Category Archives: Religion


2017-12-07

Exodus, part 1. Semites in Egypt

by Neil Godfrey

When did the Exodus happen? 

1 Kings 6:1

And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel . . . 

Solomon’s rule is said to have begun around 970 BCE.  If we follow the 480 years reference in 1 Kings 6:1 then the Exodus took place around 1450 BCE.

When did the Israelites enter Egypt? 

Genesis 15:13

Then He said to Abram: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years.

Exodus 12:40

Now the sojourn of the children of Israel who lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.

Adding 400/430 years to 1450 brings us to 1880 to 1850 BCE.

The Hyksos Connection

Linking the Hyksos to the Israelites in Egypt

Hyksos is an Egyptian word meaning “foreign rulers”. The “Hyksos” entered Egypt along with Semitic groups from Canaan and even managed to rule northern Egypt from around 1670 to 1550 BCE. Their capital was Avaris in the Nile Delta.

One of the Hyksos kings was Y’qb-HR, or Jacob Har. Sounds familiar.

Josephus tells us that the third century BCE Egyptian “historian” Manetho referred to these foreign rulers in Egypt as shepherds. Josephus further identifies these Hyksos as the Israelites and cites the rule of Joseph over Egypt as support for this, and equates the eventual expulsion of the Hyksos with the Exodus of the Israelites.

How some scholars interpreted the above data

Some biblical scholars followed Josephus’ conjectures and argued that if this hypothesis is correct, it provides evidence of the “biblical version of the Hebrews sojourn in Egypt” (Orlinsky 1972, 52). In this view, when the native Egyptians overthrew the hated Hyksos and chased them out of Egypt, the Israelites lost their protectors and became enslaved, along with the remaining Semites in Egypt. Earlier biblical scholars had understood this situation as parallel to the biblical record: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. . . . Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor” (Exod 1:8,11). (Wright, J. Edward, Mark Elliott and Paul V.M. Flesher, “Israel In and Out of Egypt,” in The Old Testament in Archaeology and History, edited by Jennie Ebeling, J. Edward Wright, Mark Elliott and Paul V.M. Flesher, p. 248. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017)

Those scholars placed the Exodus, then, in the fifteenth century BCE (the 1400s BCE) just as the good book in 1 Kings 6:1 said.

The evidence for a Hyksos link to Israel’s Exodus

None. Neither archaeological nor biblical.

The evidence against a Hyksos link

Thutmose III

Exodus 1:11

Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh supply cities, Pithom and Raamses.

The building projects refer to the time of Pharaoh Rameses II who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BCE.

We don’t need to assume the reliability of that biblical claim but what we do have to accept is that its authors placed the Exodus event centuries after the time of the Hyksos. The same Rameses date is also centuries later than the date indicated by I Kings 6:1.

In the fifteenth century BCE Egypt was ruled by Pharaohs who are renowned for their extraordinary power: Thutmose III (1479-1425 BCE) and Amenhotep II (1427-1400 BCE) of the great Eighteenth Dynasty. These rulers repeatedly invaded Canaan.

There is no evidence that either lost control of Canaan to a massive Israelite invasion. Indeed, the book of Joshuas stories of the conquest of Canaan never even presents the Egyptians as opponents in battle. (Wright, Israel, 249)

-o0o-

Semites in Egypt

read more »


2017-12-01

How Ehrman’s Gospel “Truth” Gives a Pass to Trump’s “Truth” of Fake Videos

by Neil Godfrey

“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders told reporters. “[Trump’s] goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

At least one of the videos was later described as “fake” by a Dutch news outlet. Sanders said that didn’t matter. “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders told reporters. “[Trump’s] goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”Sanders continued, criticizing reporters for pressing her on whether Trump should verify the content of videos before sharing them with his 43 million followers on Twitter.“I’m not talking about the nature of the video. I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing,” she said. “The threat is real, and that’s what the president is talking about.” (Gabby Morrongellio, Sarah Sanders defends Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets: ‘Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real’ in The Washington Examiner, Nov 29, 2017)

I’ve heard something like that before.

Think . . . .

Yes, that’s right, I remember now. That’s the logic used by scholars who attempt to defend the “fake” stories in the gospels as being somehow “true”.

Bart Ehrman earlier this year wrote about True Stories That Did Not Happen and reminded his readers of what he wrote nearly twenty years ago:

There are stories in the Gospels that did not happen historically as narrated, but that are meant to convey a truth. . . . But the notion that the Gospel accounts are not 100 percent accurate, while still important for the religious truths they try to convey, is widely shared in the scholarly guild . . . .

Can there be such a thing as a true story that didn’t happen? We certainly don’t normally talk that way: if we say that something is a “true story,” we mean that it’s something that happened. But actually, that itself is a funny way of putting it. . . . 

In fact, almost all of us realize this when we think about it. Just about everyone I’ve ever known was told at some point during grade school the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. As a young boy, George takes the ax to his father’s tree. When his father comes home, he demands, “Who cut down my cherry tree,” and young George, who is a bit inclined toward mischief but does turn out to be an honest lad, replies, “I cannot tell a lie; I did it.”

As it turns out (to the chagrin of some of my students!), this story never happened. We know this for a fact, because the person who fabricated it — a fellow called Parson Weems — later fessed up to the deed. But if the story didn’t happen, why do we continue to tell it? Because on some level, or possibly on a number of levels, we think it’s true.

On the one hand, the story has always served, though many people possibly never realized it, as a nice piece of national propaganda. . . . The United States is founded on honesty. It cannot tell a lie. . . . 

On the other hand . . . the story functions to convey an important lesson in personal morality. People shouldn’t lie. . . . . And so I myself have told the story and believed it, even though I don’t think it ever happened.

The Gospels of the New Testament contain stories kind of like that, stories that may convey truths, at least in the minds of those who told them, but that are not historically accurate. (Ehrman, B. D. (1999). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press. pp. 30-31)

More recently, in Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (2016) Erhman goes so far as to describe historical truth in the sense of factual truth as a matter of “dry, banal, and frankly rather uninteresting to anyone except people with rather peculiar antiquarian interests” in “brute facts“. (p. 229)

Same with the ugly stories of Judas. read more »


2017-10-17

The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult — Hermann Detering

by Neil Godfrey

Hermann Detering has a new essay (70 pages in PDF format) that will be of interest to many Vridar readers — at least for those of you who can read German. In English the title is The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult. 

See his RadikalKritik blog:

 

The work begins with reference to Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the Exodus and concludes with references to Buddhism. . . .

5 Zusammenfassung

Ausgehend von der gnostischen Interpretation des Exodus-Motivs und der Frage ihrer religionsgeschichtlichen Herkunft stießen wir auf die zentrale Bedeutung des als Transzendenzmetapher gebrauchten Bildes vom „anderen Ufer“, das in der indischen/buddhistischen Spiritualität eine erhebliche Rolle spielt. Die Frage, wo die beiden Linien, jüdische Tradition und hebräische Bibel einerseits, buddhistische bzw. indische Spiritualität andererseits, konvergieren, führte uns zu den Therapeuten, über die Philo von Alexandrien in seiner Schrift De Vita Contemplativa berichtet.

Nachdem die buddhistische Herkunft der Therapeuten plausibel gemacht wurde, konnte gezeigt werden, dass ihrem zentralen Mysterium eine auf buddhistische Quellen zurückgehende Deutung des Exodusmotivs zugrundeliegt. Diese Deutung enthält zugleich den Keim für das christliche Taufsakrament. Frühe christliche Gnostiker wie Peraten und Naassener übertrugen auf den Nachfolger des Mose, Josua, was bei den stärker in der jüdischen Tradition verwurzelten Therapeuten Mose vorbehalten blieb. Der alte Mosaismus sollte durch den neuen, gnostisch-christlichen Josuanismus überboten werden. Jesus/Josua wurde zum Gegenbild des Mose.

Der christliche Erlöser Josua/Jesus ist so gesehen nichts anderes als – ein Ergebnis der jüdisch-buddhistischen Exegese des Alten Testaments! Der „geschichtliche“ Jesus, d.h. Jesus von Nazaret, wurde im Laufe des 2. Jahrhunderts aus dem Bild des alttestamentlichen Josua heraushypostasiert. 

Translators . . . . Where are you? We need you now!

 

 


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 »


2017-08-28

Reading the Bible Like a Fundamentalist: What Does That Mean?

by Tim Widowfield

I had meant to say something about this subject over a month ago as it popped up in my Facebook feed, when Benjamin Corey over on Patheos asked, “Why Do Intelligent Atheists Still Read The Bible Like Fundamentalists?

I was a fundamentalist until my mid-teens, and even though that was quite a long time ago, I still remember what it was like to think and believe like one. Longtime Vridar readers may recall serious scholars like Maurice Casey bemoaning the supposed fundamentalist nature of mythicism. Once a fundie, always a fundie, eh wot? For the sophisticated polyglot like the late Dr. Casey, what could be worse than calling one’s enemy a closed-minded fundamentalist?

My early warning systems start honking whenever I see someone accuse another person of doing anything “like a fundamentalist,” since it often signals a sweeping dismissal. Not only that, but often, at the heart of it, the accusation seeks to terminate rather than continue the debate.

Corey is sort of right, up to a point. Christians have a long history of tolerance or at least ambivalence toward tattoos. Sure, there’s that verse in Leviticus (19:28) but this subject falls within the body of ritual law. Just as Christians have no problem with shaving their beards or eating dead pigs, they probably won’t have an issue with the cutting or marking of the skin. They might not like them personally, but they wouldn’t claim that tattoos will keep you out of paradise.

And that would hold true for fundamentalist Christians as well. They say they read the Bible literally and believe it to be the inerrant Word of God. But what does that mean in practice? Suppose, for example, as a child I had read Leviticus 19:28 and felt troubled about it, what do you think I would have done? read more »


Another Muslim Voice to Listen To

by Neil Godfrey

Elham Manea — From her University of Zurich staff homepage.

I concluded a recent post with an acknowledgement of Maryam Namazie as a voice worth listening to in any discussion relating to Islamic and Islamist controversies today. Having just listened to an ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report interview, Muslim scholar says the burka isn’t Islamic, I have to add Elham Manea‘s name alongside Maryam’s.

The interview has been mutated as a “news story” by Siobhan Hegarty, Burkas are political symbols not Islamic ones, Muslim scholar says. You can listen to the full thirteen minute interview here here [link is to mp3]

Key points:

  • community and political speakers targeting violent Islamist movements in public debate miss the core problem; focus needs to be on the Islamist ideology that currently gets a free pass because it professes non-violence, yet it is in fact the extremist ideology that is spawning not only the terrorist violence but also an Islam that promotes segregation and a denial of full human rights.
  • If Islamophobes say all Muslims are essentially alike in a negative sense (potentially violent, in denial of fundamental human rights, etc), so a certain liberal defence of Muslims is just as “dehumanizing” by likewise viewing them as all alike in a “positive” sense, defending their head coverings, sharia institutions, etc.
  • the full burka (total covering, including veiled eyes) and even the “moderate” head covering hijab have become identified as “Islamic” since 1979 and the promotion of Wahhabism ultimately from Saudi Arabia’s petro-dollars.

(On the first point I have posted on Jason Burke’s detailed account of how that happened. I also appreciated Elham’s comment that the 1979 Iranian revolution saw a betrayal of the Iranian middle class and left-wing movement. How that sort of thing happens too often with revolutions!)

And I’ve just bought her new book, too, Women and Shari’a law: the impact of legal pluralism in the UK

(Afterthought — I don’t really “know” that Elham is still a Muslim, but no doubt she has a Muslim background at least, and certainly addresses Muslims with understanding.)


2017-08-14

Jesus at Thirty: Four Canonical Portraits (Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 3)

by Neil Godfrey

Tomas Hägg

Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) rightly notes that the four canonical gospels give us “four distinctive, if overlapping literary representations of Jesus.”

Yet comparatively little seems to have been written from a literary point of view to define by what means of characterization these four portraits emerge, and what the main characteristics are of each of them…. In spite of recent advances in the study of characterization in the New Testament, the general tendency seems to be to shun the figure(s) of Jesus himself and to focus on Paul, Peter, Judas, or lesser characters in the stories. In Bible commentaries one sometimes meets short, tantalizing characterizations, but nowhere (to my knowledge) any sustained comparative analysis. (p. 180)

Tomas Hägg explains that his discussion is intended to offer “just a few hints of possible approaches” to the character study of Jesus across the four gospels, “no full portraits.”

He begins by noting two “rather different” character interpretations of the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:

To Joel Marcus, the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is

  • dynamic
  • abrasive
  • intensely emotional, “a passionate instrument for the advent of the dominion of God”

To Richard Burridge, on the other hand, the Markan Jesus is

  • enigmatic and secretive
  • rushing around doing things “immediately”
  • a miracle worker, yet one who talks about suffering and dies terribly alone and forsaken

Burridge then discusses Matthew’s Jesus but without mentioning a single “actual character trait”: Jesus is a “new Moses”, but no particular personality or character is addressed. Next, for Burridge, is the Lukan Jesus who cares for the outcasts, the lost, the Gentiles, the women, the poor.

From Mark, then, we get the temperament; from Matthew, the theology; from Luke, the ethics — no contrasting portraits, just different angles. (p. 181)

Where the difficulty evidently lies

The evangelists do not offer any direct characterization of Jesus. This is not what we normally find in other biographies. Biographers are generally only too keen to use adjectives to describe their subject, to tell us the sort of person he (how many ancient biographies are there of women?) was. In the case of the gospels, however, read more »


2017-08-13

Reading the Classics and the Gospels Differently

by Neil Godfrey

Aesop in Life was portrayed as physically misshapen so that most people despised or mocked him on first seeing him.

Recently we talked about the Life of Aesop, a biographical novella of the fabulist written around the same time as the gospels: Aesop, Guide to a Very Late Date for the Gospels?Aesop / 2, a Guide to a Late Gospel of Mark DateDid Aesop Exist?

This post singles out one more point in Tomas Hãgg’s chapter in The Art of Biography in Antiquity.

Only two of the thirteen stories told by Aesop in the Life are known to have existed before the Roman Imperial period as ‘Aesopic fables’. This, in all likelihood, means that most of the stories were created for use in the particular situations narrated in the novel, or at least adapted for the purpose. . . . [O]ur story is first and foremost a Life, and the fables are narrated not to conserve them or explain them as originating in certain situations, but the other way round: in order to characterize the hero. (pp 116f, my bolding)

Surely the same must be said about the stories told about Jesus in the gospels. It is evident that they are not narrated for conservation purposes. Each evangelist clearly feels free to change many of the sayings and deeds found in, say, the Gospel of Mark.

But there is one detail that is not the same in the stories told about Jesus. That the anecdotes appear for the first time in the gospels is not taken as an indication that they were created for use in the particular situations in the gospels, but that they had an untestable and unverifiable origin as oral traditions. Perhaps classicists should learn from biblical scholars how to generate more scholarly papers about hypothetical origins and traditions.

One classic (I think) illustration of just how neatly tailored a story of Jesus is for the sake of the gospel’s plot was written up in Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical. That episode has an indisputable narrative function. It is how the synoptic gospels account for the arrest of a man who otherwise provides no reason for his arrest given that he is in every way good and perfect. The Gospel of John removes it as the reason for Jesus’ arrest but has to replace it with the story of the raising of Lazarus to make up for the plot function that would otherwise be lacking. Yet most biblical scholars, devout as most of them reportedly are in their own respective ways, treat the “cleansing of the temple” as one of the most certain of historical episodes in the life of Jesus. The story was passed on through oral tradition.

What would Tomas Hãgg think if that sort of argument was published about the stories in the Life of Aesop? But why aren’t classicists more ready to assume new fables appearing in a first century Life of Aesop were taken from otherwise unrecorded oral tradition? Why are so few biblical scholars apparently willing to think that stories appearing for the first time in the gospels serving each author’s narrative — and theological — interests willing to accept that the stories were made up or at least adapted for those specific interests?

 


Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 2

by Neil Godfrey

The previous post on this topic ended with the following:

The first genuinely biographical detail of Jesus arrives when Jesus is twelve years old facing the wise men in the Temple. We learn about the parents’ very natural and everyday concerns and the “adolescent arrogance” of Jesus, his separation from this world, his first signs of superior wisdom, and his return to “the expected filial obedience”.

This is the kind of characterizing anecdote that every biographer wishes for, a child demonstrating extraordinary gifts and a behaviour that anticipates his grown-up persona. It is, however, the only one told about the young Jesus in the canonical gospels. (p. 171)

It’s not much, only two childhood episodes to occupy thirty years. But that’s the start.

Hägg turns to examine how two “apocryphal” gospels picked up on Luke’s beginning. . . .

Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) then relates an observation that is worth pausing over:

All four evangelists proceed in continuous narrative from baptism to death and resurrection, each giving his own picture of Jesus’ public life within a common framework . . . . Paradoxically, their alternative accounts of Jesus, composed within the short span of some thirty years, thus came to be offered between the same covers, probably a unique biographical situation. (p. 172, my bolding in all quotations)

It seems we really do need to keep in mind that the gospels really are not like other biographies, that there is indeed something, or a number of things, “unique” about them. read more »


2017-08-10

Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 1

by Neil Godfrey

Before putting aside for a while Tomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity I must address his chapter on the canonical gospels. It’s most interesting to have a set of non-theological eyes from an outside field (classics) examine their literary art as “ancient biographies” while nonetheless engaging with what biblical scholars have learned.

I have said several times that I have a problem thinking of at least the first written canonical gospel, the Gospel of Mark, as being “about Jesus” as a person, which is to say a “biography of Jesus”. My point is that Mark (as I’ll call the gospel’s author) presents us with a Jesus who is little/no more than a theological mouthpiece and actant, teaching, symbolizing and representing theological principles — a theological cipher — rather than as a “genuine person” of interest as a personality and human character. (I suspect that this symbolic nature of Jesus is the reason he can be embraced by such wildly diverse interest groups, even faiths, throughout history and today.)

Hägg on Burridge’s study:

[I]t turns out that there is a great diversity within each of the two groups, the four gospels and the ten ancient biographies; and it is this very diversity … that makes it possible always to find a parallel in one or several of the ten Loves for each feature occurring in one or more of the gospels. What is proven is that the investigated features of the gospels are not unique in ancient biographical literature; but no control group is established to show which features may be regarded as significantly typical of this literature, in contrast to the biographical writings of other times or cultures.” (p. 154)

But as Hägg himself points out, whether or not we define a gospel as a biography really comes down to how we define the term biography.

[M]ost discussions of the generic question are dependent on how one defines ‘biography’. (p. 152)

Works of the type of Burridge and Frickenschmidt are important, not for ‘proving’ that the gospels ‘are’ biographies — that remains a matter of definition, no more and no less — but for studying them as literature in context. (p. 155)

Fair enough. Hägg himself discusses the gospels as ancient biographies. Even so, I find his conclusion striking, and in some ways supportive of my own view: in discussing one scholar’s observation that the Jesus in the Gospel of John may speak about love but actually demonstrates very little of it in his own relationships with those close to him, Hägg writes:

The observation is pertinent, but the apparent coolness may rather be attributed to the ascetic narrative style that dominates all four gospels, as soon as it comes to the description of persons and their character traits, not to speak of their physical appearance, physiognomy as well as facial expressions. That the protagonist himself is no exception in this respect reduces markedly the gospels’ character of biographies, even by ancient standards.105 (p. 185, my bolding in all quotations)

Amen. But what does footnote 105 say?

105 Burridge 2004 passim (seen Index s.v. ‘characterization, methods of’), in his insistence that the gospels are close to Graeco-Roman bioi in all respects, misses the nuances; the gospels are rather extreme in this respect. 

Amen again.

One of the chapter’s epigraphs is interesting:

‘Jesus: A Biography’ is always an oxymoron.

Harold Bloom

Tomas Hägg’s chapter “What were the gospels?” does

not set out to prove anything about their ‘proper’ classification; [his] object is simply to read them as biographies. (p. 155)

His focus is

to trace the gradual ‘biographizing’ of the Christian message. 

read more »


2017-08-03

Myths of Salvation Among Greek Gods and Heroes

by Neil Godfrey

Chiron sacrifices himself for Prometheus

If you are open to sceptical questions about Christianity and are not very familiar with ancient Greek literature and mythology you may find the few notes below of interest.

When I first read the following passages (quite some time ago now) I was struck by the way motifs that later became central to Christianity are woven throughout the mythical tales.

After Prometheus had saved mankind from Zeus’s plan to destroy him, Zeus bound him to a rock and ordained an eagle to eat from his liver every day, with the wound healing overnight ready for a fresh dinner the next day — forever.

But a son of Zeus, Heracles, was eventually destined to release Prometheus from his torment.

The poet Hesiod from the 8th or 7th century BCE wrote:

And ready-witted Prometheus he bound with inextricable bonds, cruel chains, and drove a shaft through his middle, and set on him a long-winged eagle, which used to eat his immortal liver; but by night the liver grew as much again everyway as the long-winged bird devoured in the whole day.

That bird Heracles, the valiant son of shapely-ankled Alcmene, slew; and delivered the son of Iapetus from the cruel plague, and released him from his affliction — not without the will of Olympian Zeus who reigns on high, that the glory of Heracles the Theban-born might be yet greater than it was before over the plenteous earth. . . .

The fifth century BCE playwright Aeschylus explained in more detail why Prometheus had to suffer:

PROMETHEUS:

However, you ask why he torments me, and this I will now make clear. As soon as he had seated himself upon his father’s throne, he immediately assigned to the deities their several privileges and apportioned to them their proper powers. But of wretched mortals he took no notice, desiring to bring the whole race to an end and create a new one in its place.

Against this purpose none dared make stand except me—I only had the courage; I saved mortals so that they did not descend, blasted utterly, to the house of Hades. This is why I am bent by such grievous tortures, painful to suffer, piteous to behold. I who gave mortals first place in my pity, I am deemed unworthy to win this pity for myself, but am in this way mercilessly disciplined, a spectacle that shames the glory of Zeus.

But Prometheus knew a secret. He knew that Zeus himself was destined one day to be overthrown from his position as chief of the gods. (That particular hero, we elsewhere learn, was destined to be the semi-divine Achilles. But that’s another story.) The mortal Io (who was later to become the mother of the line that produced Heracles) is talking with Prometheus in his misery: read more »


2017-07-31

Five Foundation Myths of Cyrene

by Neil Godfrey

The “historical” founder of the colony of Cyrene was a Greek named Battus (an unlikely founder since he spoke with a stutter) who is said to have ruled in the years leading up to 600 BCE.

Contemporary archaeologists agree: Cyrene, the Greek colony in Libya, had its beginnings in the second half of the seventh century B.C. The presence of some objects dated to the Late Helladic III A and B periods on the site clearly points to more ancient contacts between Greece and the Mediterranean coast of Africa; nothing, however, before the middle of the Archaic period indicates the development of a city in the Greek sense of the term. Such is the interpretation of the archaeologists . . . (Calame, Claude. Myth and History in Ancient Greece: The Symbolic Creation of a Colony, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 2003. p. 35)


The ancient myth of the founding of the Cyrenian kingdom comes to us from a number of sources, including several of Pindar‘s poems (in particular the Pythian Odes 4, 5, 9), the history by Herodotus, (book 4), the epic poet Apollonius of Rhodes who wrote about Jason and the Argonauts, and the Cyrenian poet Callimachus.

Herodotus, writing as a “historian” presents us with a rationalised version of how Cyrene was founded as a Greek colony. He eschews in this context tales of gods and demigods and myths. But the other sources mentioned above are more willing to leave us the popular legends of how this great ancient Greek colony of Libya came to be.

Pindar gives us two stories: one begins seventeen generations before our stuttering founder Battus; but another begins even earlier, back in mythic time when only gods “made history”.

Pindar’s accounts of the foundation stories

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Postscript on Rome’s and Israel’s foundation stories

by Neil Godfrey

I should follow up my previous post with a clarification of Weinfeld’s argument as he presented it in his 1993 book, The Promise of the Land. The bolding is mine for the benefit of those who don’t want to read lots of text but just hit the highlights.

As is well known, most of the genres of biblical literature have their counterparts in the ancient Near East. Creation stories, genealogies, legal codes, cultic instructions, temple-building accounts, royal annals, prophecies, psalms, wisdom literature of various kinds—all are widely attested in the cognate literatures from Mesopotamia, the Hittites, and the Egyptians. The only genre lacking such counterparts is that of stories about the beginning of the nation and its settlement, which are so boldly represented in the Patriarchal narratives and the accounts of the Exodus and the conquest of the Land. The contrast is especially striking when we compare the first eleven chapters of Genesis with the rest of the book. In Gen. 1–11 we find stories of creation, the food story, and lists of world ancestors before and after the food—literary types all well established in Mesopotamian literature. From [Genesis] chapter 12 onward, however, no parallel with the ancient Near East can be shown—not in content, of course, which reflects the particular nature of Israel, but also not in form. This kind of storytelling might be expected in the great cultures of the ancient Near East, but we look for it in vain. The lack of this genre is quite understandable given that, unlike Israel, the large autochthonous cultures were not cognizant of a beginning of their national existence.

On the other hand, this genre would be expected in the Greek sphere, which like Israel was based on colonization and founding of new sites. (pp. 1-2)

Weinfeld appeals to the quotation from Plato which I used as a header in an earlier post as evidence of the popularity of the foundation story genre in the Greek world:

[Greeks] are very fond of hearing about the genealogies of heroes and men . . . and the foundations of cities in ancient times and, in short, about antiquity in general . . .  —  Plato, Greater Hippias, 285d

Weinfeld offers us some biographical background to his interest in the question of biblical and Greek parallels and was encouraged to find he was not alone: read more »


2017-07-29

Comparing the Rome’s and Israel’s Foundation Stories, Aeneas and Abraham

by Neil Godfrey
Weinfeld compared the Abrahamic promises that prompted his emigration from Mesopotamia to Canaan with the similar destiny prophesied for the legendary Trojan hero Aeneas at the outset of his travels: much as the descendants of Aeneas would someday found Rome (Homer, Iliad 20.307; Virgil, Aeneid 3.97-98), so Abraham’s descendants would become a great nation and rule many peoples (Gen. 12.3; 17.5; 27.29).

— Russell Gmirkin, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, p. 238

I took the bait and the following post is an outcome: Weinfeld’s points of comparison between the biblical narrative and the Aeneid. Weinfeld’s proposed explanations for the similarities follow.

But first, a note for those who would dismiss the relevance of any such comparison on the basis that Virgil’s famous epic clearly postdates the biblical narrative and is far from likely influenced by anything in the Pentateuch:

It should be clear, first of all, that the Aeneas legend and the stories associated with it are quite ancient and may be traced back — as the various paintings on archaeological artifacts show — to the seventh century B.C.E. That these stories actually belong to the genre of “foundation stories” about foundations of cities by single heroes has been noted by F. B. Schmid, who surveyed the foundation legend of the Greeks, and observed that the Aeneid epic was patterned after them.[39(Weinfeld 1993, pp. 16f)

 

A Man Leaving a Great Civilization and Charged with a Universal Mission

Aeneas leaves the famous city of Troy

Abraham leaves the great civilization of Mesopotamia, Ur of the Chaldaeans

with his wife, father and son — Creusa, Anchises and Ascanius with his wife and father — Sarah and Terah
in order to establish a new nation in order to establish a new nation
Virgil calls Aeneas “Pater” (2:2) Abraham was known as the father of the nation
Aeneas delays in Carthage Abraham delays in Aram
which later becomes Rome’s great enemy which later becomes Israel’s enemy
“An important theme in the Aeneid is the tension between Rome and Carthage. There is a danger that Aeneas will marry Dido, the queen of Carthage, and thus that the message of Latium could fail; the gods of Aeneas, therefore, work to bring the hero back on track toward Rome.

“Mercury, the messenger of the gods, is sent by Jupiter to warn Aeneas not to forget the promise that his mother, Venus, had held out for him, and to urge him to sail at once to his destined land (4:219–37).

“After Aeneas’s delay, Mercury is sent to him again, this time in a dream, and warns him once more to leave Carthage (4:554–70).”

“A similar situation may be discerned in the Jacob stories. There is the danger that Jacob will stay in Aram Naharaim, where he journeyed to flee from his brother Esau and to marry Laban’s daughters. Had he stayed, he would have abandoned his mission to the promised land.

“Therefore, Jacob is called to return to his native land, and the call is made, as in the Aeneid, twice: the first time through direct revelation (v. 4)

“and the second time through revelation by dream (v. 11).”

“Although in the final stage of Genesis (ch. 31) Jacob is said to leave Aram because of his quarrel with Laban, an older stratum (Elohistic?) in the chapter (vv. 10, 12a, 13) creates the impression that the affluence of Jacob (vv. 10, 12a; cf. 30:43) might have caused him to stay in Aram, necessitating the divine call to return to Canaan.”
Finally, his son Ascanius reaches Lavinium, and later his son gets to Alba-Longa. His descendants reach Rome, which is destined to rule the world. He reaches Canaan, the Land of promise, out of which his descendants will rule other peoples.
Weinfeld points out that the traditions of Aeneas were applied during the time of Augustus to the Roman Empire so that Aeneas became not only the father of Rome itself but also a prefiguration of the ruler of the entire world. The prophecy of Poseidon in the Iliad 20:307 that Aeneas will rule over the Trojans, (cf. Homeric Hymns, AD Venerem 3:196–97), is indeed recorded (reinterpreted) in an oracle in Aen. 3:97–98 saying that the house of Aeneas shall rule “over all lands”: hic domus Aeneae cunctis dominabitur oris. Weinfeld believed the story of Abraham originated during the time of King David and served to justify Israel’s aspirations to “rule … an empire, stretching from the Euphrates to the River of Egypt (Gen. 15:18).”

(I would add that Paul interpreted the promises given to Abraham as indicating that the entire world would belong to his heirs.)

“In both cases we have examples of an ethnic tradition later developed into an imperial ideology;

“in both, we are presented with a divine promise given to the father of a nation who later becomes a messenger for a world mission.”

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