Category Archives: Scholars

Two Optimists

1. Steven Pinker


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The Detering Commentaries: Christian Origins, Joshua, Gnosticism and Buddhism

René Salm has concluded his series of Hermann Detering Commentaries:

Dr. Hermann Detering

“The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus and the Beginning of the Joshua/Jesus Cult” (2018)

Commentary by René Salm

This extensive series of posts explores literary, religious, and historical links between Buddhism and Christian origins.

It argues that Christianity emerged from a gnostic substratum,
and that the figure Jesus of Nazareth and the New Testament gospels
are second century CE developments.

.

René Salm quotes Hermann Detering’s overall conclusion:

Beginning with the gnostic interpretation of the Exodus motif and the question of its origin, we have arrived at an element of critical importance: the metaphor of transcendence, expressed figuratively as [reaching] the “other shore”—which plays a central role in Indian/Buddhist spirituality. The question of where the two trajectories intersect—Jewish tradition/Hebrew Bible on the one hand, and Buddhist/Indian spirituality on the other—led us to the Therapeutae, about whom Philo of Alexandria reports in his De Vita Contemplativa.

Once the Buddhist origin of the Therapeutae is seen as plausible, it can be shown that their central mystery consisted of an interpretation of the Exodus, an interpretation based upon Buddhist sources. This interpretation, in turn, was the seed of the Christian sacrament of baptism. Early Christian gnostics, such as the Peratae and the Naassenes, transferred to Moses’ successor Joshua what the Therapeutae (more strongly rooted in Jewish tradition) maintained for Moses. The old cult of Moses would be surpassed by the new, Gnostic-Christian cult of Joshua. The counterpart of Moses became Jesus/Joshua.

Seen in this light, the “historical” Jesus, that is, Jesus of Nazareth, was hypostatized in the second century of our era out of the Old Testament Joshua. The Christian savior Joshua/Jesus is nothing other than the result of Jewish-Buddhist exegesis of the Old Testament.

I have read in translation much of Hermann Detering’s article. I look forward to being able to devote the time and energy that a proper assessment of his argument requires.

Philip R. Davies on Jesus mythicism

I have just been reminded (thank you David Fitzgerald) that Philip R. Davies also was one of the very few mainstream scholars to actually publish the view that the Jesus myth theory ought at least to be taken seriously. Davies himself did not subscribe to it but he did acknowledge its reasonableness.

See his article Did Jesus Exist? published on Bible and Interpretation in 2012. Some quotes (my bolding):

I … have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises.

So have I. I regret not ever having the opportunity to discuss the question with Philip Davies personally. In fact my own views on the question of Jesus’ historicity are grounded in the the “minimalist” approach that I first learned through In Search of Ancient Israel (see previous post).

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. In the first place, what does it mean to affirm that ‘Jesus existed’, anyway, when so many different Jesuses are displayed for us by the ancient sources and modern NT scholars? Logically, some of these Jesuses cannot have existed. So in asserting historicity, it is necessary to define which ones (rabbi, prophet, sage, shaman, revolutionary leader, etc.) are being affirmed—and thus which ones deemed unhistorical. In fact, as things stand, what is being affirmed as the Jesus of history is a cipher, not a rounded personality (the same is true of the King David of the Hebrew Bible, as a number of recent ‘biographies’ show).

 

Tribute to an Influential Scholar – Philip R. Davies

Philip R. Davies

Philip R. Davies has died. Philip Davies was a major influence on my own understanding of the origins and history of ancient Israel, including the origins and nature of the Hebrew Bible. I understand that his book, In Search of Ancient Israel, was groundbreaking in that it influenced the way many of his peers came to view the “primary history” found in the Old Testament books Genesis to 2 Kings. My understanding as an outside amateur is that he brought together various ideas that had received little attention prior to 1991 and challenged the assumptions and fallacious reasoning underpinning traditional scholarly ideas about what was labelled “biblical Israel”.

Many readers may already have seen my webpage that I began with several pages setting out the argument of his book, In Search of Ancient Israel.

I never finished those posts. When I came to write about his views on who wrote the biblical books and why, and how the details of the biblical myth arose, I found myself branching out into much wider reading, including more recent publications by Davies, discovering competing theses — and I am still engaged in those explorations. I have Philip Davies to thank for these discoveries and ongoing journey.

Davies was part of known to be part of a group of scholars known as (derogatively) “the minimalists”. Some referred to it as the Copenhagen School. Two of the other pillars of this group were Thomas L. Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche. I have posted about their works many times on this blog. Traditional scholars sometimes viewed their work as being cynically sceptical. I viewed it as sound, fundamental scholarship. Read, for example, the approach set out in The Bible — History or Story?  and Common Sense and Credulity. I copy the first of these here. See it onsite if it is too small to read below.

Some readers may recognize the argument there from many posts on Vridar. It expresses what I consider to be the fundamentals of sound historical inquiry and scholarly treatment of evidence. (The logic expressed applies equally to the approach to the New Testament books, I believe — but that is a step too far for many.)

Some books by Davies that I enjoyed reading, some of which I continue to use as regular references . . . .

Thank you, Philip R. Davies.

 

 

Testing the Claim that Jesus Scholars Use the Methods of Other Historians (Part 1)

Damn. I fell for it (again). A professor promoted a new book as “making the most sense of the crucifixion” and “making a fresh contribution to studies of the ‘historical Jesus'” so I made a rush purchase and read it the same day it arrived. Silly me, I should first have checked the University of Edinburgh Library’s open access policy and archive of dissertations because it is sitting there free of charge for all to read. Access is also online through the British Library. There are only slight modifications of wording and more truncated bibliographic references in the published version.  Sadly both versions make it clear that the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh is responsible for some very crude fundamentalist-level apologetics posing as serious scholarship. I expected better from the University of Edinburgh.

The first difficulty I had with the book (We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Question) was lack of clarity over its aim. It often sounded as if the author, Michael Zolondek (=MZ), was arguing that Jesus was a Davidic Messiah in some absolute sense that Christians today could claim was “the” identifier of Jesus. That is, we today should think of Jesus as a genuine Davidic Messiah just as surely as we think of him as a Jew or a male (or god in the flesh?) — quite independently of what anyone else thought of him (passim from p. xiv to p. 143). Other times MZ narrows the question down to suggest he meant he was the Davidic Messiah in the eyes of the disciples specifically (chapter 5). Does he mean the reader to understand that the disciples’ perspective is “The Truth” that readers of the gospels should also embrace? Confusion of terms bedevils other areas as well. For example, at one point MZ appears to acknowledge that the criterion of multiple attestation has value only if each witness is independent (p. 92) but other times he implies that multiple attestation has value even when the witnesses are not independent (p. 98).

But my interest in this post is one particular detail about the book that I found quite curious. On at least three separate occasions in his chapter on “methodological issues” MZ stressed that biblical scholars such as himself really are following the same methods as historians of other fields. By the third time I had to ask if MZ doth protesteth too much.

Another strange feature of this doctoral dissertation was a bizarrely irrelevant and quite misleading comment about Jesus mythicism. I can post about that quirk another time.

Before I get into the discussion of the fallacious foundation of MZ’s argument here let me quote one passage that at first glance appears to contradict what I have just said:

The most significant of these [methodological issues] is, in my opinion, the fact that often times historical Jesus scholars are doing ancient history quite differently than ancient historians normally would. (p. 98, my emphasis and formatting in all quotations)

It turns out that what MZ means here is that Jesus scholars “often times” are working by far stricter standards than anything followed by “ancient historians normally”, and that if only more Jesus scholars would lower their standards to be consistent with those found in Classics and Ancient History departments at universities they would, lo and behold, find their job much easier and be able to reconstruct and prove all sorts of things about Jesus. Further, in his discussions of historical methods MZ cites sources that actually discuss the philosophy of history and debatable questions of historiography and problems in creating historical narratives, apparently confusing them with discussions of research methods brought to bear in evaluating sources and discovering certain facts about the past. I believe that these are generally distinct areas of study that MZ appears to have confused as I will also discuss below or in a follow up post.

Here are MZ’s more insistent claims that Jesus scholars use the same methods as other historians: read more »

The Gospel of Luke in its Original Context; New Perspectives, part 3

Shelly Matthews questions the view that Luke-Acts was finalized as an early stage of a specifically anti-Marcionite program. I am one who has tended to see Luke-Acts as an initiator of a trajectory of proto-orthodoxy that can be traced through Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian and that stood in opposition to the “heresies” of Marcionism, docetism, gnosticism.

Rather, Matthews places Luke-Acts in a far more fluid place and argues that it defies classification as either orthodox or proto-orthodox. She argues that it precedes the time when Christianity could be divided from our perspective into the simplistic split between what we see as orthodoxy and heresy but is the product of

a more variegated context of early Christian pluralism. (p. 165)

In the previous post we saw one of the reasons for Matthews’ view: the view of Jesus as calm and passive throughout his final hours and the unnatural concept of his flesh. Such a depiction would appear to have more in common with the views of docetists than what emerged as orthodoxy.

Matthews further sees the Gospel of Luke as an attempt to subordinate other leaders, both women and men, who were looked up to as leaders by virtue of having had visions of Jesus. That is, the author was responding to more than Marcionism. In fact the gospel overlapped with Marcion’s gospel in key passages as we saw in our initial post.

Downgrading Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus

According to Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 9:1 and 15:1-8 an apostle was one who had seen the risen Lord. In the Gospel of John chapter 20 we read that Mary of Magdalene was one such figure. We even have a documentary record among noncanonical texts that Mary was regarded as a leading figure among certain Christians and that she was sometimes considered to be in conflict with Peter and other male apostolic visionaries. We have the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip in which Mary has a special (physical) relationship with Jesus, and the Gospel of Thomas in which Jesus promises to make Mary a male so she, too, is worthy to enter eternal life. But let’s look for a moment at Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus in the Gospel most of us are familiar with. John 20:14-18

14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.

15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

Matthews refers to Mary Rose D’Angelo who shows the structural similarities between Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus and the elder John’s vision of the heavenly Jesus in Revelation 1:10-19. I have highlighted the significant passages in D’Angelo’s argument.

John in Revelation likewise hears a voice and turns back to see the risen Jesus. Jesus negatively admonishes John in a way that draws attention to the divine nature of the one encountered in the vision. Both John and Mary are then given a commission to go and tell others what they have seen. And as per Paul’s qualification of apostleship, Mary, too, can and does say that she has “seen the Lord”. If we take our canonical form of the Gospel of Luke as having been completed after the Gospel of John (which a number of scholars do, and I often find myself siding with them) then we can readily interpret Luke’s depiction of Mary as an attempt to reject the status of Mary as an apostle.

Luke “rewrites the tradition” by having Mary not seeing the risen Jesus but seeing only the empty tomb. Her encounter is with angels and it is only angels who tell her to go and tell the disciples that Jesus has risen. In Luke it is Peter who runs to find out for himself the truth of what Mary has reported and it is Peter who is the first to see the risen Jesus.

Recognizing the invisible Jesus

That brings us to the Emmaus Road episode in Luke’s gospel. Here a couple, Cleopas and another unnamed companion, are walking along a road when they are joined by a third party they do not recognize. Their eyes are prevented from recognizing him, presumably by means of some spiritual agency. It is, of course, Jesus. The couple finally “recognize” who they have seen only after he disappears from them as they “break bread”. Matthews is one with scholars who interpret this passage as representative of what all Christians are to experience as they partake of the Lord’s supper. It is in that ceremony that they “see” Jesus. In this way the incident cannot be interpreted as a genuine vision of the risen Lord that qualifies one for apostleship. That is confirmed after the couple race to tell the disciples and are in turn themselves told that Jesus has already appeared to Peter.

The authority of men only

Even here Mathews believes we see further evidence of Luke reducing the status of women in the church. If we compare the two key persons on the Emmaus road with the Clopas/Cleophas (a Semitic form of the Greek Cleopas) and his wife Mary named in John 19:25 then it does look suspiciously the case that Luke has chosen to suppress the name of the wife involved in that famous incident.

Other indicators (listed by Matthews) that Luke sought to denigrate the status of women: read more »

Doubting that Luke-Acts was written to refute Marcion; New Perspectives, part 2

Continuing my posts on Shelly Matthews’ 2017 article. . . .

I am one of those who have leaned favourably towards arguments that our canonical form of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were early to mid second century attempts to take on Marcionism. See my series on Joseph B. Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle for instance. Others who have raised similar arguments in recent years are Matthias Klinghardt and Markus Vincent; further, Jason BeDuhn and Dieter T. Roth have produced new reconstructions of Marcion’s gospel.

If Marcionites believed in a Jesus who was not literally flesh and blood like us but only appeared to be so, then it has been argued that Luke (I’ll use that as the name of the author of the Gospel of Luke in its final canonical form) introduced details of how Jesus was very much a fleshly body when he was resurrected and showing himself to his followers. See the previous post for the details.

Resurrection accounts overlap

Matthews draws attention to a problem with this view. The “problem” is that all reconstructions of Marcion’s gospel (even BeDuhn’s and Roth’s) include at least significant sections of Luke’s fleshly portrayal of the resurrected Jesus. Jesus says in Luke 24:39 and in Marcion’s gospel according to all reconstructions:

Look at my hands and my feet. . . . . a ghost does not have . . . bones, as you see I have.

Marcion’s Jesus also eats just as Luke’s Jesus does in the same chapter. BeDuhn gives Marcion the following and Roth suggests it is at least close to Marcion’s text.

41 And while they still did not believe [were distressed] . . . , he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence. . . . 

So Marcion’s Jesus, it seems, also had bones and was able to eat fish. Given that that was what Marcion read in his own gospel how can we interpret Luke’s details as an attempt to refute Marcionism, Matthew’s asks. (Not that this “problem” has not been noticed by scholars like Tyson but Matthews is proposing a different way of looking at the data.)

Neither Luke’s Nor Marcion’s Jesus Truly Suffers

Luke’s Jesus may bear a body of flesh, even after the resurrection, but this flesh is not the ordinary flesh of humankind, which agonizes when threatened, writhes when tortured, and decays in death. (p. 180)

Matthews sets aside as an interpolation Luke 22:43-44 that so graphically pictures Jesus in agony sweating great drops of blood in Gethsemane. Shelly Matthews explains:

For persuasive arguments that Luke 22:43-44 is a secondary insertion motivated by concern that Jesus be depicted as suffering anguish in Gethsemane, see Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, rev. and enl. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 220-27.

Another difficulty that Matthews’ sees for the view that our Gospel of Luke was finalized as a rebuttal to Marcionism is its portrayal of Jesus “suffering”. I use scare-quotes because Luke’s Jesus does not appear to suffer at all and so looks very much the sort of figure we would expect to see in Marcion’s gospel. In Luke there is no hint that Jesus on his way to the cross or hanging from the cross is in any sort of torment or agony. Luke’s Jesus is totally impassive.

Indeed, on the question of whether Jesus experienced torment either in Gethsemane or on Golgotha, Luke’s passion narrative can be read as an argument for an answer in the negative, as the later interpolator who felt the need to add the pericope of Jesus sweating drops of blood in Gethsemane surely sensed. (p. 180)

Matthews continues:

The Lukan Jesus does employ the verb πάσχω both in predicting his fate (9:22,17:25,22:15) and in reflecting on that suffering as a component of prophecy fulfillment (24:26,46; cf. Acts 1:3, 3:18,17:3).44 Yet, as is well known, narratives of Jesus’s comportment both on the way to Golgotha and on the cross itself suggests that his “suffering” does not include human experiences of physical agony or emotional distress.45

44 As Joel B. Green notes, the phrase “to suffer” in Luke is used to evoke the totality of the passion (The Gospel of Luke, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997], 856).

45 Jerome H. Neyrey, “The Absence of Jesus’ Emotions: The Lucan Redaction of Lk 22:39- 46,” Bib 61 (1980): 153-71; John S. Kloppenborg, “Exitus clari viri: The Death of Jesus in Luke,” TJT 8 (1992): 106-20.

(I located each of Matthews’ references [Green and Neyrey] intending to add more detailed explanation from them but not wanting to take unplanned hours to finish this post have decided to leave those details for another day.)

For Luke, then, Jesus’ flesh is not like our flesh. It is not the sort of body that naturally recoils in anguish at pain or even threats of pain. It does not even decay when it dies.

Acts 2:31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 

Acts 13:37 But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.

The idea that flesh of certain persons could in fact be immortal was part of common Greek cultural belief. Matthews cites Greek Resurrection Beliefs for those who are unaware of this fact. (Perhaps that’s another topic I can post about one day. I have touched on it a number of times incidentally with particular reference to Gregory Riley’s Resurrection Reconsidered, as for instance in this post.)

In this post I have addressed some of the areas that would appear to make the Gospel of Luke in close agreement with Marcion’s gospel rather than a direct rebuttal of it.

Furthermore there are other features of Luke-Acts that appear to be directed at extant ideas or disputes that had nothing at all to do with Marcionism as far as we know. Those are for the next post.

 


Matthews, S. (2017). Fleshly Resurrection, Authority Claims, and the Scriptural Practices of Lukan Christianity. Journal of Biblical Literature, 136(1), 163–183.


 

New Perspective on the Gospel of Luke; part 1

Shelly Matthews

Professor of New Testament Shelly Matthews has a different take on the Gospel of Luke. Different, that is, from one that I have for a long time generally embraced on this blog. I have written positively before about Shelly Matthew’s work and find myself doing so once more here. This time I am discussing her article in the Journal of Biblical Literature last year, Fleshly Resurrection, Authority Claims, and the Scriptural Practices of Lukan Christianity.

Why Stress the Flesh of the Resurrection Body?

Unlike the earlier gospels Mark and Matthew, Luke 24 focuses readers’ attentions on the fleshly nature of Christ’s resurrection body:

39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.

The Gospel of John is usually understood in a similar vein, not least because of the following scene in the 20th chapter:

27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

But as Matthews points out, Luke and John have quite different purposes for their respective body of flesh scenes. The fourth gospel uses the physical wounds of Jesus as identifying marks so that Jesus can know who is standing in front of him: it really is Jesus who was crucified by being nailed to the cross and then speared in the side.

The need for Thomas to see the wounds may be a Johannine employment of a common topos in Greek literature evident as early as the Homeric tradition—as with Eurykleia in the Odyssey, who does not recognize Odysseus until she has touched his scar. Yet the high point of the recognition scene is not Jesus’s affirmation that the body demonstrated to Thomas is fleshly but rather a rebuke of faith that requires sight. Thomas sees the wounded Jesus and confesses, “My Lord and my God,” to which Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (20:29). (Matthews, p. 168)

Contrast Luke’s focus on demonstrating that Jesus’ body is flesh, just as it was before he was resurrected:

37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.

40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.

In John 21 Jesus does not eat the fish but distributes it among his disciples. In Luke 24 Jesus eats the fish to prove he is a fleshly body.

The question that follows, of course, is why would Luke want to make such a point.

Matthews’ answer is that the author of the third gospel is using the fleshly body of the post resurrection Jesus as a vital element in establishing the supreme authority of the twelve apostles against others (various visionaries such as Mary and Paul) who were looked to as authorities in his day.

Details to follow.


Matthews, S. (2017). Fleshly Resurrection, Authority Claims, and the Scriptural Practices of Lukan Christianity. Journal of Biblical Literature, 136(1), 163–183.


 

Gnostic Interpretation of Exodus and Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossing_the_Red_Sea#/media/File:Dura_Europos_fresco_Jews_cross_Red_Sea.jpg

Recall that Hermann Detering was a work out about the gnostic interpretation of the Exodus and the beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus cult. See my earlier posts:

Since then René has posted a second installment. Meanwhile, on Hermann Detering’s page we see that a translation by Stuart Waugh is due to be “published soon”.

Here I set out my own notes from the first part of the work. I don’t read German except through machine translators, alas, so if anyone who has read the German original can see I have misstated something do let me know.

Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus

Philo

The earliest Jewish allegorical interpreter of the Exodus is Philo of Alexandria, Egypt, in the first century CE. In Philo’s Allegorical Interpretations II we see that Philo interpreted Egypt as a life of pleasure, a symbol of physical passions, in contrast to the wilderness, representing the spiritual life of the ascetic.

But notice that Philo extends his allegory of the exodus from Egypt to the wilderness by inclusion of the crossing of the Jordan River, apparently conflating this event with Moses’ (not Joshua’s) leadership.

Therefore, God asks of the wise Moses what there is in the practical life of his soul; for the hand is the symbol of action. And he answers, Instruction, which he calls a rod. On which account Jacob the supplanter of the passions, says, “For in my staff did I pass over this Jordan.” {Genesis 32:10.} But Jordan being interpreted means descent. And of the lower, and earthly, and perishable nature, vice and passion are component parts; and the mind of the ascetic passes over them in the course of its education. For it is too low a notion to explain his saying literally; as if it meant that he crossed the river, holding his staff in his hand.

The passage through the Red Sea is symbolic of the transition from the worldly to the spiritual life.

The Therapeutae read more »

A Well Known Historian Praises Bart Ehrman’s History of Christianity’s Triumph

I have enjoyed and learned from two historical tomes by the popular historian Tom Holland: In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire and Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom. Holland knows how to garnish historical detail and interpretation with narrative colour.

Whose face is the model for this image?

Some days ago Holland reviewed Bart Ehrman’s new book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World in The Spectator: How Christianity saw off its rivals and became the universal church. He had the highest praise for both Ehrman as a scholar and his newest publication:

This is the work of a great scholar, sifting sources, placing them in their historical context, interrogating the assumptions that may condition how we interpret them. There are even some graphs. Indeed, so determined is Ehrman not to be mistaken for a theologian that he makes a point of refusing to speculate as to whether the rise of Christianity was a Good or Bad Thing. . . .

Ehrman is a great scholar, and this — as one would expect — is a book full of learning and nuance.

Larry Hurtado blogged a notice of Tom Holland’s review of Ehrman (while parenthetically noting Holland’s positive words about his (Hurtado’s) own book, Destroyer of the Gods.)

It is nice to see scholars getting along so well, especially from different areas of speciality. We can for a while at least put behind us those times biblical scholars complain that outside critics are not qualified to properly assess the worth of publications of “historian-theologians”. If some readers were becoming just a tad uncomfortable with the inordinately(?) prodigious output of a scholar who simultaneously carries a full-time teaching load they are surely reassured by the confirmation that Ehrman’s new book is further evidence of his scholarly greatness. Now I do not question that Ehrman has made notable contributions to both scholarship and popular knowledge of early Christianity and its sources. Can I be forgiven, however, for suggesting that some of his most informative and valuable publications (e.g. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Lost Christianities…) are some decades old? His recent work that purported to address memory theory in Jesus studies for a popular audience was Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior unfortunately disappointed his peers who are specialists in the current application of memory theory to historical Jesus studies. I am reminded of the ancient historian Michael Grant who wrote more books than he had active years as a classicist. Obviously there has to be a relationship between quantity and quality at some point.

Tom Holland

And not even the most popular of historians and theologians, neither Tom Holland nor Bart Ehrman, are without biases and professional flaws. Holland laid out his own bias when he wrote the following in September 2016:

Why I was wrong about Christianity

It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian. . . .

. . . .

The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. . . . .

Holland, T. (2016). Why I was wrong about Christianity. Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2016/09/tom-holland-why-i-was-wrong-about-christianity

I have suggested before that Tom Holland has overlooked something that even biblical scholars have noted: that Christianity not only contained novelty; it also encapsulated values that appealed to ancient ideals. See, for example, some of the work by Gregory Riley discussed on this blog.

Since bias is inevitably with us all what we look for in an author is awareness of one’s biases. If Holland appears not to notice his own neglect of an alternative narrative he does at least pick up Ehrman on this point:

Indeed, so determined is Ehrman not to be mistaken for a theologian that he makes a point of refusing to speculate as to whether the rise of Christianity was a Good or Bad Thing. ‘I do not celebrate it either as a victory for the human race and a sign of cultural progress on the one hand, or a major sociopolitical setback and cultural disaster on the other.’ Historians rarely proclaim their neutrality with quite such emphasis.

Perhaps, though, Ehrman protests too much. Neutrality on the topic of Christianity, for historians brought up in the West, can present peculiar challenges. That Christians are parti pris does not mean that agnostics and atheists are necessarily any the less so. No scholar today writing about Isis or Mithras has skin in the game; but Ehrman, when he writes about early Christianity, most certainly does. A one-time evangelical who found the experience of studying biblical texts so destabilising to his faith that he is now an agnostic, he is also an American — and therefore, simply by virtue of being a professor of religious studies, a participant in the US’s ongoing culture wars. Neutral he is not.

What of professional competence, even consistent skill in maintaining the distinction between evidence and justified interpretation on the one hand and more free-wheeling extrapolations on the other? If at least one scholar has found fault with Ehrman’s at times cavalier approach to his material so has at least one other found fault in Holland’s desire to tell an acceptable story outstripping due care to maintain professional standards:

In “Dynasty,” his history of the first five emperors, another British historian, Tom Holland, admits quite candidly, citing Tacitus, that “even when it comes to notable events, we are in the dark.” The Roman historians themselves were well aware of this. Tacitus begins his “Annals”: “The histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified, while they remained alive, out of dread — and then, after their deaths, were composed under the influence of still festering hatreds.” Alas, Tacitus himself was not immune to similar prejudices, nor was our other prime source, the gossipy Suetonius. Holland, too, itches to get on to the juicy bits, quoting Suetonius: “But enough of the emperor; now to the monster.” He always perks up when, as he puts it in his breathless way, “fresh and murderous novelties were brewing,” and he does not always stop to catch his breath and assess just how true it all is. Did Nero really murder his mother and two of his wives, sodomize his stepbrother and deliberately set fire to Rome to make room for his new palace, putting in some lyre practice the while? Did the austere and high-minded Tiberius really spend his retirement in Capri cavorting with nymphets and toyboys in the most esoteric debaucheries? — (my emphasis)

Mount, F. (2015, November 20). Mary Beard’s ‘SPQR’ and Tom Holland’s ‘Dynasty.’ The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/books/review/mary-beards-spqr-and-tom-hollands-dynasty.html

 

It’s very nice to have the commendations of scholars from a field outside one’s own. Surely the praise of a “non-biblical historian” can add prestige to the work of a “historian-theologian”. It is worth being reminded, however, that even the most popular historians and theologians are not beyond serious criticism.

 

The evidence of ancient historians

Is it “hyper-critical” to approach ancient historians like Livy, Plutarch, …. with caution? In response to my previous post on why I do not think of myself as a “Jesus mythicist” one person insisted that we have every right to accept the words of Tacitus and Josephus about some incident that they say happened a couple of generations earlier. Here is my detailed response.

Why can’t we simply take at face value the statements we read in Tacitus and Josephus about Jesus? (Formatting and bolding in all quotations is my own.)

Let’s set aside for a moment the evidence that the references to the Christ are interpolations and assume they are genuine. Read what one prominent historian of ancient history wrote about the surviving works of ancient historians:

Yet a Livy or a Plutarch cheerfully repeated pages upon pages of earlier accounts over which they neither had nor sought any control. . . . Only Thucydides fully and systematically acknowledged the existence of a dilemma, which he resolved in the unsatisfactory way of refusing to deal with pre-contemporary history at all. . . . .

Where did they [ancient historians like Tacitus and Josephus] find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit – irrespective of possible reliability – we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated. . . . .

I suspect that Ogilvie’s slip reflects, no doubt unconsciously, the widespread sentiment that anything written in Greek or Latin is somehow privileged, exempt from the normal canons of evaluation. . . .

Unless something is captured in a more or less contemporary historical account, the narrative is lost for all time regardless of how many inscriptions or papyri may be discovered. . . . .

So when men came to write the history of their world, Greek or Roman, they found great voids in the inherited information about the past, or, worse still, quantities of ‘data’ that included fiction and half fiction jumbled with fact. That is what modern historians, unwilling for whatever reason to admit defeat, to acknowledge a void, seek to rescue under the positive label, tradition (or oral tradition). Few anthropologists view the invariably oral traditions of the people they study with the faith shown by many ancient historians. The verbal transmittal over many generations of detailed information about past events or institutions that are no longer essential or even meaningful in contemporary life invariably entails considerable and irrecoverable losses of data, or conflation of data, manipulation and invention, sometimes without visible reason, often for reasons that are perfectly intelligible. With the passage of time, it becomes absolutely impossible to control anything that has been transmitted when there is nothing in writing against which to match statements about the past. Again we suspect the presence of the unexpressed view that the traditions of Greeks and Romans are somehow privileged . . . .

There is no guarantee that the tradition has not arisen precisely in order to explain a linguistic, religious or political datum; that, in other words, the tradition is not an etiological invention . . . .

Some of the supposed data are patently fictitious, the political unification of Attica by Theseus or the foundation of Rome by Aeneas, for example, but we quickly run out of such easily identified fictions. For the great bulk of the narrative we are faced with the ‘kernel of truth’ possibility, and I am unaware of any stigmata that automatically distinguish fiction from fact. . . . .

For reasons that are rooted in our intellectual history, ancient historians are often seduced into two unexpressed propositions. The first is that statements in the literary or documentary sources are to be accepted unless they can be disproved (to the satisfaction of the individual historian).

That’s all from Finley, M. I. (1999). Ancient History: Evidence and Models. Chapter 2

That’s what I posted on the BC&H Forum. Finley is not a lone voice, however.

The Christmas cake view of history

The historian of ancient documents needs first to study the nature of those documents and to try to understand what they are capable of revealing. That means literary criticism.

To see some posts in which I have addressed other work by Woodman discussing the creative imaginations of ancient historians, see http://vridar.org/?s=woodman

To quote A.J. Woodman . . . :

‘Our primary response to the texts of the ancient historians should be literary rather than historical since the nature of the texts themselves is literary. Only when literary analysis has been carried out can we begin to use these texts as evidence for history; and by that time . . . such analysis will have revealed that there is precious little historical evidence left.’ . . . . 

Modern historians naturally dislike such views, because they challenge the very basis of ancient history as an intellectual discipline, since the ‘evidence’, at almost all periods, consists overwhelmingly of literary texts. While most historians concede that ancient historiographical texts are in some senses ‘literary’, they nevertheless insist that this ‘literary’ aspect is detachable and there is solid fact underneath. On this view, ancient works of historiography are like Christmas cakes: if you don’t like almond icing, you slice it off, and you’ve still got a cake—a substantial object uncontaminated by icing.

 

Compare “the nugget theory” of ancient history.

Later in the same chapter . . .

Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue? Emphatically, yes. The accusation of deliberate fabrication is made repeatedly. Herodotus is dubbed the father, not only of history, but of lies; Polybius castigates historians not only for incompetence, but falsehood; Lucian tells of historians who claimed to be eye-witnesses of things they could not possibly have seen; invention and manipulation of factual material is (I believe) demonstrable in Herodotus and Plutarch, as well as Hellenistic tragic historians. The motives vary: some, of course, crudely political — propaganda, flattery, denigration; literary rivalry (to trump one’s predecessors, of which we have seen examples even in Thucydides); the desire to spin a good yarn (often important in Herodotus and other historians of the exotic); sometimes (surely) historiographical parody; sheer emotional arousal or entertainment; the need to make moral points or bring out broader patterns or causes behind complicated sequences of events.

And

Why then do Herodotus and Plutarch behave in this way? Serious ancient historians (which both Herodotus and Plutarch intermittently are) face the problem of the eternal see-saw of history: the need to generalize from specifics. No serious ancient historian was so tied to specific factual truth that he would not sometimes help general truths along by manipulating, even inventing, ‘facts’. Of course, the requisite manipulation could sometimes be achieved through the medium of ‘what-is-said’ material, to whose historicity the ancient historian did not commit himself. But there were some occasions when the issues were so serious that it was rhetorically necessary, even at the risk of attack, to maintain the illusion of strict historicity. On those occasions the historian could never admit to manipulation or invention. Such is the tyranny of factual truth.

J.L. Moles, “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides” in Lies and fiction in the Ancient World edited by Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter Press, 1993. — pages 90, 115, 120

It takes no great effort to refute him — he’s a historian.

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An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally

Moses I. Finley (1912-1986)

What do ancient historians think of the efforts of biblical scholars to inquire into “the historical Jesus” and the origins of Christianity?

M.I. Finley was an influential historian of ancient history who found time out from his studies on the classical (Greco-Roman) world and methodological problems in ancient history more generally to write a handful of articles on problems facing biblical scholars attempting to reconstruct Christian origins. Finley compiled three of these articles into a single chapter, “Christian Beginnings: Three Views of Historiography” in his small volume, Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies (1968).

Interestingly (to me, certainly) Finley zeroes in on the same methodological problems faced by scholars of Jesus and Christian origins that I have often addressed on this blog and in other online forums. It is nice to find agreement in a scholar so highly regarded as Finley was.

Vridar and related discussions of Maurice Goguel:

In the second part of his chapter and in the course of discussing Maurice Goguel’s methods in arriving at some detail about the historical Jesus, Finley comes across an all too common point in the work of another well-known name, A.N. Sherwin-White:

An Oxford historian, Mr A. N. Sherwin-White, has recently insisted that the life of Christ as told in the Gospels and the life of Tiberius as related by Tacitus or the account of the Persian Wars in Herodotus are all of a kind, subject to the same tests and having the same general aims. ‘Not‘, he adds, ‘that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides.’ (Aspects, p. 177)

One is reminded of works by Richard Burridge and Richard Bauckham attempting to show how similar the gospels are to ancient biographies and histories. But Finley knows better than to allow Sherwin-White’s statement a free pass (my own bolding in all quotations):

Not precisely? Not at all. He has forgotten that the Greek verb at the root of ‘history’ is historein, to inquire, which is what Herodotus set out to do, and what the authors of the Gospels (or the apologetic writers and theologians) did not set out to do. The latter bore witness, an activity of an altogether different order. (Aspects, p. 177)

So we see that Finley called out the rhetorical sleights of hand we find are in fact all too common in the works of too many biblical scholars.

Finley then turned to another historian’s work exploring the nature of history:

In R. G. Collingwood’s justly famous dictum,

theocratic history … means not history proper … but a statement of known facts for the information of persons to whom they are not known, but who, as worshippers of the god in question, ought to know the deeds whereby he has made himself manifest

The real difficulty begins if one agrees with Collingwood. Once the existence of a process of myth-making is accepted, the question is, How does one make a history out of such historiographically unpromising materials? There are no others. A handful of sentences in pagan writers, wholly unilluminating, and a few passages in Josephus and the Talmud, tendentious when they are not forgeries, are all we have from non-Christian sources for the first century or century and a half of Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say that they contribute nothing. One must work one’s way as best one can with the Christian writings, with no external controls(Aspects, p. 177)

“With no external controls”? That is the very phrase I have been using in my own criticisms of the methodology at the heart of historical reconstructions based on the gospels. To verify that claim type the words external controls and/or independent controls in the Search Vridar box in the right-hand column of this blog page.

Finley expands on this problematic point in other essays collated in The Use and Abuse of History (1975) and Ancient History: Evidence and Models (1999) but before I address any of that elaboration let’s keep with his focus on Goguel as an example. Goguel worked before terms like “criteria of authenticity” became commonplace but he understood and worked with the same principles or methods. He might call them “logical and psychological” tests (= criteria of coherence, plausibility…) applied to gospel passages to “uncover” probable “facts” about the historical Jesus.

One simple example will suffice. When asked by the Pharisees for ‘a sign from Heaven’, Jesus replied, ‘There shall be no sign given unto this generation’ (Mark viii, 11-12). Goguel comments:

This saying is certainly authentic, for it could not have been created by primitive Christianity which attached a great importance to the miracles of Jesus … This leads us to think that Jesus did not want to work marvels, that is to say, acts of pure display.

It follows that stories like those of Jesus walking on water are ‘extremely doubtful’. His healing, on the other hand, may be accepted, and, in conformity with the beliefs prevailing at the time, ‘it is true that these healings were regarded as miracles both by Jesus himself and by those who were the recipients of his bounty.’

This application of the ‘psychological method’ is neat, plausible, commonsensical. But is the answer right? Not only in this one example but in the thousands upon thousands of details in the story upon which Goguel or any other historian must make up his mind? I do not know what decisive tests of verifiability could possibly be applied. The myth-making process has a kind of logic of its own, but it is not the logic of Aristotle or of Bertrand Russell. Therefore it does not follow that it always avoids inconsistency: it is capable of retaining, and even inventing, sayings and events which, in what we call strict logic, undermine its most cherished beliefs. The difficulties are of course most acute at the beginning, with the life of Jesus. One influential modern school, which goes under the name of ‘form-criticism’, has even abandoned history at this stage completely. ‘In my opinion,’ wrote Rudolph Bultmann, ‘we can sum up what can be known of the life and personality of Jesus as simply nothing.’ (Aspects, p. 178)

It does not appear that Finley was prepared to go along with the methods, let alone conclusions, of biblical scholars in their efforts to establish what was historical about Jesus. A gospel narrative is merely a gospel narrative. We have no way of testing whether any of its narrative was genuinely historical or based on historical memory.

Sometimes one hears how accurate are the details of geography or social customs in the gospels as if such details add any weight to the historicity of the narrative. Finley responded to that rejoinder in the third part of his chapter in Aspects of Antiquity. He begins with a reminder of the point just made above:

[T]he Gospel accounts . . . are the sole source of information about the Passion – that cannot be said often enough or sharply enough – and all four agree on the responsibility of some Jews. . . .

What, then, actually happened? Not even the Synoptic Gospels provide a clear and coherent account, and there are added confusions and impossibilities in the Fourth Gospel. There is one school of thought, to which I belong, which holds that no reconstruction is possible from such unsatisfactory evidence. (Aspects, p. 182)

Finley then returned to Sherwin-White’s misleading comparison of the gospels with Greek histories:

Even if one could accept the view recently re-stated with much vigour by A. N. Sherwin-White in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, that the Acts and Gospels are qualitatively no different as historical sources from Herodotus or Tacitus, one does not get very far. Mr Sherwin-White has been able to demonstrate that the New Testament is very accurate in its details about life at the time, whether about geography and travel or the rules of citizenship and court procedures. Why should it not be? It is made up of contemporary documents, regardless of the accuracy of the narrative, and so reflects society as it was. That still does not tell us anything about the narrative details, and they are what matters. For that Mr Sherwin-White must, in the end, select and reject, explain and explain away, just as every other scholar has done for as long as anyone has felt the urge (and the possibility) of a historical reconstruction of the Passion. (Aspects, pp. 182f)

And that’s exactly what we read so often even among biblical scholars — that background details somehow lend historical credibility to the gospel narrative.

He is probably right, but it still does not follow, as he seems to think, that the veracity of the Gospel narrative has thereby been substantiated, or even been made more probable in a significant sense.

Far be it from me to suggest, no matter how faintly, that it is ever unimportant to get the historical record right. But the feeling will not go away that there is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about it all. (Aspects, p. 183)

Enter the deus ex machina of oral tradition to strengthen faith in the literary sources . . . 

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

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!

 

 

G. A. Wells Obituary

I was saddened to learn of the death of George Albert Wells via a Facebook friend. The Guardian has an obituary by Martin Jones. Wells’ books challenging the historicity of Jesus were among the first that I read on the question and I have never found their basic arguments overturned. Earl Doherty had quite a different view of the Jesus of earliest Christianity and I enjoyed reading some of the exchanges or criticisms of each other’s arguments that appeared online. In later years Wells did accept that the Q sayings of Jesus originated with some form of “historical Jesus” — but I found his arguments there less cogent than his earlier work.

He became a lecturer in German at UCL in 1949, and was appointed head of department at Birkbeck in 1968. He retired in 1988.

George’s views on the historicity of Jesus – which he first denied, then accepted in a qualified form – were controversial. He published nine books on this subject between 1971 and 2009, most notably The Historical Evidence for Jesus (1982). His work in this field generated debate in the US, where he was awarded the title of Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism in 1983.

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