Vridar

2012/09/06

The historical Jesus in Paul? For and (mostly) Against

Robert Price includes a packed selection of arguments commonly raised to affirm Paul’s awareness of the teachings of Jesus along with the counterarguments. Little of this is new to many readers, but it seems appropriate to list the details as a sequel to my previous post that covered the main thrust of his argument in his chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’

But first, I’ll cover the evidence he piles up in response to two reasons often given to explain why we don’t find explicit references to Jesus’ life and teaching in the letters. Price is collating these from G. A. Wells’ The Jesus of the Early Christians. (As Earl Doherty has further noted, the argument becomes even stronger when it is realized it applies not only to Paul’s writings but to the entire corpus of New Testament epistles.)

Jesus’ biographical details were irrelevant to the matters that happened to arise in occasional letters

Although I have encountered this assertion many times I have never seen it demonstrated. Without demonstration the statement becomes a mere brushing-aside of a serious question.

On the other hand, one readily finds cases raised that do support the counter-claim. Price several the following from Wells’ early book. It’s easy to make a list of these here as I do below, but that is only for the sake of information. What really counts is some way to test the alternative hypotheses. Before reading the list it is a good idea to do two things.

  1. One, think through what one would expect to find in the data IF there were oral traditions making the rounds that relayed what Jesus was supposed to have said and done.
  2. Two, think through what we would expect IF sayings were imputed to Jesus by various churches to add authority to their customs or teachings. (This was the conclusion of form critics like Rudolf Bultmann.)

In other words, ask what each hypothesis predicts we will find. It’s a while since I’ve posted on Richard Carrier’s Bayesian theory and when I resume (I still hope to resume posting on his book) the next post will discuss the importance of testing the hypotheses that oppose your own. The best way to strengthen your own argument, Carrier points out, is to demonstrate the inadequacies of those of your opponents. (This, by the way, is one reason I am slow on the uptake with theories of Christian origins that are heavy on proofs or arguments for their own point of view but almost totally ignore alternative explanations. Think of the caricature of the boy who looks only for hints that a girl likes him but ignores all evidence that points to a different state of affairs.)

So it always pays to be slightly more generous to the arguments for the side you are against if you want to demonstrate their comparative inadequacy to your own. Of course, there is always a risk that you’ll end up not being quite so dogmatic for one point of view as when you started, but life is full of risks.

The following points are from Price’s/Wells’ list. Presentation and commentary are my own. (more…)

2012/08/20

33. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 33 (Ehrman’s Picture of the Apocalyptic Jesus)

Filed under: Earl Doherty,Ehrman: Did Jesus Exist?,Jesus — Earl Doherty @ 1:00 am
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Ehrman’s Picture of the Apocalyptic Jesus

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Preaching the kingdom
  • Differing teachings of Jesus and Paul
  • Jesus and the Jewish Law
  • Salvation: by following the Law or believing in Jesus?
  • Last Judgment and End of the world
  • Jesus’ miracle-working
  • Jesus’ associates and disciples
  • Believing in Judas Iscariot
  • Did Jesus aspire to be king in the coming kingdom?
  • Jesus in the Temple
  • Jesus before Pilate

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The Apocalyptic Proclamation of Jesus

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 305-331)

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Having concluded that Jesus not only existed but was an apocalyptic prophet, Ehrman now embarks on a lengthy discussion of what we can assign to Jesus from the Gospels on the basis of that conclusion. It is characterized by a high degree of naivete as to what can be depended on in the evangelists’ or Q’s presentations, with contradictions proceeding from that naïve dependence largely ignored.

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Preaching repentance and the imminence of the Kingdom

Much of what Ehrman ascribes to Jesus can reasonably be seen as the message of the kingdom-preaching community itself. Mark’s opening words for Jesus (1:15),

The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.

are mundane enough to be placed in any prophetic mouth of the first century. Q2, in fact, attributes similar sentiments to John the Baptist as the originator of such preaching, in a context of no inclusion of Jesus. In fact, note Q’s description of the beginning of the movement:

Jan Brueghel the Elder, John the Baptist preaching

Jan Brueghel the Elder, John the Baptist preaching (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until John, it was the law and the prophets; since then, there is the good news of the Kingdom of God, and everyone forces his way in. [Lk./Q 16:16]

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and violent men are seizing it. [Mt. 11:12]

As I say in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.347):

. . . When the saying first originated, we can safely regard it as the community looking back over its history; the implied time scale is too great for it to be claimed as an authentic saying of Jesus, or one accorded to him, commenting on the brief span of his own ministry to date. This is Q’s picture of the past, a past of years, perhaps decades. Placing it in Jesus’ mouth has proven problematic. [We might note here that such things indicate the later introduction of a Jesus figure, at which placing the community’s own sayings into his mouth has created some anomalies.]

According to the saying, before the preaching of John the Baptist—now looked upon as a forerunner or mentor to the community’s own—the study of scripture formed the prevailing activity and source of inspiration. Now a new movement is perceived to have arisen at the time of John: the preaching of the coming kingdom of God, and it had inaugurated an era of contention. But why would Jesus himself not have been seen in this role? Surely the Q community would have regarded his ministry as the turning point from the old to the new. The saying would almost certainly have formed around him. At the very least, Jesus would have been linked with John as representing the time of change.

Yet another indicator of the later invention of a founder Jesus. These anomalies, if recognized at all, were not perceived as troublesome by later Q redactors and were left standing; they simply had new understandings read into them.

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Disjunction between Jesus and Paul (more…)

2012/08/09

Sayings Manufactured For Jesus

Filed under: Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 5:00 pm
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Jesus Outside the Gospels is a small volume compiled by R. Joseph Hoffmann and published 1984. He argued that various sayings of Jesus found across a variety of sources (not only canonical ones) “put it beyond doubt that the church was capable of generating sayings to suit new situations, and did not hesitate to invent new “words” of the Lord”.

“Sayings” of Jesus—which might better be termed traditions about the sayings of Jesus—are not confined to the Gospels canonized in the New Testament- There exist scores of sayings (logia) for which there are no parallels, or only distant ones, in the Gospels. Collectively, these go by the misleading name agrapha—unrecorded words. As this title prejudices their analysis (the Gospels do not present a verbatim record of Jesus’ words), it is best to designate them “extracanonical” sayings or sayings-traditions. The significance of these sayings, it should be emphasized, is not that they present a more reliable picture of Jesus than the one given in the Synoptic Gospels. Rather, they put it beyond doubt that the church was capable of generating sayings to suit new situations, and did not hesitate to invent new “words” of the Lord in furthering their missionary work. The questions of proselytes and the accusations of enemies of the sect were the most prominent but by no means the only situations addressed by these sayings. (JOTG, p. 69)

Hoffmann was not saying that no sayings went back to Jesus himself, but that it was clear that any such sayings were adapted (revised, mutated) according to the needs of the church. This has long been a widely held view among scholars. It is also clear, though, that many sayings were invented and attributed to Jesus himself to give them added weight of authority. Earl Doherty argues that even the Q sayings evolved in a way that they were attributed to Jesus relatively late in their life-cycle.

I think some readers would be interested in seeing a list of some of these extra sayings attributed to Jesus by the early church writers, and the samples following are taken from Hoffmann’s book. I am including here only those sayings found among the “proto-orthodox” Church Fathers and omit those found in Gnostic and other literature.

He begins with sayings of Jesus that appear in Paul’s letters. (more…)

2012/07/20

27. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 27

Slightly edited 3 hours after original posting.

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Did the earliest Christians regard Jesus as God?

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Did the earliest Christians see Jesus as God?
    • God vs. an emanation of God
    • Concepts of the Son and Logos; Paul and Philo
    • Epistolary descriptions of the Son
  • The Synoptic Jesus: Man or God?
    • Why Mark’s divinity for Jesus is subdued
  • The figure in the Philippians hymn: human or divine?
    • “Nature” vs. “image” in the Philippians hymn
    • Yet another “likeness” motif
    • What is the “name above every name”? “Jesus” vs. “Lord”
    • Another smoking gun

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Jesus as God

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 231-240)

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Was Jesus God?
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But what precisely is meant by the phrase ‘Jesus was God’? Much of the problem lies in Ehrman’s semantic woolliness.

Bart Ehrman now embarks on what is probably the thorniest problem in New Testament research. How was Jesus regarded, not only by his followers, but by the earliest Christians who spread the faith? Ehrman declares:

the earliest Christians did not consider Jesus God. . . . scholars are unified in thinking that the view that Jesus was God was a later development within Christian circles. (DJE? p. 231)

But what precisely is meant by the phrase ‘Jesus was God’? Much of the problem lies in Ehrman’s semantic woolliness. Later Church Councils declared Jesus fully a co-equal with God the Father, of the same substance, two ‘persons’ within the Trinity. I am aware of no scholarship, let alone any mythicist, who suggests that this was the view of any segment of earliest Christianity.

But to say that Jesus was an “emanation” of God is something else. The difference between Paul’s Son of God and Philo’s Logos as an emanation of God is largely a matter of personhood. Philo does not personalize his Logos; he calls it God’s “first-born,” but it is not a distinct ‘person’; rather, it is a kind of radiant force which has certain effects on the world. Paul’s Son has been carried one step further (though a large one), in that he is a full hypostasis, a distinct divine personage with an awareness of self and roles of his own—and capable of being worshiped on his own.

But an “emanation” is not God per se. That is why Philo can describe him as “begotten” of God. He can be styled a part of the Godhead, but he is a subordinate part. (I have no desire to sound like a theologian, but to try to explain as I see it the concepts that lie in the minds of Christian writers, past and present. They are attempting to describe what they see as a spiritual reality; I regard it as bearing no relation to any reality at all.) Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:28 speaks of the Son’s fate once God’s enemies are vanquished, a passage which exercises theologians because it looks incompatible with the Trinity. For here Paul says that the Son “will be subjected” to God, in the apparent sense of being ‘subsumed’ back into God, who will then become One again—“so that God will be all in all.” There will only be one ‘person.’

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The “intermediary Son” concept
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Thus the “Son” which we find described throughout the epistles is viewed in the sense of an emanation of God, not God himself.

c. 1165 Sophia - Wisdom (Wikipedia)

There can be little question that the idea of the Son, Paul’s “Christ” and spiritual Messiah, arose from the philosophical thinking of the era, which created for the highest Deity intermediary spiritual forces and subordinate divine entities to fill certain roles and to be revelatory channels between God and humanity. In Judaism, this was the role of personified Wisdom, though her divinity was relatively innocuous and her ‘person’ perhaps as much poetic as real. (She may have been a later scribal compromise when an earlier goddess consort of Yahweh was abandoned). In Greek thinking, the intermediary force was the Logos, though in varied versions (the Platonic Logos and Stoic Logos were quite different), and with an independence and personification less developed than Paul’s.

Thus the “Son” which we find described throughout the epistles is viewed in the sense of an emanation of God, not God himself. He has a personification of his own, and he fills certain roles.

Consider three passages: (more…)

2011/12/05

Critically evaluating Paul’s claims about Jesus

Filed under: Guignebert: Jesus,Jesus,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 9:04 am
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From the moment his followers believed that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by the Prophets, the transformation of his life into myth began, and proceeded apace. (p. 108 of Jesus by Charles Guignebert, trans by S.H. Hooke)

It is refreshing to read some sound logical sense by a historical Jesus scholar in the swelling tide of apologetic publications. I like the way Guignebert (through his translator) worded the following:

The belief in this illustrious descent [of Jesus] is unquestionably very old, since Paul already knew and accepted it (Rom. i. 3, “of the seed of David according to the flesh”), but that is no reason for believing, without further investigation, that it was correct. There are still critics, even open-minded ones, who accept the possibility of its being so, but we cannot share their opinion. (p. 111, my emphasis)

No doubt more recent scholars have expressed the same critical nous, but there are many other historical Jesus scholars who since have attacked the very values of the Enlightenment, sneered at what they label a “hermeneutic of suspicion” (some even arguing that “charity” is a Christian duty owed to certain subsets of texts) (Bauckham et beaucoup al), and glided on the wind of postmodernism to substitute “even fabricated material . . . however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned” for genuine historical evidence (Allison).

So how does Guignebert investigate the correctness of this claim by Paul that Jesus was “of the seed of David”? (more…)

2011/10/18

Jesus: the Same in both Paul and the Gospels

Filed under: Jesus,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 7:59 am
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Revised and updated 3 hours after original posting.

Both the letters of Paul and the narrative in the Gospels speak of Jesus crucified. Jesus’ death is significant. The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus’ blood and Paul refers often to his blood. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke in particular stress his birth from a woman and we find a passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians saying Jesus was born of a woman. The Synoptic Gospels indicate Jesus was descended from David and in Paul’s letter to the Romans we likewise read Jesus was connected with David.

The contexts are quite different, of course. The Gospels are portraying a past narrative of an earthly mission of Jesus and Paul is addressing Jesus’ saving power in the “here and now and soon to be”.

And all of those references to Jesus’ crucifixion, blood, Davidic relationship, flesh, etc are derived from the same source. They are all speaking about the same thing. (more…)

2011/10/09

It all depends where one enters the circle

Reading Jesus the Healer by Stevan Davies alongside Constructing Jesus by Dale Allison is an interesting exercise in chiaroscuro comparisons.

Both agree on the nature of circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies. Davies begins with a quotation from E. P. Sanders:

In regard to Jesus research E. P. Sanders correctly observes, “There is, as is usual in dealing with historical questions, no opening which does not involve one in a circle of interpretation, that is, which does not depend on points which in turn require us ot understand other [points],” and he insists that “one must be careful to enter the circle at the right point, that is, to choose the best starting place.” The best starting place, it follows, is one that is historically secure with a meaning that can be known somewhat independently from the rest of the evidence. It further follows, as he rightly says, that one should “found the study on bedrock, and especially to begin at the right point.”

In the field of Jesus research, however, one person’s bedrock is another person’s sand. I cannot honestly think of a single supposed bedrock event or interpretive stance that somebody has not denied. Nor, to my knowledge, are there any two constructions of the “authentic” sayings of Jesus that are identical. One might compile a short set of parables, proverbs, and aphorisms that are universally conceded to be from Jesus, but they will be that set that conveys the least inherent meaning . . . and where one can go from there I am not at all sure. (p. 43, my bolding)

Davies opts, then, to embrace as his bedrock two details upon which “scholars agree almost unanimously”: that Jesus was believed in his time to have been (1) a prophet and (2) a healer and exorcist. (more…)

2011/10/06

Was Jesus not a teacher after all?

Teacher

Image by tim ellis via Flickr

Every scholar engaged in Jesus research is by profession a teacher and so every construction of Jesus the Teacher is formulated by a teacher. These teachers, professors by trade, should wonder if there is not a bit of a Jesus-Like-Us in their constructions. (Stevan L. Davies in Jesus the Healer, 1995)

Most of the Jesus Seminar fellows think that Jesus was not an apocalyptic teacher, so they think that Jesus was a great wisdom teacher, and that helps them to actually preach Jesus, because you can go to the pulpit and say Jesus was a great teacher. (Gerd Ludemann in interview with Rachael Kohn 4th April 2004)

Most scholars, “practically all historical scholars engaged in Jesus research” (says Stevan Davies) “presuppose consciously or unconsciously that Jesus was a teacher.” Davies quotes E. P. Sanders as representative of Jesus research scholars generally and responds with what should be a most fundamental observation:

E. P. Sanders writes, for example, “I do not doubt that those who find the teaching attributed to Jesus in the synoptics to be rich, nuanced, subtle, challenging, and evocative are finding something which is really there. Further, in view of the apparent inability of early Christians to create such material, I do not doubt that the teaching of Jesus contained some or all of these attributes. In short, I do not doubt that he was a great and challenging teacher.” And so, it should follow, we know what Jesus taught. But we don’t. (p. 10, my emphasis) (more…)

2011/09/04

Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names

Filed under: Bible as literature,Jesus,Moles: Jesus the Healer . . .,Philippian hymn — Neil Godfrey @ 10:11 pm
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Jason being regurgitated by the snake who keep...

Jason (=Jesus to the Greek) being regurgitated by the snake: Image via Wikipedia

Last year I posted an amateurish discussion about puns in the Gospel of Mark. During my recent break from blogging I stumbled across a classical scholar’s discussion of puns in the Gospels in an online scholarly journal. The subject is far richer than I had ever imagined. There are possibly major implications for our understanding of both the ways in which the Gospels have been composed and also for what the authors and readers thought they were doing when writing and reading/listening to the narratives.

The discussion certainly gives modern readers a whole new insight into the possible significance of the name of Jesus — “the name above every other name” as the Philippian hymn informs us.

The author is classicist Professor John Moles of Newcastle University. The article is Jesus the Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Early Christianity [clicking the link will download the pdf article] in Histos. John Moles is definitely not a mythicist and my interest in the article is primarily the light it sheds on the nature of the Gospels. What sorts of documents are they, what led to their creation and how were they initially understood and received?

Imagine Gospel narratives that hang together through a web of puns on the name of Jesus criss-crossing with specific acts that he was performing and whose dramatic tension and resolution operate primarily through the readers’ awareness of these puns. (more…)

2011/06/19

Jesus: Myth of the Rebel Leader or Myth of a Saviour God — it’s all the same myth

Some scholars (e.g. S.G.F. Brandon) have opined that Jesus was something of a revolutionary or rebel leader; others (e.g. Thomas L. Thompson) that he was “a messiah myth” (the link is to an earlier post of mine listing the mythical traits of gods and kings of the Middle East).

Other scholars (e.g. Robert M. Price) have compared the Gospel narrative elements of Jesus against the various functional components of folk tales as extracted by Vladimir Propp.

One nonbiblical historian who, to my knowledge, has never written a word about Jesus, has written about a certain type of rebel leader, however, and compared the realities with the myth or legend that has universally attached itself to these sorts of people. Eric Hobsbawm has researched the phenomenon of social banditry (from China through Europe to Peru), or the Robin Hood types of figures. His list of characteristics of the “noble image” that attaches itself to these figures is interesting.

It bears a striking resemblance to the qualities of the kings and gods of Thompson’s messiah myth traits as much as to the heroic human outlaw. If the same qualities attach themselves to both the human outcast and a mighty god or king of another, much earlier, era, then one is entitled to suspect we are looking at some deeper psychological need/attraction at work here.

Here’s Hobsbawm’s list of characteristics (p. 47f of Bandits, 2000). (more…)

2011/06/14

Jesus and Socrates

Filed under: Jesus,Taylor: Classics and Bible — Neil Godfrey @ 10:26 pm
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Here is another snippet here from classicist scholar John Taylor’s book, Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition. This time it is from a decontextualized comparison between Jesus and Socrates. I have only extracted those elements that relate most directly to Jesus as found in the Gospels themselves, and left behind those that relate to a more generic image of Jesus that embraces the descriptions of various Church Fathers and the apostle Paul.

I have not included discussion of any of these points of comparison. I have simply listed them as dot-points, so do with them what you will. I had once hoped to discuss them more meaningfully, but can see that I will not have an opportunity (given my balance of interests) to do that for at least twenty years.

I have given more online references to Socrates than to Jesus because I assume that most interested in such a topic would already know more about Jesus, and sources for references to Jesus, than Socrates.

The comparison falls in two parts, though these may seem contrived to many. The first is comparing Jesus and Socrates per se; the second list compares the sources of each, or as each is found particularized in specific sources, and scholarly reactions to each.

The comparisons of the deaths of each in the second bracket (#5, accounts of the last days or each) probably should really go in the first set of comparisons, but I have kept Taylor’s sequence to save time, even though Taylor makes this a part of a larger discussion about scholarly reactions to same.

Socrates and Jesus in history: (more…)

2011/06/02

Aeneas and Jesus: how they were each created from mythical heroes

Filed under: Bible as literature,Jesus,Taylor: Classics and Bible — Neil Godfrey @ 12:31 pm
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Luca Giordano, Enea vince Turno, Olio su tela,...

Image via Wikipedia

There should be nothing controversial in the title of this post. I understand “critical scholars” generally agree that the Gospel narratives of Jesus are largely fictitious, exaggerations, theological metaphors, expressing what Jesus “meant to the authors” rather than what he historically did or said. Many scholars agree that there are a few core events that really do lie behind the Gospel narratives, but except for one or two (the crucifixion and baptism) they do not all agree on what these were.

Classical scholar John Taylor, in Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition, shows us how the creators of both the Gospel narratives about Jesus and the Roman epic about Aeneas used the same technique for creating their respective characters (p. 85). (more…)

2011/05/29

Doherty answers McGrath and others (continuation of ch. 6 criticisms)

Earl Doherty has responded in detail to criticisms by James McGrath and others over chapter 6 of Jesus Neither God Nor Man. I have collated them in this post, and may add any future ones here, too. (Compare comments on my outline of chapter 6)


Updated 31st May 2011

Brother of the Lord

By now we are all familiar with how much historicists rely on Galatians 1:19 and its “brother of the Lord” to find an historical Jesus within the epistles. It’s one of a small handful of life preservers thrown into the waters to try to rescue Paul from drowning in a mythical sea. I would like to put an additional emphasis on one of the arguments I have used to poke holes in this particular preserver. I have pointed out that Philippians 1:14 uses a similar phrase to Galatians 1:19, namely “brothers in the Lord” (ton adelphon en kurio). This can hardly be taken any other way than meaning “fellow-believers in the Lord” and indicates the usage of a phrase to describe a group of sectarians Paul is acquainted with. The very fact that it is so similar to the Galatians phrase should be a strong argument that the latter is likely to have the same meaning. (more…)

2011/05/19

Some reasons to think there was no historical Jesus

Filed under: Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 12:42 pm
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My interest is finding the most satisfactory explanation for the origin or origins of Christianity, and it is that search that leads me to lay aside the likelihood that there was a historical Jesus behind it all.

  1. It is easier to understand how such “riotous diversity” of Christianities appear in the earliest layers of evidence if Christianity grew out of a worlds of ideas and beliefs of many thinkers in dialogue (creative or conflicting) with each other. A historical Jesus being the focus of a group of followers could more reasonably be expected to leave evidence in the earliest layers of monolithic (or nothing more complex than a two-branch) movement that over time branched out into various sects. The evidence suggests the reverse of this: early is associated with diversity; later we see fewer sects until one emerges the victor.
  2. Christian conversion, ecstasy, mysticism, do not need a historical Jesus at the start. Engberg-Pedersen has shown what I think is a strong case for understanding Paul’s theology and the experience of conversion and Christ-devotion and community-cohesion etc is very similar to the experiences of those who were attracted to Reason (=Logos) and Stoicism. I have posted on this once or twice to illustrate his model. Similarly there is evidence for mystical and visionary experiences, not unlike those apparently associated with mysteries, among the apostles and members. None of these needs a historical founder in the sense we think of Jesus as being. These sorts of things are more usually explained in terms of cultural happenings. (more…)

2011/04/16

Logical confusion on the historical Jesus side of the debate

Filed under: Historiography,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 10:06 pm
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Various commenters have referred me to a list of pre-recorded responses, any one of which can be prompted to “reply” to any question raised that seeks a justification of an argument in favour of Jesus being historical. That sounds like a very efficient way for a Jesus historicist to completely avoid addressing the question of mythicism altogether. I am sure there are still plenty of self-help type books on the market that continue to advise readers that the best way to persuade someone against their point of view is to seriously listen to what they are really saying and avoid the trap of having a prepared response in your mind that you are simply waiting for the chance to release and end the discussion.

But recorded response number four is the one I want to address in particular because I simply do not understand it. This worries me a little because it appears to be an attempt to explain something major about the strength of the historicist argument, and if that is the case then there is something seriously askew in either a mythicist’s or a historicist’s grasp of logic.

This is “Beep: Recorded Response #4”:

#4. The quest for the historical Jesus and the criteria of authenticity do not presuppose the historicity of Jesus. They seek to demonstrate it in the only way possible. One cannot demonstrate the historicity of Alexander the Great in fashion separately from all evidence for things he may have said, done, or had inscribed. The same is true in the case of Jesus.

How can I search for the Yeti if I do not presuppose, even if only hypothetically, that it exists? I have never gone looking for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow because I presuppose it does not exist. I suppose if I ever came to believe that there is a possibility that there might be a pot of gold there then I just might think I have nothing to lose and go looking for it. (more…)

2011/02/08

Blind Bartimaeus: some meanings of the story surrounding his healing

 

Christ cures Bartimaeus. Kussell. In the Bowye...

Image via Wikipedia

Slightly revised 9th Feb. 2010, 3pm

John Spong finishes off his chapter (in Jesus for the Non-Religious) about healings by discussing the healing of blind Bartimaeus as found in the Gospel of Mark and healing of the man born blind in the Gospel of John. I’ll be sharing material from an old article by Vernon K. Robbins about Mark’s treatment of the Bartimaeus episode. Spong covers much the same theme but in less depth. (The article I use is The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) in the Marcan Theology, published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, June 1973, Vol. 92, Issue 2, pp. 224-243.) Will also draw on Michael Turton’s Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark.

The story of Bartimaeus is constructed to inform readers that Jesus is greater than the traditional idea of the Son of David. The details of the story serve only to point out the identity of Jesus Christ and the meaning of discipleship. The healing of blindness is only the symbolic way in which these messages are conveyed. Take away the theological meanings of the story and it becomes a meaningless tale. There are no details left over that give us any reason to suppose that the story was ever anything more than a symbolic or parabolic fiction.

This is the story (Mark 10:46-52) (more…)

2011/02/03

Jesus was not a healer (1)

Filed under: Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 7:41 pm
Jesus heals the paralytic of Bethesda

Image by Nick in exsilio via Flickr

Jesus no more healed people than he was born of a virgin or walked on water or rose from the dead.

The Gospels do not portray Jesus as a physician or literal healer of some sort. They portray him as the Christ, or Messiah, and they introduce stories of healings only in order to portray him as that Christ and spiritual Saviour, not as a greater Asclepius. The Gospel authors did not use raw material from oral tradition or eye-witnesses to any healings. They relied on the Old Testament prophecy that in the messianic age the sick would be healed, the blind see, the cripples walk. And even that Old Testament prophecy was figurative. The healings in the Gospels are just as symbolic as the so-called “nature miracles” of Jesus stilling the storm and walking on water.

(I like the author of Jesus the Healer so I feel a bit awkward about the title of this post, by the way.)

Here is one of the healing prophecies that obliged the Gospel authors to introduce healing narratives into their Gospels: Isaiah 35:3-6 (more…)

2011/02/01

How many stories in the gospels are “purely metaphorical”?

Resurrection: Son of God Jesus triumphs over d...

Image via Wikipedia

Dale Allison concludes his book Constructing Jesus with a discussion of the intent of the gospel authors. Did the gospel authors themselves think that they were writing real history or did they think they were writing metaphorical narratives, parables or allegories?

Allison refers to Marcus Borg and others (e.g. Robert Gundry, John Dominic Crossan, Robert J. Miller, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, John Shelby Spong, Roger David Aus) who have gone beyond their scholarly predecessors for whom the question was, “They thought they wrote history but can we believe them?”, to “Did they think they were writing something other than history and have we misunderstood them?”

They are not claiming that we must, because of modern knowledge, reinterpret the old texts in new ways, against their authors’ original intentions. They are instead contending that the texts were not intended to be understood literally in the first place. (p. 438)

I would love to read the books Allison cites but till then will have to rely here on his brief remarks.

Of O’Connor, Allison informs readers that he reasons that Luke’s two accounts of the ascension of Jesus are different because Luke did not think he was writing history (The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (4th ed., 1998)). (more…)

2011/01/27

Origins of the Jesus myth (Thoughts)

Filed under: Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 5:39 pm
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If the gospel narratives have no basis in historical reality then from where might the basic story idea have originated?

Do certain modern studies in the origins of the Old Testament narratives point towards possible explanations for the origins of the gospel narratives?

An explanation for the OT stories

The certain studies of OT origins I have in mind are those of scholars like Thomas L. Thompson and other “minimalists”. They have looked for historical circumstances and events that might explain some of the themes running through the various narratives found in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges and the books of Samuel and Kings. This search was triggered by archaeological finds that indicate there was no patriarchal migration from Mesopotamia to Canaan of the type suggested in the Genesis stories of Abraham, no great exodus of Israelites from Egypt, and no united Kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. And rather than there having been a “divided kingdom” with Israel in the north competing with Judah in the south as we read through much of the books of Kings and Chronicles, the kingdom of Judah did not emerge until after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians.

So if the archaeological evidence led to the conclusions that there was no Abraham, no Moses, no David or Solomon as per the biblical story, what can explain the origins of such stories?

First, look at the stories to see what they are about.

The stories of Abraham and Exodus are both about divinely commanded and divinely led migrations from gentile lands to a land of “Canaan” in which dwell peoples of a different religion and race. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as the Joshua led tribes, must negotiate with these neighbours to work out settlement arrangements with them, although the Israelites under Joshua do so only after the failure of Plan A which was to kill them all. The stories of Judges, Saul, David and Solomon also carry the themes of relationships with these neighbours: finishing off subjugating them, enlisting them as cheap labour, the importance of keeping God’s elect people “pure” and separate from them.

What sort of society can explain stories like these? (more…)

2011/01/13

The occult art of constructing the historical Jesus

Filed under: Allison: Constructing Jesus,Historiography,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 9:23 pm
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Mandala
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While I was a believer I was fascinated by speculations that someone well-read in the Bible might conjure up by linking verses together in a way that no-one seemed to have thought of before. For example, someone might “prove” that Jesus was a well-to-do middle class businessman by noting that he

  1. seemed to have a particular house in Galilee that he regularly visited — so it was probably (therefore surely) his own house
  2. was a carpenter and son of a carpenter and carpenters then were stone-masons and highly skilled in a range of tasks including stone masonry (and being perfect he would have been very good at whatever he did)
  3. and he had a fine linen cloak of one piece of such quality that Roman soldiers preferred to gamble for it rather than tear it up among themselves

This is all nonsense, of course. It takes ambiguous data out of its original contexts and extrapolates from it to create a fiction. For example,

  1. the gospels do not unambiguously affirm that Jesus owned a house, and there is no indication at all who owned the house, or the arrangement he had by which he came to be found there from time to time; one senses middle-class westerners reading their own life-styles into Jesus here.
  2. The mere fact that he or his father was a “tekton” (translated “carpenter”) does not allow us to make any judgment about how successful he was financially; again one detects a western businessman making the judgement.
  3. The cloak story was expressly said to have been a fulfilment of prophecy, so the odds are stacked against the likelihood that this was historical.

One gets a strange sense that one is merely reading a more sophisticated or well-informed version of this same speculative process when one reads Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History by Dale C. Allison. (more…)

2010/12/22

Double implausibility of the historical Jesus narrative

Filed under: Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 4:35 pm
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A number of biblical scholars have insisted that the historical Jesus narrative makes far more sense as an explanation for the rise of Christianity than the Christ myth alternative.

At the same time one observes that historical Jesus scholars are often preoccupied attempting to explain two central pillars of the historical explanation that they concede sound implausible.

One is: How to explain why a man who did and said nothing but good came to be crucified (while his followers were not) — such an idea does not make sense;

The other is: How to explain why a man crucified as a criminal was subsequently exalted to divine status by Jews and gentiles — this also does not make sense. (more…)

2010/12/20

Jesus the New Elijah, and the Gospel being a Symbolic Tale according to a scholarly view

Filed under: Jesus,Luke-Acts,Spong: Rescuing Bible Fund — Neil Godfrey @ 9:48 pm
A fresco of Saint Ilia (Elijah) from the Rila ...
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Continuing from my previous post, this time I’m outlining Spong’s overview of the distinctive way the Gospel of Luke portrays Jesus.

Bishop John Shelby Spong himself is renowned for his views on inclusiveness — that the Church should not discriminate against anyone for any role because of their gender or sexuality. In the Gospel of Matthew he sees a narrative expressing God’s will that “the whole world” will eventually be united in a new Israel that will transform both Jews and gentiles. In the Gospel of Luke he sees the same theme expressed differently. Instead of Jesus being a new and greater Moses as the Lawgiver who was building a new Israel on what he saw as the spiritual heart of Jewish Law, Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is:

  1. a greater Moses as the Deliverer from Bondage
  2. the suffering servant of Second Isaiah – representing a new Israel called to servanthood, not to power
  3. a new and greater Elijah to portray Jesus as “the exalted and universal Christ of heaven and earth.”

I focus first on Luke’s construction of Jesus as an emulation of Elijah.

(more…)

2010/12/19

John Dominic Crossan the Theologian Explaining the Historicity of Jesus

Filed under: Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 9:11 pm
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Foremost historical Jesus scholar of our time,...

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Australia’s Radio National program, The Spirit of Things, aired an interview today with John Dominic Crossan.

If there can be any doubt whether Crossan is a historian AND/OR a theologian it must surely be settled with his comments in this interview.

Well into the interview the presenter, Rachael Kohn, dropped in the question about people who think Jesus was a mythical creation and not historical at all. Did I sense a whiff of giggling ‘how silly’ with this question? Curiosly Kohn said that the idea must tickle the fancy of “atheists”. I had to wonder why. (more…)

2010/12/18

Jesus, constructed from Moses and other OT passages — according to the Gospel of Matthew

Filed under: Gospel of Matthew,Jesus,Spong: Rescuing Bible Fund — Neil Godfrey @ 10:07 pm

One of the first books I read when beginning to question my faith was one that struck my eye while scanning the shelves of a local bookshop, John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.

Moses mosaic on display at the Cathedral Basil...

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It introduced me to many issues being addressed by biblical scholars. I have told the story before, but I like it enough to tell it again: I later had the opportunity to thank Spong personally for assisting me on my journey that took me to atheism. (I don’t think I appreciated at the time that he suffered some grief over his own mentor, Michael Goulder, becoming an atheist, too.)

One observation that Spong addressed was the respective thematic treatments of Jesus in each of the Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, depicted Jesus as grounded in the Jewish heritage of the Old Testament literature, and especially as a new Moses figure. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, portrayed Jesus as having stronger associations with a Gentile community. None of this suggested to me that Jesus himself had no historical basis, but it did help reinforce the idea that the Gospels were themselves literary constructs that stood apart from any clear link to a historical person.

Here is what Spong wrote about Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as a Moses figure (identified with *), mingled with a few other linkages of Jesus with Jewish scriptures. (more…)

2010/11/26

The Myth of a General Messianic Expectation in Jesus’ Time

Filed under: Jesus,Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 10:58 pm
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It is standard practice to classify Jewish messianism as national, ethnic, political and material, and to mark Christian messianism as universal, cosmopolitan, ethical and spiritual. That Jewish anticipation of the messiah’s arrival was unusually keen in first century Palestine and constituted the mise en scène for the emergence of Christianity is a virtual axiom of western history. (p. 1 of Judaisms and Their Messiahs, my emphasis)

But there is little, if any, evidence for this “axiom of western history”!

The opening chapter of Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, though over 20 years old, appears not to have been read or accepted among theological and other scholars who even now still argue that the generation of Jesus was possessed by expectations of a messianic deliverer. Many such scholars still argue strenuously that some of that generation reinterpreted the life, execution and post mortem psychic experiences of their renowned rabbi, Jesus, as the life, death and resurrection of the long awaited (but spiritual) Messiah. Sometimes even professorial insults will be directed at less learned individuals who dare question, and persist in asking to be shown, the hard evidence for this model.

But professorial insults notwithstanding, William Scott Green (the author of that opening chapter) is several times quoted in relatively recent publications by the renowned Thomas L. Thompson:

These arguments [for a general Jewish expectation of the advent of a Messiah around the time of Jesus] . . . appear to suggest that the best way to learn about the messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none. (Green in Judaisms and Their Messiahs . . . p. 6)

Green continues: (more…)

2010/10/23

Jesus Not Being Good Is No Embarrassment

Filed under: Criteria: Embarrassment,Gospel of Mark,Gospel of Matthew,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 1:19 am
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Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me
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Matthew was embarrassed by Mark’s Gospel that had Jesus effectively saying that he was not good. Only God is good

And . . . . a person ran up to [him], and kneeling to him asked him, Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?

But Jesus said to him, Why callest thou me good? no one is good but one, [that is] God. (Mark 10:17-18)

Matthew deftly shuffles the word order to have them come out of Jesus’ mouth with a sleightly different meaning.

And lo, one coming up said to him, Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have life eternal? ‭

And he said to him, What askest thou me concerning goodness? one is good. (Matthew 19:16-17)

Modern theological scholars are also said to be embarrassed by Mark’s Jesus, and no doubt it remains a puzzling point for many other Christians, too: (more…)

2010/10/16

Jesus Christ in Little India

Filed under: God and other deities,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 1:35 pm
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Last night I strolled along Serangoon Road in Little India, Singapore, to see what was happening in the build-up to the Hindu Deepavali festival. Some of the photos here are from Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, others are from market displays. The last one listed here stood out as strangely “in place” as part of it all. (Clicking the images will enlarge them.)

 

(more…)

2010/09/18

Jesus Christ: Maybe BOTH names are titular? (Dunn on Price, again, too)

Filed under: Beilby/Eddy: H Jesus 5 Views,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 12:30 am
Disney - Snow White And Seven Dwarfs Mural
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Christ, meaning Messiah, is, of course, not a proper name but a title, like King or High Priest.

Yet Paul’s letters use Christ as if it is a proper name for Jesus.

Dunn writes in response to Price (The Historical Jesus: Five Views) what is well known to all scholars:

As often noted, the fact that Christ was more or less a proper name (Jesus Christ) by the time of Paul (within twenty to twenty-five years of Jesus’ death) must indicate that messianic status had already been ascribed to this Jesus for such a long time that the titular significance of Christ (Messiah) had largely faded. (p. 96)

What is more rarely discussed is the possibility that Jesus, meaning Saviour, is also a personal name that originated as a title. (I know Jesus/Joshua is a common personal name; this post is addressing the happy coincidence that it was bestowed on the one who epitomized its meaning in the Christian myth and narrative.)

Reading the gospel narratives entitles us to be reminded sometimes of Walt Disney’s seven dwarfs. All of their names are “titular” or at least character-role labels: Grumpy, Sleepy, Bashful, Happy, Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey. (more…)

2010/09/17

The Clueless Search for the Historical Jesus

Filed under: Historiography,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 12:30 am
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Who Is Jesus Christ?
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It is impossible not to smile a little at the quaint, anonymous post Does no one love Jesus anymore? on the new Sheffield Biblical Studies blog.

The poster laments that “less (sic) people are interested in historical Jesus studies than in previous years” and asks what cultural factors might be at play to explain this. It links, by way of some assistant discussion starter, to Scot McKnight post in Christianity Today, originally posted April 2010. (My little discussion of this article for what it’s worth is kept here.)

2 points:

  1. That article addresses the truism that HJ studies have tended to produce a Jesus modeled after the personal interests and predilections of each scholar making the inquiry.
  2. The very idea of a quest for “the historical Jesus” is founded on a wish to find some evidence for something such a person supposedly ever did or said, even for what such a person indeed even was! How often do police start a search for someone when they don’t even know if they’re to look for a rabbi or a rebel, and have only anonymous and uncorroborated reports that the person even exists? (more…)

2010/09/15

The baptism, the dove and the transfiguration . . . continued

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 12:46 pm
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Continuing from the previous post . . . .

Two of three ways Greek gods visited earthlings

Jean-Pierre Vernant in Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays (1991) notes three forms in which gods appeared when they visited earth. But dammit, Dixon cites only two of these:

  1. They simply come “to” the mortal to give that mortal strength. In my previous post I quoted some examples of this sort of visitation. The gods appear all of a sudden, as gods, to the mortal in order to give that moral strength and encouragement after dropping down from the heavens like a bird.
  2. They take on the form of humans in order to keep their divine identity hidden while they walk the earth and converse with mortals. Again several examples are cited in my previous post.

Readers familiar with the first instance might have imagined Jesus receiving strength and encouragement to perform his ministry.

Those of the second, that Jesus had a concealed identity. In support of this view we read of the spirit at baptism descending εις αυτον (“into”? him), the proclamation, heard only by Jesus and the readers, at the baptism by God the Father that “this is my beloved Son”, and the revelation of Jesus’ identity at the transfiguration half way though the gospel.

In browsing the Iliad to find selections cited by Dixon I came across one that I think he failed to mention — but he does say the examples are very numerous. In book 13 of the Iliad Poseidon is described as visiting the mortals on the battlefield — not openly, but to keep his identity secret — but as a man:

Poseidon on the other hand went about among the Argives to incite them, having come up from the gray sea in secret, for he was grieved at seeing them vanquished by the Trojans, and was furiously angry with Zeus. Both were of the same race and country, but Zeus was elder born and knew more, therefore Poseidon feared to defend the Argives openly, but in the likeness of man, he kept on encouraging them throughout their host. (Iliad 13)

Did the spirit descend To, Into or Upon Jesus? (more…)

2010/08/30

Stronger evidence for Publius Vinicius the Stammerer 2000 years ago than for Jesus

Filed under: Historiography,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 3:16 pm
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Publius who? That is the point of this post. Assertions that there is as much evidence for Jesus as for any other person in ancient times, or that if we reject the historicity of Jesus then we must reject the existence of everyone else in ancient history, are based on ignorance of how we really do know about the existence of ancient persons.

This is my postscript to the previous post and suggests a case study on the relevance of literary criticism (and a few other things, like primary evidence and external controls) to historical methodology. I have argued the negative side of this in relation to Jesus many times, and won’t repeat those arguments here. Instead, I focus on one case where the methodology I discuss is used to positively establish historicity of ancient persons. (more…)

2010/08/22

What if Jesus said not a single word we are told he said?

Filed under: Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 3:07 pm
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Historical Jesus scholars are quite capable of discerning when a saying of Jesus has been made up by a Gospel author for narrative effect. But when they explain why other sayings are not likewise fabricated, but are traceable to a real Jesus, I think they are jumping the rails of straight consistent logic.

If a saying is integral to the flow and liveliness of the story, such as “Who touched me?”, “Hold out your hand”, “Pick up your mat and go home”, “Get up”, then it can safely be judged as “suitable only for the occasion . . . not particularly memorable . . . not aphorisms or parables, and would not have circulated independently during the oral period.” (p. 62 of  The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus)

But isn’t there something inconsistent or arbitrary about this explanation?

Sure, I can fully accept that a narrator will manufacture words to be put into any character’s mouth for the effect of adding a touch of life to the story.

But when the scholar declares a more formal saying, such as a parable or aphorism, is different, and by its nature is potentially traceable to the historical Jesus, are we not being a tad arbitrary?

The Gospel author is, after all, not simply narrating a series of little anecdotes with their “Get ups” and “Go forths” and “Feed them” touches. He is also telling the story of a divine man who came to bring a message and introduce a new kingdom. So are not the parables and aphorisms equally there in the story for the purpose of making the story work? Aren’t they even moreso designed to bring the speaking character into the consciousness of the readers?

Of course parables and aphorisms are, by simple definition, capable of being lifted out of the story and finding  independent applications. That simple fact of their definition does not mean that they are any more likely to have originated from somewhere or someone long before the author penned them. (more…)

2010/08/12

Jesus was no physician

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 9:32 pm
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Christ healing a bleeding woman

Jesus’ miracles of healing in the Gospels are often taken as evidence that the historical Jesus himself was a healer. Studies have accordingly been undertaken into ancient healing practices. The associations between ‘medicine’ and ‘charms’, the physical and the supernatural, is well-documented. We have books about Jesus titled “Jesus the Healer” and “Jesus the Magician”. (I like much that I find in these, by the way.)

Presumably the gospel stories of Jesus’ miracles of healing are thought to be based on traditions that Jesus really was a healer of some kind. Crossan, for example, argues from anthropology and the social nature of illness that Jesus’ acts of healing “worked” because he brought, for example, the outcast leper, into a communal fellowship.

But what if we take the miracles of healings in the Gospel of Mark just as they are written. Let’s not presume they are exaggerations of historical deeds.

Let’s instead read them “just as they are” and see how they might compare other “just as they are” narratives and look at the literary and ideological traditions in which they are written.

I believe that when we do that we will find another source for the miracle stories that really leaves no room for any “historical tradition”.

Thomas L. Thompson has said somewhere in a similar context that when we attempt to historicize or rationalize the miraculous in the Bible, all we end up doing is destroying the original stories. Not all that different from Douglas Adams quip that if you take apart a cat to see how it works, all you end up with is a non-working cat.

A consideration of the wider context offer a quick and obvious answer to the question of the author’s inspiration for the miraculous healings of Jesus.

First, a few examples of what we are talking about here:

Mark 1:30-31 —  But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever, and anon they tell him of her. And he came and took her by the hand, and lifted her up; and immediately the fever left her

Mark 1:42  —  And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed.

Mark 2:11-12  —  I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house. And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all

Mark 3:5  —  he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other.

None of these sound anything like witch doctor or shaman healing processes. But there is another very obvious set of analogies.

Not all, but much, of the first two following sections is derived from my current reading of The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy by Gilbert G. Bilezikian.

The literary and theological purpose of the miracle stories in Mark (more…)

2010/08/05

Some reasons to favour a “mythical Jesus” over a “historical Jesus”

Filed under: Jesus,New Testament — Neil Godfrey @ 2:00 am
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The various historical Jesus explanations for Christian origins are without analogy, are highly improbable, and rely on filling in gaps with “something unknown” or “something we don’t understand”.

How plausible is it, after all, that all of the following somehow come together in a coherent “explanation”:

  • Jews scarcely believing Jesus was nothing more than a prophet while alive, or worse, with a handful thinking him a “Davidic messiah”;
  • Jesus dying the death of a criminal, as a failed prophet or failed messiah;
  • Jews very quickly after his death coming to believe [through some unexplained process] that he was a resurrected divinity to be worshiped alongside God, even creator and sustainer of the universe, and whose flesh and blood were to be symbolically eaten;
  • Jewish followers persuading large numbers of other Jews and gentiles who had never seen him to worship him thus, also?

How plausible is it that

  • the many earliest references to such a historical person who performed astonishing miracles, delivered precepts on the sabbath and divorce and other Jewish rituals, suffered as a martyr, . . .
  • — how plausible is it that the many earliest references to such a historical person ignore all of these details of his life;
  • yet on the contrary, speak of his flesh and crucifixion  as entirely mystical or theological phenomena that cohere with the well known ancient paradigm of divinities above working out the conversion experiences of mortals below;
  • and that also speak of the revelation of the Gospel (not of Jesus himself) in the Scriptures, and point to Scriptures, not the life or miracles of Jesus, as the “revelation” of “the mystery of the gospel” that can only be grasped by spiritual gift (not historical evidence)?

How plausible is it that

  • there are no biographical or historical accounts of the life and person of one who reportedly attracted a following of multitudes from Tyre and Sidon and beyond Jordan and Jerusalem and Idumea, who came to the hostile attention of Herod and Pilate and the entire religious establishment?
  • the only accounts we have of such a person are not witnessed until the second century,
  • the same accounts contain anachronisms (e.g. Pharisees and synagogues dotting Galilee, hostile Christian views of rabbinic Judaism) that further suggest a very late composition,
  • and are brief tracts that demonstrate an incestuous literary relationship,
  • and that are primarily theological treatises promoting theological agendas above anything else?
  • and that such a historical Jesus in each of these gospels should be little more than a cardboard cutout mouthpiece for various (unoriginal) sayings and acts that are often demonstrably cut from OT narratives and characters?
  • that there is no reliable independent verification in the historical record for the historicity of such a person?

A funny thing about the above points is that they are often adhered to on the grounds that “no-one would have made up the Christian narrative. This strikes me as something of a Tertullian defence: “It is absurd, therefore [the first Christians, and] I believe”. This explanation, as far as I am aware, flies in the face of all that we can expect or that we can see recorded of human experience.

How much more plausible is it that (more…)

2010/07/18

What might a Davidic Messiah have meant to early Christians?

Filed under: Jesus,Messianism,Son of Man — Neil Godfrey @ 1:58 pm
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king David from Chludov Psalter
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The metaphor of the messiah . . . is used neither as a direct reference to any contemporary, historical king nor to any known historical expectations before Bar Kochba (c. 135 CE). (Messiah Myth, Thompson, p.291; SJOT, 15.1 2001, p.58.)

Those scholars who repeat that there was a popular Jewish anticipation of a Messiah to emerge as a contemporary, historical leader in their own time — any time before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE — do not cite evidence that actually supports this assertion. Thompson likes to remind readers of W. S. Green’s observation that biblical scholars have tended to form their understanding of the concept of the Messiah — and their (unsupported) belief that the term refers to contemporary Israelite kings — by studying texts where the word does not appear.

But at the same time there is no doubt that David was depicted as a once-upon-a-time messianic figure as well as an author of psalms.

So what do we read about the career of David as an anointed (messianic) one? In the Psalms attributed to him he cries out to God as one forsaken and persecuted. (Pss 18, 142). In Psalm 22 he cries out in pious agony, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

David’s career is one of fleeing from persecution. He is the chosen and pious, righteous sufferer. His persecution is a badge of his honour, not shame, in the eyes of all who look to him as a model of piety.

He is betrayed by his closest followers, and ascends the Mount of Olives to pray in his darkest hour.

He prepares for the building of the future temple after his death.

If early Christians ever thought to apply the Davidic motifs to Jesus, they surely did so with remarkable precision. David may have ruled a temporal kingdom, but Jesus demonstrated his power over the invisible rulers of the entire world. Even though ruler over the princes of this world, he was still betrayed, deserted and denied by his closest followers. He ascended the Mount of Olives in prayer at his darkest hour.

And he suffered the injustice that the righteous have always proverbially suffered, even crying out with David, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

But as in the Psalms God delivered David from the depths and pits of hell to exalt him in vindication before his enemies, so did God deliver and exalt Jesus. What was the suffering of humiliation in the eyes of his enemies, has always been the badge of honour in the eyes of God and devotees.

And none of this should be surprising. Even in Daniel we read of a prophecy of the Messiah to be killed, “but not for himself”, with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple to follow. Daniel 9:26 (more…)

2010/07/02

An Old Testament Messiah Struck Down by God

Filed under: Jesus,Messianism,OT archaeology & literature — Neil Godfrey @ 10:08 pm
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"Death of King Saul", 1848 by Elie M...
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A modern reader will be excused for not seeing at first glance any connection between King Saul as an anointed one (i.e. “messiah”) and the concept of messiah as it applies to Jesus. But Thomas L. Thompson has brought out some interesting concepts in common.

Saul was a messiah of Israel, and as a messiah he was struck down by God. David’s lament over this event is rich in messianic themes. One finds the same themes repeated in the Gospels in connection with the death of the messiah Jesus. I am closely following Thompson’s arguments here in pointing out the messianic motifs that we find in common in Old and New Testaments.

Saul is described metaphorically as the anointed (messianic) shield of Israel:

O mountains of Gilboa,
Let not dew or rain be on you, nor fields of offerings;

For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
The shield of Saul, not anointed with oil.
(1 Samuel 1:21 New American Standard)

Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil. (1 Samuel 1:21 King James)

For the interlinear Hebrew, transliteration and translation see http://www.scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/OTpdf/2sa1.pdf:

מָגֵן שִׁאוּל בְּלִי מָשִׁיהַ בַּשָּׁמֶן
mgn shaul bli mshich b·shmn
shield-of Saul without being-anointed in·the·oil

I quote Thompson’s discussion in his 2001 SJOT article (repeated in The Messiah Myth), while indicating my own additions in italics. I’ll then point out what I see as the similar thoughts on the messiah as applied to Jesus. (more…)

2010/05/30

IN BRIEF: dates, Q, Aramaic, heavenly or earthly — they make no difference to the mythical Jesus view

Filed under: Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 11:28 am
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  1. An early or late date for the gospels does not, of itself, make any difference to the arguments for or against the historicity of Jesus;
  2. Whether one accepts or rejects Q, or whether one accepts Aramaic or other sources for the Gospels, makes no difference to the arguments for or against the historicity of Jesus;
  3. Whether one views Paul’s Jesus as an entirely heavenly entity or an earth-dwelling human makes no difference to the arguments for or against the historicity of Jesus.

Every detail of Jesus’ life that is asserted by Sanders, Meier, Crossan, Crossley, Fredriksen, Wright, whoever, to be historical rests on a circular argument. Every one of their arguments for whether Jesus said or did this or that begins with the assumption that there was a historical Jesus.

It is not true that this circularity of itself means that the was no historical Jesus. There may have been, but we need external evidence to break the circularity and increase the probability level.

Contrasting with other persons from ancient history

It is not true that these Jesus historians use the same starting assumptions and methods as nonbiblical historians.

Nor is it true that if my criticisms were taken on board by other historians then we would have to declare just about every other person we know about in ancient history to be a myth.

We have primary evidence — that is, physically contemporary evidence, for the existence of other persons from ancient times (e.g. Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great) — and this gives us good probability grounds for thinking other persons, those associated with these definitely historical people in a literature that can elsewhere be independently verified, may also have existed.

Dating the gospels

What is important about the gospels as evidence is their nature as literature. If we can see that they describe Jesus in ways that are drawn entirely from other literature, and if after removing all that can be attributed to other literature from the Jesus accounts we have no-one left but an invisible man, then it makes no difference to the question of historicity as to when the Gospels were written.

Other historical figures are also described in mythical terms, but we always see a real person being described. The mythical is added on to other features and details about the real person; in the case of Jesus we have someone made up entirely of mythical or borrowed literary elements.

Equally important is that the gospels are but one small subset of early Christian literature. But that’s another discussion.

Q or Aramaic or other?

It makes no difference if the Gospels relied on an Aramaic or any other source, written or oral, to the arguments that Jesus was not historical. To assert that a particular source is earlier to when the events in a certain narrative are supposed to have happened, is to assume that the narrative is historical to begin with.

In other words, it is circular reasoning to claim that an earlier source of the gospels is evidence of the historicity of their narratives. It makes no difference whether we think that source was in Aramaic or Greek or merely oral tradition in either language.

Earthly or heavenly Jesus

It is “immaterial” to the question of historicity of Jesus whether Paul argued for a part-time earthly human or an entirely heavenly spirit Jesus. Doherty’s view of the mythical Jesus (an entirely heavenly entity) is recent, and mythicist arguments have been working with the ‘part-time earthly human’ Jesus ever since the eighteenth century.

2010/05/29

Why early Christians would create the story of Jesus’ baptism – and more evidence the gospels were very late

Filed under: Criteria: Embarrassment,Gospel of Mark,Jesus,Justin Martyr — Neil Godfrey @ 12:30 am
John the Baptist baptizing Christ

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The historicity of Jesus’ baptism is asserted on grounds that the event would not have been told unless it were true, because it implies views of Jesus that no Christian would invent:

  1. that John was up till that point superior to Jesus,
  2. and/or that Jesus had sins to be buried in the Jordan River.

This is hardly a solid method to determine whether or not an event is historical or not, especially when reasons do exist that could indeed explain why Christians might invent the story.

I have usually given just one of these possible reasons in other posts, and that is that the author of the Gospel of Mark viewed Jesus as an ordinary man until the moment of his baptism when he was possessed by the Spirit of God and declared at that moment, God’s Beloved Son. Such a view is supported by this Gospel’s depiction of Jesus as far more human than the way he is shown in later Gospels, and also by Mark’s description of the Spirit possessing and driving Jesus into the wilderness. It was this lowly view of Jesus that the later evangelists attempted to re-write: Matthew declaring that John protested that he should not baptize Jesus; Luke only indirectly implying that John baptized Jesus; and John not mentioning the baptism at all.

But there is another evident reason that this scenario might have been invented. This was to fulfill prophetic expectations held among the Jews. One criterion that some scholars (e.g. Robert Funk in “Honest to Jesus”) use to cast doubt on the historicity of any passage in the Gospels is that of intended prophetic fulfillment. If a passage appears to have been written in order to fulfill some “prophecy” of Christ, then the historian must at the very least accept the possibility that it was invented for that purpose.

G. A. Wells in The Jesus Myth alerts us to the evidence that the Jews were expecting the Messiah to be anointed by Elijah. And Mark’s Gospel specifically identifies John the Baptist with Elijah, and that at least one early Christian did point to Jesus’ baptism as another proof that Jesus was the Christ. (more…)

2010/05/22

Jesus: a Saviour Just Like the Kings and Gods of Egypt and Babylon

The Good Shepherd, mosaic in Mausoleum of Gall...
Image via Wikipedia

Thomas L. Thompson wrote The Messiah Myth to demonstrate that the sayings and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels (and David in the OT) are the product of a literary tradition about Saviour figures — both kings and deities — throughout the Middle East. The subtitle of the book is “the Near Eastern roots of Jesus and David”.

A number of New Testament scholars have expressed concern that contemporary classical literature is not widely read and studied by their peers. One’s understanding of the Gospels and Acts — and even the New Testament letters — is enriched when one can recognize links between them and other literature of their day. Thompson goes a bit further than this, and appeals for a greater awareness of the longstanding tradition of literary themes and images that were the matrix of both Old and New Testament narratives.

Some scholars see in Jesus’ sayings certain gems that are unique or holy or brilliantly enlightened and worthy of the deepest respect. They see in his deeds of healing and concern for the poor and weak a noble character worthy of devotion.

Some see the themes of concern for the poor and condemnation of the rich and powerful as evidence that Jesus was tapping in to popular revolutionary or resistance sentiments among peasants and displaced persons in early first century Galilee.

Other scholars see in the saying evidence of economic exploitation such that a sense of resentment could easily morph into a Jesus movement.

All of the above interpretations are thrown into question when one notices their echoes in the OT – and especially throughout the wider world of the OT. The wordings vary, but they are all clear reiterations of the same motifs.

But after one becomes more familiar with the literary heritage of the ancient “Near East”, one must legitimately ask if all those sayings and deeds of Jesus are nothing more than stereotypical tropes that authors wanting to describe any God in the flesh or Saviour King would inevitably use. What is said of Jesus was said countless times of your average typical Saviour Pharaoh or Mesopotamian monarch or deity.

Naturally we expect the Gospel authors to be more influenced by the Jewish texts than Egyptian or Mesopotamian ones, but Thompson shows that the this is all part of the same package. What we read in the Old Testament is much the same as we read among Egyptian, Syrian and Babylonian literature. It’s all part and parcel of the same thought world.

Thompson asks readers to re-read the Gospel narratives about Jesus in the context of the literary heritage of the Jewish scriptures — and to understand that heritage as itself part of a wider literary and ethical outlook throughout the Middle East. Don’t forget that Jews were not confined to Palestine but were well established in communities from Babylonia to Egypt, too.

The following extracts are from Thompson’s discussion of The Song for a Poor Man. It is only one of the several facets of this heritage that Thompson addresses. One sees that the ancient world was full of Saviours like Jesus. It must a have been a happy time and place (tongue in cheek). (more…)

2010/05/19

The relevance of “minimalists'” arguments to historical Jesus studies

Filed under: Historiography,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 2:27 pm
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The arguments of the “minimalists” questioning the historical core of many of the narratives of the “Old Testament” — and ultimately the historical existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David and Solomon, and the biblical Kingdom of Israel — apply with as much logical force to questions of the existence of Jesus. The minimalists showed that scholarly beliefs in a historical Biblical Kingdom of Israel were based on circular reasoning. The same circular reasoning and assumptions underlie belief in the historicity of Jesus.

“Minimalist” arguments are not just about the archaeological evidence.

They are more fundamental and generic than that. They have, I believe, a direct relevance to historical Jesus and early Christian studies — any studies, in fact, that rely on reading the narratives in the Gospels and Acts as if they have some historical basis.

Time gaps and archaeological evidence are irrelevant to the fundamental logic underlying the arguments.

Below are statements by “minimalists” themselves that were originally directed at the way scholars once read the Jewish Bible as a historical source for “biblical Israel”. They are relevant for anyone who approaches the Gospels as historical sources. The Gospels are certainly historical sources, but the narratives they tell are not necessarily historical at all, nor even based on any core historical events.

Philip R. Davies on Tail Chasing

Philip Davies discusses only the study of ancient Israel. He does not address Jesus or early Christianity. It is my argument that his discussion applies equally well to these.

Philip Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel (1992) is reputed to have been the publication that triggered the “minimalist”-“maximalist” debate over the historicity of biblical Israel. In the 1994 preface, Davies wrote of this book:

I feel that this book still makes a good case for an approach to the investigation of the Bible, its authors and creators, which is becoming more widely adopted.

The approach has not impacted New Testament studies, however. I think this is a pity and unjustifiable. But then, Jesus has a more solid iconic status in our culture than David or Abraham.

Read the following critique directed at “Old Testament” scholars back in 1992 and see if it is relevant to scholars of the Gospels and Acts: (more…)

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