Category Archives: Religion

The Gospel of John as a source for Jewish Messianism? (Part 1)

The tendency within New Testament studies is not to consider that the Johannine perspective might possibly reflect a Jewish sectarian perspective, but to see John and the Johannine Jesus, who is Messiah, as anti-Jewish.

A recent publication with a challenging title and edited by Benjamin E. Reynolds and Gabriele Boccaccini is Reading the Gospel of John’s Christology as Jewish Messianism: Royal, Prophetic, and Divine Messiahs. How could that be? The Gospel of John is widely considered the most Christian-theologically advanced of the gospels and even anti-Jewish.

. . . in the Gospel of John, Jesus has descended from heaven, has been sent by the Father, is one with the Father, and is the only begotten of the Father. This Johannine portrayal of Jesus as the divine Son of God is thought to have been possible only in later Christian thought. . . .

. . . scholars do not deem John’s Christology to reflect Jewish messianic expectation, at least directly. Rather, John’s Christology is understood to reflect a Johannine version of the Synoptic Jesus set in the context of late first-century intra-Jewish diaspora dialogue and conflict or less specifically a Christianized or theologized development of Jewish messianic expectation.

. . . For many, John’s high Christology indicates its derivation from the community, which in turn negates its historicity. How much more problematic then is it to read the Gospel of John’s Christology as a form of Jewish Messianism? (16f)

Yet the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has exposed certain similarities between the Gospel of John and some form of early Judaism in Palestine.

The challenge for Johannine scholarship has been where to go and what to do after noting John’s relationship with early Judaism. (18)

Benjamin Reynolds suggests the reason scholars stop short after doing little more than remarking upon certain points in common is that to go further

means traveling into uncharted waters, into places that Johannine scholarship does not go, such as reevaluating the possibility of historical evidence in John’s Gospel, the context in which the Gospel was written, and the height of its Christology.

Reynolds can say that “scholars almost without exception” address the Gospel of John as an instance of “early Christian (and thus not Jewish) belief in the Messiah.”

Attempts at Using John as Evidence for Jewish Messianism

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From Adapa to Jesus

Adapa Sumerian deity of healing, with healthy catch of fish
Creative Commons Attribution

That the gospels recycled themes, motifs, sayings, can be found across the Middle East from Mesopotamia to Egypt and stretching back millennia to before the Neo Babylonian empire and even before the time of any Jewish Scriptures will be of no surprise to anyone who has read The Messiah Myth by Thomas L. Thompson.

Of the myth of Adapa and the South Wind “the earliest known version is a Sumerian text from Old Babylonian Tell Haddad”, made available by Cavigneaux in 2014. I have part translated, part paraphrased the opening section of Cavigneaux’s French translation of the often broken Sumerian text, and added a distinctive note on one comment that I found particularly interesting.

In those distant days …

After the Flood had swept over,

and brought about the destruction of the land …

The world is reborn

A seed of humanity had been preserved …

Four legged animals once again widely dispersed …

Fish and birds repopulated the ponds and reedbeds …

Herbs and aromatic plants flowered on the high steppe …

The state is born

An and Enlil organized the world …

The city of Kish became a pillar of the country …

Etana becomes king

Then the elected shepherd …

Founded a house …

The South Wind during his reign brought blessings …

Humanity without a guide

Humanity did not have a directive …

[Nobody knew how to give or follow orders]

The Story of Adapa begins

[A loyal devotee of Enki he goes fishing in the quay to supply his master’s temple in Eridu.]

In later exorcistic texts … the quay (Akk. kārum) is a trope for the liminal space between worlds.

At the New Moon he went up to go fishing

Without rudder he let the boat go with the flow

Without pole he went up the stream

On the vast lagoon …

[He is capsized by the South Wind]

He curses the South Wind …

And broke the wings of the South Wind …

Jesus stills storm. Interestingly the South Wind was said to be beneficial; it appears to me that Adapa’s technology, apparently directed by the power of his words, was being frustrated by the South Wind.

The narrative is thus a reference to the destruction of the old world and the restoration of the new, through a Flood or through water bringing about the end of one world and nourishing the emergence of the new. As Thompson observes in The Mythic Past new worlds emerge through parting waters (Creation, Noah, Exodus, Elijah-Elisha, Jesus’ Baptism/heavens divided).

Adapa has a special gift. Though mortal, he has power over words, or rather his words have power over the world. Adapa will become the great mythical sage of scribes, of all who can with the magic of words change the face of the earth and the organization of society: engineers, architects, legislators, ….

We are familiar with astronomy and astrology being all one branch of knowledge in these times; similarly magic and medicine were indistinguishable at this stage. The skills of the scribes, the amazing feats they accomplished with words, appear to have been supernatural gifts.

After Adapa by merely speaking causes the wind to cease the supreme god is astonished and invites him up to heaven. Adapa’s personal god, however, warns Adapa not to accept certain gifts [bread, drink, a coat] that will be offered to him there but to only accept an anointing. The chief god laughingly tells Adapa that he has just refused the gifts that would have given him eternal life.

And so forth.

We see here a story opening with the water, a flood, separating the old and the new. We see the wise hero wielding power over the elements, even stilling a “storm”, by his mere commands. Others are amazed at his ability. In this case, it is the gods who are amazed.

The plot of the story begins with the sage “going fishing”, a scene that is found to have mythical or metaphorical significance of life and death, entering a space between two worlds.

I find such literary comparisons interesting. I’m not saying the evangelists were adapting the myth of Adapa, of course. I am thinking about the way certain mythical tropes have been recycled and refashioned through changing human circumstances and experiences.

Cavigneaux, Antoine. 2014. “Une Version Sumérienne de La Légende d’Adapa (Textes de Tell Haddad X).” Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 104 (1): 1–41.

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. 42


Tragic Reminder of Christianity’s Power to Alienate and Crush Life

Chris Terry is a Christian in love with Christ. For me his post Amazement was a tragic reminder of how life-destroying that devotion can be. No doubt if Chris were to see this post he would respect that statement as containing a hidden irony: yes, I imagine he might say, we must become “dead” so that Christ can live in and through us.

“Apart from Christ”, he says, “there is absolutely nothing in me that was good.”

I don’t know if Chris is a parent. But I find it hard to imagine any healthy parent thinking their newborn babe, their growing child, having nothing good in or about them. Indeed, in Leaving the Fold, a book about deconversion from fundamentalism, psychologist author Marlene Winell suggests one activity that recovering believers might find helpful is to have a baby doll that they should come to see as themselves when they were an infant, and that whenever they feel overwhelmed by guilt or shame they should project themselves into that babe and reassure them that they are loveable and are loved. As a believing Christian one may, like Chris, be convinced that one does not “deserve God’s grace, mercy, and favor”, but that’s not how any sane parent rears their child. Of course our children are deserving of grace, mercy and favour. Growing up believing anything else is to grow up a psychological wreck.

The Bible is brought out, that book of often fascinating ancient literature that has had such a cultural impact throughout our history, and grotesquely seriously applied personally to the extent that a modern believer will come to see they are “dead in sins” and under the sway of Satan merely by being a part of wider society. If ever the believer comes close to a moment of sanity and begins to wonder what can be so wrong with being a normal and healthy part of the community just as themselves, without any put-on act of trying to be a light for Jesus, and then begin to think that their “sins” are miniscule compared with the mass murderers and child abusers out there, they will devoutly remind themselves as does Chris that that is the sin of pride “downplays their depth of guilt and corruption apart from Christ”. As Chris says,

The mistake is seeking to understand these issues through our own reason, rather than understanding all of life as God views it.

Such a God was responsible for biblical genocides. Even literally sacrificing one’s own children is something he has said is both an unspeakable evil and an ultimate sign of heroic righteousness – the trick is knowing which god to do it for.

No, Chris. You are not as evil and wicked and worthless as your god wants you to think you are without him. Without him you can flourish as a wholesome, good human being. Yes, with faults, some that can be quite harmful. But you are mature enough to know how to manage those potentials and to be a good force for liberation and humanity for others and even yourself, as many other humans really do without suppressing in fear one’s own nature and trying to replace it with some alien “put on” (the Bible’s expression for the process).


Questioning the Claim of a Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah

Gog and Magog attack Jerusalem and kill Messiah ben Joseph

This post follows on from A Suffering Messiah Before Christianity? — the other side of the question. This series sets out the leading arguments (per Morna Hooker and H. H. Rowley) against the claims of some scholars that there existed among pre-Christian Jews a belief that a messiah was to suffer and/or die. So if you liked what you read last month about the pre-Christian ideas of a suffering messiah, take a breather and see if you change your mind after reading the following.

Common attributes of Servant of the Lord and Davidic Messiah

Rowley challenges the significance of one scholar’s table setting out a list of attributes shared by the Suffering Servant of Isaiah and the Davidic Messiah. Before we look at Rowley’s contrary arguments here is the list he cites. It is from an appendix in T. W. Manson’s The Servant-Messiah:

Isa. xlii. 1. “Behold my Servant.” Ezek. xxxiv. 23 f. “My Servant David”; Zech. iii. 8. “I will bring forth my Servant, the Branch.”
Isa. xlii. 1. “I have put my Spirit upon him.” Isa. xi. 2. “The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him. the Spirit of wisdom, etc.”
Isa. xlii. 3. “He shall bring forth judgement.” Isa. ix. 7. “Of the increase of his government… there shall be no end upon the throne of David… to uphold it with judgement”. Jer. xxiii. 5. “I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and he. shall reign as king … and shall execute judgement.”
Isa. xlii. 6. “I the Lord … will give thee for a covenant of the people.” Ps. Lxxxix. 3. “I have made a covenant with my Chosen … sworn unto David my Servant.” Ezek. xxxiv. 23 f. “I will set up … my Sen-ant David … and I will make with them a covenant of peace.” Cf. xxxvii. 24. 26.
Isa. xlii. 6. “for a light of the Gentiles.” Cf. xlix. 6. Isa. ix. 1-2. “No gloom to her that was in anguish… A great light….”
Isa. xlii. 7. “to bring out the prisoners.” Ezek. xxxiv. 27 (a Davidic passage). “When I have broken the bars and delivered them, etc.”
Isa. xlix. 1. “The Lord hath called me from the womb.” Isa. vii. 14 f. and ix. 6. “Unto us a Child is born.”
Isa. xlix. 2. “He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword.” Isa. xi. 4. “He shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth.”
Isa. xlix. 6. “to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the tribes of Israel.” Jer. xxiii. 8 (.A. Davidic passage). “As the Lord liveth which brought up … the seed of the house of Israel… from all the countries whither I had driven them.”
Isa. xlix. 7. “Him whom man despiseth…. whom the nation abhorreth” Ps. Lxxxix. 50 (The Anointed, God’s Chosen, speaks). “Remember. Lord … how I do bear in my bosom (the reproach of) all the might}· peoples; wherewith thine enemies have reproached. 0 Lord, wherewith they have reproached the footsteps of thine Anointed.”
Isa. xlix. 7. “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall worship.” Cf. lii. 15. “Kings shall shut their mouths at him.” Ps. Lxxxlx. 27. “I will also make him the highest of the kings of the earth”; Lxxii. 10 f., “All kings shall fall down before him”; ii. 10. “Now. therefore, be wise. 0 ye kings…. Kiss the Son.”
Isa. lii.13 — liii.12. The sufferings and reproaches which fall on the Servant. Ps. xviii. 4-6. cxxxii. 1. “David and all his afflictions”; Lxxxix. 38. “Thou hast cast off and abhorred. thou hast been wroth with thine Anointed”; Lxxxix. 41, “He is become a reproach to his neighbours.”
Isa. liii. 2. “He grew up as a tender plant and as a root out of a dry ground.” Isa. xi. 1. “There shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots shall bear fruit.” Jer. xxiii.5. “I will raise unto David a righteous Branch.”
Isa. liii. 2. “He has no form … no beauty.” Ps. lxxxix. 44. “Thou hast made his brightness to cease, etc.”
Isa. liii. 6. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Ezek. xxxiv. 22-24. Jer· xxni· 3-5. Israel, the scattered sheep of God, is to come under the rule of “David, my Servant.”
Isa. liii. 8. “As for his genera tion. who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living?” Ps. lxxxix. 45. “The days of his youth thou hast shortened…”; 47 f., “0 remember how short my time is.”
Isa. liii. 10. “He shall see his seed.” II Sam. vii. 12-16. The promise to David’s house. Ps. lxxxix. 4. “Thy seed will I establish for ever”; 36 f.. “His seed shall endure for ever, etc.”
Isa. liii. 12. “Numbered with the transgressors.” Ps. Lxxxix. 50. Quoted above in the parallel to Isa. xlix. 7.

Rowley acknowledges that there are many points in common but denies that we have here evidence that anyone before the emergence of Christianity went so far as to think that the Suffering Servant was to be identified with the Davidic Messiah. Other biblical figures likewise share some of those attributes: e.g. Moses, Caleb, David, Job, Isaiah, Nebuchadrezzar, Zerubbabel are all designated “Servants of God”; Bezalel, Balaam, Joshua, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, Saul, David are all said to have the Spirit of God; both Israel and Jeremiah were “called from the womb”; Jeremiah, Job, and many Psalmists are known to have suffered — yet none of these others are confused with the Messiah.

All that the evidence collected by Manson establishes is that it was not without reason that the concepts were brought together in the New Testament, and not that they had been already brought together before the time of our Lord. (p. 68)

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A Suffering Messiah Before Christianity? — the other side of the question

H. H. Rowley

Last month I posted an eight part series based on Joachim Jeremias’s 1957 book The Servant of God arguing for a pre-Christian notion among Second Temple Jews of a messiah who was expected to suffer and/or die. This view is not the prevailing one among New Testament scholars today so I want to set out some of the arguments that have been marshalled against Jeremias’s study. Statements like the following led me to think Morna Hooker’s Jesus and the Servant (1959) would be a good place to start:

Jeremias’s argument that the portrait of the messiah in Judaism of this era included the concept of vicarious suffering to expiate the sins of Israel has found little support.9

9. Among the more significant refutations are Morna Hooker, Jesus and the Servant (London: SPCK, 1959); and E. Lohse, Märtyrer und Gottesknecht (FRLANT, 64; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966).

(Broadhead, 102)

A few decades ago it had become “almost an axiom of… New Testament study that most of the New Testament writers, and probably our Lord himself, were controlled in their Christological thinking by the figure of the Suffering Servant of the Lord.” In this respect the work of J. Jeremias was very influential . . . . Today, however, many scholars are of the opinion that the importance of the idea of the suffering servant for early Christianity has been greatly overrated; moreover, it is difficult to demonstrate that Jesus himself interpreted his destiny in light of this passage from Scripture. This has been shown convincingly by C. K. Barrett in an important contribution to the memorial volume for T. W. Manson and by Μ. D. Hooker in her Jesus and the Servant.

(Jonge, 48)

13 The influence of Isaiah 53 on the NT has been contested famously by Morna D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant: The Influence of the Servant Concept of Deutero-Isaiah in the New Testament (London: Nisbet, 1959).  

(Jipp, 257)

So I got hold of Morna Hooker’s Jesus and the Servant and very soon read this buck-passing passage:

It is impossible to consider in detail here the arguments which have been brought forward in support of a pre-Christian suffering Messiah. On this question the discussion by Η. H. Rowley in his essay ‘The Suffering Servant and the Davidic Messiah’ (published in The Servant of the Lord and Other , Essays on the Old Testament (1952)) appears to be conclusive.

(Hooker, p. 179 — Interestingly 1952 was the same year Zimmerli and Jeremias’s The Servant of God was first published.)

Accordingly I will post the arguments of H. H. Rowley as an “answer” to the Jeremias series. You can compare and evaluate and decide which case you think is the stronger. read more »

Once more on Josephus, and questions arising . . . .

Clare K. Rothschild

As a follow up on my previous post about the care we need to take in judging certain passages in Josephus’s Antiquities to be inauthentic I quote below a small section from “‘Echo of a Whisper’. The Uncertain Authenticity of Josephus’ Witness to John the Baptist”, a chapter by Clare Rothschild in Ablution, Initiation, and Baptism: Late Antiquity, Early Judaism, and Early Christianity (2011). All bolding and line-breaks are mine.

Meier claims that both the “vocabulary and style” of this passage “are plainly those of Josephus.” Yet many scholars, most famously H. St. J. Thackeray, argue that Josephus uses one or more assistants (συνεργοί), or if not assistants then sources, for this section of the Antiquitates.9

The interesting detail is in the footnote (C.Ap = Against Apion; B.J. = Jewish War; A.J. = Antiquities of the Jews):

9  C. Ap. 1.50:

I kept a careful record of all that went on under my eyes in the Roman camp, and was alone in a position to understand the information brought by deserters. Then, in the leisure which Rome afforded me, with all my materials, in readiness, and with the aid of some assistants for the sake of the Greek (χρησάμενός τισι πρὸς τὴν Ἑλληνίδα φωνὴν συνεργοῖς), at last I committed to writing my narrative of the events (ET: H. J. St. Thackeray).

H. St. J. Thackeray even refers to this secretary as “hack!” See Josephus The Man and The Historian, 132. This statement refers to B.J., but B.J. became a source for A.J. Cf. also Ant. 1.7 where Josephus expresses hesitation over “rendering so vast a subject into a foreign and unfamiliar tongue” (ET: Thackeray). This thesis is old, but not, as many assume, debunked.

Mason, with Rajak, rejects Thackeray’s ‘secretaries’ theory (referring to it as “rightly rejected”) at Josephus, Judea and Christian Origins, 233–234. However, earlier in this essay collection (with specific but not exclusive reference to B.J.) Mason simply prefers a modified version of the Thackeray’s “literary assistants” as “co-workers and literary friends” (συνεργοί, C. Ap. 1.50) at Josephus, Judea and Christian Origins, 56 incl. n. 43.

Concerning B.J., Mason writes:

In Josephus’s enlistment of co-workers (συνεργοί) or literary friends in the capital for this massive project, we again witness a social affair and not the work of an isolated author. Another point raised by this notice concerns Josephus’s ability in Greek, since the collaborators helped particularly with the Greek sound (or possibly “language”: φωνή) (56).

Horst R. Moehring too assumes some intervention by assistants. In defense of and as a means of defining Josephus’ authorship, Moehring writes:

Josephus can justly be called the author, in the true sense of this term, of the works ascribed to him: even when he borrows and even when he uses assistants, he impresses his own personality upon his work (Novelistic Elements in the Writings of Flavius Josephus), 145.

See also

The discussion is likewise older than Thackeray:

In contrast, D. R. Schwartz argues for the presence of sources (and likewise absence of authorial or other editing) in the final volumes of A.J.; see Schwartz, Agrippa I: The Last King of Judaea, 2; idem, Josephus and Nicolaus on the Pharisees, 157–171.

Steve Mason

In a brief critical review of Schwartz’s project Mason (2003) counters Schwartz by echoing Thackeray:

Finally, Schwartz does not explain why the very section of Antiquities he would like to assign to incompatible sources, books 17 to 19, exhibits an impressive, if bizarre (mock-Thucydidean), stylistic conformity (Josephus, Judea, and Christian Origins, 112; Thackeray is acknowledged in n. 58).

Mason, however, also points out that it is dangerous to assume that Josephus himself was always consistent:

It is an uncomfortable fact for the more ambitious varieties of source criticism that Josephus has the authorial habit of repeating and contradicting himself, and of varying his terminology. These oddities call for analysis, but they may result from a variety of causes (e.g., sloppiness, rhetorical artifice, multiple editions, copyist’s interventions, and yes, sources); they do not ohne weiteres imply incompatible sources (112).

See also Shutt, Studies in Josephus, 68–75; Rajak, Josephus: The Historian and His Society, 235.

This essay’s question of the authenticity of the Baptist passage is related, but not identical to the question of the historicity of Josephus’ writings in general. The latter topic is of intense interest to the scholars named in this note as well as others; see Mason, Josephus, Judea, and Christian Origins, 105–113.

(From p. 257 of Rothschild’s ‘Echo of a Whisper’)

Rothschild, Clare K. 2011. “‘Echo of a Whisper’. The Uncertain Authenticity of Josephus’ Witness to John the Baptist.” In Ablution, Initiation, and Baptism: Late Antiquity, Early Judaism, and Early Christianity, edited by David Hellholm, Tor Vegge, Øyvind Norderval, and Christer Hellholm, 255–90. Berlin ; New York: De Gruyter, 255–90.


Interpolations in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews

Of special interest to many readers are questions over the authenticity of passages about Jesus and John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities.

We know the tell-tales signs that a passage has been inserted into Josephus’s Antiquities:

  • It breaks the narrative flow of the surrounding passage;
  • It contradicts what is known about information from other sources or even elsewhere in Josephus’s work;
  • It can be out-of-place chronologically;
  • It appears to assume certain details are found elsewhere in Antiquities but that are not found anywhere else;
  • It introduces details in which Josephus appears to have no interest in the rest of his work.

But what if Josephus himself was responsible for those interpolations? A study by Vered Noam sets out evidence for thinking that Josephus was responsible for a series of additions to an otherwise completed narrative history. We know that textual “corruptions” were very common throughout antiquity (for some details see Forgery in the ancient world) so the question that we need to ask as we read Antiquities is: Is this interpolation by Josephus or some subsequent copyist?

To illustrate a case for an interpolation by Josephus into his own work I copy a table from Vered Noam’s Shifting Images (p. 69). Close to twenty years after completing the Jewish War (75-79 CE) Josephus modified and expanded that earlier narrative by adding — interpolating — new material in Antiquities (93/94 CE). (I have added the older passage location references — e.g. III. 7 — that many of us relying on Whiston translation know better than the Loeb Classical Library numbering.) read more »

Salvation through a Saviour’s Death — Another List

Recall our recent post, Why a Saviour Had to Suffer and Die? Martyrdom Beliefs in Pre-Christian Times. I have just come across a similar list making the same point: the blood of Jewish martyrs was believed to purify and cleanse the nation; the martyrs’ blood led to God’s forgiveness of the sins of the nation and the salvation of all.

Third, the martyrs suffered and died because of the nation’s sin (2 Macc 7:18, 32; 12:39–42; 4 Macc 4:21; 17:21–22), just as the high priest offered the animal’s blood for sin on Yom Kippur (Lev 1:1–7:6; 8:18–21; 16:3–24).

Fourth, the martyrs’ blood was the required price for the nation’s national purification, forgiveness, and salvation (2 Macc 7:32–38; 4 Macc 6:28–29; 7:8; 17:21–22), just as the animals’ blood was the required price for Israel’s forgiveness on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:30).

Fifth, the martyrs’ deaths provided purification and cleansing for the nation (4 Macc 6:28–29; 17:22), just as the animals’ blood provided purification and cleansing for Israel on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:16, 30).

Sixth, the martyrs’ deaths ended God’s wrath against the nation (1 Macc 1:1–64; 2 Macc 7:32–38; 8:5; 4 Macc 17:21–22), just as the animals’ blood when appropriately offered at Yom Kippur placated God’s wrath against the nation (Lev 9:1–16:30).

Seventh, the martyrs died as representatives of and vicariously for the nation (2 Macc 7:18, 32; 4 Macc 4:21; 17:21–22), just as the animals were representatives of and were substitutes for the sins of the nation on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:1–30).

Eighth, God judged sin and granted forgiveness through the martyrs’ deaths in the narratives (2 Macc 6:12–7:38; 4 Macc 17:21–22), just as YHWH judged sin and granted forgiveness through the animals’ deaths on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:1–30).

Wiley, Henrietta L.. Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity: Constituents and Critique (Resources for Biblical Study Book 85) (Page 263). SBL Press. Kindle Edition.

It would seem to be the most natural thing in the world for the Judeans who could interpret their martyrs deaths in such a way to imagine a similar fate, at least equally beneficial, for a messiah. This, especially if any thought of earthly military victory was utterly out of the question.

Wiley, Henrietta L., and Christian A. Eberhart. 2017. Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity: Constituents and Critique. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press.

R.G. Price on the “Temple Cleansing” by Jesus

R.G. Price has posted an article expanding on his argument he made in Deciphering the Gospels that the “cleansing the Temple” scene is derived from an imaginative interpretation of a passage in Hosea and has no basis in any sort of historical memory of anything Jesus ever did. Price goes beyond the argument itself, however, and believes it is strong enough to serve as a lever against the standards of mainstream studies of the historical Jesus. He concludes:

The relationship between the temple cleansing scene and Hosea 9 is real and it needs to be addressed by mainstream biblical scholars. It requires revising the models of mainstream scholarship and seriously reevaluating mainstream positions. The implications are vast and profound. The idea that it’s, “certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple,” is no longer tenable. Anyone continuing to claim it is in light of this evidence should no longer be considered credible. Anyone who addresses the temple cleansing scene without addressing this literary dependency is either unaware of the most recent scholarship or intentionally ignoring it because they are unable to address it. From this point forward, addressing the temple cleansing without addressing its relationship to Hosea 9 is untenable.

That’s not how “mainstream biblical scholars” are going to respond, of course. Once they start with the “secure fact” that Jesus was crucified they need to find some grounds for that crucifixion that will not undermine whatever attributes he had that enabled his former followers to believe he was the messiah who had been raised to heaven. A misunderstood event in the temple serves that function. I think many of those scholars are well aware that the evangelists have culled words from the canonical Hebrew texts to colour the episode, but none of that seems to lead many to doubt the historicity of the event. The literary borrowings are said to reflect the deep meaning that the authors gave to the historical event that they are nonetheless sure must have happened.

Price has elaborated upon details in Hosea 9 that have surely inspired the three-fold steps of the gospel narrative:

  • The idea of seeing fruit on a fig tree (Jesus approaches the fig tree looking for fruit)
  • Driving sinners out of the temple (Jesus drives out the money-changers)
  • The withering of the fig tree (the fig tree is found to be withered)

I think the case can be made even stronger by adding the other passages that our evangelist author has drawn upon. In addition to Hosea 9 we have Isaiah and Jeremiah:

Mark 11:15-17 (New King James Version)

15 So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 16 And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. 17 Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?[a]But you have made it a den of thieves.[b]


  1. Isaiah 56:7
  2. Jeremiah 7:11


Toss in Zechariah 14:21 for good measure:

No trader shall be seen in the house of the Lord.

In an earlier post I did point to the same passage in Hosea (along with other passages expressing the fig tree metaphor) but without Price’s elaboration of how it fits the structure of the episode in Mark:

The same theme of being planted to bear good fruit and being cursed and uprooted for bearing bad, and the lesson to be godly at all times, is repeated in Jeremiah 8.13; 32:36-41; Hosea 9:10-14.

Michael Turton also referenced the Hosea 9:10 passage in his commentary on Mark.

It is that last passage, Hosea 9:10-14 that Price teases apart and highlighting the chiastic structure of Hosea’s matching the chiastic structure of Mark’s “fig tree – temple – fig tree” unit.

We can go farther, yet. So far we can claim that each scene and each sentence in the narrative of the cursing of the fig tree and cleansing of the temple can be sourced to Scriptural sources. That’s fine, but there is also the literary function of the double episode itself in the framework of the gospel’s plot. (Again, refer to that “earlier post” above for details.)

For further literary linkages see Michael Turton’s commentary on Mark.

Everything about the episode has been constructed from well-known canonical passages and constructed for narrative plot. The author of the Gospel of John presented a Jesus quite different from the one found in the Synoptic gospels and replaced the temple cleansing scene with the raising of Lazarus. It was the raising of Lazarus that prompted the Jewish authorities to do away with Jesus. The fourth evangelist treated the temple action as a theological or symbolic action that he was free to move to the beginning of the gospel. Tim has shown the reason for this move in one of his posts: it served as a replacement for the synoptic Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.

It is as clear that the story is a composite literary artifice. The only grounds for concluding that it does have some historical core are a belief that Jesus was crucified even though he was a righteous and good man consumed with zeal for God and purity of worship. That the theme of the righteous man being unjustly executed by authorities and becoming an atonement for others is another literary-cum-theological trope in literature (Jewish and Greek) is something to be discussed another day.

Greek Myths and Genesis

Stephen Fry comments on the similarity between a couple of Greek myths and stories in Genesis in his recently published retellings: Mythos and Heroes. I am reminded of posts I completed some years back discussing Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert.

One story was about the requirement of a god for a king (so he believed) to sacrifice his son. The son willingly accepted his fate and laid himself out to be sacrificed but as the priest was about to bring the knife down a voice called out to stop the proceedings and a golden fleeced ram swept down from the heavens to carry him away. The poor ram was itself then sacrificed to Zeus. I posted the details of this story here and here back in 2011.

So I found it interesting to read Stephen Fry’s comment on his own account of the myth:

In the Book of Genesis, you may remember, the patriarch Abraham was tested by God and told to sacrifice his son Isaac. Just as Abraham’s knife was descending God showed him a ram caught in a nearby thicket and told him to kill the animal in place of his son. One version of the story of Iphigenia and Agamemnon, which helped set in motion both the Trojan War and its tragic aftermath, is another example of this mytheme – but it is not yet time to hear that particular tale.

(Heroes, p. 189)

Another myth spoke of an elderly couple welcoming two strangers into their humble home. The strangers had met with inhospitality from others so they showed special kindness to this welcoming couple. It began to dawn on the hosts that there was something rather special about their two guests, and in fact they were gods in disguise. The climax of the story came when the divine guests ordered the couple to flee to the mountains so they could escape the destruction they were about to bring upon the rest of the village. Above all, they were ordered not to look back. The gods then proceeded to destroy the ungrateful town by a flash flood. Unfortunately the couple they enabled to escape did look back and so were turned into trees.

This theoxenia, this divine testing of human hospitality, is notably similar to that told in the nineteenth chapter of Genesis. Angels visit Sodom and Gomorrah and only Lot and his wife show them decency and kindness. The debauched citizens of Sodom of course, rather than setting the dogs on the angels wanted to ‘know them’ – in as literally biblical a sense as could be, giving us the word ‘sodomy’. Lot and his wife, like Philemon and Baucis, were told to make their getaway and not look back while divine retribution was visited on the Cities of the Plain. Lot’s wife did look back and she was turned, not into a linden, but into a pillar of salt.

(Mythos, p. 380)

What is interesting is that some sort of association between the Greek myths and Genesis stories is clear enough for anyone to see. Yet I suppose we will still find naysayers insisting that there can be no link because the “differences are greater than the similarities”.

Fry, Stephen. 2017. Mythos. London, England: Penguin.
———. 2018. Heroes. London, England: Penguin.


The Age of the Hebrew Bible — the other view

I have posted many times on the works of scholars who have argued that none or very little of the Hebrew Bible can be dated before the Persian or Hellenistic periods: Thompson, Lemche, Davies, Whitelam, Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum, Wisselius, Mandell & Freedman(?) and possibly others whom memory fails at this moment. So what does the “other side” have to say about it all? Two scholars, Ronald Hendel and Jan Joosten, introduce their opposing arguments on Bible and Interpretation:

Their book is How Old Is the Hebrew Bible? A Linguistic, Textual, and Historical Study. They state

Many scholars largely disregarding linguistic data insist that most or all of the Hebrew Bible was written in the second half of the first millennium BCE, during the Persian and/or Hellenistic periods, and draw the inference that there is little or no historical content that predates this era. The history of ancient Israel from roughly 1200 to 500 BCE, they say, has little or nothing to do with the biblical accounts. The conflicts among the different scholarly positions – often caricatured as minimalists, maximalists, and meliorists – have become familiar features of the scholarly landscape.

Our book brings together different bodies of evidence to show that the age of the Hebrew Bible can be ascertained to a reasonable degree by integrating the fields of historical linguistics, textual criticism, and cultural history. 

A first thought that comes to mind is the problem of circularity. But I don’t know the relevant languages and have not seen the details of their case. Perhaps others with more knowledge can weigh in with a comment or two.

(What and who are the meliorists?)

Why a Saviour Had to Suffer and Die? Martyrdom Beliefs in Pre-Christian Times

The next time I hear someone say that no-one would make up a saviour who suffers and dies I will be able to point them to the table in this post. I think we can conclude that a suffering and dying messiah is exactly what we should expect to emerge from a world where all seemed lost and there was no hope for real deliverance in this life. Note, for example, #13. The table is taken from Ethelbert Stauffer’s New Testament Theology, to which I was directed by Morna Hooker in her book, Jesus and the Servant.

The Principal Elements of the Old Biblical Theology of Martyrdom

(Chief passages and proof texts)

A. The shape of martyrdom

1. The people of God is the martyr nation among the Gentiles. Psa. 73.3 ff.; 78.1 ff.; 79.9 ff.; 82.3 ff.; Jdth. 9.8; Isa. 42.1 LXX; AEn. 85 if.; 89.59 if.; IV Ezra 3.27 ff.; MEx. on 20.23; SB, II, 284
2. Those people of God who are loyal to the Torah are persecuted by the Gentiles and their accomplices DaG, 3; 9; 11 f.; I Mac. 2.27 if.; II Mac. 5.27; 7.2, 30; IV Mac. 5.16 f; PsSol. 17.19; AssMos. 8.6; Martls. 2.8 ff.; PsPhil. 6.9, 16; San. 49a; Cantr. 8.6 f.
3. Those people of God who are loyal to the Torah are persecuted by their apostate fellows Psa. 21; 40.9 f.; 68; II Chron. 24.1; Wisd. 2 f.; 5; PsSol. 4; 12; Dam. 1.20; IV Ezra 7
4. The people of God persecute the messengers of God (III βασ 19.2 ff.; Ex. 17.4; 32.9; Num. 14.10; 17.14; Jer. 6.10; 9.25; 11.19; Isa. 40 if.; II Chron. 36.16; Jub. 1.12; Martls. 3; 5; Paraljer. 9.20 ff.
5. The blood of Abel cries to heaven till the end of time AEn. 22.7; TestAbr. 11
6. Even the picture of Messiah has traces of the martyr in it SB, II, 273 ff.; IV Ezra 7.29; 10.1, 16, etc., in Jeremias, Deutsche Theologie, II, 1929, 106 ff.
7. Even the picture of the Son of Man has traces of the martyr in it Joachim, Jeremias, briefly: Motifs from the Servant Songs in the texts about the Son of Man in AEn. 37 ff; Traditions about the past earthly life, the present heavenly existence and the future return of the Son of Man in AEn. 39.4 ff; 71.14 ff.; 90.31, etc.


B. The fate of martyrdom

8. The confessors live in the desert, far from the wickedness and pursuits of the world I Mac. 1.56; PsSol. 17.16 f.; AssMos. 9; Martls. 5.11 ff; PsPhil. 6.7 ff; Dam. 6.5
9. The persecutors use suspicions and slanders, false accusations and false witnesses against those who are faithful to God Jer. 15.15; Psa. 26.12; 34.11; DaΘ. 6.5 f.; Wisd. 2.22; III Mac. 7.11; Ps. Sol. 12.1ff; Martls. 3.8 f.
10. The martyrs are treated undeservedly like thieves and killed and in this sense suffer innocently Psa. 34.7, 19; 58.4 f; Wisd. 2.19, 22; 3.5; PsSol. 12.4; II Mac. 7.40; IV Mac. 12.14
11. The martyrs frequently suffer and die in the arena, which was a recognized institution also in Palestine in hellenistic times III Mac. 4.11 [IV Mac. 5.1; 15.20]; cf. Jer. 12.5; Eccl. 9.11; I Mac. 1.14; II Mac. 4.12 ff; IV Mac. 4.20; JosAnt. 12.241; 15.268 ff, 341; remains in Jerusalem, Samaria, Rabbath-Ammon, Gerasa, etc.
12. Martyrs are often scourged and crucified, and ‘cross’ therefore appears occasionally as the inclusive term for a martyr’s fate AssMos. 8.1; JosAnt. 12.256; Gnr. on 22.6; further A. Schlatter, Die Märtyrerer den Anfängen der Kirche, 1915, 70 and n. 259 above
13. The martyr’s death is a sign of his coming victory Dan. 3; Wisd. 2.17; Martls. 5.7; Ber. 61b; AZ. 18a
14. Lists of martyrs kept memory fresh about the typical murder of the saints in history IV Mac. 16.20 f; 18.11 ff. L. Zunz, Die gottesdienstl. Vortrage der Juden, 1832, 142; Elbogen, 203; 228 ff.; Kaufmann, REJ, 1887, 250; SB, I, 582
15. History has also seen some miraculous deliverances which God has wrought for his faithful ones Dan. 3.49 f; III Mac. 6.18 ff.; 7.16; PsPhil. 6.9, 17 f; Gnr. on 15.7; 22.19


C. God’s Glory and the shame and glory of martyrdom read more »

Scholarly Consensus: Some Questions Are More Important Than Others

A few years ago, I was visiting a customer site in Denver, Colorado. Early one morning, while sitting in a cold conference room, I overheard a conversation about a guy who had recently quit. Apparently, he was the lone subject matter expert on an important project.

A: I hope he documented what he was doing. 

B: He’s pretty good about it.

A: You know what they say . . .

B: “In case you get hit by a bus”?

A: Heh-heh. Yeah.

C: We had a guy just this past year who got hit by a bus. Literally, hit by a bus.

B: He died?

C: Yeah. 

A: Oh, man.

C: You know how they tell you to look both ways, especially to the right, when you’re in India?

B: So he stepped out and didn’t see it.

C: Yeah.

B: Damn.

Double-Decker Bus

I can remember being warned about looking in the correct direction back in the military. When we sent people TDY to England, we reminded them to look both ways. If you grew up in a country where people drive on the right, you instinctively check to the left just before you step off the curb. It’s the opposite for people who grew up in left-side countries. In the split second you spend looking in the wrong direction, a vehicle can suddenly come around the corner and kill you.

This story reminds us that some decisions have more consequence than others, and some problems require an immediate decision. If you’re deciding on the color of the curtains in your living room, you may regret your choice, but it probably won’t kill you. You might even delay your choice to the point where you never get around to changing the draperies before you sell the house.

On the other hand, some questions are more pressing. Even not making a decision is still a decision. When I think of life-or-death decisions that demand a choice, I can’t help but recall the series Danger UXB. Imagine the stress of needing to make the right decision as the seconds tick away. Which wire? How does this work? Can I stop it?

I would argue that global climate disruption has become that kind of problem. Unfortunately, it stands at the convergence of science, politics, sociology, and religion. Something needs to be done immediately, the wrong choices will be deadly, and not deciding what to do about it is in itself a decision.

Some problems demand an immediate response. However, other questions — e.g.: Did Jesus exist as a historical figure? Did Josiah suppress the original Israelite pantheon, which included a mother goddess? Did the Jews of the Second Temple period ever conceive of a dying, suffering, sacrificial messiah? — do not.

A Vridar reader, Gary, commented recently: read more »

Examining the Evidence for Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet

On History for Atheists Tim O’Neill has set out the standard reasons for the view that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. He concludes that this particular portrayal of Jesus stands against what conservative and liberal Christians, and even “fringe Jesus Mythicists”, and “many people” generally “would like Jesus to be.” Put that way, one wonders why anyone in a field clearly dominated by academics of some form of Christian faith would find the idea at all respectable. O’Neill, however, assures us that scholars who hold this view are said to be unswayed by “any wish fullfilment (sic)”. Those who disagree are not doing genuine scholarship but looking for ways to rationalize a Jesus who fits their world view.

So Catholic scholars find a Jesus who establishes institutions, iniates (sic) sacraments and sets up an ongoing hierarchy of authority. Liberal Christian scholars find a Jesus who preaches social justice and personal improvement. And anti-theistic Jesus Mythicists find a Jesus who was never there at all.

O’Neill even uses the language of battle to defeat and lay to rest their arguments:

Now, as in Schweitzer’s time, almost all historical Jesus studies is either an endorsement of or a rear-guard action against the unavoidably powerful idea that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. . . . . But Schweitzer laid out the arguments against this tactic back in 1910 and more modern attempts to prop up this idea do not have any more strength than they had a century ago. . . . The liberal Christians of the “Jesus Seminar” have attempted a large-scale assault on the idea of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. . . . Marcus Borg has been at the forefront of these arguments . . . . Despite the rearguard actions of conservative and many progressive Christians . . . .

We are left with the image of the victorious scholar General, unswayed by any confessional or personal “wish fullfilment (sic)”, standing tall with his boot firmly planted on the defeated “wishes” of conservative and liberal Christians and fringe atheists alike.

We will see in coming posts that address O’Neill’s essay that it posits a rather crude and blunt conception of the nature of scholarly bias. Is finding a Jesus who agrees with our own world-view really the only form of bias to be expected in the pursuit of Christian origins? O’Neill’s language of warfare surely suggests it is.

O’Neill’s post is long and I have no intention of discussing every detail of it but I trust a few responses to some of its core ideas will be enough to alert readers to some of its flaws and weaknesses. In this post I want to point to a theme I have posted about many times before but will do so once more, this time with reference to what a specialist in Josephus studies has recently written about conditions in Palestine around the time of Jesus.

The setting for the popular welcome of an apocalyptic prophet 

O’Neill sets out the common view that Galilean peasants at the time of Jesus were seething with longing to be rid of their Roman oppressors and to be ruled once again “in liberty” as per the promises of their Scriptures. Thus an image is established at the outset of a population that was fertile ground for the seeds of the next apocalyptic prophets to appear on the scene, John the Baptist and Jesus. O’Neill even knows what scriptures and verses were subversively preached and emphasized and what was therefore in the minds of a critical mass of devout peasants of the day.

Devout Jews in this period had inherited a theology whereby they were the Chosen People of God who lived in the Promised Land granted to them by him. But by the time Herod Antipas came to rule Galilee, these ideas were difficult to reconcile with the realities of the average Jewish peasant’s existence.

To begin with, life for our peasant was hard. . . . it was difficult enough to scrape a living for them and their family by farming, herding or fishing, but they also had to pay heavy taxes to the Tetrarch Herod, who was the son of the hated King Herod the Great and, like his late father, a puppet ruler for the Roman Empire. This meant our peasant not only had to pay enough tax to keep Herod Antipas in luxury in his newly built capital of Tiberias – which he had named after his Roman patron, the emperor Tiberius – he also had to pay still more tax for Herod to pass on to his Roman masters. . . . . Not surprisingly, these taxes were resented and those who made a living collecting them were despised as corrupt quislings. The burden of heavy taxation meant that an increasing number of peasants had to give up farming their own land . . . . 

. . . . Just as under old Herod the Great, these men held their petty kingdoms as clients of the Roman emperor and were hated for it by most of their subjects. . . . Herod the Great’s sons were well aware of their unpopularity and also inherited their father’s talent for repression – spies were active, uprisings were crushed and troublemakers were dealt with swiftly and painfully.

But our peasant would have known that things had not always been this way. The scriptures he and his neighbours heard read and discussed each sabbath emphasised the ideas already mentioned – that as Jews they were God’s chosen and living in the land he promised to their ancestors. But in the period since the Jewish people had been conquered, dominated and often oppressed by a succession of foreign powers.

Such has been the standard view of Palestine among New Testament scholars for generations. What is the evidence for this scenario? read more »