New “heresy” podcast series – Diversity in early Christianity: “Heresies” and struggles (series 3)

Starting in October (this coming week), the third series in the podcast will begin.  This series looks at the variety of Christian groups that existed in the first to third centuries, especially marginalized groups and those traditionally labelled “heresies” (e.g. Gnostics, Marcionites, Ebionites, etc).  This series is more advanced and assumes some knowledge of the history of early Christianity, so it is suggested that you first listen to series one (Paul and his communities) and two (Early Christian portraits of Jesus).

For those who would rather not wait for the staggered release of episodes over the next few months (through iTunes or the feed), I should remind you that all episodes are currently accessible on my archive.org podcast page (click on “Browse episodes starting with recent additions”).

Here is an overview of the episodes:

  • Podcast 3.1: Introduction to Diversity – A Schism in John’s Community, part 1
  • Podcast 3.2: A Schism in John’s Community, part 2
  • Podcast 3.3: Docetic and Judaizing Opponents of Ignatius, part 1
  • Podcast 3.4: Docetic and Judaizing Opponents of Ignatius, part 2
  • Podcast 3.5: Diversity in Asia Minor – A Regional Case Study
  • Podcast 3.6: Sources for the Study of Diversity – Gnostic, Apocryphal, Patristic
  • Podcast 3.7: Jewish Followers of Jesus, part 1 – Ebionites
  • Podcast 3.8: Jewish Followers of Jesus, part 2 – Pseudo-Clement
  • Podcast 3.9: Marcionites and the Unknown God
  • Podcast 3.10: Introducing Gnostic Worldviews
  • Podcast 3.11: Secret Book of John, part 1 – The Spiritual Realm
  • Podcast 3.12: Secret Book of John, part 2 – Salvation from the Material Realm
  • Podcast 3.13: The Wisdom of Jesus Christ and Middle Platonism
  • Podcast 3.14: The Gospel of Philip, part 1 – Ideas of Salvation
  • Podcast 3.15: The Gospel of Philip, part 2 – Ritual Enactments of Salvation
  • Podcast 3.16: The Gospel of Mary – Secret Knowledge from the Ultimate Disciple

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.

Quote of the day

“If the devil were to explode and evil were gone forever, what sort of party would you have?”  (Michael Scott, The Office, in reference to throwing a farewell party for a departing employee).

The answer involves anti-gravity machines, naturally.

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).

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.

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).

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.

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.

Human sacrifice and cannibalism again — oh, and sexual perversion too

I am in the midst of writing a book on Dynamics of Identity and Early Christianity (for Continuum) which tries to shed some new light on the question by looking to associations, cultural minorities, and ethnic groups in the world of the early Christians.  “Identity” has to do with the way in which individuals and groups answer the questions “who am I” or ‘who are we in relation to others?”  Social scientists emphasize that there are two main processes in identity-construction and re-negotiation: internal self-definitions and external categorizations.  External categorizations involve outsiders’ perspectives on who a group is and stereotypes about that group, and they can play a role in how members of the evaluated group re-negotiate and express their own identities internally.

In previous posts (click here), I have noted a common set of ethnographic stereotypes that were used to categorize other peoples or groups as “barbarous” and dangerous to society, particularly cultural minority groups or ethnic groups.  The early Christians, for instance, were charged with Thyestan feasts (cannibalism) and Oedipean unions (incest), and similar charges went back and forth between social and ethnic groups in antiquity.  Judeans, too, were stereotyped and charged with the same sort of activities when a particular Greek or Roman author disliked them.

Yet, as I said, the charges go both ways.  A good example of this is offered by a passage in the Wisdom of Solomon (first century BCE or CE — in the so called Apocrypha of the Bible) which characterized ‘pagans’ as dangerous and barbarous.  This author describes the ‘detestable’ activities of those who inhabited the ‘holy land’ before the arrival of the Israelites. This gives this Hellenistic Judean author opportunity to critique contemporary associations or ‘societies’ of ‘initiates’ outside of the Judean sphere in the process, calling on the same sort of stereotypes we have seen in Greek or Roman slander against Judeans. God ‘hated them for practicing the most detestable things – deeds of sorcery and unholy rites (τελετὰς ἀνοσίους), merciless slaughters of children, sacrificial feasting on human flesh and blood – those “initiates” from the midst of a “society” (ἐκ μέσου μύστας θιάσου) and parents who murder helpless lives, you willed to destroy. . .‘ (Wis 12:4-5; cf. Wis 14:15-23 [NETS]).

At the same time, personified Wisdom herself is an ‘initiate’ of another, superior kind, an ‘initiate (μύστις) in the knowledge of God’ (Wis 8:4). Elsewhere the author critiques the ‘idolatry’ of Greeks generally, the ‘impious ones’ (άσεβοῦς) who do not know such ‘divine mysteries’ (2:22) and who instead establish their own inferior ‘mysteries and rites’ (μυστήρια καὶ τελετάς; 14:15): ‘For whether performing ritual murders of children or secret mysteries or frenzied revels connected with strange laws, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either kill one another by treachery or grieve one another by adultery’ (Wis. 14:23-24). Once again, ritual murder and sexual perversion converge in this characterization of the associations of another ethnic group.

The process of defining the ‘other’ as dangerous barbarians who will kill and eat you if they can is in fact the process of defining one’s own group as well.  This is the boundary-constructing process of distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’, and virtually all groups in antiquity engaged in such modes of external categorizations and self-definition that are at the heart of identity.

(Sure this post is somewhat long, but at least I’m trying — I’ve lost the knack for short and sweet, it seems, if I ever had it).

A computer in 100 BCE?

I just received an email from Harold Remus who pointed me to an interesting article on a mechanism designed to compute solar eclipses and to arrange the calendar in connection with the cycles of the Olympiad (ancient Olympics).  The New York Times article explains:

The Antikythera Mechanism, sometimes called the first analog computer, was recovered more than a century ago in the wreckage of a ship that sank off the tiny island of Antikythera, north of Crete. Earlier research showed that the device was probably built between 140 and 100 B.C.

The full article is available here: Discovering How Greeks Computed in 100 B.C.

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).

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.

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).

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.

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).

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.

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).

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.

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).

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.

Jesus said, “You’re all evil. There is no hope. That’s it. Thank you.”

Hat tip to one of the pastors at The Meeting House (Joel Percy), who showed the following mash-up video in connection with his talk on common Christian notions of sin. I laughed till I cried, despite the fact that most others were slightly less amused or perhaps less aware of what was being critiqued via the presentation of Jesus:

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=SQbsE0GGdkU[/youtube]

Podcast collection page now on archive.org – Advance auditions

I am enjoying creating the podcasts and have found that subscriptions and downloads are more than enough to continue (about 400 ongoing subscribers and over 1000 downloads for certain episodes). What began as a mere experiment at the prodding of my web-savvy wife, is now what I would consider a relative success. Thanks to those who are listening and making my preparation of material seem even more worthwhile. I love to teach, so it’s great to have a larger audience (even though it would be nice to interact more in person with the listeners — and you don’t get to hear all the jokes, or the “ah’s” and “um’s” which are edited out).

I have been hosting the individual audio mp3 files for my podcast on archive.org all along. Now the people over at archive.org have been nice enough to establish a “collection” page which gathers together all of my podcast audio into its own independent sub-section on archive.org: Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean Podcast collection page (accessible from archive’s “Podcasts” and “Religion and Spirituality” sections under “Audio”). This does not change anything about the main feed for my podcast and the access through iTunes, which still remain the same (with a new half-hour episode being released bi-weekly).

There are some advantages to this added venue for my podcasts. Let me explain. Currently, I stagger the release of episodes (organized into series) which are broadcast twice a month through my blog and feed (which also gets sent to iTunes). So far I have been releasing series 1 on “Paul and his communities” (completely released) and series 2 on “Early Christian portraits of Jesus” (part way through). Sometime next Fall, I will officially begin posting series 3 on “Diversity in Early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and struggles” (which deals with things like the Ebionites, Marcionites, “gnostics”, Nag Hammadi writings, and early Christian apocrypha). All of the episodes that have been officially released so far are of course also accessible here on this site under the podcast category.

The advantage of the archive collection page is that it leaves it up to you, the (potential) listener, to get episodes when you want them and to jump ahead a series if you would rather. You can now access some episodes (or series) of my podcast before they are officially released on my blog (in the event that I have them ready and uploaded to archive.org — I’m not a machine;). This means that if you know quite a bit about Paul or the Gospels, and therefore haven’t been listening to the first two series, you can now jump forward (on archive.org) to a future, more advanced series on “Diversity in early Christianity: ‘Heresies’ and struggles”. This also means that if you happen to be finding the bi-weekly process too slow and are often waiting for a podcast to listen to during the commute, then you can move ahead and get them now in some cases. But if you do jump ahead, you may use a couple of years worth of releases up in no time (I won’t be able to officially release new ones any faster than twice a month to ensure consistency over large spans of time).

Another nice thing about my archive.org collection is that it tells you the number of downloads and which episodes were downloaded most in the last week, in the past month, and since the beginning of the podcast (look at the right column on that page and scroll down).

I hope some of you find this helpful. Let me know what you think, or if you have other suggestions.

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).

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.

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).

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.

Thessalos’ travels and his “magical” cures

Seldom in ancient sources does one encounter extensive autobiographical statements about a person’s supposed journeys and communications with the gods (with the exception of novels like the Golden Ass). For this reason, the first century letter of Thessalos, which served as a preface for an astrological guide-book on medical materials, provides an important glimpse into ancient expectations regarding travel and religion. Yet this letter is not readily available in English. In connection with the Travel and Religion in Antiquity website, I have now created a webpage on Thessalos which provides a translation (along with the Greek text) of this seldom studied document. I’ve been working on an article that looks at Thessalos’ story within the context of Greek expectations regarding such journeys in pursuit of wisdom from the gods, and so the webpage will likely expand with time.

The letter attributed to Thessalos, which was only rediscovered and published by Charles Graux in 1878, relates the story (however fictional) of Thessalos’ early life and education in Asia Minor. There he demonstrates extraordinary abilities that lead him to pursue a medical education in Alexandria in Egypt. Towards the end of his education as a physician, Thessalos discovers an ancient book by king Nechepso which promises twenty-four medical cures according to the signs of the Zodiac. Thessalos rashly believes that the treatments will work and spreads word of the amazing cures to both his family in Asia and his colleagues in Alexandria, only to discover that he cannot make the prescriptions work. This leads him to thoughts of suicide. Thessalos then wanders through Egypt in search of a solution that is only satisfied after meeting an Egyptian priest at Diospolis (Thebes), who reluctantly prepares Thessalos to communicate with a god. After attaining purity, the story culminates in Thessalos meeting the god Asklepios “face to face”. Thessalos receives from Asklepios secret knowledge concerning the connections between effective healing, plants, and the stars.

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.

Podcast 2.1: Introduction to Early Christian Portraits of Jesus

Here I discuss some introductory issues regarding the gospels, including their status as ancient biographies or portraits of Jesus and the literary relationships among the synoptic gospels (approx. 45 minutes). This sets the stage for an historical and literary study of portraits of Jesus in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, as well as the book of Hebrews. This episode is part of series two (“Early Christian Portraits of Jesus”) of the podcast.

Podcast 2.1: Introduction to Early Christian Portraits of Jesus (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.

Sex and salvation in the Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Philip has more to do with sex than you might imagine. This is one of the writings that was found near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi in 1945, a third century work that is among those traditionally considered “gnostic”.

Sure, there’s the fact that this writing is cited in conspiracy theories regarding the supposed sex life of Jesus. The Da Vinci Code‘s use of the Gospel of Philip illustrates this approach. The (incomplete) passage that is used in the book and movie is the one that refers to Jesus, a companion, and Mary Magdalene, and then goes on to refer to some kisses and the jealously of other disciples because Jesus apparently loved Mary most (but the “translation” in the movie–unlike the one here–fills in the blanks):

And the companion of the [ . . . ] Mary Magdalene. [. . . loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [ . . . ]. The rest of [the disciples . . .]. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her?. . . When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness (Gospel of Philip 63.30-64.9).

The passage is, in fact, less than clear on any claim that Jesus was the companion, in the sense of sexual partner or lover, of Mary Magadelene. (I’ll also add that none of the second or third century Gospels tell us much at all about the first century peasant Jesus; rather they tell us about how later Christians understood Jesus centuries later). Instead, this is one further instance of what we find in other early Christian writings, namely, the claim that Jesus favoured a particular disciple (a disciple who “saw the light”, in this case) and may have offered that special disciple some secret or important information. The point is that a particular community that uses that gospel is claiming some direct and special access to Jesus’ teaching, and claiming that they have the truth more than some other group (compare the Gospel of Mary Magadalene, The Coptic Gospel of Thomas,or the Gospel of John, with its “beloved disciple”– I won’t go into any other inventive theories around the beloved disciple, or the scantily clad guy in the Gospel of Mark, Secret, Elongated, or otherwise).

Not to steal Hollywood’s excitement, but the kisses in question in the Gospel of Philip are best understood not as sexual ones but as further examples of the “holy kiss” greeting among members of Jesus groups as early as the mid-first century (see Rom 16:16, for instance). The followers of Jesus who used the Gospel of Philip also apparently attached an even more important significance to this kiss (59.1-5 and 58.30-59.6) and to breath (63.6-10; 70.23-24) in connection with their understanding of how the spiritual spark in some human souls is connected with the spiritual realm as a whole . It is true, however, that some outsiders–both Greeks and Romans– accused early followers of Jesus of incest (as well as cannibalism), but that had less to do with any knowledge of Christian “holy kisses” or their tendency to call one another “brothers” or “sisters” than it had to do with common mud-slinging in characterizing foreign peoples or minority groups as dangerous barbarians (see my posts here and my article here).

Nonetheless, there is some sex, quite a bit in fact, in the Gospel of Philip. I’m talking about the consistent way in which the author of the materials gathered in this writing uses sexual union as a METAPHOR for salvation itself. And the way in which the community of Christians that used this gospel enacted this salvation in a ritual known as the “bridal chamber”. So this is not sex of the usual type and is a little more tame than Hollywood likes–sorry to disappoint.

This writing expresses the poor condition of humanity, our present fallen state, using the metaphor or analogy of the separation of the genders and speaks of salvation in terms of the reuniting of the male and female: “When Eve was still in Adam death did not exist. When she was separated from him death came into being. If he enters again and attains his former self, death will be no more” (68.22-25). Further on it explains this “separation” again and refers to the reparation that the saviour figure, Christ, brings: “If the woman had not separated from the man, she should not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation and unite them” (70.9-18).

The Gospel of Philip presupposes a particular mythological and cosmological worldview that I have discussed in many other posts on “gnosticism” and related literature (browse some posts in my “gnosticism” and apocrypha category to understand this a bit better). Here Christ is the Saviour figure who brings salvation not by dying on a cross but by bringing the knowledge (gnosis), knowledge of the fact that an element within humans (certain spiritual humans) ultimately belongs in the perfect spiritual realm, not this inferior material realm framed by the creator god (the demiurge) of the Hebrew Bible.

So, for this follower of Jesus, salvation is about reunification. But how is this reunification understood and completed. Well, there is a specific ritual or process of initiation that this group felt was a way of enacting the process of gaining knowledge that brings reunification with the perfect spiritual realm: the bridal chamber, which was preceded by baptism and anointing (“chrism”). So once again, sexual union is the prominent metaphor for salvation, in this case within the ritual context. To be clear, it is not a real man and woman that unite in the ritual context of the “bridal chamber”. Rather, it is “the image” (here conceived as “male”) that unites with “the angel” (65.20-24). It is the image within man that unites with its female angelic counterpart in the bridal chamber. It is the spiritual element within certain people that reunites with its spiritual consort, thereby returning to where it belongs, namely ascending above to the perfect spiritual realm or “fullness” that is one and the same with the Father God (not the creator of this material realm).

So despite the sort of thing you’ll read in church fathers like Epiphanius (see here), the followers of Jesus that used the Gospel of Philip did not engage in actual sex for this ritual; instead it is a metaphorical way of expressing and enacting salvation. But did such Jesus-followers have sex at all? There’s a scholarly debate on precisely this matter. April DeConick is among those scholars who suggest that the Gospel of Philip reflects Christians with a relatively positive view of marriage and sexual union within marriage (article title to come soon). Scholars like this point to the positive use of the analogy of sexual union in the discussion of the bridal chamber ritual, when the author speaks of “marriage in the world” to explain the other “spiritual” marriage of the chamber (82).

Other scholars would suggest that this author of the Gospel of Philip, like many other Nag Hammadi authors, had a less positive or quite negative view of bodily matters and would suggest that “it is proper to destroy the flesh” (82.25-29), including sexual activity even within marriage. In other words, the followers of Jesus who used this Gospel filled with sex (in the metaphorical sense) may well have been sexually ascetic and refrained from the real thing in any context, (real) bridal chamber or otherwise.

Podcast 1.12: Legacies of Paul – Women’s leadership, part 2

This concludes the discussion of the Acts of Paul and Thecla in relation to the Pastoral epistles, addressing the ways in which Paul was used within debates about women’s leadership in second century groups of Jesus-followers. This is the final episode in series 1 (“Paul and his Communities”). Series 2 (beginning in March) will take an historical and literary look at “Early Christian Portraits of Jesus”, including the gospels.

Podcast 1.12: Legacies of Paul – Women and leadership, part 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here). approx 32 minutes

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.

Podcast 1.11: Legacies of Paul – Women’s leadership, part 1

Here I look at legacies and interpretations of Paul after his death. In particular, I use several letters written in the name of Paul (the Pastoral epistles) and a novelistic story about Paul and a woman named Thecla (Acts of Paul and Thecla) as a window into debates about leadership of women in groups of Jesus-followers in the second century. This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.11: Legacies of Paul – Women and leadership, 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.

Marcion’s Stranger God (also “strange”)

For students who are familiar with Christianity in some way (and most are regardless of what their religious backgrounds may be), it is hard to get their minds around a variety of people that called themselves “Christians” or followers of Jesus back in the first couple of centuries. These other Christians sometimes had quite different worldviews and practices than the ones we associate with Christianity today, and they can come across as “strange”.

One reason these other followers of Jesus come across as “strange” is because the varieties of Christianity we are familiar with today (despite the diversity there too) all stem, in some way, from the winners who established their positions as “orthodox” (true-belief) in antiquity. The result was that, in the long run, many others who felt they followed Jesus got left out the picture, with the exception of other Jesus-followers speaking negatively about them as “heretics”.

Once in a while, we are lucky to actually find writings from the perspectives of the ones who lost out (the “heretics”) as history moved forward, as when a group of writings like the Nag Hammadi documents are found. However, with most others it is only indirectly that we can get a sense of the diversity of groups that followed Jesus.

One such form of Christianity that comes across as “strange” at first is Marcion’s style of following Jesus (he was especially active in the 130s and 140s CE). We only know about Marcion’s views from those who disliked him, from certain patristic writers like Tertullian, who wrote a five-volume work condemning Marcion’s views (Against Marcion online here). I have already discussed the sort of name-calling you might expect from the likes of Tertullian in a previous post on the “savage” Marcion here. We have to carefully reconstruct the views of Marcion from writers of the late-second and third centuries like Tertullian, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Hippolytus (see some of the passages quoted here).

In the 150s CE, for instance, Justin writes:

one Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even now alive, teaching those who believe him to pay honour to a different god, greater than the Creator: and this man has by the assistance of those demons caused many of every nation to utter blasphemies, denying the God who made this universe, and professing that another, a greater than he, has done greater things (Apology 1.26 as cited in Evans).

From such sources, it seems that Marcion believed that the God who sent Jesus was not the same god familiar from the stories of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). Reading these stories quite literally, Marcion saw the creator god in the Hebrew Bible as rather impulsive, unpredictable, warlike, and primarily interested in having humans follow his rules or in judging those who did not. Marcion felt that Jesus’ message and behaviour was not compatible with the sort of behaviour Marcion found in the creator god.

This is where the stranger God comes into the picture, and I mean strange in the sense of previously unknown. Marcion proposed that Jesus had no direct relation to the Judean (Jewish or Israelite) creator god of the Hebrew Bible and that he was not that god’s messiah. Rather, Jesus was sent from a previously unknown, stranger God whose character was centred not on war and justice but on love. There is a sense in which the creator god of the Bible was the antithesis of the God who sent Jesus, in Marcion’s view.

Marcion wrote a whole book, which is now lost, on the Antitheses or “Oppositions” between the two. Marcion also expressed this opposition in terms of the opposition between Law (enforced by the creator god) and Gospel (brought by Jesus from the loving Father). He drew this contrast between gospel and law from his own interpretation of Paul’s letters, which he edited to remove connections with the Judean god. Marcion thought that Paul got things right and that the other apostles mis-interpreted Jesus. The loving Father sent Jesus to free us from the legalistic enforcement of the Judean god, Marcion believed. Although the Judean creator god was just in a legalistic sense (he punished humans based on the law he established), the Father God who sent Jesus was far superior and loving.

In order to further bolster this interpretation, Marcion also was among the first to gather together a collection of authoritative writings. The Hebrew Bible was quite clearly excluded from scripture in Marcion’s mind, since it had nothing to do with either Jesus or the previously unknown, loving God. Rather, Marcion proposed as authoritative ten of Paul’s letters together with a version of the gospel of Luke with parts removed that implied a connection between Jesus and the Judean god. Marcion, it seems was among the first to propose a canon of scripture of sorts.  On that, see my post: Breaking news: Early Christians had no New Testament.

That, in brief, is some of the limited amount we know about Marcion, whose brand of Christianity was considerably successful in various parts of the Roman empire from North Africa and Rome to Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, at least into the fourth and fifth centuries.

UPDATE (moments later):

As if the result of some alignment of the planets, Stephen Carlson has just posted on an interesting (though certainly questionable) theory regarding the synoptic problem that involves a Marcionite gospel: Klinghardt’s New Solution for the Synoptic Problem.

Podcast 1.10: Paul’s response to the Romans

This episode considers Paul’s response to the ethnic divisions that existed among groups of Jesus-followers at Rome. Here I discuss Paul’s main arguments regarding the equally condemnable and equally save-able status of both Greeks (or Gentiles) and Judeans, as well as Paul’s view that “all Israel will be saved”. This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.10: Paul’s response to the Romans (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.

The Jesus Ultimatum: Action and suspense in Mark’s gospel

I joked to my students the other day that, of the portraits of Jesus in the gospels (on which also see my earlier post on “Who is this guy?”: The Gospel of Mark on the identity of Jesus), Mark’s would be the closest to a Bourne flick in terms of action and suspense.

True, the action in Mark may not be as intense as a car-chase through the streets of Moscow, but there is certainly some speed in the narrative. Jesus does just about everything “immediately” and the reader is brought from one episode to the next at almost lightning speed. In chapter one alone, Jesus appears, is baptized, goes out to the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan, collects together some students, teaches in the synagogue, has run-ins with authorities, casts out a couple of very vocal unclean spirits, heals both a woman and a leper as well has “many who were sick with various diseases” or possessed by demons. Hearing this gospel, you sit on the edge of your seat wondering what Jesus is going to do next.

Beyond the action, suspense is also built into Mark’s story of Jesus. Sometimes the author slows things down quite deliberately in order to build suspense of another kind, as in the section that deals with Jesus’ authority as healer. So, for example, Mark’s story-telling abilities come to the fore when he gets us quite worried about a poor girl on the verge of death: “Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw [Jesus], fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.'” (Mark 5:22-23 [NRSV]).

With Mark’s record for having Jesus do just about everything in a flash, this time things go very slow despite the fact that a little girl is about to die. The narrator or story-teller is quite deliberately building suspense here, as many scholars note. Instead of flashing ahead to Jesus healing the girl in the nick of time, Mark goes on to relate Jesus’ healing of another woman with internal bleeding, and the author of Mark doesn’t do this quickly. The hearer of this story is left wondering: “What happened to the poor little girl! She’s going to die! Hurry up!!”

Then, after this story of the healing of the older woman, the hearer’s worries are confirmed. The little girl is indeed dead. Jesus is too late: “While [Jesus] was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?'” (v. 35). This is when the panic of the hearer is alleviated as the story of Jesus going to the girl and raising her from the dead is narrated: “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement” (vv. 41-42) — as are the hearers of this story. At last, things are happening “immediately” again.

The “savage” Marcion: Ethnographic stereotypes in attacking “heretics”

On a number of occasions I have discussed ancient ethnography (posts here), namely the ways in which ancient authors describe the practices and beliefs of other peoples. These descriptions of “foreign” peoples are often heavily laden with stereotypes and, to put it bluntly, nasty characterizations. As minority cultural groups, Judeans and followers of Jesus could be on the receiving end of such ethnographic stereotypes of “barbarous” peoples, as when some Greeks or Romans charged Christians with incest and cannibalism (see a full article on the topic here). I have discussed Tertullian’s defence of Christians against such stereotypes, including the notion that followers of Jesus regularly sacrificed little children: ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort.

But this church father, Tertullian, could also dish it out quite well, even in dealing with others who claimed to follow Jesus. Around the turn of the third century, Tertullian wrote a five-volume work (Against Marcion) in which he put on trial, so to speak, the views and practices of Marcion, a follower of Jesus who had substantially different views from Tertullian’s. Tertullian opens this massive work with a somewhat extensive ethnographic description of the peoples of the Euxine Sea (Black Sea) and Pontus region — this is where Marcion came from. Here Tertullian characterizes these people as barbarians with extremely strange practices, including “deviant” sexual practices he dare not name (“If the wagon’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin'”) and “savage” practices such as carving up their own fathers for a stew. These stereotypical accusations of barbarity are neither here nor there in terms of realities of life around the Black Sea or in terms of what Marcion was like, but it is interesting to see such name-calling techniques used in one Christian’s attack on another. Marcion, it turns out in Tertullian’s not so subtle characterizations of everyone from Pontus, is, no doubt, a savage, father-eating sexually-deviant barbarian. Don’t listen to Marcion’s form of Christianity is the message:

The sea called Euxine, or hospitable, is belied by its nature and put to ridicule by its name. Even its situation would prevent you from reckoning Pontus hospitable: as though ashamed of its own barbarism it has set itself at a distance from our more civilized waters. Strange tribes inhabit it—if indeed living in a wagon can be called inhabiting. These have no certain dwelling-place: their life is uncouth: their sexual activity is promiscuous, and for the most part unhidden even when they hide it: they advertise it by hanging a quiver on the yoke of the wagon, so that none may inadvertently break in [blogger’s note: “If the wagon’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin'”]. So little respect have they for their weapons of war. They carve up their fathers’ corpses along with mutton, to gulp down at banquets. If any die in a condition not good for eating, their death is a disgrace. Women also have lost the gentleness, along with the modesty, of their sex. They display their breasts, they do their house-work with battle-axes, they prefer fighting to matrimonial duty. There is sternness also in the climate—never broad daylight, the sun always niggardly, the only air they have is fog, the whole year is winter, every wind that blows is the north wind. Water becomes water only by heating: rivers are no rivers, only ice: mountains are piled high up with snow: all is torpid, everything stark. Savagery is there the only thing warm—such savagery as has provided the theatre with tales of Tauric sacrifices, Colchian love-affairs, and Caucasian crucifixions.

Even so, the most barbarous and melancholy thing about Pontus is that Marcion was born there, more uncouth than a Scythian, more unsettled than a Wagon-dweller, more uncivilized than a Massagete, with more effrontery than an Amazon, darker than fog, colder than winter, more brittle than ice, more treacherous than the Danube, more precipitous than Caucasus. Evidently so, when by him the true Prometheus, God Almighty, is torn to bits with blasphemies. More ill-conducted also is Marcion than the wild beasts of that barbarous land: for is any beaver more self-castrating than this man who has abolished marriage? What Pontic mouse is more corrosive than the man who has gnawed away the Gospels? Truly the Euxine has given birth to a wild animal more acceptable to philosophers than to Christians (trans. by Ernest Evans, Tertullian: Adversus Marcionem [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972], pp. 4-5).

Oh yes, Tertullian doesn’t like philosophers either.