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Death and the Meaning of Life

Different understandings about what happens to us at death embody and promote different views about what we consider to be the ultimate reality of life, what it is that we think -- at the deepest level of our being -- provides meaning for our existence and makes sense of the world we encounter while still breathing. I have given four examples from the ancient world.  Each of them portrays a different sense of ultimate reality, of one thing, in each case, that establishes, determines, and directs everything that finally matters for human existence in general – for all people who have ever lived – and for our specific existence in particular.   All four involve trips to the realms of the dead, in order to see what happens for those who are no longer living.  Each is meant to show what we should live for now, based on what the ultimate meaning of life is, what the very root and fabric of human existence consist of.  In this post I’ll talk about two of them. When [...]

2020-04-02T23:54:27-04:00April 30th, 2019|Afterlife, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Similarities and Differences: Which Matter the Most?

I have been thinking a lot about the categories of “similarities” and “differences” recently.  In fact, now that I look back, I’ve been thinking about these categories for about forty years.   It’s funny the things we think about.   But for a scholar of early Christianity, these categories matter a lot. When I was a conservative evangelical Christian, reading, studying, and thinking about the Bible, I was completely focused on similarities.   This book, this passage, this teaching is very similar to that one.    I did focus on differences about lots of *other* things (other than the Bible).  That person is Jew and not a Christian, and therefore will have to face judgment and be condemned, unlike *me* a Christian.  Or that person is a Roman Catholic and so is not a real Christian and therefore…   Or that person does not have the right theology about salvation, or Christ, or predestination, or the Bible, and therefore…. So I knew and thought about differences a lot and knew that they were highly significant. Even eternally significant.  Anyone who [...]

2020-04-02T23:54:41-04:00April 29th, 2019|Reflections and Ruminations|

Contradictions in the Gospels – Rev Matthew Firth’s Second Response

Thanks very much, Bart, for these interesting responses. I will get straight into explaining why I still don’t think you have shown that the examples you have offered are genuine contradictions. In the case of Luke 24 you say that the grammar of the Greek indicates that ‘Luke is extremely careful to date the entire sequence of chapter 24, at the beginning of each major paragraph. It all happens on the day of the resurrection.’ But we know from Acts, Luke’s sequel, that Luke certainly does not think that all of Luke 24 happened on the day of the resurrection. He says in Acts 1:3 and the following verses that after Jesus’ suffering and resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles over a forty-day period, and after that he was taken up. This means that Luke is well aware that Luke 24:50-53 did not happen on the day of the resurrection, despite your assertion that the grammar makes it clear that all of the events of Luke 24 did happen on the day of the resurrection. [...]

2020-04-02T23:54:53-04:00April 28th, 2019|Bart's Debates, Canonical Gospels|

Paul in Hell. The Apocryphal Apocalypse of Paul.

You may have not noticed, since so much else has been happening on the blog lately (guest posts, a debate, etc.), but I have a very loose thread  going on my book on the guided tours of heaven and hell, a scholarly monograph that deals with the Christian versions of "katabasis" (the technical term for "going down" -- that is, someone going down into the underworld and then reporting what he saw) in relation to Greek, Roman, and Jewish versions.  The clear focus will be on the Christian texts, but to make sense of them it helps do see how they are similar to and different from those found in the surrounding cultures. My first chapter will provide a set of comparisons of several earlier narratives (Odysseus's encounter with the dead in the Odyssey book 11, Aeneas's  descent to Hades in Aeneid book 6, and the vision of Enoch in 1 Enoch 21-22) with the most famous and popular Christian account, the Apocalypse of Paul, which probably dates from the early fifth century but may [...]

2020-04-02T23:55:04-04:00April 26th, 2019|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha|

Papias and the Writers of the New Testament: Guest Post by Stephen Carlson

Here is another post by Stephen Carlson on that mysterious figure named Papias, an early second century writer who claims to have had information from reliable witnesses about the authors of the New Testament, and who may indicate that the "John" who wrote the Gospel is different from the "John" who wrote Revelation.  Or does he?  If the *apostle* John did not Revelation, should it be in the New Testament?   Puzzling and hard to figure out -- but here is what Stephen says about it. - Stephen Carlson is the author of The Gospel Hoax and The Text of Galatians and Its History. *********************************************************************************** What Papias Says About His Own Work In our last post, we looked at the title of Papias’s work, Exposition of Dominical Oracles, and surveyed the considerable scholarly controversy about the nature of Papias’s work. Many scholars take the position that it was a commentary on the sayings of Jesus, perhaps with some narrative elements, but others contend that it was a commentary on at least the Gospel of Matthew, or [...]

Why Did Christianity Take Over the World? Smithsonian Lecture 3.

Here is Lecture 3 (out of 4) that I came at the Smithsonian Associates in Washington DC on Feb. 10, 2018, based, again, on my book The Triumph of Christianity.   This lecture deals with the key aspects of the early Christian movement to try to explain its success.  What was it about Christianity that allowed it to take over the entire Christian empire?   People have all sorts of "common sense" answers to the question -- as did I for many years, even as a professional scholar -- which are probably wrong (e.g., Christianity was naturally superior to all the other religions, because of its strict monotheism and strong ethical stance, so naturally people were inclined to convert). The first time I realized the actual answer to the question was when, long ago, I read Roman social historian and Yale professor Ramsay MacMullen's brilliant analysis The Christianization of the Roman Empire.  I pondered the matter for years, read massively on it, and here is what I ended up concluding (very much in line with MacMullen, but [...]

Are These Really Contradictions? My Response to Matt Firth

Thanks Matt for your thoughtful comments on the four contradictions I discussed in my opening post.  I agree – this form of debate is much better than the oral back and forths I’m used to on a stage in front of an audience, where it’s so easy to say something unwittingly that is completely stupid or wrong.  With this format I’m able to think about it a bit before saying something completely stupid! I appreciate your attempts to reconcile the contradictions.   For years I wished I could reconcile all the ones I found – and did my best to do so, using many of these kinds of arguments.  I ended up thinking it just didn’t work.  I’ll try to explain below why I think so, step by step.  I’ve decided that it would be easier for readers of the blog to be able to compare your reconciliations with my responses directly, and so I have copied your comments and will be giving my responses in green so they will be easily distinguished. Blog readers: this [...]

2020-04-02T23:55:20-04:00April 22nd, 2019|Canonical Gospels|

The Radical Implications of the Resurrection

Over the years on the blog, I have reflected a number of times on the significance of the earliest Christians' belief in the resurrection. On this Easter morning, I thought it would be appropriate to return to one of those reflections. The most important result of the disciples' belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead was that it radically changed their understanding of what it meant to say Jesus was the messiah. As I have explained before that in my view, ,Jesus did believe he was the messiah (in a certain sense), and his followers believed it. Given everything we know about Jewish beliefs at the time, that almost certainly mean that they thought that he was (or would become) the king of the Jewish people. That’s certainly how the Roman governor Pontius Pilate took it. It was because Jesus made such a claim that Pilate ordered him crucified. The crucifixion would have proved beyond any doubt -- to anyone paying attention -- that Jesus was not the messiah after all. Rather than [...]

2024-04-02T14:19:46-04:00April 21st, 2019|Early Christian Doctrine, Historical Jesus|

Why Are the Gospels Anonymous?

Looking through some old posts, I ran across this one (that I'd forgotten about) that answers a question I get at least a couple of times a year.   Why didn't the authors of the Gospels name themselves?  (They have long been called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, of course, but you'll notice that the authors themselves never indicate who they are; the first record we have of anyone actually quoting these books *and* calling them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is in Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, written about 185 CE -- that is, about a century after the Gospels themselves were written and placed in circulation.    Anyway, here is the post, giving a reader's question and my attempt at an answer. ***************************************************************************************   Among the interesting questions I’ve received recently is the following.   It’s on something other than How Jesus Became God!  Rather than type out a completely new answer, I’ve resorted to the discussion I set out in my book Forged, cited here, as relevant, in full. QUESTION: I still can’t quite grasp [...]

2020-04-28T21:34:09-04:00April 19th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

Contradictions in the Gospels – Rev Matthew Firth’s Response

Thank-you very much, Bart, for your opening gambit. It has given me a most enjoyable afternoon of delving deeply into the Gospel texts, and I really appreciate the written format of this debate, which allows space for considered reflection, study and learning, rather than the rhetorical tennis of some other formats of debate which, while they produce spectacle, rarely achieve deep insight either for the proponents or the onlookers. I will now take the cases in the order in which you proposed them. You must be a registered and paid member to read the following text... 1. The case of Jairus’ daughter can, I think, be usefully looked at in terms of the Greek Text, Matthew’s practice of ‘telescoping’ stories about Jesus, and the emotional reality of the situation. In Mark 5.23 we see that Jairus says ‘thugatrion mou eschatos echei.’ A wooden translation of this would be ‘my little daughter is at the end.’ In Matthew 9.18 we see that Jairus says ‘thugater mou arti eteleutesen.’ A wooden translation of this would be [...]

2020-04-02T23:55:43-04:00April 16th, 2019|Bart's Debates, Canonical Gospels|

Contradictions in the Gospels

This is the opening gambit in my debate with Rev. Matthew Firth on whether there are contradictions in the Gospels.  I believe there are many.  He believes there are none whatsoever.  So who is right?   I would strongly recommend that, if you are really interested in the matter, you actually look up the passages in question and see for yourself. I will need to be brief on each one, since space is highly restricted.  I ended up requiring 1300 words, and so obviously Rev. Firth can follow suit. I start with one that may seem completely unimportant, but is, to me, a clear contradiction. In Mark 5:21-24 a man named Jairus approaches Jesus in distress.  His daughter is “very ill.”  He wants Jesus to come heal her so she doesn’t die.  Jesus agrees to go, but before he can get to Jairus’s home, he is delayed by a woman who herself desperately needs to be healed (5:25-34).  While Jesus is dealing with her – it takes a while – someone comes from Jairus’s house to [...]

2020-04-02T23:55:55-04:00April 16th, 2019|Bart's Debates, Canonical Gospels|

What Is a Contradiction?

As many of you know, Rev. Matthew Firth, an Anglican rector trained in theology at Oxford, will soon be participating on the blog in a fund-raising event, for which many of you, bless your souls, have already donated.  This will entail a debate with me over whether there are contradictions in the Gospels. The debate will start soon, but I thought I should lay a little bit of groundwork.  I hadn’t planned on doing this originally, and haven’t told Rev. Firth that I’m going to do it now – but I’ll show this post to him and allow him to respond if he feels inclined, prior to my opening gambit when I mention several points in the Gospels that appear to me to be contradictory to one another. I do not plan or intend anything in this post to be controversial, but in case Rev. Firth does want to respond, he’s certainly welcome to do so.  Otherwise, we can just get on with the debate.   But I did want to say a few words about [...]

2020-04-02T23:58:41-04:00April 15th, 2019|Bart's Debates, Canonical Gospels|

Who Were The “Pagans” Christians Were Converting?

PART TWO of FOUR: Pagan Converts and the Power of God This is the second lecture I gave at the Smithsonian on Feb. 10, 2018, based on my book The Triumph of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept the World.  The premise behind the lecture: as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, it converted almost entirely pagans (after the first couple of decades).   Who were these people, and what were they converting *from*?  And why? Paganism is not and was not really a "thing."  The term was designed (by Christians) simply to designate all the ancient religious practices that were not either Jewish or Christian -- that is, it lumped together all kinds of religious practices, thousands of them, as some"thing" opposed to the faith in the Jewish god. But is there anything all these religions spread throughout the  Roman world had in common?  And how did Christians approach people from these traditional religions, religions that each individual would have always assumed was simply right, involving rituals and ideas that had always been part of [...]

A Papias Mystery: What Was the Book He Wrote? Guest Post by Stephen Carlson

Stephen Carlson has graciously agreed to do a few more posts on his work on Papias.  Remember, Papias is that (very?) early second century church father who is later said to have written a five-volume work called the Exposition of the Sayings (or Oracles) of the Lord.   We don’t have the book any longer, and don’t really even know what was in it.  But several church fathers mention it and give a few quotations from it, some of them very intriguing indeed (including an alternative account about how Judas Iscariot died!). In this post Stephen continues his explanation – based on a new book he is just now finishing up for publication.  For my money, this is the most interesting one yet, dealing with an intriguing question: just what kind of book was this that Papias produced?  (The other fascinating question that has no definitive answer – don’t know if Stephen will be dealing with this – why didn’t anyone preserve the book for posterity???) Stephen Carlson is the author of The Gospel Hoax and [...]

Fund Raising Event on the Blog: Contradictions in the Gospels??

We will be engaging in an unusual fund-raising event on the blog in a week or so.   A well-trained Anglican priest named Matthew Firth had issued a challenge that no one could point out any contradictions in the Gospels of the New Testament that could not be explained.  As I understand it, he offered an award of $1000.  OK then!  Someone on the blog contacted me to see if I'd be willing to take up the challenge. Of course, there is not a contradiction in the known universe that someone cannot explain away to his or her own satisfaction, given sufficient ingenuity and the deep inclination or desire to think that contradictions do not exist.  So in a sense the outcome is pre-determined.  Rev. Firth will not be convinced, nor will his followers, nor anyone on either side of the pond who comes into the question with mind already made up.   So in one sense, at least, it's a pointless exercise. On the other hand, outsiders might be interested in a back and forth.  There's [...]

2019-04-11T00:13:19-04:00April 10th, 2019|Bart's Debates, Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

Enoch’s Vision of the Realms of the Dead

In discussing the research I’m doing on (human) journeys to the realm(s) of the dead, I have so far mentioned two in particular that occur outside of Christian circles and much earlier: the famous account of Odysseus’s vision of the dead in Homer’s Odyssey book 11 and Aeneas’s journey to the underworld in Virgil’s Aeneid, book 6.   These are very similar to one another (since Virgil was basing his account on Homer’s) but also very different: in particular, whereas in Homer every spirit has the same uninteresting and boring forever in Hades, in Virgil the righteous are given fantastic rewards and the wicked graphic torment, with the possibility of reincarnation to have another go at it. .  Now I introduce a Jewish version of this kind of journey, found in the non-canonical book of 1 Enoch, which has many similarities to Virgil  (though not so much with Homer).  Here too the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished.  But there are (a couple of) gradations from one kind of sinner to the next.  And moreover, [...]

2020-04-02T23:59:26-04:00April 9th, 2019|Afterlife, Early Judaism|

Christianity’s Most Important Convert: Lecture at the Smithsonian

PART ONE of FOUR: Christianity’s Most Important Convert: The Apostle Paul In February 2018 I gave a series of four lectures for the Smithsonian Associates in Washington DC, based on my book The Triumph of Christianity.   It was a bit tricky, as these things always are, figuring out which parts of the book to focus on, since each lecture could really be only on one thing, not lots of things.  I decided to give the first lecture on the most important convert in the history of Christianity -- not Constantine (as I argue in the book) but the apostle Paul.  Without that conversion, would we even have *had* Christianity as a world-wide religion?  Good question!   It's hard to know.  But it *is* clear that this was a conversion of massive importance.  Here is the lecture: Viewing for blog members only!  If you'd like to join the blog, we'd like to have you.  Doesn't cost much and you get tons of value -- and every penny goes to charity.  So go for it! Please adjust [...]

2020-04-03T11:14:56-04:00April 8th, 2019|Book Discussions, Spread of Christianity, Video Media|

Jesus “Only” Adopted to be the Son of God?

Here's a post from six years ago involving an important matter that I completely changed my mind about.   I know some scholars (not to name names) will never change their views about something, come hell or high water.  They probably don't think they should be seen to waffle.  I don't mind waffles.  Especially on a nice Sunday morning like this. ****************************************************************** I used to think – for years and years I thought this – that being adopted was a lower kind of sonship.  Jesus was “only” the adopted Son of God, not the “real” Son of God.  But I came to realize this was fundamentally a mistake and an extremely important one.   To say Jesus was the adopted Son of God was to say HUGE things about him, virtually INCONCEIVABLE things.   It was not a “lowly” view of Jesus.  Here’s how I explain it in my book How Jesus Became God. ****************************************************************** Part of what has convinced me that this [adoptionistic] understanding of Christ should not be shunted aside as a rather inferior view involves [...]

Papias. How Do We Know His Context? Guest post by Stephen Carlson

Now that Stephen Carlson has said a few things about Papias, in this post he is going to explain why it is so hard to know what Papias is actually saying in the fragmentary quotations of his writings that we have.   (Even though people / scholars quote them all the time as if we can tell exactly what he means.)  It all has to do with putting them in context.  But what if you don’t know the context? This is the second of his two posts.  And he leaves us with a cliff hanger.  If you want to hear more, let us know! Stephen Carlson is the author of The Gospel Hoax and The Text of Galatians and Its History, among others ***************************************************************** Context, Context, Context Continuing the discussion, scholars of fragmentary texts wrestle with the difficult problem of context. As we all know, context is the key to interpretation. Like any other text, the quotations that constitute our fragments of Papias are not self-interpreting just by reading them as stand-alone statements. Readers need context [...]

The Writings of Papias: Guest Post by Stephen Carlson

I occasionally get questions about one of the most interesting but least known Christian authors of the early 2nd century, a man named Papias (writing in 120 CE? 140 CE).  Many readers consider him particularly important because he claims to have known and interviewed the companions of disciples of Jesus’ own apostles (it’s a bit confusing: but Jesus had his apostles; after his death they themselves had disciples; Papias knew people who knew these disciples of the apostles); moreover, Papias is the first author to mention a Gospel of Matthew and a Gospel of Mark. Pretty important. Unfortunately, we don’t have his writings – only a few quotations of them, here and there, among the writings of later church fathers.  But these quotations are highly fascinating. There has never been a definitive, full-length study of Papias until now.  (Well, until the near future.)  My friend and former student and Stephen Carlson has been working for years on the Papias fragments.   Stephen did his PhD in New Testament at Duke and is now a Senior Research [...]

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