2010-03-30

How (most) biblical “historians” work: a case study

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by Neil Godfrey

Christ cleansing the Temple
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

James Crossley’s argument for the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus (in The Date of Mark’s Gospel) demonstrates the hollowness of biblical historical assumptions generally. It’s not that James Crossley is any different from other biblical “historians” (e.g. E.P. Sanders, James McGrath, Craig Evans, James Dunn, Maurice Casey, Richard Bauckham, etc) in what he does. I am using here his response to David Seeley’s argument that Jesus Temple Act never happened to illustrate how biblical “historians” base their arguments for historicity on arbitrary assumption.

A surreal game

Seeley takes the view, in effect, that if Jesus had really gone into the temple and started throwing tables around and angrily shouting for the money-changers to get out, the most natural thought that would have come to the minds of onlookers was that he lost his cool on discovering he was cheated over the price of a dove. (D. Seeley, ‘Jesus’ Temple Act’, CBQ 55, 1993 pp. 263-283)

He is specifically responding to Craig Evans’ claim that Jesus was protesting against a corrupt priesthood. There are two problems with this, he argues:

  1. Jesus is giving the money-changers the hard time, not the priests.
  2. There is no evidence for such financial abuse anywhere outside the gospels.

The first thing to notice here is that Seeley does not address any evidence for historicity that Evans might have advanced. Evans is

  1. simply making an assumption that the Temple Act is historical
  2. attempting to find plausible rationales for what he assumes really happened.

Seeley responds by challenging Evans’ rationales and showing they are either not plausible or lack supporting external evidence.

This is a strange game being played here. In order to knock down one scholar’s rationale, another scholar declares that it lacks supporting external evidence. Yet neither scholar appears to notice that the absence of supporting external evidence for the very historical existence of Jesus or historical origin of any of the gospel narrative! It’s like those cartoon characters who are so preoccupied with making the most of a task at hand that they fail to see that they have run off a cliff and are standing in mid-air while continuing obliviously in myopic “reality” until they decide to look down. But these scholars never seem to look down. They are standing on nothing but tradition.

But Crossley takes Seeley to task and attempts to restore grounds for believing this Temple Act really did happen in history. Recall the first of Seeley’s points in which he discounted the rationalization that Jesus was protesting against corrupt priests:

1. Jesus is giving the money-changers the hard time, not the priests.

Crossley’s response: Jesus was “a very angry man”; who can ever tell what an angry man will do?

Nor is it valid to reject the historicity of Jesus’ Temple action because Jesus would have been wrong to attack the ‘little guys’. This may be a valid ethical question but it is totally out of place in historical reconstruction. If Jesus did not behave in the way in which we would like then that is too bad. It should not be rationalized too much about what we might think an angry man like Jesus should have done. (p.64)

That is half of Crossley’s argument. He does not present evidence for historicity. He argues that Seeley’s “common sense” (I would think) view cannot validly “reject the historicity of Jesus’ temple action”. Historicity is the default assumption. There is no evidence for it — only attempts to rationalize its motives. If those rationalizations fall, then historicity falls. So Crossley says that when it comes to rationalizations, we can in this case at least think of something to save the “historicity” of the event. (My aside here: It may make Jesus look bad, but hey, we always have the criterion of embarrassment up our sleeve to confirm it.)

This is called “doing history”?

Always read the fine print

Let’s look at the other half of his argument, directed against Seeley’s second point.

2. There is no evidence for such financial abuse anywhere outside the gospels.

Crossley says, Not so, and finds some.

The rabbinical material . . . For example, Simon ben Gamaliel was fiercely critical of the price of doves being many times more expensive than they ought to have been (m. Ker. 1.7). This strongly parallels Jesus’ concern and is attributed to a first century Jew alive c. 10-80 CE so it is perfectly reasonable to assume that Jesus’ attack on dove sellers could reflect pre-66 Judaism and, for what it is worth, the attitude of the historical Jesus. . . . This suggests that there were people concerned with the price of doves at the time of Jesus and that such rabbinical material should not be dismissed because it is late, either this or posit a remarkable coincidence . The Dead Sea Scrolls should not be dismissed so lightly either. Attacks on perceived economic exploitation are common and at the very least they bear witness to a tradition of perceiving the Temple authorities to be exploiting people. (pp. 63-4)

I recall recently checking up Crossley’s reference to Josephus for evidence that the construction of Tiberias would almost certainly have entailed forced removals of people from their land. But a quick check of the relevant passage showed that the city was built on what had been a cemetery, so the only forced removals were those of the inhabitants of grave plots. So having been warned once, I checked the Talmudic reference (m. Ker 1.7) Crossley uses here:

IT ONCE HAPPENED IN JERUSALEM THAT THE PRICE OF A PAIR OF DOVES ROSE TO A GOLDEN DENAR. SAID R. SIMEON B. GAMALIEL, BY THIS SANCTUARY, I SHALL NOT GO TO SLEEP TO-NIGHT BEFORE THEY COST BUT A [SILVER] DENAR! THEN HE ENTERED THE BETH DIN AND TAUGHT: IF A WOMAN HAD FIVE CERTAIN BIRTHS OR FIVE CERTAIN ISSUES SHE NEED BRING BUT ONE OFFERING, AND MAY THEN PARTAKE OF SACRIFICIAL FLESH, AND SHE IS NOT BOUND TO BRING THE OTHER [OFFERINGS]. THEREUPON THE PRICE OF A PAIR OF BIRDS STOOD AT A QUARTER OF A [SILVER] DENAR EACH.

“It once happened”? One sleepless night cured the problem? That does not sound to me like a systemic overpricing of doves. That the attribution of the saying to Simon ben Gamaliel reflected its genuine historical origin and provenance from the time of Jesus is inevitably suspect. Attribution of sayings to past “heroes” was a common enough practice. (Besides, if we take Crossley’s dates for this rabbi as roughly accurate, 10-80 CE., then he would have been only 20 years old when Jesus was in Jerusalem. Awfully young to be a rabbi, I would have thought.)

I also find the comparison of how Jesus and this rabbi responded to overpriced doves intriguing. And we are even informed that the latter’s action worked.

Even if Crossley’s evidence could be nailed to the setting of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus (the specific DSS writings Crossley mentions certainly cannot), they would no more be evidence for Jesus or this “temple action” than is the fact Tiberius was emperor of Rome and Pilate a governor of Judea.

Literary criticism is good when it supports “historicity”, bad when it doesn’t

Crossley finds “literary criticism” is inimical to the process of historical enquiry because it keeps finding literary explanations for what we read in the Gospel literature instead of historical ones. This is bad because there is no evidence for the historical events apart from the literature itself. There are no external controls which can support the facticity of any of the narrative’s plot details. So when Seeley questions the plausibility of the narrative as an historical event,

In so large an area, would Jesus really have felt that eliminating the money changers and traders would make that much difference? . . . how would one man drive out all the traders and money changers?

This is misleading. The extent of Jesus’ actions are not known and it is quite possible Mark exaggerated them, just as he does elsewhere in reports (sic) that look very much like they refer to historical events (Mk 1.5, 32-33; 7.3; 11.11).

I use “sic” here to draw attention to the language of historicity and “news reports”. No one would think to use the word in relation to fiction. But such tendentious language is common among those who have done no more than simply assume historicity of a narrative. It helps condition both authors and readers into the right frame of reference.

Despite his little foray into literary criticism here when it served to demonstrate that there is exaggeration in the text, Crossley does not like literary criticism when it counts against historicity (as it so often does).

Seeley’s points, like many other scholars working with .  .  . literary criticism on Mark, are over-exaggerated. (p. 66)

In other words, if literary critics leave the text stand as it is, and don’t allow for it meaning something else (e.g. exaggeration, as determined by literary criticism itself) that supports historicity, they are “over-exaggerating” their arguments against historicity!

And there is another example where Seeley is inferred to be “over-exaggerating”. Crossley observes:

Mark does not say Jesus drove out all the money changers and traders anyway! He many not have wanted any of them in the Temple . . . . For all we know the historical or Markan Jesus may simply have wanted them outside the Temple precincts. . . . nothing in the text says that Jesus prohibited the sale of sacrificial animals . . . . it does not matter that Jesus prohibited the money being carried through the Temple: it need only be an attack on a symbol of the exploitation and a plea for the financial dealings to be done elsewhere. (Crossley cites Bauckham and Casey for this final point.)

Now this is reading speculation and assumption into the text with a vengeance! (I wonder how the money traders who lost their goods felt about being attacked as mere “symbols”.) I am reminded here of how some Second Temple interpreters read the Genesis narrative of Abraham’s offering of Isaac and interpreted the heavenly voice crying out twice to the name of Abraham as a hint that Abraham had not listened the first time and actually plunged the knife into Isaac, leaving God the messy business of having to resurrect him. Luckily Crossley can also draw on literary criticism to enable him to read a couple of details that the text does not actually say.

And how is all of this supportive of historicity? Crossley’s next sentence explains:

This attitude may well reflect the historical Jesus . . . .

Yes, it “may”. But I like my history served with a bit more than ‘maybes’.

The end of the matter (and its beginning)

Crossley is, however, dead right when he concludes:

All Seeley has done is to attack a set of assumptions and replace them with his own. (p. 65)

He has. And here Crossley admits that his own grounds for historicity of the incident are merely assumption. (I would argue, however, that at least Seeley’s assumptions are more directly related to the text as we have it, and require fewer layers of hypotheses to make their point.)

And this is about as good as most biblical or Jesus “history” gets.

There is no evidence. Only a single set of literary texts with no external controls. And the arguments are all about coming up with the most persuasive arguments for why it might have been that way — if it ever was that way at all, which we merely assume was the case.

It’s all a matter of imagination

Crossley opposes Seeley’s argument that it would have been “out of character” for Jesus to have demonstrated strong concern for gentile’s ability to pray in peace and quiet in the temple by quoting Isaiah 56:7 (My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations). Jesus, after all, showed little other evidence of concern for gentiles, nor for the particulars of Temple rituals.

Crossley is able to argue for the historicity of this saying by referring to Maurice Casey’s point that the “court of the gentiles” was packed with Jewish pilgrims at this time of year, so it would have been very much in Jesus’ consciousness. He even goes so far as to argue that the Isaiah passage in its Isaiah context referred to the gentiles bringing sacrifices to the temple. Therefore, a historian’s mind reading ability assures us, Jesus must have had this in mind, too, and he was therefore not trying to stop sacrifices after all! So it doesn’t matter that Jesus had little concern for gentiles per se. He can imagine other reasons for Jesus quoting the passage. Evidence is not invited into the discussion.

The substance of the evidence

Crossley:

So it looks as if Mk 11:15-17 is an accurate recording of the historical Jesus’ attitude. (p.66)

“Looks as if”, a “recording” (again).

In response to Seeley’s point that the crowds (historically) would not have known who Jesus was when he caused the Temple fracas, despite the gospel saying the priests feared the support the crowds gave him, even though they later turned against him anyway, Crossley writes:

This again is highly misleading. It is not so easy to predict just what will happen when someone gets angry. It cannot be assumed that they will react in the way Seeley believes. This enormous assumption is simply not backed up.

And,

Seeley’s criticisms aimed at the historicity of this passage are pure speculations over what he things would happen if the passage were accurate, and nothing more. (p.70)

Yes, I agree. They are pure speculations. But at least they seem to me to cohere more closely to what one might reasonably expect from common human experience and the meaning of the text as it is. But even if that is wrong, and strange things do happen, then this conclusion of Crossley’s is itself a tacit admission that he has nothing better to offer in support of historicity. The only difference is that he believes his “pure speculations” are more reasonable when one allows for a little literary criticism to enter and modify the text so that it does not “over-exaggerate” the situation.

There is no room in here for any secular historical methods that say such “incomprehensible” things like:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific [hero, person] merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. 

Historian Eric Hobsbawm, quoted in earlier post.

And this is how so much of biblical history seems to go. Assumption, speculation, rationalization, and savage knives demanding evidence come out to support any of these secondary assumptions. But never once does anyone seem to think to look down to see if the whole charade is built on anything more than a tradition of assumption.

looks like we're standing on air

Image by rocksee via Flickr


Wish I had known about Seeley’s article when I addressed the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus in this earlier post.


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28 Comments

  • 2010-03-30 00:31:59 UTC - 00:31 | Permalink

    Two things, neither of which has to do with Crossley’s or Seeley’s arguments but which have to do with methodology. First, you wrote “Crossley does not like literary criticism when it counts against historicity (as it so often does).” I’ve never encountered a literary critic who considered their method as a means to answering historical criticism. Literary criticism treats a text as a piece of literature and sets aside historical questions. Historical criticism asks historical questions. To say that literary criticism counts against historicity sounds to me like utter nonsense, but perhaps you wish to clarify.

    Second, it seems that your quote from Hobsbawm indicates once again that, unless you have some sort of evidence other than texts, you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events. You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?

  • 2010-03-30 00:31:59 UTC - 00:31 | Permalink

    Two things, neither of which has to do with Crossley’s or Seeley’s arguments but which have to do with methodology. First, you wrote “Crossley does not like literary criticism when it counts against historicity (as it so often does).” I’ve never encountered a literary critic who considered their method as a means to answering historical criticism. Literary criticism treats a text as a piece of literature and sets aside historical questions. Historical criticism asks historical questions. To say that literary criticism counts against historicity sounds to me like utter nonsense, but perhaps you wish to clarify.

    Second, it seems that your quote from Hobsbawm indicates once again that, unless you have some sort of evidence other than texts, you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events. You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?

    • 2010-03-31 06:34:12 UTC - 06:34 | Permalink

      First, yes I agree that literary criticism per se does not attempt to answer historical questions. I threw that in because I understand Crossley is on record as approvingly citing Elton when he spoke about those who would subject historical studies to the dictates of literary criticism. I think some level of literary criticism is always going to be necessary — one has to first of all understand the nature of the text one is interpreting. And even a default reading that it is a “historical report” or “theological version of it” is itself a literary critical assumption.

      You are once again misquoting me on the point of external controls — external controls are not defined as “evidence other than texts” as I have pointed out each time you have attempted to re-word this point I make.

      Poisoning the well (which a Christian deploring H’s Communism is) is not a valid logical argument. It is yet another excuse to bypass the simple logical point. (Someone else recently used the very same tactic on this blog to avoid the very same question. Is this how biblical “historians” work? Look at ideology or belief first, and then dismiss any possibility of contributions from anyone who does not pass the ‘like’ test?)

      The only reason Hobsbawm has entered discussions on Crossley is because Crossley himself finds one of his historical models useful and uses it in his Why Christianity Happened. He misapplies a sophisticated model of Hobsbawm’s yet misses the simple basics of a logical methodology for determining historicity that was as much a part of Albert Scwhweitzer’s and other historians’ thinking (as I have quoted repeatedly here, with one of my favourites by Schwartz that has been ignored since 1904) as it was Hobsbawm’s. Ideology has nothing to do with the basics of logic and nature of assumptions.

      To suggest that external controls is a nefarious communist tool to undermine true historical values — okay, you are not suggesting that really, I hope, so what is the point?

  • 2010-03-30 10:13:36 UTC - 10:13 | Permalink

    The following was written after all comments to this post went missing. Since then, WordPress has been able to restore James’ original comment (above) and a subscriber to my comments feed has kindly sent me my original reply, which I have since posted above, too, now.

    I don’t know what has happened here — all the comments have disappeared. I have contacted WordPress to see if they can be restored.

    If WordPress cannot restore the comments I will see if I can somehow re-post others’ comments from my email copies.

    But I don’t have any copy of my own comment replies. I would appreciate it if someone could email them to me or post again, thanks.

    • 2010-03-30 14:48:57 UTC - 14:48 | Permalink

      Neil’s note: Until the original comments can (hopefully) be restored, I am copying the first one again here:

      Author : James F. McGrath

      Comment:
      Two things, neither of which has to do with Crossley’s or Seeley’s arguments but which have to do with methodology. First, you wrote “Crossley does not like literary criticism when it counts against historicity (as it so often does).” I’ve never encountered a literary critic who considered their method as a means to answering historical criticism. Literary criticism treats a text as a piece of literature and sets aside historical questions. Historical criticism asks historical questions. To say that literary criticism counts against historicity sounds to me like utter nonsense, but perhaps you wish to clarify.

      Second, it seems that your quote from Hobsbawm indicates once again that, unless you have some sort of evidence other than texts, you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events. You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?

      • 2010-03-30 20:13:47 UTC - 20:13 | Permalink

        Having all the original comments go missing is making this messy. I think I will try a clean sheet and (re-)reply to your comment, James, in a new post.

    • 2010-03-30 14:50:07 UTC - 14:50 | Permalink

      Neil’s note: Until the original comments can (hopefully) be restored, I am copying the second one again here:

      Author : Mike Grondin

      Comment:
      Neil- Given the amount of interest that this subject has generated, I’m surprised that no one has yet set up a website to host a neutral debate (or series of debates). Battling blogs won’t do it; of necessity, they favor the position of the blogger. What’s needed is a neutral site that enforces rules of debate such as: equal number of participants for each side, alternating comments from each side, limits on verbiage, rules for equal amounts of argumentation, etc. Myself, I’m pretty unskilled at setting up such things, but I’d be willing to help moderate. (Not that the moderators would necessarily be inherently impartial to start with, but they should act as impartially as possible for purposes of their role. If that’s still suspect, I suppose that each side could choose its own non-participating moderator.)

  • 2010-03-30 20:08:13 UTC - 20:08 | Permalink

    Mike,

    I’ve lost my original reply to this. (WordPress tell me they have fixed the glitch that caused the loss but seem unable to retrieve the lost comments.)

    As for “mythicism-historicism” generally, I don’t know if such a neutral and civil space is really possible. I have seen this sort of discussion on the old Crosstalk, FRDB and the old Richard Dawkins site and others, and it seems hostility and worse are inevitable with this discussion. I tend to think if this ever really changes it won’t be in my lifetime. I find involvement in lists or discussions like that tends to escalate and starts to consume too much of my time and energy. For me blogging is a nice relaxing escape from other pressures. I can post whatever my whim prompts, and I don’t really see myself as a “battling blog” — I am not interested in a repeat of what happened a little while ago. I’m content to share thoughts with anyone interested, and happy to leave it at that.

    But you sound more optimistic than I am about the possibility. Do you really think others are all that interested? If we are talking about my point about historical methodology and external controls, etc etc then I don’t know anyone on “my side” of the question other than me. I am simply attempting to think through some of the principles from other historical disciplines, some of which have made inroads into OT studies, and it wasn’t that long ago that I finally felt capable of articulating the things that have been bugging me for so long about Jesus or Christian-origin “historical” studies. (The only biblical scholar I have read who does seem to address (briefly) this methodology I am raising is Thomas L. Thompson. But the rest of what he says on the NT is at a very different level from where I am coming.)

    (I know James McGrath has labelled some of my comments as if they are representative of “mythicism” but I know of no other “mythicists” who argue the points I am arguing, and I don’t even see myself as a mythicist. But I will explain that again in my reply to James’ comment above.)

  • Pingback: Biblical history, literary criticism, assumption and logical method « Vridar

  • 2010-03-31 02:17:49 UTC - 02:17 | Permalink

    “As for “mythicism-historicism” generally, I don’t know if such a neutral and civil space is really possible. I have seen this sort of discussion on the old Crosstalk, FRDB and the old Richard Dawkins site and others, and it seems hostility and worse are inevitable with this discussion.” (Neil)

    I don’t know what FRDB is, but neither the Dawkins site (obviously) nor Crosstalk (less obviously) would count as a neutral venue. The key is to have the kind of rules I mentioned, and one or more moderators to enforce them. I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be possible. Seems to me that both you and McGrath experience spikes in reader comments when you touch on the subject, but there may be even more who don’t participate because no matter where you go, the deck is stacked one way or the other, and a free-for-all atmosphere tends to put off careful thinkers. BTW, I would focus the debate as between mythers and minimalist historicists, much as the conflict between yourself and McGrath has been.

    • 2010-03-31 07:19:28 UTC - 07:19 | Permalink

      Actually a wiki is easy to set up. I do have a Wikidot wiki I set up a couple of years ago but never used — just to see how to do it. I could give that to you to manage. Or there are other softwares: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_wiki_software

      FRDB – http://freeratio.org/ (Surprisingly on the Dawkins venue it was atheists taking the historical Jesus position who were the most vitriolic! But one can never be sure if virtual people are really who they profess to be.)

  • James Crossley
    2010-04-02 00:48:22 UTC - 00:48 | Permalink

    There are too many places where you have spectacularly (and I mean spectacularly) misrepresented me in some of your blog posts and, frankly, invented things I believe (the Hobsbawm stuff you discuss in relation to me was so weird I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading and re read what I wrote on partisanship before you make such daft misrepresentations on that). I have no idea what you are talking about on good and bad literary criticism because it has nothing to do with my arguments but let me give one very minor point upon which one of your bizarre misrepresentation hangs. You note a phrase I don’t use ‘news reports’ – that is your wrong assessment somehow attributed to me. I use the word ‘reports’. I use it in the same ways as ‘says’, ‘writes’ etc. and, by itself, it is a banal term which does NOT mean historically accurate reporting or secondary fiction (the context you cite actually betrays this if you read it carefully) or anything much really. Just what the text says. It doesn’t mean ‘news report’.

    You also have no idea on issue of assumption, historicity, and default position. Historicity and Jesus in the very basic sense has been established ages ago through argument and in that sense it is an assumption but not in the sense you suggest. And what I was doing in Date of Mark was to show how early a text could plausibly be and thus establish an earliest possible date. Actually, all the ‘maybes’ were designed to show the problems pinpointing a date. It may be early, it may be not, that sort of argument.

    These reviews of yours are so bloody weird!

    • 2010-04-02 10:41:23 UTC - 10:41 | Permalink

      Nice to meet you James. I enjoyed your “Jesus in the age of Terror”. You are more than welcome to comment with supporting evidence and even a dash of civility here 🙂

      Definitions of report on the web: Report

  • Steven Carr
    2010-04-02 02:40:36 UTC - 02:40 | Permalink

    ‘So it looks as if Mk 11:15-17 is an accurate recording of the historical Jesus’ attitude.’

    Doesn’t James use the word ‘recording’, as well as ‘reports’?

    ‘Historicity and Jesus in the very basic sense has been established ages ago through argument ….’

    In the ‘very basic sense’? What does that even mean? That possibly all of the Gospels are pure fiction?

  • James
    2010-04-02 05:44:10 UTC - 05:44 | Permalink

    Sigh…I know I shouldn’t but…

    The clue, our Steven, is in the qualification ‘accurately’. I think Mark ‘inaccurately’ recorded things too. Let me also clear up something, I don’t know who Mark was and it could have been a number of people responsible for composing this gospel for all I know (I mentioned this in the the book) so I use ‘Mark’ as shorthand. Was X/Y/Mark an eyewitness? I dunno but I am pretty sure X invented stuff and I’m pretty sure some stuff has a bearing on a figure called Jesus in Galilee in the late 20s. I would use ‘record’ or ‘report’ for both invention and stuff I think is invented and all the bits in between. I certainly don’t think that Mark was writing ‘news reports’ (although a case can be made for suspecting ‘news reports’ but that’s a different issue). But I mean it in a vague way. Got that?

    Right, next. “‘very basic sense’? What does that even mean? That possibly all of the Gospels are pure fiction?” Er, no, clearly not. Let me spell this out. The argument is that there was a figure called Jesus active in Galilee in the 20s and this figure was the basis for the Gospels. Ok, you might not agree he existed but the point is obvious, is it not? Actually scholars are perfectly aware that there are arguments pointing to Jesus existing but it is so obvious it isn’t repeated. Maybe the more popular books should do so but it isn’t a groundless assumption.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-04-02 13:59:03 UTC - 13:59 | Permalink

    JAMES
    I’m pretty sure some stuff has a bearing on a figure called Jesus in Galilee in the late 20s.

    CARR
    There was a sailor called Frank Fiegel and this figure was the basis for Popeye.

    Therefore Popeye existed.

    How do we know that the Jesus of the Gospels is not a cartoon figure?

    It is not a ‘groundless assumption’ that a Jesus existed. There is evidence for it.

    So how do we know that Jesus clashed with people over the Law, other than that we can read it in what looks like a Novel?

  • 2010-04-02 14:35:43 UTC - 14:35 | Permalink

    What on earth were biblical scholars like Schweitzer and Schwartz thinking when they wrote things like the following?

    In reality, however, these writers are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. 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.

    (From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.)

    The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

    It is no different with Christian authors.

    (from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332)

  • 2010-04-02 17:35:06 UTC - 17:35 | Permalink

    I really love it when I see our public intellectuals use their training and talents to enlighten public awareness with reasoned and factually supported arguments. Creationism or Intelligent Design arguments are beautifully countered with professionalism and civility in such monographs as those by Michael Shermer and Jerry Coyne. Quite a few of their paragraphs could be pulled out and used as simple blog posts or comments to refute the claims resting on unsupportable assumptions. Ditto for those websites where the arguments that the moon-landing was a hoax are so ably refuted with point by point logic and supporting evidence. Hell, I have even done the same when I also patiently and (I think) courteously dispelled — with evidence and logical argument — the Atlantis myth that some people believe in today. I have done the same for other delusions, such as auras, Noah’s ark, channeling, etc., although that was all in my pre-blog days — though there are quite a number of web sites doing the job extremely well and with a professionalism with which no-one could take offence.

    I am sure that public intellectuals in the area of biblical studies can emulate any and all of these by similarly resorting to reasoned argument and supporting evidence, all couched in a professional civility that will reflect well on their (very often) publicly funded skills and knowledge.

    ETA: Come on guys, you can do it. I bet you really can be as good at this as the evolutionists and naturalistic sceptics out there. 😉

  • James
    2010-04-02 18:13:21 UTC - 18:13 | Permalink

    Well, it would have to begin by representing arguments fairly, and not attributing arguments a person never made before the glorious demolition (of arguments never made), would it not?

    To answer Steven (for the last time, ok?), I don’t buy your argument about a novel one bit but let’s leave that to one side. One argument over clashes over the law: lots of detailed discussion about purity stuff that is of no interest as far as we know to the early church and has no relevance for gentiles, they are similar to other debates in early Judaism, they are found in different strands of the gospel tradition and so on. Collectively this would suggest they are early disputes. Can we be certain they go back to Jesus? No, not with any certainty. Can we say these disputes are reflective of the historical Jesus? Well, that’s as far as we can go but that’s fairly par for the course in ancient history. What we have (and the issue of conflicts in one example – things like SOME son of man sayings are another good example) is an early tradition which isn’t too much like Christianity or gentile Christianity. Again collectively, this would point in the direction of something close to what we call the historical Jesus. Every scholar I know is aware of this sort of uncertainty. If people like your history served with fewer ‘maybes’, then ancient history aint for you!

    The Popeye analogy is, unsurprisingly, useless. Too radically different in terms of genre, time and culture.

    Finally, let me say something else on perspective, intelligent design, creationsism etc. Science is helpfully used as analogy but we can’t push it too strongly because the arts and humanities are not, obviously, science. There is another problem. People whose views I find really odd on issues such as the miraculous are in dominant positions in the academy in ways that creationists and intelligent designists are not in science. How do you deal with them? Ban them? That won’t work even if people were stupid enough to try it. As has been clear, the alternatives have been small groups of dedicated secular/atheist/agnostic types but there is no evidence that such groups are becoming the mainstream or having a serious influence (if that’s what they want) and it is unlikely such things would happen at the moment. Take the piss? I’m up for that, certainly, as long as it is backed up. Just go about doing the kinds of history you want to do, pretending you are hanging around with historians who aren’t confessional etc? Yes, I’m up for that too, though I do think believers are, to state the obvious, perfectly capable of insight. But I’m happy to not bother with the supernatural etc. and just get on with things.

    But this bullshit about putting ‘historians’ in scare quotes and so on etc is just cheap polemic, especially when it involves inventing arguments people make then knocking these invented arguments down. If people want a nice debate, fine, if people want a nasty debate, fine, but it is a little odd that we have advocation of decency in debate when some polemic fired at arguments never made is flying around.

    I am not going to comment on Schweitzer and Schwartz (if indeed that comment was aimed at me) because I was only interested in defending some inaccurate statements levelled at me (and the inaccuracies oncerning me are pretty shocking on this blog).

    Ok, I promised myself to cut back on these kinds of things. So there you go.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-04-02 19:23:15 UTC - 19:23 | Permalink

    Clashes over the law had ‘no relevance’ to the early church?

    What was Galatians all about then? And what was Jesus doing in a church where that had ‘no interest’ in his disputes?

    And James denial that the Popeye analogy is useless cuts no ice. What is not plausible about a sailor who likes a fight, is handy with his fists, and has a rival for his girlfriend?

    Surely that is just as plausible a figure as a 1st century preacher in Galilee.

    And plausibility is all that we have to go on, according to Biblical historians.

    JAMES
    What we have (and the issue of conflicts in one example – things like SOME son of man sayings are another good example) is an early tradition which isn’t too much like Christianity or gentile Christianity.

    CARR
    Of course, the earliest Christian writings ,Hebrews, 1 Peter, Paul’s letters, James, have no idea that Jesus spoke about a ‘Son of Man’.

    That only came with the Novels.

    • 2010-04-02 20:05:41 UTC - 20:05 | Permalink

      From James Crossley’s books one can see that he is referring to the “early church” as it was before Paul and his disputes. He, with Maurice Casey, are attempting to find the earliest Christianity as it existed both the time of Jesus and shortly after (okay, it’s not strictly correct to call it “Christianity” then, but you know what I mean.) Crossley’s method, in part, is to analyze the synoptic gospels to see what assumptions Mark could make that Matthew and Luke could not. This method rests on the interpretation of the synoptics that argues Jesus was an adherent of biblical law (as distinct from the subsequent additions to that law).

      Paul’s difficulties began when gentiles began to join up in larger enough numbers and with less Torah-like interests than the established Jewish membership.

  • 2010-04-02 19:27:24 UTC - 19:27 | Permalink

    If I have misrepresented you in any way I encourage you to be specific and pinpoint — with quotations — where. (Methinks actually you were the one who misrepresented — necessarily without quotation — the context of my “news report” reference.)

    I am addressing a point of assumption that biblical scholars in general seem to make — and that is highlighted by Schweitzer and Schwartz (whom you do not wish to discuss). I have yet to find this issue tackled head-on by any but a handful of biblical scholars. I have learned to live with the routine responses of incivility and non sequiturs. Such responses are, I think, instructive to the outsiders.

    As for pleading for an escape on the grounds that we are dealing with “arts and humanities” and not science, you apparently overlooked that I also included historical evidence and clear logic as it is applied to answer the absurdities of the Atlantis myth, the moon-landing hoaxers, etc. Now if Jesus “mythicists” are in that category (as some biblical scholars seem to claim) and if Jesus-historical studies are as secure as any other studies (e.g. for Alexander the Great and Greek democracy, etc) then how about its practitioners demonstrating the fallacies of one side and the clearly demonstratable foundations of the other? Shouldn’t be hard, should it, if, as I hear so often (but never see referenced) the case for the historicity of Jesus was settled once and for all long ago.

    ETA: I used Schweitzer and Schwartz merely to express the direct point of my argument — which is exactly what my quote of Hobsbawm does, it being the same exactly as S’s and S’s point — and by not addressing it one is failing to address the point of my post. My post is about the bulk of biblical historical studies because they are all based on the same assumption. You may find much to contest with Thompson’s Messiah Myth, but when he expresses the same thought as Scweitzer and Schwartz and Hobsbawm, I think it is a point worth tackling.

    The reason it sounds like misrepresentation, perhaps, is because of its unfamiliarity. The unaddressed assumption has that characteristic when first raised.

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