Humor in Biblical Studies

July 26, 2015

Almost a year ago I finished expanding my posts on Brodie’s Jesus-didn’t-exist book and Ehrman’s yes-he-did book into an article for an academic peer-reviewed journal, to be published later this year.  As I did more research on this controversy, one aspect of it struck me forcefully: many or most people on both sides of the fence were remarkably intolerant and contemptuous of the other side.

In what you might think of as an “academic” debate why should people get so incensed at and abusive toward those who disagree?  Realistically speaking, what palpable effect does it have on anyone whether someone else believes or disbelieves the historicity of a literary character from millennia-old texts?

In reading and thinking about this issue I reached a conclusion that may sound counter-intuitive:  the very best biblical scholars are those that maintain a sense of humor toward their subject matter and toward those who disagree with them.  And I mean a good-natured sense of humor, not a sarcastic sense of humor.  The issue is this:  I see contemptuous and abusive language as evidence that the perpetrator likely has some kind of vested interest in a particular belief about the subject.  They may be Christian believers for whom the claim that Jesus never existed threatens their own eternal salvation or their ability to proselytize others.  Or they may be anti-religion and think that the claim that Jesus did exist harms their anti-proselytization efforts.  In any case, there is probably some vested interest or they wouldn’t react so virulently.

Having a vested interest in a viewpoint or in the outcome of an investigation blinds people to opposing evidence and arguments.  A good-natured sense of humor is often evidence that someone is open to all of the evidence and all of the viewpoints.  Sometimes that attitude shows up in person but not so much in their writing, as is true of Thomas Brodie. Sometimes – unfortunately rarely among biblical scholars – it shows up in their writing. 

Michael Goulder was one of the greatest biblical scholars of our time, and part of his greatness is in the sense of humor that finds expression in his writing. A great example is in a by-now little known text he wrote in the 1970s. At the time, incarnation theology was debated as vigorously as Jesus’s existence is today.  “The incarnation” is the belief held by many Christians that “God became man” in Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ was at the same time both human and God.  For Goulder the very idea is nonsense in the same way that that the idea of Jesus’s non-existence is nonsense to Bart Ehrman, but look at how Goulder deals with the idea and its contemporary supporters.

Modern kenotic theologians,  like Professor E. L. Mascall or Fr. H. McCabe, seem to opt instead for vacuity: Jesus is metaphysically the Word of God, in his person, in his ego, but his human nature or consciousness is not affected by this. I will return to Mascall shortly, but perhaps I may make the general point with a parable. Returning from abroad with a friend, I hear that the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedlam is Lord Beaver. ‘What!’, I say, ‘A new V-C?’ No, replies my friend, ‘the old V-C, Sir Robert Badger, must have become a peer’. In the distance Lord Beaver looks like Sir Robert, and the voice is similar, and the same conspicuous probity governs all his actions; but on closer acquaintance the differences seem obvious. ‘Oh’, says my friend, ‘he must have had a face-lift; and his voice is pitched deeper because of the new dignity; and he will have had a new central nervous system put in for the job: but It is the same chap.’ Soon I feel driven to ask ‘But what is in common between the V -C we knew and the V -C we know?’ If I am told, ‘Nothing. But metaphysically they are the same: It is a paradox’, two consequences will follow: first, I shall feel totally mystified, and second, I shall suspect that what began as a misidentification is being maintained from a reluctance to confess error.

– Michael Goulder, Incarnation and Myth. The Debate Continued (Eerdmans, 1979), 54-55.

Every time I read this I have to laugh out loud when I get to “he will have had a new central nervous system put in for the job: but it is the same chap.”

Why can’t more scholars write like this?  There is no contempt here for Mascall and McCabe; there is rather a feeling of “mystification” at how people could maintain a position that seems nonsensical to the author.  Notice also the tentative nature of the language: rather than expressions of certainty we read phrases like “seem to” with regard to the other’s’ position and  “I shall suspect” with regard to the author’s position.

Ironically, it is the scholars who express absolute certainty of their own views and contempt for others who should be treated with the most suspicion. This principle is an especially important guideline for readers who don’t have sufficient academic background to judge the evidence themselves. And scholars who express themselves in measured tones like Goulder are most to be trusted – partly because in point of fact, there is precious little that can be said with absolute certainty about any ancient literature, including biblical texts.


Lemche on the Prophets

April 26, 2015

I’ve already devoted a couple of posts to Niels Peter Lemche’s survey of modern biblical scholarship, The Old Testament between Theology and History.  But there’s more to it worth mentioning, such as its discussion of the prophetic books.


The prophets are literary, not historical, characters

Lemche points out that extra-biblical sources witness to the existence in the ancient world of “prophets” in the sense of people who claimed to foretell the future, but “prophet” in the sense of moralizing gadfly is found only in the Bible.

The prophetic literature in the Old Testament remains unique. With their emphasis on moral disorder and social injustice, the biblical prophets are still more lay preachers than prophets in the proper sense. (3015-16)

He suggests that the image of the preacher-prophet was made up at a late date and then injected into the early history of Israel by the Old Testament’s ultimate editors and authors.  Thus both the activity and discourse of the prophets that we find in the Old Testament is largely fictional, each prophetic book having been constructed or substantially elaborated much later than its putative author lived. This is not an uncommon conclusion among biblical scholars.

Today, many scholars are more hesitant when it comes to attributing certain passages to prophets who might have lived several centuries before their books achieved the shape in which they have been handed down to posterity. (3025)

The prophets’ discourses as we have received them in the prophetic books often don’t even address issues relevant during the supposed time of the prophets’ lives.

These basic prophecies were worked over in several phases in such a way that they represented the sentiments and ideas of the time of their reworking rather than their original situation. (3044)

Likewise, the biographical details found in prophetic books may be complete fabrications.

Much of this construction [of the prophet’s life and career] might only be literature, and the handling of Jeremiah’s biography in his book might be compared to the way early Christianity elaborated the traditions about Jesus, resulting in the present construct of his life in the Gospels. (3033)

What is striking about Lemche’s discussion of the prophets for one who has read New Testament scholars such as Brodie is the degree to which the literary handling of the prophets, and the limited degree of historical knowledge we can have about them, parallels the way New Testament authors handled Jesus and the limited degree of historical knowledge we can have about him.

Just as some scholars have come to question Jesus’s existence as a historical character, so too with the prophets. Lemche points out that ultimately we don’t even know if any given prophet existed historically, even in the case of such an important one as Isaiah.

When scholars argue in favor of the existence of a prophet of this name attributable to the eighth century BCE, it is no more than the scholar’s assertion, which has no support in other ancient documents. This does not mean that there never was a prophet of the name of Isaiah; it only tells us that we have no information that proves his existence. (1542-44)

Because of a lack of evidence, it cannot be denied that fragments of prophecies may originate … in the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Whether such fragments go back to prophets like Isaiah or Hosea is basically a question that cannot be answered. It is probably also a question of no real importance. (3285-87)

Protestant theology distorted modern scholars’ interpretation of the prophets

Lemche explains that modern scholars realized early on the questionable historicity and late origins of the bulk of the prophetic books, but it didn’t suit their theological inclinations. They were predominantly Protestant and wanted to see a division between Protestant-like prophetism and later rules-bound Judaism. So they portrayed the prophets as predating the Law.

In this way the prophets was considered to be “proto-evangelists” and their religion much closer to Christianity than later Judaism. (3141)

Their groundless historicizing of the prophets led to interpreting fictional texts as historical in ways that misrepresented what they were about, and also to inconsistent translations of English versions of the Bible.

According to this line of scholarship, the prophets used the word torah without the connotations that became part of its semantics in Judaism. This is the reason for the many times when, even in the NRSV, torah is translated as “instructions” in texts believed to belong to preexilic prophets, and as “law” in texts considered “Jewish.” (3142-43)

Another thing that struck me from reading Lemche’s book is the degree to which a putative division between “early Israelite religion” and Judaism is a figment of the imagination of historians who are mistakenly attributing an early date to certain texts that in reality are much later. Just as Trobisch argues for the unity of a New Testament that appears to have been published as a literary unit, the Old Testament appears to be composed of texts that were substantially molded at a given time — making them to a great extent a literary unity as well.

In both cases the scriptural authors and editors devoted their efforts to creating narratives and treatises intended to influence people’s behavior. In both cases we see a determination to depart radically from historical reality wherever doing so would better serve the intended function of the text, to the degree that anyone who today interprets a scriptural text as a reliable historical source will be largely misled.

Bike-walking Buck

April 5, 2015

It’s been a while since I wrote a dog-hike post, mainly because I’ve only been doing familiar, close-in trails. Buck has not been entirely happy with this state of affairs, as he considers even a six hour hike covering 14 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain disappointingly short.  So I’ve been keeping him active in other ways.

For a while I gave him more run-free time by going to a large unofficial off-leash area near the Microsoft Advanta campus in Bellevue. This is a former airport, later garbage dump, and now a grassy field east of 156th Ave NE across from the State Troopers facility.  There a group of dog owners regularly congregate around a bench to talk while the dogs play.  In the picture on my About page I’m sitting on that bench.


Taking Buck there had its disadvantages.  He’s not a fetch-and-retrieve dog, so he didn’t get much exercise.  And the area is teeming with rabbits.  It would have been fine if his only rabbit interaction was chasing them from grass to blackberry thicket, but he spent far more time seeking out and eating “rabbit nuggets.”

Then it occurred to me that we could go farther on our daily walks if I rode a bike.  At first I resisted the idea, thinking it would be really awkward and the leash would get tangled or I’d run into Buck or he’d stick his nose through the spokes while the wheels were turning.  But I decided to try it, and it worked out much better than expected, with one exception.

The leash-tangling hazard was resolved by using a retractable leash – it always stays taut between you and the dog.  I have two – a 16 footer and a 26 footer.  The 16 retracts more reliably, the 26 allows more freedom of movement for the dog.


This all worked out well until one day I was biking with Buck along 156th Ave NE on the sidewalk the other side of the road from the State Trooper facility.  Suddenly he took off running hard, after I knew not what.  The leash spun noisily out to its limit and yanked me forward. Brakes were useless and soon I was speeding along much too fast for safety.  Then Buck crashed into the bushes and I knew I was next.  I let go of the leash just as my bike plunged into the undergrowth in the ditch.  The thicket stopped the bike abruptly and I went head over heels past the handlebars.  At least the thick branches cushioned my fall – a little to the right or left and I’d have landed head first in rocks. 

Meanwhile I heard a pitched battle going on somewhere beyond me in the woods, growls and snarls and yips and barks, and it sounded like Buck was getting beat up.  But I couldn’t see anything, as my glasses had come off.  And when I found them the lens on one side had popped out.  Never did find it.  Slowly I climbed up out of the bushes and made my way over to the battleground where I found Buck tangling with a raccoon.  I found the leash end, and with great effort dragged him away.  I bicycled home with one-eyed glasses, keeping Buck on a shorter-than-was-really-necessary leash. irrationally upset with him though of course the mishap was my fault for not being prepared for such an eventuality. 

Buck paid for that encounter by having to wear the “cone of shame” after getting treated for Raccoon scratches. 


I had to get a new pair of glasses.  And a new plan for bike-walking Buck.  I developed a new strategy:  whenever bike-walking the dog I am prepared to let go of the leash immediately if Buck takes off after something (usually it’s a squirrel hustling to get the nearest tree).  Then I catch up at a safe bike speed, dismount, and retrieve the end of the leash.

(Why not just train him to stop when commanded, you ask.  I’ve done that, and sometimes it works.  But over time between refresher courses the strength of that training wanes.  And even when the training is fresh, sometimes instinct trumps even effective obedience training. Different dogs respond differently to training, and so-called dog training experts who assume you can achieve anything with any dog don’t realize dog personalities are as varied and unique as humans’. )

These events don’t happen very often, but I’ve avoided a couple crashes that way since the raccoon affair, and we’ve done a lot of bike-walking.  Here’s a picture of my bike and Buck at Enatai beach in Bellevue, with the leash hanging from the fence rail in the background.


Of course, it’s also nice to be able to ride without holding on to a leash where that’s possible, and I’ve been doing more of that too over the last year. Here’s a picture taken near lake Keechelus. The yellow bottle in the bike water carrier is the dog water bottle you see in the Granite Mountain post.


Lemche, Certainty, and the Obama Crusades Controversy

March 14, 2015

Obama hit the nail on the head when he ascribed religion-inspired violence not so much to particular religious doctrines as to “fierce certainty” — shared by some Christians as well as Islamic militants — “that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others.” Adherents of any religion who firmly hold in mind the humble thought, “I might be wrong” are likely to be more respectful of other religions.  For Christians who find that difficult because they think their religion is unique, Niels Peter Lemche’s survey of modern biblical scholarship, The Old Testament between Theology and History, may be an eye-opener.


Lemche explains that over time scholars have come to realize that from beginning to end what the Bible presents as one long history from Adam to Ezra and Nehemiah has very little actual history in our sense of that word in it.

Scholars have long recognized the creation, flood, and other narratives preceding the story of Abraham to be legendary, but since the 1970s the stories about the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) have also been recognized as fictional.

Apart from some conservative authors, no serious Old Testament scholar will nowadays accept the age of the patriarchs as a historical period. (1732*)

The story of Moses and the exodus has gone the same way.

Thus the story of the exodus is about as legendary as the patriarchal narratives. It definitely has a different topic, but when it comes to the historical content, these two biblical traditions are on the same level. (1818)

The next presumption of historicity to fall was regarding the supposed conquest of Canaan by the Israelites after the exodus.

… it still remains certain that the Israelite conquest of Canaan as related by the book of Joshua lacks every historical foundation. (1890)

The period of judges following the conquest must also be discarded. For years scholars confidently talked about the existence of a tribal confederation called the “amphictyony” and that too has passed into the realm of once-solid scholarly consensuses later abandoned.

The sad end of the hypothesis of the amphictyony showed how fragile the edifice of the scholars had been. Old Testament scholars had constructed the amphictyony rather than reconstructed it on the basis of available sources. (1925)

What about mighty David and wise Solomon?

… about the two great kings of Israel there is complete silence [in contemporary records]. Not a single inscription has been found from their time, not a single fragment of an imperial construction. Not one contemporary document from the ancient Near East mentions either of these two imperial monarchs. (1974)

From the perspective of the tenth century, David and Solomon are invisible. It is as if they never lived. (1978)

(Thomas L. Thompson’s Biblical Narrative and Palestine’s History points out that archeological evidence also leads to a similar conclusion:  “… we lack evidence of a city of the tenth century in Jerusalem and, even more importantly, evidence of any significant population in the Judean highlands.” p.147)

After David and Solomon the Old Testament tells us about a series of kings of Israel and Judah. Many of the royal names are accurate, but the stories told about them are largely fiction.

Near Eastern documents indicate that the history of Israel and Judah-at least between about 850 BCE and 587 BCE-is not totally an invention. (2072)

Perhaps the perspective is not totally wrong, but it is also possible that the perspective on the history of Israel and Judah presented by the historiographer has as little to do with history as was the case of the traditions of the earlier parts of Israel’s history. (2090)

Lemche points out that the Old Testament historiographers actually had little documentation to work with and in one instance where we can see what they had, we see that they expanded very little data into a largely fictional story.

The conclusion must be that the historiographer writing the story of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah possessed some exact information as short annalistic notes. The historiographer was hardly in possession of much additional material. It probably was of little importance to the historiographer, who was not shy about rewriting his information into legendary tales. The best example-an example that can be examined by modern historians-is the story of Sennacherib’s attack on Judah in 701 BCE. Here a short note (2 Kgs. 18:13-16) of definite historical importance has, at the hand of the historiographer, been vastly expanded into a fairy tale about God’s deliverance of his beloved city (2 Kgs. 18:17-19:37). (2224)

The same expansion of a tiny historical seed into a gigantic fictional tree may be true of the famous Babylonian exile.

The lack of information about the Babylonian exile in and outside of the Old Testament means that we know almost nothing about this exile. … At some point the scholar has to ask himself, was this exile real? … Could it be an ideological construction created at a later date to legitimize the right of the Jews to Palestine in spite of the fact that they were not the only ones whose ancestors had lived in the country? (2140)

Finally even the post-exile stories about Ezra and Nehemiah are largely just that – stories.

The consequence is that biblical authors may have invented a hero of Jewish faith by the name of Ezra who is the person who recites the Law of Moses to the people and completes an ethnic cleansing of the Jewish nation. Ezra is the true father of Judaism, although he seems to have no family and an invented genealogy. (2205)

In conclusion the entire sweep of Old Testament “history” is a collection of made-up stories wrapped around a remarkably thin framework of historical facts.

It has to be maintained that the story of ancient Israel in the Old Testament from Abraham to Ezra and Nehemiah is about a history that never happened. (2220)

… the biblical version of Israel’s history “never happened.” There was never a historical development of the kind narrated by the biblical historiographer. (2915)

Nothing indicates that the [Old Testament] historiographers were very interested in the past as it really was. (2525)

It is not possible to reconstruct the history of Israel in ancient times on the basis of the information in the Old Testament. This circumstance has not deterred scholars from writing such impossible histories. (2231)

It is clear that the Old Testament perspective of history absolutely distorts the facts. The historiographers of the Old Testament have absolutely no interest in the real history of Palestine in ancient times. (5655)

Does this matter to Christians?  It does for those whose faith depends on the New Testament stories about Jesus being “true” in the sense of reflecting historical reality. The New Testament is built firmly on the foundation of the Old Testament, and if the foundation is not about historical reality, neither is the edifice built upon it. I’ve already written elsewhere about problems with the historicity of Jesus stories, and everything Lemche reports about what scholars have found in the Old Testament adds to those problems.

The belief by Christians that the Bible as a whole reflects historical reality is what necessitates the belief that Christianity is uniquely “true” compared to other religions.  That in turn is the first step on a road to the kind of “fierce certainty” that leads at best to a condescending attitude toward other religions and at worst to ISIS-like behavior.

Lemche cites a statement by James Albright that shows what I mean. Albright was a prominent scholar who led the effort to use archeology to prove the historical reliability of the Bible. Regarding the Biblical account of how after the exodus the Israelites – at God’s command — killed off and drove out the residents of Canaan (Palestine) and took over the land, Albright assumed it was historically true and had this to say about it:

It was fortunate for the future of monotheism that the Israelites of the Conquest were a wild folk, endowed with primitive energy and ruthless will to exist, since the resulting decimation of the Canaanites prevented the complete fusion of the two kindred folk which would almost inevitably have depressed Yahwistic standards to the point where recovery was impossible. Thus the Canaanites, with their orgiastic nature worship, their cult of fertility in the form of serpent symbols and sensuous nudity, and their gross mythology, were replaced by Israel, with its pastoral simplicity and purity of life, its lofty monotheism, and its severe code of ethics. (4405)

How different is this from a Muslim who today justifies ISIS beheadings as necessary in order to promote the victory of Islam?  Does it really make a difference whether you’re approving atrocities that were done days ago or three thousand years ago?

So Obama was right: “fierce certainty” of having a lock on “the truth” makes Christianity and Christians a part of the problem no less than Islam and Muslims.  Where he missed the boat – deliberately for political reasons perhaps – is by omitting to mention that the same issue applies to Judaism and Jews and the state of Israel. 

In the article Obama and Palestine’s Forgotten Past, Old Testament scholar Keith Whitelam decries statements made by Obama while in Israel, in which the president one-sidedly supported Israeli views about biblical history, views which depend wholly on this now-discredited view of Old Testament history.

Lemche too points out the real-life consequences of misinterpreting biblical texts, in his introduction to the Albright quote cited above.  He warns that such interpretations have been used and continue to be used to inspire and justify violence in our own day:

The modern “translation” of this ideology formed the intellectual background of the Jewish return to Palestine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, now with the sword replaced by a gun. The Arab population, whether Muslim or Christian, had to be viewed as foreign intruders without any right to the country. The Bible turned into a tool for suppressing other people and for ethnic cleansing … (4400)

*References to Lemche’s book are to location numbers in the Kindle edition.

Obama, the Crusades, Niels Peter Lemche, and Old Testament History

February 11, 2015

On February 5, President Obama made a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in which he reminded listeners that Christians too, not only Islamic terrorists, have done horrible things in the name of service to God. The ensuing storm of protest is well represented by the expression of outrage that Governor Jindal of Louisiana posted on the state government website:

It was nice of the President to give us a history lesson at the Prayer breakfast.  Today, however, the issue right in front of his nose, in the here and now, is the terrorism of Radical Islam, the assassination of journalists, the beheading and burning alive of captives.
We will be happy to keep an eye out for runaway Christians, but it would be nice if he would face the reality of the situation today. The Medieval Christian threat is under control Mr. President. Please deal with the Radical Islamic threat today.

Reading comments like this makes me wonder, how many of these people actually listened to or read the president’s remarks in context before condemning them? 

It’s as though everyone heard a short sound bite including the word “Crusades” and jumped out with guns blazing.  But anyone who actually reads the whole speech will find a remarkably well balanced and thought-out composition.  For those without time to read its 2,900 words, here’s a recap of the main points, illustrated with selected quotations.

Obama begins by posing the paradox that religion can be a force for good or misused as a force for evil:

… around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another [examples follow] …

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. [examples follow, including ISIL barbarism] …

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious [faiths] for their own murderous ends?

Some Christians are tempted to blame Islam itself for the evils perpetrated in its name, and so Obama pointedly reminds them that their religion is equally subject to “hijacking for murderous ends.” Notice that “Crusades” is just one out of four examples Obama cites, all of them valid evidence to make a valid point that this is not a case of good religion vs. bad religion.

… lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. [example of religious strife in India follows]

So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.

Having pointed out the problem, he moves on to say that we all have a duty to do something about the intolerance that lies at the root of terrorism.

In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.  And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

The first of three guiding principles for how to combat the evils of religious violence is humility:

… we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

… we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.

… as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends.

A practical way to foster humility is to uphold freedom of religion and freedom of speech:

And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion …

There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility.  They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

…  the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment …

The second guiding principle is separation of church and state:

… the result [of separation of church and state] is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion … So the freedom of religion is a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world, and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States. [examples follow showing U.S. support for people persecuted abroad for their religious beliefs]

And the third and last guiding principle is the Golden Rule:

And, finally, let’s remember that if there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths … that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated. … Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, and bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred. [examples follow showing how people of different religions endorse this principle] …

The speech ends with a call to action, after reiterating the primary guiding principle:

If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose.  We can never fully fathom His amazing grace.  “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love.  But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required:  To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

I’m not one to get excited about politicians’ speeches, and I’m usually on the opposite side of the political fence from Obama, but this is a magnificent speech. Content such as this could have come from a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Dalai Lama. It’s the perfect call to action against terrorism for a prayer breakfast.

Contra Governor Jindal, Obama’s speech did indeed address “the issue right in front of his nose, in the here and now, … the terrorism of Radical Islam, the assassination of journalists, the beheading and burning alive of captives.” The speech explicitly mentions ISIL’s barbarism as an example that springs from the kind of intolerance that we all have a responsibility to counteract.

Obama’s prescription for counteracting such evil – maintaining an attitude of humility, affirming freedom of speech and religion, and living by the Golden Rule — is precisely the way that each of us can play a role however indirectly in dealing with the root cause of terrorism. Jindal’s dismissive remark “The Medieval Christian threat is under control Mr. President. Please deal with the Radical Islamic threat today” totally misses the point. It’s not a long gone “Medieval Christian threat,” it’s a very real modern Christian threat. When modern Christians assume with “fierce certainty” that their religion is right and Islam is wrong, they are part of the problem rather than the solution.

In a national prayer breakfast speech Obama had no need to mention that he is dealing with the terrorist threat militarily where appropriate. He’s given ample proof in other contexts that he’s not naïvely assuming we can always forego that kind of response. The appropriate subject of a prayer breakfast speech would be how people of faith can best respond to the situation, and he hit that nail right on the head.

That said, what does all this have to do with Old Testament?  The issue is this:  some Christians tend strongly toward that “fierce certainty” which is the opposite of humility and breeds the intolerance that is behind so much evil in the world.  Obama’s attempt to help them see a different perspective by reminding them of past horrors inspired and condoned by Christianity seems to have aroused more indignation than humility. But a different approach might work better: what if you could show Christians that a basis for that tolerant perspective can be found right in the pages of their own Bible?

Enter Niels Peter Lemche’s survey of modern biblical scholarship, The Old Testament between Theology and History.


Lemche is one of a growing body of biblical scholars whose work, if understood and taken seriously, undermines the “fierce certainty” of some Christians “that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others.” In subsequent posts I’ll recount how what we have learned about the Old Testament can help Christians accept that other religions have equal access to truth and equally inspire “the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths.”

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor versus Thomas Brodie

July 20, 2014

I’m developing my posts on the Brodie and Ehrman books into a review article for an academic journal. That has led me to read a lot of material written to debate whether Jesus was a historical person, and the most prominent characteristic I’ve found is acrimony. Relatively few people seem able to engage in this debate without sounding indignant about or contemptuous toward the opposing side.

Thomas Brodie is an exception. Even when responding directly to Bart Ehrman in his book Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, he maintains a respectful, matter-of-fact tone. Search high and wide through Brodie’s writings and you’ll find no expressions of contempt for those who disagree with him or anger at them for disagreeing. I attended several of his sessions at the 2012 SBL conference and met him for lunch, and found him to have a good-natured sense of humor at all times. Great enthusiasm for the study of scripture and nothing negative to say about anyone. I believe his respectful attitude toward all, including those who take opposing stands, is part of the reason why so much of what he writes shows more insight than most of his peers. I am not personally convinced by everything he’s written, but I respect his scholarly judgment and consider him to be one of the half-dozen or so greatest New Testament scholars of our time.

But most people are not so affable about disagreement when they perceive it as relating to religious beliefs. Brodie paid a heavy price personally and professionally for “coming out” publicly with the belief that Jesus was strictly a literary character. Although his book also eloquently expressed the strength of his Christian faith, the first consequence was the loss of his job as director of the Dominican Biblical Institute. The situation is described well in Thomas Brodie and Intellectual Honesty in Biblical Studies, a blog post by a colleague who had been one of his students:

While arguing for the non-existence of Jesus is nothing new and not unheard of in scholarship (where the term is mythicism) it is controversial when it comes from the pen of a Dominican priest. Sensing trouble over this publication Brodie did not consult the Church first – something which he was required to do. This resulted in a ban from publishing, teaching and preaching, and Brodie resigned his position as director of the Dominican Biblical Institute in Limerick. This resignation was not of his choosing, I am sure of that. I was a student of Brodie for the past 5 years and he would be in his office before 8am every day and would not leave until at least 9pm – 7 days a week. He was extremely dedicated and passionate and would not walk away from his work lightly.

What it comes down to is intellectual honesty in biblical studies and that can be fairly limited depending on your background. Thomas Brodie gave a great display in intellectual honesty in the publication of his last book and he was crucified (ahem!) for it. … Someone remarked to me that he was intellectually dishonest in not saying this sooner and that this was underneath all his previous research and we did not have the full picture. My answer to that was that he had little choice until now. He made clear in the first page of this book that if he didn’t say it now he never would as he is an aging man. He threw caution to the wind and paid the price.

Another consequence for Brodie was a public attack against him in print. The official journal of the Dominican order, Doctrine & Life, devoted its July, 2013 issue to a collection of articles that critiqued Brodie’s arguments against Jesus’s historicity. Now, you might expect that a close-knit group of Christian academics within the same religious order would treat each other with love and kindness, and when they disagreed they would do so courteously and respectfully.

That’s not what happened.

It’s not unknown for an academic journal to publish a collection of articles critiquing a controversial book. When they do that, typically they give the book author a chance to respond to the reviewers. And of course typically the reviewers address the author respectfully as an esteemed colleague with whom they disagree about certain points.  The Dominicans took a radically different approach. What is striking about this collection of articles is the predominantly condescending and disdainful tone not only toward Brodie’s arguments but even toward his person. And that attitude is implicitly reflected also in the editorial decision not to publish a response from Brodie himself.

The critique of Brodie’s book consists of four articles, one by a well-known biblical scholar and fellow Dominican, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Murphy-O’Connor, who died shortly after writing this article about Brodie, was one of the foremost scholars of the Pauline literature, with many books about Paul and the Pauline literature to his credit.

In his article “Understanding the World of the Ancients,” Murphy-O’Connor’s language frequently sounds indignant and contemptuous:

Brodie evidently knows little about antiquity He several times emphasizes that he came to his essential conclusions very early in the 1970s; the proofs came later. One might suspect that the only evidence he considered seriously was that which appeared to fit his preconceived thesis. (p. 11)

Evidently, suspension of the reader’s (or student’s) critical sense is indispensable to Brodie’s methodology, which is dominated by wishful thinking. (p. 14)

Brodie does not help his case by writing that he would need 30 pages to work out the parallel clearly (p. 142). He evidently recognizes that persuasion would be difficult without a thick smoke screen! Here he provides barely a page. To appeal to faith is much easier. (p. 14)

If any one passage can be said to highlight the wishful thinking of Brodie’s methodology this is it. One has only to read the passages in Numbers that he suggests, to realize the abyss between the two texts, which Brodie vainly attempts to camouflage by the weasel language ‘largely a synthesis and adaptation’. (p. 14)

Logic is totally lacking. Perhaps it has been replaced by special revelation! In any case, Brodie never offers the slightest evidence against Pauline authorship of any of the letters. (p. 15)

This last triumphal proclamation closes the article.

Some of the parallels Brodie points out when he asserts a New Testament text was written by adapting an Old Testament text are indeed subtle. Such arguments are not necessarily convincing for everyone, but they’re part of a large body of evidence in which some points are stronger and some weaker. The conclusion you reach depends on the cumulative impact of all of the evidence. Murphy-O’Connor seizes on the weakest links without addressing the stronger ones. And he is not above creating a straw man and demolishing that. He states:

… Brodie believes that the intention of Jews in writing Genesis was to preserve for their people Homer’s Odyssey, and the way that Matthew’s community preserved Paul’s letter to the Romans was in the First Gospel! (p. 10)

Murphy-O’Connor cites page 133 in Brodie’s book for this assertion. Go there and you find that this is not at all what Brodie was saying.  What Brodie says there is that “within Genesis lies a transformation of Homer’s Odyssey and “within Matthew lies a transformation of Romans,” not that the transformation was done primarily to preserve the original text. On p. 130 Brodie explains that the purpose of transformation is “to respect and preserve the text in adapted form so that it fulfils some other function.” But Murphy-O’Connor uses the belief he falsely attributes to Brodie as the basis for questioning Brodie’s reasoning: “The absurdity of the conclusion strongly suggests that the basic principle is somehow flawed.” (p. 10)

As in personal relationships, so in academic debates, you’re often guilty of the very thing you criticize in others. Murphy-O’Connor repeatedly accuses Brodie of wishful thinking, but a significant part of his article is about why a historical Jesus is required for Christian faith.

Thus, to walk on the moon is no longer a utopian idea; it has been done. Similarly the lifestyle demanded by Jesus of his followers is known to be really possible because Jesus lived that way. The ideal, in other words, is not a utopia; it has been achieved, and can be achieved by other human beings. … To follow Christ is not to chase a utopian dream but to imitate the exemplary life of Jesus. (p.13)

Clearly, Murphy-O’Connor’s Christian faith requires a historical Jesus, so for him, Brodie’s thesis can’t possibly be true. And that standpoint is arguably the root motivation for the intemperate attacks on Brodie.

Murphy-O’Connor’s article and the other three in the Doctrine and Life issue don’t add much substantive content to the debate. They express worries that the Catholic faithful will be led astray, they assert that Brodie did not prove his point, and their tone is condescending in two of the three.

The only one of the four articles that maintains a respectful attitude toward Brodie is “Lessons from an Offbeat Intervention” by Fergus Kerr.  Kerr finds Brodie’s book unconvincing but sees value in it as something that challenges people to think about and question their religious beliefs.

Kerr does argue that it’s hard to believe a character like Paul could be completely made up. “To believe this, one would have to admire the control that the scribes possessed of the geographical details, the twists and turns of the plot, the numerous dramatis personae and so on, as the story unfolds from Tarsus to Rome.” (p.27) Brodie acknowledges there might have been an individual behind the portrayals, and Kerr asks, “Why could this genius not have been the historical Paul?” (p. 28) But Kerr doesn’t dismiss Brodie’s position on Paul and Jesus out of hand – “And again, as with the fictitious Paul, these inventive narrators would have had to maintain remarkable control over very heterogeneous material – not an impossibility, perhaps.” (p.29)

In my view Kerr and the other Dominicans are correct that Brodie’s confidence in his conclusion goes beyond what the evidence warrants. But overconfidence is endemic among scholars of scripture and ancient history. When all we have to go on is ancient literature, little is certain and nothing can be “proved,” but scholars want to feel confident about something. Nevertheless, in order to be a milestone positive accomplishment for the world of scriptural scholarship, Brodie’s book doesn’t have to convince everyone. What is does accomplish is help establish that that a serious scholar can indeed take a mythicist position. It helps show that mythicism an intellectually viable position even if not universally convincing. And you can reject Brodie’s absolute denial of Jesus’ historicity while accepting his point that we should focus our efforts at understanding Jesus on literary rather than historical investigations.

It’s a truism among scholars that everyone has assumptions and presuppositions, and no one can completely escape the impact of that.  It’s a valid principle, but there are serious differences in degree of impact. When I see contempt and acrimony in a scholar’s writing, to me that’s a red flag that something is clouding the person’s judgment. And when I see strong devotion to a religious idea that demands a particular conclusion, that’s another red flag. The stark contrast between the attitude toward others evidenced by Thomas Brodie and that evidenced by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor helps confirm for me that Brodie is by far the greater scholar, and his scholarly judgment is in general more reliable.

Philip Davies on Minimalism and Mythicism

April 20, 2014

A few posts back I wrote reviews on books by Bart Ehrman and Thomas Brodie that debate the question of whether Jesus ever existed as a historical person.  I’m currently revising and expanding the scope of those posts to create a review article on the subject for an online journal.

An interesting aspect of that topic is the parallel between the debate about Jesus’s historicity and the debate about the Old Testament patriarchs’ historicity. Forty years ago it was as scandalous to assert that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were strictly literary characters as it is today to say that about Jesus.  But in the course of a few decades, such views about the patriarchs became commonplace.

There are, of course, scholars who still want to believe in the historicity of the Genesis narratives, and they have branded those who don’t agree with them as “minimalists” (i.e., those who see minimal historically accurate narrative in the Old Testament). In my research I ran across some great Internet articles by one of the so-called minimalists, Philip Davies.

Much of what Davies says about the Old Testament historicity debate applies equally to the New Testament equivalent, as he himself points out. The following quotations come from these articles:

For starters, Davies points out that the “minimalism” debate as well as its New Testament “mythicism” equivalent is ultimately driven by personal agendas more than disinterested scholarship. This can be seen from the emotional dismissive language employed by many people who decry “minimalism” or “mythicism”:

What else explains language like “dilettantes” (Rainey 1994: 47) or that minimalism is “a passing fad” (Dever 1996: 8), “trendy” (Dever 2001:25), or ‘twaddle” (Rendsburg nd)? What else leads to the claim that it is motivated by anti-Judaism, anti-Zionism, or anti-Semitism?

… surely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case, and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous.

Such attacks today against “mythicism” correspond to attacks a few decades ago on “minimalism”:

This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. The ‘amateurs’ are now all retired professors, while virtually everyone else in the field has become minimalist (if in most cases grudgingly and tacitly). So, as the saying goes, déjà vu all over again.

Today the common view among scholars even goes beyond the narrow rejection of historicity for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

The mainstream view of critical biblical scholarship accepts that Genesis-Joshua (perhaps Judges) is substantially devoid of reliable history and that it was in the Persian period that the bulk of Hebrew Bible literature was either composed or achieved its canonical shape.

And this view was not new in the late 20th century:

“Minimalist” positions were common early in the 20th century; perhaps American scholars just need to read more German! If one takes the mid-20th century “biblical archaeology” movement as a temporary departure and not as the new direction, we can easily see how “minimalism” is resuming the older agenda (one that never disappeared, anyway) …

As far as Old Testament narrative goes, Davies questions the historicity not only of Genesis-Judges but also of Israel as a nation and David as one of its kings. What is especially interesting here is the way in which he questions their historicity:

The point at issue is not whether an Israel ever existed, but rather whether the historical ancient Israel was like the portrait in the Bible. But perhaps the distinction is for many not so important. It was, after all, the Biblical Israel that was chosen by God, given a covenant, and promised the land west of the Jordan. Are these things true of the historical people or state that went by the name of Israel? If not…? Well, let us ask “what if not” since the question has to be faced, as Ze’ev Herzog recently did in an article in Ha-Aretz.

Baruch Halpern and Steven Mackenzie each wrote books recently about David. Each one said that a David existed, but not the one described in the Bible. This position is not that far from mine, except that I don’t share their faith in our ability to separate a “historical” one from a “biblical” one. But we can continue to debate (and I am good friends with both). At least we all agree that when we speak of “David” historically we are not speaking of the biblical one.

You could frame the mythicist debate in the same terms. Ultimately what separates “mythicists” from those who dismiss them as cranks is one’s degree of faith in scholars’ ability to separate a historical Jesus from the biblical one. From the ongoing disarray in the historical Jesus field, it’s hard for me to see how a strong faith in that ability could possibly be justified.

In any case, pretty much everything Davies writes makes sense to me, which is something I can say of relatively few biblical scholars. I highly recommend the three articles listed above as well as his books to anyone interested in the question of Bible and history. Other Old Testament scholars who offer a similar perspective and who I also highly recommend include Thomas Thompson, Keith Whitelam, Niels Peter Lemche, Kurt Noll, and of course Paul Nadim Tarazi.

Book Review: Revel and Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher

January 7, 2014


The Monk and the Philosopher shows how religious disputes can and should be conducted, with the utmost mutual respect and civility. The dialog in this book presents a head-on clash between radically different understandings of the nature of reality, with a very religious Buddhist monk (Matthieu Ricard) on one side and a very non-religious academic (Jean-Francois Revel) on the other. They happen to be father and son, but that can’t be the only reason for the courteous character of the debate. Disagreements like these often elicit expressions of disdain or frustration even within families.

Lately I’ve been following another religious dispute where some deny what others take as obvious self-evident truth, and the picture in that case is quite different. I’m speaking of the debate in print and online regarding whether Jesus existed a historical person or not. In that exchange many on each side vilify the other, blithely throwing out accusations of incompetence, ulterior motives, and even insanity. I’ll be publishing an article about that firestorm in the upcoming months. Those combatants are mostly either Christian or closely connected with Christianity. Does Buddhism inspire more civility and respectful behavior, and less self-defensive reactivity about beliefs, than does Christianity? Indeed, at one point in this book Revel suggests that historically, religious intolerance arose with monotheism (115). Whatever the explanation, this debate between a monk and a philosopher can be held up as a shining example of how to thoroughly yet respectfully probe and dissect an alien belief system.

Revel, the “philosopher” in this dialog, is not partial to any religion and is skeptical of any metaphysical beliefs, but he’s curious and open-minded. He’s skilled in asking the right questions and in calling out inconsistencies, convoluted logic, and fallacies  in the monk’s answers. He learns a lot about Buddhism in the process, and the reader of the book is along for the ride.

But I do not recommend this book as an introduction to Buddhism for someone who knows nothing about it. Like any major religion, there are many variants of Buddhism. Some Buddhists are more “religious” in the sense of devotion to metaphysical beliefs and ornate ritual practices. For others, Buddhism is a reservoir of practical wisdom for living a happy and fulfilling life, and a community of like-minded individuals who support you along that path. The monk in this dialog stands at the extreme religious end of the Buddhism spectrum, which creates one serious problem: he presents his variant of Buddhism as the only true Buddhism (and you thought it was only Christians who do that Smile). For example:

[Ricard] There is a school of Buddhism called the ‘Mind Only’ school which says that, in the final analysis, only consciousness exists, and everything else is a projection of consciousness. But it’s a monism that’s been refuted within Buddhism itself. (120-1)

The other school of thought was “refuted” and thus is to be dismissed as a heretical sect. Ricard’s branch of Buddhism that refuted the other one is “Buddhism itself” or the only true Buddhism.

Throughout the book, Ricard uses phrases like “Buddhism speaks of …” and “according to Buddhism …” but when he does so you can never tell for sure if the statement really pertains across the board to Buddhism writ large or applies just to his own variant or what he himself considers to be normative Buddhism.

Ricard never uses phrases such as “I believe …” or “Buddhism believes ….”  He avoids the word “believe” like the plague because he considers his beliefs to be knowledge based on “evidence” gained from “contemplative experience.” He talks this way about what most of us would consider highly speculative metaphysical beliefs, such as reincarnation, streams of consciousness passing through people and things from one life to another, people suffering now from the result of things they did in a prior life, and so forth. Anyone who is inclined to see Buddhism as not a religion will be disabused of that notion by reading this book. Ricard is as tightly tied to an extensive metaphysical belief system as is any Christian priest, prelate, or seminary professor.

One of those core beliefs is reincarnation. I’ve always wondered: if there is no self, what is reincarnated?  I’ve read books by learned Buddhists explaining the doctrine but have never found it explained in a way that makes sense. Revel sees this problem too and drills into the same logical inconsistency. Ricard is unable to address it and tries to skirt the issue.  This exchange is a great example of how one of them tries to evade a question and the other can see the evasion, makes a very respectful attempt to call it out, and good humoredly abandons the line of argument when he sees his interlocutor has no good answer.

[Ricard] First of all, it’s important to understand that what’s called reincarnation in Buddhism has nothing to do with the transmigration of some ‘entity’ or other. It’s not a process of metempsychosis because there is no ‘soul’. … Over successive rebirths, what is maintained is not the identity of a ‘person’, but the conditioning of a stream of consciousness.

[Revel] But doesn’t metempsychosis exist in Buddhism? I thought the migration of souls was one of its most basic doctrines.

[Ricard] Buddhism speaks of successive states of existence; in other words, everything isn’t limited to just one lifetime. We’ve experienced other states of existence before our birth in this lifetime, and we’ll experience others after death. … Moreover, since Buddhism denies the existence of any individual self that could be seen as a separate entity capable of transmigrating from one existence to another by passing from one body to another, one might well wonder what it could be that links those successive states of existence together.

[Revel] That’s pretty hard to understand.

[Ricard] In fact, it’s seen as a continuum, a stream of consciousness that continues to flow without there being any fixed or autonomous entity running through it.

[Revel] A series of reincarnations without any definite entity that reincarnates? More and more mysterious. (30-1)

How to explain evil is another area in which Ricard’s Buddhism doesn’t have a good answer to one of Revel’s questions.  When Ricard’s response dances around the question without answering it directly, Revel lets that slide and simply responds to what Ricard’s response does say.

[Revel] If man’s essentially ‘good’, how can you explain that there’s so much violence in the world?

[Ricard] The idea of man’s true nature can be understood as a state of balance, while violence is a state of imbalance. The proof that violence isn’t part of man’s deep-seated nature is that it causes suffering in both victim and perpetrator. Man’s deepest wish is for happiness. … No murderer has ever felt even the slightest peace of feeling of fulfillment after indulging his hatred by killing — at most there’s sometimes a rather short  and unhealthy feeling of jubilation. In the longer term, it’s quite the contrary – murderers often find themselves in a state of profound confusion and anguish that sometimes leads them to suicide.
It’s also possible to become desensitized to crime … Isn’t it said of inveterate killers that ‘there’s nothing human left in them’? …

[Revel] I’m personally a bit less optimistic than you are about the remorse of great criminals pushing them to the point of suicide. Remember that Stalin, Mao, and Franco all died in bed, and Hitler killed himself because he’d been beaten – not at all because he felt the slightest remorse for the crimes he’d committed. … (180-1)

Revel goes on to offer his own answer to the question.  You might not agree with him, but at least it’s a direct answer. Ricard doesn’t put Revel’s view down but just puts in a plug for his own.

[Revel] I’m very pessimistic about the eradication of evil. Unlike Rousseau, I believe that humans are bad and that it’s society that makes them good, as long as society is constituted according to law. From time to time, some types of society can make man a little less bad. Why? Because evil’s irrational.

[Ricard] And against nature, too. (181)

On the other hand sometimes Revel has no good answer to a query from Ricard. In such cases he’s up front about it, and Ricard doesn’t gloat. The exchange regarding the meaning of life is an example. Revel openly admits he doesn’t have a solution. He asserts that there are three main ways that people in the West find meaning in life:  philosophy, religion, and utopian social revolution. He asserts that the second two of these have lost their power to provide meaning. Social utopias such as communism have failed, and so has religion:

[Revel] Well, of the three ways of finding some meaning in it all, religions, or at any rate Western religions, are simply no longer truly practiced. … It’s no longer possible to maintain that the hope of an afterlife can compensate for social suffering, unemployment and the disorientation of youth. There are no longer any priests who can go and gather together the young on the public housing developments and tell them that if they’re good they’ll be spared two years of purgatory. That doesn’t work anymore, it’s over. … (294)

To Revel all that’s left today is philosophy, and that has a fatal flaw:

[Revel] So what’s left? A return to wisdom according to the good old recipes of the past. …

[Ricard] In the end, we more or less agree that what gives meaning to life isn’t just an improvement in material conditions, as we’re not just machines. Nor is it just some rules of conduct, as a façade alone isn’t enough. It’s a transformation of our being through wisdom.

[Revel] Not quite. I believe that all the systems of wisdom with which we try to make life bearable have their limits. The biggest limit of all is death. … That always brings us back to the fundamental difference between wisdom doctrines or quests for life’s meaning with a secular connotation and those with a religious one.

[Ricard] … if you find the wisdom that gives meaning to this present life, the same wisdom will give meaning to future lives. …

[Revel] … But I still think, all the same, that there’s a huge difference between that attitude [focusing on the present] and the idea that your existence can be prolonged into future lives. That implies a totally different view of the cosmos.

[Ricard] … Giving meaning to life through wisdom and inner transformation is to achieve something outside time, just as valid in the present as it will be in the future, whatever that might be.

[Revel] What you say is doubtless true for Buddhism, which isn’t a religion based solely on the hope of an afterlife. But it’s obvious that a Muslim only lives in the idea that he’ll go to Paradise if he respects the divine law. Like all Christians by definition, whether Catholics or Protestants. … (295-7)

After some more give and take Revel states plainly what he believes is possible and its limits:

[Revel] I don’t believe in the immortality of the soul so I actually don’t think any true fulfillment’s possible. I don’t think that any human being who knows himself or herself to be mortal and who doesn’t believe in an afterlife can experience a feeling of total fulfillment. Relatively, perhaps, it’s possible, in terms of some temporary objectives that don’t rule out a degree of consummation. But I think that complete solutions to the meaning of life simply don’t exist — outside the great transcendent solutions, whether religious, para-religious, or political, in which I myself can’t believe.

[What is feasible is what] I’d call the wisdom of resignation, which doesn’t mean one of sadness, and is based on the opposite idea – the feeling that this limited life is all we have. It’s a wisdom of acceptance, and consists of building oneself up in this present life using whatever means are the least unreasonable, the least unjust, and the least unethical, but knowing perfectly well nonetheless that it’s only a temporary episode. (298)

He ends this whole discussion not by asserting the last word in the argument or by discounting anything Ricard has said, but with a good-natured expression that they have agreed to disagree. To Ricard’s final statement asserting that “Buddhism adheres to the idea of a continuity of successive states of existence …” Revel responds:

[Revel] Well, there you are. And since your hypothesis is more optimistic than mine, I’m sure our readers will feel better if I let you have the last word. (299)

The book covers a wide variety of topics, and these are just a few representative examples of the character of the dialog. My overall assessment of what I learned from the dialog parallels that of Revel:

[Revel] I have become more and more appreciative of Buddhism as a system of wisdom, and more and more skeptical about it as a system of metaphysics. (301)

Many Christian theologians leave me amazed at how much metaphysical drivel they can write with absolute confidence in the rightness of their beliefs, but it somehow seems out of place in Buddhism. Of course I have seen that before in some Buddhist writings, but it stands out starkly here in the light of cross-examination by an incisive interlocutor.

Nevertheless, I also agree with Ricard’s approach to assessing the value of any “system of wisdom” or religion:

[Ricard] Once we are committed to a spiritual path, it is essential to check that over the months and years we are actually freeing ourselves from hatred, grasping, pride, jealousy and above all from the ego-centeredness and ignorance that cause them. That is the only result that counts. (309)

The instructor of a meditation class I once took had a similar answer for the question of what’s the point of meditating and how do you know if you’re actually accomplishing anything by meditating: she said that you judge your success by whether or not you’re becoming a kinder person.

Buddhism as a way of life helps take you in that direction, and the metaphysical beliefs such as they are don’t hinder that. The story seems to be more mixed for Christianity. Revel has a point about monotheism: there’s a tendency in monotheistic religions such as Christianity for people to develop a degree of intolerance for other viewpoints, more so than in Buddhism. But that’s another topic for another time.

If you’re interested in Buddhism or in discussions of religion and the meaning of life in general, you can hardly go wrong reading this book. But if you’re new to Buddhism, be aware that there is much more diversity within Buddhism than Ricard would lead you to believe.

Announcing Hallowed Be Thy Name

October 5, 2013


This month my new book Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Name-Glorifying Dispute in the Russian Orthodox Church and on Mt. Athos, 1912-1914 was published.  The book tells the story of a theological controversy in the Russian Orthodox church that was resolved by means of fist fights, bayonets, fire hoses, and the exile and imprisonment of those who defied church authority. 

Bruce Clark, writer on religion and public policy for the Economist magazine, has this to say about it:

For anyone wanting to understand an extraordinary and important episode in the modern history of Christianity, Tom Dykstra’s excellent account, which is both meticulous and highly readable, should be an indispensable starting-point. It brings alive a passionate argument over the holiness of the Name of God which shook the Tsarist and Balkan world on the eve of the first world war. Better than any other chronicler of the tragedy that came to a head in the main monastic stronghold of the Christian East, he combines a clear view of the theological stakes with a keen sense of the politics, both secular and ecclesiastical, which determined the outcome. Dykstra also manages to situate the Imperial Russian quarrel over sacred names in the broader sweep of the history of monotheism.

The book begins by describing one of the episodes in the history of the name-glorifying controversy:

On July 3, 1913 some four hundred monks of the Athonite monastery of St. Panteleimon fled to one of their dormitory buildings and set to work barricading the entrances with bed boards. Bayoneted rifles in hand, sailors of the Russian Imperial Navy surrounded the building while their officers exhorted the unarmed monks to give up peacefully. To no avail. Prepared for martyrdom but hoping in God’s help, the monks sang, prayed, did prostrations, and took up icons and crosses to defend themselves. Finally the trumpet rang out with the command to “shoot,” and the calm of the Holy Mountain was rent by the roar … not of firearms, but of fire hoses. After an hour-long “cold shower” dampened the monks’ spirits, the sailors rushed the building and began to drag recalcitrant devotees of the contemplative life out of the corridors. (p.13)

Another episode is described colorfully by an eyewitness:

They began to drag out of this heap [of fighting monks] one person at a time into the corridor, where the brotherhood stood in two lines, receiving the booty and passing it (Jeromeites) on: one by the hair another by the side and with a command, another they would beat for something to teach him a lesson. In this way they brought them to the stairs and then they let them down the stairs variously as each pleased: some went head first and some went feet first, counting the steps with the back of their head. They led them to the church square, then ceremoniously took them by the hand and led them out the gate.  (p.91)

As I explain in the preface, the controversy described here persists to the present day:

This year is the 100th anniversary of the most sensational events in this story, the expulsion of the Russian monks from Mount Athos. But the publication of this account is timely for other reasons as well. After lying dormant for decades, the theological controversy behind the tragic events that happened in the early twentieth century has re-ignited within the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Church hierarchs can no longer command military forces to rout their theological opponents by means of fire hoses and bayonets, but the hostility expressed today over the Internet matches what was expressed earlier in ecclesiastical journals.  One need only do an internet search for the keyword “name-worshiping” to find several web sites and web pages that decry in no uncertain terms the 100-year old “heresy.”  For that reason, the publication now of this account is especially appropriate because it puts a human face on the “heretics” and offers a sympathetic interpretation of the “heresy.” (p.xi)

The book is an adaptation of a Master’s thesis written at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1988. It remains the most comprehensive account on the subject written in English.

Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus–Review of Thomas Brodie’s New Book

December 25, 2012


Thomas Brodie’s new book is subtitled Memoir of a Discovery. The “discovery” is his realization that Jesus is a literary character and did not exist as a historical person at all.  This, of course, is diametrically opposed to the thesis of Bart Ehrman’s book that I reviewed in my previous post.

Throughout Ehrman’s book, the one theme that he keeps repeating over and over again is his assertion that no reputable New Testament scholars deny the historicity of Jesus. I pointed out some of the problems with this view already in my last post, and now Brodie’s book certainly blows that assertion out of the water. Brodie is not some half-educated interloper in the field of New Testament scholarship; he is an established biblical scholar who heads an institution devoted to biblical scholarship and has published widely on topics in New Testament studies.

While this book is a memoir that includes personal reminiscences, it also presents reasoned arguments that effectively counter the weightiest points that Ehrman’s book cites to prove Jesus’s historical existence.

Ehrman’s key point was the existence of multiple independent witnesses to the historical Jesus.  He considered Mark, Q, L (Luke’s special material), and M (Matthew’s special material) all to be independent witnesses, and he even cited the Gospel of Thomas and later sources such as Papias, Ignatius, and 1 Clement. Brodie argues that none of these are genuinely independent witnesses.  All of the New Testament sources are actually dependent on Old Testament texts and each other, and later sources are dependent on the New Testament. As for the Gospel of Thomas, dating that text early is “skating on thin ice.” Ehrman doesn’t give the rationale for that dating but cites a source that supposedly has a “strong argument” for it. Brodie checked out the cited source and reports that “the reader who tries to track down that logic by going back to the cited author will discover that the argument, which remains elusive, presupposes having read the author’s yet earlier work.” (228)

Ehrman cites Josephus as another independent witness, and Brodie discounts that independence also. He points out that a genuinely independent witness generally provides information we don’t find elsewhere:

So what do these [non-Christian] sources tell us that is not already in the Gospels or Acts? What do they tell us that bears out independence?
Nothing. (164)

The distinctive writing style of the Josephus texts proves nothing because Josephus wrote in his own style when reporting data from other sources as well. Moreover, Josephus could have had access to the gospels.  He and the evangelists were kindred spirits in that they were highly literate people working with Old Testament scriptures to create new writings with similar narrative content.  And Josephus lived in Rome in close proximity to a Christian community.

Ehrman makes much of his criteria for historicity, of which independent witness is the lynchpin, but he virtually ignores all of the scholarly work being done of late on criteria for literary dependence. As a result, his book “cannot deal adequately with Price and Thompson, and shows little awareness that — whatever some of their opinions — their work has a place in a central new field of biblical research.” (229)

The problem with Ehrman’s approach goes deeper than not giving adequate attention to instances of literary dependence. The problem is that Rule One in any valid list of criteria for historicity would be to determine the literary context of a source, and this is missing from Ehrman’s approach.  As Brodie puts it, “If a newspaper announces cheap flights to Mars, it is important to note whether the advertisement occurs in the Travel Section or in the Cartoons-and-Jokes Page. Clarity on the literary factor is Rule One.” (122)

If, as Brodie asserts – and he backs up his assertion with evidence – the literary context of the New Testament is historicized fiction created by rewriting Old Testament texts, Rule One trumps the other “critieria for historicity.” Sure, there are texts that speak of eye-witnesses and reliable transmission of historical data, but it is a mistake to read such a text as historical, “without asking sufficiently whether it is actually historical or whether it is simply written to look like history.” (122-3)  Even such things as accurate geographical knowledge aren’t necessarily evidence of historicity – Virgil’s Aeneid also shows accurate knowledge of places.

You reach different conclusions once you take into account the literary character of the New Testament books. So, for example, John Meier in A Marginal Jew interprets texts that present Jesus as a new Elijah to mean that a historical Jesus thought of himself as standing in the line of Elijah/Elisha. But the simplest explanation that fits the literary data is that “the evangelists adapted the biblical figure of Elijah to draw the picture of Jesus.” (158)

Explaining the data does not require invoking the historical existence of Jesus. The explanation that suffices without invoking Jesus’ historical existence is the simplest, therefore, in respect for a basic rule of method, it is to be preferred.” (159)

Or, for example, the word tektōn (often translated “carpenter”) that Mark applies to Jesus can be traced to the book of Wisdom:

Wisdom 13, particularly its account of people failing to discern the Creator and of seeing only the works of a tektōn, provides an adequate explanation for Mark’s use of tektōn; 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. (159)

Recognizing the literary character of the New Testament books also leads to discounting oral tradition, another of Ehrman’s key witnesses to a historical Jesus. For Brodie oral tradition is a questionable theory and isn’t necessary:

The core presumption is that Jesus Christ was a specific historical person, and within that theory something is needed to bridge the gap between the death of Jesus (generally placed around 30 CE) and the composition of the Gospels (generally placed around 70-100). . . . Even if the theory were true, the gap could be filled by saying that the evangelists were either present at the events or spoke directly to people who had been. (117)

Brodie doesn’t consider it necessary to invoke either oral tradition or eyewitness testimony because he can trace literary connections in the gospel stories to the Old Testament and the epistles, and the epistles themselves have literary connections to the Old Testament.

Brodie also addresses Ehrman’s assertion that the crucifixion must be historical because early Christians would not have invented the idea of a crucified messiah. For Brodie, the crucifixion and resurrection theme makes perfect sense as a fresh synthesis of Old Testament texts that “deal with the tension between suffering and God’s hope.”  A new adaptation of that theme would have to adjust to a new cultural milieu:

So when there was a need to express the ancient contradiction or paradox between God-based hope and life’s inevitable sufferings it was appropriate to express those sufferings in a clear contemporary image — Roman crucifixion.  It was doubly appropriate in the context of a rhetorical world that sought dramatic effect and energeia) (graphic presentation) . . .(230-1)

The process of adopting crucifixion as a new symbol was like Luke’s drawing on the Naboth story in 1 Kings 21 for his story of Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts 6-7 and adapting it by replacing the monarchy and assembly of the Old Testament story with the synagogue and Sanhedrin of first century Palestine. Or like Luke’s drawing on the story of the foreign commander Naaman the Syrian in 2 Kings 5 but replacing him with a Roman centurion in Luke 7 and Acts 10.

It’s not just Gospel stories about Jesus that are literary fictions:  Paul himself is a literary construction, since “down-to-earth details concerning Paul are composed on the basis of specific Old Testament texts — details of plot and scene and emotion.” (140) For example, Paul calls the Galatians stupid which sounds like anger, but

when you reconnoiter in the Old Testament, especially in the Greek version, you find a similar text in Jeremiah, where the great prophet effectively calls the people mindless, and then repeats it with intensified effect (Jer. 5:21, 23). . . . Galatians is not raw emotion. It contains a rehearsed literary adaptation of ancient Jeremiah. (141)

Likewise, parts of 1 Corinthians correspond to Deuteronomy. Even the litany of resurrection sightings in 1 Cor 15:1-8 is “a very careful literary synthesis of older texts.” (150)

The story of Paul in Acts is likewise historicized fiction. The storm and shipwreck is modeled on well-known literary accounts of storms, and the rest of the voyage parallels the Old Testament story of people being deported and brought to captivity in Babylon in 2 King 25.

… the figure of Paul was a work of imagination, but this figure had been historicized — presented in a way that made it look like history, history-like, ‘fiction made to resemble the uncertainties of life in history’ (Alter 1981:27). . . . The idea that Paul was a literary figure did not remove the possibility that behind the epistles lay one outstanding historical figure who was central to the inspiring of the epistles, but that is not the figure whom the epistles portray. Under that person’s inspiration — or the inspiration of that person plus co-workers — the epistles portray a single individual, Paul, who incorporates in himself and in his teaching a distillation of the age-long drama of God’s work on earth. (145-6)

Brodie recognizes that these are not common interpretations in scholarship today, but when he reached these conclusions he searched to see if they had occurred to anyone else. He discovered that at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century the biblical scholar Bruno Bauer had already proposed that Paul and Jesus were both mythical creations, and a number of people who followed him in that belief. And of course the New Testament is a continuation and literary inheritor of the Old Testament, and many scholars such as Thomas Thompson, John Van Seters, and Robert Alter have shown that historicized fiction is typical of the Old Testament.

How should Christians react to the realization that the scriptures are not historically accurate?

The undertaking [that produced the NT] contained the building of a story — narrative, historicized-fiction — especially about Jesus and Paul, and such story-building can be described with terms such as fiction, myth, invention, conspiracy, and forgery (Ehrman 2012: 82, 114). The same terms can be used of the Torah, the Book of Moses, which was not written by Moses. At one level these terms are true, but used pejoratively they miss the heart of the matter, namely that, despite their use of story and their limitations, the Torah, Gospels, and Epistles contain deepest wisdom. (231)

All of this also raises the question: what is Christian faith all about if you subtract from it a historical Jesus?

Ehrman’s book could seem to set up a false dilemma: stay with a claim to a historical Jesus, or lose Jesus and, with him, lose God. But there is a further option. Rediscover Jesus as a fresh scripture-based expression of suffering humanity’s deepest strengths and hopes, and thereby rediscover a new sense of the reality we often refer to glibly as God. (231)

A more realistic and constructive approach is to see our coming to terms with a nonhistorical Jesus as the modern counterpart to medieval Christians’ coming to terms with the realization that the earth is not the center of the universe. Both require some rethinking, but after that rethinking the essence of Christian faith remains in both cases. The resulting faith can be stronger and richer than one built on a a doomed attempt to find the historical Jesus. “The quest for the historical Jesus installs the flicker of a matchstick in place of the aurora borealis.” (213)

I highly recommend reading Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus after reading Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist. It is a transformational experience to read something that comes off as absolutely certain and then read a counterpoint that calls into question everything you were just starting to take for granted.  Even if you don’t agree with everything Brodie says, you can’t help but recognize the reasonableness and validity of most of his arguments, yet according to Ehrman such arguments are unreasonable and invalid.

The weak points in Brodie’s book are few. I didn’t see in it an answer to Ehrman’s question about why the early Christians would invent the idea of a brother of Jesus, and the reference to James in Josephus does seem to be independent since it introduces information not in the New Testament. But the weakest link in the argument is not the evidence but the nature of the proposition itself:  it is virtually impossible to prove non-existence of a person no matter how much evidence points in that direction. Even if most of what we have in the New Testament is historicized fiction, there always remains the possibility that somewhere at the back of all that imaginative literature was a real person. We know next to nothing about that person, however, which is not much different and is the point I made in my last post.  In either case the quest for the historical Jesus is futile, and Brodie’s point that it is a counterproductive effort is well taken.