Tag Archives: Thompson: Is This Not the Carpenter?

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ review (chapter 11 continued)

carpenterThis post continues my reading and thoughts on chapter 11 of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter? : The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus. This volume, as I understand it, was published in the hope of introducing the question of the historicity of Jesus to a scholarly audience by means of articles written by scholarly peers. That is, it was meant to be a scholarly re-opening of the question of Jesus’ historicity from among the respected scholarly ranks of biblical scholars as opposed to recent serious authors outside the guild of New Testament academia (e.g. Doherty, Wells, Ellegård, Zindler). The result is a mixed one, in my opinion. Some chapters are excellent; too many are poorly edited or scantily proof-read though with some gold nuggets nonetheless; at least one struck me as quite irrelevant to the question of Jesus’ historicity; another is mundanely argued but worthy as a testimony to the current conventional wisdom; and one is confused with respect to definitions and coherence. Additional chapters (including chapter 11 discussed here) touch obliquely on the question of historicity. I wonder if these chapters could have been made more relevant by a few touch-ups to the question of methodology. Or did the editors think that a step too far at this stage? (Maybe I’m biased, but methodology — as it relates to the question of the historicity of Jesus — seems to be more often discussed head-on here on this blog than in any other avenue I am aware of.)

But till then, here are some more of the interesting observations of Ingrid Hjelm. Continuing from my earlier post:

Up to this point we have seen Luke following the less royally-oriented David of 2 Samuel and placing his messianic Jesus in the line of the David of 1 Chronicles who is preeminently a founder of the Mosaic cult in Jerusalem. That is, as in 1 Chronicles, Luke’s David is a prophet like Moses and this is the David whose throne Jesus is given.

I attempt here to outline the way Hjelm interprets the David in 1 Chronicles as a Moses redivivus, even as a prophet like Moses, in contrast to his portrayal in 1-2 Samuel, and to review other subtle allusions to the Scriptures Luke weaves into the themes, structure and content of his Gospel. read more »

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Reviewing chapter 11, Luke’s Sophisticated Re-Use of OT Scriptures

carpenterPrevious posts in this series are archived here. Another review of this chapter can be read at Aaron Adair’s blog.

I liked Ingrid Hjelm‘s chapter, “‘Who is my Neighbor?’ Implicit Use of Old Testament Stories and Motifs in Luke’s Gospel”, for several reasons:

  1. it presented the first cogent explanation I have ever encountered for why Luke’s genealogy of Jesus is so different from Matthew’s and why it avoided all mention of David’s son Solomon and the rest of the kings of Israel and Judah;
  2. it explained how a Davidic Messianic figure did not necessarily imply a worldly conqueror (at least not until the last days) but that the OT also contained a nonviolent priestly vision of David who united God’s people as a priestly, Moses-like figure;
  3. it showed how the Gospel of Luke is very much an extension of the same sort of literature that came to make up the Jewish Bible;
  4. it reminded me of the importance of the sacred meaning of numbers among biblical authors, something too easily overlooked today;
  5. it also indirectly prompted possible explanations for why Luke might have adapted and changed the Gospel of Matthew (if he did — but this is really a topic that belongs to another post entirely.)

(But it took some time to grasp what the chapter was about initially. It launches straight into a detailed discussion of details of Matthew’s genealogy and one is immediately wondering, “What the heck is this all about? Was an opening paragraph outlining her argument lost by an editor?” More likely, perhaps, it was cut and paste from other publications by Hjelm yet with insufficient re-editing to clarify the direction of the argument for readers completely new to her views. And there are several passages in the rest of the chapter that leave a reader unfamiliar with the contents of cited references bemused. (Only after tracking down online citations and catching up with some background reading was I able to make sense of some of Hjelm’s statements. Needless to say, some of her claims whose citations are not online remain obscure to me.) Unfortunately this chapter is not the only one in this volume that suffers from this sort of difficulty for those unfamiliar with some of the authors and ideas, — not to mention just a few too many typos. But as you can tell from my positive introduction it was worth making the effort to understand the flow of her argument.)

Ingrid Hjelm

Hjelm shows us that the author of the Gospel of Luke interpreted and reused the Old Testament scriptures as a template for his own Gospel story of Jesus in quite subtle and sophisticated ways that are foreign to the ways most modern readers have come to understand the OT. Luke (we’ll imagine the author’s name was Luke) viewed the David figure embodied in Jesus not through the stained history in the books of Samuel, but through the idealized portrait in the books of Chronicles where a priestly David is portrayed as a second Moses, and as such reunites Samaritanism and Judaism once again into the theological ideal of a new Israel.

(I use the term “Judaism” here instead of “Jews” because it is worth keeping in mind what that word “Jew” actually describes at that time: see Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1, Part 2. Hjelm even concludes that Luke was not the gentile convert most readers have assumed him to be, but a Hellenized “Jew”.)

What we see in the Gospel are reiteration and paralleling of the motifs and themes of the older Scriptures. If that sounds a lot like the sort of argument we have come to expect from Thomas L. Thompson, we should not be surprised to find Hjelm is also from the University of Copenhagen and Thompson’s name appears frequently in her list of publications.

There is, of course, much more to be written about the Gospel of Luke’s use of the OT — see, for example, Origin of the Emmaus Road Narrative and More on Luke’s Use of Genesis — but this chapter by Hjelm gives readers an excellent insight into the way the author used Scriptures. Hjelm concludes ambiguously on the question of the implications of Luke’s use of Scriptures for the narrative’s historicity. What really matters is that we understand and accept the nature of the Biblical stories and what they meant for their original creators and audiences.

Against Hjelm’s references to Samaritans as the heritage of Moses in this chapter one should be aware that Ingrid Hjelm clearly has a special interest in Samaritan studies (see her list of publications) and last year was awarded The Samaritan Medal for Peace and Humanitarian Achievement by the Samaritan community. At one point she justifies the pivotal reference to Samaritans as well as Jews as an allegorical interpretation (Moses represents the Samaritans and Elijah the Jews) by citing an earlier (2004) publication of hers.

42 = the meaning of life*, David & Jesus read more »

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ reviews continued. Chapter 10

Gospel of Mark’s Use of Literary Tropes and Myths to Create Tales of Jesus

Continuing my series of posts on ‘Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus I look here at Thomas L. Thompson‘s chapter ten, ” “Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King”.

Thompson (TLT) is asking readers to become more savvy to the literary tropes of the ancient world and to understand the biblical literature, including the Gospel narratives of Jesus, within these literary conventions. One might compare the way the unflattering realities of America’s Wild West have been romanticized through the literary visions of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. The white knight, or cowboy in the white hat, is a literary construct that exists as a tool that authors apply either to characters entirely of their own imagination or to historical persons which they recreate as myths.

The point is that once we recognize these literary tools for what they are, we will not read the ancient literature — gospels included — naively. We will learn to recognize the cultural myths or ideologies underlying the words we are reading. read more »

The Gospel of John as a Source for the Historical Jesus: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 9

Page 11 of the Introduction to ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ explains that one of hopes of its collection of essays

is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity [of Jesus] much in the spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History, which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine.

I understand that to mean that the book will introduce readers to a discussion of the question of the historicity of Jesus and a related construction of a history of Christian origins. All chapters till now have addressed this question from a range of perspectives.

So it is with disappointment that I finish reading chapter 9 without any further insights into the question of Jesus’ historicity or any further introduction to discussions of methods and interpretations that impinge upon the historicity of Jesus. James Crossley at no point raises the question of Jesus’ historicity (except in passing to mention the names of Thomas Thompson, Robert Price and Richard Carrier as the raising their voices through the Jesus Project to this effect.)

Crossley’s chapter belongs with a publication that takes the historicity of Jesus for granted and that lacks any interest in challenging that assumption. It is entirely about the value of the Gospel of John as a source — compared with the Synoptic Gospels — for scholars who are seeking to reconstruct the historical Jesus.

The Introduction to this volume in fact gives a most adequate synopsis of Crossley’s argument. This is available online at The Bible and Interpretation site. Scroll down to the subheading “The Rewritten Bible” to locate it. But if you’re too lazy to do that here is a copy of the relevant section, but I have broken the single paragraph up for easier reading: read more »

Was Paul’s Jesus an Historical Figure? — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 8

The eight chapter of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ is “Born under the Law: Intertextuality and the Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus in Paul’s Epistles” by Thomas S. Verenna. He takes those passages commonly used to support the claim that Paul’s Jesus was indeed an historical person — his crucifixion, being “born of a woman, born under the law”, being of the seed of David, passing on the teaching of the Last Supper, and Paul meeting James known to be the “brother of the Lord” — and attempts to argue that all these references by Paul are best understood as derived from his interpretations of the Jewish scriptures and/or have spiritual as opposed to earthly-historical meanings. In his introduction Verenna explains that his argument will be based on reading Paul “intertextually” — that is, he will interpret these passages through Paul’s pre-Gospel “cultural milieux” and his literary training in “the practice of [“imitation”] and [emulation]”.


Preliminary remarks

Verenna begins with an extensive set of “preliminary remarks” that I encapsulate here:

  • Most scholars believe Paul understood his Jesus to have been a historical person but he did not elaborate on the biography of this Jesus because his interest was in the meaning of the present heavenly Jesus to his converts.
  • Verenna will argue that, on the contrary, Paul never believed his Jesus was historical, and that Paul’s Jesus was crafted entirely from the Jewish Scriptures. Paul accomplished this by the well-known ancient literary practice (and Jewish tradition) of re-writing earlier literature.
  • Paul’s Jesus is “an allegorical” figure taken from Scriptures. (p. 133)
  • Since “Christianity” is a second century designation it is incorrect to say Paul converted to Christianity: he “converted to a sect of Judaism” from within which he used Scriptures to argue for his understanding of “the coming of . . . the suffering servant and redeemer.” (p. 134)
  • Scholar’s (e.g. Crossan’s) attempts to argue that Paul used Scripture to interpret historical events are based on “assumptions rather than . . . on an unbiased investigation of the state of the evidence.” (p. 134)
  • “Ancient literary traditions [meaning in particular “imitation/imitatio” or (Greek) “mimesis” and “aemulatio/emulation”] have a large part to play in Paul’s interpretation of Scripture”.

After establishing these points Verenna serves us with a “Brief Overview of Methods” as part of these preliminaries before moving on to the body of his article:

  • This chapter’s goal is to present an alternative to the current consensus (and readers are asked to keep in mind that scholarly trends change and that consensuses come and go);
  • This chapter will buck against the current and past tendencies to interpret Paul through all we believe to be historically true about Jesus through the Gospels, and (as above) attempt to interpret him through a pre-Gospel and pre-Christian “cultural milieux” — and as one educated in both the literary practices and the Jewish Scriptures of his day;
  • Verenna promises to investigate the epistles “within the socio-cultural framework” that is supposedly ignored by modern scholarship that spends more effort looking at the historical Jesus in Paul’s letters and about whom Paul does not express interest. This will mean Verenna will dwell upon the “esotericism” (that fills Paul’s letters) in the context of the literary custom of “emulation” — and thereby show that Paul’s conceptions of Jesus pre-dated the Gospel view of Jesus. (p. 136)
  • Two literary traditions that Verenna will dwell on in particular as having special relevance for interpreting Paul’s references to Jesus are “emulation” and “imitatio“.
    • Emulation, in this study, means establishing intertextuality; this investigation will be combining several disciplines in order to make a strong case for intertextual references in Paul’s epistles. . . . .
    • “That imitatio was part of a students’ (sic) education is well-established. And it is a well-accepted perspective that earlier literature was emulated wholly by authors in the Greco-Roman period. To quote Thomas Brodie, ‘Virgil did not just allude to Homer; he swallowed him whole.'” (p. 137)
  • We need to keep in mind that Paul, being a Jew, did not depart from the interpretative practices of his fellow Jews in interpreting Scriptures — “innovative readings which disclose truth previously latent in scripture”. (p. 138)


Unfortunately Verenna is not clear about what he means by “both the practice of [imitation] and [emulation/rivalry]” that he says he will use to explain Paul’s references to Jesus. This may be confusing for the uninformed reader who is not aware that imitation and emulation are not two separate literary practices but that emulation is simply one specific type of imitation. read more »

Paul: Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’


Chapter 7 of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ presents what I understand are the arguments of mainstream New Testament scholarship that Paul’s epistles testify to the existence of an historical Jesus. Its author, Mogens Müller (MM), is responsible for what has been praised as the best work to date on the expression “Son of Man”. He is also a leader in a project undertaking a new look at the relationship among the canonical Gospels that extends to recognizing their place in the wider Gospel literature, including apocryphal and gnostic gospels. In this chapter he places the Gospel of Luke around 120-130, which is interesting, and not very far from views often expressed on this blog, though I suspect MM’s reasons would be to some extent different from my own. His view that the synoptic gospels — Mark, Matthew and Luke — are successive stages of theological and narrative development surfaces regularly in this chapter. (I also like the look of his book The First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint.)

This is the irony one encounters when reading many New Testament scholars’ works. There is so much that is so interesting and thought-provoking. But when it comes to addressing the historicity of Jesus one is struck by the way the reader is asked to accept tenuously justified assumptions and sometimes what looks at least to this layman like circuitous reasoning. So my bias will show in what follows.

MM argues that the primary evidence for the historicity of Jesus is the impact such a figure had on believers after his death. read more »

How Might Marcionite Questions Affect Mythicism? (Bob Price in “Is This Not the Carpenter?”)

This post concludes my treatment of chapter 6 of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, “Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?” by Robert M. Price.

Price concludes his article with a discussion of the place Marcion might have had in the history of gospel origins. Specifically, what if Marcion was responsible for much of the Pauline corpus or even wrote the letters himself? Would not this mean that the Gospels preceded Paul’s letters and would not one of the “pillars of the Christ Myth hypothesis” fall?

What follows is my outline of Price’s argument.

The conventional view of Marcion is that he appears controversially armed with a number of letters of Paul and a single Gospel. This Gospel, we are usually informed, was a shorter version of what we know as the Gospel of Luke, Marcion having deleted from the original Gospel all the passages he believed were falsely interpolated contrary to the original faith taught by Paul.

There have been other opinions. Some have argued that Marcion’s gospel was for most part an original and early version of what became our Gospel of Luke, an Ur-Lukas. Paul-Louis Couchoud argued this. More recently, Matthias Klinghardt argued a similar case. (Hence my previous post.) Price does not mention Joseph Tyson here, but he also argued much the same, and I linked to that series of posts on his book in my post on Klinghardt’s argument. The idea of a Proto-Luke stands independently of any Marcionite association, however. It has been argued by B. F. Streeter (link is to the full text online) and Vincent Taylor. G. R. S. Mead suggested Marcion had no Gospel but but only a collection of sayings, not unlike Q.

So what to make of this diversity of opinion over what Marcion actually possessed? Price has a suggestion: read more »

Early Christ Myth Theorists on Paul’s and the Gospels’ Jesus: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 6 continued.

When starting this post I had hoped it would complete my discussion of Robert M. Price’s chapter, “Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?” in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’. This was meant to address Price’s reasons for thinking that the gospel narratives of Jesus — or any stories of an earthly life of Jesus — first made their appearance well into the second century. I have sometimes argued the same, but Price does so from a quite different perspective (drawing on what we know of Marcion and early Marcionism) from anything I had considered.

Before getting into Price’s argument some background was necessary. Unfortunately or otherwise, that background turned into a substantial post of its own, so here it is now. Price’s arguments for a second century creation of the gospels will have to wait. This post continues Price’s comparative study of early mythicist views of the relationship between Paul’s letters and the narratives of Jesus found in the gospels. Regardless of the date of Paul’s letters, this has long been the foundation of the Christ Myth theory.

As I pointed out in the first post on this chapter, Price discusses the views of today’s pre-eminent mythicists, G. A. Wells and Earl Doherty, noting their preference for the orthodox view of the Pauline epistles. That is, that they are written by “the genuine” Paul and thus belong to the middle of the first century, well before the gospels were penned.

It is now necessary to look at the earlier arguments for sake of comparison, as Price does.


Paul-Louis Couchoud

Paul-Louis Couchoud

Paul-Louis Couchoud accepted the genuineness of Pauline letters “at least in their shorter, Marcionite editions”.

He argued that Marcion penned 2 Thessalonians and Ephesians (known originally as Laodiceans) , but also that he wrote the first gospel — after the Bar Kochba revolt (133 c.e.) — and lived to see other gospels expand upon his.

Price sees here a potential acceptance of the possibility that one could write “Pauline” letters that contained no hint of an historical Jesus even though one was aware of a narrative of such a Jesus. But Price also concedes that in this case there was little opportunity for biographical references to Jesus to appear in a letters that were written in direct response to, or as commentaries upon, earlier letters (1 Thessalonians and Colossians.) read more »

Does “Mythicism” Need an Early Paul? — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 6

Robert M. Price argues that it makes little difference to the case for Jesus being nothing more than a mythical construct if Paul’s letters are judged to be early or late, or even if written before the gospels. This is the theme of his chapter “Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?” in Is This Not the Carpenter?’: the question of the historicity of the figure of Jesus. He also raises the question of whether modern Christ myth advocates should be more critical of the Pauline epistles as an earlier generation of scholars were.

Today’s two main proponents of the Christ myth theory (Earl Doherty and George A. Wells) argue for the conventional view of the genuineness of Paul’s letters. Both agree that they belong to the mid first century period, well before the first gospel was composed. Most scholars certainly agree that the gospels were composed after Paul wrote his letters, but the “mythicist” argument goes one step further and says that interested parties only created a “biographical-historical” figure of Jesus well after Paul wrote his letters.

That is, the earliest evidence for Christianity, the New Testament epistles, testify only of a theological concept of Jesus. The concept of an earthly Jesus living out a career of teaching and healing, calling disciples and confronting Pharisees, was a relatively late development in the history of Christianity.

Price comments on the contemporary mythicists’ tendency to accept the Pauline epistles as genuine:

This makes them admirably early and leaves plenty of time for Gospel story-tellers to have done their subsequent work, historicizing Jesus and pillaging the epistles for sayings to reattribute to Jesus. one feels that things would begin to blur if the Gospels and epistles had to be placed as more or less contemporary. That condition would open up the possibility or need to find another solution for the lack of Gospel-type tradition in the epistles. (p. 100)

After covering in some detail the arguments and counter-arguments over whether any passage in Paul’s letters is indeed evidence that Paul knew any traditions stemming from an historical Jesus, Price casts back to earlier mythicists and what they had to say about the relationship between Paul’s letters (and their dogmatic or theological Jesus) and the Gospels (with their “biographical” Jesus), as well various arguments about relative dating and authenticity.

The critical passage in this chapter follows:

Even if all [the gospel] stories were to be found verbatim in the epistles, even if the epistles should all prove to be authentically Pauline, we would still be dealing with the (rapid) accumulation of stock, predictable hagiographic legends. We would still have to offer some pretty compelling reason for an impartial historian to accept the Gospel versions as historically true while rejecting medieval, classical, Buddhist or Hindu parallels as false. That is what the principle of analogy is all about. (p. 108 — Price is drawing on an insight first published a century ago by John M. Robertson in Pagan Christs (link is to the book online))

Price posits the argument slightly differently, but suggests the Christ myth theory would not be undermined even if the Gospels were found to be earlier than Paul’s letters: read more »

Why Historical Knowledge of Jesus is Impossible: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 5

Emanuel Pfoh‘s chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ raises the questions that I think get to the very heart of what the “historicist-mythicist” divide over Christian origins is really all about. It’s a favourite of mine, and once again like another favourite that I’ll mention again in this post, comes from an anthropological perspective. The title of his chapter is “Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem”.

His chapter concludes the first of the three divisions into which the book is divided:

1. These first five chapters — by Jim West, Roland Boer, Lester L. Grabbe, Niels Peter Lemche and Emmanuel Pfoh — tackle “some problems and issues of past scholarship regarding the historical Jesus”.

2. The next section of three chapters (Robert M. Price, Morgens Müller, Thomas S. Verenna) raises “fresh perspectives regarding the figure of Paul and his epistles as our ‘earliest testimony’ of the figure of Jesus”. (I finally have come to appreciate the reference to “the figure of” Jesus as opposed to (simply) “Jesus”: the “figure of Jesus” is an umbrella term that can cover imaginary, mythical, historical-conceptual, or literal-physical-DNA Jesuses.)

3. The final section of the book consists of four chapters (James G. Crossley, Thomas L. Thompson, Ingrid Hjelm, Joshua Sabith) on the “intertextual literary reading and the significance of the function of a rewritten Bible for literary composition”, and a fifth and final chapter by K. L. Noll as a theoretical discussion of “the history of Christian origins without a historical Jesus.”

Emanuel Pfoh

In this chapter Pfoh examines the current research into the historical Jesus in the context of the “historical milieu of previous scholarship”. He draws lessons from the past — how social, political, ideological and intellectual contexts of past studies have influenced the results produced by that scholarship — and makes some incisive observations about the real nature of current historical Jesus studies as a result.

“But he’s not a New Testament scholar”

Emanuel Pfoh begins by clarifying his “outsider” status to the field of New Testament studies. His special interest is in historical anthropology of Syria-Palestine/the Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages. That would seem to immediately disqualify him from any contribution to the discussion of Jesus according to Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey and James McGrath. (These have each rejected statements by Thomas L. Thompson on those grounds.)

What his chapter is about

Pfoh explains that he offers

only general statements and thoughts . . . regarding epistemological and methodological issues for the history-writing of the Near Eastern world, in which the figure of Jesus together with the whole of biblical traditions should be understood.

My main aim is to reflect, from strictly historical knowledge and what is to be deemed myth or mythic creation by ancient writers. (my emphases and formatting throughout)

That is, his chapter can be seen as

reflections of the methodological problems of the search for a historical Jesus in New Testament studies that should be acknowledged, addressed and responded to by scholars, but also as a plea for a critical understanding of the nature of ancient literature and the intellectual worlds supporting such.

What I believe Pfoh’s discussion does — though this is not something he directly addresses — is undermine the validity of the application of “historical criteria” to uncover a “historical Jesus” beneath the Gospels. Quite apart from the logical validity of the criteria themselves (criteria of embarrassment, double dissimilarity, coherence, multiple attestation, etc) Pfoh’s reflections argue that it is no more reasonable to think they can uncover a “historical core” beneath the Gospels than they might uncover an historical Achilles or Odysseus if applied to Homer.

Some will immediately fault such an approach as “sceptical” as if scepticism is a bad word in academia. Pfoh will later point out

All this is not a matter of scepticism, but of an awareness of the conditions of our knowledge and of an attempt to treat the extant and available data critically. (p. 85, my emphasis — ironic that a scholar appears to sense a need to defend against a potential charge of scepticism)


The Figure of Jesus and the Mythic Mind

The main reason for holding to the historicity of the figure of Jesus . . . resides not primarily in historical evidence but derives instead from a modern theological necessity.

Pfoh writes that “the presence of the mythic mind in the intellectual world of antiquity” is not always taken seriously by “biblical scholars”. read more »

Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 4

Niels Peter Lemche is the author of the fourth chapter of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, “The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus”. He frames his case around the parable in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that tells of Christ being arrested on his return to earth in the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor informs the imprisoned Christ that he will have to be burned at the stake because he is a danger to the Church. But there is a subtle twist in the parable which is the key to understanding the paradoxical argument that follows.

But before starting, let me point out that this post is different from earlier ones discussing chapters of this book. Rather than sequentially paraphrasing the argument I take some core arguments in Lemche’s chapter as a springboard for discussion of my own observations. (So I omit all reference to the origins of historical-critical scholarship, liberation theology and third world exegesis, Philipp Gabler‘s famous lecture on the conflict between historical theology and ecclesiastical dogmatics, the various ways both Catholics and Protestants have historically controlled the reading of the Bible, Marcion’s and von Harnack’s complaints about the inclusion of the Jewish scriptures in the Christian Bible . . . . , that Lemche covers in this chapter.) Now back to the parable. . . .

Ivan Karamazov (John Malkovich)

The parable is told by Ivan Karamazov who appears to side with the Inquisitor in objecting to the Jesus Christ who walks straight out of the pages of the Gospels and begins performing miracles etc just as he did there. (There is much more to the original story, but let’s roll with the details Lemche selects for his analogy.) The irony for Lemche is that this same Ivan also represents those who in other ways question the Church. The Grand Inquisitor thus turns out to be something of a double-edged sword. “Perhaps there are more layers represented in this novel than appear at first sight.

For Lemche, the Grand Inquisitor represents “the position of the well-educated clergy of the Church“. The threats it faces come from two opposing sides, and one of these sides finds itself in an ambiguous position:


Threat #1 — the pious laity with their Bible

Yes, there is the threat from “the pious laity having read too much of the Bible”:

The difference between the Christ of the Church and the Jesus of the Gospels becomes dangerous when explained to the laity. (p. 77)

Elsewhere Lemche has argued that pious people should not be allowed within a hundred metres of the Bible. “Reading the Bible has not done them much good.” Some who would follow in Christ’s footsteps have been rendered harmless by being incorporated into the constraints of the Church itself (e.g. the Franciscans). Others have gone down in history as suicide cults. I and many others would add a vast array of dysfunctional mental, physical, financial and social legacies among too many of the faithful. read more »

“Is This Not the Carpenter?” – References to Jesus outside the Christian Sources

The third chapter of Is This Not the Carpenter? is by Lester L. Grabbe, “‘Jesus Who Is Called Christ’: References to Jesus outside the Christian Sources”. The first of these he addresses is Tacitus. (This is the sixth post in the series.)


Here is the passage from Annals 15:44, though Grabbe does not include the passages I have italicized here in his extract for discussion:

But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order.

Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians [Chrestians]. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race.

And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.
(From LacusCurtius)

Lester Grabbe introduces this as “one of our most important references to Jesus” – though the name Jesus nowhere appears in it.

This passage appears in a work (The Annals) that is generally understood as being written almost a century after the supposed death of Jesus. Like many commentators, Grabbe sugests that Tacitus more than likely had access to imperial archives and accordingly argues the likelihood that Tacitus did indeed pore through those official documents to acquire his material, including the fact of Christ’s crucifixion under Pilate.

This makes no sense to me. The only detail that Tacitus gives us about the crucifixion is that Christ was crucified under Pilate. Full stop. (I leave aside the debates over the title Tacitus uses for Pilate.) Tacitus does not even mention the reason, the crime, for which this Christ was crucified which would surely appear within an official archive if any such record of a crucifixion of a far-off Jew really existed. Nor does he even bother to tell us the name of this victim. read more »

Bruno Bauer and Today (“Is This Not the Carpenter?” — chapter 2)

This concludes my recent post on chapter 2 of Is This Not the Carpenter?, “The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer” by Roland Boer. That earlier post was an overview of Roland Boer’s explanation for the emergence of radical biblical criticism in Germany in the early nineteenth century and surveyed the landmark roles of Ludwig Feuerbach and David Strauss.

This post begins with Boer’s thoughts on the contributions and significance of Bruno Bauer and concludes with his observations on the significance of this nineteenth century phenomenon to the today’s world. Recall that a crucial point Boer is stressing is that the discussions in Germany over democracy, individual rights, press freedom, republicanism, etc were debated through works of biblical and theological criticism. Bible criticism had widespread social and intellectual relevance.


Bauer, Scepticism and Atheism

Roland Boer introduces Bruno Bauer as

  1. primarily a New Testament scholar
  2. sometime theologian
  3. sometime political commentator

Bauer appeared in the “first great wave” of critical Bible scholarship in Germany and always remained at its cutting edge “and beyond”. He was for a time widely regarded as the leader of the Young Hegelians (see previous post).

Bruno Bauer, deutscher Theologe, Bibelkritiker...
Bruno Bauer

His assiduous attention to the details of the biblical texts and their wider cultural contexts led him to conclude that

  • Christianity was a product of the second century
  • The Gospels are creative theological literature and as such contain virtually no history, and certainly no evidence for an historical Jesus
  • The Gospels are very largely Hellenistic literature, drawing upon the ideas of Stoicism, Philo and neo-Platonism.
  • The religious theme found in the Gospels was the struggle between “free self-consciousness” and “religious dogmatism”.

This latter point was intertwined in Bauer’s thought with his savage attacks on the leaden and repressive institutions of church and state in his own day. His book, Christianity Exposed (Das Endeckte Christenthum) was banned and not to be reprinted until 1927.


How Bauer approached the Gospels (What Karl Marx learned about the Bible) read more »

The German Radical Theologians: Why did they happen and what is their relevance today?

The second chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter? is an interesting discussion by fellow Aussie Roland Boer titled “The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer”. (The link is to Australia’s University of Newcastle tribute page to Roland Boer as one of their “research achievers”.) It is easy to see where Leftie Red Roland is coming from with a quick glance at his blog, Stalin’s Moustache. There he has a most informative page, Marxism and Religion: Annotated Reading List, in which readers can survey the relationship between Karl Marx and Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach — two persons at the heart of his chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter? One also learns of his penchant for “arresting titles” (beside words like “Lenin nudist” and “psychic terror”, “German pestilence” is right at home), and that he enjoys occasional sparring with Jim West, author of the first chapter of this book that I discussed in the previous post.

So what is Roland Boer’s essay about?

  1. Why German philosophy and public debates about human, political and economic justice were so entwined with theology and especially the Gospels in the early decades of the nineteenth century;
  2. What was the importance of
    1. Ludwig’s Feuerbach‘s theory that God and religion were “mere” projections of the best in human beings;
    2. David Strauss‘s demolition of the orthodox understanding of the Gospels and argument that they were really mythical stories;
    3. and Bruno Bauer‘s radical sceptical approach to the New Testament along with his radical politics and militant atheism.
  3. What messages from all of the above might be found relevant today.

So let’s begin. I outline the core of Boer’s argument as I understand it. read more »