Daily Archives: 2010-03-11 21:42:40 UTC

The mythicist seeks the historical explanation; many historicists are content with the mythical

A standard formula-problem found in historical Jesus works is that the question that needs to be explained is how or why Jesus’ disciples were able to persuade so many Jews that a crucified criminal was indeed the Christ. And of course, to explain why the disciples became convinced of this themselves.

These are indeed extremely improbable scenarios.

One “biblical scholar and historian” who is also a Christian writes:

As we have already seen, what precisely motivated [the disciples] to believe that Jesus had been raised . . . is difficult if not impossible to say from a historian’s perspective. (The Burial of Jesus: History & Faith, p. 121)

And again,

There seems to be little hope of gaining access by means of the later written sources to the actual experiences that early Christians had, the ones that convinced them Jesus was alive. Even Paul only alludes to his own direction-changing experience, and never describes it. Perhaps this is appropriate: religious experiences are regularly characterized by those who have them as ineffable, as “beyond words.” The Gospel of Mark suggested that Jesus would be seen, but doesn’t describe the experience, at least not in our earliest manuscripts. . . .

But this much can be said: the act of completely surrendering has transformed many lives. Such unconditional surrender to God seems to have been central to Jesus’ own spirituality. There would be something fundamentally appropriate if it turned out to be central to the rise in the earliest disciples of the conviction that Jesus had been raised, as it has been for Christians all through the ages since then. (pp. 115-116)

This historian is writing for his fellow-faithful. In doing so he has given away his bias that would seem to preclude him from any ability to continue his historical enquiries until he finds a truly historical explanation for the rise of the Christian faith. He is content with an explanation that opens up room to find his faith — the inexplicable, even the ineffable — in history. (And given that this particular faith is dependent upon historical events, Schweitzer’s pleas notwithstanding [- see below], this is surely an inevitable conclusion for a committed Christian.)

This is not good enough for truly post-Enlightenment historiography. History is often enough defined as an investigation into what is human, what can be naturally explained.

If our questions and models bring us up against a brick wall of “ineffability” then it is time for historians to ask new questions and try new models until they do find the natural and explicable answers.

The Gospel narratives, particularly that of the earliest Gospel of Mark, make no sense as history. Read naively they prompt silly questions like: Why did Jews come to believe a crucified criminal was their messiah? Such silly questions are embraced with utmost sober seriousness presumably for the same reasons they were a subject of boast by Tertullian: “I believe because it is absurd.”

They are questions grounded in faith and therefore also supportive of faith. Even non-Christian scholars embrace them because the faith narrative has become part of our very cultural identity.

The historian who is prepared to set aside assumptions and hypotheses that have been found wanting, or that are self-authenticating being found exclusively within the Christian narrative itself, will necessarily be operating from the cultural fringes. But that is the only historian who is likely to stumble upon an answer to the real historical question (how did Christianity begin?) that is completely natural, human and explicable of all the evidence. There will be no need to be content with “the ineffable” or “difficult if not impossible to say” in place of an explanation.

Granted, not all biblical historians do accept the unknown or “impossible to say” in place of a genuinely historical explanation. But they do still work within the culturally rooted paradigm and are up against  a model that has more to do with faith and myth than with human reality. This explains why there is so little in common, and much that is mutually exclusive, among the many Jesus reconstructions by  biblical historians working within the constraints of the model that remains an inheritance of faith. The wildly opposing results generated through their paradigm ought to suggest a new paradigm and new questions are timely. But how to begin with something that is so much a part of our collective identity?

And once again, as quoted here before:

Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

From pages 401-402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

The imaginary siblings of Jesus

Brothers of Jesus

Brothers of Jesus; Image by djking via Flickr

The Gospel narratives provide strong positive evidence for why their authors chose to write about Jesus’ siblings. They explicitly meet a clear and specific requirement for the portrayal of a man of God who is to both follow and emulate the prophets who came before him. They also serve to illustrate a moral instruction of Jesus in the Gospels. These are positive reasons for thinking the family of Jesus is most probably a creation of the narratives’ authors.

Cain killed righteous Abel; chosen Isaac was persecuted by Hagar and Ishmael; Esau threatened the life of Jacob who was forced to flee; Joseph was disbelieved, scorned and cast out by his brothers; Jephthah was rejected by his tribe; David was also mocked and dismissed by his brothers. The theme of rejection of the righteous and godly man by those close to him, including his own kin, is one of the most pervasive of themes in the Jewish scriptures, including the Psalms and the Prophets.

The dismissive family serves as a foil to enhance the image of the divine calling and godliness of the hero. It is a trope probably as old as folklore itself. There is nothing embarrassing at all about their inclusion in the narrative. The rejection of Jesus by his siblings serves to enhance the readers’ sympathies for Jesus and places him squarely in the literary tradition of the way and the fate of all the godly.

So the narrative itself contains the reasons for the inclusion of the siblings of Jesus. They are portrayed as disbelievers who isolate Jesus on account of his real (hidden) identity.

When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21)

The Gospel authors also taught the need for a devotion to him that was so total that it excluded room for the affections of normal family relations (Mark 10:29-30). So they presented Jesus as the ideal type illustrative of such an attitude, and delivering teaching on the new affections that were to replace the old:

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

In all of this we can see how the authors find a narrative or theological reason for introducing the siblings of Jesus. We can say that the appearance of Jesus’ siblings is plot-driven.

The memorable scene of Jesus’ rejection in the earliest Gospel echoes several other rejection narratives in the “Old Testament”.

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:1-6)

Again the author has explicitly stated that the reason for introducing this narrative detail about the family of Jesus is to illustrate a prophecy, or at least to place Jesus firmly within the prophetic tradition.

We cannot appeal to later traditions about the siblings of Jesus as evidence for their historicity since these most likely were born out of the Gospel narratives. (And the Josephus reference is worthless as evidence, for reasons summarized here.)

What, no James?

I think that the quick assumption that Galatians 1:19 is “proof” that Jesus had a physical brother is linked to some extent with our familiarity with the memorable (negative) role of Jesus’ brothers in the later Gospel narratives.

If the passage in Galatians referring to James “the brother of the Lord” was really written prior to the Gospels, and if this indeed spoke of a physical blood relationship, and if this same James became the head of the Church itself in Jerusalem, the Gospel authors have chosen to suppress any interest in this James or his destined conversion and future lead role.

I am tempted here to drop in the obvious argument from incredulity, “Why would they not contain a hint of any of this?”,  but I won’t say it (again). It is hardly necessary. We have no evidence at all to justify thinking there was a historical basis to the siblings of Jesus. But we do have strong narrative reasons for assuming they are literary creations.

But given the fact that the presumably later Gospel authors do not demonstrate any knowledge of a brother of Jesus destined to become the leader (or one of three leaders beside Peter and John) of the Church after the death of Jesus, and given the fact that there is no external witness to Galatians 1:19 till the time of Origen (3rd century) despite its apparent potential usefulness in arguments against Marcionites by “orthodox” representatives such as Tertullian (second century), and given the fact that Paul used ‘brothers’ most commonly metaphorically, and given the fact of demonstrated layers and intentional and accidental editings in both biblical and nonbiblical writings of the time, to insist, in the face of these facts that Galatians 1:19 alone is “proof” of the historicity of Jesus, shows more courage than discretion.

(There are other speculations about possible motives for giving Jesus siblings, and these relate to doctrinal disputes over the physical or immaterial nature of Jesus at the time the Gospels were being composed. But I have opted not to discuss these since they also stray from the evidence at hand. It is worth noting, however, that at least such conjectures are based on known evidence. The assumption of the historicity of the siblings is based on no evidence at all. It is entirely a piece of unsupported but highly charged cultural heritage.)

James & Jesus

The historical James & Jesus; Image by trixie via Flickr

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