The Transfiguration and the Inclusion of Moses

Ascension was nothing new in antiquity.  Richard Carrier jokingly noted that had there been television in antiquity, stories about people who ascend to heaven (or some variant of this) would have been more popular than crime dramas are today.  And, ironically, the New Testament doesn’t deny this.

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.  Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”  When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

Matthew 17.1-8, posted above, is interesting for several reasons.  Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible will take note that Elijah had ascended to heaven in a whirlwind previously in 2 Kings 2.  But many probably don’t know about the tradition of the ascension of Moses.  This is probably due to the fact that in the Hebrew Bible, Moses does not ascend, but goes off to die alone (yet somehow there are those who believe he wrote the Torah–including the part about his death).  But there had been a tradition among some Jewish circles in antiquity, including those in the first century, who believed that Moses had ascended to heaven on a cloud.  Josephus recounts this tradition:

Now as soon as they came to the mountain called Abarim, he dismissed the senate; and as he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud stood over him suddenly, and he disappeared in a certain valley, although he wrote in the holy books that he diedwhich was done out of fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary virtue, he went to God (Josephus, Antiquities 4.325-26).

And this is also recounted in the Talmud (Yoma 4a) and also in midrashic literature (Pesikta Rabbati 20:4).  And the apocryphal book–of which is given a terminus a quo of the first century CE–‘The Testament of Moses’ might have also contained an ascension narrative which is now lost from the sixth century Latin narrative.  So it is especially interesting that both Elijah (ascended to heaven) and Moses (ascended to heaven) appear in front of Jesus in the Gospel narratives, seemingly from heaven.  And then just as easily as they appear, they also vanish (presumably they ascended again, a foreshadowing event for what is to come at the end of the book): ‘When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.’.

The author of Luke certainly knew of the narrative and even seems to have interpreted this in the same way, as he has a cloud come down and envelope Elijah and Moses and then take them away (or, rather, they vanish; Lk 9.34).  The cloud is indicative of the legend of the ascension of Moses (and also of Enoch, as in 1 Enoch 39.3 when he is taken up on a cloud into the heaven; cf. Rev. 11.12) and also is for Jesus in Acts 1.9, when he ascends to heaven on a cloud, indicating that Luke might have used the ascension narrative of Moses (most likely taken from Josephus, since it appears likely that the author of Luke had copies of Josephus’ works) as a basis for his ascension narrative of Jesus.  But this is not the last we see of Moses and Elijah in Luke.  One has to wonder if Moses and Elijah are the two men in dazzling apparel who meet the women at the tomb in Lk 24.4.  It would make sense; after all, they were ascended at Jesus’ transfiguration as a foreshadowing and then return again to show that Jesus has done what they have done.

What makes this all so fascinating to me is that the ascension of Moses is not canonical, that is to say, it is not a part of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.  This ascension narrative is completely apocryphal according to modern religious doctrine.  But this just goes to show that the sectarianism in antiquity had no such doctrine of canonization.  Their understanding of scripture appears to be different than that of ours today and that inspiration is not defined by an ecumenical council but through the theological message of the text.  That this sort of noncanonical tradition can be found in the Gospels is intriguing.  One has to wonder what the implications for this are for the rest of the canon and what that might mean for inerrantists.

Defining Mythicism: The Signs Gospel and the Figure of Jesus

James McGrath highlights a post by the blog Synoptic Solutions on the Signs Gospel and the figure of Jesus.  I tend to think the post is a little ridiculous.  Here is the offending snippet:

In the Signs Gospel, Jesus is not being portrayed as a god on earth. Instead, he is portrayed as very human–a miraculous human, but a human nonetheless. Like the rabbis, he is not quite historical, yet he is not mythical, either. Instead, he is legendary. And so I propose that this is the correct model for understanding the historical Jesus. He is a legendary figure–but that does not mean he is an imaginary figure. Indeed, it means just the opposite: it means that he was most certainly historical.

There are several problems with this statement overall (e.g., the so-called Signs Gospel itself, the certainty of the claims being made about the Signs Gospel, portrayal of Jesus, the problems associated with Gos. of John, claims about the historicity of the figure of Jesus, and so on). First, and most importantly, the ‘Signs Gospel’ is hypothetical.  Like the sayings Gospel ‘Q’, the Signs Gospel is little more than a collected group of events (re: miraculous works) compiled by certain scholars (some who fall into line with confessional theology) as to seemingly avoid the problems associated with dependency (that is to say, that the Gospels are not independent traditions based upon eyewitness testimony); and we all know there are several very good (I would say ‘unassailable’) reasons to stop pretending ‘Q’ exists (ahem…).  For those unfamiliar with the Signs Gospel and the proposed value of the Gos. of John in historical Jesus studies, according to D. Moody Smith remarks (Johannine Christianity, p. 63):

“It is now rather widely agreed that the Fourth Evangelist drew upon a miracle tradition or written source(s) substantially independent of the synoptics, whether or not he had any knowledge of one or more of those gospels. Since the epoch-making commentary of Rudolf Bultmann, the hypothesis of a semeia- (or miracle) source has gained rather wide acceptance.”


“Whether such a miracle source can be precisely isolated and identified, as Bultmann and some who follow him think, is a question we need not decide here. The demonstration of the existence of a source (or sources) is not entirely dependent upon the possibility of isolating it with certainty and precision throughout the Gospel.”

The problem with D.M. Smith’s statement is that I am not so sure it is as ‘widely agreed’ that John used the Signs Gospel as he makes it appear (I will also not get into his other apologetic-esque comments here; Crossley does a good job of that in the article mentioned below).   I am not sure what is taking place with the John, Jesus, and History Project (JJH) via the SBL, but just judging from James Crossley’s paper (forthcoming in my volume with Thomas L. Thompson) it seems that suggesting that Jesus was a historical figure based upon this Gospel is a difficult task indeed (if not entirely futile, despite what the JJH project suggests).  One has to make gross presuppositions about the state of the evidence (i.e. you have to start from the conclusion that the Gospels present accurate representations of the historical Jesus first, which is a position that runs rather counter to historical-critical methods).   In addition, the Gos. of John might actually not have been composed until sometime in the early second century (but no later than the p52’s terminus ad quem, c. 150 CE), rather than at the turn of that century as it was once thought.

Though, even if it had been written earlier, like around the turn of the second century CE, it does not follow that one can judge the figure of Jesus, let alone propose a whole new model (!), based solely on a single narrative and hypothetical document.  It seems rather presumptuous, if not downright arrogant, to suggest firmly (and with such certainty!) that Jesus was indeed historical from the most miraculous, ludicrous, and late of the canonical Gospels.  And to top it off, the author begs us to presume the existence of a hypothetical document as secondary evidence for his position!

While it might be that the Gospels are legendary, mythologized narratives about a historical person, it is folly to ignore all existing narratives besides the Gos. of John whilst making the outrageous claim that Jesus was a historical figure, mythologized.  This is nothing more than begging the question: if all of these factors (Signs Gospel did exist as a source for John, John did have source material from an eyewitness, tradition stemmed from a historical core, John is the primary witness to historical tradition, etc…) are true, Jesus was a historical figure, mythologized (essentially amounting to nothing more than the Chewbacca Defense: “Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!”).  But as the song goes, “well, that’s a far cry from the truth.”  We can only say so much from the evidence.  And when one is proposing a hypothetical document, even one that is largely accepted, the proposal can only be hypothetical (as a conclusion can only be as strong as the evidence).  To a large extent, this does prove, quite directly, that there are instances of bias in historical Jesus scholarship and with the question over historical value of the canonical Gospels.

Although there is hardly much need for additional evidence; it is clear that historical Jesus scholarship has its own share of failings.  Crossley notes, for example (and do read the whole article):

[T]he study of the historical Jesus is overwhelmingly concerned with fact finding, description and descriptive interpretation in its various forms, with little concern for questions such as why the Jesus movement emerged when and where it did and why this movement subsequently led to a new religion. By Eric Hobsbawm’s standards (see epigraph) most of these historical Jesus writers would come perilously close to being guilty of ‘antiquarian empiricism’ and more than one historical Jesus scholar might be guilty of writing what Hobsbawm dismissed as the ‘Victorian tome’ so typical of biography.

Aside from these challenges, there are numerous other problematic oversights in the post.  The author blogs the similarities of the miraculous signs from Greco-Jewish traditions but ignores those similar motifs found in the Hebrew Bible.  Where is the discussion or even mention of the same trope found in Ps. 107:23-30?

Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the LORD,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.

I would note as well that Ps. 107 contains other miraculous forms of redemption, through healing of the sick, and the feeding of the multitude (part of the ‘Signs’ which some believe came from this hypothetical source):

Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.

And of course, one cannot forget the play of the Elisha/Elijah narratives at work in the miracle scenes.  The calming of the storm also has roots in Elijah’s challenge to the Baal worshipers, where Yahweh is portrayed as a God who has control over the storms, in direct conflict with Baal, another storm God.  The feeding of the multitude motif can also be found in the Elisha/Elijah narratives (2 Kings 4:38-41 with Elisha’s magic flour, and with Elijah 1 Kings 17:8-16), as is the healing of the sick/resurrection of the dead miracle stories (i.e., 1 Kings 17:17-24 where Elijah raised the widow’s son and Elisha and the Shunamite woman’s son in 2 Kings 4:18-37).  These miracle stories need not come from another hypothetical source (as fictional as it might indeed be), but from long-held tropes and motifs found in ancient Jewish literature.  John’s ability to take Mark’s Gospel and build upon it is not unknown.

On the subject of absorbing Mark wholly, the author also uses a bit of hyperbole when he states “since we know the Markan author used SG as a source.”  In fact, since these miracles are found in the Hebrew Bible, Mark’s source is probably also the scriptures.  There is no need to fabricate an entirely hypothetical Gospel just to account for the motifs.  And John need only have a copy of Mark, Matthew, and Luke to build upon the scenes (which many believe he did).  The best example for this is the scene at the tomb of Jesus.  Richard Carrier explains it (go to the link for a footnoted version):

So we start with Mark. It is little known among the laity, but in fact the ending of Mark, everything after verse 16:8, does not actually exist in the earliest versions of that Gospel that survive. It was added some time late in the 2nd century or even later. Before that, as far as we can tell, Mark ended at verse 16:8. But that means his Gospel ended only with an empty tomb, and a pronouncement by a mysterious young man that Jesus would be seen in Galilee–nothing is said of how he would be seen. This was clearly unsatisfactory for the growing powerful arm of the Church a century later, which had staked its claim on a physical resurrection, against competing segments of the Church usually collectively referred to as the Gnostics (though not always accurately). So an ending was added that quickly pinned some physical appearances of Jesus onto the story, and for good measure put in the mouth of Christ rabid condemnations of those who didn’t believe it. But when we consider the original story, it supports the notion that the original belief was of a spiritual rather than a physical event. The empty tomb for Mark was likely meant to be a symbol, not a historical reality, but even if he was repeating what was told him as true, it was not unusual in the ancient world for the bodies of heroes who became gods to vanish from this world: being deified entailed being taken up into heaven, as happened to men as diverse as Hercules and Apollonius of Tyana, and Mark’s story of an empty tomb would simply represent that expectation.

A decade or two passes, and then Matthew appears. As this Gospel tells it, there was a vast earthquake, and instead of a mere boy standing around beside an already-opened tomb, an angel–blazing like lightning–descended from the sky and paralyzed two guards that happened to be there, rolled away the stone single handedly before several witnesses–and then announced that Jesus will appear in Galilee. Obviously we are seeing a clear case of legendary embellishment of the otherwise simple story in Mark. Then in Matthew a report is given (similar to what was later added to Mark), where, contrary to the angel’s announcement, Jesus immediately meets the women that attended to his grave and repeats what the angel said. Matthew is careful to add a hint that this was a physical Jesus, having the women grovel and grab his feet as he speaks.

Then, maybe a little later still, Luke appears, and suddenly what was a vague and perhaps symbolic allusion to an ascension in Mark has now become a bodily appearance, complete with a dramatic reenactment of Peter rushing to the tomb and seeing the empty death shroud for himself. As happened in Matthew, other details have grown. The one young man of Mark, which became a flying angel in Matthew, in this account has suddenly become two men, this time not merely in white, but in dazzling raiment. And to make the new story even more suspicious as a doctrinal invention, Jesus goes out of his way to say he is not a vision, and proves it by asking the Disciples to touch him, and then by eating a fish. And though both Mark and Matthew said the visions would happen in Galilee, Luke changes the story, and places this particular experience in the more populous and prestigious Jerusalem.

Finally along comes John, perhaps after another decade or more. Now the legend has grown full flower, and instead of one boy, or two men, or one angel, now we have two angels at the empty tomb. And outdoing Luke in style, John has Jesus prove he is solid by showing his wounds, and breathing on people, and even obliging the Doubting Thomas by letting him put his fingers into the very wounds themselves. Like Luke, the most grandiose appearances to the Disciples happen in Jerusalem, not Galilee as Mark originally claimed. In all, John devotes more space and detail than either Luke or Matthew to demonstrations of the physicality of the resurrection, details nowhere present or even implied in Mark. It is obvious that John is trying very hard to create proof that the resurrection was the physical raising of a corpse, and at the end of a steady growth of fable, he takes license to make up a lot of details.

I had thought we were moving away from such cut-and-paste mentalities in scholarship; how is the Signs Gospel that much different than Thomas Jefferson’s New Testament?  Sure, we can make Jesus anything we want just by trimming out the miraculous bits and combining all the instances where a particular motif or trope holds sway, calling it the hypothetical ‘Whatever Gospel’, and get people to sign off on the idea.  The problem with this is quite simple: it removes context and as I have shown it allows for the collector of these verses, the redactor of this new hypothetical text, to ignore very important subcontexts, narrative functions, and intertextuality in the original text.

Noah and the Flood: The Historical Impossibility

Noah’s Ark/Flood Story:

Recently there has been an aggressive push by the media to include stories in their coverage about the flood and the Ark.  Here are a few stories from the past few months:

None of this is new.  A Google News search indicates that people have been searching for Noah’s Ark since as early as the 1940’s.

Every attempt has led to failure or abuse of information.  Why?  Because the Ark is not on Ararat.  It’s not anywhere.  It never was.  The story of the Ark is a theological story.  It is not a history account.  Let’s break the narrative down into increments:

1. Men were mating with giants (yes, giants lived on earth, according to Gen.  6)

2. ‘Sons of God'(?) ( בְנֵי־ הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙) took human women as their wives (‘the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose’ – this line looks remarkably Greek to me, as if this were from Homer about the sons of Zeus) and bore mixed offspring.

3. Angry at this, God wishes to ‘undo’ humanity, but decides in his mercy to save a remnant through Noah who was upright and perfect in his eyes.  So God commands Noah to build an Ark for his family and seven pairs of every clean creature and one pair of every unclean creature on earth.

4.  Noah does this.  God floods the world.

5. God makes the water recede.  Commands Noah to leave the ship, which he does.

6. Noah builds an alter to God and makes a burnt offering of some of the animals he just saved from being swept under in the flood.

7. God feels bad and says, after smelling the pleasant aroma of the animal sacrifice, ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.’

8. Noah decides to build a vineyard and become a drunkard.

Now, just from this summary, where in it can we find history?  The part about the giants?  Do we find it in the demi-God offspring between the sons of God and the daughters of men?  In the flooding of the world?  That Noah rounded up every creature, across continents, and stuffed them in his ship?  No, none of this story is historical.  Then why would someone believe the flood narrative is historical?  As Bob Cargill aptly points out (and please read the whole article, it is very good):

The worldwide flood described in Genesis 6-9 is not historical, but rather a combination of at least two flood stories, both of which descended from earlier Mesopotamian flood narratives. Note that this does not mean all of the claims made in the Bible are false (or true for that matter); I am dealing here only with the biblical stories of the flood. (Also understand that the “slippery slope” claim of “all of the Bible is true or none of it is true” is simply an unnecessary rhetorical device designed to keep readers from doing precisely what scholars do every day: analyze each claim in the Bible on a case-by-case basis. It is not necessary to accept an “all or none” stance towards the Bible.)

Most biblical and ancient Near Eastern scholars argue that the flood is a mythical story adopted from earlier Mesopotamian flood accounts. These earlier accounts include the 17th century BCE Sumerian flood myth Eridu Genesis, the 18th century BCE Akkadian Atra-Hasis Epic,and the Epic of Gilgamesh, which are some of the earliest known examples of a literary style of writing. The most complete version of the Epic of Gilgamesh known today is preserved on 12 clay tablets from the library of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (685-627 BCE). This extant Akkadian version is derived from earlier Sumerian versions. In the story, Gilgamesh and his companion, a wild man-beast named Enkidu, travel the world on a number of quests that ultimately displease the gods. After the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh embarks on a journey to learn the secret of eternal life by visiting the immortal flood hero, Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how the god Ea (equivalent to the Sumerian god Enki) revealed the gods’ plan to destroy all life with a great flood, and how they instructed him to build a vessel in which he could save his family, friends, and livestock. After the flood, the gods repented for destroying the world and made Utnapishtim immortal.

But it might also have roots in an Egyptian narrative known as Legend of the Destruction of Mankind, where Râ sends Hathor out to destroy mankind for blaspheming him.  When Râ sees what he has done he seeks a way to cease the massacre:

But having tasted blood, Sekhmet would not
be appeased. For three nights the goddess Hathor-
Sekhmet waded about in the blood of men, the
slaughter beginning at Hensu (Herakleopolis
Magna). Ra now realized that Hathor-Sekhmet
would destroy the human race completely. Angry
as he was, he wished to rule mankind, not see it
destroyed. There was only one way to stop
Hathor-Sekhmet — he had to trick her.

He ordered his attendants to brew seven thousand
jars of beer, and to color it red using both the
mandrakes and the blood of those who had been

After he has tricked Hathor into a drunken stupor and the massacre stops, Ra remarks:

Now, although the blasphemers of Ra had
been put to death, the heart of the god still was
not satisfied. The next morning he confessed to
Hathor his true feelings: “I am smitten with the
pain of the fire of sickness. Why did I have such
pain? I live, but my heart has become exceedingly
weary because I still have to live with those men.
I have slain some of them, but worthless men still
live, and I did not slay as many as I ought to have
done, considering my power.”

Then the gods who were in his following said
to him, “Don’t worry about your lack of action, for
your power is in proportion to your will.”

Ra, the Majesty, said unto the Majesty of Nut,
“My members are as weak as they were at the
first time. I will not permit this to come upon me
a second time.”

What makes this narrative so interesting compared with that the of the Akkadian, Sumerian, and Jewish flood narratives?  The simple answer has nothing at all to do with the historicity of the events; the answer is plain, that is to say, it has to do with the theological message, God’s mercifulness.  Some will of course quibble with the value of mercy when multitudes of creatures and people are killed in brutal ways, but the story held a certain place in the ancient mythic mind.

Taking the additional content surrounding the flood narrative out of the story of Gen. 6-9 not only fractures the narrative and removes context, the emulative quality of the narrative, and its theological purpose, but it ignores the rich literary tradition from which the narrative derives.   Pseudo-archaeological attempts to illustrate the historicity of the flood also ignores volumes of scientific and mathematical data which not only suggests its impossibility as a historical event, but demonstrates the ignorance of the narrative by those wishing to impose their modern bias anachronistically onto ancient literature.  The value of these stories rest in their theological meaning, which would have held a much more valid function for ancient readers of these texts.

Some Additional Reading Information:

T.L.Thompson, The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel: The Literary Formation of Genesis and Exodus 1-23 (JSOTSuppS 55; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1987), pp. 74-83.
T.L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 75-93
P.R. Davies, The World of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives (JSOTSuppS 257; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998), pp. 24-44
P.R. Davies, Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History–Ancient and Modern (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), pp. 27-35

‘Monotheism’ in 1 Corinthians 8:6

James asks this question on his blog:

What do you think Paul meant in this passage? Was Paul a monotheist in exactly the same sense as his other Jewish contemporaries? Please answer in the comments here, or on your own blog!

via Paul’s Expanded Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:6 | Exploring Our Matrix.

I would like to open the discussion with a reminder from Philip Davies which I have given in the past about such subjects:

Many scholarly books mention the “religion” of “Israel” as “Yahwism.” As far as I know, Yahweh was a god worshipped in Israel and Judah, and apparently also in Teman and elsewhere. But a “religion of Yahweh”? There was no “Baalism” “Mardukism,” or “Elism.” Deities are not religions. Indeed, it is misleading to use the word “religion” to imply a system of belief and practice. In the ancient Near East, people venerated many deities and participated in many cults simultaneously. Their “religion” was an amalgam of these—ancestral cults, city cults, royal cults, national cults, cults of sacred places, and so on. People were far too religious to have one “religion.”

But the real concern here is how we can make this determination from written sources; was Josephus a ‘monotheist?’  What about Philo?  Were the Gospel authors?  In a world where ancient Jewish synagogues had images of Orpheus, where cultural diversity was as dynamic as it is today, where even ancient historians  and theologians had trouble defining piety, and where social memory was not defined by a ‘history’ of facts but a ‘history’ of mythic tropes, can any determination be made of ‘Pauline theistic thought?’

Let me elaborate.  In intertextual studies, we must ask, in the vein of Roland Barthes, is what we are reading double-voiced?  By ‘double-voiced’ dialogue I refer here to a dialogue which contains, sometimes unbeknownst to the author, a trace of the words of someone else, which retain their own meaning.  And by ‘someone else’ I don’t necessarily mean that the individual in dialogue took the words (as if to steal them) from another, but that through the process of education or assimilation, in a cultural standpoint, the person speaks outside of themselves.  Josephus, for example, writes in a double-voice.  He speaks from a position of being a Jew but also from being assimilated into wealth and prosperity in the Roman elite class.  His words echo the values of both cultures, but at times he speaks from a position of one more than another, or in a manner that does not represent what he portrays himself to be–whether he portrays himself as a pious Jew, for example, comes into question when one sees him writing in ways that subvert his heritage with a Roman or Greek one.

In Paul, we see this as well.  There are clear signs of his Greek education in his writing; his rhetoric, his philosophic understanding, the subtle concepts of Plato’s cave in his use of the language of a mystery religion (“the mature”, “awake/asleep” terminology, initiations, and so forth).  But at times we see direct “Jewish language” (that is, language closely worded to imitate the scriptures he is interpreting) intermixed in his Greek.  We see similar instances in  II Maccabees, which Erich Gruen points out, where the author is directly opposed to the Greeks, yet writes to his audience in Greek and expects his readers (which we assume to be Jewish) are able to understand Greek.

In 1 Cor 8.6, we come to another instance, in my opinion, of such a double-voiced dialogue.  But it must be seen in the context of what surrounds the passage (1 Cor 8:4-11):

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.”  For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”),  yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.  But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.  Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?  So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.

Paul speaks rhetorically and does so for a reason.  He is not saying, “there are no other beings who reside in Heaven”–in fact, quite the contrary, he says that there are beings (and he refers to them often as ‘powers’ [as in Gal 4.3: stoixei=a tou= ko/smou]  or ‘rulers’ [as in Rom 8.38: pe/peismai ga_r o3ti...ou1te a!ggeloi ou1te a)rxai...ou1te duna&meij] of the cosmos).  And he doesn’t even say “don’t participate in the offerings”, but instead issues a warning (paraphrased):  “If you do this, be careful that someone without as much knowledge (more of that mystery-religion language) in Christ (probably referring to a level of initiation–someone who is not yet ‘fully mature’ [as in 1 Cor 2.6-8: te/leioi] or able to understand) as you have might fall prey to the thinking that you are following these idols as Gods.”

The double-voice here is the valuing of a single God in the mix of many, wherein Paul’s “Jewishness” is coming through his rather Greek mystery language.  The danger in assuming monotheism here is it devalues this double-voice and in essence builds a fictional concept of cultural conflict.  We all might hate The Jersey Shore television show, find them all quite annoying, but that doesn’t stop us from dressing up our kids like the cast and tuning in to watch it.  Social conflict exists certainly (well, there was a war after all), but to the extent that there was some sort of “Greek/Roman” vs. “Jew” mentality during this period, at least across the board, makes little sense.  And whatever that conflict was, it did not stop Paul from writing, even while he was in custody (assuming that he was actually imprisoned and killed by the Romans–it might just be tradition after all)!

So is Paul monotheistic?  Certainly he is, but certainly he is not.  The answer, from an ancient socio-cultural perspective, isn’t as simple as ‘yes’ and ‘no'; anachronistically, the answer is a definite ‘no’.  But in an ancient context, with the recognition of the play of the mythic mind?  The answer is going to be a cloudy one, at best.

Jesus the Buddhist?

This idea is not new.  Certain Buddhists and Christians have held to conclusions that the two are interrelated in many ways, so much so there is an academic journal dedicated to Buddhist-Christian Studies.  There is even a wiki page, where it offers some early Christian evidence of an awareness of Buddhism.   And the BBC had a program about Jesus being a Buddhist monk:

So this subject is really quite popular, even among some scholars.  Dwight Goddard, for example, published a comparative analysis on the similarities between Jesus and Buddha in 1927.  A recent article on the Huffington Post has brought attention to this concept and its recent genre move from fringe scholarship to fiction and, along with it, a lot of problems for historians.  First among them is the parallelism that one finds in ‘movies’ like Zeitgeist and pseudo-scholarship which readers of my blog have long since known I cannot stand (and dedicate a whole page to this nonsense).

Jeffrey Small (who should know better with that MA in the Study of Religions he has) has written a novel integrating the parallels between Jesus and Buddha and claims, “Although the book is fiction, the research behind it is historical…”.  I’m sorry to say it isn’t. Even in the first paragraph where the author is giving a quiz about Buddha he gets things wrong.  Of Buddha (in his attempt to stretch the narrative of Buddha’s life over to Jesus) he writes:

A shimmering spirit appears to a young wife in a dream, tells her that she will give birth to a son who will change the world and then enters her womb.

But this isn’t correct.  There are different traditions about the narrative and that ‘shimmering spirit’ in a dream is a the Bodhisattva who, on an elephant, enters the side of Buddha’s mother.  There is no discussion of foreknowledge of the greatness of her child, like in the Gospel accounts.   The elephant is symbolic and was probably interpreted as a holy message, but Small is quite wrong to give the false impression that something ‘appeared’ and ‘told’ Maya anything of the sort.

His next failed attempt at creating a faux-link between Jesus and Buddha is also based on a loose parallel between one of Buddha’s teachings and one of Jesus’ teachings, of which, in dilettante fashion, he completely misses the point:

Digging deeper into ancient India, we can also uncover Hindu scripture (a group of writings known as the Vedas), which contain parables that sound eerily like those told by Jesus centuries later. For example, in one oft-recited parable, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. Similarly, in the Chandogya Upanishad, this ancient Sanskrit text tells of the master who asks his student to open the Banyan tree fruit, extract the tiny seed and then break it in half, revealing a hollow center. When the student notices that the seed is empty, his teacher replies that from that emptiness comes the great Banyan tree, and, he continues, that same creative essence is in the student, too.

This seems to have been a superficial match based only on the word ‘seed’. If this is the link that Small is trying to make, he might be surprised to find that seeds and crops are useful metaphoric language throughout the ancient Near East, dating back to the Sumerians.  So this language is not useful in establishing a dependent tradition.  And Jesus’ mustard seed parable has a completely different meaning than that of the Sanskrit text.  Jesus is speaking of signs of the coming Kingdom; he uses the mustard seed as an expression of faith–that is to say, he is not using it as an expression of self-worth, which the hallowed fruit seems to represent in the narrative in the Chandogya Upanishad.

But there are more reasons not to trust these forced parallels.  The mustard seed parable is part of a triadic pattern of parable giving in Mark (spec. Mk 4:31-32 for the mustard seed), which means that it is formulated off an understanding of the other parables in the set which also involve the Kingdom and crops/seeds metaphoric language, but also the two other parable sets before and after the parables of the Kingdom (all of which deal specifically with faith; the calming of the sea, the feeding of the multitudes, etc…).  And there is no need to look outside the Jewish scriptures for intertextual relevance.  The underlying metaphor of Jesus’ generation or, rather, the generation of Isaiah and their ignorance towards the enlightenment that is right in front of them, as well as Jesus’ reluctance to explain things to them, has strong ties to the same tropes found in the Hebrew Bible, in the prophets (Is. 6:9-10; cf. T.L. Thompson, Messiah Myth [New York: Basic Books, 2005] 67-71).

Finally, there is no need to fabricate nonexistent links between two different world philosophies which both happened to preach wisdom and enlightenment and goodwill towards man; there were plenty of those already extant at the time of the first century CE.  Aside from all of the Greek and Roman mystery schools we know about (and perhaps the dozens–if not more–of other schools of which we know nothing), there were also Jewish mystics and mystery schools we have evidence of, who taught similar virtues and of the wisdom of enlightenment.  In fact that is a whole text about the esoteric nature of the world, the way to enlightenment, and how the cosmic world aligns with it all (Eugostos the Blessed, which predates Christianity); it had such a similar message to that of some early Christians that a clever educated Christian wrote a new version (the Pistis Sophia, also known as the Sophia of Jesus Christ) to assimilate those meanings with those of his sect.   So there is simply no reason to assume that these similarities stem from a Buddhist philosophy at all and any case that might be made for a dependency must also exclude these other, more probably intertextual links.

Then Small asks a question which assumes the absurd:

Why do we see these parallels between the religions of the East and the teachings of Jesus, who was considered a subversive in his Roman and Jewish community? Why do the contemplative practices of Jesus, which seem to confuse his disciples, seem so similar to Eastern meditative techniques?

The answer isn’t, as Small would like you to believe, because “Jesus studied at a Buddhist monastery” and it isn’t because “Buddhism influenced Christianity”.  And creating fictional links between the two will not make the case.  In fact, to prove such links requires a more strict methodology than ‘A(a) is similar to A(b), ergo A(a) = A(b)’ or ‘ergo A(a) influenced A(b)’.  For example, just because early church fathers in the second and third centuries  (around the time the biographies of Buddha were written and distributed, I might add) knew of some basic principles of Buddha’s life does not mean they (or especially the Gospel authors) could read Sanskrit, which would be required if they were to base the narratives they wrote of Jesus on the stories of Buddha.  This would have to be proven, or at least argued convincingly enough to suggest the possibility/probability of this.  Since there is absolutely no evidence they had the ability to read Sanskrit, it would be quite an undertaking to make the case and I doubt a suspense novel could accomplish this task.  Not to mention the availability of these narratives.  How common were Sanskrit texts found in the Near East in antiquity?  Who would have owned them? Would they be accessible to anyone? These questions would have to be addressed.  Would the Gospel authors have had access?  Paul?  The early church fathers?

Jesus as Orpheus (Catacombs of Peter and Marcellus in Rome, 4th Century CE)

It is easy to make all sorts of claims about the past, especially when you aren’t challenged to present an actual argument for them.  Small does a great job in his article throwing together all sorts of seemingly possible connections between Buddhism and Christianity; maybe there are some connections but is it possible that one influenced the other?  I doubt it.  The developmental influence in the creation of the Gospel narratives stems most probably from what the authors had and the tradition in which they were educated (Classical/Roman education with some Torah training).  Meaning that the probability that they had any access to Buddhism is nearly nonexistent.  These sorts of claims resemble those found in the pseudo-scholarship of Zeitgeist Mythicists and Dorothy Murdock.  She has already made similar claims, and they fail just as easily as Small’s claims here.

So let this be a warning; be on the lookout for these sorts of stories.

Dating Luke-Acts: Joe Tyson on Bible and Interpretation

Joe Tyson has another great article at Bible and Interpretation discussing the various implications for dating Luke-Acts, and argues persuasively in my opinion for a late date.  Please do read the article, entitled ‘When and Why Was the Acts of the Apostles Written?‘.  Here are some snippets:

The range of proposed dates for Acts is quite wide, from c. 60 CE-150 CE. Within this range of dates, three are prominent in the scholarly literature: an early, an intermediate, and a late date.

A growing number of scholars prefer a late date for the composition of Acts, i.e., c. 110-120 CE.3 Three factors support such a date. First, Acts seems to be unknown before the last half of the second century. Second, compelling arguments can be made that the author of Acts was acquainted with some materials written by Josephus, who completed his Antiquities of the Jews in 93-94 CE. If the author of Acts knew of some pieces from this document, he could not have written his book before that date. Third, recent studies have revised the judgment that the author of Acts was unaware of the Pauline letters. Convincing arguments have been made especially in the case of Galatians by scholars who are convinced that the author of Acts not only knew this Pauline letter but regarded it as a problem and wrote to subvert it.4 They especially call attention to the verbal and ideational similarities between Acts 15 and Galatians 2 and show how the dif-ferences may be intended to create a distance between Paul and some of his later interpreters and critics.

A great deal rides on decisions about the date of Acts, which unfortunately cannot be de-termined with certainty. But judgments about the probable time of its composition inevitably af-fect the ways we read the book. If we think it was an early eye-witness account, it may be read as a basically reliable story of the first Christian generation. If we think it was written toward the end of the first century, we might read it with an effort to assess the author’s understanding of Christianity as a Gentile movement with Jewish roots but without Jewish believers. If we think it was a second-century text, we might regard it as an effort to counteract historical and theological teachings that challenged what the author believed to be basic to the Christian movement. This way of reading Acts would show that its author played a central role in the very process of defin-ing Christianity.6

When and Why Was the Acts of the Apostles Written? – The Bible and Interpretation.

Scripture Citing Scripture: Intertextuality

James McGrath remarks on a mythicist position today on his blog:

The other problematic criterion claims that, if something in the New Testament resembles some detail in Scripture, that is reason to believe that the story was fabricated on the basis of that Scripture.

But James is perhaps unfamiliar with the fact that, as I have said again and again, this is a mainstream academic position.  This has nothing at all to do with mythicists; it just seems that some mythicists are actually up to date on more recent trends in mainstream scholarship.  The idea of intertextuality (which perhaps James just refuses to look into?) has been around since Julia Kristeva coined the term following her time in Tel Quel and the discussions ongoing between the poststructuralists and (neo)structuralists in the 1970’s.  The concept behind intertextuality, however, goes back to Ferdinand de Saussure and his Course in General Linguistics (1916).

I am continually amazed that scholars are seemingly clueless about this, since monographs and edited volumes concerning methods and studies of intertextuality in New Testament have been published for decades.  I am even told (al la Steph Fisher) that in Europe, intertextuality is part of the NT curriculum.  I imagine that it is also a part of OT Theology courses in Europe as well (since every scholar I talk to from Sheffield and Copenhagen–or who might have studied under a scholar from these Universities–knows about it and incorporates it in some of their works).  Among those many studies, Dennis R. MacDonald and Thomas L. Brodie were crucial in introducing this into mainstream academia some time ago, and they weren’t alone (links will bring you to various monographs and studies on the subject; obviously this isn’t comprehensive). And the concept has been in the field of Classics for longer than that.

James might have some quarrels with certain arguments for intertextuality with a certain part of the text (e.g., he might have a problem with my comparison between 1 Sam and 2 Cor and Acts) but he will have to demonstrate that via an actual argument rather than claiming the whole concept of intertextuality is bunk which seems to be his position here.   Intertextuality has become the prime consideration in almost every modern exegetical work by scholars.  It shocks me that he’d make this sort of claim; some might wonder if James might need to expand his reading list when he finds the time.


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