Category Archives: New Testament


2018-03-10

The Abomination of Desolation in Mark 13: What Did the Reader Need to Understand?

by Neil Godfrey

“Today, we know only too well the experiences of refugee treks, what such an escape can look like.” Yazidis of Iraq fleeing to the mountains.

When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.

Mark 13:14-19

What was that “abomination of desolation”? When we read “let the reader understand” we surely are right to think that it is some sort of mystery to be decoded or explained to us.

The following explanation comes from Der Weg Jesu by Ernst Haenchen (1968). Since it is in German I have had to resort to a machine translation. Fortunately, though, Ken Olson on the Biblical Criticism and History Forum set out the main argument to enable me to get started. I recommend reading his post for more detail than I will provide here.

To begin with Jesus is addressing an inner circle of his disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, “in private”. So it is secret teaching that we are reading.

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus said to them . . . .

Mark 13:1-5

For whom is Mark recording this warning?

Haenchen pulls us back from immersion in the story and confronts us with the question: Who was “Mark” writing this for? Was he writing a warning for Christians who were caught up in the Jewish war of 66 to 70 CE? If so, what was the point? The warning was recorded too late for them.

Further, the warning is for those who “see”, not “hear about”, the abomination of desolation. So was the abomination of desolation something that could be seen by all and sundry “in Judea”, not just in Jerusalem?

Common explanations suggest the abomination was something set up by the Roman army in or near the temple in Jerusalem. But if that were the case then what was the point in telling people throughout Judea to run for the hills at that point? If the Romans were already inside Jerusalem then they had already swept through Judea. Why wait to run until after the enemy has occupied your homeland?

Haenchen’s solution resolves such problems.

“Then the king’s officials came to the town of Modein”

Compare the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. Symbolic language is used, arguably to protect those who treasure the writing. It is proposed that explicitly anticipating the fall of Rome was not something to shout out about so Babylon was substituted for Rome. Those “in the know” knew the coded language. The Book of Revelation also speaks in its thirteenth chapter of a terrifying moment when God’s chosen would face an image of a beast and be ordered to worship it or be killed.

What situation in these early days of Christianity, in the days when the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Revelation were being written, would arouse such fear that the only way out was to drop everything and run immediately into the wilderness and hide in the hills?

The answer: the visit to one’s town of an imperial official setting up an altar and calling on all inhabitants to sacrifice to the emperor. Penalty for refusal was death. The mere possibility of such a moment was enough to generate fear.

Mark was not writing a warning for the people of Judea long after any danger facing them had passed. The war was over. What he was doing was couching (or coding) a warning to his readers in Italy, Syria, anywhere throughout the Roman empire, in the language of Daniel the prophet.

Haenchen writes, p. 446 read more »


2018-02-25

Does “Brother of the Lord” settle the Jesus myth question?

by Neil Godfrey

On another forum I recently posted a discussion of the passage in Galatians where Paul says he met James, “the brother of the Lord”, setting out why I believe the passage is not necessarily the “slam dunk” that many say it is to prove Jesus was a historical figure. I have other posts on other topics I want to do for Vridar but till I can sort those out I will double up and copy here what I posted on AFA.

Part 1

A passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is often touted as irrefutable proof that Jesus was a historical figure:

1:18 Then, after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days; 19 But I saw no other of the Apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 And the things I write to you— see!— before God, I am not lying.
(Hart’s translation)

All manuscripts of Galatians agree that James is said to be “the Lord’s brother”. No exceptions.

If Paul met James who was recognized as the Lord’s brother then obviously the Lord’s brother was a real person. And for good reason “the Lord” is generally assumed to refer to Jesus.

It is obvious, then, that Jesus existed.

Some have tried to object on the following grounds:

1. Paul often speaks of all Christians as “brothers” and “sisters” so in Galatians 1:19 he is simply singling out James as a Christian for some reason.

Or,

2. The Lord more commonly refers to God. Therefore “the brother of the Lord” is really some sort of spiritual title. Even if “Lord” did refer to Jesus the phrase was still a spiritual title that described an inner group of leaders or elites in the assembly.

Therefore, it is argued, Galatians 1:19 does not prove the historicity of Jesus.

Those objections are objected to, however:

1. It makes no sense to call James “the brother of the Lord” if that simply meant to point out he was a Christian like all other “brothers and sisters”. The context alone tells us James was a Christian. But so was Cephas (= Peter) whom Paul also met.

2. There is no evidence that an inner group known as “the brothers of the Lord” existed in the early church or that “brother of the Lord” was used as a title for anyone.

I think those objections are sound. (They are possible, but I think more evidence is needed to establish either one as a completely satisfactory alternative to the mainstream view that the passage is telling us that James was the biological brother of Jesus.)

So, then, we are left with a letter by Paul indicating that one of the three great leaders (Paul says they were reputed to be “pillars”) of the Jerusalem church was named James who was the sibling of Jesus.

But that’s where our problems start. read more »


2018-01-15

Why Did Luke Replace the Anointing of Jesus at Bethany with the Sinner Woman Washing His Feet?

by Neil Godfrey

The first two gospels portray Jesus being anointed by an unnamed woman in Bethany in order to “prepare him for burial.” In the third gospel that scene has been removed and replaced with another, set earlier, of an unnamed woman anointing Jesus’ feet.

How do we know the Gospel of Luke was rewriting the Bethany anointing scene and not adding a totally different episode? The answer lies in the clues the third evangelist left us. Both scenes share the following:

  • Jesus in the house of Simon
  • Jesus is reclining at table
  • An unnamed woman
  • An alabaster jar of ointment
  • Others are indignant at what Jesus allows the woman to do
  • Jesus and the woman are the only ones who understand the meaning of the event until Jesus explains

And then there are the syzygies, the paired opposites:

  • leper and pharisee
  • anointing head and anointing feet
  • one anointing is of the kind done by a priest to anoint a king; the other by a lowliest servant to welcome a guest
  • the monetary value of the ointment is the focus of the offence in one story; the analogous monetary value of “forgiving and loving much” is the lesson presented in the other
  • one woman is offered worldly “fame” (though unnamed!); the other woman is given salvation

We have enough DNA to identify Luke’s story as derivative of the one found in Mark and Matthew. (Thomas Brodie further identified 2 Kings 4:1-37 as an additional source.) Clearly the author of the third gospel did not believe he was reading a “historical memory” in the earlier gospel(s) or that he was composing a version of history. The author recognized the earlier narrative as composition with a certain message that could be erased and rewritten in the interests of preaching another message deemed more appropriate.

So what was the alternative message? Why was the theme of the first account “repealed and replaced”? read more »


2017-12-25

Why Is Christmas on the 25th of December?

by Tim Widowfield

The Catholic Liturgical Year

While researching this post, I came upon an item from 2015 about the sad and untimely death of Acharya S. on Christmas Day. Readers of Vridar may have noticed that I’ve avoided writing about Acharya’s theories or writings, mainly because they did not and do not interest me, but secondarily, because I’d rather not tangle with her fans, many of whom take any critique of her brand of mythicism as a personal attack.

I must decrease

Recently, however, I recalled something I heard on a podcast featuring Robert M. Price and Acharya. I suppose we’re allowed to call her Dorothy Murdock now. Murdock was explaining to Price that the role of the Forerunner helped to determine when in the liturgical calendar to commemorate the birth of John the Baptist. She reminded Price that in the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is confronted by his disciples about what to do concerning this upstart Jesus fellow. He says:

[28] “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ [29] The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. [30] He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:28-30, ESV)

A typical reader would look at that last sentence and take it at face value. In other words, John the Baptist realizes his role must diminish as Jesus takes on the mantle of Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Savior of the World. The Baptist is signaling the winding down of his business, having fulfilled his purpose.

But Murdock said it was a mysterious thing to say, and that it had to do with the days getting shorter after the solstice. And this is precisely why John’s birth was commemorated near the first day of summer, while Jesus’ was celebrated near the winter solstice. When Christ is “rising,” I am “falling.” Hence, the notion that John was born on 24 June, six months away from Christmas.

The virgin . . . tomb?

At the time I did a little research, which fell by the wayside as other subjects took my attention. I recall coming across some early discussions about the incarnation and how some early Christians believed it had to have occurred on the same calendar date as the death of Jesus. For example, Augustine wrote: read more »


2017-12-05

Thinking through the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19

by Neil Godfrey

Some time ago I was attempting to think through the pros and cons surrounding the disputed claims over the significance and meaning of James being described as the brother of the Lord in Paul’s letter to Galatians. I set out the various factors in a discussion of Bayesian probability. But since Bayesian analysis is a scary phrase for some people I have extracted the different pros and cons from that post and set them out here for reference purposes. Being lifted from the original post, some of the points appear here to be in no particular order.

Before I do let’s have a look at another quotation from a historian:

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence that will answer a particular question (G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, p.88)

If that’s what historical research is not, Elton goes on to explain what it is:

it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p.88)

That was the kind of thinking that led to the following list of pros and cons. I’m not interested in dogmatically proof-texting any argument like an apologist. I am interested in attempting to approach questions and evidence according to normative historical principles.

–o0o–

How typical would it have been to identify someone as a brother of the Lord?

1. According to the Gospels Jesus did have a brother named James.

2. Now if in Galatians we read that “James [was] the brother of Jesus” then, of course, we would all agree that such a phrase points to a sibling relationship.

3. But we do have many instances where “brother” is used of Christians and in Hebrews Jesus speaks of having many brethren.

4. “Lord” is a religious title, not a personal name, so there is some small room for “brother of the Lord” being used in a spiritual or non-familial sense.

5. We know of no other instances of people in this context being called the “brother of a spiritual Lord” (or God) so this reduces the chances that Paul was saying James was the brother of the spiritual Lord.

6. But we also have another tradition that Jesus had no siblings at all. So how can that little detail be explained if it were known that James had been the brother of Jesus?

7. We also have information that James was reputed to have been a renowned leader of the Jerusalem church, and his relationship with God was so close that he was known as old ‘camel-knees’, a repetitive strain injury/side-effect from overmuch praying. Our interest is in the likelihood of such a phrase in this context being an indicator that James and Jesus were siblings. So if James were such an unusually holy man then maybe there is some plausibility in the idea that he was known as a special “brother of the (spiritual) Lord”.

8. Another circumstance we do know was common enough in ancient times was the tendency for copyists to edit works, usually by adding the odd word or phrase or more. Sometimes this was entered as a gloss in the margin by way of commentary, with a subsequent copyist incorporating that gloss into the main body of the text. That’s a possibility, too, given what we know of both Christian and “pagan” texts.

9. Given what we know about the evolution of texts, the alterations to manuscripts and so on, it is by no means sure how secure any wording, especially a slight one, in a New Testament text should be considered which is far removed from the original letter of Paul. How can a decision be made about key questions based on this inherent degree of uncertainty, an uncertainty justified by the general instability of the textual record visible in the manuscripts we do have? And yet arguments are formulated on such slender reeds all the time.

10. On the other side of the ledger we have the likelihood that if Jesus were known as a Son of David then it is reasonable to imagine that his royal heir would be his next-in-line brother, probably James. So “brother of the Lord” may not be such an unusual way to describe him in the letter.

 

How likely or expected is the evidence we have if James really were the brother of the Lord? read more »


2017-09-04

Meet Paul and Enoch; both come from the same place

by Neil Godfrey
Warning: If you are looking for snazzy gotcha type parallels that demonstrate a genetic relationship between the letters of Paul and Enoch you will be disappointed. This post is not about direct imitation or identification of “a source” for Paul’s letter. The first page addresses form parallels; to see the content and ideas click “read more” to see the remainder.

Professor James M. Scott compares two letters, one by Enoch and the other by Paul, and identifies a few points in common that help us understand a little more clearly the thought-world of both figures. Of course our real interest is in understanding Paul since we tend to see him as having more relevance to our Christian heritage than the evidently mythical Enoch. 

Scott’s essay, “A Comparison of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians with the Epistle of Enoch” is a chapter in The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought (2017, edited by Benjamin E. Reynolds and Loren T. Stuckenbruck). The central argument is that both Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the epistle of Enoch (1 Enoch 92-105) share the same apocalyptic motifs in a common letter format, and that it follows that Galatians belongs to the “apocalyptic tradition” as much as does the letter of Enoch. My interest is in the shared motifs per se, and what they indicate about Paul’s intellectual world.

1 Enoch is generally thought to be made up of five texts that have been stitched together, and one of these initially discrete texts consists of chapters 92 to 105, dated around 170 BCE. If you have sufficient time, patience and interest to read those chapters and have just a vague recollection of Paul’s letter to the Galatians you will wonder how on earth anyone could see the slightest resemblance between the two. Enoch’s letter is full of Old Testament style pronouncements of prophetic woes and doom on sinners while Paul’s letter is about struggles with Judaizers coming along to his converts in Galatia and undermining the pristine faith by telling them they had to be circumcised and follow a few other Jewish observances, too. But a glance at James Scott’s publishing history shows he has spent a lot of time studying all of this sort of literature so let’s continue in faith.

First, look at some “technical” similarities to see that, despite major differences, we are comparing a works of the same genre, a letter form. (The text follows Scott’s chapter closely, though of course the table format is mine.)

 

Genre
Self conscious reference to his own writing as a letter Galatians 6:11 See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 1 Enoch 93:2 these things I say to you and I make known to you, my sons, I myself, Enoch.

1 Enoch 100:6 And the wise among men will see the truth, and the sons of the earth will contemplate these words of this epistle

Author
The superscription of both letters names the author of the letter, and then, adds an impressive description of the author: Paul is an “apostle” sent by God; Enoch is a “scribe” who writes “righteousness and truth”.

Both Paul and Enoch present themselves as authors who communicate God’s will.

Galatians 1:1 Paul …. an apostle—[sent] not from men nor by man but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead ” This further description of who Paul is establishes from the outset the divine origin and agency of his apostolic commission, and thus, underscores his special authority. 1 Enoch 92:1 Written by Enoch the scribe (this complete sign of wisdom) (who is) praised by all people and a leader of the whole earth.
Addressees
Both Galatians and the Epistle of Enoch are circular letters meant to be passed along to multiple readers in more than one location over the course of time. Enoch’s letter purports to be written in the seventh generation after Adam to be read by Jews and gentiles in the last days.  Galatians 1:2 to the churches of Galatia 

 

1 Enoch 92:1 to all my sons who dwell on the earth, and to the last generations who will observe truth and peace.

 

Both Galatians and the Epistle of Enoch address their respective readers throughout in the second person plural.  Galatians 4:19 My dear children 1 Enoch 92-105  Enoch refers to his addressees as “my children
Salutation
In Galatians, the salutation is clearly identifiable.

The situation in the Epistle of Enoch is more complicated. The typical salutation or greeting is missing in 1 Enoch 92:1. Nevertheless, as Nickelsburg suggests, “it may be hinted at in the word ‘peace'” which comes at the end of the adscription in the same verse.

Galatians 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

 

1 Enoch 92:1 to all my sons who dwell on the earth, and to the last generations who will observe truth and peace.

Nickelsburg also takes the final reference to “peace” in the Epistle (“And you will have peace,” 105:2) as “an epistolary conclusion.”

“Peace” is referenced at the beginning and ending both letters Galatians 1:3; 6:16 1 Enoch 92:1; 105:2
Very last word of both letters is “Amen” Galatians 6:18 1 Enoch 105:2

Okay, that’s done with the “formalities”. We may say that technically we are comparing apples and apples. James Scott’s next section is more interesting for an insight into how much we read in Paul’s letter was part of the wider thought-world of the day and not “just Paul”. Scott turns to their common “apocalyptic elements”. read more »


2017-08-08

If the Gospel of Mark Condemns Peter, Why Do We Sympathize With Him?

by Neil Godfrey

Peter’s Denial / Robert Leinweber

Especially since reading Theodore J. Weeden’s Mark — Traditions in Conflict, and several other works influenced by Weeden’s thesis, I have tended to assume that the Gospel of Mark seeks to denigrate Peter and the Twelve. They are nothing but failures, “obtuse and wrongheaded” (John Drury’s phrase) in every way. Was the author of the gospel (let’s call him Mark) firing shrapnel at Peter and his associates as part of some sort of ideological battle involving Paul?

But if Mark wanted to condemn Peter then why is it so easy to read the gospel and feel sympathetic towards him? Are we really unconsciously reading Mark through the later evangelists?

Before continuing, I must admit that I am conscious of the fact that I am relying entirely upon the Gospel of Mark as we have it in its canonical form and that the original composition may well have contained significant differences. Be that as it may, to continue…..

Finn Damgaard raised and answered my question in “Persecution and Denial – Paradigmatic Apostolic Portrayals in Paul and Mark”, a chapter at the end of Mark and Paul, Comparative Essays Part II. For and Against Pauline Influence on Mark (2014).

Mark singles out Peter for special mention throughout his gospel so we naturally take a particular interest in him:

  • Peter is the first disciple to appear in the gospel and the first to be called, the first to confess Jesus is the Christ (in the middle of the gospel) and the last disciple mentioned in the gospel;
  • We learn more about Peter than any other disciple: he has a mother-in-law so is or has been married; he has a house in Capernaum that he shares with his brother Andrew;
  • Peter is the first listed of the apostles and the first to be renamed by Jesus, and his words are used to initiate teachings by Jesus on discipleship;
  • He appears to be more “rounded” as a character than the others in his arguments with Jesus and his three denials and subsequent tears.

Peter’s failings are certainly many:

  • he denies Jesus three times
  • he is forgetful and uncomprehending
  • Jesus calls him Satan

But notice how the author also leads us to sympathize with Peter. Peter may be a foil to Jesus but he is not portrayed as wicked. Mark keeps the readers on Peter’s side by letting the readers see into Peter’s well-meaning nature, his good intentions and genuine bafflement and tearful remorse over his most serious failures. read more »


2017-08-07

Aesop, Guide to a Very Late Date for the Gospels?

by Neil Godfrey

Is it possible that our canonical gospels, even the apparently pioneering Gospel of Mark, were really composed well into the second century? The possibility has been argued by a few and I don’t discount it. I often find myself suspecting it is true although very often for the sake of argument I will assume that at least the Gospel of Mark was written relatively soon after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. There are reasonable arguments in favour of a first-century date, after all, but it is also undeniable that an early date for Mark “just happens” to favour orthodox Christian beliefs and traditional models for the sources and general reliability of the Gospels. It does not hurt to keep in mind the fundamentals for dating any text (see Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels) and that we ought always to start first with where we have the most secure evidence for the existence of a work, not from where we have the least.

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the [Bible’s books] to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (Lemche, N. P. (2001) “The Old Testament — A Hellenistic Book?” in Lester L. Grabbe (ed) Did Moses Speak Attic? Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield. p. 294)

The earliest evidence that anyone knew of passages that appear in our canonical gospels are the writings of Justin Martyr from around 140 to 150 CE. I have posted a table cross-referencing Justin’s writings with Gospel content at http://vridar.info/xorigins/justinnarr.htm. (The table needs updating because I’ve since found a few mistakes in it, but overall it is useful for getting a general idea.)

Now it “just so happens” that Justin was writing at a time when there was a strong interest in the life and writings of the apostle Paul although you would not know it if you read only Justin. Paul is conspicuous in Justin’s works by his complete absence. Presumably the reason for Justin’s silence (despite the evidence we have for volcanic debates erupting over Paul all around him) is his refusal to acknowledge the apostle who was reputed to be the pillar of “the heretics”.

This interest in Paul is the point of this post’s argument for dating the gospels as I’ll explain.

But before I do, note the evidence for this strong interest in Paul in the second century. It was at this time that a canonical collection of Paul’s letters first appears. Since it happened to be the “heretical” Marcionites who produced this canon the “proto-orthodox” writers took hold of the same writings and accused their opponents of editing out the bits they did not like. And so the battle raged over what, exactly, the original texts of Paul’s letters looked like. Before the second century we have no record of any interest being shown in Paul’s letters.

It was also in the second century that we find stories being written about Paul and his career as an apostle. One of these is our New Testament book of Acts. There was another “Acts” of Paul that took a very different view of him and his message, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla”, which apparently proved to be very popular despite being condemned by Tertullian.

Moreover, we have Pastoral epistles falsely claiming to be by the apostle Paul — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus — also being produced in this era. And there is 2 Peter with its concluding reference to widespread controversy over Paul’s letters likewise being written (or forged under Peter’s name) in the second century.

Some readers have no doubt jumped ahead and know where I am headed with how this point relates to the date of the gospels.

If the Gospel of Mark was influenced by the letters of Paul, then it is reasonable to date it to a time when there was clearly known to be strong evidence for an interest in Paul’s letters.

And not a few scholars have argued for the Gospel of Mark’s indebtedness to Paul. We have over 300 pages of debate in Mark and Paul, Comparative Essays Part II. For and Against Pauline Influence on Mark. Many of us know about Tom Dykstra’s Mark, Canonizer of Paul. There is also Alan Cadwallader’s The Struggle for Paul in the Context of Empire: Mark as a Deutero-Pauline Text and many more likeminded publications.

I was reminded of all of the above as I completed reading a discussion by Tomas Hägg in The Art of Biography in Antiquity about the Life of Aesop (by Anonymous) composed probably in the first century CE. Addressing the time the Life appeared and the context of its emergence, Hägg writes

The biographical interest, in turn, is no doubt a result of the renewed actuality of the ‘Aesopic’ fables in the first two centuries of the Roman Empire. This is the time when Phaedrus, a slave of Thacian origin who became a freedman of Emperor Augustus, wrote his well-known fables in Latin iambic verse . . . ; when Babrius, . . . ‘a hellenized Italian living in Syria, or somewhere near by in Asia Minor’, published his two books of Mythiambi, versified Aesopic fables in Greek; and when Plutarch, who in his works often refers to Aesopic fables, invites the fabulist himself to take part, as an outsider, in his Banquet of the Seven Sages to debate with Solon and others. The author of the Life [of Aesop] was evidently part of this vogue and set out to answer the question of who the legendary first inventor of the popular prose genre really was. . . . . (Hägg, p. 127. My highlighting)

So can we likewise say that the author of the Gospel of Mark was evidently part of this vogue of interest in Paul, a second century development?

It would surely be more logical to assume that the author was writing at a time when we have strong awareness of Paul’s writings than at a time when we have no other evidence for even knowledge of Paul’s letters. Obviously I cannot prove any of the above. But it is suggestive, is it not? It would be unusual to date the Life of Aesop to a time when there was no other interest in Aesop if it can be safely dated to a time when Aesop was the vogue of the day.

–o0o–

We saw a very similar argument expressed by Lemche concerning the date of the Old Testament writings:

How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?

–o0o–

 


2017-07-21

I Like Paul’s Christianity a Little Better, Now — Out from the Shadows of Augustine and Luther

by Neil Godfrey

Krister Stendahl

Ever since the early 1960s biblical scholars and even psychologists have been told something very critical about the apostle Paul’s teachings that had the potential to spare the mental sufferings of so many Western Christians. Paul did not teach that one had to go through self-loathing or guilt-torment in order in order to be saved by faith in Christ’s forgiveness. That guilt-focused teaching came to us primarily via Augustine and Luther. It was a teaching that can nowhere be found in reference to Paul in the first 350 years of Christianity.

That is the argument of Krister Stendahl in a paper,”The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West(The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Jul., 1963), pp. 199-215) said to be a watershed in Pauline studies. But the real-world relevance of the paper is indicated by the fact that it was first delivered two years earlier “as the invited Address at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, September 3, I961.”

I’ve had the paper sitting in my files waiting to be read for some time now, and only dug it out after seeing it cited by James W. Thompson in The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (2014).

James W. Thompson

Paul, Thompson claimed, never addressed personal struggles with tormented conscience that could only be resolved by desperately throwing oneself upon the mercy of Christ:

The first-person singular pronoun is a consistent feature of church music in the evangelical tradition.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now, found,
Was blind but now I see.

Like countless other songs in this tradition, “Amazing Grace” tells of the individual who was lost in sin, unable to meet God’s demands until Jesus paid it all at the cross. These songs echo Pauline themes of sin, grace, and justification. Indeed, Paul’s legacy is the good news that we have been “justified by faith’ (Rom 5:11. not by our own works (cf. Rom. 3:20, 28; 4:2). In the cross God demonstrated righteousness for all who believe (Rom. 3:21-26). The death of Christ “while we were yet sinners” (Rom 5:8 KJV) was the expression of God’s love.

Interpreters have maintained that this narrative mirrors Paul’s own experience. According to this view, Paul struggled with a guilty conscience, having attempted in vain to keep the law perfectly. The “wretched man”(Rom. 7:24) who could not do the good or keep the law was Paul himself, who lived within the context of a form of Judaism that had degenerated into a legalistic and hypocritical religion that no longer recognized the mercy of God and instead emphasized meritorious works. Paul then found the answer in the grace of God and recognized that God justifies the ungodly. Paul has often been regarded as paradigmatic for those who discovered God’s grace when they could not keep God’s commands. When he met Christ on the Damascus road, he experienced God’s grace. Out of this experience, he became the example of the path of conversion for all subsequent generations and the major theme of his writings is justification by faith. This view has been emphasized in Protestant theology, becoming the popular theme of revivalists and Christian song writers.

Krister Stendahl observed that the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith did not emerge as the center of Paul’s theology until Augustine, who himself turned to Paul after struggling with a guilty conscience. Augustine found the solution to his own personal struggle in the grace of God! Luther also discovered the grace of God as the solution to his own desire to find a merciful God. Beginning with Luther, the Reformers maintained that Paul’s doctrine of the righteousness of God was the center of the gospel. This doctrine has been conceived in individualist terms. . . . For numerous Protestant theologians, justification was the salvation of the individual. . . . The good news is the righteousness of God that rescues individuals from their lost condition. (Thompson, pp. 127-128)

That’s exactly what I have understood all these years. I had to set aside Thompson and get back to the Stendahl article he cited as my first step in addressing immediate questions that come to mind. Didn’t Paul cry out in desperation in Romans 7 that he struggled helplessly against his body of sin? No, he didn’t — as Stendahl pointed out. Paul spoke of a body of “death” but not “sin”. But, but …. Okay, I’ll try to hit the highlights of the article. Many readers are no doubt already well familiar with it. A web search will point to many discussions about the article online. So I will try to focus on the points that I found salient.

It’s all Augustine’s and Luther’s fault

The quotes are from Stendahl’s article in the HTR and all highlighting and some formatting is my own:

Especially in Protestant Christianity – which, however, at this point has its roots in Augustine and in the piety of the Middle Ages – the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpreted in the light of Luther’s struggle with his conscience. (Stendahl, p. 200)

read more »


2017-05-29

3 Common and 1 Surprising Reason for Paul’s Silence on the Historical Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

I recently drew upon a chapter by William O. Walker, Jr. in Some Surprises From the Apostle Paul to argue for the likelihood of interpolations in Paul’s letters: Why Many Interpolations in Paul’s Letters are Very Likely.

But that was only one late chapter in Walker’s book. Explanation 4 below is another “surprise” he writes about:

Paul on the Historical Jesus

Just one detail: Commenting on the passage in Romans (that some think is an interpolation, by the way!) that Jesus was descended from David, W points out that

this may be more of a theological affirmation than a historical fact: in the minds of some, the Messiah was supposed to be a “son of David,” so Paul, like some other early Christians, may have simply assumed that because Jesus was the Messiah he must have been descended from David.” (Kindle version, loc ca 384)

Walker points to what most readers here know: that Paul says precious little about the historical Jesus. I won’t address the points that Walker interprets as references to a historical Jesus but will list some of his evaluations of the proposed reasons for Paul’s “relative silence”.

Explanation 1: Paul could presuppose his readers already knew the basic fact of Jesus’ life; no need to repeat what they already knew

W’s objection 1

To say that [Paul] must have talked [previously] about the life and teaching of Jesus really means little more than that [the scholar] himself, if he had been in Paul’s position, would have talked about the life and teaching of Jesus. In other words, [the scholar] thinks Paul should have talked about the life and teaching of Jesus. Be we certainly do not know that Paul did in fact talk about the life and teaching of Jesus when he was present in the churches; he may have, but we do not know this. (loc ca 442)

W’s objection 2

Even when Paul wrote a very lengthy letter to the church at Rome — a church he had never previously personally visited — he still had next to nothing to say about the life and teaching of Jesus.

W’s objection 3

Paul could assume that his readers already knew about the death, resurrection and expected parousia of Jesus, yet he talks a great deal about these, especially his death and resurrection.

W’s objection 4

Many times (e.g. eating meat sacrificed to idols, importance of love, not seeking vengeance, not judging one another) an appeal to a teaching of Jesus could have bolstered his own argument.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

Explanation 2: Paul was so focussed on the cross that everything else about Jesus simply paled into relative insignificance

W is more sympathetic to this explanation for Paul’s silence on the historical Jesus. As a comparison he directs our attention to the Apostles’ Creed which likewise

shows at least an equal lack of interest in the life and teaching of the historical Jesus. 

Recall that the Creed jumps straight from Jesus’ birth to his suffering and death.

Explanation 3: Paul says little about Jesus because he knows very little about his life and teaching

Again W is somewhat sympathetic to this explanation. He even reminds us that Paul spent very little time with those who had known Jesus and in Galatians 1:12 declares

that the gospel he preached came to him not from a human but rather “through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (loc ca. 487)

(Be still, my pounding brain. Do not ask why a good number of scholars will insist, when talking with outsiders who ask questions, that that Galatians passage means that Paul was saying he really did get his gospel from human traditions.)

Explanation 4: Paul feared the teaching and example of Jesus would be seen as a new Law to be followed to earn salvation by works

W’s fourth explanation is a new one to me, “a surprise from the apostle Paul” indeed. In a subsequent chapter in the book Walker discusses the current debate among scholars over Paul’s meaning of “justification”. One “surprising” point he makes is that Paul does not talk about “repentance” or “forgiveness”. Though we are familiar with these fundamental requisites of the Christian conversion and life from the gospels, Acts and the Pastoral epistles, they are alien to Paul’s thought.

For Paul, salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned. Walker suggests that Paul may well have not wanted to appear to have given his followers any excuse to replace the Mosaic law with a new law or standard of conduct from Jesus.

I might discuss W’s argument in more depth in a future post. It is the point of his second chapter in Surprises.

I do really like the idea of a Christianity without focus on repentance. Godless atheist that I am, I cannot deny that I have come to view that repentance and need constantly to strive for perfection thing as responsible for a lot of messed up, guilt-ridden lives.

—o0o—

One might object that Paul does set down a lot of rules of conduct in his letters so why wouldn’t he point to Jesus as a model or why would he dismiss entirely the need for good works as a condition for salvation. In response I seem to have some recollection that most of the “laying down of the law” passages in Paul have been argued (by Winsome Munro) to be later pastoral interpolations into Paul’s letters. (e.g. Pastoral interpolation in 1 Corinthians 10-11)

—o0o—

 

 


2017-05-26

Why Many Interpolations in Paul’s Letters are Very Likely

by Neil Godfrey

Some Surprises from the Apostle Paul by William O. Walker, Jr. contains an interesting chapter about interpolations. Walker does not agree that most scholars should remain sceptical regarding many proposed interpolations in Paul’s letters.

They see no way to identify such interpolations with any certainty, and they tend to regard arguments for interpolation as highly speculative and almost inevitably circular in nature. (Kindle ed, loc ca 1575)

Walker disagrees. He argues that there are “sound a priori grounds for assuming the presence of interpolations — probably many interpolations — in the Pauline letters but also that such interpolations can sometimes be identified with a fair degree of certainty.”

Interestingly there is one set of passages that Christ mythicists sometimes rely upon that Walker believes were probably not penned by Paul so maybe that little detail might encourage some of us to open up to the possibility he might be right. 🙂

Walker points to two reasons we should expect to find interpolations in Paul’s letters.

  • Scholars have identified numerous interpolations in other ancient texts — “Homeric, Classical, Hellenistic, Jewish and Christian.” We know of interpolations in letters by ancient philosophers to their followers. Even in the Gospel of Mark we have the little disputed interpolation of the final chapter, 16:9-20; and in the Gospel of John there is the episode of the woman taken in adultery found in 7:53 – 8:11. And in the gospels of Matthew and Luke we find that huge chunks have been interpolated into the gospel of Mark. So if we know for a fact that texts were very often expanded with inserted material then we should surely be surprised if Paul’s letters proved to be the exception.

Walker’s second reason for expecting interpolations throughout Paul’s letters involves what we know of their literary history: read more »


2017-05-22

Part 2: Why Luke traced Jesus through Nathan rather than Solomon

by Neil Godfrey

This post is a direct continuation from Why did Luke trace Jesus’ genealogy through David’s son Nathan and not Solomon?

Unfortunately we cannot track down the beginning of the Jewish tradition that the messiah was to emerge from David via his son Nathan. Marshall Johnson considers suggestions that it began in the days of the later Maccabees with priests challenged the legitimacy of monarchical rule but finds them flawed.

Zechariah 12:10-14 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn . . . .  The land shall mourn, each family by itself; the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shim′e-ites by itself . . .

So according to Marshall we can do nothing more than rely on the scant evidence we do have that indicates that at the time the “Old Testament” book of Zechariah was written the family of Nathan had significant prominence in Judea. Who that Nathan was at that time we do not know. He could have been David’s son or he could have been the prophet. What we do know is that at some point the Nathan in Zechariah 12:12 was identified with both the son of David and the prophet. Marshall believes that the best we can do at this point is accept Eusebius’s explanation that Nathan was given his place in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus as a result of a difference of opinion among Jews over the ancestry of the Messiah. See the previous post: Matthew’s genealogy represented one school of thought; Luke’s genealogy represented another school of thought that believed the “curse of Jeconiah” in the book of Jeremiah made any messianic line through David’s royal line impossible. Jeremiah 22

24 “As I live, says the Lord, though Coni′ah the son of Jehoi′akim, king of Judah, were the signet ring on my right hand, yet I would tear you off 25 and give you into the hand of those who seek your life, into the hand of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hand of Nebuchadrez′zar king of Babylon and into the hand of the Chalde′ans. 26 I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. 27 But to the land to which they will long to return, there they shall not return. 28 Is this man Coni′ah a despised, broken pot, a vessel no one cares for? Why are he and his children hurled and cast into a land which they do not know? 29 O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord! 30 Thus says the Lord: “Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days; for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David, and ruling again in Judah.”

The best available explanation for Luke tracing the line of the messiah through Nathan, therefore, is that there was a division of viewpoints among Jewish scribes over the possibility of David’s royal line yielding the messiah and Luke expressed the alternative school of thought to the one represented in Matthew. Johnson also believes that the internal evidence in the Gospel of Luke indicates that the author had a strong motive to want to give Jesus a prophet as an ancestor. Nathan, identified as a prophet as well as son of David, therefore, takes on a special significance in this gospel. So what is the evidence that the author or final redactor of Luke-Acts had a particularly strong interest in giving Jesus the messiah descent from a prophet?

1. “There is throughout the Lukan corpus an appeal to the prophets of the OT as witness to the validity of the ministry of Jesus”

The OT prophets are regularly labelled as “prophets of old” (προφήτης των άρχαίων), setting Jesus apart as the new prophet:

— Luke 9:8, 19; Luke 1:70; Acts 3:21.

OT prophets are frequently referenced, sometimes called “holy”:

— Acts 3: 18, 24; 7: 42; 10: 43; 13: 40; 15: 15; 26: 27; Luke 18: 31; 24: 25, 27, 44

Individual prophets referenced, and most notably David is listed as one of the prophets:

— Isaiah: Luke 3:454: 17; Acts 8: 28; 28: 25; cf. 7: 48 — Joel: Acts 2: 16 — Samuel: Acts 3: 28; 13: 20, 27 — Moses: Luke 24: 27; Acts 3: 22 — Elijah: Luke 1: 17; 4: 25-6; 9: 8, 19, 30 ff., 54 — Elisha: Luke 4:27 — David: Acts 2: 30

Luke includes the prophets in the end-times banquet (unlike Matthew): Luke 13: 28

Luke 10:24 “For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” read more »


2017-05-21

Why did Luke trace Jesus’ genealogy through David’s son Nathan and not Solomon?

by Neil Godfrey

I’ve set out the genealogies at the end of this post but I think anyone interested in reading this post will already be aware of the differences between the family trees of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s genealogy looks “right” since it leads to Jesus through David and his son Solomon. But Luke’s looks odd. No Solomon. None of the famous kings of the Old Testament. It’s as if Luke followed the family line of Jesus through the back doors and side alleys or secret closets on the trail of some nobodies. David’s son is named as Nathan. The only Nathan most of us know about is Nathan the prophet who confronted David over his murder of Uriah and adultery with his wife.

An interesting explanation for this oddity in the Gospel of Luke is offered by Marshall D. Johnson in The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies (2nd ed, 2002).

Before we look at that explanation we need to note the evidence for the genealogy being “less than reliable” as a historical record.

[I]s this list a Lukan construction, or was it shaped in some prior tradition which Luke has incorporated? And, if the latter is true, then to what extent can we expect to find here a congruity with Luke’s purpose in writing the history of Jesus and the earliest church? . . . [I]t cannot be assumed that the lists as we have them in Matthew and Luke were taken over without modification or redaction from the Palestinian Jewish-Christian church.

There are two indications which seem to support this view:

(1) Repetition of names in the list after David, some of which appear to be anachronisms, possibly suggesting that this list had its own history. Among these repetitions are: variations of Mattathias (five times), Jesus (twice), Joseph (three times), Simeon (Semein), Levi (twice), and Melchi (twice). The question of anachronism enters the picture here in light of the history of the usage of Jewish personal names. Jeremias points out that the use of the names of the twelve patriarchs of Israel as personal names cannot be traced to pre-exilic times; thus, ‘when Luke, in the early period of the kings, names in succession Joseph, Judah, Simeon, and Levi as the sixth to ninth descendants of David, it is an anachronism which proves the pre-exilic section of the genealogy to be historically worthless’.1

1 Jeremias, Jerusalem, pp. 330-1, notes that the first occurrences of the names Joseph, Judah, and Simeon as personal names among the Israelites or Jews are to be found in Ezra, Nehemiah, and I Chronicles, while the name Levi occurs as a personal name first among the Maccabees and in NT times.

Material since published in the Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum has tended to confirm the view that these names, together with the name Jesus (Joshua), were not commonly used among the Jews until the Ptolemaic and especially the Roman periods. It appears that there was a steady increase in the use of Hebrew biblical names from the Ptolemaic to the Roman periods, including the names Joseph and Jesus.

Thus, the Lukan list most probably does not derive from an actual genealogy of Joseph or Mary, but should be considered in light of the generally midrashic use of this Gattung in Judaism. This means that it is legitimate to inquire into the purposes for which it was constructed and for its inclusion in this gospel.

(pp. 230f, my formatting)

In the list below I have underlined the repeated names and coloured red the sequence of four anachronisms.

The second indication that the list has been shaped by the author of the gospel is it’s unusual location in between the baptism of Jesus and his temptation in the wilderness:

(2) The genealogy is incorporated into a framework similar to that of Mark, that is, between the account of Jesus’ baptism and his temptation. This is to say that Luke was not led to include the genealogy at this point merely because of a sequence found in his sources. Moreover, the break in the ‘Markan’ sequence at this crucial point would seem to suggest that Luke had some specific purpose in mind for the genealogy as well as for its position. (p. 231)

So why Nathan? 

The reason Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry through Nathan, Marshall Johnson argues, is to emphasize the prophetic nature of Jesus’ ministry and the prophetic mission of the church arising from his work. Nathan was traditionally known as a prophet of notable significance.

That’s his conclusion. So what is his argument to support it?

Marshall Johnson begins by exploring references to Nathan in early Jewish and Christian traditions. He cites four passages:

1. Zechariah 12:10-14

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born. 11 On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rim′mon in the plain of Megid′do. 12 The land shall mourn, each family by itself; the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves; 13 the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shim′e-ites by itself, and their wives by themselves; 14 and all the families that are left, each by itself, and their wives by themselves.

All four names appear in the pre-exilic section of Luke’s genealogy of Jesus.

In a later rabbinic Aramaic version of the above Zechariah passage, the Targum on Zechariah, Nathan is identified as both the son of David and the prophet.

But that’s a late document, so is there any evidence that such an identification had an earlier provenance? read more »


2017-05-04

How John the Baptist was Reshaped by each Gospel

by Neil Godfrey

The following is adapted from a 1975 article by Morton S. Enslin, John and Jesus. Enslin argues that the evidence in the gospels does not support the common view that Jesus began his career as a disciple of John the Baptist. In fact Enslin argues that when we examine the gospel narratives in sequence it is far more probable that the paths of John and Jesus never crossed. 

Enslin, relying upon the account of John in Josephus, believes John was a preacher who stood completely apart from Christian origins. This presumed historical John was considered to be a powerful threat to the authorities who had him executed.

From this starting point Enslin sees the evangelists writing alongside an independent John the Baptist movement and each one (at least after Mark) in succession contrives in his own way to make this John more “Christian”.

The Gospel of Mark

John suddenly appears without explanation. He is preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John did baptize . . . and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (Mark 1:4)

Jesus appears and is baptized.

There is no hint that John recognizes Jesus as the greater one who is to come after him.

After emerging from the water God announces to Jesus (no one else apparently hears) that he is his son:

Thou art my beloved son…. (Mark 1:11)

read more »