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I feel the need to rant a bit. Hopefully, something more substantive will arise from this, but for now I'm just upset and discouraged. The parallelomania by many Jesus mythicists has begun again.

It seems to come in waves. I suspect it has something to do with school and college (perhaps biblical studies has not yet reached its own Eternal September), but I have no way of proving it. Someone will write a blog post or an article at some magazine and the blogosphere ignites with it again.

The problem to me is not the Jesus Myth hypothesis. That is a valid exploration of the historical data (or to be more accurate, the near lack of historical data). I have my own argument with supporters of the Mythic position (usually about their binary approach to historical data, an approach that may have merit in the hard sciences but not as much in the soft sciences like history). My argument is with the parallelists.

These are the parasites that hang onto the discussions of the Jesus Myth hypothesis. “If there was no historical Jesus,” the historicist asks, “then every aspect of his life, not just the miraculous and supernatural, is an invention. Where did the non-supernatural parts of the story arise?” A fair question and one that can be answered by looking at yet-older Jewish apocalyptic ideas and Jewish numerology.

Enter the Parallelist: a certain brand of Mythicist that is even more excited about the non-historicity of an ancient, Jewish apocalyptic prophet than the regular Mythicist or Historicist. They know where every aspect of Jesus's life came from. They came from everywhere else, obviously.

The Parallelist is quick to produce long lists of parallels. And they certainly seem compelling! Mithra, a divine being of Zoroastrianism, was born on December 25! Horus, the son of the Egyptian god Osiris, was baptized! Both Horus and Mithra had twelve disciples! Mithra was known as the “Good Shepherd” and the “redeemer”! Horus was crucified and rose from the dead! Even the Greek god Dionysus died and rose again, and he turned water into wine!

Wow! What a list, eh? It sounds so much like Jesus it'd take a complete idiot to not see a connection, right?

Here's my mean, rude, and completely hurtful statement: it takes a complete idiot to not at least attempt some research of these statements and just takes them for granted. Seriously, we're dealing with history here, and what is the provenance of these claims? The answer: for most of what I just listed there is none.

And every time I bring this up it seems I tend to tick off at least one of the Parallelists. I've been accused of being a biased Christian. After explaining that I am not a believer in the supernatural propagandas presented by the ancient Christian texts I've been accused of being a biased historcist. Because obviously if I stand with a particular hypothesis then my reasoning for supporting that hypothesis must be because of confirmation bias, whereas the reason they support their hypothesis has to do with “evidence” and totally not confirmation bias.

Here's the crux of how it stands. You can take the position that there was no historical existence of a First Century Jewish apocalyptic prophet named Jesus who was executed by the state for insurrection. That is fine. You can reject the historicity of the gospels as biased sources written decades after the fact; they are. The crux of the Jesus Myth Hypothesis is the lack of evidence. The Parallelist is occupying no more than a sideshow of the tent trying to grab the limelight from the main ring by being loud and showy. And by not being above some exaggeration and occasionally some outright creative construction of facts.

Those of us who grew up in the LDS Church are familiar with the works of Dr. Hugh Nibley. No matter what you think of him, he was an intelligent man and he has left a lasting mark on LDS scholarship. And when it came to defending the historical claims of Mormonism, Nibley enjoyed the use of parallel most of all. Those of us who have left have had to deal with his parallels between scholarship about the Ancient World and “How Could Joseph Smith Have Know This?” His parallels are, at first glance, impressive. But once you start looking into their source you see how they begin to break down.

The same is true of a disappointing majority of the Jesus Myth parallels. Sorry, Horus wasn't baptized. Sorry, Mithra wasn't born on Christmas (unless you're going to argue that the Roman cult of the Unconquerable Sun established by Marcus Aurelius was in actuality centered around Mithra: that's a doubtful claim you'll need to back up, too). Horus didn't have twelve disciples. Mithra wasn't known as the “Good Shepherd”. If you've been passing these lists around you need to know that you have been duped (by people who have in turn been duped) and you haven't done the due diligence to back it up.

And if you are feeling angry and upset at my claim here, there is an easy way to resolve it that doesn't involve yelling at me: prove me wrong. My claims are falsifiable. I am claiming that the majority of those lists you see all over the Internet about figures like Mithra, Horus, and Dionysus are not accurate claims that can be backed up by direct textual evidence. All you need to do is to provide the quote from the ancient scroll(s) or inscription(s) that is the source for the parallel. Go ahead and dig into the sources from the books and YouTube presentations that lie behind the Parallelist claims. I'm pretty confident that you will emerge perhaps still a Mythicist but no longer a Parallelist. The sources are not there, and many of them were fabricated long ago (which is why I don't bear anyone now living much ill will over this; the faulty data was created generations ago).

Here's what you will find. You will find that there are certainly some parallels from various cultures. You will find, for instance, in one particular book evidence of Horus being conceived without sexual intercourse (in the more poetic “Book of the Dead”). But once you find the original sources you'll see that you are dealing with a stretched interpretation within the context of the source itself (Isis, Horus's mother, is certainly not a virgin even if you argue that Horus is conceived without sexual union with Osiris). You'll find that there are far more texts from the same culture spread across centuries of time that don't support the few true parallels you discover. And the very definition of confirmation bias is to support only the evidence in support of your theory while ignoring the evidence against it. Because even in the end, it's not enough to show that the parallel could have existed. You'll need to show the relative probability of this cultural viewpoint spreading to a small Jewish movement of the First Century. How likely was it that the nascent Jesus movement would have even been aware of the parallel in the first place to pull it from the foreign culture into the Jewish movement?

I respect the Jesus Myth position even as I have rejected it. Proponents of the Mythicist position have forced scholars to examine more closely the so-called genuine letters of Paul and their authorship as well as the nature of ancient Roman historical documentation entirely. Science, whether hard like physics or soft like history, is invigorated by scholarly critique and I believe that the position of the Historicist is benefited by the skepticism of the Mythicist.

However, the Jesus Myth Parallelomania is not the same as the Jesus Myth Hypothesis and it deserves to stand up to scholastic scrutiny and to live or die by the source materials. About the only thing I can think of that has resulted from this regurgitation of old lists is a renewed emphasis into the role of cultural astronomy in the ancient world view. So many of the parallels dovetail with ancient myths involving Venus, the solstice, and other aspects of the sky and the seasons. The ancient world was one where the stars were easily visible at night, and I do not doubt that there is merit in analyzing anew the relationship between the natural world and the creation of religious myth in the ancient world. But that does not mean that this relationship necessarily gave rise to aspects of the story of the supernatural Jesus's life: aspects that can be just as easily explained by an appeal to Jewish mysticism and numerology as they are to far-flung ideas of Sumerian myth and the Vedas. Just as they can also be partially explained by the short life of a poor, itinerant Jewish prophet from Galilee.

Oh and before I get the angry comment about my hypocrisy let me lay out my hypocrisy in the clear here: I'm not going to be putting footnotes on this blog post. I'm not going to be backing up my claims here with citations. As I said at the beginning, this is a rant written in the frustration of emotion. Go ahead and call my claims into question as I've called yours into question. And then why don't you begin to research your own position a bit further than you already have. Don't just depend upon some rock star scholar that you trust who taught these parallels to you. If they deserve the rock star status you give to them they'll have done the scholastically responsible thing of providing at least a bibliography where you can begin you search. Prove me wrong. I'm pretty confident, at least based on the work I've done myself actually trying to do so while I was myself a proponent of the Mythicist position, that you'll emerge with a better point of view on the uselessness of parallelomania.

#AcademicBiblical #JesusMyth #NewTestament #HistoricalJesus

Luke 2:14 – Goodwill(ed) Men

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

This isn't so much a mistranslation as it is an example of the complicated nature of the history of the New Testament. This phrase is spoken by the hosts of heaven appearing to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem during Luke's version of the birth narrative. The issue is over the word “good will”: εὐδοκία *eudokía. *First, eudokía might be better translated as “good favor”, it's not a quality that someone can have or gain on their own, but one that they obtain from others. So in this case, the favor is coming from God.

The second, and larger issue, is one of grammar. In English, grammar is usually expressed through word order: subject, verb, direct object. In Greek, grammar is usually expressed through changes to the word's pronunciation and spelling. The problem is that the word eudokía appears as εὐδοκίας eudokías in a good deal of the oldest manuscripts – note the little sigma at the end. That little sigma changes it from the nominative case (or roughly the subject of the verb) to the genitive case (or roughly the ownership case represented in English by the word “of”, the book *of John). *That little sigma at the end changes the phrase to read:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace toward humans of good-favor.

Now there's evidence for both readings in some of our oldest manuscripts, but it's easier for scholars to assume that the work was originally written with a sigma that occasionally got forgotten than to imagine that someone decided that they'd purposefully place a sigma at the end of the world. Thus, the majority of scholars (but by no means all of them) feel that the actual reading of this famous verse should read something akin to:

Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth toward humans of his good favor.

Philippians 2:6 – Robbery

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.

This verse needs a bit of context. Paul is talking about how Christians should follow the example of Christ. Then this verse follows. Take a quick look at Philippians 2 to see the entirely of what seems to be Paul quoting an early Christian hymn or poem.

The problem with this verse is the word “robbery”. In English this verse makes it sound like Jesus felt that it would not be something wrong or undeserved to be equal with God. Some Mormons (though not many, admittedly) feel that this verse is talking about the doctrine of eternal progression whereby even Christ had to progress to become like God.

In actuality, the word underlying “robbery”, ἁρπαγμός harpagmós, has an interesting history in Greek. Over its history it morphed from being used as the act of theft to being about the object of theft itself. In this way it's remarkably similar to the English word “plunder”, which can refer to either the act of plundering or to that which is plundered. (Note: there's no actual relationship between plunder and harpagmós, they just end up working similarly and means similar things).

This is why this verse would be better translated as:

Who, being in the form of God, thought equality with God as something not to be taken.

This changes the meaning substantially; now the entire hymn is about how Jesus, though he is in the form of God, rejects equality with God and instead humbled himself. The rest of the verses talk about this humility, encouraging the Philippians to also be humble in their circumstances before God.

1 Thessalonians 5:22 – All Appearance

Abstain from all appearance of evil.

This one is actually pretty simple. Whereas many Mormon parents use it to say that actions that they think look evil should be avoided, even if they aren't actually evil. But the word εἶδος eídos (“shape, form, appearance”) is referring to evil in the sense that anytime evil appears then it should be avoided. Quite simply, Paul is telling his followers that they should leave all kinds of evil alone. He's not saying that the Thessalonians should care about whether or not their actions seem evil to others.

1 Timothy 4:8 – Bodily Exercise

For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.

Again, this one doesn't come up often, but I have heard some people use it to justify Mormons' general sweet teeth (sweet tooths?): “bodily exercise profiteth little”. It sounds like Pseudo-Paul (because remember, Paul didn't write either letters to Timothy) is dumping on the concept of exercise. However, the English phrase should be read literally: he's comparing exercise to being godly. Physical exercise is good for a few things, but godliness is good for all things because of what Pseudo-Paul thinks godliness can accomplish as opposed to what physical exercise can accomplish.

1 Timothy 4:12 – In Conversation

Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

This scripture is sometimes given to LDS youth, and in general I don't think it's a bad choice, but the word “conversation” here doesn't mean their manner of speaking. That's covered by Pseudo-Paul's encouragement to be an example “in word”. Instead, conversation means their actions.

2 Timothy 3:7 – Ever Learning

Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Mormons often apply this scripture against intellectual critics of the Church, including former members who lost their faith because they were too focused on studying the history of the organization and are now blinded from faith due to their learning. And why not, right? This chapter begins with a description of the many types of horrible people that will be around during the “last days”, so obviously this verse is talking about those people.

It's not. Let's give a little more context for it from the preceding verse, which follows a long list of horrible way people will behave in the last days.

6 For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, 7 Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

The people who are ever learning are the people Pseudo-Paul describes as “silly women laden with sins, led away with diverse lusts”. (We should note that Pseudo-Paul really is a rather blatant misogynist; there are other places in the New Testament that aren't good towards women, but Pseudo-Paul is the author of the strongest anti-women passages.) The evil people described in the scripture mastery verses lead people into ever learning, but they themselves are not described as being in this position. Pseudo-Paul never indicates if these “silly women” are Jesus followers or not. I think that to only apply this phrase of “ever learning” to intelligent people outside of the LDS Church is just a way to salve worries that their intelligence might be an indication of real problems.

#Mormon #NewTestament #AcademicBiblical

There are four gospels. Everyone knows that: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, most people have never stepped back to ask, “Why?” Why are there four gospels? Why these four? What's going on here?

Maybe you've heard of other gospels: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter. Maybe you read or used a complicated harmonization and been struck by the need for such a harmonization between four books. Or maybe (hopefully!) you've been reading a blog like this one by a Greek geek talking about the formation of the New Testament and the early Jesus Movement. Either way, I want to take a walk through the four canonical gospels (and some other non-canonical ones) to hopefully resolve some questions you may have had while I've been discussing Scripture Mastery, the Christmas Story, and who knows what else.

Not Histories

Let's get one firm statement out of the way: the gospels are not histories. Perhaps I should say it again, just to emphasize it: the gospels are not histories.

What do I mean by that? In our modern day, we learn history in school, write historical papers, and assume a lot about the historical process. We assume that historians are trying their best to stay out of the process. We allow that all history requires a certain amount of interpretation (otherwise, history would only be a recitation of dates and events, but historians attempt to tell true stories), but we expect historians to tell the truth according to their sources.

The evangelists (a fancy word for gospel-authors) are not writing history: they are relating stories with a point and a purpose. That purpose is not to simply relate historical events but is to present the main character of their works, Jesus of Nazareth, as the Messiah. Facts are stretched, invented, and changed to suit each author's stories.

One example would be the day when Jesus died. Matthew, Mark, and Luke (known as the synoptics because they are so similar that they “See together”) relate that the Last Supper occurred in place of the Passover feast. For Jews celebrating Passover in Jerusalem, a lamb was killed at the Temple and was consumed that evening in a ritual feat commemoration God's liberation of Israel of Egypt. In the Gospel of John, however, the Last Supper occurs the evening before the Passover meal. As a result, because Jesus dies the day after the Last Supper, in John's Gospel Jesus is killed at the same time of day that priests at the Temple would be slaughtering Passover lambs. This matches up with the declaration of John the Baptist at the beginning of John's Gospel (read that again if the multiple “Johns” are confusing you) that Jesus was the “Lamb of God”. So three of the Gospels say that Jesus died the day after the lambs were killed, and one of the them says that Jesus died the same day that the lambs were killed. They can't both be right: at least one of these days must be wrong. And frankly, John's use of the lamb symbolism leads most scholars to think that John is, in this case, sacrificing historical accuracy in favor of teaching a point about the role of Jesus's death.

And if history can be sacrificed once to make the story better fit the author's purpose, how many other times does it occur? As the old adage goes, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. When we read the gospels critically, we need to assume that what we are reading may have been altered or even invented by the author in support of their purposes. The word usually have very negative connotations, but it would be much mor accurate to call the gospels “propaganda” instead of “histories”.


Today there are four canonical gospels. But obviously these works have not always existed. Long ago, somebody wrote each one. Let's first look at the traditional story, and then move on to how modern scholars approach them.

Traditionally, the four gospels were authored by:

  • Matthew, also known as Levi, one of Jesus's 12 Apostles, wrote the first gospel to be written, and it was based on his own eyewitness experience. Originally written in Hebrew for Jewish converts, it was later translated into Greek, unlike the other gospels which were all Greek compositions. Written around 50 CE.

  • Mark, also known as John Mark, he is a later convert to the Jesus movement. He was a missionary companion to Paul until they had a bad fight. Later tradition said that Mark took care of Peter the Apostle in the years before Peter died. Traditionally, Mark used Matthew's Gospel, edited it according to the stories that Peter told him. It's purpose was to explain Jesus to Gentile converts. Written around 60 CE.

  • Luke, a Greek convert to the Jesus movement. Luke was a physician, and was a friend of Paul's. Luke approached the task of putting together an orderly history of Jesus, using Matthew and Mark as his sources, supplemented by what Paul, acting as an Apostle, had told him. He also wrote the only sequel to any of the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, about the troubles and growth of the Church after Jesus ascended into heaven. Written before 63 CE.

  • John, one of Jesus's 12 Apostles, wrote the last gospel. His gospel was meant to fill in the gaps left behind by other gospels and to be a much stronger testimony of Jesus's divinity. Written around 80-90 CE.

That's what tradition tells us. Note the lack of strong dates. But now let's look at what most modern scholars think, and we'll discuss why there's such a difference.

Modern Chronology

The chronology runs thus:

  • The Gospel of Mark, written by an anonymous author, roughly 60-65 CE. Originally written in Greek.

  • The Gospel of Matthew, written by an anonymous author, roughly 75 CE. Based heavily on Mark, but with extensive rewrites and expansions. Also made use of other sources. Originally written in Greek. Written for a group of Christians who kept the Jewish Torah.

  • The Gospel of Luke (and Acts of the Apostles), written by an anonymous author, roughly 80 CE. Used many different sources, including Mark and some of the same sources used by the author Matthew (or possibly used Matthew, but most scholars think the author of Luke was unaware of the existence of Matthew's Gospel). Originally written in Greek. Written for a group of Greek Christians.

  • The Gospel of John, written by an author who possibly claims to be John the disciple (though this might actually be a source used by the anonymous author). Written in Greek anywhere from 90CE-110 CE. Scholars are divided on whether the author was aware of the other Gospels already written. Written for a group of Christians more concerned with a spiritual relationship with God than in a relationship of covenantal obedience.

So, right off the bat we have some major differences, the greatest being the anonymity of the authors. None of the gospels (apart from a possible claim at the end of John) claim an author. This doesn't preclude their actually being written by their traditional authors, of course, but some of the authorship claims don't line up very well with authorship by Jewish authors who would have been more familiar with Aramaic than Greek.

For the remainder of this piece, and in the future, when I say “Mark/Luke/etc”, unless I specify the “historical” Mark/Luke/etc please assume that I mean the unknown author of the book called Mark/Luke/etc. It's just easier to use the traditional names of the books without always saying “the author of” all the time.

Also, note which gospel is assumed to be the oldest: Mark. There's a number of reasons for this, but the largest reason is that Mark is obviously a source used by Matthew. Matthew has a number of stories unique between itself and Mark, but where they overlap that overlap is very strong. Matthew follow's Mark's ordering of his stories closely, and even used many of the same wording when telling those stories. However, Matthew often has “softer” readings than Matthew. For instance, whereas in Mark Jesus might ask his disciples “Why do you have no faith?” the same story in Matthew will often say something similar to “Why are you of so little faith?” SImilar, but softer.

Basically, scholars feel it's much easier to accept that Matthew rewrote Mark and, in so doing, attempted to improve the perspective of Jesus's disciples. Going the other way hits some difficult questions, such as why would Mark drop many of the unique stories found in Matthew, and why would he rewrite the stories of Matthew to be harsher against the disciples? It works much better going the other way.

Similarly, Luke makes extensive use of Mark as a source, mixing Mark's gospel among Luke's other sources.

Together, this viewpoint explains why these three gospels all tell very similar stories (again, why these three are called the “synoptics”, meaning that they “see together”). The traditional viewpoint says that the stories are similar because they are three accounts independently verifying the history. But the modern viewpoint says that they are similar because the later authors used the earlier authors in composing their works.

John stands as the odd gospel out. His gospel only tells a few of the same stories, but instead of focusing on stories, John focuses on sermons. The Jesus as presented in John's Gospels is very long-winded and complicated in how he delivers his message. John's Gospel has no parables and no birth stories.


So what? Who cares if these books weren't composed the way we think?

Here's the problem: the traditional viewpoint assumes a harmony exists among the four gospels, because each are based in different ways upon the same events. But if Matthew is basically a rewrite and an expansion of Mark, what does Matthew think about the usefulness of reading Mark? And the same question goes for Luke: if Luke basically incorporates much of Mark into his own gospel as just another source, is Mark actually meant to be read alongside Luke? And what about the relationship between Matthew and Luke? Are they meant to be read together? It doesn't actually appear so. It appears that these three gospels exist somewhat in opposition to each other. They each have a relationship to each other through their various sources, but that relationship is indifferent at bets, and hostile at worst.


Sure. The following is just a short list of where these gospels don't play well together:

  • In Mark, while Jesus is presented as an inspired figure and as the messiah, and is even called the “son of God”, he is not presented as divine. Many figures in the Hebrew scriptures have been called the son of god, including some of Israel's ancient kings and rulers. Mark's Jesus, while send by God, is not himself God. Much of Jesus's message is about the kingdom of God, presented by Mark's Jesus as an actual place rapidly approaching this world.

  • In Matthew, the Jewish Torah is presented as supreme in importance to Jesus's ministry. Only in Matthew does Jesus say that “not one stroke or dot of the law will be done away with” and that he has come to “fulfill” the Torah. In Matthew, Jesus is concerned about association with Gentiles and avoids ministering to and among non-Jews. Only Matthew depicts Jesus as founding a “church”, and only Matthew deals with rules of how this “church” should be run. In Matthew, one's righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees to find salvation in the coming Kingdom of God.

  • In Luke, Jesus is not very concerned with the Jewish Torah, instead focusing mostly on a message of helping the poor. Jesus's message is about compassion and assistance. More of a focus on parables and on miraculous events than Mark or Matthew.

  • In John, Jesus is presented as God himself. No parables, just long sermons. Some signs, but few miracles. The actual history depicted by John matches up very poorly with the Synoptic Gospels. The Kingdom of God is said by Jesus to be “among” his followers, and is represented more as a relationship with Jesus and God than as a physical place coming soon to the world.

  • In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus spends most of his time in Northern Judea, only going to Jerusalem at the end of his ministry, which seems to have lasted only around a year. John mentions numerous trips to Jerusalem and multiple Passovers, pulling Jesus's ministry in length anywhere from 2 to 3 years.

Reading Them Wrong, Reading Them Right

The four gospels were written by four very different authors for four very different audiences of Christians. When we try to read them in harmony, or when we try to supplement one account with details found in another account we are not reading them the way the original authors would have them be read.

However, when we read them independently of each other and on their own terms, we are engaging with the texts as the authors intended. The author of John was not thinking, “Well, everyone has been reading these three other gospels, so I'll just fill in the blanks.” He seems to have been thinking, “There are other accounts of the life of Jesus out in the world now, but this one is the correct account.” You may agree, you may not, but the author doesn't care. His account is the only one that matters.

Sometimes this assumption of cooperation among the writers is used to explain the discrepancies, which what are called “conspicuous silences”. When we assume that one author not saying something another author says, that event takes on increased significance. However, when a position of ignorance, or of supremacy, is assumed of an author we can see that these conspicuous silences arise out of differing purposes, different sources, or even disdain for a previous source.

In the end, how one reads the New Testament Gospels is a personal decision. Reading them traditionally as four different, but complimentary, accounts that depict historical events is possible, but in doing so we blunt the impact of each gospel's peculiarities and uniqueness to their detriment.

Any questions or comments? There's tons more that can be said about this topic, and I'm not sure I've covered it completely. Have something to say in support of traditional authorship? Please let me know.

#NewTestament #AcademicBiblical