Some New Thoughts on My Book Project

I’ve been spending my days reading ancient Greek literature and doing graduate research over the last couple weeks, and in the process I’ve re-evaluated some of the plans that I discussed earlier on this blog.

In an earlier post I discussed some of the plans that I had in mind for my anticipated book project, which will be inspired by this blog. Since writing that post, however, I have decided to take the book in a new direction (there may be more posts like this down the road, depending on how things unfold). So, here is the new idea that I have in mind.

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The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod and the Gospels: Some Comparanda

In my earlier essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” I contrasted the canonical Gospels with the genres of ancient historiography and historical biography. To be sure, historiography and biography were not the same genre in antiquity, as the former was based on the history of a broader period or event, while the latter was based on the life of an individual. Nevertheless, the two can both be sufficiently described as “historical writing,” especially since many of the narrative conventions between the two are similar. Plutarch, for example, compares his source material and makes historical judgements in a manner very similar to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, even if he was writing historical biographies while Dionysius wrote a Roman history. In the essay, I show how the Gospel authors do not follow the narrative conventions of historical biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius.

I likewise discuss in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?” how the genre of biography was rather diverse in antiquity, and that not all Greco-Roman biographies were historical biographies. Plutarch and Suetonius were political biographers, whose research and methodology was fairly rigorous (at least for the time). At the same time, there were also more novelistic and legendary biographies, such as the Alexander Romance, as well as legendary Lives about figures such as Aesop and Homer, in addition to a number of other kinds of ancient biographies that I discuss in the essay.

In “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” I also suggest that the Gospels are structured more as prose novels than historical writing. To be clear, that essay is not about making a comparison with the novel, since it is instead contrasting the Gospels with ancient historiography and historical biography. Some of what I write in this new essay, however, will discuss the comparison with the novel in more detail.

The comparison of the Gospels’ genre with the ancient novel is a mainstream view in biblical scholarship. Among the scholarly works exploring the comparison are Ronald Hock (ed.) Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative, Jo-Ann Brant (ed.) Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative, and Marília Pinheiro (ed.) The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: Fictional Intersections, as well as Richard Pervo in Profit With Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles. Apologists, of course, do not like this comparison, but the fact remains that it is a mainstream scholarly position.

The comparison with the novel is often juxtaposed against the comparison with Greco-Roman biography. Espousing this latter view are Richard Burridge in What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography and Dirk Frickenschmidt in Evangelium als Biographie: die vier Evangelien im Rahmen antiker ErzählkunstAs I discuss in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?,” however, I think that the boundaries between these two genres are actually far more blurred and fluid than is sometimes understood. Ancient biography was a highly diverse genre. As Arnaldo Momigliano (The Development of Greek Biography, pg. 9) argues:

“An account of the life of a man from birth to death is what I call biography.”

That definition is pretty broad. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, of course, fit it fairly well, though Mark and John do not include a birth narrative. Then again, Plutarch’s Cato Minor and Galba don’t include birth narratives either, so the genre can be even more flexible sometimes than Momigliano’s very basic definition.

Personally, I think that, if the Gospels do belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, they are far more aptly compared to the novelistic and legendary biographies discussed above, such as those about Alexander, Aesop, and Homer. It should be noted that these kinds of biographies are much more similar to prose novels than historical biographies, based on their storytelling elements and lack of analytical rigor. To illustrate this comparison, I am going to discuss a somewhat obscure text, The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod. The Certamen (“contest”) is a sort of dual biography about the epic poets Homer and Hesiod. Much like the Gospels, scholars debate what genre the Certamen belongs to. It tells the lives of Homer and Hesiod from birth to death, but the main focus of the text seems to be on storytelling and setting the stage for their famous contest at the center of the narrative. The way that the Certamen is written has a number of interesting parallels with the Gospels.



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Some Bibliography on Naturalism and Secular Humanism

Walter and HeckmannI recently added a ‘recommended resources’ section to Civitas Humana, which provides a bibliography of academic books pertaining to naturalism and secular humanism. Among the topics that the bibliography includes are humanist philosophy, the metaphysics of naturalism, materialist philosophy of mind, cosmology, and ethics. The books range in their level of rigor, with some being fairly introductory and others being highly advanced. Some are pretty expensive, but it is good to know that they are out there if you need to do research on these topics. The bibliography can be found here:

-Matthew Ferguson

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A Personal Health Announcement

I have a number of writing projects that I plan to engage in during the 2015-2016 school year. In particular, I will be discussing plans for my anticipated book project, as well as my dissertation, at some point in the near future.

Before that, however, I want to make an announcement on this blog about my personal health, since it is relevant to the amount of blog writing that I can do in the near future.

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Daniel Boyarin, “A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity”

Earlier this year I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Daniel Boyarin when he visited the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae at UC Irvine during the Winter academic quarter. He gave a guest lecture in the TLG for a “Jews in Theory” course that was being offered at the time. Boyarin is currently working on a project studying the use of the Greek word θρησκεία (thréskeia), which is typically translated as “religion.” Boyarin utilized the TLG database to track down all the attested uses of the word in antiquity, to challenge whether this is really the best translation. This current project is very similar to the work done by Brent Nongbri in Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept.

51oy3MJ585L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I also read a number of Boyarin’s earlier publications when taking seminars on the New Testament and Christian origins last Spring quarter. Among the books I read was A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. The apostle Paul is a rather enigmatic figure in early Christianity for a number of reasons. Not only was Paul from the Jewish Diaspora, making him a more Hellenized Jew, but he also joined the original apostles later in Christianity’s development, and likewise had an unusual drive to convert Gentiles. This background placed Paul at the intersection of a number of different cultures in the Mediterranean. Because of his blurred identity, reconstructing the historical Paul can be a rather challenging task.

It was for this reason that New Testament scholars started asking Daniel Boyarin to do more work on the historical Paul, as well as the historical Jesus and the Gospels. Boyarin is, by training, a Talmudic scholar. In fact, he is (literally) one of the leading Talmudic scholars in the world. Very, very few people have comparable credentials. Because of his training in ancient Judaism (though, Boyarin does not like to use the word “Judaism” when describing the ancient Jews, and prefers to call them “Judeans”), NT scholars were interested in his take on Paul’s identity. Could Paul become a Christian, take his mission to the Gentiles, even abandon the practice of circumcising Gentile converts and demanding kosher, and yet still be a fully practicing Jew? Boyarin’s answer is a definite “yes” and in this fascinating book he explains why.

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Missing Religious Ontologies in Ancient Polytheism

Below is a brief paper that I wrote for my “Greek Religion” seminar last quarter, where I address some of the ontologies of religion (e.g. sacred texts, church, dogma) that appear to be absent from ancient Greek polytheism. I discussed some of these religious ontologies in my earlier review of Zaidman and Pantel on this blog. In the paper I argue that the religious functions that these ontologies serve were not being unmet by polytheism, rather than that they are harder to identify, because of the fact that polytheism was often far more hermeneutically flexible than monotheism.

Monotheistic religions like Christianity often come with a prepackaged set of religious texts, doctrines, and denominations. Ancient polytheism, in contrast, was far more fluid. One could practice Greek religion, as well as Egyptian religion, while also being able to join a wide range of different philosophical schools, without breaching any particular religious boundaries. That does not mean, however, that polytheists did not have any sense of religious belief or community, even if such functions were often far more blurred than they are in monotheistic religions today. Here is the paper:

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Are All Norms Moral Norms?


I am starting up my blog series “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism” again on Civitas Humana. The first topic that I am writing on is the relation between ethics and naturalism. Ethics is a subject upon which even like-minded secularists and skeptics can disagree. I know that Staircaseghost has been a frequent skeptical commenter on this blog who has disagreed with some of my arguments pertaining to ethics. I hope to expand some of my previous writings on both moral realism and anti-realism as part of the new discussion.

This first post that I am sharing is about the meaning of normative statements, and whether words like “should” and “ought,” or “good” and “bad,” always involve underlying moral judgements. I argue that normativity is not exclusively an ethical concept, since value judgements can also pertain to hypothetical imperatives, as well as the norms of epistemology and aesthetics. In the next couple posts I will be discussing ethical norms, in particular, but I wanted to preface the discussion with examples of normativity outside of ethics, so that the boundaries of ethical norms can be more clearly defined.

Originally posted on Civitas Humana:

I have been away from my blog series “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism” for some time, owing to academic work, but now that I am moved into my new house and also on summer break, I have time to renew posting new content. I am going to start by discussing metaphysical naturalism’s implications for ethics and moral imperatives. Before that, however, I am also going to discuss the meaning of normative statements and whether all normative claims are specifically “moral” normative claims.

boromir-is-oughtA normative statement is a claim that expresses value, preference, or obligation. Words like “should” and “ought,” or “good” and “bad,” or even “beautiful” and “ugly” are not merely factual descriptions of the world, but also include underlying judgements. It can be a factual statement that a piece of art consists of certain colors, shapes, and patterns, for example, but that is not the same thing as saying whether a piece of art is…

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