2022-01-22

How Jesus Historicists and Mythicists Can Work Together (or, How to do History)

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

by Neil Godfrey

I want to speak out on behalf of colleagues in Classics, Ancient History, New Testament, and Religious History (my own discipline) because I feel Dickson’s article misrepresents where many of us stand. And, in so doing, it does a slight disservice to important areas of scholarship. – Miles Pattenden

I have been inspired by the response of historian Miles Pattenden to John Dickson’s article Most Australians may doubt that Jesus existed, but historians don’t to write a second post. This time I want to address the question of historical methods more generally in contrast to my initial rejoinder where I focused on the sources Dickson himself called upon.

Dr Miles Pattenden Senior Research Fellow Medieval and Early Modern Studies

Miles Pattenden’s reply, On historians and the historicity of Jesus — a response to John Dickson, begins with a datum that should be obvious but seems too often to get lost in the heat of the bloodlust of argument. All the appeals to authority do is point us to the fact that most references to Jesus in historical works (even in works addressing specifically the “quest for the historical Jesus”) “accept an historical Jesus as a premise” (Pattenden). Such references can be nothing more than

evidence only of a scholarly consensus in favour of not questioning the premise. (Pattenden)

Another introductory point made by Pattenden introduces a factor that again ought to be obvious but is too often denied, that of institutional bias:

Christian faith — which, except very eccentrically, must surely include a belief that Jesus was a real person — has often been a motivating factor in individuals’ decisions to pursue a career in the sorts of academic fields under scrutiny here. In other words, belief in Jesus’s historicity has come a priori of many scholars’ historical study of him, and the argument that their acceptance of the ability to study him historically proves his historicity is mere circularity.

Where does this situation leave other scholars in other disciplines who speak of Jesus? I’m thinking of historians who write of ancient Roman history and make summary references to Christian beginnings as a detail within the larger themes they are discussing, or of educational theorists who speak of the methods of instruction by past figures like Socrates or Jesus. It would be absurd to suggest that such authors have necessarily undertaken a serious investigation into the question of Jesus’s historicity before making their comments. This question is getting closer to a key point I want to conclude with but before we get there note that Pattenden gets it spot on when he writes:

Just as significantly, the existence of a critical mass of scholars who do believe in Jesus’s historicity will almost certainly have shaped the way that all other scholars write about the subject. Unless they are strongly motivated to argue that Jesus was not real, they will not arbitrarily provoke colleagues who do believe in his historicity by denying it casually. After all, as academics, we ought to want to advance arguments that persuade our colleagues — and getting them offside by needlessly challenging a point not directly in contention will not help with that.

Miles Pattenden proceeds to touch on the nature of the evidence for Jesus compared with other historical subjects, the disputed nature of the array of sources for Jesus, the logical pitfalls such as circularity, and so forth, all of which I’ve posted about many times before.

But the historical Thakur may be as well attested by categories (if not quantity) of contemporary evidence as the historical Jesus is. So do we not risk charges of hypocrisy, even cultural double standards, if we accept different standards of proof for the existence of the one from that for the other?

Such questions ought not to be entirely comfortable for historians of liberal persuasion or those of Christian faith. However, the authors of “The Unbelieved” in fact pose their conundrum the other way around to the way I have described it — and in their position may lie a helpful way to reconcile beliefs concerning the historicity of Jesus and in the need to be sufficiently critical of sources. (Pattenden. Bolding in all quotes is my own.)

But then Pattenden veers away from the question of the historical reality of “the man Jesus” and introduces a discussion among historians about how to study and write about events that the participants attribute to divine commands and acts. This approach may seem to beg the question of Jesus’ historicity but bear with me and we will see that that is not so. I want to focus on just one point in that discussion because I think it has the potential to remove all contention between believers and nonbelievers in the study of Christian origins. The authors – Clossey, Jackson, Marriott, Redden and Vélez – propose three strategies for the handling of historical accounts in which the historical subjects testify to the role of divine agents in their actions. It is the first of these that is key, in my view:

  1. Adopt a humble, polite, sceptical, and openminded attitude towards the sources.

Notice that last word: “sources”. The historian works with sources. Sources make claims and those claims are tested against other sources. Claims made within sources are never taken at face value but are always — if the historian is doing their job — assessed in the context of where and when and by whom and for what purpose the source was created. The article goes on to say

Often miracles have impressive and intriguing documentation. A Jesuit record of crosses appearing in the skyabove Nanjing, China, mentions numberlesswitnesses who saw and heard the miracle, and later divides them by reliability into eleven witnesses, plus many infidels” . . . .

Many biblical scholars will say that Jesus was not literally resurrected in the way the gospels describe but that the followers of Jesus came to believe that he had been resurrected. We can go one better than that: we can say that our sources, the gospels, claim that the disciples of Jesus believed in the resurrection.

Notice: we cannot declare it to be a historical fact that Jesus’ disciples believed Jesus had been resurrected. The best a historian can do is work with the sources. The sources narrate certain events. To go beyond saying that a source declares X to have happened and to say that X really happened would require us to test the claim of the source. Such a test involves not only examining other sources but also studying the origins and nature of the source we are reading. Do we know who wrote it and the function it served? When it comes to the gospels, scholars advance various hypotheses to answer those questions but they can rarely go beyond those hypotheses. It is at this point that the “humble, polite, sceptical, and open-minded attitude towards the sources” is called for. It is necessary to acknowledge the extent to which our beliefs about our sources are really hypotheses that by definition are open to question and that our long-held beliefs about them are not necessarily facts.

Some readers may suspect that what I am saying here would mean that nothing in history can be known. Not so. I have discussed more completely historical methods and how we can have confidence in the historicity of certain persons and events in HISTORICAL METHOD and the Question of Christian Origins.

As long as a discussion is kept at the level of sources and avoids jumping the rails by asserting that information found in the sources has some untestable independent reality then progress, I think, can be made.

A problem that sometimes arises is when a scholar writes that, as a historian, they “dig beneath” the source to uncover the history behind its superficial narrative in a way analogous to an archaeologist digging down to uncover “history” beneath a mound of earth. The problem here is that the “history” that is found “beneath” the narrative is, very often, the result of assuming that a certain narrative was waiting to be found all along and that it was somehow transmitted over time and generations until it was written down with lots of exaggerations and variations in the form we read it in the source. In other words, the discovery of the “history behind the source” is the product of circular reasoning. It is assumed from the outset that the narrative is a record, however flawed, of past events. Maybe it is. But the proposition needs to be tested, not assumed.

It should not be impossible for atheists and believers, even Jesus historicists and Jesus mythicists, to work together on the question of Christian origins if the above principle — keeping the discussion on the sources themselves — is followed. The Christian can still privately believe in their Jesus and it will make no difference to the source-based investigation shared with nonbelievers. Faith, after all, is belief in spite of the evidence.

There is a bigger question, though. I have often said that to ask if Jesus existed is a pointless question for the historian. More significant for the researcher is the question of how Christianity was born and emerged into what it is today. The answer to the question of whether Jesus existed or not, whether we answer yes or no, can never be anything more than a hypothesis among historians. (It is different for believers but I am not intruding into their sphere.) The most interesting question is to ask how Christianity began. Even if a historical Jesus lay at its root, we need much more information if we are to understand how the religion evolved into something well beyond that one figure alone. It is at this point I conclude with the closing words of Miles Pattenden:

Partly because there is no way to satisfy these queries, professional historians of Christianity — including most of us working within the secular academy — tend to treat the question of whether Jesus existed or not as neither knowable nor particularly interesting. Rather, we focus without prejudice on other lines of investigation, such as how and when the range of characteristics and ideas attributed to him arose.

In this sense Jesus is not an outlier among similar historical figures. Other groups of historians engage in inquiries similar to those that New Testament scholars pursue, but concerning other key figures in the development of ancient religion and philosophy in Antiquity: Moses, Socrates, Zoroaster, and so on. Historians of later periods also often favour comparable approaches, because understanding, say, the emergence and diffusion of hagiographic traditions around a man like Francis of Assisi, or even a man like Martin Luther, is usually more intellectually rewarding, and more beneficial to overall comprehension of his significance, than mere reconstruction of his life or personality is.

This approach to the historical study of spiritual leaders is a more complex and nuanced position than the one Dickson presents. However, it also gives us more tools for thinking about questions of historicity in relation to those leaders and more flexibility for how we understand about their possible role (or roles) in our present lives.

Amen.

Surely no scholar would want to be suspected of secretly doing theology when they profess to do history so no doubt every believing scholar can also say, Amen. And if an evidence-based inquiry leads to scenarios beyond traditional theological narratives for the believer, or scenarios closer to traditional narratives than the nonbeliever anticipated, then surely that would inspire even greater wonder and a double Amen!


Pattenden, Miles. “Historians and the Historicity of Jesus.” Opinion. ABC Religion & Ethics. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, January 19, 2022. https://www.abc.net.au/religion/miles-pattenden-historians-and-the-historicity-of-jesus/13720952.

Clossey, Luke, Kyle Jackson, Brandon Marriott, Andrew Redden, and Karin Vélez. “The Unbelieved and Historians, Part II: Proposals and Solutions.” History Compass 15, no. 1 (2017): e12370. https://doi.org/10.1111/hic3.12370.



2022-01-18

Bearing False Witness for Jesus

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

by Neil Godfrey

Last month a National Church Life Survey found that only 49% of Australians believe that “Jesus was a real person who actually lived”. From NCLS Research: Is Jesus Real to Australians?

That finding (although the sample size surveyed was small — 1286) was too depressing for one somewhat prominent Christian scholar in Australia who dashed off in time for Christmas the following response: Most Australians may doubt that Jesus existed, but historians don’t

A new survey has found that less than half of all Australians believe Jesus was a real historical person. This is bad news for Christianity, especially at Christmas, but it is also bad news for historical literacy.

. . . .

This is, obviously, terrible news for Christianity in Australia. One of the unique selling points of the Christian faith — in the minds of believers — is that it centres on real events that occurred in time and space. Christianity is not based on someone’s solitary dream or private vision. It isn’t merely a divine dictation in a holy book that has to be believed with blind faith. Jesus was a real person, “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, the fifth governor of Judea, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it. It seems many Australians really don’t agree.

But, frankly, this new survey is also bad news for historical literacy. This reported majority view is not shared by the overwhelming consensus of university historians specialising in the Roman and Jewish worlds of the first century. If Jesus is a “mythical or fictional character”, that news has not yet reached the standard compendiums of secular historical scholarship.

Take the famous single-volume Oxford Classical Dictionary. Every classicist has it on their bookshelf. It summarises scholarship on all things Greek and Roman in just over 1,700 pages. There is a multiple page entry on the origins of Christianity that begins with an assessment of what may be reliably known about Jesus of Nazareth. Readers will discover that no doubts at all are raised about the basic facts of Jesus’s life and death.

(John Dickson, 21st Dec 2021. Bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations. Link to OCD is original to John Dickson’s article.)

That sounds overwhelming, right? Who can be left to doubt? Who dares to step out of line from what is found in “the famous single-volume” toolkit of “every classicist”?

Let’s follow John Dickson’s advice and actually “take” that 4th edition of the OCD and read it for ourselves. Here is the relevant section of the article of which he speaks. All punctuation except for the bolded highlighting is original to the text quoted:

Christianity Christianity began as a Jewish sect and evolved at a time when both Jews and Christians were affected by later Hellenism (see HELLENISM, HELLENIZATION). Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, some Jews found Hellenistic culture congenial, while others adhered to traditional and exclusive religious values. When Judaea came under direct Roman control soon after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, cultural and religious controversies were further exacerbated by the ineptitude of some Roman governors. Jesus therefore, and his followers, lived in a divided province.

The ‘historical Jesus’ is known through the four Gospels, which are as sources problematic. Written not in Aramaic but in Greek, the four ‘Lives’ of Jesus were written some time after his death (and, in the view of his followers, resurrection) and represent the divergent preoccupations and agendas of their authors. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke (to give their probable chronological order) differ from John in such matters as the geographical scope of Jesus’ ministry, which John expands from Galilee to include Judaea and Samaria as well; John also is more influenced by Greek philosophical thought. Through them, we can see Jesus as a rabbi and teacher, whose followers included socially marginal women (e.g. Mary Magdalen) as well as men, as a worker of miracles, as a political rebel, or as a prophet, who foresaw the imminent ending of the world, and the promised Jewish Messiah.

(OCD article by Gillian Clark, University of Bristol with Jill Harries, University of St Andrews, p. 312)

If one were inclined to be mischievous one might follow up the above by reading the entry for Heracles in the same OCD and noting that the description for him, another ancient figure who also became a god, is likewise described matter-of-factly as a real person and no less a mix of historical and mythical than Jesus. The difference is that with Heracles there are no cautious caveats about the problematic nature of the sources upon which our knowledge of Heracles is derived:

Heracles, the greatest of Greek heroes. His name is that of a mortal (compare Diocles), and has been interpreted as ‘Glorious through Hera” (Burkert 210, Chantraine 416, Kretschmer 121-9 (see bibliog. below)). In this case, the bearer is taken as being—or so his parents would hope—within the protection of the goddess. This is at odds with the predominant tradition (see below), wherein Heracles was harassed rather than protected by the goddess: perhaps the hostility was against worshippers of Heracles who rejected allegiance to the worshippers of Hera on whom the hero depended. This could have happened when Argos had established control over the Heraion and Tiryns (possibly reflected in an apparent falling-off of settlement at Tiryns late in the 9th cent, BC: Foley 40-2) Some of the inhabitants of Tiryns might have emigrated to Thebes, taking their hero with him. Traditionally Heracles’ mother and her husband (Alcmene and Amphitryon) were obliged to move from Tiryns to Thebes, where Heracles was conceived and born (LIMC 1/1. 735). However, there is no agreement over the etymology of the name, an alternative version deriving its first element from ‘Hero’ (see Stafford (bibliog.) and HERO-CULT).

Heracles shared the characteristics of, on the one hand, a hero (both cultic and epic), on the other, a god. As a hero, he was mortal, and like many other heroes, born to a human mother and a god (Alcmene and Zeus; Amphitryon was father of Iphicles, Heracles’ twin: the bare bones of the story already in Homer, Il. 14. 323—4). Legends arose early of his epic feats, and they were added to constantly throughout antiquity. These stories may have played a part in the transformation of Heracles from hero (i.e. a deity of mortal origin, who, after death, exercised power over a limited geographical area, his influence residing in his mortal remains) to god (a deity, immortal, whose power is not limited geographically) See HERO-CULT.

Outside the cycle of the Labours (see below), the chief events of Heracles’ life were as follows: . . .

(OCD, article Heracles, p. 663)

—o— Continue reading “Bearing False Witness for Jesus”


2022-01-17

Why Did Written Stories of Jesus Take So Long to Appear?

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

by Neil Godfrey

Sabbatai Sevi as messiah, sitting on the kingly throne, under a celestial crown held by angels and bearing the inscription “Crown of Sevi.” Below: the Ten Tribes studying the Torah with the messiah. From an etching after the title page of one of the editions of Nathan of Gaza’s writings: (Amsterdam, 1666)

Why does the first account of the life of Jesus appear as late as forty years after the crucifixion? The answer I long heard was that followers of Jesus were focused on his return and, expecting his return in their lifetimes, they did not see any need to write a historical account of his life. Scholarly texts of the gospels will explain that the ancient culture was primarily oral and word-of-mouth was the standard means of spreading news.  The same texts will assert that the first oral reports of Jesus’s sayings were written down about twenty years after the crucifixion although some brave souls have even proposed as early as four or five years later.

All of that sounds plausible enough — until one steps outside the mental bubble of those descriptions and compares with how people work in the real world.

I am at the moment reading Gershom Scholem’s exhaustive study of a widespread mid-seventeenth century Jewish messianic movement that fully anticipated the messiah to set up his kingdom in Jerusalem within a matter of a year or within a few short months. The messianic figure was Sabbatai Sevi and the years spanned from late 1665 to 1667. Sabbatai Sevi was what we would classify as manic-depressive. When he was “on fire” he was “on fire” but when the mood left him he was really down, withdrawn, out of the picture. Most of the heavy lifting of persuading others to believe he was the messiah was the work of his “prophet”, Nathan of Gaza. (Nathan was able to persuade outsiders that Sabbatai’s “down times” were signs of his messianic “suffering for Israel”. It must be added, however, that Sabbatai could also come across as one possessed with a dignified and caring demeanour.)

Now I think it is safe to say that most of the everyday lower-class Jews living in the Ottoman empire and throughout Europe at the time were not highly literate. Jewish communities did certainly possess leaders, rabbis and elders, who were literate. And persons from well-to-do business families often had the fortune of a sound education. And there is no doubt at all that believers in Sabbatai Sevi far and wide spoke, recited and sang of his wonderful deeds and sayings along with those of his prophet.

It is also clear that oral reports were never enough. Yes, there was no substitute for the presence of a visiting eye-witness who could report and be interrogated orally of their visits and observations of the messiah and those closest to him. But given that those sorts of visits were few and far between in places as far from Gaza, Smyrna and Constantinople as Leghorn, Amsterdam and Hamburg, believers in Sabbatai Sevi and Nathan craved the arrival of letters to prominent persons — “clerical” or business persons — in their communities. Believers would flock to the ports to meet ships with expected letters as they docked. And the prophet Nathan was not lax, nor were others who were closely associated with the “messiah”. They wrote and wrote to acquaintances and to acquaintances other acquaintances and contacts. Then those who received letters copied them both for preservation and sharing more widely still. People came to hear them read in public and private venues. Others were inspired by the reports of this news from a distance to write poems, hymns, prayers that they shared with fellow believers.

By such means believers were convinced that great miracles had been performed by the messiah, even raising the dead and appearing before authorities in a pillar of fire. They were also led to believe that the “lost” Ten Tribes of Israel were on the march to conquer Mecca and would soon arrive at the gates of Jerusalem. The ruler of the Ottoman empire was about to hand over the “keys of the kingdom of Israel” to Sabbatai Sevi without a fight. Many believers sold everything and left to live in Jerusalem in order to be where the action was when that day of the messianic kingdom came.

What sustained the believers in their excitement, what they loved to create and share in their thrilling expectation that the kingdom of God was to be inaugurated within a matter of mere months, at most a year? What did they share along with their singing and dancing and fellowship? Copies of letters, copies of written poems and prayers, all speaking of the great wonders and powerful words of the messiah who was about to be made known as God’s anointed to the whole world.

In the accounts of the believers in Sabbatai Sevi, one notion never arises: “that there is no point in writing anything about the man because we’ll all be in Palestine and he’ll be ruling over us all in just a few months from now.”

With that little episode in mind, one returns to the question of why it took so long for written accounts of Jesus to appear.


Scholem, Gershom. Sabbatai Ṣevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626–1676. Translated by R. Werblowsky. Reprint edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.



2022-01-05

After the Transfiguration of Jesus — Some Lesser Known Allusions to Moses

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

by Neil Godfrey

We are well enough aware of the way the Transfiguration scene of Jesus alludes to Moses’ change of appearance on the mountain. Less obvious are the allusions to what follows in the Gospel of Mark:

Commentary Mark  Exodus – Numbers
Moses was also transfigured once and when he descended from the mountain of his transfiguration, the children of Israel were afraid to approach him: just as, according to the original account (Mark 9:15), the people were terrified when they saw Jesus again after his return from the mountain (Luke and Matthew did not understand the meaning of this passage and omitted it).

Note, however, the contrast: while the people feared to approach Moses so that he had to wear a veil over his face, the disciples of Jesus do not fear, though greatly astonished, and run immediately to greet him.

9:2 . . . And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiantly white, more so than any launderer in the world could bleach them.

9:15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were greatly amazed [=ἐξεθαμβήθησαν] and ran at once and greeted him

The same word for the reaction of women seeing the young man clothed in white in the tomb in place of Jesus —

16:5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed [=ἐξεθαμβήθησαν].

Ex 34:29 And when Moses went down from the mountain, . . . . Moses knew not that the appearance of the skin of his face was glorified, when God spoke to him. 30 And Aaron and all the elders of Israel saw Moses, and the appearance of the skin of his face was made glorious, and they feared to approach him.
When Moses ascended the mountain on an earlier occasion, he took with him, besides the seventy elders, three of his disciples, so Jesus chose three disciples to witness the miraculous appearance that was to take place on the mountain. 9:2 Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John and led them alone up a high mountain privately. And he was transfigured before them, Ex 24:9 Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10 and they saw the God of Israel.
Six days Moses was on the mountain of his transfiguration and on the seventh day the voice from the cloud spoke to him – so Jesus climbs the mountain on the sixth day after Peter’s confession and it was also on the seventh day when the voice from the cloud called out: this is my beloved Son. 9:2 Six days later Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John and led them alone up a high mountain privately . . .

9:7  Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came from the cloud, “This is my one dear Son. . . .”

Ex 24:16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud.
Moses had already appointed assistants to judge the people in his name, and he had reserved only the more difficult matters for his decision. When he ascended the mountain of his transfiguration, he left the seventy elders below with Aaron and Hur, so that whoever had a matter might turn to them. So the disciples are also below, while the Lord is on the mountain so that a matter is indeed brought before them, but it is too difficult for them, and after they have tried in vain, it is only settled by the Lord. 9:16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 A member of the crowd said to him, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that makes him mute. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they were not able to do so.” Ex 24:14 And [Moses] said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Indeed, Aaron and Hur are with you. If any man has a difficulty, let him go to them.”
When Moses came down from the mountain, he heard from afar the shouting and tumult in the camp (Ex 32:17) – so Jesus, on his return from the mountain, finds the disciples surrounded by a great crowd of people and scribes and in a lively quarrel with them. 9:14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and experts in the law arguing with them. . . . Ex 32:15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. . . . 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.”
The similarity is also evident in the fact that Jesus, just as Moses had reason to complain about what had happened during his absence, also had to complain about the fact that his constant presence was required. 19 He answered them, “You unbelieving generation! How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I endure you? Num 14:26 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: 27 “How long must I bear with this evil congregation”

Most of the above are from BB


2022-01-04

What’s a lonely Jesus to do?

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

by Neil Godfrey

Commissioning of the Twelve – Wikipedia

Writing a story about Jesus was not always easy. There was very little by way of sources to help out. Imagination was all too often called for. Take the time when Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to preach in the surrounding towns, for example. What were they going to preach, exactly? They did not yet know that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. So they couldn’t preach that message. Simply trying to say that the “kingdom of God” was “coming soon” must have seemed a bit flat in the absence of new material of immediate relevance to people’s lives to flesh out that message. But miracles. Now they could be said to heal the sick and cast out demons. But that’s not really preaching, is it.

But stop and ask what Jesus was doing while his disciples were out “on preaching tour”. The towns were hosting his disciples. So where did Jesus go now that he was on his own? Did he take a break and go fishing? That would soon lose its appeal to one who had the power to bring fish up by the hundreds at a mere thought.

More to the point, how did the author of the first gospel narrative about Jesus fill in this gap? He had sent Jesus’ companions away after having instructed them in matters of sandals and staves and different household responses and now he was left with Jesus standing on his own. Unless our author could think of different subplot adventures for the various disciples “preaching” some vague message in the towns he had to do something to occupy Jesus for the readers.

But no, since nothing came to mind, our author hit on another solution. The old distraction technique. Now was the ideal time to bring in that delicious little story of how John the Baptist lost his head. He had nowhere else to use it in a story of Jesus but now was the ideal moment. The story of a birthday banquet and a dancing daughter could be colourfully filled out to create a nice interlude for the readers to forget about those preaching disciples and the lost and lonely Jesus for a while.

After that near-chapter length story it was finally appropriate to bring back the disciples from their tour. At least in the readers’ minds time had gone by and they did not have to be faced with a return the very next verse or two after they were sent out.

The introduction and placement of the John the Baptist scenario at that point, between Jesus sending out the twelve and their return, functions as a literary salve. A nice curtain interlude from the main plot to allow time to pass off-stage.

Later, the author of the Gospel we identify with Matthew, added many more lurid details to Jesus’ instructions for the disciples. Beware, he gloomily warned, of wolves. You are going out to face life-threatening dangers. You will be hauled before magistrates and called upon to answer for your faith. (Faith? They did not yet even know Jesus was Christ!) So in addition to the disciples not having any particular message to preach, those in Matthew were to face dangers that not even Jesus had faced up to that point. No, Matthew was writing from a distance long after the events he narrates. He is writing from the perspective of his own time possibly, I think, quite some decades later. He was retroverting experiences of his own day back into the days of Jesus and his twelve disciples.

Such are some of the little glimpses of how the gospels must have been put together that arise from a thoughtful reading. Thanks in particular, though not exclusively, to the works of Bruno Bauer who made such comments around 170 years ago.


2022-01-03

The Fairy Tale Ideal World of the Gospel Story as a Living Hell

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

by Neil Godfrey

From livingconcord.com

I was once met with frozen silence in a forum set up for Bible scholars when I expressed the view that the Gospel of Mark has a fairy-tale type introduction: “John the Baptist came preaching and all (πᾶσα) the region of Judea and of Jerusalem went out to hear him and were all (πάντες) baptized confessing their sins…” No one reads that introduction in Mark 1:5 literally. “Obviously” not “everybody” went to hear John and be baptized. No? But that is the opening scene of the gospel. To read it as history we have to interpret “all” as an exaggeration. But what if the story is about an ideal scenario?

In struggling through my machine translations of Bruno Bauer’s chapters on gospel criticism I was pleasantly surprised to find the same thought expressed in relation to other passages in the gospels. Recall Jesus telling the would-be disciple who wanted to go and bury his father before setting out to follow him. BB points out that such a scenario can only happen in an ideal story world: no teacher could maintain widespread admiration if he forbade a person from fulfilling obviously meaningful family responsibilities. Readers accept the story at face value because it is an ideal scenario, not a real-life depiction. We know the point is to teach readers the moral of putting Jesus before family ties; but no one seriously expects a teacher to command a man to walk away from his father’s funeral in order to follow him right then and there.

Jesus’ message is to leave behind the world of the “spiritually dead”. The entire exchange is a kind of parable. It is not real life.

Yet, as per the previous post, sometimes very smart people can read the account as a literal life-and-death message that applies in the here-and-now. And that’s when the hell starts. I recall years ago walking away from a religious belief system in the stunned realization that I had been living in a fairy tale world. As children, we may fantasize about living in a fairy tale world but as adults, that game can literally be hell for loved ones, even deadly.

Hector Avalos wrote a book, Bad Jesus, illustrating exactly how a literal reading of the gospels makes good characters — and readers who are devoted to those characters — bad.


2022-01-01

A Common Origin – One Wonders

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

by Neil Godfrey

An interesting observation in an ancient history publication:

In Babylonia demons hostile to the cult became subject to exorcism, a rite which from the earliest times was regarded as something communal. Some exorcisms were directed against storm demons, and one wonders whether behind the ‘Odyssey’ incident of the bag of winds given by Aiolos and Jesus’ command on the sea of Galilee ordering the winds to cease, there is not a common origin, the belief that winds were demons, capable of obeying human commands or being bound by magic. (The sea also as associated with evil is a characteristic Old Testament and even New Testament theme.) The Mycenaean Linear B tablets give evidence that the Mycenaeans worshipped the winds. A cult to Boreas existed in classical times at Athens. But winds would be gods in much the sense that streams, mountains, woods, etc. had gods, with less of a link between demons and winds than existed in the Orient. Another remnant among the Greeks might be the Siren passage of the ‘Odyssey’, where a daimon quells the winds just as Odysseus and his men are to pass the Sirens (12.169).

That’s from

  • Brenk, Frederick C. “In the Light of the Moon: Demonology in the Early Imperial Period.” Aufstieg Und Niedergang Der Römischen Welt 16, no. 3 (1986): 2068–2145.
Aeolus Giving the Winds to Odysseus by Isaac Moillon

2021-12-31

Sermon on the Mount – Bruno Bauer update

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

by Neil Godfrey

I have now added Bruno Bauer’s approximately 80 page chapter on the Sermon on the Mount in the BB Criticism of the Gospels and History of their Origin page. (See right-hand margin.) It’s not for everyone. Only for those seriously dedicated to learning what Bauer had to say about the Gospels. It is machine translated with my own edits for corrections and to improve ease of reading. But no doubt there are still more mistakes than I would like to think about. To help those of you seriously interested I have included an OCR copy of the German script (it was originally in Old German and my reader has not done a perfect job of transferring it all to modern fonts) so you can get some idea of how to make any corrections for yourself.

My reading of late has been persuading me (again) that our canonical gospels did not appear on the scene till the mid or second half of the second century, not long before Irenaeus and certainly after Justin. Justin’s “sayings” material (like his “narrative” material) especially from the Memoirs of the Apostles, is surely from a source that was known to authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It will be a mammoth task to set out all of the arguments in favour of this late date, especially those that demonstrate, line by line as it were, that what looks like gospel material in Justin’s writings are certainly from a pre-gospel source.

I don’t know off-hand when Bruno Bauer wrote his criticism of the gospels but I’m guessing it was later in his life given the wealth of reading that lies behind his analysis and his allusions to life-experience. Hence the older pic. Or was he just a young genius?

Anyway, thanks for checking in on the blog from time to time. Hope to see you all next year again and that the new year treats you well.

 


2021-12-23

Further updates

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

by Neil Godfrey

It’s great to see that René Salm still adds to his website. His latest is a response to arguments that the passage in Josephus’s Antiquities about John the Baptist is part of the original Josephan text:

and

[H/t Giuseppe]

Other recent posts relating to René Salm’s work:

And others on the John the Baptist reference in Josephus’s Antiquities:

Further, I have added more chapters to the Bruno Bauer page. Interesting thoughts that arise:

1. The temptations of Jesus in the wilderness are actually the temptations of the Church;

2. It makes little sense for a great founder or teacher to be declaring that a “greater” is following him — the founder is necessarily the greater one;

3. Contrary to what we read about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, no teacher has ever started out by calling for a team of disciples. Disciples must always follow after the work of teaching has been underway for some time and making an impact.

 


2021-12-21

From Hermes to Yahweh

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

by Neil Godfrey

  We know the story of Elisha retrieving the iron axe head by having it float to the surface of a river. It is in 2 Kings 6:1-7:

The company of the prophets said to Elisha, “Look, the place where we meet with you is too small for us. Let us go to the Jordan, where each of us can get a pole; and let us build a place there for us to meet.”

And he said, “Go.”

Then one of them said, “Won’t you please come with your servants?”

“I will,” Elisha replied. And he went with them.

They went to the Jordan and began to cut down trees. As one of them was cutting down a tree, the iron axhead fell into the water.

“Oh no, my lord!” he cried out. “It was borrowed!”

The man of God asked, “Where did it fall?”

When he showed him the place, Elisha cut a stick and threw it there, and made the iron float.

“Lift it out,” he said. Then the man reached out his hand and took it.

Back in 1997 Yaaqov Kupitz drew attention to the similarity of the biblical story with one of Aesop’s fables:

In the Second Book of Kings (Kings II. 6: 4-7), a man is cutting down a tree on the banks of the Jordan to build a shelter when the iron blade (Hebrew barzel) of his axe falls into the water. He asks for help and Elisha, “the man of God”, throws a piece of wood into the river and the blade, literally the “iron”, begins to float. This miracle is in fact a fable by Aesop, Hermes and the woodcutter. A man is cutting down a tree on the bank of a river when his axe (Pélékoun in Greek) falls into the water. The man sits down and weeps. Hermes, the god of discovery, hears his cries, dives in three times and successively brings up a golden axe, a silver one and the original iron one. The woodcutter then retrieves his, ignoring the other two. Note that there is a moral to this story, whereas Kings only lists Elisha’s miracles. In the Book of Kings, the axe is metonymized by the material of its blade, iron, and the Greek sidéro, ‘iron’, can also mean ‘axe’…

Kupitz, Yaaqov S. “La Bible Est-Elle Un Plagiat?” Sciences et Avenir 86, no. Hors-Série (December 1997): 84.

Kupitz’s ideas were a special inspiration for Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert, a work discussed on this blog at various times. (Thanks to Russell Gmirkin for mentioning Kupitz in a recent comment and reminding me and bringing K’s 1997 article to my attention.)

The fable from Handford’s translation.

A man who was cutting wood on a riverside lost his axe in the water. There was no help for it; so he sat down on the bank and began to cry. Hermes appeared and inquired what was the matter. Feeling sorry for the man, he dived into the river, brought up a gold axe, and asked him if that was the one he had lost. When the woodcutter said that it was not, Hermes dived again and fetched up a silver one. The man said that was not his either. So he went down a third time and came up with the woodcutter’s own axe. ‘That’s the right one,’ he said; and Hermes was so delighted with his honesty that he made him a present of the other two axes as well. When the wood-man rejoined his mates and told them his experience, one of them thought he would bring off a similar coup. He went to the river, deliberately threw his axe into it, and then sat down and wept. Hermes appeared again; and on hearing the cause of his tears, he dived in, produced a gold axe as before, and asked if it was the one that had been lost. ‘Yes, it is indeed,’ the man joyfully exclaimed. The god was so shocked at his unblushing impudence, that, far from giving him the gold axe, he did not even restore his own to him.

The biblical account involves a God who, unlike Hermes, is not a trickster out to tempt and deceive mortals (at least not in the Elisha tale). Nor is the figure who loses the axe head threatened by the loss of his means of livelihood. Rather, the biblical tale is about a righteous disciple of the prophet. His work is a work of righteousness, a work for the benefit of the community of Elisha’s followers. The loss of the axe head means the workman is unable to fulfil a righteous act in returning a valued and necessary borrowed item.

The biblical account is about a god who would be embarrassed by the shenanigans of Hermes in the fable. Plato condemned the immoral and inconstant character of Greek gods. Yes, Hermes is in a sense righteous in the fable: but he is clearly going about the testing of the human’s character in a deceptive way. For the fable to “translate” to a tale involving a biblical deity and his righteous disciples, it must be shed of its deception. A simple, no-nonsense restoration of the “daily needs” of the servants of God is all that is required. The change has been so effective that many devout readers through the ages have interpreted the straightforward and staid tone of biblical miracles as evidence of their historical reality.

. . .

Here’s an older illustration. Interesting to contrast modern perspectives of how gods are portrayed for children:

https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/mercury-woodman/

 


2021-12-20

Updates – Late gospels and Josephus’s guilt-inspired prophecy

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

by Neil Godfrey

I have finally added two more chapters to the Bruno Bauer Gospel criticism and history page — check the right-hand column under the Pages heading.

Two points of particular interest to me in those new chapters:

1. Bauer argues for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew being second-century works, post-dating Justin Martyr. He does so for much the same reasons I have posted here: although Justin knows some details that appear in both of those gospels, there are reasons to think he is using some other source that the authors of Luke and Matthew also used. What might that source have been? Justin knew it as the Memoirs of the Apostles. Bauer does think that much of the nativity narrative that we read in Matthew’s gospel was contained in those Memoirs. My own reading of Justin is that his Memoirs of the Apostles further included references to Damascus in his nativity scene while our author of the Gospel of Matthew omitted those. Bauer points out the inconsistencies in our gospel accounts, especially in Luke, and argues that the original gospel from which our canonical Luke is built up originally began at 3:1 — “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius….”. Quite so.

2. The other point of special interest is Bauer’s discussion of a supposedly widespread belief in the Near East in a prophecy that a king would arise from there to rule the world. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote about this in connection with the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. In Bauer’s view, Suetonius learned of this piece of information from the historian Tacitus who derived it from Josephus. And where did Josephus get the idea from? His guilt: he was being criticized for his poor job of defending his people against the Romans and knew he was to blame; to cover his guilt and make a desperate attempt to survive he decided to go over to the Roman side and in his role as a priest knowledgable in the sacred texts to declare that Vespasian and Titus had been prophesied to rule the world. The passage he most likely was thinking of was Daniel 9:26 — the people of a coming prince would destroy the city and the sanctuary.


2021-12-17

New Thoughts on Christian Origins

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

by Neil Godfrey

Abraham Schalit

Hi. I’m back again, for better or for worse. Over the past few weeks I have immersed myself in reading but have finally come to a point where I need to pause and take stock. The book I have to blame for pulling me up and forcing me to stop and think afresh is König Herodes : der Mann und sein Werk by Abraham Schalit — published way back in 1969. (I don’t read German but thanks to new technologies I made short work of translating it.) Although Schalit does not address Christian origins his study of King Herod did open up for me a fresh historical perspective through which to re-interpret so much of the diverse material that makes up our earliest Christian sources.

I don’t read German, as I said, and I was of all possible ways alerted to König Herodes through my reading of an essay in another foreign language, modern Hebrew. This one was made available through an international library supply service supplemented by my text-reading and translation technologies: Levine, Israel L. “Magemoth Meshihioth Be-Sof Yemei Ha-Bayith Ha-Sheni (= Messianic Trends at the End of the Second Temple Period).” Messianism and Eschatology, edited by Zvi Baras, Zalman Shazar Centre for the Furtherance of the Study of Jewish History, 1983, pp. 135–52. Now that chapter is going to have to be converted into a new post here soon since I was slightly nonplussed to see it supporting another view I have expressed here, the view that there is little evidence to support the widespread “fact” that the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 CE against Rome was motivated by messianic hopes. That’s for another time.

The key idea in Schalit’s King Herod that has sent my mind into re-examining the question of Christian origins is the thesis that the Roman imperial idea, the ideology, if you will, propagated from the time of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, met with two responses among the Judeans:

  1. Judeans who identified themselves as necessarily separate from gentiles (think of circumcision, sabbaths, marriage restrictions) had nothing in common with the idea of a world united by the values and laws of Rome;
  2. Judeans who opposed the exclusivity of some of their brethren and were wide open to the idea of being a full part of a common humanity.

As for the first kind, the separatists, we see their views set out in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Recall those stories of “men of God” tearing out — not their own hair, but the hair of those Judeans who married gentiles. Those were the lucky ones: Phineas plunged a spear through one racially mixed couple. Daniel refused to pray even in secret when threatened with being thrown into the lion’s den. Sabbath-keepers chose to die rather than protect themselves from an enemy army on the sabbath day. Most of us are familiar enough with the relevant stories from the Old Testament and related books.

That familiarity can perhaps cloud the full significance of a quite different view of God and humanity that is expressed in other places in the same canon. Think of the original authors and readers of stories of Ruth, of Jonah, of Job. Ruth, a gentile, married an Israelite and became the great-grandmother of King David. Job is “from the land of Uz” and he speaks to a God who in the narrative appears to have no particular relation to Israel about a question of justice common to all humanity. Jonah has to learn a lesson about God’s acceptance of gentiles who repent and become righteous without any notion of the Mosaic laws. Several Psalms, Ecclesiastes supposedly by Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach further present a universalist view of God and the human experience.

Surely we have two opposing viewpoints among these Jewish authors. The second view could well find itself at home among Hellenistic writings of philosophers. The significance of that word “Hellenistic” deserves to be pondered at this point. It refers to the cultural world that belonged to the mixing of Greek and barbarian in the wake of Alexander’s conquests of the Persian empire.  The Stoic philosophy that believed in the unity of humanity could trace its roots back to Alexander’s companion Aristotle. The ideas of some Jews or Judeans were evidently at home in such a world. Others were not.

What struck me so strongly about Schalit’s Herod was that those same two viewpoints among Judeans were very much alive and uncomfortable with each other in the time we associate with Christian origins. Herod (ca 37 to 4 or 1 BCE) was an Idumean who sought acceptance as a Jew. He was also a client king of Rome who owed his life and kingship to Augustus. Though King of Judea he embraced wholeheartedly the imperial program of Augustus. At this point, we need to backtrack just a little. . .

Augustus

Augustus came to power as the final victor after a half-century of civil wars. His imperial propaganda machine went into overdrive. Augustus was the “saviour” and benefactor of “the inhabited earth”. Roman imperial rule was to become synonymous with “the good news” (it was a term of imperial propaganda) of peace, a restoration of “good old fashioned morality”, the spread of humanizing culture as expressed in the arts and literature and philosophy, and rule of law and justice for all. The Roman imperial idea took Alexander’s inheritance of uniting peoples under one divinely chosen ruler and magnified it beyond anything achieved by other successors. The Seleucid empire, for example, essentially took a “hands-off” approach towards subject peoples and let them do their own thing. Antiochus Epiphanes ran into trouble with religious zealots in Judea because he broke that tradition there.

You can probably see where I am headed with these ideas. Apologists have long posited that God prepared the world for Christianity in a way not very different from what I am proposing here — only without God and forethought.

Augustus could trust Herod to embody the full idea of the Roman civilizing mission and Herod did not fail him. Herod’s court attracted artists and intellectuals from other lands; his building program emulated the achievements in Rome itself; like Roman emperors he was the benefactor of the poor; he settled non-Jews in his Judean kingdom. But he could not have himself proclaimed as a god or even a demi-god as was the usual status of such leaders in his part of the world. He could, however, have his scribes fiddle with the genealogical records to show he was a descendant of David and hence — especially given his great accomplishments as king, expanding the borders and undertaking monumental building projects — potentially the promised Davidic Messiah. Unfortunately Herod had too many other faults to persuade enough others to that opinion. But even a powerful personality like Herod could not exist in an environment totally alien to everything he stood for.

The crucial point, it seems to me, is that Herod’s “Judaism” was in synch with that open or universalist idea we encounter in the books of Ruth, Jonah, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach etc. Herod failed to win the approval of the “legalists” and I cannot help but wonder if his failure was felt by others who were on his side with the more open kind of Second Temple religion.

There were evidently a significant number of Judeans who opposed their isolationist kin. And as evidenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls there were equally many Judeans who called down the judgment of God upon those of their kin who compromised with the Laws of Moses.

Now look again at our earliest Christian texts. Do not the gospels, certainly the Synoptic ones of Matthew, Mark and Luke, teach the highest values of the Greco-Roman culture? In case you’ve forgotten, have another quick look over

and

Recall the Stoic underlay throughout Paul’s epistles.

Recall the Gospel of Matthew opening up its account of Jesus by reminding readers of the sinners and gentiles — Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba — in Jesus’s ancestry.

Even recall the Roman imperial motifs in the gospels: The Gospel of Mark beginning with a line from Augustus’s propaganda about the “good news”; the imitation of emperor Vespasian’s miracles of healing the blind and lame; the inversion of the Roman Triumphal procession as Jesus is led to his crucifixion:

See also for further emperor-inversions in Jesus…

Recall, also, some of the earliest archaeological evidence we have for Christianity and how serene and “at home” it looks as if its creators were well-integrated members of society.

I have some sympathy for those who have attempted to locate Christianity’s origins in a Roman imperial conspiracy. But there is no evidence for such a hypothesis. There is even precious little evidence for the proposed motive behind such a conspiracy: a desire to pacify an unusually rebellious people by seducing the Jews into a religion of submission to Roman authority. The Jews were not particularly rebellious in comparison with others who chaffed at Roman rule. No, surely the initiative for a religious idea that did away with the exclusivist identity of many Judeans would have arisen among other Judeans of a different persuasion, of those who felt some embarrassment with their ethnic relatives.

How much more impetus must there have been for Judeans of that universalist mindset to present an “ecumenical” front to their pagan neighbours in the wake of the calamitous results of the Jewish wars in 70 and 135 CE.

Then recall how Jesus himself in the gospels is delineated as a fulfillment of all that can be described as the epitome of “Judaism”. I posted not long ago a lengthy series on one particular study that delves into the details of how the gospel Jesus is created out of so many texts and motifs of the Jewish Scriptures and Messianic viewpoints: Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier / Nanine Charbonnel

If some Judeans of the day did indeed attempt to sideline their “legalistic” family members by producing texts that unambiguously set the universalism of Ruth, Jonah, Sirach, and the rest front and foremost, they could not have done better than make a new successor to Moses, another Joshua, their focus.  One might almost say that if Jesus had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him.

There is much more to add. One must, of course, account for persecutions and sectarianism in early Christian history. But the above is for now enough to set down the basis of initial thoughts on what might have led to the creation of Christianity.


2021-11-26

Mark: The First Biography of Jesus? (Part 1)

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

by Tim Widowfield

Reviewing The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel by Helen K. Bond.

The First Biography of Jesus

(In which I finally get around to reading Bond’s The First Biography of Jesus.)

After the initial trickle of “Gospels Are Biographies!” books, we might have expected a flood of works exploring the implications of such a designation. After all, when we approach a text, we usually try to identify (at least provisionally) its genre in order to understand it. If scholars in the past had failed to recognize the true genre of the canonical gospels, then we must have myriad assumptions to sweep away, interpretations to reassess, conclusions to re-evaluate, and new questions to ask.

Missing Books?

Yet here we sit, still waiting for that big splash. In the first chapter, Bond herself recognizes the dog that didn’t bark. As an aside, I would note that the usual suspects, naturally, have added the biographical credo as an ancillary argument — Bauckham for touting eyewitness testimony and Keener for promoting historical reliability. But where are the massive monographs written by grad students, the insightful papers on the cutting edge of gospel research? Where are the 400-page books laden with turgid prose that recycle the same ideas ad nauseam?

All in all, the list of scholarship is not particularly long for an issue that seemed so pressing only a few decades ago, and it is still possible (not to mention largely unremarkable as far as reviewers were concerned) to write a long book on gospel origins without devoting any attention to their genre at all. (Bond 2020, p. 52-53)

You might wonder whether modern scholars had actually been more interested in changing the consensus than building upon it. Maybe. But you should understand that redefining the genre of the gospels represents a small part of a much larger overall project, namely the rewriting of New Testament scholarship’s own history and a redrawing of its self-conception. This process of reconstruction has gradually remapped the terrain and redrawn the borders, so that scholars who once dwelt securely in a fairly broad mainstream now sit in no man’s land, out in the mud which lies beyond the barbed wire. NT scholarship’s Overton Window has slid far to the right, and erstwhile respected scholars are now rebuked for sounding too radical, for going too far, for being too skeptical, for engaging in oldthink.

Nothing demonstrates this recent change better than the now fashionable stance against form criticism. Bond has little good to say about it, and what she does say often misses the mark. For example: Continue reading “Mark: The First Biography of Jesus? (Part 1)”


2021-11-05

How the Holy Spirit Replaced Jerusalem in a Power Game

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

by Neil Godfrey

In a former life I was led to understand that when I was baptized God would give me the Holy Spirit, which was his power, and with that power I would be able to overcome my carnal nature and fulfil the law in its full spiritual intent. After my baptism I was often troubled by the fact that I felt no different from before — but don’t be misled by looking for “feelings”, they said — and I certainly did not recognize any extra power within my person to “overcome” my sinful nature. Years later I finally was able to admit I was lied to. But where did this idea of the Holy Spirit having such a central role in the lives of Christians come from?

Here is an interesting thought from Paul Tarazi in first volume of his introduction to the New Testament, Paul and Mark.

Ezekiel: Vision of Shekinah — Ezekiel, pearled nimbus, left hand raised, semi-reclines next to river Chebar. Above, below Arc of Heaven (?), are four Beasts of Apocalypse, all winged, with pearled nimbi, and holding books. . . . From The Morgan Library & Museum

Paul concludes this section (i.e. 1 Thess. 4:1-12) dedicated to the relationship between the Thessalonians and God with a sudden reference to God as the grantor of the Holy Spirit: “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” (v.8) The previous mention of the Holy Spirit occurs in 1:56:

For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you; for our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The Thessalonian Gentiles were chosen and became God’s people just as the “chosen” biblical Israel was, through the gospel that was both preached and accepted in the Holy Spirit. The next reference to the Spirit is found in 5:19-20 in conjunction with pro phrophecy: “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying.” What can be made of all this?

My conviction is that Paul himself raised to prominence the biblical element “Holy Spirit” among his Gentile churches in order to minimize any chance that the Jerusalemite church would be able to gain and keep hegemony over them. He took the lead mainly from his predecessor Ezekiel, the Jerusalemite priest who made out of the Babylonian, and thus Gentile, locality Chebar not only a place where the God of Jerusalem could also speak, but actually the location from which he would authoritatively address Jerusalem itself. To do so, God and his prophet Ezekiel, or their spoken word, had to be eminently mobile and it was God’s spirit that supplied the agency for that mobility of the divine/prophetic word and allowed it to travel from the Gentile Babylonia to Jerusalem. Paul followed Ezekiel’s pattern and made it clear to his churches that they were, through the Pauline gospel, in direct contact with God’s word through his spirit, and not via Jerusalem and its leaders. Those Jerusalem leaders were actually bound by God’s word in the gospel, and not vice-versa. Thus, Paul was actually laying the foundation for his churches’ dependence on the gospel and, at the same time, their independence from Jerusalem.

(Tarazi, Paul Nadim. The New Testament: An Introduction. Volume 1, Paul and Mark. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999. pp. 21f)