Goodbye for Now?

Many of my readers may have noticed the lack of activity on this blog over the past five months; maybe even the past year. You might even be wondering why I’ve been so quiet.  I’ve been neglecting you all; for that I apologize.  You are owed an explanation and I have been wanting to give one to you.  I just have had a hard time finding the words… so here is my best attempt.

When I started this blog, I was going through a pretty life-altering transitional phase. Believe it or not, that was six years ago; my first post was a Calvin and Hobbes strip on October 10, 2008. I was shedding my younger self the way your body sheds old cells (and trust me, it was just as ugly); I wanted to grow, to expand my potential, to make a better future for myself.


You see I didn’t like the person I had become and I needed an outlet to express who I wanted to be, and I was fairly certain I knew what that would look like.  I had come to realize that the criticism I had received over the years had gotten to me, because it had been fairly accurate.  I was pretending to be a scholar, pretending to be educated.  I really didn’t have a clue back then (and to a certain extent, I am still learning). My first step towards this better me was enrolling in college; a colleague told me it was a good means of finding my way.

Since that time, I’ve faced a lot of changes; my views on certain subjects have dramatically shifted as well. I don’t know if it is maturity or education or something else entirely, but I know that I don’t have the same goals and beliefs that I had when I started to build up this blog.

I know, I’m beating around the bush. Let me be blunt about it: I need a change in scenery.

I’ve been involved in Biblical Studies for over a decade now, and as far as interest goes I’ve been reading the bible, the church fathers, and the noncanonical books since I was 16 when I first picked up a copy of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologica. Over the last three years I’ve published a handful of academic papers, co-edited a collection of essays, given a few lectures, and co-presented a paper at SBL (though Joel did the presentation, because he’s awesome). All of this I’ve done while working a full time job and going to school part time so I can earn my laurels and gain some credibility.

It hasn’t been an easy road, but it has been one that has tried me. I have been questioning my own motives for a while now; I mean, why am I even studying the bible? I do know how I got involved in it.  Initially, when I was a teenager, I wanted to become a priest. While actually reading the texts, I lost my faith, and then became focused on validating that loss.  I spent my late teens and early twenties doing really stupid, immature things as a part of that validation.  When I got into my mid-late twenties, the bible became all I knew.

When I started to take academia seriously, began working on my academic credentials, it had already started to lose its appeal to me.  I had to focus on my book, or on this project, or on that article. After a while it just became habitual; I was studying for studying’s sake. I was going to school and taking classes in Classics and Ancient History and Biblical Studies because it was all I had known, it was something at which I was good (as indicated by the consistently high marks I received).

But just doing something because I could was starting to feel a bit hollow. Part of me felt as though I was just going through the motions. Worse yet, and I hate to say this but, I was outpacing most of my fellow students when it came to basic biblical knowledge. That isn’t me being full of myself, it was an actual thing. There were students who couldn’t even identify trivial knowledge about Jesus and many of these students had grown up around close-knit church communities. I would sit in class and get annoyed, legitimately annoyed, at the sort of things most of my classmates would say or ask. Deep down I knew that for them, these classes were just an elective or something to get them to their last credit before graduating, but that just bothered me more. I mean, didn’t they care? Didn’t they want to learn about it? Why would you spend all that money, go into debt, if you’re just going to not care?


At the time, I thought I was just mad at them.  To an extent, I suppose I was.  It was more than just simple anger; it was instructive.  It became apparent that I didn’t have answers to the very questions I was asking about my peers.  Did I want to learn about this?  Do I really care?  Slowly it became apparent to me that I was burning myself out.

I began to ask myself if I had it in me to deal with that unease every day for a full semester over multiple facets of different types of classes. If this was the path I stayed on, could I consistently teach about something that I felt less inclined towards, to students who consistently cared less and less? I know this isn’t every student—I befriended a lot of great people who were exceptionally smart and fun to be around—but it does represent a good portion. I remember one student showed up for class maybe three times the whole semester; then for his final exam—essay heavy, I might add—he “finished” it after only a half an hour.  It was demoralizing.

There were also lots of little things that added up after a while.  The intimidation of the loss of tenure-track positions in the field, academic pushback against challenging new concepts, and the amount of pure drivel being published by highly acclaimed, tenured professors—some that passes for academic work these days—also frustrated me. The media’s insistence on ignoring solid, serious scholarship in the field while championing some of the most obvious fakes, frauds, and charlatan’s I’ve come across did not help alleviate my consternation.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the RU Screw (It’s actually in the urban dictionary)—anyone who attends or has attended Rutgers knows what it is I mean.  To say that I’ve become disenfranchised with academia is an understatement. I still hold that a college degree is important (which is why I’m still going), and I still think that everyone needs a solid education—those are characteristics I am glad to have found useful and don’t intend on leaving behind. I’m just having a harder time believing the idealistic dream I once had that working hard in academia always yields results and respect. It has for me, so far, but only because I’ve been lucky in my friends (I cannot take any credit for myself).

So where does that leave us, this blog, my future? Well, I don’t know. I’m still very passionate about history, but I think I need to step back and reexamine my choices. The college I am now currently enrolled in does not have a Classics program and so what I’m left with is a basic history degree. That suits me, as it broadens my reach a little bit more while stripping away from the specialization that was becoming a little too suffocating.

There is a surprising amount of good that has come from this. Stepping back from Biblical Studies has also allowed me to reacquaint myself with American history, a subject I’ve always loved.  It has been a welcoming host; I think part of why I have been so unhappy in Biblical Studies is that I have always had a greater love of American history.  After finding personal links to the Revolution through ancestry research, I’ve become even more interested in it.

Incidentally, my schooling has been part time because as a nontraditional student I have to work to pay bills.  I think that if I had been able to go to school full time from the start, I not only would have already graduated, but I would be well on my way in grad school.  So in a way, while slow-going, it has been a benefit to me to be able to shift fields, if it comes to that.

That also means that with two more years left until I graduate, I have time to figure it all out.  In order to find my way, I need to step back from this blog. I need to step aside from Biblical Studies and focus on my work and see where it leads me. Maybe I will find a way to link both fields of American history and Biblical Studies; one friend has suggested combining them into ways to discuss how the bible influenced policies and politics in Colonial America.


Either way, I’m done for now, here, with this blog.  I leave you in much of the same way I came–with Calvin and Hobbes and a sincere ‘thank you’ to all my readers over the years. I have tried to do right by my readers and the interwebs, for what it is worth, in an attempt to make up for past transgressions. I hope that you don’t think less of me for this new move, and that I will continue to have your support going forward.  This isn’t goodbye forever; however, it is goodbye for now.

Why I am Leaving Rutgers University (After This Semester)

As some of you already know, after two years at Rutgers, at the end of the current semester, I will be transferring out.  This was a hard decision for me, but one I have had to make out of a growing necessity—which I shall explain below.

This all started in January.  We were already one week into classes; all the books I needed–$100 later—were purchased and on their way to me.  I was prepped for an exciting semester, taking a few courses I was really excited about.  One was ‘God, Sex, and Violence in the Old Testament’ and the other was on the Historical Socrates.  On the former, I had a good grasp of the material already and had developed a good relationship with the instructor, with whom I’ve had several very useful and informative conversations.  The latter course I needed to satisfy a requirement for my Classics program and I was very interested to see how the class was taught in relation to my Historical Jesus class from last semester (were the methods, assumptions, and criterion used in the different fields similar or different, for example?).

I received a rather bizarre email at 7:30 in the evening while I was working on homework.  I was informed that I would have to drop my Gods, Sex, and Violence class because it did not satisfy any of my graduation requirements.  I immediately grew suspicious—a spam email maybe?  It made no sense.  It was offered by Rutgers, I am a Rutgers student, I’m double-majoring and I knew it counted towards my generic ancient history major.  So what gives?

I immediately wrote to the advising office who then informed me that because it was offered by Rutgers Camden (satellite campus) and not Rutgers main (at New Brunswick), it would not meet the criteria necessary to count towards my graduation, so I had to drop it now or they would drop it for me.

So quick recap: 1 week into the semester, books ordered, classes paid for, email ultimatum issued demanding I drop a class.  Got that all?  Okay.

Now I’m in a predicament.  It’s a week into the Spring term, I now have to frantically try to find another class (not an easy task after a week has gone by—most are full, closed, or don’t count towards my degree).  I am doubly-screwed because I am taking the courses online due to the terrible weather in the winter months and commuting over an hour and a half to classes after working a full 8 hours is unbearable normally, but then throw in the winter we’ve had this year (and the fact that Rutgers NEVER, EVER cancels classes—EVER) and it is just more miserable.  So I am extremely limited to what classes I can take (RU does not have a very well developed online program for nontradition students).

So I called—because by this time I was livid—and spoke with someone who seemed to be having a bad day.  I was confused since I had taken a class last semester on the Camden campus through their online program to get a few more credits and I had not received this email or any indication that I should be dropping the class.  Well, she informed me, they let me slide that time—but it still didn’t count.  Full stop.

Yes, you read that right—it isn’t bad enough that they wait until a week into the term to let me know I’m wasting my money, Rutgers didn’t feel a need to inform me that I was taking a class last semester that didn’t count towards my degree (not even electives).  I just threw away $2500.  Seriously, I might as well just go burn my money.

You may be asking–$2500?  Wha?  Yep.  You see, as a nontraditional, out of state, part time student, I am paying $809 per credit hour.  You would think with all that dough I’m shoveling out, Rutgers would have a more helpful administrative staff.  And this isn’t the first time I’ve gotten the infamous RU Screw.

I settled for another class I didn’t want to take, but being a week late meant I was a week behind (two weeks actually, by the time my books came and I had access to the course because, apparently, technology).

Don’t get me wrong, I love Rutgers.  I love the brand.  I enjoyed walking down the sacred path and the lively discussions during class and having professors who get it, and who know what they’re talking about.  But I just can’t afford it anymore—I can’t continue to shovel out that kind of money (or throw it away)—when I don’t feel I’m being treated like a student (more like a commodity).  I pay so much more money per credit hour than an instate, on-campus, 18-something and yet I get thrown under the bus.  And I just can’t take it anymore.

And it’s sad, it really is.  Rutgers has really grown on me.  But the other issue that I had to take into consideration is the travel time and the fact that I’m no spring chicken.  I’m dangerously approaching 31 (which technically isn’t old, but it is when you consider that I’ve got another few years of undergrad work to do and I still have to go to grad school).  I’m actually, literally, wasting time because there is no way I can go to morning or afternoon classes without quitting my job—which won’t happen because bills.

And this isn’t Rutgers fault, per se.  But what is annoying is that they don’t offer any solid online programs.  I mean, being in a class room is fantastic, but you don’t really need to be ‘present’ to be present anymore.  Technology has dated the old-school in-class need, with programs like Skype and Google Hangout, you don’t have to be physically in a room with 30 other kids to have a lively and interactive lecture.  But Rutgers is insanely slow to catch up to this and it is leaving students like me in a bad place financially (because we pay the same rates that other commuters and on-campus students pay) and mentally (because we have a harder work load and less options).

I know I’m not alone in this either.  A lot of my classmates have expressed similar dissatisfaction with Rutgers’ ecollege programs.  I’m pretty sure other nontrad students like me have had (or are having) similar experiences.

The good thing about transferring into another program is that all of my credits have been excepted (so I don’t have to burn all my cash and watch it disintegrate after all).  The school is fully accredited (by a proper accrediting institution—thanks to Chris for looking into it all for me), I can get my whole degree online, and it is way, way less expensive (about $240 per credit hour).  But there are downsides.

For one thing, the brand isn’t as well recognized as Rutgers and I can’t double-major anymore (and they don’t offer a Classics program, only a basic history program).  That’s fine because I can still get into grad school with it, and really it is the grad school that really matters.  But by then I’ll be a bit more ahead, have some money saved (I was blowing through $80 a week on gas commuting to Rutgers 3-4 nights a week last year), and have more publications under my belt.

So here it is.  I am still at Rutgers until the end of the semester.  But before the summer comes, I’ll have to say my goodbyes.  It’s been fun, I had a blast, but I have to get along now (and by ‘now’, I mean in a few months).

When Was Acts Written? Joe Tyson and the Acts Seminar Attempt an Answer

I’ve been a fan of Joe Tyson’s work from the first time I read anything by him.  Since then, I continue to grow more impressed with everything he publishes.  This is a book I will have to pick, both because he had a part in its creation and because it is a product of the Acts Seminar as a whole.  Here is a snippet form the blurb:

The dominant view in Acts scholarship places Acts around 85 CE, not because of any special event linking the book of Acts to that date but as a compromise between scholars who believe it was written by an eye-witness to the early Jesus movement and those who don’t. Acts and Christian Beginnings argues for a more rigorous approach to the evidence. The Acts Seminar concluded that Acts was written around 115 CE and used literary models like Homer for inspiration, even exact words and phrases from popular stories. “Among the top ten accomplishments of the Acts Seminar was the formation of a new methodology for Acts,” editors Dennis Smith and Joseph Tyson explained. “The author of Acts is in complete control of his material. He felt no obligation to stick to the sources. He makes them say what he wants them to say.”

via When Was Acts Written? Not in the First Century. « Westar Institute Westar Institute.

Give it a read and then pick up a copy for yourself!

On Scholars and Kooks: A Few Simple Guidelines for Journalists in Popular Media

There seems to be some great confusion in the public media about the definition of ‘scholar’ and what it means, how it is actually used, and to whom it applies.  When it comes to defining ‘scholars’, journalists seem to have the hardest time actually determining who fits the bill; those that actually have earned that title are confused, for instance, with scientists (and are sometimes labeled as such), whereas those with no credibility whatsoever are given the esteemed honor of being a ‘scholar’ or ‘historian’ or ‘expert’.

This became clear ages ago, but over the last few years this phenomenon has really picked up with some frightening speed.  Clearly so is the example of how the Elkington’s (and their fake lead codices) were labeled as ‘Egyptologists’ (a title given to someone with a graduate or PhD degree in the field of Egyptology), ‘Biblical Scholars’, and ‘experts’. More recently this has been the case with Mr. Joe Atwill (who incidentally calls himself a ‘Biblical Scholar’).  In the hope of clarifying this issue for the press and laypeople out there who may not know what words mean, I’ve devised this post.

First, a layperson who self-publishes a book on something isn’t an ‘expert’.  They may be considered an enthusiast, an amateur, a hobbyist, a thrill-seeker.  These are polite titles.  More often than not, however, people who only self-publish do so because they do not want to have their ideas vetted by pesky things like editors, peers, or actual experts.  So less polite, but certainly more accurate, titles for many of these sorts of individuals might be ‘conspiracy theorist’, ‘loon’, or ‘Indiana Jones Wanna-be’ (actually this isn’t a complement).

Second, let us stop calling the self-published tomes of these sorts of people, who have zero credibility, ‘theses’.  This isn’t a thesis. To a layperson, with no background in the relevant field, any claim or argument that is new to them will appear to be ground-breaking.  That doesn’t mean that it is actually new, or useful, or even correct.

The purpose of peer review, of academic vetting, is to determine how well an argument or hypothesis can withstand criticism.  If the author of this book does not bother to go through this process, even unofficially, by having his book examined by experts prior to publication, then s/he does not have any grounds to claim that it is anything spectacular. That isn’t to say that an uncredentialed person cannot produce a solid book on a subject.  It may actually be ground-breaking, it may be earth-shattering, but if it hasn’t been vetted by other people with credentials then there is no means by which one can claim that it is.

Third, if you are ever unsure about whether or not someone has produced a new theory, and you are curious if this individual is trustworthy, as a journalist you have several options: (1) Google their CV—if they have a CV, check to see if they have some credibility (are academically published, have formal education or training in the relevant fields, etc…), (2) if you don’t trust Google, ask other scholars (your local University has them; they are underpaid—but they will help you), (3) engage with the material yourself (instead of, you know, just republishing the PR Web article or press release without any critical thoughts about it), (4) provide a basic caveat emptor that you are (presumably, as a journalist) not qualified to judge the arguments in the book and request your readers investigate the issue on their own critically, (5) don’t automatically label them as a Scholar, but look for signs (do they have a graduate degree or doctorate? Have they at least been published academically? Have they some engagement with scholars in a critical way? Are other scholars—not laypeople—praising their work? Aim for at least two of these three things before giving an individual press time).

What is perhaps most important to remember is that what you write will resonate with laypeople—your work, as journalists for professional news outlets, gives legitimacy to an idea.  So choose wisely and carefully.  It is your responsibility to examine the individual and the sources and their theories before you write on them.  If you fail to do so, you fail your audience.  The second you publish that article, it will be shared one-hundred, one-thousand, perhaps tens-of-thousands of times during its lifespan (before being dumped into a pay-wall archive).  So please, for the love of Pete, take the time needed to make sure that you are not putting a crank and their crazy conspiracy theory on a pedestal before you publish.  There is nothing more embarrassing for a journalist, I imagine, than highlighting a concept that is absolutely beyond credible.  And it drives people like me, who take history seriously, to drink.

(Author’s Note: I think it is important to state here that I have been diligent, over the past few years, to correct people about my credentials–those who confuse me for a scholar or an expert, I am quick to point out to them that, while I am a student, and I am in the guild, and I am academically published, that does not ipso facto make me an expert, a scholar, or professional historian.  When I publish, I vet my scholarship against other qualified, credible people so I know that what I put out to the guild is interesting and useful.  I haven’t always been so careful; in my past, I have made mistakes–quite similar to those made by Atwill, Ellis, Elkington, Jacobovici, and others–and I have worked hard to correct them.  So this all comes from experience; experience in the guild and outside the guild.  I think that this is vital: even though I could, by all means, consider myself a historian–as both a member of the guild and as a published academic–I refuse to do so until I have the laurels and the degrees to back that up.  This is the difference between who I was, and who I am; it is the difference also between Atwill and me.)

(Fake!) Epitaph to Jesus

For my Historical Jesus class this semester, we were asked to create an obituary for Jesus through the lens of someone from the period.  We were given some examples which I felt were a little anachronistic (Osama bin Laden’s obit from the New York Times was one of them).  So instead of doing a modern obituary, I chose to produce an epitaph like those commonly found in the ANE around Jewish settlements in what was Judaea and also the Diaspora (in Egypt, for example).  I drew heavily upon the translations by Hurbory and Noy and lengthened it considerably; I also added a little academic analysis (though not comprehensive, obviously–I didn’t want to bore the professor).  It was tons of fun to produce and I had fun ‘analyzing’ the ‘inscription’.  Here is the “translation” and analysis (lengthened slightly from the original assignment)–it presumes that no New Testament writing survives:


Necropolis near Nazareth: 1st Century CE. Epitaph on tomb; Bilingual (Greek text with Hebrew names).  Unknown scribe, commissioned inscription.

Inscription translation:

Hold! Passers-by!  Weep and mourn for the man in this tomb.  This is the tomb of the good man Jesus, only son of Joseph, of Nazareth.  He was taken down to the underworld in the 19th Year of Caesar Augustus.[1]  Look on this tomb, passersby, and beat with your hands thirty times for the thirty year old that has was snatched by Hades.[2]  For his mother, Mary, grieves for the loss of her son that pleased her, and had caused pain to none.  Grieving also are his companions, with whom he traveled, Peter, Mary, Judas, and John.[3]

For though he spread the news of the Lord, a path of righteousness and salvation, he was harassed by Death and woes![4]  Beset upon by the wicked, he was tempted, yet prevailed only to be met with a senseless end, to be hung on a tree![5]

[…] three days […] he will be raised […] unto the Lord![6]

O! All-subdoer, great Hades, why have you forsaken this man to his fate?  Hear me, wayfarers! Glory be given to the soul of the body with which they have placed in this tomb.  Though he was borne into a humble home, loved by all, and raised by his family to love the Lord, he found strength in the path of righteousness.  Majestically he traveled, never set to one place, teaching about the law as though a prophet.  To the tomb he went, as a man unmarried and chaste unto the Lord.

Weep for the dead Jesus, taken from his elder years by the wickedness of betrayal.  Set to earthly destruction for crimes he did not commit.[7]

Passers-by, speak softly when you go by of this tomb!  Do not disturb the stone walls or the sleeping dead within.  Rest now, Jesus, child of the Lord, untimely dead.  Grieve for those who are left behind. Farewell.

On behalf of Joseph the Arimathean, follower and friend of Jesus, lover of the Lord, who has commissioned this inscription, with those names of the community listed below.  Fortunate was the man, Jesus, who had companions such as these, though unfortunate in his demise.[8]

[1] “19th year of Caesar Augustus”, that likely is the 19th year of his reign, about 33 CE.  Information on 1st Century CE Nazareth is limited; not much archaeological evidence for the type of settlement in this period.  Likely a small village and scarcely populated.

[2] “Hades” (άδης); unlikely to have been incorporated at the behest of the commissioner of the inscription (see below), probably added by the scribe in place of Sheol (שְׁאוֹל). If incorporated by the original commission, it may imply that the group that associated with this figure Jesus wereat least slightly Hellenized, and that their sectarian views were developed, in part, through syncretism (see note 3 below).

[3] Given the rarity with which one includes so many individuals on funerary inscriptions (outside of the family names), it is likely these individuals were part of a sectarian group who held up Jesus as their sect leader.

[4] Death is here personified, similar to the Testament of Abraham in the Pseudepigrapha.

[5] “Hung on a tree”, perhaps indicative of Deut. 21.23, “…his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” This probably implies that he died by crucifixion, which might explain why the inscription bares the statement that his demise was ‘unfortunate’.

[6] This section is very badly damaged.  Unsure what the implications are of the phrase ‘he will be raised’ (ἐγερθήσεται).  Too many words obscured from the original inscription to make any clear indication of its actual meaning, though perhaps the translation is similar to the Hazon Gabriel, if one were to accept Israel Knohl’s translation: ‘to rise from the dead within three days.’

[7] “Crimes…” Possibly indicating that he was falsely accused of something that warranted ‘hanging from a tree”, i.e., crucifixion.  If this was indeed a sectarian leader, possibly associated with his teachings (maybe radical?) or with something he may have done or said against the Romans who occupied Judaea at this time.

[8] The list of names has been destroyed by time.  Likely Joseph of Arimathea was a follower of Jesus or a member of his sect; he must have been wealthy in order to commission such a large inscription.

UPDATE 10/3/13: No, Joe Atwill: Rome Did Not Invent Jesus

Note: Additional updates from 10/9 and 10/10 are below–scroll down to see them.

Apparently Joe Atwill has made a “documentary” of his book Caesar’s Messiah.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Jewish texts discovered in caves in Israel in 1947, give a different picture than the idyllic first century Holy Land of the Gospels. From year one, there were battles and confrontations between the Romans and the Jews, the Scrolls note, and there was no turning of the other cheek by the likes of rebel leader Judah of Galilee. And there was nary a mention in the Scrolls of the peaceable prophet Jesus Christ.

“This is where I came into Christian scholarship,” says Atwill, 63, an investor who lives by the proceeds of a dot-com sell off in the 1990s. “There was supposedly this character, Jesus, wandering around in Galilee. Nobody knew anything about him. Galilee is only 30 miles long. Jesus and other historical figures of the time would have known each other.”

Atwill, an admittedly bookish man, dived in headfirst, digging out whatever historical records he could find, studying the Scrolls, and reading Roman accounts, notably that of a family member of the Flavian dynasty of Caesars named Josephus. He found no historical Jesus in any of those writings. But there were some uncanny connections between the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels and the family of Roman emperors who took power after Nero was forced to commit suicide following a coup d’état.

I mean this is just golden cow scat. Seriously. Why? Because that is what you’re watching.

Let’s start with the blurb itself. Just the little snippet above should put anyone off from even considering this hypothesis.

  1. The Dead Sea Scrolls were not all written in the first century, but spread out over many. There are more than 200 years of texts here, from the terminus a quo of the earliest manuscript to the terminus ad quem of the latest (3rd Century BCE – 1st Century CE). So no, Atwill, you’re not going to find a match to the Gospels because these were written after the Dead Sea Scrolls had been hidden away in the caves of Qumran. In fact the site was probably destroyed by Romans during the First Jewish War–prior to when it is generally believed Mark wrote the first Gospel around 70 CE.
  2. The Gospels follow a pattern of what is called ‘Biblical Rewriting’ which was a common Jewish practice, just as ‘Homeric rewriting’ was common with Greek and Roman writers. So actually the Gospels fit quite well within the scribal framework of the Jewish community at the time.
  3. Why would the Dead Sea Scrolls mention Jesus when the settlement where these scrolls were probably written is over 130km (80 miles) away from Galilee? That is the distance between New York City and Philadelphia. Additionally, the sect at Qumran seems to have kept to themselves, living strict pious lives of obedience to god and to their laws. I do not believe them to have been Essenes–though probably quite close to them.
  4. Who else would have mentioned him? We have no contemporary attestation to anything from the 30’s CE from Galilee beyond archaeological finds (coins, epigraphical evidence, etc…). But that does not mean to suggest none existed from the region. Between the Jewish wars, the passing of time, we’re lucky we have anything from the region. This is a weak argument from silence.
  5. If you’re coming ‘into Christian scholarship’ from this position, you’re doing it wrong.
  6. Your argument that “Nobody knew anything about him” is incredible (Fixed!) since we have Gospels and epistles probably dating to the First Century CE. These may not have been accounts of what Jesus said and did, but they certainly demonstrate that a figure of Jesus was well-known to at least some people in the First Century.
  7. If you’re claiming to have ‘dived headfirst’ into the sources, does that mean you have a grasp of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Nabataean, and Hebrew? What about just Greek–since you predominately use Josephus? I suspect that, given your book only has something like 7 footnotes and almost all of them are from Josephus, you haven’t quite managed to take into account all the sources.

Atwill then suggests the following hypothesis so centric to the thesis of his book:

Sometime in the mid 70s AD, Atwill suggests, Greco-Roman intellectuals wrote the now-well-known stories—in Greek, not the popular Aramaic of the Judaic populace—about the Jewish messiah who defied the Judaic traditions of militancy to preach a sweet, accommodationist message.

I’ll break this down too. What the hell.

  1. You’re not using ‘Greco-Roman’ correctly. (You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means)
  2. Greek was commonly used by Jews in antiquity–Josephus, Philo, some of the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, various Jewish pseudepigrapha, the Maccabees (though maybe from a Hebrew original–uncertainty here), Jesus ben Sira (i.e., Sirach), various apocrypha (Tobit, for example–though maybe originally written in Aramaic, more uncertainty here). It depended upon their education and their level of assimilation which anyone familiar with the socio-cultural period of the Hellenistic-Roman periods would be able to explain easily. Atwill clearly has no grasp of these concepts, probably because he didn’t bother reading anything related to this despite his self-acclaimed ‘bookish-ness’.
  3. Jesus’ message in the Gospel is not new or anti-Judaic. In fact, it is quite Jewish (see anything written by James Crossley, for goodness sake).

All in all, Atwill proves he is incapable of taking this subject seriously–his not being a scholar aside, he completely misses the more logical argument to make from the Josephus-Gospel parallelisms, which also happen to be the same arguments made by Steve Mason in his now-famous work on Josephus and the New Testament: that either the Gospel authors or Josephus were using each other as intertextual references (I think it quite obvious that Luke had copies of Josephus, actually–a point Mason glosses over in a paragraph but never admits fully, but also what Richard Carrier argues here).

If you are planning to go see this movie, please, bring a disposable bag so you can properly rid yourself of the dung that undoubtedly will be thrown at you during the presentation.

**UPDATE 10-9-13**

Since this “documentary” first appeared, it seems that Mr. Atwill is again trying to profit off the ignorance of others. Now, self-styled as an ‘American Biblical scholar”, Mr. Atwill is peddling his book of lies and misleading theories to those in the UK. This nonsense does not deserve another post; but I will update this one because it can’t go along unopposed.

First, and let me be clear, nothing Joe Atwill has written is ‘conclusive’. In order for it to be conclusive, it would have to surmount all arguments against it. Unfortunately for him, he fails to grasp even basic knowledge about the subject. For example, he makes the rather bizarre claim that:

“In fact he [Jesus - ed.] may be the only fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources. Once those sources are all laid bare, there’s simply nothing left.”

Yet this is simply false. The Hebrew Bible is full of fictional literary characters whose entire life story can be traced to other sources. His hyperbole is bizarre. But even so, is Atwill seriously suggesting that fictional stories cannot be written about historical people or events? Wonder Woman is a highly fictionalized and heroicized literary figure inspired by an actual person, the creator’s wife, Elizabeth Marston. Wonder Woman meets Atwill’s classification as a “fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources.”

So it might be argued that maybe he was referring t ancient literature, but even then he is ignorant of basic figures that anyone with a minutiae of Classical education can speak upon. In ancient literature, the figure and legendary king of Sparta, Lycurgus, is entirely mythicized in literature yet may have been a real person (scholarship is split on this). The mythological tale of Gilgamesh, who we have no actual historical information on, is considered to be a historical figure and ancient king by most leading Sumerologists and yet his entire life story is one of our earliest extant written sources and one of our earliest written myths period. The biographies of Plutarch are propagandist fantasies of his about the lives of historical people like Alexander the Great (mixed in with purely fictional figures like Romulus).

This should be enough to make my point; Atwill makes claims that cannot be supported when those with some basic knowledge of the subject explore the claims further. This is a serious flaw in Atwill’s work. He makes claims but doesn’t seem to realize how ridiculous they actually are; it is that scholars find his work “outlandish”. It is just plain wrong. I mean it is still crazy talk, but it is more that his whole premise is wrong.

For example, like all sensationalist crap-dealers, Mr, Atwill claims to have discovered the secret, super-dooper, hidden code in the text. Amazing! I self-proclaimed “Biblical scholar”, with no formal training in the material, has used his magic decoder ring and stumbled upon a code! How clever of him. He states:

Atwill’s most intriguing discovery came to him while he was studying “Wars of the Jews” by Josephus [the only surviving first-person historical account of first-century Judea] alongside the New Testament. “I started to notice a sequence of parallels between the two texts,” he recounts. “Although it’s been recognised by Christian scholars for centuries that the prophesies of Jesus appear to be fulfilled by what Josephus wrote about in the First Jewish-Roman war, I was seeing dozens more. What seems to have eluded many scholars is that the sequence of events and locations of Jesus ministry are more or less the same as the sequence of events and locations of the military campaign of [Emperor] Titus Flavius as described by Josephus. This is clear evidence of a deliberately constructed pattern. The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar.”

First, and let me be clear, are there striking similarities between Josephus and the Gospel of Luke? Yes, there are. Steven Mason, a real scholar, has published an entire volume on the subject called Josephus and the New Testament. Richard Carrier has also written on the subject of the parallels between Josephus and Luke-Acts. Joel Watts, an actual student of Biblical Studies who has done graduate work in the field (unlike Mr. Atwill), has written an academically-published book on some interesting mimetic elements between Mark and Josephus.

The difference between what these scholars have written and what Mr. Atwill have written is threefold: (a) all of them have academic training in Greek, (b) all of them published through an academic press (Carrier is the exception, but he has published academically and is qualified on the subject), (c) None of them make the illogical leap that similarities between Josephus (a Jew) and the Gospels (written by Jewish authors) mean that the Romans did it. In fact it is the same misguided leap that some evangelicals make about God. “We don’t know, ergo ‘God did it’.” Instead, all of these scholars agree that the most rational reason for these similarities is that the Gospel authors had copies of Josephus, or Josephus had copies of the Gospels. This sort of interplay of texts is not new in the ancient world.

Second, notwithstanding this damning evidence against him, Atwill’s premise is quite narrowed and simplistic, demonstrating a critical lack of understanding of the cultural dynamics of Judea in the first century.

"Crap...why didn't we just use psychological warfare against these guys?"

“Crap…why didn’t we just use psychological warfare against these guys?”

There exist over 30 Jewish sects that we know of from the first century, and have some basic understanding of their belief structures. There are some dozens more we just know by name. On top of that, we have to conclude there are perhaps dozens, if not hundreds, more Jewish sects of which we simply have no record. What is so interesting is how incredibly different each sect is from each other.

Despite Atwill’s unlearned claim that the Jewish people were expecting a ‘Warrior messiah’, in truth there is no universal version of a messiah. Even among the same sect, over time, the concept of their messiah would change. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, which Mr. Atwill seems to think he knows so well, the language of the messiah and his purpose changes (in fact at one point, we see two distinct messiahs at once–one a priestly messiah and another a kingly messiah). Some sects did not even expect a messiah at all. Any of the numerous works on messianic expectations published in the last two decades utterly annihilates any claim that Atwill is making about some uniformity in Jewish thought and ritual.

Even logically, his analysis is flawed. If this tactic was used against the Jews, why didn’t the Romans use it against an even greater threat: the Gauls?! The Jewish people were never as serious a threat to the Empire as much as the Gauls were–who sacked Rome twice and destroyed Legions. Atwill never seems to consider how basically incompetent his thesis is in this regard. If the Romans had such success against the Jews using this “psychological warfare” (anachronism alert!! Danger! Danger!), why don’t we see this happening against all of their enemies? It is just so beyond absurd. It really is.

Here is the thing; it may be that Mr. Atwill is completely clueless about this. Maybe he isn’t just trying to scam everyone and sell a bunch of books to a group of gullible people. Maybe he legitimately hasn’t read anything relevant on this subject or any recent scholarship on it.

"What?  'The Romans Invented Jesus'?  What a rip off!"

“What? ‘The Romans Invented Jesus’? What a rip off!”

But that is troubling–would you want to read a science book written by a layperson who hasn’t read a single relevant scientific study? Would you pick up a book on engineering written by someone with a background in computer science, and trust that book enough to build a house based upon its designs? I hope not. I sincerely hope that no one would agree to trust either of these books.

This is the issue with Mr. Atwill. He may sincerely believe he has discovered the secret code off a cereal box with his 3-D glasses he found inside; that doesn’t make him an expert in the subject, it doesn’t make him knowledgeable enough to give lectures on it. It certainly does not make him credible.

Mr. Atwill is just like all the other amateur-Scholar-wannabes who refuse to put in the time and effort to earn a degree in the field, who want to advance their pet theories to sell books and dupe you over. He relies on popular media and the ignorance of the layperson to score points rather than publishing in a credible academic journal or publishing academically. He knows he can’t do that, because he has no clue how academics work, how they think, or what they actually argue on the subject. He might as well claim that Jesus lived on Atlantis, which came from Mars. That theory is about as ridiculous as the notion that Rome invented Jesus.


Image courtesy of Steve Caruso.

*UPDATE 10-10-13*

You’ll want to check out some additional take-downs:

(Shameless plug): For an academically published volume on the historicity of Jesus (which does not contain wild conspiracy theories), consisting of essays from scholars all over the world (the first such book of its kind to my knowledge), consider my co-edited volume ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (Sheffield: Equinox/Acumen, 2012/2013).

The Inscription on the Jonah Ossuary Redux and the Shape-Shifting Fish

A lot more has been said on the issue of the Jonah ossuary this week; in fact it has been an interesting few days.  As James McGrath keeps the round-ups alive (here and here; I won’t belabor it by reposting everything here–go to James’ blog for the details), I’ve been contemplating something that has been bothering me that I had completely missed previously.

Dr. James Tabor has made an effort recently to reenforce his belief that there is an inscription in the vessel ‘fish’.  However it seems that every instance a new image is released by his and Simcha’s team, there are startling differences that cause me to raise an eyebrow.  Mark Goodacre blogged about something quite similar last year, but this needs to be demonstrated more thoroughly taking into account more recent events.

1. The Elusive Etruscan Letter and the Stick Man

During the very beginning of the debate over the iconography on the ossuary (fish or vessel?), I wrote a long post in response to Dr. Tabor’s conclusions that the ossuary portrayed the fish spitting out Jonah.  I am sure it still stands up to scrutiny a year later–but it dawned on me recently that I had quoted some pretty interesting dialogue from Dr. Tabor on the part of the fish in which he now claims there exists an inscription.

Back in the first week of March, 2012, Dr. Tabor posted up this bit:


‘A perfume flask or a fish?’ ( Accessed online: 9-19-13.

And in detail, this specific part of his analysis:


Keep this in the back of your mind. That perceived Etruscan letter is a big deal.

To be clear, at this point Dr. Tabor was still using the CGI generated photo as an original photo of the actual ossuary (which turns out was not the case).  In my response to Dr. Tabor, I made note that the misleading image was photoshopped in some way, but I also highlighted the lines of his image:


Image from ‘Some considerations about the iconography on the ossuary’, ( Accessed online: 9-19-13.

I wrote then:

Note how completely ‘unhuman’ the ‘stickfigure’ looks when you isolate the lines (in red) and see what is really there.  Frankly, I’m finding any resemblance to a ‘stickfigure’ to be completely disingenuous.  Also, take note of all the red squares.  Those are repeated notches which indicate to me that this item was not just digitally modified but parts of it were copied and pasted into the image to fill it out.  The left side of one notch in the middle-upper-left of the image has been cut off (and looks like a smudging effect was applied). So how is it that Dr. Tabor expects us to carefully examine this iconography in any detail when the iconography presented is not an accurate representation of what is on the ossuary?

Remember when Simcha and Dr. Tabor were then arguing that this was a stick figure and the ‘head’ of the fish contained an eye?  How adamant were they (specifically Dr. Tabor) about the stick man being spit out of the fish?


Note the highlighted bit.  Still there as of 9-20-13.

plain stickfigure
So much so did he believe this that it was ‘so plain’! From ‘The fish and the man’ (; Accessed online: 9-20-13.

I do find it interesting that Dr. Tabor draws attention to the fact that critics “have suddenly move[d] from the ‘tower’ to the perfume flask.”  But then again, the image that had been originally seen by everyone was not oriented correctly–but then, Dr. Tabor can’t really decide if orientation matters or not (Hint: it probably doesn’t if what you want to see is a fish and a stick figure).  Because Dr. Tabor and Simcha have suddenly gone from a “stick man” in a “fish’s head”, and then they said that it was a mix between a “stick man”, “fish’s head” and an “inscription” reading “Jonah”.  How dare they!  But most importantly, that is one impressive shape-shifting fish-stick-man-name!

But this stick figure is so incredibly clear, Dr. Tabor says.  In fact he went to the trouble of posting up a fan drawing of it:


Again, at this point it was not made clear that this photo was a CGI generated image; probably because at this point in early March, Dr. Tabor and Simcha were still claiming the CGI image was merely “a blowup”. (Refer to evidence here)  It was not until Bob Cargill caught the tells of CGI and called them on it that they made it clear what this was.

Man, just look how clear this is!  So great of Dr. Tabor to highlight the ‘so plainly’ visible stick figure.  Dr. Tabor even makes a point to state the clarity of the stick man a third time:


Note that Dr. Tabor does not attempt to clarify the fact that this is NOT a real photo of the iconography; he does not qualify that this is just a CGI image. He states, “the stick figure … so clearly has two legs, two arms, with one down and one up….” (ibid)

After this image was exposed as a computer generated image, not an ‘enhancement’, Dr. Tabor produced this image (probably courtesy of his team):


Notice what he had inked here and notice what he didn’t have inked at all. The tracing is sloppy and inaccurate. More on this in a moment.

Even in his preliminary report on the subject, he sees a stick figure.


The interesting bit is at this point, in early march, no mention of any inscription is found.  Anywhere.  In fact, again, Dr. Tabor doesn’t read anything in Hebrew on this ossuary.  Instead time is given to the Greek inscription on the back of ossuary 5 (not the same ossuary) and that’s it.  Dr. Tabor is thoroughly puzzled by what he initially sees as an Etruscan letter.

A few final notes here:

  1. The original “replica” ossuary and the CGI fabricated image have a connected line well below where it is portrayed as elsewhere or have an unconnected line at the center of the ‘fish head'; this indicates they didn’t see a connection:

    CGI; Green outline and red circle show perfectly that even in their CGI image there is no connection of the “legs”.


    From “Replica” 1; outline done by Steve Caruso. This replica seems ti highlight the ‘stickman’ with adjoining stick “legs”.

  2. Dr. Tabor especially made note of how “clear” the stick figure was on the ossuary.

But it seems that as time goes on, the fish iconography seems to shift and mold into something that seems remarkably more pliable to Dr. Tabors’ arguments.

2. The Shape-Shifting Fish-na-Man-na-Name-O-Tron!

At the end of March and early April, we see a dynamic shift in argument from the Jesus Discovery team.  A new replica is released (though barely discussed) with very different ‘fish head’ iconography and the startling news that the stick figure was actually serving a double-purpose: he was hiding the inscription YONH (Yonah)!  From Dr. Tabor’s blog:


How clever! That sneaky little stick figure!  Accessed online: 9-20-13;

And this is the accompanying picture provided by Dr. Tabor:


Now notice what he inked and what he didn’t. Note how that Etruscan letter became a hey!

A side by side:


The difference one month makes, right? That Etruscan character morphed right into that hey. All of a sudden lines start shifting. Pay close attention to the spots that are circled with no lines present.

These photos are interesting because they demonstrate not only a shift in tactics, but a little misleading information.  Bob Cargill and Steve Caruso have done some excellent work demonstrating the glaring inaccuracies and inconsistencies here.


Click to embiggen. Courtesy of Bob Cargill.

Steve demonstrates the errors here.  The biggest controversy here is the difference between this image and the unedited “raw” image.   Here is what I’ve put together:


Click to embiggen!

There is just so much happening between these three photos.  So much is lost, so much added, lines are fusing together left and right.  They move and sway and vanish and reappear.  It’s incredible!

This fish is like Martia, the Cameloid shape-shifter from Undiscovered Country!  “Don’t like the stick man? Oh, well, is this a more pleasant form?  Not everyone keeps their genitals in the same place.”

And wouldn’t you know how Dr. Tabor was defending this?  Why, the same way he defended the stick man of course.

On Steve Caruso’s blog post on April 14, last year, Dr. Tabor wrote:

It [the inscription-ed.] is plain as the Aramaic on your face and I think you surely know it.

It is just so plainSo plain.  It is as plain as the Etruscan letter, the stick man, the ‘half-fish’ with handles.  It’s just, so d’uh!  It’s so plain that Dr. Tabor writes just today:

In fact it was obvious enough that Dr. Tabor missed it for months on end.  He missed it during the few months he was investigating the ossuary, he missed it for a few additional months while reviewing photos, while writing his preliminary report.  He made it through just an entire month of blogging, mistaking such a plain and obvious hey as a letter in the Etruscan alphabet.

There are also sketches done of the “Jonah” ossuary by the Jesus Discovery team and it was so plain to see that they included it!  Oh wait, no they didn’t.


Closeup of this image put out by the Jesus Discovery team. Guess what? No YONH!

And isn’t it interesting that the photos and second “replica” used now (in fact featured on the website) are missing extraneous lines that would otherwise obscure and dilute the inscription?  And isn’t it odd that no one seems to be denying that fact?


So to recap: First it is a fish with a stick man, then it’s a fish with a stick man that is also an inscription.  Stick man is so powerful.


I feel like I’m watching this. “Pick your own interpretation of the Jonah ossuary!”

What I find most distracting is that Dr. Tabor seems to again be changing tactics!  While initially the inscription was hidden inside the shape shifting stick man, now Dr. Tabor just wants us to forget about the stick man entirely.  He told Mark Goodacre just a few days ago:


“Let’s forget any stick figure”! But Dr. Tabor, it’s so plain! It’s as plain as the Etruscan on your face! Or the serif in the yod? Or the.. well, you get it.

Honestly, maybe it is time for the Jesus Discovery team to abandon the stick man entirely and focus on the inscription.  Clearly that is where Dr. Tabor’s head is at.  So what do we believe?  A stick man?  Not a stick man?  An Etruscan letter?  A hey?  It is interesting that when Dr. Tabor sees something that contradicts his “rock-solid” plain view of a fish and Jonah or a stick man, well, it is just probably a mistake.  He writes:

A closeup view of this area makes it clear that there is certainly no handle remotely resembling that of a vase or amphora but just a couple of stray lines, unconnected to the image, that the engraver might have even made by mistake.

Wait, you mean it shows up in multiple images and resembles items that we have seen on other ossuaries? Oh… oh my…

Well, this is embarrassing…. I just think we should end this on a positive note.  So… take it away Xzibit!


Pimp My Ossuary edition!


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