Sorting by


A New Attack on My Views

As someone on the blog has pointed out, there appears to be another “response book” written to critique what I have written about the New Testament.  I’ve included here, below, the Amazon description of the book. Several things about it strike me as rather strange.   Most of all is that the author refuses to name himself/herself.   Why publish an anonymous book if you want to challenge a view that is open and in the public?  There is nothing mysterious about my views: they are in readily available publications with my name on them.  If you want to attack those views, why not say who you are?   This is kind of like running for public office to get rid of that awful person who is now in charge, without letting the voters know your name.  OK, maybe it’s not *exactly* like that, but it does seem very odd to me.  Does someone have an explanation for it? I'm not sure what the author’s “metaphysical” approach to resolving the contradictions of the Bible are, but I [...]

A New Genre in Jewish Antiquity: The Apocalypse

I am in midst of starting to explain how a new view of the afterlife came into existence in Jewish circles right around the time of the Maccabean revolt, and to that end I have devoted one post to a brief narrative of what happened leading up to the revolt and a second post to two of our principal sources of information about it, 1 and 2 Maccabees. Now, I need to provide yet more background: it was at this time, and in this context, that a new genre of literature appeared within ancient Judaism, the “apocalypse.”   As we will see, the first Jewish apocalypse we have is in the book of Daniel, the final book of the Hebrew Bible to be written.  To understand Daniel (and its view of the afterlife) it is important to know something about the conventions of its literary genre.   That’s what I will explain in this post, in terms taken (with only a little editing) from my textbook The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. ******************************************************* Apocalypse as a [...]

The Books of 1 and 2 Maccabees

In yesterday’s post I discussed the Maccabean revolt, and in today’s I need to summarize our principal sources of information about the revolt, the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.  My reason for doing so has to do with my topic of the afterlife.  It is in 2 Maccabees that we find a very different view from what can be seen in the Hebrew Bible itself, as I will show in a subsequent post, a view that became popular later among the early Christians. These two books are not in the Hebrew Bible, and as a result are not accepted as canonical by Jews or Protestants.  They are, however, found in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint, and are accepted as “Deutero-canonical” by both the Roman Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox traditions.  Protestants consider them to be among the “Apocrypha.” Like the other Deutero-canonical books, they are Jewish writings that date from the period after the Hebrew Bible.  Here is the brief introduction I give to them in my textbook, [...]

2020-04-03T02:07:05-04:00July 28th, 2017|Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Background to The Christian Afterlife: The Maccabean Revolt: A Blast from the (Recent) Past!

Back in April I was in the middle of a thread about the afterlife, and now, after this unusual hiatus, I am able and eager to return to it.  For those of you who were with us at the time, you may remember that this is the topic of the book I am working on now, that I have been reading massively about for most of the past year.  My views have developed, changed, and deepened since April.  I've had lots and lots of interesting ideas and thoughts, as I have pondered ancient sources (Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian) some of which I will be explaining over the course of this thread. In the thread to this point I have discussed how the afterlife was conceptualized in the ancient Israelite sources found in the Hebrew Bible.  The basic story, for those of you who don't recall or who are not inclined to reread the posts from earlier in the year, is that for most of the Hebrew Bible, the place of the dead was Sheol, [...]

Lecture at Washington & Jefferson College

On March 9, 2017, I gave a lecture at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington PA, called “Who Wrote the Bible? The Surprising Claims of Modern Scholars."  This was part of a kind of lecture tour that I did for the nation's oldest honor society, Phi Beta Kappa.  The society’ has a "Visiting Scholar Program": a dozen or so scholars are chosen each year to visit college and university campuses to meet with Phi Beta Kappa members, teaching some classes, and give a public lecture.  I went to eight campuses over the course of the academic year, usually for two or three days each, teaching a variety of classes and giving lectures on a variety of topics that each school could choose from.. This particular lecture is based on my book Forged.  It deals with how ancient people understood the phenomenon that today we would call "forgery" -- when an author writes a book falsely claiming to be some other well-known author.  Would ancient people consider that to be a deceitful practice?  Would they approve of [...]

Threads and Comments on the Blog

This post will discuss several issues connected with the blog; hopefully that will be of some interest to anyone who pays good money to be on it.  If you are ever inclined to make a comment on any of the posts, or a comment on any of the comments, then please do read the bit at the end. I think this is a good moment to pause a second and think about the blog.   I have spent the last two and a half months on a thread that came out of nowhere.  For those of you with long memories, you will recall that back in April I was in the middle of a completely different thread, about my current understandings of where the traditional Christian view of the afterlife (that you die and your soul goes to heaven or hell) came from.  This is connected to my current book project that I am tentatively calling “The Invention of the Afterlife: A History of Heaven and Hell” (or some such thing). This is the second book [...]

2017-07-25T05:45:28-04:00July 25th, 2017|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

Teaching Religion as an Agnostic

When I finally admitted to myself that I was an agnostic, I had already been teaching New Testament and the history of early Christianity for ten years or so, first at Rutgers in the mid 1980s and then at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill starting in 1988.   It comes as a surprise to some people when I tell them that my decision to leave the Christian faith made absolutely no difference at all, of any kind, in either what I taught or how I taught it.  I think people find that very strange indeed because they have a rather serious misconception about what it means to teach religious studies in a secular research university. Many people imagine that teaching religious studies is simply different from teaching anything else.  I think in part that is because they really haven’t given it much thought.  Religion, in this common view, is different from other fields of study and inquiry.  Political science, or history, or literature, or anthropology, or classics, or even philosophy – any of [...]

Was There a “Moment” When I Left the Faith?

I sometimes get asked if there was a moment when I realized I simply did not believe in the Christian God and subscribe to the Christian faith any more.   What I have been trying to explain is that for me it was a long drawn out process.  It was not a matter of my being a fundamentalist, then finding a contradiction in the Bible and throwing up my hands in despair and saying “Oh no!  There *is* no God!!” It didn’t happen like that at all.  I didn’t go from being a fundamentalist to being an agnostic.  It was a many-year struggle in which I went from a rabid fundamentalist to becoming a slightly left of center evangelical to being for many years a liberal Christian active in the church and thinking as deeply as I could about the theological views that had long been established in my tradition. I explained in the previous post how it was the problem of suffering that finally made me leave the faith.  And in a sense there *was* [...]

Leaving the Faith

By the early to mid-1990s I had come to think that whatever I had held dear and cherished on the basis of my belief in the Christian God, could still be held dear and cherished without that belief.   Do I stand in awe before the unfathomable vastness and incredible majesty of the universe?  Do I welcome and feel heartfelt gratitude for moments of grace?  Do I value the love of family and the companionship of friends?  Do I appreciate the many good things in life: My work?  Travel?  Good food and good drink?  All the little things that make life enjoyable?  Yes, but what does any of this necessarily have to do with God? As a Christian – from the time I was able to think, through my teenage and early-twenties fundamentalist period, up to my more mature adult liberal phase – I had believed in some form of the traditional, biblical God.  This was a God who was not some kind of remote designer of the universe who had gotten the ball rolling and [...]

Growing into Unbelief

As I continued to go to church in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found that I simply believed less and less of the Christian tradition in anything like a literal sense. Was God the creator?  Well, maybe in some kind of ultimate sense, but not literally.   The universe was billions of years old, it came into being at the Big Bang, it has been expanding ever since, and the reaches of space – with its unfathomable numbers of galaxies each with billions of stars –as surely not “created” by a being principally concerned with a form of life that happened to evolve on one small planet circling one relatively small star, one of many, many billions in one relatively small galaxy.  The human-centeredness of the view of “creation” did not, at the end of the day, really make sense to me. And God himself?  Did he exist?  Yes, I thought he did.  But I wasn’t sure we could possibly know much if anything about him.   I assumed he was somehow in some sense [...]

Apocalypticism in a Modern Idiom

As I pointed out some weeks ago on the blog, in the mid to late 1980s, as a liberal Christian, I was fully aware that the Bible was filled with mythological views that could no longer be accepted as literal truths but had to be translated into a modern idiom if they were to have any relevance.  And I thought that the Bible did have relevance.  But not in its literal sense. This made interpretation of the Bible an extremely important affair.  It was the *interpretation* of the text that determined how, in what sense and in what way, the Bible could and should determine how a person understood the world, the deity, and our relationship to both (the world and the deity). The teachings of Jesus, the writings of Paul, and in fact most of the earliest Christian tradition as found in the New Testament, was rooted in apocalyptic views that were very much situated in their own time and place, but were no longer tenable for 20th century Americans (i.e., for me in [...]

2020-04-03T02:08:48-04:00July 17th, 2017|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

Important Announcement about the Blog!

Dear Faithful Blog Participants (or even Unfaithful Ones): An announcement.  Starting July 16 I am going on a hiking expedition and will be off the grid for ten days.  I’m not sure if I’ll have any Internet access or not.   But not to fear (as if you would fear….): I will not leave the Blog forsaken.  I have compiled blog posts enough for the week, and my all-reliable assistant Steven, to whom each of us owes a mountain of debt, will be posting them on a schedule I have given him. SO … there will be ample posts for you to ponder. The somewhat bigger issue is that I won’t be able to read and approve comments.   That’s an increasingly large problem since, these days, we are getting 40-70 comments each and every day. If it turns out that I do get some Internet access over the course of my meanderings over the earth, I will approve comments, as many as I can.  But if not, they will simply have to wait until I get [...]

2017-07-16T03:23:07-04:00July 16th, 2017|Public Forum|

Did Paul Think Jesus’ Body Remained in the Grave? Mailbag July 14, 2017

  I will address two very different questions in this edition of the Readers’ Mailbag.  If you have a question you would like me to address, ask away, and I’ll add it to the list.   QUESTION: I just finished reading scholar Gregory Riley’s Resurrection Reconsidered. He presents the position that people in the Greco-Roman world had a very different perception about spirits (ghosts) than we do today. Riley states that people living in the first century Roman Empire believed that dead people frequently came back to visit the living, appearing in “bodies” that looked exactly like their former fleshly bodies, and having the same capabilities of their former fleshly bodies: capable of eating food, drinking wine, and even engaging in sex…even sex with the living! The ONLY difference between a spirit body and a fleshly body was that USUALLY a spirit body was impalpable (could not be touched). Riley believes that Paul would have been shocked to hear about an empty tomb as he would have believed that Jesus’ fleshly body would OF COURSE [...]

The Essence of Biblical Apocalyptic Thought

I earlier pointed out that my views of suffering in the 1980s were heavily influenced by the biblical perspective that scholars call apocalypticism.  I have discussed the major views of apocalypticism on the blog a couple of times over the years, but some review would be useful at this point, both for those whose memories are as sieve-like as mine, and for those who weren’t around yet for all those years of previous fun   on the blog. Let me stress, Jewish apocalypticism was a very common view in Jesus’ day – it was the view of the Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, of the Pharisees, of John the Baptist, later of the Apostle Paul – and almost certainly of Jesus.  This is a widely held view among critical scholars – by far the majority view for over a century, since the writings of none other than Albert Schweitzer. What did early Jewish apocalypticists believe?  Let me break it down into four component themes.  I have drawn this discussion from my textbook on the [...]

2020-04-03T02:09:13-04:00July 13th, 2017|Early Judaism, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

The Origins of Apocalypticism

In my previous post I began to explain how, in 1985, while teaching a class at Rutgers on the Problem of Suffering, I came to realize that I simply didn't accept any longer most of the views of the Bible on why there was suffering in the world.  But one view did continue to appeal to me, the apocalyptic view that emerged toward the end of the New Testament period, and became the view of Jesus, John the Baptist before him, the apostle Paul after him, and, in fact, most of the early Christians. This would be a good time to review where this view came from and what motivated it.  For that I am going to return to a post that I made on the blog a couple of years ago.  Here I set up what apocalypticists believed (especially about suffering) by contrasting it with the view out of which it arose and to which it was reacting, the view of the traditional Hebrew prophets. ********************************************************************** The Prophetic Perspective We have seen that the [...]

Apologies to All Colombians

And to those who love Colombia.  And to those who simply prefer Bloggers to spell correctly.  In yesterday's post I meant Colombia, not Columbia.  Mea culpa.   Too much university on the brain....

2017-07-11T11:40:00-04:00July 11th, 2017|Public Forum|

Explaining a Columbian Mudslide

During the term when I was teaching my class on the problem of suffering at Rutgers in 1985, one of those unthinkable natural disasters occurred that made headline news and disturbed all caring people around the world.   The night before there had been a volcanic incident in Columbia that caused a mudslide that wiped out several villages, killing thousands of people in their sleep.  The death toll in the end was 23,000, men women and children. Some people blamed the Columbian government – they shouldn’t have allowed these villages to be near a volcano.  Fair enough I suppose.  You have to blame *someone*.  And who can blame a volcano?   But why do disasters like this have to happen in the first place?  And how do people who believe in the God of the Bible account for such things?   Blaming government officials for a volcanic eruption seems a bit lame.  And it didn’t occur to most of us at the time, as we were reading accounts in the papers.  Instead, our reactions were “Oh my God!  [...]

2020-04-03T02:09:33-04:00July 10th, 2017|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Variety of Views of Suffering in the Bible

Some thirty years ago now, when I taught my class at Rutgers on “The Problem of Suffering in the Biblical Traditions,” I came to realize – or at least came to realize more clearly – that a number of the views set forth in the Bible simply did not resonate with me.  Which, I suppose, is a more tactful way of saying that I simply didn’t agree with them. By far the most prominent explanation for suffering in the Bible is that God is using pain, misery, and human disaster in order to punish his people because they have failed to live up to his standards and to follow his will.  He penalizes them by inflicting pain  That is why there are droughts, famines, economic crises, and military disasters.   That lesson is taught time after time after time in the Hebrew Bible – just read Deuteronomy, or Amos, or Jeremiah, or, well, any of the prophets.  I suppose when I was a fundamentalist I completely accepted that view.   But eventually – probably when teaching this [...]

Teaching about How The Bible Explains Suffering

I’m not sure exactly when the suffering of others came to pose a problem for my own faith; but I do remember clearly when the issues first crystalized for me.  I started my teaching career at Rutgers University while I was a PhD student working on my dissertation in 1984.   It was a fantastic job for me (teaching at a very good research university, without yet even having my degree), but it was not tenure-track.  I was a poorly-paid adjunct instructor, teaching two or three courses a semester, in a range of areas: Introduction to the New Testament; Introduction to the Hebrew Bible; The Life and Letters of Paul; The Gospel of John; and so on. I had never taught any of these courses before, of course, since this was just the beginning of my career.  And back then my idea was that when I gave lectures, I would actually write out them out, word for word, by hand (I didn’t own a computer then), on yellow pads.   If I was teaching three courses – [...]

Is Suffering Our Fault?

Some people have responded to my comments on suffering with the interesting observation that most suffering, in their view, is caused by humans against humans, so that there is no reason to “blame God” for it.   That is obviously true of some of the most horrific things that happen in our world:  murder, genocide, torture, war, refugee crises, and on and on and on.   And one could argue that it is true of even “natural” disasters, such as starvation: there is more than enough food in the world for everyone to be well-fed, so if people are starving, it is *our* fault, a lack of social and political will.  No need to doubt that God exists just because we’re too stupid, lazy, or self-centered to deal with any problems that come along. I have several reactions to this view.  The first is that on one level I heartily agree.  So many of the unspeakable things that happen to people, destroying their lives, causing unspeakable pain and misery, and often leading to death, are caused by [...]

Go to Top