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The Arch-Heretic of Them All? Simon of Samaria — Guest Post From Dr. David Litwa

This now is the final guest post by David Litwa, one of the most prolific scholars of New Testament and Early Christianity over the past ten years.  David was a graduate student at Duke some years ago and took a couple of my PhD seminars over at UNC.  He is now at Boston College.  (See:  M. David Litwa - School of Theology and Ministry - Boston College ( All of these posts are tantalizing introductions to (three different) books he has written for a general audience.  This one is about one of the most infamous figures from the early church.  But is his infamy deserved?  Let us know what you think! ****************************** With Simon of Samaria, we enter the maelstrom, a Charybdis of confused and cacophonous incriminations, slanderous stories, and inimical innuendo. It seems that the man Simon existed—as much as any other figure in recorded history—but he has long since been swallowed in the abyss of myth and countermyth. Anti-Simon stories and reports begin to appear in the early to mid-second century [...]

NEW COURSE! “The Parables of Jesus” with Amy-Jill Levine

I'm really excited about this one.  Next month we will be presenting a new remote course on the Parables of Jesus, consisting of four lectures by Amy-Jill Levine.   Amy-Jill is one of the top scholars on the historical Jesus and the Gospels on the planet, and is an unusually interesting and dynamic lecturer.  If you heard her at the New Insights into the New Testament last year, or taken a Great Courses/Wondrium course with her, you'll know what I mean.  She is unusually sharp, witty, clear, engaged, challenging, and funny.  Really, they don't get any better. The Parables course will consist of four lectures over the course of two days, July 20-21, with Q&A's on each day.  They will be given before a live/remote audience (who get to ask the questions) and you can be there yourself.  If you register, you will get the video of the course itself, with additional written materials, whether you attend live or not. Below is the description of the course and information about Amy-Jill herself, as found on the [...]

2024-06-24T16:08:10-04:00June 24th, 2024|Public Forum|

Does Altruism Even Exist? Some Personal Reflections Based on a Crazy Anecdote

In my book on altruism (yet to be finished!), I'm thinking about including the following as a way to begin reflecting on the question of whether anything like "pure" altruism exists (where someone acts entirely for the sake of another with no benefit at all for the self).  Let me know your thoughts. ****************************** One might think that “altruism” is a non-problematic term.  It comes from the Latin word “alter” which means “other,"  and so refers broadly to actions that benefit someone other than oneself.  It stands in contrast with “egoism,” based on the Greek word “ego,” meaning “I” or “myself,” and therefore referring to actions that benefit oneself. That all seems simple enough: the terms differentiate between doing things for others and doing things for ourselves.  But it turns out that in practice it is difficult – possibly impossible – to establish clear boundaries between altruism and egoism.  As a result, philosophers, psychologists, and evolutionary biologists perennially debate how to understand the terms. I’ll illustrate the problem by telling a strange personal anecdote. Did [...]

2024-06-17T11:30:36-04:00June 23rd, 2024|Reflections and Ruminations|

The New Book I’m Writing About Altruism: Putting It In a Nutshell

As I've been writing my new book, tentatively called "The Invention of Altruism: How the Teachings of Jesus Transformed the Conscience of the West," I've been thinking about how I might summarize the basic argument.  Here's what I've got to this point.  I'd be happy to hear your reactions. ****************************** Most people I know are moved by news of tragedy.  A terrible earthquake, a drought, a famine, a flood, displaced people, innocent victims of military aggression, -- we feel pity for those who pointlessly suffer and sense a desire, even an obligation, to help, for example by donating to disaster relief.   Almost never do we know the people in need; they are complete strangers, often in far-off lands, whom we will never meet and possibly wouldn’t like if we did.  Yet we – at least multitudes of us – want to help. This sense of moral obligation to strangers in need is unnatural.  It is not written into the human DNA nor did it exist in the ancient roots of our Western cultural [...]

Can You Disprove the Existence of God?

Is there a way to “disprove” the existence of God?  I’m not asking what the best arguments are; I’m asking whether an argument is possible. Just now I’m on a tour of some of the Greek Islands (Andros, Naxos. Amorgas, Santorini, and Crete) giving lectures for a group of unusually interesting people from a striking range of backgrounds – doctors, psychologists, scientists, financial advisers, business owners of various kinds, and so on, most of them one-time religious, some still committed to a religious tradition, some for whom religion never has made sense. Most of the conversations we’ve been having so far are Q&A: someone asks me me about some historical/literary issue connected with the NT or early Christianity and I tell them what I know (or at least think).  But some discussion topics don’t have historical answers.  Including whether it is possibly to prove God does not exist. That particular conversation has involved how we know what we know, as opposed to how people before the modern period thought they could know what [...]

2024-06-17T12:11:12-04:00June 20th, 2024|Public Forum|

Toe-to-Toe with Evangelical New Testament Scholar Peter Williams: Can We Trust the Gospels?

I recently reposted a debate I did with Peter Williams about the signficance of textual variants for the New Testament.   It reminded me of another debate we did some five years ago, on an even more pressing question, whether the Gospels can be seen as completely trustworthy.  This one was televised.  I thought it was particularly interesting because  Peter is not a simply a Christian apologist who uses other peoples' scholarship to promote his religious beliefs; he himself is a bona fide scholar with a PhD from Cambridge, and one of the leading experts on the ancient Syriac version of the New Testament. Peter has been a friend for a long time, and is also a committed evangelical Christian who does not believe there are mistakes in the Gospels.  I *so* disagree with that.  Our debate was on the Christian Radio program "Unbelievable" under their new series "The Big Conversation" Season 2-Episode 3, hosted by Justin Brierley. It was a long and interesting debate.  Peter has written Can We Trust the Gospels? and C S [...]

2024-06-08T16:17:45-04:00June 19th, 2024|Bart's Debates, Canonical Gospels|

An Early Christian Advocate of Licentious Living? Carpocrates — Guest Post by Dr. David Litwa

Here now is a second post on a, well, rather unusual and widely unknown Christian group, by guest blogger David Litwa, one of the most prolific scholars of New Testament and Early Christianity over the past ten years.  David was a graduate student at Duke some years ago and took a couple of my PhD seminars over at UNC.  He is now at Boston College.  (See:  M. David Litwa - School of Theology and Ministry - Boston College ( Each of these posts is a tantalizing introduction to a (different) book he has written for a general audience. In this one he deals with a group, and its leader, with a steamy but, he argues, completely undeserved bad reputation in early Christianity.  Let us know what you think! ****************************** Who was Carpocrates? Most early Christian writers depicted him as the founder of a licentious cult, a magician, and a practitioner of “pagan” rites. They said that his followers practiced indiscriminate sex at their communal dinners. Carpocrates, said his opponents, demanded that his followers engage in [...]

June Gold Q&A: Whaddya Wanna Know?

Gold and Platinum members, Time again for our monthly Gold Q&A. Is there something in the New Testament that puzzles you or doesn't make sense (imagine that!)? Put it in a (short, to-the-point) question and send it to Diane at  [email protected]. DEADLINE: Please get your question in by Thursday next week (06/24/2024) at midnight (whenever midnight is in your time zone).  

2024-04-09T14:39:53-04:00June 17th, 2024|Public Forum|

Platinums! Time to Upvote a Platinum Post!

It's time again for Platinum members to vote for a Platinum post to be published to the whole blog (exciting!). Here are links to the posts, in case you want to refresh your memory--then vote! Does God Have Chromosomes? by Doug Wadeson, MD Atonement Doctrine by Manuel Fiadeiro Did People Have Time for Jesus? by Doug Wadeson, MD Could Moses be Thutmose, the Overseer of the Borderlands? by Serene

2024-06-11T10:57:52-04:00June 17th, 2024|Public Forum|

A Debate with Peter Williams on Textual Variants

To put an end to this thread on the textual variants of the New Testament, and whether they matter, and thought that it might be good to give an alternative perspective that I first posted, well, ten years ago.  Earlier than that, on January 3rd, 2009,  Peter J. Williams and I appeared as guests on  "Unbelievable," a weekly program on UK Premier Christian Radio, moderated by Justin Brierley.   For this show we discussed my book "Misquoting Jesus" (In the UK the book, for some reason, is titled is "Whose Word Is It?"). Peter Williams is a British evangelical Christian scholar -- a very smart one, who knows a *lot* about the manuscripts of the NT -- who believes in the reliability of the New Testament and that thinks that my position is too pessimistic and extreme.  He did his PhD at Cambridge.  Peter is the author of Can We Trust the Gospels? and C S Lewis vs the New Atheists. Here's our back and forth.  See what you think! Please adjust gear icon for 720p High-Definition: [...]

2024-06-13T00:34:09-04:00June 16th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum, Video Media|

Why Textual Variants Matter Even for Those Who Do NOT Think the Bible is Infallible

In this thread I am discussing why it matters that there are so many variants in our surviving manuscripts of the New Testament.  It does not matter because there are any “fundamental Christian doctrines” at stake, per se, but for other reasons.  As I sketched in my previous post, it should matter for anyone who believes that God gave the very words of the Bible, since the facts that we don’t *have* the original words in some cases and that in many other cases the words themselves are in doubt, should call that belief into question.  (I should point out that with the Hebrew Bible we are in MUCH worse shape in knowing what anything like the “original”  -- whatever that might be – was.  The textual situation there is really quite dire.) The second group that the variants should interest would include just about anyone -- whether scholar, student, or general reader – who is interested in knowing what the various authors of the Bible had to say about this, that, or the other [...]

2024-06-13T00:34:03-04:00June 15th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts|

Why Bible-Believing Christians Care About Textual Variants

In my previous post I began a discussion of why textual variants (that is, different wordings of the verses of the NT) found in the manuscripts might matter to someone other than a specialist who spends his or her life studying such things.  Most of the hundreds of thousands of variations are of very little importance for anything, as most people – even specialists – would admit.   Only a minority really matter.  And none of these seriously threatens any significant, traditional, Christian doctrine.   But I’ve argued that this should not be the criterion used to establish their importance.  Lots of things in life are important that have nothing to do with traditional Christian doctrines! I would say that the variations in the manuscripts of the New Testament should seem important to three groups of people.  If you’re not in one of these groups, then they probably are not all that important to you! (1)  Fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians who believe that the Bible is an inerrant or infallible revelation from God, with no mistakes [...]

2024-06-13T00:24:42-04:00June 13th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts|

If Textual Variants Don’t Change Any Key Doctrines — Then Who Cares?

I've been providing a thread on the issue of why it's so hard to know if we have an "original" text of any of the writings of the New Testament, both because some of the books are cut-and-pasted versions of earlier texts and because we don't have any of the originals of the texts but only later copies with lots of differences among them. I'll end the thread with three posts that asking why it might matter to anyone if we don't know the exact words of the New Testament.   Here's a succinct question I received on the matter a good while ago. QUESTION: How significant are these variants? I know they vary but is there anything fundamental to Christendom that would be fundamentally flawed like the virgin birth or the resurrection that does not take place in these variants that are of material value? RESPONSE: It’s a really good question.  I don’t know if this reader is a conservative Christian or has read what my conservative evangelical critics have said about this – as [...]

2024-06-08T15:50:59-04:00June 12th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts|

A Bizarre “Gnostic” Religion: The Naassenes – Guest Post by Dr. David Litwa

I'm pleased to publish three posts by guest blogger David Litwa, one of the most prolific scholars of New Testament and Early Christianity over the past ten years.  David was a graduate student at Duke some years ago and took a couple of my PhD seminars over at UNC.  He is now at Boston College.  (See:  M. David Litwa - School of Theology and Ministry - Boston College ( Each of these posts is a tantalizing introduction to a (different) book he has written for a general audience.  This one starts off with a blast!  Let us know what you think! ******************************   It is the only Christian group in antiquity to be accused of homosexual sex, of worshipping a snake, and of attending the mysteries of the Great Mother (Cybele). They worshiped God as Human, explored the Phrygian deity Attis as a manifestation of Jesus, and directly called themselves “gnostics.” They are known through a gossamer thread of tradition, a report preserved only in a worm-eaten medieval manuscript tucked away on Mount Athos, where no [...]

Serious Hypothetical (And Realistically Possible) Problems With Copies of Paul’s Letters

In trying to figure out what it even means to talk about the “original” text of Philippians (was it what Paul meant to dictate?  Was it what he did dictate, if it was different from what he intended? Was it what the scribe wrote even if it was different from what Paul dictated?  Was it what Paul corrected after he saw what the scribe incorrectly wrote?  Was it the fresh copy that the scribe made even if it was different from the corrected version Paul gave him?  What happens if in fact Philippians is two letters that have been spliced together by a later editor, as many scholars believe, rather than just one letter – is the “original” the two different letters originally sent or the spliced together version that Paul did not create but someone else did?  Etc. etc.), in trying to figure all this out, several readers have suggested that the easiest way to look at it is that the “original” of Philippians is the letter Paul sent to Philippi, whatever [...]

2024-06-04T10:35:27-04:00June 9th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts, Paul and His Letters|

Even More Snarly Problems If Paul Dictated His Letters

I have been talking about the problems in knowing what the “original” text of Philippians is.  Even with the following brief review, the comments I will be making in this post will, frankly, probably not make much sense if you do not refresh your memory from my previous two posts.   Here I will be picking up where I left off there. We have seen that knowing what the original of Philippians is complicated by the facts that: 1) The letter appears originally to have been two letters, so that it’s hard to know whether the original of each separate letter is to be the original or if the final edited version, which Paul himself did not produce, is the original; 2) Paul dictated his letters, and the scribe who wrote down his dictation would typically have made a fresh copy of the letter after Paul had made a few corrections – so which is the original: what the scribe originally wrote or the fresh copy he made after the corrections?  3) And [...]

2024-06-04T10:30:04-04:00June 8th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts, Paul and His Letters|

If Paul Dictated His Letters, How Can We Know What He Said?

I have been asked to comment on whether we can get back to the “original” text of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and I have begun to discuss the problems not just of getting *back* to the original, but also of knowing even what the original *was*.   In my previous post I pointed out the problems posed by the fact that Philippians appears to be two letters later spliced together into one.  And so the first problem is this: is the “original” copy the spliced together copy that Paul himself did not create?  Or is the “original” the product that Paul himself produced – the two letters that are not transmitted to us in manuscript form any longer, to which, therefore, we have no access (except through the version edited by someone else)? But there are more problems.   Here I’ll detail them, in sequence as they occur to me. In what I am going to be saying now, I will simplify things by assuming that – contrary to what I’ve been arguing [...]

2024-06-04T10:25:06-04:00June 6th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts, Paul and His Letters|

Is There Even Such a Thing as the “Original” Text of Philippians?

  What would it even *mean* to say that we have an "original" letter of Paul to the Philippians? In my previous two posts I began answering a series of questions asked by a reader about how we got Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  In my previous post I explained why some critical scholars maintain that the letter was originally two separate letters that have been spliced together.  That obviously makes the next question the reader asked a bit more complicated than one might otherwise imagine.  And it’s not the only complication.   Here is the reader’s next question: QUESTION:  Do you agree that the first copy of the letter written by Paul to the Philippians was also an original?  RESPONSE:  First off, my initial reaction that I gave a couple of posts ago still holds.  I’m not exactly sure what the reader is asking.  If he’s asking whether a copy of the original letter to Philippians is itself an original of Philippians, then the answer is no.  It is not the original.  It is a [...]

Is Paul’s Letter to the Philippians Actually Two Letters Cut and Spliced Together?

Could Paul's moving and powerful letter to the Philippians actually be *two* letters that were later cut and spliced together? In my previous post I answered, in short order, a series of questions that a reader had about the “original” text of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  I will now take several posts in order to address some of the questions at greater length.  Here was the first one:   QUESTION:  Would you agree that the letter written to the Philippians was an original writing of Paul? The short answer is Yes – it is one of the undisputed Pauline letters.  The longer answer is, well, complicated.  Scholars have long adduced reasons for thinking that this letter of Paul was originally *two* letters (or parts of two letters) that were later spliced together into the one letter we have today.  I explain the reasons for thinking so in my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.  Here is what I say there.  (If you want to follow the argument particularly [...]

2024-06-05T15:54:36-04:00June 4th, 2024|Paul and His Letters, Reader’s Questions|

Did Paul Have a Brain Disorder?  (And did it help him?!)  Platinum post by Douglas Wadeson MD

Have you been waiting for a controversial Platinum post?  Wait no longer.  Here is another intriguing contribution by Doug Wadeson, who applies his medical expertise to a historical question about the Apostle Paul.  What do you think? REMEMBER: If you are a Platinum member you too can send in a guest post on a topic of interest -- whatever you like connected with the Blog?  Wanna put an idea out there?  Go for it!! *********************           The apostle Paul is the most influential figure in Christianity after Jesus, and some would even argue that because Paul was so effective in fleshing out Christian doctrine about Jesus and then spreading it into the pagan world that he was even more influential than Jesus himself.  But is it possible that Paul had a brain disorder which actually facilitated his singular position in the history of Christianity?  Let’s look at certain aspects of Paul’s life. Paul did a lot of writing, particularly to friends and churches, so that we have a number of his letters preserved for us.  [...]

2024-05-29T11:10:04-04:00June 3rd, 2024|Paul and His Letters|
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