities, and theology — would be the more humble with the realization of how entrenched ideologies have unwittingly led their fields into unscholarly agendas in the past.

(It would be unfair for anyone opposed to critical scholarship of the Bible to latch on to an extreme or ignorant remark by a fundamentalist critic who was also opposed to some point made by serious scholars in order to add ammunition to his critical case. Yet we find some biblical scholars, including Ehrman, pointing to some of the more nonsensical claims of some few outlier mythicists and painting the entire mythicist enterprise with that brush.)

We return once more the unscholarly treatment of critical scholars  (how much worse are those outside the fold treated) who question the foundations of a project:



Plea for Patience

No doubt readers of Vridar are the most patient in the world but nonetheless I would like to say that I fully realize I am some quite few days behind catching up with comments and emails. Be sure I will do my best to respond before too long.

Understanding that we, the readers, are part of the story

I have a weakness for watching murder mysteries on Sunday night TV. I have long learned to identify the most innocent looking character whom we cannot imagine possibly being involved in the crime being eventually discovered to be the villain of the show, but that’s not being clever. It’s just a matter of knowing how often the stories turn out that way. What I find myself doing, sometimes, is replaying the early part of an episode online to see what it was I missed, or how the creators manipulated me into misinterpreting little details early on. In hindsight I can see how they can be interpreted so differently.

What I am learning by this is that the real story is not happening on the screen, but it is happening between the creator, me, and the screen. The writers or directors are playing with my mind and emotions. The creators are using the screen to perform illusionist tricks like a magician. They are deflecting my attention in ways they control in order to make me marvel at the end how clever they were to pull the rabbit out of the hat or whatever.

I can rarely discover the trick in a TV murder mystery plot any more than I can discover the magician’s trick merely by watching the performance.

And this game between creator and audience is a fact of all writing. (Including what I am doing right now.) Not only writing, but all verbal communication.

Speakers, authors, normally count on their audience to follow the content of their message without, as a rule, being distracted by who is saying it, the techniques they are using, and how it is that they are guiding the audience to respond in a certain way to the content. Usually the speaker or writer will begin by winning the confidence of the audience by appearing to take them into their confidence or declaring their institutional authority of some kind. Once that is done (and understand that that process is also part of the game or play with the audience) the audience becomes immersed in the world of the story or news report.

When we share what we have seen or heard with others we will generally repeat the story we have heard. We are less likely to remind them or even ourselves of how the presenter led us into the story world in the first place.

I was reminded of all of the above the other day when I came across a couple of lines by Martin Dibelius (Studies in the Acts of the Apostles) reminding his readers that New Testament scholars too often have delved straight into examination of the stories in Acts and the gospels as if they are historical, or at least to ask if they could be historical, without first and foremost stepping back and examining the way the author has told the stories. What was the author doing vis a vis the reader by presenting the story itself and by presenting it with the details he selected and in the way he did?

There are more important and significant messages bombarding us than biblical studies, of course, and there those questions are obviously more important.

It took me some years to learn to try to avoid saying, “I heard that such and such happened….” and to say, rather, something like, “I heard from so and so at this or that place  that such and such happened …. ” The latter takes a little more effort, but it is safer ground, as many of us have come to learn.


I Wish I Could Understand Australia Better

I am an Australian but I think that makes it harder for me to understand Australia in some ways, especially the weekend’s depressing election results. Perhaps that’s because what I would like to see obscures my view of the reality.

Scott Morrison, a Pentecostal churchgoer who attributed his election victory to a miracle, is once again Australia’s Prime Minister — after winning an election that broke the standard rules of the game. His Liberal-National coalition was meant to be thrashed at the polls after all sorts of not very secret political power plays that saw ugly challenges and changes of party leadership prior to the election.

The good news:

Tony Abbott, ex-Prime Minister, eater of raw onions with skin, Catholic, anti-abortion, a climate change denier who becomes a climate change believer when he sees his support base waning, and back-stabber and leaker-of-dirt-on-colleagues-to-the-press-in-chief, lost his seat and is finally out of Parliament for good.

The bad news:

Peter Dutton, an alt-right type racist and all-round bigot who was the one Abbott and others in the Liberal National coalition hoped would be the new Prime Minister could not be unseated despite massive campaigns from all sorts of movements and notable persons to target him in his electorate.

Following on from the entrenched support for Dutton we have further alt-right type persons, racists, fear-mongerers, — Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer — giving their preferences votes to Scott Morrison’s party and handing him a secure and unexpected sweeping victory in north Queensland. That is despite Pauline Hansons’s party being caught out in a sting operation by Al Jazeera journalists approaching the U.S.’s National Rifle Association for donations and Clive Palmer being such an obviously dishonest jerk going all out to imitate Donald Trump’s worst attributes. (Palmer cheated workers of wages when one of his mining businesses collapsed and promised to “repay” them just on the eve of the election — surely such an obvious con no-one could possibly take him seriously.

But surely racism and fear of job losses as a result of environmental priorities is not the whole story. Those states of mind are always going to be with us.

On the other side, I find myself despairing of public “debates” and interviews. Political leaders now have the art of evading direct answers to questions down to a fine art. Scott Morrison doesn’t use the term “fake news” but he does regularly speak of the “Canberra bubble” to dismiss any serious questions. Same thing, just an Australian branding.

Yet the “serious” interviewers don’t do seriously informative interviews. They play the game of asking questions from the opposing party’s point of view. They don’t stand back and challenge the respective parties from the perspective of the broader public. Interviewing a Liberal politician they challenge them with Labor Party points; and vice versa and so on. It’s all removed from the real world.

Except for the shock-jocks — who play the anti-immigrant and fear cards.

And the shock-jocks and the mainstream interviewers are earning fortunes to do their work of trying to score political points and win audience ratings. And meanwhile both major parties are dancing and dining comfortably with big business and careful not to upset the media giants.

It’s all out of touch with reality — at least the reality of the root drivers of the forces shaping the worlds of most of us.

Democracy and political debates is primarily about media management and media images. And that gives the victory to the cleverest or luckiest and/or richest manipulator.

There’s something ugly happening here and we’re waiting for something positive to return to the play. That’s how it seems to me. I wish I could understand it more clearly.



If They Treat Their Own This Way, What Hope for Us Outsiders?

I’m back to blogging again after being seconded to actually do certain household maintenance jobs I had been promising and giving much on-and-off thought to for some weeks now. (I’m a firm believer in not rushing into certain tasks without careful and protracted thought beforehand.)

the real offense of [certain critical biblical scholarship] is . . . that it does its work in public
Robert J. Miller

When I returned to the online world I found that a kind emailer had sent me a chapter from a certain book I am surprised I have not read yet. Even better, I noticed that the local library only a few blocks away has a copy of the whole book. Here is a section of it that addresses a certain theme relating to the world of biblical scholars that I’ve posted about before:

Some critics take a dim view of the [Jesus] Seminar’s practice of voting on the authenticity of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus. For example, Ben Witherington complains that only in a country where majority views are assumed to be right and where “truth” is decided by voting could this idea of voting on Jesus have arisen. However, as The Five Gospels explains, the Jesus Seminar got the idea, not from American democracy, but from the practice of various biblical translation committees and from the United Bible Society committees that vote on the critical edition of the Greek text of the New Testament.

Luke Johnson has no objection to translation committees voting because “these votes are carried out privately.” Johnson’s remark is revealing: it shows that for him the real offense of the Jesus Seminar is not that it votes, but that it does its work in public. Numerous snide comments about the Seminar being hungry for publicity show that other critics also resent the public face of the Seminar.

In an attempt to estimate the depth of this resentment, let me pose a hypothetical scenario. What if the same people in the Jesus Seminar had carried out the same project and had come up with the same results, but had done so in a Society of Biblical Literature seminar and published the results in Semeia, the Society’s journal for experimental scholarship? Certainly the public would not have paid any attention, but my question is: how much attention would this project have received from scholars? I suspect, but obviously cannot prove, that the quantity of the critical response would be much less and its quality much better. I suspect also that the sheer nastiness of the insulting rhetoric directed against the Seminar would be much reduced.

The acerbic response of the Seminar’s critics to its commitment to work in public seems to rest on the assumption that academics who speak publicly about religion should keep their views to themselves if they might be unsettling to the beliefs of mainstream Christians. (This assumption explains why biblical scholars have largely left it up to scientists to battle creationism in the public forum.) The fact that journalists who cover religion could register such shock when scholars use words like “non-historical” (or, worse yet, “fiction”) to characterize some gospel passages shows what a good job biblical scholars have done keeping their secrets to themselves.

Miller, Robert J. 1999. The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics. Santa Rosa, Calif: Polebridge Press. pp. 65f

Then we come to the end of the chapter,

The Conduct of Scholars

The pettiness and nastiness of some of the criticisms of the Seminar shows that the Seminar’s work has drilled into a nerve.

read more »

Iran and “the problem of peace”

Here’s something of interest that I read a while ago and marked for future reference. Serious challenges facing the Revolutionary Guard in Iran include “the problem of peace”.

First, the good news:

The threat posed by the United States has been the backdrop for much of the IRGCs career. The organization has relied on the United States to serve as an omnipresent boogeyman bent on destroying the revolution. If the Islamic Republic were to reach a rapprochement with the United States, America would no longer be a viable scapegoat for the repression of Iranians. Within that context, Iranians will expect more out of life and more freedoms from the regime. An argument could be made that a rapprochement with the United States would have an ameliorating effect on Iran’s behavior both internally and externally. Some sectors of the regime, such as the reformists, would probably favor such change.

But on the other . . . .

The IRGC and the hardline camp likely would not. This is because the IRGC’s status in the country is contingent on the existence of existential threats to the Islamic system. If the United States is no longer a problem, the IRGC will need to find a suitable replacement. Threats will need to be found outside Iran and within. The IRGC already sees the social and cultural arenas as a battleground between it and anti-Islamic forces. The need for a threat could see the IRGC place more emphasis on these issues — and other scapegoats such as religious minorities — than it already does. This means further repression of the Iranian people at a time when they will be expecting more liberty, not less.

Ostovar, Afshon. 2016. Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 240
That was before Trump and Bolton. I think “omnipresent boogeyman” is perhaps too fanciful a term in the current situation.


Another request

I seem to be asking for a lot of help, lately. This time, it’s for those with access to the Greek text of Polybius’s book 12 of his History and with the means of locating without much trouble the word συμπλοκή

The occasion is the following passage about ancient historians:

The existence of different voices or interpretations of a past which have the “right” to exist side-by-side shows that the accurate reporting of past events was not necessarily on the agenda of societies and their authors in Antiquity. Leaving to readers the decision of what really happened tells us much about the nature of the societies we are dealing with (Polybius, who expresses a rationalistic approach to the past, knew how to tackle this by suggesting that history should be viewed as a symploke, [intertwining]; see his Book 12).

Mendels, Doron. 2008. “How Was Antiquity Treated in Societies with a Hellenistic Heritage? (And Why Did the Rabbis Avoid Writing History?).” In Antiquity in Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Pasts in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Gregg Gardner and Kevin Osterloh, 132–51. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. (p. 142)

I read Book 12 in an English translation and failed to notice any discussion of the sort of idea I think Doron Mendels is addressing. What would help if I knew what passage(s) in Book 12 Polybius uses συμπλοκή or some form of it.

The idea that I thought Mendels is addressing is the recording of inconsistent versions of events in historical narratives. I know that some ancient historians do this, but it appears from the reference to Polybius that I should find a discussion by an ancient historian on the fact that historians do set side by side contradictory (or at least inconsistent) narratives.

Anyone able to help with this one?



Sam Harris still appealing to the equally bigoted

I haven’t the patience to sit through any more of Sam Harris’s ignorance and special pleading so I’m glad PZ Myers has done the “honours” or at least has cited some one else who has done the (surely painful!) work:

Sam Harris’ very special pleading

(Who IS this Sam Harris fellow, anyway? Why does he even have a platform alongside names I can understand being of some note, like Richard Dawkins?)

Deadly Duet: Islamists and the Far Right

Scott Atran

I like Scott Atran‘s work on terrorism so was looking for his viewpoint after Christchurch and Colombo. I just hope to hell that what he had published in The GuardianFrom Christchurch to Colombo, Islamists and the far right are playing a deadly duet — will be proven wrong:

How should we make sense of the Easter Sunday church and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people and wounded 500? Now that Islamic State appears to have claimed responsibility for the attacks, the question arises: is this merely the latest symptom of an epidemic of Islamist violence, motivated by a belief in offensive jihad (“holy war”)?

The answer is complex and not necessarily in line with public perceptions. Islamist terrorism has been decreasing globally, and particularly in the west, since its peak in 2014-15 when Isis established its caliphate. In recent years, however, far-right supremacist terrorism has risen sharply, to more than one-third of terror attacks globally, even accounting for every extremist killing in the US in 2018. Yet it was more likely to be overlooked or tolerated by western polities, because of cultural history, familiarity and legal protections extended to domestic groups (such as US constitutional safeguards for freedom of speech and the right to bear arms). Thus, attacks by Muslims between 2006 and 2015 received 4.6 times more coverage in US media than other terrorist attacks (controlling for target type, fatalities, arrests).

Further along, Atran’s comment reminds me of the “manifestos” like Naji’s Management of Savagery.

The spread of this transnational terrorism, whether Islamist revivalism or resurgent ethno-nationalism, is fragmenting the social and political consensus globally. That is precisely its aim: to create the void that will usher in a new world, with no room for innocents on the other side, and no “grey zone” in between.

Now it’s the Right’s turn, and they have learned from the Islamists:

Far-right terrorism has increasingly co-opted key jihadist precepts and tactics (although it tends to involve lone actors linked mainly through social media). In 2007, the supremacist group Aryan Nations proclaimed an “Aryan jihad” to destroy the “Judaic-tyrannical” system of “so-called western democratic states”. Dylann Roof, who in 2015 killed nine African-American churchgoers in South Carolina, made his own link. Responding to a court examiner, he said he was “like a Palestinian in an Israeli jail after killing nine people … the Palestinian would not be upset or have any regret”. As a prelude to the Christchurch attack, the suspect posted a manifesto citing Roof and Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed scores of leftist youth in 2011, as inspirations. It adopts a version of the jihadists’ reasoning to justify mass killing as moral virtue: appealing to a transnational brotherhood in a clash of civilisations that pits one global identity (the white race) against another (Islam) in a fight to the death for survival, with no place for bystanders or fence-sitters.

We hear of relief and jubilation in areas that have been liberated from the Isis Calipate in Iraq-Syria but depressingly Atran’s research suggests that that is not the whole story. read more »