Author Archives: Tim Widowfield

Tim Widowfield

Tim is an RV Park host who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

Testing the Water — Dimmericks

Longtime readers of Vridar may recall my “Bad Five-Line Poems.” As you know, a true limerick is not simply a poem that follows the form AABBA; it must also be dirty. Since a “clean limerick” is an oxymoron, we must call them something else.

I’ve been writing politically charged bad five-line poems on Facebook for a few years now, using the term “#Dimmerick.” (My wife often calls me “Dim,” and not without reason. Several old friends from my enlisted days still sometimes call me Dimmy or Dimmer.)

At any rate, for various reasons, I now believe that Facebook is a terrible place to post original content. I’m going to try them out here. And if I can find the inspiration, I’ll try to make them a regular feature.

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Nuclear Power: What’s Behind the Latest Propaganda Blitz?

Hardly a day goes by without somebody on social media sternly reminding me that we desperately need nuclear power in order to fight climate change. I’m always tempted to respond that I agree, but only if they happen to have a time machine — because, if you really wanted to fight climate change and stop runaway global warming with nukes you should have started building 20 years ago. We’re too late.

Of course, I don’t actually bother responding, since one cannot dissuade a true believer. And one can only stomach so many lectures about the incredible safety record of nuclear power. The safety argument comes to the fore, because so many people think atomic energy isn’t safe. They’re wrong, but the underlying argument is only so much theater.

Large numbers of people would like to stop fracking, and they have plenty of good reasons for it. Fracking causes earthquakes and contaminates groundwater. It wastes huge amounts of fresh water. Its continued use makes petroleum less expensive, which encourages the use of carbon-generating gasoline and diesel fuel.

It’s dangerous. Yet, despite all of the protests and no matter how many videos we see with people setting their tap water on fire, fracking continues.

The same goes for coal-fired power plants. Ditto for pipelines. Nobody wants coal burning in their backyards. So, naturally, we build them in poor areas. We run the pipelines through Native American burial grounds so as not to disturb nice, clean white people in the suburbs.

Nuclear Boondoggle in SC (

The myth that nuclear power’s decline in the US came about because of the fears of an irrational public continues to persist. However, if the “bewildered herd” had any real influence, fracking would certainly cease. And truth be told, the only reason coal is finally dying has everything to do with economics.

Two recent news stories will serve to demonstrate what’s really going on. First, I would direct your attention to these news items: “U.S. Nuclear Comeback Stalls as Two Reactors Are Abandoned” (NYT) and “A Dissenter’s Tale of South Carolina’s Nuclear Project Fiasco” (ENR). The short story is that the South Carolina nuclear project at Jenkinsville failed to make it to the halfway point of construction. This failure drove Westinghouse into bankruptcy. And finally, consumers had to pay for most of it, since in our country, profits are private and losses are public.

Here is the key point: read more »

Vridar Maintenance

You may have noticed that Vridar has been down from time to time recently. We have some technical issues that I’m going to try to address today. As a result, we may be offline for significant periods.

By the way, thanks to all the Vridarians who have donated to the cause. You have no idea how much it has helped. Thank you!


Updated at 17:50 GMT

We have successfully upgraded our server. Thanks to your donations, we were able to add RAM. If we’re lucky, our MySQL instance will behave and stop crashing.

Some Thoughts on the Lessons of Vietnam and the General Who “Lost” the War

A few weeks ago, I was dealing with a mold issue in our RV’s bathroom. (Note: If you see mushrooms growing out of a crack in the wall, it’s usually a bad sign.) Having resigned myself to working with gloves, wearing a mask, sitting uncomfortably on the floor for at least an hour, I resolved to find a long audio program on YouTube and let it play while I worked. I happened upon a presentation by Dr. Lewis Sorley, based mainly on his book, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. (You can find the video at the end of this post.)

I had studied the Vietnam War as an undergraduate history major back in the 1980s, so much of what Sorley had to say covered old ground for me. Back in those days, of course, we could still refer to it as America’s Longest War without worrying whether some other disastrous Asian war might overtake it. After all, we had “learned the lessons of Vietnam,” right?

Later, as a student at Squadron Officer School, I certainly thought we had learned those lessons. From a policy perspective, the first lesson had to be clarity of purpose. On the military side, we would never again fight a limited war of attrition; instead, we would use overwhelming force to achieve clear objectives. In a nutshell, this is the “Get-In-and-Get-Out” Doctrine: Know your objectives. Achieve them in minimum time with minimal loss of life.

We would absolutely avoid any future quagmires. Or so we thought.

I should mention that several other lessons — both spoken and unspoken — arose out of the Vietnam experience. The practice of embedding journalists within fighting units came out of the beliefs that the press should not have been permitted to work as independent observers and that allowing them to move freely in South Vietnam had been a mistake.

An expanding set of myths about why we lost the war blossomed quickly into an alternate history in which unreliable draftees, fickle politicians in Washington, pinko journalists, and the hippy peace movement conspired to keep us from winning.

Some of these myths took hold naturally, as veterans told their personal stories, relating with frustration how the body counts didn’t seem to matter, that the V.C. would return again and again, that the stupid war of attrition didn’t work, and what’s more, nobody seemed to give a damn that it wasn’t working. That much was true.
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Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Documentary Hypothesis (Part 2)

[Author’s note: I wrote this back in 2014, but decided to put in on the back burner for a bit, setting the publication clock five years ahead. The post below, which auto-published yesterday, is not actually finished. I will soon submit a third part to this series, with a summation and conclusions. taw]

Hieronymus Bosch - Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat ...
Hieronymus Bosch – Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat (obverse) – WGA2574 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rendsburg’s thesis

As we discussed in part 1, Gary Rendsburg believes that we shouldn’t try to divide the Genesis flood story based on supposed source documents, namely the Yahwist (J) and the Priestly (P) sources. He writes:

If one reads the two stories as separate entities, one will find that elements of a whole story are missing from either the J or the P version. Only when read as a whole does Genesis 6-8 read as a complete story, and — here is the most important point I wish to make — not only as a complete story, but as a narrative paralleling perfectly the Babylonian flood story tradition recorded in Gilgameš Tablet XI, point by point, and in the same order. Perfectly, that is, after taking into account elements found in the biblical narrative but lacking in the Babylonian story, indicated by a minus sign in the right hand column of the accompanying chart — given the distinctively Israelite theological position inherent to Genesis 6-8 . . .  (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 115-116)

We’ll save Rendsburg’s chart for the end. For now, let’s examine his argument closely and see if it holds up under close scrutiny.

Essentially, Rendsburg is offering a counter-argument to the consensus view that the redactor of Genesis pulled together two sources (J and P), which most likely both came from the earlier Babylonian and Sumerian myths. Instead, he maintains that the author of Genesis appropriated the flood story directly from the Gilgamesh epic, adding only those theological elements peculiar to the Israelite religion. His argument depends on proving the coherence and unity of the Genesis story, combined with the “perfect” correspondence between the order of events in Genesis and in Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh epic.

In his audio course on the book of Genesis, Rendsburg says:

Materials, dimensions, and decks

Now note that not only are all these [story] elements present, one by one, as we work through the two stories that we are comparing here, but that they are also in the same order. Now, in certain cases, of course, there is no opportunity for a variation in the order. That is to say, you have to build the ark before the flood comes, and the flood has to come before it lands on a mountain top, and so on. But even where there is room for variation, the two stories proceed, element by element, in the same order.

Let me give you an example of that. In the Gilgamesh story the materials, the dimensions, and the decks are given in that order; in the biblical story the materials, the dimensions, and the decks are given in that order. And of course, you may say, “Well, that’s perfectly logical — how else would you else would you instruct somebody to build a vessel?” But nevertheless, it’s still noteworthy. (Rendsburg, 2006a, 7:38, emphasis mine)

I have to confess that even if Rendsburg is correct, I don’t find his argument persuasive. Consider the possibility that the J and P source material both (independently) borrowed from the story of Utnapishtim or, for that matter, from the earlier story of Atrahasis. We could reasonably assume that each story would generally follow the same sequence, and that the redactor would have little reason to deviate from that sequence.

We should note here that with his presentation of the evidence Rendsburg is in fact trying to prove two points: first, that the flood story in Genesis is secondary to the older flood myths of Mesopotamia, and second, that the order of events in Noah’s flood tale “perfectly” parallel the events as told by Untapishtim in the Gilgamesh epic. Moreover, he argues, that perfect correspondence falls by the wayside if we try to split the Genesis story into its source components.

With all of that in mind, let’s examine his first claim, viz. that the two stories relate “materials, dimensions, and decks” in that order.  Sure enough, in Genesis here’s the order:

6:14 Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch

6:15 This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.

6:16 You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks. (NASB)

Now let’s take a look at the story as told by Utnapishtim. Ea does not directly tell our hero that a flood is coming. Rather, he talks to a reed hut, which just happens to be Utnapishtim’s dwelling. That is to say, he whispers through the wall of the hut in order to pass on his instructions. Ea says:

24. Tear down (thy) house, build a ship!
25. Abandon (thy) possessions, seek (to save) life!
26. Disregard (thy) goods, and save (thy) life!
27. [Cause to] go up into the ship the seed of all living creatures.

(Heidel, 1949, p. 81)

We already see significant differences between the two stories. God tells Noah to collect materials to build an ark, literally a box (similar to the “chest” built by Deucalion). On the other hand, Ea indirectly tells Utnapishtim to dismantle his house and build a ship.

In what order does Ea provide his ship-building instructions?

28. The ship which thou shalt build,
29. Its measurements shall be (accurately) measured;
30. Its width and its length shall be equal.
31. Cover it [li]ke the subterranean waters.’

(Heidel, 1949, p. 81, emphasis mine)

Ea is already discussing the dimensions and characteristics of the boat, but he hasn’t yet mentioned anything about materials. (We would remind Dr. Rendsburg that width and length are what we call “dimensions.”) In line 31 we have a clue that the boat will differ from ordinary in that it needs to be covered, presumably to keep out the coming torrential rains. Of course, since his job will be to save all life, Untapishtim’s boat will naturally need to be rather large.

We might theorize that if Utnapishtim will be using materials from his torn-down dwelling, reeds will be involved. Far from forests, the people of ancient Mesopotamia built their houses and boats out of reeds. In cases where they did use wood (e.g., for seagoing vessels), it was probably only for the keel, spars, oars, and punting poles. (See Mäkelä, 2002, for details on ancient shipbuilding in Mesopotamia.) That said, some scholars have suggested that the “water-stoppers” mentioned in line 63 refer to wedge-shaped chunks of wood driven into the seams to prevent leaking.

In fact, we have no explicit evidence of wood as a building material in the Gilgamesh epic, but we do have clues in the earlier Babylonian flood story from which it is derived. On tablet III, lines 48-51 we find:

The carpenter [carried his axe],
The reed-worker [carried his stone],
[The rich man? carried] the pitch,
The poor man [brought the materials needed].

(Foster, 1995, p. 72)
[Note: Some reconstructed texts of the Gilgamesh epic insert the lines concerning the carpenter and reed-worker above line 54. However, it is not actually part of the received text.]

Ea provides no more specifics on building the ship, although lines 50 through 53 are usually considered too fragmentary to translate. We do find out that pitch plays a role from line 54:

54. The child [brou]ght pitch,
55. (While) the strong brought [whatever else] was needful.

(Heidel, 1949, p. 82)

Utnapishtim then describes the measurements in greater detail:

56. On the fifth day [I] laid its framework.
57. One ikû [about an acre] was its floor space, one hundred and twenty cubits each was the height of its walls;
58. One hundred and twenty cubits measured each side of its decks.

(Heidel, 1949, p. 82)

So, what of Rendsburg’s claim that the two stories match perfectly when compare side by side? His first test case fails on the evidence. Ea does not follow the same pattern as God in Genesis. Indeed, we do not see references to “materials, dimensions, and decks . . . in that order.” Ea starts with a command to build a ship, and immediately starts talking about its dimensions (again, see lines 29 and 30).

As far as we can tell from the text, the god never talks about materials, presumably because Utnapishtim is building a known structure: a boat (albeit of unusual size). We do finally get references to “decks,” but not until line 58.

Wood, reeds, and pitch

Rendsburg desperately wants to find perfect correspondence — so much so that he insists on a rather unusual translation of Genesis 6:14. He writes in the course guide:

Note that all translations agree on two of the building materials for the ark: wood and pitch. The third item is the subject of some discussion, however. The consonants in the biblical text, namely, QNYM, can be read as either qinnim, “rooms, compartments” (thus the traditional rendering), or qanim, “reeds” (thus some recent translations). We favor the latter understanding, especially because reeds constitute the third building material in the Gilgamesh Epic flood narrative. (Rendsburg, 2006b, p. 16)

I won’t try to argue Hebrew with Rendsburg. I will only mention the following two points:

  1. The translation of the word in the text as “reeds” rather than “rooms” is exceedingly rare. No major translation in English uses it. In fact, other than the Everett Fox translation and commentary that Rendsburg cites, I know of no other translation that uses it.
  2. If we go with “compartments” (as the vast majority of translators do), we still have a viable parallel in the Gilgamesh epic, namely:

59. I ‘laid the shape’ of the outside (and) fashioned it [the ship]. 
60. Six (lower) decks I built into it,
61. (Thus) dividing (it) into seven (stories).
62. Its ground plan I divided into nine (sections).

(Heidel, 1949, p. 82, emphasis mine)

Hence, we have good reason to believe that the author of the P source inherited the tradition that the ship (or in his case, the ark) that saved all animal life had various sections or compartments.

Mountain landing, then birds

Where else might we find the perfect correspondence that Rendsburg craves? He continues (in his lecture):

Perhaps at the end is where we can see the room for some variation. That is to say, it might have been to send out the birds first, and then have the ark to land on a mountaintop. But no, in both stories the mountaintop landing occurs first, and then the birds are sent forth. (Rendsburg, 2006, 8:27)

In print, Rendsburg concedes the alternative order is improbable.

I agree that such an order of events is far less likely than the order which appears in the biblical narrative. but it is possible nonetheless. It is therefore pertinent to point out that Genesis 8 parallels the Babylonian flood story, with the mountain top landing preceding the sending forth of the birds. (Rendsburg, 2007, p. 117)

I would argue that it simply makes more narrative sense for the flood hero to realize they’ve come to a stop, wonder about where they might be and whether it’s safe to leave, and only then hit upon the idea of using the birds. In other words, the mountain landing causes Noah and Utnapishtim to send out the birds. Hermann Gunkel comments:

The following, lovingly presented scene (6b- 12, 13b) has the goal of portraying the exceedingly great wisdom of Noah. No one in the Ark knows where they are and how things look outside. No one dares open the door—great streams of water could surge in—or take off the roof—the rain could begin again. One can look out the window, but through it one sees only the heavens above. What shall one do? How shall one learn whether the earth is dry? In this difficult situation the clever Noah knows a means. If one cannot exit oneself, one can send the birds to reconnoiter. “It was an old nautical practice, indispensable in a time which did not know the compass, to bring birds along to be released on the high seas so that the direction to land could be determined by their flight” [quoting Hermann Usener in Die Sintfluthsagen] . . . (Gunkel, 1997, p. 64, emphasis mine)

Liberation, then sacrifice

We have saved for last what Rendsburg considers his strongest argument. Again, from his audio course:

And most importantly, I think the place for . . . the best possibility of variation is the very, very end of the story where it’s very possible that the flood hero — Noah or Utnapishtim — could have done the sacrifices before letting everybody go free. But no, in both stories all are set free, and then the sacrifices occur. So I repeat the statement here: Element by element the two stories — the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet XI (the Babylonian flood tradition), and the biblical story with Noah as its hero in Genesis 6 through 8 — tell the tale one by one, element by element in the same order. (Rendsburg, 2006a, 8:45)

He really does think it’s his strongest argument. In his 2004 article he wrote:

I refer especially to the end of the story, where both Noah and Utnapishtim could have performed the sacrifices first. While all were still on the ark, and only later everyone free. But in both cases the order is first to set everyone free and then to perform the sacrifices. In Noah’s case, in fact, the order is counterintuitive. If he first set all the animals free and then performed the sacrifices, as the story now reads, one might ask. What happened? Did he call the pure animals back in order to sacrifice them? (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 117)

Obviously, the implication is clear: Noah set all the animals free, except for the handful which he intended to sacrifice. But my point is this: if the redactor had before him two stories, the supposed J account and the supposed P account, the former including the sacrifices and the latter including the hero’s setting everyone free, I would imagine that the redactor would have woven his story with these two elements in that order the sacrifices first, while the animals were still present, and then the setting of everyone free. But such is not the case. At the end of Genesis 8. Noah first sets the animals free and then performs the sacrifices.



Foster, Benjamin R.

From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia, CDL Press, 1995

Gunkel, Hermann

Genesis [Translated and Interpreted by Hermann Gunkel], trans. Biddle, Mercer University Press, 1997 (English translation of 1910 edition)

Heidel, Alexander

The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, The University of Chicago Press, 1949

Mäkelä, Tommi Tapani

Ships and Shipbuilding in Mesopotamia (PDF),” Texas A&M University Graduate Thesis, 2002

Rendsburg, Gary

“The Biblical Flood Story in Light of the Gilgameš Flood Account,” pp. 115-127, Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria, ed. Azize J., Weeks N., Peeters, 2007

“Genesis 6-8, The Flood Story (Lecture 7),” The Book of Genesis, The Great Courses, 2006a

“Lecture 7: Genesis 6-8, The Flood Story,” The Book of Genesis (Course Guide), The Great Courses, 2006b

Wellhausen, Julius

Prolegomena to the History of Israel, trans. Black and Menzies, Adam and Charles Black, 1885

Bibliolatry, “God-Breathed Scripture,” and the NIV

[What follows is the text an email, with some emendations, that I wrote over a year ago.]

As you may already know, I have problems with the NIV [New International Version]. The translation of 2 Timothy 3:16 is particularly irksome. Since the time of the Latin Vulgate through the Authorized Version (KJV) and beyond, the word θεόπνευστος (theópneustos) was understood to mean “divinely inspired.”

omnis scriptura divinitus inspirata . . .

Whoever wrote 2 Timothy may have coined the word, but a form of it does appear in Pseudo-Plutarch. In Book 5, Chapter 2 of Placita Philosophorum, the author writes:

Herophilus [says] that dreams which are caused by divine instinct (θεοπνεύστους) have a necessary cause . . .

The KJV translates 2 Timothy 3:16 as follows:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

Gleason Archer

Nearly all its descendants (NASB, NET, ASV, etc.) follow suit. For centuries, it simply meant that the men who wrote the scriptures worked under the influence of divine inspiration. The living, continuing Church (its clergy and theologians) would interpret those scriptures as needed, because although under the influence of the spirit, men are still imperfect.

I cannot find the unusual translation, God-breathed, before 1849. At first, we see it used only as a hyper-literal rendering to argue that scripture is divine revelation. There’s really nothing extraordinary or new about that claim. But by the turn of the century, we start to see the argument blossom into the notion that scripture itself is a divine creation, reminiscent of the scenes in Genesis wherein God’s spirit moves across the face of the waters or when God breathes life into Adam’s nostrils. [Note: In its most extreme form, the Bible seems to become a kind of divine emanation, or at least a holy conduit through which God speaks to us.]

By mid-century, Christian fundamentalists were using it as an argument for the inerrancy of all scripture. And here’s where it really takes off. In 1964, the conservative Evangelical Christian, Gleason Archer, wrote (in A Survey of Old Testament Introduction pp. 20-21): read more »

Is Koine Greek a Pidgin?

Alexander the Great

While looking over my notes from the past few years, I came across something I wrote to Valerie Tarico. She had asked Neil and me to take a look at an extended version of her article, “Why Is the Bible So Poorly Written” (which is, unfortunately, behind a paywall).

In the draft we received, she quoted Ken Jacobsen, a graduate of Princeton Seminary, from a comment he made at Quora. Here’s what he said.

Koine Greek is pidgin Greek… developed by Alexander’s armies to communicate, not to impress.  It’s a step down from Classical Greek.

That statement is wrong in at least two respects. Below was my response to Valerie, edited slightly. read more »

How Should Christians Spend Their Time?

Christus mit der Eucharistie

We sold our house in Iowa last summer. After working on it for months, getting it into shape, we decided it was ready to put on the market. Surprisingly, it sold in a single day. A couple came to look at the house the evening it was listed, and they immediately put down an offer. Joy and panic ensued.

Over the decades, like all good Americans, we had accumulated a vast amount of junk. Well, not all of it was actual junk, but we tend to hang onto objects just for the sake of hanging onto them. In the month between selling and vacating that house, I drove back and forth between Amana and Cedar Rapids over and over.

Some stuff we donated. Other stuff we threw away. The rest went into storage.

On those late afternoon trips, heading back to the RV park, I usually listened to audiobooks or lectures. But once, I had wrongly estimated the remaining time and was left with silence. While searching through the FM radio dial for something worth listening to, I came upon two radio stations.

The first was a protestant evangelical station. The minister was telling his audience that Christians should spend as much time as possible every day reading the Bible. It is the word of God, he explained, and you can’t make any better use of your time than being in the presence of the word of God.

I flipped to a frequency nearby, which turned out to be a Catholic station. We apparently have a significant population of Roman Catholics in the area, enough to warrant a station devoted to Catholicism. I’ve driven all over the Midwest, and I can’t recall ever stumbling upon a Catholic station until I lived in Cedar Rapids.

The speaker on the Catholic channel said that if Christians could manage it, they should spend a part of every day in the presence of Christ, that is to say, taking the Eucharist. Imagine living every day in the body of Christ, partaking of his love and sacrifice to humankind. What could be better?

It struck me that I had accidentally found — minutes apart — an explanation of the greatest divide between the two branches of Christianity. One focuses on the “Word of God,” while the other focuses on the “Body of Christ.” For Protestants, the Bible tells them the good news that Christ died for them. But for Catholics, the Bible is a supporting pillar of the faith, but neither the end goal nor the vehicle to salvation. read more »

Alan Kirk: Misremembering Bultmann and Wrede

Alan Kirk

In a recent post, Neil cited a paper by Dr. Alan Kirk called “Memory Theory and Jesus Research.” While Kirk does an adequate job of explaining the current state of play in memory theory, I couldn’t help but notice yet again some misunderstandings in the ways Memory Mavens remember German critical scholarship in general and form criticism in particular. I’ve been putting off this dismally inevitable task, but the time has come to offer some corrections and commentary.

Pale Residues

First, Kirk takes a swipe at William Wrede. He writes:

. . . Wrede’s bifurcation of Markan tradition into surviving elements of empirical history on the one hand and Easter-engendered dogma on the other, with the latter occluding the former, was precursor to the form critics’ model. Of a “historical view of the real life of Jesus,” wrote Wrede, only “pale residues” survive. (Kirk 2011, p. 809-810, emphasis mine)

Kirk argues that the form critics, taking their cue from Wrede, believed memory and personal eye-witness recollections were synonymous and that the Jesus traditions which effectively buried those recollections were something entirely different.

While memory traces of this sort lay at the origins of the tradition, they were a residuum, largely inert with respect to developments in the tradition itself. The salient image was of so-called authentic memories of Jesus coming to be buried under multiple layers of “tradition.” Tradition, in other words, had little to do with memory. (Kirk 2011, p. 809)

How does Kirk’s analysis square with what Wrede actually said? Kirk’s wording may lead the casual reader to infer from the first citation above that Wrede was referring to the general state of Mark’s sources or, to put in another way, the overall character of the various streams of oral and written tradition available to the author of Mark.

But that would be wrong. read more »

What Sort of Work Is K. L. Schmidt’s “Framework”?

While doing a little background research on folklore and oral tradition, I happened upon something written by David Aune that confused me. Aune edited The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament, and wrote the chapter on form criticism (pp. 140-155).

You probably recognize Wiley-Blackwell’s well-regarded Blackwell Companions to Religion series. Generally, I admire their clarity and reliability, so when I read Aune’s remarks regarding Karl Ludwig Schmidt, I was taken aback.

One of the corollaries of the view that the Jesus tradition originally circulated in relatively short oral units is that the framework of the life of Jesus in the gospels has no claim to historicity. K. L. Schmidt, who did not himself use the term “form criticism,” argued that Mark was made up of short, originally independent episodes or pericopae that were linked together editorially by a variety of chronological and geographical bridge passages inserted by the evangelist with the intent of creating a connected narrative. (Aune 2010, p. 142, emphasis mine)

The problem, as you can see immediately, is that Schmidt did use the term form criticism (Formgeschichte). In fact, the editors of the RGG II specifically asked him to write the section on it (see volume II, “Formgeschichte” pp. 639-640). He also used the term in his 1923 work, The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literatureacknowledging the methodology in section A.5 — “Methodologisches: Literarkritik und Stilkritik (Formgeschichte).” So, what could Aune have meant? read more »

Some Stray Thoughts on Paleography

Rylands P52 (Recto)

Recently on Vridar, Neil posted about the untimely passing of Hermann Detering. A person commented with a link to his own blog, in which he called Detering a crank, and described Vridar as a blog that is “run by a fraternity who hope that Jesus never existed.” While I am a huge fan of unintended irony, we had to block the fellow for being a boor.

In his post, he defended the use of paleography (or as citizens of the Commonwealth spell it, palaeography) as a means for dating ancient documents. Detering, he insisted, didn’t know what he was talking about.

We can’t deny that when all else fails, paleography is sometimes the only way to guess at a date range for a given manuscript or fragment thereof. Unfortunately, it is the worst of all methods available to us. Here are some reasons why: read more »

What Do We Mean by “Historical Hypothesis”?

Neil has already discussed Jonathan Bernier’s post, “Critical Realism and the New Testament,” here (The Poverty of Jesus Historicism (sorry, Popper)) and here (Some Very Funny and Some Very Serious History), but I’m just now catching up. I knew we were in for a bumpy ride as soon as I found out Dr. McGrath had awarded his seal of approval.

Honestly, my first reaction was my second, as well as my third, reaction: Despair — and not only the despair of realizing how bad things have gotten, but also the grim recognition that we have not yet hit bottom. McGrath writes:

What Bernier writes really is a great example of the kind of balanced perspective on the matter that is all but universal among mainstream historians and scholars in related fields.

Oh, goody. What wonderful things did Bernier write? Well, buckle up. Here we go!

All historical argumentation is probabilistic. This is also to say that any and all historical hypotheses are subject to revision or dispute.

The Polish Cavalry at the Battle of Mokra, 1939

So far, so good. Unfortunately, he has left too much unsaid. He doesn’t give us a working definition of the term historical hypothesis, nor does he explain what sorts of evidence would lead to revisions or disputes of such hypotheses. Given what follows, we have reason to believe Bernier has a peculiar understanding of the term.

Hypotheses subject to revision are hypotheses whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0 that we can treat them as virtually certain.

I must be reading this wrong. In the preceding sentence, Bernier wrote that all hypotheses are subject to revision. But then he implies that the subset of hypotheses that are subject to revision are ones “whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0.” I don’t understand this sentence, but I can set it aside for now — except to say that Bernier doesn’t really explain how and why revision should occur nor how we calculate the probability of a hypothesis. We have everything we need but the what, the how, and the why.

He continues:

Such hypotheses include the hypothesis that Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, or that Jesus of Nazareth existed.

read more »

Gathercole Dabbles with Counterfactual History

Let me state at the outset here that I fully understand the actual merits of Simon Gathercole’s recent article in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus do not matter. Its mere existence suffices for the task at hand. In other words, it is not necessary for mainstream scholarship to demonstrate that Paul’s writings prove the existence of the historical Jesus; it is only necessary to assert it.

We saw the same sort of effect back in 2017 after Gullotta’s swing-and-a-miss treatment of Carrier’s magnum opus. For example, Gathercole writes, with no hint of irony:

One of the best recent critiques is that of Daniel Gullotta, who notes some crucial weaknesses in Richard Carrier’s volume. (Gathercole 2018, p. 185)

Do you believe?!

Tinkerbell tries to open a cabinet.

Despite the laughably bad anti-mythicist works offered by Casey and Ehrman, both scholars got a pass from their friends, colleagues, and sycophants. More than a pass, really, since both enjoyed backslaps and cheers for participating. They showed up and wrote down some words, by golly. It’s the Tinkerbell Effect in full bloom. Biblical scholars can claim they have refuted mythicism in all its forms as long as enough of them clap their hands and shout, “I believe! Oh, I do believe in the historical Jesus!

So what I have to say here will make no difference in the big picture, but I suppose somebody, somewhere, should say something, before Gathercole’s article inevitably takes its rightful place among “solid refutations” future scholars will point to.

If we had only Paul’s letters and nothing else, how much would we think we knew about the historical Jesus?

At the start of the new year, I started reading a book by Judea Pearl called The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect. In it, he devotes an entire chapter to counterfactuals (see Chapter 8 — Counterfactuals: Mining Worlds That Could Have Been). I had already read Gathercole’s article before that, and it rang a bell. Hadn’t he said something about counterfactuals? Yes, he did.

This article aims to adopt a kind of counterfactual approach to history, in which all of early Christian literature is set aside except the undisputed letters of Paul, in order to try to glean what can be learned from them alone. . . . The only exception is that the New Testament is occasionally used as evidence for Greek idiom. Otherwise, the letters of Paul are not interpreted in the light of, or even in tandem with, the Gospels, but are taken as far as is possible only against the backdrop of non-Christian sources. (Gathercole 2018, p. 187, bold emphasis mine throughout)

I confess I’d forgotten this tidbit, possibly because in the paragraphs that followed he appeared to be taking up arms against docetism rather than mythicism. Or perhaps Gathercole’s supposed commitment to the counterfactual approach had slipped my mind, just as it had clearly slipped his.

I have from time to time tried to imagine what our conception of early Christianity would look like if we had, say, only the Gospel of Mark or only the Gospel of John. Gathercole’s basic idea makes sense — if we had only Paul’s letters and nothing else, how much would we think we knew about the historical Jesus? What are some things we wouldn’t know for certain or, perhaps, at all? Let’s take a look. read more »

Blog Subject Matter for 2019


Just briefly, here are some things that I (and probably Neil, as well) intend to write about in the coming months.

  • How do historians treat possibly legendary or semilegendary figures other than Jesus?
    • The search for a common methodology of historicity. How do historians weigh the evidence surrounding characters such as King Arthur and Robin Hood? What steps do we take to evaluate literary evidence?
    • Processes historians follow to assess historical authenticity. How do they do it? Spoiler alert: We need contemporary, verifiable, independent corroboration.
    • The often quite strong and surprisingly predictable backlash against the suggestion that people’s beloved heroes may never existed. “You’re taking away our history/heritage!”
  • Is determining historical existence categorically different from the search for probably authentic deeds and sayings? If so, how does that difference affect our methods and the ways we analyze evidence?
  • Is Carrier’s reference class model useful for determining historicity?
    • Is it circular?
    • What parts of his method can we salvage?
  • The perils of amalgamating different, often contradictory stories into a single narrative legend.
  • The Memory Mavens: More stuff about ritual memory vs. shared stories.
  • William Wrede: His contributions to methodology (now generally unknown and ignored).

Happy Belated New Year!