Sorting by


Greco-Roman Religions

The Gospels as Biographies

In my last post I indicated that among the different ways to study the Gospels, one is what I call the “literary-historical” approach. This approach determines the literary genre of a writing, and then sees how that genre “worked” in its own historical context (as opposed to how a similar genre make work today). The Gospels of the NT are widely seen as examples of ancient biography. So it would help to know how biographies worked in Greek and Roman antiquity. There are numerous examples of biographies from the Greco-Roman world, many of them by some of the most famous authors of the Roman literary scene, such as Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus. As I indicated in my previous post, and need to stress here, these biographies, understood in their own historical context, are different from the biographies we read today. Understanding the differences can be key to recognizing the way any particular ancient biography “worked,” including the Christian examples such as Mark (and the other Gospels). As I contrast ancient with modern biographies here, it [...]

2020-04-03T17:20:25-04:00February 17th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Male Domination in Antiquity

In this thread I’ve been laying out the view that in Paul’s own churches, women were granted places of prominence, possibly because they had been prominent at times from the very beginning, going back to the ministry of Jesus. But eventually women were silenced – as evidenced in the Pastoral epistles and the interpolation of 1 Cor. 14:35-36 by a later copyist of Paul’s letter. I continue this line of thought again by referring to the discussion of my Introduction to the NT, based on what is a broad consensus among scholars of antiquity who study such things:   So… why did the Pauline churches move to the position embraced in these later texts (wrongly assigned to Paul), restricting the roles that women could play in the churches, insisting that Christians be married, and making Christian women submit to the dictates of their husbands both at home and in the church? It would be easy enough to attribute this move simply to male chauvinism, as much alive in antiquity as it is today. But the [...]

The Divine Realm in Antiquity

Here's a draft of another key bit from my chapter 1 of How Jesus Became God ************************************************************************************************************************ From these various examples, we can see a variety of ways that divine beings could be thought to be human and that humans could be though to be divine in the ancient world.   I scarcely need to stress again that this way of looking at things stands considerably at odds with how most people understand the relationship of the human and the divine in our world, at least people who stand in the western religious tradition (Jews, Christians, Muslims).   As I have noted already, in our world it is widely thought that the divine realm is separated from the human by an immense and unbridgeable chasm.   God is one thing.  Humans are another thing.  And never the twain shall meet.   Well, almost never: in the Christian tradition they did meet once, in the person of Jesus.  And our question is how that was thought to have happened.  At the root of that thought, as I will be arguing, [...]

2020-04-03T18:42:57-04:00March 22nd, 2013|Book Discussions, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Who Is Really God?

This is how my chapter 2 of How Jesus Became God starts, in the current draft. ****************************** When I first started my teaching career in the mid 1980s I was offered an adjunct position at Rutgers University. My teaching load was three courses a semester. The tenured faculty taught three courses as well, and were, of course, considered full time. But since I was only an adjunct, my three courses were considered part time. You just have to love university administrations: since I was part time, they did not have to provide a decent salary or benefits. To make ends meet, I worked other jobs, including one at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. There was a long-term project under way there called the Princeton Epigraphy Project. It involved collecting, cataloguing, and entering onto a computer data base all of the inscriptions (writings carved on stone) in major urban centers throughout the ancient Mediterranean. These then were eventually published in separate volumes for each location. I was the research grunt for the person in [...]

Gods Who (Apparently) Become Human

I’m happy to say that I began writing my book How Jesus Became God today.  Here is a chunk from the first chapter. ************************************************************************************* Christianity arose in the Roman Empire immediately after the death of Jesus around the year 30 CE.  This empire was thoroughly infused with Greek culture – so much so that the common language of the empire, the language in fact in which the entire New Testament was written – was Greek.  And so to understand the views of the early Christians we need to situate them in their own historical and cultural context, which means in the Greek and Roman worlds.  In the next chapter I will show that even though Jews had many distinctive views of their own, in many key respects of immediate concern for our study, they shared (in their own ways) many of the views of their Roman friends and neighbors.  This is important to know because Jesus himself was a Jew, as were his immediate followers – including the ones who first proclaimed that he was [...]

2020-04-03T18:43:21-04:00March 18th, 2013|Book Discussions, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

The Divine Pyramid

In my previous posts I have been insisting that if one wants to say that “Jesus is God” according to an early Christian text, one has to ask “in what *sense*” is he God? Now is a good time for me to lay out how I understand ancient people understood the divine realm. It was very different from the way most people today – at least the people I run across – imagine the divine realm. As I pointed out earlier, people today think of God as completely Other than us humans. We are mortal and limited in every respect; he is immortal and unlimited. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere-present. We are by comparison weak, ignorant, and in one place at a time. He is infinite and eternal; we are finite and temporal. There is an unbridgeable gap between us and God. (Although in Christian theology, it is Jesus who bridges that gap by being a divine being who becomes human; in traditional theology, he did that so that we humans could then become [...]

How Jesus Became God: More Questions

In yesterday’s post I began to explain some of the problems that I had started to have with my original way of imagining this book, How Jesus Became God  (I give the original prospectus in the three posts preceding that one).  The problem I mentioned yesterday was a big one: I came to think that the proposal did not take into account fully enough the variety of Christological expressions that one finds at the same time in early Christianity, but seemed to assume that there was some kind of straight line, linear progression from a low Christology to a high one. To some extent I still think that there was a progression.  It is clear, at any rate, that the Christology embraced at the Council of Nicea was MUCH “higher” than the one found in the Gospel of Mark.   You’d have to be blind not to see the difference.  But something has to account for the fact that in our earliest source – Paul – we appear to get some kind of high Christology already, [...]

Pilate and Barabbas

I have received a number of interesting responses to my comments about Pontius Pilate, the Romans’ use of crucifixion, and the likelihood that, as a rule, Romans did not allow decent burials for the victims but left them to scavenging birds and animals -- helpless, defenseless, and in agony. A couple of people have suggested that since Pilate had the custom of releasing a prisoner to the crowds during the Passover, this would show a basic interest in placating the crowds and might suggest that he would indeed be willing to observe Jewish custom and law by removing the bodies and allowing for proper burial. This account of Pilate’s willingness is, of course, in all the Gospels (Matthew and Luke have picked it up from Mark) (it is not in the fragment of the Gospel of Peter that we have). I appreciate this comment, and I realize that there was something going on in the back of my mind that I should have put up front even before I started talking about Pilate not caring [...]

Decent Burials for Crucified Victims

In my previous post I quoted a number of ancient sources that indicated that part of the torture and humiliation of being crucified in antiquity was being left, helpless, exposed not just to the elements but to scavenging birds and other animals. These sources suggest that the normal practice was to leave the victims on the cross to be pecked and gnawed at both before and after death; in some instances there are indications that this would go on for days. And so the question naturally arises if the same thing could be expected in the case of people being crucified in Judea around the year 30 CE. As I pointed out John Dominic Crossan maintains that this was indeed the case and that Jesus corpse probably met the same fate. I used to think that was a ridiculous position to take, but now I’m not so sure. To decide the issue, one needs to consider the ancient evidence, not simply go on what your personal opinions are based on what you’ve always heard and [...]

Crucified Bodies and Scavengers

As I have indicated in earlier posts, some years ago now, New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, one of the leading scholars today discussing the historical Jesus, made the argument that rather than being properly buried, Jesus’ body may have been eaten by scavenging dogs. You can see his discussion in his popular book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. (Crossan does not believe that Jesus was physically raised from the dead; but he does consider himself to be a Christian.) At the time I thought that it was an outrageous view, and that Jesus was almost certainly buried by Joseph of Arimathea immediately upon his death. In some of my posts I have raised some reasons for doubting the Joseph of Arimathea tradition. Recently I finally got around to doing some actual research on the question. It turns out that it was widely known and accepted in antiquity that to be crucified meant to be food for scavengers. This was part of the torture (while living) and humiliation (after death). The crucified person was unable to [...]

The Need for Context

I AM NOW REVISING THE NEW TESTAMENT PORTION OF MY BIBLE INTRODUCTION, AND THOUGHT THAT SOME OF THE SECTIONS IN IT MAY BE OF BROADER INTEREST. AND SO I WILL POST A FEW OF (WHAT STRIKE ME AS) THE MORE INTERESTING PARTS HERE ON THE BLOG OVER THE NEXT WEEK OR SO. THE FOLLOWING IS HOW I BEGIN THIS SECOND SECTION. BEFORE THIS PORTION ARE AN OPENING EIGHT CHAPTERS DEVOTED TO THE HEBREW BIBLE. THEN THERE IS THIS TRANSITIONAL CHAPTER, FOLLOWED BY FIVE ON THE NT. TO GET GEARED UP FOR THE NT, I START AS FOLLOWS. THIS WILL SOUND FAMILIAR TO YOU IF YOU’VE READ SOME OF MY OTHER BOOKS ********************************************************************************************************************** Throughout our study so far we have seen why it is important to know the context of a biblical writing if we want to interpret it correctly. You cannot understand what Isaiah meant when he said that “a young woman has conceived and will bear a son, and you will call him Immanuel,” without knowing that he spoke these words in the context [...]

2020-04-03T19:23:28-04:00September 14th, 2012|Book Discussions, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

Questions on Jesus’ Language and on the Crucifixion

QUESTIONS: If Jesus could not speak Latin, he must have communicated with the Romans in Aramaic. Was it common for Romans, at least of a certain class, to speak Aramaic? If not, how could Jesus have communicated with, for example, Pontius Pilate? Perhaps through a translator? Also, are there any sources I can consult regarding my question on the crucifixion? Wikipedia does not address this issue and you yourself have stated that you believe it was a small public ceremony which coincides with what I was taught. So I would appreciate any assistance you can render in this respect.   RESPONSE: OK, two quick questions, and two quick answers. You’re right, Jesus could certainly not speak Latin -- unless you base your views of Jesus on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ; the entire movie is filmed in Aramaic, until we get to the trial before Pilate, where Jesus shifts into completely fluent Latin. What a scream. In any event, it’s clear why the Gospel according to Mel wants Jesus to be able to [...]

Ancient Secretaries (Part 1)

I have received some comments and emails about my claims about Silvanus as a secretary (or rather, NOT as a secretary) for the book of 1 Peter, and realized it would help if I could give some more detail about what we know about secretaries in the ancient world. The following is from an excursus in my forthcoming Forgery and Counterforgery; it will come in two parts, the first today and the second, hopefully, tomorrow. If you've read my book Forged, the substance of what follows will be familiar; this is the slightly more whomped up version of what I discuss there. ************************************************************************************************************************ Now that we have explored six of the Deutero-Pauline epistles, we are in a position to consider the hypothesis widely invoked by advocates of authenticity to explain how a letter allegedly by an author should differ so radically from other writings he produced. The notion that early Christian authors used secretaries who altered the writing style and contributed to the contents of a writing– thereby creating the anomalies that arouse the critics‘ [...]

Forgery and Deceived Deceivers

I mentioned in my previous blog that I am reading through the page proofs of my scholarly book Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics. And I suggested that I might give a few extracts to give some idea of what the book looks like. Much of the book is hard hitting scholarship that only inveterate philologists could love (or like). I can give a taste in later posts, if anyone's interested. But I start off on a light note, in part to get people interested (even scholars have to be interested!). I open with the following anecdote. If you've read my popular book Forged, the final part will sound familiar. This is how I would (and do) do the same bit for a more scholarly audience. (I have not included the footnotes here) ************************************************************************************************************************ Heraclides Ponticus was one of the great literati of the classical age. As a young man from aristocratic roots he left his native Pontus to study philosophy in Athens under Plato, Speusippus, and eventually, while [...]

The Sons of God and the Daughters of Men

Another tidbit from my Bible Introduction.  Old news for a lot of you, I know.  But it's fun to write this kind of thing up for college students, who have never heard of such a thing! ************************************************************************************************************************* One of the most mysterious and even bizarre stories in Genesis happens right at the beginning of the flood narrative, where we are told that the “sons of God” looked down among the human “daughters,” saw that they were beautiful, and came down and had sex with them leading to the Nephilim.  The word Nephilim means “fallen ones.”  According to Numbers 13:33, the Nephilim were giants.   So what is going on here in Genesis?  Apparently there were angelic beings (the “sons of God”) who lusted after human women, cohabited with them, and their offspring were giants.  It is at that point that God decides to destroy the world.  The situation was too weird even for him. This brief episode has parallels in other ancient mythologies.  It is common in Greek myths, for example, for one of the gods [...]

Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 8

CONTINUATION!   Ben Witherington, a conservative evangelical Christian New Testament scholar, has asked me to respond to a number of questions about my book Did Jesus Exist, especially in light of criticism I have received for it (not, for the most part, from committed Christians!).   His blog is widely read by conservative evangelicals, and he has agreed to post the questions and my answers without editing, to give his readers a sense of why I wrote the book, what I hoped to accomplish by it, and what I would like them to know about it.  He has graciously agreed to allow me to post my responses here on my blog, which, if I’m not mistaken, has a very different readership (although there is undoubtedly some overlap).   It’s a rather long set of questions and answers – over 10,000 words.   So I will post them in bits and pieces so as not to overwhelm anyone.  The Q’s are obviously his, the A’s mine. Some of Ben Witherington’s most popular books are The Jesus Quest, and The Problem with [...]

Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 7

CONTINUATION! Ben Witherington, a conservative evangelical Christian New Testament scholar, has asked me to respond to a number of questions about my book Did Jesus Exist, especially in light of criticism I have received for it (not, for the most part, from committed Christians!). His blog is widely read by conservative evangelicals, and he has agreed to post the questions and my answers without editing, to give his readers a sense of why I wrote the book, what I hoped to accomplish by it, and what I would like them to know about it. He has graciously agreed to allow me to post my responses here on my blog, which, if I’m not mistaken, has a very different readership (although there is undoubtedly some overlap). It’s a rather long set of questions and answers – over 10,000 words. So I will post them in bits and pieces so as not to overwhelm anyone. The Q’s are obviously his, the A’s mine. Some of Ben Witherington’s most popular books are The Jesus Quest, and The Problem [...]

Why Did Christianity Succeed?

QUESTION: What I have been wondering lately is "why" did Christianity win out. There seemed to be much competition in the ancient world between the pagan polytheisms and monotheistic religions. Competition not only between the Jewish religion and Christian religion but within Christianity. I would be interested in why you think the current version of Christianity won out. Was it purely a matter of cultural evolution and this form of Christianity seemed to benefit people the most, easiest to adhere to, most flexible. RESPONSE: There are actually two questions here, both of them really interesting and really important!  One is: why / how did the “orthodox” form of Christianity manage to become dominant within the religion.  I will take a stab at answering that question in a couple of days, but be forewarned: it’s not easy, especially in a 1000-word post on a blog! The other question is at least as interesting and even harder to answer: how / why did Christianity manage to become the dominant religion of the entire Roman Empire, so that [...]

Go to Top