Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Jesus Seminar Jesus is bankrupt: Post 1

Lately my mind has been processing whether or not we need The Jesus Project (TJP). I am particularly worried that the people involved will do nothing more than maintain their positions as mythers or positivists and there will be nothing accomplished beyond a stalemate regarding Jesus' historicity - except a media blip that scholars yet again can't agree on anything, even Jesus' existence.

But this worry is not something I want to talk about today. I'll likely take it up in another post later on. I only mention it now because it is this concern that has fired me up today to think about the problem of the historical Jesus more generally. So what this post is about is the scholarly enterprise that TJP is a reaction to - the Jesus Seminar (TJS) and the numerous claims of books by scholars over at least a century and a half - that they have recovered "the" historical Jesus.

I also want to preface my comments by noting that the turning point for me - the THING if there was one THING - the moment when I KNEW I would become a biblical scholar - was when I was in my senior year in college and had just read Norman Perrin's fabulous book, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. I was walking across campus reflecting on the book, and I had been so inspired (one might even say liberated) by Perrin's words that I could see my own future as an academic very clearly for the first time in my life. I spent the next years gobbling up everything I could read from Bultmann to Jeremias to Vermes, fascinated with the quest for the historical Jesus. This was in the mid 80s, which marked the start of the Jesus Seminar and the industry of publishing portrait after portrait of historical Jesus. I had some qualms at the time that the authenticity of Jesus' sayings was tied to a democratic vote of colored marbles. But I understood the arguments and decisions that were being made by TJS because I understood the methodology which was standard fare for anyone studying bible. It wasn't so well-known to the public, but for academics the methods were quite traditional and acceptable in the Academy.

I have discovered something neat about my life since then - that I never stop growing and learning - that when I learn something new, it usually ends up affecting a number of other things that I thought I knew - and so this leads to new questions whose answers sometimes open up a can of worms, or lead to uncertainties, or re-orient my picture so that finally everything falls into place (which can be nice).

And so it has been. I defended my dissertation in December, 1993. Since then I have continued to learn, and I am now in the position of saying that Norman Perrin's book might be fantastic, but it is bankrupt, as is the Jesus Seminar Jesus. This Jesus is nothing more than a constructed person who exists only in our imaginations. I say this not because I am a myther. In fact, I think that the myther position cannot be maintained, because parallels between Jesus' myth and other ancient myths tell us nothing about whether or not he lived as a real person. It only tells us that ancient people cast their memories of Jesus into mythological narratives and schema that were part of their culture and minds. Rather I say this because I have come to realize over the years that the methodology and the assumptions of the methodology that were used to construct Perrin's Jesus and the Jesus Seminar Jesus are bankrupt.

I'm not taking these in any special order because I'm thinking aloud here. So in this post let's look at multiple attestation of independent sources. For this criteria to work it assumes that if I find the "same" saying of Jesus in more than one source (that do not have literary connections), I can be more confident that the saying is early (because the two sources are picking it up from something prior to them, rather than the author of the source creating it himself). The conclusion is that this is a saying that we can more confidently trace to Jesus.

But is it? If we study ancient oral and rhetorical culture, if we study human memory, such a confidence fades quickly. And when we realize that, in addition, the Jesus traditions are being transmitted within a charismatic environment where the believers are convinced that the living Jesus still speaks to them through their own prophets (which was an established "office" in the early church that was occupied by both men and women), any confidence left vanishes.

I can imagine a situation in which a prophet only a few years after Jesus' death might address an audience out of the spirit saying, "And Jesus says to you today, 'Do not cast your pearls to the pigs." Did Jesus say it? I mean the historical Jesus? Or the living Jesus of the spirit? I don't know. And I imagine the audience didn't know. But let's say that there were a number of people in the audience who liked it, and so they happened to pass the saying on to their families and friends, and it became quite popular, finding its way into a couple of our earliest Christian sources as words of Jesus.

So what does multiple attestation in independent sources actually tell us?
  • that the saying was remembered as Jesus' by some early Christians,
  • that it was well-known and popular enough to find its way into more than one early Christian book,
  • that early preachers and missionaries found it useful enough to keep it in circulation,
  • that the saying existed in more than one version.
The latter point further suggests that it is impossible to get back to one originating structure or version of the saying from which the other versions are deviations. Furthermore, if the sayings have no literary dependence on each other, it is impossible to reconstruct a linear development that would suggest what the original structure might have been. Even more to the point is the fact that in oral transmission there really is no original version of the saying, but many originals each time it is performed.

Thus multiple independent attestation does not leave us confident that multiply-attested sayings more likely represent sayings that the historical Jesus originated than singly-attested sayings. Morever, multiple independent attestation works against any program that wishes to establish Jesus' actual words because, without direct literary dependence, it is impossible to reconstruct a single originating structure and identify deviant versions, let alone confidently trace them to the historical Jesus. Multiple independent attestation leaves Jesus' words multiform and fluid and smack dab in the middle of the early Christian experience (not necessarily the historical Jesus').

Tomorrow I will try to post my thoughts on a second criteria used by the Jesus Seminar to determine Jesus' words.

Friday, January 23, 2009

What can I contribute to The Jesus Project?

The biggest contribution that I can make to the TJP is in terms of method, bringing into play Social Memory Theory and how it can help us with the recovery of historical figures from the texts that survive. Our field has largely remained ignorant of social, psychological and anthropological models and theories, and has been content to work our materials from a rather shallow pool of understanding. I remain mystified why we keep rolling over the same turf all the time, and now we are back to the discussion that our texts are constructed myths which we can deconstruct (this is no new insight!), and because we can do this, we are comfortable concluding that either Jesus didn't exist historically (he is a fabrication of the ancient mind and their myths) or there isn't enough evidence to say he did (because how can we trust an ancient author who makes things up?).

This reasoning is so flawed that I do not even know where to begin to deconstruct it!

I might start by recommending some reading that has been missed by the majority of academics in biblical studies. If we are really going to talk about whether or not constructed myths have any historical value (which seems to me to be the ultimate goal of TJP), then we better get up to speed fast on what other fields are saying about it. See below a selection of publications that I have found particularly helpful in terms of my own work - but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The field is vast and growing with a huge bibliography.

What Social Memory theorists have found is that all societies create their memories to support their present experiences and to help them move forward into the future as they perceive it should be. This is usually done by taking historical figures and events and reframing them into older myths or legends, and by keying them to older personages and ideas. The best example for us (because we can witness this happening now) might be with Barack Obama. He is already keyed to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. His own historical story is being framed in terms of our collective memory of Lincoln - so we accepted without too much discussion his train-ride into Washington, D.C. and his use of Lincoln's bible at the inauguration. His story of rising from a middle-class family to the presidency is already shaped by the story of Lincoln's rise from the log cabin to the White House. We are understanding and interpreting Barack Obama (and what we hope he will do) within a certain set of stories and myths from our past.

So this is what we do as communities. This is how our minds operate. We understand our history and what is happening in our present by casting it into familiar forms and tropes. This helps us to deal with things and make sense of things. It gives us hope and meaning. It is a natural process of the operation of our minds and human memory.

But because we do this, does not mean that there is no historical value to our stories. All these people lived and did things. Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama. In fact, it is most often the historical people that do great things which we attempt to reframe and mythologize! The people that are average Joes (unless you are Joe the Plumber!) fall into obscurity.

Yes our gospels are theological treatises. Yes our gospels are mythological in their framing of Jesus. Yes our gospels present us with different portraits of Jesus, as do modern scholars who work on the historical Jesus. But none of this suggests even remotely to me that this means that Jesus did not exist as a historical person. In fact, when understood within the communal memory-making process itself, the fact that a Jewish crucified criminal is mythologized as a god that the Romans should embrace as God is highly suggestive that there was such a man, and that there were a group of people who understood whatever he did to be extraordinary. And so they framed and keyed his story with those they already knew, from the Jewish scriptures and from the Greco-Roman classics. And a historical person became an angel and then a god (at least that is my operating hypothesis).

Jan Assmann, “Ancient Egyptian Antijudaism: A Case of Distorted Memory,” in Memory Distortion (ed. Schachter; Cambridge: Harvard University, 1995) pp. 365-378.
Anthony Le Donne, “Theological Memory Distortion in the Jesus Tradition,” in Memory and the Bible in Antiquity (eds. Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Stephen C. Barton, and Benjamin G. Wold; WUNT 212; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007) 163-177.
Doron Mendels, “Societies of Memory in the Graeco-Roman World,” in Memory in the Bible and Antiquity (eds. Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Stephen C. Barton, and Benjamin G. Wold; WUNT 212; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007) pp. 143-162.
Barry Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000).
Barry Schwartz, "Collective Memory and Social Change: The Democratization of George Washington," ASR 56 (1991) 221-236.
Barry Schwartz, “Memory as a Cultural System: Abraham Lincoln in World War II,” American Sociological Review 61 (1996) pp. 922-923 (908-927).
Barry Schwartz, “The Social Context of Commemoration: A Study in Collective Memory,” Social Forces 61 (1982) p. 393 (374-402).
Barbie Zelizer, "Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (1995) 214-239.
Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995).
Yael Zerubavel, “The Death of Memory and the Memory of Death: Masada and the Holocaust as Historical Metaphors,” Representations 45 (1994) 72-100.
Yael Zerubavel, “Antiquity and the Renewal Paradigm: Strategies of Representation and Mnemonic Practices in Israeli Culture,” in On Memory: An Interdisciplinary Approach (edited by Doron Mendels; Bern: Peter Lang, 2007) pp. 331-48.
Yael Zerubavel, “The Historical, the Legendary and the Incredible: Invented Tradition and Collective Memory in Israel,” in Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (ed. John R. Gillis: Princeton: Princeton University, 1994) 105-125.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Gospel of Judas Conference Poster

I am trying a new feature I found on Scribd...embedding a pdf file. This one was sent by André Gagné. It is a poster for an upcoming conference on the Gospel of Judas in Canada. Is it working?

Gospel of Judas Event

James Crossley weighs in on The Jesus Project (and joins it)

Joe Hoffmann sent around a welcome to James Crossley who has agreed to join The Jesus Project. For his on-line discussion of what he hopes to accomplish by being part of the JP, go HERE. For a response to Crossley by Tom Vernna, go HERE.


What a great name for a radio show! Justin Brierley has sent around a link to his UK radio show "Unbelievable" with its two latest interviews: one with Bart Ehrman and Peter Williams on both Misquoting Jesus and theodicy; the other with Michael Bird and James Crossley debating how Christianity began. There are other shows that look interesting too, and all can be downloaded as mp3 files or subscribed to as podcasts.

About the show:

Each Saturday, in the award-winning programme Unbelievable, Justin Brierley asks questions like:

Can Christianity live up to the claims it makes?

Can we trust the Bible?

Why should I believe in Jesus over anything else?

Justin tackles these and other issues, on a show that gets Christians and non-believers talking to each other.

The studio is packed with guests from all walks of life, talking about the differences between their beliefs. An atheist, agnostic or person of another faith appears each week to discuss their views on the world and why they don't believe in Jesus. At the same time, a Christian guest is given the opportunity to defend the faith.

Check it out HERE.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book Note: Collected Essays of Gilles Quispel (ed. J. van Oort)

Arriving in my box late yesterday was a wonderful surprise. Johannes van Oort has finished putting together a volume of Gilles Quispel's works - 869 pages to be exact. Gnostica, Judaica, Catholic. Collected Essays of Gilles Quispel (Leiden: Brill, 2008). It is likely a library volume since it is a huge Brill book, which its price reflects. But it is a must-check-out, and if your library doesn't have it, it should be purchased for the stacks. So request it if you can.

I was honored to write a short memoir as one of the introductions which I called "Gnostic Letters from Bilthoven" (pp. xv-xxi). The piece is rather personal, written out of the years of mail correspondence that took place between Professor Quispel and I (beginning in 1989 and ending shortly before his death).

The book is quite phenomenal, as was Professor Quispel's work generally. He was a person who thought about things from a different angle than most, and he was so well-versed in the classical, patristic and gnostic literature that he was able to make connections between materials and artifacts that many of us would never have considered.

My understanding is that this collection is something that Professor Quispel was putting together just before his death (and Hans finished editing last fall). So there are little updates to his older articles written by Professor Quispel, many of which occur at the end of the original articles.

A number of the articles are well-known pieces that are standards like "The Demiurge in the Apocryphon of John," "The Study of Encratism: A Historical Survey," and "The Gospel of Thomas Revisited." But there are some less well-known pieces that are equally important such as "Marcion and the Text of the New Testament" (1998) where he discusses the scriptural texts known to Marcion and the development of the Western text, and "Valentinus and the Gnostikoi" (1996) where he refutes Markschies' thesis, and "Plotinus and the Jewish Gnostikoi" (2005) which is an amazing synthesis of early Egyptian esotericism. There are also hard-to-get pieces like his important study on Egyptian Christianity "African Christianity before Minucius Felix and Tertullian" (1982). Some pieces have not been published previously like "The Muslim Jesus" or are translated newly from Dutch like "Apocalyptics and Gnosis from Job to Jan van Eyck" (1988) and "The Epistle to the Laodiceans: A Marcionite Forgery" (1950/51) and "Gregory of Nyssa and Mysticism" (1970) or were lectures like "L'Extase de Saint Paul" (1994, 2000, and then his "last word" in Paris).

I could go on and on. There are fifty chapters. I am looking forward to reading this book slowly, with reflection, and listening to Professor Quispel's voice emerge alive from the pages.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Magisterial Day

Today is a magisterial day, filled with hope and prayers as a new generation - my own - takes over our country's leadership. I cannot express the joy I have to see this day finally come, and to have Obama be the person to mark this transition. My prayers are with Obama and those who will be part of this shift in government. May they lead us to make the world a better place - a place for all of us to live peacefully with our differences. We can do it, yes we can.

Any new information about the Ohio fragments?

What is going on with the Ohio fragments? Does anyone have any new information about the status of the Ohio fragments of the Tchacos Codex that contains the Gospel of Judas?

The last I heard, the actual fragments were in the possession of a bank due to a bankruptcy ruling in Ohio. I am still hoping that they will not be sold off to individual collectors, but will be turned over to be conserved.

It is not clear to me what is in the Ohio fragments, but my impression is that there are fragments that exist which are not part of the 50 unreleased photos.

I do not know what the fragments contain in terms of content because I haven't seen them, although there are 50 photos of some of them (?) which exist but which have not been released for scholarly study yet because ownership of the fragments themselves haven't yet been resolved.

Keep in mind that according to the numbers on the pages of the Tchacos Codex, we only have conserved about half of the original book. We know that it contained a tract that involved Allogenes, but none of what was published appears to match what we have preserved in the Allogenes text from NHC. So was is it a second Allogenes text? That is what the NGS team has said, calling it a "book of Allogenes."

It is clear that we have a fragment from Corpus Hermeticum 13. It is only a fragment at this point. Was the entire CH 13 part of this old book? It is very possible, even likely, given that Hermetic books turn up in the NHCs too.

I am hoping that a new portion of a page from the Gospel of Judas will be part of the fragments in Ohio. It would be nice to know who ascends into the cloud, among other things.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Jesus Project Update

Richard Carrier has posted a very thorough memoir of what transpired at the first session of The Jesus Project which was held on the first weekend of December at Amherst and presided over by its chair Joe Hoffmann. I was unable to present a paper because of previous commitments, so Carrier's comments brings us up to date. Worth the read HERE and HERE. Bruce Chilton was also in attendance and HERE are his comments. There was some media coverage HERE.

Joe Hoffmann has just written an article about the Jesus Project posted HERE.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Translation problem in opening line of the Gospel of Judas

Sorry that I haven't posted in a few days, but the days and all their activities have gotten away with me. I appreciate all your comments on my last post about theology and history. This is perpetually going to be a struggle for us because there is so much at stake in terms of faith.

Yesterday the revised proofs for The Thirteenth Apostle arrived. So I will now have the pleasure of reviewing those and being reminded of what I wrote. The book is greatly expanded. It has grown from 198 pages to 258 with the addition of my two new chapters, one on astrology and the Gospel of Judas, and the other on the Judas Gem and magic. I also have added a section on Thomasine Christianity in the chapter on second-century types of Christianity.

I am still struggling with one translation choice and whether to change the proof on this. Perhaps you have some thoughts for me. The opening line of the Gospel of Judas reads either:

"The secret revelatory (apophêmi) discourse in which Jesus spoke with Judas Iscariot..."


"The secret speech of indictment (apophainô) in which Jesus spoke with Judas Iscariot..."

The difficulty is that the word "apophasis" which occurs in the Coptic, can mean either "to refuse" or "deny" through an open revealed speech (such as apophatic theology in which God is revealed by stating what he is NOT) if it comes from apophêmi, OR if it comes from apophainô it can mean a sentence of judgment in court, as in an indictment.

I initially choose to translate it "secret revelatory discourse" in order to keep it broad and to allow for the ambiguity that is there. But this doesn't convey the fact that "apocalypse" is not the chosen word. Rather the word that is chosen has a negative implication - that Jesus is going to openly deny Judas something and/or he is going to openly indict him - both of which Jesus does in the following narrative. He denies Judas access to the holy generation, and he indicts him, telling him that he will become the thirteenth demon, the ruler of the world, who is identified by the Gnostics with Ialdabaoth.

Any recommendations on how to get this idea across in a plain English translation? I have been racking my brain for a long time with no good answer yet.

UPDATE: André Gagné has sent me a message to post that he still translates the line: "The secret word of the denial which Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot." For more discussion on this and his fine article, go HERE to an earlier post on the subject.

The question for me is how to best translate this into English for a general readership. What is a "secret word of denial"? What the author is trying to say is that Jesus is going to deny Judas' requests in this secret conversation that took place between them. I just can't seem to settle on how to translate this concept in one word.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Theology is not history

I am back to thinking about theology and history this morning because I just spoke to an adult education group about the problems of writing history from theological texts, and how these problems are confounded when one writes in a field that has privileged New Testament materials, treating them as genuinely more authentic and accurate in terms of history than non-canonical works.

In the process of that conversation (in which I was questioned harshly on whether it is necessary to separate theology and history, as if history were the good guy and theology the bad) I realized anew something about contemporary Christianity. Christian theology has been marketed as historical fact in the churches, and this is the real issue at stake. So what are theological doctrines (virgin birth, resurrection, miracles of Jesus) have to be perceived as facts in order for the faithful to remain faithful. I'm not sure what to do with this, except to put it out here as an observation.

As for history and theology, I continue to maintain that we must perceive these as separate fields. Theology is not history and history is not theology. Theology is a hermeneutic which attempts to take old authoritative texts and read them doctrinally, with the big question at stake: what does this text say to me about my life as a Christian? Theology isn't "bad." Defining it next to "history" just recognizes that "theology" has a different goal than "history". It also has a different set of assumptions, and one is that the laws of the physical world can be suspended: as in dead people can be resurrected and virgins can give birth. The quest for truth operates in a completely different arena from the historical quest for truth, approaching more the realm of philosophy and philosophy's criticism of history than anything else.

History isn't unbiased nor does it give us "the" truth. History is a different pursuit. I am reminded that in Europe, historians like myself characterize their research and writing as "scientific". I have stayed away from this characterization myself, feeling that "science" is the field of biology and physics. So I have used "historical" and "academic" to distinguish the non-apologetic and the non-theological approach to history. But perhaps this has been wrong. Perhaps my European colleagues have it right. History, or perhaps better "the scientific approach to history" is the pursuit that wants to know what happened in the past. The historian is meant to take a position that is not apologetic of a particular past. Its hermeneutical goal should have nothing to do with what the texts mean to contemporary belief patterns, nor should it be apologetic toward those beliefs.

I realize now that this is hard to hear for some believers because the church has fostered the position that its theology is historical fact. This theological position is dangerous in a society where intellectual discussions and historical knowledge is so easy to access. Perhaps the Genesis story has it right after all, that the fruit of the tree of knowledge is the downfall of us all!

Saturday, January 10, 2009


I am lamenting the farewell of N.T. Wrong. Please come back of a visit occasionally.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Best Value Private Colleges

David Hamilton sent me this news.

The Princeton Review's top 10 "Best Value Private Colleges for 2009" are:

1. Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa.
2. Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass.
3. Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.
4. Rice University, Houston, Texas
5. Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
6. Williams College, Williamstown, Mass.
7. Amherst College, Amherst, Mass.
8. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.
9. Pomona College, Claremont, Calif.
10. Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.

Source: The Princeton Review and USA TODAY

For full story, go HERE.

PHOTO: Taken by me, just outside my office. This is an arch entering the Humanities Building courtyard. I am in love with the tree.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On-line access to photographs of the Cologne Mani Codex

This is a wonderful site that I just came across as I am preparing my class notes for tomorrow. It is a site that houses the photographs, page-by-page of the miniature Greek manuscript that is a biography of Mani's life, known today as the Cologne Mani Codex because it is housed at the University of Cologne. I will put this link also on my sidebar.

Apocryphote of the Day: 1-7-09

"Understand and know the Father who has compassion."

2 Apocalypse of James (mid-third c. gnostic text, likely from Syria, associated with a Valentinian lodge or church?)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Apocryphote of the Day: 1-6-09

Matthew said, " Lord I want to see that place of life [...] where there is no wickedness, but there is pure light!"
The Lord said, "Brother Matthew, you can't see it as long as you are enfleshed."
Matthew said, "Lord, even if I will not be able to see it, let me know it!"
The Lord said, "Whoever has known himself has seen it in everything given to him to do [...]."

Dialogue of the Savior 132.6-17 (encratic text from mid-second century Edessa, probably representative of the Syrian Church associated with the apostle Thomas)

Commentary: a reminder as we start the New Year and set our goals.

First day of classes

Today is the first day of classes for me this semester. I am teaching two courses. The first is an undergraduate lecture course called The Gnostics and their Gospels. This is actually my title for the general audience book I've been wanting to write for years - The Gnostics and their Gospels: An Introduction to Ancient Gnostic Spirituality. So one of my goals this semester is to record in writing as much of my lecture material as I am able, so that by the end of the semester I will have a fairly comprehensive draft of my book complete. It won't be ready to go to press, but much of the hard and detailed thinking and drafting will be done.

In conjunction with this course, I am running the Gnostic Gospels Seminar for my graduate students. We will be retranscribing and retranslating the Gospel of Judas, and we will be immersing ourselves in as much of the primary gnostic literature as we can possibly read in a semester. I have found that when I totally immerse myself in a corpus of literature - whatever the subject is - all kinds of wonderful insights happen. So I am looking forward to this opportunity to reread all the literature over the next fifteen weeks with my terrific students.

My second goal this semester is to complete the editing process of the Codex Judas Congress papers. I hope to do this by the end of February. The title will be: The Judas Codex: Proceedings of the International Congress on Codex Tchacos held at Rice University, Houston, Texas, March 13-16, 2008.

I am also writing my own academic volume on the Gospel of Judas. I have almost all the chapters complete, but I need to do some additional research and some rewriting. I believe that this will have to wait until summer, but it won't be too long before I have a draft ready to send to an academic press on Judas the Apostate. I don't have a subtitle yet.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Article Note: "Micromorphologic Examination of the 'Gabriel Revelation' Stone (Yuval Goren)

For those of you who might be wondering about the authenticity of the Apocalypse of Gabriel stone, Yuval Goren has published a chemical analysis of it. "Micromorphologic Examination of the 'Gabriel Revelation' Stone," Israel Exploration Journal 58 (2008) pp. 220-229.

The report indicates that the soil on the inscribed stone originated from the Dead Sea area, particularly east of the Lisan area. There is evidence of calcitic incrustation built up over part of the inscription with no visible signs of unnatural materials. This looks to be the result of the natural process of crystallisation which takes place over time. Since there is no indication of modern treatment of the surface of the stone, it will be necessary that further analyses, preferably dating of the pigment of the inscription, be done in order to conclude that the entire inscription or parts of it were created in antiquity or forged in modernity.

Apocryphote of the Day: 1-5-09

Farming in the world needs the cooperation of the four essential elements. A harvest is gathered into the barn only as the result of the natural action of water, earth, wind, and light. God's farming likewise has four elements - faith, hope, love, and knowledge. Faith is our earth. It is that in which we take root. Hope is the water which nourishes us. Love is the wind through which we grow. Knowledge is the light by which we ripen.

Gospel of Philip 79:18-30 (A late second-century Valentinian gospel)

Commentary: This Valentinian analogy is an exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13. Compare 1 Corinthians 13:13 - "So faith, hope, and love abide, these three: but the greatest of these is love." Why four instead of three? Because a careful reader of 1 Corinthians 13 will notice that Paul talks about knowledge, but about how our knowledge is imperfect and passes away. This suggests that there is a knowledge that is perfect and abides, and it is this knowledge which the Valentinians are claiming here. It is the knowledge that Paul speaks about in 13:2 as his ability to understand "all mysteries and all knowledge." But this is nothing alone, he says, just as "faith" in the absense of love is nothing. So this Valentinian teacher is saying that knowledge is not enough on its own, but must operate along with faith, hope and love. The four together are essential to spirituality.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Report on "The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story" Exhibit: The Alexander son of Simon Ossuary

The exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural History on the Jewish birth of Christianity shows many fascinating objects. Over the next few weeks, I will occasionally comment on those I have found to be particularly important. I have already posted a few comments on the Apocalypse of Gabriel stone, and I will continue to do so as I work on the stone in the next couple of months.

For now, I want to point out one of the objects that most fascinates me. It is a first-century ossuary that we are lucky to have in this exhibit. The ossuary is a rather crude plain white stone box with rough letters carved into it. The inscription reads in Greek: "Alexandros (son of) Simon". On the lid, "Alexandros" is repeated, along with the Hebrew inscription QRNYT. Scholars have made sense of this odd word by suggesting that the final "T" is a mistake that we should read "H". If this is the case, then QRNYH would mean that Simon was Cyrenian since this is the Hebrew word of someone of Cyrenian origin. If not a mistake, it may be that the word should be read "Cyrenite" instead of "Cyrenian." Cyrene was the capital city of the province Cyrenaica in North Africa.

The ossuary was found in the Kidron Valley of eastern Jerusalem in 1941 by archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik from Hebrew University. The tomb contained eleven ossuaries and pottery from the first century CE. The use of ossuaries occurred during a very short period in Jewish history, mainly from 20 BCE to 70 CE. The deceased would be laid in a stone niche in the wall of the tomb and after a year the bones would be collected and stored in a small stone box. The inscriptions were often done crudely by a family member who scratched the deceased person's ID on the box so that the family could identify what box belonged to whom. Mistakes were common as were interring more than one person in a box so that the box has multiple names.

In this particular tomb, there were bones that were never interred, a fact that has led some to conclude that the tomb was abandoned during the Jewish War, and the family never returned to Jerusalem to rebury their dead in the ossuary.

The inscriptions on these particular ossuaries are unusual names among the Greco-Jewish inscriptions of the Palestinian Jews at that time. Yet some of them were common in Cyrenaica, a point that confirms the interpretation of the Alexandros inscription. So the tomb is of a Jewish family with connections to Cyrenaica.

Do we know more? It is wonderful that the biblical story mentions a Simon of Cyrene. He is the one who carries Jesus' cross (Mt 27:32; Luke 23:26). According to Mark 15:21, Simon has two sons, Alexander and Rufus. Could this ossuary be the bone box of Simon's son (or even both father and son as Tom Powers thinks)? Of course we can never know for certain. But it is a fascinating possibility.

For some earlier web articles on the Alexander son of Simon ossuary, see:

Tom Powers, "A Simon of Cyrene in Jerusalem."
Tom Powers, "A Second Look at the 'Alexander son of Simon' Ossuary."

PHOTO: The Alexander son of Simon ossuary pictured in Powers' article, "A Second Look..."

Friday, January 2, 2009

Report on the Apocalypse of Gabriel Stone

Over the holidays, I did have a chance to take a first look at the Apocalypse of Gabriel stone that is being exhibited in the Houston Museum of Natural History. I was surprised with its large size, but also its detriorated condition. The ink is so eroded that it is nearly impossible to read under normal light conditions. I commend Ada Yardeni for her initial work transcribing this text.

To make matters even more difficult, it is broken across the stone about midway between the top and bottom. It is broken across the line that Professor Knohl is translating, "In three days, live!" So I am going to have to spend some time studying the break and the ink remains, but my initial look suggested that an alpha is certainly part of the word that follows "in three days." Whether we should translate that word "live" or something else remains for me a question.

For a bibliography of the stone, see my post HERE. If you are aware of other publications about the stone, send me the information and I will include try to keep this bibliography updated.

PHOTO: This is a picture of the stone circulating on the web. I post it here so that you can see its size.

Apocryphote of the Day: 1-2-09

Our Lord said, "Keep the mysteries for me and the children of my house."

Pseudo-Clementine Homilies 19.20.1

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

These last few weeks have been family-filled, quite literally. My in-laws stayed with us since December 10th and celebrated with us my son's fifth birthday and Christmas. So I have not been near the computer to blog on anything, nor has my mind been particularly thinking about academics lately. But now I have taken down the tree, my in-laws have gone home, and on monday Alexander goes back to school, as do I.

I extend my blessings for a good New Year to all my readers and their families and friends. Next week, I will get back to regular posts, including apocryphotes.

For now, Kelly Sonora sent me a link to Jessica Merritt's "Top 50 Ancient History Blogs" and the Forbidden Gospels, as well as Apocryphicity and Paleojudaica made it! Thanks Kelly.

UPDATE: and Jared's blog Antiquitopia.