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Blog Year in Review, 2019!

We are at the end of yet another year and I would like to take the occasion to reflect on the blog, how we’ve been doing and where we’re going, now on the cusp of 2020.   (Yikes.  Already?) The blog has been doing extremely well.  When I started this venture in April 2012, I had no clue what I was getting into, what it would take, and what it would give.   It is taking more and giving way more than I anticipated at the time. I have always had two principal goals, very different from each other but both vitally important, the raisons d’être of the blog.   The first, of course, is to disseminate serious critical knowledge about the New Testament and early Christianity to a wider public. It is amazing how much bad and simply wrong information is out there on the Internet.  Especially on topics pertaining to religion.  In particular the religion that most people in the western world – those who subscribe to a religion -- happen to subscribe to.  A lot [...]

2019-12-31T04:30:44-05:00December 31st, 2019|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Case Against Miracles: Guest Post by John Loftus

A week ago Michael Shermer posted his Foreword to the new book The Case Against Miracles, edited by John W. Loftus.  The book is a collection of essays by various authors who all make arguments that what we think of as miracles -- that is (as they understand it) supernatural interventions in the natural world (not just weird things that happen) -- cannot be shown ever to have happened, and so should not be believed.  John himself has now provided us with an introduction to the volume to describe what it tries to achieve, given below.  As you will see, he lends his whole-hearted support to the views most famously advanced by the great 18th century philosopher David Hume. He and some other contributors think Hume's arguments have not been refuted. So, what do you think? - John Loftus is the author of Why I Rejected Christianity: A Former Apologist Explains, and The End of Christianity.   *********************************************** Introducing “The Case against Miracles” by John W. Loftus. This new anthology is about miracles and why [...]

2021-02-03T23:23:30-05:00December 30th, 2019|Book Discussions|

End of the Year Final Exam!

We are near the end of the year.  What better time for a final exam? In my classes I normally give essay exams -- they are by far the best way to find out how much a student actually knows (as opposed to testing them for what they don't know) and how well s/he can express thoughts in writing and develop an argument. I've pulled out an exam that I once gave to my students in a class called Jesus in Scholarship and Film.  It's a terrifically interesting course: we examine ancient Gospels, mainly but not exclusively the ones in the New Testament, to see what each of them is trying to teach about the life, teaching, and meaning of Jesus; then we use the Gospels as historical sources to see what we can say about the actual man himself, the life and teaching of the historical Jesus; and then we look at modern films to see how *they* portray Jesus in light of what we've already learned (e.g. Infancy and Crucifixion narratives in Ben [...]

2020-04-02T14:32:26-04:00December 29th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus, Teaching Christianity|

The Life and Message of Paul

I return now to the next portion of a longer post I’m composing on the New Testament, a general survey in what is now looking like 10,000 words or so?  My most recent segment was an explanation of what we can know about the life and teaching of Jesus:   This one is a corollary: what we can know about the life and message of Paul. Next to Jesus himself, Paul was the most important figure in the entire history of Christianity. Nearly half the books of the New Testament claim to be written by him; one other book (Acts) is largely written about him.  More than anyone else we know of, he was responsible for the spread of Christianity through much of the Mediterranean world.  And perhaps most important, he significantly developed the theological understanding of the significance of Jesus.  For Paul, far less important than Jesus’ earthly life and teaching were his death and resurrection, which were God’s means of salvation to the world.  It may be too extreme to say that Paul [...]

2022-03-03T14:37:28-05:00December 28th, 2019|Acts of the Apostles, Paul and His Letters|

Why Does Matthew Have the Story of the “Wise Men”?

QUESTION: My Bible group had a good time yesterday comparing Matthew and Luke's accounts of the Christmas story. One question that came up was why would Matthew relate the story of the Magi?   RESPONSE Ah, it’s a great question and – as it turns out – an important one for understanding the Gospel of Matthew.   The story is found only in this Gospel (But this time of year, who can keep ones mind from jumping to:  “We Three Kings of Orient Are….”), and it is  filled with intriguing conundra. For example, why would pagan astrologers from the East be interested in knowing where the King of Israel was born and come to worship him?  Were they doing this for all babies who were bound to become kings of foreign countries?  How does a star lead them to Jerusalem and then disappear and then reappear and lead the Magi not just to Bethlehem but stop over a *house*?  How does a star stop over a house?  If Herod really sent out the troops to kill [...]

2020-04-02T14:32:40-04:00December 26th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Christmas 2019

For a long time now I’ve had ambivalent feelings toward Christmas.   Some of my blog posts from years past on the day and its meaning have very much celebrated its great sides (you can just search for “Christmas” on the blog and you’ll see them).  But I’ve long seen the downsides as well, frequently discussed among people we know and know about and more frequently felt even when not discussed.   I still see these down sides – one above all -- in some ways more and more every year.  But I’ve begun to wonder if at least there might not be *something* good that can come out of them.  Or at least a couple of them. The one for which I think there is no real hope is the severe loneliness and depression the season causes for so many people.   It is a fraught time, when everyone else seems to be enjoying family, friends, and festivities, but so many have no one and nothing to look forward to, or horrible experiences with the holiday in [...]

2019-12-25T05:15:30-05:00December 25th, 2019|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

More on the Case Against Miracles: Michael Shermer Guest Post

This is the second guest post by Michael Shermer, from his Foreword to the new book edited by John Loftus, The Case Against Miracles. (For the first, see yesterday's post)  Michael is on the blog and is happy to respond to comments you have. - Michael Shermer is the author of The Science of Good & Evil and Why People Believe Weird Things, among other works. ********************************************************************* When we are thinking about miracles, as with anything else that happens in the world, what we are after is a causal explanation, and here John Loftus cuts to the chase when he cites my friend and colleague David Kyle Johnson’s definition of a miracle—winnowed-down from Hume—as “A miracle is simply an event caused by God.” As Johnson explains, “For any given event, if we knew that God took special care to cause it, we would (and should) call that event a miracle—regardless of whether it involved the violation of natural law.” However, it is important to distinguish this from something that appears divinely-caused but was, in fact, simply [...]

2021-02-03T23:29:59-05:00December 23rd, 2019|Book Discussions, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Case Against Miracles

I recently learned of a new book that has come out arguing *against* the idea that miracles happen.  It is a collection of essays edited by John Loftus, an interesting who in some has had a similar faith trajectory as I: started as a very conservative evangelical, studied at evangelical schools, and ended up leaving the faith and becoming an atheist.  Among other things, for one of his master's degree he studied with the evangelical philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig, whom some of you have heard of. The book is called The Case Against Miracles, and I thought it would be interesting to see some bits of it here on the blog.  As you know, I like to have a variety of points of view represented here, most recently Mike Licona, who is the author of the popular book Evidence of God, and whose views of miracles, I think it is safe to say, is almost precisely the *opposite* of John's. The next two posts will be the Foreword of the book written by Michael [...]

2021-02-03T23:31:00-05:00December 22nd, 2019|Book Discussions, Reflections and Ruminations|

Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell in a Christian Mode

I've started a short thread describing the academic monograph I've started writing, Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell: Otherworldly Journeys in the Early Christian Tradition..  In my last post I describe  two o the most important forerunners of the tradition, the Greek Homer (Odyssey 11) and Roman Virgil (Aeneid 6) -- flat out fascinating texts that I've become obsessed with.  The Christian versions are similar in ways but also profoundly different.   Here is what I say about them in these reflections on my book-in-progress, written to help me clarify to myself where it's heading, how it will be structures, and why I think it matters. I start here by repeating the very end of the previous post to stir up your memory! ************************************************************** The account of the underworld in Virgil does more philosophical work than its predecessor, Homer's Odyssey, showing not merely that life should be prolonged, but that it must be lived properly (ethically and/or philosophically).    Virgil’s account is often read as potentially hopeful – there is the chance of eternal reward for upright [...]

2020-04-02T14:32:55-04:00December 21st, 2019|Afterlife, Book Discussions|

Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell: My Scholarly Book

I mentioned that I have started writing my academic book on the early Christian versions of the guided tours of heaven and hell.  This will be very different from the trade book coming out in March -- an full eight-chapter scholarly analysis of material that I cover in a very brief overview fashion in one chapter of the trade book. As I've mentioned on the blog before, when I get to certain points of my work on a book, I like to produce for myself an account of what it is, where it's going, how it will be organized, and so on.   Now that I'm getting down to actually writing this thing after doing the research for it, I've started drafting up my summary of it, to emphasize its interest and importance, and to explain to myself how I'm imagining it working itself out, as a whole and then chapter by chapter.  My current understanding of the book is closely related to what I started imagining it to be, nearly three years ago; but it [...]

2020-04-02T14:33:02-04:00December 19th, 2019|Afterlife, Book Discussions|

UpcomingTours, Lectures, and Book Readings

A number of my upcoming "events" have been more or less finalized (barring natural or national catastrophe, collapse, or cataclysm or, well, catabasis).   At the bottom are the currently scheduled book readings/lectures based on my forthcoming Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. Any questions about any of this, let me know.   But first: my two international venues.   APRIL 14-24, 2020 Tour to Rome!! I've mentioned this a couple of times on the blog, most recently here: This is going to be an amazing trip!   But they are ALMOST completely full.  So if you think you want to go, better contact them now.   Here is the brochure with contact information for the organizers, Thalassa Tours.   April 24-30 Lecture tour in Sweden. This has just been added to my schedule.   I will be giving talks at universities in Umeå, Stockholm, and possibly Upsala.  Are you in Sweden?  Maybe we could meet!   THEN, in OCTOBER 2020 October 16-29 Tour to Egypt, sponsored by the University of North Carolina General Alumni Association [...]

2019-12-18T09:27:27-05:00December 18th, 2019|Public Forum|

Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell: Getting into the Kernel

Here is the second and last part of my summary of the heart of my forthcoming book Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.  It's not an outline of the chapters, but a summing up of the key issues, flow, and the ultimate "point" of the book.  As a tip, I've called this little essay (in my own mind): "There Is Nothing To Fear."   ************************************************************************************************ The idea of rewards and punishments eventually found its way into Judaism as well, but not until the very end of the Old Testament period.   The book of Daniel was the final writing of the Hebrew Bible.   This fictitious account of a pious Hebrew young man, Daniel, presents an alternative Jewish understanding of the world, the nature of reality, and of life beyond, quite unlike the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Scholars have called Daniel’s view “apocalypticism,” from the Greek word “apocalypsis” – which means a “revealing.”    Jewish apocalyptic thinkers began to believe that God had “revealed” to them the truth of ultimate reality hidden from all their predecessor, [...]

2020-04-02T14:33:09-04:00December 16th, 2019|Book Discussions, Early Judaism, Historical Jesus|

Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell

Heaven and Hell. I’m excited about my next book, being published on March 31, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.   It’s already getting good reviews in the trade journals, the publications that announce which books are soon to come out and have experts review them in advance, so those booksellers, book stores, libraries, and so on know whether they want to buy them, and for booksellers and stores, in what quantities.  So that’s all good. A while back I decided to try to encapsulate the essence of the book in a short essay, a kind of 2000-word summary of what it’s all about and why it matters.   I will give it here, over the course of two posts.  Here’s the first half. Ehrman Hell & Heaven The fear of death has been among us for as long as we have had human records, from history’s oldest surviving tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the now final season of the Good Place, soon to enter its own eternal rest.  The views of these two [...]

Why Would an Agnostic-Atheist Be A Bible Scholar??

Five years ago I received this question.  I still hear it!   And I would still answer it the same way.  A question that makes a lot of sense in one way actually doesn't make a lot of sense looked at in another way.  I suppose a lot of our questions are like that....   Here is the question and response.   QUESTION:   The one thing that I do not understand about you is that you have stated you have lost your faith. That being said, how do you continue to work in your field? Have you ever wanted to redirect your academic career to study other subjects? RESPONSE:  I get this question a lot.  On one level I understand it: if I don’t believe in the Bible, why would I dedicate my life to studying it, researching about it, writing about it, and teaching about it?   From the perspective of someone who has strong feelings about the Bible – for example, as a believer who holds that the Bible is the word of God or as [...]

2020-04-02T14:33:15-04:00December 13th, 2019|Reader’s Questions, Reflections and Ruminations|

Update on My Next Book: The Joys of Academic Writing

Last weekend I escaped from all the distractions of daily life in Durham to our mountain retreat in order to write.   I’m here in solitude, Sarah is in London for the holidays.  I’ll be joining her next week.   I have all the amenities of modern life here: but no TV, no neighbors, no noise, no traffic. Writing is very hard under the best of circumstances.   But oh boy is it easier in the best of circumstances.  Most scholars find it literally impossible to write during the semester.  Just can’t do it.  You have classes.  Class preparation.  Students to meet.  Departmental meetings.  Committee meetings.  University commitments.  If you have a graduate program there is a constant flow of work: advising, scheduling, working with students on exams, directing master’s theses and PhD dissertations, helping students with pedagogy, counselling them about professionalization, reading their prospective conference papers and articles for publication, oral defenses, reading groups.  It’s a lot.   Then if you have an active speaking schedule or do other local service commitments… well not much writing gets done.  [...]

2020-04-02T14:33:26-04:00December 12th, 2019|Reflections and Ruminations|

Why Are Their Differences in the Gospels? Does it Affect Their Inspiration? Guest Post by Mike Licona

This is Mike's third and final guest post.  In the earlier post he explained his views about whether the Bible is inspired by God and is inerrant.  He thinks the answers to both are "yes," though his actual views are not what most people would probably expect.   Here now is the third, and critical post, based on the research he did for his 2017 Oxford University Press book, with the same title:  Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?    I agree with a lot of what Mike writes here.  In reading it, I'd suggest you bear in mind his earlier two posts, that he sees the Gospels as inspired and inerrant. Mike has graciously agreed to answer questions you have for him, but only for the next four days!  Otherwise this would go on forever.  And please, in your questions, do your best to keep them concise and direct, without asking multiple questions at once.  Pick the most pressing.  And I scarcely need to remind you of that verse in the Ehrman Revised Standard Version: "The [...]

2021-02-13T01:11:39-05:00December 10th, 2019|Canonical Gospels, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Do You Want (and Need) a Free Membership to the Blog? Gift Memberships 2019

Thanks to the incredible ongoing 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, please provide me with the following information: Your first and last name. Why you would like to take advantage of this offer.  I don't need or want a full account of your history or financial affairs, only an idea of why you are not able just now to purchase a membership. Country of citizenship (we're required, as a non-profit, to ask) Your preferred personal email. Your preferred user [...]

2019-12-09T10:04:30-05:00December 9th, 2019|Public Forum|

Does the New Testament Condemn “Homosexuals”?

It is commonly argued that the Bible condemns sexual “perversion” such as gay or lesbian sex.  In earlier posts I discussed the relevant passages of the Old Testament, to show that they simply cannot be used in these modern debates, since their very understandings of the phenomena are completely at odds with what people think today (including, most emphatically, the people who appeal to those passages in support of their views).  See, for example: I should stress there are lots of other activities that are condemned in the Bible all over the map, and these are never a particular emphasis of modern ethical discussion, whether in Christian circles or in society at large.  You may be able to deprive gays and lesbians of their civil rights or deny them the ability to serve in the church, based on a couple of passages (almost always misinterpreted) scattered here and there throughout the very large Bible; but what about doing the same for people who are greedy, who get angry, who disobey their parents, who eat [...]

One of the Blog’s Main Charities: Urban Ministries of Durham

As you know, the overarching purposes of the blog are (1) to communicate broadly, to a reading public, scholarship on the New Testament and Early Christianity (as opposed to most of the material you find on the Internet, which is almost entirely devotional and not based on historical scholarship) and (2) in doing so, to raise money for charity.   The latter is what keeps me going.  I absolutely love communicating with non-scholars what the scholars are finding about these fundamentally important topics.  But my ultimate passion for the blog is to help people in need.  Hence the charity aspect. As you know, every penny that comes into the blog from membership fees and from direct donations goes to the charities we support.  There are no overhead costs because I pay for the blog myself, as my own contribution. Blog members sometimes indicate they would like to have more information about what those charities are and what they actually do.   There are five that receive our support.  Three of them are local to me:  Urban Ministries [...]

2019-12-06T09:40:00-05:00December 6th, 2019|Public Forum|

An Older Manuscript Controversy about the Dead Sea Scrolls

I've been thinking about controversies over ancient Christian and Jewish manuscripts lately, in connection with the (false) claim that a First Century copy of Mark had been discovered.  Browsing around on the blog I saw that I dealt with a completely different manuscript controversy on the blog many years ago, involving the Dead Sea Scrolls. I had forgotten all about it.  This one involved a court case and jail time!   Here's what I said:   ************************************************************** A few years ago I was asked to give a speech at a museum in Raleigh NC in connection with an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls that had been long in the works and had finally become a reality. I will be the first to admit, I'm not the first person you should think of to give a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s not my field of scholarship. But the lecture was to be one of a series of lectures, and the other lecturers actually were experts, including my colleague Jodi Magness, a world-class archaeologist who [...]

2020-04-02T14:34:37-04:00December 4th, 2019|Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|
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