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The Bible as fanwank and flamewars
September 13, 2013 11:46 PM   Subscribe

Confused about who wrote the Bible we have, and why? Jim MacDonald has the answers. How was the Canon of the Christian Bible selected? There really isn't a better, or funnier, short account than this. After all, if fandom is a religion, then religions must work like fandom, right? And the epistolatory disputes of late antiquity were just Usenet to the Greeks. So if you want to know how the Doctrine of the Trinity became important, this will explain it:

"Athanasius was best known for his blog, Athanasius Contra Mundum. (The top of every page was marked with a flashing icon labeled “Breaking!” while the bottom of each page said, “Must credit Athanasius)."

Also, why do Muslims believe in the Virgin Birth? Because of The Gospel of James. So, there's the most influential fanfic ever written, and it's based on another fanfic which isn't even canon. There really are no limits to the creativity of the religious imagination.
posted by alloneword (151 comments total) 153 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nitpick: "Macdonald," not "MacDonald." Don't worry, it throws everyone off.
posted by jscalzi at 12:27 AM on September 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


I love this. The snark and silliness is well balanced with serious scholarly knowledge. I particularly loved the side notes about how the Koran kept a bunch of stuff that was ditched in the compilation of the bible by committee.
posted by Didymium at 12:28 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The snark and silliness is well balanced with serious scholarly knowledge.

this has always been my approach to Bible study
posted by philip-random at 12:44 AM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


... because as an old friend once said (about as lapsed as a Catholic can get) "If there was a Jesus, and that's a big IF, you know he would've had a killer sense of humor."
posted by philip-random at 12:45 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


It isn't hard to demonstrate that almost all the primary texts of the major religious writings we have are a) old, and b) busted. But equating them with fanfic doesn't reveal anything new; the arguments for the Christian Bible as we generally have it today (King James version, etc.) and the Koran being somewhat or largely invented are hundreds of years old.

At this point, the contents of these texts, absent the discovery and declaration (with appropriate scholarship) of something like the Dead Sea Scrolls that would be largely corroborative, don't matter as much to many modern believers, as the tradition of faith that such books represent. And in modern practice, they are, at best, only one pillar of the major religions that continue their use. The ongoing promulgation of the texts by the faithful is a continuation of tradition and faith passed onto them, in trust for future generations, by previous generations, as much as it is a call to faith, or an act of ongoing scholarship.

I guess if you get at least some of your jollies dissing religion, this site might be humorous. Good luck with all that; for my money, it's a slight, muddy streambed in a dry country, and by my own lights, I'm probably more of a Doubting Thomas than a friend of Saul of Tarsus. And it does kind of jump over, without mention, the critical 30 some odd years between the Crucifixion and the time Peter finally makes it to Rome, during which Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus) was busy along the coast of the eastern Mediterreanan, and Peter was doing, well, we don't know what, more or less, in, more or less, Jerusalem.

But it probably is a recommend to my elder son, a big fan of Bill Maher.
posted by paulsc at 12:50 AM on September 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


jscalzi: Sorry. I thought to check that immediately after I had posted.
posted by alloneword at 12:52 AM on September 14, 2013


From the comments I found out about this:
Credo. The game pits players against one another attempting to write the Creed at the Council of Nicea. You start with a random sampling of Article Cards ... Event cards give you extra votes, more followers, or allow you to do various nefarious deeds to the other players, such as giving them a plauge card, exiling one of their bishops, or prostelytizing them to vote for your preferred article.
posted by nangar at 1:11 AM on September 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


I stopped reading where it said "First Century: Jesus and the apostles are still alive". No matter what follows, that shows he's swallowed a big gulp of the kool-aid already.
posted by Pararrayos at 2:05 AM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


paulsc: I think you're taking this a teensy bit too seriously.
posted by pharm at 2:26 AM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I stopped reading where it said "First Century: Jesus and the apostles are still alive". No matter what follows, that shows he's swallowed a big gulp of the kool-aid already.

Guys, he's got a point. This post is cynical, but it isn't unrelentingly cynical to the point of denying that there is any possibility of an historical Christ. I don't think we should bother with it. We have nothing to learn from the author, and keeping it around is just going to confuse the children. Perhaps this FPP can be replaced by a similar one from someone who is definitely completely atheistic and believes the gospels do not have even a kernel of historical truth. I, for one, (well, for two, I guess) can't waste brain-space reading people who don't already share all my philosophical assumptions.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:08 AM on September 14, 2013 [62 favorites]


I though modern scholarship had established that there was most probably a historical Christ. Doesn't Reza Aslan have a book about it or something.

Or does his book presuppose Jesus existed?
posted by herda05 at 3:19 AM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm not even half way through, but I wanted to come back and say how much I love this article.

I'm a fan of early Western history, I'm fairly well-read, and though I'm a non-believer the early history of the Church fascinates me.

And yet the theological conflicts of the fist couple hundred years just confuse the hell out of me. And so for me this article has been full of a- ha moments, where I realize how a few more pieces of the puzzle fit together.

It also answers questions I haven't asked since I was a kid. My very-Catholic mom told us that Jesus went to hell to fee the souls of the dead during the three days that he was 'dead.' Cool! We thought as kids ... as we rushed to read that part of the bible. We never did find it (of course), and no adult could explain how they all knew that it was so.

And now I know! Spoiler: It's from the gospel of Gospel of Nicodemus, which didn't make the cut into the official version, but somehow was passed down a couple millenia. To my mom. Go figure.
posted by kanewai at 4:16 AM on September 14, 2013 [17 favorites]


I though modern scholarship had established that there was most probably a historical Christ

Nope.
posted by empath at 4:34 AM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm very tempted to send this to my Former Seminarian Friend (tm). He takes a very, very dim view of the apocryphal books and non-canonical books; this has enough scholarship behind it to either make him examine his beliefs more closely, or to send him into a really entertaining fired-up Here Let Me Tell You Why This Is Total Bullshit rant like he hasn't done in a while.*


* I say that with affection. He himself once laughingly admitted he can be a pompous ass, but he owns it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:07 AM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I do believe there was really a guy called Jesus who travelled around teaching. Was he sent to earth as the Son of God? No. I think he was just a guy. Do current day Christian churches have much to do with what he taught? No. I think he'd be appalled. But I think he did live.

Thanks for posting this. All my electives at university were exactly this stuff. Endlessly interesting to me.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:19 AM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I though modern scholarship had established that there was most probably a historical Christ

After listening to Robert M. Price on a podcast (I think it was Point of Inquiry) I had basically given up on the historicity of Jesus, but it would appear that the consensus of scholars still hold that such a person did actually exist.

If he did exist, I like to think he was a guy like the caveman who never died in The Man from Earth, who had picked up a few bits of wisdom from the Buddha and just wanted to share... but was accidentally deified.
posted by finnegans at 6:09 AM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Aslan's book is very interesting. It paints a convincing picture of "historical Jesus," but Aslan (effectively, in my opinion) makes the point that he is just one of many "messiahs" who arose in a turbulent era.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:28 AM on September 14, 2013


Contains the book of Enoch. I am satisfied.
posted by Mezentian at 6:47 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guess if you get at least some of your jollies dissing religion, this site might be humorous. Good luck with all that…

This Christian thought it was funny as hell. I didn't take it as a diss at all — just a fun riff on the theological and fannish uses of the word "canon." If religion meant we couldn't have irreverence, textual and historical criticism, or mild inaccuracy in service of a good joke, then what would be the point?
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 7:09 AM on September 14, 2013 [13 favorites]


But why do you "beleive" that a historical Jesus existed? To me it's like just deciding one day that the tooth fairy existed, only maybe she doesn't actually have my adolescent teeth (that would be silly!). There is no physical evidence that he ever existed. For example, yes, Pontius Pilot existed, there are official records of his birth and death. No such records exist about a man named Jesus. Virgin births et al were very popular in religious hero myths; no exception here.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:14 AM on September 14, 2013


Setting aside the tone, I think this is a great article. It's critical of some particular parts of the Bible ("[Eusebius of Caesarea] had many objections to the Apocalypse of John, starting with What Was He Smoking, and moving on to Too Many Contemporary Political References"), but for the most part it's neither about promoting or dissing Christianity as a belief system, nor taking any stance on the accuracy of stories about Christ.

Instead, it's a historical story: in the Fourth Century, there was no standard definition of what made up the Christian faith, because there was no standard bible, so it was more like an oral tradition with many different accounts and regional variations. (I don't mean literally oral, of course -- much of it was written down.) Emperor Constantine demanded that the religion be standardized so it could work consistently on the level of an empire, and the process of doing that -- of deciding what was "canon" and what was not -- was fascinating.

Since the story is literally about people arguing over what would be considered canon, the author jumped into this whole flippant conceit about fanfic and fandom. I can understand if that's not a fun style for everyone, but I found the story underneath worthwhile.
posted by jhc at 7:15 AM on September 14, 2013 [10 favorites]


Early Chrsitian apocrypha was pretty hilarious, flying baby Jesus! Snake killing baby Jesus! Speaking and curing the sick baby Jesus! Just so many magic baby stories.
posted by The Whelk at 7:26 AM on September 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: if you get at least some of your jollies dissing religion, this site might be humorous.
posted by jcreigh at 7:29 AM on September 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


This reminds me of Gore Vidal's essay on how Jesus couldn't possibly have been celibate, because in the earthy culture of 1st century Judaism celibacy would have been considered extremely weird and somebody would have mentioned it in one of the many writings about him. Since nobody mentioned such an oddity, Jesus most likely had a wife and family like normal people.

Someone else, I think Colin Wilson, mentioned that if historic Jesus existed (which is as likely as not, considering someone had to pitch this ball down the hillside) one thing we could probably agree on is that he would have been an extremely devout Jew. And as such, he would have been appalled at the idea that he was the "son of God" or of any similar divine or semi-divine heritage, such a thing being a ridiculous heresy to anyone who took the Torah seriously.
posted by localroger at 7:30 AM on September 14, 2013 [10 favorites]


But why do you "beleive" that a historical Jesus existed? To me it's like just deciding one day that the tooth fairy existed

Believing that there was some historical figure who was the basis of the Jesus mythos is not the same thing as believing in the mythos. That is, you can "believe in an historical Jesus" without believing that anything supernatural happened. So the analogy to belief in the tooth fairy is inapt. A better analogy would be belief in an historical Homer who composed at least large parts of the Iliad and the Odyssey. You may or may not be right, but the belief doesn't entail any supernatural consequences.
posted by yoink at 7:32 AM on September 14, 2013 [19 favorites]


But why do you "beleive" that a historical Jesus existed? To me it's like just deciding one day that the tooth fairy existed, only maybe she doesn't actually have my adolescent teeth (that would be silly!).

Okay, so I get that this is an important question for a lot of purposes. But for the sake of this particular story — about all of the clearly historical, very human wrangling over the canon which went on in the fourth and fifth centuries — it doesn't actually matter whether a historical Jesus existed. It certainly doesn't matter whether he can be proven beyond a doubt to have existed. Things like the Council of Nicea or the Tertullian/Marcion shitshow definitely did occur, and those are the things that this author is interested in.

Look at it this way: we have no idea whether Homer existed. I believe he probably didn't — not as a real single individual human being. But I don't use that belief as an ideological purity test for works where it's not the main point. If someone's writing about the later manuscript tradition through which the Homeric epics were preserved and passed on, and he happens to refer to Homer as if he'd been a real person, I don't just bail out and throw the book across the room. I mentally translate "Homer" to "the oral tradition out of which the epics arose," and go on to consider the author's main point, which is likely about editorial decisions made hundreds or thousands of years later.

(And that goes double if what I'm reading is a humorous sendup of the Homeric manuscript tradition rather than a work of serious history. (Though I mean, the target audience for a humorous sendup of the Homeric manuscript tradition has got to be pretty damn tiny. (But oh holy shit I am in it. Anyone writes one of those, call me.)))

Same way here. I'm about as certain about Jesus as I am about Homer — meaning, okay, yeah, this was probably not a real single individual flesh-and-blood dude. But I'm not going to let a quick four-sentence list which refers to Jesus as a person keep me from enjoying the rest of the essay, which wouldn't change a bit if you cut out that list entirely.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 7:34 AM on September 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Pontius Pilot existed, there are official records of his birth and death.

Pilate. And no, there aren't. "Official records" of births, deaths, and marriages in the sense that we understand them today are a recent thing. As for the historicity of Jesus, I don't think any serious scholar doubts it. There's not much extra-Biblical evidence for it, but there's some, and it's not like we even know the names of 99.99% of the people living at that time.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:36 AM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I think my main takeaway from the article is not the existence/non-existence of a historical Jesus, or even cynicism about the Church in particular and religion in general.

My main takeaway from the article is "it has ever been thus."
posted by Mooski at 7:37 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is amazing! And I also am only halfway through but already want to share it with everyone I know.

Catholic here. It's important not to take yourself too seriously.
posted by corb at 7:38 AM on September 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm a Jesus Birther! I demand that Christians provide an official Roman-issued long-form birth certificate.
posted by Area Man at 7:42 AM on September 14, 2013 [20 favorites]


Yes, there are official records of Pilot's birth and death. There really are. And I don't think you took my analogy correctly. I stripped the supernatural from the tooth fairy, yet still believe she exists? Why?
posted by Brocktoon at 7:43 AM on September 14, 2013


Also there is NO evidence. None. You can't just throw out "there is some evidence". No, there isn't. And we're not talking about 99% of other people. We're talking about a celebrity.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:46 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really like this. I didn't know much about all this until recently when one of my old philosophy students came back from religion grad school spouting this kind of stuff in amazement. The analogy to fanfic really captures something important here, I think...and I'm way over my youthful commitment to ridiculing religion... I just think that it's important to get a fresh perspective on this stuff, to strip it of the illegitimate allure that antiquity confers, and to analogize it to something that we might have a clearer view of...

I don't mean to suggest that it's the whole story...but I guess, at first blush, it seems to me that if you don't see that, as this piece notes, there's at least some resemblance to fanfic...well, you're missing an important aspect of the history.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 7:49 AM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'd never heard about Arius' death, though I *did* know about St. Nicholas punching him out. He's the patron saint of "Bakers, Brewers, Brides, Children, Greece, Grooms, Merchants, Pawnbrokers, Russia, and Travelers." I believe the reason he's the patron saint of brewers involves a story of a dismembered corpse in a barrel that he was said to have brought back to life. Seriously. (The pawnbrokers one (and the brides one!) should be obvious, given his well-known story of ransoming three young women out of a life of probable prostitution.)
posted by The Whelk at 7:54 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm glad Macdonald steered clear of discussing the film version. Because the book is soo much better.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:02 AM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I really enjoyed this, though will admit to finding it a bit hard to follow at times. Definitely the most complicated fanwank I've read about, and I've read a few.

And I definitely like the Apocalypse that features Jesus giving a nudge and a wink and saying Hell doesn't matter because he'll just save 'em all more than John's hellfire and brimstone version.
posted by gadge emeritus at 8:05 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


After listening to Robert M. Price on a podcast (I think it was Point of Inquiry)

I don't know if this is the podcast you had in mind, but might it have been Price's The Human Bible series?

The Human Bible is a podcast that deconstructs and demystifies the Bible. It takes a secular, sober, and impartial look at the Bible—no belief in the supernatural, no favoritism, no animosity.
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:14 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Brilliant article. It reminds me of the article (recently FPP'ed) that explains the domestication of the cat in a similarly casual tone. I found both very edifying.

It's not even the humor or irreverence that work for me (though I'm fine with both); it's just that the authors are talking the way people talk, instead of couching everything in formal, scholarly language. Now, I understand the need for jargon and a certain detachment in academic writing—but if you're just trying to get the initial outline of something, it can create more problems than it solves. Meet me where I am, y'know?

Would love to see more articles like this on more subjects.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 8:21 AM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you're interested in what we know about the early Christian texts and what they imply about the (surprisingly diverse) beliefs and practices of the 1st and 2nd century "Christian" communities, I highly recommend Who Wrote the New Testament?

It's all there, from "Who was Paul, really?" to the probability that the Sacrifice and Resurrection of the Lamb of God was a cult idea that came out of somewhere in Turkey and probably struck many first century Jesus fans (like those in Jerusalem) as very strange.

For me, most revelatory was viewing the origin of the Jesus movement as primarily a reaction to the social chaos caused by the multiple disasters that Jews had experienced in and around the first century. How does a monotheist society with an invincible, exclusive god adapt when the single most important element of their religion (the temple) is successively co-opted, corrupted, and then smashed to rubble by Romans?
posted by General Tonic at 8:29 AM on September 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


I guess if you get at least some of your jollies dissing religion, this site might be humorous.

I get a lot of my jollies from dissing religion. I used to be a lot more tolerant, but somewhere along the way I started thinking religion was not only silly, but stupid as well. Look, I'll support your right to hold, believe, and express any view, but if you're not going to engage any critical thinking then it's not worth my time actually listening to you. I am also finding more and more religious people that are staggering bigots and hiding behind a cloak of intolerance. I'm not talking about just the Abrahamic religions here, and I do understand there's an irony in my refusal to be offended when someone makes fun of religion.

But the shit is funny. Talking snakes, downfall of mankind because a woman and literally a bad apple, the animals of the world jammed into a boat, God and the Devil playing games, flaming swords and burning bushes, all of humanity derived from incest (how did Adam and Eve's daughters get pregnant?), etc. Take any religion and look at the myth/origin story and they aren't any more logical than Mormonism and Scientology, yet even most atheist tend to think there are legitimate religions deserving of some kind of respect and reverence while others are given derision. There's spaceships keeping my soul from Xenu! Have you seen how many gods the Hindus have? The world is on the back of a turtle? That there buffalo is white so has to be divine! No, really, when I get to heaven I get to score a bunch of virgins! The religions of today are as silly as Norse and Greek gods, but we have no problems making fun of those.

I'll respect a man's right to hold a belief, but I see no reason why I have to respect that belief. Especially when so much of the world's ills come directly from these beliefs and the conflicts between them.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:36 AM on September 14, 2013 [23 favorites]


Brocktoon, I think the idea is that he wasn't necessarily a huge celebrity in his time. He (if he existed) was one of many self-declared prophets, one of many rabble-rousers, in a burbling sea of political and religious uncertainty. He was (again if he existed) enough of a big deal that the Romans executed him, but that wasn't rare.

Plus even if you don't believe in anything supernatural, believing that there was probably some guy who was the origin for some of the later stories and embellishments doesn't really require much. We could be wrong about the name, about lots of details, maybe the later stories conflate biographical stuff about two or more people, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:46 AM on September 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Could we please just this once have a thread about something to do with religion that doesn't devolve into "religion is fake and theists are dumb poopyheads" bickering?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:46 AM on September 14, 2013 [14 favorites]


And now I know! Spoiler: It's from the gospel of Gospel of Nicodemus, which didn't make the cut into the official version, but somehow was passed down a couple millenia. To my mom. Go figure.

The Descensus Christi/Harrowing of Hell is an old tradition that is more widely attested than just the Acta Pilati (part of the Gospel of Nicodemus; the naming of those two works is incredibly confusing). It was actually discussed in the writings of more than one Church Father, it's just that the Acta has the most colourful rendition of it. It may not have 'made the cut' because it may have been written AFTER canon was fixed (late 300s). There is a lot of debate as to the year it was written, whether certain references earlier are a) authentic and b) meant to refer to it, etc. I usually hear dates in 3rd to 5th century for it.

But why do you "beleive" that a historical Jesus existed? To me it's like just deciding one day that the tooth fairy existed, only maybe she doesn't actually have my adolescent teeth (that would be silly!). There is no physical evidence that he ever existed.

There's no physical evidence that most people existed, but we still assume that the (unexcavated) cities we hear mentioned in (roughly contemporaneous) ancient documents actually existed and were populated by people.

I've been discussing the historicity of Jesus a lot online recently, but another won't hurt. I'm going to trace a route to Jesus via Paul, a first-century Jew who admits to persecuting Christians before his conversion to Christianity, and who is responsible for much of Christianity as we now know it.

We have early papyrus testimony of Paul's letters (P46, late second century). In addition to this, Paul was cited by Clement of Alexandria in a letter before the end of the first century. So we know he existed then.

So let's assume Paul exists. I mean, we have his letters, we have other people discussing him, etc. To assume he didn't exist and was made up takes more assumptions than assuming he existed, and Occam's Razor is a wondrous thing.

So. Paul wrote a bunch of letters. A lot of them have wound up in the New Testament, along with some letters that claim to be from Paul but that when compared (linguistically, theologically) with his actual letters fares poorly. (Also the letters most widely believed to be inauthentic are NOT present in P46, although P46 is missing its last few pages so this isn't necessarily conclusive).

Important to this argument are Galatians and 2 Corinthians, both of which are very widely believed to be authentic.

Why are Gal and 2 Cor important? Because Paul discusses persecuting Christians in his past life in them. Lemme cite Gal 1 here:
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.


That tells us two things:

1) there were multiple Christian communities in existence by the time Paul converted (and definitely by the time he wrote his letters--each letter is addressed to a specific community)

and

2) the Christian communities were large enough to warrant persecution. People don't harass things they don't know about.

OK, fine. When was Paul writing Gal and 2 Cor? In the 50s. He was imprisoned in the late 50s, and there's some geo-political stuff in Gal that suggests 48-50 as the earliest date.

So let's say that Paul wrote both in 55. Let's also say he had "converted" only 5 years earlier (extremely unlikely given he was already a leader in a position to give directives to churches in 51 CE with his 1 Thess, but roll with me). Let's also say (again, extremely unlikely) that he was only aware of the church (and persecuting it) for 6 months before he converted.

In order for Jesus NOT to have existed AND for Paul to have persecuted Christians, there has to be:

1) a cabal of leaders who gathered to create Jesus' story (which, if there was any such cabal, they did poorly--Jesus' all-important Davidic lineage came through his adoptive father Joseph in the Matthean account, not his mother Mary nor his actual dad, God)
2) this cabal then went out and taught people about Jesus
3) when people asked where Jesus was, they were told they had just missed him and he had died
4) that they managed to convince a large group of people about the existence of a guy they made up when *everyone alive (except for the children) was old enough to have been alive at the same time as Jesus*
and
5) despite the fact that the absence of the prophet tends to lead to theological divisions (which are in evidence in Paul's rants about "other" forms of Christianity in his letters), because once the prophet is gone you can't really argue "no I think I'M the one with the correct interpretation" as well when the one guy who could have your back is dead and everyone else just heard the same sentence and interpreted it the other way.
and
6) despite the fact that it would have been WAY EASIER for the cabal to just make THEMSELVES prophets instead of making up a story about a chill dead dude from up North.

Yes, there are official records of Pilot's birth and death. There really are.

News to me. In fact, news that there were birth-death records for anyone in Roman Judaea (later Palestine) at the time. The only archaeological evidence we have for Pilate is a stone that names him Prefect of Judaea (discovered 1961). That's it. No birth record. No death record. He's mentioned in Josephus (writing after Pilate's death), but even in Josephus' works there's no mention of when he might have been born, and literally no historian I've read claims to know what Pilate's age was when he was appointed prefect. There are legends about his death and birth--but you seem to be disinterested in mere legends, right?
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:59 AM on September 14, 2013 [76 favorites]


On the historicity of Pilate: there is one piece of semi-solid evidence of his existence--a partial inscription on a stone found in the '60s. However, I don't see how proving that X person was real logically supplies that Y person was also real.
posted by syncope at 9:11 AM on September 14, 2013


[One comment deleted; officially now, let's not have this be the same old debate over lolskywizards and whether any religion is real. The linked article has plenty of substance to talk about. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:16 AM on September 14, 2013 [11 favorites]


It's sort of interesting how the general reception of texts from the past is so strongly colored by the present day, and by a vague, unformed sense that how we live and what we think now is more or less how we've lived and what we've thought always, with the differences being largely cosmetic. The tendency that leads people to debate about hypothetical bureaucratic paperwork from ancient Rome is in some sense the same tendency that, for example, led Chaucer to write minor characters from Homer as knights obsessed with courtly love.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:24 AM on September 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Flibbertigibbet: I'm curious about your dates. What is the actual evidence that Paul's letters were written when? I'm not being argumentative, instead really curious what the exegesis is here.
posted by syncope at 9:25 AM on September 14, 2013


From the various Christian accounts, without taking them as the word of God, just taking them as the accounts based on sectarian oral history they appear to be, the picture you get is that there was a preacher/faith-healer/guru guy in Roman-occupied Palestine who acquired a following, his followers started a religious movement based around their guru's teachings, alleged teachings and holiness, and legends accumulated about miracles associated with or supposedly performed by their founding guru or his followers.

The origins of Christianity don't seem very different from other, more recent religions and religious movements we have a lot more contemporary documentation for. There doesn't seem to be a reason to insist that Christianity wasn't built around a founding guru, the way so many other religious movements were, or that that early Christians got their founding guy's name wrong.

This is not the same as "believing" that a historical Jesus existed as a matter of faith. I think it's entirely plausible that Christianity grew up around a charismatic teacher the way a lot of other religions have, and that his followers may have remembered his given name correctly.
posted by nangar at 10:01 AM on September 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Syncope: It's very complicated. Basically the process is:

1) Using only the letters and others sources (often Acts, which is taken with a hearty grain of salt), create a timeline of Paul's life.
2) Begin slotting letters into the timeline (in letter X he says he's been away from community Y for 6 months, and has been in Ephesus that entire time, so...).
3) Then start looking for statements that are indicative of some extra-biblical context (unrest, a specific and rarely-used name, etc.) that would allow the placing of an actual date on things so that other dates can be derived.

Like, the actual dating of Galatians is debated. Most people agree either early- or mid-50s, but the exact dating depends on whether the letter was sent to the South Galatian community or the North Galatian community, both in Asia minor. If he went to the North, this is an heretofore unknown trip to the Celtic tribes of Asia minor.* If he went to the southern Galatian communities, this would have been on a previously-mentioned (in Acts) missionary trip to the Roman province. If it's to the South, the trip will be earlier rather than later (usually). If it's to the North, a later trip. A lot of the argument as to whether he went North or South is further broken down into Paul's tendency to use Roman provincial names instead of local regional names etc. etc.

*Yes, Celtic tribes of Asia Minor. Not a typo.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 10:03 AM on September 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Would love to see more articles like this on more subjects.

Fact is, Harry Potter was really just an ordinary boarding school kid with some talent for football. But some notebooks were found belonging to a group of infatuated girls and it all kind of snowballed...
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:05 AM on September 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


I enjoy how this thread has become the subject of the article.
posted by The Whelk at 10:07 AM on September 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


Interview with Dennis R. MacDonald on a similar topic, though not the same author we're discussing here.
posted by Brian B. at 10:11 AM on September 14, 2013


This reminds me of Gore Vidal's essay on how Jesus couldn't possibly have been celibate, because in the earthy culture of 1st century Judaism celibacy would have been considered extremely weird and somebody would have mentioned it in one of the many writings about him. Since nobody mentioned such an oddity, Jesus most likely had a wife and family like normal people.

He was already considered extremely weird. Jesus, I mean. (Well, Vidal, too.) Weird enough to get killed. And given the amount of ink the biographers gave to his mother, it would seem odd if they should ignore a wife.

Anyway, if you enjoy this kind of thing, you might enjoy John Romer's documentary Testament, available at Amazon or on Youtube. Also in book form.

For the real into it types, see also Robert Graves' novel King Jesus, and his Nazarene Gospel Restored.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:04 AM on September 14, 2013


Wonderful article. I don't have much to say regarding the main subject of it, but I hope the writers of Metafilter noticed Macdonald's comment on St. Nicholas and are thus planning their next novel or script. From the comment:

This was the young Nicolas, who went on to take the job [of Bishop] seriously. He took care of the sailors by setting up lighthouses. He patrolled the waterfront. (Reportedly he had lengths of chain sewn into the ends of his sleeves to use as improvised blackjacks. He was walking around at night carrying bags of gold, enough to allow young ladies to buy their way out of the game.) Pimps, crimps, hustlers and thieves would dread A Visit From Saint Nicholas. You didn't mess with the bishop. He was also scholarly, devout, and really smart, so that when mysterious crimes were committed folks would go to Nicholas to help solve them.
posted by honestcoyote at 11:04 AM on September 14, 2013 [19 favorites]


Also there is NO evidence. None. You can't just throw out "there is some evidence". No, there isn't.

Yeah, there's evidence, of some kind, or we wouldn't be discussing this. What there isn't is much of anything that would satisfy a historian. It's all a bit too removed -- a story told by a guy who knew a guy whose grampa knew a guy who had drinks one night with a guy whose dad's former boss's dad was actually there when they crucified him.

I'm always happy to call myself agnostic when it comes to this stuff but I do remember loving Malcolm Muggeridge's response when he was asked (back in the 60s or thereabouts when it was popular to ask such questions), why, if he wanted to reach all of humanity would Jesus have to come earth way back then in such a backward time? Why not come now in a time of mass communication etc? "Because,"said Mr. Muggeridge, "That's exactly how God would do it. Plant the seed, let it grow for centuries, inexorably penetrate all manner of myth, custom, etc."

Or words to that effect. I love that the inherent mystery is a feature here, not a bug. Or as he puts it here:

“There's a large strain of irony in our human affairs... Interwoven with our affairs is this wonderful spirit of irony which prevents us from ever being utterly and irretrievably serious, from being unaware of the mysterious nature of our existence.”

Keep on smiling.
posted by philip-random at 11:11 AM on September 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


HE SEES YOU WHEN YOU'RE SLEEPING....

[crash! pow! zoom!]

HE KNOWS WHEN YOU'RE AWAKE....

[thud! cha-chunk! blam!]

COMING SOON.... [crash!] TO A THEATER NEAR YOU.... [aiiiiieeee!]

SAINT NICK II: BAD OR GOOD

[sudden blackout, that loud switch-throwing sound with the nice menacing reverb]
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 11:14 AM on September 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's been done.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:19 AM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of Gore Vidal's essay on how Jesus couldn't possibly have been celibate, because in the earthy culture of 1st century Judaism celibacy would have been considered extremely weird and somebody would have mentioned it in one of the many writings about him. Since nobody mentioned such an oddity, Jesus most likely had a wife and family like normal people.

There are two kinds of arguments here that you see sometimes in Jesus scholarship that I think are both intellectually bankrupt.

1. Arguments from the absence of evidence. We've basically lost everything from two thousand years ago. A few bits have miraculously survived. There could easily have been a ten-volume biography of Jesus, written by Josehpus, the 3rd volume of which was devoted to Jesus's scandalous celibacy, and we'd never know it existed. It's ridiculous to say, "Surely someone would have written..." when we've lost almost everything that anyone wrote.

2. Arguments from probability or normality. If Jesus existed, he was exceptional, or we wouldn't have heard of him. Saying, that Jesus "probably" wouldn't have X, because most people back then didn't X, is also ridiculous.
posted by straight at 11:21 AM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also there is NO evidence. None. You can't just throw out "there is some evidence". No, there isn't.

The Gospels are certainly evidence of something. There's no "proof" that Jesus existed, but there's a lot more evidence than we have for most historical figures from that time.
posted by straight at 11:28 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well Vidal addressed all those concerns about his argument against Jesus' unlikely celibacy in his essay, which was not a Metafilter comment. The thing is we have some fairly intricate stories about Jesus, which say a lot about his ministry. We also have a good idea what the forces were behind the editing of those stories before they were firmed up for the canon (see the OP). Vidal's argument was that if celibacy was a part of Jesus' ministry -- if he declared that his own celibacy was part of his work, or that celibacy would be a useful discipline for his followers -- then it would be in there, because it would be as weird if not more so than the loaves and fishes, healed lepers, and water into wine.

Anyway. Doubting whether there even was an historical Jesus seems about as sensible as doubting whether there was an historical L. Ron Hubbard. I tend to favor the idea that the historical Jesus had both sensible and crazy followers, the latter mostly driven out into the countryside by persecution and the former tending to remain in Jerusalem, where they were wiped out in 70 A.D. by the Romans leaving mostly the crazies to carry on the cause. And by crazies I most definitely and specifically and primarily mean Paul.
posted by localroger at 11:55 AM on September 14, 2013 [12 favorites]


Vidal's argument was that if celibacy was a part of Jesus' ministry -- if he declared that his own celibacy was part of his work, or that celibacy would be a useful discipline for his followers -- then it would be in there, because it would be as weird if not more so than the loaves and fishes, healed lepers, and water into wine.

Yeah, there's an awful lot of what we would consider essential biographical details that didn't make it into the gospels. And I'll go out on a limb and say that feeding 5000 people with one sack lunch is weirder and more noteworthy than celibacy.

And no, we don't know enough about the sort of people who wrote the gospels and their culture to make confident statements like, "Surely they would have mentioned..."
posted by straight at 12:06 PM on September 14, 2013


And no, we don't know enough about the sort of people who wrote the gospels and their culture to make confident statements like, "Surely they would have mentioned..."

Well, I'm not Gore Vidal nor do I play him on TV, but he had about a thousand words in that essay explaining that yes, in fact, we do know quite a bit about the sort of people who lived in Palestine in the first century and their culture, often more because of Jewish tradition than Roman records, and yes we can make confident statements about things they would have found interesting enough to mention.

One specific thing I remember from that essay is that there was a practice of fathers charging a fee for the privilege of taking a daughter's virginity, premarital sex not being considered a sin like adultery, and there are a number of jokes known to date to that period about fathers who schemed to get the fee more than once for the same girl. First-century Jews regularly found that enough of a knee-slapper that it's still remembered today, and that says some fairly profound things about their entire culture.

Vidal cited many such data points to make a case that this is a culture that expected people to have sex, that very much took for granted that people would have sex, and that in that culture not having sex would have been as bizarre and mentionable as being seven feet tall, weighing six hundred pounds, or being purple. If you were to write anything about such a person that would be the first thing you would write, all else being either dependent or secondary.
posted by localroger at 12:30 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Remembering another point from that essay -- Jewish sexual proscriptions tended to be about things that reduced procreation or disrupted the family structure. Advocating celibacy would have in many ways directly contradicted the usual interpretation of Jewish religious law at the time, which would have been an element of his ministry nobody would have missed.
posted by localroger at 12:35 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


And this: And I'll go out on a limb and say that feeding 5000 people with one sack lunch is weirder and more noteworthy than celibacy.

Sorry, but your modernity is showing. In those days there was no dominant scientific paradigm to explain that miracles are impossible, and the idea that one might encounter such a miracle in the course of life was not considered unthinkable. Whereas, someone deciding not having sex is better than having sex? Really, really weird.
posted by localroger at 12:39 PM on September 14, 2013


This recounting is very well written, but I'd like to see it become the centerpiece of the trilogy, with a prequel about the Gnostics, and a sequel about the Reformation (and how the deuterocanonical works came to be spurned- or at least devalued- by the Reformers).
posted by Apocryphon at 12:40 PM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you think this is an "attack on religion" you would *hate* reading serious scholarship on the history of Christianity, cause nothing in here is the least bit controversial to your average historian of the period. Indeed, it's not mostly the work of historians reconstructing things, it's taken straight from Christian sources from the first few centuries.

But I guess if you actually repeat all the things early Christians said about themselves and each other, it sounds like you're "attacking religion"....

I love that in the comments it went straight to a discussion of the game Credo. I've played it. It was a lot of fun. :)
posted by edheil at 1:16 PM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Rather worry about the existence of a historical Tooth Fairy as our example, the article presents us with an even more ridiculous figure. One who has flying reindeer, knows when you are sleeping, and delivers presents to all the good children. Yet stripped of all the mythological baggage, and perhaps only as an afterthought, there is a historical St Nicholas.

That an apocalyptic teacher could inspire a cult to last for thousands of seems strange. But the existence of apocalyptic prophets and teachers at the time when Jesus is claimed to exist is well attested. The existence of a cult which claims to be inspired by one of these teachers can be traced back to at least nearly the lifetime of the teacher in question. So the claim that the specific apocalyptic teacher who inspired that cult actually exists is far from ridiculous, even if his life and attributes bear as little resemblance to reality as those of Santa Claus do to St Nicholas.

And after all, does the historicity of a Mohamed, a Joseph Smith or an L Ron Hubbard have any more bearing on the truth of their claims than the existence of a Jesus have for the claims made about him?
posted by wotsac at 1:20 PM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is actually really interesting stuff, thanks for the link. Can anyone recommend some good books that go into this period in more depth?
posted by Noms_Tiem at 1:24 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


In those days there was no dominant scientific paradigm to explain that miracles are impossible

Nowadays we know that turning water into wine is possible, if you're a grape. With modern gene splicing techniques, I think we could produce a human capable of turning water into wine. But if you're planning to drink it, I don't think you'd want to watch him fill the glass.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:32 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of Gore Vidal's essay on how Jesus couldn't possibly have been celibate, because in the earthy culture of 1st century Judaism celibacy would have been considered extremely weird and somebody would have mentioned it in one of the many writings about him. Since nobody mentioned such an oddity, Jesus most likely had a wife and family like normal people.

The Essenes were celibates, in the family sense, and if Jesus was historical he would have likely been an Essene, like John the Baptist, who was mentioned by name in multiple sources. Regardless, The Essenes were likely a Pythagorean brotherhood within a Jewish context who were expecting the messianic return of their founder, the Teacher of Righteousness, who was unjustly crucified. A point to consider is that anytime a messiah fails to show up, someone is going to propose that he might have quietly arrived where nobody noticed, and give birth to the myth.

This is actually really interesting stuff, thanks for the link. Can anyone recommend some good books that go into this period in more depth?

The Story of Christian Origins, by Martin A. Larson.
posted by Brian B. at 1:41 PM on September 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


From Jesus To Christ: The First Christians is four hours of brilliant scholarly discussion of who the early followers of Jesus were & what they believed about him, and what the trlatively trcent evidence looks like.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:44 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyone interested in the early Christian writers should take a look at Medieval History Geek, which has lately been reviewing books by people like Athanasius.
posted by CCBC at 1:46 PM on September 14, 2013


if Jesus was historical he would have likely been an Essene, like John the Baptist

I vaguely remember that Vidal had an arguement about this too, but I don't recall how it went.

From my own recollection, not all of the Essenes were celibate and while it's likely Jesus was influenced by them, some of his teachings directly contradict known Essene practice so it is unlikely that he was actually an Essene himself.
posted by localroger at 1:48 PM on September 14, 2013


yes, in fact, we do know quite a bit about the sort of people who lived in Palestine in the first century and their culture, often more because of Jewish tradition than Roman records, and yes we can make confident statements about things they would have found interesting enough to mention.

So I suppose you could tell us how many people in first century Palestine were celibate, and also how often things were written about those people without mentioning their celibacy, so we could get an idea of exactly how unlikely it would be for Jesus to have been celibate without the gospels mentioning it? I mean I we talking 10% unlikely? 5%? .01%?

And you do realize that even stuff that is .01% unlikely actually happens hundreds of times for every million people?
posted by straight at 2:17 PM on September 14, 2013


straight, let's say for the sake of argument that L. Ron Hubbard had purple skin. I know, he didn't, but let's just say that everything else about him is as it is but he happened to have a really weird deformity that turned him purple.

Now, let's say that Scientology has a big con(ference) to straighten its shit out a few hundred years from now and that there are Scientologists 2,000 years from now.

What are the chances that those future Scientologists, not a single one of which will ever have heard of clambake.org, will not know of their Founder's purple hue? What do you think the chances would be of that getting "forgotten" or edited out as the Niceantologists clean house? It's just not the kind of detail that gets lost. If he's such a great man that people will remember him millennia in the future, and he happens to be purple, that's going to be noted as a part of his greatness. It simply is not possible that it would be forgotten unless the man himself was entirely forgotten. You want to quantify that with a number? The odds are zero percent that he would be remembered but not his purpleness. Zero, to eighteen decimal places. That's the way people work.

Vidal's argument was that there is much evidence, which he spent at least a couple of thousand words laying out, for first century Jews being celibate was about as normal as being purple would be to us. It would be noted, and the chances of remembering the man without remembering his celibacy are essentially zero. This is a thing that does hinge on knowing the culture that would do the remembering, but we actually know that culture pretty well because Judaism has a rich record of its own history. So we can say that these people, impressed enough by a man's teachings to hand them down all the way to us, would not have omitted to hand down those traits of his that might have been extraordinary.

If Jesus had been purple it would be an inextricable part of his story. And if he had been celibate it would similarly be an inextricable part of his story. Jesus was, therefore, not purple, nor was he celibate.
posted by localroger at 3:11 PM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Advocating celibacy would have in many ways directly contradicted the usual interpretation of Jewish religious law at the time, which would have been an element of his ministry nobody would have missed.

Why is this such a big deal, is the real question? Or is it just our multifaceted hatred for Dan Brown?
posted by corb at 3:35 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Am I the only one who sees the traditions and teachings of the church as a very old game of telephone?
posted by double block and bleed at 4:01 PM on September 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


There were a bunch of wanna-be messiahs in that era, most of whom we know very little about. The most famous of these, other than Jesus, is John the Baptist, who may still have adherents today. The second most famous is Bar Kokhba, who is now a sort of Jewish folk hero. But there were other ones, most of whom are known from a single document: Menachem ben Hezekiah, Lukuas, and Simon ben Peraea. Then there are people whom we can surmise were claimants, but whose names we don't even know: the Teacher of Righteousness mentioned in the documents from Qumran, for instance. The haphazard way our knowledge of these people was transmitted (they happened to fit into Josephus' theme, or their death was associated with someone more important, or some of their sect's writings were preserved or whatever) indicates that there were probably others whom we know nothing about, ones who are totally forgotten.

If you read the Christian scriptures critically you get a realistic picture of the Jesus' early ministry: he was initially an adherent of John the Baptist; after John was murdered he accumulated some followers and went travelling around; significantly, people thought he was a sort of reincarnation of John the Baptist - this tells us a lot about what people expected from a messianic claimant, and what Jesus may have been doing - and eventually he ended up in Jerusalem, came to the attention of the authorities, and was executed. All this is consistent with what other messianic claimants did and what happened to them, and it is quite implausible that the separately-composed and transmitted documents (Paul's letters, the Gospels, and Josephus) that mention him had no historical basis.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:32 PM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


My very-Catholic mom told us that Jesus went to hell to fee the souls of the dead during the three days that he was 'dead.' Cool! We thought as kids ... as we rushed to read that part of the bible. We never did find it (of course), and no adult could explain how they all knew that it was so.

You weren't asking the right adults. The Harrowing of Hell has been a long standing tradition from the beginning. It is found in the teachings of Church Fathers such as Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Epiphanius, all of whom predate the so-called "Gospel of Nicodemus".

A lot of the Church's beliefs are not spelled out in the Bible. For example, Joachim and Anna as the names of the Theotokos's parents. This sort of thing, of course, is not accepted by sola scriptura Protestants, which seem to be the default setting for Christianity in the West.

The Church is not a product of the Bible. The Bible is a product of the Church.

Also there is NO evidence

There's about as much documentary evidence for the Roman Emperor Caligula* as there is for Jesus. I don't see a whole lot of people saying that there was no such emperor.

*Suetonius, Josephus, Cassius Dio, and Philo of Alexandria.
posted by Tanizaki at 4:45 PM on September 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Anybody using Gore Vidal as authority for history and not just a cutting wag is giving him way too much credit.
posted by klangklangston at 4:45 PM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Anybody using Gore Vidal as authority for history and not just a cutting wag is giving him way too much credit.

Your ad hominem response has been noted and sorted into the appropriate file -- 13.
posted by localroger at 4:55 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


A lot of the Church's beliefs are not spelled out in the Bible.

There is also a lot of stuff which is actually considered secret and not appropriate or dangerous for the laity by the Church hierarchy, and much of this was lost to the Protestant Reformation.

I've written in a couple of places that I think this explains some of the rather strange things the Vatican has been doing since 1990 or so, Pope Francis being only the latest and most extreme example.
posted by localroger at 4:58 PM on September 14, 2013


What are the best sources to read the apocryphal texts under discussion in the FPP? Certain translations, annotated editions?
posted by meadowlark lime at 5:02 PM on September 14, 2013


This is actually really interesting stuff, thanks for the link. Can anyone recommend some good books that go into this period in more depth?

At the moment I'm listening to one of the Great Courses available on Audible called From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity.
It's a series of 24 half hour lectures about the first 3 centuries of Christianity and I'm finding it quite interesting.
posted by poxandplague at 5:08 PM on September 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


the chances of remembering the man without remembering his celibacy are essentially zero ... If Jesus had been purple it would be an inextricable part of his story. And if he had been celibate it would similarly be an inextricable part of his story. Jesus was, therefore, not purple, nor was he celibate.

Unlike being purple, there were people in first century Palestine who were celibate. Were there any celibate people whose celibacy was not remarked upon by people who wrote about them? Were there exactly zero people whose celibacy was not remarked upon? Imagine the kind of information you would need to have to confidently say no to those questions. We do not possess that level of information about first century Palestine.
posted by straight at 6:17 PM on September 14, 2013


Unlike being purple, there were people in first century Palestine who were celibate.

You seem awfully sure that there were no purple people in Palestine 2,000 years ago. Care to cite?
posted by localroger at 6:22 PM on September 14, 2013


There's about as much documentary evidence for the Roman Emperor Caligula* as there is for Jesus.

There's a porno with Malcolm McDowell playing Jesus? Awesome!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:44 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


How does a monotheist society with an invincible, exclusive god adapt when the single most important element of their religion (the temple) is successively co-opted, corrupted, and then smashed to rubble by Romans?

"We totally knew that was going to happen!"
posted by XMLicious at 6:46 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


We can be pretty sure that Jesus didn't go around telling people to be celibate, because we'd know about it if he had. But we can also be pretty sure that if he was married it wasn't a happy marriage, because his wife doesn't figure into any of the accounts, even ones where you would expect her to be mentioned. I have no idea why Gore Vidal thinks it's inconceivable that he was unmarried; also, if localroger is correct about Gore claiming that there was a contemporary Jewish practice of "practice of fathers charging a fee for the privilege of taking a daughter's virginity, premarital sex not being considered a sin like adultery" then he was probably just making things up for the heck of it.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:41 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can anyone recommend some good books that go into this period in more depth?

The best book I've read on the historical Jesus in particular is The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders, which is pretty much a standard textbook.

For the historical aspects of the bible as a whole, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible by Robin Lane Fox is interesting.

(Yes, mainstream historians generally believe there really was a historical figure of Jesus. Ancient history relies on much more fragmentary evidence that modern history, the evidence for a historical Jesus is as good as for most ancient historical figures. Also, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Just because every time Jesus or Shakespeare is mentioned on the Internet there's a big Internet debate about whether Jesus existed or Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare, it doesn't mean there's a similar level of disagreement among historians.)
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:04 PM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Your ad hominem response has been noted and sorted into the appropriate file -- 13."

I'm sorry, I didn't realize your repeated vague appeals to authority were the standard of proof we were holding ourselves to around here.

Vidal's often played fast and loose with the historical record and if you see him as a historian rather than a raconteur, you've got a remarkably low bar — especially to argue so vociferously from some article you barely remember but assure us totally rebuts all the objections.
posted by klangklangston at 11:52 PM on September 14, 2013


Lisa: Well, seeing as how Dave and I...
Joe: Do it?
Lisa: ...are romantically...
Joe: Doing it?
Lisa: ...sleeping together, I think this precludes me from taking part in any revolution.
Bill: Benedict Arnold slept with George Washington.
Lisa: You really need to stop getting your history from Gore Vidal.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:25 AM on September 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


There's about as much documentary evidence for the Roman Emperor Caligula* as there is for Jesus. I don't see a whole lot of people saying that there was no such emperor.

*Suetonius, Josephus, Cassius Dio, and Philo of Alexandria.


You're forgetting archaeological evidence (coins, inscriptions, etc) for Caligula which there isn't for Jesus, or that in fact the sources you mention say a lot more about the emperor than about the messiah. (Also Seneca the Younger.)
posted by MartinWisse at 3:10 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just a few obligatory comics : Cyanide & Happiness and Ghastly's Comic.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:26 AM on September 15, 2013


As for the historicity of Jesus, I don't think any serious scholar doubts it.

Probably because doubting it quickly gets you labeled unserious.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:14 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


You really need to stop getting your history from Gore Vidal.

Because Lisa Simpson is a far more reliable source.
posted by localroger at 8:02 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Vidal's often played fast and loose with the historical record

You do realize the Vidal work being discussed at that link is a novel, right?
posted by localroger at 8:04 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


You do realize the Vidal work being discussed at that link is a novel, right?

While we're being sticklers, I don't think that klangklangston's comment actually was an ad hominem in the strictest sense of the word.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:19 AM on September 15, 2013


I don't think that klangklangston's comment actually was an ad hominem in the strictest sense of the word.

Yes it was. The entire substance of the comment was that because the argument was made by Vidal it should be ignored.

It is not the name Gore Vidal on the cover that should cause one to be overly skeptical of the details so much as the words a novel after the title. I don't think the Smithsonian Institute is a time machine wherein the wax figures come to life after hours either.

But Vidal got away with his fictional modifications to history because his grasp of real history was far-reaching. That tended to come out in his essays. The work I am thinking of here was an essay.
posted by localroger at 8:31 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes it was. The entire substance of the comment was that because the argument was made by Vidal it should be ignored.

I'm not saying "that's not ad hominem" because it was about Gore Vidal. I'm saying "that wasn't ad hominem" because it wasn't an attack on you. That's what ad hominem means.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:36 AM on September 15, 2013


because it wasn't an attack on you. That's what ad hominem means.

No, that's not what ad hominem means. According to the Wiki article you linked it means "attacks the characteristics or authority of the writer without addressing the substance of the argument." In this case the writer is Vidal, and that is exactly what klangklangston did.
posted by localroger at 8:43 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Gore Vidal isn't the one arguing with him, though - you are. He wasn't attacking you. Ergo....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:44 AM on September 15, 2013


He wasn't attacking you. Ergo....

That has nothing to do with anything. It was an attack on the writer which did not address the substance of the argument. That is an ad hominem argument regardless of who it is addressed to.
posted by localroger at 8:55 AM on September 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


As for the historicity of Jesus, I don't think any serious scholar doubts it.

Only the serious ones would doubt it, as many do, the rest follow a worn path of euhemerization, where legends are assumed to contain a seed of historicity in order to explain their existence. However, in the last generation Abraham and many of the Old Testament prophets are being called into question, evidence showing that they were written into the record for political claims that bolstered other battles. This is compounded by the economic reality that the "Life of Jesus" authorship field is dominated by professors and theologians who sell most of their books to Christians, so whenever a vote comes up, and they apparently have, the consensus is self-serving. The interesting thing today is that every shred of evidence is on the table, easy to search, so anyone can make up their own mind. As a bonus, the pagan origins of Christianity are also out there, and like many Christian fathers in antiquity, people can reflect on the absolute need for a human founder to rise from the dead in the classical era, especially when it comes to distancing a new religious movement from something like Mithraism, famously said to be invented by the devil to confuse the faithful with its similarities.
posted by Brian B. at 9:14 AM on September 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


The most terrifying and disappointing thing about this conversation is people's ignorance of Newsradio.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:36 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


"But Vidal got away with his fictional modifications to history because his grasp of real history was far-reaching. That tended to come out in his essays. The work I am thinking of here was an essay."

Rather, the invisible authority to which you are appealing is an essay. Specifically, pretending that because you remember rebuttals, they must be accurate and conclusive.

It's ironic, given the tradition of apologia for vacant authority that underpins so much of the Christian record.
posted by klangklangston at 9:57 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Klangklangston, Gore Vidal's painstaking historical research is not something I would question because one author challenges some points within the television adaptation of Vidal's novel about Lincoln. Especially given that the critic was engaged by the NYT, (which blackballed Vidal for years, refusing even to review his works), specifically to discredit him.

Nonetheless, Vidal responds handily to the criticism (right there in the comments from your link).

But you can't be basing your claim that Vidal "often played fast and loose with the historical record" solely on that one guy's critique, right? That would definitely be a stretch.

So, what else you got?
posted by misha at 10:22 AM on September 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I hope to not damage a well-presented thesis by oversimplification, but here goes:

Seems to me that Reza Aslan's (Zealot) thesis was wonderfully subversive and entirely credible.

He posits that
1) Jesus of Nazereth probably was a historical figure, and
2) Jesus the Christ was mostly a fiction perpetrated by Paul (for reasons which I skim here, but which he presents in detail).

The difference being that Paul was interested in converting non-Jews more than Jews to the good news, whereas Jesus of Nazereth was mostly concerned with the liberation of Jews from the Romans. I hasten to point out that, despite the emphasis of their ministries, neither Paul nor Jesus was exclusionary. Aslan points out that, in those days before and after the historical Jesus may have lived, it seems that the area was flooded with magicians of all sorts, and messiahs of many stripes. Jesus of Nazereth, son of Mary, wasn't the only savior in town, and among the (self-professed) messiahs, he wasn't even the guy with the largest following. He wasn't the only one to do magic, raise the dead, or cure the sick. It seems that the main difference between Jesus the Nazarene and the others was that he did his stuff for free.

In this sense, the argument over whether the man, or the mangod/godman actually ever drew breath isn't the issue. The fact of the miracles ascribed to him aren't important, because in those days history was a matter of belief, not fact. Nowadays we prefer a different emphasis, scientific rigor and all that, but we are stuck with what the ancients left us to work with.

About the Bible. The books of the Bible, heavily influence by the Pauline letters, were selected with Jesus the Christ as their theme, rather than Jesus the rabble rouser from Nazereth. Paul spent his ministry trying to discredit the many sects that followed Jesus of Nazereth. He was successful. For one thing, Paul preached mostly to non-Jews. For another, Paul's Jesus talked about God's heavenly kingdom, and didn't try to deal with Roman rule. Jesus the Nazarene, on the other hand, preached mainly to Jews. His was a message of liberation from Roman rule, the subordination of Roman rule to God's rule. Paul's message, then, was not seen by Rome as being directly seditious, whereas Jesus the Nazerene's message was: After all, the Romans killed him for sedition. It the decades following Jesus's execution the Romans were busy killing off most of Paul's competition.

Modern Christianity, for the most part, goes with the heavenly kingdom version--Paul's version. We also get the literature associated with it. The rest is marginalized. I can understand why modern-day Christians might not want to have their personal Jesus tampered with, however, Aslan's notion of the historical Jesus doesn't deal with religious verity. To Aslan, Jesus is a viable savior, even more so when you resolve some of the historical kinks related to his story.
posted by mule98J at 3:03 PM on September 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


"But you can't be basing your claim that Vidal "often played fast and loose with the historical record" solely on that one guy's critique, right? That would definitely be a stretch. "

Gore argues that Roosevelt provoked war with Japan: "Roosevelt saw to it that we got that war!" he snaps. "He taunted the Japanese so they would have to hit us, at Pearl Harbour, and they did ... We have conveniently forgotten because we don't teach American history to anybody, but he sent an ultimatum to the Japanese telling them to get out of China, which they'd been trying to conquer for years. He was laying down the law to them, [saying they had to] surrender their rather proud nation's empire. And they said fuck you. And the next thing we knew the fleet was moving towards Pearl Harbour."

In the same interview: [Gore] says the Soviet Empire was "purely reactive" to American power, and only committed atrocities and invasions because the US "goaded them".

In November 2002: “Meanwhile, Media was assigned its familiar task of inciting public opinion against Osama bin Laden, still not the proven mastermind.”

Vidal regards Timothy McVeigh as a sane, noble warrior for truth against the oppressive American state.

Gore has often played fast and loose with the historical record.

Further, since this whole derail came up because of Localroger try to make an argument from authority, a fallacy, that Jesus wasn't celibate because it wasn't mentioned in the Bible, what else you got on that point? Anything? Another appeal to Vidal's painstaking research? Even a link to that essay? No?

And with that, I'm done with this dumb derail.
posted by klangklangston at 4:31 PM on September 15, 2013


Well dumb derail or not, klang, I'm kind of surprised at the hills some people in this thread have chosen to die on. It doesn't seem very controversial to me that there might have been an actual living person named Jesus who catalyzed the movement, which ultimately became quite different from what he taught, that became Christianity.

It doesn't seem very controversial to me that this Jesus person might not have adhered to the sexual proscriptions laid down by a church that only came to exist long after his death.

And yet, here we have people who are obviously put out of countenance by these ideas. I do not understand that, at all.
posted by localroger at 5:34 PM on September 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm only put out of countenance by people making certain sorts of historical claims that rely upon questionable methods: arguments from absence of evidence, over-broad claims that we can put confident parameters around what a writer would or wouldn't have written about. ("Paul wouldn't have used that phrase." "If X had happened, Matthew would have mentioned it." etc.), and dubious claims from probability, ("Since many/most people in first century Palestine did X, Jesus surely must've done X.")
posted by straight at 7:03 PM on September 15, 2013


straight, when the "dubious claim" is that "since many/most people in that era had sex and nobody mentioned otherwise, Jesus probably had sex," the dubious claim would seem to me that Jesus was celibate. But maybe that's just because I've had sex.
posted by localroger at 7:24 PM on September 15, 2013


How many people in that era didn't have sex? Zero? One? A hundred? A thousand? Was Jesus one of them? We don't know. Period.
posted by straight at 7:28 PM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems that the main difference between Jesus the Nazarene and the others was that he did his stuff for free.

Open source, it works.
posted by localroger at 7:29 PM on September 15, 2013


How many people in that era didn't have sex?

How many people in any era don't have sex? Pretty close to zero. If your hero figure is one of the few, you would not omit it from the record.
posted by localroger at 7:30 PM on September 15, 2013


If your hero figure is one of the few, you would not omit it from the record.

Yes. That logic, the presumption that you know what people would or wouldn't write about, is exactly what I think is poor historical method.
posted by straight at 7:35 PM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


the presumption that you know what people would or wouldn't write about, is exactly what I think is poor historical method.

Well, I tend to think people are not so different now as they were back then and if people are inclined to write about their heroes at all, there are certain things they consistently record. Those people didn't have science and skeptics but they did have sex. And I think you're being stupidly unreasonable. And yes, that was meant to end the argument.
posted by localroger at 7:43 PM on September 15, 2013


HERE LIES KURT COBAIN
HE DIED A VIRGIN
ISN'T THAT COOL

posted by XMLicious at 8:21 PM on September 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


How many people in any era don't have sex?

.... a bunch? Particularly when we actually know of at least one active Jewish sect of the time that had mandatory celibacy.

Pretty close to zero.

O HAI WELCOME TO THE INTERNETS.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:27 PM on September 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


In localroger's defense - it would have been a bit more unusual for someone not to have started a family in the Levant at the time of a historical Jesus.

However - also at the time of a historical Jesus, He was most likely, according to recent scholarship in particular, regarded as one of a number of Zealots in the Levant at that time. I suspect it's at least possible that His Zealotry may have been a more pressing topic of conversation at the time, or a reason for the average Judean at that time to dismiss any other weird thing they heard about Him ("...He isn't married? Eh, dude's a zealot, all those guys are pretty weird").

It is, of course, also possible that the historical Jesus did have sex after all.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:49 AM on September 16, 2013


I'm not an academic, but I have a good layperson's knowledge of the field and I listen to their chatter. Reza Aslan's book wasn't well received; the word "Zealot" has a specific meaning in the context of Second Temple Judaism, and calling Jesus a Zealot is anachronistic. Regarding marriage, I saw a good point somewhere but can't source it right now: female mortality was relatively high and many men were polygamists. This means that there were necessarily many unmarried men back then. Of course, a simple examination of the historical record will show that there have always been many unmarried men (and women), so you don't even need to call on circumstantial arguments to refute the presumption that Jesus was married.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:18 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've enjoyed this FPP and the comments a great deal. It has been really interesting, good Metafilter.

I'd just like to reiterate, as has been said above, that funny and snarky and irreverent as Jim Macdonald's post is, he has summed up Roman Catholic history that is on record and broadly accepted. From comments to the original (just in case not everybody got there):

As to how I come to know this stuff: I had twelve years of Catholic education. My high school library had attractively-bound, fully footnoted, editions of all the extra-canonical books in translation (Book of Enoch, Book of Jubilees, Gospel of Judas, Lives of Adam and Eve, Third Maccabees, Fourth Maccabees, and so forth and so on) because how can you say you understand your religion if you don't know all this stuff? As Tertullian said, "Reason, in fact, is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason — nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason.

I'm awfully jealous. My Secondary School Catholic library - the good stuff, that the nuns read - only had lives of saints and photographs of modern ones and Teilhard de Chardin-like philosophies.

And beautifully, he goes on to say what a wonderful source it has been for borrowing plots etc.
posted by glasseyes at 3:31 AM on September 16, 2013


Fair enough, Joe, that his book may not have been an expert source; however, is it possible that there were groups other than the Zealots to which Jesus may have belonged? (At least, this was always my understanding, that there were a whole bunch of rebellious guys running around Judea at that time.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:18 AM on September 16, 2013


is it possible that there were groups other than the Zealots to which Jesus may have belonged?

Oh yeah, Monty Python's Brian understates it. And they all hated each other. For instance, when the Romans were besieging Jerusalem (thirty-odd years after Jesus' death) the city was also besieged internally by different Jewish factions, and one group thought it would be a good idea to set fire to their own stores to improve morale or something. You should read Josephus' Jewish War sometime; it's so awful that it's nearly funny.

But the thing is, we know that the Romans killed John the Baptist, who as far as we know was non-militant; we know that they killed a bunch of people in Qumran who don't seem to have been militant; they also killed various other people who were either non-militant or seriously expected that the walls of Jerusalem would fall down as they approached. So you didn't have to have an army to be judged a threat to Roman rule; you didn't even need to claim to be a king or whatever; just predicting their replacement by the messiah/kingdom of heaven/teacher of righteousness seems to have been enough.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:35 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, I tend to think people are not so different now as they were back then and if people are inclined to write about their heroes at all, there are certain things they consistently record.

What percentage do you think of articles about Óscar Romero specifically mention his celibacy or marital status? (Hint: Wikipedia doesn't.) How confident are you that two thousand years from now, surviving accounts about him would mention it?

But more generally, the problem with your historical method is that you think people for sure would have written about this, I think maybe they wouldn't have, but you have no way of adjudicating between those two opinions. If you were wrong, how could you possibly know?
posted by straight at 5:50 AM on September 16, 2013


> is it possible that there were groups other than the Zealots to which Jesus may have belonged?

Oh yeah, Monty Python's Brian understates it. And they all hated each other.


Okay - I just had the name wrong, then; I was using the Jesus-as-Zealot book as a crutch because I meant for that to refer to the general concept of "there were a bunch of extremists of various stripes running around at that time whose other actions would probably have been more notable than their marital status".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:04 AM on September 16, 2013


Hey, here's another thought - the argument is that "Jesus didn't have sex, and contemporary accounts would have noticed that", yes?

Where are we getting the idea that Jesus didn't have sex in the first place? How do we know that it wasn't something Paul or one of his cronies threw into the story to sort of give their own views some cred?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:07 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


No, it's that Christian tradition (not Paul specifically - at least he doesn't mention it in any letters attributed to him) says Jesus was unmarried. Some people claim historical research demonstrates this is wrong and I'm saying there's no such historical evidence one way or the other and that we really just don't know.

The Gospels neither mention a wife nor comment on the lack of a wife. Some people say that means he was obviously married, others say it means he was obviously not married. Because obviously the writers would have mentioned a wife (had there been one) or a lack of a wife (had there not been one).
posted by straight at 6:52 AM on September 16, 2013


That's my point, though, straight - it's been claimed that "there couldn't have been a historical Jesus because the contemporary accounts don't say anything about Him not having been married, and that's something they would have mentioned because that'd have been weird." But I'm saying that maybe the contemporary accounts don't mention it because it was a detail added after the fact - which it sounds like you're saying is very plausible.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:59 AM on September 16, 2013


I haven't seen anyone make that claim, EmpressC.
posted by straight at 7:06 AM on September 16, 2013


Isn't that what localroger is saying here?

If not, then how did we get onto the "how many people in Bible Times got freaky" tangent?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:18 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Forwarding this to my Mom, who did a research paper on apocryphal gospels as part of joining the Methodist church when I was a kid. I grew up hearing The Infancy Gospel of Thomas right alongside the sanctioned Bible stories, with the counsels that I'd have to A. make up my own mind about what was true or not and B. keep my mouth shut in Sunday school.

You seem awfully sure that there were no purple people in Palestine 2,000 years ago. Care to cite?

If there were purple people, wouldn't the One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple People Eater have been mentioned in Revelations? ;)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:01 AM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


There are religious prophets who were born within relatively recent recorded history, you know. Just look at all the mormon mythologizing of Joseph Smith, and the hash that Mormon 'historians' make not only of mormon history, but of American history. Just imagine if Mormons managed to take complete temporal power for a thousand years, what we would 'know' about the historical Joseph Smith. Or look at Scientologists and L Ron Hubbard. Or the Unification church and Rev. Moon. The testimonies of 'believers' simply cannot be taken at face value for any religion.
posted by empath at 8:09 AM on September 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


Anthony Le Donne's critique of Aslan wasn't convincing. I would have expected more of a scholarly essay than "...he doesn't know what he's talking about..." and "...he hasn't kept up on the latest research by...." I'm surprised that a person with his chops would be so quick to avoid the longer threads of Aslan's arguments in favor of nit-picking over the application of a word: Aslan states clearly that Jesus wasn't a Zealot. His (more general) message was that the historical Jesus he found differed from the one Paul hawked to the Gentiles. Le Donne seems to think this is a non-issue, probably relating to lazy research and fuzzy thinking on the part of a scholar who has taken a different tack in a similar field of research.

Also, I wouldn't be so quick to state that the One-eyed, One-horned Flying Purple People eater isn't mentioned in Revelations. It's there, if you know the code.
posted by mule98J at 8:20 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the point about Jesus likely not being a virgin or it would have been mentioned is credible because there is an historical context for virginity among young men at that time being an outlier, and as Jesus was, basically, a celebrity, it would have been noted.

One of the things that is constantly touted out about Hitler (at the opposite end of the spectrum, as he is infamous for evil rather than inspirational for his beneficence) is that he may very well have died a virgin. It is notable because it is not the norm.

I don't think the celibacy question is intended to be taken as an argument that Jesus, as a person, did not exist at all, though. I have not seen that connection being made.
posted by misha at 8:39 AM on September 16, 2013


I think the point about Jesus likely not being a virgin or it would have been mentioned is credible because there is an historical context for virginity among young men at that time being an outlier, and as Jesus was, basically, a celebrity, it would have been noted.

But if being a virgin wasn't regarded as a good thing for a man - either among Palestinian Jews or the pagan gentiles who Paul &co were proselytizing to - why would his followers have mentioned it? And if indeed it wasn't a positive thing, how could anyone have verified the claim, and been certain it wasn't a rumor spread by some group antagonistic to some particular Christian group? But even if on the other hand there was a positive view of virginity that stemmed from ascetic celibacy and discipline or something like that, would his followers necessarily have wanted Jesus to be associated with asceticism or other things popularly associated with celibacy? Would "he's kind of like Athena Parthenos or a Vestal Virgin" have actually been good PR for a divine male messiah being employed to promote monotheism?

The presence or absence of mentions of a wife, or of other discussion of Kingdom Cum, just doesn't seem to me like the kind of point you can make these sort of syllogistic deductions from.
posted by XMLicious at 9:49 AM on September 16, 2013


"One of the things that is constantly touted out about Hitler (at the opposite end of the spectrum, as he is infamous for evil rather than inspirational for his beneficence) is that he may very well have died a virgin. It is notable because it is not the norm."

Yes, that's an excellent example of a poor historical record being used by various propagandists to support all sorts of claims, and where absence of evidence is taken as evidence of absence. The traditional, simplest explanation is that Hitler did indeed have sex with many of the women whom he was linked to over his life.

As always, Wikipedia has an overview.
posted by klangklangston at 10:18 AM on September 16, 2013


klang, I agree that the claim about Hitler being a virgin is likely unfounded.

It still stands as an example demonstrating that when someone is suspected of going against societal norms, that suspicion will enter the dialogue of his contemporaries. We don't see any of that going on with Jesus' supposed celibacy, and we would expect to given the views surrounding mens' sexuality at the time.

You are also right that continuing the Vidal debate is a derail. I think he is credible; you clearly don't. Maybe just consider that if you'd provided your reasons right at the beginning instead of tossing off a dismissive one-liner like you did ("Anybody using Gore Vidal as authority for history and not just a cutting wag is giving him way too much credit"), the derail would have been avoided in the first place? Especially since it was your first comment in the thread.

I get that Christians prefer the idea of a single, celibate Jesus because it adds to the mythos. Still, like localroger, I am surprised that it is so contentious even to suggest Jesus might have had sex.
posted by misha at 1:28 PM on September 16, 2013


.....I am so confused about what we're arguing about.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:49 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


misha, part of the problem may be that it doesn't sound like you guys are just making suggestions - you're saying "would have" instead of "might have" and "when x happens, y will also happen" and localroger is speaking in terms of chances and probability as though all the factors in the issue are quantified and it's a straightforward calculation to determine the answer. The objection on my part, at least, is about the expressed certainty concerning the details of the life of someone who is mentioned only in a couple of sentences outside of religious scriptures decades after his supposed death, IIRC, not because I think Jesus can't have been married or otherwise getting some.
posted by XMLicious at 1:53 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


XMlicious, you and straight have a point that the evidence is not clear either way on whether Jesus was a virgin, and that it is probably something we will never know for sure.

On the one hand, Christian canon says he was not married and strongly pushes the virgin angle. Why, when this is not the norm for the time? Would there not be a stigma in being seen as aberrant? That's a valid question.

But then again, the prevailing attitude toward women was so problematic that it could also be seen as a positive quality for Jesus to be above all the sins of the flesh.

Competing fallacies: If a man isn't sexing up the women or at the very least getting married and fathering children with them, He can't be accepted as one of the guys, let alone the son of God.

vs

Women are well-known temptresses, and since Jesus is the only one immune to that temptation, there's your proof that he is the son of God.

Women in the Bible (almost any version*, take your pick) held a position barely above that of chattel. They often go unnamed, referenced only in relation to some Important Man.

There are qualified exceptions where names may be provided:

The Important Man's actions were motivated by his desire for the named woman. [We know of Bathsheba because David was so enamored of her that he sent Bathsheba's husband to die in the war so that he could marry her himself. Leah and Rachel are named because it was love for Rachel that kept Jacob laboring fourteeen years when his sneaky uncle substituted Leah for Rachel at the wedding after Jacob already completed the initial agreed-upon seven.]

The named woman is extolled as a model of fidelity, piety, modesty, and loyalty. [The less-beloved Leah because, rather than being bitter that her husband preferred her sister, prayed to the Lord that he would come to love her like a good pious woman should, and thus bore Jacob four sons while Rachel was barren. Although she has lost her husband, the biblical Ruth embraces her husband's beliefs and loyally cleaves to Naomi, her mother-in-law, "Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge."]

The woman serves as a cautionary tale to women, illustrating what happens to bad women who do not know their place. [Eve eats the apple and the whole human race is on the line for original sin, Miriam and Aaron diss on Moses and his Cushite wife and so God gives Miriam (but not Aaron) leprosy(!).]

Women who simply got on with the business of living, though, might not make the cut.

When Jesus went around proselytizing after the resurrection, the story goes that his travels were subsidized by the women who followed him. None of them is mentioned by name, yet it is through their auspices that he was able to preach the gospel.

If Jesus was having sex, then, there is no reason why we would expect to know who it was with. It is not just possible but likely that, unless the union resulted in children, the woman or women involved would never even merit a mention.

Which is exactly what it would look like if Jesus was never having sex at all.
__

*Some of the excluded stuff, like the Gnostic gospels, especially the gospel according to Phillip, actually has Jesus specifically calling out the chauvinism of the apostles. Which is awesome.
posted by misha at 2:13 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


On the one hand, Christian canon says he was not married and strongly pushes the virgin angle.

Do you mean Christian tradition? Unless I misremember and the Wikipedia Sexuality of Jesus article is missing a bunch of stuff (which is entirely possible), my recollection is that in the canonical scriptures there are only a few scattered passages that can be interpreted as bearing upon his sex life and the official interpretation seems rather heavily retconned, like interpreting the phrase "without sin" to mean exactly what the Classical-philosophy-trained gentile Roman Church theologians concluded the absence of sin must be, centuries later.
posted by XMLicious at 2:54 PM on September 16, 2013


"It still stands as an example demonstrating that when someone is suspected of going against societal norms, that suspicion will enter the dialogue of his contemporaries. We don't see any of that going on with Jesus' supposed celibacy, and we would expect to given the views surrounding mens' sexuality at the time. "

This is called an "argument from ignorance" and it is not a good reason to believe anything.

The idea that someone would have mentioned it if he didn't marry requires such weird, selective epistemology that it beggars belief. That odd details (naked dude) of the Gospel are most likely to be true does not mean that every odd detail was reported. And the idea that we, 2000 years later, have a coherent picture of any historical figure — especially a plebe — is pretty bizarre. The Bible and a few contemporary mentions are all we've got, and the Gospels are full of just absolutely made-up nonsense. It's like complaining that Aristophanes must have been gay, because someone would have mentioned a wife otherwise.
posted by klangklangston at 3:30 PM on September 16, 2013


My use of canon was intended to convey a "generalized and accepted principle" of Christianity (on preview, your Wikipedia link agrees with that, I think), rather than codified ecclesiastical law.

No need for us to get nitpicky over semantics. Feel free to substitute "tradition" if my word choice bothers you.
posted by misha at 3:33 PM on September 16, 2013


It doesn't bother me, I just wanted to be sure of what you meant in case there was something I didn't know about; I was figuring that you were using "canon" in the same sense as in the OP.
posted by XMLicious at 4:37 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]



You really need to stop getting your history from Gore Vidal.

localroger: Because Lisa Simpson is a far more reliable source.

Lisa Simpson? Dude, if you think there's only one Lisa in pop culture, maybe you're not the best person to be making arguments based on someone like Gore Vidal. That was a quote from Newsradio, as suggested by the accompanying Bill and Joe, not Homer and Bart.

*shakes head* Lisa Simpson.

Lisa: “These (writers) are my only friends: grown up nerds like Gore Vidal, and even he’s kissed more boys than I ever will.”

Marge: “Girls, Lisa. Boys kiss girls.”

That's Lisa Simpson.

posted by gadge emeritus at 9:04 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


when someone is suspected of going against societal norms, that suspicion will enter the dialogue of his contemporaries.

But we don't have a "dialogue of [Jesus'] contemporaries." We certainly don't have anything from Jesus' time remotely like contemporary gossip about about Hitler's sex life.

We have a few letters by Paul that may have been written 20-30 years after Jesus died, none of which contain any biographical details about Jesus at all except that he started the Eucharistic practice, was betrayed, killed and supposedly came back from the dead, and that he had disciples and a brother. We have the Gospels, some of which may have been written as early as 50 years after Jesus died. All of those sources are telling very deliberate messages about Jesus. There's no reason to think they would have mentioned his marital status unless it was germane to some point the authors wanted to make about Jesus. They leave out all kinds of what would seem to us essential biographical details.

There's (maybe) a sentence or two about Jesus in a few contemporary historians like Josephus and Tacitus.

Everything else we actually have copies of was written at least a generation later.

If there were jokes or gossip going around about Jesus being celibate (or having a wife and tons of kids), or any other details about his life, none of that has survived in any form. Maybe some of the oral tradition that was written down generations later by the Church Fathers or in stuff like the Gospel of Thomas actually dates back to the time of Jesus. Unless you want to take the Gospels at face value (and even that doesn't get you very much), the idea that we know much of anything about "what people in general were saying about Jesus in his day" is ridiculous.
posted by straight at 9:47 PM on September 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


some of which may have been written as early as 50 years after Jesus died

That should be 40 years (or possibly earlier, if you believe Jesus could have guessed/predicted/foreknown that a conflict with Rome would result in the destruction of the Temple in the near future).
posted by straight at 10:18 AM on September 17, 2013


It seems important to note that as far as biographical details, were the books of the Bible to be taken as evidence, we do also have things like a genealogy naming Jesus to be a direct descendant of Abraham and King David and an account of his miraculous birth (e.g. Matthew 1:16-2:11) and of his death.

Also, although from what I've read scholarship agrees that the Gospels are dated substantially later than circa 33 CE, if any of the Pauline Epistles were actually written by Paul he would have been a contemporary of Jesus. (Though since IIRC he didn't claim to have ever met Jesus in the flesh personally, a contemporary who had only indirect knowledge of him.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:34 AM on September 17, 2013


we do also have things like a genealogy naming Jesus to be a direct descendant of Abraham and King David

Two! Two genealogies ahahahahahaha!

Which fundamentally contradict each other and are almost certainly fictitious. This is an example of how we extract sense from nonsense, though: at the time the Gospels were written nobody knew Jesus' actual genealogy, but the authors of both Luke and Matthew thought it important that he be descended from - not just Abraham, but King David. Not just King David, but his many-times descendant Zerubabel, arguably the last Jewish king. But they traced it via Joseph, while saying that Joseph wasn't really his father!

So here are the three inconsistent claims:
Claim 1: Jesus was the product of a virgin birth.
Claim 2: Jesus was descended from (God)-Adam-Abraham-David-Zerubabel via genealogy #1.
Claim 3: Jesus was descended from Abraham-David-Zerubabel via genealogy #2.

There are many, many, retconned explanations as to how all this can be reconciled, but as a non-Christian I can say that each of these claims was probably defensive: someone said "If Jesus was a king, then why wasn't he descended from King David?" Answer: a genealogy showing his alleged descent from David. Someone else (probably an earlier critic) would have said "We know that Joseph didn't acknowledge Jesus as his son. Doesn't that mean he's a mamzer and therefore ineligible to be king?" (Or marry most Jewish women, incidentally) Answer: no, he was the product of a miraculous virginal birth. But my point is that even though we can't rely on these passages directly, they can be relied upon to tell us the author's concerns. Sense from nonsense.

Note: it's possible that the authors had different concerns. There seems to be some number-play in the genealogies. Is that all they're about, that there was some reason why the messiah had to be born in a particular generation? Maybe they're not related to the idea that Jesus himself had to be descended from David; maybe it's just a way of counting generations and, incidentally, making his adoptive father of noble birth. Maybe the virgin birth thing was introduced by pagans who expected their heroes to have miraculous births? (I doubt it) If there was an allegation that Jesus was a mamzer it must date to the time of his actual ministry, if not earlier, which gives us some more confidence in the Gospel-writers' sources. There's lots of stuff that can be winkled out of these stories, even if we don't believe the stories themselves.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:55 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why are some Hell-bent on Intelligent Design?
posted by jeffburdges at 2:33 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


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