Born of a Woman (Merry Mythmas)

The day when the birth of Jesus is celebrated might seem like an unfavorable occasion to address mythicism. After all, it is a date that has no historical connection with the birth of Jesus, the earliest stories about the event not only contain elements that are patently unhistorical (angels and miracles) but are irreconcilable with one another even on potentially historical details such as dates and geographical movements.

But as historians know, mythical stories grow up around historical figures as well as purely mythological ones. And so the presence of myth is not what matters when it comes to the question of mythicism, but the presence of absence of information that is likely to be historically authentic.

Paul, our earliest Christian source, tells us an important detail about what he believed to be the case with respect to Jesus. In Galatians 4:4 he refers to Jesus as having been “born of a woman, born under the Law.”

Is it possible to entertain doubt about Paul’s information on this point? Of course. People find ways to doubt things that have far clearer present-day evidence in their favor: evolution, climate change, the Holocaust. The testimony of an ancient individual who acknowledges that he had religious experiences and believed in the supernatural is not going to provide the kind of certainty that history can provide about recent events or ancient actions by powerful individuals such as kings and warriors – to say nothing of the even higher degree of certainty that the natural sciences can provide.

But that is simply a facet of the nature of historical investigation into the lives of relatively ordinary individuals in the distant past, and is nothing unique to the case of Jesus.

It remains the case that the earliest individual to mention Jesus in his writings – i.e. Paul – also affirms that he was born. And while it will always be possible to cast doubt on this point, it still must be asked whether there is any particularly good reason to doubt Paul’s clear assumption that the Jesus of which he wrote had been born. Is some convoluted hypothesis of a modern-day mythicist based on what might have been the case ever going to offer a more probable scenario than one that takes seriously that Paul treats the fact that Jesus had been born as something he can mention without any sense of doubt or concern about controversy?

Paul’s information about this, of course, depends not at all on his having witnessed Jesus’ birth. We assume that everyone we meet was born. The statement reflects a conviction that Jesus was a historical individual, not a claim to have witnessed his birth. While it is possible to create some very clever ways to cast doubt on Paul’s information here, if we cannot have confidence in a confident statement made in passing by the earliest writer to mention Jesus, then the only appropriate response is not mythicism but complete agnosticism about Jesus and most matters pertaining to earliest Christianity and its origins.

The reason historians consistently choose cautious confidence over despair at this point is that mythicist treatments of such evidence all involve special pleading of some sort – such as speculating that this passage might be an interpolation, for no other reason that it allows a piece of evidence inconvenient for the preconceived mythicist hypothesis to be ignored or set aside. Historians, by way of contrast, work with the evidence we actually have, and (ideally, if not always in practice) resort to speculation about interpolations only as a last resort, when it seems to be the only or the best way to account for what is otherwise a seemingly inexplicable detail. The existence of a historical Jesus is not such a detail.

It may seem like a futile enterprise to discuss mythicism. Like creationists, mythicists gather in online forums to provide mutual support and encouragement, and to reassure themselves that the mainstream scholarly enterprise from which they dissent is only so much nonsense. In both instances, one is dealing with an overall scholarly conclusion, a theory about the bigger picture which is based on a survey of a range of evidence, rather than depending ultimately on any one single piece of the puzzle. And it remains the fact that in both cases, one has on the one hand experts – whether people who spend their lives researching organisms, genes or fossils, or people who spend their lives reading ancient sources and investigating ancient people both real and imaginary – who uniformly get an impression about the overall direction that the evidence points. And on the other hand, in both cases, there are people whose only claim to expertise is their self-proclaimed immunity from the alleged deception that has overtaken the scholarly community, achieved by dabbling in it in their spare time. And so all other considerations about this or that piece of evidence aside, when it comes to the big picture, who is more likely to be correct, even in the case of an educated guess?

So why not simply ignore mythicism? Because it continues to get media attention. In a context in which 40% of the American populace can dissent from mainstream science, it is crucial that mainstream scholarship continue to patiently explain how its methods work and why it reaches the conclusions it does. But human beings like the feeling of being right about something when most people are wrong, and that will presumably continue to provide an impetus in the direction of fringe theories, no matter how much scholars work to inform the public.

An educated guess by those who have investigated a matter thoroughly will still have more chance of being right than the guesswork of someone who is less well informed about a topic. And so the greatest challenge exists across the board in academia, and is not limited to evolutionary biology or the study of history. It is the challenge to persuade people that it takes more than conviction and guesswork to get closer to the truth. It also takes familiarity with relevant data.

This is something that Maurice Casey in particular has emphasized. And since one thing he has particularly stressed is the need for more scholars working with our early Greek Christian sources to also know Aramaic, let me end by pointing out that Steve Caruso is offering a limited number of free subscriptions to one of his courses in Aramaic. And so if you are working on the historical Jesus and lacking proficiency in the language that appears regularly to be in the background in early Christian material, this is a good opportunity to rectify the situation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01300256018441903185 Keika

    Thank you, Dr. McGrath,It no longer surprises me when God brings me to your blog to find answers or road maps to other places where I can find additional answers. EOM is like some GPS waypoint on my trek for knowledge and understanding of how the bible is scholarly interpreted.Just this morning, I thought I would go online to find an Aramaic translation service that could make me an 'audio translation' which I could post on a website. As I tend to do multiple times a day, I come to your blog and here, in the last paragraph of this fine essay by you, I'm provided the answer. The Aramaic Blog/Aramaic Designs.I wonder how many other people you are enlightening and have no notion that perhaps God is using your wisdom in wonderful ways?You should be very happy.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Thanks for the link to the free Aramaic lessons, I totally signed up. Hopefully I will be able to watch "passion of the Christ" without reading the subtitles (I'll let you know if the actors are are really saing what they are supposed to be or just goofing off "Jesus:The one who dips his bread in in dees is the one one who will betray me. Apostles:Dees?, dees what? Jesus:DEEZ NUTZ!!!"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08955726889682177434 Vinny

    It also remains the case that the earliest individual to mention Jesus in his writings— i.e., Paul—doesn’t give any indication that he knows when or where Jesus was born, when or where he lived, or when or where he died. Nor does Paul indicate that he knows anything that Jesus said or did prior to the night before his crucifixion. Paul’s information, insofar as he indicates a source depends on supernatural revelations and apparitions. Not only does Paul’s information not depend on personally witnessing Jesus' birth or anything Jesus said or did, he never indicates that anyone he knew had been witnesses to anything other than post-resurrection appearances. Joseph Smith believed that the Angel Moroni who appeared to him had once been a flesh and blood human being who had walked the earth. No doubt Smith thought that the man Moroni had been born of a woman as well. I realize that the case for a historical Jesus is a cumulative one, but for all Paul tells us, there could be just as much myth to his Jesus as there is to Smith's Moroni.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00160881512505096044 Mike Bull

    "An educated guess by those who have investigated a matter thoroughly will still have more chance of being right than the guesswork of someone who is less well informed about a topic."This is entirely true, but a "thorough investigation" is always built upon presuppositions and assumptions. For instance, Vinny believes that the earliest writings to mention Jesus are those of Paul. If Vinny is wrong, then we have a perfect explanation of why Paul fails to mention any event prior to Jesus' crucifixion: it is contained in the gospels. Vinny's unproven assumption leads him to a heretical conclusion.Another instance is evolution. How the data is interpreted depends upon one's prior assumptions. An evolutionist assumes the transitions are missing and that genetic code can write itself. A creationist assumes the transitions were never there and that there is a good reason why every fossil is fully formed. Evolution is the current zeitgeist, so a "thorough investigation" is founded upon that basic assumption. Just because people don't share the presuppositions of evolutionists or liberal Bible scholars doesn't make them uninformed. Liberal Christians also gather in online forums to provide mutual support and encouragement, and to reassure themselves that the mainstream scholarly enterprise from which they dissent is only so much nonsense. Yes, there are stupid Creationists, but there are also very many highly qualified ones. There are plenty of stupid evolutionists, too.It amazes me how many scholars refuse to acknowledge the blinding authority of Scripture, and look for light in the uninspired "textual fringes." If the Bible is God's revelation, it builds and transforms the culture around it. You seem to treat it as if it is simply a product of the culture. That is not a Christian presupposition, however one paints it.For sure, some low-level textual criticism is required, but we are to come humbly to the texts as the accused, not arrogantly as its judges. Credo ut intellegam goes for scholars and scientists. If there were more obedient faith in God's Word there would be far more understanding and far less delusion in academia.The fundamental issue is authority, not intellect or the level of investigation.With respect,Mike Bull

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00160881512505096044 Mike Bull

    Sorry – that's "intelligam."This link expands on that thought within the Biblical framework if you are interested:http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp/2010/01/10/knowing-as-we-are-known/You have some great links around here, too.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Mike Bull,You seem to believe that somehow one can acknowledge the authority of Scripture without ever having been influenced by people, their doctrines, their beliefs. You also seem to think that those who study these texts with great care and attention to their cultural background, the languages in which they were composed, and other such considerations are inherently opposed to faith. I would encourage you to at least read conservative scholars from your own tradition, whichever it may be. I think you'll find that some of the points you mentioned – such as the dating of Paul's letters earlier than the Gospels – to be commonplaces of scholarship in general and not something that has to do with being "liberal" or "conservative."As for the statements about DNA and fossils, they are either so confused or so poorly worded that to analyse them carefully could only cause you embarrassment. So I'll refrain from doing so until I'm sure that you really meant to write what you did.It may be that the key differences between us do indeed have to do with authority. As a Protestant, and not only as an academic, I cannot simply accept the church's authority with respect to the Bible it has put together or when things were written and by whom. And so unless one is willing to simply trust a human authority in a way that no Christian would sanction in the case of any other tradition, I suspect you'll agree that we have no way to bypass human reason and simply submit humbly to texts. We first use our reason, emotions, intuitions, and other God-given faculties to choose what institutions or texts to read and to submit to, if any, using those same faculties to comprehend what our chosen authorities are saying.I apologize if I've worded the above in any way too strongly. I used to use arguments similar to yours as an excuse to avoid wrestling with scholars I thought of as "liberal" and thus protect myself from having to ask difficult questions – ones that the Bible itself was demanding me to ask, but for a long time I was too concerned to protect my doctrine of Scripture from counterevidence provided by Scripture itself.

  • http://fontwords.com Mitchell Powell

    Mike — you said "blinding authority." I think you meant to say something else, but the slip-up seems appropriate given the way you are speaking.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    James, today I was reading life of Demorax, life of Secundus, Parallel Lives, and the Education of Cyrus to get some background on ancient biographies and historical fiction. My question relating to mysticism is, what are the works you think are the closest examples in antiquity of what the mythiscist proposed genre of Mark is, (an extended parable on a mythic being or allegory)? While I often see that suggestion made, I never see examples of comparable works. What are Jewish and Hellenistic allegorical works like? What features do they share in common with the gospels, how do they differ? If they don't compare well to those genres, doesn't that mean the gospels are less likely to be of that genre?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08955726889682177434 Vinny

    Mike Bull,My presupposition is that I can apply my power to reason to the world in which I exist. I could simply look for a magic book to tell me what to think about the world and my place in it, but that would be like burying the talents that I have been given in a hole in the ground rather than putting them to the best use that I can devise. If God exists, I don't think that is what he would want.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15112057471953902453 kilo papa

    Dr. McGrath,What's your take on Pauls use of the verb "ginomai" to refer to Jesus' birth rather than "gennao"?Apparently no where else in the New Testament is "ginomai" used to describe someones birth. Even the Gospel writers use "gennao" to refer to Jesus' birth.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    BAG, Liddell & Scott, and even Slater's Lexicon to Pindar all list "to be born" as within the semantic range of ginomai, providing examples from a range of literature across a significant span of time. So I don't see what the issue is. Perhaps you are confusing the issue of whether ginomai could only be used in reference to birth with the issue of whether this was within its semantic range? At any rate, the answer to the latter question seems clearly to be "yes."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03663871073350593776 Hjalti

    The reason historians consistently choose cautious confidence over despair at this point is that mythicist treatments of such evidence all involve special pleading of some sort – such as speculating that this passage might be an interpolation, for no other reason that it allows a piece of evidence inconvenient for the preconceived mythicist hypothesis to be ignored or set aside.I agree that supposing that all "Jesus-was-a-person-on-Earth"-passages are interpolations sounds very ad-hoc-ish. But is there any case independent of mythicism for Gal 4.4 (or parts of it) being an interpolation? I have seen a good case for Rom 1.2-4 being an interpolation, and that had nothing to do with mythicism. And regarding interpolations, isn't "mainstream scholarship" to timid when discussing them? What I mean is that if NT-scholarship are overly conservative regarding possible interpolations in Paul, then we don't have good enough groundwork to work with before we can dismiss possible interpolations out of hand.And I've read some mythicist make the point that later in the same chapter a woman is said to be symbolic for the law. So "being born under the law" and "being born under a woman" would mean the same thing, that Jesus was born under Hagar (the law). An interesting interpretation, but I'm not sure if that holds any water. Sounds possible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Hjalti,Most commentaries as well as monographs on Romans 1:3-4 regard it as Paul quoting a pre-Pauline tradition, making it possibly earlier than Romans, rather than later.Is mainstream New Testament scholarship too timid to discuss interpolations? No.As for your suggestion regarding 'born of a woman', I find it unpersuasive. Paul later in the letter compares two covenants with two women. It is not clear that 'born of a woman' would successfully connect Jesus with one of those particular women in the minds of readers, even if that allegory had been previously mentioned. But of course, it hadn't at this stage. The chiastic arrangement of the ideas seems to give a better indication of Paul's point:Born of a woman [experience common to all humanity]Born under the Law [experience of Jews]to redeem those under the Law [salvation for Jews]That we might receive adoption [salvation for all humankind]this seems to fit with the theme of the letter, which is the status of Gentiles in the Christian understanding of the identity of God's people and of salvation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14299188458940897810 Evan

    And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven, and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth, he might devour her child. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she might be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.Obviously, all NT references to birth cannot be due to any myth. This quote from Revelation makes that clear.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Evan, I'm not sure what your point is. Is it that Revelation was written before Paul's time and that he had read it? Or that because a Christian author wrote in an apocalyptic genre drawing heavily on mythical motifs, therefore anyone who mentioned birth must have been thinking in the same terms? Or is this merely an attempt at prooftexting, to try to find an instance of someone, however tangentially related, who made a mythical reference to birth, so as to try to derail the discussion of what Paul had written earlier? I really don't know what you were trying to say or accomplish, but my sense is that it is either irrelevant or dishonest. Please feel free to clarify which.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14299188458940897810 Evan

    You feel that there is only one way to interpret ginomai and that any reference to birth of a woman in Paul must be a reference to the gospel story.Yet the NT has a very full description of a birth that is entirely mythical (at least I hope you feel that the reference above is mythical). What makes you so sure Paul's reference is not to the story depicted in Revelation and so sure that it is referring to the story in the gospels?It is extremely difficult to get a solid consensus on the date of Revelation, but it certainly gives an alternative reading to "born of a woman" that is clearly mythical. Simply because someone says "born" it does not guarantee they mean "extruded from a physical vagina at a physical location". Christians are "born again" to this day without using that meaning. It also doesn't guarantee that is not the meaning. It simply means that dogmatism regarding what one author must have meant is simply not a feasible position, unless you can mind-read into the past. It also means there's nothing inherently crazy about interpreting it in either way and people who do so aren't the equivalent of people who deny evolution.There's nothing tangential about looking around the NT for birth narratives and seeing if they are all the same, it's central to the question of what the author of Galatians could have meant.I hope that clarifies my position for you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Evan, you are as usual making things up and offering as "clarification of your position" things that are not merely unpersuasive but barely make any sort of logical sense. We have a fairly good idea of when Revelation could have been written, and it certainly wasn't earlier than the time of Nero. So your suggestion that Paul had Revelation in mind makes little sense. The question of what the passage in Revelation you quoted at such unnecessary length is referring to is much debated, but one option is certainly that it is depicting the birth of Jesus in mythical terms. Why should that have any bearing on the historicity of Jesus? If it is depicting with much symbolism the birth of a human ruler who is then caught up to heaven, how is that any more or less problematic than the heavily mythologized infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke?The only "position" which you "clarify" every time you comment here is that you are determined to offer opinions about early Christianity without taking the time to consult any scholarly sources that might help you understand the texts and correctly identify the issues related to their interpretation.As for your statement that I said there is only one way to translate or interpret ginomai, it is either evidence of your willingness to lie or your inability to comprehend a discussion at this advanced level. I said precisely the opposite of that in an earlier comment.

  • http://tomverenna.wordpress.com/ tomverenna

    My paper in my forthcoming volume will be dealing, in part, with a new (perhaps 'fresh' is a better word) exegetical take on this subject. =)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Mikew1584, sorry for the delay in responding to your question. I'm not sure which works would most closely resemble what mythicists think the Gospels are. If they merely thought of them as fiction, then perhaps Tobit would be a good exemple. But at least some mythicists think of the Gospel authors took details and catchwords from around the Jewish Scriptures and spun them into the Gospels. They call it "mid rash" but in fact that is not what midrash means in Jewish literature. We have expansions on and additions to existing stories about people that most Jews rightly or wrongly assumed to be historical – Various works about Moses, or Joseph and Asenath, are examples. But there are obvious differences compared to the Gospels – not least that the Gospels are not focused on expanding the story of an ancient figure from the Jewish Scriptures!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14299188458940897810 Evan

    Dr. McGrath, first let me apologize for misunderstanding your sentence. It seems you do allow for broad variation in meaning in the word ginomai and I misunderstood you. However that makes your original post even odder. You admit that born is but one possible translation and yet are certain that this phrase in Galatians can only refer to the Gospel story.Yet later you seem quite comfortable withe possibility that there was a first century myth about a Jesus born of a woman in heaven.For Galatians to refer to a person recently on earth in your quoted text, it must be that Paul new the story of the gospel in oral form. Yet somehow you seem to find it incredible to imagine that he would have known the story of revelation in oral form.I certainly had no intention of lying but I will say that your sentence structure was less than pellucid, yet the misunderstanding was mine and I accept your rebuke.I remain completely flummoxed however that you could consider quoting a lengthy passage from the NT about Jesus' birth to be prooftexting when that seems to be exactly what you are doing with Galatians 4:4, especially when it is now clear that you see "born of a woman" as only one of a range of acceptable translations. Strong's lists several other possible translations including "Come into being from a woman", "come of a woman" (Young's literal translation uses this), "to change station due to a woman", "to arise from a woman" and many others. In fact "fell" is a more common translation than "born" in the NT. Perhaps Paul meant "fallen from a woman".The KJV translators certainly did not feel that it was translated as "born". They have Gal 4:4 as follows:But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the lawThe fulness of time … sounds like "once upon a time" a bit, does it not? How was 4 BCE designated the "fulness of time" by Paul exactly?Anyway, Paul doesn't clarify what he means at all, however I fail to see how the fulness of time can mean 4 BCE. Perhaps you can enlighten. In addition, I know of no other historical figure secular or religious who was reputed to have been born in heaven in terms you seem to admit are unambiguously mythical within 100 years of his death. To make sure I am getting you right, you did mean to say that the Revelation quote that I put into clear context above can be interpreted as a myth, correct?I'm curious what other interpretations you consider valid and non-mythical for a woman clothed with the sun in heaven who give birth with a dragon between her legs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Evan, Thanks for your last comment. It still seems to me that your aim is to find a way to argue for mythicism. You appeal to the King James Version not because you have reason to believe it does a better job of translating this passage, but because it allows you to argue for a conclusion you would like to be true. That still seems to me to be the wrong way to approach the matter. first we should ask what the best way to translate something is, or what the grammatically and culturally possible options are, and then ask what interpretations it leaves open.Let me deal with Revelation first. It is clearly drawing on very ancient mythological language, imagery associated with the Mesopotamian creation story, among others. But it seems equally clear that the author of Revelation is adapting the myths for use in a Christian apocalypse. The dragon later gets identified not as Tiamat but as Satan. And the beast gets identified with Rome and it's emperors, primarily those past and present rather than future. And so on the one hand, the author shows clearly that he is capable of using apocalyptic symbolism to talk about historical realities as well as celestial ones, while on the other, the imagery is heavily symbolic and polyvalent and thus ought not to be used as a way to settle issues about other texts that are clearer and less open to such a multitude of different interpretations.If Paul had talked about dragons and various features found in Revelation in Galatians, I would certainly be open to the possibility that there was some connection between the two or influence of the one upon the other. Be that as it may, Paul shared the early Christian apocalyptic outlook, and I don't see that it settles the question of whether he believed that people could be born.As for the matter of prooftexting, I honestly don't believe that is what I'm doing. I certainly may have singled out a particular text for discussion here, but elsewhere I've discussed Paul's reference to Jesus as descend from David according to the flesh, and other relevant texts. And it is precisely because I don't think Galatians 4:4 should be ripped from it's context in this letter of in Paul's thought more generally that I object to the attempt to read it as though it were part of Revelation rather than Galatians objectionable! :-)[since my comment has too many characters, I will continue it in a second comment]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    [continued]"Fulness of time" doesn't mean once upon a time. It means the time when God acts to bring about eschatological salvation. Paul believed himself to be living in the end times precisely because he believed that the Messiah had come and that the resurrection from the dead had already begun. In addition to this language implying that little time has passed and little time would pass between the time of Jesus and the end of the world (a point about which he was obviously mistaken), some forms of mythicism would ask us to assume that Christianity arose much earlier, at a time in which we have no evidence for it's existence whatsoever, rather than in the time when the wide array of early Christian literature suddenly begins to be produced. New evidence could always change things, but once again I believe historians are right to interpret the evidence we have rather than fabricate an earlier origin simply to make room for a preconceived theory.As for the meanings of ginomai, the fundamentalist Christian approach of taking Strong's concordance and reading any or every possible meaning of a word into a text so as to make a "good" sermon is one that has very little merit outside of homiletics (whether it has any value even there is debatable, but since ancient rabbis also played with texts in this way, I will not go so far as to dismiss a venerable tradition of interpretation out of hand). If you want to ask about the meaning of a text, it has to be in terms of context, and taking into account the way real languages work. Greek is not a code where every word has any or all of its meanings each time it appears.I also want to point out once again that mythicism takes the historical/scholarly prioritizing of early sources and turns it into a grotesque parody in which one only uses the earliest source, then seeks to find ways of avoiding any possible connection with other sources produced by the same tradition a few decades later. It really is bizarre. Please stop it! I can only guess that this too results from a misunderstanding of scholarly historical approaches, which recognize diversity in a tradition that conservative religious adherents have a tendency to argue is uniform. But once again, it is a matter of treating the evidence using historical critical methods, and not seeking to impose disagreement even where agreement seems to be present.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14299188458940897810 Evan

    Dr. McGrath, thanks for your reply, it was informative.I fail to see how your argument that using later sources to understand earlier sources can't work. If it is a good thing in the case of the Gospels why is it a bad thing in the case of Revelation? Both sources are later than the epistles from what we can tell, both may have been circulating in oral form at the time the epistles were written. I would argue that Ephesians 6:12 seems a lot more like the Apocalypse than it does any of the gospels. 1 Cor 2:8 also seems to be more at home in the world of the Apocalypse than it does in the gospels. So the question is who is making a grotesque parody and that argument has to stand and fall on its merits. If you believe the fullness of time refers to the birth of Jesus, I suppose you are happy to think so. NIV translates it "when the set time had fully come". What set time? Where?The Greek for fullness in Galatians 4:4 is pleroma a word that is loaded with gnostic meanings, including the idea that wisdom's aeon split from its female counterpart to form the demiurge, thus giving birth to the material world. Pagels has a compelling gnostic interpretation of this passage that fits cleanly with the symbolism of Revelation if it is understood as primarily gnostic. Given that you already see Revelation as polyvalent, it is hard to see why the Dragon of Revelation can't represent Satan, the Roman Empire, Tiamat and Yaltabaoth all at the same time.I'm sure nobody who prooftexts thinks they are prooftexting, so your beliefs about what you are doing are not necessarily the best guide. The question is whether you are ripping a passage out of its context to defend a position that you hold.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    James, is it safe to say there is no work that is like what some Mythicist propose for Mark, an allegory or parable whose subject is portrayed in a historic episode of the last 100 years? I'm curious because I haven't encountered one, but some one with a knowledge of Greek might know of more text than myself. That those were the examples you came up with, it would seem that according to some mythicist, Mark is a unique kind of literature without parallel to compare with.Evan, you know Mythicist. Can any of you guys suggest a a work that would serve as an example of the genre they propose Mark to be? This isn't a challenge, more like a request for help, I would be interested in knowing if their is a book like that in antiquity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15112057471953902453 kilo papa

    Dr. McGrath,Thanks for responding to my earlier comment.But my point regarding ginomai/gennao was that within the New Testament whenever Paul refers to someones birth(Rom. 9:11,Gal. 4:23 and 4:29) he always uses gennano. But when he refers to Christs birth a few verses earlier in Galatians he changes to ginomai.(And in Romans 1:3)I'm far from qualified to know if this is significant but is seems a stretch to think that it's merely chance that Paul uses a different word for "born" only when referring to Jesus.Thanks for your thoughts.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15112057471953902453 kilo papa

    The last sentence above should read "it seems a stretch"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Kilo papa,Thanks for the follow-up comment. On the one hand, it doesn't seem at all problematic that someone should use more than one term for the same thing. We all do it daily, and that's one of the reasons (as I pointed out to Evan) Christian fundamentalists and mythicists, working with lexical aids on languages they cannot read, often come up with strange interpretations. Could you imagine if someone tok a dictionary and discussed every possible meaning of words on this blog? :-)On the other hand, I think there may well be an explanation for the difference in wording. Paul rarely mentions Jesus' birth, and when he does, it is often part of a saying that has poetic structure and rhythm, and those slogans are often thought to reflect Paul quoting early Christian creedal statements of some sort. And the sayings in Romans 1 and Galatians 4 a examples of that. So another possible explanation is that what we are dealing with here is not Paul's own wording.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14299188458940897810 Evan

    MikeW, try reading Pilgrim's Progress.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14299188458940897810 Evan

    "So another possible explanation is that what we are dealing with here is not Paul's own wording."With the shoe on the other foot, I wonder how many people will condemn you for making an ad hoc explanation of a problematic text.Dr. McGrath, would you regard the translators of the KJV or Young's literal translation to be fundamentalists? In addition, can you please point out where Elaine Pagels is making a strange interpretation of Galatians 4:4 that is like a fundamentalist in The Gnostic Paul?When you yourself say that "born" is just one of many possible translations available for ginomai and scold people for suggesting otherwise aren't you also being like a fundamentalist — selecting only the translation that fits your prooftexting and discarding all others?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Evan, I will try to address some of the details of your comments in a par ate post, which seems better than several lengthy comments. But my main objection to your approach is methodological. You seem to assume that Paul wrote Ephesians, which suggests that you have not even begun to study the New Testament in an academically rigorous way. might he have written it? Yes. Is it certain, and something that can be assumed without discussion? Not in a serious discussion, no.You seem not to be aware that you are not applying and principled methodological considerations in your approach. Whether a viewpoint is held by a single scholar or a majority doesn't matter. Whether a work is earlier or later doesn't matter. What it's genre or context is doesn't matter. All that matters is whether it can be cited in a way that seems to support mythicism. But to anyone who is not a mythicist, and in particular anyone who has studied the New Testament in a serious academic way, it is obvious that this is what you are doing. And so it makes your "conclusions" easy to ignore, since the way you are reaching them ignores the rigorous demands of scholarly study of ancient literature and of history.Or to put it more briefly, unless you adopt a scholarly approach, you won't be able to make arguments that those concerned for intellectual rigor will be able to take seriously.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14299188458940897810 Evan

    Where did I suggest Paul wrote Ephesians? I simply note the epistolary genre of the NT has many parallels to Revelation and not very many to the Gospels.You scold me for academic unseriousness. For this I apologize. I would hope that giving references to academically serious scholars would minimize this, but evidently it doesn't.I am not reaching conclusions here, by the way. I am challenging your conclusions. There are many ways to be wrong, being right is the hard part.When a creationist attacks a learned scholar in evolution, he usually gets a response that deals with his concerns directly. The scholar may scold wrong ideas, but he also gives references and evidence that contradict the claims made. You seem to be forgetting the second part.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16947798364523082547 Rich Griese

    RE comment by Kilo Papa "But my point regarding ginomai/gennao was that within the New Testament whenever Paul refers to someones birth(Rom. 9:11,Gal. 4:23 and 4:29) he always uses gennano. But when he refers to Christs birth a few verses earlier in Galatians he changes to ginomai.(And in Romans 1:3)" Very interesting observation. This is something I have never heard anyone point out before. I study early Christianity, both the groups and the legends. If you are looking for other folks to talk to about the topic with, feel free to considering emailing me. I have have been studying he subjects since the early 90s. I have read most of the major works on the subject, I began under direction of Robert M. Price for about three years, and am a recently retired computer industry person that now has even more time to spend on the subject. I am always looking to expand the circle of friends that I talk about the subject with. Cheers! Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14299188458940897810 Evan

    MikeW, here's another text from a genre similar to the gospels.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    You see Evan, this is one reason why it is hard to take your requests for clarification seriously. A comic book is a similar genre to the Gospels? What could that possibly mean? You cite scholars selectively, and often seem to have misunderstood what they wrote. For instance, Pagels' book which you mentioned is a study of how Paul's letters were interpreted by groups in the second century and beyond that didn't share Paul's belief that the God who sent Jesus was the creator of the cosmos. Yet you cite her as though she is talking about the meaning of Paul's letters in terms of Paul's own thought, intention, and context.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Thanks Evan, but I think the examples are too late to be really helpful. Hellenistic Biographies don't look like biographies if you use modern examples to define the genre. At any rate, while there are similarities between Superman and Jesus and the both works have a unpolished literary style suited for ACTION!, Mark doesn't strike me as a work intended for idle fantasy entertainment. A comic book hero would surly return from the dead and deliver justice to all who wronged him. Can you imagine if Superman ended with Superman retuning to space while Lex Luthor made off with the loot? On Pilgrims Progress, while as mentioned earlier is too late, i have to add that if it is the example of the allegorical or parable story, then Mark most definitely is not. In fact the lack of similarity between the two works is what makes me doubt Mark is a allegory. If the allegorical nature is so hard to see that after 2000 years only recently a tiny number of scholars see the allegory, i can't imagine it being a successful allegory. It would be like Obama trying to convince people that the state of the union address was really a comedy stand up routine.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14299188458940897810 Evan

    What evidence is there that the epistles of the Bible were known or discussed in the first century by any person? They are not mentioned in the Didache. They are not mentioned by Ignatius. Therefore how do you know what they meant in the first century?As for a comic book being in the same genre as the gospels lets look at a comparison:Both have: 1. Parentage from the sky2. Flight from home at a young age under threat of death3. An earthly existence among mundane humanity.4. Multiple names (Kal-El, Clark Kent, Superman … Jesus of Nazareth, Christ, Emanuel, Son of Man)5. Onset of their missions at age 30.6. Earthly family ties that obscure their parentage from the sky.7. Mundane day-jobs (reporter, carpenter)8. Evidence of supernatural powers as a youth.9. Driven into a wilderness (Fortress of solitude or the desert) at the start of their mission to humanity.10. Training and guidance given by beings from the sky.11. Mission given by Father from the sky.12. Tempted by his rival to join forces to control the earth.13. Always told the truth.14. Miracles as a demonstration of mission from the sky.15. Died and resurrected (multiple differing accounts)16. Despised by the populace after initially being welcomed.17. Ascended into the skySeems like plenty to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    LOL. You seem not to understand what genre means. As for the points of contact in terms of content which you mention, there certainly are plenty, and it is one of the reasons why subjects like "religion and science fiction" are of interest to me and others. But the possibility of the influence of the one older, well-known story on the more recent one is certainly at least one of the factors that has to be taken into account in discussing the similarities.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14299188458940897810 Evan

    MikeW, there are multiple markers that the Gospel of Mark is meant primarily as an allegory, but none are quite so clear as Mark's narration after the Parable of the Sower, where Jesus pretty much lays out the theme of the book:"Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” 10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding;otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!"NIVWhat more evidence could someone want that the whole work is an esoteric parable? Even the Superman comix don't have that.As for you Dr. McGrath, LOL. You seem not to know what genre means either, yet you aren't making any attempt to explain why the Gospel is in a different genre than Superman. Remember, when creationists talk to evolution scholars, their mistakes are made plain. You forget to do that repeatedly.Dennis R. McDonald has written several books pointing out the similarities between Mark and the Homeric epics. Are you familiar with his work, and if so do you disagree with him? I would certainly consider the Odyssey and the Superman comix to be of similar genres. So I want to be clear about one final thing:"the possibility of the influence of the one older, well-known story on the more recent one is certainly at least one of the factors that has to be taken into account in discussing the similarities."So does this mean if there were an older story about a god-man who died and was later resurrected after visiting the underworld that would mean that any such later story must be a fictional derivative of that original story?

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Evan, a lot more evidence. That is no way a clear statement that the whole book is a esoteric parable. It looks like a way to explain the what seems like a trait of Jesus' supposed teaching, their use as parables. In this case the author has expanded the parable beyond its original meaning so we get an allegory of the obstacles to evangelism, but I see no indication that I should read everything else in Mark as a code for something else. Who would this be intended for any how? It seems very Da Vinci Code to me. Even supposed "Secret Mark" is just some added in John material in Mark's style. There is no evidence of any one having the code to unlock what ever it is Mark is really saying. And Superman is the same genre as Odyssey like a GI Joe doll is in the same genre as Michaelangelo's "David", I don't think any one with a education in literature would class Superman as a Greek Epic or Odyssey as a comic book.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Another point Evan, concerning derivative resurrection stories, no. Is every story about a man who uses a weapon to despoil a victim derivative of an earlier story? Any body can be thought to have supernatural powers. Uri Geller is not derivative of any stories about people with supernatural powers, people think he has such powers. If Uri Geller died, people would think that he goes where ever dead people go. This would not be a literary influence, beyond our assumptions of what happens in the world is influenced by what we have been informed of. If some one claimed to have spoken to deceased psychic Uri Gellar in a séance, would we assume that this person is only rewriting the myth of Osiris or some other God and that no such situation could have occurred?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14299188458940897810 Evan

    MikeW, why then does Mark have Jesus say that everything is given in parables. Couldn't he have Jesus say something like "I am using a parable in this instance to keep a secret, but sometimes I speak plainly" or "I am using a parable here to keep the meaning of this story hidden, but other things I will make known in the pleroma of time?"Or do you think Jesus literally told the story as it is written in Mark? And did he literally walk on water? Did the temple curtain literally rip in half … etc?In addition you say: "I don't think any one with a education in literature would class Superman as a Greek Epic or Odyssey as a comic book."Finally, Uri Geller is a documented historical person who has been on the tonight show and is a known fraud.Can you suggest a documented historical person who had stories written about him within seventy years of his death that depicted his birth in a mythological fashion akin to a woman who was dressed in the sun delivering a baby with a dragon between her legs?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08132483361614162693 TOTtomdora

    The late Ernest L. Martin, who unfortunately had a lot of oddball views but was a thoroughly interesting scholar, wrote a book about the birth passage in Revelation. Martin believed that the story described the constellations in the sky on the day Jesus was born. He figured the date, sometime in the month of September 3 BCE.Evan I agree on one hand that the stories in the bible reflect the kind of wishful thinking we see in comic books — a super hero coming from the sky to conquer the bad guys and help institute justice and the American way (OK, I exaggerate). But I don't think that I would describe that as a genre, and it says nothing at all about whether there was a real person of Jesus. People created myths about a real person, why is that so hard to comprehend?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Evan, I've posted a clarification in a separate post for your benefit. Let me know if that helps make things clearer. :)

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Loved the cover of the Gospel of John. Very THE INHUMANS or NEW-GODS. But seriously Evan, a good way to know what to expect from a book is to know what type of book it is, and that is a contextual question. It is best if we compare books with other works written in the same cultural context first. If you are interested in this subject you should put more careful thought into your questions, you will get better answers. If your just doing this to freak out squares, well played! James tacked up an amusing bit on Bible comics in your honor. Thank you for the facts on Geller, I was unaware he made a tonight show appearance. Your challenge is rather specific, I'll say no. Can you give me a mythical person that depicted his birth in a mythological fashion akin to a woman who was dressed in the sun delivering a baby with a dragon between her legs but was portrayed in a book as a historical person within 70 years of the book?On the subject of good methods for problem solving, analogies can only go so far. You should try to have a more open mind, the world is less confusing when your not always trying to cram pieces that wont fit into the puzzle. If this is an attempt at a gag, try to be funnier.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Mikew1584, you are remarkably patient in your conversation with someone who, as you observe, sounds like he should be kidding.Thanks for asking the pertinent question about whether there is another mythical figure that meets Evan's criteria, never mind a historical one. I've made a similar point in a rather lengthy comment on another thread.Evan seems to think that Jesus as a character in a Gospel explaining that he is speaking in parables is in fact the narrator telling us that everything he writes is a parable. There are several problems with that, not least of which is that the parables in the Gospel look like parables, whereas other parts of it differ. But again, this is something that one could try to argue, but Evan treated it as though it is self-evident, suggesting to me that perhaps he isn't aware of the context of even the whole of Mark's Gospel, but is working with individual verses out of context. It is a common approach to Gospels, but antithetical to the study of any literature in a scholarly way, and not only biblical literature.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15112057471953902453 kilo papa

    Dr. McGrath,I wonder if you might tolerate one final comment from me on this post.You write that Paul might be "quoting early Christian creedal statements of some sort."That certainly sounds reasonable to me. But it makes me wonder why none of the Gospel writers follow Pauls example by citing those same creedal statements.Again,thanks for you time on this.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Kilo papa, that is an excellent question. I would suggest that there is a sense in which the Gospel authors do incorporate the content, but not the precise wording, of such slogans and creeds. One could perhaps view the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke as incorporation of the earlier Christian belief that Jesus had been "born of a woman, born under the Torah" in the most natural way to do so in the Gospel genre, namely by turning them into part of the story. Thanks for asking such an interesting question!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00500523754055561061 Jon Green

    Dr. McGrath,Given that Pauline theology is based upon the epiphanies of a man who saw a talking light on the highway, rather than the testimony of people who actually knew Jesus of Nazareth, your last comment could be interpreted as an argument for mythicism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thank you for your comment. It is less clear to me that the account Luke provides of Paul's Damascus Road experience reflects accurate information about Paul. It may, but it is far from certain. And so I prefer to focus on the more mundane information found in Paul's own letters, where he acknowledges (when not concerned to try to disconnect his authority from those with whom he disagrees) that he passed on to churches what he received, and that the core Gospel that he preaches is the same one that other apostles also proclaimed. And since to claim that Paul received the same exact message miraculously is not an option a historian can embrace, I prefer to go with the more mundane explanation: Paul had received information from people who were Christians before him.His claim to have persecuted the movement also seems to presuppose knowledge about it obtained by typical human means.I realize that whether something is late or early, likely to be authentic or a polemical invention, doesn't matter to mythicists unless those points actually help make the case for mythicism. But for those interested in the sort of approach that mainstream historians and scholars offer, these are crucial considerations that need to be applied across the board and not just selectively to support one's preconceptions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08955726889682177434 Vinny

    Dr. McGrath,If the historian cannot credit Paul’s claim that he received the information supernaturally, then I would think that he needs to credit the equally mundane possibility that Paul had some propensity for invention. While it is reasonable to conclude that some of Paul’s information came from his predecessors, we might still have to allow for the possibility that much of what he preached was the product of his own imagination.I also think that obtaining knowledge by persecution may not quite be typical human means as those who are transmitting the information are often subject to duress and coercion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks Vinny. I didn't mean to imply that Paul was extracting information using torture. I meant, rather, that one is unlikely to persecute a group about which one knows nothing – although one's ideas about that group may well be prejudiced or inaccurate, of course. Just thought I'd clarify what I meant!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08955726889682177434 Vinny

    Dr. McGrath,I think that it is quite likely that one might persecute a group about which one knew little that was accurate. The Romans accused Christians of incest and cannibalism. In more recent times, Jews were accused of ritual infanticide. Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t really tell us exactly what it was about the Christians that he deemed worthy of persecution, but I wouldn’t assume that the accusations were necessarily well-founded.I also think it possible that Paul would have used torture or threats of physical harm to obtain information. He might even have used paid informants to find out who the heretics were and what they believed. If he did, much of what he heard may have been driven by what people thought he wanted to hear more than by the facts.I would think that the shortcomings of religious persecutions as information gathering enterprises create considerable uncertainty about the degree of continuity between what Paul preached and the actual beliefs and practices of anyone in particular who preceded him.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Vinny, your points are well taken, although it should be noted that Paul refers to getting information from James and Peter in his post-persecution period.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    In other words, it seems like he eventually had any information he got by way of rumors or procured under duress supplemented.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08955726889682177434 Vinny

    Dr. McGrath,He certainly had the opportunity to have his information supplemented, however, according to Paul’s account he had already been out preaching for three years before he met Peter and James so I would guess that his theology was pretty fully formed by that time.I have often wondered who did most of the talking at those first meetings. Paul was well educated and I assume that he was a dynamic and persuasive speaker. He had already enjoyed considerable success in spreading his message. Peter and James, on the other hand, were illiterate laborers who were still hanging around Jerusalem. It is easy to imagine Paul dominating the conversation. Even if Peter and James didn’t think that Paul had gotten thing exactly right, given the way that Paul had dealt with people who had disagreed with him in the past, they might not have been inclined to correct his misimpressions. It is possible that Paul had the same basic understanding of the gospel message as Peter and James. However it seems to me that it is also possible that Paul was mistaken when he left Jerusalem in thinking that they were all on the same page. I think it is also possible that James and Peter saw that Paul had a good thing going and came around to his way of thinking.

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