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Discrepancies *Inside* the Fourth Gospel

OK, back to contradictions. This thread (such as it is – so far there’s been no thread) began with a reader’s question of how there could be contradictions in the work of a single author? Was he just inattentive? Didn’t he care? Was he sloppy? In the previous post I pointed out that with someone like Paul, it was possible that he changed his mind about some things over the decade covered by his letters. But how about internal contradictions within a book? There are lots of these two? How can they be explained? In some instances they can be explained by the fact that an author has taken a variety of different sources and incorporated them into his writing. On occasion, these sources have discrepancies (sometimes very slight) between them, and the author for some reason or another did not choose to smooth them out. Or he didn’t notice them! (More on that in my next post.) A terrific set of examples comes from the Gospel of John. Most people reading John don’t see [...]

2020-04-03T18:06:12-04:00October 31st, 2013|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

Was Paul Contemplating Suicide?

I will get back to contradictions in my next post. For now, something else has come up. In my two previous posts I’ve mentioned Phil. 1:21, where Paul says, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” I’ve been asked by several blog-readers about this, and it occurs to me that it might be useful to sketch out one set of reflections on the verse, as I lay it out in one of my side-comments in my textbook on the New Testament. Here is what I say there: ******************************************************************************************************************* In an intriguing book that discusses suicide and martyrdom in the ancient world (A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among Christians and Jews in Antiquity. HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) Arthur Droge and James Tabor argue that the modern notion that suicide is a “sin” stems not from the Bible but from the fifth-century Saint Augustine. Prior to Augustine, suicide per se was not condemned by pagans, Jews, and Christians. On the contrary, in certain circumstances it was even advocated as the right and noble thing to do. Indeed, [...]

2020-10-29T17:22:59-04:00October 30th, 2013|Paul and His Letters, Reflections and Ruminations|

A Rather Serious Mistake

In my previous post I started answering the question of why there may be contradictions/discrepancies/differences within the works of a single author.   Weren’t they careful?  Didn’t they see the problem?   I mentioned that sometimes it may be that with someone like Paul, since his letters spanned over a decade, maybe he changed his mind about some things.   I certainly don’t think all the same things I did ten years ago; and if you contrast what I thought when I was 19 and when I was 29, it was an *extreme* shift.   The example I used was Paul’s sense in his early letters that he would be alive when Jesus returned; but in his later letters he seems to have thought that he might well die first. In that context I mentioned the famous passage in Paul, a favorite in funeral and memorial services, 2 Cor. 5:1:  “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  [...]

Why Are There Contradictions in the New Testament?

QUESTION: If I had collected a lot of stories about a person and put them together into a “biography” I would at least make sure that all the stories were at least somewhat consistent. I don’t understand why the writers of the gospels didn’t make sure their final product made sense – they certainly didn’t seem to have any problems changing things to suit them in many cases. Did they just write down everything they heard without any regard to whether one story or dialog totally contradicted another in the same story? Did they not even care? RESPONSE: This is a great question, and I wish there were a simple (let alone great) answer to it. Let me make a few observations more or less off the cuff, without presuming to make anything like an authoritative pronouncement on the matter…. First, the question refers to internal discrepancies *within* a single author, not to discrepancies between authors. One of the most interesting features of the canonical Gospels’ accounts of Jesus is, of course, that they are [...]

Upcoming Lectures at the Smithsonian

Now that the government is back in business, the Smithsonian Associates has resumed its work; they sponsor lectures and lecture series in Washington D.C., every week, all the time, and I usually do a day long series of lectures for them once or twice a year, based on a book I have coming out.   I’m scheduled for the Spring 2014 in conjunction with my book How Jesus Became God.   But I’ll also be doing one this December for the English-only version of the apocryphal Gospels that is to be published by then (edited from the original-language + English version that came out last year; this new one, like the old one, was written, edited, and translated with my colleague at UNC, Zlatko Plese). This first event is scheduled for Saturday Dec. 7; there will be four lectures, two in the morning and two in the afternoon.  It’s a killer of a day (for me at least).   But anyone in the area should consider attending.  You can get further information at their website: The following [...]

2018-01-14T22:57:13-05:00October 25th, 2013|Book Discussions, Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

Jesus’ Brother and the Mythicists (Part 2)

In my previous post I pointed out that mythicists have a real problem on their hands when it comes to insisting that Jesus didn’t exist (well, they actually have a *boatload* of problems; but this is one of them): Paul actually knew, personally, Jesus’ own brother, James. It’s hard to say that Jesus never lived if he in fact had a brother…. It doesn’t solve the problem to say that this was in fact Jesus’ cousin, since, well, he would still then be the cousin of (the real) Jesus (!) (plus the word Paul uses is “brother” not “cousin”) and it doesn’t work to say that he is Jesus’ brother meaning he is a member of the Christian church (since Paul differentiates him from himself and Peter by calling him the “brother” – and both Peter and Paul were also members of the church!). Mythicists have tried other approaches, including the one I discussed yesterday, of trying to claim that there was a group of fervent missionaries in Jerusalem called “the brothers of the Lord,” [...]

Brothers of Jesus and the Mythicists

QUESTION: Since you’ve brought up the subject of Jesus’ family perhaps it won’t be too far off the subject to ask this question. Mythicists are forced by their arguments to deal with Paul’s encounter with Peter and James in Galatians 1:18–20. They claim that when Paul refers to James as “The Lord’s brother” he does not mean that James is Jesus’ biological brother (which of course would mean that Jesus actually lived) but that he was using the word “brother” in the sense that all the disciples were “brothers” i.e., metaphorically. What about this? Is the word translated as “brother” in English that ambiguous in the original Greek? Can it be other than a biological relationship? Elsewhere I believe Paul uses the word “brothers” to describe fellow believers. Does he use the same Greek word? Thanks for the clarification. RESPONSE: Great question! I’ve dealt with the issue in my book Did Jesus Exist. I think this is one of the real deal-breakers for the mythicist position – that Paul was personally acquainted with Jesus’ own [...]

Jesus’ Brothers?!? And the Proto-Gospel of James

  One more post on the Proto-Gospel of James.  As it turns out, this Gospel was very popular in Eastern, Greek-speaking Christianity throughout the Ages, down to modern times; and a version of it was produced – with serious additions and changes – in Latin, that was even more influential in Western Christianity (a book now known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew).   In some times and places, these books were the main source of “information” that people had for knowing about Jesus’ birth and family – more so than the NT Gospels. The idea that Joseph was an old man and Mary was a young girl?  Comes from the Proto-Gospel (not the NT!).   The view that Jesus was born in a cave?   Proto-Gospel.    The notion that at the nativity there was an ox and a donkey?  Pseudo-Matthew.   And there were lots of other stories familiar to Christians in the Middle Ages not so familiar to people today, all from these books – for example, a spectacular account (in Pseudo-Matthew) of Jesus as an infant, en [...]

When Time Stood Still

Tomorrow in my graduate seminar on the early Christian apocrypha we finish translating the Proto-Gospel of James (aka: the Protevangelium Jacobi). We have done about five or six chapters a week for each of the past few weeks; next week we begin to translate the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, another really great text. In an earlier post I mentioned one of the most significant passages of the Proto-Gospel, where the midwife Salome doubts that a virgin had given birth (note: she does not doubt whether a virgin could have *conceived* [although no doubt she *would* have doubted it!]; what she doubts is that a woman could give *birth* and still have her hymen intact. That, obviously, would be impossible), and gives Mary a postpartum examination only to find that in fact she really is still a virgin (i.e., “intact”). Immediately before that amazing scene is another that I find at least as entrancing. In it, Joseph himself describes – in the first person – what happened when the Son of God came into the world. [...]

2020-04-03T18:04:22-04:00October 20th, 2013|Christian Apocrypha, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Gospel according to Mel

I mentioned in my post yesterday that I do not much like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Now that I think about it, I don’t think I know a single scholar of the historical Jesus, or of the New Testament, or – well of any academic topic taught at universities whom I’ve ever spoken with – who liked the movie. Most of the objections raised to it have involved its portrayals of Jews and its apparent embrace of the kinds of anti-Semitism that is all too easy to overlook, and therefore re-embrace without thinking. I am completely sympathetic with these objections. But here I’ll talk about other issues. I find the movie problematic (also) because Gibson maintained *both* that he stayed faithful to the accounts of the Gospels *and* that he showed events “as they really were.” Neither is true. First, as to being faithful to the Gospel accounts. The one thing that struck every single person who saw the movie and that kept most everyone else away from seeing it was the [...]

2020-04-03T18:04:52-04:00October 18th, 2013|Jesus and Film, Reflections and Ruminations|

Jesus’ Passion in the Movies

So, once my students have done a comparative study of the accounts of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection in the four Gospels, we then watch several clips of movies to see what directors do about the problems. How does a director handle the fact that each Gospel tells its own story, that the stories are different in many ways, and that in some instances there are discrepancies between the accounts (as laid out in yesterday’s post)? The short answer is that sometimes directors follow one account instead of the others; and sometimes they create their *own* account out of the four by smashing them together (overlooking their differences) as if they are all saying the same thing. For this exercise I do *not* have my students watch Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, for two reasons: (1) I am showing them only clips of Jesus movies – those portions that present the Passion narratives – whereas Gibson’s movie is *entirely* about the passion; and I have only an hour to show what I do show, [...]

2020-04-03T18:05:01-04:00October 17th, 2013|Jesus and Film, Reflections and Ruminations|

My Jesus Class and … Destroying Christianity?

My first-year seminar on “Jesus in Scholarship and Film” is going extremely well. Last week I gave the students an exercise comparable to one I mentioned earlier on the infancy narratives of the Gospels; this one was on the passion narratives. They were to read each of the Gospels accounts of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection carefully, several times (Matthew 27-28; Mark 15-16; Luke 23-24; John 18-20). Then they were to choose two of the four, and compare them very carefully, noting all the similarities, all the differences, and any apparent discrepancies that they thought in fact could not be reconciled. As a side note: probably three or four times a week I get an angry note from someone who has read one of my books or heard me give a lecture or listened/watched one of my Great Courses courses, who is upset because I am “trying to destroy Christianity.” I’m always completely baffled by this comment. (I got it yesterday from a retired Episcopalian priest; I would think an Episcopalian cleric would be the [...]

2020-04-03T18:05:14-04:00October 16th, 2013|Canonical Gospels, Reflections and Ruminations|

Podcast on My New Course

Here is a link to a podcast that just came out from The Great Courses that deals with my (relatively) new course “The Greatest Controversies of Early Christianity.” It has the virtue as well of including conversations (after mine) with two other professors and their courses as well.   In any event, if anyone has wondered a bit what my course is actually about, this is a fairly painless way to find out.

2018-01-14T23:06:04-05:00October 15th, 2013|Public Forum, Teaching Christianity|

Jesus Books

QUESTION/REQUEST: You did mention one thing above that I think would be good to expand on: What are good books to read about the life of Jesus (and related issues) based on scholarship but intended to the general, but intelligent, reader. I would like you to consider someday to publish here a list of solid books (from various points of view), other than what you have written since most of us are likely familiar with your work, about the life of Jesus, the growth of Christianity, solid theology from various perspectives, the history and description of first century life in the Roman world and other issues that are written based on valid historical and textual research that are intended for readers like me…well educated but not a scholar.   RESPONSE: What follows is a bibliography just on the historical Jesus that I published once, over ten years ago now, supplemented with a few of the most significant works to appear since. The list is highly selective – mainly books that I think are either good [...]

2021-04-24T23:50:18-04:00October 14th, 2013|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Some Blog Self-Scrutiny

I’ve spent the past day or so thinking about the Blog.   By many standards I think it is going very well.   As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, we managed to raise $37,000 last year for the charities that the blog supports, all of them dealing with hunger and homelessness.  If we do that for a number of years – we’re talking some serious money!  Most of that amount came from membership fees; a good chunk came from extra donations, some of them extraordinarily generous.  I anticipate that we will have an even higher total this year, although it is yet to be seen.  In any event, we are slightly ahead of where we were last year at this point. But I never seem satisfied!  Maybe it’s my driven personality.  But I wonder how we can do better.   Much better. Some things we simply can’t do *more* of.   I already post about six times a week, and I try to mix up what I do: some posts are “public interest” items (like O’Reilly or that  [...]

2013-10-13T21:45:28-04:00October 13th, 2013|Public Forum|

Constantine and Christianity

One of the readers of this blog pointed out to me in a comment a *third* thing that is commonly said about the emperor Constantine and the council of Nicea that is also wrong (the first two being the ones I mentioned: that at the council they [or even he, Constantine!] decided which books would be in the canon of the New Testament and that it was at the council that a vote was taken on whether or not Jesus was to be considered the Son of God. Wrong, wrong, wrong – both of them). It is widely believed (for some inscrutable reason) that Constantine made Christianity the “state religion” of the Roman empire. This too is wrong. So just a very brief bit of background, which will involve another (more or less unrelated) bit of misinformation that is commonly held having to do with the history of Christian persecution up to Constantine’s time. Many people appear to think that Christianity from the very beginning was an illegal religion that was constantly persecuted by the [...]

More Conspiracy Nonsense

Poor Hercules, trying to fight the Hydra. Once he lops off *one* head…. So I’ve received several emails over the past couple of days about the breathtaking new announcement to be made on October 19 (assuming the world still is functioning after October 17!) in London by “American Biblical scholar” Joseph Atwill (whom – I have to admit – I have never even heard of, to my recollection) In this announcement Mr. (so far as I can tell, from his blog, he is not a “Dr.”; in what sense is he a “scholar”? Is it because he’s read a bunch of book? Hmm….) Atwill will “prove” that “the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats and that they fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ.” In other words – brace yourself – Jesus is in fact a myth. Has anyone heard this before? For the full story, go to Atwill is a different breed from most mythicists. That’s probably good and bad. Good because, well, you wouldn’t like to be like the others. [...]

Widespread Misconceptions about the Council of Nicea

One of the reasons I’m excited about doing my new course for the Teaching Company (a.k.a. The Great Courses) is that I’ll be able to devote three lectures to the Arian Controversy, the Conversion of the emperor Constantine, and the Council of Nicea (in 325 CE). It seems to me that a lot more people know about the Council of Nicea today than 20 years ago – i.e., they know that there *was* such a thing – and at the same time they know so little about it. Or rather, what they think they know about it is WRONG. I suppose we have no one more to blame for this than Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code, where, among other things, we are told that Constantine called the Council in order to “decide” on whether Jesus was divine or not, and that they took a vote on whether he was human or “the Son of God.” And, according to Dan Brown’s lead character (his expert on all things Christian), Lee Teabing, “it was a [...]

My New Course for the Great Courses

Among other things, this semester I’m working on a new course for The Teaching Company (also known as The Great Courses). This will be my eighth course with them. The other seven have all (with one exception) been 24-lecture courses, with each lecture at 30 minutes. So too will this one. Doing these courses is a great privilege and a terrific experience. What I especially appreciate about them is that they reach many thousands of people who may not otherwise have expert-level access to the material covered in them. And I think that when it comes to issues related to religion – and Christianity in particular – that’s really important. We have enough ignorance in the world as it is, and anything that we can do to combat it is all to the good. If you aren’t familiar with the Great Courses, you would do yourself a great service to look them up. I myself have watched a number of courses in other fields (e.g. The History of Rome, How to Understand and Appreciate [...]

Colbert on his Hero O’Reilly

OK, this really is my last post on O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus.   It’s not much of one!   But today is the day I normally take “off” from the blog.  Monday’s are my day from hell:  a three-hour undergraduate seminar (“Jesus in Scholarship and Film”) in the morning (today: students compared all the accounts of Jesus’ Passion in the four Gospels, seeing if there were any differences they thought were irreconcilable; we discussed it all; and then we watched four movie clips – Passion scenes from the 1925 silent Ben Hur; the 1959 Ben Hur; the Greatest Story Ever Told; and the 1977 Zephirelli Jesus of Nazareth – in order to see how directors chose what to include, what to exclude, what to do when different Gospels relate different stories, that sometimes really can’t be easily reconciled, etc.   Great stuff) and then a three hour seminar (“Early Christian Apocrypha”) in the afternoon (today: The Coptic Gospel of Thomas - -when was it written? Where? In what language?  Is it dependent on the NT Gospels?  Is it Gnostic?  [...]

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