Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science
Category: Early Christianities
Where should the possibility of pre-Christian Jewish gnosticism fit? Where should we place the dividing line between events inferred from Acts/gospels/epistles on the one hand and accounts derived from Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius on the other? Should they all be included in Biblical Studies? If so, at what point do we break off that area and begin second century sources, then those of late antiquity? Marcion is second century but has an influence on biblical works. But how can we justify all of early Christianity into late antiquity and beyond being part of Biblical Studies? Ebionites are assigned to near apostolic times but are only found in late antiquity documents. Do we need a dividing line? Where do we put documents like Odes of Solomon that are seen by some to be pre-Christian but related to what emerged as more recognizable Christianity?
Was a crucifixion in heaven possible? conceivable?
But the following, again, is the cause of men’s dying: A certain virgin, fair in person, and beautiful in attire, and of most persuasive address, aims at making spoil of the princes [= archons] that have been borne up and crucified on the firmament by the living Spirit . . . .
Acta Archelai 8, describing a third century Manichean answer to the question, Why death?
What gave rise to Gnosticism from within Judaism?
Birger Pearson’s answer is very similar to what I think led to the emergence of Christianity from within Judaism. If gnostics fell away from Judaism by rejecting its god as a blind and ignorant Demiurge who gave a law that enslaved its followers to the ways of the flesh, Christianity offered a positive response to similar circumstances, a new covenant grounded in an allegorical revision of the old rather than an outright rejection of it:
One can hear in this text echoes of existential despair arising in circles of the people of the Covenant faced with a crisis of history, with the apparent failure of the God of history: “What kind of a God is this?”‘ (48,1); “These things he has said (and done, failed to do) to those who believe in him and serve him!” (48,13ff.). Such expressions of existential anguish are not without parallels in our own generation of history “after Auschwitz.”
Historical existence in an age of historical crisis, for a people whose God after all had been the Lord of history and of the created order, can, and apparently did, bring about a new and revolutionary look at the old traditions and ‘assumptions, a “new hermeneutic”. This new hermeneutic arising in an age of historical crisis and religiocultural syncretism is the primary element in the origin of Gnosticism.
Pearson, Birger. Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1990. p. 51
How to explain Paul’s letters if we see signs of Philo and Seneca in them?
Hi. I’m back again, for better or for worse. Over the past few weeks I have immersed myself in reading but have finally come to a point where I need to pause and take stock. The book I have to blame for pulling me up and forcing me to stop and think afresh is König Herodes : der Mann und sein Werk by Abraham Schalit — published way back in 1969. (I don’t read German but thanks to new technologies I made short work of translating it.) Although Schalit does not address Christian origins his study of King Herod did open up for me a fresh historical perspective through which to re-interpret so much of the diverse material that makes up our earliest Christian sources.
I don’t read German, as I said, and I was of all possible ways alerted to König Herodes through my reading of an essay in another foreign language, modern Hebrew. This one was made available through an international library supply service supplemented by my text-reading and translation technologies: Levine, Israel L. “Magemoth Meshihioth Be-Sof Yemei Ha-Bayith Ha-Sheni (= Messianic Trends at the End of the Second Temple Period).” Messianism and Eschatology, edited by Zvi Baras, Zalman Shazar Centre for the Furtherance of the Study of Jewish History, 1983, pp. 135–52. Now that chapter is going to have to be converted into a new post here soon since I was slightly nonplussed to see it supporting another view I have expressed here, the view that there is little evidence to support the widespread “fact” that the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 CE against Rome was motivated by messianic hopes. That’s for another time.
The key idea in Schalit’s King Herod that has sent my mind into re-examining the question of Christian origins is the thesis that the Roman imperial idea, the ideology, if you will, propagated from the time of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, met with two responses among the Judeans:
Judeans who identified themselves as necessarily separate from gentiles (think of circumcision, sabbaths, marriage restrictions) had nothing in common with the idea of a world united by the values and laws of Rome;
Judeans who opposed the exclusivity of some of their brethren and were wide open to the idea of being a full part of a common humanity.
As for the first kind, the separatists, we see their views set out in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Recall those stories of “men of God” tearing out — not their own hair, but the hair of those Judeans who married gentiles. Those were the lucky ones: Phineas plunged a spear through one racially mixed couple. Daniel refused to pray even in secret when threatened with being thrown into the lion’s den. Sabbath-keepers chose to die rather than protect themselves from an enemy army on the sabbath day. Most of us are familiar enough with the relevant stories from the Old Testament and related books.
That familiarity can perhaps cloud the full significance of a quite different view of God and humanity that is expressed in other places in the same canon. Think of the original authors and readers of stories of Ruth, of Jonah, of Job. Ruth, a gentile, married an Israelite and became the great-grandmother of King David. Job is “from the land of Uz” and he speaks to a God who in the narrative appears to have no particular relation to Israel about a question of justice common to all humanity. Jonah has to learn a lesson about God’s acceptance of gentiles who repent and become righteous without any notion of the Mosaic laws. Several Psalms, Ecclesiastes supposedly by Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach further present a universalist view of God and the human experience.
Surely we have two opposing viewpoints among these Jewish authors. The second view could well find itself at home among Hellenistic writings of philosophers. The significance of that word “Hellenistic” deserves to be pondered at this point. It refers to the cultural world that belonged to the mixing of Greek and barbarian in the wake of Alexander’s conquests of the Persian empire. The Stoic philosophy that believed in the unity of humanity could trace its roots back to Alexander’s companion Aristotle. The ideas of some Jews or Judeans were evidently at home in such a world. Others were not.
What struck me so strongly about Schalit’s Herod was that those same two viewpoints among Judeans were very much alive and uncomfortable with each other in the time we associate with Christian origins. Herod (ca 37 to 4 or 1 BCE) was an Idumean who sought acceptance as a Jew. He was also a client king of Rome who owed his life and kingship to Augustus. Though King of Judea he embraced wholeheartedly the imperial program of Augustus. At this point, we need to backtrack just a little. . .
Augustus came to power as the final victor after a half-century of civil wars. His imperial propaganda machine went into overdrive. Augustus was the “saviour” and benefactor of “the inhabited earth”. Roman imperial rule was to become synonymous with “the good news” (it was a term of imperial propaganda) of peace, a restoration of “good old fashioned morality”, the spread of humanizing culture as expressed in the arts and literature and philosophy, and rule of law and justice for all. The Roman imperial idea took Alexander’s inheritance of uniting peoples under one divinely chosen ruler and magnified it beyond anything achieved by other successors. The Seleucid empire, for example, essentially took a “hands-off” approach towards subject peoples and let them do their own thing. Antiochus Epiphanes ran into trouble with religious zealots in Judea because he broke that tradition there.
You can probably see where I am headed with these ideas. Apologists have long posited that God prepared the world for Christianity in a way not very different from what I am proposing here — only without God and forethought.
Augustus could trust Herod to embody the full idea of the Roman civilizing mission and Herod did not fail him. Herod’s court attracted artists and intellectuals from other lands; his building program emulated the achievements in Rome itself; like Roman emperors he was the benefactor of the poor; he settled non-Jews in his Judean kingdom. But he could not have himself proclaimed as a god or even a demi-god as was the usual status of such leaders in his part of the world. He could, however, have his scribes fiddle with the genealogical records to show he was a descendant of David and hence — especially given his great accomplishments as king, expanding the borders and undertaking monumental building projects — potentially the promised Davidic Messiah. Unfortunately Herod had too many other faults to persuade enough others to that opinion. But even a powerful personality like Herod could not exist in an environment totally alien to everything he stood for.
The crucial point, it seems to me, is that Herod’s “Judaism” was in synch with that open or universalist idea we encounter in the books of Ruth, Jonah, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach etc. Herod failed to win the approval of the “legalists” and I cannot help but wonder if his failure was felt by others who were on his side with the more open kind of Second Temple religion.
There were evidently a significant number of Judeans who opposed their isolationist kin. And as evidenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls there were equally many Judeans who called down the judgment of God upon those of their kin who compromised with the Laws of Moses.
Now look again at our earliest Christian texts. Do not the gospels, certainly the Synoptic ones of Matthew, Mark and Luke, teach the highest values of the Greco-Roman culture? In case you’ve forgotten, have another quick look over
Recall the Gospel of Matthew opening up its account of Jesus by reminding readers of the sinners and gentiles — Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba — in Jesus’s ancestry.
Even recall the Roman imperial motifs in the gospels: The Gospel of Mark beginning with a line from Augustus’s propaganda about the “good news”; the imitation of emperor Vespasian’s miracles of healing the blind and lame; the inversion of the Roman Triumphal procession as Jesus is led to his crucifixion:
Recall, also, some of the earliest archaeological evidence we have for Christianity and how serene and “at home” it looks as if its creators were well-integrated members of society.
I have some sympathy for those who have attempted to locate Christianity’s origins in a Roman imperial conspiracy. But there is no evidence for such a hypothesis. There is even precious little evidence for the proposed motive behind such a conspiracy: a desire to pacify an unusually rebellious people by seducing the Jews into a religion of submission to Roman authority. The Jews were not particularly rebellious in comparison with others who chaffed at Roman rule. No, surely the initiative for a religious idea that did away with the exclusivist identity of many Judeans would have arisen among other Judeans of a different persuasion, of those who felt some embarrassment with their ethnic relatives.
How much more impetus must there have been for Judeans of that universalist mindset to present an “ecumenical” front to their pagan neighbours in the wake of the calamitous results of the Jewish wars in 70 and 135 CE.
Then recall how Jesus himself in the gospels is delineated as a fulfillment of all that can be described as the epitome of “Judaism”. I posted not long ago a lengthy series on one particular study that delves into the details of how the gospel Jesus is created out of so many texts and motifs of the Jewish Scriptures and Messianic viewpoints: Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier / Nanine Charbonnel
If some Judeans of the day did indeed attempt to sideline their “legalistic” family members by producing texts that unambiguously set the universalism of Ruth, Jonah, Sirach, and the rest front and foremost, they could not have done better than make a new successor to Moses, another Joshua, their focus. One might almost say that if Jesus had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him.
There is much more to add. One must, of course, account for persecutions and sectarianism in early Christian history. But the above is for now enough to set down the basis of initial thoughts on what might have led to the creation of Christianity.
There remains only one explanation: Paul believed in such a celestial being, in a divine Christ, before he believed in Jesus. — Paul, by William Wrede
I found this little book of particular interest not because of the ideas themselves but because of who wrote them. William Wrede is best known for his study of the Gospel of Mark, The Messianic Secret. I was unaware until recently that he also wrote a book about Paul. It’s available on archive.org — http://archive.org/details/Paulpaulus The link is to the English language translation. (It’s not a long book: 180 somewhat small pages only a light population of words on each.)
Wrede cannot accept that Paul himself arrived at all of his concepts and theology relating to Christ simply from meditating on what he knew of the historical Jesus. Even the ethics that Paul teaches derive from Judaism and not from Jesus, he explains. From the reports of the life of a man who existed only a few years earlier it is inconceivable, Wrede argues, that Paul could have arrived at his vision of the celestial pre-existence of the risen Jesus or so magnified the stories of the mortal man that he imagined him as a “superhuman Son of God”.
There remains only one explanation: Paul believed in such a celestial being, in a divine Christ, before he believed in Jesus. Until he became a Christian it seemed to him sacrilege to call Jesus the Christ. This man did not answer at all to the divine figure of Christ which Paul bore within him. But in the moment of conversion, when Jesus appeared before him in the shining glory of his risen existence, Paul identified him with his own Christ, and straightway transferred to Jesus all the conceptions which he already had of the celestial being—for instance, that he had existed before the world and had taken part in its creation. The man Jesus was really, therefore, only the wearer of all those mighty predicates which had already been established; but the bliss of the apostle lay in this, that he could now regard what had hitherto been a mere hope, as a tangible reality which had comeinto the world. Here again we see the great importance ofthe fact that he had not known Jesus. Intimate disciples could not so readily believe that the man with whom they had sat at table in Capernaum, or sailed on the Lake of Galilee, was the creator of the world. But in Paul’s way there was no such obstacle.
If Paul was acquainted with this divine Christ before his conversion, there must have beencircles in Judaism which held the same belief. But can such a belief in this field be really authenticated? So much is certain, that Jewish apocalyptic books are really cognizant of a Messiah, who before his appearance lives in heaven, and is more exalted than the angels themselves. This is a datum of the highest importance. Whether, however, every feature in the Pauline Christ can be explained by means of the extant apocalyptic accounts of Messiah, is a question we shall not here attempt to decide. Investigation is only now beginning to master the problem aright. The immediate point of supreme importance is the perception of this fact: that the Pauline Christ cannot be understood unless we assume that Paul, while still a Pharisee, possessed a number of definite conceptions concerning a divine being, which were afterwards transferred to the historical Jesus?
So how did it all happen in Wrede’s view?
First comes the idea of Christ. On this the whole conception of the redemption rests. For the death and resurrection of Christ are not regarded as the experiences of a man, but as the experiences of an incarnate divine being. It is upon this that their universal, world-redeemed significance depends. The key to the problem, in itself so enigmatical, why the Son of God became a man, was found by Paul in this twofold event. The idea of the redemption itself was again determined by the conceptions which the apostle brought with him. He expected his Christ to vanquish the evil powers of the world, including the demons, and to inaugurate a new condition of things. The accomplishmentof this task was found, where but in the two events of salvation? How Paul came to find it there must remain an open question. Probably these thoughts had long been definitely formulated in his mind before he was led by polemical exigencies to mint the doctrine of justification.
Not that Wrede was allowed the last word. As we would expect, others disagreed. For a two-part critical engagement with Wrede’s ideas see
Here is the final post discussing the introductory chapter of Rivka Nir’s The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist where she sets out her case for the John the Baptist passage in the writings of Josephus being a forgery.
For readers with so little time, the TL;DR version:
The baptism of John that is described in Josephus’s Antiquities is shown to be significantly different from Jewish Pharisaic baptism (Pharisee baptism was for ritual cleansing of the body independently from any call for moral purity; the Josephan John’s baptism was for bodily purity but required moral purity as a precondition);
It is also significantly different from the baptism attributed to the Essenes (and the hermit Bannus) by Josephus — for the same type of reason it was different from the Pharisee baptism);
That baptism of John appears instead to be very like baptism we read about among Jewish sectarians as in the Qumran scrolls and the Fourth Sibylline Oracle (moral purity was a precondition for the bodily sanctification effected by baptism);
That same type of baptism we read about in the Dead Sea scrolls and Fourth Sibylline continues to appear among early Jewish Christian sects as witnessed in the Pseudo-Clementines (moral purity a precondition for bodily purification) — the early Christian baptism appears therefore to have emerged from the Jewish sectarians;
The Josephan passage is polemical, apparently attacking what we associate with the orthodox Christian Pauline baptism that was a ritual performed to effect the forgiveness of sins and new spiritual life. (The Pauline and gospel baptism — especially as in the Gospel of Matthew — has nothing to do with physical purity.)
Origen appears to have not known of the John the Baptist passage in Josephus but we first read of awareness of it in Eusebius. We can conclude that the passage was inserted by a member of one of the early Jewish-Christian sects late third or early fourth century.
To refresh your memory, here again is the Josephan passage with the description of his baptism highlighted:
But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, called the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead righteous lives and practice justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by righteousness. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus. the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod (Ant. 18.116-19).
Not a Jewish Pharisaic Baptism
Nir sets aside any possibility that the account of John’s baptism as quoted above could be a typical Jewish Pharisee baptism of the time. The Pharisaic baptism, she explains, was entirely for the purpose of cleansing the body from ritual impurities — from contact with a corpse, skin diseases, bodily discharges, and such. It had nothing to do with moral purity or righteous behaviour. To achieve forgiveness for spiritual sins one had the sacrificial cult of the Temple.
What about those passages in the Prophets that speak about washing away sins? One of many examples:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’ (Isaiah 1:16-20)
Some scholars have speculated that such passages were interpreted by some Jews of the day as the basis of a new baptismal ritual, one that requires repentance and spiritual purity before being immersed in water:
The similarity between the initial immersion of the Qumran community and John’s immersion probably stems from a common use of the book of Isaiah. Thus, the idea that one could be made clean in body only if one was pure in heart is probably to be derived from an interpretation of the book of Isaiah that was current among several groups in Second Temple Judaism. (Taylor, The Immerser, 88)
Such passages as these attest the early association between physical and moral purification, such as meets us in the Johannine baptism. And the ideas are close. Whoever invented the epigram “ Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” it is a fair summary of Pharisaic conceptions on the subject under discussion. (Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism, 41)
Entirely speculative and contrary to the extant evidence, replies Nir. Jewish Pharisaic baptism was for the purification of the body “from natural and unavoidable states of impurity, such as contact with a corpse”. It was not “conditioned on inner moral repentance or spiritual purification.” (p. 53) The passages in Isaiah, the Psalms, Ezekiel, Jeremiah speaking of being cleansed or washed from sins are figurative. (I would add that such passages, if interpreted as the basis of a baptism ritual, would be more likely to prompt a baptism that is contrary to the one described in Josephus’s Antiquities because those passages speak of “washing away sins”, being “cleansed from sin” — as if the washing itself performs the moral purification.)
Yes, Philo did compare physical impurity with moral impurity, but at the same time he recognized the place of sacrifices in moral cleansing.
What of the Essenes and that hermit mentioned by Josephus, Bannus?
Rivka Nir does not assume the Essenes are to be identified as the group responsible for the Qumran practices. Essenes as described by Josephus are kept separate from the group known through the Qumran scrolls.
In War 2.119-61, Josephus describes the immersions of the Essenes. They bathed in cold water (άπολούοντοα τό σώμα ψυχροΐς ϋδασιν) for ‘purification’ (εις άγνείαν), and would wash themselves before meals (129), following defecation (149), or contact with a Gentile or person of inferior status in the sect (150). About Bannus, an ascetic hermit who lived in the wilderness, Josephus recounts that he would wash himself frequently in cold water, by day and night, for purity’s sake (λουόμενον πρός άγνείαν, Life 2.11) (Nir, 55)
In response to a view found in some quarters that the Essenes’ baptism replaced the sacrificial cult, Nir explains at some length with multiple citations why such a view is based on a misreading of the original script of Josephus.
It has nothing to do with prior repentance or moral and spiritual purification: its administration requires no preaching or urging; it is no collective mass baptism and does not constitute an initiation rite into some elect group. Furthermore, the Essene and Bannus immersions were not a substitute for the sacrificial cult.
It may not be an “orthodox” Jewish baptism of the era, but Rivka Nir does see an overlap between the Josephan account and what we read in the Qumran scrolls. The key text is the Community Rule (dated by orthography and paleography between 100 BCE and 50 CE).
A Jewish-Christian Baptism
Rivka Nir’s argument is that Jewish sectarian baptisms stressing moral purity as a condition for ritually cleansing the body by immersion existed side by side early Jewish-Christian sects in opposition to the Christian baptism known to us from the Pauline tradition.
We start with the evidence for Jewish sects having a baptism in parallel with what we read about John’s in Josephus.
In the Community Rule 1QS 2.26-3.12 we see the same type of baptism that Josephus depicts for John — ritual cleansing of immersion into water is effective if one is first repentant:
And anyone who declines to enter the covenant of God in order to walk in the stubbornness of his heart shall not enter the community of his truth … For it is by the spirit of the true counsel of God that are atoned the paths of man, all his iniquities, so that he can look at the light of life. And it is by the holy spirit of the community , in its truth, that he is cleansed of all his iniquities. And by the spirit of uprightness and of humility his sin is atoned. And by the compliance of his soul with all the laws of God his flesh is cleansed by being sprinkled with cleansing waters and being made holy with the waters of repentance. May he, then, steady his steps in order to walk with perfection on all lhe paths of God, as he has decreed concerning the appointed times of his assemblies and not turn aside, either right or left nor infringe even one of all his words. In this way he will be admitted by means of atonement pleasing to God, and for him it will be the covenant of an everlasting Community.
Also as with the Josephan baptism of John we see the effect at a community level.
At Qumran, as in John’s baptism, justice (righteousness) was the means to purification and expiation of sins . . . And like John’s baptism, the Qumran baptism appears to have been one of the conditions for admission to the congregation: and it was similarly a collective baptism and a substitute for the sacrificial cult. (Nir, 60)
The Mandaeans live on the banks of the Tigris [see Ancient Whither for an update since Iraq war]. They must live near running water where they can practise their continual baptismal rites. When they were first discovered by [Roman Catholic missionaries] in the 17th century, and it was found that they were neither Catholics nor Protestants but that they made much of baptism and honoured John the Baptist, they were called Christians of St John, in the belief that they were a direct survival of the Baptist’s disciples [such as are mentioned in Acts 18:25ff].
(F. C. Burkitt, 1928, )
Last month I posted links to recent works from a symposium on John the Baptist and expressed appreciation for a reminder from James McGrath that it might be worth taking a closer look at the Mandaean sources when searching for glimpses of “the historical John the Baptist”. This post shares what I have found of interest in my very early follow up reading.
What follows draws upon what only a handful of scholars have written about the relationship between John the Baptist and the Mandaeans. The views are debated.
I have not read the Mandaean literature, not even in translation, but am relying upon what scholars have written about that literature in summary.
What I write today may be (and probably will be) different from what I write another day.
Shimon Gibson’s The Cave of John the Baptist (New York: Doubleday, 2004) is much too facile in its summary dismissal of the Mandaeans as being of any possible relevance to the historical John (325-26). The idea that John was imported into Mandaeism in Islamic times is untenable.
(Buckley, Turning the Tables on Jesus, 296 – my emphasis)
Before I set out Buckley’s case let’s look at the one she protests is “too facile a dismissal” of a Mandaean association with a historical John the Baptist. Shimon Gibson asks and addresses the key question in The Cave of John the Baptist:
Could these Mandaeans be the descendants of the original followers of John the Baptist? And would it be possible to reconstruct the writings of the first followers of John based on an analysis of Mandaean literature?
Unfortunately, the answer is a negative one: they are definitely not the descendants of the original baptists. The name of the sect is derived from the Aramaic Manda d’Haiye, which means ‘the knowledge of life’. . . .
The excitement of early researchers suggesting possible links between disciples of John, who had in some fashion preserved his heritage, and Mandaean religious writings was quickly dashed by the scholar F. C. Burkitt who was able to show that there is nothing in the Mandaean literature that could actually predate the fifth to seventh centuries AD. Moreover, those Mandaean writings pertaining specifically to John the Baptist must reflect adaptations from the Gospels and are not alternative writings on John. . . . Some of the Mandaean writings are notably hostile towards Christianity and Jesus, who is described as the ‘prophet of lies’, as well as towards Judaism [note 10.81].
And so our journey begins. Next stop, some of the comments of F. C. Burkitt:
And a very little investigation makes it quite clear that the Mandaean hostility to Eshu mshiha[=Jesus Christ] is hostility to the fully developed post-Nicene Church. In several places ‘Christ’ is actually called ‘the Byzantine’ (Rumaia), and further we are told that the disciples of this Christ become ‘Christians’, and turn into monks and nuns who have no children and who keep fasts and never wear white clothes like the Mandaeans . . . . In a word, it is not the Christ of the Gospels, but the Christ of fully developed ecclesiastical organization and policy to which Mandaism is so hostile.
(Bukitt, 1928, 229)
An example of Manichean influence: The Mandaeans, then, rejected the Christ of the Catholic Church, born of a woman and crucified, but they accepted the Stranger who appeared in Jerusalem in the days of Pilate, who healed the sick and taught the true and life-giving doctrine, and who ascended in due course when his work was done to his own place in the world of Light. This Personage is called the Stranger, but he is no stranger to the modern student of Christian antiquity : it is clearly the Manichaean Jesus, a personage adopted by Mani from the Jesus of Marcion. In other words it is no new controversial figment of the Mandaeans. (Burkitt, 1928, 231)
What did the contemporary Churchmen say of the Mandaeans? Burkitt in Church and Gnosis:
We have now . . . an account of the Mandaeans by an ancient Mesopotamian writer, writing in the year A.D. 792. He tells us that their founder was a certain Ado, a mendicant, who came from Adiabene, i.e. from the district just north of Mosul. He further tells us that his teaching was derived from the Marcionites, from the Manichaeans . . .
There is no reason to reject the evidence of Theodore bar Konai. . . . It is important to consider how much his evidence comes to. There is a good deal in the Mandaean literature that recalls Marcionite and Manichaean teaching . . . .
(Burkitt, 1931, 102)
And that other cited reference in Gibson’s The Cave of John the Baptist?
The numerous writings of the Mandæans bear witness to the continued existence of the disciples of John for several centuries and perhaps the baptist sect in southern Babylonia at the present time, is the direct heir of John’s work in the days of the Herods. That is asserted nowadays by many weighty persons, and anyone who regards the Mandaean literature as sources can draw an attractive picture of the spiritual power which proceeded from John, and which influenced the religion of Judaism, and especially that of Jesus and His disciples. John’s circle then appears as the nursery of an early gnosis, which united Babylonian, Persian, and Syrian elements in a many-coloured mixture on a Jewish background, and grouped the whole round the ancient Iranian mythology of the first man, that redeemer who descended from heaven in order to awaken the soul bound and asleep in the material fetters of this world, and to open up for it the way to heaven.
This is very intriguing, and gives quite unthought-of perspectives, leading possibly to a new understanding of primitive Christianity; nevertheless we must put it firmly and entirely on one side. It can be shown that the Mandaean literature consists of various strata which come from widely different periods. And the latest of these strata, belonging to the Islamic era—i.e. at earliest, in the seventh century—are those which preserve the notices of John the Baptist; they are modelled on the basis of the gospel records, and distorted till they are grotesque. In the same way, the many sallies against Jesus and Christianity are quite clearly directed against the Byzantine church, and have not the least connection with primitive Christianity. The fragments of the earlier strata belong to a rank oriental gnosis which has run to seed, and have no bearing on the historical John and his disciples.
One detail in Lupieri’s work that Buckley disputes that attracted my attention concerned the Mandaean account of their ancestors having migrated from Palestine to Mesopotamia. I was unaware of such an event being a literary trope that can be traced back to the flight of Aeneas with his family from Troy immediately prior to its destruction. That a narrative is a trope does not necessarily mean it cannot also be a historical event, but if a literary-ideological pattern alone offers an explanation for a narrative and there is no independent supporting evidence for historicity then we have no need to go beyond the most economical explanation. Lupieri writes
From the point of view of a comparative analysis it means also that Mandaeanism has aligned itself with those religions that allocate a flight to their beginnings, following upon a persecution. In backgrounds linked to Judaism, this flight or original migration is characterized by a flight from Jerusalem before its destruction,53 which is then explained as a divine punishment.54The motif is well represented in Judaic traditions — for example, in the so-called “Second Book of Baruch” — but it is above all in Christian or post-Christian traditions where it has found the most ample scope for its development. Already in the Synoptic Gospels there is Jesus’ exhortation to flee to the hills, leaving Jerusalem and Judaea to their destiny of death,55 but most important of all was the legend of a flight of the entire Christian community in Jerusalem from the Judaic capital to Pella, a pagan city beyond the Jordan, shortly before the arrival of the Romans.
53. The event was so traumatic that it exercised a remarkable influence on the belief of all the religions arising from or in some way deriving from Judaism. The legends on the flights from Jerusalem are the religious parallel of the “secular” legends on the original flight-migration from a famous city of the past, afterward destroyed. This is the legend of Aeneas, of course, and of many analogies to be found here and there in virtually all cultures.
54. Also within Judaism, the only way to save the faith after the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem is to consider the catastrophe a punishment decided by one’s own God for sins committed; outside of Judaism, and in particular in Christianity and in Islam, it will be the God of each one (whether thought to be the same God as the Jews’ or not) who punished the Judaic sins.
Last month a lengthy discussion ensued from a post linking Greg Doudna’s suggestion about the origin of the John the Baptist anecdote in Josephus’s Antiquities to the dating of the Gospel of Mark: Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark? In the Online Seminar page linked above one can find links to Greg Doudna’s article, or you can simply click here.
Readers who are aware of my approach to historical enquiry will not be surprised to read that I wonder who anything at all can be known about a John the Baptist figure behind the literary/theological figure(s) that long post-date(s) the early first century and offer us no clear pointers to historical sources? To that end, my interest was piqued by comments on Rivka Nir’s book, The First Christian Believer : In Search of John the Baptist. It may be a little while before I can read beyond summaries, articles and reviews, however, given the cost of it. Nir writes in her presentation,
Given the sources as we have them, I am among the few who are skeptical about our ability to reach the historical figure of John the Baptist through the Gospels.
These writings are not sources for getting acquainted with the historical heroes and makers of Christianity, but for accessing how they were perceived and presented by those generations that shaped the traditions about them.
Exactly. (Nir further argues that the detail about JtB in Josephus is an interpolation.)
McGrath continues to call for a closer look at the Mandean literature. That is something I have not attempted for quite some time so I will be interested to read what he has to say about that.
There are many articles and papers on the Seminar site and I have only glanced at the smallest sample in this post. So much catching up to do!
In previous posts, we looked at dying-and-rising gods as a category, specifically as a Weberian ideal type, which could help us compare Christianity to other religions in late antiquity. Jonathan Z. Smith (among many others) found the category misleading and lacking any firm foundation. Robert M. Price took Smith to task, accusing him of not understanding ideal types.
Perhaps the most rigorous refutation of Smith’s conclusions (which, incidentally, have become more or less the consensus among scholars of comparative religion) came from Tryggve N. D. Mettinger (see: The Riddle of Resurrection, 2001). However, even Mettinger admits one can hardly defend Frazer’s original conception. After all, Frazer’s “central idea,” as stated in the preface to the first edition of The Golden Bough was that of a “slain god” — which would seem to leave out those gods who voluntarily move to the underworld for alternate periods.
Moreover, despite Price’s apoplectic protests over Smith’s supposed “throwing out the box” just because many dying-and-rising gods don’t fit exactly, Smith has an important point. We should consider it reasonable to expect that members of the category would include (1) gods who (2) die and (3) return to life. Mettinger has his own core characteristics, in which the definition of “dying” includes not just murder, execution, accidental death, etc., but any descensus into the realm of the dead. He writes:
The minimum requisites for me to speak of such a dying and rising deity are:
(a) that in the specific cult the figure in question is a real god, whatever his previous history, and (b) that he is conceived of as dying (his death represented as a descensus to the Netherworld or in some other way) and reappearing as alive after the experience of death.
Two other points are also worthy of particular attention, but do not hold the status of criteria, namely,
(c) whether the fate of the deity is somehow related to the seasonal cycle, and, (d) whether there is a ritual celebration of the fate of the deity in question. [Mettinger 2001, p. 42, bold emphasis mine]
Mettinger, in case you were wondering, does view this category as an ideal type.
When in the following I use the term “dying and rising god(s)”, I use it in the Weberian sense referring to an ideal type (ldealtypus): the terminology does not per se presuppose genetic relations. We must always remember that the various deities belong to different religious contexts. It is no longer necessary to restate the profound differences between the symbolic universes of the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the peoples of the West Semitic realm. Meaning is always contextual. Structural analogies may, however, occur, and these may be of the kind to indicate that we are, in specific cases, confronted with the results of contact and influence. [Mettinger 2001, p. 41]
The King of the Dead
Regarding Mettinger’s minimum requirements, I would argue that his second criterion should actually contain separate, albeit related, subcriteria — namely, these three actions: (1) dying, (2) sojourning in the realm of the dead, and (3) rising to the realm of the living. With these in mind, I find it difficult to regard Osiris as fitting the criteria, since he remained in the underworld. He isn’t visiting; he has taken up permanent residence. He isn’t merely dead; he has become the Lord of the Underworld and the Judge of the Dead. In fact, Osiris forms the pattern for dying Egyptian pharaohs, who will “live” in the world of the dead. Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 4)”
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
No argument. Just a bald assertion that Feldman is wrong.
Robert M. Price has edited The Christ Conspiracy by D.M. Murdock (a.k.a Acharya S) and this revised edition has now (2020) been published. The new revised edition opens with an editorial preface by Price; this is largely a slightly modified version of the points he made in Robert M. Price: What I think of Acharya S/D.M. Murdock. To give you some idea of what to expect in the new revised edition, his third and fourth paragraphs have been rewritten as:
I disliked what I deemed the militantly anti-Christian tone of the book and considered it a sign of adolescent, village atheist behavior (not that my own writings are always without it!). Now I think such things are utterly beside the point. It is the content that matters. I neither chafe at the reverent piety of biblical critics like Joachim Jeremias nor bristle at the sarcasm of atheist polymath Frank Zindler. Besides, she soon put such understandable rage behind her.
There were a number of issues she mentioned in a kind of too-encyclopedic survey approach, speculations about the Masons, ancient civilizations (à la Colin Wilson, whom I also knew and much respected), and the like. I still think these matters did not belong in the same book with her Christ myth arguments. They are entirely unrelated questions, and I have no expertise at all in evaluating them. Still don’t. I should have ignored them in my review. All such issues are absent from her subsequent, much more tightly focused books such as Suns of God and Christ in Egypt. And now they are conspicuous by their absence from the pages of this new version of The Christ Conspiracy.
One more note on the medieval Cathars and their use of the Ascenion of Isaiah. . . . .
Among the texts that they obtained from the Bogomils was the Vision of Isaiah (chapters 6-11 of Asc.Isa.), a Greek Gnostic text of the first century A.D., which presented a cosmic view of the creation that was in conformity with dualist beliefs. The Cathars did not use the partial Latin translation made in late antiquity, but commissioned a new Latin translation from the Old Slavonic text, a version which the Bogomils had amended to conform with their own teachings.38
The author is relying on R. H. Charles — as per the footnote:
38 The medieval Latin version exists only in a text printed at Venice in 1522 by Antonio de Fantis and reprinted by A. Dillmann, Ascensio Isaiae Aethiopice et Latine (Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1877), 76–83. It was read by the moderate dualists of Lombardy, Moneta di Cremona, II, ix, 4, ed. Ricchini, p. 218. For the full edition of the texts in all versions: R.H. Charles, The Ascension of Isaiah (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1900).
But a question arises. If the Cathars held a belief in an appearance of Jesus into another world beyond ours, where he was both born and crucified, what need would there have been to modify the Asc. Isa. by removing that “little gospel”? Surely it could be understood as happening in that other world. If the original Asc. Isa. lacked that passage depicting Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and eventual crucifixion in Jerusalem it presumably was not because the original audience for the text related in any way to the beliefs in the “other world” later reflected among the Cathars.
Hamilton, Bernard. 2006. “Bogomil Infuences on Western Heresy.” In Heresy and the Persecuting Society in the Middle Ages: Essays on the Work of R.I. Moore, edited by Michael Frassetto, 93–114. Leiden ; Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.
I am now able to add more information to a month-old post, Medieval “Christ Mythicists” and the Ascension of Isaiah. In that post we saw how Peter of Les Vaux-De-Cernay documented in his history of the Albigensian Crusade against certain “heretics” in southern France known as Cathars
Further, in their secret meetings they said that the Christ who was born in the earthly and visible Bethlehem and crucified at Jerusalem was ‘evil’, and that Mary Magdalene was his concubine – and that she was the woman taken in adultery who is referred to in the Scriptures; the ‘good’ Christ, they said, neither ate nor drank nor assumed the true flesh and was never in this world, except spiritually in the body of Paul. I have used the term ‘the earthly and visible Bethlehem’ because the heretics believed there is a different and invisible earth in which – according to some of them – the ‘good’ Christ was born and crucified. Again, they said that the good God had two wives, Oolla and Ooliba, on whom he begat sons and daughters. There were other heretics who said that there was only one Creator, but that he had two sons, Christ and the Devil; they said moreover that all created beings had once been good, but that everything had been corrupted by the vials referred to in the Book of Revelations.
Of course, the Cathars were not “Christ mythicists” in the way we think of that term. There was surely nothing “mythical” for the “some of them” about the Christ who died in “a different and invisible earth”. I admit I merely use the term “christ mythicist” in this context because it has meaning for quite a few interested readers here in its relation to a belief in a “celestial crucifixion”. I myself have doubted the view of some mythicists — Couchoud, Doherty, Carrier — that any early Christians believed in a heavenly crucifixion of Jesus. I also have come to doubt their interpretation of the Ascension of Isaiah which posits a crucifixion in the firmament above the earth. But I cannot deny the interest that certain beliefs of the Cathars must hold for many of us, including me.
But anyone who has seriously studied the history of the Cathars must surely know of a surviving document by a Dominican friar, Rainerius Sacconi, who claims that he himself was a Cathar for seventeen years. He writes with loathing of the beliefs of those with whom he once identified. At one point he singles out the beliefs of John of Lugio who led a certain subgroup among the Cathars. The account is quite lengthy but I pick out a few details of particular interest. The document, dated 1250, is titled
THE SUMMA OF BROTHER RAINERIUS OF THE ORDER OF PREACHERS ON THE CATHARS AND THE POOR OF LYONS
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Although at one time sects of heretics were numerous, by the grace of Jesus Christ they have been almost completely destroyed; yet, two in particular are now found, one of which is called the Cathars or Patarines, the other the Leonists or Poor of Lyons. Their beliefs are set forth in the pages which follow.
. . . .
On the Beliefs of John of Lugio . . . .
Also, he thinks that the good God has another world wherein are people and animals and everything else comparable to the visible and corruptible creatures here; marriages and fornications and adulteries take place there, from which children are bom. And what is even more base, there the people of the good God, against His command, have taken foreign women to wife, that is, daughters of a strange god or of evil gods, and from such shameful and forbidden intercourse have been born giants and many other beings at various times.
This post is a distillation of the chapter “Why Ignatius Invented Judaism” by Daniel Boyarin in The Ways That Often Parted: Essays in Honor of Joel Marcus. It covers the same questions addressed by Roger Parvus (see sidebox) but with a different hypothesis.
Roger Parvus posted a series on Vridar arguing that the letters of Ignatius were in fact composed by a follower of a breakaway sect from Marcionism. Roger’s thesis builds upon ideas advanced by earlier scholars that the letters of Ignatius show signs of the teachings of someone closely related to Marcionism, such as Apelles, a former disciple of Marcion. Roger also revisits and develops an idea that first appeared a century ago in scholarly publications that the author of the original letters was in fact that colorful character Peregrinus, the subject of a satire by Lucian.
The essence of Boyarin’s view is that Ignatius
a. used the term that we translate as “Judaism” to refer to any attempt to link gospel details to the Old Testament; and that
b. the gospel of Jesus Christ stood as true without any reference to Old Testament prophecies or scriptures.
This idea throws an interesting perspective on thesis we have at times addressed on this blog that the canonical gospel characters, events and sayings were constructed out “midrashic” or intertextual interpretations of Old Testament books and that their symbolic meanings were subsequently lost by those Christians who became the foundation of the Church we know today. Can the epistles of Ignatius be viewed as an early stage of that misunderstanding and loss of the original meaning of our gospels? (These, of course, are my questions, not those directly raised by Boyarin.)
Boyarin begins by comparing Paul’s and Ignatius’s respective uses of the term “Judaism” (Ioudaismos). For Paul it meant performing certain practices, not an institution. Thus when Paul writes
and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions (Gal. 1:14 NASB)
he means the “practice of Jewish ways of loyalty to the traditional doings of Jews” that Josephus described as
the ancestral [traditions] of the Ioudaioi(τὰ πάτρια τῶν Ἰουδαίων – A.J. 20.41)
It does not mean an abstract category of “a religion”. It means performing practices, customs, rituals, etc. It is the counterpart of what Thucydides complained that Plataeans were doing when they were “Medizing” — that is, “forsaking their ancestral traditions” (παραβαίνοντες τὰ πάτρια, Thucydides, P.W. 3.61.2), copying the customs of the Medes. (I am only presenting the main idea: Boyarin’s justification for this interpretation is a lengthy discussion of Galatians passages than I have outlined above.)
For Paul, it was the Jewish law that stood against the gospel. For Ignatius, however, gospel stood in opposition to Jewish scriptures.
At one point Ignatius equates “heterodoxy and old myths” with this Judaizing of his heretics:
Be not deceived by heterodoxiai nor by old fables, which are useless. For if we continue to live until now according to Ioudaismos, we confess that we have not received grace” (Magn. 8.1).
Could such fables possibly be connected with Jewish Scriptures here? Ignatius links them with “Judaizing”. Ignatius continues from the above passage to speak positively of the prophets, but he used the fact that they were persecuted (Magn 8:2) as evidence that they were on his side (Barrett, 237). In the Pastoral epistles we likewise read of the association of Judaism with mythology — Titus 1:14; I Timothy 1:4; 4:7; II Timothy 4:4). Ignatius appears to criticize the “Judaizers” for “mythologizing” the Scriptures: i.e. either reading them literally (Barrett, 237) or midrashically (my suggestion).
I am posting here a worksheet I have prepared for my own ongoing reading around the Ascension of Isaiah. There are some good reasons to think that the “pocket gospel” in the Ascension of Isaiah, 11:2-22, is an interpolation and not part of the original text. But on the other hand there are others who are persuaded that 11:2-22 was part of the original text. That’s a question I will address, pros and cons, in a future post.
The following table expands on the gospel as found in chapter 11 by adding details mentioned in earlier chapters.
Just as fascinating is the account in Asc. Isa. of what happens after the ascension of Jesus to heaven. We read of a story of apostasy and some sort of Anti-Christ figure emerging on the eve of Christ’s return to resurrect and condemn all the wicked.
So the following highlights of the Asc. Isa. “gospel” are not presented with the suggestion that they were part of the original text. No, I really don’t know if they were or not. But either way they clearly are an early form of gospel that in many ways stands quite apart from our canonical gospels.
The table is hardly a comprehensive layout of the other early non-canonical gospels. I’ve only selected a few details that in some way relate to the Asc. Isa. and/or show other non-canonical parallels with Justin’s account of the gospel.
There are several quite interesting details in the Asc. Isa. gospel account when we read it carefully. For instance, Mary is said to be from the family of “David the Prophet”. Why is David said to be “the Prophet” and not the King? An answer may come to mind when we realize that a larger theme of the Asc. Isa. is false versus true prophets and the persecution, even martyrdom, of the true prophets. This is another little detail of a larger theme I have brought up in other posts — that the David motif in the intertestamental period was often wrapped in ideas of suffering, unjust persecution, righteousness, rather than conquering militarily. Continue reading “The Gospel According to The Ascension of Isaiah”