Sunday, 30 October 2016

Index to my posts on the historical Jesus

An introductory message: these posts are part of my discussions with people who are hyper-sceptical about the historical Jesus. This is not like those apologetics websites we’ve all come across, with their off the peg answers, which often won’t do at all. This is much more about going where the problems are difficult. I am a historian, qualified to Masters level in early church history. I also have a classics degree (Latin - so I’m familiar with Roman historians and other Latin gems), as well as reading New Testament Greek (I attended a year’s training in the Greek). My motto for this  blog is ‘getting to the truth of things’ and I stick to that. Enough about me.

The point is, if you have been part of conversations that tend towards hyper-scepticism, then you want to write history properly, and read good history: you want proper attention to gathering data (a lot of these posts are evidence gathering); you want historical reconstructions to be made only on reasonable inferences, not flights of fancy; you want to be self-critical. Secular evidence-analysis skills have to play their part.

And the point of these posts is simple: to see what a secular historian applying secular methods can glean about the historical Jesus. This is not about Jesus being ‘the son of God’ or a miracle worker or anything like that. It is just about there being a Jewish man in the first century with the name Jesus who had an impact on Jewish people and religion in his day. These are not posts based on faith. These are based on gathering data, looking at it in the round.

Click on the sub-headings. They are all links to posts. 

Some basics: who, when and what?

What did Tacitus really say about Christ and Christians?

Our earliest data: 50-60AD

The gospels: real evidence of Jesus?

Sunday, 28 August 2016

62AD: The year in which the Book of Acts was written?

When was the New Testament’s Book of Acts written? And when was the Gospel of Luke written? (These two questions go together, since both were written about the same time by the same author, the gospel first – this being the normal consensus of secular scholars). Scholars usually have it that 70-90AD is the date range for when they were written. As for exactly when inbetween those years, it’s all a bit arbitrary. Still I have been content to accept that consensus unquestioningly for many years. And then I started to look at the actual evidence. And I discovered that other scholars, on doing so, had changed their minds and decided these books were written before 70AD. Harnack long ago is a famous and eloquent case of this. Liberal scholar J.A.T. Robinson did too. What led these erudite men to ruffle the feathers of the establishment? Was I prepared to change my mind?
Scholars today still normally consider that the Book of Acts was written some time between 70 and 90 AD, and I will present that case below. A minority that has persisted over time (Harnack and Robinson are not alone) is that it was written about 62AD. That seems a bit precise. No arbitrary swinging between a wide date range. I will deal with the case for 62AD first.
So what is the content of the book? Broadly speaking, in Acts we read of the first century start of the church and early Christian missions. The story starts in the 30s of the first century and the book ends about 62AD when the missionary Paul is awaiting trial in Nero Caesar’s court, where Paul never stops preaching the gospel. It’s the ending that is potentially valuable for dating the book to 62AD.
This matters not only for dating Acts but also dating Luke’s Gospel. So this is highly significant stuff. By way of explanation of that: since Luke’s Gospel and Acts are normally taken by secular scholars to be the work of a single ancient author, and since scholars also agree that Luke’s Gospel was written before Acts, therefore establishing a date for Acts being written establishes a date by which Luke had to have been written too. So if Acts was written by 62AD, then Luke’s Gospel was written by 62AD too. This is only about 30 years after the death of Jesus. This is earlier than many scholars want to date any of the four biblical gospels. But not all scholars are so appalled at that idea.  
Argument 1: what is Caesar’s name?
I won’t lunge straight in at 62AD. First, some evidence that Acts was written by 68AD at the latest. This comes from exploring a question that is not really about trying to date the book at all: simply, which of the Caesars was it who figures in the narrative of Acts at the end, at the time Paul was awaiting trial in Rome?
  • Curiously, Luke does not tell us who this “Caesar” is. Yet for the context of former emperors he does give their names: Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1 “In those days Caesar Augustus”); Tiberius (Luke 3:1 “year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar”); and Claudius (Acts 11:28 “This happened during the reign of Claudius”). In the books of the New Testament, these three Caesars are named by no-one but Luke. This naming is something particular to Luke. Yet Luke never names the Caesar who is mentioned in speech after speech, page after page, of the latter chapters of Acts. The name, in case you didn’t know, is Nero Caesar. Why doesn’t Acts say?
  • Luke has not even mentioned the fact that the Caesar has changed, no longer Claudius (Acts 11) but Nero: if you didn’t know your history, you wouldn’t spot the change from Claudius to Nero in the story (let alone the emperor Caligula inbetween them, who does not have a role in Acts). Why does Nero go unnamed unlike the other Caesars who have a role in Luke-Acts, even though he is the emperor most referenced in it? Make no mistake: if Luke as a writer were looking backwards from some time after 70AD, there would have been at least five more emperors in the meantime, and Luke would have needed to provide context (eg “these were the days when Nero was emperor”). The most ‘normal’ non-theological explanation is that Luke does not do so because the emperor he is writing about - Nero - is still alive, still emperor, at the time he is writing. Nero is referred to simply as “Caesar”: that is what you do when Caesar is alive. No contextual explanation is therefore called for, as his contemporaries reading this would understand the reference. That is the generation it was written for. And as Nero died in 68AD, this means that Acts was written no later than 68AD.
  • Other examples of people referring to their living Caesar not by name but simply as 'Caesar' can be found in John 19:12 and Philippians 4:22.
  • For comparison of the naming pattern: any current British Prime Minister can be referred to in conversation as the “Prime Minister” and the identity will be unmistakable even without giving the name (currently the PM is Teresa May, as I write, so anyone today saying “the Prime Minister thinks…” means her). But an ex-Prime Minister always has to be named and sometimes put in context to avoid mis-identification: “former Prime Minister Tony Blair” or “when David Cameron was the Prime Minister”).
Argument 2: the anti-climax
How do we narrow it down to about 62AD? Of the arguments for this, the strongest comes about from trying to answer a different question which is not really about dating at all (again). The question: why does Luke choose to end the story of Acts where he does, not telling us a thing about Paul appearing in Caesar’s court, after a great big build up towards it? It’s the climax that never comes because Luke closes the book there. As Harnack once expressed, eight chapters build up to nothing. Why?
  • Make no mistake: Acts really does build up in style to the appearance of Paul before the Imperial Court. Indeed, there is a series of legal hearings heading in the direction of Rome. What’s more, Jesus and an angel in turn prophesy his trial will happen at Rome/before Caesar (Acts 23:11, 27:24). That impels the reader to expect to read of the great trial: Jesus and the angel prophesied it, so it has to be scheduled in reality, this is under heaven’s control. Luke describes several hearings in turn, and these are building up towards the great moment of the Imperial hearing. But the story stops dead just before it gets there. 
  • Yes, Luke has a neat theological point, tying up the ending to his book in a ribbon and a bow, and some commentators want us to believe that that is enough of an explanation for the whole ending. But Luke would do that anyway wherever the story ended. And why the anti-climax? As Mauck observes, Luke “has no reason after pointing and leading his readership to a climactic trial to blithely omit the culminating event of the book” (John W. Mauck, Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defence of Christianity, Nelson, 2001).
  • The most ‘normal’ non-theological explanation is that the next episode had not happened yet at the time of Luke writing. Acts was thus likely completed about 62/63AD, prior to the impending Imperial trial (Mauck, 42-3, 176). Why is such a precise date available? Well, it’s in the detail Luke gives: he mentions Festus’ role; and Festus was appointed in 59 or 60AD, so the two years mentioned in Acts 28:30 end in 62 or 63AD (Mauck, 48).
  • A similar argument was expressed long ago by Harnack whom Mauck quotes: “The more clearly we see that the trial of St Paul, and above all his appeal to Caesar, is the chief subject of the last quarter of Acts, the more hopeless does it appear that we can explain why the narrative breaks off as it does, otherwise than by assuming that the trial had actually not yet reached its close. It is no use to struggle against this conclusion.” (Harnack, Date of Acts, 96f.)
  • It is not as if Luke even primes us to know what the result of the legal proceedings will be. Nero’s court could not yet have ruled on Paul’s case: “if Nero had already ruled on Paul’s guilt or innocence, then the ruling of the emperor would have been by far the single most important event to the faith declaration [if the reader were a Christian]. The ruling and, indeed, all of Acts would need to be explained in the context of that ruling” (Mauck, 217). So it is not a book written for Christians some years after the trial in Rome, it is a book written before the ruling, around 62AD. 
  • John A T Robinson wrote a few decades back (but has this ever been expressed better?) that the tradition of Paul’s execution in Rome is apparently unknown to Luke: “If the outcome of that trial (or a subsequent one) was already known, it is surely incredible, as Harnack says, that no foreshadowing or prophecy of it after the event is allowed to appear in the narrative… Yet the only hint he gives of [Paul’s] ultimate fate is that 'imprisonment and hardships' await him and that his friends at Miletus would 'never see his face again' (20.24f, 38)” (Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 1976, chapter 4).
Argument 3: does Luke know that Paul will get executed in Rome?
Question: is Acts aware of the tradition of Paul’s execution in Rome? It seems not. Actually, the narrative is full of foreboding about what will happen in Jerusalem, and optimism about Paul's future in Rome. This points to Acts being written at a date before Paul’s death. This adds weight to the book being written about 62AD. Let’s look at the scriptures typically cited on this question, in Acts 20-21:
  • Acts 20:22-23 has foreboding about going to Jerusalem (with no mention of Rome). Paul in Miletus says, ‘I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.’ The narrative goes on to show us that Paul leaves Jerusalem alive, having been handed over by the Jews to the Romans.
  • Acts 20:38 says, “What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again.” This is another reference to Paul’s foreboding about going to Jerusalem, where he survives. Paul is explicitly not prophesying his death, as he firmly states: “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” So there is foreboding, but not of death but of imprisonment in Jerusalem.
  • More interesting is Acts 21:10-14, quoted here at greater length, where Paul is leaving Miletus, and does fear death in Jerusalem:
    • “After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”
This is still only a prophecy about what will happen to Paul in Jerusalem. Paul’s fears about it prove unfounded: he survives in Jerusalem. (The story is not about Rome – rather it has echoes of Jesus being handed over by Jews to gentiles for execution in Jerusalem, ignoring the pleadings of his disciples not to go there.) Paul says he is ready “to die in Jerusalem”, but Luke tells us that Paul survives in Jerusalem. So this is explicitly not a prophecy of Paul’s death, it is actually Paul’s misgivings expressed in the moment about the dangers of Jerusalem, just as was suffered by his role-model Jesus. The emphasis on Jerusalem without reference to Rome indicates that at the time of writing, the author did not realise that an accurate prophecy would have been of execution in Rome. In fact, once Paul is in Rome, the tone becomes more positive. In Acts 25:11, he declares, “If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”” Well, unless Luke has got a big line in irony at Paul’s expense, Luke has a positive take on Paul pinning his hopes on success in Rome, and Luke does not know that it will end in death. The bullish tone continues in 27:24 where, according to Paul, an angel says: “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar”. This is not a prophecy of death!
  • In Acts 28:27-29, it is clear that Paul went to Rome because he expects fairer treatment from Romans than from his fellow Jews: “I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death. The Jews objected, so I was compelled to make an appeal to Caesar.” Elsewhere, from place to place, Paul has been running the gauntlet. But now in Rome, there is optimism, and Paul is expecting the Romans to keep up their good treatment of him. There is no shadow of doom and death hanging over these words: the message is that he has escaped Jerusalem and the Romans are trusted to continue to spare Paul from the Jews. And more or less there, Acts ends.
  • It's perhaps worth adding that the ending of Acts was not written to curry favour with Romans decades later (as some suggest). Pointless to end with optimism with Paul in Rome, as if that would impress later Roman officials, if the officials already knew that that they (or their predecessors in office) had executed Paul. It would be an own goal to walk the story right up to the trial in Nero's court, as if to make Christians look good fellows, if they knew Paul had subsequently been found in the wrong in Rome's eyes and worthy of death. If the intention was to show Romans that Christians were living in good standing with Rome, this was not a sensible path to lead the Roman reader up.
In summary, as stated, the narrative is full of foreboding about what will happen in Jerusalem, and optimism about Paul's future in Rome. Luke does not signal Paul’s impending execution, nor in fact what happens (what is said, what is decided) in the trial in Caesar’s court at all. But Luke’s seeming absence of knowledge of the outcome of the trial, and thus the anti-climax at the end of the book – and Luke’s seeming unawareness of the bad news of Paul getting executed by the Romans in Rome - is telling. These factors point to a date no later than about 62AD.
There are counter-arguments claiming that Acts does foreshadow Paul’s execution in Rome. I will address these further down below.
The following arguments are not all as strong as those above, but added to the weight of the above three arguments, they add some further support, pointing to Acts being written before 64AD, 66AD, 68AD and 70AD. So about 62AD actually fits nicely.
  • 1) The murder of James, the leader of the Jerusalem church and the brother of Jesus, in 62AD. You would never know from Acts that in 62AD there would be the murder of James by Jewish authorities in Jerusalem acting outside the powers granted to them by Rome. When James is spoken of in Acts, he is dominant, never less than happily in full charge of the Jerusalem church. There is not so much as even a hint of foreboding, no prophecy of his ignomious removal. If Luke had heard of James’ murder, there is not a hint of it in the way he portrays James in Acts. According to John A T Robinson, “No incident could have served Luke's apologetic purpose better, that it was the Jews not the Romans who were the real enemies of the gospel. Yet there is not a hint of James ever falling foul of the Jewish authorities, unlike his namesake, James the brother of John (Acts 12. if.)” (Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 1976, chapter 4). Although it would be a strain on the narrative to drag it back from Jerusalem to Rome, if the murder of James would have helped to show that the Christians were the innocent party, this would have strengthened the case for Paul’s innocence too – a big theme of Acts. Acts was thus likely written by 62AD.
  • 2) Expecting a fair hearing in Rome. Acts assumes Paul will get a reasonably fair hearing in Caesar’s court, something no Christian in Rome would suppose after the Neronian persecution of Rome’s Christians in 64AD (told of by Roman historian Tacitus). Acts thus likely pre-dates the 64AD persecution (Mauck, 42). (It might be added that here is Luke telling of Paul in Rome, the centre of world power, just a couple of years before fire ravaged it, and Luke seems blissfully unaware that this was coming on the city where Paul was. Never mind the Neronian persecution this is even bigger! The Great Fire Of Rome for goodness sake! You would never know from Luke that he had the slightest idea that such a thing could be a short time away.)
  • 3) No comparison with the Jewish revolt in 66AD. Acts could have strengthened its key theme of Paul’s peaceful innocence at the hands of Jewish mobs, if, for example, Luke contrasted Paul’s peacefulness with the violent Jewish revolt of 66-70AD. They are just a few years apart. They are in the same decade. But no such comparison is made. Acts thus likely pre-dates the 66-70AD revolt (Mauck, 42, 153 n. 10).
  • 4) The temple and Jesus. Stephen’s speech (see Acts 6) labours a theological point about Jesus himself, rather than the temple, being the new centre of Jewish religion (Stephen’s speech is actually the longest of 29 speeches in Acts), but the extensive and complicated labour of the speech would be a bit over-the-top for a reader post-70AD for whom the competition was over, as the temple was already a ruin cast down into the ashes (Mauck, 42, 76, 80).*  Why not just give a little prophetic statement that the fall of the temple will make Jesus the only remaining true focus? Because Luke gives so much time to Stephen trying to make the point, Acts likely pre-dates the 70AD destruction of the temple. As Mauck also says, “If Jerusalem had already been destroyed by the time Acts is written, the narrative of Acts affords dozens of reasons and opportunities to allude to it” (209). “See Acts 5:42, 7:48-50, 24:6” (212 n.16a). 
*Mauck sees the speech as supplied to help gather background facts to show Roman officials that Paul’s religion was part of legitimate Jewish religion, for Paul’s defence.

  • 5) The temple and prophecy. Where the author of Acts can laud the fulfilment of prophecy to help his arguments, he does. So why doesn’t he do so regarding the temple? Thus, in Acts 11:28, Agabus’s prediction of famine is supplemented with the narrator’s explicit backward-looking comment that this prediction was fulfilled in the reign of Claudius ("One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius."); but there is no backward-looking comment from Luke about the fall of the temple fulfilling early Christian predictions of the temple’s doom. The simplest reason for Luke not opportunistically seizing upon this is that it hadn’t happened yet when Luke was writing. So it is likely the writing pre-dates 70AD.
  • Digression: As impressive as Agabus' prediction of famine might be, imagine how impressive it would have been if Luke could have recalled someone predicting the Great Fire of Rome of 64AD, and then Luke could have said "And this took place in the reign of Nero." Luke doesn't show signs of knowing of any disaster befalling the Roman Empire other than a famine. The impression one has is that Acts was written before 64AD.
  • 6) The temple’s fall and the last days. The early Christians were anticipating some kind of last days ending to the era they lived in, and the fall of Jerusalem’s temple to the gentiles was an ending as big as they come in their era (for Jews/Christians that is - obviously if you were in Rome, then the Great Fire would have seemed a major event!). If you followed Jewish religion and had thoughts about the 'last days', you couldn't ignore the fall of the temple. It was an event that demanded eschatological interpretation, acknowledgement, and explanation by Jewish and Christian writers of post-70AD if they touched on the subject of the temple. Acts touches on the Jerusalem temple many times, but there is no such notice of this particular last days-type event in Acts. The most ‘normal’ explanation for this is that Acts was written before 70AD.   
In summary of these points, there is just nothing in the narration - no atmosphere of foreboding even - that would suggest that the author of Acts has any knowledge of these epoch-defining events: the 62AD murder of James; the 64AD persecution in Rome; the 66AD revolt; the 70AD fall of the temple; or even just the death of Nero in 68AD which itself may have seemed good news to some Christians. J.A.T. Robinson again: “One could never guess from Acts what was to break within a few years” (Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 1976, chapter 4).
One can go further still:
  • 1) A very late date is most unlikely because the accuracy of minor details such as of people and places in the Book of Acts adds up to overwhelming evidence of authorship closer to the time and place of the setting of Acts.
  • 2) A very late date is unlikely because of the “we” and “us” passages in Acts. These are where the author is present at events (as in “we did this”, “we went there”). These have no more ‘normal’ non-theological explanation than that the author was actually present in those places at those moments. Luke Timothy Johnson (even though he goes for a later dating) persuasively argues the narrator of the “we” passages really was a companion of Paul. Johnson makes these points about the authenticity of the “we”, of the author being a companion of Paul:
    • sometimes the author is without Paul. In some places, “we” excludes Paul, distinguishing Luke’s group from Paul: so it is not as if the narrator is saying “we” just to make an emphatic noise about his relationship to Paul. And it also means that the “we” passages cannot be dismissed as a literary device to give Paul’s perspective.
    • the “we” is not ever-present in the book, so it has the ring of truth. For example, the “we” drops off at Philippi and reappears later, in a way that is just matter-of-fact and sporadic – not the mark of someone bigging up his attachment to Paul (Luke Timothy Johnson, cited in Early Christian Writings.)
In light of so many reasons, some of which are very strong, the most natural unforced reading of Acts lends one to think that it was written round about the time the book ends, around 62AD.  If this were anything other than part of the Bible, one feels that such a persuasive conclusion would be uncontested. So why are the majority of New Testament scholars against it?
First of all, a later dating is desirable to those who would argue:
  • that Acts (and with it Luke’s gospel) is of a later date that gives grounds for being more sceptical of the contents of both Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts; and
  • that very late dating removes the possibility of the author being a companion of Paul, adding to the grounds to be more sceptical of its contents.
So there is vested interest on both sides of the debate, depending on whether you want clear grounds to be more sceptical or less so.                                                                                                
So then, what are the actual arguments in support of later dating?
1) Well, was the narrator of Acts really Paul’s companion? How then do the narrator and Paul not tell of the same events or themes in exactly the same way? For example, as Luke Timothy Johnson asks:
  • compare the lengths of time in Acts 9:26-28 and Galatians 1:16-19. How long really?
  • compare Acts 16:13 (Timothy circumcised) with Galatians 2:13 (Titus not circumcised on a different occasion). Why the different treatment of the men?
  • what about Paul’s attitude in Acts 13:31 compared to Galatians 2:6? How respectful to the Jerusalem apostles was Paul really?
  • compare Acts 1:21 (criteria would exclude Paul from being an apostle?) and Galatians 2:2 (Paul later considers himself an apostle). How are they reconciled?
But the argument for discrepancies is really exaggerated. There is not that much difference really, not enough to suggest the book of Acts was written much later. For instance, Paul is actually called an 'apostle' in Acts (14:4). Also look at the different purpose-driven emphases of Paul and Luke, which could lead a contemporary to tell the stories in different ways.
2) The argument goes that the fact that Paul’s fate at the end is left hanging is neither here nor there, because Luke’s theme is not that but something else. At this point, different themes are suggested, such as: the gospel has gone to the gentiles; God has proved faithful. But this is a weak argument as these themes would naturally have a place in the narrative regardless: before and during and after 62AD! This hardly confronts the fact that the book ends with a huge anti-climax, with no report of what was said and decided at the trial in Rome.
3) The ending of Acts is structured as an inclusio with Acts 1:8, proving that Acts 28 is exactly where Luke wants the story to end. This is a rather weak argument. Luke can design an inclusio to fit wherever the story ends. It’s the sort of thing a writer designs whatever material is to hand. If Luke was writing in 62AD, or any other time, there is no reason why he would not write an inclusio to make his point that Paul is part of legitimate Jewish religion.
4) FF Bruce suggests a late date on the basis that the relationships between Peter, Paul and James are warmer than portrayed in Galatians. Bruce thinks time must have passed, allowing Luke to gloss over tensions of the past. But Luke could gloss over them in the present anyway, so that is not a strong argument. Especially if, as Mauck argues persuasively, Luke’s very purpose is to prepare a legal case, to show that Paul is part of a movement within Jewish religion, not outside it, so it is in his interests not to emphasise fundamental conflicts among senior Christians, real or otherwise. In any case, against Bruce, the fact is that over the decades, tensions between Gentiles and Judaizers did not soften but got worse (consider the polemics of the Letter of Barnabas!). So Luke’s gentle tone is hardly a sign of late writing.
5) In Acts 25:31, reference is made to a personage (Bernice), without any introduction, who was famous to outsiders only after her affair with Titus in 69AD, and so only after about 70AD would Luke’s narrative think her worth mentioning without any introduction. (This is Eckard Plumacher’s argument, as taken from the Early Christian Writings website.) This is a better argument but it falls away if the book was written for insiders, to a Roman official, as Mauck convincingly argues. To the inner circles in Rome, it matters not a jot whether or not Bernice is famous to outsiders: and Luke is not referring to her to make any point.
6) Plumacher also argues for a later date on the basis that Luke would have needed time to research, reflect and write. Riddle had similar thoughts: “works which possess literary character come of a period when the movement which they advance has achieved self-consciousness; when it has a perspective by which to understand its past and to regard its future; when it is aware of its own intellectual values... All these factors are present in Luke-Acts” (Donald W. Riddle, “The Occasion of Luke-Acts” in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Oct., 1930), 545-562). But this verges on the subjective. How long does a writer need? Such scholars say that Luke’s gospel needs to have been written about 40 years or more after Christ to enable time for reflection. But how is four decades enough time and three decades not enough time to digest and process what Christians were doing and saying in the 30s of the first century? I don’t see why 30 years apparently is not enough, but 40 years apparently is. It is an argument so subjective as to be easily open to challenge. Mauck on the other hand, argues that Luke researched, reflected and wrote during the two years of Acts 28:30 while Paul was under house arrest. That is as good an argument as any to the contrary. It is still about 30 years after the key events of the 30s of the first century, and the more recent events such as Paul’s string of legal appearances are much more prosaic, with less sign of majestic sweep. (The sense one gets is that Luke has brought the narrative up to date, to about 62AD.) So this argument for a later date is somewhat stretched.
7) An old argument for a later date is that Luke cribbed off Josephus’ 93AD work Antiquities of the Jews. But this argument finds little support nowadays. If Luke did, then why does he not get it ‘right’ when Luke tells of the same events as Josephus: his version has discrepancies compared to Josephus. That is just one of the generally accepted counter-arguments on this point.   
8) Plumacher also thinks he has a smoking gun, the whiff of delayed Parousia anxiety. He cites Luke 17:20-21 (“the kingdom of God is within you”) as evidence of disappointment that the kingdom has not come and put the world fully to rights yet. But surely such anxiety could have occurred before or after 70AD anyway!   
9) Some say that Luke’s gospel must date after 70AD – and therefore Acts too – because of these words in the gospel, Luke 23:26-29:
  • “As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’”
This prophesies dark days. Some suppose it is about the fall of Jerusalem, but this is an assumption. In any case, Jesus has already prophesied that fall earlier in Luke’s gospel, so it adds little. There are more weaknesses to this argument for late dating, which I assess in detail in another post.

And it has long been known that Luke’s prophecies of Jerusalem's destruction are products of Old Testament prophetic language, showing no actual knowledge of how things unfolded in 70AD. Far from it! (See C.H. Dodd, “The Fall of Jerusalem and the 'Abomination of Desolation'” in The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 37, Parts 1 and 2 (1947), 47-54. This article has never been bettered on the question of Luke’s lack of acknowledgement of 70AD events, to my knowledge.)
10) Whereas above I argue that Acts has foreboding about Paul going to Jerusalem and optimism about Paul going to Rome, it is often argued that there is foreshadowing of Paul’s execution, and that Luke must therefore have been writing after Paul’s death. Both sides of the argument rely on the same scriptures, in Acts 20-21:
  • Acts 20:22-23: Paul in Miletus says, ‘I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.’ But this is only about Jerusalem.
  • Acts 20:29: Paul says, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” But that says nothing about Paul’s fate: Paul is still only on his way to Jerusalem, where he survives.
  • Acts 20:38: “What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again.” But this is still only a reference to Paul’s foreboding about going to Jerusalem, where he survives. And Paul is explicitly not prophesying death, as he firmly states: “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” Not death, then.
  • Acts 21:10-14: “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.””  This is still only a prophecy about what will happen to Paul in Jerusalem. Paul says he is ready “to die in Jerusalem”, but Luke tells us that Paul survives in Jerusalem. So this is explicitly not a prophecy of Paul’s death.
  • Absolutely none of this can be taken to indicate that, surviving Jerusalem, Paul will be killed in Rome. In fact the emphasis on Jerusalem without reference to Rome indicates that at the time of writing, the author did not realise that an accurate prophecy would have been of death in Rome. The author did not yet know that Paul would die in Rome: “if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”; “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar”; “I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death. The Jews objected, so I was compelled to make an appeal to Caesar.” Elsewhere, from place to place, Paul has been running the gauntlet. But now in Rome, there is optimism about Paul's future. There is no shadow of doom hanging over these words: the message is that he has escaped Jerusalem and the Romans are trusted to continue to spare Paul from the Jews. And more or less there, Acts ends. Luke’s seeming unawareness of the bad news that Paul was executed by the Romans in Rome is telling. So, far from a successful argument for a later dating, the notes of foreboding centred on Jerusalem (not on Rome) actually undermine later dating – they point to a date no later than about 62AD.
I have given many arguments on each side. Arguments for a late dating are generally wishy-washy, without great impact at all. In comparison, some of the arguments for a date around 62AD are precise and collectively overwhelming. We can be satisfied that that is where the evidence points. I don’t see anything on the late-dating side that is as strong as the first three arguments for an early dating: that Caesar is not named as Nero because it was written when Nero was still emperor; and secondly that Acts ends with a huge anti-climax, a big build-up to a great Imperial trial  but then not delivering any of its details – its speeches and its decision - to the reader; and thirdly, that the narrative is full of foreboding about what will happen in Jerusalem, and optimism about Paul's future in Rome. In short, Luke doesn't need to explain which Caesar it is, doesn't have anything to say about the outcome of the trial, and is optimistic about Paul in Rome. This internal dating information puts the writing of Acts no later than 68AD, and in fact about 62AD.
The internal evidence for dating Acts to 62AD has some dating precision, stronger – it may be noted - than internal evidence in the gospels themselves for when they were written. So dating Acts becomes a cornerstone of dating both itself and Luke’s gospel. Therefore it is unsurprising that it is contested ground. The minority view towards 62AD deserves a proper hearing again.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

A review of Jonathan Z. Smith's book "Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Jordan lectures...31 Dec 1990"

(I originally posted this review on Amazon.)

Jonathan Z. Smith's study on how the antique 'mystery' religions got mistaken in the modern era for antecedents of Pauline Christianity is nine tenths a masterpiece, and one tenth somewhere towards the other end of the spectrum, which I will come to last.

Entitled to reflect the task of painstakingly sifting through evidence, the book delivers in spades. My shamefully broad brush of a summary is as follows: we have virtually no evidence of the content of the ancient mystery religions apart from what was written by Christians in the 2nd, 3rd & 4th centuries. What they found in mystery religions in their day struck the church fathers as having similarities to what they had been doing in their Christian rituals since the first century. Were the mystery religions copying them? There is no real evidence to say. Where they just breathing the same cultural air? We cannot tell. A classic Christian apologetic was irresistible to the church fathers - that is, to write their reports of the mystery religions that made them sound more like Christianity than the mystery religions really were. Although Smith hardly draws this point out, the church fathers were rather fond of making it look like ancient beliefs were unsuspecting signposts to the ultimate truth found in Christ and the church. Not content to leave us a Christianized version of the mystery religions (making it more difficult for us to say what their real content actually was), the likes of Jerome even added details to them to make them appear more Christian still.

In an extraordinary twist of the Reformation, Protestant ideologues turned this on its head. To make a stick to beat Roman Catholicism with, they co-opted the church fathers' words to make it appear that the mystery religions were actually the genealogical antecedent of the be-robed priestly rituals of the accursed Catholics. The Protestants constructed a new ideal: that primitive Christianity was free of religious ritual JUST LIKE PROTESTANTS ARE, whereas the accursed church fathers had developed their benighted rituals polluted by the mystery religions, and poisoned the roots of European Christianity. With a sleight of hand, the mystery religions skipped from the earlier fakery of being Christianized by the church fathers into the new illusion of being the dark heart of Roman Catholic hocus pocus.

But in another turn of events, the Protestants' work was then seized on by anti-Trinitarians who found it a useful tool for beating all mainstream Christianity with, claiming the Christian conception of God was derived from paganism. The history of religions school then built an entire corpus on just the sort of dubious academic principles the Protestants had engineered: that is, artificial taxonomy, based on uncritical categorisations of things that appear to have similarities while ignoring their key differences. Enter Frazer's 'The Golden Bough' and much else. And this is a version of the 'truth' the internet is awash with. In fact, the root of all this nonsense is Protestant anti-Catholic rhetoric which was a misuse of the evidence to begin with.

Academic method is very much Smith's point. He shows how shoddy scholarship on this subject - virtually all either anti-Christian polemic and pro-Christian apologetics - has been a non-starter for real academic progress in this subject for generations. From Frazer's Golden Bough to the correspondence of American presidents, it is a history of scholars missing the point, the day being carried by presumptions due to not unpicking the wilful errors of prior generations of scholars. This book is a demonstration of how rigorous academic method can now bring a house of cards crashing down. The history of religions school didn't just get many things very wrong, but were part of a whole chain of cause and effect, with poor taxonomy, misuse of language, and weak method at best.

Nine tenths a masterpiece. The one tenth, my disappointment, is what Smith offers in place of the house of cards he has destroyed. He supposes that such correspondences that might exist between mystery religions and early Christianity - if they cannot be explained by one leading to the other - might be explained another way. Good so far. But he then throws his lot in uncritically with Burton Mack's speculation that Jesus was a wandering Cynic preaching marginality, only for his message to be distorted into something more Jewish afterwards. We are in the territory of supposed redactions never found of Q which itself has never been found either. Smith acts as cheerleader, forsaking his role as the sifter of evidence. As N.T. Wright points out about this thesis: 'Mack may be equally in danger of setting up a new, merely different, myth of Christian beginnings, in which his own heroes, a Cynic-style Jesus and his Cynic-style early followers, take centre stage instead.' (NT Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, pg 453.) Smith says Mack's version of non-Pauline Christianity is a bit like the mystery religions were before they became more ritually orientated (he is putting too much weight on uncertain ground here). On the way to setting the scene, Smith makes claims as familiar as Mark not having a resurrection narrative (ignoring the one in Mark 9:31, 16:6-7) to posit a Christianity that was originally free of a dying and rising God but supposedly acquired this element at the same time as the mystery religions did, supposedly around the 2nd century. That's the one tenth disappointment anyway.

Don't be put off by that. Drudgery Divine a fine, fine book. Worth it just to see how Gilgamesh and Ishtar are put to use as an example of how very ancient religions of the near east did NOT believe in dying and rising gods. Their religion was very much about keeping their dead in their place, dead and underground, not out of their graves to terrorise the lives of the living.

Gerald Downing's review in JTS observed a few further flaws, and that Smith is not the first to press with this sort of analysis, also noting Smith's approach to Mack's polemic in which Smith's critical faculties are unwarrantedly switched off. (JTS, 1991, no.42, pg 705.)

Sunday, 15 May 2016

What are they saying about the origins of Islam?

What is secular academia saying about the origins of Islam?

For most of the history of Islam, what muslims have said about the origins of Islam has not been much questioned by western scholars: they had largely left the subject alone, and been content to accept what muslim tradition says. That left the impression that Mohammed’s life and the origins of Islam were well-documented. Over recent decades, the question of Islam’s origins has been of growing interest to secular scholars. Many more in academia are learning to read Arabic and other languages relevant to these studies and are reading sources that have never been translated into western languages before. But a number of things have puzzled them.

Now obviously, these scholars are not muslims. They take a secular approach, so, inevitably, they will be looking to understand the origins of Islam in human terms. If they believed that Islam was a product of divine revelation, they would be on the way to becoming muslims. As they are not muslims, it is not a surprise to anyone that secular scholars are looking to understand these things in a non-muslim way. They are using secular methods of research and evidence analysis and a secular worldview for a secular historical investigation(s). So what are these academics saying about problems they have been encountering in trying to understand the origins of Islam?

I will list a few of the talking points below, so that the general reader can see a quick summary of what is being discussed in secular universities. I don’t pretend to expertise in this subject, and this is only a very rough outline for general interest. One might ask - why discuss things that are painful for many muslims? But these are things that our universities are researching, and this blog is about sharing with the general reader things that scholars know. So the alternative question is, why should the general reader not know what scholars are talking about?

Quality of sources

Secular scholars looking to study the life of Mohammed are bound to look for the earliest texts on the subject. That’s part and parcel of the historical method. So let’s have a comparison so we can understand what the problem is here.

Comparison: if scholars are looking at the origins of Christianity, several letters written by Paul get a lot of attention: this is because these were written within about two decades of Jesus’ life, and include Paul’s eyewitness recollections of meeting Jesus’ disciple Peter and Jesus’ brother James, plus things Paul says as a secondary source on Jesus; and in addition there are the gospels written within a few decades. All of this sheds some light on the origins of Christianity. In all, there are dozens of documents from the first century of Christianity of which we have copies. Nothing I have said there is normally disputed by secular historians.

So secular scholars turned to Islam looking for earliest muslim records of Mohammed and of the arab conquests in Mohammed’s day. As you may know, the arab conquests began in the 7th century. This was led by Mohammed, who died in 632AD, according to tradition. But if you look for 7th century muslim sources telling the story, there are none. 8th century sources? – there are none. Nothing until the 9th century, where we have muslim writings about Mohammed and the origins of Islam. Why the huge gap in time? Why is it not well-documented by muslim authors nearer the time of Mohammed?

This problem cannot be put down to the accessibility of reading and writing in the 7th century. Again for a comparison, consider the origins of Christianity: in the first century, papyrus scrolls would be used for writing – and papyrus survives very patchily where physical conditions allow. It has the survivability of tree bark. Even so, copies were made of early Christian texts, which ensured the survival of copies to this present day, copies even of texts from the 50s of the first century. Why has that not happened in Islam, bearing in mind that the 7th century falls in an era when books were now widely in use and made of more durable materials? Were none written? The arab conquerors had possession of many advanced cities, including bright lights such as Alexandria with a great tradition of writing and learning, so the resources for making written records were very accessible. Were no stories about Mohammed and the 7th century conquests written in that era?

From the Christian west, we have whole books surviving from the 7th century and earlier. But there are no muslims ones on this matter, except the Qur’an. To secular scholars, the gap makes so little sense that an explanation is called for. We have no other muslim book to shed light on this problem, until the 9th century, apart from the Qur’an.

To be fair, some 9th century muslim texts claim to contain bits of 7th/8th writing, and there are secular scholars who are willing to give some weight to that, with due caution because of their late inclusion. The earliest 9th century biography of Mohammed claims to be, in part, a rewrite of an 8th century biography. But what happened to the 8th century version? And what differences does the rewrite make? And again, why nothing for so long? Christianity exploded with texts in its first hundred years. Islam has given us no book but the Qur’an in its first century and more.

Similarly, collections of sayings of Mohammed were not collected in writing until the 9th century, and many thousands of sayings were rejected as inauthentic, in fact the vast majority of them rejected according to muslim tradition. In that light, how robust is a process of selecting authentic sayings made from amongst a vast amount of inauthentic sayings two centuries after Mohammed died? Certainly, the muslim scholars applied a methodology of their time to do so. But how can secular scholars be sure that what seemed genuine in the 9th century would have seemed genuine in the 7th century? And what can a secular methodology make of it now?

(By the way, whenever someone says to me that they are horrified that Mohammed did/said this or that, I like to ask them how they know that – they don’t usually know that they are making their judgment assuming a 9th/10th century writing about a 7th century man to be a true story. And why are they, as non-muslims, making the assumption that they should believe these stories, and use them as a stick to beat the reputation of Mohammed with? It is of course relevant material as many muslims hold the canonical Islamic stories true, but why do non-muslims hold them true? To secular scholars, they are direct evidence of what some 9th/10thcentury muslim scholars held to be important about the values of their religion in their own times, rather than direct evidence of 7th century events.)

Again to compare with evidence for the origins of Christianity, it would be as if no Christian wrote about Jesus for the first 100 years or so, and when they did after a century passed, their works were lost but with excerpts preserved in 3rd century books. If that were the case, the origins of Christianity would arguably be so shrouded in mystery as to be almost a lost cause to uncover. Another analogy: imagine that nobody started writing about the First World War 1914-1918 until today (and that there were no photographs, pictures, etc.), but then what got written in our day was lost, but excerpts were preserved in a book in a future century. This would be a problem for historians of the First World War in the future.

What then can secular scholars make of the origins of Islam? For primary sources from the 7th century, they have to rely on little bits recorded by western writers who saw the arabs conquer their towns, and archaeology (mosques, coins, inscriptions on buildings). Plus later texts that secular scholars might be prepared to give weight to, perhaps some excerpts of earlier texts in 9th century muslim texts - used with due caution because of their provenance. i.e. the context of their inclusion in late texts.

In the secular method, you establish what things are facts (however few), in addition what things are probable, and then conjecture a thesis that best accounts for the facts and probabilities that we can count on.

Here are some of the particular findings that secular scholars are discussing.


Academics are raising questions about Mecca that have serious implications for the traditional narrative that Islam hails from divine revelation in Mecca:

1) Location descriptions in the Qur’an suit the region of the ancient town of Petra, not Mecca. Mecca has a very different climate and geographical features from those descriptions. Mecca is over 1000 km south of Petra. Why do the Qur’ans descriptions not fit Mecca, and why do they fit Petra’s region?

2) 7th century mosques are aligned more or less towards Petra or Jerusalem, not Mecca which is 1000 km south of there. Even when Muslim tradition says they should point to Mecca, the archaeology points to Petra or Jerusalem. By the early 8th century, some – not all - point towards Mecca, but it is generations before all mosques point towards Mecca. Why is Mecca not the focal point till the 8th century? Why is Petra / Jerusalem the focal point?

3) Muslim traditions say Mecca was a major stop on trade routes, and that that accounts for its place in the life of Mohammed and in his early efforts to establish a religion called Islam. But Mecca is not on any map dating before the 9th century. And it is only mentioned once in the Qur’an. Why is that?

So, if valid, that list of problems would have serious implications for the narrative that Islam hails from divine revelation in Mecca. No primary evidence from before the 8th century indicates that the 7th century arabs thought that Mecca was the origin of any kind of divine revelation. The locations in the Qur’an and the alignment of mosques suggest to secular scholars that early narratives of Islam were not structured around Mecca but somewhere else 1000 km to the north, but where does that leave Meccan divine revelation? These are the sorts of questions secular scholars are asking, but what might the answers be?

Motivations of the arab conquerors

Secular scholars also raise other problems with the narrative that arab conquests of the 7th century were motivated by divine revelation. Some findings of their research:

1) The 7th century records by western witnesses of arab attacks make no mention of ever hearing the arabs say words such as Qur’an, Islam, Muslim or Mecca. These words are simply unknown in their accounts. On that basis, secular scholars get the impression that none of the arab conquerors in these places were trying to convince people to join a religion called Islam and become muslims and follow the example of a man from Mecca and listen to readings from a book called the Qur’an. Western sources do not even indicate that 7th century arabs were coming to convert them to a religion. In fact writers of that time found it hopelessly confusing to figure out what the arabs believed. Why does the contemporary record not show that Islam was a motivating factor?

2) These 7th century sources say that arabian conquerors called themselves other names, eg Ishmaelites or Hagarites. There is no evidence in these sources that the 7th century arab conquerors called themselves muslims. Why is that?

3) In primary Arabic evidence - coins, inscriptions of the 7th century - a Mohammed-centred narrative only starts to appear in Arabic sources in the 680s AD, when arab rulers put Mohammed’s name on coins instead of their own faces, under Abd-Al Malik’s reign. But this is more than half a century after Mohammed is said to have died. Why is that narrative so late in appearing in the record (whereas arab rulers were content to put their own identities on coins up to that point)?

So, if valid, those concerns would raise concerns about what events before the 8th century had to do with Islam, Muslims, the Qur’an, Mecca. or how Mohammed figured in it all. He is said by tradition to have died in 632AD. In light of the absence of early evidence, what do modern readers really know about the motivations and beliefs of the 7th century arab conquerors? These are the sorts of questions secular scholars are asking.

Islamic law

What are secular scholars questioning about Islamic Sharia law? Muslim tradition holds that this is based on the example and sayings of Mohammed. Questions arise because for example:

1) In the Qur’an, regular prayer is practiced three times a day (similar to old Christian tradition). But in Islamic law, it is five times a day (similar to Zoroastrian tradition). Why is the earlier writing, the Qur'an, not in direct line with the later writing of Sharia law? Could Islamic law have been drafted in part by 9th century literate Zoroastrian converts to Islam, keeping their own Zoroastrian traditions alive by attributing them to Mohammed?

2) In the Qur’an, the punishment for adultery is whipping. But in Islamic law it is stoning (similar to Jewish law). Again, why is the earlier writing, the Qur'an, not in direct line with the later writing of Sharia law? Could Islamic law have been drafted in part by 9th century literate Jewish converts to Islam, keeping their own Jewish traditions alive by attributing them to Mohammed?

3) Why does Islamic law have features that are like other legal codes of towns and cities in the 9th century, rather than something that makes more sense in the nomadic culture of 7th century arabs? Again, these are the sorts of questions secular scholars are asking, but the answers are elusive.

The Qur’an

Taking a secular approach means from the outset, of course, that scholars are looking for human explanations for the book, not a divine explanation. I’m sure no muslim would expect secular scholars to be doing anything different. So what are secular scholars asking about the Qur’an?

Their questions include (but are not limited to): who wrote it? when were its parts written? how much has it changed over the years and why? and where did its contents come from?

On the last question, some of its sources seem obvious to secular scholars. For instance, the Qur’an includes the Christian legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and other Christian and Jewish literary traditions. Quite a bit of the Qur’an comprises such traditional stories.

The issue of past changes to the Qur’an is particularly sensitive for many muslims. Westerners don’t always realise this. The way the Qur’an is regarded in Islam is quite different from how the Bible is held in Christianity, where challenges to the Bible’s origins are openly raised and answered and answers challenged and so on. If anything, muslim reverence for the Qur’an is a little bit more like Christian reverence for Jesus. Therefore any questioning of it can be painful for many muslims. 

Secular scholars are nevertheless bound to approach the Qur’an academically as with any other subject, with secular methods of research and evidence analysis. One issue unfolding is over textual variants. For many years, scholars were told by muslims that all of the oldest copies of the Qur’an are identical, and this was not challenged (and this was held to be evidence of its heavenly qualities by muslims). However, in recent years, muslim scholars have been more open about publishing data on the oldest copies of the Qur’an, revealing that they are not identical. Some are significantly longer than others, and there are many textual variants. Secular scholars have therefore started to think through what they regard as the evolution of the text over time. It seems that changes are sufficiently limited to suggest that the book was held as holy and carefully copied from quite early on, but some scholars see what they regard as some kind of evolution. Their work is ongoing and so we cannot assume that they have reached all the conclusions about it that might be drawn.

Further implications

I have not really done secular scholars – or the historical sources - justice. I have only written a very sketchy outline of the sorts of questions academia is asking. There is a great deal more nuance and skill in their handling of the evidence than you could tell from my very rough outline here. I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject – not even remotely! - and am only trying to share with visitors to this blog a rough outline of some of the questions being asked by secular scholars and why they are being asked.

Their questions are leading scholars to discuss how much modern notions of Islam have to do with the historical Mohammed who is said to have died in 632. We can’t say that there isn’t a connection between Mohammed and the complex religion of Islam. There is just no direct evidence contemporary with him that there is such a clear connection, and many intriguing problems that make the connection debatable, when applying secular research and evidence analysis methods.

By no means have secular scholars arrived at a consensus as to a complete explanation for the evidence. The narrative of a revised history of the 7th century is not agreed, not least because of the gaps in the historical record. Scholars have only been doing this work for a few decades. The origins of Christianity have been subjected to this kind of scrutiny by secular scholars a lot longer (hundreds of years). 

There are various suggestions of a thesis that best accounts for the early evidence. A successful thesis would be an attempt to try to answer questions like these:

If Islam were thought by scholars to be substantially forged together under arab rulers of the 8th and 9th centuries, then why did those rulers feel this need to forge a new religion anyway and to hold all of their empire to this one religion, from Spain to India? And why forge this religion in a way that makes it stand in opposition to the Byzantine empire with its empire-wide Christianity?

And if the Qur’an and early mosques indicate a narrative of divine revelations in the region of Petra or somewhere near, why did muslims shift the focus of the religion 1000 km south to Mecca?

And what about Mohammed’s biography which arrived in the world in written form so relatively late? Was it delayed by problems? What problems? Why could not the literate cities conquered by the arabs provide the resources to produce one? Could it be that some of the stories about Mohammed were created in the 8th or 9th centuries to give context to the Qur’an’s divine utterances which don’t have a context on their own (as historian Tom Holland ponders)? Could it be that known stories of Mohammed were not necessarily consistent with the development of Islam in the 8th and 9th centuries, and that potential biographers were not sure what to say at first (the theory of some Christian apologists)? I don’t have the answers. Secular scholars will be working on these questions for many years to come.

If such secular ways of thinking about the subject were more widespread in muslim communities, this would of course raise particular problems for fundamentalist versions of Islam, which are predicated on knowing exactly what Mohammed did, and said, as a 7th century muslim reciting the Qur’an and spreading Islam. Some muslims who are less literal about the 9th and 10th century claims about Mohammed would find these sorts of questions more accessible to discuss. It should by no means be assumed that these sorts of difficult problems would mean the same things to different muslims in different forms of Islam. However, nor should it be assumed that the work of non-muslim scholars is a panacea for extremism, nor a medicine for a religion of which they are no part. Faith issues are more complex than that, as the scholars themselves would acknowledge, I'm sure. The endeavour of secular historians is to write good history, not a political solution to the world's problems. 

Where might these scholars' endeavours lead for those in Islam for whom the work of such secular scholars is of interest? I don't know if it would ever have practical implications. Stretching one's imagination: is it possible to imagine that some - any? - muslims would follow an Islam in which the focus has shifted away from Mecca, towards Petra or Jerusalem?; where it is no longer dogma that Mohammed is necessarily the one who first recited everything in the Qur’an?; and where it is no longer held that we know enough about Mohammed to make what he may have said and did into the rulebook for the life of a muslim?; where it is no longer held that the arab conquests of the 7th century were done in the name of Islam? I do not know if that kind of Islam is possible. I do not have the answers to the questions. For many muslims this would no doubt be very difficult; while for other muslims it may not have any practical impact on their lives, if perhaps unsettling; while for others the debate may be an interesting quest for truth that they could join in with. But to what degree could it happen in the foreseeable future? It is not for me to say. I am only imagining as a non-muslim, as an outsider trying to understand these things, what possibilities the future might hold in store, and I write these questions in humility knowing that others will have a much better idea of what is possible.

If you want an accessible read on these questions – rather than a dense academic tome - Tom Holland’s book In the Shadow of the Sword is very readable. If you don’t have time to read it, Tom Holland’s related Channel 4 documentary is online here.