Goodbye for Now?

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

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

holdit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

existence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nothingmatters

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

Why I am Leaving Rutgers University (After This Semester)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Fake!) Epitaph to Jesus

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

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

Inscription translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Elusive Etruscan Letter and the Stick Man

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

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

etruscanscreengrab

‘A perfume flask or a fish?’ (http://jamestabor.com/2012/03/03/a-perfume-flask-or-a-fish/) Accessed online: 9-19-13.

And in detail, this specific part of his analysis:

etruscanscreengrab1

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

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

stickfigure

Image from ‘Some considerations about the iconography on the ossuary’, (https://tomverenna.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/some-considerations-about-the-iconography-on-the-ossuary/) Accessed online: 9-19-13.

I wrote then:

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

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

jesusdiscstickman

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

plain stickfigure
So much so did he believe this that it was ‘so plain’! From ‘The fish and the man’ (http://jamestabor.com/2012/03/06/the-fish-and-the-man/); Accessed online: 9-20-13.

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

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

FishJoanImageLined

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

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

thirdtimeclaimstickman

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

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

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

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

preliminarystickman

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

A few final notes here:

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

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

    unconnected2

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

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

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

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

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

inscription

How clever! That sneaky little stick figure!  Accessed online: 9-20-13; http://jamestabor.com/2012/04/11/name-of-jonah-encrypted-on-the-jonah-and-the-fish-image/

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

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

A side by side:

SIDEBYSIDE

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

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

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Click to embiggen. Courtesy of Bob Cargill.

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

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Click to embiggen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1236809_10151621946246338_1161603819_n

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

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

Conclusion

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

145972_1317841461

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

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

taborrecantingstickfigure

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

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

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

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

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

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Pimp My Ossuary edition!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] 1 Cor. 1.23-5.

[9] 1 Cor. 1.27.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Thing Ever

Is this video of a cat riding a Roomba, dressed as a shark

And for all those people who make silly arguments out there, I am now using this to end the debate:

CATROOMBA

h/t Mark Goodacre on Facebook.

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