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My Very First Post: Do Textual Variants Matter??

In three days we will hit the seventh-year anniversary of the blog.   I thought it would be fun (for me) to look at the earliest posts.  Here is the very first one, from April 3, 2012  (I've edited it a bit to tone down the rhetoric; I was a bit more hot-headed in those days!)   It's about one of the most interesting and hotly disputed topics I've dealt with throughout my career. ******************************************************************** Probably more than any of my other books, Misquoting Jesus provoked a loud and extensive critique from scholars – almost exclusively among evangelical Christians, who appear to have thought that if readers were “led astray” by my claims in the book they might be in danger of losing their faith or (almost worse!) changing what they believed so that they would no longer be evangelical. I’m not so sure there is really much danger in presenting widely held scholarship to a lay-readership, and so I was a bit surprised at the vitriol I received at the hands of some of my evangelical [...]

2020-12-02T00:12:49-05:00March 31st, 2019|Bart's Critics, New Testament Manuscripts|

The Odd Modern Way of Reading the Book of Revelation

  Back to my possible trade book on the book of Revelation and the way it has affected not just modern conservative Christianity but also secular society (literature, film) and political policy (environmental legislation; second Amendment discussions; policy on the Middle East).   In my description-to-myself of what I’m imagining the book to be, after discussing these various effects of Revelation, I start talking about Revelation itself, and how it came to be read as a blueprint for our future (a reading that seems so *natural* today, but is not how the book was read until the 19th century). ******************************************************** Armageddon in the Book of Revelation The thesis of my book is that all of these manifestations of apocalyptic thought in American discourse – religious, literary, cinematic, social, and political – ultimately stem from a particular way of reading the book of Revelation, a reading that, despite a few scattered precedents throughout history, came to the fore only at the end of the 19th century.   Critical biblical scholars are unified in thinking it is based on [...]

2020-04-03T00:00:49-04:00March 29th, 2019|Book Discussions, Revelation of John|

A Roman Vision of Heaven and Hell

In our world, most people who think about the afterlife suppose that when we die we either cease to exist or receive our due rewards (rewards/punishments).  I have pointed out that the latter view did not originate in Jewish or Christian circles, but in pagan, going back some time before the Greek philosopher Plato in the fourth century BCE.   The Greeks influenced their later conquerors the Romans in many, many ways, one of which involves their views of the afterlife.  The idea of fantastic rewards or horrific torments to come after death be seen in rather graphic terms in the writings of the most famous and talented poets of the Roman world, the great Latin poet Virgil (70-19 BCE), who like his Greek predecessor Homer, some seven centuries earlier, tells the story of a descent to the underworld.   Aeneas En Route to the Underworld Virgil is best known for his epic the Aeneid, named for its main character, Aeneas, a fugitive from the Trojan War who, in the wake of Troy’s disastrous defeat through [...]

2020-04-03T00:01:02-04:00March 27th, 2019|Afterlife, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Did Ancient Greeks Invent Heaven and Hell?

Back, for a post, to the scholarly project I’m now doing on the “katabasis” traditions in early Christianity – the stories of people being given tours of / visions of both heaven and hell.   Some readers of the blog may be confused about why, on a blog devoted to the study of the New Testament and Early Christianity, I would want to discuss the Odyssey of Homer or the Aeneid of Virgil, etc.   It’s because I very much want to understand where the Christian ideas of the afterlife come from. In the traditional Christian view, after death a person is taken off to be rewarded with paradise or punished with the torments of hell came from.   In my book I’ll be arguing that idea did not come either from the Old Testament or from Jesus.  Then whence? My last post on this was on the Odyssey, where Odysseus goes to the underworld and there are no heaven and hell there either, just a place called Hades where everyone – whether great or small, valiant or [...]

2020-04-03T00:01:25-04:00March 26th, 2019|Afterlife, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Armageddon and American Politics

As I indicated at the beginning of this thread, I am in the process of thinking my way into the next trade book, which I think will be on the book of Revelation and how it has been read by modern fundamentalists, who think it is predicting what is going to happen in our own world very soon, and how that reading has immigrated into, and even infested, the wider culture, the actual secular world, both socially and politically. I said a few words about the social impact of apocalyptic thinking since 1945, and the advent of the nuclear age (the End really *is* near!), and now, as it has transmorgrified (a word we ought to use more often) in the post-Soviet era to issues connected with climate change, etc.  One of my theses is that the social concerns have come to affect the political landscape in America, particularly starting in the 1980s. My ideas on this are not based on wild speculation, but on very interesting scholarship produced by American cultural and political historians, [...]

2020-04-03T00:01:51-04:00March 25th, 2019|Book Discussions, Revelation of John|

Did Jesus Pray “Father Forgive Them” from the Cross?

I recently received an important question about a highly significant textual variant in Luke 23:34, the one and only place in the NT where Jesus prays for those responsible for his death “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”  The verse is not found in the other Gospels, and interestingly, it is also not found in some of the important manuscripts even of Luke.  And so the question: is it a verse that some scribes inserted into Luke?  Or is it a verse that other scribes decided to take out?  It’s one or the other! When I received the question I was sure I had dealt with it on the blog before.  But I’ve checked.  Nope.  Never have.  But I was even more sure I had written about it somewhere.  It took me a long time to track it down, but I’ve uncovered it in an article that I wrote called “The Text of the Gospels at the End of the Second Century,” now found in a collection of my more scholarly essays [...]

Secular Versions of the Coming Apocalypse

I have been describing my ideas about the book I’m proposing to write, tentatively called Expecting the Apocalypse.  In the past couple of posts I’ve talked about the heightened expectation that the world would be ending soon with the return of Jesus, an originally fundamentalist Christian view that started off in the 19th century and that has moved into much broader circles in American culture.   Part of my book will be looking not only at this religious view, but also at how it has, in our lifetimes, moved into a variety of secular discourses, and is, in fact, in its secular guise, all around us, affecting seriously what is happening in both society and politics, and therefore of real importance for our daily lives. If I write this book, it will be the first time I’ve ventured outside of biblical and early Christian scholarship involving “religion” into areas of cultural importance to most people living in the modern world – which is another way of saying that this kind of material is not something that [...]

2019-03-22T07:54:07-04:00March 22nd, 2019|Book Discussions, Public Forum, Revelation of John|

Fundamentalist Visions of the End of the World

I have started to explain what I’m hoping my next trade book will be, focusing on the book of Revelation and its effect on modern thinking about the End of the World soon to come.   I’m tentatively calling the book Expecting Armageddon, and it would roughly cover three areas:  the religious expectation that God’s judgment is right around the corner – for example in the fundamentalist belief of an imminent “rapture”; the secular versions of this idea, that the world as we know it is soon to be destroyed in one way or another – for example, through nuclear holocaust (as portrayed, e.g., in novels and film), and the political implications of these beliefs (e.g., in understandings of the Second Amendment; environmental legislation; and the U.S. support for Israel) (! Who would-a thought?); and the demonstration that all this perspective is based ultimately on a certain understanding/way of reading the book of Revelation, a mode of interpretation that scholars have long argued is untenable. I’m pretty pumped about the possibility of the book.  But I [...]

2020-04-03T00:02:02-04:00March 20th, 2019|Book Discussions, Revelation of John|

Expecting the Apocalypse: My Idea for the Book

Instead of one long (and possibly laborious) thread on my current research for my scholarly monograph on Otherworldly Journeys, I’ve decided to talk about that work sporadically, here and there on the blog, over the course of the next couple of months.   I would like to give a greater focus on the books I’m working on for a general audience. As I have mentioned, I have two in view just now and am in the process of planning them.  I don’t have a contract for either one yet, but hope to present the possibilities to my publisher soon.   One, as I have indicated, would be on the expectation that the end is coming soon, both among many Christians but also in the secular culture at large, all based on a certain reading of the book of Revelation (the secularists usually don’t realize this!) that scholars have long found untenable.   That is the one I’ll start in on here on the blog. My normal process for coming up with a proposal for a publisher is to [...]

2020-04-03T00:05:11-04:00March 19th, 2019|Book Discussions, Revelation of John|

An Early Otherworldly Journey

Back to my scholarly monograph on Otherworldly Journeys.   I pointed out in previous posts that when scholars became particularly interested in these various accounts in ancient Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian circles, they were particularly intrigued with the question of where the idea came from, that a living person could see the realms of the dead.  I then devoted a couple of posts to exploring why, in the 19th century, this was a matter of such interest. I don’t at all deny that this question of “origins” is important, but I’m not particularly interested in pursuing myself.   There is already enough of that, for my taste!  I’m interested in other things, and am somewhat surprised that other scholars have not wanted to pursue them at greater length.   My book will not be an exhaustive study of the phenomenon – that would require several books, or, for at least a pretense of comprehensiveness, a book of over 600 pages.  And my days of 600-page books are over. I will instead be picking my spots and pursuing [...]

2020-04-03T00:05:21-04:00March 18th, 2019|Afterlife, Book Discussions|

Very Funny…

I normally post only once a day, but in tracing down a Blast From the Past to give today, I ran across this little nugget that I had completely forgotten about, also from this time six years ago.  Too good to not repost! **************************************************** OK, this is completely irrelevant to anything related to the blog – especially early Christology, my current topic.   But I thought it was too funny to pass up.   A fellow who lived in my neighborhood, but whom I never knew (to my regret: he sounds like he was a remarkably interesting guy), beloved chemistry professor Dr. James Bonk died Friday at the age of 82, ending his 53-year career at Duke University.  According to the local newspaper: Bonk’s classes were such a staple that Duke introductory chemistry classes became known as “Bonkistry” classes, which approximately 30,000 students attended. He was nationally known for comical incidents with students, one rumored to have taken place in the 1960s. The Bonk joke is that the weekend before a final exam, four students decided to [...]

2019-03-16T10:00:57-04:00March 16th, 2019|Reflections and Ruminations|

My Doubts about the Son of God: A Blast from the Past

Here's a post I made six years ago, when just starting to think about what I would do in my book How Jesus Became God, where I recount a rather emotional experience of starting to doubt my faith. ************************************************************************************************************ When I attended Moody Bible Institute in the mid 1970s, every student was required, every semester, to do some kind of Christian ministry work.   Like all of my fellow students I was completely untrained and unqualified to do the things I did, but I think Moody believed in on-the-job training.   And so every student had to have one semester where, for maybe 2-3 hours one afternoon a week, they would engage in “door-to-door evangelism.”  That involved being transported to some neighborhood in Chicago, knocking on doors, trying to strike up a conversation, get into the homes, and convert people.  A fundamentalist version of the Mormon missionary thing, also carried out two-by-two. One semester I was a late-night counselor on the Moody Christian radio station.  People would call up with questions about the Bible or with problems in [...]

2021-01-05T01:07:06-05:00March 16th, 2019|Bart’s Biography, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Protestant Obsession with Origins

It was especially in the nineteenth century that scholars of religion, theology, and biblical studies became deeply obsessed with the question of “origins.”   In many ways, the roots for this interest – in these fields in particular – lay in the Protestant Reformation, and it is no accident that the major research on the question was done in predominantly Protestant countries (especially Germany; somewhat in England and, even less, in America) and by Protestant professors in these fields, scholars who had themselves received theological training before themselves giving instruction in universities. Roughly speaking, it was possible to think about “origins” in two very different ways, one we might label “Catholic” and the other “Protestant.”   In the Catholic way of thinking, the “origins” of something was the starting point, from which important developments began to transpire, as religion, theology, and even “the truth” evolved into higher forms over the centuries. This evolutionary model, of course, owed a good deal to other intellectual currents of the day, for example in the understanding of languages: they become more [...]

Who Cares How It All Started?

Once I realized that so much of the scholarship on the Christian accounts of journeys to the realms of heaven and hell was focused almost exclusively on the ultimate question of where this idea of taking an actual trip to the afterlife came from – ancient Greek myths?  Jewish apocalypses? – I was deeply puzzled by it.   Why is the *origin* of an idea the most important or revealing thing about it?   Would any scholar of Victorian English dealing with David Copperfield be concerned *only* with knowing where the idea of writing a novel originated?  It’s an interesting and important question, but is that really the main thing we want to know about the book? Why would it different with this kind of ancient religious writing?   Why this one focus?  And what was driving the concern?   I immediately realized that it was tied in to lots of other fields of inquiry going on in the 19th century.  Origins seemed to be everywhere.  Scientists were interested in the origins of life, and the origins of humankind [...]

2020-04-03T00:06:11-04:00March 12th, 2019|Reflections and Ruminations|

The Passion for Origins

After I had engaged for a couple of months doing some real research and thinking seriously about my scholarly book on visions of and journeys to the realms of heaven and hell (tentatively entitled, for now, Otherworldly Journeys: Katabasis Traditions in Early Christianity), I thought I might start it all by doing a kind of history of research.   This is how scholarly books commonly used to start – especially books of German scholarship and American dissertations.  Chapter one would be a discussion of what all the other scholars had said about a topic, and use that history of scholarship to set up what the author him/herself wanted to explore, argue, and say that was different – whether it involved new data or new interpretations of old data, etc. That way of preceding was always highly informative (and often seen as essential: my dissertation advisor insisted on it!) but not always scintillating, and most books today are more driven by scintillation.   So I certainly was not planning, for this book, on giving a blow-by-blow account of [...]

Do Any Ancient Jewish Sources Mention Jesus? Weekly Mailbag

I recently received a succinct but very important question about whether Jesus is ever mentioned by any Jewish sources of the first century. The premise behind the question is that if Jesus was the miracle-working son of God who was healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead – wouldn’t everyone be talking about him, all the time?  It turns out, the answer is – we don’t know!  We have hardly any Jewish writings from his time and place. At the end of the first century we do have the copious and massively important historical writings of Flavius Josephus, and there is one passage in particular where he does indeed refer to Jesus.  The passage is typically called the “Testimonium Flavianum” (that is, “Flavius [Josephus’s] Testimony to Jesus”).  But did Josephus actually write this passage?  Or has it been inserted into his work by a later scribe?  Or did a later Christian scribe “touch it up” a bit? Here is the simple but crucial question I have received.   QUESTION: How much of [...]

2019-03-10T09:17:27-04:00March 10th, 2019|Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

The Original Obsession with Trips to the Afterlife

I have been interested in the early Christian texts that describe tours or visions of heaven and hell for a long time – I suppose since, when in graduate school, I first heard about the Apocalypse of Peter, which I have described on the blog before.   That’s not the sort of text we would have been reading at Moody Bible Institute.  (!)   But its description of the torments in hell – brief, yet lurid accounts of what will happen to people for all eternity, depending on what their characteristic sin was -- hooked me right away:  blasphemers, seductresses, adulterers, and people who lend money out at interest all get distinctive and rather ghastly eternal torments, specified for their crimes, (as if a person only commits one of them!). I didn’t realize at the time that we have several other accounts from Christian authors of the first few centuries; nor did I know, uneducated as I was, that it is one of the oldest tropes in literature, with examples in Gilgamesh, Homer, Plato, and on into [...]

2020-04-03T00:06:34-04:00March 8th, 2019|Afterlife, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

My Next Scholarly Book: Visits to Heaven and Hell

As I have indicated on the blog before, I like to mix up the various kinds of research and writing projects that I do.  My time is not split evenly, but over the years I have written scholarly books for scholarly audiences, trade books for the wider reading public, and textbooks for college-level students.   Usually it’s one thing at a time, but as it turns out now I’m in the midst of three tasks – revising two of my textbooks (The New Testament and a Brief Introduction to the New Testament), writing up proposals for two future trade books to submit to my publisher to see if they would agree to publish them, and, principally, working on the next scholarly project. When I first started thinking about the scholarly project, I came up with the title: “Observing the Dead: Otherworldy Journeys in the Early Christian Tradition.”   I may still call it that – as you may know from my other posts over the years, titles usually are the last thing decided when it comes to [...]

Heaven and Hell, Finally

As I indicated earlier, I’m thinking about doing a series of posts on the various research and writing projects on my plate.   As of yesterday, my trade book on the afterlife is finished and moving into production (meaning that it will now go to a copy editor to deal with grammar and style, correct typos, etc.; it will then come back to me to review his/her suggested corrections; it will then….  and so it goes, till it comes out in a year from now). I had announced that the book was actually finished months ago, and it was, kind of.   But we still hadn’t settled on a title, and the title mattered because in the Preface of the book I discussed the title as a way of introducing the thesis and themes of the book.  If the title changed, well, that made the discussion irrelevant. We’ve settled now on the title.  I *had* been calling it “The Invention of the Afterlife,” which a lot of blog readers, and others, rather liked, and a lot of [...]

2020-04-03T00:06:52-04:00March 5th, 2019|Afterlife, Book Discussions|

Homosexuality and the New Testament. Guest Post by Jeff Siker.

Yesterday Jeff Siker, PhD in NT and editor of two books that discuss biblical/Christian views of homosexuality, started his summary and assessment of what the Bible has to say about same-sex relations, in light of the recent vote of the United Methodists not to welcome “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” in their churches.  In that post he dealt with the salient passages in the Old Testament; today he moves to the controversial texts of the New Testament and ends with some insightful reflections on the relevance of the Bible for same-sex relations in the modern context. Jeff Siker is the author of Jesus, Sin, and Perfection in Early Christianity, Liquid Scripture: The Bible in the Digital World and Homosexuality and Religion: An Encyclopedia. ****************************************************** Romans 1:26-27 “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the [...]

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