Category Archives: New Testament

An experiment comparing gnostic and orthodox myths

This post is a follow up from Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness. I may come to see this attempt to compare the structures of the myths as a sad misadventure but till then, let’s see what happens.

Detail from the Santa Maria sarcophagus (late second century?). Was Jesus depicted as a child because the myth declared him to be a child at this point or is he depicted as a child to merely symbolize the beginning of a new life beside the aged John the Baptist representing the old?

We begin with the “gnostic myth” of the advent of an illuminator or saviour figure that was announced by the second kingdom:

1. A prophet is said to be the beginning of the saviour figure who is presented as a child.

2. A bird takes the saviour to a mountain, presumably a wilderness setting

3. The bird nourishes the child saviour in the mountain

4. Presumably after the child has become an adult an angel appears to declare the saviour figure now has power and glory

5. The figure comes to the water.

The image below attempts to illustrate that particular structure. (For the understanding of coming “upon” water as an expression relating to power and submission see the previous post.)

Next, look at a similar myth in the Book of Revelation, though we will simplify it for starters. This structure is illustrated in the middle column.

1. The prophet John is writing, or announcing, the advent of the child saviour figure from the time he is born.

2. An angelic voice declares that great power and glory has now come into being, presumably a proleptic announcement concerning the child. (The mother and child are separated; the mother will be a proxy for those who follow the saviour-child).

3. A bird (eagle) carries the mother of the child to the wilderness

4. The woman is nourished and cared for in the wilderness (by….?)

5. The water of chaos, a flood, attempts to destroy the woman but she is protected by the wilderness earth.

The larger structure is essentially the same as the gnostic myth but the middle two steps are reversed. This reversal appears to be a function of the splitting of the child from its mother (and rest of her seed).

The structure the previous two myths is completely inverted with the Gospel of Mark. Coming to the water or facing the water is now moved to the beginning, along with the prophet, and is no longer the culmination of the story. In this gospel the water has become a symbol of baptism which is a figure of the death of the old man (as per Paul). In the Gospel of Mark we have the narrative bookended by narratives of death and emergence from death, first symbolically in the water, then finally through the cross.

1. The prophet announces the advent of the man saviour.

2. The saviour figure comes to the water and as he emerges from it.

3. The saviour figure is addressed as a sacrificial victim — the inverse of the power and glory we saw in the other two myths. For “my beloved son” as a signal of a son to be sacrificed see Jon Levenson’s studies on the Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. But the power and glory is still latent because the saviour figure is still the son of God.

4. The spirit (identified as a bird, in this case the dove) drives or propels the saviour figure into the wilderness.

5. The saviour figure is nourished by angels in the wilderness. (Matthew and Luke add the mountain.)

The angels and the bird take on inverted meanings. The angels feed and nourish the saviour in the wilderness, thus doing enough merely to keep him alive after his long fast and encounter with Satan. There is no roaring declaration of the saviour being imbued with power and glory.

The bird has changed from an eagle to a dove. The eagle had the power to rescue and carry a person in flight. The dove drives the saviour figure into the wilderness but has already come to him at the moment he is declared to be the beloved son (for sacrifice).

The Gospel of Mark may be thought of as inverting the rival myths of a messiah or saviour coming with great power. The water has become a means of symbolic death and birth as a “beloved son” destined to be sacrificed.

The earlier myth of power is not completely displaced, however. We see the saviour figure in the wilderness nourishing his followers by the thousands; he then ascendes a mountain before returning to walk upon the water to his disciples. Several details of this narrative indicate it is to be understood as a theophany, or perhaps even originally a post-resurrection appearance. The myth of power is not completely replaced but it is supplemented by an inverted form of the myth to take place first.


Further Evidence of a Pre-Christian Concept of a Suffering Davidic Messiah


It is commonly recognized that the Gospels depict Jesus’ crucifixion as an ironic royal enthronement.

We know the evidence for this statement: the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem; the riddle of Psalm 110 over the messiah being David’s Lord; the parable of the pounds; the dressing up of Jesus in royal garb; the ironical mocking of Jesus as a messiah and king when he is on the cross; and the Gospel of Mark’s ironical Roman triumph  and mock acclamation of Jesus as emperor. Some have questioned whether pre-Christian Jews ever contemplated the idea of a messiah who suffers. I have posted some of the reasons we have to think that some Jews did speculate on the possibility of a suffering messiah and this post will be one more addition to that archive.

The point is not so much that David is the paradigmatic example of a “righteous sufferer” so much as he is the “righteous suffering king.”
William Hole. David fleeing from Jerusalem, cursed by Shimei. Wikipedia Commons

I recently posted an excerpt from Martin Goodman’s discussion of Second Temple Jewish beliefs about a coming messiah:

In some Jewish texts the central figure in these events of the last days is called the Messiah, ‘the anointed.’ Some texts, like the Psalms of Solomon, describe the Messiah as a human figure, descended from David:

Behold, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to reign over your servant Israel in the time which you did foresee, O God. Gird him with strength to destroy unrighteous rulers, and purge Jerusalem from the nations who trample her down to destruction … And he will be a righteous king over them, taught by God. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the anointed Lord. [Psalms of Solomon 17:21-22, 32]

Interestingly another scholar, Joshua Jipp, has pointed out that that messianic Psalm of Solomon is based on our canonical Psalm 2 which speaks of a suffering messiah.

One may ask if there are any specific examples of pre-Christian messianic appropriation of the psalms. Psalms of Solomon 17 and 18 use Psalm 2 in their description of a coming Davidic Messiah. Moreover, one could describe Ps. Sol. 17:21-32 as a midrash on Psalm 2. For example, the coming Davidic figure is depicted as bringing forth punishment ἐν ῥάβδῳσ ιδηρᾷ (“by an iron rod”; Ps. Sol. 17:24), an exact replication of Ps 2:9.

The vocabulary of Ps 2:9 of σκεῦος κεραμέως συντρίψεις αὐτούς (“you will crush them into pieces as a potter’s vessel”) is echoed in Ps. Sol. 17:23b-24a with ὡς σκεύη κεραμέως . . . συντρῖψαι.

The use of Psalm 2 by Psalms of Solomon, therefore, provides further evidence of the eschatological and messianic nature of Psalm 2.

Perhaps most important, however, is the psalms’ frequent depiction of a Davidic figure, under intense duress and persecuted by his enemies. While suffering and hostility at the hands of one’s enemies are potentially common to all humanity, it is King David who is portrayed as the righteous, royal sufferer par excellence (Pss 7:4; 69:4; 109:3). His enemies surround him to mock and afflict him (e.g., Psalms 22; 69; 89). David’s plight frequently brings him to the point of despair, wondering if God has abandoned and forsaken him, giving him over to death and Hades (Pss 22:14-18; 38:5-8; 69:16-20). Yet despite his sufferings and persecution, David maintains his fidelity and hope in God. In the Davidic psalms one finds the paradoxical combination of kingship and righteous suffering. The point is not so much that David is the paradigmatic example of a “righteous sufferer” so much as he is the “righteous suffering king.”21 This anomaly, namely, that David, God’s anointed one, undergoes persecution and suffering, has great importance for Luke’s conception of Jesus, the suffering Anointed One.

21 In other words, though the psalms’ characterization of David as a “righteous” sufferer is extremely significant, it is his royalty and kingship that are crucial for Luke’s appropriation of the Davidic psalms. 

(Jipp, 258f)

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Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness

An important consequence follows. If a myth is made up of all its variants, structural analysis should take all of them into account. — Claude Lévi-Strauss (435)
The structural analysis developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss invites one to compare the variants of a myth so as to define the rules that led to their transformation. . . . [A] myth is comprised of all of its variants — meaning that one version alone of a myth is not held to be unique and authentic . . . . However, Lévi-Strauss shows that the nature of any myth is to reinvent itself through each new speaker who appropriates it.  — Philippe Wajdenbaum (1)


Our canonical gospels all begin the career of Jesus with John the Baptist. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all follow the baptism of Jesus with a wilderness testing of Jesus. Why don’t we see more variation in starting points and details if each author had his own set of historical or biographical traditions to draw upon?

I am aware that the terms “gnostic” and “gnosticism” have become problematic among a number of scholars in more recent years but I use the terms here as they were used by Robinson in his 1970 essay. For the sake of convenience I also use Mark to refer to the author of the Gospel of Mark.

One more point: Certainly the baptism and wilderness episodes in the gospels derive largely from the Exodus account of Israel leaving through the Red Sea and spending 40 years in the wilderness. I do not deny that association. But it also appears that there are other accounts that may derive from reinterpretations of the Exodus event, or that the Exodus narrative was in some way remoulded several times to produce the different narratives discussed here: Apocalypse of Adam, Revelation, Gospel of Hebrews, synoptic gospels.

The reading that led me to produce this post was prompted by James M. Robinson On the Gattung of Mark (and John) (1970). Robinson suggests a common source lies behind the Gospel of Mark’s beginning with the baptism and wilderness experience of Jesus, our canonical Book of Revelation’s reference to the birth of a child and the fleeing of its mother to the wilderness, a section of the “gnostic” “Apocalypse (or Revelation) of Adam and a passage in the now mostly lost Gospel of Hebrews.

Robinson does not think that our Gospel of Mark was an attempt to historicize spiritual gnostic teachings but that Mark adapted genuinely historical traditions to conform to a pattern of gnostic thought. We may wonder if it is necessary to bring any assumption of historical traditions to the question but that’s for each of us to decide.

The section of the Apocalypse of Adam is a list of proclamations from thirteen kingdoms. This part of the apocalypse is generally understood to have originated separately from the rest of the text because of various inconsistencies in the way it fits into the surrounding narrative. As for dating it, I have seen arguments for it being dated to very late second or third century (a reference to Solomon matches a late trajectory of evolving myths related to Solomon’s power over demons) and other arguments for it being dated as early as the first century CE or even BCE (it lacks the sophisticated philosophical elements of later gnostic myths with their various emanations from a single remote deity and eclectic inclusions of other gospel references).

Here is the thirteen kingdoms passage taken from Barnstone’s The Other Bible:

“Now the first kingdom says of him. …
He was nourished in the heavens.
He received the glory of that one and the power.
He came to the bosom of his mother.
And thus he came to the water.

And the second kingdom says about him that he came from a great prophet.
And a bird came, took the child who was born and brought him onto a high mountain.
And he was nourished by the bird of Heaven.
An angel came forth there.
He said to him, ‘Arise! God has given glory to you.’
He received glory and strength.
And thus he came to the water.

“The third kingdom says of him that he came from a virgin womb.
He was cast out of his city, he and his mother; he was brought to a desert place.
He was nourished there.
He came and received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“The fourth kingdom says of him that he came from a virgin. .. .
Solomon sought her, he and Phersalo and Sauel and his armies, which had been sent out.
Solomon himself sent his army of demons to seek out the virgin.
And they did not find the one whom they sought, but the virgin who was given to them.
It was she whom they fetched. Solomon took her.
The virgin became pregnant and gave birth to the child there.
She nourished him on a border of the desert.
When he had been nourished, he received glory and power from the seed from which he had been begotten.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the fifth kingdom says of him that he came from a drop from Heaven.
He was thrown into the sea.
The abyss received him, gave birth to him, and brought him to Heaven.
He received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the sixth kingdom says that a [ . . . ] down to the Aeon which is below, in order, to gather flowers.
She became pregnant from the desire of the flowers.
She gave birth to him in that place.
The angels of the flower garden nourished him.
He received glory there and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the seventh kingdom says of him that he is a drop.
It came from Heaven to earth.
Dragons brought him down to caves.
He became a child.
A spirit came upon him and brought him on high to the place where the drop had come forth.
He received glory and power there.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the eighth kingdom says of him that a cloud came upon the earth and enveloped a rock.
He came from it.
The angels who were above the cloud nourished him.
He received glory and power there.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the ninth kingdom says of him that from the nine Muses one separated away.
She came to a high mountain and spent some time seated there, so that she desired herself alone in order to become androgynous.
She fulfilled her desire and became pregnant from her desire.
He was born.
The angels who were over the desire nourished him.
And he received glory there and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“The tenth kingdom says of him that his god loved a cloud of desire.
He begot him in his hand and cast upon the cloud above him some of the drop, and he was born.
He received glory and power there.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the eleventh kingdom says of him that the father desired his own daughter.
She herself became pregnant from her father.
She cast [ . . . ] tomb out in the desert.
The angel nourished him there.
And thus he came to the water.

“The twelfth kingdom says of him that he came from two illuminators.
He was nourished there.
He received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the thirteenth kingdom says of him that every birth of their ruler is a word.
And this word received a mandate there.
He received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water, in order that the desire of those powers might be satisfied.

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When is a parallel a real parallel and not parallelomania?

The question of parallels has been raised in different posts and comments lately on Vridar.

Firstly, I questioned Joseph Atwill’s claim that there was a parallel between Jesus calling disciples to become “fishers of men” beside the “sea of Galilee” and a scene in Josephus’ War where Romans kill drowning Judeans in a battle that had spread to a the lake of Galilee. I also took exception to his parallel between the act of cannibalism that Josephus narrates in the same work and the gospel accounts of the Passover.

Soon afterwards, I posted about parallels between the Hebrews Bible and certain Hellenistic myths and other literature in relation to the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum. Further, I posted something by a classicist, Bruce Louden comparing a scenario in the Odyssey with the biblical story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to which I added further details between Greek myths and the Lot story identified by Wajdenbaum.

So am I being inconsistent in being critical of one of Atwill’s parallels but posting without critical commentary some of the work by Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum  and Louden?

One reader, Austendw, has posted a frequent criticism when this topic surfaces, and no doubt he speaks for many others. I copy just part of his comment:

And as for Saul in Mizpah, you relate Saul in hiding among the baggage, to Rachel hiding the teraphim in the saddlebag. The Hebrew says merely that Rachel “put” them in the saddle-bag; a nit-picking difference perhaps, but bearing it in mind reveals that, apart from the common place-name Mizpah, (a different Mizpah of course – it’s an extremely common place name in the OT), there isn’t a single verbal correlation between the two passages. Therefore your comment that Saul turns up like “Laban’s long-lost idol” (singular, though Laban’s teraphim were plural), strikes me as nothing other than your own imaginative eisegesis; you have imposed a meaning on the text and thereby constructed a parallel between the two stories that simply isn’t found in either of the texts themselves.

The details are indeed very different. But what is it, then, that makes it a “genuine” parallel in the minds of some others? Are we stretching different images almost to breaking point to make them seem somehow, even bizarrely, like one another? Is it reasonable to compare a person hiding in baggage and another person putting an incriminating object in a saddlebag?

Ideal Type compared with specific details

In order to try to understand what is going on here, to help us understand if we are manufacturing artificial parallels or discovering “real” ones, here is something written by Robert Price in The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. Price is addressing a concept developed by the sociologist Max Weber, the Ideal Type. (Ideal relates to the world of ideas, not perfect ideals.) read more »

The Different Meanings of “Fishers of Men”

Since we have been talking about “fishing for men” and how it can be interpreted in different ways . . .

  • Jindrich Mánek postulates that Jer 16:16 and cosmological myths involving the sea elucidate a sense of rescue in the expression [i.e. “fishers of men”].
  • Charles W. F. Smith argues that the dark motif of judgment in the Hebrew prophets and Qumran literature supplies the expression with an ominous ring.
  • Wilhelm Wuellner suggests that the multivalent usage of fishing in antiquity informs the call of disciples as one denoting partnership in Jesus’ eschatological mission.
  • And J. Duncan M. Derretí posits that the expression is derived from Ezekiel 47.
  • More recently, Joel Marcus has synthesized much of the relevant scholarship:

There may not be any need to choose among these different interpretations; the disciples’ fishing for people is probably a multivalent image that includes their future missionary preaching, their future teaching, and their future exorcisms (cf. 3:14-15; 6:7,12-13, 30; 13:9-10), all of which are understood as a participation in God’s eschatological war against demonic forces; this war, moreover, recapitulates God’s redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage.

(Wassell 637, my formatting; my bolding in all quotations)

There was once a time when I thought the idea of “fishing for men” was not a particularly irenic image, certainly not for the fish or for comparing people to fish being pulled, gasping, out of the water to die a slow death. I recall trying to rationalize the metaphor. We are “alive in our sins in the world” today and have to “die” or “mortify the flesh” in order to live a new life in a new kingdom. But that didn’t really work because the image offers no pleasant lease of life for the fish.

There was once a time when I felt that the original metaphor as found in Jeremiah 16:16 was more judgmental than pastoral. Sure, if one reads the verse in the context of the previous two or three it does sound quite positive, presenting Jeremiah’s readers with a scene of drawing lost Israelites back from captivity to a restored happy kingdom:

14 Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;

15 But, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers.

16 Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them;

Reading in context

But when I studied the Book of Jeremiah more attentively I had to discard that shallow interpretation. In its fuller context the image is one of judgement.

10 And it shall come to pass, when thou shalt shew this people all these words, and they shall say unto thee, Wherefore hath the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us? or what is our iniquity? or what is our sin that we have committed against the Lord our God?

11 Then shalt thou say unto them, Because your fathers have forsaken me, saith the Lord, and have walked after other gods, and have served them, and have worshipped them, and have forsaken me, and have not kept my law;

12 And ye have done worse than your fathers; for, behold, ye walk every one after the imagination of his evil heart, that they may not hearken unto me:

13 Therefore will I cast you out of this land into a land that ye know not, neither ye nor your fathers; and there shall ye serve other gods day and night; where I will not shew you favour.

Verses 14-15 are in interpolation from Jeremiah 23:7-8 7

14 Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;

15 But, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers.

16 Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.

17 For mine eyes are upon all their ways: they are not hid from my face, neither is their iniquity hid from mine eyes.

The image of fishing is associated now with the image of pulling people out of their land and exiling them to “a land they know not”. It is no longer an image of salvation but an image of judgment.

Contrast the Gospels of Luke and John

But in certain of the gospels it clearly is an image of salvation. read more »

Why and when “Mark” wrote the first gospel: a new explanation

We have another argument (I don’t mean evidence-free speculation) for when and why somebody sat down and wrote the first gospel, the one we know as the Gospel According to Saint Mark. I’m going to have to set several of these arguments (beginning with William Wrede and on up through Burton Mack, Dennis MacDonald, and most recently till now R.G. Price) and set all their key points of argument out in a table and compare.

I will try here to set out the main gist of Adam Winn’s case.

He begins with the date of its composition because on the relative date hangs his whole thesis. It was written, he believes, not soon prior to but after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Justifications for after and not before:

Some scholars say the gospel was written just prior to the destruction of the temple and point to some specific details in Jesus’ prophecy not being literally fulfilled; so “Mark” (I’ll call the author Mark henceforth for convenience) was recording a tradition that Jesus did predict the temple’s destruction.

Winn objects on two grounds:

  1. an overly literal emphasis on a reading of the prophecy (e.g. not one stone left standing on another) misses the nature and point of apocalyptic prophecies. They are never meant to be read strictly literally but for overall fearful impact;
  2. even if Jesus did predict the temple’s destruction it would be irrelevant to the question of whether Mark wrote before or after its fulfillment. In fact, it would be risky for the author to record it before the event because he could not have known if it was going to happen and he would know he could eventually lose the confidence of his audience if it didn’t. (Even during the siege of Jerusalem itself it was not clear that the Temple would finally be destroyed.) It is more likely that Mark wrote after the prophecy had been fulfilled when the prophecy would be vindicated among readers.

But there is a stronger positive argument Winn uses.

Winn sets out the arguments and evidence for the gospel being written in Rome and primarily for a gentile audience. I won’t repeat all of the details here. That’s point one.

Point two. We can know from Paul’s letters to gentile Christians that the temple of Jerusalem was simply not a thing in the everyday consciousness of gentile Christians. It was not discussed. It was not important for their beliefs. It never arose in Paul’s conversations with them. Yet — in the gospel of Mark there are several chapters given to addressing the temple, its authorities, its fate and theirs. From the time Jesus enters Jerusalem and is welcomed by “the people” through to his trial the temple, its destruction, and the demise of the authorities of that temple, is constantly before us. Even Jesus’ debates with the leaders are debates with those who bear responsibility for the temple’s doom, and those debates are concluded with a parable pointing to their bloody end.

So why? Why does Mark devote so much of his narrative to the fate of the temple and those responsible for its end in a gospel written to gentiles who heretofore had not thought much about the temple at all? It presumably had no theological significance for them. So why?

Theology of Victory

The answer, suggests Winn, lies in the propaganda the emperor Vespasian was so masterfully spreading throughout the empire after his and his son Titus’s victory in 70 CE. (I have written about this propaganda effort of Vespasian’s before so won’t go into details now.) In effect, we can say that Roman emperors ruled by divine right that was passed on through natural succession. But when the system broke down and a new leader arose through military conquest (as had Augustus before him) then the assumption was that the gods had given a special display of “virtue” or courage and manliness and strength to become the rightful ruler.

Vespasian not only defeated the last rival for the imperial chair but promoted his victory in Judea as a massive triumph, even declaring (falsely) that he had been the first to conquer that region. He displayed his greatness through this victory in statues, buildings, monuments of various kinds, and with stories spread of his miraculous powers (he healed the blind and restored a crippled man’s hand) and divine-scale beneficence (he fed a hungry Rome from his own largesse in Alexandria, Egypt). There were other miracles and wonderful acts that I won’t list here at this time.

So what had happened? Vespasian had overthrown the god of the Jews! To prove it all the loot from the temple was now in Rome. Jewish captives were marched by their hundreds in his triumphal procession. The temple of the Jews was destroyed and that proved that Vespasian’s gods had been more powerful, had subjected the god the Christians had looked to.

Suddenly the temple, now destroyed, became a problem for many Christians. This is the inference that Adam Winn draws. If Christians were not popular before this time then one can imagine pagans concerned for their souls trying to bring them back to normalcy by taunting them over the fate of the Jewish god.

And so Mark got to work. A story needed to be created to assure the flock that all was not lost, but that Jesus, the Son of God, really was more powerful and had in fact turned the tables on these ignorant fools boasting in their victory.

I have many things to write about and will add more to this post in due course.

Winn, Adam. 2018. Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.


“Under Tiberius All Was Quiet” : Or — No, Jesus was not “one of many”

It is S.G.F. Brandon’s fault. At least he shares much of the blame. Way back in 1967, the year of the Six Day War and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his book Jesus and the Zealots was published. Ever since then it has been de rigueur for scholars to locate the historical Jesus in a Palestine strewn willy nilly with roaming bandits, rebels and apocalyptic prophets.

In vain have I posted here and on other online discussion groups my complaint that there is simply no evidence for any of these figures in the time of Jesus, but that the only reason it is believed that such movements dotted the landscape in his time is by inferring that the zealots and prophets who appeared later (or in one case a generation earlier) were indicative of what must have being happening around the 20s and 30s CE — despite the silence in the record.

But yesterday I discovered a friend who will back me up. I don’t know him personally but I know him through his 1975 article in the journal New Testament Studies. He is Paul W. Barnett, a fellow Australian, who belonged to the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Sydney. (He’s also a bishop, sorry.) The article he had published, and the reason I like him so much, is:

Barnett, P. W. 1975. “‘Under Tiberius All Was Quiet.’” New Testament Studies 21 (04): 564.

Here is his argument. From the outset he points out that

Careful analysis of the incidence of unrest and disturbance suggests that ‘revolutionary’ activity began in earnest during the Second Procuratorial period (A.D. 44-66).

Yes, yes, yes. That’s exactly what I have been trying to say.

What changed to bring on instability from that time on?

  • The unexpected and premature death of Agrippa and the evident paganism and philo-Romanism of his son must have dashed to the ground any hopes for a deliverer from the Hasmonean line.
  • Claudius’ initial policy was not unkind to Judaeans though this hardly compensated for the crises of the forties — the barely averted desecration of the Temple4 (A.D. 40), the death of Agrippa and the return to Roman rule which now extended to Galilee5 (A.D. 44), and the severe famine (A.D. 46-8).
  • However, the appointment as Procurator in A.D. 52 of Pallas’ brother Felixat the behest of ex-High Priest Jonathan was to prove disastrous in Jewish history. Under the procuratorship of Felix (A.D. 52-60) the terrorist activities of the Sicarii began, the prophetic movement waxed strong, whilst Graeco-Jewish relationships in Caesarea were allowed to reach a critical point.

(p. 565. My formatting in all quotations)

There was more. read more »

Response #2 to the Non Sequitur program: “Not even the gospels say Jesus was famous outside Galilee”

From Wikiwand

For the previous response and a link to the Non Sequitur video see Response #1 to the Non Sequitur program with Tim O’Neill: MOTIVES.

At about the 49th minute of the Non Sequitur program Tim O’Neill makes the following claim:

Even if you look at what the gospels say about Jesus — and these are the gospels, by the way, that are trying to boost how significant and important he was — when we look at what they say about Jesus, they’re not actually making terribly big claims. The Gospel of Mark, for example, says he became really famous, he was doing these miracles, he became really famous, he was famous throughout the whole of… Galilee! You can walk across Galilee in a day in a nice afternoon at a brisk pace. So he became really famous across the whole of Galilee. It’s a bit like saying he became famous across the next six city blocks. So they’re not actually making a big claim for him to be famous at all. The Gospel of Matthew takes that bit (and he’s using the Gospel of Mark as his source) so the writer of Matthew tries to pump it up a bit and says he was also famous in Judea and Transjordan and the ten cities of the Decapolis and throughout the whole of Syria. So he’s trying to pump it up. But even in the gospels they don’t depict him as being terribly famous outside his back yard, and Galilee was a backwater even by Jewish standards, and Judea, generally, was a backwater by Greek and Roman standards. So even the gospels don’t make him out to be terribly famous. And remember I just mentioned about Theudas and the Egyptian prophet needing to have their followers dispersed by large bodies of Roman troops. Even the gospels make it clear that in their version of the story that Jesus was arrested by a handful of temple guards; there was a bit of a scuffle and not much happened. Even the gospels aren’t making him out to be terribly famous. So, do we have evidence that this guy was famous even in the Christian material? The answer is ‘no’.

Here is the Gospel of Matthew’s “pumped up” claim since the Gospel of Mark limited Jesus’ fame to Galilee:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. — Matthew 4:23-25

Here is how the Gospel of Mark, according to Tim, limited Jesus’ fame to “the six blocks” of Galilee:

And Jesus with his disciples withdrew to the sea: and a great multitude from Galilee followed; and from Judaea, and from Jerusalem and from Idumaea, and beyond the Jordan, and about Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, hearing [a]what great things he did, came unto him. — Mark 3:7-8

Jesus mistakenly thought he could hide if he left Galilee but Mark says he was wrong: read more »

Response #1 to the Non Sequitur program with Tim O’Neill: MOTIVES

Last weekend I watched Tim O’Neill present his arguments against the idea that there was no historical Jesus. I said I would respond in a post to his points and expected to cover it all in one or two sessions. But time is getting away from me this evening so here I will address just one point, Tim’s opening claims.

Tim begins by arguing that mythicism is appealing because it pulls the rug out from Christianity.

My response:

I am not interested in and do not refer in my comments to conspiracy theorists and cult-like following of a certain kind of mythicism that I equate more with interest in aliens, UFOs, Holy Grail, type theories. I am referring to the serious scholarly stuff led by the likes of Wells, Doherty, Price, Brodie and Carrier who ground their research and arguments in the publication of biblical and other recognized scholars.
  • I don’t know of any evidence to support that claim, the claim that, in general, people who are attracted to the mythicist viewpoint do so because they are motivated by some anti-Christian animus. No doubt. In fact, the evidence that I have been able to collate suggests that this is not true.  Some mythicist authors have in fact expressed the deepest respect for Christianity (e.g. Francesco Carotta, Paul-Louis Couchoud, Hermann Detering, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Tom Harpur, Edward van der Kaaij, Robert M. Price).
  • Some mythicists have even remained Christians after embracing mythicism and it is through acknowledgement of Jesus as a “mythical” creation they find deeper meaning in their faith (e.g. Thomas Brodie, Tom Harpur, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy).
  • I do not recall reading a single scholarly mythicist work that attacks Christianity as a faith. One of the most prominent warriors against Christianity is John Loftus and he has said that arguing mythicism would be the worst way to try to turn someone away from Christianity. I have posted the same thoughts here. Tim O’Neill tells us that Richard Carrier has said the same. So I don’t know if anyone is seriously attempting to attack Christianity by means of arguing that Jesus did not even exist. (No doubt there are some less well informed people who do this sort of thing, or I assume there must be in a universe as vast as ours, but I am speaking throughout of those who are focused on the scholarly arguments for mythicism by such authors as Brodie, Carrier, Doherty, RM Price and RG Price, Detering, Lataster, Fitzgerald, Ellegard, Wells, Parvus, Onfray and such.)
  • Further, if many who are attracted to mythicism are already atheists, then it hardly seems likely that they are motivated by a desire to find pretexts to undermine Christianity. I suppose some atheists are on a vendetta against Christianity, but not even the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens used mythicism as a deadly cudgel. They did nothing more than refer to its possibility in passing and with some diffidence. They certainly held back from using it as serious weapon.

read more »

Jesus, from a corpse hung on a tree to a man slain on a cross

Stéphane, Marc. 1959. La Passion de Jésus : Fait d’histoire Ou Objet de Croyance. Dervy-livres Besançon, impr. Jacques et Demontrond.

The French historian Marc Stéphane took up the question of the existence of Jesus and after engaging with the critical scholarship of his day, in particular that of “anti-mythicists” Alfred Loisy and Charles Guignebert, as well as mythicist Prosper Alfaric, and after delicately warning devout believers that he was not seeking to undermine their faith but was endeavouring to write an argument from a point of view that believers were free to ignore, wrote his own perspective on the question.

In brief, and to zero in on points I think are of more interest to many today, Stéphane

  1. Argued that the Gospel of Mark was the first to create a narrative of Jesus in a historical setting, drawing upon other writings such as the Jewish scriptures and the letters of Paul; fleshing out various images in these writings into narrative form;
  2. This gospel was probably written around the turn of the century, between 95 and 100 CE;
  3. Before the gospel was written, the view of the death of Jesus that was set out in 1 Cor 2:8 aligned with the same narrative we read in the Ascension of Isaiah: the Prince of this world, Satan and his archangels, killed the Lord of Glory and hung him up on a cross;
  4. The Ascension of Isaiah, in a Latin manuscript, conforms with the standard Jewish law that an executed criminal’s body would be hung on a tree as a public warning; that is, the hanging of a body on the tree an act that followed the execution; this was the standard Jewish understanding of what it meant for a body to be cursed by hanging on a tree;
  5. In one manuscript line of the Gospel of Mark Jesus is said to have called out at his moment of death, “My God, my God, why have you cursed me?” — thus adhering to what Paul wrote about the fate of the Son of God;
  6. The author of the Gospel of Mark had no historical material to shape into a narrative; there are many indications of this in the gospel itself (in addition to the evidence of source material from the Jewish scriptures and Paul’s letters): the lack of background and explanatory setting, characters and crowds just come and go as needed for each piece of story, the story is written in the style of a master narrator, breathlessly bringing his audience along with him “immediately” scene by vivid scene; the stylized structuring of three-fold sections throughout the narrative, especially with the 3rd, 6th and 9th hours of the Passion; and also the many anachronistic and unrealistic details of the narrative itself (e.g. Pharisees are portrayed unlike the sect they really were, and Pilate is also depicted most unlike his actual self);
  7. The author was writing for a Roman audience and decided to change the Jewish custom of hanging the body on a tree after death and place the crucifixion in a Roman setting: this further involved the need to have a Roman magistrate issue the final order for the crucifixion, and the name Pontius Pilate was well enough known and came conveniently to hand;

Seven points. I’ll stop there. Why spoil God’s design!


History (or something else?) as Fulfilled Prophecy

Once again I am succumbing to the temptation to do an easy post, little more than a copy and paste of something I posted on the earlywritings forum recently.

A topic I was addressing had to do with the significance of prophecy, or rather, fulfilled prophecy, in the narrative of our apparently earliest gospel, that according to Mark. Fulfilled prophecy, the original idea went, surely meant that the narrative was deemed literally historical.

I took the opportunity at this point to relate how ancient historians of the day were not necessarily considered very reliable or truthful and posted a section of my earlier post, The evidence of ancient historians, in which a Roman philosopher scoffs at historians of his day as nothing more than outright liars.

But I followed up with something a bit more substantial, an observation that the motif of fulfilled prophecy was a characteristic of ancient fiction, even historical fictions.

The use of prophecy was a stock tool for driving the plot of both fiction and history.

Herodotus, the “father of history”, narrated many instances of prophetic utterances of the Delphic oracle and it has been argued that Herodotus’s Histories was as theological in function as the Hebrew Bible’s history books — meant to teach the power of Apollo and need to submit to his will.

Homer’s epics are driven by prophetic announcements, too — and Homer was considered to be a “historian” in ancient times.

Then there are the clearly fictional novellas (or “historical novels”) whose plots are primarily driven by prophecies. E.g. Xenophon of Ephesus and his Ephesian Tale. After a few paragraphs setting the scene the author begins the story proper with a prophecy that no-one can understand but is only made clear after it is fulfilled. Sound familiar? Perhaps the author was inspired by the Gospel of Mark to write a similar fiction?

The temple of Apollo in Colophon is not far away; it is ten miles’ sail from Ephesus. There the messengers from both parties asked the god for a true oracle. They had come with the same question, and the god gave the same oracle in verse to both. It went like this.

Why do you long to learn the end of a malady, and its beginning?
One disease has both in its grasp, and from that the remedy must be accomplished.
But for them I see terrible sufferings and toils that are endless;
Both will flee over the sea pursued by madness;
They will suffer chains at the hands of men who mingle with the waters;
And a tomb shall be the burial chamber for both, and fire the destroyer; And beside the waters of the river Nile, to Holy Isis The savior you will afterwards offer rich gifts;
But still after their sufferings a better fate is in store.2

When this oracle was brought to Ephesus, their fathers were at once at a loss and had no idea at all what the danger was, and they could not understand the god’s utterance. They did not know what he meant by their illness, the flight, the chains, the tomb, the river, or the help from the goddess. . . . .

Achilles Tatius wrote Leucippe and Clitophon, another fiction, with a similar motif, though the opening prophecy came in the form of a dream. But other more direct prophecies pop up in the course of the narrative and again the hearers are as bewildered as Mark’s disciples about they mean.

. . . . the Byzantines received an oracle that said

Both island and city, people named for a plant,
Isthmus and channel, joined to the mainland,
Hephaistos embraces grey-eyed Athena,
Send there an offering to Herakles.

They were all puzzling over the meaning of the prophecy when . . . .

What follows is an attempt to decipher the “parable” by finding what each detail represented in code. At the end of the story the hero bewails that fact that it seems the god prophesied only something negative, loss and failure … but he is to be proven wrong. It’s a similar motif as we find in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus prophecies his death. Peter protests, but he is over-ruled and eventually learns that it’s all good.

Other “novellas” follow the same pattern. Another is The Ethiopian Story by Heliodorus.

There is a “historical novel”, a fictional narrative, about Alexander the Great (said to be by a “pseudo-Callisthenes”) that is also prophecy driven.

One might even say that the motif of a prophecy-driven plot is a characteristic of fiction, or even fictionalized history.

When historians wanted to be taken most seriously they cited their sources or told readers why and how they judged some source more reliable than another. They were not even beyond making up fictional sources — e.g. Herodotus. Or beyond rewriting scenes from plays and presenting them as an eyewitness narrative — e.g. Thucydides. Hence Seneca’s cynicism towards historians as quoted in my earlier comment.

Fehling, Detlev. 1989. Herodotus and His Sources: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art. Francis Cairns Publications.

Mandell, Sara, and David Noel Freedman. 1993. The Relationship between Herodotus’ History and Primary History. Atlanta, Ga: University of South Florida.

Reardon, Bryan P., ed. 1989. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Making sense of God revealing his son “IN” Paul

And now for something technical.

I’m copying here a comment I left on another discussion group a few days ago. How is one to make sense of Paul’s statement in Galatians 1:15-16 where he says God revealed his son “in me”:

Galatians 1:15-16 seems really puzzling and important:

But when it pleased God…to reveal his son in me (apocalypsai ton huion autou en emoi), that I might preach him among the gentiles…

Several responses to the question seemed to me to be too quick to sweep aside the detail and to rationalize it with our more conventional understanding of the resurrection appearances and perhaps even something akin to the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts. But several scholars are not so casually dismissive of the “problem”. I copy here how three scholarly sources explain the meaning of “in me”. So if this is a question that interests you, ….. (please excuse some scrambled fonts in the copying of the Greek this time)

The UBS Translators’ Handbook comments:

To reveal his Son to me is literally “to reveal his Son in (or by) me.” Does this mean “to reveal his Son to others, by means of me” or “to reveal his Son to me”? While the first of these is possible (a similar construction occurs in 1.24), yet on the basis of the total context and Paul’s line of argument, the second alternative is more acceptable. The burden of this passage is how Paul received the gospel, not how he proclaimed it. TEV makes this latter meaning clear (so also NAB and RSV). Most other translations keep the construction “in me,” and NEB combines the two ideas (“reveal his Son to me and through me”).

It would be possible to render to reveal his Son to me as simply “to show me his Son” or “to cause me to see his Son,” but this would scarcely do justice to the fuller implications of the revelation. Some translators prefer an expression meaning “to cause me to know who his Son really is,” “to show me who his Son really is,” or even “to let me see what I could not see before—who his Son really is.”

Alan Segal in Paul the Convert understands the words to indicate a spiritual union with God’s or Christ’s heavenly image. read more »

The Two Steps to move the Lord’s Celebratory Supper to a Memorial of his Death

While speaking about the origin of the Lord’s Supper discussions prompted me to revisit the question of the integrity of our canonical texts and whether we can be confident they preserve what was originally written by Paul and the author of the Gospel of Mark.

Well, I’ve tracked down several studies on just that question and though I will have to wait a few weeks before a number of them arrive I can post the arguments of one critical scholar, Alfred Loisy. Loisy set out his reasons for believing that the passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in which he claims to have received the instructions about the Lord’s Supper from the Lord himself is a later addition, and similarly for the passage in the Gospel of Mark narrating Jesus instituting a mystical rite the eve before his death. On the contrary, Loisy argues, before the ritual of the death of Jesus the Christian communities knew only of a celebratory fellowship meal that anticipated the imminent arrival of the Kingdom where they would all be feasting with Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 11:

20 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper.

21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.

22 What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? what shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.

23 For I have received from [ἀπὸ] the Lord [τοῦ Κυρίου] that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:

24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.

25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.

26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.

Many of us who have read the above passage may at some time, especially when we first encountered it, have had some “back of our mind” sense that there was something slightly odd with it. But of course repetition when and where all around us evidently accept it as unproblematic dulled our curiosity. But Loisy revives and sharpens our early questions:

Direct revelation or from apostolic tradition?

35 There has been much dissertation about the meaning of the preposition από (before τον κυρίου in verse 23), which need not exclude intermediaries between Jesus and the author of the story. But on the hypothesis of intermediaries, as the matter concerns an act of the Christ and not a plain teaching, we should expect περί rather than από. The author places the case of the Supper among the other παραδόσεις which the Corinthians have received from him. Are all these to be transformed into Gospel traditions passed on by the Galilean apostles? Moreover, whether it be tradition or private vision, the story as here given is not in the primitive Gospel.

(Loisy, p. 399 – my heading)

Some strange features confront us in this passage.

  • It is strange that Paul, if he had really told all this to the Corinthians before, should here be obliged to recall it;
  • strange that he should present it as a revelation received by him from the Lord;35
  • strange that a doctrine implying the theory of redemption by the blood of the Christ, and linked artificially to the benediction of bread and wine customary at Jewish meals, should see the light in the first generation, when Christians lived in expectation of an immediate parousia.

On the other hand it is significant that regard is here paid to that expectation. Evidently the vision of the institution of the Supper which Paul professes to have had is conceived in the framework of a story relating the last meal of Jesus with his disciples in which preoccupation with the Great Event was the dominant feature.

. . . .

In the economy of the Supper as a mystic rite this reference to the parousia, made at a time when it was no longer thought of as imminent, is out of place. The mention of it is due to an old and firmly established tradition. There is ground therefore for saying that mystic commemoration of the saving death, the mystic communion with the crucified Christ, is superposed on a form of the Supper as an anticipation of the banquet of the elect in the Kingdom of God, a form clearly indicated in a saying embedded in the oldest tradition of the synoptic Gospels:

Verily, verily, I tell you
   that I will drink no more
      of the fruit of the vine,
   Until that day
      when I drink it new
         in the Kingdom of God.

The account of the mystic Supper, in First Corinthians, belongs to the evolution of the Christian Mystery at a stage in the development of that mystery earlier than Justin, earlier even than the canonical edition of the first three Gospels but notably later than Paul and the apostolic age. It must be dated in the period when the common meal was in process of transformation into a simple liturgical act. The passage in question is a conscious attempt to further the transformation by giving it the apostolical authority of Paul. . . .

(Loisy, pp. 244f, my formatting and bolding)

Loisy suggests that the transformation was made some time in the late first century or early second century, towards, say, the time of Marcion (who esteemed Paul as his sole apostolic authority) in 140 CE.

That makes sense to me. In my earlier post I referred to early traditions, clearly in tension with the one we read in 1 Cor 11: 23-26, that speak of a Lord’s Supper as a happy fellowship occasion for thanksgiving and with no connection at all with mystic symbolism of blood and flesh.

But what of the canonical gospels? If the mystical ritual in Paul’s letter was not part of what Paul himself wrote, and if the earliest canonical gospel that of Mark, was (as some argue – Tarazi, Dykstra, R.G.Price) indebted to Paul’s ideas, how do we explain the gospel account of Jesus instituting that ceremony? read more »

Paul on the side of State Terror

Romans 13:1-7

1 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.

2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.

3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.

4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.

5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.

6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.

7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.

After listening to historian Tom Holland (see the video clip in the previous post) claim Paul’s seven letters were the revolutionary “depth charge” whose ripples essentially civilized Europe and the West I found myself turning to some studies on the influence of Greco-Roman philosophical values on Paul. One passage stood out. It is by Niko Huttunen in his comparison between Paul’s and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus’s views on law.

We may ask if Paul really meant what he said in Rom. 13.1-7. What would he say a couple of years later, during Nero’s persecution (Tacitus, Ann. 15.44)? Did he think that the sword of the authorities punishes wrongdoers when the sword – as the legend goes – beheaded him? We do not know. What we do know are the words in Rom. 13.1-7. Horsley and his companions think that we can find Paul’s critical attitude towards the empire if the gospel he proclaimed is read in the imperial context. Paul really had an alternative content for such designations of emperors like  ‘son of God’ and ‘Savior’ – just to pick up a few examples that scholars have taken as showing his anti-imperial stance. But these words are not aimed at opposing the Roman imperial order if Paul was honest when dictating Rom. 13.

For example, Luke-Acts begins with the hymns of Mary (Lk. 1.46-55) and of Zechariah (Lk. 1.67-79) in which it is possible to hear national overtones, such as in the phrases ‘he has brought down the powerful from their thrones’ and ‘he has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David’ (Lk. 1.52 and 1.69). Then Luke continues with the birth of Jesus, which can be seen as a variant of imperial legends (Virgil, Ecl. 4; Suetonius, Aug. 2.94). Luke 1-2, however, is not meant to be a political proclamation against authorities. The same holds with Paul. I see no reason to understand Paul’s gospel as being anti-imperial though he used words known in the imperial propaganda. When we deal with Paul’s view on the authorities our primary source must be the passage that openly speaks of the State.

The terror regime which Paul approves motivates people by negative means: do what is commanded in order to avoid death and pain! Paul mentions only in passing that the authorities also use a positive spur, approval (v. 3), and he forgets this immediately. There is only the negative trait, wrath, mentioned in the summary (v. 5), which also includes a new reason for loyalty, the requirement of conscience. Yet, it is Paul – not the authorities – who invokes conscience, and only as an additional point (ου μόνον – άλλα καί). The authorities, as described by Paul, only use the system of the stick and the carrot, and the former prevails. The apostle accepts this system without reservations.

Niko Huttunen

Scholars may attempt to find ways to interpret Paul being a cryptic anti-imperialist by suggesting his use of imperial titles (‘son of god’, ‘saviour’) for Jesus is an ironic challenge to authority and this interpretation no doubt helps activist Christians remain on the side of the angels. But my recollection of years of studying European history from late antiquity through to modern times suggests to me that Paul has been used far more often to justify state terror.

In Huttunen’s assessment, Paul comes off a poor second to Epictetus on this little matter.

It may be that Paul himself did not write those words and that they were added there by “proto-orthodox” as a few scholars but that’s beside the point. Romans 13:1-7 as it stands has been a staple of Church teachings through the ages.

(But Tom Holland may be able to change my mind when his new book is published. Let’s see.)

Huttunen, Niko. 2009. Paul and Epictetus on Law: A Comparison. London ; New York: T&T Clark.