2020-08-27

continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

The first part of this review is at https://vridar.org/2020/08/25/biblical-narratives-archaeology-historicity-essays-in-honour-of-thomas-l-thompson/

. . .

Continuing the section Part 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology . . . 

Jesper Høgenhaven’s chapter explores evidence in the Qumran texts for how Second Temple Judeans thought about the Biblical writings. We can be puzzled by the way biblical passages were joined to one another to create new texts (Thomas Thompson, Høgenhaven informs us, spoke of a ‘Copenhagen Lego hypothesis’ with regard to 4Q175). An early quotation in the essay jumped out at me since it addresses the basic method of gospel interpretation by Maurice Mergui and Nanine Charbonnel whose books I have been discussing on this blog. (I will be returning to them both in coming months.)

The late Philip R. Davies made the following pointed remark on scholars striving to collect the elements necessary for writing a ‘sectarian history’ based on Qumran scriptural commentaries (pesharim):

The first direction in exegesis of the pesharim must always be towards their midrashic function, for until we understand how these commentaries work – and that means as midrashim – we have no warrant to plunder them for historical data, especially given that (a) no continuous tradition can be established as lying behind them and (b) where they do contain – as we know that they do (I think in particular of 4QpNah) – some historical information, any kind of plausible analogy we could invoke would warn us that it will be mixed up with invention, will be distorted, garbled and anachronistic. (Davies 1989: 27-8)

(pp. 101f. The Davies 1989 link is to the Open Access book at Project Muse)

Amen. I recall Liverani’s observation about lazy historians running with a narrative that looks like history without too much second thought. Investigating the genre of a source ought to be the first priority of any historical inquiry.

So Høgenhaven surveys the way Israel’s past is utilized in various Qumran texts. He concludes that there is little conceptual difference between myths of ancient times and recent historical experiences. Metaphor and history are blurred in a way that it is not always obvious to modern readers which is which. Stories are rewritten, reinterpreted, rationalized, expanded, and commented upon as their functions vary over time. History is salvation history (“or ‘perdition history’), and along with its dualistic motifs, discerning what texts meant to readers at any particular time can be a challenge. Høgenhaven’s concluding reference to “renewed and repentant ‘Israel’ or the faithful and obedient remnant of Israel” as a stock identifying motif for the creators of the texts and their audiences links up with a dominant theme in Thompson’s The Mythic Past.

2 heads: John Hyrcanus II and John the Baptist

Next essay is by Gregory L. Doudna, another scholar some of whose work (especially on Qumran and the DSS) has been addressed here. This time Doudna takes on the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. After having read a variety of cases for the passage being an interpolation by a Mandean or Christian hand and other suggestions that the passage is definitely Josephan but straining at ways to reconcile Josephus’s chronology with Jesus, I learn now that there is yet another possible explanation for the various curiosities raised by the account. I admit I approached this chapter with some scepticism but by the time I had finished had to concede that I think Doudna makes a very good case that Josephus’s John the Baptist report is “a chronologically dislocated story of the death of Hyrcanus II”:

In the same way [as another apparently dislocated account], Josephus’s John the Baptist story reads as a doublet or different version of Hyrcanus II chronologically dislocated to the time of the wrong Herod. In this case Josephus did not place the two versions of the death of Hyrcanus II close together in the same time setting as in some of the other cases of doublets. If Josephus had done that, the doublet in this case would have been recognized before now. Instead, Josephus mistakenly attached one of the traditions of the death of Hyrcanus II to the wrong Herod, just as he separately mistakenly attached documents to the wrong Hyrcanus. (p. 132)

I hope to discuss Doudna’s chapter in more detail in a future post.

The next chapter by Jim West is a “re-evaluation” of

the book by Thomas Thompson titled The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David and discusses the appropriateness of his methodology, the correctness of his interpretation, and the continuing importance of his contribution on the topic of the historical Jesus. (p. 138)

West laments the lack of more general scholarly interest in The Messiah Myth given that it has, he claims, been taken up by

an army of ‘Jesus Mythicists’ who latched onto Thompson’s work as support for their view that Jesus actually never existed and who were bolstered by Thompson’s book. (p. 139)

Continue reading “continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”


2020-08-14

How Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and Isaac’s Sacrifice Together Prepared for Jesus Christ

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by Neil Godfrey

For more detailed discussions of how Jewish ideas of the sacrifice/binding of Isaac were a template for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for Paul and the evangelists refer to the posts in the archives for Akedah and Levenson: Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. This post looks specifically at how the Servant of Isaiah 53 came to be associated with Isaac.

Before the origins of Christianity the idea that Isaac was a willing volunteer to be sacrificed at his father Abraham’s hand was part of the smorgasbord of Jewish theological understandings. How did this notion arise? The answer to that question brings us to another Jewish idea that became the raw material from which Paul or other earliest Christian exegetes, including the authors of the gospels, drew inspiration for their teachings about Jesus Christ.

In the Genesis 22 narrative Isaac is a passive figure. The focus is entirely on Abraham’s faith and pious actions. Yet in the writings of Josephus, 4 Maccabees, and Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (Biblical Antiquities) and the subsequent Palestinian Targum focus turns to Isaac as knowing what God requires of him and willingly, even enthusiastically, seeking to be sacrificed. Where did that idea come from?

In 4 Maccabees the blood of the (Maccabean) martyrs of the mid-second century BCE is said to atone for the sins of Israel, and by offering to die they imitate Isaac.

Vellert: The Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabee Brothers and their Mother

In the Palestinian Targum we finally see clues that explain how this interpretation of Isaac came about: Isaiah 53, the famous passage about the Suffering Servant, was linked to two just men who were prepared to die to save Israel.

There exist at least two midrashic passages in which the self-offering of a just man mentioned in the Torah is interpreted by quoting Isaiah liii. The first relates to Moses’ intercession for Israel after the worship of the golden calf. He implores God either to pardon his people, or else to blot his own name from the Book of Life (cf. Ex. xxxii. 32). According to Sotah 14a, Isaiah liii. 12 refers to this event:

He delivered his soul to death… and he took away the sins of many.

The second text, Sifre on Numbers xxv. 13, §131, applies the same verse of Isaiah to Phinehas, who was considered to have endangered his life by his zeal for God. His self-sacrifice and atonement are given a permanent value, and will continue to expiate Israel’s sins until the time of the Resurrection.

(Vermes, 203)

Vermes adds a third reference, one that applies Isaiah 53’s Servant directly to Isaac.

Jacob, called the young one, and Abraham, called the old one, are there, and Isaac, the Servant of the Lord (‘abda de YHWH) who was delivered from bonds by his Master. (Targum of Job 3)

Isaac is identified as the Servant of the Lord because of the midrashic interpretation of Isaac being “bound” by Abraham and then freed from those bonds.

It is precisely on account of his having been bound, i.e. because of his self-sacrifice, that Isaac appears to have been given the title, “Servant of the Lord”. 

It would seem, therefore, safe to assume that the targumic haggadah on the Akedah resulted from the association of Genesis xxii and Isaiah liii. In addition, it is almost certain that this association was due to reflections on the significance of martyrdom. If the blood of martyrs is viewed by God as an expiatory sacrifice, a fortiori, the self-offering of Isaac atoned for the sins of his descendants.

(Vermes 203)

From that point, from the association of “binding” and “unbinding” in Genesis 22 with the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the figure of Isaac was delineated with other characteristics of that Isaiah 53 passage:

    • Isaiah’s servant, like Isaac, is compared to a sacrificial lamb
    • Isaiah’s servant, like Isaac, was ordained by God to be sacrificed

Isaiah’s Servant was cut off from the land of the living yet was promised to see his descendants. (Refer above to the links to archives where Levenson shows that some Jewish interpreters even believed Isaac’s blood had been spilled but that God restored him to life again.) Most significantly, the Servant is the just man who offers himself, in submitting to God’s will, for the sake of cleansing the sins of Israel.

In a recent post we saw how Paul was able to find “Christ crucified” “on a tree” in the Scriptures. Geza Vermes as early as 1961 elaborated on the above explanation for how Jewish interpreters were constructing concepts that were picked up and applied by Paul and other pioneering Christian authors.

(Another interesting point brought out in Vermes’ discussion is that the Jewish interpreters also viewed the daily sacrifices as serving the purpose of reminding God of the sacrifice of Isaac, the truly valuable sacrifice because it was that of a righteous man, not a mere animal. But that’s another discussion. )

– – – o 0 0 – – –

For the record — earliest writings presenting Isaac as a willing sacrifice: Continue reading “How Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and Isaac’s Sacrifice Together Prepared for Jesus Christ”


2020-08-05

Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes

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by Neil Godfrey

From LivingStyles (labelled for reuse on Google Images)

In the previous post focusing on Heracles (or Zeus-Heracles) as Logos I omitted a quotation that paired Heracles with Hermes (Roman name, Mercury) for the sake of trying to keep the focus on a single point. Here I am catching up: what the Stoic author Cornutus wrote about Hermes brings to mind several core motifs in the gospels, but in particular of the Gospel of Mark. (Don’t jump to wild conclusions, though. I am only exploring the religious/ideological contexts within which the gospels emerged.)

The Jewish philosopher Philo noted that Hermes was the prophet, the divine interpreter, but in particular, the messenger who brought to humanity “good news”:

ἄρα οὐχ ὅτι προσήκει τὸν ἑρμηνέα [=interpreter] καὶ προφήτην [=prophet] τῶν θείων, ἀφ οὗ καὶ
Ἑρμῆς ὠνόμασται, τὰ ἀγαθὰ διαγγέλλοντα [=messenger of good] (Legatio Ad Gaium, 99)

— It’s worth trying to imagine living at the time the gospels were first heard. Jesus, the messenger who brought good news, surely evoked in the minds of some another deity with a comparable role.

Shortly after Philo (in the time of Nero) the Roman philosopher Cornutus wrote Epidrome (or Greek Theology) in which he described Hermes as reason (= logos) itself, “the preeminent possession of the gods” and the one they have sent to us from heaven so that we alone of earthly creatures are rational.

— As per the previous post focussing on Heracles, Jesus was not unique in being identified with the/a logos.

I copy the translation of the key section by Robert Hays from his 1983 thesis, Lucius Annaeus Cornutus’ “Epidrome”. Cornutus has just described in depth those daughters of Zeus known as the gift-giving Graces [Charites].

1. The tradition holds that Hermes is their [i.e. “the Graces”] master, thus signifying that the bestowing of kindness must be reasonable: not random, but to those who deserve it. For the person who has been ungratefully treated [hoacharistētheis] becomes more reluctant to do good. Now Hermes is Reason [ho logos]. which the gods sent to us from heaven, having made man alone of all the living creatures on earth reasonable [logikon], a gift which they themselves considered outstanding beyond all others. He has received his name from his taking counsel to speak [erein mēsasthai], i.e., to engage in rational discourse [legein]. Or, perhaps because he is our bulwark [eryma] and, as it were, our fortress.

— Logos is translated Reason but note its close association with “the word”, in particular the spoken word, a word that brings life-giving benefits as we will see. Continue reading “Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes”


2020-08-04

Jesus the Logos in Roman Stoic Philosophers’ Eyes

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by Neil Godfrey

Wilfred Knox

This post derives from my reading of Some Hellenistic Elements in Primitive Christianity by Wilfred L. Knox (1942).

 

For other posts on various aspects of a relationship between Heracles and Jesus see Heracles, A Fitting Substitute for Jesus Christ.

Let’s once again imagine the canonical gospels in the thought-world of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Specifically, this time let’s focus on how Stoic philosophers thought about gods like Hermes (the Roman Mercury) and Heracles (the Roman Hercules) and then imagine what those philosophers might have thought about Jesus as they listened to a reading of the gospels.

Jesus is not the sort of messiah we normally think of when we think of “the Jewish messiah”. He is centred in heaven and acts as sustainer of the universe and the source of all spiritual wisdom, and so forth, rather than a Davidic king sitting on a throne in Jerusalem with all nations coming to bow to him. (We have addressed the various ideas of Jewish messianism several times before but here we are focusing on Knox’s interesting explanation for this more spiritual or heavenly concept of Jesus as messiah.)

Knox points out that Jesus is not explicitly described as a “saviour” (even though he clearly is a saviour) until the very latest books in the N.T. For Knox, this avoidance of the label can be explained by a reluctance to associate Jesus with the many other divine and human “saviours” that populated the Hellenistic landscape.

It is well known that the general desire of the hellenistic age was to find gods who were ‘saviours’. ‘Salvation’ might take many forms. . . . even Philo can describe Augustus as Soter [=Saviour] and Euergetes [=Benefactor], though normally such titles are reserved for the God of Israel and only applied sarcastically to rulers. . . .

[Flaccus] arrested thirty-eight members of our council of elders, which our saviour and benefactor, Augustus, elected to manage the affairs of the Jewish nation after the death of the king of our own nation . . .  (Philo: Flaccus 74)
In Syll 347 (= 760)8, an Ephesian inscr. of A.D. 48, the Town Council of Ephesus and other cities acclaim Julius Caesar as θεòν επιφανή … καί κοινòν του ανθρωπíνου βíου σωτήρα, and in a i/A.D. Egyptian inscr. … reference is made to Nero as τώι σωτήρι καί ευεργετηι (cf. Lk 2225) τή[ς] οίκουμένης : cf. the description of Vespasian … tòv σωτήρα καί ευεργετην.  (Voc. Gr. N.T. p.621 σωτήρ )

Jesus the Logos; comparing Heracles the Logos

Here we come to an interesting point, one that I had “sort of” known for some time, but Knox makes its significance clear:

Knox adds a detailed discussion of two examples (Asclepius and Sarapis) of this identification of a saviour god with the supreme God (Zeus) and of the descriptions by Aristides of this highly exalted god that match Philo’s account of the Logos. Cf. Wisdom 9:18ff.

But at its best the cult of a saviour could rise above man’s immediate needs of peace, health, and prosperity; a particular deity could be regarded as the manifestation of God in the cosmos, and be addressed by the votary in more or less monotheistic language as the saviour both of the worshipper and of the whole universe or one particular aspect of it. As a saviour in this sense he could be equated with the Logos or one of the Logoi through which the supreme deity ordered the universe, or with the supreme deity himself; which position was given him depended on his traditional position in the Pantheon or on the extent to which the worshipper was concerned to observe the proprieties of Stoic-Platonic theology. (38)

And then a detail even less expected for many of us who are not professional classicists:

Heracles is a particularly interesting specimen of this theology. (39)

[Destroying tyrants and establishing kingdoms was] what made him Saviour of the earth and of the human race [τῆς γῆς καὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων σωτῆρα] . . . (Dio Chrys. 1.84)

Saviour and Logos

Heracles was not only a “saviour” who delivered the world from barbaric tyrants and introduced civilization through the good governance of kings. But he was also the Logos who gave “strength and cohesion to the cosmos”. Thus the philosopher Cornutus identifies Heracles with the Logos that is the power and mind responsible for sustaining the universe:

‘Heracles’ is universal reason [= Ἡρακλῆς δἐστὶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς ὅλοις λόγος], thanks to which nature is strong and mighty, being indomitable as well, and it also gives strength and power to its various parts. The name comes, perhaps, from the fact that it extends to heroes [hērōes] and is what makes the noble famous [kle(izesthai)]. For the ancients called heroes those who were so strong in body and soul that they seemed to be part of a divine race. ….. Both the lion skin and the club can be a symbol of force and nobility; for the lion is the most powerful of the beasts, the club the mightiest of weapons. Traditionally, the god is an archer because he extends everywhere and because even the path of his missiles is somehow unwavering—and it is not an irrational commander who faces his enemies with his trust in weapons like this. The Coans have an apposite tradition according to which he lives with Hebe,198 as one more perfect than her in intelligence—as it is said: “The hands of the young are fitter for action, but the souls of the older are better by far.”203 I suspect that it is more plausible that the service to ‘Omphale’ refers to him [the god]; through it, the ancients showed again that even the strongest ought to submit themselves to reason and to do what it enjoins, even if its voice [omphē] (which it would not be extraordinary to call ‘Omphale’) happens to call for the somewhat feminine activity of contemplation and rational inquiry. It is also possible to explain the Twelve Labors as referring to the god, as Cleanthes in fact did. But ingenuity should not always win the day. (Cornutus, Greek Theology, 31)

Seneca, also a Stoic philosopher, appears to have taken the same Stoic idea of the Logos (or head) spreading its health through the whole body when he instructed the young Nero, substituting Nero for the Logos of the empire:

To a great extent, Caesar, we may hope and expect that this will come to pass. Let your own goodness of heart be gradually spread and diffused throughout the whole body of the empire, and all parts of it will mould themselves into your likeness. Good health proceeds from the head into all the members of the body: they are all either brisk and erect, or languid and drooping, according as their guiding spirit blooms or withers. Both Romans and allies will prove worthy of this goodness of yours, and good morals will return to all the world . . . (Seneca, Of Clemency, 2.II.1)

Stoics sometimes wrote of God as if he/it were an immanent force permeating all; other times, though, they spoke of God as a first cause and transcendent ruler over all. Seneca declared God to be the

divine reason [= logos] which permeates the whole world and all its parts. . . . [A]ll things stay in place thanks to him, because he is their stayer and stabilizer. . . . [H]e is the first cause of all, the one on which all the other causes depend. (On Benefits 7.1-2)

Seneca also identified Logos with Heracles: Continue reading “Jesus the Logos in Roman Stoic Philosophers’ Eyes”


2020-07-02

Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources: Hermann Detering’s Complete Review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

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by Neil Godfrey

I have compiled the three parts into a single file. Make whatever use you want of it. Copy it; share it. I only ask that you acknowledge its source on this blog as per the Creative Commons licence for all works here. Frank Feller was the translator but I refined his work here and there into more fluent English. Find the Download Button beneath the viewing frame.

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2020-06-23

Tinker Tailor Soldier Forger (A Fresh Look at Secret Mark)

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by Neil Godfrey

A document I have not posted about yet is Secret Mark [link to earlychristianwritings.com] or the Secret Gospel of Mark [link to Wikipedia]. (The most controversial aspect of the passage and the letter accompanying it is the possible hint of a homoerotic Jesus.) The briefest introduction to the fragment is at the Gnostic Society Library, and a more detailed discussion is available at Westar Institute. If the fragment is genuine, it would appear that our canonical version of the Gospel of Mark is a shortened version for “lower grade” converts and that there was once a more complete version for those to whom higher secret doctrines were permitted.

A fresh approach to the document was posted on the Biblical History & Criticism Forum by Ken Olson and with his permission I am sharing it here with Vridar readers. Enjoy!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Forger

or What George Smiley Taught Me About Secret Mark: Lessons From John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a classic 1974 espionage novel by John Le Carre (the pen name of David Cornwell), which has been made into a good movie starring Gary Oldman (2011) and an excellent miniseries starring Alec Guinness (1979). Cornwell is a former agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) himself and his novels are far more realistic (or, if you prefer, have more verisimilitude), than Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, let alone the Bond movies. Anyway, if you haven’t read or watched it, you should.

The plot was inspired by the historical Cambridge Five spy ring, which included a top level MI-6 agent who was a mole passing secrets to the Russians. In the novel, a forcibly retired former agent named George Smiley is brought in by a government minister to try to uncover who among the top level agents of the Service (who are given the code names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, etc.) is a mole working for the Russians.

There a number of gems in the book.

In one place, Smiley is asked for his opinion on a file containing a Soviet internal review of their naval capabilities, which is something the Service has been after, and has now come into their hands from a mysterious source. Smiley comments (in the TV version):

Its topicality makes it suspect

In another place, Smiley muses on why it’s so difficult to convince his fellows that some of the intelligence they’ve been receiving from the same source is actually being fed to them by the Russians:

Have you ever bought a fake picture? … The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt it. Silly, but there we are.

In a long passage, Smiley is reading over a personnel file concerning two of the Service’s agents, Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux. The file contains an old letter from Haydon to a man named Fanshawe (addressing him as “Fan,” which suggests they had a warm relationship), who was his tutor (i.e., the talent spotter from the Service who had recruited him), recommending that he also recruit his new friend Prideaux. In the course of praising Prideaux, Haydon says a few things that could perhaps be taken to suggest the two were more than just friends:

he’s only just noticed that there is a World Beyond the Touchline, and that world is me.

He’s my other half, between us we’d make one marvelous man … you know that feeling when you just have to go out and find someone new or the world will die on you?

he asks nothing better than to be in my company and that of my wicked, divine friends.

Nothing explicit, but as Smiley turns the pages in the file he finds:

The tutors of the two men aver (twenty years later) that it is inconceivable that the relationship between the two was ‘more than purely friendly’ …

Why does John Le Carre, the author, add the note from the two men’s tutors that it was *inconceivable* that their relationship was ‘more than purely friendly’ immediately after the text of Haydon’s letter about Prideaux? Was Le Carre concerned that his readers might take some of Haydon’s fulsome praise of Prideaux as suggesting there was a homosexual attraction between the two, and wished to allay that suspicion? If so, it backfires spectacularly.

Readers are much more likely to wonder why it was necessary for the tutors to report that the relationship between Haydon and Prideaux was definitely not homosexual in nature. The report gives the readers a context in which to understand the contents of the letter. If they had suspected there was something homoerotic in the contents of Haydon’s letter before, their suspicions are only going to be heightened by the denial in the report, and if they hadn’t picked that up from the contents of the letter, they probably will after seeing the appended note.

It seems more likely that Le Carre, a gifted writer, knew perfectly well what effect the appended note from the men’s tutors would have on his readers and included it for that reason. It’s a literary device. (Well, Okay, Le Carre has talked about how he conceived the homosexual relationship between Haydon and Prideaux in interviews, so that part is not really in dispute. What I’m discussing is the literary technique he used to reveal it to his readers).

Inception: How to Put an Idea in Someone’s Head

Continue reading “Tinker Tailor Soldier Forger (A Fresh Look at Secret Mark)”


2020-06-18

Where Did the Stories of Joseph and Mary Come From?

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by Neil Godfrey

From Wallpaper Flare

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain best-known birth narratives of Jesus but they have mystified many inquiring minds who wonder how they can be so totally different from each other. They are so different that many scholars cannot accept that Luke had ever read Matthew’s account: they had to be derived ultimately (and independently) from some remote common source.

Here’s what they do have in common (from a list by Raymond Brown in The Birth of the Messiah):

1. The parents are called Mary and Joseph, are engaged or married, but do not yet live together at the time of Jesus’ conception;
2. Joseph is a descendant of David;
3. an angel announces the future birth of Jesus, although this announcement is addressed to Joseph in Matthew, but to Mary in Luke;
4. Mary had the child without intercourse with Joseph;
5. conception takes place through the work of the Holy Spirit;
6. the angel prescribes that the child should be called Jesus;
7. an angel declares that Jesus will be the Saviour:
8. the child is born after the parents start living together;
9. the birth takes place in Bethlehem:
10. it is temporally connected to the realm of Herod the Great;
11. the child grows up in Nazareth.

Yet the two stories are quite simply incompatible. In Matthew the infant Jesus is taken to Egypt to escape the “massacre of the innocents” after Herod learned from the magi of the birth of a “future king”; in Luke there is no threat to Jesus’ life, shepherds worship the newborn, he is presented at the Temple, and so forth. (I happen to think it quite possible that Luke did know Matthew’s birth narrative but that is ultimately irrelevant to the main point of this post.)

Though these two canonical stories are the best known they are not the only early Christian narratives of Jesus’ birth. We also have the Infancy Gospel of James. Here we read that Mary gave birth in a cave and a midwife confirms Mary’s virginity immediately after the birth. Jesus’ step-brother James is presented as the narrator of that account. Then there’s the Ascension of Isaiah where we read that Jesus simply appears (without any angelic warnings to either parent) as if by magic in front of Mary who is in her house, and Mary’s belly is restored to normal and she appears to be left wondering “what happened?”

Further, there are other writings from as early as the second century that mention other details not found in any of our narratives that are believed to have been prophesied about the birth of Jesus. So in the Acts of Peter we read Peter declaring all sorts of proofs to Simon Magus that Jesus’ birth was surely prophesied in many ways in the Scriptures and other now-lost writings:

XXIV. But Peter said: Anathema upon thy words against (or in) Christ! Presumest thou to speak thus, whereas

the prophet saith of him: Who shall declare his generation? [or, His family, who will tell it?] — [Isa. 53:8]

And another prophet saith: And we saw him and he had no beauty nor comeliness. — [Isa. 53:2]

And: In the last times shall a child be born of the Holy Ghost: his mother knoweth not a man, neither doth any man say that he is his father. — [?]

And again he saith: She hath brought forth and not brought forth. — [From the apocryphal Ezekiel (lost)]

And again: Is it a small thing for you to weary men (lit. Is it a small thing that ye make a contest for men) — [?]

[And again:] Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb. — [Isa. 7:13f]

And another prophet saith, honouring the Father: Neither did we hear her voice, neither did a midwife come in. — [From the Ascension of Isaiah, xi. 14]

Another prophet saith: Born not of the womb of a woman, but from a heavenly place came he down. — [?]

And: A stone was cut out without hands, and smote all the kingdoms. — [Dan. 2:34]

And: The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner; and he calleth him a stone elect, precious. — [Ps. 118:22]

And again a prophet saith concerning him: And behold, I saw one like the Son of man coming upon a cloud. — [Dan. 7:13]

Similar details are found listed in Justin’s writings. In his Dialogue with Trypho Justin writes that Mary is from the house of David (76); he further declares that Jesus has “no human generation (Trypho 32; First Apology 51); that he is not descended from human seed (Trypho, 63, 68); that Jesus was born in a cave near the village of Bethlehem (Trypho 78); that Jesus’ birth fulfilled a prophecy to take the power of Damascus and spoils of Samaria (Trypho 78); and that Jesus escaped all notice of others until he was an adult (First Apology 35).

Such lists of “fulfilled prophecies” do not derive from narratives. They have all the appearance of being found independently, as some form of “testimonia”. Readers had been pondering scriptures and divining what they had to say about how the heavenly messiah was to make his appearance in the world of humankind. From this pool of testimonies, presumably crafted by prophets of some sort, different scribes took raw material to create their narratives. Each of these narratives had its own theological theme. Thus, the Infancy Gospel of James was focused on demonstrating that “history proved” the sacred and eternal virginity of Mary; the Ascension of Isaiah took those elements that it could use to demonstrate that Jesus was not contaminated by flesh even though coming as flesh or in the appearance of it; Matthew sought to represent Jesus as a second Moses who brought out of Egypt a “mixed multitude” of Israelites and gentiles; Luke, to show Jesus began his career with the Jews alone, “to the Jew first“.

Such is the viewpoint of Enrico Norelli. The above is his thesis on how we have come to have such widely diverging nativity stories of Jesus. Quite likely, but I also think that certain authors — especially “Luke” — were themselves creative enough to find scriptural “prophecies” as needed for their respective narratives.

Norelli asks about the names of Mary and Joseph after lengthy discussions about the apparent creation of the “testimonia” listed above. He can’t see those details being found in scriptural fulfilment so suspects they probably were historically grounded as the names of the real parents of Jesus.

I find that reasoning problematic: every detail is taken from “fulfilled prophecy” except the names of two parents? Other scholars have indeed found the names of Mary and Joseph in “prophecy”:

(The meaning of Mary’s name is further mentioned in The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels: Personifications of Jews and Gentiles)


Many of Enrico Norelli’s journal articles and book chapters are available on academia.edu

 

Norelli, Enrico. 2012. “Wie Sind Die Erzählungen Über Maria Und Josef in Mt 1-2 Und Lk 1-2 Entstanden? M. Navarro Puerto; M. Perroni (Ed.), Evangelien. Erzählungen Und Geschichte. Deutsche Ausgabe Hrsg. von I. Fischer Und A. Taschl-Erber (Die Bibel Und Die Frauen. Eine Exegetisch-Kulturgeschichtliche Enzyklopädie. Neues Testament 2,1), Stuttgart, Kohlhammer. https://www.academia.edu/4092799/Wie_sind_die_Erz%C3%A4hlungen_%C3%BCber_Maria_und_Josef_in_Mt_1-2_und_Lk_1-2_entstanden.

———. 2010. “La Letteratura Apocrifa Sul Transito Di Maria E Il Problema Delle Sue Origini Accessed June 14, 2020a. https://www.academia.edu/5261203/La_letteratura_apocrifa_sul_transito_di_Maria_e_il_problema_delle_sue_origini.

———. 2011. “Les Plus Anciennes Traditions Sur La Naissance De Jésus Et Leur Rapport Avec Les Testimonia C. Clivaz [et alii] (ed.), Infancy Gospels. Stories and Identities (WUNT), Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck. Accessed June 14, 2020b. https://www.academia.edu/37751916/Les_plus_anciennes_traditions_sur_la_naissance_de_J%C3%A9sus_et_leur_rapport_avec_les_testimonia.


 


2020-06-16

Batman & Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Thanks to Ryan C for keeping me up to date …..

I can’t say it’s my favourite approach to the subject but maybe I’m losing touch with a changing world. I’m sure others will like it.


2020-06-14

Teach and Delight

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by Neil Godfrey

Some videos (each one only a few minutes long) that readers have alerted me to . . .

  • A series on the Jesus myth theory by “Truth Surge”: I’ve watched a few and those were very sound and informative. The first one of the series is
Mrs Betty Bowers, “America’s Best Christian”

 

 

 


2020-06-12

How Paul Found Christ Crucified – “on a Tree” – In the Scriptures

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by Neil Godfrey

Toruń, church of St. Janów. Painting on the north wall of the presbytery (around 1380-90) – Crucifixion on Jesse’s Tree (Wikimedia)

Who bewitched you? Paul demanded to know of the Galatians. He continued:

Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was written beforehand [προεγράφη, cf Rom. 15:4] as crucified.

Max Wilcox suggested (with some diffidence) at least the possibility of such a translation back in 1977 in an article published in the Journal of Biblical Literature. The remainder of this post draws a few key points from a mass of fascinating details in that article, “Upon the Tree”: Deut 21:22-23 in the New Testament”. It focuses on what Paul and other early “Christian” exegetes found written in the Scriptures through a midrashic type reading.

A few verses after that opening Paul “bizarrely” links Jesus Christ with the pronouncement of a curse on anyone “hanging on a tree” as per the law of Deuteronomy. Galatians 3:13:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”

quoting Deuteronomy 21:23

. . . anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse . . .

Look at that Deuteronomy 21 passage in full and despair at trying to find any way Paul could have associated it with the crucified Jesus:

If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance. (Deut 21:22-23)

Wilcox finds clues to the association in the verses leading up to Galatians 3:13. If we are aware of the Scriptures Paul has been alluding to in those preceding verses we can find the answer to why the Deuteronomic tree-hanging curse applied to Jesus.

Look at Galatians 3:8-9

Now Scripture, having seen beforehand that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, proclaimed the good news of this in advance to Abraham in the promise, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

So then, those who are ‘of faith’ are blessed with faithful/believing Abraham.

For Wilcox the above passage looks very much like a mixed quotation based on three passages in a Greek translation of Genesis(Notice that Peter is assigned a similar quotation in Acts: the major difference being that in Acts the stress is on “seed” while in Galatians it is on “you”, referring to Abraham.)

Wilcox comments that Paul (and the author of Acts) are using a hybrid quotation to associate the promise to Abraham with the “nations”, the Gentiles.

Not only Genesis but Deuteronomy informs Paul’s thought

In Galatians 3:10 we begin to read a longer section of the cursing and blessing dichotomy. This motif comes from many passages throughout Deuteronomy. Galatians 3:10 even directly quotes Deuteronomy:

Galatians 3:10 Deuteronomy 27:26
. . . for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Cursed be he that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them. . . .

But why does Paul veer towards the “cursed is everyone hanging on a tree” passage when that passage is surely meant to apply to blasphemers and other sinners of the worst kind? Continue reading “How Paul Found Christ Crucified – “on a Tree” – In the Scriptures”


2020-05-31

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #4

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by Neil Godfrey

Here we look at the sources in the Jewish Scriptures for:

a. John the Baptist

b. the Baptism of Jesus

c. the wedding at Cana

d. the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #4”


2020-05-28

Ascension of Isaiah: Other Questions

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Ascension of Isaiah: Questions. . . . 

. . . .

Why is this topic of particular interest? The Asc. Isa. looks like it could have been known to, and even quoted by, Paul. The presence or otherwise of the pocket gospel then has several implications for Paul’s understanding of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Is the “pocket gospel” (an account Jesus’ earthly birth and crucifixion in 11:2-22 of the Ascension of Isaiah) an original part of the Ascension of Isaiah and not a later interpolation?

In the previous post we looked at one disputed reason to think so. Here we look at a couple more. (Like the first reason addressed these are taken from an early commentary on the Asc. Isa. by R.H. Charles.)

In the pocket gospel we read that no-one on earth recognizes who Jesus is, neither when he is a newborn arrival into the world nor when they crucify him. A long-standing argument that this mini-gospel of Jesus’ birth and death is original is that this theme of ignorance fits in nicely with the rest of the Asc. Isa..

Before we come to the pocket gospel in chapter 11 we read in chapter 9:

14. And the god of that world will stretch forth his hand against the Son, and they will crucify Him on a tree, and will slay Him not knowing who He is.

Even more often stressed in the lead up to chapter 11 is that no-one, no angel, no demon, will recognize Jesus as he passes through the lower heavens. Jesus will look no different from any of the other inhabitants of those spirit worlds. Thus in chapter 10:

9. And thou [God speaking to his Beloved, Jesus] wilt become like unto the likeness of all who are in the five heavens.
10. And thou wilt be careful to become like the form of the angels of the firmament [and the angels also who are in Sheol].
11. And none of the angels of that world shall know that Thou art with Me of the seven heavens and of their angels.
12. And they shall not know that Thou art with Me, till with a loud voice I have called (to) the heavens . . . 

The disputed passage, the pocket gospel of 11:2-22, contains these matching statements:

12. And the story regarding the infant was noised abroad in Bethlehem.
13. Some said: “The Virgin Mary hath borne a child, before she was married two months.”
14. And many said: “She has not borne a child, nor has a midwife gone up (to her), nor have we heard the cries of (labour) pains.”
And they were all blinded respecting Him and they all knew regarding Him, though they knew not whence He was.

and

18. And when He had grown up he worked great signs and wonders in the land of Israel and of Jerusalem.
19. And after this the adversary envied Him and roused the children of Israel against Him, not knowing who He was, and they delivered Him to the king, and crucified Him, and He descended to the angel (of Sheol).

Now for the reason for thinking the latter passages are part of an interpolation:

If an editor wanted to continue to with the lack of recognition theme then it seems to be unlikely he would introduce details that seem to make that lack of recognition implausible. Why not simply continue the Asc. Isa. theme of having the Beloved look no different from those around him? That’s enough elsewhere. Why then have the Beloved appear in vision performing remarkable miracles that surely must give his identity away? One could go further and note that Jesus’ birth in Jerusalem was certainly not kept secret from anyone.

If the only purpose of the Beloved not being recognized was to have him killed so he could enter Sheol and recapture the dead back to life, thus defeating the power of the Angel of Death, then what point could there be to introducing other details of Jesus’ earthly sojourn that had to have been kept hidden? In the undisputed sections of the Asc. Isa. the Beloved’s identity is hidden by means of changing his appearance. In the disputed passage, however, we appear to see quite a leap: the Beloved does things that must surely reveal his identity but miraculously God somehow stops people from “knowing who he is”.

Another problematic detail is in 11:21

20. In Jerusalem indeed I saw Him being crucified on a tree:
21. And likewise after the third day rise again and remain days.

If Jesus is shown to have “remained days” on earth after his resurrection then we have another contradiction with the stated theme of the larger Asc. Isa.. The “Beloved” is said in the larger Asc. Isa. to descend for the purpose of defeating the power of death. His death is his ticket of access to Hades. Once done, he is said to ascend back to the seventh heaven. Conclusion: there is no place for introducing a longer stay on earth after his resurrection. Such a detail must be an addition from later orthodoxy. It flies in the face of the otherwise stated point of the Beloved’s descent, death and return in the Asc. Isa..

Such are more reasons James Barlow advances in this instance for interpolation. If I have misrepresented the point I would appreciate a correction. Barlow suggests that Charles appeals to orthodox faith as the measure of authenticity: when Charles expresses dissatisfaction that the shorter version of Asc. Isa. contains no details of the crucifixion, descent to Sheol and resurrection on the third day, he is arguing in a pious circle. That is, he cannot accept an original story that lacks what he thinks should be in it.

Further, we read in the last line of this disputed passage, v.22

and I saw when He sent out the Twelve Apostles and ascended.

James Barlow suggests that this detail is surely late. In our Gospel of Mark we read that Jesus sent out the Twelve very early in his career, in chapter 3, not after his death. In the book of Acts the Twelve are “sent out” by being commanded to remain in Jerusalem.

So there is clearly room for doubt about the authenticity of the pocket gospel’s authenticity.

Are there counter-reasons to think that the passage is original?

Continue reading “Ascension of Isaiah: Other Questions”


2020-05-27

Ascension of Isaiah: Questions

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by Neil Godfrey

Some Jesus mythicists, following Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier, have taken a special interest in the Ascension of Isaiah [Asc. Isa.], an early Christian text that has been used to support (not establish, as some critics have asserted) the argument that Jesus was in an early stage of tradition believed to have been crucified by demons in the firmament above the earth. Fundamental to this interpretation of the Asc. Isa. is the view proposed by some mainstream scholars that a passage describing Jesus being born on earth and finally crucified on earth in the text is a late insertion. Manuscript and some textual evidence are cited in support of this view. That passage is 11:2-22. It speaks of the virgin Mary, her husband Joseph, a mysterious birth of Jesus and Jesus suckling at Mary’s breast, a later time when Jesus performs miracles and so arouses the envy of ruling demons, and of those demons stirring up hatred against him to the point where people crucify him on a tree in Jerusalem. All the while Jesus’ true identity as the “Beloved” from God in the seventh heaven is hidden from the spirit and human realms.

I have long agreed with those who have shown why we should think that that passage, sometimes called “the pocket gospel”, was not an original part of the Asc. Isa.. A number of manuscripts of the text do not have it. Has not the tendency of mythical development been to elaborate rather than excise earlier traditions? If so, surely the simplest explanation is that the passage was a later addition to the story.

This is a difficult document to analyze in any exact fashion, since the several surviving manuscripts differ considerably in wording, phrases and even whole sections. It has been subjected to much editing in a complicated and uncertain pattern of revision. Many of its elements are quite revealing, not the least for the picture they disclose of the evolution of thought about the descending Son and his role. That picture indicates that in its earlier strata, the Vision speaks of a divine Son who operates entirely in the supernatural realm. (Doherty, JNGNM, 119)

I have come to have doubts, however. I have long been in two minds over various hypotheses that Jesus was crucified by demons in the firmament (Couchoud, Doherty, Carrier). There are several reasons to think that the earliest Jesus myth is the most obvious orthodox one: that Jesus came from heaven, was crucified on earth, descended beneath the earth, then ascended back to heaven. I can address the reasons later.

In this post I want to begin tackling some of the trickier questions surrounding the Ascension of Isaiah. The person I have to thank for this review of my thinking is James Barlow who, I understand, has Masters and Doctoral degrees in Divinity and until his retirement belonged to the Anglican clergy. I have been perusing on and off for over a year a detailed commentary he prepared on the Vision chapters (6 to 11) of the Asc. Isa.

JB presents a very detailed case for the Asc. Isa. being behind some of Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians and for the pocket gospel being an interpolation into the original Asc. Isa..

1 Cor. 2:6-9

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
the things God has prepared for those who love him—

1 Cor. 15:3-4

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

“As it is written” and “according to the Scriptures” should not be casually assumed to refer to the “Old Testament”. A very reasonable case can be made that Paul has less orthodox writings (viz the Asc. Isa.) in mind. I won’t take up that question now, either.

But because I know the Asc. Isa. has a particular interest for many readers of Vridar, I want to begin here to think through some of the reasons for concluding that the “pocket gospel” of 11:2-22 was not part of the original Ascension of Isaiah. I have begun to suspect it might be original after all. Continue reading “Ascension of Isaiah: Questions”


2020-05-23

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #3

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by Neil Godfrey

Here we look at

a. the visions and rejoicing surrounding the birth of Jesus

b. the shepherds, the magi

c. massacre of the innocents

d. flight to and return from Egypt

e. Jesus twelve years of age in the temple

Future posts will continue this series.

The table is primarily a translation and slight modification of pages 183-226 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper. All posts archived here.

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #3”