Biblical Prequels, Sequels, and Such

Biblical Prequels, Sequels, and Such September 27, 2023

I had a delightful conversation with Elliot Saxton on his Brave New History YouTube channel. At the end we emphasized that we were having the conversation on Earth (poking fun at mythicists who insist that Paul in his letters assumed certain things happened in heaven, since he didn’t explicitly say otherwise). That led to the suggestion that we should have the next conversation in space, which in turn led to some geekiness as I pulled a Star Trek model off my shelf. Here is the video:

What I mentioned above led to some analogies between modern scenarios involving television or film and some of the New Testament literature. For instance, what if Acts ends on a cliffhanger because its author hoped that his series (a remake or reboot of Mark’s Gospel) would be renewed for a third season, but Theophilus declined to fund it and so it was axed? What if Luke is a prequel to Acts rather than Acts being a sequel to Luke, and we are misled by the prologue that was added later (akin to the way the original Star Wars movie now begins with Episode IV A New Hope)?

These are some of the things we didn’t talk about in the recorded conversation. One thing we did talk about and I think perhaps I should have answered differently. What’s the best argument for mythicism? I think it is Richard Carrier’s suggestion, which many of his followers embrace, that Paul’s reference to Jesus as “of the seed of David” had in mind not human genealogical descent from David, but a celestial sperm bank. Now, to be clear, I don’t think that suggestion is persuasive. On the contrary, it is bizarre. But the fact that so many mythicists are willing to read this bizarre idea into Paul’s letter to the church in Rome lends weight to their claim that it is plausible that the crucified Davidic messiah Jesus was invented because “people believe weird stuff.” By believing weird stuff themselves, they make that point stronger. Nevertheless, the motivated reasoning of mythicists, the deep-seated desire to have all early Christian claims be completely false and nonsensical in a simple way, provides an explanation as to why they hold this view. It would still require a strong case for why ancient people would have invented precisely this Jesus for mythicism to even become plausible, never mind probable.

I am also glad that I was able to illustrate in our conversation that there is so much to the field of New Testament/early Christianity that no one of us has it all memorized by heart and ready to produce off the cuff on demand. I mostly work on historical Jesus, Gospels, and of course the Mandaeans and John the Baptist. I covered Paul’s letters in my studies and have occasionally turned attention to passages in them. I also try to stay at least somewhat abreast of new developments. But it is a different area of expertise than my own. I mention this to say that one should never be impressed by debaters who treat it as though it were some sort of “gotcha” if a scholar misspeaks about a point from memory or doesn’t know a verse number by heart. It really, really, is nothing of the sort, and can only seem that way to those who’ve never studied a subject sufficiently to grasp just how much there is to it. That’s an issue among mythicists and conservative religious people alike. Both groups are prone to make sweeping statements and compete in attempts at point-scoring, while actual understanding of history or literature requires painstaking attention to detail, a process that instills in most scholars (and all the good ones) a hefty dose of humility. On the passage in 1 Thessalonians that we discussed there is now a recent post by Dave Allens.

In the talk we also had my new book The A to Z of the New Testament in view. I’d like to make more videos about the book and do other things to answer questions that potential readers may have. I wrote it hoping it would be useful not only to individuals on their own but educators and church groups. If you want to know more about it, just ask!

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