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Ask a Theologian II

Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by Plotinus, May 9, 2008.

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  1. Eran of Arcadia

    Eran of Arcadia Stormin' Mormon Retired Moderator

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    I don't think he meant name that after a different set of gods, name them after saints or virtues or something.
     
  2. Atticus

    Atticus Chieftain Retired Moderator

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    I was trying to make joke ;)
     
  3. Red Door

    Red Door Man of Mayhem

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    What do you think of Otto's idea of the religious experience (The Holy)? Are we just trying to put an answer to a question we cannot know the answer to?
     
  4. Perfection

    Perfection The Great Head.

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    How so? :confused:
     
  5. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    Christendom "officially" only recognizes only one God; depending on the denomination though, this may be either one or three persons. The rest of the planets would then be in lack of a Christian name.

    How so? Wasn't Saul/Paul the one who "invented" converting gentiles? That would make the stance that he invented Christianity not really that far from the truth, as without gentile conversions Christianity today might be just a judaic rival. (A big What if? there though, I'd agree.) I also don't see how this amounts to "ignorant" if your explanation lacks substantiation.

    As for the historicity of Jesus: with all the theological humbug developed after his death, there's precious little else we know apart from the fact that he lived, preached for a few years and died. The gospels provide little accuracy about Jesus' actual message, with the obvious result of endless theological debate and schisms likely never to heal. Whatever Jesus' original message, "the church" today is far removed from that.

    And I still think the church today (whatever denomination) is far from being the monotheistic religion it pretends to be. Perhaps the idea of a single divine being is too esoteric for most.
     
  6. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I didn't say that non-theologians shouldn't discuss or investigate such matters. I just said that philosophers, qua philosophers, are not experts on it, so I couldn't understand why you cited their opinions as if they were especially significant. If I said that many mathematicians have doubts about the theory of evolution by natural selection, that might be of interest to anyone investigating scientific knowledge among mathematicians, but it wouldn't be particularly relevant to a discussion about Darwin, would it?

    There are no better sources for Jesus than the canonical gospels, or more specifically, the synoptic gospels. Dismissing them because they're "a bit rich" is like choosing to ignore Plato as a source for Socrates on the basis that he's a bit biased. The fact that the gospels were written by Christians for the purpose of glorifying Jesus doesn't make them worthless as historical sources. It just makes them biased in a certain way. All historical sources are biased or partial in one way or another. In fact, with the gospels it could be argued that we're in a better position to evaluate them, because at least we know what the bias is.

    You present a false dichotomy between "gospel truth" and worthlessness. You seem to assume that because the gospels are not 100% reliable, they must be 100% unreliable, and of no worth as historical documents. That is not a rational approach - no historian normally rejects as worthless documents that cannot be shown to be 100% reliable.

    The Gospel of Thomas is not a superior source to the synoptic gospels. No-one knows where or when it was written, but Antioch at the end of the first century is a good estimate. That would make it later than the synoptic gospels. Not that earliness or lateness are the be-all and end-all. Any good historian knows that a later source may contain more information, or provide a more balanced viewpoint, than an earlier source; being earlier does not make a source more authentic or reliable. Nevertheless, in the case of the Gospel of Thomas, being later doesn't seem to help much. It may well be based, to some extent, upon Matthew's Gospel or upon some of Matthew's sources, since it contains a lot of similar material. It also shows clear signs of incipient gnosticism, indicating that the material has been considerably reworked to support a gnostic version of Christianity, or something similar.

    That doesn't make it worthless, any more than the Christian conviction of the authors of the canonical gospels makes them worthless, but it seems to me that holding up Thomas as some kind of authentic record of Jesus while denigrating the canonical gospels is going to require a lot of argument to support. Thomas is probably the only non-canonical source that contains any useful information about the real Jesus, but it still pales in comparison to the canonical gospels.

    I probably can't help you much there, because I think the Bible is incredibly dull as well. I've never found anything in the Old Testament to be remotely interesting. I suppose I'd recommend that you try the New Testament, perhaps the Gospel of Matthew, and see what you think. It's still pretty tedious stuff though, to be honest.

    Maybe. I don't know much about this sort of thing. I think that the notion that religious experience always involves the "numinous" makes a lot of sense, although personally I would be wary of over-stressing the similarities between different kinds of religious experiences. I suspect that they are more varied than Otto's analysis would suggest, especially between different religions.

    I don't think there's any reason to suppose that Paul invented the notion of converting gentiles. After all, the first gentile to be converted in the New Testament is the eunuch from Ethiopia (actually Nubia) whom Philip converts in Acts 8, which is set before Paul's conversion. Paul simply believed that his mission was to gentiles. In fact there's considerable controversy over what that meant and how Paul went about his mission - did he try to convert gentiles who were already hanging around synagogues, or did he ignore synagogues and go for other gentiles? And how successful was he? Some have thought that Paul's gentile mission was enormously successful and swamped the church with gentiles, while others have thought that it was mostly very unsuccessful, and that the church remained overwhelmingly Jewish until after the time of Constantine. If that's the case then Paul's conversion of gentiles made little or no difference to Christianity. The point here is that our lack of knowledge means it's unwise to make such strong claims as that Paul effectively re-invented Christianity or anything like that. I'm not saying that Paul wasn't enormously influential, because obviously he was. The point is simply that that doesn't mean he completely transformed the religion.

    I don't know quite what you mean by "theological humbug", but still: as I said before, the fact that the gospels (may) distort Jesus' message doesn't make them worthless as sources for reconstructing that message. Also, of course, Jesus' message is only one aspect of the historical Jesus; indeed, if one assumes that the main task of Jesus scholarship is to recover what he said, one is already prejudging the results of that scholarship, because it might turn out that what he did was actually more significant at the time. Perhaps Jesus was basically a healer with a little sideline in preaching, in which case perhaps the early Christians were not so off-message as you suggest in making Jesus' person, rather than Jesus' teaching, the main content of their own preaching. In any case, the point here is that the gospels' lack of accuracy doesn't translate into a lack of content. Plato isn't very accurate in his portrayal of Socrates, but that doesn't make Plato worthless as a source for the historical Socrates, and neither does it mean that we know nothing about Socrates. The situation with Jesus is pretty similar. In fact it's arguably better, because we have more sources for Jesus than we do for Socrates.

    Whether the church today teaches the same message as Jesus or not is obviously a completely different issue. The church today and the authors of the gospels are not the same thing, although no doubt the former is enormously influenced by the latter.
     
  7. Dachs

    Dachs Hero of the Soviet Union

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    I :love: you. Seriously, though, that's one of the main things that ticks me off. It's almost as though people don't know that the field of historiography exists. :(

    Being on topic, are the silver scrolls still the oldest bits of Tanakh text extant or is there anything that's been found that is of more ancient origin?
     
  8. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I suppose that an unwillingness to be content with uncertainty is a fundamental element of the human mind. This is good, because it has spurred people to try to remove uncertainty, which has given us philosophy and science. But it's also bad, because it has spurred people to deny that uncertainty exists, which has given us fundamentalism of all kinds. That's people for you.

    That I definitely don't know. Perhaps Maimonides knows more about this sort of thing.

    Back on the subject of the reliability of the gospels and the historical Jesus, I thought I might as well post some material from a book I just wrote on this topic. This is basically an overview of what I think we know about Jesus, and why. This is from the first draft, and almost all of this material got cut completely in the second draft, so there's no reason why I can't post it here. It's pretty unpolished, and only introductory, but it might help to clarify some of the points I've made above.

    -------------------------

    The sources for Jesus

    How do we know anything about Jesus himself?

    There are a number of sources for Jesus’ life, which can conveniently be sorted into three groups. First, there are non-Christian sources. These are extremely patchy, and tell us nothing beyond the bare fact of Jesus’ existence, or at least that his followers believed he existed. Second, there are Christian sources outside the New Testament. These are Gospels and other writings that purport to describe Jesus’ actions and report his teachings, but which never made it into the Christian Bible. Most scholars agree that almost all of them give us no reliable information about the real Jesus. Most were written relatively late (from the second century AD onwards) and contain material that is obviously legendary or written simply to support the doctrines of the groups who produced them. For example, one book, known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, seems to date from the second century AD and tells the story of Jesus’ childhood. Jesus is presented as a rather terrifying child with magic powers, who uses them as a rather petulant child would – sometimes healing people, but sometimes causing boys he doesn’t like to drop dead. These stories were obviously purely legendary, designed to entertain rather than to instruct. They are useful for understanding later Christian communities and their beliefs, but they are of no value for finding out about the historical Jesus. One of the few apocryphal Gospels which many scholars think does contain some useful information is the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings of Jesus, some of which could well be authentic; but scholars do not agree whether the author of this Gospel had access to authentic sources apart from the canonical Gospels.

    The Gospels

    The third group of sources is by far the most important: the New Testament, that is, the documents from the early church which, by the end of the fourth century, were accepted throughout the church as scripture. As sources for the historical Jesus, these can be divided into two groups. First there are the letters, mostly those of Paul. These are the earliest surviving Christian documents of any kind, and they preserve some important information. However, these are tidbits of information compared to the other major group of sources in the New Testament: the four Gospels, which purport to tell the story of Jesus’ life. These four books are known by the names of the figures who are traditionally supposed to have written them: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew and John were disciples of Jesus, while Mark and Luke were followers of Peter and Paul respectively. However, most scholars today think it unlikely that these people really wrote the Gospels. But it is usual to use the traditional names to refer to both the Gospels themselves and their authors, on the understanding that this is just a convenience and that we do not know who the authors actually were.

    We shall see more about how and when these books came to be written in the next chapter. Briefly, most of the material they contain seems to be based upon earlier, oral traditions. Much of it consists of fairly short stories about Jesus. These stories, known as periscopes, are mostly quite self-contained: Jesus arrives somewhere, meets someone, and does or says something. Apart from Jesus and his disciples, the characters in one pericope rarely appear in another. These pericopes were originally stories which Christians told each other about Jesus: the Gospels collected these and write them down. The order in which they appear in the Gospels therefore seems to be entirely the invention of the authors, but the pericopes themselves were not, at least for the most part.

    Some of this material was probably written down before the Gospels as we know them were written. Indeed, some of the Gospels that we have seem to have been based upon each other. Matthew, Mark, and Luke share much of the same material, often word-for-word, and as a result are known as the “Synoptics”, meaning that they have the same viewpoint. It is generally accepted that Matthew and Luke, working independently, both used Mark’s Gospel as a source together with another, now lost text known as Q (short for Quellen, the German word for “source”). John’s Gospel is more problematic: it is different in style from the Synoptics, and contains a lot of different material. Scholars disagree over whether the author of John’s Gospel had read any of the Synoptics at all. Many also think that John’s material is less historical, and that the speeches he attributes to Jesus are mostly his own work. As a result, most scholars generally look to the Synoptics as their prime source for the real Jesus and regard John with some suspicion.

    All of this means that the Gospels are very complex indeed. When we read one of these books, we are not simply reading a single book that a single author sat down and wrote, either as a form of fiction or as an honest memoir. Each Gospel contains a number of voices. First, there is whatever Jesus himself actually said or did. Second, there are the innumerable Christians who, later on, remembered the event and told it to each other, perhaps changing elements here and there. And third, there is the author of the Gospel, who wrote down the story as he heard it and perhaps changed it himself, or created a context for it, to make it serve his purpose.

    This is not to say that trying to isolate the first of these layers – Jesus himself – from the others is a hopeless task. Both the oral tradition and the writers could be quite conservative and reluctant to alter important elements. A good modern analogy might be jokes. When a joke is told and retold, it tends to change as each teller gives it his own spin – but the basic “point” of the joke, the situation it describes and the punchline, tend to remain the same. If they didn’t, the joke would lose its value. Similarly, we can imagine that stories about Jesus were moulded as they were transmitted, but that the “point” would tend to remain roughly intact. There is an example of this from the rabbinic literature about Hanina ben Dosa, the Galilean miracle-worker who was active a few years after Jesus. Two different traditions preserve versions of a story in which Hanina is bitten by a snake, but he is unharmed and the snake drops dead. In one story he is bitten unexpectedly, and the snake slithers off and is found dead by its hole. In the other, Hanina seeks the snake out, allows it to bite him, waits for it to die and then shows it to his disciples. Both versions end with his disciples saying something along the lines of “Woe to the man who is bitten by a snake, but woe to the snake that bites Hanina ben Dosa.” Clearly, different story-tellers introduced their own variations to this story, but even so they preserved the basic narrative, and also the pithy saying that concludes it. These memorable features were the “point” of the story and remained basically unchanged. We can easily imagine something similar with some of the stories about Jesus in the Gospels. Consider, for example, the following one:

    Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. Mark 12:13-17

    Clearly, the “point” of this story is Jesus showing the coin to his hearers and his saying about giving to the emperor and to God what belongs to them. What about the rest of the story, with the Pharisees trying to trick him, and their opening speech with its insincere praise of him? Perhaps that is how it really happened; or perhaps it is a later elaboration, created by the author of the Gospel or one of his sources to give the teaching about the coin a bit of context. But the important part, the “point”, is much more likely to preserve and ancient and perhaps tradition.

    The ministry of Jesus

    The Gospels are fairly clear on the rough outline of Jesus’ life and what he did, so we can at least sketch a brief biographical outline of what most scholars agree is certain.

    Jesus was actually called Yeshua (“Jesus” is a Latinisation). It was a fairly common Jewish name at the time and also appears in another form as “Joshua”. The name “Christ” was not Jesus’ name at all – this was a title, meaning “Messiah”, that later Christians applied to him. Jesus was probably born in around 4 BC in Palestine and apparently worked in Galilee as an artisan, perhaps (although not certainly) a carpenter. At some point he became attached to the movement associated with John the Baptist, a popular preacher, and was baptised. He then set out as a preacher in his own right and acquired a reputation as a miracle worker, as well as a group of disciples. In around AD 30, he was put to death near Jerusalem on the orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. But within a few days, his disciples were convinced that he had been raised from the dead, and began preaching that he was the long-awaited Messiah.

    Details are harder to fill in. As with other ancient figures from lowly backgrounds, we probably know most about the end of Jesus’ life and least about its beginning. He was known as “Jesus of Nazareth” and he seems to have grown up in this town in Galilee. The Gospels of Mark and John say nothing about his birth or childhood. Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, many miles away in Judea, but they disagree on the circumstances. Matthew has Jesus’ parents living in Bethlehem to start with, and moving to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth to escape persecution; Luke has them living in Nazareth from the start, visiting Bethlehem to take part in a census, then returning to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth. Some scholars believe that despite their discrepancies, these infancy narratives preserve the historical fact that Jesus really was born in Bethlehem. Most, however, believe that he was actually born in Nazareth or nearby, and that Matthew and Luke portray him as being born in Bethlehem for theological reasons. The “king of the Jews” was supposed to come from David’s city, which was Bethlehem, so they thought up ways to show that he really did, even though he was brought up in Nazareth.

    Nothing is then known of most of Jesus’ life until the beginning of his public ministry. All four Gospels portray Jesus as being initially involved with John the Baptist in some way; the Synoptics go further, telling us that John baptised Jesus. This very probably happened, since later Christians would be unlikely to invent the story that Jesus was originally a disciple of someone else. In any case, Jesus soon left John the Baptist and started preaching in his own right. According to Mark 1:14, Jesus did this after John was arrested, which seems intrinsically probable. But he had already made something of a name for himself before John died, because we hear of the imprisoned John sending messengers to ask Jesus who he really was.

    The Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel disagree over the circumstances of Jesus’ ministry. According to the Synoptics, Jesus preached almost exclusively in Galilee, and then made one fateful journey to Jerusalem, which ended in his death. According to John, Jesus preached all over Palestine, and visited Jerusalem on a number of occasions. John also has Jesus attend three different Passovers, which is the reason why Jesus’ ministry has traditionally been thought to have lasted for three years – although one of the Passovers comes at the start of his ministry and the third right at the end, so a period of slightly over two years would seem more reasonable. But the Synoptics mention only the Passover during which Jesus died, and give the impression of a much shorter ministry, lasting perhaps a matter of months.

    All the sources agree that Jesus preached, that he healed people, and that he worked non-healing miracles too. It seems certain that, at the very least, Jesus had a reputation for all of these things within his lifetime or very soon afterwards. This in itself was unusual. As we have seen, there were various holy men with reputations for working miracles, and there were preachers who taught their followers how to live, but we know of no-one who did both (there are a couple of sayings attributed to Hanina ben Dosa in addition to his miracles, but nothing like the body of teaching associated with Jesus). This is one of the major reasons why scholars disagree so much about how to interpret Jesus. Which group did he “fit” most closely?

    Modern scholars are not alone in their disagreement about how to categorise Jesus. Mark’s Gospel presents a Jesus who mostly performs miracles and healings; he teaches as well, but his teachings are short and sporadic. Clearly, Mark sees healings and miracles as the most important element of Jesus’ ministry. The first part of John’s Gospel, too, is dominated by a series of miracles, which are referred to as “signs” of Jesus’ authority. Some scholars believe that this part of the Gospel is based upon an earlier document, known as the “Signs Gospel”, which consists of just these stories. The author of this material might have agreed with Mark that Jesus was primarily a miracle-worker.

    Jesus’ miracles

    And all the sources agree that Jesus did a number of different kinds of miracles. There are healing miracles, of which the following is typical:

    When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who cape to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Matthew 8:1-3

    Some healings have interesting features. In Mark 8:22-26 he heals a blind man in two stages, giving him first blurry vision, and then full vision; he also uses apparently “magical” methods involving putting saliva on his eyes. In Mark 5:25-34 he heals someone without meaning to: a woman suffering from haemorrhages touches his cloak and is healed. And in Matthew 8:5-13 he heals a centurion’s son without actually going to him – just as Hanina ben Dosa is supposed to have done. The most dramatic healings involve raising people from the dead, such as a young girl in Mark 5:35-43 or his friend Lazarus in John 11:38-44.

    In the Synoptics, although not in John, there are also exorcisms, of which the following is typical:

    Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. Mark 1:23-26

    Most of the exorcism stories involve the demon recognising Jesus, and Jesus casting it out simply by telling it to leave. These exorcisms are especially interesting given the general lack of exorcism stories, or discussion of exorcisms, elsewhere in the New Testament; the early Christians were evidently not very bothered about exorcisms, which means they would have been unlikely to invent the notion that Jesus had performed them – which in turn means that these stories, or at least the tradition behind them that Jesus was an exorcist, is very likely to be true. And finally, there are also many other kinds of miracles: Jesus feeds a huge crowd with a few loaves and fish; while on a boat he tells a storm to quieten down, and it does; he walks on water. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of these miracles are often accompanied by the information that those who saw them were amazed and wondered who Jesus could be.

    The teaching of Jesus

    But Jesus’ deeds are just half of the story. As we have seen, many scholars believe that there existed a now-lost document called Q, which both Matthew and Luke used in their Gospels. Q seems to have consisted almost entirely of Jesus’ sayings rather than his actions. Another Christian who might have agreed was the author of the Gospel of Thomas, which also consisted of a series of sayings. Evidently, these ancient authors thought that Jesus’ teachings were the most interesting thing about his ministry.

    Jesus’ teaching seems to have been very wide-ranging. The Gospels present three main themes in his teaching.

    The ethical life

    In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus delivers five major speeches, each of which the author seems to have written mainly by collecting shorter sayings from the oral (or written) tradition and combining them according to theme. The first of these major speeches is probably the most famous: the Sermon on the Mount, so-called because Matthew has Jesus deliver it from the top of a hill. The material here is mostly ethical: Jesus tells his hearers how they are to live. Evidently, Matthew believed that this strand in Jesus’ teaching was extremely important and wished to give it prominence in the first part of his book. It is worth mentioning that much of this material also appears in Luke, although he places it in different contexts.

    The Sermon on the Mount contains some of the most famous of Jesus’ teachings. It includes the so-called “antitheses”, where Jesus cites part of the Law and contrasts it with his own views; in fact his views, as presented here, do not contradict the Law but go beyond it:

    You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder;” and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. Matthew 5:21-22

    These “antitheses” indicate that Jesus was aware that his teaching fell into a certain tradition, namely that of interpreting the Law. Certainly many people during his lifetime seem to have regarded him as an interpreter of the Law, like the Pharisaic scholars mentioned earlier. There are stories of people coming up to him and asking for judgements on scriptural material, and Jesus obliging them:

    One of the scribes... asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

    The answer Jesus gives here is the standard one of Jewish teachers of the time, so it is little wonder that Mark tells us that the scribe not only approved of it but elaborated upon it himself. In fact, much of Jesus’ teaching on this subject and on ethics in general parallels that of other Jewish teachers of the time, especially those in the Pharisaic party. Of the two main rival groups within that party – the more conservative and rigorous, represented by Shammai, and the more liberal, represented by Hillel – Jesus seems generally to side with the latter. For example, we saw earlier Hillel’s claim that the whole Law can be summarised by the principle that one should not do to others what one would not want done to oneself. No doubt he would have approved of Jesus’ very similar formula: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Even the claim that this rule sums up the Law and the prophets mirrors Hillel’s saying. It is also worth noting that Mark 12:18-27 tells us that a group of Sadducees asked Jesus about a paradox concerning the resurrection of the dead. As we have seen, the Sadducees did not believe in any such resurrection, while the Pharisees did. This story suggests that the Sadducees regarded Jesus as basically allied with the Pharisees, since they seem to assume that he shares the Pharisees’ views about the resurrection – an assumption which Jesus’ response bears out.

    In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also calls his followers to live a radically perfect life, based upon loving others:

    You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48

    Importantly, the teaching is presented not as a list of rules about how to live, but as the outcome of an attitude towards God. The idea seems to be that someone who is in tune with God will behave in this sort of way naturally, just as God himself does; one’s actions reflect one’s true nature, just as a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit. This is why the Sermon on the Mount also contains material attacking hypocrisy, and urging its hearers to live lives of integrity, which are genuinely oriented towards God and do not simply appear to be. And Jesus also calls upon his hearers to rely upon God for everything:

    Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father fees them. Are you not of more value than they?... Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”... your heavenly Father knows that you need all of these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:25-33
     
  9. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    The Kingdom of God

    The fact that Jesus’ ethical teaching is really all about having a certain attitude to God links it to the second main strand in his preaching, which is the Kingdom of God. Many scholars regard this as the most important element of Jesus’ teaching, but it can be hard to unravel precisely what it means. The problem is that the Gospels present Jesus as teaching apparently contradictory things about it.

    On the one hand, the Kingdom of God is the great cataclysmic event in which God will intervene in history and put things right; it is the eschaton, the end of the present order of things which so many Jews hoped for in Jesus’ day. Or, more precisely, it is the glorious time after this eschaton. As we have seen, John the Baptist’s message seems to have revolved around the claim that something like this was imminent, and there is good evidence that Jesus preached the same thing. Mark 13 consists of a long speech which Jesus gives about the coming end of the world. In it, Jesus tells his followers that they will be persecuted, that there will be wars and famines, that there will be terrible suffering and claims that the Messiah has come, and that the Son of Man will appear and bring about the end. Mark links this teaching to Jesus’ prophecy that the Temple would be destroyed, a prophecy that at that time would have been regarded as a prophecy about the end of the world. There is evidence that Jesus thought this was coming soon: Mark 9:1 has him tell his followers that some of them would still be alive when it happened.

    That saying links the coming eschaton explicitly to the Kingdom of God. There is other material that also suggests that the Kingdom is a future state, when things will be very different. In Mark 10:35-45, for example, Jesus’ disciples bicker about who will have the most power in the future Kingdom; Jesus tells them that they should wish to serve each other, not be in command. In Matthew 18:1-4, Jesus says much the same thing, using a child to illustrate his point:

    Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. Matthew 18:3-4

    But we also find material that suggests that the Kingdom of God exists right now: it is present in Jesus’ own actions and words, and in those of his followers:

    Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you. Luke 17:20-21

    And, finally, some passages seem to combine these two apparently contradictory views. In one, we are told:

    The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come. Mark 4:26-29

    In passages such as this – and the parable of the mustard seed, which follows it – Jesus suggests that the Kingdom of God is here now and still on its way. It is here right now like a seed, growing secretly, but at some point it will reach maturity and there will be a great harvest.

    For the past two centuries, scholars have generally taken some of these passages to be more fundamental and interpreted the others in their light. In the nineteenth century, the most common approach was to focus upon the passages where the Kingdom is here right now, and interpret them as meaning that the Kingdom is a human society which Jesus sought to set up on earth, namely the church. At the end of that century, Albert Schweitzer argued for the opposite: he thought that the passages about the coming Kingdom were the most important, meaning that the Kingdom was the irruption of God into the world, which Jesus expected to happen soon. In recent years, probably a majority of scholars have agreed that these passages are the key to understanding Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom, but they have also insisted that one should not neglect the others. On this view, Jesus did preach that a cataclysmic event was on its way – perhaps quite soon – but he also believed that the Kingdom which this event would inaugurate was already here in some small but important way.

    Himself

    The third main theme in Jesus’ teaching, as represented in the Gospels, is himself. Here again there are discrepancies, but this time they are between the different Gospels. In John’s Gospel, Jesus hardly ever talks about the Kingdom of God or gives ethical teaching, but instead talks about himself most of the time. In this teaching, which is delivered openly, he calls himself “the Son”, and he speaks of his relationship to “the Father”, that is, God. The following is an example:

    Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomsoever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgement to the Son, so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. John 5:19-23

    There are also the “I am” statements, in which Jesus makes an often odd-sounding claim about himself, linked to the events that have just happened. For example, after the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand with a few fish and loaves of bread, Jesus says:

    I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. John 6:35

    But the Synoptics offer a completely different picture. There, Jesus’ teaching is dominated by moral questions and the Kingdom of God; he talks about himself very rarely. When he does, he does not talk of “the Son” or offer “I am” statements. Instead, by far the most common phrase he uses is “Son of Man” (a phrase which also appears in John, but less frequently). In some passages it is not clear whether the “Son of Man” is supposed to be Jesus himself, or another figure he anticipates will come with the Kingdom. But the authors of the Gospels certainly thought that the “Son of Man” meant Jesus himself, and offer material making this clear:

    Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. Mark 8:31

    It seems very likely that Jesus did use this phrase to refer to himself obliquely. But there is enormous debate over whether he did so with deliberate reference to the “Son of Man” in the book of Daniel or not; if he did, then he was describing himself as a heavenly figure who heralds the end of the world.

    Other titles for Jesus appear in the Gospels, with two in particular being of interest. The first is “Son of God”. In later centuries, Christians came to believe that Jesus had two natures: he was fully divine and fully human at the same time. Later theologians often used the two titles – “Son of God” and “Son of Man” – to express these two natures. The implication was that the title “Son of God” indicated Jesus’ divinity just as “Son of Man” indicated his humanity. However, this is not what it would have meant to first-century Jews. The title “Son of God” appears at various points in the Jewish scriptures, where it is applied to different people, generally meaning that they are especially dear to God. For example, Psalm 2:7 applies it to the king of Israel. In the Gospels, Jesus never calls himself by this title; it is always suggested by other people, although he usually does not deny it. Thus we are told that God himself tells Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” at the moment of his baptism (Mark 1:11), but after this the devil tempts him with a series of offers, beginning “If you are the Son of God...” In fact the most common appearance of the term in the Gospels is in exorcisms, when demons use it to address Jesus. So the question whether Jesus believed himself to be “the” Son of God, which is sometimes asked today, is rather misleading. Whether Jesus himself used that actual title of himself or not – and the Gospels do not particularly imply that he did – it would seem quite reasonable to suppose that he did, at least, believe himself to be close to God and favoured by him; and that is all that the title would have meant to him and his contemporaries. It certainly would not have meant that he was literally God’s biological offspring.

    Finally, there is the title “Messiah”. We have already seen what this meant: a human figure descended from King David who, in some Jewish traditions, was expected to appear as some kind of leader shortly before the eschaton. Did Jesus think he was the Messiah? Again the evidence is surprisingly patchy. The Gospel writers certainly thought he was: both Matthew and Mark tell us that he was in the first sentence of their Gospels. But they offer very little material in which Jesus himself uses it of himself. Rather, others use it of him. The most famous passage in which this occurs is the following:

    Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Mark 8:27-30

    That passage implies that Jesus agreed that he was the Messiah, since he does not contradict Peter, but he doesn’t confirm it either – and in the next section he speaks about himself using his preferred title of “Son of Man”. Another oddity is Jesus’ trial before the high priest, when he is asked outright if he is the Messiah. In Mark 14:62, he answers unequivocally that he is. In Luke 22:67, however, he refuses to answer. And in Matthew 26:64, he also dodges the question, but the construction of the sentence in Greek implies a denial (it is something like “That is what you say, but I, on the other hand, say this...”). It is especially odd, if Matthew and Luke are using Mark as their source here, that they should alter it so that Jesus does not claim to be the Messiah – one would expect them to want to do the opposite!

    A related oddity is the “messianic secret”. In contrast to John’s Gospel – where Jesus makes strong claims about himself constantly – the Synoptic Gospels present Jesus as trying to keep his identity secret. This goes for titles such as “Messiah” and “Son of God” as well as rumours about his miraculous powers:

    Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God!” But he sternly ordered them not to make him known. Mark 3:11-12

    However, Jesus’ attempts to remain incognito fail; everyone he tells to keep quiet goes and tells their friends. It has been suggested that this feature of Jesus’ ministry is an invention by the authors of the Gospels, especially Mark, who wanted to explain two apparently contradictory facts: first, Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah; and second, he was the Messiah (as they believed). By introducing the notion that Jesus knew he was the Messiah but tried (unsuccessfully) to keep a secret, they could reconcile these two facts. The idea seems plausible, although it might equally be the case that Jesus didn’t want people shouting that he was the Messiah (irrespective of whether he thought he was the Messiah or not) because he knew how the authorities might react to such claims.

    But one thing is clear. The remarkable paucity of material portraying Jesus as claiming to be the Messiah, when the authors of the Gospels were convinced that he was the Messiah, indicates how reluctant they were to invent material of their own. If the authors of the Gospels were more interested in glorifying Jesus and confirming the beliefs that they and their readers had about him than they were in the historical truth, we might expect them to have simply invented a few sayings of their own in which Jesus told everyone he was the Messiah. In fact, this is roughly what the vast majority of scholars think is the case with John’s Gospel: on this view, the lengthy speeches in that Gospel in which Jesus talks about the relationship between the Father and the Son, and presents himself as the focus of his own teaching, is a reflection of the author’s own beliefs or those of his community, projected back upon Jesus. These scholars therefore believe that the Synoptics, whose authors were apparently quite reluctant to invent new material, offer a much more authentic account of how Jesus saw himself than John does.

    The followers of Jesus

    We have already seen several references to Jesus’ disciples in the material we have looked at so far. Who were these disciples? The question is doubly important for our purposes, since the disciples were not only part of Jesus’ life and ministry – they were the founders of the Christian church itself.

    According to all four Gospels, Jesus’ disciples were not simply hangers-on who decided they might learn something from him; he actively went out and commanded at least some of them to follow him. The Gospels also agree that this was one of the first things he did, almost immediately after his baptism:

    As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. Mark 1:16-20

    According to John, Andrew was initially a disciple of John the Baptist, who left him to follow Jesus, and inspired his brother Simon to follow Jesus too. Whatever the precise circumstances, however, it seems clear that Jesus had disciples from a very early stage in his ministry, and furthermore that these two sets of brothers – Simon and Andrew, and James and John – were the most important. In the Synoptic Gospels, Andrew falls into the background, leaving James and John and above all Simon (whom Jesus renames Peter) as the leading disciples. These three were part of a group known as “the Twelve”. We are told:

    He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have the authority to cast out demons. So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. Mark 3:13-19

    Most of the names on this list remain nothing more than names, and the other Gospels all give slightly different names, too. However, we can explain this apparent discrepancy easily if we bear in mind that “the Twelve” was actually the name of the group, and not simply the number of its members. Paul refers to them by this name in 1 Corinthians 15:5. Twelve was a very significant number in antiquity, being the number of signs of the zodiac; it was especially significant to Jews, being the number of the sons of Jacob and of the tribes descended from him. But the twelve tribes had been scattered and most of them lost. If Jesus chose an inner circle of disciples called “the Twelve” then he did so to make a symbolic point: this was to be the beginning of the renewal of Israel and its twelve tribes. And if this is so, then there needn’t actually have been precisely twelve of them. The name was what mattered. This would explain why, if one adds up all the disciples named as members of the Twelve in the Gospels, one comes up with rather too many.

    Certainly the most prominent of the Twelve was Peter, who acts more or less as the spokesmen for the disciples in the Synoptics. Close behind him come James and John; these three are present at Jesus’ transfiguration in Mark 9:2-8, and he takes them with him to pray just before his arrest in Mark 14:33. In John’s Gospel, however, James and John are not even mentioned, except obliquely in 21:2, and Peter is rivalled by an unnamed “beloved disciple”. Traditionally, this disciple has been thought to be John (and the author of the Gospel, hence the name), but a flaw with that explanation is that if he were John one would expect him to be accompanied by James, but James doesn’t appear at all. Perhaps this disciple is John or one of the others, who had founded the community that read the Gospel, and therefore did not need to be named; or perhaps the character is simply a literary device of the author’s and cannot be identified with any historical figure at all.

    There were other disciples too – apparently many. We might count the crowds who apparently thronged to see Jesus speak or act as disciples of a sort: the people who crowded out the house where he was staying (Mark 2:2) or crowded the shore so he had to teach from a boat (Mark 4:1), multitudes of thousands (Mark 6:44). But between the central Twelve and the rather ephemeral sympathisers such as these, there were others who seem to have been more committed. Paul mentions a group of over five hundred of them in 1 Corinthians 15:6. In Luke 10:1-12, Jesus sends out seventy of them to preach – although this story repeats material from Matthew 10:5-15, where it is only the Twelve who are sent out, and we do not hear of a “Seventy” anywhere else. The Twelve appear to have all been men, but many women are mentioned in the Gospels as quite dedicated disciples. Luke 8:1-3 tells us that some accompanied Jesus and the Twelve and helped to pay for their needs; Matthew 27:55-56 tells us that many women were present at Jesus’ execution. Among the female disciples who are named are Mary Magdalene, as well as another Mary, the mother of James the younger and of Joses, who appear in Mark 15:40, 47. However, contrary to some popular accounts, virtually nothing is known about Mary Magdalene, like most of the other named disciples in the Gospels. There were later legends about almost all of them, but reliable early material is very scarce. One notable point, however, is that Jesus’ family seem not to have been among his disciples; Mark 3:20-35 even tells us that they tried to have him restrained for fear that he had gone mad.

    How did Jesus and his disciples live? The Gospels give the impression that they wandered from place to place, with no fixed address. It does not necessarily follow that they were completely homeless, although Jesus did say that “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Mark 2:2 suggests that Jesus was staying, perhaps temporarily, in a particular house. Matthew 17:25 suggests that Jesus and Peter were actually living together. Presumably Jesus and his disciples could sometimes count upon the hospitality of sympathisers, such as the women already mentioned. In Luke 19:5 he invites himself to the house of Zacchaeus, while in Mark 2:15-17 he is entertained by Levi, and the Pharisees complain that he eats with tax collectors and sinners. Evidently Jesus had something of a reputation for doing this, which implies that he could count on the hospitality of friends and well wishers fairly frequently.

    Opposition to Jesus

    Some of the Pharisees did not approve of Jesus’ habit of eating with sinners; but the Gospels suggest that the disapproval went much deeper than that. In fact the Gospels tell us that Jesus clashed repeatedly with various individuals and groups during his ministry, clashes that ultimately led to his death.

    As we shall see in later chapters, much of this “controversy” material probably reflects the situation of the authors of the Gospels more than it does the situation of Jesus himself. When we are told that Jesus had some disagreement with the Pharisees, it may in fact be the case that the later Christians were having that disagreement with non-Christian Jews, and that this has influenced the material in the Gospels. For example, in Mark’s Gospel the Pharisees are portrayed sometimes positively and sometimes negatively, but Matthew’s Gospel removes all the positive elements and emphasises the negative ones. This leads scholars to conclude that Matthew was writing at a time of great tension between the Christian and Jewish communities, and this in turn means his picture of Jesus’ own controversies is somewhat distorted.

    Much of the controversy described in the Gospels concerns Jesus’ attitude to the Law. We have already noted the “antitheses” in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus suggests more extreme versions of various parts of the Law – something that many Jewish teachers of the time, such as the stricter Pharisees and especially the Essenes – would have approved of. But other material portrays Jesus as coming into conflict with others, especially the Pharisees, over the Law. A series of stories from Mark 2:1 to 3:6 shows the Pharisees objecting to Jesus’ behaviour: he tells people their sins are forgiven; he eats with sinners; he does not fast; his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath; and he heals someone on the Sabbath. Most of these actions would probably not have been offensive or Law-breaking – for example, telling someone that their sins were forgiven would have been a normal way of stating that God forgave them, while healing someone simply by speaking did not break any rules about the Sabbath at all. Moreover, as we have seen, Jewish religious experts themselves disagreed about how to interpret and apply the Law; Jesus’ actions and sayings on the matter seem to fit well into that tradition, which makes it hard to see how they could have brought about the kind of opposition that the Gospels report. According to Mark 3:6, the Pharisees reacted to his healing on the Sabbath by plotting to kill him, something that would have been a wild over-reaction even if he had broken the Law. The rabbinical literature tells us of Jewish teachers who deliberately flouted the Law altogether – thereby effectively committing apostasy – without being murdered for it. It seems likely, then, that these accounts of conflicts with Pharisees and others over the Law reflect the later situation of Christians rather than of Jesus himself.

    Moreover, the Gospels suggest that the hostility that Jesus aroused was so great that it led to his death. It seems intrinsically unlikely that such extreme hostility could have come from these kinds of disputes; Jewish teachers disagreed with each other all the time about such things without plotting to kill each other. Most scholars therefore suggest that Jesus’ death was caused by more immediate factors associated with his presence in Jerusalem during Passover, rather than by long-term factors that had been building up over the course of his ministry.

    The death of Jesus

    It is virtually certain that Jesus was indeed crucified on the orders of Pontius Pilate – certainly between AD 26 and AD 36 (because this is when Pilate was prefect), but probably in around AD 30. No official record of the sentence exists, but then enormous numbers of people were executed in this fashion and no official records survive for any of them. Nearly two centuries later, the Christian theologian Tertullian claimed that official records of Jesus’ trial were still available in Rome, but it is highly unlikely that they were, or even that they were kept at all assuming that they existed in the first place. But even in the absence of corroborating evidence, we can be confident that the Gospels are correct in saying that Jesus was crucified because the later Christians would not have made it up. As we shall see in chapter 5, increasingly hostile relations with the Jewish authorities led the Christians to tend to try to “blame” them for Jesus’ death, and exonerate the Romans and especially Pilate. But crucifixion was a Roman punishment. If the Christians had invented the details of Jesus’ death, they would probably have said he had been stoned to death, a more Jewish method of execution, or perhaps lynched, as Jesus’ brother James later was. As it is, the authors of the Gospels have to take considerable pains to “show” that although Pilate ordered Jesus’ death, he did so very reluctantly and only because the Jewish leaders forced him to. It seems that we can safely conclude that Jesus really did die in this way – although whether Pilate was really so reluctant is another matter.

    Why was Jesus executed at all? That is harder to establish; to suffer Roman execution he must have committed some crime against the Roman state. According to the Gospels, Pilate ordered his men to attach a mocking sign to Jesus’ cross, reading “This is the king of the Jews”. Evidently Jesus had claimed to be the king of the Jews, or at least he was said to have made such a claim. That claim would have been treasonous and a rejection of the authority of Rome, and this would explain why Rome had him executed. Obviously the sign was intended as a warning to anyone else who might feel inclined to rebel against Rome – that was, indeed, the whole point of crucifixion, which involved nailing or tying the victim up by the roadside as a not-so-subtle message to passers by. According to the Gospels, Jesus had been handed over to Pilate for punishment by the high priest of the Temple in Jerusalem. The high priest was responsible for keeping public order, but he could not authorise executions, which is why he first tried Jesus and then, deciding that he deserved death, passed him on to Pilate.

    Why, then, did the high priest arrest Jesus in the first place? The Gospels suggest that the Jewish priests in general resented Jesus as an upstart, but as we have seen, there were other preachers like him who did not suffer such a fate. It seems simpler to suppose that the high priest saw Jesus as a troublemaker. He had arrived in Jerusalem during Passover, when the city was packed with pilgrims and tensions were high, and the Roman prefect and his men were in residence to try to keep things calm. He had entered the city in a sort of “triumph” on a donkey, gone around preaching about the Kingdom of God and predicting that the Temple would be destroyed, and caused some kind of disturbance in the Temple itself. That would probably have been quite enough for the high priest to want to remove Jesus from the scene before anything got out of hand. Indeed, the Synoptics agree in placing Jesus’ action in the Temple – and his prediction of its downfall – as occurring very soon before his arrest. This seems more likely than John’s account, which has Jesus performing his action in the Temple at the start of his ministry, not the end, and which instead identifies his raising of Lazarus from the dead as the pivotal act which convinces the high priest and his advisers that he must die.

    It is also worth noting that other popular figures of the time appear to have been arrested without actually having done anything treasonous at all, apparently because the authorities feared they might become a focus of political resistance. John the Baptist, who fell foul of Antipas in Galilee, is one. Another is a certain Jesus son of Ananias, who was arrested by the high priest in Jerusalem in AD 62. According to the historian Josephus, this Jesus son of Ananias was a peasant who claimed to be a prophet, and who prophesied woe upon Jerusalem. The high priest, alarmed at the potential for disturbance this represented, had him arrested and beaten; he was then released but arrested a second time and handed over the Roman governor, who had him scourged and eventually released on grounds of insanity. Cases such as this indicate that any popular prophet-type figure risked being arrested as a troublemaker even if he had never broken any law. Perhaps the same thing happened to Jesus of Nazareth; perhaps he was no rebel at all, but the authorities thought he might become one and decided to take pre-emptive action.
     
  10. Sidhe

    Sidhe Chieftain

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    Well that answers nothing, so when Herodotus says that he was way layed by Satyrs on his way to Athens or that the Persian army numbered a million we should just believe it. And the godpel of Thomas isn't dated to the end of the first century that's your opinion as you well know the date is contested.

    See I think your problem is your slumming it with people here who have no real knowledge of the subject? I think if you had any balls you'd take all this stuff that is mostly your opinion of history to people who know a great deal, like theologians on philosophy forums, instead of ruling over the kingdom of the blind. But then I doubt you would survive to be frank.

    These aren't my arguments, if you want to dispute them take them to people that you think actually matter. Instead of taking pot shots at so called knowlessmen. if your that confident in your opinion why waste your time with the plebian?
     
  11. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Perhaps you didn't read what I said. I said we don't have to choose between (a) believing everything we read, and (b) rejecting it completely. There is also (c) reading it critically. That is the sensible approach which historians normally use when reading ancient sources. There's no reason why the gospels shouldn't be treated in the same way.

    I said myself that its date is uncertain, but the specialist literature which I've read on the subject suggests that the end of the first century is a reasonable conjecture. It doesn't really matter, though. Your claim was that it's actually a better source for the historical Jesus than the canonical gospels. My point was that I don't see any reason to suppose that.

    Believe me, I deal with both theologians and philosophers at a far more professional level than that of discussions on internet forums. I have this quaint faith in the published, peer-reviewed word. My purpose in this thread is not to try to impose my own opinions on other people but to state as honestly as I can what I think is the case, in the light of my own research and experience, with regard to the various topics that are raised. I've indicated what's my own opinion and tried to give a sense of the range of opinions that exist. If that still seems too biased for you then feel free to ask other people for their views too.
     
  12. Sidhe

    Sidhe Chieftain

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    Fair enough but these contentions aren't as clear cut as you make out, you say end of the second century but it's hardly a consensus at all.

    I also think that any academic who wants to write challenging professional material should brush up his skills in places where heavyweights congregate, if you do that then I have no problem.

    I do think though that the gospels are little more than "propaganda" and the accuracy of anything in them needs to be questioned, but then it has and is by people who know what they are talking about, so you don't need me. Historical scholars are so divided on the authenticity of the Bible in many senses as to make much of the subject of contention, lacking as it does so often validation from other sources. I mean does anyone actually believe Moses wrote the first five books any more? Do people think Jericho's walls fell when someone blew on a trumpet, or that the 40 cities of Ai were slaughtered in some cases totally, and why don't the Egyptians mention the Jewish exodus and or their period of servitude, for that matter why isn't the prophecy of the second coming fulfilled already post Babylon?

    I seriously doubt if anyone outside of the faithful is really reading them with more than a cursory idea that it is historically accurate. Let's face it it probably was never meant to be in many cases, and the Gospels as a single source are no exception. Especially when you refuse to copy any alternative views and enforce your will on what is cannon with a matter of opinion.
     
  13. Maimonides

    Maimonides Chieftain

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    OK, folks, I had to do some research on this one, but I'm glad I did because I learned allot. I knew much more about the oldest examples of written Hebrew than I did the Tanakh itself. Here's the answer:

    The "silver scrolls" are still the oldest extant parts of the Tanakh that we have found. They were found in a tomb in Jerusalem in 1979 & date to the 7th century BCE. They are between 2 & 3 inches long & contain exerpts from Numbers. It's thought that recent technology may find more inscriptions on them, but I couldn't find any more info on that. Here's a good article from the Baptist Press in 2004 on them.

    The oldest extant complete Tanakh we had WAS the Aleppo Codex, but it was damaged when the synagogue where it was housed in Aleppo, Syria was burned down during anti-Jewish riots in 1947. (Things like this piss me off more than I can express, but I don't want to derail this thread so I'm biting my tongue here.) The Aleppo Codex dates to the 10th century CE. It's remnants are now safely housed at the National Hebrew Library in Jerusalem.

    The oldest extant complete Tanakh we have NOW :)mad:) is the Leningrad Codex. It was written in Cairo in 1009 CE on parchment. Abraham Firkovich, a Jewish Karaite businessman who collected Hebrew manuscripts, sold the Leningrad Codex to the St. Petersburg Imperial Library in the 19th century, but it's unknown where or how he acquired it. It was unavailable for study during the Soviet era, but Gorbachev's glastnost policies (& some bribes) allowed it to be photographed in 1990. It remains at that library which has been renamed the Russian National Library. It has been reproduced & published & can now be purchased at Amazon. Here's a great article from the Jewish Virtual Library.

    This is unrelated, but I think it will interest those who are enjoying this thread. I stumbled upon it while researching for Dach's answer. It's a very good article that lays out basic info on Jewish writings such as the Torah, Tanakh & Talmud. It has photos of old Jewish manuscripts (including a couple by Maimonides :D) & it also lists the differences between the books included in the Jewish Bible, Catholic Bible & Protestant Bible.

    Thanks for throwing me the ball, Plotinus! I didn't know about the Leningrad Codex & the Aleppo Codex until now.:goodjob:
     
  14. Dachs

    Dachs Hero of the Soviet Union

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    Awesome, thanks Maimonides. Will be exploring those links for awhile now. :)
     
  15. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    I'm happy to see you finally used some actual source references for your reply. (And I don't agree with Sidhe's aggressive stance towards your statements at all, BTW.)

    Interesting view for a theologian, to say the least. Personally I don't think the Torah is "dull" at all (except for the genealogies and food prescriptions and such), as it provides lots of allegories (often referred to in the arts) and similes, not to mention the Ten Commandments, and was the basis of the teachings of Jesus and like Jewish preachers, as well as Judaism and Christianity as a whole. (Without the Torah these would have little point, if only because of all the references to it.)

    There was a reason I put "invented" in quotation marks; indeed, I do not think Saul/Paul invented Christianity. But there's an essential difference between preaching within the community and preaching to gentiles. (The fact that a single non-Jewish conversion occurred before Paul made his appearance can hardly be significant here: there was a real controversy as to the question if and what kind of missionary activity - to call it that - should be considered Christian - to use that term. As is turned out, the paulinian line - if preaching to gentiles can be called that - was victorious, which was an important step in the development of early Christianity. Another significant step was the transition from tolerated religion to state religion around the 3rd century, as you mention. Then there's the establishment of the church as an institution, the gradual exclusion of women from the priesthood, etc etc.)

    Interesting analogy here: just as Plato's initial dialogues may portray a more or less accurate description of Socrates himself, which is gradually replaced by the mere use of Socrates as a character to illustrate Plato's own views, so the initial gospels get corrupted, intrapolated - in short: falsified - to comply with developing Christian doctrines that didn't exist yet at the time they were originally written.

    Theological humbug:

    - the gradual exclusion of women from the priesthood
    - the development of doctrines (and assertion of these as canonical) which have no bearing on Jesus' original teaching (priests blessing weapons and wars, the "Holy Trinity", the "community of saints")
    - the development from a (potentially) revolutionary movement into an all-pervasive state church
    - the establishment of the papacy (on the pretense no less that Peter was the first pope)
    - "the church" itself (there isn't any one church and from Jesus activities it is very clear he never intended to found a new religion, let alone one based upon himself as a deity)
    - "intelligent design"
    - "rehabilitating" Gaileo Galilei after 400 years...
    Well, I could go on, but I'm no student of theology.
     
  16. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    My precise words were: "No-one knows where or when it was written, but Antioch at the end of the first century is a good estimate." I don't see how that's making it out to be clear-cut.

    Heavyweights congregate in academic journals, and I publish in them. It's a little offensive to assume that I don't if I haven't explicitly said so, and also to assume that if I'm not arguing on some particular website that you know of then I'm somehow avoiding critical analysis.

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there is nothing inconsistent about thinking that some things in a text are not true and that other things in that text are true.

    In the case of the gospels, I don't think the claim that they are mere propaganda and contain nothing of historical worth can be substantiated, for reasons that I outlined above. As I said in one of those long posts, for example, the gospel writers believed Jesus to be the Messiah. If they were just making up propaganda, you'd expect the gospels to be full of passages where Jesus claims to be the Messiah. But they are not. This suggests, at least to me, that the gospel writers were actually surprisingly reticent about making stuff up support their theological views. That doesn't mean that everything in them is true, before you ask. It means that we can at least be cautiously optimistic that they contain authentic material.

    I'm not sure what your last sentence there is about, but I think that reading a text with the assumption that it's all rubbish is just as biased as reading it with the assumption that it's all true. The gospels are historical sources like any other, and historians read them as they read any other ancient texts that purport to be history: critically. Reading something critically doesn't mean dismissing it out of hand, it means considering whether it's true or not, not forming a view about its truth from the outset.

    I don't think that's right. There were controversies in the first century relating to Judaism and Jewish practices, of course. Acts and Galatians both describe them. But these were about whether Christians are required to follow the Law. They weren't about whether it was OK to preach to gentiles. In fact even Paul doesn't give any suggestion that Peter or James, or anyone else, had a problem with that. The implication is that they all agreed without much difficulty that Paul would preach to gentiles and the others preach to Jews.

    Well, if you can criticise me for not citing sources or giving clear examples I think I can do the same to you here. Are you saying that the church tampered with the text of the gospels to support doctrines that it later developed? Because if so, I don't think that such a claim could be substantiated at all. The text of the gospels is very well established. Now some Christians did tamper with their text later on, such as Marcion, who accepted only a version of Luke's Gospel with all the Jewish bits cut out. But Marcion was regarded as a heretic; the mainstream church did not do this. Compare, for example, Tatian of Syria, who in the second century wrote a book known as the Diatessaron which was a harmony of all four gospels into a single text. He didn't add any material at all to what he took from the gospels. So he, at least, resisted the temptation to alter the text even when he was writing a new book based on it. We have the text of the Diatessaron, incidentally, which is another witness to the text of the gospels as Tatian had them.

    The only example of tampering with the text for doctrinal reasons that I can think of is 1 John 5:7, which contains a statement of the Trinity and is not found in reliable manuscripts. It is a later interpolation. But this isn't in the gospels, of course. More importantly, scholars know it's an interpolation, partly because the doctrine it contains is anachronistic, and partly because it's not present in all manuscripts. As this indicates, where interpolations exist, they are fairly easy to spot. If the gospels were full of them we'd know about it.

    (See here for an earlier and much more in-depth discussion of this issue.)

    If, on the other hand, you're making the weaker claim that the church later interpreted the gospels in line with doctrines that developed later, then that's obviously true, but not very relevant to the question whether the gospels are reliable sources for the historical Jesus. How people in the fourth or fifth centuries interpreted the gospels makes no difference to their status as historical sources.

    Well, you can call them all "humbug"; that's a matter of opinion. Others might say that these were legitimate developments of Jesus' teachings that were in line with his intentions. Whether that's a viable position is another matter, although one could at least make a case for some of these. For example, I don't see that it's "very clear" that Jesus never intended to found a new religion. Are you so sure? Might one not interpret many of his sayings about the kingdom of God, spreading and growing quietly in the here and now, as statements about a society of believers existing within mainstream society? That's how the church has traditionally interpreted them anyway, and while I'm not saying that that interpretation is right (I don't think it is), I equally don't think it's obviously wrong.

    But that's not to the point. The important point is that all of the developments you mention occurred long after the gospels were written. So I don't see why they are relevant to an assessment of the historical value of the gospels as sources for the historical Jesus. They'd only be relevant if they led people at those times to rewrite the gospels and eradicate all copies of earlier versions, but that didn't happen.
     
  17. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    You are suggesting that early Christianity did not have a controversy over whether or not to preach to gentiles? The earliest followers of Jesus were Jews - and very religious ones. Jews today still argue about religious detail and have done so since Judaism evolved; are we to believe that in Jesus' days this was different?

    First off, I didn't criticize for not referring to source texts, I praised you for it.

    Secondly, I did not say the church (there's no such thing as the church, and every Christian church uses its own particular version of the bible - a case in point, by the way) altered gospel texts, I said it was done for doctrinal reasons, in order to have older texts be in accordance with later doctrines. Also, when speaking of the gospels I include the letters and deeds of the "New Testament", for the simple reason that the "Old" Testament isn't altered or succeeded by any "New" Testament in the gospels. (Another example of theological humbug; the Torah contains the Ten Commandments, which are unaltered by Jesus, as he was a very religious Jew

    The gospel of Mark refers to Jesus most often as teacher (11 x) and rabbi (3 x); there are 5 references to him as Son of God, but twice this is said by a voice from heaven, twice by evil spirits, and the 5th is uttered by the Roman soldier at the cross: "Truly, this man was a son of God." The conversion of the executioner being a Jewish literary theme, that leaves factual doubtful sources for the title "son of God". Besides this, Mark, being the oldest gospel, if I'm not mistaken, has no mention of the later dogma of Jesus being God. For comparison: Mark dates Jesus as Son of God from his baptism on wards. Matthew lets him be born as a divine child from a virgin, and Luke lets John the Baptist hail him as an unborn child. (The latter points to an interesting twist of reality: John baptizing Jesus suggests that Jesus - at one time - was a follower of John, not the other way around.)

    Lastly, I did not criticize the gospels as a source for the historical Jesus; it's virtually the only source for that. However, they should be used critically.

    To begin with the last: I made no connection between alterations in the gospel texts and their value of source material for Jesus' life.

    Matthew 16, 28: There are those among you standing here, who shall surely not taste death, before they will have seen the Son of man coming in his royal dignity.

    Just one reference by Jesus to to the immanent Kingdom of Heaven - to which you have yourself referred to recently. Now would a man expecting the end of the world as we know it be interested in founding a new religion?

    As for humbug: I consider humbug things unproven - whether theological or not. "Legimtimate developments of Jesus teachings"? I think not. They are legitimate only because they are/were the teachings of the ruling church. The teachings of dissidents or minorities were equally "legitimate", but were ruled heretic.

    Lastly, your continuous references to "the church" are confusing: which church are you referring to? Now if you said something like "the churches" or "Christian churches", that would be clear. If on the other hand you are referring to a specific church. you should at least mention it.
     
  18. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I don't think you can just categorise "Jews" that broadly. Judaism in Jesus' day was (a) very different from Judaism today, and (b) very diverse. Pharisees spent lots of time arguing about religious details, and one of the reasons why Jews in later times have had a strong tradition of this is that Pharisaism was a major influence upon rabbinic Judaism. Paul was a Pharisee, but as far as I know there's no reason to think that Peter or James or the others were. They were not religious scholars, they were rural fishermen and artisans who had become followers of a charismatic preacher. Why should that have turned them into polemicists?

    So, yes, we are indeed to believe that in Jesus' day these things were different. Not only that, but we don't know much about it. Moreover, even if these people were inclined to argue about details with each other, it doesn't follow that they must have been arguing about this particular matter. As it happens, the New Testament does indicate that there were differences of opinion, some quite bitter, about various matters. But as far as I know there is no evidence that the issue of preaching to gentiles was among the things that they disagreed over. You can't just assume that it must have been just because you think that that's the sort of thing they would have argued about.

    I take the point about the different churches. When I say "the church" in general I mean all of them, which is a usual way of using the term. I don't understand your other point at all though. First you say that they didn't alter the texts, then you say that they did alter the texts, for doctrinal reasons. I cannot make sense of that - surely, either you think they did or you think they didn't.

    In any case, as I said, while there is evidence that some churches, namely the Marcionites, altered already-existing texts to suit their doctrinal views, I don't know of any evidence that other churches did this. And in the case of the Marcionites, we have the original, pre-altered texts anyway. As I said before, the text of the New Testament is very well attested, more so than most ancient texts. If the various churches had indeed been in the habit of tampering with texts to match their doctrinal views, then there would be a vast array of wildly variant readings of the texts in question. Every church would have its own version of the New Testament. Manuscripts from different locations and different periods would disagree massively with each other. But in fact we do not find this. There are variant readings between different manuscripts, of course, but nothing major or doctrinally significant (other than the aforementioned verse from 1 John) of the kind that you hint at, and nothing more than one normally finds with ancient texts. This is very strong evidence that the churches did not tamper with texts to bring them into conformity with changing doctrines. They didn't need to, anyway. Early Christians were adept at reading their own views into texts that don't seem to be even relevant to the views in question. Why alter the words of a text when you can just interpret them allegorically?

    Finally, it would be intrinsically surprising anyway if Christians altered texts in the way that you imply. Christians believed that the New Testament writings were by the apostles and contained the "rule of faith" in written form. They also believed that God had inspired their authors. It would be odd for people who genuinely believed that to rewrite the texts in such a cynical fashion. And the evidence confirms that they didn't.

    Fair enough, but you should have said, because "the gospels" does not normally mean the whole of the New Testament.

    I don't think that either Matthew or Luke suggests that Jesus was divine either. And yes, you're right that Jesus evidently started his career as a follower of John the Baptist. This was a little embarrassing for later Christians, and you can see how John's Gospel, in particular, goes out of its way to try to make it clear that Jesus was greater than John. This is one of the reasons we can be confident that John baptised Jesus, because not only would the Christians not have made it up, they were a bit embarrassed by it. But all of this merely indicates how theological beliefs influenced the way that the gospel authors wrote. Obviously I wouldn't dispute that. It's not evidence that the text of the gospels was altered by Christians in later centuries.

    I suppose you didn't explicitly, but given that you made this claim about the texts being corrupted and falsified in the context of a discussion about the value of the gospels as historical sources for Jesus, it seemed that you were making a connection. I'm sorry if I misinterpreted you.

    That's a good reason for supposing that he didn't. But one could equally well say that someone who spoked about his followers as spreading and growing slowly throughout society, and who called his best friend a "rock" on whom he would build his church, couldn't have really thought that the end of the world was imminent. It's a question of which texts you think are the authentic ones. If you think Jesus really said X then you'll say he couldn't have said Y. And if you think that he really said Y then you'll say he could have said X. But which way round is it? It's not obvious. Let me be clear here: I think you're right to suggest that Jesus was an eschatological prophet who did not set out to found a church. What I object to is the insistence that interpretations like this are "very clear", as you put it. You said yourself that the gospels must be read critically and carefully, because they are not straightforward, 100% reliable accounts. That's absolutely right. And that's why nothing about Jesus is "very clear". People who say that something is "very clear", whether they are arguing that for or against a traditional Christian interpretation, are simply choosing to favour one set of texts over another. There may be a good reason to do that, but the existence of alternative texts and alternative ways to weight them means that no interpretation can be so clear.

    And that's assuming that Jesus couldn't have said apparently contradictory things anyway. Are you so sure that he couldn't have sought to found a church and believed that the world was ending soon? Must Jesus have been completely consistent in his views and actions? Couldn't he have changed his mind about things over time? Couldn't he even have believed or done contradictory things at the same time? People do that all the time. They're particularly prone to do so in a context of extreme religious and emotional intensity. Paul seems to have believed all sorts of inconsistent things at once, and he was a highly trained Pharisee. Jesus was an itinerant charismatic preacher from Galilee, who lived two thousand years ago. Can any of us even begin to understand or imagine how someone like that would have thought?

    I'm not sure what period you're talking about here; there was no "ruling church" until perhaps the fifth century, at which point it splintered anyway. Besides, it could just as well be the other way around: the "ruling church" adopted certain interpretations as its teachings because they were the legitimate developments of Jesus' teachings, not vice versa. The point I'm trying to make here is that in rejecting one interpretation of the nature of doctrinal change, you're just assuming a contrary interpretation. It's not that simple. Personally I suspect that it's a combination of the two, and that some later developments were in line with Jesus' teachings or the teachings of the first Christians, and that others were not. I don't see any reason to dogmatically assume that they must all have been one or the other.
     
  19. Agent327

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    Again, that's not what I said: arguing isn't polemicizing. I apologize if I appear to categorize "Jews"; that's not my intention. Actually, the fact that these followers were Jews is irrelevant to the main question: if a religious leader dies - leaving contradictory teachings - it would be very surprising if his followers didn't argue over how to continue. Jesus never preached to gentiles; that Christians did is an essential evolution, eventually changing a Jewish sect into a world religion. You are assuming they didn't argue over such an essential question; I'm sorry, but I'm simply not convinced.

    Point taken. But if you say I said "they" did, then "they" didn't, you're simply misreading and misrepresenting what I stated. I said Christians (not "the church") altered Christian texts, for doctrinal reasons. I don't really see why that is unintelligible.

    Really? So why were these divinely inspired texts altered by these devout Christians?

    I appreciate your proving my point ("the Marcionites, altered already-existing texts to suit their doctrinal views"), but I was talking, as stated above, about simple text alterations and why I think that was done. If doctrine hadn't changed since the establishment of the gospel texts, there would have been no reason for altering any texts, would there?

    To start with the latter: that's simply not what I said. (You have given yourself examples to the contrary of this statement however.) But what I meant was that the original gospels (not New Testament), which, by the way, were established a full generation after Jesus died, aren't uncorrupted texts; there have been alterations. Which is why the gospels need to be looked at critically - as any texts should be - with regard to historical accuracy. (Without even taking into consideration the fact that they were - and are - meant as religious propaganda.)

    I wasn't interfering in or commenting on an ongoing discussion; I merely picked up on some points that were raised. I'm well aware that the gospels (and I do mean gospels) are a valuable source for what moved Jesus. But I can see how that may have been confusing.

    Well, what's very clear to me may obviously be not be for someone else; I have a very personal interest in Jesus - other people may not.

    To begin with the latter: Yes we can. (And historically speaking, plenty of people actually have, resulting in some very famous religious texts and the founding of several religious orders.) Assuming that Jesus is God (an accepted Christian doctrine) anything he said must have made perfect sense; the fact that his saying were contradictory in some ways actually is a case against this. (To counter a possible Trinity objection: the assumption that Jesus was both God and man, i.e. both perfect and imperfect, doesn't account for him talking nonsense. From the bible - to abstain from the use of gospels in an unclear way - it is obvious that Jesus had a very personal view of his relation with God; that however is not unique. If God and Jesus were really one, would God have allowed so much controversy over this issue? I think not.)

    Obviously the ruling church had to evolve first. We can assume a lot of things, but I would say it is safe to state that prevailing arguments need not at all be based on whether or not they are "legitimate developments of Jesus' teachings". Jesus was expecting a near end of the world as we know it; this is in direct contradicition to the establishment of any church, a development that could only occur because Jesus' expectations were wrong. (And I may be dogmatic in some respects, but I do not automatically assume anything; I only reason from observation.)

    "I don't think that either Matthew or Luke suggests that Jesus was divine either." Interesting (though inaccurate if you check); then would you agree that already in the Matthew and Luke gospels - established after Mark - the emphasis shifts?

    "who called his best friend a "rock" on whom he would build his church": I seem to remember this being an intrapolation, but I'll have to look into that. (At first glance I'd say this is too anachronistic to be true: Peter - Petrus - does mean "rock" in Latin, but Jesus knew no Latin and in the language spoken at that time "Peter/Petrus" wasn't the actual name. All names of the disciples appear to be latinizations, including Jesus' own, which is the same as Jozua/Jeshua, which appears in the Torah. Now in the Vulgate - being in Latin - this seems a perfectly plausible statement, albeit a bit too tautological for my taste. But the Vulgate is a Latin translation and the simile used is very unlike any other simile Jesus used.)

    Finally, I note you're not really contesting the content of my examples of theological humbug. For instance, the only intelligent thing about "intelligent design" is that the design of the universe suggests a certain level of intelligence; it does not suggest that it was created by an intelligence - in which case the creator was definitely imperfect. The universe may appear perfect, but only in a limited way. (Morally speaking it is far from perfect. So what- or who - ever created the universe was neither perfect nor good.)
     
  20. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Peter's name in the Matthew text is Petros, which is Greek for "rock". So the name is a hellenising, but this is reasonable given that Matthew is written in Greek. Other passages in the New Testament, especially Paul, refer to Peter as Cephas, the Aramaic equivalent. So it seems that Jesus called his friend "Cephas", meaning "rock", and "Peter" is just the same thing translated into Greek - just as Saul called himself Paul in a Greek-speaking context.

    In any case, and briefly, since I'm sure neither of us wishes to just keep on saying the same things over and over again, I don't believe there's any evidence for the Matthew passage being a later interpolation. I don't know of any reason to suppose that the author of Matthew's Gospel didn't include it in his text. It doesn't follow from that that Jesus himself said it, of course.

    I wish you would provide some kind of evidence for your claim that the later Christians corrupted and falsfied the text of the gospels. Just saying repeatedly that they did doesn't make it true, as I tried to explain to CurtSibling in that old thread I linked to earlier. Which bits do you think are interpolations? Can you cite manuscript evidence for this, as opposed to just assuming that anything that confirms later doctrines "must" be an interpolation? Marcion is not really evidence, since the whole reason he did it was that he rejected key elements of mainstream Christian doctrine, and the mainstream church condemned him for it. So that fact that he did it is hardly evidence that other Christians would have done it. On the contrary, the fact that he was condemned would seem to be evidence that they wouldn't have done it.

    Finally, I can't see any force in your claim that if Jesus was God he couldn't have said contradictory things. I don't think he was God, so I don't see any reason to accept the conclusion. And from what you've said about the doctrine of the incarnation before, it sounds like you don't believe that Jesus was God either. So it's hard to see why you're presenting an argument with a premise that neither of us thinks is true.

    Finally finally, "intelligent design" is obviously idiotic, and you don't need to notice the imperfections in the universe to know that. But the "intelligent design" argument as we know it was not really used in the patristic period; ancient defenders of theism usually appealed to "order" in the universe, which isn't quite the same thing.
     
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