RBL Review of The Birth of the Trinity

RBL Review of The Birth of the Trinity November 13, 2016

My review of Matthew Bates’ book The Birth of the Trinity has appeared in RBL. You can find it on Academia.edu if you cannot access it on the RBL site.

It is a vibrant time to be part of the discussion of Christology in early Christianity!


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  • John MacDonald

    I don’t know if it is as helpful as most people think to turn to the writings of Paul to learn about the Christology of Jesus. Paul was quite clear that he modified his portrayal of Jesus to cast him in the most “sale-able” light possible depending on whether he was presenting the message to Jews, or to Gentiles (1 Cor 9:20-21). Since Paul was modifying the message depending on whether it was going to Jews or Gentiles, and he was trying to present the most tempting Christ possible to win the most converts, who knows what he thought of the actual Christology of Jesus?

    • John MacDonald

      And there is good reason to suspect that Paul was lying, since he was constantly protesting that he wasn’t lying (a sure sign of guilt). Paul wrote:

      1. “I assure you before God that what I am writing to you is no lie (Galatians 1:20)”

      2. “I speak the truth in Christ; I am not lying, as confirmed by my conscience in the Holy Spirit (Romans 9:1).”

      3. “I call God as my witness that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth (2 Corinthians 1:23).”

      4. ” The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is forever worthy of praise, knows that I am not lying (2 Corinthians 11:31).”

      As Shakespeare wrote, methinks Paul “doth protest too much.” Paul clearly seems to present himself as a liar who is worrying about getting caught.

      • Well, that line from Shakespeare is taken out of context when used in that way, and while emphasizing something may be an indication of dishonesty, it can also reflect honesty that has been challenged. Do you know of a surefire way to tell one from the other?

        • John MacDonald

          I just meant that generally dishonest people are often nervous about being perceived as dishonest (and so overcompensate by constantly protesting that they’re not lying).

          • John MacDonald


            Eisenman is right. There is no reason to trust Paul. Paul obviously “lies” to support his arguments. For instance, Paul claims the risen Christ appeared to “500 of the brothers AT ONCE (1 Corinthians 15:6).” That’s ridiculous! Paul is obviously making stuff up to persuade his readers that Christ really rose.

            I any case, you can picture Jesus and his followers running around the ancient world threatening and scaring people with the lie that “The World Is About To End, so you better get right with God and start loving one another!” A healthy dose of made-up miracle stories and a resurrection story would have helped to sell the ethical message of loving one another, especially decades after Jesus was gone and it became apparent that the world wasn’t ending any time soon.

            Anyway, there is no way to determine if the motives of the original Christians were honest or dishonest, so it is equally impossible to say whether the original Christians were scamming people, or if they were actually devoted to a man they believed was responsible for a plethora of miracles and a resurrection.

            So, the long and the short of it is we can’t argue the original Christians were “honest” in their motives (because of the antinomy of undecideability between the “honest” theory and the “dishonest” theory), so contemporary Christian faith cannot be “rational” in its ground. It requires a leap of faith to believe that the original Christians didn’t have dishonest motives. There is simply no way to access the motives of the original Christians.

            “I sense a plot to destroy the Jedi” (Mace Windu)

          • One can always begin with the assumption that people are lying. But one rarely assumes that one is dishonest oneself, or that one’s own kinship group of whatever sort is made up of people whose penchant is for dishonesty. Those who treat others as they wish to be treated will certainly consider the possibility of others being wrong and deceiving themselves, but are unlikely to make broad sweeping statements about people of a particular time period, ethnicity, gender, or religious viewpoint being “liars.”

          • John MacDonald

            And yet, as I said, Seneca famously made the broad sweeping statement that “Religion is true to the masses, false to the wise, and useful to the rulers.” Maybe your quarrel needs to be taken up with him (lol).

            Search your feelings, James. See through the fog of lies the Jedi have created around you (lol). The ancient world was a terrible place. Jacob Burckhardt, working from the insights of one of his teachers, claimed that the Greeks were more unhappy than most people realized. A young Nietzsche obtained an auditors transcript of Burckhardt’s lecture on this point and treasured it as his most prized possession. Remember, when Socrates died he said to offer a rooster to the God Asclepius for giving him the poison that would cure him from this horrible disease called life. Besides pushing the ancients toward a loving world, the miracles and resurrection of Jesus were a force for happiness and hope in a dark world under the Roman thumb, even if the miracles and resurrection never happened.

            Anyway,have an Merry Christmas and a happy New Year! I don’t really have any more ideas so I guess I’m done blogging here. Thanks for providing the blog. I really enjoyed it.

            “ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha” (The Joker)

          • John MacDonald

            Hence the Greek word “Pharmakon,” both a poison and a cure.

          • John MacDonald

            Thank God for the “edit” feature. Those were two big grammatical mistakes when I first posted that comment!

          • The Sith often sound open-minded, but really they (you?) are interested in power. If the misguided but well-intentioned Jedi and the Sith were the only options, then I’d probably have to go with the Jedi. Thankfully, there is in fact middle ground – as also between the view that religions offer absolute truth and religious people are all liars.

          • John MacDonald

            Agreed. The truth is best expressed as continuum rather than an antinomy. Hence, Hegel’s critique of Kant. I’m glad I got the chance to get to know you! Live long and prosper, Professor.

          • Are you not going to be reading and commenting here any longer? I hope that is not the case – I’ve appreciated your provocative and serious as well as your more lighthearted contributions.

          • John MacDonald

            My “eye health” isn’t the best and my doctor says I should stay away from reading as much as I can. I get really bad migraines. So, I’ll be leaving the “blog commenting pastime.” But I hope you know I think it’s really great what you are doing here. I graduated university back in 2002, and my experience at “Exploring Our Matrix” and “Religion Prof” has been excellent. The insightful feedback from you has been like being back in university again for me. I was an agnostic then and now, but your comments have constantly made me rethink what that means. The closest to believing in God I have ever gotten is the point that a contingent universe like ours seems to imply a creator. Of course, maybe all that is really implied is that the causality of this universe must be traced back to something eternal, but there is no reason this eternal “whatever” needs to have the qualities of “a mind,” let alone a God. Anyway, you have been a friend and mentor to me (as you are to all the commenters here!), and I will always remember you fondly. Take care James, John Andrew MacDonald, 2016

          • John MacDonald

            What I meant was that, regarding the origin of the universe(s), for example: maybe the “creator” that is responsible for the existence of the universe(s) is not a “mind” at all, but rather a divine “production machine” that simply automatically produces universes, like a divine anus that magically and automatically craps out universes every 20 billion years (or something along those lines). Anyways, take care James

            – John MacDonald, aka Darth Pausanias, (Dark Lord Of The Sith). lol

          • So sorry to hear about your migraines and reading issues. You may or may not read this one last comment from me, but just in case you do, I felt the need to write how much your commenting here has been appreciated. I hope that your break from reading brings you relief from your pain!

          • John MacDonald

            Thanks for your kind words! It means a great deal to have a professor think I have made some worthwhile and thoughtful contributions. As a secular agnostic, my approach to religion has always been the same: I don’t believe in miracles (amputees may have regrown limbs, but I have never seen it happen), so I become skeptical when I find miracles in religious writings. I don’t believe Joseph Smith found divine golden plates, any more than I think Muhammad ascended to heaven, or Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes. We tend to treat the miracles of Jesus as realistic because they are familiar to us, but in the end I tend to distrust all miracle tales. I commit the logical flaw of psychologizing when I call the miracle stories “lies meant to sell the religions,” although as a fallible human I still think that is what those stories are. By the way, I saw the new Star Wars today. Vader was a badass! Goodbye James / Health and Long Life! John

          • John MacDonald

            Just a note: my annoying cousin (who has my Discus password) has been joking and saying to me that he might pull a prank on me and log onto this blog pretending to be me. He’s saying that he might pretend to be me and say that I’ve been misquoting sources and making up sources and stuff like that (which is silly because I am always diligent and honest with the sources I cite). In any case, if this starts to happen, know that it is not me doing it and feel free to ban my account (since I’ve retired from blog commenting due to “eye-health” issues). Thanks!

          • For all I know, this comment is from the annoying cousin, who is trying to pull a prank on you and get you banned from the blog…

          • John MacDonald

            1. Seneca said religion is true to the masses, false to the wise, and useful to the rulers.

            2. In a way, Paul expresses a similar sentiment when he says “Brothers, consider the time of your calling: Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth. (1 Cor 1:26).”

            3. Religion has always had as its proper place the duping of the unruly, gullible, superstitious, lower classes into thinking there is more to life than just their rotten circumstances. The masses are kept in line in this way.

            4. Religion truly is the opiate of the masses.

          • John MacDonald

            The ruling class has always known the value of religion. For instance, Serapis (Σέραπις, Attic/Ionian Greek) or Sarapis (Σάραπις, Doric Greek) was a Graeco-Egyptian god. The cult of Serapis was cleverly introduced during the 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm. As Seneca said, the wise rejected knowledge claims about gods. For instance, pre Socratic philosopher Protagoras said, in his lost work On the Gods, that: “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what sort they may be.” Some, such as Xenophanes, ridiculed the way we create Gods, saying “But if cattle and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, horses like horses and cattle like cattle also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies of such a sort as the form they themselves have. Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed [σιμούς] and black, Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.” Is it coincidence that the Christian God and Jesus exemplify “Love,” the most noble of the human traits? Similarly, Socrates rejected the idea that we know what happens after we die, saying “death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness or a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.” While some might fear the nothingness, Socrates does not—he regards it as a great gain, like a sleep undisturbed even by dreams (The pre Christian Jewish belief echoes this first option of Socrates: Ecclesiastes 9:5 says “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.”) The other option, as Socrates sees it, is even better: what we would now regard as a heavenly afterlife in which one is judged by those “who were righteous in life” and is, for good measure, happy and immortal. So Socrates rejects the idea that we have knowledge of life after death. There is a continuum from annihilation to bliss, and no one knows what the truth is. The Greeks saw the value of claiming knowledge and persuading people about the divine, but these were noble lies.

          • John MacDonald

            Here is Jesus’ theme song lol: