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!

A Response to Dr. Witmer’s Article on the Evidence for the Figure of Jesus

Dr. Amanda Witmer recently wrote up a rather interesting response to the question of the historicity of Jesus; her conclusion, pointedly stated, “As it turns out, historical information about Jesus can be found, but sifting through the data requires some work” and “[The gospels-ed.]…reflect the impact the historical figure, Jesus, had on those who were marked by his life.”  These conclusions, stated with such conviction in most New Testament circles, betrays the confidence—perhaps misplaced—in the available evidence of the figure of Jesus.  This is quite problematic, as many of the arguments Dr. Witmer raises are quite dated and, with some critical eyes, seem rather superficial.

Dr. Witmer starts off muddying the water, categorizing the argument that Jesus did not exist as ‘fashionable’.  The type of denialism which is latent in some wings of the secular community is indeed problematic, and I would agree that some members of the mythicist camp fall prey to that “tendency to insist on absolutes”.[1]  But I would not call the position, as a whole, ‘fashionable’, as if it were some fad or trend, as none of these positions are necessarily new, nor have they ever fallen ‘out of style’.  Some of the earliest German critical scholars of the Bible that we learn about in our introductory New Testament classes—Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, and David Strauss—all produced mythic figures of Jesus, arguing that the historical Jesus is simply unknowable.  As the minimalists of their day, they were more than capable of pointing out the fact that the Christian Jesus—that Jesus which wears the collar of a protestant or catholic—had been a product of their contemporary society.  On this latter point, I am certain Dr. Witmer would agree.[2]

Where we disagree, it seems, is on the level of certainty one can place on the available arguments for the historicity of the figure of Jesus and in the reliability of gospels themselves, especially as works of historiography. Dr. Witmer insists on using the argument that the gospels represent ancient biographies.  But she does not address, even in passing, the many studies which have raised issue with Charles Talbert’s conclusions, initially published in 1977. Michael Vines, Mary Ann Tolbert, Thomas L. Thompson, and Marianne Palmer Bonz have all voiced opposition to the concept that the gospels represent the genre of Greco-Roman biography;[3] the attempts by Richard A. Burridge, Craig Keener, and others to revive Talbert’s conclusions have not been successful—in this author’s opinion—towards producing any solid argument which might contradict the modern literary critical studies that suggest that the gospels fit more in line with ancient Jewish fictional literature (as Vines argues, contra Burridge and Aune specifically). Anyone with a strong Classics background can immediately see the flaws of comparing the gospels with Philostratus’ work on Apollonius.  That is to say, to put it bluntly, they are not at all comparable.[4]

Even under the presumption that the gospels do fit into the mould of Greco-Roman biography, that does not ipso facto mean that they are based on historical individuals.  Plutarch dedicates whole biographies to fictional figures like Romulus, Lycurgus, and so on.  Is the reader to presume that in the writing of Plutarch there exists the impact of a historical figure, Romulus?  His works are Greco-Roman biographies, after all; by the very logic of Dr. Witmer, we should expect to locate a historical kernel of figure of Lycurgus.  Though I highly doubt Dr. Witmer would be rushing to defend that conclusion!  And I don’t blame her as it is a silly conclusion.  Marianne Palmer Bonz was absolutely correct when she wrote that the genre of a text will ultimate influence how a text is interpreted. Leaning rather apologetically on Greco-Roman biography as if Vines, Tolbert, Thompson, Bonz, Brodie, and others haven’t challenged it since the publication of Talbert’s book in the late 70’s is rather unfortunate.

Still, Dr. Witmer does ask some good questions which should be taken seriously.  She remarks on the relationship between John and Jesus that, “Reading between the lines, or against the text, we learn from these two passages that John had perhaps initially been viewed as the more important of the two men, and that this perception gradually shifted. Again, why invent this issue?”  Indeed, why invent it? It’s a really fantastic question and one that deserves some serious consideration and study.  But one cannot just assume that there is no other viable answer than “because it happened” or “because it indicates a historical memory.” By what evidence does one judge one narrative event to another historically? Is this event any more or less authentic of an event than Mark’s portrayal of the disciples?  Of course not; that sort of thinking is narrowed and uncritical.

It is also speculative and it presumes the very case in dispute, while ignoring the broader categories of literary genres by Greco-Roman Jewish authors. Why would the authors of Matthew or Luke invent anything not found in Mark?  Why would John include elaborate scenes that don’t appear in any other gospel? Why do Jesus’ actions in Mark reflect so clearly the Elijah-Elisha narratives? Why does Mark portray Jesus as running off into the wilderness to be attended to by angels while being temped?  Why does he have John wearing the same outfit as Elijah?  Why does Matthew imitate various narrative elements from Exodus about Moses? Why would any author, at any given point in history, fabricate anything? With careful research, one might locate the answers to these questions. But one should not just make the leap in logic that “I don’t know, therefore it must be a historical kernel.” That requires a whole level of biased rationalizing from which one should just stay away. Reading “between the lines” is just as dangerous as looking down Schweitzer’s well; when the spaces between the lines are empty, a blank canvas is the only thing that exists.  Anybody can inscribe whatever they want there.  Most likely what comes from that exercise looks more like the Jesus we want, not the Jesus that was once.[5]

Dr. Witmer then follows with the same old argument that Jesus’ name occurs in extrabiblical source material, therefore she concludes that these references are useful in dating events in Jesus’ life.  The trouble with this claim is that it has been handled so often by scholars (not mythicists) that it should cease to be of any value to any discussion on historicity.  Case in point, Tacitus’ use of Jesus is so clearly modeled upon Christian interpretations that it cannot be considered independent. Some scholars (again, not mythicists) have even postulated the case that the passage is an interpolation, but as this author has not spent the time necessary to evaluate this argument, it won’t be used here.  It is more than likely this reference is authentic and comes from his friend Pliny who, as Dr. Witmer probably knows, was a great and dear friend to Tacitus,[6] who had come face to face with Christians and was at a complete loss for how to handle them. It seems probable that Tacitus and Pliny communicated about these strange Christians who followed a ‘superstition’ about a dying savior figure named Christus.  Another option is that Tacitus had access to a gospel.  Either way, this is dubious evidence at best, as it is not independent.

Dr. Witmer also utilizes Josephus’ reference, but it is also problematic. Aside from the fact that our earliest Josephan manuscripts comes from the middle of Medieval Period, more than one version has been highly interpolated with Christian references to Jesus which are quite specious. In this regard, Ken Olson has taken the Testimonium Flavianum to task quite recently, demonstrating definitively, in this author’s humble opinion, that it was an interpolation. This author’s opinion aside, the reader is encouraged to examine his arguments and judge for themselves their value.[7]  Even if one were to accept the authenticity of Josephus, it would not necessarily tip the scales in favor of historicity (though it couldn’t hurt).

The reference to the logically invalid criterion of embarrassment is something else. This is again where a strong Classics background helps one understand the social world of the Romans. It doesn’t get more embarrassing for a Roman than following a castrated deity. Yet somehow the Cult of Attis not only thrived, but continued to thrive for some time—despite the fact that many of the most elite in Roman society saw it as a bizarre religion and an embarrassing and emasculating one. Priests would castrate themselves in honor of Attis.  This doesn’t make Attis any more real, does it?  Should scholars start using the criterion of embarrassment to prove the historical Attis?  Neither should the embarrassment of crucifixion or that of the death of John somehow make Jesus any more historical.

Additionally, the criterion of embarrassment presumes that the crucifixion or the death of John the Baptist was embarrassing for everyone. Certainly early Christians did not find this embarrassing at all.  On the crucifixion, Paul even writes that this is a stumbling block for Jews, but interestingly he does not consider this an embarrassment.[8]  He saw Jesus’ death as a point of jubilation with his resurrection in the same way that followers of Attis saw the glory and appreciated the message of his castration.[9]  Likewise, the death of John seems to be a prime example of a righteous martyrdom, wherein his death—a necessary thing—occurs as an echo towards Jesus’ own fate.  Whether the elite found anything wrong with Christianity seems to have not bothered the Christian at all.  It certainly doesn’t bother many Christians today.[10]

There is the additional problem, one found in many studies from the past few decades on the figure of Jesus, with the many bizarre claims that run through her article.  The conclusion that the sources we have for Jesus’s life “were actually written closer to his lifetime than were those on Alexander the Great” is just wrong and echoes of E.P. Sanders own thoughts on the figure of Jesus which, even at the time when they were written, were tiringly old.[11]   For the sake of argument alone, if one takes into account all the evidence for Alexander the Great, actually a very well-documented and attested figure in history, Dr. Witmer’s case falls apart.   Take any one gospel (or all four, if one would prefer) and examine it next to Arrian’s history of Alexander’s campaigns.  Even as late as he is, Arrian uses methods that surpass those (if any at all) used by the gospel authors.  Arrian compares his sources which consisted of eyewitness (actual contemporary written) accounts from Alexander’s generals (he explicitly cites his sources, even if they are now lost) and tells us why he is choosing one account of an event over the other, or why one seems to hold more weight.[12]  These sources (primarily the eyewitness accounts of Ptolemy, a general in Alexander’s army, and Aristoboulos who traveled with him as an engineer) are also attested to elsewhere as well, which indicate that Arrian didn’t simply invent them ex nihilo.[13]   In addition to Arrian’s work, there are still perhaps hundreds of extant contemporary attestations of Alexander the Great from manuscripts,[14] artwork (busts), coins, and inscriptions.[15]  If we had this sort of evidence for Jesus’ life and ministry, there would be no need to write this paper, and that is precisely the point.[16]

Now, one may make the argument that we cannot expect this sort of evidence for a historical Jesus, as he’d be relatively insignificant compared to a figure such as Alexander the Great—indeed, this is precisely the argument that Dr. Witmer seems to be making.  That’s very astute, assuming a historical, itinerant, impoverished Jesus as laid out by some historical Jesus scholars.  Granting this objection’s validity, there is an obvious contradiction: Why would any scholar so desire to suggest, erroneously, that the evidence for a historical Jesus is somehow greater than that of Alexander when the fact is, quite clearly (and demonstrably), the evidence for Alexander is so superior to that of any provided for Jesus?  Not only is it superior, but it is improbable—near impossible perhaps—that a historian should expect anything similar between Alexander and an insignificant historical Jesus as far as evidence goes.  This is just an example of how false confidence in the state of evidence can lead good scholars to make claims that overestimate the value of said evidence.

This author wholeheartedly disagrees with Dr. Witmer when she writes that, “To sum up, it is important to interpret the evidence about Jesus’ existence in a balanced way that neither dismisses all biblical evidence as worthless, nor assumes that every aspect of the biblical account should be read as pure history.”  No, Dr. Witmer, the evidence should be examined in the manner that it exists—to the extent that it is not examined to prove preconceived notions, whether by secularists or fundamentalists.  To start from a balanced approach is to make presumptions about the text that are simply unknown and possibly unknowable.  After all, “Jesus existed” and “Jesus didn’t exist” are both conclusions that do not follow from the evidence—they are both is simply taken for granted by two opposing parties, and then the evidence is examined in light of this presumption.  Instead, one needs to first follow the evidence and see where it leads.

To be clear, one should not discount the biblical narratives; the bible can provide a lot of inspiration, but it can also be very dangerous when used as an instrument to reinforce an individual’s own prejudices against others.  Because of this, the bible is far from worthless.  In fact, it should be respected. But one should not just accept the biblical narratives as evidence.  Evidence is the raw data—it holds no notion of one conclusion or another.  One draws conclusions from the evidence, one should never use the evidence to support a conclusion.

This last bit is quite important.  The biblical narratives are, in and of themselves, making certain historical claims that require validation.  One does not simply accept the historicity of the Telemachia based upon the narratives in the Odyssey. The historical claims made in the biblical narrative—and all ancient texts—need to be evaluated for their accuracy prior to the point when one puts their trust in them.  If none exists, where does that leave us?  One should not simply draw a conclusion that Jesus didn’t exist.  There is no evidence to that fact.  But neither is there any solid evidence that such a figure lived.  The available data is not conclusive nor does it portray any sense of probability.  Maybe using dated arguments, like those used here by Dr. Witmer, is enough to convince those reading this paper.  This author prefers to follow the words of Stephen Prothero in his review of Reza Aslan’s recent book:

But the real problem is that Aslan, like thousands of “historical Jesus” experts before him, refuses to say “I don’t know” with anything near the frequency required for the task. He, too, purports to be an intrepid archaeologist for historical truth, excavating the “real” Jesus out of the “propagandistic legend” that has grown up around him. But he, too, remakes Jesus in his own image.

In conclusion, Dr. Witmer makes a lot of claims in her article. Unfortunately, most of these claims have either been dealt with by more recent scholarship or fail a secunda facie analysis of the arguments.  This does not mean Jesus was not a historical person.  Maybe he was!  I just don’t know.  That is what Dr. Witmer’s article was missing: some acceptance, some humility, that the evidence we have is generally just too inconclusive for any sort of certainty.  Dr. Witmer may believe the evidence situates Jesus in a historical setting, a Sitz im Leben, but she has not made a case for it here.  I recognize that old arguments die hard. It is difficult for rebuttals to make the rounds in academia, especially when most scholars don’t have the time, due to faculty commitments and publishing requirements; but that doesn’t mean that scholarship can continue to move forward as if rebuttals to our most sacred arguments don’t exist.  These arguments, and other arguments from many historical Jesus scholars, need to be revised.  They need to be reexamined in a new way that takes into account rebuttals, new scholarship. It is always possible that the rebuttals are wrong, but one cannot simply continue to proceed in confidence that they just are wrong without ever taking the time to deal with them.[17]


[1] I would note that the real false dichotomy here isn’t between fundamentalists and mythicists, but between historicists and mythicists.  In fact, both have tendencies to insist on absolutes; the mythicist would say, “Jesus never existed” and the historicity would say “Jesus definitely existed.”  The conclusions drawn by Dr. Witmer here are in the latter category.

[2] On this subject, the reader is directed to read Roland Boer’s very fine treatment of the so-called ‘German Pestilence’; “The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer” in T.L. Thompson and T.S. Verenna, eds, ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (CIS; London/Sheffield: Equinox/Acumen, 2012/2013), 33-56.

[3] M.E. Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel (Academia Biblica 3; Atlanta: SBL, 2002); M.A. Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989); T.L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (New York: Basic Books, 2005); M.P. Bonz, The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000); but also by T.L. Brodie, The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings (NTM 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2004).

[4] It helps that we in fact have additional attestation to both Philostratus and Apollonius; e.g., the inscriptions at Athens and Olympia to Philostratus and the Adana inscription to Apollonius. Philostratus’ work is also very different from the work produced by the gospel authors.  Philostratus not only gives us his sources (personal letters and the will of Apollonius himself—whether real or not, reports about him located at shrines, Damis of Hierapolis, Maximus of Aegeae, and so forth), he analyzes his sources (why he chose not to use Moeragenes), debates points of Apollonius’ life against his sources (cf. 1.23-24), inserts anecdotes; there is no question that the story is being recounted by Philostratus using multiple known sources.  Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not just telling us the story to explain a theological point (though, as any piece of ancient literature, it is designed and rhetorically structured), but he is engaging the source material for the purpose of writing about the life of Apollonius.  The same could not be said for the gospels. The gospels, however, present a continuous story line with no pause, no discussion of method, no discussion of sources, no anecdotes, and make appeals to theological nuances like Jesus’ divine mission (Mark 1:1-3, for example).  These sorts of traits go against the grain of Greco-Roman biography.  As dubious as the historicity of Apollonius may be, his biography is actually sounder and more credible than that of the gospels precisely because (a) we know who wrote it and (b) our narrator discusses his sources, allowing us to analyze his methods.  The gospels do not belong to this genre; they are the antithesis of it.  All that is needed is a critical eye and careful evaluation of the two sources to see that.

[5] Dr. Witmer places strong emphasis on the Johanine tradition, specifically that from the Gospel of John.  She would want to consider James Crossley’s recent discussion on the value (or lack thereof) of John’s gospel on the reconstruction of the historical figure of Jesus in his contribution to ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, entitled “Can John’s Gospel Really Be Used to Reconstruct a Life of Jesus? An Assessment of Recent Trends and a Defence of a Traditional View?”, 163-184.

[6] This friendship is well established in their correspondence (i.e., Letters 1.6, 20; 4.13; 7.20; 8.7; 9.10; and so on).

[7] While valiantly defended by Lester Grabbe in his “‘Jesus Who Is Called Christ’: References to Jesus outside Christian Sources” in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, 57-70, the authenticity of the TF has been taken to task.  G.J. Goldberg argues that the TF is a mish-mosh of Lukan-style passages in his “The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke,” in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha (Vol. 13, 1995), 59-77 and more recently Ken Olson, “Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61 (1999) 305-322, and “A Eusebian Reading of the Testimonium Flavianum,” in Aaron Johnson & Jeremy Schott, eds., Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations  (Hellenic Studies 60; Cambridge: Harvard University Press/Center for Hellenic Studies, 2013), 97-114.  Also, his guest post on Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith’s blog, “The Testimonium Flavianum, Eusebius, and Consensus (Guest Post) – Olson” (Accessed Online 8/16/2013).   He concludes, “In summary, the six arguments against Christian authorship of some elements of the Testimonium that Van Voorst has culled from the scholarly literature do not hold with respect to Eusebius. At the very least, this should remind us to be wary of arguments from authority. The fact that one or more scholars has endorsed a particular argument does not mean it is sound.”  Richard Carrier takes down the Minor TF in his paper, “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20.4 (Winter 2012): 489-514.

[8] 1 Cor. 1.23-5.

[9] 1 Cor. 1.27.

[10] This criterion has been dealt with more recently by Rafael Rodriguez, “Truth about Jesus: The Demise of the Criterion of Embarrassment” in, C. Keith & A. Le Donne, eds., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (New York: Blumsbury, 2012), 132-151.

[11] E.P. Sanders wrote, for example, that “we know more about Jesus than about Alexander [the Great]” and “The sources for Jesus are better…than those that deal with Alexander.” The Historical Figure of Jesus (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 3-4.  These claims are made often and are absolutely not true.  Not in the slightest bit.  Ironically, I see these claims made by historical Jesus scholars when, instead, I expect this sort of line to follow from a Christian apologist like Josh McDowell.  That troubles me greatly.  If I, an undergrad, can point out the error in logic and content in such an argument, what does that say about the argument?

[12] He also compares conflicting accounts for the reader; e.g. Anabasis Alexandri 3.30.4-6.

[13] Pseudo-Lucian and Plutarch both appear to have access to Aristoboulos and Ptolemy, for example.

[14] The authors preserved who were contemporaries of Alexander and mention him or facts about him include: Isocrates, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides, Dinarchus, Theocritus, Theophrastus, and Menander.

[15] Not only are there inscriptions dedicated to Alexander the Great and his victories which are contemporaneous to him, several inscriptions commissioned by Alexander himself still exist; e.g., there is one at the British Museum from Priene in Asia Minor, dedicated to Athena Polias.  See B.F. Cook, Greek Inscriptions (Berkeley: UCP, 1987), 21-22.

[16] While Arrian’s methods are exceptional, they fall short of modern standards.  Even though he is a step above the typical ancient historian, his work is not perfect.  He openly equates “interesting” stories with “probable” stories and, as one of his reasons for choosing Ptolemy as a source, states that it is because he was a King and “it is more disgraceful for a king to tell lies than anyone else.”  (Anabasis Alexandri, Preface 1-3) Still, if a good historian like Arrian, whose methods are far superior to those of his contemporaries, those before him, and many after, can succumb to these sorts of biases, one should be more concerned with how much bias and error effects those writers of lesser quality—especially the anonymous ones.

[17] For a fuller treatment of the common fallacies of historical Jesus scholarship, of which many pertain to Dr. Witmer’s article, see my review of Bart Ehrman’s recent book Did Jesus Exist; “Did Jesus Exist? The Trouble with Certainty in Historical Jesus Scholarship”, Bible and Interpretation, May 2012.

The Paperback of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Has Arrived!

At least my copies have arrived, which means that those of you who have pre-ordered your own copy (hint, hint) can expect to have them in hand soon!

My first impressions upon holding a copy were how heavy it feels and how thick is the book.   Despite being a paperback it has some weight to it (almost as much–if not more–than the hardback) and it is just as full in volume.  I was quite impressed.

Acumen Publishing did a fantastic job (though one of my copies has some wear from the trip across the ocean, but that can’t be helped–handling issues during transit); the book is crisp, the colors are sharp, the quality is excellent.  I could not be happier with the way the volume has turned out.

Also, I was grateful that Acumen was able to correct some of the left over copy-editor errors–minor typos mainly–in the production of the paperback.

Anyway, the book is here!  That is exciting! Friends and readers in the UK can get a jump ahead of those of us across the pond, as it is currently available on Amazon.co.uk! I am told that Amazon orders in North America will be filled within about a month (about how long it takes for a shipment of books to reach the NA distributor and for the distributor to release the books to vendors like Amazon and Barnes and Noble).

The Paperback of ‘Is This Not The Carpenter?’ Off to the Printers this Week

We just heard from the publisher (Acumen) that they are sending the book to the printers this week! They have informed us that the paperback will be available in early July! This is huge news and we sincerely appreciate the hard work that went into this early release by the good people at Acumen. They’ve done a phenomenal job.

For those who pre-ordered (and for those still interested in pre-ordering), the book will release first in Europe as the publisher is in the UK; while North Americans will receive their first copies a few weeks later as they ship via ocean to the North American distributor (ISD), who then ship them out to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc…

The fastest way to get a copy is ordering directly from the distributors (Acumen for Europeans and ISD for North Americans); the downside is that you will pay full cost for the book ($29.95–far less expensive than the hardback at any rate), so ordering from Barnes and Noble or Amazon (both have a list price of $19.62 as of this posting) may be a better option for those who want to save a few bucks but who don’t mind waiting a few more weeks to flip through their book.

What Happened to the Jerusalem Pillars?

In my paper for my Intro to New Testament class, I raised the follow:

Though prominently the disagreements between Paul and the so-called Jerusalem Pillars; what is noteworthy is that Paul seems to have, as well as earn, authority despite the fact that he did not know Jesus personally (and according to tradition, the Jerusalem Pillars did, though Paul does not explicitly suggest this).  One has to wonder about the implications of this, whereby Paul has authority and continues to gain authority even after his death—particularly through these so-called gnostic communities—and yet none of the Jerusalem Pillars’ works survive (presuming they wrote something down in the first place).

This for me draws out an important issue. Just what happened to the Jerusalem Pillars?  Did they die during the First Jewish War?  Did they leave and go to Rome?  Syria?  Alexandria?  And why is it that we have Paul and not the Pillar’s works (if any were written)?  Paul must have received some correspondence, I would think, given that he went to Jerusalem on someone’s wishes.  And I find it hard to believe that none of the Pillars were literate (given that they seemed to hold some “rabbinical” position in the church there).

Are there any theories out there?  Any constructions that might be based in some grounding?

History’s ‘The Bible’ in Broader Contexts

In lieu of writing a much longer piece for an online journal, I have thought it useful to open up some to a conversation concerning the History Channel’s ‘The Bible’.  Recently lots has been made about the inaccuracies of the miniseries, as well as Glenn Beck’s (racist?) comments about how similar is their Satan character to “that guy”.  But not much has been said in its defense.

This is problematic; while there are inaccuracies, I am not sure that it diminishes from the quality or historical contexts that are present.  Before Jim West gets flustered (don’t hate me Jim), let me explain my meaning.

As students of the past, there is one constant fact to all of our ancient literature that I’m sure many of my readers will already know: they contain elements of what some would call ‘truth’ (in a philosophical or theological sense), elements of cultural memory/social memory (historical or otherwise), and lots more mythological constructs–fictions, to be blunt about it.  In the Gospels, this is probably the most clear-cut.  We have four canonical Gospels and dozens of noncanonical Gospels, some contain similar elements between each other (Matthew and Luke contain something like 90% of Mark’s Gospel with their own additional, unique content).

I often wonder how early receivers of these Gospels understood them.  As a literary critic at heart, reception history is an important function of any text; yet somehow I don’t think that Luke’s first readers grumbled on about how little it matched up with Matthew’s accounts.  I mean, you don’t generally find early Christian apologists complaining about how much Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives contradict each other. (critics of Christianity certainly did, but not generally the believers–which is telling)  Somehow four Gospels were, for the most part, accepted into a canon and appreciated as they were–with all of their complexities and nuance, with their competing theological narratives, with their chronological disparities.

Kind of like these discrepancies.

Now not everyone appreciated this, and we have examples of some later scribes attempting to unify the four versions (i.e., they attempted to ‘correct’ the disparities). But these attempts were widely unsuccessful (so far as we know); we still have four Gospels in the canon, contradictions and competitive elements included.  So at some point, along the line, these were still appreciated for what they were: rewritten narratives, tradition ‘history’.  Most of my readers who are academics themselves will undoubtedly be aware of all of this.  And in many respects, probably still accept the Gospels–begrudgingly or otherwise–with their many challenges and puzzling alterations.

But isn’t it interesting that when a miniseries does the same thing as the Gospel authors, many of us just cannot deal with it?  So the producers have a square script in the wrong period.  So what?  Matthew includes a scene where Herod goes about ordering the killing of a bunch of infants (which never happened).  Luke feels it is completely acceptable to add a census at the wrong time.  And lest we forget, Josephus and Philo were quite capable of rewriting the Bible in bizarre and inaccurate ways; Josephus has Alexander the Great reading the book of Daniel for goodness sake; a book which at that time would not be inked for another 160 years or more!  Philo has Heraclitus stealing philosophical ideas from Moses; if you want to talk about inaccuracies and historical improbabilities, look no further than the first century CE.

tumblr_mfz22a3xjY1qfswibo1_500

“Look at this book which conveniently fits right into the theme of my narrative (that hasn’t been written yet)!”

Many have had a (understandable) problem with how white Jesus is portrayed in the film.  But Jesus has been portrayed as white for generations–not that this is an acceptable argument, because it isn’t–but he has not only ever been portrayed this way.  Some of the very first depictions of Jesus are him as a Greek (as Orpheus) or as a Roman (on a Roman sarcophagus where he is portrayed with no beard, a tunic of high quality, and thick, curly hair).

Certainly some early depictions of him appear closer to what one might imagine; painted on a catacomb wall, there stands Jesus–unbearded, olive-skinned though still clearly Caucasian, and in the desert near a tomb–with a magic wand conjuring up a dead Lazarus, for example.  But isn’t that just another example of an artist taking a personal liberty in their own portrayals of Jesus?

JRaiseLazarus

Expecto patronum!” or something.

Let’s be plainly honest: There is no way to know what ethnicity Jesus had been; one might like to imagine him as an approximation of what the popular concept of ‘Jewish’ was like in antiquity, but as Thomas L. Thompson has aptly pointed out, “Jewish” is not an ethnicity.  He may have been a black man, he may have had a Greek ancestry, he may have been an Egyptian, he may have been something else entirely–he just shows up out of nowhere in Mark with no birth narrative or discussion of ancestry (and Luke and Matthew included ancestry for theological reasons–not historical reasons).  Paul may or may not suggest that he was from the line of David (I tend to think not), but even so that does not ipso facto mean every descendent of his was ethnically tied to the region.  Some scholars would like to think so; but this is really sort of a moot point in some ways, isn’t it?  The earliest Christian communities didn’t care about Jesus’ racial background and portrayed him as whatever they saw fit for their communities.  After all, God does not have an ethnicity (nor a gender, for that matter).

Does History’s ‘The Bible’ contain errors, contradictions, inaccuracies, etc…?  Yes, absolutely.  But look at the material from which it is drawing inspiration.  When your actual source material is conflicting, inaccurate, vague, or diversely interpreted, any retelling or rewriting of that narrative will contain those elements.   It is patently unfair to criticize the miniseries for being ‘untrue to the source material’ when even our earliest interpreters were unconcerned with such anachronistic notions.  ‘The Bible’ is a modern day retelling, in the same vein as Josephus or Philo, of any of the Gospel authors, any of the apologists and scribes of antiquity.  Do you understand what it is you are watching?

If you truly do not like what the program offers, don’t watch it.  Or, better yet, watch it and use it in your classrooms.  Use it in your presentations and lectures to show, through example, how a text can be reinterpreted to fit a modern, synchronized world–but also how it was reinterpreted in the past.  Use it, don’t just thump your chest and brow-beat it.  We get it; you went to Seminary or a research institution and you want to prove you know what you’re talking about.  We know you’re smart.  So use that intellect and turn ‘The Bible’ into a learning tool, rather than shunning it.

The tools have changed, but the process is essentially the same; it just takes less time to achieve the same result.

Just my two-cents.  More to come.

Book Review: Candida Moss – ‘The Myth of Persecution’

15a97f0a723e11e29a6422000a9e06c4_7I had very little knowledge of this book prior to receiving my copy, though I did have high expectations based upon what little I did know.  A professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, Dr. Candida Moss has focused quite a bit on the subject of martyrdom and judging from her earlier work she tends to treat the evidence objectively (while remaining realistic about it), making her a superb scholar.   From the blurb on the book, it looked to be a subject with which I have a lot of interest; it appeared to have that edge, that revisionist quality, of which I felt I would enjoy reading.

There were a lot of ways this book could have failed.  It is not an easy task to challenge a foundational doctrine.  Often books of this magnitude will fall short somewhere, either in interpretation, or in attempts to find bizarre explanations that side-step critical issues.   So it is, in fact, a testament–a μάρτυς, if you will–to Dr. Moss’s abilities that this book finds its footing and takes off running from the very first page.   It does not disappoint.

In the introduction of The Myth of Persecution, Dr. Moss spends a good amount of time laying out the framework for the rest of the book.  She engages, first and foremost, the modern mindset of martyrdom within Christianity–a temperament that she treats carefully and respectfully–and how this contemporary mentality feeds off of a tradition of an ancient persecuted Christian church.  In certain cases throughout the history of the world, persecuted Christians (i.e., those who often face inexplicable hardships, including death) have likened their struggle with the ancient martyr traditions, often dualistically (as in a battle between good and evil).  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she writes, as “Sometimes this idea inspires great courage and heroism and provides comfort to the sick or dying” (p. 9).  She then goes on to aptly point out the distinction between actual persecutions and the invoked kind.  That is to say, those who would relate disagreements (often minor) between themselves and other political- or social-opposing groups (like those relating to how religious issues should be handled in a secular society which makes allowances for minority rights, for example) to persecution.

QuitSquirming1We all know about this tactic, don’t we?  How often do we hear someone talking about how they are ‘religiously persecuted’ because they can’t force prayer in school?  Or how about those who feel oppressed because they can’t get judicial officials to follow the law of the Bible instead of modern, secular laws?  Dr. Moss highlights this important issue with a good blend of criticism while recognizing the social factors that push this mentality onward.  For that she gets bonus points, in my book.  It is far too easy to get lost in the polemics and vitriol, and yet she somehow manages to avoid all that by cutting right to the social factors and implications, while remaining honest and forthright about the ‘wrongness’ (if I can use it that way) of such blatant word misuse.  But while this is not persecution in the true sense, she argues, this is how modern western societies–particularly in America–interpret the word:

In this polarized view of the world, disagreement and conflict–even entirely nonviolent conflict–is not just a difference of opinion; it is [in the mind of this social entity-Ed.] religious persecution. (ibid.)

Dr. Moss is tactful, never making any accusations or calling into question anyone’s integrity or honesty; she treats these feelings are genuine (though when it comes to politicians, she may be too generous).  Still, her underlying premise is that there are individuals, whether they are religious or political figures, who evoke the language of persecution and–when this occurs–there are real and unfortunate consequences.

It is almost as if they knew I was writing this book review!

It is almost as if they knew I was writing this book review!

These mythical constructs that a person might conjure–specifically those constructs empowered emotionally by persecution language–are far from beneficial.  Rather than drumming up strong convictions, bolstering courage in face of opposition, or seeking out peaceful solutions, those groups within our society who feel persecuted are charged-up by this language, encouraged to become reactionary, and cause tremendous trouble–even to the point of committing acts of violence.  In other words, one who is under the impression that they are being persecuted–rather than simply acknowledging a disagreement in opinion–are likely to find justification in retaliation; that is to say, those who feel persecuted become the persecutors.

Then Dr. Moss throws in the wrench: What if the age of persecution is (mostly) a myth?  What if this deep-seated social memory recall, that many Christians learn from a young age, is not rooted in the verisimilitude of history?  This raises all sorts of questions, and Dr. Moss does a fine job dealing with them all.  As a minimalist, I am always more interested in the ‘why’ than the ‘what'; ‘what is this story saying’ is important, but not as important–in my opinion–as ‘why is this story being told?’.  So I was delighted to see Dr. Moss express this very concept:

When asked to describe the experiences of Christians under Roman Rule,…others might refer to those martyrs burned alive or beheaded or to the extreme tortures and grisly forms of execution that only the most sadistic minds could conjure up. …  This is the picture of the early church that we get from nearly two thousand years of literature, art, and–now–film. .. When it comes to why Christians were persecuted, people are hard-pressed to supply an answer.  (pp. 127, 128)

To be clear, she does not outright deny that Christians are persecuted (or that they were persecuted in antiquity); she is particular in what she says:

There’s no doubt that Christians thought they were persecuted;… Nor should we underestimate the reality of their experiences.  There is no doubt that Christians did die, that they were horrifically tortured and executed in ways that would appall people today,….  At the same time, the statements of apologists like Justin martyr, Tertullian, and Eusebius do not fit the evidence.  We need to be wary of the claims of Christians that they were everywhere and always persecuted, when, in fact, they were not.  (pp. 160, 161)

That said, I have to find something about which to be critical lest I be considered a bias reviewer; to be fair to Dr. Moss, these criticisms don’t have any impact on the value and usefulness of this book, and most of what I have to criticize is superficial at best.

Let me preface this by saying I really enjoyed Dr. Moss’s discussion of the early martyrdom traditions and how, like most ancient literature, there are clear designs at work, where the authors of these traditions show literary indebtedness to other,more ancient narratives (both Greco-Roman and Jewish).  Still, I would have liked to see a discussion of some of the earlier persecution stories dealing with Paul and Ignatius.  While Paul is talked about a bit (especially on his rhetoric of persecution), I don’t recall reading anything about his supposed imprisonment (as this is, itself, a form of persecution.  Both of these narratives have similar (unbelievable) elements (Colossians 4:18, where Paul is supposedly writing from prison, vs. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans):  Here they are, captured by Romans for, apparently, just practicing Christianity, and yet these same captors are supplying both Paul and Ignatius with a seemingly endless amount of ink and papyri just to write about the very same religion for which they were arrested.  And just who sent the letters?  It seems rather bizarre to imagine the Romans, who are presented as hostile towards Ignatius, would just do his bidding by sending out mail.  Likewise it seems just as silly to presume that other Christians would smuggle them out.  In the church tradition, Paul is supposedly martyred, but Ignatius reminds us in his epistles that he is supposedly surrounded by all sorts of wild beasts heading toward the Colosseum to be martyred!

Additionally, a discussion of the Abraham/Isaac traditions would have fit nicely into Chapter 1, which deals with the concept of martyrdom prior to Christianity.  While not necessarily a ‘martyr tradition’ in the official sense (read the book to find out why the language is important), in some versions of the story, Isaac is killed by Abraham.  This story also has certain motifs, like with that of Socrates, of a death narrative that was deemed both necessary and pious in certain Jewish and Christian traditions.  In my opinion, the father having to sacrifice his son to embolden a covenant has some interesting (albeit, generic) correlations with the passion narrative itself.

Of course, these minor critiques are nothing to worry about.  Their absence does not detract from the book in any way.  To the contrary, and to Dr. Moss’s credit, what she didn’t include couldn’t hurt her case, but only make it stronger.  The best example? The rather small size of the Christian movement in the first few centuries.  As a barely noticeable religion, a historian would be hard-pressed to find a solid reason why the Romans would even take notice of Christianity, make any sort of distinction between it and Judaism, or find just cause (or any cause) to launch a campaign of persecution against them.  Quite to the point, Pliny, a provincial governor of Bithynia (see his Epistulae) in the early second century, doesn’t even seem to notice them through most of his political career (which is extensive, and he surely would have come into contact with them at some point were there persecutions prior to the period!), and only when someone brings them before him, he acts–but he is utterly confused by them, and has to write the emperor in order to find out what to do with them (besides what he has already done)!  He isn’t even sure if holding the name ‘Christian’ itself or if the actions done under the name are considered an offense.  Had the Christian movement been larger, had there been an edict or discussion or law concerning the persecution of Christians prior to or during his governorship, Pliny would have known about it.  So not only is Dr. Moss right, arguments could be made which greatly support her conclusions in this very important volume.

This is a book about which I could go on and on, but I don’t want to drag this review out any longer (and continue to bore the pants off my readers when they could be enjoying the book I’m reviewing instead).  The Myth of Persecution espouses many truths about modern society and ancient society, both religious and secular.  But it also exposes a truth about humanity as a whole, though quite indirectly: we are satiated by myth.  Humans are simply more inclined to accept a traditional perspective than a factual one.  Man is intrigued more by legends of heroism than by real courage and heroism (and many of us wouldn’t even know where to look for it).  And whether a story is historical or not will never be as important as whether it is good or not.  For that reason, as well, some may not like what Dr. Moss has to say.  Her presentation–sound and verifiable as it is–will not win support from certain social groups and individuals who find the age of martyrs a useful tool in directing the masses to fulfill their agendas.

This guy probably won't buy it, though he is one person who really needs to read it.

This guy probably won’t buy it, though he is one person who really needs to read this book.

For those who are interested in the early church–that is, the best approximation we can find of what that ‘early church’ might have looked like–this book is a dream come true.  It analyzes long-ignored subjects in a tenacious–yet fruitful–manner that will grab your attention and keep you turning pages.  It is an enjoyable read and Dr. Moss has much to say–all of it is engaging, thoughtful, and brilliant.  These are traits that are hard to come by in even the most popular academic books.

69237_10100195428741034_1733929245_nFinally, I would add–in light of today being International Women’s Day–that The Myth of Persecution is defining in others ways not directly relevant to the subject of martyrdom.  There is something really exhilarating and refreshing about a book like this, which defies centuries of church tradition dominated by a testosterone-run hierarchy, written by an intelligent and (dare I say) attractive woman, in a profession (academia) also dominated by men (though, finally, the dynamics are shifting–yet not fast enough).  Scholarship (and society, more broadly) needs more of just this sort of thing; it needs more books that shake the foundations of long-held presuppositions by bright female scholars like Dr. Moss.  I hope she helps keep studies like this coming (and I also hope she lets me keep reviewing them).

I hope readers will check out the other reviews along this review tour:

Wednesday, March 6th: RMP

Wednesday, March 6th: A Philosopher’s Blog

Thursday, March 7th: A Book Geek

Saturday, March 9th: The Musings of Thomas Verenna

Monday, March 11th: Aspire2

Tuesday, March 12th: Earliest Christianity

Wednesday, March 13th: 50 Books Project

Thursday, March 14th: Do You Ever Think About Things You Do Think About?

Monday, March 18th: The Way Foreward

Tuesday, March 19th: The Dubious Disciple

Wednesday, March 20th: Exploring Our Matrix

Thursday, March 21st: The Gods Are Bored

Monday, March 25th: Broken Teepee

Also check out her interview at the Huffington Post and check out her book trailer here:

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