2019-01-15

Why Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is so Sparsely Drawn: An Explanation

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by Neil Godfrey

You may or may not agree with the following summary of the way Jesus is depicted in the Gospel of Mark. I don’t think the account is very far off.

Lion of St Mark by Vittore Carpaccio

I also suggest that such a narrative of Jesus is closer to what one may expect if the figure of Jesus and his story had been sourced and fleshed out from a key texts in the Old Testament writings in particular. We saw in the previous post how the narrative of Jesus cleansing the temple and cursing the fig tree has been patchworked together from passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Zechariah.  To see illustrations of how other chapters ((11 to 16) in the Gospel of Mark have been woven out of at least 160 OT allusions and quotations, see 160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16. I say “at least” because I know there are gaps in those lists and I list one more at the end of this post.

‘This then is the Marcan picture of Jesus. When we view it thus in isolation, it strikes us at once as being a very meagre story.

The chronological notices are so sparse and vague that one year might be taken as the duration of our Lord’s public ministry;

and even of that year large parts are unaccounted for.

The arrangement of the anecdotes in the Galilean section seems confused.

The story gives no explanation of the way in which Jesus’ name became known in Jerusalem; (there is no trace of an early ministry in Jerusalem such as the fourth Gospel records).

Jesus is presented as beginning as a teacher, but of his teaching in Galilee (and even later too) very little is recorded, and that little is mostly incidental.

It is a story about Jesus, but it does not give us much idea of what Jesus actually preached. If this were a biography, it would be a very defective one.’

And then, further on (pp. 52-53)

‘Thus the Marcan Jesus, is neither, as in Matthew, the giver of the new Law, nor as in Luke, the preacher of a Catholic fraternity.

The Marcan Jesus is an austere figure, mysterious, stormy, and impervious.

This portrait is drawn with the utmost economy of line and colour.

Practically all is subordinated to the emphasising of the Messianic intention. First He announces the Messianic Kingdom, then He admits the Messianic position, then He publicly assumes the Messianic role, goes up to Jerusalem to die, and dies for His Messianic claim.’

(John Bowman quoting Bishop A.W.F. Blunt’s 1935 commentary on the Gospel of Mark)

Another allusion was discerned by Karel Hanhart. See the first part of  Jesus’ Crucifixion As Symbol of Destruction of Temple and Judgment on the Jews for the evidence that Jesus’ tomb was itself based upon Isaiah’s description of the ruined temple.

In an earlier post I compared that picture of the “tomb hewn from a rock” with another earlier miracle narrative found in Mark, the one where a roof is “hewn out” to allow a paralytic man to be lowered and restored by Jesus. That we have more than one passage playing upon one original text (in this case Isaiah 22:16) is again, I suggest, another sign that the story has been pieced together from an imaginative re-working of scriptural passages.


Bowman, John. 1965. The Gospel of Mark: The New Christian Jewish Passover Haggadah. Brill. p.95



2019-01-14

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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]

Footnotes:

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

(From BibleGateway.com)

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.


Jesus’ Baptism Based on Abraham’s Binding of Isaac?

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by Neil Godfrey

The baptism of Jesus is easily associated with Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea before trekking forty years in the wilderness, even further with the subsequent crossing of the Jordan River into the “promised land” by Israel, then again by Elijah, nor forgetting Noah emerging from the Flood. The subsequent vision of the heavens being opened can be interpreted as a transvaluation of the Exodus story — the waters parted for Israel, but the heavens themselves parted for Jesus. All of these literary sources have been proposed by various scholars and we have set out their arguments on this blog.

Now it is time for one more likely source. The following is taken from a chapter by William R. Stegner in Abraham & Family: New Insights into the Patriarchal Narratives.

Before I start I should refer to another work that I consider to be critical background information. Jon D. Levenson argued what I think is a cogent case for the stories of Abraham’s offering of Isaac having a heavy influence on the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus. One of the most significant differences between the canonical narrative and the later rabbinic interpretation is that in the latter Isaac is said to be a mature man in his thirties and willingly giving himself to his father to be sacrificed. See my series of ten posts setting out the details of his argument. It appears that some Jewish interpreters of the Second Temple era even interpreted the Genesis account as a literal sacrifice of Isaac: Abraham was thought to have slain and shed the blood of Isaac before the angel had time to call out for him to stop the second time. Isaac was restored to life but his shed blood was believed to have had atoning power for the sins of all his descendants.

Stegner also finds interesting details in the extra-canonical interpretations of the “binding of Isaac” (or akedah).

Now we know that the Targums of the rabbis were written long after the first century. Sometimes, however, scholars do posit reasons for believing that some of these works originated in the Second Temple period. So we are basing our arguments on inference when we suggest that certain Targum narratives about Genesis were extant among scribes before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Hence my question mark in the title of this post. read more »


2019-01-13

Greek Myths and Genesis

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by Neil Godfrey

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.


 


2019-01-12

Media Coverage of Israel-Palestine — Update

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by Neil Godfrey

The findings demonstrate a persistent bias in coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian issue — one where Israeli narratives are privileged and where, despite the continued entrenchment of the occupation, the very topics germane to Palestinians’ day-to-day reality have disappeared. . . . While subtle, a consistent disproportion in article headlines — which by default gives a greater airtime to one side or occludes certain key issues — can impact public perception. — Owais Zaheer

It calls to attention the need to more critically evaluate the scope of coverage of the Israeli occupation and recognize that readers are getting, at best, a heavily filtered rendering of the issue.

. . . .

Since 1967, the year that the Israeli military took control of the West Bank, there has been an 85 percent overall decrease in mention of the term “occupation” in headlines about Israel, despite the fact that the Israeli military’s occupation of Palestinian territory has in fact intensified over this time. Mention of the term “Palestinian refugees,” meanwhile, has declined a stunning 93 percent. 

But there is also a hopeful silver lining:

Despite this grim political reality, there have been significant changes in U.S. media coverage of the conflict, driven in part by popular pressure coming from social media. There are also signs that Israel is becoming a partisan issue dividing liberals and conservatives in the United States, with polls showing that growing numbers of Americans would like their government to take a more evenhanded stance on the conflict.

U.S. government policy has yet to reflect these shifts in public sentiment, with the Trump administration falling over itself to project an unprecedentedly hostile and uncompromising stance toward Palestinian claims. Hard-line supporters of the Israeli government have seemingly shifted their approach from winning “hearts and minds” to punishing opponents: publishing blacklists of Palestinian activists, censoring public figures vocal about the conflict, and advocating for laws to restrict boycotts of Israeli goods.

Nonetheless, people who have followed U.S. debate on the conflict for decades say that there are serious tectonic changes occurring at the level of the American public, both in media and popular sentiment.

“Although news coverage is not evenhanded and is still generally skewed towards the Israeli perspective, there has been a massive shift over the past five years in how this issue is both reported and discussed in the United States,” said Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a D.C.-based progressive think tank.

“We are seeing a shift in the types of stories that are being covered by major outlets, as well as the stances that public figures are willing to take. There are still huge problems, but things are changing. The discourse on Israel-Palestine is nothing like it was in decades past.”

From The Intercept

The full report:

Download (PDF, 617KB)


2019-01-11

Two Views on the Lord’s Supper: Authentic or Inconceivable

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by Neil Godfrey

I Corinthians 11:

23 For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; 24 and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 In like manner also the cup, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come. 

Richard Bauckham’s analysis:

On the other occasion when Paul explicitly states that he “received” a tradition, he is also explicit about the source: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor 11:23). The tradition is about the words of Jesus at the last supper (vv. 23-25) . . . . Paul certainly does not mean that he received this tradition by immediate revelation from the exalted Lord. He must have known it as a unit of Jesus tradition, perhaps already part of a passion narrative; it is the only such unit that Paul ever quotes explicitly and at length. . . . Paul’s version is verbally so close to Luke’s that, since literary dependence in either direction is very unlikely, Paul must be dependent either on a written text or, more likely, an oral text that has been quite closely memorized. . . . Paul cites the Jesus tradition, not a liturgical text, and so he provides perhaps our earliest evidence of narratives about Jesus transmitted in a way that involved, while not wholly verbatim reproduction, certainly a considerable degree of precise memorization.

. . . . 

[Paul’s] introduction to the tradition about the Lord’s Supper in 11:23 (“I received from the Lord”) focuses on the source of the sayings of Jesus, which are the point of the narrative, and claims that they truly derive from Jesus. He therefore envisages a chain of transmission that begins from Jesus himself and passes through intermediaries to Paul himself, who has already passed it on to the Corinthians when he first established their church. The intermediaries are surely, again, the Jerusalem apostles, and this part of the passion traditions will have been part of what Paul learned . . . from Peter during that significant fortnight in Jerusalem. Given Paul’s concern and conviction that his gospel traditions come from the Lord Jesus himself, it is inconceivable that Paul would have relied on less direct means of access to the traditions. . . . the authenticity of the traditions he transmitted in fact depended on their derivation from the Jerusalem apostles. We might note that his claim, as an apostle, to have the same right as the Jerusalem apostles to material support from his converts (1 Cor 9:3-6) is based on a number of reasons, but the final and clinching argument is a saying of the earthly Jesus (9:14).

(Bauckham, pp. 268 f.)

Bruno Bauer’s analysis as set out by Albert Schweitzer:

The Lord’s supper, considered as an historic scene, is revolting and inconceivable. Jesus can no more have instituted it than he can have uttered the saying ‘Let the dead bury their dead.’ In both cases the offence arises from the fact that a conviction of the community has been cast into the form of a historical saying of Jesus. A man who was present in person, corporeally present, could not entertain the idea of offering others his flesh and blood to eat. To demand from others that while he was actually present they should imagine the bread and wine which they were eating to be his body and blood would have been quite impossible for a real person. It was only later, when Jesus’ actual bodily presence had been removed and the Christian community had existed for some time, that such a conception as is expressed in that formula could have arisen. A point which clearly betrays the later composition of the narrative is that the Lord does not turn to the disciples sitting with him at table and say, ‘This is my blood which will be shed for you,’ but, since the words were invented by the early church, speaks of the ‘many’ for whom he gives himself. The only historical fact is that the Jewish Passover was gradually transformed by the Christian community into a feast which had reference to Jesus.

(Schweitzer, pp. 132 f)


Bauckham, Richard. 2008. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Schweitzer, Albert. 2001. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Edited by John Bowden. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.



2019-01-10

Scholarship and “Mythicism”: When the Guilty Verdict is more important than the Evidence or Argument

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by Neil Godfrey

I recently wrote in a blog post:

Roger Pearse, for instance, goes even further and without any suggestion that he is aware of Doherty’s arguments says they are “all nonsense, of course.”

A theme I come back to from time to time is the gulf between many biblical scholars and scholars of early Christianity. We saw what happened when Earl Doherty made his first “public appearance” online on the Crosstalk forum, a meeting place for scholarly discussion. A good number of the professional scholar in that forum reacted with outright disdain and insult. They did not “need” to hear or engage with Doherty’s arguments to “know” they were “rubbish”. The mere suggestion that their entire working hypothesis for Christian origins — a Jesus figure emerging and winning some small following at a time of messianic hopes, followed by the confused and evolving responses of some of his followers to his crucifixion as a political rebel — the mere suggestion that the foundations of their studies rested on questionable assumptions and that it should be an outsider who cries out that the emperor might be naked was too much for some.

Jim West’s response was typical of much of the tone:

It is utterly UN-reasonable to suggest that Jesus did not exist. Such silliness has no place on an academic list. Perhaps discussions of the non-existence of Jesus belong on the same lists as discussions of UFO abductions, alien autopsies, and the like. . . . 

The net is filled with crackpots, loons, and various shades of insane folk who spout their views and expect people to take them seriously. And when they dont get taken seriously they get mad.

. . . . Bill and his “voice behind the curtain” have simply repeated old junk which has been dealt with in the history of scholarship already. Why must we reinvent the wheel every time someone comes up with “a new idea or a new spin on an old idea”.

Did Jim West look at the arguments behind the claims? Yes, he could confidently declare that indeed he had:

(oh yes, I have visited the web page advertised— very pretty- yet filled with nonsensical non sequiters). Life is too short to rehash garbage.

And that settled it. Such “nonsense” had been more than adequately dealt with long ago — if pressed he may have mentioned the names of Maurice Goguel and Shirley Jackson Case — but if indeed the arguments had been dealt with Jim does not explain his hostile tone. Why not, like a sophisticated scholar, a tutor, or even a reference librarian, simply direct people such as Doherty and those who read his books to the sources that they have presumably missed? Who is it who is “getting mad” because they don’t think they are being taken seriously?

There is a contradiction there. It’s kettle logic. On the one hand we are informed that the Doherty’s and their arguments have been seriously addressed; but then on the other we are told that the Doherty’s get made because their arguments are not taken any more seriously than claims of UFO abductions and alien autopsies.

No, no-one expects a scholar to reinvent the wheel “every time someone comes up with “a new idea or a new spin on an old idea”.” So why the hostility? Why not simply refer Bill to the works that clearly establish the foundations of the scholarly enterprise and leave no room for a resurgence of what had long been dealt with professionally.

Jim covers himself to the extent that he says he did “visit” Doherty’s arguments and could most assuredly say that they were filled with “nonsensical” non sequiturs. No specifics, but no references to the earlier works that had settled all the questions, either.

I can go to any sizeable general bookshop and find books written by scientists and science reporters addressing the flaws in young-earth creationist literature. It is not hard to find. Some scientists clearly find time to address the fallacies and falsehoods of creationists to the extent that any serious enquirer can be assured they have all the essential data and all the basic arguments before them. I do not expect to find in such books sweeping assertions that creationist literature is filled with falsehoods and non sequiturs. I expect to find, and do find, examples of the flaws and clear discussions about them.

However, happily there are a few biblical scholars who are serious enough to make the time and effort to offer serious, scholarly rebuttals of some of this new material. Or are there? read more »


Scholars of Christianity are Not Alone

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s a human thing. Not limited to one religious heritage. I’m talking about the foibles of scholarship as it delves into its own heritage.

So we have the language of apologetics being used where it does not belong. Recall a post that detoured into a discussion of confessional language in scholarship. Recall some of the examples of this evangelical rhetoric:

Alas, the idea that a messiah killed by crucifixion . . . . would be shocking to first-century Jews is still alive and well.

. . . .

At the very least, however; Paul’s primary emphasis in relation to Christ represents something utterly remarkable. For Paul had found the early Christian proclamation of the crucified messiah completely abhorrent . . . .

. . . .

. . . . an unprecedented and momentous innovation in traditional Jewish liturgical practice.

And so forth. But Christianity is not alone. The following is found in a Buddhist publication:

It took an astonishing energy and dedication to create and sustain this literature. It must have been produced by an extraordinary historical event. And what could this event be, if not the appearance of a revolutionary spiritual genius? The Buddha’s presence as a living figure in the [early Buddhist texts] is overwhelming and unmistakable.

Then there is this claim attempting to put a study arguing for the authenticity of very early Buddhist texts reliably scientific:

Science works from indirect and inferred evidence and the preponderance of such indirect evidence points to the authenticity of the [early Buddhist texts]

Is that true about the grounds for scientific conclusions? I’m not so sure.

Then we read of the conditions that are laid down for any opposing argument:

Anyone wishing to establish the thesis that the [early Buddhist texts] are inauthentic needs to propose an explanation that accounts for the entire range of evidence in a manner that is at least as simple, natural, and reasonable as the thesis of authenticity. To our knowledge, this has never even been attempted. Rather, sceptics content themselves with picking holes in individual pieces of evidence, which merely distracts from the overall picture, and discourages further inquiry. Their methods have much in common with denialist rhetoric (see section 7.4).

That sounds awfully like an apologist saying that any proposal for Christian origins has to be as simple as the thesis that the disciples of Jesus believed he was the messiah and that he had been resurrected and persuaded others to believe the same. There is a difference between simple and simplistic. read more »


2019-01-09

The Age of the Hebrew Bible — the other view

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by Neil Godfrey

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?)


An interesting website for Greek Myth lovers

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by Neil Godfrey

From Stephen Fry’s Mythos (which I have just finished reading)

The one website I would most heartily recommend is theoi.com – a simply magnificent resource entirely dedicated to Greek myth. It is a Dutch and New Zealand project that contains over 1,500 pages of text and a gallery of 1,200 pictures comprising vase paintings, sculpture, mosaics and frescoes on Greek mythological themes. It offers thorough indexing, genealogies and subject headings. The bibliography is superb, and can lead one on a labyrinthine chase, hopping from source to source like an excited butterfly-collector.

 


What concord hath Christ with Inquiry?

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by Neil Godfrey

I suppose a professional writer has to select a topic and style that is going to attract readers and an editor is paid to lure those readers with alarmist headers, so we should not be too surprised to read in this month’s Christianity Today

How to Defend the Gospels with Confidence

Questions about their reliability deserve better than sheepish mumbling

https://www-images.christianitytoday.com/images/85811.jpg?w=700
Image from Pixel Creative / Lightstock. The header calling for a “bold defence” is accompanied by worshipful, praying hands.

Attention all readers who need to defend the reliability of the Gospels boldly. Can it really be that 250 years after Voltaire and Hume people still see themselves in need of honing their defences against . . . .?? Against what, exactly?

The article begins:

Last month, Harvard psychologist and atheist public intellectual Steven Pinker posted this provocative tweet: “As any Jew knows, there is controversy (to put it mildly) over whether Jesus was the messiah. But did he exist at all? A new book by R. G. Price argues, ‘Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed.’”

So that’s it. Against “provocation” in the form of a tweet.

Synonyms for provocative:

adj aggravating

challenging disturbing exciting inspirational insulting offensive outrageous  annoying  galling  goading heady incensing inciting influential intoxicating provoking pushing spurring . . .

So that’s it? For someone to publish their that Jesus may not have existed is considered…. disturbing, insulting, offensive, inciting…?

But it gets worse. The author holds a doctorate from Cambridge University:

Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD from Cambridge University as well as a theology degree from Oak Hill Seminary. Her first book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Worldview, will be published by Crossway in 2019.

Part of me thinks, “I did not think it possible for a Cambridge educated PhD to consider different viewpoints about Jesus “provocative” or “insulting” or “disturbing”.” But then I am reminded of my own past life living in a double-bind, in cognitive dissonance, so I know it can and does happen.

Notice something, though. The next paragraph says

This comment garnered well over a thousand likes and 600 shares. This, despite the fact that the book Pinker highlighted was self-published by someone without the relevant scholarly credentials. Its thesis is historically laughable. But the takeaway is one that even a highly educated atheist like Pinker will gladly swallow and propagate. Posts like this reinforce the popular idea that Jesus is a flimsy, semi-mythological character—wearing sandals for sure, but without any clear historical footprint.

We Christians know better. Or do we?

Ah. There it is. The “we-them” world-view. And what was the offence? It was a thesis that is described as “historically laughable”. There is no reference to any particular argument behind the thesis. One may fairly assume that Rebecca McLaughlin has not read the book Pinker found interesting enough to  tweet about. The arguments are clearly so irrelevant that they are not worth looking at. All that is needed is a few disparaging words about the author and scoffing way of telling readers that the thesis cannot be taken seriously.

From that paragraph McLaughlin segues into a review of a book titled Can We Trust the Gospels by Peter J. Williams.

This is a PhD from Cambridge, a full 250 years after the heyday of the Enlightenment, telling a flock she fears may be overly “sheepish” to laugh mockingly (or “historically”, whatever that meant in context) at a different view and respond not by understanding the arguments for the “provocation” but by reading good arguments that can be used to strengthen one’s “defences” against “the other”.

As for myself, when I read R.G. Price’s book (the subject of Pinker’s tweet) the last thing on my mind was how believers would respond to it. I presume believers have no interest in such books. I never for a moment saw the book as “provocative”. I simply saw it as a presentation of an interesting argument for a new way of reading the gospels. To have a new way of understanding what the gospels were all about is something I normally find interesting. I certainly don’t see the exercise as part of some warfare against believers.

It seems that not all believers view new ideas the same way.

Anyway, what did McLaughlin have to say about this book that equipped believers to boldly defend their faith in the gospels?

There is the usual (tiresomely predictable) introduction with Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny the Younger and the “would have beens” (as in Jesus family would have been known by Church leaders….

I have finally concluded that apologists who continue to write such nonsense about late first and early second century historians have no interest at all in what historians of ancient Rome have to say about such sources, even less what those of us on the “other side” have to say about them, and that the reason for repeating the same dot points in a new publication is to maintain a ritual. Rituals are comforting, I suppose.

Then there is this other piece of irrelevance:

Turning to the Gospels themselves, Williams argues that Jesus’ life produced more detailed and better-attested accounts than the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius, “the most famous person in the then-known world.” While the earliest surviving manuscripts describing Tiberius’s life date from the ninth century, the earliest surviving incomplete copies of the Gospels are from the second and third centuries, and we have complete copies of all the Gospels from the fourth.

Again, the words are ritually republished, and ritually re-read, generation after generation.

Where Williams’s book comes alive for a more seasoned reader is in sections showing how the Gospels drip with local detail.

Detail! Such detail. There is even a subheading:

Dripping with Detail

Just like detail-dripping works Homer, and Virgil, and Juvenal, and Petronius…. and Vardis Fisher:

The first course, the gustatio or appetizer, included oysters, eggs, mushrooms, all saturated with a sauce of sweet wine mixed with heavy amber honey. Among the tidbits were tongues of flamingoes and other birds, the flesh of ostrich wings, breast of dove and thrush, livers of geese, and a concoction of sow-livers, teats and vulva in a thick syrup of figs. Of the main dishes he managed to taste chicken covered deep with a sauce of anise seed, mint, lazerroot, vinegar, dates, the juices of salted fishguts, oil and mustard seed. There were many kinds of fish, all heavily spiced, rich and dripping; thrush on asparagus; a pastry of the brains of small birds; sows’ udder floating in a thick jelly that smelled of coriander; roast venison, pig, fowl and hare; and innumerable sausages and pickled or spiced meats. A dish in great demand was a jelly of sow-livers that had been fattened on figs, an invention of Apicius, a famous gourmet under Tiberius.

Now that’s dripping with detail. It is from the opening pages of a modern novel set in imperial Rome.

The gospels are so “very Jewish”, so that adds to their reliability for some reason. And the fallacy laden (“dripping with logical fallacies”) book of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is called in as an expert witness, as seems to be routine nowadays among gospel apologists.

McLaughlin suddenly seems to become a little “sheepish” herself when she seems to be suggesting that Williams even argues for the historical truth of the virgin birth. She doesn’t say it outright, but what else are we to conclude when she “sheepishly mumbles” something about Williams’ claim that such a detail could not be introduced into the church in the early days because Jesus’ family, mother in particular, no doubt, were still alive to refute the claim; but then it couldn’t be introduced later, either, because by then all the traditions had been settled and set so anything new at that stage would be suspect.

The part that disturbs me about Rebecca McLaughlin’s article is that the sentiments she expresses, the scoffing at an idea combined with disregard for finding out anything about its arguments, the ad hominem denigration, ….. they are not confined to lay people or clergy, are they. One might just as easily think one is reading something by a biblical scholar in a theology or divinity department at a public university. Now that’s a thought ought to be provocative.

 


McLaughlin, Rebecca. 2019. “How to Defend the Gospels with Confidence.” ChristianityToday International, January. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/january-web-only/peter-williams-can-we-trust-gospels.html.

Fisher, Vardis. 1956. A Goat For Azazel: A Novel of Christian Origins. Testament of Man 9. New York: Pyramid.


 


2019-01-08

Blog Subject Matter for 2019

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by Tim Widowfield

Vridar

Just briefly, here are some things that I (and probably Neil, as well) intend to write about in the coming months.

  • How do historians treat possibly legendary or semilegendary figures other than Jesus?
    • The search for a common methodology of historicity. How do historians weigh the evidence surrounding characters such as King Arthur and Robin Hood? What steps do we take to evaluate literary evidence?
    • Processes historians follow to assess historical authenticity. How do they do it? Spoiler alert: We need contemporary, verifiable, independent corroboration.
    • The often quite strong and surprisingly predictable backlash against the suggestion that people’s beloved heroes may never existed. “You’re taking away our history/heritage!”
  • Is determining historical existence categorically different from the search for probably authentic deeds and sayings? If so, how does that difference affect our methods and the ways we analyze evidence?
  • Is Carrier’s reference class model useful for determining historicity?
    • Is it circular?
    • What parts of his method can we salvage?
  • The perils of amalgamating different, often contradictory stories into a single narrative legend.
  • The Memory Mavens: More stuff about ritual memory vs. shared stories.
  • William Wrede: His contributions to methodology (now generally unknown and ignored).

Happy Belated New Year!


2019-01-07

The Poverty of Jesus Historicism (sorry, Popper)

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by Neil Godfrey

A spirit of obsession these past few days has possessed me with an intent to find something good and positive among mainstream biblical scholars of the historical Jesus and Christian origins. I fear I have proven to be a leaky and soon sunk vessel. All I discovered this past week was a post titled Revision and Dispute on the Critical Realism and the New Testament blog. I admit I was a little worried about opening and reading the post given my experience with a handful of other posts from the same author. But let bygones be bygones and focus on what we have in the here and now.

To begin:

In the opening paragraph the author directly compares (and I hope I am not misstating or misleading in any way) that the strength of evidence for the historical existence of Jesus lies in the same bracket of probability (that is, certainty) as the historicity of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.

The author goes so far as to imply that anyone who doubts the historicity of Jesus is operating at a level equivalent to someone who would declare all the evidence for Germany’s invasion of Poland has been falsified.

Surely you jest. . . .

No, no, I am serious. But please let me continue. Please hear me out.

The same scholar (I believe he is a scholar, he says lots of things that indicate he is a real scholar) wrote

The recent resurgence in arguments for Jesus’ historical non-existence rested entirely upon the argument that there had emerged new insights into old evidence.

What “recent resurgence” did he mean?

He did not say. But I can only think he is talking about Richard Carrier. But that’s getting on a bit, isn’t it? Earl Doherty (an acknowledged inspirations of both Carrier and Price) took up the mantle from G. A. Wells, and before him we had P.L. Couchoud and, who knows ….. I don’t know what or who he means. He doesn’t say. But just from reading his post one would think that he is unaware of any mythicist publications until “recently”. He seems to suggest that Jesus mythicism has simply popped up “recently” from nowhere. So it is all very confusing.

Sigh. But surely there must be a smidgen of academic advance since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

No, no, not at all. The Critically Real Blogger says that

those competent in the matter and fully familiar with the evidence recognized immediately that these were not new insights at all but almost without exception insights that had been advanced and rejected the better part of a century ago.

You cannot be serious!! Sorry… I let reality sway my impulses for a moment. I mean, ….. Yes, yes, I know what you mean. Sigh.

Okay. Where do we go from here? Let’s think.

I suppose we could call on him to produce the citations that will lead us to where all of those competent had known and debunked all of those puerile mythicist myths long ago, even as far back as the eighteenth century. Surely!

Of course he will say he is too busy and flick us off to look for ourselves. The only problem, of course, is that we have looked at all of those rebuttals and see that they are for most part non sequiturs or worse.

So then he will tell us to look more closely and when we do we return to say that none of the initial arguments have been addressed. All the words that we read have to do with apologetics and non sequiturs and other fallacies.

Can I ask something here? Haven’t we, on Vridar, lately posted two series of critical reviews of mythicism that have appeared  in the Journal for the Historical Study of Jesus?

Yes.

Do you think that that is part of the problem?

What do you mean?

Do you think our blogger is simply up in arms against those who do not submit to the good sense of his intellect?

How so? Surely, if our blogger is a genuine intellectual, and he surely is, then he will see from what we have written that we address nothing but the plain facts. We set out the plain facts of what the scholarly reviewer (whether Gullotta or Gathercole) says and side by side we place those words with what the reviewed target (Doherty or Carrier) says, and judge for ourselves the honesty of the review.

Yes, but I don’t think they see it that way. I think they want to portray any of us who questions the historicity of Jesus as idiots. Full stop. The want to reassure every faithful Jesus believer that they are on the side of “sanity”.


I am tiring of this post. I have been here too often before. SOME (NOT ALL BUT WAY TOO MANY) historical Jesus scholars really have no idea about the most fundamental principles of historical methods outside their cherished field of God and theology and divinity and faith and all that.

To cut to the chase:

I state here that every event that historians (setting theologians and divinity doctors aside for a moment) claim to be a bedrock fact can be found to be grounded in contemporary evidence, that is, evidence contemporary to the person under discussion, or to evidence that can be shown to have derived from contemporary evidence.

There is NO such evidence for Jesus. There IS such evidence for Socrates, for Cicero’s slave, and for Seneca’s philosophical rivals (figures with even less claim than Jesus to being significant enough to enter the historical record) who are otherwise lost from history.

Biblical scholars who write posts like Revision and Dispute demonstrate each time that they write that they have no inkling of how vast is the gulf between what they call history (something that opens visions of persons and worlds otherwise hidden behind texts) and what historians, real historians without any theological baggage, call history.


Finis


 

 


2019-01-06

Paul’s and Isaiah’s Visions — A Possible Connection

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by Neil Godfrey

See the Ascension of Isaiah archive for other posts on this source. I am sure over time more will be added and views will change.

Roger Parvus posted comments relating to the relationship between Paul’s letters and some things we read in the Ascension of Isaiah. (Recall that the Ascension of Isaiah is a two part text consisting of the Martyrdom of Isaiah and the Vision of Isaiah, and was interpreted by Earl Doherty as a piece of evidence for early Christian belief in a crucifixion of Jesus in the lower heavens.) I have been wading my way through various studies on the document and it is slow going because I find myself struggling through machine translations much of the time. I have as a result become open-minded to possible interpretations that may compete with Doherty’s initial proposals.

Roger Parvus has posted two major series on Vridar:

He’s been doing some more thinking about things since then and I found the following two comments of his thought-provoking.

First one:

Paul regularly appeals to revelation through Scripture. And as Doherty notes:

“The strong implication is that, if the key phrases in Paul are his own voice and not an interpolation, Paul must have had in mind something different in regard to Christ than simply being ‘born’ in the normal sense.” (Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p. 207).

So I am still quite open to the possibility that the Scripture Paul had in view was the Vision of Isaiah’s pocket gospel. Its Jesus is not really born in the normal sense. As Enrico Norelli puts it:

“If the story is read literally, it is not about a birth. It’s about two parallel processes: the womb of Mary, that had enlarged, instantly returned to its prior state, and at the same time a baby appears before her— but, as far as can be determined, without any cause and effect relationship between the two events.” (Ascension du prophète Isaïe, pp. 52-53, my translation)

At this point in general discussion Tim reminded me of Herman Gunkel’s view that Revelation 12 speaks of a birth of a saviour in heaven in Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton. (For a criticism of Gunkel’s hypothesis see Creation and Chaos: A Reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf Hypothesis see Scurlock and Beal’s Creation and chaos : a reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf hypothesis.)

Second one:

Yes, there are grounds to suspect that Paul knew some version of the Vision of Isaiah. But my suspicions go further than that. I suspect Paul’s gospel was the Vision of Isaiah. His gospel was not just a message; it was a message based on a specific text: the Vision of Isaiah. And of course, if that was the case, it would seem to follow that he wrote the Vision, for he says in Galatians that he received his gospel by revelation and not from any man.

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