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The Miracles of the Emperor Vespasian. A Platinum Post by Ryan Fleming

Here is a provocative and intriguing post on a topic not widely known outside the realm of Roman historians: the miracles attributed to the Emperor Vespasian (which sure sound a lot like the miracles attribued to Jesus, written in Gospels produced just at the time of or after his reign.) The post is by Platinum member Ryan Fleming.  Platinum members are allowed to write posts for other Platinum members.  It's a great perk of the highest level of blog membership!  And when we have a few in the bag, Platinum members vote for which of them can appear on the main blog. This is the current winner.  It raises a number of intriguing possibilities about this little-known set of narratives of obvious importance to understanding Jesus and the Gospels.  What do you think?   **************************** Roman historian Tacitus (56 CE to 120 CE) in The Histories, Book IV, Section 81, and Suetonius (69 CE to 122 CE) in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars wrote of miracles Vespasian performed in the temple of Serapis in [...]

2023-11-30T12:52:57-05:00November 30th, 2023|Public Forum|

Is There Any Sarcasm in the New Testament?

Every now and then someone asks me if there is any sarcasm used in the New Testament.  You would think the answer would be fairly obviously, No.  But, well, I've dealt with the issue before, and my response was Yes. Let me start by giving a definition of sarcasm.  You can find various definitions just on the Internet, but the basic idea is that sarcasm is a form of humor that used irony in order to mock another. It is difficult to identify sarcasm in ancient writings.  In fact, as you’ve probably noticed, sometimes it’s hard to know if someone is being sarcastic when they are speaking directly to our face.  The way we typically detect sarcasm is by the context of the comment and the non-verbal signs given – the facial expression, for example, or the tone of voice used and the words orally emphasized.  You have none of that for the writings of the New Testament – only a bit of information about context (inferred from the text itself) and no non-verbal signs.  [...]

2023-11-27T20:55:16-05:00November 29th, 2023|Paul and His Letters, Reflections and Ruminations|

Was Joseph the Actual Father of Jesus? Announcing a Special Online Christmas Course

I'm pleased to announce that I will be doing a special event this Christmas season, a two-lecture online course called Jesus:  The Actual Son of Joseph: Evidence From the New Testament Itself.   This is a topic I have long thought about casually but never really dug into until recently.  And when I dug, I started realizing that in fact there's a lot buried, more than I expect.  There are very good reasons for thinking that a number of the earliest sources of the New Testament (Paul, Mark, the sources of Matthew and Luke), as well as the latest (John), not only did not KNOW the tradition about Jesus being born of a virgin, but actually maintain (in some places) and suggest (in others) that he was not.  Whoa. In two lectures delivered remotely on Sunday December 10, I'll be laying the case out in full.  Obviously what someone (say the authors of the Gospels) *thought* about the circumstances of Jesus' birth (whether those who indicate his mother was a virgin and those who indicate she [...]

2023-11-26T16:15:12-05:00November 27th, 2023|Public Forum|

Do You Want to Take the Final Exam for My Course: “Birth of Christianity”?

I'm teaching  The Birth of Christianity this semester, a course that deals with the history of Christianity from right after the New Testament up to about the conversion of Constantine.  Want to take my Final Exam?   Well, I ain't gonna grade it if you do.  But here are the instructions I gave to the class so they could know what to expect -- including the ten POSSIBLE essay questions, from which I will choose two for them to answer, in essays they could take one hour (each) to write.  What do you think?  Could you nail it?   The Birth of Christianity, Reli 208 Final Exam Questions Our final exam is scheduled for Tuesday, December 12 at (gulp) 8:00 – 11:00 am in our regular classroom.  The exam will consist of ten short answer identification questions and two essays. The exam will be closed book, closed notes, and open mind. You will need to write out your answers in a blue book (bring several) with pen and ink!   Identifications The first section of [...]

2023-11-23T11:40:51-05:00November 26th, 2023|Public Forum|

An Intriguing and Unusual Demonstration of Early Christian Differences…

Nine years ago when I was discussing on the blog the topic of the current thread -- the wide diversity of early Christianity -- I took the occasion to mention a book that I had just read and found to be unusually interesting and enlightening.   It is by two Italian scholars, married to each other, who teach at the Università di Bologna: Adriana Destro, an anthropologist, and Mauro Pesce, a New Testament specialist whose teaching position is in the History of Christianity. Their book is called Il racconto e la scrittura: Introduzione alla lettura dei vangeli.  It is about all the things I am currently interested in:  the life of Jesus as recounted by his earliest followers, the oral traditions of Jesus, and the Gospels as founded on these oral traditions.  In it they develop a theory that I had never thought of before.  I’m not sure all the evidence is completely compelling, but the overall view is very interesting and very much worth thinking about.  As an anthropologist, Prof Destro looks at things in [...]

2023-11-25T15:34:52-05:00November 25th, 2023|Book Discussions, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

How Paul’s Own Writings Show the Earliest Church Was Split Over “Orthodoxy” and “Heresy”

Are Christian "heresy" (that is, "false belief") and "orthodoxy" ("right belief") products of developments within Christianity after the New Testament? Or can they be detected in the New Testament itself? I'm not asking if the New Testament literally has false teachings. As per my definitions, I'm asking whether it contains views that disagree with one another, only some of which later came to be seen as acceptable. In getting to that answer I have been discussing the views of Walter Bauer, in his classic work, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, who maintained that from the earliest of times, so far as we can tell from our surviving records, Christianity was not a single unitary thing with one set of doctrines that everyone believed (orthodoxy), except for occasional groups that sprang up as followers of false teachers who corrupted the truth that they had inherited (heresies). Instead, as far back as we can trace the history of theology, Christianity was always a widely disparate collection of various beliefs (and practices). In the struggle for [...]

How the Canon Itself Tames the Diversity of the New Testament

The writings of the New Testament do not provide good evidence that Christianity started out as an original unity, only to come to be fragmented with the passage of time into the second and third Christian centuries -- so I argued in the previous post.  Quite the contrary.  And yet having them all in the same book (between covers) does seem to readers to suggest an overarching unity.  That's what I want to talk about here. For the most part, the books of the NT are the earliest Christian writings we have, and most of the books can probably be dated to the first Christian century.  Probably not 2 Peter.  Possibly not Acts.  But the others?  Probably.  Only a couple of other Christian books are to be dated this early.  None of the other Gospels (including the Gospel of Thomas, I would say).  But 1 Clement, is usually dated to the mid 90s CE and the Didache in its final form may be from around 100 CE (they are both in the collection known as [...]

2023-11-21T14:48:19-05:00November 22nd, 2023|History of Biblical Scholarship|

But Your Own Teacher Bruce Metzger Didn’t Think That!

In my previous post, and a number of times elsewhere, I mentioned my mentor at Princeton Theological Seminary, Bruce Metzger.  Over the years I've been asked a number of times why, if he was my teacher, I don't agree with him on so many things.  Usually this comes as an accusation more than as a genuine query.  Here's a reworking of a response I gave to the issue about ten years ago. ****************************** Prof. Metzger was not just a brilliant scholar but also a deeply committed Christian, an ordained Presbyterian minister, who believed in the inspiration of the Bible and in the literal truth of the statements found in the Christian creeds, about the incarnation, the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, and so on. Behind the question are usually the unexpressed statements: he was more learned than you, he knew what you do, he was your teacher, but he disagreed with you.  What's wrong with you that you would disagree with your own teacher?? It’s a good question and it deserves a straightforward answer.  The people [...]

2023-11-21T14:48:05-05:00November 21st, 2023|Bart's Critics|

Wasn’t Early Christianity Basically Unified? Why Fret About Occasional Diversity?

I have spent three posts talking about the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” and why they are problematic; in doing so I have been explaining both the traditional view of the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy (as found, for example, in the writings of Eusebius) and the view set forth, in opposition, by Walter Bauer.   So, where do we now stand on the issue, some 90 years after Bauer’s intervention? As I indicated in my last post, there are some problems with Bauer’s analysis, but also much positive to say about it.   Conservative scholars continue to hold to a more traditional view (e.g., conservative Roman Catholic and evangelical scholars); others find it *basically* convincing, even if they would write the details up very differently from Bauer. I am very much, and rather enthusiastically, in this latter camp.  It was when I was in graduate school, as a committed evangelical myself, but as one who was moving away from my conservativism based on my detailed research into the New Testament and the history of the early Christian [...]

The Revolutionary Understanding of Orthodoxy and Heresy: An Evaluation of Bauer’s Views

In my last two posts I talked about the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity.   The standard view, held for many many centuries, goes back to the Church History  of the fourth-century church father Eusebius, who argued that orthodoxy represented the original views of Jesus and his disciples, and heresies were corruptions of that truth by willful, mean-spirited, wicked, and demon inspired teachers who wanted to lead others astray. In 1934 Walter Bauer challenged that view in his book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.   Bauer argued that in many regions of the church, the earliest known form of Christianity was one that later came to be declared a heresy.   Heresies were not, therefore, necessarily later corruptions of an original truth.  In many instances they were the oldest known kind of Christianity, in one place or another.   The form of Christianity that became dominant by the end of the third century or so was the one known particularly in Rome.   Once this Roman form of Christianity had more or less swept aside its [...]

2023-11-06T14:04:05-05:00November 18th, 2023|Public Forum|

Does God Have Chromosomes? Platinum Post by Douglas Wadeson, MD

What happens when a modern physician starts asking difficult questions of familiar biblical stories?  Here is one answer:  an intriguing post covering a topic that will not have occurred to most of us.  Let's think about how a Virgin Birth works when (now, unlike antiquity) we have a pretty good idea of how Births work in general.  If God made Mary pregnant through the spirit, what does that have to say about the nature of Jesus' at the biological level and, well, the chromosomes of God? This Platinum guest post is delivered to us courtesy of Platinum member Doug Wadeson.  You too can make a platinum post, on anything connected with the blog.  Interested?  Contact me about your idea, or just write a post and sent it on to us at [email protected] ****************************** Does God Have Chromosomes? The Christmas decorations are already in the stores, so it seems appropriate to start thinking about the Christmas story in the Bible. Dr. Ehrman has many posts discussing the technical difficulties of the two birth stories of Jesus [...]

2023-11-13T15:55:30-05:00November 17th, 2023|Public Forum|

The Most Significant Study of Christian “Heresy” in Modern Times

In my last post I started discussing the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy,” pointing out that their traditional/etymological meanings are not very helpful for historians.   “Orthodoxy” literally means the “right belief” about God, Christ, the world and so on.  That means it is a theological term about religious truth.  But historians are not theologians who can tell you what is theologically true; they are scholars who try to establish what happened in the past.  And so how can a historian, acting as a historian, say that one group of believers is right and that another is wrong? The problem with the two terms came to particular expression in a book written in 1934 by a German scholar named Walter Bauer.  The book was auf Deutsch, but its English title is Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.   For my money, this was the most important book on early Christianity written in the 20th century.  It completely revolutionized how we are to understand the theological controversies that were wracking the Christian church in its early years. If you [...]

A Fundamental Issue: Heresy and Orthodoxy in Early Christianity

I have been talking about various forms of Gnosticism and that now has led me to move into a broader discussion about early Christian "heresy" in general.  I've talked a lot about non-canonical books, and various forms of Christian belief and practice, and so on over the years, but to my surprise it's been a very long time since I addressed one of the most fundamental questions of early Christian history, the relationship of "orthodoxy" and "heresy" in early Christianity. The understanding of this relationship has long been much debated, and the debate begins with the terms themselves, which, as it turns out, are notoriously tricky. Part of the issue has to do with their literal or etymological meaning.  In terms of etymology, the word “orthodoxy” comes from two Greek terms that mean something like “correct opinion” or “right belief.”   The word “heresy” comes from a Greek word that means “choice.”   And so someone subscribes to orthodoxy if they hold to the right belief, but they hold to a heresy if they have “chosen” to [...]

2023-11-11T09:18:33-05:00November 15th, 2023|Heresy and Orthodoxy|

What’s the Best Way to Read a Non-Fiction Book?

I sometimes get asked what the best way is to read a work of non-fiction.  Well, who knows? All I can say is what I do. I've dealt with the question here on the blog a number of times. But since I'm nearing the tail end of research on my next book dealing with the ethics of Jesus in relation to the broader world at the time, and how his ethics revolutionized the ways people in the west thought about how we ought to behave, I'm reading a lot right now, and I thought I should address the question again. My practices, in fact, have not changed much over the course of my scholarly career. My approach depends entirely on what kind of book I'm reading (I'm referring to non-fiction books here, not novels) and why I'm reading it -- that is, what I want/need to get out of it. When I was in graduate school I had a friend who insisted that anyone should be able to read an entire book of scholarship [...]

2023-11-13T15:11:06-05:00November 14th, 2023|Reflections and Ruminations|

How Exactly Could the Virgin-Born Jesus Have a Twin Brother?

I have mentioned in passing that there were some early Christians who thought that one of Jesus’ brothers, Jude (or Judas: both are translations of the same Greek word), was actually a twin. Not just of anyone, but of Jesus himself. Some readers have expressed surprise in the most succinct way possible, by asking: “Huh??” I talk about the matter in a couple of my previous publications, especially when speaking about early Christian apocryphal texts that deal with the missionary exploits of the apostles after Jesus’ death. We have several of these, including an Acts of Thomas. Like the other apocryphal Acts (such as the more famous Acts of Thecla – an account of the adventures of the apostle Paul's most famous legendary convert, an upper-class woman named, obviously, Thecla), this one celebrates the virtue of celibacy and sexual renunciation, and it actually uses the idea that Jesus’ had an *identical* twin to advance its views. I’ll explain how it does that in the next post. In this one I’ll deal directly [...]

2023-11-15T10:09:18-05:00November 12th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

Could the Gospel of Thomas Be Q? Could it Be Older Than the NT Gospels?

A number of blog members over the years have asked about Thomas’s relation to the Synoptic Gospels and the famous Q source --  that is, the lost source that both Matthew and Luke used for many of their sayings of Jesus not found in Mark (called Q from the German word Quelle, which means “source”).  Here is what I say about those issues in my textbook:  The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press). ****************************** Thomas and the Q Source.  The Gospel of Thomas, with its list of the sayings of Jesus (but no narratives) reminds many scholars of the Q source. Some have maintained that Q was also composed entirely of the sayings of Jesus and that the community for whom it was written was not concerned about Jesus’ activities and experiences, including his death on the cross. If they are right, then something like Thomas’s community was already in existence prior to the writing of the New Testament Gospels. Many other scholars, on the other hand, have their [...]

2023-10-31T13:37:08-04:00November 11th, 2023|Public Forum|

What Is the Gospel of Thomas All About? And Did the Author Use the New Testament Gospels?

What is the Gospel of Thomas trying to teach?  In my previous post I gave a basic overview of the book; here I go into some more depth (not a huge amount) about what it's all about, what it's trying to teach, and whether it depended on Matthew, Mark, and Luke for its sayings. ****************************** The Overarching Message of the Book.      The meanings of many of Thomas's sayings are in no way obvious. If they were, they would not be called secret! Even though the book contains nothing like the Sethian or Valentian myths, some of the sayings do seem to reflect roughly analogous understandings of the world and the human’s place in it (see earlier posts on Gnosticism). Within the hearer is an element of the divine—a soul—that had a heavenly origin (it originated “in the place where the light came into being”). This world we live in is inferior at best, and is more appropriately thought of as a cesspool of suffering, “a corpse.” A person’s inner being (the “light” [...]

Send in your Questions! November Gold Q&A

Dear Goldies and Plats, It's time for the November Gold Q&A, where I answer your questions--or at least as try to. Send your questions to [email protected], and Diane will compile and send me the list. Get your question in by Saturday (11/11/) midnight (whenever midnight is in your time zone).  (Sorry 'bout the late notice) The questions are always interesting, but remember that shorter, more general-interest questions are more likely to be answered.   Lookin' forward to it!

2023-11-09T11:30:33-05:00November 9th, 2023|Public Forum|
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