2023-11-11

Updated — the Bar Kochba-NT Connection

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I have updated my annotated list of posts on the Book of Revelation. Look under “Archives by Topic” in the right margin or just click this link.

It is worth pointing out the other NT connection with the time of the Bar Kochba rebellion — the Second Letter to the Thessalonians: Identifying the “Man of Sin” in 2 Thessalonians

Another take on that letter, one that concludes with a date a little earlier than the 132-135 Jewish War — the time of Trajan (a time of mass slaughter of Jews outside Palestine): How a Spurious Letter “From Paul” Inspired the End Time Prophecies of the New Testament — And not to forget another old favourite: Little Apocalypse and the Bar Kochba Revolt

I only post these here now because they relate to my recent (and less recent) posts on Turmel and Witulski’s studies in Revelation. I’m not pronouncing any decided position of my own on their dates.

But in browsing over these older posts what did catch my eye was a pertinent point that I do think has much significance and is unjustifiably overlooked by too many conservative scholars:

First, Hermann Detering:

It is important to emphasize that neither the Ignatian letters, nor 1 Clement, nor the Epistle of Barnabas, nor the Didache, nor any other early Christian documents are able to witness with certainty to the existence of the Synoptic Gospels, whose names they nowhere mention.2 One cannot even demonstrate a knowledge of the synoptic Gospels for Justin in the middle of the second century, even if he obviously did know a kind of Gospel literature, namely the “Memoirs of the Apostles,” which was already publicly read in worship services in his time. (pp 162f – HD’s article is accessible here)

Compare Markus Vinzent:

Thus, even though Klinghardt makes a good argument that the compilation of texts known as the New Testament was already known to Justin, and perhaps even to Marcion, it is only from Irenaeus onward that the four gospels can safely be said to have been known, as supported by external evidence. . . .

Both Klinghardt and David Trobisch, on whom Klinghardt has built his thesis on the canonical editing of the New Testament, have come under heavy criticism from many of their peers; however, they have been defended by Jan Heilmann on good grounds.

I have read many of Klinghardt’s arguments for specific events in Justin’s writings indicating a knowledge of our canonical gospels but I have not yet seen a comprehensive rebuttal of this kind of reading into Justin’s work as addressed by Walter Cassels way back in 1879.

The first task of all historical researchers is to examine the provenance of their sources. I keep bumping into the same wall as Detering and Vinzent: it is only wishful imagination that can establish our biblical and apocryphal sources as early as the first century. Something happened in the early decades of the second century, though.

Since we cannot go further back than Marcion’s testimonies, I shall start with him. . . .

The fact is that we have no evidence from before the Bar Kokhba revolt (132–135 ce) and only hear and read about Christian teachers in Rome for the first time after this period. Indeed, in Marcion’s time there was evidently a migration of teachers from Asia Minor and Greece to Rome and we can recognize a rapidly flourishing Christian literature from this time onwards. This indicates to us that this Jewish war created a sociopolitical situation in which Jewish as well as Roman life was faced with new, extraordinary challenges and the corresponding impulses toward innovation. (Vinzent, pp. 327f – my bolding)

More thoughts to come…


2023-10-01

Continuing Dialog with ChatGPT — historical methods

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from https://vridar.org/2023/10/01/a-dialog-with-chatgpt-on-christian-origins/

Me: What, if anything, changes, if we introduce the need for independent corroboration?

ChatGPT:

The requirement for independent corroboration significantly tightens the standards for historical verification. If historians strictly demand independent sources to corroborate each event or claim, it can add more confidence to their conclusions but also presents challenges:

    1. Higher Confidence in Established Facts: When multiple, independent sources attest to a particular event, person, or phenomenon, the historical confidence in that event’s actual occurrence is strengthened. This is why events in ancient history that are documented by different and independent historians are often considered more reliable.
    2. Loss of Potentially Authentic Material: Many historical events, especially from antiquity, may not have multiple independent attestations. If we strictly require independent corroboration, we risk dismissing potentially genuine historical events or facts simply because they lack external confirmation.
    3. Redefining “Independence”: Determining the independence of sources can be complex. For instance, if two texts share material, but it’s unclear whether one borrowed from the other or both drew from a common earlier source, how “independent” are they? Historians must grapple with these nuances.
    4. Increased Reliance on Archaeology and Non-textual Evidence: If textual sources lack independent corroboration, historians might turn more to archaeological evidence or other non-textual forms of evidence. For instance, an event mentioned in a single ancient text might gain credibility if there’s archaeological evidence that aligns with the account.
    5. Challenges for Religious or Mythical Texts: Texts that describe religious events, miracles, or supernatural occurrences often lack independent corroboration outside of their religious tradition. Requiring external validation could make it nearly impossible to establish many religious narratives’ historical cores, leading to more skepticism about religious figures and events.
    6. Limited Application in Some Historical Contexts: In certain periods or places, there might be only one primary source of information. For instance, certain ancient civilizations or periods in the Middle Ages might have limited extant records. Requiring independent corroboration might hinder the study of these times and places.
    7. Potential for Bias in Surviving Records: The sources that have survived time might reflect particular viewpoints or biases (e.g., those of the ruling class, victors in conflicts, or dominant cultural or religious groups). If these are the only sources available for corroboration, the resulting historical narrative might be skewed.

In the context of historical Jesus research, insisting on independent corroboration would mean relying heavily on non-Christian sources (like the writings of Tacitus, Josephus, or Pliny the Younger) or different Christian traditions that developed independently. However, these sources are limited in number and detail, which would constrain the scope of reliable historical assertions about Jesus.

In summary, while independent corroboration is a valuable standard in historical research, it’s not always feasible and comes with its own set of challenges. Historians often have to balance the desire for multiple attestations with the realities of available evidence.

–0–

Me: What are some of the “potentially genuine historical events or facts” that would be “at risk” if we insisted on independent corroboration?

ChatGPT:

If historians insisted strictly on independent corroboration, many events or details from antiquity (and even more recent history) might be cast into doubt or overlooked. Here are some examples from various time periods and contexts:

    1. Socrates’ Teachings: Much of what we know about the Athenian philosopher Socrates comes from the writings of his student, Plato, and to a lesser extent, Xenophon. There aren’t many independent sources that corroborate specific dialogues or teachings attributed to Socrates.
    2. Julius Caesar’s Commentaries: Caesar wrote commentaries on the Gallic Wars, which provide detailed accounts of his campaigns. While there are other references to Caesar’s actions in Gaul, the specific details of battles, strategies, and interactions are primarily from Caesar himself.
    3. Details from the Chinese Historian Sima Qian: The Records of the Grand Historian, written by Sima Qian in the early Han Dynasty, is one of our primary sources for many events and figures in ancient China. While there are other sources and records, many specific stories and details come primarily from Sima Qian.
    4. Events Described in Epics: The events described in epic poems like the “Epic of Gilgamesh” or the “Mahabharata” don’t have comprehensive independent corroboration. While these are understood to be mythological or legendary to some extent, any potential historical kernels would be hard to verify without external sources.
    5. Autobiographical Writings: Any autobiographical account, from Augustine’s “Confessions” to more recent memoirs, would lack independent corroboration for many personal experiences and reflections.
    6. Specific Events in Jesus’ Life: While there are some references to Jesus in non-Christian sources like Tacitus or Josephus, many specific events, parables, or teachings from the Gospels would lack independent corroboration.
    7. Private Interactions of Historical Figures: Many private conversations, interactions, or letters between historical figures, unless they were documented by multiple independent observers, would fall under suspicion.
    8. Events in Isolated Communities: Historical events that occurred in isolated or remote communities, which might have been documented by a single chronicler or observer, would be hard to corroborate independently.
    9. Reports from Explorers: Many explorers were the first from their culture or country to visit specific lands or peoples. Their accounts, like those of Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta, while valuable, often lack independent corroboration for many details.
    10. Scientific Discoveries and Observations: Many groundbreaking scientific observations, from Galileo’s astronomical findings to Darwin’s notes on the Galápagos finches, were initially based on individual observation without immediate independent corroboration.

This list underscores a fundamental challenge in historical research: the tension between the desire for multiple, independent attestations and the recognition that many events or details are recorded by single sources. Historians often have to weigh the reliability of these sources, considering their proximity to the events they describe, their potential biases, the consistency of their accounts, and other factors.

–0–

Me: Can you give some examples of “private interactions of historical figures” that you mentioned?

ChatGPT:

Certainly. There are many instances in history where our knowledge of private interactions between historical figures comes from limited sources, often the writings of one of the participants or from later accounts that may have been based on personal testimonies. Here are some examples:

    1. Martin Luther and the Diet of Worms: While we have a general account of Martin Luther’s defense at the Diet of Worms in 1521, the exact details, including his famous declaration “Here I stand,” are based on later recollections and not on immediate documentation.
    2. Abraham Lincoln’s Private Conversations: Various accounts of Lincoln’s views, especially those pertaining to slavery and his personal beliefs, come from personal memoirs or letters of those who interacted with him privately, such as his law partner William Herndon.
    3. The Meetings of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin: While there were official minutes and agreements from the World War II conferences involving these leaders, many of the private discussions and side agreements were later recounted by the leaders themselves or close aides.
    4. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams: Much of what we know about the personal relationship between these two Founding Fathers, especially in their later years, comes from their extensive correspondence. While these letters provide insight into their views and relationship, they are, of course, just one side of many interactions.
    5. Conversations of Queen Elizabeth I: There are many accounts of private conversations that Queen Elizabeth I had with her courtiers, suitors, and advisors. However, the exact details often come from the recollections of those individuals or from later accounts.
    6. Napoleon’s Exile on Saint Helena: Many details of Napoleon’s life and thoughts during his exile come from the writings of those who accompanied him, such as his valet Louis Marchand or the Grand Marshal of the Palace, Henri-Gatien Bertrand.
    7. The Relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung: While both Freud and Jung wrote extensively, much of what we know about their personal interactions, disagreements, and eventual split comes from their letters and later recollections.
    8. Gandhi’s Personal Interactions: Mahatma Gandhi’s interactions with close associates, family members, and political figures were often documented in letters or remembered in memoirs, giving us insights into his personal beliefs and strategies.
    9. Marilyn Monroe’s Conversations: Many details about Monroe’s personal life, including her interactions with other celebrities, politicians, and acquaintances, come from personal testimonies and interviews, which often lack independent corroboration.
    10. Meetings of the Bloomsbury Group: This influential group of writers, intellectuals, and artists in the early 20th century had many private interactions and discussions. Much of what we know about these comes from personal letters, diaries, and later recollections.

In many of these cases, while the broad outlines of events or relationships are well-documented, the specific details, nuances, or exact words spoken in private interactions are harder to verify with certainty. Historians often rely on the credibility of the sources, the consistency of accounts, and the context in which the interactions occurred to gauge their reliability.

–0–

Me: When you gave “specific events in Jesus’ life” as an example of potentially historical material being “at risK, are you not also falling into the circular reasoning trap?

ChatGPT:

You’re right to point out the potential pitfall. My intention was to provide an illustrative example, but it’s crucial to unpack the underlying assumptions.

When discussing the events in Jesus’ life as found in the Gospels and other Christian writings, there’s an inherent presumption that some of these events have a basis in historical reality. However, without independent corroboration, establishing which events are historically genuine becomes challenging.

If we were to strictly demand independent corroboration for all events, then many specific episodes in Jesus’ life, as they’re recorded solely within Christian texts, would indeed be at risk of being deemed historically uncertain. However, the phrase “potentially genuine historical events or facts” suggests that there’s an underlying possibility of their historicity, even if not yet confirmed.

The circularity would arise if we were to assert that these events are genuine because they are recorded in the sources, without a robust external basis for that claim. It’s always vital in historical discussions to remain aware of, and transparent about, the assumptions and methodologies underlying any conclusions.

Thank you for drawing attention to this. It’s essential to approach historical research, especially in areas as complex and debated as the life of Jesus, with methodological rigor and critical awareness.

–0–

Me: What “robust external basis” can be applied to any particular event or saying in the life of Jesus?

ChatGPT:

The “robust external basis” for any particular event or saying in the life of Jesus would ideally come from sources outside the Christian scriptures, archaeological evidence, or other non-textual attestations that can corroborate or provide context for the New Testament accounts. Here’s what that might look like:

    1. Non-Christian Written Sources: These are references to Jesus or early Christians by writers who weren’t followers of Jesus. Examples include:
      • Tacitus: The Roman historian Tacitus, writing around AD 115, mentions the execution of Jesus under Pontius Pilate and the subsequent spread of Christianity in Rome.
      • Josephus: The Jewish historian Josephus, in his “Antiquities of the Jews” (written around AD 93-94), contains a controversial passage known as the “Testimonium Flavianum” that references Jesus. While the authenticity of parts of this passage is debated, many scholars believe it has a historical core that confirms Jesus’ existence and crucifixion.
      • Pliny the Younger: In his letters to Emperor Trajan around AD 112, Pliny mentions Christians, their worship of Christ, and some of their practices.
    2. Archaeological Evidence: While direct archaeological evidence specifically corroborating New Testament events is rare, archaeology can provide context. For example:
      • Excavations in Nazareth, Capernaum, and other places mentioned in the Gospels can provide insights into the socio-economic and cultural backdrop of Jesus’ ministry.
      • The discovery of the ossuary (bone box) with the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” brought discussions, though its authenticity is debated.
      • The Pilate Stone, discovered in Caesarea Maritima, confirms Pontius Pilate’s historical existence and his role as a prefect of Judaea.
    3. Comparative Religious and Cultural Studies: By examining the religious, philosophical, and cultural milieu of the 1st century, scholars can determine how unique or common certain sayings or actions of Jesus were in that context.
    4. Internal Textual Analysis: Though not “external,” comparing independent traditions within the New Testament can sometimes provide clues. For instance, if a saying of Jesus appears in both the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical source Q (reconstructed from material common to Matthew and Luke but absent in Mark), it suggests that the tradition might be earlier than any of these texts.
    5. Early Christian Writings: Early non-canonical Christian writings, such as the Didache, the Gospel of Thomas, or the letters of early Church fathers, can sometimes provide complementary views or echoes of Jesus’ sayings or events in his life.

While these sources and methods can provide context, background, or even corroboration for certain broad aspects of the Jesus story (e.g., his existence, crucifixion, the rise of the early Christian movement), many specific events or sayings remain hard to externally corroborate. Most scholars rely on a combination of these methods, along with critical textual analysis of the New Testament itself, to build a plausible historical portrait of Jesus.

–0–

Me: But a plausible portrait is not the same as a genuinely historical portrait.

ChatGPT:

You’re absolutely right. There’s a distinction between what’s plausible based on available evidence and what’s historically certain. Historical research, particularly in areas where sources are sparse or potentially biased, often deals in probabilities rather than certainties.

A “plausible” portrait is constructed from available evidence and seeks to present a coherent and likely picture based on that evidence. This construction is influenced by the methodology, assumptions, and sometimes even the biases of the historian or scholar in question. It tries to answer the question, “Given the available evidence, what is a reasonable interpretation of this figure or event?”

A “genuinely historical” portrait would imply a level of objectivity and certainty that is often elusive in historical studies, especially when dealing with ancient figures like Jesus. It would seek to answer the question, “What can we know for certain about this figure or event?”

In the case of Jesus, while certain broad strokes—like his existence, his role as a teacher or prophet, his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate—have a high degree of consensus among historians due to their multiple attestations and contextual fit, many specifics of his life, teachings, and actions remain in the realm of plausibility rather than certainty.

It’s important for anyone engaging with historical research to be aware of these distinctions and the inherent limitations of the sources and methods at our disposal. Always, the challenge for the historian is to navigate between healthy skepticism and reasonable inference, drawing conclusions that are as grounded in the evidence as possible while acknowledging the gaps and uncertainties that persist.

–0–

Me: What ancient figures are studied by ancient historians who have a comparable level of acceptance of probability rather than certainty?

ChatGPT:

Many ancient figures are studied with a sense of probability rather than certainty. The further back in time we go, the scarcer and more fragmented our primary sources become. Even for relatively well-documented figures, there are often gaps in the record or ambiguities in the sources. Here are some examples:

    1. Socrates: We don’t have any writings from Socrates himself. Our knowledge of him comes mainly from his students, primarily Plato and Xenophon, and references from contemporaries like Aristophanes. Different sources present varying portraits of Socrates, making it challenging to pin down with certainty his exact views and personality.
    2. Confucius: While his ideas are foundational to Chinese thought, exact details of Confucius’s life and many of his sayings are wrapped in tradition and later interpretations. “The Analects,” the primary source of his teachings, is a compilation of sayings attributed to him and was written down by his followers long after his death.
    3. Homer: There’s ongoing debate about whether Homer, traditionally said to be the author of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” was a historical person, multiple persons, or a symbolic figure representing a tradition of oral poets.
    4. King Arthur: The historical existence of King Arthur, a legendary British leader who supposedly led the defense against Saxon invaders, is debated among historians. The main sources about him, like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Historia Regum Britanniae,” were written centuries after the supposed events and are mixed with legend.
    5. Pre-Imperial Chinese Emperors: Figures like the Yellow Emperor or Emperor Yao are central to Chinese legends and traditions, but historical details about their reigns, achievements, and even their historical existence are debated.
    6. Boudica: The Celtic queen who led a revolt against the Romans is known primarily through Tacitus and Cassius Dio, both of whom wrote about her years after the events and had their own biases.
    7. Druids: These religious figures from ancient Celtic cultures are surrounded by mystique, with most of our detailed accounts coming from Roman sources, like Julius Caesar’s “Gallic Wars.” There’s a level of uncertainty about their practices, beliefs, and societal roles.
    8. The Hebrew Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob): While foundational to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, there’s limited archaeological and external textual evidence for their historical existence and activities.

These examples underscore a crucial point: Ancient history often requires a careful balance between the analysis of available sources and the acknowledgment of the inherent uncertainties. Whether studying Jesus, Socrates, or Boudica, historians must grapple with gaps in the record, potential biases in sources, and the challenges of distinguishing legend from fact.

–0–

Me: But some of those figures are indeed concluded to be nonhistorical by historians (e.g. Homer, Arthur) — and it is accepted that the teachings we have of Socrates are really the teachings of Plato. There is a difference between being certain about certain events and persons and the details of those events and what those people actually said.

ChatGPT:

Absolutely, you’re right to draw attention to these nuances.

    1. Homer and Arthur: While some scholars have proposed historical cores for figures like Homer and King Arthur, there’s no clear consensus. Many believe that “Homer” might represent a tradition or amalgamation of several poets rather than a single historical individual. Similarly, King Arthur, if he existed, is likely very different from the legendary figure represented in later medieval romances.
    2. Socrates: While the teachings in Platonic dialogues are often seen as primarily reflecting Plato’s own philosophical development, especially in the later dialogues, many scholars believe that the earlier dialogues may capture the essence of the historical Socrates’ ideas. Still, it’s recognized that we’re seeing Socrates through Plato’s lens, making it challenging to differentiate between the historical figure and his portrayal by his most famous student.

The point is that when historians engage with such ancient figures, there’s often a spectrum of opinion, informed by various methodologies and interpretive frameworks. Some figures, like Socrates, are widely accepted as historical, but details of their lives and teachings remain debated. Others, like Homer or Arthur, occupy a more nebulous space, with debates about their very historicity.

Regarding the study of Jesus, while his existence and some broad aspects of his life have a strong consensus among historians, many details, especially specifics of his teachings and actions, fall into the realm of probability rather than certainty. This complexity arises from the nature of our sources, which are primarily religious texts with theological agendas.

Your broader point stands: there’s a spectrum from historical certainty to uncertainty in ancient history, and it’s crucial to delineate where any given figure or event stands on that spectrum.

–0–

Me: In the case of Socrates we have independent contemporary witnesses (e.g. Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon), but in the case of Jesus we do not.

ChatGPT:

That’s a valid observation. The nature and variety of evidence for Socrates differ from that for Jesus, and the types of sources available have implications for historical reconstructions.

For Socrates:

    1. Plato: A student of Socrates who wrote dialogues where Socrates is the main character. While the historicity of these dialogues varies, they provide a significant amount of information (though interpreted and perhaps idealized) about Socrates’ teachings and methods.
    2. Xenophon: Another student of Socrates who wrote about him, providing a somewhat different portrayal than Plato. Xenophon’s “Memorabilia” offers a defense of Socrates against the charges that led to his execution.
    3. Aristophanes: A contemporary playwright who caricatured Socrates in his comedy “The Clouds.” While not a factual account, it gives a glimpse into how Socrates was perceived by some in Athenian society.

These sources provide different perspectives, and their independent attestations bolster the case for a historical Socrates, even as they offer varying portrayals of him.

For Jesus:

    1. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John): These are the primary sources of information about Jesus, but they are theological in nature and were written decades after the events they describe. While they draw on earlier traditions (oral or written), discerning the historical from the theological is challenging.
    2. Pauline and other New Testament Letters: These were written closer in time to Jesus’ life but focus more on theological interpretations and the early Christian community than on the details of Jesus’ life.
    3. Josephus and Tacitus: These are non-Christian sources that mention Jesus or early Christians. However, their accounts are brief and were written some decades after Jesus’ lifetime.

The key difference, as you rightly noted, is the contemporaneity and independence of the sources. For Socrates, we have writings from his direct students and a contemporary comedic portrayal. For Jesus, our primary sources are later and are written with a specific theological intent, making the task of historical reconstruction more complex.

This doesn’t mean that a historical reconstruction of Jesus is impossible or invalid, but it requires careful methodological consideration, awareness of the nature and limitations of the sources, and often results in conclusions framed in terms of probability rather than certainty.

–0–

Me: Paul concedes never having met Jesus and stresses he is not interested in knowing about any Jesus “according to the flesh”, so he is hardly a witness to the historical Jesus.

ChatGPT:

Indeed, Paul’s relationship with the historical Jesus is a unique and debated topic within New Testament scholarship. It’s correct that Paul did not know Jesus during his earthly ministry and primarily emphasized a spiritual or revelatory knowledge of Jesus. Here are some points to consider:

    1. Revelatory Experience: Paul’s foundational experience was his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. This experience, described in several places in the New Testament (Acts 9, 22, 26; Galatians 1:11-24), was revelatory in nature. Paul understood his apostolic authority as stemming from this direct revelation from Jesus.
    2. Not According to the Flesh: In 2 Corinthians 5:16, Paul writes, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.” This statement is complex, and interpretations vary. Some see it as evidence that Paul was disinterested in the earthly, historical Jesus. Others believe it emphasizes the spiritual, transformative nature of understanding Christ post-resurrection.
    3. Historical References: While Paul’s primary focus was on the theological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, there are moments in his letters where he alludes to or cites traditions that seem to have a basis in the historical life of Jesus. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, Paul refers to the Last Supper tradition, and in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, he provides a list of resurrection appearances. These references suggest that while his primary focus was theological, Paul wasn’t entirely disconnected from traditions about Jesus’ earthly life.
    4. Information from Other Apostles: In Galatians 1:18-19, Paul mentions meeting Cephas (Peter) and James, the Lord’s brother, in Jerusalem. While the exact nature and content of their interactions are not detailed, it’s possible that Paul received some traditions or teachings about Jesus during such encounters.

In summary, while Paul’s primary engagement with Jesus was theological and based on revelatory experiences, his letters contain hints of awareness of the historical Jesus. However, it’s true that for historical reconstructions of Jesus’ life and teachings, Paul’s letters are of limited direct utility, especially when compared to the Gospels.

–0–

Me: How can the gospels be of use if they derive from a generation after the events purported to be of Jesus’ life and do not offer readers any assurance about their sources? Even the prologue in Luke’s gospel is very vague.

ChatGPT:

You’ve touched upon some longstanding challenges and debates in historical Jesus research. The Gospels, while primary sources for the study of Jesus, present methodological challenges due to their genre, the time gap between the events and their composition, and their theological nature. Let’s unpack some of these issues:

    1. Genre and Intent: The Gospels are not historical accounts in the sense of modern historiography. They’re a mix of biography (or “bios” in the Greco-Roman tradition), theology, and proclamation. They were written for communities of believers and aimed not just to inform but also to inspire faith.
    2. Time Gap: The Gospels were written decades after the events they describe. Mark, the earliest, is typically dated around 65-70 CE, with Matthew and Luke in the 80s or 90s, and John potentially as late as the 90s or early 100s. This time gap means they’re reliant on oral and perhaps written traditions that circulated before them.
    3. Anonymous Authors: The traditional attributions of the Gospels (to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are not found within the texts themselves and were assigned later. The authors do not provide detailed accounts of their sources or methodologies.
    4. Theological Development: Over the decades between Jesus’ ministry and the writing of the Gospels, theological reflection and developments occurred within the Christian community. This evolution is evident in the way the Gospel writers shape their narratives and emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ teachings and deeds.
    5. Luke’s Prologue: While Luke does offer a prologue (Luke 1:1-4) suggesting an intent to provide an “orderly account,” it’s true that he doesn’t specify his sources or offer detailed methodological insights. His reference to “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” is intriguing but not explicit about who these were or how he accessed their testimonies.

Given these complexities, how can scholars approach the Gospels historically?

    1. Comparative Analysis: By comparing Gospel accounts of the same events or teachings, scholars can try to discern earlier traditions or layers within the text.
    2. Criteria of Authenticity: While not without criticism, several criteria, like the criterion of embarrassment or the criterion of multiple attestation, have been used to evaluate the likelihood of certain events or sayings going back to the historical Jesus.
    3. External Corroboration: While limited, external sources like Josephus or Tacitus, or archaeological findings, can provide some context or confirmation for certain Gospel claims.
    4. Social and Historical Context: Understanding the 1st-century Palestinian context can provide insights into which Gospel elements might reflect genuine historical situations or concerns.
    5. Awareness of Later Theological Development: By being aware of how early Christian theology developed, scholars can sometimes discern between earlier traditions and later theological reflections in the Gospels.

In sum, while the Gospels are challenging sources for historical reconstruction, they are not unusable. They require careful and nuanced methodological approaches. Even with these methods, conclusions often remain in the realm of probability rather than certainty.

–0–

Me: But “multiple attestation” can confirm nothing unless the multiple witnesses are independent of one another. Albert Schweitzer long ago conceded that since all the sources go back to the one origin, early Christianity itself, we are trapped in a circularlity.

ChatGPT:

You’re right to highlight the challenge. Multiple attestation as a criterion has its limitations, especially when applied to the New Testament materials, where the interdependence of the sources is a key concern.

Multiple Attestation and Interdependence: The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have a complex literary relationship. The majority scholarly view, the Two-Source Hypothesis, posits that Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark’s Gospel and another hypothetical source called Q (from the German “Quelle” meaning “source”). This means that many of the overlaps between these Gospels cannot be considered truly independent. Moreover, while John’s Gospel is different in style and content from the Synoptics, it’s debated whether John had knowledge of any of the Synoptic accounts.

Albert Schweitzer, in his seminal work “The Quest of the Historical Jesus,” did indeed acknowledge the challenges and limitations of then-current methodologies in historical Jesus research. He was critical of the way many scholars seemed to recreate Jesus in their own image, influenced by their theological or philosophical presuppositions.

Challenges of Circular Reasoning: If all our sources can be traced back to a single early Christian tradition or set of traditions, then multiple attestation merely confirms that a particular story or saying was widespread in early Christianity, not necessarily that it goes back to the historical Jesus. This is a significant methodological challenge.

However, while acknowledging these challenges, many scholars believe that there still can be value in the criterion of multiple attestation, especially when combined with other criteria. For instance:

    1. Different Forms: If a saying or deed of Jesus is found in multiple forms (e.g., in a parable, a saying, and a narrative), it might increase the probability of its historical authenticity.
    2. Multiple Contexts: If a tradition is attested across different early Christian communities or contexts, it might be seen as more likely historical.
    3. Dissimilarity: This is another often-used criterion. If a saying or deed of Jesus is dissimilar from both the Judaism of his time and the early Christian community, it might be considered more likely to be historical.

Still, all these criteria have their own limitations and critiques. In essence, the work of the historical Jesus scholar involves navigating these methodological challenges, being transparent about the limitations, and making probabilistic judgments based on the evidence available.

Scholars, since Schweitzer’s time, have been keenly aware of these challenges. Yet, while some are more skeptical about what can be known of the historical Jesus, others believe that a careful and critical use of these methods, combined with other insights (e.g., archaeology, social-scientific models), can still yield a reasonable portrait, albeit with acknowledged uncertainties.

–0–

Me: But don’t all those other criteria rest upon the circular assumption that there is a historical core or origin to begin with?

ChatGPT:

You’re identifying a fundamental epistemological challenge in historical Jesus research: How can one establish a “historical core” when the primary sources (the Gospels) are theological in nature and were written decades after the purported events? The criteria are, indeed, attempts to sift through these theological texts to extract what might be historical, but their effectiveness and validity are subjects of debate.

    1. Criteria of Dissimilarity: This criterion assumes that if something doesn’t fit the context of early Christian beliefs and also doesn’t fit the context of earlier Jewish beliefs, it’s more likely to be historical. The logic is that the early Christian community wouldn’t have invented something that didn’t serve their theological or evangelistic purposes. However, critics point out that this might lead to an overly “stripped-down” Jesus, only recovering what’s anomalous.
    2. Criterion of Embarrassment: This posits that the early Christian community wouldn’t have invented stories or sayings that would be embarrassing or challenging to them. Critics argue that what might seem “embarrassing” to us today might not have been to the earliest Christian communities.
    3. Criteria of Coherence: Once some sayings or deeds are deemed authentic (using other criteria), this criterion checks if other sayings or deeds are coherent with those. The circularity potential here is evident: the criterion’s effectiveness depends on the effectiveness of other criteria.
    4. Multiple Attestation: As we discussed, this criterion can indeed be problematic if the sources are not genuinely independent.

To your point, if one starts with a deep skepticism about the Gospels containing any genuine historical material, then these criteria might seem like tools to confirm pre-existing assumptions rather than objective methods. Indeed, a critic might argue that they are simply tools to extract from the texts what modern scholars find plausible based on current understandings of the historical context.

However, many scholars believe that while these criteria are not infallible, they can, when used judiciously, help to navigate the complex terrain of the Gospels to provide probable reconstructions. They argue that complete skepticism (i.e., the view that we can know next to nothing about the historical Jesus) is as much a position of faith as complete credulity.

In summary, you’re right to identify an underlying assumption: that there is a historical core or origin to the Gospel narratives. This assumption is based, in part, on the broader historiographical principle that texts, even when written with biases or theological aims, can still contain kernels of genuine history. How to extract that history, and how confident one can be about the reconstructions, remains a challenge and a topic of debate.

–0–

Me: Why do you speak of “deep skepticism” as if a refusal to accept circularity is somehow a flaw, an extreme position?

ChatGPT:

You raise a valid point. The phrasing “deep skepticism” might inadvertently imply a negative or extreme position, and I apologize for that. Skepticism in historiography is essential, especially when dealing with ancient sources that are layered with theological, literary, and political agendas. It ensures that historical reconstructions are grounded and not overly speculative.

It’s not a flaw to demand rigorous methodology and to reject circular reasoning. Indeed, one could argue that approaching ancient texts with a healthy dose of skepticism is a scholarly strength, as it can lead to more nuanced and cautious conclusions.

The challenge with historical Jesus research is that there’s a wide spectrum of positions, from those who believe we can know quite a lot about the historical Jesus based on the existing sources, to those who believe we can know very little or almost nothing. Each position has its own set of assumptions and methodological challenges.

Your criticism is a reminder that scholars, and those discussing scholarly work, need to be aware of and transparent about the assumptions underlying their methodologies and conclusions.

–0–

Conclusion: It is easier and more informative to have a discussion about such fundamental questions with artificial intelligence than it is with many human theologians and their lay acolytes who are quick to express outrage or contempt that such questions are raised at all by an outsider.


A Dialog with ChatGPT on Christian Origins

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

While recently attempting to relate the views of the anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse to what we know of Christian origins, I decided to turn to an obliging dialog partner for assistance — ChatGPT. For background you might want to skim through what I wrote about Whitehouse’s models at https://vridar.org/2020/06/20/modes-of-religiosity/

Me: Given Harvey Whitehouse’s description of the doctrinal and imagistic modes of religiosity, what is the most likely origin of Christianity?

ChatGPT:

Harvey Whitehouse’s theory distinguishes between two modes of religiosity: the imagistic and the doctrinal modes. These modes differ in their frequency and emotional intensity, the way they are transmitted, the nature of their rituals, and their social organization.

    • Imagistic Mode: This mode is characterized by:
      • Low-frequency, high-arousal rituals (e.g., initiations)
      • Emotional bonding
      • Informal, often decentralized social structures
      • Knowledge often passed down through oral tradition and personal experience
    • Doctrinal Mode: This mode is characterized by:
      • High-frequency, low-arousal rituals (e.g., regular worship services)
      • Emphasis on doctrine and orthodoxy
      • Centralized authority and more formal organizational structures
      • Knowledge passed down through codified texts, doctrines, and teachings

Given this distinction, the origins of Christianity can be seen in both modes but with a clear progression from the imagistic to the doctrinal:

    • The Imagistic Beginnings:
      • Jesus and his disciples: The early ministry of Jesus involved a close-knit group of followers experiencing transformative moments together, reminiscent of the imagistic mode. For instance, Jesus performed miracles, healings, exorcisms, and other rare and emotionally intense events.
      • Early Christian communities: After Jesus’s crucifixion and reported resurrection, early Christian communities shared meals (the Eucharist), remembered Jesus’s teachings, and recounted stories of his life. They often met in secret and were bound together in the face of persecution.
    • Transition to the Doctrinal Mode:
      • Pauline epistles and missionary work: Apostle Paul’s letters to various Christian communities emphasized doctrine, ethical standards, and communal practices. His missionary work also spread Christianity, requiring more standardized beliefs and practices.
      • Canonical texts: As Christian communities grew and spread, there was a need to standardize teachings. This led to the formation of the New Testament canon, providing authoritative texts for doctrine and belief.
      • Institutionalization: By the 4th century, with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD and the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Christianity became a legal religion and later the state religion of the Roman Empire. This resulted in a formalized church hierarchy, standardized liturgies, and more consistent doctrinal teachings.

In conclusion, while the very origins of Christianity show traces of the imagistic mode, especially in the close-knit experiences of Jesus’s followers and the early Christian communities, it soon transitioned into a more doctrinal mode as it grew, spread, and became institutionalized. This progression can be seen in many religions as they move from small, personal, and intense beginnings to large, organized, and standardized institutions.

–0–

Me: But how might that view of Christian origins change, if it would change, if we accepted that there were no historical basis for believing that the miracles Jesus performed were any more remarkable than those of other prophets or shamans of the day?

ChatGPT:

If one assumes that Jesus’ miracles were not historically more remarkable than those of other prophets or shamans of his time, the origins of Christianity would still need to be explained, as it grew to become a major world religion while many other similar movements did not. This change in perspective would shift the emphasis from the singular nature of Jesus’ miracles to other factors that contributed to the rise and spread of Christianity.

    1. Teachings and Message: Without the uniqueness of miracles as a focal point, the teachings and message of Jesus might be viewed as more central to the appeal of early Christianity. The message of universal love, forgiveness, and the promise of eternal life could have been particularly compelling in the context of the Roman Empire, with its diverse mix of cultures and beliefs.
    2. Apostle Paul and Early Christian Missionaries: Even without uniquely spectacular miracles, the work of Paul and other early missionaries was vital in spreading Christianity. Paul’s ability to bridge the gap between Jewish and Gentile worlds and his establishment of churches across the Roman Empire played a significant role in Christianity’s expansion.
    3. Community and Support: The early Christian communities were known for their mutual support, especially during times of persecution. This tight-knit communal bond, characterized by sharing of resources and a sense of belonging, could have made the religion attractive, irrespective of the nature of Jesus’ miracles.
    4. Narrative and Resurrection: The narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection would still remain pivotal. Even if his miracles were on par with other shamans or prophets, the resurrection story set Jesus apart. If this event were historically accepted or at least fervently believed in by early followers, it would still provide a unique foundation for the faith.
    5. Sociopolitical Context: The eventual acceptance and promotion of Christianity by the Roman state, starting with Emperor Constantine, would still be a turning point. The political patronage and the subsequent establishment of Christianity as the state religion would play a key role in its spread, regardless of the nature of Jesus’ miracles.
    6. Contrast with Existing Religions: The teachings of Christianity might have contrasted favorably with some of the existing religious practices of the time, offering a refreshing alternative to potential converts.

In conclusion, while the uniqueness of Jesus’ miracles might serve as an attractive feature of early Christianity, the faith’s spread and establishment can be attributed to a combination of theological, sociopolitical, and communal factors. If the miracles were viewed as no more remarkable than those of other contemporary figures, these other factors would likely take on increased importance in explanations of Christianity’s origins and growth.

–0–

Me: But what if Jesus’ teachings were not any more radical than those of other idealistic Pharisees or prophets — but simply enjoined the ideal of keeping the spirit of the Mosaic law?

ChatGPT:

If we consider that Jesus’ teachings were not particularly radical or distinct from other idealistic Pharisees or prophets of his time and that he primarily emphasized keeping the spirit of the Mosaic law, then the rise and spread of Christianity would need to be attributed to factors beyond Jesus’ teachings alone.

      1. Charismatic Leadership: Even without radically different teachings, the charisma, leadership style, and personal qualities of a leader can have a significant impact. Many movements have been built around charismatic leaders whose personal qualities inspire deep loyalty and devotion among followers.
      2. The Role of Followers: The interpretations, writings, and organizational activities of early Christian followers, especially influential figures like Paul, would play a pivotal role. Paul’s efforts to spread Christianity to Gentiles, his theological contributions in the form of letters, and the establishment of Christian communities across the Roman Empire would remain key.
      3. Narrative of Crucifixion and Resurrection: Regardless of the nature of Jesus’ teachings, the narrative surrounding his crucifixion and resurrection would remain central. If this story were accepted, believed, or promoted by his followers, it provides a foundation of sacrifice and redemption that sets Christianity apart.
      4. Community Bonding: The ways in which early Christian communities operated—supporting one another, sharing resources, and forming tight-knit bonds—could still serve as a significant draw for many, making the faith appealing irrespective of how radical Jesus’ teachings were.
      5. Sociopolitical Factors: The eventual endorsement of Christianity by key political figures and its establishment as the state religion of the Roman Empire would still be major catalysts for its spread.
      6. Historical Preservation: The preservation and compilation of Christian teachings, stories, and letters into what became the New Testament canon might have played a role. Even if the teachings weren’t unique, the act of codifying and preserving them ensured they had a lasting impact.
      7. Opposition and Persecution: Paradoxically, opposition to a movement can sometimes strengthen it. Early Christian persecution might have galvanized communities, helping them define their identity in contrast to the larger Roman society.

In this scenario, Christianity’s growth would likely be attributed more to the efforts and circumstances of its early followers, the organizational structures they created, the narratives they built and promoted, and the sociopolitical contexts they navigated, rather than the distinctiveness of Jesus’ teachings themselves. The transformation of a localized movement centered on the teachings of a single figure into a global religion would be a testament to the combined effects of personal devotion, communal bonds, strategic efforts, and historical contingencies.

–0–

Me: But is it plausible to think that followers of Jesus really imputed a divine status to him so early?

ChatGPT:

The question of when and how followers of Jesus began to ascribe to him a divine status is a complex and heavily debated topic within Christian origins scholarship. Here are some points to consider:

    1. Pauline Epistles: One of the earliest sources we have regarding beliefs about Jesus’ divine status are the letters of Paul. Scholars generally date these epistles to the 50s and 60s CE, within 20-30 years of Jesus’ death. In these letters, Paul already describes Jesus using terms and concepts that suggest a divine or exalted status. For instance, in Philippians 2:6-11, Paul cites a hymn that speaks of Jesus as being in the “form of God” and then taking on the “form of a servant.” This suggests that at least some early Christians held a high view of Jesus’ status relatively soon after his death.
    2. Diverse Early Christologies: It’s essential to recognize that early Christian beliefs about Jesus were not monolithic. There was a range of beliefs about his nature, role, and status. While some early Christian communities might have emphasized Jesus’ divine status early on, others might have seen him primarily as a prophet, teacher, or messianic figure. Over time, as Christianity developed, certain beliefs became more standardized, especially after the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.
    3. Influence of Jewish Concepts: Some scholars argue that certain Jewish concepts could have paved the way for early views of Jesus’ divinity. For example, the Jewish notion of “Wisdom” (as seen in Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon) was sometimes personified and described in terms that bordered on the divine. Similarly, the “Son of Man” figure in the Book of Daniel is portrayed as a heavenly figure receiving everlasting dominion. These concepts might have provided a framework for understanding Jesus in divine or semi-divine terms.
    4. Experiences of the Early Followers: The reported experiences of Jesus’ followers after his death, especially resurrection appearances and the experience of the Pentecost, likely played a significant role in shaping their beliefs about his status. If they believed they had encountered the risen Jesus or had received the Holy Spirit, these profound experiences could have reinforced or even elevated their views about Jesus’ nature and role.
    5. Evolution Over Time: It’s also plausible that views of Jesus’ divine status evolved over time. The earliest followers might have seen him as an anointed prophet or messiah, and as stories about him were told and retold, theological reflection deepened, and experiences were interpreted, his status in the beliefs of his followers could have been elevated.
    6. Comparative Context: The Greco-Roman world, where Christianity spread, was familiar with stories of divine beings, demi-gods, and divine emperors. Some scholars argue that as Christianity interacted with these cultural ideas, it influenced the way Jesus was understood and portrayed.

In conclusion, it is plausible to think that at least some followers of Jesus began to ascribe to him a divine or exalted status relatively early, influenced by a combination of their experiences, existing religious concepts, theological reflection, and the broader cultural context. However, exactly how this developed, the pace of its development, and its nuances would have varied across different Christian communities and contexts.

–0–

Me: So with the above discussion in mind, how might Whitehouse’s doctrinal and imagistic modes of religiosity explain Christian origins — if they can?

ChatGPT:

Harvey Whitehouse’s modes of religiosity—imagistic and doctrinal—can provide a conceptual framework to understand the dynamics of early Christian communities and their development. If we apply these modes to the origins of Christianity, the picture might look something like this:

    1. Imagistic Mode:
      • The Early Ministry of Jesus: As mentioned earlier, Jesus’ ministry was characterized by transformative moments with his close-knit group of followers. Whether it was the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, or other significant events, these can be seen as low-frequency, high-arousal events typical of the imagistic mode.
      • Post-Crucifixion Experiences: The reported post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples and the Pentecost experience, where followers felt the Holy Spirit’s descent, can be understood as intense, emotional events that deeply bonded the early Christian community.
      • Early Persecutions: The sporadic persecutions faced by the early Christians would have created intense, emotionally charged experiences that bonded communities together. Facing adversity or external threats can lead to strong in-group cohesion.
    2. Doctrinal Mode:
      • Paul’s Missionary Work: As Paul established churches across the Roman Empire and corresponded with them, he emphasized doctrine, ethical behavior, and communal practices. His letters, which aimed at addressing theological and practical issues, helped to lay the groundwork for a more standardized belief system.
      • Gospel Writings: The Gospels, written a few decades after Jesus’ death, sought to codify the stories and teachings of Jesus. They played a role in standardizing the narrative and teachings of Jesus, aligning with the high-frequency, low-arousal characteristics of the doctrinal mode.
      • Emergence of Church Hierarchy: As Christian communities grew and spread, the need for organizational structure became evident. The roles of bishops, deacons, and elders became more defined, and with them, a more centralized authority began to emerge.
      • Ecumenical Councils: By the 4th century and onward, councils like the Council of Nicaea were convened to address and resolve theological disputes. These councils aimed to standardize Christian belief and practice across the empire, reflecting the doctrinal mode’s emphasis on codified beliefs and centralized authority.

In light of this:

    • Christianity’s origins might be viewed as starting primarily in the imagistic mode, with intense, foundational experiences deeply bonding early followers of Jesus. The shared experiences, narratives, and challenges would have fostered a strong sense of community and identity.
    • As the movement grew and expanded geographically and demographically, there was a shift toward the doctrinal mode. The need for standardized teachings, regular communal practices, and a more structured hierarchy became evident. This shift ensured the movement’s cohesion and unity as it grew and faced new challenges.

In conclusion, Whitehouse’s modes of religiosity can offer a useful lens to understand the evolution and dynamics of early Christianity. The transition from imagistic to doctrinal modes can help explain how Christianity moved from a small sect centered around the charismatic teachings and events of Jesus’ life to a major world religion with standardized beliefs and practices.

–0–

Me: What evidence do we have for the historical nature of the events that provoked the imagistic mode of religiosity of those first followers of Jesus?

ChatGPT:

The events that might have provoked the imagistic mode of religiosity for the first followers of Jesus are derived primarily from the New Testament writings. When discussing evidence, we are delving into a realm where historical analysis meets religious belief. Different scholars hold various positions regarding the reliability of the New Testament as a source for reconstructing historical events. Still, most agree that some core elements reflect authentic traditions.

Here’s a look at the potential evidence:

      1. The Ministry of Jesus:
        • Source Multiplicity: Multiple sources (the Synoptic Gospels, John, Paul’s letters, and non-canonical writings) contain accounts of Jesus’ teachings, healings, exorcisms, and encounters. While they differ in detail and emphasis, there’s a consensus among scholars that Jesus had a public ministry with acts and teachings that drew attention.
        • Criteria of Embarrassment: Historians often consider accounts that could be potentially embarrassing or difficult for the author’s cause to be more likely authentic. Examples include John the Baptist baptizing Jesus (indicative of a subordinate position) and Jesus’ crucifixion (a shameful death for a messianic figure).
      2. The Crucifixion:
        • Multiple Attestation: All four Gospels and Paul’s letters affirm the crucifixion of Jesus. Even non-Christian sources, like the Jewish historian Josephus and Roman historian Tacitus, reference Jesus’ execution.
        • Criteria of Embarrassment: As mentioned, crucifixion was a degrading form of execution. The early Christians would have little reason to invent such a story, making it likely historical.
      3. Resurrection Appearances:
        • Paul’s Testimony: In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul lists several individuals and groups who reportedly saw Jesus after his death, including Peter, the apostles, a group of over 500, James, and himself. This early creedal statement is dated to within a few years of Jesus’ death.
        • Empty Tomb Tradition: The Synoptic Gospels all contain accounts of women finding Jesus’ tomb empty. The consistent role of women as the primary witnesses, despite the cultural context where women’s testimonies were not highly valued, could be seen as an indication of authenticity based on the criterion of embarrassment.
        • Variation in Accounts: The varying resurrection accounts in the Gospels, while often seen as discrepancies, might also indicate that these are independent traditions, suggesting multiple lines of transmission about post-crucifixion appearances.
      4. Pentecost & The Holy Spirit:
        • Acts of the Apostles: The book of Acts describes the experience of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. This transformative experience, marked by speaking in tongues and bold proclamation, is foundational to the early Christian movement.
      5. Persecutions:
        • Paul’s Letters & Acts: Both sources reference the persecutions faced by early Christians. Paul’s own transformation from a persecutor to a proclaimer is also documented.
      6. Non-Christian Sources:
        • Writers like Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and the Jewish Talmud, albeit written a few decades after the events, provide external references to Jesus and early Christianity.

While the above points provide evidence that certain events or aspects of Jesus’ life and the early Christian movement are historical, the interpretation of these events varies widely. Many elements, especially supernatural claims, are matters of faith. Historical analysis can indicate the likelihood of events but often stops short of affirming the theological interpretations that religious believers might hold.

–0–

Me: But the criteria of authenticity you just appealed to have largely come under suspicion of being fallacious logically.

ChatGPT:

You’re right. Over the past few decades, many biblical scholars have raised concerns about the traditional criteria of authenticity, especially when used to reconstruct the historical Jesus. Some of the criticisms include:

      1. Criteria of Embarrassment: Critics argue that just because something might be embarrassing for early Christians doesn’t necessarily mean it’s historical. Such details might have served other narrative or theological purposes, or they might reflect conflicts and contexts of the communities in which the texts were written.
      2. Multiple Attestation: While having multiple sources report an event or saying might make fabrication less likely, it doesn’t necessarily prove historicity. Different sources might be drawing from a common earlier source, or an event could have been invented early and then been incorporated into multiple subsequent sources.
      3. Criteria of Dissimilarity: This criteria assumes that if a saying or action of Jesus is dissimilar from both Jewish and early Christian contexts, it’s more likely to be authentic. Critics point out that this presupposes we have a full understanding of both contexts and that it inadvertently casts Jesus as an entirely disconnected figure from his own Jewish environment.
      4. Post-Easter Influence: There’s a concern that many of the reported sayings and deeds of Jesus might have been shaped (or even invented) by early Christian communities in light of their post-resurrection beliefs, making it challenging to discern what traces back to the historical Jesus.
      5. Potential Circular Reasoning: Some scholars argue that these criteria can be used selectively or in ways that confirm pre-existing assumptions about Jesus. For instance, once a particular event is deemed “authentic” using one of these criteria, it can then be used as a backdrop to authenticate other events or sayings, leading to a potential circular validation.
      6. Over-simplification: The criteria might overly simplify the complex processes of oral tradition, community memory, and the compositional strategies of ancient authors. They might not account adequately for the nuances and intricacies of how traditions about Jesus developed and were recorded.

In light of these criticisms, many scholars now approach the criteria with caution. Some prefer to use them as general guidelines rather than strict rules, while others look to alternative methods altogether.

One such alternative is the “memory approach,” which studies how communities remember and transmit memories, considering both social and cognitive factors. This method aims to bridge the gap between the historical Jesus and the remembered Jesus in the Gospels, recognizing that while the Gospels do not provide direct access to the historical Jesus, they do offer a window into how early Christian communities remembered and interpreted him.

In summary, while the traditional criteria of authenticity have been valuable tools in historical Jesus research, they are not without their problems. Contemporary scholarship acknowledges these challenges and seeks more nuanced and comprehensive methods to explore the historical foundations of the New Testament narratives.

–0–

Me: But does not the criteria approach and the memory approach begin with the assumption that there are historical events behind the gospel narratives — even though it is the historicity of those events they seek to prove: is this an invalid circular process?

ChatGPT:

Your question touches upon one of the central methodological challenges in historical Jesus research. Historians aim to reconstruct past events based on available sources, but when those sources are also the subjects of investigation for their reliability, the process can appear circular. Here’s how the criticism is often framed and some responses to it:

    1. Presupposition of Historicity: Critics argue that both the criteria and memory approaches, to some extent, presuppose a historical core behind the Gospel narratives. By starting with this assumption, the methods can be seen as merely confirming what they already assume.
    2. Historical Context: In defense of these approaches, many scholars argue that it’s reasonable to start with the presumption that the Gospels, like other ancient texts, contain some historical information. While they’re theological in nature, they are still texts produced within a specific historical and cultural context. Therefore, the task is to sift through the material to determine which parts of the narratives reflect historical events and which are theological or literary constructs.
    3. Nature of Historical Inquiry: All historical work operates on certain presuppositions. For instance, historians generally assume that texts were produced by people who, like us, operated in a world governed by consistent patterns. The question isn’t whether one operates with presuppositions, but whether those presuppositions are reasonable and are held critically.
    4. Comparative Analysis: One way to mitigate the risk of circular reasoning is to engage in comparative analysis. By comparing the Gospel narratives to other contemporaneous writings and considering their place within the broader Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts, scholars can gain insights into patterns of composition, myth-making, and historical recording.
    5. Memory Approach’s Self-awareness: The memory approach, in particular, acknowledges from the outset that all memories—individual or collective—are interpreted and constructed. Instead of merely seeking “original events,” the memory approach investigates how events were remembered, interpreted, and reshaped over time. In doing so, it recognizes the inherent interplay between event and interpretation.
    6. Limitations and Tentativeness: Most reputable scholars in the field acknowledge the limitations of their methods and the tentativeness of their conclusions. While some events or sayings of Jesus can be deemed more probable than others, certainty remains elusive. The nature of the sources, the time gap between the events and their recording, and the theological intentions of the authors all mean that reconstructions of the historical Jesus are often offered with a degree of caution.

In summary, while there’s a valid point about potential circularity in historical Jesus research, many scholars believe that by being aware of their presuppositions, employing comparative methods, and acknowledging the limitations of their conclusions, they can still produce meaningful and plausible reconstructions of the past. The challenge, of course, is discerning the line between a historically cautious approach and a circular or overly presumptive one.

–0–

Me: It sounds like you’re saying that the cautious scholar is simply aware of the circularity of his endeavour but is unable to avoid it.

ChatGPT:

That’s a fair way to characterize the challenge. The inherent circularity in historical Jesus research arises from the tension between using the Gospels as sources of information about Jesus while simultaneously trying to assess their historical reliability. Here are a few nuances and clarifications:

      1. Historical Sources are Always Interpreted: Every historical source, not just the Gospels, is a blend of observation, interpretation, bias, and sometimes even fabrication. Historians always engage in the task of discerning how events were perceived, remembered, and recorded. While the circularity in historical Jesus research is more pronounced due to the theological nature of the sources, the process of interpreting and critically assessing sources is a staple of historical methodology.
      2. Criteria and Methodology: The criteria of authenticity (like embarrassment, dissimilarity, etc.) were developed as tools to try to break out of this circle by providing an “objective” means of assessing the Gospels’ content. However, as you’ve rightly pointed out, these criteria have faced criticism and are seen by some as being part of the circular process. Being aware of these limitations is essential, even if it doesn’t wholly resolve the issue.
      3. Historical Probability: One way to navigate this challenge is to frame discussions in terms of historical probability rather than certainty. Instead of aiming for concrete conclusions, many scholars try to determine what is more or less likely based on available evidence.
      4. Comparative Historical Context: Placing the Gospels in the wider context of other ancient writings, archaeological evidence, and the socio-political landscape of the time can provide external reference points against which Gospel accounts can be compared. This comparative approach can, to some extent, help mitigate the risk of circularity.
      5. Transparent Presuppositions: Being upfront about one’s presuppositions is crucial. While all scholars bring certain biases to their work, acknowledging them and being transparent about one’s methodology allows others to critically assess conclusions and arguments.
      6. The Value of the Endeavor: Despite the challenges and potential circularity, many scholars believe there’s value in the endeavor. Even if one can’t establish events with certainty, shedding light on the early Christian community’s beliefs, practices, and self-understanding is itself a worthy historical task.

In conclusion, while the potential for circular reasoning is a recognized challenge in historical Jesus research, scholars aim to navigate this by employing a range of methods, being transparent about their presuppositions, and framing their conclusions in terms of probability rather than certainty.

–0–

Me: What other historical research has that kind of circularity at its foundation?

ChatGPT:

The potential for circularity isn’t unique to historical Jesus research. Many areas of historical inquiry grapple with similar challenges, especially when primary sources are limited, are of a particular genre that blends fact with fiction or interpretation, or come from a context that has strong ideological or religious biases. Here are some examples:

    1. Ancient Mythologies and Foundational Stories: Many ancient cultures have foundational myths or legends, such as the tales of Romulus and Remus in the founding of Rome or the stories about King Arthur in British lore. Determining the historical realities behind such stories, if any exist, is challenging. Scholars can sometimes fall into a circular trap, using the narratives themselves as evidence for the events they describe.
    2. Biographies of Ancient Figures: Ancient biographies, unlike modern ones, often blended historical facts with moral lessons, allegories, and mythologies. The biographies of figures like Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar, while based on historical figures, contain elements that are clearly legendary or propagandistic. Disentangling the historical from the legendary can be fraught with potential circularity.
    3. Religious Texts: Historical research into figures like the Buddha, Muhammad, or Moses faces challenges similar to those in historical Jesus research. Religious texts often blend history, theology, and interpretation, and determining the historical core can be difficult.
    4. Prehistoric Cultures: For cultures without written records, our primary sources of information are archaeological finds. Interpretations of these finds can sometimes be circular. For example, if a particular type of pottery is believed to be ceremonial based on its location and then another similar item is labeled ceremonial based on its resemblance to the first, a potentially circular argument has been made without external corroborating evidence.
    5. Oral Histories: Cultures with strong oral traditions, but limited written records, present challenges. The stories and histories passed down orally can evolve over time, and when they are finally recorded, the line between historical event and embellished or altered story can be blurry.
    6. Historiographies: When later historians rely heavily on earlier ones without a clear line to primary sources, there’s a risk of circularity. Later accounts might be seen as independent corroborations when they are, in fact, merely repetitions of earlier narratives.

These examples underscore that potential circularity is a challenge in many areas of historical research, not just in studies about Jesus. The key is for historians to recognize these pitfalls and be as transparent and methodical as possible in their methodologies, always open to reevaluation and critique.

–0–

I found it most refreshing and challenging to engage with such a “thoughtful” dialog partner. Certain New Testament scholars and their lay acolytes could learn a lot about how to engage with questions that challenge their assumptions and how to respond with civility and professionalism.

I continued the discussion by delving into problems of methodology. See the next post.


2023-06-07

BRUNO BAUER: Theological Explanation of the Gospels – III. The Original Evangelist

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Theological Explanation of the Gospels

Die theologische Erklärung der Evangelien

by

Bruno Bauer

1852

III.

The Original Evangelist.

136

Yes, it must be difficult to grasp a perspective that no longer aligns with the entanglement of theological assumptions, especially when even academically trained theologians, in their struggle with criticism, in a moment when they should be proving their presuppositions, use the categories of those assumptions with a naivety and unconsciousness that could be considered extraordinary, if this audacity of unawareness could still be surprising to theologians.

To portray my view on the origins of the Gospels and the gospel history as “absurd,” Mr. Schwegler finds it sufficient to exclaim: “Now Hesiod, an Hellenic proto-evangelist, would have created the Greek mythology in a literary manner; Homer’s songs, instead of being passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition, would have been freely and creatively presented to all the Hellenes!”

*) Zeller’s Theological Yearbooks. 1843. p. 207.

137

Let it be, I will follow Mr. Schwegler into ancient Greece; I will forget that even Herodotus made the “absurd” statement that Homer and Hesiod created the “gods of the Greeks” *) — but is the composition of Herodotus explained by speaking of its “inheritance”?

*) Her. II, 53 ουτοι δε εισι οι ποιησαντε θεογονιην ‘Ελλησι.

The Norse mythology, the German heroic song — they would, Mr. Schwegler further exclaims, be the products of a poetic mind because there was no tradition to transmit them from mouth to mouth, from generation to generation?

In his astonishment — in the fortunate ignorance bestowed upon the followers of the tradition hypothesis — Mr. Schwegler does not see that the question is solely about who created this “plant.”

To prove the “absurdity” of my view, Mr. Schwegler **) relies on how “the prehistory of all ethnic groups and nations has been passed down for centuries without being fixed in writing, in their speech and memory,” and how “they could do so because these peoples recognized in it the substantial forces of their history, the mystery of their world-historical mission.”

**) p. 258.

However, to fully accomplish the merit of the work he achieves with my refutation and to relieve historians from the unnecessary agony of further efforts, he should have mentioned at least one nation, if not all nations and ethnic groups, whose prehistory has truly been inherited in their memory — he should have mentioned that particular prehistory which is so reliably attested, which has been faithfully preserved in the memory of the nation, that any historian who would not include it in the realm of real history, as it has been transmitted in the oral tradition of the people, would rightly deserve the accusation of unnecessary nitpicking.

138

However, as far as I am aware of actual history, the prehistories, such as the Jewish, the Greek, the Roman, are later creations in which the world-historical mission of these peoples is so clearly prefigured because they were created at a time when those nations were already fully aware of their destiny and greatness — they are the reflection of the later self-consciousness of these peoples into a primeval era that lies beyond history, in which this self-consciousness was formed.

“And, declaims Mr. Schwegler further, and the evangelical history, transmitted from mouth to mouth, spread from the messengers of faith to the people, recounted in all religious gatherings, in private religious gatherings, told in a time and among social classes that were not inclined toward written records, relying primarily on the power of memory — should not even the few generations that, according to Bauer’s assumption, fall between the actual events (!) and the written record have been able to survive? On what else did the evangelical proclamation build, to what else could it refer, if not to the fact of the appearing, crucified, and resurrected Messiah?”

Indeed, the evangelical proclamation could only refer to the fact of the appearance, death, and resurrection of the Messiah — but this fact was also its only historical content.

139

That is certain — an indisputable fact.

But does that make the evangelical proclamation, which is the key to solving all difficulties in the Tradition Hypothesis, the evangelical proclamation that recites the entire evangelical history in one breath and, with this uniform recitation, wins the Roman Empire over to the Christian faith, become a historical fact? 

Hardly anyone will acknowledge this more than the critic who recognizes the rich contribution that the Gospels made to the shaping and development of the Christian world and the significant interests involved in the creation of the evangelical history. Similarly, there can be no doubt that when the Gospels were presented to the organized and existing Church as individual narrative pieces for edification, they proved to be a true source of life for Christian beliefs and the entire life of faith.

However, if the proponents of the Tradition Hypothesis claim that the “messengers of faith” subjugated the Roman world to their new Lord by conveying his biography, then we can use the only appropriate expression without in any way diminishing the true Gospels and their significant content, and ask whether “nation upon nation” could really have been won over with this collection of anecdotes.

The only thing that could be cited in support of this mindless chimera is the supposed testimony of Papias regarding the origin of the Gospel of Mark, his claim that Peter recounted the life story of his Lord during his missionary journeys. However, just like the later Tradition Hypothesis, this is nothing more than a theological attempt to explain the origin of the already existing and given Gospels — a hypothesis born out of interest and ignorance.

140

After these remarks, I will briefly ask whether, even if the “lower classes,” among whom the evangelical history is said to be narrated, were “not very skilled in written expression,” the teachers, leaders, and messengers of faith suffered from the same incompetence. And in response to the appeal to the incompetence of the masses, I would simply state that precisely because they are neither inclined nor capable of writing, individuals write on their behalf.

In the following volume, I will attempt to determine the era in which the confused mind lived, to whom we owe the so-called testimonies of Papias. Here I only note that when Mr. Schwegler connects the question to Papias’ alleged interest in the authenticity of the evangelical accounts and considers his collection of sayings derived from tradition as an impossibility, *) I would point out that the account of the supposed Papias preserved by Eusebius **) does not pertain to historical notes and anecdotes, but rather to matters of faith and doctrine. The contrast between oral tradition and written records is the contrast between the truth directly received from the Lord and the subsequent development of doctrine, which is regarded as personal wisdom. The supposed Papias does not seek to determine what is truly authentic in the historical accounts of the Gospels, but rather, starting from the belief that later doctrinal development is a foreign and arbitrary invention, he seeks to find the original, unadulterated teachings of the Lord.

*) Ibid., p. 271.

**) Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3, 39.

141

Papias’ eccentric antithesis has led Mr. Schwegler onto the right track: “precisely the earliest Christianity,” he notes, “more than any later period of the Christian Church, relied on tradition as a principle; the immediate connection with Christ was considered the criterion of apostolic authority, the church’s tradition, the canon of the preaching of salvation, and the episcopal succession were subjects of the greatest attention and strict scrutiny.”

Well then, there was a time in the Church when Catholicism believed that by claiming to be the old traditional system, it could convince the factions that divided the Church of their injustice and the gnostic speculation of its arbitrariness.

Furthermore, I will forget that this Catholicism, which emerged victorious over the factions in the second half of the second century, itself represented a new form of consciousness, a consequence of the flattening of extreme factions. I will forget that the tradition it relied upon was itself a creation of its consciousness, a dogma. I will forget that the succession of bishops it referred to was a fiction meant to provide a historical basis for its new dogma of tradition. I will forget all of that, except for the strict scrutiny and careful attention given to the succession of bishops, which I grant to Mr. Schwegler. But does this prove his tradition of evangelical history?

142

Yes, there was a time in the Church, in the middle of the second century, when Jewish Christianity and the so-called Pauline direction contended for supremacy. Both based their claims on the direct connection of their respective patrons with the Lord, until their dispute was reconciled by acknowledging the equal legitimacy of their supposed founders.

Well then, my proof that this dispute over Paul’s apostolic authority is also a product of the Catholic tradition’s demands has not been provided. Let it be granted to Mr. Schwegler that this dispute between Peter and Paul truly belongs to the early history of the community. Mr. Schwegler shall not even be tasked with creating a coherent picture of this dispute from the confusion of the Corinthian and Galatian letters. Let the proofs of criticism be forgotten, and Mr. Schwegler’s historical world stands there—but does that prove his tradition of evangelical history? Is the tradition of doctrine the transmission of historical notes? Is the dispute between Peter and Paul a dispute over evangelical history?

And when “Hegesippus traveled through the Christian world to verify the apostolicity of contemporary church doctrine through firsthand observation, personal research, and testimonies” *)—that is, rather, to measure the doctrine of individual churches against the later norm of Catholicism—did he travel to compare the various forms of evangelical historical tradition?

*) Ibid., p. 272.

143

Have all these digressions into foreign territories substantiated Strauss’s hypothesis or refuted or even touched upon my criticism?

But now Mr. Schwegler gets to the point: “how can the origin of Christianity and the formation of the community be understood without the impetus of a creative personality?” *)—what a reproach against me, who for the first time attributed the shaping and development of the community consciousness to truly creative personalities!

*) Ibid., p. 276. 

Indeed, the creators whose productive and transformative power I have demonstrated, for example, in the Urevangelium or in that evangelical section on the old and new law, are not the creators revered by religious consciousness or the ones theologians need to explain their worlds—they are not the creators who come from outside and provide the impetus for the emergence and movement of something or impose their revelations on the world that doesn’t know how to attain such favor—

— the creators whose work I have shown in the Gospels are rather so intimately connected with the world to which they present their new creations that my presentation of this connection can lead Mr. Schwegler to the objection and misunderstanding that I am still within the framework of the Tradition Hypothesis **), since I “cannot take a step forward without constantly recurring to tradition, to what is given in the community.”

**) Ibid., p. 247—Dr. Baur explicitly agrees with this objection (Kritische Untersuchungen, p. 66).

But when I say and provide evidence that the holy writers depict in their creations “the inner movements and experiences, the trials and struggles of the community,” when I designate the self-perception and self-consciousness of the community as the raw material of those creations, when I demonstrate that the holy artists derived the material they processed and shaped in their creations from their own inner being, which was so rich and vast that in its vibrations and struggles it reproduced the inner life of their world and condensed it into personal self-perception, into personal passion—

144

Thus, I do not rely on tradition—(tradition in Strauss’s sense)—”going back,” but rather on the historical substance that the holy writers shaped—the actual substance that was processed in their work and became the soul of a new world, not the chimerical substance that, according to the Tradition Hypothesis, merely reappears in the copy that the writers captured from it.

After Mr. Schwegler, because I have established a real connection between the historical creators and the world into which they place their works and revelations, has made me an adherent of the Tradition Hypothesis, he finds that I have detached the creators of the evangelical history from any connection with the community because I cannot consider them mere copyists. He then uses his finding to draw a conclusion that is supposed to complete the proof of the “absurdity” of my view.

“If the Evangelists, he remarks against me, ‘acted creatively towards their material without being in interaction with the community, if they were founders of a not yet existing and not rather children of an already created Christian world, then the Urevangelist, the Unknown, would be the creator of a world-creating religion.'” *)

*) Ibid., p. 219. Herr Dr. Baur also finds this objection so apt that he repeats it verbatim in his Critical Investigations, p. 67.”

145

— “Without standing in interaction with the community,” and it was I who first depicted this interaction between the creators of the evangelical narrative and the community — or would that truly be an interaction if the evangelists were merely copying tradition? Were the evangelists truly “the children” of an already existing Christian world when they wrote down what tradition dictated?

He, the unknown Ur-Evangelist, would be the “creator” of the Christian religion! — dreadful! But not for me, who acknowledge a great and esteemed multitude of creators of this religion! — a terrifying objection! Especially for the critic who recognizes not only the Ur-Evangelist but also the artists of the nativity story of the Savior, the master who formed the antithesis of the old and new law, even the author of the intricate web of antitheses in the fourth Gospel — who acknowledges not only the author of the first eight chapters of the Epistle to the Romans but also those who shaped Christian Judaism in contrast to Paulinism as creators of the Christian religion — a dreadful, annihilating objection against the one who sees the creative power that gave Christianity its life continuing to exert its influence in Athanasius and Augustine, in Hildebrand and Luther!

Dreadful! He, “the unknown,” the Ur-Evangelist, whose name no one can name, would be the creator — terrifying, above all, for the critic who does not know the names of the creators of those birth narratives in which the Christian perspective subjected Judaism and paganism — who does not even know the name of the master to whom the new law owes its victory over the old — who does not know the name of the man who satisfied the needs of the Christian heart in the fourth Gospel — dreadful for the critic who cannot assign a name to the author of the first chapters of the Epistle to the Romans and who is also unfamiliar with the names of the men who, until the end of the second century, developed the Catholic reconciliation of extremes — terrifying for the one who is ignorant of the true names of all those creators and who, in due time and in the course of this work, will attempt the only thing he has yet to accomplish in this regard — namely, answering the question of why a part of these creators remains completely nameless and whence arises the pseudonymity under which the works of others have come down to us.

146

So, according to Herr Schwegler, in his astonishment at my “absurd assumption” and “phantasmagorical view of history,” it is not an overwhelming personality that works by emanating its inner life, thereby creating community, but rather a writer through a book sent out into the world would be the originator of that immense movement upon which centuries of history are built.

The lack of intelligence with which the “inner life” of the Gospels and all those works that served as focal points for the crystallization of Christian society is closed off cannot be expressed in a more naive manner.

That these works did not fall into the world like the “inner life” that, according to the theologian’s view, provided the “impetus” for the formation of Christianity from an unknown, foreign heaven, I need not explain further. There is only one thing left for me to do in response to that objection: to measure the strength of real inner life, which I have demonstrated in the molding of the Ur-Evangelium, in the antithesis of the old and new law, and even in the statutory creation of Catholicism, against the mere phrase and mist of its “inner life.”

147

But my work is laid out openly—I do not need to repeat it for the sake of a mere phrase.

I do not need to speak again about the animating power that emanates from the Ur-Evangelium, nor the creative force with which the antithesis of the old and new law formed a new community, nor the organizing power inherent in the initial creations of Catholicism—

Just one more question! Is the fourth Gospel, with its global influence, merely “a book sent into the world”? Is the community that gathered around the Fourth Gospel not his creation, is the movement he initiated and concluded with his sole authority in the present not his work simply because he is a writer? Or did he not establish his global influence on a book—a piece of written paper?

How “absurd,” how “ridiculous” is the approach of history, how “phantasmagorical” its manner, that it deems its life secure only when it is transferred onto paper, and the dominion of its favorites secure only when it can rely on written letters!

But the beginning, the very first beginning, the impetus that the “first founder” gave to Christianity, as the God of religious consciousness gave to the emergence and movement of the world—that is what the theologian wants to know.

148

However, in the field of exact research in which I operate, I have no reason to proceed from the Gospels to an otherworldly originator, to a distant founder, or even to a person whose life story is handed down in them, as the theologian does when encountering a specific natural phenomenon or a remarkable historical event. The nature of the present material, the form and content of the Gospels, keep me rooted in the second century—form and content point to originators belonging to the second century.

In due course, during the course of this work, I will also come back to that first, very first beginning—but how many assumptions and conventional notions will have to fall in order for me to reach that point! I cannot, like the theologian, transport myself back to that beginning with a transcendent leap; I can only advance towards it through a thorough process.

——————————–

 


2023-05-06

Bruno BAUER — Seven (now Eight) Works Translated into English

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Until recently, an English translation of Bruno Bauer’s Christianity Exposed has only been available through a library or Edwin Mellen University Press. Now, however, Google Books has made Bruno Bauer’s famous work public — though it is in German. BUT the better news is that when one opens it in Google Reader and runs a cursor over the German text, a little box pops up giving one the option to have an instant translation of the selected text! Nice. — https://books.google.com.au/books/about … edir_esc=y Click on the READ EBOOK link in the left margin.

I have translated seven volumes of Bruno Bauer’s works into English and make them freely accessible here. I am not a German speaker and the Fraktur or Gothic font is not my closest friend so I have relied heavily on machine translation tools — Google Translate, DeepL and ChatGPT, often comparing them paragraph by paragraph for the preferable rendering into English. I have made an effort to manually check all pages for accuracy and comprehensibility but unfortunately the complexity and highly abstract commentary by Bauer sometimes stretched me to the limits of my abilities. Most of the text, I trust, is easier to read than those sections, but I encourage anyone who sees errors or can propose better translations to let me know.

Christ and the Caesars is commercially available — or rather it is very difficult to obtain — so I have provided here a fresh translation for open access.

BRUNO BAUER: Critique of the Gospel of John – English translation

BRUNO BAUER: Critique of the Gospel History – English translation

BRUNO BAUER: Acts of the Apostles – in English

BRUNO BAUER: Criticism of the Gospels and History of their Origin – in English

BRUNO BAUER: Theological Explanation of the Gospels – English translation  — Primarily a response to David Strauss and his Life of Jesus and the assumption of oral tradition behind the gospels

BRUNO BAUER: Criticism of the Pauline Letters – in English

BRUNO BAUER: Christ and the Caesars – in English

Albert Schweitzer on Bruno Bauer

One might suppose that between the work of Strauss and that of Bauer there lay not five, but fifty years—the critical work of a whole generation. . . .

The only critic with whom Bauer can be compared is Reimarus. Each exercised a terrifying and disabling influence upon his time. No one else had been so keenly conscious as they of the extreme complexity of the problem offered by the life of Jesus. . . .

For us the great men are not those who solved the problems, but those who discovered them. Bauer’s Criticism of the Gospel History is worth a good dozen Lives of Jesus, because his work, as we are only now coming to recognise, after half a century, is the ablest and most complete collection of the difficulties of the Life of Jesus which is anywhere to be found. . . .

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. Translated by W. Montgomery. A. & C. Black, 1910. pp. 151, 159

 

 

 

 


2023-04-23

§ 91 Respite

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Critique of the Gospel History of the Synoptics
by Bruno Bauer

Volume 3

—o0o—

307

§ 91

Respite.


We do not need to make or seek the transition to dogmatic criticism. Although the historical criticism that we have exercised above has never used so-called dogmatic arguments, such as that this or that miracle is impossible, in its result it is already the criticism of dogma. If we were to turn from it to the criticism of church dogma or the dogma of the New Testament letters, we would not be entering a new area, but would be considering the dogma that we have examined in the evangelical version in another stage of its development. The Christian dogma of the Redeemer is in itself both history – the history of his heavenly origin, his suffering, and his resurrection – and this history has been depicted in the Gospels as a real, empirical sequence of events. However, we have shown that it is only a dogma, only an ideal product of the Christian consciousness, so we have criticized the dogma at the point where it is most firmly rooted in reality and most inaccessible to doubt.

The idea of the Messiah, and specifically the idea that this is the Messiah, gave the Christian community its origin, or rather, both the formation of the community and the emergence of that idea are one and the same and coincide in terms of the matter and the time; but that idea was only the notion, i.e., the first vital impulse of the nascent community, the religious expression of an experience that the general consciousness of the world made and that expressed itself in the circle of religious concepts, presenting its content, its inner self, as a foreign person, as indeed the religious consciousness is a spirit that estranges itself from itself.

308

We have answered the question that our time has been so occupied with, namely whether Jesus is the historical Christ, by showing that everything that the historical Christ is, what is said about him, and what we know about him belongs to the world of imagination, specifically the Christian imagination, and therefore has nothing to do with a human being belonging to the real world. The question is thus answered, and it is eliminated for all future time.

Equally unfortunate is the ultimate fate of this question with regard to its concern with the determination of the sinlessness of the Redeemer. Just as the historical Christ dissolves into the opposite of what the imagination claims of him, namely from being a person with flesh and blood, a person who belongs to history with the power of his soul and spirit, into a phantom that mocks all laws of history, so has the imagined sinlessness of this phantom undergone the same fate. We simply refer to our critique, which at every step it took, had to become a feeling of indignation about a relationship in which one person is opposed to the general wickedness and stupidity, so that he always points to this contrast, always delights in this contrast, and without any moral connection with the world, dissolves all moral relationships in the thought of his pure self-consciousness, without reproducing them from it in any way. Nature must be blasphemed by the one, history and human relationships must be despised and ridiculed by him.

309

The fourth [gospel] has pursued all the relevant contrasts in his ruthless manner only up to the extreme pinnacle of the irony of the divine over all things human. But the contrasts themselves are already found in the synoptic Gospels and they belong necessarily to the religion which has raised itself to its ultimate abstract completion.

The result of our previous critique, that the Christian religion is the abstract religion, is the unveiling of the mystery of Christianity. The religions of antiquity had as their main powers nature, the spirit of the family, and the spirit of the people. The world domination of Rome and philosophy were the movements of a universal power that sought to rise above the limits of previous natural and national life and to become master of itself and of consciousness. For the general consciousness, this triumph of freedom and humanity, apart from the fact that Rome’s external world domination could not bring it about, could not yet be brought about in the form of free self-consciousness and pure theory, since religion was still a universal power and within it the general revolution had to take place. Within the sphere of the alienated spirit, if the liberation was to be thorough and for humanity, the previous barriers of general life had to be lifted, i.e., the alienation had to become total, embracing everything human. In the religions of antiquity, the essential interests conceal and veil the depth and horror of the alienation; the view of nature is enchanting, the family bond has a sweet charm, the interest of the people gives the religious spirit a fiery tension towards the powers of its worship: the chains that the human spirit wore in the service of these religions were adorned with flowers, like a sacrificial animal splendidly and festively adorned, man presented himself to his religious powers as a sacrifice, his chains themselves deceived him about the hardness of his service.

As the flowers of history withered away and the chains were broken by Roman power, the vampire of spiritual abstraction completed the work. He sucked out the sap and strength, blood and life of humanity until the last drop of blood: nature and art, family, nation and state were absorbed, and on the ruins of the fallen world, the emaciated self remained as the only power. After the enormous loss, the self could not immediately recreate from its depth and generality nature and art, nation and state; the only deed that engaged it was the absorption of everything that had hitherto lived in the world. Now it was all the self, and yet it was empty; it had become the universal power, and yet it trembled before itself on the ruins of the world and despaired of its loss. The empty, all-consuming self was afraid of itself; it did not dare to grasp itself as everything and as the universal power, i.e., it still remained the religious spirit and completed its alienation by confronting its universal power as something foreign and working in fear and trembling for its preservation and salvation. It saw its guarantee for its preservation in the Messiah, who represented only that which it was fundamentally, namely, itself as the universal power, but as the power in which all nature-view and the ethical determinations of family, nation and state life, as well as the artistic view, had perished.

310

The historical starting point for this revolution was given in Jewish national life, since in its religious consciousness not only nature and art had already been strangled, thus the struggle against the nature and art religion was already carried out in itself, but also the national spirit had already had to enter into dialectic with the thought of a higher universality in manifold forms – whose presentation I have given elsewhere. The lack of this dialectic lay only in the fact that at its conclusion the national spirit again made itself the center of the universe: Christianity eliminated this deficiency by making the pure ego the universal. The Gospels have carried out this transformation in their own way – namely in the way of historical representation: everywhere dependent on the Old Testament and almost only a copy of it, they have nevertheless allowed the power of the national spirit to be consumed in the omnipotence of the pure, pure, but estranged from actual humanity ego.

311

If we consider the Gospels in a way that disregards their mutual contradictions, that is, as the simple and unprejudiced faith abstracts a total picture from their confused content, we must already be amazed at how they could occupy humanity for eighteen centuries and do so in such a way that their mystery was not uncovered. For in none of them, not even in the smallest section, are there any views that do not offend, insult, or outrage humanity.

Our amazement must become even greater when we notice how the Gospels, with their statements and assumptions, are in contradiction with everything we know about the supposed time of their subject; the highest degree of amazement, however, must be reached when we consider the terrible contradictions into which they are entangled with their mutual assertions, with a historical narrative like that of Matthew and with a view like that of the Fourth. Has humanity had to suffer from such things for one and a half millennia? Yes, it had to, for the great and immense step could only be taken after such pains and efforts if it was not to be taken in vain and if it was to be appreciated in its true meaning and magnitude. Consciousness had to deal with itself in the Gospels, even if only with itself in its alienation, that is, with a terrible parody of itself, but still with itself: hence that magic that attracted, captivated, and forced humanity to offer everything to maintain its image until it had healed itself, and even then, to prefer it to everything else and to call everything else, like the apostle did, rubbish in comparison. In slavery under its own image, humanity was educated so that it could prepare the freedom all the more thoroughly and embrace it all the more intimately and fervently when it was finally won. The deepest and most terrible alienation was to mediate, prepare, and make freedom valuable for all time, perhaps also to make it expensive for the struggle that slavery and stupidity will wage against it. Odysseus has returned to his homeland, but not by divine grace, not sleeping, but awake, thinking, and through his own power: perhaps he will also have to fight the suitors who have squandered his property and want to withhold the most precious thing from him. Odysseus will know how to string the bow.

312

The battle with the theologians and their hypocritical twists and turns is over. We have told them so many times that, if they had ears to hear and eyes to see, there should be no more misunderstanding: their hypocrisy consisted in trying to maintain views that were refuted by their own secular education and all their circumstances, and that could only be sustained by pitiful arguments. They really thought they were serious about it, they really fought for those views, because they were still imprisoned by them and believed they would be lost, here and in the other world, without them. It was the general hypocrisy of the world: to consider and treat the maintenance of religious views as an intellectual task with the consistency of reason, while reason itself had outgrown and escaped those views. Now things have changed, criticism has been scientifically and ethically completed, the religious view explained and recognized, and humanity freed. If the theologian still believes that humanity should not devote itself to nobler purposes, higher tasks, and that history is only there to entertain us with his bickering, or that an explanation of one biblical passage displaces the other and the issue never comes to a decision, if the theologian still believes that humanity and history are only there for his sake, then he must now force himself upon us, while he used to rule the world, he must finally openly, willfully, and consciously deceive and lie, i.e. oppose the mediated knowledge and still harass us with his ideas.

313

But, as for my work, perhaps there would still be another task for him. If he managed to be thorough and concise and insisted on the belief that everything happening in the world is only for his sake, that everything is just a homework assignment in which he must prove his particular wisdom, he might come up with the idea of collecting the passages in my writing where I describe him himself. And since he knows only personal interests, he could use this to prove my rudeness, recklessness, and terrorism. In vain! You can’t get away from the issue! The only proof you have to provide is that you demonstrate that those outbursts of indignation about hypocrisy and the most frivolous mockery of the writing itself are not justified by the previous development; you must first prove that I am wrong about the matter; you must first prove that you have read the critical developments— in general, it must be proved that humanity does not have the right to throw off its chains. We would also be curious to see proof that a painter should not use a dark printer, and that a painting is judged perfectly if one says, “Look at this dark spot!” Theology is the dark spot in modern history, and as such, I could only describe it and confront it with the purity of criticism.

The historical Christ is the man whom religious consciousness has raised to heaven, i.e., the man who, even when he comes down to earth to perform miracles, to teach, and to suffer, is no longer the true man. The son of man in religion is also the reconciler of man with himself. He is not born like a man, does not live like a man in human relations, and does not die like a man. This historical Christ, the one raised to heaven, the one who became God, has overturned antiquity, conquered the world by draining it, and fulfilled its historical destiny when it forced the real spirit into immense turmoil, forcing it to recognize itself with a thoroughness and decisiveness that were not possible for the naive antiquity, to become self-consciousness.

314

If nothing in the Gospels can be considered as a statement about Jesus anymore, then for the theologian who fights for the distribution and disposal of this man’s clothes, who gave him this or that bitter drink on the cross, who sailed over the Sea of Galilee so many times, the matter has become very serious. We can already see the terrifying character this seriousness must take from the fact that they did not hesitate to use the note of Tacitus, that Christ was executed by Pontius Pilate under Tiberius, as the most striking proof that “a Christ existed.” When did Tacitus write? Did he not write when the preaching of the crucified one had already begun to unsettle the whole world? Does his meager note, which was then the subject of conversation around the world, say or indicate that it was taken from the “secret archive of His Majesty the Emperor” or from “ministerial files”?

If a man named Jesus existed, if this Jesus gave rise to the revolution that shook the world in the name of Christ and gave it a new form, then it is certain that his self-consciousness was not yet distorted and ripped apart by the dogmatic propositions of the evangelical Christ: then the character of his personality is saved. The evangelical Christ, thought of as an actual, historical phenomenon, would be a figure before which humanity would have to shudder, a figure that could only inspire terror and horror.

315

If the historical Jesus really existed, he could only have been a personality that triggered the opposition of Jewish consciousness, namely the separation of the divine and human in their self-consciousness, without creating a new religious separation and alienation from it, and who withdrew from the forms of legal servitude into his own inner world without worrying about new legal bonds.

But whether this personality existed, whether it opened up the happiness and depth of its self-consciousness to others, thus giving rise to struggle and ultimately the formation of a new religious principle, this question can only be answered when we have completed the work that must follow the criticism of the Gospels, the criticism of the New Testament epistles. We had to start with the criticism of the Gospels because these writings have captivated the mind most through their positive content, because their content seems to be the prerequisite for the epistolary Gospel, as this prerequisite has been assumed until now and this appearance had to be stripped away first. Now it is the turn of the epistles, and with their criticism, the criticism of the original Christian consciousness will also come to an end, and insight into the actual course of its historical development will be gained. We have not yet reflected on the factual and chronological relationship between the various often literal touches of the Gospels and the epistles. We could not do so because the criticism still needs to examine when, by whom, and in what circumstances the letters were written. It is even a question of when the epistolary literature of the New Testament began, and the investigation of the so-called Pauline epistles is still far from its conclusion. In this field, not much, but almost everything still needs to be done.

316

So far, we only know for certain that the Gospels are of late origin and a work of the long-existing community; however, when they were written and how they are to be classified in the development of the epistolary literature will be taught to us by the criticism of the latter. *)

*) It is indeed already incredulous, but still transcendent, to ask what age is associated with a work such as the one Jesus accomplished. The question is only properly posed as follows: what kind of development of the church and of Christian consciousness was necessary, and how long did it take, to lead to the composition of the Gospels and the creation of the Gospel story.

We had to proceed gradually. When the criticism has an immense library of theological books to burn, it must proceed thoroughly and cautiously, and no one will reproach it for replacing ten thousand books with a single octavo volume. Later, happier times will simplify the matter even more, and they must do so in order to completely set aside the necessary opposition to theological consciousness. However, even later, one may still need elaborations that touch upon the opposition, and give them some interest, as they are, in any case, the monument of a struggle in which freedom, dignity, and humanity of self-consciousness had to fight against a stupidity that had never existed and ruled in the world!

I have provided the characterization of evangelical historiography in every section of my work, and if a comprehensive treatise is required, I have given such in my book “The Divine Art of Holy Historiography” in a way that exhausts all related categories completely.

317

One more word about the fourth Gospel! What I had to leave undecided in the criticism of it has been fully explained in the present volume of my work, and I have only one more remark to add. The fourth evangelist also knew and used the Acts of the Apostles by Luke, especially in his accounts of the healing of the paralytic (Ch. 5) and the blind man (Ch. 9). It has already been noted that the paralytic of Bethesda is the same as the one mentioned in Mark’s Gospel, and that the fourth evangelist borrowed some of the more important incidents from the synoptic account. The healing of the lame man by Peter, as related in the Acts of the Apostles, is itself only a copy of the original account of the healing of the paralytic, which the fourth evangelist has also borrowed extensively in order to enhance his Gospel. That lame man, who had been afflicted from birth, is taken daily to a certain place (Acts 3:2), just like the paralytic of the fourth Gospel. Peter speaks to him first (ibid. 3:4), but for the natural reason that he had asked him for an alms beforehand. Unnaturally, the fourth evangelist has reversed this, so that Jesus speaks to his sick man first. The people take notice of Peter’s action and run to the apostles in the temple, where the miracle took place, and Peter seizes the opportunity to speak about the resurrection of Christ; the same, but unnaturally motivated attention of the people after the healing of the sick man from Bethesda and the same result of a speech about the resurrection. The sick man of Peter is over forty years old (Acts 4:22), while the fourth evangelist’s has been sick for thirty-eight years. We now know how the fourth evangelist arrived at his number, and we may now say that it is perhaps likely that if the number had a symbolic meaning, although he did not want to express himself definitely about the feast, he intended to give the appearance that it could have been the Passover. That he did not carry out the symbolic meaning purely and certainly can now be explained to us from his poor style of historical writing, just as we can now also say that he wanted to give a symbolic reference to the Samaritan people in that statement of Jesus to the Samaritan woman, a caricature of the synoptic Canaanite woman, but could not carry it out again because of his lack of all plastic power.

318

That Jesus must heal a blind man, the Fourth Gospel learned from Mark, but that this blind man was born blind is among other things the fault of the author of the Acts of the Apostles, for the story of the man born blind is a copy of the story of the lame man. The miracle of Peter is examined before the court, namely before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:5-7), as is the miracle of the healing of the blind man; the lame man of Peter also stands before the court (v. 14), as does the blind man of the Fourth Gospel. The Sanhedrin of the Acts of the Apostles forbids the disciples to confess the name of Jesus before the people (4:17); the Sanhedrin of the Fourth Gospel imposes the punishment of excommunication on the confession of the same name. In the account of the Acts of the Apostles, at least everything is coherent and understandable, as far as coherence is possible in the world of wonders, while in the account of the Fourth Gospel, everything is staggering, crazy, and falsified to the smallest detail, thrown out of joint by the overabundance of motifs and with reason completely dead. For example, even the minor detail that the Sanhedrin lets the accused disciples (and the healed man) leave, forms its decision, and then calls the people back into the council chamber to announce the sentence to them, even this minor matter the Fourth Gospel could not even reproduce properly; he has reproduced it in the way we have already characterized in sufficient detail above.

Finally, it should be noted that the leaders in the Acts of the Apostles (4:13) wonder about the language of the disciples, from whom they knew that they were ignorant and not learned in the scriptures, and also that they belonged to the entourage of Jesus, even an unlearned. The Fourth Gospel has reserved this trait for a later occasion (7:15), as he has also learned about the Hall of Solomon (10:23) only from this account in the Acts of the Apostles (3:11, compare 5:12) and in general has often used the structure of this narrative – that the miracle arouses the attention of the people, finally the leaders, and gives rise to speeches and negotiations – for his history, only making it more unnatural in his manner.

319

Regarding the Old Testament, the Fourth Gospel has also diligently used it and carefully observed some of its indications. The account of the hostility that Jesus experienced from his family, he directed to the point that it was his brothers who showed unbelief towards him, according to Psalm 69:8 and Jeremiah 12:6.  *) The emphasis with which Jesus often says that he has chosen the disciples, and finally the antithesis “you did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16), is an inappropriate rephrasing of the opposition that lies in the confession of the people in Psalm 100:3: “It is He who made us, and not we ourselves”. From Psalm 40:7, Jesus has taken the expression with which he says, “the Scriptures testify of me.” The Book of Wisdom of Solomon, Chapter 16, verse 6, has led the Fourth Evangelist to see that the ancient serpent is “a symbol of salvation”, and he is indebted to the Old Testament for a considerable amount of dogmatic categories.

*) Ps. 69, 8: απηλλοτριωμένος εγενήθην τους αδελφούς μου και ξένος τοϊς υιούς της μητρός μου. Jer. 12, 6: ότι και οι αδελφοί σου ήθέτησάν σου … μὴ πιστεύσῃς ἐν αὐτοῖς. To Mark, of course, these passages were not unknown either, namely Jer. 12, 7 gave him an element to his story of the transfiguration of Jesus in Nazareth  : ᾿Εγκαταλέλοιπα τὸν οἶκόν μου, ἀφῆκα τὴν κληρονομίαν μου, ἔδωκα τὴν . . . .  ψυχήν μου εις χείρας έχθρών αυτής.

The matter of the Fourth [Gospel] has been decided for all eternity, and should anyone still doubt the decision, the criticism of the resurrection story will thunder it in their ear.

320

To criticize the resurrection story, which will occupy us at the end, we have nothing else to do but to show how one report originated from another and how the contradictions between the reports were inevitable in the way they were created. It would be an insult to the critical method, and would question the purpose of our work, and finally, it would be an insult to honorable men, especially one among them who is counted among Germany’s greatest.

The resurrection of the historical Christ has fallen back into the realm of imagination, where his whole life and suffering had already returned. The idea of his resurrection is only possible for the religious spirit, who is inaccessible to general ideas, and who can only imagine the victory of a principle by thinking of the person who sacrificed himself for it as having risen from the dead as an incorporeal individual, and preserved as such for all eternity.

If the critical method had already proven itself before, and if the criticism of the story of Christ’s suffering was the test of our calculations, it would be unfair to start again from the end, to dissolve the late reports through their enormous contradictions and to work our way back to the original report. The case is decided. We start with Mark and move on to his followers, and it is no longer necessary to demonstrate in detail the groundlessness of the late reports – we have already exposed these baseless claims in their nakedness too many times – the simple reporting of the reports will already be their full and sufficient characterization.

How many weaklings have slandered Edelmann, insulted him without ever having seen a line of his writings. Lilienthal knew him, but did not refute him, and only the excerpts that he shared from his writings – which are not accessible to us – prove what kind of man he was, and with what noble rebellion he tore himself out of the theological fabric of lies. It would be an insult to his memory if we were to specifically expose the invention of the Roman guard by Matthew as an invention, and no theologian has yet refuted Edelmann’s statement, and none will refute it as long as the world stands, the statement that the resurrection of Christ, as the religious spirit imagines it, would not be a resurrection from the dead, but rather a new entry into the same death from which he was to rise. *)

*) Lilienthal, The Good Cause of Revelation II, 164.

321

Brave and honest Reimarus, you have brought to light the contradictions in the resurrection story as far as your pure and honest mind was able, given the state of criticism at the time, but no one has refuted you.

With Lessing, who defended the honest Fragmentist so chivalrously against the detractors, who knew the power of the ten paragraphs of the honest man and made them even more powerful, and who famously described the taste that theological dishes have for an uncorrupted palate, the theologians who always deal only with people and soul and salvation, that is, with the needs of their poor souls, and never with the matter and an uplifting principle, believe that they can handle it by murmuring languidly: “Lessing would think differently in our times.” You do not know his response, you have not read it; otherwise, you would know what he would say to your murmurings.

Finally, ask yourselves how the principle for which Lessing worked and suffered and for which he died will decide and must decide the matter in our times.

322

In doing so, it will dissolve the contradictions by representing and explaining them.

———————-

 


2022-05-18

Miscellany

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by Neil Godfrey

Virgin of Light (Manichaean Cosmology)

Was a crucifixion in heaven possible? conceivable?

 

But the following, again, is the cause of men’s dying: A certain virgin, fair in person, and beautiful in attire, and of most persuasive address, aims at making spoil of the princes [= archons] that have been borne up and crucified on the firmament by the living Spirit . . . . 

Acta Archelai 8, describing a third century Manichean answer to the question, Why death?

 

What gave rise to Gnosticism from within Judaism?

Birger Pearson’s answer is very similar to what I think led to the emergence of Christianity from within Judaism. If gnostics fell away from Judaism by rejecting its god as a blind and ignorant Demiurge who gave a law that enslaved its followers to the ways of the flesh, Christianity offered a positive response to similar circumstances, a new covenant grounded in an allegorical revision of the old rather than an outright rejection of it:

One can hear in this text echoes of existential despair arising in circles of the people of the Cove­nant faced with a crisis of history, with the apparent failure of the God of history: “What kind of a God is this?”‘ (48,1); “These things he has said (and done, failed to do) to those who believe in him and serve him!” (48,13ff.). Such expressions of existential anguish are not without paral­lels in our own generation of history “after Auschwitz.”

Historical existence in an age of historical crisis, for a people whose God after all had been the Lord of history and of the created order, can, and apparently did, bring about a new and revolutionary look at the old traditions and ‘assumptions, a “new hermeneutic”. This new herme­neutic arising in an age of historical crisis and religiocultural syncretism is the primary element in the origin of Gnosticism.

Pearson, Birger. Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1990. p. 51

How to explain Paul’s letters if we see signs of Philo and Seneca in them?

Philo: Continue reading “Miscellany”


2021-12-17

New Thoughts on Christian Origins

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by Neil Godfrey

Abraham Schalit

Hi. I’m back again, for better or for worse. Over the past few weeks I have immersed myself in reading but have finally come to a point where I need to pause and take stock. The book I have to blame for pulling me up and forcing me to stop and think afresh is König Herodes : der Mann und sein Werk by Abraham Schalit — published way back in 1969. (I don’t read German but thanks to new technologies I made short work of translating it.) Although Schalit does not address Christian origins his study of King Herod did open up for me a fresh historical perspective through which to re-interpret so much of the diverse material that makes up our earliest Christian sources.

I don’t read German, as I said, and I was of all possible ways alerted to König Herodes through my reading of an essay in another foreign language, modern Hebrew. This one was made available through an international library supply service supplemented by my text-reading and translation technologies: Levine, Israel L. “Magemoth Meshihioth Be-Sof Yemei Ha-Bayith Ha-Sheni (= Messianic Trends at the End of the Second Temple Period).” Messianism and Eschatology, edited by Zvi Baras, Zalman Shazar Centre for the Furtherance of the Study of Jewish History, 1983, pp. 135–52. Now that chapter is going to have to be converted into a new post here soon since I was slightly nonplussed to see it supporting another view I have expressed here, the view that there is little evidence to support the widespread “fact” that the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 CE against Rome was motivated by messianic hopes. That’s for another time.

The key idea in Schalit’s King Herod that has sent my mind into re-examining the question of Christian origins is the thesis that the Roman imperial idea, the ideology, if you will, propagated from the time of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, met with two responses among the Judeans:

  1. Judeans who identified themselves as necessarily separate from gentiles (think of circumcision, sabbaths, marriage restrictions) had nothing in common with the idea of a world united by the values and laws of Rome;
  2. Judeans who opposed the exclusivity of some of their brethren and were wide open to the idea of being a full part of a common humanity.

As for the first kind, the separatists, we see their views set out in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Recall those stories of “men of God” tearing out — not their own hair, but the hair of those Judeans who married gentiles. Those were the lucky ones: Phineas plunged a spear through one racially mixed couple. Daniel refused to pray even in secret when threatened with being thrown into the lion’s den. Sabbath-keepers chose to die rather than protect themselves from an enemy army on the sabbath day. Most of us are familiar enough with the relevant stories from the Old Testament and related books.

That familiarity can perhaps cloud the full significance of a quite different view of God and humanity that is expressed in other places in the same canon. Think of the original authors and readers of stories of Ruth, of Jonah, of Job. Ruth, a gentile, married an Israelite and became the great-grandmother of King David. Job is “from the land of Uz” and he speaks to a God who in the narrative appears to have no particular relation to Israel about a question of justice common to all humanity. Jonah has to learn a lesson about God’s acceptance of gentiles who repent and become righteous without any notion of the Mosaic laws. Several Psalms, Ecclesiastes supposedly by Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach further present a universalist view of God and the human experience.

Surely we have two opposing viewpoints among these Jewish authors. The second view could well find itself at home among Hellenistic writings of philosophers. The significance of that word “Hellenistic” deserves to be pondered at this point. It refers to the cultural world that belonged to the mixing of Greek and barbarian in the wake of Alexander’s conquests of the Persian empire.  The Stoic philosophy that believed in the unity of humanity could trace its roots back to Alexander’s companion Aristotle. The ideas of some Jews or Judeans were evidently at home in such a world. Others were not.

What struck me so strongly about Schalit’s Herod was that those same two viewpoints among Judeans were very much alive and uncomfortable with each other in the time we associate with Christian origins. Herod (ca 37 to 4 or 1 BCE) was an Idumean who sought acceptance as a Jew. He was also a client king of Rome who owed his life and kingship to Augustus. Though King of Judea he embraced wholeheartedly the imperial program of Augustus. At this point, we need to backtrack just a little. . .

Augustus

Augustus came to power as the final victor after a half-century of civil wars. His imperial propaganda machine went into overdrive. Augustus was the “saviour” and benefactor of “the inhabited earth”. Roman imperial rule was to become synonymous with “the good news” (it was a term of imperial propaganda) of peace, a restoration of “good old fashioned morality”, the spread of humanizing culture as expressed in the arts and literature and philosophy, and rule of law and justice for all. The Roman imperial idea took Alexander’s inheritance of uniting peoples under one divinely chosen ruler and magnified it beyond anything achieved by other successors. The Seleucid empire, for example, essentially took a “hands-off” approach towards subject peoples and let them do their own thing. Antiochus Epiphanes ran into trouble with religious zealots in Judea because he broke that tradition there.

You can probably see where I am headed with these ideas. Apologists have long posited that God prepared the world for Christianity in a way not very different from what I am proposing here — only without God and forethought.

Augustus could trust Herod to embody the full idea of the Roman civilizing mission and Herod did not fail him. Herod’s court attracted artists and intellectuals from other lands; his building program emulated the achievements in Rome itself; like Roman emperors he was the benefactor of the poor; he settled non-Jews in his Judean kingdom. But he could not have himself proclaimed as a god or even a demi-god as was the usual status of such leaders in his part of the world. He could, however, have his scribes fiddle with the genealogical records to show he was a descendant of David and hence — especially given his great accomplishments as king, expanding the borders and undertaking monumental building projects — potentially the promised Davidic Messiah. Unfortunately Herod had too many other faults to persuade enough others to that opinion. But even a powerful personality like Herod could not exist in an environment totally alien to everything he stood for.

The crucial point, it seems to me, is that Herod’s “Judaism” was in synch with that open or universalist idea we encounter in the books of Ruth, Jonah, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach etc. Herod failed to win the approval of the “legalists” and I cannot help but wonder if his failure was felt by others who were on his side with the more open kind of Second Temple religion.

There were evidently a significant number of Judeans who opposed their isolationist kin. And as evidenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls there were equally many Judeans who called down the judgment of God upon those of their kin who compromised with the Laws of Moses.

Now look again at our earliest Christian texts. Do not the gospels, certainly the Synoptic ones of Matthew, Mark and Luke, teach the highest values of the Greco-Roman culture? In case you’ve forgotten, have another quick look over

and

Recall the Stoic underlay throughout Paul’s epistles.

Recall the Gospel of Matthew opening up its account of Jesus by reminding readers of the sinners and gentiles — Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba — in Jesus’s ancestry.

Even recall the Roman imperial motifs in the gospels: The Gospel of Mark beginning with a line from Augustus’s propaganda about the “good news”; the imitation of emperor Vespasian’s miracles of healing the blind and lame; the inversion of the Roman Triumphal procession as Jesus is led to his crucifixion:

See also for further emperor-inversions in Jesus…

Recall, also, some of the earliest archaeological evidence we have for Christianity and how serene and “at home” it looks as if its creators were well-integrated members of society.

I have some sympathy for those who have attempted to locate Christianity’s origins in a Roman imperial conspiracy. But there is no evidence for such a hypothesis. There is even precious little evidence for the proposed motive behind such a conspiracy: a desire to pacify an unusually rebellious people by seducing the Jews into a religion of submission to Roman authority. The Jews were not particularly rebellious in comparison with others who chaffed at Roman rule. No, surely the initiative for a religious idea that did away with the exclusivist identity of many Judeans would have arisen among other Judeans of a different persuasion, of those who felt some embarrassment with their ethnic relatives.

How much more impetus must there have been for Judeans of that universalist mindset to present an “ecumenical” front to their pagan neighbours in the wake of the calamitous results of the Jewish wars in 70 and 135 CE.

Then recall how Jesus himself in the gospels is delineated as a fulfillment of all that can be described as the epitome of “Judaism”. I posted not long ago a lengthy series on one particular study that delves into the details of how the gospel Jesus is created out of so many texts and motifs of the Jewish Scriptures and Messianic viewpoints: Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier / Nanine Charbonnel

If some Judeans of the day did indeed attempt to sideline their “legalistic” family members by producing texts that unambiguously set the universalism of Ruth, Jonah, Sirach, and the rest front and foremost, they could not have done better than make a new successor to Moses, another Joshua, their focus.  One might almost say that if Jesus had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him.

There is much more to add. One must, of course, account for persecutions and sectarianism in early Christian history. But the above is for now enough to set down the basis of initial thoughts on what might have led to the creation of Christianity.


2020-05-07

Marketing the Messiah

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve just stumbled across this video featuring David Fitzgerald, Richard Carrier, Mark Goodacre, Amy-Jill Levine, Robert M. Price, Raphael Lataster, “and many more”.

MARKETING THE MESSIAH – How Christianity Became A Thing.

 

 

Part of the advertising blurb…..

Over the last century, New Testament scholars have examined the text word by word to tease apart the true history from accepted tradition.

In this light-hearted but factual film, we tell the “true” story of early Christianity with the help of twelve biblical scholars, Renaissance masterpieces and humorous animation.

It’s neither a film about faith nor a film attacking or making fun of Christianity. It’s an honest attempt to piece together a very complex and fascinating story that everyone will enjoy.


2020-04-12

Symmetry in the Legends Surrounding Jesus’ Birth and Death

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by Tim Widowfield

[Note: I’m offering the following as a diversion to get our minds off this terrible timeline. –taw]

William Blake, (1757-1827), The Resurrection, c. 1805

A few years back, I published a post concerning the date of Jesus’ birth (Why Is Christmas on the 25th of December?), in which we briefly touched on the idea of symmetry between Jesus’ birth and death. I quoted Augustine, who noted the belief, current at the time, that Christ’s conception occurred on March 25.

For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th. (Augustine, On the Trinity, Book IV, Chapter 5)

Over time, I’ve become convinced that we can gain more insight into the history of the legends applied to Jesus by examining the symmetry between the incarnation and death legends. Here are a few points to mull over. Continue reading “Symmetry in the Legends Surrounding Jesus’ Birth and Death”


2019-05-23

New French Mythicist Book

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by Neil Godfrey

My routine was interrupted this week with the arrival of a new book in the mail, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier by Nanine Charbonnel. Nanine Charbonnel is an emeritus professor of philosophy who describes herself as a specialist in hermeneutics. The publisher of her new book has given prominence to the fact that it contains a preface by Thomas Römer.

I once posted on another French philosopher who contributed articles and books presenting a case that Jesus originated as a mythical figure, Paul Louis Couchoud, and would like to do the same for Nanine Charbonnel. Unfortunately, my high school and one year of undergraduate French is very rusty indeed and I rely heavily on machine translation as my first foray into what lies before me. Expect me to appeal to readers more fluent in French to help out from time to time.

I think I can post a machine translation (with minor corrections, added fluencies and clarifications from me) of Römer’s preface without infringing copyright. I have changed the formatting (paragraphing, highlighting) totally, though:

This book which will surprise and undoubtedly also disturb many readers could also have been entitled “The Invention of Jesus”. Its author, Nanine Charbonnel, professor of philosophy breaks a taboo that has existed for more than a century in academic research on Jesus of Nazareth, the origins of Christianity and the New Testament.

From the beginning of the so-called “historico-critical” exegesis arises the question of the “historical Jesus”. His virgin birth, his encounter with the devil at the beginning of his activity, his miracles, even his resurrection of the dead, are understood by the Rationalists as mythical reinterpretations of a human figure.

  • Thus, Ernest Renan, in his inaugural lecture at the College de France, spoke of “the man Jesus” who “reached the highest religious level that ever before man attained” was “deified” after his death (OEuvres Complètes, n, 329-330). In 1862 these words caused a scandal and provoked the temporary dismissal of Renan from his professorship at the College de France.
  • Renan’s statement is part of what is now called “the first quest” of the historical Jesus, which began in the eighteenth century with the posthumous publication of the texts of Hermann Samuel Reimarus by the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Reimarus highlighted the historical Jesus who never wanted to found a new religion, even the Church, but who was an eschatological preacher. His failure was transformed by his disciples who created the myth of his resurrection and ascension. A distinction was made between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith”, a distinction accepted until today by the totality of university researchers and historians.

At the beginning of the research on the historical Jesus, the question of the proofs of his existence (outside the New Testament texts) was nonetheless posed.

  • In the middle of the nineteenth century, Bruno Bauer argued that Christianity born in the second century was a sort of syncretism combining different religious ideas (Jewish, Greek, Roman). Jesus is not at the origin of this Christianity, but a literary fiction to give this “new religion” a founder.
  • At the beginning of the twentieth century the German philosopher Arthur Drews published a book The Christ Myth, in which he considered the figure of Jesus as the personification of an earlier Christic myth, showing that all the epithets of Jesus were borrowed from mythologies Jewish and Greek.

These theories remained marginal however and, despite the fact that in the 1st and 2nd centuries there are no texts outside the New Testament clearly attesting to the existence of a Jesus of Nazareth, the historicity of such a character is almost no longer questioned.

  • Thus Daniel Marguerat, eminent exegete of the New Testament, says: “the meaning of his deeds and actions, not his existence, is debated today” (p.13, in his Introduction to the edited volume Jesus de Nazareth. Nouvelles approches d’une énigme, Geneva, Labor and Fides, 1998).

According to Nanine Charbonnel, author of this book, this distinction between the historical Jesus and the reinterpretations of his life and death in the Gospels has been detrimental to research. Relying on a “rationalization” of evangelical texts, it has prevented the deep understanding of these texts by questioning them almost exclusively from this idea of ​​a historical core and thus seeking the historical basis of certain pericopes as well as indications of borrowing from Judaism or reinterpretations after the death of Jesus in others. Faced with the affirmation shared by believing scholars and agnostic intellectuals that Jesus is a historical figure of whom we know almost nothing historically, the author of this book proposes to read the New Testament texts from the idea that Jesus Christ would be a “paper figure”. The philosopher’s approach includes a severe critique of hermeneutics, and in particular the current called “hermeneutic phenomenology”.

This book proposes to read the Gospel tales as midrashim, reminding us rightly that it is impossible to read the New Testament texts without locating them in their relation to the Old Testament (in Hebrew and Greek). As a midrash, an exegesis and reinterpretation of earlier texts, evangelical tales set up a theology of fulfillment through narratives, drawing largely on the texts and themes of the Hebrew Bible. Nanine Charbonnel shows it in pedagogical tables indicating the different borrowing and rewriting that can be found behind the tales of the Gospels. She then details the function of the characters appearing in the Gospels, like the twelve apostles, representing the twelve tribes of the new Israel, and Mary, the Jewish people who begets the Messiah. Jesus is the new Adam, the new Moses, the new Elijah and the new Elishah, but also the new Joshua and the incarnation of the “suffering servant”, a messiah who brings together different messianic traits. The Gospels no longer appear as compilations but as creative works repeating and transforming statements in the Hebrew Bible.

To understand the figure of Jesus Christ as a sublime invention of the human mind is the main thesis of this book. It is possible that many readers are reluctant to follow the author in this way. Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny the midrashic character of many pericopes of the Gospels. Everyone will be free to draw conclusions from this midrashic reading which will have the great merit of going beyond the dichotomy between “myth” and “history”.

Charbonnel and Römer

Before I post an outline of Charbonnel’s discussion in her opening chapter I want to address the word “midrash” and how it has been related to the gospels. I don’t believe this will seriously detract from her presentation, or from the theses presented by others who have used the term in similar ways, but I think we should be aware of scholarly differences pertaining to the term whenever we see it.

 


2019-04-30

Another Name to Add to the Who’s Who Page of Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman has a new critic. I have just been notified (thanks, emailers!) of a new paper uploaded to academia.edu by a philosophy lecturer at the University of Oslo,

Why Jesus Most Likely Never Existed: Ehrman’s Double Standards

by Narve Strand (link is to CV).

I especially liked his conclusion since it expresses my own stance perfectly:

We don’t even have to hold this as a positive thesis, only to point out that Paul believed in this figure and that nothing follows from this about his existence. A consistent ahistorical stance here is like atheism: The only thing we really need to show is that the historicist doesn’t have real evidence that would make his purely human Jesus existing more probable than not.

Narve’s engagement with Ehrman’s arguments are spot on. Here is the beginning of his response to Ehrman’s appeal to criteria of authenticity:

Ehrman of course would say he doesn’t take the New Testament as good, reliable evidence. Not straightforwardly, anyway. His take is more sophisticated: The trick is to get behind the author and his agenda, digging out the real nuggets of historical information by a special set of authenticity-criteria. But: If the text itself breaks the basic rules of evidence (cf. E1-4), how can introducing more rules help? You can’t milk good, reliable information from bad, unreliable evidence (NE1-3) like that. To think that you can, like Ehrman clearly does (e.g. ch. 8), is sheer alchemy.

And again,

Bad evidence plus bad evidence equals bad evidence. Multiple attestation of hearsay is still hearsay. Here the rule is totally useless.

Ehrman lets his lay readers down badly, a point I am glad Narve brings to wider notice:

The insufficiency and unreliability of authenticity-criteria is well-known in biblical studies (see e.g. Allison 1998; 2008; 2009; Avalos 2007; Bird 2006; Le Donne 2002; Porter 2000; 2006; 2009). By not reporting this simple fact to his lay audience, Ehrman creates a false or misleading impression of the state of research in his own field.

On Ehrman’s two “knock-down” arguments, Continue reading “Another Name to Add to the Who’s Who Page of Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics”


2019-04-25

What Christians Said About Jesus Before the New Testament Canon …. a post for Paul George

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by Neil Godfrey

Another post I promised a commenter, this time Paul George. The point here is to clarify the grounds upon which Nodet and Taylor claimed that our canonical gospels are not the best place to start in order to understand Christian origins. The evidence they cited for this claim came from the Christian writings we have prior to the appearance in the literature of any explicit knowledge of our gospels. Our gospels evidently carried very little (= zero) weight as authoritative information about Jesus until the late second century.

Before there was a “written authoritative reference point”, that is, before the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were embraced as standard narratives about Jesus, how did Christians write about Jesus?

Ignatius of Antioch (we will assume here the conventional identity and date for Ignatius, with his writings dated early second century)

For Ignatius, the documents about Jesus to be relied upon were not written in ink:

My documents are Jesus Christ; my unimpeachable documents are his cross and resurrection, and the faith that comes from him. — Phil. 8:2

The Roman Creed

1. I believe in God the Father Almighty
2. And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord;
3. Who was born by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary;
4. Was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried;
5. The third day he rose from the dead;
6. He ascended into heaven; and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
8. And the Holy Ghost;
9. The Holy Church;
10. The forgiveness of sins;
11. The resurrection of the body (flesh)

Ignatius speaks often of Christ, but refers to precise events only in succinct statements which are very close to the primitive kerygma—the proclamation of the saving death and resurrection—or which resemble those of the Roman Creed. (Nodet and Taylor, 4)

Clement of Rome (writing 15 years before Ignatius)

As Christian Scripture he knows at most 1 Cor and recalls the context of crisis in which it was written. He refers often to salvation in Jesus Christ, but, like Ignatius, without ever alluding to the facts of the life of Jesus. Only once does he cite words of Jesus (13:2), but the logion is not known in this form in the NT, which shows that for Clement there is no official text (although that does not, of course, exclude the existence of some documents). He speaks of Jesus only by way of the OT. Thus, when speaking of Christ as the suffering servant, he makes no direct reference to his life but uses only a biblical passage (the song of Isa 53:1-12). It is interesting to note that Heb 10:5 does exactly the same: “Coming into the world, Christ said: ‘You did not want sacrifice or oblation, but you formed for me a body [. . .]’ (Ps 40:7).” (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

The Didache (widely judged to be first century CE)

The Didache knows and interprets the OT. It also quotes words of Jesus related to the Sermon on the Mount, but without a precise literary link with the Matthaean text, and a very similar version of the Lord’s Prayer; there is probably a common origin in the liturgy. (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

Didache chapter 9:
1. And concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus:
2. First concerning the Cup, “We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child; to thee be glory for ever.”
3. And concerning the broken Bread: “We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever.
4. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.”
5. But let none eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptised in the Lord’s Name. For concerning this also did the Lord say, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

Not mentioned by Nodet and …. but surely significant is that the Didache interprets the eucharist as a thanksgiving meal without any relationship to a death of Jesus.

The Didache further admonishes a high regard be held for those who spread the word, for the importance of staying with likeminded saints and warning against false teachers. The scenario appears to be entirely oral. No written gospels (nor even epistles, for that matter) to rely upon to maintain true teaching.

Epistle of Barnabas

The Epistle of Barnabas is a Christian interpretation of traditions from the OT or related texts . . . . This interpretation is totally based on a typological reading of the OT, with several facts or words relating to Jesus, but in a rather stylized form and in any case without a literary link with the gospels as we know them. (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp of Smyrna, whose background is similar to that of Ignatius of Antioch, is familiar with the writings of Paul and makes a number of references to them. He has some knowledge of Matt, perhaps in the form of written notes (compilations of logia), but certainly not as a normative work. (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

Polycarp also speaks of being attentive to the word handed down orally in order to refute those who deny the incarnation.

The Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas belongs to the timeless world of apocalyptic and knows no Scripture apart from itself (cf. also Rev 22:18 f.). (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

Continue reading “What Christians Said About Jesus Before the New Testament Canon …. a post for Paul George”


2019-03-31

Another thesis introducing a Simonion gnosis into Paul’s letters

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Prosper Alfaric

If you find the following mix of machine translation and my own editing horrific enough you may prefer to read the original French itself that I copy afterwards. But first, some background will help. Earlier in the article several redactions of Paul’s epistles have been postulated (credit to Turmel):

The original letters of Paul:

inspired by his faith in the forthcoming restoration of the kingdom of Israel which had been announced by Jesus and which constituted the initial substance of the Gospel.

A second redacted version had been attributed to Marcion and

corrected this messianic nationalism by the anti-Jewish gnosis of Marcion.

A third series of redactions produced the versions closer to what we have today, and

maintained the Gnostic Spiritualism of [Marcion’s edition] by dismissing or hiding its anti-Judaism.

The following passage we read a modified hypothesis:

(2) After the revolt of the Jews in 66 and their final crushing in 70, a strong current of anti-Judaism spread in the eastern part of the Roman Empire but especially in Syria. The Judeo-Christians of Jerusalem had retreated to the confines of Transjordan, where they lingered, under the name of “Nazarenes” or “Ebionites”, away from the rest of the Christianity, almost foreign to his life and evolution, so that they soon became heretics.

Antioch became the great metropolis of the Christian world. There was formed a “school of theology” which claimed Simon, the former Esmoun of the Phoenician coast, became the saviour god of the Samaritans. It repudiated the God of the Jews, considered the spirit of evil. It was said that Simon, whose name means “obedient”, had come from heaven to obey the will of the Most High and bring to men the “Gnosis”, that is, the true knowledge, that of their origin, of their nature and their end. The mind, it was said, came from God but fell because of an original fault, in the bonds of the flesh. It can recover its original purity and return to lost Paradise only by rejecting the traditional laws, especially those of the Jews, made to enslave him, and professing a docile faith in the liberating doctrine of Simon. With him, by the grace of the supreme God of whom he is sent, one is freed from sin. It is liberated from this mortal body to reach the life of the spirit by the practice of mortification, abstinence and continence.

It is a Christian transposition of this simonian gnosis offered to us in the econd redaction of Paul’s epistles. It differs singularly from the first. If it was added by a series of skilful interpolations and convenient suppressions, it was because she found there points of attachment which allowed her to benefit from the prestige of the Apostle without risking the disfavor of novelty in religion.

The original

(2) Après la révolte des Juifs en 66 et leur écrasement final en 70, un fort courant d’anti-judaïsme se répandit dans la partie orientale de l’empire romain mais surtout en Syrie. Lés Judéo-Chrétiens de Jérusalem s’étaient repliés sur les confins de la Transjordanie, où ils végétèrent, sous le nom de « Nazaréens » ou d’ « Ebionites », à l’écart du reste de la Chrétienté, presque étrangers à sa vie et à son évolution, de sorte qu’ils firent bientôt figure d’hérétiques.

Antioche devint la grande métropole du monde chrétien. Il s’y était formé une Ecole de théologie qui se réclamait de Simon, l’ancien Esmoun de la côte phénicienne, devenu le Dieu Sauveur des Samaritains. L’on y répudiait le Dieu des juifs, considéré comme le Génie du mal. On y disait que Simon, dont le ùom signifie « obéissant » était venu du ciel pour obéir à la volonté du Très-Haut et apporter aux hommes la « Gnose », c’est-à-dire la Science véritable, celle de leur origine, de leur nature et de leur fin. L’esprit, expliquait-on, est issu de Dieu mais tombé par suite d’une faute originelle, dans les liens de la chair. Il ne peut recouvrer sa pureté première et regagner le Paradis perdu qu’en rejetant les lois traditionnelles, surtout celles des juifs, faites pour l’asservir, et en professant une foi docile en la doctrine libératrice de Simon. Avec lui, par la grâce du Dieu suprême dont il est l’envoyé, on s’affranchit du péché. On se libère de ce corps mortel pour atteindre à la vie de l’esprit par la pratique de la mortification, de l’abstinence et de la continence.

C’est une transposition chrétienne de cette Gnose simonienne que nous offre la seconde rédaction des Epîtres de Paul. Elle diffère singulièrement de la première. Si elle lui a été adjointe par une série d’interpolations ingénieuses et de suppressions opportunes, c’est qu’elle y trouvait des points d’attache qui lui permettaient de bénéficier du prestige de l’Apôtre sans risquer la défaveur qui s’attache aux nouveautés en matière de religion.

Alfaric, Prosper. 1956. “Les Epitres de Paul.” Bulletin Du Cercle Ernest Renan 35 (April). p. 4

Please note, though, that I present the above as a summary of an idea that has connections with others that have been presented on this blog, especially though Roger Parvus’s posts — in the last of which he finds himself leaning towards a historical Jesus at the root of it all. As for my own views they are far from decided. There is simply so much material I have yet to consider and think through.