2011-01-14

Scholars who question the historicity of Jesus’ baptism and why they “do not persuade”

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by Neil Godfrey

Icon_of_jesus_baptism-138x300I was struck by a sentence by Dale C. Allison in his Constructing Jesus that began as follows:

Indeed, Jesus seems to have submitted to John’s baptism. . . . (p. 53)

Only “seems”? I did not know that any theologian and biblical scholar who accepted the historical reality of Jesus doubted it. So catch that footnote number and make a quick check. Here is the explanatory footnote:

This is rarely doubted, although see William Arnal, “Major Episodes in the Biography of Jesus: An Assessment of the Historicity of the Narrative Tradition,” TJT 13 (1997): 201-26; Leif E. Vaage, “Bird-Watching at the Baptism of Jesus: Early Christian Mythmaking in Mark 1:9-11,” in Reimagining Christian Origins (ed.. Castelli and Taussig), 280-94. Arnal and Vaage do not persuade, in part because, as Mark’s account of the crucifixion and Luke’s theological use of Jerusalem show, remembered facts may not only serve literary ends but may also be fully clothed in legendary and mythological dress. The snag here is that almost every bit of tradition is integrated into the surrounding Synoptic narratives and serves clear editorial ends, so unless we are to find only fiction in the Synoptics, observation of such integration and such ends cannot suffice to determine derivation.

This is why I like Dale Allison so much. He is equal to the most honest biblical scholar that I have encountered who also believes in the historicity of Jesus. He essentially admits his belief is a belief and does not kid himself (or his readers) that his reasoning is not circular. There are a number of other theologians who cannot face this fact about their own writings.

Theologian James McGrath challenged me to address a scholar like E.P. Sanders “point by point” and still deny the historicity of Jesus, and when I did so, including a discussion of what Sanders argues about the baptism of Jesus, McGrath belatedly responded with a weak and meek “I do not agree”. I had hoped for some serious response that included a statement of reasons for his disagreement. I would much rather engage with Dale Allison who does demonstrate an ability to give a reasoned response.

What Allison argues is that just because a narrative in the gospels can be demonstrated to consist of:

  1. a literary-rhetorical plot-structural function in the narrative
  2. legendary and mythological images, tropes and motifs

then it does not necessarily mean that it was only invented by the author to serve those literary ends, nor only invented out of pre-existing mythical materials.

But Allison does go further. He’s a battler and is not going to give up the reality of his favourite star until he fires off his last round.

The rest of the gospel narrative, he implies, is not entirely mythical or plot-functional, so we (he) may comfortably assume that part of the narrative really is historical, or at least based on imperfect memories and Chinese whispers traced back to eye-witness reports.

Essentially Allison is asserting that the Gospels contain a quasi-historical narrative with occasional overlays of mythological and literary renditions.

But why can’t we turn that around and say the Gospels contain mythological and literary narratives with occasional overlays of passages that sound prosaicly unmythological and nonliterary?

As Allison himself writes in another context,

What good is an argument that one can effortlessly flip to establish its contrary? (p. 70)

What Allison appears to me to be doing is asserting that anything that cannot be traced to a mythical derivation is likely grounded at some level in genuine history, and anything that is mythical in the same narrative is therefore an overlay or dolled-up presentation of more things that we can assume are historical.

Either way, it is all assumption. And of course the Christian faith requires, in its literal rendition at least, the historicity of much of the Jesus and Gospel narrative.

What’s the alternative? To do historical inquiry into areas for which we have evidence, and/or to tailor our historical questions to fit the nature of the evidence we do have. I might love and wish with all my heart for William Tell to be a true hero. But if the evidence is not there for me to do a historical-biographical inquiry into his life then I simply can’t do it. The best I can do is use the available evidence to investigate how the narrative of William Tell arose in the first place and how and why many came to believe in his historicity.

It is the same with the “evidence” we have for Jesus.

Historians in other topics that do not come with a modern popular faith component rely on external corroboration to establish the reliability of an apparently historical report or narrative. (I have cited so often the quotations of Albert Schweitzer and Eric Hobsbawm in this respect that I fear I would be thought to have Alzheimer’s if I were to repeat those cites again here. I must do some more reading to garner additional names who make explicit what most of their peers take for granted.) By external corroboration I mean more than merely an independent reference to a key event in the narrative. An external support might mean some clear indicator of the authority of the writing in question: an official national or state government document that came with an authenticating seal and that established the details of your birth is worth more to establish your true identity than your namesake by chance appearing in a fiction novel.

Allison’s reasons for not being persuaded by the arguments of Arnal and Vaage are self-serving. He wants to be right when he assumes the non-mythical verses  joining up the myth-tinged episodes in the Gospels are somehow records of oral traditions that originated with historical events. But there is no evidence to support this assumption (apart from more literary evidence from within the same Christian source-set).

But there really IS external, independent evidence that does quite surely link to the narratives in the gospels, and it is all mythical literary evidence in the Old Testament, and occasionally from among Greek poets and playwrights.

The Old Testament oracles (Malachi) pronounced an Elijah figure to come to announce beforehand a God representative to usher in the Kingdom of God. They (Isaiah) also pronounced a voice in the wilderness to make the same announcement. Hey presto, a figure appears dressed up like Elijah and preaching in the wilderness about the coming of God’s Kingdom.

And let’s not ask, as Joseph Campbell reminds us, how it came about that the name of the baptizer was the namesake of the Babylonian god of waters and new life. Josephus will secure us a sure historical place for John, even if all the details he lists (preaching after Jesus was crucified; baptizing for a different purpose from the Gospel’s John’s baptism) are inconsistent with those found in the Gospels.

Let’s sum up.

The argument for tale of Jesus’ baptism by John being mythical rests entirely on the fact that all of its details can be explained as having either a literary function or a literary/mythical origin.

There is no evidence that anything narrated in these literary or mythical parameters had an external real historical existence.

All the evidence is that the narrative of the baptism is mythical/literary.

There is no evidence of any kind, not even independent literary evidence, to support the synoptic gospel story that Jesus was baptized by John.

But Dale Allison is “not persuaded” that the story is mythical because it sits within Gospels that contain other narratives and editorial fillers that are not so obviously linked to known mythical events. Personally I find very few narratives in the Gospels devoid of mythical trappings or theological agendas.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather turn my credibility antenna down to “low receptivity” until evidence clearly external to the gospels emerges from a clay pot in another Jordan valley cave.

Till then, if a narrative can be shown to serve a literary function, and if the same narrative can be shown to be made up of various mythical elements and be told with the same words found in other texts “predicting” this event, I think the sensible option is to err on the side of this narrative being construed from start to finish in the mind of the author.

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  • Mike Wilson
    2011-01-15 04:50:10 UTC - 04:50 | Permalink

    “fact that all of its details can be explained”
    I think this is a problem, because though one may be able to make an explanation, it does not mean that explanation is a fact. an argument that the author would want to invent the baptism of Jesus by John is subjective, and would not negate the possibility that John baptized Jesus, which can be conjectured because the genre we are dealing with is one that often presents the happenings in a persons life. It is a fact that one can say, “I think the author invented this”. It is not a fact the that that is true, even absent corroborating evidence of the event. We simply can’t create artificial facts.

    Imagine a scenario where in 10,000 years some alien finds a copy of a “Nostradamus: prophecies fulfilled” book and it talked about how Hitler was and 9/11 was prophesied by quatrains x and y. With no other evidence at their disposal they declare the author invented these events to fit the prophecies, as per your rules. It is a fact that 9/11 and Hitler are inventions of the author to fulfill Nostradamus’s prophecies. Now later they find a catch of history books and films, and ta-da!, Hitler and 9/11 are now historical facts, not literary ones. Now would our aliens be correct in in saying that Hitler and 9/11 were inventions was a true fact until the discovery of the new information mad that false? No, it was always false, and if our aliens understood how prophecy writers and historical events interact, they would not have concluded that it was a fact that the events were literary creations. At best they could say that that their isn’t enough evidence to make a conclusion.

    • 2011-01-15 06:41:09 UTC - 06:41 | Permalink

      “…an argument that the author would want to invent the baptism of Jesus by John is subjective…”

      Are you not following the train of thought here? It isn’t that we’re saying out of the blue, “I think this is an invention.” What we’re saying is the baptism serves theological and narrative purposes, and beyond that, every facet of the story has one or more antecedents in the OT. Further, each successive author had no qualms about rewriting the story to serve his own theological purposes.

      And certainly you must have read enough of Neil’s posts to know that he’s talking about historical probabilities. It’s more likely a story that looks like a legend and is constructed out of used lumber from the Hebrew Bible probably is a legend. We’re safer sticking with the simpler, albeit provisional, explanation until some real evidence comes along.

    • 2011-01-15 15:26:12 UTC - 15:26 | Permalink

      Your Nostradamus analogy misses the point being made about the Gospel narratives. It would be applicable IF the 9/11 narrative was expressed with phrases directly from Nostradamus. I have not seen the claims about Nostradamus in relation to 9/11 but I suspect they do not contain passage and phrase after passage and phrase that coincide with the way a newscast or documentary describes 9/11. To make your point for my argument about the gospels you would have to show the evidence that the journalists turned to Nostradamus and filled their stories with phrases from him, and evidence that they took some of their plot lines from Nostradamus. Can you do that?

      Ends do not justify means. I think I have tried to explain in an earlier comment to you that my maths teacher at school would fail us even if we got the right answer but at the same time happily got that lucky answer by an invalid method. It did no good to complain that our final answer was the same as someone who got full marks if that other person demonstrated they understood the valid method. If NASA had discovered that the “face” on Mars really was a face, they would not be justified in turning to all the kooky publications that had been arguing this for entirely spurious reasons.

      • Mike Wilson
        2011-01-16 04:49:36 UTC - 04:49 | Permalink

        I would just as soon not go on more about hypothetical aliens and Nostradamus, I’m afraid I didn’t communicate that with clarity, or you may be unfamiliar with modern works on Nostradamus or other so-called prophets from the people who believe that sort of thing. While there isn’t much you will learn about the future from such works, I do recommend flipping though a few just to see how modern prophecy mongers use old prophecies to explain the present. It counters the notion that we should assume that events that are depicted as a part of prophecy fulfillment should be assumed to have been invented for such purpose.

        I do admit that this is a bit off topic, since prophecy fulfillment is only in play in the “prepare a path in the wilderness’ bit. Regarding John’s diet and outfit, while we do have evidence that people did live in the wilderness in rustic outfits, it is very possible that the specifics were drawn from the OT regardless of what he actually wore, though it would be less likely that this would be used if John were known for his princely apparel. That John baptized Jesus, is of course unparalleled in the OT, and doesn’t seem to be a part of any prophecy fulfillment. Of course it could have been invented by an author, but that applies to anything written by anyone that is not a confirmed historical fact, so is a meaningless statement. Evidence that it is likely to have been, so far as I’ve seen, isn’t compelling and must be weighed against the likelihood that John baptized lots of people, that John comes up a lot in Christian traditions, the common conclusion that the Gospels are of a genre interested in presenting the real deeds of an individual(though, admittedly, disputed by some) and religious seekers of the time might be likely candidates to seek out popular religious people. This counters the idea that there is no evidence for historicity, you simply dismiss that the evidence is valid.

        It would be irresponsible literary analysis to claim that this is surely a literary invention. That we cannot prove that this happened does allow for the statement, “this could be an invention”, hopefully followed with a justification for this(as I mentioned earlier “could be” isn’t a particularly profound statement). The lack of proof that this is a literary invention combined with the the lack of scholarly support for the position really forbids us from touting it as a fact, even if we personally believe that it is.

  • pf
    2011-01-15 12:53:47 UTC - 12:53 | Permalink

    I think Mike’s point is that your opinion that “baptism serves theological and narrative purposes” is not evidence that the entire story was invented. More succinctly, opinions are not evidence.

    Do the facts raise the possibility that the story was invented? Sure, but I think it is much more probable that the stories are embellished from real events than that they were invented out of whole cloth. But that’s my opinion, which certainly is not any more evidence than yours.

    • 2011-01-15 14:50:10 UTC - 14:50 | Permalink

      We have evidence that the narrative details are sourced from the OT, and some even see Greek mythical sources. We can see the theological and narrative function of the narrative (that is more than just an opinion — it is a literary analysis that builds its case from the structure and semantics of the passage).

      We have no evidence that the scene is historical.

      If this were not in the Bible and had no relevance to anyone’s faith today there would be absolutely no reason to presume any historical underlay.

      Take away the narrative function and take away the known sources of the narrative and there is absolutely nothing left.

      Historical events and people are otherwise known to be coloured with mythical touches (e.g. Hadrian, Alexander, the Pharaohs) but take away those mythical dashes and we have scarcely made a dent on what we know about these historical characters.

      The Jesus story can be explained — from the clear evidence — almost entirely as sourced from other literature and there is no reason to speculate that there might also have been some other (historical) source for which we have zilch evidence.

      We have evidence it is a literary creation; we have no evidence it is historical. So why insist on it also being historical?

      • pf
        2011-01-16 06:04:12 UTC - 06:04 | Permalink

        Neil, I’m not totally unsympathetic to your view, but the opposite of what you say is also true.

        If this were not the bible, nobody would have any reason to doubt the historical outlay.

        You (or anybody) have no evidence that the scene is not historical. Evidence of a negative is impossible to come by. The debate is not subject to any concrete evidence one way or another.

        If you take away the narrative and sources of any story there is nothing left.

        I don’t agree that the Jesus story can be sourced from the Hebrew bible. After all, the “story” has to be gleaned by ripping the Hebrew scriptures totally out of context (for example, Jesus was born of a “virgin” or that the Messiah was the “suffering servant” of Isaiah).

        Again, I don’t accept the NT at face value, but it takes a real strain to think it is made up from whole cloth.

        • 2011-01-16 08:19:02 UTC - 08:19 | Permalink

          pf: “If this were not the bible, nobody would have any reason to doubt the historical outlay.”

          I would. I’ll bet you would, too. So would many modern historians (of whom I don’t include myself; I’m just an amateur). Consider Tacitus and Suetonius. We know who they are and when they wrote. However, it’s also now widely accepted that both were prone to pass on gossip, rumors, hearsay, etc. We know they had biases that colored how they viewed the Julio-Claudian emperors.

          Imagine for a moment that Suetonius had recounted a story in which the emperor-to-be Trajan visits a holy man in the wilderness. And during this visit, the sky is split in two and a dove comes down from heaven. It lands on Trajan’s shoulder. All who are present can clearly hear the voice of Jupiter: “This is my beloved Son!”

          Would you really argue that the trip to the holy man was true, but everything that happened after Trajan met him was embellished? — even if the holy man were generally considered likely to be a real historical figure? Absolutely not. You’d say, “That’s later imperial propaganda, showing that Trajan was destined to become emperor.” And if I asked you, “But why would anybody make it up?” you’d be correct in wondering whether I’m some kind of idiot.

          It’s a funny thing about NT studies. People have no qualms at all about slicing away the miraculous, the unbelievable, and the impossible, believing that what’s left is probably true or a least has an historical kernel of truth. They’re so accustomed to this process that they don’t even realize they’re doing it.

          • pf
            2011-01-16 09:04:56 UTC - 09:04 | Permalink

            Tim, exactly my point, although you seem to think you disagree.

            Tacticus published gossip and rumors, but we assume the people who were the object of those rumors were real. And the gossip was based on some kernel of reality about those figures. In other words, some of it was embellished and some was made up entirely. People can debate which was which, but I think the same general principal applies to the NT.

            In your example, would you assume that Trajan and the holy man didn’t exist because the stories were farfetched?

            • 2011-01-16 13:07:14 UTC - 13:07 | Permalink

              pf: In your example, would you assume that Trajan and the holy man didn’t exist because the stories were farfetched?

              Why would I? You’re conflating two different arguments into one. Let’s back up a bit. The main question of this post was whether the baptism of Jesus actually occurred. The question of the historicity of Jesus is a separate issue. Many scholars who firmly believe that Jesus existed still doubt the historicity of the baptism by John. They contend the story was created to serve several narrative and theological purposes.

              pf: Tacticus published gossip and rumors, but we assume the people who were the object of those rumors were real.

              We don’t need to assume they were real, since we have external corroboration — real, hard, tangible evidence. We also know who Tacitus was, when he wrote, and where he got his source material. On the other hand, we do not know who wrote the gospels, when the were written, or even where they were written. We don’t know how many rewrites each gospel went through before they appeared in the form we received them.

              pf: People can debate which was which, but I think the same general principal applies to the NT.

              I’ll try it again. Instead of an imaginary story about Trajan, consider instead the many stories Vespasian circulated in order to establish his divine right to rule. Suetonius and Tacitus tell us he had oracular visions and healed the sick. (Curiously, it is said Vespasian’s spittle healed a blind man.) We tend to think none of these events happened. They were propaganda. Even Josephus got in on the act.

              Now some specific problems with the gospel stories include the fact that their portrait of John conflicts with Josephus. Mark says John baptized for the remission of sins. Josephus explicitly says the baptismal rite was not intended to forgive sins. As Neil mentions above, Josephus indicates J. the B. came after J. the C.

              With no evidence for the baptism and plenty of reasons not to believe it, why should we assume there is a kernel of truth? Why should we assume anonymous documents of unknown origin that conflict with one another and were written in order to proclaim religious doctrine contain useful historical information?

              • 2011-01-16 14:11:21 UTC - 14:11 | Permalink

                Does anyone think that Vespasian really did heal people but that the miraculous touches were later elaborations? I doubt it. If you take away the miraculous elements of these stories you don’t uncover an historical Vespasian, you simply destroy a narrative (to paraphrase Thomas L. Thompson in another context). Remove the tales of the fantastic from Vespasian and you still have plenty of narrative about Vespasian — and plenty of independent corrobration, too.

              • 2011-01-16 16:41:34 UTC - 16:41 | Permalink

                William Wrede wrote:

                We are in too great a hurry to leave the terrain of the evangelists’ accounts. We urgently want to utilise it for the history of Jesus itself. In order to do so features that cannot be credited are cut out and the meaning is worked out in such a way as to become historically serviceable; that is to say, something which was not in the writer’s mind is substituted for the account and represented as its historical content. There is extremely little sensitivity to the tremendous precariousness of this procedure; but above all no questions are asked about whether the characteristic life which belongs to the account itself is eliminated by it.” [All emphasis Wrede’s own.]

                This damning criticism from 1901 is still apt 110 years later. Of course, today’s scholars don’t actually read Wrede anymore than they read Wellhausen, Strauss, Reimarus, Harnack, or…. As far as I can tell, they’ve read modern summaries and critiques, but they’re ignorant of the original work.

            • Steven Carr
              2011-01-16 18:14:06 UTC - 18:14 | Permalink

              ‘In your example, would you assume that Trajan and the holy man didn’t exist because the stories were farfetched?’

              Do we have members of the Trajan Fan Club writing letters to other members about the world-changing activity of Trajan, and the significance of Trajan as the central figure in the cosmos, and yet ommitting virtually every detail of what Trajan said and did?

          • Mike Wilson
            2011-01-16 09:10:40 UTC - 09:10 | Permalink

            That would depend on whether visiting holy men was something an emperor might likely do. Calling the whole visit episode propaganda would be an unsubstantiated claim, a hypothesis needing verification before being considered a historical fact (that Suetonius invented a propagandic passage in his biography of Trajan, the actions of writers are also historical acts).

            That Nero said something about the great artist the world was losing might just be an embellishment or here-say reflecting Nero’s pretensions of artistic greatness over manly pursuits emperors were supposed to engage in. That I should doubt that he killed himself because of that however is a bit to far. Do I have evidence he died some other way? Is the bit about his slave having to finish the deed also propaganda? Maybe. But I find little reason to doubt he committed suicide even though that suits an anti Nero author’s purpose. I cannot propose based on dissimilarity that Nero went down fighting in the street or assassinated. Truly only someone woefully ignorant of history would find an issue with taking out the fabulous but maintaining the mundane, we are dealing with people that believed giant ants ferreted away gold in India, but even Romans and Greeks were interested in reality.

        • 2011-01-16 12:28:47 UTC - 12:28 | Permalink

          If you take away the narrative and sources of any story there is nothing left.

          This is not my argument. I am not saying we should remove sources, but recognize the sources for what we can plainly see they are. Spong is not a mythicist but he recognizes the sources for what they are. Spong’s more conservative critics — and I linked to a critical review of Spong acknowledging this — do not deny the nature of the sources of the narrative either. I think to deny the Hebrew Scriptures as the sources of many narrative details in the gospels is very much a minority position.

          So we have clearly recognizable literary sources for many of the gospel narrative details, and these are acknowledged by probably most scholars, even though they do not doubt that there is some historical underlay.

          It is not assumption or opinion that prompts me to argue that many of the gospel details are taken from the Hebrew Bible. That is something that most scholars would seem to think is demonstrable. But you don’t need to be a scholar to see it. The evangelists themselves advertize this fact in strategic places throughout their narratives.

          So the question remaining is, Is there also a historical underlay?

          We have clear tangible evidence that there is are literary sources for the narratives. Do we have anything comparable to lead us to think that there is a historical core?

          This is where the assumption and opinion enters. I know of no argument for a historical underlay that does not rest entirely on assumption or opinion. This is not the case for the argument that there are literary sources.

          Albert Schweitzer said as much even though he accepted the historicity of Jesus.

          [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)

          This is not the case with other historical figures we consider to be authentic in ancient history. Probably most lay people do just take these for granted (assumption and opinion) because they rely on the collective wisdom of the academics who have interpreted and written about these figures for us.

          But the academic knowledge of the need for “controls” that Schweitzer spoke of ensures that we do have some substantial reason for believing, say, Julius Caesar to have been a historical person.

          We do have primary evidence from the very time of Julius Caesar — coins, epigraphy. But even if all of these were to be lost we still have writings referencing Julius Caesar that independently confirm the very strong probability of his existence and basic outline of his career. We have nothing comparable with Jesus.

          Even with Socrates some scholars do raise doubts about his historical existence. But others are prepared to have confidence he did exist on the basis of evidence from ideologically and culturally independent sources. We have nothing comparable with Jesus.

          No one is saying, either, that the whole story of Jesus is “made up from whole cloth”. But there are clear antecdents for the story in both Hebrew and Greek stories which I have discussed here and will do so again.

          • 2011-01-16 16:56:29 UTC - 16:56 | Permalink

            Neil: Even with Socrates some scholars do raise doubts about his historical existence.

            Socrates’ existence is attested by three independent, known historical persons. Each of them claimed to know the living, human Socrates. Yet it’s still possible for historians to discuss whether there was a real, historical Socrates without one side comparing the other to Holocaust deniers, flat-earthers, and creationists. Historians who are certain that Socrates was not a purely mythical character tend not to accuse their opponents of being idiots, of hating Platonists, of being on the fringe, of lacking credentials, wetting the bed, and having bad breath.

            Odd, isn’t it?

            • pf
              2011-01-17 06:02:38 UTC - 06:02 | Permalink

              This is getting far afield and pointless. In general, our differences are more tone than substance.

              But with regard to the point about the baptism, that has always been considered by scholars as one of the more likely stories about Jesus since it is embarrassing to the church. I’d like to know what parallel there is in the Hebrew bible about a Messiah joining an apocalyptic group and being baptized by its leader.

              • 2011-01-17 12:46:55 UTC - 12:46 | Permalink

                I am sorry you see my responses as far afield and pointless, and especially that you see differences in tone more than substance. I did not think so. I am certainly not responding in any negative or hostile tone.

                I’d like to know what parallel there is in the Hebrew bible about a Messiah joining an apocalyptic group and being baptized by its leader.

                There is none. I do not say there is.

              • pf
                2011-01-17 13:37:37 UTC - 13:37 | Permalink

                Neil, this discussion is very civil. And I’m responding to Tim, to whom my question was directed.

                What is pointless is to go around in circles. We’ve stated our opinions and going on about Trajan is not useful.

              • 2011-01-17 18:20:20 UTC - 18:20 | Permalink

                At the risk of adding to your irritation, the reason I brought up Trajan and Vespasian, while Neil mentioned Socrates, is that so very often people claim that we’re too hard on the NT, that we hold it to a higher standard than any other ancient source. But that’s nonsense.

                We were trying to demonstrate that historians often set aside stories about characters in antiquity because we lack corroborating evidence and because it sounds like propaganda, gossip, or generally smells fishy. The problem with the gospels is the utter lack of corroborating evidence. It’s all story.

                So, as Neil has pointed out ad nauseam, we have the unusual phenomenon of supposedly probable events arising out of anonymous, uncorroborated texts through the magical use of Criteriology.

                What I found to be very instructive was a close reading of Crossan’s Who Killed Jesus?. He practically erases the Passion narratives from the pages of the NT, systematically wearing them away, brick by brick. Somehow, Dom comes away still believing that the crucifixion “must” have happened, but that gospel accounts are not even close to being reliable.

                The same process Crossan used to show the Passion stories are pious fiction can be applied throughout the gospels — turning Sanders’ “solid, undisputed facts” to so much dust.

              • pf
                2011-01-18 09:20:38 UTC - 09:20 | Permalink

                Who is “we,” Kemosabe?

                What “historians?”

                Corroborating evidence of things 2000 that would stand up in court is impossible. Do we have any photos of Caligulia in bed with his sister? Nobody doubts that.

                This is fun, and I can go on all day, Tim, but answer my question. If the baptism is just a recreation of a story from the Hebrew bible, give me the reference to what it is referring to. There are many NT stories that reference the Hebrew bible, but the baptism is not one of them.

              • 2011-01-18 20:03:34 UTC - 20:03 | Permalink

                The baptism and rending of the heavens are emulation of the OT motifs that go back to Genesis 1, and that are a regular feature within Jewish and Greek and Roman literature. You can declare they are not so by identifying some point at which they are not similar, and never be persuaded. Of course, any comparison can only be made if there are such differences. Without differences we would have identity and so nothing to compare. The differences actually explain the similarities. There is much scholarly literature out there about all this.

              • 2011-01-18 10:18:25 UTC - 10:18 | Permalink

                We seem to have reached WordPress’s maximum comment depth. Nature’s way of saying, “Knock it off!” 😉

                pf: “Who is ‘we,’ Kemosabe?”

                Neil had mentioned Socrates; I had mentioned Trajan and Vespasian. The pronoun “we” referred back to those statements.

                pf: “What historians?”

                The ones, for example, who admit that the stories of Alexander either slicing the Gordian Knot with a sword or cleverly finding its ends and untying it are probably mythical.

                pf: “If the baptism is just a recreation of a story from the Hebrew bible, give me the reference to what it is referring to.”

                I know of nobody who thinks the baptism was created from “a story from the Hebrew Bible.” That’s a straw man. But I suspect you already knew that; you seem pretty sharp.

                The baptism, like the Passion, was a story constructed of elements found in the Hebrew Bible. You won’t find the story of the crucifixion of Jesus in situ, lying there on the page. But you will find its building blocks in the Psalms, Isaiah, etc.

  • pf
    2011-01-18 10:56:32 UTC - 10:56 | Permalink

    So I ask who is we and your response is “Neil and I,” but your comments above are much more general.

    I ask which historians and you say “those ones,” which is not responsive.

    And I ask for a specific story and you in essence flip a bird at me. Constructed of elements? What elements? There is nothing even vaguely hinted at in the hebrew scripture of such an event. Not in entirety and not in part.

    Don’t get me wrong. You seem like a good sport for playing along. And I mostly agree with you and if we were talking I’d sound a lot more polite. But you are blowing smoke. You went too far and instead of admitting it are trying to cover up.

    • 2011-01-18 11:29:03 UTC - 11:29 | Permalink

      pf: “And I ask for a specific story and you in essence flip a bird at me.”

      Huh? What are you talking about?

      pf: “Constructed of elements? What elements? There is nothing even vaguely hinted at in the hebrew scripture of such an event. Not in entirety and not in part.”

      The river motif comes from Joshua’s parting of the Jordan to show that he has succeeded Moses (who, as you recall, had parted the Red Sea). Except in this case, the heavens split open.

      John the Baptist is a latter-day Elijah, complete with appropriate garb and curious diet.

      The dialog is quoted from scripture. John is the voice in the wilderness, taken from Isaiah and Malachi. The voice from heaven copies from the Psalms. As Robert M. Price asks, “Is God quoting God?” Um, no. Mark is mining the scriptures.

      Immediately afterward, the spirit drives Jesus into the desert for 40 days, just as Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years.

      Really, you haven’t come across all this before? This is new to you?

      “And I mostly agree with you and if we were talking I’d sound a lot more polite. But you are blowing smoke. You went too far and instead of admitting it are trying to cover up.”

      Please explain. Apparently I’ve really ticked you off, but I’m not sure why.

      • pf
        2011-01-18 12:11:04 UTC - 12:11 | Permalink

        Tim: Read my words.

        I’m not ticked off, I’m having fun. Sorry if you can’t read my smile when I write.

        About the motif: very, very weak. Joshua parting the Jordan inspired the rite of baptism? Even if that were so, it is not specifically christian. John was a Jew with a Jewish following (and he was attested to by non-christian sources, so you can’t deny he was real).

        Now I would agree the voice from heaven and the 40 days in the wilderness were motifs, but those are NOT the same thing as the baptism itself. That is exactly what I mean when I say that you can have exaggerated stories about real events. John was a prophet, Jesus was a follower who took up leadership after John was arrested/died. The baptism was real, but the rest was added to cover up the embarrassing part that Jesus was a follower of John.

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