Monthly Archives: January 2011

Respecting the honesty of conservative historical Jesus scholarship

1913 Reinhardt College Bible Study Class
Image via Wikipedia

I have been catching up with two conservative historical Jesus scholars and once again I find their honest perspectives about their historical methods refreshing.

Luke Timothy Johnson in The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels is quite upfront with stating the obvious: the historical Jesus model does not work as an explanation for the start of Christianity unless, at minimum, there really were a series of resurrection appearances to a widespread number of witnesses. (Or you could just read the subtitle if you were in a real hurry to know his views.)

To try to suggest that the religion took off light bolt lightning around the Mediterranean world because one or a few disciples had inner-experiences that convinced them that Jesus was still somehow “alive and with them” in a mysterious way just does not cut it.

And if Christianity began with a string of real resurrection appearances then its origins are completely beyond the norms post Enlightenment historical methodology. It is beyond secular historical inquiry.

Here are the words of LTJ (with my emphasis): read more »

5 reasons to suspect John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus

Said to be the part of the skull (de cranis) of John the Baptist, in reliquarium, Residenz, Munich

Image via Wikipedia

Frank Zindler (The Jesus the Jews Never Knew) gives five reasons to think that Josephus said nothing at all about John the Baptist.

This is something that is not generally welcomed by those who are primarily interested in defending the possibility of any independent (non Christian) evidence at all for the historical background to the gospel narrative, but it is of interest to anyone who is interested in examining the evidence with an open mind.

Unlike the interpolation of the Jesus passage(s) into Josephus, Zindler suggests that the John the Baptist passage was inserted by a Jewish Christian or “an apologist for one of the myriad ‘heretical’ sects which are known to have existed from the earliest periods of Christian history.” (p. 96) One possibility he offers is even a pre-Christian Baptist of some sort.

Because there are details of John the Baptist in Josephus that are at odds with those we find in the Gospels many scholars, writes Zindler, have been persuaded the words about John the Baptist really were composed by Josephus. But Zindler reminds us that

many non-gospel views of the Baptist existed during the first three centuries (indeed, a decidedly non-gospel type of John the Baptist holds a very prominent place in the Mandaean religion to this day), and an unknown number of them might have held the opinion now supposed to have been that of Josephus. (p. 97)

Here are Zindler’s reasons for believing the passage in Josephus is a forgery. read more »

The First Gospel was a Jewish Novel?

Bakhtin in the twenties.
Image via Wikipedia

Though most scholars of the gospels appear to regard the gospels as a form of ancient biographies of Jesus, there are a number who continue to doubt that “biography” really does describe their genre. One of these is Michael E. Vines, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lees-McRae College, North Carolina, who wrote The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel.

In order to know how to interpret and understand a literary work it is important to understand its genre and the conventions associated with that genre. A work will expect to be read in a certain way according to its genre, whether it is a biography, history, historical novel, romance novel, epic, tragedy, satire, etc.

I outline here in gossamer thin dot points some of Vines’ reasons for reading the Gospel of Mark as a Jewish novel rather than as another ancient biography. Much of Vines’ book is a discussion of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin‘s analysis of what constitutes a literary genre. That is (for me at least) a fascinating study that I would love to explore in greater depth and one that I will probably post on in future discussions of Gospel (especially the Gospel of Mark’s) genre. So what follows cannot possibly be a communication of a full grasp of Vines’ understanding of the genre of the Gospel of Mark. But I will try to present salient points without denying some justice to both Vines’ and Bakhtin’s analysis.

I have only now completed reading Vines’ book so have not yet had time to digest it and compare its propositions with alternative perspectives. So what I give here is Vines “in the raw”. I expect in relatively short time I will see some details slightly differently.

What indicates a particular genre? read more »

Origins of the Jesus myth (Thoughts)

Crucifixion
Image via Wikipedia

If the gospel narratives have no basis in historical reality then from where might the basic story idea have originated?

Do certain modern studies in the origins of the Old Testament narratives point towards possible explanations for the origins of the gospel narratives?

An explanation for the OT stories

The certain studies of OT origins I have in mind are those of scholars like Thomas L. Thompson and other “minimalists”. They have looked for historical circumstances and events that might explain some of the themes running through the various narratives found in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges and the books of Samuel and Kings. This search was triggered by archaeological finds that indicate there was no patriarchal migration from Mesopotamia to Canaan of the type suggested in the Genesis stories of Abraham, no great exodus of Israelites from Egypt, and no united Kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. And rather than there having been a “divided kingdom” with Israel in the north competing with Judah in the south as we read through much of the books of Kings and Chronicles, the kingdom of Judah did not emerge until after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians.

So if the archaeological evidence led to the conclusions that there was no Abraham, no Moses, no David or Solomon as per the biblical story, what can explain the origins of such stories?

First, look at the stories to see what they are about.

The stories of Abraham and Exodus are both about divinely commanded and divinely led migrations from gentile lands to a land of “Canaan” in which dwell peoples of a different religion and race. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as the Joshua led tribes, must negotiate with these neighbours to work out settlement arrangements with them, although the Israelites under Joshua do so only after the failure of Plan A which was to kill them all. The stories of Judges, Saul, David and Solomon also carry the themes of relationships with these neighbours: finishing off subjugating them, enlisting them as cheap labour, the importance of keeping God’s elect people “pure” and separate from them.

What sort of society can explain stories like these? read more »

Some lights are turning on in the Arab world once again, at last

Information is power, it is said, and for a democracy to survive people need information as much as they need air. Wikileaks has been the channel for exposing dark secrets, and in response the first lights were turned on in Tunisia.

Following new information and Tunisia more lights are being turned on in Egypt and Yemen. Is there also hope for those in Saudi Arabia and — can one possibly breathe any hope for the Palestinians? Or with most of their leadership either murdered, incarcerated or Quislinged, that may be one candle too many.

The winds of change that have been sweeping across Latin America appear to have at last fanned a few flickerings in the Middle East too.

It’s a tense, but hopeful, time.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Wrong link to Allison’s discussion of circularity in historical Jesus studies

In my previous post I misdirected anyone interested in following up where I posted on Dale Allison’s discussion of circularity in historical Jesus studies. I have since corrected that link. Here it is again:

Clarity about circularity by Dale Allison

The point being that Hobsbawm’s insistence on the need for independent evidence is designed to avoid just this circularity that is at the core of historical Jesus studies. His attempt to equate Hobsbawm’s historical concerns with those of Allison curiously manages to avoid this central point and difference between the two approaches to history.

It does not do to try to change the rules and say we have to work without independent evidence in the case of the gospels because it doesn’t exist. If it doesn’t exist then we need to ask questions of the evidence that will allow us to work within the norms of a valid logic that avoids circularity.

How a biblical scholar uses sleight of hand to argue against mythicism

McGrath has linked to my post critiquing his comments on the Christ myth proposition and managed to avoid totally the whole point of my post — and the whole point of the particular quotation from Hobsbawm in question. But that is the normal way he “responds” to such critiques.

He also seeks to imply that those who use this quotation are ignorant of Hobsbawm’s arguments and are misrepresenting them, and he does this be showing he has at last got his hands on a copy of a book in which the quote does not appear, even though I have often cited the source of the quotation on my blog.

I have regularly cited the source: From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004). That is not easy to locate anymore, but the article is now available in pdf format at http://www.ncsu.edu/project/acontracorriente/spring_04/Slatta.pdf. (McGrath has asked more than once for evidence and sources (purportedly) to help him understand how nonbiblical historians work, and I have given him sources several times but he seems not to have followed them up.)

McGrath has completely sidestepped the whole point of the quotation and of my previous post, which is the importance of independent evidence for uncovering historicity of narratives.

“In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ’social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.”

It is instructive that McGrath originally elicited this quotation from one of his commenters by asking point blank:

Evan, Perhaps you can clarify, with reference to historians and historical methodology, how you are using the term “fact.”

Evan then responded with the quotation (and some others) along with his explanation in direct answer to McGrath’s request to clarify what he meant — with reference to historians and historical methodology — how he was using the word “fact”

Unfortunately, McGrath appears to have become derailed at the Evan’s cogent response as requested, and turned on him for “quote mining” and ripping words out of context.

But the quotation was not out of context. It explained exactly how Evan was using the term “fact”, and he did so with reference, as requested, to historians and historical methodology.

First time round McGrath dismissed Hobsbawm’s quote as a commie plot!

McGrath has had a hard time with Hobsbawm. When I first presented his words to him he responded that they were not reliable because they were part of a communist plot to re-write history.

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?

Note also that even then McGrath misused the quotation erroneously thinking that it was arguing that one needed “evidence other than texts” to verify historical facts. I had made no such argument at all, and Hobsbawm was certainly not arguing that. Yet that is how McGrath chose to use the quote.

Now that these words have resurfaced on his own blog he has once again used sleight of hand to misuse them. Just as he earlier attempted to argue that Hobsbawm was arguing a position neither he nor I ever suggested, he now uses the quotation to argue that they say something far less than they actually do. He has a hard time with reading its last sentence: In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.

And that is exactly what we lack in the case of the actions of Jesus. Even his existence is, by the same standards, theoretically open to question, as Albert Schweitzer himself pointed out:

[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] 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 be raised so high as positive probability. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)

And that could be why McGrath is clearly determined to get rid of this Hobsbawm quote by any trick in the book, fair or foul, he can find.

To cap off the McGrath’s misapplication of Hobsbawm’s methods, he even compares Hobsbawm’s work with biblical scholar Dale Allison’s on the historical Jesus. Allison, as I showed in a recent post, has the honesty to recognize the circularity of methods used in historical Jesus studies. Will McGrath suggest Hobsbawm’s requirement for independent evidence means that his work is also grounded in circularity? It is, of course, only by means of independent evidence that one can escape circularity.

I discussed this in my previous post about how we can know anyone existed in ancient times, and what is meant by “independent” evidence.

Enhanced by Zemanta

How do we know anyone existed in ancient times? (Or, if Jesus Christ goes would Julius Caesar also have to go?)

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum
Image via Wikipedia

Most things we know we know because “everyone knows” them to be true. They are things we are taught at school and that remain unquestioned in our cultural life. Though much of this “social knowledge” will not be seriously questioned by most of us, we have trained specialists or scientists who will question and test some of it. So we have two types of knowledge: social knowledge and scientific knowledge.

Most of us know figures from the past existed as a form of social knowledge. I know evolution is a fact as a form of social knowledge, and with a little effort I have found I can also know it is true as a more secure, evidence-based form of knowledge.

Most of us know Julius Caesar existed because this is a matter of public record and taught in schools. Specializing students of history know he exists because they become familiar with the evidence: coins with his name and image, busts, books written by him, writings among his contemporaries like Cicero speaking of him. His existence and career is also a very powerful explanation the way Rome and its conquered territories came to be ruled by an emperor.

There is a constellation of other persons in Caesar’s life for whom we don’t have the same strength of evidence. But the fact that those others are written about by authors who express intentions to address the facts of his life gives us strong confidence in the probability of their existence, too.

Some historical persons such as Socrates who have become part of the web of our social knowledge are from time to time questioned by specialist students and scholars. But many of these specialists are satisfied Socrates existed on the strength of the independence of the ancient testimonies. Not only is Socrates found among the writings of his reverential devotees like Plato and Xenophon, but he also appears comedy plays by a contemporary playwright as the but of crude mockery.

So when we get beyond social knowledge, specialist students can uncover the more empirical evidence for the existence of ancient persons. What persuades is where that evidence is multiple, independent and not self-serving or agenda driven. read more »

More charlantry from a biblical professor on mythicism

char·la·tan (shärl-tn)

n.

A person fraudulently claiming knowledge and skills not possessed.

Source: http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Charlantry

Theologian James McGrath is once again exposing his ignorance — and peddling public ignorance in the process — of both Jesus-mythicism and of the gulf between biblical studies and nonbiblical mainstream historical methods.

His latest foray as far as I am aware is found in his discussion professing to explain what “mythicism” has to say about 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. This is where Paul writes some instructions about the observance of the Lord’s Supper.

The first flag McGrath waves to declare his ignorance of mythicism is when he writes:

What mythicism does with 1 Corinthians 11 is, on the one hand, refuse to allow the slightly later Gospel of Mark to shed light on it, while on the other hand, posits that Paul is referring to a heavenly occurrence in a mythical realm. read more »

The Great Betrayal of the Palestinians

Continuing my posts on the history of the Palestinians (from a Palestinian scholar’s historical research) seems superfluous now, given the in-your-face evidence of how the Palestinian Authority and PLO leadership has betrayed their people. The betrayal began with Arafat. He was the first to agree to be paid off to act as Israel’s policeman, with “foreign aid” in the form of police handcuffs from the U.S.

The principled Palestinian leaders, or would-be leaders, have long since been kidnapped (they were democratically elected in UN monitored free and fair elections, by the way) and incarcerated in Israeli prisons. But that crime is not nearly so well known, and the names of the victims are too numerous (and Arabic!) for anyone to recall, compared with the case of that solitary Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. (There’s a double irony in that last sentence that I hope is picked up — and more importantly followed up.)

One can only weep.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Were there No Pharisees in Galilee to Debate with Jesus?

Brooklyn Museum - The Pharisees and the Herodians Conspire Against Jesus

Image via Wikipedia

At least a couple of well-known biblical scholars do give us reason to doubt the popular gospel image of Jesus bumping into Pharisees with every step he took in Galilee. They met him in the corn-fields, they argued with him in the synagogues, they were even found in houses with him. Jesus warned his Galilean followers to beware of them. They even plotted his death from Galilee.

Along with this image we are frequently told in scholarly tomes that Jesus and his disciples were devout Jews who followed the customs one reads about in later rabbinical literature, and that were said to be led by the religious leaders based in Jerusalem and Judea (south of Galilee). The assumption is usually made that the Old Testament writings (Jewish scriptures) were on the lips, fringes, doorposts and hearts of the generally devout Jews (such as Jesus’ disciples and closer followers) throughout not only Judea but also Galilee where Jesus preached.

So it is interesting to stop and consider the implications of the following scholarly claims that Pharisees were really quite a rare site in Galilee in the time of Jesus. read more »

Why is Nazareth in the narrative? Why are women at the tomb?

Still catching up with other questions that have bypassed the comments lists on the blog. I’m sure many readers have responses that will be more cogent and comprehensive than mine, so welcome a collective wisdom. They’re not questions I have thought a huge amount about so only have a few sketchy comments to make.

Here are the next two questions for us (courtesy of Nate).

Nazareth which is a mixed settlement of Muslim...
Image via Wikipedia
1.  All honest historians agree that the Holy Family’s trip to Bethlehem (either to flee from a raging king, or for the sake of a census) is absolute rubbish.  It’s obvious that the Gospel authors need Jesus to be born in Bethlehem for Davidic symbolism and the purposes of prophecy fulfillment.  But if there was no historical Jesus whatsoever, then why deal with a town like Nazareth in the story?  I know archaeology has shown that there wasn’t really much a Nazareth to speak of in the relevant time period, so if we were Gospel writers, why not just have Mary and Joseph situated in their home town of Bethlehem?  Why make up the plot element of them being in Nazareth and having to trek back to Bethlehem, only to come back to Nazareth, a place of utter insignificance, later on?  Why not leave that complication completely out of the story if you’re trying to pass your fictitious character off as historical?

1. Nazareth read more »

Why did opponents of Christianity not declare Jesus was a myth?

Starting to catch up here with a few comments or queries that have bypassed the blog because they don’t quite fit to a post of mine. Here’s one:

But I want to ask a question from the opposite angle, but one that also concerns a conspicuous absence.  We have to at least admit that Christianity was growing rapidly in the first three centuries CE, and after the first few generations of conspirators (that constructed a would-be Christ myth), we know that the growing movement in the 2nd and 3rd centuries believed in the historicity and resurrection account of Jesus.

So if at least that much is true…

WHY didn’t numerous 2nd and 3rd century Jews debunk the gospel/resurrection story in writing?  I can find no evidence of such writings from the Jews…rather the writings that we do see argue against Jesus being the Messiah on theological grounds, not historical or forensic ones.  If in fact the lack of historicity was so clear (and I dare say it would have been clearer then than now, since the mythology hadn’t had time to snowball down the hill of history and gain momentum), why not point it out with volumes of refutation?

The dates we assign to the canonical gospels and epistles attributed to Paul lay outside the purview of this question.  The only critical element we need to raise the question is the known growth of the Christian movement, not the dates of individual texts within that movement.

If there’s a complete lack of historicity, why didn’t the non-adherents snuff out the Jesus fire before it got too large to be challenged by straightforward historical evidence?

I’ve seen a cogent answer to this question by Earl Doherty somewhere but I cannot locate it at the moment.

C. J. O’Brien recently gave his take on the question. Here is mine. . . . read more »

Second thoughts on the Gospel of Mark as Biography

Below Trash and Vaudeville and along the wall ...

Image via Wikipedia

Understanding the nature of a text is a significant factor in knowing how to interpret it and how to use it as historical evidence. Many scholars today, following Burridge, accept that the Gospel of Mark is a biography of the life of Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark is widely considered to be the first written of the canonical gospels and the one that strongly influenced the making of the other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke. Some scholars also think John’s gospel was built upon a knowledge of Mark.

Some scholars see Mark as the original written composition of the Jesus narrative. But why it was written, by whom and for whom, and where and when, all remain open questions. Understanding even “what” it is remains open to debate. Is is a biography of Jesus? A novel? A history? A parable? A tragic drama? An anti-epic? A definitive answer to this question of its genre has the potential to assist with how we should understand and interpret it.

In a recent post I outlined the main features that Richard Burridge raises to support his view that the Gospels should be understood essentially as Biographies. (There are a few differences between the modern idea of biographies and those of the ancient Graeco-Roman time, but the idea is close enough the same. My post also specifically addressed Burridge’s arguments in relation to the Synoptics – Matthew, Mark and Luke – but he also uses much the same features to argue John is also a Biography.)

This post looks generally at a range of other scholarly viewpoints that are not satisfied with Burridge’s conclusions. These voices are probably a minority today since Burridge’s work has been very influential among scholars.

I take these dissenting voices from The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel by Michael E. Vines. (And thanks to Michael Nordbakke and Gilgamesh for alerting me to this book in various comments.)

Vines addresses Burridge’s argument with specific application to the Gospel of Mark. read more »