Chris Terry is a Christian in love with Christ. For me his post Amazement was a tragic reminder of how life-destroying that devotion can be. No doubt if Chris were to see this post he would respect that statement as containing a hidden irony: yes, I imagine he might say, we must become “dead” so that Christ can live in and through us.
“Apart from Christ”, he says, “there is absolutely nothing in me that was good.”
I don’t know if Chris is a parent. But I find it hard to imagine any healthy parent thinking their newborn babe, their growing child, having nothing good in or about them. Indeed, in Leaving the Fold, a book about deconversion from fundamentalism, psychologist author Marlene Winell suggests one activity that recovering believers might find helpful is to have a baby doll that they should come to see as themselves when they were an infant, and that whenever they feel overwhelmed by guilt or shame they should project themselves into that babe and reassure them that they are loveable and are loved. As a believing Christian one may, like Chris, be convinced that one does not “deserve God’s grace, mercy, and favor”, but that’s not how any sane parent rears their child. Of course our children are deserving of grace, mercy and favour. Growing up believing anything else is to grow up a psychological wreck.
The Bible is brought out, that book of often fascinating ancient literature that has had such a cultural impact throughout our history, and grotesquely seriously applied personally to the extent that a modern believer will come to see they are “dead in sins” and under the sway of Satan merely by being a part of wider society. If ever the believer comes close to a moment of sanity and begins to wonder what can be so wrong with being a normal and healthy part of the community just as themselves, without any put-on act of trying to be a light for Jesus, and then begin to think that their “sins” are miniscule compared with the mass murderers and child abusers out there, they will devoutly remind themselves as does Chris that that is the sin of pride “downplays their depth of guilt and corruption apart from Christ”. As Chris says,
The mistake is seeking to understand these issues through our own reason, rather than understanding all of life as God views it.
Such a God was responsible for biblical genocides. Even literally sacrificing one’s own children is something he has said is both an unspeakable evil and an ultimate sign of heroic righteousness – the trick is knowing which god to do it for.
No, Chris. You are not as evil and wicked and worthless as your god wants you to think you are without him. Without him you can flourish as a wholesome, good human being. Yes, with faults, some that can be quite harmful. But you are mature enough to know how to manage those potentials and to be a good force for liberation and humanity for others and even yourself, as many other humans really do without suppressing in fear one’s own nature and trying to replace it with some alien “put on” (the Bible’s expression for the process).
Tom Holland is currently preparing a new book in which he fleshes out what he says in this video. Is Paul really like a “depth charge” in history, ultimately responsible for ripples that brought about the Enlightenment itself?
If one says that one’s inheritance is Christian what do we mean by Christian? Has not Christianity itself (including its use of Paul) been shaped according to shifting circumstances and ideologies through the ages?
René Salm is way ahead of me in posting on Hermann Detering’s newest release on Christian origins arguing for links between early gnosticism in Egypt and Buddhism from India. He now has four comments online. I have since tried to elicit the main arguments from the second section of Detering’s article via a most welcome but unfortunately less than 100% clear translation of the German original. Last post I outlined Detering’s survey of early allegorical and other gnostic interpretations of the Exodus and how some of these conflated or replaced Moses with Joshua as the central figure. In the next section, part 2, Detering addresses comparable analogies in Buddhism and the Upanishads.
The Eastern allegories place greater stress on the water representing ignorance and fear.
In one Buddhist story the Buddha asks his followers if it makes sense to carry around with them the rafts they had made in order to cross a river to reach him. No, of course, is the answer, since the purpose of the rafts has been met and they are no longer needed. Detering does not make the comparison but I was reminded of Paul’s teaching in Galatians that the law was only a temporary requirement to bring people to Christ and is no longer necessary for those who have become Christians. (I am not saying that Paul derived his teaching from Buddhism but only pointing to the similar concepts.)
In another Buddhist parable the water barrier symbolizes the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It represents the world with its passions and desires. The rafts represent Buddha’s teachings.
So the metaphor in Buddhism is that the water represents “stream of existence”, monks are the ford-crossers, and those seeking to cross the river to Nirvana are tasked with cleansing themselves from desires and passions.
Walking on water
As for the image of walking on water I have seen in Buddhist temples murals of Buddha standing or walking on a river with his disciples following after him in boats. But I do not suspect that these images were painted before Christianity was known in these parts of Asia. Detering discusses the scholarly research into the origins of such an image in the Eastern tradition and that concludes the motif cannot be later than around 200 BC to 50 AD. If so, the image is certainly independent of the gospels. (The stories of Buddha’s crossing vary in how they describe the act: did he actually walk? or was he transported just above the surface of the water? in some he was not seen walking at all but simply mysteriously appeared on the other side leaving his disciples mystified as to how he crossed.)
Detering points to “close parallels” between the 39th Ode of Solomon and a verse in Buddhist literature depicting disciples of a master teacher struggling to find a way across an expanse of water, but some being swept away in a raging torrent or storm. I am too uncertain of the details to offer a translation or precise citation here so we’ll have to await the translation of Detering’s argument.
In the next section Detering discusses closer apparent links between the Therapeutae near Alexandria in Egypt and Buddhism.
It is easy to think that scholarly interest in the historical Jesus stands independently from the Christ of faith and theological preferences. Don’t theologians “doing history” on the “historical Jesus” come up with a figure who does not align with the Jesus of their faith? Don’t theologian-historians deserve to be credited with hard-nosed intellectual integrity for “discovering” such a real-world Jesus?
My views [that the historical Jesus’ disciples believed he was the Christ before his death] are based on the scholarship of one of the great New Testament of the twentieth century, whom most of my readers here (possibly all of them!) have never heard of, Nils Dahl, a Norwegian scholar who taught for many years at Yale University. Dahl was an amazingly insightful scholar who preferred writing essays to writing books. When I was in graduate school I and all of my colleagues were heavily influenced by Dahl’s insights (e.g., in his book The Crucified Messiah). . . . (Bart Ehrman, Jesus the Messiah Before the Resurrection)
Bart Ehrman and Larry Hurtado have reminded us of the influence of the Norwegian theologian and Yale professor Nils Alstrup Dahl so I have been following up their notices to learn more about the sorts of things he taught. One of Dahl’s chapters in The Crucified Messiah is “The Problem of the Historical Jesus”. What he says about the importance of the study of the historical Jesus for theology and faith is interesting.
David Strauss had written a book undermining the historical plausibility of many of the accounts of Jesus in the gospels. Dahl addresses the significance of Strauss:
The crisis called forth by Strauss led to an even more intensive preoccupation with the historical Jesus. Thereafter the Life-of-Jesus research not only stood under the aegis of the struggle for freedom from dogma, but also under that of the apologetic defense against Strauss. In the period of empiricism there was also the desire to erect a secure historical basis for Christian faith. It was assumed that the necessary basis in the sources had been found by means of the Marcan hypothesis and the two source theory. (p. 51)
What lay behind the critical investigations into the historical value of the gospels is also of interest.
The Life-of-Jesus research, in its classic period of the nineteenth century, was in the main a gigantic attempt to get free from the [Chalcedonian] christological dogma of the church, but at the same time to maintain the uniquely religious significance of Jesus. (p. 50)
All the liberal biographies of Jesus shared the conviction of having in the historical Jesus an ally in their efforts toward a modern theology and a broad-minded Christianity. Accordingly, the historical Jesus was modernized. (p. 53)
Albert Schweitzer saw right through this dogmatic agenda of historical Jesus studies when he wrote:
He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb. (p. 56)
That particular historical Jesus had to some extent been influenced of the “history of religions school” with its close attention to other dying and rising gods in the Greco-Roman world. More conservative scholars reacted as follows:
The conservative theologians showed a preference for the Jewish background in order to find a support for the historical credibility of the gospel tradition. (p. 57)
But there was a looming threat. Radical criticism could take Jesus right out of the church altogether and comparisons with other ancient religions led to the very questioning of the historicity of Jesus himself:
At first it appeared that the radical Gospel criticism and the history-of-religions school would lead to the assumption of an unbridgeable gulf between Jesus and the church; in this situation it is quite understandable why outsiders proceeded to deny the historical existence of Jesus. (p. 82)
So it was imperative that the study of the historical Jesus be kept in “godly hands”:
The curiosity which underlies all science will certainly lead to a continually new treatment of the problem. If we theologians ignore this task, others will undertake it. Even if the question should be theologically irrelevant (more of this later), we cannot call it illegitimate. The scientific ethos requires that we do not avoid it, but rather work at it in all sincerity, for God’s law lies behind the scientific ethos. The historical critical concern with the problem of the historical Jesus is at least an honorable task which is subject to the distress and promise of every honorable profession, and certainly to the Pauline hos me (“as if not”) as well. (pp. 62-3)
Although god-fearing scholars should be the main body of researchers it was also necessary to include a non-Christians (even Jews!) as well for the following reason:
Scholars with different starting points co-operate and are able mutually to correct each other. For that reason also, it is not desirable that non-Christian scholars remain aloof from this work. In certain respects even antipathy can be illuminating; Jewish scholars, e.g., can have a clear eye for what is characteristic of Jesus. (pp. 63-4)
But is there not a risk that some historical Jesus findings will stand at odds with the Jesus of religious beliefs?
Dahl is not perturbed. Most believers would scarcely be aware of the scholarly studies or if aware of them they could safely ignore them:
It is obvious that the Christian faith and the church would have only a very limited interest in such a presentation of what actually occurred, even if it could be given with a very high degree of historical probability. . . . The believing community could therefore tranquilly disregard the historical description of Jesus’ death and his previous life for the sake of holding to the Gospels and to the rest of the New Testament writings. Once more it would be clear to the church that only the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the witness of the Holy Spirit through the apostles disclose the meaning and the significance of Jesus’ death and his previous life. It will therefore firmly maintain that in the New Testament and nowhere else is it revealed who Jesus really was — without being required to contest the results of historical science. (pp. 75-6)
But what of the theologians themselves? They could scarcely ignore the research. Besides, a communications revolution has happened since Dahl wrote and the academic research has no longer been well hidden from lay believers. The benefits of historical Jesus studies for the faith of theologians (and since Dahl, for the better informed lay Christians) are most remarkable indeed . . . . Continue reading “The Relevance of the Historical Jesus for Christian Faith and Theology”
Historian Tom Holland has made a public confession that when it comes to his morals and ethics he is “thoroughly and proudly Christian”. (Tom Holland is a very talented writer and historian whose study of the rise of the Arab empire and birth of Islam I have discussed here. I was also fascinated by another work of his, Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom — a period of history I specialized in when studying history as an undergrad.)
Now Christian blogs are crowing that the renowned historian has “come out” in defence of Christianity. The Enlightenment philosophes got the Church all wrong, he implies.
Holland tells us of his younger fascination with the great empires and generals of ancient history (an interest he says morphed out of his boyhood love of dinosaurs) and how they made the Bible’s heroes looked so anemic in comparison.
He had long embraced the view of history bequeathed us by the Enlightenment era (via Gibbon, Voltaire, etc) that Christianity ushered in an age of intolerance, superstition and ignorance. One had to look further back to the ancient “classical era” to find values more worthy of humanist ideals.
His epiphany dawned over time as he reflected upon the barbarism of Sparta and Rome:
The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.
For once I can say something I have never written before and never imagined myself saying. A historian from outside the guild of biblical studies can learn something from a Professor of New Testament; in this instance the professor is Gregory J. Riley. (There are surely many others; but as an outside amateur I think of Riley as the most well known scholar addressing the contribution of ancient “classical” values to Christianity.)
Christianity was not born mysteriously out of a womb unrelated to the body of which it was a part. Every human creation is a product of a human environment. It would be unique, unnatural even, if Christianity emerged from a virgin birth.
By way of explanation I think the titles of two of the following posts on Gregory Riley’s works should tell the story, though the titles are also hyperlinked to their original content:
Then there are the scholarly works addressing Paul’s debt to classical ethics with nary a word of credit to Jesus. I mention just a handful that I can identify quickly from my own collection:
Engberg-Pedersen, T. (2000). Paul and the Stoics. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.
Engberg-Pedersen, T. (2006). Paul’s Stoicizing Politics in Romans 12-13: The Role of 13.1-10 in the Argument. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 29(2), 163–172. http://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X06072836
Lee, M. V. (2009). Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Malherbe, A. J. (1989). Paul and the popular philosophers. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Rasimus, T. (2010). Stoicism in early Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic.
Thorsteinsson, R. M. (2006). Paul and Roman Stoicism: Romans 12 and Contemporary Stoic Ethics. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 29(2), 139–161. http://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X06072835
Julius Caesar and Leonidas were not the only figures to speak for ancient values. Seneca was ordered by Nero to commit suicide, if my memory serves.
And as for the utter callousness of Caesar’s treatment of the Gauls and Sparta’s legendary treatment of helots, yes, it would be soul-destroying to think humanity has made no progress in two thousand years. Yet we do ourselves a serious injustice if we fail to recognize that our Christian nations have on the whole fully approved the extermination of entire cities of innocents for what they believe was the purpose of saving the lives of their own soldiers, and continue to approve of the slaughter of innocents in order to achieve specific national and strategic goals.
Tom Holland might be advised to turn his attention to historians of modern realities (his compatriot Jason Burke comes to mind) and learn that enormous strides in propaganda and hypocrisy have possibly exceeded advances in morality. No, that’s not quite fair or true. It really is a lot harder today for national leaders to do what they want without regard for public opinion and I have little doubt that leaders today really do have consciences more refined than those of their ancient counterparts (except for the psychopaths, of course). But, but…. it does pay sometimes to look behind the headlines.
A landmark in national life has just been passed. For the first time in recorded history, those declaring themselves to have no religion have exceeded the number of Christians in Britain. Some 44 per cent of us regard ourselves as Christian, 8 per cent follow another religion and 48 per cent follow none. . . . We can more accurately be described now as a secular nation with fading Christian institutions. . . . .
Christians, for their part, should not automatically associate a decline in religiosity with a rise in immorality. On the contrary, Britons are midway through an extraordinary period of social repair: a decline in teenage pregnancies, divorce and drug abuse, and a rise in civic-mindedness.
It’s perpetually frustrating to me, though, that there’s a certain movement of atheists that brand me as an idiot because I’m religious, or that I’m incapable of being reasonable or logical because I have faith. To this type of atheist, if I don’t accept fundamentalist Christianity as the Only True Way of being a Christian, I’m being inconsistent. Over the course of many conversations, I’ve usually found out that they were at one point Christian fundamentalists.
Religious people are not being idiotic, unreasonable or illogical. Their belief systems are very logical given their …. beliefs. We have fairly good understandings now why people are prone to believe in supernatural beings or dimensions. I’d like to see atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris educate themselves about our progress in this area. They need not fear that making an effort to learn more about the nature of religious practices and beliefs from anthropological and psychological perspectives will somehow “make excuses” for the harm done in the name of religion. Would criminologists be making excuses for crime by understanding the range of sociological, psychological and genetic factors that contribute towards criminal behaviour? Of course not, but the more we understand the more tools we have to minimize criminality. Ill-informed and emotive responses towards criminals may make us feel good but at the same time only increase the problem.
. . . To many, Modernism is the only “correct” way to reason, and Truth and demonstrable, provable, physical fact are inseparable.
I was fortunate in the way my faith evolved. . . . All of that prompted me to do the same, and the end result is that I didn’t use the same framework I’d always used to evaluate evidence and questions. I didn’t rely purely on Modernist reasoning in order to deconstruct my faith system and start building it back up.
I’m drawn to dichotomies, to absolutes, to if then statements, and either or views of reality. . . . I have to force myself to live in the tension, to think of arguments as a matter of degree and nuance rather than totally right or totally wrong.
These are the words of someone who is drawn to belief even if belief is in a mystery, in irreconcilable oppositions. As an atheist (I’m sure I’m not alone) I feel no need to “believe” in anything. I don’t “believe” in the scientific [Samantha’s “Modernist”?] explanation for life, the universe and everything. I simply accept it knowing that it is always subject to change or even revision. Believers generally seem to have a hard time “believing” that anyone else is not also a “believer”. Atheism is not a faith. It is not a belief system. Even the word “atheist” scarcely has any truly coherent meaning.
On the other hand, it’s almost as equally frustrating when people don’t understand fundamentalism, and what it does to people. They don’t know that fundamentalists are ruled by logical consistency before any other consideration. What may seem like utter nonsense to you or me makes perfect sense if you understand the premise they’re working with and follow it to its conclusion.
This is too simplistic. Whatever we believe we are all in our own lights “ruled by logical consistency”. Even Samantha’s own decision to believe in “nuance” and contradictions in tension is a logically consistent conclusion when you understand her premise. It’s a paradox but not logically inconsistent. Fundamentalism is far more than being logically consistent. See 10 Characteristics of Fundamentalism. Logical consistency does not mean valid arguments as we know from games with various syllogisms. What counts is the premise. Religious fundamentalists are trapped in circular arguments and that’s why their logic is fallacious.
Take the fact that fundamentalists can be gigantic assholes to their friends and family. To an outsider, it may seem like we did nothing but endlessly bully and criticize each other– how in the world could we possibly be friends, let alone like each other? If they were to ask me when I was a fundamentalist why I behaved like this, I would’ve said “faithful are the wounds of a friend,” along with a quip about how being harsh and exacting is the only way to be loving. That sounds absurd to the rest of us — being an asshole is not loving– but to them, it’s the only possible outcome. You must “edify” your friends toward righteousness. Anything less is the opposite of loving.
The situation described here demonstrates the way fundamentalists are trapped in double binds and contradictions they cannot escape. They need to redefine words like love and adopt a new persona. Yes there is logical consistency at work there is far more at work that underlies that mental rationalisation. Generally everyone justifies their behaviour by logical reasoning. As Ben Franklin said,
“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do”
Moreover, Samantha’s example is not a question of logic so much as firm conviction in some anti-social precepts.
Sciences have publicists promoting their research. I’d love to see more publicists promoting the research into human behaviour, including religious behaviours. Both believers and atheists are being shortchanged.
As a Vridar reader, you know that I’m an atheist, having happily lost my faith some 40 years ago. You probably know that I’ve often referred to religion, any religion, as a “mind virus.” I’ve had some unkind things to say about Christianity and professed Christians, but I’ve tried to make it clear that I don’t wish to covert anyone.
Do what you want; believe what you want. But please do it with your eyes wide open. Read everything. Consider all the facts, and make a rational decision.
Having said all that, I’d like to say something nice today about Christianity. I’ll confess my admiration for the victims of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Finally, I’ll have some scathing comments about presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.
As a boy, I grew up believing in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I was pretty sure that this maxim was unique to Christianity, but of course that’s because my fundamentalist upbringing shielded me from real human history. It turns out that this rule of behavior is practically universal. It has the obvious ring of truth about it. Would I want somebody else to do it to me? If not, then I shouldn’t do it.
But Christianity takes it a step further. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells of the last judgment, in which the Son of Man will separate the just from the damned the way a shepherd would separate the sheep from the goats. He concludes with: Continue reading “Mike Huckabee, Meet Some Real Christians”
I have some sympathy for people who embrace religious faith, even Christianity. I have a lot of respect for scholarly research, including that into Christian origins.
But I loathe some forms of Christianity that do irreparable damage to many people. I also have little respect for public intellectuals (scholars) who betray their public by fostering personal antipathy towards those who raise radical questions about the foundations of their work and protect their professional status and faith by means of culpably ignorant and fallacious arguments.
So I have some reservations about attacking religious belief head on. I’m reminded of Tamas Pataki’s point about the importance of trying to understand the function of religion for so many: “its emotional significance for its adherent, its intimate relations to human needs.” I know I am much better off as a person since having turned my back on religion. I do believe (in theory) that all of humanity should be much better off without religion. But then I wonder if that belief assumes some kind of overly optimistic view of human nature.
I don’t mean that I’m comfortable with the way things are. I suppose I would find myself rejoicing like an angel in heaven over learning of another friend who learned to leave God behind and walk through life as a humanist, naturalist, rationalist, atheist, or whatever term they thought most apt for capturing their new identity.
And it’s certainly good that there are others who take the time to expose the follies of faith for those whose time has come to listen. I am riled every Thursday when I see members of a religious cult setting up at a main crossroads on campus a display stand of their tracts and standing there attempting to invite young overseas students who are away from family, friends, cultural roots into conversation. Preying on the vulnerable (many have scarcely heard anything about Christianity before they arrive) looking for a new friendly community. Lovebombing. I wish I could do a Christ and overturn their table and whip them out of the grounds.
On the other hand I have no desire to go out of my way to try to deconvert my grandmother.
Recently we have seen on the web more instances of otherwise reputable New Testament scholars demonstrating their apparent inability to actually read with any serious attempt at comprehension or publicly discuss radical views that originate from unwashed outsiders. (The second case I will discuss here involves a quite unexpected and unexplained banning of comments from me on a certain blog.)
We have seen the way Professor James McGrath boldly wrote that Doherty said or did not say certain things in his “review” of his book and the way I could demonstrate word for word, page for page, that McGrath clearly had not read as much of Doherty’s book as he claimed he had.
Then we saw Bart Ehrman making so many gaffes in his self-proclaimed first-ever scholarly “sustained argument that Jesus must have lived”: among the very many howlers were attributing to G. A. Wells an argument he flatly opposes (that Jesus was crucified in the heavenly realm my demons) and attributing to Doherty as “one of the arguments he makes in his book” the actual central thesis of his book!
Next appeared an anti-mythicist book by Maurice Casey that erroneously accused several non-mythicists of being his hated targets and that again accused others of sustaining arguments they in fact do not hold.
Most recently I have experienced James Crossley ignoring titles, sub-headings and opening words of my sentences in order to lift part sentences out of context to sarcastically accuse me of writing the very opposite of the point I was making.
Why do scholars, professors, seem to be incapable of reading with minimal comprehension certain types of works they seek to refute or that they presumably merely fear they might find offensive?
Is there a certain measure of fear there? Fear that others might see that their research careers have been built on sand? Or is it just plain old intellectual arrogance?
For whatever reason it seems to me that such scholars approach certain types of works so emotively that they are incapable of reading the words on the page with any normal faculty of calm comprehension. Sometimes I’ve opened a letter or email I’ve expected to be outrageous in some manner and I’ve read it with that presumption and reacted just as I expected to react after glancing over it. Only later after calming down have I been able to see that I read my initial expectations into the words and that it was not nearly so bad as I had originally thought. Is that how scholars read works by mythicists (or even from me in some cases?) — except that they never return later for the second reading in a calmer frame of mind?
Earlier this month Candida Moss (noted recently for her Myth of Persecution) and Joel Baden (The Historical David), both reputable professors, combined to produce a bit of sarcastic “comedy” for The Daily Beast, — ostensibly a review of a crazy mythicist publication. James McGrath couldn’t resist a good guffaw and immediately invited all of his readers to take a look and get a good belly laugh, too. Aren’t those mythicists such incompetent ignoramuses! That was the message and presumably the entire intent of posting the review and notice of it.
Maybe I’ve been around this business for too long now but I sensed something was not quite right. None of these professors actually explained what the book was about but only mocked a particular claim giving us all the distinct impression (but without actually explicitly saying so!) that this risible point was the central thesis of the book. So I bought a copy of the book to read for myself.
(Meanwhile I came across another criticism of the book,The Wrong Monkey, this time by a fellow atheist. This review was also critical, but again of just the one point magnified by Moss and Baden.)
The article I’m referring to was in the Real Deal section and given the title So-Called ‘Biblical Scholar’ Says Jesus A Made-Up Myth. In the article Moss and Baden (and subsequently the others) mock a list of 126 ancient names apparently presented as authors from whom we “should” have some evidence about Jesus had he existed. The book being targeted was No Meek Messiah by Michael Paulkovich.
Did anyone who wrote about No Meek Messiah ever read it?
The Dionysiac myth also serves as a framework through which to address the status of Christianity in relation to Judaism. The god came to Thebes, to his own people among whom he was born to Semele, but he came as a stranger, unrecognized, even punished by the king as a trouble-maker for introducing something new that had no rightful place in the established order.
Christianity must also be presented as something “new” (“new wine” and the “sweet wine” claims made at Pentecost) but as nonetheless legitimate. Luke achieves this by portraying Jesus as the natural progeny, the rightful heir, fulfilment, of the (reputedly) ancient Jewish religion. All the Jewish scriptures spoke of him.
The above is my own interpretation of the state of affairs and my own synthesis of a longer discussion by John Moles. I’m open for others to make modifications or corrections.
Interestingly another scholar, Lynn Kauppi, has found that the same scene of Paul “on trial” before the Athenians is bound intertextually to another famous Greek play, Eumenides by Aeschylus. Kauppi cites F. F. Bruce and Charles H. Talbert as earlier observers of this link.
In Acts 17 we come to a scene that serves as a mirror for the narrative of the whole of Acts (p. 85).
Paul enters Athens and attracts notice as a purveyor of “strange deities” and a “new teaching”. Since Paul has just visited the synagogue in Athens to discuss his teachings we know that what he is bringing to Athens is far from “brand new”. It is an interpretation of the existing Jewish scriptures.
The scene evokes the Athenian reaction to Socrates. Socrates, we know, was also accused of introducing new deities. So the Athenians are doubly in the wrong: they are repeating the sins of their forefathers who condemned the wise Socrates and they are themselves enamoured of novelty. Indeed, they are no different from the “strangers” among them who share the same shallow interests. So Athenian prestige and distinctiveness are cut down by the narrator.
“Luke” plays with the ironies of double allusions here: the Athenians are like their ancestor judges who condemned Socrates for introducing “new” ideas and like Pentheus who condemned the stranger for introducing a “strange” god. All the while, along with the “strangers” in their midst, they condemn themselves for their own love of the novelty. The Jews in Athens, on the other hand, condemned themselves for their love of the old and rejection of the new revelation.
The relationship between Jesus-religion and Dionysus-religion
Warning. Dr Larry Hurtado and others embracing a similar perspective disagree strongly with the views of the scholar to be discussed in this post. I will address some of Hurtado’s criticisms of Dr Daniel Boyarin at a later date. But now you know that what I am covering here is not a consensus view. But it offers ideas that deserve exploring and thinking through, whatever position we arrive at in the end.
I am sure I am not alone in having wondered at some time how it can be that Roman authorities, as we are told, could not easily tell Christians apart from Jews in the early days. One group was dominated by those who worshiped Jesus and did not keep the Jewish customs and the other by those who cursed Jesus and did keep the Jewish customs. So when in Acts we read of authorities being prepared to dismiss complaints of either party because they thought the issue was merely over legalistic quibbles, something does not sound quite right — or “coherent”, as a scholar interested in criteria of authenticity might say. Something’s missing from this equation.
The Long Good-Bye
Recently I finished reading Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword. He makes the point Christianity and Judaism as we understand them did not really come into their own, that is, separate as truly distinct religions until the fourth century. (He cites scholarly works, of course.) What led to that clear demarcation between the two as opposing religions was the work of the heresiologists on both sides. There arose a situation where it became necessary for Christians who had achieved some political power and status to draw clear boundaries to define who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Jewish authorities were correspondingly obliged to do the same.
I am in the early stages of reading Daniel Boyarin’s Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. Fate must have led me to this book just after reading Tom Holland’s because Boyarin expresses the very same view of the late definitive separation between the two religions. (I don’t really believe in Fate, by the way.) As would be expected given the different themes of the two books, Boyarin goes into more detail than Holland to make his case. He addresses the long-established conservative view that the final break between the two happened after the first Jewish War, or certainly no later than the second in the 130s.
The real meaning of the Pella legend?
One of his interesting points is made in relation to the legend of the early Church fleeing to Pella. That has often been interpreted as the final breach between Christianity and Judaism. The Jerusalem Church fled the city to escape the imminent conquest of the city by the Romans. Eusebius even links this with a heavenly voice heard in the Temple saying “Let us remove hence!” (Quaint translation of “Armaggedon outta here”.) Later Ebion was believed to have arisen from among these Christians and founded the “Ebionites” — Jewish Christians who had truly separated themselves from Judaism.