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The Aberrant View of the Afterlife in the Apocalypse of Peter

As we have seen on the blog before, when church leaders were deciding which books should be counted among the Christian Scriptures, to go along with the “Old Testament,” they used a range of criteria:   a book had to be written by an apostle or at least by an active companion of an apostle; it had to be widely used throughout the early Christianity communities; and it had to convey teachings that were widely accepted (by the “right” thinkers) as “orthodox.”  No false teachings allowed. And so my question about the Apocalypse of Peter.  What went wrong?  It was allegedly written by the apostle Peter himself.  Check.  It was known and used in widespread churches in the second and third centuries – not as much as, say, the Gospels and letters of Paul, but still, more than other books, such as 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude, that eventually made it into the NT.  So, widely enough used.  Check.  And its teachings about eternal torments for sinners and everlasting blessings for the saved [...]

2020-04-03T00:11:01-04:00January 30th, 2019|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha|

Finally. Why Did the Apocalypse of Peter Not Make It Into the Canon?

  Sometimes in my courses on the New Testament my students have trouble understanding why I’m so interested (OK, obsessed) with the small details of the text, rather than the “big picture.”  Who cares if this or that little detail is a possible contradiction or problem for other reason?  What matters is the overall message, right? Yes, that’s right on one level.  But on another level (or two or three) the small details really matter.  Not only is the big picture made up of very small brush strokes – so if there are problems at the brush-stroke level there are problems with the picture itself – but also sometimes the details are the absolute key to understanding what’s happening in the big picture. And so I illustrate: when a detective arrives at the crime scene of a murder, he might start looking around for clues.   A finger print, a strand of hair.  And you can imagine the frustration of someone looking on:   There’s a DEAD BODY surrounded by BLOOD here!  Why are you looking for [...]

2020-04-03T00:11:17-04:00January 29th, 2019|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha|

Other Manuscripts of the Apocalypse of Peter, And Why It Matters

In my last post about the Apocalypse of Peter I got down in the weeds a bit to talk about the discoveries and character of the two main manuscript sources of evidence we have of the document, a Greek version discovered in 1886-87 (the manuscript was produced in the sixth century or so) and an Ethiopic translation, found in a writing numbered among the so-called Pseudo-Clementines, and published in 1907-10.  Expert linguists have shown that this Ethiopic translation was made from an Arabic translation of a Greek original. Our natural inclination, as I pointed out, would be to think that a *translation*, twice removed from an original, could not be as reliable a guide to what a text originally said as an actual copy in the original language.   But the differences are so vast between the two, the Greek text and the Ethiopic, that scholars were driven to ask: which one is more like the book as originally written? Recall, the Ethiopic is much longer than the other.  It gives descriptions of more sins and [...]

2020-04-03T00:11:31-04:00January 28th, 2019|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha|

Don’t Trust What You Read!

In response to my post yesterday about whether the author of Mark was a Jew, in which I said no Jew would make the claim that Mark does, in chapter 7, that "all Jews" washed their hands before eating -- a claim that is simply not true -- a couple of astute blog members have pointed out  that there is another text, certainly written by a Jew, the Letter of Aristeas (about the how the Septuagint -- that is, the Greek translation of the Old Testament -- came into being), from the first century BCE or earlier, says something very similar about "all Jews" washing their hands.  Hmm....   I've only read the Letter of Aristeas about 75 times.  You'd think I would have noticed that.  But alas. So, for the first time in recorded history, I'm going to cover and atone for my abject shame by removing the post.  Ugh.  Many apologies for the false information, the fake news, and the alternative facts.

2019-01-28T08:05:42-05:00January 28th, 2019|Public Forum|

How Do We Know What Was Originally in the Apocalypse of Peter?

It was a long time ago that I started a thread dealing with the question of why the Apocalypse of Peter did not make it into the New Testament but 2 Peter did.  I’ll give a summary here of where we are in the discussion just now, but if you want the full play-by-play, use the search function to look up Apocalypse of Peter; I’ve been blogging on it, on and off, since November 11.  And it’s time finally to bring it to a close. I’ve been delaying for a lot of reasons, the two most prominent are that I’m not completely confident in my views and that the matter is complicated and it has seemed like an inordinate amount of work for me to try to make it simple enough to be interesting to someone who isn’t completely obsessed with the manuscript tradition of the early Christian writings.  I.e., most people! A brief recap.  The Apocalypse of Peter provides an account of a guided tour of heaven and hell, given to Peter himself.  He [...]

2020-04-03T00:11:40-04:00January 25th, 2019|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha|

How Does A Book Actually Get Published?

I will be sending the very final manuscript of my book Heaven, Hell, and the Invention of the Afterlife off to my editor at Simon & Schuster tomorrow (I still don’t know what the actual title will be).  As is always the case, it has been a very long haul, and I want to explain how publishing a trade book like this for a general audience “works” and “happens” since most people who’ve never done it have no idea, or rather, have completely wrong ideas. But before doing that I need some help so I don’t have egg on my face.   One of my many, many faults as a human being is that I don’t keep good enough records of really important information.  Just ask my tax person. As most of you know, in the summer, after writing the first draft, I asked members of the blog if they would be interested in making a donation in order to have the right to read the book in manuscript and make suggestions for improvement.   A number [...]

2020-04-03T00:12:36-04:00January 23rd, 2019|Reflections and Ruminations|

If Jesus Wasn’t God, Was He Necessarily Either a Calloused Liar or a Raving Lunatic?

This is my my last of three blasts-from-the-pasts dealing with fundamentalist, or conservative evangelical, forms of Christianity, this time addressing the claims often made (first by C.S. Lewis, who was decidedly *NOT* a fundamentalist) that since Jesus called himself God, he either was a bald-faced liar, a raving lunatic, or the Lord of the universe.  No other option.  Or ... is there? - C.S. Lewis was the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and The Problem of Pain.   QUESTION: Do you think Jesus was a great moral teacher?  If you think this is the case would you mind blogging about it? Fundamentalist are using C.S Lewis approach in this matter. Apparently they are happier if people call Jesus a lunatic vs. a great moral teacher.   RESPONSE: In my last post I indicated what I think about Jesus as a great moral teacher: yes he was one, but completely and irretrievably in an apocalyptic context that we no longer share with him. In a future post I may deal with the question of [...]

Was Jesus A Great Moral Teacher? A Blast From the Past

A few days ago, in response to a question, I reposted on the problem of fundamentalism; looking back on the blog some six years, I see that at about the same time another related question appeared.  This involves fundamentalists who object to calling Jesus a "great moral teacher" since, for them, he is actually God himself.   It will take two posts to reply to that view, first, in this one: was Jesus in fact a great moral teacher?  The answer might seem obvious but, well, not so much. ****************************************************************** QUESTION: Do you think Jesus was a great moral teacher?   If you think this is the case would you mind blogging about it?  Fundamentalists are using C.S Lewis (the well-known author of Narnia and The Problem of Pain) approach in this matter. Apparently they are happier if people call Jesus a lunatic vs. a great moral teacher.   RESPONSE: I think this question is going to require at least a couple of posts: one on Jesus as a moral teacher and one on the claim by [...]

2020-04-06T13:47:38-04:00January 21st, 2019|Historical Jesus|

Readers’ Mailbag 1/20/2019: The Only Story of Jesus as a Boy in the New Testament

Based on the feedback I’ve received on the blog this past week, I’ve decided to reinstate the weekly Readers’ Mailbag.   I have actually continued responding to questions since abandoning the feature of the blog, but in a less formal way.  Formalizing it seems like a popular option, and so I’ll try to do this once a week.   I start this week with an interesting question about Jesus as a boy.   QUESTION Outside the birth narratives, the only canonical story about the young Jesus is in Luke 2, although there are numerous childhood legends in the apocryphal gospels. Do you have any opinion, please, as to why this story of Jesus at twelve made it into Luke?   RESPONSE Over the years I have found among readers of the Bible an almost endless fascination about the “missing” years of Jesus’ life.  The narratives of our earliest and latest canonical Gospels, Mark and John, begin with Jesus as an adult associating with John the Baptism.  In Matthew and Luke, we have the stories of his birth; [...]

2021-01-10T00:36:24-05:00January 20th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

The Dangers of Fundamentalism

I'm out of town for a long weekend and so away from my books, and have decided to re-post some particularly intriguing (IMHO) posts from many years ago.  Here's a hot one.   QUESTION: You note that fundamentalism is dangerous and harmful. How do you define fundamentalism and why do you think it’s dangerous?   RESPONSE: There are of course actual definitions of “fundamentalism” that you can find in scholarship on religion, but I sense that you’re asking more for a rough-and-ready description. Years ago I started defining fundamentalism as “No fun, too much damn, and not enough mental. When I was a fundamentalist myself (yet to be described) I understood it in a positive way. Originally, in Christian circles, it referred to believers who held on to the “fundamentals” of the faith, which for us included such things as the inspiration of Scripture, the full deity of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, and, well, probably a collection of other doctrines. Fundamentalism, for us, was to be differentiated from liberalism, which [...]

2020-04-03T00:14:15-04:00January 18th, 2019|Reader’s Questions, Reflections and Ruminations|

Your Thoughts on the Blog?

It is difficult for me to know what really “works” on the blog.   On the whole, most things seem to work well: as I’ve reported recently, the blog continues to grow.   We are working toward 7000 members (but I very much want that in six figures!) and this past year we raised on average over $420 a day for charity.  That’s a lot of dosh.  All to the good. But I’m concerned about the quality of the blog and whether it is doing what you yourself want it to.   I have only two ways of knowing: the rather crude rating system we use for blog posts and the feedback I get. The rating system could probably be improved, but I’m not completely sure how.   Of course each post isn’t read by 6700+ members every day, but even so, I typically will get somewhere between 5 and 10 people rating a post.  That much is helpful (especially if there is a consistent trend), but it’s not a lot to go by, nothing anywhere statistically significant. The [...]

2019-01-17T09:01:17-05:00January 17th, 2019|Public Forum|

Does Eternal Punishment Even Make Sense?

This will be my last post on the understandings of hell in early Christianity.  There is a lot more to be said, of course, but for our purposes this is enough.  I’ve been trying to show that there was a minority view held by some prominent thinkers – and possibly a lot of other Christian folk; there’s no way to tell – that said in the end everyone would be saved.   The dominant view, though, was that for non-believers and sinners, there would be hell to pay.  This would involve eternal torment. Once Christianity became a massive and widespread phenomenon – when there was no more persecution, and when philosophically oriented intellectuals had positions of authority in the church -- highly trained Christian thinkers could engage in reasoned and intellectual reflections on the fate of souls after death, and none did so more influentially than Augustine (354 -430 CE), the greatest theologian of Christian antiquity.   Augustine chose to conclude his great work, The City of God, with three books describing how the reality of God [...]

2020-04-03T00:14:41-04:00January 15th, 2019|Afterlife|

Eternal Torment Even for Christians?

I have been discussing the “universalistic” strand in parts of Christianity in the early centuries, which said that ultimately, everyone will be saved.  This was very much a minority opinion.  Most Christians continued to think that non-believers would be damned, forever, to some very nasty torments that would never end. In fact, in many circles, more and more people came to be subject to the fires of eternity in the Christian imagination.  In the fourth and fifth centuries, with a massive influx of converts there also came large numbers of less-than-devoted souls.  And the blessings and punishments of eternity almost inevitably came to be modified as a result.   By the end of the fourth century, when Christianity was well on the road to becoming the dominant religion of the empire, some Christian writers started to maintain that heaven was not the destination of all members of the church, or hell the fate reserved only for those outside of it.  On the contrary, Christian sinners too could be subject to the eternal wrath of God.  Especially [...]

2020-04-09T12:59:58-04:00January 14th, 2019|Afterlife, Fourth-Century Christianity|

What *Greek* Version of the New Testament Do I Use?

  I often indicate that when citing the New Testament in English, I’m giving my own translation, and that understandably has led some people to think I’ve actually citing a completed translation that I’ve made but not published.  A reader of the blog recently asked me how he could get access to the translation.  But I’ve never written a translation of the NT; when I say that a quotation is in “my” translation I simply mean that I’m reading the Greek with my eyes, translating it in my brain, and typing it with my fingers.   That’s a typical procedure for NT scholars. The reader then asked an interesting and important corollary question: how do I know what Greek to be translating?  Here’s the question and my response.   QUESTION: How do you or any professional translator choose and get the right Greek version of the NT? I understand there were many manuscripts discovered and they are different in terms of content and time of writing. Many of them incomplete and none of them original. Is [...]

2020-04-03T00:16:12-04:00January 13th, 2019|New Testament Manuscripts, Reader’s Questions|

The Happy News! No One Stays In Hell!

I don’t want to leave the impression that Origen was the only early Christian thinker who held to the idea of universal salvation, that in the end, everyone gets saved.  Very few (hardly any) would have agreed that the Devil too would get redeemed.  But that all humans will eventually “make it” was an attractive view to others – even “orthodox” Christian thinkers. Among scholars from the later church, the most famous theologian to countenance universal salvation was a self-confessed advocate of Origen, the late fourth-century Gregory of Nyssa (335-94 CE).  In a dialogue called “On the Soul and the Resurrection,” held with his own sister and fellow theologian Macrina the Younger, Gregory insists that suffering after death is not meant to be a punishment for sin, but as a way of driving evil out of the soul.  His sister agrees, at some length.  Moreover, she claims that when evil is finally driven out, it will disappear, since evil cannot exist outside of the will of a person.  And when that happens, Macrina maintains, there [...]

2020-04-07T14:49:23-04:00January 11th, 2019|Afterlife, Fourth-Century Christianity|

Did We Exist Before We Were Born?

Yesterday I started explaining how the influential early Christian theologian Origen believed that at the end of time, all souls -- including the most wicked to have ever lived, even the demons and the devil -- will be saved.  To make better sense of why this happens at the end, it's important to understand what Origen thought happened at the beginning -- where souls came from in the first place In the first book of his theological work On First Principles, Origen explains how all sentient beings originally came into existence.   He argues that in eternity past, before the world was created, God created an enormous number of souls, whose purpose was to contemplate and adore him forever.   True adoration, of course, requires freedom of the will: beings need to choose to adore God if their worship is a true honor.  That means all souls must also have had the capacity to choose not to worship God, that is, to do evil.  None of these created souls was inherently evil, however, and none – not even [...]

2020-04-03T00:16:53-04:00January 8th, 2019|Afterlife|

Does Everyone Get Saved in the End?

I return now, at last, to the question of why the Apocalypse of Peter, an account of Peter’s tour of the glories of heaven and the torments of hell, did not make it into the New Testament.  It was a fairly widely known book in the first couple of Christian centuries, was accepted by some church leaders as part of the Scriptures, seemed to support acceptable Christian views, and was said to have been written by Jesus’ apostle himself.  So why did it come to be excluded?  No one in the ancient church actually says, and so we have to come up with a hypothesis.  I have one, but it’s a bit complicated, which is why I’ve been putting off talking about it (I’ve been out of town for a couple of weeks, away from my books, and wanted to make sure I could access them before giving this a shot). My thesis is that there are a couple of points of view in the book that were *eventually*, by the fourth century or so, [...]

2020-04-03T00:17:01-04:00January 7th, 2019|Afterlife|

Fundamentalist Arguments Ad Absurdum about the “Original” Text of the NT

I’ve been looking for a scrappy question to tangle with, and today I received one!   QUESTION: You make the case that we do not have the original New Testament manuscripts.  In fact, we do not have any complete manuscripts of books that eventually became part of the New Testament until the 3rd century, correct?  The response often given by fundamentalist Christians is this:  So, you don't believe that Socrates died by drinking hemlock?  You don't believe that Julius Caesar was Emperor?  You don't believe that Plato wrote Plato's Republic?  The manuscripts for Jesus are superior in quality to the manuscripts for other historical figures. This is sort of a sneak way of convincing people that if they don't accept Jesus (his historicity or divinity?) than you don't believe anything about ancient history.  I am guessing that you aren't a scholar of ancient Greece.  But in a debate with a fundamentalist Christian, it's often tempting to pretend to be one simply to swat away these silly arguments. What do you think is the best argument [...]

2019-01-06T08:54:28-05:00January 6th, 2019|New Testament Manuscripts, Reader’s Questions|

My Pod Cast Interview with Sam Harris

On May 1, 2018 I was interviewed by Sam Harris for his podcast "Waking Up."  Ostensibly the interview was to be about my book "The Triumph of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept the World" but we covered a wide range of topics, from my autobiography to numerous substantive issues, including the nature of miracles, the composition of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, the question of heaven and hell, the book of Revelation, the End Times, contradictions in the Bible, the concept of a messiah, whether Jesus actually existed, and the conversion of Constantine! Now *that's* a lot to talk about in a single interview! Please adjust gear icon for 720p High-Definition: 

2019-01-04T05:46:58-05:00January 4th, 2019|Book Discussions, Public Forum, Video Media|

Hey, They’re Free! Memberships Still Available for Those Who Can’t Afford Them

Do you OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW want a free one-year subscription to the blog (because, for various reasons, you, or the one you know, cannot afford it)?   I STILL HAVE FREE MEMBERSHIPS TO GIVE OUT.   Please ask or encourage someone you know to ask. Here is the original announcement from a couple of weeks ago, with instructions about how to obtain one. ***********************************************************   Thanks to the incredible generosity of members of the blog, I am happy to announce that there are a limited number of free one-year memberships available.   These have been donated for a single purpose: to allow those who cannot afford the annual membership fee to participate on the blog for a year.   I will assign these memberships strictly on the honor system: if you truly cannot afford the membership fee, but very much want to have full access to the blog, then please contact me. Do NOT reply here, on the blog, as a comment.   Send me a separate email, privately, at [email protected].   In your email, let me know your situation [...]

2019-01-03T03:43:01-05:00January 3rd, 2019|Public Forum|
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