Category Archives: Christian origins and literature

Podcast 3.12: Secret Book of John, part 2 – Salvation from the Material Realm

Here I continue to explain the worldview of the Apocryphon of John, particularly its notions regarding the material realm, the inferior creator god (demiurge), and salvation from this realm. This is part of series 3 (“Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and Struggles”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 3.12: Secret Book of John, part 2 – Salvation from the Material Realm (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 3.11: Secret Book of John, part 1 – The Spiritual Realm

Here I begin to explain the worldview of the Apocryphon of John, one of the Nag Hammadi writings (part 1 of 2). Like other writings in that collection, this author makes a clear distinction between the perfect spiritual realm, also known as the “fullness”, and an inferior material realm created by a jealous god or “ruler” (archon). In this episode I describe the perfect spiritual realm and the process of emanations from the perfect “Invisible Spirit” or “Father”. This is part of series 3 (“Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and Struggles”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 3.11: Secret Book of John, part 1 – The Spiritual Realm (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 3.10: Introducing Gnostic Worldviews

Here I set the stage for the study of specific Nag Hammadi and related writings by outlining in broad terms some common denominators in the worldviews traditionally labeled “gnostic”. This includes discussion of the Middle Platonic assumptions of many authors. I also deal with the importance of knowledge (gnosis) in the understanding of how salvation from the material realm, which was created by an inferior god, takes place. This is part of series 3 (“Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and Struggles”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 3.10: Introducing Gnostic Worldviews (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 3.9: Marcionites and the Unknown God

Here I explore Marcionite forms of Christianity, which contrast significantly to the Judean forms discussed in the previous episode. Followers of Marcion believed that the legalistic God of the Hebrew Bible was to be distinguished from the loving, unknown Father-God who sent Jesus, and that Law was opposed to Gospel. This is part of series 3 (“Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and Struggles”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 3.9: Marcionites and the Unknown God (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 3.8: Jewish Followers of Jesus, part 2 – Pseudo-Clement

Here I continue to explore Jewish followers of Jesus by examining key passages in an apocryphal novel attributed to Clement of Rome, also known as the Pseudo-Clementine writings. In particular, an opening letter claiming to be written by Peter to James and the story of Peter’s debates with Simon Magus (a cipher for Paul) provide glimpses into struggles between Jewish followers of Jesus and others, including Pauline forms of Christianity. This is part of series 3 (“Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and Struggles”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 3.8: Jewish Followers of Jesus, part 2 – Pseudo-Clementine Writings (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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“The Historical Jesus in Context” podcast episodes and the strike

A very long strike  has come to an end and my students have a test to be written soon after they return (the second week back, Thursday February 12 at 8:30am, to be precise).  A proposed revised syllabus for HUMA 2830 is now posted for discussion.

In an effort to help them in preparing for that and in refreshing their memories, I have been working hard on preparing as many podcast episodes as possible based on the lectures earlier this Fall, and have made only minor progress (it takes some time in editing and introducing each episode).  I am not completely happy with the shape of these episodes, but they are at least something.  One thing I do really like for sure is the opening music I am using, which is “Paradise Lost” by Namgyal Lhamo of Tibet (used under a creative commons-type license from “Podsafe audio”).

The podcast series will be “The Historical Jesus in Context” and below is a preview of the first 13 six, ten or so episodes, each of them about 30 minutes long (to be officially released in 2010 — I’ll see if I can prepare more and add them to this post soon):

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Podcast 5.1: Studying the Historical Jesus – Sources and Problems, part 1

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Podcast 5.2: Studying the Historical Jesus – Sources and Problems, part 2

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Podcast 5.3: Studying the Historical Jesus – Sources and Problems, part 3

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Podcast 5.4: Scholarly Portraits of the Historical Jesus, part 1 – Crossan

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Podcast 5.5: Scholarly Portraits of the Historical Jesus, part 2 – Sanders

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Podcast 5.6: Jesus, Galilee, and Israelite History, part 1 – To the Second Temple

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Podcast 5.7: Jesus, Galilee, and Israelite History, part 2 – To the Time of Jesus

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Podcast 5.8: Jesus, the Galilean and Judean

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Podcast 5.9: Jesus in the Context of Educated Groups and Leaders

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Podcast 5.10: Jesus and his Mentor, John the Baptizer

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Podcast 5.11: Jesus as Teacher, part 1 – Method and Content

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Podcast 5.12: Jesus as Teacher, part 2 – Present or Future Kingdom?

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Podcast 5.13: Jesus as Healer and Exorcist

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Podcast 5.14: Jesus as Prophet

UPDATE: There is just one more episode to edit in this series (on the role of Messiah).  I have changed this to series five (rather than four), since series four will be “Honouring the Gods in the Ancient Mediterranean” (on Greco-Roman religions generally).

Podcast 3.7: Jewish Followers of Jesus, part 1 – Ebionites

Beginning with James the brother of Jesus and the Jerusalem church, here I trace evidence for Judean followers of Jesus and discuss their gradual marginalization. In particular, I focus attention on Jewish-Christian groups that the patristic sources (e.g. Irenaeus, Epiphanius) label “the Ebionites”, or “poor ones”. This is part of series 3 (“Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and Struggles”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 3.7: Jewish Followers of Jesus, part 1 – Ebionites (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 3.6: Sources for the Study of Diversity – Gnostic, Apocryphal, Patristic

Here I sketch out our main sources for the study of various Christian groups or “heresies” in the second and third centuries, including discussion of the early Christian Apocrypha, the Nag Hammadi writings (associated with “gnosticism”), and the Church Fathers. This is part of series 3 (“Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and Struggles”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 3.6: Sources for the Study of Diversity – Gnostic, Apocryphal, Patristic (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 3.5: Diversity in Asia Minor – A Regional Case Study

Here I use the region of Asia Minor (Turkey) as a case study that allows me to outline various strands and styles within Christianity in the first and second centuries. I then go on to outline our approach to studying the worldviews and practices of Christian groups and “heresies”. This is part of series 3 (“Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and Struggles”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 3.5: Diversity in Asia Minor – A Regional Case Study (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options ).

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Resurrecting EarlyChristianWritings.com and EarlyJewishWritings.com

A reader of this blog (whose comment I by accident deleted rather than approved) recently reminded me that we can still access both earlychristianwritings.com and earlyjewishwritings.com using the Way Back Machine on Archive.org.  There are various snapshots of the sites to choose from, with the most successful and complete ones for me being:

http://web.archive.org:80/web/20060131092132/http://www.earlychristianwritings.com

http://web.archive.org/web/20070611063719/http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/

This will certainly help since I included some readings from these sites in my course outline for the upcoming Winter term (assuming that the York U. strike gets solved before January!).

Podcast 3.4: Docetic and Judaizing Opponents of Ignatius, part 2

Here I discuss Ignatius’ Judaizing opponents, who advocated certain Jewish beliefs and practices. I also deal with Ignatius’ strategies in combating groups he considered heretical. This is part of series 3 (“Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and Struggles”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 3.4: Docetic and Judaizing Opponents of Ignatius, part 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Angel-loving association cancelled – A new reading of an often cited inscription from Asia Minor

The availability of the journal Epigraphica Anatolica online is already paying off!  There you will find a new article which has some notable repercussions not only for the study of associations in Asia Minor but also for the study of the opponents of Colossians: Hasan Malay, “ΦΙΛΑΝΠΙΛΟΙ in Phrygia and Lydia,” Epigraphica Anatolica 38 (2005) 42–44.

Back in 1980/81, A.R.R. Sheppard published a little inscription (from near Kotiaion) involving Holiness and Justice, two personifications that were commonly honoured in certain areas of Phrygia and Lydia (“Pagan Cults of Angels in Roman Asia Minor,” Talanta 12-13 [1980-81]: 77-101 = SEG 31 1130).  The more exciting element in the inscription was the apparent reference to non-Christians or non-Judeans who devoted themselves in some way to “angels”, which was based on Sheppard’s reading: ΦΙΛΑΝΓΕΛΩΝ (“Friends-of-angels”).  Sheppard’s translation of the inscription was as follows:

Aur(elius) … the Association of Friends of the Angels (made) a vow to Holiness and Justice”.

Sheppard suggested that this involved “pagans” who had some contact with the Jewish notion of angels.  Sheppard’s reading of the inscription was also discussed in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol. 6, number 31.

This idea that there were “pagans” devoted to divine messengers or “angels” then became background for some New Testament scholars who were sorting out the “philosophy” combated by the author of Colossians (2:8-23), particularly the reference to the “worship of angels” (2:18).  Clinton Arnold’s theory regarding the opponents of Colossians, for instance, drew attention to the importance of angels in Asia Minor not only among diaspora Judeans but also among pagans, such that we could speak of a common folk practice in this region.  He suggested that the opponents were practicing the (magical) invocation of angels for protection and that this reflected both the Judean and pagan devotion to angels in Asia Minor specifically (see Clinton Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996]).

However, Malay’s recent study of this particular inscription has shown that Sheppard likely misread a key letter here (what a difference one letter can make).  What Sheppard read as a “gamma”, Malay now says is surely a “pi”, which leaves us with ΦΙΛΑΝΠΙΛΟΙ, “Friends-of-the-vine” or “Vine-lovers”, and no angels at all in this inscription.

Malay publishes another inscription which confirms the existence of associations devoted to the vine, in other words relating to wine production and/or consumption, in the same region (in this case from nearby Katakekaumene, now in the Manisa Museum, dating 161/2 CE):

“To the Good Fortune! In the year 192, on the fourth day of the month Peritios, New Lovers of Vine (φιλάνπιλοι) set this up as a vow to Mother Leto on account of their own salvation.

The meeting of the association of friend-of-angels is apparently canceled.

Podcast 3.3: Docetic and Judaizing Opponents of Ignatius, part 1

There are two main groups of opponents combated by Ignatius of Antioch in his letters to followers of Jesus in Asia Minor: Docetic and Judaizing opponents (part 1 of 2). This episode introduces Ignatius (who wrote in the early second century) and explains the position of his docetic opponents, who thought that Jesus only appeared to be human when in fact he was a divine being. This is part of series 3 (“Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and Struggles”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 3.3: Docetic and ‘Judaizing’ Opponents of Ignatius, part 1 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 3.2: A Schism in John’s Community, part 2

Here I continue to consider the opponents in John’s epistles (part 2 of 2). These epistles provide evidence of an early Christian schism over how to view Jesus’ humanity. This is part of series 3 (“Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and Struggles”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 3.2: A Schism in John’s Community, part 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Ballparking the historical Jesus – The importance of context

In my previous posts on the historical Jesus, I have stressed the difficulties modern historians face in reconstructing this first century peasant or in being precise about what exactly the peasant of Galilee did or said.  The limits of historical method and the scholarly choices that are involved every step of the way help to explain why solid scholars such as E.P. Sanders and John Dominic Crossan come up with quite different results in their attempts to say something about the historical Jesus.  (I hope to return to these guys in another post).

When it comes down to it, one could say that what we know with a relatively high level of probability using historical approaches are two specific things: that there is a very high likelihood that Jesus was executed by crucifixion under Pilate and that Jesus was probably baptized by John the immerser.  There are, of course, important corollaries to these two items that allow us to go further.  Yet, beyond such historically secure statements, it is difficult to be precise about sayings and actions of Jesus from an historical perspective.  Some things may be more securely probable or likely than others, but we are dealing with less secure items the rest of the way in the search for the historical Jesus. What one scholar considers to be a more likely case of an authentic saying or action of Jesus, another will consider probably a product of an early Christian author, and therefore inauthentic.  Modern historical methods are limited in what they can tell us about a specific person living two thousand years ago, and our ancient sources have interests other than historical reporting.

As the title to my post puts it, we are in some sense better off admitting that we can only (carefully) ballpark it when it comes to evaluating many aspects of the historical Jesus.   What I mean by “ballparking it” here is that we can gain a relatively good picture of some aspects of the social, economic, and cultural contexts in which the peasant Jesus was active, and we can know with some degree of likelihood about some of Jesus’ contemporaries in the context of Galilee and Judea.  We can construct a likely picture of the overall ballpark or range of possibilities within which to place the figure of Jesus — a first century Galilean ballpark set within the Roman empire.


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(The Galilean ballpark)

A typical student in a second year course or your average Jane-blog-reader may know very little about ancient history.  They may know even less about the Mediterranean world as a whole in that ancient period.  They may know even less about what was going on in Israel in the first century, and still less about what it was like in the region of Galilee or in some village like Nazareth.  Then there’s the question of whether one’s limited knowledge is focussed on what we moderns distinguish as geography, politics, economics, society, or culture.  The thing to teach here, I would suggest, is the ballpark (itself hard to recreate using historical methods) in which to plot out the various possibilities for a peasant like Jesus.  If we spend considerable time studying the world in which Jesus lived, through both literary and archeological evidence, and focus our attention on studying other near-contemporaries of Jesus who produced writings or who left behind artefacts, then we can get quite a bit closer to the ballpark in which Jesus played.

Podcast 3.1: Introduction to Diversity – A Schism in John’s Community, part 1

Here I delve into the issue of diversity in early Christianity by using the opponents in John’s epistles as a starting point (part 1 of 2). These epistles provide evidence of an early Christian schism over how to view Jesus’ humanity. This is part of series 3 (“Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and Struggles”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 3.1: Introduction to Diversity – A Schism in John’s Community, part 1 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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A second highly probable thing about the historical Jesus: Immersion by John the Baptizer

My previous discussion of Tacitus and Josephus concluded with the observation that the execution of Jesus under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate is one of the most secure things we can know about the peasant from Nazareth with a high degree of probability using modern historical methods.  This is because reference to the execution is attested in multiple, independent sources (criterion of multiple, independent attestation), including sources which refer to Jesus only incidentally, as an aside.  Historical methods are limited in what they can reveal to us, particularly in the case of ancient history and especially in the case of studying an obscure Galilean villager who lived two thousand years ago (our knowledge of Galilee is quite limited, let alone our knowledge of an individual living there).  When historical approaches can reveal something to us, it is only with certain levels of likelihood or probability, not certainty or “truth.”  So cases of “high probability” that x or y happened are the best you can get in doing history (in the modern sense).

Joachim Patenier, The Baptism of Christ (1515; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

(Joachim Patenier, The Baptism of Christ [1515; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna])

A second highly probable thing about Jesus accessible through historical methods is his immersion or baptism by John the Baptist.  Scholars of early Christianity have developed a set of criteria for establishing the historical “authenticity” of particular activities or sayings attributed to Jesus in our sources, and multiple attestation is an important one.  Another is known as the criterion of embarrassment.  The principle here is: if a source reports some incident or saying even though the author of that source was hesitant about reporting it and somewhat embarrassed by the incident or saying, that author is not likely to have completely made up that incident or saying.  On the other hand, the author in question could have simply omitted it to avoid any difficulty.  In other words, when our sources report something in a round about way that reveals some embarrassment, there is a higher likelihood that it actually did happen.

One of the most illustrative cases in which this criterion plays a key role relates to the immersion of Jesus by John the Baptizer.  The actual incident of Jesus being baptized in this case is attested in the gospel of Mark and in both Matthew and Luke.  However, if one is using the two-source hypothesis, this would entail only one independent source for the incident, since Matthew and Luke are here drawing their material from Mark, the earliest ancient biography of Jesus.  The Gospel of John completely omits the baptism itself and the Q-sayings source may or may not have included the actual baptism (Q did have material about John the Baptist and Jesus interacting).  The so-called Gospel of the Hebrews and Gospel of the Nazoreans each report the immersion, so they may or may not (depending on their reliance on the synoptic traditions) supply further independent attestation.  So the criterion of multiple attestation is not much help here.

This is where evidence of embarrassment comes in handy for the historian.   The way that New Testament scholars explain this is that the embarrassment arises from the implications of a superior teacher or mentor in relation to an inferior student or protégé.  At the time when the authors of the synoptics were writing (late first century) there were apparently still groups of followers of John the Baptizer (cf. Acts 19:1-7), which might raise the question: why not join a movement devoted to the superior baptizer rather the inferior baptized one.  An early follower of Jesus might be concerned to assert that Jesus is superior to John the Baptist, even though Jesus’ baptism by John might imply otherwise.

Each of the gospels deals with this in different ways.  The earliest, Mark, presents a saying in which John explicitly identifies his inferiority to Jesus, in terms of not being worthy to even undo Jesus’ sandals, and a dove, interpreted as the Spirit, confirms Jesus special status (Mk 1:7-11).  Mathew uses Mark but adds in a further interchange in which John tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized by him, which would imply Jesus’ inferiority, but Jesus gives the green-light in terms of “fulfilling righteousness” (Mt 3:13-15).  Luke goes about dealing with the embarrassment in an interesting way.  Mark, Luke’s source, has that Jesus was “baptized by John in the Jordan” but Luke takes out John here and changes the phraseology so that there’s an ambiguity about who exactly baptized Jesus: “when Jesus also had been baptized… ” (Lk 3:21-22).

Finally, the Gospel of John (1:29-34) is usually out in left-field in comparison to the synoptic gospels, but the material on John the Baptist and Jesus is one of the very few cross-overs.  How does the author of the gospel of John show what scholars call “embarrassment” here?  The gospel of John omits the baptism of Jesus altogether but still presents John’s proclamations about the superiority of Jesus (e.g. the “Lamb of God” that takes away the sins of the world) and the descent of the dove indicating Jesus’ special status.

So all of our sources for the relation between John the Baptist and Jesus reveal what could be called an embarrassment at the implications of the baptism itself, one gospel to the point of omitting the immersion altogether.  Mark, Matthew, and Luke could have likewise simply omitted this incident to avoid having to explain, but they included it despite their embarrassment.  It is highly unlikely that the authors of these sources made up the baptism, and in historical terms it is highly probable that Jesus was actually baptized by John the Baptist.  There are important corollaries of this piece of information, particularly relating to the apocalyptic worldview of John the Baptist, but I’ll have to save those for another post.

Non-Christian sources for the study of the historical Jesus: Josephus and Tacitus on the execution of Jesus

One of the frustrating things about studying ancient history is the very limited nature of our sources, both in terms of quantity (only bits and pieces have come down to us) and in terms of quality.  What I mean by quality is reliable and verifiable historical information (in a modern historian’s terms) regarding the figures and incidents literary sources describe.  What the ancients were interested in telling us is seldom what a modern historian wants to know.

This also holds for the study of the historical Jesus, an obscure peasant from Nazareth in Galilee.  Archeology is indispensable in providing insights into the cultural context of that peasant, but does little for solving details about what that figure said or did.   When it comes down to it, the ancient biographies known as the gospels (e.g. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) remain our principal source of evidence, along with other more recently discovered writings (e.g. The Gospel of Thomas).  Yet the authors of ancient biographies, or “lives” (bioi),  had very little interest in what a modern historian looks for in studying a figure of the past.  The ancient “lives” of Jesus were instead very interested in explaining what they thought the meaning of Jesus was for those who wished to follow him, and in promoting their own particular takes on that figure’s significance.

What would help in this situation would be some non-Christian sources regarding Jesus which could be carefully compared with these ancient, insider “lives” of Jesus in order to assist the historian in reconstructing with some level of probability a picture of the historical Jesus or of certain aspects of his life.  Such sources are few and far between, so it’s important to note the ones we have.

There are two main sources which I want to mention, one by a Judean author from a priestly family in Jerusalem (Josephus) who wrote in the last decades of the first century, and another by an upper class Roman imperial official (Tacitus) who wrote in the early second.  Neither author cared much about Jesus, but each happens to mention something about Jesus nonetheless.

SOURCE 1: Josephus wrote several works, the most important of which were the Judean War (written in the decade following the destruction of the temple in 70 CE) and Judean Antiquities (written in the 90s CE).  Josephus’ works (as well as some scholarly studies) are available online at the Project on Ancient Cultural Engagement (PACE) site.  Figures related in some way to Jesus incidentally get mentioned three times in Judean Antiquities, including John the Baptist (Ant. 18.116-119), James (Ant. 20.200-201), and Jesus himself, who gets mentioned in one of the most important and controversial passages in all of Josephus’ writings (Ant. 18.63-64).

This passage is controversial because virtually all scholars agree that the text as it now stands (see below, including the strike-throughs) does not make sense as something Josephus would write: namely, there are no other signs anywhere in Josephus that suggest that he believed Jesus was an anointed one sent by God (“messiah”).  Josephus is actually averse to any claims that average peasants or anyone other than a member of the elite was a messiah or king or worthy of some leadership position.

A very few scholars suggest that the whole passage was later inserted into a copy of Josephus which then got re-copied and ended up in copies that have survived into the modern period.  Many other scholars would suggest that the passage was originally in Josephus’ book, but that someone (a Christian scribe) tampered with the passage and tweaked it significantly to make it sound like Josephus thought Jesus was absolutely wonderful, as though Josephus were actually a follower of Jesus.  John P. Meier has done a good job of assessing the passage and in offering what seems a likely scenario of what was added in and what, therefore, should be struck-out in using the passage to study the historical Jesus :

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Ant. 18.63-64; translation by John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus [New York: Doubleday, 1991], vol. 1, p. 60; bold and strike-throughs mine).

This scenario is also supported by an Arabic version of this same passage in Josephus, which does not have the struck-through material and instead has similar material grouped at the end of the passage, suggesting that the Christian-sounding material is not original.

(Peter Paul Rubens, The Raising of the Cross (1620; Louvre)

SOURCE 2: Much more could of course be said about this passage in Josephus, but for now let’s move on to the second important non-Christian source pertaining to Jesus.  Tacitus was a member of the imperial elite and senator, active in Rome, whose official positions included Roman governor of the province of Asia at one point (in 112-113 CE).   In the early second century, Tacitus wrote a history of the Roman emperors of the first century, known as Annals (written in the early second century).  There he deals with Nero’s time as emperor (54-68 CE).  Tacitus, by the way, does not like Nero at all, but he’s safe since Nero died several decades earlier, and few of the imperial elite of Tacitus’ time looked back fondly on Nero.  Tacitus’ works are available online on the Project Gutenberg site.  There’s a short biography here.

Tacitus mentions that a fire engulfed a particular neighbourhood of the city of Rome, a neighbourhood that was slotted for heavy rebuilding by Nero.  So, rumours began to spread that Nero himself had his men set the fire to clear the area and speed up the renovations.  Nero’s response?  Find someone to blame and quickly.  He chose followers of Jesus since, he heard through some source, they were sometimes disliked and viewed as anti-social.  Here is the passage from Annals 15.38 and 44:

(15.38) A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts, worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire. . . (15.44) But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed (Tacitus, Annals, 15.38-44; trans. by A.J. Church and W.J. Brodribb, The Annals by Tacitus [London, New York: Macmillan, 1877]; public domain; bold mine).

SIGNIFICANCE FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS: There are many historical issues that could be explored both in Josephus and in Tacitus.  (On Tacitus and persecution, see my earlier post on the atheistic Christians).  But what is the primary significance of these passages for study of the historical Jesus?  These sources coincide with a claim made in the gospels, the claim that Jesus was executed in Judea with the most severe form of punishment available for criminals, crucifixion, and that this took place in connection with the Roman imperial official Pontius Pilate.  So we have multiple sources, some non-Christian, that confirm this aspect of what happened to the peasant named Jesus.  Multiple attestation is always a key criterion in historical reconstructions (and in gospel studies, by the way).  This is the most reliable thing we know — using limited, modern historical methods — regarding that figure, Jesus.

I will soon return to a second key item that scores high on the scale of probability for modern historians: the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, which has other significant corollaries regarding the peasant Jesus.

UPDATE:  For those interested in reading further on some debates regarding the Josephus passage (the so called Testimonium Flavianum) on other blogs, see Stephen Carlson’s Testimonium Flavianum Series.

Did the peasant Jesus ignore Judean ritual laws? Crossan’s answer

As I’m preparing to introduce second year students to the study of the historical Jesus, I am trying to pinpoint key issues and differences among scholars in order to highlight the problems in getting at that Galilean peasant.  Soon enough, I’ll come to scholars (e.g. E.P. Sanders) who might point to the ways in which the Galilean Jesus was concerned to observe the Judean (Jewish) practices outlined in the Torah or Law, including some or most of its ritual observances.  The proposal there would be that the difference between Jesus and many of his contemporaries was in the interpretation or application of those ritual laws, not in whether they were valid or not.

As I’m re-reading John Dominic Crossan’s book, however, I am starkly reminded of where his peasant Jesus diverges from some other portraits.  For Crossan, Jesus significantly diverged from the apocalyptic message of his mentor, John the Baptist.  John the Baptist’s warning of the imminent end and the impending kingdom of God in the near future was replaced by Jesus’ message focussed on transforming present arrangements in a way that acknowledged the kingdom of God in the present.

The central point of what Jesus was all about is centered on the implications of Jesus’ call for “open commensality” (meal practices open to anyone) in this present kingdom of God and it is related to the charge that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard.  Crossan’s claim to find in Jesus an egalitarian view on gathering together at the meal and a randomness in Jesus’ notion of the gathered community that will have a part in the kingdom or reign of God (e.g. parable of the feast in Gospel of Thomas 64 // Luke 14:15-24) becomes the interpretive key for all other aspects of the historical Jesus.

Crossan’s focus on this issue has implications regarding the degree to which Jesus was an observer of Judean customs and ritual ways as outlined in the Torah.  You could even say that Crossan’s approach here determines the question of Jesus’ observance or non-observance of ritual requirements (apart from any other evidence or lack thereof):

it was obviously possible for the first Christian generations to debate whether Jesus was for or against the ritual laws of Judaism.  His position must have been, as it were, unclear.  I propose, from those preceding complexes [themes that converge in sayings of Jesus that center on open or egalitarian notions of meal practices, including the view that Jesus ate with sinners and was a glutton/drunkard], that he did not care enough about such ritual laws either to attack or to acknowledge them.  He ignored them, but that, of course, was to subvert them at a most fundamental level.  Later, however, some followers could say that, since he did not attack them, he must have accepted them [e.g. Crossan may be thinking of Matthew].  Others, contrariwise, could say that, since he did not follow them, he must have been against them [e.g. Crossan may be thinking of Mark].  Open commensality profoundly negates distinctions and hierarchies between female and male, poor and rich, Gentile and Jew.  It does so, indeed, at a level that would offend the ritual laws of any civilized society.  That was precisely its challenge (Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant [New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992], 263).

Are the sayings of Jesus pertaining to meals and eating the primary (or only) means by which his relation to Judean ritual customs can be determined? may be a question to ask.  There will be more to come on such things in future posts.

Podcast 2.11: Hebrews’ Portrait of Jesus – Highpriest Melchizedek, part 2

Here I discuss the way in which the book of Hebrews portrays Jesus both as highpriest Melchizedek and once for all sacrifice (part 2 of 2). In particular, I explore the ways in which this author is saturated by the Hebrew scriptures and influenced by Platonic philosophy. This is the final episode in series 2 (“Early Christian Portraits of Jesus”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 2.11: Hebrews’ Portrait of Jesus – Highpriest Mechizedek, part 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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You may also subscribe to this and subsequent episodes through iTunes or another podcatcher. View credits for my introductory music remix.

Podcast 2.10: Hebrews’ Portrait of Jesus – Highpriest Melchizedek, part 1

Here I discuss the way in which the book of Hebrews portrays Jesus both as high-priest Melchizedek and once for all sacrifice (part 1 of 2). This is part of series 2 (“Early Christian Portraits of Jesus”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 2.10: Hebrews’ Portrait of Jesus – Highpriest Mechizedek, part 1 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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On Sexual Indulgence: Paul and contemporaries like Musonius Rufus

Quite well-known are the moral exhortations of early Christian authors such as Paul, which include a fair bit of advice on how to conduct oneself sexually.   Thus, for instance, Paul objects to a follower of Jesus at Corinth who was sleeping with his step-mother (the father was not likely around anymore) (1 Corinthians 5).  Quite well known and controversial these days are Paul’s comments about Greeks and Romans (“gentiles” = non-Judeans) who engage in what Paul considers “degrading passions”: “Their women exchanged  natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men. . . were consumed with passion for one another. . . ” (Romans 1:26-27 [NRSV]).  And Paul speaks to the followers of Jesus at Thessalonica and advocates that “you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body [vessel] in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the gentiles [non-Judeans] who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5).  In some ways, Paul is reflecting quite typical stereotypes about Greeks and Romans from a Judean perspective here.

Yet such perspectives on sexual morality and modes of moral exhortation were not necessarily specifically Judean or “Christian” in Paul’s time.  Some of Paul’s “lustful” gentiles advocated similar moral choices when it came to sex.  In many ways, the instructional techniques and lifestyle choices advocated by Paul have parallels in contemporary philosophers (see also my early post on the “Golden Rule” among the ‘pagans’).

Musonius Rufus is one of these contemporary philosophers, a Greek philosopher who combined elements from both the Stoic and Cynic schools.  As I was designing my introductory Christian origins course this week, which this year focuses on placing Jesus, Paul, and other early Christian founders in the context of contemporaries, I re-read Musonius’ advice “On Sex”.  There he includes the following advice addressed primarily to men:

Not the least significant part of luxury and self-indulgence lies also in sexual excess.  For example those who lead such a life crave a variety of loves not only lawful but unlawful ones as well, not women alone but also men.  Sometimes they pursue one love [women] and sometimes another [men], and not being satisfied with those which are available, pursue those which are rare and inaccessible, and invent shameful intimacies, all of which constitute a grave indictment of manhood.  Men who are not wantons or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse justified only when it occurs in marriage and is indulged in for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure-seeking, even in marriage.  But of all sexual relations those involving adultery are most unlawful, and no more tolerable are those of men with men, because it is a monstrous thing and contrary to nature.

Trans. by Cora E. Lutz, “Musonius Rufus: ‘The Roman Socrates’,” Yale Classical Studies 10 (1947) 85-87, with adjustments to punctuation.

To modern ears, this may sound wonderful or ridiculous, or a bit of both, depending on who’s listening.  Here one of my points is that Paul had more in common with a guy like Musonius than Paul’s condemnation of the morally bankrupt non-Judeans would imply.

Podcast 2.9: John’s Portrait of Jesus – Son and Word, part 2

Here I continue to discuss how the gospel of John portrays Jesus as both the Word of God and the Son sent by the Father (part 2 of 2).  This is part of series 2 (“Early Christian Portraits of Jesus”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 2.9: John’s Portrait of Jesus – Son and Word, part 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 2.8: John’s Portrait of Jesus – Son and Word, part 1

Here I discuss how the gospel of John portrays Jesus as both the Word of God and the Son sent by the Father (part 1 of 2). I also deal with this gospel’s stress on the importance of “signs” pointing to Jesus’ identity and the way in which Jesus (“Lamb of God”) is viewed as a fulfillment of Jewish festivals, especially Passover. This is part of series 2 (“Early Christian portraits of Jesus”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 2.8: John’s Portrait of Jesus – Son and Word, part 1 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 2.7: Luke’s Portrait of Jesus – Prophet Elijah, part 2

Here I continue to discuss how the gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as a prophet like Elijah, which also entails presenting Jesus as a saviour to the poor and marginalized of society (part 1 of 2). This is part of series 2 (“Early Christian portraits of Jesus”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 2.7: Luke’s Portrait of Jesus – Prophet Elijah, part 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 2.6: Luke’s Portrait of Jesus – Prophet Elijah, part 1

Here I discuss how the gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as a prophet like Elijah, which also entails presenting Jesus as a saviour to the poor and marginalized of society (part 1 of 2). In this first part, I provide some important background for understanding this two volume work, Luke-Acts, both as ancient biography and as ancient history-writing. This is part of series 2 (“Early Christian portraits of Jesus”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 2.6: Luke’s Portrait of Jesus – Prophet Elijah, part 1 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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You may also subscribe to this and subsequent episodes through iTunes or another podcatcher. View credits for my introductory music remix.

Podcast 2.5: Matthew’s portrait of Jesus – New Moses (part 2)

Here I continue the discussion of Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the new David and new Moses (part 2 of 2). I also delve into tensions between Matthew’s community and other groups of Jews or Judeans in the late first century. This is part of series 2 (“Early Christian portraits of Jesus”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 2.5: Matthew’s portrait of Jesus – New Moses, part 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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You may also subscribe to this and subsequent episodes through iTunes or another podcatcher. View credits for my introductory music remix.

Podcast 2.4: Matthew’s portrait of Jesus – New Moses, part 1

Here I discuss the Judean portrait of Jesus as the new David and new Moses in the Gospel of Matthew (part 1 of 2). This is part of series 2 (“Early Christian portraits of Jesus”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 2.4: Matthew’s portrait of Jesus – New Moses, part 1 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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You may also subscribe to this and subsequent episodes through iTunes or another podcatcher. View credits for my introductory music remix.

Podcast 2.3: Mark’s portrait of Jesus – Suffering Son, part 2

This continues the discussion of how Jesus is portrayed in the narrative of the gospel of Mark, namely as the secretive and suffering Son of God (part 2 of 2). This is part of series 2 (“Early Christian portraits of Jesus”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 2.3: Mark’s portrait of Jesus – Suffering Son, part 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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You may also subscribe to this and subsequent episodes through iTunes or another podcatcher. View credits for my introductory music remix.

Podcast 2.2: Mark’s portrait of Jesus – Suffering Son, part 1

Here I consider how Jesus is portrayed in the narrative of the gospel of Mark, namely as the secretive and suffering Son of God (part 1 of 2). This is part of series 2 (“Early Christian portraits of Jesus”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 2.2: Mark’s portrait of Jesus – Suffering Son, part 1 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

You may also subscribe to this and subsequent episodes through iTunes or another podcatcher. View credits for my introductory music remix.