Ah! Bitter Love



Fate eventually discloses

And my friends agree:

Women with pinched and waspish noses

Aren’t my cup of tea.


I loved you in the summer time

I loved you in the autumn,

I loved you when the years declined

To amplify your bottom.


I loved you when the winter sun

Set early its orison.

And so did seven other men

You’d only just set eyes on.


We live in reckless times my heart.

The moral, then, of course is,

Never finish what you start

And never scare the horses.

St Paul’s Valentine

appy February 14th in the year of Our Lord 2013!  

Valentine if he existed was a third century martyr who died on the date associated with his feast on the Via Flamina outside Rome.  Because the Church exaggerated both the number and the style of martyr-deaths, his name was removed from the official calendar of the Roman church in 1969, but his feast is still kept as a regional festival.

The “Golden Legend” of Jacobus de Voraigne compiled about 1260 and one of the most-read books of the High Middle Ages, gives sufficient details of the saints for each day of the liturgical year to inspire a homily on each occasion. The very brief vita of St Valentine has him refusing to deny Christ before the “Emperor Claudius” in the year 280. Before his head was cut off, this Valentine restored sight and hearing to the daughter of his jailer.  Jacobus makes a play with the etymology of “Valentine”, “as containing valour.”  In any case, the English (Anglican) and even the Lutheran church have maintained his feast day for centuries, and in the Middle Ages his valour was considered a model for the emerging doctrine of courtly love–hence the association with romantic attachment.

hristianity  may be unique among the world’s religions in its emphasis on love, an emphasis, alas,  that has not been borne out in the works and deeds of the imperial and later global Church.  But it is undeniable that the early Christians sought to distinguish themselves in the empire by works of kindness and charity (caritas, the root for our word charity is one of several Latin words for love and the King James biblical translators preferred it).

Even the pagan critics of the church, like Celsus and Minucius Felix, found this public celebration of tenderness cloying and opposite to the highly formalized religious practices of the day. In  formalized Catholicism, after the fourth century, the expression of love would be reduced to the single liturgical moment called the “kiss of peace”–the Pax or en philemati agapes–exchanged between the celebrants of the Eucharist and excluding the worshipers entirely. As time went by, the “kiss” (osculum) was exchanged for a feigned embrace, and in modern services, including the Roman Catholic, a Hollywood handshake between members of the post-Mass donut crowd, thereby achieving a new low in cultural transformation from the sublime to the pedestrian.   Where hath love gone?

But back to the basic: The model for the kiss of peace is a “hymn” (a prose poem) written by St Paul in the mid first century.  It is perhaps the best known hymn in the Christian tradition,  often admired, sometimes copied,  never equaled for its intuitive flow.

Its immediate occasion is a divided Christian church in the Greek city of Corinth that had fallen into fighting over what “gifts” (charismata) make someone a good Christian.  The debate and the nature of the quarrel are hopelessly distant from our time, but what survives is Paul’s warning that almost any other “gift” is inferior to the power of love. His logic is as simple as the John Lennon’s  “Imagine“: Love cures divisions, so must be superior to any other virtue or gift.

Here is the Greek text, followed by my English rendition, and the classic “Jacobean” translation from the 1611 (“King James”)  Bible:

SBLGk: καὶ ἔτι καθ’ ὑπερβολὴν ὁδὸν ὑμῖν δείκνυμι. 1Ἐὰν ταῖς γλώσσαις τῶν ἀνθρώπων λαλῶ καὶ τῶν ἀγγέλων, ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω, γέγονα χαλκὸς ἠχῶν ἢ κύμβαλον ἀλαλάζον. καὶ ἐὰν ἔχω προφητείαν καὶ εἰδῶ τὰ μυστήρια πάντα καὶ πᾶσαν τὴν γνῶσιν, καὶ ἐὰν ἔχω πᾶσαν τὴν πίστιν ὥστε ὄρη μεθιστάναι, ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω, οὐθέν εἰμι. καὶ ἐὰν ψωμίσω πάντα τὰ ὑπάρχοντά μου, καὶ ἐὰν παραδῶ τὸ σῶμά μου, ἵνα καυθήσομαι, ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω, οὐδὲν ὠφελοῦμαι.

Ἡ ἀγάπη μακροθυμεῖ, χρηστεύεται ἡ ἀγάπη, οὐ ζηλοῖ ἡ ἀγάπη, οὐ περπερεύεται, οὐ φυσιοῦται, οὐκ ἀσχημονεῖ, οὐ ζητεῖ τὰ ἑαυτῆς, οὐ παροξύνεται, οὐ λογίζεται τὸ κακόν, οὐ χαίρει ἐπὶ τῇ ἀδικίᾳ, συγχαίρει δὲ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ· πάντα στέγει, πάντα πιστεύει, πάντα ἐλπίζει, πάντα ὑπομένει.

Ἡ ἀγάπη οὐδέποτε πίπτει. εἴτε δὲ προφητεῖαι, καταργηθήσονται· εἴτε γλῶσσαι, παύσονται· εἴτε γνῶσις, καταργηθήσεται. ἐκ μέρους γὰρ γινώσκομεν καὶ ἐκ μέρους προφητεύομεν·10 ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ τὸ τέλειον, τὸ ἐκ μέρους καταργηθήσεται. 11 ὅτε ἤμην νήπιος, ἐλάλουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐφρόνουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐλογιζόμην ὡς νήπιος· ὅτε γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου. 12 βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον· ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην. 13 νυνὶ δὲ μένει πίστις, ἐλπίς, ἀγάπη· τὰ τρία ταῦτα, μείζων δὲ τούτων ἡ ἀγάπη. [Διώκετε τὴν ἀγάπην]

Rjh: 2013:

[12.31b: Now I will show you the best way of all.]  13.1 I may speak the language of  men, or of angels, but without love I am a sounding brass, a clanging cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains, but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give all that that I have to the poor, even give my body to be burnt, but without love I am worthless.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love has no jealousy. Love is never proud, never vain. It is not rude or selfish. It does not easily take offense. It does not keep score of wrongs. It does not gloat over other people’s failings. It seeks the truth and delights in the truth. There is nothing love cannot face. There is no limit to its faith, its hope, its possibility. 

Love will never come to an end. You speak about prophets?  They will have their day.  Ecstasy and visions? The visions will end. Knowledge? It will fade away. Because what we call knowledge and truth are partial, and the partial vanishes when wholeness comes.

When I was a child, my speech, my thoughts, my outlook were childish. When I grew up, I was finished with childish things.  Now we see only puzzling reflections, as in a mirror—darkly–but in the end we shall see the truth face to face.  What I know now is incomplete, but in the end it will be complete, like God’s knowledge of me.  There are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love, but greatest of these is love. Put love first.

KJV, 1611*

Yet shew I unto you a more excellent way. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

*The word “charity”, from caritas is a  poor translation of the Greek word ἀγάπη (love). The 1611 translators associated “Christian charity” with acts of kindness (much the same as our modern definition of the word) and so preferred it to the more precise Greek idea of an outward display of affection and care between people, symbolized by a kiss.  Paul mentions this action five times in his letters, and St Augustine says in an Easter sermon,  “After this [prayer], the ‘Peace be with you’ is said, and the Christians embrace one another with the holy kiss. This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his.”

The Passion of the Christ-Deniers

he recent uptick of interest in the historical Jesus is fueled partly by a new interest in a movement that was laid to rest about seventy years ago, but has received a new lease of life  from a clutch of historical Jesus-deniers.  The rallying point for the group is a site maintained by a blogger by the name of Neil Godfrey, an Australian university librarian who, like many others who have assumed the position, comes from a conservative Christian background.

In the broadest terms, the movement feeds and thrives on the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never really existed.  There are various permutations of that basic position: (a) That he was concocted lock, stock and cross by a second century religious movement that (also) produced the documents of New Testament; (2) He is a composite of semi-historical characters, but no one in particular; (c) He is the reworking of an assortment of ancient dying and rising god myths, a little from here, a little from there.  There are sonata and fugue-like variations of these variations, but the central premise is that it is easier to explain the origin of Christianity without an historical founder than with one, and easier to explain the development of the New Testament as the work of garden variety story-makers, working out and reworking the myth of Jesus as the crowds began to come to the church door.  If the gospel-writers were Hertz, Paul was Avis: he tried harder and finally won the competition to get the wobbly faith off  the starting block.  (The fact that Paul failed miserably even to secure his own reputation into the second century is an inconvenient bit of business for the mythicists.)

Much of their  argument gets down to details, if not back of the fridge leftovers,  and much of what I have had to say about the topic so far has been in clarifying these details.  There will be plenty of scope to discuss the flaws and crevices in the “logic” of mythicism in my forthcoming book, though the book itself is about what we can reliably know about Jesus, not an assault on the Nichts da ist, und es gibt nichts zu wissen school.

I increasingly regard the “mythers” or “mythtics” or (more traditionally) “mythicists” as belligerent yahoos who behave like sophomores at an all-city debating contest. They are out to score (or claim to score) points against anyone suspected of what they label “historicism.”  In case you are interested in what that word means when they humpty dumpty it, it means anyone who believes in or defends the proposition that Jesus was real.

I have grown to dislike the mythtics because they are fighting for a cause they don’t fully understand, based on evidence they can’t cipher  for an objective they can’t reach.  I know that in  other contexts this might make them idealists or romantics, like Byron’s dying for Greek independence.  But idealism and romanticism are usually defined in relation to objects and intentions.  What are the objects and intentions of the mythicists? Why do they regard what they are doing as important?  Is it out of some desire for truth—to get to the bottom of a case and see historical justice done.  That would qualify as idealism.  Or is it simply to make their opponents look mean-spirited and wrong by pursuing immoderate ends in the rashest way.  That wouldn’t.

I regard them as hurtful because they are turning the serious question of Jesus of Nazareth’s existence into a farcical one.

Which raises the question I want to address here.  Why is it so important to certain people that Jesus did not exist?  Is it just the flip side of the importance of the premise that he did?

Before I get to that, however, a story.

The Roman historian Tacitus writing of the year 57 CE in his Annals (XIII.32,in about 114) discusses the trial of a certain Pomponia Graecina  a Greek woman married to a Roman solider–Aulus Plautius who was decorated for his bravery in the British campaign.  Pomponia had embraced what Tacitus calls a “foreign superstition” and was handed over to her husband for trial. Plautius found her innocent, together with some members of her family.  Interestingly Tacitus does not directly mention that the foreign superstition was Christianity.  The strong surmise that it was comes from later, third century inscriptions commemorating members of the gens Pomponia, who apparently led an austere life and like Pomponia dressed soberly (by the standards of the post-Neronian period)–“as though  they were always in mourning”   Tacitus says.  Importantly the date of her trial and her (presumably earlier) conversion corresponds to the average dates for Paul’s missionary activities and his earliest letters but predates any  involvement in Rome, which is thought to date from the late fifties or early sixties of the first century. Paul knows churches like the one Pomponia may have founded, but so did lots of missionaries preaching many different “gospels” during the same hyperactive period.  The trial of Pomponia simply illustrates the heterodox and competitive environment in which these stories were fashioned, and Tacitus bears indirect and inadvertent testimony to it.

Seven years later, in Tacitus’s discussion of the Neronian persecution (Annals, XV, 44), the same xenophobia sets in: for a major fire probably caused by accident Nero blames a foreign sect “hated for their abominations, called Christians,”  and then continues:  “Christus, from whom their name is derived was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.”  He goes on, “Checked for a moment, this pernicious superstition again broke out not only in Judaea, the source of the evil, but even in Rome, that cesspool of everything that is sordid and degrading.”  He then describes the process by which people accused of belonging to the sect could be tried, a process for which there is strong evidence in the famous letter of Pliny the younger to Trajan some fifty years after Nero’s rule.  The fire was real enough: four of the fourteen districts of Rome escaped the fire; three districts were completely destroyed and the other seven suffered serious damage.  Christian forgers later tried to blame Nero; and in the second century Dio Cassius accused Nero of playing his lyre during a production of his favourite epic, the “Sack of Ilium” while the city was burning.  It is Tacitus’s sober report that Nero was not in the city at the time and that when he saw the damage, paid for the relief efforts out of his own pocket (Annals, XV.39).

Mythtics spend a lot of time denying or countering evidence while always demanding more of it.  Thus for example, they might want to say the following about the above passage: (1) It only goes to show that there was a movement called Christianity; (2) the fact there is a third century cult named after someone named Pomponia does not prove it was the same Pomponia; it might have been anyone; (3) Tacitus could have got the very basic information about the historical “location” of Jesus in relation to Tiberius and Pilate from Christians who had come to believe this (though probably not from literary sources); but why bother since (4) how do we know Tacitus really wrote this? Weren’t the Christians master forgers and interpolators?  Didn’t they mess with purported references to Jesus in the work of Flavius Josephus? The best proof of which is that they made Jesus up.

Most historians would regard this treatment of sources not just absurd and flatfooted but dizzying in its circularity,  especially as Tacitus died only a few years after the younger Pliny’s famous letter, written ca. 111 (Pliny jr. was a great admirer of Tacitus)  and was born, according to the best evidence, in a year when Paul would have been missionizing the provinces and prior to any “first edition” of the gospels.  That makes his scant but direct reference to Jesus significant, not least because it is entirely lacking a theological motif and seems conservatively Roman in its denunciation of the Christ cult as a “superstition” (lit. a new religion).  His distaste for the actions of the faith will be echoed by Celsus, by Porphyry  and even after the legitimation of Christianity under the final pagan emperor Julian.

Take a breath: and note well.  No one is suggesting that a reference in Tacitus written at the end of 116 CE about events of 64 CE can be considered a clincher for the historical Jesus.  However neither Tacitus nor Suetonius later, nor Celsus, nor Josephus if he mentions Jesus at all, raise the slightest doubt that Jesus was a flesh and blood character from their recent past.  I repeat, their recent past.  We have often established the irrefragable historicity of persons in the ancient world with much less to go on. In fact, the circumstantial proof for details of Tacitus’s own life are pretty scant; and they come from Pliny, who was soft on Christianity.  What might we want to conclude from that?  Please don’t write in with suggestions: it’s called irony.

The reason that the mythtics are determined to hide the evidence under their bed  and then ask where it is seems to come from the darker regions of intentionality.  So let me be direct.

It is important to them that Jesus should not exist.  It is important to them in a way that the existence of Proclus or Anacreon or Alcibiades or even Socrates is not. The mythtics don’t want history, they want a victory. They don’t want serious discussion or best interpretation, they want to score points.  Almost every discussion I have seen on their sites or mythtic-friendly atheist sites resembles nothing so much as the citizens of Lilliput trying to pin down a sleeping Gulliver with sewing thread, with lots of back-slapping and cheer-leading points presumed to be won against mainstream scholars with more…conservative ideas.

They don’t want there to be a historical Jesus because they think that if there wasn’t they have somehow zapped the “foul superstition” Tacitus describes right out of existence.   No historical Jesus  no son of God, no resurrection,  no salvation, no final judgement, no heaven above or hell below.  Christianity (do you hear me brothers and sisters?) is fucked. It is a lie built on a myth, sustained by dishonesty and fed to the ignorant.  The historical Jesus is the key to exposing the falsehood of it all–including the deceit of the grandly glorious Roman Catholic church and the backwater Pentecostal assemblies who have made their reputation by poisoning minds and ruining lives with their fakery and dogma.  The stakes are high, so the tactics have to be mean.  This Jesus (myth) must die.

The agenda for the mythtics is as theological–or maybe better, evangelical– as the agenda of the Christian apologists: it’s a winner- take- all game based on the idea that Christianity is vulnerable on this score in roughly the same way that most atheists believe the existence of God is buggered by the classic problems of theodicy.

I anticipated the confusion of ends and means in a couple of essays in the collection Sources of the Jesus Tradition.  The essays were primarily intended as orientation rather than scholarship, but I have reason to think that the mythtics didn’t give them much time.  To make it easy, an early and less refined version of the lead essay, “Of Love and Chairs,” is available at The Bible and Interpretation.  Ideally, it should give rise to discussion–but I am pessimistic that it will.   It offers very little: it makes the pretty obvious point  that the existence of God and the existence of Jesus are two different things unless (a) you believe Jesus is God or (b) you believe that a Jesus who did not exist cannot have been God, which might also have some impact on some ideas of God as well.

A serious discussion of the historicity of Jesus does not arise from either of those beliefs.  The existence of Jesus is not a theological problem.  It should not be motivated by events in our own religious biographies and experiences.  It is not a case in metaphysics.   It is an historical question that should be free of theological ends and metaphysical implications.  Otherwise, it cannot be answered.

The Revelation

غار حراء


You are as dark as your name

but is there something more?

What of the one who’s not the same

minute to minute, for

You specialize in being unknown–

Except for your shoulders or

Your breasts cupped, or a frown

That melts into a self-approving smile

When I am caught speechless

In beauty’s glare and bravery overtakes you.


I thought I loved your neck the most–

It has a fleshy resonance, a certain style–

But now, I think, I like the rest

Of you.  I have become a connoisseur

Who hopes like Moses for a sign

And waits, expecting you to lure

Samson from his sleep with naked thighs.


And will it come, this final vision?

Will you make my life dance

Like so many dervishes in fast

And furious step, until they chance

To say, Listen! The music’s done, at last.

Or will you, thighs clad,

Retreat into my lengthening past,

Like my shadow, like your mad

Ideas, by what this love will cost?