Here is a short interview on Paul over ten years ago:
SALE ENDS TOMORROW, December 31st.
Many of my blog readers have copies of my book Restoring Abrahamic Faith but I wanted folks to be aware of the annual “Holiday” 2-1 sale on this particular book. I was thinking many who appreciate find this book might find it to be an ideal gift for friends and family. Here are the details on the sale and below is a post from 2010 where I describe the book, its history, and how I came to write it. Unfortunately, due to sky high international postage (more than the cost of the book!), this 2-1 sale is only offered to US domestic customers. I hope to have an e-book version out in 2015. Copies are mailed UPSP Priority Mail and shipped the next business day of the order.
Holiday 2-1 SALE through the end of 2014
Order any quantity of copies of Restoring Abrahamic Faith
and your order will be automatically doubled at no extra cost
All Copies are signed by the author
US Domestic Orders Only
As a professor in a large and thriving Department of Religious Studies in a public/state university I make every effort to keep my personal religious faith and our enterprise as a faculty in the area of the academic study of religion properly separated. There is some debate in our field on this question with arguments on both sides as to what extent one’s implicit religious or political views should become part of the teaching discourse. Although there is no need to avoid matters of religious faith in the classroom, and indeed such matters are part of our study, my position is that personal theology belongs elsewhere–particularly for those in public education.
That said, like Frank Moore Cross and many others in our field who were raised in Christian contexts, I have found myself more personally drawn toward the complex of ideas, concepts, tensions, and even contradictions, reflected in the Hebrew Bible, as I have noted previously in my Blog post “Reflections on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.”
Back in 1991 I published a little book titled Restoring Abrahamic Faith with a small non-profit publisher called Genesis 2000. It was more or less in response to questions I was getting from many quarters regarding my own “beliefs.” It was mainly an attempt to save my “breath,” so I could refer it to those who were curious about my own personal faith, or the lack thereof. Also, in the final chapter of my popular book, The Jesus Dynasty, that was intended for general audiences far beyond my academic arena, I did include, a final “Conclusion” that delved into matters of faith and the consequences of historical Jesus studies–mentioning my view of “Abrahamic Faith.” In 2008 in an expanded, 3rd edition was released. It is now available either directly from the publisher (http://genesis2000.org) or through Amazon. And yes, alas, it also has a Facebook Fan page! You can read the preface to the book on-line here, as well as several endorsements and reviews.
I was reminiscing in my “Historical Jesus” class today about my studies with the late great Norman Perrin (1920-1976) as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. I took my first course with him in Autumn, 1974, an “advanced N.T. course.” His textbook, The New Testament: An Introduction: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History (Harcourt College Pub., 1974) had just been released. By that time, Perrin, who had been influenced in his earlier days by T. W. Manson and Joachim Jeremiah was quite thoroughly a “Bultmannian,” and one of the clearest thinkers in that regard I have ever encountered. His little book, The Promise of Bultmann, (New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1969), remains a classic, as does his little primer, What is Redaction Criticism? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969). His earliest major work, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) set the stage of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” for a whole generation of colleagues and students–before it became fashionable to talk about a “new” or “3rd quest,” which I always took as more of a self-designation by a handful of younger scholars, in the shadow of Bultmann, Käsemann, Conzelmann, and Perrin, who imagined themselves as doing something quite new.
I took a number of courses from Perrin including his incomparable course on the Gospel of Mark which influences me to this day in all of my teaching–second only to Jonathan Z. Smith and our work on Hellenistic Religions and Robert Grant dealing with “Augustus to Constantine,” as he put it so well. In my case, because we both lived in Park Forest, Illinois, I got to know Professor Perrin on another level. He did not drive a car much and the weather was often too harsh to try to take the train, so many dozens of times I gave him a ride up to campus in my car and we came to know each other very well in our endless private conversations on the hour commute back and forth. I mostly listened and what a treat it was–hearing his whole life and career, peppered with stories of his time in the British forces during the war years. I will never forget the word from his wife the day he died–Thanksgiving Day, 1976–that he had left us. It was quite a shock and a sad loss–he was only 56 years old. Perrin’s productivity was enormous and he was one of the hardest working scholars you could ever encounter. He rose from a working class UK background to a distinguished professor of New Testament at the prestigious University of Chicago–who influenced countless students and shaped the field of Christian Origins forever. I miss him enormously and 40 years seems like but a moment thinking back on those days at Chicago when I sat as a very naive and inexperienced graduate student in his classes and would not missed a word of his lectures or discussions.
Anyway just today I pulled down from my bookshelves my original copy of Perrin’s New Testament: An Introduction and the one page syllabus we had used in that 1974 course dropped out! Talk about memory lane. I reproduce it here. It shows the advanced work Perrin expected of his students and the independent way he worked with us all. Sweet memories. What a time to be at Chicago: J. Z. Smith, Robert M. Grant, and Norman Perrin–for the study of New Testament and Early Christianity, how could it have gotten any better!
Further resources on Norman Perrin and his “pilgrimage” as he often referred to it see:
- The Journal of Religion 64 (1984), Norman Perrin 1920-1976
- David Abernathy, Understanding the Teaching of Jesus: Based on the Lecture Series of Norman Perrin (New York : Seabury Press, 1983).
- Calvin R. Mercer, “Norman Perrin: A Scholarly Pilgrim” (Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 1983).
- Welton O. Seal, Jr., “Norman Perrin and His ‘School’: Retracing a Pilgrimage”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament (1984), pp. 87–107.
- Welton O. Seal, Jr., “The Parousia in Mark: A Debate with Norman Perrin and ‘His School'” (Ph.D. dissertation, Union Theological Seminary, 1981).
- Criterion, vol. 16, no. 1 (Winter 1977); personal tributes to Norman Perrin, from a memorial service held in the Joseph Bond Chapel, 30 November 1976
Michael Servetus (aka Miguel Serveto) is surely one of the most remarkable men of history, though he is largely unknown in general circles. He was born in Spain in 1511 and died in 1553, at age 42, burnt at the stake as a heretic by John Calvin’s Geneva Council. He was a brilliant scientist and his field was primarily medicine, but it was his theological views that led to his universal condemnation by both Catholics and Protestants. Servetus rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, and although he maintained belief in the virgin birth, he denied that Jesus was God. He was fluent in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and in his primary work, De trinitatis erroribus (“On the Errors of the Trinity”), he ably argued that the Bible itself, in neither Old Testament nor New Testament, supported the subsequent Trinitarian notion of Jesus as God.
Servetus has even penetrated the Evangelical Christian world a bit after 500 years. Pro-Golfer and Evangelical writer Kermit Zarley, under the pen name of “Servetus the Evangelical,” published a book titled The Restitution of Jesus Christ. You can visit his website at servetustheevangelist.com. Zarley’s work is impressive, all 600 pages. It is thoroughly researched and documented, and fully in touch with the massive amount of scholarly discussion currently available on the “Christology of the New Testament.”
In fact there is a growing “biblical unitarian” or “One God” movement that is making significant inroads within a variety of evangelical Christian circles. See the following links for a few examples:
Jews, Christians, and Muslims all affirm the doctrine of “resurrection of the dead” as a central tenet of eschatology–that is, the understanding of the “last things” or how human history is to end. One common misunderstanding, especially among Christians, is that resurrection of the dead is equivalent to the idea of corpse revival, namely that in order to “make the dead live” (which is the literal Hebrew expression), God would somehow revive the physical bodies of those who have long since perished and turned to dust or ashes–or otherwise been completely absorbed into our planetary ecosystem. This view of resurrection of the dead is often given the label of “literal,” which is taken to mean “actual.” In other words, in the case of Jesus, unless one believes Jesus’ corpse was “literally” raised to life–i.e., his dead and mutilated body was revivified–then his resurrection would not be “literally” true. The alternative idea, that the “old body” is left behind, like a worn out form of clothing, with the dead “returning to life” in a new transformed state or “mode of being,” is often seen as a threat to Christian apologetics–i.e. the faith that Jesus was truly raised from the dead.
What such a view misses is two important things. First, our earliest source for Christian faith in resurrection are the letters of Paul–who clearly affirms a “literal” but spiritual resurrection–for both Jesus and those at the end of history. The dead are raised in an embodied form–but their bodies are no longer “flesh and blood,” but transformed into what he calls a “pneumatikos” body–that is a non-physical “spiritual” mode of being. As Paul puts it–as Adam was “dust of the earth,” so Christ, as a “new Adam,” is a transformed “life-giving Spirit.” Second, the early Christian view of resurrection for the most part developed along similar lines. For most sophisticated Christian thinkers the resurrection of the dead, though seen as “bodily,” was no longer “flesh and blood” and did not necessitate any revival of the literal bones or perished remains of the deceased. After all, only a tiny fraction of human beings who have ever lived on this planet have identifiable “tombs” or graves, from which they might be raised. Clearly the idea of the dead “coming forth from their graves” might be viewed as “actual” but surely not “literal.” Using metaphors to express concepts beyond our physical experience is not robbing the concepts that lie within the metaphor of reality.
I realize that some of the latest gospel accounts of the “sightings” of Jesus present us with Jesus’ physical body–eating meals and displaying his wounds as “proof” that he is no “ghost,” but these have to be laid out chronologically alongside the complex of “appearance” traditions. I have written rather extensively on these subject in both my books (The Jesus Discovery and Paul and Jesus), as well as on this blog, see here. When all our accounts are taken together I am persuaded that Paul’s view of “leaving the old clothing behind” was the earliest–and was shared by the first witnesses he names in 1 Corinthians 15–namely Peter, James, the Twelve, and the “500” brothers.
The discussion of the important differences between the Greek affirmation of the “immortality of the soul,” and the Jewish concept of “resurrection of the dead,” is an essential part of this discussion. Most students of Christian Origins are introduced at some point to Oscar Cullmann’s classic Ingersoll lecture at Harvard in 1955, “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?: The Witness of the New Testament,” subsequently published with other s in an edited volume, Immortality and Resurrection (Macmillan) by Krister Stendahl, now out of print. Fortunately, there is a version of the substance of lecture on the Web. What Cullmann showed so clearly is that one must not gloss over the important differences in these two classic Western ways of viewing death and afterlife. However, a half century of research subsequently has shown that the theological differences Cullmann pinpoints are not as airtight as they might appear, when viewed through the lens of the critical historian of ideas. The magisterial study of Alan Segal, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion changes the entire landscape of the discussion in this regard. Its rich content and analysis is essential to any informed discussion.
If anything one finds that there is a blurring between the sharp distinctions that Cullmann posited, with Jews affirming “resurrection of the dead,” or even “resurrection of the body,” in complex and nuanced ways, often parallel to so-called “Greek” views of immortality. One result is that the literal physical remains of the dead play little to no part, other than in a metaphorical way, in the more sophisticated affirmations that the “dead” experience ongoing existence either in another realm, or in an age to come. Thus in the book of Revelation (20:11-13), the “sea gave up the dead that were in it,” and those resurrected dead “stand” before the throne of God in judgment, but the writer obviously has no interest in affirming a literal recovery of “bones and flesh,” or reanimated corpses, long ago “returned to dust.”
Jews and early Christians were quite aware of the complex nuances of their affirmation of “resurrection of the dead,” and that a literal view of restored “bones and flesh” was not their central concern nor their most fundamental challenge. There was something much more profound at stake that had to do with an “anthropological” view of the whole human person–thus Paul’s category of a “new body,” but a spiritual one, not one of flesh and blood. This was in contrast to the “naked” state of death, before the spirit is “reclothed.” We are essentially dealing with metaphors here but the clothing analogy seems to be a good one, as Paul develops it in 2 Corinthians 5. He apparently likens the body of flesh and bones to old clothing, and one’s immediate “death” as a naked state of the disembodied “spirit,” (i.e., Greek “immortal soul”). Accordingly, putting on a “new spiritual body” is akin to putting on new clothing, with the old shed or left behind. In that system of understanding resurrection literal “tombs” are irrelevant, whether literally in the ground, or symbolically “in the sea.”
That is why finding the decayed bones of Jesus in an ossuary, as might well be the case Talpiot tomb in Jerusalem, as I have argued here on this blog and extensively in our book, The Jesus Discovery, does not contradict the earliest faith in Jesus’ resurrection by his first followers. What has happened is that people have conflated the later accounts in the Gospels, especially in Luke and John, where Jesus clearly appears as a “revived corpse” and even asks for food to eat–declaring himself to be “flesh and blood,” with the much earlier views the gospel of Mark (with no appearances of Jesus), the fragment ending of the Gospel of Peter, and Matthew–that are much more compatible with Paul’s earlier view (50s CE) of “seeing” Jesus’ spiritual body. The idea those who “sleep in the dust” awakening, or the sea “giving up” the dead that are in it, makes it crystal clear that resurrection of the dead has to do with a transformed “heavenly” existence, not a revival of the scant remains of those long ago turned to “dust and ashes” as the phrase goes (Daniel 12:2-3; Revelation 20:13). One might also recall that, according to Jesus, those who experience the “age to come” and the resurrection of the dead, are transformed into an “angelic” state, no longer male or female with physical bodies (Luke 20:34-38).
Keith Akers, author of The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity, has a thoughtful post from a few years back titled “Implications of the Jesus Family Tomb at Talpiot” at his Website which is as relevant today as when he first wrote it. I really appreciated Akers’s book on Jesus and learned a lot from him. I have found anything he writes to be well thought through and valuable to read. In his on the Talpiot Tomb he raises the issue of how diverse groups of early Christians began to formulate their understanding of what was essentially affirmed in the teaching of “resurrection of the dead,” whether that of Jesus, or the raising of the dead more generally at the end of the age.
In my two recent posts I briefly questioned the assumptions associated with the term “supernatural.” From a philosophical standpoint I would argue that what is needed is not so much a rejection of the supernatural as a redefining thereof. On the other hand, I am not a philosopher but a historian of ancient Judaism and early Christianity. In that role the charge I most often hear from readers who identify themselves as Christian “believers” is that historians “reject the supernatural.” In other words, historians begin with what are labeled as “naturalistic” presuppositions and thus end up rejecting a priori, the very possibility of the incarnation, the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles, his atoning death, his bodily resurrection, and his ascent to heaven–in other words all the theological affirmations of the Apostles’ or Nicean Creeds. I have addressed this issue quite recently here, but want to expand a bit in some different directions.
Prof. Ronald Hendel has an interesting piece in this regard in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, “Critical Biblical Scholarship–What’s the Use?,” challenging those who would question the value of historical critical study of the Biblical texts as Christian philosophers. Hendel is the one who opened this “can of worms” back in August, 2010 with an op-ed in BAR titled “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies” (36:04, July/Aug 2010) in which he lamented the increased participation and influence of evangelical and fundamental Christian scholars in the Society of Biblical Literature meetings, many of whom openly oppose standard historical critical methods in favor of a ‘faith based” Biblical scholarship. You can read an on-line version here, and some SBL responses here. I would particularly direct readers to Kenneth Atkinson’s insightful response here. Hendel’s charge is that essentially folks are mixing categories here, confusing the role of faith with that of reason–that is the scientific investigation of texts and other historical evidence–“Biblical” or otherwise. Hendel wrote:
“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” This famous line from Pascal’s Pensées draws a wise distinction between religious faith and intellectual inquiry. The two have different motivations and pertain to different domains of experience. They are like oil and water, things that do not mix and should not be confused. Pascal was a brilliant mathematician, and he did not allow his Catholic beliefs to interfere with his scholarly investigations. He regarded the authority of the church to be meaningless in such matters. He argued that “all the powers in the world can by their authority no more persuade people of a point of fact than they can change it.”1 That is to say, facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts. Faith resides in the heart and in one’s way of living in the world.
I have to side largely with Hendel on this issue. As I often tell my students, good history is never the enemy of informed faith, but I don’t see my job as a historian of religions to sort out the faith issues for people–or even to deal with them at all. This is not to say that people who hold such faith are stupid or uninformed, but rather that faith and history are separate ways of looking at religions. Other than a few clerics, every major scholar of whom I am aware in the field of “studies of the historical Jesus,” shares the same basic historical methods and presuppositions. This is not to say we all agree on conclusions, but we are clear on the methods of historical research and what counts for evidence.
It is quite easy to confuse the roles of the academic historical study of religions as contrasted to Christian faith or theology, but alas, such confusion is quite common. I teach at a state university and serve as chair of the Dept. of Religious Studies. That means our funding is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and when it comes to the academic study of religions we take that most seriously. Obviously, like any large department of Religious Studies, we cover a range of religious traditions including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, and so forth. In considering the history, development, and practice of these faiths in all their manifold variety it is absolutely essential that we take an objective academic approach–the very opposite to that of some readers, who obviously think that Christianity and the “truth” of Jesus’ resurrection, virgin birth, divinity, and redemptive role as Savior of humankind are historical facts, self-evident to any “true scholar.” Of course similar claims of other traditions to valid supernatural experiences are viewed as false, or perhaps “demonic.”
Historical descriptive work in the area of religions is not in the business of evaluating truth claims, but in honestly and objectively tracing and reporting the rise and development of such views. In other words, it is not my role as a historian to say “Yes, Jesus rose from the dead, and those testimonies in Paul’s 1 Corinthian letter, and at the end of Matthew, Luke, and John are verifiable historical truth and I urge others to believe them so they can have eternal life.” Such personal testimony of faith would surely not make me a “true scholar,” in fact it would be quite the opposite. Imagine if a professor teaching the history of Islam began a class by endorsing Allah as the one God, Mohammed as his infallible Prophet, and the many “undeniable proofs” of the Koran’s perfection. One could hardly call such an approach “history” and any good university would never hire such a teacher, and rightly so. The historical investigation of Christianity, or any religion for that matter, should be no different.
There are many places and situations in which such faith affirmations are appropriate but certainly not in the academic study of religion. Both my two latest books, The Jesus Dynasty, and The Jesus Discovery, reflect the methods and assumptions with which historians commonly operate as they describe and trace the history and development of a religious tradition. Our job is not to evaluate and endorse spiritual truth, but rather to offer the best possible account we can of the history and development of a given tradition.
In point of fact, I do not “reject the supernatural,” (so much as “redefine” it) but such personal philosophical or theological views have nothing to do with my work as an historian. The guiding question of my recent work has been–what can be responsibly said about the historical Jesus? Affirming a belief that Jesus had no human father or that he rose bodily up to heaven in the clouds following his death, would take one totally out of the realm of what can be investigated historically. In my books I wanted to “come clean” with the reader in this regard and be clear about the differences between history and faith.
What is rather frightening is to imagine such views of the supernatural becoming a part of the wider academic world–or God forbid, our Republic government, where Christian faith and dogma are treated as historical fact, and thus “required” as part of legislation and curricula. Thank God for the Enlightenment and the skeptical “deism” of our founding fathers and mothers in formulating the 1st Amendment. Unfortunately about three quarters of the world has still not learned the lesson of separating “religion” and the “state,” and even in Europe, which is surely proud of its secularism in contrast to the United States, still nonetheless has retained the fetters of a Church based system. Ironically, as witnessed by our own culture, a “secular” Republic does not mean the end of religion–far from it. In fact the free exchange of all ideas allows religions of every stripe and measure to thrive. Thank you John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and all the rest.
One of the most frequent responses I get to my work as a historian of religions, particularly in my dealings with Jesus, Paul, and the development of early “Christianities” is the objection that I “exclude the miraculous” as a valid part of the investigation. The idea seems to be that “secular historians” prejudge evidence and are accordingly biased in that they will not allow even the possibility of the miraculous as part of ones historical inquiry. If historians ask the questions: what do we know and how do we know it–how is it that we claim to “know” from the start that miracles do not happen and that supernatural explanations for various developments are to be rejected? As Darrel Bock put things, reviewing my book, The Jesus Dynasty for Christianity Today: “James Tabor’s historical assumptions that reject God’s activity on Earth force him into odd arguments to explain the birth of Christianity.”
For Bock and others these assumptions essentially result in “explaining away the New Testament” to use his words. Bock is referring particularly to my observation that historians assume that all humans have two biological parents, that dead bodies don’t rise, and that humans do not bodily ascend to heaven. Oddly enough, I maintain, along with most historians, that the “odd arguments” are characteristic of those who take the assertions that Jesus had no human father or that he walked out of his tomb and ascended bodily into the clouds of heaven as literal scientific statements of fact. Whether I reject “God’s activity on Earth” is a much more complex matter that I will deal with in another context, but what about this charge that secular historians are biased against the supernatural?
My training at the University of Chicago was that of a historian, not a theologian or even a “Biblical Scholar” as such. My Ph.D. was not from the Divinity School but in the Division of Humanities. I worked broadly in the area study of “Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Culture” and more specifically within ancient Judaism and early Christianity. My teachers were primarily Jonathan Z. Smith and Robert M. Grant. What I reflected in The Jesus Dynasty and in all of my academic work (my full CV here), are the methods and approaches generally employed by most qualified scholars who work in these areas.
Doing the work of an historian is not “hard” science in the purest sense of the term, but none of us in the field would want it to be understood as “art” either, at least not in some wholly subjective way. There is no doubt that historians often differ in their conclusions in important ways, and that “interpretation” of the data, how it is finally weighed and processed, is indeed a somewhat subjective process. When it comes to Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer pointed out long ago, historians all to often have “looked into the long well of history” and seen their own reflection staring back at them. In other words, when they come up with a so-called “historical Jesus” fashioned almost wholly by their own imaginations and biased desires.
When my students retreat to some historical conclusion that I or others have reached, with the easy retort “but that is just your interpretation,” I encourage them to go beyond that kind of reductionism. History is not mere subjective interpretation, even if it involves such. Ideally it is based on arguments and evidence and in the end a good historian wants to be persuasive. It is rare that historical conclusions close out any possible alternative interpretations, but the goal is to set forth, in the open court of reasoned argument and evidence, a compelling “case” for whatever one is dealing with. Even when we disagree we end up stating “why” we don’t find this or that argument convincing, or what we find weak in the assumptions of one with whom we differ.
As for sources, nothing is excluded and everything can be evaluated as long as it offers us some reasonable way to reconstruct the past. Historians love and welcome evidence. That is what we live on and we crave any new materials that can shed more light on what we know. But even our best sources, particularly the literary ones, are remarkably tendentious. Modern standards of argument and objectivity were unknown to ancient writers. Writing was more often than not a blatant attempt at propaganda and apologetics, and all the more so when it came to competing systems of religious understanding. Recognition of those factors is a vital part of every historian’s method. If we want to “use” Josephus we also have to give attention to what we know of him as a person, as a writer, what his tendencies are, what his competence was, and so forth. It is the same with the Gospels, with Eusebius, and with all the ancient texts and material evidence that we have at our disposal. It is also the case that for many important questions related to Jesus and his movement we simply do not have good evidence and probably never will. As thankful as we are for what we have, whether textual or archaeological or myth or tradition, in the end we have to face our own limitations.
Determining what Jesus said, or what he did, given the obvious theologically motivated editing and “mythmaking” that goes on even in our core New Testament gospels is a methodologically challenging project upon which none of us wholly agree. For example, we know virtually nothing about the so-called “lost years of Jesus,” and thus are left to speculate about his childhood and early adult life until about age 30 (assuming we even trust Luke, our single source, about his age when he joined John the Baptizer). Our attempts are educated guesses and creative reconstructions. Most of us are quite sure that the reports of the various so-called “Infancy Gospels” that have Jesus as a child magically turning clay birds into real ones or jumping off the roof a a building unharmed are less than historical. They are late, legendary, and fabulistic to the extreme. It is doubtful that such sources contain any useful historical information at all. I cannot prove that Jesus and his brothers worked with their father Joseph in the building trades in nearby Sepphoris, but I think it is a likely possibility, given what we know (see Mark 6:3). In contrast, the assertions that Jesus traveled as a child with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea to Britain, or that he studied in Egypt or in India, are based upon legendary materials far removed in time and place from his world. It is the same with the question of whether or not Jesus was married or had children. For years I agreed with most of my colleagues that the possibilities of this appear to be slight but over the past five years, in looking at the new evidence from the Talpiot tombs, as well as reviewing all the arguments, I have become convinced otherwise. A recent reviewer of our new book, The Jesus Discovery, has asserted on this point that “The claim that the Gnostic Gospels are a good source on Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene, for instance, is just breathtakingly silly — they were written incredibly late and reflect a particular theology/religious perspective–not history.” I have to disagree here and clearly, the reviewer, Raphael Magarik, is completely unaware of the solid scholarship on Mary Magdalene by fine scholars such as the late Jane Schaberg, April DeConick, or a host of others and seems not to have read very carefully the arguments I review in the book that I think are actually quite persuasive.
The public has been geared to think of the suppression of evidence, usually with the Roman Catholic church being the culprit, but such grand “conspiratorial” theories have little basis in fact. What is most characteristic of early Christianity, or more properly, “Christianites,” is a competing diversity of “parties and politics,” each propagating its own vision of the significance of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. All sorts of interpretations are offered of Jesus, but the question finally comes down to how convincing a given argument is to other historians who work in the field and deal with the same sources and materials. But even “consensus” is no guarantor of final truth. Sometimes a minority view, in time, can prove to be true, and often pioneers in any area of history are castigated or rejected by colleagues when they initially put forth their theses.
As far as the subjects of the miraculous and the supernatural, historians of religions remain observers. The fact is we do not exclude religious experience in investigating the past–far from it. We actually embrace it most readily. What people believe or claim to have experienced becomes a vital part of our evidence. We can note that Mark reported that Jesus walked on water or raised the dead or met his disciples in Galilee after his death, and then we date and evaluate Mark as a source, just as we note the miracles that Philostratus claims for his contemporary hero Apollonius of Tyana, or that the story that Zeus fathered Hercules or that Romulus was taken bodily into heaven (see these and other texts here). Most scholars in the field would say that Jesus practiced “exorcism,” and healed the sick, which was seen as a releasing one afflicted from Satanic power, but what that implies about the reality of the demonic world goes beyond our historical methods. We know enough about human psychology and our modern controversies regarding psychic phenomenon to realize the complexities of drawing such conclusions. History and theology/faith do part ways in some of these areas but I tell my students often: “Good history is never the enemy of proper faith.” It is easy to hold that “God” can do anything, and thus argue for the acceptance of a male baby being born without male sperm, or reports of a corpse rising after two or three days and ascending bodily into heaven, but such claims are not the purview of historians and they run contrary to our human experience and a more rational scientific understanding of birth and death. Historians likewise deal with “beliefs” about the afterlife and the unseen world beyond, but without asserting the historical reality of these notions or realms. We can evaluate what people claimed, what they believed, what they reported, and that all becomes part of the data, but to then say, “A miracle happened” or this or that “prophet” was truly hearing from God, as opposed to another who was utterly false prophecy, goes beyond our accessible methods. I don’t want to oversimplify things here and I realize that the question of “faith” and “history” and the assumptions modern historians make in terms of a so-called “materialistic” worldview can be challenged, even philosophically. But for the most part historians are willing to leave the “mystery” in, but in terms of advocating this or that view of the so-called “supernatural,” as an explanation, they properly, in my view, remain wary.
We will probably never know with absolute certainty who Jesus’ father was, or what happened to the body of Jesus, or whether Paul “really” talked with Jesus after his death, but I prefer the “odd arguments” of the historian in investigating those matters, however inconclusive and speculative, to the dogmatic assertions of theology that are problematic from a scientific point of view.
I think the main problem in discussions between theists and atheists is the assumption that static categories like “the Divine,” the “supernatural,” the “natural,” and the “material” exist other than as our dualistic semantic projections upon the whole of reality as we can perceive it. Our experiences are never reductionistically “materialistic,” even in the proverbial “hard, cold” lab. Process theism, by whatever name (Whitehead, Hartshorne) seems a better way of thinking about our “reality” even if “God” might not be the word one choses to use given the connotations from “Classic” theism (omniscience and omnipotence).
Bottom line: the very nature of reality presents us with what appear to be “mechanistic” “time and chance” “atoms and the void” phenomenon (as per Jacques Monod), but also “mind” “thought” and other transcendent “spiritualist” phenomenon as well, that seem to exhibit will, reason, and the aesthetic–hence this very blog, this topic, and the any discussion thereof. It is a simple truism that there is no way to step outside of things and make “meaningful” nihilistic declarations about the non-meaning or hyper-subjectivity of our existence. As the old joke goes: “There are no absolutes?–Are you absolutely sure of that?”
“Mind and Matter”are no opposing realities but of one whole “panentheistic” reality as witnessed by our every thought and word. Most of us agree that “magical” thinking is not a credible casual factor in our universe (angels, demons, fairies, and projected illusions) but who among us can reduce to the “normal” or the purely “material” (i.e., the four forces/fields of gravity, electromagnetic and strong and weak nuclear) our wondrous and marvelous minds and our common as well as not-so-common experiences of reality? In other words, all natural phenonema are by definition supra-natural, if by “natural” one means a truncated mechanistic view of both our inner realities and all that we experience in our world of “nature.”
Historically most interpreters of Paul have understood his teaching of “justification by grace through faith” based on the atoning blood of Jesus Christ as his greatest and most central insight. From Augustine to Luther, through Bultmann and Barth, the banner of the “Reformation” was centered on this fundamental insight. Wayne Meeks has a wonderful collection of s dealing with the classic sources on “Law and Grace” in his masterful volume titled, The Writings of St Paul (Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edition with John T. Fitzgerald added as editor), which should be in every library on Christian Origins. ((I love the expanded 2nd edition but am very sorry the Revised Standard Version translation of the New Testament was dropped in favor of the horrible New International Version which to me is basically useless for studying Paul)).
Accordingly, much of the debate among Pauline scholars in this century has been over the question of the center of Paul’s theology. I argued in my dissertation on Paul published as Things Unutterable: Paul’s Ascent to Paradise in 1986 ((Which is regrettably out of print and sells on Amazon for the ridiculous price of $250!)), and recently in my book, Paul and Jesus, that putting “justification by faith” at the center of Paul’s thought throws everything off balance. ((Albert Schweitzer’s Mysticism of Paul the Apostle remains the classic study arguing that Paul’s theology develops from his understanding of “being in Christ.” See subsequently, Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963): 199-215 and Ernst Käseman, “Justification and Salvation History,” Perspectives on Paul (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), pp. 60-78.)) E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism) has provided one of the more persuasive presentations of the case that Paul’s central ideas develop from his experience of being “in Christ” and vice versa (what he calls “participatory” in contrast to “juristic”). With Sanders’ treatment of Paul’s understanding of the Law, righteousness by faith, the human plight, et al., I basically agree, as I do with his notion that we should ask how a religious system as a whole and on its own terms “worked.” However, his description of how a religion is perceived by its adherents to function as “how getting in and staying in are understood,” does not lead one to consider why they wanted in in the first place: Paul’s converts wanted salvation, and yet this is something that Paul rarely stops to define. This salvation involved more than a particular understanding of God’s grace and forgiveness of sins. Sanders’ statement that Paul’s primary conviction is that “Jesus Christ is Lord, that in him God has provided for the salvation of all those who believe . . . , and that he will soon return to bring all things to an end,” is a good general summary, but needs to be more fully laid out.
Paul’s understanding of salvation involves a rather astounding (at least to modern ears) scheme of “mass apotheosis” and imminent cosmic takeover. We must turn to the essential passages which more fully treat the content of this salvation which Paul offered his followers.
In the following posts I survey what I consider to be the six great themes of Paul’s “Gospel.” These form the basis of the exposition I offer in my book, Paul and Jesus—out in paperback next week–which I commend enthusiastically to my readers.
1) A New Spiritual Body. For Paul the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead was a primary and essential component of the Christian faith. He states emphatically: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). His entire understanding of salvation hinged on what he understood to be a singular cosmic event, namely Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Paul’s understanding of the resurrection of Jesus, however, is not what is commonly understood today. It had nothing to do with the resuscitation of a corpse. Paul must have assumed that Jesus was peacefully laid to rest in a tomb in Jerusalem according to the Jewish burial customs of the time. He even knows some tradition about that burial, though he offers no details (1 Corinthians 15:4).
Paul understood Jesus’ resurrection as the transformation—or to use his words—the metamorphosis, of a flesh-and-blood human being into what he calls a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45). Such a change involved “putting off” the body like clothing, but not being left “naked,” as in Greek thought, but “putting on” a new spiritual body with the old one left behind (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). So transformed, Jesus was, according to Paul, the first “Adam” of a new genus of Spirit-beings in the universe called “Children of God,” of which many others were to follow.
What is often overlooked is that Paul is our earliest witness, chronologically speaking, to claims to have “seen” Jesus after his death. And his is the only first-person claim we have. All the rest are late and second-hand. His letters were written decades earlier than Mark, the first written gospel. This means that Paul’s view of Jesus’ resurrection has profound implications for how we read the later gospel accounts—from the empty tomb to the “sightings” of Jesus reported in Matthew, Luke, and John. Most people read the New Testament “backwards,” chronologically speaking, beginning with the Gospels and then moving on to Paul, but Paul actually comes decades earlier and offers critical insight into what the earliest resurrection faith entailed. Once reexamined, the entire history of what happened “after the cross” is transformed and a new understanding emerges of what James, Peter, and the rest of the original apostles experienced and believed.
2) A Cosmic Family and A Heavenly Kingdom. According to Paul this new genus of Spirit-beings of which Jesus was the “firstborn” is part of an expanded cosmic family (Romans 8:29). Paul believed that Jesus was born of a woman as a flesh and blood human being, descended from the royal lineage of King David, so he could qualify as an “earthly” Messiah in Jewish thinking. But for Paul such physical Davidic lineage was nothing in comparison to the glorification of Jesus as the firstborn Son of God. Paul describes it thus: “The gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh but appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness through the resurrection of the dead” (Roman 1:4). What this means is that God, as Creator, has inaugurated a process through which he is reproducing himself—literally bringing to birth a “God-Family.” Jesus, now transformed into the heavenly glorified Christ/Messiah, is the firstborn brother of an expanded group of divine offspring. Those who “belong to Christ” or are spiritually “in Christ,” to use Paul’s favorite expressions, have become impregnated by the Holy Spirit and like tiny spiritual embryos are growing and developing into the image of Christ until the time comes for their transformative “birth” from flesh and blood to life-giving Spirits. As Paul says, “He who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” Paul compares this union of “spirits” to that of a man and a woman when “the two shall become one flesh” (1 Corinthians 6:17).
The destiny of this cosmic heavenly family is to rule over the entire universe. Everything is to be put under their control, including things visible and invisible. At the center of the message of Jesus was the proclamation that the kingdom of God had drawn near. This kingdom, spoken of by the Hebrew Prophets, was envisioned as an era of peace and justice on earth for all humankind, inaugurated by a Messiah or descendent of the royal lineage of King David ruling over the nations of the world (Jeremiah 33:15; Isaiah 9:6-7). Jesus described it in clear and simple terms in the prayer he taught his disciples: “Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven” (Matthew 6:10). In anticipation of that reign Jesus had chosen the Twelve apostles whom he promised would rule over of the re-gathered twelve tribes of Israel when the Kingdom fully arrived (Matthew 19:28-29; Luke 22:30).
In Paul’s view the kingdom of God would have nothing to do with the righteous reign of a human Messiah on earth, and the status of the Twelve or any other believers was to be determined only by Christ at the judgment. Paul understood the Kingdom as a “cosmic takeover” of the entire universe by the newly born heavenly family—the many glorified Children of God with Christ, as firstborn, at their head. Paul taught that when Christ returned in the clouds of heaven this new race of Spirit-beings would experience its heavenly transformation, receiving the same inheritance, and thus the same level of power and glory, that Jesus had been given (Romans 8:17; Philippians 3:20-21). This instantaneous “mass apotheosis” would mark the end of the old age that began with Adam, and the beginning of a new creation inaugurated by Christ as a new or second Adam (Romans 8:21). This great event, the most significant in human history, would signal the arrival of the kingdom of God in which nothing flesh and blood could be a part (1 Corinthians 15:50). The group of divinized glorified Spirit-beings would then participate corporately, with Christ, in the judgment of the world, even ruling over the angels (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).
3) A Mystical Union with Christ. Paul completely transformed the practice and understanding of baptism and the Eucharist to his Greek-speaking Gentile converts. Although rituals of water purification were common in Judaism, including the ceremonies of immersion practiced by John the Baptizer and Jesus as a sign of repentance, Paul’s adaptation of baptism moved beyond ceremonial signification. Baptism brought about a mystical union with what Paul called the “spiritual body” of Christ, and was the act through which one received the impregnating Holy Spirit.
Sacred meals involving the blessings of bread and wine were also common in Judaism, and were thus part of the communal meals of the early followers of Jesus. Within apocalyptic groups, such as the Jesus movement and the sect that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, such sacred meals were considered anticipatory of the messianic age to come. When the Messiah arrived, his followers expected to gather around his table in fellowship, with Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets joining them. Paul’s innovation, that one was thereby eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine at the Eucharist or Holy Communion, has no parallels in any Jewish sources of the period. Three of our New Testament gospels record Jesus’ Last Supper in which he tells his disciples over bread and wine: “This is my body,” and “This is my blood,” and in the gospel of John Jesus speaks of “eating my flesh” and “drinking my blood.” These writers based their accounts of Jesus’ final meal on Paul, directly quoting what he had written in his letters almost word-for-word (Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:15-20; John 6:52-56; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). This is one of the strongest indications that the New Testament gospels are essentially Pauline documents, with underlying elements of the earlier Jesus tradition.
As a Jew living in a Jewish culture, Jesus would have considered this sort of language about eating flesh and drinking blood, even taken symbolically, as utterly reprehensible, akin to magic or ritual cannibalism. Despite what Paul asserts, it is extremely improbable that Jesus ever said these words. They are Paul’s own interpretation of the meaning and significance of the Eucharist ceremony that he claims he received from the heavenly Christ by a revelation. For Paul eating bread and drinking wine was no simple memorial meal, but it was quite literally, a “participation” in the spiritual body of the glorified heavenly Christ. This meal connected those who eat and drink through the Spirit with the embryonic nurturing life they needed as developing offspring of God (1 Corinthians 10:16). In contrast, as we will see, there is solid evidence that the Christians before Paul, and outside of his influence, celebrated a Eucharist with an entirely different understanding of the wine and the bread, one that reflects a practice much closer to what Jesus inaugurated at his Last Supper with his disciples. Fortunately, there are fragmented traces of this earlier view embedded in our New Testament gospels.
While most of the news media were concentrating the past ten days on issues such as ending the congressional budget/debt crisis, the computer glitches with the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) and the latest reports of the NSA phone tap spying on the world leaders of our closest allies you might have missed this story.
The original statue of Our Lady of Fatima had been transferred from its home at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal to St. Peter’s Square especially for the consecration. The act marked the culmination of a weekend of Marian prayer and devotion.
The events began on Oct. 12, when Pope Francis led a Marian prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square, followed by a worldwide televised vigil at various Marian sites all over the world.
Pope Francis, in celebrating the 96th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal in 1917, consecrated the entire World to the Immaculate heart of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The story below from the National Catholic Register is really pretty unbelievable–at least to me as a historian who has pleaded for a quest for the historical Mary–that is a rehabilitation of the memory of Miriam the Jewish mother of Jesus and his brothers and sisters (See my book, The Jesus Dynasty).
My post last year, “Mary, Mother of God or Jewish Mother of Seven ?,” which appeared on the front page of the Religion section Huffington Post, and stirred up lots of controversy with nearly 1000 comments, drew both ire and praise, as one might expect when one touches on such a sensitive topic–see here and here. If you have not taken a look at the Huffington Post site please visit and leave your comments to add to the fray.
To be fair to Pope Francis, my guess is he is invoking Mary more as a symbolic example of virtuous behavior than the overtly superstitious extremes of “Marian” devotion that are so common to the masses, but there is no doubt that such “prayers and expressions of devotion” serve to perpetuate the myth rather than recover for our day an appreciation for the thoroughly Jewish mother of Jesus who surely would have recoiled at any such misguided worship. After all, was it not Miriam who most likely taught the young Jesus the great confession of Jewish faith we call the Shema–as witnessed by Jesus’ rebuke to those who offered him even the mildest devotion–Why do you call me God–there is One who is good–God alone (Mark 10: 17-18).
This official story from the Register deserves a very careful reading, including the links. Sadly, it reflects how far we have to go in achieving anything even close to a realistic appreciation for Mary, the Jewish mother of Jesus, in her own time and place in history.
Pope Francis’ Consecrating the World to Mary Culminates Fatima Celebration
Approximately 150,000 pilgrims jammed St. Peter’s Square for the occasion.
BY EDWARD PENTIN
| Posted 10/15/13 at 12:45 AM
VATICAN CITY –– Tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world gathered under unseasonably warm and sunny weather in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday to witness Pope Francis consecrate the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The Holy Father performed the consecration before the image of Our Lady of Fatima, asking Mary’s help to “revive and grow faith.”
Oct. 13 marked the 96th anniversary since the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to shepherd children Jacinta Marto, her younger brother Francisco and Lúcia dos Santos at Fatima. It also took place as the Year of Faith draws to a close on the Feast of Christ the King, Nov. 24.
In front of an estimated 150,000 pilgrims, the Pope asked Mary to welcome the consecration “with the benevolence of a mother.”
“Guard our lives in your arms,” he said. “Bless and strengthen every desire for goodness; revive and grow faith; sustain and illuminate hope; arouse and enliven charity; guide all of us on the path of holiness.”
He also asked Our Lady to teach mankind her “special love” for children and the poor, for the excluded and suffering and for sinners.
The original statue of Our Lady of Fatima had been transferred from its home at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal to St. Peter’s Square especially for the consecration. The act marked the culmination of a weekend of Marian prayer and devotion.
The events began on Oct. 12, when Pope Francis led a Marian prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square, followed by a worldwide televised vigil at various Marian sites all over the world.
Untier of ‘All Knotted Hearts’
In his address, the Holy Father stressed that the Virgin Mary leads Christians to the mercy of God, who can untie “all knotted hearts” caused by sin. “These knots take away our peace and serenity,” he said, and he urged the faithful not to give up hope that God can untie these knots. Mary, he said, “takes us with the hand of a mother to the embrace of the Father, to the Father of mercy.”
Repeatedly over the weekend, the Holy Father explained how Mary, through her witness of faith, is the paradigm for all believers. Drawing on her example, he challenged the faithful to consider their own faith more profoundly, following her example of fidelity, which was shown all the way to Jesus’ crucifixion.
Her faith at that moment, he said, was “like a little flame burning in the night”; and at the empty tomb, her heart was filled with the joy of faith.
During his Sunday homily, Pope Francis reflected on the importance of Mary’s faithfulness even in moments of difficulty. “Her Yes to God was a Yes that threw her simple life in Nazareth into turmoil. Many times,” he said, “she had to utter a heartfelt Yes at moments of joy and sorrow, culminating in the Yes she spoke at the foot of the cross.”
Importance of Gratitude
He also preached about the importance of gratitude, especially for the Christian community and for family life. “If families can say these three things, they will be fine: ‘sorry,’ ‘excuse me,’ ‘thank you,’” he said, adding that, “all too often, we take everything for granted.”
Reflecting on Mary’s example of Christian gratitude, he recalled the Magnificat, saying it is “a song of praise and thanksgiving to God not only for what he did for her, but for what he had done throughout the history of salvation.”
He added that God reveals himself in poverty, weakness and humility and stressed that the journey to salvation also entails commitment.
“I ask myself: Am I a Christian by fits and starts or am I a Christian full time?” the Pope said. “Our culture of the ephemeral, the relative, also takes its toll on the way we live our faith. God asks us to be faithful to him, daily, in our everyday life.”
But he stressed that the Christian knows God cannot be unfaithful even if the believer is himself, and he “never tires of stretching out his hand” to help and encourage us. “This is the real journey: to walk with the Lord always, even at moments of weakness, even in our sins,” he said.
Many attending the consecration and weekend of events dedicated to Mary warmly welcomed the Holy Father’s initiative and said it was much needed.
David Carollo, executive director of the World Apostolate of Fatima in the United States, told the Register that, unlike in the struggle against Soviet communism, “the whole world is in trouble today.”
Russia spread its errors, he said, and that’s been particularly clear in the U.S. and the West. “We’re rotting, culturally,” he said, and exporting a culture that is “disgusting.”
Secularism, he added, has evolved from the “mandated atheism” of communism, but is more subtle. The consecration, he said, is a way of combating this and helping the world convert to Christ. “The Pope is saying to the faithful: ‘Be simple like Mary, because the whole pontificate has that theme.’”
Timothy Tindal-Robertson, president of the World Apostolate of Fatima in England and Wales, stressed that Sunday’s ceremony was “a giving of the world into the Immaculate Heart of Mary to save it.”
“That is her whole mission,” he said. “Mary is again at the foot of the cross to bring salvation, and this is what the world needs.” He was especially struck by Pope Francis kissing the feet of the statue of Mary. “It is the Holy Father saying [to Mary] that we, the Church, welcome you; we embrace you; we love you,” he said. “That’s the message that needs to get right out into the Church.”
Consecration Must Continue
But those present were eager to stress that the consecration doesn’t end there if the world is to be converted.
“We’ve all got to play our part,” said Donal Foley, also a member of the World Apostolate of Fatima of England and Wales. “We must pray the Rosary on the first five Saturdays to make it happen in the West. It’s not meant to be a magic thing that happens and then we relax.”
Mike Daley, a founding member of the England and Wales branch of the apostolate, stressed that the consecration is meant for all people. “We mustn’t lose sight that Our Lady is our universal Mother, and that means everyone,” he said. “It’s very important just to consider it’s not an exclusive consecration.”
They also underlined the power of prayer and recalled the effectiveness of Pope Francis’ vigil for peace in Syria and the world –– a vigil at which the Salus Populi Romani, the most important Marian icon in Rome, was processed up to the altar.
“What does that tell you? Prayer moves mountains, and I think no one knows this more than Pope Francis,” said Carollo.
Carollo, Daley, Foley and Tindal-Robertson all uphold Sister Lúcia’s testimony that John Paul II consecrated Soviet Russia to the Immaculate Heart –– an explicit instruction of Our Lady of Fatima –– in 1984, along with all nations of the world. As opposed to some who still contend the pope must explicitly consecrate Russia, they believe it has been done, as proven by Soviet communism’s fall.
The real crisis, Tindal-Robertson believes, is and always has been the abandonment of belief in God. “That’s what Our Lady said; because if you address that, you’re on the path to salvation again,” he said. He also sees the consecration as a means to heal the Church and the continuing crisis that followed the Second Vatican Council.
“It’s very important to show the whole Church and the people of God Mary’s position in the Church in this Year of Faith,” said Tindal-Robertson. “We need the presence of Our Lady in the Church, and this is what Francis is proclaiming.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
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