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Gospels, Classics, and the Erasure of the Community: A Critical Review Testing the Hypothesis of Robyn Faith Walsh’s The Origins of Early Christian Literature, Part A


Part A: Jesus in the Light of Greco-Roman Philosophy and Highly Sophisticated Engagement with the Old Testament

1. Birthing Gospels: Minimally Literate People Sharing the Oral Tradition of a Community, or a Network of Elite Greco-Roman Jewish Writers?
2. Erasing the Johannine Community Hypothesis
3. A Philosophical Logos in John’s Gospel
4. John’s Eternal Life in the Here and Now and Aristotle
5. John’s Jesus and Anaximander/Aristotle: God’s in his Heaven and All’s Right with the World and Logos
6. Inventing Gospel History with Greco-Roman Literary Practices and the Gospel of John
7. Jesus as Philosopher in Mark
8. Sophisticated Old/New Testament Interaction Beyond Substitutionary Atonement

ABSTRACT: This is Part A of a three-part literary application and defense of Robyn Faith Walsh’s recent (2021) hypothesis that the Gospels are not, as is usually thought, the product of literate spokespersons conveying the oral tradition of their community, but rather are birthed out of networks of elite Greco-Roman-Jewish writers in dialogue with one another, not downtrodden illiterate peasants. For example, what if the empty tomb narrative did not originate in the oral tradition of a Christian community, but in empty tomb apotheosis narratives that the author had read from ancient novels like that of Chariton? As a literary test of a hypothesis, I ask what predictions we can make of the kinds of concepts that we should find in the New Testament on Walsh’s literary elite education model, compared to what we should find if the oral tradition model is correct. I show that Walsh’s approach is certainly plausible and makes good sense of the evidence, such as pervasive intertextual haggadic midrash (Jewish) and mimesis (Greek) going on in writing the Gospels, which seems less likely on the “oral tradition of the community” hypothesis. In other words, what sorts of predictions about the text can we make to test Walsh’s hypothesis? If the writers are the product of elite Greco-Roman education (paideia), then certainly the hallmarks of such an education should be visible in the writing. New Testament Jewish intertextuality can be explained away by claiming an oral culture where everyone just has the scriptures memorized (though why a peasant farmer would have the time or inclination to do such a thing is unclear), but what if there was an equal amount of Greco-Roman intertextuality in the New Testament (as Dennis MacDonald has long argued)? And how might this kind of elite Greco-Roman Jewish-educated writer make us rethink core issues, like Jewish polysemy techniques/puzzles in reading the New Testament? My aim is not to extensively recapitulate or assess Walsh’s presentation, but to see if the New Testament writers were experts in Greco-Roman/Jewish literary practices and were sophistically engaging in the content from those traditions beyond what one might expect from a mere literate member of a community enshrining oral traditions about Jesus. Walsh’s critique of the community oral tradition model is important because that model is what bridges the gap from the opaque period of Jesus’ life and death in the 30s through Paul (who is silent on the details of Jesus’ life) to the destruction of the Temple in the 70s, when Mark’s gospel appears. A few bare details aside, without this chain of sources, reconstruction of the events of Jesus’ life is essentially impossible.

1. Birthing Gospels: Minimally Literate People Sharing the Oral Tradition of a Community, or a Network of Elite Greco-Roman Writers?

As the first wave of the new atheism movement came to a close, biblical scholars like Robert M. Price and Hector Avalos argued (in John Loftus’ ambitious 2011 anthology The End of Christianity) that highly trained biblical studies experts would deconstruct Christianity from within and thus spell the end of the faith. In The Origins of Early Christian Literature: Contextualizing the New Testament within Greco-Roman Literary Culture (2021), classics specialist Robyn Faith Walsh argues that one of the last major legacies of German Romanticism (e.g., the Brothers Grimm) is the push to uncover the geist of the volk (spirit of the common people) in New Testament studies with methodology predicated on the assumption that the New Testament writers were literate mouthpieces for the oral traditions about Jesus in their respective communities. Walsh initially assumed that the main source for the Gospels were Paul’s letters (e.g., those of Paul’s middle Platonism), but this quickly ballooned into the insight that what we see in the Gospels reflect Greco-Roman literature and literary practices generally, not oral tradition. For Walsh, the incorrect oral tradition methodology—born out of German Romanticism and preserved in biblical studies, though long abandoned in classics and literary theory—isn’t reflective of ancient writing practices, and further seems to be born out of scholars’ need for security about early Christianity and the historical Jesus. Walsh posits a different model whereby Christian origins are approached in the same manner as any other classical texts—namely as texts not transmitting oral tradition, but arising in the context of networks of educationally elite writers (who were not necessarily rich, but as well-educated as slaves) with a desire to share Christianity, among other things.[1] Luke, for instance, claims that he is writing in response to others who were writing about the same things. Luke says that he was hired to write his account, which matches more clearly in antiquity than scribes and tax collectors writing prose. Luke claims to have access to eyewitnesses, as all ancient historians did, even when it’s obvious that they had no such access. We see this in the paradoxographer tradition like Phlegon of Tralles, which was filled with “the incredible” Ripley’s Believe it or Not writing of ancient days (like the miracles in the Bible), nonetheless citing eyewitnesses.

Luke’s preface was part of a literary strategy that had been used in the ancient world for hundreds of years to make sure writing was listened to and exuded authority. This is not to deny oral tradition or eyewitness influence; Walsh just claims profound difficulty distinguishing the authentic from the invented material. For example, Mark assumes a certain philosophical background where Jesus’ healings, for instance, reflected middle Platonism in the same way that Matthew’s thoughts on anger reflect Stoicism. Mark’s thoughts suggest that he read Paul as coming from the birthplace of the Stoic enlightenment, also reflecting middle Platonism. The oral tradition of a community hypothesis is generally regarded as important because it spans the tradition from Jesus’ death, through Paul (who says virtually nothing about the historical Jesus), to the destruction of Jerusalem.

Walsh’s idea that the Gospels are products of networks of highly educated Greco-Roman writers exchanging ideas, rather than community oral traditions, is evidenced in the ways that they are constructed. Walsh notes Dale Allison’s insights on this in an area of work made popular after Price’s “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash.” For example, Matthew uses an imitation or haggadic midrash technique to shape the story of Jesus to present him as the new and greater Moses. The problem is this spectrum: Did Matthew start with information about the historical Jesus and shape it to reflect the story of Moses, or did Matthew start with the story of Moses and invent material about Jesus out of whole cloth?[2] You can see the problem with trying to claim historical material here. Though prior grounding imitative typologies have been proposed by some scholars[3] for virtually all gospel story units, this use of intertextuality in writing seems to suggest an origin in sophisticated literary circles since only educated readers would see the literary connection. Elizabeth Evans Shively comments: “Mark’s use of Scripture affords the recognition that the one God’s presence, words, and actions are manifest in the presence, words, and actions of Jesus. It is not merely that Jesus is divine, but that he is the very expression of divinity” (2023, p. 411). Allison characterizes how the ancient reader would have picked up on the Old Testament allusion in the Gospels in the same way that we might recognize a song on the radio after only a few notes. Matthew seems to wink at the educated reader about how he is over the top in having Jesus fill Old Testament scripture (fulfill) full of meaning by having Jesus’ triumphal entry with him riding two animals simultaneously: a donkey and a colt! But Jewish haggadic midrash (creative imitative recapitulation) is only half the story. Would the Greek and Roman literary allusions be meaningful to an ancient peasant Jew?

Were these the most elite writers? Were they a “cadre” in collaboration? In competition? Cultic mythography? What other analogues existed? Do we learn anything, for instance, by comparing the Gospels to other legend narratives cultifying demigod sage-figures (e.g., Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius)? Can we find a middle way between communities producing texts and texts leading communities (or inventive texts circulating in popularity, such as Mark)? If Walsh is right and the Gospels have an origin in elite literary writers’ dialogue with one another rather than in oral tradition/community, then the Gospels should reflect the most sophisticated literary practices of the Greco-Roman imperial world (such as mimesis, the Greco-Roman version of literary imitation). If she’s right, the gospel writers were educated in and were a part of these practices; and a Jewish reading of the Gospels yields extensive sophisticated intertextuality with the Old Testament that makes less sense under the traditional oral transmission paradigm. In a MythVision podcast MacDonald, Walsh, and Richard C. Miller demonstrate that trying to make the New Testament intelligible through the categories of modern history of religion neglects how the ancient writers who wrote it would have understood it through their lenses of paideia, haggadic midrash, mimesis, and nonliteral ancient historiography generally.

In what follows I’ll test this implication of Walsh’s theory in relation to the Gospel of John. My aim isn’t to restate Walsh’s text at length and then opine on her insights. Rather, I want to take Walsh’s general interpretive paradigm and see whether the evidence expresses this framework. If the Greek gospels were written by people who went through the Greco-Roman paideia education system, for example, what sorts of things should we find in the text? I aim to show that the New Testament reflects highly sophisticated Greco-Roman and Jewish literary intertextuality, not the sort of thing that we would expect if the Gospels were written by literate members of communities who were writing down oral traditions about Jesus. In this regard, for instance, Dennis MacDonald shows how the Gospel of John was based on Euripides’ Bacchae, presenting Jesus as the new and greater Dionysus, and Hugo Méndez shows that the gospels and letters of John were not the product of the oral tradition of a Johannine community, but rather literary forgery pretending to be the beloved disciple John son of Zebedee.

2. Erasing the Johannine Community Hypothesis

So, there is a marked uptick in Christology when we consider the Gospel of John in comparison to the Synoptic Gospels. There are consistency struggles in that Jesus wasn’t praying to himself in John, for instance, but we clearly hear Jesus say that if we have seen him we have seen the Father, and before Abraham was, I am, implying (unlike in the Synoptics) that Jesus thought that he was God. This begins with John’s discussion of the logos in the prologue (the word was with God and was God and became flesh and dwelled among us). Daniel Boyarin points out that the logos imagery in John is a haggadic midrash, in that John’s prologue is a recapitulative homily on Genesis 1:1-5 (Boyarin, 2017).

MacDonald, who has worked closely with Walsh (on Internet Infidels’ Freethinker Podcast, for one), has spent his career—to mixed reviews—mapping out what he sees as typological dependence of the New Testament stories on Greek and Roman literary traditions. Part of the problem is that the oral communities paradigm is so ingrained in the discipline that it is hard to say why, for instance, Homer or Euripides would be major influences on the New Testament writers. But such Greek/Roman intertextuality is expected on Walsh’s literary network model, and so MacDonald and Walsh have dialogued on this issue.[4] The New Testament was written in Greek, after all, so it makes sense it would reflect paideia educated writers.

So let’s test MacDonald’s and Walsh’s hypothesis. As I have written about elsewhere, the incarnation of the logos in John seems to be grounded in a larger mimesis (recapitulative imitation in the Greco-Roman literary tradition) typology of the oldest stratum of the Gospel of John imitating the Dionysus of Euripides. More specifically, MacDonald has proposed the influence of Euripides’ Bacchae on the earliest layers of John’s gospel.

In his Society of Biblical Literature review of MacDonald’s book on John imitating Euripides’ Bacchae, Tyler Smith provides this helpful summary:

Just as in John the heavenly Logos assumes a human body, so “Dionysus declared that he ‘changed into this mortal/appearance’ (53) in order to reveal his power to unbelieving Thebans and to punish Pentheus, their king” (30-31). Just as in John Jesus is identified by many names and titles (Logos, light, the one-of-a-kind God, the chosen one of God, king of Israel, Messiah, son of Joseph, rabbi, son of man), so also “Dionysus was notorious for his multiple titles,” including Bacchus, Bromios, Iacchos, Dithyrambos, ‘the god’, and ‘the child of Zeus'” (39). Just as Jesus’s first miracle in John is to change water into wine, “Euripides twice mentions the god’s miraculous production of wine in the Bacchae” (41). If Jesus purifies the temple, his father’s house in John 2, this “resembles Dionysus’s intention to vindicate his mother in the place of his birth” (46). Where the Johannine Jesus heals an old cripple so that he can walk again, “early in the Bacchae two old men, Cadmus and Tiresias, gain the strength to dance with the worshipping women in the wild” (47). There juvenation of Cadmus is also comparable to Jesus’s making it possible for Nicodemus, who is old, to be born anew (48-49). Just as the Baptist insists that “it is necessary that he [Jesus] increase” (3:30), so Cadmus witnesses to Dionysus that “it is now necessary—with respect to the child of my daughter, / Dionysus, a god manifest to people—/ to increase 181-183). This parallel is all the more striking in view of the fact that “the combination of these two words in the New Testament; it never appears in the LXX” (50). MacDonald draws a dozen or so further parallels between the two texts. The most important of these are the “true vine” discourse and parallels between Jesus and Dionysus in terms of their respective arrests and trials, where the arresting parties are oblivious to their own ironic states of powerlessness in the confrontation. (Smith, 2018, pp. E2-E3)

Just as there was imitative haggadic midrash going on with Jewish sources—Jesus as the new and greater Moses—there also seems to be literary imitation or mimesis, which was a common Greco-Roman literary practice. In this case, the imitation seems to be Jesus as the new and greater Dionysus (MacDonald, 2022, p. 475).

Now given Smith’s list of MacDonald’s parallels above, there is one possible parallel of interest between the fourth canonical gospel and the Bacchae that MacDonald fails to mention. This is when Cadmus says: “Even if this man (Dionysus) be no God, as you think, still say that he is. Be guilty of a splendid fraud, declaring him to be the son of Semele, for this will make it seem she is the mother of a God, and will confer honor on all our race” (Euripides, Bacchae, lines 332-336). This theme may be getting satirically appropriated by John, which is why, for instance, we seem to get ridiculously high Christology in John at some points, along with low Christology in others—not because John has contradictory sources. Note the apparent connection of this quote with the lie of Jesus[5] to his brothers in the Gospel of John that allows Jesus to preach to the crowd and causes faith.[6] This apparent wink by John to the educated readers with the lie makes perfect sense if the gospel was the product of literary exchange among educated elites, but not if John was the mouthpiece for the oral tradition of a Johannine community. I’ll think more about this in relation to Hugo Méndez’s interpretation of the forged authorship of the Gospel of John and the Johannine epistles below.

The lie of Cadmus is meant to impart high status to Dionysus, just as the lie of Jesus breaking social/ethical norms is meant to show Jesus’ high Christology, that he exists beyond the ethical. Also, notice Cadmus’ emphasis on the importance of people needing to be tricked into seeing Dionysus as more than just a man, and what goods would result if people believed this. This would certainly fit as part of the explanation for the emphasis on extremely high Christology in the Gospel of John. In fact, this Euripides quote may have prompted the discussion of noble lies in Plato’s Republic and Laws, and could have influenced the Gospel of John in terms of inventing material about a super-Christology Jesus to astound potential converts. This might be what lay behind John introducing “The Word (logos) becomes flesh” (1:14) into the Christian theological tradition, along with MacDonald’s/Smith’s point in the above that “Just as in John the heavenly Logos assumes a human body, so Dionysus declared that he ‘changed into this mortal/appearance.'”

Taking Walsh seriously on this point allows us to take the New Testament writing in a more complete way than earlier interpretive paradigms that rejected a broader interaction with the ancient world. At the time of John’s writing the idea of the logos was certainly getting special attention with figures like Philo, but we should also think about the Greek logos tradition illuminating the Gospel of John as the product of elite literary networks rather than the oral tradition of the Johannine community. We will see that the Greek notion of logos, the light within which beings become intelligible, gets associated with creation, or more specifically bringing form to the primordially unformed, as James Tabor notes a literal translation of Genesis 1:1 shows. Let’s tease out some implications of Walsh’s idea about an important aspect of Greco-Roman elite paideia/education: philosophy.

3. A Philosophical Logos in John’s Gospel

Society of Biblical Literature president Adele Reinhartz points out: “The notion of the Logos as a creative power in the world is a feature not only of Jewish wisdom literature but also of Greek philosophy, e.g., in the work of Heraclitus, Aristotle, and the Stoics” (2017a, p. 172). Erich S. Gruen agrees:

The great Jewish philosopher and exegete, Philo of Alexandria, writing in the first half of the first century CE, also claimed Hebraic priority for the pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus, the verses of the epic poet Hesiod, the teachings of Socrates, and the Stoic doctrines of Zeno. Philo and his later contemporary Josephus the Jewish historian both depicted Moses as outstripping the greatest of Greek legislators, the Spartan Lycurgus and the Athenian Solon, for, as they insisted, Moses created a system and a society that endured unshaken and authoritative through the ages. Jewish thinkers, in short, owed much to the Hellenic intellectual framework. But they utilized it to enhance their own identity. (Gruen, 2017, p. 581)[7]

One of the most influential continental philosophers of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, famously returned to Aristotle and Heraclitus in pursuit of the mysterious logos. He invited us to consider logos is derived from legein, to gather, sort of like in the gathering of essays into an anthology. Specifically, the sense is of a gathering of a harvest that is an event of important concern.

Logos has many senses such as speech, word, logic, reason, etc. Aristotle said that the fundamental determination of man is the logos (zoon logon echon), meaning that we let beings appear as they are by separating (analysis) the individual and combining (synthesis) it with the other: encountering “something as something,” which is to say “something as something else“—e.g., the dog taken “as” brown, the house “as” it is in itself (its own-most-ness), the triangle “as” three-sided, etc. While “logos” has great polysemy, Aristotle focuses on logos apophantikos (apophainesthai, deloun) as the key. Man, in that he is determined by logos, allows beings to stand forth as they are.

But how does a being stand forth? The Greeks understood Being verbally as presencing, and so Homer said that the gods don’t presence to everyone in their fullness (enargeis). So, for instance, a tourist might find Niagara Falls stunning, while the person living near it may encounter it as irritating noise pollution. In this way, “Houseness” may be presencing beautifully in the mansion, be merely present in the average house, and deficiently present in the dilapidated shack. Conversely, the next person may experience the mansion as gaudy or the shack as quaint, an so Protagoras says that man is the steward of presencing (man is the measure of all things). Beauty is the key here to see Being as presence/present/presencing, and so in Plato’s Gorgias we read as the average, everyday Greek understanding of Being: “Socrates: Just observe: do you not call good people good owing to the presence of good things, [497e] as you call beautiful those in whom beauty is present? Callicles: I do.” Relative degrees of beauty are how things presence. Thus Plato calls the beautiful, kala/ekphanestaton, “that which, as most of all and most purely shining from itself, shows the visible form and thus is unhidden” (Heidegger, 1998c [PA], Vol. 1, p. 78; also at 1979 [Nl], p. 80). Referring to Plato’s Phaedrus, Heidegger says that beauty is “what is most radiant and sparkling in the sensuous realm, in a way that, as such brilliance, it lets Being scintillate at the same time” (Heidegger, 1979 [Nl], p. 197). My intention here is not to rehash superstitious ideas from a superstitious time, but rather to see that there is still gold to be mined from how their experience felt, and how this discloses our own experience.

The logos permeates everything that “is” in whatever way. Plato, in the Sophist, called Antisthenes’ denial of this “the most laughable, katagelastotata” (252b8) because Antisthenes denied that something was to be understood by appealing to something beyond the thing itself, something “as” something, while Antisthenes himself tacitly assumed and adopted a whole slew of ontological structures that go beyond the mere entity at hand, such as einai—Being, choris—separate from ton allown (the others) and kath auto (in itself). I encounter the dog “as” not me, for instance. The logos allows my encounter with the dog to be intelligible.

Logos apohantikos, something “as” something, is letting beings stand forth as they are. According to Heidegger, this combinatory function of the copula was first introduced in Aristotle’s discussion of the logos, which for him meant logos apophantikos, “that discourse and forms of discourse whose function it is to exhibit that which is, as it is” (Heidegger, 1988 [BP], p. 180). This is distinguished from pure logos in that a pure logos can have any meaning and form, from prayers to complaints. A proper logos as statement is made of nouns and verbs. It is logos, insofar as it possesses the structure of apophainesthai, of ‘something as something’:

Logos as ‘discourse’ means the same as deloun: to make manifest what one is ‘talking about’ in one’s discourse. Aristotle has explicated this function of discourse more precisely as apophainesthai: the logos lets something be seen (phainesthai), namely, what the discourse is about; and it does so either for the one who is doing the talking (the medium) or for persons who are talking with one another, as the case may be…. and thus makes this accessible to the other party. (Heidegger, 2008 [BT], p. 56)

The takeaway for Walsh’s theory? As we will see, this isn’t simply linguistics, but makes an important philosophical point that speaks to John’s use of logos in his creation prologue.

Logos as the basic human stance in life is “taking as,” such as hearing a living thing at your feet only to look down and see dead leaves rustling and blowing in the wind. This “mis-taking” phenomenalizes our basic being in life is “taking-as“: taking something “as” something. Creation presupposes the logos, letting things fully stand forth as what they really are, perfectio.

So, let’s unearth the philosophical content. Regarding the logos, in order to be able to intelligibly encounter this being as the being it is, it must already be “recognized” generally and in advance as a being, i.e., with respect to the constitution of its Being. Being is Time, by which I mean the Being of a being is understood as that which “makes possible” what must “always already” be in view by the mind’s eye for the being to stand forth as what it is. As I said above, Plato gives the example in the Sophist that the dog is not just a “this here,” but is already being made intelligible by an understanding of Einai (Being), choris (separate from), ton allown (the others), and kath auto (in itself). I encounter the dog as a “not me,” for example. To be particular is clearly a universal characteristic of things, and I encounter things in the light of Being; that is I must have Being before my mind’s eye in order to encounter beings in their fullness. If we look more closely, then, we realize that these particular things are in each case this: this door, this piece of chalk, this here and now—and not those of classroom 6 and not the ones from last semester. Also, we could not have the experience of beings that we do unless we already had in view invisibly (aphanes, Heraclitus Fr. 54, “what does not appear”) by the mind’s eye such things as: variation/equality in order to encounter various things; a view of sameness/contrariety to encounter ourselves as self-same in each case; a view of symmetry and harmoniousness that allows us to arrange and construct things; and so on. This obviously helps to understand Greek logos in biblical creation as the giving of form to the primordially unformed.

In Heraclitus logos is intimately connected to the “eternal,” and John (17:3) and Paul (Romans 6:4, 6-13) make the initially perplexing claim that followers of Jesus have eternal life here and now. How is this possible? There is an apparent contradiction here: how do we experience deathlessness in the here and now? We hear the sound of the Nothing here with such a concept, so we must determine whether (i) it is a Nothing that is calling us to make sense (like the concept Good Samaritan), or rather (ii) a nonsensical idol or even sophism that is an absence of thought echo. Hopefully, we can press through the enigma of the contradictory “eternal here and now” to something more essential, a process Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel called Aufhebung. Heidegger’s writing is like this in that he will introduce a silly-sounding concept as an invitation to unearth the philosophical content, or present a core concept (Grundbegriffe) but fail to explain it until hundreds of pages later, or in other books entirely.

4. John’s Eternal Life in the Here and Now and Aristotle

Since we are testing Walsh’s theory, were are looking to see if we can find a fusion of Greco-Roman and Jewish ideas in John’s notion of eternal life in the here and now. A starting point may be the Greek/Christian eros/agape distinction as kinds of love. Eros is desire as lack, with honor-seeking Achilles as the primary model. In agape, love is redefined by Jesus as productive desire where neighbor and enemy are seen as more important than self. For instance, we see love as lack in the movie Jerry McGuire, where Jerry says to the woman he loves, “You complete me.” Here the other transfigures me. By contrast, in agape I transfigure the other, making the other more important than myself. Heidegger comments:

The Roman word res designates that which concerns somebody, … that which is pertinent, which has a bearing…. In English ‘thing’ has still preserved the full semantic power of the Roman word: ‘He knows his things,’ he understands the matters that have a bearing on him…. The Roman word res denotes what pertains to man, concerns him and his interests in any way or manner. That which concerns man is what is real in res…. Thus Meister Eckhart says, adopting an expression of Dionysius the Areopagite: love is of such a nature that it changes man into the things he loves (1971 [PLT], T, pp. 175-176).

How can this agape love relate to John’s Eternal and help us Flesh out Walsh’s argument for Christian/Greek intertextuality? Let us consider “eternal” more carefully. Thinking in a Greek way here is difficult; though we can think of the eternity of Plato’s forms, for instance, I can to the contrary say “Ho aei Basileuon” [“The king at the time, not the eternal king”]. Let’s keep this polysemy in mind.

The Gospel of John says that believers gain eternal life here and now, not having to wait until after death, but whatever could this mean? One sense seems to be that John is appropriating how Aristotle speaks of athanatizein (a-thanatizein) or godliness/deathlessness in the contemplative (Theoria) life, Aristotle clarifying only a beast or a deathless god delights in solitude (e.g., Politics, 1253a29). Ralph Waldo Emerson sums up this view of a thinker as:

Solitude, the safeguard of mediocrity, is to genius the stern friend, the cold, obscure shelter where moult the wings which will bear it farther than suns and stars. He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions. “In the morning, solitude;” said Pythagoras; that Nature may speak to the imagination, as she does never in company, and that her favorite may make acquaintance with those divine strengths which disclose themselves to serious and abstracted thought. ‘Tis very certain that Plato, Plotinus, Archimedes, Hermes, Newton, Milton, Wordsworth, did not live in a crowd, but descended into it from time to time as benefactors: and the wise instructor will press this point of securing to the young soul in the disposition of time and the arrangements of living, periods and habits of solitude. (1881, p. 397)

Similarly, one of Heidegger’s favorite writers, Rainer Maria Rilke, summed up solitude thus:

What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grown-ups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn’t understand a thing about what they were doing. And when you realize that their activities are shabby, that their vocations are petrified and no longer connected with life, why not then continue to look upon it all as a child would, as if you were looking at something unfamiliar, out of the depths of your own solitude, which is itself work and status and vocation? Why should you want to give up a child’s wise not-understanding in exchange for defensiveness and scorn, since not understanding is, after all, a way of being alone, whereas defensiveness and scorn are participation in precisely what, by these means, you want to separate yourself from. — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

In this regard, for the Bible, too, the concept of eternity (olam) can mean forever, or instead a very long time, but it mostly conveys that God isn’t fickle, unlike people who are always changing their minds. An initial clue is how an afterlife as a restless, wandering shade with cabin fever would have cast a pall over Greek existence, just as a lack of an afterlife could depress a person today.

Thus, unlike in the Synoptics, in the Gospel of John eternal life is not only future-oriented, but also pertains to the present. In John, those who accept Christ can possess life “here and now” as well as in eternity, for they have “passed from death to life,” as in John 5:24: “He who hears my word, and believes him that sent me, has eternal life, and comes not into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” In the Bible death means to cease existing, but is also emblematic of the tragic: we might as well be gluttons and drunks and so eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die (Isaiah 22:13; Proverbs 23:35; Luke 12:19; 1 Corinthians 15:32). In John, the purpose for the incarnation, death, resurrection, and glorification of The Word/logos was to provide a special kind of eternal life to humanity. These themes are very expected in a Walshian Greco-Roman paideia context, but not of an uneducated Jewish peasant writer.

In Heidegger’s language one must look upon the useful as ‘what makes someone whole,’ that is, what makes the human being at home with himself. In Greek Theoria is pure repose, the highest form of energeia, the highest manner of putting-oneself into-work without regard for all machinations. When Aristotle says that the life of theoria [contemplation], which exceeds phronesis [practical wisdom], is a kind of godly life, an athanatizein [to be immortal] (whereby athanatizein is formed like hellenizein [to be Greek]), that implies that in theoria we comport ourselves like immortals, who delight in solitude unlike mortals who suffer it, thereby bringing completeness to one’s life. Mortal life listlessly, or anxiously, runs from one distraction to the next, never finding completeness. This deathlessness didn’t mean living forever, as the Greeks thought everyone lived forever; rather, philosophy had to do with a type of attunement to the unchanging that distinguished that life from the transitory that the masses are stuck in for whatever is “at the time,” like gossip. Pheme (also known as Ossa) was the goddess or personified spirit (daimona) of rumor, report, and gossip. She was also by extension the spirit of fame and good repute in a positive sense, and infamy and scandal in the bad. What mattered to the masses, like today, was whatever was currently topical. By contrast, we see the thinker experiencing the “really real” as the realm of eternal ideas, and so we have the image of the thinker Thales, lost in thought on a walk, falling into a ditch. Ideas are eternal in the sense that they are dis-covered or un-covered—like when we learn about justice (a process that is the continuous work of a lifetime), we do not subjectively create the idea, but ever more fully uncover what it “is and always was.” In this regard:

[Heraclitus] Fr. 29 names the polloi next to the aristoi (the best). In Fr. 1, the polloi are compared with the apeiroisin, with the untried, who are contrasted with ego, that is, with Heraclitus…. The many do not strive, like the noble minded, after the radiance of glory; they indulge in transitory things and therefore do not see the one…. Pindar also connected gold, and thus the radiant, with fire and lighting. (Heidegger, 1966-1967/1993b [HS], p. 22; also cf. 1966-1967/1993b [HS], pp. 106-107).

“There is one thing which the best prefer to all else,” Heidegger adds, “eternal glory rather than transient things” (1959 [IM], pp. 103-104). For John, it is a life of service to others that is an agape love with eternal life in the here and now.

Méndez comments that for John there are many dwellings in the father’s house: metaphorical dwellings. Jesus says metaphorically “I am in the Father and the Father in me. The father ‘dwells’ in me.” Jesus speaks of a time of the coming of the spirit of truth that will dwell in the disciples, the paraclete. Jesus has already identified himself as the truth. The disciples will dwell in the metaphorical father’s house that is the glorified body of Jesus. Jesus is the way to the Father because he is the Father’s house. He is the way to the Father because the Father lives in him. The spirit will bring Jesus’ presence into the disciples. Jesus says: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). The spirit will bring Jesus’ presence into the disciples, and the disciples into Jesus. So, Jesus is the shepherd leading the sheep to the father, and the door to the pasture and eternal life in the twofold sense of after death and “athanatizein” in this life.

Following this Greek literary background for John, from the beginning of John’s gospel we have language of following Jesus to his dwelling and dwelling with him on that day. Jesus is presented as Jacob’s ladder, which is God’s house and the way to Heaven. Méndez suggests that humans are the angels going up and down on the ladder. People have experience of the Father though still on Earth (John 1:47-51). Just as the image of Jesus as the shepherd and the door are not contrary metaphors, but different aspects of the same phenomenon, perhaps the sometimes ridiculously high, but also sometimes low, Christology in John doesn’t represent contrary sources, but a literary puzzle to unfold (a noble lie of ridiculously high Christology to draw you in, but then learn about the truth). Such a logic of mixed opposites makes sense within a Euripides’ Bacchae context where in the Bacchae, as Arlene Saxonhouse notes, there is “the inability to establish boundaries—between Gods and humans, between men and women, between humans and animals” (2014, p. 88), which is the opposite of what we see with the “imposition of form” that was later detailed in Plato’s Republic. It’s been suggested that the foundational “noble lie” in Plato’s Republic was inspired by the proposed lie by Cadmus in Euripides’ Bacchae. This should certainly be paused on since religion has the interest of reforming and creating societies, just like Plato did, even if the society is just a microcosm like a church community. It would seem that we have found Greco-Roman influence on the Gospel of John, as Walsh’s theory predicts.

5. John’s Jesus and Anaximander/Aristotle: God’s in his Heaven and All’s Right with the World and Logos

Turning to Anaximander as a Greco-Roman paideia topic insight into Jesus, with Heidegger’s research, while there were certainly earlier Greek thinkers like Thales, the first one to speak Being forth was Anaximander, and so he was the inception of Western philosophy. Hermann Diels translates the Anaximander fragment as:

But where things have their origin, there, too, their passing away occurs according to necessity; for they pay recompense and penalty to one another for their recklessness, according to firmly established time.

By contrast, Friedrich Nietzsche translates it as:

Whence things have their origin, there they must also pass away according to necessity; for they must pay penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time.

For the Greeks there is a being out of joint of Being (adikia), and then something special happens that unifies beings (jointure), such as when Robert Browning and Lucy Maude Montgomery poetized “God’s in his Heaven and All’s Right with the World,” which Anaximander called jointure, or the gathering interconnecting logos/legein of Heraclitus. It is helpful to think with Browning and Montgomery here because you needn’t be a theist to understand the experience. This follows an ancient Greek meaning of beings in Homer, not objects; but Homer used the term “ta eonta”—not just for things of nature, but also “the Achaeans’ encampment before Troy, the god’s wrath, the plague’s fury, funeral pyres, the perplexity of the leaders, and so on” (Heidegger, 1975 [EGT], p. 37f, 350). Heidegger translates this Anaximander fragment in Basic Concepts as:

The place from out of which emergence comes is, for everything that emerges, also the place of disappearance into this (as into the same)—in accordance with exigence (brook); for they let enjoining and thereby also reck belong to each other (in the getting over) of disjoining, responding to the directive of time’s coming into its own.

The key concept is the negative one: There is general out of joint-ness (Anaximander: adikia) that is overcome for a while. Heidegger comments that if “we stick to what comes to language, then adikia says that where it prevails, all is not right with things. That means, something is out of joint” (1975 [EGT], p. 41).

Let’s apply this Greek philosophical context to Jesus: Jesus is the logos, the word. He is not primarily encountered in a revelatory shock, as with Paul, but in intellectually trying to figure out the parables, the pithy one-liners, diving into study to locate the typology of Jewish and Greek sources. It is like the kind of pleasure trying to map out the development of argument in Plato’s Laches, for instance. In this way John does not reject reading the Synoptics, but provides a hermeneutic clue for reading them. This is how being with Christ is deathlessness, like Theoria as athanatizein in Aristotle’s sense. The more you learn about and focus on Jesus and have a life of service to others, the more complete you become. Jesus is shown as being greater than Aristotle by John because while Aristotle’s ideal is the contemplative life (Theoria), Jesus unites phronesis with Theoria. The Greeks had a self-realization ethics, while early Christians had a self-emptying ethics (kenosis).

This is the sense that Heraclitus’ gathering and laying logos still bears within it, following the older cognate of that word, “[t]he old word alego (alpha copulativum), archaic after Aeschylus and Pindar, should be recalled here: something ‘lies upon me,’ it oppresses and troubles me” (Logos: Heraclitus fragment #60 in Heidegger, 1977 [EGT]). In this regard, for the Greeks even pain is that which troubles me, as pain is also what concerns us, and so serves the same function of alego, “the Greek word for pain, namely, algos … [is presumably] related to alego, which as the intensivum of lego means intimate gathering. In that case, pain would be that which gathers most intimately” (Heidegger, 1998c [Pa], OQB, pp. 305-306). The issue of logos is that which presses upon our interests and concerns, that which “appears” to us in those manners. For instance, we say of someone who is all over the place: “gather yourself together.” It is suffering with Jesus to serve others that convicts us and gathers us close to God. How do we think this?

In a famous passage from Homer’s Iliad expressing the tragedy of mortal life, Apollo says “Why should I do battle for the sake of mere mortals!… mortals, who are as wretched as the leaves on the trees, flourishing at first, enjoying the fruits of the earth, but then, their hearts no longer in it (Akerioi), vanishing” (I, 21, 464-466, in Krell, 1999, p. 105). This is in line with the ways that the Greeks understood the passage from youth, where one is transfixed on the luster of life, which later nonetheless fades with age (compare Romans 8:11). They thus understand godhood as perpetual youth, made possible because the gods dined on ambrosia; it was with ambrosia that Hera “cleansed all defilement from her lovely flesh,” and with ambrosia that Athena prepared Penelope in her sleep, so that when she appeared for the final time before her suitors, the effects of years had been stripped away, and they were inflamed with passion at the sight of her. The contemplative life for Aristotle was a godliness where the steadfast elder had the fire of youth. Heidegger comments on Sophocles’ Antigone: “The chorus is composed of old and experienced men of the city of Thebes. The Greek world is strong enough in itself to acknowledge the radiance and strength of youth and the level-headedness and wealth of experience brought by age as equally important, and to maintain the tension between them” (1998a [HHTI], p. 51). Aristotle said only a god or a beast will delight in solitude, which suggests that our underlying existential human pathology is something like cabin fever, which is why we go shack whacky in a rainy cottage with nothing to do. Most people just go from distraction to distraction. We shall later see the gathering effect of the cross when we see ourselves in the world that turned on Jesus.

6. Inventing Gospel History with Greco-Roman Literary Practices and the Gospel of John

One of Walsh’s main methodologies is considering how ancient historians worked. She notes:

Plutarch’s preface to the Vitae Parallelae: Alexander et Caesar or Life of Alexander: For it is not histories we are writing (historias graphomen) but lives (Bious); it is not always the most famous deeds which illuminate a man’s virtues and vices (aretes e kakias); often a clearer insight into a man’s character is revealed by a small detail, a remark, or a joke (pragma Braxu … rema … paidia), than by battles where tens of thousands die, or by the greatest of conflicts, or by the siege of cities (Walsh, 2021, p. 107, citing Plutarch’s Life of Alexander 1.2).

This insight into ancient historiography is key, and so perhaps in considering the death and resurrection of Jesus, the interpretive key is not the major events of passion or resurrection (Mark doesn’t even have resurrection appearances), but the remark of the soldier witnessing “how” Jesus died. (I will consider this in part B of this critical review.)

As I pointed out in my Secular Web essay “The Justified Lie by the Johannine Jesus in its Greco-Roman-Jewish Context” (2022), Seneca said that all historians were liars. So it was known in antiquity that pious fictions would be promoted as truths if they were beneficial for society, or simply because the author felt justified in taking liberties. Robert Wood reasons that “Seneca’s ironic assumption that historians are all liars is a response, presumably, not only to their economies or extravagances with the truth but to their very assertions of truthfulness, their claim to be writing history at all” (1993, p. xv).

T. P. Wiseman illustrates how Lucian (in De Historia Conscribenda 7) and Josephus (in Jewish Antiquities 20.154-155) complained about the outrageous biographies of such figures as Nero, which had little historical verisimilitude. Lucian felt that the historian needed to avoid panegyric (tribute) and muthoi (tales) (Wiseman, 1993, p. 127). Similarly, E. L. Bowie points out that Hesiod in Works and Days seems to have invented having a brother for himself in the midst of an otherwise truthful account, a deception that his audience would have been aware of! (1993, p. 23)

Regarding the hexameter didactic epic form of ancient Greece, Bowie also points out that the Muses who met Hesiod on Helicon (in a meeting that Hesiod’s contemporaries hardly would have regarded as the narrative of a historical event) notoriously claimed to be purveyors of both truth and falsehoods (pseudea) that are ‘like what is real’ (etumoisin homoia)—just the phrase used by Homer of Odysseus’ lies to Penelope at Odyssey 19.203: “Field-dwelling shepherds, evil disgraces, mere bellies, we know how to say many falsehoods that are like the truth (etumoisin), and we know, when we wish, how to voice what is true (alethea), ‘Hesiod, Theogony, 26-28′” (Bowie, 1993, p. 19). Odyssey 19.203 (referred to above where Homer characterizes Odysseus) says: “he said [or made] many falsehoods in his tale like what is true” (Bowie, 1993, p. 18).

Delving deeper into the Gospel of John, it is very much about creating belief. We hear: “these thing are told so you will believe, and blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” But in a turn that can only be a literary elite author winking at his fellow elite reader, the wine miracle that first creates faith is presented in such a way that as haggadic midrash and mimesis the educated reader would see it was a literary recapitulation that never happened:

Though the central feature of this miracle story, the transformation of one liquid into another, no doubt comes from the lore of Dionysus, the basic outline of the story owes much to the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17:8-24 LXX (Helms [1989], p. 86). The widow of Zarephath, whose son has just died, upbraids the prophet: “What have I to do with you, O man of God?” (Ti emoi kai soi, 17:18). John has transferred this brusque address to the mouth of Jesus, rebuking his mother (2:4, Ti emoi kai soi, gunai). Jesus and Elijah both tell people in need of provisions to take empty pitchers (udria in 1 Kings 17:12, udriai in John 2:6-7), from which sustenance miraculously emerges. And just as this feat causes the woman to declare her faith in Elijah (“I know that you are a man of God,” v. 24), so does Jesus’ wine miracle cause his disciples to put their faith in him (v. 11). (Price, 2005, p. 570)

This is very important for considering Walsh’s thesis, particularly her divorcing Jesus from hypothetical communities and oral tradition. Why? Consider this in terms of the Gospel of John as a forgery. Developing this, Méndez points out that right at the beginning of the Gospel of John, in verse 14, the author positions himself as one of the inner circle and eyewitnesses of Jesus (“and dwelled among us and we have seen his glory”). In chapter 13 the focus shifts to the disciple who Jesus loved. This beloved disciple is seen as John, son of Zebedee, and so is claimed as the author of the gospel who is penning the text on behalf of other eyewitnesses—ancient Christian reception history thought this of John of Zebedee, for instance. There are two crucial texts. John 19:35 talks of how the witness source of the piercing story is alive to attest to it and “knows” in the present tense; and though it is written in the third person, it suggests that he may be the author because he knows the contents of the person’s mind. This person has testified this so that you may believe—it is for the reader. Later at 19:35 the writer aligns with this, saying that he is writing so that you will believe. John chapter 21 is generally regarded as a later addition, but it seems to understand that the beloved disciple is the author of the whole work, and so this puts the identification of the beloved disciple as author (John 21:24-25) very early in its reception history, which is then picked up again later by Irenaeus. The three Johannine epistles make similar eyewitness claims in order to falsely lend authority to their claims. Méndez sees the beloved disciple and Elder as literary creations to lend authority to the writing. The gospel is birthed out of the author, not oral tradition.

The point of the piercing of Jesus’ side by the soldier at the cross in John seems twofold. On the one hand, it serves to drive home to the reader the point that Jesus really is dead, and so no swoon theory is possible (e.g., that a sympathetic soldier brings Jesus down early and Jesus is put in a tomb to recover). The soldiers pierced His side (John 19:34) to assure that He was dead. “Blood and water came out” (John 19:34), referring to the watery fluid surrounding the heart and lungs. Moreover, the “living water” is pouring out with Jesus’ blood. (I will discuss living water further below.)

The Synoptics say that Jesus had three intimate disciples: Peter, James, and John the son of Zebedee. The beloved disciple isn’t Peter because the two appear in the same scenes. Acts records James’ death not long after Jesus’ death, so the only one left to an ancient Christian’s arithmetic who would be the beloved disciple is John son of Zebedee: the author of the Gospel of John. It is not an overt claim of authorship, as the gospel is anonymous, but it is a forgery implying authorship that might be more appetizing to a skeptic who could reject an author making an overt, direct claim. In any case, the author of John is making the strong claim that he is one of Jesus’ close disciples. Méndez defines this as a forgery, as an author presenting himself as someone other than who he is.[8] This makes it difficult to draw history from John’s symbolism or make inferences about the social context within which John was produced, the so called “Johannine community.” Méndez comments:

I have found the arguments of Ismo Dunderberg and Harry Attridge that the Beloved Disciple is probably some sort of literary device compelling. I have also been persuaded by David Litwa’s comparisons of the Beloved Disciple to invented eyewitnesses in ancient literature. As I see it, the most damning evidence against the disciple’s existence is the fact that “every Synoptic parallel that could corroborate [the disciple’s] presence at a given moment in Jesus’ life does not—not the Synoptic crucifixion scenes (cf. Mk 15.40-41; Mt. 27.55-56; Jn 19.26-27) nor Luke’s description of Peter’s visit to the tomb (Lk. 24.12; cf. Jn 20.2-10)” (363). I also find the artificial and idealized texture of the disciple highly suspicious. These issues cannot be dismissed easily…. I am clear that “one may reconstruct the author’s immediate social matrix with some features assigned to the more specific and elaborate construct of the ‘Johannine community’—for instance, the experience of synagogue expulsion.” But I “urge caution” in any such reconstruction. In the case of 1 John, I certainly think that the letter’s author intended to intervene in some controversy sometime, somewhere regarding Jesus’ coming “in the flesh.” But I have no confidence that I can reconstruct the shape and players of that controversy from a text articulated around an invented character. As David Lincicum writes, in pseudepigraphal texts, our ability “to discern reality from appearance is severely problematized.” (Méndez, 2020)

The author of John claims that he is an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. But the views that Jesus expresses there are not those expressed in the other gospels. In John, Jesus portrays himself as a preexistent divine being, in fact God: The father and I are one; before Abraham was I am. Through the indwelling with Jesus they can reach celestial realms. As I said above, you can attain eternal life now, not at the end of time. Humans will get something like deification. There is human exaltation and transformation. This author has a new message, so he claims to be one of the closest disciples because he knows that these aren’t things Jesus really taught. Mark says that the gospel is the Kingdom, and when you understand this you will not be far from the Kingdom. The Kingdom will be on Earth, but in John Jesus transforms this to be not on Earth—John is evocative of the Synoptics (e.g., Kingdom), but creates his own lens for interpreting them.

The author of John knows that this isn’t historical, so he’s inventing and making things up. Méndez argues that the author is giving the hermeneutical key or cipher for interpreting what you might read in the other gospels, and so implying the reader is encouraged to think that maybe Jesus didn’t quite say things as portrayed in Mark, or else that Mark interprets things incorrectly. And that’s exactly how people do read the Gospels, with the Gospel of John as the lens and the Synoptics through that lens: they start with John as the climax, and then read the Synoptics as though they were claiming that Jesus was God. The big takeaway is that the Gospel of John is written in exactly the way that you would expect it to be written if ancient Jewish writing practices were being fused with Greco-Roman historiography practices and interaction between writers.

7. Jesus as Philosopher in Mark

If Walsh’s thesis is correct, then the Gospels arose out of networks of intellectually elite Greco-Roman writers, and thus the intertextuality with the Jewish scriptures should be mirrored with Greco-Roman poetry and philosophy, as this was part of the educational and intellectual context. And we see the influence of the philosophical schools on Jesus, most notably with the 2018 work Jesus as Philosopher: The Moral Sage in the Synoptic Gospels by Runar M. Thorsteinsson. Thorsteinsson shows that New Testament writers “associated the person of Jesus with contemporary philosophical schools and figures in order to better persuade their audience that Jesus was the ideal human being, one in whom they should believe as the Messiah” (2018, p. 178).

Ancient philosophy wasn’t just conceptual hopscotch, but the way or art of living. The wise person lived according to rational and ethical principles, phronesis, just in Jesus’ case he lived so as to be the Law Incarnate, love of God above all else and love of neighbor as self, to the point of love of enemy more than self. For instance, “citing the Cynic teacher Demetrius, Seneca observes that it is far better to possess only a handful of philosophical maxims that one continually follows and puts into practice than to have a vast and thorough knowledge of philosophy that is rarely or never used (Ben. [On Benefits] 7.1.3)” (Thorsteinsson, 2018, p. 16).

In this way, changing one’s outlook was a major transformation in how you understood life and so was no small thing, like the soldier at the cross proclaiming the crucified criminal Jesus the Son of God/an Innocent man:

A basic motif among all the philosophical schools was the motif of change, for all of them advocated a change in one’s way of life, whether in social, political, or religious terms. Ideological, psychological, and intellectual self-examination and change should result in such a change in one’s way of life. Common to all the philosophical schools was also the conviction that human beings have gone astray on a sea of ignorance and are therefore in urgent need of ‘therapy’. (Thorsteinsson, 2018, pp. 18-19)

The main influence on Jesus’ portrait seems to be the Stoics, as they would have been the most pervasive and encompassing philosophical school at that time. Thorsteinsson examines all three Synoptics, but for an example, consider Mark’s Jesus-as-philosopher:

The topics discussed include ascetic appearance, abandoning one’s family, attitude towards material possessions and outward appearance, Jesus and the philosophers as messengers of God, the wisdom of Jesus, the philosopher’s emotions, and the philosopher’s suffering and death. (Thorsteinsson, 2018, p. 179)

From Walsh’s framework we should note ascetic living reflects Essene ideas, but also the philosophy of the Cynics. Just as Mark clothes John the Baptist in the garb of Elijah to make a theological point, so too the emphasis on asceticism in outward appearance might point to philosophical ideals. Further reflective of the Stoics and Cynics was the belief that love of one’s brotherhood should take precedence over familial ties. Mark’s Jesus also aligns with the Stoic idea that material possessions are unimportant, but shows himself superior to many philosophers (with the exception of at least one Stoic) that material possessions are not simply a matter of indifference (adiaphoron), but should be sold so that the proceeds can be given to the poor. Mark’s Jesus is the wise man par excellence who is a master of argumentation and debate: “It is most clearly presented in Jesus’ debates with Jewish scholars, for whom Jesus typically lays logical traps. The image is reminiscent of the figure of Socrates in Plato’s discourses” (Thorsteinsson, 2018, p. 179).

In Mark Jesus’ anger (temple tantrum) and fear (Gethsemane) seem to fall short of the philosophical ideal, but this is resolved when we consider Jesus acting out of the mandates of love of God and neighbor, and so Jesus’ anger at the temple reflects the righteous indignation wrath of God, while Gethsemane highlights Jesus’ exemplary faithfulness to God’s plan in the face of terrible fear, which shows him to be more noble than the philosophers who have overcome fear. And so “[o]n other occasions, Jesus is presented as a person of great mental strength and authority who knows no fear and acts like the ideal philosopher. Contrary to common opinion, the feeling of love expressed and emphasized by Jesus does not differentiate him from contemporary philosophical sages” (Thorsteinsson, 2018, p. 180).

Stoics, Cynics, and Epicureans felt that suffering was an important part of a sage’s mission and quest for virtue. Jesus’ death most resembles that of Socrates. The question, then, is whether we are to understand the martyr’s statement in Mark 10:45 as akin to 4 Maccabees, or rather to Socrates’ prayer to Asclepius in the Phaedo, both of which seem to illustrate different aspects of perhaps internally contradictory Yom Kippur sacrificial imagery? Epictetus says: “And now that Socrates is dead the memory of him is no less useful to men, nay, is perhaps even more useful, than what he did or said while he still lived” (Discourses 4.1.169). Regarding Socrates, we read from Epictetus: “If we were useful to men by living, should we not have done much more good to men by dying when we ought, and as we ought” (Discourses 4.1.168-169).

Socrates, like Jesus and many first- and early second-century CE philosophers, thought that the philosophical sage was sent by God to execute a divine mission:

The true philosopher is in fact sent by Zeus to human beings as a messenger (angelos [*Paul also calls Jesus this]), with the purpose of showing them that they have erred (Diss. [Discourses] 3.22.23; on Epictetus himself as a ‘witness called by God’, see 1.29.47; on the divine calling of Socrates, see 3.1.19). After all, the Stoic sage is ‘the reformer of sinners’ (corrector peccantium), as Seneca explains (Ira [On Anger] 2.10.7). This fits nicely to the work of Jesus. He too was sent by God (Matt. 10.40) in order to show his fellow human beings, sometimes by way of the method of ‘exhortation’, that they were following the wrong path in their lives. His message was that they should ‘repent’ (metanoeite, 4.17) and turn to God, for the kingdom of heaven was near (cf. also 12.41; and 3.8, 11 on John the Baptist). He came to call ‘not the righteous but sinners’ (9.13). (Thorsteinsson, 2018, p. 83)

Just as “The philosophical sage was first and foremost the incarnation of wisdom and moral virtue” (Thorsteinsson, 2018, p. 27), Jesus was the law incarnate giving a new interpretation of the law (e.g., love of enemy): “LIVING LAW,” what the Stoics called ‘the living image of all the virtues’ (virtutium viva imago), a ‘truer exemplar’ (certius exemplar) of a sage than previous ones. Regarding the Stoic Musonius on the philosopher being the “living law,” we read:

‘In general’, he says, ‘it is of the greatest importance for the good king to be faultless (anamarteton) and perfect (teleion) in word and action, if, indeed, he is to be a “living law” as he seemed to the ancients, effecting good government and harmony, suppressing lawlessness and dissension, a true imitator of Zeus and, like him, father of his people’ (8.64.10-15). Here Musonius refers to the necessity of being ‘perfect’ and a true follower of the laws, similar to Jesus’ reference to commandments of the Jewish law (Mark 10.19), as well as his demand that the rich man be perfect in his devotion (‘You [only] lack one thing’ [hen se hysterei], 10.21). (Thorsteinsson, 2018, p. 50)

I will explore Jesus as the law incarnate in a future article. Jesus was recognized for his wisdom (Sophia), the mark of the philosopher. This seems to stress that Jesus’ wisdom comes from God, not an elite upbringing, much like Paul would later stress that his ideas about Jesus came from Jesus directly, not from man. In fact, if Paul’s letters are inspiring Mark’s, the narrative about Jesus the carpenter and his band of peasants may be a literary device. Jesus acknowledged wisdom, such as that of the Syrophoenician woman, and hence granted her request. Jesus’ wisdom causes wonder/amazement (exethaumazon), which Aristotle says is the birthplace of a new philosophical outlook: “All in all, the image of Jesus drawn by Mark in these stories is of a man who is not only a wise man, but the wise man, the wisest of them all” (Thorsteinsson, 2018, p. 58). Similarly:

Luke’s Jesus did not see it as his role to punish sinners but to bring them to repentance: to urge them to review their disposition to life and to God, and thus to realize their poor state of being and act accordingly. Plato spoke of the object of education as a ‘turning around of the soul‘ (Republic, 518Dff): the word epistrophe, later used by Christians of conversion, is applied to the effects of philosophy, meaning thereby an orientation of focusing of the soul, the turning of men from carelessness to true piety, for which conuersio is used by Cicero (On the Nature of the Gods, i. 77). The concept of metanoia, which is essentially the same in Luke (and Acts) as in both Jewish and Graeco-Roman literature, is used to ‘convey a change in thinking that usually leads to a change in behavior and or way of life.’ As Gregory E. Sterling notes, some Hellenistic moral philosophers recognized repentance as a virtue. It represents the moment of truth when the individual must chose [sic] between continuing on a course that has been shown to be wrong or reorienting her or his life to a new course. Hierocles of Alexandria captured the thrust of this view when he wrote: ‘Repentance (metanoia) is the very beginning of philosophy: the flight from both senseless deeds and words and the first preparation for a life that is without regret.’ [Commentary on the Golden Chain 14.24-29]…. The central feature, therefore, of the role of the philosopher as God’s messenger is to cure human beings from their weaknesses and help them to attain a good life; in other words, the role of the philosopher turns out to be the salvation of human beings (soteria)’…. In the Graeco-Roman world, the term ‘saviour’, soter was applied to the Roman emperor and other Hellenistic rulers, as well as in the mystery religions and the cult of the healing god Asclepius. It could also be used of philosophers. (Thorsteinsson, 2018, p. 165)

Walsh points out that the Gospels very much take place within an ancient philosophical standpoint. For instance, you can’t understand the function of pneuma in the Gospels without understanding Stoic physics. The Gospels are using the philosophical terminology of the period, like logos and phronesis. The gospel writers are elite writers who know the landscape and are engaging with it. In this regard, Erin Vearncombe notes that Jesus’ mathetes, as “disciples,” reflects a distortion of the original meaning of that word, “student,” which often suggested “student of a philosopher.”

8. Sophisticated Old/New Testament Interaction Beyond Substitutionary Atonement

In my second installment of this review, I will dive deeper into Walsh’s book with the question of the pagan soldier at the cross, who truly saw Jesus despite the fact that none of his Jewish followers could see him. If Walsh is right that with the New Testament we have the works of highly educated Greco-Roman writers, we should see extensive engagement with the Greco-Roman literary tradition, as well as a highly sophisticated interpretation of Jewish tradition. In fact, this is what we do have; and so, for instance, the Greek notion of the god becoming flesh with Euripides’ Bacchae is fused with such a sophisticated interpretation of Jewish tabernacle and atonement thought that it was only recently, after 200 years of scholarly interaction with the New Testament, that scholars are finally beginning to see the logic of the early Christian writers. Here are some preliminary context thoughts on Jesus as the incarnate logos (Phil 2:6-7; John’s prologue) and the sacrifice.

The binding of Isaac by Abraham was not a sacrifice, but a near sacrifice with two important points. By killing his son, Abraham would lose his firstborn, as well as the future people that he was supposed to found. The later sacrifice system would be a reminder of the faith and obedience of Abraham. The daily sacrifices further would have the positive content that people as servants were literally attending to the food needs of God literally indwelling in the tabernacle:

Happily, for us, the story of the passion in the Gospels makes no mention of Jesus “paying God back” for the cost of our sins. As David Yeago has observed, “There is no invisible transaction going on behind the scenes of the narrative we rehearse each Passiontide. Jesus is doing just what appears in the story: he is being faithful to his Father even to death, and in this way realizing in himself, in his own person, the covenant partnership that is Israel’s vocation and God’s ultimate purpose for the whole human race.” (Anderson, 2023, p. 317).

Part of the confusion of penal substitution proponents is that they misunderstand the purpose of the sacrificial system in Judaism, such as that the blood of the pure goat is meant to purify the holy site so that God can dwell among the people. (For my thoughts on penal substitution, see my 2022 [2nd ed.] Secular Web essay “A Critique of the Penal Substitution Interpretation of the Cross of Christ.”) Gary Anderson comments:

But as biblical scholars have repeatedly argued, this [penal substitution] understanding grossly misrepresents the character of the tamid sacrifice. Jonathan Klawans is right on target when he writes: “The typical understanding of the way daily sacrifice [= tamid] and grave sin are related is, I believe, backward. It is not that the daily sacrifice undoes the damage done by grave transgression. Quite the contrary: contrary: grave transgression undoes what the daily sacrifice produces.” Klawans goes on to observe that the difference between these two formulations is of fundamental importance. “What it boils down to,” he argues, “is whether a sacrifice is considered, in and of itself, a productive act. Those who argue that expiation is at the core of all or most sacrificial rituals ultimately view sacrifice not as something productive in its own right but as a correction or a reversal of something else that was wrong.” The question then becomes in what way is the tamid a productive act? That is, in what way is it an action that does not simply remove an error, but possesses a good internal to itself; an act that one would wish to undertake even if there was no sin to remove? The answer to this question, as we noted earlier in chapter 4, lies in the immediate literary context of the tamid rite (Exod. 25-40): the installation of the deity into his new home. As Jeffrey Tigay has shown, the running of the temple is modeled on a royal palace.10 Service of the human king becomes an analogy for service to the King of kings. Like any king, God needs a house suited to his majesty. On this understanding, sacrifice can be construed as the provisioning of the deity’s banquet table. It is simply one among a number of ritual acts that symbolize the miraculous availability of God within the temple and provide a liturgical means of displaying one’s service and devotion to God. Within the biblical narratives, the tamid sacrifice is the single most important feature of the liturgical life of the temple. The tremendous importance of this sacrifice is certainly related to the fact that it unlike the other dimensions of temple life required daily maintenance and upkeep by the community of worshippers. In other words, this mode of affording honor and reverence toward the deity is unique, insofar as it requires constant human attention. (2023, pp. 322-324)

Obviously, the positive content of the sacrifice was to remember and remind God of the self-sacrifice of obedient Abraham and willing Isaac, and how all people are born out of that level of obedience and faithfulness. Phil Long provides a helpful summary of Anderson’s argument:

Anderson’s That I May Dwell Among Them carefully examines a theme from the Old Testament that is related to later Christian theology. Rather than start with incarnation and atonement in the New Testament and then “salvage” the Tabernacle narrative, Anderson starts with the Old Testament text. He develops what the Tabernacle narrative says about God dwelling with his people and providing atonement before he moves forward to the New Testament and Christian theology…. Chapters 3 and 4 (Seeing God and Serving God) describe the divine presence in Numbers 4, and the tamid sacrifices in Exodus 29. Anderson carefully studies the Levitical families who cared for the tabernacle and its furniture. The Ark of the Covenant is the main sign of God’s presence, that God “really dwells in the Tabernacle” (59)./. The second larger canonical connection Anderson draws is to Genesis 22 in the binding of Isaac. He points out several potential allusions to Isaac’s binding in Moses’ intercession prayers, especially Exodus 32. Moses’s prayers always look back to the “unilateral and unconditional offer on God’s part to Abraham” (164). Using the Aramaic Levi document, Anderson grounds the tamid in the story of the binding of Isaac. He also references rabbinic literature and the mosaic at Sepphoris as other examples of Second Temple (and later) connections between the tamid and the binding of Isaac. Conclusion. Anderson’s That I May Dwell Among Them is a rich study of the Tabernacle Narrative. By drawing canonical connections back to Genesis, he demonstrates the original creation story shapes this somewhat obscure material. By drawing canonical connections forward to the New Testament, he makes reasonable application of the Tabernacle narrative to theological issues such as incarnation and atonement. (2024)

It is only by thinking away from a (penal) substitutionary view of sacrifice that we can get at the claim in 1 Peter that Christ’s death addresses the issue of the inclination/disposition to sin. Andrew Rillera argues:

[W]hile Jesus is comprehended in the NT as relating to various aspects of Israel’s sacrificial and purity system, sacrifice is never about punishing the sacrificial animal with death (or suffering) in place of the offerer. We saw how Levitical sacrifice reconceptualized the necessary killing of the sacrificial animal into “not-a-killing.” Neither death nor suffering nor punishment of the animal has any place in the sacrificial system. Therefore, all Christian theologies that attempt to derive a view of justice on the mistaken view that biblical sacrifice is about punishment or substitutionary death must be utterly rejected…. There is no biblical warrant to sustain any such views. These interpretations are only possible by imposing alien frameworks and concepts onto “sacrifice” and “atonement.” Moreover, we learned how there are both atoning and non-atoning sacrifices, which are indexed by whether the offerer eats from it. If they eat from it, then it cannot be an atoning sacrifice for their sins . The primary function for the non-atoning sacrifices is to share in a holy meal in God’s presence, often to give thanks for some prior act of divine deliverance. These can be individual sacrificial meals or corporate ones like Passover and covenant-making or covenant-renewal ceremonies. Crucially, we realized that sacrificial atonement (kipper) is limited in what it purifies. Kipper is only about decontaminating the sanctuary and its attendant sancta from either ritual impurities or sin-contamination. And there is a further limitation for kipper: atoning sacrifices can only purge certain sins. Grave sins (idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality) contaminate the sinner as well as the land thereby exceeding the reach and capacity of atoning sacrifices. The only remedy for this moral impurity is the death of the sinner and/or exile so that the land can be cleansed. All this makes it possible to see how Jesus is most often understood in the NT on analogy to the non-atoning well-being sacrifices: primarily the Passover and covenant-making sacrifices. This understanding is enacted in the Lord’s Supper, which is a ritual sacrificialization for both. Further, we discovered how this sacrificial understanding of Jesus’s death was memorializing an act of divine deliverance since commemoration is the primary function of these non-atoning sacrifices. This divine deliverance is often framed as a moral purification on analogy to ritual purification whereby Jesus is a contagious source of holiness that purges all manner of impurities on contact. Therefore, his contact with death [that purifies and negates death] and subsequent resurrection encapsulates the salvation of the world, brought through the curse of death and into indestructible life. Additionally, we saw how two NT authors (1 John and Hebrews) explicitly associate Jesus with the atoning sacrifices. Here we observed how Jesus’s ascension was interpreted as indexing him as a high priest in the heavenly sanctuary. His indestructible life could therefore serve as the purgative element for decontaminating the heavenly sanctuary. But more than this, Hebrews claims that Jesus’s life-blood also functions on analogy to water to purify believers. Additionally, Jesus’s blood serves like the non-atoning sacrificial blood used in the consecration of priests such that believers are made co-high priests with Jesus. As well, Hebrews shows how believers are made into co-purgation sacrifices with him as they bear his reproach in cruciform suffering (Rillera, 2024, pp. 262-263).

As I also argue elsewhere, Rillera notes that Paul indicates—contrary to cross substitution theology—that it is the resurrection, not just the cross, that ultimately deals with sin. He writes:

Moreover, the fact that the resurrection is the basis for “dealing with sins” (cf. 1 Cor 15:3) is made clear in 1 Cor 15:17: “If Christ has not been raised … you are still in your sins.” If it was Jesus’s death alone that dealt with sins in some substitutionary way, then the consequence of Jesus not being resurrected would not be that humans are still in their sins (15:17). It would be something like: Well, your sins are dealt with (forgiven/cleansed/whatever concept you wish to place here), but we still do not know what is going to happen for sure after your body perishes (but most of us Jews believe in some sort of bodily resurrection of the dead so let us hope for that for Jesus and everyone else on judgment day; and let’s just be glad we do not have to worry about being damned for our sins). Paul is consistent with this emphasis upon Jesus’s resurrection as dealing with sins in Rom 4. First, he equates justification with forgiveness in Rom 4:6-7 in his only use of aphiemi (“forgiveness”) in the (undisputed) Pauline letters denoting divine forgiveness of sins (and he is quoting its use in LXX PS 31:1-2). Second, in Rom 4:25 he states that Jesus “was raised on account of our justification” immediately after saying “he was delivered over on account of our transgressions.” Thus, as with 1 Cor 15:3, 17, it is the resurrection that effects “dealing with sins.” If there is no resurrection, then, according to Paul, you are not justified/forgiven (Rom 4:6-7, 25b) and you are still in your sins (1 Cor 15:7). Therefore, in the same way that Jesus’s resurrection is “for the benefit of” (hyper) others and no one attempts to conceptualize it as a substitution, I do not think Paul is conceptualizing Jesus’s death as a substitution in these passages either. The two go together hand in hand. The death and resurrection of Jesus are “for” others only to the extent that others are joined with them (e.g., 1 Cor 15:22; Rom 6:3-8)…. What is made clear in Rom 5-8 is that Jesus’s death is a benefit to others only to the extent that they participate in it (e.g., 6:5)!… Therefore, if one is united with Jesus’s death (co-crucifixion), then one can walk in the newness of life a life of obedience like his by putting to death the deeds of the flesh and be assured of one’s own co-resurrection as well…. Not only is there no such thing as substitutionary death sacrifice in the Torah, but also everything in the NT texts is aimed at grounding the exhortation for the audience to be conformed and transformed into the cruciform image of Jesus by sharing in his death… (Rillera, 2024, p. 267)

What we can see here is a highly sophisticated understanding of Jewish tradition to characterize Jesus. As we will see in the following two articles of this review, it is precisely the transformation of the pagan soldier, not the Jews, who first truly sees Jesus for who he is on the cross: as a poisoned Socrates and impaled just man. In this Walsh’s theory is further evidenced as the Jewish and Greco-Roman influences fuse to create the New Testament.

Rillera notes:

Atonement or kipper in the bible means “remove” most broadly, but when used in the sacrificial system it more specifically conveys the idea of “decontaminate” or “purify” or “purge” (i.e., removing a contamination clinging to something). Hence, kipper does not mean “reconcile,” nor “save,” nor “forgive.” Equally importantly, only holy objects within the sacred dwelling place, or later the temple, receive the ritual action of kipper. In other words, when kipper happens, what is decontaminated or purified is a holy object in the sanctuary, not people. (2024, p. 25)

Rillera points out that Jesus is most basically seen in one sense as the Passover lamb. In the chapter currently under consideration, we see in detail that Passover is not an atonement ritual. He summarizes:

[T]he Passover does not have an atoning function, but the first Passover is depicted as having a protective (pesa?) apotropaic function, anchored as it is in the standard non-sacrificial ritual ingredients and procedures for warding off a threat, applying blood on a house with hyssop branches. All subsequent Passovers function as sacrificial commemorations of this event, celebrated by feasting on a unique type of (non-atoning) thanksgiving well–being offering. (Rillera, 2024, p. 64)

And significantly bloodless grain was accepted as an atoning sacrifice if a family was poor:

Another way of putting it: the fact that it is even conceivable for Leviticus to claim that an offering of grain can be a legitimate haṭṭā’t necessarily excludes the theory that the haṭṭā’t is a substitutionary death, symbolically spilling the blood of the offerer, because this offering is literally bloodless…. The whole process depends on individual Israelites taking personal responsibility for their whole community’s well–being by cleaning up their own “messes” that would cause God to abandon a desecrated dwelling place if left untreated. This is why one’s own flour can substitute for animal blood…. Surely if going about these blood rituals renders sacrifices as “not shedding blood” then it is illogical to suggest that the sacrifices is a substitution for shedding the offerer’s blood. What is more, neither “ransom” nor “atonement sacrifice” can be made to substitute for someone who is worthy of death (Num 35:31-34). Therefore, the logic of decontaminating sacrifices is not “something that bleeds needs to die,” but rather “we need a substance capable of purging the forces of death we need pure life” (Rillera, 2024, pp. 125-126).

Taking the life of an animal would normally be murder, and hence eye for an eye would be in place, but in sacrifice the blood is put on the altar and so given back to God, removing the murder notion of sacrifice through ritual. The blood reconsecrates the holy place so that God can dwell there. The day of atonement/decontamination was basically a factory reboot of the sanctuary. However, major moral sin couldn’t be addressed through purgation, and so actually contaminated the land itself. Once the land was sufficiently polluted, it couldn’t support the Temple and the result was exile, for God could no longer be attracted to the sanctuary and the land booted the people out. It was ultimately God’s forgiveness, not the sacrificial system, that would restore the people. Rillera comments:

This is crucial to note since this explains why no prophet is hoping for or envisioning a grand purgation sacrifice as the solution to moral impurity. This makes sense since it is inconceivable within the framework set forth in the Torah with regards to these grave sins. The fact that the prophets express their hope for restoration completely apart from kipper sacrifices affirms that it was taken for granted that the purgation sacrifices were only ever meant to decontaminate the sanctuary, not people. Especially in exile, then, when there is no sanctuary, a purgation sacrifice does not even make sense because it is neither possible to offer one nor is there a sanctuary that is being contaminated…. The sacrificial system is simply never conceived of as the solution to Israel’s most dire needs—neither in Leviticus nor in the prophets. (2024, p. 146)

The New Testament writers use atoning (decontamination) and nonatoning sacrificial language to depict Christ’s sacrifice as something his followers can participate in (crucifying the fleshly), but not as substitution, penal or otherwise. Jesus’ life overthrows the forces of death, and death itself with his resurrection. This does not negate the Levitical purity system, since for instance healing is only one stage in the process. Rillera notes that Jesus’ first encounter with a ritually impure person in the Synoptic Gospels is a man with scale disease, whom he heals (Mark 1:40-45; Matt 8:2-4; Luke 5:12-14). In each account, after he heals the man’s skin, Jesus instructs him: “Go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Mark 1:44 NRSV; cf. Matt 8:4; Luke 5:14; also Luke 17:14). In this way Jesus is not negating the Temple as penal substitution, but rather affirming the efficacy of the Temple for dealing with ritual impurity. In fact, far from rejecting Old Testament ritual practices, Jesus taught that the Pharisees were too lenient (Matthew 23:25-26; Luke 11:39-40).

The Old Testament prophets noted that sin must be dealt with via ritual cleansing, e.g., water immersion, not a kipper sacrifice, because the latter can’t deal with grave sin. John the Baptist follows this tradition of ritual washing. Jesus as the ultimate living water heals sickness and death on contact and is not himself made impure through contaminates because he is the agapetos, the specially beloved of God who is God’s holy one (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34; John 6:69; cf. Luke 1:35; Acts 2:27; 3:14; 4:27; 13:35—also the name of the tabernacle in Leviticus 21:23 LXX, hence Jesus as the mobile dwelling place in John 1:14). Later in this three-part series, we’ll see that John the Baptist is the forerunner of Jesus in the additional sense that he was a Platonic paradigmatic wise man (à la that of the Phaedo and Republic) who suffered a humiliating unjust death anticipating the world turning on Jesus, God’s agapetos. Commentators often focus on what they think that Jesus accomplished at the cross and ignore the purifying effect of realizing the horror that we did to Jesus.

Along with other healings, Jesus is able to heal major moral impurity and forgive sins. Mark notes “the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on the land” (Mark 2:10). This was traditionally something the priests with the Temple and the day of atonement/decontamination couldn’t remedy: when major sin defiled the land itself and so the holy place became of no effect and the land itself expelled the people from it. Only petition to God and hope of his forgiveness would help here. Jesus addresses heinous unrepentant sinners, not some kind of “universal sin” (as penal substitution advocates think), and it is Jesus as the living temple who purifies, his death having nothing to do with this. Jesus’ death is important in that it allows him to touch death itself and purify it, but Jesus dying is not itself related to salvation. In the Jewish sacrificial system the humane death of the animal had nothing to do with the efficacy of the ritual, and in fact further ritual was enacted to turn it into a nonmurder. One point that Rillera doesn’t address (that I will address next time) is the brutal death of the scapegoat, conspicuous as an oddity in that Jewish ritual-killing of animals was humane. Scholars such as Stephen Finlan and Scott Shauf see scapegoat imagery in Galatians 3:13, for instance.

Jesus overcomes death that is the source of ritual impurity, but also death itself. Rillera notes:

This is why in another speech in Acts the proclamation of the “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 13:38) is explicitly linked to the logic of his resurrection (13:34-39; note the “therefore” [oun] in v. 38). Just as the paralytic walking out of the house healed proved that Jesus has authority to forgive sins, to effect purification for sins defiling the land, Jesus walking out of the tomb proves it all the more. When Jesus defeats death itself, he is victorious over both the source of ritual impurity and the consequences of sins, especially grave sins that produce moral impurity and lead to covenant death (e.g., Ezek 37). This is the meaning of his signs and works of power that Jesus relayed to the messengers from John (Matt 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23). (Rillera, 2024, p. 166)

As we saw, Jesus did not overcome death because his death was a sacrifice, but because in his death his holiness touched death itself and rendered it of no effect. The last supper memorializes as nonatoning Passover sacrifice as the victory over death, not that Jesus’ death as death was magically producing an exchange behind the scenes. Jesus’ sacrifice is used to express other points, as death is not a point of sacrifice even though the animals were being killed. Rillera comments:

The point here is that Jesus’s death and resurrection are comprehended within the framework of moral purification and that this is distinct from thinking about Jesus in terms of sacrificial imagery. When Jesus’s death is framed as a sacrificial event in the Gospels, during the Lord’s Supper, it is viewed as the sacrificial meal of celebration for the end of the curse brought about by Israel’s moral impurity and the ratification of the new covenant. Jesus-as-sacrifice is not the saving event itself from this angle, but rather, like the first Passover, the proleptic ritual celebration of the deliverance immediately about to take place. Jesus’s death is saving only insofar as it is seen in tandem with the resurrection, whereby just as when Jesus encountered major ritual impurities he vanquished them and was not affected by them, so too the resurrection is proof that (a) when Jesus encountered death itself he vanquished it and therefore (b) he is the promised agent of moral purification: the one who is able to forgive the most heinous of sins that drag the entire community and the land into the covenant curse of death…. Jesus’s Jeremiah-like temple-destruction discourse (cf. Jer 7) is not because he thinks the temple is inherently “ineffective.” It is that the sacrificial system could never atone for sins in the “moral impurity” category: idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder (which the prophets expanded to include economic exploitation). And this is because these sins pollute the land itself, but the kipper system can only purge impurity from the sanctuary. This is why Jesus’s affirmation of sacrifices for dealing with major ritual impurities (e.g., Mark 1:44) is not in conflict with his prophecy of the temple’s looming destruction on account of moral impurity. As we learned, the system of decontaminating sacrifices necessarily cannot deal with moral impurities that pollute the land, and this limitation is by God-ordained design. Therefore, claiming that the land is saturated with innocent bloodshed and thus will be destroyed because the divine presence has vacated it (Matt 23:30-38; Luke 13:34-35) is not a critique of the temple; it is a critique of a morally impure community. The destruction of the temple is simply the expected outworking of unaddressed moral impurity per the Torah and the prophets. (Rillera, 2024, pp. 167-169)

The atoning kipper sacrifices are not the model for Jesus purifying the sin-stained land because this was never the purpose of the kipper sacrifice, as Leviticus (chapters 18-26) and Numbers (35:31-34) already made clear. Jesus’ forgiving sacrifice is always alluded to with the last supper, which was a memorial nonatoning Passover well-being and covenant-inaugurating sacrifice:

(1) These sacrifices have no atoning functions. And this is reinforced by the obvious fact that the Lord’s Supper is eaten. Sacrifices eaten by laity can never be from the kipper sacrifices. (2) It would have been very confusing (to say the least) for Jesus at a literal Passover meal, which is a type of thanksgiving well-being sacrifice, to further “sacrificialize” what he wants his disciples to then consume as a kipper sacrifice, let alone one of the purgation sacrifices on the Day of Decontamination, which not even the high priest ate from. Besides what was burned on the altar, the rest of the flesh and carcasses of the animals were burned outside the camp (16:27; cf. 4:11-12, 21; 6:30). (3) More importantly for the present discussion, these are the very sacrifices that would be associated with the beginning of Israel’s exodus-like restoration from exile. This is their ultimate Passover celebration, a sacred meal in thanksgiving for God delivering them from the curses of the covenant, the consequences of their moral impurity. Like the first exodus, this deliverance is then marked by establishing a covenant that uses the well-being sacrifice so that the people partake from the sacred meal. Therefore, “forgiveness of sins” in Matt 26:28 is to be linked with the new covenant in Jeremiah (31:31-34; 33:8), the affirmation of God’s eternal covenant in Ezekiel (16:59-63) and making “a covenant of peace” (34:25; 37:26; cf. Isa 54:10), simply making a “covenant” (Isa 27:9 together with 59:21), 472 or even just the promise that God will eventually forgive Israel’s sins by divine fiat (e.g., Isa 43:25; 44:22; 55:7; Jer 50:20; Mic 7:18-19; Hos 14:2-7; cf. Zeph 3:15). The moral purification the prophets announce, which many envision as a divine water-washing and immersion in the sanctifying Spirit, is inextricably bound together with the idea of the forgiveness of the sins that generated the moral impurity (Ezek 22:15; 24:13; 36:25-27, 29, 33; 37:23; Isa 4:4; Zech 13:1-2; Ps 51:4, 9 [vv. 2, 7 Eng.]; Jer 33:8; Mal 3:2-33). This further strengthens points 1-2. Making Jesus’s comment about “forgiveness” relate to kipper sacrifices is superfluous since now we can see that the new/eternal covenant (of peace) from prophetic contexts makes the most immediate sense, given Jesus’s use of “covenant.” And this was always expected to be a forgiveness that was granted by God apart from kipper sacrifices, especially since these (by God-ordained design) could not address the sins that needed to be forgiven. Trying to then link Jesus’s comment about “forgiveness” to kipper sacrifices is further incoherent since Jesus’s comments are all happening through a meal and offerers (priest or lay) could never eat from the atoning sacrifices offered to decontaminate their sins. From several angles, then, interpretations that attempt to find kipper associations simply do not work. (Rillera, 2024, p. 171)

Against a penal substitution reading, Jesus’ death is meant to foreshadow Israel’s destruction (as with Ezekiel 37), not substitute for it; and as with Jesus’ resurrection, God will forgive Israel’s grave moral sins and reestablish covenant with them. Jesus does not die instead of Jerusalem any more than he dies as substitute for his disciples, since all will meet their own demise. Jesus’ death is framed as kipper sacrifice only in Hebrews and 1 John, and this is a means of more fully exploring the nonatoning sacrificial model, not contradicting it (Hebrews 5:12; 6:1). The atoning/decontamination sacrifice was meant to purify the sanctuary so that God could dwell among a sinful people.

Jesus’ death serves a double function. On the one hand, it is a murder, like those of previous prophets, and a sort of last straw that will bring judgment on Israel. But it is also God’s greatest victory, with the purifying of death and Jesus foreshadowing God’s forgiveness, as well as a resurrection and new covenant with Israel. In the Gospel of John we hear of Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, not the atonement goats, because again the removal of sin is something that God does apart from the sacrificial system, as that system was never designed to deal with grave moral sins that pollute the land. Rillera comments:

Therefore, just as no one thinks that when God ransomed Israel from Egypt (or was to repeat this type of salvation in a new exodus from the nations) either Egypt, or the nations, or God himself were being “paid off,” so too we should not think that the use of “ransom” imagery in the NT is conveying that Jesus’ blood “paid off” anything or anyone. Additionally, every parable Jesus tells to teach about forgiveness in economic terms utilizes the motif of debt remission/forgiveness, not debt satisfaction (Luke 4:19; 7:40-50; Matt 18:21-35). In no instance does someone else pay off the “debt” for someone else. And the prayer Jesus teaches his followers is also only about debt forgiveness (Luke 11:4; Matt 6:12). The notion that “Jesus paid my debt” to God or the devil lacks any scriptural basis and contradicts Jesus’ own teachings. This notion that Jesus’ blood is paid out to some entity comes from taking “ransom” language too rigidly and by not recognizing how “ransom” is anchored in the exodus tradition, which makes the very idea of there being any payees nonsensical…. We have discovered that the only sacrifices Jesus himself associated his death with are two communal well-being sacrifices—Passover and covenant-inauguration/renewal. These are the foundational sacrificial feast celebrations of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt and formation into a covenant people of God. The theme of “forgiveness of sins” in the NT is anchored in the prophetic texts that promise a specific sort of forgiveness of sins: Israel’s release from the consequences of moral impurity (exile as covenant death, e.g., Ezek 37), which will be celebrated as a new exodus (hence Passover) and establishing/re-affirming God’s (re)new(ed) covenant (exile as covenant death, e.g., Ezek 37). Neither the Jesus-as-Passover lamb nor Jesus-as-blood-of-the-(re)new(ed)-covenant effects this forgiveness. Rather, these sacrificial feasts are sacrificialized in the Lord’s Supper to commemorate that the promised forgiveness of sins has already happened apart from any “sacrifice” (atoning or non-atoning). Jesus was literally offering this forgiveness prior to his death because the forgiveness he offers springs from the fact that “the time is fulfilled” (Mark 1:15) it is the time of God’s promised forgiveness and that he is God’s “mobile, and powerfully contagious force of holiness in the world … that overwhelms the forces and sources of impurity and death, be they pneumatic, ritual, or moral?” The Lord’s Supper takes the bread and wine from a literal Passover meal and further ritualizes the sacrificial ritual of Passover. That is, the Lord’s Supper is a sacrificialization of (unleavened) bread and wine that makes them a thanksgiving well-being sacrifice that doubles as both a Passover (e.g., 1 Cor 5:7-8) and covenant-inauguration meta-ritual meal (e.g., 1 Cor 11:23-26). Moreover, we saw that “ransom”/”redemption” is bound up with the liberative eschatological-/cosmic-exodus motif. When those like John the Seer or the author of 1 Peter combine the notion of Jesus as a Passover lamb with Jesus’ blood as the currency for a ransom, they are merely joining together what the Passover commemorates the (cosmic) exodus and the prophetic metaphor for the divine act of accomplishing that event. That is, this combination is not suddenly saying that Passover lamb’s blood qua sacrificial blood is the means by which the (cosmic) exodus happened i.e., that the blood was a “ransom payment” to some entity. They are just borrowing from the language of the prophetic hope to make the point that those who were once enslaved (and this enslavement itself is variously depicted) have now been set free by Jesus. Jesus is the lamb of the free. Therefore, just as Israel was not ransomed from Egypt with any sort of payment let alone by sacrifice, so too the “ransom” of the second exodus would not come about by a payout to any entity (Isa 52:3). This is the theological framework within which the various “ransom” and “purchased” statements in the NT need to be comprehended. The ideas of Passover and (re)new(ed) covenant are tightly linked with the notion of “ransom,” but those sacrifices do not bring about the ransom, but rather celebrate that ransom-event since that is the function of well-being sacrifices in general and these two in particular from the first exodus. Further, “ransom” is just an image to talk about the freedom and deliverance Jesus the ultimate Passover lamb accomplished. It is a way to talk about the significance of Jesus from multiple angles. Jesus himself in his literal contact with and then victory over death -the consequences of moral impurity swallowing up both people and Jerusalem freed the cosmos from death. Jesus brought about a cosmic exodus, a cosmic liberation, a cosmic ransom. But Jesus’ death was not actually “paid” to anyone or anything. Further, the consistent witness throughout the NT is that people are purified as they contact the risen Jesus, or rather, as Jesus contacts them by touching them with his Spirit (e.g., John 15:3; 17:17-19; 20:21-23; 1 Cor 6:11; Rom 8:9-11). This union with Jesus is described as co-crucifixion (Rom 6:3-6; Gal 2:20), co-cross bearing (Mark 8:34-35), and co-suffering with Jesus (Mark 10:38-39; Phil 3:10; Rom 8:17; 2 Cor 1:5; 2 Tim 2:12; Heb 13:11-13). (Rillera, 2024, pp. 194-195)

Regarding Jesus figuratively decontaminating the heavenly sanctuary in Hebrews, Luke said that the true kingdom of God is within, even in the hearts of the hard-hearted Pharisees. From John Eldredge we read:

Each person knows that now his body is the temple of God: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Cor. 6:19). Indeed it is. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). Okay each of us is now the temple of God. So where, then, is the Holy of Holies? Your heart. That’s right your heart. Paul teaches us in Ephesians that “Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith” (3:17). God comes down to dwell in us, in our hearts. Now, we know this: God cannot dwell where there is evil. “You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell” (Ps. 5:4). Something pretty dramatic must have happened in our hearts, then, to make them fit to be the dwelling place of a holy God. (Eldredge, 2023)

It is Jesus’ death in Hebrews that is the model for the believer, but more so it is his resurrection that bodily puts him in the heavenly holy of holies, forever purifying it and making it constantly accessible, and as Christ in us purifying our hearts. The blood of Jesus in Hebrews thus does not refer to his death, but represents his life being handled by the high priest into the holy of holies. When we recognize ourselves as part of the world who turned on God’s beloved one, it convicts us of our hidden sin nature and is a catalyst for a change of heart and mind.

Similarly, when 1 John says that Jesus was the atonement or “the decontamination (hilasmos) for our sins” (1 John 2:2; cf. 4:10), this is not thought in a substitutionary way because no sacrifice was thought substitutionary. To think so is a category mistake. In 1 John Jesus is not only a decontamination for our sins, but cosmically points to God’s love, not wrath (1 John 3:16-18; 4:7-12). The Levitical sacrifices did not appease God’s wrath or substitute, but were detergents for the sanctuary. God abandoning a sanctuary was not God being mad but unable to dwell there. Rillera argues:

[T]he allusion to Lev 16:30 in 1 John 1:7 is less likely to be about associating Jesus’s blood with kipper-blood, but rather to the fullness of what Lev 16:30 was pointing to: namely, major moral purification that is never said to come about via atoning sacrifices but always through some other means (time, fasting, rest, a divine water-washing, divine fiat, etc.). Put another way, the allusion to the Day of Decontamination is more to the Day of Decontamination which results in moral purification from “minor” moral impurity through the passing of time (each year), fasting, and rest, as argued earlier—rather than to the atoning sacrifices that occur on that day. Obviously, Jesus is associated with these atoning sacrifices as well in 1 John (2:2; 4:10), but these are distinct claims that differ from what is being declared in 1:7 and 1:9. (2024, p. 214)

Regarding Hebrews, Rillera notes:

Not only is the syntax almost the same between Heb 10:18 and 26, but the sins being referred to in Jeremiah and thus in Heb 10:18 are also the same types of sins for which Num 15:30-31 declares there is no purgation sacrifice available. These sins are framed in the prophets both as intentional and as sins that generate moral impurity on the land (idolatry, murder [and exploitation], sexual immorality). Hence the need for a total restart: a new covenant. Therefore, the claim in Heb 10:16-18 is that these sins that led to the exile (cf. 9:15) simply need to be forgiven by God and the proof that they have been forgiven would be the establishment of the new covenant as Jeremiah promised. Jesus has inaugurated the new covenant; ergo, these sins have been forgiven…. Some link the notion that there is no longer a purgation offering in 10:18 to the “once for all” aspect in 10:10, 12, 14, meaning something like: “There is no longer a need to offer more purgation sacrifices because Jesus was the final once-for-all purgation sacrifice.” While the “once for all” aspect is obviously there and important, the context for these is a quotation of LXX Ps 39:7-9 (Eng. 40:6-8), which says God does not desire purgation sacrifices nor any of the other ones (Heb 10:6, 8). Instead, it is obedience to God’s will that matters (10:7, 9). That is, the claim in 10:18 is not saying: “Purgation sacrifices are necessary to deal with these grave sins, but the problem is that they only have a mere temporary effect and thus need to keep being offered. But since Jesus himself is the ultimate one-off purgation sacrifice we no longer need any more purgation sacrifices? No. The point being made is the purgation sacrifices were always impotent to deal with grave sins and they were never intended to be a means of moral purification, just as we detailed in chapters 3 and 4. Another remedy outside of the purgation sacrifices needs to be sought for these sins. According to Hebrews, God revealed this in LXX PS 39. What this means is Jesus’s obedience to God’s will (i.e., his “life”) constitutes his “offering” (10:10). Jesus’s obedient human life is what is “once for all” (10:10). Jesus’s death is the culmination of a full life of obedience (5:7-9; cf. 2:9, 14-15; Phil 2:5-8), but the focus is on Jesus’s whole embodied life doing God’s will (hence, soma, “body,” Heb 5:5, 10).585 This is what is conceptualized as better than any of the sacrifices from LXX Ps 39. And while Jesus’s obedient life is conceptualized as a “sacrifice” (10:12) and “offering” (10:10, 14) that takes place “in behalf of sins” (hyper harmartion) (10:14), this sacrifice is not conceptualized here as “a purgation offering” (peri hamartias), which is used in 10:6, 8, and 18. Rather, the “offering”/”sacrifice” that Jesus is being analogized to in 10:10, 12, 14 is the non-atoning covenant-inauguration sacrifices, which is confirmed by the quotation of Jeremiah’s new-covenant passage in 10:16-17 and then reinforced in 10:29 all of which is returning to the point made in 9:15-20. The point of Heb 10:1-15, then, just as discussed in chapters 3 and 4, is that none of these sacrifices were ever meant to be able to purify the worshiper from grave sins. It would not make sense for the author of Hebrews to say,” these sacrifices cannot purify by their God-ordained design (cf. 10:8), but I nevertheless want to assert that Jesus-as-purgation-sacrifice just does this?” Why analogize Jesus to a specific cultic ritual that cannot address the problem at hand? That comparison would be unintelligible, especially when there are plenty of other cultic analogies to draw upon, along with the prophetic promises…. That said, the point in 9:12 and 22-28 is that Jesus does for the heavenly sanctuary what the purgation sacrifices do for the earthly sanctuary: namely, they grant the high priest access to the holy of holies and decontaminate the sancta (cf. 9:7, 23-25). (2024, pp. 217-218)

Forgiveness in Hebrews doesn’t come though purgation, but rather through the fact that God has decided to forgive and establish a new covenant (10:27; 13:4). Anyone who commits grave moral sin afterward is completely at the mercy of God. This is why Jesus is in Heaven constantly making intercession for only those who draw near to God. Jesus constantly and perpetually making intercession pleading our case to God in Hebrews makes no sense under the one-time blood magic penal substitution model. In the Old Testament a great source of sin was death, because with it there is nothing new under the sun, and if we merely die, let’s eat, drink, and be merry. Jesus in Hebrews specifically saves because he remedies the fear of death and the tempting power of Satan (2:14-15). 1 Peter says that Jesus deals with our disposition or inclination to sin. 1 Peter, like Mark, alludes to Isaiah 53, which is commonly referred to as substitutionary, but Rillera counters:

Second, the use of Isa 53 is neither evidence for “atonement” nor for “substitution.” All of the NT quotations from Isa 53, except Matt 8:17 (see below), come from the LXX.621 While in the Hebrew MT Isa 53:10 has “the one who gave his life as a redemption of debt” the LXX reads “the Lord wanted to cleanse him from the blow; if you offer sin offerings, then your souls will see eternal offspring.” Shauf highlights how “[u]nlike in the Hebrew … here [in the LXX] the servant does not suffer to redeem others; rather, God desires to rescue him from his suffering” and “it is the audience who is encouraged to offer a sacrifice for its own sin. Moreover, the reception of the Suffering Servant song in Isa 52:13-53:12, as attested in Daniel, Wisdom of Solomon, Romans, Revelation, and 1 Clement, establishes that the Servant was understood as a paradigm for all the suffering righteous. Isaiah 53 is read as the “script” for what it looks like for the righteous/just to live in an unjust/unrighteous world All this confirms that Isa 53 was read as a paradigmatic script for what living righteously in an unrighteous world will entail (suffering, probably martyrdom, but ultimately vindication to resurrected life). (2024, p. 246)

It is the unrighteous world that comes to see its need for repentance in seeing the suffering servant, a theme I will bring out in another article regarding the soldier at the cross.

Similarly, with Galatians 3:13 we read: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” Shauf explains that “there really is no case to be made for it [as a sacrifice]. Sacrificial victims were not cursed.”

Moreover, going beyond the Gospels, what is Paul saying in Romans 8:3 if it is neither about human substitution nor an atoning sacrifice? Paul is first saying that God sent Jesus as a substitute for something that the law aimed at doing, but ultimately could not accomplish: setting humans free from their mortal bodies of death enslaved to sin (7:14-25) so that they can put to death the deeds of the flesh (8:13). As I said above in the section on Mark, Jesus is the law incarnate, and when he is broken, our heart convicts us of sin, as I will show in a later article. The remedy for Sin in Romans is deliverance and rescue. And this is because Paul conceptualizes Sin as a personified power and agent that deceives, enslaves, and kills, and so needs to be conquered, subdued, and condemned. Paul is unique in our New Testament sources in that while it’s Jesus’ purifying contact with death and resurrection that saves, sin for Paul is not conceptualized as a contamination that needs to be disinfected from holy objects through cultic atonement. Paul is using another conceptual framework than kipper because the verbs he uses do not match any sacrificial, let alone, atoning verbs. There is no evidence in Romans (or in the rest of his letters) that Paul conceptualized sin as a contamination that needs to be disinfected from holy objects through sacrificial atonement, which is why Paul always analogizes the remedy for Sin/sins apart from kipper sacrifice. The key is that believers participate in Christ’s death, crucifying the fleshly since Jesus has overcome death.

To be sure, the idea of a substitutionary death was not unknown in the ancient world, and is even found in Judaism with 4 Maccabees. Going beyond the participation model of Jesus’ death, it seems like in places Paul is suggestive of such Justice language, as we will see with Bart Ehrman in a future article. This would make sense of Paul claiming high education and Gamaliel as a teacher who spoke in such double ways, and would reflect Paul’s statement that to the Jews, he was a Jew, and to the Greeks, he was a Greek (1 Corinthians 9:20-22).

When we later get into Ehrman’s insight about the difference between Paul and Jesus where Jesus taught the coming Kingdom, not himself, we will really see that the evidence is not conducive to what biblical historians are trying to do with it creating rich, full portraits of the historical Jesus. Imagine if classicists or philosophers were trying to create a life of Socrates out of the Socratic dialogues! But, key for what I showed in this section, the New Testament presentation of Jesus is so sophisticated in its use of the Greco-Roman and Jewish Old Testament ideas and imagery that it could only be the result of highly educated writers starting with literary Greco-Roman and Jewish sources and traditions, not simple oral folk memories about Jesus. As we will see with Ehrman in the third article in this review, the historical Jesus never even had a theology of the cross. One of the few things that we can say about him is the mere point that he did not teach about his death and resurrection, but preached the coming kingdom of God and right behavior, such as caring for the poor. Jesus considered himself irrelevant to the message. Paul would never have taught such things.

In the next of this series of these three articles, I will expand on my application of Walsh’s thesis by considering such topics as:

  1. The Soldier Cipher
  2. Gethsemane
  3. Moral Influence and the Greeks
  4. Walsh, the Satyrica and the Gospels as Dystopian Satire


[1] Some have objected to this on the grounds that Mark’s Greek isn’t as good as Matthew’s. See, for example, Christopher Skinner’ review of Walsh’s book for the Journal of Theological Studies. While interesting, Skinner’s critique might have addressed how studies like MacDonald’s—on the intertextuality between Gospel and Greco-Roman writers—lend weight to Walsh’s reading. Still, Walsh has answers for this. Perhaps Greek isn’t the author Mark’s native tongue, but rather Latin, a familiarity with which seems to be apparent in Mark 15. Mark also uses Latinisms: Latin words turned into Greek. Or perhaps Mark is deliberately writing in a more accessible style than the classical Greek of the empire, like Mark Twain writing in low English. Walsh notes that Mark writes in short repetitive sentences and little vignettes that are common in the paradoxography form of writing. Plus, Mark is very sophisticated intertextually. Even if there is oral tradition here, it’s being filtered through categories that first-century authors wrote in, how they interacted with one another, etc. Michael Kruger notes that abbreviations of Christ in the Gospels suggests there were networks of highly sophisticated writers very early.

[2] Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) specialist Kipp Davis helpfully points out that Second Temple Jews had Old Testament texts recycled and recontextualized into new meanings. This Pesher, for instance, would be used to explain their own history—e.g., in the DSS, what happened to the Teacher of Righteousness—not simply invent figures out of whole cloth in the way that Jesus mythicists like Price and Richard Carrier want to argue. The writers would look back to the Hebrew prophets and say, “Look, this came true.” James McGrath further clarifies that the proposed typological models are often poor fits with the Gospels’ stories and so often the Gospels do not look like the models in a way that we would expect if the narratives were simply invented out of whole cloth from the Old Testament. Similarly, the three visions at the end of Daniel are constructed in relation to a prophecy in Jeremiah that their contemporaries thought had to do with them. Allison makes a similar point that typology is like a language; just as you can think in Greek, you can think in scripture allusion, like when someone who catches an opponent in a chess trap is channeling Star Wars’ emperor Palpatine. Walsh questions Allison—an ancient baker, for instance, would hardly have the time or need to memorize scripture. The allusions seem more aimed at the educated reader than the peasant.

[3] Though it should be noted that there has been serious and vocal pushback by many critical scholars like Ehrman and McGrath, who allow that there is some typology going on (Jesus as the new Moses); but many proposed parallels are weak and not justified by the text. Scholars have pointed out that many of the stories about Jesus are not good matches to the Old Testament texts they are supposedly alluding to.

[4] Walsh is on the editorial board of Mimesis Press: Explorations in Ancient Literary Imitation, of which MacDonald is the Director; and Walsh said of MacDonald’s 2022 magnum opus Synopses of Epic, Tragedy, and the Gospels:

MacDonald’s Synopses of Epic, Tragedy, and the Gospels is brilliant for its simple premise that early Christian writers were in conversation—even competition—with the “canons” of Greek and Latin literature. The result is an ambitious and deeply impressive reexamination of our long-held assumptions about Roman book culture, the Synoptic problem, and the so-called historical Jesus. These volumes are essential reading for anyone seeking clarity on the social and literary development of the Jesus movement.

Regarding her language here, it should be noted that Walsh does not advocate Christ myth theory—she points to Pauline evidence that Paul was emphatically protesting that idea, though one might initially think not; Paul was actually just as much an apostle as any of the others (likely referring to those like James and Cephas, who knew Jesus in his earthly life). For my take on Jesus mythicism, see my Secular Web paper “Jesus Mythicism: Moral Influence vs. Vicarious Atonement—and Other Problems” (2022).

[5] If there are literary parallels between the lying Jesus and the lying Jacob, we can more fully contextualize what the writer of John is doing. Zachary Garris argues:

Yes, Jacob was a deceiver. But deception is not always sinful. In this case, Jacob was the righteous deceiver. Along with the help of his mother Rebekah, Jacob deceived his father in order to uphold the covenant. (See also the midwives in Exodus 1 and Rahab in Joshua 2.) Having righteously deceived Isaac, Jacob faced a wicked deceiver in his uncle Laban, who deceived Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel (Genesis 29:23-25). Laban sought to deceive Jacob again in regards to the flock, but Jacob would get the better of him through God’s help (Genesis 30:25-43; 31:1-16). Jacob “tricked” Laban “by not telling him that he intended to flee”(Genesis 31:20), but God watched over Jacob (Genesis 31:24)…. Rebekah knew this word from Yahweh, and she most certainly told Isaac. And since Isaac would have known that Jacob was heir of the covenant, he should have been willing to give Jacob the blessing. This was even more the case since Isaac had to have known that Esau signed his birthright over to Jacob. Jacob and Esau made a valid contract that Isaac should have recognized. Instead, Isaac sought to undermine God’s promise by blessing Esau, whom Isaac loved “because he ate of his game” (Genesis 25:28). Isaac’s behavior forced Jacob, along with the help of his mother Rebekah, to deceive Isaac in order to receive the blessing and thus fulfill God’s promise. It is not Jacob and Rebekah who should be viewed negatively here, but Isaac, who sought to interfere with God’s plan. Rebekah is actually the heroine in the story, as she protected the covenant by tricking the serpent. She is the one who insisted that Jacob go through with the deception of Isaac in order to receive the blessing. Rebekah was willing to die for the covenant and took the potential curses of Jacob’s actions on herself (Genesis 27:12-13). Genesis 27:36 makes deception so basic or fundamental to Jacob’s story that Jacob’s name means “he has deceived/cheated me.” Although this is conveyed negatively by Esau, the writer is showing that it is not meant to be taken negatively at all, [וַֽיַּעְקְבֵ֙נִי֙] merely conveying “to trip up/supplant,” Jacob’s deception being righteous in the story. (2018).

[6] To wit, John 7:8-10. See the analysis of Jesus’ lie in Reinhartz (2017b) and Smith (2017), and compare God’s lie at 1 Kings 22:21-22 with Jesus’ ridiculously high Christology being identified with God in John—e.g., “before Abraham was I am.” Jesus, like God here, is beyond ethical norms like truth-telling. It’s interesting that Jesus says in John 13:18 that Psalm 41:9 is being fulfilled, which to some implies that Psalm 41:4 is also being fulfilled—that Jesus confesses to being a sinner.

[7] As I said above, just as there was imitative haggadic midrash going on with Jewish sources—Jesus as the new and greater Moses—there also seems to have been literary imitation or mimesis, a common Greco-Roman literary practice, treating Jesus as the new and greater Dionysus.

[8] The Wisdom of Solomon is an example of this kind of forgery where the author doesn’t come out and say that he is Solomon, but leaves clues to justify that inference. The book of Ecclesiastes is another example.

(for all three parts)

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