Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes

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by Neil Godfrey

From LivingStyles (labelled for reuse on Google Images)

In the previous post focusing on Heracles (or Zeus-Heracles) as Logos I omitted a quotation that paired Heracles with Hermes (Roman name, Mercury) for the sake of trying to keep the focus on a single point. Here I am catching up: what the Stoic author Cornutus wrote about Hermes brings to mind several core motifs in the gospels, but in particular of the Gospel of Mark. (Don’t jump to wild conclusions, though. I am only exploring the religious/ideological contexts within which the gospels emerged.)

The Jewish philosopher Philo noted that Hermes was the prophet, the divine interpreter, but in particular, the messenger who brought to humanity “good news”:

ἄρα οὐχ ὅτι προσήκει τὸν ἑρμηνέα [=interpreter] καὶ προφήτην [=prophet] τῶν θείων, ἀφ οὗ καὶ
Ἑρμῆς ὠνόμασται, τὰ ἀγαθὰ διαγγέλλοντα [=messenger of good] (Legatio Ad Gaium, 99)

— It’s worth trying to imagine living at the time the gospels were first heard. Jesus, the messenger who brought good news, surely evoked in the minds of some another deity with a comparable role.

Shortly after Philo (in the time of Nero) the Roman philosopher Cornutus wrote Epidrome (or Greek Theology) in which he described Hermes as reason (= logos) itself, “the preeminent possession of the gods” and the one they have sent to us from heaven so that we alone of earthly creatures are rational.

— As per the previous post focussing on Heracles, Jesus was not unique in being identified with the/a logos.

I copy the translation of the key section by Robert Hays from his 1983 thesis, Lucius Annaeus Cornutus’ “Epidrome”. Cornutus has just described in depth those daughters of Zeus known as the gift-giving Graces [Charites].

1. The tradition holds that Hermes is their [i.e. “the Graces”] master, thus signifying that the bestowing of kindness must be reasonable: not random, but to those who deserve it. For the person who has been ungratefully treated [hoacharistētheis] becomes more reluctant to do good. Now Hermes is Reason [ho logos]. which the gods sent to us from heaven, having made man alone of all the living creatures on earth reasonable [logikon], a gift which they themselves considered outstanding beyond all others. He has received his name from his taking counsel to speak [erein mēsasthai], i.e., to engage in rational discourse [legein]. Or, perhaps because he is our bulwark [eryma] and, as it were, our fortress.

— Logos is translated Reason but note its close association with “the word”, in particular the spoken word, a word that brings life-giving benefits as we will see. Continue reading “Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes”


Love of Enemies in Antiquity

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by Neil Godfrey

Quotations from an article I followed up for some reason I can’t quite recall. For those interested, and at the cost of misleading readers into thinking the author’s article was overly complimentary of pre-Christian thought …..

On the other hand there is a thought which can be found in the tradition of the Roman Stoics Musonius, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius which leads the reader in the direction of this ethic. Musonius maintains that a true philosopher would never take someone to court for slander. He doesn’t mind being abused, beaten or spat at because he realizes ‘that human beings commit most sins as a result of ignorance or lacking knowledge [namely of the real good and evil]; they stop as soon as they have been taught otherwise’. The Stoa and the whole of pagan antiquity doesn’t know of original sin. Musonius overlooks the phenomenon of the weakness of human will too. So he arrives at a naive anthropological simplicity like that. But because of this conviction the philosopher as Musonius sees him is constantly ready to practise forbearance (συγγνώμη) and regards retaliation (άντιποιεΐν κακώς) and ‘biting back’ (άντιδάκνειν) to be beneath contempt. It is not suffering injustice that is humiliating in his view, but doing injustice.44 Epictetus goes a step further than Musonius when he declares that it is part of the life of a true cynic that while being beaten like a donkey, he does not cease loving the person beating him, as if he were his father or brother.45

44 Muson. Io (see O. Hense 52-7. Here there are parallels, too.) We find these thoughts also in Marcus Aurelius’s writings, e.g. 6.6; 7.22.26; 8.51; 9.13; 18.15-18. The word in 7.22 is often wrongly translated: here it is not a question of loving those who have sinned against us, but of loving those who have fallen (τούς πταίοντας). Seneca and Epictetus only deal with variations on the thoughts of Musonius. Cf. John Piper, ‘Love your enemies‘ (SNTSMS 38; Cambridge, 1979) 21-7.

45 Arr. Epict. diss. 3.22.53f.

. . . .

In Plato’s dialogue Crito Socrates puts forward a principle and from it deduces two conclusions which signify a revolution in fundamental Greek convictions. The principle is: One may never commit injustice (ούδαμώς δει άδικεΐν).’ The conclusions: so one may not repay injustice with injustice either (άνταδικείν) or evil with evil (άντικακουργείν).47

47 Pl. Cri. 49b/c.

Reiser, Marius. 2001. “Love of Enemies in the Context of Antiquity.” New Testament Studies 47 (04).


Bruno Bauer’s “Christ and the Caesars” Review

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by Neil Godfrey

On The Mythicism Files blog Quixie has posted a review of Bruno Bauer’s Christ and the Caesars:


It begins deliciously:

Bruno Bauer was for a brief time in the nineteenth century the enfant terrible of New Testament scholarship. He was a brilliant man who crossed paths and kept company with such notable contemporary Germans as Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. He became professor of theology in 1834—first in Berlin then later in Bonn—but by 1842 his radical rationalism provoked his academic superiors to revoke his teaching license. Insolent and defiant, he pissed off a lot of academics. He never regained a formal teaching post, but he continued to write books on New Testament criticism (and many other subjects)  that challenged the orthodox narrative, particularly its view of Christian origins. He became even more scandalous than Strauss or Schleimacher, who had already begun the process of demythologizing the New Testament before Bauer came along, of examining scripture from a literary perspective rather than a devotional one.
He published Christ and the Caesars in 1877.  This particular book is noteworthy as an influence on what would come to be known as the Dutch Radical school (Loman, Van Manen, Pierson, van den Bergh van Eysinga, et al). The Dutch Radicals mainly focused on the problems with the dating, provenance, and/or authenticity of the Pauline corpus, but they were (at least indirectly) the precursors of the mythicist scholarship of the early twentieth century (c.f. Drews).  Bauer may have been scandalous, but he was far from obscure in his day. He was notorious. He was so widely known that Albert Schweitzer even dedicated a whole chapter of his seminal Quest of the Historical Jesus to discussing his view of Bauer’s place on the continuum of scholarship, but Bauer’s work has been all but ignored and neglected ever since. 




Understanding the Emotional Jesus: temple tantrums, name-calling and grieving

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by Neil Godfrey

This is the continuation of the previous post, Saving Jesus From Hypocrisy: Explaining Jesus’ temper tantrum and mudslinging.

We have already seen how his teachings conform to Stoic concepts but what about his behaviour? Is he a hypocrite for teaching his followers to call no-one a fool only to subsequently turn around and call the Pharisees fools? And what about that infamous “temple tantrum” (Fredriksen, 2000)? How did Jesus in Gethsemane feel about facing the crucifixion?

This post will conclude by explaining how the author of the Gospel of Matthew may have shaped Jesus as a Stoic sage, sometimes by subtly modifying aspects of Jesus’ behaviour in the Gospel of Mark. If I don’t answer your questions I hope at least to have left a few more questions.

Before we start, however, we need to be sure we have a basic understanding of what Stoicism in Roman times taught about law, emotions and the Stoic sage.

Divine Law

We spoke of the law of God/Zeus in the previous post. For the Stoic philosopher divine law was not a set of precepts nor even a set of principles as we might expect.

socratesI’m reminded of the time I came to believe that “people are more important than principles” — meaning that even the noblest of principles (e.g. never lie, never use violence), followed wholeheartedly, can sometimes cause more harm to people than the breaking of them. Some of us who have read several of Plato’s dialogues will recall Socrates arguing the same thing. Socrates accosts a well meaning young man and asks him a question about virtue; the young man might enunciate a principle that is an absolute virtue; then Socrates proceeds to unravel this view with a series of questions raising all sorts of situations where the principle is clearly not a virtue at all. Example,

Courage will sometimes require standing one’s place in battle, but sometimes will require retreat or some other action; justice will sometimes require returning deposits, but sometimes will forbid it. (Brennan, T 2005, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate, p.194)

Tad Brennan explains:

Thus in Stoic parlance, ‘law’ does not refer to a system of general principles, but to the particular injunctions of ethical experts. This is clear from their official definition of ‘law’.

Nothing about the standard Stoic definition of law says anything about generality or universality; it simply says that a law is a prescription or imperative (prostaktikon) that prescribes (prostattei) or forbids action. [The Stoic concept applied] not to the orders codified in the general and ‘law-like’ principles that are followed in the second-best constitution, but to the exceptional, anomalous over-riding prescriptions of the kingly expert. The essential nature of the law, in Stoicism, is that it prescribes, that is, issues imperative orders or commands, and the act of prescribing carries no assumption of generality or ‘law-likeness’; a reader . . . would assume that a prescription is an imperative or order, which, if anything, is more likely to be an ad hoc, one-off order that contravenes a standing system of general principles. Thus the centrality of ‘law’ to Stoic ethics has nothing to do with any interest in general, universal, or ‘law-like’ moral principles. (Brennan, T 2005, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate, pp.193-194)

The Stoic Sage

Heracles one one of a very rare few considered to have been a Stoic sage
Heracles one one of a very rare few considered to have been a Stoic sage

Recall from the previous post that only a Stoic sage, that most rare of persons, is the only one who is truly capable of living such a godly life. The sage follows not a set of precepts like civic codes but the will of Zeus expressed in universal law. And that universal law is not a set of rigid principles nor even a mind-set on ‘intentions’ to do right. One might say that even the Pharisees followed biblical principles and the wicked could borrow money with every intention of repaying it. The Stoic sage, like Zeus or God, embodied a far higher ethic.

One can see where this Stoic view is leading in relation to our theme of the Stoic Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. A Stoic sage-like Jesus is vulnerable to being accused of violating righteous principles and law even though the reader can see he is the true embodiment of the highest law.

One might also understand at this stage that Jesus’ own commands can only be truly understood and followed if one possesses godly wisdom and true virtue. That is, one is not spiritually mature if one reduces a teaching of Jesus to an ‘inviolate principle’ for all time and circumstances.

The above helps us understand more clearly the following explanation by Stowers in relation to Jesus:

Ultimately, there is only one way to know what is the right thing to do in a particular circumstance or what Zeus requires: consult a sage. According to circumstances, the sage might even go against what convention and local law deemed to be appropriate actions in order to perform an appropriate and perfect action. The sage’s action, obedient to reason/Zeus, ultimately defines what constitutes a perfectly appropriate action in any particular circumstance. On this view, moral authority requires a perfect moral expert. Only the sage, then, stands as an authoritative interpreter of these common norms, codes, and local laws. . . . . 

I suggest that Matthew’s Jesus, who, unlike the traditional Judean experts on the law, interprets the law with total authority and embodies God’s own wisdom, is a figure shaped by the Stoic idea of the sage.  (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1653-1661). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And again,

[T]he sage’s action, although always following the will of God, the universal law and reason, might in particular circumstances be contrary to what the accepted moral norms of non-sages indicated was right, even for sages.  (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1844-1845). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But isn’t a Stoic supposed to have the full emotional range of Startreck’s Spock? Again, another learning curve I’ve been taking on since Stowers’ chapter and his various references.

Second, contrary to popular and scholarly conceptions of the Stoic, the sage was to be a highly “passionate” person who had and expressed strong feelings.(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1853-1855). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

“Impressions”, Pre-emotions

By the end of this post we will see just how important this concept is.

stoicismemotionThe emotions of mere mortals (those of us without the full understanding of the Stoic) are said to derive from false values. These emotions are responses to self-interested events and attachments to ephemeral possessions and are therefore not “good”. Stowers finds a more rounded picture, however, in the work titled Stoicism & Emotion by Margaret R. Graver. Graver explains that for the Stoic anyone, even a sage, could be suddenly “struck” against their will by an initial feeling for a situation — an “impression” (i.e. a pre-emotion, a preliminary awareness of the emotion), but the wise will deflect that “impression” be means of right reason and will power; the foolish will assent to it. Experiencing the initial “impression” of the emotion is not itself a wrong.

Normal human emotions can be either good or bad: delight and desire are better than distress and fear. But even good emotions are mundane because they arise out of false values. One is delighted to see a poor person being given a generous gift, for example, yet this is an emotional response over an entirely transient material gain.

The Stoic on the other hand will learn to embrace the “corrected” version of these emotions, or “proper feelings” that have been trained by right reasoning and understanding. (The term for these higher Stoic emotions is “eupathic” responses.) Rather than delight at seeing a poor person receive a handful of money the true Stoic will have joy (chara) in seeing the act of generosity itself, not the money in the hand of the poor. The corrected emotion is towards the “genuine good” and not the false good.

I use the example of joy because it is “preeminent among eupathic responses” for the Stoic.

An “ignorant” person will express the bad emotion of fear (of death, say). The Stoic on the other hand will rise above this emotion — after all, death at a certain time may in fact  be God’s will — and correct it into “caution”.

The unreasoned emotion of “desire” (which includes anger as a subset of desires in the Stoic taxonomy) will have its higher counterpart in the Stoic’s “wish” for the true values and the true good.

The evidence, I believe, following recent scholarship, shows that these good emotions might involve intense feeling such as in joy, religious reverence, and even erotic love. A sage would never have grief, anger, or fear. (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1861-1863). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Stoic sage interpretation of Jesus

So with this understanding of law, emotions and the sage in Stoic thought, let’s have another look at the behaviour of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.  Continue reading “Understanding the Emotional Jesus: temple tantrums, name-calling and grieving”


Saving Jesus From Hypocrisy: Explaining Jesus’ temper tantrum and mudslinging

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by Neil Godfrey

stoicismWe have recently seen how Hector Avalos argues for the irrelevance of biblical ethics in today’s world but this post looks at how and why Jesus emerges for the first time as a supremely ethical figure in the Gospel of Matthew. Stanley Stowers (Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Brown University) argues that the author of this gospel refashioned the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark into a Stoic sage and thereby was responsible for giving the Christian world its figure of Jesus as the defining moral teacher of all time. And a Stoic sage, a truly godly person, might at times appear to act against worldly understandings of right and wrong but nonetheless maintain a truly virtuous authority.

So what is a Stoic sage? A Stoic Sage was a most rare phenomenon. The ancient Stoics

either doubted that a sage had ever lived or thought that maybe one or two had existed — perhaps Socrates, Heracles, or the earliest humans. Philo of Alexandria makes Moses into such an authority, a sage who embodies the law. 

(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1658-1659). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

That’s not exactly a definition of a Stoic sage but it does prepare us for the distinctive portrait of Jesus that we find in the Gospel of Matthew. Before we can plunge into more details about this sage we need to grasp the broader argument that Matthew was creating an idealistic Stoic teacher figure for his gospel despite sometimes being challenged by some very unStoic Jesus passages in his Gospel of Mark source.

Since reading Stowers’ argument I have come to think that this explanation potentially accounts for a significant number of the differences between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that till now have widely been understood as evidence of differences in the ways two authors have used a common source, Q. But I am jumping ahead of myself here.

Let’s start at the beginning, with the Jesus in our earliest records. (I’ll speak of Matthew as the author of the Gospel of Matthew for convenience even though this traditional attribution is questionable at the very least.)

Jesus emerges for the first time as a teacher of ethics in the Gospel of Matthew. Before this Gospel we meet Jesus in the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark where he is portrayed in a quite different role. Stowers explains:

In the earliest sources, the only sources that precede and are not definitively shaped by the Roman destruction of the Judean temple and Jerusalem, one cannot even determine that Jesus was a teacher of ethics. If Paul knew that Jesus was such a teacher, he does not use either the teachings or the idea that Jesus was a teacher of ethics, even though the teachings from the later Matthew and Luke would be very relevant and overlap with his own teachings. 

(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1597-1601). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

We find the same observation in Stevan Davies’ book (Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity) that we recently discussed,

We do not know what those teachings were. Our sources are as confused as we are and two of them, Mark and Thomas, indicate that they thought his public teachings basically incomprehensible. Paul shows no interest in them, nor do the other letter writers of the New Testament, and Jesus’ teachings play no role in the spread of the Christian movement according to the Acts of the Apostles. John freely makes up teachings for Jesus to teach. . . . 

Two of our principal sources of information about Jesus did not believe in Jesus the Teacher at all. Paul refers on occasion to teachings, generally as proof-text support for his own opinions, but Jesus the Teacher is otherwise of no interest to him. Paul swears to the Galatians “Before God I am not lying!” that he made no effort to learn about Jesus and his teachings from the eyewitnesses easily accessible to him (Gal. 1: 1-2: 15). John’s gospel, similarly does not contain the teachings of Jesus as that phrase is understood in contemporary scholarship. . . . 

It might be argued that Jesus was a great teacher but, thanks to radical changes in his followers’ view of him after his death, his teachings were no longer relevant to their enterprise. But Q, Thomas, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (in the Gospel) do give us teachings; indeed, it may well be that the very idea that Jesus was primarily a teacher came into being only after his death.

Davies, Stevan (2014-12-19). Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity (pp. 21, 45, 46). Kindle Edition. (Italics original; bolding and formatting mine in all quotations)

Matthew’s sources

Matthew’s main source was the Gospel of Mark. We know this because he reproduced the bulk of it in his own gospel. Mark’s Jesus, however, was more dark than light:

Mark presents Jesus as a teacher of mysterious teachings about the coming kingdom of God, a mystery so obscure that none of Jesus’ disciples are able to understand it. Jesus in Mark is about as remote from a guide about how one ought to live day to day as one can imagine.

(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1604-1605). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Matthew’s other source in Stowers’ argument is Q, the source for much of Jesus’ teaching material. Q is coming under increasing questioning in now but I don’t think the removal of Q makes a significant difference to Stowers’ larger argument. (Stowers compares sayings in Q with Matthew’s modifications to argue for Matthew’s intent to make Jesus a Stoic teacher, but since the “more primitive” Q sayings are derived from the Gospel of Luke, one can also argue that Luke was opposed to the Stoic ethic found in Matthew’s Jesus.)

What is the evidence that Matthew was inspired by Stoic philosophy when he decided to shape a new Jesus out of this material, one who both teaches and personifies the essence of the highest morality imaginable? Continue reading “Saving Jesus From Hypocrisy: Explaining Jesus’ temper tantrum and mudslinging”


Another Bart Ehrman mis-reading of Earl Doherty’s book

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman makes it abundantly clear to his readers that he has read Earl Doherty’s book, Jesus Neither God Nor Man, and is speaking with the authority of his academic credentials when he asserts that Doherty

  1. ignorantly suggests that Platonism was the only ancient philosophy or world-view at the time of Christianity;
  2. ignorantly claims that the followers of the mystery cults thought like ancient philosophers such as Plutarch.

To anyone who has read Doherty’s book it would appear Ehrman was skimming it in extreme haste or tackling it very late at night and was simply too tired to read more than a few lines here and there. Doherty in fact makes it as clear as day that Platonism was only one of several other major philosophies of the day, and that the adherents of the mystery cults did NOT think like ancient philosophers such as Plutarch.

So why does Dr Ehrman write that Earl Doherty claims the very opposite of what he fully, in considerable detail, explains?

Following are the accusations of Dr Ehrman. I insert the real statements by Doherty that belie Ehrman’s claims. Continue reading “Another Bart Ehrman mis-reading of Earl Doherty’s book”


Paul’s Christ and Hercules Compared as Moral Examples

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by Neil Godfrey


Niko Huttunen has extended Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s work on showing how the apostle Paul’s thought was in many respects a mutation of ancient Stoic philosophy: Paul and Epictetus on Law: A Comparison.

One detail of a more general interest (I think anyway) is Huttunen’s concluding discussion of comparisons of the philosopher Epictetus‘ use of Heracles (Hercules) as a role model and Paul’s similar treatment of Christ.

Epictetus found examples of perfect morality in Diogenes, Socrates and Heracles. They were fully obedient to the divine law. . . . Heracles had a special position compared with Socrates and Diogenes. Heracles was more than a moral example; he was a demigod still living and actively affecting life in the world. Though this side of his figure is downplayed in Epictetus’ descriptions, the remnants of it are still present. This makes him a closer analogy to the Pauline Christ than to Socrates or Diogenes. (p. 150, my emphasis)

Both Heracles and Christ are in a class above mortals since they are both designated sons of God in a special sense:

But nothing more dear to him than God. For this reason it was believed that he [Heracles] was the son of God, and he was. (Disc. 2.16.44)

for neither did [God] supply [much to] Hercules who was his own son (Disc. 3:26.31)

Like Christ Heracles was a moral exemplar by virtue of obedience to God and his law. Continue reading “Paul’s Christ and Hercules Compared as Moral Examples”


Why Paul did not need “the historical Jesus”

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by Neil Godfrey

Chrysippus, Greek Stoic philosopher

Paul’s gospel is the revelation of Christ in the scriptures. What God has revealed “in these last days” to Paul is an understanding of the mystery of Christ long hidden in the Law, Psalms and Prophets.

The saving event that Paul continually exhorted his readers to grasp for themselves was the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — especially the death part. He could say he was determined to “know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified”.

I have found a very complex discussion by Troels Engberg-Pedersen (EP) of the relationship between Paul’s theology and the argument of contemporary Stoicism particularly interesting. EP does not attempt to explain every aspect of Paul’s thought as derivative of Stoic thought.  That obviously cannot be done. But EP does attempt to demonstrate through a detailed analysis of Romans, Galatians and Philippians in Paul and the Stoics that the basic structure and pattern of Paul’s Christ-event focus, and how it relates to conversion and new life among believers, follows the same logical argument that Stoics used of Reason or the Logos. (I use the term “Christ event” here to refer specifically to the death and resurrection of Christ.) (Other posts on EPs thesis are filed under the Engberg-Pedersen category linked above.)

To dangerously oversimplify, the similarity is this. Paul’s Christ performs the same function as Stoic’s Reason or Logos.

What happens is that the nonbeliever or self-centred “natural” person who lacks any awareness or comprehension of the Logos/Reason (for the Stoic) or Christ (for Paul) is living a benighted and vain life that leads nowhere worthwhile. Continue reading “Why Paul did not need “the historical Jesus””


Paul and the Stoics 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Have got the basic content from my past reading of Engberg-Pedersen’s Paul and the Stoics tidied up and am finally placing the first part of this on the web for central access. The formatting, I notice, is still rough and very stark around the edges, but that will be fixed before part 2 gets up. This is one more step in a long journey I am undertaking in getting up all my notes and reviews and thoughts from biblical studies up in web format. Who knows how long the whole project will take….