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More on the Symbolism of Revelation

Two questions I often get asked about the book of Revelation (including from readers of the blog) are whether the symbolism is meant to keep Roman authorities from understanding what was in the book in order to protect the author from persecution and whether the events that it describes may be coded references to what will happen in our own future.   Here is what I say about each subject in my textbook discussion on the book. ********************************************* Apocalypses as Underground Literature? Some readers of the book of Revelation have taken its mysterious symbols to suggest that it was "underground" literature.  The symbolic language of the book, according to this interpretation, was used to keep the governing authorities from realizing that they themselves were under attack. There may be an element of truth in this view, but one might wonder whether a Roman administrator was likely to sit down over the weekend to read a good Christian book.  It seems more plausible that the principal function of the symbolism -- whether in Revelation or in other [...]

2019-03-20T17:49:20-04:00September 30th, 2018|Revelation of John|

More Symbolism in Revelation: 666, The Number of “The Beast”

In order to explain my views of the “Lake of Fire” in the book of Revelation – the destination for everyone who is not a believer in Jesus – I have started to point out that much of the book is to be taken symbolically, not literally (as the author himself suggests).  My eventual point is that the author is not giving a literal description of how most people who have ever lived will spend eternity swimming in a lake of fire. In my last post I began my discussion of symbolism by focusing on the image of the “whore of Babylon” who sits on a horrible “beast” as described in chapter 17,   The careful reader of Revelation will recognize that this beast in chapter 17 has already appeared in chapter 13.  There we are told of a beast “rising out of the sea,” again with ten horns and seven heads.   Moreover, “the whole earth followed the beast,” worshiping it.  The beast in this earlier chapter is said to be haughty and blasphemous, and to [...]

2020-04-03T00:59:51-04:00September 28th, 2018|Revelation of John|

Symbolism in Revelation: The Whore of Babylon

The point of this mini-thread is to argue that the author of the book of Revelation does not describe a “hell” that people will be sent to in order to be tortured for all eternity – even though he is often read that way.   My argument is that page after page of the book is filled with highly symbolic visions, and realizing this is a fairly obvious key to interpreting the book. For the next couple of posts I’ll try to show how the interpretation actually works.   Then I’ll move to explore his comments about the “lake of fire,” the image widely used to develop the notion that those who are wicked and/or who do not believe in Jesus (that is most of the many billions of people who have ever lived) will be tormented eternally in flames In my previous post I summarized, rather tersely, the narrative flow of what happens in the book of Revelation (if you haven’t read it recently, I’d advise it!  It’s a terrifically gripping account).  None of this breathtaking [...]

2020-04-03T01:00:00-04:00September 26th, 2018|Revelation of John|

Overview of the Book of Revelation

I’d like to devote a few more posts to my book on the Afterlife.  I don’t want to steal my own thunder and give away *everything* I will be talking about in the book here on the blog.   But I am interested to getting reactions to some of my more important and controversial claims about the Bible.  One thing I’ll be arguing is that the idea of hell-fire, taken chiefly from the book of Revelation, is frequently misunderstood.  In my view, the book of Revelation does teach the eternal joy that is to come for believers in Jesus; but it does not teach that sinners (and unbelievers) will experience eternal torment in hell.   Even though they are thrown into “the lake of fire.” To explain my views will take at least three posts.  To begin I need to explain some things about the book itself and the symbolism found throughout the book.  To do that I need to sketch what actually happens in the book.   Here is a kind of quick and ready summary of [...]

2020-04-03T01:00:15-04:00September 25th, 2018|Revelation of John|

Studying the Bible as Theology and/or History

  Here is an old question that I received that continues to be pressing -- something I think and talk about all the time! QUESTION: Would you please explain more on the differences between Biblical history and theology? Is it difficult as an historian to keep these separate in your personal beliefs? RESPONSE: I deal with this question in each of my three textbooks for undergraduates, since, for them, it is a confusing issue.  How can you study the Bible as a historian without religious perspectives guiding your reading.   Here is how I explain the issue in the Excursus to the first chapter of my Bible Intro. _________________________________________________________________________ EXCURSUS Most of the people who are deeply interested in the Bible in modern American culture are committed Jews or Christians who have been taught that this is a book of sacred texts, Scripture, unlike other books.  For many of these – especially many Christian believers – the Bible is the inspired word of God.  In communities of faith that hold such views, the Bible is usually [...]

How I Take Notes on What I Read for a Trade Book

Now that I have finished writing the draft of my book on the afterlife – which I’m tentatively titling “Heaven, Hell, and the Invention of the Afterlife  (that will be the title until my publisher changes it!!) – I have received several questions from blog members about aspects of the writing itself.  One reader wanted to know how I keep track of all the things that I read in preparation for writing a book like this (or like anything else).  Here is how: When I decide what the next book is going to be, I start in on research by reading some of the most basic, thorough, and relatively recent discussions of the topic by competent scholars.  I typically know already what those books are because, well, I’m a scholar in the field and one gets to know these things.  Plus, if you want to write a book about something, you already know a good deal about it, including who has written what about it. From there I start compiling bibliography of everything of importance [...]

How Do We Know When the Gospels Were Written?

Here is an important question that I have recently received.  It's a tricky one!  But completely fundamental to the study of the New Testament.   QUESTION: I now have your book “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings”. Great book/text! Something I haven’t figured out is how do scholars know when the original Gospels (not copies) were written since apparently none survived?   RESPONSE: This is a great question, and one that I get asked a lot.  How do we actually know when the Gospels were written?   It is actually a difficult question to answer, but I’ll start at the beginning, with some basics that I think everyone can agree on.   (Well, OK, there is *nothing* that  absolutely everyone agrees on, as I’ve learned with some chagrin over the years...) First, Jesus died around the year 30, so the Gospels were written after that.   The first really convincing quotations of the Gospels (there are probable allusions earlier than this, but these are the most certain ones) come in the writings of [...]

2020-04-03T01:00:45-04:00September 21st, 2018|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

Writing a Historical-Critical Textbook that Isn’t *Critical*

Now that I’ve finished the draft of my book on the afterlife, and am waiting for readers’ comments, I am turning to a revision of my textbook: The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.  It was first published in 1997 and this will be the seventh edition. It’s hard writing a decent textbook (and not so hard to write a lousy one).   A constant struggle.  In breezing through blog posts of years gone by, I’ve seen that I was having the struggle precisely six years ago, when writing (the first edition of) my textbook on the entire Bible, Genesis to Revelation.  Now *that* was a chore.  And I was confronted by one problem in particular.  Here is how I described it at the time. ******************************************************* Writing any kind of book whatsoever is really difficult. But each *kind* of book is difficult in its own way. I tend to write three kinds of books: scholarly works for scholars (not for general consumption!); popular trade books for broader audiences of intelligent adults; and [...]

2020-05-05T13:22:57-04:00September 20th, 2018|Book Discussions, Reflections and Ruminations|

A Peculiar Story of Peter’s Martyrdom

Now, in response to the question I started answering a few days ago, I discuss the earliest account we have of the martyrdom of Peter.   It is an odd account, and not widely known.  Here is what I say about it in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. ************************************************************************************* Peter as Martyr The death of Peter by execution is already alluded to in the Gospel of John – which evidently, then, had been written after the event occurred.  As Jesus tells Peter after the resurrection: When you were younger, you girded yourself and walked wherever your wanted; but when you grow old, you will reach out your hands and another will bind you, and lead you where you do not want to g. (21:18) The author concludes this quotation by noting “He said this to signify the kind of death he would experience to glorify God.” It is clear that Peter is being told that he will be executed (he won’t die of natural causes), and that this will be the death of a [...]

2020-04-03T01:01:03-04:00September 19th, 2018|Christian Apocrypha, Reader’s Questions|

Who Was the First Bishop of Rome?

Who was the first Bishop of Rome? I continue from my post of yesterday, in which a reader asked about whether Peter was really the first bishop in Rome (that is, the first Pope).    In my next post I'll deal with the question, also asked, about if we have any solid information about how Peter died (crucified upside-down??) SO, Who was the First Bishop of Rome? According to the second-century Irenaeus, it was a man named Linus, who was appointed to the office by Peter and Paul (Against Heresies 3, 3, 3).  In one place the father of church history, Eusebius, appears to agree with this, to some extent, when he says that “the first to be called bishop after the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul was Linus” (Church History, 3, 2); but here Linus is appointed not by Peter, but by someone else, after Peter’s death. And to confuse things even further, just a few paragraphs later Eusebius phrases the matter differently, saying that “Linus ... was the first after Peter to be [...]

2022-05-07T12:39:18-04:00September 17th, 2018|History of Christianity (100-300CE), Reader’s Questions|

Peter: First Bishop (Pope) in Rome?

Today I move on to something else (I’ll get to the after life after more life).  Here’s an interesting question I received about Peter: the first bishop of Rome?   QUESTION: Is there any historical evidence that the apostle Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and that he was martyred upside down on a cross?   RESPONSE: Ah, I get asked this one (or these two) on occasion.  I dealt with them both in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (which, by the way, was a blast to write).   First I’ll deal with Peter in Rome – which will take a couple of posts; then the question of his martyrdom.  Here is what I say about the first in my book ******************************************************************************* In some circles, Peter is best known as the first bishop of Rome, the first pope.  In the period I’m interested in for this book, however, there is little evidence to support this view. On the contrary, several authors indicate that Peter was not the first leader of the church there [...]

2018-09-16T12:02:02-04:00September 16th, 2018|Reader’s Questions, Reflections and Ruminations|

Opportunity Knocking: A Chance to Read a Draft of My Book

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, I’m now finishing up my book on the afterlife.   The title won’t be decided for a very long time, but at this point ’m rather liking “Heaven, Hell, and the Invention of the Afterlife.”   The basic question I address is where the widespread views of heaven and hell came from, that when you die your soul goes to one place or the other.  I will be arguing that this is not a view taught in the Old Testament or by Jesus himself.  So why did it become the dominant view?  Throughout history, the vast majority of Christians believed it; even today, 72% of Americans believe in a literal heaven and 58% in a literal hell.  So where did it come from? The book is virtually finished.  I’m doing the final edits now – today in fact, barring natural disaster (such as, well, a visit from Florence).   I will be [...]

2018-09-14T09:11:29-04:00September 14th, 2018|Book Discussions, Public Forum|

Would the Disciples Die for A Lie? Proofs for the Resurrection.

Reminiscing about blogs of years gone by, I found this one from almost exactly six years ago.  And it's still relevant for today.  The disciples all died for their belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, right?  So they must have *known* he was actually raised.  No one would die for a lie.  Right?   Here's the question a blog member asked, and my response.  I still hold to it!   ***********************************************************************************   QUESTION: Another very very popular evidence put forward for the resurrection is “the disciples would not have died for what they knew was a lie, therefore it must have happened.” I hear this all the time. You note that they really believed they saw Jesus after he died so they were not lying. However, is there evidence (historical or literary) that they were killed because of their belief in Jesus’ resurrection? RESPONSE: Ah yes, if I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard this comment over the years, I could retire to a country-home in Maine…. Several other people have responded [...]

2020-04-03T01:03:31-04:00September 13th, 2018|Reader’s Questions, Reflections and Ruminations|

Did Jesus Believe Sinners Would Be Annihilated? The Sheep and the Goats

The most difficult passage that I will need to deal with in my discussion of Jesus’ view of the afterlife is the famous teaching about the last judgment of the “Sheep and the Goats,” found only in the Gospel of Matthew, there are reasons for thinking it is something Jesus actually said.   Doesn’t it teach eternal torment for the wicked, instead of annihilation?  I’ve concluded that the answer is no.  See if you find my reasoning persuasive. The passage comes at the tail end of Jesus “apocalyptic discourse” (Matthew 24-25), two chapters of Jesus’ discussion of what will happen at the end of time and of how people need to prepare for it.  To conclude the discourse, Jesus describes the coming Day of Judgment, when the great cosmic judge, the Son of Man, sits on his throne, judging all the nations of the world gathered before him (Matthew 25:31-46).   This is not merely the judgment of the righteous and wicked in Israel, but of all the pagans as well.  The Son of Man separates all [...]

2020-04-03T01:03:54-04:00September 12th, 2018|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

Gehenna: Where You Do Not Want to Go

This is the second of my two posts on Gehenna.  My ultimate point in this discussion is that when Jesus talked about people ending up there, he did not mean they would roast forever in the first of hell, but that they would end up very badly indeed because (a) they would not receive burial and (b) even worse, their corpses would be thrown into the most hideous literally-god-forsaken place a Jew could imagine. The earliest evidence from outside the Hebrew Bible for Gehenna as a place of divine punishment comes in 1 Enoch 27, written, as we have seen, at least two centuries before the days of Jesus.   In one of his encounters with the angel Uriel, Enoch asks why such an “accursed valley” lies in the midst of Israel’s “blessed land.”  The angel tell him: The accursed valley is for those accursed forever; here will gather together all those accursed ones, those who speak with their mouth unbecoming words against the Lord….  Here shall they be gathered together, and here shall be their [...]

2020-04-03T01:04:06-04:00September 10th, 2018|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

Jesus on Gehenna

I will give three more posts on what I take to be Jesus’ understanding of the afterlife.  The first two have to do with his understanding of Gehenna.    What I have to say about it is too much for a single post.  So here’s the first of the two. Again, feedback is welcome. Often Jesus expresses the image of “destruction” in highly repugnant terms, indicating that sinners who are excluded from God’s kingdom will not only killed but will be refused decent burial – which, as you will recall, is the worst fate one could have in the ancient world.  Even worse than that, Jesus indicates that sinners will be cast, unburied, into the most unholy, repulsive, God-forsaken place that anyone in Israel could imagine, the valley of known as “Gehenna.”  Thus,  for example, Jesus says that anyone who calls someone “a fool” will be liable to be cast into Gehenna (Matthew 5:22); later he says that it is better to gouge out your eye that sins or amputate your hand and thereby enter the [...]

2020-04-03T01:04:13-04:00September 9th, 2018|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

Looking for Feedback on My Views about Jesus and the Afterlife

I am now editing my book on the afterlife, and there are a few controversial theses in it.  One of them involves the views of Jesus.   I’d like to know what you think of my argument, and to see if you find it convincing or not.  If not, I’d like to know why.   Here is a rough idea of what I’m planning to say (until you instruct  me otherwise!) First, Jesus did not think the coming kingdom of God (soon to arrive with the coming of the Son of Man in judgment on the earth)  was for faithful Jews only.  It was for all those who did God’s will.  Many Jews, in fact, would not be allowed to enter.   As Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “many will come from east and west” to enjoy the heavenly banquet with the Jewish patriarchs in “the kingdom of heaven” but many of those from Israel “will be cast into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:10-12).  It is important to note that he [...]

2020-04-03T01:04:27-04:00September 7th, 2018|Afterlife, Book Discussions, Historical Jesus|

Did My Loss of Faith Affect my Scholarship?

I ran across this blog post from six years ago that I think is particularly interesting.  It's a question about my personal religious views and my scholarship, and I'm interested to see that now, all these years later, I would pretty much answer it the same!    That's heartening... Here it is: ****************************************************************************** One question I received recently particularly struck me – as it caused me to think for a bit – was about how my loss of faith affected my scholarship. That’s a really good question. And now that I’ve thought it over a bit, I think the answer is a little surprising. To my knowledge, my loss of faith has had almost ZERO effect on my scholarship. That seems weird, since my scholarship is on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity, and you would think that if I were no longer a believer, that it would certainly change how I look at both the NT and the history of the early church.  But in fact, I don’t think I have [...]

2020-04-03T01:04:38-04:00September 6th, 2018|Reader’s Questions, Reflections and Ruminations|

Opening for Dinner in Durham

As you may remember, I am hosting a dinner for a few members of the blog on my home turf, in Durham NC, on Monday Sept. 24.   One of the people who had originally planned on coming has had a conflict and has to back out.  So I have one more opening at the table.  If you are interested in coming -- the first to respond gets the seat!  Please contact me not here on the blog, but via email at [email protected]    The only requirements are that you be a member of the blog, that you show up willing to talk, and that you pay for your own meal.

2020-04-03T01:04:48-04:00September 4th, 2018|Public Forum|

Thomas and His Identical Twin Jesus, in the Acts of Thomas

In my previous post I mentioned the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas, a text that assumes Judas Thomas was actually Jesus’ twin brother.   Here I can describe the book itself, where the idea that the two are *identical* twins appears to move along the plot in a rather humorous way..  Here is what I say about the matter in my book Lost Christianities.   ****************************************************   The Acts of Thomas narrates the adventures of Thomas, Jesus’ brother, in his missionary work on the way to and in India.  The plot is fairly basic.  The apostles draw lots to decide who will go to which region of earth to spread the gospel.  The lot for India falls to Thomas, who tells his companions that it is the last place on earth he wants to go: “Wherever you wish to send me, send me, but elsewhere.  For I am not going to the Indians!” (Acts of Thomas, 1). The ascended Jesus, however, has other plans for his mortal twin.  An Indian merchant arrives ... To read the rest [...]

2020-04-03T01:04:59-04:00September 4th, 2018|Christian Apocrypha|
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