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!

Short Overview of Karen King’s ‘The Gospel of Mary of Magdala’

This semester I had to write a (very) short overview of King’s premise and why it’s important.  I share it here, for my readership.  Enjoy.


Karen King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala

Karen King’s thesis in her monumental book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala—that the origin of the Christian movement are far more shadowed in mystery and convoluted by diversity than is normally accepted by some parties in academia and modern Christian communities—is an important one.   King lays out the foundation of a realistic socio-cultural landscape; it is one that demonstrates multiple milieux wherein the various Christian communities are embittered by a sometimes-fierce rhetorical and polemical battle over which group has more authority.  Rather than the prima facie narrative presented by some early Christian apologists, there had not been a singular, perfect dissemination of ‘truths’ passed on from Jesus, to the Apostles (or Disciples—not necessarily the same thing—depending on which narrative one follows), to the early Christian church.[i]  While this particular narrative is enticing, especially in certain fundamentalist and conservative wings of the modern church movements,[ii] it presents an unlikely scenario wherein a perfect community is set upon by a wave of ‘heretics’—the so-called ‘gnostics’—who had been led astray by evil forces (à la Satan/Lucifer),[iii] in an attempt to pull individuals away from the perfect church.

Instead of following this status quo laid out by the author(s) of Luke-Acts,[iv] King argues (convincingly, in this author’s opinion) that this is fantasy.[v]  She presents a logical sitz im leben for these communities, providing evidence from other early Christian texts which show diversity and disorganization even in the time of Paul.[vi]  As the documents themselves suggest, testaments to the struggles within these communities from voices that probably lived through them, there had been no uniformity, no general orthodox doctrine.  With this is mind, King theorizes that what has come to be known as ‘orthodoxy’ must have originated during this polemical war between communities[vii] and then established as official church policy during some of the earliest ecumenical councils (like the Council of Nicaea) by ‘those who won’.[viii]

King then goes on, drawing upon later Christian traditions to demonstrate the means upon which the linear history laid out by figures such as Eusebius was fabricated.  She focuses, for example, on the Nicene Creed as a point of definitive later-Christian doctrine wherein a set of beliefs and foundational dogmatic claims are presented which, anachronistically, present themselves as ancient.  King aptly argues that even the term ‘heresy’ is itself a later Christian polemic instituted by the victors—after all, something cannot be ‘heretical’ if there existed no ‘orthodoxy’ from which a viewpoint could ‘stray’.[ix]  It is this so-described ‘orthodox community’ which defines the narrative, or ‘master story’, of Jesus.

Yet before this victory for the so-defined orthodoxy (to become known as the Catholic church—Catholic, from the Greek καθολικός, meaning ‘universal’, may itself be rhetorical), King lays out the struggle in a few ways.  She draws upon the ‘gnostic’ gospels, like the Gospel of Mary, to demonstrate some of the diverse sets of views in these early communities.  These views included: (1) no established order for rules, (2) the spiritual soul alone is what is immortal and not the fleshly body they currently inhabit, (3) Jesus as divine mediator of truth, and (4) no belief in an eternal hell or punishment.[x]

In sum, King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala presents a well-argued and supported criticism of some of the categories established by scholarship (these ‘scholarly constructs’) which don’t necessarily apply to the early Christian church.  In the process, she dissolves all notions of a status quo in the study of Christian Origins, showing that the early church was far more complex and contains more fluidity than has commonly been accepted.


[i] The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, 159-160; King writes, ‘The narratives of the canonical gospels form the basis for this linear history.’

[ii] Also, in this author’s humble opinion, this line of reasoning can be found in certain wings of academia, where language such as ‘trajectories’ dominate the tone of the early Christian communities, suggesting that, perhaps, there had been one original path—something that does not fit any of the available evidence.  Even if one were to presuppose that ‘Jesus’ was the origin and his followers moved in different ‘trajectories’, this presumes that the figure of Jesus was always consistent in his own teachings, something for which there is no verifiable data and thus should not be taken for granted.

[iii] Specifically Mary of Magdala, 160, ‘[Eusebius] wrote the first comprehensive history of the church, alleging that Christianity in its original unity, purity, and power had survived the attacks of Satan from both within (heresy) and without (persecution) in order to triumph finally in the conversion of the emperor….’  This ‘orthodox’ concept as seen in Acts 15.24, for example, suggests that those without Apostolic authority will confuse and trouble people, leading them astray; in addition, those who did obey and accepted Apostolic authority were strengthened (Acts 16.4). Interestingly, the idea of ‘Satan leading the perfect astray’ has roots in the polemical ‘war’ between these early Christian communities—which may be why such teachings found themselves in the Catholic canon in the first place.  Origen, in his De Principiis 3.2.1 interprets the words of Ephesians 6.11in this way, that Satan has invisible workers on Earth to lead many astray; ‘Sed et Salvatorem crucifixum esse dicit a principibus huius mundi’.  It is worth noting that some commentators have translated ‘huius mundi’ as ‘this world’, though often in the New Testament and the epistles, ‘huius mundi’ and variations of the phrase often signify the underworld/hell, or any ‘world’ opposite God’s holiness. Indeed a similar wording found in the Latin Vulgate, Jn 12:31 (cf. Eph. 2.2), goes ‘precips huius mundi’ where the ruler of the cosmos (world) is traditionally Satan (ἀρχων του κόσμον). Irenaeus goes so far as to say that these ‘heretics’ are not just under the influence of Satan, but are agents of Satan (Adversus Haereses 5.26.2).  This certainly seems to support King’s thesis.

[iv] According to King, (Mary of Magdala, 159) Luke-Acts portrays a ‘master story’ of authority, wherein Jesus lays his hands on the Apostles, granting them authority, and later these Apostles lay hands on others granting them authority, and thus authority and truth are transmitted, as the narrative goes, from individual to individual, but ultimately from Jesus himself.  This is demonstrated in verses like Luke 10.16 and 22.29 (cf. Acts 1.5, 1.15, and 6.6).

[v] Mary of Magdala, 157; King suggests that the gnostic gospels and other early texts are instrumental in ‘drawing aside the curtain of later Christian perspectives.’

[vi] Such as in 1 Cor. 15.12, where Paul contends with communities which seem to deny the resurrection of the dead.  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).

[vii] This is supported by the Easter cyclical by Athanasius of Alexandria, where he suggests in 367—42 years after the Council of Nicaea—the canon has been ‘accredited as divine’; the suggestion, even following the council’s proclamations, seems to be that there still exists diversity even in post-orthodox-doctrinal communities which may be using texts deemed ‘heretical’.

[viii] Mary of Magdala, 157.

[ix] She writes, ‘…in practice “heresy” can only be identified by hindsight, instituting the norms of a later age as a standard for the earlier period.’  Mary of Magdala, 160.

[x] Mary of Magdala, 30-34.  She also draws upon various texts to express the diversity issues between the communities, like the Gospel of Thomas which demonstrates that the true means to immortality are through Jesus’ teachings, and the Gospel of Truth and Mary both suggest that Jesus saved people from suffering, not by suffering.


Note to readers: I dislike Karen King’s title.  I think it is a little misleading. While I did not include this in the paper (I wanted to get a good grade),  I think it is important to stress that King may be swaying public opinion here, since the Gospel of Mary is not the ‘Gospel of Mary of Magdala‘.  And while it is presumed that the Gospel of Mary is about ‘Mary of Magdala’ is doesn’t necessarily mean that we have a specific, isolated figure.  Instead, and I agree with Mark Goodacre, that what we have is a composite ‘Mary’ figure.  See Goodacre’s brilliant expose on this here:

Danielle Tumminio and Candida Moss on Christian Martyrdom

I am currently writing up my review (which goes up on March 9th) of Candida Moss’ new book The Myth of Persecution, but here is a snippet of an excellent interview of Dr. Moss over at HuffPo.

But intriguingly, the historical evidence for systematic persecution of Christians by Jews and Romans is actually very slim. There were only a few years before the rise of the emperor Constantine that Christians were sought out by the authorities just for being Christians. The stories about early Christian martyrs have been edited, expanded, and sometimes even invented, giving the impression that Christians were under constant attack. This mistaken impression is important because it fosters a sense of Christian victimhood and that victim mentality continues to rear its head in modern politics and society. It’s difficult to imagine that people could make the same claims about persecution today were it not for the idea that Christians have always been persecuted.

And my favorite part:

You’re both a historian and a person of faith. Some of the historical evidence you offer in this book may be challenging for people of faith to read. Was it challenging for you to write? What would you say to those readers who might struggle with the historical evidence in this book?

In a word, yes. To those readers who might struggle with this book, I would say that you can appreciate the martyrs without subscribing to the view that Christians were, are, and always have been persecuted. We still have an obligation to get our facts straight, however painful that might be.

via Danielle Tumminio: Candida Moss on Whether Christian Martyrs are a Myth.

As many of my readers know, I’ve suggested something similar before about Paul and also about Ignatius.  I encourage everyone to check out the interview and return here on March 9th for my review.

C-logging: Variants and Manuscripts (Or Textual Criticism vs Literary Criticism)

In my previous post I discussed some of the difficulties of Textual Criticism, but I probably could have spent more time on an example.  The opportunity came up in class tonight.

Since the professor was out sick, she assigned some work for us to do on the accompanying message board on a Rutgers-run website meant to give an additional resource for classes.  One of the students responded to my criticisms but either because I wasn’t clear or they misunderstood, presumed I was suggesting that TC is a flawed analysis.  I responded in this manner:


I am not so sure I’d say that TC is a flawed analysis.  It depends on the question, doesn’t it?  If I wanted to demonstrate that the many differences between manuscripts make it difficult to compile an ‘authoritative New Testament’ (that is, a New Testament that is the closest to the original), TC is the perfect method to use.  But if I wanted to explain why these differences exist, TC is not helpful.

For example, in Matt. 3.15, some manuscripts contain an additional sentence.  The original:

But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

In some manuscripts, the text goes:

But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented; and when he was baptized a huge light shone from the water so that all who were near were frightened.

So why the addition?  Was it original?  Well this addition is found in some of the Old Latin manuscripts.  So someone arguing from a TC perspective might argue that this is probably not original.  In fact they might say that, since Luke and John do not repeat this particular incident, chances are good that this is an addition only found in the Latin, and not original to the Greek.  It certainly doesn’t seem to appear in any of our early Greek manuscripts.  But does that ipso facto mean that it wasn’t part of an original composition?

Well, who can say for sure.  But this is why I prefer literary criticism to textual criticism.  In my humble opinion, I think that it fits the context of Matthew quite well.  Matthew’s Gospel contains many elements of light vs. dark (cf. Matt 5.13-16, 10.27, 24.29, etc…); this dualism is seen most specifically in Matt 4 and in Matt 24:

Matt 4.14-16: So that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”

Matt 24.29: Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

The themes are clear, from beginning to end.  Matthew is playing with this dualism up until the passion narrative, where at the time of the death of Jesus, there was a darkness over the land (Matt 27.45).  This is intentional, mind you.  Matthew is drawing upon motifs found commonly in the Hebrew Bible.  The thematic elements of Matt 24 are found in Zechariah 14.7:

And there shall be a unique day, which is known to the Lord, neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light.

And the author of Matthew ties this all together when the angel appears to the women outside the tomb in Matt 28.  His appearance “is like lightening”.  Indeed, Zechariah writes of this period of time that “Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.”  (14.5) And in Matthew is the only appearance of the holy ones rising from the graves (located, actually, on the Mount of Olives…mentioned in Zech 14.4):

The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. (Matt 27.52)

Now, I could belabor the point and make a paper out of this.  But my argument here is that TC, while very useful at certain things, is not useful entirely–that is, I don’t think it is very effective in and of itself.  It lacks that exegetical function that is so valuable to literary theory.  By my argument, the variant containing Jesus being baptized, with a light coming up from below, just adds to the same motifs found throughout Matthew.  I don’t know if it was present in an original–I am skeptical that an “original” existed at all (perhaps there were many originals and not just a single Matthew.  After all, the name ‘Matthew’ is just a designation we give to this collection of variants!).  The Textual Critic like Ehrman might wholly dismiss this variant simply because it isn’t present in some early Greek manuscripts.  But, I’m not so sure.  Even if it had been a later addition, it certainly adds another flavor to the narrative, don’t you think?

Clogging: Blogging About My ‘Introduction to the New Testament’ Class (Week 2)

So this semester, I am taking an Introduction to New Testament course.  This is a 200 level course and I’m pretty excited about it so far (if only because I predict an easy ‘A’).  While I anticipate a good grade (I’ve been studying the subject independently for years now and have published on the subject), I have an excellent professor–who is both clever and attentive to the details–and am guaranteed to learn much from her as the course progresses throughout the semester.

The one gripe I have–of course there is always one, right?–is that we are using Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (5th Edition).  Don’t get me wrong, it is an excellent ‘introduction’ book in some respects, especially when dealing with Textual Criticism.  For the average student in the class who is only taking the course for kicks, because they think it will reinforce their beliefs, or because they need it as a prerequisite for another course, I imagine it works out just fine as it covers the mainstream view nicely.  But it has some factual errors and glosses over too many important details that I feel are rather important.   On the plus side, my professor recognizes the books shortcomings.

Anyway, some important subject matter before going forward.

One of the really fantastic things about this class is that it really gives me a new take on exactly what it is that the general person knows about the Bible.  As someone who has been involved in academia for going on five years now and who is intricately involved in the Biblioblogging community, it is easy to lose sight over the little things–for example, there are many who still get hung up on how to define ‘manuscript’ or ‘variant’ (something I see as common knowledge).  Even New Testament terms like ‘Textual Criticism’ are old hat for me.  So being *in a class* and listening to conversations from fellow students (many of whom have not been as involved as I have) is a really important learning experience for me.

Since I am blogging through the class, I should state some general practices of the blog here for the reader so they know where I stand.  First, I will not be giving away any test or quiz information about the course (sorry to all the students who will be taking the same class in the years to come).  Second, all opinions expressed herein are mine alone.  All feedback and comments are welcome, so long as you follow the comment policy.

Now, some thoughts on this past week’s readings and conversations.  We started off by reading about Textual Criticism and the state of our current textual evidence.  Nothing here is necessarily new to me, but perhaps some of you will enjoy it.

Textual Criticism (briefly defined):

  • Textual Criticism is the academic process of analyzing the thousands of variant manuscripts in an attempt to locate the most recent context based upon our manuscript attestation.

Bulleted list of some benefits and problems with Textual Criticism:

    1. Textual Criticism (TC) plays a big part in our conversations over the next few weeks.  It’s very important and, in my mind, supports our understanding of the manner in which the transmission and reception of the New Testament texts occurred throughout the early Christian centuries.  But there are some factors that limit TC as a firm and (always) useful methodology.
      • We don’t have the autographa.  So one has to ask: How accurate are our manuscripts? How can we even begin to answer this question?
      • Without the autographa, we have no direct knowledge of what the original texts might have said–or how much was added or removed, or how ‘controversial’ it might have been compared to our accepted textual representation.
      • All the current Bible’s are the products of scholarly reconstruction.  In other words, the Bible we now possess (or more accurately, the version of the Bible you use) is not ‘the original word of god’ but the result of scholars picking and choosing (voting is often involved) on which particular variant is accepted into the volume.  Some variants disagree on rather important details (i.e., whether or not Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ in Lk 23.34–some ancient manuscripts omit this and many believe this was a later addition to the Gos. of Luke; or it may have been removed and then later re-added, but who knows for sure?).  So this process can–with the example given in class of Paul writes (or is portrayed to have written) “women must be silent in church”, it’s inclusion or removal from a version can produce an edition of the New Testament that is more suitable for a feminist or more suitable for a misogynist (it is crazy how extremely dichotomous the texts can be, the implications of how this might impact exegesis notwithstanding).
    1. TC also takes much for granted (i.e., it doesn’t analyze the reasons why a text might have been altered in a specific way, or if it does, it neglects imitatio or reception criticism).  The function of the text is lost.  For example, the very definition of ‘variant’ presumes a standard by which all other manuscripts have deviated–it implies, essentially, that a variant is ‘wrong’.  This, in my humble opinion, is not how ancient texts should be read.  “Right” and “wrong”, “standard” and “deviated” are terms that are not helpful, and perhaps should not applied anachronistically.  That isn’t to say that anyone in particular is making such an argument (though some do), simply that such language has the context to evoke these sorts of thoughts about the manuscripts.  Besides, it is the function of the text that is most relevant to the conversation, since we do not have any of the originals–all we have are the representations of copies of originals and at best that can only give us an understanding of what later Christians valued (certainly not the first ‘Christians’).  We can only refer to the books of the New Testament as ‘the version we now have’; this limits our understanding of the history of Early Christianity (to the point where one has to question if we have any evidence of the period at all).
      • This also means that using this method to date texts is essentially useless.  While we can see how the texts we have were altered and transmitted, what we don’t have is a grounding for the composition of the texts (since, again, we don’t have the originals).  How were these texts composed, when, and with what narrative constructions in mind?  Was this originally a vocal/oral narrative?  If so, how much had that original performance changed in its telling prior to someone writing it down?  What was added between its performance form and its written form?  Did it start as just a passion play or did it evolve into that?  Did the original narrative contain  an infancy or birth narrative that is now lost from our version of Mark (probably not, but who knows)?  Without answers to these questions, all dating is tentative and even textually it is impossible to know how late or early our Gospels are (though there are many tentative arguments).
      • As an example to the above, Mark 13 is used often to date Mark after (or before, depending on your particular theological beliefs) the fall of the Temple since he “predicts” the fall (the argument goes: Mark must have written this in after the destruction of the Temple, after 70 CE, to give Jesus credibility as a prophet).  But parts of Mark 13 have already been altered in the manuscript evidence (e.g., 13.14), and our earliest copy of this passage comes to us via the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 4th Century (so far as I’m aware).  between the time the Gospel of Mark is alleged to have been written to the time we have our earliest extant attestation to this verse, we have roughly 250 years or more.  To put that into context, that is almost as long as we have had the Declaration of Independence (approx. 237 years).  Between that time there had existed hundreds of competing theologies, vying for a chance to win out over the others.  Establishing ones theological framework using texts seemed to have been a common motif during this period, and what better way than to have your variant having a Jesus portrayed as foretelling events.  I’m not saying this is certain, or even probable, but it is likely and with no means to compare it to an original how can one use this as a definitive dating of the composition of a Markan Gospel?  Certainly we can say, “After 70 CE is when this variant of the text originated” but can we really say that ‘Mark composed his Gospel immediately after 70CE’?  I’m not so sure.    Even if this fragment were original to the text, there may be a relative function to it (i.e., Jesus may not be predicting the fall of the current Temple but repeating an ancient motif relating to Solomon’s Temple–a thematic element commonly found in the Hebrew Bible).  Again, this may be why using TC to date may simply be a waste of one’s time.

Awesome moment of the week: The professor used a stack of paper to demonstrate the variants and where most of the manuscripts fall in a timeline.  She set up an impromptu timeline on a desk representing the first four centuries in the Common Era.  Using the paper she immediately “discarded” about 90% of it.  What she had left she leafed out mostly after the 3rd Century CE and then tore up some sheets and spread a few here and there throughout the second and third centuries.  The visual aid was brilliant and clever and I’m sure that anyone in the class who had questions about the manuscript attestation had them solved with this one demonstration.  It was very nicely done.

Addendum: ‘Clogging’ = ‘Course Logging’ or ‘Class Logging’.

‘Is This Not the Carpenter’ in Paperback – Available for Pre-Order!

It’s here!  Sort of…  The paperback edition, published through Acumen (a subsidiary of Equinox), has produced the volume on their website for pre-order starting now!  And what an attractive volume it is:

1844657299

I’m quite happy with the relief of the Egyptian carpenter, making wondrous things in his shop, as an example of some of the motifs one may locate in the Jesus narratives; such a conceptual and engaging visual is perfect for our volume.

I am also thrilled to see the price significantly reduced!  While the hardback fetched for $110, this volume in paperback is available at a list price of $33.00, with a reduced (discounted) price of only $26.00!  Pre-order your copy today and spread the word!

UPDATE: Apparently the Acumen group has not yet set up the Amazon page so attempts to pre-order the volume may not work yet.  Sometime in the next few weeks, the volume should be available.  I’ll update this page when it is available.

UPDATE #2: It’s finally available for preorder now!

Thomas Thompson on Competence and New Testament Scholarship

Thomas Thompson gives it back to Casey on Bible and Interpretation.  We live in exciting times.  It has been educational, watching Thompson’s and Casey’s exchange.  Here is a snippet:

The Messiah Myth, moreover, is neither a book dealing with the history of the New Testament, a history of Jesus nor of the early church. It rather analyzes and attempts to trace the antiquity and nature of the sources for the messiah myth. It is a study in comparative literature. It deals only indirectly with the historicity of Jesus, as it treats many of the proverbs and parables that have been associated with such a figure and it comes to deal with the use of the Gospels’ for such historical questions, only insofar as they are related to the many sayings found in Matthew and Luke—such as the sermons on the mount or, respectively, the plain, which some conservative New Testament scholars, such as those involved in the Jesus seminar—and Maurice Casey—have considered ipsissima verba of Jesus. My purpose was quite different: to demonstrate that they were, in fact, sayings and tropes that were considerably older than either the gospels or any hypothetical, historical Jesus.

via The Bible and Interpretation – Competence and New Testament Scholarship.

Read the rest.

Philip Davies asks ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ and Offers His Answer

Philip Davies has entered the discussion and his involvement is most welcome.  He concludes:

But why care? The issue of whether history or kerygma (let’s use the fancy theological term for such fabulation) should provide the basis for New Testament theology or Christian faith has been a persistent theme of New Testament scholarship since Strauss’s Life of Jesus (where myth reared its beautiful head). Still, both history and theology converge on a proper answer to this: the historical Jesus will always be a fabrication, and the search for him antagonistic to true religious belief. Yet some peculiar literal-minded historicist brand of (largely Protestant) Christianity finds impossible the temptation to replace the icons of Orthodoxy or statues and images of Roman Catholicism with the One True Image of the Lord: the Jesus of History. The result: poor history and, dare I say, even poorer theology.

via The Bible and Interpretation – Did Jesus Exist?.

You will want to go read the whole thing.  Go read it and then come back.  Back?  Good.

His discussion of the main issues in New Testament and the problems that plague those of us who even bother to *question* historicity are spot on.  The only minor issue that I might adjust is that he writes:

But one should not argue from these, as do Thompson and Verenna, that Jesus was invented.

But to my knowledge neither Thomas or I suggest that in our articles and I certainly haven’t suggested that Jesus was invented recently.  I make a point in my chapter to distinguish the claims that ‘Jesus was invented’ and ‘Paul’s Jesus is irrelevant to the Historical Jesus’ are entirely different.  One claim does not eo ipso lead to the other.  Indeed, even if Paul believed his Jesus was a completely heavenly, he could have been completely wrong.  My article was only to support the conclusion that Paul is useless as a witness to a historical figure, not that there couldn’t have been one because of it.

Though I would remark, and Philip might agree, that traditions can be invented and thus certainly most traditions surrounding a figure of Jesus are wholly invented (they have to be since only one tradition can be the ‘right’ one, presupposing historicity).  With that in mind, it isn’t so implausible to suggest that we haven’t even stumbled across the ‘right one’ (if there is one to find) and none of the ‘Jesus’ we have concocted in our academic quests resemble that historical figure.

Other than this one minor grievance, Philip’s article is wonderful and a welcome contribution to the conversation.

C. Philipp E. Nothaft Discusses Attempts at Dating Jesus’ Life

A new essay over at Bible and Interpretation deserves a look (h/t Jim West).  C. Philipp E. Nothaft writes the following (snippet):

At the same time, however, it is difficult to overlook the ever-widening gap between this quasi-naturalistic quest for the “real” star of Bethlehem and the approaches taken by modern New Testament scholarship where the infancy stories of Matthew and Luke are treated to often devastating historical criticism.Understandably perhaps, astronomers with a bent for solving biblical puzzles in their free time have rarely paid attention to the kind of caveats that were already raised in 1917 by the historian of astrology Franz Boll, to whom the original wording of Matthew’s Greek pointed, if anything, to a certain familiarity with the ancient folk-belief that the birth of each man is accompanied by the apparition of a new star (Pliny, Natural History 2.28).  Others, including the pioneering historian of religion Hermann Usener, had previously gone even further and pointed to a whole range of ancient sources that show how the motif of celestial portents was firmly rooted in the ancient imaginaire surrounding the birth of regal and messianic characters.

You’ll want to read more here.  Then come back.  Back?  Good.

Here is my gripe with this type of historical criticism; it doesn’t work.  It can’t work with the Gospels.  As soon as one starts trying to allocate which parts of the Gospels are that ‘historical kernel’, the narrative is already lost.  Someone says, “Well who would fabricate the concept of a star at the birth of Jesus?” so they presume the star of Bethlehem is true, and then declare that it was ancient man’s incompetence that lead them to believe that the star was merely a comet that happened to coincide with the birth of Jesus–all presumed without a shred of evidence, without a reason to make these baseless claims; all at the expense of the theological tradition, the emulative nature of the narrative, the edifying function of the text.

We must ask ourselves, how is this different than someone claiming that a gust of wind was responsible for the parting of the Red (“Reed”) Sea, or that a natural eclipse caused the darkening of the sun, or that erectile dysfunction was what made the Philistines return the Ark to Israel.  These are all baseless claims made by people who have no real grasp of the function of the text; they care little about why the text was written and simply presume that the authors wrote about ‘what happened’ through some primitive mindset, which runs counter to what we know of the rich cultural traditions of the ANE who, by the time the Gospels were written–even by the time the books of the Hebrew Bible were written, there was a strong grasp of mathematics, of astronomy, of science–even if it is not what have today, it was pretty remarkable what they knew in antiquity.

Those who seek to use this method work under the presumption that these authors were uneducated simple folk, but they weren’t.  They were well educated–they were multilingual, they had at least the very basic grasp of philosophy (though the schools may vary from writer to writer), and they had a grounding in mimesis/imitatio.

The sort of historical criticism used to try to date the events of the text in this manner will always ignore this and therefore prove fruitless.  It does so at the expense of the agendas of the scholars; that is problematic.  If a scholar sets out to show that the turning over the tables in the temple is historical, they show this not with sound evidence but through the creation of new methods which are not helpful and are usually flawed (like the ‘criterion of embarrassment’, which just fails on all levels).*

Nothaft does a decent job in his article on Bible and Interpretation exposing this issue, but I am always concerned when I read comments like:

Understood as a mere approximation, this is not necessarily inconsistent with a birth in 4 BC; but neither does it completely rule out a birth in 1 BC and AD 1, as Dionysius Exiguus seems to have imagined. Unless one wants to give up talk about the birth year of Jesus altogether, it is perhaps still advisable to take into account the opinions of the ancient Church Fathers, who used Luke 3 to deduce a birth in 3 or 2 BC.

The problem of course is that the Church Fathers are far from reliable.  Indeed, Nothaft’s comment that “Since claims about Jesus’ adult years as a preacher in Galilee and Judea are certainly more trustworthy than those about his infancy, it seems that we are left with Luke 3 as the only feasible indication of Jesus’ birth year.” becomes moot when we use the church fathers, as some early traditions suggest that Jesus was 50 years old when he was crucified. Maybe older; it appears as if Jesus is portrayed to have lived up until the time of Trajan, or at least John did–who is suggested to have been a contemporary–which would make them both, or one of them, very, very old when they died (via Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.2-6, for example, and which many an apologist has tried to argue that he never said what he said, even though A.H. 2.6 is very clear on this).  Or that he was born decades earlier than the Gospels suppose (Epiphanius of Salamis, via his Panarion 29.3.3, thought this–that Jesus was born prior to the high priest Alexander, King Herod, and Emperor Augustus; this seems to contradict Nothaft’s claims about consistency earlier in his paper–though it also seems as though Epiphanius contradicts himself on occasion or he isn’t quite clear).  In any case, both of these traditions predate Dionysius Exiguus.

My point here is that the Gospels, like the church fathers, are purveyors of traditions, not ‘fact’, not ‘history’ in the sense of ‘what happened’.  We have to accept this unfortunate truth; the Gospels are just what their ‘genre’ (whatever that might mean) implies: they are the ‘good news’.  They are not historiographies, biographies, or evidence of anything other than a particular tradition (or group of traditions) at a synchronic point, along with the author’s (or group of authors) theological and political perspectives.  We need to move on.  The church fathers cannot help us, Paul cannot help us, the pastorals can’t help us.  We have to come to grips with the limitations of our texts–that is all we can do.

*Just to be sure we’re clear, I’m not saying that because the Gospels cannot be used as evidence to define historical events, does not mean I’m a mythicist or that I am suggesting that such events couldn’t have happened or that Jesus never existed.

Bart Ehrman Discusses Future Book Projects

Bart Ehrman was generous enough to tell his readers about some future book projects he is working on.  On his blog, he writes:

So, my next book, starting tomorrow, is my Bible textbook. I have two weeks, and I won’t have it all written by then, as it will be much longer than one of my tradebooks. My goal is to have the entire Old Testament section written before I go to England…. That means I will have the house to myself, with almost no distractions, and I can work like a wild man.

Which I plan to do. My goal is to have all eight of the chapters on the Old Testament written before I fly the friendly skies. If I don’t meet the goal – it’s highly ambitious – that will be OK. In London I’ll have a month … and will be able to work every day there. It won’t be as intense, as it won’t be my home study. But it’ll be enough to finish the OT section of the book and to make serious inroads into the NT.

My goal is to have the entire thing finished by the end of September. I want to get onto the next project, doing my research for How Jesus Became God. More than anything else this is what drives me to write fast – wanting to get to the next project, which always sounds even more interesting than the current one!

via My Next Book « Christianity in Antiquity (CIA): The Bart Ehrman Blog.

The latter book doesn’t interest me as much as his current project however.  I would much rather like to read about ‘How Jesus Became Man’ (but I suppose James Crossley has already written that book, and I’m reading it now with interest!  Also K.L. Noll’s chapter in Thompson’s and my forthcoming collection of essays).  But while I was reading this blog post from Ehrman, some of the content troubled me a bit.

Back in March 2011, the inter-highway was abuzz with news of an ebook on the way by Bart Ehrman which supposedly would challenge mythicism.  In January, it became clear that the book would be published in hardback as well, which raised some questions: at what point did the ebook become a hardback?  And when was the manuscript handed into the publisher?  I ask these questions because according to Ehrman:

Normally I will write (that is, type out the words/pages/chapters) for six or seven intense hours a day, starting in the early morning until I finish.   For my trade books (and a bit less so for my college textbooks; this doesn’t apply to my scholarship which is much harder to put into writing) I can normally write 14,000 to 16,000 words a day, with this kind of schedule.  It is exhilarating.  I don’t answer my phone, I shut the door to my study, I put on my headphones, and I write intensely, pounding away at the key board as fast as my fingers will fly, for hours.  I will usually take a 20 minute lunch break, and then get back to it, and keep going either until I finish the chapter I’m working on, or until I’m brain dead and can’t do it anymore.

Then I go to my basement exercise room, work out for a couple of hours, take a steam bath (I had an old, small bathroom in my basement converted into a steam room!), eat a nice dinner, have some nice wine, vegetate in the evening, and get a solid night’s sleep, and the next day, do it again.

With this kind of system, I can normally write a trade book in two weeks.   I then need to edit it, polish it, mop up loose ends, and so forth.  But the writing is the hard part, and I do it with bursts of intensity.

Now, I would say that Did Jesus Exist is a tradebook–clearly it was not written with the intent of becoming an academic book.  But here is what is so troubling about it: while I cannot deny that Ehrman does produce some very solid work (especially when writing about manuscripts and interpolations–anything within his specialty), there are faults–debilitating faults–with pumping out books this fast.   Not the least of which is that things get missed.

Granted, things can get missed in anyone’s book–whether it took them months (or years) to publish or a matter of weeks.  But with added time, mistakes are caught that with limited time have a greater risk of being missed.  And I have to wonder if this is not what happened with Ehrman’s book on the historicity of Jesus.

With my chapter in my forthcoming ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’, it took me a solid 5 months of writing, cutting, rewriting, editing, researching, more editing, and finally submission (followed by more editing and cutting) to get the 20 or so pages on Paul that is in the final version of the manuscript.  Five months.  For 20 pages.  And I was no slouch when it came to my background knowledge of the source material or of academic works on Paul. And I’m sure I still made a few mistakes that someone will undoubtedly point out at some time or another.

Now for a good portion of those five months I had a similar schedule to Ehrman.  So what is the difference here?  How did Ehrman, with well over several months to prepare his book, end up with so many disappointing mistakes?  Well, I can’t speak for him, but I did my best to fact-check everything.  I’m sure I missed something, because everyone does.  But if something was missed, then not only did I miss it on my various readings, but so did all those I sent the final draft to for vetting, the language editor, the copy-editor, and Thomas Thompson–so if there are mistakes, then they were well disguised as nonerrors.  And in the event someone corrected me, I took their objections seriously and made an effort to change what I wrote or, in the event I disagreed, made a footnote discussing why I disagreed to some detail.

But I am not so sure Ehrman did the same.  Mark Goodacre, who vetted the book (he is mentioned in the acknowledgements), would have probably objected to the dismissively short endnote of which all but ignored his extremely compelling case against Q.  So why didn’t Ehrman do the right thing and at least give some additional supporting information for why he felt Goodacre’s case wasn’t convincing?  And really?  Nobody caught the many, many mistakes in his section on Tacitus?

Some may be wondering why I’m going on about these trade books.  ‘They aren’t for scholars’ some may say.  And those arguments would be valid.  Which is what concerns me.  When reading a book, scholars have the added benefit of reading other scholars sympathetically.  Laypeople do not have this benefit.  Since most will undoubtedly be unfamiliar with the primary and secondary literature, they will not read Ehrman sympathetically, but literally.  The difference is a subtle, but vital one.  A scholar will know that Tacitus is not that good of a historian–better than some, certainly, but he wasn’t great.  Likewise, they will know the correct format for citing Tacitus, even if Ehrman does get it wrong.  But a layperson probably won’t know this information, or won’t have the time to fact-check (or even the grounding to recognize an error to fact-check).  That should bother everyone. So I don’t know if two-weeks is really appropriate for a book on the past.  It seems like too much could be missed, too much ignored–especially implications of the research, which are sometimes not fully realized until later.

Anyway, ranted long enough.  Still look forward to these books–especially his textbook.

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