Monday, October 21, 2013

Jubilees and Ancient Inscriptions

Jim Davila over on PaleoJudaica has linked to a (paywalled) article by Jonathan Ben-Dov in Haaretz, which speculates that undecipherable (to Aramaic-speakers) Cuneiform tablets may have contributed to the tradition in Jubilees that forbidden antediluvian knowledge was preserved on stone tablets.

While this is an intriguing proposition, and I look forward to reading the article in more detail, the tablets discovered by Kainan in Jubilees stand in a long line of traditions--from Jewish, Near Eastern, and Mediterranean sources--involving the preservation of primordial knowledge inscribed on tablets, plates, or stellae (usually in pairs). As I discuss in my dissertation, this appears to have been a pervasive motif that wasn't necessarily linked to any specific narrative.

Ben-Dov's also speculates that the Enochic tradition of angelic instruction in astral lore might have been influenced by an imaginative interpretation of carvings of Babylonian kings surrounded by astrological symbols. While Ben-Dov acknowledges antecedents in the culture-hero myths of the Babylonians, he fails to take into account the entire context of interconnected traditions linking giants, the primordial past, supernatural instruction, and astrology. All of the ingredients for the Enochic myth were already present in the cultural koine of the ancient Mediterranean/Near Eastern complex, and, indeed, appear to have been combined in differing configurations independently of one another (paralleling my own research, John C. Reeves has charted at least three possible threads of fallen-angel traditions influencing ancient sources).

This doesn't discount the possibility that awareness of cuneiform tablets may have affected the directions taken by those interpreting the extant motifs, but hardly in the primary sense Ben-Dov implies.

ETA: It looks like Dr. Ben-Dov is giving a talk at Penn next month which promises a more nuanced version of this argument, and may well address my above reservations. I guess I'll have to hop a train up and catch it. Because I don't already have enough to do in November.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

If you can't beat 'em...

Well, it looks like Jesus mythicism just won't go away. The trick that they mythicists like to play is to pick and choose a few pieces of evidence, with no discernible critical method (in Atwill's case, he takes Josephus at face value, but assumes the gospels are complete fabrications), and then to build a narrative that can explain those pieces of evidence, while ignoring any evidence that don't fit this narrative. Especially if that evidence comes from the New Testament.

The key is that your narrative doesn't have to explain all the evidence, or explain the evidence better than than the prevailing consensus. It just has make a good story. So I figured if that's all it takes, maybe somebody should take a crack at it who has a little better command of the primary sources and historical context than most of the mythicists.

So here, spun off my successful Quest for the Historical James, is my entirely made up, not-at-all serious Jesus myth. Failure to take with sufficient salt may lead to lightheadedness. If you experience a conspiracy theory lasting more than four hours, seek immediate medical attention.

Sometime around the first decades of the Common Era, there was a young Galilean by the name of Yaaqov bar Yosef, but we'll just call him Jimmy. Jimmy's father, Joe, was a craftsman of some sort from a small town called Nazareth. Jimmy had several brothers, including Sy, Joey, Jude, and the twins, Tommy and Josh. Josh (his full name was Yeshua bar Yosef) was a bit of a schmuck, especially for somebody pushing 30. One Passover, Josh was on Spring Break in Jerusalem, got a little too drunk at the seder, and wound up beating the spit out of some money-changers in the Temple. When the Roman guards came to break it up, Josh made an obscene joke about Caesar rendering something unto himself, called himself "the Lizard King," and got himself crucified.

Now Jimmy had been sent to Jerusalem to keep his elder brother out of trouble, and now he had to go back to Nazareth and explain to his family that Josh had died a humiliating and accursed death. He knew it would break his poor mother's heart.

So he started making things up.

Josh hadn't been home in quite some time, so Jimmy, who was a pretty good Torah student, made up the story (based in part on prophetic traditions) that Josh had been an itinerant teacher and healer this whole time, instead of wandering around crashing wedding parties and hanging out with tax collectors. Jimmy wove his own apocalyptic beliefs into the stories, spreading the idea of a coming Kingdom of God where the poor and powerless would be exalted over the rich and powerful. He got Josh's old pal Rocky in on it, and even claimed Josh was baptized by the notorious Johnny Dunker. As these rumors started to spread, some of the stories got conflated with the deeds of other miracle-workers and messianic claimants who were running around at the time, and the fame of this Josh who was crucified for claiming to be king only grew.

Jimmy wasn't exactly comfortable with some of what was going on. A few of Josh's old crew had been so drunk when Josh's twin Tommy showd up at the wake, they said they'd seen Josh after he died. Some people were claiming Josh was the Messiah, or some kind of Greek demigod! But Jimmy saw it as a chance to engage in social and religious reform, so he played along. Even when that thug Solly "Tiny" Tarsus switched teams and started recruiting gentiles to the movement, Jimmy put up with it, so long as Solly kept it out of Jerusalem. But Solly's followers quickly started to outnumber Jimmy's, and the Jewish authorities started getting nervous. They asked Jimmy to put the kibosh on the whole business, but he was int too deep to turn back, so the temple authorities took advantage of a gap in the Roman administration to form a lynch mob and stone poor Jimmy to death.

There you go! I'd go so far as to say this version does a better job of explaining the evidence than most mythicist theories, since it accounts for Paul's references to James as Jesus' brother, as well as James' prominence over Jesus in Josephus. It doesn't mythologize Jesus, per se, but will satisfy those who want the Gospel accounts to be entirely fictional, without having to irrationally suppose that Jews would have made up the crucifixion of a supposed messiah.

The only problem is, it's complete bullshit. Because it introduces far too much unnecessary complexity, and assumes far too much not in evidence. Most of all, it rests on the assumption that some of our sources were complete liars. Not just biased. Not just embellishing received tradition along doctrinal lines. But complete and total liars. And once you start assuming that, it gets hard to do history, at least from literary and documentary sources.

Don't get me wrong, ancient sources lie. Or make things up, at least. The whole concept of objective history is a very modern one, and we know full well, for instance, that Josephus fudged a lot of the facts to suit his agenda, just as Thucydides made up elaborate speeches to fit his philosophical understanding of history, and Suetonius would report any rumor with an orgy or a poisoning in it. And we know the Gospel sources made up plenty of stuff, like the nativity narratives (they can't both be true), and they massaged the sayings they had received to convey specific messages. But we can't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, we have to learn to read critically, and sift out the baby-shaped bits.

It's possible that the entire ministry of Jesus was a big con-job, whether you think it was made up by Paul, the Romans, or James. But it isn't likely, when compared to the much simpler, entirely plausible idea that there was a Galilean apocalyptic teacher who preached about a coming Kingdom of God, who was credited with healings and miracles (by a populace who believed such things were possible), who developed a bit of a following, who ran afoul of the authorities in Jerusalem and was crucified, and whose followers later came to believe he had risen from the dead in demonstration of his divine power.

There is a difference between skepticism and bad faith. We should be critical of our sources, but if we assume everything is a fiction until proven otherwise, we won't get very far.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Quest for the Historical...James?

So, I know the quest for the "historical Jesus" is the sexier topic (if one can call a horse that has been beaten to death, resurrected, beaten to death again, turned into a zombie, beheaded, and then brought back as a cyborg, sexy...), but whatever position you take, somebody is always going to accuse you of having an agenda. (People in atheist circles have accused ME of being a fundamentalist for affirming the historicity of Jesus!)

So let's start with somebody in whom not nearly so many people have an investment in: James, the brother of Jesus.

Our earliest references to James come from the same source as our earliest references to Jesus: the letters of Paul. Except Paul claims to have met James, and not in a struck-blind-by-a-vision way.

Now, it's possible that Paul made up James, except for one thing:

He says James disagreed with him.

Or at least the followers of James did. In Galatians 2:1-2, Paul reports that Peter ate with gentiles (a violation of Jewish dietary practices) when James's followers were around, implying that James, or his faction, believed observance of Jewish laws was still mandatory, at least for Jews like Paul and Peter. Paul (in his version of the story) sets Peter straight, arguing that faith, not observance of law, is the source of salvation, even for Jews.

Now, it's likely that Paul is putting his own spin on the incident for rhetorical purposes (the author of Acts has a somewhat different take), and we can tackle the quest for the historical Peter some other time, but if Paul invented the whole episode, why would he make the leader of the group opposing him the brother of Jesus? It would be a bizarre rhetorical move.

James shows up elsewhere in the NT, briefly in the gospels and prominently in Acts. He is considered by some traditions to be the author of the Epistle of James, but there is no real evidence to support this. But he is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus in the Antiquities of the Jews (20.9.1), written around 93 CE, and unlike the other reference to Jesus in Josephus, this one is generally accepted as authentically the words of Josephus.

So how do you think the evidence stacks up? For me, the slam-dunk is Paul's own report of James disagreeing with him. It seems far more likely that Paul was reporting a real disagreement (even if inaccurately) with a real person than concocting a disagreement with a fictional one. If Paul didn't believe James was real, his audience certainly did, or Paul's references to him would have been meaningless.

Now, a historical James does not necessarily imply an historical Jesus. I suppose James could have been the one who made Jesus up, or started claiming to be the brother of a fictional Jesus who had been concocted by someone else. But that kind or thinking leads down a mighty deep rabbit-hole. We should be critical of our sources, and look for signs of bias, ideology, and other agendas that would influence their accounts, but if we go al Dr. House and assume everybody is lying, we don't have much history left.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Making Things Up Again (Arnold)

My apologies for the long silence. I have been neck-deep in the job search and preparing for conferences, but that’s no excuse. This particular piece has been rattling around in my head since July, and I somehow never got around to finishing it. Bad blogger!

This summer, I finally got a chance to see The Book of Mormon musical live, after listening to the soundtrack since the day it came out. It did not disappoint, and while it is filthy—just filthy—it also includes several of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen on stage. Possibly in any medium.

But more than that, the play has a lot of really relevant (and teachable) things to say about religion. Their vulgarity notwithstanding, Parker and Stone have a remarkably deft and subtle hand when it comes to people’s beliefs, evinced by the fact that the CJCLDS (bless their really polite hearts), rather than condemning the lampoon, bought up ads in the Playbill (“The book is always better!”). The overall theme of the show is remarkably pro-religion (albeit anti-orthodoxy and anti-dogmatism), with a deep respect for the power of belief to improve lives.

Which brings me to my main point. The rest of this entry contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the show, so if you haven’t seen it or heard the soundtrack, I advise you to do so before going any further. I’m giving away the ending, and it’s better if you don’t see it coming.

(Cut for spoilers, naughty words, and deep theological insight)

I hear they have the Ark of the Covenant too

Over 100 long-lost Doctor Who episodes found by dedicated fans - in Ethiopia

Those of us in the Enochic field have long known that Ethiopia is a treasure-trove of important works long considered lost....