Mythicism: As Unlikely on Earth as it is in Heaven

I recently received a question in a comment on an older post about mythicism, and thought I would share my answer in a post, since I doubt that many people are still following the post in question, which is from three years ago.

Mythicists often emphasize that Paul never explicitly says that Jesus was crucified on Earth, outside Jerusalem. My point is that he never says Jesus was crucified in the sky, upon the firmament either. In general, when Paul or other authors are referring to celestial, non-mundane regions or entities, they feel the need to make this clear, in a way that simply isn’t necessary when one is referring to the terrestrial and everyday. When we meet someone, we just say that. If we meet someone in a dream or a vision, then we need to specify that.

Another problem is that mythicists are willing to place lots of things in the celestial realm, sometimes in a way that fits awkwardly with what the texts say. Except for in the Ascension of Isaiah, the realm beneath the moon essentially means the Earthly realm. Since there are references to a celestial Jerusalem, one might perhaps even grant that, had Paul said that Jesus was crucified outside of Jerusalem, it would still not be entirely unambiguous. But when he says that Jesus was born of a woman like all humans are, born under the Law like all Jews are, and of the seed of David according to the flesh, it is only by strenuous effort that one can relocate those things into the celestial realm – and even then, Paul never says explicitly that that is where they occur, and so it seems that, however much Carrier might play with numbers, it simply will never be more likely that Paul meant what Carrier suggests, than that he meant what mainstream historical scholarship understands him to.

A review article has appeared about Richard Carrier’s book Proving History (discussed previously on this blog here). The review is by Aviezer Tucker and appears in History and Theory, and its title is “The Reverend Bayes vs. Jesus Christ.” Tucker is, as I understand it, a longstanding proponent of Bayesian methods in historical study, and so is an ideal person to evaluate Carrier’s book. Although Tucker shows himself to be less well informed about the details of the ancient evidence related to Jesus (as this is not his field), I would still like to see his evaluation of the application of Carrier’s proposed method in his follow-up volume, On The Historicity of Jesus.

This is the kind of thing that ought to be characteristic, if mythicism were simply a scholarly hypothesis. Someone argues for it. Someone else with relevant expertise evaluates their arguments. The academic consensus either changes or it doesn’t. But alas, the focus of mythicists is not on engagement in that arena, but the use of the books merely as purported evidence of the seriousness of mythicism in the context of online apologetics.

And so let me end with a paraphrase of a quote attributed to Alberto Brandolini: “The amount of energy necessary to refute mythicism is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” That quote is featured at the end of a long article on the topic of what we might more politely call “BS” in the sciences, but one can see a similar phenomenon to what that article is complaining about in history and other fields as well.

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  • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

    “Another problem is that mythicists are willing to place lots of things in the celestial realm, sometimes in a way that fits awkwardly with what the texts say”.

    I’m not sure it is all that awkward. Consider Paul in Galatians saying he went “up to” Jerusalem. That’s sort of an odd way of putting it. Why didn’t he just say he “went to Jerusalem”?

    If you look at the later Apocalypse of Paul, it describes Paul’s journey to Jerusalem via an ascension through the heavens.

    But there are earlier references to celestial realms – consider the Alexandrian Sethians – in the Gospel of Judas – Jesus is talking about how “Each of you has his own star”.

    Is there a connection between Paul and the Sethians? Sure, if you consider that Apollos, the one described in Acts as the learned man from Alexandria who was knowledgeable in the “Baptism of John”. It’s an interesting detail that the Sethians had such a robust baptismal ritual, I think – of course, it proves nothing, least of all my link.

    If the missing link between the Sethians and Paul is Apollos (which I think is plausible), then how on Earth would the Sethians have come to interpret Jesus in such a celestial way if Paul was talking about a human on Earth?

    My suspicion is that Paul’s theology looks very different than the history cooked up for him via the creation of the Pastorals and Acts of the Apostles. So the Celestial explanation of Jesus seems pretty reasonable to me…I suppose that puts me in the minority.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      This is precisely why it is inadvisable to try to come up with one’s own theory about a subject that requires expertise, whether it be history, science, medicine, or anything else. Those familiar with the relevant literature know that “going up” to Jerusalem is a stock phrase in Jewish literature, and indeed throughout ancient Israelite literature as well, in referring to the actual city. It reflects the geography of the location and the belief that the particular hill on which the city was originally located (Mt. Zion), once the temple was built there, served as the meeting point between the divine realm and the human.

      Then again, perhaps I am being too pessimistic about the ability of non-experts to figure these things out. After all, had you wanted to, you could have Googled the phrase and found this all out. The question then is how to get people who’ve made up their own mind without having all the relevant knowledge to further inform themselves. Any suggestions?

      • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

        The curve ball in all of this is that the whole subtext of everything Paul talks about is built on a framework that relied on visions – this visionary mysticism was taken up by the earliest Christians – the Johannines in western Asia Minor, the Syrians, and Valentinus in Alexandria.

        In other words, the subtext here is that these guys are often describing, in literal terms, their celestial visions, and those visions were literally encouraged within the communities. This motif is continued later in the Apocalypse of Paul.

        I think “all the relevant knowledge” is a subjective phrase, and if one is not careful, an outsider might mistake their attempt at flexing their academic credentials as elitism.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Denialists often regard criticism of denialism from the standpoint of expertise as elitism. That is part of the problem. Any suggestions on how to overcome it?

          The view that Paul and apparently everyone else is based on visions is a popular one among mythicists. Care to demonstrate it with evidence – not that ancient people like modern ones had dreams, but that even the mundane things they talk about are in fact based on “visions”?

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            “Denialists often regard criticism of denialism from the standpoint of expertise as elitism”
            I hope I’m not coming off as a denialist – I appreciate your reference to Mount Zion in the “up to Jerusalem”…more stuff for me to investigate now.

            “Any suggestions on how to overcome it?”
            People are dogmatic, regardless of what tribe they’re in…I’m afraid that’s the best I can do…the rest is psychology.

            “apparently everyone else is based on visions is a popular one among mythicists. Care to demonstrate it with evidence”
            Off the top of my head…
            1. The book of Revelation
            2. Emergence of Merkabah mysticism and Hermeticism, which were both very vision-y
            3. April DeConick writes “My position has been and continues to be that the author of the gospel of John is aware of the type of vision and ascent mysticism that came to be associated with the Thomasine traditions in Syria, and he is polemicizing against them”

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Thank you for your reply – this is very helpful, and I am always happy to learn that April DeConick’s work is being widely read!

            Works like the Book of Revelation have the format of a vision, to be sure. But the apocalypse was a popular genre, and it would be extremely problematic to assume that all, most, or perhaps any of them reflect actual visions that people had.

            There is no doubt that striving after visions was important in particular subsets of the major religious traditions. But I don’t think that it would make sense to be an Akiba mythicist just because that famous rabbi is mentioned in literature associated with the Jewish mystical tradition. Just because particular individuals had a mystical bent, that does not make them people who based everything the wrote on visions, or people who never interacted with their historical contemporaries.

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            I’m almost tempted to leave it here. I have a lot of respect for you and your work, and frankly, I’m a little out of my depth here, but I just want to respond to your statement:

            “Just because particular individuals had a mystical bent, that does not make them people who based everything the wrote on visions, or people who never interacted with their historical contemporaries.”

            It seems to me that communities with a Platonist bent wouldn’t be too troubled by muddied lines between visions and reality. In the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” – if you acknowledge that the author is talking about the Logos, then you’ve already conceded that the people originally reading this text accept that the Monad “emanated” the Nous, Chaos, Logos, etc. The author was simply tapping into Platonist and Pythagorean thought of the day.

            (Aside: it does make one suspicious about how a supposedly Aramaic-speaking fisherman, such as John, would have been aware of such Greek concepts…of course, Eusebius doubted his predecessor Irenaeus on that point, as well…but I digress.)

            So if early Christians (the Johannine communities, the Alexandrian communities, Syrian communities) were seeing the universe something like how Plato described it, where there were forms, and a barrier between the land of forms and the rest of the universe (my understanding is that by this time, philosophers had elaborated to see it as sublunar, supralunar, and forms), then there is already a philosophical framework that invites mysticism…it seems to me these communities embraced this.

            If one is of the opinion that the actual author of Revelation was the Syrian Cerinthus (or that it originated in the Syrian community), as was claimed by Caius the Presbyter, AND you accept the view that John was a polemic against the Syrian community, then what you literally have is a polemic in the Gospel of John, but a later hijacking of the text that the Johannines were polemicizing against.

            It’s interesting to note that (nearly) simultaneously, there was an increasing schism with the Valentinian communities, whose originator (Valentinus) based his theology on a vision he supposedly had of Jesus.

            So John had visions, Valentinus had visions, Paul had visions. And these guys were the leaders – they’re the ones history remembered.

            In my opinion, these visions were just a part of their communities, and given the fact that other mystical religions, whose entire theologies were centered around these visions, were popping up at the same time, I don’t think that’s a very big stretch.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I will just respond by pointing out that your approach is focusing on later evidence as the key to making sense of Christian origins, and at numerous points you are simply accepting the claims of early Christian authors about authorship and other matters. Now, it may be that those ancient authors are trustworthy and accurate on those points. But it seems to me that one cannot selectively choose to accept what those authors say about relatively minor matters, while insisting that they were all completely wrong in the uniform impression they give that Jesus was a figure who actually lived in history.

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            Fair enough – clearly the Johannines believed Jesus was a real person…whether that was always the case is debatable. The point I was trying to make about Irenaeus and the tradition that he was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of John, who wrote this lovely Greek text, is that it is implausible and not parsimonious. It seems like a big fat lie, so (in my mind) it throws into doubt all of the timelines.

            Factor in the prominent Johannine Melito of Sardis, who wrote something to the effect of “the philosophy current with us originated in the time of Augustus…”, and the fact that Irenaeus’ timeline of Jesus’ life mismatches the current narrative, it raises some pretty serious concerns about the economy of the traditional stories.

            The earliest evidence I can find that someone called Jesus a real person is Justin Martyr in the mid-150s (or maybe the Epistle of Polycarp, around the same time). If you have earlier references than that, I’d love to hear about it.

            Yet the Sethians, who seemed much less attached to a human Jesus, might very well have emerged as quasi-Christian sect by the late 1st/early 2nd century.

            The Sethians *solved* the Epicurean problem of evil by making the Demiurge separate from both the Logos and the Monad (which added a layer to Philo’s Logos that he wrote about 70-100 years earlier). So the Logos freed Sophia in this mythos, and then came back to save humanity.

            In this Platonic fantasyland, we’ve got a template for the Logos, with no human required, because all of this stuff happened in the Pleroma and Kenoma.

            Valentinus, supposedly an inheritor of Paul’s theology via Theudas, saw “the cross” as the barrier between the layers of the Kenoma. Point: how did a Judean rabbi (who lived in a town that was, by all inferences, not inhabited…where they spoke Aramaic) become an aeon in the Pleroma, traversing the heavens? Or if you look at it from the apostolic side, how did these Aramaic speakers get their stories translated and propagated in Greek?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Are you saying that the Synoptics give you the impression that prior to John, Christians thought that Jesus was not a real person?

            The earliest source we have gives the impression that the John the Elder who was connected with the Johannine literature is a different figure than John the son of Zebedee. Whether the later identification of the author as one of the Twelve is mistaken identity, wishful thinking, or deliberate apologetic distortion is hardly relevant to the question we are discussing.

            You do know that Paul refers to Jesus as a person that he believes to have been Jewish (‘born under the Law’) and of Davidic descent, right? And that Paul had met his brother? Our earliest source is clear about this, although mythicists find some creative/ludicrous ways to try to spin this inconvenient evidence.

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            “Are you saying that the Synoptics give you the impression that prior to John, Christians thought that Jesus was not a real person?”
            I’m saying that Mark does not necessarily imply that Christians saw Jesus as a real person.

            On top of that, Mark doesn’t give a birth narrative, so when we see Irenaeus, et al talking about heretics who saw Jesus and the Christ as separate, it’s not hard to imagine why they would have thought that.

            Considering that Mark is so allegorical and often just re-telling Old Testament stories, I don’t really see much indication to think that (the writer of) Mark thought Jesus was a human.

            If you read Philo of Alexandria’s writings about the Therapeutae, who lived around a lake outside of Alexandria, it’s hard not to see parallels between the community described in Mark around Galilee…factor in that there’s no secular evidence that Nazareth was inhabited at this time, and it makes one wonder whether Mark might have been writing a fiction.

            “The earliest source we have gives the impression that the John the Elder who was connected with the Johannine literature is a different figure than John the son of Zebedee”
            Irenaeus was claimed to be a student of Polycarp, and was claimed to have been born in Smyrna (next to Ephesus). So in his claim of apostolic authority, it was implied that his authority was derived via his connection to Polycarp. This tradition lived on for a long time after that, when Eusebius felt compelled to say that John’s author was not the son of Zebedee.

            They built a *big* tradition around how the Apostle John traveled from Jerusalem to Ephesus, and then was imprisoned by Domitian, and (because he was an illiterate fisherman) needed a scribe named Prochorus (mentioned in Acts) to write down Revelation and the gospel. The fact that there are so many Johns, and that the authorship of Revelation was questioned, and that Revelation seems to have at least 2 authors, makes the whole narrative hard to believe.

            “And that Paul had met his brother? ”
            The brother of the lord might not be the same as the “lord’s brother”. It seems to me that there are several ways to interpret this statement…though I’m sure you’ve already heard that spiel. What’s interesting though is that, immediately after Paul wrote that he saw James, he said “I swear I’m not lying” (Gal 1:20).

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Well, if you get all your information from fringe sources, and your information about archaeology from people who engage in it from their armchair, you can scarcely expect to get an accurate sense of things, can you?

            Mark is “so allegorical”?
            Two different ways of writing the same thing in English affects Paul’s meaning?

            I’m not impressed, sorry.

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            Fair enough. I’m a little surprised by your response here, but I take it that you wish to leave it there. Take care professor.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I do not want to leave it there. You might, but I wish you wouldn’t, since I fear you are going to simply carry on allowing dubious sources to give you an impression of this subject that doesn’t reflect either what the primary sources say or what the conclusion of historians and scholars is.

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            What dubious sources are you talking about? What primary source have I misrepresented? I’d be happy to cite in response to any specific objections you have.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Your impression that Mark is largely allegorical, and that because it lacks a mythologized birth account that makes the figure who is its main focus less human, is certainly a long way from the impression that mainstream historians and scholars have of the work on the whole.

            The dubious sources I am referring to are, for instance, the ones which have told you that we have reason to think that Nazareth was uninhabited in Jesus’ time. That’s from musician and self-declared armchair archaeological pundit Rene Salm. Would you care to comment on why you trust him, or whoever mediated his opinions to you?

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            “Your impression that Mark is largely allegorical”
            Jesus does curse a fig tree…I mean, come on.
            Then there’s the quieting of the sea, that’s just retelling of Jonah 1. There’s all kinds of examples like that in Mark.
            Considering that the Sea of Galilee is not very big, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the crashing waves might not have been too much of a problem.

            “Would you care to comment on why you trust him, or whoever mediated his opinions to you?”
            I really have no idea who Rene Salm is.

            I know Ken Humphries has made this point, citing Jonathan L. Reed, J.D. Crossan, and others ( http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/nazareth.html ). I’ve always seen this Nazareth argument as an argument from silence, but it gets to the point where there is so much silence from every direction, and such a mountain of dissonance between what is claimed and what evidence there is for it, that these arguments get to seem compelling.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            One can point to the story of the man possessed by Legion as political satire. Did you think I was saying that there are no stories in it that are anything but history? If so, you must really not have been listening. You gave the impression that you think Mark makes sense if you treat the whole thing as allegory. If so, then you will need to comment on the majority of the material that seems to clearly defy that description, not the few obvious examples that no one disputes are something other than factual accounts (although the appropriateness of the term “allegory” is debatable).

            What makes you think that Ken Humphries is a reliable source, then?

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            “Did you think I was saying that there are no stories in it that are anything but history?”
            No, I did not make that assumption – you said “Your impression that Mark is largely allegorical…”. I think it is largely allegorical. It seems pretty clear to me that much of it is in response to the destruction of the temple in 70 – the cursing of the fig tree seems to be a reference to the atonement problem brought on by the temple’s destruction (RG Hamerton Kelly).

            “If so, then you will need to comment on the majority of the material that seems to clearly defy that description, not the few obvious examples that no one disputes are something other than factual accounts”
            I think that when one reads 1st and 2nd century cult texts through a 21st century lens, one is inclined to read them literally. I’m not convinced that was really how they communicated in that setting. In Gnosticism, the whole point was to read sacred texts with some amount of inversion or to find hidden meanings.

            It was, in my opinion, the same mindset that concocted Mark as the one that concocted the Gospel of Judas, or the Sethian mythos. Even April DeConick has suggested that there seems to be a link between the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Judas…in particular, how the other apostles are treated.

            It seems to me that there’s a burden of proof that hasn’t been met, in terms of the suggestion that the gospels were talking about any historical figures at all (aside from the ones plucked from this history books – Pontius Pilate, etc). But because we are inheritors of a society that accepted these fairytales with no level of healthy skepticism whatsoever, we take it for granted. The book of Acts of the Apostles is frequently used as historical text, and often unquestioned.

            It makes a lot more sense to me that people who had this 1st century mindset, and who also had access to literary, philosophical, and historical sources of the day (namely Josephus, Philo, and Homer), composed a story about people they didn’t know, based on the stories of Paul. Why is it that Mark gets obvious details wrong, such as the night trial? Does that seem like a mistake a 1st person eye witness would make? What must it imply that Mark would mistake the time of day that the trial was held?

            “What makes you think that Ken Humphries is a reliable source, then?”
            I haven’t seen too many things that he’s said that are verifiably incorrect. Believe it or not, I try to be as intellectually honest as I can, and if I’m wrong, I want to know about it. There are scholars and writers that I reject outright because of their intellectual dishonesty.

            Is there evidence that Nazareth was populated? Is there good reason to believe it?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            So you think the Gospel of Mark is a Gnostic source?

            How can you verify whether Ken Humphries is saying things that are correct or not, without immersing yourself in mainstream archaeological literature?

            Did someone give you the impression that Mark was present at a trial of Jesus? The impression historians get is that the Jewish leaders handed Jesus over to the Romans quickly because it was the latter who were interested in his apprehension, and the Jewish leaders were wisely trying to avoid having the Romans send their own forces in to accomplish that, which would likely have resulted in additional bloodshed.

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            “So you think the Gospel of Mark is a Gnostic source?”
            Not as it presently reads, although I suspect the “Secret Gospel of Mark” might have been used in conjunction with it, or perhaps it was altered sometime in the 2nd half of the 2nd century. It clearly has been altered, including the addition of everything after 16:8.

            “How can you verify whether Ken Humphries is saying things that are correct or not…”
            There’s only 1 way I’m using Humpreys here (apologies for a previous mis-spelling), which is to say that the claims that Nazareth was a populated community in the former half of the first century are quite lacking, given initial examination. I’m always on the lookout for data that would invalidate it.

            If you are trying to make the point that I should rely on peer-reviewed scholarly work, point taken. I’ve already acknowledged that the Nazareth claim does appeal to silence – if you have some evidence that Nazareth was inhabited at the time, I’d love to hear. My point is that, if there was some rabbi who was enormously popular (feeding thousands of people), wouldn’t we expect to find some sort of reference to it somewhere in the secular record?

            “Did someone give you the impression that Mark was present at a trial of Jesus?”
            There a plausibility problem in the whole narrative. Who was Mark? Why did he write in Greek? Who told him about Jesus? If he wasn’t there, then how does he know what happened? Is there any indication that he could be lying or making it up or mistaken? We see tons of indications that the writer of Mark didn’t have the slightest clue about what was going on there. In this regard, isn’t this just a recurring theme? Do you think the Gospel of Judas is in any way historical? Or the other non-canonical texts? What makes Mark so special?

            It seems much more likely to me that these guys were just drawing on the philosophical, historical, and intellectual topics of the day – we even see examples of Paul borrowing from Philo of Alexandria (Colossians 1:17)

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I think I see the problem. You are looking for a Jesus who actually fed thousands of people, and miraculously no less. That is not the historical figure of Jesus, any more than the historical Muhammad is a figure who took a journey into the sky from Jerusalem, or the historical Paul is a figure who actually went to the “third heaven.”

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            “You are looking for a Jesus who actually fed thousands of people, and miraculously no less”
            I don’t believe that anything supernatural has or will ever happen. I don’t fault the ancients for disagreeing with me on that – but just because person A claims person B was supernatural, that doesn’t and shouldn’t invalidate person B’s existence. It does make me wonder about how much confidence we could possibly have in person A’s opinions, though.

            There was a time when I was willing to concede that Jesus was just some popular minister who became a legend. My thinking used to be that the stories that were written in the gospel might have just been embellishments – maybe there weren’t 5000, but maybe there were 100. Or maybe it was just a story that got tacked on later.

            I really don’t think that anymore, for reasons I’ve brought up, but the entry point into that thought process mainly rests on the age of the extant gospel texts, the implausibility of the traditional stories (John the Apostle, Saint Peter, Ignatius, etc), the secular external references to where Christianity was being practiced, the fact that Christianity’s eventual Demiurge model looked so much like Philo’s model, as well as the languages the gospels were written in.
            I think it makes more sense that Christianity emerged out of the mystery religions, and its origins closely resembled Gnostic traditions…the reason we don’t see much secular evidence for Christianity before 110 is because that’s how long it took to get from Alexandria, where it originated (maybe with various implementations of Melchizedekians – Philo’s preferred Logos) to the Black Sea, where Pliny the Younger noticed it – very close to where Marcion lived…its early theological direction was probably mostly influenced by the educated elite in Alexandria, and it spread by way of the trade route between Alexandria and Asia Minor – notably Sinope (on the Black Sea) and Ephesus. I think it was Justin Martyr’s community and generation (or perhaps just prior to him) that was compelled to convert Jesus into a human, and I think the reason for this Euhemerization might have been because the Jesus visions were influencing the theology in ways that some early church leaders didn’t like.

            I think there were pre-Christianities that were popping up, and eventually led to different incantations, including the Sethians and Valentinians in the South and the simpler Demiurge models in the North (Johannines, Cerinthians, and Marcionites).

            The disjointedness compelled late 2nd and early 3rd century church leaders such as Irenaeus and Tertullian to consolidate to one model, and the version that was most compelling (either because it most matched their personal theologies, or because it most matched what Rome would accept) was the human Jesus.

          • Mark

            It amazes me how far people who think they are defending secular rationality, the critique of religion, and so on, fall into associations of ideas that are basically New Age in quality, accumulating references and constituting things like Gnostic Platonic Mythraic Hekhalot Sethianism. What does this have to do with the letters of Paul, which seem to express a fairly conventional 1st c Judaism – with an overlay of pleasantly wild true-believer messianic enthusiasm – and which clearly advert to a recently crucified Jewish messianic figure? Or maybe you think they were forged by Irenaeus or something

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            Paul’s entire framework is based on visions. As were plenty of other 1st century cults. It is of interest and of note that many of these “Gnostic” groups were so captivated by Paul…as were the Johannines. Interestingly enough, the Sethians evidently weren’t interested in Paul, but their Alexandrian successors (who had remarkable theological similarities), the Valentinians, were.

            I don’t think Irenaeus forged the Pauline letters, but obviously some of them were forged – the Pastorals, for example…the Johannines seem to be a good candidate for this forgery

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            If you are determined to read Paul through the lens of later Gnosticism, and Gnosticism through the lens of mythicism, then you are doing something other than historical reconstruction. If you want to construct a theology, that is fine – just so long as you don’t pretend that this kind of thing is how a historian gets at matters related to the historical Jesus, or the historical Paul.

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            I don’t pretend to be a historian…just an enthusiast; I’m not necessarily determined to read Paul through a Gnostic lens, but I think his appeal to all those groups is striking.

          • Mark

            “Paul’s entire framework” is clearly a fairly ordinary, even proto-rabbinic, 2nd temple Judaism. He happens also to be a messianic ‘true believer’, which gives rise to various ecstatic phenomena – check out your friendly neighborhood Lubavitchers to see how normal and charming it all is. They have a Noahide contingent too, by the way, which looks kind of like Paul’s if you squint a bit.

            The existence of the pastorals is no more relevant to the interpretation of the authentic letters than the existence of St Paul’s Cathedral is. In general no amount of 2nd c Valentinian Alexandrian Cerinthian Marcionite ship-building mythos has any bearing on events that happened way back while the temple was standing. You are engaged in positing backward causality on a massive scale and refusing to register the hyper-Jewish character both of the origin and of what is leaving Paul and being deposited in his quasi-Noahide ex-pagans. To understand those things clearly, what we need is a proper understanding of mid-century Jerusalem.

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            According to Quispel (Gnosis and Psychology, 1980), “Paul was initiated into a Gnostic interpretation of Christianity, which almost from the very beginning…served as an alternative for the primitive eschatology of Jerusalem and the liberal interpretation of Antioch.

            I’d point to 3 things in response to your assertion that these are all disjointed things that have nothing to do with one another:
            1. These Gnostic sentiments that are scattered throughout the New Testament were not new – they were alive and well in Syria by the mid-1st century.
            2. People didn’t live in a vacuum. Clearly the early theologians were familiar with these ideas. Most literate Jews were aware of the Platonic and Pythagorean traditions (I read that from John D Turner…but the specific source escapes me at the moment).
            3. These early heretics, Valentinus and Marcion in particular, were both tremendously popular AND influential members of the early “church”. Given the impression we get from the Valentinians, that their views and practices were hidden from people who were not ready for “gnosis”, it seems to me that the implication is that the upper elites of the church were aware and did embrace this “gnosis”.

            “You are engaged in positing backward causality on a massive scale and refusing to register…”
            The problem (which I’m happy to acknowledge) is that many 1st century historic details are not present (at least from reliable sources) – why they’re not present is anyone’s guess, but my guess is that the late 2nd century church, onward, was more than happy to purge out Gnostic traditions – it’s a testament to how popular these ideas were that we have any record of them at all. But to just presume that these Gnostic ideas sprung up out of nowhere and had no influence on the earliest Christianities seems less likely than the alternative (at least to me)

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Quispel is trying to explain why Paul seems so different from the Christianity that existed before him, and which he clearly disagreed with on at least some points, such as the inclusion of Gentiles without requiring them to convert to Judaism. I suspect that if prior to his death Quispel had been presented with the idea that what he used to explain why Paul was different, you think was original Christianity which represented what Paul shared with others, he would have found that proposal most unconvincing indeed. You seem to be picking and choosing what you like from what scholars say, but without understanding the substance of their historical reconstructions which make those statements plausible or at least make sense.

          • http://www.timsteppingout.com TimSteppingOut

            I was responding specifically to Mark’s statement “You are engaged in positing backward causality on a massive scale”.

            I took that statement to mean that Paul and the Gnostics have a chronologically forward, one-way relationship (Paul influenced Gnostics, but not the other way around).

            I was not trying to cherry pick to support my overall view – I was just trying to make a point that proto-Gnosticism was alive and well in the days of Paul (presumably the early/mid 1st century).

            So when we read Ephesians talking about dark powers of the world and mystery being revealed to him, or Colossians 1:13, when we were rescued from the “domain of darkness”, or in 2 Corinthians 4:4 “in whose case the god of *this world* has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light…of Christ”, it seems to me that this is, at bare minimum, proto-Christian Gnosticism.

            Then you read Gospel of John talking about the Logos and the Pleroma, it’s hard not to suspect that this Gnostic thread was interwoven into Christianity from the very beginning.

          • Mark

            If you think that any use of plēroō & co makes a man a “gnostic” you are using ‘gnosticism’ to mean ‘Greek antiquity’

          • Mark

            If McGrath is right about Quispel’s purpose – to explain Paul’s refusal to convert his gentiles – then ‘gnosticism’, whatever that is, is the last thing one needs. The rabbis say the same, the Lubavitchers say the same, this is the most distinctively Jerusalemite and echt traditional-Jewish feature of Paul. The people Paul seems to bump into, who insist on making proselytes, not (what are later called) Noahides, of the nations, are completely distinctive in the whole history of Jewish opinion. What Paul is doing, by contrast, needs no explanation at all.

            It is seeming to me that according to the present use of ‘gnostic’ here and on the internets generally it means something like ‘of or pertaining to the Hellenistic world … and I’m smoking hashish now’

            I’m getting a good high right now, interpreting “… blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the Pleroma of the Gentiles comes in…” Who’d have thought they even /had/ a Pleroma?

    • Mark

      Even today in modern Hebrew you can only get to Jerusalem by ‘going up’.

  • Joe Wallack

    “Mythicists often emphasize that Paul never explicitly says that Jesus was crucified on Earth, outside Jerusalem. My point is that he never says Jesus was crucified in the sky, upon the firmament
    either. In general, when Paul or other authors are referring to
    celestial, non-mundane regions or entities, they feel the need to make
    this clear, in a way that simply isn’t necessary when one is referring
    to the terrestrial and everyday. When we meet someone, we just say that.
    If we meet someone in a dream or a vision, then we need to specify
    that.”

    I agree with the point here. An interesting related question is to what extent is Paul a second-hand witness to Jesus being crucified? Most Christians would be surprised to learn that we likely have no extant credible first hand witness to Jesus being crucified. It’s generally agreed that the extant claimed first hand witness we have is false.

    Paul is not a credible witness anyway but appears to be the first quality extant to assert that Jesus was crucified. What source was Paul’s assertion based on? Paul never claims that a first hand witness was his source. Even in the disputed I Corinthians Paul does not claim that the disciples said Jesus was crucified. You also have the general problem that outside of the Christian Bible claims we have no evidence that anyone was crucified in the first third of the century in Israel.

    Is Paul than a second hand witness for Jesus being crucified? By who’s or what generally accepted standards?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I assume that what you meant is that the works which have sometimes been claimed as first-hand eyewitness accounts are unlikely to be, and not that the testimony about the crucifixion has been shown to be false?

      Would you say that most of the information you have about current events in the world has come to you directly from eyewitnesses? Or does it often come through someone who is reporting to you what eyewitnesses have said?