Amateur Hour #5 – The Book of Revelation w/Mark Edward

The book of Revelation has enthralled and mystified readers for the last two thousand years. What is it about? Who wrote it and when? Why is it sometimes referred to as an “apocalyptic” text? Mark Edward joins me to answer these questions and more.

Bible Study for Amateurs #1 – Weird Scripture

I’ve teased it in some episodes of Amateur Hour but it is finally here – the first episode of my new podcast Bible Study for Amateurs. Below is the YouTube version of the episode but you can also listen to it over on anchor.fm. I’ll be trying to get it uploaded to other podcast platforms as soon as I can.

Let me know what you think!

Jonathan Burke Responds to My Post on Satan and Demons in the NT (part 1)

Last month, I wrote a brief post reacting to an episode of the Religious Learning podcast in which Christadelphian Jonathan Burke discussed his beliefs on the existence of Satan and demons. As I noted in that piece, while Burke and I are in agreement that neither Satan nor demons exist, we disagree on whether individuals like the apostle Paul or the historical Jesus believed in them. I am convinced that they did while Burke thinks this misses the mark. After reading my post, Burke stated that he would publish a video that would not only respond to my take but would lay out his own views on the matter. Well, today he published the first video in what looks to be a two-part (?) series on the subject.

I’ve got a lot of thoughts about (and disagreements with) Burke’s views but I’d rather wait for part two before I even start to think about putting pen to paper (well, fingers to keyboard, but you get the idea). However, I would like to say a couple of things now. First, Burke spends considerable time laying out my view, doing so both charitably and accurately. In fact, as he was working on the video he and I dialogued some via Twitter DMs because he wanted to make sure he got my position exactly right. In the modern culture of click-bait articles and trollish YouTube clips, this is virtually unheard of. So, many thanks to Burke for taking the time to do this. Second, Burke’s presentation is clean, concise, and informative. Not only was he easy to follow, but I learned a few things while watching! He is clearly well read and has a deep appreciation for the texts we are dealing with. It’s one of the reasons I’m posting his response directly to my blog here (and will do so for part two).

The video is 26 minutes so you may have to carve out some time later in the day to watch it. However, I promise you it’ll be worth your while.

The Roundup – 9.4.21

I’ve decided to resurrect the “roundup” posts that I used to put out a long time ago. This time, however, rather than being weekly, it’ll be whenever I feel like putting one out. (Cut me some slack. I ain’t getting paid for this!) “The Roundup” will just be a short list of interesting posts, books, videos, podcasts, and whatnot that I have recently enjoyed and think that maybe either one of my readers will as well.

  • Which is the more coherent and consistent reading of the Pentateuch? The “divine savior myth” hermeneutic popular among many Christians or the “great nation myth” that treats it as a kind of “imperial constitution”? In a recent piece on his website, blogger Katapetasma juxtaposes these two readings to address this issue.

  • Was Adolf Hitler a Christian? An atheist? A pagan? Tim O’Neill ponders these questions in a recent article on his History for Atheists website. His answer – “none of the above.” As he demonstrates, Hitler’s religious commitments are somewhat mysterious, shrouded in contradiction and vagueness. O’Neill also does a good job of wrestling with the motivated reasoning of certain atheists (e.g., Richard Dawkins and Richard Carrier) who want (need?) Hitler to be a Christian in order to score some kind of moral points.

  • Over at Bible Odyssey, David Eastman addresses the subject of Christian martyr texts, specifically why they were written. Among the various motivations for writing such stories, Eastman contends, are 1) a desire to prop up the church’s authority, 2) an aim to vanquish heretics, and 3) a need to encourage faithfulness in the face of persecution by presenting examples. Eastman is careful to note that having such motivations doesn’t mean that what we find in these texts is wholly fictional. Rather, it means we should treat them as we do other historical sources, namely with an eye for their historical and literary contexts.

  • There is a new open access journal called Advances in Ancient Biblical and Near Eastern Research (AABNER). By the looks of the inaugural volume, AABNER should prove to be a useful resource for those interested in biblical studies and the ancient Near East. Did I mention that it’s open access?!?! One of the pieces I particularly enjoyed is Sebastian Fink’s and Mark Smith’s “The Day Storm in Mesopotamian Literature: A Background to the Biblical Day of Yahweh?” (pp. 29-63). Fink and Smith trace the import of stormy-day language across different genres and cultures, noting that if often functions as a divine judgment of some kind. They then connect this to the imagery of “the day of Yahweh” found in various biblical texts.

  • Just as no one wants to claim Hitler for their own camp (see above), so also everyone wants to claim Jesus for their own: he’s pro-life, he’s a socialist, he’s an egalitarian, he’s a biscuit. (If you don’t get that reference, you obviously aren’t a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and we can’t be friends). In a recent post at his website Tales of Times Forgotten, Spencer McDaniel attacks head on the claim that Jesus was something of a communist. McDaniel shows that Jesus is better understood as a millennial…er, I mean a millenarian. That is, he expected that social upheaval would take place when God intervened in the world and that this intervention would happen very soon.

  • As a teenager, one of the first book on apologetics I purchased was Josh McDowell’s New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. The volume was a veritable encyclopedia with which I could respond to the few skeptics I came across at my school. (More often than not my peers were some form of Christian but since they didn’t use the King James Bible or think the universe was six-thousand years old, I was concerned.) But McDowell’s story, as it turns out, is problematic. Kipp Davis, an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, recently produced a documentary entitled Josh McDowell: Manuscript Hunting and Mythmaking for Jesus that talks about some of the holes in McDowell’s story, not to mention his involvement in the First Century Mark affair. This was an eye opening presentation.

  • Did the author of the Gospel of John know of the Gospel of Mark? That is the subject of a recently published book entitled John’s Transformation of Mark (T&T Clark, 2001). Edited by Eve-Marie Becker, Helen K. Bond, and Catrin H. Williams, this volume features articles by a number of accomplished scholars including Harrold Attridge, Mark Goodacre, Chris Keith, and more. Though I’m only on ch. 5 of this work, I’ve already learned so much. My hope is to write a review of it sometime in 2022 when I’ve read it through at least twice.

  • Way back in January I began working through the Apocrypha using both The HarperCollins Study Bible and 2020’s The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha. Like The Jewish Annotated New Testament and The Jewish Study Bible, this edition of the Apocrypha contains explanatory notes as well as a host of articles. Unlike most other editions of the Apocrypha or what you might find in volumes like The HarperCollins Study Bible or The New Oxford Annotated Bible, The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha begins with the book of Jubilees.

  • Michael Kok has begun a new series on Papias analyzing the recent work done on him by Stephen Carlson. Papias is probably best known for his comments on the origins of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark or for his view on the death of Judas Iscariot. But he had a lot more to say, though the authenticity of many things attributed to him is debated.

  • Claude Mariottini addresses a claim made by Rabbi Chananya Weissman that the mask mandates that many places have adopted on acount of COVID were prophesied by Isaiah. Long story short: they weren’t.

  • Why don’t Christian apologists talk more about Jesus’s ascension? This is the question Matthew Hartke tackles in a recent video. As he observes, the ascension is a part of the gospel story itself: Jesus died, he arose, he ascended, and he will return. And yet it is a subject glossed over by many apologists. Hartke thinks he knows why this is the case and I’m inclined to agree. (As a side note, I hope he produces more content like this.)

  • The most recent episode of New Testament Review features Ian Mills and Brandon Massey covering Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu by KL Schmidt. Schmidt was a German-born scholar who worked for the most part in the first half of the twentieth century. This particular work was one with which I was not familiar and I appreicate Mills and Massey giving an overview. If only I knew some German!

  • On his YouTube channel, @MiraScriptura has started doing short, two-minute videos analyzing a text using his techniques of mirror reading. He’s done Psalm 59 and Psalm 69.

  • Last (but not least), the latest Biblical Studies Carnival was put out by Brent Niedergall on the 1st. Lots of good stuff!

That’s it for now. The next Roundup will be in the form of the Biblical Studies Carnival which I will be posting to my blog on October 1st. In the meantime, enjoy!

Amateur Hour #4- Mirror Reading w/Michael, AKA Mira Scriptura

In this episode I have a conversation with Michael, AKA Mira Scriptura, on the subject of mirror reading, a technique used to reconstruct what the biblical authors were responding to in their writings.

Book Review: ‘Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite’ by L. Michael White

For more book reviews, check out the book reviews page.

Author: L. Michael White

Book: Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite

Publisher: HarperOne

Year: 2010

Page count: 528 pages

Price: $28.99 (hardcover)

INTRODUCTION

Nine years ago, I walked into a bookstore known as Hastings to peruse the shelves for used books that I might want to take home. Back then I was a Christian committed to both Reformed theology and the doctrine of inerrancy. I would often look for books by John Piper, R.C. Sproul, and others who were beloved by those in the “young, restless, and Reformed” camp. But this day as I looked at the shelves, a different book caught my eye. It was L. Michael White’s Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite. I had never heard of White before and I only skimmed the back cover. Regardless, I went to the front of the store, paid the $5.99 + tax for the book, and took it home with me. But I didn’t read it, at least not until a couple of years later not long after I became an atheist. Since then, I’ve read it two more times and I will, no doubt, read it again in the future.

Of the many reasons I’ve returned to this volume repeatedly the one that stands at the forefront is White’s highly readable style. In essence, he is condensing a century and a half’s worth of scholarship on the Gospels into a single tome with the aim of showing the literary artistry of the Gospel writers. Far from being impassioned historians, White makes the case that the Evangelists were true authors, working creatively with their source materials. And once you see how they do so, you simply can’t unsee it.

SUMMARY

Scripting Jesus opens with a preface (pp. vii-xii) wherein White offers an overview of the volume as well as an explanation in brief of what he means when he says that the Evangelists (i.e., the authors of the canonical Gospels) were “storytellers. “In the present study I focus…on the stories about Jesus in the Gospels as literary and dramatic productions,” he writes (p. x). In the prologue (pp. 1-16), the author emphasizes that though many consider the canonical stories about Jesus to be scripture, “first they were stories – stories scripted about Jesus, stories forged out of belief, but stories nonetheless” (p. 3). He contests the view (popular among many Christian apologists) that the Gospel accounts are based on eyewitness testimony, akin to four witnesses of a car wreck.

The remainder of the book is divided into three acts which are further subdivided into chapters. Act One, comprised of chs. 1-4, is entitled “Casting Characters,” and its first chapter (pp. 19-38) is an overview stock characters in Jewish as well as Greco-Roman literature, the meaning and import of the term “messiah,” the rise of the apocalyptic worldview and its corresponding literature, and more. In ch. 2 (pp. 39-50), White contends that the Lukan Gospel depicts Jesus as a wise philosopher, akin to Socrates or Diogenes, and in many ways bridges the Jewish wisdom tradition with Greek philosophical thought. He surveys a variety of sources including the apocryphal works of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon as well as that of Philo of Alexandria and his discussion of the logos. With ch. 3 (pp. 51-65) comes a discussion of “divine” men, i.e., an individual who is often depicted as doing extraordinary things not only as an adult but often as a child. White includes a helpful chart laying out the characteristics of a divine man on pp. 57-58. In ch. 4 (pp. 66-83), White discusses a range of subjects including apotheosis, and mystery religions.

Acts Two of the book, “Crafting Scenes,” opens with ch. 5 (pp. 87-105) and a look at oral tradition and other sources that lie behind the Gospel narrative as a lead in for ch. 6 (pp. 106-123) which attempts to look into the sources behind the Passion narratives. The earliest stratum, per White, is that of Paul’s explanation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. In addition to this, Paul also provides an early look into what would become known as “the Last Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25), noting Jesus’ words that suggest a sacrifice. White concludes the chapter by writing that “by the time of Paul, in the 50s CE, there does not yet seem to be a cohesive narrative or a unified dramatic telling of the story of Jesus’s death. A full ‘life’ of Jesus does not yet exist” (p. 123). Chapter 7 (pp. 124-160) continues the discussion of Jesus’ Passion as it is portrayed in the canonical Gospels. White contends that the “nodes” found in the earliest strata found in Paul are elaborated in the Gospel accounts. In particular, he shows that some of this expansion happens under the influence of the Jewish scriptures. In ch. 8 (pp. 161-187), the author moves onto a discussion of miracle workers in Jewish and Greco-Roman literature. He notes that miracle stories often had a basic form that included, in broad terms, a description of the situation that the miracle worker was getting into, the actions performed by the miracle worker, and, finally, the response of those who witnessed what the miracle worker did. This pattern holds even for the miracle stories of Jesus. White turns our attention to parables in ch. 9 (pp. 188-225), noting that each Gospel has its own “spin” on the parables Jesus tells: “The way in which parables convey meaning is heavily dependent on literary context and internal shaping, by which any one parable may take on vastly different meanings. Consequently, the parables vary significantly from Gospel to Gospel both in their literary presentation and their meaning” (p. 208). To close out Act Two, ch. 10 (pp. 226-256) features an examination of the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives.

Act Three focuses on the Gospels themselves beginning with Mark’s (ch. 11), then Matthew’s (ch. 12), then Luke’s (ch. 13), and then the Gospels of John and Thomas (ch. 14). In ch. 15 (pp. 374-404), White talks about non-canonical Gospels of the narrative and dialogic varieties. Readers will appreciate the helpful table on pp. 376-381 that breaks down these texts into the type and title of the work, its main features, and its relative date. In the epilogue (pp. 405-422), the author wraps up his work, concluding that the Gospel texts should be viewed “primarily as scripts of, or for, an oral performance” (p. 422). For White, this helps explain why later Gospel writers had no difficulty with changing and reinterpreting earlier works.

To round out the volume, there are five appendices on the geography of Palestine (pp. 423-427), the solution to the Synoptic Problem (pp. 428-431), the Gospel of Peter (pp. 432-436), the contents of Q (pp. 437-448), and the narrative world of the Lukan author (pp. 449-453).

ANALYSIS

That the Gospel authors had their own viewpoints and emphases is not foreign to even the most ardent defender of inerrancy. But White, unburdened by evangelical commitments to inspiration and infallibility, casts his gaze deeper into the text. “The Gospels are pieces of religious literature that seek to promote a set of beliefs in Jesus,” he writes. “In that sense they are closer to what we call advertisement or propaganda, even though these terms have a far more negative connotation in our culture” (p. 7). Far from being even handed reporting of history, the Gospels consciously present a singular viewpoint, that of a devotee of Jesus of Nazareth. And in the manner of ancient bioi, they tell the story the way they want it to be told, focusing on those salient moments that portray their subject in the best light possible.

I emphasize the word “possible” because there is one event in Jesus’ life that is hardly flattering: the crucifixion. Of all the events in Jesus’ life, his death on a cross registers as one of the surest. Our earliest sources found in the epistolary work of the apostle Paul declare unashamedly that Jesus was crucified. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,” Paul tells Corinthian Christ-followers (1 Corinthians 15:3). By his use of the language of “handing on” (paradidōmi), White writes that Paul was employing a formula that “was regularly used for passing on oral tradition and is also found in rabbinic sources” (p. 108). In other words, Jesus’ death was not an invention of Paul but was part and parcel of the earliest strata of the Christ-following movement.

But death-by-crucifixion was an ignoble end for one that could be considered kyrios and christos. It “was a miserable death,” notes John Granger Cook,[1] a form of public execution that, Helen Bond observes, “symbolized the complete destruction not only of the physical body but also of the person’s identity.”[2] But how could one identified as ho christos, the messiah, end up in such a sorry state? And who was he before this moment in history? These two questions would be taken up in the form of “passion narratives with extended introductions,” to quote Martin Kähler.[3] The first was Mark’s and then, taking their cue from Mark, over the course of the next few decades would come Matthew’s, Luke’s, and John’s.[4] And it is here that the Evangelists’ work as storytellers shines. In White’s view, the Gospels are “literary and dramatic productions” (p. x) with the aim of telling the Jesus story afresh. That is, while the canonical Gospels offer a similar story, their versions of it are distinctive and, at times, contradictory.

Consider, for example, the rejection of Jesus at his hometown of Nazareth. In Mark’s account, the scene unfolds in ch. 6 and follows on the heels of Jesus’ parables (4:1-34) and a series of miracles (4:35-5:43). “In effect, these miracles, by virtue of the misunderstanding and scandal they engender, are the proximate cause of [Jesus’s] rejection, at least in the Markan version.” White writes. “They epitomize key elements of the Markan theme of secrecy and misunderstanding” (p. 300). But in Matthew’s redaction of his predecessor the story changes. Instead of being the culmination of miraculous activity, the rejection at Nazareth (Matthew 13:54-58) is the climax of a flurry of teaching, an expansion of the Markan parable section. The miracles, says White, “have nothing to do with the rejection at Nazareth” (p. 300).

The most radical “repositioning” of the Markan scene comes from Luke’s account. Instead of appearing after a flurry of miracles (as in Mark) or a flurry of teachings (as in Matthew), the Lukan version (Luke 4:16-30) comes immediately after Jesus’ return to the region of Galilee following the temptation in the Judean wilderness (4:1-15). White notes that in the Markan account, the rejection scene came at the end of the Galilee section, serving as a kind of transition between it and the “beyond Galilee section” (p. 322). Had Luke been following Markan chronology here, he would have placed it somewhere near the end of ch. 8 and the beginning of ch. 9. But Luke decides to move it so that it fronts the Galilee section, setting the tone for what follows. Another way he does this is by expanding Mark’s version of the rejection scene such that it becomes “consciously constructed around the text of Isaiah” (p. 327). As White goes on to document, Luke’s rearrangement and expansion of the rejection scene functions as a signal to the reader that, “from the very beginning, Jesus intended to welcome Gentiles” (p. 328).

All of this serves as a reminder that we are not dealing with eyewitness accounts. Either the rejection happened shortly after Jesus returned from Galilee as in Luke or much later after Jesus was well into his public ministry as in Mark and Matthew. And while this shouldn’t cause us to conclude that there is no historic verisimilitude to this narrative, it should cause us to question what the scene purchases for each of the Synoptic Evangelists. After all, none of them were obliged to including it and it is fairly obvious that they must have excluded a treasure trove of stories now forever lost to history. The inclusion of the scene, therefore, and its placement in their respective narratives, is intentional. It had storytelling-power. And that is White’s main point. “Each [Gospel] had its own spin and message and its own image of Jesus” (p. 421).

CONCLUSION

White’s volume, now over a decade old, is in my view a classic demonstration of both Markan priority and the general literary sophistication of the Evangelists. While some in my camp may dismiss the biblical texts as primitive or simplistic, I feel that they are exactly the opposite. They are colorful and vivid, communicating to us visions of Jesus that in many ways have become lost to us thanks to harmonization. But when we allow each Evangelist to tell the Jesus story in his own way, we are left with something beautiful – the unique perspective of an author who lived well before our time. History is about people and as historical documents the canonical Gospels tell us something about people. But only if we are willing to listen.


[1] John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 418.

[2] Helen K. Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020), 224.

[3] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, translated by Carl E. Braaten (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 80n11.

[4] Bond (The First Biography of Jesus, 258), opines that “it is no great surprise to find Mark’s work inspiring those of Matthew, Luke, and John.” Consequently, when we read these later bioi, we are reading in some sense Mark’s. “Whether we like it or not,” she concludes her volume, “the story of Jesus is Mark’s story of Jesus.”

Frank Turek and Tryggve Mettinger: Caught in a Quotemine

I was recently tagged in a thread on Twitter asking whether something quoted by Frank Turek was true. Since Turek has me blocked on Twitter, I had to resort to other means (i.e., log into an older account I never use) to see what he had written. Here’s the screenshot.

For those who don’t know, Tryggve Mettinger is a now retired Swedish scholar whose work focused on the Hebrew Bible. In 2001, he published a monograph entitled The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (Almqvist & Wiksell International). In it, he notes that among scholars there “is now what amounts to a scholarly consensus against the appropriateness of the concept” of dying and rising gods.[1] For example, he mentions Mark’s Smith “The Death of ‘Dying and Rising Gods’ in the Biblical World” that appeared in a 1998 edition of the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament.[2]

From where does the quote attributed to Mettinger come? Well, that took some digging. First, I searched The Riddle of Resurrection but came up empty. Then I went to the Internets. I took the entire quote (minus the attribution) and plugged it into Google. One of the first hits was to the website Reasons for Hope and an article they published entitled “Enough is Enough with Horus Already!” In it Carl Kerby refers to Mettinger as a “secular historian” and provide the same quote that Turek does, attributing it to Mettinger. They then write, “Dr. T.N.D. Mettinger did one of the most exhaustive studies on this issue [i.e., The Riddle of Resurrection] and if he couldn’t find evidence for it, it’s not there!” Unfortunately, Kerby, didn’t provide a reference for the quote and so it was back to the drawing board.

I went back to Google and looked at the search results again. I clicked on a link to Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus and noticed it was mentioned there. So, I got out my copy of the book and found exactly what I was looking for.[3] In context, Strobel is talking with Mike Licona on the relationship of the Jesus story with seemingly parallel narratives found in pagan literature.

“Why,” I asked Licona, “should the story of Jesus’ resurrection have any more credibility than pagan stories of dying and rising gods – such as Osiris, Adonis, Attis, and Marduk – that are so obviously mythological (p. 160)

Licona responds first by asserting that regardless of the import of these so-called dying and rising deities, “these claims don’t in any way negate the good historical evidence we have for Jesus’ resurrection” (p. 160). Then Licona says this to Strobel:

“Second, T.N.D. Mettinger – a senior Swedish scholar, professor at Lund University, and member of the Royal Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities of Stockholm – wrote one of the most recent academic treatments of dying and rising gods in antiquity. He admits in his book The Riddle of Resurrection that the consensus among modern scholars – nearly universal – is that there were no dying and rising gods that preceded antiquity. They all post-dated the first century” (p. 160).

Here is Turek’s quote. But note that the quote comes not from Mettinger but from Licona who is summarizing Mettinger. Turek is caught in a quotemine! But there’s more.

In his conversation with Strobel, Licona takes note of the fact that Mettinger was bucking the consensus. “He takes a decidedly minority position and claims that there are at least three and possible as many as five dying and rising gods that predate Christianity” (p. 161). In fact, Mettinger concludes The Riddle of Resurrection by writing, “The world of ancient Near Eastern religions actually knew a number of deities that may be properly described as dying and rising gods.”[4] But Mettinger is careful on this point, repudiating the work of some who would have turned “dying and rising gods” into its own category of deities or would make the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s death and resurrection into a parallel of them.[5]

An inattentiveness to detail and the desire for a clever quip, anecdote, or quote plagues pop-apologetics. Turek’s misattribution to and, arguably, misrepresentation of Mettinger fits neatly into that trend.


[1] Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001), 7.

[2] Mark S. Smith, “The Death of ‘Dying and Rising Gods’ in the Bible World: An Update with Special Reference to Baal in the Baal Cycle,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 12 no. 2 (1998), 257-313.

[3] Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 161-162.

[4] Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection, 217.

[5] Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection, 218-219, 220-221.

Doston Jones on Studying the Bible as Literature

Back in July, Doston Jones asked whether the New Testament authors were influenced by Greco-Roman literature. This may seem absurd: how could they not have been influenced? But there are certain Christians of the fundamentalist variety who think that the New Testament is utterly unique due to its divinely inspired origins. But the topic Jones discusses in this post is far more important than the never-ending battle with fundamentalism. It strikes at the very heart of New Testament studies itself. The only way to fully appreciate the New Testament texts is to start with their own literary context. Jones aptly writes,

The books comprising the Bible were not written in a cultural or literary vacuum. The authors of the New Testament were highly educated in compositional Greek prose (albeit in a society in which less than 5% of the population possessed such literacy). Having high-level Greek literacy and compositional skills meant that the NT authors were likely of a privileged socio-economic status, and through their education they were certainly exposed to and familiar with popular volumes in Greco-Roman literature.

As an example of this influence, Jones turns to the Acts of the Apostles and compares the so-called conversion story of Paul with the Bacchae, a play by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. The key part is the similarity between Acts 26:14 and Bacchae 795. In Acts, Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads [πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζειν]” (NRSV). In the Bacchae, the deity Dionysus says to Pentheus, “I would pay him sacrifices rather than kick against the goads [πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζοιμι] in rage – a mere mortal taking on a god” (Bacchae 795).[1]

This verbal similarity isn’t the only parallel between the account in Acts and the account in Bacchae. But rather than steal Jones’ thunder, I’ll simply urge you, the reader, to click on the link above. I will add this: the influence of Greco-Roman literature is everywhere, down to the very genre of literature that the Evangelists chose to employ when talking about the life and death of Jesus – bioi. Helen Bond in her book The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel observes that among the closest analogies to Mark’s Gospel are texts like Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Lucian’s Demonax, among others.[2] Mark’s “decision to write a biography – a literary form that was immensely popular within the Greco-Roman world and yet strangely uncommon within Jewish circles – may…suggest an attempt to appeal to the sorts of people who were familiar with this type of literature,” she writes.[3]

Per the ending of Jones’s piece, he is planning to say more about the influence of various sources upon the New Testament authors. I’m looking forward to reading his thoughts on the subject.


[1] Translation taken from Euripides, Iphigenia among the Taurians; Bacchae; Iphigenia at Aulis; Rhesus, translated by James Morwood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[2] Helen K. Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020), 6. See my review of Bond’s work here.

[3] Bond, The First Biography of Jesus, 90.

Recent Episode of the ‘Religious Learning’ Podcast: Jonathan Burke on the Existence of Demons in the New Testament

Kameron Mazurek recently hosted Jonathan Burke for a recent episode of the Religious Learning podcast. In it, Burke discussed a debate he had back in February with Sir Anthony Buzzard on the existence of Satan and demons as personal beings. (I’ve not watched the debate and so cannot comment on it.) Burke has been on Mazurek’s podcast before (as have I) and I so enjoyed his previous discussion of Jesus mythicism that I knew this more recent conversation would be interesting as well.  So, what does Burke think of Satan and demons? Well, he doesn’t think they exist.

It is with some measure of irony that both Burke and I are in total agreement on the existence of demons. For starters, he is a Christian who accepts the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and many other classically Christian views.[1] I, on the other hand, am an atheist and reject the supernatural claims of Christianity. But what is perhaps more ironic is that while Burke seems to think the Gospel writers and Paul rejected the existence of demons, explaining references to them away as accommodation to an audience prone to believe in them yet all the while undermining belief in their existence, I think Burke’s reading is the exact opposite of what is going on in these texts. I firmly believe that the Gospel writers, the apostle Paul, and the historical Jesus would have believed in the existence of Satan and demons as personal beings. Let me briefly explain why.

Both Paul and (in many ways) the Evangelists were products of the Second Temple period. Thus, interpreting these authors requires some appreciation for their historical and, relatedly, literary contexts. “Apocalyptic prophecies lie at the heart of Christian origins,” writes Emma Wasserman in her 2018 volume Apocalypse as Holy War: Divine Politics and Polemics in the Letters of Paul.[2] Apocalypticism generally entails dualism and that on various levels. For example, in the opening salutation of his letter to the Galatians, Paul reminds his readers that their Lord Jesus Christ was he “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4, NRSV). And in his first (extant) missive to the Corinthians, the apostle warns them that “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” because the failures of Israel recorded in the scriptures “happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11-12). Implicit in Paul’s thought is that there is a present age, characterized as “evil” (Galatians) and coming to an end (1 Corinthians), and a future age that inaugurates an era of peace under the reign of the god of Israel (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20-28). This temporal dualism is characteristic of apocalyptic literature generally[3] and Paul’s thought seems to be baptized in it. As Paula Fredriksen notes, “Apocalyptic hope, the vibrant matrix of Jesus’s mission to Israel, is also the interpretive context for understanding the gentile mission of Paul.”[4]

That Jesus of Nazareth held to an apocalyptic worldview is implied both by the apostle Paul’s own commitment to it as well as by the first words Jesus speaks in our earliest Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15, NRSV). It is easy to take for granted the full import of these words, particularly if one remains blissfully unaware of the surrounding context. Space does not permit a full discussion, but it suffices to say that the introduction of the Markan Gospel is thoroughly apocalyptic.[5] It is no coincidence that his first public miracle is an exorcism (Mark 1:21-28). Martinus de Boer notes that there were two “tracks” of apocalyptic eschatology: cosmic and forensic.[6] While at times these tracks overlap, it is in the former that we find the origins of the demonic spirits that plague Mark’s conceptual world.

This isn’t to say that Mark is describing the exact historical circumstances of an exact historical Jesus. Though it fits within the bios category, Mark’s Gospel is nevertheless (or, perhaps, consequently) a literary creation of Mark’s making. In fact, one of the more surprising elements is the running gag that the only ones who truly know Jesus’ identity is a disembodied voice from the sky (Mark 1:11), a blind man (Mark 10:46-48), a gentile overseeing his execution (Mark 15:39), and demons (Mark 1:26, 34; 3:11-12; 5:1-13). Does this reflect historical reality? I doubt it. But I agree with E.P. Sanders when he writes that the “sheer volume of evidence makes it extremely like that Jesus actually had a reputation as an exorcist.”[7]

Back to Paul. It stands to reason that if our earliest Gospels (i.e., the Synoptics) all of which post-date Paul, managed to get something right about Jesus in terms of his work as an exorcist, then surely Paul would remain in this general vein. We know that the author of the Acts of the Apostles, writing in the second century, thought of Paul as a miracle worker generally and an exorcist particularly. In one comical scene, a group of Jewish exorcists attempt to expel an unclean spirit in the name of Jesus but succeed only in rousing the creature’s sarcastic ire: “But the evil spirit said to them in reply, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” (Acts 19:15, NRSV). The episode continues in horror movie fashion when the possessed man attacks the would-be exorcists, driving them away (v. 16). Though Paul himself nowhere describes performing an exorcism, he does talk about Satan. In his earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, Paul places the blame for his not being able to return to see the fledgling Christ-following community squarely on Satan (1 Thessalonians 2:18). And in 2 Corinthians, Paul attributes to Satan noemata (2:11; “designs” or “schemes”), a sure sign of intellectual agency. These and other references to Satan found in Paul sound, at least to this amateur exegete, like references to a personal being.

There is much more that could be said but I’ve “waxed elephant” long enough. Regardless of my disagreement with Burke, I found this discussion with Mazurek very informative. Not only does Burke exhibit an impressive knowledge of biblical texts, but he is very organized in his thinking. I’ll fully confess to being envious! I hope that readers of this post will give Mazurek’s most recent episode of the Religious Learning podcast a whirl.


[1] Burke (and Mazurek) it should be noted is a Christadelphian. As such, he rejects the divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity.

[2] Emma Wasserman, Apocalypse as Holy War: Divine Politics and Polemics in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 1.

[3] On defining apocalyptic genre, see John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publish Co., 1998), 3-11.

[4] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 9.

[5] For an overview, see Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 71-73.

[6] See the discussion in Martinus C. de Boer, Paul, Theologian of God’s Apocalypse: Essays on Paul and Apocalyptic (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020), 22-24.

[7] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 149.