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Do Eyewitnesses Prove Miracles? Can They Be Faked? The Martyrdom of Polycarp

For over two hundred years scholars of antiquity have worked diligently to determine which ancient writings by pagans, Jews, and Christians were actually produced by their alleged authors and which are by authors merely claiming to be some other famous person, as well as which originally anonymous writings were wrongly ascribed to one famous author or another.  If a book is wrongly ascribed, it’s not the author’s fault.  If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not write Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that would not make these books “forgeries.”  A “forgery” is when an author intentionally takes the identity of another (famous or important) person with the intent of deceiving her or his readers.  There were lots of reasons for doing that in antiquity, and I discuss all such matters on a popular level in my book Forged (HarperOne, 2011), where by and large I focus on the writings of the New Testament (e.g., the six letters that claim to be written by Paul but appear not to have been; and also letters by Peter; [...]

Can We Take the Martyrdom of Polycarp at Face Value?

I continue here my discussion of the Martyrdom of Polycarp as found in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.  This will get in the weeds a bit, but hey, it can be good for your soul!  I've always thought that it's useful for layfolk to see how scholars in one field or another argue among themselves, and this is an example of it.  And we ain't talkin' quantum physics here.  This should be pretty accessible if you're interested in some of the complexities. Here I explain why in the past scholars doubted whether the account was authentic or not; in posts to come I'll explain reasons that I ended up finding it more compelling to think that the book is in fact a forgery. ****************************** It has long been recognized that there are problems with taking the Martyrdom of Polycarp at face value as a straightforward historical record of what actually happened to the bishop of Smyrna.   The numerous parallels to the Gospel records of Jesus’ death appear contrived in places, the account is chock-full of miraculous [...]

2023-01-22T14:32:20-05:00January 29th, 2023|Early Christian Writings (100-400 CE)|

The First Christian Martyr Text?

In my previous post I talked about a textual problem in the early Christian writing, "The Martyrdom of Polycarp."  To my surprise, I've never talked about this intriguing text on the blog before.  It's time I did! This is one of the books of the corpus I've been calling "The Apostolic Fathers," a collection of ten or eleven "proto-orthodox" authors (meaning that they attest forerunners of the views that eventually became "orthodox" -- that is, widely approved as "true").  It is our first Christian narrative fully devoted to describing a martyrdom (the martyrdom of Stephen is described in the NT in Acts 8, but it one episode in a long narrative; other martyrdoms are mentioned in Acts and Revelation, etc., but are not narrated).  This became a kind of genre within early Christian literature--accounts, many of them claiming to be by eyewitnesses, of martyrdoms. Here is how I discuss the Martyrdom of Polycarp in my Loeb edition of the Apostolic Fathers (in the Introduction to my translation of the text).  This will take two posts. [...]

2023-01-22T09:44:01-05:00January 24th, 2023|Early Christian Writings (100-400 CE)|

A Spectacular Martyrdom and an Intriguing Textual Change

Outside the New Testament there are some truly terrific early Christian writings, including accounts of early martyrs.  And sometimes we know know what the authors of these texts actually wrote, because our surviving manuscripts have differences.  Sometimes rather bizarre differences. There are lots and lots of textual variants in the various writings of the apostolic fathers.  As with the New Testament (where there are thousands more manuscripts and hundreds of thousands more variants), most of the variant readings do not matter for much.  But some of them are of real importance.  Yesterday I mentioned one in Ignatius.  Today I discuss one in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, possibly our earliest surviving Christian martyrology – that is, the first account, outside the New Testament, of a Christian being martyred for his faith.  It is a fascinating account – required reading for anyone interested in early Christianity! In the narrative, the old man Polycarp, Christian bishop of Smyrna, is tracked down and arrested by the local officials, who take him to the arena for public judgment.  When he [...]

2023-01-22T09:44:07-05:00January 23rd, 2023|Early Christian Writings (100-400 CE)|

The New Testament Ain’t the Only Text with Important Scribal Changes!

Readers of the blog will know that I've talked a lot about scribal changes in the writings of the New Testament,  making it difficult to know what the author originally wrote.  Which in turn makes it difficult to know what a translator should translate.  Which words??  The ones in this manuscript, or in that manuscript, or some other manuscript?? Sometimes people say to me "Well, if you say that about the New Testament you'd have to say that about all ancient texts!"  They say this as a rhetorical statement (even scholars have said this to me! Even New Testament scholars!!) -- as if THAT would be the most ridiculous thing you can imagine.  You can't possibly think there are problems like that with Plato, or Euripides, or Cicero!  What's wrong with you? Yeah, there ain't anything wrong with me -- at least in this respect.  Of COURSE we have the same problems with all these authors.  Often far worse than with the New Testament.  The reason (some) NT scholars  (including some NT manuscript scholars!!) don't know it is because [...]

2023-01-16T22:08:51-05:00January 22nd, 2023|Early Christian Writings (100-400 CE)|

What’s So Hard about Translating Ancient Texts?

Publishing a translation of an ancient text ain't at all like writing a book about the text. When the editor at Harvard Press asked me if I would be interested in doing a new edition of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loebs, she wasn’t offering me the opportunity then and there.  She was suggesting that I write up a prospectus that she could take to the board of the Loebs, in which I described the need for a new edition and explained how I would go about making one.  After I thought about it for a while, and got advice from my friends, I decided to go for it.  I had never (ever!) planned doing a serious translation project for publication.  I had lots of other things I wanted to write – scholarly monographs, textbooks, and so on.  But I thought it made sense to do it, both personally and professionally.  So I wrote up the prospectus and the editorial board agreed it was a task that needed to be done – and so they [...]

2023-01-10T10:26:05-05:00January 19th, 2023|Book Discussions, Early Christian Writings (100-400 CE)|

What About Translations of Other Ancient Christian Writings?

I've been talking about translations of the Bible -- especially the King James Version -- and I'd like now to move to a broader issue.  EVERY text from the ancient world needs to be translated in order to be made accessible to a modern audience.  Hey, we're not back in the 19th century when going to university meant learning Greek and Latin!  And texts even then also came from even other languages (Hebrew, Coptic, Syriac, etc.). If you're a graduate student in antiquity, you have to learn to read these texts in their original languages; you simply can't get the nuances of a text -- especially a fairly sophisticated one dealing with, say, philosophy or religion -- in translation.  And translators have to make decisions about how to translate a text.  It's not a mechanical process.  Whether you like it or not  -- most people when they learn of this don't much like it, and even more people have never learned of it -- translation is also an act of interpretation.  You have to know [...]

What about Forgeries IN the New Testament? Is it Possible?

I’ve been talking about some of the early Christian forgeries, books that Christian authors published claiming to be apostles when they were … someone else.   Could we have such things actually in the New Testament?  That is the topic I discuss in my book Forged (HarperOne: 2011).  I give extensive arguments and evidence throughout the book, but here is the opening gambit. ****************************** There are thirteen letters in the New Testament that claim to be written by Paul, including two to the Thessalonians.  In the Second Letter to the Thessalonians we find a most intriguing verse, where the author tells his readers that they are not to be led astray by a letter “as if by us” which indicates that the “day of the Lord” is almost here (2 Thess 2:2).  The author, in other words, knows of a letter in circulation claiming to be by Paul, which is not really by Paul.  This other letter allegedly teaches an idea that Paul himself opposes.  Who would create such a forged letter?  Obviously someone who wanted [...]

Forgeries in the Names of the Apostles: Some of the Most Interesting

As I pointed out in my previous posts, taken from the Preface of my book Forged (HarperOne, 2011), we still have numerous forged documents that emanated from the early church, numerous Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses (these are the four literary genres of the New Testament) all of them claiming to be written by apostles.  Many of these non-canonical books are fascinating and still worth reading.[1]  I’ve talked about a number of them on the blog before, but here it may be worthwhile to give a quick summary of some of them. Among the Gospels, for example, there is an account allegedly written by Peter, which gives a detailed narration of the resurrection.  This is striking because – most readers have never noticed this – the New Testament Gospels do not narrate the resurrection.  They do say that Jesus was buried, and they indicate that on the third day his tomb was empty; but they do not narrate the account of him actually emerging from the tomb.  There is such an account in the Gospel [...]

Can Christianity Be Seen as “Objective” Truth? Modern and Ancient Views.

In a previous post I pointed out that for over the past century modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity has been unusually focused on knowing the “objective” truths that can be “proved” about Christianity.  In recent times, some have argued evangelical Christianity has become far more focused on social and cultural issues than theological doctrines (when someone says that this is not the evangelical Christianity your grandfather knew, they are apparently talking about me….).  And I think that’s true.  But even so, apologetics is still BIG in that tradition, and it is almost always based on objective evaluation of the truth. One could argue that this evangelical obsession with religious truth was matched by the commitment to truth in the earliest years of Christianity.  Historically, this is one of the features of Christianity that made it distinctive among the religions of antiquity. Most people today don’t realize that ancient religions were almost never interested in “true beliefs.”  Pagan religions – by which I mean the polytheistic religions of the vast majority of people in the ancient [...]

The Canon of the New Testament: Why It Matters

With this post I conclude my thread on how we got the canon of the New Testament.  In the last post I began to talk about how having a canon affected the way people read the books of the New Testament.  Even though there are important *differences* among the various books, when they are all put between the same two covers, people read them as if they were all saying the same thing.  Here I pick up right before I left off…. ****************************** There are, for example, four Gospels, each presenting a different understanding of Jesus’ words and deeds.  The thirteen letters assigned to Paul contain inconsistencies and incoherencies (especially between the ones he actually wrote and those produced in his name later by others).  The alleged writings of James, Peter, John, and Jude also present distinctive messages, sometimes at odds with the others. But when all twenty-seven books were canonized into a single book, the statements of one writing came to be read in light of another, forcing readers (almost always unsuspectingly) to think [...]

When Did We Get the Final Canon of the New Testament?

I am nearing the end of this thread on the formation of the canon of the New Testament.  Rather than going into all the ins and outs of the process, I have been laying out the topics that I hope to address in a book on the matter down the road.  I say down the road because it is not the very next book I plan to write, but the one *after* the one I now plan to write.  I like to think ahead. Here I talk about when the decisions were finalized (were they?) and what the major significance of “closing” the canon was.   A Final Consensus? Many (most?) people imagine that the canon, in the end, was decided by a vote at one of the major church councils, such as the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE (as propounded by that inestimable authority, Dan Brown, in The Da Vinci Code).  But the question of the canon was not even Blog members get five posts like this every week.  Memberships start at $2.99 [...]

Why Did Christians Even Need a Canon of Scripture?

In my previous posts on how we got the canon of the New Testament I’ve discussed several books allegedly written by Peter – one that got into the New Testament (2 Peter); one that came close to getting in (the Apocalypse of Peter – the one that gives Peter’s first-hand description of heaven and hell; NOT the “Coptic” Gnostic one that I discussed last week in two posts); one that was thought by some proto-orthodox Christians (but maybe not many) as having a rightful place (the Gospel of Peter); and one that really never had much of a chance (Peter’s letter to James). I can now set forth an overview of what I plan to cover in my book on the canon – when I eventually write it -- and the conclusions I will draw under a series of interrelated rubrics.   These can be imagined as chapter divisions, to come after an introduction that explains the importance of the question of how we got the canon, how it has become such a pressing question for [...]

An Equally Strange View of the Crucifixion

Yesterday I posted about the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, which clearly differentiated between the man Jesus and the spiritual being, the Christ, who inhabited him temporarily – leaving him at his suffering and death since the divine cannot suffer and die.  That understanding of Jesus Christ is sometimes called "docetic," but strictly speaking that's not quite right.   The term docetic comes from the Greek word DOKEO which means “to seem” or “to appear.”  It refers to Christologies in which Jesus was not a real flesh-and-blood human but only “seemed” to be. In reality, what they saw, heard, and touched was a phantasm. That is not what is going on in the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter.  Here there really is a man Jesus – flesh and blood like the rest of us.  But he is indwelt by a divine being who leaves him at his death, abandoneding him to die alone on the cross.  That is similar to a docetic view, but also strikingly different.  I call it a “separationist” Christology because it separates Jesus from [...]

The OTHER Apocalypse of Peter (Stranger still…)

In a previous post I discussed the Apocalypse of Peter that was considered by a number of early Christians to be an inspired book of Scripture.   There is another early Christian book with the same name, which is differentiated from the "proto-orthodox" one I've already discussed by being normally referred to as the "Coptic Apocalypse of Peter."   It is intriguing both because it has a view of Christ completely different from what became the orthodox view (here the man Jesus and the divine Christ are actually different beings who are temporarily united up to the point of Jesus' death), and because it claims those with a different view (e.g., the view that "Christ died for the sins of the world") are the heretics! Here is how I discuss it in my book Lost Christianities: ****************************** Among the gnostic attacks on the superficiality of proto-orthodox views, none is more riveting than the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter discovered at Nag Hammadi.  This is not to be confused with the proto-orthodox Apocalypse of Peter in which Peter is given a [...]

How Could Jesus Be BOTH Divine and Human at Once? An Intriguing Ancient View

This now is my tenth and final April 18 anniversary post.  The blog started on April 18, 2012, and with this post I will finish all the previous posts from April 18.   This one, from 2021, is especially interesting for anyone intrigued by early Christian attempts to figure out who Christ was.  God?  Human?  Half of each?  Both at once?  How's *that* work??? ****************************** In this long thread on the Trinity I have been trying to explain how Christians came to the view that Jesus was God but that he was separate from God the Father – that both were God, but they were two different persons, and yet there was only one God.  I will have far less to say about the Spirit, since he/she/it got added to the mix more or less because Christ was already in it, as we will see. So far I have taken us up to the early third century, where one view had come to be widely rejected even though earlier it had been prominent: that Jesus actually [...]

Christians Who Reversed Jesus’ Teachings: Wealth is GOOD!

In this thread I’ve been giving a short history of ancient Christian views of giving to charity – a matter of real interest for the blog itself, but of bigger interest for the world at large.  Surprisingly, before Christianity started to take over the Roman world, no one apart from Jews appeared to think that the “poor” mattered enough to do much of anything to help them.  Jesus, though, as a Jew, stressed the importance of taking care of those in need.  That’s what God does and it’s what his people should do – give everything to help those without resources. After his death his followers moderated Jesus’ views and began to stress that wealth was not necessarily evil or opposed to God.  Those who had it could keep it, as long as they were generous with it when it came to helping out those who were poor, hungry, homeless, ill, and so on. Eventually Christian leaders started actually to celebrate wealth, a rather serious change in the views promoted by Jesus.  But how could [...]

You Mean Everyone (Except the Truly Destitute) Needs to Give? But How Much?

The Christians who began to say that (unlike in the Roman world) the rich ought to give to the poor did not come up with the idea themselves.  As we have seen, they were replicating (in a new form) what was found in the Hebrew Bible as taken up, as one would expect, by the historical Jesus.  But the Christians ran with the idea, and that ended up having a lasting effect on all of society and Western culture. The records of earliest Christianity are pretty clear:  everyone (not just the rich) needed to give in order to help those who were less fortunate.  According to the book of Acts, the members of the first community in Jerusalem sold everything and shared all things in common, so that no one was in need (Acts 2:43-45; 4:32-37).  This sounds like Jesus’ own vision, though whether Acts can be trusted to describe social reality soon after Jesus’ death is another question.  It is clear, however, that years later the churches of Paul, populated predominantly by those without [...]

Thomas’s Trip to India and the Problem of Wealth

Some Christian writers thought having lots of money was a very serious problem – both because it made rich folk focus on something other than spiritual realities and because it was not just or godly for some people to be loaded when others were starving. And so we have ancient Christian authors urging the wealthy to give away all their material possessions for a greater good and practice rigorous asceticism.  The “good” in this case was very different indeed from what was promoted in the broader Roman world -- where what mattered was helping with the city’s finances and assisting those of one’s own family or socio-economic class, in exchange for acquiring a higher personal status -- since for Christians involves helping the indigent.  But the personal motivation is roughly the same: it is a matter of “working out your salvation.”  That is, it is largely about one’s own well-being. Other writers, however, argued that wealth was not itself evil or necessarily a trap, an obstacle to the good and holy life.  Righteous people could [...]

What the Earliest *Christians* Thought About Wealth

So far I have been discussing why “wealth” was sometimes seen as a problem by moral philosophers in the Greek and Roman worlds.  People who either have or want to have huge amounts of money are neglecting what they really need for ultimate happiness.  And money can corrupt morals, making one greedy, rapacious, and inclined to general nastiness.  These pagan ethical discourses are written by elites, for elites, concerned for the personal welfare of the elites. Christians had different views, at least so far as we can tell from their writings.  Whereas the “problem of wealth” was occasionally discussed among pagan moral philosophers, it became a central focus of interest in parts of the Christian tradition, starting with Jesus himself.   For the historian of religions that comes as no surprise.  Jesus himself was thoroughly Jewish and there are few aspects of Jewish ethical discourse more distinctive than the repeated emphasis both that the God of Israel was the God of the poor and that his people were to care for those who were in need.  [...]

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