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What We Knew about the Gospel of Peter Before We Had the Gospel of Peter

This is the second of my two posts on the Gospel of Peter.  When the fragment that we now have was discovered by archaeologists in a cemetery in Egypt in 1886, it was almost immediately recognized as the Gospel of Peter, not because it had a title on it, but because it fit so well a description of the Gospel in the writings of Eusebius, the early church historian. In two places in his ten-volume history of Christianity (from Jesus to his own day around 300 CE) Eusebius mnentions the book twice as one of the writings not accepted by the church as Scripture (Church History, 3. 3. 2; 3. 25. 6).  And on one other occasion, Eusebius discusses the book at some length, in order to show why it had been excluded from consideration from the canon. The story involves Serapion, a bishop of Antioch at the end of the second century.  Based on an account he had read from Serapion’s own hand, Eusebius indicates that Serapion had first-hand knowledge of the [...]

The Two Gods of Marcion and the Forgeries in the Name of Paul

Here I continue my discussion of Marcion, the arch-heretic of the second century, whose followers forged writings in the name of Paul to support their view that the God of the Old Testament was not the God of Jesus and Paul.  Recall:  Marcion argued that the God of the Old Testament was the Jewish God who created this world, chose Israel to be his people, and then gave them his law.  He was a just, wrathful God:  not evil, just ruthlessly judicial.  The God of Jesus, on the other hand, was a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness.  This good God, superior to the God of the Jews, sent Jesus into the world in order to die for the sins of others, to save people from the wrathful God of the Old Testament.  Salvation comes, then, by believing in Jesus’ death. To prove his point, Marcion pointed out the contradictions between the Old Testament God and the God of Jesus. The God of the Old Testament sent his prophets, one of whom was Elisha.  One [...]

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 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 [...]

The Slippery Slope of Extreme DIAKRISIS (Discernment). A Platinum Post by Barry Haney

Here is a creative and imaginative Platinum guest post that explores key religious differences among various traditions in the early period of the church, through a plausible (fictional) conversation.   So, in 200 CE, a pagan, a Jew, and a Christian come into a wine bar.... These are some intriguing reflections.  What do you think? ****************************** I have a blog called, The Slippery Concept of Extreme Diakrisis. You might ask, what does diakrisis mean? Diakrisis is a Greek noun that occurs three times in the New Testament (Romans 14.1, 1 Corinthians 12:10, and Hebrews 5:14) and means distinction, explanation, discerning, or differentiation between good and bad. During my research of early Christianity, I imagined being a fly on the wall during an unlikely meeting between Bartholomew, a pagan, Serapion, a Christian, and Abraham, a Jew during the 2nd and third centuries CE, as they use the tool of diakrisis or discernment in their search for religious truth. My research led to me writing the following story, I will share with you.   The Incredible Meeting!   [...]

A Scandalous Discovery of a Scandalous Gospel?

Later scholars have sometimes claimed Morton Smith forged the Secret Gospel of Mark; he claimed he *discovered* it.  Which is it?  Here I continue with my account of how he said it all happened.  In my previous post I indicated that in 1958 Smith was catagaloguing the books of the library of the monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem, when he found a book that had a text written into its final (blank) pages.  It was allegedly a letter of Clement of Alexandria, a famous theologian and ethicist who lived and wrote around 200 CE. Smith immediately recognized that it was a letter we did not have before.  And here is how I discuss what he did next, in my book Lost Christianities (Oxford University Press, 2003). ****************************** On the spot, Smith decided to photograph the three pages that contained the handwritten copy of Clement’s letter, but chose to hold off translating the entire text until later, reasoning that if some such treasure had turned up, there might be more where that came from; given [...]

Is The Rapture in the New Testament?

This post is immediately relevant for me in two ways.  My book on Revelation has now appeared (I kept *saying* it was "coming soon"!)  AND I will be doing a lecture soon, April 15, on the idea of the "rapture," the belief that Jesus is soon to return to take his followers out of the world before the Antichrist arises and all hell breaks out on earth.  You don't wanna be here for that.  You don't want to be "Left Behind"!   The lecture is not connected with the blog per se; you can find out more about it on my website, Here, to titillate your interest on both fronts, is a bit of what I say about the rapture in ch. 1 of my book (I say much more about it in a later section): ******************************** Almost everyone today thinks that Revelation provides a blueprint of what is to happen in the near future—at least those who think about it at all. There are, of course, some holdouts, even among conservative Christians, who maintain the [...]

Wait, Was Jesus Married? Guest Post by Kyle Smith

This is now the second guest post by Kyle Smith, scholar of early Christianity, on a hot topic related to his recently published book.   Kyle is Associate Professor and Director of the History of Religions Program at the University of Toronto. An award-winning teacher, he is the author or coauthor of five books about Christian saints and martyrs, including Cult of the Dead: A Brief History of Christianity (University of California Press, 2022). You can find him on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and the Peloton @kylesmithTO. ******************************  Few characterizations of Jesus’s life have spurred as much intrigue (and outrage) as the idea that he might’ve been married. In 2012, before it was discredited as a forgery, a scrap of papyrus inscribed with a few lines of Coptic set off a media furor when reports emerged that it quoted Jesus as saying, “My wife …” Conveniently, the rest was cut off. Despite the abiding popularity of books like The Da Vinci Code, which might lead one to think otherwise, there is no scholarly debate over whether Jesus [...]

Is Christianity a Cult of the Dead? Guest Post by Kyle Smith, PhD

Now here's an intriguing topic I bet you've never thought about.  Can you (should we?) consider early Christianity -- and in fact Christianity as a whole, as a "cult of the dead"? Kyle Smith is an associate professor and director of the History of Religions program in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto (See:  Kyle Smith | Department of Historical Studies (  I have known Kyle for many years, since he was a PhD student in early Chrsitianity at Duke.  Since then he has become a well-known scholar of Christianity in late antiquity, who already now at a relatively young age (compared to us geezers) has published six books.  (Not sure if you know this, but many, many senior scholars publish only two or three for their entire careers.)  Five of them are hard-hitting scholarship.  His most recent one is for a general audience, Cult of the Dead: A Brief History of Christianity (University of California Press, 2022).  I think it's unusually interesting. I thought it would be extremely interesting to [...]

An Intriguing Anti-Jewish Variant: Did Jesus Pray “Father forgive them”?

In my previous post I pointed out that scribes appear to have changed their texts of the New Testament in ways that reflected the rising anti-Jewish sentiment of the early Christian centuries.  For me, by a wide margin, the most intriguing example of this is the prayer Jesus makes from the cross in Luke's Gospel (and nowhere else in the New Testament) "Father forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." I wrote about this passage in an article many years ago that I called  “The Text of the Gospels at the End of the Second Century,” which was reprinted in a collection of my more scholarly essays on textual criticism called Studies in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Brill, 2006; the paper was originally written for a conference in 1993) (not that I'm dating myself...) The paper was written for fellow scholars, but I’ve decided to go ahead and include it here verbatim.  BUT, I have added several explanatory comments in [brackets] for technical terms and ideas that are not the [...]

Anti-Jewish Alterations of the New Testament Writings?

In my previous post I pointed out that scribes sometimes changed the manuscripts of the New Testament in order to make them more theologically "orthodox," that is, more in line with theological views of (most of) the scribes who were copying the texts in the second and third centuries.  Five points I would like to emphasize about that phenomenon (if you want a fuller analysis, this is the topic of my study, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effects of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament). It would be a very big mistake to think that this was the main reason scribes changed their texts (as I've said my entire life, even if many people haven't noticed!) These changes were never done consistently or throughly, at least in any of our surviving manuscripts, and that suggests it was an ad hoc affair, happening now and then as a scribe decided to modify a passage.  So far as we can tell it was never done on orders from on high.  That is, [...]

Evidence of Forgery. More Reasons the Martyrdom of Polycarp Was Not Written by Someone There

In my previous post I began to lay out my case that the Martyrdom of Polycarp, our (allegedly) first full narrative account of a Christian martyr, who died 155 CE, written (allegedly) by an eyewitness, in fact was written decades later, by someone who wanted his readers to think he was an eyewitness and to that end (falsely) claimed to be one. Here I move from the intriguing fact (from the last post) that the author asserts his eyewitness authority precisely at the points that are, well, rather difficult to believe to other historical problems in the text that suggest the author was not living at the time or privy to what actually happened. Again, this is from my book Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (Oxford University Press, 2013).   *****************************   Apart from the miraculous elements of the text – which include the martyr’s blood gushing forth in such profusion as to douse the flames of his pyre, and a dove emerging from his side and flying [...]

Writing Forgeries to Show the Truth

In my previous post I pointed out a major problem that confronted the earliest Christians, as I discuss in the Preface to my book Forged  (HarperOne, 2011).  From the beginning the followers of Jesus insisted that they had the “truth” and that it was only by accepting the “truth” about God as revealed by Jesus that anyone could have salvation.  But they disagreed on what the truth was.  There were numerous widespread views already in the earliest years of Christianity about who Jesus was, what his death meant, how one was to have salvation, whether one had to keep, or begin to keep, the Jewish law, and about lots of other things. How was one to get around these problems?  The obvious answer presented itself early on in the Christian movement.  One could know what the apostles taught because they left writings behind.  These authoritative authors produced authoritative teachings.  And so, the authoritative truth could be found in the apostolic writings. Even though this might sound like a perfect solution to the problem, the solution [...]

Do Church Fathers Show What the Authors of the NT Actually Wrote?

What other resources do we have to figure out what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote, if we don't have their actual writings themselves? In this post I move into a very brief discussion of one other area of evidence for the text of the New Testament, the Patristic sources.  The term “patristic” stands for “fathers” (Latin: patres) of the church – that is, the early church authors who quoted the books of the New Testament in the course of their writings.  This too is an exceedingly thorny area of scholarly investigation, and one that I have long been deeply interested in.  It is the area that I did my PhD research and dissertation in. So here’s the deal.   As I have pointed out before, we don’t have complete manuscripts of the New Testament until the middle of the fourth century – some 300 years after the books were written.  We do have earlier fragmentary papyri manuscripts of this, that, or the other part of the NT, and for that we are all [...]

Can’t We Just Get Rid of Some of the Books of the Bible?

Here's an interesting question I received from a blog reader long ago! QUESTION: Given the criteria used to determine what would go on to constitute the New Testament canon, how is it that Hebrews and the book of Revelation remain part of the canon? I understand that Christians came to believe that they were authored by the apostles which is why they made it into the canon, but we now know that they weren't authored by Paul or why are they still in the NT?   RESPONSE: Interesting idea!   I sometimes get asked what I would exclude from the canon if given the choice, and I almost always say 1 Timothy, because of what it says about women in 2:11-15, and how the passage has been used for such horrible purposes over the years.  But, well, it ain’t gonna happen.  I don’t get a vote. And that’s the problem with Hebrews and Revelation – and all the other books that were admitted when Church Fathers (wrongly) thought they were written by apostles of Jesus [...]

Why I Want to Write a Book on Christian Love

Over the past couple of weeks I have been explaining how I have reimagined my next trade book, written not for scholars but for general readers.  As I've pointed out, my initial idea that I floated before readers of the blog was to have a book devoted to how Christianity revolutionized how people in the Roman world understood wealth and what to do with it.   My argument was that as a Jew Jesus insisted that those with resources help those who were in need – a virtually unheard-of ethical principle in Greek and Roman antiquity.  His followers were Jews as well, for whom this was a familiar message, but as they converted non-Jews to become Jesus’ followers, they convinced them as well.  So this became the standard Christian view, leading to the invention of the public hospital, the orphanage, the use of governmental assistance for those in need, private charities, and so on. My previous posts have explained how I have now expanded the vision of the book, to show that these new views of [...]

Is It Even Possible to Follow Jesus’ Teaching to “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself”

In my previous posts I've been talking about Jesus' "love commandment," arguing that it revolutionized ancient thinking about how people are to behave toward one another. ("Love thy neighbor as thyself").  Now I ask whether that revolution actually involved changing people's behavior in radical ways.  Or not. Obviously, on the practical level, Jesus’ insistence on complete self-sacrifice did not come to dominate the world of late antiquity.  People continued to live much as they had before.  Conquerors still conquered.  The first Christian emperor, Constantine, was one of the most bloodthirsty of them all; many of his ardent Christian successors (including his sons) were at least as bad.  Slavery continued and was never questioned.  The rich dominated the poor.  Men dominated women.  The rich kept getting richer.  Most notably, Christian churches themselves began getting very much richer.  Eventually the church was by far the wealthiest institution in the west, and stayed that way for well over a millennium. Christian Ethics in the Roman Empire Even so, the ethical discourse of society did change with the Christianization [...]

2022-09-12T10:45:11-04:00September 17th, 2022|Historical Jesus, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|
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