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Biblical Anachronisms: The Philistines and Beersheba

In my post a couple of days ago I stated the fact, that I took to be a fact, that the historical Moses (if there was one) (which I doubt) could not have written parts of the Pentateuch (I don’t think he wrote any of the parts) (OK, since, among other things, I don’t think he existed) because of the mention of the people the “Philistines” and the city of Beersheba, neither of which existed in the thirteenth century BCE, when he must have lived, if he lived.   A reader asked me what the evidence for that is.  I include the question below. It’s a great question.  I used to know the answer!  Off the top of my head, I couldn’t remember what that was, apart from a vague recollection of archaeological reports.   Moreover, at the time I was on the road away from my books (visiting my 89-year-old mother in Kansas!).  So not being able to look it up, I did the next best thing, which turns out not to have been the second [...]

2017-11-06T21:19:17-05:00June 30th, 2016|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Reader’s Questions|

Literary Tensions in the Creation Account of Genesis

In yesterday’s post I began to explain why scholars have thought that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), were not written by Moses, but later, and that they represent not a single work by a single author, but a compilation of sources, each of them written at different times.   The evidence for this view is quite overwhelming, and in the context of my textbook on the Bible, as in the context here, I didn’t really think it appropriate or useful to dig deeply into all the nuances and ins and outs.  Instead, I gave some of the prominent data.   Here is how I started to do that. ************************************************************* The internal tensions in the Pentateuch came to be seen as particularly significant.  Nowhere were these tensions more evident than in the opening accounts of the very first book, in the creation stories of Genesis chapters 1 and 2.   Scholars came to recognize that what is said in Genesis 1 cannot be easily (or at all) reconciled with [...]

2020-04-03T03:32:25-04:00June 28th, 2016|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Who Wrote the Pentateuch? Early Questions of Authorship.

On to something different!  I want to move to a new blog topic for a while.  I’ve been talking about my new book – still being written! – about the Christianization of the empire – for a while, and it’s obviously the topic near and dear to me just now.  But variety is the spice of life. Several readers have responded to me about my response to the question of the sources behind the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, also called, collectively, the “Torah” or the “Law” of Moses).   I thought it might be refreshing to say a few more things about these books and the question of who actually wrote them.  I had discussed some of this on the blog three years ago, when I was writing my textbook The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.   Here I will lift a few sections from the book dealing with this fascinating and important topic. The question: Who wrote the Pentateuch?  Historically, it was always [...]

The Name of Saul/Paul and the Sources of the Pentateuch: Weekly Mailbag June 26, 2016

  Why did Saul change his name to Paul?  And what were the sources lying being the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible?  Good questions!  I’ll deal with them here in the Weekly Reader’s Mailbag   QUESTION: What is the meaning of “Paul” that Saul of Tarsus was moved to change to that name upon his conversion? RESPONSE: Ah, right – my students ask me this a lot in my New Testament class.  When we all grew up in Sunday School we learned that when Saul of Tarsus converted, he changed his name to Paul, so that Saul was his Jewish name and Paul his Christian name.  As it turns out, that’s not quite right. Paul himself never gives any indication that he had another name, Saul.   But he is called Saul in the book of Acts.  Until he converts.  After that he is usually called Paul.  But not always!  See, e.g., Acts 11:30 and 13:2 (there are other instances).  There the Christian Paul is called Saul. What gives with that?  Did [...]

More on Numbers of Converts

In case you didn’t read the post of yesterday, I include the final two paragraphs here.  Skip them if you remember what I said.  The issue I’m dealing with is how much and how fast did the Christian church grow over the first four centuries.   I would very much like your feedback, and if you’re a numbers person, I would love it if you would check my calculations to see if I’m making any egregious errors.   All of this is lifted, again, from a rough draft of ch. 6 of my book on the Christianization of the Roman Empire ****************************************************** Thus it appears that the beginning of the Christian movement saw a veritable avalanche of conversions.  Possibly many of these are the direct result of the missionary activities of Paul.  But there may have been other missionaries like him who were also successful.   And so let’s simply pick a sensible rate of growth, and say that for the first forty years, up to the time when Paul wrote his last surviving letter, the church grew [...]

Back to the Question of How Many People Converted

I want to return to the question of how quickly the Christian church grew in the first four centuries.  This will be part of chapter 6 of my book on the Triumph of Christianity.   If you want a fuller background to what I say in this post and the one to follow, see my earlier musings on May 16 of this year, at In two posts I’m going to lay out what I think we can say both about how many people became Christian and at approximately what rate.  For those of you who are math whizzes, I would love for you to check my calculations to see if I’m making mistakes.  For everyone I would love to hear your comments on my claims and hypotheses.   This is a draft of that part of my chapter, with part two to come tomorrow.  As you will see, I begin in medias res. *************************************************************** As a result of these considerations, I want to suggest some minor tweaks in the way we understand the rate of Christian [...]

Follow up on Knocking Opportunity….

Two points I neglected to mention in my grand (so to say: one grand) opportunity: All donations are completely tax deductible; we are a non-profit organization, recognized as such by the IRS  If you want to partake of the opportunity, send me an email at [email protected] May many thousands of you take me up on it!  

2017-11-06T21:20:39-05:00June 21st, 2016|Public Forum|

Opportunity Comes Knocking!!

Here’s a unique opportunity. Well, it’s not unique because it’s one you’ve had before.  But you get it now again! As most of you probably know, the book I am working on, tentatively titled, The Triumph of Christianity, is about the Christianization of the Roman Empire.  How did the Christian movement grow from about 20 people soon after Jesus’ death to some 30 million people in less than four hundred years?  That’s a lot of converts!  And it’s not an easy question to answer.   I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.  (I actually taught a PhD seminar on the topic nearly 20 years ago!) I am especially excited about this book because I have moved to a new publisher.  My past seven trade books have all been with HarperOne.  That was a great experience and I will never, ever regret it.  But I have decided to move on to something else, and last summer negotiated a contract with Simon & Schuster, one of the three largest trade publishers in the world.   They have [...]

2017-11-06T21:22:11-05:00June 21st, 2016|Book Discussions, Public Forum|

Paul’s Converted Vision of Himself

To make sense of how Paul’s conversion affected his actual life, not just his theology, it is important to recall what I said about how it did affect his theology.  I repeat the key paragraph from yesterday’s post before drawing the further even more far-reaching conclusion. To be members of God’s covenantal people, it is not necessary for gentiles to become Jews.  They do not need to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath, keep kosher, or any of the rest.  They need to believe in the death and resurrection of the messiah Jesus.   This was an earth-shattering realization for Paul.   Prior to this, the followers of Jesus – the first Christians – were of course Jews who understood that he was the messiah who had died and been raised from the dead.  But they knew this as the act of the Jewish God given to the Jewish people.  Certainly gentiles could find this salvation as well.  But first they had to be Jewish.  Not for Paul.  Jew or gentile, it didn’t matter.  What mattered was faith [...]

2020-04-03T03:33:15-04:00June 20th, 2016|Paul and His Letters, Public Forum|

What Paul’s Conversion Meant

In my previous posts I talked about Paul’s life up to his conversion and the conversion experience itself.  Now, for two posts, I want to talk about what the conversion actually *meant* to Paul, particularly in terms of how it affected both his thinking and his life (which, for Paul, were very closely related to one another).  His thinking involved his theology and his subsequent life involved missionary work as the newly minted apostle of Jesus with a distinctive message. It is easiest to understand Paul’s subsequent missionary activities and evangelistic message by realizing how an appearance of the living Jesus would force him from “fact” to “implications.”  (I’ve discussed some of this on the blog before, but indulge me for a bit: I’m trying to clarify in my own mind exactly how I’m imagining all this…) For him the “fact” was that Jesus was alive again (it was a “fact” for him because he had seen Jesus alive three years after he had died).   And from that fact Paul started reasoning backwards.  This backward [...]

2017-11-06T21:22:37-05:00June 19th, 2016|Paul and His Letters, Public Forum|

Reading Suggestions for the New Testament: A Blast from the Past

Four years ago (June 17, 2012) I was asked about what I would suggest for serious lay folk interested in doing more in-depth reading/study of the New Testament.  Here is what I responded.  It's a response I would stick to still today!! ****************************************************************************** QUESTION: I've enjoyed reading "Jesus Interrupted" and "Misquoting Jesus". I am also listening to two of The Teaching Company courses you recorded - "The New Testament" and "Lost Christianities". Here is my question: Can you suggest additional books by other authors that provide balanced information on the New Testament? Such a bibliography would be a nice addition to your web site. RESPONSE: Ah yes!  It’s important to hear various (balanced) views.  I tell my students this and they sometimes are surprised, since they think that I imagine that my view is the only one worth hearing!  But in my textbook on the New Testament (The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings) I provide suggestions for further reading at the end of each of the thirty chapters, for each [...]

2021-02-23T01:20:00-05:00June 18th, 2016|Book Discussions, Public Forum, Reader’s Questions|

The Conversion of Paul

My book on the “Triumph of Christianity” will deal with how and why people converted to the Christian faith.   (As I think I’ve said, unlike some scholars I have no problem calling the earliest followers of Jesus who came to believe in his resurrection “Christian.”)   The best known and most important conversion was Paul.   Seeing how/why he converted is a key for understanding his own subsequent mission to convert gentiles to the faith.  Here is my current thinking on the issue To start with, it is impossible to know either what led up to Paul’s conversion or what exactly happened at the time.   We do have a narrative description in the book of Acts, and it is this description that provides the popular images of Paul seeing a blinding light on the road to Damascus, falling from his horse, and hearing the voice of Jesus asking “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me” (Acts 9:1-19).   The account of Acts 9 is retold by Paul in both chapter 22 and chapter 29.  The historical problems it [...]

2020-04-03T03:33:31-04:00June 16th, 2016|Paul and His Letters, Public Forum|

How Paul Persecuted the Christians

How Paul persecuted the Christians. I pointed out in the previous post that prior to his conversion Paul was a persecutor of the church, almost certainly because he objected to what their basic and fundamental message was, that Jesus was the messiah (despite the fact – or rather because of the fact – that he had been crucified).   But how exactly did Paul engage in his persecution?   He himself says that it was violent persecution.  What could that mean? We don’t know exactly how he proceeded.  Paul never describes his persecuting activities.  The book of Acts indicates that he ravaged the gatherings of Christians and dragged people off to prison (8:3).  That’s inherently implausible: we don’t know of anything like Jewish prisons and we can assume that Roman authorities were not inclined to provide cell space for Jewish sectarians who happened to be proclaiming a rather strange message. How Paul Persecuted the Christians So what was he doing to Christians during his persecution of them?  There is one intriguing and possibly helpful comment that Paul [...]

2022-06-19T20:40:19-04:00June 14th, 2016|Paul and His Letters, Public Forum|

Some Comments on the Gospel of John: (Based on John Spong’s Book). A Blast from the Past

A couple of people on the blog have suggested that as a feature of the blog, I periodically provide a Blast From the Past -- that is, repost a blog post from a few years ago.  I think it's a great idea.  My guess is that most people on the blog haven't read everything from then, and if they have, if they're like me, they won't remember them!  So I decided to go back from three years ago today (well, tomorrow) and see what I was saying.  Here's the post.  I don't remember it at *ALL*!!!  But I still think now what I did then. ************************************************************************************* John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop of New Jersey and highly controversial author (because of his skeptical views about the New Testament and traditional Christian doctrine) has just published a new book on the Gospel of John, called The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. I have not read the book, but Spong has written an interesting article on it that appeared in the Huffington Post yesterday, at [...]

Jesus’ Death and Resurrection for Salvation; Paul’s Collection; and My Sunday Mornings: Readers’ Mailbag June 11, 2016

Did all the early Christian groups agree that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought salvation?   Why was Paul gathering money for the Christians in Jerusalem?  And, well, what do I myself now do on Sunday mornings since I don’t go to church?   This is this Weekly Readers’ Mailbag, with the normal range of unrelated but interesting questions!  If you have a question you would like me to address, ask away!   QUESTION: To which of the other early variants of Christianity does this creed (1 Cor 15:3-5) apply just as well as to the proto-orthodox? If it applies to most just as well, then Paul could have been the founder of the proto-orthodox variant of Christianity.   RESPONSE: Ah, good question!   Just to refresh everyone’s memory, this is the passage where Paul indicates that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” and that “he was raised from the dead on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”  So the question is: did all early Christians agree that it as the death and [...]

Progressive Spirit Interview

On March 27, 2016, I had an interview with John Shuck for the Progressive Spirit Podcast.  Progressive Spirit (formerly Religion For Life) is an exciting and intelligent program about Spirituality and Social Justice. The program is a production of KBOO Community Radio in Portland, Oregon. John interviewed me about his new book Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior.  In the book as many of you know, I look at research on memory–how it’s formed, how it’s recalled, how it can change when transmitted from person to person, and how it can be remolded based on historical perspective and current events, all in order to helpe us better understand how traditions about Jesus were in circulation in the years before they were written down.  Jesus Before the Gospels is available in hardcover, audiobook and for Kindle. Please adjust gear icon for high-definition.

2017-11-06T21:25:01-05:00June 9th, 2016|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Video Media|

I Need Some Suggestions!

Now that we are well into our fifth year of the blog, I want to pause and ask for some suggestions.  As always, I’m happy to hear your suggestions in general, but I have a problem in particular that I’d like to address. First, in general.  Our goal, of course, is to increase membership on the blog, since the ultimate goal is to raise money for charities dealing with hunger and homelessness, through membership fees and donations. Did I mention donations?   I am completely gratified and humbled by the donations that come in.  Please think about making a donation yourself, large or small.  You will earn my eternal gratitude. But as to general suggestions: if you can think of anything that is simple to do, that doesn’t take much time, and that can attract new members to the blog, please let me know.  The blog has evolved in lots of ways over the years.  It’s hard to see because the changes happen one at a time, and we get accustomed to them.  But they happen. [...]

2020-04-03T03:36:25-04:00June 8th, 2016|Public Forum|

Paul, Jesus, and the Messiah

My current thread on the blog is less like a thread and more like a tapestry.  Ultimately it is all related to the book I’m now working on, The Triumph of Christianity, which is interested in the question of how the Christian movement that started with just a couple of dozen people after Jesus’ death (i.e., those who almost right away, soon thereafter, came to believe he had been raised from the dead) came to be a prominent religion by the early fourth century and the official religion of the Roman state by the end of the fourth century.  Good questions!  I just hope I can give some good answers! Scholars have long worked on the problem, of course, and there are many parts to the overall picture.  Which is why this thread is a tapestry.  At present (on the blog) I am wrestling with the importance of the apostle Paul, and am ruminating on his significance for the early Christian movement.  And the first thing that I noted about him is that before he [...]

Paul’s Own (and Only) Gospel

What does Paul mean in his letter to the Galatians when he says that he did not receive his gospel from humans but direct from God through a revelation of Jesus?  Does he mean that he was the one (through direct divine inspiration) who came up with the idea that it was the death and resurrection of Jesus, rather than, say, Jesus’ life and teachings, that brings salvation?  And if so, doesn’t that mean that Paul himself would be the founder and creator of Christianity, since Christianity is not the religion of Jesus himself, but the religion about Jesus, rooted in faith in his death and resurrection? It may seem like that’s the case, but it’s not.  Not at all.   In my previous post, I showed that the belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection were around before Paul and that Paul inherited this belief from Christians who were before him.   But then what would Paul mean when he explicitly says in Galatians 1:11-12 “For I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel that was [...]

2020-04-03T03:36:41-04:00June 5th, 2016|Paul and His Letters, Public Forum|

Were Jesus’ Followers Crazy? Was He? Mailbag June 4, 2016

I’ll be dealing with two questions in this week’s Readers Mailbag, both dealing, as it turns out, with issues related to psychology and the early Christian movement: one has to do with why the followers of Jesus didn’t simply give up and disband when the end-of-the-world-apocalypse they had been anticipating didn’t happen (so that they were proven to be *wrong*) and the other about whether Jesus was, literally, crazy.   Interesting questions!  If you have one you would like me to address, just ask in a comment on any of my posts.   QUESTION I get that when the Apocalypse didn’t happen as the apocalyptic Jesus had predicted that a kind of reinterpretation of events including the resurrection took place. But why? Why didn’t the fledgling fringe then Jesus-Jewish (my term) sect simply die out?   RESPONSE Ah, this is a meaty question that someone could write a book about.  In fact, people have written books about it!   I won’t give a definitive answer here, but will instead mention just one book – now a classic [...]

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