One God, No Pepper, Hold the Mayo…

The major development in polling about religion since mid-decade when Baylor 2006 appeared was the 2010 Pew Forum Poll on Religious Knowledge and the same organization’s survey of religious change in America.

Pew 2010 (The Religious Landscape Survey) had a few surprises: (1) that 1/4 of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised; (2) that the number of people who claim to be unaffiliated with any particular faith now stands at 16%, 1.6% of whom are atheists; 2.4 agnostic; and 12.1 uninterested in the question but “Nothing in particular”; (4) that for the first time in history America is on the verge of becoming a Protestant-minority country, with barely 51% of Americans being members of protestant denominations.

While Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses (about a 7% drop), immigration from predominantly Catholic countries has kept Catholicism  at about 24% of the religious population.

Other survey highlights: Men are more likely than women to declare no religious affiliation (24% against 13%); Muslims and Mormons have the largest families; and 50% of Hindus, 34% of Jews and 25% of Buddhists have received postgraduate education.  The religion with the lowest retention rate, at 37%, is the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

When it comes to religious literacy, Americans are “challenged” in a number of ways:

Fewer than half (47%) knew that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, only 27% knew that Islam is the dominant faith in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.  Less than 25% knew that it is permissible to use the Bible as literature in a classroom, and (the shocker) 45% of Catholics surveyed could not answer a question correctly about their Church’s belief about the Eucharist (i.e., the doctrine of the “real presence“).

In the rankings, atheists took away the trophy with 20.9 of 32 questions answered correctly, followed by Jews and Mormons.  Catholics and Mainline Protestants were tied with a whopping 50% (do I see a big red F?) of correct responses.

Balanced against the fact that America remains the largest and busiest religious restaurant in the world, you’d expect more people would want to know a little more about the menu.  As always, however, America is full of surprises!

Following is a review of Baylor 2006, which originally appeared in Free Inquiry magazine,

I am an enortinmous fan of religion polls. I used to imagine pollsters as sleuths in trench coats, pulling palm-sized ring notebooks from their pockets and asking distracted bystanders whether God gives meaning and purpose to their lives-or something else, like maybe a good Caesar salad. We all know that in the Land of the Free, God gives meaning and purpose to around 90 percent of American lives, or at least that is the percentage advanced by the Baylor Religion Survey (September 2006) as the number who say they believe in God.

Recent polls conducted (infrequently) in the United Kingdom suggest that only 23 percent of Britain’s brood believe in God, and only 7 percent believe that the Bible is the word of God. That makes the American religious scene endlessly fascinating and completely confusing. So put away your ideas about pollsters in trench coats (I know I have) and ask yourself, “Who is asking the questions?” and “What do the answers really tell us about God in America?”

Flash back to the unanointed first pollster of American religion, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose long essay, Democracy in America, is increasingly cited by religious conservatives as proof that religion, of a certain sort, has always been good for America. Tocqueville argued in his 1835 work that the first political institution of American democracy is religion. His thesis, to paraphrase liberally, went something like this: the premises of secular materialism do not sustain democracy but undermine it, while the premises of Judaism and Christianity lead to democracy, uplift it, carry it over its inherent weaknesses, and sustain it.

Impressive as this might sound, it is difficult to find another political thesis with so much wrong about it. To be blunt, de Tocqueville could not anticipate the rise of religious movements so wedded to ignorance and out of step with the fundamental principles of both aristocracy and enlightened (Jeffersonian) democracy that they would undercut government in a way that even the rawest and most unrefined democratic passions never could. Nonetheless, the French observer joins two ideas that have remained central to all political estimates of American religion: in the absence of high culture, which, according to him and other nineteenth-century European travelers, America lacked and would always lack, religion performs a “civilizing function.” It reduces passion. It imposes by doctrine or moral fiat what might be achieved by reason in more enlightened parts of the world.

Tocqueville,first critical observer of American religion

And how are we doing religiously almost two centuries after de Tocqueville put down his pen?

The Baylor Survey provides some interesting and perplexing answers. First, it comes from Baylor, the flagship of Southern Baptist theological conservatism, and was funded by the Templeton Foundation, whose stated purpose is “to encourage a fresh appreciation of the critical importance-for all peoples and cultures-of the moral and spiritual dimensions of life.” Embracing that pious assumption greedily, the research group consisted of seven team members, including Rodney Stark, a Baylor faculty member, whose studies of American religion in the 1960s provided a model for what the team claims “is the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted”–by which they mean 1,721 respondents, mixed-mode sampling (telephone and self-administered mail surveys), and plans for “additional waves . . . with rotating topical modules every other year.”

Indeed, the study is so “extensive” that cherry-picking topics is the only way to do it the injustice it deserves–so let me focus on the most specious parts of the effort, leaving aside those that are merely uninformative.

According to Baylor, 86.5 percent of evangelical Protestants have “no doubt that God exists” (compare: 74.8 percent of Catholics and 42.9 percent of Jews). The real interest here is the sizeable number (13.5 percent) of evangelicals who appear to entertain doubts about God’s existence–not normally a trait one associates with Bible believers and a discovery that poses serious questions about the doubt-index for related doctrines. For example, 94.4 percent of evangelicals believe that Jesus is the son of God, 11 percent higher than those who have no doubts about God’s existence (compare that with 84.9 percent of Catholics and a mysterious–or deaf–9.6 percent of Jews).

The prospect that Jesus was a fictional character, by the way, is appealing to 13.7 percent of those described as “unaffiliated” but to almost no one else.

Almost 50 percent (47.8) of evangelicals believe the Bible is literally true. Presumably, no one defined the term literally or the number might be different. Literally outside the evangelical tradition has been defined as “theologically,” “spiritually,” “verbally,” “historically,” and “indubitably,” and, without narrowing those choices, it is difficult to know how to gauge the relevance of this response. But there is one interesting aside: despite the emphasis on Bible study invoked in the afterglow of Vatican II, only 11.8 percent of Catholics see the Bible as “literally” true. Catholics, apparently, see only bingo and what the pope says as literally true. Some 82.3 percent of those classified as “unaffiliated” see it as a collection of ancient history and legend.

Confused by the surprisingly large number of evangelicals who do not seem to accept the doctrine of plenary literal inspiration (50 percent), or have no idea what the question meant, I turned to the issue of religious labels–which, in fact, should be placed before the beliefs-survey, as it defines the terms used in the assessment. But confusion is again at hand. First, we are told, in a footnote, that respondents were only required to answer “Yes” or “No” to each label, that categories were not mutually exclusive, and that therefore the reported percentages do not add up to 100 percent.

Fair enough, say I, we live in a world where many things are less than 100%.  But statistical confusion still reigns: 47.2 percent of respondents described themselves as “Bible-believing” when (a) only 17.6 percent described themselves as theologically conservative and (b) only 14.9 percent described themselves as evangelical. In the first place, Bible believing is a term with currency unique to religious conservatives (not many of those 11 percent of Catholic biblical literalists would choose it, for example) and the menu of choices beyond it-“born-again,” “moral majority,” “seeker,” “religious right,” “Fundamentalist,” “Charismatic,” “Pentecostal”–seems pulled from the same Baptist hat. If the point of the menu was to express the deep structure of Protestant religious conservatism, its effect is to sideline other forms of Christian and religious commitment that do not fit the assumptions of the surveyors: “Would you describe yourself as Born-again, Bible-believing, or a little of both?”

What Flavor God: Distant or Critical?

Baylor assures us that “religious affiliation does not exist in isolation from belief and behavior.” It is not clear whether this should be translated as cause and effect or as bacon and eggs. In a way, that is the least problematical aspect of this section of the survey. The more troublesome issue is the vivisection of God into four “types”: authoritarian (angers easily, punishes harshly); benevolent (angers slowly, forgives easily); critical (God kind of is and kind of isn’t interested in the world); or distant (like the deus otiosus of philosophy, God is either asleep at the wheel or on permanent sabbatical and basically happy with the way things turned out). This quadruplex deity (trinity plus one?) is expressed in various social and political behaviors: conservatives like an authoritarian God; Catholics and mainline Protestants tend toward the “distant” view. People along the eastern coast of the United States tend to believe in a critical God, and southerners in an authoritarian God. Among those who choose none of the above, atheists are said to account for 5.2 percent of the sample. (Of the 10.8 percent of respondents who claimed no religious affiliation, 40 percent are atheists).

Baylor’s September 2006 survey actually dampens the percentage of unaffiliated from a previous benchmark of 14 percent to just under 11 percent, offering this caveat: “Researchers have previously over-counted the religiously unaffiliated by 10 million Americans and may have overlooked as many Americans who are actually affiliated with Evangelical congregations and denominations.” One refrains from attributing this undercount, if real, to the slipshod way of identifying evangelicals, already discussed. But wait: why the correlation between “affiliation” and “Evangelical affiliation”? To put it more directly, why not ask the whole sample about the authority of the pope or the assumption of the Virgin? Answer: because Bible belief is considered “normative,” while these other beliefs are thought of as “particular.” Effect: Christianity is defined in terms of the beliefs of the Protestant majority, with the Bible at the center, a recipe for disaster in achieving a deep profile of religious belief in a complex religious (and irreligious) society.

The tacit assumption throughout is that American religion is primarily about deviations from the norm of white, conservative-evangelical Protestantism. The upshot of this, reinforced methodologically, is that unbelief can be treated as an aberration of the norm, rather like the under-analyzed 4 percent “Other” category that includes a dog’s breakfast consisting of Mormons, Hindus, Muslims, Greek Orthodox, and Unitarians.

The Parson Thwackum Factor

We were taught in high school that every good book review should include not a rehashing of the plot but an assessment of the work as a whole. Here is my assessment of Baylor 2006.

The study is deficient in uncountable ways but chiefly at a level that affects its claim to be “the most extensive survey of religion ever conducted.” Its evangelical bias is not just implied in the mechanics of the survey–the choice of topics to be surveyed and the framing of questions–but in the often-preposterous techniques surveyors employed to relate God to social and religious behaviors.

Is it surprising, for example, that 90 percent of those who believe in a fascist God want prayer in schools, while only 47 percent of those who believe in a “distant” god want the same thing? Indeed, anomalies in Table 10 alone (“The Four Gods and the Role of Government“) raise significant issues about whether the respondents understood which God on the ballot to vote for.  If the study is all but useless, it is still useful in one way: it calls attention to the recurrent inability of all such surveys to do justice to unbelieving and pluralist-religious minorities. There is something mildly cloying and a little revealing about the following setup on page 8 of the survey. To quote:

“Barely one in ten Americans is NOT [sic] affiliated with a congregation, denomination or other religious group. . . . Fewer than five percent of the US population claims a faith outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream. . . . [But] fully a third of Americans, roughly 100 million people, are Evangelical Protestants by affiliation.”

As Case Western professor Brent Plate mused after looking at Baylor 2006, “If I were a Jain and received this survey to complete, I might not be very interested in filling in the boxes and returning it.” How much less an atheist or secular humanist!

Baylor’s researchers share the view of Fielding’s Parson Thwackum, who responds to a question about his definition of religion as follows: “When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.” Just substitute “Baptist Church” at the close of the last sentence: You get the idea.

Thirty Theses: Plausible Propositions for the Existence of a Historical Jesus


Thirty Theses: Plausible Propositions for the Existence of a Historical Jesus*

1. The primary data for the beginning of Christianity are the documents of the New Testament.

2. Secondary data including apocryphal and Gnostic sources and testimonia are primarily valuable for the reconstruction of the growth of the Christian movement

3. The gospels are about the life of a man called Jesus of Nazareth

4. Their probable genesis before the end of the first century is strong support for the basic historicity of the events they portray.

5. Jewish polemical sources do not challenge the historicity of the life of Jesus, rather his messiahship and resurrection.

6. The silence of classical writers concerning Christianity is explained by the inconspicuous nature of Christianity in the first two centuries of its existence.

7. The existence of interpolations in the work of non-Christian writers such as Josephus expresses an interest in enhancing the historicity of characters portrayed in the gospels and cannot be used to “prove” the deceit of gospel writers of an earlier generation.

8. The silence of classical writers with respect to Jesus cannot be used as an argument against the historicity of the gospels.

9. The ridicule of later pagan critics of Christianity does not include the premise that Jesus did not exist. Conversely, all pagan critics assumed the historical existence of Jesus.

10. The fact that early Christians worshiped Jesus [ap. Pliny jr.] does not suggest they denied his historicity.

11. There is little of purely belletristic interest or value in the gospels.

12. Compared to known examples of Roman fiction and legend the gospels lack the artifice and design of purely literary work.

13. Compared to known examples of “philosophical biography” such as that of Philostratus, the gospels show marked resemblance of style and purpose to philosophical biography

14. Pagan critics of the gospels recognized the genre of the gospels as being comparable to philosophical biography, viz., Apollonius of Tyana.

15. The existence of a “spiritualized” gospel attributed to John does not diminish the value of the synoptics, especially as the fourth gospel is clear about its apologetic motive.

16. The existence of myth and miracle in the gospels does not diminish the historical framework of the gospel story.

17. The presence of healing stories and magic does not lessen the historicity of the subject of the gospels.

18. The gospels conform to beliefs, expectations and practices typical of the community from which they arose and beliefs known to exist within Hellenistic Judaism and the larger Roman world

19. The gospels are the kind of literature we would expect of a time and culture that valued myth, miracle and the improbable.

20. It would be more extraordinary for the gospels not to reflect the religious-supernaturalist worldview of its writers and auditors than to reflect the worldview they do.

21. The gospels’ position towards the miraculous, the divine, and the supernatural reflects views common in the ancient historians whose essential historical value we acknowledge (e.g., Herodotus on the Battle of Salamis). Conformability is a crucial argument in favour of the historicity of the gospels.

22. The stories of cult gods, ranging from Dionysus to Mithras to Asclepius, bear only a superficial resemblance to the story of Jesus

23. The selection of the canonical gospels was based on criteria that included the element of plausibility and historicity. This can be judged on the basis of patristic testimony and more directly from the nature of the excluded material.

24. Central to the historicity was the information that Jesus had been crucified in the time of Pontius Pilate. The narrative of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus represents the earliest stratum of historical interest and probably the oldest stratum of gospel development.

25. The redaction of the gospel traditions from older sources represent only the tendencies of individual writers and do not constitute a coherent argument against the essential historicity of the Jesus tradition.

26. The teaching of Jesus in the synoptic sources is not extraordinary. The tendency over time to make it extraordinary, as in the discourses of the fourth gospel, is evidence in favor of the historicity of the earlier tradition.

27. The teaching of Jesus without theological gloss is conformable to the teaching of preachers known to exist in the first and second century AD.

28. The character of Jesus of Nazareth is not extraordinary but typical of his time and context.

29. The ordinariness of Jesus is presented plausibly and directly in the synoptic traditions about him. The Christological context of this portrayal does not weaken the historical description.

30. As a statement of belief, the resurrection is not a statement of something that happened to the historical Jesus but a statement of what was believed to happen to him. The existence of the resurrection tradition, which can be traced by literary evolution from Mark to John, is not a proof of the non-historicity of the pre-resurrection tradition.


*Update on comments so far: If you respond to these theses, do a bit of work and find out what a thesis is and how propositions can be argued. A few have written with the misconception that these bald controversial statements are “amputated arguments” rather than debating points. No time for that kind of thing. Also, I suggest you read the statements carefully, since as far as I can tell none is eo ipso false: e.g., the existence of a written description of an event whose social effects are known is support for historicity, if not accuracy. It is not analogous to say that stories about Herakles (eg) also produce social effects since it is not asserted that Herakles (or Dionysus) founded movements. It is also inaccurate that “the pagan critics of Christianity assumed the historicity of Dionysus…et al.” (re thesis 9): they did not, and one at least, Julian, regards the Greek stories as literally implausible. No points for misinformation, therefore.

I provide the following for entertainment, serious but not mordant discussion, debate, and argumentation (above all, argumentation). Please keep your argument to the proposition, rather than, “Haven’t you read,| or “Surely you haven’t considered…” Discussion. Also, please post your comments to this page and not to “About.” As the above relate to work being done by The Jesus Project, I would welcome especially additional premises or propositions (or variants) not listed above.jc

The Jesus Tomb Debacle: RIP

The following is a repost from Butterflies and Wheels 2008JesusTomb1R_468x327

By R. Joseph Hoffmann

So much will have been written about the Discovery Channel presentation of the James Cameron extravaganza, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” that a further dissenting voice will neither be needed nor missed.  In my initial preview of the program, published within hours of the CNN “announcement” and public unveiling of the alleged Jesus and Mary Magdalene matrimonial ossuaries, I wrote that the entire project was based on bad assumptions, and that since “following the science,” as the logorrhoeic Simcha Jacobovici says he was doing, can only take one where assumptions lead, let me spell out why the assumptions underlying this project are not only flawed but positively malicious to good scholarship and science. It seems to me uncontroversial and indisputable that the entire exercise hangs on an assumption that modern scholarship knows and accepts the names of Jesus’ family recorded in the gospels and passed down in Christian tradition; that the gospels coincide with other ancient testimony, for example, that provided by Paul in his letters or Luke in his two-part history. There is an assumption which more and more asserts itself in semi-scholarly work that while we can rely on the gospels for the names of the family of Jesus, we cannot rely on them for information about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene; that in the latter case we have a cover-up abetted by early theological interests and a desire (by whom?) to suppress the “secret” life of jesus, this despite the fact that it is public celibate life, and not a married life, that would have been scandalous in first century Judaism. The same brand of scholarship is also characterized by a willingness to credit ancient sources that are contemptuous of history – the gnostic gospels especially – as the primary sources for information about the secret life of Jesus and his family. New Testament scholarship has struggled for two centuries to explain the complex literary relationshiop between the synoptic gospels, between the synoptics and John, and between the canonical four gospels and extra-biblical sources such as the gnostic gospels. A part of that struggle has been the recognition that each gospel has its own perspective and expresses a tradition unique to the community from which it emerged. If scholars cringe at the style, and the substance, of this most recent assault on good sense and critical method, it is because they will detect in the methods underlying the docu-drama a violent conflation of sources, not different in style from the sort of thing we normally associate with fundamentalist Christianity with its credulous approach to the Bible as an undifferentiated collection of religious truth.

As this controversy unfolds, there will perhaps be time to challenge and expose the sheer ignorance of these assumptiuons, but for the present, and because so much hinges on the names scrawled on the Talpiyot ossuaries, I propose only to deal with the “name game” being played by James Cameron, Simcha Jacobovici, and their historical “advisors.” History that is disrespectful of logic and facts, and the accumulated wisdom of two centuries of the historical critical method in biblical studies, deserves to be known by a new name. Assuming that at least some of what is being presented by the film-makers on the project corresponds to some of what has emerged from the Talpiyot tomb site, it is best to talk about the “faccidents” of the case – facts that do not fall into place without the benefit of a prior commitment to an established conclusion.

1. Faccident One: The Name Game

(a) The earliest Christian literature, that written by Paul, knows the names of none of Jesus’ family members. It is sometimes pointed out that Paul makes reference (Galatians 4.4) to Jesus having “been born of a woman, under the law,” but it is widely believed that these words are an insertion into the text of Galatians: Marcion, our earliest witness, does not know them, and as Hilgenfeld once noted, if his opponent, Tertullian, could have quoted them against Marcion, a docetist thinker, to prove the essential humanity of Jesus, he would have. We are left with the bare fact that Paul knows nothing of the human family of Jesus. He does know the names of some of Jesus’ followers, and in the same epistle uses the phrase “James the brother of Lord,” which makes it the more remarkable that he would not know of an extended family with a strong female influence operating in Jerusalem. As suggested below, Paul’s use of the term “brother” is not dispositive since he is not using it in reference to a biological relationship.

(b) Complications: The apostle named “James” in the earliest written gospel, Mark, is specifically catalogued as the son of Zebedee and brother of John (Mk 1.19) and thus not a member of the family of Jesus; a second James is named as a son of Alphaeus, along with Levi (Mk 2.1) and thus specified as being of a different family. This leaves James, the “brother” of the Lord mentioned in Mark 6.3, outside the community, and it is only by force of speculation (and conflation with Paul) that we can bring him into the fold. A skeptical eye might note, however, that Mark attributes the name “James” to three individuals in his narrative, a fact that suggests a compositor’s lack of historical information, an absence of historical memory, or both. There is good reason to think, considering the apparent overlap in names between the family of Jesus and the followers of Jesus given by Mark, that he was merely using garden variety names associated with the Jesus-tradition as he knew it. As noted below, textual force majeure will not solve this riddle.

(c) The author of the fourth gospel shows a thoroughly characteristic reserve. He, and his editors, provide no catalogue of followers of Jesus, although they give the names of most of the apostles, and once only, in the appendix, and then quite incidentally, speak of “the sons of Zebedee” (21. 2). There is nothing whatever to be said for the suggestion that the dialogue with Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross is a dialogue with Mary Magdalene, or that the agapetos or “beloved disciple” was a son of Jesus, a piece of speculation so wild in view of John’s theology that it scarcely deserves mention.

(d) Mark’s theological point of view centers on Jesus’ rejection of his family, in favor of a narrowing inner circle that includes a new kind of “brotherhood” with Peter, James and John (the sons of Zebedee), at its core. In Mark 6.3, James, Judas, Simon and Joseph (Joses) are listed as family members (cf. Matthew 13.54), while Luke omits any reference to this catalogue preferring to have the congregation cry, “Is not this Joseph’s son.” (Luke 4.22b). These differences might be explained redactionally, but this would not explain why Luke, or his editor, with his considerable admiration for the mother of Jesus, would omit her from the family list, as also seems to have been the case in an earlier version of Luke’s gospel used by Marcion. The tradition of names is so fluid that in Luke’s redaction of Mark’s resurrection account, he gives Mark’s list of “Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, Mary Magdalene, and Salome” as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the daughter of James” as companions at the end (Lk 24.10), and in John’s gospel, the list expands to three (!) Marys: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary, her sister, also named Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19.25-26). The proliferation of Marys can also be explained as parablesis – a scribe inserting names from names previously encountered in the text in order to flesh out detail – and a paucity of verifiable historical information.

(e) The confusion over the names provided in the gospels and letters of Paul relating to Jesus, his “family,” and his circle, is a persistent one in New Testament studies. “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” not only fails to acknowledge this controversy and the literary complexities of sorting through data that is at least as charged with theological interests as with a concern for factuality, it exploits it. As a matter of simple integrity, if the gospels are being used to provide the sole literary artifact evidence for the names we can associate with Jesus and his “family” – and this is the only possible standard of evidence – then in view of the above textual aporiai, it is significant that the only family grouping of factorial significance would be Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and Joseph only in two gospels, or three if we accept Mark’s listing of Joseph as a brother of Jesus.

The conflation of names – three (+) Jameses, three Marys – suggests redactional confusion between and among evangelists as well. This does not account for nominal confusion over “James the Just”, “James the Righteous”, “James of Jerusalem”, “James Protepiscopus” (first bishop of Jerusalem) and “James the Less,” all of whom turn up in diverse Christian testimonies.

2. Faccident Two. The Historicity of James. At odd junctures in the “Lost Tomb of Jesus,” we revert to a dramatized scene of the stoning of James, partly in keeping with the director’s intention to “drive home” the James-Jesus connection forcibly through images, partly as a way of redeeming the James ossuary which has fallen into disrepute since news of its “discovery” surfaced in January 2003.

(a) The death of James is not recorded in the New Testament. For that we rely on a late 1st century work by the historian Josephus in his Antiquities (20.9). It is known by scholars, however, that Christian references in Josephus’s work are pious additions. In the case of the Jamesian reference, the hand of the Christian editor is especially badly disguised by the addition of “who is called Christ” following the use of the name “Jesus” in discussing the trial of a certain James. It is an echo of the same device used in the Testimonium Flavianum (Antiquities 18.3), sometimes cited as a proof of the existence of Jesus but today normally regarded as a Christian forgery. If we purge the Christian interpolation, it is clear that the James mentioned by Josephus, who is delivered to stoning, is the brother of a significant Jewish leader and contender for the priesthood, Jesus bar Damneus, whose name appears in the same passage. In Antiquities 20.9.4, a Jesus bar Gamaliel succeeds Jesus the son of Damneus in the high priesthood. Josephus does not mention – at all – the James known from New Testament sources. The James sentenced to stoning is a completely different man. In his Jewish Wars, Josephus sees the death of Ananus – not James – as a precipitating event leading to the destruction of Jerusalem. The Christian interpolator has (bunglingly) inserted the relationship into a passage where he located the name of the wrong Jesus. It is therefore also impossible, outside Christian legend, to say anything of historical consequence about the later history of the James known to us from Paul’s letters.

(b) Complication: Paul’s language. The basis for the suggestion that James is the brother of Jesus depends on early references in Paul, especially Galatians 1.19. There is no doubt that James was regarded by Paul as a significant player in the Jerusalem community, together with Peter and John (Galatians 2.9, repeated in the legendary primacy-catalogue of Mark 9.2ff.). But his use of the word adelphos, as many scholars recognize, refers to James as a member of the brotherhood, as in Galatians 2.4; 3.15; 4.12, or as when he speaks of “false brothers” in Gal 2.4,5. James, according to Luke, uses the same language in calling Paul “brother,” (Acts 21.20) and the community the “brotherhood” (20.17).

The early Christians were renowned for their use of familial terms to describe their fellowship, a fact which led to their rituals being castigated as incestuous by pagan onlookers. In short, the use of the term “brother” to refer to James is honorific (religious) rather than genetic. Paul nowhere refers to other “Jameses” – no biological brother, no “James the Just” or “the righteous” or “the younger.” Those characters are created by necessity and fleshed out in the future, by gospel writers, and perhaps echo late first and early second century confusion over misremembered details of the historical period that Paul represents, more or less contemporaneously. In the light of Paul’s complete disregard for the “historical” Jesus, moreover, it is unimaginable that he would assert a biological relationship between James and “the Lord.”

(c) Finally, the James, Joseph, and Judas of the gospels, if not merely stock figures invented by Mark and dis-invented by Luke, play no role in the ministry of Jesus, while the unrelated son of Zebedee does. To turn Mark’s James into the head of the Jerusalem community after the death of Jesus, one would have to imagine that the James of the family who rejects Jesus (Mark 3.31) and is rejected in turn, repents of his action and joins the apostles, in Jerusalem, at some point following the death of Jesus, and rises to a position of prominence. While this scenario is not impossible, parsimony dictates that it is not likely. Mark’s theology implies that the scenario in chapter six is a fictional one designed to subordinate ephemeral family relations to the needs the wider community – the “true brotherhood” of believers.

The James who is head of the church in Jerusalem is not a biological brother of Jesus. Later but inconsistent gospel references to James are muddled reminiscences based on the more prominent James of the Pauline tradition.

(3) Faccident 3: The Identity of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is one of multiple Marys in the gospels, and never listed as a member of a family group.

It is unnecessary to go into detail about her role in the “family” of Jesus. That association is rooted in commercial interests, based on modern fiction and poorly understood ancient sources.

(a) The obvious points are that Mary is not listed as a relative of Jesus in the sole passage in Mark that gives the names of Jesus’ hypothetical family (Mark 6.1.). Mitochondrial DNA tests on ossuaries belonging to Jews of the Herodian period seem a far-fetched way to prove a fact attested in the gospels, that Jesus and Mary were not related. The suggestion that she is the “wife” of Jesus goes beyond anything given even in apocryphal and gnostic sources, where she enjoyed an expanded reputation for reasons grounded not in history but in gnostic theosophy.

(b) This in itself is not insignificant however, because Mary Magdalene is a vivid character in Christian imagination, lore, and in heresy. Her “extrapolated” importance points to the priority of the community over the family in the telling of the gospel story. In other words, “Mary Magdalene’s” significance emerges out of the gospels’ focus on the followers of Jesus and the unimportance attached to real-life family relationships, the very opposite of the significance asserted for her in the present controversy.

(c) She is especially important in two contexts: As a feminine prototype of discipleship, and as a “witness” of the resurrection of Jesus. It is wrongly supposed that she is named as the woman accused of adultery in the floating tradition associated with John 7.53-8.11, or following Luke 21.28, but is missing completely from some manuscripts. The woman is anonymous.

It is also wrongly assumed that she is the “immoral” woman who washes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7.37ff. That woman also is unnamed. In the prototype of this story in Mark 14.3-6, the woman who anoints Jesus’ head with oil is also unnamed by the synoptic writers, and is a resident of Bethany. It is unlikely that someone remembered as “Mary Magdalene” would be the same as Mary of Bethany, known from John’s gospel as the sister of Lazarus (Jn 12.1-8).

(d) This means that the sole reference to Mary Magdalene outside the resurrection tradition is a passage in Luke 8.1-3 where she is listed as “Mary called Magdalene,” a woman exorcised by Jesus, who is traveling with other women – including Joanna and Susanna. Luke finds a role for Joanna in his resurrection narrative as well (24.10), possibly to appeal to the wives of wealthy patrons who have commissioned his gospel.

(e) In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene has become the primary female witness to the resurrection (John 20-1-8), and the intimate dialogue between the weeping Mary and the risen Christ at the site of the tomb in unique to the fourth gospel. Jesus’ resurrection appearance to her before the male apostles, while a piece of Christian fiction, was a powerful incentive to her further career in Christian literature. She appears therefore as a leading character in a variety of gnostic texts: In The Dialogue of the Savior (2nd century?), she assists Jesus in explaining the hidden meaning of the parable of the mustard seed in characteristically gnostic terms; in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene (late 2nd century), she is called by Peter the one with the key of the Savior’s knowledge (gnosis) and the one loved by the savior more than males (a fundamental text in the eroticization of the relationship between Mary and Jesus); in the Gospel of Thomas (2nd century), which may be related to the traditions embedded in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Jesus offers to “make her male” since the female spirit cannot resemble that of the father.

(f) In the texts touted by the filmmakers responsible for the “Lost Tomb of Jesus,” the Gospel of Philip, dating from the 4 th or 5th century and trading on the confusion of Mary’s in the gospels, she is numbered among a “trinity” of Marys including the mother of Jesus and the sister of his mother, also known as Mary. In the text, she represents Sophia or wisdom, and Jesus, in symbolic but erotic language, is accused of “kissing her on the mouth” by disgruntled apostles, who equally symbolically represent their inadequate search for divine gnosis. In the Pistis Sophia (late 3rd, 4th century), in language skimmed from Luke 1.36-49, she is called “blessed beyond all women of the earth.because she shall be the pleroma of pleromas.” In this scene, she plays the part of a gnostic Virgin Mary of the Magnificat, prostrating herself submissively at Jesus’ feet. While this skims the surface, the following curriculum vitae is clear enough:

(e) From inconspicuous beginnings in Mark’s gospel (15.40, 16.1; 16.9), Mary Magdalene’s legend grows sufficiently by the 90’s of the first century that she becomes the beneficiary of a private dialogue with the risen Jesus in the Gospel of John. Based on the high gnostic evaluation of the risen Christ, the dialogue is formative for her exaggerated importance in gnostic circles from the late second century onward. In this role, she is of symbolic importance only.

(f) There is nothing of historical value in these sources, just as there may be little of historical value in the canonical sources upon which they are based. But in the (seemingly) most explicit of the gnostic sources, the Gospel of Philip, reputable scholars have fallen into the trap of searching for historical references to a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. What makes such a connection preposterous is Gnosticism itself: Gnostic dualism, with its emphasis on a world-denying asceticism and chastity, makes any suggestion that a “physical” relationship is being posited for Jesus and Mary Magdalene theologically absurd within the system from which the texts emerge. It is only by literalizing late sources, such as the Gospel of Philip, at the expense of the propagandistic Gnosticism they represent, that one can begin to suggest a physical relationship between the two protagonists.

(g) An intimate relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is based on the legendizing and the Gnosticizing of a single passage in the canonical gospel least sympathetic to this-worldly relationships, one which actually trivializes her human significance as a witness to the resurrection and emphasizes the non-physicality of the risen Christ (John 20.17) and the unimportance of human relationships. With Thomas, also a favorite of gnostic speculation, she becomes a witness to the divine gnosis, enfigured in Jesus as the logos of God – not a potential bride.


The jigsaw of names and their conflicting theological contexts is fatal to the filmmakers’ approach to the Talpiyot tomb inscriptions. Far from representing a univocal tradition concerning Jesus’ “family” the evidence suggests a positive disregard for family relationships, ignorance and confusion over names, and theological situations which make the family configuration suggested for these ossuaries impossible to accept:

1. In the earliest literature, that produced by Paul, the family of Jesus is unknown. References to James as the “brother” of Jesus in Paul’s writings must be explained in terms of the familial usage adopted by the early Christians themselves.

2. Outside the New Testament, there are no early references to the family of Jesus, the sole candidate for such references, the work of Josephus, being forged.

3. The gospel writers beginning with Mark convey confusion or ignorance about family names. In the sole passage where names are given in sequence (Mark 6.3) three are lifted from the catalogue of apostles and one is the name later assigned to the father of Jesus, about whom Mark is otherwise silent. In a passage not repeated by Matthew and Luke, Mark records another “family” tradition in which the brothers (and mother) are unnamed. (5.31-32). John knows nothing of an extended family of Jesus, replacing the mother of Jesus mentioned (nameless) in John (2.5) with a post-familial and quasi-gnostic tradition of Mary Magdalene at the tomb (John 20.1ff.). John is ultimately confused about the proliferation of “Mary-names” (19.25-6), making both the name of the mother of Jesus and her sister “Mary.”

4. The later tradition concerning Mary Magdalene is historically vacuous and the possibility that she was invented to counter Jewish aspersions against the chastity of Mary the mother of Jesus cannot be dismissed out of hand. In Jewish tradition, the mother of Jesus is known as a harlot, a “dresser of women’s hair,” and is thus indistinguishable from Mary Magdalene: “Did not Ben Stada (Yeshu = Jesus) bring spells from Egypt in a cut on his flesh?” They replied, ‘He was a fool and one does not prove anything from a fool.’ Ben Stada is Ben Pandira. Rabbi Hisda [a Babylonian teacher of the third century] said, “The husband was Stada, the paramour was Pandira.” The husband was Pappos ben Jehudah; the mother was Stada. The mother was Miriam [Mary], the dresser of women’s hair – as we say in Pumbeditha [a Babylonian town where there was a famous rabbinical college], “Such a one has been false to her husband” [Shaddath 104b]. The phrase “Miriam m’gadella nashaia” (an aspsersive for the mother of Jesus) may indicate the origins of a bitter debate between Jews and Christians over the chastity of Jesus’ mother and the apologetic origins of the “second Mary.” The spelling of the name “Miriamne” or Miriamne (‘e) Mara is a red herring in the recent documentary. Mary Magdalene is never referred to in any source as the latter, and the former is widely attested as a name in Hellenistic Judaism, especially in the writings of Josephus.

The Theology of Regret: Making the Pope Say ‘Sorry’


When will the Pope apologize to the Muslims for those perfectly awful things he apologized for in September, 2006? The case where he quoted (and took exception to) the words of a 14th century Christian emperor who said some rather nasty things about Islam being violent. Where would anyone get such a crazy idea?

During his trip to Jordan, the pope was given low marks by CNN and the BBC for his failure to “apologize” to the Muslim world (or was it Muslim leaders, and who are they?) for his address in September 2006 to the Faculty at Regensburg where he was once Professor of Theology.

To demystify this event (most Muslims know only that the pope is thought to have said something horrible and have no idea of what went on), here is what he said:

“The emperor [Manuel II Pailailogos in 1391] must have known that [Qur’an] sura 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body.”

The pope had said that the emperor’s comments were delivered with “a brusqueness that we would find startling,” but he also points to a little-heeded fact that Manuel seems to have been alert to, and the savvy Rat zinger will not have missed: that Muslim Christian dialogue depends on how the concept of God works itself out in a particular theology. Ever the teacher, and now the only one that matters in the Catholic church, Benedict was not going to let this point get away from his audience.

Despite what you may have read about Crusaders and forced conversions to Christianity, the unanimous position of the western church since the time of Gregory I (7th century) has been that a forced conversion is no conversion at all because it deprives the potential beneficiary of free choice. As the act is irrational (good to be able to bring Aquinas in at this point) it cannot be beneficial. It’s needful to say, the Church did not always stick to its principles and forced conversions of Jews and heretics were an occasional part of the religious landscape of medieval Europe.

But the general point is important: to act contrary to reason is to act contrary to the nature of God as he is understood in Latin theology. Violence is unreasonable as a means of promoting religion.

The pope went on:

“To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. [the Pope then goes on to quote the word of the Byzantine scholar, Theodore Khoury, “For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Muslim R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.”

I think the pope is onto something, but it’s nothing he can apologize for. He is saying that the concept of God as it has evolved in the Church since the Middle Ages has increasingly merged with the concept of reason. Aquinas’ job at Paris was to theologize about the relationship between reason and faith, and he gets at least an A- for the effort. Using Aristotle to maximum advantage, Thomas reserved faith as mode of “knowing” for those cases where natural reason failed to provide the answer—for example: God can be known through reason because he is rationality itself. The trinity is a mystery accessible only through faith. Yet the mysteries of faith (he thought) were never incompatible with reason.

Some Muslim scholars were on the same path prior to the desolation of Baghdad in 1258 (Aquinas died in 1274), but the fourteenth century brought the beginning of intellectual torpor to the Muslim world. Interesting speculation ends up as an unfinished paragraph

Crouching behind a couple of authorities he obviously admires, the Pope suggested that the Islamic doctrine of God as having a transcendent will makes irrational action possible. It wasn’t an especially modern recognition, just one that needed reiteration, he felt. Nor was this interpretation of Aristotle unique to Muslim scholars. Aquinas sorted through the thorniest of Aristotle’s dilemmas and quieted the radical Franciscan school at Paris—the friars that broke their heads against problems like whether God being God could send righteous souls to hell to exhibit his omnipotence. Thomas hushes them by saying that God can do nothing contrary to his nature, and his nature is infinite reason. Things like power and goodness and knowledge will work in conformity with the divine nature, not contrary to it.

Islam opted for the idea that God’s freedom is absolute, and consequently for the belief that his will is unconstrained by a paltry thing like “reason.” It is what makes irrational behavior like violence possible in a situation—say—where God’s will is known and the means to achieve is force. If God’s revealed will is the domination of Islam over other religions and people, there is little reason to convene a council to ask whether violent action is “reasonable.”

If Christians could say, “Thy will be done–under certain conditions that have to meet the criteria for moral action and reasonable consequences” (which is a good Aristotelian response) the typical Muslim response of “Inshallah”—according to God’s will, is a much more incisive statement. It will happen according to God’s will, only if God wills it.

It is a shame that Professor Ratzinger’s words were attacked because they were considered insulting to Muslims. They were much more dangerous than that

Measuring the Truth of the Book


All religions make truth claims. These may be specific, as in the form of particular doctrines—heaven, hell, the trinity, the virginity of Mary—or more general: the finality of the Prophet, the exclusive role of the Church as a means of grace and salvation, the belief in the divine election of the Jews.

What is not so widely acknowledged is that these claims of truth are supported by a set of rationales, or to use Van Harvey’s famous term, “warrants” that provide security and confidence to adherents of the religious tradition.

The warrants are seldom available in the sacred writings and doctrines explicitly, but they are often observable in teaching, interpretation and conduct. The three book religions, which often have been referred to as “Abrahamic” actually have quite different warrants for their truth claims.

Warrants in religion are a kind of pseudo-empiricism—a quantification of truth value. Like empirical tests, warrants are susceptive of disconfirmation—being proved false—at least in theory. A warrant is not a doctrine, but a justification for religions to “do as they do”; they empower belief and practice by creating benchmarks for the success, prestige or dominance of a religious tradition—often through comparison to rival traditions.

For example, in some forms of millennarian religion predictions of the end-time have been recorded with remarkable precision. The habit goes back at least to the time of Rabbi Joseph the Galilean, a contemporary of Hyrcanus and Azariah, who thought the Messiah would come in three generations (60 years), after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The messiah failed to arrive, however, and the nominee for the position, Shimeon bar Kochba died a humiliating death at Roman hands in 135. End-time prophecies continued with the Christian Hippolytus’ calculation that 5,500 years separated Adam and Christ and that the life of the world was “6,000, six full ‘days’ of years until the seventh, the day of rest.” His calculations in 234 indicated there were still two centuries left. Two millennia of apocalyptic forecasting lay in store. The “prophet” Moses David of The Children of God faith group predicted that the Battle of Armageddon would take place in 1986 whenRussia would defeat Israel and the United States. A worldwide Communist dictatorship would be established, and in 1993, Christ would return to earth.

Apocalypticism is conspicuously subject to disconfirmation and its calculations have—quite obviously–never been accurate, as Simon Pearson has documented in his popular survey, A Brief History of the End of the World (2006). Just as surprising though is the amazing ability of apocalyptic movements to regenerate themselves: this or that cult or movement may die away through embarrassment and loss of faith and members, but the phenomenon itself is tied to a (more or less) naturalistic belief in the beginning and end of things, and theological constructions of that belief to include ideas of judgment, reward and punishment.

All three of the book religions, at bottom, believe in the last three of these ideas—the end of the world and the judgment of humankind. The mechanism and details differ slightly, with Christianity and Islam being historically more tied to eschatology (the belief in the final destiny and dispensation of the human race by god). In fact, it would be more accurate to call the three “Abrahamic” faiths the eschatological traditions because of their common belief that the relationship between God and the human race is personal and moral rather than abstract. The belief in judgment is most vivid in Islam, less so in Christianity, and highly controversial in Judaism—where, nevertheless, since Hellenistic times, it has featured significantly.

If eschatology is a core belief in the three book religions, it is fair to ask what mechanisms (warrants) have been used to procure the success of these traditions in the face of disconfirmation?

Just as any case of eschatological “disconfirmation” (a failed apocalyptic event) weakens the overall strength of a warrant, so too the collapse of a warrant will lead to general doubts about the truth claims of the religion. This religious domino effect is most clear when the eschatology is strong.

For example, messianic Judaism of the period after the Babylonian captivity (6th century BCE) is relatively well attested. Most Jewish apocalyptic literature is not written until after the death of Alexander in 323 BCE (most even later) and the disintegration of the Hellenistic world he created. Between the time of the Persian hegemony over Palestine, right through to the period of Roman domination, the apocalyptic spirit—an acute sense that the times are out of joint, that God is at the end of his wits waiting for things to right themselves, and that divine intervention is imminent—is at a high pitch. But while the spirit may have been feverish, solutions did not arrive on schedule, and when they did they were not the solutions the Jews had been expecting.

Apocalypticism ends with a massive crash: the Roman assault of 66-70 CE–the burning and looting of the temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, a century of uneasy détente followed by a second blow with an edict that Jerusalem was henceforth off limits to Jews and that a pagan shrine would be built on the temple site. This is not coincidentally the period when messianism, originally a political movement, later a more spiritual one, was most in evidence. But the hope for a messiah was repeatedly disconfirmed by circumstance, loss, and disappointment. The “truth” of Judaism and beliefs subordinate to its eschatology, had to be sacrificed at an empirical level for more secular goals and a this-worldly focus on ethics. In strictly historical terms, the truth claims of Judaism were untruthed. All else is adaptation and interpretation.

The Jewish situation cannot be understood properly without looking at its foster child, Christianity. Whatever else may be claimed about this religion, it is undeniably Jewish, eschatological, and messianic in its origins. It belongs specifically to the time when Judaism was the most fraught with expectation, and some of its apocalyptic books, and passages from the gospels (such as Mark 13) are literally taken wholesale from Jewish writings such as IV Esdras and I Enoch.

Christianity survived for just under a century under what scholars used to call the cloud of
“imminent eschatology,” and what one scholar has called “prolonged disappointment”. By looking backward and forward, it appropriated and reinterpreted passages from the Hebrew prophets to apply to their messianic hero. This point of conjunction is often overlooked in exchange for the belief that Christianity somehow forged quickly ahead of Judaism and looked back only occasionally and when necessary. In fact, as the second century Marcionite crisis showed, Christianity could not go it alone. It needed the “witness” of scripture—the Hebrew Bible–and the promises of the prophets to make sense of its emerging belief system. It required Jewish atonement theology to explain the significance of the crucifixion. It did not claim a new finality but completion of a process. It did not (except very rarely) challenge the wording of the Hebrew Bible or rewrite the prophecies or produce targums of Jesus setting it all straight. It became skilled at allegorical interpretation, in its own theological service, but also made reference to the rabbis. Christianity was not the shock of the new but the old repackaged for sale to gentiles,

Above all, beginning with Paul, it was messianic. And its first crisis, as we gather from passages such as 1 Thessalonians 5.2 and 2 Peter 3.4-6 concerned the delay in the return of the messiah. When that event—the second coming that would vindicate the unexpected failure of the first—did not happen, Christians were confronted with a crisis that could only be rationalized organically.

Two things distinguish the Christian reaction to eschatological failure from the Jewish response, however. First, Christianity was much more concerned with the belief in resurrection than with belief in messiahship. Its happenstansical withdrawal from the Jewish world at the end of the first century immunized it to a certain extent from the effects of disconfirmation—or at least, bought it some time. Truth was focused on the larger event which (though tied to eschatology) was not seen to be identical to it in the gentile world, where Christianity gained the most ground. And in the gentile world at least, even the emphasis of the “judgment aspects” of resurrection were deemphasized in favour of its promise of immortality—a theme long revered by the Greeks and Romans. Later on, in the onslaught of death, plague and war, the emphasis on judgment and the cruder aspects of the afterlife would reemerge in the middle ages. But during the period when Christianity was most at risk of being another disconfirmed Jewish messianic movement, it survived by changing the subject. Indeed, it may have been Paul who changed it –as early at the 50’s of the 1st century.

As the resurrection faith, a religion of expectation, Christianity survived through a proclamation of a risen lord “who will come again.” Its truth claims were protected through procrastination—not that any individual Christian or church or hierarchy was aware of the strategy. No “groupthink” was involved and no council could have been called to resolve the issue. The response seems to have been organic and somewhat reflexive—but crucially it meant that Christianity could not be untruthed until such time as Jesus did or did not come, and no one knew precisely when that time was: the psychology of prolonged expectation prevailed over the psychology of prolonged disappointment. In a word, “faith.”

Islam is related to its cousin traditions in a contorted way. Like Christianity, it claimed to be a common heir of the Abrahamic traditions. Unlike Judaism, it taught that much of that tradition had been corrupted by false prophets and evildoers. Like Christianity, it claimed a continuum with the prophets of old; unlike Christianity it made little use of any specific passages of the Hebrew bible, did not incorporate it into its own sacred library, and did not regard the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood to be based on any adumbration in the books of the Jews or Christians.

This was important, because the legitimacy of Christianity was theoretically dependent on the sheer fact of the Old Testament (rightly interpreted) and its soteriological system being applied to the death of Jesus—the atoning sacrifice for sins. Islam like Christianity understood itself as somehow connected to the past, but disconnected from most of its theology and in large part from its literary tradition. In particular it was disconnected from Jewish and Christian soteriology: the God of the Prophet does not suffer the sin of the people but rather judges them according to his fiat, the Qur’an. The connecting fiber that joined Christianity to Judaism was decisively cut by Islamic rejection of the ancient idea of atonement.

The extent to which the earliest teachers of Islam felt able to appropriate the Judeo-Christian sources ex post facto is a subject of some discussion, but whatever the reasons for the disuse of the prior claimants to the Abrahamic faith, Islam alone found error not merely in interpretation but in the sources themselves. The idea of error was both tied to and a consequence of the doctrine of finality: Muhammad is the prophet of God in a conclusive and indubitable sense. What is contained in the book revealed to him is true beyond question.

The messianism of the two older traditions depended in different ways on verification. Even the New Testament, whose messianic claims are undone by historical outcomes, asks believers to look to the skies, but the portents and signs can only be understood by looking backward (Mark 13.14-16).

Judaism and Christianity saw the events of the end-time as suprahistorical happenings whose occurrence could only be understood prophetically. By sacrificing the “backward look” to the idea of finality Islam created a new understanding of prophecy, whereby ‘non-prophets’ could be adopted simply because they were believed to have lived in an age of witnesses—as “Muslims before their time.” This theme was not unknown in Christianity; it is voiced by church fathers like Justin and Clement in relation to Old Testament heroes and a few classical worthies who “taught truth” before its time had fully arrived in the person of Jesus Christ.

The last day or yawm al-din underscores the idea of finality which also shapes the view of prophecy and scripture: God’s judgment demands the observance of Islam to such an extent that in Islam, eschatology replaces theology. This also accounts for the largely allusory style of the Qur’an in relation to the other book traditions; individual stories do not matter as much as establishing the historical pattern of “warning” and the Prophet’s pedigree: Adam, Abraham, Jonah, Noah, Moses, form a kind of chorus of worthies, an honor guard, whose role it is to provide a line of succession to the prophet of God. They are not so much “adopted” or interpreted as in Christianity but expropriated.

So too the Islamic use of the messianic idea. It is not clear that the first Muslims grasped the idea of the messiah or “mahdi” except in relation to the belief in judgment. Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century historian famous for his pioneering work in philosophy of history, writes in his Muqaddima:

“It has been (accepted) by all the Muslims in every epoch, that at the end of time a man from the family (of the Prophet) will, without fail, make his appearance, one who will strengthen Islam and make justice triumph. Muslims will follow him, and he will gain domination over the Muslim realm. He will be called the Mahdi.”

The Mahdi’s bona fides are well-established from early on: He will be an Arab, from the tribe of Banû Hãshim and through his line by Fatima (ie a member of the Prophet’s family). Critically, he will not be a Jew or a Christian—Islam’s declaration that the final judgment of God will be according to the rules of Islam. The Mahdi will be “assisted” by Jesus, who is relegated to role of helper on the day of judgment; he “will fulfill a role behind the Mahdi.” The true Christians “will follow Jesus in accepting Imam al-Mahdi as the leader at the time and become Muslims.” In short, the messianic expectation is that all those who will be saved will follow Jesus in subordinating himself to the true messiah.

The measurement of any truth claim in Islam, therefore, is subject to the prior assumption—or “strong belief” in the finality of the Islamic position towards its predecessors. This claim, despite certain superficial or family resemblances—is a belief in unqualified rejection. The claims of Christianity and Judaism are selectively falsified in the doctrine of the corruptibility of sources, the partiality of God’s revelation to previous warners, the rejection of the idea of atonement, and the replacement of it with a strong and exclusivist eschatological scenario in which followers of Jesus will be judged on the basis of their acceptance of Islam.

More directly relevant to measuring truth claims however is their effect. Never a large religion and today consisting of only about 14,000,000 adherents worldwide, Judaism has historically been an exclusivist religion. Its salvation theology emerges from its historical situation–one surprisingly similar to its current political situation–as a fairly cohesive religio-cultural community surrounded by adversaries. The viability of faith depends first of all on the existence of the faith community, and throughout its later history this has been Judaism’s primary concern. In such constricted circumstances its theology was necessarily more about salvation, messiahship, and rescue than conversion and growth. Its truth claims were tied to that survival more directly than to other possible warrants, such as military achievement or imperial expansion.

Christianity traded exclusivism for expansion after the second century of its existence. It did so by lowering the religious bar on radical monotheism, relaxing some of the more stringent safeguards of Judaism in terms of diet and religious observance, the use of images and rituals, and substituting for this a church-based system of authority and a sacramental system that created a sharp class distinction between laity and hierarchy. “Faith” (de fide) in this sense was not an act of the will but a body of doctrine passed down as a sacred deposit of truth interpreted and taught by the Church: the laity had no active role other than to accept the church’s teaching and conduct their lives accordingly.

To the extent this system was successful, as it was until the sixteenth century and in modified form even until he twentieth, Roman Christianity and its protestant spawn successfully substituted the idea of reliance on belief for the more ancient belief in the coming of Christ (even though the latter has been given honorary status among the discarded beliefs of the ancient period). The warrant of the truth claims of modern Christianity for all the available versions and possibility of continued fissiparation, is simply the quantum of what the church or churches teach and what Christians find agreeable to faith. Protestantism shifted the focus from the nominative sense of faith as a body of orthodox teaching to the verbal understanding –faith as assent in conscience to biblical revelation. But in either case, the lex fidei, the law of faith, was the exclusive warrant for Christians of the Middle Age and Renaissance periods.

Islam offered no such options. The doctrine of finality had not budged much since the early middle ages among serious adherents of the faith. When Islam is seen as regressive or repressive in terms of social doctrine or custom, it is usually because its core structure has remained remarkably intact, like a well built house that defies the weather.

The doctrine of the Mahdi, for instance, has never had to be rationalized, defended or abandoned, because it did not suffer the historical disconfirmation that both Judaism and Christianity experienced. Islam’s eschatology is alive, robust and looks to the future. It is fundamentally different from an eschatology undone by history (Judaism), or dislodged by qualifying doctrines (Christianity). While the authority of approved teachers, imams and ayatollahs is a significant feature of the religion, there is no central authority and no mechanism for consensus of all individual authorities. In fact, the debate in much of contemporary Islam is not whether the fundamentals of faith are sound but whose Islam is the most Islamic—the “truest” example of the faith.

Superficially this would seem to suggest chaos, but instead it points to the fact that there is enormous room for disagreement among Muslims, within limits. The limits concern subordinate or derivative doctrines: when is violence justified; should women wear hijab, to what extent is it permissible to sort out true and false traditions relating to the early community or the hadith, and the applicability of sharia to the regulation of the conduct of believers.


In addition to the apparent impermeability of its core doctrine to disconfirmation, Islam has developed a sixth pillar which it seems to me is beginning to serve as a warrant for its truth claims. Unlike Judaism and increasingly unlike the phenomenon of a deflating world Christianity, Islam is growing. Its success is in numbers–conversions, expansion, the building of mosques and madrasas. From Malawi to Toronto and London, the signs of Islam’s health and success at a demographic level are visible, impressive, and unmistakable.

In 2008 the estimated world Muslim population was close to 2 billion, and rapidly increasing. Estimated increase and actual numbers vary widely among researchers, but the U.S. Center for World Mission estimated in 1997 that Christianity’s total number of adherents is growing at about 2.3% annually. (This is approximately equal to the growth rate of the world’s population.) Islam is growing faster: about 2.9%, and Islam will surpass Christianity as the world’s most populous religion religion by 2023.

Samuel Huntington famously saw these numbers as portending a clash of civilizations. Whatever the merits of his argument, the more significant issue is how numbers are interpreted by the adherents of a belief system and just as vital, how adherents “behave” toward numbers. If numbers serve as a warrant of truth, adherents will have an enormous interest in sustaining and expanding the numbers, through whatever means possible. As a matter of history, unlike the messianism of the Jews and the parousia-theology of early Christians, Islam–uniquely–has not been eschatologically disconfirmed. In fact, its warrant provides a kind of empirical test that Judaism and Christianity have already failed. Given the warrant that Islam uses for the truth value of its beliefs, it passes the test.

Early Judaism dreamed of a day when Abraham’s descendants would be a numberless as the stars in the heavens. If that remained an ideal, the day never came. As a warrant of truth claims, Judaism would have very little to gain from playing a numbers game. The more modest and warranted Jewish position is that Judaism is true as long as it survives.

But the same is true of Christianity, largely because it is no longer one thing but many things—not Christianity but Christianities, as the Oxford scholar Peggy Morgan likes to point out. In significant ways, Christianity has been unharmonious and inhomogeneous since the Middle Ages. It has had to measure its truth with different spoons, using different systems for the better part of five centuries, and still is large enough that certain segments of the Christian religion hardly know that other sectors exist or what doctrines they profess. Evangelical Christians may dream of bringing a singular gospel to the far flung regions of the world, but a healthy majority of other Christians oppose the entire missionary philosophy as form of religious colonialism. In addition to this, an unknown but sizable percentage of the world’s Christians are largely secular, agnostic, or “lapsed” members of the tradition; they identify with it in name only. Rarely in the twenty-first century will someone be denied the status of “believer” in any denomination through violence or persecution simply because his beliefs are askew. And even in those traditions with ancient legal traditions, such as Roman catholicism, rules are unenforceable at a penal level.

Thus the Christian warrant for its truth claims, “faith” (whose faith?), is a wobbly instrument of measurement in the modern situation, and a number of factors weigh against the ability of Christians to use geographical reach and population as indicators of truth. Christianity possesses no single vision, doctrine, or praxis. With the death of “Christendom” in the sixteenth century, Christians also sacrificed geography and population as a warrant for the claims advanced by the faith. The export by missionaries during the colonial period of a variegated Christianity preached in different ways to different colonial populations only accelerated the process of international fissiparation–which we still see in the massive success of “conversions” in Central and South America from Roman Catholic to Evangelical protestantism, and the supermarket Christianity of the developed world. With the acceptance of modernity, Christianity was obliged to accept the relativity of its belief systems to other ways to the truth, including in principle the idea that its faith was unwarranted. Christianity’s survival seems latched to the acceptance of the final triumph of secularism and its correlate: believing less and less.

For Islam however, from an early date, the increase of the faith is a living proof of its finality. Numbers are paid attention to. Territory once submitted to God must always be submitted to God—one of the reasons the question of Jerusalem remains one of the irreconcilables of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Dominant stories, dates, and myths are significant: The triumph over the Meccans, the submission of Constantinople, the conversion of the Mongols, the winning back of Jerusalem by Saladin, the capture of al-Andalus. “Jihad” has been the key word to describe this warrant, but rather than thinking of it as war or violence, it must be seen as the execution of a principle, without which Islam might go the way of the other book traditions.

Sheer increase has become the defining warrant for the truth of Islam. Consequently those who pursue the interests of the dar-al-Islam (the territory submitted to God) most vigorously—the Taliban, for example, or others that western observers are likely to label “religious extremists”–are acting on a proven principle. If we end where we began : “A warrant is not a doctrine, but a justification for religions to “do as they do”; they empower belief and practice by creating benchmarks for the success, prestige or dominance of a religious tradition—often through comparison to rival traditions.” By that definition, Islam’s success seems assured whether by comparison to its rivals in the Abrahamic tradition or by dint of the prestige it enjoys as the world’s fastest growing religion.

The Marriage of Likeness: A Mild Dissent


I have always been sympathetic to the right of people of any sexual orientation to cohabit without interference from any outside agency, religious or secular.  I regard the sexual practices of partners, so long as they do not cause unacceptable pain to each other or scare the horses, to be the business of the partners.

I not only think but know from experience that a child raised by a loving gay or lesbian couple is as well off as a child raised in a loving heterosexual household, and better off than a child raised in an unloving household.  I find it amazing that same sex couples should not have full access to the health benefits and inheritance and taxation privileges that heterosexual couples enjoy.  I do not believe that the gay life style is any more “predatory” or “proselytizing” than the lifestyles of straight men and women.

But I am opposed to gay marriage.

I can’t blame my gay and lesbian friends for the way the debate has gone, the way the battle has had to be waged.  You can’t always choose your enemies and the enemies of gay marriage have been fighting with Bibles and neolithic ideas of social organization.

I also see that with New England and much of the rest of the country moving in the direction of legalizing same-sex marriage, this little contribution will flicker and die a quiet death and seldom be referred to in a year’s time.   Time and tide are irreversibly on the side of legalization, and when legal, gay marriage will be seen as one of those things that had to happen.  Perhaps it is right that it should happen.  Its supporters certainly and honestly believe it is a moral victory—a “win” for social justice and equality.  In a few years, when the Defense of Marriage Act lay in tatters, we will look back on the days when gays couldn’t get married with the same disdain as we have for whites-only waiting rooms and men-only elections.

Or will we?  Two “auxiliary” movements in the past thirty years have invoked the catechism of the civil rights movement.  One of them is feminism.  As a philosophy it has moved from marginal to mainstream—like all movements that destroy the premises of their foundation as a condition of their success.  The other is gay rights.  These movements have operated chiefly by analogy to movements that opposed the denial of basic civil rights and have resulted in changes that even confirmed political troglodytes would have to agree are for the better.  No woman should be denied any right available to a man.  No black should be denied a right available to a white.

It isn’t worth overwriting this: we take these things for granted, like hot days in the tropics.  As the founding fathers put it with their penchant for economy: “self evident.”

Is the right to vote and the right to earn a living, or to live in peace without threat and violence  the same as the right to live together as a married couple?

In the first two cases, the denial of a right creates a hardship.  I may choose not to vote or not to work, but that does not constitute a case for abridging this right. (“If you don’t use it, lose it.”)  I also have the right to live free of fear, violence, overt expressions of intolerance—but this right to peace and security is merely the extension of a right that exists uniformly within a democratic system.

As an extension of the right to happiness, which the founders listed among the “unalienables” it seems to me that the state should also extend to homosexuals the right to live together, free of fear and harassment, and may extend to such couples other rights, regarding property, taxation and inheritance and the adoption and raising of children.  There is stronger ideological support for the right to happiness and (perhaps) personal liberty than there is for a right to privacy.

I am not convinced however that in addition to extending a right of union to gay couples as a “civil” liberty the state  has any obligation to extend the  benefit of marriage: first, because there is no evidence that the denial of this benefit constitutes a hardship and second because  granting the benefit  actually negates the purpose  for which the benefit was created.

If the example of marriage is too emotionally charged to serve as an example, imagine a movement of older citizens who demand the right to  serve as infantrymen in a popular war and argue that theiy are being marginalized in favour of the youth and stamina of new recruits.  The army suggests that the war effort needs them in other capacities, will permit them to serve as auxiliaries, but not in the infantry because special conditions apply to enlisted men at the front.  A benefit has been denied.  Discrimination has taken place.  But the state has defended in its own interest an “institution” regarded as important for its efficient operation.

The principle here—analogy–is a weak one however: “the state cannot deny to a black what it offers to a white” is not equivalent to the statement “the state cannot deny to a gay couple what it offers to a straight couple.” This is not because being black is a matter of skin colour and being gay is a matter of choice.  Most lesbian and gays, though not all, would reject the latter statement. It is because rights are individual rather than dual or multiple.   Furthermore, the state can only be in the business of securing conditions–such as personal freedom–under which happiness can be “pursued.”  It can’t define or guarantee  a state of personal  happiness.  The state is under no compulsion to secure the rights of a pornographer, for example, just because his work gives pleasure to millions.

For centuries dating back to the start of the common era, marriage was the church-approved form of sexual happiness.  The state embraced it, through a series of historical compromises coordinated its regulation with the Church, and saw it as an important responsibility of civil government: Marriage, family, and society formed a closed set of values.  Divorce was barely tolerated.  Church and state intersected in the bridal chamber.  The act of marriage presupposed a choice whose literal embodiment was the marriage contract.  It dis not matter whether the contract was florid or plain, spoken by a magistrate or sealed with a bishop’s ring,   It was understood that the state did not confer rights on “marriage,”  did not broker the contract.   In medieval theology from about the ninth century this was reflected in the already ancient idea that the ministers of the sacrament of matrimony were the man and the woman, and that the priest was merely the witness to an event performed by them. Neither church nor state legitimated the choice, sanctioned the decision, decreed how many offspring the couple should have.  While the opponents of gay marriage as well as advocates of the practice spend a lot of time talking about the Bible, they will find no formula for marriage anywhere in the Bible.

The analogy with civil rights also fails on categorical grounds. Black/white, man/woman and gay/straight have been forced on the political consciousness as terms specific to a category of marginalized groups who have suffered discrimination and intolerance.  The modern field of gender studies has succeeded in calling into question the “normative” distinction between male and female, which in turn has been used by some proponents of gay marriage to support their case. (What does it mean to say the marriage is the union of “a man and a woman” if both are shades of  biological gray?) But normative or not, the distinction remains central to discussion and definition.  To say that gender and sexuality are different things and that gender in particular is “socially constructed” is not prima facie a defense of gay marriage.

I’d  be the first to say that history should not bind us to the past.  And perhaps I am guilty of the same thing that advocates of gay marriage are doing when they reject civil unions as second-class marriages.  We are both making marriage a prize, something greater than the sum of its partners.

It is part of the flow of postmodernity that why not questions are asked before why questions.  But the question Why not a gay soldier or Why not a woman admiral or a Black president are categorically different from the question Why not gay marriage.  This is so because marriage is not a splicing of DNA but a fundamentally symbolic arrangement characterized by the potential for new life.  That is not a normative statement but a description of its symbolic weight. There are good reasons for lifelong unions between two people of the same sex, but the symbolism of marriage is not the best way to express those reasons.

Finally, consider this:   there is no “right” for heterosexual persons to marry.  The state assumes but does not confer such a right, and even the word “right” in this case would have to be translated by the old Latin phrase “jus naturale”—something rooted in a natural condition, rather than in “jus” or a law of marriage that can be extended as the state chooses. –Not to be facetious, but if it is within the state’s power to extend marriage to same-sex couples, then there should be no reason for the state not to extend it to children, to polygamists, and sisters and brothers.  Surely the happiness and fairness arguments would not prevail in such cases; but without a definition that materially restricts such argument, what reasons can the state employ to deny marriage to such persons?  I would not be persuaded by an argument that began, “Well, gays and lesbians would also oppose the marriage of minors, siblings, polygamists, sexual adventurers.” It would have no more weight than polygamists who oppose the right of gay couples to wed.

Heterosexual marriage was rooted in the natural law arguments of Stoics like Musonius and Epictetus long before Christianity came on the scene.  In fact, it took a long time for the Christian church to rediscover them.  But it is incorrect to think that the Christian or Jewish or Islamic traditions have been the primary brake on the train that is now taking us in a new and experimental direction.  The union of opposites was a matter for philosophical discussion in antiquity, and frankly was a more edifying discussion than we are getting today.

The Importance of the Historical Jesus: A Jesus Project Quodlibet

And he asjesus_photoked them, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8.28)

For the last three years I have been associated—perhaps identified is a better word—with something called the Jesus Project.    Enough has already been said and written about that for me (mercifully) to be able to avoid another “introduction” to its aims and objectives.

This essay therefore is about something else.  It is about why we should care about the historical Jesus

My guess is that there are just as many people who sort of believe in God as there are people who sort of believe in Jesus.  But the two beliefs are different.  The existence of God can be argued theologically or philosophically.  If theologically (using archaic language) the proofs are usually called “demonstrations” and include some of the classical arguments of the theistic tradition—such as Anselm’s and Thomas Aquinas’s five ways.  It is quite convenient for philosophers to have these arguments because they don’t have to go about inventing their own. They can simply take aim at these rather good ones and fire away, and top it all off with a heavy syrup of philosophical naturalism.  If that last sentence sounds mildly sardonic it is because I think we are living in a post-naturalistic world and that philosophers had better find another island to swim to.  Theologians at least believe they have someone to save them.

“Believing” in Jesus can be argued historically or theologically, but not philosophically.  Historically, the existence of Jesus to be indubitable would need to be demonstrated in the same way the existence of any other human being can be shown.  The standard of proof is fairly high, making allowance for the age in which the person lived or is thought to have lived. Normally we would expect records, reports, artifacts (bones are best), or the writings of people who mention Jesus in their reports of other events.  For example, a chronicle of the Roman administration of Pontius Pilate in Palestine with a mention of the crucifixion of an outlaw named Jesus of Nazareth would be very helpful.  But we do not possess such a record.  Instead, we possess reports written by members of a religious group that had very specific and interested reasons for retelling his story.  And the way in which it is told differs so markedly from the sorts of histories the Romans were writing in the second and third century that scholars have acknowledged for a long time the “problem” of deriving the historical Jesus from the gospels—and even more the problem of deriving his existence from the letters of Paul or any other New Testament writings.

Having said this, I don’t mean to suggest that the gospels are made up, that they are like Greek myths, though bits are, or that they possess no historical value.  The Iliad is Greek myth, mainly made up, perhaps seven hundred years older than the earliest gospel, and yet seems to point (however obscurely) to actual events that transpired six centuries before Homer (?) immortalized them.  Herodotus, who lived more than five centuries before the gospels, is known to us primarily as a purveyor of history, but freely uses mythology and the supernatural without totally discrediting the stories he has to tell.

Why then, it can plausibly be asked, can we not assume the gospels point to events that transpired within (say) a generation of their tellers’ lifetimes?  It would be more unusual not to find the mythical and supernatural as part of their fabric than to find precisely the kind of documents we possess—especially coming from a class of writers who were not historians or literary craftsmen.

Belief in the existence of Jesus can also be argued theologically, but I am not good at it.   Paul does it this way by quoting (we assume) a hymn in Philippians 2.5-11. It locates Jesus in a cosmic time-frame that might be Gnostic except for the emphasis on his death and exaltation. The Eucharistic narratives do it this way as well, by making Jesus the centerpiece in an unfolding drama of betrayal and martyrdom.  The crucifixion story is as much a theological memoir as a historical one—or rather a peculiar blending of two interests, a kind of intersection between historical expectation and super-historical completion.  The earliest church fathers, especially Ignatius of Antioch, saw Jesus not just as the fulfillment of prophecy but as the way in which prophecy acquires its meaning through the Church.  The Quran also depends on the existence of Jesus, but rejects certain elements of the Christian story in favor of Islamic interpretation. Still, without the gospel its own claims are fatally jeopardised.  The increasingly elaborate theological framing of Jesus may distract from the fading image on the canvas, but it is the enthusiasm for ever-more ingenious frames that kept the historical figure from disappearing entirely.

These theological arguments are better described as constructions of the “reality” or necessity of the human Jesus, and lead to various controversies that historians have left it to the theologians to sort through.  In effect this has created a kind of scholarly apartheid in which secular historians have treated the theological debates of the fourth and fifth century as the weird preoccupations of a bygone era, while (except among scholars who represent Anglican and Roman Catholic orthodoxy) many contemporary theologians regard the debates in just the same way.

Yet these debates irreversibly coloured the picture of the historical Jesus and created in his place the Byzantine cosmocrator who ruled the aeons.  The one-personed, two-natured Christ, the hypostatic union (the doctrine that Jesus is both God and Man without confusion or separation of natures) would probably count as myth if it had more of a story line.  But at all events the fully divine and human Jesus had become a theological necessity before the end of the second century. The historical presupposition was buried in this controversy, if it had ever existed independently.

Given the “two ways” of approaching the question of the historical Jesus, it may seem a bit strange that the theological comes first.  But there is simply no evidence that the early Christians were concerned about “whether” Jesus had really lived and died.  They became Christians because of the gospel, and the gospels were preached, not read—except by very few.  If there is one cold, hard, unavoidable historical datum that virtually everyone who studies the New Testament can agree on, it is that the early Christian community existed and came into existence because of the gospels.

It may well be true that the beliefs of these communities were as varied as coloured buttons for more than a century.  But the Jesus they “proclaimed” (a good first century verb) was part of a story, not a doctrine—a story they believed to be true.  You can’t go very far into the second century without seeing the story becoming clouded with doctrine and definition, however.

The church fathers and the Gnostics were really two sides of the same obscurantist process:  the Gnostics needed a Jesus whose humanity was transparent or unreal, the church fathers needed a Jesus whose humanity was real but disposable.  It is not surprising that the disposable won out over the unreal.

The resurrection stories, as they lengthened, seemed to suggest that a kind of transformation took place in the hiatus between death and being raised from the dead.  In other words, the historical (human) Jesus who rose from the dead won out over the Gnostic Jesus who does not, not because the gnostic story is fabulous but because the familiar story was human—grounded in history. Paul seems to have caught on to the market value of this fact very early (I Corinthians 15.4-8)

The historical Jesus is not important in the same way that a Roman emperor’s existence is important –that is, as a simple causa prius to his being declared divine, or (for example) as a way of averaging human and divine qualities, as the ancient world was fond of doing with demigods and heroes.  We tend to forget that men of the fourth century, confronted with defining the humanity of Jesus, still had the images and stories of Achilles, Dionysus and Heracles in view.  It was not a thoroughly Christian world, but a world still infused with the seductive images of demigods and their courtesans—the same world whose attractions Clement had anguished over a hundred years before Nicaea.  Saving the saviour from that kind of emulsion prompted some of the more intricate doctrines of the early period.

The preservation of the humanity of Jesus came at the expense of his historicity.  In making sure he would not be confused with Caesar, Apollo or Mithras, they focused on the way in which he was God and how God became man.  At the end of the makeover, however, no first century Jew remained to be seen.  Even a spirit-struck Pentecostal preacher who has only the dimmest idea of what Chalcedon was all about calls on a “Jesus” who was born there—a man-god who can walk on water, heal the blind and save from sin.

The historical Jesus is important because he is a presupposition for the faith that millions of people have placed in non-historical consequences, and not only Christians.  His status if primarily significant to Christians is also important, in different ways, to Jews, Muslims, and even unbelievers.

I do not know whether the recovery of a Jesus after two thousand years of theological repair is possible.  John Henry Newman died in 1890.  He was buried in a wooden coffin in a damp site just outside Birmingham.  To the disappointment of many, when he was exhumed as part of the normal process for canonization in October 2008, no human remains were to be found—only artifacts of wood, brass and cloth.  We are considerably better off of course, in the case of Newman.  The grave site was known, we have letters, diaries, treatises, biographies, the memories of friends and relatives—even his own instructions for burial.  But that is because he was a man living in an age of documentation, and moreover a man of some prominence and means.  We have photographs, and well into the twentieth century the recollections of people who had known him or heard him preach.

Everything we  think we know historically about Jesus points in a more depressing direction: a man of no prominence, living in a widely illiterate age in a backward province, even by Roman standards, with few friends who could have told his story.  Yet the story is oddly similar—a remembrance of a life, wisdom, preaching, struggle, and death.  One of the fathers of the Birmingham oratory on being told that Newman was not to be found in his grave replied calmly, “It’s enough that he was here.”  In the long run, that may be all that can be said about the historical Jesus.