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I have started to explain what I’m hoping my next trade book will be, focusing on the book of Revelation and its effect on modern thinking about the End of the World soon to come.   I’m tentatively calling the book Expecting Armageddon, and it would roughly cover three areas:  the religious expectation that God’s judgment is right around the corner – for example in the fundamentalist belief of an imminent “rapture”; the secular versions of this idea, that the world as we know it is soon to be destroyed in one way or another – for example, through nuclear holocaust (as portrayed, e.g., in novels and film), and the political implications of these beliefs (e.g., in understandings of the Second Amendment; environmental legislation; and the U.S. support for Israel) (! Who would-a thought?); and the demonstration that all this perspective is based ultimately on a certain understanding/way of reading the book of Revelation, a mode of interpretation that scholars have long argued is untenable.

I’m pretty pumped about the possibility of the book.  But I haven’t proposed it to a publisher yet, so … well, I don’t know what the future holds!

Here is the next bit of the description that I’ve written for myself, based on yesterday’s post about the end-of-the-world predictions of Edgar Whisenant, widely accepted in some circles of Christian fundamentalists, who discovered, to their dismay, that he had been completely wrong in every way.

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Most people find such futuristic scenarios bizarre, troubling, and fringe.  But they are not all that fringe.  No better evidence can come than from one of….

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Instead of one long (and possibly laborious) thread on my current research for my scholarly monograph on Otherworldly Journeys, I’ve decided to talk about that work sporadically, here and there on the blog, over the course of the next couple of months.   I would like to give a greater focus on the books I’m working on for a general audience.

As I have mentioned, I have two in view just now and am in the process of planning them.  I don’t have a contract for either one yet, but hope to present the possibilities to my publisher soon.   One, as I have indicated, would be on the expectation that the end is coming soon, both among many Christians but also in the secular culture at large, all based on a certain reading of the book of Revelation (the secularists usually don’t realize this!) that scholars have long found untenable.   That is the one I’ll start in on here on the blog.

My normal process for coming up with a proposal for a publisher is to 1) Get the idea; 2) Do a bunch or reading on it; 3) Draft a statement for myself about how I’m imagining it; and 4) (When I’m sure how I want to propose it) Come up with an actual Prospectus for the publisher.

I have now drafted my statement for myself and would like to share it with you.  It is longer than normal, since the whole idea is a bit involved.  It will take probably six posts or so to present it all.

My tentative title for the book (this will certainly change) (unless the End comes first) is Expecting the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation and Imminent End of the World.   This is how I start in my self- statement (if you’ve read my book on Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet, this part will sound familiar, though none of the rest of the book will).

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Toward the end of the 20th century the millennia-long fascination with the imminent end of the world grew to a fevered pitch in parts of American culture, not just among the many millions of conservative Christians who expected Jesus to return in judgment during their lifetime, but also in secular popular culture and its perennial obsession with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic film and literature.

The widespread conviction that the end may indeed be coming soon is not simply …

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Back to my scholarly monograph on Otherworldly Journeys.   I pointed out in previous posts that when scholars became particularly interested in these various accounts in ancient Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian circles, they were particularly intrigued with the question of where the idea came from, that a living person could see the realms of the dead.  I then devoted a couple of posts to exploring why, in the 19th century, this was a matter of such interest.

I don’t at all deny that this question of “origins” is important, but I’m not particularly interested in pursuing myself.   There is already enough of that, for my taste!  I’m interested in other things, and am somewhat surprised that other scholars have not wanted to pursue them at greater length.   My book will not be an exhaustive study of the phenomenon – that would require several books, or, for at least a pretense of comprehensiveness, a book of over 600 pages.  And my days of 600-page books are over.

I will instead be picking my spots and pursuing particular points of interest to me, with a focus on the Christian examples of these journeys/visions in light of others in other cultures.  (Recall: these are called “katabasis” traditions; katabasis is a Greek word that means “going down,” and as a technical term it refers to someone going down to view the underworld, and then coming back to describe it.)

At the outset, in the first chapter, I will probably explore, briefly, four different katabasis traditions from four different cultures:  Homer’s Odyssey, book 11 (Greek); Virgil’s Aeneid, book 6 (Roman); The Testament of Abraham (Jewish); and the Apocalypse of Paul (Christian).   The point of that chapter will be …

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I received recently the following question, which deals with an issue I had long puzzled over.  It involves the episode in the Gospels where Pilate offers to release a prisoner to the crowds at Passover, hoping they will choose Jesus.  But instead they choose a Jewish insurrectionist and murderer, Barabbas.  Could that have happened?

Here’s the Question and my Response:

QUESTION:

Pilate condemns Jesus to execution for treason against Rome. Pilate gives the Jewish crowds the option of releasing Jesus or a Jewish insurgent, Barabbas (15:6–15).   I did a quick search to see if this was an attested practice in the Roman Empire and couldn’t’ find any relevant information.  So, I have two questions:  Do you think this detail is accurate?  Is there any evidence that Roman officials actually freed condemned prisoners at certain local festival times?

RESPONSE:

This was an issue I worked on while writing my book Jesus Before the Gospels.  After doing my research I came to a definite conclusion, that I state rather strongly (!).  Here is what I say about the matter there:

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Mark’s Gospel indicates that it was Pilate’s custom to release a prisoner guilty of a capital crime to the Jewish crowd in honor of the Passover festival.  He asks if they would like him to release Jesus, but they urge him to release for them Barabbas instead, a man in prison for committing murder during an insurrection.   Pilate appears to feel that his hand is forced, and so he sets Barabbas free but orders Jesus to be crucified (Mark 15:6-15).

This Barabbas episode was firmly set in the early Christian memory of Jesus’ trial – it is found, with variations, in all four of the Gospels (Matthew 27:15-23; Luke 23:17-23; John 18:39-40).   I do not see how it can be historically right, however; it appears to be a distorted memory.

For starters, what evidence is there that Pilate ever released a prisoner to the Jewish crowd because they wanted him to do so, or because he wanted to behave kindly toward them during their festival?   Apart from the Gospels, there is none at all.   In part that is because we do not have a huge number of sources for the governorship of Pilate over Judea, just some highly negative remarks in the writings of a Jewish intellectual of his day, Philo of Alexandria, and a couple of stories in the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus.   These are enough, though, to show us the basic character of Pilate, his attitude to the Jews that he ruled, and his basic approach to Jewish sensitivities.  The short story is that he was a brutal, ruthless ruler with no concerns at all for what the people he governed thought about him or his policies.  He was violent, mean-spirited, and hard-headed.   He used his soldiers as thugs to beat the people into submission, and he ruled Judea with an iron fist.

Is Pilate the sort of person who would kindly accede to the requests of his Jewish subjects in light of their religious sensitivities?   In fact he was just the opposite kind of person.  Not only do we have no record of him releasing prisoners to them once a year, or ever.  Knowing what we know about him, it seems completely implausible.   I should point out that we don’t have any evidence of any Roman governor, anywhere, in any of the provinces, having any such policy.

And thinking about the alleged facts of the case for a second, how could there be such a policy?  Barabbas in this account is not just a murderer, he is an insurrectionist.  If he was involved with an insurrection, that means he engaged in an armed attempt to overthrow Roman rule.   If he murdered during the insurrection, he almost certainly would have murdered a Roman soldier or someone who collaborated with the Romans.   Are we supposed to believe that the ruthless, iron-fisted Pilate would release a dangerous enemy of the state because the Jewish crowd would have liked him to do so?   What did Romans do with insurrectionists?  Did they set them free so they could engage in more armed guerilla warfare?  Would any ruling authority do this?  Of course not.  Would the Romans?  Actually we know what they did with insurrectionists.  They crucified them.

I don’t think the Barabbas episode can be a historical recollection of what really happened.  It’s a distorted memory.  But where did such an incredible story come from?

We need to remember what I stressed earlier, that these accounts of Jesus’ trial repeatedly emphasize that Pilate was the innocent party.  It was those awful Jews who were responsible for Jesus’ death.  For the Christian storytellers, in killing Jesus, the Jews killed their own messiah.  That’s how wicked and foolish they were.  They preferred to kill rather than revere the one God had sent to them.   That is one key to understanding the Barabbas episode.  The Jews preferred a violent, murdering, insurrectionist to the Son of God.

There is even more to it than that.   We have no evidence outside these Gospel accounts that any such person as Barabbas existed.   It is interesting to think about the name of this apparently non-existent person.   In Aramaic, the language of Palestine, the name Bar-abbas literally means “son of the father.”   And so, in a very poignant way, the story of the release of Barabbas is a story about which kind of “son of the father” the Jewish people preferred.  Do they prefer the one who is a political insurgent, who believed that the solution to Israel’s problems was a violent overthrow of the ruling authorities?  Or do they prefer the loving “Son of the Father” who was willing to give his life for others?   In these Christian recollections, the Jewish people preferred the murdering insurrectionist to the self-sacrificing savior.

It is interesting to note that in some manuscripts of Matthew’s account of the Barabbas episode there is an important addition.  In these manuscripts – which may well represent what the Gospel writer originally wrote – Barabbas is actually named “Jesus Barabbas.”  Now the contrast is even more explicit: which kind of Jesus do the Jews want?   Which Jesus, the son of the Father, is to be preferred?   In this account, of course, the Jews are remembered as preferring the wrong one.  But for the Gospel writers that’s because the Jews are always doing the wrong thing and always opposing the true ways of God.

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I normally post only once a day, but in tracing down a Blast From the Past to give today, I ran across this little nugget that I had completely forgotten about, also from this time six years ago.  Too good to not repost!

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OK, this is completely irrelevant to anything related to the blog – especially early Christology, my current topic.   But I thought it was too funny to pass up.   A fellow who lived in my neighborhood, but whom I never knew (to my regret: he sounds like he was a remarkably interesting guy), beloved chemistry professor Dr. James Bonk died Friday at the age of 82, ending his 53-year career at Duke University.

 According to the local newspaper:

Bonk’s classes were such a staple that Duke introductory chemistry classes became known as “Bonkistry” classes, which approximately 30,000 students attended.

He was nationally known for comical incidents with students, one rumored to have taken place in the 1960s.

The Bonk joke is that the weekend before a final exam, four students decided to visit the University of Virginia for the weekend and let off some steam. They were due back Sunday in time for their exam Monday morning, but were too hung over to travel. When they arrived back at Duke late, they told Bonk that they had a flat tire and he agreed to allow a make-up exam the following day.

The students were placed in separate rooms for the make-up exam. The first question, worth five points, was relatively easy and the students were confident they were going to do well. But when they flipped the page, the next question – worth 95 points – asked simply: “Which tire?”

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Here’s a post I made six years ago, when just starting to think about what I would do in my book How Jesus Became God, where I recount a rather emotional experience of starting to doubt my faith.

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When I attended Moody Bible Institute in the mid 1970s, every student was required, every semester, to do some kind of Christian ministry work.   Like all of my fellow students I was completely untrained and unqualified to do the things I did, but I think Moody believed in on-the-job training.   And so every student had to have one semester where, for maybe 2-3 hours one afternoon a week, they would engage in “door-to-door evangelism.”  That involved being transported to some neighborhood in Chicago, knocking on doors, trying to strike up a conversation, get into the homes, and convert people.  A fundamentalist version of the Mormon missionary thing, also carried out two-by-two.

One semester I was a late-night counselor on the Moody Christian radio station.  People would call up with questions about the Bible or with problems in their lives, and I would, well, give them all the answers.  I was all of 18.  One semester I was a chaplain one afternoon a week at Cook County Hospital.  Completely out of my depth with that one.

When I was a senior (it was a three year degree program), my roommate and I decided…

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It was especially in the nineteenth century that scholars of religion, theology, and biblical studies became deeply obsessed with the question of “origins.”   In many ways, the roots for this interest – in these fields in particular – lay in the Protestant Reformation, and it is no accident that the major research on the question was done in predominantly Protestant countries (especially Germany; somewhat in England and, even less, in America) and by Protestant professors in these fields, scholars who had themselves received theological training before themselves giving instruction in universities.

Roughly speaking, it was possible to think about “origins” in two very different ways, one we might label “Catholic” and the other “Protestant.”   In the Catholic way of thinking, the “origins” of something was the starting point, from which important developments began to transpire, as religion, theology, and even “the truth” evolved into higher forms over the centuries.

This evolutionary model, of course, owed a good deal to other intellectual currents of the day, for example in the understanding of languages: they become more sophisticated and gratifyingly nuanced over the centuries, leading to the brilliance of, say, modern German and English.  And the history of culture:  who can deny that life is much better in the 19th century than in the 9th, or in the 9th BCE?, or the 29th BCE?  And, of course, the sciences — not just biological evolution, where humans have evolved, frankly, to be superior beings to amoebas, but the evolution of science itself, as we know far more about cosmology (the world was not created in six calendar days!), astronomy (there is actually a universe out there, and it is all not circulating around *us*!), chemistry, anatomy, and on and on.  And, relatedly, technology: railways, steam engines, the telegraph, etc. etc.

From this point of view, the origins of something are important because …

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Once I realized that so much of the scholarship on the Christian accounts of journeys to the realms of heaven and hell was focused almost exclusively on the ultimate question of where this idea of taking an actual trip to the afterlife came from – ancient Greek myths?  Jewish apocalypses? – I was deeply puzzled by it.   Why is the *origin* of an idea the most important or revealing thing about it?   Would any scholar of Victorian English dealing with David Copperfield be concerned *only* with knowing where the idea of writing a novel originated?  It’s an interesting and important question, but is that really the main thing we want to know about the book?

Why would it different with this kind of ancient religious writing?   Why this one focus?  And what was driving the concern?   I immediately realized that it was tied in to lots of other fields of inquiry going on in the 19th century.  Origins seemed to be everywhere.  Scientists were interested in the origins of life, and the origins of humankind (Darwin “The Origin of Species,” 1859!); linguists were interested in the origins of language (what was the “original” language; how do they all go back to common roots); anthropologists were interested in the origins of the “races”; cultural historians were interested in knowing where/when the earliest civilizations were and what they were like; etc. etc.

This kind of interest just seems natural to us.  It’s second nature.  It’s common sense.  Of course this is interesting and important.   But it occurred to me that it is a completely modern obsession.  Throughout most of history …

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After I had engaged for a couple of months doing some real research and thinking seriously about my scholarly book on visions of and journeys to the realms of heaven and hell (tentatively entitled, for now, Otherworldly Journeys: Katabasis Traditions in Early Christianity), I thought I might start it all by doing a kind of history of research.   This is how scholarly books commonly used to start – especially books of German scholarship and American dissertations.  Chapter one would be a discussion of what all the other scholars had said about a topic, and use that history of scholarship to set up what the author him/herself wanted to explore, argue, and say that was different – whether it involved new data or new interpretations of old data, etc.

That way of preceding was always highly informative (and often seen as essential: my dissertation advisor insisted on it!) but not always scintillating, and most books today are more driven by scintillation.   So I certainly was not planning, for this book, on giving a blow-by-blow account of everything everyone had ever said about Katabasis in ancient writings, from Gilgamesh to Homer to Aristophanes to Plato to Virgil to Lucian to Jewish apocalypses to Christian apocalypses etc. etc.   Too pedantic.

But I was struck by a particular feature of the great bulk of this research, and thought I might devote a chapter to it.  As I pointed out in the previous post, scholars who started studying the Christian versions of afterlife journeys seriously, with the discovery of the Apocalypse of Peter in 1886-87, were obsessed with the question of where the idea of a journey to heaven and hell came from.  Where did Christians pick it up?

Was it from …

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I recently received a succinct but very important question about whether Jesus is ever mentioned by any Jewish sources of the first century.

The premise behind the question is that if Jesus was the miracle-working son of God who was healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead – wouldn’t everyone be talking about him, all the time?  It turns out, the answer is – we don’t know!  We have hardly any Jewish writings from his time and place.

At the end of the first century we do have the copious and massively important historical writings of Flavius Josephus, and there is one passage in particular where he does indeed refer to Jesus.  The passage is typically called the “Testimonium Flavianum” (that is, “Flavius [Josephus’s] Testimony to Jesus”).  But did Josephus actually write this passage?  Or has it been inserted into his work by a later scribe?  Or did a later Christian scribe “touch it up” a bit?

Here is the simple but crucial question I have received.

QUESTION:

How much of the Testimonium Flavianum do you think is original?

RESPONSE:

I will put my response in terms of the broader question of Jewish sources (of any use) for the life of Jesus.  I have taken this from my book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction

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In contrast to pagan sources, we have very few Jewish texts of any kind that can be reliably dated to the first century of the Common Era. There are references to Jesus in later documents, such as those that make up that great collection of Jewish lore and learning, the Talmud. This compilation of traditions was preserved by rabbis living in the first several centuries of the Common Era. Some of the traditions found in the Talmud may possibly date back to the period of our concern, but scholars have increasingly realized that it is difficult to establish accurate dates for them. The collection itself was made long after the period of Jesus’ life; the core of the Talmud is the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic opinions about the Law that was not written until nearly two centuries after his death. Moreover, Jesus is never mentioned in this part of the Talmud; he appears only in commentaries on the Mishnah that were produced much later. Scholars are therefore skeptical of the usefulness of these references in reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus.

There is one Jewish author, however, who both wrote during our time period (before 130 c.e.) and mentioned Jesus. The Jewish historian Josephus produced several important works, the two best known of which are his insider’s perspective on the Jewish War against Rome in 66–73 c.e. and his twenty-volume history of the Jewish people from Adam and Eve up to the time of the Jewish War, a book that he titled The Antiquities of the Jews.

Scores of important, and less important, Jews, especially Jews in and around Josephus’s own time, are discussed in these historical works. Jesus is not mentioned at all in Josephus’s treatment of the Jewish War, which comes as no surprise since his crucifixion took place some three decades before the war started, but he does make two tantalizingly brief appearances in the Antiquities.

One reference to Jesus occurs in a story about the Jewish high priest Ananus, who abused his power in the year 62 c.e. by unlawfully putting to death James, whom Josephus identifies as “the brother of Jesus who is called the messiah” (Ant. 20.9.1). From this reference we can learn that Jesus was known to have a brother named James, which we already knew from the New Testament (see Mark 6:3 and Gal 1:19), and that he was thought by some people to be the messiah, although obviously not by Josephus himself, who remained a non-Christian Jew.

Josephus’s religious perspective has made the other reference to Jesus a source of considerable puzzlement over the years, for he not only mentions Jesus as a historical figure but also appears to profess faith in him as the messiah—somewhat peculiar for a person who never converted to Christianity.

Probably the most controversial passage in all of Josephus’s writings is his description of Jesus in book 18 of The Antiquities of the Jews.

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Ant. 18.3.3)

This testimony of Jesus has long puzzled scholars. Why would Josephus, a devout Jew who never became a Christian, profess faith in Jesus by suggesting that he was something more than a man, calling him the messiah (rather than merely saying that others thought he was) and claiming that he was raised from the dead in fulfillment of prophecy?

Many scholars have recognized that the problem can be solved by looking at how, and by whom, Josephus’s writings were transmitted over the centuries. In fact, they were not preserved by Jews, many of whom considered him to be a traitor because of his conduct during and after the war with Rome. Rather, it was Christians who copied Josephus’s writings through the ages. Is it possible that this reference to Jesus was beefed up a bit by a Christian scribe who wanted to make Josephus appear more appreciative of the “true faith”?

If we take out the Christianized portions of the passage, what we are left with, according to one of the most convincing modern studies, is the following:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (John Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1991; vol. 1, p. 61)

If this is something Josephus wrote, as most scholars continue to think, then it indicates that Jesus was a wise man and a teacher who performed startling deeds and as a consequence found a following among both Jews and Greeks; it states that he was accused by Jewish leaders before Pilate, who condemned him to be crucified; and it points out that his followers remained devoted to him even afterward (Ant. 18.3.3).

It is useful to know that Josephus had this much information about Jesus. Unfortunately, there is not much here to help us understand specifically what Jesus said and did. We might conclude that he was considered important enough for Josephus to mention, although not as important as, say, John the Baptist or many other Palestinian Jews who were thought to be prophets at the time, about whom Josephus says a good deal more. We will probably never know if Josephus actually had more information about Jesus at his disposal or if he told us all that he knew.

No other non-Christian Jewish source written before 130 c.e. mentions Jesus.

Clearly, we cannot learn much about Jesus from non-Christian sources, whether pagan or Jewish. Thus if we want to know what Jesus actually said and did during his life, we are therefore compelled to turn to sources produced by his followers.

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