Category Archives: early Christianity

Love for enemies — it’s so BC

The most radical aspect of Jesus’ teaching is supposedly his instruction to love one’s enemies. But compare the explicit teaching of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus . . .

Epictetus . . . calls for a sort of “love of enemies”: the sage (i.e., the ideal philosopher and human being) “must needs be flogged like an ass, and while he is being flogged he must love [φιλεῖν] the men who flog him, as though he were the father or brother of them all.”

(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 875-877). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Not that the Stoics were the first to conceive of the idea, either.

Avalos takes us farther yet, however. The concept of loving enemies is found in Near Eastern and other texts long before the Roman era. In the Akkadian Counsels of Wisdom we find

Requite with kindness your evil doer. Maintain justice to your enemy. Smile on your adversary.

Avalos further cites similar a passage in ancient Egyptian wisdom literature, and finds the comparable ethic expounded at length by the Jewish philosopher Philo. In fact, Philo extrapolates a “wider human kinship” from passages in the Pentateuch that require kindness towards animals owned by enemies. This gives the lie to those who have tried to make Jesus’ teachings unique by insisting that the Old Testament was not so understood by Jewish interpreters of the day.

Read more at Vridar

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Posted by on July 6, 2015 in early Christianity


Jesus Did Not Speak in Parables — the Evidence

The parables of Jesus are among many people’s favourite treasures in the Bible and the focus of much erudite and popular research outputs by some of the most renowned scholars in the field.

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Posted by on September 3, 2014 in early Christianity, historical jesus


A Little Music For Good Friday

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Posted by on April 18, 2014 in early Christianity, music


Authorship of the Gospels

This is a great post by Matthew Ferguson, the author of the blog Κέλσος and PhD student in Classics. One part I really liked:

First, even if the body of a text does not name its author, there is often still a name and title affixed to a text in our surviving manuscript traditions. These titles normally identify the traditional author. The standard naming convention for ancient works was to place the author’s name in the genitive case (indicating personal possession), followed by the title of the work. Mendell in Tacitus: The Man And His Work notes (pg. 345) that, while not all of our surviving manuscripts are complete with titles, the titles that we do have on some of the best manuscripts traditions have Cor. Taciti Libri (“The Books of Cornelius Tacitus”). This naming convention is important, since it specifically identifies Tacitus as the author of the work. An attribution may still be doubted for any number of reasons, but it is important that there at least be a clear attribution.

Here we already have a problem with the authors of the Gospels. The titles that come down in our manuscript traditions for the Gospels do not even explicitly claim Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John as their authors. Instead, the Gospels have an abnormal title convention, where they instead use the Greek preposition κατά, meaning “according to” or “handed down from,” followed by the traditional names. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is titled εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μαθθαίον (“The Gospel according to Matthew”). This is problematic, from the beginning, in that the earliest title traditions already use a grammatical construction to distance themselves from an explicit claim to authorship. Instead, the titles operate more as traditions, where the Gospels have been “handed down” by church traditions affixed to names of figures in the early church, rather than the author being clearly identified. In the case of Tacitus, none of our surviving titles says that the Histories or Annals were written “according to Tacitus” or “handed down from Tacitus.” Instead, we have clear attribution to Tacitus in one case, while only vague and ambivalent attributions in the titles of the Gospels.

I can’t remember where (probably on FRDB), but someone was asking about the weird headings of the Gospels (Κατά Μάρκον::kata Markon, etc.) and asking if this was normal practice in the ancient world. Nope! The titles of the Gospels are in accusative case, not genitive, which he probably meant to say but might have forgotten. Though I did read one argument (again, forgot where) that the first line of Mark’s gospel was probably the title: Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, υἱοῦ θεοῦ. Which is indeed in genitive case, but doesn’t actually say that Jesus is the author.

Ferguson has a lot more awesome information about how we know the Gospels were not authored by their traditional namesakes; go read the whole thing! It really expands on one of the sections in my post Why I’m not a Christian.

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Posted by on December 17, 2013 in early Christianity, historiography


Was Jesus A Carpenter?


Neil Godfrey is reviewing Thomas Brodie’s memoir Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery which is Thomas Brodie’s journey from a historical Jesus to an ahistorical Jesus. Brodie points out an interesting bit of evidence concerning Mark’s use of the word “carpenter”; which is the popular English translation of the Greek τέκτων::tekton (where we get the word architecture). Neil quotes from chapter 17:

Mark 6:1-6

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him.

On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.


Brodie begins with the context. It is the reported miracles of Jesus that are the critical concern of the people. (Brodie identifies these miracles in particular as related to themes of “creation, life and death (Mk 4.35-5.43).”) Moreover, he identifies this section of Mark as having a

significant literary dependence on the (Septuagintal) book of Wisdom. Beginning in Wisdom 10, several chapters of the book of Wisdom speak of both God’s role as creator and life-giver and of the failure of many people to recognize God as the true technites, the supreme craftsman (Wis. 13:1; cf. Wis. 13.22, Wisdom is technites panton, ‘the worker of all things’).

Instead the people’s vision is limited to the kind of vision found in the woodcutter (the tekton, Wis. 13.11); that is all they can see


“The mindless people in Wis. 13:1-9 do not recognize the technites, the supreme craftsman, and turn their minds instead to lifeless things such as the tekton produces (Wis. 13:10-14:4). And the audience at Nazareth do not recognize the presence of the Creator in Jesus the miracle-worker but can focus only on the world of woodcutting, and so they call him a tekton.”

Brodie draws the conclusion that should be obvious. Wisdom 13, especially its account of the failure of the people to discern the works of the Creator, seeing only the works of a tekton,

“provides an adequate explanation for Mark’s use of tekton; it accounts fully for Mark’s data. In essence: once the literary connection is seen, the historical explanation is unnecessary; it goes beyond what is needed to explain the data.”

This reads like a pretty solid conclusion. Of course, resting the entire argument that Mark is using other writings and not oral tradition/historical memory on this one instance is fallacious. But under the assumption that Mark is using other literature — e.g. the Wisdom literature — in the construction of his narrative this observation seems to fit like a glove. Under an alternative assumption, e.g. a historical one, it either adds too many hypotheses (this pericope is a result of Wisdom literature plus history) which is a worse explanation than one that leaves the plus out of it.

Which side of the argument you land on at this juncture depends on your prior probability that Mark is using historical memory, oral tradition, or some other non-historical source.

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Posted by on November 19, 2013 in early Christianity, historical jesus, jesus myth


An… Interesting Interview With Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan has a new book out called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In this book he argues that the historical Jesus was a Zealot. Like I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m agnostic about the existence of Jesus. But the reconstruction that I feel makes the most sense of his crucifixion is if he were himself a Zealot (owing to the strange translation between “Canaanite” and “Zealot”) or if he had really strong ties to the Zealot party (as opposed to the Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes) . For example, I wrote:

Simon the Zealot in the gospel narratives is the same Simon the Zealot in Josephus. Josephus’ Simon was executed (along with his brother James [the Zealot]) sometime in the mid 40s CE.

It’s telling that two of Jesus’ disciples share the same names as these two sons of Judas [the Zealot]. Not only that, but these two are also among the “pillars”. While I think that part is coincidence, I do think there’s significance that Simon the Zealot was listed as one of Jesus’ disciples in Mark and the other two Synoptics. I don’t see any reason for Simon the Zealot’s inclusion, either from a wholly literary point of view or from the traditional peace preaching Jesus historical view.

What if Jesus on the other hand was the disciple of Simon the Zealot and not the other way around?

This would mean that not only is Mark’s narrative theology; that Mark’s Jesus is mythical, but that Mark’s narrative is also apology. I think this makes sense of the silence in early Christian writings about the teachings of Jesus – because there were none. This makes sense of why no one talked about any of the Earthly activities of Jesus – because he was a revolutionary, and his actions were disreputable. That’s why they used to think of “christ” from a human point of view (2 Cor 5:16) but no longer. This might mean that Jesus was executed along with the brothers James and Simon, hence the two other criminals on the crosses with Jesus.

So I’m partial to Aslan’s thesis that Jesus was a Zealot.

As for the interview itself, the Fox News correspondent comes across as obtuse and unable to think outside of a very narrowly defined box. She actually sounds eerily like how some NT scholars react to the Jesus Myth hypothesis. Her objections to Aslan being a Muslim writing about Christianity — even though he has the relevant expertise — sound a lot like Bart Ehrman’s objection to anyone writing about the historical Jesus unless they had super-duper specific qualifications. And the fact that the Fox News’ correspondent’s questions were answered right in the book reminds me of how James McGrath doesn’t read books he reviews. It’s interesting how bias always looks the same, no matter the medium.


Public Glory, Secret Agony


So I just read a post by April DeConick where she’s ruminating about the progress on her latest book. In it (it’s a very short post), she writes:

I really find in the fabric of that text [John’s Gospel] Gnostic spirituality merging with Jewish scriptures and nascent Christianity. It is not just later Gnostic interpretation imposed on an orthodox gospel. It is there in the soul of the Gospel.


My next chapter is on Paul… I remember as a young woman really disliking Paul. What I didn’t know then is that what I disliked was not Paul but Luther’s Paul. That is when I discovered Paul the mystic. I read Albert Schweitzer’s book and then Alan Segal’s book, both on Paul the mystic. Suddenly Paul made sense to me. But he wasn’t anyone that contemporary Christians could relate to. What he was saying was way out there. Undomesticated. Wild. He was a visionary who realized union with Christ whom he saw as the manifestation of God. He developed rituals that helped democratize this experience so that all converts could similarly be united.


Of course as I am thinking about Paul the mystic, I am also wondering about Paul the Gnostic. Have we worked so hard over the centuries to domesticate Paul that we have lost touch with his Gnostic aspects too, like with the Fourth Gospel?

That got me to remembering something I thought about a long time ago, but never had any evidence for, other than in a general sense. Mystery religions in antiquity, (of which Christianity was a part of), had public stories and then private stories. Think about Scientology: They have the public story they sell on the streets with their e-meters and Dianetics books but then they have the private story they tell about Xenu and his nuking of humans in volcanoes millions of years ago. The same dichotomy was happening in antiquity. Richard Carrier gives an example with the cult of Osiris:

In fact, Plutarch attests that Osiris was believed to have died and been returned to life (literally: he uses the words anabiôsis and paliggenesis, which are very specific on this point, see my discussion in The Empty Tomb, pp. 154-55), and that in the public myths he did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 19.358b).

Although Plutarch does say that in the private teachings Osiris’ death and resurrection took place in outer space (below the orbit of the moon), after which he ascended back to the heights of heaven in his new body (not “the underworld,” as Ehrman incorrectly claims on p. 228), that is irrelevant to the mythicist’s case (or rather, it supports it, by analogy, since this is exactly what competent mythicists like Doherty say was the case for Jesus: public accounts putting the events on earth, but private “true” accounts placing it all in various levels of outer space: see my Review of Doherty). In fact the earliest Christians also believed Jesus was resurrected into outer space: he, like Osiris, ascended to heaven in his resurrection body, appearing to those below in visions, not in person (see my survey of the evidence in The Empty Tomb, pp. 105-232; the same is true of many other dying-and-rising gods, like Hercules). The notion of a risen Jesus walking around on earth is a late invention (first found in the Gospels).

That these kinds of beliefs about Osiris’ death and resurrection long predate Plutarch is established in mainstream scholarship on the cult: e.g. S.G.F. Brandon, The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation (Greenwood 1963), pp. 17-36 and John Griffiths, The Origins of Osiris and His Cult, 2nd ed. (Brill 1980). But we hardly need point that out, because there is already zero chance that the entirety of Isis-Osiris cult had completely transformed its doctrines in imitation of Christianity already by 100 A.D. (I shouldn’t have to explain why such a claim would be all manner of stupid). Ehrman’s claim that Plutarch is making all this up because he is Platonist is likewise nonsense. Ehrman evidently didn’t check the fact that Plutarch’s essay is written to a ranking priestess of the cult, and Plutarch repeatedly says she already knows the things he is conveying and will not find any of it surprising.

It should be that Christianity shares that same pattern. You can see this a little bit in Paul, e.g. 1 Cor 3.1-3. My thought was that the gospel of Mark is the “public” story and the gospel of John (and Paul himself) are part of the tradition of the “private” story. Eventually the public story gained social currency and overshadowed the private story, and the private story fell to the Gnostics to maintain. Of course, there’s no evidence of this, so it will have to remain in the realm of speculation.

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Posted by on May 1, 2013 in early Christianity, gnosticism, jesus myth

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