Getting ‘High on Roman History’? Well, Not Exactly…

This amused me:

As they say, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” — which apparently involves partaking in psychoactive drugs, if a new study is to be believed, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Researchers at Italy’s Institute of Atmospheric Pollution Research recently published a report that tested levels of psychoactive drugs in the air of eight major Italian cities: Palermo, Rome, Bologna, Florence, Turin, Milan, Verona and Naples. They found that residents are probably taking in measurable levels of cocaine and marijuana just by breathing the air.

Of the eight, Turin was the city with the highest total drug concentration; Palermo had the least. Some cities favored certain drugs disproportionately to others; in Florence, marijuana was the drug of choice. That may not come as a surprise, given the number of college students regularly adrift within that city.

So…what does that mean?

So does this mean that you could actually get high from breathing in Italian air? Well, no. The levels aren’t quite that … ahem … high. But levels were significant enough to reveal patterns about overall usage habits of citizens. Authorities hope that the information will help to improve police enforcement of drug laws, as well as map out better drug treatment resources.

via Can you get high just from breathing the air in Rome? | MNN – Mother Nature Network.

I would read the whole thing.  Makes you wonder about some of the cities in the US.

Thomas L. Brodie Reviews ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’

The following review is published in full with Thomas L. Brodie’s permission:


In 1977 the London-born historian Michael Grant stated that no serious scholar would postulate the non-historicity of Jesus (Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, New York, Macmillan, 1977, 200). And, almost as if to vindicate Grant, the following years saw an extraordinary flow of books each setting out a reconstruction of Jesus’ history.

Yet a problem remained. While these many books essentially agreed on Jesus’ historical existence they agreed on little else. The reconstructions were so diverse that when Luke Timothy Johnson was writing his introduction to the New Testament (1985)—a serious scholarly writing—he omitted any summary of the quest for the historical Jesus, and when, due to demand, his second edition included an appendix, ‘The Historical Jesus’, he first listed some of  the proposals about Jesus’ history and then said of them ‘one  may well wonder whether anything more than a sophisticated and elaborate form of projection has taken place’ (The Writings of the New Testament. An Interpretation. London: SCM, 1999, 629).

Very recently several books, some not as serious as Johnson’s, have denied that Jesus existed, but Bart Ehrman has responded to them (Did Jesus Exist, The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, March 2012). Ehrman’s case rests largely on long-standing arguments, especially on the idea, very popular in the twentieth century, that the gospels are based ultimately on oral traditions.

Into this situation steps the Thompson/Varenna volume bearing the views of thirteen writers (July 2012). The contributions are diverse, but overall the book reflects a seismic shift: it claims that the primary background for the gospels is not oral tradition but the world of ancient writing/literature. And the most basic question raised by this book is whether Jesus existed historically or whether he is a literary figure:

 The essays…have a modest purpose. Neither establishing the historicity of a historical Jesus not possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods in the hopes of enabling the central question regarding the function of New Testament literature to resist the endless production of works on the historical Jesus. Our  hope is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity much in the  spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine (editors’ Introduction, p. 11, emphasis added).

The essays form three parts, the first on Scholarship.

  Into the Well of Historical Jesus Scholarship

  • 1. Jim West (Quartz Hill School of Theology, California) – A Very, Very Short Introduction to Minimalism
  • 2. Roland Boer (University of Newcastle) – The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer
  • 3. Lester L. Grabbe (Univ. of Hull) – “Jesus Who is Called Christ”: References to Jesus Outside Christian Sources
  • 4. Niels Peter Lemche (Univ. of Copenhagen) – The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Doesn’t Want Jesus
  • 5. Emanuel Pfoh (National University of La Plata) – Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem

For West, the Bible is so focused on theology that it is not possible to affirm or deny historical propositions. ‘Minimalism began…with the Chronicler…. Maximalism… distorts the theological message of the text by transforming it into historical source materials’ (p.31).

Boer reviews the complex heritage of Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer, notes the economic decline of the West in relation to the East and then concludes ‘it is good time to return to a more sceptical position in relation to the founding documents’ (p. 56).

Grabbe maintains that the evidence provided by Tacitus and Josephus to the existence of Jesus ‘is minimal but nevertheless significant…Its value lies in its independence from Christian tradition’ (p.69). Comment: It does not seem clear how one can be sure that Josephus, for instance, who for thirty years lived in the same city as a Christian community, is independent of some knowledge of what Christians were saying.

Lemche wrestles with the long-standing perceived divide between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and with the present division between those who engage biblical research and those who avoid it.

Pfoh’s field is historical anthropology of Syria/Palestine (c. 3300-600 BCE) and his ‘main aim is to reflect from strictly historical and anthropological perspectives, on what we can know about the figure of Jesus and what we cannot’ (p.79). He hopes to make ‘a plea for a critical understanding of the nature of ancient literature and the intellectual world supporting such’ (p.79). For him ‘our historical conclusions regarding [Jesus]…cannot be very positive…My opinion is that such an inquiry is doomed to failure…We cannot test a mythic figure historically….’ (pp. 91-92).

Paul and Early Christianity: Historical and Exegetical Investigations

  • 6 Robert M. Price (Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary) – Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?
  • 7. Mogens Müller (University of Copenhagen) – Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus
  • 8. Thomas S. Verenna – Born Under the Law: Intertextuality and the Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus in Paul’s Epistles

Price and Verenna argue strongly for Paul’s independence of an historical Jesus. For Müller, however, the effect of Jesus on Paul’s life is such that it presupposes Jesus’ historical existence, and he concludes, ‘If Paul is assumed to have been a historical person, the same must be assumed with regard to Jesus of Nazareth’ (p. 130).

The Rewritten Bible and the Life of Jesus

  • 9. James Crossley (Univ. of Sheffield) – Can John’s Gospel Really Be Used to Reconstruct a Life of Jesus? An Assessment of Recent Trends and a Defence of a Traditional View
  • 10. Thomas L. Thompson – Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King
  • 11. Ingrid Hjelm (Univ. of Copenhagen) “Who is my Neighbor?” Implicit Use of OT Stories and Motifs in Luke.
  • 12. Joshua Sabih (Univ. of Copenhagen) – Born Isa and Baptized Jesus: The Quranic Narratives about Isa
  • 13. K. L. Noll (Brandon University, Manitoba) – Investigating Earliest Christianity Without Jesus

Concerning the historicity of the gospels, Crossley expresses caution about recent efforts to squeeze more history from John than the gospel allows. Thompson and Hjelm illustrate how the gospels’ content and shape are governed by something other than history, namely by Old Testament features such as patterns, themes, stories and motifs.

Sabih postulates that the Quranic figure of Isa is not identical with the Jesus of the NT, but the Isa of later Muslim tradition is (p. 219).

Finally, Noll’s thesis is that ‘any quest for a historical Jesus is irrelevant to an understanding of the earliest social movements that evolved into the religion now called Christianity. This is the case even if a historical Jesus existed and made an effort to found a movement of some kind’ (p. 233). For Noll the origin of Christianity has a kinship with the origin of Islam and the processes of evolution.

Overall, this volume contributes to a crucial development, namely moving historical investigation beyond the usual restrictions of the historical critical method, particularly beyond reliance on the theory of oral tradition, and bringing it into new terrain, especially that of literature.

However, having reached new terrain, this volume tends to rush further ahead into areas of theory, history and theology without doing justice to the full demands of engagement with literature. The problem is not just that its task is unfinished—as its editors would acknowledge—but that it seems unclear how to advance, unclear about the need to settle down to the slow detailed work of mapping the literary terrain in detail, often verse by verse, so that, before saying much about the history of Christian origins, it first establishes a reasonably clear map of the history of the literature, in effect the history of the composition of the New Testament, both of its many parts and, where possible, of its totality. In David Gunn’s words, ‘Write the history of the literature and then the [larger] history can be written’ (‘The Myth of Israel’, in L. L. Grabbe, Did Moses Speak Attic, JSOTSup 317, Sheffield Academic, 2001, 182).

Such prior mapping is indispensable. If, for instance, the investigation cannot account for the data underlying the theory of Q, or at least give some idea of how that can be done, its proposals regarding history and theology will have fatal gaps.

However, it is of the nature of the hermeneutical circle not only to establish the details that clarify the whole, but also to allow a vision of the whole to clarify the details, so it is appropriate from time to time to leap ahead into theory and into wide historical and theological vistas. And that is what this volume has done. Its writers are like explorers who have been parachuted at night into terrain that is still largely unknown and they are sending back preliminary reports. They do not always give a clear picture, and at times they may get lost, but the land must be crossed, and they are worth listening to.


Thomas Brodie also reflected upon my chapter on Paul in the following way:

As I see it your chapter on Paul reflects both the volume’s strength and limitations.

On the one hand it has wonderful broad lines of thought, especially on the crucifixion. In fact given what Bart Ehrman (Did Jesus Exist?)  wrote about the impossibility of a Jew envisaging a crucified Messiah, I wondered would it be worth your while writing an article that discusses Ehrman’s view and elaborates your own proposal.

On the other hand—and this is very understandable (if nothing else time and space would not allow)—you did not greatly engage the nuts and bolts of the epistles, the more prosaic fabric that holds the text together, verse by verse, and that shows just how detailed and complex is the process of rewriting.

Another question that occurs is whether the writer of the epistles, while they did not know a historical Jesus, knew that their work would be taken up by writers who would turn their work into a history-like form, as the prophets had been turned into history-like form by Hebrew narrative. In other words was there more coordination between the NT writers than we generally allow? I’m certain there was, but how much more?

Most of the essays in the volume, including your own, could become books. 

Overall I’m very happy with the review.  I thought his conclusions perceptive and useful, as were his questions.  On one brief note, I have commented on Ehrman’s book and interested readers can check it out here:

Waiting For Rational Thought

Great comic from Non Sequitur:

Returning to (the Question of the Historicity of) Troy

With thanks to David Meadows for directing me to this:

The new expedition will be led by University of Wisconsin-Madison classics Professor William Aylward, an archaeologist with long experience of excavating the ruins of classical antiquity, including what is currently accepted as the site of Troy itself.

In ancient Greek it was called Ἴλιον, Ilion, or Ἴλιος, Ilios; and Τροία, Troia; Latin: Trōia and Īlium; Hittite: Wilusa or Truwisa and still grips the imagination over 3200 years after the events described in Homer’s epic poem the Iliad. Troy VII has been identified as the Hittite Wilusa, which gives the probable origin of the Greek version Ilion and is generally (but not conclusively) accepted to be the Homeric Troy.

via Archaeologists return to Troy : Past Horizons Archaeology.

I’ve written on the question of the historicity of Troy recently, and what I said then remains just as relevant:

That the narrative of the Odyssey fits more in line with the current events of the Archaic-early Persian periods, with the joining of previously warring poleis into alliances and leagues, with the idealization of the Hellenics vs. the Persians, where the narrative takes root and makes a stand.  And even then, these narratives function only within a set of functional guidelines (that is to say, within the setting by which our most current version of the Odyssey comes to us)–as history they fail to meet any guidelines since the narrative no doubt would have changed depending on the patron deities of the individual cities and the role of the heroes (again lending to the fact that what we have isn’t ‘what happened’ but ‘what the Greeks at that time and that place wanted to believe happened).  We’re not dealing with history, but cultural memory.  These tales are the products of the ancient mythic mind, not our modern rationalistic mind.

My understanding is that there are simply too many challenges that the purveyors of a historical Troy must overcome: too many inconsistencies, too much wishful thinking, too great a chance of forcing the data to fit into preconceived notions.  The links between the modern excavations at Wilusa and the Homeric Troy are weak at best.  The dating of the settlements to various periods (i.e., is it Troy VIIa or Troy VI that is supposedly the historical Troy?) and the discussion of a conquest of the region (that the walls show signs of a fire, sure, but also earthquake damage from the same time!) are tentative and perhaps are based on questionable methods (i.e., the pottery dating used by some of the earlier excavators in the beginning of the twentieth century).

The geographical links are drawn from ancient sources, though all of them late and written after the group of texts were collected into what is now known as the Illiad (like Strabo, who lived around the turn of the first century CE–hundreds of years after the composition of the Homeric epics).   And how many ‘Troy’s’ were there in antiquity?  Livy recounts several ‘Troy’s’ popping up after the fall of the ‘original’ (which is not placed geographically) and notes that the settlers (those who escaped the destruction) were called ‘Trojans’ to his day.  So it is highly specious, in my opinion, to trust the accounts of any ancient author on the whereabouts of Troy, since it is clear that it was fashionable at various times and locales to link ones history with that of the Homeric epics.  And why not those who live off the Aegean Sea?  Of course those settlements would be counted amongst the Trojans!  It is all circular.  A settlement along the Aegean Sea region is associated with Homer and considered Trojan because the Trojans were from a settlement along the Aegean Sea region according to Homer.

There are serious implications to doing history in this fashion.  I again direct the readers to read my earlier post on this subject (linked above).

Calvin on Happiness and Ignorance

Quite relevant to today’s political crises:

Inside Higher Ed: Rollston Threatened for Financial Reasons

It seems the letter by the president of Emmanuel Christian Seminary about Rollston has been made public(?) and has been written about in an article posted by Inside Higher Ed:

The president of a Tennessee seminary told a tenured professor that his views were offending prospective students and possible donors and that he should look for work elsewhere.

The trouble began when Christopher Rollston, a professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, a graduate seminary affiliated with the Restoration Movement, wrote an opinion article for The Huffington Post’s religion section about the marginal status of women in the Bible. “To embrace the dominant biblical view of women would be to embrace the marginalization of women,” Rollston wrote. “And sacralizing patriarchy is just wrong.”

The article led to a very public disagreement with another member of Emmanuel’s faculty and a letter of rebuke from the seminary’s president, Michael Sweeney, who issued a less-than-veiled threat to Rollston: stop taking liberal positions that alienate donors and prospective students, or find another place to work.

via Seminary threatens to discipline professor for offending prospective students, donors | Inside Higher Ed.

This is quite revealing.  The matter is not about whether or not Rollston has done his job (he has) or whether or not he has violated the confession of faith (he hasn’t), or about whether his interpretation of the Bible is wrong (it isn’t), but about money.  That’s right everyone.  Dr. Blowers and the president of Emmanuel have threatened Rollston’s job because donors (who, as I said in my article on Bible and Interpretation, care nothing for the accuracy of statements made by professors but have vested agendas and interests elsewhere) are uncomfortable with the idea of giving money to an institution which has a faculty member whose views are that the marginalization of women in the Bible are wrong.

Facts are irrelevant so long as donors are happy.  This is the message that Emmanuel has presented to its faculty, staff, and student body.  When I asked the question in my article:

“How do we want to educate students in the field of Biblical Studies?”

Emmanuel answered, swift and true: ‘In a manner that makes our donors happy.’  In other words, ECS bows down to fundamentalism rather than the facts when their donors are fundamentalists.  Tenure doesn’t matter, the careful education of their students doesn’t matter.  Fall in line with what *our donors believe* or else face the consequences.  That is essentially what Emmanuel has said to Christopher Rollston.  And that is what they are saying to every other member of their faculty and staff and all future student bodies (as well as the current one).

So where does that leave the reputation of Dr. Blowers?  I’m curious since he was aware of the disciplinary action (in fact, he claims to have been a part of it–using the ‘royal ‘we”) and of course the reasons for it–as the Chair of the Area Chairs would be privy to such reasons and for allowing the action to occur.  What is perhaps most revealing is the way Dr. Blowers’ has been trying to skirt over this by completely avoiding it, stating instead that the issue was with Rollston’s interpretation (which everyone with two eyes and a brain could see was completely bunk).  Now the facts are out there.  Indeed, it seems as though my ‘cheap seats’ turned out to be just fine; I just needed a pair of binoculars to cut out all the excess (and by that I mean, all of the trash that was being thrown around from the front row of the stadium which, as it seems, was an attempt to obscure everyone’s view of the real goings on).

UPDATE!  Bob Cargill writes:

In documents obtained by Inside Higher Ed, it appears that Emmanuel Christian Seminary President, Dr. Michael Sweeney, began the termination process of the tenured Rollston, in part, because of the acute financial crisis presently being experienced at Emmanuel, and the potential of a “six-figure” donation that could bail out the seminary, but from a donor who does not personally like Rollston. In this way, the school could kill two birds with one stone: ridding the faculty of a tenured professor to make way for a donation from a potential donor who does not like Rollston, and saving the money from the endowed chair and salary line Rollston presently earns.

That Emmanuel’s president would list multiple economic reasons (the potential of a donation, trouble recruiting tuition-paying students, etc.) for the termination of Dr. Rollston – in the notice of termination to Rollston – is scandalous in itself.

And he aptly concludes:

An institution simply cannot fire a tenured professor who broke no rules (and who happens to be the most credible scholar at Emmanuel) just because the institution wants a donation. Tenure is designed to protect freedom of thought. If Emmanuel wants to fire its professors for thinking outside of Emmanuel’s predetermined theological constraints, why offer tenure in the first place?

In my professional opinion, Emmanuel has committed a grievous violation of academic integrity, and one that will not only cost them financially, but one that will ruin the reputation of the institution for years to come.

Also Jim Davila updated his post:

It appears that Emmanuel Christian Seminary finds itself in a difficult position. Naturally, they want a good relationship with trustees, affiliated institutions, and donors. But at the same time, dismissing someone from a tenured academic post is no small matter. The larger academic world is watching, and whatever decision they make could have an effect on their wider academic reputation and their future efforts to recruit high-quality academic staff.

Jim West writes (in his normal manner):

Congratulations Mr Blowers, you and your ilk have managed to destroy a school and turn it into a gathering of greedy televangelists telling the ignorant flock what it desperately wishes to hear just to make a buck.

Thanks to Bob Cargill for this!

Fallout Shelters: A Sober Reminder

The other day while walking through a nearby town window shopping, I came across this rather iconic image.

Faded with age, bent by means unknown, this image–one that you have probably seen in your own town–clarifies for me the distinct changes that occur within a generation of society.  Our contemporary world is quite a different one from the world of 60 years ago.  My generation has no understanding of the nuclear attack drills students used to have to endure, or the terror of the ‘reds’.

While I’m sure most of my readers understand this difference, have we really stopped to think about it?  How this has impacted our politics?  The politics of the younger generations versus those of the older generations?  And how might this impact our sense of ‘apocalypse’ and our sense of ‘salvation’?  How does this difference in aeon alter our perceptions of other life factors?

I guess that, while I recognize these fallout shelter signs as being vintage indicators of a world wrought with fear and uncertainty, I don’t really understand them.  I can’t really grasp that sort of terror; the thought that at any moment another country thousands of miles away could ever consider just…vaporizing everyone..just doesn’t really compute.  And at the same time we live in a world where fears are focused on ‘cells’ or ‘splinter organizations’ or ‘religious extremists’ who attack smaller targets for psychological effects (smaller as in ‘area’ or ‘size in relation to country’).   Shelters like this one would serve little use in such a war.

How does this relate to Classics or the second temple period?  I guess I just wonder about the differences 60 years could have made in antiquity–how might the opinions of third or fourth generation Romano-Jewish citizens of Palestine felt towards Rome?  How different would there perceptions of the Romans have been?  How different would the Romans have felt towards the Jewish populations?

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