Have we found the Messiah?

Another important question in the quest for the historical Jesus is the Davidic messianic question, that is to say, whether or not Jesus believed that He was the coming Messiah prophesied in the scriptures of Israel. Christ, though we say the word “Jesus Christ”, was not Jesus’ last name, rather it is a title that derives from the Hebrew word for ‘Messiah’: Mashiach. So, when we say “Jesus Christ“, we also affirm that Jesus is the Messiah, a point central to the teachings of Christianity. So, did the historical Jesus consider Himself the Messiah? This has been the subject of critical debate in academia, and recently I’ve read a monograph titled We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help us Answer the Davidic Messianic Question (Wipf and Stock 2016) by the scholar Michael Vicko Zolondek that I think not only comes to the right answer but provides an incredible, and new approach in scholarship to answering this question. As Larry Hurtado, a renowned New Testament scholar and textual critic says, “Zolondek succeeds in the improbable objective of making a fresh contribution to studies of ‘the historical Jesus.'” Here, I’ll follow Zolondek’s approach to seeing how we can answer that yes, Jesus considered Himself to be the Davidic Messiah.

Zolondek’s approach is pretty straight forward. In a short, and tightly argued book, Zolondek first 1) reviews previous scholarship on the studies of the Davidic messianic question, namely whether or not Jesus thought of Himself as the Messiah and identifies problems he sees in this research that is problematic, 2) establishes the methodology he will use to answer the question himself, and 3) investigates the ancient records, draws information and finally 4) comes to his conclusion.

Firstly, Zolondek begins reviewing previous literature of scholarship and how they have answered the messianic question themselves. He goes through the work of scholars including Geza Vermes, E.P. Sanders, Marcus Borg, James Charlesworth, Otfried Hofius, James D.G. Dunn, and some others. Most of these scholars have actually concluded that Jesus either did not consider himself to be the Davidic Messiah, or that there is not enough information to draw any conclusions. However, Zolondek demonstrates three problems in this work: it treats Jesus as if he was an individual personality, rather than looking at him in the dynamical context between him and his followers as a ‘group personality’ (since indeed, as anthropological studies have shown, ones self-views are often shaped by the people around you, and for Zolondek that is the understanding of Jesus that the disciples had of him and how they treated him). Secondly, previous scholarship places far too great emphasis on what Jesus personally said and how he exalted himself. Indeed, as Zolondek shows, other messiah figures of the time of Jesus (and the first kings of Israel, including David) never exalted themselves or proclaimed themselves to be the Messiah, rather, they exalted God and were established and proclaimed as the Messiah by their followers. So, we must look elsewhere to answer the Davidic messianic question. Thirdly, scholars unjustly attribute importance to Jesus’ lack of military earthly ambitions. Although other messiah figures of the time had high military ambitions, and there were expectations that the Messiah would have such ambitions (in order to recapture Israel from the Romans and declare God’s eternal kingdom on Earth), this was hardly the only expectation the messiah had. Indeed, as Zolondek shows, the Messiah was a ‘multifaceted’ figure who had many expectations on top of them, of which Jesus could have taken up if He considered Himself to be the Messiah. As Zolondek says and later shows, “There were various other things that one might do or say, apart from or in addition to harboring earthly military ambitions, if one were taking up the Davidic messianic role” (pg. 53).

Having shown flaws in previous scholarship, Zolondek lays out three propositions what I consider to be a valid approach to demonstrating how we can answer whether or not Jesus considered himself to be the Messiah. They are that “(1) that Jesus behaved in a manner which suggested to the disciples that he might be the Davidic Messiah; (2) that he was viewed and treated as the Davidic Messiah by the disciples; and (3) that in the context of this view and treatment, Jesus behaved in a manner consistent with that role” (pg. 138). Zolondek then examines and establishes a number of points about the historical Jesus in good and highly convincing detail, that among other things, Jesus enacted a number of potentially Davidic messianic acts including that he appointed twelve disciples in His ministry (many messianic figures regularly appointed figures that would have been gauranteed important positions in their future kingdoms), his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (which would have had royal connotations in both the Roman and Jewish context of His day), the confession of Peter in Mark 8:27-30 and in its parallels (where Jesus asks the disciples who they think He is, and Peter eventually says that He thinks Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus warns Peter and the others not to tell anyone about it), and the request of James and John in Mark 10:35-40 and in its parallels (where James and John go for a power grab by asking Jesus for the highest positions in His future kingdom, demonstrating again that the disciples considered Jesus like a royal and messianic figure). All this information (and more), which Zolondek establishes as plausibly historical, is much more consistent and logical under the framework that Jesus considered Himself to be the Messiah rather than a prophet or simply eschatological figure, especially since the disciples themselves surely understood Jesus to be the Messiah.

Zolondek then asks objectors to the framework that he’s has built some several questions that need to be answered if Jesus really did not consider Himself to be the Messiah in light of the several pieces of historical information about him that can be established, such as: why did the disciples misunderstand who Jesus was? Are modern scholars really in a better position to understand who Jesus was than the disciples themselves? Why didn’t Jesus discourage their misguided views about Him? Finally, to deal another blow to the opposition, Zolondek points out that any serious answer to these questions are necessarily conjecture, and seem to be made in the attempt to explain away data rather than to explain data. Therefore, it is the most historically plausible to conclude that Jesus acted in the Davidic Messiah role, Jesus was a Davidic messianic figure, therefore answering the Davidic messianic question.

 

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The Divergence of Christianity and Judaism

The religion of Judaism had been well established within the first millennium BC, and in Israel, prior to the rise of Christianity, Judaism remained the dominant religion of the people. Thus, Jesus was also Jewish, and all His earliest followers were Jewish. And yet, less than a century after Jesus was crucified in the early 30’s AD, the early Christian and bishop Ignatius of Antioch had written that “It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism” (Magnesians 10:3). So what happened?

The process of the divergence of Christianity from Judaism I think is best articulated by the renowned scholar Daniel Boyarin, in his book Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. Boyarin, who is himself a Jew, reveals several important factors regarding how the two religions diverged, and as Boyarin shows, this must be done in the context of the study of the history of heresiology, or the history of heresy. Christianity and Judaism did not diverge as a result of the two views becoming more and more gradually dissimilar but as a result of the ‘leaders’ of each view defining the borders of their own worldviews over many centuries in order to exclude theological concepts they considered heretical, and these concepts usually belonged to the opposing view. The centerpiece theology of this debate was Logos theology, or the view that the one God was more than one person, so that, for the Christians, Jesus could also have been a part of the godhead, the view of binitarianism which stated that God was one being, but two persons. Of course, as Boyarin demonstrates at length, numerous Jews during the first century and earlier had already believed that God could have a multiplicity of the persons (as is reflected by the Wisdom traditions, Memra (Memra is the Hebrew word for ‘Logos’, and ‘Logos’ is the Greek word for ‘Word’, see John 1:1-18; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) traditions, Second Temple exegesis indebted to Daniel 7 (‘Ancient of Days’ and ‘Son of Man’ discussions) and the discussion in the rabbinic texts regarding the idea of many Jews known as the ‘Two Powers in Heaven’.

Even though many Jews had held this view, by the time of the second century, the Rabbis began to view this idea as a heresy, as is first reflected in the Mishna (c. 200 AD) and then the Tosefta (c. 250 AD). From the first to the second century AD, however, the concept of heresy itself underwent a change in definition. The word heresy comes from the Greek haireseis, and by at least the time that the Book of Acts was written, this word only meant a choice of belief or adherence, belonging to a sect (of Judaism here, such as the other sects of Judaism from the first century like that of the Pharisees and Saudacees). This is clearly reflected in, for example, Acts 26:5, where we read “They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect (haireseis) of our religion and lived as a Pharisee.” This passage undoubtedly reveals the early meaning of this phrase had no implications of what we would now identify with the concept of heresy — that is, a wrong, or contrary (heterodox rather than orthodox) belief. The change in definition came, at the latest, by the time of the writings of Justin Martyr c. 150 AD where Justin writes in his Dialogue with Trypho:

I will again relate words spoken by Moses, from which we can recognize without any question that He conversed with one different in numbers from Himself and possessed of reason. Now these are the words: And God said: Behold, Adam has become as one of Us, to know good and evil. Therefore by saying as one of Us He has indicated also number in those that were present together, two at least. For I cannot consider that assertion true which is affirmed by what you call an heretical (haireseis) party among you, and cannot be proved by the teachers of that heresy, that He was speaking to the angels, or that the human body was the work of angels. (Dialogue 62:2)

The pejorative use of the phrase “what you call”, combined with Justin’s other uses of the word haireseis, as Boyarin notes on pp. 40-41 of his monograph, demonstrate that by the time of Justin, the term ‘heresy’ had shifted from referring to a sectarian view to describing a wrong belief. A close cognate word to heresy was the Hebrew word minut, which was the term that the Rabbis after Justin used to describe a heretical view. Thus, now that there was a word and concept available from distinguishing between a simple viewpoint within a religion, to an incorrect and ungodly view of a religion, the leaders of Christianity and Judaism could define what constituted heresy and thus pave the borderlines around their ideologies that no one could cross, lest they reveal they were a heretic rather than a genuine believer.

Thus, in the second century, the Christians begun to claim that if you do not accept the multiplicity of God’s person (i.e. Logos theology), then you are not a Christian but a Jew, and the Jews said that if you do accept the multiplicity of God’s person, then you are not a Jew but a Christian. Thus, the borderlines of correct and orthodox Christianity had been paved, and the borderlines of correct and orthodox Judaism had been paved. There were some early ideologies, such as the Ebionites and Nazoreans, who claimed to be both Jewish and Christian. In other words, this was a hybrid worldview of the two religions. While these two views flourished most around c. 400 AD, it quickly becomes no surprise that Epiphanius (4th century) and Jerome (5th century) claimed that while they claimed to be hybrids, both Christians and Jews, they were actually “neither”. Thus, all middle ground was eliminated, and furthermore, the existence of these hybrid religions implied the existence of a pure version of the religion, not tainted by heresy (see pp. 207-210 and 212-4 in Boyarin’s book).

Other changes in definition also occurred during the 4th-5th centuries AD, as Boyarin also goes on to demonstrate. Religio (religion) for example, went from meaning ethnicities, populations and geographies, to referring to and characterizing belief systems. Superstitio (superstition) went from meaning excessive worship and obeisance to the divine, to simply becoming a word that refers to an actually incorrect practice or religion. Quickly, the available tools for the entire and complete divergence between Christianity and Judaism had started to become established. During the Second Temple Period, the Jews considered the world outside of Israel to be Gentiles. By the times of the composition of the final layers of the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, the Christians and pagans themselves took on the role, in the Jewish perspective, of the Gentiles that had existed in the Second Temple Period. At the various councils of the 3rd-5th centuries, Christians began laying down their orthodoxies and correct beliefs, such as famously during the Council of Nicaea in c. 325 AD, whereas the Jews, inundated by the differing beliefs and interpretations, concluded that all views of the Rabbis come from God, and that in God’s understanding, all contradictions are resolved — and the only interpretations that could stop one from being a Jew was either Logos theology itself or the view that there can be one correct interpretation and that some Rabbis had gotten it wrong. This had concluded with the Jewish view that “an Israelite, even though he sins, is still an Israelite”, and thus defined the conceptual transition of Judaism from a religion to an ethnicity as is what we see today.

All this, collectively, explains and allows us to understand how the various sects of Judaism in the first century, including one so termed to be held by a small group known as ‘Christians’, paved the borders around what is acceptable Judaism in a way that starkly contrasted it with the world of the Christians who, themselves, began paving the borders around their own acceptable beliefs as they begun to rise and conquer the Roman Empire. The centrality of this division was Logos theology, the view that God could have more than one person alongside the Father (and that would be Jesus for the Christians, this is otherwise known as binitarianism), which, although was a common Jewish belief before Christianity, become unacceptable during the 2nd century. The rabbis tried to equate binitarianism with ditheism (the belief that there are two gods) and condemned the entire concept as a heresy, or minut. This is how, as Boyarin shows, Christianity and Judaism had diverged. Boyarin’s case goes much more in depth than this, and I cannot do it justice here, analyzing all sectors and developments of the evidence, and is a highly recommended read and is certainly one of the most influential scholarly works since the beginning of the 21st century. Alas!

Reading the Scholarship

Anyone who has been trying to read and access the important scholarly monographs regarding early Christianity, the biblical texts, etc, has realized that it can be quite expensive, with many single volumes revolving around $50. Getting only 20 of such important books could cost a thousand dollars, and so for the laymen, getting access to the works of scholarship is always a long and arduous process that can be difficult without aid.

In fact, I have just found out that it is much easier than I’ve previously thought. Some scholars who have very successful books are able to publish their books online for free for anyone to read. Over the last week, I’ve searched the depths of important scholarly monographs and now I am building a collection of scholarly books that are available online that you can read online without paying a dime, for the most part with the click of a button. I have amassed a collection of scholarly books that would otherwise be worth about $1,000 if each book is bought separately, which is surely an amazing amount of money to save especially for the regular laymen who does not have as much access to finances to help them understand the ancient historical world.

Larry Hurtado is one of the worlds most important living scholars when it comes to early Christology (which is the study of the nature and role Jesus played in Christian circles, i.e. such as if He was considered God or not by the earliest Christians). One of his (Hurtado’s) most important books on the subject is Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. It’s over 700 pages long and costs about $45 on the publisher’s website. Unless you click here, a link that takes you directly to a PDF of the entire book. While we’re still discussing Hurtado, you can also read his 2006 The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins here. Or the 2nd edition of his One God, One Lord here.

What about N.T. Wright? Well, his huge and widely important The Resurrection of the Son of God can be read here, and his book What Saint Paul Really Said can be read here. Bart Ehrman has like 5 of his books (at least the relevant ones here that I’m aware of) online and available. Richard Bauckham, Martin Hengel, Elaine Pagels, Alan Segal and others have important monographs that they’ve written freely available to the public online. If you want to see the full collection I have compiled so far of freely available academic monographs, go to this page here and scroll down until you get to the final section, or click on the page on the top of the blog ‘History for Atheists‘ and similarly scroll down. Hopefully we can all benefit from the tireless works of academics!

New Dead Sea Scroll Decoded

Up until now, all Dead Sea Scroll fragments but two have been deciphered since the initial series of discoveries of the Qumran caves and their scrolls in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Now, a year after the twelfth Qumran cave was discovered, one of the last two Dead Sea Scroll not-yet-deciphered fragments have been deciphered by researchers Dr. Eshbal Ratson and Professor Jonathan Ben-Dov of the Department of Bible Studies at the University of Haifa. These two men spent over a year of painstaking effort to put together and assemble the 62 tiny fragments that compose this manuscript. The findings were published in a paper titled A Newly Reconstructed Calendrical Scroll from Qumran in Cryptic Script into the Journal of Biblical Literature.

This advancement was announced a little earlier this year by researchers at the University of Haifa. The scroll dates from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD, and contains a not-before-seen 364-day Jewish calendar. This will be important for researchers regarding Jewish festivities in the Second Temple Period. For example, the researchers write:

“The lunar calendar, which Judaism follows to this day, requires a large number of human decisions. People must look at the stars and moon and report on their observations, and someone must be empowered to decide on the new month and the application of leap years. By contrast, the 364-day calendar was perfect. Because this number can be divided into four and seven, special occasions always fall on the same day. This avoids the need to decide, for example, what happens when a particular occasion falls on the Sabbath, as often happens in the lunar calendar. The Qumran calendar is unchanging, and it appears to have embodied the beliefs of the members of this community regarding perfection and holiness”.

Accordingly, the two researchers are now on a mission to decipher the final Dead Sea Scroll manuscript that is not yet understood. Hopefully, that will bring about another increase in our knowledge of the ancient world. This finding has already attracted tons of attention. To my knowledge, this finding marks the first serious advancement this year regarding the world of the Bible.

The Date of Christmas and Paganism

A good question to ask and to be knowledgeable about is the origin of the common date of December 25th for the celebration of Christmas by (most) Christians, a day honoring the birth of Jesus. Where does this Christmas date come from? Most people would say it is of pagan derivative, although this narrative is not as sweeping among historians as it is in the popular world, as demonstrated by C.P.E. Nothaft’s analysis on recent trends of historical approaches to the origins of this date in his paper titled The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research.

To begin with, it will be useful to establish where the December 25th date did not come from. It did not come from Saturnalia, a week-long pagan festival lasting between December 17th-23rd (=not the 25th), nor the Winter Solstice which takes place on the 22nd (=not the 25th, and it’s also important to note that there is actually variance on the date of the Winter Solstice in ancient accounts, some placing it on the 20th of December, see Hijmans’ article pg. 384, n. 24). There is one theory regarding pagan festivals that plays a role in academic discussion regarding the origins of the December 25th date, and that is the birth of Sol Invictus which, according to a calendrical document dating to the year 354 AD, took place on December 25th (this calendar also places the birth of Jesus on December 25th). The earliest record of Jesus’ birthday being celebrated on the December 25th, however, predate this account and go to the year 336 (and was likely known by at least 312). Thus, Steven Hijmans in an influential 2003 study has pointed to a serious possibility that the December 25th date in paganism was borrowed from Christmas, not the other way around:

Iis therefore unwarranted to takfor granted that the actual festival celebrating the Natalis Invicti with 30 chariot races mentioned in the Calendar of 354 was itself older than thChristian feast honoring Christ’s birthday on that day. On the evidence currently available we cannot exclude the possibility that, for instance, the 30 chariot races held in honor of Solon December 25 were instituted in reaction to the Christian claim of December 25 as the birthday of Christ. This is purely conjectural, of course, but by no means unlikely. (Sol Invictus, The Winter Solstice, And The Origins Of Christmaspg. 384-5, n. 24)
Hijmans also notes elsewhere that there is “no firm evidence for a festival for Sol on December 25th until Julian wrote his hymn to Helios in December of 362” (Steven E Hijmans, “Usener’s Christmas: A Contribution to the Modern Construct of Late Antique Solar Syncretism”, in M. Espagne & P. Rabault-Feuerhahn (eds.)). We must, therefore, understand the serious critical problems pertaining to this theory and consider alternatives. Another explanation for the origins of the December 25th date has attained considerable command in scholarly circles; that is, the idea that the December 25th date arose through speculative calculations by early Christians to construct overarching chronologies from the beginning of creation to the advent of Christ, which would have necessarily included calculating the dates of Jesus’ birth and death. In the early days of Christianity, these types of ‘calculations’ to pinpoint certain dates for special events was rather widespread, as demonstrated by the work of Venance Grumel, August Strobel, Alden A. Mosshammer, and C.P.E. Nothaft. Furthermore, this calculation theory has support in our extant sources dating to the 4th century AD regarding a December 25th date.
To begin with, in the early 3rd century, there was no uniform date for the birth of Jesus, rather all the accounts varied significantly. Andrew McGowan, a historian, priest, and President and Dean of Berkely Divinity School writes the following;
Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”
Clement of Alexandria is an excellent source for documenting the early widespread ideas and dates regarding the birth of Christ (Clement dismisses them all as speculation, though). Origen of Alexandria writing in the 250’s AD even dismisses celebrations of births as pagan. Of even more interest is the fact that Clement of Alexandria tells us that various Christians had “determined” the years of the birth of Christ, i.e. they used some sort of methodology (calculation) to arrive at these dates. Thus, by the early 3rd century, Christians were already calculating the birth of Jesus. A prime example of a Christian attempting to calculate the chronology of the world, including the birth of Christ, is found in the early 3rd century Christian writer Julius Africanus in his work entitled Chronography (extant fragments 16 and 18) dating to perhaps the 220’s AD. Thus, calculation was a ready method of understanding the origins and important times in the early Christian community. There also happens to be, in fact, a very simple and easy method that one of the ancient Christians may have used to conclude that Jesus was born on December 25th.
The key to dating the birth of Jesus, for many ancients, may have been the date of his death. It was believed in the period that the date of the death of many holy men coincided with the date of their conception in the womb. As early as 200 AD, Tertullian had said that Jesus had died on March 25th, equivalent to the Jewish calendrical date of Nisan 14. Thus, Jesus must have been conceived on March 25th (which happens to be the date of the Roman vernal equinox, which might be a connection), and exactly nine months later would have been born on December 25th (the ancients were aware of the general period of remaining in the womb before being born). Although Tertullian only mentions Jesus death during March 25th, the connection between March 25th and December 25th is explicitly stated in later Christian authors. In an anonymous treatise dated to the 4th century AD titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, we read:
Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.
The treatise then uses this date to date the birth of Jesus to December 25th. Augustine of Hippo also writes, c. 400 AD in his On the Trinity:
For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.
Other early Eastern Orthodox Christians in this period believed that Jesus was born on January 6th because they thought Jesus died on April 6th (and January 6th remains the date of Christmas in the modern Armenian churches today). In contrast, the earliest writing mentioning a connection between paganism and the December 25th date dates to the 12th century AD. Therefore, the evidence may demonstrate that the December 25th date originates, not from pagan conception, but from the speculative calculations of early Christian writers on the date of Jesus. Even though we don’t know when Jesus was actually born, there is no reason that we cannot celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th anyways when our trees are out! I’d recommend reading Andrew McGowan’s full in-depth article on the date of December 25th which provides even more detail for all the aforementioned history.

Governor of the City Archaeology Find Made, Bible Corroborated Again

Right before the 2018 year on 31 December 2017, another archaeological finding was made corroborating yet another account of the Bible. Throughout the biblical records describing events of the First Temple Period (930 – 586 BC), we’re told that there was a political position maintained in Israel known as the ‘governor of the city’. In much of today’s world, someone who presides over a city is known as a mayor. According to several accounts in the Bible, this position was known as the governor of the city.

2 Kings 23:8: He brought all the priests out of the towns of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had made offerings, from Geba to Beer-sheba; he broke down the high places of the gates that were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on the left at the gate of the city.

2 Chronicles 34:8: In the eighteenth year of his reign, when he had purged the land and the house, he sent Shaphan son of Azaliah, Maaseiah the governor of the city, and Joah son of Joahaz, the recorder, to repair the house of the Lord his God.

The Israel Antiquities Authority announced a discovery of a seal (also known as a bulla) found in an archaeological dig in Jerusalem dating to the 7th century BC during the First Temple Period bearing an inscription that says ‘belonging to the governor of the city’. With that and to begin our year, yet another minor detail in the corpus of the Bible has been historically affirmed (including that there was a governor in Jerusalem when the Bible describes such). Here is the official, fantastic video released by the Israel Antiquities Authority itself regarding this discovery.

A Critique of Richard C. Miller and Mark’s Empty Tomb

A popular theory that some hold to is that Christians invented Jesus based off of earlier pagan deities such as Osiris, Horus, Mithras, Romulus, and many others in the seemingly endless list of gods these people produce. Almost all of them having been refuted by now, and so the pool of available options to produce a predecessor to Jesus has become strikingly small. Any reader of the four Gospels and epistles of Paul will clearly realize that the primary literary source of information and inspiration for the accounts of the Christians were obviously the texts of the Old Testament, not the Iliad or the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Nevertheless, many persist. Recently, in academia, two such claims have arisen. The first is from the scholar Dennis R. MacDonald, who has extensively written arguing for the claim that Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad formed the hypotext, the key to the composition of Mark’s Gospel on the basis of the application of methodologies he formulates like mimesis and transvaluations (his first book on this was published in 2000). Shortly after the publication of MacDonald’s works, he was refuted by a number of scholars, including the scathing critiques of scholars like Margaret Mitchell and Karl Olav Sandnes. Recently, Daniel Gullotta has also demonstrated numerous problems everywhere throughout MacDonald’s thesis (see pp. 336-340 of his paper).

Even more recently, however, another position has risen up to replace this one. In 2010, the scholar Richard C. Miller published a paper titled Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity in 2010 to the Journal of Biblical Literature, arguing that the entombment and resurrection narrative in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:1-8) was ultimately based off of the legendary Roman deity Romulus, acclaimed to have been the founder of Rome who was subsequently translated into heaven. Miller argues that the widespread influence of Hellenism and Greco-Roman culture on the authors who composed the Gospel accounts would have allowed them to be familiar with these myths. I have to applaud Miller on the point that his work presents the most well-argued case for pagan influence on the Gospels yet available, including his dense collection of the relevant material that he is working with and his cogent research into the Greco-Roman world throughout the centuries. Miller’s work has not changed the nature of scholarship on the Gospel of Mark or the historical Jesus. As early as 1993, Craig Evans wrote in a paper titled Life-of-Jesus Research and the Eclipse of Mythology that “the New Testament Gospels are now viewed as useful, if not essentially reliable, historical sources. Gone is the extreme skepticism that for so many years dominated gospel research” (pg. 14). So, while Miller’s thesis must be judged on its merits (just like MacDonald’s work was), the merits of his thesis, to be successful, would require a significant reworking of all the data that has lead to this conclusion. Greco-Roman influence undoubtedly influenced the Gospels, and to importantly note for the ongoing discussion, the standard work in the field on the genre of the Gospels is Richard Burridge’s What Are the Gospels? (Eerdmans, 2nd ed. 2004) which argues that the Gospels were written under the genre of Greco-Roman biography, such as Plutarch’s Lives, which contrasts to Miller’s position which states that they were written and received as fiction.

Miller begins by outlining a widespread pattern, or topus of elements that belonged to pagan deities by which he later seeks to impute onto the picture of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. By adducing numerous examples throughout Greco-Roman literature, he successfully establishes that many deities were regularly thought to have (1) suddenly vanished and then (2) get translated into heaven where they (3)  undergo deification (become a god) and (4) are worshipped. They vanish immediately before or right after their death because “the body must not see decay, lest the remains demonstrate in perpetuity the mortal status of the hero” (pg. 764). Miller then starts providing numerous sources where this occurs in pagan literature;

The ubiquity of this topos, as Pease did aver, persists, yielding a robust array of literary instances throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Once Herakles had ascended his martyr’s pyre, as Diodorus Siculus and Lucian attest, Zeus sent his mighty thunderbolt consuming Herakles, wood, and all in conflagration. The bystanders afterward, being unable to find Herakles’ charred bone remains amid the ash, declare that he had been translated and had achieved the rank of the demigods (Diodorus Siculus 4.38.14; Lucian, Cyn. 13). Statius and Herodianus tell of the body of Homer’s deceased Ganymedes having disappeared at Zeus’s decree that he be deified so as to become his heavenly court cupbearer (Statius, Silvae 3.4.12–18; Herodianus Historicus 1.11.2). Pindar tells of Amphiarus having disappeared along with his horses and chariot within an opened fissure in the earth, having achieved heroic status (Nem. 10.14). Dionysius of Halicarnassus, likewise, records the disappearance of Aeneas, the epic hero of Virgil’s Aeneid, while in battle near Lavanium; the Latins built a “hero shrine” to him there with the inscription “To the father and god of this place, who presides over the waters of the river Numicius.” Because of his disappearance, they said that Aeneas had been “translated to the gods” (Ant. rom. 1.64.4–5). (pg. 764)

And Miller goes on and on and on. He also produces a lengthy citation of Plutarch’s Life of Romulus which contains the myths of Romulus that he posits that Mark directly borrowed from (Plutarch himself does not consider these myths to be true). However, from the outset, Miller’s thesis encounters a significant obstacle: the primary literary source for Mark and the other Evangelists, including Paul and every other Christian writer of the first century, was the works of the Old Testament, not any classical pagan/Greco-Roman mythology or writings. In fact, this is how the Gospel of Mark begins:

Mark 1:1-3: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

The opening/editorial of the Gospel of Mark immediately begins with an overt citation of the Old Testament scriptures. As the scholar Rikke E. Watts writes, “In keeping with the role of the opening sentence in literary antiquity, Mark’s sole explicit editorial citation of the OT should be expected to convey the main concerns of the prologue and, therefore, his Gospel” (pg. 90, Isaiah’s New Exodus and Mark). In other words, Mark explicitly tells us that it is the scriptures of Israel that is his main source and concern. This is why scholars are incredibly skeptical of the postulation of pagan sources, rather than Jewish sources, as the basis of any literary story in the New Testament. Of course, Miller knows about this fact and responds;

Several factors, in my view, conspire, prohibiting a clear understanding of how such a text would have likely performed in the ancient Mediterranean world. First, scholars tend to subsume Mark under a Judaic literary domain, thus seeking its primary semiotic indices and cultural conventions within early Jewish literature. There appears, however, to be little basis for this appetence, except a rather non-scholarly insistence on a “pristine,” “non-pagan” well from which the academy ought to draw nearly all cultural, literary, and ideological antecedents. (pg. 1)

Little basis? Actually, there is an overwhelming basis for why scholars do such a thing. Mark cites and alludes to numerous events, narratives, and people of the Old Testament, and forms a prophetic basis for a number of the things he reports about Jesus. Not only did Mark do this, however, but all the Evangelists, including Paul, did. This reflects the clear Jewish paradigm under which the life of Jesus proliferates by, which we see develops all throughout his ministry. Paul Eddy writes that “one of the most characteristic forms of Jesus’ teaching style-the parable-has no real Cynic parallels and is a fundamentally Jewish form” (pg. 461, Jesus as Diogenes? Reflections on the Cynic Jesus Thesis, italics not mine). There are literally hundreds of citations and allusions in the New Testament to the Old Testament, and not a single quotation, citation, allusion or reference in the New Testament to a single work of pagan mythology or pagan hero.

When producing many of the deities and examples Miller outlines to establish his topus, he refers to the authors that write about these pagan myths. These writers include Diodorus Siculus, Lucian, Plutarch, Statius, Herodianus, Pindar, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Vergil, Strabo, Sophocles, Aelian, Pausanius, Eusebius, and others. A problem to note here is that, while acknowledging the early existence of this topus, many of these authors couldn’t have been a source or influence of Mark since they were written decades or even centuries after Mark. Lucian, Aelian, Pausanius, Eusebius, Statius, Herodianus and many other sources Miller cites all wrote in the 2nd century and later, and Statius wrote in 80’s or 90’s, and therefore could not have been a source for Mark. Even Plutarch’s Life of Romulus, which is supposed to contain the primary myths that Mark supposedly drew from was written about half a century after Mark himself!

Finally, we must take a look at Miller’s putative parallels. The legible features of pagan mythology Miller cites are, as I shall argue, either not legible, and if they are, can be traced to either the Old Testament or Greco-Roman biographical accounts rather than the writings regarding pagan mythology. One of the primary tenets of the myth pattern Miller adduces is that the hero becomes a god after they vanish at the end of their earthly lives and are translated into heaven. In Mark however, Jesus possesses divine status before his death throughout the course of the Gospel. When the High Priest asks Jesus “Are you the Messiah, Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus responds “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:60-62), for which Jesus is condemned to death on the charges of blasphemy. In Mark 1:9-11 God appears from heaven and declares “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” In Mark 6, we’re told that Jesus sees his people as “sheep without a shepherd”, which is a major intertextual echo to Ezekiel 34, a passage where Israel is portrayed as a scattered flock where the Lord God Himself looks on them and seeks to become their shepherd. Once Jesus finally dies after the crucifixion, the centurion confesses that “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39) all along. So Jesus never becomes a god after His death, Jesus already was one.

Also troubling is that Jesus is also never translated into heaven in the Gospel of Mark. After the women find Jesus’ tomb empty, the angels tell them that Jesus is risen and going ahead to Galilee! Miller also tries to draw a parallel from Romulus and other deities suddenly vanishing and the women finding Jesus’ tomb empty. However, this parallel too is superficial. In Plutarch’s Life of Romulus, Romulus’s body “disappeared suddenly, and no portion of his body or fragment of his clothing remained to be seen” (Plutarch, Rom. 27.4.5). On the other hand to Romulus’s sudden disappearance, Jesus is captured by the authorities, tortured, and crucified for all to see. After his death, Joseph of Arimathea eventually requests and receives permission from Pilate to bury Jesus’ body, and after he is buried, the women come a few days later to find the tomb empty. In contrast to Romulus’s sudden vanishment, Jesus’ disappearance from the tomb is a clearly gradual process. Furthermore, the function of the disappearance of the body is also different in Mark than in Plutarch’s work. In Plutarch, Romulus disappears for no apparent reason, whereas in Mark, Jesus’ body disappears because Jesus has been resurrected from the dead, and the empty tomb plays a function to indicate to the women that Jesus is no longer dead and is resurrected. Is this a parallel?

Earlier, we’ve seen one part of Miller’s topus according to Miller is that “the body must not see decay, lest the remains demonstrate in perpetuity the mortal status of the hero”. This is exactly the opposite of what happens with Jesus. Not only does Jesus fail to suddenly disappear when he is threatened with death, but Jesus is interrogated, beaten and tortured, mocked, and crucified in front of entire crowds, where Jesus body remains there for hours until he finally dies. Additionally, Jesus constantly predicts his imminent death (8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 14:27-28) and even his resurrection (14:28) so much so that this is one of the primary themes of the Gospel of Mark. Yet, this is the opposite of what we would expect if Mark was basing his account off of a myth where one of the primary patterns is that the “mortal status of the hero” is not demonstrated. If Mark were trying to make it appear as if Jesus wasn’t mortal, he has done a terrible job. Every single major theme in Mark’s Gospel is nowhere to be found in Romulus or other Greco-Roman deities, and every major theme of the stories of Greco-Roman deities is nowhere to be found in Mark. Miller’s entire arguments rest on parallels that seem to be, at times, indistinguishable from non-existence (for example, see pp. 772-3 where he lists parallels like “taken away in a cloud” which appears a single time in Acts 1:9, and anyways, this likely parallels the OT, cf. Exodus 16:10, 13:21-22; Leviticus 16:2; 1 Kings 8:10-12, Nahum 1:3, etc, and especially 2 Kings 2:11 where a whirlwind takes Elijah away to heaven). Miller claims that the account of the earthquake and darkness over the earth after Jesus dies reflects pagan sources (Ovid, Metam. 14.816–22; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. rom. 2.56.2–6; Plutarch, Rom. 27.6–7), resulting in him missing the real intertextual echo for this account, namely where the Old Testament prophecies an earthquake and darkness over the earth in the days of King Uzziah:

Amos 8:8-9: Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.

Miller also posits that the claim that a work that claims to be the derivative of eyewitness testimony also constitutes evidence that it borrows from pagan mythology since apparently, pagan mythology claims that the information it contains has been transmitted through eyewitnesses, and thus the claim of eyewitness testimony is included in Miller’s topus of elements. Miller, however, cannot maintain this since works of Greco-Roman historiography and biography stress eyewitness accounts far more greatly than those of mythology do, which is reflected across many ancient historians, including Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, etc. According to William Campbell, “Thucydides … establishes strict criteria for the historical reliability of the events of the war to be included, claiming a preference for those that he observed personally or that were reported by eyewitnesses” (pg. 391, The Narrator as “He,” “Me,” and “We”: Grammatical Person in Ancient Histories and in the Acts of the Apostles). Polybius himself writes in his works “… because of the significance of events . . . but most of all because I have been not only an eyewitness to most of them, but of some a participant and of others even an administrator, I was persuaded to write” (3.4.13). One of Miller’s references to where the New Testament proclaims eyewitness testimony is in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11, however in this Pauline passage, scholars have long noted his use of the words “received” (greek parelabon) and “delivered” (Greek paredoka) are the equivalent to the rabbinic terms for the passing on of tradition (which further shows this passage draws from Jewish rather than pagan thought). A powerful alternative to Miller’s thesis, as reflected extensively in our ancient Greco-Roman biographies (the primary genre historians consider the Gospels to reflect), is that the Gospels incorporated claims of eyewitness testimony as this was considered a reliable medium by the ancients to transmit information.

Towards the end of his paper, Miller produces a citation from the works of Justin Martyr (c. 150 AD), an early Christian who wrote that what the Christians proclaimed about Jesus, such as his virgin birth and death, is no different from what the pagans believed in their own deities, and so Miller takes this as a prima facie admission from Justin that the earliest Christians patterned their beliefs off of the Greco-Roman accounts. Of course, there are several historical and critical problems that disallow any such conclusion. To begin with, Justin’s account is evidently wrong when he says that “we are conveying nothing new”. By actually comparing any of the accounts of any of the legends Justin compared to Jesus, numerous dissimilarities quickly proliferate. Secondly, Justin, who wrote long after the doctrines of the New Testament had been written, simply didn’t know how the origins of these doctrines had ever came about, and so he is too unreliable when it comes to determining the origins of the belief in the virgin birth, crucifixion, etc. In some cases, we know some of the things Justin cites have no derivative from pagan ideologies, such as the virgin birth, which actually came from the Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 (LXX). Finally, Justin had a clear apologetical agenda by trying to make the Christian beliefs sound similar to the Greco-Roman beliefs — his entire argument is dependent on the fact that the Christians are very similar to the pagans, and therefore the pagans should not oppress or persecute them (1 Apol. 24), something that commonly occurred throughout the 2nd century AD (e.g. Pliny’s letter to Trajan). Miller also claims that Origen, Tertullian, Minucius Felix and Arnobius made similar admissions, however reviewing the citations he gives to these writers, they simply make no such comment, and at best say that there are some commonalities in the general ideology between Christians and pagan religion. Sometimes, these writers actually even rebuke supposed similarities (Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 55; Tertullian, Apol. 21; Origen, Cels. 3.23, 25). And to add on, Justin Martyr even said that while the demons tried to imitate the prophecies of Jesus Christ, they ultimately failed and thus did not actually replicate Jesus.

When they [wicked demons] heard it predicted through the prophets that Christ was to come, and that impious men would be punished by fire, they put forward a number of so-called sons of Zeus, thinking that they could thus make men suppose that what was said about Christ was a mere tale of wonders like the stories told by the poets… But, as I will make clear, though they heard the words of the prophets they did not understand them accurately, but made mistakes in imitating what was told about our Christ. (1 Apol. 54)

These are some of the problems I have with Miller’s thesis. I recommend everyone evaluates Miller’s arguments themselves, including reading his article and recent book Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (Routledge 2015). Wherever we are today, the evidence will unequivocally lead the future.


UPDATE: Richard C. Miller has responded to this post here on his Facebook page by accusing me of lunacy and delusion. He says during our email exchange I “eventually disclosed” that I was the author of the blog — in fact, I did so almost right away. He misclaims I see myself as “distinctly gifted” and “adopted the role of the Christian Defender of the Galaxy.” I tried engaging with this post and a few of the comments by requesting that everyone reads Miller’s arguments and my arguments for themselves and come to their own conclusions, although Miller just deleted all my comments and then blocked me.

In our email interactions, he accused me of deliberately maligning him and misrepresenting his arguments literally everywhere (and eventually swore at me). When I asked him to clarify, he just sent more of said emails. So I invited him to personally rewrite any sections of my portrayals of his arguments he thought was inaccurate, but I was just accused again of maligning his character (I made over a dozen edits to try helping this out, including adding positive comments about his work, distancing his work from fringe theories, and removing any comments he might have taken as offensive, but I couldn’t do any more after this point).

Miller did not try to address any of my arguments or requests for thoughts, instead saying he would rather see me look like a fool. He also likens my response to him responding to a member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, although I have published in a professional historical encyclopedia before and so this would not be the most apt analogy. I can say nothing more since my arguments were not addressed, this update simply reflects my thoughts on his harsh-toned (one may borrow Miller’s words, maligning) post on what I wrote.

UPDATE 2: After further conversation and debate regarding specific arguments and elements on the nature of this discussion, me and Dr. Miller seem to have agreed to disagree (the conversation eventually included too many points at once) and, in the way I see it, let the evidence speak for itself once it has been unbiasedly reviewed from both viewpoints. To that, I say Amen.

Top 10 Biblical Discoveries of 2017

This was a big year for biblical archaeology. Here, I’m going to gather up several archaeological findings that bear archaeological relevance (and even importance) to the historical world of the Bible and the early church. Numerous discoveries have been made, and I must certainly refer to Todd Bolen’s collection and ChristianityToday’s list of the top 10 biblical discoveries this year (which will be a lot different from my own). Let us begin! But before that, let’s consider some runner-ups this year.

Sixteen hundred-year-old frescos found in catacombs in St. Domitilla depicting Jesus welcoming the dead. After ISIS destroyed the traditional site of Jonah’s tomb, archaeologists dug into it and actually discovered it was the location of the palace of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, renovated by his son Esarhaddon, discovered in the ancient city of Ninevah. Both kings are mentioned in the Bible and are pivotal opponents of Israel. Although not an archaeological discovery, genetic testing on ancient Canaanite’s has confirmed that the Canaanite’s have survived to this day, and their descendants are in Lebanon. Lastly, after thoroughly excavating and ploughing through an ancient dump in Jerusalem dating to the time of Jesus, the dig revealed the diet of the local Jews of Jerusalem during Jesus time, and it was strictly kosher. Sheep, pigeons, various plants, but not a single pig or non-kosher bone found in the entire site. On to the top 10!

10. The earliest manuscript of the apocryphal First Apocalypse of James in the original Greek language announced at the Society of Biblical Literature. This marks an important discovery in our Gnostic literature, as we had, previous to this, no copies of any Gnostic text in its original, Greek language predating the Nag Hammadi Archive.

9. Mortar sampled from the surface of the limestone tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre dating to the early 4th century AD, confirming it is the site Constantine’s mother visited in the 4th century AD and constructed over in that time believing it was the location of Jesus’ burial. The significance of this discovery is that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, widely famed to be the burial tomb of Jesus (it’s located in Jerusalem) is thought to have been the burial site of Jesus from at least the early 4th century AD where Constantine’s mother went there in order to try to verify the legendary church for herself. This is quite important for our understanding of church history, and who knows if it was truly that place. For all things considered, it’s empty.

8. First chalkstone quarry and workshop used to build stone vessels discovered in Galilee for the purposes of religious purity laws such as purification discovered dating to the time of Jesus (Jesus is reported to have turned water into wine in six stone vessels in Cana, Galilee, in John 2:6). Previous to this, actual stone vessels had been discovered in Galilee, but the actual chalkstone quarries and workshops that provided the function of manufacturing these in Jesus’ day were yet unknown.

7. Archaeologists discover the twelfth Dead Sea Scroll cave at Qumran, representing a milestone in Dead Sea Scroll research. It has been over half a century since another cave of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been discovered, and so this is an important contribution to our current knowledge. Furthermore, it may provide clues on locating further caves that may possibly exist. Unfortunately, all the scrolls in this cave had been looted decades earlier.

6. Discovery at the West Bank site, at Qumran, reveals more archaeological evidence that the site was occupied by a group known as the Essenes. In effect, archaeological research in this area reveals its inhabitants were heavily disproportionately male, corresponding to what we know about the Essenes; a group of highly devout Jews who gave up all worldly possessions and concepts (including sex and women) waiting for God to ultimately return and overthrow the Roman Empire and vindicate them to a glorified state. This evidence affirms it was this community who produced and read the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the Qumran caves, an important fact of ancient history and one that has been highly debated.

5. Mosaic in Western Galilee dating to the 5th century reveals the role of women in the early church; woman donated and funded church and was memorialized independently of any men or males. This reveals that in the early church, even up until the 5th century after Christianity had conquered Rome, women continued in their affluency, power and equality to men under the leadership of church powers, itself perhaps including a significant female power.

4. New evidence confirms Jerusalem was burned by the Babylonians during the 6th century BC. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah recorded that the Babylonian invasion of Israel involved the burning down of Jerusalem in the 6th century BC, and recent excavations in the City of David, Jerusalem, have finally confirmed this major detail in the biblical accounts of the Babylonian invasion.

3. Writings of the Latin Christian Fortunatianus of Aquileia, dating to the 4th century AD, rediscovered and published by De Gruyter for free. The discovery of a major early writer of Christianity is of fundamental importance, especially since it illumines the discovery of an early church writer (predating even Augustine) in a very long time. Furthermore, Fortunatianus’s works now represent the earliest commentary we have in possession of the fourth Gospel, and they help us better understand the comments of other early church writers, such as Jerome, who commented on Fortunatianus and his works. It is also of great importance to how we know Latin Christianity came to be.

2. Within ancient Jezreel, local economy found to have been a major source of wineries, and therefore vineyards as the story of Naboth’s vineyard alludes. According to the biblical accounts of Naboth, Naboth was a man living in Jezreel who possessed an important. The texts of the Bible documenting this about Naboth were written later, however archaeological discoveries have now confirmed, in accordance with the biblical account, that Jezreel was an important location for the production of wine and vineyards in ancient Israel.

1. Vast copper mines discovered in the southern tip of Israel discovered at the Timna Valley dating to the time of Solomon, reputed to be King Solomon’s mines. This is certainly the most important archaeological discovery of the year, revealing that an entity in modern day Israel (very close to the Israelite kingdom during Solomon’s time) was producing copper at an industrial scale, which deals an enormous blow to the claim that the Israelite kingdoms in this time, or other kingdoms in this time, remained living in an agrarian and highly rural state. This claim had been maintained for a long time in order to claim that in the time of David and Solomon, there was no possibility of their maintaing a kingdom. It is with great probability that Solomon’s kingdom possessed control over these copper mines, which would likely demonstrate that the kingdoms of David and Solomon had significant power and were not confined to an agrarian existence — in other words — David and Solomon really may have possessed a kingdom.

The Gospel of Judas

Recently, I have read Bart Ehrman’s book The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look At Betrayer and Betrayed (Oxford University Press, you can find an online digitized version of Ehrman’s book here for free). Bart Ehrman is a great scholar who has, unfortunately, made a number of errors regarding the New Testament and many things about it, and in this book, while he reconstructs the historical Judas, I found myself disagreeing with a number of things. However, regarding the actual Gospel of Judas, I have found Ehrman’s contribution to my knowledge invaluable. Ehrman was one of the principal figures in authenticating the Gospel of Judas, which was originally published in 2006, making it the most recently discovered and published Gnostic text.

To be quite honest, although I have put much effort in understanding Gnosticism before, I’d never really succinctly gotten it. I’ve read the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s ridiculously long explanation of this second-century Christian phenomenon, but in my opinion, it was so overcomplicated that the information simply slipped my mind. However, Ehrman is a fantastic communicator and I now understand the state of early Christianity much better than I did before reading the book (which took me less than three days). So, I will be able to write a little about this text here.

The text of the Gospel of Judas was discovered in the early 1970’s by accident. After moving from numerous owners and possessors over the years, and undergoing tremendous damage, it finally entered into the hands of scholars and started getting preserved in the early 2000’s. National Geographic got interested in this not-yet-announced discovery, and so with National Geographic’s resources, things quickly got underway. National Geographic assembled a number of scholars to authenticate the text (of course, no reason to make a financial investment if its a fake), and Bart Ehrman was one of them. After being authenticated, it was finally published to the National Geographic Society in 2006, the translators being Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, in collaboration with François Gaudard (although I have used Mark Mattison’s translation). Ehrman also published his book on the Gospel of Judas in 2006 (although I think Ehrman writes that the authoritative work on the Gospel of Judas, at least in relationship with Gnosticism, was written by Martin Meyer, see pg. 103). The Gospel of Judas is, if nothing else, a Gnostic text. The Gospel is a Gospel about Judas, not a Gospel according to Judas, as we see in the last line of Judas, which says “The Gospel of Judas.” Compare this to the Gospel of Thomas, which ends in the words “The Gospel according to Thomas.” Unlike any other ancient text of the ancient world, it actually portrays Jesus’s relationship with Judas from Judas’s perspective. Judas, in this second century writing, is the good guy, the only one who really understands Jesus, even in the betrayal. I will explain this in the time coming. The entire document is inundated with heresy but is very important for understanding early Christianity.

As I said earlier, the Gospel of Judas is, if nothing else, a Gnostic text. What is Gnosticism? Ehrman explains this very succinctly;

In its broadest terms, Gnosticism refers to a number of religious groups from the early centuries of Christianity that emphasized the importance of secret knowledge to escape the trappings of this material world. The name Gnostic itself comes from the Greek word for “knowledge,” gnosis. Gnostics, then, are ones who are in the know. And what do they know? They know the truth that can set them free from this world of matter, which was created not by the one true God but by lower, inferior, and often ignorant deities who designed this world as a place of entrapment for elements of the divine. Gnostic religions indicate that some of us have a spark of divinity within us, a spark that longs to be set free from the prison of our bodies. These religions provide the secret knowledge that allows us to transcend our mortal, material bodies to return to the heavenly realm whence we originally came, where we will once again live with the gods. (pg. 58)

Essentially, it is the view that the material world is an entrapping of which we can only escape by acquiring secret knowledge. Only people with the divine spark can learn this secret knowledge, and those who do not have it will never know (I don’t know if Gnostics derived this concept from Jesus words in the Gospel of Mark, where he says that His teachings can only be understood by those with eyes to see and ears to hear and similar sayings). Gnostics believed that the original, ultimate God did not create this world. Rather, by merely thinking, He personified His own characteristics into other beings. For example, He had wisdom, and so He created a divine being called Wisdom. These deities, in turn, created other deities. Who in turn created other deities. Who in turn created other deities. All of this was happening in the great divine realm of the Pleroma. One time, the Gnostics believe, one of these deities (sometimes named Yaldaboath, a name that might be derived from the Old Testament title “Yahweh Lord of Sabbaths”) fell from the divine realm of the Pleroma, and this was the deity who created our world. This was not the true, original God who is the ultimate Creator, but rather a lower, inferior and ignorant deity far removed from the original God who does not inhabit the Pleroma that created this world.

That is why this world, created by this ignorant and stupid deity, contains so much suffering and evil. This world is made by an evil deity, and we are trapped in this evil world, and we can only escape by turning to the original Pleroma where the true God is. How can we do this? By acquiring secret knowledge, the gnosis. This is Gnosticism. Many Gnostics believed that the secret knowledge was revealed to this world through Jesus Christ himself, and only few will be able to truly understand His true message — Jesus, in fact, is not the son of the god who created this world, who is an ignorant and evil god, Jesus is of the divine realm, the Pleroma, of the true God residing in the Pleroma. In the Gospel of Judas, when Jesus followers say that he is the son of the god of the created world, this is how he responds:

Judas 33-34: … One day he was with his disciples in Judea. He found them sitting together practicing their piety. When he [came up to] his disciples 34 sitting together praying over the bread, [he] laughed. The disciples said to him, “Master, why are you laughing at [our] prayer? What have we done? [This] is what’s right.” He answered and said to them, “I’m not laughing at you. You’re not doing this because you want to, but because through this your God [will be] praised.” They said, “Master, you […] are the Son of our God!” Jesus said to them, “How do [you] know me? Truly [I] say to you, no generation of the people among you will know me.” ….

This is quite strange indeed. Jesus enters a room of his disciples praying, and he laughs at them! In the entirety of the Gospels, Jesus never laughs, however this happens four times in the Gospel of Judas (a relatively short text in comparison to the Gospels). However, Jesus laughing is actually a common feature in Gnostic texts. Besides the several times Jesus laughs in the Gospel of Judas, Jesus also laughs in a Gnostic text called the Second Treatise of the Great Seth. See:

As for me, on the one hand they saw me; they punished me. [But] another, their father, was the one who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They were hitting me with the reed; another was the one who lifted up the cross on his shoulder, who was Simon. Another was the one on whom they put the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the riches of the archons and the offspring of their error and their conceit, and I was laughing at their ignorance. (Second Treatise, 56, quoted in Ehrman pg. 110)

Jesus also laughs in the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter. After taking important note of this, and all these texts, Ehrman explains why Jesus is laughing:

And notice again that Jesus is laughing. His laughter is directed against the ignorance of the world, which thinks it knows him. Those in this world, who know him “in the flesh,” don’t know him at all—any more than the disciples know him in the Gospel of Judas, where they are subject to Jesus’ laughter when they assume he is the Son of the God who created this world. (pg. 111)

Jesus is laughing at the ignorance of either his followers, the world, or the foolish and inferior gods. Essentially, Jesus laughs when confronted with the ignorance about this world of the true God, and when they give reverence to the low god who made this world. That’s why, in the Gospel of Judas when he finds his disciples praying to their lowly god, and sees that this is how this deity is supposed to be praised, he laughs at this lowly act and them not realizing they are only acknowledging a lowly deity. As Ehrman writes, “Jesus finds it laughable that the god who provides bread—the material creator of this material world—should be praised” (pg. 89).

In the end of the Gospel of Judas, Judas betrays Jesus. But this is why Judas is actually the good guy in this mythological text. According to this Gospel, Judas actually, in a way, helps Jesus by turning him over to the authorities so he can be killed. But how? As we’ve seen earlier, gnostics believe that this world, this material world is a trapping which we will transcend after our deaths to the Pleroma once we’ve gained the secret knowledge, gnosis. By handing Jesus over to the authorities, Judas, in fact, saves Jesus from this material world. That is why in the Gospel of Judas, Jesus tells Judas “But you’ll do more than all of them [Judas], because you’ll sacrifice the human who bears me”. In Rodolphe et al’s translation, this line runs ““You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me” (56:17–21).” To add, the author of the Gospel of Judas also believed that our bodies, themselves, are material trappings of this world, and our true selves are the divine sparks contained within them. That explains why Jesus says here that you will “sacrifice the man that clothes me.” That Judas actually helps Jesus by handing him over to the authorities is a very novel (and heretical) view of Christianity in the 2nd century AD. Ehrman, in my opinion, gets most of his historical reconstruction of Judas wrong, even drawing imaginary contradictions on why the Gospels say Judas betrayed Jesus.

The tradition goes straight down from there. In Matthew Judas betrays Jesus because he wants the cash; in Luke he does so because he is inspired by the Devil; in John it turns out that he himself is a devil. (pg. 138)

In fact, all the Gospels write that Judas exchanged money for turning Jesus over to the authorities, which undoubtedly implies that Judas did it for the money, regardless Ehrman’s frustration over these points. Ehrman says that in Luke we are told Judas is inspired by the devil, and so this is contradictory to doing it for the money — but, in fact, Ehrman is creating an artificial distinction between doing it for the money and being inspired by the Devil. It’s probable that they thought it was both, Judas wanted money for handing Jesus over because the Devil had influenced him. John just rhetorically calls Judas a devil for betraying Jesus.

 

The Death of Mythicism?

Mythicism is the view that Jesus did not exist (of which I have written about earlier here). To typical mythicist discontent, I will note before I continue that all real historians think Jesus definitely existed and that mythicist theories are thoroughly unconvincing.

“I think the evidence is just so overwhelming that Jesus existed, that it’s silly to talk about him not existing.” -Bart Ehrman, Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“The view [that Jesus didn’t exist] is demonstrably false. It is fuelled by a regrettable form of atheist prejudice, which holds all the main primary sources, and Christian people, in contempt. …. Most of its proponents are also extraordinarily incompetent.” -Maurice Casey, Emeritus Professor at the University of Nottingham

Recently, a lot of fuss has been going on about mythicism, and someone named Jose asked me to write about it, so here I am. I will talk about some recent things going on for mythicism, all of them which are happening to the discontent of mythicists. First of all, I’ve learned that, even though there are no professors in any relevant historical field that don’t think Jesus existed, I have found out that in our time, there actually have been a number of professors in unrelated fields that have thought Jesus didn’t exist. Indeed, in a discussion on Biologos forums, a contributor came up with the full list of professors who have actually concluded Jesus didn’t exist:  George Wells, Robert Price, Michael Martin, Alvar Ellegård, Jerry Coyne, and Jay Raskin. The problem seems to me, as I looked into these names, these advocates are literally dying off. George Wells died this year (not before giving up mythicism after reading the work of James D.G. Dunn), Michael Martin died in 2015, and Alvar Ellegård died in 2008. DM Murdock, another important figure of the mythicist world, also died in 2015. Furthermore, a number of other key figures in the mythicist movement (including Earl Doherty and Thomas Brodie) have simply left the conversation all together, apparently giving up without actually rescinding in their mythicism. To my knowledge, the entire population of important mythicist contributors is now Richard Carrier, Robert Price, Neil Godfrey and Raphael Lataster (I would include David Fitzgerald but he’s lost his mind), effectively meaning mythicism is on its last legs, although its most vocal contributor (Carrier) is still kicking. Robert Price is in terrible health, though, it seems, and he’s in his late 60’s as well. Neither Godfrey nor Lataster have any relevant qualifications to discuss history and they get ignored for the most part.

That’s the first thing to note. Secondly, as it has happened, another major historian of early Christianity has written a number of scathing posts about mythicism on his blog: Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh. His important posts can be found here, here, and here. As an influential voice in New Testament studies, this is another travesty for mythicism, especially considering just how unconvincing Carrier’s responses to Hurtado were. Furthermore, in the most recent issue (15.2-3) of the international Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, the first published engagement of Richard Carrier’s book on the historicity of Jesus was published by Daniel Gullotta (Stanford). I have read this critique, and it is quite devastating in a number of ways to Carrier’s thesis (I’ve read Carrier’s response, and I’ve refuted it here and here). Also, Bart Ehrman recently destroyed Robert Price on a debate about the historical Jesus. The defeat was so bad that I will post the debate so that everyone can have an opportunity to watch it.

In these recent discussions, a number of important developments have arisen to my knowledge. Every single one of them resulted in mythicism becoming more improbable. For the continuation of this discussion, I will note some of them.

To note, Richard Carrier’s arguments are the last legs of mythicism, literally. Every other theory and version of the mythicist paradigm has been refuted. In other words, once he goes down, mythicists will either be sent back to the drawing board or the idea will die altogether. Anyhow, into the ideas.

Carrier is someone who genuinely can’t believe scholars don’t take him seriously much. After a scathingly critical academic review of his book appeared in the journal Relegere by Christina Petterson, Carrier on his blog claimed that it was “highly evangelical” and Petterson is a “fawningly Christian” person. Deane Galbraithe, a scholar and at the time one of the editors of Relegere have responded by pointing out that Petterson … is an atheist. Carrier genuinely cannot believe that scholarship disregards him for the most part. One of Carrier’s theories is that, before Christianity existed, there was an archangel in some Jewish mythology named Jesus. This archangel Jesus, according to Carrier, is what the first Christians believed in, and later Christians historicized this archangel, and there you go, that’s how Christianity as we know it came into being. The problem is, of course, there was no such archangel named Jesus. Carrier’s key text is Philo of Alexandria’s reading of a passage in Zechariah 6. Philo of Alexandria was an ancient Jewish author living in the 1st century AD, a contemporary of Jesus. Zechariah of course is one of the books of the Old Testament. I will produce the passage in full:

Zechariah 6:9-14: The word of the Lord came to me: 10 “Take silver and gold from the exiles Heldai, Tobijah and Jedaiah, who have arrived from Babylon. Go the same day to the house of Josiah son of Zephaniah. 11 Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest, Joshua [Jesus] son of Jozadak.12 Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. 13 It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two. 14 The crown will be given to Heldai, Tobijah, Jedaiah and Hen son of Zephaniah as a memorial in the temple of the Lord. 15 Those who are far away will come and help to build the temple of the Lord, and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. This will happen if you diligently obey the Lord your God.”

This passage mentions two different figures. Firstly, Joshua (Hebrew Joshua is the equivalent of English Jesus) son of Jozadak, and secondly, the Branch, or anatole in the Septuagint Greek. Philo says this anatole is rising, is the Son of God, and an archangel, etc. These (Joshua and the anatole) are two different figures in the text as shown by the part I bolded (“And there will be harmony between the two“), however, Carrier claims that Philo thought they were the same person. However, the text clearly has these two as different figures, and Philo never equates the rising archangel anatole with Joshua (Jesus). Thus, Philo doesn’t mention an archangel named Jesus.  Here is the relevant part of Philo’s On the Confusion of Tongues 62-63:

I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech as this: “Behold, a man whose name is the East!”{18}{#zec 6:12.} A very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul; but if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of the east has been given to him with great felicity. (63) For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns.

Very simple, Joshua is never identified with the anatole here (nor does Philo conflate the anatole with Joshua in Confusion of Tongues 145-147). So, Zechariah doesn’t mention an archangel named Jesus, nor does Philo of Alexandria. Therefore, there was no such archangel. Also, as Daniel Gullotta has demonstrated in his published review, there are further damning problems with this thesis. As Gullotta writes;

The most damning argument against Carrier’s claim is that there is no literary or archeological evidence within the entirety of the Mediterranean world and Second Temple period that validates the existence of this pre-Christian celestial Jesus. Scholars have long noted that Second Temple Judaism marks a pivotal shift in how some Jews began to understand angels, and one of these changes is the use of distinctive names when they are addressed or referenced. In surveying references to angels during this time, one of the most common features in the names of angels is the appearance of the element of ‘el’. This survey reveals that the most common angelic characters of this period were named Michael, Gabriel, Sariel/Uriel, and Raphael.54 In other words, a prosopographical analysis of the names of the particular angels known to Jews in the Second Temple period shows that the name Jesus does not conform to the way angelic beings were designated as such. Because the name Jesus is never associated with an angelic figure, nor does the name conform to tropes of celestial beings within Judaism, Carrier’s assertions are unconvincing. (pp. 326-327)

In other words, not only is Joshua different from the anatole in Zechariah, and not only is there no clear evidence that Philo conflated these two, but there are further significant problems with the thesis of this archangel named Jesus ever existing. The problem is, of course, that there isn’t a single strand of archaeological evidence in the entire Mediterranean world mentioning such an archangel named Jesus. Not a single one. Furthermore, the archangels of whom have names that we do know have something distinctive about their names: they contain the theophoric element El, one of the divine names of God from the Old Testament. Jesus does not have this element. Thus, Jesus is unlikely to have been ever used as a name for any archangel. At this point, Carrier tries to resucitate his thesis by appealing to Matthew 1:23 where Jesus is called ‘Emmanuel‘, however this is laughable because 1) this is in the Gospel of Matthew which obviously depicts Jesus as a human and not an angel, and it is never mentioned in a single Pauline epistle, and 2) the name Emmanuel, as Carrier knowns, derives from the prophecy Isaiah 7:14 which also has not a thing to do with angels. So why does he mention it? Finally, Carrier’s thesis is heavily dependent on Paul’s letters showing no knowledge of an earthly Jesus. They do obviously, as everyone but Carrier realizes, but that can be reserved for later discussion. Since Paul is the earliest Christian writer we know, Carrier claims that Paul believed that Jesus was an archangel rather than an earthly human. This is also something Bart Ehrman believes, and he has made this claim in his book How Jesus Became God. To note, Ehrman is not a mythicist — he is the closest thing from a mythicist. Although he makes this claim. Larry Hurtado, whom we have met before, is a major contributor to early christology and has written a scathingly critical review of Ehrman’s book, effectively refuting it. When it comes to this point, Hurtado points at a text from Paul’s letter that unambiguously distinguishes Jesus from any created things, including angels, proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Paul did not think Jesus was an angel.

Romans 8:37-39: No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul tells us that nothing created can separate us from the love of God in our Lord Jesus, including created beings like angels. Thus, they are not the same thing, Paul did not believe Jesus was an angel — Paul thought Jesus was the eternal Son of God and Messiah. Paul also tells us Jesus was a man (ἀνθρώπου) like Adam and Moses were (Romans 5:14-15), so how could he have been an angel? Considering everything we’ve seen, it can be realized that there was no archangel named Jesus prior to Christianity, nor did Paul believe Jesus was an angel, thus sinking another mythicist argument.