Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thoughts on SBL

Well my first trip to the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is wrapping up and I wanted to compile some reflections before heading off to the airport to fly home (I miss home!):

I've very much enjoyed my time in Boston, though I could have done without the frigid temperatures. I didn't think to bring gloves or a hat and couldn't find any to buy that were not ridiculously overpriced ($100 for a pair of gloves?!) or covered with Red Sox symbolism (boo Red Sox!), so walking outside has been less than pleasant. It builds character I guess.

As for the meeting itself, I took Mark Goodacre's advice and was very much a "tart"; perhaps too much so. I didn't stay for the whole of even one session, just picking and choosing which papers I actually wanted to hear. Partly this was so that I could catch papers at simultaneous sessions, but mainly it was just because I didn't take Goodacre's advice about not burning the candle from both ends. I couldn't help but wake up way too early each morning, but neither did I succeed in getting to bed at a reasonable hour, so any time I tried to sit through more than one or two papers in a row I'd start to nod off. Like Chris Heard, I figured it less disrespectful to leave early than to fall asleep in a session. Of course, I still managed to fall asleep a couple times, and even saw a few presenters do the same (Emmanuel Tov, reportedly, put his head on the table and took a nap after he finished giving a paper!). Perhaps because of this, I had the good fortune not to have to endure any truly awful papers (unless I slept through one!), but I'm afraid only a handful proved all that enlightening.

The highlight of the week, though, was the chance to meet with a number of people I had only previously known online (and a few total strangers). On Friday I got to have lunch with John Coleman, which was great (if you're reading this John: Start blogging again! ;), then on Sunday night we had the biblioblogger dinner which drew a good 25 people. I'm afraid I didn't get to meet even half of them, but I did enjoy good conversations with several people, including John Hobbins, Jared Calaway (whose paper on the Tabernacle in Hebrews I very much enjoyed before I even knew he was a blogger!), April DeConick and especially James McGrath. Chris Brady also recorded a podcast (with much mocking of Jim West), which I imagine he will post at some point, and Eric Sowell (who could easily pass as one of the Baldwins) wore a great shirt that said: "More people have read this shirt than your blog"! I was disappointed, however, not to get more of a chance to talk with Michael Halcomb, and didn't even realize Chris Heard was there until he posted about the dinner. Ah well, it was fun putting faces to names and getting to chat in a less formal setting.

In fact, I found meals much more conducive to good conversation than the attrocious receptions the grad schools and publishers put on each night. I guess I'm just too much an introvert but walking into a room full of people I don't recognize and trying to insert myself into their conversations is about as much fun as dental work. Apart from a couple of Princeton students whose names I have already forgotten, I didn't make a single contact at those receptions, which is a shame because I was really hoping to get a better idea of where to apply for PhD studies. Good thing I still have a year to figure it out.

As for books, I made off well. I hadn't set myself a specific budget but I was determined not to buy anything that wasn't a truly excellent deal and I got about 25 books for less than $200. Actually half of that was spent on Brill's 3 volume Context of Scripture, so I actually got 22 books for less than $100. I may or may not post a break down of how the prices on various books compared to online, but the best deals came this morning: Random House had all their display books available for just $1 a piece, and they had some great titles, including Henri Nouwin's Return of the Prodigal Son, Geza Vermes' volumes on the historical Jesus and all of Elaine Pagel's books. Also, Zondervan was giving away copies of Christopher Wright's book The God I Don't Understand, on the condition that we post a review online. I've read about a third of it so far and it is excellent. Perhaps I'll finish it on the flight home and post a review this week.

Speaking of which, if I'm going to make my flight I'd better log off and head out. I miss my family and can't wait to seem them again! And to all my new friends, I'll see you next year in New Orleans!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Jet Lag? More Like Jet Propulsion

Can someone explain jet lag to me, because it appears my body is confused. I flew from the West Coast to the East, which means my inner clock should be three hours behind (shouldn’t it?). 6 o’clock Eastern should feel like 3 o’clock Pacific, 10 o’clock like 7 o’clock, right? Logically, then, I ought to have a hard time falling a sleep at night an a hard time getting up in the morning.

But my body seems to think differently. I feel like I’m three hours ahead: 6pm feels like 9pm, while 8am feels like 11am. Thus, I’m dead tired in the evening, but then wake up at 5am as though it were time for breakfast, this despite the fact that it is actually only 2 in the morning back home. What on earth is going on?

So anyway, sorry about the dearth in posting; I’ll have something more substantial in the next day or two. Other than the sleep deprivation, I’m enjoying my time in Boston, particularly the chance to meet in person people I've only previously known online. Oh, and the books.... when even Brill is offering titles at a ridiculous discount, I'm in trouble.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Quote - Modern Paraphrases

Over at Pisteuomen, Scott Bailey made a great observation about modern paraphrase translations like The Message and The Voice. I would add that it goes both ways--if modern paraphrases can have a legitimate place, perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to judge their ancient counterparts:

It is highly ironic to me... that most modern Christians would read some of the Pseudepigrapha, or maybe something like Reworked Genesis from Qumran and be uncomfortable, or even highly critical, of the ancient practices, and here we are in our modern times with authors freely adding to the biblical writers--in some cases obfuscating what the original author wrote or adding to it in a way that is not representative of the original--and that's passable.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Profess, verb.


Yes, it is 2:00am, and yes I am still awake. Actually, I'm taking a break from my frantic push to finish a paper due tomorrow this afternoon, eating health food a McDonalds value meal (they were only place open this time of night, and I didn't want to wake my kids by banging around in the kitchen, but yuk! You'd think something this unhealthy ought to at least taste good!). The goal is to regain some energy and concentration before returning to work... Hmmm, not sure if browsing the internet is helping.... Oi!

Monday, November 17, 2008

To Boldly Go, Where Someone Has Gone Before!

In case you missed the bootleg version that's been floating around the last few days, the full HD trailer for J.J. Abram's reboot of the Star Trek franchise is due to be released this morning. All I can say is, Wow!

Update: Here it is!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How Does God Speak?

In a recent post, Michael Halcomb expressed his skepticism about claims to have heard a personal message from God:

The thing is, people can rarely ever prove that God spoke, it's like, well, you just have to take their word for it.... But then, I really think that there are legitimate instances where God speaks to people. So, I guess I'm wondering, are there any bloggers out there to whom God has spoken or speaks? If so, how does it happen and how do you know?
I responded there:

God's voice has always seemed to me less like a source of information and more like a rather forceful and focused form of conscience, persistently (sometimes even uncomfortably) pointing toward or away from certain specific decisions. It's not always been there (in fact, ignoring it is a pretty sure way to make it disappear!), but when I have experienced it, it's unmistakable.
And Michael responded:

I'm still wondering just how. Your notion of a "source of information" is interesting but still, how did you hear it? Did you "feel" more than "hear"? What?
My answer grew a bit too long for the comment thread, so I’ll post it here:

The first thing I should say is that I think God’s primary means of communication are scripture and the church, but I don’t think those are the only ways he speaks, and unless I am completely nuts, I think I have occasionally heard his voice in other ways. In my own experience, those latter cases always seemed a mix of thoughts, feelings and "coincidence," like everything in my life was pointed towards a particular choice, and usually one that I did want to make (thus, almost every time it has happened I fought God on it for a long while). At such times I always found that, if I obeyed, things turned out for the best but, if I disobeyed, they very much did not. I’ve given a number of examples in other posts, so here I'll give just one more (omitting a few personal details):

When I was a sophomore in college, for several months I strongly felt that I needed to end a certain relationship, but I had no desire to do so. There wasn't anything immoral about the relationship, but every time I prayed--heck—even when I didn’t, this persistent thought/feeling kept intruding. But I kept pushing it back, giving excuses, arguing with God that it would hurt the other person too much. This went on for months, until finally I got so fed up that one night I went out to the "Back 40" of our campus and prayed/yelled (I don't normally pray out loud, let alone at a shout!) that I didn't understand, I didn't think I could do it, and how could I even know it was God I was hearing and not just my own twisted mind? There was no voice from heaven (if that ever happens, I've not experienced it), just that persistent feeling. So finally I said: "I give up, if this is really you, God, if you really want me to do this, you're gonna have to do something drastic. Hit me over the head with a 2x4!"

I know, I know, that's not how you're supposed to talk to God (I'm rather embarrassed to admit that I did at all, but then again, it'd be nice to have that kind of passion again). Well anyway, I stood there for a few minutes, half expecting some crazed student to jump out of the woods and hit me upside the head, but nothing happened. So I sighed and turned around to walk back to campus, and immediately (I kid you not) I smacked my forehead on a big block of wood.

In all the time I was standing there, I had entirely forgotten where I was. Our campus had a raised set of railroad tracks that ran through the back 40, which the path crossed through a low walking tunnel. I happened to be standing just outside the opening of that tunnel, a bit closer than I realized, I suppose. So when I turned around I slammed my head right into the center brace holding up the roof. I think it was actually a 4x8, but I got the message, and a bad headache. ;)

But I didn't listen. After all that, I went back to my dorm intent to break it off, but I didn't follow through. In fact, I stopped arguing with God about it at all. I knew what he wanted, but I wasn’t willing to do it. So I just ignored him until finally the feeling disappeared. As it turned out, the decision (or indecision!) led to one of the most difficult years of my life. Worse, after so blatantly ignoring God, I never again felt that tug in the same way I once did.

I realize it all sounds a bit unbelievable, but there were many times in my life when similar things happened. Moreover, what convinces me that it was not just my subconscious playing tricks on me is that, when God’s voice was there, it was always unmistakably persistent and very specific--something particular I needed to do or stop doing, not a replacement for conscience, free will or critical thinking--but when it was gone, I couldn't manufacture it no matter how much I wanted to.

Ultimately, then, I do think God occasionally speaks in a more personal way, and it should never be taken lightly when he does, but I'm not convinced this is something we should be seeking as Christians (and I remain deeply skeptical of people who claim God gave them a message for someone else). There are much more important things to our relationship with God, and more important means of ascertaining God’s will, which (I think) should always be sought in the community of faith and in consultation with scripture. To center your life on seeking some private manifestation of God’s voice will seriously distort things. After all, Christianity is not supposed to be about us at all, but about loving God and neighbor. So in the end, if you want to know God’s will for your life, don’t hide in your prayer closet; start with Micah 6:8. For if you were to truly live this out, you could hardly go wrong:
He has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?

SBL Biblioblogger Dinner Time and Place

I meant to post this a few days ago, but in case anyone missed it, Michael Halcomb has the details on the biblioblogger get-together at SBL:

Time: 7pm
Location: Plaza Level: In Front of Exhibition Hall B Doors (click here for map)
Attendees: * Michael Halcomb, * James McGrath, * Nijay Gupta, * Josh McManaway, * Ken Brown, * Douglas Mangum, * Eric Sowell,* Donald Kim,* P. Gardella, * James Leonard, * Chris Brady
Restaurant: Dillon's (955 Boylston St. - click here for site , click here for menu)

If you still want to attend, click through and leave a comment. Thanks again for organizing it Michael!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quote - Science Fiction and Heroism

Sean Cubitt, editor of Aliens R Us: The Other in Science Fiction Cinema, from an excellent interview at TheoFantastique (HT James McGrath):

In the West today, we live in a deeply managed society. From traffic regulation to the management of crowd movements through malls and stations and airports; from statistical aggregation of behaviour to the management of supermarket stock, our societies work on probabilistic predictions that tomorrow will be pretty much the same as today - within statistical variations which themselves can be planned for. In this kind of world, action is incredibly difficult. It’s even more difficult because we are told over and over in our stories that only individuals can take action. But how can little me make an action that changes global warming? I can’t. We feel like action is impossible. In SF, action is possible, heroism, sacrifice, generosity, making a moral choice, changing the course of history.

Friday, November 14, 2008

New Harry Potter Trailer

I can't believe they're making us wait until July 2009, but it looks good:

And if you missed it, check out the international teaser trailer here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mark Goodacre on Dating the Early Christian Sources

Mark Goodacre has posted his SBL paper on "Dating the crucial sources of early Christianity" (PDF). I haven't had time to read more than a few pages of it yet, but it is relevant to recent discussions here so I thought I'd pass it along. (HT James McGrath)

BTW, for those non-biblical studies types who may be confused (it occurs to me that I haven't explained the acronym), SBL stands for the Society of Biblical Literature, the annual meeting of which begins next Friday in Boston.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?

Here's an interesting video, posted at Emergent Village by Steve Knight. I think this is a question that we should never stop asking:

I particularly like Tony Campolo's point near the end:

The only description that Jesus gives of Judgment Day is [based on] how we treated the poor. On that day he's not gonna ask you theological questions... you know "Virgin Birth: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree."... Here's what it's gonna be: 25th chapter of Matthew: I was hungry. Did you feed me? I was naked. Did you clothe me? I was sick. Did you care for me? I was an alien. Did you take me in? What you failed to do to the least of these, you failed to do it to me, because I'm not up in the sky somewhere, I'm waiting to be loved in people who hurt.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How Do You Read and Take Notes?

I'm curious how my fellow academics (and other book lovers) approach reading and note-taking, particularly for research. Do you take notes while reading, or mark your texts somehow and then go back later to take notes? If you mark your books, do you underline, make marginal notations, use key word summaries, or argue with the author in the margins? And when (if?) you take notes, do you summarize the overall thrust of the book or article, detail the argument (in your own words or theirs?), record key quotes, or just take note of particular points that are directly relevant to your current research? Do you organize your notes in any particular way? Do you print your notes off for use, or just use them digitally?

I've tried a number of different methods over the years but I've never settled on one that really meets my needs. At times I've underlined excessively and filled the margins of my books with questions and comments. At other times I've read with an open notebook or even in front of the computer and taken my notes while reading. Lately I usually just make quick little pencil marks in the margins (< to mark the beginning of a significant section; - for the end; * for particularly noteworthy quotes; ! for surprising statements, whether brilliant or ignorant; and ? for confusing points), with only occasional marginal notations. I then go back through later and type up some notes based on these marks.

But I'm very inconsistent in how much detail I record, especially when I am first starting research on a new subject and am not yet clear on what is significant or what my conclusions are likely to be. I've ranged everywhere from typing out in full every quote I think could possibly be useful (i.e. when I've got a monograph on inter-library loan and can only keep it for a few weeks), to recording only the barest summary of a book's contents and then just consulting the book itself as needed. No doubt there is some happy medium between those, but I've yet to find it.

Anyone want to share their own methods? Frustrations? Dirty little secrets?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Quote - Frans Neirynck on Paul's Use of the Jesus Tradition

In contrast to the last quote (and my own view falls somewhere between these two extremes), here's Frans Neirynck, "Paul and the Sayings of Jesus":

In the Pauline epistles there are two instances of an explicit reference to a command of the Lord, in 1 Cor 7,10-11 and 9,14, but there is not "quotation" of the saying... and [these] can scarcely allow for any general conclusion about Paul's acquaintance with the sayings of Jesus.

Elsewhere in the Pauline letters there is no certain trace of a conscious use of sayings of Jesus. Possible allusions to gospel sayings can be noted on the basis of form and context but a direct use of a gospel saying in the form it has been preserved in the synoptic gospels is hardly provable. Paul's knowledge of a pre-synoptic gospel, of the Q-source or pre-Q collections has not yet been demonstrated. Because of the paucity and the anonymity of the possible allusions and reminiscences, and because of their appearance together with other ethical teaching in the paraenetic sections, it remains doubtful whether Paul was using them as sayings of Jesus. (in L'Apôtre Paul: Personalité, Style, et Conception du Ministère, edited by A. Vanhoye, pg. 320)

Quote - David Wenham on Paul's Use of the Jesus Tradition

David Wenham, "Paul's Use of the Jesus Tradition: Three Samples":

Not only did he know traditions of Jesus' passion and resurrection - see 1 Corinthians 11 and 15 - but also sections of the Sermon on the Mount, Peter's benediction, the dialogue about divorce and the eschatological discourse. He may well have known the woes of the scribes and Pharisees that precede the eschatological discourse in Matthew, also the controversy stories that precede the woes, and probably the mission discourse. This list could be extended, but even this amount of evidence makes it very clear that Paul knew a considerable proportion of what we know as the synoptic tradition (particularly of the material found in Matthew 19-28 and parallels).

The evidence points to Paul's familiarity with a wide range of gospel traditions - traditions attested in the different synoptic strata (so-called 'Markan', 'Q', 'M' and 'L' material) and traditions of different types, not just sayings material. (in Gospel Perspectives Volume 5, pg. 28)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Congratulations Obama

Politics (and cynicism) aside, I want to wish my hearty congratulations to Barack Obama for becoming the first African American President. It truly is an incredible accomplishment, and a remarkable testament to the progress this country has made in the last 40 years. I sincerely hope that he can indeed bring the positive change to Washington that he has promised.

The Liberal/Conservative Dilemma

The whole modern world has divided itself into conservatives and progressives. The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected. (G.K. Chesterton)
Thank goodness today is the last day of election season here in the US (ooh, it’d better be!). There are few things I find more distasteful than partisan politics. The truth is, I am constantly frustrated by the division between “liberalism” and “conservatism.” These can carry such a wide array of senses as to be almost meaningless, but as Chesterton playfully notes, they do highlight two conflicting and often mutually destructive tendencies. Particularly when it comes to society’s response to vice, “liberals” and “conservatives” (stereotypically speaking) tend to advance mutually exclusive approaches, neither of which seems to me to offer a real solution to the problem.

The trouble is that there is rarely a one-to-one correlation between risky behavior and actual harm. Though gambling or drinking can ruin one’s life if they become addictions, they can be harmless pleasures if kept in moderation. Though drug use can be extremely dangerous, not everyone who tries drugs is harmed by them. Though casual sex can lead to unplanned pregnancy or an STD, it often does not and many people will (obviously) do it no matter what the risks are.

Now society tends to take one of two basic attitudes towards such activities. On the one hand, we can try to add artificial deterrents to make them more risky and (hopefully) less attractive. “Conservatives” who take such a view will tend to take a firm stand on right and wrong, stress the worst consequences of failure rather than the potential mitigating factors, and call for harsher sanctions and punishments for offenders, ranging from mere social disapproval to legal punishment. On the other hand, we can try to reduce the natural risks artificially, so that those who do engage in such behavior will face as little harm as possible. “Liberals” who take such a view will tend to speak non-judgmentally, give as much information about mitigating factors as possible, and call for rehabilitation rather than punishment for those who fail. Of course, both groups want to reduce the amount of harm done, but one emphasizes the dangers as a deterrent; the other emphasizes how to avoid them.

I’m grossly stereotyping of course, and probably no one falls strictly into one category or the other. But these do seem to be clear and opposing tendencies in our society, and they lead to fairly predictable results, neither of which is clearly more compassionate and dignifying than the other. The conservative approach rightly emphasizes the fact that we all have a choice whether to engage in these behaviors, and will tend to reduce the number of people who choose them, but this comes at the cost of piling much more severe harm on those who do so anyway. Alternatively, the liberal approach rightly emphasizes compassion for those in need, and will tend to reduce the harm done to those individuals who fail, but at the cost of allowing (or even encouraging) much more widespread vice. The ideal solution, it would seem, would be to discourage such activities as much as possible while simultaneously offering as much aid as possible to those who choose them anyway, but is this even possible? People are not stupid, and the cheaper a pleasure is, the more likely they are to pursue it.

And so it goes across dozens of issues. “Conservatives” rail against “liberals” for enabling abortion, while “liberals” fire back that outlawing it will only drive people to back alleys. “Liberals” accuse “conservatives” of excessively punishing drug use, while “conservatives” respond that reducing or eliminating punishments will only make the practice even more prevalent. “Conservatives” decry “liberal” socialism for enabling sloth, while “liberals” dismiss “conservatives” for their lack of compassion for the poor and powerless, etc., etc. ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

And so, not only do we have to face the fact that neither solution can work on its own, but our current system ensures that we can rarely work together to find a better alternative that could work. And I’m skeptical about the whole enterprise. Don’t get me wrong, if politics is an evil, it is a necessary one. The problem is not in the attempt to limit harm—whether by liberal or conservative methods—but the delusion that better policies can actually solve evil, as though it were a bad sum on a balance sheet. But every political season it comes to the same thing: One side accusing the other of making things worse while claiming that, if only their own plans were put into practice, all would be well. But all will not be well (nor will all fall to pieces if the “wrong” side wins), because ultimately it comes down to our choices as individuals—to pursue virtue or embrace vice, to help the needy or ignore their plight—and no policy can make these decisions for us.

Virtue cannot be imposed from above, it can only be chosen on an individual basis, and vice can abuse any system, “liberal” or “conservative.”

Monday, November 3, 2008

SBL Bibliobloggers Get-Together Sunday Evening November 23

Thanks to Michael Halcomb for taking point and organizing this:

If you are a biblio / biblica blogger and are attending SBL, you are invited to our annual gathering which, this year, will take place on Sunday evening. Whether you've just started blogging, have been blogging for years or are even considering blogging, you are welcome. We're going to meet up at the convention center and walk to a restaurant from there. A more specific time, restaurant location, etc. will be given soon. Please, if you are coming, leave a comment here so we can reserve seats at the restaurant ahead of time (this will make things go much smoother, give us more time to chat and take a lot of stress off of the restaurant employees. I will make reservations for us beforehand and post those soon enough.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Evidence for the Historical Jesus

In his several posts on the subject, Stephen Law’s primary argument for skepticism about Jesus’ existence is that the inclusion of so many miraculous events in the Gospels should lend doubt even to the mundane details given. This is, in fact, a valid objection to which could be added the important point that the gospels do show some evidence of embellishment and fabrication. He is correct that we cannot uncritically accept these texts as straightforward historical accounts. But neither can the simple fact that they include miracles automatically disqualify them as fabrications. Even if we reject all the miracle stories as too poorly attested to be believed, there are, in fact, many other aspects of the Jesus tradition which make it almost certain that it derives from a genuine historical core.

In my last post on the historical plausibility of Jesus’ existence, I noted that, even in the absence of any other evidence, the claim that he was crucified is itself very good evidence for his existence. In short, the argument runs as follows: 1. We know from independent sources that a number of messianic claimants were killed by the Romans in 1st C. Palestine; 2. We know from independent sources that crucifixion was seen as an extremely shameful death, more likely to be covered up than made up; and yet 3. We know that the early Christians were emphatic that Jesus had been crucified. Quite apart from any dubious reconstruction of motives, it is much more probable that the Christians really did believe their leader had died in this way than that they created the story from scratch. It was simply too big a liability to have been invented (indeed, it opened them up to insistent ridicule from both Jews and Greeks, leading some later Christian heretics to claim that Judas was actually tricked into dying in his place).

Thus, the crucifixion rightly stands as the most important point in any case for the historicity of Jesus, but it is by no means the only reason to believe he existed. I would now like to lay out a few of the other important evidential points which, all combined, not only make Jesus’ historical existence almost certain but also lend a level of support to the broad-scale reliability of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Here I am building on Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd’s 2007 book The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition:

External Evidence: As has widely been recognized, the external evidence for Jesus’ existence is far from overwhelming. If we lacked the New Testament, we truly would have little reason for confidence in Jesus’ existence. None of the extant sources provide unquestionable evidence, but several of them are important. For instance, the Gospel of Thomas seems to include some early traditions about Jesus that are independent of the canonical Gospels. Since it is a collection of sayings rather than a narrative, it obviously provides no evidence of the activities of Jesus, but it does offer a measure of confirmation for his existence, and since it includes no miracles, Stephen’s objection on that point can be dismissed.

Among non-Christian sources, things are more dubious. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews twice mentions Jesus, but both cases have been widely dismissed as later Christian interpolations. There are strong arguments both ways, so any conclusion must be tentative, but in my view, the reference to James, “the brother of Jesus, who is called Christ” (20.9.1) seems very slightly more likely to be original than an interpolation for a variety of reasons. In contrast, the fuller description of Jesus (18.3.3) has clearly been tampered with, but there are good reasons to think this tampering represents secondary attempts to Christianize an already existing reference. For instance, the distinctly Christian elements (“if it be lawful to call him a man,” “He was the Christ,” “for he appeared to them alive again the third day”) all interrupt the flow of the passage. When these are removed, the resulting text is as follows:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
This reconstructed text boasts a number of elements which are unlikely to have been invented by Christians (such as the claim that the Jewish leaders who accused Jesus were “men of the highest standing among us” and the reference to Christians as a “tribe”). It also finds support in the modern discovery of a 10th C. Arabic translation of this text (first published in 1971) in which the three clear Christian interpolations are all absent or altered, confirming their secondary nature. Admittedly, the case is not certain, but Josephus does at least provide potential confirmation of Jesus’ existence and crucifixion.

Outside of Josephus, matters are even less clear. Though we have a variety of later non-Christian references to Christ, it is unlikely that any of them provide genuine independent evidence of his existence. Still, it should be noted that the later critics—like Taticus (an early 2nd C. Roman historian), Celsus (who wrote an attack on Christianity in the late 2nd C.), and several references in the Jewish Talmud—all denigrate Jesus (and his followers) rather than dismissing his existence outright. Since ancient philosophers and historians did occasionally question the existence of various mythic figures (such as the Homeric heroes), it is reasonable to think that if these critics knew of any reason to doubt his existence, they would have mentioned it. This is, admittedly, an argument from silence, but the fact that such was never claimed is at least noteworthy, though by no means conclusive.

Again, if such references were all we had, Jesus’ existence would rightly be in serious doubt. Though these might provide a measure of confirmation, it is the New Testament itself which must provide the most important evidence for an historical Jesus, and it does in fact deliver. Of the many issues that could be raised here, we will focus on just three aspects of the Synoptic Gospels (particularly Mark, widely recognized as the earliest), in increasing order of importance: 1. The inclusion of various incidental details which point to early Palestinian tradition; 2. The omission of any retrojection of various issues of central importance to 1st C. Christianity; and 3. The inclusion of embarrassing details about Jesus’ life.

1. Inclusion of Incidental Details: The gospels include a number of details about early 1st C. Palestine (including knowledge of geography, customs, and figures) that do not appear to be “ideologically motivated,” and can point to an historical core to the story. This evidence is, admittedly, the least secure of those we will discuss, as a knowledgeable author could perhaps have added such details even if writing fiction, but at the least, they help establish the knowledgeability of the Gospel writers (or the traditions they are based on) and point to the early, and very Jewish, nature of the tradition as it has come down to us.

To name just one class of evidence here, note that despite the fact that our Gospels were written in Greek (and are widely claimed by Jesus-deniers to be thoroughly Hellenized), they include a number of Aramaisms which point to much older Jewish traditions. Examples from Mark include Jesus’ use of Abba, meaning “father” (14:36); talitha koum, meaning “little girl, get up!” (5:41); Ephphatha, meaning “Be opened!” (7:34); Rabbi , meaning “teacher” (9:5); and especially Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, meaning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (15:34). The fact that all of these (except Rabbi) are glossed into Greek points to their being holdovers from an older tradition. Additionally, the last of these also fulfills the criterion of embarrassment (see below), as it runs counter to the usual depiction of Jewish martyrs as unperturbed and confident of their salvation (cf. Acts 7 and the 1st C. text 4 Maccabees), and is thus omitted from Luke and John.

That such Aramaisms were not simply added to give the account an artificial sense of antiquity is evident from the fact that the tradition itself shows a tendency to remove rather than add them (thus Matthew and Luke eliminate most of these). This, by itself, does not prove that the tradition goes back to Jesus, only that it goes back to the earliest Christians who spoke Aramaic, but it does lend considerable doubt to the notion that Jesus was fabricated to correspond to the Greco-Roman redeemer myths. If there are parallels to such non-Jewish myths (they are never explicitly invoked in the New Testament), such is more likely to be a secondary layer of interpretation of an older Jewish Jesus tradition than its original source.

2. Omission of Relevant Issues: A more important point is the omission from the Gospels of a number of items that we might have expected them to include if they were pure fabrications. The tradition does show some tendency towards reading later issues back into the life of Jesus (e.g. the anachronistic mentions of expulsion from the synagogue in John 9:22; 12:42 and 16:2), but it is surprising how many of the topics that were highly controversial in the first century church (as indicated by the New Testament epistles) go unmentioned in the Gospels. For instance, given that Jesus was incessantly referred to as the Christ by the early Church (the NT Epistles are full of references), it is remarkable that the Gospels present Jesus as downplaying this title. Such is extremely difficult to imagine being a fabrication.

Alternatively, other vital issues are entirely ignored by Jesus, such as the necessity or unimportance of Gentiles being circumcised in order to become Christians (an issue which divided Paul from the Jerusalem church, including Peter, James and John). In fact, the Gospels evidence a remarkable lack of interest in matters relevant to Diaspora Judaism, despite the fact that they almost certainly reached their final form in the Diaspora after the fall of Jerusalem. They are simply dominated by Palestinian concerns, which is extremely difficult to square with claims that the tradition is entirely fabricated. This provides strong evidence of the relatively conservative nature of the Synoptic Gospels and suggests that they contain at least some genuinely historical information about an early 1st C. teacher.

3. Inclusion of Embarrassing Details: The most compelling evidence for an historical Jesus, however, is the inclusion of so many “embarrassing” details in the Jesus tradition. Though the crucifixion itself stands at the head of this group (and its importance must not be underestimated), the canonical Gospels are full of details that are unlikely to have been invented. By tracing the Jesus’ tradition across the various gospels (canonical and non-canonical), we can clearly see that the later texts do tend to soften or omit these items, proving that their embarrassing nature was evident to the early Christians themselves, and thus their fabrication is unlikely. The following is only a partial list, drawing exclusively from Mark, but should establish just how widespread this phenomenon is:

Mark admits that Jesus’ own family questioned his sanity, while others accused him of demon-possession (3:20-30); Jesus was rejected by the people of his hometown and could not perform many miracles there (6:1-5); he sometimes seemed to rely on folk medical techniques, which were not always immediately successful (e.g 7:31-37, 8:22-25); he associated with people of ill-repute (e.g. 2:14-17) and seemed to disregard a number of Jewish laws, customs and cleanliness codes (e.g. 2:23-27); he spoke and acted in culturally “shameful” ways (e.g. 3:31-35); he cursed a fig tree for lacking fruit even though it was not the correct season for figs (11:13-14); the disciples—including the leaders of the early church—are frequently presented in an unfavorable light, often seeming dim-witted, obstinate and cowardly (e.g. 10:35-45; 14:37-40; 14:50); indeed Jesus was betrayed by an inner-circle disciple (14:43-46), while Peter himself is called “Satan” (8:32-33) and denies any association with Jesus at the crucial moment (14:66-72); and the empty tomb itself was discovered by women (16:1-8).

Some of these are easier to explain away than others (e.g. Jesus’ disregard of purity regulations could well be an interpolation reflecting later Christian practice), but others are virtually impossible to imagine as fabrications (e.g. that Jesus’ own family “went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’” [3:21]; a detail omitted from all the later gospels). In most of these cases, the tradition after Mark indicates a strong tendency to downplay or omit such details (an exception is the betrayal by Judas, which was subsequently played up), verifying their embarrassing nature. Taken together, the inclusion of such material strongly suggest an historical core to the Jesus tradition as preserved in Mark, not only making Jesus existence almost certain, but even providing a measure of confirmation for the reliability of the Synoptic Gospels as a whole.

Conclusion: Though individually the above arguments (which are by no means exhaustive) might be questioned, their combined force is considerable. They do not, of course, prove the New Testament accounts “inerrant” (nor do I believe that they are), but they do make the plausibility of a purely fictional Jesus extremely unlikely. Yet as they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and ultimately the near unanimity of New Testament scholars (from conservative to liberal) about the basic details of Jesus’ life—that he was an itinerant preacher who was crucified in the first third of the 1st C.—is not based on such arguments so much as the basic usefulness of the assumption. The alternatives offer no where near as much explanatory power, and depend on far too much speculation and skepticism. In contrast, the rise and shape of early Christianity and the New Testament simply make the most sense when viewed as a reaction to an historical Jesus. In every way, the early church evidences its profound debt to the unique personality, distinctive teaching, shameful death, and (purported) resurrection of Jesus.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Bibliobloggers Get Together at SBL

For those who will be at SBL, Michael Halcomb is trying to nail down a time for bloggers to get together. The options are: Saturday 1) Lunch or 2) Dinner or Sunday 3) Lunch or 4) Dinner. My vote is for Sunday dinner (4), but head over to Pisteumen and vote for yourselves.