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!

Students, What Have I to do with Thee?

So we are now finishing up our first week of class and it seems like it is going to be an interesting semester.  In my ‘Jesus’ class, most of the students are very religious.  That’s fine.  But I am concerned about why they have chosen to take a class on the historical Jesus when they clearly only seem to care about the Jesus of their particular faith tradition.  Worse, although students are required to have a background in New Testament (you have to have completed the Intro to New Testament course in order to take the course on Jesus), some don’t appear to have any clue.

The professor asked us all to write out a ‘Gospel’; that is, to give a brief explanation of who Jesus was, why he is or isn’t influential, and why do we think we should or shouldn’t study him.  It was a fantastic exercise that I enjoyed.  But some of the other gospels out there were just..well… terrible.  There is no other way to put it.

One student listed the birthplace of Jesus as Nazareth(!) while another seemed to think that kings sought advice from him.  Yet another believed that Jesus was discussed in the Septuagint!  I shake my head.  One student who seemed to have a greater grasp of the concepts knew of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, but her ideas about the text imply that she hasn’t actually read the gospel.  She must have watched a program about it on History or some other similar channel because she thought that Jesus was fashioning pots out of clay (actually it was sparrows in a stream) and has some silly notion that Jesus just goes around hurting people in it (far from it actually).

So I guess I have concerns.  What exactly did these students learn in Intro to New Testament?  I had a great professor and the class seemed to take away a lot.  So what happened with these students?  Granted, the class is about Jesus so chances are that by the end of the semester these students will have a better understanding of the historical Jesuses (I hope); but why even bother taking the class if you don’t at least have some basic knowledge of the Gospel accounts?

And why do religious individuals just presume that taking a course on the historical Jesus will be like attending a second church?  Nearly 2/3 of the student gospels written were faith statements.  Do they not realize they will have their faith shaken?  And how can one call themselves a religious Christian when they don’t even know where Jesus was born?  I mean that is pretty basic stuff.

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.

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:

Book Review: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth

I received this book in the mail a few days ago courtesy of Frank Zindler:


Frank Zindler even signed it:


As much as I appreciate the gracious sentiment from Frank, I am not sure I deserve such an accolade.  He may feel differently after he reads this review.

Let me say that Frank and Bob Price did a decent job as editors.  The book, published through the American Atheist Press (2013) is, at 567 pages, a collection of 21 essays compiled into four sections and  a concluding chapter. The 21 essays are divided, rather unevenly, between seven contributors: Frank Zindler, Bob Price, Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald, D.M. Murdock (Acharya S), Rene Salm, and Earl Doherty (Zindler has the most with nine essays, Earl Doherty comes in next with five essays).

My only gripe as far as editing goes is that there are no indices.  Having an author index, at least a select bibliography, would have been valuable to the volume and at least added some gloss of academia to the volume.  Instead, the lack of an index of any kind only adds to this book’s woes.  More on this in a moment.

At a stock price of over $30 for a paperback that isn’t published through an academic press, I found it wanting for more (or to use Zindler’s words, ‘left…in a state of stunned perplexity’). While I was not a fan of Ehrman’s recent book Did Jesus Exist? (I even wrote a paper which was published last year in the online journal Bible and Interpretation), he is still a scholar–a professional, in fact–who has produced some extremely valuable resources for students and textual critics.  Even if he is misguided, even if he is wrong (his arguments are flawed, but whether or not his conclusions are wrong has yet to be proven in any respect), he earned the right to be treated in a manner that befits his position in the academy.

Some may disagree; that’s fine.  There are ways to attack an argument with passion without resorting to a personal attack.  Instead this volume is, essentially, nearly 600 pages of polemics and rhetoric.   This book should have been a collection worth taking seriously; the last thing mythicism needs is yet another self-published volume full of venom and disgust.  Even if those emotions are justified (and I’m not saying they are), if the mythicist wants to be taken seriously–should they not approach this polarizing and controversial subject in a manner different than the way Ehrman had?  If Ehrman had done nothing else in his volume but demean and belittle every mythicist, does that mean that the mythicist should do the same?  I don’t think so; especially if one wants to have their arguments considered.

The title of this volume bespeaks the purpose: it is a series of essays with the intent to character assassinate.  Price makes no secret of this; he states in the introduction that this book represents a ‘counter-polemical’ because Ehrman started it (seriously).  And Price’s attempts to link the contributors of the volume, in all, and those who support the so-called ‘Christ Myth Theory’ with minimalism is a void one.  While I do argue that I am a sort of ‘New Testament minimalist’, the difference in all of this is that I’ve not made any anti-academic claims or any statement of certainty.  While Thomas Thompson and Philip Davies may be called minimalists, they don’t agree on everything (from dating texts to who may or may not have been historical); the analogy is flawed as what Bob and others are arguing in this volume is that Jesus is a myth, as in lacking any historical function.  And one cannot simply combine Thompson and Davies (or Lemche and Pfoh, etc…, into a comparable ‘David Myth Theory’, now can we?  To my knowledge there exists no volume published by minimalists arguing against Bill Dever or Gary Rendsburg (as much as they might deserve it).

Price also gives D.M. Murdock too much credit.  He is guilty of inflating her credentials in many respects and, while they are friends, it is distracting.  He writes, for example, that ‘her chief sin in Ehrman’s eyes would appear to be her lack of diplomas on the wall’, but that is an oversimplification of what Ehrman argues.  In fact, her ignorance of modern historical methodologies and current studies in various fields is painfully obvious to any of her readers.  She makes mistakes for which she rarely apologizes and continues to argue in the same flawed manner regardless of whether or not she is wrong.  When she feels threatened, she directs her horde of minions (devoted followers–many who have been spammed or trolled by these minions will know what I mean) against the target in an attempt to dissuade (bully) him/her from arguing against her again.  It is distasteful and unwarranted; I am quite surprised that Ehrman was able to keep his composure while speaking of her work as well as he did–a testament to his professionalism (even if the arguments he makes in the book are not).

Also there is a surprising amount of personal correspondence.  Frank produces some 75 pages for his first contribution and more than half of it consists of various email exchanges between Ehrman and himself.  This troubles me as I am not so sure that such a move is ethical.  Certainly Ehrman is busy, as he has actual scholarly work to do (at a prestigious academic institution no less), like teaching students, chairing committees, being a department head, reviewing grad work from students, appearing on doctoral panels, and so on.   When I respond to emails, I am vague and type quickly, especially when I have a lot of them and other pressing matters on my mind.  I can not imagine what Ehrman’s inbox looks like and I cannot begrudge him for being curt or limited or even appearing confused or disgruntled!  The man has a lot to do.  In my humble opinion, it is wholly unwelcome that Zindler dedicated so much space to these emails and also formulated a polemical argument around them; it is quite unfortunate that this appears in this volume.

Another issue I have is the obvious anti-Christian (pro-Atheist) theme that runs through most of the articles.  I get it: published through the American Atheist Press; Frank Zindler, Bob Price, Acharya S, and so on, are atheists; but the whole point–I would imagine–is to not burn the bridges between you and your potential readers.  Additionally, painting Ehrman has someone who wags his finger while, incidentally, allowing ones polemical paper to include finger-wagging against Christians seems to me to be counter-productive.  Especially since one of Ehrman’s arguments is that mythicists are merely angry atheists hellbent on destroying Christianity.

For those interested in owning this volume, I suppose it has one or two redeeming qualities that make it worth owning.

First, Richard Carrier’s online content has been reedited and is as devastating as ever.  But Carrier makes sure to include the caveat that he disagrees with many of the claims made by the rest of the contributors of the volume–so the one of only two individuals in the lot (Bob Price is the other) who has credibility (according to academic standards) has essentially already buried the hatchet in most of the volume.   Obviously, read it and judge for yourself whether his caveat is appropriate (I think it is).  That said, Carrier’s is one of the best that this collection of essays has to offer–but if you’ve read his blog then you really don’t need to buy this book.

Second, I do appreciate Price’s explanation that mythicism is not so easily definable.  But he is also wrong in some respects.  While ten people may have the same conclusion, it does not mean they all reached that conclusion the same way.  Some may have reached the conclusion based on academic curiosity, but some may just have been curious (and also ignorant), others may be conspiracists, others still educated laypeople who have an interest but no real academic discipline or proficiency with the languages.  So what one has are a few people with legitimate work in the field, and most with zero credible work in the field but with lots of speculation and (dis)organized arguments that don’t always show signs of being self-aware of their own limitations.

Third, Doherty has some rather cleverly-written articles in this volume.  But if you want to read Doherty–read him.

In conclusion, I was disappointed.  This book represents the very thing you should never do, not even if you feel it is justified.  This book lacked everything and what it had in abundance was unnecessary polemics.  It was published through a house owned by (or at least in part) one of the coeditors, most of the articles would not make it into an academic publication (e.g., none would pass peer review) due to the careless language or lack of verifiable claims, and what good was said throughout is lost on the flippancy of the rest of the content.  This book actually makes me want to openly apologize to Bart Ehrman on behalf of the contributors–even though I do not count myself among them.

But these criticisms of mine, while they are harsh, can be corrected.  This is the bright side.  If Frank Zindler, et al, felt slighted by Ehrman, why didn’t they do what I did (or Thomas Thompson)?  One need only write a paper and submit it to a journal.  The goal should be to circulate criticisms of the book, respectfully written with valuable contributions to the institution, to the people who need it–scholars.  This has been my biggest complaint about mythicists: they demand to be taken seriously but refuse to do what is necessary to earn that respect.  Alas, Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth is just the most recent example of such a blatant refusal.


For those looking for a thorough and more academic treatment of Ehrman’s Did Jesus exist?, see my published article Did Jesus Exist? The Trouble with Certainty in Historical Jesus Scholarship found at the online journal Bible and Interpretation.

Also Philip Davies excellent treatment here: http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/dav368029.shtml

Atheists Need to Fact-Check Better

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


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

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

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

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

Some important questions need to be asked:

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

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

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

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

History’s ‘The Bible’ in Broader Contexts

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

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

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

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

Kind of like these discrepancies.

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

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


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

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

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


Expecto patronum!” or something.

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

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

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

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

Just my two-cents.  More to come.

Was Jesus’ Water to Wine Miracle a Trick?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?


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