Some People Need to Fact-Check Better

I’ve said this over and over again; around this time of year, some internet meme will develop about Jesus or Easter or the resurrection and produce some lame fabrication full of untruths and atheists and skeptics  will spread it around social media without doing a shred of fact-checking.  This year, it is this atrocity:

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This image contains many inaccuracies.  Do not rely upon a simple internet search, which yields additional misinformation (indeed, it seems that the creator of this meme is merely copying, almost verbatim, from these websites which are just as clueless).

  • Easter was not ‘originally the celebration of Ishtar’; Easter has always been associated with the equinox, with the dawning of spring; it signifies a change–not in fertility and sex–of seasons and the hope of new beginnings.
  • Despite the images intimations, the name ‘Easter’ did not originate from ‘Ishtar’.  This is a subtle, yet effectively deceptive tactic to get you to think there are similarities between the two due to the similar sounds in English. But comparing two words from different language groups is about as useful as comparing a word in German to a word in Korean for the same reason.
  • The word ‘Easter’ most probably originated from an Anglo-Saxon word Eostre, the name of a goddess of spring and of dawn.
  • The background of the hares are not associated with fertility (which seems to be an association based upon popular belief–not evidence), but may have been associated also with Eostre.
  • Ishtar is also considered a goddess of war; the problem with memes like this is they neglect important information.  In this manner, Ishtar has zero relevance to the Easter tradition–not in name, not in her communal functions.  Certainly this would not have been a good choice for Christians from late antiquity who were arguing for abstinence and celibacy, even in marriages!

The real irony here is that Ishtar is actually somewhat relevant to the Christian tradition of Easter for a completely different reason (i.e., Jesus’s resurrection).  Indeed, the narrative known as the ‘Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World’ is an excellent superficial (key word) comparison of the death and resurrection of a Jesus from antiquity–one that would have been somewhat familiar to Jews living in the region of ANE:

The pure Ereckigala seated herself upon her throne, The Anunnaki, the seven judges, pronounced judgment before her. They fastened her eyes upon her, the eyes of death. At their word, the word that tortures the spirit. The sick “woman” was turned into a corpse. The corpse was hung from a stake.  After three days and three nights had passed, her minister Nincubur…fills the heavens with complaints for her…. Before Enki he weeps: “O Father Enki, let not thy daughter be put to death in the nether world….” Father Enki answers Ninshubur: “What has happened to my daughter!  I am troubled, what has happened to Inanna…! What has happened to the hierodule of heaven! …Surely Inanna will arise.”  …Inanna arose.  Inanna ascends from the nether world. (Trans. Samuel N. Kramer, ‘Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World,’ in James B. Prichard, ed., ANET, pp. 52-57)

Some important questions need to be asked:

1.Who would have had access to these myths?
2.Who would have been able to read them?
3.Who would have understood them?

It is easy for someone to claim that Inanna is the precursor to the resurrection narrative of Jesus, but such claims are unfounded.  Without any evidence, these are simply correlations–but correlations aren’t causations.  Proving links between two texts can be an almost impossible task (though conspiracy theorists seem to do it anyway).  Even strong cases are sometimes proved irrelevant simply because one text could not have been accessible to the authors of the other text.  So similarities alone do not prove a link. The only thing that can be said is that the motif of a dying and rising deity had existed prior to the figure of Jesus and would have been known by at least some Jewish communities (Inanna cursed Tammuz to the underworld, of whom the author of Ezekiel 8.14 speaks).

So enough of these crazy conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated memes.  There is no basis for these sorts of claims.

Edit: Of course I think everyone needs to fact-check; But so far only atheists have been bold enough to post this image on social media without doing any additional fact-checking. And then when I would challenge these atheists, they would do only a meager Google search and post up whatever results fit the image without checking those results against legitimate sources (like the ODoCC).  So yes, I’m calling them out. You can’t sit there and arrogantly claim enlightened status if you’re just going to forward along dumb memes without making sure they’re accurate first. That is just not right.  You berate Christians for taking things at face value, after all.  Take heed.

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.

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“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?

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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.

Was Jesus’ Water to Wine Miracle a Trick?

Someone sent me a link in an email today asking what I thought about this as a possible point of reference for Jesus’ miracle.

watertowineNo, I do not think this is at all relevant to Jesus’ miracle.  I think anyone who draws connections between this and Jesus are grasping at straws and nothing more.  It goes back to the same point I’ve made with conspiracy theorists: they will try to put two-and-two together regardless of how absurd an idea it is.

The fact is that Jesus’ water-to-wine miracle, like his feeding of the 5000, are imitations of the multiplication stories in the Elijah/Elisha miracle cycles.  In fact, I would say that all seven major miracles in John present Jesus was Elijah/Elisha; the miracles are either (1) healing the sick, (2) raising the dead, (3) water-related, (4) or multiplication/feeding.  All of these can be traced back to the Elijah/Elisha narratives when broken down into their basic motifs.  There is no need to draw into it any additional context or add any bizarre outside influences in an attempt to historicize this event.

Roger Aus, in fact, takes a useful approach and suggests that the wedding narrative in John derives from Esther 1, and surprisingly there are some interesting connections.  He argues this rather thoroughly in his Water Into Wine and the Beheading of John the Baptist: Early Jewish-Christian Interpretation of Esther 1 in John 2:1-11 and Mark 6:17-29 (Brown Judaic Studies, 1988).  It is well worth the read.

So no, I do not believe this is at all related to Hero of Alexandria.  It is just another example of John’s dependency upon ancient Jewish literature–like every other Gospel author.  All attempts to link the two (John and Hero) are tentative and unhelpful, at best.


Beware the Ides of March!

Caesar:
Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer:
Beware the ides of March.

Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 15–19

And here we are, the Ides of March!  Made famous by the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar (15 Mar). So I have provided here a little collection of useful links and images and articles for your own use.  Enjoy.

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Area where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

  And here is a re-imagining of the event:

Though it probably didn’t happen like this. Just sayin’.

Here is Plutarch’s description of the event:

Now when the senate was gone in before to the chamber where they were to sit, the rest of the company placed themselves close about Caesars chair, as if they had some suit to make to him, and Cassius, turning his face to Pompeys statue, is said to have invoked it, as if it had been sensible of his prayers. Trebonius, in the meanwhile, engaged Antonys attention at the door, and kept him in talk outside. When Caesar entered, the whole senate rose up to him. As soon as he was sat down, the men all crowded round about him, and set Tillius Cimber, one of their own number, to intercede in behalf of his brother that was banished; they all joined their prayers with his, and took Caesar by the hand, and kissed his head and his breast. But he putting aside at first their supplications, and afterwards, when he saw they would not desist, violently rising up, Tillius with both hands caught hold of his robe and pulled it off from his shoulders, and Casca, that stood behind him, drawing his dagger, gave him the first, but a slight wound, about the shoulder. Caesar snatching hold of the handle of the dagger, and crying out aloud in Latin, “Villain Casca, what do you?” he, calling in Greek to his brother, bade him come and help. And by this time, finding himself struck by a great many hands, and looking around about him to see if he could force his way out, when he saw Brutus with his dagger drawn against him, he let go Cascas hand, that he had hold of and covering his head with his robe, gave up his body to their blows. And they so eagerly pressed towards the body, and so many daggers were hacking together, that they cut one another; Brutus, particularly, received a wound in his hand, and all of them were besmeared with the blood.

A coin commemorating the event:

One of the most famous coins of all time is the EID MAR denarius issued by Marcus Junius Brutus in 43/42 BC. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he threw Rome into more than three years of civil war, eliminating his opponents along the way. In 49 BC, many leading citizens, including some sixty Roman Senators, had come to see Caesar as a power-grabber who wanted to make himself king. This was an unacceptable situation for men like Brutus, who wished to retain their beloved Republic.

From Amateur to Student: A Personal Journey

Over the past few years, I have seen an increase of self-published books by self-proclaimed ‘scholars’ out there, proposing this crappy theory or that terrible hypothesis; and they do so often under the banner of anti-elitism or anti-Academy.

Simcha Jacobovici (no academic credentials in the field of Biblical Studies, Ancient History, Classics, or similar fields) throws credible scholars (of which he is neither) under the bus when he calls them “sleeper agents of Christian orthodoxy” without ever once considering the views of those who are criticizing his work.  He fancies himself and his work to be akin to Indiana Jones.

David Elkington, the man who brought attention to the fake Jordan codices, has no academic credentials whatsoever (he was in art and design school for a bit, but apparently he never finished).      Yet he portrays himself to the media as a biblical scholar and archaeologist–even though these are specific fields of scholarship which often require graduate-level degrees which he doesn’t hold.   Similar to Jacobovici, Elkington berates scholars (those with credentials) who are critical of his work and his credibility by suggesting that they are somehow not scholars.

Joe Atwill, the man behind the ‘Jesus was an invention by the Romans’ hypothesis (one that is clearly bogus), studied computer science in college.  While he may be an excellent chess player (as his ‘About Me’ suggests), that does not make him a scholar.  His views on the New Testament, on Josephus, and on the Dead Sea Scrolls are naive and represent a conspiracy theory–not accurate, dedicated historical research.

More recently, Ralph Ellis has published a new edition of his book on Izas Manu.  This recent travesty of a hypothesis (I take his sample chapter apart here) follows a long series of books by Ellis (Jesus as the last pharaoh, Jesus as King Arthur, etc…crazy and bizarre claims that are rightly not taken seriously), usually self-published.  Though he apparently has no formal education, like Elkington, he falls back on his many years of independent study.  Just how many years? It is impossible to know, as in one place he has 20, another place he lists 25, and yet another he claims 30.  But he feels he is better equipped to handle history as he is “independent from theological and educational establishments“–a nice way of admitting he is not credible.  And yet when those of us who are affiliated with an academic institution criticize his work, he labels them as frauds and seeks to harass them and threaten them with legal action if they don’t remove their criticisms.

These represent a handful of examples of the plethora of individuals out there who feel the same way.  They view academia as if it were some useless game, without a real value.  Or, in extreme cases, they see academics as the primary suspects in a cover-up of the ‘real truth’ and only they–the outsiders–can really expose the false teachings of the false prophets in the ivory towers.  It is delusional, offensive, and–worst of all–there are many people out there who buy into it.

Truth be told, I am well acquainted with this sort of thinking as, unfortunately, I used to be one of them.

Before you ask, yes, I’m aware of the student debt crisis.  Yes, I’m aware the economy is in shambles.  I am absolutely aware that the job market is terrible and for some people, it is impossibly difficult to find a start to their careers as a result.  I recognize the problems, I see the dilemma.  But today I am proud to be a student and am thankful I decided to get an education.  But I wasn’t always this positive about it.

Six years ago I was against any sort of higher learning.  It cost too much, it took too long; I saw it as a hindrance on what I viewed as my research–who wants to take courses in subjects, like Biochem that meant absolutely nothing to me, just to earn a degree in Philosophy or History?  It made no sense to me then.  I wanted to spend all my time reading books I wanted to read on my own time, spending money the way I saw fit, on subjects about which I wanted to learn.  After all, paying thousands of dollars for a few credits here or there seemed absolutely ludicrous.  Where was all that money going, anyway?!

This mentality was fueled by attention, unfortunately.  The more attention I was given by people just as adsorbed as I was, the more authority I imagined I had, and the less school seemed to matter.  In my mind’s eye, I pictured myself as a true academic.  The thought of college tasted flat to me, it felt like such a dated idea; it was where rich kids went to avoid having to do any real work for four years or so.  While they were off partying, I was face-down in texts–in my own version of reality, I was the one doing the real studying.  I was making break-through after break-through that I believed would challenge academia for ages to come.

On the occasions where I was brushed off by scholars, I tried to tell myself it was because I was unfettered by scholastic institutions and could think more freely.  I saw them as a religiously-motivated force that stood against me.  But this was all a fantasy I had concocted; inside I knew I was the one who was not credible.  And when certain individuals called me out on this, I became aggressive and defensive and reacted harshly.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Then, years ago, something clicked inside.  I was betrayed by a colleague who, while to my face appeared to be a friend, behind my back would talk down about me because of my lack of credentials.  When I discovered this, I was at a loss.  As much as I had this build-up of hatred and bile against this individual–who I shall not name–I realized that it was my own fault.  I had stepped into a world bigger than myself and I was, frankly, out of my league.

Soon all those excuses about college and how it ‘wasn’t for me’ meant absolutely nothing, because no matter how much I thought I knew, no matter how many books I had in my library, I had no laurels and I would not be taken seriously.  Ever.  I wanted to be an academic, but those doors would always be closed to me without a higher degree.  It was heartbreaking.

For a few more months after this event, I continued to try to tell myself that college was meaningless, but the same old arguments I’d used before just melted away, like wax to a flame.  While college may be a way to avoid a real job for some people (a rather expensive avoidance tactic at that), the truth was that my own job prospects were limited by my meager High School diploma–I might find a great place to work and get a decent salary, but it would never be the job I wanted to do (teach ancient history) and I would never be completely happy there.  It would be a job, but not a career.

This was also during the very beginning of the crash in late 2007, and jobs were hard to come by–if they were had at all.  When I was applying for new work, I was consistently being turned down by applicants with higher degrees.  Even in basic industrial work, college grads–even those with associates degrees–were getting jobs.

That settled it for me: I had to go back to school.  I was completely ignorant about the process, however, and I had no idea where I was going to go.  But everything started to move quickly the second I decided on a college.   Money was surprisingly not much of a factor for my first few years; the jobs I worked paid too little and I ended up finding the financial assistance I needed.

In a bit of good fortune, I found that I owned a lot of the textbooks already, or I had something comparable that I used instead, which cut the costs of class expenses for me a bit.  Going part time also helped me a great deal, as I still needed to work to pay my bills.  Working and going to school is a difficult life choice and of course I recognize that not everyone can find the time to do it.  But I have met some fantastic human beings, my professors have been brilliant (mostly), and there are some classmates who just continue to impress me (especially the single parents who work and go to school–bravo!).

But having lived that life prior to college, I can now intimate where the mentality comes from, that is, the belief that continuing your education doesn’t matter. In my opinion, and from experience, it stems from insecurity.  These sorts of individuals will probably never be scholars, and I think that really bothers them. So in a way, I can see why some of them demonize historians and scholars.  For those who do, they have to see themselves has superior–they have to be right and the establishment, therefore, is wrong.  Not only does this empower them, but it makes them feel like a real scholar (as flawed as that perception is) and, in some ways, not just a scholar, but one of the greatest scholars.  So they essentially fulfill their own fantasy.

While Joe Atwill may be a smart fellow and a nice guy (which I understand him to be), his work will never be ‘scholarship’.  It will only ever be a hobby he does in his free time.   And his hypotheses will only ever be conspiracy theories.  The same is true for Ralph Ellis (though I hold out little hope he will ever see his bizarre conclusions for what they are), for Simcha Jacobovici (who may just be a C-list television producer who sits around all day, editing his documentaries in his underpants), and for David Elkington (who might not even be genuine in character).  There is one absolute fact that unifies them: they are not academically affiliated, on occasion they overstate their credibility, and they often disregard actual academic arguments which contradict their claims.  Conspiracy and mystery clouds their conclusions.

Interestingly enough, the attempts to sabotage my credibility now are mostly from dated websites that criticized me for the same exact things I’m criticizing others for now.  Someone will state that ‘no college will accept me’ and they’ll send this to my .edu email address (and for these sorts of individuals who love to put two and two together, they certainly miss that detail all the time).  They’ll tell me that I have no academic support, but then I’m the one who actually bothers to publish academically while they can only produce self-published volumes.   Maybe at one time in my life these criticisms were valid.  But if they were, they have long since become obsolete.

To those of you out there reading this who are of a similar state of mind, let me offer some words on the matter.   The grounding that college gives you is extremely valuable.  All those generic classes that you take your first few years, they are what gives your experience depth.  For many college freshmen, they can be a guide towards discovery.  College is not about manufacturing a certain brand of people–don’t listen to that hype.  It is about building you up as a person; what you get from college is what you put into it.  It has made me a sharper thinker, a better writer, a more dedicated researcher, given me a broader perspective on life and nuance, an appreciation for different tastes and cultures, and much more.  My suggestion, always, will be do better yourself.  College is a step towards doing that; at least, it was for me.

The Aramaic Blog on Ralph Ellis and his ‘Izas Manu’ Creation

Steve Caruso, over at Aramaic Designs, weighs in on Ralph Ellis’s bizarre understanding of ancient languages.  Caruso is affiliated with Rutgers University, a librarian by training, and a professional Aramaic consultant and translator, he knows his stuff.  Here is a snippet (along with an excellent graphic he made):

I usually don’t discuss new books here on The Aramaic Blog… but sometimes a work inspires something within me that I cannot contain. One of those books is “King Jesus of Edessa” by Ralph Ellis… and what it inspires (in me) is a bad nervous tic.

It’s the conspiracy to end all conspiracies about who the historical Jesus was. Ralph Ellis claims that he was King “Izas Manu” a patchwork figure that he seems to have cobbled together from a half dozen historical figures spanning two kingdoms (which he assumes are the same) and several hundred years.

via The Aramaic Blog: King Jesus of Edessa by Ralph Ellis — Er.. What?.

Give the rest of it a read.  I did not even quote the meaty morsels of his analysis.  You won’t be disappointed.

The Young Man in Mark 14.52 and 16.5 Through the Lens of 2 Corinthians 5

As the semester progresses I’m finding that I am looking anew at older ideas I’ve read or had myself on various passages in the New Testament.  Two such instances happened last week while analyzing the Gospel of Mark.  The young man who runs off from Jesus naked has played a pivotal role in the Biblioblogging community lately (what with the Jesus Blog bringing up Smith’s discovery–fake or not–which has some implications on the subject).  But for me it brings up an important matter I have neglected, but at some point want to publish on: Mark’s literary indebtedness to the Pauline epistles.

One such correlation between Mark and Paul is this rebirth of the body.  In 2 Cor 5, Paul writes (emphasis added, NRSV):

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— if indeed, when we have taken it off  we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

It seems to me, and in agreement with Carrier, that Paul’s theological belief in an afterlife includes, to a large degree, getting a new and better body.  Not our same body, which is destroyed (καταλυθῇ), but a new and better body, built by God.

This is very interesting.  These are themes that Mark seems to pick up upon and even seems to make note of while describing certain events in Jesus’ life–namely the young man who appears prior to Jesus’ death and then following his resurrection.

While re-reading over Mark 14 and 16, I became more convinced of this play on the narrative elements.  In 14.51-2, Mark writes (NRSV):

A certain young man (νεανίσκος τις) was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked (ὁ δὲ καταλιπὼν τὴν σινδόνα γυμνὸς ἔφυγεν).

It is interesting that Mark makes such a specific notation of the youth’s attire.  I think the emphasis on the linen cloth is important (I’ll tie this all together later) and I don’t think this is the last time we see this young man.

Mark only uses νεανίσκον in two places in his Gospel.  The first is in 14.50-53 above.  The second is in 16.5:

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man (νεανίσκον) dressed in a white robe (περιβεβλημένον στολὴν λευκήν) sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

I find it fascinating that the only other time that a young man is mentioned is in connection with (a) clothing and (b) prior to Jesus’ death and after his resurrection (while he is in his earthly body and when he gains his new and better body, respectively).  Of course I am in agreement, along with most scholars, that the young boy here represents Jesus sitting at the right side of God (which may echo back to Mark 12.36); but in my humble opinion, I do believe this is the same young man in both instances above, used by Mark as a literary analog to portray Paul’s two-body theology.

Now, maybe it is not a direct borrowing, but Mark seems to agree with this to an extent (notice he never says the tomb is empty, as Matthew does–and makes a big spectacle of it in fact being empty).  I believe that the reason why this young man is portrayed as an angel in Matthew is because Matthew did not agree with this theological function–he seems to be keen on the same body being doctrine (i.e., that one’s physical body–the current one we inhabit–will rise) as more important (or just more correct).

Rest in Peace Professor James P. Cooney

I just learned today that a friend and former philosophy and english professor, James P. Cooney, died of cancer back in January.  While not as renowned as some, he was an important person in my life.  In class he was a giant.   He was always inviting, always encouraging his students.  He stayed in touch and made an effort to keep in contact with me throughout the years, even came to a couple of my lectures.  He always had a smile, he always had something useful to say.  I will greatly miss our conversations.  The world is a darker place without him in it.

RIP James

Ralph Ellis, Jesus, and his Myth of the King Jesus of Edessa

(This is Part II of the discussion.  For background and Part I, see here)

Mr. Ellis, thanks for responding to my article criticizing your online content and free online chapter of your new edition of your self-published book. I appreciate you supplying me and my readers with more of your superficial “links” between the lay construct you’ve created, an ‘Izas Manu’, and the figure of Jesus. I’ve decided to break down your comment in a post of its own. Frankly, your ignorant misconceptions and amateurish mistakes don’t impress me, but they may mislead people who don’t know any better; one can hardly call this ‘scholarly’ and I’d like to demonstrate exactly why your conclusions are terrible.

You write (and I’m limiting it to this selection because the rest of your conclusions follow from these basic premises):

The historical Izas was called King Izas Manu(el) VI of Edessa.

The historical Izas was a defacto King of the Jews (because his mother, Queen Helena, was the defacto Queen of the Jews).

The historical Izas-Manu’s father was the same King Abgarus of Edessa.

The historical Izas was a revolutionary who fought the Jerusalem authorities and the Romans.

First of all, your primary argument–that Jesus is actually Izas Manu (a creation whom you equate with three different people)–is patently ridiculous. You are basically suggesting that at least four historical kings (Izates bar Monobaz, Abgar V the Black, Abgar Ma’nu VI, and Abgar bar Manu VIII the Great) from two distinct provinces with separate kings (Edessa in the province of Osroene vs. Arbela in the province of Adiabene) are one and the same person and place respectively. You seem to completely ignore the fact that both of these places exist miles apart (roughly 360 miles/579 km apart, actually). The Tigris river flows between them. The modern town of Edessa (Şanlıurfa) is in Turkey while Arbela (Arbil) is in Iraq. Additionally, these individuals are not one and the same. Abgar bar Manu lived about 200 years after Abgar V and over 120 years after Abgar VI. Your attempt to squeeze these individuals into one figure is beyond questionable. This bizarre conflation dooms your whole argument. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyone with eyes can see that this is not the same location.

Anyone with eyes can see that this is not the same location.

Here is where your fabricated ‘Izas Manu’ falls apart. You see, Queen Helena was the mother of Izates bar Monobaz–not Abgar VI (again, we’re talking about two different locations separated by 300 miles) and not Abgar bar Manu (two-hundred years separate the two). Let’s break this down together, historical king by historical king, so you can see just how deluded are your conclusions:

  • Helena was not ‘Queen of the Jews’ (also use ‘de facto’ properly next time). She was a Queen and she converted into Judaism. Her son, Izates, converted soon after, but neither of them were Jews by birth, but Persians who became Jewish. So your claim that he was ‘King of the Jews’ is not just wrong, it is absurd. The ‘king’ at this time was Herod Antipas, and that was only in the North, in the region of Galilee–Pontius Pilate ran the southern region of Judea, including Jerusalem; and even Herod wasn’t really a ‘king’, but more of a de facto (see how it is used there?) king–anyone with a basic grasp of the political dynamics of the period could tell you that.
  • Now, Abgar V (note: that says V as in 5, not VI as in 6) reigned in Edessa for a while, but was not crucified. He was a contemporary of when Jesus was supposed to have lived (between the turn of the first century to the middle of the first century, dying around 50-ish) and a very late fictional, pseudepigraphic tradition claims that he called Jesus to him for a conversation after hearing of his deeds and miracles. Also the father of Abgar V was not ‘Abgarus’. Additionally, Moses of Chorene tells a tale of Abgar V going to war with Herod, but this story is late (c. 5th century) and is a fiction (Josephus would have mentioned it, having not been a fan of Herod himself). Additionally, Abgar V does not go to war with Rome.
  • Abgar Ma’nu VI could not be the individual you claim when you state that “The historical Izas was crucified…[and] taken down [from the cross] by Josephus Flavius” since Josephus was living in Rome, as a court historian, probably on the Palatine Hill–far, far away from Edessa (and Palestine, for that matter). In 70-71, when Abgar Ma’nu VI became king, Josephus was on his way to Rome. And in 90-91 when Abgar VI’s rule ended, Josephus was sitting comfortably (probably–chairs back then and all) in his house, paid for by the empire, in Rome, writing his histories and autobiography. He died ten years later. So, no, Abgar VI could not have been crucified and taken down by Josephus–by the way, ‘Flavian’ is the name Josephus adopted after the Jewish War in 70, after he had been granted full citizenship by Titus. Abgar had not yet started his reign when this occurred.
  • Abgar VII is important as he is the one who went to war with Rome, but he did so in the second century, long after Josephus had died and some 40 years after the first Jewish War. This is not the Abgar you’re looking for.
  • Finally, the one Abgar who is alleged to have been killed because of his beliefs, Abgar VIII the Great, was not even a contemporary of Josephus or Jesus. As I said, he lived in the third century and was the first from the Abgar dynasty to become a Christian (and he is remembered as such). His mother was not Helena, he was not the son of Abgarus, he was not crucified and taken down by Josephus, and he never launched a war against Jerusalem.

Now none of this is idle speculation on my part. We have tons of early source material and contemporary attestation, including a discussion from Josephus on Izates and Helena (who died c. 100 CE) and the sarcophagus of Helena herself (with an inscription calling her Sadan–probably a Persian name–dated to the first century CE).

abgar x

The coin image on the cover of Mr. Ellis’ book.

Interestingly, you make a fatal error on the cover of your book, illustrating further your incompetence and your lack of understanding of the distinctions between these individuals. The coin you so boldly declare to be “the coin image of Jesus” is not Abgar the V (the first century Abgar), nor is it Abgar Ma’nu VI (whose VI you use for your Izas creation), nor is it Abgar the Great (Abgar the VIII who is said to have converted to Christianity in the third century)–all of these are the ones who you are conflating, but alas, it is none of them. No, this coin you present on your cover is none other than Abgar the X. Finally! We found an Abgar you don’t intentionally conflate with the rest! This Abgar the X came to the throne following the assassination of Gordian the III; this all occurs decades after the death of Abgar the Great. Your mistake is confusing the two–probably after doing a Google image search for ‘Abgar’ without realizing that there had been more than one (something an amateur might do, but not someone trained in the field by those pesky academic institutions you find so limiting). Let me draw it out for you with pictures:

Abgar X coins

This is the coin minted under Abgar X (242 – 243 CE). On the left is Gordian III and on the right is Abgar X.

1680214

Abgar VIII the Great is on the right holding a scepter, Septimius Severus on the left (197 – 212).

The differences may be subtle to those like you who are untrained (or who lack sense). Abgar VIII holds a scepter in his coin, also there is no star present. Septimius Serverus has a full beard. Your coin from your cover, along with the Abgar X coin, both depict Abgar X without a scepter, star behind his shoulder. Notice also the style of clothing Abgar X is portrayed wearing? A necklace or collar followed by a row of buttons clearly distinguishes this Abgar from the other. Likewise, Gordian III is depicted without facial hair. Additionally, a star is present in front of Gordian III on this coin. So the coin you currently have on your cover does not, in any way, present Abgar VIII (who you probably want–though who can know with this twisted cacophony of kings you’ve molded together into the one you’ve fabricated). Here is a closeup of your coin and an Abgar X coin:

abgar compare

Notice it is an attempt at the exact same design as the Abgar X coin. Stars are there, but no scepter–a dead giveaway.

But you should know all this, shouldn’t you? With your supposed 25+ years of study? Especially since I found the website where you snagged that image of the Abgar X coin:

abgar coin taken from

Also, I’m fairly certain this is a modern reproduction of a real Abgar X coin (i.e., it’s a fake). So not only did you snag the wrong Abgar, but you also used a fake coin. Good job, Mr. Ellis.

And if you bothered to read (or do any research whatsoever), you’d see even the listing for this coin suggests that it is Abgar X, not Abgar the VIII (though maybe you didn’t know the difference until you read this post). Just in case you want to claim that isn’t the same coin, here is a side-by-side comparison:

abgar compare 2

Even the ‘wear’ on the coin is identical. The placing of certain letters with the star, the criss-crossing pattern on the crown, etc… this is the coin.

This is what happens when you fabricate something by meshing multiple historical figures together. ‘Izas Manu’ never existed in history, Mr. Ellis. He is a figment of your imagination. You simply cannot take four separate individuals, over the span of hundreds of years, and lump them together into one without someone calling your bluff.

What have you really done here? Let me quote you again, this time breaking down the different figures in your claims:

The historical Izas (Izates II) was called King Izas (Izates II) Manu(el) (Abgar Ma’nu VI, Agbar bar Manu VIII) VI of Edessa (not Izates II).

The historical Izas (Izates II)was a defacto King of the Jews (because his mother, Queen Helena, was the defacto Queen of the Jews) (not any from the Abgar dynasty).

The historical Izas (Izates II)-Manu’s (Abgar Ma’nu VI, Agbar bar Manu VIII)father was the same King Abgarus of Edessa. (No one. Ever.)

The historical Izas (Izates II)was a revolutionary (no one) who fought the Jerusalem authorities (Abgar V) and the Romans (Abgar the VII).

Do you see what I’m saying? Of course you do. You have to know this already. There is absolutely no way you can really be this clueless; no one with a brain would dare believe that taking a whole group of people and lumping them into one fictional persona is an innocent endeavor. No one would call that travesty a ‘scholarly book’. It has to be a gimmick; something fraudulent is happening here with what you’re doing. And I’ll gladly expose it for the world to see. It has to be a stunt to sell books and con people out of their hard earned cash or, simply put, you have to be certifiably crazy.

I’ll put it to the reader in an analogy. This is akin to me saying that there was a real guy named Herod Caligula(rus) and then stated that Herod Caligula(rus) went on a vicious rampage in Jerusalem and called upon Jupiter Maximus ten plagues to wipe out the first born sons of Israel, only later to repent after getting drunk off blood-wine and taking his place as King of the Roman Empire.

See how crazy that is? That is exactly how crazy Mr. Ellis’ claims are and, as such, they can be dismissed.

Spider-Man and the Gospel Genres

While checking out Bible and Interpretation’s ‘Featured News’ section as I normally do, I came across this interesting looking article on the so-called Spider-Man fallacy.  I am always interested in the question of comics and their adoption of biblical themes (at times) or their shared motifs with ancient literature (because it is fun), so I clicked on the link.  I was surprised to see that the article was written to analyze an argument from an atheist about the nature of the Gospel genre.  The atheist (who is not named and so will remain our anonymous antagonist, even though this is unfair–I much rather prefer to have a name with an argument) gives this argument:

Archaeologists 1,000 years from now unearth a collection of Spiderman comics. From the background art, they can tell it takes place in New York City. NYC is an actual place, as confirmed by archaeology. However, this does not mean that Spiderman existed.

Though one has to admit, this would make a fun comic adaptation.

So the whole case is presented as if the scenario given by the atheist is essentially the same story surrounding the Gospels: a mythical figure set into a historical backdrop like New York City, who has interactions with real historical figures (like the mayor of New York City vs. Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, or Herod the Great).

I don’t like this logic.  The whole argument is a case of special pleading.  This particular anonymous atheist detractor seems to lack some basic knowledge about textual criticism, particularly how long we’ve had copies of the manuscripts (at least 1600 years–not 1000 years).  The argument also forgets that the comic strip is illustrated and we should hope that in 1000 years from now, humans still have full-text books (one would hope that illustrations don’t become the dominant form of media and story telling!) and still have comic books (though I wonder what their Justice League of the Future will look like).  So the whole argument is a wash: it presumes too many factors and asks you to accept too many unknowns (e.g., it asks you to pretend as if scholars in 1000 years won’t be as dorky or nerdy as we are today–something I highly doubt).

But that doesn’t mean the author of the refutation–Robin Schumacher–makes a good case against it either.  In fact the author of this piece for the Christian Post makes some surprising blunders (seemingly out of bias).  The biggest one is in their use of genre criticism:

However, such thinking has been discredited due to the work of a number of scholars, most notably Richard Burridge and his work What are the Gospels – A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. Burridge, dean of King’s College in London, is a classicist who originally set out to disprove the thesis that the Gospels fit within the genre of ancient biography, but during his research, the evidence he uncovered caused him to reverse his opinion.

Those who think the Gospels don’t match the category of ancient historical biography confuse our current models of biography with those of the ancient world.

via Jesus and the Spiderman Fallacy | The Confident Christian.

The problem is that Robin Schumacher has it backwards.  Those who think the Gospels are ancient historical biography are the ones confused.  And Burridge is not the only one, along with Schumacher, who has it backwards.  We’ll look at Burridge, but I also want to focus on two other scholars who have argued similar positions: Darrell Bock and Craig Keener.

Let’s consider the basic proposition that the Gospels fit the genre of Greco-Roman biography.  Bock writes:[1]

What specific type of literature is a gospel?  How would an ancient reader have classified it?  …recent work has shown that the gospels read much like ancient Greco-Roman biographies and that the issue of bias does not preclude a discussion of historicity. A…concern for truth is present in the Gospels.  When we encounter a gospel, we are reading a literary form that the ancient world recognized as biographical…. Ancient biography gives us the portrait of a key figure by examining key events of which he or she was a major part as well as giving us glimpses of the hero’s thinking.  They tend to present a fundamental chronological outline of key periods starting with the birth or the arrival on the public scene….  Such biographies often concentrate on the controversies surrounding the key figure, especially the events that lead to a dramatic death, if that is part of the history.   It is this kind of work that we read as we turn out attention to the Gospel accounts as they present to us, as history, the life of Jesus.

Bock’s position, as is the position of many scholars of the historical Jesus, is one that visualizes the Gospels as histories—though not very good ones—of the life of the figure of Jesus.  So, the argument goes, there is something in the Gospels about a historical figure; it may not be much, which is the view of many scholars particularly those involved in the so-called ‘third quest’ and the Jesus Seminar, but there is somethingKeener agrees:

“In recent decades, as scholars have examined the best ancient analogies for the Gospels, it has become increasingly clear that the Gospels were designed as biographies—though as ancient rather than modern ones.”

This line of thinking did not come about ex nihilo.  In 1977, Charles Talbert[2], while not the first to suggest it, was the earliest contemporary historian to argue persuasively for Greco-Roman biography as the genre of the Gospels; a work more recently published, though still over fifteen years old, was published by Richard A. Burridge addressing the same issue–and the one with which Schumacher is familiar.[3]  But in the time between Burridge’s first publication and the present, several other investigations have been made into the study of genre and the Gospels. Most notably is the analysis by Michael Vines, where he takes Burridge, and David Aune as well, to task.[4] His most relevant point, in this author’s opinion, is that the Gospels do not focus on biographical aspects but on theological ones.  Burridge’s case rests on whether or not the Gospels imitate, unconsciously or purposefully, the genre of Greco-Roman biography (though he admits that the option is there that they only do so coincidentally).  However, the Gospels do not imitate Greco-Roman biography as Burridge, Aune, and Talbert believe and this is easily demonstrated.

The Greco-Roman biography of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus is not one continuous narrative but, rather, the story of his life as discussed by Philostratus.  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.  Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not 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.

It helps the Classicist case that we also have contemporary attestation to Philostratus…

…and also to Apollonius.

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.

When one looks critically at the Gospels, one can easily see what I mean.  The Gospel authors were not writing independently, but were written for what are clearly different theological, political, and exegetical reasons, one after another over a period of at least 100 years.  And as I mentioned, they don’t name their sources, ever, but it is clear that Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark; a fact to which Keener admits, but he glosses over the fact that they don’t ever cite each other.  Keener greatly overstates his position when he writes that:

“…Matthew and Luke (whom we can best test) use their sources very carefully by ancient standards.… This does not mean that these writers concerned themselves about telling every detail in exactly the way that they received it—most ancient audiences expected writers to exercise more freedom than that—but that, by the standards we apply to their contemporaries, the Gospels are remarkably useful sources.”

If by using their sources “very carefully,” Keener means to admit that the authors changed, adjusted, or otherwise ignored each others’ works extensively (i.e. purposefully changed accounts from other Gospels in creating their own) then he is correct; they did utilize each other quite remarkably; so remarkably, in fact, that some scenes which occur in two Gospels appear as a parable in another.  Some vanish entirely!  Others are so chronologically garbled that Keener will be hard pressed to explain how it could have happened with such diligent and thorough authors utilizing their sources so carefully.  If the events of Jesus’ life could so easily be invented, removed, or altered so often, then clearly the authors of the Gospels were not interested in preserving the historical Jesus.  How could they have been?  They went out of their way on certain occasions to manipulate the narratives to show us a Jesus that was of the minds of their own socio-cultural settings, their own interests washing away whatever theological agenda their predecessors held.  Why would this occur if they were “very carefully” utilizing their sources?  Careful use seems not to have bothered them much at all.  When thinking of an example of such an occurrence in the texts, the fig tree is one that comes to mind almost immediately.

In Matthew, Jesus has just finished cleansing the temple after a very triumphal entry into Jerusalem and he was already running away to Bethany to escape the guards who were looking to kill him.  He sleeps the night there and awakens the next day to head back into the city; along the way back Jesus decides he is hungry.  Luckily for him, fig trees were abundant.  Unlucky for the fig tree, it was out of season.  Jesus becomes infuriated; he had called but the tree had not answered.  Throwing what, in my opinion, is not much different than a childish temper-tantrum, he curses the tree and it withers “at once.” (Matt. 21:19)   The disciples all marvel and even ask each other “How did the fig tree wither at once?” (Matt. 21:20)  With a little teaching that follows, this ends Matthew’s fig tree story.  This event might be historical.  But the Gospel authors, who Keener suggests were far more knowledgeable of the circumstances of the accounts than we are, do not seem to come to any particular consensus about it.

Mark portrays Jesus as just making it into the city before realizing he must leave again.  After what seems to have been an exhausting day of entrances, it’s off to Bethany he goes to spend the night as it was “already late” (Mark 11:11).  Awaking the next morning, Jesus and his companions make their way back to Jerusalem.  And as before, on their way, Jesus became hungry; he had to build up his strength for all the table-throwing and scolding later on, it seems.  He approaches the fig tree, out of season, and curses the fig tree.  All of his disciples heard this curse. (Mark 11:14)  After a long day of cleansing the temple, throwing over tables, they again departed from the city to escape the plotting priests and scribes.  The next morning the disciples saw the fig tree withered away and “remembered” (ἀναμνησθεὶς) in Mark 11:20.

Luke, Keener’s prized historian and biographer, seems to have completely dismissed this event as it is described in the other two accounts.  Luke visualizes this narrative completely differently, presenting it as a parable instead. (Luke 13:6-9) In fact, the parable is told far from Jerusalem to the north, in Galilee, a full six chapters before the Triumphal Entry occurs in Luke’s narrative (essentially throwing off the chronology). An interesting aside might be to note that Luke doesn’t seem to recall ever spending the night in Bethany during his stay near Jerusalem with Jesus. Some might find Luke’s ignorance of this account rather embarrassing, especially if they are trying to argue for the historical accuracy of the Gospel of Luke.

John is not only clueless of the withering of the fig tree, but he doesn’t even present it as a parable!  Instead, John “remembers” Jesus calling Nathanael from under a fig tree (John 1:43-48), but beyond that, he is completely ignorant of any cursing, withering, fig tree incident.  But Matthew clearly writes that all the disciples marveled.  Not some, not a few, not two.  This is odd–as Keener points out, Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark, yet Mark states that all the disciples saw the fig tree withered the next day.  If Matthew and Luke cared so greatly about the accurate reporting of historical events, why did they change this part of Mark’s narrative?  If they “construed Mark as biography as well,” as Keener suggests, why did they alter (or remove entirely) this scene from their narratives?

Conspiring authors? Perhaps that was the intent, but they didn’t listen to each other.

This is only one example; there are countless more.  Many scenes from Mark are re-imagined, become a parable, are marginalized, or disappear from other canonical Gospels.  When there are multiple stories of a similar account, yet are usually different, one should be suspicious.  This is an example, not of memory recall nor of concise and careful source-use, but of authorial intent; purposeful, deliberate altercations of a narrative.  According to Keener, however, the Gospel authors are more useful as sources for a historical tradition than Arrian.  That thinking just makes no sense at all.

Any familiarity with Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri would immediately illustrate the difference in quality and demonstrate actually care for source material.  In fact, if one were looking for an example of Burridge’s ideological history written with coincidental and, perhaps, even unconscious links to Greco-Roman Biography, Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri is the best one we will find; yet it is dramatically unlike anything we see with the Gospel accounts.  In the very opening of his first book, he explains part of his method to the reader:

Wherever Ptolemy and Aristobulus in their histories of Alexander, the son of Philip, have given the same account, I have followed it on the assumption of its accuracy; where their facts differ I have chosen what I feel to be the more probable and interesting. (Anabasis Alexandri 1.1)

Like Philostratus, Arrian compares his sources, especially when they conflict (e.g., Anabasis Alexandri 3.30.4-6). His sources, therefore, are also subject to criticism and evaluation (since we actually know what they are). Here with Arrian, as before with Philostratus, there is a direct engagement with the sources; one is not reading a story.  While some events display traits of a narrative, the reader is able to interact with it, to analyze the history with the narrator.  With the Gospel accounts there is no interaction with the narrative; the reader is moved along with the story, unable to analyze and critique it and, instead, is told that how the author of the Gospels wrote it is precisely how it occurred.[5]  There is never an instance where the Gospel authors take two separate accounts of an event and openly discuss which is more likely to have occurred, even though each Gospel portrays similar events differently, in different chronologies, with different individuals, and sometimes within different contexts and even locations.  What one reads is what one gets and, in almost every instance, what one gets is a theologically-driven exegetical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.[6]

Lycurgus

One final thought on the subject: It is also worth mentioning here that some Greco-Roman biographies are based upon completely fictional figures, like Plurtarch’s biography of Theseus.  There were no laws or edicts in antiquity about what one could or could not write or how they could write it (such laws do exist today, though mainly in confessional institutions).  Authors emulated the parts of works they liked and were not limited by genre, per se.  Such was the process of imitation, even going back to the days of Aristotle (Poetics 1447a-b).  An example one might find of a fictional hero who is historicized in a Greco-Roman biography is Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Spartan lore.  Plutarch dedicates a biography to him, complete with genealogy; but his attestation goes well beyond this.  Lycurgus gets honorable mentions and is discussed by Plato (Republic 10.599d), Aristotle (Politics 2.1270a, Rhetoric 2.23.11), Xenophon (Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 1), Polybius (Histories 4.2, 6.10), Josephus (Against Apion 2.220), Isocrates (Panathenaicus 12.152), Epictetus (Discourses 2.20), Tacitus (Annals 3.26), and Livy (History of Rome 38.34) to name a few.  But it is unlikely that Lycurgus was any more real than Romulus, of whom several Greco-Roman biographies are extant (Plutarch, Romulus; also Livy dedicates his first book of From the Founding of the City to the life of Romulus; stories of his life and deeds can also be found in ancient historiographies (e.g., Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2).  The figure of Romulus is attested in works from Ovid (Fasti), Cicero (Laws, Republic), and to Tertullian (Apology). It may also be useful to note in passing that among these selected works mentioning Romulus there exists a tale of his death, resurrection, and rebirth to the figure of Quirinus.   This is merely to point out that even if the Gospels were portrayed as Greco-Roman biographies, it would not imply eo ipso that they are historically useful.

At the end of the day, Schumacher does not take into account the differences between the genre of a real Greco-Roman biography like one written by Philostratus, Plutarch, or Arrian, and the narrative stories of the Gospels.  Like Burridge and Keener, Schumacher only focuses on the superficial similarities of the genre, rather than a real detailed analysis like I have provided here.  This seems to be the trouble with some apologist commentators who lack a strong or dedicated Classics background.

But while Schumacher, et al, may be wrong, so is the anonymous atheist.  Making anachronistic comparisons are misleading and overstate their case.  One cannot (or should not) use modern genres as a useful comparison; instead, ancient epics or ancient Jewish fiction writing would have made a more palatable choice (like Michael Vines or Thomas Thompson argue).  So no one really seems to be the winner in this debate.  But that is often the case when I come across a discussion between a Christian apologist and an atheist when it comes to the Bible–a lot of misunderstandings, a lot of miscommunication, a lot of talking past one another.  And this is rather unfortunate.

On the plus side, I got to demonstrate, once more, how completely logically flawed it is to associate the Gospels with Greco-Roman biography.


[1] Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 2002), 214.

[2] What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977)

[3] What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

[4] Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel (Academia Biblica 3; Atlanta: SBL, 2002), 7-19.

[5] 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. Not even the author of Luke, with his brief preface to Theophilus, can come close to this methodology.  R. Carrier argues this persuasively that Luke does not function well as a historian or biographer; see his discussion in Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed (Lulu Press, 2009), 173-87.

[6] This author tends to agree with the statement on the Gospels by Samuel Sandmel, “If the historical statements they make chance to be reliable, this is only coincidence,” from ‘Prolegomena to a Commentary on Mark,’ in Two Living Traditions: Essays on Religion (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1972), 149.

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