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The Historical Jesus

Women in the World of Jesus

In my previous post I talked about the traditions that indicated that Jesus associated with women publicly during his ministry – in an attempt to use established historical criteria to know whether the prominence of women in the earliest Christian communities may have had precedence in the life of Jesus himself. What about the contextual credibility of these traditions? It is true that women were generally viewed as inferior by men in the ancient world (see below). But there *were* exceptions: philosophical schools like the Epicureans and the Cynics, for example, advocated equality for women. Of course, there were not many Epicureans or Cynics in Jesus' immediate environment of Palestine, and our limited sources suggest that women, as a rule, were generally even more restricted in that part of the empire with respect to their abilities to engage in social activities outside the home and away from the authority of their fathers or husbands. Is it credible, then, that a Jewish teacher would have encouraged and promoted such activities? We have no solid [...]

Jesus and Women

In my previous post I tried to show that women – contrary to what one might think – were quite prominent in the ministry and churches established by Paul. One naturally wonders why that might be, given the fact that women came to be silenced in later Christian traditions (continuing on in some rather notable circles today). One answer for why women played important roles in the life of the early church is that they may have played an important role in the life of the historical Jesus. As readers of this blog know, it is not an easy matter establishing what actually happened in Jesus’ life. Historians need to apply historical criteria to all of the traditions that survive about Jesus: independent attestation (if a tradition is independently attested in multiple sources, it is more likely to be authentic); dissimilarity (if a tradition cuts against the grain of what Christians would have wanted to say about Jesus, it is more likely authentic); and contextual coherence (any tradition that cannot make sense in [...]

Other “Unknown” Sayings of Jesus

Here are now some more “agrapha” (sayings of Jesus not found in any of the surviving Gospels; I say more about "agrapha" in the previous post).  These ones are found in writings of church fathers, who appear to have had access to Gospels unavailable to us, or at least to have heard non-canonical sayings of Jesus in some other way.  (You will be able to find info on each church father/writing mentioned pretty easily online) *****************************  Papias (according to Irenaeus Against Heresies 5. 33. 3-4) Thus the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, remembered hearing him say how the Lord used to teach about those times, saying: “The days are coming when vines will come forth, each with ten thousand boughs; and on a single bough will be ten thousand branches.  And indeed, on a single branch will be ten thousand shoots and on every shoot ten thousand clusters; and in every cluster will be ten thousand grapes, and every grape, when pressed, will yield twenty-five measures of wine. [...]

2024-04-04T10:07:39-04:00April 13th, 2024|Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

Ever Hear of an Agraphon? An “Unwritten” Saying of Jesus?

To my surprise, I've never talked about the "agrapha" of Jesus before on the blog.   It's about time I did!  This is an intriguing topic connected with the teachings of Jesus known to almost precisely No One!!  (I'd bet a case of fine French wine that your pastor -- if you've ever had one, in any kind of church whatsoever  -- wouldn't be able to tell you what it's all about! Welcome to the world of the insiders. Here is what I say about the agrapha (plural of agraphon) in the book I published with my colleague Zlatko Pleše, The Other Gospels (Oxford, 2014). ****************************** The term “agrapha” has traditionally been applied to a group of “unrecorded” sayings allegedly delivered by the historical Jesus.  The term is not altogether apt, since technically speaking these sayings have indeed been recorded--otherwise we would have no access to them.  And so the term is more normally taken to mean sayings of Jesus that are not found in the canonical Gospels.  Even this definition is problematic however, since it privileges [...]

2024-04-04T10:35:46-04:00April 11th, 2024|Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

Jesus and Mary Magdalene Seen Kissing??

While I'm on the "Jesus and Mary Magdalene" question (see my earlier posts), what about the claims that some (lots) of people have heard, that there is a story in a later Gospel that talk about them kissing? The later Gospel in question is the Gospel of Philip, one of the "Gnostic Gospels" discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi Egypt.  Does it actually talk about this moment (or repeated moments) of intimacy? I have a reasonably full discussion of the relevant issues in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press 2006).   In the book I put the discussion in the context of that one-time-source-for-all-things-bibical,  Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  Back 20 years ago, (nearly) everyone had read it and (most of them) thought the fictional account was, as Brown himself claimed at the outset, based on historically factual information.  Sigh....   In any event, here's what I say about it all in my book: ****************************** Some of the historical claims about the non-canonical Gospels in the Da Vinci Code have struck [...]

When Did Mary Magdalene Become a Prostitute?

Mary Magdalene has become one of the most talked about figures from the life of Jesus, even though she hardly ever shows up in the Gospel accounts about him (during his public ministry, just in one verse, total!, Luke 8:2).  (She shows up only at the crucifixion and, most important, the empty tomb). In my last post I began to explore the tradition -- not found in the New Testament -- that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  Here I pick up  the thread where I left it off. I had mentioned a number of passages that people read *AS IF* they were talking about Mary Magdalene, even though her name does not occur in them.  Here I'll show that none of these passages is about her. And then I'll explain why everyone today thinks she is a prostitute and where that idea came from.  Spoiler alert: a sixth-century Pope! Once again, this comes from my book on Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press, 2006) ****************************** None of these New Testament stories, however, deals [...]

Was Mary Magdalene a Prostitute?

It is "common knowledge" that Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a prostitute in the New Testament, but like so much "common knowledge" this view, while common, is not "knowledge."  In fact it's not true.  I get asked about this on occasion, and so I thought I should devote a couple of posts on it. I discuss most of what I think we can know in the final section of my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press, 2006) (A book I remember fondly, in part because I wrote it in a coffee shop in Wimbledon!).  In that book I devote six chapters to each of these important Christian figures, in each case explaining what we can know about them historically and then what we can know about the later legends that sprang up about them. In my introductory comments to my discussion of Mary Magdalene, I explain why she is widely thought of as a prostitute (in the popular imagination, not by scholars), even though she is not called that in [...]

Changing the Past in Light of the Present

Did people in oral cultures even care if stories were changed?  We do! We have an interest not just in story but in establishing with some kind of accuracy what actually happened in the past, whether it is about the Civil War, the assassination of JFK, or the last election.  Did people in oral cultures have a way to know the past with historical accuracy?  Did they care? Here I end this thread on what we know about how oral cultures passed along their traditions – not just their myths and customs but also the past events that affected their communities, in what Jan Vansina calls “testimonies” about the past, as shared by word of mouth in non-literate cultures.  Were they concerned to repeat the past "accurately"? Again this comes from my 2017 book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne).   ****************************** Traditions that are passed along by word of mouth in oral cultures experience massive changes not simply because people have bad memories.  That may be true as well, but even more important, as Vansina [...]

2024-02-19T18:20:56-05:00February 20th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Proof That Historical Narratives (not just myths) Constantly Change in Oral Cultures

I have been discussing some of the many problems with assuming that oral traditions are passed along intact, without significant change, in oral cultures.  In graduate school we all learned that they are and did, so that, for example, the fact that we might have a saying of Jesus or story about him in a source 50 years removed from his life isn’t really a problem.  It would have been kept intact from the beginning without being changed.  That’s how oral cultures work and always have worked. Nope.  Not true.  At least based on the hard-core research that actually examines the question.  My previous two posts have marshaled some of the evidence.  Here I continue on the theme, again in an excerpt from my 2017 book, Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne). *************************** Given these realities (that oral traditions are constantly changed when told and retold in oral cultures), as attested by numerous anthropological studies, why is it that people in literate cultures so often claim that people in past oral cultures had phenomenal memories and [...]

2024-02-09T12:03:03-05:00February 18th, 2024|Catholic Epistles, Historical Jesus|

When is “The Same” Memory/Tradition/Story Not Actually “The Same”?

Do we mean the same thing by “the same” that people in oral cultures do? Here I pick up on my discussion of oral cultures; in the previous post I talked about how Milman Parry began to study one such culture, and his discoveries were starting.  Professional memorizers/reciters would claim that various performances of the “same” tradition/account/story/song was in fact the “same” as earlier performances.  But, well, apparently not.  At least by our standards. Again, this is excerpted from my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2017). ****************************** How different could “the same” song be in different versions?  Social anthropologist Jack Goody has noted that when Milman Parry first met a singer named Avdo, he took down by dictation a lengthy song that he performed called “The Wedding of Smailagić.”  It was 12,323 lines in length.  Some years later Albert Lord met up with Avdo again, and took down a performance of “the same” song.  This time it was 8,488 lines.[1]   Parry himself observed this phenomenon.   He at one time had Avdo sing [...]

2024-02-21T11:24:26-05:00February 17th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

How Do We Know About Oral Cultures? By Starting Where You’d Never Suspect!

How do oral cultures “work”?  How do they pass along their traditions?  How accurately?  And why did scholars first get interested in the question.  Not at ALL in the way that you might think! Here’s how I discuss the matter in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2017). The Beginning of Studies of Orality:  Singers in Yugoslavia The twentieth-century study of oral cultures can be traced back to the groundbreaking work of Milman Parry (1902-35), a scholar of classics and epic poetry at Harvard, and his student Albert Lord (1912-91).   As a classicist, Parry was especially interested in the Homeric Question, which is actually a set of questions about Homer, the alleged author of the great classics the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Was there a Homer?  Were these books actually written by him?  Were the two books even written by the same person?  Even more, is each book itself a single literary composition?   Is each of them instead a collection of earlier stories that have been patched together?  Is it possible [...]

2024-02-09T12:25:13-05:00February 15th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

A Less-Expected Argument that Jesus Preached the End of All Things

In my previous posts I've given some of the arguments for thinking Jesus delivered an apocalyptic message that the end was coming soon with a divine intervention in which all the forces of evil would be destroyed and all people judged.  I’ve actually saved what I consider to be the strongest argument for last, a final coup d’grâce.  The argument is both simple and compelling.  I wish I had thought of it myself. In a nutshell, the argument is that we know beyond any reasonable doubt what happened at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and we know what happened in its aftermath.  The continuity between the two is Jesus’ public ministry itself.  This ministry began on a decidedly apocalyptic note; its aftermath continued apocalyptically.  Since Jesus is the link between the two, his message and mission, his words and deeds, must also have been apocalyptic.  That is to say, the beginning and end are the keys to the middle. Here is how I explain it in chapter 8 of my book Jesus: Apocalyptic [...]

2024-02-07T15:25:09-05:00February 4th, 2024|Historical Jesus|

How the Gospels Transformed the Apocalyptic Jesus

Contrary to the claims of the “Jesus Seminar,” Jesus is best understood as delivering an apocalyptic message – or so I began to argue in my previous post, where I explained that all the earliest Gospel sources independently record Jesus delivering apocalyptic teachings. Equally interesting, some of the most clearly apocalyptic traditions come to be “toned down” as we move further away from Jesus’ life in the 20s to Gospel materials produced near the end of the first century.  Sources closest to Jesus: apocalyptic; sources further removed in time (as the end doesn’t come) less apocalyptic.  And then non-apocalyptic.  Eventually anti-apocalyptic. I resume here with another extract from my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999). ****************************** Let me give one example.  I’ve already pointed out that Mark was our earliest Gospel and was used as a source for the Gospel of Luke (along with Q and L).  It’s a relatively simple business, then, to see how the earlier traditions of Mark fared later in the hands of Luke.  Interestingly, some [...]

2024-02-07T15:22:17-05:00February 3rd, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

The Jesus Seminar and the Non-Apocalyptic Jesus. Hey, Why Not?

I have recently received several questions more or  less out of the blue about what I think about the “Jesus Seminar” and its views of Jesus.  I looked and it appears I’ve only had one brief posting on this issue, so I thought I should say a few things, first by explaining what the question means. The Seminar was made up of a group of about fifty New Testament scholars who, in the 1980s and 1990s, met twice a year to discuss the ancient Gospels (mainly the canonical Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas) to determine which traditions about Jesus were likely to be authentic, and which, as a corollary, were likely to have been later creations of the early church as they told stories about Jesus. The members of the seminar would then vote on each tradition – after extensive, learned discussion -- and publish the results of their votes. The voting procedure proved to be controversial. The Seminar’s original raison d’être was to establish what Jesus actually said, and so they [...]

When Is Forgiveness not Forgiveness?

Does love really "mean never having to say I'm sorry"?  Is "unconditional forgiveness" possible?  Is it even Christian?  Is forgiveness itself always possible, conceivable, feasible, expected, required, helpful?  Actually, what is forgiveness? These are questions people often ask.  When they ask what Jesus thought about the matter they usually get it wrong.  And as it turns out, so did his own disciples.  So I'll be arguing in my book, tentatively titled The Origins of Altruism. Here's another extract from my sketch of the book as it looks at this point in the pre-writing stage.... ****************************** Part Four:  Interpersonal Forgiveness (ch. 6 on Greek and Roman World; ch. 7 on Jesus and his followers) Whereas “charity” is the manifestation of agapē principally to outsiders in need, “forgiveness” is its manifestation principally to those with whom one is in close contact. The importance of “forgoing anger” (a very broad and – as I’ll argue – somewhat problematic definition of forgiveness) was widely acknowledged in the Greek and Roman worlds.  But the conditions under which it was possible [...]

Love in Action: Christian Views of Charitable Giving

As I indicated in my previous post, the ethics of Christian love (and the very term used for it) differed from what could be found broadly in the Greek and Roman worlds.  This different understanding of love had concrete practical implications, especially in how early Christians understood charitable giving. That will be the next part of my book, The Origins of Altruism, as I explain here as I continue to extract from the initial sketch of the book I've written for myself. ****************************** Part Three: Charitable Giving (chs. 6, on the Greco-Roman world, and 7, on Jesus and his later followers) Since love in the teachings of Jesus and then agapē in the early Christian movement was not an emotion, connected with personal feelings or passion but a kind of disinterested activity in relation to others, including strangers, its most concrete manifestation involved providing resources for those in need. In the broader Greek and Roman worlds, virtually all the discussion of personal resources (money and goods) focused on the very wealthy.  Moral philosophy was written by elites [...]

Is Christian Love Different from Love?

One of the most talked about and least understood teachings within Christianity is the idea of love.  Do you want some evidence of the misunderstanding?  Read 1 Corinthians 13, the "love chapter," in its original context (coming between, well, 1 Corinthians 12 and 14!  A little consideration almost no one has thought about!), and then consider it in relation to the 498 times you've heard it in weddings.  I'm all for it's being read at weddings! But, uh, is Paul talking about marital bliss?  Uh, nope, not at *all*..... I am in the middle of a thread excerpting a sketch of my book (which I'm still researching; won't start writing for a while).  So far I've talked about what it's about.  Now I'm getting into some detail, by describing the book chapter by chapter -- including the opening bit about Christian ethics and the opening section that deals with love in the Christian tradition. ******************************  The book will comprise an Introduction and four main parts containing two chapters each. Introduction (ch. 1) I’ll [...]

The Fate of Jesus’ Ethics after His Death

Did Jesus' followers actually follow his teachings?  In my previous post I pointed out that Jesus had a radical ethic, a view based on the teachings of Hebrew Scripture but radicalized because of his understanding of the apocalyptic event very soon to occur with the end of history as he knew it.  As we know from history, those who expect the End soon can behave in extreme ways (sell the farm!).   Jesus' teachings, as I indicated, are, in shorthand, "prophetic ethics on apocalyptic steroids." How did his followers carry on his teachings?  That's what I deal with here, as I continue to excerpt a sketch of my book that I myself wrote for me myself (I won't start writing the book itself for some months probably.  Still have work to do).  Here I explain the book's basic plotline, theses, and organization. ****************************** The ultimate argument of my book is that after Jesus’ death, as Christianity expanded throughout the Roman world, eventually to conquer it, converts to the new faith naturally accepted and adopted [...]

The Origins of Altruism: My Next Book as It Stands Now

My book I'm working on now has gone through significant transformations since I first conceived of it a few years ago.  I am at the stage now (finally!) where I really think I know what it's going to be.  It started out as a book dealing with the history of charitable giving, morphed into a book on the broader subject of ethics as taught by Jesus, moved onto the specific question of how the Christian concept of "love" differed in significant ways from what could be found generally in the Greek and Roman worlds, shifted to add a discussion of how the Christian idea of "forgiveness" also differed fron what was found elsewhere and ... and ended up where it is now.  It is really a book about altruism in the Christian tradition and its effect on the ethical views and practices of western culture. My tentative title is:  The Origins of Altruism: How the Teachings of Jesus Transformed the Conscience of the West.  As always, I have no idea if my publisher will go with it or [...]

Nazareth in the Time of Jesus: the Archaeological Record

I have been talking about the question (which I bet never occurred to you before!) of whether there actually ever *was* a Nazareth in the days of Jesus.  Many “mythicists” who deny that Jesus existed use as part of their argument that Nazareth itself was made up.  I’ve discussed this view over two posts to show how the arguments are highly problematic, in particular those mounted by Reneé Salm based on what he claims are archaeological facts. Here I continue by showing what the archaeologists themselves have had to say about it.  This too is taken from my 2012 book Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.   ******************************   There is an even bigger problem however with Salms’s view, however.  There are numerous compelling pieces of archaeological evidence that in fact Nazareth did exist in Jesus’ day, and that like other villages and towns in that part of Galilee, it was built on the hillside, near where the later rock-cut kokh tombs were built.   For one thing, archaeologists have excavated a [...]

2023-12-24T10:44:31-05:00December 27th, 2023|Historical Jesus, Mythicism|
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