Tag Archives: Christian Origins

Salvation through a Saviour’s Death — Another List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


A Refreshingly Self-Aware Point of View on the Study of Christian Origins

While scratching and poking around in new and old resources to try to piece together something of the development of scholarly views on the existence of pre-Christian interpretations of the “suffering servant” I came across a reference to a 1940s work that seemed in some respects as relevant today as way back then, at least apart from a few oddities such as Manson’s appreciation of “the Oriental memory”.

I have changed the layout of the section that first caught my eye and for the benefit of readers who are dashing through with no time to read every word I have highlighted key passages that struck me as refreshingly self-aware and honest. What I think would be a useful follow up exercise would be to take each key assumption and pause to reflect on how we might reasonably expect each one to appear in the evidence, both of Gospels and Epistles. One example: Manson speaks of the acknowledgment of persons with special gifts such as prophecy. One wonders if one could expect to read of anyone at any time with a particularly special gift of having seen and heard Jesus in the flesh. One wonders, too, what might be the result if we combined some of the assumptions and try to think through where those combinations might lead. For example, we have the deep reverence for the memory of Jesus in the flesh but we also have a willingness to find his life in the Old Testament. How likely is it that such communities would have allowed OT passages to have trumped what they knew of Jesus in real life? Would not the latter be the guide and moderator of the former? (I recall my own time in a religious cult where we found our leader in prophetic passages of the Bible. We always found ways to identify relevant biblical passages in the light of what we knew of our leader. Never the other way around.

Anyway, here ’tis:

THE EARLY ORAL TRADITION IN THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

What was the character of the early oral tradition? To what extent did it embody, to what extent has it refracted the historical lineaments of Jesus of Nazareth? We assume, to begin with, that such a tradition existed, that certain sayings of Jesus and certain stories reporting acts or incidents in his life were current in the Church from the earliest days, together with some summary of the Passion history. This, indeed, cannot be taken absolutely for granted, since the modern school of Form-Criticism makes a point of denying it, though on grounds which seem to the present writer neither adequate nor in accordance with probability. According to Form-Criticism the tradition incorporated in our Gospels is, for the most part, a late product, and a product of the Church’s mind at that, which came into existence at a time when an objective record of the history of Jesus was no longer possible. Its contents represent a distillation from the life of the Church, from its preaching, its debates with Jewish opponents, its ethic, its catechetical activities, its theology, and its cultus. Its Messianic categories are an attempt, necessarily inadequate, to state in terms comprehensible to itself the essential mystery of the personality of Jesus, and are not to be ascribed to him. For the moment, however, we assume that something like an objective tradition of words and acts of Jesus was in existence from the first days, and ask what would be the fortunes of such a tradition at a time when, not yet committed to a fixed form in writing, its contents formed part of the instruction given by apostles and other missionaries in an age of expanding activity and of intense spiritual and intellectual awakening. Obviously the answer to the question how far the tradition has preserved, how far it has refracted the image of Jesus of Nazareth will depend to some extent on the laws governing the transmission of the material in the practical service of the community during this period.

Here, as stabilizing factors making for the preservation of the objective character of whatever real tradition existed, we shall recognize, read more »

So true, so true…

From Taborblog, by James Tabor:

Two Widely Held Assumptions About Early Christianity that Should Be Questioned

  1. The first assumption is that the essential story line we read about in the New Testament book of Acts is an accurate version of the early years of the Jesus movement following the crucifixion. John Dominic Crossan, properly calls the period from 30 CE when Jesus was executed, to around 50 CE when we get our first letter of Paul, the “Dark Age” of early Christianity. In other words we have almost no surviving texts or evidence from this period.
  2. The second grand assumption about early Christianity is the portrait of its clean break with Judaism and its subsequent harmonious (despite a few evil heretics) unbroken advance into the second and third centuries. This is the tale presented to the world by that undaunted “father” of Church History, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (c. 300 AD).

 

 

The Jesus Story Mirrors Anthropologist’s Observations of Shamanism?

I.M. (Ioan Myrddin) Lewis

Is it possible to read the following passage from a study of shamanism and spirit possession without recalling a central theme of the gospel narratives about Jesus?

We shall find that those who, as masters of spirits, diagnose and treat illness in others, are themselves in danger of being accused as witches. For if their power over the spirits is such that they can heal the sick, why should they not also sometimes cause what they cure? Reasoning in this fashion, the manipulated establishment which reluctantly tolerates bouts of uncontrolled possession illness among its dependants, rounds on the leaders of these rebellious cults and firmly denounces them as witches. Thus, I argue, the most ambitious and pushing members of these insurgent cults are kept in check, hoist, as it were, with their own petard.

Lewis, I. M. 2003. Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. 3rd edition. London ; New York: Routledge p. 28

One cannot help but be reminded of historical Jesus studies such as the one by Stevan Davies, Spirit Possession and the Origin of Christianity.

Hermann Detering on the place of Gnosticism and Buddhism in Jesus Cult Origins

Recall a post now six months old: The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult — Hermann Detering

René Salm has begun a commentary series on Detering’s article. See

H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 1)

I look forward to doing my own discussions of Detering’s views as a result of a reader very generously working on an English translation in association with Dr Detering himself.

 

Christianity as a counter-cultural myth to delegitimize Rome

In some texts written by authors who had lost their state and been conquered by others, as may have been the case with the Yahwist, one can also see evidence of culture myths being used to delegitimize the conquering state.

McCants, William F.. Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam (p. 12). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

I have posted about some of William McCants’ research into modern terrorism (he is also the author of ISIS Apocalypse and numerous related articles) and have only recently caught up with a work based on his doctoral thesis, Founding Gods, Inventing Nations (FGIN). FGIN places the Islamic myths in the context of earlier myths of the ancient world and late antiquity and explores the cultural functions of those myths.

The above quotation is taken from a section addressing the way mythical narratives of an indigenous people changed in the wake of being conquered — whether by the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans. What McCants has to say about the Jewish (biblical) myths vis a vis the Greek (Hellenistic) ones is of special interest to anyone following Russell Gmirkin’s hypotheses (see posts on Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible). Not that McCants places the Bible so late, but I will post about the interesting insights anon.

For now I am merely drawing attention to the message in the opening line. One cannot avoid thinking of Christian origins. Rome’s founding myths concluded with Aeneas and then Romulus slaying their enemies. McCants’ thesis might suggest to us that Christianity was a Jewish response to Roman conquest. The victim of Roman executioners was the true king of a higher kingdom above Rome’s. The followers of that king or anointed one (Christ) were aliens under Rome’s power but citizens of a higher power.

That’s not an original insight. Crossan certainly pushed it strongly enough in his work depicting Jesus as an anti-imperialist, and similar ideas have been published about Paul’s views.

Nonetheless, it does raise some interesting questions. It would certainly render mute any suggestion that the crucifixion of Jesus was at any time an embarrassing concept that needed justification among his followers. On the simple idea quoted above the crucifixion was potentially a concept bestowing pride and power in the identities of the earliest Christians.

(Such a view is also the opposite of those theories that would claim Christianity was a Roman invention to pacify the Jews.)

 

Why Is Christmas on the 25th of December?

The Catholic Liturgical Year

While researching this post, I came upon an item from 2015 about the sad and untimely death of Acharya S. on Christmas Day. Readers of Vridar may have noticed that I’ve avoided writing about Acharya’s theories or writings, mainly because they did not and do not interest me, but secondarily, because I’d rather not tangle with her fans, many of whom take any critique of her brand of mythicism as a personal attack.

I must decrease

Recently, however, I recalled something I heard on a podcast featuring Robert M. Price and Acharya. I suppose we’re allowed to call her Dorothy Murdock now. Murdock was explaining to Price that the role of the Forerunner helped to determine when in the liturgical calendar to commemorate the birth of John the Baptist. She reminded Price that in the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is confronted by his disciples about what to do concerning this upstart Jesus fellow. He says:

[28] “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ [29] The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. [30] He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:28-30, ESV)

A typical reader would look at that last sentence and take it at face value. In other words, John the Baptist realizes his role must diminish as Jesus takes on the mantle of Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Savior of the World. The Baptist is signaling the winding down of his business, having fulfilled his purpose.

But Murdock said it was a mysterious thing to say, and that it had to do with the days getting shorter after the solstice. And this is precisely why John’s birth was commemorated near the first day of summer, while Jesus’ was celebrated near the winter solstice. When Christ is “rising,” I am “falling.” Hence, the notion that John was born on 24 June, six months away from Christmas.

The virgin . . . tomb?

At the time I did a little research, which fell by the wayside as other subjects took my attention. I recall coming across some early discussions about the incarnation and how some early Christians believed it had to have occurred on the same calendar date as the death of Jesus. For example, Augustine wrote: read more »

Early Christianity Looked Like a Philosophical School

Continuing from the previous post on Stanley K. Stowers’ chapter, “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” . . .

To pre-empt predictable objections Stowers begins with three riders:

  1. His comparison study does not make claims about origins; he is not arguing that Christianity began as a Hellenistic philosophy.
  2. Comparison or similarity does not mean sameness; he is not arguing that Pauline Christianity was a philosophy.
  3. Similarities with philosophical schools do not exclude similarities with other social groups.

With that ground cleared, following are seven similarities Stowers identifies.

1. Hellenistic philosophies saw themselves as distinctive sects, each focused on a central value/good

There were, for example, Stoics, Cynics and Epicureans. Each of these had its own attitude toward life and idea of what is the single umbrella good to which one must strive.

Stoics taught that virtue was “the answer” to the question of life. Everything else, all the other values and attachments deemed to be good were subordinate to “unitary good” of virtue. Family, possessions, would always take second place in the event of any conflict in following the ideal of virtue.

For Epicureans the ultimate good was freedom from pain and friendship. And so forth.

For Paul, the single, overriding good was “life in Christ”. Other values such as marriage, the household, business, ethnicity, were secondary. Even the commandments of God in the Jewish scriptures were superseded by Christ.

Yes, Paul’s stress upon worship of only one God and not many, and his “apocalyptic intensification” of these beliefs was Jewish, but Paul ripped them away from their ethnic, cultic and legal Judean contexts.

2. Hellenistic philosophies were contrary to conventional thinking

Ordinary civic virtue and conventional values were not the way to “happiness” or the “good life” according to Hellenistic philosophies.

The philosophies taught new ways of thinking, new motivations and desires to cultivate. Asceticism was valued.

In this context Stowers believes it no accident that the founders of the Hellenistic schools were not married and that Jesus and Paul were not married either. Paul challenged both Gentile and Judean norms of culture. The wisdom of God was set in opposition to both Greek and Jewish values.

Again, the structural similarities with the philosophies are obvious. (p. 91)

3. Hellenistic philosophies led to a new life, a new orientation of the self, a conversion

Stoics taught that the conversion was instantaneous.

For a more detailed discussion of the similarity between Paul’s idea of conversion to a life in Christ and the Stoic conversion see:

  1. Paul and the Stoics – 1 (2009-11-04)
  2. Christian conversion – an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy (2009-11-08)

Other philosophies apparently ridiculed this Stoic idea of the way to attain virtue and taught, on the contrary, that virtue could only be attained gradually, over time, through a series of graduated steps.

Stowers adds that there is, moreover,

a literary tradition that becomes most prominent in the early empire in which writers give vivid descriptions of the turmoil and changes in the soul of those who convert to philosophy. Paul uses exactly the same language for conversion to the gospel. (p. 92)

4. Hellenistic philosophies required techniques to master and remake one’s self

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Earliest Christianity Did Not Look Like a Religion

I have long been intrigued by the second century “church father” Justin Martyr identifying himself as a philosopher, not a “priest” or elder or bishop or other ecclesiastical type of title. He left it on record that he came to Christianity after surveying a range of other philosophies, not religions.

Time-warp forward to 2001 and the chapter titled “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” by Stanley K. Stowers in Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide (edited by Troels Engberg-Pedersen) and we find a rather solid explanation for Justin’s identification, I think.

Stop thinking of the “Jewish Synagogue” as the model for Paul’s churches

One of the first points Stowers sets down is that

We must remember that first-century Jews were Judeans. Interpreters should not, in principle, segregate Judeans from Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and so on by creating something suspiciously like a modern religion called Judaism. Even Jews who lived permanently in Rome or Alexandria were Judeans living outside of their traditional homeland and therefore similar to Syrians, Greeks, or Egyptians who lived abroad. (p. 83)

(Steven Mason makes the same point with his preference for the word Judeans in place of Jews in A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74.)

What Stowers is trying to get through to us is that we need to jettison any notion that when Jews were meeting in synagogues they were in some sense being astonishingly different from anyone else, and it therefore follows that scholars should be very careful before suggesting that Paul’s churches (and gentile Christianity itself) grew out of the synagogue.

A synagogue is a meeting place or meeting practices of Judeans. In our language Judeans were an ethnic people. Unfortunately the idea of “the synagogue” as a Jewish church still haunts much scholarship. (p. 83)

Judean worship was similar to the worship of other gods

Stowers argues that before 70 C.E. Jewish worship, even in the Diaspora, was centrally focussed on the temple in Jerusalem. The great temple festivals, tabernacles, pentecost, passover, were celebrated by Judeans throughout the empire. These were agricultural festivals that celebrated the gifts of produce and livestock that God gave his people, of success in trading and in acquiring the blessings of children.

Temple time with its agriculturally oriented calendar shaped the calendar of the Jews (sic) in general. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festivals and sacrifices was a major feature of the period. Many Judeans of the Diaspora directly participated in the temple cultus sometime during their lives. The temple tax that supported the daily sacrifices in the temple and the first fruit offerings that signified the ancient pattern of reciprocity and divine giving of productivity were among the major yearly efforts of Diaspora communities. (p. 84)

What of the place of the scriptures? It is generally agreed that the reading of scriptures was a very important for the religious life of Judeans. For Stowers,

The Torah, Prophets, and Psalms are . . . absolutely dominated by the centrality of the temple, priesthood and cult. The epics and myths of Judeans were about land, people, and socio-economic reciprocity with God and other Judeans. . . For Judeans, unlike for Christians, to study scripture was to be oriented toward an actual temple, a place where reciprocity with the divine was enacted in the imagined exchange of produce from the land and shop, womb and market. (p. 85)

Judean religion was focused on the idea of reciprocal exchange with God. God blessed his people; his people offered sacrifices and gifts and communal worship in return. And the temple was the focus of this exchange. Stowers writes that the religion of a Judean living 500 miles from Jerusalem differed little in principle from the one living 20 miles away.

Other cultural groups, those from places other than Judea, throughout the empire, recognized these Judean religious customs as counterparts to their own.

The dominant activities of the temple were sacrificial offerings of grain and animal products. Judeans shared these practices with Greeks, Romans, and most peoples of the Mediterranean world. Josephus proudly proclaims that Judeans share the practices of sacrificing domestic animals with “all the rest of humanity” (Ag. Ap., 2.137). (p. 85, my bolding)

Pauline Christianity did not look like a typical religion

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The Other Side of Early Christianity

So Christianity and paganism were not at all necessarily incompatible in the Roman empire. Our focus on biblical texts, the writings we have inherited from selected “church fathers” and sporadic persecutions in the later empire do not prepare us for early third century tombstones like this:
Funerary stele of Licinia Amias, one of the most ancient Christian inscriptions. ΙΧΘΥC ΖΩΝΤΩΝ Ikhthus zōntōn fish of the living

You recognize the fish, and possibly the inscription IXΘYC, ichthus, which means fish as well as being an acronym for Jesus Christ Son of God, Saviour.

So what’s it doing parallel to D.M. above, Dii Manes, To the Spirits of the Dead? It reminds me of a sarcophagus I used as an illustration way back in another post which depicts a series of Christian reliefs either side of the pagan image of the Orante or Orans female figure at prayer. Notable also on that sarcophagus is the absence of Jesus crucified. No crucifixes at all. The only suffering figure appears to be Jonah who is recovering beneath a pleasant gourd tree after his regurgitation from a great fish. Fish again. Jesus is a boy being baptized by an elderly John.

So much we don’t know. Thanks to Mary Beard’s documentary on Rome I am reminded of artifacts like these.

Details of the funerary stele above can be seen here:

 

Failure of the Logic of History in Christian Origins Studies

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 4.37.11 pmI have finally found two books on the practice of history, each by a scholar (other than Richard Carrier), that address the core questions I have often raised with respect to flawed methods of New Testament historians dealing with Christianity’s origins. Both works address historical studies in general and only one from time to time casts a glance at what certain biblical historians are doing.

One is The Logic of History by C. Behan McCullagh (2004). McCullagh is a philosopher of history responding primarily to the postmodernist challenges to traditional historical practices in the field of history generally. Some of his arguments apply not only to postmodernist approaches, however, but equally to a number of flawed arguments by more traditional biblical scholars.

The other is Historical Evidence and Argument by David Henige (2005). In my next post I will address his fourth chapter titled “Unraveling Gordian Knots” where he applies his criticism to sentiments we find expressed repeatedly throughout New Testament historical works — and especially in regard to many New Testament scholars’ attacks on the Christ Myth hypothesis.

This post addresses a few excerpts from C. Behan McCullagh’s The Logic of History. 

Why has no-one else argued these points before?

The points have been argued before but apparently rarely applied to the methods of scholars specializing in the history of Christianity’s origins and early growth. Nonetheless, when I first tried to think through how we came believe certain persons and events in the ancient past were historical and others not I was a little surprised that so little appeared to have been directly addressing this question.

Happily I have now found an explanation for my inability to find what I was looking for back then. On page one McCullagh writes:

Historians often learn how to assess their hypotheses by studying debates in history in the course of their education. They acquire a capacity to evaluate their hypotheses critically, without always being aware of the standards of rationality they are applying. Awareness of those standards, however, will make it easier for historians to ensure that their work is rationally defensible.

There are many good books which explain how students of history should undertake their inquiries, but they contain very little guidance as to the logic of historical reasoning. They are almost entirely about searching for answers to one’s questions, and writing up the results. Yet the point of all the good practical advice is to gather information from which sound inferences about the past can be formed. Those inferences and arguments are at the heart of historical practice. (my own formatting and bolding in all quotations)

And in the conclusion of his Introduction on page 4:

I hope that this introduction to the logic of history will quicken historians’ interest in the rational justification of their accounts of the past. It should help guide historians in the rational assessment of their own work and that of others.

So McCullough appears to be acknowledging that most of the current works on the practice of history have overlooked and taken for granted “the standards of rationality” being applied and “logic of historical reasoning”. 

How to be sure we are reading a text the right way

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Explaining Christian Origins Without Any Theological Baggage

s200_james_constantine.hanges
James C. Hanges

I wasn’t sure at first what to make of an unusual article currently being hosted on the Bible and Interpretation site. It’s header is certainly interesting enough —

Looking to the Future of the Study of Christian Origins

But then it continues with reference to something that definitely has very little interest for me — that word “ecstasy” in a religious context:

The Ecstatic Perception of Evolving Complexities

Tongues? Trances? No thanks. But what’s the catch with that “future” word? I do like studies of visionary experiences to explain texts and certain belief systems but am less enthusiastic about the wider world of “religious ecstasies”.

It begins with reference to postcolonial studies. Suspicion deepens. Another anachronistic model being applied to the ancient world? Is this going to be something like a Marxist interpretation of Shakespeare?

But then the author, Professor James Constantine Hanges, writes something scandalous. (Scandalous, at least, to most contemporary biblical scholarship I have read.) He seems to be saying that scholarship should be studying early Christianity as something that emerged from within not only a Jewish world but also a pagan context. The pagan world should be seen as a matrix of Christianity’s emergence, not as “the other” against which early Christianity fought tooth and nail:

Smith’s razor sharp point in the book is that the history of modern Euro-American study of Christian origins . . . was never a genuine attempt to acquire new knowledge and to more accurately describe and understand the formation of earliest Christianity. Rather, modern Euro-American biblical scholarship has been simply an exercise in apologetics, using comparison to shore up the uniqueness of Christianity against a so-called “parallelomania” for ancient polytheistic cultures. 

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Jesus Evolved From an Angel?

Ezekiel by Raphael
Ezekiel by Raphael

Some passages in the Old Testament throw up bizarre riddles for those of us who have always thought its various authors were strict monotheists in the same sense as we expect modern Jewish rabbis to be no-nonsense monotheists. For starters, there are those most curious passages where we read of an angel engaging earthly mortals in conversation and suddenly speaking as if they are God himself. Sometimes after such a conversation the human characters are even made to say they have just met or spoken with God. Then there are those passages in Ezekiel that read as if God were a human figure who gets off his throne and starts to guide Ezekiel around his temple. There are other riddles but let’s stick with these two types for now.

Now something even stranger happens when we turn to other Jewish writings from the centuries either side of the BCE/CE point. Various writings from that period appear to have picked up these riddles in the Scriptural canon and run with them into places we could never imagine any truly monotheistic rabbi would dare follow. They bring us into a heavenly world where it is often difficult to decide who is God and who is an angel. Sometimes there appears to be an angel so exalted that he appears to be God’s proxy or principal agent who does all of God’s work. That angel is sometimes depicted as very much in the form of a man.

To put it most bluntly, this literature introduces us to a “man” in heaven (or celestial figure in the form of a man) who is a manifestation of God Himself. That same angelic or celestial Man sometimes appears on earth — still as a manifestation of God — to communicate with mortals. He is sometimes called the Angel of the Lord but at other times he calls himself by the name of God. Further, this celestial “man” figure or divine manifestation) is known and experienced in visions.

This most highly exalted angel sometimes starts to look very much like the image we have of Jesus Christ, the “Son of Man”, at the right hand of God in heaven from our readings of the New Testament epistles and book of Acts. These Christian sources likewise speak of that Christ being revealed in visions.

It has taken me longer than usual to prepare this post because the territory is so new for me. I’ve read about the various angelic figures in extra-canonical Jewish literature and I’ve read probably most of the apocryphal writings in which these figures prominently appear but I’ve never deeply studied this literature or its angelophany as a whole or in any depth. I’ve read Margaret Barker’s The Great Angel and other works of hers but their implications do not appear to register in the wider studies of Christian origins. Professor Hurtado’s argues that Christianity’s heavenly Christ does not truly bear a valid comparison with them because there is no evidence that any of these “Jewish” angels were ever worshiped. In my previous post I quoted Professor Boyarin’s response to that “criterion of dissimilarity”.

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Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation

Some New Testament scholars have difficulty with the term “midrash”. Goulder stopped using it because of this, though his student Spong has not followed his lead here. I continue to use the term as generally as Spong does because Jewish scholars themselves, especially a number who are specialists in midrashic and Jewish literary studies, use it the same way as Spong and likewise refer to the Gospels as examples of midrashic literature!

There are different types of midrash. Midrash Halakah is a narrow legalistic type of interpretation; Midrash Haggadah can be expressed in creative and imaginative ways, including extended story-narratives not unlike the narratives found in the Gospels. See:

If, as some argue, the Gospels were really only parables (e.g. Crossan) or midrash (e.g. Goulder/Spong) about Jesus and not “true” histories or biographies, why is it that, as far as we know from the oldest surviving evidence, they have always been read as literal histories or biographies of Jesus? (I am not saying they were universally read as literal biographies of Jesus since we simply don’t know how the first readers interpreted any of them.)

In my previous post I suggested that a simple explanation for the Gospels being a mix of history and fiction is something quite different from the standard view that they are narratives that have been based on oral traditions stemming from historical events and that over time were piously exaggerated. If they are indeed “Jewish novels” not unlike so much other historical-fiction so popular in the Hellenistic era, then how was it that they appear to have been so quickly read as historical “reports”?

Chaim Milikovsky
Chaim Milikovsky

An interesting light has been thrown onto this question, I think, by Chaim Milikowsky in “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” a chapter in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. Milikowsky explores the question of the “truth status” of midrashic narratives compared with the “truth of the Bible”. If the Gospels are midrashic literature as Jewish scholars specializing in ancient Jewish and midrashic studies say they are, then Chaim Milikowsky’s chapter may be relevant to how we understand their early history, too.

In the side-box I have linked to some posts where I illustrate some of the narrative forms of midrash and to instances where Jewish specialist scholars describe the Gospels as midrashic literature. For convenience in this post I will illustrate a narrower (and more well known) form of midrash for those of us to whom the term is quite new.

Three examples of midrash

We know the Biblical story of Cain killing Abel. A midrash says that prior to this murder, it was actually Abel who overpowered Cain and was about to kill him when Cain cried out for mercy. Abel relented, giving Cain the opportunity to turn the tables and kill Abel instead. What was the source of this midrashic tale? The Hebrew says literally, in translation, that Cain “got up onto his brother”. The rabbis reasoned that for Cain to have “got up onto” Abel he must have first been “under” Abel. read more »