2015-07-06

“5 good reasons to think Jesus never existed”

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by Neil Godfrey

Valerie Tarico

Valerie Tarico has been at it again:

5 good reasons to think Jesus never existed

And the good five are?

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef. . . .

Actually I think using the Jewish form of the name began among historical Jesus scholars who were attempting to recreate some distinctive “Jewishness” of the historical figure. On the other hand, the Greek form “Jesus” has its own unique message: See

Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names
Creativity with the Name of Jesus the Healer in the Gospel of Mark

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts. read more »


What Did Love Mean to Jesus? Pt 2, or How can Love be COMMANDED? (Avalos and The Bad Jesus)

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by Neil Godfrey

Assyrian king's treaty commanding love from his vassal.

Assyrian king’s treaty commanding love from his vassal.

I am overviewing only one chapter in The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. There is much more to Hector Avalos’s critique. Some of the points I touch on here are elaborated more fully in subsequent chapters. (I am looking forward to catching up with those subsequent chapters though I probably won’t be able to post on them individually. See my earlier post for a list of the topics covered. Note that Avalos’s chapter 3 concerning Jesus’ command to hate has been raised in part in earlier publications and touched on in my 2010 post The Dark Side of Jesus: His call to hate one’s family to be his disciple: note also the more extensive depth in which this theme is tackled in the contents of The Bad Jesus.)

The most striking point for me about Avalos’s analysis of the concept of love as found in the Bible is his explanation of how it pertains more to an antiquated master-slave/lord-vassal relationship (or to use Thomas L. Thompson’s metaphor, a Mafia Godfather family relationship).

Far from being mutual or self-less, agape [=love]may describe behavior that entails violence, not to mention other hierarchical behaviors. Part of the reason for the change [towards the realization of this lord-vassal context of love] is that previous scholars had been too eager to divorce the New Testament use of agape from corresponding words and concepts in the Hebrew Bible. After all, Christianity was often thought to be bringing something radically new.

The word ‘love’ often designates the attitude and set of behaviors that a Lord expects from his vassal in the ancient Near East. (p. 39, my bolding in all quotations)

Avalos gives us a glimpse of an ancient Assyrian “treaty” (seventh century BCE) with a subject king:

(You swear) that you will love Ashurbanipal, the crown prince, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord as (you do) yourselves. (See Wiseman, “The Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon”)

The full treaties are of interest beyond the snippets quoted by Avalos. Notice below how the obligations they contain sound so very much like both the directives of the Bible’s “loving God” as well as “ideal love” in our sense of the word — if only they were not part of the master-slave “contract”:

You will not seek any other king or any other lord . . .

(You swear) that you . . . will die (for your lord). You will seek to do for him that which is good. That you will not do to him (anything which) is not good. . . .

(You swear) that you will love Ashurbanipal, the crown prince, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord as (you do) yourselves. That . . . you will not slander his brothers, his mother’s sons. That you will not speak anything that is not good about them . . .

Avalos asks readers to compare these sorts of sentiments with others we find attributed to Jesus. Disciples are to love God more than themselves, to die for Him, to have no other loyalties apart from their devotion to their Lord — to the extent of hating all prior loyalties such as parents — and, of course, to speak no evil. And curses are pronounced upon those who disobey just as they were threatened against the Assyrian vassals.

A very influential 1963 article by William Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy” (CBQ 25.1 1963 pp. 77-87) is important for Avalos’s argument. I quote sections from that article directly:

Love in Deuteronomy is a love that can be commanded. It is also a love intimately related to fear and reverence. Above all, it is a love which must be expressed in loyalty, in service, and in unqualified obedience to the demands of the Law. For to love God is, in answer to a unique claim (6:4), to be loyal to him (11:1, 22; 30:20), to walk in his ways (10:12.; 11:22; 19:9; 30:16), to keep his commandments (10:12; 11:1,22; 19:9), to do them (11:22; 19:9), to heed them or his voice (11:13; 30:16), to serve him (10:12.; 11:1,13). It is, in brief, a love defined by and pledged in the covenant — a covenantal love.

Moran pointed towards implications this has for the teachings of Jesus in the gospels:

If . . . the old sovereign-vassal terminology of love is as relevant as we think it is, then what a history lies behind the Christian test of true agape — “If you love me, keep my commandments”!

read more »


2015-07-05

What Did Love Mean to Jesus? Pt 1 (Hector Avalos’s The Bad Jesus)

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by Neil Godfrey

“What is love?” asked the older Sunday school student.

The professor replied, “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.

Alas, the student did not get the joke. The professor tried to turn the tables with another song lyric: “I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.

This [divinatory] use of the scriptures fed into rabbinic halakhic hermeneutics . . . . [I]t was established by the rabbis (a) that scripture was a self-explaining system, and (b) that its statement of the law was incomplete. Hence by means of a system of deductive and inferential rules, the implicit meaning of the scriptural system could be made explicit, and the entire will of God be made known. In an analogous way, the diviners of Babylon had for centuries compiled copious lists of signs and their meanings, based, apparently, on experience. If rabbinic exegesis, then, was in a sense mantic, it shared with the ancient omen-lists of Babylon a quasi-scientific character, though one based not on collections of recorded cases but a set of exegetical rules. (From P.R. Davies’ On the Origins of Judaism, p.52, cited by D. Boyarim in his RBL review. See also P.R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, p.146f)

Being the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature the professor ceased playing with rock song lyrics and required the answer to come from 1 Corinthians 13. This segued into what was sometimes a mantic or divinatory reading of the passage. Thus to render this ancient passage relevant to modern and personal interests there were times when they interpreted it the way ancient priests read meaning from the entrails of a sacrificed sheep or the way astrologers have always interpreted the heavenly lights. Apply the rule that scripture is a self-explaining system and see what meanings emerge when the word “love” is treated as a cipher for God, or for oneself. (The semantic game itself is flawed, however, because 1 Corinthians does not “define” the word for “love” per se; rather, it offers a series of things love “does” or how it is expressed.)

A more reliable way to understand what the Bible means by “love” is to take Professor Hector Avalos‘s approach in the opening chapter of The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics and examine the way the word is used in the biblical literature as well as in the literature of the wider cultural context (Near Eastern, Greco-Roman) of those scriptural texts.

Though Avalos’s focus is on the figure of Jesus his discussion embraces the wider context of the cultural and literary heritage as it comes together in the words attributed to Christianity’s beloved Son of God. Avalos expresses some dismay that so many biblical scholars (and not only Christian ones) routinely attribute to Jesus an ethic of love that was astonishingly advanced for his day. If these scholars were as well informed about the wider world of ideas from which the Bible emerged as they are about the Bible itself they could scarcely make such claims, Avalos argues.

Take Jesus’ teaching to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Many of us know that this is not really original but is really a citation of Leviticus 19:18. Jesus was quoting the Old Testament. Avalos reminds readers that “your neighbour” in the Leviticus passage

is actually best understood as ‘your fellow Israelite’.

For the details he refers to Harry Orlinsky’s essay, “Nationalism-Universalism and Internationalism in Ancient Israel” in Translating and Understanding the Old Testament; Essays in Honor of Herbert Gordon May (1970), and to John Meier’s fourth volume in his Marginal Jew series, Law and Love (2009).

Indeed, Lev. 19:18 does not obligate universal love, but, in fact, is premised on privileging love for fellow Israelites over love for non-Israelites. (p. 33)

Attempts to reinterpret the passage to make it conform to ideals of universal brotherhood are without “sound linguistic parallels” and “supporting documentation” — and are entirely speculative.

Epictetus

Epictetus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not that the ancient world was bereft of the concept of “unconditional universal humanity”. The moral teaching of early Christianity was “conditioned by adherence to a particular religion.” To find “modern” ideas of the universality of human kinship one must turn to the predominant philosophy in the Roman world, Stoicism. (The link is to Wikipedia’s notes on the social philosophy of Stoicism.) Avalos cites various scholars including the following (although I have quoted my own selections from them):

In short, Stoic theory is decidedly universalistic in its scope and makes no ethical differentiation between particular groups of people. (Runar M. Thorsteinsson, Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality, p. 192)

Thorsteinsson certainly grants that various moral teachings in the New Testament epistles enjoin a peaceful disposition towards society at large,

However, a closer examination of the texts shows . . . there is a fundamental division between those within and those outside the Christ-believing community. (p. 205. The reference here is specifically to 1 Peter and the epistle of Romans.)

Love for enemies — it’s so BC

read more »


2015-07-01

Comparing the sources for Caesar and Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

How do the roots of the Gospels compare to those of classical works? Is the historical evidence for Jesus Christ as good as that of Julius Caesar?

People often raise such historical questions critically, claiming the evidence for Caesar’s life is better attested than for Jesus’s. But is this really so? ~ Darrell L. Bock

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Gallic-Wars-frontcover-WEBProfessor Darrell Bock‘s article (Sources for Caesar and Jesus Compared) belongs on The Gospel Coalition  website and contributes nothing of scholarly value to anyone with a serious historical interest in Christian origins.

Bock opens with a typical evangelistic smokescreen of appropriating the language of an ancient historian (“Tracing ancient history is about examining sources and the manuscripts behind them . . .”) but before he finishes he will twice make it clear that his real agenda is preaching or protecting the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Can anyone stop themselves from raising an eyebrow when they read the following:

In some ways, Caesar’s autobiographical account gives us more to consider than the accounts of Jesus do. It provides direct testimony about events Caesar participated in.

“In some ways” — “in some ways” the autobiographical work of Julius Caesar gives us more historical data to consider than our late third hand theological accounts about Jesus give us about the founding figure of Christianity. “In some ways”, but otherwise it’s going to be a fairly even balance in the availability of historical data about each figure!

The Young Cicero Reading

The Young Cicero Reading (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to Caesar’s own writings Bock lists other surviving records from contemporaries of Caesar, the writings of Sallust and Cicero.

Sallust and Cicero were Caesar’s contemporaries as well, so there are reliable outside sources closely tied to the time of these events.

Yes indeed. Caesar’s contemporary, Cicero, is the most fruitful source, even moreso than Caesar’s own writings on the Gallic War.

Other historians of value yet overlooked by Bock are Livy (whose sections on Caesar survive as epitomes), Asconius, Paterculus and others who completed Caesar’s own account of the Gallic Wars and certain of his activities in the Civil War. Perhaps he was in too much of a rush to get to the two late historians (a hundred years after Caesar) with useful information about Julius Caesar.

Two of the most important sources for the emperor’s life, however, Suetonius and Plutarch, write in the early second century. That’s more than 100 years after the time of Caesar.

These are the crux of Bock’s argument. If these two works written a century after Caesar are treated as valuable sources then so should we give equal credibility to the Gospel accounts about Jesus:

If we believe what the best sources say about Julius Caesar [meaning Suetonius and Plutarch only], then we should believe what the best sources say about Jesus Christ.

Yes, well. Seminarians would be wiser not to advertise their (il)logic for all to see like this.

But let’s enter into Bock’s game for a moment. Why do historians “believe” Plutarch? Here’s part of the reason, and a fairly major part, explained by the historian Richard Billows in his book Julius Caesar: Colossus of Rome: read more »


2015-06-29

Historical Sources, Independent Sources, and the Need to be Quick

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by Neil Godfrey

In the last twenty four hours two remarkable posts have appeared arguing from a scholarly (as per New Testament scholarly) perspective that the historical sources we have for Jesus are about as abundant, rich and “in-your-face” as anything we might have for any other person in ancient times — let’s say, Julius Caesar.

But before I had a chance to position my fingers on my laptop’s keyboard an rss feed barges in to tell me Richard Carrier has already been approached for his view of one of these posts. So no thunder here. But I’m pleased I had the opportunity to catch up with the much more vital post on Otagosh (see previous post) instead.

The post to which Carrier responds is Darrell Bock’s Sources for Caesar and Jesus Compared. The other is by James Bishop, Introduction to Our Independent Sources for Jesus’ Life, and Why They Are Important, on the Historical Jesus Studies blog. I am sure a number of Vridar readers can anticipate what I would say in response to each. (I’d like to find a way to making the fundamental arguments of logic and elementary historical methods and source analysis more widespread.)

Anyway, I do want to respond to both of these posts myself so have chosen not to read Carrier’s own remarks beforehand lest they spoil the flow of my own perspective. I still have more to write from the work of Henige, in particular in relation to historical sources, which should enrich my previous arguments.

Till then, let Carrier do Carrier. My little contribution will appear in good time.

 

 


Theological Feudalism — by Otagosh

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by Neil Godfrey

 

I have a problem when these privileged few summarily discount the experiences of those not so fortunate. . . . ‘Popular’ is a term of disdain. 

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emsworth

Let them read Barth!

Gavin Rumney has published a hard hitting post directed at those theologians and other biblical scholars who are accustomed to looking down their aristoctratic noses upon efforts by ex-fundamentalists to contribute ideas emerging to some extent from muddy experience. He has titled it Theological Feudalism.

I’d love to be able to wrap the entire post and place it prominently on the desks of a few erudite scholars who have made no secret of their disdain for certain outsiders who have passed through the wrong side of town.

Here are a few lines . . . .

Ex-fundamentalists (a tribe to which I belong) often get a lot of stick from the theoristocrats, those who have attained a tenured place at the top table in Christian discourse without acquiring the deep scars that come from living through a biblicist nightmare.

These theoristocrats (a term that isn’t entirely new, though the usage I’m putting it to may be) are invariably decent, much studied, perceptive sorts. They rightly appreciate that ‘truth’ is a nuanced concept, and that one person’s truth may not be another’s. They also tend to dialogue among their peers rather than bothering over-much with the common herd. Indeed, many eschew entirely the ‘popular’ contributions to their field even when those attempting this feat are as qualified as themselves. ‘Popular’ is a term of disdain. . . . 

‘Popular’ is a term of disdain, Amen. One detail: Next time you see one of them sniggering at what he or she read in Wikipedia (ignorant of its its real status beside, say, Encyclopedia Britannica), ask them why they did not deign to dirty their fingers by adding a helpful correction to that body of knowledge.

. . . .

The ‘common herd’ obviously make up the overwhelming majority of Christian believers. So those ex-fundamentalists or ex-evangelicals are not reacting to a straw man or a caricature of Christian faith, as is often implied. They’re reacting to what is increasingly the most common, most virulent form. And that’s not only their right, it’s their responsibility. . . . . read more »


2015-06-28

New: Christian Origins Clearing House

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by Neil Godfrey

Peter Kirby has revamped his Christian Origins website so that it consists of updated headers of Biblioblog posts. He includes a special biblioblog search engine covering these blogs and various online discussion archives. And more. . . .

Brilliant! Thanks, Peter!

ChristianOrigins

Peter has some comments on what he has done on the earlywritings forum.

read more »


The Casey-McGrath Profiles of Mythicists and Mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

James McGrath’s review of Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? has appeared in RBL. Casey’s work is a diatribe against persons who have been associated with the Christ Myth arguments (even though some of them do not argue a mythicist case themselves), and against a selection of what he asserts (often inaccurately) are their arguments. Casey also takes bitter swipes at others with whom he has had academic disagreements (in particular Paul L. Owen) or who hold other positions with which he disapproves (e.g. Emanuel Pfoh, Niels Peter Lemche).

According to McGrath’s review Casey has given a “highly commendable” presentation of the character of mythicists (who “maliciously malign mainstream scholars”) and the absurdity of their arguments (that “do not deserve to be taken seriously”). I set out below what those characteristics are according to Casey/McGrath.

I suppose the litany of sins is meant to turn anyone unfamiliar with mythicist arguments off the very thought of ever reading them and poisoning the very thoughts of the names of their exponents. Of course anyone who does read the works of Doherty, Price, Carrier, Wells, — or even articles here that often only indirectly may support mythicist views even though they are generally presentations of contemporary work by biblical scholars — will make up their own mind about the honesty of McGrath’s and Casey’s claims.

McGrath approves of Casey’s personal attacks.

The Casey-McGrath Profile of mythicists (the persons):

Mythicists and those addressed as such by Casey are “without relevant scholarly expertise”

Mythicists “typically” engage in “name-calling and other kinds of rudeness” when speaking of scholars; they have “insulted Casey” and “this reviewer (McGrath)”. Mythicists “maliciously malign mainstream scholars”. At the same time McGrath does concede that Casey’s own work is itself “acerbic” and “sarcastic” — though Casey’s tone is of course justified.

  • Casey actually cites no case where anyone has insulted him; he does cite the one time I mocked McGrath without mentioning my subsequent post expressing my regret at having done so or any of McGrath’s (and Casey’s) own ongoing abusive and insulting language directed towards me and others and his repeated rejections of my appeals for a return to the courteous way we began our exchanges.
  • I invite readers to review my many posts and comments on this blog (and anywhere else) and assess for themselves just how “typically” I or Doherty or Parvus or Widowfield have engaged in “name-calling and other types of rudeness”.

McGrath refers to all mythicists as “Internet cranks”  read more »


2015-06-23

Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws

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by Neil Godfrey

This is the conclusion of the previous post.

Victory over enemies

In Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy God promises to give his people victory over their enemies in battle if they keep his laws.

Plato at first expresses doubts over the belief that a state will be victorious in battle because of its superior laws and customs…..

Megillus. O best of men, we [Spartans] have only to take arms into our hands, and we send all these nations flying before us. 

Athenian stranger. Nay, my good friend, do not say that; there have been, as there always will be, flights and pursuits of which no account can be given, and therefore we cannot say that victory or defeat in battle affords more than a doubtful proof of the goodness or badness of institutions.

What counts is the character of the people. How completely do they submit their character to laws designed to make them good?

[E]ducation makes good men, and that good men act nobly, and conquer their enemies in battle, because they are good

Do not forget

The Pentateuch warns against forgetting the reasons for one’s success and the accrual of blessings and becoming proud. Plato has the same warning: read more »


2015-06-22

Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637

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by Neil Godfrey

Cover of "Laws: Plato (Great Books in Phi...

Cover of Laws: Plato (Great Books in Philosophy)

I had long and often read and heard that the values of the Greeks and Jews were an entire world apart. The Greeks embrace the austere and the ribald gods, nudity, homosexuality, worldly wisdom, the arts, beauty and pleasure; the Jews embrace a caring yet moral god, modesty, family values, divine wisdom, spiritual pursuits.

But read one of Plato’s last written works, Laws, and those contrasting images begin to blur into monochrome.

Plato’s Laws is an exploration of what the ideal laws for a new state would look like. Plato presents his ideas through a three-way discussion involving an Athenian stranger, a Spartan named Megillos and a Cretan, Clinias, as they are traveling to the sacred site of the cave of Zeus on the island of Crete.  Anyone familiar with the Old Testament cannot help but be struck by many points of contact.

I have been wanting to write this post (or series) for a few years now and each time have been put off by the amount of work that organizing the material would take. I have decided now to take the easy way out and simply dot point similarities as one reads through the Laws even though this will involve repetition and disjointedness of themes. Take these posts, then, as a draft document for a more coherent presentation. I will often refer to biblical passages generally without quoting them since most interested readers will know of them anyway and they are details I can fill in later.

There is no reason to think that Plato, writing in the early fourth century BCE, was influenced by the Jewish writings. (Later church fathers did attempt to argue that Plato had indeed been indebted to Moses.) A number of scholars in recent decades have argued that the Pentateuch originated much later than has traditionally been thought — some arguing that the Pentateuch may date as late as Hellenistic (from late fourth century) times. I do not discuss explanations of the similarities of thought here. It is enough at this stage to set out apparent evidence for commonality.

I further comment from time to time on points of contact between Laws and the biblical literature that do not relate to legal content. I am not arguing that Plato’s work itself was a direct influence (nor do I deny the possibility) but do want to highlight the literary tropes, the wider literary culture, in which the biblical writings were produced.

I once posted on Hock’s admonition that New Testament scholars should read ancient novels; they should also read ancient philosophical works and acknowledge more fully than many of them currently do the extent to which the Bible is a product of its wider contemporary literary and ethical cultures.

We start with Book 1.

Benjamin Jowett translation at Internet Classics Archive is in dark azure.

R. G. Bury translation at Perseus Digital Library is in indigo.

The Purpose of the Law

Deut 28, Exod 19, Lev 26, Psalm 1 . . . . the law bestows blessings, both spiritual and material. Among these are good health and physical strength; also great wealth. Godly wisdom is the chief blessing.

Deut 4:6-8 – Law brings reputation for being a wise and understanding people, a light to the world.

Plato, Laws 1.631b:  read more »


2015-06-20

Mike Huckabee, Meet Some Real Christians

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by Tim Widowfield

As a Vridar reader, you know that I’m an atheist, having happily lost my faith some 40 years ago. You probably know that I’ve often referred to religion, any religion, as a “mind virus.” I’ve had some unkind things to say about Christianity and professed Christians, but I’ve tried to make it clear that I don’t wish to covert anyone.

"The Golden Rule" mosaic

“The Golden Rule” mosaic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do what you want; believe what you want. But please do it with your eyes wide open. Read everything. Consider all the facts, and make a rational decision.

Having said all that, I’d like to say something nice today about Christianity. I’ll confess my admiration for the victims of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Finally, I’ll have some scathing comments about presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.

As a boy, I grew up believing in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I was pretty sure that this maxim was unique to Christianity, but of course that’s because my fundamentalist upbringing shielded me from real human history. It turns out that this rule of behavior is practically universal. It has the obvious ring of truth about it. Would I want somebody else to do it to me? If not, then I shouldn’t do it.

But Christianity takes it a step further. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells of the last judgment, in which the Son of Man will separate the just from the damned the way a shepherd would separate the sheep from the goats. He concludes with:
read more »


2015-06-18

If Scepticism Does Not Come Naturally. . . It’s Worth Fighting For

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by Neil Godfrey

Whatever you do, don’t just believe everything you’re told; every statement should be taken apart and scrutinised before, reluctantly, you accept that it might conceivably be true.

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When a reader once tried to advise me that New Testament scholars of Christian origins were not unique among historians of the ancient world for their resistance to sceptical approaches I failed to appreciate the extent to which he was right. By no means is virtually the entire field of ancient history plagued by the same malaise in the same way New Testament scholarship appears to be but it is depressing to read in David Henige’s Historical Evidence and Argument so many illustrations of the anti-sceptical attitudes we normally associate with NT scholars among historians of ancient and early medieval times. (This post concludes my little trio on McCullough and Henige.)

Doubt has always been the underdog

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Historically, doubt has been deplored more often than deployed. 

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Skepticism is not inborn, but an ineluctable product of watchful experience.

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If you don’t have a better argument to explain the Bible stories. . . 

Recall from my previous post Norman Walker’s insistence that academics should not be about criticizing arguments unless they can produce better hypotheses in their place.

Is it really always more important to build than to destroy? This, after all, is the fundamental question that describes the disdain with which much skepticism is regarded. Should the skeptic feel bound to replace discredited ideas with better ones? Walker and the others are far from alone in thinking so.

Zvi Yavetz, for instance, argued that “scholarly reassessments are legitimate only if new evidence that invalidates the old is discovered, if a new method of research is applied, and/or if a new outlook emerges.”

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, ...

The Three Wise Men”  Detail from: “Mary and Child, Photo credit: Wikipedia)

H.W. Montefiore agrees: “[i]f the story of the Magi is unhistorical (in the sense that it is not based on what actually happened), then some satisfactory account must be given of the origin and development of the tale. (pp. 36-37)

So this is how the (ultimate) historicity of the gospel narratives becomes the unchallengeable conventional wisdom. If we are unable to convince Montefiore and his peers of a better explanation for the Magi story at the birth of Jesus then we are to conclude that the story must have had a historical basis.

This ridiculous stipulation cannot be carried out; nothing like the necessary information is available. In fact, Montefiore went on to offer a few half-hearted suggestions, only to disown them: “[n]one of these explanations seem to be adequate to explain Matthew’s tale, and the possibility must be investigated that Matthew based his story on historical events.”

Such indulgent policies are disastrous for progress, since restricting the grounds for such reassessment all but grants immunity to much of the work already done. It actually favors those who have produced no evidence for their interpretations. (p. 37)

read more »


2015-06-17

The Positive Value of Scepticism — and Building a Negative Case — in Historical Enquiry

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by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 8.37.57 pmTo continue the theme of fundamental principles of historical reasoning this post selects points from Historical Evidence and Argument by David Henige (2005). They all come from the fourth chapter titled “Unraveling Gordian Knots”.

Pyrrhonist scepticism

To begin, notice what scepticism means to Henige. He explains:

Skepticism takes many forms—I am concerned with pyrrhonist skepticism. In theory, and often in practice as well, the pyrrhonist doubts but seldom denies. Instead, he prefers to suspend judgment about truth-claims on the grounds that further evidence or insights might alter the state of play. Pyrrhonists demand that, to be successful, all inquiry must be characterized by rhythms of searching, examining, and doubting, with each sequence generating and influencing the next in a continuously dialectical fashion.7

As a result, issues are visited and revisited as often as needed. The result can be to strengthen probability or to weaken it — odds that might seem too risky for those who believe that progress must be inexorable.

The considered suspension of belief does not ordinarily pertain in matters that are self-evident or trivial, but expressly applies to cases where more than one explanation is possible.8

Given this caveat, the practical advantages of pyrrhonism are patent.

The most important is that declining to accept or believe keeps questions open as long as necessary. Practitioners learn to flinch when they meet terms like “certainly,” “without doubt,” “of course,” or “prove/proof” in their reading, seeing them as discursive strikes designed to persuade where the evidence, or its use, prove insufficient. They have learned that, since new evidence and new techniques are constantly coming forth, they are sensible to withhold final judgment.

7 Discussions of pyrrhonism include Naess, Scepticism; Vansina, “Power of Systematic Doubt;” Wlodarczyk, Pyrrhonian Inquiry.

8 For such practical limitations see Ribeiro, “Pyrrhonism.”

(My formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Anathematizing of doubt and doubters

In scolding his most persistent critic, Marshall Sahlins asks: “[w]hy, then, this stonewalling in the face of the textual evidence?

Probably because [Gananath] Obeyesekere’s main debating game is a negative one, . . . the object being to cast doubt.

cookDebate.001

I’m sure anyone who has read some of the intemperate responses of scholars outraged by Christ Myth or “mythicist” challenges to the traditional reading of Paul’s letters will hear clear echoes here. I’m also reminded of Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology Larry Hurtado’s complaint that my questions were only designed to sow doubt and served no constructive function.

Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere draw upon the same body of evidence — the accounts of the various eyewitnesses among Cook’s crew that were published on their return to England. read more »


2015-06-16

Failure of the Logic of History in Christian Origins Studies

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 4.37.11 pmI have finally found two books on the practice of history, each by a scholar (other than Richard Carrier), that address the core questions I have often raised with respect to flawed methods of New Testament historians dealing with Christianity’s origins. Both works address historical studies in general and only one from time to time casts a glance at what certain biblical historians are doing.

One is The Logic of History by C. Behan McCullagh (2004). McCullagh is a philosopher of history responding primarily to the postmodernist challenges to traditional historical practices in the field of history generally. Some of his arguments apply not only to postmodernist approaches, however, but equally to a number of flawed arguments by more traditional biblical scholars.

The other is Historical Evidence and Argument by David Henige (2005). In my next post I will address his fourth chapter titled “Unraveling Gordian Knots” where he applies his criticism to sentiments we find expressed repeatedly throughout New Testament historical works — and especially in regard to many New Testament scholars’ attacks on the Christ Myth hypothesis.

This post addresses a few excerpts from C. Behan McCullagh’s The Logic of History. 

Why has no-one else argued these points before?

The points have been argued before but apparently rarely applied to the methods of scholars specializing in the history of Christianity’s origins and early growth. Nonetheless, when I first tried to think through how we came believe certain persons and events in the ancient past were historical and others not I was a little surprised that so little appeared to have been directly addressing this question.

Happily I have now found an explanation for my inability to find what I was looking for back then. On page one McCullagh writes:

Historians often learn how to assess their hypotheses by studying debates in history in the course of their education. They acquire a capacity to evaluate their hypotheses critically, without always being aware of the standards of rationality they are applying. Awareness of those standards, however, will make it easier for historians to ensure that their work is rationally defensible.

There are many good books which explain how students of history should undertake their inquiries, but they contain very little guidance as to the logic of historical reasoning. They are almost entirely about searching for answers to one’s questions, and writing up the results. Yet the point of all the good practical advice is to gather information from which sound inferences about the past can be formed. Those inferences and arguments are at the heart of historical practice. (my own formatting and bolding in all quotations)

And in the conclusion of his Introduction on page 4:

I hope that this introduction to the logic of history will quicken historians’ interest in the rational justification of their accounts of the past. It should help guide historians in the rational assessment of their own work and that of others.

So McCullough appears to be acknowledging that most of the current works on the practice of history have overlooked and taken for granted “the standards of rationality” being applied and “logic of historical reasoning”. 

How to be sure we are reading a text the right way

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