2014-09-20

Why Christianity Happened — Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins

by Neil Godfrey

whychristianityhappenedJames Crossley is to be highly commended for attempting in Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE)  to adapt to the study of Christian origins approaches taken directly from history departments. The task of explaining how Christianity began has generally been the preserve of theologians many of whom (according to scholars like Scot McKnight, Beth Sheppard and Crossley himself)have not been familiar with methods used by professional historians outside the field of biblical studies. Crossley testifies from his personal experience that these methods are not always welcome among his colleagues and he prefaces his book with ”predictable hostility” that has come his way as a consequence of his work.

Now I like to back the underdog and anyone who attempts to displace a “faith-based discipline” with secularist methods so I was eager to read Crossley’s book. Moreover, Chris Keith, a prominent advocate of a “memory-theory” approach to the historical Jesus, has praised Crossley’s work as

some of the most interesting . . . in the field right now, some of which, really, no one else is doing. (James Crossley Joins the Criteria of Authenticity Skeptics)

As I proceeded, though, questions arose and I came to wonder if what Crossley was doing was building a magnificent edifice upon a foundation of sand. So in this post I will address what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of Crossley’s approach as he himself explains it in his Introduction and opening chapter, “Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins: The Use of the Social Sciences in New Testament Scholarship”. (I have addressed other aspects from the main body of Crossley’s work before and I will not revisit those here.)

Before starting: The Question

Crossley provides the contextual framework for his book in his Introduction. His argument is set within the basic framework of the traditional Acts-Eusebian model of Christian origins. As I understand it this model means the following: read more »


2014-09-17

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 13: Simon/Paul and the Law of Moses

by Roger Parvus

For all posts in this series: Roger Parvus: A Simonian Origin for Christianity

Previous post in this series:  Part 12: A Different Perspective on the Corinthian Controversy (conclusion)

We finally come to the question of how my Simonian hypothesis would deal with the inconsistent Pauline position regarding the Mosaic Law.  Like resurrection, the Law was a subject about which Simon of Samaria’s teaching differed significantly from that of the proto-orthodox. So if the Paul who authored the original letters was Simon, we can expect to find in the canonical versions signs of proto-orthodox intervention aimed at the correction of his errors on that issue.

Most of what the Apostle wrote about the Law was in the context of its relationship to sin and justification. It is thought that Gal. 2:16 is the earliest mention in the letters of justification/righteousness/rectification (dikaioō; dikaiosynē) by faith apart from works of the Law. Teachers— again, apparently connected to the Jerusalem church—were pushing his Galatian faithful to receive circumcision and observe at least some parts of the Law. The teachers were likely preaching a justification that was in some way connected with the Law. The Apostle responded with a letter that put a different twist on this.

 

Justification and Law in the Apostle’s gospel 

quote_begin Justification becomes easier to understand if God’s beef was with the sinfully proud spirits who ruled the world. quote_end

Regarding justification by faith William Wrede long ago pointed out that:

The Reformation has accustomed us to look upon this as the central point of Pauline doctrine, but it is not so. In fact the whole Pauline religion can be expounded without a word being said about this doctrine, unless it be in the part devoted to the Law. It would be extraordinary if what was intended to be the chief doctrine were referred to only in a minority of the epistles. That is the case with this doctrine: it only appears where Paul is dealing with the strife against Judaism. And this fact indicates the real significance of the doctrine. It is the polemical doctrine of Paul, is only made intelligible by the struggle of his life, his controversy with Judaism and Jewish Christianity, and is only intended for this. (Paul, p. 123)

laurenceAscensioIsaiaeVatisBut if justification by faith was not at the center of the Apostle’s gospel, he did see it as at least a nonnegotiable implication. And this makes sense if, as I proposed in posts 7 through 9, the written source of his gospel message was the Vision of Isaiah. For the Vision foretells that preachers will be sent out into the whole world (Ascension of Isaiah 9:17, in the L2 and S versions), but does not say that the Law or Law observance will be part of what they preach. The Law is not mentioned at all in the Vision nor does it say anything about a distinction of Jews from Gentiles. It condemns the spirit rulers of this world and offers a life in heaven to their subjects, but gives no special prerogatives to the Jewish ones. The idea that the message must first be offered to Jews and only afterwards to Gentiles is absent.

One could easily conclude that if the Vision doesn’t require circumcision or Law observance as conditions for liberation from the rulers, it is wrong for preachers of the gospel to require such. Apparently all that is required to benefit from the preached message is to believe it and, while waiting for the imminent destruction of this world, to conduct oneself in a way pleasing to the God who graciously initiated the rescue.

Moreover, in the Vision the sinfulness that is spotlighted is that of the rulers of this world. It is their pride that God forcefully condemns. He sends his Son to

judge and destroy the princes and angels and gods of that world, and the world that is dominated by them. For they have denied me and said: “We alone are and there is none beside us.” (Ascension of Isaiah 10:12-13).

In the Vision men come across not as the guilty, but as the victims. Their plight is to live in a dark world run by rulers whose “envy of one another and fighting…” make it a place where “there is a power of evil and envying about trifles” (Ascension of Isaiah 10:29). The “angels of death” (10:14) keep those who have died locked in Sheol until the Son comes to free them.

In Galatians a similar emphasis has been noted by some scholars:

The redemption is, according to Paul, in a phrase which is brief and yet exact, release from the misery of this whole present world (Gal. 1:4). Every other conception of it, even release from sin, would be too narrow. The character of this present world is determined by the fact that men are here under the domination of dark and evil powers. The chief of these are the flesh, sin, the Law and death. (William Wrede, Paul, p. 92)

For Paul, the problem that needs to be addressed is not so much ‘sins,’ transgressions of divinely given commandments, as Sin, a malevolent enslaving and godlike power under which all human beings are held captive. (Martinus C. de Boer, Galatians: A Commentary, p. 35)

So it may be that the Vision of Isaiah holds the key to a correct grasp of what Paul meant by “justification.” Scholars have always had a hard time explaining that doctrine. A big part of their problem may be their belief that God and men were the parties at odds. Justification becomes easier to understand if God’s beef was with the sinfully proud spirits who ruled the world. In this case the Son’s intervention in the world not only vindicates God vis-à-vis these pretentious rulers, it also vindicates men in regard to them. God, by initiating the destruction of the world and its rulers, has in effect acquitted their subjects. His condemnation of the rulers has freed those they heavy-handedly ruled. read more »


2014-09-16

The Terrorist’s Son

by Neil Godfrey

Zak EbrahimI find some of the interviews on Philip Adams’ Late Night Live program absolutely memorable and inspiring.

Zak Ebrahim is the son of El-Sayyid Nosair, now serving a life sentence plus fifteen years, with a record of murdering Rabbi Meir Kahane, the leader of the Jewish Defense League, and co-planning the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Osama bin Laden urged the world to “Remember El-Sayyid Nosair”.

Zak turned away from his world of fanaticism and hate to become an apostle for the universal ideals of peace and humanity. The interview is most moving. One learns the importance of judging others for their character and not their race, religion, sexuality, and so forth. Religion truly is a two-edged sword, granting some hope and comfort through great trials while fanning bigotry and hatred among others who are seriously troubled. There are good people from all walks of life, from all religions (or non-religions).  read more »


2014-09-15

How and Why Luke Changed Matthew’s Nativity of Jesus Story

by Neil Godfrey
One of the earliest known depictions from a th...

One of the earliest known depictions from a third century sarcophagus. Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Gospel of Matthew opens with the story of the Magi following a star to find the baby Jesus,the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the flight into Egypt and Herod ordering the massacre of all infants near Bethlehem to be sure of getting rid of the unidentified newborn king.

The Gospel of Luke could not be any more different, or so it seems. No Magi, no precious gifts, no flight into Egypt, no Herod or mass infanticide. Rather we have shepherds being directed by angels to find Jesus in a manger.

The most common explanation for this narrative gulf between the two is that the author of the Gospel of Luke (let’s take a wild guess and call him Luke) knew nothing of the existence of the Gospel of Matthew and had quite different sources to draw upon to account for Jesus’ birth. It is impossible, the argument goes, to imagine Luke discarding such a dramatic and memorable story as found in Matthew’s Gospel had he known it.

Michael Goulder disagreed and in Luke: A New Paradigm (1989) he published his reasons for believing Luke did know of the Magi and Herod narrative and deliberately changed it.

First, notice the points that Luke has in common with Matthew.

  • Mary ‘bore a son’ (έτεκεν υίόν, Mt. 1.25; Lk. 2.7).
  • It was in Bethlehem of Judaea, as Micah had foretold (Mt. 2.1, 5f), and Matthew turns the citation in line with the prophecy to David, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel’ (v. 6d, 2 Sam. 5.2); Luke says that Joseph went up to Judaea to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, being of Davidic ancestry, and Mary with him (2.4).
  • In Matthew God brings a company of strangers, magi, leading them by a star rising in the sky; in Luke God brings a company of strangersshepherds, summoning them by his angel, and the multitude of the heavenly host.
  • When the magi saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy (έχάρησαν χαράν μεγάλην σφόδρα, 2.10); the angel brought the shepherds good news of χαράν μεγάλην for all the people (2.10).
  • The magi come and see the child (τό παιδίον) with Mary his mother, and fall before him (‘when you have found him’, said Herod). The shepherds came with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the baby laid in the manger; and when they had seen, they made known the saying told them of the child (του παιδιού τούτου, 2.17).
  • Magi and shepherds close the scene by returning whence they had come; and Luke then notes that ‘his name was called Jesus’ at his circumcision, just as Matthew says that Joseph called his name Jesus (1.25).

(From Goulder, Luke: A New Paradigm, p. 247, with my formatting) read more »


2014-09-14

The Dying Messiah Before Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

Nicholas Covington has posted a worth-reading article on SkepticinkThe Dying Messiah: A Problem for Jesus Myth Theory?  Nicholas is responding to a regular argument of Professor McGrath’s for the existence of a historical Jesus. McGrath, as many of us know, and as Nicholas sums up, argues as follows:

(1) There is no evidence of a belief in a dying messiah prior to Christianity, therefore

(2) Before Christianity emerged, no one believed in a dying messiah.

(3) Out of all the possible explanations we might offer for this apparent innovation of the early Christians, the best explanation is that Christians came up with the idea as a response to the unexpected pre-mature death of Jesus, because a belief in a dying messiah looks like an ad-hoc rationalization (no one had expected a dying messiah previously and it otherwise seems precluded by Jewish beliefs).

Therefore, Jesus existed. 

Nicholas Covington’s response:

In this post, I will demonstrate that there are credible, recent, non-mythicist scholars who believe McGrath’s first premise is false. I will follow this with some other considerations that render McGrath’s argument doubtful in other respects.

read more »


2014-09-13

How Ideology Creates a Historical Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

sanders-bultmannAmong biblical scholars today are those who quite rightly are concerned with the ideology and values that are implicitly exprestext the sed in what otherwise seem to be works of objective fact and analysis.

One such problematic theme that has often been expressed in publications about Christian origins is the portrayal of Christianity in terms that suggest that it originated as a superior religion to Judaism. Judaism of the early first century has too often been portrayed an imposition of painful restrictions upon its followers while Jesus is by contrast depicted as a high-minded innovator who offered spiritual and even physical liberation. E. P. Sanders (author of Jesus and Judaism and The Historical Figure of Jesus) is reputed to have been a significant pioneer in breaking down this ideology of Christian superiority:

1. E.P. Sanders contributed significantly to demolishing the explicit anti-Jewish tendencies in New Testament and the over-emphasis on the Law versus Gospel distinction.

2. E.P. Sanders downplayed historicity of the conflicts between Jesus and his opponents as presented in the Gospels.

(James Crossley, Rudolf Bultmann, E.P. Sanders, and Curious Legacies)

I applaud the intention behind such discernment. Many of us have been taught in Sunday schools and churches that Judaism was dominated by a narrow-minded legalism from which Jesus came to deliver us. There is no doubt a good measure of unhelpful stereotyping going on here. The Gospels themselves, especially those of Matthew and John, are largely to blame for this.

Professor Crossley is addressing the positives and negatives of the Bultmann legacy. The particular example he singles out to illustrate his point is coincidentally critical to his own argument – and Maurice Casey’s — for dating the Gospel of Mark to within 5 to 10 years from Jesus’ crucifixion.)

We might, in fact, turn Sanders’ suspicions of twentieth-century German scholarship on Sanders’ use of Bultmann, in this case the handling of Mark 2.23-28 and Mark 7.1-23.

Sanders argued that these have ‘extraordinarily unrealistic’ settings.

Pharisees ‘did not organize themselves into groups to spend their Sabbaths in Galilean cornfields in hope of catching someone transgressing’. Similarly, according to Sanders, it is not credible that scribes and Pharisees journeyed from Jerusalem to Galilee to inspect the disciples’ hands.

‘Surely’, he concludes, ‘stories such as these should not be read as describing actual debates between Jesus and others’ (Sanders,Jesus and Judaism, p. 265; cf. Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 74, 215-16; Sanders, Jewish Law, pp. 19-23, 84-89. Meier would also stand in this scholarly tradition). As might be expected to follow from this position, such stories were deemed to be church creations in response to Jewish criticisms.

(Rudolf Bultmann, E.P. Sanders, and Curious Legacies, my formatting and bolding)

I find myself agreeing with Bultmann and Sanders here. Later in the post Crossley refers to Bultmann’s well-known point that in Mark 2 the Pharisees are not questioning Jesus but his disciples — i.e. the church. This was seen as a pointer to the cornfield-sabbath controversy being an invention by the church to address criticisms it was facing over the sabbath.

Crossley is somewhat ambivalent, however. read more »


2014-09-11

How a Spurious Letter “From Paul” Inspired the End Time Prophecies of the New Testament

by Neil Godfrey

This post is based on the theme of a chapter in St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions by Michael Goulder. I depart from Goulder’s own presentation in one significant respect: Goulder wrote as if 2 Thessalonians were a genuine letter by Paul (in which Paul writes about the future in a way he was never to repeat); I treat the letter as spurious (following many scholars in this view). At the end of the post I introduce an alternative scenario that might apply if more critical scholars are correct and the letter should be dated to the second century.

Goulder conventionally dates 2 Thessalonians to around the year 51. At the end of this post I quote a discussion by John A. T. Robinson in Redating the New Testament that supports Goulder’s date. I also post J. V. M. Sturdy’s response to Robinson’s work arguing for a second century date.

2 Thessalonians appears to be a letter written by Paul. It disarmingly warns readers to be on guard against letters that appear penned by ”himself” yet are in fact forgeries. The letter proceeds to warn readers not to be misled by preaching that the Kingdom of God was “at hand” but that a sequence of events had to happen first. One must expect a delay in the coming of the end.

Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message [word] or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.

Luca_Signorelli_-_Sermon_and_Deeds_of_the_Antichrist_-_WGA21202

Antichrist, Luca Signorelli

Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things?

And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way.

Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming  (2 Thess. 2:1-8 NASB)

How could anyone have believed that “the day of the Lord” had already come? Goulder’s explanation:

The idea has gained force in three ways:

  • Christians cry it out during services in moments of ecstasy (by spirit);
  • they appeal to the Bible (by word), perhaps especially Malachi 4.5, ‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes’;
  • and a letter has been received claiming to be from Paul.

(p. 85. My formatting. Goulder discounts the likelihood of forgeries on the assumption that the letter was written at a time when churches were very small and carried and authenticated by well-known persons.)

So let’s see how the author of this letter, the one writing in the name of Paul, introduces and sets out his view of prophecy to the churches.

He divides the prophesied scenario into three phases. One of these is the “here and now”; the remaining two belong to the future. read more »


2014-09-10

Lost and Bereft: The Quest (not) for the historical Jesus — Crossley style

by Neil Godfrey

Professor James Crossley on his blog last month justly critiqued various criteria biblical scholars traditionally apply in their efforts to extract some form of historical Jesus from the gospels and finally concluded:

So what can we say in (what is hopefully) a post-criteria world? To some degree, we are simply left with an old fashioned view of historical interpretation:

  • interpretation of the material . . . ,
  • guesswork about contexts
  • and the combining of arguments to make an argument of collective weight.

But an argument for what? Certainly not proof of what Jesus said or did. Jesus may or may not have said word-for-word what some of the Gospel passages claim but we have no idea if this is in fact the case.

All we can do is make a general case for the kinds of themes present in the early Palestinian tradition. (My formatting)

This is not the way one does history. I am even reminded of the popular evangelical line of delivering a message that is hoped to bring audiences to despair, to thinking they have no hope, that they are helpless — all with the aim of motivating them to turn to the messenger for The Answer of hope and salvation. That just comes to mind but I would never suggest Crossley is deploying a similar rhetoric to entice readers to his own view of the way history should be done.

Let’s analyse these words.

“Interpretation of the material”.

That goes without saying no matter what one is studying. Of course historical inquiry is interpretation of the material. One can never avoid interpretation of some kind. Even understanding a claim to be an ”uninterpreted plain fact” is an act of interpretation. I would expect most senior high school students of history and beyond to understand that history is about the interpretation of evidence, data, “facts”.

“Guesswork about contexts”. read more »


2014-09-09

Under the Grip of Christianity: New Testament Scholars and the Myth of Transparent Fiction

by Tim Widowfield
Engineer's Bench Vise

Engineer’s Bench Vise Source: Wikipedia

Under the Grip

I just noticed over on the Cakemix that Dr. McGrath is once again comparing Jesus mythicism to creationism. He writes:

Mythicism says: universities are so much under the grip of Christianity that mythicism cannot get a fair hearing.

As you know, the good doctor finds this idea laughable. Implicit in his short post is the notion that evolutionary biologists and biblical scholars are serious, trustworthy, trained professionals. Thus, to insist that NT scholars unfairly reject mythicism is to engage in conspiracy mongering. One of his fans (a guy named Jim) chimes in:

Yeah, great point. That’s why I disagree with the current value of the speed of light. It was arrived at by physicists, who are naturally biased because they had … well … advanced degrees in physics. The speed of light should have been determined by a group who is not biased towards physics, like say zoologists. :) Isn’t it weird how science departments are full of faculty that have science backgrounds, and departments focusing on Christian history attract an interest group like people with Christian backgrounds. … (just being a bit of a jerk here :) )

But Dr. Jimmy tells Mr. Jim:

I don’t think you’re being a jerk. I think such snarcasm is called for.

When considering NT scholars, McGrath, of course, isn’t talking about those teaching at universities with a confessional bias.

There certainly are scholars at religiously-affiliated institutions, and I could certainly understand atheists viewing such figures with suspicion and ignoring what they have to say. But people like Ehrman and myself who teach at secular universities do not need to be placed in the same category, do we? And as for having Christian backgrounds, how many professional scientists are from Christian backgrounds, and how many are at least nominally Christians? I am confident that, if such a background does not invalidate the conclusions of mainstream biology, neither does it invalidate the conclusions of mainstream history.

He’s got one thing right: I would never put Ehrman and McGrath in the same category.
read more »


2014-09-08

List of scholars believing Paul’s letters were interpolated

by Neil Godfrey

sturdyWe know that forgery and interpolation of texts were very common in the ancient world so it is odd to hear some theologians insist that we should discount the possibility of any of Paul’s letters had been so doctored unless and until we find very compelling reasons — usually only by means of manuscript evidence — to think otherwise. Is this some hangover from the days when the Bible was supposed to be sacred and inerrant?

We do know not all biblical scholars take this advice, however. Here is a conveniently set out list of scholars who have argued that specific verses in the “authentic” Pauline letters were added by Christian scribes after Paul had departed the scene. The list is compiled from John Sturdy’s notes and published in 2007. Sturdy died in 1996 so the list includes no scholars who have added arguments for interpolations since then.

The publication, Redrawing the Boundaries: The Date of Early Christian Literature, was from a manuscript that Sturdy had been working on but never finished. His intent was to refute the early dating that had been published by in 1976 by John Robinson: Redating the New Testament. “This is simply mischief!”, said Sturdy more than once of Robinson’s book.

Here’s the list. read more »


The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew’s (not Jesus’) Creation

by Neil Godfrey

I’m continuing here with John Drury’s analysis of the parables in the Gospels.

Anyone paying attention to the previous posts (What Is a Parable? and Jesus Did Not Speak In Parables – the Evidence) knows that the meaning of “parable” in the Gospels derived from its usage in the Septuagint (Greek) Old Testament. It could range from riddles and metaphorical sayings through to allegorical narratives.

According to Drury Matthew’s special teaching contains four themes:

  • Christian discipleship,
  • Judaism (in relation to the Church),
  • Eschatology
  • and Christology.

This post highlights his emphasis on discipleship and what is required to be a good follower of Christ. His concerns are the spiritual and moral virtues of the members of the Church. This comes through most loudly in the Sermon on the Mount; the parables of the lost sheep, of the two debtors, of the labourers in the vineyard, of the marriage feast, and more. (From Drury, Parables in the Gospels: History and Allegory)

Salt

After the Beatitudes that open the Sermon on the Mount Matthew tells us that Jesus drew an analogy with salt:

5:13 Ye are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men. (All Bible quotations from KJ21)

Matthew has taken this salt simile from Mark 9:49-50

49 For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.

50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost his saltness, with what will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.”

  • Mark’s “everyone shall be salted with fire” alludes to persecution and Matthew’s saying on salt segues from the Beatitude speaking of persecution of Jesus’ followers.
  • Matthew strips away the obscurity and awkwardness in Mark’s saying: “Have salt in yourselves” is transformed into a less cryptic phrase that is more clearly pushing one of Matthew’s constant themes, discipleship: “You are the salt of the earth”.
  • Another idea uppermost in Matthew’s mind (it recurs frequently throughout his gospel as the finale of parables) is the casting out of evildoers in the day of judgement and here he adds it to Mark’s saying: “Good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot”.

The evidence for Matthew’s sayings of Jesus being an adaptation of Mark’s is strong.

Light

Matthew’s metaphor of light follows: read more »


2014-09-07

Taking Up Ben Goren’s Jesus Challenge

by Neil Godfrey

Here is my response to the six point and 500 word Jesus Challenge issued by Ben Goren. I copy his specific challenge questions and respond in blue font beneath each one.

1. Start with a clear, concise, unambiguous definition of who Jesus was. Do the Gospels offer a good biography of him? Was he some random schmuck of a crazy street preacher whom nobody would even thought to have noticed? Was he a rebel commando, as I’ve even heard some argue?

The Jesus of the Canonical Gospels was literary tool functioning as a symbol of spiritual Israel and mouthpiece and demonstration for the different theological perspectives of the evangelists.

2. Offer positive evidence reliably dated to within a century or so of whenever you think Jesus lived that directly supports your position. Don’t merely cite evidence that doesn’t contradict it; if, for example, you were to claim that Jesus was a rebel commando, you’d have to find a source that explicitly says so.

The internal evidence of the Gospels (anachronisms, datable references and teachings that are best explained post 70, the literary relationships discernible among the Gospels, and the theological development evident across them) indicates they were composed after 70 CE. External evidence first evident in the second century is also consistent with this.

3. Ancient sources being what they are, there’s an overwhelming chance that the evidence you choose to support your theory will also contain significant elements that do not support it. Take a moment to reconcile this fact in a plausible manner. What criteria do you use to pick and choose? read more »


2014-09-06

Why Historicist/Mythicist Arguments Often Fail — & a Test Case for a Better Way

by Neil Godfrey
Ananus [the high priest] . . . thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. (Antiquities, Book 20 [9,1])

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about a recent comment by a reader taking an opposing position to a statement of mine:

I don’t think Carrier is non-falsifiable (in the looser sense we have to consider non-falsifiability in the social sciences) — in fact, I happen to think it is pretty much falsified by the James passage in Josephus (not, of course, simply taking the passage’s authenticity for granted but considering all the evidence for and against it). I realize my viewing the James passage in Josephus as authentic is not a popular opinion around here, but it isn’t a stupid or ill-considered opinion; I’ve read Carrier and Doherty on the matter and don’t find them convincing at all. (my bolding)

I’ve addressed this sort of response before. One finds such grounds for rejecting opposing views all too frequently in the scholarly literature of biblical scholars. In response to a point made by Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado I wrote

Of course we are all aware that the passages are found to be of interest in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, but Hurtado dismisses those inconveniences on the grounds that they are “not necessarily persuasive” and amount to “only a couple” of instances. So we are allowed to dismiss evidence to the contrary of our theories if we only see it “a couple of times” and can dismiss it as “not necessarily persuasive”. True believers are apparently permitted to accord themselves little perks like this in debates.

Then when Professor Hoffmann offered a bizarre argument that Paul was fighting against a rumour that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary I refused to play the same game:

It is easy to dismiss his explanation as “not persuasive” or “speculative” but it is also important, I think, to be able to put one’s finger on precisely why a proposition is “not persuasive” or insubstantial. The effort of thinking it through may even lead one to appreciate that perhaps there is more to the argument than first appears on the surface. But even if one finds nothing of value in it, the exercise of examining it methodically can only be a good thing. Scoffing, saying something is bunk or absurd, relying on a vague feeling that something is “not persuasive”, are cheap substitutes for argument.

If a professor can’t explain to you how we know evolution is true or how we know ancient claims that Alexander the Great really conquered the Persian empire are true or the reasons we should be suspicious of paranormal claims you would be right to think there is a problem somewhere.

Another form of proof-texting

Back to the statement about “the brother of Jesus, called Christ, whose name was James” that is found in the writings of Josephus. So often we find defenders of the historicity of Jesus using these words in Josephus the same way different religious sects use proof texts to prove they are right and others are wrong. One professor frequently uses this approach in an attempt to refute young-earth creationists. The professor adheres to an old-earth form of creationism (via evolution — an oxymoron to anyone who correctly understands that the scientific theory of evolution has no room for a divinity at all) and posts regular “proof texts” from the Bible as an “argument” that “proves” his rival religionists are wrong. (The most recent instance of this: Psalm 148:4 Disproves Young-Earth Creationism. It does? Not to a young earth creationist.) He uses the same basic technique to argue against mythicists. Among other arguments he proof-texts from the Bible references such as Paul’s claim to have met the “brother of the Lord” or that we read somewhere else that Jesus was “born of a woman”.

Proof-texting doesn’t work because different people have different ways of interpreting such “proof-texts”. read more »


2014-09-05

The Jesus Challenge

by Neil Godfrey

Jerry Coyne, a scientist whom I and many others respect for his efforts in advancing a popular understanding of evolution, has invited a guest post on his blog, Why Evolution Is True, by Ben Goren on the historicity of Jesus.

He begins (and I quote this much to whet appetites to read the full post on Jerry’s blog):

Many æons ago, in the heyday of USENET, I was first exposed to the idea that maybe there simply wasn’t any “there” there at the heart of Jesus’s story. It was, of course, at first a bizarre notion…but one that eventually become overwhelmingly compelling to me — and especially, ironically enough, after I took the time to look up the original sources Christian apologists offered as evidence for Jesus’s existence.

Somewhere along the line, I started challenging apologists to offer a coherent apologia, a theory of Jesus that was both self-consistent and supported by evidence. In all the years since then, I cannot recall even one single person, Christian, atheist, or other, who argues for an historical Jesus who has ever taken me up on this challenge, despite repeatedly offering it and even begging people to take a whack at it. And, so, I’d like to thank Jerry for letting me use his own soapbox to present this challenge to what’s, I’m sure, the largest audience it’s yet received.

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