Author Archives: Tim Widowfield

Forbes Posts Article on the Cruelty of White Evangelicalism, Then Pulls It

On 11 March 2018, Forbes posted Chris Ladd’s article, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel.” It didn’t last the day. You’ll probably want to read it, as well as Forbes’ weak-tea explanation for taking it down.

We’ve discussed many times here how censorship traditionally works in the West. The government rarely gets involved, nor does need to, since the press dutifully polices itself. Even in the digital age, our media gatekeepers still keep at it, perhaps out of habit, but mostly out of cowardice.

These dinosaurs, reaching the end of the line, stumbling toward extinction, haven’t given up yet. And when somebody crosses the line, they’re ready to scold the offenders and tell them their message is “way out of bounds.”

As we all know, the truth has boundaries.

When Schweitzer Changed His Mind and Nobody Noticed

Albert Schweitzer

Recently, I was researching and preparing for the fourth chapter of the most recent Memory Mavens post. I wanted especially to resurrect, and then dismiss, Albert Schweitzer’s characterization of William Wrede’s work as “thoroughgoing scepticism.” I had already touched on this subject back in 2012 in our series on the Messianic Secret.

At the time, I quoted Wrede himself in his defense of reasonable skepticism.

To bring a pinch of vigilance and scepticism to [the study of Mark’s Gospel] is not to indulge a prejudice but to follow a clear hint from the Gospel itself.

In order to explain and defend Wrede’s method it seemed reasonable to me to compare it to Schweitzer’s (as Schweitzer himself had done, over 100 years ago). But then a funny thing happened. Try as I might, I could not find a single reference to “thoroughgoing scepticism” in the 2001 Fortress Press edition of The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

One of our shibboleths is missing

That seemed more than a little odd. Here is a catchphrase, set in stone within the hushed and hallowed halls of NT scholarship, and yet it was missing in action. Where had it gone? When did it leave?

The paper portion of my library, almost all of it, is miles away from me in a storage facility, so I’ve had to rely on electronic versions of Geschichte der leben-Jesu-forschung. The 1913 edition stored at Hathi Trust is in the public domain, and you should be able to read it, no matter what your country of origin is. (Sometimes Hathi Trust limits viewing to IP addresses from the U.S., because of unsettled copyright issues.)

As you probably already know, the first edition, in German, hit the streets in 1906, and it made a fairly big splash. NT scholarship in the English-speaking world took an immediate interest, which only grew when an English translation became available in 1910. Wrede’s The Messianic Secret would have to wait 60 more years. K. L. Schmidt’s Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu is still waiting.

In the first edition, Schweitzer pokes Wrede in the eye with the title of chapter 19: “Thoroughgoing Scepticism and Thoroughgoing Eschatology.” Anglo-American scholars were delighted to see Wrede’s troubling thesis dispatched by such a towering, highly respected, intellectual figure. Who could ask for more?

Digging for nuggets, but not too deeply

Of course, Schweitzer’s magnum opus is, other than the Bible itself, the ultimate quote mine for English-speaking biblical scholarship. Certainly, no other modern work is so frequently quoted yet so rarely read. The Quest quickly became an indispensable quarry for scholars who are far too busy to read Reimarus, Strauss, Renan, or Wrede. Half-hearted, indifferent, indolent excavators have continued even into the late 20th and early 21st century, as this simple Google Books search demonstrates.

Consider the following examples: read more »

A Redactional Seam in Mark 8:28?

Raphael Keys

Raphael — Handing Over the Keys

In a recent comment, Giuseppe asked about Mark 8:27-30 (the Confession at Caesarea Philippi). At issue is a grammatical error in the text, mentioned in Robert M. Price‘s Holy Fable Volume 2, but first (apparently) noticed by Gerd Theissen in The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition. Both Theissen and Price argue that the error reveals a redactional seam in Mark’s gospel. Beyond that, Giuseppe suggests that the original text beneath or behind the existing text of Mark indicates that Peter confessed that Jesus was the Marcionite Christ, not the Jewish Messiah.

Lost in the weeds

I confess that I ruminated over the text in question for quite some time before I understood exactly what Theissen and Price were getting at. One can easily get lost in the weeds here, so I’ll try to break it down into small steps.

To begin with, we have two passages in Mark in which we find lists of possible identities for Jesus. The first happens when Herod Antipas hears about Jesus and thinks it must be John the Baptist raised from the dead.

14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”

15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”

16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

(Mark 6:14-16, NRSV)

The second happens just before Peter’s confession.

27 And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am?

28 And they answered, John the Baptist; but some say, Elias; and others, One of the prophets.

29 And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ.

30 And he charged them that they should tell no man of him.

(Mark 8:27-30, KJV)

John the Who?

I chose the NRSV for the first passage, because it stays very close to the original Greek, even to the point of “John the baptizer” vs. “John the Baptist.” In 6:14, we find the word βαπτίζων (baptizōn), the present participle. Put simply, the literal text would be something like “John, the Baptizing One.” (Note: this word, used as an appositive after John’s name, is found only in Mark’s gospel. The author of the fourth gospel uses it, but only as a participle describing an activity.)

On the other hand, in 8:28, Mark used a different word: βαπτιστήν (baptistēn), a noun in the accusative case. The NRSV helpfully gives us a verbal cue that something is different here by translating it as “John the Baptist,” which differs from the translation in 6:14. Unfortunately, the NRSV used “who” instead of “whom” in 8:27, so I went with the KJV there instead.

For our purposes here we need to know that at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks a question with an accusative “whom?” — τίνα (tina) — and so the answers need to be in the accusative as well. The point upon which Theissen builds his case will depend our understanding this error. In a stilted, word-for-word translation, we have something like: “Whom do the men pronounce me to be?” The words “whom” and “me” are in the objective (accusative) case; and in proper Greek, the answers should follow suit.

Two lists

The people haven’t figured out who Jesus is. They provide three wrong guesses. We see them listed in 8:28 — read more »

The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (3)

In the previous post I promised to discuss a group of scholars who changed the perspective of biblical scholarship. I was referring to those whom we commonly group into the religionsgeschichtliche Schule. In English we call this the History of Religions School. The German term, religionsgeschichtliche, implies a secular, critical-historical approach toward religion. The reputation of the History of Religions School has not fared well over the past few decades.

A withering review

For example, in Ben Witherington’s scathing review of Robert Price’s Jesus Is Dead, he writes:

In any case, one of the things that movies like ‘The God who is not There’ and the Zeitgeist movie, and Robert Price’s book have in common is a reliance on the old, and now long since out-dated and refuted notions of the Religionsgeschichte Schule [sic] when it comes to the issue of Jesus and the origins of Christianity. It seems that my former Gordon-Conwell classmate, Bob Price, and various others as well did not get the memo that these sorts of arguments are inherently flawed, have often been shown to be flawed, and shouldn’t be endlessly recycled if you want to argue cogently that Jesus didn’t exist and/or didn’t rise from the dead.

What is the Religionsgeschichte Schule [sic], and why is this school now closed? The history of religions approach to early Christianity, and to Jesus himself, involved as its most foundational assumption that the origins of what we find in the NT in regard to Jesus, resurrection, etc. come from non-Jewish culture of various sorts, particularly from Greco-Roman culture, but also (as the Zeitgeist movie was to remind us) from Egyptian sources. In short, anything but an origin in early Judaism is favored when it comes to explaining the NT and Jesus. (italic emphasis Ben’s, bold emphasis mine)

Just for the sake of accuracy, Religionsgeschichte is a noun; religionsgeschichtliche is the adjectival form. He got it right in the title, but muffed it four times in the body of the review. Still, you have to hand it to him; he actually mentioned it. These days, you’d hardly know the History of Religions School had ever existed, and most scholars don’t — other than it was “flawed” and “refuted” and “outdated.” Just learning those pejorative modifiers would appear to suffice, or at least to keep you in good standing within the guild.

When is a school not a school?

We may find it somewhat difficult to describe a school whose members often insisted there was no school. In “The Dogmatics of the ‘Religionsgeschichtliche Schule,'” Ernst Troeltsch explained: read more »

The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (2)

In the first part of this post, we examined some instances of New Testament scholars employing historical criteria before the advent of Formgeschichte, demonstrating that these criteria and methods did not differ significantly from what we would later call criteria of authenticity. In this post, we’ll look more closely at the ways source critics argued for the “genuineness” of passages, insisting that some terms, concepts, and sayings in the NT “must have” come from the historical Jesus himself.

Christ before the High Priest — Gerrit van Honthorst

Big Questions

Historical Jesus studies, like many historical endeavors, has several “big questions.” For example, Did Jesus think he was the messiah? Even the painfully pious Anglo-American scholars of the early twentieth century, who took as much as possible in the NT to be true, asked such questions. Granted, in most cases German (or perhaps Dutch or French) scholars spurred them to write what were essentially apologetic rebuttals; nevertheless, they dared to ask the questions.

Regarding the question: Did Jesus use the term “Son of Man”? Julius Wellhausen in Das Evangelium Marci, had said, “Er ist gleichzeitig mit der Erwartung der Parusie Jesu entstanden.” (It emerged simultaneously with the expectation of the parousia of Jesus.) In other words, only later in the church did the belief arise that Jesus must have foreseen his suffering and death, and that he predicted his return when he will “appear in the clouds of heaven.” (Wellhausen 1903, pp. 65-69)

But Willoughby Charles Allen disagreed.

Wellhausen, for example, argues . . . [The Church] put into His mouth the words, “The Man of whom Daniel spoke will appear in the clouds of the heaven.” This was soon interpreted as equivalent to “I will return.” The next stage was to make the Son of Man the subject in the prophecies of death and resurrection where it becomes necessarily a designation of Christ Himself. Finally, the phrase was introduced into non-eschatological sayings, where it becomes equivalent simply to “I.”

Now Wellhausen is a brilliant philologist, but he is often a very bad interpreter, and his exposition of the development of this phrase in the Church is contrary to all the evidence. (Allen 1911, p. 309)

In a footnote, Allen said he was happy to discover Adolf von Harnack believed the phrase was genuine and that its use by Jesus himself was a secure fact. We may note here that, despite what some Memory Mavens suggest, discussions about which traditions were authentic and which were apocryphal or secondary did not start with the form critics.

How should we evaluate the evidence in the New Testament to determine whether Jesus used the term Son of Man? And if we decide that he did, how do we know what he meant by it? Simply by asking these questions, we have admitted that what Jesus actually said and what the gospels have recorded might not be the same.

What we’re looking for, then, is the truth behind the text. read more »

Translating the New Testament: N. T. Wright vs. David Bentley Hart

First, N. T. Wright reviewed David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament. Then Hart responded. I haven’t enjoyed a near slap-fight between intellectuals this much since William F. Buckley offered to sock Gore Vidal “in the goddamned face.”


N.T. Wright: “The New Testament in the strange words of David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart: “A Reply to N. T. Wright

It’s worth reading both with care and thoughtful reflection. Here’s a taste from Hart (with my emphasis added): read more »

The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (1)

[This post has been waiting in draft status since 19 February 2015. This year I’m going to try to finish up some of the series we’ve left dangling on Vridar. –taw]

A considerable number of New Testament scholars have recently jumped on the memory bandwagon (see, e.g., Memory, Tradition, and Text, ed. Alan Kirk). Characteristics of this movement include an appeal to social memory and cultural memory as a way to explain ancient literary documents, combined with an often strident rejection of the criteria of authenticity used by many Historical Jesus scholars.

Neil and I generally agree that the criteria approach is useless for uncovering the “real” Jesus. However, besides debunking the criteria on the justifiable grounds that they are circular and do not work, the Memory Mavens also attempt to delegitimize them by tarring them as the misbegotten progeny of the form critics (see Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). To put it more crudely, they view them as Bultmann’s Bastards.

In this post we’ll demonstrate how the criteria of authenticity actually grew out of the existing criteria of antiquity — i.e., the arguments that source critics employed to address the Synoptic Problem. Further, we’ll note that early historical Jesus scholars used nearly identical criteria in an attempt to prove the authenticity of some parts of the written gospels. We’ll show how the form critics adopted those criteria to try to identify material that came directly from Jesus by way of oral tradition. And we’ll see once again that this new crop of NT scholars is curiously unaware of their own heritage.

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted ...

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted on the left, Joseph of Arimathea depicted on the right (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What’s in a name?

Recently, while out on my daily walks, I’ve been listening to Bart Ehrman’s course, How Jesus Became God, from The Great Courses (don’t pay full price; use, and something he said struck me. While discussing the legendary Joseph of Arimathea, he noted that the apparently older tradition found in Acts 13:29 has a group of unnamed Jewish leaders take Jesus down from the cross an bury him in a tomb.

What appears to be happening here is a phenomenon that occurs throughout the gospel tradition. As people tell stories about things that happened, they start providing names for the nameless. This can be traced throughout our long Christian tradition. There are a number of people in the gospel stories who are left nameless.

So, who were the three wise men that came to Jesus, if there were three of them? Later traditions named three people. Who were the two robbers killed with Jesus? Later traditions named the two robbers.

When people are nameless, later in the traditions people add names to them. The earlier form of Jesus’ burial was the unnamed they — the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin — but as the tradition developed later, the nameless got named. That would suggest that the Joseph of Arimathea story is a later tradition. (“Lecture 9: Jesus’ Death—What Historians Can’t Know,” bold emphasis mine)

This line of thinking reminded me of the discussions surrounding the Synoptic Problem and the methodology for determining which gospel predates the others. In one sense, Ehrman is right: For any story or parable in the New Testament with anonymous characters, Christian tradition (especially post-canonical) will eventually provide names. Besides the names of the “Three” Wise Men and the robbers at Golgotha, Christians eventually supplied names to a host of unnamed people, such as the shepherds in Luke’s Nativity, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the rich man in the parable of Lazarus.

Of course, you’re probably already thinking to yourself, “What about Jairus and Simon of Cyrene?” You’d be right to ask. These names appear in Mark’s gospel, but they’re missing from Matthew. Does that mean Matthew predates Mark? Ehrman clearly thinks not, because he invariably calls Mark “our earliest gospel.” So what’s going on here?

read more »

On Provisional Judgments and Operational Atheism

In a recent blog post, I said I don’t believe in the supernatural. This statement, I realize, takes a pretty broad swipe at the universe. But if you have read my previous statements on belief, unbelief, atheism, etc., you’ll understand my lack of belief is, for the most part, not characterized by active disbelief. Instead, I consider it a provisional judgment on how to deal with life. To me, the natural world is the world.

Similarly, when I say I don’t believe in gods, angels, demons, leprechauns, elves, or any other magical beings, I’m not saying I positively know they don’t exist; I’m merely saying I lack belief in them. Operationally, I find no need for them. Can I prove they don’t exist? No, I cannot — nor do I wish to waste time trying.

A commenter on Vridar, John MacDonald, recently wrote:

It’s just as much a paralogism to think (i) There is sufficient evidence to conclude there is such a thing as the supernatural, as to think (ii) There is sufficient evidence to conclude there is no such thing as the supernatural. Both theism and atheism are factually incorrect and intellectually lazy. Agnosticism is the “Thinking-Person’s Position.”

If you haven’t studied for the SAT, the LSAT, or the GRE recently, a paralogism is “A piece of illogical or fallacious reasoning, especially one which appears superficially logical or which the reasoner believes to be logical.” [OED] In the realm of logic, it normally refers specifically to an argument that is invalid, but unintentionally so. However, in the general sense, it has come to refer to any invalid argument as well as any invalid conclusion. I’ll assume he means that I have reached an incorrect conclusion, since I presented no formal argument. read more »

Does Christianity Need Evidence?

A straw man takes a break.

Neil offered his “Four Atheist Responses to a ‘Theist’s Three Easy Questions,’” and I was tempted to chime in myself, but I just don’t have it in me. The days of arguing on CompuServe and Usenet about this or that esoteric point in Christian belief or even general theism are over. The time has passed.

I was telling my wife just recently that the older I get, the less comfortable I am with the terms atheist and atheism. I’m weary of being defined by what I am not. You will recall, I’m sure, the old discussions about being called a “non-stamp-collector.” Letting others define you by what they are is to live your life in the shadow of the majority culture.

I’m just a guy who’s curious about the world. True, I don’t believe in anything supernatural, but it’s all right. I won’t bite. And I don’t wish to change your mind. We’re just not wired the same way.

A straw man atheist would doubtless be much more fun to spar with than me — especially one who “hides the goalposts.” I’ve heard of moving the goalposts, but never hiding them. I suppose it must mean something like demanding that theists kick the ball without knowing where the goalposts are. And then I, the mean, nasty atheist, will call out, “Nope, you missed! Try again. . . . Oh! So close!” read more »

How the Author of Acts Rewrote Stories from Luke

As we discussed several months ago, Michael Licona wrote a book about the differences in the gospels in which he tries to explain them away by comparing the evangelists to Plutarch. However, his attempt was stillborn, since his methodology contains a deadly flaw. He proposes that by examining how Plutarch changed stories as he recounted them in different Lives, we can gain some insight as to how the author of Luke, for example, edited Marcan stories.

In the latter case, of course, we can see only how Luke dealt with one of his sources. In the former, we discover how Plutarch rewrote himself. These are two different things. But before we toss Licona’s book aside, let’s consider how we might apply his methodology correctly. Is there any place in the New Testament in which an author created a second work and plainly rewrote one or more stories in a way that might resemble Plutarch’s process?

Resuscitation Redux

Peter: “Tabitha, arise!”

Yes. In the Acts of the Apostles, the author (whom most scholars believe is the same person as the author of Luke) recycled stories told about Jesus and applied them to Peter. You probably already noticed long ago that Jesus raised a young girl (Mark provides the Aramaic talitha) in Luke 8:40-56, while Peter raised a female disciple named Tabitha (Aramaic for antelope or gazelle) in Acts 9:36-42. And no doubt you thought to yourself, “That sounds familiar.”

The author (we’ll call him Luke for the sake of convenience) has left other clues that we’re reading the same story, albeit with different characters set in a different locale. By examining the Greek text, we can discover textual affinities between the two stories.

Acts 9:36  Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. (NASB)

Acts places several important events in Joppa, because historically this town acted as the port city for Jerusalem. Legend has it that the cedars of Lebanon floated via the sea to Joppa, and then were shipped overland to Jerusalem. Joppa is the physical and metaphorical gateway from Judea to the Greco-Roman world.

Luke tells us Peter learned all animals are now clean while visiting Simon the Tanner in Joppa. This fable seeks to explain the change from a faction based in Judaism, with its understanding of what is ritually unclean to God (pork, blood, foreskins, etc.), to something new — a splinter cult on the path to a separate religion that fell back on the so-called Noahide Covenantread more »

The Function of the Term: “Born of a Woman”

Job: “Man, who is born of woman, is short-lived and full of turmoil.”

Have we, after all, been making too much of Galatians 4:4? That’s the question I keep asking myself. After much reflection, I believe yes, we have, but perhaps not for the reason you would expect.

In Daniel Gullotta’s “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts,” he writes:

Furthermore, while Paul does use the word γενόμενον [genómenon] (to be made/to become)  [see: γίνομαι (ginomai)] instead of the typical γεννάω [gennáō] (to be born), γενόμενον does appear in relation to human births in other pieces of ancient literature, such as Plato’s Republic and Josephus’ Antiquities [of the Jews].61 It is also noteworthy that the similarly worded phrase ‘born of a woman’ is also found within the Book of Job, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospel of Matthew, and the Gospel of Thomas, as well as in other early Christian texts, each time indicating a human birth.62 With this convention in mind then, Paul’s expression, ‘born of a woman’, is fitting and certainly not exceptional. Thus, when Paul writes of Jesus’ coming into the world (Gal 4.4-6; cf. Phil 2.5-8; 2 Cor 8.9; Rom 8.3-4), it is apparent that it should be taken at face value to indicate Jesus being born like any other ordinary Jewish human being, that is, ‘born of a woman, born under the law.’ (Gullotta 2016, p. 329)

61 Josephus Ant., 1.303; 7.154; Plato, Rep., 8.553.

62 Cf. Job 14.1; 15.14; 25.4; 1 qs 11.20-21; 1 qh 13.14; 18.12-13; Matt 11.11; GThom 15; Origen, Against Celsus 1.70; Ps.-Clem., Homily 3.52.

I have preserved Gullotta’s footnotes above, because we’re going to take a look at all of his references to see if his assertions hold up. We’ll see whether the phrase “born of a woman” is (1) fitting and (2) certainly not exceptional. Ultimately, we’ll try to determine the function of the phrase in its context in Galatians.

Citations in Ancient Greek Literature

Before we examine the citations in ancient literature, I must praise Gullotta for scouring the thousands of occurrences of genómenon to find three instances in which the word appears (he claims) “in relation to human births.” Let’s begin.  read more »

Why I Am (Still) Against Nuclear Power

People on the Internet who like to style themselves as rational, worldly, and clever members of the intelligentsia enjoy poking fun at people for their irrational beliefs. The usual targets of their (our) jabs are fish in a barrel: creationism (young Earth and old Earth), homeopathy, climate-change denial, and so on.

We see, for example, groups of people dedicated to poking fun at those who are supposedly afraid of chemicals by calling water by its unfamiliar sciency name: dihydrogen monoxide. I’m not necessarily opposed to poking fun at people for their ignorance, but I can’t really support the DHMO thing, because it’s a one-joke wonder that’s too clever and far too satisfied with itself.

Punching down

There’s a sociological reason why it provokes a smug smile, but not actual laughter. It breaks one of the few rules of comedy — punching up is funny; punching down is not. We should try not to make fun of people who cannot understand science (the dumb) while we’re justifiably ridiculing those who refuse to understand science (the deliberately ignorant) or who exploit the ignorance of others for their own gain (the malicious).

Atomic Energy Town

On social media rational people enjoy posting on subjects like the anti-vaccine movement and the rejection of anthropogenic global warming. And that’s good; these are threats to human survival. However, I’ve noticed a trend in the past few years in which the proponents of the nuclear power industry have successfully made supporting “green nuclear energy” one of our merit badges.

A recent USA Today article (“People trust science. So why don’t they believe it?“) demonstrates a now-mainstream tactic: namely, juxtaposing AGW-denial with the supposed AGW solution, nuclear power.

Many conservatives reject the science of man-made climate change, just as many liberals reject the science that shows nuclear energy can safely combat it. The views we express signal which political group we belong to. The gap between what science shows and what people believe, sociologists say, is about our identity.

Do some liberals oppose nuclear power for unscientific, political reasons? Probably. Ignorance exists in all quarters. Some social liberals believe in healing crystals. Others may fear vaccines. Conservatives and liberals have irrational beliefs.

Is it safe?

The key word in the excerpt above, I suppose, is “safely.” People, we are told, have an irrational fear of nuclear power because they think it isn’t safe, which, we are further told, is ridiculous, because it’s extremely safe. And if you don’t think it’s safe, you must be a nut job. As Richard Carrier writes: read more »

Who Depoliticized Early Christianity?

Who killed Jesus and why?

With the Roman occupation of Palestine and its tense atmosphere of messianic hopefuls within the first century CE, the horrors of crucifixion were a real and ever present reality for messianic claimants like Jesus. A reality of which Paul and the first Christians would have been all too aware. Simply put, [Richard] Carrier inadvertently depoliticizes early Christianity. (Daniel N. Gullotta 2016, “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts“, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, pp. 332-333, emphasis mine)

Do you know who else depoliticized early Christianity? Early Christians. Paul. The evangelists. The early Church Fathers. In short, everyone.

New Testament authors are clear about why Jesus died and who is responsible. According to “our oldest sources” (to invoke a scholarly term), Jesus had done nothing worthy of punishment. As Hyam Maccoby put it:

According to the Gospels, Jesus was the victim of a frame-up. His aims were purely religious, and in pursuing them, he had fallen foul of the Jewish religious establishment, who, in order to get rid of him, concocted a political charge, and managed to hoodwink the Roman governor, Pilate, into believing it. When Pilate still showed reluctance to execute Jesus, they pressed the political charge until he was left with no option: ‘The Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar; any man who claims to be king is defying Caesar.”’ (John 19.7). (Maccoby 1984, “Who Killed Jesus?” London Review of Books, emphasis mine)

Englewood Dam

A narrow, precarious path

The story of Jesus’ death, followed by the successful spread of Christianity as related in the gospels and Acts, reminds me of the road across Englewood Dam. The dam, located northwest of Dayton, Ohio, protects the area from flooding by the Stillwater River. A number of dams in the area, all built after the Great Dayton Flood, have a similar design. The levees on either side are enormous, allowing the reservoirs to retain billions of gallons of water.

The first time I drove across the levee, I was struck by how easy it seemed (if not for the guardrails) to veer slightly to the left or the right, tumbling 100 feet down the embankment into the trees. The story of the Passion follows a similarly narrow, but more circuitous path. If Jesus was a rebel, a brigand, then he really was an enemy of Rome. And that just won’t do, will it? However, if Jesus did nothing but teach and heal, then why would Pilate have put him to death? Somehow, Jesus must have provoked someone to cause this chain of events, but who?

According to the New Testament, it was “the Jews.” The Jewish leaders were jealous of his fame, or else they worried the people would believe in him and cause the Romans to come and destroy them. (See John 11:45-53.) And here we see one of the great uses of the hypothesized historical Jesus. A reconstructed Jesus allows NT scholars in the post-Holocaust world to reinterpret verses like these: read more »

The Year of the Nativity: Consensus, Harmonization, and Plausibility

Herod the Great

Yes, it does seem odd for Vridar to have so many Christmas posts this year. I normally watch the holidays go by and think to myself, “I should have written something about that.”

In any case, I promise this will be my last Christmas post of the year, which should be an easy vow to keep, since it’s already the 28th.

In a previous post, I wrote about the date of the nativity. This time we’ll look at the year of Jesus’ birth. Considering all the ink scholars have spilled over this subject, and all the contortions many of them have gone through to push for specific dates that “work” (even so far as to move the death of Herod to 1 BCE), it’s a wonder there is a consensus. And yet, almost everywhere you look, you’ll find the date range of 6 to 4 BCE.

Only the most diehard apologist would try to harmonize Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the nativity. They diverge at nearly every point. Moreover, most critical scholars recognize the birth stories as legends. Both Matthew and Luke contain two momentous events which, had they actually occurred, would have given us a precise date for Jesus’ birth. In Matthew, Herod the Great slaughters all the young children in Bethlehem. In Luke, Augustus calls for “all the world to be taxed.”

Neither of these events happened, and therein lies the problem. They are legendary accounts told for religious, doctrinal reasons. And here’s a good rule of thumb: Once you’ve tossed rotten fruit into the dumpster, don’t climb back in to see if you can find some edible bits. In other words, resist the temptation to find a kernel of truth in fictional accounts, especially when you have absolutely no corroborating external evidence. There’s no shame in saying, “We don’t know, and we may never more »