Monthly Archives: February 2010

Is this a Freudian slip from a professor of religion?

Has James McGrath given the game away — that the historical study of Jesus is as much a servant of a Faith as the arts and sciences have been (and in some countries still are) in the service of State ideologies? Only the party faithful are allowed to truly sway the directions of both the questions and the answers.

In his introductory chapter of The Burial of Jesus, James McGrath addresses a conservative Christian readership. He attempts to reassure them that critical studies of the Bible are not a threat to the real fundamentals of their faith.

First he denies “the impression many Christian believers end up with is that historians are a bunch of atheists and unbelievers, out to discredit and undermine their faith at all costs”:

This impression is inevitably true of some who work in the field of history, just as it is true of some biologists and some musicians and even some preachers, but there is no reason to think that it is true of the majority of scholars working in any of these fields.

After assuring his readers what most biblical historians are not, McGrath then gives the positive side to explain what they are:

Indeed, there is much evidence to refute it, much evidence that there are many people working in the fields of history and Biblical studies as an expression of their faith rather than because of opposition to it. (p.8)

Are these words from James McGrath really how he sees historical studies of Bible narratives, or are these thoughts strictly occasioned by the particular audience he is addressing — “conservative Christians” in the United States?

As his words stand McGrath appears to be admitting of no middle ground for a majority of scholars. There are a few who are opposed to the faith and use their historical enquiries to discredit Christianity. But on the other hand — am I misreading James here? — he says the “majority of scholars” involved in historical studies of Jesus and early Christianity do so “as an expression of their faith“.

Is the idea that there might actually be a middle approach whereby historians sought to study the evidence for the sake of historical enquiry in its own right? Is McGrath’s statement here a true indication of a majority bias of historians of biblical studies?

So most historians of biblical studies are not interested in their subject as a dispassionate enquiry into Christian origins, but rather as “an expression of their faith”?

Perhaps so, because McGrath a little later writes:

Particularly for Christians, for whom past events are central to their religious beliefs and doctrines, history is important and cannot be ignored. (p.10)

Here is the reason one sometimes hears calls from within the guild itself for studies in biblical history to be removed from the isolation of religion departments and incorporated within mainstream historical studies. In recent exchanges it became clear that McGrath — and he is presumably representative of at least a significant number of biblical historians — has very scant knowledge of how classical and other nonbiblical historians evaluate the value of documents as sources of historical information. I once wrote notes from my reading of a book by Lemche to address the nonsense that passes for “historical methodology” among the likes of Craig Evans and Richard Bauckham. Perhaps I was too harsh personally, but I see public intellectuals like these (and now James McGrath) as being personally responsible for contributing to large pools of ignorance still bedevilling some Western societies.

Ignoring Albert Schweitzer’s call (see quotation below) for Christianity to be founded on a metaphysic and not on any historical event, not even on an historical Jesus, James McGrath, a Christian himself, stresses the importance of core historical events as the foundation of the Christian faith.

(I wonder also what mainstream biblical scholars really thinks of Schweitzer’s argument in the same passage about the “probability” of evidence in Gospel studies.)

Why should any historian even think to write that his professional interest will not pose a threat to any faith that relies on certain events and explanations of those events in history? To make such a statement is to betray a bias that will guide one’s studies. I would have thought that a true professional would be willing to be moved to alternative and as yet unknown conclusions the further one researched.

Is not James McGrath here admitting that historians of biblical topics, in particular of Jesus and early Christianity, are as much in the service of The Faith as the arts and sciences have been, in other times and places, in the service of State ideologies?

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Selling the comfort of a crucified-messiah

I suggested in Did Jesus exist on youtube? that the original message of the crucified messiah, contrary to a common claim that it must have been a “hard sell”, had so much going for it that it was probably not hard to sell at all. If we follow the usual historical model of Christian origins (and allow Acts any credibility at all), it does appear Jews by their thousands responded to it in the first few years of its proclamation. I’m not saying that it would have been the easiest thing to sell since sliced bread. Obviously not. But it is surely not right to think that it was so unpalatable on first hearing that no-one would ever have even contemplated it unless it were “historically true”.

Well, it is nice sometimes when one uncovers a detail from a mainstream biblical scholar that supports what one has come to think for oneself. I had written:

And the way to rulership and conquest is through death and suffering. It is an inevitable paradox that gave comfort to Jewish martyrs ever since the time of the Maccabean wars. The way to life was through death. God would exalt those whom the world abased. Have discussed this in some detail here.

The idea of a divinity with whom one could identify in the face of cruel losses and lacks in this world, and who had overcome death and suffering, and all the evil of this world, must have been one of the easiest sells. The idea that it must have been “hard” to sell is derived, I think, from the apologetic paradigm that attempts to “prove” the truth of its gospel message.

Such paradoxical reversals were a comfort to people without hope in this life. They were far from being stumbling blocks. They were gateways to hope. They were always the hope of martyrs from pre-Christian times.

There is no evidence at all that the earliest Christians were struggling to make sense of the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus first appears in the evidence as a fully formed and sensible part of the message of the resurrection overcoming death.

Then recently while catching up with one of the most frequently cited books I have encountered, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul by Wayne A. Meeks, I read this (pp.180-181):

The node around which Pauline beliefs crystallized was the crucifixion and resurrection of God’s son, the Messiah. This was destined to prove one of the most powerful symbols that has ever appeared in the history of religions; in the earliest years of the Christian movement, no one seems to have recognized its generative potential so quickly and so comprehensively as Paul and his associates. . . .

The novelty of the proclamation, which violates or at least transcends expectations based either on reason or on Jewish traditions (1 Cor. 1:18-25), permits it to serve as a warrant for innovation. In particular, Paul uses the paradox of the Messiah’s crucifixion explicitly to support the union of Jew and gentile and the abolition of the distinction between them, by bringing to an end the boundary-setting function of the Torah. . . .

As a metaphor, the crucifixion/resurrection become also an interpretative pattern for what we may loosely call theodicy. That is, when one is experiencing suffering or hostility, recalling the action of God in this event becomes the means of comfort. Christians are called to rejoice in  being permitted to imitate Christ . . . and at the same time receive reassurance that it is in weakness that the power of God manifests itself. “He who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us and present us with him” (2 Cr. 4:14).

If Christianity had its origins among outcasts, dispossessed, traumatized (I’m thinking of post 66-70 c.e., the destruction of Jerusalem) would not such a message have had a very strong appeal?

But this doesn’t sit with Paul’s letters being products of the 50s. Paul’s letters (like the gospels) do speak of persecutions. What is the evidence for that in the 50s? We know it was happening from the 90s and into the second century.

James McGrath’s reply. Enjoy :-(

-- updated with edits 4 hours after original post --

Why do academics, public intellectuals of all people, need to resort to abuse, insult, apparently deliberate misrepresentation and outright fabrication in order to counter a view they believe to be wrong?

James appears to be bowing out from his public mockery of arguments for a mythical Jesus with this one final lying insult:

I think, with Neil Godfrey’s help, I finally understand mythicism. It is a belief system in which, when asked about the historical figure of Jesus, you answer by mentioning William Tell, Rama, the God of the Bible and Atlantis. You then assume that these figures are comparable to Jesus of Nazareth in terms of the historical evidence. You then once again blame the other party for unfairly demeaning this viewpoint.

Oh, and don’t forget to cite Wikipedia and yourself as your sources, just to bolster your credibility.

This interaction has been interesting, but it has already begun to become repetitive. I have some exciting projects that I’ve begun or will be beginning work on, with which I expect to do one thing that mythicists tend not to: submit them for peer review. And so I expect to focus in the coming weeks and months on those and other more interest and challenging tasks.

James response here demonstrates to me that he was never for a minute interested in genuinely understanding the mythicist case, despite his repetitive pleas that he really was so genuinely “interested”.

The E. P. Sanders challenge and response

James challenged his readers to go through Sanders point by point and see if anyone could come up with a different conclusion. James knows I began to do this, and he has responded with silence and finally insult.

James has failed to point to a single mainstream biblical scholar who has actually addressed the question of Jesus’ existence — as opposed to assuming his existence. And I have demonstrated from Sanders’ book that Sanders is included here. James has responded with silence then insult.

The messianic expectation evidence and response

James insisted that there is abundant evidence for general Jewish expectations of a Davidic messiah at the time of Jesus, and told me to “read a book” when pressed for that evidence. I replied that I had read that book, and that it was what convinced me there was no such evidence, and I gave him evidence from other scholars to demonstrate that there was no such evidence. James has replied with silence then insult.

The evidence for earliest Christian belief and response

James insisted that there was evidence that the earliest Christians believed Jesus was a man and not a divinity, and when pressed he eventually produced Philippians 2, along with one interpretation that attempts to see Jesus being described as a second Adam and not a divinity. Apart from the arguably tendentious nature of the interpretation, I pointed out that in Second Temple Judaism Adam was believed to be a divine or angelic being first and foremost anyway. James has only ever responded with silence then insults.

Historical methodology and response

James remained ignorant throughout the exchange of genuine historical methodology in areas of history outside his narrow field of New Testament studies and seems to genuinely believe that NT “criteria of authenticity” are well established norms for all historical disciplines, although they might be named or defined differently by NT scholars. After I pointed out to him that not even all NT scholars conceded their value, and exposed their fallacies, and that other history departments have very different standards, James has responded with insult.

When I presented to him more supportable, logical and widely used criteria and normal historical methodologies, James responded repeatedly (so therefore apparently deliberately) with a false and misrepresentating rewording of what I wrote.

James seems to find such calls for him to support his assertions with evidence, and to answer the evidence produced by myself and others, as “repetitive”. He has only ever responded with insult.

Final remarks of sarcasm and ignorance

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What do (Jesus) Mythicists believe?

Statue of William Tell and his son in Altdorf,...

Image via Wikipedia

James McGrath has asked me to explain what it is that mythicists do believe. Here is the answer from the best I have been able to ascertain:

They believe William Tell was not a real historical person, but a legendary or fictional creation of some sort.

What do historicists believe about William Tell?

Now, let me ask what “historicists” believe. I would expect them to say something like, “We historicists believe William Tell, whom our historian Karl Meyer can connect with known places and events, and whom Schärer can even identify personally, was a real historical character, and not at all a fictional creation.”

I suspect someone like a Garth McJames would not be satisfied with the mythicists’ answer, and he would refuse to relinquish historicity until mythicists could clearly demonstrate who made up the story and all the details about how they did it and exactly when and where.

Unless William Tell mythicists can come up with a detailed model of how the myth developed, the Garth McJames’s will feel they can safely ignore them.

All the evidence in the William Tell story for borrowing from Nordic legends would be dismissed as parallelomania and irrelevant when it came to the question of historicity. “I mean, I even have a Nordic name! Therefore I’m a myth,” they would chuckle. The silence of the record, the absence of evidence for the earliest supposed carriers of the tradition would be rationalized. The humiliation of Tell’s imprisonment would be declared as sure evidence of the historicity by virtue of the authenticating tool of the “criterion of embarrassment”.

What do mythicists believe about Rama?

Rama and Sita in the Forest, Punjab style, 1780.

Image via Wikipedia

The mythicist has reasons to believe Rama was a mythical being, although she cannot explain how the myth arose, who was responsible for it, or why it came into being.

The historicist (Hindu fundamentalist), on the other hand, knows Rama was historical, can point to his birth-place, show the site of a temple there, list the names of his immediate and extended family relatives, cite his many heroic deeds, describe the colour of his skin, his size, and even tell you the exact day and year he was born, and again the date of his marriage. They can also use the criterion of embarrassment to prove the historicity of Rama’s 14 year exile by his father. Parallels with the Jesus Christ story can be dismissed as irrelevant coincidences.

The Hindu historicist may well demand of the Rama mythicist a full accounting of exactly by whom and how the “supposed myth” emerged before he can be expected to take the claim that all this abundance of historical detail is myth.

A pre-Darwinian mythicist challenges the historical God of the Bible

But James has said he thinks analogies with the physical sciences, particularly those related to evolution, are more instructive. Okay, so let’s try that analogy for size.

A pre-Darwinian mythicist does not believe the historical Genesis account that all life began with a historical God. Let’s call this mythicist “Gomy”. Gomy declares that the God-in-History did not touch earth, walk around in the Garden with Adam, or create all life forms 6000 years ago. Gomy rather thinks that this idea of God-in-History somehow evolved like the life-forms around us. This pre-Darwinian who thinks God is a myth does not understand how that God idea originated, or how life could have begun without a God-in-History, but is convinced that the evidence of remarkably similar phalanges across species, and that other cruel events are enough to convince him God is a myth, too.

The historicist retorts that this mythicist is talking nonsense, and that the evidence really points to a designer, a real God in real historical time and place, who created everything with his own word of mouth. Until the God-in-History-hating-mythicist can produce a complete explanation of how this God idea emerged, and how evolution occurred, as complete as anything found in Genesis 1 and 2, then he can be dismissed as an ignorant crank.

True story: mythical or historical Atlantis?

One more: I have a friend who believes in the historicity of Atlantis. She can point to the historical records of how the tradition was preserved and handed down faithfully through the centuries by the most reputable statesmen and philosophers of the times. She can point to the vivid detail of the early narratives and confidently declare such detail could only be explained as originating from real eye-witness testimony.


Image via Wikipedia

She dismisses my views to the contrary as overly sceptical mythicism. The reason my friend and I have different interpretations of the same evidence is because: (i) I have found reasons to think that the documents containing the “tradition” show signs of narrating something other than real history; (ii) while my friend, on the other hand, accepts the documents at face value (as attempts at recording history) with a few “rationalist” modifications, and dismisses my scepticism as something akin to nihilism.

So what do mythicists believe?

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Even an atheist finds an historical Jesus in his own image

The shallow and contradictory foundations for “scholarly” assumptions and beliefs in “the historical Jesus”, by both Christian and atheist scholars, are brought out in this recent remark forwarded to me by someone who found it on Exploring Our Matrix:

I think this is my #1 reason for not being a mythicist. I consider it appropriate to create and/or adopt a theory that fits the evidence, rather than vice versa, whenever possible and to the greatest extent possible. This is also, I suspect, the #1 reason that I’ve compared mythicism and creationism. It is not that history and the natural sciences function in precisely the same way or offer comparable levels of certainty. They don’t. But in the case of both mythicism and creationism (both of which have many permutations and varieties) I see a deliberate attempt to reinterpret evidence to fit an already-adopted theory, when that evidence can be explained in a straightforward and persuasive matter by another theory.

The first sentence is a truism. It is a motherhood statement that any and everyone will claim they believe and follow. So we can move on to the next point:

This is also, I suspect, the #1 reason that I’ve compared mythicism and creationism. It is not that history and the natural sciences function in precisely the same way or offer comparable levels of certainty. They don’t. But in the case of both mythicism and creationism (both of which have many permutations and varieties) . . . .

I demonstrated (Creationist slurs) how Associate Professor of Religion, James McGrath, posits his own idiosyncratic self-serving definitions of “creationism”. His new point of comparison is that mythicism is like creationism because both have “many permutations and varieties”. I am not sure if he is serious or joking or having a late night.

One can count as many as 4 mythical Jesus varieties to 20 historical Jesus permutations on this eight year old page alone: Historical Jesus Theories.

Accusing the majority of historians of being the minority

It is also interesting that in the same passage James takes the chance to include his own area of biblical studies under the general class of “history” — as if the historical tools and methodologies of Jesus scholars are in any way comparable to the tools and methodologies found among what is usually thought of as History in academia. When I have pointed out to him that “minimalists” who have finally had some measure of success in bringing the study of the biblical kingdom of Israel up to the same standard of normal historical analysis and enquiry found in historical studies generally, his reply has been to suggest that it is their methodology as the minority one!!!! (See here where James writes: “I’m willing to listen if you want to explain why the minimalist historians working on ancient Israel should be the standard for the entire discipline of history.” In fact the so-called “minimalists” are actually arguing that secondary evidence should be interpreted through the lens of primary evidence and avoid all pre-suppositions about the historicity or otherwise of the secondary evidence.)

Finding the “Historical Jesus” who fits our own image

I see a deliberate attempt to reinterpret evidence to fit an already-adopted theory . . . .

This is another somewhat unscholarly claim. James knows Albert Schweitzer’s famous remark that each historical Jesus scholar has tended to find in the evidence a Jesus who turns out to be the very image of the scholar! And it has been no different since then.

  • The Irish Catholic John Dominic Crossan found a Jesus who was an anti-imperialist revolutionary.
  • Rabbi Hyam Maccoby finds a Jesus who was a rabbi.
  • There is even the “mystical” John Shelby Spong’s Jesus who is not to be found in flesh, but who is yet historical but can only be found in some mystical experience.
  • And more recently existentialist philosopher John Carroll’s existentialist Jesus.

And a recent commenter on this page in Exploring Our Matrix was popular atheist and Christian debunker, ex-evangelical preacher John W. Loftus himself, coming out and arguing for his own historical Jesus. He has argued the same again here.

Guess what John’s historical Jesus looks like . . . .

  • It’s a cultic charismatic Jesus who was a failed apocalyptic preacher.

John Loftus has also argued elsewhere (on FRDB) that his particular historical Jesus is the one that attracts his audiences and that his motive is to change “the religious landscape”. So we can be have some justification for thinking that John’s particular type of historical Jesus is no accident or disinterested outcome of objective research.

So from Christian Schweitzer to Christian debunking atheist Loftus, one can see the evidence for the “deliberate reinterpretation of the evidence to fit already adopted historical Jesus theories”.

Blinded by our cultural icons

. . . . when that evidence can be explained in a straightforward and persuasive matter by another theory.

Our deep seated cultural heritage makes it impossible for some of us to see just how nonstraightforward and unpersuasive the gospel narratives are as attempts to write real history. The fact is (as I have been discussing recently) that leading historical Jesus scholars such as E. P. Sanders assume from start to finish the historicity of Jesus, and never go further than discussing plot details to decide which bits are more plausible than others (e.g. Jesus going to a synagogue is more plausible than him walking on water) and work with nothing more than the self-serving and contradictory “tools” of “criteria of authenticity”. (See my comment and reply by Steven Carr here on the contradictory and self-serving nature of these tools.)

I wonder if the tendency to see the historical Jesus who supports our own place and identity within our wider culture should be seen as instructive about the real significance of the the hostility of many biblical scholars against “Jesus mythicism”.

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10 myths + 4

I have in the past discussed various misunderstandings or misrepresentations of mythicist arguments, and notice I have earlier discussed one more myth that is not included in the previous post’s list of 10.

Myth #11

Mythicists argue that someone made up a story about recent real historical events and invented persons, and that significant numbers of people (who could have known better) suddenly began to believe in this newly constructed history of the recent past.

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Ten myths about mythicist arguments, as advanced by James McGrath

Myth Busters

MYTHBUSTERS. Image by Studio H (Chris) via Flickr

Myth #1

Mythicist arguments do not reflect an understanding the historical enterprise

James has said he believes mythicists are wanting absolute certainty before they will accept the existence of Jesus, but that the historical enterprise by its nature only deals with probabilities, not certainties. (See Mythicist Misunderstanding)

It is clear that James has not read any of the works of mythicist authors such as Doherty. I personally lean tentatively towards the mythicist case on the probabilities suggested by the evidence. In discussions with Doherty and other mythicists the questions are always couched in terms of probabilities.

I found this particular accusation of McGrath’s most surprising. I would be very interested if he (or anyone) could find any supporting evidence for his claim in any mythicist arguments such as Doherty’s or Wells’ — or in scholarly publications of Thompson and Price that are at the very least agnostic on the question. It has certainly not been my experience with mythicist arguments. (And James has admitted he only gets his knowledge about mythicism from his take on people who email him or write comments on his blog about it.)

More recently James has attempted to defend what passes as biblical scholarship’s “tools for sifting through the evidence” in Mythunderstanding The Criteria of Authenticity. He is referring to “criteria of authenticity”, such as “the criterion of embarrassment”. What he fails to understand is that such so-called “tools” are themselves based on the assumption of historicity itself. They merely bring to the text the presumption of historicity, and preclude any other sort of question. The use of these “tools” in order to establish the historicity of Jesus is a circular process.

There are mainstream biblical scholars who have themselves questioned and rejected the value of these tools. If James wishes to address mythicist arguments seriously he needs to acknowledge this fact.

The tools themselves can be used to argue for both authenticity and inauthenticity of a text. For example, one can say that by the criterion of embarrassment that early Christians would not have made up a story about the disciples deserting Jesus in Gethsemane. But then the criterion that says if a story is said to have “fulfilled a prophecy”, then it is likely to be fiction. And the same narrative of the disciples fleeing is also said to be a fulfillment of prophecy. So one can use tools to argue that this episode is either historical or unhistorical.

Another is the criterion of dissimilarity. If a saying is dissimilar from what might be expected from contemporaries of Jesus, then it is judged probably authentic. Of course this means that Jesus could not have said anything similar to what his contemporaries said! Mainstream scholars, and James too, I am sure, know this. So for James to present such “tools” as if they are a reliable means for establishing historicity is disingenuous.

These tools in fact are “criteria” for  supposedly “establishing” if an episode within a narrative is likely to be historical — given the prior starting assumption that there is an historical event or saying or person to be discovered. (I have discussed these “tools” a number of times, most recently in relation to Funk’s use of them, but more fully in relation to a publication by Craig Evans.)

Added about an hour after original posting:
James likes to claim that the historical methods used by biblical scholars are comparable to the methods of historical studies generally. They are not. I know of no other historical discipline that seeks to “create” or decide what will be “the evidence” on the basis of such tools. The evidence is there to begin with, and tools are developed to help analyze the evidence, but not to decide what is evidence or not! In this respect, biblical studies appear to me to be claiming a exemption from normal historical methods. They need exemptions. Otherwise, I suspect, they are left with no evidence for their historical model.

Myth #2

Mythicists do not address the arguments of mainstream biblical scholarship

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The Gospels: Histories or Stories?

Historical Jesus scholars in the main seem to write their history or life of Jesus as if this can be done simply by cherry picking bits and pieces from the gospels that they feel make the most sense.

They assume that there is an historical Jesus to begin with. And then they ask questions about this and that episode in the gospels in an effort to come to some conclusion about why the author would have written about Jesus in that particular way. The result is claimed to be evidence for the “historical Jesus”. The process is entirely circular, however.

Associate Professor James McGrath challenged me to address the arguments of E. P. Sanders for the historical Jesus, and I have begun to do so with my discussion on the Why the Temple Action by Jesus is Almost Certainly Not Historical.

How historical Jesus research works

E. P. Sanders indeed offers a classic case study for the circular method of historical Jesus studies. He begins with a list of “facts” about Jesus that he believes are bedrock, although he does not demonstrate or argue why his list should be considered bedrock. One of these is the “cleansing of the temple incident”. He then proceeds to discuss various plot-related questions about how this incident is handled in the gospels, and what the authors may have been thinking as they wrote. He finally concludes that there was a real “temple action” but that it was not quite carried out for the reasons the gospels narrate. He can imagine a more plausible “historical” motive for Jesus’ action than that presented in the gospel stories. This is how he constructs his “historical Jesus”.

In other words, the historicity of Jesus is assumed from the outset, and then that assumption is made to justify itself by a process of what is in effect Sanders’ attempts to make better “historical” sense of the narrative.

This is not “proving” the historicity of Jesus. It is assuming that there was a Jesus to begin with, and then finding a more historically plausible narrative for him than the one we read in the gospels.

I am reminded of the critique of that branch of biblical studies that dealt with the history of Saul, David and Solomon and the kingdom of Israel that appeared around 1992 in Philip Davies’ publication, In Search of Ancient Israel. I have discussed this before and in other places, but it is timely to start to revisit a few basics of historical methodology given a series of recent posts by James McGrath:

More mythicist creationist parallels

Is there evidence for mythicism?

Mythicism and John the Baptist

Assuming the gospels are (or contain) history

Most Bible scholars have traditionally assumed that the Bible is basically a true record of the history of Israel. But Davies observes that their reasons for believing this are in fact only circular arguments:

#1 The authors of the Bible were obviously informed about the past and were concerned to pass on a truthful record of what they knew. Their audiences also knew enough of the past to keep those authors honest.

#1 This claim simply asserts, without proof, that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to claim that bible authors made everything up. (Historical Jesus scholars will insist that the story is not one that anyone would have made up. But this is another logical fallacy (argument from incredulity) that I have discussed elsewhere in detail and will do so again.)

#2 Some Bible books claim to have been written at very specific times and places (e.g. in the first year of such and such a king). If some of these kings really lived and we know that some of events really happened then we should generally believe the rest of what those books say.

#2 This again just assumes without proof that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to assume that the authors, like fiction writers of all ages, chose real settings for their stories.

#3 Some Bible books give precise details about events and life in the distant past — or in the case of the gospels, customs and theological debates in the apparently more recent past. We can therefore safely assume that there must have been some real connection between those past events and the stories about them in the Bible. The stories must have some truth behind them.

#3  Good story tellers always try to add color to their fictions by touching them up with realistic details. No-one says that James Bond stories are true just because they are set in times of real Russian leaders, true places, etc.”

#4 Where a book is clearly written long after the time it speaks about we must assume that it relies on sources or traditions that were originally close to those ancient events and that these details were preserved and passed across generations and new audiences.

#4 This is simply asserting, without evidence, that the stories must be true “because” we know they must have been true! One can just as easily assume that the stories were invented.

Arguments for historicity of the gospel narratives are circular

All of these reasons for believing that the Bible contains real history are circular arguments. They say, in effect: “We know the Bible is true because its authors were careful to tell the truth, and we know they were careful to tell the truth because what they wrote was true ….” and so on.

To break this circular reasoning and to find out if the Bible does write factual history we need to confirm the events of the Bible independently of the Bible itself. This means comparing the Bible record with other historical records. It also means comparing the Bible with other literature of the era that shows some similarities with its narratives and rhetoric.

It is naive to take any book, the Bible included, at face value. We need supporting evidence to know:

  1. WHEN it was WRITTEN
  2. IF its stories are TRUE.

To settle for anything less is to imply that when it comes to the Bible we do not need to follow the standards of historical enquiry and handling of source documents that are generally found among historical disciplines. We cannot excuse historical Jesus studies from sound historical methodologies.

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James McGrath’s reply and my response

James McGrath has replied to my previous post, Did Jesus exist on youtube?  His reply is here: More-Myticist-Creationist Parallels: Messiahs, Wisdom and Jesus.

Avoiding and denying what I wrote

James claims that my references to the scholarship of Neusner, Green, Fitzmyer and Mack are so well known (“common knowledge”) that I was completely misguided (in fact I was reminding him of creationists) when I supposedly tried to use these quotations to discredit the argument that Jews were unlikely to invent a crucified messiah. In fact it is James who is avoiding the issue here, not me.

James has sidestepped the point I was using those “common knowledge” citations to address. I used those quotations to remind him that there is no evidence for his claim that there was some widespread common expectation of a messiah. James had said that this Jewish belief was “well documented” for the time of Jesus. It is not well-documented. He knows this, and I know he knows the “common knowledge” citations I had to pull out to address his false claim in his video.

This was the point I was addressing. And James used this particular point — that there was a widespread expectation in the time of Jesus of a Davidic messiah — as the sole support of  his assertion that no Jew would invent a crucified messiah.

So when James says my citations are “beside the point” as far as his argument goes, he is ignoring what I wrote and what he argued himself in the video. I used the citations to address the very point he made to justify his assertion.

When arguing for the historical Jesus, it is quite common to see such superficial and false claims being bandied about without thought. I know very well that scholars would never use such standard of argumentation in a scholarly paper. But they seem to think any slapdash mantra will do for lay audiences — and it will certainly do for those who argue a position for which they cannot disguise their visceral contempt.

Presumably such slapdash “arguments” are meant to address the less well informed audiences, or even peers who share a similar disdain for the opposing argument. The practice suggests an impatience on the part of the historicists with the thought of bothering to prepare any serious case.

Still no evidence

I asked James for evidence of such a widespread Jewish belief in a Davidic type messiah around the time of Jesus. Here is the closest he got to that evidence in his reply:

We have evidence for such “messianic” beliefs in the Judaism of this period, and conversely, we have no evidence whatsoever from pre-Christian Judaism for the view that the restored Davidic king would die at the hands of his enemies.

The closest one can find is perhaps the reference in Daniel’s pseudo-prophecy to the anointed high priest Onias being killed (Daniel 9:26)

He simply repeats his bald claim that we have evidence for this belief in this period (of Jesus), and cites not a bit of it.

James also misrepresents, to the point of caricature, the mythicist argument. No mythicist case that I know argues that “a restored Davidic king” would die at the hands of his enemies. James avoids completely my point that the early Christians boasted a greater than the mere physical Davidic king — they boasted a messiah who had conquered the world of demonic powers and death itself.

Like a creationist, again

James then accuses me of being like a creationist because I was guilty of what I was accusing others when I said Paul claimed Jesus was a God. Firstly, James seems to be just making up accusations against me. I nowhere have said that, although James has himself repeatedly said I believe this. I do not recall ever saying this, and always thought I was careful to qualify my statements about Paul’s beliefs, by using such terminology as “son of God” or “divinity”.

It seems James is so eager to throw insulting labels at me that he resorts to accusing me of whatever he simply just assumes to know I think or claim. He did not quote me. (The discussion to which he was referring is here.)

So on this basis James accused me of being a pot calling the kettle black, and therefore I was like a “creationist”. James seems to have more skill with how he uses his words than he does with actually basing his arguments on evidence.

Still no evidence

My initial request to James for evidence was for him to support his claim that the earliest evidence we have of Christian belief was that Jesus was a man, and that the divinity side was only gradually attached later.

James’ response? 

He finds fault with me for adopting “a minority view”. Well, yes, I guess I do. Presumably he would rather there be no minority views to contend with. Damn gnats.

If minorities go with the evidence that suggests earliest Christians viewed Jesus as a divine being, a divinity (see if you think that means the later Christian developed view of God, as James says I am guilty and “like a creationist” for claiming) and can find no evidence to the contrary, then so be it. If majorities represented by James are content to maintain a belief without evidence, then so be it.

But this is not quite fair. James does cite Colossians where it speaks of Jesus as one in whom the godhead “BODILY” dwells. Um, yes, ….. and so Jesus has a flesh and blood and guts human body in heaven where he now dwells with the godhead indwelling him fully? Do I have to remind James of the mainstream scholar’s book, The Resurrection Reconsidered, by Gregory Riley, that demonstrates that “body” could as easily mean a spirit as flesh?

But I know he knows that. So I have to wonder at James’ motives or whatever for even attempting to suggest that this passage is approaching the evidence I requested.

Interesting discussion on Wisdom

James raises a series of interesting questions on the place of Wisdom in Second Temple Jewish thought. I am interested because it is something I have been reading about for quite some time and look forward to discussing in a future post.

One final hit at yet another poor straw man

Finally James claims (again, — despite my pointing out to him the baselessness of his claim — but perhaps he never saw my replies on his blog) James claims once again that some mythicists “seem” to argue (thankfully he is a little more nuanced now) that X does not exist because it is described in terms of non-X. This is, of course, a caricature of a very sound argument that historicists seem incapable of dealing with, and James does play with it as a caricature.

He fails to deal with actual argument: that after we strip away all the mythological associations from other known historical figures, we see plenty of historical figure left. Take away the mythical associations (including OT descriptions) of Jesus, and we are left with the invisible man after his bandages are removed.

Insults continue to replace evidence and argument

Okay, maybe insults are all too common within the guild. But surely public intellectuals do have a responsibility to set a higher standard for their publics.

James fails to supply the evidence I asked him for in order to support two claims of his:

  1. that the earliest Christian belief was that Jesus was human and that divine attributes were only attributed to him later;
  2. and that there is evidence for a general Jewish expectation of the coming of a Davidic Messiah in the time of Jesus.

He has not provided any evidence for either claim.

He has chosen instead to compare me with a creationist.

Presumably he finds the latter course the easier option.

I thought it was creationists who were the ones prepared to shut down debate by arguing in defiance of the evidence, and at the same time misrepresenting the claims of their opponents.

A different Door to Door service

I’ve been working in Singapore for a little over a year now, and recently moved into a more dominantly Chinese area. It’s Chinese New Year (CNY) celebrations this month, and yesterday I was introduced to another little cultural difference from anything I’ve seen in Australia. Lion Dancers come to housing apartments and go door to door of Chinese units offering to do a Lion Dance for the occupants. Presumably for good luck for the tennants and a little profit for the dancers. Here’s a video of them leaving one unit and finding another more welcoming.

Not that they restrict themselves to their Chinese compatriots. When they saw me they asked if I wanted them to do a Lion Dance for me, too. I did not really understand what they were asking at the time — it was so unexpected, but by the time I understood I suppose questions about how much would be an appropriate remuneration confused me and I declined their offer.

To see the ‘everyday’ type of Lion Dance in action, here is another video I took at last year’s CNY in a food court.

Did Jesus exist on youtube? Dismantling the “evidence” presented by James McGrath

21:20 Feb 16, Edited to add a quote from Mack in a book, edited by Neusner and others . . .

The following is presented by Dr James McGrath on his Did Jesus Exist Youtube video as fundamental evidence for the historical existence of Jesus. It is a standard line, almost a “historicists’ creed”, and it is factually false and and logically fallacious.

The reason that the crucifixion persuades most historians that Jesus was a historical figure is that a crucified messiah was in essence a contradiction in terms. . . .  It needs to be emphasized that we are talking about a dying and rising messiah. And the messianic expectations of Judaism around the time of early Christianity are well documented. And the whole notion of messiah is “anointed one” . . . . and this goes back to the practice of anointing kings and priests in ancient Israel. And in the case of Jesus the connection of the terminology of the term messiah with the claim to his having been descended from David shows they were thinking of a kingly figure. And nothing would have disqualified someone from seriously being considered possibly being the messiah as being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish people. That wasn’t what people expected from the messiah. And it makes very little sense to claim that the early Christians invented a figure completely from scratch and called him the messiah and said that he didn’t do the same things that the messiah was expected. Not only did he not conquer the Romans, he was executed by them. He did not institute and bring in the kingdom of god the way the people were expecting, and in fact Christians had to explain this in terms of Jesus returning to finish the task of what was expected of the messiah.

All of this makes much more sense if one says that there was a figure whom the early Christians believed was the messiah and that the early Christians were trying somehow to make sense of those things that don’t seem to fit that belief.

To dismantle this:

The reason that the crucifixion persuades most historians that Jesus was a historical figure is that a crucified messiah was in essence a contradiction in terms. . . .  It needs to be emphasized that we are talking about a dying and rising messiah. And the messianic expectations of Judaism around the time of early Christianity are well documented.

Well documented?

McGrath needs this to be true, since this central argument for historicity of Jesus depends on the Jews generally and deeply holding in a belief of an expectant messiah who was to rule as a new David. So what is the documentation that is apparently so abundant that it can be casually alluded to with a passing comment?

I have addressed the so-called “evidence” — and its complete absence — for such a belief at the time of Jesus in recent posts here and here. (Matthew’s gospel birth narrative is even structured on the assumption that there was no such general belief at that time.)

So it’s time for something a bit different. This time, from William Scott Green in the opening chapter of Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, edited by Neusner, Green and Frerichs (1987).

The term “messiah” has scant and inconsistent use in early Jewish texts. . . .

The disparate uses . . .  offer little evidence of sustained thought or evolving Judaic reflection about the messiah. . . . . the term is notable primarily for its indeterminacy.

In view of these facts, one may legitimately wonder about the reasons for conceiving “the messiah” as a fundamental and generative component of both Israelite religion and early Judaism. One may wonder about the justification for the assertion that “from the first century B.C.E., the Messiah was the central figure in the Jewish myth of the future,” . . . . or for the widespread assumption that “In the time of Jesus the Jews were awaiting a Messiah.” One may wonder, in other words, how so much has come to be written about an allegedly Jewish conception in with so many ancient Jewish texts manifest such little interest. (pp. 2-4)

And there is another comment on this so-called “well documented” evidence for the expectation of a Davidic messiah at the time of Jesus. This one from chapter two in the same book, authored by Burton L. Mack:

Jacob Neusner has challenged a long tradition of scholarship by the addition of a single letter to the magical word messiah. Messiahs it now is. And the singular notion of “the” messiah is disclosed for what it always has been — a scholarly assumption generated by the desire to clarify Christian origins. (p. 15)

Should we not expect doctors who make definitive statements for the general public, and in an area of their speciality, to speak with an authority based on evidence and knowledge? Why are the public told in this video that a certain idea important for making the historicist case is “well documented”? Can any academic specialist in the area detail the evidence that Neusner, Mack and Green (and Fitzmyer from an earlier discussion here) have all missed?

Back to McGrath’s historicist case:

And nothing would have disqualified someone from seriously being considered possibly being the messiah as being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish people. That wasn’t what people expected from the messiah. And it makes very little sense to claim that the early Christians invented a figure completely from scratch and called him the messiah and said that he didn’t do the same things that the messiah was expected

Just one detail missing here. Only one. (Recently at work we had to laugh when we were trying to rationalize performance statistics, and in the process discovered a typo — someone had accidentally omitted a “1” that should have been included at the beginning of a 5 digit number. 19,500 should have been 119,500. I joke that we were only out by “1” — a mere detail.)

But James has effectively removed this one from the discussion by his preliminary remarks about the resurrection. The resurrection, being a supernatural event, is said to be off-limits from naturalistic historical enquiry. But historians can talk about the crucifixion.

This is how the presumption of historicism is made to prove itself. But the fact is that the early Christians spoke of the death and resurrection of Jesus; it was a two-sided singular event with the resurrection making sense of – being the very reason for – the crucifixion.

The historicist attempt to take this belief apart to understand it does not throw light on this belief. It’s like Douglas Adam‘s attempt to understand how a cat works by taking it apart — the first thing he has is a nonworking cat.

The obvious flaw in this argument (that no-one would have made up from scratch the idea of a messiah who had been crucified) is that the belief was NOT that a messiah had been crucified, but that a messiah had overcome crucifixion by the resurrection. The messiah did not do what the so-called Jewish messiah was supposedly expected to do, true. The Christian messiah did even greater things than the Jewish “Davidic” messiah! Jesus was greater than Moses, Elijah, Solomon and David. The Christian messiah conquered the spiritual kingdoms that ruled this world. This was a principle message of the first gospel, Mark. It’s hardly a negative concept. The idea of a greater spiritual realm and activity that surpassed and paled the hopes of the mere physical was nothing novel.

Scholars have written of the socio-psychological dynamics that may underlie the story of the possession of man by “Legion” (a demonic Roman army) and how Jesus cast Legion out and into suicidal pigs, an emblem of the 10th Legion occupying Palestine.

We know the attraction that paradoxes had among ancient philosophers and religious ideas. We also know the theme of paradoxical reversal was deeply embedded in the thought of the texts of the Hebrew scriptures. Mark’s gospel itself is riddled with such riddles and paradoxes. The blind see. The called flee. Food in abundance comes from a lack of food in a wilderness. Those who know Jesus best are the ones who fail to recognize him. Forsaking the world is the way to inherit the world. Death is the way to life. It was the same throughout Jewish religious narratives. The prisoners doomed to die are the one exalted to rule the kingdoms. The suffering servant Israel is destined to be the light to all nations. The cast out are the most beloved. The destruction of the physical temple is the way to the advent of the spiritual temple.

And the way to rulership and conquest is through death and suffering. It is an inevitable paradox that gave comfort to Jewish martyrs ever since the time of the Maccabean wars. The way to life was through death. God would exalt those whom the world abased. Have discussed this in some detail here.

The idea of a divinity with whom one could identify in the face of cruel losses and lacks in this world, and who had overcome death and suffering, and all the evil of this world, must have been one of the easiest sells. The idea that it must have been “hard” to sell is derived, I think, from the apologetic paradigm that attempts to “prove” the truth of its gospel message.

Such paradoxical reversals were a comfort to people without hope in this life. They were far from being stumbling blocks. They were gateways to hope. They were always the hope of martyrs from pre-Christian times.

There is no evidence at all that the earliest Christians were struggling to make sense of the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus first appears in the evidence as a fully formed and sensible part of the message of the resurrection overcoming death.

Historicist arguments fail to deal with this evidence. By taking it apart, pulling it apart to the extend that it is no longer the recognizable belief or evidence calling for explanation, the historicist argument is trying to make sense of a non-working cat.

The mythicist argument has the advantage of advancing the more probable or likely scenario that explains the evidence as it is, that deals with the earliest Christian belief for which we have evidence, and without destroying this evidence to make sense of it.

I titled this post, “dismantling the evidence of James McGrath”. It is McGrath who has dismantled the evidence we have of earliest Christian belief to deal with something quite unlike any early Christian belief for which we have evidence.

(to be continued . . . . )

James McGrath has also asserted that the earliest Christian belief was that Jesus was a man and not a divinity. I have yet to see evidence for this, too.

Schweitzer’s comments on the historical-mythical Jesus debate

Albert Schweitzer argued against those who denied the historicity of Jesus, but he also had a few things to say about the way in which the debate between mythicists and historicists was conducted in his day. This post lists some of those thoughts that I believe are still relevant. His advice about what mythicists need to do also resonates well with my own reflections that I have attempted to express at times in this blog and on other discussion boards.

The tone in which the debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus has been conducted does little credit to the culture of the twentieth century. (p.394, the 2001 Fortress edition of Quest throughout)

Schweitzer squarely laid the blame on the “mythicists” of his day: they gratuitously provoked “mainstream biblical scholars”, and the latter in return “generally answered in an unfortunately similar manner.” Today the situation is reversed. It is mainstream scholars who have initiated the bloodletting today. I witnessed this around ten years ago on the Crosswalk discussion list when Earl Doherty made an appearance, and then some time later, René Salm.

But even then on that first Crosswalk discussion list there were academics who did their profession more credit. As in Schweitzer’s day, it is true to say

However, there was no lack of attempts to establish a peaceful and worthy discussion. (p.395)

Dilettantes and Fathers

It is not surprising that the dilettantism of the [mythicists’] presentation received full, indeed sometimes immoderate, coverage in the debate . . . .

Refutations were almost too prompt and numerous.

For impartial observers it was all most instructive. The proceedings gave them some notion of the Gnostic battles of the middle of the second century AD. The mentality of many free-thinking theologians began to reveal a strange and bitter resemblance to that of the fathers who battled against heresy at that time. Like them, they felt themselves called upon to protect the spiritual welfare of the defenceless masses who were in danger of being craftily deluded.(p.395)

One might see the same happening today also in relation to agnostic and atheistic bible scholars who feel a need to protect the “intellectual integrity” of their audiences.

Thus H. Weinel added a ‘practical appendix’ . . . to his book Is the Liberal Picture of Jesus refuted?, which was intended to instruct clergymen on the logic and facts with which they could best confound Drews and his companions at public meetings. (p.395)

This has its modern counterpart with the abundance of web pages professing to give their readers lists of counter-arguments against Doherty’s web and print publications.

Superficial responses

As the polemical works for and against the historicity of Jesus were on the whole written rather quickly and were intended to be within the intellectual grasp of a wide, in fact the widest possible, readership, their level of scholarship was not generally very distinguished, and sometimes, in view of the authority of the writer, remarkably low.

We again see this so often today. So often a “mainstream scholar” will dismiss an argument from a “mythicist” with a reply that he would surely never dare expect to share with his peers. Arguments and presumptions that are widely treated as working hypotheses are presented as absolute facts. As a layman I came to learn that when I read a scholarly article apologizing that a particular point had not been extensively researched, it as often as not seemed to mean that it had not been researched at all. I also came to see how certain interpretations changed in line with more general social and cultural developments through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was not hard to see that some assumptions and interpretations reflect wider political developments rather than any new evidence or methodologies. Many scholars know all this, of course. But some among the field of biblical studies seem to overlook it all when it comes to exchanges with “mythicists”.

When I was studying in depth the Jesus passages in Josephus, I sought out scholarly articles in the literature, both new and old, and read all I could that offered any sort of depth to the discussions. When on Crosstalk I pointed to a fallacy or weakness in a common argument for “a Josephan core” reference to Jesus, I was advised by one good doctor of biblical studies to seek out and read Bruce’s single page dot-point summary of the “core” argument. This, I was assured, would bring my knowledge of the discussion up to the required standard to participate in a discussion with the learned ones. In other words, one had to have the correct conclusions to participate.

One also reads arguments that declare without qualification that there was a widespread and single form of popular Jewish expectation of a messiah at the turn of the century in connection with these discussions. Yet such scholars surely know that such a concept is nowhere to be found or repeated in their literature that deals specifically with this question. (Fitzmyer included, aspects of whose work I have discussed here and on other sites.)

These and other similar personal experiences eventually led me to wonder if some academics themselves rely merely on such summary tracts or undergraduate introductions when referencing supporting assumptions to their main works.

In the main the strategy of the debate has been to reveal the opponent’s mistakes. Those who deny the historicity of Jesus point out the many and profound weaknesses which the thoughtless popularism of modern theology has displayed for ears and which have made theology particularly vulnerable; the defenders of the traditional view fasten on the shortcomings of the philological and historical hypotheses of their opponents. But on both sides, as in the Gnostic struggles, only the most superficial and obvious aspects of the problem have in fact been considered. No attempt has been made to tackle the full extent of the question. (pp.395-6)

One bible scholar has repeatedly pointed me and others to chapter 2 of Weaver’s book, The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century: 1900-1950, to read when and where the “mythicist” case has been repeatedly rebutted and is no longer worth discussing. It seems that such a scholar is satisfied that so long as someone has published a counter argument, and so long as the question has been effectively ignored by the mainstream, then the case has been “rebutted”, and that long ago and ‘many times’. When I respond with actual citations from Weaver and some of those so-called rebutters themselves, and some of the responses their arguments have elicited, and with these citations open his assertions to question, the discussion invariably comes to an end and he withdraws for a time. A reply and a bypass do not equate with a rebuttal. (I know there have been several “replies”, but I also see that they are in the main echoes of one another, and are substantially the one reply that for most part addresses twigs, straw men and red herrings.)

Addressing the complexity of the problem

The complexity of the problem is such that there are four main questions to be considered: these concern the philosophy of religion, the history of religion, the history of doctrine and the history of literature. (p. 396)

1. Philosophy of religion question

read more »

“Creationist” slurs have no place in an honest mythicist-historicist debate

Following is a silly post, one of the silliest I have ever written. Maybe the silliest. Its only point is to foolishly respond to baseless and ignorant slurs written and spoken by Associate Professor James McGrath against people who argue Jesus was a mythical or legendary figure, not a real historical one. I do not know why an associate professor would find it necessary to resort to insulting these people by comparing them with “creationists” (e.g. here, here and here). While admitting he has not read mythicist literature, he makes up for this lack by (in his own words) thinking about mythicist arguments a lot. And the more he thinks about them, the more he sees them having points in common with creationists. Maybe associate professors have acquired the ability to understand more about something by merely thinking about it without having to go to the trouble of reading the evidence for themselves.

{{BArch-description|1=Albert Schweitzer Zentra...

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It is a pity he and others like him could not take to heart the words of Albert Schweitzer who was able to discuss knowledgeably the mythicist arguments of his day, and in a civil and professional manner.

The tone in which the debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus has been conducted does little credit to the culture of the twentieth century.

Among MGrath’s false allegations are that mythicists do not engage the mainstream scholarly literature. This seems to me like almost wilful ignorance, but I am sure no associate professor would ever be wilfully ignorant. Earl Doherty’s website is well known and his very extensive reviews of notable scholarly publications (Funk, Wilson, Crossan, et al) are there for anyone to read. Anyone who reads mythicist arguments of the kind that belongs to a line going back through Doherty, Wells, Drews, Smith, Whittacker, Bauer — on back to the Enlightenment era with Volney, Dupuis, Reimarus — and others, will be rewarded with introductions to some of the best and current biblical scholarship of each generation.

McGrath challenged me to address the arguments of E.P. Sanders, and implied that his arguments for an historical Jesus were well enough established in the mainstream to be effectively indisputable. I have begun to take up this challenge in the post previous to this one — Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical.

But for this post, I hope to avoid the charge that I am defining “creationism” tendentiously to suit my particular argument, so I have chosen to use a study of Creationism that many sceptics can acknowledge as hard-hitting, comprehensive and fair.

It would be helpful if associate professors took a similar approach with their uses of the term, too. This would enable them to avoid any suspicion of merely collating all the things they think they would like to see in common between “creationism” and that just as nasty “mythicism”. Granted, the more subjective approach does provide a rich store of material one can use to justify insults. Maybe some associate professors, like some of the rest of us, simply love to hoard junk.

So in order to attempt to expose how unfounded is the comparison between mythicists and creationists, I have chosen to use the points in a book by Michael Shermer (well known for debunking nonsense, e.g. Why People Believe Weird Things), Why Darwin Matters. Shermer is a wonderful example of how to tear down a false argument in a civil and polite and professional manner. He never once resorts to insult. . . . read more »

That ‘brother of Jesus who is called Christ’ storm in Josephus’s teacup

The romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius ...

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Much ado is made of this phrase about “Jesus who is called Christ” — that second reference in Josephus to Jesus. Many hang a lot of weight on it and even say it is the clinching evidence that proves Josephus knew of and spoke about Jesus in more detail elsewhere. By identifying James here as the brother of Jesus called Christ, it is logical to think that Josephus is referring back to an earlier discussion of his about that Jesus.

That might sound like an obvious explanation. But there are serious difficulties with it. And there are very good reasons for a quite different explanation.

(This post is a summary of more extensive ones I made some time ago. It recently posted this on another forum somewhere, and have decided to keep a record of it here as well.)

Some difficulties with the current phrase, “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ” in Josephus (Book 20 of Antiquities):

  1. The phrase does not identify which Jesus is the brother of James. Jesus was a common name, (there are 20 so named in Josephus), and few scholars believe Josephus ever wrote that any Jesus was “Christ”.
  2. It is inconsistent with the way Josephus normally re-introduced characters after their last mention being some time earlier
  3. It leaves unexplained why this James (supposedly renowned for his law-based life yet charged with breaking the law?) was murdered
  4. It is inconsistent with the other accounts of James being a Christian (the high priest would not have been so unpopular if James had been a Christian)
  5. It is inconsistent with the other non-Josephan accounts of the death of James. In other accounts, we read of a large gang of Jews collectively murdering him along with their leaders (with no reference to Ananus as in Josephus).
  6. It would be one of only 2 places in all of Josephus’s works where he says someone was said to be a Messiah or Christ — not even other clearly would-be messiahs were so described by Josephus
  7. It creates an unusual word order. Why would a passage about the wickedness of Ananus, with James as a target of his wickedness, be introduced by reference to a relative of that target, especially if Christ was not originally used in the book 18 passage earlier?

So the presumption that this phrase is original to Josephus encounters several difficulties.

Given these difficulties that arise with this phrase, and the history of other uses of this phrase as an identifier of James in early Christian literature, the case for interpolation is far from being ad hoc.

One case (not mine) for it being an interpolation is as follows:

1. There was an early Christian legend that the fall of Jerusalem was the consequence of the Jews killing James the Just. This legend is always retold with the phrase that identifies James as “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ”

2. This legend is always said to have been located somewhere in Josephus (or much later in the similar sounding name of Hegesippus)

Origen’s Commentary on Matthew 10.17

And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the “Antiquities of the Jews” in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered so great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said, that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wonderful thing is, that, though he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James.

Eusebius’ Church History 2.23.20

Josephus, at least, has not hesitated to testify this in his writings, where he says,”These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, that is called the Christ. For the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man.”

Jerome: On Illustrious Men Chapter 2

Hegesippus, who lived near the apostolic age, in the fifth book of his Commentaries, writing of James, says “After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem . . .”

3. Despite this legend and its attribution to Josephus, we have no record of this tradition in any of the works of Josephus.

4. We do have in Josephus the identifying phrase that is always associated with this tradition, the construction of which is generally noted for its unusual word order.

5. This tradition attributing the fall of Jerusalem to the murdered James is not consistent with the orthodox Christian view that should have attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the death of Jesus.

6. According to many modern interpretations that this James in Josephus was a Christian leader, the narrative that we do find in Josephus would have us believe that Jews were so favourably disposed towards Christians and a Christian leader that they were all outraged over the persecution of one of them. This flies in the face of all our other evidence about the attitude of these Jews towards Christians.

Is there a single explanation that covers:

(a) the statements that the story of the murder of James who is always identified as “the brother of Jesus called Christ” was found in Josephus; and

(b) the fact that we have no such explanation in our copies of Josephus; and

(c) the unusual position of the story’s accompanying phrase “the brother of Jesus called Christ” in Josephus?

Yes, there is such an explanation.

Note that Jerome attributes the story to Hegesippus and not to Josephus, as had Eusebius and Origen before him.

(A fuller discussion on the possible confusion of Hegesippus and Josephus can be found here.)

Given the similar sounding names of Hegesippus and Josephus, it is not impossible that Origen confused the two names in his memory when attributing the explanation that Jerusalem was destroyed because of Jame’s murder to Josephus. Eusebius repeated Origen’s mistake.

An unorthodox Christian scribe at some point attempted to make up for the absence in Josephus of the story of James’ murder by inserting it into Josephus. Perhaps he believed, following Origen and Eusebius, that it should have been there, so put it there. Or maybe it was inserted for some other reason, even earlier, and Origen and Eusebius really did read it in their copies of Josephus. This scribe also, of course, included the identifying phrase “brother of Jesus called Christ” that had always accompanied the story.

Later, an orthodox Christian copyist who believed that Jerusalem would have fallen for its murder of Jesus, not James, removed the passage. He retained, however, the nice touch of the identifying phrase for James, “the brother of Jesus called Christ”.

This explanation has the advantage of being able to explain the following:

  1. how it is that there was an early Christian tradition about the story of James’ murder being found in Josephus, while none of our copies has such a story
  2. the unusual construction and position in Josephus of the phrase “brother of Jesus who is called Christ”

This explanation also has the advantage of consistency with the literary culture of interpolations of that era. I have discussed this in previous posts and more fully in A literary culture of interpolations and Forgery in the Ancient World and Was forgery treated seriously by the ancients.

The explanation has the further advantage of explaining why the phrase appears to be used as an identifier of James, when it in fact fails completely to do so. Josephus, after all, referred to several people by the name of Jesus, but not once to any by the label of Christ. At least this, I believe, has been the majority view, even at times the consensus, among scholars over the past hundred years and more.

It also explains why the phrase is positioned, unusually, before its subject, James.

It also has the advantage of explaining its curious echo in the most popular of all Christian gospels, that of Matthew — in Matt. 1:16, 27:17, 27:22. Also in John 4:25 and Justin Martyr First Apology 30.

Icon of James the Just, whose judgment was ado...

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