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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…)

2011/10/03

Explaining the noble lies (or pious fiction) in the Gospels

Walk on the water

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Mainstream scholars struggle trying to explain why the Gospel authors included clearly symbolic — nonhistorical — tales about Jesus in their gospel narratives.

Marcus J. Borg, Mark Allan Powell, Dale C. Allison, Roger David Aus, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong and Robert Gundry are some of the scholars who acknowledge tales such as the virgin birth, Jesus walking on water, the transfiguration, the miracles of the loaves, the resurrection appearances are fabrications, metaphors.

(So much for that argument that there were enough surviving eyewitnesses or people who knew eyewitnesses to keep the evangelists honest!)

Marcus J. Borg writes of stories like Jesus and Peter walking on water, the turning the water into wine at the Cana wedding, and the virgin birth:

Purely metaphorical narratives . . . are not based on the memory of particular events, but are symbolic narratives created for their metaphorical meaning. As such, they are not meant as historical reports. (p.  57, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary) (more…)

2011/03/13

What do biblical scholars make of the resurrection?

Jesus Appearing to the Magdalene by Fra Angeli...

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Or more specifically, what was the state of play around five years ago when Research Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University, Gary R. Habermas, had a chapter published in The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue? Habermas outlines four broad positions found among contemporary scholars and identifies a trend in which a strong majority of scholars do favour the idea that Jesus really was raised from the dead “in some sense”. I find his findings noteworthy for another reason that I will save for the end of this post. The link above is to the Wikipedia article on Habermas where he is described as an evangelical Christian apologist. Still, I was interested enough to know what the general state of biblical scholarship appears to be on the question, so I included his chapter in my reading.

“One of the indisputable facts of history”

Habermas writes (my emphasis throughout):

As firmly as ever, most contemporary scholars agree that, after Jesus’ death, his early followers had experiences that they at least believed were appearances of their risen Lord. Further, this conviction was the chief motivation behind the early proclamation of the Christian gospel.

These basics are rarely questioned, even by more radical scholars. They are among the most widely established details from the entire New Testament. (p. 79) (more…)

2011/02/01

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

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

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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…)

2010/12/31

Theologians who mistakenly think they are historians

Morton Smith
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Some theologians (I won’t mention any names) continue to call themselves historians despite never having majored in any historical studies. One renowned (or infamous to some) biblical scholar understood this as a serious problem in historical Jesus studies. He wrote of the anomaly of Jesus-studies supposedly having so much “primary documentation” yet being so fraught with unknowns, uncertainties and unresolvable disputes:

Yet Jesus should be one of the better known figures of antiquity. We have at least half a dozen letters from Paul, who perhaps knew Jesus during his lifetime (II Cor. 5:16), and joined his followers within, at most, a decade after his death. We have four accounts of Jesus’ public career – the canonical gospels – written anywhere from forty to seventy years after his death; these are generally thought to rest, in part, on earlier written material. Few public figures from the Greco-Roman world are so well documented, but none is so widely disputed. This suggests that there is something strange about the documents, or about the scholars who have studied them, or both.

Probably both. Most of the scholars have not been historians, but theologians determined to make the documents justify their own theological positions. This has been true of liberals, no less than conservatives; both have used “critical scholarship” to get rid of theologically unacceptable evidence. But not everything can be blamed on the scholars. They could not have performed such vanishing acts had there not been something peculiar in the evidence itself.

(pp. 3-4 of Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God? by Morton Smith, my bolding) (more…)

2010/12/21

Crossan’s absolute certainty in the historicity of Christ Crucified

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 11:07 pm
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Christ crucified from the "Pigliata"...
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I take it absolutely for granted Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Security about the fact of the crucifixion derives not only from the unlikelihood that Christians would have invented it but also from the existence of two early and independent non-Christian witnesses to it, a Jewish one from 93-94 C.E. and a Roman one from the 110s or 120s C.E. (p. 372 of The Historical Jesus)

That last “but also” part of Crossan’s sentence addresses the only way we can have any certainty about the past: independent evidence, external controls.

Here Crossan goes beyond the usual subjective assertion that Christians would not have made up the story. Here he acknowledges the primary importance of independent corroboration.

This is good. It is exactly what nonbiblical historians do. They work with verifiable facts. Their task is to interpret verifiable facts and explain the known “facts” of history. (Historical Jesus scholars usually busy themselves trying to find what some facts are. Was Jesus a revolutionary or a rabbi? Did he or did he not “cleanse” the Temple? If there are no verifiable facts then they don’t do the history.)

Everything we need to know we learned as children

I have discussed this in some depth in my Historical Facts and Contrasting Methods posts. It’s a simple truism that most of us learned from our parents, read in the Bible, and that carries right through to normative history and modern day journalism — Don’t believe every word you are told. Check the facts. Test what you hear. (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…)

2010/11/20

Maurice Casey’s Historical Methods for Historical Jesus Studies

Maurice Casey (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the University of Nottingham, UK) in his 2010 book Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching devotes his third chapter to a discussion of his historical method, and becomes the latest New Testament scholar to demonstrate (once more) how studies of the “historical Jesus” follow their own idiosyncratic rules and are unlike any other studies of ancient historical figures.

Unfortunately, Casey also demonstrates in this chapter the all too familiar tendency of biblical scholars to carelessly misrepresent arguments and authors they do not like. In this case, Casey’s representation of Crossan’s methodology and arguments is, at best, a little unfair, as I will demonstrate by setting Casey’s and Crossan’s words side by side.

(more…)

2010/04/28

How Crossan redefines history and sets up more false analogies

The purpose of this post is to add an illustrative footnote to my earlier post on the nature of history and historical facts by showing how a prominent historical Jesus scholar redefines the nature of history and historical facts to mean something quite different from anything understood by other historians of ancient, medieval or modern history. Many biblical historians do not practice history as it is known and understood by nonbiblical historians, but myth-making, as I explain below.

Most historians acknowledge that there are very real facts of the past for which we have tangible evidence, and there is no dispute about these facts. Different interpretations or views of these facts does not change the reality of the facts themselves:

No matter how many observers may concern themselves with such questions as the day on which Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, who the eldest surviving child of Henry VIII was, or where Napoleon confronted the allied armies on a given day in 1813, they will all come up with the same answer. There is, in short, a very large body of agreed historical knowledge on which no dispute is possible . . . . (Elton, The Practice of History, p. 54)

We may not know precisely why William the Conqueror decided to invade England; we do know that he did invade and had a reason for doing so. We may argue over his invasion and its motive; we cannot argue them away. Nine hundred years ago they had existence . . . . Thus while history will rarely be able to say: this is the truth and no other answer is possible; it will always be able to say: this once existed or took place, and there is therefore a truth to be discovered if only we can find it. (p.49)

So in history there are many hidden facts we do not know (e.g. why a particular war started) about the public and undebatable facts for which we do have primary and corroborated secondary evidence (e.g. the fact that there was a war or invasion). But there are publicly known facts for which we have primary evidence and corroborated secondary evidence.

Note that the very foundation of historical enquiry is a set of questions about the public, undebatable facts and events known (from primary and/or tested and corroborated evidence) and about which there can be no doubt or revision. Those facts — the fact of a war, of the settlement of a new country, a person for whom we have clear evidence of real existence (e.g. letters, diaries, contemporary reports) — are the starting point of the historian’s questions. The historian begins investigations — and the uncovering of new evidence, generally more debatable — with questions about such facts.

But see how John Dominic Crossan puts a subtle twist on the above truisms about history: (more…)

2010/04/26

Another instance of dishonest handling of evidence in Historical Jesus studies?

The Annunciation by El Greco

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It is commonly said that the miraculous events in the Gospels concerning Jesus do not diminish the historicity of Jesus or his story because ancient historians and biographers also regularly narrated tales of the miraculous in connection with famous people we know for a fact to have been historical.

This is a misleading claim. The way in which the miraculous tales were told of people we know to have been real is generally very different from the way similar myths are narrated in the Gospels. I give one example here.

One of the first books I read when beginning my quest to understand Christian origins was The Birth of Christianity by John Dominic Crossan. In that book Crossan compares pagan biographies of emperors (Augustus, Tiberius) with the Gospels as sources of historical information. The assumption is that the Gospels themselves are entitled to be read in a way comparable to how nonbiblical historians read ancient documentary evidence of other famous persons.

Crossan compares the miraculous birth of Augustus “recorded” by an ancient historian to that of Jesus in the Gospels. The point is to demonstrate that such a clearly mythical tale told about the origins of an emperor is something we can expect in ancient biographies of real people.

Suppressing the facts to make a false comparison

But in order to present this comparison Crossan has to suppress information from the consciousness of the reader. If a less educated reader who has not read the works of this ancient historian (and Crossan has many lay readers who fall into this category and is clearly conscious of them when he writes) that reader would be left with the false impression that the ancient historical biography is indeed comparable to the Gospels when they tell of Jesus’ birth.

Here is how Crossan identifies a miraculous tale in the Gospel of Luke with with a similar miracle found in an ancient historical writing of a known historical figure (my emphasis): (more…)

2010/02/24

Even an atheist finds an historical Jesus in his own image

The shallow and contradictory foundations for “scholarly” assumptions and beliefs in “the historical Jesus”, by both Christian and atheist scholars, are brought out in this recent remark forwarded to me by someone who found it on Exploring Our Matrix:

I think this is my #1 reason for not being a mythicist. I consider it appropriate to create and/or adopt a theory that fits the evidence, rather than vice versa, whenever possible and to the greatest extent possible. This is also, I suspect, the #1 reason that I’ve compared mythicism and creationism. It is not that history and the natural sciences function in precisely the same way or offer comparable levels of certainty. They don’t. But in the case of both mythicism and creationism (both of which have many permutations and varieties) I see a deliberate attempt to reinterpret evidence to fit an already-adopted theory, when that evidence can be explained in a straightforward and persuasive matter by another theory.

The first sentence is a truism. It is a motherhood statement that any and everyone will claim they believe and follow. So we can move on to the next point:

This is also, I suspect, the #1 reason that I’ve compared mythicism and creationism. It is not that history and the natural sciences function in precisely the same way or offer comparable levels of certainty. They don’t. But in the case of both mythicism and creationism (both of which have many permutations and varieties) . . . .

I demonstrated (Creationist slurs) how Associate Professor of Religion, James McGrath, posits his own idiosyncratic self-serving definitions of “creationism”. His new point of comparison is that mythicism is like creationism because both have “many permutations and varieties”. I am not sure if he is serious or joking or having a late night.

One can count as many as 4 mythical Jesus varieties to 20 historical Jesus permutations on this eight year old page alone: Historical Jesus Theories.

Accusing the majority of historians of being the minority

It is also interesting that in the same passage James takes the chance to include his own area of biblical studies under the general class of “history” — as if the historical tools and methodologies of Jesus scholars are in any way comparable to the tools and methodologies found among what is usually thought of as History in academia. When I have pointed out to him that “minimalists” who have finally had some measure of success in bringing the study of the biblical kingdom of Israel up to the same standard of normal historical analysis and enquiry found in historical studies generally, his reply has been to suggest that it is their methodology as the minority one!!!! (See here where James writes: “I’m willing to listen if you want to explain why the minimalist historians working on ancient Israel should be the standard for the entire discipline of history.” In fact the so-called “minimalists” are actually arguing that secondary evidence should be interpreted through the lens of primary evidence and avoid all pre-suppositions about the historicity or otherwise of the secondary evidence.)

Finding the “Historical Jesus” who fits our own image

I see a deliberate attempt to reinterpret evidence to fit an already-adopted theory . . . .

This is another somewhat unscholarly claim. James knows Albert Schweitzer’s famous remark that each historical Jesus scholar has tended to find in the evidence a Jesus who turns out to be the very image of the scholar! And it has been no different since then.

  • The Irish Catholic John Dominic Crossan found a Jesus who was an anti-imperialist revolutionary.
  • Rabbi Hyam Maccoby finds a Jesus who was a rabbi.
  • There is even the “mystical” John Shelby Spong’s Jesus who is not to be found in flesh, but who is yet historical but can only be found in some mystical experience.
  • And more recently existentialist philosopher John Carroll’s existentialist Jesus.

And a recent commenter on this page in Exploring Our Matrix was popular atheist and Christian debunker, ex-evangelical preacher John W. Loftus himself, coming out and arguing for his own historical Jesus. He has argued the same again here.

Guess what John’s historical Jesus looks like . . . .

  • It’s a cultic charismatic Jesus who was a failed apocalyptic preacher.

John Loftus has also argued elsewhere (on FRDB) that his particular historical Jesus is the one that attracts his audiences and that his motive is to change “the religious landscape”. So we can be have some justification for thinking that John’s particular type of historical Jesus is no accident or disinterested outcome of objective research.

So from Christian Schweitzer to Christian debunking atheist Loftus, one can see the evidence for the “deliberate reinterpretation of the evidence to fit already adopted historical Jesus theories”.

Blinded by our cultural icons

. . . . when that evidence can be explained in a straightforward and persuasive matter by another theory.

Our deep seated cultural heritage makes it impossible for some of us to see just how nonstraightforward and unpersuasive the gospel narratives are as attempts to write real history. The fact is (as I have been discussing recently) that leading historical Jesus scholars such as E. P. Sanders assume from start to finish the historicity of Jesus, and never go further than discussing plot details to decide which bits are more plausible than others (e.g. Jesus going to a synagogue is more plausible than him walking on water) and work with nothing more than the self-serving and contradictory “tools” of “criteria of authenticity”. (See my comment and reply by Steven Carr here on the contradictory and self-serving nature of these tools.)

I wonder if the tendency to see the historical Jesus who supports our own place and identity within our wider culture should be seen as instructive about the real significance of the the hostility of many biblical scholars against “Jesus mythicism”.

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2009/06/20

“Christ crucified” — Was Paul’s message really anti-imperialist as Borg and Crossan assert?

In a recent post I mentioned a new publication, The First Paul, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. I said it contained some interesting bits, but also some bits that one might suspect are arguably on the dubious side of method and logic. I discussed a positive for my first post, now for a negative.

In the first-century setting of Paul and his hearers, “Christ crucified” had an anti-imperial meaning. Paul’s shorthand summary was not “Jesus died,” not “Jesus was killed,” but “Christ crucified. This meant that Jesus had been crucified by imperial authority . . . . In Paul’s world, a cross was always a Roman cross.

Rome reserved crucifixion for two categories of people: those who challenged imperial rule . . . and chronically defiant slaves . . . The two groups who were crucified had something in common: both rejected Roman imperial domination. Crucifixion . . . carried the message, “Don’t you dare defy imperial authority, or this will happen to you.

To proclaim “Christ crucified” was to signal at once that Jesus was an anti-imperial figure, and that Paul’s gospel was an anti-imperial gospel. The empire killed Jesus. The cross was the imperial “no” to Jesus. But God raised him. The resurrection was God’s “yes” to Jesus, God’s vindication of Jesus — and thus also God’s “no” to the powers that had killed him. (p. 131-2)

I admit I have much more to read on this topic, including a few books in my personal library like the twelve year old Paul and Empire by Richard Horsley which I am embarrassed to confess I still have only half read. So the argument of this post is restricted solely to the discussion as found in Borg and Crossan’s new popular book.

I have been recently blogging about the ostensibly pre-gospel passages about the crucifixion of Jesus (latest post here), arguing that this foundational event is entitled to be questioned as to its historical status, widespread opinion among biblical scholars notwithstanding. My conclusions differ radically from Borg’s and Crossan’s as cited above. So time to address their claims:

Paul’s shorthand was not “Jesus died” . . . Really?

Yes, “crucified” is the term used in chapters 1 and 2 of 1 Corinthians. But this is scarcely enough to persuade anyone familiar with Paul’s letters as a whole to think that for Paul the central act of the gospel embedded an intrinsically anti-imperialist message. In fact, it seems B’s and C’s claim here is based entirely on two chapters in but one of Paul’s several letters.

1 Corinthians

By the end of the letter it seems Paul decided to tone down this supposedly “anti-imperialistic” rhetoric and let the Jesus followers off the hook by reminding them that they were acting out Jesus’ death only in their ritual meals, not his crucifixion:

11: 26 . . . you do show the Lord’s death till he come.

2 Corinthians

In chapter 5 Paul writes three times that “Jesus died” without a hint of “anti-imperialist” crucifixion.

5:14 . . . if one died for all . . .

5:15a . . . he died for all . . .

5:15b . . . him who died for them . . .

Galatians

1:1 . . . who raised him from the dead . . . [darn it! Paul just missed an excellent opportunity to drive home his anti-imperialist gospel by pronouncing God’s Yes to Jesus and No to Empire: why did he not think to write, “who raised him from the crucifixion!”? What happened to God’s “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the imperial power that crucified him?]

2:20 . . . I am crucified with Christ . . . [Gosh! So Paul deserved those floggings in Acts, and he really was justifiably executed as an anti-imperialist rebel in the end?]

2:21 . . . if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain . . .

3:1 . . . Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you . . . [Why did governor Pliny not pick up on such anti-imperialist sentiment when he asked Trajan how to handle the Christians?]

5:11 . . . if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased. . . . [Whoah a minute here! Does Paul really mean that the anti-imperialist message of the cross can be nullified by preaching circumcision??? Yet that is what acceptance of Borg’s and Crossan’s assertion would lead to! Ditto for 6:12.]

5:24 . . . And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. . . . [So drunkenness and fornication are sending anti-imperialistic messages?]

6:12 . . . they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. [See 5:11 above.]

6:14 . . . But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. [This passage simply makes nonsense any attempt to read into the crucifixion an anti-imperialist message.]

Romans

Maybe it was because he was writing a letter to Christians in the imperial centre of empire, but Paul makes but one solitary reference in this letter to Jesus being crucified. But hold on, the fact that he was writing to Rome should not decide the matter in this case, because in the same letter he actually says that Christians are to see themselves as subject to a daily “crucifixion with Christ”. Is he really writing to devotees living in the shadows of the imperial palace to acknowledge that they are “anti-imperialists” by their daily conduct? See 6:6 below:

5:6 . . . Christ died for the ungodly

5:8 . . . Christ died for us

5:10 . . . the death of his Son . . .

6:6 . . . our old man is crucified with him . . .

14: 9 . . . Christ both died, and rose . . .

14:15 . . . for whom Christ died

1 Thessalonians

4:14: . . . Jesus died and rose again . . .

5:9-10 . . . our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us . . .

Philippians

2:8 . . . even the death of the cross

3:10 . . . being made conformable to his death . . .

3:18 . . . enemies of the cross of Christ . . .

If “Christ crucified” were Paul’s shorthand for his gospel in order to stress its anti-imperialistic message, it appears from the above citations that this was a point he did not wish to emphasize very often, and even sometimes a wording he wanted to infuse with an alternative meaning, probably just to throw the secret police off the scent! :-)

Did Imperial Rome really hold the crucifixion patent at the time of Paul?

The answer to this question depends on our starting assumptions. If we assume before commencing our enquiries that the Jesus story and Paul’s mission as per the Book of Acts are truly based heavily on historical accounts, then the answer will be “Yes”. Paul according to this assumption knew only Roman rule and that only Roman rulers administered crucifixion.

But if we attempt to put ourselves into the minds of first century moderately informed people, then we will know we have to allow for the idea of crucifixion having many provenances. Popular “novels” of the era not uncommonly include a dramatic crucifixion scene as part of the adventurous plot, including:

In the influential philosophical treatise, Timaeus, Plato describes the gateway between the corruptible realm where our earth resides and the incorruptible divine realm as a cross, in reference to where the celestial equator and ecliptic intersect.

Neighbouring peoples such as the Persians and Seleucids had carried out crucifixions. I cannot know if Rome’s neighbours at the time of Paul did, but crucifixion was not unique to Rome. Jews, in particular, would have held a cultural memory of how one of their kings, Alexander Jannaeus, had crucified 800 Pharisees. Josephus records this for us.

Paul speaks of “princes of this world” as crucifying Jesus, suggesting that it was not Rome but some other powers (compare the information we glean from Daniel) responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

A near Jewish contemporary of Paul and Jesus was Philo who also wrote about the crucifixion in ways surprisingly similar to Paul’s usage — allegorically, although not with any hint of anti-imperialist connotations.

Where is Philo?

Philo

So often I see Philo referred to in scholarly studies of biblical matters in order to clarify the intellectual context of the times. Curiously he has been overlooked by B and C. Here is Philo’s paragraph 61 from section XVII of On the Posterity of Cain and his Exile:

(61) Now the soul that subjects itself to bodily compunctions has the beforementioned inhabitants. Acheman, being interpreted, means, my brother, and Jesein means “outside of me,” and Thalmein means, some one in suspense; for it follows of necessity, that the body must be thought akin to the souls that love the body, and that external good things must be exceedingly admired by them, and all the souls which have this kind of disposition depend on dead things, and, like persons who are crucified, are attached to corruptible matter till the day of their death. (62) But the soul that is united to virtue has for its inhabitants those persons who are preeminent for virtue, persons whom the double cavern has received in pairs, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeckah, Leah and Jacob, virtues and those who possess them; Chebron itself keeping the treasure-house of the memorials of knowledge and wisdom, which is more ancient than Janis and the whole land of Egypt, for nature has made the soul more ancient than the body, that is than Egypt, and virtue more ancient than vice, that is than Janis (and the name Janis, being interpreted, means the command of answer), estimating seniority rather by dignity than by length of time.

A discussion of Philo’s allegorical use of the crucifixion image can be found on pages 186-7 of David Chapman’s Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion available on Google Books. If this Jew living under the same Roman imperial power as Paul did not associate “crucifixion” with imperialist or anti-imperialist sentiments, why should we think that Paul was compelled to do so?

Back to Borg’s and Crossan’s context of 2 Corinthians

After noting all these other passages above from the widely accepted genuine Pauline corpus, it is tempting to have a second look at the context of those passages B and C use to argue their case for an anti-imperialist message in the crucifixion.

1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness

If Paul were writing at a time of various seditions and troubles preceding the outbreak of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, how plausible is it, really, to suggest that Jews found an anti-imperialist gospel an offence of some sort? One would think from Josephus’s account of the various anti-Roman movements in the lead-up to the war that such a gospel would have been enthusiastically endorsed by a vast bulk of the Jews.

2:8 . . . [the princes of this world] would not have crucified the Lord of glory [Compare Daniel chapters 10 and 12 which reveal that there are divine or angelic Princes of Persia, Greece and Israel]

I am reminded of the claim of Jesus before Pilate in the Gospel of John 19:10-11

Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.

Paul clearly could not have had anything like the “tradition” that reached the author of the Gospel of John, since Paul speaks explicitly of plural princes of the world crucifying Jesus while the gospel has one human governer under the power of God alone or a single agent of God. More likely Paul had access to a narrative or treatise or group-think that could be traced back to Psalms 2: 2

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed. . .

(The author of the Gospel of Pilate may well have used this verse too when in the surviving opener of the manuscript he appears to have pictured Herod and Pilate sitting together at the judgement of Christ.)

Long time anti-imperialist bias

11 08_6972 John Dominic Crossan

Image by Lynceus via Flickr

Crossan’s earlier work, The Historical Jesus (and its popular format, Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography), was often criticized for letting show his Irish Catholic anti-

British-imperialist heritage. Methinks nothing has changed in that respect, and just as Crossan’s Jesus happened to preach Crossan’s politics, so Crossan’s Paul preaches Crossan’s politics as his gospel! How else to explain such a powerful assertion about a political message underpinning the phrase “Christ crucified” on the basis of so few citations and in defiance of so many more?

Methinks there is a stronger case for a non-historical origin for Paul’s use of the crucifixion image, but that’s another story.

But there’s more (maybe later)

I had intended the above point to have been covered in 6 lines when I started, and to follow up with B’s and C’s use of Acts and pitiful 20th century social analogies to justify their additional claims about the meaning of Paul’s message of both crucifixion and resurrection. But I’ve run out of beer and need to take a break.

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2009/06/19

The Medieval Origins of the “Christ paid the penalty for us” Gospel.

I was about to start the next post in my series attempting to justify seriously questioning the “bedrock fact” status of the crucifixion of Jesus when I came across a new publication by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul : Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon.

There are some interesting enlightening details in it, and, (sorry to say, but Borg and Crossan are big enough to take and deserve it) some incredible howlers of both method and

conclusions that I would never have expected in a work by scholars of such high repute. Maybe this is because they were leaning more to accessing a popular reading public than the scholarly guild with this one. I am reminded of earlier posts where I have expressed some disgust against scholars who know better yet see fit to short change their popular readership like this. For my most recent protest, see my remarks on Pagels and King in A Spectrum of Jesus Mythicists and Mythers. I’ll address one of these lower high school level howlers in a future post. But first, something good and interesting from the book. (Anyway, I guess that’s one of the reasons for my blog — to attempt to make a bit more accessible some of the thinking of scholars on these sorts of topics.)

On page 127 they write:

For many centuries, the death of Jesus has been understood by most Christians as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, as a substitutionary atonement, as this theological understanding is called.

This way of seeing the death of Jesus is very familiar. Most Christians today, and most non-Christians who have heard anything about Christianity, think that the cross means, in slight variations:

Jesus died for our sins.

Jesus is the sacrifice for sin.

Jesus died in our place.

Jesus is the payment for sin.

For this understanding, the notions of punishment, substitution, and payment are central. We deserve to be punished by God for our sins, but Jesus was the substitute who paide the price. The issue is how we may be forgiven by God for our sin and guilt.

Then follows what must be a bombshell for most fundamentalists in particular:

But this understanding is less than a thousand years old. (p.128)

So where did it come from?

Borg and Crossan answer: It came from a theological treatise, Cur Deus Homo? = Why Did God Become Human? by Anselm of Canterbury, first published in 1097.

Anselm of Canterbury
Image via Wikipedia

This is Anselm’s argument:

  1. All people have disobeyed God. So all people are sinners.
  2. Someone has to pay for our sin. Forgiveness means that compensation must be made for the offence or crime. If no payment was required for sin, then it would imply God does not think is anything very important.
  3. Since God is infinite, our debt to him is also infinite. But we are finite, so are incapable of paying the price owed.
  4. Jesus is infinite, and when he became human he could pay the full cost of the penalty for us as a substitute sacrifice. So we can be forgiven.

And this has been the understanding of Christianity in general ever since! Well, I never knew that! Just Kipling Just So story, only it’s probably true! ;-)

Mel Gibson and his “patron pope”, John-Paul II who apparently loved his The Passion of the Christ movie, have both preached the same Anselm Cur Deus Homo? doctrine.

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