2007-01-17

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Pliny’s letter about the Christians — revised

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

by Neil Godfrey

I have revised this 18th January to include more direct comparisons with Doherty’s treatment of the Pliny letter.

This one, like the emperor’s clothes, has too long been simply too good, too precious, to dare let anyone admit what they really see and laugh.

But before discussing the problems that Bruce bypasses or simply fails to notice, I should say now that I do conclude on a more positive note: the letter, whatever its provenance, whoever its author, does contain historical information of second century Christianity of genuine value and interest.

First, Doherty’s discussion:

I’ll begin with Doherty’s treatment of this letter of Pliny. I am sure most will find his analysis and commentary far more sober than Bruce’s discussion and my commentary.

After outlining the contents of Pliny’s letter (reason he is writing to Trajan, what he has learned about the Christians, including details of their assembly meetings, prayers, rites, oaths, and so forth, and finding them innocent of criminal activity) Doherty comments:

We might have expected Pliny to refer to the “Christ” as a man crucified in Judea as a rebel, if that were the object of Christian worship, for this would have been unusual and of some interest to the emperor. However, he does not. In any even, any information Pliny is imparting or implying in this letter he has received from Chrsitians. (p.201 of The Jesus Puzzle)

So in a few brief lines Doherty cuts to the core of the deficiency of Pliny’s letter as non-Christian evidence of Jesus. Compare Bruce’s three pages (six pages including the translations of the correspondence) of discussion elaborating on the face value of the text. Bruce is certainly deeply interested in the contents of Pliny’s letter about the Christians and never stops to question whether Trajan himself would be, let alone if it is the sort of content one could reasonably expect from a governor to his emperor regarding criminal cases worthy of death. One wonders if some orthodox scholars dismiss Doherty so quickly for fear of having their own intellectual nakedness exposed.

Compare Bruce:

Bruce typically starts with the passage itself. Had he begun with Pliny’s career background the nonsense that this letter contains would be all too apparent from the first few lines.

Although he gives background about Pliny’s uncle and how many books of letters were included in Pliny’s published collection, he does not appear to see any point in noting that the famous letter in question belongs to a collection (the tenth book) that was not published in Pliny’s lifetime. The significance of this latter point, if any, may be considered in light of both the other unfathomable anomalies in this letter and the relatively recent publication of Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions.

Bruce writes:

Pliny, who had never had any official contact with Christians during the fifty years of his life thus far, found himself obliged to deal with them in Bithynia because of the rapidity with which they were spreading in the province. (p.25)

What was the extent of this rapidity?

[T]hey had grown so numerous that the pagan temples were being neglected and the purveyors of fodder for the sacrificial animals found their livelihood threatened. (p.28)

Now:

  • if Pliny had never had any experience as a courtroom lawyer in Rome,
  • and if he had thus never heard of or enountered a Christian on trial in Rome,
  • and if he was just embarking wet behind the ears on his public career,
  • and if he had just arrived in Bithynia as a newly appointed governor,
  • and if the rapid spread of Christianity was confined uniquely to Bithynia and had been a virtual unknown quantity elsewhere despite being so strong in Bithynia that pagan temples were being neglected,
  • and if Pliny before setting out for his governorship position had been completely unaware of such a major development he was about to face,
  • and if not a single Christian had been implicated in the great fire of Rome of the previous generation,
  • and if Pliny had somehow moved in different circles entirely from his friend Tacitus (who also appears to have written with some knowledge about Christians),

then yes, we would have no difficulty in accepting that one of the very first things Pliny would have to write to Trajan about was “the (uniquely Bithynian?) Christian problem”.

But we have, rather, a Pliny problem:

  • Pliny had been a prominent lawyer in Rome for 28 years — it is therefore incredible to think that he had no knowledge of any precedents re Christians
    • Trajan’s reply failing to address any precedents in Rome or elsewhere in the empire (in particular the fire of Rome a generation earlier?) equally defies explanation.
  • Pliny had been travelling throughout Bithynia as governor for a year and a half before he saw fit to write a letter about the Christian problem — just how seriously can we take the letter’s descriptions of the seriousness of this problem if 18 months could lapse before this first and only letter addressing it?
  • Pliny begins by saying he has never seen a Christian trial so has no idea how to conduct one, and confesses his ignorance on how to deal with Christians and indeed, this is his reason for his letter to Trajan — to seek guidance. Yet in the same letter Pliny goes on to say:
    • that he has been conducting trials of Christians for some time — long enough to notice that the pagan temples are once again being frequented;
    • that he has routinely executed Christians who stubbornly refused to recant;
    • that he has routinely released those who do;
    • that he only decides to write the letter after carrying out these convictions and acquittals for some time when he happened to learn as a consequence of torturing two female slaves that they were guilty of “nothing more than a perverse superstition” (no details provided)

Conveniently for the naive reader the author fails to detail the cities affected, where the victims lived, how many Roman citizens he sent to Rome for trial, etc. Why do not more heads spin when they are hit with this illogical and utterly implausible nonsense? Biblical scholars like to insist that the coherence of the Testamonium Flavianum is evidence that it is built on a genuine original statement by Josephus about Jesus, yet blithely accept without question the incoherence of this letter.

  • Pliny lists point by point detail to demonstrate the good character and innocence of the Christians on the one hand, then reverts to stereotypical persecuter mode by pronouncing that the Christians are nevertheless guilty of the vaguely generalized charge of perverse and unspeakable superstition. How can anyone fail to see through this blatant contradiction the hand of a pro-Christian apologist awkwardly attempting to simultaneously pose as the stereotypical anti-Christian!
  • Trajan is just as confused in his reply. Christians must die: punish them if they are accused of being a Christian. Christians are harmless: do not seek to punish them.

Bruce’s discussion is blind to any of these problems. This strange contradictory letter that did not appear in Pliny’s lifetime and that raises incomprehensible questions within the context of Pliny’s career and conventional history of the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman empire (including Rome) with persecutions and court hearings by Trajan’s time, and what we know of Roman law and custom is seized as one of our earliest non-christian evidences of early Christianity. Pagan Rome’s tolerance of religious practice was well-known; the only people normally required to offer sacrifice to the emperor were those taking official government office; the liberty of Marcion himself and the rise and rise of Marcionism in Asia Minor are difficult to explain if, as Pliny says here, his policies restored pagan practices at the expense of Christianity; Justin Martyr’s apparent ignorance of Pliny’s and Trajan’s situation as a precedent in his letter pleading for tolerance to Antoninus Pius might also be seen as a problem; and the emperor soon after Trajan, Hadrian, who travelled and loved the eastern provinces especially, despite his bureaucratic and legalistic mind is not known for any follow-up ruling on Christians, let alone anything from Trajan or Pliny.

Genuine historical value nonetheless

Pliny’s letter to Trajan concerning the Christians nevertheless is of genuine historical interest in its description of an early Christian service. It matters little if that description was inserted some time after Pliny the Younger.

Bruce’s treatment in summary:

Bruce does not offer a scholarly thought provoking discussion of the Pliny letter but essentially narrates a confessional, “Look, here is more (rare indeed so oh how precious!) evidence of Christianity from a non-Christian source.” The source does contain an interesting description of early Christian practices, although it says nothing whatever about the name of Jesus. It does speak of a worship of Christ and thus could possibly reflect a Pauline (Marcionite?) theology of a spiritual or heavenly Christ deity as opposed to an earthly Jesus figure.



Technorati Tags:
Pliny-the-Younger, Pliny, Trajan, Christians


2007-01-16

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Tacitus and the Christians – revised

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

by Neil Godfrey

I have revised 18th January to include a comparison with Doherty’s treatment of Tacitus.

By now we’re getting the picture.
Bruce writes:

Pilate’s execution of Christ, and any report that he may have sent to Rome about it, would never have been heard of again, if in fact that execution had put an end to the movement which Christ began. (p.23)

If the aim of Bruce here is to offer independent evidence of the existence of the historical Jesus this logic here is of course entirely circular. He is arguing that because Jesus existed and started the Christian movement that spread like wildfire to Rome then this is evidence that Rome’s “police” would have kept records that they would not normally have kept, and that Tacitus would have used these! No hint that this passage of Tacitus (ca.115-117 c.e.) implicating the Christians in the Fire of Rome in Nero’s reign (64 c.e.) raises more questions and problems, if indeed historical, than one can throw matches at.

But Bruce does belie some sense that he is aware of the circularity and hollowness of his argument since he goes on to cover himself with the most tentative “perhaps”, “possiblies”, “who knows?”, “would have”, “if indeeds”:

[W]here did [Tacitus] go [for his information]? To some official record, perhaps — possibly to Pilate’s report; who knows? Tacitus had an official stnading which would give him access to such archives, if indeed they survived to his day.(p.23)

Pilate, he concedes, is not mentioned in any other pagan document known to us, thus underscoring further the complete unlikeliness that Tacitus would indeed have found such records in Rome in his day. This passage, he admits, is a most unlikely one — one based on “records” that would not normally make their way to Rome. Rather than prompt other questions of historical evidence and alternative explanations this “unlikely” fact (and a fact that assumes the historical existence of Jesus that this passage is meant to be supplying additional evidence for) merely increases the dramatic irony in Bruce’s eyes.

Why does Bruce insist that these admittedly unlikely police records had to have been Tacitus’ source? Because, he explains,

from the contemptuous and hostile tone which he adopts towards the Christians, we may gather that he did not seek his information from them. (p.23)

One would not have thought a historian had to be on friendly terms with Christians to have had some knowledge of their claims and beliefs. Such assertions by Bruce indicate a naivety about methods historical that surely place his book more comfortably among other confessional writings for the choir.

Compare Bruce’s and Doherty’s discussions of Tacitus

While Bruce treats Tacitus as “a source” Doherty seeks for the source that Tacitus himself used.

While Bruce is content to repeat the Eusebian model of Church history (fanning out with spirit-like rapidity throughout the empire from the time of Jesus’ death), Doherty makes note of the fact that modern historians are being forced to limit the initial impact of Jesus given, amongst other factors, the degree of silence about Jesus in the contemporary record. This silence makes it even less likely that Tacitus ever had bureaucratric records of any particular one of countless thousands of crucifixions and executions benighting the empire decades earlier.

While Bruce is content to assume that Tacitus searched police records for his information about Jesus (on the grounds that this is the only alternative given that his unfriendly tone tells him he could not have been informed by Christians themselves), Doherty notes that Tacitus was not in the habit of consulting original documents. In support of this is the fact that Tacitus gets Pilate’s title wrong. This, of course, ought to have informed Bruce that he was being too cavalier in his discussion.

Doherty’s suggestion that Tacitus’s source was most likely picked up directly or more likely indirectly from what Christians themselves were saying in his time is by far more economical than Bruce’s presumptions of what Doherty says would have been an unheard of scale of record-keeping even for the Romans. Doherty leaves it open whether the information derived from Roman Christians or those in the province of Asia where Tacitus had earlier governed.

Conclusion:

Bruce’s conclusion is that this passage from Tacitus presents history with “an irony” — so notable that it places the sole reference of a pagan writer to Pilate in a “hand to hand” moment with “the ancient Christian creed: ‘. . . suffered under Pontius Pilate’.” It does truly appear that Bruce’s interest in dramatic presentation of his confessional interest has caused him to view this passage from but a single — apologetic — view.

Again, there is no discussion of the historical problems involved (except to express the unlikelihood of such records normally existing in Rome). No explanation — not even any mention of — the silence of the early Church Fathers on this record. It does not do to say that an “argument from silence” in this case means anything since the arguments for and against the silence of the Josephan TF among early Church Fathers are admitted as vital in many scholarly discussions. It is unthinkable that there could be no references to this passage of a presumably most salient historical event among those early Christians given their regular cravings for all records, good and bad, of the treatment of early Christians. Doherty discusses this aspect persuasively and in depth.

But in this case it is not only the silence of the early church writers that begs for explanation. It is also the correspondence only 50 years later between emperor Trajan and his governor Pliny — neither Roman official knows of any precedent for how to handle Christians! And they were in ignorance just 50 years after Christians were slaughtered by imperial edict over the fire that destroyed a third of Rome? Yeh, right!


R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Suetonius and Chrestus — revised

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

by Neil Godfrey

I have revised the following 18th January to include a comparison with Doherty’s treatment of Suetonius.

Oh dear, this is embarrassing from the historian’s point of view. I am sure F.F.Bruce represented the brightest lights of his time but, well, 1974 was another generation ago, even if I was part of it, and the series to which this book belongs is by its own account “by theologians” to further advance their belief that it is only religion that can contribute a “deeper understanding of the mystery that surrounds us” (The Editor’s Preface pp.7-8).

So it is little wonder that Bruce’s work reads as a superficial rationalization of ancient evidence while demonstrating precious little of genuine historical method and serious interest in analytical debates over the evidence in which he finds nonbiblical references to the historical Jesus.

In his discussion of the passage in Suetonius that deals with the expulsion of the Jews by Claudius for reportedly rioting “at the instigation of Chrestus” he writes:

Chrestus, a common slave-name, was a popular mis-spelling of the name of Christ.

From that, the rest of the discussion rests on this “evidence” that the Jews indeed did riot in Rome in some connection over Christ and Christianity. It matters not, it seems, that Bruce admits that the name over which they rioted really was “a common slave-name”. Surely this is every reason to take the passage at face value and not try to turn the name into something else.

But perhaps sensing a little weakness in this argument Bruce tosses in for good measure gratuitous claims that Suetonius got this information from “police records”. Of course, this causes more problems so he has to explain that Suetonius would have misunderstood the police records. — The police records would not have said that “Chrestus” was actually “in Rome” at the time of the riots that were “instigated by him”. (p.21) Bruce is silent on the implication that the police records wrote the wrong name for the instigator of these riots. Besides, anyone who knows Suetonius and his style of histories knows he was never one for painstaking research, and that for him good old gossip and rumour were far more titillating than any facts.

Bruce does not inform us in what sources the name Chrestus is found as a “common mis-spelling” of Christ. I would like to follow this up further. I do, however, seem to recall that some sects or Christians appear to have used “Chrestus” not as a mis-spelling of Christ but as an alternative to Christ. Were these expected to be known to Suetonius? That might be worth checking. But there is a more telling reason to question Bruce’s assumptions.

Comparing Doherty’s discussion of Suetonius

Who is “Chrestus”? Is this a misspelling of “Christus”? An unknown Jewish agitator with a very common name? Are these Christians at all, or simply apocalypti-minded Jews anticipating the arrival of the Messiah? Is this figure supposedly on the scene, or is he merely the object of the agitator’s beliefs? There is too much uncertainty here to take this as evidence of anything. (p.203 of The Jesus Puzzle)

I challenge anyone to dismiss this as “fringe” or “extreme” or even merely “radical” scepticism. I suggest they represent some of the questions that go through most reader’s minds on first encountering this passage in Suetonius.

Compared with Doherty Bruce looks like a naive confessionalist rationalizing anything close to his goal. Compare how creative his imagination and how his speculations become fact:

‘Chrestus’, a common slave-name, was a popular mis-spelling of the name of Christ. The situation referred to was probably the result of the recent introduction of Christianity . . . . Police action was called for . . . . [and] police records provided one of his[Suetonius’s] sources of information. . . . (p21 of Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament)

Other reasons to reject the assumption that Suetonius meant “Christ”

But when Acts appears to refer to the same event (18.2) it gives not a hint that the expulsion by Claudius or Aquilla and Priscilla had anything to do with Christianity. Aquilla meets Paul because of his common trade only. Later in the same chapter when another Jew, Apollos, who does bring some (imperfect) knowledge of Jesus with him, arrives in Paul’s area, Acts tells us so. So one must ask if Suetonius meant that Jews were expelled because of “Christ” why both he AND the author of Acts did not say so. One cannot plead that a riot over Christianity would have been embarrassing to relate because Acts is if nothing else a long catalogue of riots instigated by the name of Christ! And if it was Paul in the vanguard of taking this controversial Christianity to the gentiles then who was responsible for these so-called “Christ-instigated riots in Rome” so early? The book of Acts concludes with Jews in Rome declaring their near total ignorance of the Christian faith, hearing only of its reputation in places outside Rome. (28.22)

Further, if Acts was a mid-second century anti-Marcionite work (assuming that its author also extensively redacted Luke) it is not impossible that Suetonius was the source of Acts 18.2. If so, then it appears that the author did not make any link between Chrestus and Christ.

What is certain is that the early Church Fathers are as silent regarding this passage in Suetonius as they are the Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus — both silences begging for explanations if they were both known to refer to Christ and Christians from such an early date.
So there is no historical discussion of the evidence in question. In this case not even an uncritical naive face-value acceptance of the evidence. We have a common riot instigated by a person with a common name turned into “evidence” for another name (Christ) and a related event (riot in Rome) of which the biblical record is inexplicably silent.

Interestingly Bruce himself writes of another biblical scholar who through arbitrary recasting and erudition cleverly made texts say something other than what they clearly did say, so that:

the unwary reader might easily be misled by it; it is important to emphasize that it rests upon his own arbitrary recasting of texts which say the opposite of what he makes them say . . . . (p.46)


Technorati Tags:
Suetonius, Chrestus,


2007-01-12

Atlantis — another 21st! century myth

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

by Neil Godfrey

This is a temporary break from themes biblical….

It’s damn depressing to see in this 21st century first world country so many university educated peers actually believing in past lives, the literal text of the bible, spirits, ‘mystical healings’ too bizarre and embarrassing to describe, various mantras and ‘dream catchers’ and silly myths like Atlantis.

I once actually took the time to write a partial rebuttal of a well-known book (at least well-known among Atlantis believers) by W. Scott-Elliot, titled “The Story of Atlantis“, in a very faint hope of somehow ‘redeeming’ a work colleague of mine who could see no reason to doubt the story.

I’m half-pleased to say that I think this piece, along with similar pieces I wrote critiquing nonsense like auras and Noah’s flood, did have a positive impact — although only for a year or so. So I finally decided the truth of the proverb that says:

those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still.

Nevertheless, knowing that most sensible clear thinking people will not bother to take the time of day to write anything so futile? as a critique of the myth of Atlantis, for those who might appreciate stumbling across one piece of ammo to throw at other misguided innocents, here is what I wrote about one aspect of Scott-Elliot’s book some years ago:

Testimony of Ancient Writers

Aelian belonged to the second century CE and wrote many credulous and fabulous tales in an age of gullibility. (People believed in phoenix birds being resurrected every few hundred years; in natural springs of wine; in islands that floated like boats; in real virgin births (not just Christians); in gods walking around among them in disguise; in spirit worlds above the clouds and beyond the stars, just a few hundred metres away; in giant men and turtles carrying the earth,….) Aelian believed that beavers knew they were hunted for their testicles so they when hunted they would bite off those testicles and throw them into the path of the hunters; but if hunters despite this trick continued to chase them they would stand up on their hind legs facing the hunters to show they had no longer had their testicles so the hunters would leave them alone. He wrote gullibly to entertain the gullible and compiled tales of the fabulous to tittilate his audience.

Scott-Elliot writes: “Aelian … states that Theopompus (400 B.C.) recorded an interview between the King of Phyrgia and Silenus ….” This is contextualized by preceding the passage with words like “testimony” and “evidence”. What is not immediately clear from Scott-Elliot’s “newsbite” is that the characters are all mythological. Silenus is, in fact, the name of a satyr! Yet Scott-Elliot presents an image of a serious interview between a king and a wise man by a court recorder as matter-of-factly as if it were a piece of surviving historical “evidence”!

What Aelian narrated was that the mythical Midas had his shepherds pour wine into a river so the grand Satyr who taught the god Dionysus would fall asleep after he had drunk from it. Once asleep he was captured by Midas’ shepherds and forced to reveal divine secrets to the king. The sorts of secrets he revealed:

1. In a far away land there are 2 types of trees on either side of a river, and if a traveller eats of one of those types, he will begin to grow younger. From that day on he will age in reverse until he finally becomes a little baby and then eventually vanishes altogether.

2. Another was how he (Silenus) and his divine pupil Dionysus, the god of wine and lust who was followed everywhere by lots of lesser satyrs, had just returned from showing people far off how to cultivate grapes and make wine.

3. Another was of a vast mythical land beyond Oceanus (not “Atlantis” as Scott-Elliot writes.)

4. And yet another, of course, was how he would allow Midas to ask to be granted any wish for releasing him… which led to the famous story of all he touched turning to gold.

There is no more obvious reason to believe any of these tales than there is to believe in the existence of satyrs, or that beavers bite off their testicles and throw them at chasing hunters, or any of the other myths told about Dionysus, satyrs or mythical kings.

The second ancient writer Scott-Elliot lists is Proclus. Proclus wrote in the second century CE and was a commentator on Plato. Since Scott-Elliot later lists Plato as another source it is wrong to cite Proclus to sound like an independently supporting witness. Proclus wrote about what Plato wrote.

Diodorus Siculus’ reference can more justifiably be seen as a reference to Britain or the Canary Islands. The Coast of Africa was adjacent to Spain, both bordering the “Pillars of Hercules” (Strait of Gibraltar) and was the main territory of a Phoenician kingdom. It would be a mistake to assume that ancient sailors, even the Phoenicians, passed on an accurate size or shape or even number of land masses in those times. We need only observe some of the bizarre distortions of islands and land areas in ancient maps to appreciate the difficulties, misconceptions and ignorance that bedevilled ancient geographers. It is not hard to imagine how the idea of a large land mass “a few days” west could have emerged in the consciousness of sailors used to hugging the coasts as they sailed and who may have been swept out away from their African journey, making various sightings of what were in fact the somewhat sizeable Canary Islands before their return.

Plato frequently created his own myths to illustrate his views of human nature and the world. Two of his most famous literary creations are his Cave and Republic. Just because Plato said his story of Atlantis was “true” does not necessarily make it so. The literary context of this claim must be assessed. We know even today of many tales that begin with an assertion of their truth yet where our cultural background makes it clear to us that such a claim is made only for dramatic effect. Similarly there are many examples of ancient writers clearly writing fiction but who employ many techniques to make their tales sound true and convincing. One of the literary techniques used was to create scenes with masses of incidental details to give an aura of eyewitness recollections and veracity. Homer’s epics are the most famous of early examples of this. If detail and colour were evidence of eyewitness testimony then we would have to believe in magical caves of nymphs, and in the truth of the minutiae of the hundreds of soldiers and ships of each of the named scores of kings who led them to Troy, in the reality of the graphically portrayed Hades complete with its list of who’s who seen among its hapless ghosts, and in the various specifically dilineated layers of astral orbits surrounding the earth.

Atlantis was a sort of Utopia myth created by Plato and its “truth” lay in the fact that he was creating it to warn his fellow Athenians of the dangers of pride and evil ways no matter how great they had been. And he created it with such elaborate detail with so many literary subtle assurances of its truth to add to its impact that it is as memorable and believable like any good story. In such a creation he was no different from those who created so many other ancient mythical tales. And no doubt many ancients did take his story as true, just as they took stories of testicle tossing beavers as true. It was a gullible age. Magicians could literally float through the air, dogs and horses could speak to humans, and living creatures could spontaneously emerge out of thin air. They knew such things were true because they had always heard them from someone who heard them from someone they could trust.

Distribution of Flora and Fauna

Similarities across continents has many explanations. Australia and South America have strange birds and animals with odd similarities. One might postulate a lost continent once joining them. Or one might accept the evidence for continental drift and fossil and genetic evidence that leads to understanding that Australia and South America were once joined to what is now the Antarctic and the flora and fauna that was known to this land mass followed variant natural adaptations after the land masses separated.

Deep-Sea Soundings

Scott-Elliot notes that the depth of the “Atlantis continent” is 100 to several 100 fathoms underwater now. That such a land mass was at any time in the history of humans above sea level is simply incredible and on a par with the Creationist belief in a literal Noachian flood. The New England Skeptical Society have written the following:

From a geophysical point of view, islands don’t just “sink” of their own accord, overnight or even over a few days, years or centuries. Being less dense than the crust and the interior of the Earth, the continental masses just float on the denser material. Rising sea levels may flood parts of continents, but the levels of continents themselves vis-a-vis the Earth’s solid crust change little or not at all. Even if the seas had risen high enough to inundate Atlantis, all of its continental landmass would still be visible underwater.

Scott-Elliot’s method

The method of Scott-Elliot is to interpret scientific debate over certain questions at the time (1896) as meaning such things were a “mystery” or “unfathonable”, and that his theory of Atlantis would give a neat answer to “the question”. Such a method of logic is invalid. Firstly, this greatly misrepresents what scientists do know about such questions and misunderstands (or is ignorant of) what the scientific debates are actually about and what they really do concede and understand. Scientific debate is what advances and refines scientific understanding. Secondly, to simply postulate an idea and say it answers pretty much everything means nothing. Ideas, theories, must be tested and therefore they must be testable. Otherwise they have no more validity than saying that God or Satan or aliens or gremlins did it or the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause are real. If they are untestable assertions they are really matters of faith, not evidence.

Scott-Elliot for most part appears to be summarizing secondary sources and is often vague on details that would enable a reader to check these and trace back to the original documents. This is odd. If one wishes to persuade and one has specific verifiable citations or evidence that clearly clinched his case (not secondary assertions or imprecise generalized statements) then one would surely present them.


Technorati Tags:
Atlantis, Scott_Elliot


2006-12-21

Herodotus and Bible History: Mandell & Freedman contd

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

by Neil Godfrey

Notes from Mandell and Freedman contd:

Intro One: Aims and methods

Many historians consider the Primary History of Israel as both a theological document and a historical one, even if only sometimes one can barely glimpse a historical nugget behind the myth. Yet Herodotus’ Histories is read differently: It is seen as essentially a historic book with no theological worth; or as a work where the mythic element was relegated mostly to the first 4 books leaving the remainder as essentially historical reporting.

Gerhad Von Rad (1944) was apparently the first to suggest that the Hebrews were the first to write “history” and that by giving it a theological meaning (that God’s purpose is being acted out through it, even in only behind the scenes) is what distinguishes it from Greek history. In other words, historians don’t consider references to the gods in Herodotus’ Histories of any worth or relevance to the overall work. (Some, however, do see more comparisons between Herodotus and his presumed near contemporary author of Chronicles.)

Is this difference in the way historians read Herodotus Histories and Israel’s Primary History justified? Continue reading “Herodotus and Bible History: Mandell & Freedman contd”


2006-12-20

Herodotus and Israel’s History: Rationales for comparison

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

by Neil Godfrey

The following are preliminary notes from my reading of Mandell & Freedman’s Preface — mentioned in my earlier post re Herodotus and Primary History.

Both Herodotus’ History and Primary History:

  • are national epics
  • are divided into 9 books at some time in their history
  • are about the same length
  • begin with a prehistory that includes myths, fables, folk-tales and legends treated as factual
  • and continue in this vein till well into their historical time
  • change structural format at similar point: (Israel about to enter promised land; Persians about to fight on Greek mainland) — from this point on, with the “homeland” the focus of action, a new historical tone takes over (though still divinities and miracle intervene)
  • instruct that history is guided by divine will.

(Though wars with the aim of conquest of another’s territory were common enough in history they were very rarely the topic of literature.)

The illusion of historical genre

Our misguided reliance on:

  • Aristotle who classified Herodotus as an historian;
  • and Cicero who called Herodotus the father of history.

In fact, Herodotus was not a sincere if naive reporter of tall tales, thinking he was passing on “the truth” of the matter. But this was the appearance he wanted his readers to accept.

Rather, Herodotus is classified in “the historic genre because the author successfully created that illusion by virtue of his superb literary craftsmanship.” (pp.xi-xii)

Herodotus the theologian

If we think of Herodotus as writing history we fail to apprehend the literary structure of his work “or the real and primal role that theology plays in it”.

“When we realized that the History is a theologically “charged” prose epic in which two different but related genres, the Documentary Novel and the Roman a Clef, are combined, we began to see that Herodotus was not simply a credulous collector of anecdotal data.” (p.xii)

Implied Narrator is not Real Author

Keep in mind the distinction between the narrative voice and the real author; the named narrator and the literal author; the implied narrator (ie. the literary persona whom the author depicts as the narrator) is not the same as the real author — although the real author may give his implied narrator his own name. (There is evidence this was understood by original audience.)

The implied narrator is a devoted worshipper of the god at Delphi.

Implications for literary analysis

So the implied narrator presents himself as giving real history from the Delphic viewpoint. But of the real author — we do not know that he held the same Delphic loyalties at all – we know that he knew the historical appearance was something he was creating through his narrative persona only. So Histories is only historical from the theological viewpoint of the implied Delphic worshipping narrative persona. It is not historical from a non-confessional viewpoint.

Ditto for Primary History. It is history from a theological confessional viewpoint, but from a nonconfessional viewpoint it is not history. From the latter perspective it is at best a religious document from which some historical data can be glimpsed.

This understanding leads to the rationale for examining both works from the “standpoint of Analytic Criticism, whereby any work, even a seemingly historical one, is to be treated as iconic” (p.xiii) — as a narrative/literary single whole. This enables us to study the literary structures and identify relationships between Herodotus Histories and the Primary History that would otherwise remain invisible.

Neil


2006-12-19

Herodotus’ Histories and Israel’s History (notes from Wesselius)

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

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing my notetaking here from earlier post:

(A work in progress obviously — an attempt to grasp overview of the arguments)

Chapter 1 (my observations – with my commentary – on Wesselius)

  1. The genre of historiography in its modern sense is generally held to have arisen relatively late in history. Hence Herodotus is called “The Father of History”. (Till Hellenistic era we have annals and chrono lists but not interpretative history as a literary genre.)

Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman compare Herodotus and Primary History (Gen-2Kings) : both divided into 9 volumes; both separate the 8th and 9th books in the middle of an episode; …. and many other points of comparison (not all agree on their significance).

Was Herodotus aware of the work of Ezra?

Hey… just recalled I have Freedman and Mandell’s work somewhere…. better go back and check that one first….

More later…

Neil

(Oh groan! i have just uncovered by Mandell and Freedman, heavily marked throughout — recognizing some of “my ideas” that I have obviously taken from sections of it….. Time for a much needed catch-up revision!!!!)


Herodotus’ Histories and the Primary History of Israel

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

by Neil Godfrey

Something I’ve been wanting to start for ages is a compilation of notes from Wesselius’ book as much for my own interest as others. I know it’s not the most popular hypothesis in biblical studies, but gosh it is interesting and at least thought provoking, i think. By the time I finish I may well decide it has not a leg to stand on. That’s no worries. Either way, I am sure I will have learned much more about the relevant literary and archaeological and other worlds by the time I reach that point. But an opportunity came up in iidb for me to find an excuse to make a start, and this is it– just a start only! Let’s go…. with a view to refinement, elaboration, embarrassing deletions, up ahead…..

Continue reading “Herodotus’ Histories and the Primary History of Israel”


2006-12-18

Those strange NT endings (Mark, John, Acts)

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

by Neil Godfrey

It is widely assumed that the endings we know of Mark (16:8), John and Acts cannot have been the ones originally intended but after reading “Classical Closure: Reading the End in Greek and Latin Literature” edited by Deborah H. Roberts, Francis M. Dunn, and Don Fowler (1997) I have less confidence in that assumption. Nowhere are Mark, Acts and John discussed in the book and the extrapolations below are entirely my own.

In the book Carolyn Dewald discussion of “Strategies of Meaning at the End of Herodotus’s Histories” struck me as raising the same sorts of questions over Herodotus’s ending as are raised over the present endings of Mark and Acts. Herodotus leaves his work in mid-air too. This could only have been intentional since Herodotus throughout his work manages to consistently draw many satisfying conclusions to his many story sections. The question that arises then is what Herodotus was wanting to achieve by way of response from his audience by not framing a formal final conclusion to his work. ‘Histories’ can be read more accurately as a kind of theological tragedy than as a history in a modern sense. It is about the fate of Athenians and their lot within the common destinies of mankind, and their future is left in doubt. The mid-air ending of Histories inevitably left the questions about how one understood the present and future as uncertain and as issues to be questioned in the light of all that had just been read.

Francis M. Dunn discusses the ending of Euripides’ Heracles is tormentingly ambiguous and incomplete, so much so that there have long been many attempts rearrange the text or re-write the ending. The ending is indecisive and the audience has no way of knowing if it is meant to see Heracles as a failure or a hero let alone what sort of future is in store for him. Again, it appears that the author was by this means seeking to provoke a certain type of response in the audience to the deeper questions raised in the play.

Philip Hardie has much to say about the Virgil’s Aeneid and hellenistic fiction in general that is also reminiscent of issues that arise in the scholarship relating to the endings of Mark, John and Acts. He writes: “Ancient novels use many paratextual devices, usually to give a sense of (historiographic) authenticity to the fiction …” By paratextual devices he means those sorts of intrusive authorial comments we find in John 20:30-31. With this consideration the disputed ending of John can then be read as something like: “I can’t possibly write about everything but I have to add just one more thing before I close…. ”

The Aeneid is another case of an abrupt “improper” ending leaving the reader on the point of lurching in mid-air. Hardie says the more appropriate ending has been already written and is tucked away in Book 8 with its prophecies of the future history of Rome and Augustus. Deaths always need a resolution of some kind, a new treaty or funeral etc. but in the Aeneid we have the treaty of peace being made near the beginning of the story and the death it is meant to follow is at the end. Not only so, but there are many textual allusions in the final scenes that echo those found in the opening scenes thus reassuring the reader/listener that this ending really is as intended however unconventional it is. So Mark was by no means the first to create an unconventional story with suitable endings in the middle and an ending that leaves readers hanging, and wondering, and scrambling back over all they have read before to find its meaning.

The obvious objection is that Mark is alone in ending his work with that conjunction ‘gar’. Maybe so, but “Classical Closures” leaves less assurance that the endings we find problematic in Mark, John and Acts were not originally intended to be just as they are.

Neil


2006-12-17

Jesus, the ideal Greek-Roman hero? (No embarrassment criterion here)

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

by Neil Godfrey

I pulled out again my copy of “Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity” (ed. by Dennis R. MacDonald) thinking to write a layman’s review of its collection of contributions but got sidetracked (again) on re-reading Gregory J. Riley’s chapter, “Mimesis of Classical Ideals in the Second Century”. Some of Riley’s work totally rivets me with comments that provoke new thoughts; some of it leaves me totally flat. This chapter is one of the former. I will have to do a fuller discussion of this asap.

Till asap comes along, I am currently rethinking possibly the earliest surviving literary episode in the life of Jesus, his baptism as told in the Gospel of Mark. John the Baptist there is portrayed as someone of utmost “greatness”: he functions way out in the wilderness, yet despite that “all the land of Judea” went out to see him and submit to him in baptism. Now that is a graphic scene. It is no doubt fictional, or some might wish to say it contains a core of historical truth in that the exaggeration hints at least “lots” of people went out to the wilderness to be baptized. But Mark is telling the story and he creates a picture of the “whole land of Judea” coming out to John in the wilderness, to a man standing outside and in opposition to the city life (“and those from Jerusalem”) with his camel cloak and wild honey diet.

But his message escalates this scene of a truly remarkable man.– His message is about one “who is even greater” who is yet to follow after him! He underscores the point: he, such a great man, will not even be worthy to stoop to loose the sandal of the super-great one to come.

And that even greater one is, of course, the one we know will be from the beginning, from heaven itself even, declared the beloved Son of God himself.

What does all this have to do with a Greek-Roman classical ideal?

Riley writes, “a righteous and powerful Son of God is persecuted by unjust authorities, divine and human, faces his own horrible death with courage, and overcomes. This is not an Israelite story, but it is the oldest and most inspiring plot-line in Greco-Roman literature.” (p.95)

Dare we see the opening scene in Mark as yet another one of “the oldest and most inspiring plot-lines in Greco-Roman literature”? The opening scene of the Iliad was about a son of a goddess (a man-god), Achilles, whose refusal to submit, despite repeated pleas, to the greatest king, Agamemnon, one greater in authority despite Achilles being the far greater in parentage and ultimate personal worth and nobility of (Greek classical) character.

If so, then surely the “criteria of embarrassment” arguments in the literature that attach themselves to the baptism of Jesus beg for re-evaluation at least. Mark demonstrates NO such embarrassment at all. In fact he pushes as hard as he can into the readers/hearers’ faces that the Greater is submitting to the Lesser here!

There is so much to elaborate on here. I know, I have tossed out idle spec on this scene elsewhere, but I would love to do up a much fuller exploration of this and the other ideals expressed in the Christian myth that clearly repackaged and presented anew some of the highest ideals of classical antiquity. (As Burton Mack and others have written, it also included in that package much that was ruinous, too.) But I’m keen to follow through Riley’s argument in this and other aspects of the founding myth of Christianity.

Neil

(P.S. It seems almost flippant to comment (i know, again) here that that opening book in the Iliad, iirc, concludes with Agamemnon ordering the ritual washing of all his armed followers — the only one who removes himself from the camp and does not comply is, of course, Achilles.)


Technorati Tags:
mimesis,
gospel+of+mark, gospel_of_mark, gospelofmark, gospel.of.mark, johnthebaptist, john_the_baptist, john+the+baptist, Iliad, Agamemnon, Achilles, baptism+of+jesus, jesus+baptism


2006-12-03

Moses’ Exodus and Xerxes’ Greek Campaign

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

by Neil Godfrey

More occasional notes added here. This time a web page comparing the biblical story of the Exodus with Herodotus’s account of Xerxes‘ invasion of Greece. A table outlines dot points from the views of Dutch Head of Department of Semitic Studies in the Theological University of Kampen, Dr Jan-Wim Wesselius. Not everyone will have a chance to afford or borrow Jan-Wim Wesselius’ “The Origin of the History of Israel : Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible” (Sheffield, 2002) so hopefully the link here will be of some interest to others. I make no comment myself here on the strength of Wesselius’s argument. Hopefully further discussion will come with time to do more reading on the various sides of the controversy.

Neil Godfrey


Technorati Tags:
moses, exodus, xerxes, primary+history, herodotus, bible+history,


2006-12-02

Ancient Epistolary Fictions / Patricia A. Rosenmeyer (2001). Review

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

by Neil Godfrey

I’ve written this “review” essentially as a commentary on what we can know about the genuineness of the New Testament epistles. The commentary bits are in eyesore bold italics.

I read Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions (Cambridge University Press, 2001) to inform myself of the literary culture behind the New Testament epistles as part of my interest in understanding the nature of the historical evidence for Christian origins. So my review comments here are in that context. Letters, Rosenmeyer informs us, were a popular form of entertainment (and instruction) whether under the real name of their composer or a pseudonym. Letters were a popular composition both within novels and as collections of fictional or didactic correspondence. The most interesting discussion for me was the training authors received in how to add touches of realism in fictional or didactic letter compositions.

I was reminded of how often the strongest arguments for the authenticity of the Pauline epistles rely on seemingly incidental realistic touches such as requests to bring a cloak for winter, remarks on his health, etc. After reading Rosenmeyer personal details like these are ripped away from any case for authenticity: they are the very things authors were trained to throw in, even across collections of letters, not just in singular epistles. It is naive to interpret these personal asides from the main theme as marks of genuineness. As the magic wand of the trained author they are designed to distract the reader’s attention from the otherwise artificiality of the exercise and to draw the reader into the “reality” being artfully created.

Ditto for the argument of “emotional sincerity and passion”. Again, this is the very thing one would expect to be conveyed by trained authors in such didactic compositions. None of this means of course that the Pauline letters are not genuine, but it does mean that arguments for their genuineness need to be based on external controls, not their internal content or style. From this perspective it is not irrelevant that the earliest such external pointers are securely established no earlier than the second century, when the Pauline epistles emerge for the first time as a collection and in the midst of controversy and dialogue over the history and role of Paul in early christianity. Continue reading “Ancient Epistolary Fictions / Patricia A. Rosenmeyer (2001). Review”


2006-12-01

Re-reading Virgil’s Aeneid

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

by Neil Godfrey

Initially read Virgil’s Aeneid for my interest in the classics and culture of the Roman world and the literature that inspired many throughout the ages. Re-read it recently to compare with the New Testament literature. In particular, note the sudden ending that is not a satisyfing ending at all for our tastes, and compare sudden “non-endings” of the Book of Acts and Gospel of Mark (assuming 16.9-20 is not original). Even some ancients could not accept that Virgil really intended the Aeneid to end so abruptly and composed their own endings for it, just as many have attempted to deduce possible intended endings for Acts and Mark.

Yet when one notices that the existing ending of the Aeneid is decorated with literary allusions and images used at the beginning (e.g. the literal storm imagery that opens the Aeneid in Book 1 is repeated figuratively in Book 12 to describe Aeneas attacking Turnus), thus bracketing the work like bookends, then one can more easily accept the current conclusion is as the author intended it. Similarly one notices a similar literary allusions bracketing the current opening and endings of Mark — (the most well known examples being the tearing of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and the tearing of the temple veil at his death; and the disobedience of the healed leper to the command to remain silent against the disobedience of the women to the command to speak (16.8).)

As for the ending of Acts, one cannot avoid the similarities between the constant mythic and literary themes of pioneers struggling through hardships and opposition and dangerous travel to establish “a new and truly God-fearing community” in Rome. In both the conclusion is abrupt once the beginninngs of this are established through one final conflict.

(There is much more to add by way of comparison with NT literature, but I have saved specifics for other posts to come, in particular for the series I am adding to this site on the we-passages in Acts. An interesting read, with its plusses and minuses like like any read, is Marianne Palmer Bonz’s “The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic” (Fortress Press, 2000).)


Technorati Tags:
aeneid, book+of+acts, gospel+of+mark