Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Son Of David

It's really striking to me that the phrase “son of David” only shows up in two parts of Mark's narrative. Once when Jesus heals Bartimaeus (Mk 10.46-52) and the second time when Jesus rebukes the “son of David” title, at least as a title for the messiah (Mk 12.35-37). Jesus has no qualms about being the “son of man” (Mk 14.62). But the son of David? Heavens to Mergatroyd!

This is more than likely a misuse of Psalm 110 (the psalm was written to David, not by him*). But aside from that digression, these are the only two times that the title “son of David” is used in Mark so there might be a relationship between the two pericopae. And they appear relatively close in the narrative (i.e. one doesn't occur in Mark 2 and the second at Mark 13). The one person to call Jesus “son of David” is a blind man. Is the author of Mark saying that those who call the messiah a son of David are blind? What are we to make of Romans 1.3: γενομενο[ς] εκ σπερματος δαυιδ κατα σαρκα :: born from the seed of David according to the flesh? Paul most certainly believed that Jesus was a “son of David”.

Or did he?

Look how virulently anti-Marcionite these first few lines of Romans are:

2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures
3 regarding his Son, who as to his human nature (i.e. κατα σαρκα) was a descendant of David,
4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God

We should note that Romans has the longest introduction out of all of the authentic Pauline letters:

* Galatians 1.1-2 Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers with me. To the churches in Galatia…

* 1 Corinthians 1.1-2 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes. To the church of God in Corinth…

* 2 Corinthians 1.1-2 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother. To the church of God in Corinth…

* Phillipians 1.1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus. To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi…

* Philemon 1.1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother. To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker…

* 1 Thessalonians 1.1 Paul, Silas, and Timothy. To the church of the Thessalonians…

Even the contested Pauline letters have shorter intros than the one in Romans:

* Colossians 1.1-2 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother. To God’s holy people in Colossae…

* Ephesians 1.1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. To God’s holy people in Ephesus…

* 2 Thessalonians 1.1 Paul, Silas and Timothy. To the church of the Thessalonians…

All of these introductions are only like one sentence long until it gets to the addressing phrase (i.e. to the churches in Galatia…). Romans, on the other hand, goes on this relatively long sidebar about the Jewish nature of Jesus and the gospel. To make the Roman letter's introduction match those of the other authentic Pauline letters, it should read like this: “1Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God […] 7To all in Rome who are loved by God…

Certainly, this long-ish digression about the Jewish nature of the Jesus religion wouldn't have been in Marcion's canon. Marcion didn't believe that Jesus was a descendant of anyone, nor did he believe that he had come “in the flesh”. Marcion also did not believe that Jesus had been predicted in Jewish scripture (I actually don't think the authentic Paul even believed this) nor that he was “declared” to be the son of god, which implies some sort of adoptionist Christology. I'm willing to bet that Marcion's version of Romans had something like the intro I've just propopsed here; it would match the intro of all of the other letters. And it is also telling that Marcion actually seems like the first Christian witness to Romans. The only other long intro of a similar length that we see in Romans is in one of the pseduo-Pauline letters – Titus (also, I might add, not in Marcion's canon).

So I don’t think Paul wrote this long intro to Romans. The language is not Pauline (the only other time that “Paul” uses the phrase Holy Scripture is in the pseudo-Pauline letter 2 Timothy [3.15]). The long digression doesn’t match other Pauline introductions, and Paul never appeals to the prophets in predicting Jesus’ advent (Paul mostly talks about prophets in relation to apostles. Meaning contemporary prophets) or otherwise goes out of his way to stress the Jewishness of the Jesus religion.

Anyway, in Matthew Jesus is presented repeatedly as being the “son of David”. It might be seen as a subtle correction of Mark's disavowal.

Like I wrote before, this healing pericope is the only time that Mark actually gives the person that Jesus heals a name. And he more than likely named him for a reason. Since the reason for Mark naming Bartimaeus appears prior in the narrative to Jesus rebuking the “son of David” title, again, it might mean that all of this was planned. A deliberate connection between the two pericopes. It could be further evidence that Mark is along the trajectory towards Marcionism; Jesus and the new religion are a novelty and shouldn't be mixed with the old (hence Mark's wineskins pericope). Mark might be subtly saying to his readers that they should stop thinking of Christianity in terms of Judaism and think of it on its own terms. A new age has begun; Jews and Judaism have been abandoned by their god (again, Mark 12.1-10, Mark 13). Thinking of the messiah as being a “son of David” is thinking of things in terms of the old ways.

The teachers of the law (who are “blind”) are the only ones who say that the messiah is the son of David. And we know that the law (in Christianity) is no longer valid.

[*] It seems as though our earliest witness to this Psalm are Christians. Psalm 110 was not found in the oldest collection of biblical works – the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even though the DSS group seemed to have a particular reverence for Melchitsedek. Psalm 110 also seems to merge the two positions of High Priest and King, which first enters the scene of the Jewish nationality with the Maccabean priest-kings. Considering that the DSS group had a not so veiled hatred of the Maccabean usurpers, it could be concluded that Psalm 110 was written by Maccabean sympathizers to legitimate their merging of the two once disparate offices. Which is why this particular Psalm would be written to David and not by him; the Maccabean leadership are implying that David was both priest and king to give credence to their claim to being both priest and king. It would also be why this Psalm was not included among the ones in the DSS – it was written by their political enemies.


Posted by on June 27, 2011 in marcion, paul, son of david


Unitarian Universalism

I have mixed feelings about Unitarian Universalism (UUs). On the face of it, I think they do a lot of good. Any place where people of all faiths can come together and “commune” (for lack of a better word) for no other reason than to come together and listen to uplifting speeches is a good thing in my opinion. I think they represent the paragon of the so-called interfaith dialogue. I know a lot of atheist/agnostics on message boards who go to UU churches because of the social aspect of it; and the numbers show that it's going to church that contains many of the benefits usually associated with religion (improved health, a reduction in suicides, and increased marital fidelity), and not what the person believes.
Unfortunately, not many people know about the UU church. Today I read this article by a UU minister. It's an interesting article, and there are parts of it that subtly remind me of the “chaos” of early Christian Gnosticism; a Christianity that focused on personal revelations and not so much on dogmas or creeds. The writer stresses, like my previous paragraph, the goal of the UU church is being as liberal and open minded as possible, accepting people from all walks of “faith”.
But what about those on the outside of the UU church? This following quote hit kinda close to home for me:
I remember a tragic incident that occurred during my ministry. One evening I was called to the hospital to be with the mother of a two-year-old child who was brain-dead after choking on a piece of chewing gum. The mother, a Unitarian Universalist, was estranged from the child's father, who was of another faith. Leaving the hospital, I found myself in the elevator with the father's minister, and I said to him, “Well, we can do the memorial service together.” And he responded, “No, we can't. We don't worship the same God.” His comment made my sadness deeper still, and the estrangement of these families seemed ever greater.
I have a close friend from college that wasn't religious who a couple of years ago was dating a (not known to him) religious girl. Apparently, one of her friends convinced her that their relationship wouldn't work out for religious reasons. So they broke up. The question I consistently have asked myself since then is whether that sort of interfaith relationship – and its failure – was really a microcosm of a greater fundamental incompatibility between religions. Quite apropos to this post, he tried to salvage their perceived differences by suggesting that they go to a UU church together. She flat out rejected it.
It was really sad to see, since they obviously liked each other. They would sort of “revert” back to boyfriend-girlfriend mode for a couple of months after he graduated. He would go back to their alma mater to visit on certain weekends when mutual friends were having parties.
Anyway, I'm still not sure where I place myself along the lines of the accomodationalist/confrontationalist atheism infighting. If the two stories above really are endemic to religion, then it would seem that the accomodationalists – those who think that religious and non-religious people can get along – are fighting a losing battle. And the confrontationalists – those who argue that religion doesn't deserve respect and should be wiped out (one of the reasons due to its “inherently” divisive nature) – are right. I would like to be an accomodationalist; I would like to live in a world where we can all get along… but what I would like human/religious nature to be might not necessarily be what it actually is. So my mixed feeling about UU is that it might be a fool's errand; blind to the nature of the type of religion people want.
So I am sort of split between a MLK/Professor X approach towards religion and a Magneto/Malcolm X approach:
Professor X: “Killing… won't bring you peace”
Magneto: “Peace was never an option”
Hopefully, though, things like Unitarian Universalism will win out in the end. And maybe, like 100 years from now or something, people like my friend and his ex-girlfriend could stay together without perceived religious differences dividing them.

Posted by on June 22, 2011 in interfaith


The Unreliable "Feeling of Certainty"

What most people do not know is that certainty is a feeling. It’s probably on the same level as jealousy or anger. It’s a reaction to certain stimuli. Yet just like anger, the stimulus doesn’t have to actually exist to create the feeling. Imagine your significant other cheating on you, or imagine someone you love crying or getting injured. These scenarios are not true yet the feeling we get when we imagine it is no less real.

Check this out. I will give you the “feeling of knowing” right now:

A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.

Is this paragraph comprehensible or meaningless? Feel your mind sort through potential explanations. Now watch what happens with the presentation of a single word: kite. As you reread the paragraph, feel the prior discomfort (my emphasis) of something amiss shifting to a pleasing sense (my emphasis) of rightness. Everything fits; every sentence works and has meaning. Reread the paragraph again; it is impossible to regain the sense of not understanding. In an instant, without due conscious deliberation, the paragraph has been irreversibly infuesed with a feeling of knowing.

Try to imagine other interpretations for the paragraph. Suppose I tell you that this is a collaborative poem written by a third-grade class, or a collage of strung-together fortune cookie quotes. Your mind balks. The presense of this feeling of knowing makes contemplating alternatives physically difficult.

On Being Certain: Believing You’re Right Even When You’re Not pp5-6

Notice the words that I bolded. Discomfort. Pleasing. Certainty feels good. By implication, because certainty feels good, people can get addicted to it. Thus there is no logical connection between a person’s feeling of certainty and something that is actually true. Just like you can feel sad or angry about just imagining something terrible happening to someone you care about. This feeling of knowing can probably manifest itself just to rid the person of that discomfort of not knowing.  

This feeling of certainty can appear when there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever, and fail to register when evidence is overwhelming. Obviously, because it’s just a feeling. It’s subject to all of our cognitive baggage just like all of our other emotions. Just like “getting angry” is subject to all of our cognitive baggage; many people have gotten angry first and then looked for things to be angry about. Either with their spouse, job, or anything. Certainty is subject to the same disconnect with reality, and subject to the same rationalizations as any other emotion. The thing is, Christianity has no other strong evidence other than this feeling of knowing!

To strengthen this, there’s a personality trait called the “Need For Closure”. From here:

Enter the Need for Closure. This psychological trait is defined in five parts, as follows:

(1) ‘desire definite order and structure in their lives and abhor unconstrained chaos and disorder’ (preference for order);

(2) ‘would experience as aversive situations devoid of closure’ (discomfort with ambiguity);

(3) desire a secure or stable knowledge, that means ‘a knowledge that can be relied across circumstances and is unchallenged by exceptions or disagreements’ (preference for predictability);

(4) ‘do not desire that their knowledge is confronted by alternative opinions or inconsistent evidence’ (close-mindedness); and

(5) feel ‘an urgency of striving for closure in judgment and decision-making’ (decisiveness) (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994, p. 1050).

One of the first indications that we’re on the right track is that Need for Closure is negatively associated with Need for Cognition. That is, people who are drawn towards active critical thought and problem solving are unlikely to like “set in stone” answers. They tend to dislike dogma and prefer to pursue evidence until and unless they reach a suitable conclusion.

Second, people with high Need for Closure tend strongly to prefer any answer to no answer, so much so that there is a subconscious tendency to view someone who claims to have an answer more favorably from the start than someone who is undecided or open-minded. This tends to make them biased towards accepting claims from people with dogmatic opinions. Maybe that’s why some people can be part of dogmatic religions without scoring high on dogmatism scales.

When people are made to feel uncertain, they increase their pattern detection. So the example above with the kite, because it was a nonsense quote it made the feeling of certainty all the more intense when coming across the word “kite”: 

Dr. Proulx and Dr. Heine described having 20 college students read an absurd short story based on “The Country Doctor,” by Franz Kafka. The doctor of the title has to make a house call on a boy with a terrible toothache. He makes the journey and finds that the boy has no teeth at all. The horses who have pulled his carriage begin to act up; the boy’s family becomes annoyed; then the doctor discovers the boy has teeth after all. And so on. The story is urgent, vivid and nonsensical — Kafkaesque.

After the story, the students studied a series of 45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” They later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others.

The test is a standard measure of what researchers call implicit learning: knowledge gained without awareness. The students had no idea what patterns their brain was sensing or how well they were performing.

But perform they did. They chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than a comparison group of 20 students who had read a different short story, a coherent one.

“The fact that the group who read the absurd story identified more letter strings suggests that they were more motivated to look for patterns than the others,” Dr. Heine said. “And the fact that they were more accurate means, we think, that they’re forming new patterns they wouldn’t be able to form otherwise.”

In other words, when you start to break down people’s sense that they understand what’s going on, they respond by turning up the ‘gain’ on pattern detection. Similar things have been seen in previous studies, except in these studies the gain detection is turned up so high that people see things that aren’t there at all.

For example, people who are made to feel like they are not in control tend to see patterns that aren’t there. And people who are made to feel lonely are more likely to anthropomorphize (i.e. see pets and even gadgets as friends).

– via Epiphenom

Combine this with Confirmation Bias and we’ve got a strong naturalistic case for why many people are religious. They aren’t aware of these cognitive and psychological biases so don’t readjust their “search for truth” to account for these things. Where in the Christian Testament does it say to be aware of being led astray by something like Confirmation Bias? The entirety of Christian philosophy assumes that these biases don’t exist. As a matter of fact, most religions actually feed off of these psychological and cognitive errors in human reasoning in order to strengthen their hold on the believer.

It’s probably no coincidence that professionals who are intimately aware of and deal with these biases on a daily basis are the least religious.


Posted by on June 16, 2011 in cognitive science


Finding The Historical Jesus

How do we determine, via historical methods, whether someone existed or not?

Most of us common people will be lost to history. Well… maybe not, with the Internet and blogs possibly lasting into perpetuity (but even a blog could be used to create a mythical person). But for pre-Information Age peoples, they will almost all be lost to history. Unless their existence is inexorably tied to some sort of historical event. An event that leaves its mark on history: like the Civil Rights Movement, WWII, the Greco-Persian wars, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and many other brute-fact events that shape the world. There are people who have defining roles in these events that necessitate their existence.

How could we tell a coherent story about the Civil Rights Movement without MLK? Or the conclusion of the Greco-Persian wars without Alexander the Great? World War II without Hitler?

Someone like Moses, his identity is inexorably tied to the Exodus event. Since there’s no evidence for the Exodus (and actually evidence diametrically opposed to the Exodus story), this more than likely means that the Exodus didn’t happen. If there was no Exodus then there’s no person that we could identify in history as “Moses”.

It would be like saying Moses’ defining role was that of the president of Atlantis. Since no Atlantis exists, it effectively means that this “Moses” character said to be the president of Atlantis similarly didn’t exist. Sure, there could be a person who really lived but had claims of him being the president of Atlantis thrust on him (or he himself claimed) but historically we would not be able to call this person “Moses”. This is because the historical Moses can only be defined by his intimate connection to a historical event or person.

Jesus, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. There were probably thousands of Jews crucified in the 1st century, and many thousands more had the name “Jesus” (that name is the Latinized Greek form of the Aramaic name Joshua). So it would be impossible to identify one of these Jews as THE Jesus.

You would need a bit more historically identifiable material to locate, historically, the Jesus depicted in Christian myth. What is the defining role of Jesus? The one specific role that separates this Jesus from the possibly hundreds of other Joshuas crucified in the 1st century is his resurrection. But this is a supernatural event so it’s impossible to locate in history.

Other than that, there are sayings attributed to Jesus but this has problems due to them appearing relatively late in the Christian timeline. Whenever Mark was written is the earliest that the teachings attributed to Jesus appear. But then we have to figure out when Mark was written and then do some sort of literary analysis on the text to determine its genre (i.e. how it is intended to be read and understood). Are they really the sayings of Jesus, or are they the sayings of Mark? What makes them more likely to be the sayings of Mark is that they first appear in Mark. No Christian writing prior to Mark seem to be aware of any sayings of Jesus, and we have no contemporaneous writings from anyone who personally saw Jesus preach (or even saw Jesus crucified).

If one were to posit that the historical Jesus is possible to find, they need to come up with some sort of “checklist” that one would need to fit the Jesus that started Christianity. What is the threshhold for historicity? A Jesus that preached but wasn’t crucified? A Jesus that was crucified but didn’t preach? I really don’t know.

So really, Moses more than likely didn’t exist due to the Exodus being fiction. Jesus, on the other hand, is impossible to identify in history because there are too many of him; the historical criteria for finding Jesus are too vague and nonspecific.

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Posted by on June 13, 2011 in historical jesus


Nazoraios and Q

It seems to me that if Luke and Matthew were sharing the same source according to the Q hypothesis, then we would expect the odd word “Nazoraios” (Ναζωραιος) in the shared material.

Luke only uses Nazoraios once (outside of Acts of the Apostles), at Lk 18.37: “απηγγειλαν δε αυτω οτι ιησους ο ναζωραιος παρερχεται”. This is the scene where Jesus heals the blind man at Jericho.
Luke 18:

35 As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging.
36 When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening.
37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” (ιησους ο ναζωραιος should be translated as “Jesus the Nazoraios”)
38 He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
39 Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
40 Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him,
41 “What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord, I want to see,” he replied. 
42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.”
43 Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.

This makes me realize another problem with Q. This pericope most certainly is not in Q since it is in Mark. As a matter of fact, I argue that this pericope was invented by Mark to implicitly teach his readers what the Aramaic “bar” meant so that they could understand the significance of Mark’s later character’s name: Barabba. Matthew, upon rendering this pericope, removes Mark’s “redundancy” (“the son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus”) and splits Bartimaeus into two anonymous blind beggars. We can tell that this is a Matthean fingerprint because he has a tendency to render in two what Mark renders as one (i.e. two people possessed by the demon Legion instead of Mark’s one person, riding on two donkey’s upon Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem instead of Mark’s one, and so on).

Again, if Luke were using only Mark and Q as a source, he wouldn’t need to make the person anonymous. Matthew probably made the blind man anonymous so he could multiply the number of people being healed. Why would Luke make Bartimaeus anonymous? Another person whom Jesus helps – Jairus – is not made anonymous by Luke. However, if Luke is reading from Matthew (or reading from a source that used Matthew), then it would be a lot more obvious why Luke would remove Matthew’s redundant second person because Luke never knew the person’s name in the first place.

Matthew only uses Nazoraios once during the birth narrative (2.23) and once when Jesus is being tried by the high priest (26.71). This second use changes Mark’s original “you were with that Nazarene, Jesus” to “This fellow was with Jesus the Nazoraios“.

If, as I suspect, that Matthew invented the word Nazoraios at 2.23 — as a misremembering of Judges 13.5 —  then we have a clear trajectory of it being found in all gospels subsequent to Mark. The fact that Nazoraios is not in Q is also another strike against the Q hypothesis. Q doesn’t explain how all gospels subsequent to Mark have this title. Moreover, Nazoraios (as well as Barabba) is a peice of evidence that John was aware of a Synoptic gospel. When I mean “a” Synoptic gospel, I don’t just mean the canonical three. The same probably applies to Luke; the best explanation, to me, is that there was probably some sort of intermediate gospel(s) in between Luke and Matthew that Luke used and edited, not simpy a list of sayings.

Corroborating this, we know that there were more than four Christian communities (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), and we know that each of these communities in the sea of heresy only used one gospel; more than likely one that they edited for their own community’s needs.

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Posted by on June 11, 2011 in synoptic problem


"Can you prove your mother loves you?"

This rhetorical question is a typical one lobbed at atheists when atheist backs the theist into a corner about proving the existence of their god. While its function is rhetorical, the theist has actually committed an analogical error when throwing this question back at the atheist.
As the “arguments” go, the atheist will charge the theist with demonstrating the existence of their god. After exhausting the usual arguments for the existence of their god, they'll fall back on the statement “I can't prove that [my] god exists. Can you prove that your mother loves you?” The reason that this is an analogical error is because, to use an overused phrase, they're comparing apples to oranges.
Let's break it down into a more variable format: “I can't prove X exists”. For the theist's rhetorical “gotcha” to make analogical sense, they should replace the X (initially “god”) with some other noun. Now it's obvious that this no longer has the same rhetorical power that saying “can you prove your mother loves you?” has. In other words, the more proper analogy would be “I can't prove that [my] god exists. Can you prove your mother exists?”. If anything, the contrast to “can you prove your mother loves you?” would be “can you prove that god loves you?” (obviously, the thing that we are claiming that does the love has to be proven to exist in the first place).
More explicitly, the theist is conveniently replacing the ontological status of some noun (i.e. god) with the subjective experience of the effect of some verb (i.e. someone loves you).
The theist's rhetoric at this point seems to be meant as a cognitive stop sign; using emotional manipulation to stifle the argument. Not because they're trying to make an analogical point. The “logic” is that since I can't prove that my mother loves me, yet I still continue to believe that she does, it is equivalent to the theist's continued belief in their god's existence even though they can't prove it. No. The equivalent of the theist maintaining their belief in their god's existence even though they can't prove it would be to continue to believe in [some other noun besides god]'s existence even though they can't prove it. When you insert any other noun besides “god” in that variable, the analogy is becomes more damaging to the theist's case.
Basically, if a theist throws this rhetorical question at an atheist, they might as well concede that they've lost that particular debate.
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Posted by on June 9, 2011 in apologetics


The Difference Between The Gospels and Actual Greco-Roman Biographies

I hear from layman Christians and Christian apologists all the time that the gospel narratives are a form of “ancient biography”. One can tell that they've never read any ancient biographies when they make this claim, because I think there is a fundamental difference between actual ancient biographies and the gospels.
The most important difference is that other ancient biographers almost always tell us who their sources are. The gospels never do anything like this; they read more along the lines of a Jewish novel (i.e. the book of Joshua) than a Greco-Roman biography. For instance, take the first few lines of the biography of Apollonius of Tyana:
And I have gathered my information partly from the many cities where he was loved, and partly from the temples whose long-neglected and decayed rites he restored, and partly from the accounts left of him by others and partly from his own letters. For he addressed these to kings, sophists, philosophers, to men of Elis, of Delphi, to Indians, and Ethiopians; and in his letters he dealt with the subjects of the gods, of customs, of moral principles, of laws, and in all these departments he corrected the errors into which men had fallen. But the more precise details which I have collected are as follows.
There was a man, Damis, by no means stupid, who formerly dwelt in the ancient city of Nineveh. He resorted to Apollonius in order to study wisdom, and having shared, by his own account, his wanderings abroad, wrote an account of them. And he records his opinions and discourses and all his prophecies. And a certain kinsmen of Damis drew the attention of the empress Julia [Domna, wife of Septimius Severus] to the documents containing these documents hitherto unknown.
Now I belonged to the circle of the empress, for she was a devoted admirer of all rhetorical exercises; and she commanded me to recast and edit these essays, at the same time paying more attention to the style and diction of them; for the man of Nineveh had told his story clearly enough, yet somewhat awkwardly.
And I also read the book of Maximus of Aegae, which comprised all the life of Apollonius in Aegae; and furthermore a will was composed by Apollonius, from which one can learn how rapturous and inspired a sage he really was. For we must not pay attention anyhow to Moeragenes, who composed four books about Apollonius, and yet was ignorant of many circumstances of his life.
That then I combined these scattered sources together and took trouble over my composition, I have said; but let my work, I pray, redound to the honor of the man who is the subject of my compilation, and also be of use to those who love learning. For assuredly, they will here learn things of which as yet they were ignorant.
Notice what Philostratus does here. He tells us where he got his stories from and why they're credible to him. He doesn't just jump into the narrative out of nowhere as though it were the dictate of a god. There's also Plutarch and his Lives where he writes of Romulus:
Moreover, even those writers who declare, in accordance with the most authentic tradition, it was Romulus who gave his name to the city [of Rome], do not agree about his lineage.
2 For some say that he was a son of Aeneas and Dexithea the daughter of Phorbas, and was brought to Italy in his infancy, along with his brother Romus; that the rest of the vessels were destroyed in the swollen river, but the one in which the boys were was gently directed to a grassy bank, where they were unexpectedly saved, and the place was called Roma from them.
3 Others say it was Roma, a daughter of the Trojan woman I have mentioned, who was wedded to Latinus the son of Telemachus and bore him Romulus; others that Aemilia, the daughter of Aeneas and Lavinia, bore him to Mars; and others still rehearse what is altogether fabulous concerning his p95origin. For instance, they say that Tarchetius, king of the Albans, who was most lawless and cruel, was visited with a strange phantom in his house, namely, a phallus rising out of the hearth and remaining there many days.
4 Now there was an oracle of Tethys in Tuscany, from which there was brought to Tarchetius a response that a virgin must have intercourse with this phantom, and she should bear a son most illustrious for his valour, and of surpassing good fortune and strength. Tarchetius, accordingly, told the prophecy to one of his daughters, and bade her consort with the phantom; but she disdained to do so, and sent a handmaid in to it.
5 When Tarchetius learned of this, he was wroth, and seized both the maidens, purposing to put them to death. But the goddess Hestia appeared to him in his sleep and forbade him the murder. He therefore imposed upon the maidens the weaving of a certain web in their imprisonment, assuring them that when they had finished the weaving of it, they should then be given in marriage. By day, then, these maidens wove, but by night other maidens, at the command of Tarchetius, unravelled their web. And when the handmaid became the mother of twin children by the phantom, Tarchetius gave them to a certain Teratius with orders to destroy them.
6 This man, however, carried them to the river-side and laid them down there. Then a she-wolf visited the babes and gave them suck, while all sorts of birds brought morsels of food and put them into their mouths, until a cow-herd spied them, conquered his amazement, ventured to come to them, and took the children home with him. Thus they were saved, and when they were grown up, they set upon Tarchetius and overcame him.
7 At any rate, this is what a certain Promathion says, who compiled a history of Italy.
But the story which has the widest credence and the greatest number of vouchers was first published among the Greeks, in its principal details, by Diocles of Peparethus, and Fabius Pictor follows him in most points…
Again, Plutarch gives a variety of reports about the birth of Romulus and then goes with the story he feels is the most credible one. This is noteworthy because in comparison to Jesus, there is a much higher probability that Romulus is entirely mythical. The constant “some say… some say… others say…” while reading these sorts of ancient biographies gets kind of tedious. But at least these ancient authors have a concern over epistemology (i.e. how they know what they know). The closest we get to this sort of “some say… other say…” discourse in early Christian material is in the gospel of Luke. Once in the very short introduction, and next at Luke 3.23: “He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph“.
Of course, Luke is not writing history, or basing his gospel on “eyewitnesses” like he says in Luke 1, because his gospel (1) shares about 65% of his material with the first (non-eyewitness) gospel Mark and its derivative Matthew, and (2) is probably written to re-Judaize Marcion's gospel. Luke never actually tells us who or where he gets his information from other than “eyewitnesses” (which, itself, is probably false). The appeal to eyewitnesses is actually a marker of 2nd century provenance since this was the time period that “Apostolic Succession” was being bandied about to refute the various heretics (the Gospel of Thomas and the last chapter of John also fall into this time period). Earlier written works/gospels did not appeal to eyewitnesses or an apostle since they weren't yet seen as authorities. The influence of Marcion is probably what began the appeal to apostles or eyewitnesses, since he is the earliest Christian to use that line of argument.
Like I wrote about earlier, the character “Barabbas” was more than likely invented by Mark. Thus any gospel that uses that character also more than likely used Mark as a source or used a source that used Mark as a source. This ostensibly includes Luke.
Most notably, the earliest witness to the Theophilus introduction in Luke comes from the time period of Theophilus of Antioch (c. 180 CE), who seems to be ignorant of the Jesus story even though he called himself a Christian. In other words, no Christian prior to the late 2nd century knows anything about a gospel addressed to a Theophilus, even though they might quote from what we later know of as “Luke” (like Justin Martyr and Marcion). I have a hunch that Irenaeus (c. 180 CE) wrote the prologue in this gospel (and also in Acts of the Apostles) to his contemporary.
Another lesser point of departure from other ancient biographies is that, after reading the gospels, we don't know anything more about Jesus' character than we did before we read them. For most modern readers, we know that Jesus did a bunch of miracles, healed some people, and gave some moral dictates. Other than that, we don't know anything about Jesus' personality. We don't leave the gospel with more personal information about Jesus than what we went into it with. Before reading the gospels, we know that Jesus is the [son of the] god of the Jews and died for your sins. After reading the gospels, we know exactly the same amount of information.
What did Jesus look like? Was he tall, short, or average height? Did he have a beard? Did he have a bull-neck or was he somewhat effeminate-looking? What kind of clothing did he wear? Oddly, we get a bit of personal information about John the Baptist; he wore clothes made out of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist. And he also ate locuts and wild honey. I can only think that this sort of personal detail was included for theological reasons, and not because the author (i.e. Mark) was actually interested in JtB's personal effects. To that point, it's interesting to note that the Ebionites claim that JtB ate cakes (εκρις) — instead of locusts (ακρις) — and wild honey. This change was made by the Ebionites for theological reasons.
The only time we get a description of Jesus' physical appearance is during the transfiguration scene, and it seems to be a mirror of Moses' own “transfiguration” after going up the mountain to receive the initial 10 Mitzvot (as an aside, I suspect the transfiguration in Mark has something to do with the law [Moses] and the prophets [Elijah]. And there may be a relationship between the original Exodus story with Moses and Joshua [Gk: Jesus] going up the mountain to receive the law).
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