Vridar

2013/05/12

Jesus and Dionysus (3)

Filed under: Gospel of John — Neil Godfrey @ 8:10 am
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Continuing from the Jesus and Dionysus (2): Comparison of John’s Gospel and Euripides’ Play . . . .

It would be a mistake to confine our comparison of the Gospel of John’s Jesus with Euripides’ play. Bacchae has no reference to the Dionysian miracle of turning water into wine (see the first post in this series for details) yet numerous commentators on the Gospel’s Cana Wedding miracle of turning water into wine have pointed to resonances with the Greek counterpart.

Further, it would be shortsighted to dismiss any comparison of the Gospel’s Jesus with Dionysus on the grounds that there is no obvious link between Jesus’ crucifixion and the dismemberment (the sparagmos) of the enemy of Dionysus.

Suffering and Power

English: Dionysus (Richard Werner) in The Bacc...

Dionysus (Richard Werner) in The Bacchae, directed by Brad Mays, 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact, when the god’s enemy undergoes humiliation and dismemberment he is really sharing in or identifying with the sufferings of the god. His name is, after all, Pentheus, with verbal resonances with “pathos” (suffering); and we have seen that the purpose of the god is to come to relieve the suffering of humanity through his gift of wine, and the play itself speaks constantly of the suffering that Pentheus must undergo as punishment for his attempt to thwart the purpose of the god. It is through the suffering of Pentheus (identifying with the sufferings of the god) that the god who comes in apparent weakness, as an effeminate mortal, is exalted — his victorious and divine power is displayed for all!

The “discovery of Dionysiac echoes in John’s story as a whole” (Stibbe, p. 2) — in particular with the miracle of Cana, (the identification, one might add, of Jesus with the vine itself), the binding of Jesus, the dialogue with Pilate and the pathos of Jesus’ crucifixion — requires us to look beyond the tragedy itself and to look at all that the myth conveyed.

Indeed, there are other myths where Dionysus inflicted the same punishment upon others apart from Pentheus. King Lycurgus of Thrace also opposed the worship of Dionysus. Dionysus punished him by sending him into a mad frenzy during which he dismembered his own son; subsequently his citizens pulled him apart limb by limb in order to remove the curse of Dionysus from their land.

An early form of the myth is that Dionysus was originally born to Persephone, queen of the underworld (Hades). (It is not insignificant, for our purposes, that some of the myths tell us Zeus intended this new child to be his heir.) The jealous wife of Zeus (Hera) who had fathered the child persuaded the evil Titans to destroy the infant. Attempting to avoid capture by the pursuing Titans Dionysus changed himself into a bull, but was caught in this form and pulled limb from limb. The Titans then devoured these dismembered pieces of flesh. Zeus punished them by destroying them with thunderbolts, and from the ashes humankind was created, a mixture of the evil of Titans and the divinity of Dionysus.

Twice Born, from Below and Above

Through all of that chaos one piece of Dionysus was rescued, his heart, which was returned to Zeus. Zeus used the heart (the myths and means by which he did this vary) to give Dionysus a second birth, so he became known as the “twice-born” god.

A later version of the myth, the one that lies behind the play by Euripides, is that Zeus had fathered Dionysus with the mortal woman, Semele. Again Hera sought to kill the child, this time before it was born, by challenging Semele to see Zeus in all his glory. When Zeus showed himself in all his godliness Semele, of course, was struck dead. But Zeus rescued the child from her womb and sewed it into his thigh until it was ready to be born a second time, from the god himself.

Anyone familiar with the Gospel of John does not need to be reminded of Jesus explaining the mystery of being born a second time from above. (more…)

2013/05/09

Jesus and Dionysus (2): Comparison of John’s Gospel and Euripides’ Play

Filed under: Gospel of John,Stibbe: John as storyteller — Neil Godfrey @ 10:58 pm
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This post continues from my earlier one that concluded with Mark W. G. Stibbe’s “very broad list of similarities” between Euripides’ Bacchae (a play about the god Dionysus) and the Gospel of John. Stibbe discusses these similarities in John As Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel.

What Mark Stibbe is arguing

0521477654Stibbe makes it clear that he is not suggesting the evangelist

necessarily knew the Bacchae by heart and that he consciously set up a number of literary echoes with . . . that play (p. 137)

What he is suggesting is that

John unconsciously chose the mythos of tragedy when he set about rewriting his tradition about Jesus and that general echoes with Euripides’ story of Dionysus are therefore, in a sense, inevitable.

Stibbe firmly holds to the view that the Gospel of John is base on an historical Jesus and much of its content derives from some of the earliest traditions about that historical Jesus. The evangelist, he argues, was John the Elder, and he has derived his information from

  • a Bethany Gospel (now lost) that was based on the eye-witness reminiscences of Lazarus, who was also the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel;
  • a Signs Gospel (now lost);
  • the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke)

His final chapter in John as Storyteller consists largely of a point by point argument that the events of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospel are based on historical events.

At the same time, Mark Stibbe is arguing that the author, John the Elder, is constructing his supposedly historical source material in a quite literary manner. He has chosen to write about the life and death of Jesus as a tragedy, argues Stibbe, and this was quite a natural thing to do because, we are assured, Jesus’ life and death just happened to be acted out in real life like a tragedy. It was a natural fit.

That’s where Stibbe is coming from.

Mark Stibbe, a vicar of St Mark’s Church at Grenoside (Sheffield) and part-time lecturer in biblical studies at the University of Sheffield when he wrote this book, writes from the limited perspective of formal New Testament studies. So he writes from the viewpoint of a Christian studying why the Gospel of John wrote about the very real founder of his faith, Jesus, would echo aspects of a Greek tragedy.

What this post is questioning

I’m interested in a different perspective. A proper study of religion from a scientific perspective would be through anthropology, I would think. New Testament studies are primarily about analysing and deconstructing and reconstructing biblical or Christian myths. The end result must always be a new version of their myth, if we follow Claude Lévi-Strauss.

I last posted along this theme in 2011:

Since I began this new series I have found another who takes a similar perspective. Frank Zindler writes: (more…)

2013/01/26

Gospels as Parables ABOUT Jesus, part 4 of 4 (John Dominic Crossan)

Filed under: Crossan: Power of Parable — Neil Godfrey @ 2:24 pm
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powerparableLet’s conclude this series on John Dominic Crossan’s new book, The Power of Parable. Last time we looked at the Gospels of Matthew and Mark; this time Luke-Acts and John.

Crossan argues that the Gospels are not histories or biographies of Jesus but are fictional parables and Jesus is their central character. Now Crossan does not doubt that there was a real, historical Jesus. But you won’t find him in the Gospels, he says, at least not on a face-value reading of them. To see Crossan’s arguments that Jesus was indeed historical (even though the most important evidence about him is fictional) see the first post in this series: Crossan’s Proofs That Jesus Did Exist. (Did you “find it persuasive”? Nor did I.)

(For the uninitiated, “Find it persuasive” is a stock phrase used by biblical scholars to apply in the positive or negative to arguments they do or do not like. It replaces the tedious need to find an evidence-based and logically valid argument to address a view that supports or contradicts one’s personal beliefs and tastes.)

Question:

If the authors of the Gospels wrote fiction about Jesus, is it necessary to postulate an historical Jesus to explain the Gospels?

Now this question is more than just a “mythicist” question. Of course it has implications for the question of whether or not there ever was an historical Jesus. But can’t we ask that same question without any of the mythicist-historicist invective we have come to expect of it? Forget the mythical-historical Jesus debate. Let’s address the evidence, the Gospels, without fear or favour. First things first.

So let’s start with Crossan’s discussion of Luke-Acts.

In what sense is Luke-Acts a parable about Jesus and not a biography or history of Jesus? (more…)

2013/01/19

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 1: What Has History To Do With The Facts?

RottenDenmarkThere is something rotten in the state of historical Jesus studies. Ideology has long trumped inconvenient questioning. Postmodernist flim-flam has recently trumped any hope of sound methodology. Some on that side of New Testament studies have curiously accused me of being “a fact fundamentalist” or an antiquated positivist or one who has unrealistic demands for certainty. So before I justify my claim that HJ studies have fallen hostage to ideology and methodological nonsense, let me lay all my cards out on the table and tell you what history means to me.

History for me has never been “about facts and dates”. It has never been “one darned thing after another.” That’s a chronicle or an archival record. Not history. In hindsight I have come to appreciate so much my senior high school years as a history student when I was taught by two pioneers in the way history was to be taught throughout Australian secondary schools, J.H. Allsopp and H.R. Cowie.

challengeThe first thing we were taught was that history was an enquiry. It was a debate. It was all about exploring questions. We began our studies with the French Revolution and we were confronted with questions: Why did it happen in France? Why then? And instead of being given answers we were given competing explanations. We were forced to study up on the facts in order to try to answer these questions. Inevitably we soon discovered that the importance of certain facts varied according to the different points of view of the authors. One of the questions we were asked to test at our senior high school level of competence was historian Toynbee’s thesis that all history followed a pattern of “challenge and response”.

pirenneThen I took up history at university. We had been well prepared. First topic, the rise of feudalism. First book to read: The Pirenne thesis; analysis, criticism, and revision. We weren’t “taught” what led to the rise of feudalism in Europe. We were challenged and guided to explore the possible reasons, the competing explanations, and to show competence in the way we pursued historical questions.

What is history? What is an historical fact?

It was in the 1960s and we were required to engage with E.H. Carr’s radically challenging book on the nature of history, What Is History? His thesis — that history is essentially whatever the historian makes of it — was the hot debate of the day. One of his most famously quoted passages is found on the Wikipedia page and I copy it here: (more…)

2013/01/12

How Could a Crucified Jesus Be Identified With God?

Filed under: Bauckham: God Crucified — Neil Godfrey @ 9:18 pm
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Bauckham

Bauckham

Richard Bauckham is not a mythicist. I have no doubt he would emphatically oppose the very idea. General readers probably know him best for his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony in which he argues the Gospel narratives were sourced from traditions guaranteed by eyewitnesses of Jesus. I happen to think that book was one of the worst pieces of nonsense I have ever read and suggested it might best be explained by issues related to an illness from which Bauckham was recovering at the time he wrote it. But when Bauckham is not attempting to do history he can be very interesting. So I’m thrilled to write something positive about a Bauckham book for a change.

Cover of "God Crucified : Monotheism and ...

Cover via Amazon

God Crucified was first published in 1998 and reissued as a chapter in a larger volume, Jesus and the God of Israel, two years after Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Bauckham argues that the New Testament consistently portrays Jesus as part of the Godhead itself. The earliest Christology was a “High Christology”. That is, views about Jesus did not gradually evolve from the time of “the resurrection appearances” through a series of graduating exaltations until he was eventually worshiped alongside, or as part of, God. He was identified with God by the earliest Christians before any of the New Testament was written.

This view of Jesus was derived from an interpretation of the passages in Isaiah where God is said to both reside in the highest places where he sits as supreme ruler over all creation, and also with the lowly on earth, in particular with the suffering Servant. God raises that suffering Servant from death to be with him in the highest places, too, thus identifying himself with that one who had been abased.

Bauckham believes that this view (that I address in more detail in this post) explains how the human Jesus came to be identified with ruler of the universe. I think Bauckham’s argument holds perfectly for “Christ crucified”, but runs into problems when one tries to relate it to a pre-crucified human Jesus. I wonder if his argument better supports mythicist scenarios that argue Jesus was initially a figure who only took on flesh or a form of flesh for the short time necessary to be crucified.

Understanding Early Jewish Monotheism

Bauckham begins by setting out the two main scholarly views of Second Temple Jewish monotheism: (more…)

2012/12/11

‘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.)

hjelm

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 (more…)

2012/09/24

Why were Jesus’ miracles told “plainly” in the Bible but “fancifully” in the Apocryphal Gospels?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Neil Godfrey @ 7:41 pm
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One common argument of Christian apologists — both lay and scholarly — in favour of the Gospel accounts being based on “authentic” historical traditions and written by authors motivated by, or limited to, telling “the truth” as they understood it, is that the miracles of Jesus are told “plainly”, “matter-of-factly”, without any garish flourish. Miracles of Jesus in the much later “apocryphal gospels”, on the other hand, are rightly said to be told quite differently and with much embellishment that serves to impress readers with the wonder and awesomeness of Jesus’ power.

The difference, we are often told, is testimony to the historical basis of the Gospel record.

I used to respond to this challenge with a dot-point list of miracle types. What? Are you really suggesting that walking on water or stilling a storm or rising from the dead are not “fanciful” acts?

But I was trying to kid myself to some extent. Of course they are fanciful, but being fanciful in that sense is the very definition of a miracle, however it is told.

The point the apologist makes is not that miracles are indeed miraculous, but that the Bible relates them most simply and matter-of-factly quite unlike the presentations of miracles we read in the apocryphal gospels.

Read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and one quickly comes face to face with an infant from a horror movie. A child strikes mockers dead on the spot for mocking. His art-work steps out into reality and disbelievers are struck dead or blinded with no thought of asking questions later.

And the Gospel of Peter knows how to narrate a resurrection. None of this “Joseph sealed the tomb and they all went off to keep the sabbath and by the time Sunday-morning came around . . . .”. Nope. Let’s have Jesus emerge from the tomb with guards being awakened and rushing to call their commander to witness the spectacle, and great angels descending and re-ascending with their charge fastened between them and his head exalted through the clouds, all accompanied by a great voice from heaven and responses from below . . . . Now that’s a resurrection scene!

There is a difference in tone between the miracles of Jesus in the canonical gospels and those found in their apocryphal counterparts.

The apologist — even the scholarly one as I mentioned above — jumps on this difference as evidence that the “plain and simple” narration of the gospels is evidence of intent to convey downright facts.

Unfortunately, this conclusion is evidence of nothing more profound than the propensity of the faithful to fall into the fallacy of “the false dichotomy“. (more…)

2012/09/10

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: (more…)

2012/08/28

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:

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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. (more…)

2012/08/15

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. (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…)

2012/08/01

A Pre-Christian Heavenly Jesus

A little exchange of views (beginning here) on Larry Hurtado’s blog (Hurtado generously offers a platform for some interesting resources for those interested in mythicist arguments ;-)  ) has alerted me to something no doubt many who follow Richard Carrier’s writings more attentively than I have done will already know that Carrier writes:

Nor was the idea of a preexistent spiritual son of God a novel idea among the Jews anyway. Paul’s contemporary, Philo, interprets the messianic prophecy of Zechariah 6:11-12 in just such a way. In the Septuagint this says to place the crown of kingship upon “Jesus,” for “So says Jehovah the Ruler of All, ‘Behold the man named ‘Rises’, and he shall rise up from his place below and he shall build the House of the Lord’.” This pretty much is the Christian Gospel. Philo was a Platonic thinker, so he could not imagine this as referring to “a man who is compounded of body and soul,” but thought it meant an “incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image” whom “the Father of the Universe has caused to spring up as the eldest son.” Then Philo says, “In another passage, he calls this son the firstborn,” and says “he who is thus born” imitates “the ways of his father.” (Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 250-251)

Carrier then quotes the passage from Philo, and I quote it here from the Yonge translation available online. The word “East” has since been better understood as “Rises”, as in the rising of the sun:

“Behold, a man whose name is the East!” A very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul; but if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of the east has been given to him with great felicity. (63) For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father . . . . (On the Confusion of Tongues, Book 14:62, 63)

Before adding my own discussion I’ll quote the next paragraph from Carrier, too: (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…)

2012/01/31

The First Signs of Christianity: Couchoud continued

Couchoud thought that John the Baptist epitomized and popularized the Jewish hopes for a coming Judge from Heaven — as shown in my previous post in this series (the entire series is archived here).

Christianity was born of the travail of the days of John. The Baptist gave it two talismans with which to bind souls:

  1. the advent of the Heavenly Man in a universal cataclysm,
  2. and the rite of baptism which allowed the initiates to await, without apprehension, the Coming of the Judge.

(p. 31, my formatting)

At first the teaching spread like wildfire but without John’s name attached to it as its IP owner.

Before long the teaching became enriched with various kinds of additions. First among these additions were new names for the Heavenly Man: Lord, Christ, Jesus.

Lord as a title was derived from Psalm 110:1

The Lord said unto my Lord,

Sit thou at my right hand,

Until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

To whom could this have been addressed? Surely not to the Messiah, the Son of David, waited for by the Pharisees. David would not have called his son “my Lord.” It must have been to the Son of Man who, according to the Revelation of Enoch, was placed on the throne of his glory by God Himself. (p. 31)

Since David as an inspired prophet makes it clear that the Son of Man is enthroned at the right hand of God and calls him Lord. So believers could also call the Son of Man their Lord.

(Note that the title “Son of Man” was used as a Greek expression, too. Think of Christianity as moulded very largely by Greek speakers.)

Christ, Christos, “is a somewhat barbarous translation of the Hebrew word which means consecrated by unction, Messiah.” (more…)

2012/01/18

Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment”

A traditional Kyrgyz manaschi performing part ...

Oral performance of an epic poem.

Contrary to the understanding of a few theologians oral historian Jan Vansina does NOT use the “criterion of embarrassment” in the same way as a number of historical Jesus scholars do. His discussion of embarrassment in fact supports the arguments of those scholars who argue the criterion is invalid!

I asked Dr McGrath for a page reference in Vansina that supported his claims that historical Jesus scholars draw from oral history their justification for their use of the “criterion of embarrassment”. He replied with Oral History, pp. 83, 84. (I can tell immediately he has read this book because he did not put its title in quotation marks — a sure giveaway.) This in fact is not the same book I read or quoted from but another, more recent, one (2009), much of which is available online. So I replied with this:

Thank you for the reference. This is not from the book or edition I was quoting or the one I have at hand (1985) but your reference refers to the title available online. . . . [I leave interested readers to consult the relevant pages I discuss below for themselves.]

You would have been more informative in your post had you pointed out that what Vansina is saying on page 83 of the work you cite is that an oral tradition is unlikely to have been falsified if it runs counter to the purpose for which the tradition is told. Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence. And on page 82 Vansina explains how important it is to know thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions where the oral tradition is found. So how does one know the purposes for which the oral tradition is told? Answer: By knowing the provenance of the oral tradition. That is, knowing (Vansina would say knowing intimately) the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition.

This is exactly the argument against the validity of the criterion of embarrassment. Scholars who critique the validity of this criterion point out that we do not know the details — the provenance — of the original composition of, say, the baptism of Jesus. What was clearly embarrassing for later authors and institutions may not have been embarrassing for the original composers of a tale.

But thank you for a stimulating exchange.

But reading Vansina’s reference to logical inferences from embarrassment in the larger context of his entire argument — not just cherry picking convenient references from a page or two, but understanding those pages in the context of the argument of the entire book — makes it as clear as day that Vansina is assessing historical probability with the aid of standard historical “tools” commonly applied by historians generally. Vansina is relying on the very same “tools” as used by historians dealing with written sources. Embarrassment is not one of these tools but is an inference drawn from the application of the basic tools. I quoted his plain statement to this effect in my previous post and repeat it here: (more…)

2012/01/05

Historical memory in the Gospel of Mark: a radical twist

Filed under: Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 9:43 am
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The Daughter of Jairus

Image via Wikipedia

On my way to post something on the Old Testament again I met a strange idea in a very old book, one published in 1924 and with an introduction by the renowned if obsolete Sir James Frazer.

Now I happen to think the best explanation for the source of those miracles by Peter in the Book of Acts — those where he heals the paralyzed Aeneas and raises the deceased Dorcas — is that they were borrowed and adapted from the Gospel of Mark’s accounts of Jesus healing the paralyzed man and raising the daughter of Jairus.

But Paul-Louis Couchoud long-ago published an idea that had not crossed my mind before, or at least one I had quickly forgotten if it had.

To introduce this arresting idea Couchoud accepts as “very probable” the ancient rumour that circulated about Mark writing down from memory the things Peter had told him.

According to an Ephesian tradition dating from the early part of the second century, Mark had been the dragoman of Peter (whose only language was doubtless Aramaic); and Mark wrote down later from memory, but without omission or addition, all that he had heard from Peter about the oracles and miracles of the Messiah. This is very probable. Only one might suspect Peter’s conversation of having been revised under Paul’s influence. For if, in Mark’s Gospel, Peter and the Galilean Apostles are everywhere in the limelight, it is only to play the parts of totally unintelligent and cowardly persons, who are in striking contrast to the ideal figure of the Messiah. Yet, after all, Peter, with whom we are unacquainted, may have been capable of representing things in this piquant and modest manner. (p. 42)

I have a more literary take on the Gospel of Mark and see little reason to think of it as a collection of memoirs. But sometimes other ideas contain germs of concepts that may be developed in new directions.

But then Couchoud gets closer to his radical idea. (more…)

2011/12/15

Earl Doherty’s forerunner? Paul-Louis Couchoud and the birth of Christ

In his review of Maurice Goguel‘s attack on Jesus mythicism Earl Doherty writes (with my emphasis):

It was at the opening of the 20th century that the first serious presentations of the Jesus Myth theory appeared. The earliest efforts by such as Robertson, Drews, Jensen and Smith were, from a modern point of view, less than perfect, lacking a comprehensive explanation for all aspects of the issue. Pre-Christian cults, astral religions, obscure parallels with foreign cultures, even the epic of Gilgamesh, went into a somewhat hodge-podge mix; many of them didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Paul. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Paul-Louis Couchoud in France offered a more coherent scenario, identifying Christ in the eyes of Paul as a spiritual being. (While not relying upon him, I would trace my type of thinking back to Couchoud, rather than the more recent G. A. Wells who, in my opinion, misread Paul’s understanding of Christ.)

More recently on this blog Earl Doherty stated in relation to this 1920’s French mythicist (again my emphasis):

Prior to Wells, the mythicist whose views were closest to my own was Paul-Louis Couchoud who wrote in the 1920s, though I took my own fresh run at the question and drew very little from Couchoud himself.

I have recently acquired a two volume English translation of Couchoud’s work titled The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity, translated by C. Bradlaugh Bonner and published 1939.

Today I did a very rough and dirty bodgie job of scanning the introductory chapters of this book and making them word-searchable. But if you are not a fuss-pot for perfection and are curious about how Couchoud opens his argument I share here the opening pages of this two volume work.  (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…)

2011/12/04

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism 5 — The Christ Title (2)

Continuing the series that is archived here.

Here is my understanding of Walter Schmithals’ argument so far. (Others who have read ‘Gnosticism in Corinth‘ — Roger? — please do chime in with corrections. I have not found reading S easy and am quite open to being shown that I have forgotten or overlooked some significant aspect of his argument.)

Schmithals guiding principle appears to be that nature (or human culture) would produce a singular trajectory or evolutionary progression from a “system” which begins without a clear individualised redeemer myth (i.e. one in which a personalised redeemer descends from heaven to rescue mankind enabling them to follow him back into heaven and their true home). At the beginning the potentially saving power lies dormant in all humankind and is activated by saving knowledge (gnosis) of its origin and ultimate home. This power was part of the great power or creative force that produced all things.

Jewish influence or Jewish gnostics are said to have led to the adoption of the title of “Christ” as one of the names of this power. This adoption took only the title or term Christ and not the full conceptual embodiment of what that figure supposedly meant to Jewish thought. In this primitive gnostic thought the title Christ was thus amenable to being attached to the Primal Man or Adamus (heavenly Adam) concept.

None of the above is said to have shown any hint of Christian influence. (more…)

2011/12/02

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism 4 — The Christ Title (1)

Filed under: Schmithals: Gnostic Corinth — Neil Godfrey @ 9:58 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

This continues the series on an introductory chapter from Walter Schmithals’ Gnosticism in Corinth. The full series is archived here.

Now it is no longer a very long step to the identification of this system as “pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism.” When Simon identifies himself as the “Great Power,” he therewith makes the claim, not to be a definite divine emanation, but an emanated part of the one original God himself. We have seen that the Apophasis developed just this Simonian claim and how it developed it. It is immediately understandable that all the divine predicates can be claimed by Simon or can be attributed to him. Thus, following Irenaeus, Hippolytus rightly says that Simon tolerated “being called by any name with which people wished to name him.” Hence he is called not only Great Power or The Standing One, but also God, Son of God, Father, Holy Spirit, Kyrios, Savior, and so on. (p. 45)

The pre-Christian system of Simonianism did not use the Judaistic term Christ in the sense of being a unique redeemer but as a title only. So when Hippolytus says that

Simon had appeared as a man although he was not a man, and had apparently suffered in Judea, had appeared to the Jews as Son, and to the other peoples as Pneuma Hagion [Holy Spirit], it is still clear in this late report that Simon is the Christ not as the one Christ who has appeared in Jesus but as the Pneuma who has appeared in all, and only thus also in Jesus. (p. 46)

Dositheus who was reputed to have been Simon’s teacher presented himself as Christ, according to Origen (Celsus, 1, LVII).

But of course none of the above proves the existence of a pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism.

For Schmithals what is important first of all is to be clear about the nature of what he calls “the structure” of the pre-Christian Gnostic system: (more…)

2011/12/01

Jesus with Isaac in Gethsemane: And How Historical Inquiry Trumps Christian Exegesis

Other uses for clubs and knives: Flickr photo by Meyer Potashman

Edited with explanatory note on Jesus not struggling with his sacrificial vocation — Dec 2, 2011, 08:10 am

This post concludes the series outlining Huizenga‘s thesis that Matthew created his Jesus as an antitype of Isaac. The earlier posts are:

  1. Isaac Bound: template for Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew — this examines the Jewish beliefs about the Isaac offering narrative before the Christian era;
  2. Isaac Bound & Jesus: first century evidence — this surveys Jewish and some Christian beliefs about Abraham’s offering of Isaac in the early Christian era;
  3. Matthew’s Jesus crafted from the story of Isaac — a synopsis of the Isaac allusions to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew up to the Gethsemane scene.

This post concludes my presentation of Huizenga’s chapter The Matthean Jesus and Isaac  in Reading the Bible Intertextually. It first addresses verbal allusions and thematic correspondences between Genesis 22 and the Gethsemane and arrest scenes in the Gospel of Matthew; it concludes with a consideration of the reasons the Gospel author may have used Isaac in this way and the significance of his having done so. I also draw attention to Huizenga’s argument that while we have historical evidence for the likelihood of Isaac being used as a recognizable model for Jesus we have only later Christian exegesis to support the more widely held current view that Isaiah’s Suffering Servant was used as Matthew’s template.

What follows assumes some knowledge of the posts that have preceded. (more…)

2011/11/29

Matthew’s Jesus crafted from the story of Isaac

I forgot to conclude a series I began some weeks ago so let’s at least start to bring this one to a close. I was discussing Leroy Huizenga’s thesis that the Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew has been crafted from the Jewish stories of Isaac. Two reasons this has not been noticed before are suggested. Matthean scholarship has been

  1. “fixated on the formula quotations to the exclusion of other forms of Matthean intertextuality”;
  2. “redactional-critical, not narrative-critical”

. . . thus, scholars miss the cumulative narrative force of the many allusions to Isaac. (p. 70, The Matthean Jesus and Isaac in Reading the Bible Intertextually)

The previous two posts in this series covered various Jewish views of the sacrifice of Isaac in the pre-Christian and early Christian eras. Isaac came to be understood as going willingly and obediently to his sacrificial death, offered up primarily by God himself, with his sacrifice having a saving or atoning power. All this happened at Passover and on the Temple M0unt. Some of the following post will make more sense if those two previous posts are fresh in mind.

(In what follows I single out some of the more striking features of the argument and am not attempting to reproduce all of the facets and nuances Huizenga addresses. Much will be assertions of examples of intertextuality with only a little of the argument for them. This post is an outline of a chapter that is a synopsis of a thesis.) (more…)

2011/11/06

Socrates, Jesus and the broken reed of Josephus

Socrates in Nuremberg Chronicle LXXIIvPoor Josephus. He is made to bear such a burden of evidence for the sake of Jesus. Socrates’ burden on the other hand is very light. People who knew Socrates wrote about him and we can read their accounts today. Some of these people tell us they were his students and devoted followers. Another was a playwright who irreverently mocked Socrates as someone whose head was always “in the clouds”. None of this leaves us with absolutely ironclad certainty that such a figure was historical but it does give us reasonable confidence. Without the writings of followers of Socrates we would never be sure if Socrates was a fictional character. Without the mockery of Aristophanes we would have more reason to wonder if there was a real person behind the name Plato selected as a literary master-voice through whom to express his own thoughts. Even so, a few have voiced the possibility that Socrates was not historical. But most of us have been satisfied to think of him as a real figure who instigated controversy in Athenian society and won a devoted following of students.

Jesus, though, is known only from one source of tradition, Christianity itself, until we reach at the earliest the latter years of the first century (and even within that tradition itself there is not a single one who claims to have been an eyewitness of the Galilean healing-teacher. It is not insignificant that this same tradition, in all of its many variations, seeks to spread belief in this person. The very idea of the twelve disciples of Jesus is problematic for several reasons. (The links are to earlier discussions of the evidence for them.)

So it is very important for some people to hang on tightly to the passages in Josephus that mention Jesus. Josephus, even though he wrote near the end of the century, a good 60 years after Jesus was supposed to have died, is the only first century account independent of the Christian tradition and so the only non-Christian witness to the historicity of Jesus within a long generation of his death. One scholar has even gone on record as saying that because of Josephus the evidence for the existence for Jesus is comparable to that for Socrates! Now that is a desperate claim. Nothing about Josephus comes close to matching multiple eye-witness sources. (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…)

2011/10/07

More reasons for an early Christian to invent the story of Jesus’ baptism

Bill Arnal and Leif E. Vaage are not the only scholars who have published doubts about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. I mentioned them back in January this year. Another was Burton Mack in Myth of Innocence. (The evidence against historicity is in my view overwhelming. I have shown the weakness of the arguments by E. P. Sanders for its historicity and posted before on how the scene’s can be explained entirely in terms of literary function and artifice without any need to resort to assumptions of extraneous events outside the text.) But for sake of completeness here is Burton Mack’s argument for treating it as entirely mythical. I highlight in bold type the reasons he sees evident for the need or wish of early Christians to invent the episode. Far from the scene being an embarrassment to the first Christians to have heard the story, it was surely welcomed. Only later evangelists reading Mark’s gospel felt embarrassment over Mark’s account because they had quite different views of Jesus.

The framework stories of the gospels are the most highly mythologized type of material. They include the narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances. The transfiguration story is purely mythological, as are the birth narratives, the story of the empty tomb, and the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. Critical scholars would not say that any of these derive from reminiscences.

The baptism story is also mythic, but in this case may derive from lore about Jesus and John the Baptist. Lore about John and Jesus is present in the sayings tradition, in a pronouncement story, and other legends both in Q and in Mark. John the Baptist was a public figure whose social role was similar to that of Jesus and whose followers were regarded by some followers of Jesus as competitors.

Except for the baptism story, however, there is no indication that Jesus and John crossed paths.

(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…)

2011/09/06

Turning the Philippian Hymn into a Precambrian Rabbit

 

Precambrian rabbit

This post attempts to build on my two recent posts about classicist John Moles’ discussion of the meaning and power of the name “Jesus” in the earliest Christian literature through reflections on a Hymn in Paul’s letters that seems impossible for most scholars to accept at face value.

I’ve made positive use of two of Alan F. Segal‘s major publications (Two Powers in Heaven and Paul the Convert) so when I saw his chapter on the resurrection in The Resurrection of Jesus (compiled/edited by Robert B. Stewart) I was not expecting what I in fact found there in his discussion of the Philippian Hymn — Phil. 2:5-11. Segal begins admirably but within a few lines he suddenly does a complete flip flop and it is difficult to understand how certain explications he offers have anything to do with the Hymn at all.

Being able to read the Hymn for what it is takes on a special significance if one goes along with widespread scholarly opinion that it had an independent and liturgical life before Paul added it to his letter, and that Paul’s own writings well preceded the Gospels. In other words, it is possibly one of the earliest clearly Christian writings that we know about.

I suspect that the Hymn (read without Gospel presuppositions) is exactly the sort of fossil that the rest of the evidence tells us to expect at this earliest strata of evidence. But the way it is interpreted by many biblical scholars actually makes it look like a precambrian rabbit.

What one observes across the New Testament epistles, Gospels and Acts is a general trajectory from a very high Christology to an increasingly humanized Jesus. The epistles (written before the Gospels) speak of a divine Christ figure worshipped alongside God. The Gospel of Mark gives us a Jesus who is the Holy One of God with power over all demonic forces and the forces of nature and by the time we read Luke and Acts we are reading about a Jesus who weeps and whose death has no greater significance than that of another human martyr. Given this trajectory from divine to increasingly human, with its implication that Christianity from its earliest days worked to steadily develop a more humanized Jesus, one would expect to find anything preceding the epistles will contain a Jesus with precious little humanity about him.

When Segal begins his discussion of the Philippian Hymn he sounds like he is about to demonstrate just this: (more…)

2011/09/05

Creativity with the Name of Jesus the Healer in the Gospel of Mark

This church converted to a blues night club was once called The Healer and was once a favorite place of mine -- A pity they changed the name.

Classicist John Moles presents a case for the Gospels making creative use of the name of Jesus in order to drive home its unique status as the power that tends, cleanses, heals and saves. In the Gospel of Mark — the portion of his Histos article I am addressing in this post — this creative play on the name of Jesus culminates in the final crucifixion and resurrection scenes where the name emerges as a saving healing power of cosmic proportions.

John Moles is examining the common classical use of literary puns as found in early Christian literature. He draws our attention to the meaning of the name of Jesus itself (the name itself, not the person) and how this is played with for theological purposes by literary composers.

I have given my reasons for thinking of the Gospels as something akin to parabolic or metaphorical narratives. Jesus and the disciples, especially in the Gospel of Mark, can be read very easily as two-dimensional ciphers to dramatize theological lessons. (I am aware that much secular ancient literature was not strong on building three-dimensional characters but the Gospels, I believe, go beyond this.) So this article by John Moles has my mind racing across those earlier thoughts. What was in the minds of the evangelists? Was “Mark” imagining he was writing about a real person or was he creating a character to represent a theological name of powerful import to the faithful? Now this is not of itself a mythicist argument. (And John Moles himself is definitely not a mythicist.) The same question could well be raised of an author who was writing in response to a faith that in other ways was derived directly from a historical person, but for whom that historical person was lost and replaced by a “Christ of faith” idea. If any conclusions are to be drawn either way then they must be led by other evidence in addition to, or that otherwise embraces any argument in relation to, the literary one. So let’s just focus on the nature of the literary qualities in relation to the name of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as presented in his fascinating article.

In the following I will add my own comments in italics to my notes from Moles’ article. My own notes will probably often veer from the single theme Moles adheres to in his article. (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…)

2011/07/16

Was Socrates man or myth? Applying historical Jesus criteria to Socrates

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 10:48 am
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Strepsiades and Pheidippides are discussing, S...

A scene including Socrates in Aristophanes' play The Clouds. Image via Wikipedia

It might be interesting to see how the criteria used for the quest for the historical Jesus might work with another figure of comparable stature in the ancient world. A comparison like this might help us assess their real value as determinants of historicity.

Multiple Attestation

We have the writings of the philosopher Plato. These dramatize the teaching career, trial and death of Socrates in dialogue form. But was Plato writing about a real person or was Socrates only a literary character he chose through whom to express his own philosophical teachings?

We have the writings of Xenophon. Xenophon was known as a historian but his writings about Socrates are not histories. They portray a very different sort of teacher from the one we read about in Plato.

Both Plato and Xenophon are clearly writing as devoted followers of Socrates, and classicists have often remarked that the teachings they attribute to Socrates are really their own and not those of a real Socrates at all. So we are still have one source type represented by both of these authors, and historicity cannot be settled by appealing to their “multiple attestation” alone.

This reminds us of Schweitzer’s complaint about the nature of the evidence for Jesus:

[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)

But we do have another source that appears to be quite independent of the above pair of Socrates’ disciples. (more…)

2011/07/08

The (Literary) Servant in Isaiah and (the Literary) Jesus in the Gospels

Filed under: Isaiah — Neil Godfrey @ 8:07 pm
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Some thoughts that occurred to me after reading Ulrich Berges’ article that I outlined in the previous post – – –

One sees in Isaiah an overlap between the Servant as Israel and the Servant who is the personal prophet, or more strictly the personification representing a prophetic community.

Such a literary technique — constructing or attributing to a literary persona the issues and experiences being grappled with by the authorial community — is not unique to Isaiah. It is found in relation to David, Jeremiah, Judith, Daniel, Ezra, the mourner in Lamentations.

One sees an overlap between Jesus as an epitome of Israel at the opening of the Gospel of Mark (going along with the majority view of this Gospel being the first written of the canonical Gospels) and Jesus as a unique person, too. (more…)

2011/06/25

The mythical meaning of gods (Dionysus, Jesus) being given historical settings

Filed under: Taylor: Classics and Bible — Neil Godfrey @ 7:43 pm
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Pentheus torn apart by Agave and Ino. Attic re...

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Theologians draw out spiritual lessons from the tale of God sending his Son in the flesh, performing miracles and teaching truths incomprehensible to most, and then dying and returning once again to heaven so he can be with many more followers here and now who do understand and appreciate his fleshly advent. The same theologians even explain history in terms of this theological drama. Followers of Jesus were so shocked by the unexpected demise of their hero on the cross that they feverishly set about fabricating this spiritually meaningful tale to compensate for their disillusionment by restoring among themselves a new faith and hope for a future life.

The possibility that that spiritually meaningful story might have been the original source of the tale of the historical advent of Jesus seems not to occur to them. (No, I am not saying the story was fabricated overnight ex nihilo. All stories and genres have their antecedents, and such antecedents to the Gospel story and genre are a lot more in evidence in the record than we are conditioned to quickly acknowledge.)

But let’s do a little comparative religious study to see if another ancient cult can shed any light on the question of Jesus’ historicity. (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,...

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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…)

2011/03/17

Don’t forget Plato’s Cave: It helps explain the invention and reception of the Gospel

Filed under: Gospel genre — Neil Godfrey @ 8:31 pm
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One might encounter the suggestion among biblical scholars that it is highly unlikely that anyone would invent the idea of a saviour figure who is rejected by his own people and is killed at their hands — and especially if that saviour figure is in a Jewish context said to be a Son of David. Well, maybe some Jews who bothered to think about this did contemplate the possibility of a Davidic king one day ruling over all the world with Jerusalem as his capital. But when we read the gospels we quickly understand that there were other Jews who saw the David figure in the light of the other side of the biblical narrative, too — one who went mourning to the mount of Olives with a few faithful followers when being pursued – to the point of death – by his rebel son Absalom. This moment of imminent death was later reputed to have been the subject of a number of Psalms. (Of course, the Davidic figure is only one of a number who is associated with the “Messiah” label. It is most frequently associated with the priests — and it is noteworthy that it is the anointed (messianic) high priest who gives liberty to refugees from unintended capital sins when he dies.)

But even in non-Jewish literature, the concept of a saviour figure being scoffed at and even killed by those he would want to save. It is the central theme of the classic Greek hero, Achilles. The half divine and half mortal Achilles pursues what is right and honourable despite knowing that it will result in his own early death.

And the great Hellenistic thinker, Plato, composed a tale that has epitomized the best of Hellenistic values and Western values since. His allegory of the cave tells us how a would-be saviour of a people will do all he can out of compassion to rescue others. But at the same time those he loves and would save will not recognize him or his claims. They will even scoff at him, and even eventually seek to kill him if they ever have the chance.

This is the essence of the Gospel message about the nature, reception and fate of Jesus. Jesus is very much the classic Hellenistic (cum Roman) hero of the gentiles. He is like Achilles and like the saviour in the parable of the Cave.

And he gives hope to all those who would identify with him that they, too, can find heroic meaning in their lives.

The Jews of the later Second Temple Period were influenced by Hellenism (Greek ideas), as we see in the history of the Maccabees. Dying as a martyr was a means to salvation not only for oneself, but — by shedding one’s own blood for God and one’s people, one also became an atonement for them, too.

The Gospel of Jesus is a tale that found a ready welcome among Hellenized pagan and Jew alike. There is nothing mysterious about its invention or reception.

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2011/02/09

Bartimaeus continued: If the disciples be fictional, what be their leader?

Filed under: Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 9:21 pm
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"Lord, that I might see!"

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There are two accounts in Mark’s Gospel of restoring the sight of blind men. The first one, two-staged healing that took place at Bethsaida, was discussed here. Much of the following is owed to the discussion by Vernon K. Robbins in that linked post, even at points where I do not explicitly state this.

In that first healing it is clear that the placement of the story within the narrative structure brings out the symbolic meaning of the miracle. One can readily recognize the symbolic suggestiveness of the restoration of sight being worked out in two stages, as discussed in the previous post. Here is a recap the structural placement of the Bethsaida healing:

A: First there is Jesus’ reminding his disciples of his two attempts to open their eyes to spiritual understanding

8:17 But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? 18 Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?”

They said to Him, “Twelve.”

20 “Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?”

And they said, “Seven.”

21 So He said to them, “How is it you do not understand?”

B: Then comes the two-stage healing of the blind man at Bethsaida — in secret, away from the crowds (more…)

2011/02/08

Jesus, bearing the diseases he had healed?

Filed under: Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 8:51 pm
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Jesus scourged. Marillier. In the Bowyer Bible...

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I used to wonder if whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark intended to have Jesus in the last half of the Gospel largely reverse the role he had carved out in the first part of the Gospel.

The gospel is characterized by reversals and ironies at many points. The one who raised the dead dies, but is resurrected, too. Demons recognize who he is but his disciples fail to do so, yet when they finally do their leader himself is rebuked as a “Satan”. The way to gain one’s life is to lose it. Those commanded to silence speak, and those who are commanded to speak are silent. Jesus performs great miracles in Galilee, but when he reaches Jerusalem as the Messianic King he is powerless, rejected and slain.

Jesus is portrayed as the Son of God (cum “son of man”) until he reaches Jerusalem. He casts out the hidden demonic rulers of the world and releases those who had been held captive to their power, either with sin, sickness or outright possession. (Illnesses were believed to be caused by demons.)

The first miraculous act by Jesus when he begins his mission in Capernaum is an exorcism of a man in a synagogue. The moment of the evil spirit departing is described as follows:

And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. (Mark 1:26)

The moment of Jesus’ death is not unlike the signs of an exorcism, with a loud shout and exiting of one’s spirit or breath: (more…)

Blind Bartimaeus: some meanings of the story surrounding his healing

 

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

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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…)

2011/01/26

How do we know anyone existed in ancient times? (Or, if Jesus Christ goes would Julius Caesar also have to go?)

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 8:43 am
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Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum
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Most things we know we know because “everyone knows” them to be true. They are things we are taught at school and that remain unquestioned in our cultural life. Though much of this “social knowledge” will not be seriously questioned by most of us, we have trained specialists or scientists who will question and test some of it. So we have two types of knowledge: social knowledge and scientific knowledge.

Most of us know figures from the past existed as a form of social knowledge. I know evolution is a fact as a form of social knowledge, and with a little effort I have found I can also know it is true as a more secure, evidence-based form of knowledge.

Most of us know Julius Caesar existed because this is a matter of public record and taught in schools. Specializing students of history know he exists because they become familiar with the evidence: coins with his name and image, busts, books written by him, writings among his contemporaries like Cicero speaking of him. His existence and career is also a very powerful explanation the way Rome and its conquered territories came to be ruled by an emperor.

There is a constellation of other persons in Caesar’s life for whom we don’t have the same strength of evidence. But the fact that those others are written about by authors who express intentions to address the facts of his life gives us strong confidence in the probability of their existence, too.

Some historical persons such as Socrates who have become part of the web of our social knowledge are from time to time questioned by specialist students and scholars. But many of these specialists are satisfied Socrates existed on the strength of the independence of the ancient testimonies. Not only is Socrates found among the writings of his reverential devotees like Plato and Xenophon, but he also appears comedy plays by a contemporary playwright as the but of crude mockery.

So when we get beyond social knowledge, specialist students can uncover the more empirical evidence for the existence of ancient persons. What persuades is where that evidence is multiple, independent and not self-serving or agenda driven. (more…)

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