“Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited

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by Neil Godfrey

Responses to some points made in a larger argument for the historicity of Jesus, Another Jesus Mythicism Discussion (I posted then soon deleted much of what follows about three weeks ago. My initial post was couched in a misunderstanding about the background to the original post.) I did return to the original site to continue discussion there but when I saw that commenters there are entitled to use insults on the apparent condition that they somehow “justify” them, I decided to have nothing to do with any discussion there.

Josephus and Tacitus say

So here we go. I link to posts where I have set out more detailed arguments for those interested in following up a particular thread:

Josephus tells us that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed, . . .

Tacitus tells us that Christianity was founded by someone called Christus who started a movement in Judea and was executed by Pilate.

In a very loose way of speaking these statements are true. We do read those statements in our widely published texts of Josephus and Tacitus. However, each one is justified in the scholarly literature of which I am aware only by special pleading. Even though everything we know about ancient copying of texts and manuscript transmission warns us against being too ready to accept their contents at face value, scholars with a particular interest in arguing for the historicity of Jesus sometimes dismiss the serious arguments against the authenticity of key contents relating to Christianity. Often we read among works arguing for the historicity of Jesus that the reason Josephus did not mention “messiahs” of his day was that he did not want to upset his Roman audience who supposedly had sore memories of fighting a war supposedly inspired by Jewish messianism. Yet when it comes to finding the word for “messiah” (“Christ”) in Josephus relating to Jesus, suddenly there is no problem with Josephus breaking his supposed rule about not mentioning the word. That one place the word Christ appears is universally agreed to have been a Christian interpolation, and the second place it is clearly seen to be part of very awkward syntax, does not deter the “believers”. Contrary to what we would expect to find in the record if Josephus had said there was a Jesus known as the Christ “historicists” insist that Josephus must have said something like that anyway. That the second occurrence of the word — that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed — conforms to everything the manuals of textual criticism tell us about scribal glosses makes no difference. Suddenly the instructions in such standard texts are forgotten.

As for the Tacitus reference, see The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians

Contortions to Hide a Birth in Nazareth?

Here is another point commonly used to argue for some historicity behind the gospels:

Every so often, there’s something in the gospels that they seemto be trying hard to gloss over, or that contradicts what they’re trying to tell us.

Example: It was clearly important to both Matthew and Luke to convince us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as both of them go to the trouble of making up complicated and clearly fictitious story explaining why, even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem. So… why do they put Nazareth in the story at all?

The first sentence is actually a conclusion that arises from circular reasoning. An interpretation is imposed on selected passages in the gospels and those sections that doe not fit are interpreted as a problem for the evangelist, not for the modern interpreter. How does the scholar know “what the evangelist is trying to tell us”? By setting aside a passage that they believe does not fit their theory. That is, by selecting only those details in the gospel that support the scholar’s theory and declaring the left-over bits as problems — not for the scholar — but for the evangelist.

But we know from countless instances in the ancient records, including the gospels, that if an author found something “embarrassing” or that did not fit a theological agenda, then the solution was simple: leave it out — no matter how well known it was. A classic instance of that is in the Gospel of John. That fourth gospel does not admit or hint that John baptized Jesus. Yet two other gospels clearly said he did; and a third hinted at it, omitting only that it was John himself who did the baptizing of Jesus.

The argument is sometimes called an appeal to the “criterion of embarrassment”. Yet the argument here assumes the historicity of Jesus as its premise. Why is a detail in the gospels a supposed embarrassment to the evangelist? Because we assume the evangelist is writing about not only a historical Jesus but about a Jesus who was also born at Nazareth, and that everyone knew this (even though Nazareth was supposedly so insignificant it would not be widely known at all), and so forth.

But if we make no assumptions at all about the gospel’s narrative having derived ultimately from historical events, then we have a perfectly seamless story with the Bethlehem-Nazareth scenarios posing no difficulties — for either the evangelist or modern reader — at all. It is well known that the title given Jesus of “Nazarene” or “Nazorean” does not derive from the place name of Nazareth (that would mean Jesus was known as “Jesus the Nazarethite”) but was related to an early name for a Christian sect. It is also evident that in the Gospel of Matthew we read a very tortured justification for linking this title to the town of Nazareth. The simplest explanation for the first Bethlehem-Nazareth story is that an evangelist was re-writing the history of the name of the sect.

There are other reasons for questioning whether a historical person of any status would ever have been known as “So-and-so of Nazareth”. There would be no point of saying someone was from a place so insignificant few would ever have heard of. Besides, does anyone know of any other case where a religious leader is known by some nondescript suburb or rural town? No, they are known by some label that identifies their teaching or sect. Furthermore, those who have taken the trouble to read either of Rene Salm’s book on the scholarly literature about the archaeology of Nazareth knows that there are good grounds for thinking that Nazareth was not repopulated in Roman times until the latter half of the first century. (Tim O’Neill’s objections are careless misrepresentations).

Even IF Jesus had been known by a reference to a place that most people had never heard of it makes absolutely no sense that his followers would be called by the same epithet. Yet we know that in some quarters early Christians were called “Nazarenes” or “Nazirs”. (I understand the Muslim culture still calls them by such a term.)

Why would anyone….!

Here is a clutch of the more common claims made for the historicity of Jesus — expressed as rhetorical questions:

Why would anyone invent a leader who was a crucified criminal and by all appearances a dismal failure at his mission, when that was so obviously going to be the exact opposite of a selling point? Why, given that the writers clearly wanted to put as much blame as possible on the Jews for Jesus’s death and to gloss over the Romans’ role in it as much as possible, did they not just write the story to portray Jesus as executed by the Jews rather than the Romans? Why, when the writers were painting Jesus as the enemy of the Pharisees, did they cite him as using teachings (such as his teachings on Sabbath healings) that we now know were in fact Pharisee teachings  as since recorded in the Talmud? Why did they include thee mbarrassing detail about Jesus being unable to pull off much in the way of miracles when he visited his hometown?

Some regular Vridar readers will be familiar with the following warning:

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea p. 178)

Rhetorical questions are too often substitutes for reasoned conclusions. They can convey the message, “My conclusion is surely so obvious that it needs no further justification.”

If one is not familiar with the breadth of scholarly literature on the questions raised then one might well feel that “the conclusions are obvious”. No contrary argument would be reasonable, it would seem. Continue reading ““Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited”


Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #7 (conclusion)

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by Neil Godfrey


With this post I conclude setting out Nanine Charbonnel’s tables associating the gospels with Jewish Scriptures and other Jewish writings. With this section completed I am free to move on to discuss the remainder of her book, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier.

The value of tables like these comes more from preparing them — or returning to them from time to time to take them in point by point — than a quick glance at them. One is compelled to ask about the intellectual world of the evangelists. One is brought into the mysterious world of what the authors read and spoke about, how they thought about what they read, what flashes of insight were sparked by their conversations all before anything was put into writing. Then by what creative process did each evangelist weave anew another variant of a story about a figure who represented a new Israel.

In the table below I have once again made a few edits to Charbonnel’s original. For one thing, not a few of the biblical references in French do not match those in English. All of these have been revised to their English references. A few times I was not sure what a reference or source meant so I have added a question mark to each of those places. (Example, [RG] — is this a reference to Rene Girard? If so, what work of his?) In some cases I have left Charbonnel’s notes entirely and replaced them with translations from the French (or Italian) source that had been cited.

None of the illustrations is in Charbonnel’s original table.

  • Some interesting features this time:
  • The crown of thorns might reasonably be associated with the parable of the thornbush that in the OT parable “would be king”.
  • Pilate’s famous “Here is the man!” statement has several possible sources in the OT, all associated, ironically, with ascension to kingship.
  • Matthew’s mob crying out for Jesus’ blood to be “on their heads” has in modern discussion been said to be an anti-semitic trope but when one notices its possible sources in the Jewish scriptures one sees it as originally not necessarily bearing any particularly anti-semitic connotation.
  • I had always been suspicious of those comments linking the old Hebrew letter tau with the cross of Jesus, but I am willing now to concede that there just might be something to the link. (I’m not suggesting that the original idea of a cross came from the alphabet, not at all.)
  • Another interesting link was the Jewish Scripture associations of the “good” thief’s dispute with his “bad” companion.
  • We all surely know of the Amos association with the sun going down at noon, but I had overlooked till now that this same image in Amos is tied to mourning for an only son.
  • The titulus crucis carries more Jewish Scripture echoes than I had ever suspected.
  • Nor was I aware of the earthquake at the time of Joshua’s death — a sign divinely activated to draw the population’s attention to that grave moment.
  • Again, we have several links to intertestamental literature and later rabbinic writings. And again, it is very reasonable to accept that those rabbinical writings had their origins in the Second Temple era and were known to the evangelists.
  • One related detail is the teaching that when Moses struck the rock twice, the first time blood flowed out, the second time, water. What was on the evangelist’s mind when he wrote of the spear drawing both blood and water from Jesus?
  • Justin Martyr’s quotation of Jeremiah is of special interest.
  • So is a Codex Bezae version of the Gospel of Luke. Again, we meet another piece of evidence that the evangelists knew the writings of Josephus, especially Wars. The east gate that miraculously opened by itself as a warning of Jerusalem’s doom was said by Josephus to have been so large that it took twenty men to open. The same image is found in Codex Bezae’s Luke.
  • I had known of the “I am” statements in the Greek Gospel of John but for some reason till now had overlooked them in the Gospel of Luke.
  • Charbonnel speaks of OT passages where one is said to “pass through walls” by the power of God, but the Hebrew speaks of scaling over. (A French translation does say “pass through” as the resurrected Jesus did.)
  • I would like to track down the Exodus Rabbah statement (in English) that foreshadows the “Do you seek the living among the dead” saying.
  • Oh yes… one more of particular note (for me) — is the “beloved disciple” a figure of the church?

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #7 (conclusion)”


Who Will See “The Kingdom of God Coming with Power” in Mark 9:1?

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by Neil Godfrey

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” — Mark 9:1

We know what follows so we read on to see “the fulfilment” of that saying six days later with Peter, James and John on the mountain witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus. But look what happens when we ignore the chapter breaks and read that passage in the context of the preceding verses.

8:34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.9:1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” 

He said to the crowd along with his disciples, “If any of you are ashamed of me then the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in glory and with the angels”, and, “some of you who are standing here will see the kingdom coming….”

The promise — or is it a warning? — that some of his audience would be alive to see the coming kingdom is spoken as an immediate follow-on from his warning that he would come in glory and with angels to judge that sinful and adulterous generation standing before him.

If you are one of those who have balked at this saying of Jesus hinting at Peter, James and John you are not alone. The message of “some who are standing here will not taste death before….” becomes a mock saying if it pointed to what was to happen only six days hence.

9:1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” 2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.

A better paragraph break would be,

8:34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” 9:1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” 

2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.

Daniel 7:13-14 In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

At his point, it is of special interest to observe that the same prophecy of the coming kingdom is repeated twice more, with all three times being a throw-back to Daniel 7:13-14. Moreover, the threefold saying is a distinctive feature of the Gospel of Mark, a tool by which the author held his story together, each repetition and accompanying setting alerting readers to unifying themes moving towards the crescendo of the crucifixion.

The first repetition is in Mark 13:26 where we are informed that those who see the kingdom coming in power and glory are the entire generation alive at the time:

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

(There is some debate over the identity of whom Jesus says will see his coming in this verse, but one thing is clear, and that is that Jesus is made to avoid directly referencing the disciples at this moment as he does in other selected passages.)

The third time the prophecy is put in Jesus’ mouth, Mark 14:62, it is directed at the high priest:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Thomas Hatina

If one prefers to shy away from Jesus pointing personally to the high priest as the prophesied witness of events then it is less easy to avoid the view that he is addressing the temple establishment whom the high priest represented.

I have posted a similar viewpoint before but here I am expanding on it somewhat by reference to a thesis and a related article by Thomas Hatina. Since much of the above is a very abbreviated paraphrase of Hatina’s viewpoint it is time to hear him in his own words. He expands on the idea that in the above passages Jesus is claiming that it is the sinful generation, his opponents, who would be the ones to witness the coming kingdom:

That the antagonists of the story should “see” the manifestation of God would not have been an unusual anticipation for an early Jewish Christian like Mark. There were certainly enough precedents upon which to draw. For example, in Isa 64,1-2 the prophet says that God reveals himself, through acts of judgment, to the adversaries “that the nations may tremble”. And in Nah 1,5 when the prophet says that the “earth is up heaved by his [God’s] presence”, he is metaphorically describing the experience of judgment by the adversaries. A similar motif also appears in early Jewish and Christian martyrological tradition, in which the adversaries “see” the vindication of their victims (e.g. Wis 5,2; Rev 11,12; ApcEl 35,7). Vindication, once again, presupposes some kind of violent overthrow of the adversaries. A closer parallel to Mark is found in 1 Enoch 62,3-5 which foretells that the unrighteous worldly leaders are the ones who will “see” the son of man:

On the day of judgment, all the kings, the governors, the high officials, and the landlords shall see and recognize him — how he sits on the throne of his glory, and righteousness is judged before him…. They shall be terrified and dejected; and pain shall seize them when they see that son of man sitting on the throne of his glory”.

With respect to the language which conveys the power of God’s rule, Mark’s imagery in 9,1 is not unlike that which is found in the Septuagint where references to divine judgment commonly depict God in terms that assert his complete superiority over the enemies of the righteous — whether the enemies are human or divine, foreign or domestic.

The highlighting above is mine. For the implication that a metaphorical interpretation has for the “apocalyptic passages” of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark see When they saw the Son of Man coming in the clouds. Cosmic collapse is a metaphor for the destruction of Jerusalem just as the same metaphor spoke of the destruction of Babylon.

After a comment on the expression “kingdom of God” Hatina continues,

Assertions of God’s “power” (usually in the LXX as δύναμις, δυναστείο!ς or ισχύς) are often found in contexts of war or destruction. And in most cases, those who are condemned to witness the devastation (i.e. the power of God’s strength), be it in terms of “seeing” or “knowing”, are the enemies of Yahweh. . . . The display of divine power coheres more immediately to judgment than it does to blessing.

The precedent can be extended to other writings in early Judaism where terms like “glory’ and “power” are likewise used of divine acts of judgment.

Hatina cites supporting verses from both the Jewish Scriptures and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Contexts, both within the gospel and external to it, allow a good case for “the promise” of seeing the coming kingdom is being directed as a warning to those who do not follow Jesus.

The question remains, of course: Where does the coming of the kingdom of God fit in? I’ll set out my thoughts on the answer in another post.

Hatina, Thomas R. 2005. “Who Will See ‘The Kingdom of God Coming with Power’ in Mark 9,1 — Protagonists or Antagonists?” Biblica 86 (1): 20–34.


Why Scholars Came to Think of Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet

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by Neil Godfrey

It has not always been so. Times change and so does the “conventional wisdom”. Judas, for example, began something of a rehabilitation in response to ecumenism and to the world being confronted with the horrific results of anti-semitism in the early half of the twentieth century. Instead of a malicious villain, he became in some quarters seen as a well-meaning zealot, a victim of misguided aspirations. The idea that Jesus taught a message that focussed on the cataclysmic “end of the world” as the way to establish the righteous kingdom of God may be off-handedly mentioned as if it is an established fact that is not questioned by most scholars, but something changed that brought about this common viewpoint.

One reason often given in support of this view of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet is one that has often troubled me:

[T]he apocalypticism of Jesus is such a potentially embarrassing thing, so scandalous to the post-Enlightenment intellect of the twentieth century that its acceptance has long been considered a test of scholarly objectivity; anyone who would reject this hypothesis is viewed by his or her peers as a hopeless romantic, unable or unwilling to accept the scandalous reality that Jesus did not think like us. (Patterson, 30)

If there is one “certainty” about ancient authors, including biblical ones, that is in other contexts pointed out over and over, it is that if an author found a particular fact embarrassing he or she would be quite capable of simply glossing over it or, less often, re-writing it in a way that totally changed its character and left no room for any alternative interpretation. If the evangelists really believed that the prophetic utterances of Jesus failed to take place as he had promised then why on earth would they have recorded those failures in their gospels? One answer sometimes offered to this question is that, say, the Gospel of Mark was written just prior (by a matter of months) to the fall of the Jerusalem in the full expectation that it was about to be destroyed and that Jesus would then descend on clouds from heaven. Another, even less plausible notion, is that the gospel was written just after the fall of Jerusalem and the author was in daily expectation of the coming of Jesus. Both explanations are surely special pleading. Why even write a gospel if one sincerely believed one all saints were about to be transformed into immortality at any moment and the rest of the world judged? If one did write something that one only months, or even a year or two, later realized was undeniably wrong, then one would surely expect the work to have been re-written to either deny what had been said or to add an explanation for why it was not fulfilled in 70 CE, or scrapped entirely.

As self-evident as such a reading of the sources has seemed in recent years, it was not so self-evident in 1892

But I am changing the theme I began to address in this post. I will post later a more detailed case for a reinterpretation of the apocalyptic prophecies apparently put in the mouth of Jesus. For now, let’s return to the “conventional scholarly wisdom”.

As self-evident as such a reading of the sources (e.g. Mark 13, Matthew 24. Luke 21) has seemed in recent years, it was not so self-evident in 1892. Historical inquiry into the cultural miliew into which Jesus was born and within which he preached was still a relatively young field in the late nineteenth century. It was philosophical analysis, not history, that served as the interpretive key to understanding the Scriptures. Theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl, for example, were at work transforming the ethical idealism of Immanuel Kant into the full flowering of liberal theology. (Patterson, 30)

Johannes Weiss

The first scholar of note to have published an argument that Jesus did preach that the world was coming to a violent end and God’s kingdom was about to enter with cosmically-overturning violence was Johannes Weiss. His 1892 Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (German title, Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes) had little impact. For Stephen Patterson the explanation was “the times” in which it appeared:

The German idealism of the nineteenth century was, above all else, optimistic about the future; the Jesus of Weiss would have been utterly irrelevant to its credo. Weiss would not find popular acceptance until after the year 1906 when another young scholar by the name of Albert Schweitzer published the book that established him as one of his generation’s great biblical scholars: The Quest of the Historical Jesus. (Patterson, 31)

Yet as most of us well know, Schweitzer’s thesis was widely acclaimed and its shadow remains cast over many modern interpretations of Jesus.

But why was Schweitzer able to succeed in 1906 where Weiss had failed in 1892?

The answer is simple. Times changed. The optimism of the nineteenth century had, by 1906, almost completely evaporated with the increasing political instability that characterized Europe in the years leading up to World War I. In its place, there arose a profound sense of dread and uncertainty as an increasingly dark future loomed ever larger on the horizon. The mood is captured most poignantly in the autobiography of Sir Edward Grey, who, on the eve of World War I, recalls having uttered to a close friend words that would be used repeatedly to capture the spirit of times: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” In the midst of the cultural optimism of 1892, Weiss’s apocalyptic Jesus was a scandal; in the atmosphere of cultural pessimism that was just beginning to come to expression in 1906, this apocalyptic Jesus was just what the doctor ordered.

This state of affairs in Western culture has not altered much over the course of this century. This has been true especially in Europe, devastated by two World Wars and the economic instability and collapse that fueled the fires of discontent, and disturbed by the specter of the Holocaust that hangs over the European psyche as a constant reminder of humanity’s potential to social pathology and unfathomable evil. (Patterson 32)

One could add more to the post-World War II situation — as anyone slightly aware of modern history will know.

North America, on the other hand, maintained its “cultural optimism” longer than Europe. World War 2 did not leave Northern America devastated as it had Europe. For the US the war was recollected as a victory.

But by the 1950s, the cultural pessimism that began with the political collapse of Europe and the catastrophe of two World Wars eventually began to wash up onto the victorious, self-confident, can-do shores of North America as well, as we faced the psychologically debilitating realities of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear or environmental disaster, and the social upheaval of the 1960s. We too began to experience the cultural malaise that had held its grip on Europe for the first half of the century. This change in attitude is expressed perhaps most eloquently by Reinhold Niebuhr in his 1952 essay, The Irony ofAmerican History:

Could there be a clearer tragic dilemma than that which faces our civilization? Though confident of its virtue, it must hold atomic bombs ready for use so as to prevent a possible world conflagration. . . . Our dreams of a pure virtue are dissolved in a situation in which it is possible to exercise the virtue of responsibility toward a community of nations only by courting the prospective guilt of the atomic bomb. . . . Our dreams of moving the whole of human history under the control of the human will are ironically refuted by the fact that no group of idealists can easily move the pattern of history toward the desired goal of peace and justice. The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.

What Niebuhr, as a member of the generation that created the nuclear age, saw as a tragic and bitter irony has become for the present generation an existential presupposition. The result has been a pessimism about culture and its future, pervasive throughout Western society, that has not gone unnoticed in the annals of philosophical history. The great historian of Western thought W. T. Jones has written about our age:

Students of contemporary culture have characterized this century in various ways — for instance, as the age of anxiety, the aspirin age, the nuclear age, the age of one-dimensional man, the post-industrial age; but nobody, unless a candidate for political office at some political convention, has called this a happy age. . . . The rise of dictatorships, two world wars, genocide, the deterioration of the environment, and the Vietnam war have all had a share in undermining the old beliefs in progress, in rationality, and in people’s capacity to control their own destiny and improve their lot.

(Patterson, 33)

There have been a few notable voices arguing for a non-apocalyptic Jesus. Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan are relatively well-known. But the Jesus Seminar (with which they were associated) has been surprisingly (to me) dismissed out of hand, even ridiculed, by so much of the academy of biblical scholarship today. Their presentations of a “non-apocalyptic Jesus” appear to be relegated to curious oddities by popular names like those of Bart Ehrman.

My point here is not to argue the case against the apocalyptic Jesus. My point is to draw attention to the realization, at least among one scholarly quarter, that scholarly interpretations change over time and with the times. What is often addressed as “a fact” may “in fact” be an interpretation that is a product of the times and in other times it may well become nothing more than a “curious oddity”.

Patterson, Stephen J. 1995. “The End of Apocalypse: Rethinking the Eschatological Jesus.” Theology Today 52 (1): 29–48. https://doi.org/10.1177/004057369505200104.


Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #6

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by Neil Godfrey

Not only are passages from Jewish Scriptures identified as sources of the gospels but we also find interesting overlaps with some of the other Second Temple literature and even the later rabbinical writings. It looks as though those later rabbinical writings originated in the Second Temple era given the striking overlaps with some of the gospel passages. I have noted and linked these references in the tables up till now but mention it this time because there seem to be more than usual in today’s table.

Very often the proposed allusions to passages in the Hebrew Scriptures are not direct but are nonetheless thought-provoking and raise questions about the possible mind-sets of the authors. One of the more interesting associations for me was the associations with Jesus writing in the dust. I know that the passage about the woman caught in adultery has had a checkered history in the manuscripts but here there is a reasonable case for interpreting it as having been composed with the same midrashic imagination as other gospel passages.

Another passage of particular interest was the association of Jesus’ instruction to eat his flesh with the words of Wisdom in Sirach. Not such a “pagan” or “mystery-religion” notion, after all, in that context!

The table below comes with the same notes as the earlier ones, paraphrases in parts, translations are my own, and slight editorial changes here and there. One difference, though — I have colour-coded rows to link together verses addressing the same unit of narrative.

Here we look at the Jewish Scripture sources for:

a. the Transfiguration and preparation for the Passion of Christ

b. signs of the End Times

c. miracles and teachings in Jesus’ last days

d. Last Supper and Betrayal

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #6”


Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #5

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by Neil Godfrey

I have taken time out to track down and catch up with several of the French works that Charbonnel cites and that has a bit to do with the long time between the last post in this series and this one.

It’s been too long since I visited our French scholars of the Bible so here I continue with part 5 of Nanine Charbonnel’s table setting out the “Old Testament” sources of the Gospel narratives. In Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier Charbonnel is presenting a case for the gospel figure of Jesus Christ being created entirely from a form of “midrashic” type composition in which diverse scriptural texts are woven together into a new story to meet new community needs.

The table below is my own adaptation of Charbonnel’s French-language multi-page table, with a few slight editorial changes and my own translations and summaries.

The work of checking every scriptural reference (they are all hyperlinked for you to check them easily too) has impressed upon me just how totally the gospels are very likely pastiches of Jewish scriptures and some non-canonical writings. There appears to be nothing left over requiring explanation as if from any other source. Jesus walking on water was not an exaggerated retelling of a biographical event where Jesus happened to be walking on a sandbank (as some have said); nor were the healing miracles exaggerations of some real-life psychological power Jesus had over those with ailments. . . . they, everything, was written as a renewal of a sacred saying or scripture. Nor is there anything new about the teaching of Jesus: everything he is narrated as having taught is a re-writing of Scriptural or proverbial teachings of the time of the evangelists.

Jesus is created as a new voice and representative of a new Israel. The kingdom of God has come, the promises have been fulfilled in Jesus. Nations, gentiles and Jews, are now one in Him. The gospels are written, surely, as a new set of scriptures through which the old are to be interpreted anew.

There is no historical person of Jesus behind the narrative. If there had been then there would be some indication of a real person that the narrative had to adapt somehow to scriptures. What we find instead, however, is a figure entirely, entirely, made up of scriptures. Scriptural rewriting is the warp and woof of what he does, what happens to him, and what he says and teaches.

Here we look at the Jewish Scripture sources for:

a. the calling of disciples and sending them out to preach

b. teachings of Jesus – to both Jews and gentiles

c. miracles of Jesus – to both Jews and gentiles

d. the fate of John the Baptist and the beginnings of the rejection of Jesus

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #5”


Bad History for Atheists (3) — Proof-texting, Circularity, Fake Facts, Insults

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by Neil Godfrey

At about 57 mins of the MythVision podcast O’Neill underscores the importance of Paul’s claim to have met James the “brother of the Lord”. Not only is Paul’s claim from a contemporary of Jesus but it is even from one who is opposed to his source:  Paul is saying, says O’Neill, “Yeh, I have met the brother of Jesus and he’s a dick.” Now evidence from contemporaries, especially contemporary adversaries, is certainly strong evidence for historicity, but at this point, O’Neill tosses aside and out of sight the most fundamental principle he said was the basis of all good historical inquiry: a need to acknowledge ambiguity in the evidence. O’Neill’s first task, therefore, is to characterize any interpretation that allows for ambiguity to be outright nonsense.

Basic historical methods applied to Paul meeting “the brother of the Lord”

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

Yet there is an even more fundamental rule for any historian examining sources that O’Neill never mentions: study the context of the source and the information in it!  It’s this simple:

  1. Acknowledge the fact that that “met James the brother of the Lord” phrase is unknown to Church Fathers who would dearly have loved to have known it to win their theological debates against “heretics” (– I was first informed of this fact by an honest author who was arguing against the Christ myth theory);
  2. Stop and think how bizarre it is that there are no other early Christian accounts that record that one of the leaders of the Christian church at Jerusalem was the very brother of Jesus! Is it really plausible that this one passing reference in a letter of Paul, a letter that was the focus of so much controversy in the early church, should be the only evidence we have from the early days of the church that Jesus’ brother became the new leader alongside Peter? Not even the Book of Acts, which portrays James as a noble head of the Jerusalem church, leads anyone to suspect that that James was a brother of Jesus.

For further details discussing the above context of this passage see

O’Neill emphasizes that a historian must be open to ambiguity when studying the sources. Indeed. There are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the passage in which Paul says he met the “brother of the Lord” was added some time in the second century in order to better assist “orthodox” Christians argue against their theological opponents. Further, fundamental questions arise when we try to understand how a brother of Jesus could have become the church’s leader without any other contemporary or near contemporary indication that anyone knew about it.

It is “bad history” to take a passage as testimony to a “historical fact” without first testing the authenticity of that evidence.

Basic historical method guards against circular reasoning

David Hackett Fischer

O’Neill next engages in a very common failing of many historical Jesus scholars: circular reasoning. That failing is not unique to biblical scholars, though, since it is one of the fallacies pointed out in a famous book from 1970 by historian David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.

The fallacy of the circular proof is a species of a question-begging, which consists in assuming what is to be proved. A hypothetical example might help to clarify the point. A researcher asks, “Do gentlemen prefer blondes?” He discovers that Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes, and tacitly assumes that Smith, Jones, and James are therefore gentlemen. He concludes that three gentlemen out of three prefer blondes, and that the question is empirically established, with a perfect correlation. His argument runs through the following stages :

Inquiry : Do gentlemen prefer blondes?
Research : Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes.
(Tacit Assumption ) : Smith, Jones, and James are gentlemen.
Conclusion: Therefore, gentlemen prefer blondes.

Absurd as this fallacy may appear in a hypothetical way, it is exceedingly common in empirical scholarship.

(Fischer, 49)

petitio principii : a fallacy in which a conclusion is taken for granted in the premises; begging the question.

Dietary laws

One of several examples of this fallacy that O’Neill offers (paraphrasing):

In the Gospel of Mark we read that Jesus addresses the Jewish dietary laws. This makes sense if there was a historical Jesus who was saying those things about the dietary laws that the church (at the time the gospel was written) no longer followed. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if Jesus didn’t exist.

O’Neill here is uncritically repeating an argument found among some mainstream biblical scholars. It makes just as much sense on the assumption that the Jesus of the gospels was a literary figure created to express the view of the church.

Clark Kent to Superman

By excising all evidence to the contrary some exegetes conclude that the Jesus behind Mark’s gospel was mundanely human.

At this point the host, Derek Lambert, interjects with another piece of circularity common among too many mainstream biblical scholars (again, my paraphrase):

In the Gospel of Mark Jesus appears like a Clark Kent but by the time of the Gospel of John he is Superman. The evidence is so easily explained if there was an original guy who wanted the temple brought down, and then that happened, but because it didn’t get rebuilt, the Christians had to change the prophecy of Jesus into one where he claimed to be speaking about the temple of his body.

Yes, if we assume that there was a historical Jesus at the start, then we can indeed say that the subsequent evidence can be explained by that same historical Jesus. That’s circularity. The same logic can be used to say that if we assume that the gospel authors portrayed a Jesus who fitted the time of those writers, then we can explain the later changes to the gospels as the result of adapting to changing circumstances and beliefs. Question begging works any way you want to use it.

Besides, O’Neill ought to have picked Derek Lambert up on his factual error (another one common among many biblical scholars) that the Gospel of Mark portrays a relatively ungodly “merely human” Jesus. A man who walks on water and commands the storms to cease just like the Yahweh in the Psalms is not a “merely human” figure. Nor is the range of emotion imputed to Mark’s Jesus “merely human”: anger, for instance, is a very common godly emotion. For further details see

From Nazareth or Bethlehem?

Another very common instance of circularity appears in discussions about the birth narratives. The assumption is that there was a historical Jesus who was born in Nazareth, and since everyone supposedly knew he came from this tiny village “no-one had ever heard of”, the gospel authors tied themselves in knots trying to explain how he was really born, according to the messianic prophecy, in Bethlehem.

About the 1 hour and 10 minute mark O’Neill says, quite rightly, that later (noncanonical) gospels sometimes harmonize the earlier gospels. Matthew and Luke offer contradictory, even incompatible, nativity stories. This makes sense, he rightly says, if we assume that the authors were each independently struggling to work out their own narrative to explain how Jesus came to be known to be “from Nazareth” even though he was born in Bethlehem. I say “rightly” because yes, it does make sense if we assume the premise we are trying to prove is true from the outset.

It makes just as much sense to say that the authors of both Matthew and Luke were trying to establish a legend that Jesus was born at Bethlehem (according to the messianic prophecy) while at the same time attempting to remove an embarrassing epithet by which the earliest sects of Jesus worship were known, the “nazoreans” or “nazarenes”. (The Arab and Muslim world still today refer to Christians by a cognate of that same term.) The Gospel of Matthew at 2:23 bizarrely twists a scripture and grammatical Greek to make it give that title a new meaning.

Thus the evidence of Matthew is that the early evangelists were struggling with a title they no longer felt comfortable with and decided to hide its original meaning by re-interpreting it as meaning “from Nazareth”. Luke most likely re-wrote Matthew to give a better narrative account.

By setting aside the fallacy of assuming a historical Jesus at the outset we open ourselves to a much richer scenario in accordance with all of the evidence.

Nazareth did not exist — “a stupid idea”?

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (3) — Proof-texting, Circularity, Fake Facts, Insults”


Bad History for Atheists (2) — Troubles Reading the Sources and Engaging with Different Viewpoints

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by Neil Godfrey

I do care about bad history. — O’Neill (13 min 50 sec)

Bad history is carelessly getting basic facts wrong. It is also failing to acknowledge and engage honestly with other points of view concerning the sources.

Two instances of “bad history”

At about 27 minutes we are told that “mythers” say there is no contemporary reference to Jesus therefore he didn’t exist. That, we are told, is “a terrible argument” because, even if the historical Jesus really walked on water etc, etc, the gospels say that he was famous only in the back sticks of Galilee.  That’s like being famous in the “north-east corner of Kentucky”. That’s “not famous”. So why would anyone in Rome or Athens or Alexandria write about “a dirty peasant” teaching “Jewish crap to peasants”! Also, when we look at other figures like Jesus, first-century Jewish preachers and prophets, we have NO contemporary references to any of them. We have more references to Jesus than any other analogous figure of the time.

Response 1 — not famous by gospel standards?

No, the gospels say the fame of Jesus brought crowds flocking to him from Syria, Lebanon, south of Judea and Jordan. Mark 3:8 tells us Jesus’ fame was such that people flocked to him from “Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.” That’s more than Galilee. Even if, as O’Neill is suggesting, the biblical account of Jesus is historical, then “multitudes” travelling from so far and wide to Galilee would most certainly attract the attention of the upper classes. Herod, we read, was so alarmed and thought Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead and fearfully went so far to plot to kill him. The first-century Galilean historian of Justus would have had his works preserved for us to read today.

Maps from Hayes and Hanscom, 436 (above); holyland-pilgrimage.org (right)

Response 2 — No contemporary record of any comparable figure?

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (2) — Troubles Reading the Sources and Engaging with Different Viewpoints”


Bad History for Atheists (1) — Louis Feldman on Justin’s Trypho and “proving Jesus existed”

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by Neil Godfrey

I took time out last night to follow up a comment left on Vridar and listen to Derek Lambert’s MythVision interview with Tim O’Neill, author of the blog History for Atheists. If one sets aside the revealing psychological portrait that emerges from the  incidental comments O’Neill lets drop about himself throughout the interview and focuses on his message one finds an unfortunate mix of contradictions, logical fallacies and factual errors presented with a confidence that evidently many readers find persuasive. I will attempt to deal with just one or two points per post to illustrate why readers and viewers need to put on their critical hats and examine carefully some of O’Neill’s claims.

Louis Feldman

In this post we look at what O’Neill has to say about the late Josephan specialist Louis Feldman, who came to reject the authenticity of any part of the Testimonium Flavianum (the passage about Jesus in Book 18 of Josephus’s Antiquities), and in particular at what O’Neill has to say about Feldman’s claim that a second century passage in a Dialogue with Trypho points to some debate at the time about the existence of Jesus.

Here is the Trypho passage.

But Christ—if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint him, and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves . . .

Justin’s Dialogue (ch.8)

Mythicist Earl Doherty acknowledged the passage’s ambiguity:

As I discuss at length in Appendix 12 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, the typical historicist argument over this passage is that Trypho “is arguing that Christians invented a false conception of Christ and applied it to Jesus” (so Eddy and Boyd in The Jesus Legend, p.170). But the language is far from this specific. And it is not Trypho who is assuming Jesus existed, but Justin, who is creating the dialogue and putting into Trypho’s mouth what he himself believes and to further the argument he is constructing.

But it does suggest that Justin is countering something that contemporary Jews are claiming, and the quotation is sufficiently ambiguous to suggest even to a committed historicist scholar like Robert Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.15, n.35) that “This may be a faint statement of a non-existence hypothesis, but it is not developed . . . ” (It is not developed because that is not part of Justin’s purpose.) The “groundless report” may allude to an accusation that the entire Gospel story with its central character was indeed fiction.

(Doherty, on Vridar)

But O’Neill does not allow for any reasonable ambiguity and suggests that Feldman has fallen victim to senility for disputing the common interpretation of the passage.

The Intolerability of Ambiguity?

About 20 minutes in O’Neill professes adherence to the truism of the need to be tolerant of ambiguity in the evidence. The claim is made that “mythicism” appeals to people with a certain type of psychology, to those “who don’t like ambiguity”, who “want absolutes”, who “shun ambiguity and shades of grey”. About an hour in, he repeats “I am used to ambiguity”, to evidence that can be “read in different ways”, and that certain others “find ambiguity really weird”.

The sentiment is laudable. But when discussing a particular point of evidence that is clearly ambiguous O’Neill (around the 46-47 minute mark) unfortunately dismisses as blatantly wrong, as “a bad misreading, quite a remarkable, actually, misreading”, the interpretation that draws attention to its ambiguity.

Worse is the ad hominem: O’Neill goes so far as to suggest that the interpreter’s judgment was evidence of senility:

The problem with Feldman switching sides late in his life is … to be honest, I don’t think he was firing on all cylinders, he was in his eighties at that point, and also I think that his premise [is] on the misreading of a text.

Towards the end of the interview O’Neill declares that he believes in the importance of “reading books” and becoming familiar with “critical scholarship”. Again, a laudable sentiment. But had he done so in the case of Feldman’s claim about Trypho he would have known that Feldman did not somehow come to “remarkably misread” the text of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho “late in his life” but had published the exact same point twenty years earlier.

When O’Neill refers to Paget’s criticism of Feldman’s “misreading” of Trypho, all he is doing is pointing to a blunt single sentence that says, without any argument or justification, that Feldman has “misread” the passage:

Feldman’s attempt to argue that Justin, Dial. 8 witnesses to such an argument is a misreading of the passage.

(Paget, 602)

No argument. Just a bald assertion that Feldman is wrong.

Here is what Feldman wrote, the argument he penned (when in his 80s) about the passage: Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (1) — Louis Feldman on Justin’s Trypho and “proving Jesus existed””


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”


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”


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”


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”


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

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