The Transfiguration and the Inclusion of Moses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Park on the History Channel, Ancient Aliens, and the Public Understanding of History

South Park spoofed the History Channel’s series Ancient Aliens and I have to say, it was both hilarious and scary.  South Park has always been on the front lines (so to speak) of social commentary and satire.  Spoofing silly beliefs is nothing new for the show.  A few years ago it spoofed Scientology and before that it spoofed Mormonism.  Both episodes were extremely entertaining but it showed a side of humanity that frightens me.   In both of these earlier episodes, it explained what these two groups actually believe (and what they believe is just nonsense; see for yourself and watch the videos and then do a little research to verify).  Needless to say, the show Ancient Aliens has decent enough ratings and a large enough following to scare me as well.

But this particular episode is interesting.  As I’ve said before, those who believe that there were ancient astronauts from outer space who came to earth–and that there is evidence for this–are just nuts.  It’s a new form of maximalism, whereby nonexperts pretend as if they know what they are talking about by making up ridiculous conspiracy theories and connecting the dots which can’t exist anywhere but in the fabric of their own imaginations.

To quote from Giorgio A. Tsoukalos (the guy pictured on the left):

“The Great thing about the ancient aliens theory is the fact that we can compare modern acheivements with stories from our ancient past.”  (source)

He goes on to argue quite absurdly that if we can create a two headed dog today, this allows for the possibility that two headed dogs existed in the past, created by ancient aliens.  Yes, that is exactly what he is saying.  Watch the video.

This is either a space suit or a scuba suit. We await the next History Channel series: 'Ancient Deep-Sea Alien Dive Teams'

And then compare this sort of illogical position with that of, say, the Zeitgeisters, who are just as crazy with their theories about astrotheology and the stars.  They say, for example, that the stars line up a certain way and on certain times of the year they do such and such and that is where the ancients get such and such an idea.  It’s all crap.  When you punch in the data to an astronomy program that maps the stars and can tell you about their positions in the past, they just don’t line up the way the Zeitgeist movement claims.  And when you start to factor in that some constellations are fixed and have no bearing whatsoever on the ancient Near East, it collapses the whole argument because the thread of links they correct are so fragile. For example the ‘southern cross’ constellation.  The movie Zeitgeist argues that the southern cross has bearing on the fabrication of the Gospel narratives.  But this just doesn’t work once you do a little fact checking:

The stars of the Southern Cross are just visible above the southern horizon in Alexandria, and in Jerusalem in antiquity although I don’t think it is visible there now. The constellation was, however, not recognized in antiquity, and its four bright stars were included by Ptolemy in Centaurus, which sort of surrounds it11 (bold emphasis is mine).

Why wasn’t the Southern Cross constellation recognized in antiquity? Dr. Swerdlow explains:

That Crux, the Southern Cross, was not recognized as a separate constellation in antiquity is probably because, as seen from the Mediterranean, it is low on the southern horizon and is surrounded on three sides by stars of Centaurus, which is a large, prominent constellation, and the four bright stars of Crux are included as stars of Centaurus in Ptolemy’s star catalogue. It is only when you go farther to the south, so that Crux is higher in the southern sky, that it becomes prominent as a group of stars by itself, so its recognition had to wait until the southern voyages of the sixteenth century.12

In other words, the “Southern Cross” (Crux) constellation could not have served as a basis for the Gospel account of Jesus, because it was not distinct enough for any of the ancient Mediterranean inhabitants to identify it.

(source: read all of it and judge for yourself)

To add to this, the movie tries to suggest that the Crux is visible in April, around the time of Easter.  This is only true, however, for anything at or less than the 25th parallel north.  None of the relevant cultures of the ANE would have been able to witness this (Egypt, Palestine, Italy, Asia Minor, etc…).  Only those locations in the far, far southern hemisphere see the Crux year-round.    But facts mean nothing to the Zeitgeist movement and its most ardent followers (of whom this author has had many encounters and none of them have been remotely interesting or cordial–they don’t take well to dissonant perspectives).  The same can be said for those who believe in ancient aliens.

I’m glad to see that the creators of South Park laid out all the glaring problems of the series Ancient Aliens in an entertaining way.  For those who want to see more about what I and others have to say about this series, check out this link after you watch the clip below.

South Park: Ancient Aliens Thanksgiving

Defining Mythicism: Richard Carrier – “Did Jesus Exist?”

This video is some years old and people’s perspectives become more refined over time.  So I asked Richard if he still stands behind this video before vlogging.  Richard noted, in response:

In the intro of the S.II talk I establish caveats (that the talk itself is tongue in cheek and doesn’t address lots of other issues like the Josephus passages or letters of Paul and so on), but the overall argument is something I will formalize, possibly with some changes, in On the Historicity of Jesus Christ. Obviously that only treats Acts in relation to the question. I’ll have different chapters on extra-biblical evidence, the epistles, the gospels, etc. I give a somewhat serious version of the argument in my online debate with O’Connell (

Richard adds another caveat:

My argument now is that we face a dilemma, either (a) Acts is fiction from the ground up, or (b) it is based on an earlier set of sources; if (a), then obviously Acts is eliminated as evidence for historicity; but if (b), then the earliest sources behind Acts can be shown to have been suspiciously lacking a historical Jesus. Ironically this means the more reliable you deem Acts to be, the less likely Jesus existed as a historical person (unless you deem Acts to be so reliable as to be free of any error or distortion whatever, but only fundamentalists would believe something so absurd of any ancient historical narrative).

It’s a little crass at times, but overall humorous and provocative food-for-thought.  I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and the Q&A; I like that carrier does not resort to conspiracy theory.  In fact in the end, during Q&A, Carrier outlines his problems with the movie Zeitgeist and his frustrations with it are my own.

Richard Carrier “Did Jesus Exist?” Skepticon 2 Redux – YouTube.

‘The Umbrella Man’ – A Cautionary Tale About History

What a fantastic example of the underlying nuances of the past.  For those who question why I stress such caution when investigating figures in the past, say the figure of Jesus, this is why.  There are so many nuances to the investigation, that to stress anything with a black-and-white mentality or a hard certainty is, by all means, foolish and reckless.  Watch the video.  Read the article.  It is indeed a cautionary tale:

‘The Umbrella Man’ -

Click the Image to go to the Article and Video

‘The Umbrella Man’ –

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ is at SBL San Francisco!

My forthcoming collection of essays, edited with Thomas L. Thompson (book details here), is being featured at the Equinox Publishers table at SBL this year!  Here are some pictures provided by the estimable Jim West:

And here is Jim West holding the book! He has a chapter in it, so be sure to pick it up (if only for that reason)!

And here it is among other excellent books (Including Roland Boer's excellent edited volume 'Secularism and Biblical Studies')!

UPDATE 11/20/11: Joel Watts Sent along this photo!

Thanks to Joel for sending this along!

 UPDATE 11/22/11: Barnes and Noble is offering this book for pre-order at a discounted price!  This book is available normally for $115.  B&N is offering it for only $71 for a limited time!  Pick up a copy at this discounted price now before it is too late!  Click the link below:

[link removed when sale stopped]

UPDATE 12/2/11: Unfortunate the sale is over, but you can still get pre-order the book for $76 through The Book Depository.

When Does ‘Rhetoric’ Become a ‘Threat’?

When this happens:

Upon hearing the news, Laurene Pierce (President of the College Republicans at University of Texas) thought it would be hilarious to tweet that people shouldn’t shoot Obama, “as tempting as it may be.”


This is scary.  And many of my (sane) Republican friends have been quick to label this individual as fringe.  But this is, unfortunately, not the case.   That is to say, when a party or group of people, of any kind, starts to enjoy the humor in rhetoric which is linked to the death of a person or another group of people, that is dangerous and terrifying.  This is far from an isolated incident by a group of ignorant college students.   The growing majority of rhetoric from candidates–approved and backed by the Republican party–has grown ever closer to ‘threats’.   Consider these examples:

  • Virginia’s Republican party (Loudon County) committee (note: the party committee…not a fringe group) circulated an email that included an image of Obama looking like a zombie, with a bullet hole in his head and part of his skull missing.
  • Jesse Kelly, the opponent of Rep. Giffords, before she was shot in the head at point blank range, had a ‘Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly’ event. This was an official Republican candidate for office, not a fringe person.
  • Sarah Palin, one time Vice-Presidential candidate of the Republican party, says ‘take up your arms’ and ‘lock and load’.
  • Nevada Republican Senate nominee Sharron Angle argues that a violent insurrection is what is needed to restore sanity to Congress, saying that if Congress isn’t careful, people may find themselves resorting to “Second Amendment remedies.”.
  • Glenn Beck, a former FOX News talking-head, stated on his show: “I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. … No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out. Is this wrong? I stopped wearing my What Would Jesus — band — Do, and I’ve lost all sense of right and wrong now. I used to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I’d kill Michael Moore,’ and then I’d see the little band: What Would Jesus Do? And then I’d realize, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t kill Michael Moore. Or at least you wouldn’t choke him to death.’ And you know, well, I’m not sure.” –responding to the question “What would people do for $50 million?”, “The Glenn Beck Program,” May 17, 2005 (Source)
  • An anti-Obama protester (admittedly a Libertarian) who feels that we have a tyrannical government (I don’t think for a moment people who use that term have any idea what a ‘tyrant’ is; the word does not mean what you think it means) carried an assault rifle to a rally.  He isn’t alone either.  Tea Party supporters in New Mexico did the same thing.
  • Congressman Broun suggested that Health Care Reform was akin to ‘Yankee Oppression’, making many wonder if he was inciting a reference of rebellion if the bill passed.  He said, “They’re trying to develop an environment where they can take over,” he said. “We’ve seen that historically.”  He really believes this, so much so that he likened Obama to Hitler.  We also went to war against Hitler, in case you were wondering.  So his position is not so subtle here.
  • Shery Lanford Smith, chairwoman of the Sumter Tea Party, joked about the murder/death of the Obamas.
  • Presidential candidate Rick Perry continually uses guns in his rhetoric, because he has a ‘love affair’ with them.  His means of gun control is ‘using both hands’ and shooting is his ‘golf’.  When you are actively looking for support from NRA members, people with guns, what does one expect to find in the rhetoric?

There are more instances of course, if you know of any that you want to submit to me, post them with a source in the comments section.  The fact is, this is no longer just jest or hasty rhetoric, or careless comments–though it may also be those too–this has become a hostile threat to everyone who does not agree with the Republican base.  And we see the actions and consequences of such rhetoric, from the barbaric shooting of Giffords and her friends and colleagues, to the recent White House shooting:

According to acquaintances cited in the complaint document, Ortega-Hernandez considered Obama the cause of his problems and referred to him at times as the “anti-Christ” and the devil. (source)

Where have we heard that rhetoric before?  I have to agree with Marty Kaplan when he writes:

If you’re worried that violent video games may make kids prone to bad behavior; if you think that misogynic and homophobic rap lyrics are dangerous to society; if you believe that a nipple in a Superbowl halftime show is a threat to our moral fabric – then surely you should also fear that the way public and media figures have framed political participation with shooting gallery imagery is just as potentially lethal.

If you are a Republican, and you’re reading this, rest assured I’m not a Democrat.  I’m an independent and I think for myself.  But I have never heard this sort of rhetoric from a Democratic; Obama never suggested we take our guns to the White House and forcefully remove Bush.  He never said to lock and load.  You have a choice in the words and rhetoric you use.  Be sensible about it; the ‘other side’ is not the enemy.  They are Americans too, and they have a voice like you do.  By threatening to silence that voice with violence, you are becoming the oppressor–you are taking the rights away from those who are just as welcome to them as you are.  Think about that for a moment; think hard about it.  Take action against this sort of threat.  Make a difference.  Bring back some sensibility to the Republican party.


When Jesus Calls…

Next time just let it go to voicemail…





“When I called, why was there none to answer?” (Isaiah 50:2)

A Ethical Question: Sacrifice or Not?

This question is for my Religious and Spiritual friends. Think hard about this and try to look at the big picture as well as the small.

Let us hypothesize that a very wealthy man promises to donate millions, perhaps billions, to an organization of your choosing. This can be a church, a community, a charity, research institute searching for a cure, anything you like. But there is a catch. You have to sacrifice. You must forsake your faith. You must damn your belief in a God.

What would you do? Would you damn yourself for the good of the many? Would you shut yourself out from God if it potentially could save thousands? And to complete this ethical problem, we must believe and accept that there can be no redemption. This must be a complete sacrifice.

Harold Camping Admits he Made a Mistake – After he is $80 Million Richer

That’s right.  Camping admits he “may have” (may have?  Really?) made a mistake and remarks:

Camping does not apologize for the prediction-gone-wrong. He does apologize for saying that people who disbelieved in the May 21 Rapture date would not be saved. He also repeats that it’s a lesson from God, and “sometimes it’s painful to learn.”

via Harold Camping admits he may have made a mistake; promises to continue searching – BlogPost – The Washington Post.

The sickest part about this?

Camping’s followers donated more than $80 million from 2005 to 2009, a CNN report found. Before the May 21 prediction, some followers gave up their life savings and donated their possessions in preparation for the Rapture.

Beliefs can be dangerous.  But more than anything this is evidence that ignorant belief is the most dangerous type of all.  Amazing that Camping retires after his failed predictions with $80 million in his pockets while his followers, those who are to be ‘saved’, are stuck with nothing–and in this terrible economy too.  His followers should seek some form of legal action against this false prophet.

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