Tag Archives: Acts of the Apostles

But WHY would Paul be made a “Midrashic” Creation?

Maurice Mergui

I’ve been distracted from my scheduled reading and planned posts to go back and fill in some gaps to what I wrote yesterday about Paul being cut from the Saul of the OT.

This post outlines some of what I take to be the main ideas from the first part of Paul à Patras by Maurice Mergui.

Paul’s life reads like real history or real biography. Paul is a known character when we think of him alongside the persons in the gospels. The gospel figures read more like foils set up to fulfill prophecies, teach us lessons, and so forth. Even their names are often clearly symbolic and they act out the meanings of their names almost the way we expect parables or children’s stories to read. But Paul, he has a psychology — and one that we may not always like. He has a setting, a real place in history and we know the places he visits — Antioch, Athens, Rome. He has a real name, a Roman one. He has health problems. We are told of the exact street name he was to meet someone in Damascus. All this smacks of reality.

At the same time there are real quirks in the story of Acts. The account of Paul’s conversion is told to us three times; the story is told in the third person and then suddenly without explanation switches to the first. The main character is called Saul and then suddenly he is called Paul and stays with that name to the end; geographical errors appear as when Malta is set in the Adriatic; and there are contradictions to what he wrote in his letters. Paul is both diminished and exalted in our sources. But such anomalies and contradictions are considered generally at one level to be marks of authenticity.

The story of Acts itself bears reflection. From the first chapter we have the band of disciples gathered together, determined to maintain their number of 12, commissioned to preach the message of Jesus to the end of the world. They are given the miracle of tongues to make this possible. But then from chapter 9 everything focuses on just one man, a certain Paul, who persecutes the followers of Jesus, is himself converted, changes his name, and sets out to preach the gospel. And his story it is right through to the end of the book. And the turnover event was the road to Damascus experience, an event that is told to readers three times.

So what’s this all about? Why such a break or change in story half way through?

Why does Acts “lose the plot” half way through?

Maurice Mergui regrets the way many scholars have, he claims, misunderstood and misrepresented another scholar, Georges Perec. Mergui, appealing to Perec’s insights, asks us to imagine the following scenario.

Imagine that you want to produce a story that will draw simultaneously on three different themes.

  1. The grandeur and the fall of the Jewish people
  2. The reign of Death followed by the end of his power

  3. The triumph of paganism being succeeded by the universal conversion of pagans

But keep in mind: the rule is that each of these three themes must be addressed simultaneously, not one after the other, in the narrative. Mergui tells us that Perec believed that the Book of Acts achieved this three-fold aim. read more »

Paul as a Midrashic Creation

I am beginning to suspect that Nanine Charbonnel’s book on the Christ Myth theory is really something quite different from any other argument for the Jesus of the gospels having been a figure crafted entirely out of “revelation”, especially “revelation” through the Jewish Scriptures. So far I have steadily worked my way through the first part of the book in which NC presents a wide range of ways Jewish scribes of the Second Temple era wrote and interpreted their sacred books. Having since read NC’s introduction to the second part of Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier I have begun to glimpse the relevance of all of that unexpected introduction.

I’ll save the big guns for later, but here is something, or just a morsel of something, that I picked up through beginning to read one of the works in NC’s bibliography. It’s another book in French (so again, it’s not one I can read quickly or even skim) —

What Do We Mean by Midrash?

Let’s first get the term midrash out of the way. Here I fall back on the simplest explanation of the word used by a Jewish scholar of some note, Daniel Boyarin:

Although a whole library could (and has been) written on midrash, for the present purposes it will be sufficient to define [midrash] as a mode of biblical reading that brings disparate passages and verses together in the elabora­tion of new narratives. It is something like the old game of anagrams in which the players look at words or texts and seek to form new words and texts out of the letters that are there. The rabbis who produced the midrashic way of reading considered the Bible one enormous signifying system, any part of which could be taken as commenting on or supple­ menting any other part. They were thus able to make new stories out of fragments of older ones (from the Bible itself), via a kind of anagrams writ large; the new stories, which build closely on the biblical narratives but expand and modify them as well, were considered the equals of the bibli­cal stories themselves.

(Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, 76)

That won’t satisfy certain purists and it does conflict with my most recent posts on the term but I’m also a believer that words mean what we mean them to mean and if we can all accept for the sake of argument the use of a term for a particular purpose then we are removing an unnecessary barrier to getting a discussion under way. (Boyarin’s is also a definition that NC herself references.)

Paul’s Career Began in Scripture

Again, I emphasize I am not presenting here a full argument but merely a small detail of a much larger presentation. (I have read no more than 2% of the Kindle version of Mergui’s book.)

Paul, we all know, was originally called Saul, according to the Book of Acts.

Saul, pronounced closer to “shawl” in Hebrew, is based on the King Saul of the books of 1 and 2 Samuel.

Saul was a persecutor of the church. He bound the men and women of the Christian faith (Acts 8).

Where did that biographical detail originate? It is not in Paul’s letters: if in doubt see Paul the persecutor? and Paul the Persecutor: The Case for Interpolation. read more »

Luke-Acts as a Unity?

A neat outline of current thinking among scholars on the question of the relationship between Luke and Acts is set out by Phillip Long at https://readingacts.com/2019/04/25/unity-of-luke-acts-in-current-scholarship/.

Luke-Acts as form of history-writing (Luke-Acts Explained . . . Part 2)

Continuing from Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1)

The reasons Luke-Acts has been considered a form of ancient history writing:

  1. Like other ancient historiography the work begins with a prologue announcing its superiority over what has gone before;
    • Steve Mason notes that unlike the preceding gospels Luke-Acts, as a two volume work, narrates a changing or developing historical movement (see p. 9 of the article for details; I think of the way the author has restructured the events in the gospels in order to )
  2. Like Xenophon, Plutarch, Tacitus and others the author of Luke-Acts fuses “biography with a quasi-biographical history”;
  3. Like other historical writing of the day Luke-Acts constant changes of scene, notes on geographical and  political details, episodes of high drama such as storms at sea and encounters with murderous enemies, and speeches.

Mason addresses works of Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight) and Loveday Alexander (The Preface to Luke’s Gospel) — there are posts on Pervo and Alexander here and here — that dispute the ‘historical’ character of Luke-Acts. In response Mason observes that the line between ancient historiography and ancient novels may not be so easy to discern given, in addition to the nature of ancient historiography, the difficulty in “defining” the ancient novel. Perhaps, but I think that’s another question for another chapter or article. In short, to Mason nothing can be gained by assigning Luke-Acts to another genre since writers were simply too willing to innovate and mix elements that we think of as belonging to separate genres.

The reasons against considering Luke-Acts as a form of historiography:

  1. The prologue of Luke-Acts does not identify the author and anonymity defeated the whole point of ancient prologues to historiography. The point was establish “the author’s character and unique moral assessment of the past.” (I have set out my view that the historian used his identity in order to establish confidence among readers of his work that he was in a position to know and to give his work authoritative status.)
    • Josephus did not identify himself in the prefaces to his later works but he certainly did “introduce himself magnificently” in his first work (and again in his closing section). The author of Luke-Acts does nothing like that.
  2. The next point has long been decisive for me: “The effect of the missing author-identification in Luke-Acts is greatly compounded by the complete absence of historia-language, or Thucydides’ preferred συγγράφω and cognates, along with any suggestion of knowledge from open-ended inquiry—if we leave aside the prologue’s covering reference to the author’s careful observation—or the political analysis that was history’s reason for being. Even though the author shows himself well aware of political conditions in the eastern Mediterranean, and is happy to use them as furniture, this is simply not a work of political or historical analysis comparable to other histories. By comparison with any other histories, Luke-Acts is far removed from historiography in both its characteristic language and its prevailing ethos: the stories of Peter and Paul proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.” It is rare to read an article acknowledging this start difference between Luke-Acts and other histories.
  3. I quote in full (p. 11, my bolding as always):
    • In place of normal historical analysis, the author boldly announces his subject matter as ‘the deeds that have been fulfilled among us’ and the observation and reception of truth by those who were ‘eyewitnesses and servants of the word/teaching’ (1.2-3). Historians were not supposed to be anyone’s servants or emissaries, a posture antithetical to history’s purpose of truth-seeking inquiry. The anonymous author does briefly stress his efforts to get the story straight, in the prologue, but the story itself comes from revelation. The work’s many episodes of heavenly and angelic visitation as revelatory of the most important truths undercut any notion of a historian’s authority, which derives from rigorous inquiry and his own moral character. Of this there is no trace in the anonymous Luke-Acts.
    • That the most important truth comes via revelation is reinforced throughout the two-volume work at all crucial junctures: infancy narrative, explanatory angelic appearances at Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and the decisive revelations to Peter, Paul, and the early community. Equally, the account is driven by wondrous deeds beyond the ken of historical inquiry, from Jesus’ divine birth through his many miracles and resurrection to the signs and wonders performed by his emissaries.

It is at this point that Steve Mason parts company with the critical studies that have sought to understand Luke-Acts as a form of history writing by focusing on details in common with works of Greco-Roman historians. Yes, the comparisons are significant, but at the same time we ought not to lose sight of “the highly distinctive atmosphere and content of Luke-Acts.”

We should not, then, become so fixated on the parallels with Graeco-Roman historiography, as I would suggest Cadbury, Lake, and Foakes Jackson were, that we miss the highly distinctive atmosphere and content of Luke-Acts.

Reconciling the historiographical and non-historical features of Luke-Acts

It is here that Steve Mason finds Josephus useful for understanding Luke-Acts and its mix of historical and even “anti”-historical features. read more »

Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1)

TL;DR
The author of Luke-Acts was following an ideal that Josephus had presented as a superior feature of Jewish historical writings: that history learned from revelation (e.g. works of Moses) was superior to the uncertain and often disputed historical inquiries of the Greeks.

I think Steve Mason has nailed Luke-Acts. I think, as a specialist in Josephus, he has identified something crucial in Luke-Acts that appears to have been more generally overlooked.

Up till now I have posted at length scholarly proposals that Acts is a work of ancient fiction, that its prologue follows the pattern found in technical medical or military or mathematical treatises rather than those found in works of ancient historians, and I have even ventured to suggest that Josephus would have deplored the gospels, and by extension Acts, as serious history – a post I now see is badly flawed in places. Most recently we looked at some findings from the Acts Seminar Report.) Well, having read Steve Mason’s paper I now think the author of our canonical version of Luke-Acts was more in tune with Josephus’s ideals than I had suspected. (Some readers will know of Steve Mason’s earlier book, Josephus and the New Testament, which includes a chapter offering reasons to think the author of Luke-Acts knew the Antiquities of Josephus. We have also posted, and plan to post further in depth, on Mason’s newer work, A History of the Jewish War A.D. 66-74.)

Steve Mason

The following is taken from a paper Mason has just uploaded on academia.edu, Luke-Acts and Ancient Historiography.

When Biblical Scholars Took the Lead in Critical Studies

I was fascinated and sobered to learn that there was a time when biblical scholars took the lead over their classicist peers when it came to critical study of their literary sources.

So we should not imagine that biblical studies merely followed classical trends. In fact, critical study of the Old and New Testaments largely paved the way for critical history as a discipline, including ancient history. It was not until the late 1970s through the 1990s that such authors as Livy, Polybius, Diodorus, and Pausanias were subjected to searching study as genuine authors, who had crafted their narratives to serve their moral and thematic purposes, rather than as mere transmitters of data. This post-Hippie period corresponded roughly to that in which redaction- and composition-critical research flourished in OT and NT studies.

(p. 4)

I had not appreciated the full extent to which the studies in Acts by Cadbury, Foakes Jackson and Lake had been so ground-breaking.

To write the important second volume, they enlisted the controversial Quaker, classicist, pacifist, and agnostic Henry Joel Cadbury, later of Harvard but then at Andover Seminary. Cadbury agreed with Foakes Jackson and Lake about the need to understand Acts in light of ancient historiography, and letting the theological chips fall where they may

. . . . 

He was ahead of his time in calling for scholars to pay more attention to the nature of ancient historiography. In order to responsibly understand and use this crucial account of Christian origins, he was saying, one needed to understand how people generally wrote about the past 2000 years ago (BC 2.7–8). Understanding Acts this way, as ancient historiography, was not merely different from proving is historicity. It required a different mindset because it directed scholars’ attention to how things were being said rather than to the underlying facts.

. . . .

So, having laid out this rather bracing summary, by 1920 standards in the Anglophone world, Cadbury began comparing the Lucan double-work with other creations of ancient historiography. And he found Luke-Acts—to which he compared the Jewish historian Josephus—to be in general agreement with contemporary historiographical practice. In the 1920s, this was a huge advance. In many respects, Cadbury was far ahead of his time. I say that because even in the field of Classics, although a few scholars were thinking about the artistic qualities and literary freedom of some historians, it would take another half-century—after the ‘literary turn’ in the humanities— before such perspectives were broadly applied. The historian and philosopher R. G. Collingwood told his Oxford undergraduates in 1926 that ‘the average professional historian is far less critical in his attitude to Herodotus than the average professional theologian in his attitude to St. Mark’.

read more »

Is Luke’s Silence Evidence of Ignorance?

The Apostle Paul

When reading scholars’ arguments about determining the dates of books in the New Testament, I often come away feeling as if I know less than when I started. Their works frequently leave me with a dull headache.

Many current scholars have placed all their eggs in the internal evidence basket, admitting that all the external evidence we have is, at best, inconclusive. They focus on what the writers said and didn’t say, compared to what they assume a writer would say — or would not say — at any given period or with any given theological bent.

You might expect that the loss of all external corroboration would bring with it a concomitant drop in reliability. Or, to put it another way, the confidence interval (i.e., the range of dates between which a book was probably written) would now necessarily be quite large. However, you must recall that we’re dealing with NT scholars. Their lack of evidence is more than offset by their brimming self-confidence.

Because mainstream scholarship has generally concluded that the authors of Matthew and Luke used the gospel of Mark, we have a chain of dependency. We can say, for example, that if Luke depended on the availability of Mark’s gospel then Luke must have written his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles (assuming the same author wrote both) later than Mark.

Beyond that, if we could peg the dates for Luke and Acts at a certain point, then we would in the same stroke have defined the terminus ad quem for the writing of Mark. Using this logic, conservatives and apologists point to the fact that we never learn about Paul’s death in Acts. He arrives in Rome. He’s under house arrest. Then, silence. What does it mean? read more »

What is a scholar to do when there is no agreement on the basics?

“[342] By “fictive,” I mean that the narratives, even quite likely derived from historical events, are now cast in terms which render it impossible to create any more than the vaguest semblance of modern history from the ancient New Testament texts. By “fictional,” I mean that the narratives have their origin entirely within human and community imagination and have no historical origin.”

Over time, as my own studies in Luke-Acts matured, I came to see that most of the New Testament narratives were — by modern standards — at least fictive, if not entirely fictional.[342]  Although my convictions about the fictive nature of most New Testament narratives have often rendered me a bewildered spectator to scholarly debates about the “history” of early Christianity, my skepticism about the wisdom of deriving modern historical claims from the New Testament narratives seldom impacted my own scholarly work. Even while chairing the section on Acts at the Society of Biblical Literature, I silently excused myself from discussions which presumed the historicity of Acts, and I confined my own work to other areas of inquiry.

Phillips, Thomas E. 2016. “‘When Did Paul Become a Christian?’” In Christian Origins and the New Testament in the Greco-Roman Context: Essays in Honor of Dennis R. MacDonald, edited by Margaret Froelich, Michael Kochenash, Thomas E. Phillips, and Ilseo Park, 163–82. Claremont, Calif: Claremont School of Theology Press.

I have to ask. Is this experience unique to the study of Christian origins? Surely not. I would appreciate being informed of comparable examples in other historical fields.

 

 

How the Author of Acts Rewrote Stories from Luke

As we discussed several months ago, Michael Licona wrote a book about the differences in the gospels in which he tries to explain them away by comparing the evangelists to Plutarch. However, his attempt was stillborn, since his methodology contains a deadly flaw. He proposes that by examining how Plutarch changed stories as he recounted them in different Lives, we can gain some insight as to how the author of Luke, for example, edited Marcan stories.

In the latter case, of course, we can see only how Luke dealt with one of his sources. In the former, we discover how Plutarch rewrote himself. These are two different things. But before we toss Licona’s book aside, let’s consider how we might apply his methodology correctly. Is there any place in the New Testament in which an author created a second work and plainly rewrote one or more stories in a way that might resemble Plutarch’s process?

Resuscitation Redux

Peter: “Tabitha, arise!”

Yes. In the Acts of the Apostles, the author (whom most scholars believe is the same person as the author of Luke) recycled stories told about Jesus and applied them to Peter. You probably already noticed long ago that Jesus raised a young girl (Mark provides the Aramaic talitha) in Luke 8:40-56, while Peter raised a female disciple named Tabitha (Aramaic for antelope or gazelle) in Acts 9:36-42. And no doubt you thought to yourself, “That sounds familiar.”

The author (we’ll call him Luke for the sake of convenience) has left other clues that we’re reading the same story, albeit with different characters set in a different locale. By examining the Greek text, we can discover textual affinities between the two stories.

Acts 9:36  Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. (NASB)

Acts places several important events in Joppa, because historically this town acted as the port city for Jerusalem. Legend has it that the cedars of Lebanon floated via the sea to Joppa, and then were shipped overland to Jerusalem. Joppa is the physical and metaphorical gateway from Judea to the Greco-Roman world.

Luke tells us Peter learned all animals are now clean while visiting Simon the Tanner in Joppa. This fable seeks to explain the change from a faction based in Judaism, with its understanding of what is ritually unclean to God (pork, blood, foreskins, etc.), to something new — a splinter cult on the path to a separate religion that fell back on the so-called Noahide Covenantread more »

Acts as a Rewriting of Gospels and Paul’s Letters, part 2

Continuing from part 1…..

Expanding the Foundation Story

Notice how the author of Luke-Acts prepares for his second volume (Acts) from the outset of his new gospel:

  • Luke extends the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam and God themselves. Jesus no longer (as in Matthew) is contextualized within the Abrahamic family but comes with more universal credentials.

In the gospel Jesus is clearly the authority figure but our author manoeuvres the narrative to replace Jesus with the Holy Spirit as the new authority in Acts. To do so, Luke actually contrives a new concept of the Holy Spirit, at least one that is different from the spirit we read about in Paul’s letters and the Gospel of John. (That’s another topic of its own that I may write about soon, examining two works cited by Müller, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit by Engberg-Pedersen, 2010 and “It is the Spirit That Gives Life”: A Stoic Understanding of Pneuma in John’s Gospel by Buch-Hansen, 2010.)

The Holy Spirit to Jesus Becomes the Holy Spirit to the Church

Notice next how the author repeats the motif of the Holy Spirit with which he began Jesus’ work in Acts to begin the Church’s work.

As Jesus at his baptism became endowed with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3.21-22), thus the church is also first established at the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. (p. 106)

To extrapolate from Müller’s work, I wonder if we have here an explanation for why in the Gospel of Luke the account of Jesus’ baptism is so incidentally presented (as an afterthought). The focus of Luke’s narrative is the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus through prayer. In Luke 3:21-22

When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” (NKJV)

Luke’s image is repeated so it appears like two columns side by side: as prayer and the descent of the Holy Spirit opened Jesus’ ministry and gave him the authority, so prayer and the Holy Spirit opened and authorized the ministry of the Church in Acts.

This is but one of several demonstrations of how Acts is being built out of material in the gospel.

We saw in the previous post that other evangelists shoehorned subsequent church situations (the law, gentiles) into the story of Jesus. Luke-Acts delays the completion of the foundation story, however. The foundation story is not complete until “the new Israel” is established as the church is withdrawn from “Judaism”. A series of historical steps in the life of the church replace the sayings of the earthly Jesus (as in Mark and Matthew) as the explanation for the church’s final stance on the Mosaic Law.

The Holy Spirit remains the new authority throughout Acts.

As Passover was set as the time for the covenant made by Jesus in the gospel so Pentecost was introduced as the time of the covenant with the church in Acts, Pentecost being in the Judean religion a feast of covenant renewal. With the Holy Spirit come all the fulfillments of  Scripture: new hearts, obedience, and proofs of the resurrection as promised in the Scripture, and proofs that the Scripture had been fulfilled with the messiah son of David reigning on God’s throne.

Luke’s gospel concluded with Jesus pointing to all the scriptures that had been “fulfilled” in his life, death and resurrection and Acts opens with all the scriptures being fulfilled now with the coming of the Holy Spirit to the church.

The Twelve to Israel first

read more »

Acts as a Rewriting of Gospels and Paul’s Letters, part 1

This post selects a few of the highlights from Mogens Müller’s chapter in Luke’s Literary Creativity (2016) in which he presents a case for Acts being a “biblical rewriting of the gospels and the letters of Paul”. I omit several important questions that his thesis raises and that he addresses in the same chapter, attempting to focus here exclusively on some of the indicators that Acts could be such a rewriting.

Müller accepts the possibility that Luke-Acts was written well into the second century, possibly even as late as the 140s, as a revised foundational story for the church. Such a late date should not be a problem, Müller suggests, if we no longer accept that the author did not use Q as one of his sources but knew of and included both Matthew and even possibly John as among the previous lives of Jesus that he was critical of in his introduction. (For other arguments that Luke and Acts in their current canonical form were a mid second century product see the archive on Tyson‘s book and links within those posts to related archives.) Müller even points to recent scholarship that allows for the work of Papias as a possible source for the author of Luke-Acts.

Inclusion of the Non-Jewish World

If Paul’s letters are our oldest surviving Christian documents and the authors of our first gospels, Mark and Matthew, needed to find a way to explain how gentiles came to be incorporated into a church supposedly founded by a Jewish teacher in Galilee, we know they found the solution by creating “proleptic episodes and teaching” in their stories of Jesus. read more »

Acts is historically reliable because its anonymous author says it is

[T]he author of the book of Acts explicitly tells us that he was concerned and committed to present a historically accurate account of the history of the early church. The author of Acts, of course, was the author of the Gospel of Luke, and the preface to Luke served as the preface to the entire two-volume work.  In that preface (Luke 1:1-4) the author tells us that he had “followed all things closely” and that he based his account on reports from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” – that is from those who were personally involved in the events he narrates and those to whom they told their accounts.  Moreover, he stresses that his ultimate concern is to provide an “orderly account” of all the things that had happened.  And so it was clearly his intention to write a historically accurate account.  That in itself does not prove that he did so, but it does prove that this was his goal.  He was not writing fiction but what he understood to be historical fact.  — Bart Ehrman, Is Acts Historically Reliable? The Affirmative Argument.

Okay, that is the opening argument of an affirmative side of a debate. But it’s presented by “a critical scholar”. How can even a critical scholar come up with such a facile and naive argument for a work being written with the goal of genuine historical accuracy? Presumably Ehrman will in the reply of the Negative team respond with a bit more common sense, but how could a critical scholar even present something so naive as we read above in the first place? That is an argument of pure and simple apologetics. It has no place in a critical analysis of any literature.

A critical analysis obviously begins with the context and identity and motivation and audience and circumstances of the writing of the text. Only an anti-intellectual apologist would even suggest that we should apply a “hermeneutic of charity” and believe the unknown author’s words unless and until we are hit smack in the face with a reason not to. A critical scholar could argue an affirmative case without resorting to such puerile nonsense.

Next, Bart Ehrman like so many others in his academic guild is also closing his eyes to uncomfortable published scholarship that refutes his interpretation of the phrase “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”. Does anyone know of a scholarly rebuttal anywhere to an article by John N. Collins published in 2010? For details see

Ehrman also just blithely claims as unquestionable fact that the same author wrote both Luke and Acts despite critical arguments to the contrary or at least offering more nuance. Again, this is not the way a critical scholar is (or should be) expected to conduct a serious debate.

I won’t pay to read the rest of Ehrman’s debate. He is putting out bait for readers to do so but he is clearly opposed to the very idea of open-access of public research or simply doesn’t understand it. I give to charities of my own choosing and find Ehrman’s attempt to be different and opposed to public access of his knowledge to be old fashioned at best, snobbish, elitist and deplorable at worst.

Another Flip Flop Argument: Ehrman again on early Low Christology

Once again we see evidence of the ad hoc nature of arguments built upon the assumption of the historicity of Jesus.
Fra_Angelico_-_St_Peter_Preaching_in_the_Presence_of_St_Mark_-_WGA00464
Peter preaching: From Wikimedia

After a closer look at Romans 1:3-4 in Ehrman’s case for the earliest Christians thinking of Jesus as a “mere man” who only became a Son of God at his resurrection, I had to try to get a better grasp of the next pieces of pre-Gospel (and pre-Pauline) evidence he offered: passages in several speeches in the Book of Acts. I suspected these would not be so assailable as his interpretation of the Romans passage but I was wrong.

Here are the exhibits:

“We preach the good news to you, that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled for us their children by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’” (Acts 13: 32– 33).

“Let the entire house of Israel know with assurance that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2: 36).

“the God of our fathers raised Jesus . . . This one God exalted to his right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5: 30– 31).

Inconsistency would not be expected but….

As with the Romans passage Ehrman points out that the author of these passages, “Luke”, believed something quite different. Here in Acts Luke has the apostles preach their conviction that Jesus became the Son of God or was exalted to divine status only at the resurrection, while he himself (called Luke for convenience) actually believed that Jesus was the Son of God from the moment of his inception and birth. That’s why he wrote the nativity scene in Luke 1.

Ehrman concludes:

On Acts 13:32-33

In this pre-Lukan tradition, Jesus was made the Son of God at the resurrection. This is a view Luke inherited from his tradition, and it is one that coincides closely with what we already saw in Romans 1: 3– 4. It appears to be the earliest form of Christian belief: that God exalted Jesus to be his Son by raising him from the dead.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (p. 226). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

On Acts 2:36

The earliest followers of Jesus believed that the resurrection showed that God had exalted him to a position of grandeur and power. This verse is one piece of evidence. Here, in a preliterary tradition, we learn that it was precisely by raising Jesus from the dead that God had made him the messiah and the Lord. During his lifetime Jesus’s followers had thought he would be the future messiah who would reign as king in the coming kingdom of God to be brought by the Son of Man, as Jesus himself had taught them. But when they came to believe he was raised from the dead, as Acts 2: 36 so clearly indicates, they concluded that he had been made the messiah already. He was already ruling as the king, in heaven, elevated to the side of God. As one who sits beside God on a throne in the heavenly realm, Jesus already is the Christ.

More than that, he is the Lord. During his lifetime Jesus’s disciples had called him “lord”— a term that could be used by a slave of a master, or by an employee of a boss, or by a student of a teacher. As it turns out, in Greek the term lord in each of these senses was the very same term as Lord used of God, as the “Lord of all.” Just as the term Christ came to take on new significance once Jesus’s followers believed he had been raised from the dead, so too did the term lord. Jesus was no longer simply the disciples’ master-teacher. He actually was ruling as Lord of the earth, because he had been exalted to this new status by God. And it happened at the resurrection. The man Jesus had been made the Lord Christ.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (pp. 227-228). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

On Acts 5:31

Once more, then, in an early tradition we find that Jesus’s resurrection was an “exaltation” specifically to “the right hand of God.” In other words, God had elevated Jesus to his own status and given him a prominent position as the one who would “lead” and “save” those on earth.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (p. 229). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

So once again, as he argued in relation to Romans 1:3-4, here we find passages that are at odds with what the author of the larger two-volume work apparently believed. This is the foundation of the argument that these passages are adapted from very primitive Christian beliefs, relics that somehow hung around even into Luke’s day.

What is the motive?

So what could have motivated Luke to do something like this? read more »

Acts and Virgil’s Aeneid: comparison and influence

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Let me be transparent from the outset: the authors of the Gospels did not imitate Vergil’s Latin epic. . . . [Rather] the Evangelist was aware of the Aeneid and shaped his book to rival it. The affinities between Luke and Vergil thus pertain to genre or, better, to narrative structure and development, not to imitations of particular episodes or characterizations.

MacDonald, Dennis R. (2014-11-05). Luke and Vergil: Imitations of Classical Greek Literature (The New Testament and Greek Literature) (Kindle Locations 101-107). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

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Luke has endeavored to interpret the underlying meaning of the whole of Christian history — and in a manner surprisingly analogous to Virgil’s interpretation of the meaning of Roman history.

Bonz, Marianne Palmer (2000). The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic. Fortress Press.

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This post is following up a point I touched on the recent interview: a possible link between the Acts of the Apostles and the famous founding epic of Rome, Virgil’s Aeneid.

Painting by Jean-Joseph Taillasson: Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Painting by Jean-Joseph Taillasson: Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s an intriguing idea. I know of a handful of scholars who have published positively about the possibility though I understand most do not accept it. Here are my own reasons for my suspicions that the author of Acts had in part an emulation of the Aeneid in mind. The “in part” qualifier points to indications that the author was interested in depicting the founding of the Christian movement as pointing towards both a New Jerusalem and a New Rome as one.

The Aeneid is an epic poem about Aeneas, a Trojan hero who escaped the city after its capture by the Greeks and after an adventurous westward journey across the Mediterranean in search for a new divinely appointed home he eventually found his way to Italy where he established a new settlement that became the ancestors of the Romans. The epic was widely known and esteemed from the moment of its composition for the ensuing centuries, even among Christians. (We know Christians at least from the time of Lactantius understood Virgil’s poetic hope of child to come to usher in a new golden age was a divinely inspired prophecy of Jesus.) Virgil’s fame extended beyond the literary elite:

Verses and characters from his poetry appear in wall-paintings and graffiti, mosaics and sarcophagi, even the occasional silver spoon, in locations ranging from Somerset to Halicarnassus. (Tarrant, 56)

Monuments to Aeneas became almost as common as those to Romulus in the wake the Aeneid‘s entrance into the world.

The celebrity of Virgil’s works in the Roman world was immediate and lasting. The Aeneid enjoyed the rare distinction of being hailed as a canonical poem while it was still being written: ‘something greater than the Iliad is being born’. . . , wrote the elegist Propertius in the mid-20s, perhaps with a touch of irony, but anticipating the serious comparisons with Homer that would become conventional. (Tarrant, 56)

Poets, story tellers and historians were influenced by Virgil in general and his Aeneid in particular. I’m not referring just to literary style but especially to what Tarrant calls an “ideological engagement” (pp. 63, 64). Subsequent authors would strive to revise or reapply Virgil’s message about the greatness of Rome finding its culmination in the reign of Augustus. One poet adapted Virgil’s message to argue that Nero was the true turning point in Rome’s history. A later historian inverted the Aeneid’s message to reject entirely the dynasty that had produced both Augustus and Nero and to promise a pessimistic future for the empire. Nor was the influence uni-linear. Emulators did not attempt to re-do Virgil’s style but engaged with his ideas and expressed them through a wide spectrum of the styles of other writers, in poetry, drama and prose.

The striking similarities

Despite the above another scholar, John Taylor, believes it is “much less likely” that the author of Acts “knew the Aeneid” but even he acknowledges “striking similarities” in Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition. I dot-point those he identifies: read more »

Did Paul See a Fireball on the Road to Damascus?

Recently, David Ashton commented here on Vridar:

The Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus — by Michelangelo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

May I annoy our totalitarian mythicists even further by suggesting that Paul, also a real person, experienced a reparative hallucination, precisely because of a pre-crucifixion hostility to Jesus and his activists, although he may not have engaged Jesus in debate or observed him directly in person. Jacob Aron suggests that Paul’s Damascene Light was the result of a fireball (“New Scientist”, April 25, 2015, pp. 8-9); not so much a medical epilepsy as a meteoric epiphany.

I’m not a mythicist, but I do think the Doherty/Carrier theory is worth considering. I confess I did bristle a bit at the term “totalitarian.” You’d think that ten years as a cold warrior would inoculate me from such charges. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a blog with a more permissive comment policy than Vridar’s. So, I suppose that’s why I responded with the flippant:

Oooh, a fireball! I don’t see why a story invented by the author of Acts requires an ad hoc explanation as to “what it really was.”

But perhaps I was too hasty. Let’s take a look at this story more closely and see if we can learn anything from it. When I checked on line, I could find only brief summaries, so in the end I had to rent the article, Chelyabinsk, Zond IV, and a possible first-century fireball of historical importance (Meteoritics & Planetary Science, 50, Nr 3), for 48 hours. Yes, even stuff like this gets trapped behind paywalls.

A flash and a crash

The author, William K. Hartmann, holds a PhD in astronomy and works at the Planetary Science Institute. He suggests that the narratives of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus accurately describe an atmospheric encounter with some object that produced a bright light and a big boom, similar to the Tunguska Event of 1908 or the more recent encounter with the Chelyabinsk meteor. For your entertainment, we present a video compilation from the Chelyabinsk event.

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