Monthly Archives: April 2012

Paypal Bans Sales of the Bible

In February Paypal went on the offensive to target small-press and independent publishers of books containing sexual content including:

“pedophilia, incest, bestiality, rape” and BDSM*

Yes, right, one of these things is not like the others!

Which means that books by writers such as Tennessee Williams, Anais Nin, Nabokov, the Marquis de Sadee and the current #1 Kindle bestseller cannot be sold through your Paypal account.

And also, of course, the bible. Since it contains an awful lot of incest. And the odd bit of pedophilia, by modern criteria. Though admittedly it is light on bestiality and BDSM.

This is indicative of the totally screwed up nature of the Americo-Western attitude towards sex. A book about pedophilia is not pedophilia, even if described in pleasurable terms: no more than a book involving murder is morally equivalent to murder, even if the murderer is described as gaining extreme pleasure from the deed, even if the murderer is the hero of the book, even if the book doesn’t end with the murderer on death row. I don’t want to read books glorifying pedophilia, incest, bestiality, rape or murder (BDSM, on the other hand…). But let’s get our morality in proportion, shall we?

You can bet your unspanked ass, that Paypal won’t be threatening to shut down those who publish or sell books involving other crimes, even crimes more heinous than buggering a sheep. A book about an illegal arms dealer? No problem. How about a corrupt CEO who steals billions? Sure, why not? A sheep worrier? That’s just beyond the pale!

It’s religion’s fault, of course. Sex has been unclean, controlled, constrained and tabooed by Christianity since the church fathers. Always with a veneer of morality: sex is too important to talk about, sex is too powerful to be freely allowed, sex is blessed (if you do it with exactly the person we tell you, in one of the admissible ways, otherwise its unclean, and a sin). And there are plenty of people who’ve had bad experiences of sex, to warn you off it.

Good sections of the OT have no truck with Christian moralizing about sex. Good on it. And so, I expect Paypal to ban its sale forthwith.

Pity that the very people who would be incensed if Paypal really did ban the bible, are the ones who’s campaign of sexual repression has bought us here.

* For accuracy’s sake, Paypal haven’t officially admitted to banning BDSM (which doesn’t help the bible, of course), but specific authors and publishers have reported that specific BDSM titles have been singled out in the policy.


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Why Punishment is Better than Praise

Just had a bit of an ‘of course’ moment:

I had the most satisfying Eureka experience of my career while attempting to teach flight instructors that praise is more effective than punishment for promoting skill-learning. When I had finished my enthusiastic speech, one of the most seasoned instructors in the audience raised his hand and made his own short speech, which began by conceding that positive reinforcement might be good for the birds, but went on to deny that it was optimal for flight cadets. He said, “On many occasions I have praised flight cadets for clean execution of some aerobatic maneuver, and in general when they try it again, they do worse. On the other hand, I have often screamed at cadets for bad execution, and in general they do better the next time. So please don’t tell us that reinforcement works and punishment does not, because the opposite is the case.” This was a joyous moment, in which I understood an important truth about the world: because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean, it is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them.

— Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate.

From his autobiography on the nobel prize site.

Regression to the mean means that, you are mostly likely to do something at an average level (average for you). So if you’ve just done amazingly well, your next attempt is overwhelmingly likely to be worse. If you just failed horribly, chances are you’ll do better next time.


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Types of God

This is a survey of different types of God that I’ve encountered in Christian belief, though I’m sure some or many of them are also present in other faiths. Notes and caveats at the end.

Theistic Gods

The theistic God is an independent being with a name, personality, will, emotion and morality. God can weep, God can have desires, God can do good deeds. God is separate from people: God may send the Holy Spirit to indwell us, but that doesn’t make us divine. God is still a different being to us.

Some nuanced views within this:

Henotheistic God

There are many theistic Gods. They may differ in power, and definitely differ in personality and morality. Baal is a God, as is Allah, but you’re not to worship them.

God in the Metadivine Realm

The metadivine realm is the idea that there are supernatural laws governing God (or Gods for the henotheistic view). God cannot just forgive sin without the price being paid. God cannot create creatures with free will who do not sin.

Omnimax God

God is infinite in certain characteristic ways. God is omni-present: not a being in a particular place that you could go and meet. God is omni-powerful, there are no metadivine rules to limit his power. God is all-good.

Apophatic God

God is so infinite as to be literally indescribable. All one can say about God is what God is not. God can only be comprehended with negative statements: God is not evil, God is not divisible, God is not human, God is not understandable.

Deistic God

Hovering between Theism and Abstract Gods is the Deistic God. A being or force responsible for the creation of the universe, but one who is not now accessible from within it.

Abstract God

God is the name we give to something that is both important and beyond our comprehension. God is not a being or a person, but is the expression of something inexpressable. What that something is, can take various forms:

Pantheistic or Panentheistic God

God is the totality of the cosmos. Everything is God. But in the Panentheistic view God may be even greater still, having elements beyond the universe.

Ground of All Being

God is the reason there is something rather than nothing. And more than that, existence itself is God. Any talk about being is ultimately talk about God.

Ultimate Concern

All our concerns, and deepest struggles point to God. Being human is about seeking meaning, purpose, place and morality, concerns which, if extrapolated fully, define God.

Humanistic God

God is a product of human psychology and culture. It is not something above and beyond humanity, but something we have created.

Group-Dynamics God (Demotheism)

God is interconnected humanity. God’s will is an average of the will of everyone who believes. God’s actions are the actions of his followers. God’s morality changes with the changing morality of his church.

Mythical God (Ideotheism)

God is a myth that we have created to humanize our deepest concerns, to personify our fears and to give form to our desire for something beyond ourselves. Relating to our shared humanity would be impossible if we didn’t give it some form by our myth making.


All my usual caveats for these classification posts apply. I don’t think classifications are anything more than labels that may or may not be useful to you. Categories are not necessarily exclusive, you may find yourself drawn to many of them at the same or different times. Categories can never summarize the sheer diversity of reality, they only provide a model to hopefully help us understand it a little better.

I struggled here to give a fair description of the Abstract God concepts. Obviously abstract things, or things that are supposed to be indescribable, are hard to describe! But beyond that I have little patience with these models, so it may show. If you do have patience with them, please suggest alternative wordings, I’d like it to be as fair as possible.

And as always, comments and suggestions are more than welcome. Previous category posts I’ve done (such as forms of atheism, forms of non-theistic religion) have been expanded due to excellent comments from you!

And finally, please comment about which models you find reasonable, understandable or believable.


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Who Wrote the Bible

I wrote two posts this week about the dating of the books of the bible. Sabio in the comments asked me to give a handy reference for who wrote each book. Here is a table showing the book, who was traditionally claimed to be the author, notes about the origin and status of that claim and a summary of how reliable the authorship is. In the claims column “In text” means that the author is explicitly named in the text.

I’ve gone here for the most aggressive culling of books. The conclusions are all mainstream: I’m not out on a limb here. But there are a couple of books here that might be authentic. I’m thinking 2 Tim and to a lesser extent 2 Thess, here. It is also possible that Jude just happens to have been written by the correct Jude, but this is a crap-shoot, there’s no reason to think it was.

It was traditionally taught that works clearly forged in the name of a prominent Christian figure were written as a mark of respect, or with community knowledge of the forgery. There is little evidence for this, though. It now seems clear that forged documents were forged for the reason all forgeries were created: to intentionally deceive people for advantage — in this case to put your favorite theology on the lips of someone with agreed authority.

Many of the books are mistakenly attributed. As the debates raged about which books should be included in the NT, it became crucially important that books be seen to have some direct connection with apostolic authority. So a book that merely claimed to be by, say, “John”, was ascribed to the Apostle John.

Book Traditional Author Claim Status
Matthew Matthew the Disciple Text anonymous. Claim first seen in C2 Papias (though ambiguous). MISTAKE
Mark John Mark, Disciple of Peter Text anonymous. Claim first seen in C2 Papias via Iraneus. MISTAKE
Luke Luke, Companion of Paul Text anonymous. Claim first seen in C2 Iraneus. MISTAKE
John John the Disciple Text claims it is by the “beloved disciple”. Scholars date it far too late*. FORGERY
Acts Luke, Companion of Paul Text anonymous. Claim first seen in C2 Iraneus. MISTAKE
Romans Paul In text. CORRECT
1 Cor Paul In text. CORRECT
2 Cor Paul In text. CORRECT
Galatians Paul In text. CORRECT
Ephesians Paul In text. Style and content is not consistent with Paul. FORGERY
Philippians Paul In text. CORRECT
Colossians Paul In text. Style and content is not consistent with Paul. FORGERY
1 Thess Paul In text. CORRECT
2 Thess Paul In text. Too close to 1 Thess in words, too distant in theology. FORGERY
1 Timothy Paul In text. Rather different greek to Paul’s style. FORGERY
2 Timothy Paul In text. More similar to Paul than 1 Tim, but topic odd. Not by whoever wrote 1 Tim. FORGERY
Titus Paul In text. Very similar to 1 Tim, unlike Paul. FORGERY
Philemon Paul In text. CORRECT
Hebrews Paul Text anonymous. Claim first seen in C4 by Augustine and Jerome. Included in canon on that basis. MISTAKE
James James the Brother of Jesus Text just says “James”. Claim arose gradually amidst continual debate about which James was which. MISTAKE
1 Peter Peter In text. Concerns and style are nowhere near Peter’s time. FORGERY
2 Peter Peter In text. Concerns and style are nowhere near Peter’s time. FORGERY
1 John John the Disciple Text anonymous, but probably by the same author as 2 and 3 John. MISTAKE
2 John John the Disciple Text by “The Elder”, but probably by the same author as 1 and 3 John. MISTAKE
3 John John the Disciple Text by “The Elder”, but probably by the same author as 1 and 2 John. MISTAKE
Jude Jude, brother of James, brother of Jesus Text claims to be by “Jude”, and there are very many of these mentioned in the NT and other texts. MISTAKE
Revelation John the Disciple Text claims to be by “John”. Style is nothing like John’s gospel or the epistles of John. MISTAKE

* In many works, John’s gospel is identified as being anonymous, and therefore would be a MISTAKE in my categories. I don’t buy that, however. The author stops short of claiming the book is by any specific disciple, but I can’t see any way to read where it isn’t obvious that he means us to understand it is by one of them, most likely John. And it isn’t. Just because he doesn’t name a name, doesn’t mean it isn’t intentional deceit. Feel free to push back on this, and if anyone wants to call me out on it, I could write another post.

As always, suggestions, corrections and arguments welcome!


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When the Bible Was Written – Criteria

I posted this weekend on the dates of authorship of the NT books. I mentioned that I would follow up with a description of the criteria used to come up with those dates.

Manuscript Dating

We can often date manuscripts to within a couple of decades, sometimes to an even smaller range, using techniques such as paleography, context (where a manuscript is found with others that can be dated) or even radiometric dating (though that is typically not very accurate that far back). Obviously if you have a date for a manuscript, the text it contains must have been written no later than that.

Manuscript Divergence

A minor criteria: if we have a set of manuscripts of a book that vary widely into distinct text traditions, the book is more likely to have been in circulation longer, to accumulate those differences. I’m not aware of any book in the NT where this criteria is very helpful, however. Potentially it could be with more early manuscript discoveries, however.


NT texts are often quoted. Both in other NT texts and in the hundreds of other early Christian writings. If a text is quoted it must predate the quotation. We then use the idea that texts had to be copied individually by hand, and distributed along slow trade routes. So if one document is quoted by another, we assume there’s at least a couple of years in between.

Literary Dependencies

Often quotations aren’t clear and explicit. We have some NT texts that are clearly quoting from one another, but it isn’t obvious which direction. Once an educated guess is made as to the direction (and there are a bunch of criteria for making that guess), then the same logic applies: a quotation must be later than the work it quotes.


Several documents in the NT are forged in the name of others. For this to work the forgery obviously has to follow the period when the other person came to prominence. We also guess that it probably follows the person’s death (otherwise you’re in danger of being found-out as a forger).

The First Jewish War

For Judea, the defining moment in the first century is the Jewish revolt against the Romans, which culminated in a vicious backlash and the destruction of the temple in 70AD. None of the NT texts mention this explicitly, but it does show in prophecy in Matthew, for example. Texts that would clearly benefit from mentioning the fall of the temple (Hebrews for example) can be therefore dated before this point, or before the news of it spread. Texts that seem to predict it can be placed after. Mark is a special case – he appears to predict something, but gets the specifics wrong. This is a major reason why Mark is dated to just before the fall of the temple: he knows a cataclysm is coming, so gives Jesus a prophecy on that, but he doesn’t know what the details are, so his prophecy is wrong.

The Acts Chronology

When dating Paul’s letters, we can get a reasonable set of dates if we base the chronology on the story of Paul in Acts. There are a handful of chronologies of Acts, which give us date ranges for the letters. It is notoriously tricky to figure where to start the clock ticking on the Acts chronology, however. To do this, you have to rely on Paul’s own chronology in Galatians, even though this contradicts the bits of the Acts chronology that overlap. I suspect far too much weight is put in the Acts chronology, but I confess I’m nowhere near expert enough to do better.

The Pauline Synthetic Chronology

It is possible to create a tenuous synthetic chronology from Paul’s writings alone. Several mention snippets of Paul’s chronology, what letters he wrote before, where he’s going, where he spent time, who he wants greetings sent to. Though these are usually linked with the Acts chronology, it is possible to use some of this information to give relative dates. So from this, for example, we know 2 Corinthians is a later letter than 1 Corinthians (the 1 and 2 numbers aren’t reliable, 2 Timothy is probably earlier than 1 Timothy, for example).

Theological Development

It is possible to chart changing theological views over the early church and to place books in that framework. This is one criteria used to put John’s gospel relatively much later than Mark or Luke, for example. Of course, it is possible that the theological differences were regional, or just individual. But when there is a pattern (such as increasingly elaborate Christology), it is useful.

Ecclesiastical Development

Similarly to theological development, we can trace the changes in church concerns over time and look at the way letters seek to address this. 2 Peter is not by any C1 church leader for this reason. The pastoral epistles don’t reflect the church we think existed in Paul’s lifetime. Attitudes towards the second coming, towards families, towards church governance, and so on, all change in this period.


  • This is very messy, and often these criteria contradict one another. Scholars have to take a best guess.
  • Almost none of the criteria actually anchor to any particular date, most are relative: saying what order things happened, rather than when. If the order is even slightly wrong, the dates may then be well out.
  • We don’t have many early texts, so the first two criteria don’t help much.
  • The Acts Chronology is the backbone of lots of the Pauline dating, but despite scholars using it, they freely admit it is likely to be very unreliable.
  • The only other absolute date in all of this (The Jewish War) is only applicable via an argument from silence.

These problems are why my dating is likely to be all wrong. But the general bits of evidence are not so empty as to be completely worthless. We can usefully talk about the order of certain books, and talk about the likely gaps between them, as long as we don’t try to make the specific dates hold much water.

As with all these posts, please provide corrections, additions or feel free to dispute anything here.


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What is a Mythicist?

In my recent post, I pointed out the overwhelming academic consensus that there was a historical Jesus, but that the Jesus of the consensus was a pretty irrelevant fellow. All the things that make Jesus important, that make him … well, Jesus … are mythical — according to mainstream scholarship on Jesus.

So if you are a mythicist because it is blindingly obvious that the Jesus Christ of Christianity is a mythical figure, then you’re in agreement with the consensus.

So the same friend mentioned in the last post wrote me:

So if Jesus isn’t the Jesus of the New Testament, and isn’t the Jesus everyone knows, why insist that it is the same Jesus at all? Why not just say that there must have been lots of preachers at the time who were more or less like that three line biography. Lots of JBap followers, lots of wannabe messiahs who got themselves killed, lots of them called Joshua/Jesus.

[NB: I’m going to call the historical figure ‘Joshua’, and the mythical figure ‘Jesus’ to keep them separate here: both English names are valid translations of the same Aramaic name, so I’m not suggesting either is right or wrong].

I interpret this question to mean “What does it mean to say that the Joshua of academic historians is the ‘same’ as the Jesus of Christian mythology?”

The answer is that there is a continuity of people involved, from the followers of Joshua through the key people in the early Christ movement, to the key people in the early church. It seems likely that at least Peter (if not more) was both a Joshua follower, and one of the people who claimed to have witnessed the resurrection. And since Paul (who also claimed to have witnessed the resurrection) claimed to know Peter, we move into the early church with some continuity.

It is in that sense that we say there was a historical Jesus, even while admitting that all we can know about him with any confidence would also apply to other people of the time.

And it is the acceptance of that continuity – a connection of people between an unexceptional historical figure and the exceptional world-impacting faith that arose in his name – which means I am not a mythicist. But the more I talk to self-declared mythicists, particularly in the atheist blogosphere, the more I realize the they often define their mythicism in other ways. Even in ways that would make me and most of the academics I know, mythicists. Well, so be it, I’m never fussed about saying what language is supposed to mean. It means what people use it to mean. But if you want to know why those same people refuse to call themselves mythicists, that is why. Not because they believe Jesus Christ isn’t a mythical figure, but because they believe Christianity traces back to one particular historical figure.


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When the Bible Was Written

In discussions about the NT, I often get asked about when the different books were written. It helps, for example, to know that the gospels were written at least 35 years after Jesus’s death, and that some of the letters were much later still.

Dating biblical books is very difficult. If you browse around, you’ll get contradictory numbers. Many sites and study bibles have this tendentious need to pretend that the books of the bible were written by the people who’s names are on them. And this gives totally improbable datings. Even sites that reflect the scholarly consensus on authorship vary wildly. (Wikipedia, for example, gives totally different dates on individual books that it does on its summary Dating of the Bible page) In a future post I will talk about how we date books: the kinds of criteria we use, and where they apply. These criteria often contradict one another, making dating even harder.

Still, in there interests of doing more than just waving my hands, here is my list of dates. Bear in mind that all of these dates are likely to be wrong. I haven’t put the ‘circa’ on everything, but it should be everywhere. In general I’ve tried to give as small a range as I can, or one date, even if there are good reasons to doubt that, but in many cases there is just no good reason to pick any particular date within the range.

Date Book Very Brief Notes
33 Possible date of Jesus’s crucifixion.
50‑52  1 Thessalonians  Shows signs of immaturity in theology and in form compared to Paul’s later letters.
50‑55  Galatians  A few scholars put Galatians as the first epistle, because of the impossibility of reconciling its chronology with that in Acts.
53‑57  1 Corinthians  Dating depends on the Acts chronology for when Paul is in Ephesus.
55‑57  2 Corinthians  Probably 2 letters combined — Paul is still in Ephesus but follows 1 Corinthians.
55‑58  Romans  Again depends on the Acts chronology for when Paul is in Corinth.
62  Philemon  Assuming Paul’s mentioned emprisonment is at Rome.
62  Philippians  A complex and therefore fragile line of reasoning gives this date.
68‑70  Hebrews  A book about priesthood and priestly duties, but doesn’t mention the destruction of the temple in 70.
70  Mark  During the First Jewish War, before the destruction of the temple.
80‑85  Matthew  Uses Mark, but shows many theological and mythic developments.
85‑90  Luke  I’m guessing that Luke had access to at least a proto-Matthew (my synoptic thoughts are worth a separate post).
85‑90  Acts  I suspect that Acts may have been written in an initial form well before Luke (maybe c. 70) and was tweaked into its final form as the ‘second volume’ to Luke later. If not, then it was most likely written around these dates.
80‑100  Colossians  80-100 is the catch-all for books that were forged in Paul’s name, we have almost no independent way of dating them, except that we know that some of them were being quoted in the early C2.
80‑100  2 Thessalonians  If 2 Thess is authentically by Paul (I suspect not, but it isn’t that clear), then it is 52-54.
80‑100  2 Timothy  Very likely to be by a different person than 1 Timothy, seems to have more knowledge of Paul the man, so likely earlier. Could just perhaps be authentic (c.60-65).
80‑100  1 Peter  Another forged letter that is therefore difficult to anchor.
85‑100  Ephesians  Depends on Colossians, and is therefore later. Probably by another different author.
95  Revelation  Date based on the assumption that it alludes to Domitian.
90‑100  1-3 John  All three seem to have been written by the same person, difficult to separate.
95‑100  John  This date allows theological development, and is traditionally attested.
70‑150  James  There seems to me to be very few good arguments that can narrow these dates down.
100‑120  1 Timothy  Seems to be written in a C2 theological context, is probably used by Polycarp in c. 130.
100‑120  Titus  1 Timothy and Titus seem to be dependent, but isn’t clear in which direction.
90‑150  Jude  To small to contain many clues, but seems to depend on the apocrypha, and seems to have a dependency relationship with 2 Peter 2.
100‑150  2 Peter  Probably depends on Jude. Seems to be written to a C2 church context.

Comments, arguments or corrections are welcome.


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LOST in the Lobby of Heaven [spoilers]

Heaven and Hell are featureless. Stories set in an unending paradise or unremitting torture are not stories at all. They have no arc, no progress, no ending. We relate to stories, it is hard to relate to Heaven or Hell.

So writers create a lobby for eternity. In that lobby stories happen. On a cloud before the Pearly Gates, St Peter provides the punchline to countless jokes. The restless dead walk the earth as ghosts until they are content to move on to their eternal fate.

The last season of LOST features a parallel narrative of the characters’ afterlife. A lobby of heaven where we live odd rearrangements of our former lives: some deeper level of our self-image writ large. Jack died with an unfulfilled need to please his father, he becomes a father, finding redemption in rescuing the relationship with his son. Sawyer’s lifelong ache for justice over the death of his parents is transmuted into a role as a police officer. Daniel becomes the pianist he longed to be, the role his mother prevented him from taking in life. But ultimately this existence is not real, not permanent. The task facing each of us is to remember. Remember our real life, remember our true loves, remember our deaths; to let go of our constructed selves and move on into the light.

In To The Moon, a game, the Lobby is technological not supernatural. At the moment of your death, medical technicians change your memories. They allow you to see your life again but change something. To go back to the moment of your deepest regret, and see how your life could have been otherwise. Or else fulfill your most deep-seated ambition. But ultimately it is a bittersweet prospect, you don’t stop being you, the world doesn’t stop being fickle, resolving one moment of pain can give rise to many more. And above all, your death is still inevitable. Eventually you must move on from your invented life.

David Eagleman’s short fantasy “Metamorphosis” describes the Lobby as of a great hotel or train station. We wait in this Lobby for the ‘third death’, the last moment your name is ever spoken by anyone on earth. The moment you are, forever, forgotten. Then your name is called and you can move on. There are those who linger forever: the famous, of course, but also the unfortunate who has become an anecdote in a tour-guide’s patter. The poignancy of this fantasy is the revelation that, often your name is called and you leave the Lobby, just as the person you’d most like to be reunited with arrives.

In my short story “By Sail”, the Lobby is a sailing dinghy, crewed by several copies of yourself. The shore: the eternal destiny and rest, is just out of sight over the horizon, across a sea littered with rocks and reefs. To sail to your afterlife, you must solve the core conundrum of being human: you must come to understand yourself, to work with yourself, to find peace with yourself. Or else through self-hatred and inner-conflict your will sabotage the endeavor, the boat will be wrecked, and you will suffer a final death.

In CS Lewis’s Great Divorce, Hell is the Lobby of Heaven, a grey and endless suburbia. Anyone can journey from hell to the foothills of heaven. It is a temporary stay, however, they must either return to hell, or move on to the high peaks and strong light of heaven. To do so one must only want to: and Lewis’s characters find plenty of ways to avoid that desire.

Stories explore our hopes and fears. Ultimately the Lobbies we create all speak of one fear. We all fear our failures. We all recognize we have not lived up to our potential. The afterlives we create give us a final chance to act or be different before eternity locks us into its unending stasis.

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We haven’t even heard that the Holy Spirit Is! — Acts 19:2

This post was suggested by a member of our bible study last night. They had heard that the greek form in Acts 19:2 was a little odd, and thought I might like to do some digging. If you’re not interested in NT greek geekery, then my apologies.

he asked them “did you receive a holy spirit when you believed?”

they answered him “we hadn’t heard there was a ‘holy’ spirit.”

— acts 19:2*, tr. mine.

Acts 19:2 is a conversation between Paul and a group of Ephesian ‘disciples’ who had come to their faith through teaching that clearly wasn’t in line with Paul’s preferred message. They had been baptized with the same baptism as Jesus (John’s baptism of repentance) rather than Paul’s baptism in the name of Jesus (or possibly in the names of the trinity — though it is debated whether this is a slightly later invention).

The interesting thing is that, often in the gospels, the holy spirit is described with the definite article: The Holy Spirit (τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον). But not always, in many cases it is without (πνεῦμα ἅγιον). In the latter case it is the same as the construction used to describe ‘unclean spirits’ (e.g. πνεῦμα ἀκάθαρτον in Mark 7:25). Luke’s gospel and Acts use this construction for the holy spirit more than others, but it is still rare. In this passage Paul first uses the form, then the Ephesian disciples use the same form back to him. When Paul lays hands on them, however, it is The Holy Spirit, with the definite article, that comes upon them (Acts 19:6)

Translations don’t tend to reflect this. The Holy Spirit is always The Holy Spirit, regardless of whether the ‘The’ is in the Greek or not. Same goes for similar theological spirits such as “The Spirit of The Lord” (Luke 4:18), But unclean spirits, spirits of divination (Acts 16:16), and so on, do get to differentiate between ‘a’ and ‘the’. The ‘a’ form seems to me to reflect the sense of this passage better, so I’ve followed that in my translation.

All of which raises a question I’m not able to answer: at what point in the development of early christian theology did receiving a holy spirit / a spirit of holiness, become receiving The Holy Spirit? It is early, certainly, but are the presence of these kinds of no-article forms indicative of an earlier understanding, or just a random feature of Luke’s writing?

* Apropos of nothing, but this passage obviously seemed awkward to some early scribes. The ‘Western’ text tradition, evidenced for example in Papyrus 48, has the Ephesians replying “we hadn’t event heard that some people had received a holy spirit”, thus making the ‘disciples’ response less a matter of core faith (not even knowing about the existence of one part of the trinity) and more about the mechanics of baptism.

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Are We All Mythicists?

Interesting conversation by email today with a friend*, who was trying to call me out on my insistence there was a historical Jesus.

We reached the point that these conversations go, where I realise they thought I meant that the Jesus Christ of the NT was historical. I corrected them – the consensus among NT scholars and historians of the early Jesus movement is roughly:

There was a man named Joshua who was a follower of John the Baptist, an itinerant apocalyptic preacher from Galilee who caused a kerfuffle one Passover in Jerusalem and got himself executed.

And that’s about all we can say about him with any kind of historical agreement. All the Sunday school stuff: the birth, resurrection, claims to be the Son of God, salvation, and so on. All that is myth, according to consensus. My friend made this comment:

So basically everything that makes Jesus significant theologically, religiously, culturally, everything. Is all myth? For anything but the most irrelevant details, Jesus is a myth?

–friend (edited for typos)

I’d never thought of it that way, but yes. I immediately thought of Simon Bar Kokhba. Historically a much more substantial messiah, one who made a far, far bigger impact as a historical figure. But 99% of people have never heard of him, because his mythology is pretty modest (though not entirely lacking). The difference between Jesus and Bar Kokhba—the only grounds on which Jesus matters to anybody but a tiny group of historians—is all the post-death mythologization.

I do believe there was a historical Jesus, but it is helpful sometimes to remember how little that matters to most people. The only Jesus that matters to the rest of the world is the Jesus that we all agree was mythical.

* My friend’s theological position is self-proclaimed ‘militant atheist’ — by which I think they mean that they see religion as an active evil in the world that should be resisted. I’ll let them say more in the comments if they wish.


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