Category Archives: Book Reviews & Notes


2018-01-09

Socrates as Anti-Hero according to Biblical Law

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing directly on from my previous post I address here the two most well-known Athenian trials that mirror the Pentateuchal laws against private and innovative religious practices and deities.

We saw that biblical law condemned all worship that was not centred on the official public shrine or temple. Any form of insult towards the gods or violation of formally ordained rituals regarding offerings, sacrifices, etc was also condemned, often with the death penalty.

Interestingly we find records of the actual carrying out of these kinds of laws in fifth and fourth century BCE Athens.

Herms

415 BCE, mutilation of herms and the profaning of the Mysteries

In a single night all the stone herms standing in Athenian doorways and temples were mutilated. The perpetrators were unknown.

Tension was doubly high because Athens was about to send a naval expedition to Sicily in an attempt to turn the tide of their war with Sparta and the desecration was, so the historian Thucydides tells us, both an ill-omen and part of a political conspiracy against the state.

Pleas went out for anyone with any information at all to come forward. The only respondents were resident aliens and slaves who testified about some earlier desecrations

and also about the performance of the Mysteries in private houses . . . .

The scandal of sacrilege was avalanching on the eve of a vital military campaign and fears of anti-democratic traitors seeking to subvert the government.

Accusations flew and informers (true or false) came forward when promised immunity. Many were denounced for the mutilation of the herms and imprisoned. Thucydides again,

as for the accused, they held trials, and they executed all those who had been arrested and sentenced to death those who had fled, publicly offering money to anyone who killed them.

Enemies of a key political and military figure leading the Sicilian expedition, Alcibiades, sought to bring his career to an end by putting him on trial for performing private ceremonies of the Mysteries. Recall the requirement that honest worship be held in public according to set rituals at designated temples. Alcibiades was convicted though absent from the court and sentenced to death.

The term for his being charged for such a crime was eisangelia that is translated as “impeached”. Gmirkin discusses such “religious crimes” as tied up with legislation relating to treason against the state. And that’s how such deviations from socially sanctioned worship were treated in Athens — as threats to the welfare and survival of the political order of the state.

Specifically, Alcibiades was guilty of

  • imitating the Mysteries and showing them to his companions in his own house,
  • wearing a robe of the sort that the hierophant wears when he shows the sacred things,
  • and by naming himself hierophant
  • and by calling his other companions initiates

in violation of the lawful practices and rules established by . . . the priests of Eleusis. (Plutarch, Alcibiades, 22.4-5)

For those not aware of the story Alcibiades escaped from the Athenians to avoid execution.

One person who was arrested for both the mutilation of the herms and violation of the Mysteries but avoiding the death penalty when he turned informer was Andocides. He spent twelve years in exile but on his return was again accused and facing the death penalty because he “had illegally placed a suppliant-branch in the … temple of Demeter and Persephone in Athens.” In one account,

he has come into our city, sacrificed at the altars where he was not permitted, attended the sacred rites concerning which he had committed impiety [êsebêsen], entered the Eleusinion, and washed his hands with the holy water.

Andocides conducted his own defence and was acquitted.

When we read in the Bible of priests being struck dead for presuming to offer the wrong sort of fire in the temple, or of kings being condemned and cursed for offering sacrifices only certain priests were entitled to make, we can imagine the ancient Athenians thinking such legislation as quite appropriate for another god.

A better way?

Does anyone else see shades of political show trials in modern times? We can well imagine the atmosphere of fear, of informers, — and perhaps we need to pinch ourselves to realize that this was a demonstration of what the reality of the laws of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy would have meant.

Plato, however, after witnessing the execution of his teacher Socrates in this religious-political atmosphere, wrote what he considered would be a fairer refinement (or more just application) of such laws. We will look at his description of more “ideal legislation” and its similarities with the Pentateuch in another post.

Which brings us to the most famous of all victims of a law forbidding the introduction of a new god…… read more »


The Law of Moses, a Reflection of the Law that Condemned Socrates and Other Greek Philosophers

by Neil Godfrey

Posts in this series are archived at Gmirkin: Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

–o0o–

Details of Greeks condemned for impiety in this post are taken from Phillips, one of several works cited in Gmirkin’s book.

Popular culture presents us with an image of ancient classical Athens, the days of Pericles, of Socrates, the mocking playwrights and the democratic assemblies, as a time of free-thinking, exploratory enlightenment. It is difficult to imagine some of its laws being as benighted as those of the Taliban or Moses with summary executions for anyone deemed an apostate.

Imagine the following law of Deuteronomy being applied in fifth and fourth century BCE Athens. Or rather, try to imagine the following law of Deuteronomy being inspired by the Greek law. That means shifting time-line gears to imagine the biblical law being composed not in the archaic Bronze Age but in Hellenistic times, say around the third century BCE, and drawing upon Greek literature for its ideals and narrative contexts.

Deuteronomy 13:6-13

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death . . . .

If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known) . . . .

Could such a law that can be seen as an epitome of all that is barbaric about the Mosaic covenant have anything in common with democratic Athens?

The above law addresses not only the introduction of new gods but places some stress on this being done “secretly”. Compare Deuteronomy 12 where private worship and sacrifice is forbidden. All worship and sacrifice must be public, centred around the public shrine or temple.

Notice also that the law relies upon people listening to rumours and reporting these to an assembly who would arrange for an inquiry.

What about these laws?

I have inserted the Greek word translated sorceress (pharmakous) and sorcery (pharmakos) for old time’s sake. It reminds me of many years ago when we interpreted that injunction as a command against modern pharmaceutical products — and pharmacy itself, of course! — But the cruel insanity continues. I see today on a Christian blog the lesson that Christians according to Paul have the right to execute certain sinners today, but (fortunately) the civil power is all that stops them from the obligation to do so. 

Exodus 22:18

You shall not allow a sorceress (φαρμακοὺς) to live.

Leviticus 20:27

Now a man or a woman who is a medium or a spiritist shall surely be put to death.

Deuteronomy 18:10ff

Let no one be found among you who … practices divination or sorcery (φαρμακός), interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. . . .

I presume there is no need for me to remind us all of laws against blasphemy and insulting the deity.

Has there ever been a society where these laws were applied in reality? Or were they a literary fiction? A philosophical or theological ideal of certain factions of priests? (One of the details I find myself mildly critical of Gmirkin’s thesis is that he discusses both literary or theoretical legislation along with known official law-codes. Perhaps he is meaning to suggest that those responsible for the Pentateuchal laws drew upon both forms of law as recorded in the Alexandrian library without distinction. See previous posts in the archive for background discussion.)

Let’s see how it was in democratic Athens. We have already noted several of the “democratic” features of the Biblical code with its emphasis on investigations and decisions being made by local assemblies.

Aeschylus was rescued from stoning by the intercession of his brother

Stoned for impiety

Aeschylus, the tragedian, around early/mid fifth century BCE, was according to a late historical record tried by the Athenian assembly for impiety. He was apparently accused of revealing certain secret religious rites in one of his plays. The assembly was about to stone him for his crime, we are informed. He was only saved by the intercession of his brother who showed that he had been the first to win an award for valour for an action in which he lost his and in the recent war against Persia.

Death for denying, mocking or contradicting the gods

The philosopher Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, around 437/6 BCE, denied that the sun was a god and said it was, instead, merely a red-hot mass of stone. The Athenian assembly came within a few votes of sentencing him to death for this blasphemy after a prolonged trial. His student, Pericles, pleaded for his life. One account indicates that the stress took its toll on Anaxoragas to the extent that he committed suicide.

Speaking against or failing to respect the worship of the gods

Diagoras of Melos around 410 BCE was living in Athens where he was accused of disparaging the Mysteries and causing many to turn away from following the rituals, or according to another version, “he described the Mysteries in detail to everyone, making them common and insignificant, and dissuading those who wished to be initiated”. The Athenian assembly imposed the penalty of death upon him. He was not present at his trial but the assembly offered a reward of a talent of silver to anyone who killed him and two talents of silver to anyone who brought him back alive to face the Athenian assembly.

Death to Agnostics

According to an account by Sextus Empiricus of the later second century CE Protagoras of Abdera, like Diagoras of Melos also around the 410s BCE, wrote

Concerning gods, I am able to say neither whether they exist nor of what sort they are, since the obstacles hindering me are many.

Another, Diogenes Laertius a little later, concurred. Protagoras, he said, wrote

Concerning gods, I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist, since the obstacles to knowing are many: the uncertainty, and the fact that a man’s life is short.

The Athenian assembly accordingly voted to condemn him to death. One account informs us that luckily he escaped by ship, but unluckily his ship was wrecked and he drowned. Don’t mess with the gods.

Death for privately introducing new gods, and “sorcery (pharmacy?)

read more »


2018-01-06

Jihad and Death: The Hero and the Aesthetics of Violence

by Neil Godfrey

What inspires the most lethal assailants today is not so much the Quran but a thrilling cause and a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. (Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution, 2015)

Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. (Scott Atran, … On Violent Extremism…, 2015)

To be in a revolutionary vanguard is an exciting thing. I was once part of just such a fantasy in the religious realm. We saw ourselves as pioneers, a very select few, called to witness to the coming apocalypse, to witness the destruction of society and to be exalted as glorified leaders in the new utopian world to follow. And if we died as martyrs before that transition, then our glory would be truly great.

Olivier Roy in Jihad and Death appears to concur with Atran’s perspective but with a difference. Roy stresses not so much the thrill of seeking to bring about revolution and millennial future but the black nihilism of the entire exercise.

A consistent characteristic of the jihadists, Roy says, is responding to a feeling of humiliation and being dominated by taking on the role of an “avenger” and “lone hero”. A lone hero, yes, but the group is most important, too, because it is the group that will eulogize him when he gets blown up or shot leading an assault.

Radicals’ obituaries are a succession of hagiographies, and even the body of the martyr is above the fate of the everyman: he is handsome and has a sweet smell, or he is sublimated in the explosion. (Jihad and Death, p. 49)

Roy finds most striking the “extraordinary narcissistic posturing” of these jihadists.

They broadcast themselves in self-produced videos before, during, and after their actions (posthumous videos). They pose on Facebook:

  • Salah Abdeslam posted a picture of himself holding the ISIS flag three weeks before the 13 November 2016 attacks in Paris (proof once again that the taqiyya—dissimulation—argument used to explain the normal life of the terrorists is unconvincing).
  • Coulibaly called French television stations while he was holding hostage the customers of the Hyper Cacher market on the outskirts of Paris.
  • Omar Mateen posted selfies while he was shooting his victims in Orlando.
  • Abdelhamid Abaaoud had himself filmed in Syria dragging enemy corpses. Larossi Abballa left statements on Facebook while he was still in the house of the murdered police officers,
  • and Adel Kermiche told his friends that they would be able to stream a video of the murder of Father Hamel in real time.

It is acting out the glory of the superhero in a movie or videogame.

A typical cliche is that of the future hero whose destiny is not at first clear, as he leads an empty or too-normal life. And then he receives the call (taken in its religious sense of a sudden vocation, but with reference to the popular video game “Call of Duty”) and turns into an almost supernatural, omnipotent character.

The narrative draws upon the mythical image of the first followers of Muhammad, to martyrdom and the right to sex slaves, to the conquest of deserts and cities.

A scene from film Salò

But this master narrative also fits within a very modern aesthetics of heroism and violence. Their video-editing techniques (fast cutting, succession of images, voice-over, slow motion used to dramatic effect, haunting modern music, juxtaposition of different scenes, targets plastered over faces) are those of video clips and reality television. Violence is theatricalized and scripted in sophisticated videos. Many executions are known to have been rehearsed prior to filming, which in some cases might explain the apparent passivity of the hostages.

This “barbarity” does not belong to times past: it makes use of a “Sadean” code such as that dramatized by Pier Paolo Pasolini in the film Salò (1975). A small, all-powerful group in a restricted space, united by an ideology, asserts all rights over life as well as sex. But this all-powerfulness takes on two different aspects: the law of the group and the staging of self. None of them can satisfy their desires on their own, none of them can rape at will: rape must be theatricalized and involve the group. As in the film Salò, in ISIS territory sex slaves are exhibited, exchanged, and forced into sexual behaviors that have nothing “matrimonial” about them. They are tortured and killed. But the group member who acts out of view of the others and without their approval is a transgressor and is executed in turn. Sharia, more than a legal system, is in this case a metaphor for the rules of the group, which has become a sect. (Jihad and Death, p. 50)

Thus Roy sees the ISIS as having set up a real-life “gaming space”. The heroes have a vast desert through which they can ride in their four-wheel drives, “hair and flags blowing in the wind, guns raised, fraternity exhibited by the uniform, often similar to the ninja model.”

Young losers from destitute suburbs become handsome, and plenty of young girls on Facebook go into raptures over their look. The video game turns into an epic adventure in a huge playground. (p. 51)


read more »


2018-01-02

Who Depoliticized Early Christianity?

by Tim Widowfield

Who killed Jesus and why?

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

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

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

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

Englewood Dam

A narrow, precarious path

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

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

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


2018-01-01

Jihad and Death, part 2. “The Avenging Hero of the Suffering Muslim Community”

by Neil Godfrey

This post is a continuation from Jihad and Death, the global appeal of Islamic State.

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Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts. Some are involved in drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes. MI5 says there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation. (Alan Travis, “MI5 Report Challenges Views on Terrorism in Britain,” The Guardian, 20 August 2008).

As a result of the above MI5 conclusion and similar findings by other professional researchers Olivier Roy concludes in Jihad and Death

But as we have seen, jihadis do not descend into violence after poring over the sacred texts. They do not have the necessary religious culture—and, above all, care little about having one. They do not become radicals because they have misread the texts or because they have been manipulated. They are radicals because they choose to be, because only radicalism appeals to them. No matter what database is taken as a reference, the paucity of religious knowledge among jihadis is patent. (p. 42)

Yet often we read commentaries by persons who seek explanations for terrorism in the religious texts of Islam. After all, those texts are within easy reach and would appear to offer easy answers. There is a problem, however. Reading sacred texts is not analysing the minds and personalities of the terrorists themselves. Roy himself puts part of the blame for this misguided approach on “the profound secularization of both our societies and our knowledge” so that we end up having “only a textual approach to religion, disregarding what [he calls] religiosity.”

Theology basically involves interpreting scriptures in a comprehensive discursive system that isolates dogma from all the rest: emotion, imagination, aesthetics, and so on. But what is at work here is precisely religiosity — in other words, the way in which the believer experiences religion and appropriates elements of theology, practices, imaginaries, and rites, to construct a transcendency for himself — and not religion. In the case of the jihadi, this construction places him in contempt of life: his own and that of others. (pp. 42-43, my bolding in all quotations)

Incantatory logic

The jihadi is infused less with “the methodological tradition of exegesis of the Prophets” than with visions of heroism and violence. The theology provides a veneer of “proof-texting” (my term, not Roy’s) rationalization for those visions. Such verses become incantations, or a Christian fundamentalist’s “proof-texts” or ideological slogans.

When young jihadis speak of “truth,” it is never in reference to discursive knowledge. They are referring to their own certainty, sometimes supported by an incantatory reference to the shuyukh, the sheikhs, whom they have never read. In them they thus find whatever they put there themselves. The linkage between their imaginary and science is brought about by two things: terminology (peppering ones French or English with Arabic words) and the brutal, non-discursive affirmation of a verse or a hadith, made up of one or two sentences at most, such as the famous verse: “Do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are allies of one another.” Short texts such as these are thrown up in peoples faces (just as the Red Guards threw Mao quotes in each others faces), without ever referring to other texts, let alone seeking a more overall logical significance. . . . . Radicals talk less about religion than Salafis do: their posts and their texts revolve more around action than religion. The circulation of religious texts is secondary with al-Qaeda, central in ISIS propaganda, incantatory among radicals. Their reading material is found mostly on the internet: al-Awlaki is very popular because he speaks English. (pp. 43-44)

The Avenging Hero

The “imaginary” that Olivier Roy believes to be the true interest of the jihadi terrorist is primarily that of “the avenging hero of the suffering Muslim community”. On what does he base this view? On what the terrorists themselves say. The same themes recur with them but Roy takes the words of the leader of the group responsible for the July 2005 London bombings, Mohammed Siddique Khan, as representative of their motivations:

1. Khan begins by citing the atrocities of the Western nations against the “Muslim people” (in the transcript he says, “my people all over the world”);

2. next, Kahn announces himself as fulfilling the role of the avenging hero (“I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters,” “Now you too will taste the reality of this situation”);

3. finally, he announces his love of death (“We love death as much as you love life”), and his confidence of entering heaven (“May Allah … raise me amongst those whom I love like the prophets, the messengers, the martyrs,” etc.).

The same vengeance motivation was dramatized by ISIS executioners when they made their victims suffer the same way as Muslims (e.g. wearing Guantanamo dress, being burned alive or blown up). read more »


2017-12-31

Jihad and Death, the global appeal of Islamic State

by Neil Godfrey

Now that Islamic State has been defeated in the most prominent of its several bases it may not be a bad idea to extend our understanding of what we have just witnessed and its likely ongoing ramifications.

Olivier Roy

There is something terribly modern about the jihadi terrorist violence that has unfolded in the past twenty years or so.

Of course, neither terrorism nor jihad is a new phenomenon. Forms of “globalized” terrorism . . . developed as early as the late nineteenth century with the anarchist movement, culminating in the first manifestation of global terrorism with the alliance formed by the Baader-Meinhof gang, Palestinian extreme left groups, and the Japanese Red Army in the 1970s. As for the reference to jihad, it is found in the Quran and regularly resurfaces in the Muslim world—particularly through the term mujahid, characteristic of the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and the Afghan resistance.

What is new is the association of terrorism and jihadism with the deliberate pursuit of death.

Those are the opening lines of Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State by Olivier Roy, translated from French by Cynthia Schoch. The book has been noticed with reviews easy to find on the web — in Church Times, The Economist, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, Haaretz, Jihad WatchMiddle East Media and Book Reviews Online, The National, New York Journal of Books, Our Daily ReadThe Times. . . .

Most of history’s terrorists are on record as carefully planning their escape. Olivier Roy sees the current wave Islamic State inspired terrorists as fundamentally a nihilistic youth movement. The perpetrators are not as a rule long and deeply immersed in Islam; on the contrary, their sentiments of fervent religiosity are expressed by a smattering of decontextualized “proof texts” and surface only in a matter of weeks or months before those perpetrators embark on their ultimate goal of a suicide mission. Before that time, and even during that same period, their lives are stained by unreligious practices — petty crime, alcohol, sex, drugs — but suicide, they believe will atone for all of their sins and even grant apostate family members a path to paradise.

It is a generational movement, Roy argues, comparable to the terror once wreaked by China’s Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution and by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The old Islam of their parents is to be wiped out to make way for the original faith and practice. But they are not even making room for a new society; they seek death.

The caliphate is a fantasy. It is the myth of an ideological entity constantly expanding its territory. Its strategic impossibility explains why those who identify with it, instead of devoting themselves to the interests of local Muslims, have entered a death pact. There is no political perspective, no bright future, not even a place to pray in peace.

Roy speaks of the Islamization of radicalism. He rejects the notion that it is Islam that is being radicalized. No, it is the other way around today. Fundamentalism, he argues, does not produce violence. Other factors contribute to violence. Islam, moreover, condemns suicide missions of the type longed for by modern day Islamist terrorists, because it anticipates God’s will. The suicide bomber does not allow God to decide the time of his or her death and is for that reason condemned by even Salafi Muslims.

But while the concept of the caliphate is indeed part of the Muslim religious imaginary, the same is not true for the pursuit of death. Salafism, accused of all kinds of evils, condemns suicide because it anticipates Gods will. Salafism is primarily concerned with codifying individual behavior: it regulates everything, including the use of violence. Salafis are not out to die. Instead, obsessed by salvation, they need life in order to prepare to meet their Lord at the end of an earthly existence led according to its rites and rituals. (Roy, p. 4)

There is no military or strategic advantage to be won by ongoing suicide operations. Yes, we know about asymmetrical warfare and the power and even success achieved by small bands against organized national armies. But suicide attacks lose trained and hardened warriors every time. The goal as set out in radical manifestos is to fan further radicalization, especially among Muslim communities. Hence most targets are Muslims in the Middle East, not Westerners.

I believe that the systematic association with death is one of the keys to today’s radicalization: the nihilist dimension is central. What fascinates is pure revolt, not the construction of a utopia. Violence is not a means. It is an end in itself. It is violence devoid of a future. If this were not the case, it would be merely an option instead of a norm and a conscious choice.

But what about the lone wolf nutter?

The genius of ISIS is to offer young volunteers the narrative framework within which they can achieve their aspirations. So much the better for ISIS if other volunteers to die—psychopaths, people with suicidal tendencies, or rebels without a cause—have little to do with the movement, but are prepared to play out a scenario that lends their personal despair a global dimension. (p. 5)

It’s not easy reading interpretations like Roy’s. I look forward to what other specialists in the field have to say about his book, but so far he does not seem very far removed from what several of them have written.

If so, it will surely pass, just as other nihilistic and suicidal “fashions” among youth in the past have passed. That doesn’t make the present any easier, of course, and it leaves us apprehensive of what might follow.

This association of course does not cover the entire issue. It is perfectly conceivable that other, more “rational,” forms of terrorism might soon emerge on the scene. It is also possible that this form of terrorism is merely temporary and that the protest will take on other forms, perhaps more political ones. (p. 5)

 

 


2017-12-16

Was the name “Jesus” too common to belong to a divinity or archangel?

by Neil Godfrey

….. In surveying references to angels during this time, one of the most common features in the names of angels is the appearance of the element of ‘el’.53 This survey reveals that the most common angelic characters of this period were named Michael, Gabriel, Sariel/Uriel, and Raphael.54 In other words, a prosopographical analysis of the names of the particular angels known to Jews in the Second Temple period shows that the name Jesus does not conform to the way angelic beings were designated as such. Because the name Jesus is never associated with an angelic figure, nor does the name conform to tropes of celestial beings within Judaism, Carrier’s assertions are unconvincing.55

Furthermore, studies of Second Temple names found in Jewish texts, ossuaries, and inscriptions only associate the name Jesus with human figures. The name Jesus was so common and widespread it was one of the six most popular names for Jewish males.56 This commonality is particularly on display when Josephus distinguishes between the different Jesus figures of the period, such as Jesus, son of Gamaliel, who served as high priest during the Maccabean period, as well as Jesus, son of Daminos, who served as high priest in 62-63 ce, only to be succeeded by Jesus, son of Sapphias, who served from 64-65 ce. Similarly, within early Christian literature, Jesus’ name and the power associated with it is presented as Jesus the Christ (Ιησούς Χριστός)’, likewise distinguishing him from the other Jesus figures of the time.57 Carrier’s argument does not adequately explain why an angelic figure would have a name so commonly associated with human beings, let alone one which does not conform to typical angelic naming conventions. At no point does an angel or celestial being called Jesus appear within Second Temple Judaism, and Jesus’ exhibits all the signs of a mundane name given to a human Jewish male within the period.

Gullotta, D. N. (2017). On Richard Carrier’s Doubts. Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 15(2–3), 310–346. https://doi.org/10.1163/17455197-0150200 pp. 326-328

That sounds like a reason to be very cautious about accepting a hypothesis that a divinity would be named Jesus but it is also a double sided coin. The fact is that Jews did accept the name Jesus for a divinity or supernaturally exalted being worthy of worship. We know early Christians were quite capable of assigning a new name to a person to indicate a significant change of role or status. What if the historical Jesus had been named Simon (the most common male Jewish name of the time) or Joseph or John? How likely are they to have felt comfortable singing the praises of Dear John or Joe, John Christ, Simon Christ? If we imagine that living with even more common names than Jesus identifying their heavenly Christ then what are we to make of them sticking with Jesus even though that was one of the top half dozen most ordinary names known?

John Moles

Sometimes a discipline can benefit from injection of new ideas from another field of study and I think a way out of the above conundrum is to be found in a 2011 Histos article by the classicist John Moles, Jesus the Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Early Christianity

I have discussed Moles’ article before at

and

The full text of the 66 page article is available at the above link to the title Jesus the Healer.

The classicist was not a mythicist, but in the abstract to his article he did talk about the mutual benefits of closer interdisciplinary efforts between the Classics and Biblical Studies departments:

Abstract. This paper argues that the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles contain sustained and substantial punning on the name of ‘Jesus’ as ‘healer’ and explores the implications for the following: the interpretation and appreciation of these texts, including the question of whether (if at all) they function as Classical texts and the consequences of an affirmative (however qualified): present-day Classicists should be able to ‘speak to them’ and they in turn should ‘respond’ to such Classical addresses, to the benefit not only of New Testament scholarship but also of Classicists, who at a stroke acquire five major new texts; the constituent traditions of these texts; the formation, teaching, mission, theology, and political ideology of the early Jesus movement, and its participation in a wider, public, partly textual, and political debate about the claims of Christianity; and the healing element of the historical Jesus’ ministry.

Jason being regurgitated by the snake: Image via Wikipedia

I won’t repeat the detail I covered in my earlier posts but will mention just a few items that hopefully will encourage interested readers to consult the originals. Moles points out the importance of puns in this context:

Much scholarship over the last four decades has demonstrated the importance of puns and name puns in Classical societies, cultures and literatures, including historiography and biography. (p. 125)

Moles discusses in some detail the significance and role of the god and hero Jason in Hellenistic Greek culture. Jason was a healer and a type of dying and rising (through the mouth of a serpent) god. Jesus is the Jewish equivalent the name Jason:

The Palestinian Jewish Jesus bore the very popular name ישוע (‘Joshua’), which means something like ‘Yahweh [or ‘Yah’—shortened form] saves’.45 The Jewish-Greek form of the name, found in the NT, is ‘Ιησούς, whence our ‘Jesus’. Bilingual and etymological puns on the meaning of ‘Joshua’/’Ιησούς as ‘Yahweh saves’, alike in the Gospels and Acts (as we shall see), and in the letters of Paul and of others in the NT, are clear and acknowledged in some of the more linguistically alert scholarship.46 But there is a crucial additional factor: Jews who bore the name ישוע and wanted a straight Greek equivalent chose ‘Ιάσων (Ionic form Ίησων, modern ‘Jason’): an equivalence attested in official and governmental contexts.47 This Greek name actually means ‘healer’ (~ ίάομaι) and readily produces etymological puns.48 Jews who adopted Greek names generally tried to adopt ones nearest in form and meaning to the original. So not only do Ιησούς, the Greek-Jewish form of ‘Joshua’ and the name of a renowned Jewish ‘healer’, and ‘Ιάσων, the Greek form of ‘Ιησούς/’Joshua’ and a name which actually means ‘healer’, look similar and mean similar things: from a Hellenistic Jewish perspective, they are actually the same name, as any Jew with a modicum of Greek would have known.49 For us it is of course completely immaterial in this sort of context whether they are actually the same name.

Not only was ‘healing’ by ,Ιησούς a central part of his ministry, there was a much larger Jewish healing context in the period.50 Solomon had a great first-century reputation as a healer Jos.
. . . . Not only was ‘healing’ by ‘Ιησούς a central part of his ministry, there was a much larger Jewish healing context in the period. Solomon had a great first-century reputation as a healer . . . The Essenes—frequent comparators of Jesus in modern scholarship—were celebrated as healers . . . , which their very name may mean. While ‘Therapeutae’, the name of the Egyptian Jewish women philosophers, probably means ‘attendants’, both the Jewish Philo . . . and the Christian Eusebius . . . readily connect it with ‘healing’ (which the Therapeutai certainly practised). A few years after Jesus, the Galilaean charismatic Hanina ben Dosa performed similar healings to Jesus’. The Qumran community . . . expected an ‘anointed one’ who would ‘restore sight to the blind, straighten the bent …, heal the wounded, and give life to the dead’ . . . The ‘healing’ of ‘Ιησούς is thus writ all the larger, because he was certainly the greatest Jewish ‘healer’ of the time, and because from the Christian point of view, from the very beginning, and ever afterwards, he was the greatest healer of any race or culture at any time.

There are also wider considerations. . . . (p. 127)

There is an inevitable link between the concepts of saving and healing, and Moles has much to say about the two names together. Example,

[Jason] derives from the pagan goddess of healing who is called Ίάσω (Ίήσω in Ionic) . . .  Thus on the Greek side Ίάσων is a human name derived from a god’s: a theophoric name, just as on the Jewish side side ישוע is a human name derived from ‘Yahweh’. Furthermore, for the early Christians, this [Jesus] is in some sense, and to some degree, himself a divine figure. There is also a simple matter of sound. Ιησούς, Ίάσων and Ίάσω not only look very similar: they sound very similar. And the sound of names is very important. There is also a matter of extended meaning. There can be important links between ‘saving’, the basic meaning of ‘Joshua’, undeniably punned on in the NT, and ‘healing’, both at the levels of divine and qausi-divine and alike in medical, religious/social and political contexts. Given these links and the sound factor, one even wonders whether the many Greek speakers who knew that the Jewish god was denoted by ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Yah’ could also ‘hear’ both Ίη/σούς and Ίά/σων as ‘Yah saves’ directly, because -σοΰς and – σων could evoke σώζω and σώς, and whether bilingual speakers could even regard the Greek σώζω and the Hebrew verb as cognates.” (pp. 128-9)

I cannot set out all the detail here. Read the article. Except just one more, a gospel read through a classicist’s eyes:

Many Classicists nowadays, I think, would already feel that Mark’s dramatic and emphatic foregrounding of Jesus’ ‘healing ministry’ is underpinned by the very name of Jesus, which seems to be deployed both strategically (1.1, 9, 14, 17) and locally (1.24–5; 2.5, 8) in a telling way. The logic would be that the combination of Jesus’ much-repeated name, which means ‘healer’, with the lexicon of ‘tending’ and ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’ effects ‘punning by synonym’, a process further helped by the intrinsic importance attached to names (both of exorcist and demon) in exorcisms, whether Jewish or pagan. Certainly, in Mark, as in the others, use of Jesus’ name increases—sometimes dramatically—in healing contexts. By comparison with Classical texts (with which, as we have seen, Mark has some affinities), such punning would be quite elementary, naive even, by comparison with a text such as Pindar’s Fourth Pythian, which puns in subtle and allusive ways on ‘Jason’ as ‘healer’.

Back to our conundrum. . . . read more »


2017-12-14

Gullotta’s Review of Carrier’s OHJ: A Brief Comment

by Neil Godfrey

Before I address specific points of Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus here is my overall assessment.

Despite having the appearance of a comprehensive review of the primary argument of OHJ (37 pages that includes a detailed background discussion on “who Carrier is” certainly has all the appearance of being comprehensive) Gullotta has failed to convey Carrier’s method of evaluating the evidence for and against the historicity of Jesus.

On the contrary, Gullotta’s discussion of selected arguments in OHJ turns out to be misleading because of what it fails to observe.

For example, although Gullotta criticizes some aspects of Carrier’s analysis of the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19, he fails to point out that in the final analysis that Carrier weights the evidence of that verse in favour of historicity! Carrier is arguing his mythicist case a fortiori so that although he personally argues for broad contextual and stylistic reasons that that the appellation does not supports the historicity of Jesus, he acknowledges the historical Jesus viewpoint and weights that phrase as being 100% what would be expected if Jesus were indeed historical.

That is, Carrier concedes in the final weighting of the evidence that Galatians 1:19 favours the case for the historical Jesus.

So how can Carrier still argue mythicism?

The answer to that question is unfortunately where Gullotta’s review fails its readers.

All Bayesian analysis does is provide a symbolic mnemonic to help one (1) be sure nothing is overlooked in assessing all the available evidence that relates to a particular historical question and (2) keep in mind the need to carefully evaluate each piece of that evidence. It serves as a mnemonic to help one guard against tunnel-vision solutions or what I call simplistic “proof-texting” in historical inquiry.

I recently quoted the historian G.R. Elton’s warning about the nature of responsible historical inquiry:

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence that will answer a particular question (G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, p.88)

If that’s what historical research is not, Elton goes on to explain what it is:

it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p.88)

Bayesian formula represent what we know of relevant background information and all the contextual factors, for and against, relating to a particular hypothesis. They are nothing but a set of tools to help lead us away from the pitfalls of “confirmation bias” and otherwise failing to give due weight to how the evidence stacks up both for and against one’s hypothesis.

On the Historicity of Jesus is not just another series of arguments for the mythicist Jesus. It is an attempt to set out all of the evidence both for and against the hypothesis and to find a way to validly weight the many variables before coming to a tentative and probabilistic conclusion.

Leave the proof-texting level of argument to the apologists. A professional historical inquiry follows Elton’s advice. There is indeed some evidence that even an “anti-mythicist” recognizes as problematic for the simplistic proof-texting use of Galatians 1:19 to settle the question. (See my post on A.D. Howell Smith’s discussion from his book Jesus Not a Myth.)

Perhaps Carrier has worked “too hard” to be “too comprehensive” in OHJ and by adding too much of his own arguments for or against particular interpretations of certain passages in the New Testament epistles he has exposed himself to criticisms that in fact deflect from the main argument. Some of his “newer”(?) interpretations might have been better tested (and potentially refined over the long term) by being published in journals prior to their appearing “raw” in the book.

I also have my disagreements with several of Carrier’s arguments and interpretations. (I have posted some of those on this blog.) At the same time, any criticism of Carrier’s overall thesis, in order to be valid, does need to do more than argue against any of those specific arguments.

A critical review of Carrier’s work needs to acknowledge the a fortiori approach of Carrier’s method (giving as much weight as reasonably possible to the historical Jesus case — even to granting Galatians 1:19 is exactly consistent with the historical Jesus case!) and to address the totality of the evidence and background information that needs to be brought to the table in a historical investigation that would rise to the standards of a G.R. Elton.

 


2017-12-13

Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

Having just read Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus I expect to be posting over the coming weeks a series of analytical responses. In the meantime, some overview thoughts.

Firstly, the choice of journal for this review, The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. One of the editors of JSHJ effectively declared that the editorial board is hostile to the very idea of Jesus mythicism. In December 2014 an article by Michael Bird was published in On Line Opinion: Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate, and a month later on his college’s website, that stated the following:

The Jesus mythicists are a group of enthusiastic atheists who through websites and self-published books try to prove the equivalent of a flat earth. I serve on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, where we have an editorial team of people from all faiths and none, celebrated experts in their fields; and I can tell you that the Jesus mythicist nonsense would never get a foot in the door of a peer-reviewed journal committed to the academic study of the historical Jesus.

That gives you at least some idea what to expect of any discussion of mythicism that is published in JSHJ. (Daniel Gullotta, a doctoral student, surely knew the bias of JSHJ before he submitted it for their consideration.) Unfortunately, Gullotta’s concluding paragraph does not belie expectations, and ironically declares that a shortfall in “academic detachment” is the problem of the mythicists:

Scholars, however, may rightly question whether Carrier’s work and those who evangelize it exhibit the necessary level of academic detachment.130 If David L. Barrett was right, ‘That every generation discovers the historical Jesus that it needs’, then it is not surprising that a group with a passionate dislike for Jesus (and his ancient and modern associates) has found what they were looking for: a Jesus who conveniently does them the favor of not existing anywhere except in the imagination of deluded fundamentalists in the past and present.131 Whereas mythicists will accuse scholars of the historical Jesus of being apologists for the theology of historic Christianity, mythicists may in turn be accused of being apologists for a kind of dogmatic atheism. But while some have no doubt found their champion in Richard Carrier and his version of mythicism, like others before him, his quest has been in vain. Despite their hopes, the historical Jesus lives on.

———-

130 A concern shared by Bart D. Ehrman, Maurice Casey, and also Carrier. See Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, pp. 334-339; Casey, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, p. viii; Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 14.

131 Quoted from David L. Barrett, The Historical Jesus and the Life of Faith’, in The Christian Century 109 (May 6,1992), pp. 489-493.

(the bolding is mine)

A passionate dislike for Jesus? Dogmatic atheism? That would be a huge surprise to the mythicists Thomas Brodie, Robert M. Price, Herman Detering, Tom Harpur, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Francesco Carotta, René Salm, G.A. Wells, P.L. Couchoud (and a good number of other Christ Myth authors of yesteryear), certainly myself, not to mention others who are fence-sitters on the question such as Hector Avalos, Arthur Droge and Kurt Noll.

Nor, quite frankly, do I detect even in Richard Carrier’s atheistic writings a “passionate dislike for Jesus” nor an endorsement for New Atheism. (I substitute New Atheism for Dogmatic Atheism because I am not quite sure what Dogmatic Atheism is supposed to mean. I am certainly an atheist and by no means a fence-sitter on that question, but I do deplore the rise of what was for a few years labelled the New Atheism, a movement that I think would have been better labelled Anti-Theistic rather than Atheist.)

For the record, I cannot see that it makes the slightest bit of difference to any atheist whether Jesus was a historical person or not. The simple fact that atheists also populate the pro-historical Jesus biblical studies academic guild as well as being found among the ranks of mythicists ought to testify soundly enough to that point. Jesus is a cultural icon. He has served many causes to which atheists and any number of other religionists have associated themselves.

Anyway, back to the substance of Gullotta’s review. It is thirty-seven A4 pages long (310-346) so don’t expect a comprehensive critical review soon or in a single post. Gullotta’s review is packed with footnotes and the time gap separating my responses will largely depend upon how accessible I find most of those citations. (Yes, I’m one of those who does read all the fine print and follows up as many footnotes as possible.) read more »


2017-12-11

The Hurtado-Carrier debate has become unpleasant

by Neil Godfrey

There is no justification for public intellectuals, for trained leaders in public opinion and attitudes, for any kind of professional, to publish the following:

Earlier posts in this series: Reply to Larry Hurtado; On Larry Hurtado’s response; Focus – but not blinkered, and others addressing Jesus mythicism and historical methods more generally.

Gee, Dr. Carrier, You’re Really Upset!

Carrier and the mythicists are unhinged nutbags and Maurice Casey proved it years ago in his last book.

Larry Hurtado vs. the Jesus Mythicists

All power to Larry Hurtado, he kicked the beehive of crazy, amateur, angry conspiracy theorists who deny that the historical Jesus existed. Read his blog posts here and here, and the comments show just how inane, vapid, and vacuous Jesus mythicism is.

Gee, Dr. Carrier, You’re Really Upset!

If you want to read a blogger going ape-shit, troll through Richard Carrier’s recent belligerent, intemperate response (here) to my posting in which I showed that his three claims that supposedly corroborate his “mythical Jesus” view are all incorrect.  It’s really quite amusing, or maybe sad. . . .

Richard Carrier as False Prophet

Calling Carrier a False Prophet is Too Complimentary. The Truth is, He’s an Absurdity

All the above are the “Christian” scholars who claim the moral high ground over Richard Carrier’s known penchant for calling certain others “liars” and “lazy” and “bizarre”. You will say I am biased, but I honestly could not see most of what I read of Carrier’s posts as “intemperate”, “ape-shit” “rants”. I was reminded how easy it is to approach the work of a person we don’t like and imaginatively read into it a hostile tone that a more neutral person would simply fail to see. If you think I am bound to defend Carrier, then understand (1) that Carrier and I disagree on a number of points of argument, and (2) that I do feel uncomfortable with Carrier’s accusations of lying and other “language” against some of his critics.

I wish he would write the same way he talks in live debates in front of audiences.

In the past I know I have come to the brink of the same kind of accusation (of lying and blatant dishonesty) against one or two others. I wish I had the grace and skill of a Michael Goulder who could use humour to undercut the unprofessional responses of some of his critics, or of an Earl Doherty who could respond with a light-hearted fun-yet-serious article against bitter sarcasm that had been aimed at him.

The unfortunate reality is that once a person who is not in a position of power accuses another of lying then they put themselves on the defensive, no matter how powerful they momentarily feel for making the accusation. They become all-too-easy targets of those in power who feel no need to defend themselves.

Besides, even the worst of us rarely believe they are lying; or if deep-down they do, then they believe it is justifiable for the greater good.

I have come to think that it is better to do all one can in order to stick to a calm, reasoned, analytical response and let the readers draw their own conclusions, if necessary, about professional dishonesty. Let the facts speak for themselves, in other words.

I’d love Carrier and his supporters to take a step back and focus on regaining the moral high ground, the genuinely scholarly tone, even under the extreme provocations of unprofessional, childish, bitter, fearful and outrageously false attacks.

The scholars we recall with most admiration, often enough, are those who do manage to maintain their cool and respond professionally, even with humour, under extreme provocation.

I have no hope for the likes of the scholars I cited at the opening of this post. They evidently have most to lose and are reacting like fearful children. The onus is on the outsider to expose their unprofessionalism by example and humility.

 

 


2017-12-01

How Ehrman’s Gospel “Truth” Gives a Pass to Trump’s “Truth” of Fake Videos

by Neil Godfrey

“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders told reporters. “[Trump’s] goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

At least one of the videos was later described as “fake” by a Dutch news outlet. Sanders said that didn’t matter. “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders told reporters. “[Trump’s] goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”Sanders continued, criticizing reporters for pressing her on whether Trump should verify the content of videos before sharing them with his 43 million followers on Twitter.“I’m not talking about the nature of the video. I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing,” she said. “The threat is real, and that’s what the president is talking about.” (Gabby Morrongellio, Sarah Sanders defends Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets: ‘Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real’ in The Washington Examiner, Nov 29, 2017)

I’ve heard something like that before.

Think . . . .

Yes, that’s right, I remember now. That’s the logic used by scholars who attempt to defend the “fake” stories in the gospels as being somehow “true”.

Bart Ehrman earlier this year wrote about True Stories That Did Not Happen and reminded his readers of what he wrote nearly twenty years ago:

There are stories in the Gospels that did not happen historically as narrated, but that are meant to convey a truth. . . . But the notion that the Gospel accounts are not 100 percent accurate, while still important for the religious truths they try to convey, is widely shared in the scholarly guild . . . .

Can there be such a thing as a true story that didn’t happen? We certainly don’t normally talk that way: if we say that something is a “true story,” we mean that it’s something that happened. But actually, that itself is a funny way of putting it. . . . 

In fact, almost all of us realize this when we think about it. Just about everyone I’ve ever known was told at some point during grade school the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. As a young boy, George takes the ax to his father’s tree. When his father comes home, he demands, “Who cut down my cherry tree,” and young George, who is a bit inclined toward mischief but does turn out to be an honest lad, replies, “I cannot tell a lie; I did it.”

As it turns out (to the chagrin of some of my students!), this story never happened. We know this for a fact, because the person who fabricated it — a fellow called Parson Weems — later fessed up to the deed. But if the story didn’t happen, why do we continue to tell it? Because on some level, or possibly on a number of levels, we think it’s true.

On the one hand, the story has always served, though many people possibly never realized it, as a nice piece of national propaganda. . . . The United States is founded on honesty. It cannot tell a lie. . . . 

On the other hand . . . the story functions to convey an important lesson in personal morality. People shouldn’t lie. . . . . And so I myself have told the story and believed it, even though I don’t think it ever happened.

The Gospels of the New Testament contain stories kind of like that, stories that may convey truths, at least in the minds of those who told them, but that are not historically accurate. (Ehrman, B. D. (1999). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press. pp. 30-31)

More recently, in Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (2016) Erhman goes so far as to describe historical truth in the sense of factual truth as a matter of “dry, banal, and frankly rather uninteresting to anyone except people with rather peculiar antiquarian interests” in “brute facts“. (p. 229)

Same with the ugly stories of Judas. read more »


2017-10-26

Those Hellenistic and Hellenizing Maccabees and Pharisees

by Neil Godfrey

We think of Hellenism as the enemy against which the Maccabees fought to the death. But consider the following . . . .

To celebrate the recapturing and re-dedication of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE the Maccabees instituted the festival of Hannukah [=Dedication]:

Judah and his brethren and the whole congregation of Israel ordained, that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their seasons year by year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, with gladness and joy.

There is a deep irony here that Elias Bickerman identifies in his 1947 essay on the Maccabees when he writes

By instituting this festival Judah and his people declared themselves the true Israel. Their act was one of far-reaching significance, for all previous festivals were prescribed in Scripture. Never had a festival been instituted in Israel by human hand. Even the restoration of the Temple after the Babylonian Exile had not been solemnized by the establishment of a day of commemoration. Judah’s measure was therefore an innovation without precedent. On the other hand, it was in complete accord with the usage of the Gentiles. Among the Greeks it was usual for a generation, when it regarded an event in its own history as important, to believe it should be commemorated for all time. Thus Judah imitated the practice of his enemies, but at the same time incorporated it into Judaism. This was the first step along the path which was to constitute the historic mission of the Hasmoneans — the introduction of Hellenic usages into Judaism without making a sacrifice of Judaism. No one any longer celebrates the Greek festivals that served as Judah’s example. But the eight-branched candelabrum, a symbol, again, that imitates a pagan usage, is lighted on Kislev 25 the world over, in countries Judah never knew about, in Sidney as in New York, in Berlin as in Capetown. “And He saved them from the hand of him that hated them, and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.” (The Maccabees, pp. 43f, my bolding in all quotations)

Celebrating the victory over Hellenism by following a Hellenistic practice!

More followed. In 161 BCE

Judah besieged Jerusalem and the Sanctuary a second time, and again had the day of his victory (Adar 13) entered in the calendar of festivals. This amounted to a demonstration that Judah and his followers represented the true Israel. For the first time in the history of Jacob a day in a war between brothers was declared a joyous festival. This example was later followed by the Pharisees, who upon occasion abused the function of festivals by instituting anti-Sadducee memorial days. All of these festivals, including the Day of Nicanor, have been forgotten. But the historian must point out that by instituting festivals of this nature Judah no less than the Pharisees was consciously or unconsciously imitating the example of the Greeks. (p. 54)

The ways of the world were further followed in defiance of the sacred writings when political and military alliances were made with pagan powers:

Christian theologians have often wondered at the fact that Judah, who was so zealous in the service of the Lord, made a treaty with and sought security through a pagan power, despite all the admonitions of the prophets. It must be said that there is ground for such wonder. The Maccabees had again taken a step that brought them nearer to the pagan world; they had again accommodated devout Judaism to the ways of the nations. (p. 56)

Israel quickly forgot Judah. In the Talmud he is nowhere mentioned. In Megillat Antiochus, a post-talmudic (and quite spiritless) account that was read at the Hanukkah festival in the Middle Ages, Mattathias and his grandson, John Hyrcanus — but not Judah — are the principal figures. It was only during the Middle Ages, thanks to the Hebrew compilation called Josippon, composed on the basis of the writings of Josephus, that Judah again became a hero for the Jews. (p. 57)

Judah Maccabee eventually passed away and was soon forgotten by Israel. Eight years later (152 BCE) his brother Jonathan became the High Priest even though he was not part of the priestly Zaddokite family:

For the priest to obtain his position from the secular power was a Greek custom. Once again those who fought for the Torah accommodated the law to Gentile practices, while the legitimate High Priest (by right of descent) performed the service in a rump temple in Egypt. (p. 64)

We are reminded of the Greek methods of appointing rulers (and of Russell Gmirkin’s related discussion) when we read the following section in Bickerman’s essay:

On Elul 18 (about September) of the preceding year (140 b.c.e.) “in a great congregation of priests and people and princes of the nation, and of the elders of the country,” it was determined that Simon should be “their leader and High Priest for ever.” Heretofore the legal basis for the power of the Maccabean princes had been royal appointment. Now the rule of Simon and of his successors rested upon the decision of the people itself; hence Simon assumed the new title, “Prince of the People” (Ethnarch). (p. 68)

Greek justification of conquest

read more »


2017-10-23

Christians, Book-Burning, Temple Destruction and some balance on Nixey’s popular polemic

by Neil Godfrey

[Updated 12 hours after original posting]

I’d like to place here some balance or corrective to Tim O’Neill’s criticism of Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. James McGrath has lent his support to O’Neill’s attack on Nixey’s book by expressing disdain for both atheists and their “gullible” audiences:

When atheists misrepresent ancient Christians as typically having been intellectual terrorists who burned great works of literature and philosophy, are they not themselves doing the equivalent themselves, burning the actual history in the minds of those gullible enough to blindly accept their claims, in order to replace our accurate knowledge of the past with their own dishonest dogma and that alone?

Just this morning I see that another biblioblog has collated some “critical reactions” to Nixey’s book.

To begin, Catherine Nixey makes it clear in her Introduction that what readers are about to encounter is a one-sided polemic.

This is a book about the Christian destruction of the classical world. The Christian assault was not the only one – fire, flood, invasion and time itself all played their part – but this book focuses on Christianity’s assault in particular. This is not to say that the Church didn’t also preserve things: it did. But the story of Christianity’s good works in this period has been told again and again; such books proliferate in libraries and bookshops. The history and the sufferings of those whom Christianity defeated have not been. This book concentrates on them. (p. xxxv, my emphasis)

It seems to me a little awry to condemn an author’s work because it accomplishes what its author intended it to do. But it is more serious to give the impression that a book denies something that it clearly does not: Nixey clearly says that the Church did, also, “preserve things”. Are we to think that even in the twenty-first-century one cannot speak ill of Christian history without attracting an avalanche of hostility?

Nixey, I understand, is a journalist and is writing for a popular audience. Often she adds little imaginative (novelistic) flourishes to fill out a dramatic historical episode. The book is neither a textbook nor original research. Nixey relies heavily on secondary literature rather than original research. That said, much of her secondary sources are highly respected scholars in the field (e.g. Robert Wilken, Dirk Rohmann).

Where to begin? Let’s return to the passage quoted above. Note that Nixey does not speak of “Christians” or “Christianity” as if these terms are labels of a monolithic movement. Christians in late antiquity were divided. Yet some of the attacks (they are more attacks than fair criticisms) appear at times to speak erroneously of Christianity as a united voice with a single attitude towards pagan learning. O’Neill writes:

The idea that the loss of ancient works came as a result of active suppression by “Christian authorities” coupled with ignorant neglect is the persistent element in these laments. In her recent debut book The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, British popular history writer Catherine Nixey harps on this theme. “Works by censured philosophers were forbidden,” she solemnly assures her readers, “and bonfires blazed across the empire as outlawed books went up in flames.” (p. xxxii) I imagine this kind of stuff sells popular books, but if we actually turn to the evidence and the relevant scholarship, we find very little to support these ideas.

It is a powerful image, this: Christianity as the inheritor and valiant protector of the classical tradition – and it is an image that persists. This is the Christianity of ancient monastic libraries, of the beauty of illuminated manuscripts, of the Venerable Bede. It is the Christianity that built august Oxford colleges, their names a litany of learnedness – Corpus Christi, Jesus, Magdalen. This is the Christianity that stocked medieval libraries, created the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre and the sumptuous gold illustrations of the Copenhagen Psalter. This is the religion that, inside the walls of the Vatican, even now keeps Latin going as a living language, translating such words as ‘computer’, ‘video game’ and ‘heavy metal’ into Latin, over a millennium after the language ought to have died a natural death.

And indeed all that is true. Christianity at its best did do all of that, and more. But there is another side to this Christian story, one that is worlds away from the bookish monks and careful copyists of legend. (– Nixey, Darkening Age, p. 140f, my bolding)

If we are still willing to read Nixey’s book after such a bald assertion about what to expect we will be taken aback to find that Tim O’Neill’s warning is very wide of the mark. We would not expect to read the following passage about the philosophical works and the attitude of “Christian clerics” more widely in Nixey’s work (again with my emphasis):

Even philosophers like Plato, whose writings fitted better with Christian thought – his single form of ‘the good’ could, with some contortions, be squeezed into a Christian framework – were still threatening. Perhaps even more so: Plato would continue to (sporadically) alarm the Church for centuries. In the eleventh century, a new clause was inserted into the Lenten liturgy censuring those who believed in Platonic forms. ‘Anathema on those,’ it declared, ‘who devote themselves to Greek studies and instead of merely making them a part of their education, adopt the foolish doctrines of the ancients and accept them as the truth.’38

For many hard-line Christian clerics, the entire edifice of academic learning was considered dubious. In some ways there was a noble egalitarianism in this: with Christianity, the humblest fisherman could touch the face of God without having his hand stayed by quibbling scholars. But there was a more aggressive and sinister side to it, too. St Paul had succinctly and influentially said that ‘the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God’.39 This was an attitude that persisted. Later Christians scorned those who tried to be too clever in their interpretation of the scriptures. One writer railed furiously at those who ‘put aside the sacred word of God, and devote themselves to geometry . . . Some of them give all their energies to the study of Euclidean geometry, and treat Aristotle . . . with reverent awe; to some of them Galen is almost an object of worship.’40

And so, in part from self-interest, in part from actual interest, Christianity started to absorb the literature of the ‘heathens’ into itself. Cicero soon sat alongside the psalters after all. Many of those who felt most awkward about their classical learning made best use of it. The Christian writer Tertullian might have disdained classical learning in asking what Athens had to do with Jerusalem – but he did so in high classical style with the metonymy of Athens’ standing in for ‘philosophy’ and that prodding rhetorical question. Cicero himself would have approved. Everywhere, Christian intellectuals struggled to fuse together the classical and the Christian. Bishop Ambrose dressed Cicero’s Stoic principles in Christian clothes; while Augustine adapted Roman oratory for Christian ends. The philosophical terms of the Greeks – the ‘logos’ of the Stoics – started to make their way into Christian philosophy.51

. . . . . .

Christianity was caught in an impossible situation. Greek and Roman literature was a sump of the sinful and the satanic and so it could not be embraced. But nor could it entirely be ignored either. It was painfully obvious to educated Christians that the intellectual achievements of the ‘insane’ pagans were vastly superior to their own. For all their declarations on the wickedness of pagan learning, few educated Christians could bring themselves to discard it completely. Augustine, despite disdaining those who cared about correct pronunciation, leaves us in no doubt that he himself knows how to pronounce everything perfectly. In countless passages, both implicitly and explicitly, his knowledge is displayed. He was a Christian, but a Christian with classical dash and he deployed his classical knowledge in the service of Christianity. The great biblical scholar Jerome, who described the style of sections of the Bible as ‘rude and repellent’,49 never freed himself from his love of classical literature and suffered from nightmares in which he was accused of being a ‘Ciceronian, not a Christian’.50

. . . . . .

Philosophers who wished their works and careers to survive in this Christian world had to curb their teachings. Philosophies that treated the old gods with too much reverence eventually became unacceptable. Any philosophies that dabbled in predicting the future were cracked down on. Any theories that stated that the world was eternal – for that contradicted the idea of Creation – were, as the academic Dirk Rohmann has pointed out, also suppressed. Philosophers who didn’t cut their cloth to the new shapes allowed by Christianity felt the consequences. In Athens, some decades after Hypatia’s death, a resolutely pagan philosopher found himself exiled for a year. (pp. 147-152)

Yet those paragraphs really are from Catherine Nixey’s own book and not from Tim O’Neill’s criticism of it. Even in focussing on “the other side” of the story Nixey still reminds readers that that narrative was neither all black nor all white. read more »


2017-09-13

Deuteronomy’s Military Law — So Very Greek

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from previous posts, the following draws upon a secondary source used by Russell Gmirkin in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible in his discussion of military law as set out in Deuteronomy. The extracts that follow are from Anselm C. Hagedorn’s Between Moses and Plato: Individual and Society in Deuteronomy and Ancient Greek Law.

I have occasionally changed the formatting of Hagedorn’s text and a few times replaced Hebrew or Greek text with English translations. Some footnotes I have converted into hyperlinks to the source text.

Russell Gmirkin’s comparative conclusion goes beyond the details in Hagedorn’s discussion so I will quote that broader perspective before embarking on my Hagedorn study:

The lack of a military role for the king in Pentateuchal law contrasts with the king as leader of the army at war in both the Ancient Near East and in the historiography of the biblical monarchy. The citizen army described in both the narratives and legal passages of Exodus-Joshua corresponds closely to the Athenian model. The notion of military practices being governed or limited by law is characteristically Greek. The involvement of the national Assembly in negotiating peace treaties in wartime in Josh. 9 suggests a commitment to democratic practices similar to that found at Athens but unheard of in the Ancient Near East. The Deuteronomistic exemption from military duties for a soldier with a new house, vineyard or wife appears to have been modeled on the statutorial exemption from military training for an Athenian soldier who newly became head of a household through marriage or inheriting an estate. (Gmirkin, p. 125)

–o0o–

Military Law Between Moses and Plato

Deuteronomy 20

When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you.

Hagedorn p. 176

“You” in Deut 20:1 is in fact the assembly of all male Israelites who will go out and fight. This phenomenon is well attested in the Greek world. In an inscription from Athens we have a decree regarding warfare, here we read:

this decided in the Lykeion (the people of) Athens (Without the assembled people) it shall neither be (possible) to start a war (nor) to end one —

The people are responsible for military action in the law and at the same time the δήμος πληθύων [=popular assembly] controls the actions of the council, a fact not represented in Deut 20:1-20. If the law is indeed directed towards the same individuals who are already responsible for the investiture of the judges and the king in the leges de officiis, we are now able to use the so called Hoplite model of the Greek city states to investigate further what implications a fighting male citizenship had on the society.

It is important to note that one was first a citizen and then a soldier and not vice versa. To maximise its numbers of Hoplites, every polis had to be very keen on the maximisation of smallholdings so that more citizens could afford Hoplite armour.

Hoplites in phalanx formation

–o0o– read more »