Presenting at the Pacific Coast Region SBL Meeting Tomorrow

If you are in the area, I will be presenting at the Pacific Coast Region Society of Biblical Literature meeting tomorrow. The time and location are below:

Sunday, March 11, 2018 (8:00am-6:30pm)
Hope International University
2500 E. Nutwood Ave.
Fullerton, California 92831

I’m scheduled to present at one of the early morning sessions–“New Testament: Epistles and Apocalypse I”–starting at 8:30am. You can read the program for the meeting here. The paper that I will be presenting at the meeting–titled “Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation”–is based on the article that I published recently with PLLS. Here is the abstract:

“The Alexander Romance is an open textual tradition comprised of numerous sources about the myths and exploits of Alexander the Great. The letter to Olympias is a special source in book 2 of the AR, appended to the text of recension β, but missing from recension α. The letter consists of a first person celestial travel narrative, in which Alexander journeys to the ends of the earth, descends into the sea, and flies into the air.

During his journey, Alexander describes seeing giant creatures with forearms and hands like saws, birds with human faces, and many other marvels. Although the preceding narrative in the AR is already quite legendary, the letter to Olympias stands out for its heightened fantastic elements, and it is written according to different generic conventions than the rest of the text.

Behind the baroque imagery in the letter is an eschatological undercurrent, in which Alexander pushes the world to its very limits. Similar themes of eschatology can also be found in other ancient accounts of celestial visions, such as the Book of Revelation. In the vision of John of Patmos he sees winged creatures covered in eyeballs, angelic beings, and the end of days. Unlike Alexander, who had merely traveled to the end of this world, John sees the world to come.

The letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation offer two competing eschatologies. Alexander represents an earthly eschatology, whereas Christ represents an apocalyptic eschatology. Alexander may have been the greatest king of the Greeks, but Jesus is king over a divine and eternal kingdom. Comparing the eschatology in Revelation to other celestial travel accounts, such as the letter to Olympias, will shed light on the text’s role in defining the borders between the Christian and Greco-Roman worlds.”

You can also read this earlier blog post that I wrote on the same topic, in which I flesh out some more of my arguments and analysis. I look forward to presenting at the regional SBL meeting again. I last presented in 2016, and would have done so in 2017 (on the same paper as this year), but had to cancel due to a family related issue. I’m glad that I get a second chance to present the paper again this year, since I think that it is one of the most interesting research topics in my studies yet!

-Matthew Ferguson

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Some New Peer-Reviewed Publications

I have been quite busy this quarter teaching as part of the Humanities Core at UC Irvine. So far we have covered the Incan Empire and Shakespeare’s Tempest, and we are now beginning to explore British colonialism in India. All of these subjects are outside of my ordinary academic background, and so I have been having to do a lot of reading to expand my inter-disciplinary horizons. It’s an excellent learning experience, but it has also been keeping me very busy. I got up at 1am this morning to grade (ironically enough) a student blog assignment. I’m currently enjoying that good feeling a teacher gets after finishing the grind of grading a (virtual, in this case) stack of assignments.

Since I am a bit preoccupied at the moment with teaching and dissertation work, I thought I’d announce some recent peer-reviewed articles that I am publishing. First off, I have a 12,000 word article coming out this year with Francis Cairns Publications, as part of the Langford Latin Seminar. It’s their 17th volume, the topic of which is “Ancient Biography: Identity through Lives.” Since Greco-Roman biography is probably my greatest research emphasis, I was obviously quite glad to have an opportunity to publish with this volume. The title of my article is “Comparative Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation.” It expands and develops an idea that I had in this earlier blog essay. Here is the abstract for the article:

“This article makes a comparison of the Letter to Olympias, affixed to the end of book two of the Alexander Romance (2.23–41), with Greco-Roman and Christian apocalyptic literature, with aim toward interpreting many of the eschatological themes in the text, particularly with regard to Alexander’s quest to seek “the end of the world” (τὸ τέλος τῆς γῆς, 2.37). Alexander attempts to journey to the “Land of the Blessed” (μακάρων χώρα, 2.39), whence he is turned back by two birds with human faces (2.40), he fails to drink from the “Spring of Immortality” (ἀθανάτου … πηγή, 2.39), and a flying creature in the form of a man points him back to the earth when he “comes close to ascending to heaven” (πλησίον τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ὑπάρχειν, 2.41). These setbacks are interpreted as reflecting the limitations of a terrestrial eschatology, which is bound to an eschaton that can only reach the ends of a mortal sphere on earth. This terrestrial eschatology is contrasted with the celestial eschatology in the Book of Revelation, in which the present world is destroyed (21:1), and a New Jerusalem descends from heaven (21:2).”

The volume is scheduled to be published on May 15, 2018. I’ll discuss more details about it when it hits the press. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to post the article electronically, due to copyright, so you will have to purchase the volume or obtain it from a library to read it. I will check with the editor, however, to see if I can privately send electronic copies to people, by request, online.

The other two articles are on the Secular Web. Both are expanded and heavily footnoted versions of blog essays that I originally wrote here on Κέλσος. The first is my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” which contrasts the compositional methods and genre of the NT Gospels with those of ancient historians–like Thucydides and Tacitus–and historical biographers–like Plutarch and Suetonius, and likewise addresses the question of how the Gospels’ genre affects their historical reliability. The article is over 13,500 words long and can be viewed online through the linked title above.

The other article is “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels,” which discusses the anonymity of the NT Gospels and the problems surrounding their traditional apostolic authorial attributions. The article not only summarizes why mainstream NT scholars doubt the patristic attributions of the Gospels to their traditional names, but also explains from a Classical perspective why the Gospels’ authorial attributions are not as reliable as those for other texts from antiquity, such as the authorial attributions for the works of Tacitus and Plutarch. This article is over 36,800 words long, and also can be viewed through the linked title above.

All together, these publications add up to over 60,000 words, which is about the length of a short book. I also just finished a draft for a short book chapter, as part of another publication that I am currently working on. Right now I have a lot of projects that I am developing as part of my long-term plans. I’m currently working on my dissertation, which (assuming all goes well) will eventually turn into a scholarly monograph, and I still plan to develop a counter-apologetics book out of the content on this blog at some point. All of this will take time, but for now, I am happy to announce that some fruit as been borne.

-Matthew Ferguson

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Κέλσος Ranked in the Top 30 Atheist Blogs on Feedspot

I’ve been busy recently working on a publication, so I haven’t had time to post new content, but I do have some good news. Recently Κέλσος was ranked #13 out of the Top 30 Atheist Blogs on Feedspot, which ranks “The Best Atheist blogs from thousands of top Atheist blogs in our index using search and social metrics.”

More good news for the site! As always, consider supporting the blog on Patreon if you support the work here. Onward and upward!

-Matthew Ferguson

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Bart Ehrman and Jodi Magness on the Burial of Jesus and the Empty Tomb

It’s been almost four years since Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God was published, and one of the points of controversy that arose when the book was first released is the fact that Ehrman does not endorse the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Jesus, nor the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb as a “historical fact” surrounding the earliest beliefs in the resurrection. Ehrman is hardly the only biblical scholar to hold this view, since as I have discussed before, there are several scholars who doubt these claims, showing that there is nothing like an academic consensus agreeing that they are “minimal facts” about the origins of Christianity.

One of the biggest criticisms of Ehrman’s book was his discussion of Jesus’ burial, and that he did not interact with his colleague Jodi Magness at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the bibliography of the book, despite Magness’ expertise on burial practices in Palestine during the time of Jesus. As Greg Monette writes:

“One could only wished for Ehrman’s sake that he knocked on professor Magness’ door down the hall from his own at the University of North Carolina. His book would have greatly benefited from it.”

Based on Ehrman’s arguments for doubting the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial, however, and from what I have read of Magness’ own scholarship, I will argue that Ehrman’s thesis can be only slightly modified to still argue that Jesus was given an anonymous ground burial. To be sure, I agree with Monette that Ehrman’s discussion could be expanded to include Magness’ scholarship. But it is not to defend the empty tomb tradition in the Gospels.

Continue reading

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Numismatic Evidence that Corroborates Suetonius’ Life of Otho and Contradicts the Gospels

Keener and WrightTo follow up on my previous review of Christian scholar Craig Keener’s “Otho: A Targeted Comparison” in Biographies and Jesus, I’d like to briefly discuss the relevance of numismatic evidence in evaluating Suetonius’ Life of Otho in comparison to the NT Gospels.

Numismatics is the study of ancient currency, and is particularly relevant to the study of Roman emperors, since the rulers of the Roman Empire would stamp their faces on the currency in circulation throughout the Mediterranean. A number of years ago I took a seminar on Roman numismatics with professor Edward Watts at UC San Diego, in which I did a research project on the emperor Otho and the currency he circulated with his image during his short reign. It is also relevant to another seminar that I took with professor Michele Salzman at UC Riverside in which I did a research project related to the depiction of Roman taxation in the Gospel of Matthew. My research in both seminars is relevant to evaluating Keener’s argument that Suetonius’ historical reliability can be compared to that of the NT Gospels.

Numismatics is a useful piece of data for assessing historical reliability, since ancient coins furnish archaeological evidence that we can use to corroborate (or contradict) ancient narratives. The historical claim of Suetonius in question, which is relevant to numismatics, is a peculiar of detail of Otho that he discusses about his hair (12.1):

“He had the hair of his body plucked out, and because of the thinness of his locks wore a wig so carefully fashioned and fitted to his head, that no one suspected it.”

So the emperor Otho apparently had the custom of wearing a wig. Is there any way that we could corroborate this detail that Suetonius gives with archaeological evidence? Well actually there is. During my seminar with Watts, I gave a presentation on some Roman denarii minted during his reign, and one of the things that Watts pointed out during my presentation is that the coins actually depict Otho wearing a wig. If you take a close look at the denarius below, you may notice that there is something funny about his hair:

To make the detail of his wig more prominent, I’ve included another denarius of the emperor Nero below, in which his hair is depicted in the standard fashion:

And so, outside material remains confirm that Suetonius had gotten this detail of Otho correct in his biography. We can also use numismatics to corroborate other information Suetonius gives about the Roman emperors, such as another detail about the emperor Galba. In his Life of Galba (5.2), Suetonius claims that the emperor Galba had a special connection with Augustus’ wife Livia, writing:

He showed marked respect to Livia Augusta, to whose favour he owed great influence during her lifetime and by whose last will he almost became a rich man; for he had the largest bequest among her legatees, one of fifty million sesterces. But because the sum was designated in figures and not written out in words, Tiberius, who was her heir, reduced the bequest to five hundred thousand, and Galba never received even that amount.”

Once more numismatic evidence comes to our aid in corroborating this detail, since it turns out that, when Galba first became emperor, he actually minted coins that depict Livia Augusta on the reverse. Below is another Roman denarius that depicts both Galba and Livia together:

The connection that Galba drew with the house of Augustus and the empress Livia was a special part of his propaganda when he first became emperor, which is discussed by scholar Colin Kraay in The Coinage of Vindex and Gaiba A.D. 68, and the Continuity of the Augustan Principate.

And so, when it comes to his anecdotes about these Roman emperors, what the evidence of ancient currency bears out is that Suetonius tends to know what he is talking about. Can such numismatic evidence be used to evaluate the depiction of events found in the NT Gospels? Well, it turns out that it can. But rather than corroborating the Gospels, what scholar Fabian Udoh finds in To Caesar What Is Caesar’s–a scholarly monograph on tax administration in Roman Palestine from 63 BCE to 70 CE–is that the archaeological record actually contradicts the Gospel narratives.

Surely all of us have heard the famous saying of Jesus, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” found in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Mk. 12:17; Mt. 22:21; Lk. 20:25). The context of the saying is when hostile questioners try to trap Jesus into taking a stance on whether Jews should or should not pay taxes to the Roman authorities. Clever as he is, Jesus reframes the matter, by specifying that Roman taxes are a secular matter, as the denarius they hand Jesus bears the face of Caesar, and is thus one his possessions, rather than something pertaining to God. In the Gospel of Matthew (22:15-22), the full passage reads:

“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.

‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’ 

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ 

They brought him a denariusand he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’

Caesar’s,’ they replied. 

Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ 

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.” 

While an excellent moment for displaying Jesus’ rhetorical wit, however, the scene does pose a historical-critical question: did the Judeans of this period actually pay Roman taxes using the denarius?

Roman denarius of Tiberius

By studying archaeological evidence such as the coin hoards excavated from this period, Udoh argues that this is unlikely. Interacting with the research of Donald Ariel in “A Survey of Coin Finds in Jerusalem,” who provides a systematic analysis of surface excavations and coin finds, Udoh points out that significant numbers of denarii are found in Palestine only after 69 CE, particularly from the reign of Vespasian onward. This was because, after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, the currency and government in Judea changed dramatically. However, prior to this time (and during the time of Jesus) the primary silver currency in Palestine was the Tyrian shekel. For example, a coin hoard discovered at Isfiya, which contained coins dating from 40 BCE-53 CE, contained 4,400 Tyrian coins compared to only 160 denarii, of which about 30 were of Tiberius (Udoh, pg. 235). To be sure, a few denarii made their way to Palestine through circulation, but this proportion shows that Tyrian shekels were the dominant currency that would have been used for taxation in coin.

In light of this evidence, Udoh (pg. 236) concludes, “the imperial denarii were not required for Roman taxation, and they did not form the basis of the silver currency of the region. The connection that is made in the Gospels, especially in Matt 22:19, between Roman taxation in Judea and the denarius does not offer any specific historical information about taxation in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime.” What is especially interesting about this insight is that the traditional author of the Gospels of Matthew is even reputed to have been a tax collector, specifically a toll collector (τελώνης) in Galilee. That he would thus make a mistake about the currency used for taxation is rather peculiar, though such an error does fit with the fact that the majority of mainstream biblical scholars agree that the traditional authorial attribution is spurious.

Furthermore, taxation in Palestine was not administered by the Romans, but by the Jewish authorities, and it was collected by Jewish agents rather than Roman agents (this was done to make the presence of Roman imperialism less obvious). In the case of Matthew’s occupation as a toll collector, Udoh (pg. 241) explains, “If toll collection was leased out to contractors in Judea, it appears that both the contractors and their agents were Jews.”

As reviewer Ed Cohen explains, summarizing Udoh’s findings in Notre Dame Magazine (“Biblical Tax Story Rendered Implausible”):

“To determine the authenticity of Jesus’ pronouncement, Udoh looked at elements of the story: Did a Roman tax exist in Jesus’s time that everyone was required to pay? Was payment required in a particular Roman coin? Would that coin have borne the likeness of the emperor, and if so, would it have been circulating in such abundance that Jesus could have reasonably expected one to be produced on the spot?

First, Udoh finds no evidence from the period of a census-based, per-capita tribute or ‘poll tax,’ as the word in Matthew and Mark is customarily translated. Any assessments by Rome, he says, likely would have been based on agricultural production and paid in-kind with farm products like grain. In fact, by Udoh’s analysis, Rome did not impose a ‘per capita’ tribute on the people in Judea until 70 CE. He also finds no evidence of a direct tribute requiring payment in Roman money. Finally, he observes that since colonial taxes are notoriously difficult to collect, requiring payment in a specific coin would have only made collection more difficult.

As for the Roman coin Jesus calls for, a silver denarius, these did exist during the time of his ministry, and they would have borne the likeness of Caesar Augustus or Tiberius. But while denarii would have been recognized by people in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’s time, Udoh says, archeological findings suggest they were not the silver coin being used at the time. That coin was the Tyrian shekel.

For these reasons Udoh believes that the render-unto-Caesar story probably originated from a later time or another place.”

And so, the passage is either anachronistic or is conflating a tax imposed from another region than Palestine. If it refers to a tax imposed at a later date, it could be because Mark (the first gospel in which it appears) was composed after 70 CE, which was the earliest time that such a tax was imposed in Palestine. If it is from another region, it could be because Christians in those areas were struggling with the issue of whether they should pay Roman taxes [1], and the authors of the NT Gospels felt the need to address the question, by spuriously placing a saying on the lips of Jesus that he actually never spoke.

But unlike in the case of Suetonius’ writings, wherein numismatic evidence confirms the details of his narrative, here the evidence of ancient coins does not bear out the narrative of the Gospels. Beyond the problems I noted in my previous review of Keener, this is another reason why we probably shouldn’t be comparing legendary texts like the Gospels to a historical biographer like Suetonius.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] An additional argument from silence may be added against the notion that the historical Jesus had spoken in favor of paying taxes to the Roman authorities, based on Paul’s letters. In Romans 13:6-7, Paul states:

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”

Paul tends to mention when he had a previous teaching of Jesus available on a matter of Christian practice (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1411:22-24), and so his failure to mention Jesus’ alleged teaching on paying Roman taxes carries some weight in this passage against the notion that there was such a previous teaching. It’s also worth noting that Paul’s reasoning differs somewhat from Jesus’, since Paul equates the governing authorities with being servants of God, whereas Jesus disassociates Caesar from God.

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Nicholas Covington Reviews “The Case for Christ: The Movie”

Nicholas Covington, who blogs at Hume’s Apprentice, has recently written a review on Amazon of the new The Case for Christ movie edition. Covington’s review discusses issues such as the preponderance of post-mortem hallucinations in religious movements, the growing legendary development in the NT accounts of Jesus’ burial and empty tomb, and the broader Mediterranean context of resurrection and deification.

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 5.47.53 PM

I’ve discussed problems with the book version of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ on this blog before. Reading Strobel’s arguments, when I was getting my M.A. in Classics and Ancient History, was one of the first things that got me involved in counter-apologetics. As someone who was independently looking at historical methodology and ancient texts, I was appalled at how greatly Strobel dumbed down the critical issues, misrepresented scholarship, and gave false impression to his lay readers.

Check out Convington’s Amazon review for a detailed discussion of more problems with Strobel’s arguments: “Read this review to find out why Strobel can’t convince Atheists

-Matthew Ferguson

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Upcoming Interview with Michael Cain on the Freeligion Podcast

I am quite busy with dissertation work right now, so I will get back to my dialogue with Trevor Luke on the miracles of Jesus as soon as I can. In the meantime, I have an announcement to make about an upcoming podcast interview that I have planned. I will be interviewed by Michael Cain, who runs the Freeligion Podcast, on the subject of historical apologetics.

Cain served as the moderator during my panel debate in Riverside last year. We are still working out what topics we will discuss, but we may cover how to distinguish stronger historical apologetics from weaker ones. During that debate, for example, a number of arguments came up about trying to defend the Gospels as forensic, court documents, which is frankly bogus methodology. There is no precedent in Classical Studies for investigating a historian like Tacitus, for example, as we would a witness in court. Even minimal facts apologetics, which attempt to use historical methodology, are a far more valid approach to defending things like the resurrection than juridicial apologetics, which have no parallel in other areas of ancient history.

Right now, Cain and I are planning to hold the interview sometime later this year, and the podcast should be available shortly after that. Let me know in the comments if there are any topics relating to historical apologetics that you are also interested in us discussing!

-Matthew Ferguson

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