Most forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–not to mention more “eastern” modes of thinking, have gone down this path pretty much wholesale–that this earth is not our Home–a kind of alienation from the world. Salvation is beyond. I call this the “bad” idea that took over the world. I prefer Robert Frost’s line Birches: The earth’s the right place to be; I don’t know where its likely to go better…”
Please subscribe to my Youtube Channel if this looks interesting to you. I have uploaded nearly 200 videos since I began last year–with much more to come.
This video lecture that I did in 2015 covers some of the most basic presupposition of an upcoming series I am doing on Youtube on “Death, Afterlife, and the Future” in the ancient Western world. See what you think. I am convinced that the core idea has permeated every facet of our culture–religious as well as philosophical. It is like it is in our mother’s milk.
Thirty years ago…Some of my readers remember, others were not old enough, but heard from parents, and some not even born–like many of my students in their 20s. I asked an undergrad class of 70 last year–Who has heard of Waco, the Branch Davidians, or David Koresh? Five hands went up, but none knew much about it. The rest had no reference point with any of these three key terms.
My parents remembered FDR’s death, Pearl Harbor, and D-Day. I remember the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and Robert Kennedy, Viet Nam, and the 1960s. Waco was 1993. But even September 11, 2001 is becoming too long ago for our college age kids.
That I was even so closely involved in the Waco confrontation with the BATF/FBI is a story in itself. My field is ancient apocalyptic ideas, not new religious movements–but in this case the overlap and “fit” between understanding Waco and ancient constructs was rather tight. See my article, “Patterns of the End: Textual Weaving from Qumran to Waco,” which you can download and read free of charge.
So whether you remember April 19, 1993 or not, here it is In One Hour–the good, bad, and ugly of it all…This is one of the tightest summaries the whole Waco story that I have done over the years–from origins of the Branch Davidians in the 1930s to the disastrous end at Mt Carmel after the 51 Day siege in Waco, TX in 1993 (Feb 28-April 19).
In this short video I show that the whole idea of “Harmonizing” our four New Testament Gospels is a mistaken idea in the first place. In fact, Mark, the earliest Gospel written was viewed and strongly deficient by Matthew, who used 90% of it, as well as Luke who used 80%. But the question is–how did they “USE” Mark. I am convinced, and I give a few examples in this video and much more in the Mark course now available to the public, that they basically OVERWROTE Mark–much like one might do to alter a painting–and in the process essentially destroyed it as it came from its creator/author.
Dr. Robert L Kuhn’s newly designed Closer to Truth web site is truly stunningly done. Rich content, endless fascination…I know of nothing on the internet that compares. You can subscribe for free. Program content is also available on Youtube and via major Podcasts. If you are mainly interested in the “Big Questions” as I am, this is the BEST thing out there. Check it out.
Click on Image for 45s Introduction to the newly Designed Site
I am also very pleased to note my own contributor page has been wholly reorganized with videos I did not even remember I had done with Dr. Kuhn over the years, links to my books, and an updated Bio. Check it out here–a good place to start in diving into Closer to Truth!
Over the decades I have heard dozens of interviews with John Crossan, listened to his lectures, read his books, and spent time together in Jerusalem in 2007 with him and his wife Sarah, in endless conversation, visiting some of the “off the beaten tourist paths” places with Shimon Gibson. He and I have our differences on getting at the “historical Jesus,” but we agree on far more than we disagree, and I am happy to stand in his shadow and continue to listen and learn from him.
I just finished listening for the second time (!) to his recent two hour free-ranging interview with Youtube host Derek Lambert of Mythvision Podcast–which includes an hour of Q & A from viewers–really great questions. I have never heard him better–a wonderful combination of his personal experience, his latest insights on Jesus and early Christianity, but also deep dives into his broader theological, philosophical, and scientific outlook on our lives and history on planet earth at the wonderful age of 88, with his characteristic graciousness to all, sprinkled with his Irish wit and charm! Pure delight. Don’t miss it.
What really stood out for me, beyond the many excellent historical points about Jesus and earliest Christianity in its Roman contexts, were his existential perspectives about the process of “Evolution”–which I would equate to my own understanding of what has been called “Process Theism,” as per Whitehead and Hartshorne. Terms like God, Atheism, Theism, Theodicy, Eschatology–easily fail in common usage to reflect much precision of meaning, skewered as they are by . But all in all, Crossan’s vision of “Reality” as both transcendent and distributively “just”–in the way he lays things out, I find profoundly moving.
I usually try to chose categories for Blog posts from a topical “drop down” menu, but for this one I come up with a thick cluster: Death, Future, God, Historical Jesus, Horrors of History, La Condition Humanine, Philosophical Musings, Religion and History, the Bible, the Earth, Time…as I said, “wide-ranging”!
Here is the link–I hope you benefit from the accumulative scholarship and life wisdom of “Dom,” as I have:
When I speak of God, that word means to me the unseen force of all forces that drives this universe and cosmos of which we are cognizant and makes you and me the creatures we are with all the mystical existence we know and enjoy upon this earth.
Jack Pyle, Memoir to his Family
In Hebrew “God” is ‘EL which roughly translates as “Force” or “Power,” and the plural, with a singular verb ‘ELOHIM–could be understood as “that Force of all Forces,” akin then to ‘EL ‘ELYON–traditionally translated The Most High, but again, quite literally, “the highest Force.” All of this was well expressed by my friend Jack Pyle, former minister and author of a fine semi-autobiographical book, The End of All Things Is at Hand: A Personal Journey from Apocalyptic Fears to Historical Reality–about how biblical apocalypticism, both ancient and modern, is a flawed and failed enterprise. I highly recommend his book.
All men dream; but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.
T. E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (original suppressed introductory chapter)
The investigative task of the ancient historian is by definition an interpretive one and no interpretation is without predisposition or even prejudgment stemming from known or unknown proclivities of both a personal and contextual nature. Add to this the paucity of our incomplete evidence, whether textual or material, and there is no wonder we hardly ever agree on anything of consequence. Nonetheless careful argument based on logical analysis and best evidence remains our only path. James D. Tabor to his students regarding the “methods” of the academic study of religion
One of the most frequent responses I get to my work as a historian of religions, particularly in my dealings with Jesus, Paul, and the development of early “Christianities” is the objection that I “exclude the miraculous” as a valid part of the investigation. The idea seems to be that “secular historians” prejudge evidence and are accordingly biased in that they will not allow even the possibility of the miraculous as part of ones historical inquiry. If historians ask the questions: what do we know and how do we know it–how is it that we claim to “know” from the start that miracles do not happen and that supernatural explanations for various developments are to be rejected? As Darrel Bock put things, reviewing my book, The Jesus Dynasty for Christianity Today: “James Tabor’s historical assumptions that reject God’s activity on Earth force him into odd arguments to explain the birth of Christianity.”
For Bock and others these assumptions essentially result in “explaining away the New Testament” to use his words. Bock is referring particularly to my observation that historians assume that all humans have two biological parents, that dead bodies don’t rise, and that humans do not bodily ascend to heaven. Oddly enough, I maintain, along with most historians, that the “odd arguments” are characteristic of those who take the assertions that Jesus had no human father or that he walked out of his tomb and ascended bodily into the clouds of heaven as literal scientific statements of fact. Whether I reject “God’s activity on Earth” is a much more complex matter that I will deal with in another context, but what about this charge that secular historians are biased against the supernatural?
My training at the University of Chicago was that of a historian, not a theologian or even a “Biblical Scholar” as such. My Ph.D. was not from the Divinity School but in the Division of Humanities. I worked broadly in the area study of “Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Culture” and more specifically within ancient Judaism and early Christianity. My teachers were primarily Jonathan Z. Smith and Robert M. Grant. What I reflected in The Jesus Dynastyand in all of my academic work (see my Curriculum Vitae), are the methods and approaches generally employed by most qualified scholars who work in these areas.
Doing the work of an historian is not “hard” science in the purest sense of the term, but none of us in the field would want it to be understood as “art” either, at least not in some wholly subjective way. There is no doubt that historians often differ in their conclusions in important ways, and that “interpretation” of the data, how it is finally weighed and processed, is indeed a somewhat subjective process. When it comes to Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer pointed out long ago, historians all to often have “looked into the long well of history” and seen their own reflection staring back at them. In other words, when they come up with a so-called “historical Jesus” fashioned almost wholly by their own imaginations and biased desires.
When my students retreat to some historical conclusion that I or others have reached, with the easy retort “but that is just your interpretation,” I encourage them to go beyond that kind of reductionism. History is not mere subjective interpretation, even if it involves such. Ideally it is based on arguments and evidence and in the end a good historian wants to be persuasive. It is rare that historical conclusions close out any possible alternative interpretations, but the goal is to set forth, in the open court of reasoned argument and evidence, a compelling “case” for whatever one is dealing with. Even when we disagree we end up stating “why” we don’t find this or that argument convincing, or what we find weak in the assumptions of one with whom we differ.
As for sources, nothing is excluded and everything can be evaluated as long as it offers us some reasonable way to reconstruct the past. Historians love and welcome evidence. That is what we live on and we crave any new materials that can shed more light on what we know. But even our best sources, particularly the literary ones, are remarkably tendentious. Modern standards of argument and objectivity were unknown to ancient writers. Writing was more often than not a blatant attempt at propaganda and apologetics, and all the more so when it came to competing systems of religious understanding. Recognition of those factors is a vital part of every historian’s method. If we want to “use” Josephus we also have to give attention to what we know of him as a person, as a writer, what his tendencies are, what his competence was, and so forth. It is the same with the Gospels, with Eusebius, and with all the ancient texts and material evidence that we have at our disposal. It is also the case that for many important questions related to Jesus and his movement we simply do not have good evidence and probably never will. As thankful as we are for what we have, whether textual or archaeological or myth or tradition, in the end we have to face our own limitations.
Determining what Jesus said, or what he did, given the obvious theologically motivated editing and “mythmaking” that goes on even in our core New Testament gospels is a methodologically challenging project upon which none of us wholly agree. For example, we know virtually nothing about the so-called “lost years of Jesus,” and thus are left to speculate about his childhood and early adult life until about age 30 (assuming we even trust Luke, our single source, about his age when he joined John the Baptizer). Our attempts are educated guesses and creative reconstructions. Most of us are quite sure that the reports of the various so-called “Infancy Gospels” that have Jesus as a child magically turning clay birds into real ones or jumping off the roof of a building unharmed are less than historical. They are late, legendary, and fabulistic to the extreme. It is doubtful that such sources contain any useful historical information at all. I cannot prove that Jesus and his brothers worked with their father Joseph in the building trades in nearby Sepphoris, but I think it is a likely possibility, given what we know (see Mark 6:3). In contrast, the assertions that Jesus traveled as a child with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea to Britain, or that he studied in Egypt or in India, are based upon legendary materials far removed in time and place from his world. It is the same with the question of whether or not Jesus was married or had children. For years I agreed with most of my colleagues that the possibilities of this appear to be slight but over the past five years, in looking at the new evidence from the Talpiot tombs, as well as reviewing all the arguments, I have become convinced otherwise. An early reviewer of our new book, The Jesus Discovery, has asserted on this point that “The claim that the Gnostic Gospels are a good source on Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene, for instance, is just breathtakingly silly — they were written incredibly late and reflect a particular theology/religious perspective–not history.” I have to disagree here and clearly, the reviewer, Raphael Magarik, is completely unaware of the solid scholarship on Mary Magdalene by fine scholars such as the late Jane Schaberg, April DeConick, Karen King, Ann Graham Brock, Margaret Starbird or a host of others. But more important he seems not to have read very carefully the arguments I review in the book that I think are actually quite persuasive.
The public has been geared to think of the suppression of evidence, usually with the Roman Catholic church being the culprit, but such grand “conspiratorial” theories have little basis in fact. What is most characteristic of early Christianity, or more properly, “Christianites,” is a competing diversity of “parties and politics,” each propagating its own vision of the significance of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. All sorts of interpretations are offered of Jesus, but the question finally comes down to how convincing a given argument is to other historians who work in the field and deal with the same sources and materials. But even “consensus” is no guarantor of final truth. Sometimes a minority view, in time, can prove to be true, and often pioneers in any area of history are castigated or rejected by colleagues when they initially put forth their theses.
Even a subject as seemingly straightforward as the claim in the Gospels that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and ascended to heaven is one that is “textually bound” by what our sources actually say or don’t say–and the work of the historian is to interpret these texts as objectively as possible. See for example my methods on this very topic in my essay, “How Faith in Jesus’ Resurrection Originated and Developed: An Old New Hypothesis.”
As far as the subjects of the miraculous and the supernatural, historians of religions remain observers. The fact is we do not excludereligious experience in investigating the past–far from it. We actually embrace it most readily. What people believe or claim to have experienced becomes a vital part of our evidence. We can note that Mark reported that Jesus walked on water or raised the dead or met his disciples in Galilee after his death, and then we date and evaluate Mark as a source, just as we note the miracles that Philostratus claims for his contemporary hero Apollonius of Tyana, or that the story that Zeus fathered Hercules or that Romulus was taken bodily into heaven (see these and other texts here). Most scholars in the field would say that Jesus practiced “exorcism,” and healed the sick, which was seen as a releasing one afflicted from Satanic power, but what that implies about the reality of the demonic world goes beyond our historical methods. We know enough about human psychology and our modern controversies regarding psychic phenomenon to realize the complexities of drawing such conclusions. History and theology/faith do part ways in some of these areas but I tell my students often: “Good history is never the enemy of proper faith.” It is easy to hold that “God” can do anything, and thus argue for the acceptance of a male baby being born without male sperm, or reports of a corpse rising after two or three days and ascending bodily into heaven, but such claims are not the purview of historians and they run contrary to our human experience and a more rational scientific understanding of birth and death. Historians likewise deal with “beliefs” about the afterlife and the unseen world beyond, but without asserting the historical reality of these notions or realms. We can evaluate what people claimed, what they believed, what they reported, and that all becomes part of the data, but to then say, “A miracle happened” or this or that “prophet” was truly hearing from God, as opposed to another who was utterly false prophecy, goes beyond our accessible methods. I don’t want to oversimplify things here and I realize that the question of “faith” and “history” and the assumptions modern historians make in terms of a so-called “materialistic” worldview can be challenged, even philosophically. But for the most part historians are willing to leave the “mystery” in, but in terms of advocating this or that view of the so-called “supernatural,” as an explanation, they properly, in my view, remain wary.
We will probably never know with absolute certainty who Jesus’ father was, or what happened to the body of Jesus, or whether Paul “really” talked with Jesus after his death, but I prefer the “odd arguments” of the historian in investigating those matters, however inconclusive and speculative, to the dogmatic assertions of theology that are problematic from a scientific point of view.