Author Archives: Neil Godfrey

The Other (Less Bloody) Side of Christian Origins

Immersed as we are in the heritage of the Christianity of the Crucified Christ it is easy to forget (if we ever knew) that there was another side to Christian origins. Try to imagine what gave rise to a Christianity that knew nothing of the pierced, broken body and shed blood of Jesus as the way to salvation. Imagine their sacred writings said nothing at all about the members of the church being united by eating the body and drinking the blood of their saviour but instead enjoined the following:

Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way.

First, concerning the cup:

We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever..

And concerning the broken bread:

We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever..

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

But after you are filled, give thanks this way:

We thank Thee, holy Father, for Thy holy name which You didst cause to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever.

Thou, Master almighty, didst create all things for Thy name’s sake; You gavest food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us You didst freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Thy Servant.

Before all things we thank Thee that You are mighty; to Thee be the glory for ever.

Remember, Lord, Thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Thy love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Thy kingdom which Thou have prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever.

Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David!

If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.

That is from the Didache (did-a-kee), or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, that some (Wikipedia says “most”) scholars today date to the first century. That’s possibly around the same time Paul was writing his letters and the time the first gospels were being written.

Compare the instructions for our more familiar branch of Christianity (1 Cor. 11:23-26 NASB): read more »

Fundamentals of historical research and the difficulties faced by historical Jesus studies

Some readers may have come across a very long list of ancient writers who “could or should” have made some mention of Jesus. That list surfaced in another forum discussion today and I found myself faithlessly writing a response to it there instead of spending my time on Vridar. To make amends, hoping Vridar will not feel offended or as if being treated second-class, I copy below what I wrote in the Afa forum.

Such a list serves as a reminder of the riches in sources that are available for the early Roman empire period compared with many other periods of ancient times.

What is fundamental to historical research is the necessity to independently corroborate sources and their claims. It’s not the only requirement but I have a hard time thinking of many ancient figures that are securely known to have existed without meeting that benchmark in the records.

I have listed below what I think are the fundamentals that historical researchers look for when examining the documentary sources. Independent corroboration is left to last

  • Documents need to be assessed for authenticity;

— that includes being able to trace their provenance, assess when they were possibly written, where, etc.

  • their authors ideally need to be identified in order for the investigator to have some idea of how likely they were to have access to certain information, what biases and agendas they may have had, etc;

— We have such information for a good number of ancient authors

  • the literary culture that forms the matrix of the document needs to be understood in order to guide analysis and interpretation;

— we need to understand the conventions of ancient historians and the proclivities of individuals: e.g. their tendency to invent historical accounts drawing upon classical epics and plays when their sources failed them

  • we need to be able to identify and evaluate the probable sources of ancient documents;

— were they relying upon historians before them and if so, which ones, when did they live, what reasons do we have for thinking their work to be reliable, etc

— part of this requirement is the acknowledgment that contemporary sources must form the basis of historical reconstructions. Sometimes later sources can be more reliable or act as checks but they can only rarely be a trusted starting point for historical inquiry

  • and claims made in the documents need to be independently corroborated

— e.g by archaeology, by ancient monuments and inscriptions, by contemporary documents by unrelated authors, etc.

These are the fundamentals. Obviously such processes leave the historian with less data than historians of more recent times have at their fingertips. That doesn’t mean that historians of ancient world lower their standards, however. It means instead that they ask broader questions or the sorts of questions that they know their sources will help them answer.

It also means there is often less certainty in some of their conclusions.

When it comes to the study of Jesus, historians are on the back foot with almost all of the above: read more »

The Abomination of Desolation in Mark 13: What Did the Reader Need to Understand?

“Today, we know only too well the experiences of refugee treks, what such an escape can look like.” Yazidis of Iraq fleeing to the mountains.

When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.

Mark 13:14-19

What was that “abomination of desolation”? When we read “let the reader understand” we surely are right to think that it is some sort of mystery to be decoded or explained to us.

The following explanation comes from Der Weg Jesu by Ernst Haenchen (1968). Since it is in German I have had to resort to a machine translation. Fortunately, though, Ken Olson on the Biblical Criticism and History Forum set out the main argument to enable me to get started. I recommend reading his post for more detail than I will provide here.

To begin with Jesus is addressing an inner circle of his disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, “in private”. So it is secret teaching that we are reading.

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus said to them . . . .

Mark 13:1-5

For whom is Mark recording this warning?

Haenchen pulls us back from immersion in the story and confronts us with the question: Who was “Mark” writing this for? Was he writing a warning for Christians who were caught up in the Jewish war of 66 to 70 CE? If so, what was the point? The warning was recorded too late for them.

Further, the warning is for those who “see”, not “hear about”, the abomination of desolation. So was the abomination of desolation something that could be seen by all and sundry “in Judea”, not just in Jerusalem?

Common explanations suggest the abomination was something set up by the Roman army in or near the temple in Jerusalem. But if that were the case then what was the point in telling people throughout Judea to run for the hills at that point? If the Romans were already inside Jerusalem then they had already swept through Judea. Why wait to run until after the enemy has occupied your homeland?

Haenchen’s solution resolves such problems.

“Then the king’s officials came to the town of Modein”

Compare the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. Symbolic language is used, arguably to protect those who treasure the writing. It is proposed that explicitly anticipating the fall of Rome was not something to shout out about so Babylon was substituted for Rome. Those “in the know” knew the coded language. The Book of Revelation also speaks in its thirteenth chapter of a terrifying moment when God’s chosen would face an image of a beast and be ordered to worship it or be killed.

What situation in these early days of Christianity, in the days when the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Revelation were being written, would arouse such fear that the only way out was to drop everything and run immediately into the wilderness and hide in the hills?

The answer: the visit to one’s town of an imperial official setting up an altar and calling on all inhabitants to sacrifice to the emperor. Penalty for refusal was death. The mere possibility of such a moment was enough to generate fear.

Mark was not writing a warning for the people of Judea long after any danger facing them had passed. The war was over. What he was doing was couching (or coding) a warning to his readers in Italy, Syria, anywhere throughout the Roman empire, in the language of Daniel the prophet.

Haenchen writes, p. 446 read more »

The Hidden Messiah

Just another mild-mannered reporter

Tim recently cited a few of my old posts in which I draw attention to evidence that Jewish ideas about the Messiah were far more varied in the Second Temple era than commonly supposed. Another variant I have not covered in any of those posts was “the hidden messiah”, the view that the messiah was thought to have been born and waiting somewhere in the wings, unrecognized, until the critical moment when God would bring him to the fore to answer a climactic hour of need.

In other posts I have addressed Jewish writings of the seventh century (CE, late antiquity) positing a messiah who was born a while back but was being kept hidden by God for “the right time”. But what I am interested in here is the Jewish idea that the messiah was born incognito and living somewhere on earth unrecognized. Not even he himself knew he was to become the messiah.

I refer to William Wrede’s discussion of “the hidden Messiah in Judaism” in The Messianic Secret. Wrede is addressing the possibility that the author of the Gospel of Mark knew of an existing idea that the messiah would live for a time on earth without anyone being aware of his true identity.

The first witness Wrede calls upon is Justin and his “Dialogue with Trypho” (written early to mid second century).

The idea is clearly expressed in Justin. Trypho the Jew says in the Dialogue, ch. 8:

But even if the Christ has already been born and lives somewhere (kai esti pou) he is unknown, and does not even know himself. Nor does he have any sort of power until Elias has come, and anointed him and revealed him to everybody.

Similarly in ch. 110 Justin cites as a Jewish idea the notion that even if the messiah had come nobody would know who he is but that they would rather learn this only when he is made manifest and appears in glory, hotan emphanes kai endoxos genetai.

(Wrede, p. 213)

That is, Superman has not yet appeared but a few people in Smallville, Kansas, know a Clark Kent who is an entirely ordinary nobody.

Wrede points out a similar idea in the Gospel of John:

A related idea is presupposed by the Gospel of John when in 7.27 the Jews say “When the Christ appears no-one will know where he comes from.” The hiddenness of his origin appears as a characteristic of the messiah. 

(Wrede, p. 214)

So we can conclude that the idea was known as early as the time the Gospel of John was being put together.

How much earlier? Wrede warns that Jewish ideas and speculations would have been influenced by Christian beliefs, but one must ask how likely it is that the Jews would have moved their ideas in the direction of accommodating Christian ones.

It appears, then, that at the time the gospels were being composed some Jews did hold a notion that the messiah was possibly alive somewhere, hidden, not recognized (yet) as the messiah.

(Does Mark’s claim that there would be false claims that the Messiah was to be found “there” or “over here” tie in with such an idea? Mark 13:21 — “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it…”)

Wrede, William. 1971. The Messianic Secret: Das Messiasgeheimnis in Den Evangelien. Translated by J. C. G. Greig. First Edition edition. Cambridge: James Clarke.

Three Mythicist Novels

We have novels about Jesus or about people in his generation and now we also have novels that embrace mythicist arguments.

So if you would like to learn key mythicist arguments without a poring through academic style articles and books or even if you are just interested in seeing what others make of the possibilities that mythicist arguments generate then check out The Christos Mosaic by Vincent Czyz and Mythos Christos by Edwin Herbert.

“Vincent Czyz received an MA in comparative literature from Columbia University, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University. He is the author of the collection Adrift in a Vanishing City, and is the recipient of the 1994 Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Short Fiction and two fellowships from the NJ Council on the Arts. The 2011 Truman Capote Fellow at Rutgers University, his short stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah, AGNI, TheMassachusetts Review, Tampa Review, Quiddity, Louisiana Literature, Logos Journal, New England Review, Boston Review, Sports Illustrated, Poets & Writers, and many other . . . .”

The first of these novels, The Christos Mosaic by Vincent Czyz, is woven principally around the arguments of Earl Doherty Vincent adds at the end of his novel a biographical essay discussing mythicism more generally and specifically what led him to “the mythicist camp”. (He gives special credit to Earl Doherty and Robert Price; though also discusses other authors — along with Bart Ehrman’s attempt to refute the idea and the serious shortcomings of that attempt. Other names who find a place in Vincent’s thinking are Robert Eisenman, Frank Zindler, and non-mythicists like Helmut Koester and Walter Burkett.

You can read more details about the book and its author at the Christos Mosaic website.

The other novel, Mythos Christos by Edwin Herbert, is made up of what some might consider a more colorful (if less plausible) series of adventures than Vincent’s novel, but it does draw the reader into the life of Alexandria of late antiquity. I found those historical scenes recreating the conflicts between traditionalists and the newly emerging Christian forces some of the most memorable.

“Edwin Herbert is a freethought activist and avid writer on secular and non-theist topics, head of a group of writers with a regular newspaper column concerning related subjects which promote science and skepticism. He is also a healthcare provider in southern Wisconsin. Mythos Christos is his debut novel.”

Edwin takes a few liberties with his historical reconstructions but happily for the benefit of the unwary he confesses to these with explanations at the end.

Again, more details about both book and author are posted on the Christos Mythos website.

Some readers will be aware of a Greek mythicist site, ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ ΜΥ0ΙΚΙΣΤΕΣ / GREEK MYTHICISTS. See Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction by Minas Papageorgiou for an earlier post related to this site and a publication they produced that includes a section on yours truly and this blog. That same site is now proudly announcing the first Greek mythicist novel that translates into Paul’s Conspiracy. It is by Alexander Pistofides and is scheduled to be available this month. Hopefully an English version will appear soon.

The following description of the novel is from Minas Papageorgiou: read more »

Putting 4 sticking points on the historical/mythical Jesus argument into perspective

On the AFA forum someone suggested I address the following 5 points often used to argue for Christianity originating with a historical Jesus.

how about addressing the main points of the evidence offered up by the historicists?

1. The Brother of The Lord
2. Born of a woman
3. Born in the line of David
4. Born of the flesh
5. Born as a Jew in Judea

In my previous post I copied my  response to point #1.

That leaves four to go, #2-#5. But they bore me.

The reason debates about them bore me is that they do nothing either for or against the question of whether Jesus was a historical person. Look at them. No-one goes around saying, “Hey, I think you should hear what I’ve got to say about this incredible guy I’ve heard about. He was actually born of a woman, and reckons he can trace his family tree all the way back to Adam. How cool is that! And he was born flesh and blood even. And just to stick it to all you folks who worship Heracles and Asclepius he was a Jew in Palestine. But here’s the thing: he now lives in me and I die daily in him and he’s gonna come and take us all up to the sky very soon now.

Sorry, but that’s not how one normally talks about people — even omitting that last bit about “here’s the thing”.

Those claims, being born of a woman and in the flesh etc, are theological claims. They are made to stress certain theological doctrines. Presumably some rival theologians were saying he was not born flesh and blood. And it was a Jewish theology, so it was important to identify the guy with David and Israel.

Even the crucifixion is only ever mentioned as a theological datum. The crucifixion is only ever introduced to talk about salvation and freedom from the Jewish law. It is always and only ever raised as a theological fact and never addressed as a “historical event” with dates, who, how, why, witnesses, etc. (The only “why” is again theological, not historical: it is to show how much the Jews are all wrong about their religion.)

None of that “proves” the guy was a historical figure. All it proves is that someone had a bunch of theological ideas about a certain figure he only heard about from others and who he claimed “revealed himself” mystically “inside” him.

So that’s why I tend to tune out whenever discussions start up about whether or not any of those four points above (nos. 2 to 5) are “proofs” for the historical Jesus.

Not one of them is a piece of historical evidence a historian can latch on to in order to get some sort of grip on what happened in Palestine around 30 CE.

Paul’s letters are all very fine for gleaning something of the beliefs of some of the early Christians but they are not much use for researching events he never claims to have witnessed and that he never reports on. He even says he has no interest in the “Jesus of the flesh” but is only interested in his “spiritual Jesus”. The only eyewitness reports he passes on are of the resurrection. So that’s not a promising start for the historian. He does say something about a tradition or words he heard but never gives us a clue as to what his sources are — unless it is his own imagination from reading Scripture or hearing/seeing some vision.

How historians (not theologians) work

So how does one go about doing historical research on the life of Jesus?

Why not use the very same methods of research, of analysing sources, as other historians follow? It is a pity that the question of Christian origins has been confined to an academic guild that has only clung on into the modern age by sheer force of tradition. Theology may have been the mainstay of universities in medieval days but we have lost out by leaving the whole business of Christian origins to theologians. We would have been smarter to have removed theological studies exclusively to seminaries and left historical questions to historians.

Historians aren’t perfect and there’s a lot of bad history out there, but at least the bad rubs shoulders with the good and we can compare and learn by comparing the two.

But one essential point historians are taught is to test the authenticity and reliability of their sources. (Pick up manuals for budding historians about to start their doctoral programs to see what I mean.) That means a source — both its origins and what it says — must be corroborated independently in some way.

Really that’s only common sense applied to scholarship. Depending on the degree of importance of knowing the truth of something we make sure we are being told the truth by checking such things as:

  • who is telling us this?
  • how do I know if I can trust them?
  • can their claims be confirmed somehow?
  • how do I know if this document is genuine?
  • etc.

Just to be really sure when people’s lives are at stake we have court systems set up to test claims and evidence, to cross examine them, to try to falsify them, etc.

A famous theologian who rejected the Christ Myth claims of his own day (Albert Schweitzer) nonetheless confessed that proving the historicity of Jesus cannot pass the above “common sense” tests:

read more »

Does “Brother of the Lord” settle the Jesus myth question?

On another forum I recently posted a discussion of the passage in Galatians where Paul says he met James, “the brother of the Lord”, setting out why I believe the passage is not necessarily the “slam dunk” that many say it is to prove Jesus was a historical figure. I have other posts on other topics I want to do for Vridar but till I can sort those out I will double up and copy here what I posted on AFA.

Part 1

A passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is often touted as irrefutable proof that Jesus was a historical figure:

1:18 Then, after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days; 19 But I saw no other of the Apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 And the things I write to you— see!— before God, I am not lying.
(Hart’s translation)

All manuscripts of Galatians agree that James is said to be “the Lord’s brother”. No exceptions.

If Paul met James who was recognized as the Lord’s brother then obviously the Lord’s brother was a real person. And for good reason “the Lord” is generally assumed to refer to Jesus.

It is obvious, then, that Jesus existed.

Some have tried to object on the following grounds:

1. Paul often speaks of all Christians as “brothers” and “sisters” so in Galatians 1:19 he is simply singling out James as a Christian for some reason.


2. The Lord more commonly refers to God. Therefore “the brother of the Lord” is really some sort of spiritual title. Even if “Lord” did refer to Jesus the phrase was still a spiritual title that described an inner group of leaders or elites in the assembly.

Therefore, it is argued, Galatians 1:19 does not prove the historicity of Jesus.

Those objections are objected to, however:

1. It makes no sense to call James “the brother of the Lord” if that simply meant to point out he was a Christian like all other “brothers and sisters”. The context alone tells us James was a Christian. But so was Cephas (= Peter) whom Paul also met.

2. There is no evidence that an inner group known as “the brothers of the Lord” existed in the early church or that “brother of the Lord” was used as a title for anyone.

I think those objections are sound. (They are possible, but I think more evidence is needed to establish either one as a completely satisfactory alternative to the mainstream view that the passage is telling us that James was the biological brother of Jesus.)

So, then, we are left with a letter by Paul indicating that one of the three great leaders (Paul says they were reputed to be “pillars”) of the Jerusalem church was named James who was the sibling of Jesus.

But that’s where our problems start. read more »

Sex and Death

Well I just had to laugh (I even saw the photographs) . . .

I first heard of the custom when living in Singapore. Strippers hired to perform before an image of the deceased as part of the ceremonies pending the actual cremation. I thought the idea was to give the deceased one last good time. Maybe it’s hard to grasp if we’re not familiar with the Chinese custom in crowded Singapore of setting up a marquee or special area for the coffin of the deceased on the property of the apartments where he or she lived, or nearby, with friends and relatives coming to visit over the days prior to the cremation ceremony. Candles, decorations of models of the things the deceased loved in life (paper cars, boats, money…), other religious paraphernalia all around, and lots of chairs and water bottles for the visitors. There would always be someone there to maintain the vigil, even through the night.

And some (by no means all — unless I was protected by the locals from ever finding out) of these spaces, I learned, even arranged for a private striptease dancer to perform before the picture of a male deceased.

And all of that was before the last day when crowds would assemble, with musicians and dancers, to drive the coffin off in a specially decorated truck leading a street procession to the place of cremation. What a send off.

Well, today I was reminded of all of the above with the following news:

China cracks down on funeral strippers hired to entertain mourners, attract larger crowds

Hired to attract crowds! Now that was different from the Singapore custom, that’s for certain. If I can ever remember where I filed it I will dig out the Singapore newspaper photo of the Chinese dancer there definitely facing and performing for the deceased. But in China the image is definitely indicative of a more general entertainment:

Now that’s definitely not what Singapore Chinese modesty was all about. Unless, as I said, I was protected because I was considered to be just another foreigner who would not understand.

What piqued my more serious interest in the story this time, however, was the suggestion that the ceremony might be traced back to “fertility worship”. One last ditch effort to ensure the deceased would still be able to, well… I’m not quite sure what. Anthropologists would be able to explain it, no doubt.

And given the eclectic interests of Vridar, I am further reminded of the Gospel of John. See Novelistic plot and motifs in the Gospel of John where I look at an article by Jo-Ann Brant discussing the way that gospel plays with the idea of a marriage anticipated by Jesus really being his death.

It all seems rather appropriate, I supposed, given that what made death possible (as opposed to evolving like ever dividing cells that go on forever and never die) was sex. Perhaps the story of Adam and Eve and their Fall is all about the way cell death evolved to remove and discard the less good bits from the mix.



The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End….

Kyle Harper

I’ve finally caught up with a radio/online interview with the author of The Fate of Rome: climate, disease and the end of an empire, Kyle Harper, on Late Night Live.

Advances in studies of genetics and climate history have opened new vistas of understanding what was happening in our past.

Some horrific data emerges: life expectancy at birth was somewhere in the 20s. One third of newborns died in their first year. Upper classes were not much better off overall though they had more pleasant surroundings while surviving.

Nutrition was not the problem so much as disease. There was no concept of germs, of course.

Public toilets did little for public health. They were not covered and acted more like storm culverts than healthy waste disposal systems. Without toilet paper a sponge on a stick was the common tool of all members of a household. And then there was all the animal waste.

I learned in high school that the average Roman was quite short compared with us. That in some ways sounded almost cute back then. Kyle Harper tells us that people in the Roman empire were shorter than both their pre-empire ancestors and post-empire descendants. Roads and cities were disease bearers.

And then the climate changed seriously. Volcanic eruptions were so frequent that the planet cooled significantly but then reduced solar output compounded the cooling. Diseases like Ebola were carried in from the Tibetan region.

I’m reminded of another work I read a few years ago, Justinian’s Flea, by William Rosen. That flea carries a large measure of responsibility for the collapse of the Byzantine empire before the onslaught of Persian and Arab “conquests”. I use inverted commas because there is very little to “conquer” when a population is so drastically reduced in so short a time.

I have now begun reading Kyle Harper’s book since listening to the author’s discussion on Late Night Live with Philip Adams. So far it is presenting an even more horrific picture of “life” in Roman times. Sobering.



Why is the Bible So Badly Written?

An enjoyable, lighthearted article by Valarie Tarico — Why is the Bible So Badly Written?

Excerpt ….

A well-written book should be clear and concise, with all factual statements accurate and characters neither two-dimensional nor plagued with multiple personality disorder—unless they actually are. A book written by a god should be some of the best writing ever produced. It should beat Shakespeare on enduring relevance, Stephen Hawking on scientific accuracy, Pablo Neruda on poetry, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on ethical coherence, and Maya Angelou on sheer lucid beauty—just to name a few.

Then this ….

But why is the Bible so badly written? Falling short of perfection is one thing, but the Bible has been the subject of literally thousands of follow-on books by people who were genuinely trying to figure out what it means. Despite best efforts, their conclusions don’t converge, which is one reason Christianity has fragmented into over 40,000 denominations and non-denominations.

And then this ….

Long lists of begats in the Gospels; greetings to this person and that in the Pauline epistles; instructions on how to sacrifice a dove in Leviticus or purify a virgin war captive in Numbers; ‘chosen people’ genealogies; prohibitions against eating creatures that don’t exist; pages of threats against enemies of Israel; coded rants against the Roman Empire. . .

As a modern person reading the Bible, one can’t help but think about how the pages might have been better filled. Could none of this have been pared away? Couldn’t the writers have made room instead for a few short sentences that might have changed history Wash your hands after you poop.Don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to.Witchcraft isn’t real. Slavery is forbidden. We are all God’s chosen people.

Have a read if you are in a mood for a lighthearted musing (with an underlying serious intent): Why is the Bible So Badly Written?

6 More Reasons to Question Josephus’ “James the brother of Jesus” passage

Josephus does, in Jewish Antiquities, have two passages on the emergence of Christianity and the persecution of its followers, involving Jewish jurisdiction, but both are suspected of being interpolations. (Efron 1987, p. 333)

Warning: this post addresses a small section of a work by Jewish scholar, Joshua Efron, Studies on the Hasmonean Period, that was not been well received by all reviewers. John Collins, for example, wrote of the section that I cover here:

The final chapter, on the Great Sanhedrin, is peripheral to the main theme of the book. E. denies that there was any uniform tradition about the Great Sanhedrin, but finds that the NT Sanhedrin “was created in the bosom of Christian theology” (p. 337).

Efron’s book shows extensive familiarity with the history of scholarship and is richly documented, but it is a work of apologetics rather than of history. For E., the solidarity of pietism and the Jewish state is primary. Any contrary view is “distorted.” Equally, anything that seems to anticipate Christian theology cannot be Jewish. (Collins 1990, p. 373 — my emphasis)

Louis Feldman is less harsh in his review but nonetheless identifies the bias. Efron attacks contemporary scholarly reconstructions of various intra-Jewish political rifts and conflicts in “a strident tone” and dismisses anything that would blur Jewish distinctiveness from Christianity:

The main, and most controversial, thesis of this work is that the Hasidim and the Hasmoncans cooperated throughout their revolt against the Syrian Greeks, and that this cooperation continued with the later Pharisees. The reconstruction of this period often rests upon the Pseudepigrapha, notably the Psalms of Solomon. But Efron dismisses such evidence as betraying a hidden Christian viewpoint . . . (Feldman 1994, p. 87)

You have been warned. Read at your own peril. Read critically (as you always do).


About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (Antiquities, 18.3.3)

Many readers are familiar with the passages. The first, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, describes Jesus as “a wise many if one ought to call him a man” and even states that “he was the Messiah” and his followers were righteous “seekers of the truth”, he performed miracles, was unjustly condemned to death at the instigation of the Jews, appeared to have been resurrected three days later, etc. If Josephus wrote the passage as we have it then he was clearly himself a Christian and we are left perplexed over everything else he wrote in defence of “Judaism”.

The fourth century bishop Eusebius quoted the passage but the third century Origen did not see it in his copy of Josephus.

But don’t many scholars agree that the passage as it stands cannot have been written by Josephus while remaining certain he must have written something about Jesus nonetheless? Many do. Efron’s opinion of these efforts:

Various proposals, speculations and attempts to reconstruct from it some authentic core have produced only dubious hypotheses.213

213 . . . . The scholars positing authenticity (complete, partial or emended) have recourse to casuistic speculations or arbitrary textual alterations. See R. Laqueur, Der jüdische llistoriker Flavius Josephus (Giessen 1920), p. 274ff.; H.St. J. Thackeray, Josephus the Man and the Historian (New York 1967, repr. of 1929ed.),p. 125ff.; F. Dornseiff, “Zum Testimonium Flavianum,” ZNW 46 (1955): 245ff.; A. Pelletier, “Ce que Josephe a dit de Jesus,” KEJ 124 (1965): 9ff.; D. Flusser (see n. 190), Yahadut u-Mekorot ha-Natzrut, p. 72ff .; F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Gr. Rapids Mich. 1974), p. 32ff.

And once more:

Classic examples of the practices of Christian copyists and editors in transposing suitable additions and adding them to Josephus can be found in the Slavonic version of Jewish War.

The arguments have gone back and forth “for generations” (Efron’s words) and we have posted at length on them here.

And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest. (Antiquities, 20.9.1)

We have also discussed the second passage at length. But Efron has more to add and the rest of this post sets out why he also rejects this passage as genuine to Josephus.

Efron observes that this second passsage (see inset) portrays the Sanhedrin in a way very similar to the New Testament’s viewpoint: very harsh, even evil. Likewise the Sadducees are said to be “very rigid” or “severe”, translatable as “savage” (Efron), more than any other Jews. And Ananus belongs to this “savage” sect and is further described as “extremely bold and brazen”.

Enough good citizens, however, complained to the authorities about the injustice against James committed by Ananus and had him removed from the priesthood.

1. Unfavorable portrait of Ananus is polar opposite to Josephus’ views

Efron sees in these portrayals of the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees and Ananus too much New Testament. In Josephus’s earlier work on the Jewish War we find Josephus expressing the “polar opposite” view of Ananus, “overwhelming him with praise”, “devoting an emotional eulogy to him”. As for the Sadducees, Josephus in the earlier work never betrayed a hint that they were in any way to be faulted for their religious practices and views.

Could not Josephus have changed his mind by the time he wrote Antiquities?

It is true that opinions and evaluations sometimes change in Josephus’ second and more critical version. Thus, in his apologetic autobiography, Josephus in self defense somewhat dims Ananus’ lustre, but there is no trace of a diametrically opposite view of him.216 Acts of the Apostles, however, in a picture resembling the dubious episode outlined above, stresses the unfavorable aspects of Ananus (Annas) the high priest, and his Sadducee retinue, avidly persecuting the Christians without pity.218

216 Bell. II 563, 648, 651, 653; IV 151ff., 162ff. 193ff., 208ff., 288ff., 316ff.; Vita (38) 193ff.;(44) 216, (60) 309.

218 Acts 4:6ff.; 5:17ff.; Luke 3:2; John 18:13ff. To the two forged passages should be added the extremely suspect testimony in Josephus (Ant. XVIII 116 ff.) on John the Baptist carrying out a baptismal ceremony in the Christian spirit to atone for sins, without a sacrifical offering and without the Temple, contrary to the Torah. The term “the Baptist” and the man, unknown in Jewish tradition, as is baptism to obtain forgiveness for sins through purification of the body after purification of the soul (as in Heb. 10:22) show this to be a Christian version. A number of scholars came to this conclusion long ago: D. Blondel, Des Sibylles (Paris 1649), p. 28 ff.; Richard Simon (Mr. de Sainjore), Bibliotheque Critique, vol. 2 (Paris 1708), p. 26ff.; H. Graetz, Geschichle (see n. 8 above), vol. 33, p. 293 ff. Origen (n. 223 below) already knew the dubious passage: Contra Celsum 147. (Efron 1987, pp. 334-35)

2. Another “astounding connection with … Acts”

Who are the “most equitable of citizens” who opposed the Sadducees? The Josephan passage is vague. To Efron, read more »

Witch Hunts, an Economic Explanation

I just read an interesting article, How Medieval Churches Used Witch Hunts to Gain More Followers, by Becky Little discussing another article by two economists arguing that “the Catholic and Protestant churches promoted themselves by persecuting witches.”

The original article, Witch Trials, is by Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ and is available as a pdf download. Their abstract:

We argue that the great age of European witch trials reflected non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share in confessionally contested parts of Christendom. Analyses of new data covering more than 43,000 people tried for witchcraft across 21 European countries over a period of five-and-a-half centuries, and more than 400 early modern European Catholic-Protestant conflicts, support our theory. More intense religious-market contestation led to more intense witch-trial activity. And, compared to religious-market contestation, the factors that existing hypotheses claim were important for witch-trial activity — weather, income, and state capacity — were not.<

No doubt historians will debate the economic interpretation, but it looks like one more perspective to consider. I have not yet read the original article since I will need to set aside some decent time for it given the detailed datasets attached to it that would need to be analysed.

One interesting point at a glance is that the Catholic nations appear to be significantly “less guilty” than the Protestant ones.

Four Atheist Responses to a Theist’s “Three Easy Questions”

Since we’ve entered James Bishop’s territory with So far, but no farther… or maybe the journey has just begun let’s respond to one more of his blog posts before moving on. This time James relays a post that originally appeared on Shadow to Light: How to Defeat Modern Day Atheism With Three Easy Questions. (James points out that he does not agree with all of the views expressed so I will focus entirely on the core argument itself and ignore the character slurs.)

No doubt some readers are more practised at this sort of discussion and can provide better responses than mine.

Question 1: What would you count as “actual, credible, real world evidence for God?” If the atheist refuses to answer, he/she will be exposed as Hiding the Goalpost, demonstrating the inherent intellectual dishonesty in such a demand. If the atheist finally answers, there is a very, very high likelihood he/she will cite some dramatic, miraculous, sensational demonstration of God’s power. And that leads to the second question.

Response 1: First define what you mean by “God”. Without a clear definition we can hardly proceed with a meaningful investigation.

Response 2: What I would count as evidence for X (whether a particular God or law or event or person or anything) is the setting up of tests or predictions of what we would expect to find in the evidence given that X is true. That is, I would accept any evidence that was derived from the scientific method.

So if our God is one who is defined as the source of all ethical or moral awareness or consciences, then what would we expect to find in the universe that is evidence of this particular type of God?

We would then look for those sorts of things we expect to find if God was the creator of the universe. The scientific method also requires us to test our findings against alternative explanations so we would need to see in each case if there are simpler explanations for the sorts of evidence we find. The same method requires us to look for evidence that contradicts our thesis, too.

Whatever passes these tests would be evidence that God as a source of morality exists.

Question 2: Why would that dramatic, miraculous, sensational event count as evidence for God? At this point, the atheist will likely try to change the topic. But persist with the question. What you will find is that the reason why the atheist would count such an event as evidence for God is because it could not possibly be explained by natural causes and science. In other words, because it was a Gap. Modern day atheism is built on God of the Gaps logic.

Response 3: A hypothesis becomes acceptable when it accounts for the observed data more simply or more comprehensively than any other hypothesis. If our hypothesis of a particular defined God explains data that no other hypothesis can explain, then yes, that God hypothesis is a great advance in our knowledge. But if other hypotheses can explain the data, and a greater range of the data, than the God hypothesis, then other hypotheses “fill the gaps”.

Question 3: Is the God of the Gaps reasoning a valid way of determining the existence of God? If the atheist has not bailed on you yet, he/she will likely run now. For if he/she answers NO, then it will become clear that nothing can count as evidence for the existence of God. Why? Because if the only “evidence” the atheist “Judge/Jury” will allow in his/her kangaroo court is a Gap (something that cannot be explained by science/natural law), and God-of-the-Gaps reasoning is also not allowed by the atheist, then it is clear the atheist demand for evidence is a sneaky, dishonest game of “heads I win, tails you lose.

Response 4: All scientific is provisional and subject to revision in the light of new findings. That’s the nature of human knowledge. Evolution and gravity are laws that are arrived at by “gaps logic” insofar as they derive from the hypotheses that best explain the evidence to date. In other words, those hypotheses can be said to have filled the “gap” left by the failure of other hypotheses to explain the observed data.

I am reminded of Arthur Koestler’s biography of Johannes Kepler’s search to explain the orbits of the planets. Kepler was bugged by some minute discrepancy in the observations and struggled for a very long time trying to make all sorts of geometric shapes explain the movement of the planets in a way that removed this discrepancy. He worked with orbs, circles, cubes, — all kinds of mixings and matchings of “perfect shapes” that surely had to define the heavenly spheres. Eventually, exhaustingly eventually, he conceded that no “perfect” shape or movement would work. The gap could only be explained by positing an elliptical orbit! And it worked. The gap was filled by the hypothesis of elliptical orbits of the planets and by no other hypothesis.

Now if that elliptical orbit can best be explained by angels who like to move the planets in less than a perfectly circular motion…..


A Scholar’s Gift of Discernment Between Truth and Fiction

When he was twelve years old . . . . they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:42, 46f)

How might a historian determine if there was any historicity to Luke’s story of Jesus at twelve years old sitting in the temple impressing the teachers with his understanding?

Moses I. Finley, a historian of ancient times, confessed to not knowing of any way a historian today could establish the happenings we read about in the works of ancient historians unless we have some independent corroborating evidence from the time contemporaneous to the event. Ancient historians, he said, were faced with huge gaps in their knowledge of the past and very often they simply could not resist the urge to fabricate stories to fill in those gaps. Consequently,

For the great bulk of the narrative we are faced with the ‘kernel of truth’ possibility, and I am unaware of any stigmata that automatically distinguish fiction from fact. . . . .

However, there are biblical scholars who do have the gift of discernment that Finley lacked and who are able to apply it ably to the gospels:

If I may quote my former article (see note 3), I still hold the view there expressed (p. 362) : Jesus shows, in the story in Lk. 2, 42-50, ‘just such self-reliance and intelligent interest in the religion of his country as might be expected in a boy of genius and deep natural feeling. . . . The hero of a folktale would have found his way by some mysterious guidance to the Temple. … A wonder-child in a popular story would have confuted the doctors of the Law, or at least made it clear that he knew all they did and more. … To my mind, the tale cries aloud that it is a perfectly authentic happening.

(Page 131 of Rose, H. J. (1938). Herakles and the Gospels. The Harvard Theological Review, 31(2), 113–142. Retrieved from

That was in 1938, I admit. Surely scholarship has advanced since then and we would not expect to find such naivety tolerated today, would we?