2022-02-27

When was the Book of Revelation Written?

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

by Neil Godfrey

How do we go about finding a date for when the Book of Revelation was composed?

Many have dated the work to just prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, others date it to the time of Domitian in the 90s: I set out the main reasons for each of those dates in recent posts (see links in side box). I think there are some strong arguments for dating the work to the 130s but before I go there let’s address the various factors that have been brought into play to date the work.

(By the way, some have suggested that Revelation grew piece by piece as a result of different authors over a period of time adding new sections. For my purposes here I am siding with those who have disagreed and see enough linguistic evidence to think of a single author even though that author drew upon a number of sources.)

The legend of Nero redux or Nero redivivus

Revelation speaks of a return of some sort of monstrous ruler after he had once been thought dead or simply out of the picture for some reason. We think of the many hopeful people in the eastern part of the Roman empire who long believed that their beloved Nero, after news of his suicide, was still alive and would return.

The links here take interested readers directly to the sources that testify to beliefs that Nero would return.

The Nero myth of return was still going strong in the eastern part of the empire into the second century. The historian Suetonius tells us that twenty years after Nero’s death there were many who enthusiastically believed the claims of one claiming to be Nero. Dio Chrysostom, writing between 90 and 110 CE, noted that most people in his region believed Nero was still alive. The satirist Lucian was able to remind readers of his own day, in the 140s CE, that those from their grandparents’ times had believed Nero would return. The Sibylline Oracles contain prophecies of Nero’s return: the relevant passages in book IV describe the eruption of Mount Vesuvius so are understood to have been written between 80 and 90 CE; those of book V as late as 130 CE since they refer to the Jewish uprisings throughout the Diaspora between 115-117 CE. (See also a discussion on the Reading Acts blog for the dating of these oracles.)

Emperor Worship in Asia Minor

The setting of Revelation is the Roman province of Asia (note the opening address to the seven churches). If Revelation is warning the faithful not to succumb to pressure to “worship the beast” (think of sacrifices to the Roman emperor) then it would be good to know what was happening, and when it was happening, with respect to emperor worship in that region. One scholar, Klaus Berger, has claimed that in the years leading up to 70 there was an “intensive blossoming of cultic emperor worship in Asia Minor”. On the other hand, Steven Friesen writes “The period of Nero seems to have been rather quiet with regard to imperial worship.” The evidence cited indicates that a revival of this cult had to await the consecration of a dedicated shrine in Ephesus in 89/90 CE.

666 – the number of the beast

Certainly, the number 666 is known to match the emperor Nero. However, Nero is not the only candidate whose name adds up to 666. Irenaeus himself wrote of different possible interpretations. (We will see in future posts that Revelation 13:18 can be understood to direct readers to two different persons and that one should be interpreted in the light of the other, that the man Nero returned as the beast in another emperor.)

The seven kings of Revelation 17

It appears that everyone has a method to identify these seven kings. That there are so many different interpretations (some starting with Julius Caesar, some with Augustus, some with Claudius; some omitting the three emperors of the year of the civil war, others including all or only one of them, and so forth) pretty well eliminates the possibility of using them as a guide to dating the work.

The destruction of Jerusalem

In Revelation 11 we see the two witnesses active in Jerusalem and the author is told to measure the temple there. Unfortunately, that scenario has not been enough to persuade everyone that it was written before 70 CE. As one commentator on the book wrote, “The 11th chapter [of the Apc] belongs to the darkest pieces of the Rev”.

In touch with early theology (e.g. Paul’s teachings)

Some have noted how close Revelation appears to be in relation to Pauline theology and the older (Q) tradition behind the gospels. It does not follow, though, that the work should be dated as early as those sources; the most we can say is that the author knew of Paul’s writings and the gospels.

The earthquake of Laodicea in 61 CE.

Revelation describes the church at Laodicea as being rich and comfortable. Since Laodicea was levelled in 61 by an earthquake could it have been rebuilt as early as 68/69? Some think so.

Church hierarchies

There is no obvious appearance of hierarchical structures in church governance in Revelation. That could suggest an early date. It could also suggest that hierarchies were taken for granted as they were at a later time.

Time of war and crisis

The author anticipates the fall of Roman power so the “civil wars” of 68/9 seem to fit such a time. However, keep in mind the setting of the Roman province of Asia: those battles had no effect in that region and would hardly have generated a sense of crisis there. The same applies to references to fears of a Parthian invasion. Those fears were extant throughout the period from 45/50 to 155/160 CE so cannot be used as a clear indicator for dating.

Persecutions – Nero and Domitian

Revelation does appear to speak of a time of organized state persecution of Christians. If we accept the accounts of the Neronian persecutions of Christians as historically credible we are still left with the fact that that was a one-off event. It was past history by the time Revelation was written. As for the persecutions of Christians in the time of Domitian, scholars have been obliged to conclude that the evidence there is very thin. There are some late reports of individual cases but nothing to suggest an organized program to suppress Christianity. Besides, we need to be careful about what Revelation actually depicts as historical on the one hand and what it anticipates in the future on the other.

Twelve apostles and Babylon

Revelation presents the twelve apostles as the foundation of the new Jerusalem and uses Babylon as a cipher for Rome.

Critics of a date prior to the destruction of the temple in the year 70 claim that the notion of “twelve apostles” being the foundation of the church is unlikely to have been extant so soon. Similarly, critics have said that Babylon would only have been used as code for Rome after it had destroyed Jerusalem.

A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine!

Thus says the voice at the appearance of the black horse.

Did Domitian issue an edict that sought to regulate the disproportion between wine and grain cultivation in the empire? Some think there is evidence that he did, but it is far from certain that any such edict was issued. If it had been then it appears to have been only a temporary measure. There is precious little evidence that such an event happened or that it had any appreciable impact in the province of Asia if it did.

Testimony of Irenaeus

Irenaeus is thought to tell us that John wrote Revelation in the time of Domitian. Given that Irenaeus wrote around 180 CE, that testimony can only have historical weight if it can be shown that behind the claim there is an oral or written tradition that dates back close to the time of the writing of Revelation.

The arguments set out on the one hand for the nature of sources used by Irenaeus are lengthy; so are the arguments that examine the grammatical structures used by Irenaeus, the differences between the Greek and Latin versions of the key passages, and discussions on what conclusions we can draw from all of that detail. Bypassing all of that material here, I will only note that it appears certain that Irenaeus had a habit of citing his sources wherever possible to add weight to his work, and that when he did not do so, we have reason to believe that his statements were conclusions he drew from his own reasoning and assumptions.

…o…

Next up, we’ll look at some preliminary reasons for thinking Revelation was a response to Hadrian in the 130s.


Witulski, Thomas. Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian: Studien Zur Datierung Der Neutestamentlichen Apokalypse. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007. http://www.librarything.com/work/5467644/book/208189148.



2022-02-22

The Book of Revelation and the Bar Kochba Revolt

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

by Neil Godfrey

Scene from Trajan’s column

I have been posting preliminary information on dates that are widely assigned to the Book of Revelation but have decided to jump ahead and make it clear where these posts are headed.

Thomas Witulski has presented some interesting arguments for dating Revelation to the time of the lead up to and beginning of the Bar Kochba war in the time of Emperor Hadrian, between 132 and 135 CE.

So how does that setting fit with the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”?

  • The white horse is the conquering emperor Trajan. White horses in mythology and historical triumphs were associated with conquerors in their triumphs (and with Zeus himself).
  • The red horse represents the various messianic-led Jewish uprisings in the years leading up to the 130s throughout Cyrenaica, Egypt, Cyprus and Mesopotamia.
  • The black horse whose rider carries the scales represents a ruler responsible for justice (as commonly symbolized at that time by scales, emblem of the goddess Aequitas); prices are said to be extremely high but, contrary to a famine setting, land producing oil and wine was not to be touched and converted to grain production. This horse represents a governor of Asia who was forced to cope in condign ways with the results of the Jewish revolts that had reduced grain supplies from Egypt.
  • The pale horse represents the fate of the Jews following the suppression of their uprisings — death, executions, famine, wolves threatening survivors in areas reduced to chaos.

Okay, so what about the measuring of the temple?

The rebels’ programme of (re)building the Yahweh sanctuary in Jerusalem and reinstalling the priestly-dominated cult of the temple should also be understood in this context: (a) The measuring out described in Apk 11:1-2a for the purpose of rebuilding or reestablishing the temple, the θυσιαστήριον and the worshippers there presupposes that these buildings and conditions are not present or destroyed at the time of the writing of the Apk. This obviously corresponds exactly to the conditions in Jerusalem at the threshold of the Bar-Kokhba revolt, as Cassius Dio describes them2, (b) The depiction in Apk 11:1-2a. according to which the apocalyptic was commissioned to measure the temple, the θυσιαστήριον and the people worshipping there for the purpose of new construction or rebuilding, but did not (or could no longer) carry out this commission3, ties in with the corresponding programme described above. At the same time, however, it also reflects the apocalypticist’s assessment of the further course of the rebellion, which he had to arrive at after taking into account the various measures taken by the Romans to put down the uprising5: The rebels did indeed consider Jerusalem and the sanctuary of Yahweh. Jerusalem and the Yahweh sanctuary and to reinstall the temple cult; in the end, however, the ναός τοΰ θεού and the associated θυσιαστήριον – at least according to the apocalypticist’s assessment – will not be rebuilt, for those who want to worship there and practise the Jewish worship of God, there will not be such a possibility (anymore).

The historical reference of Apk 11:1-2a to the first phase of the Bar Kokhba revolt becomes even more conclusive if it is assumed that the decision to (re)found Jerusalem as the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina and, in connection with this, the decision to erect a pagan sanctuary there can be dated to the time immediately before the military escalation, i.e. around 130 AD. Then the statements of Apk 11:1-2a could be referred to these decisions of Hadrian without any problems: The apocalypticist is supposed to measure the temple, the θυσιοοτήριον and the people worshipping there for the purpose of rebuilding or reconstruction.

(Die vier apokalyptischen Reiter, pp 305f; translated)

The two witnesses?

Bar Kochba and the priest Eleazar, the political and religious leaders of Israel who were dedicated to the liberation of Judea from the Romans. I know. Questions arise. I will address details in future posts.

The beast and his false prophet?

Hadrian and his advisor, propagandist and rhetor Antonius Polemon

The author expected Hadrian to kill the Bar Kochba and the priest Eleazar and that the whole world would rejoice in the destruction of those it held responsible for war.

The posts won’t be completed this week, but hopefully they will be finished before year’s end.

.


Witulski, Thomas. Apk 11 und der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand : eine zeitgeschichtliche Interpretation. Tübingen : Mohr Siebeck, 2012, http://archive.org/details/apk11undderbarko0000witu.

—. Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian: Studien Zur Datierung Der Neutestamentlichen Apokalypse. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007, http://www.librarything.com/work/5467644/book/208189148.

—. Die vier apokalyptischen Reiter Apk 6,1-8: Ein Versuch ihrer zeitgeschichtlichen (Neu-)Interpretation. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.



2022-02-21

On Revelation’s Beast and 666 symbolizing Gnostic Wisdom

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

by Neil Godfrey

So you think you can figure out the “seven kings” and work out the time-frame of Rome in the Book of Revelation. Here’s something to push you off-balance with all your ingenuity. It’s from one of those “Dutch Radicals” of a hundred years ago. It’s a slightly edited machine translation. All bolded highlighting is my own.

Symbolism in the Apocalypse of John.

by

Dr. G. A. van den Bergh van Eysinga, Santpoort.

The next occasion for my lecture topic (the lecture was given during the congress of the Dutch Oriental Society in Leyden, 21 April 1922) is probably the contribution by Carl Clemens on the pictoriality of the Revelation of John, published in the Festgabe für Julias Kaftan.1 The important studies by Gunkel, Bousset, Boll and others have primarily focused on the origin of the apocalyptic images – Clemens wanted to place more emphasis on what the author himself and his readers thought of his book, which then also includes an understanding of the literary forms he used.

Holy Wisdom Icon – Wikimedia

Reading this essay has inspired me to take up again a question I dealt with ten years ago during the international congress on the history of religion here and to examine more closely the solution proposed at that time.2 The starting point for me at that time was the interpretation of the famous number of the great beast,3 Apoc. 13:18, the triangular number (αριθμός τρίγωνος) 666, which can be traced back to the basic number 36 according to a custom that can often be proven in antiquity and is thus interchangeable. 36, however, is also a triangular number and as such can be replaced by 8.1 The eight was then easily associated with the eightness, the Ogdoas, which in the Gnostic systems is another name for wisdom, Sophia or Chokma. The Ogdoas appears as a place, namely the fixed starry sky above the seven planetary spheres (Clem. Alex. Strom. IV. 159, 2). According to Plutarch (Theseus 36), it has the peculiarity of the abiding and immovable; it is the transcendent world, the εστώς, the άπίάνητος Λιών (cf. Clem. Alex. V. 36, 3). After traversing the seven spheres, Tyche, for example, enters, according to Poimandres (XIII. 17 ff.), into the Ogdoas, the place for the songs of praise of those redeemed from the body (I. 26). As the heavenly Jerusalem, however, it is with the Valentinians the mother of all living creatures (Hippol. VI. 34, 3). In the Ogdoas, which is called the Day of the Lord, the spiritual beings come to rest and remain there with the mother until perfection (Clem. Alex. Excerpt from Theodotus 63, 1).2 But the mother-deity becomes in the Gnosis an abstract concept, namely Wisdom, Sophia, Chokma. 3 The one brought forth by the earthly mother is led into death and into the world, the one reborn by Christ is led over into life, into the Ogdoas (a. a. O. 80, 1). According to Bousset1 , the mother has a much greater significance than Jesus in the practice of the sacraments and often also in the basic mood of piety.  The mother is the χύριος, the cult heroine of the gnostic, not Jesus.  In Clemens Alexandrinus (Strom. VI. 140, 3] as in the Gnostic Markos (Hippol. VI. 47, 1) the Lord is called Επίσημος ΰγδόας. That the apocalyptic really means Sophia by his number comes out when he himself says in a veiled way: ωδε ή σοφία. When it is said of the beast 17:8 [sic. corr 17:11] that it is itself the ογδοος, this is almost literally true again of my supposition; when it is further said that it belongs to – better perhaps: it consists of – the seven, then consider that the Gnostic Ogdoas as mother belongs to the seven aeons, or as pleroma consists of the seven aeons. On the seven heads of the beast there is a name of lust: this name is probably distributed over the seven heads, a name of seven letters, therefore, consisting of the seven vowels, which denote the στοιχεια, the elemental powers. The a and ω, i.e. the sum of syllabic vowels,2 is, according to the Apocalypse, not the Pleroma of the Aeons, but God (1:8; 21:6) or Christ (22:18). The magic prayer of the Papyrus Anastasy contains these words: “the God who founded the earth, created men and spirits, . . who wears the diadem of the world, is ιαωουηα, the άπλάνητος ΑΙών.” So the god of the seven spheres, who is in contrast to the planets ο ίστώς and at the same time the Νους, the Syrian god of light and the Yahweh of the Jews; 3 in the papyri, however, the Sophia is expressly called the Aion.

2 Euseb- Praepar. ev. XI. 6: by joining the seven vowels together, the unspeakable name of the All-Holy One can be obtained. They express the glory of the divine name.

As I proved in my lecture of 19124, the apocalypticist did not have Rome in mind at all with his references to Babylon. For him, Babylon is the symbol of astrology and of the closely connected magic and conjuration.1 Babylon, the gate of God and the gate of truth, which, for example, is still regarded by the Manichaeans as the holy city and the centre of the world2 and where, according to the Babylonian-Persian view, the divine messenger descends, became, in the estimation of his enemies, the innermost part of hell.3 Opposite this seat of sin and demons, according to the Jewish view, stands Jerusalem, the city of the seven pillars or of life. For Herodotus I. 181 already knew of the house of life on the seven towers in Babylon; for the Jews, this was later the Hana of the false wisdom, the foreign wooer, situated high above the city.4 In the Apocalypse, Babylon refers precisely to the devilish worship of wisdom. Rightly did Irenaeus (v. 30, 1) behold in the great beast the image of apostasy, the church of Antichrist.5 The πόρνεια which is pronounced by her throughout is heathen idolatry with sorcery (16:2) and demon-beings (16:14). Babylon is a ποςνή because she has given herself up to demons. She sits on Sophia, the ethnicising gnosis, the astral religion that engages in sorcery practice and demon summoning; in God’s hand, this very Sophia causes her fall (17:3). The beast is covered with blasphemous names; these are probably magic names, which give the same power to the knower as the bearer of the name has.

The woman in the 12th chapter is the antitype of the beast; if in Irenaeus (I. 29, 1) the Barbelo or Gnostic Sophia is called “a never-aging aeon in a female spirit”, it is noticeable that the woman of 12:1 is also thought of as everlasting, when she appears clothed with the sun and has the moon under her feet, which according to Horapollon 1 is a sign of eternity.6

Important in this respect is the 11th chapter, where the two witnesses are probably Moses and Elijah, who are then again symbolic representatives of the law and the prophets as in the story of the transfiguration; they prophesy in robes of repentance and encourage repentance. They fall prey to the beast and then lie in the market place of the great city called ηνευματιχως Sodom and Egypt Which city is meant here? In the 5th book of the Sibyllines (v. 154, 226, 413) the πόλις is indeed Jerusalem, and one might think in connection with the mention of the temple (11:1 f.) that this is also the case here, but 18:2, 10, and 21 is evidently meant Babylon, and this agrees better with the epithets Sodom and Egypt, which typically stand for πόρνεια and μάγεία. To all appearance the witnesses perish; but they stand on their feet again after 3½ days, and ascend to heaven in a cloud, just as Mt. 17:5 is testified of Moses and Elijah: νεφελή φωτεινή επεσχίπσεν αύτούς. They are raptured. Thus the beast of the abyss is here again the Babylonian gnosis, which divides itself threateningly against the Messianic church, which kills law and prophets – in Babel, where libertinism and magic are at home; where also the Lord of Moses and Elijah was crucified; he fell, after all, victim to the same pagan powers, which are now worshipped by Christians in an almost unbelievable manner! The great question of the relationship between the old and the new is thus solved in the Apocalypse in a more conservative way than in the Gospel of Matthew. 16:19 Allo (p. 241) has understood the matter correctly; there, too, the great city that falls into three parts is not, as Weizsäcker, Joh. Weiß and most others think, Jerusalem, but Babylon, although there is as little reason for his equation Babylon = Rome here as anywhere else; one may well agree with Allo that Babylon serves as a type for the church of the Antichrist, which in my opinion is closer to the Babylonian-oriented astral religion and magical gnosis than to the Roman world empire with its imperial cult. The φαρμαχοί or sorcerers (18:23; 22:15), the angel-worshippers of 19 :10, the idolaters (βδίλυγμα) and heretics (ψευδος), 21:7, 27; 22: 15, are, besides the Nicolaitans, the blasphemers who call themselves Jews and are not, but a congregation of Satan, those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, the pseudo-apostles and pseudo-prophets,1 probably the Gnostics, who, it is true, are not to be fixed on any particular school, still less on any of the greater systems, but must be regarded as the far-reaching direction of the times, imbued with Babylonian wisdom.

It is a well-known fact that in mythological representations the figure closely associated with an animal is often to be thought of in even closer connection with it, indeed as identical with it. Thus Babylon appears on the great beast, the harlot who courts the kings of the earth, identical with the mother-goddess herself, and here comes to light the equally well-known fact that the queen of heaven, as an immoral woman, not only consorted alternately with various male mythical figures, but also entered into a love relationship with the earthly kings.2 According to the Gnostic Justin in Hippolytus (v. 26, 4), Babel is even a maternal angelic being alongside Achamoth and others, is identified with Persephone and causes fornication and divorce (20).

The extent to which vulgar gnosis and magic are connected is also emphasised by Bousset when he3 writes: “How easily the concept of gnosis can turn completely into that of magic is shown by Epiphanius 31, 7, 3; p. 397, 9 H ……. In the Zosimus text appended by Reitzenstein, Poimandres, p. 103, the πνευματικός Άνθρωπος, however, expressly rejects magic. But the rejection shows how much gnosis and magic are accustomed to combine.” 

How very uncertain one actually still is in the conventional conception of the apocalyptic beasts becomes clear when one hears the question in Bousset with regard to the pseudoprophet: the priesthood of the imperial cult? We involuntarily think of a figure like Simon Magus of Samaria, the pagan region influenced by the Euphrates, whose disciples do not care about the moral commandments. Their mystical priests lead a lustful life and indulge in sorcery, curses, incantations, love potions, lures, etc. (Iren. I. 23, 1). They have an image of Simon made after the model of Zeus, and one of Helena made after the model of Hera (I. 23, 4; cf. Hippel. VI 20, 1). Menander, a pupil of Simon, reached the height of sorcery, so that he could even overcome the wave-creating angels, and introduced others to his art (I. 23, 5). Of the Carpocratians Irenaeus reports the same (I. 25, 3), so that the Church Father can assert: they were brought forth by Satan just as well as the heathen, to the dishonour of the divine name of the Church.

The most remarkable thing about the whole affair is that the author of the Apocalypse moves entirely in the language and imagination of his opponents and fights them with their own weapons, so to speak. The star-gods have here become God-serving spirits. As Allo1 has rightly put it: John has consciously or unconsciously been inspired by a popular Hellenistic system whose ideas he has spiritualised. I would add that he uses these forms in order to make the foreign tributary to Christianity, but strives to avoid and suppress all pagan essence. The Judaeo-Christian element is therefore not narrow here, but has a broad horizon.2

2 After the conclusion of this essay, the work of Franz Dornseiffa (Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie, 1922) comes into my hands, where 8. 106 ff. our explanation is rejected.The terminology ψηφισατω τον αριθμον τού θηρίου is m. Ε. intentionally borrowed from the thought circle of Gematria; ο νουν εχων but do not be misled by this; the riddle is just more difficult than the ordinary Gematria! I still regard ‘Αριθμος as belonging to a human number system, because D. has not taught me better; nor is his reference to the Book of Jeû  able to change my exegesis of Apk. Joh. 13 :17.


Bergh van Eysinga, G. A. van den. “Symbolisches in der Apokalypse Johannis.” Acta orientalia 2 (1924): 32ff. http://archive.org/details/in.gov.ignca.26535


 


2022-02-20

Dating Revelation to the Time of Domitian (90s ce)

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

by Neil Godfrey

A few weeks ago I set out the reasons for dating the Revelation of John to the “year of the four emperors”, 69 CE. This time we set out the reasons others date the work to late in the reign of the emperor Domitian (81-96 CE). In future posts we will look at a case for dating it as late as the mid-second century. Following the lead of Thomas Witulski (Die Johanneoffenbarung und Kaiser Hadrian) I refer mostly to the arguments of Adela Yarbro Collins.

Witness of Irenaeus

The testimony of Irenaeus (writing 180 and 185 CE) is the main pillar of the Domitian date:

The earliest witness is Irenaeus, who says that the Apocalypse was seen at the end of the reign of Domitian.1

1 Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5.30.3.

(Crisis and Catharsis, p. 55)

Since Irenaeus believed that the John of Revelation was also the apostle John, one of the original Twelve, a date in the 90s would make him very old indeed. Perhaps counterintuitively Collins turns that little difficulty as a point in favour the Domitian date:

The fact that Irenaeus dated the book as he did, in spite of the difficulty about the apostle’s age, suggests that he had independent and strong evidence for the date. (p. 56)

Such an argument only works if indeed it was the apostle John who wrote the book and people were talking about it, so it actually begs the question.

Babylon = Rome

Rome being named Babylon is another reason given for a Domitian date. If a Christian wanted to refer to Rome by a code name there were other options available: Egypt, Kittim, Edom are all found in Jewish writings as labels for Rome. Where Jewish writings do use Babylon for Rome (as they do in 2 Esdras, the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch and the fifth book of the Sibylline Oracles) the reason is clear:

Rome is called Babylon because her forces, like those of Babylon at an earlier time, destroyed the temple and Jerusalem. It is probable that John leamed this symbolic name from his fellow Jews and that it quickly became traditional.

The majority of interpreters have overlooked the importance of this symbolic name for the date. They have seen it only as a symbol of great power, wealth, or decadence and have missed its allusion to the events of 70 C.E. The use of the name is a weighty internal indication of the date. It is highly unlikely that the name would have been used before the destruction of the temple by Titus. This internal evidence thus points decisively to a date after 70 C.E.

(p. 58)

Seven Kings

Part of Apocalypse Tapestry by Jean Bondol and Nicolas Bataille

It is easy to suspect that the belief in Nero redivivus lies behind chapters 13 and 17. (See Nero – Followup #2 for the details.)

John adapted the legend, so that Nero is depicted as an Antichrist. He fits that role exactly, although the name is not used. In Revelation, Nero is an opposing parody of the Lamb, a dying and rising destroyer, rather than savior.

In Rev. 13:3 it is said that one of the heads of the beast had a mortal wound. This is a reference to Nero and his violent death. It is clear, therefore, that one of the seven heads which are Kings in ch. 17 is the historical Nero. The beast who will return as the “eighth” is Nero returned from death to life, the Antichrist. It follows that Revelation must have been written after the death of Nero, after 68, because the parallel between him and Jesus requires such a conclusion.

(p. 59)

What do we make of the other “heads” or kings, then? Collins groups the various attempts at counting the kings into four types:

  1. the 7 kings are all 7 Roman emperors up to the time of the author, who thus wrote under the sixth emperor and expected the seventh to come soon (some omit those emperors who ruled only a short time after Nero’s death, Galba, Otho and Vitellius);
  2. as for #1 except that the author was actually writing later than the sixth emperor;
  3. the 7 kings do not represent a sequence of successive emperors but a selection of seven names;
  4. the 7 kings are not historical persons but are entirely symbolic.

Collins finds problems with all attempts to count successive emperors (with and without the three who ruled for a short time in “the year of the four emperors”) and concludes:

It is likely that a theory like those grouped above as the third basic position explains how John reinterpreted his source. Caligula would have been a natural starting point, given the close affinities between Revelation and contemporary Jewish anti-Roman literature and the probable Jewish origin of John. It is impossible to say with certainty what John had in mind. The most likely hypothesis is that he began counting with Caligula and included the following emperors in sequence, omitting Galba, Otho, and Vitellius as reigning too short a time to cause trouble for the saints. The analogy of the eagle vision in 4 Ezra makes it plausible that a selection could have been made of emperors who were especially feared and hated. The five would then be Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, and Titus. Domitian would be the “one [who] is.” A seventh was expected, to fill out the traditional number seven. The prediction that the last emperor would have a short reign probably arose from the intense expectation of the end of the age in the near future. This logic is rather too cumbersome to explain the passage as John’s original composition. It does, however, explain how he would have reinterpreted a source.

The motif of the seven kings does not by any means point decisively to a date earlier than the reign of Domitian for the Apocalypse as a whole. The motif is probably traditional, but the context shows that it was meaningful for the author. This passage [=Rev 17:9-12] does not establish a Domitianic date, but is compatible with such a date.
(p. 62)

Why start with Caligula? One reason Collins offers is that Caligula was the first emperor to present himself in Rome as a god. He had temples and sacrifices dedicated to “divine self” and insisted on being approached in the Persian way of prostration.

The Temple in Jerusalem

Continue reading “Dating Revelation to the Time of Domitian (90s ce)”


2022-01-29

Revelation Dated to the Year of the Four Emperors – Counting “Kings”

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

by Neil Godfrey

  • Augustus (31 BCE–14 CE)
  • Tiberius (14–37 CE)
  • Caligula (37–41 CE)
  • Claudius (41–54 CE)
  • Nero (54–68 CE)
  • Galba (68–69 CE)
  • Otho (January–April 69 CE)
  • Aulus Vitellius (July–December 69 CE)
  • Vespasian (69–79 CE)
  • Titus (79–81 CE)
  • Domitian (81–96 CE)
  • Nerva (96–98 CE)

To answer the question about how the seven kings in Revelation 17 can be understood in the context of the book of Revelation being written in the year 68/69 CE I post here an extract from Thomas B. Slater. I have inserted the quotes from Revelation.

. . . John believed that the prophecies would come true soon: “And he said to me, ‘Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near’” (22,10; cf. 1,1-3). . . . [W]hen John says that the events will occur soon, he refers to his book as one of prophecy. John sincerely believes that his work provides a vision of coming events. For this reason, there is no extended ex eventu prophecy, but there is some and it is found in Rev 17,9-11.

This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.

The reference to Nero as the fifth emperor is ex eventu prophecy in that it speaks of Nero’s death after the fact and predicts that he will return, an appropriation of the Nero redivivus myth. It is a stretch to argue that the Nero redivivus myth preceded Nero’s death. Thus, the Apocalypse does indeed contain ex eventu prophecy. It is quite possible that John wrote during the reign of Galba, but it is also possible that he wrote during the reign of Otho who “must only rule briefly” (17,10). To this point, John’s prophecies are historically accurate. They are inaccurate with the next ruler, Vitellius, who in no way reminded people of Nero. According to the rules of ex eventu prophecies, the book should be dated at the point where the prophecies are not fulfilled. It is possible that John was writing in 69 late in Otho’s reign or early in Vitellius’ reign.

I am, therefore, in general agreement with a date between 68-70 CE and would add one more additional bit of internal evidence. There are two examples, found in Rev 2,9 and 3,9, which have been overlooked.

I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.

 I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.

In both passages, “Jew” is an honorific term, the religious ideal. This means that John sees himself first and foremost as a faithful Jew and that he sees the Christian community as the true Israel. His opponents are not criticized because they are Jews but because they are not faithful, righteous Jews. Such a self-identification by a Christian is more understandable in the 60’s than in the 90’s when Christians and Jews were beginning to see themselves more as separate groups. I am aware that the separation of Christianity from Judaism was a gradual, regional event that occurred at different times and different places throughout the Roman Empire; however, it is more likely that one in the Christian movement would see himself as a Jew during Nero’s reign than during Domitian’s.

An earlier date would also help to explain why the book is so Jewish and also why some exegetes have postulated that chapters 1, 2, 21 and 22 constitute a Jewish apocalypse; chapters 3-20, a Christian one. It is both Christian and Jewish at a point in time when this fact would have been a given for the original readers. Such a self-designation and self-understanding is much more intelligible in the 60’s, when Christianity was still very much within the Jewish religious community, than the 90’s, when Christianity saw itself more and more as separate and distinct from Judaism.

(Slater, 2003, pp 257-58. Bolded highlighting is mine)

— Slater, Thomas B. “Dating the Apocalypse to John.” Biblica 84, no. 2 (2003): 252–58.

Fifteen years later Slater “revisited” the above article with…

— Slater, Thomas B. “Dating the Apocalypse to John, Revisited.” Review & Expositor 114, no. 2 (May 2017): 247–53.

Quoting from that later article…

Wilson also emphasizes internal evidence and includes Galba, Otho, and Vitellius in reckoning the list of emperors. He concurs with Bell and Rowland that it is most important that Nero is clearly the fifth emperor. Wilson identifies 666 as a gematria for NERON KAISAR. “When the name is put into Hebrew and the numerical equivalents of the Hebrew letters are added together, the sum is 666.” In addition, he provides the most credible explanation for the “616” variant reading in some manuscripts. “The 616 (variant) would take the final nun off the name Neron in order to render it Nero, the acceptable way of saying the name in Greek.” Because Nero is the fifth emperor, Galba is the sixth, “the one who is,” and Otho is yet to come. For Wilson, as for Bell and Rowland, the Apocalypse dates to the reign of Galba. Although I agree in general, elsewhere I have argued that John wrote Revelation during the reign of Vitellius, but I would not lose sleep if it were proven to have been written during Galba’s reign.

I am, therefore, in general agreement with a date between 68–70 CE, and would offer additional evidence. First are two examples, found in Rev 2:9 (“those who say they are Jews [though they are not but are really Satan’s synagogue]” and similarly in 3:9), which have been overlooked. In both passages, being Jewish is the religious ideal. John did not castigate his opponents because they were Jews but because they were not faithful Jews. Such a self-understanding is more conceivable in the 60s than the 90s.

Another factor overlooked in dating the book is John’s position on eating meat offered to idols in Rev 2:14 and 2:20, a position diametrically opposed to Paul’s more moderate position in 1 Corinthians 8. John sees Paul’s position as an unfaithful accommodation, if not capitulation, to social norms and expectations. It is highly unlikely that a Christian leader would consciously and openly oppose Paul during the 90s in the same area in which Paul had an extensive presence and where Christians from all theological perspectives would have collected Paul’s letters, regularly quoting them as authoritative. Indeed, everyone wants to be the acknowledged successor to Paul the Apostle in the 90s. We know, however, from Paul’s own letters of his ardent opponents in the 50s and 60s (e.g., Gal 1:10–2:10; 2 Cor 11:1–33).

Another internal factor is the accusation of false apostles in Rev 2:2: “You have tested those who say they are apostles but are not, and you have found them to be liars.” By the 90s there was no longer any debate who the apostles were. Again, the argument was who faithfully followed the teachings and practices of the apostles. Such an assertion about false apostles would be more likely and necessary during the 60s than the 90s.20 Moreover, above I noted that John intentionally opposed Paul in the same region.

(Slater, 2017, 251-252)

Note that this post is part of a larger series in which I will present a case for dating Revelation to the second century.

 


2022-01-28

The Book of Revelation: an Early Date

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

by Neil Godfrey

I will be posting in coming months a case for the Book of Revelation being a response to events at the time of the emperor Hadrian, in particular to the catastrophic results of the Bar Kochba war (130-135 CE). But first let’s look at the arguments for dating the book to just prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. We will soon examine the more widely accepted grounds for dating the work to the time of Domitian (81-96 CE).

The following points are derived from pages 570 and 571 of Klaus Berger’s Theologiegeschichte des Urchristentums.

1. Large scale persecutions of Christians were unknown

We begin with Revelation 2:13, a message to one of the seven churches:

I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.

The author, Berger concludes, knows of only one martyrdom in Asia Minor. Compare the account of Eusebius who informs us that it was at a later time, in the time of Domitian, that more serious persecution was undertaken:

Domitian, having shown great cruelty toward many, and having unjustly put to death no small number of well-born and notable men at Rome, and having without cause exiled and confiscated the property of a great many other illustrious men, finally became a successor of Nero in his hatred and enmity toward God. He was in fact the second that stirred up a persecution against us, although his father Vespasian had undertaken nothing prejudicial to us.

(Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.17)

But the evidence even for Domitian’s persecution is sparse. The author of Revelation knows of Christian martyrs in the city of Rome (presumably from the time of Nero) only by hearsay. Revelation 17 refers to a city on seven hills “drunk with the blood” of the saints.

Nero (Wikipedia)

2. Nero Redivivus

The Beast of Revelation is a reverse image of the slain and resurrected Christ (compare Rev. 5:6 with Rev 13:3, 12), an image that is surely inspired by the rumours of Nero having returned after his reported death. These rumours first emerged in the eastern part of the empire in the year 69 CE, the famous “year of the four emperors” following Nero’s suicide:

About this time Achaia and Asia were terrified by a false rumour of Nero’s arrival. The reports with regard to his death had been varied, and therefore many people imagined and believed that he was alive. The forces and attempts of other pretenders we shall tell as we proceed;​ but at this time, a slave from Pontus or, as others have reported, a freedman from Italy, who was skilled in playing on the cithara and in singing, gained the readier belief in his deceit through these accomplishments and his resemblance to Nero. . . . Many came eagerly forward at the famous name, prompted by their desire for a change and their hatred of the present situation. The fame of the pretender was increasing from day to day when a chance shattered it.

Tacitus, Histories 2.8)

There was another “false Nero”, possibly two more, some years later, but the earliest enthusiasm for a viable return of the emperor was not long before Vespasian became emperor.

3. Lord and God — emperor worship

One of the reasons many commentators have assigned the Book of Revelation to the reign of Domitian is that Domitian assigned himself the title Dominus et Deus (=Lord and God). Berger, though, notes that the same title for the Roman emperor is documented earlier. Especially noteworthy, is that three cities of Asia Minor, Ephesus, Pergamon and Smyrna, were granted the imperial privilege of hosting the cult of emperor worship.

4. The number of the beast

Though various interpretations have been proposed, the number 666 in Rev 13:18 may be thought best to apply to KAISER NERON. Transliterated into Hebrew: nrwn qsr = 50 + 200 + 6 + 50 + 100 + 60 + 200. 

Second Temple (Wikipedia)

5. Jerusalem and the temple still standing

Rev 11:8

And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified. 

Rev 11:1-2

And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein. But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months.

The above passages suggest that the city is still intact and that its temple is still standing.

6. Early stage of church development

There is nothing in the Book of Revelation to indicate a hierarchical (i.e. ruling bishops) organization and control of church congregations. The prophet John appears to be able to speak as a peer directly to the church members.

7. Gospels not yet written

According to Berger, Revelation “shows such great affinities to the old synoptic tradition (especially Q), to Pauline and co-Pauline theology, that a gap of 30 to 40 years seems completely unrealistic. The relationship of the Apocalypse of John to the synoptic tradition is such that the Gospels are not yet presupposed.” Some elements in the gospels do have their allusions in Revelation but not as part of a pre-gospel “Jesus tradition”. 

.

From the above considerations, Klaus Berger concludes that the most likely time the book was written was just prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, that is, during the “year of the four emperors”, 68/69 CE. This date, he suggests, is fixed by Revelation 17:10

And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.


Berger, Klaus. “Zur Frühdatierung der Johannesapokalypse [=On the Early Dating of the Apocalypse of John].” In Theologiegeschichte des Urchristentums: Theologie des Neuen Testaments, 2., Überarb. und erw. Aufl. 568–71. Tübingen: Francke, 1995.



2022-01-27

Round Two. On John Dickson’s Response

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

by Neil Godfrey

As noted in a recent post, John Dickson [JD] wrote a lament over a significant number of Australians doubting the historicity of Jesus. Such a state of affairs was “bad news for historical literacy” in this country, he said. The thrust of his article suggested that more Australians should be mindful of what is found in certain major texts and fall into line if they wanted to be “historically literate” — as if historical literacy is about believing “authorities” without question. I pointed out that the sources JD referred to are not as assuring as he suggests and that they actually invite questioning. And a questioning engagement with teachers is how I would define genuine “historical literacy”.

In a follow-up post I noted that Miles Pattenden [MP] quite rightly responded to JD by noting that most classicists and ancient historians have had little (or no) reason, professionally, to take up serious research into the question of Jesus’s existence:

One of the few classicists who did do a study of Jesus was Michael Grant in his Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. I wrote a two-part post reviewing Grant’s effort and pointed out that all he did was write a study using older theologians’ works; I further noted that some more current biblical scholars faulted Grant for doing nothing more than “outdated hermeneutics” rather than real history.

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

Today JD has responded to MP. In his rejoinder he plays a game with the above quote by throwing a double-edged ad hominem: he suggests that MP was claiming that ancient historians are sloppy and don’t do their homework if they refer to Jesus in the manner explained above. Nonsense. If the historicity of Jesus was the question other historians were addressing JD would have a point. But a historian of ancient Rome does not discuss the historical Jesus when he or she explores the rise of Christianity throughout the empire. Indeed, the historicity of Jesus is of little relevance to the larger questions historians of the ancient Roman era pursue, even “how to explain the rise of Christianity”, and in such a context there is nothing wrong with mentioning the traditional account of Jesus in passing.

JD is somewhat disingenuous when he writes (with my bolded highlighting)…

[MP] notes that the fact that secular specialists, by an overwhelming majority, accept the historical existence of Jesus does not amount to actual evidence of Jesus’s existence. That is true. Happily, I did not make such a claim. The thrust of my piece was merely to note the striking mismatch between public opinion and scholarly opinion on the matter of the historical existence of Jesus. I noted a recent survey which found only a minority of Australians believed Jesus was a real historical figure, and I thought it was worth pointing out that the vast majority of ancient historians (I said 99 per cent) reckon Jesus was a historical figure.

No statement is made “merely” to note a neutral fact. The clear point of JD’s article was to fault the view of too many Australians according to the National Church Life Survey. He twists the knife by comparing doubters of Jesus’ historicity to climate change deniers. Again, this is insulting since it presumes that people questioned in the survey are incapable of forming rational opinions on the basis of what they might thoughtfully read and listen to. Indeed, there are scholars, including historians, who have expressed the desirability that scholarship becomes more open to the question of the historicity of Jesus. Such academics have expressed some bemusement when theologians are so quick to ridicule and insult those raising the questions. A survey among academics comparable to the NCLS one of the general public might, I suspect, lower the rate of believers in academia at least a little lower than JD’s estimated 99%. Let a serious and open discussion — an essential element of “historical literacy” — begin.

JD then falls back on the supposedly reassuring evidence for Jesus. He refers to hypothetical sources “behind” the gospels such as Q. He points to the passages in Josephus and Tacitus as if those authors necessarily had first-hand knowledge of the facts and not have relied upon Christian stories extant in their own day. He even infers that ancient historians might not begin to write useful history about a figure until as much as 80 years after his death. That’s a somewhat mischievous statement given that he knows full well that such historians had a wealth of known written sources — not hypothetical sources — from the deceased’s own day to refer to.

The fact remains that ancient historians do have ways of determining who and what happened: they have primary sources (inscriptions, coins, archaeological remains) and written materials whose sources can be traced back to the times in question. For Jesus, however, historical Jesus scholars speak of hypothetical sources and the assumption of oral tradition “behind” the gospels. Classicists and ancient historians would be horrified if that’s all they had to work with and some of them have indeed expressed serious misgivings about the methods of their Bible-studying peers.

 


2022-01-22

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

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

Dr Miles Pattenden Senior Research Fellow Medieval and Early Modern Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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


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

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



2022-01-18

Bearing False Witness for Jesus

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(OCD, article Heracles, p. 663)

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


2022-01-17

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

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



2022-01-05

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

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most of the above are from BB


2022-01-04

What’s a lonely Jesus to do?

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

by Neil Godfrey

Commissioning of the Twelve – Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2022-01-03

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

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

by Neil Godfrey

From livingconcord.com

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

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

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

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

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


2022-01-01

A Common Origin – One Wonders

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

by Neil Godfrey

An interesting observation in an ancient history publication:

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

That’s from

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