Were the Ancient Gnostics Great Intellectuals?

Here’s one New Testament scholar (Larry Hurtado, recently retired, Univ. of Edinburgh) who laughs at the idea. I’d agree with him (and I like reading western esotericism).

If you think they’re intellectual elites, you’ve been watching too much on the Fantasy Channel (aka, History Channel) and reading too many pages by modern new agers. Go to the primary sources, like Prof. Hurtado suggests.

[Addendum: 2/24/2014. Prof. April DeConick was apparently put off by Prof. Hurtado. It didn’t take her long to respond. I’m with Hurtado on this one. I’ve read enough esoteric material and western esotericism to know that the short path to sounding intellectual is to spout streams of barely intelligible ideas. That way, you come off as the possessor of elite knowledge: “If you were as brilliant as I am, you’d understand what I’m saying.” Gnostic literature is filled with that sort of thing. Just read it. My point is not that they were dumb or on acid. It’s that calling them leading intellectuals of the ancient world is silly. In terms of the New Age crowd, it’s hard for them to take reasoned discourse and make it sound like mystery and mysticism to convince you they’re deep. It’s easy to do that with Gnostic material, and many have done so. That ought to tell us something. (And readers will know I’m not in the ecclesiastical box of the “historic” church in several respects). Yes, I can be accused at this point of assessing that material through “western logic.” But tell me — when we debate the subject, are we going to use the rules of western logic for discussion or not? Will we evaluate the soundness of argumentation using rules of western logic or not? We all know the answer, and that tells us something as well.]

Solomon’s Treasures and the Ark of the Covenant … Really?

Several readers have sent me articles about the new “discovery” about the hiding of the ark of the covenant and other treasures from Solomon’s temple. Here are some samples:

King Solomon’s treasures revealed: Newly translated Hebrew text lists legendary riches – including the Ark of the Covenant

Fate of the ark of the Covenant Revealed in Hebrew Text

This is no big deal, and even the archae-porn peddlers have been reasonably restrained.  But if you’re interested in Old Testament pseudepigrapha, which I am, it’s pretty cool. It’s also old news, at least for those of us in the guild. Back in November at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting, the Eerdmans table was proudly displaying copies of a new compilation that included the text these articles speak of:

Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, ed. James Davila, Richard Bauckham, and Alexander Panayotov, with James H. Charlesworth.

The second article linked to above is from the Live Science site. It includes comments from an interview with James Davila, one of the editors of the new volume.

The ancient Hebrew text that is the source of the excitement is, to quote Davila, “just a collection of legends.” In other words, this is not a smoking gun source from the Solomonic era that would provide factual information on where the ark was put.

Aside from editorial duties, Davila is the scholar responsible for the translation and discussion (pp. 393-409) of this text in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures. Some web articles refer to the Hebrew text as Emek Halachah. More accurately, that term is the title to a book in which is found the oldest confirmed example of the Hebrew text that Davila calls “The Treatise of the Vessels” (Massakhet Kelim).

According to Davila’s discussion, books containing versions of the Hebrew manuscript range in date from 1602-1876. The book was first published in 1648. As to the Hebrew text itself, Davila notes that the date and provenance of the text “are very uncertain” (p. 396). He continues:

“[The text] shows awareness in a general way of Talmudic and earlier traditions but I have not been able to identify clear knowledge of any sources later than the Talmud. . . . Given our current knowledge, we can say nothing more than that the Treatise of the Vessels must have been composed sometime between late antiquity and the seventeenth century” (pp. 396-397).

That’s obviously quote a span of time. But the important point is that the earliest guess is about 1500 years after biblical chronology has Solomon, and roughly 1000 years after the temple’s destruction.

So don’t get too excited.

Part 1 of My Interview on the Exposing PseudoAstronomy Podcast

A few weeks ago astronomer Stuart Robbins interviewed me for his informative Exposing PseudoAstronomy podcast. Here is Part 1 of that interview. I’ll let you all know when Part 2 appears. The topic was the bogus use of ancient texts by Zecharia Sitchin and others to support their pseudo-astronomy.

Scholarly Online Bibliographies for the Study of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia

One word for this site: wow.

The above link leads to a gateway site for online bibliographies related to the study of the ancient Near East. It’s an amazing resource.

You’re welcome!

Mythical Canon Fodder on Bible Secrets Revealed

Hope you caught the pun.

Except for football, I don’t watch TV, so I sadly (!) missed this latest round of Bible secrets nonsense. I let others suffer in my place, like the author of “Bible Secrets Revealed?: A Response to the New History Channel Series (Part 3).” The author is a New Testament scholar (PhD University of Edinburgh). Honestly, “Bible Secrets Revealed” ought to be titled “Bible Secrets Contrived.” Same old uninformed claptrap about the canon, Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. It’s like the researchers they put on the show to spout the conspiratorial nonsense have never read any of the primary source material and scholarship on anything they comment on.

Did I just stumble onto their method … ?

Actually, that’s only part of it. Dr. Kruger already outline what these shows do to mislead their audience.

Another Ancient Alien Fail: Moving 300 Ton Stones to Build China’s Forbidden City

The Live Science blog reported recently that Jiang Li, an engineer at the University of Science and Technology Beijing, has successfully translated an ancient Chinese document that reveals how stones in excess of 300 tons were moved over 70 miles without the wheel to build the famous Forbidden City.

Better sit down: the ancient document doesn’t credit aliens. Nor does it credit nephilim or talk about levitation.

From the article:

Vast numbers of huge stones were mined and transported there for its construction in the 15th and 16th centuries. The heaviest of these giant boulders, aptly named the Large Stone Carving, now weighs more than 220 tons (200 metric tons) but once weighed more than 330 tons (300 metric tons).

The ancient document Li translated revealed that workers dug wells every 1,600 feet (500 meters) or so to get water to pour on the ice to lubricate it. This made the ice even more slippery and, therefore, easier upon which to slide rocks.

The researchers calculated that a workforce of fewer than 50 men could haul a 123-ton stone on a sledge over lubricated ice from the quarry to the Forbidden City. In contrast, pulling the same load over bare ground would have required more than 1,500 men.


I’ll bet this won’t be part of the Ancient Aliens series. Just a guess. You just can’t make money telling people the truth.

More Free Online Resources for Ancient Research

As is my custom, every once in a while I have to post something that veers away from exposing paleobabble toward real research. I’ve posted in the past about the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and its posting of various volumes related to Assyriology. Here are some other goodies (courtesy of the Ancient World Online blog):

The Claremont Colleges Digital Library offers several open access resources relating to antiquity:

The Bulletin of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity is published periodically under the auspices of the Society for Antiquity and Christianity for the general information of persons interested in the research programs of the Institute.
The Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia (CCE) will initially include approximately 2800 articles published in The Coptic Encyclopedia (Aziz S. Atiya, ed. NY: Macmillan, 1991).
The Nag Hammadi codices, thirteen ancient manuscripts containing over fifty religious and philosophical texts written in Coptic and hidden in an earthenware jar for 1,600 years, were accidentally discovered in upper Egypt in the year 1945.


This site contains over 25,000 links to Greek and Latin authors online. The links include detailed lists of events and sources for the history of the Hellenistic world and the Roman republic. It includes links to online translations of many of the sources, as well as new translations of some works which have not previously been easily available in English.

Joseph Atwill’s Josephus Code

I’ve blogged this subject over at my Naked Bible blog, but it also belongs here at Paleobabble. What follows is borrowed from that post and appended with reviews and updates.

Joseph Atwill, self-proclaimed (and credential-less) biblical scholar has recently busied himself with a new PR campaign to promote a rehashing of his 2006 book, Caesar’s Messiah. It was supposedly a bestseller — but have you ever heard of it? Well, he’ll make sure you do this time around.

The basic thesis is, from the Amazon description, that:

“Was Jesus the invention of a Roman emperor? The author of this ground-breaking book believes he was. ‘Caesar’s Messiah’ reveals the key to a new and revolutionary understanding of Christian origins. . . . The clues leading to its startling conclusions are found in the writings of the first-century historian Flavius Josephus, whose ‘War of the Jews’ is one of the only historical chronicles of this period. Closely comparing the work of Josephus with the New Testament Gospels, ‘Caesar’s Messiah’ demonstrates that the Romans directed the writing of both. . . . Atwill noticed a series of parallels occurring in sequence between the military campaign of the Roman Caesar Titus Flavius and the ministry of Jesus. His findings led him to a startling new conclusion about the origins of Christianity – that a Roman imperial family, the Flavians, had created Christianity to pacify the Jews’ rebellion against Rome, and even more incredibly, they had placed a literary satire within the Gospels and ‘Wars of the Jews’ to inform posterity of this fact.”

Basically, Atwill is doing something of a Dan Brown, giving us The Josephus Code. For sure that would have been a sexier title. No doubt the media would have pumped it more the first time around had the word ‘code’ been in it.

So what do we have here? Instead of the Zeitgeist conspiracy we get the notion that the NT gospels were written by Romans. And boy, were those Romans ever clever. They decided to mimic Josephus’ accounts of Titus Flavius in their presentation of Jesus. . . . Now wait a minute. . . . So, the Jews were influenced to pacificism by a guy who didn’t really exist . . . but who were they following around?  Not really . . . the gospels were written later, after the fact . . . Gullible people (and of course subsequent early Christians) just read about him and accepted what they read about the guy’s existence . . . in accounts that were patterned after the chronology of a Roman emperor’s life . . . who lived in the past a little later than the guy didn’t exist. . . . as clever propaganda. So the Jewish or Christian readers of the later gospels wouldn’t really have known Jesus didn’t exist. They just took it on faith because the Roman-generated gospels told them that guy existed. . . . And so no later Christian or Jew who believed in, or didn’t like, Jesus would ever have known Jesus wasn’t actually real . . .  because they’d never see the parallels between what Josephus wrote and the gospels that Atwill did . . . because . . . well . . . they didn’t read Josephus . . . no, they did that. . . . It has to be because Atwill is so much smarter. . . . Yeah, that’s it . . . because the early Christians and any of their opponents could have read Josephus. They just didn’t see the coded messaging that would have made the case that Atwill sees. Even Josephus experts haven’t seen that. . . . Or experts in the gospels. . . . Gosh, Atwill is smart.

Clear now?

Many real scholars of the New Testament, the gospels, and the historical Jesus (from varied theological persuasions) have weighed in on Atwill’s thesis: