Vita Brevis

Following graduation from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Oxford, R. Joseph Hoffmann was tutor in Greek at Keble College and Senior Scholar at St Cross College, Oxford, and Wissenschaftlicher Assistent in Patristics and Classical Studies at the University of Heidelberg.

St Cross, St Giles Entry

He began his teaching career at the University of Michigan as Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies where he developed the undergraduate and graduate program in Christian origins. From 1991 to 1999, he was Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Church History at Westminster College, Oxford. Hoffmann has also taught at Cal State Sacramento, the American University of Beirut and Wells College, where he was Campbell Professor of Religion and Human Values until 2006 and Distinguished Scholar at Goddard College in 2009.

He has held visiting positions at universities in Africa (Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Botswana), the Middle East, the Pacific (Australia and Papua New Guinea) and South Asia, most recently as Visiting Professor of History at LUMS in Lahore, Pakistan and as Professor of Historical Linguistics at the Graduate University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing,  Beyond academe, he is well known for his advocacy of  the humanist tradition.  He was Chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion until 2010, a senior vice president of the Center for Inquiry until 2008 and a founding faculty member (1986) of the Humanist Institute.  In his recent work, Hoffmann has turned increasingly to the work of  “humanist restoration”–a project designed to reconsider the richness of the humanist legacy in the arts and sciences apart from recent attempts to emphasize the purely rationalistic and naturalistic varieties of humanism that emerged in the late twentieth century.

Hoffmann has focused on the controversial aspects of Christian origins, with special reference to early heresies, gnosticism, and the pagan philosophical critiques of the Christian movement. His most recent books include an edited volume entitled Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2006) and Sources of the Jesus Tradition (2010.)

His study of the concept of the right to life in early Christianity, Faith and Foeticide, will be published in 2012, along with another in his series of translations of the classical philosophical critiques of the Christian movement: Christianity: The Minor Critics.  

With Maurice Casey, Stephanie Fisher, and James Crossley, he is a director of The Jesus Process, a consultation of scholars committed to non-parochial and non-theological investigations of the early Jesus traditions.


28 thoughts on “Vita Brevis

  1. Hi Dr. Hoffmann. I am very interested to see where the Jesus Project will go. I’ve read all of Robert M. Price’s and Earl Doherty’s stuff. A friend of mine also turned me onto “The Pious Fraud” by John MacDonald at (the paper is not of academic quality style-wise, but the ideas are thought provoking) – anyway, keep up the great work; Randy

    • Hi Randolph: watch this space–we have a meeting coming up in the autumn at Stanford (Locating Jesus) and it promises to be the first big step ‘forward” for the Project.

  2. Hi all:

    I haven’t read Earl Doherty, but I have read Price’s “Deconstructing Jesus,” “Incredible Shrinking Son of Man,” and “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash.” MacDonald’s article that you refer to is fun. I don’t think he ‘proves’ anything (it’s more like the Da Vinci Code than scholarship), but I’m guessing that people who approach the bible from a secular point of view, not believing in the divinity of Christ, probably think something like that probably happened.

    I asked my Divinity professor and he said he didn’t think the Jesus project will result in anything valuable because the real question is not whether Jesus existed or not, but whether the stories about him (as Price seems to think) are basically a curtain of haggadic midrash behind which you can stick your hand and feel around, but never go behind or come up with anything tangible. Barrie Wilson (How Jesus Became Christian 2008) once told me that there is a major schism between New Testament Scholars. On the one hand, you have scholars who, over twenty years ago, found Wolfgang Roth’s “Hebrew Gospel: Cracking The Code Of Mark” persuasive and followed the line of scholarship that went from there, and on the other hand there are those for whom Roth was unpersuasive or for whom whose book went under the radar.

    My question would be, if the New Testament writers were basically just Rewriting Homer, Josephus, The Septuagint, and Euripides Bacchae, as Price says, why on earth were they doing it? Price links it to something akin to what happened with Mormanism and Joseph Smith, but Smith never attempted anything as precise and cryptic as what Price sees in the New Testament.

    Did the writers intend an initial stage where a more literal interpretation of the New Testament would facilitate a taking over of the world according to the bringing forth of their worldview, whereby only later, through tireless scholarship (at time of science and reason), the New Testament would be recognized for what it was (made up) and discarded because at that stage it wouldn’t be needed any more (because the world would have matured from the disastrous age in which the Jesus stories were passed down)?

    I trust Dr. Hoffmann. He will offer focus and guidance to this project and direct the scholars toward results that will be meaningful, not just for professors, but for the average person believer and non-believer, who has a curiosity about religion

    • My question would be, if the New Testament writers were basically just Rewriting Homer, Josephus, The Septuagint, and Euripides Bacchae, as Price says, why on earth were they doing it?>>

      Hi Ally. I strongly disagree with my friend Bob price: there would have been no reason for re-writing the ancient poets–in fact, I doubt very much whether there are any deliberate literary overlaps. If there is a heavy dose of the mythical and the supernatural, it simply means we are dealing with the sort of literature that was being written in the first and second century: the Greek historians are full of it (myth I mean) and the Romans follow suit. I don’t think we can expect the gospels to be “Better than” people who thought they were doing history.


      • Hi Dr. Hoffmann: If it was just part and parcel of the writing of that time to include myth, then how do you separate out the historical stuff from the legendary stuff. You can’t do it just on the basis of “the natural sounding stuff” is the historical stuff because even Oddysseus had “mundane” parts of his journey that were still, in no way, real. This is a fundamental problem that goes beyond simply pointing out contradictions, like the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, and the stories about where Jesus was taken after he was born (mutliple attestations of the same account don’t resolve this problem because there are also multiple agreeing source accounts about what certain Greek Gods did). Another problem I have are fundamental doctrinal contradictions. For example,

        (A) For example, God’s knowledge is self contradictory:

        Either he knows everything about you and your future: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart for my holy purpose. I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1-5)“, or else God doesn’t know everything about you (though he may know your future) “the LORD God called to the man, ‘Where are you?‘“(Genesis 3:8); or else God knows nothing regarding your future or even what He Himself is going to do regarding it “Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though ‘you incited me’ against him to ruin him without any reason. (Job 2:3)“

        (B) Also, God’s laws are self-contradictory. For Example:

        (1) It’s wrong to lie:

        Exodus 20:16
        Thou shalt not bear false witness.

        Exodus 23:1
        Thou shalt not raise a false report.

        Exodus 23:7
        Keep thee far from a false matter.

        Leviticus 6:2-4
        If a soul … lie unto his neighbour … or hath deceived his neighbour … Or have found that which was lost, and lieth concerning it, and sweareth falsely. … Then … he shall restore that which he took.

        Leviticus 19:11
        Neither lie one to another.

        Deuteronomy 5:20
        Neither shalt thou bear false witness.

        Proverbs 12:22
        Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.

        Proverbs 13:5
        A righteous man hateth lying.

        Proverbs 24:28
        Be not a witness against thy neighbour without cause; and deceive not with thy lips.

        Luke 3:14
        Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely.

        Ephesians 4:25
        Wherefore putting away lying, speaking every man truth with his neighbor.

        Colossians 3:9
        Lie not one to another.

        Revelation 21:8
        All liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.

        Revelation 21:27
        And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

        (2) It’s okay to lie and can even be the thing that makes you righteous

        Joshua 2:4-6
        And the woman [Rahab] took the two men and hid them and said thus: There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were; and it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark that the men went out; whither the men went I wot not; pursue after them quickly, for ye shall overtake them. But she had brought them up to the roof of the house and hid them with the stalks of flax.

        James 2:25
        Was not Rahab, the harlot, justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?.

        Exodus 1:18-20
        And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men-children alive? And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives.

        1 Kings 22:21-22
        And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him .. I will go forth and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him and prevail also; go forth and do so.

        2 Kings 8:10
        And Elisha said unto him, go, say unto him, Thou mayest certainly recover: howbeit the Lord hath showed me that he shall surely die.

        The one on lying I took from the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (which brings out many contradictions), which is on the internet

        How can we tell what in the bible is reliable?

  3. Of course your right Ally. The disjunction between The God of Jeremiah and that of Job is probably one of the classic examples.

    “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart for my holy purpose. I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1-5)“

    “Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though ‘you incited me’ against him to ruin him without any reason. (Job 2:3)“

    The God presented in the Jeremiah passage is a God of total knowledge and foresight, who knows us in our past, present, and future. The God of the Job passage is quite different. He didn’t know he would bring Job to ruin, and by extension he didn’t know Job in his past, present and future. He says quite clearly “you incited me,” and even more emphatically in the King James version he said “thou movedst me.” God did not know He was going to do what the Devil ‘incited’ him to do. The language is plain and clear. The devil had a causal effect on God. The God of Job is not a God of total knowledge and foresight – or else He ‘chose’ not to be such a God in Job’s case and only chose to exercise the power of foresight in the previous case.

    And this goes on. Go to one place you find a God of war (Exodus 15:3
    he Lord is a man of war.Psalm 18:34 He teacheth my hands to war. Psalm 144:1
    Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight), others a God of peace (Romans 15:33 The God of Peace. 1 Corinthians 14:33 God is not the author of confusion but of peace. 2 Thessalonians 3:16 The Lord of peace himself give you peace always.
    Hebrews 13:20 The God of peace…..,) others a God of Jealousy (Exodus 20:5
    You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, Exodus 20:4-6, Exodus 34:14 Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Exodus 34:13-15 Deuteronomy 4:24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, Deuteronomy 6:15 for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. Deuteronomy 6:14-16 Deuteronomy 32:16 They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols.
    Joshua 24:19 Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. Nahum 1:2 [ The Lord ‘s Anger Against Nineveh ] The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies.,) others a God of love (Exodus 34:6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, Deuteronomy 7:9
    Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. Deuteronomy 7:12 If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the LORD your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers. 1 Kings 8:23
    and said: “O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.1 Kings 10:9 Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king, to maintain justice and righteousness.” 2 Chronicles 6:14 He said: “O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven or on earth—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.Psalm 136:2 Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever), and so on and so forth.

    You get the same thing with Jesus. Is Jesus a Jesus of Peace (Luke 2:14
    Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.John 14:27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. John 16:33 These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. Acts 10:36 The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ.) Or of conflict (Matthew 10:34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. Luke 12:51 Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. Luke 22:36 He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. Revelation 19:11 And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war), or is the real Jesus the Jesus of Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, or John, or Paul, Or Q1, Or is there a stratification of Q, or is there a Q at all, or some combinational variant?

    I only cited a small fraction of passages, but people pick and choose their favorite God and Savior, emphasizing certain passages and de-emphasizing others.

  4. I know Dr Hoffmann and Dr. Price disagree on this point but I find Dr. Price’s “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash” very compelling. If not the Haggadic Midrash argument, I would like to know what Dr. Hoffmann thinks are reasons to bring the historicity of Jesus into question, if indeed he has any. This article on Dr. Ehrman is also very good.

  5. Another interesting vein in the midrash hypothesis is Proto Luke. Some deny the Q hypothesis and argue for the Proto Luke hypothesis. Proto-Luke is a hypothetical document that may have been the main source for the gospel writers. Modelled on the Elihja-Elisha narrative of 1 and 2 Kings it is an alternative theory to the Q hypothesis. Proto-Luke has been reconstructed by Dr Tom Brodie (Dominican Biblical Institute, Limerick, Ireland) and is largely made up of material in Luke-Acts, but can be found in Mark, Matthew and John also. The theory is not unconvincing and explains the ‘synoptic problem’ more convincingly than the Q hypothesis. However, it has yet to be taken seriously by the academic community at large. However, a conference in Limerick in April of 2008 saw top scholars such as Dr. John Kloppenborg and Dr. Dennis MacDonald discussing Proto-Luke seriously which will result in a publication in the next few years which should see wider Proto-Luke discussion.

    • No, this ‘about page’, about the philosopher who composes articles for this website, is quite possibly written by the elusive Scipio, and your analogy is just plain false. For someone with a made up pseudonym like you, I’m surprised at your seeming lack of imagination and creativity.

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  7. When is your book Christianity: The Minor Critics coming out i would like to buy it.
    I have read celsus the true doctrine and i liked it very much.

  8. Dear Joe,
    I post from the hospital, my 94 years has caughjt up with me a bit, but no I am going to make it for a while longer. God is good! I still stand by my reconstruction of post-Easter traditions see The Importance of the Histroical Jesus Ed Jones, Comments. I must say our most certain access to the the historical person Jesus is the Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5:3-7:27, no bio. just sayings which is all that we need.
    This is our closest source to the original and originating faith and witness of the apostles. None of the writings of the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT is apostolic witness.
    Take a look at Critical Ink: Ed Jones on A viable solution to the “Jesus Puzzle”. Note John’s LINK, Again I relish your generous comment: “Ed Thank you so much foir thart – filled with wisdom and knowledge – like Job!”.
    I will be posting again soon. Hasten to the point of it all – the Sermon! Keep at it.

  9. Joe, I post on a hospital computer, but no my 94 years has just caught up with me a bit. God is good – I expect a few more.
    I still stand by my reconstruction of post Easter Jesus traditions see: The Importance of the Historical Jesus – Ed Jones Comments. The reconstruction was not edited but it can be read. See all of my comments.
    You once said “I see what Betz sees in the Sermon on the Mount, Math. 5:3-7:27. It is here that we find the person the historical Jesus. Hasten to tjhis lead. It is not a bio. just sayings, all that we need and more! I follow your proigress with real interest. Hasten to the Sermon, It is your short cut to finding the real Jesus.
    I still re;ish your comment to my post “A viable solution to the “Jesus Puzzle”. Try going by way of Debunking Christianity: Ed Jones on a Viable solution to the “Jesus Puzzle, note John’s Link. I will comment futher.

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