In this Lesson we discuss prophets, always a hot topic because of the fiercely-held views that so many believers and nonbelievers bring to the subject. Do prophets speak the words of God, as they claim? Or are they only deluded (believing in the unbelievable) or fraudulent (hypocritically pretending to believe)? And if some prophets are "true" in their professions to speak for God, but others are "false," how can we tell the difference? What's the proof? Is there any scientific or objectively verifiable basis on which to understand these questions?
A biological basis for spiritual possession may lie in the region of the unconscious brain known as the putamen. It controls automatic behaviors, those we have learned so thoroughly that we do not need to think about them any longer. For example, once we have mastered the art of walking, the knowledge of how to walk is stored away outside of consciousness where it seems "second nature," and we walk without bothering to think how the act is performed. These automated behaviors at times can seem spooky, as if we are being manipulated by external agents. Possession by evil spirits was the traditional explanation for (among others) Tourette's disease, a disorder of the putamen which produces repeated involuntary twitching of muscles.
Recent research indicates that "self-induction" can create sincere belief that one is a medium or host of spirits. According to this theory, spiritual possession can be induced simply by acting possessed. Acting turns into belief as the actor becomes absorbed in performing the act. The longer the act is repeated, less and less of it seems to be performed self-consciously, while more and more of it seems to run automatically on its own without conscious intention of the actor. The sense of possession eventually occurs when self-awareness slips away altogether, and the pretender who started the process is no longer remembered. (See Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will, MIT Press 2002, p. 252.)
This theory suggests that prophets and their true believers have completed the self-induction process; nonbelievers are uninitiated or in the stages of the initiation process where the act still looks like make-believe, delusion or pretense. The theory predicts that belief in the presence of God can be created simply by acting as if God is present. Although it would be unethical to test this theory by scientifically controlled experiment, self-induction can be observed in the belief-forming practices of organizations that cultivate spirituality. Perhaps it should also be found in literary records that accurately describe the development and spread of faith in God or other spirits. Our test case in this Lesson will be the Book of Acts and Paul's epistles in the New Testament, our best available descriptions of how doubters became believers in the early Christian movement.
Of course, self-induction may explain how people assimilate skills other than prophecy. If prophets and other spirit-mediums begin to learn as self-conscious actors, then so do doctors, farmers, golfers, musicians, philosophers and truck drivers, all of whom self-induce roles that initially are not true. Sitting behind the steering wheel of a truck for the first time, the "driver" is only an imposter who doesn't know how to drive. With practice, however, the act of driving becomes so automatic that the truck eventually seems to be driving itself--and the unthinking operator so completely forgets about controlling the vehicle that it runs off the road, seemingly all by itself!
So perhaps it is true that, as Shakespeare wrote, all the world's a stage and all the people are players. Novice actors opening a show invariably experience "stage fright" (self-consciousness about acting), but if they have rehearsed enough, their playing becomes so routine as to seem natural, self-consciousness disappears, and they no longer are distracted from their roles. Young teachers beginning the first day of class normally suffer the same kind of temporary disorientation ("gosh, here I am in front of a class, and I'm not really a teacher"), and so it goes on the lawyer's first day in court, on the salesperson's first visit to a customer, or on anybody's first date. Inexperienced children, like other beginners learning unfamiliar things, clearly recognize that they are pretending or imagining. Socrates notwithstanding, their education seems complete when they have forgotten that they don't really know!
Perhaps nobody should pretend to answer the question why anyone would want to become a prophet. Impersonating God is a tougher role than playing truck driver, performing any Shakespearian part, or even going on a first date. People must be made to believe that the prophetic voice is authentic, that the words really are God's words. The proof may require not only persuasive speaking but the performance of miracles and willingness to persecution and torture. Whom the gods love are tested, as the old Greek proverb says.
Describing prophecy as art, this Lesson does not argue or intend to suggest that prophets are deceivers, or that believers are dupes. Whether or not we believe in God, or any prophet's claims to speak for God, the point here is about art. Art is central in human experience, even human experience of the divine.
The Development of Christian Prophecy:
Hellenes and Jews called the spirits by different names in different languages, of course, but in early times they seem to have practiced prophecy through similar techniques of necromancy. Odysseus' encounter with the witch Circe, and their sacrificial summoning of the dead prophet Tieresias to predict Odysseus' fate, are paralleled in ancient Israel, cir. 1000 BC, in the Biblical story of the witch of Endor who cooks supper for King Saul and conjures up the dead prophet Samuel to tell him his future.
Of all of the parallels between Greek and Hebraic literatures from early historical times, of most interest to us is that both tended to be performed as spiritual possession. The performers often played god (or goddess). As in the case of “Homer,” Jewish prophecies were associated with the names of their performers--Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and others–but they claimed to be the words of a spirit. In performance, the Hebrew prophet impersonated this spirit ("Thus says the Lord..."), much as the Homeric singer was only a voice instrument through which the goddess sang.
The impersonation of spirits could be a dangerous business. It raised the question, who is allowed to play? In both Hellas and Israel, spiritual authority was continually disputed between interest groups, especially between prophets and priests. Prophets often denounced the conventional rituals of priests as irrelevant or even hateful to the gods. For example, the Lord's temple in Jerusalem had become "a den of thieves" where the priests served only themselves, according to the prophet Jeremiah, who is said to have predicted the temple's destruction by the Babylonians. [Recall the counter-cultural nature of literature in general from Lesson 1. ]
Antagonized priests often tried to silence prophets, or even have them killed, as seems to have been the case when Jeremiah was thrown into a well and left to die, and also when Socrates was condemned in the court of the high priest of Athens. It happened again, according to the New Testament, when Jesus was crucified after creating a disturbance in the temple at Passover, and also when the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death. According to the Christian story in the Book of Acts, Stephen was killed for blasphemy, after he proclaimed that the Jews had persecuted all of the prophets in their history (Acts 7:52). Prophets sometimes may have provoked persecution to demonstrate their faith, to unite their followers, or simply to act as prophets are known to act.
Ancient prophets held themselves out as experts on a variety of problems. Whether the trouble was political, military, social, economic, meteorological, domestic, moral, medical, or psychiatric, the prophet's diagnosis was usually the same. Spirits were to blame, but they could be appeased or manipulated by following the prophet's advice!
In personal care-giving, prophets were forerunners in medicine and philosophy, curing sickness and unhappiness. They practiced faith healing and no doubt had successes, as faith healers and placebos still succeed today. [For more on faith healing, see note 7 below.] Typically, they were also imaginative moralizers, preaching that social misbehavior makes the gods angry. We've read an example in the seer Kalkhas' explanation for the deadly plague in the Achaean camp at the beginning of the Iliad, that the disease was caused by Agamemnon's insult to Apollo's priest [recall Lesson 3]. This madness of Agamemnon's was caused by the devilish goddess Atê [recall Lesson 5], but appeasement of Apollo, following the seer's directions, takes off the curse and ends the plague.
In ancient prophecy, the wrath of spirits determined all or most of political and military history. A common lament in prophetic writing was why the people had fallen from former times of glory, when gods had befriended them.
Prophets said that disenfranchised groups lost their lands and were enslaved because of impiety. This message apparently brought hope to slaves, prisoners and other oppressed people in the ancient world, as it still does today. Believers thought that they could make materially better lives for themselves by becoming obedient to the spirits. To become obedient to the spirits often meant becoming obedient to the prophets.
According to Jewish prophetic literature, the Lord speaking through Moses promised his obedient followers a homeland in Palestine, and Jewish settlements apparently flourished in this "promised land" for hundreds of years after Moses' time, reaching a high point in the construction of the first temple at Jerusalem during the reign of King Solomon (cir. 950 BC). But when Babylonians demolished the Jerusalem temple and carted off its treasures, and many of the Jewish survivors were forced into exile in Babylon and other foreign lands, it looked as if the old prophecies must have been wrong, or perhaps the Lord had changed his mind about the Jewish homeland. The time was ripe for new prophets to come forward to reveal the Lord's intentions.
Jeremiah and other Jewish prophets of this period weighed in on the Lord's motives in terms reminiscent of Homer, whose gods and hero-spirits became wrathful when they were not given appropriate "gifts and fair words." [On Homer's angry spirits, recall Lesson 4 and Lesson 8.] The Lord of Jewish prophecy said that he was angry because the Jews had dishonored him. That is, they had dishonored the Lord's prophets, by listening to prophets of other gods, and so the faithless people naturally deserved to be exiled among nonbelievers far from the promised land!
So a simple moral of obedience underlay prophetic cults. If a prophet's followers acted righteously -- that is, if people did what the prophet's spirit said to do -- then the spirit's anger eventually would subside. When the spirit finally was appeased, then the community no longer would be afflicted. This was the magical theory of the prophets.
In Jewish practice, prophets came and went, centuries passed, and still the Jews suffered. From the prophetic point of view, people didn't reform, so the Lord just kept thrashing them and sending more prophets. Evidently there were always enough believers among the Jewish people to support the prophecy business. Over the years, however, there also must have been plenty of disenchanted Jews to whom the prophets in their midst were only pretenders, arrogant liars or fools, dreamers, quacks or blasphemers whose spiritual claims were unworthy of serious attention. Ironically, a continuous supply of disbelievers was useful to prophets in explaining why the Lord's anger never cooled.
Similarities between Hellenic and Hebraic prophecy continued into the classical period (roughly 500 BC to 400 AD), and the two literatures retained much in common at this time, too. General parallels between the stories of Socrates and Jesus are hard to miss. Both prophets perform with limited success in conservative religious societies whose threatened leaders persecute them as blasphemers. Both claim to receive personal communication from a spirit, both act as if a divine mission shapes their lives, and both attract small groups of believers. But both are misunderstood by the multitude as dangerous revolutionaries, both are condemned by the local high priest, and both accept self-sacrifice when the time comes to choose between dishonor and death (compare the choice of Achilles: Lesson 4). Since neither of them leaves writings for posterity, both are knowable only through the imaginative story-telling of literate followers. Different followers tell somewhat different stories, and different cults eventually engage in somewhat different practices under different sets of beliefs, each splinter group claiming to be the authentic one.
Similarities between Hellenic and Jewish prophecy had vitally important consequences for Christianity. The new faith moved easily from its birthplace in Palestine into the larger Hellenist world where it grew up and became a world class religion. In his posthumous fame as a story character, Jesus surpassed Socrates, Odysseus, Achilles and even Heracles, to become the most popular of all Greek heroes. We must imagine Jesus as a Greek hero, not because he personally was one, but because it was in the Greek world of risen hero-spirits that the stories about him caught on with by far the largest and most enthusiastic audiences. These are the stories of Jesus that have come down to our time; they are the lenses through which we see him.
Within a few generations after the crucifixion, preachers were impersonating Jesus all around the Greco-Roman Mediterranean, and the Jesus cults multiplied--including Gnostics, Marcionists and other popular cults that later would be suppressed as heretical. When writing eventually was introduced into this Christian story-telling, in the second half of the first century AD, it wasn't Hebrew or Aramaic (the Persian language probably spoken by Jesus), and it wasn't Latin, either, even though the Latin-speaking Romans had conquered all of the Mediterranean lands. Early Christian writing was Greek, not only because Greek was still an international language but also because Greek-speakers, of all people, were most susceptible to Christian beliefs.
The development of Christendom that dominated European civilization, from the late classical era through the Middle Ages into modern times, is the premier illustration in western history of the cult-building power of literature. The conversion of Jews, Hellenes, Romans, Gauls, Celts and other "pre-Christians" into a somewhat homogeneous community of believers on an entire continent, and even beyond, required wars, inquisitions, bribes, negotiations and coercions of every sort, but it had literature as its basis. Becoming a Christian essentially meant hearing the story or gospel ("good news") about Jesus and believing it.
Even today Christianity can be described as a literary practice in the sense that its preachers or evangelists (from the Greek evangelion = "good news") perform spiritual words in the age-old god-impersonating style of the Jewish and Hellenic prophets. Of course, the spirit's name is changed to fit Christian terminology: "Jesus says X, Christ says Y, The Lord Jesus Christ says Z..." The Christian preacher in all sects known to me are expected to impersonate God, and to do so persuasively enough to fill all of the seats in the church. This act would be theatrical, except that the congregation has played along with such sincerity that it believes. Those who lack this "faith," however, will see the preaching only as pretense or make-believe. Further self-induction may convince them that it is true.
Rome paved the way for the spread of Christianity by looting the Greek temples (beginning as early as 275 BC but not climaxing until the death of Cleopatra in 31 BC), and by destroying the second temple of the Lord in Jerusalem (in 70 AD). To the conquered peoples, these were devastating cultic events that begged to be explained as results of divine anger on a massive international scale. In other words, they called for a major revolutionary prophet to have foretold them. Who could have predicted such desecration of the holy places of the ancient spirits? Could it have been Jesus? Some of Jesus' followers said that, like Jeremiah, he had predicted the temple's destruction. Some claimed that he was the only hero who really was coming back from the dead any more, after the Romans seized the land.
But who was this Jesus? Like Socrates he left no writings to speak directly for him. As Socrates' students all imitated Socrates but imagined their teacher differently [recall the Socrateses of Lesson 13], so early Christians produced numerous Jesuses. And at least as vigorously as Socratics disputed, Christian preachers from the beginning squared off over these Jesuses. Hostility toward rival preachers shows up already in Paul (cir. 6 AD - cir 67 AD), the first Christian whose writings still survive for us to read. [For general info on Paul see footnote 3 below.] Paul's uncharitable words seem to set the precedent for future divisiveness among Christians; he described those who disagreed with his views as "perverters of the gospel," "accursed by God," or worse (e.g., Galatians 1:7-8; Philippians 3:2-11).
There are conflicting imitations, so which Socrates or which Jesus, if any, is to be believed? Is it whichever one (if any) we happen to be taught? Or can we determine it through scholarship? Or do all of us inevitably imitate such models in our own personal, distinctive ways? Is there anything in this area that all Socratics or all Christians can agree upon? Does agreement matter?
The Jesus problem is particularly thorny because Jesus had no Plato, Xenophon or other literate biographer among his immediate followers. Although Jesus died in about 30 AD, none of the New Testament gospels were composed until at least a generation later. The gospels according to Mark (cir. 65-70 AD), Matthew and Luke (both cir. 80-85 AD) and John (cir. 90-95 AD) all were written by people who knew Jesus only imaginatively, through stories told about him. All other surviving written gospels (apocryphal texts that were excluded from the official canon of the New Testament) appear to have been written still later, mostly in the second century AD. The epistles of Paul to various new Christian congregations in the old Hellenistic world were composed before the written gospels, but the earliest of these letters, 1 Thessalonians, is thought to date back only to 50 AD. Paul never met Jesus, and he was very unimpressed with the teachings of Jesus' apostles Peter and James (the brother of Jesus), who he did meet in person (see Galatians 1:15; 2:9-11). The Jesus that Paul claimed to know was resurrected "Christ," who appeared to him in a vision. [More on Paul and his vision below.]
So Jesus' story must have been entirely oral in the beginning, unless early written records that once existed were destroyed or lost. The first Christians may have kept Jesus secret, since ancient cults often kept their gods' and heroes' mysteries to themselves, not to be revealed outside the cult. (If you wanted to know, then you had to join.) More likely, they did not preserve Jesus' story in writing for the benefit of future generations because there weren't going to be any future generations. They believed that the world was about to end, almost any day, so it probably seemed pointless to write, even if any of them knew how to write.
Only at most ten or fifteen percent of the population of the Roman Empire could read, and far fewer could write, so popular cults at this time still had to be transmitted mostly by word of mouth. Yet, in contrast to Homeric singing, oral Christian story-telling apparently did not rely extensively upon music, verse, or other mnemonic or poetic devices to preserve the words from one telling to the next. [Recall the technology of oral literature from Lesson 10.] The Christian gospels are written in prose and show no evidence of having been adapted from verse. Early Christian hymns must have helped to unite the thoughts of believers, but these apparently were only short lyrics, not extended narratives that told Jesus' story or repeated his teachings in detail. Apparently these songs were intended for communal singing, as modern hymns are; they weren't professional recitals, like Homeric songs.
The evidence, such as it is, suggests that, in the beginning, Jesus' story was transmitted largely by spiritual possession. Peter authorized preachers through a "laying on of hands" ceremony that possibly may have involved instruction of some kind [Acts 6:6 and 8:14], but followers could speak of Jesus even though they were not trained as priests, theologians, historians or bards. Anyone could prophesy, provided only that he or she had been baptized. The spirit world was revealed through baptism. This event typically was imaged as "the Holy Spirit" descending upon the initiates, like a dove or a tongue of fire flying down to them through parted skies that opened the heavenly abode of God above. Linked to the source of inspiration in this way, baptized Christians were equipped to preach the good news. No doubt they learned from one another what good news ought to sound like, but the Holy Spirit gave them significant freedom to improvise. The many variations and occasional contradictions among the gospels and epistles, all of which claim to speak in the name of God, are the best evidence of this.
The mechanics of early Christian prophecy can be glimpsed in some of Paul's letters and in The Book of Acts, the earliest surviving history of the early Christians. All four New Testament gospels show it prominently too, in the baptism of Jesus by the prophet John the Baptizer, the point at which Jesus discovers his spirit (his "Father" in heaven) and therefore can separate from his teacher and begin to prophesy on his own.
The account in Acts is particularly striking. The book begins with the appearance of Jesus to the apostles within a few weeks after the crucifixion. He promises that they will be baptized in the Holy Spirit in a few days, and then they will be able to "witness" him to people in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the farthest ends of the earth (Acts 1:4-8). The clear implication is that the apostles cannot "witness" Jesus from their existing personal knowledge about him or his former life. They can witness him only after the Holy Spirit has descended and possessed them, which first happened at Pentecost according to Acts 2:1-47. [More about Pentecost below.]
The Holy Spirit received through baptism was a form of spiritual possession, like possession by the Muse in traditional Hellenic poetry, or inspiration by the Lord in traditional Hebrew prophecy, but once the cult of Jesus began to grow the Holy Spirit fostered spontaneous, ecstatic speaking in entire charismatic communities. All Christians could be prophets. All initiated members were authorized to speak by inspiration, and what they said about Jesus continued to expand and change long after Jesus' death, as modern historical studies of the surviving gospels have demonstrated. [See note 4 below.] The gospels were meant to express the Holy Spirit, not to report studiously researched facts about Jesus' biography, as modern Biblical scholars do.
How did Christianity lose its original character as a cult of prophets? Eventually in the course of time -- it was bound to happen -- questions arose from the proliferation of inconsistent and contradictory accounts of Jesus: what exactly was the truth? Who was Jesus, really? Shouldn't all believers agree on an answer?
By the second and third centuries, many Christians came to see the need to police the story-telling, the Holy Spirit notwithstanding. This attitude became dominant as soon as Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 312 AD. Church fathers took up arms against a variety of "heresies" (that is, views about God and Jesus differing from their own views), and for their followers they bound up the word of the Lord into a single authorized book in which only four gospels and other miscellaneous writings were included. The papacy, the Nicene creed of Christian belief, and other institutions and standards of the church also came to into being, and the original idea faded that all baptized Christians can prophesy through inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Dogmatic priestly religion separated from popular prophetic art.
Jesus goes Greek:
Acts describes baptized Christians as "witnesses" to Jesus. Witnessing was made possible only through the Holy Spirit, which was received popularly in baptism (Acts 1:3). It wasn't recalling historical Jesus. It was testifying to his presence after his death. Sighting the resurrected Jesus was one form of witnessing, but unexplained events of various kinds could be taken for "signs" of Jesus' presence. When the sick unexpectedly recovered from illness, for example, Christian witnesses were quick to attribute the recoveries to the power of Jesus. Sometimes the apostles themselves were said to have performed miraculous healing "in the name of Jesus." So Peter is said to have cured a lame man (Acts 3:1) and also to have recovered a faithful woman named Tabitha from death (Acts 9:36). To accept such apparent miracles as true, and as signs of Jesus, was to witness Jesus.
Most Greeks eventually became witnesses. These were the people of Homer, after all, and you will recall how Homer had described unexplained phenomena, including medical conditions like plagues, in terms of activities of Apollo and other gods. [Recall Homeric medicine from Lesson 3.] Among Greeks, Jesus was another Apollo, the explanation for cures and other mysterious events that had no other explanation. [For more on faith healing generally, see note 7 below.] Yet the likeness of Jesus to Apollo never would have occurred to Peter or any of the apostles in Jerusalem, before the cult attempted to do business in the Greco-Roman world of strange and foreign gods.
According to Acts, within a few months after Jesus' death Peter and the disciples withdrew from preaching into a life of prayer and meditation in Jerusalem, but they hired Hellenist preachers -- that is, Hellenized Jews -- to support their commune through public preaching. All or most of the disciples probably were speakers of Aramaic, an ancient Persian language regarded by Greeks as barbarian and corrupted with magical superstition, and so the services of Greek-speakers would have been needed to preach in the Greek-speaking world. Central aspects of Christianity, as we know it, may have arisen only when Hellenists translated it. One change probably was the name of the religion. "Christ" is the word for ""the anointed one" in Greek. Although we can't say for sure, it seems very unlikely that anybody in Peter's commune in Jerusalem would have used this alien word. Perhaps, the original followers referred to Jesus as "Messiah," a roughly equivalent Hebrew term, but nobody knows because all of the earliest source literature is Greek. [More speculation on the first Hellenist preachers and the cult of Jesus in Peter's time in footnote 6.]
The Christian mass or Lord's Supper also bears an apparent Hellenic design. It is hardly the same as the Passover feast that Jesus, as a devout Jew, would have celebrated. Its central mystery is of the kind found in traditional Hellenic hero rites, in which the dead were made present to believers at communion meals. [Recall hero ritual from Lesson 2 and also the Hellenic background page.] As the New Testament indicates, Peter and his Jewish-Christian followers would not eat with non-Jews. Jewish exclusivity in dining was a serious obstacle to Jesus-worship among Greeks, who traditionally met the spirits only at dinner. The cultural barrier apparently came down when Greeks began to give resurrection banquets for Jesus, along the recognizable lines of traditional Hellenic hero meals.
Acts gives credit to Peter for beginning to dine with Near Eastern gentiles [see Acts 10:1 - 11:18.], but the Lord's Supper among Greeks may have been Paul's invention, later endorsed by the elders in Jerusalem. [For general info on Paul see footnote 3 below.] In one of his New Testament letters, Paul says that he "received" it from the Lord and "delivered" it to his congregation at Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:23-30) -- language indicating that the Lord's Supper was his prophecy. [See the full quotation from Paul, in the right hand column of this page.] Of course, various Christian sects have taken various approaches to the interpretation of Paul's words and the proper form and significance of the ritual.
In ancient Hellenism sacrificers had the idea that they were eating their ancestors, who fertilized the soil which had fed the animals being sacrificed; hence the need to appease the "heroes" with offerings. Christians similarly ate the body of the dead Jesus, but they did not have to offer him libations of wine. They brought wine to the dinner, as usual, but then they drank all of it instead of "offering" any to the dead by pouring it out on the earth for them.
Drinking "the blood of Christ" to the last drop was regarded by many pagans as a practice fit for vampires or for impious drunkards who refused to part with any of their wine. Why did so many of them choose to dine with Paul, in his somewhat strange banquet dedicated to the memory of a foreigner, instead of celebrating in a local graveyard of their own heroes, as prior generations of Hellenes had done for centuries? Probably not because they were vampires or drunkards.
Paul must have had to explain to them that Christ was not in the soil, that Christ had risen up from the ground without any help from libations or other human offerings. He told them that they could share in his new kind of immortality, too. All who ate Christ, as Paul instructed, would live eternally. Eating Christ "unworthily," on the other hand, would cause sickness and death, as Paul claimed had happened whenever Christians died at Corinth. Paul's ideas must have made the Lord's Supper very attractive. The dinner story of Christ had the power of entertainment, to relax the body and overcome worries about sickness and death. [Recall literature's power of entertainment to relieve stress from Lesson 1.]
Paul's idea that death will follow from eating "unworthily" may have been suggested by the Jewish story of the Passover, where an angel of death strikes all of those households in Egypt that fail to observe the Lord's detailed directions for the Passover meal (see Exodus chapter 12). But Paul's eating taboo may have owed something to Greek table manners, too. His dying Corinthians, who have angered the Lord by eating him improperly, are reminiscent of the rude suitors whose impious, disorderly banqueting on Odysseus' farm provokes the dead master to kill them [recall Lesson 8]. Behind the suppertime slaughters in the Odyssey and the Passover story is the very ancient notion that a sacrificer who fails to honor a victim properly will become a dishonored victim [recall Lesson 2].
From his letters, we know that Paul was mindful of differences between Hellenes and Jews, and that he reconciled them in ways that were at least as much Greek as Jewish. When Hellenism and Judaism were not easily compatible, in regard to the Jewish practice of circumcision and observance of kosher dietetic laws, for example, Paul directed his gentile followers to disregard the Jewish practice. Gentile men must have been relieved(!), but these exemptions bothered Jewish Christians who thought that, to become an authentic Jesus follower, the obvious first step was conversion to Judaism and adherence to Jewish law. Perhaps they were right, historically speaking, but they did not have the votes and in time lost control of the cult. The followers of Paul's Christ soon outnumbered the followers of Peter's messiah, and political power within the cult shifted away from Jerusalem toward the new Greco-Roman majority.
as Jewish Prophet
Although Paul's mission among the Greeks raised funds for Peter's group back in Jerusalem, he was never an insider in Peter's circle, and there is some evidence in the New Testament that the two did not get along. However, it oversimplifies things to think of Paul simply as Greek, in contrast to Peter as Jewish. Paul was a Jew of the Diaspora (that is, a Jew living outside of Israel among gentiles), he never renounced his Jewish faith, and his broad mission was essentially Jewish, to be a prophet of the Lord.
In his prophetic work Paul spoke the word of the Lord, had visions, tried to win believers for his personal spirit "Christ," and followed the ancient teachings of the Jewish prophet Isaiah (cir. 760 - 690 BC). Isaiah's book was Paul's mentor; Paul attempted to live Isaiah's prediction. In performing a prophetic book -- trying to fulfill an older prophecy -- he became the model for later Christians who acted as if ancient prophecy was coming true.
Isaiah's importance to Paul is not surprising, if we remember that in Paul's time, Isaiah and the other traditional Hebrew prophets had an important technological advantage over Jesus. They were in the book. Paul couldn't know precisely what Jesus had said -- the gospels weren't written yet -- but he could read the Jewish scriptures and learn what the canonical prophets had said. Nobody said more than Isaiah about bringing worship of the Lord to foreign nations.
Isaiah had lived at a time when it looked as if the Jewish state would be wiped out by Assyrian invaders, so he had imagined that dark changes were afoot in the spirit world, and it was his line of work to see what they were. What he saw in his prophesying was the Last Judgment, a dreadful day, very soon to arrive, when the angry Lord would judge the entire world once and for all -- not only Israel and Judah (the two kingdoms of Jews in those days) but all nations. Regardless of national origin, people who did not worship the Lord would be consumed in unquenchable fire. It seemed to be happening already in Isaiah's time when Israel (the northern Jewish kingdom, later to be called Samaria) was being torched by the Assyrians and ten Jewish tribes were about to become lost:
Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land is devoured in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers. Isaiah 1:7
Only the Lord's faithful minority would escape the flames to come, but salvation at least would be global. All people of every nation would be saved who heard and followed the word of the Lord.
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
Isaiah laid the groundwork for Jewish prophecy to expand outside of Palestine. It was a sensible plan, since it looked at the time as if the entire Jewish nation was about to be overthrown. But as events turned out, Isaiah's prediction was premature. Jerusalem was spared when the Assyrian army was annihilated miraculously, or else it was bought off with an enormous ransom, including all of the gold in the Lord's temple--whichever version of the history you care to believe. [More on the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in note #2 below.]
But sooner or later, of course, some invader eventually would topple Jerusalem, so that Isaiah's prophecies finally would come true. It happened about 135 years after Isaiah, in the time of Jeremiah (587 BC), when Jerusalem in fact fell to the Babylonians, and Jews indeed were forced into exile. Interest in Isaiah's predictions naturally revived at that time, and an unknown writer, known to us today as "Second Isaiah," began making revisions to Isaiah's old manuscript. These postscripts included references to events that had occurred after Isaiah's death, so that Isaiah's prophetic powers appeared miraculous indeed to Paul and other readers in classical times, who never suspected that the book had been reworked. [More on the revisions to the book of Isaiah in note #7 below.]
Paul gave Isaiah's reputation for accurate prediction another boost in the middle of the first century AD, when he and his fellow missionaries finally undertook the international missionary project that Isaiah had envisioned more than 600 years earlier. Paul's preaching career fulfilled the words of Isaiah by carrying "the word of the LORD from Jerusalem" to Hellenists in Asia Minor, mainland Greece and Macedonia. The primary message that Paul took to these foreigners was Isaiah's message, that the Last Judgment was at hand. This may have been Jesus' primary teaching also, but historically speaking we can't be entirely sure about that.
What we see of the early Greek Christians, in glimpses provided in Paul's letters and in Luke's Hellenist Book of Acts, is believers behaving as if Isaiah's Last Judgment is about to happen, as if the world is coming to an end. Doomsday behaviors, such as abandonment of family, giving away of all personal possessions, and above all fanatical praising of Christ, might have been appropriate, if the Last Judgment in fact had been near. To nonbelievers, however, it looked as if Christians must be drunk or crazy. (See for example Acts 2:13 and 26:24.) The difference between the loonies and the scoffers was belief and non-belief about a prediction.
At least as he is presented in the gospels, Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven surely would arrive within the disciples' own lifetimes (Mark 13:30; Luke 9:27). This was also Paul's urgent message, even though confusingly some of the disciples already had died. In hindsight, Paul's prophecy was almost as premature as Isaiah's, but some people clearly believed it, and clearly the lives of some believers were seriously disrupted as a result.
Paul's congregation in Thessaly wondered why some of the members were dying prior to Judgment Day? Hadn't they all been promised a view of the messiah coming in glory? Paul answered that the dead would be raised up to see the Last Judgment, and then the living would fly up to join them "in the air." All of this rapture surely would happen quite soon, during Paul's own lifetime [1 Thessalonians 4:13-17]. But later, the people of this same congregation had become hysterically dysfunctional, terrified that the end was at hand, and Paul had to write to them again to calm them down [2 Thessalonians 3:5-12].
The Thessalonians practiced communal sharing of food, but some of the zealous souls quit work and became demoralizing burdens on the producing members of the commune. Why toil if the end is so near? Other followers of Paul's completely lost interest in marriage, children and family life. On the other hand, some decided to indulge their senses with sexual excesses and other pleasures. Elsewhere, slaves ran away but then, when the world didn't end, realized that they were in deep trouble.
Obviously, many individuals didn't believe Paul's prophecies. And yet many did. At least one congregation supported Paul financially, and others may have, too. Several gave him donations to take back to the original commune of Jesus' followers in Jerusalem -- the poor "saints," as Paul called them when raising funds.
Paul had no political or social authority whatsoever in communities where he preached doomsday. On the contrary, some people despised him as a Jew while others saw him as a turncoat from Jewish orthodoxy. Yet through prophecy alone -- his inspiring words -- he converted Hellenists, even in such traditional Hellenic strongholds as Thessaly, Achaia, and Athens. [Recall Thessaly as Achilles' homeland of Phthia; this is also the place where Crito's friends could have harbored Socrates in exile: Lesson 13.] This is a remarkable feat, even if in the process he turned Jesus into Christ.
Central to Paul's presentation of himself to the Hellenes as an inspired preacher was his story that he had directly encountered Christ -- resurrected Christ, not the historical person Jesus. Paul refers to this supernatural episode no less than three times in his surviving letters, and Acts mentions it three other times (Acts 9:1-9, 22:3-16, and 26:9-18, Galatians 1:11-17 and 1 Corinthians 9:1 and 15:8-11). The incident had happened one day when Paul was traveling on the road to Damascus (in modern Syria, far from the Hellenic homelands). Suddenly there was Christ up in the air overhead, calling Paul by name and rebuking him for persecuting Christians. It knocked him down and temporarily blinded him. From this experience, Paul saw that the end was beginning! Jesus already had been raised and transformed in a mysterious new body. Everybody else surely would follow.
To believe Paul, similar sightings of risen Christ already had occurred to the first believers in Judea:
I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins
according to the scriptures;
Paul witnessed Christ, as Peter and the others in Jerusalem had witnessed Christ. This was Paul's claim to direct inspiration, independent of the disciples who had known and worked with Jesus. It was the claim of a prophet to spiritual knowledge.
Because there is no evidence apart from Paul's testimonies and the brief descriptions in Acts, questions about what really happened to Paul on the road to Damascus can't be answered definitively. Paul's admirers and detractors reach different conclusions about it. But whatever actually took place, Paul became an opposite of his former self. He stopped persecuting followers of Jesus and devoted the rest of his life to founding Christian communities. This conversion became a model for transformation of the Hellenists that Paul hoped to convert. He was going to gain everlasting life through the Last Judgment, and they could be saved, too, through belief in his words.
Why did so many Greeks believe Paul? Several suggestions have already been made on this page. It could have helped Paul considerably that Hellenic and Hebrew literature were full of deep-rooted parallels. Greeks who knew nothing of Isaiah or other Jewish doomsday prophets could have understood that Christ was a hero, and Paul was a prophetic medium who could invoke Christ, as he claimed had happened involuntarily on the road to Damascus. They could have accepted Paul's communion meal as a hero ritual that called up the spirit of dead Jesus and that saved them, too, either from death or in death. They could have seen Paul's Last Judgment, not as a restatement of Isaiah but as a culmination of Hellenic sacrifice when all of the heroes would arise from their graves to claim the gifts that were owed to them and to bless the faithful people who had made appropriate sacrifice offerings. Would Paul's arrival in town perhaps mean that he might make Christ appear? And if Christ appeared, would it be the end of the world?
Acts was written in about 80-85 AD to tell about Paul's missionary work and related events in early Christian history, from the aftermath of Jesus' crucifixion (cir. 30 AD) until the time of Paul's journey to Rome (cir. 60 AD). This is an international story of the spread of the cult of Jesus from Jerusalem to the Greco-Roman world, a Hellenist foundation myth for Christianity. [Recall our discussions of foundation myths in connection with the Socratic Academy and Homeric Alexandria.]
Acts is also a continuation of the gospel according to Luke, written by the same anonymous Greek author and for the same unknown audience. (It is addressed to one Theophilus, meaning "lover of God.") The two books are full of parallel episodes, and they may have become separated simply because the whole story originally was contained on two standard 32-foot scrolls. The separation in the New Testament (the two halves are divided by John' gospel) obscures the unity of Luke's work.
Luke is known by scholars as the gospel to the Gentiles, because of its Hellenist features. It substitutes Greek names for Hebrew and Aramaic names, it is interested in non-Jewish Christians and international salvation (2:30-32, 3:38, 4:16-30, 13:28-30, 14:15-24, 17:11-19, 24:47-48), and it demonstrates incomplete knowledge of Palestinian geography, history and customs. It is also Homeric in its omniscient point of view (recall the omniscience of Homer's Muse from Lesson 3); God's plans are announced by angelic messengers, and many of the characters, even the shepherds tending their flocks by night on the night of Jesus' nativity, know in advance how the story will turn out (Luke 2:8; recall the present existence of "the" future in Homer from Lesson 4).
According to Luke, as well as Paul, the future can be seen when one is under the influence of the Holy Spirit. To become Christian is to gain access to the spirit, which can provide the gift of prophecy, including the power to see the end of world which is coming soon. The inspired may see risen Jesus, as Paul and many others did, or may see other "signs" that signify the approach of the Last Judgment. Christianity for Luke, as for Paul, is a cult of prophecy.
One of the striking episodes in Luke's gospel (not found in other gospels) occurs when Elizabeth, a wise woman pregnant with John the Baptizer, is visited by Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and Elizabeth suddenly becomes prophetic, empowered by the Holy Spirit to say the first "Hail, Mary."
And it came to pass, that, when
Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy
John does not need to be born, let alone born-again, to see how things are going to be. He can prophesy while he is still a fetus in the belly, at least when his mother is filled with the Holy Spirit.
Prophecy is central to Luke's account. As the story unfolds it is almost as if Jesus' mother is John rather than Mary, and as if John's mother is Isaiah rather than Elizabeth. The biological mothers quickly disappear from the story, but John's life and teachings fulfill the words of Isaiah (Luke 3:1-6), and Jesus in turn lives out the predictions of John. Jesus' spiritual life comes into being only when John baptizes him.
Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened,
From this point Jesus' ministry begins. The implication is that even Jesus needed baptism under the direction of a prophet to gain access to the Holy Spirit and the gift of prophecy or awareness of the end times.
The transmission of the Holy Spirit by baptism is repeated in Acts, when dead Jesus promises his mute and amazed followers in Jerusalem: "John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now" (Acts 1:5). This dry baptism that inaugurates Christian preaching abroad occurs on Pentecost, when tongues of flame descend on each of the apostles, giving them the power to speak languages understood outside of Palestine. This event overcomes the linguistic damage done at the destruction of the Tower of Babel [Lesson 1], and it makes possible the realization of Isaiah's multicultural vision that the word of the Lord should go forth into the world from Jerusalem.
Non-believers present at this Christian Pentecost think that the Christians are drunk, but Peter reminds them that it's only 9 a.m., and he launches into a sermon explaining that the Christians are acting as everybody is supposed to act when the last days have come, according to the prophet Joel:
Your sons and your daughters
and on my servants and handmaidens in those days,
will show wonders in the sky above,
In their babbling and prophesying, the apostles are making it appear to be the end of the world. Peter supplies the explanation, including discussion of the "signs" or miracles that Jesus worked during his time on earth and, most importantly, Jesus' resurrection from the dead. The apostles keep count on how many people are persuaded by their acts: from this episode they convinced about 3,000 to believe (Acts 2:41).
All of which brings us back to self-induction, the idea with which this lesson began. Acts is superbly named for English readers. The English verb "to act" means "to pretend" (for example, to act the part of Robin Hood) and "to seem" (to act like a jackass when one isn't a jackass, to act scared when actual fear may or may not be present) and also "to do" (to act on a request, to act as a peacemaker). The noun "act" similarly can refer to part of a play (Act 4 of Hamlet) or to any deed (an act of war, a harmless act), and there are instances when it's hard to say which "act" is intended (for example, a foolish act may refer to a playful act or to something much more serious).
All of these acts can be found in the Book of Acts, depending on the reader's perception of the events that it describes. Looking at the Pentecost "miracle," for example, one easily might see a picture of social manipulation via managed illusion, as the apostles stage a public event to trick devout Jewish pilgrims into thinking that the end times have come. (Everybody's prophesying; ergo, according to scripture the world must be coming to end.) That's a non-believer's perspective, which sees only the theatrical kind of acting.
But look at this same Pentecost episode from a believer's point of view, and there's no apparent insincerity or histrionics. The apostles can be seen as honestly trying to save their fellows from a catastrophe that (they really think) is about to occur, so that a little dramatization is justified by the good intentions. If the apostles are convinced that the end already has begun, then they are acting appropriately, the way that the scriptures say people in fact will act when the end arrives. This last is the magical interpretation in which one believes in the book to such an extent that one simply does what it says.
Still another way to view this Pentecost scene is to be agnostic about what the apostles' thoughts and motives because Luke describes only appearances: on the surface it looked as if people were prophesying, and it looked as if 3,000 spectators believed them. In this view, personal thoughts and motives might be beside the point because the Holy Spirit is in change of events. The apostles might not be self-directed; the spirit may have taken over. The Pentecost may be happening spontaneously, regardless of anybody's intentions, good or bad.
All of which may illustrate self-induction. Which kind of act you see or interpret in this story -- whether Pentecost is a miracle or a hoax or something in between -- is likely to depend on your conditioned habits of thought.
1800 BC? Abraham
1400 BC? Moses
1200 BC. Fall of Troy, Thebes, and Hellenic cities. End of the Bronze Age.
950 BC? Solomon constructs the first temple at Jerusalem.
753 BC? Rome founded.
750 BC? Conventional date for Homer. [But an "original" Homer or Trojan War writer may have flourished at about 1200 BC. See Lesson 10.]
722 BC. Isaiah. Assyrians conquer northern Jewish kingdom of Israel.
587 BC. Jeremiah. Babylonians conquer southern Jewish kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem. Solomon's Temple is destroyed, and Jews are taken in captivity to Babylon.
515 BC. The Jerusalem Temple is rebuilt in the period of Ezra, after the Jewish exile in Babylon is ended by Cyrus the Great's Persian conquest of the Babylonians. (Archaic Age temples are built in the Greek world at this time also.)
510 BC. Beginning of Roman Republic (Roman kings expelled).
399 BC. Death of Socrates.
333-323 BC. Conquests of Alexander the Great.
300-198 BC. Palestine under the rule of the Hellenistic Ptolemies.
198-142 BC. Palestine under the rule of Hellenistic Syrians.
142-37 BC. Palestine briefly under independent Jewish rule of the Maccabees.
63 BC. Conquest of Palestine by the Romans under Pompey the Great.
44 BC. Assassination of Julius Caesar in Rome.
40-4 BC. Herod, King of Jews under the Romans.
31 BC. Octavian defeats Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, ending the Hellenistic Age and leading to the designation of Octavian as Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor.
19 BC. Death of the poet Virgil. His unfinished epic poem The Aeneid, the official foundation myth of Rome, is published posthumously.
4 BC? Jesus born
AD. 18-36. Caiaphas, high priest in Jerusalem.
AD 25-36. Pilate, Roman Governor of Judea.
AD 30? Jesus crucified.
AD 33? Conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus.
AD 43. Roman conquest of Britain begins.
AD 46-57. Paul's missionary journeys in the old Hellenic world of Asia Minor and the Greek peninsula (epistles written cir. 50-60 AD).
AD 56-117. Life of Tacitus (major Roman historian).
61 AD. Boudicca rebels against Roman legions in Britain.
64 AD. Rome burns, allegedly while the Emperor Nero sings of the burning of Troy. Christians had called for the burning of Rome, and Nero evidently blamed the Christians for starting the fire. According to second century Christian sources, which may or may not be reliable, Nero ordered a retaliation in which Peter and Paul are among those killed.
AD 65? Gospel according to Mark.
AD 66-70. Jews revolt against Rome. Vespasian leads legions against the Jews in Judea. The Jewish leader Josephus surrenders to the Romans at Jotapata. The Roman army destroys the Second Temple in Jerusalem. (Josephus later became the foremost Jewish historian of antiquity).
79 AD. Mount Vesuvius erupts, burying Pompeii and Herculaneum.
AD 80. Roman Coliseum is completed.
AD 80-85? Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, and The Book of Acts written.
AD 90-95. Gospel according to John written.
AD 110-130? Gospels according to Peter and Thomas, and The Infancy Gospel of Thomas written. (Other apocryphal gospels apparently were written still later than these.)
AD 187. Iranaeus, a Greek who became Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, writes Against Heresies, one of the main works marking the drive toward religious orthodoxy within Christianity.
AD 312. Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity, marking the beginning of Christianity's status as the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Persecutions of non-Christians in the Roman Empire begin.
AD 400. Augustine's Confessions written.
AD 410. Rome is sacked by Alaric, the first of the "barbarians" to pillage the city. Augustine begins The City of God to refute pagans who blame the fall of Rome on Christianity. The fall of Rome is usually considered to be the event that ends the classical period and begins the Middle Ages in European history.
AD 529. Christian Emperor Justinian destroys Plato's Academy to suppress non-Christian ideas.
Lesson summary: Christianity preserves the archaic tradition handed down through Hellenic and Jewish cultures that the spirit world is revealed by art. The artists were prophets like Paul who claimed to speak the words of God.
1. Prophecy as the organizing principle of the Bible: Nearly all of the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible contain prophetic elements, but 21 of them customarily are categorized under the heading of "the prophets." This group conventionally is subdivided into the "former prophets" who appear as characters within general narratives of Jewish history during the settlement of Palestine (Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings) and "latter prophets" who came afterwards, each of the latter prophets having his own book, consisting mainly of his prophetic words or words that are ascribed to him. The "former prophets" may have been preliterates, belonging to the first age of literature: we have general accounts about them but not their exact words. [Recall the four ages of literature from Lesson 10.]
The "latter prophets" are fully documented in the scriptures. They include three "major" prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and twelve "minor" prophets" (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). The terms "major" and "minor" refer only to book-length. Isaiah is the most major, having the most pages.
Moses is the chief model for both the "former" and the "latter" prophets. Compare, for example, the Lord's "call" to Moses in Exodus 3:1 - 4:5 with the similar "calls" to Samuel (Judges 6:1-17), Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-11), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-9), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 2:1 - 3:14), and Jonah (Jonah 1:1 - 3:3). The unusual arrangement here is that the Lord seeks out these prophets, even if they do not seek out the Lord. Jewish prophets are "called" or "chosen," unlike the typical spiritual pattern in other cultures where the shaman or mage does the calling of the spirit.
Although Moses is the pattern, he is by no means the first of the prophetic spirit-impersonators in the Bible. All of the important Hebrew patriarchs in Genesis--Adam, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph--are remembered for their abilities to communicate with the Lord, practice divination, interpret dreams, see visions, and foretell future events. They're a shaman family that makes an unusually bold claim to be the exclusive "chosen people" of a spirit that they call "the Lord," who they describe as the greatest of all of the spirits, in fact the only real spirit that exists, the one who created the earth and who still rules it by controlling human events.
The New Testament continues the line of prophets in its presentations of John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and John of Patmos (seer of The Book of Revelation). To borrow Jewish terminology, only John of Patmos is a "later prophet" whose prophecy is preserved verbatim, but extensive collections of Jesus' sayings and parables are contained in the gospels, and Paul alludes to his prophecies in his letters. All of these New Testament prophets claim to speak for the Lord, as their Jewish predecessors had. Their words and stories are split off into a separate collection of texts, due to the first century rift within Judaism that led to Christianity.
People for centuries have debated whether or not the Bible is "true." A more precise way to frame the question may be: are the claims of the Biblical prophets true? For one who believes a prophets' claims, those prophecies are the word of the Lord. Whatever is not believed as true can of course be accepted as perfectly good and useful literature.
2. Jerusalem saved from the Assyrians in 701 BC: but was the city saved by God or by gold?
A famous Christian lyric on this subject is "The Destruction of Sennacherib" (1815, pronounced senak'rib) by the English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, where the Last Judgment is prefigured in the sudden destruction of the grand Assyrian army that attacked Jerusalem:
Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
According to 2 Kings 19:35, in the morning following Isaiah's prophecy of their immanent destruction, 185,000 Assyrian troops lay dead. Was this Isaiah's magic? (Compare and contrast Achilles' magic war cry that destroys Trojans, Lesson 5.)
The story of the destruction of Sennacherib has been rationalized in some modern interpretations to mean that a sudden epidemic must have struck the Assyrian camp, forcing a hasty retreat of the survivors. But Sennacherib left quite a different account of this invasion in the Assyrian annals:
"Because Hezekiah, king of Judah, would not submit to my yoke, I came up against him, and by force of arms and by the might of my power I took forty-six of his strong fenced cities; and of the smaller towns which were scattered about, I took and plundered a countless number. From these places I took and carried off 200,156 persons, old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude; and Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage, building towers round the city to hem him in, and raising banks of earth against the gates to prevent escape...Then upon Hezekiah there fell the fear of the power of my arms, and he sent out to me the chiefs and the elders of Jerusalem with 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, and divers treasures, a rich and immense booty...All these things were brought to me at Nineveh, the seat of my government."
Sennacherib claims that he was bought off and went home. He says nothing about any military defeat or infection by disease.
We should be more inclined to believe Sennacherib's version of the story, because the Hebrew Bible itself contains a second story that squares with it. In 701 BC a rebellion against Assyria, backed by Egypt, broke out in Palestine. Sennacherib reacted firmly, supporting loyal vassals and taking the rebel cities, except for Jerusalem, which, though besieged, was spared on payment of a heavy indemnity, including all of the gold in the temple (2 Kings 18:13-19:36; compare Isaiah 36:1-37:37). This alternate biblical story has been interpreted by some Bible scholars to mean that there must have been two different Assyrian campaigns against Jerusalem, but such an interpretation is unsupported by Assyrian or other sources.
Sennacherib's attack is one of the few incidents in the Bible that are also described in any independent, non-Biblical source. There are no known first century AD references to Jesus, apart from the New Testament.
People are always looking for new evidence, of course. In 2002 AD, an Aramaic inscription was found on an alleged first century burial urn, describing the contents as "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," perhaps referring to the Jesus of Christianity. (James, Joseph and Jesus were quite common Jewish names in those days.) However, this "find" has now been found to be a hoax:
Jones News Services
JERUSALEM (AP)--An ancient burial box purported to have held the bones of Jesus' brother, James, is a fake, Israel's Antiquities Authority said Wednesday.
The ossuary, which bore the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," had been touted by some scholars as the oldest archaeological link to New Testament figures.
But Israeli officials said its inscriptions "date from modernity" and called them "forgeries."
"The inscription appears new, written in modernity by someone attempting to reproduce ancient written characters," the officials said in a statement.
Many people who debate the "truth" of the Bible are talking about the Bible's historical truth, rather than the prophetic truth: "did it really happen," not "will it really happen?"
Do you believe the historical truth of the Bible? How can you know? Does it matter whether or not the Bible tells historical truth? Are these questions any different than questions about the historicity of the Iliad or the Phaedo?
3. Paul, general info: Paul (called Paul in Greek, Saul in Hebrew) lived among the Hellenists in Asia Minor, perhaps at Tarsus, just after the Romans had robbed the Greek temples, putting an end to the Hellenistic period, but he was a Jew of the Diaspora (the Jewish communities living outside of Palestine) who maintained connections in Jerusalem. Letters written under his name to various early Hellenist churches in the mid 1st century AD are preserved in the New Testament.
Modern scholars generally agree that at least seven of these letters are genuinely Paul's: 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon, and Romans. The authorship of two others is sometimes debated: 2 Thessalonians and Colossians. It is often claimed that the four other Pauline letters in the New Testament are not Paul's: Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. But if any of these letters really is a forgery, it at least indicates that Paul was a well-known authority among Greek Christians, and it also underscores the importance of imitation in the social process of spreading the Jesus cults. People may have copied Paul, even to the point of passing off their own writing under his name. (In the ancient world, this kind of thing was fairly common: would-be poets who wanted attention wrote pieces as "Homer," would-be philosophers wrote as "Plato," and so on. In those days forgeries were hard to detect, and there were no copyright laws or author royalties to defend.)
Paul probably "wrote" by dictating to professional scribes. The scribes may have taken liberties when writing down what Paul said to them, so that this method of composition partly would account for the differences in thought and style among the letters. However, the variations from letter to letter also suggest that Paul was practical, addressing his words to fit particular audiences on specific occasions.
Paul's letters would have been read aloud to the assembled congregations to which they were addressed. In this sense Paul's style is oral--not that it is memorized like a Homeric song or hymn but that it is delivered in public like a dramatic script. The convention at the time was that writing made the writer personally present at the reading. When reading aloud, the reader would have tried to sound like the writer. So, Paul visited his missionary churches through readers of his dictated words; the readers played Paul, reading from a script prepared by scribes.
If you read these letters, read them aloud, or try to imagine yourself reading them aloud in public, as a messenger to the intended congregations. 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians are good letters to start with.
How Christians should act is a central theme of Paul's letters. For example, Paul announced sexual and other behavioral restrictions on the Corinthians, apparently to clean up the public image of the group. Those who didn't act as Paul instructed would not be saved at the Last Judgment:
Even though Christianity operates by models of action, not by rules of law, Christian preachers regularly describe the models in abstract terms: what's right to do, what's wrong to do. All violations of model behavior are correctable by abandoning the wrong acts and performing the right ones.
Paul is also noted for having been a persecutor of Christians, prior to his "conversion" experience. Actually, Paul never converted in the sense of dropping Judaism in favor of Christianity. He always thought of himself as a Jew, even after he accepted the belief that Jesus was the son of the Lord. [Recall our prior discussions of "sons of Zeus" in Hellenism: e.g., Lesson 6.] The first Christians in Palestine thought of themselves as Jews, not as members of a different religion. Relations between Christian-Jews and nonChristian-Jews apparently were strained from the beginning, but the schism between Christians and Jews apparently was not completed for several decades after the death of Jesus.
Paul's exact role in persecuting Christians, prior to his conversion, is unknown. It was unlawful for Jews in the Roman Empire of Paul's day to inflict corporal punishment for any spiritual offense. The stoning of Steven, for example, assuming that it happened as Acts says, would have been illegal. (Acts 7:59 claims that Paul was present at this event.) But local Roman administrators may have looked the other way when Jewish priests or aristocrats broke laws. Joining the lowly persecuted Christians may have been Paul's way of cleansing his feelings of guilt by becoming one of the victims (a Hellenic behavior!). Certainly he seems to have relished being imprisoned on a regular basis. Obedience to political laws appears to have little importance for him; obedience to the Christ model, even when it meant law-breaking, was paramount.
Paul found women very active in the early Greek churches, even as congregational leaders, possibly because priestesses had been common in the old Hellenic world, or because women were allowed to have money in Hellenist society (unlike many traditional societies at the time), or possibly because Jesus had cultivated women, along with sinners and other downtrodden and despised people, the "last" who soon would become "first" in the reversed social order of the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul is sometimes accused of patriarchal leanings that eventually turned the church into an old boy's club, but these modern criticisms may not be completely fair. While Paul advised women to be silent in the assembly and to cover their heads, he also accepted women as church leaders, saints and fund raisers.
For some further reading on Paul, see: R. Banks, Idea of a Community: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980)(discusses Paul as a builder of communities); R. Jewett, A Chronology of Paul's Life (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979)(attempts to reconstruct Paul's life); A.J. Malherbe, Paul and the Popular Philosophers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1989)(comparing Paul to popular Stoic and Cynic traditions in classical philosophy); J.H. Neyrey, Paul In Other Words: A Cultural Reading of his Letters (Louisville: Westminster/Knox Press, 1990)(a reading in terms of cultural anthropology); S.K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1986)(shows how the letters in the New Testament are influenced by classical rhetoric).
4. The New Testament gospels: For excellent general introductions to the New Testament, see Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday: New York, 1977) and Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press: New York 1977).
Ehrman describes the general criteria used by modern historians to judge the credibility of various stories told about Jesus in Paul's letters, the scriptural gospels and other non-canonical gospels. The criteria include:
A. contextual credibility: any myth or tradition about Jesus
that cannot be credibly fit into Jesus' own first century Palestinian
context cannot be regarded as authentic.
Based on these criteria, Ehrman makes the case that both the canonical and non-canonical gospels are filled with episodes of doubtful historical authenticity. This is not a criticism of anybody's personal belief in the scriptures or religious faith. It's simply a modern historian's view of what probably happened and what could have happened but is not so probable. The discipline of history nowadays is based on a scientific model so that it does not permit description of events in terms of spiritual or supernatural agencies. [Recall our prior discussion of history and history's limitations from Lesson 7.]
5. Why does God speak through prophets? Why would God or the Lord or Allah or any other spirit choose to communicate with human beings through the mouthpiece of a prophet? Why not communicate directly with all people? Wouldn't direct communication put an end to bickering over whether there's a god and what if anything this true god wants from us? Wouldn't it allow human beings to respect and serve the deity properly?
Are there other means to know the god, apart from revelations or claims of prophets? How can human beings find or know the deity, if they are unsatisfied with prophets?
6. Early Christian economics in Acts & the first Hellenist preachers: Acts gives us a fascinating sketch of early Christianity, though its reliability is hard to gauge because there simply aren't any other pictures to compare with it. The story was composed several generations after the events that it describes, and the story-teller Luke has a decidedly Hellenist point of view that may bias his presentation of Peter and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and abroad.
As Acts begins with the disappearance of Jesus on his ascension into heaven, the big question is how the little commune of disciples and followers can continue without the leader. Because the apostles have given up their trades to follow Jesus, their commune depends economically on donations of property from new converts. For the group to continue to gain converts, the Holy Spirit must turn the members into prophets directly, because Jesus has departed without baptizing his successors.
In the beginning the commune consists of about 120 persons, perhaps an estimate that each of the twelve disciples was supported by ten converts at the conclusion of Jesus' ministry (Acts 1:12). The commune could not have been supported by taxes or tithing requirements like those of the priests (the Sadducees) at the Jerusalem temple. Whatever their religious differences were, the serious conflict between the early Christian preachers and the Sadducees must have had a practical economic basis, as both groups sought support from the same community of practicing Jews in Jerusalem.
Within a few years after the death of Jesus, the Sadducees brought a man named Stephen to trial for blasphemy. As Acts tells the story, Stephen told them at the trial that the Lord "does not dwell in temples made with hands" (meaning, the Jerusalem Temple) and that the Jewish priests had persecuted all of the Lord's prophets throughout Jewish history. Things apparently got out of hand at that point, and Stephen was taken out and promptly stoned to death.
One consequence of this first Christian martyrdom is that Stephen's fellows (Acts calls them "Hellenists") fled in fear into the countryside where they had to earn their daily bread by preaching to strangers.
Note here that the apostles themselves were not persecuted at the time of Stephen's death; the Sadducees already had decided to leave the apostles alone, according to Acts 5:33-40. It's the "Hellenists" who were driven out of the city at Stephen's death to become the first wave of international preachers of Christianity. They were the troublemakers from the Sadducee point of view, evidently--or at least this is the story as Luke presents it.
Who were these Hellenists? We might guess that they were some of the "reformed" Jews of their day, Jews who spoke Greek and adopted Greco-Roman lifestyles, so they could move in international circles, in contrast to other more conservative Jews who resisted Hellenization. To believe the story in Acts, infighting between these Hellenist Jews and the Sadducees (priests of the Jewish temple) drove the Hellenists to the apostles of Jesus within a year or two after Jesus' death. They turned to the apostles because the Sadducees would not make economic provision for their widows, the story says. (Why the Sadducees should have provided for these widows, the story doesn't say.) The apostles agreed to take the widows into their commune, on the slight condition that the Hellenists would contribute seven men who could preach. The deal was sealed not with baptism but with the laying on of hands (Acts 6:5).
Why weren't the apostles themselves going out to do the preaching? Why did they need the Hellenists to do the work? The original disciples appear to have withdrawn from preaching and communal duties to devote their life to prayer (Acts 6:2). Was their silence a tradeoff for peace with the Sadducees, as the Sadducees indeed had demanded (Acts 5:40)? In Acts, Peter's public preaching in Jerusalem seems to stop as soon as the Sadducees' have ordered him to be silent about Jesus, and no further "persecutions" of Peter and his people are mentioned until much later on.
If the apostles had been censored effectively by the Sadducees, it probably would have been the apostles who approached the Hellenists, not the Hellenists who approached the apostles, to make a deal. If the apostles weren't preaching, they urgently would have needed people to support the commune in Jerusalem by preaching on their behalf. The alternatives would have been to disband the commune and go back to fishing or else to defy the powerful Pharisees and risk deadly persecution again.
The agreement between the apostles and the Hellenists must have had advantages for both sides. Presumably, the Hellenists could have supported their widows by preaching on their own. The fact that they agreed to preach for the apostles indicates that there must have been substantial economic value in Jesus' message (enough to share) and that the apostles controlled that value. It appears that nobody at this early date officially could speak for Jesus unless the cult authorized the preacher by the laying on of hands.
The benefit of the deal for the apostles likely would have been economic support for the commune. It's hard to see in practical terms what else it could have been. In this view of the situation, while the disciples prayed at home, their contract preachers worked the crowds outside, taking up collections and receiving contributions whenever anybody renounced the world to follow Jesus. Converts were expected to sell their assets and contribute all of the proceeds to the common pool, retaining no money in their own names (Acts 4:32). Luke is brutally frank about the consequences of individuals gaining or keeping any private ownership of property. These acts deserved punishment by death: see the stories of Judas (Acts 1:16) and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1). If these stories are based on true events, the deaths were mysterious, to say the least.
Perhaps the most interesting point about the Hellenists in Acts is that they started preaching for the commune AFTER Jesus already had lived and died, all of the apostles' reported sightings of the resurrected Jesus (except Paul's) already had occurred, the reported miracle of the Pentecost had taken place, and all of the conflicts between Peter and the Temple priests were over and done (including Peter's healing of the lame man and run-in with the temple officials, the apostles' imprisonment and escape from prison led by an angel). These are all of the primary "miracles" that come down to us through the tradition of the Greek preachers, including the gospels of the Greek New Testament and Acts itself.
If Luke's account is correct, the Hellenists must have received these stories about Jesus and his cult while being trained by the apostles to preach for the commune, unless the Hellenists invented them afterwards or received them directly from the Holy Spirit. Those are the alternative possibilities. Whether the apostles distorted past events, or whether the Hellenists did, or whether the miracles happened as Acts claims, can never be known--except through belief or interpretation of Luke's story.
7. Problems of Prophecy #1: developing a cult:
Belief in spirits has been common everywhere throughout history, and yet it would seem to be difficult to create and maintain. The prophet is "called" to a public "mission" to persuade other people to become his or her clients, but it's easy for the target audience to view this calling with suspicion. Sometimes even the prophet can't believe that people will listen.
A famous Biblical description of the "call" of the prophet is found in the episode of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus chapter 4). The Lord in the burning bush tasks Moses to go down into Egypt to rescue the Hebrew people from slavery under Pharaoh and to lead them away to the promised land of Palestine. Naturally, Moses wonders how he's going to persuade the slaves to believe him. For one thing, they don't know him from Adam. For another thing, he's embarrassingly "slow of speech... of a slow tongue." Here's how the Lord addresses Moses' two concerns about marketing himself:
1: And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The LORD hath not appeared unto thee.
To persuade others to believe, the prophet performs "signs" that people may regard as supernatural. In Moses' case, and other examples of his period (cir. 1400 BC, the Bronze Age), at least some of the signs were clever illusions that we today associate with stage magic.
Another common and very ancient prophetic sign is faith healing, where the prophet as medicine-man relies on placebo effect, cognitive psychology, hypnotism, accident, prearranged drama, downright fraud or some combination of all of these to perform marvelous cures or to exorcise demons that are said to be causing bodily dysfunction. (Even the dead may be raised sometimes, as happened regularly in ancient Hellenic hero rituals. Recall Euripides' Alcestis.) Faith healing can work, at least occasionally for those who believe in it. Belief makes all the difference. In double blind scientific trials, placebos have been shown to be as effective as many patented drugs that have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration! Placebo cure rates of 30% are not unusual.
The New Testament gospels and The Book of Acts attribute miracles of healing to Jesus and his early followers Peter and Paul. Miracles of this sort were commonly claimed by various non-Christian cults in the Hellenist world, too. Especially popular were the cures of Asclepius, the god of healing. The Asclepius cults appear to have raised enormous sums of money in the Hellenistic period, for there were many more temples and shrines constructed to this god than to any other deity. No doubt some of Asclepius' patients would have been dissatisfied with their treatment and ready to try other remedies. A few cults at the time also were offering recognizably medical treatments, following the practices of Hippocrates and others pioneers of western medicine.
Certainly the most common sign for prophetic power is prediction, a basic form of magic in which future events are fore-told. Predictions often come true in fiction, as in the Oedipus story [recall Lesson 4] or the Odyssey [recall Lesson 2], but weather forecasters, stock market gurus and business planners in everyday experience seem to be far less accurate. The history of prediction--spiritualist and otherwise--is filled with failures and reinterpretations of the predictions to explain the failures.
The ancient Greek oracles were famous for making ambiguous, vague or even unintelligible utterances that later could be interpreted as having come true. "Look to wooden walls to defend you," Apollo's oracle told the Athenians when the Persian army was bearing down upon the city. Later, after Athens had been saved by Themistocles' victory in the great naval battle at Salamis, the "wooden walls" were reinterpreted to mean "ships," even though the city did have walls made of wood and other materials. The real mystery is why the oracle, if she knew, didn't simply say ships in the first place.
This fuzzy magic approach also was taken by the famous astrologer Nostradamus (French 1503-1566 AD), and it can be read in the horoscope column of your daily newspaper.
The failure of a prediction can cost the prophet most or all of his believers, but a successful reinterpretation can revitalize the cult. Christianity itself may have been reborn out of the original cult of Jesus in this way. Jesus taught that the kingdom of the Son of Man surely would arrive within the disciples' own lifetimes (to accept Mark 13:30 and Luke 9:27), but the disciples eventually died, and the world didn't end, much to the confusion of the remaining cult members (see Paul's 1 Thessalonians 4:15-5:8). For these survivors to continue to believe, and to persuade other people to join their group, there needed to be a new explanation of what Jesus' words had meant. If Jesus had meant that he himself was the Son of Man, then the kingdom had arrived on time after all: the Son of Man had come, though nobody at the time had recognized him! (This is the main theme in Mark's gospel: how Jesus came and went and nobody recognized who He was--not the Romans or the Jews or Jesus' own family or even the disciples, with the exception of Peter: see Mark 8:27.)
The new interpretation that Jesus himself had founded the kingdom gained acceptance after the first generation of Jesus' followers had passed away, and it probably became orthodox Christian belief around the time of Paul's ministry or soon after. The rift with Judaism was completed at this time with the new Christian idea (blasphemous to Jews) that Jesus was Christ. Also, because glorification of Jesus as divine savior went hand-in-hand with this new interpretation, the New Testament gospels were written at this time: Mark (cir. 65-70 AD), Matthew and Luke (both cir. 80-85 AD) and John (cir. 90-95 AD). (Jesus had died cir. 30 AD.)
Another way to correct prophecies is to change not merely the interpretations but the prophecies themselves. In the ancient world, prophetic books could be rewritten with the advantage of hindsight in order to document that a particular prophet who lived in the past really knew what was going to happen in the future. It's as if we today could rewrite Nostradamus' books to include unmistakable references to the holocaust of World War II (change Nostradamus' "Hister" to Hitler, for instance), the lunar landings of the Apollo missions, the victory of the New England Patriots in the 2002 Super Bowl, or any other events of modern times. Of course, we can't get away with this strategy because old editions of Nostradamus are available for ready comparison by anyone who troubles to check the facts. In the age of manuscripts, however, it was extremely difficult or impossible to detect forgeries or to check facts of any kind. Prophecy, history or anything else could be rewritten and published with reasonable expectation that post scripts would pass unnoticed.
Modern literary scholarship has attempted to decipher the rewritings that took place, historically, on the text of the Bible. For example, it's widely agreed today among reputable American scholars that The Book of Isaiah isn't entirely the original prophet Isaiah's work. The current consensus is that writings of the "first Isaiah" are found in chapters 1-39, but an Isaiah #2 (from the period of the Jewish exile) composed chapters 40-55, and yet a third Isaiah (from the period of the return to Palestine after the Persian conquest of Cyrus the Great) wrote chapters 56-66, possibly with other bits and pieces by various editors here and there. Obviously, we can only guess at what the various authors intended by making additions and changes to Isaiah's manuscript, but by modern standards the resulting text is misleading because it does not state or clearly indicate that different authors composed different parts of the book at different historical periods, or that later "prophecies" actually referred to events that already had occurred. John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, and any other ancients who were impressed by Isaiah probably would not have recognized that some of Isaiah's prophetic book was history, not prophecy.
Aside from "signs," the prophet's other essential skill is eloquence, and prophets like Socrates and Jesus are reputed to have had not merely strong but irresistible persuasive talents. Moses' case is very unusual in that he is said to have been such a poor speaker that he had to depend upon a public relations man, his "brother" Aaron, the Levite priest who could speak well.
If Moses actually grew up at Pharaoh's court with the blue-bloods of the Egyptian royal family, as Exodus claims, it seems extremely unlikely that lowly slave Aaron could have been Moses' biological brother, but as chief priest of the slaves Aaron surely could have been a most important partner to Moses on the exodus. To hazard a theory--and obviously it can be no more than that--it's possible that Moses was an Egyptian prince who knew little or no Hebrew but who led an unsuccessful revolt against Pharaoh with the help of Hebrew slaves who were obedient to Aaron. The slaves didn't know Moses, and Moses couldn't talk to them articulately in Hebrew, but Aaron described Moses to them in glowing terms so that they would accept him as their leader. Aaron told them that Moses wasn't the Egyptian that he appeared to be (Exodus 1:1-2:10), that years ago Moses had killed an Egyptian overlord who was beating a Hebrew slave (Exodus 2:11-12), and that Moses was really a Jew who had been directed by the Lord to save them from their harsh masters (Exodus 3:2-16). Those who believed Aaron and survived Pharaoh's pursuit into the desert with stolen loot but no food might have wanted to hear that they were going to the land of milk and honey that the Lord once had promised to their ancestor Abraham.
8. Problems of prophecy #2: cult maintenance. Once a prophet has acquired a cult, the political problem is maintaining the membership. Non-believers may disillusion the believers, either by undermining the credibility of the prophet or by introducing rival prophets.
A common solution is to restrict cult interaction with outsiders as far as possible. Attempts to isolate the cult members can take many forms:
Do you recognize any of these common cult strategies in a cult to which you belong?
9. Religious persecution: Prophets often provoke and suffer persecution. Apparent willingness to be imprisoned, beaten, or even killed for a belief is a prophetic "sign" to some people that the belief must be important or, at least, that the prophet must be sincere. It also provides the enemies necessary to unite the cult in a common struggle. In Christianity, the persecuted type is prominent not only in crucified Jesus but in the missionary apostle Paul and many thousands of martyrs.
An account of the persecutions suffered by Paul appears in the second half of Acts. The historical accuracy of this story is doubted by many scholars, since some details are inconsistent with Paul's letters. But whether it is historically accurate or not, the character Paul in this narrative specializes in provoking Jews to violence, as if to dramatize his teaching that "the Jews" killed Jesus.
Is this Paul a persecuted martyr, a great defender of the true faith? Or is he only a propaganda figure in a cultural campaign to elevate Jesus above Moses and the other prophets of Judaism? If your background is Christian, you may be inclined to believe the story in Acts that Paul was innocent of any wrongdoing, but the Romans kept him in jail for long periods of time anyway to please the Jews, mobs of whom in almost every city wanted to kill Paul for his blasphemies. If your background is Jewish, however, you may find this story quite unbelievable. It's easy to speculate that the Romans jailed Paul because he broke the Roman law. Perhaps they jailed him for repeatedly harassing worshippers at synagogues, as several episodes in Acts strongly suggest.
10. Saul and the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28: 3-25): this interesting Biblical story indicates that necromantic prophecy of the kind practiced by the Hellenes also was known in Palestine, cir 1000 BC.
Now Samuel [the prophet] was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land.
And the Philistines gathered themselves together, and came and pitched in Shunem: and Saul gathered all Israel together, and they pitched in Gilboa. And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart greatly trembled. And when Saul enquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams nor by Urim, nor by prophets.
Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at Endor. And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night: and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee.
And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?
And Saul sware to her by the LORD, saying, As the LORD liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.
Then said the woman, Whom shall I bring up unto thee?
And he said, Bring me up Samuel.
And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice: and the woman spake to Saul, saying, Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul.
And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou?
And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth.
And he said unto her, What form is he of?
And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle.
And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself. And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?
And Saul answered, I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.
Then said Samuel, Wherefore then dost thou ask of me, seeing the LORD is departed from thee, and is become thine enemy?
Then Saul fell straightway all along on the earth, and was sore afraid, because of the words of Samuel: and there was no strength in him; for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night.
And the woman came unto Saul, and saw that he was sore troubled, and said unto him, Behold, thine handmaid hath obeyed thy voice, and I have put my life in my hand, and have hearkened unto thy words which thou spakest unto me.
But he refused, and said, I will not eat.
But his servants, together with the woman, compelled him; and he hearkened unto their voice. So he arose from the earth, and sat upon the bed. And the woman had a fat calf in the house; and she hasted, and killed it, and took flour, and kneaded it, and did bake unleavened bread thereof: And she brought it before Saul, and before his servants; and they did eat. Then they rose up, and went away that night.
11. Dehellenization. The attempt to separate Hellenism and Christianity was addressed by Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensberg on September 12, 2006:
The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity – a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the programme of dehellenization: although interconnected, they are clearly distinct from one another in their motivations and objectives.
Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the fundamental postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this programme forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.
The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. When I was a student, and in the early years of my teaching, this programme was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal’s distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In my inaugural lecture at Bonn in 1959, I tried to address the issue. I will not repeat here what I said on that occasion, but I would like to describe at least briefly what was new about this second stage of dehellenization. Harnack’s central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message. The fundamental goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ’s divinity and the triune God. In this sense, historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament restored to theology its place within the university: theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific. What it is able to say critically about Jesus is, so to speak, an expression of practical reason and consequently it can take its rightful place within the university. Behind this thinking lies the modern self-limitation of reason, classically expressed in Kant’s "Critiques", but in the meantime further radicalized by the impact of the natural sciences. This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty. The weight between the two poles can, depending on the circumstances, shift from one side to the other. As strongly positivistic a thinker as J. Monod has declared himself a convinced Platonist/Cartesian.
This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.
We shall return to this problem later. In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology’s claim to be "scientific" would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self. But we must say more: it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science" and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.
Before I draw the conclusions to which all this has been leading, I must briefly refer to the third stage of dehellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.
And so I come to my conclusion. This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific ethos, moreover, is the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity. The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.
Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding. Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: "It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being - but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss." The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the program with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. "Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God," said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God . . . It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.
How prophets are like truck drivers and the rest of us.
The traditional prophetic role
Figure left: Hellenic oracle or sybil at work, listening for the words of the spirit. She is a Hellenic counterpart to the Jewish prophet, but few of her words were saved for posterity. Hebrew prophetic writings provide a more complete account of ancient god-speech than surviving Hellenic texts do because Hellenic literature was suppressed by later censors.
Figure left: the gloomy Jeremiah ponders the Lord's anger. Playing Jeremiah, Michelangelo boldly painted his own face on this figure in the Sistine Chapel.
Why had the promised land of Palestine been lost? Was it a repetition of the disobedience and fall of Adam and Eve from the Lord's favor? [Recall the Eden story from Lesson 1.] Had the Lord come down to cause confusion again, as at Babel. [Recall the story of the Tower of Babel from Lesson 1.] Babel of course alludes to Babylon, the cosmopolitan city of the Jews' captivity. It's often thought that Genesis was composed after the Babylonian exile, or revised in light of it, to read like a prediction of it.
Figure left: the unwilling prophet Jonah looks over his shoulder forever in the Sistine Chapel. The Book of Jonah (5th century BC) isn't simply a record of the words of the Lord, according to somebody named Jonah. Its subject is Jonah himself, who would rather not be the Lord's voice in Assyria. (Who wants to be eaten by a whale? Who wants to convince dangerous enemies, like the Assyrians, to become friends of the Almighty?)
Jesus the Greek? Some historians have argued that Jesus was influenced by Cynic philosophy, since in many gospel stories Jesus has little use for worldly goods, work, marriage, or any kind of social status-seeking. (The Cynics were among the intellectual descendents of Socrates, as noted in Lesson 13.) Jesus may have known Greek, since it was one of the languages spoken in Palestine in his day, and the Jewish scriptures commonly were read in Greek translation even by rabbis. The authorized Greek translation, known as the Septuagint, had been put together in the second century BC by Hebrew scholars at Ptolemy's Alexandria. (Recall Homer's codification at Alexandria from Lesson 9.)
Image left: from the Arch of Titus in Rome, a scene depicts the Roman triumph displaying spoils from the second temple in Jerusalem (70 AD).
The Jesus problem is hardly unique. The Koran was not written down until some 18 years after Muhammad's death, and stories about the prophet himself were not written down until more than 100 years later. The Moses problem is even more complex, as the books of Moses apparently did not take their present form until about 515 BC, perhaps 900 years after Moses' death.
Image left: Christian artist Rembrandt depicts inspiration coming to Matthew for his gospel of Jesus. The spirit evidently moved Matthew to convert Jews to Christianity. Unlike other gospels, Matthew's story is designed to show that Jesus' life and death fulfill Jewish prophecies and parallel Exodus 1-20, the story of Moses as accepted by most Jews.
In early Christianity inspired words formed by the tongue were not premeditated in consciousness of the speaker and not necessarily understood by anybody after they had been voiced, a phenomenon sometimes known as "speaking in tongues."
Paul was the first to describe the last supper, the basis for Holy Communion, the ritual meal that Hellenist Christians substituted for the traditional hero cult libation and sacrifice.
I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the
Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:
Image left: the prophet Isaiah from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.
For the predicament on slavery, where the early Christian appeal for membership went out to slaves and masters alike, see Paul's interesting one-page letter written from prison on behalf of a jailed run-away to slave-owner Philemon. It's one of the sources of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter Written from a Birmingham Jail.
Figure left: the apostle Paul, according to Rembrandt. The artist plays Paul, putting his own face on the turbaned figure.
Figure left: yet another Paul by Rembrandt. The apostle's image kept shifting in the artist's imagination.
The identity of "Luke" is unknown, but he is sometimes said to have been a companion of Paul's because four short passages in Acts read as if they were first-hand accounts of Paul's travels, and Paul had a Greek traveling companion named Luke (per Colossians 4:14). However, the claim that Acts contains first-hand knowledge about Paul is doubtful since many details in Acts are contrary to statements made in Paul's (probably genuine) letters.
Image left: Pentecost, as shown in a medieval manuscript. Pentecost was the Jewish celebration, held 50 days after the Passover Feast, when pilgrims came to Jerusalem to commemorate the Hebrews' journey from Egypt to Sinai, the point at which Moses received the Ten Commandments from the Lord. In the Christian Pentecost in Acts, 50 days after the crucifixion, the word of God again comes to the prophets, in the form of tongues of flame. At the time of Acts, Moses was sometimes depicted at Sinai with similar tongues of flame.
Image left: Paul's Conversion.Compare the different descriptions of Paul's encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus: Acts 9:1-9, 22:3-16, and 26:9-18, Galatians 1:11-17 and 1 Corinthians 9:1 and 15:8-11.