Category Archives: Biblical Studies

The biggie. Much work needs to be done on the children of this category. These need to be greatly reduced in number.

Should this category include the ancient history of Palestine-Judea, including second temple era and Bar Kochba rebellion and rise of rabbinic culture? If so, should Biblical Studies itself be renamed in some way?

When Did James Become the Brother of the Lord?

What we have is a tradition that fairly consistently understood James to be the biological relative of Jesus, even when it eventually found it awkward to view him as Jesus’ biological brother because of other doctrines that had been developing surrounding Jesus and Mary. Religion Prof

Yes, and the earliest evidence we have of that tradition appears in a work by Origen almost 200 years after (most scholars believe) the following was penned by Paul:

Galatians 1:

18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

21 Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they praised God because of me.

Origen in his Commentary on Matthew referred to that Galatians passage:

And depreciating the whole of what appeared to be His nearest kindred, they said, Is not His mother called Mary? And His brethren, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? They thought, then, that He was the son of Joseph and Mary. But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or The Book of James, that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honour of Mary in virginity to the end. . . . .

And James is he whom Paul says in the Epistle to the Galatians that he saw, But other of the Apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.

And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the Antiquities of the Jews in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered so great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said, that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wonderful thing is, that, though he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James. 

Eusebius, Epiphanius and Jerome, of the fourth and fifth centuries, also comment on “the tradition that fairly consistently understood James to be the biological relative of Jesus”.

Before Origen we have no indication that anyone noticed that passage in Galatians about the relationship of James and Jesus. The canonical gospels speak of James as a brother of Jesus but that James is evidently a non-believer. He was certainly not a follower of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles sets a James in a position of ultimate authority in the Jerusalem Church (ch. 15) but there is no suggestion that this James was related to Jesus.

In 1 Corinthians 15 we read that the resurrected Jesus appeared to Peter, then to The Twelve, then to 500 brethren, then to James. Again, there is no suggestion that this James had any family relationship with Jesus.

Justin Martyr, writing in the early half of the second century, makes no mention of any especially distinguished James figure in the early church. Justin appears to know nothing of the Acts narrative because he tells us that all the apostles scattered from Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension and preached the gospel throughout the world. Neither Paul nor James appears in Justin’s writings. (The only James Justin mentions is the son of Zebedee.)

We next come to Tertullian who wrote at length a diatribe against the teachings of Marcion. One of those teachings was that Jesus was not a literal human as we are but only took on the appearance of a human. Though Tertullian made many references to Marcion’s copy of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and though he regularly castigated Marcion for chopping out verses he did not like as interpolations, Tertullian makes no mention at all Paul ever having acknowledged that James was the brother of the Lord or of Jesus. It is as though that passage did not exist in either Marcion’s or Tertullian’s copy of the epistle.

Accordingly, Jason D. BeDuhn in The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon, states that the passage quoted above, 1:18-24, “is unattested” (p. 262).

Adolf Harnack, an early scholar of Marcion, wrote in Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, of the same passage in Galatians:

Chapter 1:18-24 probably were omitted because Marcion could not allow these connections of the apostle with Peter and the Jewish-Christian communities to stand . . . (p. 31)

Yet  Harnack finds no opportunity to inform readers that Tertullian took the opportunity (as he did elsewhere) to excoriate “the heretic” for cutting out passages he did not like.

Another author in his book arguing against Christ Myth proponents of his day, A. D. Howell Smith, noted a further indication that Galatians 1:18-19 was unknown to anyone, “orthodox” or “heretic”, at that time:

There is a critical case of some slight cogency against the authenticity of Gal. i, 18, 19, which was absent from Marcion’s Apostolicon; the word “again” in Gal. ii, 1, which presupposes the earlier passage, seems to have been interpolated as it is absent from Irenaeus’s full and accurate citation of this section of the Epistle to the Galatians in his treatise against Heretics. (p. 76 of Jesus Not A Myth by A. D. Howell Smith.)

As for the passage about “the brother of Jesus called Christ, James by name” in Josephus’s Antiquities, note only that Origen’s discussion was confused because it states that Josephus claimed that the Jews believed Jerusalem was destroyed because of their unjust treatment of James — Josephus says nothing like that in our copies of his work. (Notice, further, that no-one appears to have had any knowledge of such a passage until, once again, the time of Origen!) As for the rather strange phrasing of the reference that points to the likelihood of marginal notes being incorporated into the text at some point, and the reliance of the passage upon Josephus having made the unlikely identification of Jesus as the Messiah or Christ in an earlier passage, see earlier posts:

It is not unreasonable to suspect that the Galatians 1:19 passage was added at some point after the time of Tertullian.

Against Heresies 3.13.3.

Quoniam autem his, qui ad Apostolos vocaverunt eum de quaestione, acquievit Paulus, et ascendit ad eos cum Barnaba in Hierosolymam, non sine causa, sed ut ab ipsis libertas Gentilium confirmaretur, ipse ait in ea quae ad Galatas est epistola: Diende post XIV annos ascendi Hierosolymam cum Barnaba, assumens et Titum. Ascendi autem secundum revelationem, et contuli cum eis Evangelium, quod praedico inter Gentes

Supporting the idea that only one visit to Jerusalem was depicted in the Epistle to the Galatians (and that the first visit in which Paul says he met Peter/Cephas along with James the brother of the Lord was an interpolation) is Irenaeus’s apparent quotation of Galatians 2:1. He indicates that Paul only paid one visit to Jerusalem, not two. He does not know the word “again”. See the extract in the side box from the Benedictine text available at translated Irenaeus has “After 14 years I went up to Jerusalem”, no “again” in there. If Irenaeus indicates the original here then this section of Galatians read:

17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas[b] and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

21 Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they praised God because of me. Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem.

Thus went the original, or so it appears on the basis of Irenaeus. (For the source of this argument see my earlier notes from Howell Smith at James Brother of the Lord: Another Case for Interpolation.


“This Is Why I Have Come” (from where?)

I have now returned to Australia from a regular overseas extended family visit, still somewhat sore from the accident I suffered over there, and in transit have been resisting the temptation to post easy “fillers” like more of the interesting differences encountered in Thailand or another response to an old McGrath post . . . hence the hiatus of the last few days. What has been on my mind, though, is some sort of extension to the previous post . . . Finally I settled on Mark 1:38 as the verse for the day. Jesus sneaked out of the house while it was still pre-dawn dark to find an isolated spot to pray. Eventually he was found by his disciples who complained that everyone had been looking for him. Jesus replied,

. . . . “Let us go somewhere else–to the nearby villages–so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

Such a mundane set of words. Nothing special…? But if we pause to think for a moment about that last sentence, “That is why I came”, — what was in the author’s (or, if you prefer, the mind of Jesus) when those words were expressed?

“Why I came”.

Am I reading too much (or too little) into the words when I wonder why he did not say, “That is why I have come back here” or even “that is why I came here”? Hadn’t Jesus grown up in Nazareth, Galilee? I read on one site that there is a twisty turny road from Nazareth to Capernaum (where Jesus was found praying) that extends around 40 miles:


But Jesus did not say “This is why I have come here (to Capernaum, or even to Galilee)” but “This is why I have come (ἐξῆλθον).” Luke changed what he read in Mark’s gospel to the more passive, “This is why I have been sent (ἀπεστάλην).” Mark’s Jesus did not say he was sent for a reason. Mark’s Jesus said he came forth for a certain reason.

And Mark’s Jesus does not appear to be telling his disciples that he came to Capernaum or to Galilee, but that he “came forth” . . . that is somehow more open-ended, more universalist, more existentialist — it is the reason Jesus came to . . . dare we say, to earth? Or at least to the lands where Judeans (or maybe only Galileans) were to be found?

Some readers may wonder what on earth I am getting at. The Gospel of Mark is widely accepted as the earliest of the written gospels and it is also widely understood to present the most “human-like” of the Jesus figures when we compare the Jesus in the other gospels.

But here in this simple sentence Jesus is depicted as saying that he came ….he came for a purpose. He was not “born” for a purpose. Or at least that’s not what he said.

Our minds have to go back to the beginning of the gospel. Where did Jesus come from?

John the Baptist was baptizing away and saying that someone greater than he was going to appear on the scene, then we are told that Jesus came to be baptized.

Now here it gets a bit complex and no doubt many readers will think I am overstepping “the mark” (pun not intended). Our text says Jesus came “from Nazareth”. I don’t believe that was what “Mark” wrote at all. I am convinced that “from Nazareth” are a copyists addition to the text. If you can bear with me and wait for me to offer reasons later, then accept my proposal that our purportedly earliest written gospel bluntly said that Jesus came . . . to be baptized. He came from nowhere. Thus said (or sort of implied) the text.

He simply came to be baptized. The narrative tells us nothing about his background or even who this Jesus character was. We are so familiar with the story and with far more than the story as told in this gospel that it is easy for us not even to notice how little (or even exactly what) Mark actually says.

Then when we come to Jesus’ being found alone with his God in Mark 1:38 he reminds us that we have not yet been told who this Jesus character is or where he has come from. (A comment by Martin anticipated this post.) Everything we have read so far has “only” told us that everyone (person or demon) who encounters him is over-awed by his authority. Everyone falls over backwards or drops their families and livelihoods or travels many miles merely on coming in contact with or simply hearing about his power of authority.

“For this reason I came forth” is not a quotidian remark about why he decided one day to leave Nazareth and visit Capernaum. It is a pointer to Jesus having come from heaven.

But that pointer is not likely to be noticed if we have our heads filled with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke before we read the Gospel of Mark. read more »

The Mystery of the “Amazing” Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

Set the Gospels of Matthew and Mark side by side in their accounts of Jesus’ grand public entrance to his mission and something very odd emerges. Mark presents Jesus as having the power of presence, just from a word, that instils in hearers the same sort of awe that overcame those who heard the voice of God at Mount Sinai — except that Jesus does it without the thunder and lightning and earth-shaking and booming-voice effects.

Matthew rejects Mark’s account and replaces it with a more plausible narrative. Here is how Mark begins Jesus’ public career. Notice what it is that “amazes” his audience and starts the rumours flying “over the whole region of Galilee”:

1:21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

Luke 4:36 significantly changes the public reaction in Mark 1:27 so that the people are solely amazed at Jesus’ authority over the demon; in Mark the power over the demon is only one instance of something much bigger that awes them all.

27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

All the focus is on how the crowd are so awed by Jesus’ authority. He teaches with an “amazing” authority. There is clearly here more to be imagined than a bombastic orator who shouts like he knows better than anyone else. Such a person does not “amaze” anyone. No, Jesus’ “authority” is clearly meant to be understood as unique. It follows on from the scene where Jesus’ authority evidently “amazes” four disciples so that they simply drop everything, leave family and means of income, and follow him at his command:

16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.

19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

The people in the synagogue witness that same authority over a demon and are amazed. But before that display they were amazed merely at his words, the way he spoke.

It is not the content of the teaching that amazes them. It is the authority with which he speaks and which gives the teaching itself an “amazing” quality.

In other words, the relation of Jesus to those who hear him is unnatural, it is nothing like anything “normative” in this world. Fishermen immediately drop all and follow him; he speaks, and crowds are amazed; only later is the crowd further amazed at his power over evil spirits. We are not reading history or biography. We are reading about a divine figure who remains a mystery to those who hear him.

Later when asked they express confusion: he is a prophet, they say. That’s a clearly inadequate response. It is evident to the reader that he is far more than a prophet or even a resurrected John the Baptist. He is a divine presence and the crowd’s failure to come to that obvious conclusion is as great a miracle as is the “authority” of Jesus itself.

Contrast Matthew’s gospel. Matthew does not even try to rewrite the scene. He leaves it out entirely and replaces it with the following far more plausible account. At least it’s plausible to anyone who believes in “normal” miracles:

4: 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

In Mark, Jesus’ first healing is done away from the public gaze, in an upper room, and he does not even speak to effect it. He simply takes Peter’s mother-in-law’s hand and the fever leaves her. As later with the haemorraging woman power comes out of his body and clothes. The crowds nonetheless flock to Jesus for healing entirely on the report of how he taught and commanded with authority in the synagogue.

That’s more “reasonable”, isn’t it? Jesus’ fame spreads because of the reputation he was building up as a healer. Later in Mark we read the same thing but that’s not how in Mark Jesus’ fame begins. In Mark we read that his reputation went out because of his authority, his “amazing” authority. What followed was that people from far and wide brought sick and demon possessed for him to cure.

In Matthew it is the other way around. It is the more plausible mission of preaching a particular message accompanied by healing miracles that attracts followers.

In Mark we are introduced to a mysterious figure that crowds cannot identify even though they hear demons call out is name and role. The actors in Mark’s drama remain deaf to the voice from heaven and the demons declaring who Jesus is. But the actors are as awed and overwhelmed by the mere presence of a word from Jesus as were, say, the multitudes at Sinai hearing the voice of God direct from heaven.

Mark’s Jesus is not at all “human” in any way, which is to say he is the opposite of the “most human” figure that some critics declare is found in that earliest gospel. Rather, Mark’s Jesus is far more like the Jesus in the Gospel of John. Recall John 19:

4 Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

5 “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.

I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) 6 When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.

That’s the same overpowering Jesus we read of in the Gospel of Mark. People are amazed at his word. He speaks, and they follow; they are astonished; they flee from the temple; they fall over backwards. Even demons and the wild, raging storm obey him.

I think one has to avoid a close reading of the Gospel of Mark if one wants to treat it as presenting “the most human” figure of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew is the one that begins to present him as a more plausible, a more ‘natural’ figure.

The Only Way to Make Sense of the Gospels

Albert Schweitzer addressed the critical views of Bruno Bauer in some depth. I have selected only a few details to quote. I have omitted the far more extensive discussion of Bauer’s insights into the reasons Jesus’ messiahship could not have been acknowledged even by his followers, let alone anyone else in the early first century; his analysis of the sayings of Jesus and why these cannot have been historical; and more. I have pulled out only those details that point directly to certain sayings and actions of Jesus being constructed out of the life of the church.

It is only when we understand the words of Jesus as embodying experiences of the community that their deeper sense becomes clear and what would otherwise seem offensive disappears. The saying ‘Let the dead bury their dead’ is amazing on the lips of Jesus, and had he been a true man, it could never have entered into his mind to create a collision of such abstract cruelty, So here again, the obvious conclusion is that the saying originated in the community, and was intended to inculcate renunciation of a world which was felt to belong to the kingdom of the dead, and to illustrate this by an extreme example.

The sending out of the Twelve, too, is simply inconceivable as a historical occurrence. It would have been different had Jesus given them a teaching, a symbol, a view to take with them as their message. But how badly the charge to the Twelve fulfils its purpose as a discourse of instruction! The disciples are not told what they needed to hear, namely, what and how they were to teach. The discourse which Matthew has composed, working on the basis of Luke, implies quite a different set of circumstances. It is concerned with the community’s struggles with the world and the sufferings that it must endure. This is the explanation of the references to suffering which constantly recur in the discourses of Jesus, in spite of the fact that his disciples were not enduring any sufferings, and that the evangelist cannot even make it conceivable as a possibility that those before whose eyes Jesus holds up the way of the cross could ever get into such a position. The Twelve, at any rate, experience no sufferings during their mission, and if they were merely being sent by Jesus into the surrounding districts, they were not very likely to meet with kings and rulers there.

That this is invented history is also shown by the fact that the evangelists say nothing about the doings of the disciples, who seem to come back again immediately, though to prevent this from being too apparent the earliest evangelist inserts at this point the story of the execution of the Baptist.

. . . . The charge to the Twelve is not instruction. What Jesus there sets before the disciples they could not at that time have understood, and the promises which he makes to them were not appropriate to their circumstances. . . . .

The eschatological discourses are not history, but are merely an expansion of those explanations of the sufferings of the church of which we have had a previous example in the charge to the Twelve. An evangelist who wrote before the destruction of Jerusalem would have referred to the temple, to Jerusalem, and to the Jewish people, in a very different way.

The treachery of Judas, as described in the Gospels, is inexplicable.

The Lord’s supper, considered as an historic scene, is revolting and inconceiv- able. Jesus can no more have instituted it than he can have uttered the saying ‘Let the dead bury their dead.’ In both cases the offence arises from the fact that a conviction of the community has been cast into the form of a historical saying of Jesus. A man who was present in person, corporeally present, could not entertain the idea of offering others his flesh and blood to eat. To demand from others that while he was actually present they should imagine the bread and wine which they were eating to be his body and blood would have been quite impossible for a real person. It was only later, when Jesus’ actual bodily presence had been removed and the Christian community had existed for some time, that such a conception as is expressed in that formula could have arisen. A point which clearly betrays the later composition of the narrative is that the Lord does not turn to the disciples sitting with him at table and say, ‘This is my blood which will be shed for you,’ but, since the words were invented by the early church, speaks of the ‘many’ for whom he gives himself. The only historical fact is that the Jewish Passover was gradually transformed by the Christian community into a feast which had reference to Jesus.

Schweitzer, Albert. 2001. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. pp. 131-136

You may have heard similar explanations for details of the life and sayings of Jesus among more modern theologians. Yet Bauer was making these observations 180 years ago. Are modern critics building on Bauer’s work? Unfortunately, Schweitzer informs us, no. From page 142:

Unfortunately, by the independent, the too loftily independent way in which he developed his ideas, he destroyed the possibility of their influencing contemporary theology. The shaft which he had driven into the mountain collapsed behind him, so that it needed the work of a whole generation to lay bare once more the veins of ore which he had struck. His contemporaries could not suspect that the abnormality of his solutions was due to the intensity with which he had grasped the problems as problems . . . . Thus for his contemporaries he was a mere eccentric.

(I have not read the relevant works of Bauer. I am relying entirely on Schweitzer’s presentation.)


Lack of Evidence that the Delay in the Second Coming was a Problem for the Early Church

The delay-motif in Luke . . . could hardly have originated as a solution inspired by embarrassment or disappointment about Jesus’ continued absence, since it appears before there was time to get embarrassed.  (Ellis, Eschatology, 18)

Has that question been discussed more widely somewhere? My impression is that it is taken for granted that the early church was somehow generally disappointed and confused when Jesus did not return as expected before the generation of the apostles died out. So they began to rewrite history to remove the source of that embarrassment. One example:

Let me stress that Luke continues to think that the end of the age is going to come in his own lifetime. But he does not seem to think that it was supposed to come in the lifetime of Jesus’ companions. Why not? Evidently because he was writing after they had died, and he knew that in fact the end had not come. To deal with the “delay of the end,” he made the appropriate changes in Jesus’ predictions.

This is evident as well near the end of the Gospel. At Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus boldly states to the high priest, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). That is, the end would come and the high priest would see it. Luke, writing many years later, after the high priest was long dead and buried, changes the saying: “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69). No longer does Jesus predict that the high priest himself will be alive when the end comes.

Here, then, is a later source that appears to have modified the earlier apocalyptic sayings of Jesus. (Ehrman, Jesus, 130f)

Some scholars date the Gospel of Mark to just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. But I don’t see how that chronology resolves the question. If Mark were composed during the War but just prior to its end then we have the problem of explaining why that gospel ever circulated to the extent that it became the foundation text of the subsequent gospels. At least, the problem arises on the basis of the generally accepted interpretation of what Mark meant by his images of the Second Coming. And besides, Caiaphas was still long dead when the Jewish War started.

I have some difficulty with that explanation. It seems to assume that a an embarrassment over the delay is the only possible explanation for Luke’s change. The high priest Mark’s Jesus addresses was long dead, some thirty years before the destruction of the Temple and long before Mark even wrote the gospel. The author of even that earliest gospel (the Gospel of Mark) presumably knew at the time he wrote that trial scene (after 70 CE) that Jesus had failed to come in the way we understand his Second Coming is meant to happen. The question to be asked is not why “Luke” changed “Mark’s” words of Jesus but why “Mark” wrote them at all and what he meant by them.

Similarly with the end of the Gospel of John where the author scotches an apparent rumour that Peter was to live until the return of Jesus. Again, we must ask when that gospel was written. Most scholars, I believe, would say it was written long after the death of Peter when such a rumour would long have ceased to need an explanation. The question to be asked is why it was written at all by one who professed to be an eyewitness to the death of Jesus.

But E.E. Ellis points to some well-known but often overlooked facts that belie the “embarrassment over the delay of the parousia” mindset that was supposed to have overcome the church.

Now I am not denying that in the epistles and gospels we find reasons expressed for a delay until the coming of Christ. What I am less certain about is that these explanations were an attempt to resolve an embarrassment or general disillusionment and confusion over the failure of those expectations to materialize when expected.

Notice Peder Borgen’s more secure explanation for Luke’s changes to Mark:

He holds Luke to be the first to separate the fall of Jerusalem from the eschaton. It is correct that Lk conceives of a span of time between the destruction of Jerusalem and the eschaton. But it must be noted that it is not the delay of the Parousia which created this thinking in terms of epochs but that Lk has only developed and applied an eschatological time scheme, Jewish epoch formulas, already available to Paul in his interpretation of the Gentile mission. (Borgen, 1969, 174)

Borgen is, of course, referring to Romans 11:25 ff: read more »

How the Seasons Change (We DON’T have Q; We DO have Q — Ehrman)

PItalics are original; the bolding is mine:

I’ve pointed out that we don’t have the Q source. Since we don’t have it, you might expect that scholars would be fairly cautious in what they say about it. But nothing is further from the truth. Books on Q have become a veritable cottage industry in the field. . . . Not bad for a nonexistent source!

. . . .

Let me repeat: Q is a source that we don’t have

(Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, 1999. pp132, 133)

That was when Ehrman was responding to scholars who use Q as evidence to counter his argument that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. (There are other arguments in the literature that contradict the apocalyptic prophet view of Jesus that Ehrman overlooked entirely.)

Then later,

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is [sic] pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.

(Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? HuffPost 03/20/2012)

Within a couple of decades of the traditional date of his death, we have numerous accounts of his life found in a broad geographical span. In addition to Mark, we have Q, M (which is possibly made of multiple sources), L (also possibly multiple sources), two or more passion narratives, a signs source, two discourse sources, the kernel (or original) Gospel behind the Gospel of Thomas, and possibly others.

(Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? HarperCollins, 2012. pp. 82 f)

To be fair, Ehrman does eventually qualify the last statement by stating that our “having” is an “inference” but that word nowhere appears in the HuffPost article.

And these are just the ones we know about, that we can reasonably infer from the scant literary remains that survive from the early years of the Chris­tian church. No one knows how many there actually were. Luke says there were “many” of them, and he may well have been right.


How Matthew Invented the Lord’s Prayer (A Goulder View)

The two earlier posts on The Lord’s Prayer:

  1. “Jesus Did Not Compose the Lord’s Prayer”
  2. On What Grounds Would Anyone Argue That Luke’s Lord’s Prayer Post-Dates Matthew’s?

Let this be my third and final post on the Lord’s Prayer. I return to the article by Michael Goulder with which I began these posts.

Our Father

I suppose by now it seems the most natural thing in the world to start the prayer with this address but it need not have been so. I suppose it could have begun, “Dear God”, “Great Lord”, “Creator of Heaven and Earth”, “Oh Ineffable One”, etc. But we have “Our Father”.

An explanation can be found in the writings that pre-dated the gospels. We learn there that addressing God as Father appears to have been widespread in Paul’s day:

Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” (Galatians 4:6)

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”(Romans 8:15)

The Gospel of Mark, the first gospel to be written (according to most studies today), carries over this custom when we find there Jesus himself praying, Abba, Father:

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father . . . “ (Mark 14:36)

From Picryl

Abba is the Aramaic for father, as we know. The word fell out of use, however, over time, so we see both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke dropping it and relying solely on the Greek word for father. So in Matthew’s and Luke’s copying of Mark’s scene above they drop Abba:

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father . . . “

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father . . . “ (Matthew 26:39, 42)

Luke is even more truncated and omits the possessive pronoun:

He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, . . . “ (Luke 22:41 f)

So it is no great surprise to see Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer beginning with Our Father and Luke’s with Father.

Our Father in Heaven

Once again we begin with the earliest of the gospels, that of Mark, and a major source for both the gospels of Matthew and Luke. There we find only one time in which Jesus explicitly taught his disciples how to pray. It comes just after the disciples express amazement that Jesus’ curse on the fig tree really worked:

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:22-25)

That lesson on prayer in Mark (the only lesson on prayer in Matthew’s and Luke’s source) “coincidentally” introduces a major thought in the later Lord’s Prayer, the need to forgive sins of others so God will forgive us. It’s the main point of Jesus’ lesson on prayer in the Gospel of Mark and it is stressed in the Gospel of Matthew by added commentary at the end of the prayer as we shall see.

The point here, though, is that it is surely evident that the above Marcan passage was in the mind of the author of Matthew’s gospel, and there in Matthew’s source we find the same phrase, Father in heaven, as is used to introduce Matthew’s Prayer.

As we have seen in the previous post that Luke had already identified the Father he was talking about as being in heaven only 22 verses earlier so, in accord with his tendency to avoid repetition, he omits “in heaven” in his own version of the Prayer.

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors

read more »

On What Grounds Would Anyone Argue That Luke’s Lord’s Prayer Post-Dates Matthew’s?

Statue of Jesus praying, from Pixabay

The following question arose in a Facebook forum a couple of weeks ago:

In comparing Matthew and Luke, we find that Matthew has a wider array of moral sayings (essentially a superset of the material in Luke). Also, Matthew has a more advanced rendering of the Lord’s Prayer, the Beattitudes, the Great Sermon and the Great Commission. It has a wider array of kingdom of God sayings, and a more evolved and expansive treatment of eschatalogical issues. From just about every perspective Matthew looks more ideologically evolved than Luke. On what grounds would anyone argue that Luke post-dates Matthew?

So why do many biblical scholars (most, I believe) say that Luke post-dates Matthew? Take the Lord’s Prayer. It certainly does appear to be “more advanced”, so why would Luke write a “cruder” form of it he was writing after the Matthean version was surely known?

From my earlier post “Jesus Did Not Compose the Lord’s Prayer”:

Matthew 6:9-13 Luke 11:2-4
9 “‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
2 “‘Father,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come, your kingdom come.
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread. 3 Give us each day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
13 And lead us not into temptation, And lead us not into temptation.’”
but deliver us from the evil one.’

I won’t repeat points from Michael Goulder’s article. Here I’ll set out how three other scholars subsequent to Goulder have made a case for Luke’s Lord’s Prayer being a revision of Matthew’s.

Luke’s Different View of Eschatology and the Church

Franklin earlier gave reasons for viewing Luke’s apparently “more primitive/less spiritual” beatitudes being a response to Matthew’s “more elegant and spiritual” list:

We have seen that even the beatitudes make good sense as vehicles of Lukan theology adapted from Matthew as their source and that they fit into a sermon which is itself an adequate expression of the Lukan purpose at this point. Again, the Lukan form of the Lord’s Prayer expresses Luke’s own beliefs and fits comfortably into its context of eschatologically motivated prayer (11.2-4). (Franklin, 350)

I posted my own take (probably inspired by Franklin or others with a similar view) on Luke’s beatitudes in The poor and Q — literary vs historical paradigms (2007).

Eric Franklin in a study comparing the Gospels of Matthew and Luke discerned the following thematic difference between them:

  • Matthew wrote of and for the Church, the assembly governed by rules and ordinances under Peter,  and that Church was a form of the Kingdom of God already here on earth even though at the same time it was waiting for the time when the Kingdom would come with the return of Jesus to extend it world-wide as foretold by the prophets. For Matthew, the Kingdom of God was already here in the church, and that meant the church was being judged now according to its adherence to the rule of Jesus. The final coming of the Judge would bring judgement on how those in “the kingdom” now treated one another.
  • Luke did not think of the church in that way. For Luke (of course I am using shorthand when I speak of Luke and Matthew as the authors since we don’t know who those authors were, and other times I use the names to refer to the gospels themselves) the kingdom was not here on earth now in any form, not even partly, as in the church. No, for Luke the church consisted of people who were called upon to wait patiently and endure trials until the kingdom arrived with the coming of Jesus. What those Christians had until then was the Spirit of God or the Holy Spirit from Jesus and that spirit gave them power and strength to endure and hold fast, but it did not make the church a small advance part of the kingdom of God here and now. That was entirely future.

Again, all this means that Luke sees eschatology as being less realized in the present than does Matthew and he therefore accepts the parousia as having a positive role. It retains the aspect of hope in a way that Matthew’s emphasis upon its judgmental role does not. Luke is more ambivalent and thus more realistic about the realities of discipleship in the present. It is ‘through many tribulations’ that we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14.22). His Jesus does not therefore indwell the church as he does in Matthew and the church is less directly related to the kingdom. (Franklin, p. 312)

See how that difference is reflected in the two prayers. read more »

“I don’t find that argument persuasive”

I intend to pause and try to analyse, in future, exactly what is going on when I read a scholar responding to an explanation, a hypothesis, an alternative viewpoint by saying “I don’t find that persuasive”. My reason for taking on this hope is partly the result of having begun to gain some notion of the main ideas that I first read in

(I further skimmed much of the book but have yet to read it thoroughly.)

Very often the “I don’t find it persuasive” is all that is said, apparently on the understanding that it is all that needs to be said, to not accept an argument or attempt at a different explanation for the evidence at hand.

What I am currently wondering is the extent to which the “not persuasive” retort may be derived from the need or desire to have a story, a narrative, that expands or builds one’s own larger story idea of how things are or should be. If the rejection of the new idea were based on a cold, hard study of the data then we would expect the response to be more along the lines of: “but how does your idea explain this or that?” and so forth. It would be a critical response with the data under review.

I said I am raising this question “partly as “the result” of reading Alex Rosenberg’s discussion of narrative and their place and function in human society. The other part of the reason is having begun a review of Vridar posts as I begin to recategorize, re-organize and re-label them. I am somehow gobsmacked at the amount of deplorable personal attacks, including outright misrepresentation and slander, that has characterized so many biblical scholars engagements not only against amateur outsiders who question their assumptions but even against each other when new paradigms or finds are introduced into the field. And above all, I find it depressing to be confronted in such a concentrated span of time and focus on the extent to which so many core arguments of too many (not all) biblical scholars are illogical, self-serving, contradictory, ill-thought-through, merely speculative, simply very bad. It is difficult to accept that so many of these particular scholars are actually employed as scholars in the first place. On the other hand, I need to add that there are also many excellent biblical scholars putting out very fine research. I find myself wishing that those latter would leave their faculties and departments of theology or biblical studies and apply to join the history and classics departments of their universities. Anyway, enough of the rant. Where was I?

Alex Rosenberg appears to be suggesting that narrative stories function to bind us into our preferred groups. They enable us to see ourselves as part of those stories and in the narratives with those we like or need to get along with. As such, they also have the yin side of their yang. They exclude others, they even have the power to cause us to denigrate and hate others, the outsiders, who take the adversarial role in our narratives. Strifes between races, tribes, countries, are fueled by narratives of the past that get in the way of simply getting together and addressing current needs and issues.

Scholarship at its best, when it’s working professionally as intended, works with ways to analyse the data, to make predictions and test them, etc. It is not narrative based in the same way as much of (by no means all) of biblical studies is. Take, for example, the view that the gospels, or even the historical books of the Hebrew Bible, are said to sourced via oral traditions. Really, that’s a narrative model. I think that a good number of biblical scholars (and this is understandable given the faith biases of many of them) see themselves as part of that same story, personally as part of that same story, that began with a “scientifically unexplainable” event that evolved into the “Easter myth” and was passed on through oral tradition . . .  until today, . . . — you get the picture.

That, I think, appears to be the framework through which a huge bulk of biblical scholars are working. They are, at bottom, finding ways to elaborate and discover more exciting details of that narrative. They approach their subjects of interest very like the way ancient historians (even Thucydides) approached their narrative histories, with mixes of myth and fact, and with even the facts being interpreted in ways to add to the story they wanted to tell either as a lesson for others or for their entertainment. Either way, the narrative histories functioned to help build or cement group bonds. “This is our history that tells us where we come from and where we fit in.”

Few of them approach the foundations of their field in the way critical scientists might start from scratch with the data and whose explanations are almost entirely critical-analytical as distinct from narrative story. Yes, of course, there is much critical-analytical study among most biblical scholars but I find myself thinking that most of that real scholarship functions to add new or revised details to the larger narrative that they are really endorsing.

I don’t believe one has to be religious to do this, either. Jesus is a cultural icon for Western societies generally and is not reserved only for his faithful devotees. Recall images of Che Guevara evocative of a passionate and suffering Jesus. John Lennon produced a hit The Ballad of John and Yoko with its unforgettable searing line, “Christ you know it ain’t easy, they’re gonna crucify me.” Even a contemporary atheist biblical scholar published a book with an image of a stereotypical Jesus’ face on the cover that looks very much like that scholars’ own image. (I should avoid embarrassing him with an identification in this context.) Jesus is not just for the religious. (Evangelical apologists narcissistically preach that “the whole world” is either “for or against” Jesus — simply on the grounds that everybody has reason to make some comment about one of several foundational cultural figures in our society and not, as the fundamentalists like to think, because they tremble and fear or tremble and love him.)

This post is only introducing an idea that has been playing around in the back of my head for at least 24 hours now. I hope I haven’t been too gauche in making this initial foray into jotting it down for future reference, elaboration, exploration.


“Jesus Did Not Compose the Lord’s Prayer”

We read the Bible and see that Jesus taught his disciples to pray “the Lord’s Prayer” and we naturally think, “So, that’s what Jesus did and that’s how the prayer got started.” How could anyone devise complicated theories to arrive at any other viewpoint?

But here’s a catch.

If the Prayer was composed by Jesus and taught to his disciples, then it is the only thing of the kind he ever did. Jesus did not commit his teaching to writing because he believed that his disciples were, like St. Paul’s, his epistle written in fleshy tables of the heart, and that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth. To teach something by heart is the same in principle as to write it down, and there is no statement in the gospels that Jesus ever taught his disciples by heart any other thing than the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus might have made an exception in favour of a single prayer, but there is no very obvious reason why he should so have done.

Goulder, 32

Trust scholars to make things complicated. But this one is just getting started. I’ll paraphrase.

If Jesus taught the Prayer then we can assume that the Twelve knew it by heart, and surely they taught their converts to learn it by heart, too. After all, this is the only thing Jesus told them to learn by heart, so they surely did so. Peter, James, John supervised the church in Jerusalem; Barnabas was their disciple in Jerusalem and apostle in Antioch. Paul, who worked with Barnabas, taught the same message, he insists, as the other apostles. At what point would variant versions of the prayer (as we have in two gospels) have arisen? Surely one of the apostles would have stepped in to fix things if he ever heard of the teaching being corrupted.

Matthew and Luke document different versions of the prayer but Mark, generally believed to be the earliest gospel, didn’t mention it. Strange, especially if it were the only thing, and presumably, therefore, the most important thing, that Jesus wanted them to learn to repeat. The absence of the Prayer in Mark becomes more problematic when we notice that three times Mark comes close to writing prayers that have distinct echoes of the Lord’s Prayer. So surely he could not have simply forgotten to mention Jesus’ teaching on this point. (In Mark 11:25-26 Jesus tells his disciples to forgive others when they pray or God won’t forgive them; in Mark 14:36 Jesus prays to his Father to remove a trial or temptation or test from him, and he then adds “thy will be done”.)

Since Luke’s version of the Prayer is shorter it is widely held that his version is the original. The reasoning is that liturgical scripts tend to expand over time. There are semantic and stylistic arguments to indicate that Matthew’s Prayer contains characteristic Matthean language and that Luke’s version contains characteristic Lucan language. It would appear to follow that each derived their versions of the Prayer from different sources. Matthew is thought to have taken his from Q (the “lost sayings source that is thought to have been known to both Matthew and Luke) and Luke to have taken his from his special or unique material, L. Both Q and L are then presumed to have derived from Jesus’ original teaching in Aramaic. But Q and L appear to be so different in places that they cannot have come from the same single source. So this scholarly theory gets into murky unknowns.

Nonetheless, Luke’s shorter version suggests that Matthew has expanded on an original prayer. Luke is at least evidence that Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer was unknown to him. Matthew has evidently expanded on an original idea.

But here is the coup de grâce:

The most remarkable assumption of all is that two generations after the Prayer had been committed to the Apostles St. Matthew should have been at liberty to expand and improve it at will. Are we truly to believe that any Christian had the effrontery to elaborate and improve the one piece of liturgy composed by the Lord himself, or that any church would have accepted his amendments, when the Prayer had been part of every Christian’s catechism, and had been used (on a conservative estimate) for forty-five years? To what purpose have credal scholars laboured to show how rapidly the newly composed creeds were accepted and reverenced verbatim in the fourth century? The assumption is incredible, and would never have been made but for a simple fallacy over the doxology. If, the argument runs, the scribes who added the doxology, and different versions of the doxology, to the Matthaean Prayer were at liberty to improve the Paternoster, and the author of the Didache likewise, why should not the same licence be accorded to the evangelist? It is not for the first time that reverence for tradition has inspired false argument. A sound argument must run : it is impossible that St. Matthew should have had licence to amend a Prayer composed by Jesus, and it is a fortiori impossible that his scribes, or the author of the Didache, should have had this licence. Therefore Jesus did not compose the Lord’s Prayer.

Goulder, 34 (my bolding)

I’ll be following up a question that has arisen on social media: How could Luke have possibly known Matthew’s gospel and revised it when we see what an inferior job he made of transcribing the Lord’s Prayer? There are several good reasons to believe Luke’s shorter version is in response to Matthew’s.

Matthew 6:9-13 Luke 11:2-4
9 “‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
2 “‘Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”

Goulder, M. D. 1963. “The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer.” The Journal of Theological Studies XIV (1): 32–45.


Mythicism and Paul’s Claims to Supernatural Revelation (Engaging with McGrath — 2)

In Australian private hospitals we are likely to see pictures of a crucifix or Mother Mary. In Thailand we see Buddhist paraphernalia. View of one taken by me from a hospital bed where I arrived as result of accident. Life is always full of unexpected surprises.

Again waylaid by life experiences so surfacing here another post begun way back. The first post in this series is  Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1

This time we are addressing

McGrath begins:

Mythicists regularly claim (as one commenter on this blog recently did) regarding Paul that “Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him.  He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation.”

Since the subject has come up once again, in the same form in which it always seems to, let me devote a blog post solely to this topic, in the hope that any mythicists who desire not to be like creationists (who are notorious for repeating the exact same arguments even though they have been addressed adequately on countless other occasions) may at least show a willingness to consider the evidence and respond.

Here are the main relevant points that need to be considered.

First, in Galatians 1:15-17, Paul claims not to have consulted with anyone before starting to proclaim the Gospel.

That “first main relevant point” that McGrath informs readers needs to be addressed simply avoids the problematic verse that the commenter was addressing. McGrath begins with Galatians 1:15 but fails to acknowledge that the commenter, Vinny, was referring to Galatians 1:11-12. Vinny’s comment that McGrath claims to be addressing is:

Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him. He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation. He didn’t tell us why he persecuted the Christians who preceded him. Most of the communities he addressed were communities that he founded. The only evidence we have for what those communities knew and understood about Jesus is what we find in Paul’s letters. It is not unreasonable suppose that they knew other things but any declarations concerning what those things actually were are little more than conjecture and speculation. How much of his message came from those who preceded him and how much was the product of his own imagination and creativity is also a matter of conjecture and speculation. Those are pieces of the puzzle that we don’t possess.

The passage to which Vinny was referring was Galatians 1:11-12 (I am using the same NIV translation as McGrath is using):

11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

But let’s see how McGrath addresses the comment. As we just noted, he glosses over the above verses and begins at verse 15:

Here is how the New International Version renders it:

But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.  I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

Important things to note are

(1) that Paul had previously persecuted the church (Neil: The persecution reference is two verses earlier), and so was not entirely unaware of what Christians had to say,

(2) his aim here is to emphasize that his authority is not dependent on the apostles in Jerusalem,

(3) he does not in fact say that he received everything he knew about Jesus or the Gospel by supernatural revelation, and finally

(4) if he did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe him, since there is obviously a more mundane explanation available for how Paul knew the things that he did.

I think we can all agree with the first three of McGrath’s four things to note. Concerning #4, historians have no problem “believing” that mystics and visionaries claim to have visions and revelations from spirit realms. Historians acknowledge that Joan of Arc heard voices without believing that a heavenly saint really was speaking to her, that Saint Francis had visions without believing God was really communicating with him, and that people speak in tongues without believing that a real “holy spirit” is doing the work. I learned through an article by Stephen Young that “the now classic analysis” explaining the difference was set out by Wayne Proudfoot in 1987 in Religious Experience:

Descriptive and Explanatory Reduction

We are now in a position to distinguish two different kinds of reduction. Descriptive reduction is the failure to identify an emotion, practice, or experience under the description by which the subject identifies it. This is indeed unacceptable. To describe an experience in nonreligious terms when the subject himself describes it in religious terms is to misidentify the experience, or to attend to another experience altogether. To describe Bradley’s experience as simply a vision of a human shape, and that of Mrs. Edwards as a lively warm sense that seemed to glow like a pencil of light, is to lose the identifying characteristics of those experiences. To describe the experience of a mystic by reference only to alpha waves, altered heart rate, and changes in bodily temperature is to misdescribe it. To characterize the experience of a Hindu mystic in terms drawn from the Christian tradition is to misidentify it. In each of these instances, the subject’s identifying experience has been reduced to something other than that experienced by the subject. This might properly be called reductionism. In any case, it precludes an accurate identification of the subject’s experience.

Explanatory reduction consists in offering an explanation of an experience in terms that are not those of the subject and that might not meet with his approval. This is perfectly justifiable and is, in fact, normal procedure. The explanandum is set in a new context, whether that be one of covering laws and initial conditions, narrative structure, or some other explanatory model. The terms of the explanation need not be familiar or acceptable to the subject. Historians offer explanations of past events by employing such concepts as socialization, ideology, means of production, and feudal economy. Seldom can these concepts properly be ascribed to the people whose behavior is the object of the historian’s study. But that poses no problem. The explanation stands or falls according to how well it can account for all the available evidence.

(Proudfoot, 196f. bolded emphasis mine)

Thus McGrath’s suggestion that Paul’s claim to have received by revelation his gospel of Jesus is implausible confuses acceptance of Paul’s claim with belief in Paul’s own beliefs about his claim. Historians can and should explain Paul’s words without themselves personally believing Paul’s interpretations. It is absurd to suggest that they should reject Paul’s words because they themselves don’t believe his account.

So we can correct #4 to say that “if Paul did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe his visions were genuinely from another realm; historians would be quite content to accept that he claimed to have had a direct revelation by whatever means.”

McGrath Does Make a Serious Point

It is too easy to dismiss everything McGrath writes after we read the above lapses where he fails to address the verse Vinny was discussing and confuses the historian’s choices of descriptive and explanatory interpretations. McGrath does, in fact, make a serious point in the next section of his post. read more »

Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 1a . . . — Something Untouchable about the Bible

After posting Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 1. Hermeneutical Impasse I regretted not addressing Nanine Charbonnel’s discussions of “modern” critics of the gospels such as David Strauss and Rudolf Bultmann and their significance for the standing of the gospels as historical documents today. One reason was that I found it difficult to be sure I was understanding correctly the precise nuances of her argument (my French is very rusty). But when I turned to the works she was citing I began to see what I believe is a consistent argument that fits the larger theme of her chapter one. What I present here is my own interpretation of the sources Charbonnel discusses and their relation to what I interpret to be her primary theme. If anyone with a better grasp of French and Charbonnel’s book has anything to add or correct they are most welcome to do so.

Something Untouchable about the Bible

What I take from Charbonnel’s first chapter is that scholars have either avoided the Bible in their discourses or have afforded it a special status of authority. Even the secular critics of the Bible who have mocked its supernatural elements in its narratives have imputed to it a worthy source of moral instruction and containing an unquestioned core of historical information.

Spinoza rejected the miraculous elements in the narratives and was convinced that these could be replaced by natural explanations, but he did not question the core of the events themselves. Kant believed that the Bible required interpretation in a manner (even if that interpretation resorted to metaphor) that made its narratives morally edifying according to rational moral sense (See the previous post).

Voltaire, Charbonnel adds, in all of his vicious attacks on Christianity, aimed his fire not at Jesus but at the Church, the priests.

We begin to see a pattern, it seems to me. Criticism avoids criticizing the Bible in a manner that would reduce its authoritative or at least honourable status.

Here we come to David Strauss and his Life of Jesus first published in the 1830s.


David Friedrich Strauss narrated the way Greek philosophers found traditional myths unacceptable and looked for ways to rationalize them. Some interpreted them as allegories; others saw in the gods symbols of physical elements (wind, storms, earthquakes) of the natural world. Some of the myths were “demythologized” and believed to have originated as genuine historical events among humans on earth — humans who were later in retellings exalted to god-status.

At an early period the rigid philosophy of the Greeks, and under its influence even some of the Greek poets, recognized the impossibility of ascribing to Deity manifestations so grossly human, so immediate, and so barbarous, as those exhibited and represented as divine in the wild conflicts of Hesiod’s Theogony, and in the domestic occupations and trivial pursuits of the Homeric deities. Hence arose the quarrel of Plato, and prior to him of Pindar, with Homer ; hence the cause which induced Anaxagoras, to whom the invention of the allegorical mode of interpretation is ascribed, to apply the Homeric delineations to virtue and to justice ; hence it was that the Stoics understood the Theogony of Hesiod as relating to the action of the elements, which, according to their notions, constituted, in their highest union, the divine nature. Thus did these several thinkers, each according to his own peculiar mode of thought, succeed in discovering an absolute meaning in these representations : the one finding in them a physical, the other an ethical signification, whilst, at the same time, they gave up their external form, ceasing to regard them as strictly historical.

On the other hand, the more popular and sophistical culture of another class of thinkers led them to opposite conclusions. Though, in their estima­tion, every semblance of the divine had evaporated from these histories ; though they were convinced that the proceedings ascribed to the gods were not godlike, still they did not abandon the historical sense of these narratives. With Evemerus they transformed the subjects of these histories from gods to men, to heroes and sages of antiquity, kings and tyrants, who, through deeds of might and valour, had acquired divine honours. Some indeed went still further, and, with Polybius, considered the whole system of heathen theology as a fable, invented by the founders of states to awe the people into subjection.

(Strauss, 40f)

The same scholarly tradition directed the same types of criticisms at the Christian myths:

The other principal mode of interpretation, which, to a certain extent, acknowledges the course of events to have been historically true, but assigns it to a human and not a divine origin, was developed amongst the enemies of Christianity by a Celsus, a Porphyry, and a Julian. They indeed rejected much of the history as alto­gether fabulous ; but they admitted many of the incidents related of Moses, Jesus, and others, to be historical facts : these facts were however considered by them as originating from common motives ; and they attributed their apparently supernatural character either to gross fraud or impious sorcery.

(Strauss, 44)

Are not scholars today doing just the same thing? But I am getting ahead of myself (and Charbonnel). read more »

Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1

I’m travelling again so am pulling out the occasional post I’ve had in store for such times. If circumstances do not permit some of my planned posts I’ll post another one of these.

McGrath would appeal to the variables shaping “cultural memory” and theological tendentiousness and the tradition of Jewish authors rewriting “Old Testament” scriptures; the mythicists would appeal to one less hypothesis . . .

It’s been a while since I addressed James McGrath’s critical responses to mythicism so I will try to make amends. Please, only courteous and civil responses will be acceptable in the comments. I bent over backwards to make the peace with James McGrath a few years ago and I would still like to keep that possibility open. I like to hope that he will respond to my posts in a reciprocal spirit.

About three months ago McGrath engaged in discussions on Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined blog and presented the following list to enable readers to get a grasp of his reasons for objecting to mythicism. He listed only the urls but I have added the titles, too.

I’ve been blogging and writing elsewhere about this [i.e. mythicism] for many years. Here are a few samples in case they are helpful.

1. “Minimalism, Mythicism and Modernism”

I will address each one in chronological order. So we start with

Here McGrath quotes a portion of an article (the second last sentence) by Ronald Hendel and claims its relevance not only for “minimalists/maximalists” but for “mythicists and other modernists”. Minimalists refers to scholars who question the historicity of “biblical Israel”, believing the archaeological evidence must always trump the literary, and that archaeologists working in Palestine have not found evidence for

  • an exodus of Israelites from Egypt;
  • an invasion of Canaan by Israelites from the wilderness;
  • for a united kingdom of Israel and Judah under David and Solomon;
  • parallel kingdoms of Israel and Judah existing side by side up until the Assyrian conquest of Samaria;
  • monotheistic worship of Yahweh until after the Persians established the colony of Jehud.

Maximalists, on the other hand, are generally said to trust the Biblical narratives unless they have good reasons to doubt them, and that there was some sort of Exodus behind the biblical story, a united kingdom under David, and some sort of historical reality behind the biblical account.

McGrath also refers to “modernists” but I will leave aside that side of his criticism because I am not sure what the term covers or how it is relevant to “mythicism”. (Hendel refers without elaboration to a dichotomy of “post modernists / modernists” in the last sentence.) McGrath introduces Hendel’s words with:

The idea that we are either going to precisely reconstruct the past, or conversely decisively disprove traditional views about it, without room for doubt or error, reflect the approach of a bygone era.

A very bygone era, indeed. I don’t know when modern historical studies have ever claimed to be able to establish “precise reconstructions …. without room for doubt or error”. Even our “father of modern history”, Leopold von Ranke, said that the most he hoped to be able to “reconstruct” was how a time and event “essentially was” — not how it was precisely and infallibly in all respects. I would be interested to know the specific scholars McGrath has in mind.

At this point I question the relevance of this introduction for the minimalist/maximalist debate as much as for mythicists. I don’t think either maximalist Albright or minimalist Thompson would claim to offer readers a precise reconstruction of the past without room for doubt or error. Nor do I know of any mythicist who seriously engages with the academic works of biblical scholars (e.g. Brodie, Doherty, the early Wells, Price, Carrier . . . ) who makes dogmatic claims about precise reconstructions of the past. All, from my reading at least, appeal to the weight of probabilities. I am open to correction, of course, but preferably from James McGrath’s own reading of mythicists.

I will leap to the conclusion of McGrath’s post because it is there that he targets mythicism directly: read more »

Understanding the Gospels as Ancient Jewish Literature

For readers on the lookout for a gift for a friend or for themselves . . . .

I was attracted by the title. Understanding the Gospels as Ancient Jewish Literature. The author is Jeffrey P. Garcia, who is introduced on the cover thus:

Jeffrey P. Garcia is Assistant Professor in Bible at Nyack College, New York City. His expertise is in Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament. His research interests include examining the Gospels and Acts as sources of ancient Jewish thought and practice, and the manner in which they preserve the traditions of the Sages and the Rabbis. He is co-editor (with R. Steven Notley) of The Gospels in First-Century Judaea (Brill, 2016) and has contributed to the Biblical Archaeology Review, Lexham Bible Dictionary (Lexham Press, 2016), and The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (Routledge, 2015).

What I was expecting was a detailed scholarly argument that went some way to addressing the alternative or at least modifying view that the gospels are in part indebted to Hellenism, or Greco-Roman literature. Not so, but something quite different.

Garcia, Jeffrey P. 2018. Understanding the Gospels as Ancient Jewish Literature. Jerusalem: Hendrickson

The book makes for an excellent gift for anyone who is a seriously interested beginner to the field. And the focus is entirely on the Jewish heritage in the gospels. It is only 40 pages but the pages are large and the print is small. Or maybe it appears small because there is so much on such large pages — yet one of the main attractions of the book is its abundant and colourful illustrations, photgraphic, diagrammatic, and maps. If it were a hard cover it could be said to be an excellent coffee table volume.

Yet, the Gospels, as we have them—despite the accretion of traditions (Roman, etc.) that come from early Christianity (2nd-3rd cent. AD) and the Evangelists’ own particular styles — remain, at their core, Jewish texts. They are part of the corpora known as Greco-Roman Jewish literature and are not some radical offshoot. While it must not be ignored that some parts of the Gospels have been influenced by early Christianity’s changing, although not yet separate relationship with the rest of Judaism, understanding how they function as sources of ancient Judaism is attainable. Therefore, the purpose of this work is not to recover the Jewish background of the Gospels, but to shed light on how they function as a source of ancient Jewish practice and culture and how that can help us to clarify some of the teachings attributed to Jesus by the Evangelists. (p. 5)

On the first page of the introduction there are photographs of Albert Schweitzer, Joseph Klausner, David Flusser and Schalom Ben Chorin, but unfortunately no discussion of their respective contributions. Apart from Flusser their names appear elsewhere only in the bibliography. There are handy marginal boxes serving as a ready reference glossary for key terms like Second Temple Judaism, Tannaitic Literature, Amoraic Midrashim, Mishnah, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and so forth. These and other marginal photographs make the book one to be consulted casually as an attractive reference.

The chapters discuss the various Jewish literatures within the gospel world (Second Temple writings, rabbinic literature), the geography of the stories covered by the gospels, Jewish life as evidenced in the gospels (home-life, clothing, religious groups, synagogues, women, the temple, and so forth), Jewish styles of teaching, political and ethical life, and finally “the gospels as the first literary witness to Jewish practice” such as naming on the eighth day, ritual fringes, sabbath synagoge attendance, and more. The text appears to be sound (as one would expect from Jeffrey P. Garcia) and caution comes through where scholars are less than certain about specific customs and events. If my eyes were younger they would certainly be able to handle the very information-crowded pages more easily.

I requested my copy with the offer to review it here, as I am doing now, and will follow up with a few of the lavishly illustrated pages. read more »