Sorting by


Did Superior Health Care Lead to the Dominance of Christianity?

Interesting question from a recent member of the blog:   QUESTION: In the August 5/12 New Yorker, a review of a new book, “The mosquito: A Human History of our Deadliest Predator.” In this review, this sentence: “In the third century, malaria epidemics helped drive people to a small, much persecuted faith that emphasized healing and care of the sick, propelling Christianity into a world-altering religion.” I realize that medical history is not your thing. If nonetheless you’d care to comment, any warrant for this assertion?   RESPONSE:        I don’t know that I’ve ever written about mosquitoes before, either on the blog or anywhere else, but I have dealt with issues connected with ancient health care, and in particular with the theory that superior health care was one of the factors that led Christianity to expand to become a dominant (*the* dominant religion) of the Roman world.   It is an intriguing idea indeed, and was a popular theory for a very brief moment, about when this book reviewed in the New Yorker came out.  [...]

On Producing a New Translation of Ancient Texts

I'm in the middle of discussing what it's like to publish a trade book for general audiences and an  academic book for scholars on the same topic.  The third time I did this involved a completely different situation from the other two I have described.   One thing that was similar was that in this instance, yet again,I had no idea, initially, of producing a popular version, but planned simply to publish a work of scholarship.  Only later did I realize that a trade trade version could be very useful. This scholarly book – trade book combination involved an edition of the apocryphal Gospels, the ancient accounts of Jesus words and deeds that did not make it into the New Testament.  To explain how the books came to be imagined I need to provide a bit of background.   Actually, a lot of background.  This will take a couple of posts. It all started with a completely different project altogether, unrelated to the apocrypha. In the mid 1990s I was teaching a PhD seminar on the group [...]

2020-04-02T14:45:16-04:00August 27th, 2019|Book Discussions, Reflections and Ruminations|

My Two Books on Forgery

In a couple of weeks I will be going to Quebec City to deliver a keynote address for a scholarly conference on Pseudepigraphy in Antiquity; most of the presenters will be giving papers in French (hopefully we'll have written versions for those of us who can't pick up the nuances well orally), mine will be in English.  I'll be saying more about it anon on the blog -- the work on the paper is getting me back into the question of ancient forgery, the practice of writing a book falsely claiming to be some other [famous] person, and whether it was generally seen as a deceitful practice.  I'm firmly convinced it was -- other scholars in the field refuse to think so -- and whether "forgery" is the right term for it or is too loaded. In any event, I haven't worked rigorously in this field for ten years, and so am catching up in my reading.  As it turns out, today on the blog I was going to post on the *second* time in [...]

2020-04-11T15:49:41-04:00August 26th, 2019|Book Discussions, Forgery in Antiquity|

Writing Scholarly and Popular Books on the Same Topic

As many of you know, I am now working on a scholarly monograph dealing with an aspect of the afterlife, on the heels of having written a "trade" book (that is, for popular audiences) on the topic more broadly.  The trade book is coming out in March, and will be called Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife; I am nearly finished researching the scholarly book -- it'll take another month or two -- and then hope to have it written by the late spring.  It always takes much longer to write the scholarly than the trade books.  Lots of foonotes, among other things!   I don't know what the monograph will be called: for now I'm calling it Otherworldly Journeys: Katabasis in the Early Christian Tradition.  I doubt if my publisher will let me use "katabasis" in the title, but we'll see. About five years ago I reflected on what it meant to write both popular and scholarly books on the same topic.  I've done it three times before in my career, and five years [...]

2020-04-02T14:45:31-04:00August 25th, 2019|Book Discussions|

Does Isaiah 53 Predict Jesus’ Suffering and Death or Has Isaiah 53 Been Debunked?

Isaiah 53 is the ONE passage, above all others, that has been used over the centuries by Christians to be a prediction that the messiah will suffer and die for the sake of others.  Every semester my students quote the passage to me and say "SEE!  Jesus really *is* the messiah predicted by Scripture, centuries before he came!" I have been talking about how the view of a future resurrection of the body came from.  This idea, that we would live forever in our bodies (if we were among the "righteous") was repugnant to just about everyone  in the ancient world.  But it became a widely held view among Jews, and was taken up with passion by the early Christians.  These Christians appealed to the Jewish Bible for support of their view, even though "resurrection" is actually only clearly taught in one passage (Daniel 12:1-3). But they found other passages they claimed were relevant for the idea of resurrection.  And most strikingly, they turned to Isaiah 53.  Why do I call that striking?  Because it [...]

2023-03-14T15:55:27-04:00August 23rd, 2019|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Historical Jesus|

An Opening for the Blog Dinner NYC August 27

We have had a cancellation for the blog dinner scheduled for 7:00 pm in NYC (Midtown), this coming Tuesday (August 27).  So we have one more seat at the table.  Anyone interested?   If so, email me at [email protected]    Only requirements for attendance: you be a member of the blog, you get there, you pay for your meal, you be interested in talking to us!

2019-08-22T08:13:35-04:00August 22nd, 2019|Public Forum|

Does Your Soul Go To Heaven?

In my previous post I discussed the beginnings of the Jewish idea of the “resurrection of the dead.”  This view is a pretty much commonplace today: in every Christian church that recites a creed today, and in many conservative churches that do not use creeds, it is believed that at the end of time there will be some kind of judgment and people will be raised from the dead. At the same time, I have to be frank and say that it seems to me that most Christians – at least the ones I know (not just scholars, but most Christians) – don’t actually *believe* in a future resurrection.  They think they die and go to heaven in their souls.  Their souls may have some kind of physical attributes: they have all their sense of hearing, seeing, etc., and they can be recognized as who they were so you’ll be able to see your grandmother there.  It’s true, even this has always caused problems for people who hold the idea.  Which of my many bodies [...]

2020-04-02T14:46:28-04:00August 21st, 2019|Afterlife, Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

An Alternative View of Suffering and the Idea of Resurrection

In yesterday’s post I was explaining why I do not think we need to point to Zoroastrianism as the source or reason for the views of “the resurrection from the dead” emerged within Judaism.   This view could have arisen within Judaism itself, because of some internal dynamics.  Here in this post I explain how it may have happened. I begin where I ended yesterday: in ancient Israel, as up to today, there have been people who think that the reason they suffer is because they have sinned and God is punishing them for it.   Suffering comes from God, to penalize his people for not living as they should.   This is sometimes called the “prophetic” or the “classical” view of suffering, because it was the view wide advanced by the Hebrew prophets in the Bible. Most people today, of course, realize it is never that simple.   Do we really want to say that birth defects, the death of a child, Alzheimer’s, or any of the other mind-numbing forms of suffering in extremis are punishments from God [...]

2020-04-02T14:46:35-04:00August 20th, 2019|Afterlife, Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Resurrection from the Dead: Were Jews Influenced by Zoroastrianism?

I often get asked if ancient Judaism was influenced by Zoroastrianism or other kinds of Persian thought – especially when it comes to the specific doctrine of the “resurrection of the dead” and, more generally, the whole category of “apocalyptic thought.”  I used to think so!  Now I’m not so sure.  At all. I’ve talked about apocalypticism and resurrection on the blog before.  Here I’ll discuss where these ideas came from, before, explaining more fully what they ended up looking like.  This discussion is taken from an early draft of my forthcoming book Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. ********************************************************* After the period of the classical prophets, Jewish thinkers came to imagine that in fact there would be life for the individual who had died.  For them, there was a possibility of life beyond the grave – real, full, and abundant life.  But in the original Jewish conception, unlike widespread Christian views today, the afterlife was not a glorious eternity lived in the soul in heaven or a tormented existence in hell, attained [...]

2020-04-02T14:46:42-04:00August 19th, 2019|Afterlife, Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Learning New Things

I am constantly awed by some fellow scholars,who have not just enormous range of knowledge about so many things but also an inordinate, almost insatiable curiosity.   There aren’t many people like that, but I know some.   At the same time I am regularly puzzled by people who simply have no curiosity about much of anything, who have strong opinions about lots and actual knowledge about little, who just don’t have any real curiosity or drive to find answers to anything. I’m not talking about the BIG questions of life (Why are we here? What is the purpose of it all?  What should I be doing with my life? Etc. etc.) – although I do find it odd that so many people just don’t think about them.  But here I’m talking about knowledge in general.  People simply prefer to sludge through life without looking into anything beyond the headlines, without reading books, without finding anything worth looking into. I suppose I too was raised that way and was that way for the early part of my [...]

2019-08-18T05:27:57-04:00August 18th, 2019|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

Blog Dinner for NYC Full!

I am pleased  to say that the table for the blog dinner in NYC for August 27 is now full.  At this point I will start a waiting list, in the event that someone backs out, as often happens.   So let me know if you want to be on it. And as other opportunities come up, I'll be sure to post them.

2020-04-02T14:46:50-04:00August 16th, 2019|Public Forum|

Join Me In Egypt? Tour in October 2020!

  I am (very) happy to announce that I will be giving lectures on a tour to Egypt on October 16-29, 2020.  It's not too early to start planning!  On the contrary: the trip hasn't been seriously advertised yet, and already four people have signed up! The trip is sponsored by the University of North Carolina General Alumni Association, BUT -- big point here! -- you do not need to be an alumna/alumnus to come.   It's going to be a terrific trip.  The final brochure is not ready yet, but you can get the itinerary already from the company putting it on, Orbridge, at:  (Highlights below) It's spectacular.  I've done a number of these sites before (Cairo, Pyramids, Luxor, Valley of the Kingd, Karnak Temple, and on and on), BUT, this time we're doing something I've never done before and always wanted to:  a four-day cruise down the Nile.  How good can it get??? If you want to get more info, call the UNC Alumni office at 877.962.3980, and/or check out their travel website. [...]

2019-08-16T07:44:26-04:00August 16th, 2019|Public Forum|

Do You Need a Free Membership?

Thanks to the incredible ongoing generosity of members of the blog, I am happy to announce that there are still some 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 (why you would like to take advantage of this offer) and provide me with the following information: 1)      Your first and last name. 2)      Your preferred personal email. 3)      Your preferred user name (no spaces). 4)      Your preferred password (should be 8 or more characters, no spaces).   The donors will remain anonymous, but here let me publicly extend my heartfelt thanks for such [...]

2019-08-16T07:27:24-04:00August 16th, 2019|Public Forum|

How Views of the Afterlife Changed

I’ve been explaining how the tours to heaven and hell – both of them Near Death Experiences – in the Acts of Thomas are meant to show the Christian alternatives to Greek and Roman views of the afterlife.   For early Christians it would not be a dull and boring, powerless and mindless existence for all eternity, as it is depicted in the oldest Greek sources, and it would not require hundreds of years of “purging” where the stains of wickedness are washed out through painful cleansing (e.g., through being thrust into fire or a violent whirlpool for centuries), as in Plato and Virgil.  It would be eternal joy or eternal punishment, one or the other, depending on whether you believed in Christ or not. Christians thus provided the ultimate and rather simply answer for life to the ultimate question about death.  But even here there was more than a simple binary (one or the other).  The punishments in hell in the Acts of Thomas for example, appear to be graded in order to be commensurate [...]

2020-04-02T14:46:57-04:00August 14th, 2019|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha|

Who Has The Answer For a Happy Afterlife?

A few days ago I gave the opening part of the paper I read at a conference of New Testament scholars a couple of weeks ago, on the accounts of the afterlife in the Christian apocryphal book called Acts of Thomas (an account of Thomas’s missionary adventures in India), one of them involving a near death experienced that revealed the glories of heaven and the other a near death experience of the horrors of hell. Most of the paper involved contrasting those two visions with comparable journeys to the underworld in earlier, more famous accounts, Homer’s description of Odysseus’s vision of the underworld in Odyssey book 11; Plato’s account of the near death experience of a soldier named Er in the Republic book 10; and Virgil’s discussion of Aeneas’s travels to the realms below in the Aeneid book 6. I don’t need to describe these other accounts in detail here, since I’ve talked about them already on the blog some months ago; if you want to refresh your memory, they are here: [...]

2020-04-02T14:47:03-04:00August 13th, 2019|Afterlife, Book Discussions|

Last Minute (well, sort of): Another Blog Dinner Option. NYC, August 27

OK, this is a bit unexpected.  But I'm going to be in New York (Midtown Manhattan) for a few days (that part was expected) and it turns out I'll have an evening free, August 27.  And so if anyone's interested I can do a blog dinner.  Given the location, it might be kind of pricey, but ... well, if you're interested, wanna come? As per my custom:  the table will be limited to eight, of which I will be one.  That means seven spots are available.  First come first served:  please do NOT response here on the blog, but send me a private email, at [email protected]. No agenda from my end, other than simply to have some of us to have a chance to meet and talk about matters of mutual interest. The only requirements for attendance to the dinner are that (a) you are a blog member; (b) you pay your own way – both getting to the event and your meal itself.  Otherwise, there is no expense and no requirement.   You don’t even [...]

2019-08-12T12:23:12-04:00August 12th, 2019|Public Forum|

An Ancient Author Trying to Justify His Deceit

Yesterday I talked about one Christian forger who got caught red handed who had to explain himself.  Well, justify himself.  Well, bend over backwards to make himself look innocent.  We've been seeing a lot of that these days.  It goes way back.  Humans are humans. Here is my assessment of the situation, not in terms of our own front-page news but in terms of this obscure little controversy, which highlights my obscure little academic point: in the ancient world, readers simply did not *like* it when they found out someone had written a book claiming to a be a famous person.  They condemned it.  That should be borne in mine when thinking of other instances of the phenomenon, such as those found in far more familiar books from the early Christian tradition.  (And this is the point the riles a number of my scholar friends, who just can't *believe* ancient authors would do something deceitful....) I'll start this post with a bit from the end of the previous one, to remind you about it.  If [...]

2020-04-11T17:12:17-04:00August 12th, 2019|Bart's Critics, Christian Apocrypha, Forgery in Antiquity|

A Christian Forger Caught in the Act

Next month I will be giving a keynote address at a conference dealing with ancient pseudepigrapha at the University of Laval, in Quebec City.  I have recently been discussing the topic (of ancient authors falsely claiming to be a famous person) on the blog in relation to the letter of James, and as you know, it was the subject of my monography Forgery and Counterforgery ten years ago, and my spin-off popular account Forged.   I haven't worked seriously on the problem since then. But now, because of this upcoming lecture, I'm having to think about it long and hard again, a decade later.  Lots of scholars simply don't (or can't?) believe that ancient people -- especially Christians, but others as well -- would lie about their identities.  It's not that these scholars doubt that there are lots and lots of pseudepigrapha out there, Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian.  There are.  But these scholars don't think that the authors were doing anything duplicitous. There are different ways scholars have made this argument, but the basic line [...]

Blog Dinner in D.C.: Full!

I am pleased and regret (at the same time) to say that the table for the blog dinner in D.C. in September is now full.  I have a waiting list that I have started, and have notified everyone who contacted me (both those at the table and those on the waiting list.) But I'll be doing others this coming year in a few other places!  Hopefully others can come to these

2019-08-09T11:49:46-04:00August 9th, 2019|Public Forum|

Who Is The Enemy?

This will be a very personal post, about being an enemy of the Christian faith. I’ve long been amazed, surprised, and perplexed about how, when it comes to religion, comments made in one context are completely non-problematic but when the (exact) same comments are made in another context, they are heinous and threatening.   Some of it almost certainly has to do with tone and general attitude.  But I wonder if it isn’t actually much broader than that. One of the ways I’ve seen this over the years is in the use of humor.  When I was a conservative evangelical Christian at Moody Bible Institute there were all sorts of jokes we would tell about the faith or about our commitments or communities:  just about Moody, we would call it Moody Instant Bibletute; or say we went to Moody, where Bible is our middle name.  Or someone would say (with respect to the view that the “rapture” would occur prior to, not after, the millennium – something we were very big on indeed!) that he was [...]

2019-08-09T03:53:49-04:00August 9th, 2019|Reflections and Ruminations, Teaching Christianity|
Go to Top