by Neil Godfrey
Thanks to Richard Carrier for his review of Sources of the Jesus Tradition, and for his earlier coverage of the conference that preceded this book. Having read most of the book I can concur with many of Carrier’s assessments of its (very mixed) quality. R. Joseph Hoffmann, editor of the book, has written a response, and Carrier has in return replied to this. Ah, the refined art of academic throat slitting and knife twisting!
In the course of his review Carrier discusses conference papers that he deeply regrets were not included and that led me to catch up with his earlier blog post on the conference presentations themselves.
So I copy here excerpts of Carrier’s review highlighting the best of what appears in Sources, and collate additional information from his earlier post on contributions that I personally find the most interesting. The Trobisch and MacDonald reviews at the end of this post are my personal favourites. So the following will be redundant for those already familiar with Carrier’s blog and views.
Note the overlap between Gerd Lüdemann’s and Earl Doherty’s arguments about Paul’s writings, too.
A. J. Droge: Jesus and Ned Ludd: What’s in a Name?
Of the chapter appearing in Sources, Carrier writes:
A.J. Droge’s “Jesus and Ned Lud[d]: What’s in a Name?” both as presented and pre-circulated was one of the most important papers in the field of Jesus myth studies ever produced, and its loss here is a disaster. Even just its inclusion alone (when added to the other good material retained) would have made this book’s list price just about warranted. In it Droge thoroughly documents and analyzes the case of Ned Ludd (“founder” of the 18th-19th century Luddites), providing source citations and scholarship, demonstrating that he did not exist, and yet an entire movement was credited as having been founded by him, complete with biography, tales, and teachings, within a generation of when he was supposed to have lived (about thirty years of his supposed techno-sabotage, and thus within his very lifetime, had he lived, and lived to a commonly reached age). This establishes a useful case to compare with Jesus, to ascertain how likely the same may have unfolded for him (and, of course, it refutes the claim that such a thing can’t happen).
On Droge’s contribution at the 2008 conference Carrier had written:
After this came A.J. Droge . . . professor of literature at the University of Toronto at Scarborough (and co-author of several books on ancient Christianity), who read his paper “Jesus and Ned Lud[d]: What’s in a Name?” which I found unexpectedly fascinating. Droge confessed he was an agnostic about the historicity of Jesus and might even be leaning to the conclusion that Jesus was apocryphal. And the gist of his paper was pretty much that: that just as Ned Ludd (the apocryphal father of the Luddite movement) is likely ahistorical, and even if not, unrecoverable (and therefore, either way, only the mythical Ned Ludd can be studied now, so that’s all we should study, much the same conclusion MacDonald maintained at the conference), so, too, for Jesus. He argued the analogy holds, but he and others conceded that more comparative studies like this are needed before we can be certain.
To this end, Droge summarized the latest research on Ned Ludd and drew some parallels with the extant Jesus tradition. Like Jesus, Ludd had many contradictory traditions arise about him well within a century–in fact many quite rapidly, within 40 years of his alleged techno-sabotage in 1779, an event that historians have failed to find any evidence of, or of the man at all, yet by 1810 he was a revered hero and imagined founder of a movement (or several originally unrelated movements) of antitechnocrats. Soon all manner of stories were circulating about him, even fake letters by him were written as early as 1812, and novels about his life within decades of that.
Droge argued that since it’s silly to try and find the “historical” Ned Ludd (whether he existed or not), it’s just as silly to try and find the “historical” Jesus (ditto).
Carrier criticizes Droge, however, for only examining one side of what needs to be studied:
At some point in the conference I made the counter-point to Droge that a common explanation for any given Christian tradition about Jesus is that Jesus actually said or did something (or people reacted to something Jesus said or did) that inspired that tradition. So we cannot presume Droge is correct that we cannot recover any history about Jesus. Droge (or anyone else who shares his view) has to demonstrate that all such arguments (i.e. every attempt to explain specific traditions by appealing to some underlying historicity) are invalid or unsound. That would be a valuable achievement in its own right. But it must actually be done before moving on to Droge’s desired project of only studying the traditions as traditions, rather than as vehicles for preserving kernels of historical fact. Achieving one or the other (i.e. proving Droge either right or wrong about this) is exactly what the Jesus Project should be about. So I found his paper a good wake-up call to the real problem we need to solve.
Justin Meggitt: Popular Mythology in the Early Empire and the Multiplicity of Jesus Traditions
Carrier’s comments on the chapter in Sources:
But the three most important chapters in this book, which alone make it worth having (if you can get a cheap copy), are Justin Meggitt’s “Popular Mythology in the Early Empire and the Multiplicity of Jesus Traditions,” which very informedly surveys the actual context of Christian discourse and mythmaking and how this changes the way we look at the Gospels and Apocrypha (this chapter is so well referenced it’s a must-read);
Of Meggitt’s conference paper itself Carrier wrote:
But in lieu of what we lost came Justin Meggitt’s outstanding “Popular Mythology in the Early Empire and the Multiplicity of Jesus Traditions.” Meggitt is a director of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge and clearly well versed in classical history and literature (he is also one the growing crowd of experts who are recently coming to doubt and reject the Q hypothesis). His published paper is going to be an absolute goldmine of resources and data on the comparative evidence of the ubiquity and rapidity of mythmaking in ancient Greco-Roman culture generally. Which makes for simple math: having showed that this was routine in the culture that produced the New Testament, we can no longer treat the New Testament as if it were somehow special or immune to the general trends and behaviors of the time. He concludes “we should expect mythmaking at [even] the earliest stage of the tradition.”
Robert Price: The Abhorrent Void: The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus
Continuing from Carrier’s review of the book chapter, But the three most important chapters in this book, which alone make it worth having (if you can get a cheap copy) . . . . .
Robert Price’s, “The Abhorrent Void: The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus,” which, like Droge had done, teaches by example, taking the case of how quickly and shamelessly entire lists of sayings and stories were invented for Mohammed and his successors and showing that we can have no reason to believe Jesus was treated any differently, and given the evidence he presents, it’s hard to deny that conclusion, making this another must-read;
This is Carrier’s earlier assessment on Price’s conference paper:
Robert Price followed him with “The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus,” bringing up the examples of fabricated sayings (and biography) for Jesus in the Infancy Gospels, and then elaborating on the comparative analogy of the legendary development of the Islamic Hadith, the oral traditions about the deeds and sayings of Mohammed and his circle.
Just as it’s impossible to honestly reconstruct which if any of the Hadith sayings really came from Mohammed (not least because the evidence shows sayings and stories were freely invented, even consciously invented, to serve ideological interests), so, too, the sayings of Jesus. Or so Price argued. But whether the analogy carries over completely or not, he’s right that this presents us with a methodological parallel at the very least. Even the Mishnah, BTW, was the same thing: alleged traditions of legal matters handed on by Moses by spoken word rather than in the written Torah, and then (supposedly) “preserved” orally for a thousand years. The Talmuds were the same again, this time for oral traditions of Rabbis interpreting the Mishnah. But the issue, I think, comes down to how quickly this can happen, and that’s where the battle will be fought.
Gerd Lüdemann: Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus
Continuing from Carrier’s review of the book chapter, But the three most important chapters in this book, which alone make it worth having (if you can get a cheap copy) . . . . .
and Gerd Lüdemann, “Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus,” the most important chapter of all, surveys the supposed evidence in Paul’s letters of knowledge about a historical Jesus and finds in fact there is none. Such a conclusion, demonstrated by such a widely respected scholar , carries particular weight, and makes this yet another must-read.
This is what Carrier earlier wrote of Lüdemann’s conference paper:
After lunch Saturday we started again with Gerd Lüdemann’s rather brilliant paper on “Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus.” I say brilliant because it was surprisingly brief and succinct, yet thorough, persuasive, and spot on. (For those who don’t know, Dr. Lüdemann is a widely respected professor of New Testament Studies at Georg-August-University, Göttingen, with a considerable body of books and papers, and who was famously fired from an earlier professorship for no longer believing in Jesus, cf. resources at the Secular Web). Lüdemann was actually startled by the conclusion of his research on this subject, which is that Paul’s epistles show no knowledge of a historical Jesus beyond a few generic and stylized declarations of dogma.
To be precise, he concludes there is no reliable evidence regarding the historical Jesus in Paul’s letters. Lüdemann stops well short of concluding they don’t support his existence. He devoted some time to arguing that some evidence in the epistles shows Paul knew of such a person, he just didn’t know anything about him that we would consider useful. Instead, Lüdemann finds, Paul’s Jesus was clearly not based on the earthly Jesus at all (even if there was one) but the celestial Jesus that Paul in fact talks about constantly.
Though Lüdemann is still defending historicity, his findings were self-confessedly cold comfort to historicists, which is a trend I’m seeing of late. Dennis MacDonald, for instance, once acknowledged (or so I’m told) that most if not all the names of persons intimately connected to Jesus in the Gospels may be mytho-symbolic creations, and (as he more or less said at the conference) that the Gospels as a whole are essentially literary inventions rather than histories, yet he stops short of concluding from this that Jesus didn’t exist, and even defends historicity by various arguments. But you can see what direction this trend is heading. Despite the efforts of Christian apologists like Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd to reverse this trend (e.g. in the anti-mythical The Jesus Legend), their arguments are heaped with special pleading and question begging, while mainstream scholars seem to be moving the other way.
R. Joseph Hoffmann:
Despite Carrier’s problems with Hoffmann as an editor and otherwise, he does respect one of his academic contributions:
In his actual conference paper, I thought Hoffmann made an extensive and well-organized argument that the New Testament documents were produced by a faith community for preaching and propaganda, and not as disinterested (or even interested) biographies or memoirs. We see no indication in them, or in the first two centuries, any discussion of sources or reasons to prefer one account to another. They all just make Jesus do or say whatever they want. Which seems an obvious point, but laying the evidence out really drives home the implication: they weren’t even interested in knowing what the truth really was; they were only interested in the “truth” being the way they wanted it to be, and then just declared it so. This is a radically different situation to be in than for any other ancient historical person.
Hoffmann discussed how the nativity stories were invented to make a point (as is proved by their being completely contradictory, but also by the obvious symbolic and propagandistic elements in them), and not constructed from historical sources or analysis (as neither sources nor analysis appears in them), and if the Gospels can invent such elaborate historical narratives, we can have little hope anything else in them is any more factual. Similarly, the process of deciding the canon proceeded according to circular and dogmatic criteria rather than any objective method of determining document reliability. Hoffmann’s main theme was to illustrate the use of these documents to fight sectarian ideological battles, so that to expect them to also be reliable historical sources is like expecting a man to serve both God and Mammon.
Of Hoffmann’s opening remarks at the conference Carrier commends their observation:
His opening was on “Jesus ‘Projects’ and the Historical Jesus: Receding Conclusions,” which made the entirely sound point that Jesus is getting more vague, ambiguous, and uncertain the more scholars study him, rather than the other way around. Something is fishy about that. We are multiplying contradictory images, rather than narrowing them down and increasing clarity (or solidifying our state of uncertainty or ignorance). As Hoffmann said, all these versions of Jesus seem entirely plausible, and yet most of them must be false (logically, after all–only one of them can actually be accurate, and that at best). Which means even such an indicator as compelling plausibility cannot be regarded as a marker of truth. (I would add that this is as much true for mythicism as historicism.)
David Trobisch: The Authorized Version of His Birth and Death
Trobisch’s chapter . . . . is not the material presented at the conference. Instead it’s a rather random grab bag of, again, some of the results of his thesis, rather than an argument for that thesis. At the conference he discussed numerous kinds of physical and textual evidence in the manuscripts that only makes sense if the New Testament was published, all 27 books, in codex form, near the end of the 2nd century. He made a pretty convincing case, adding to the case made in his CSER article (issue 2.1, possibly the same as published in Free Inquiry 28.1), which is actually more worth reading than this chapter, as is his book on this subject (The First Edition of the New Testament), and yet there was a lot of material in his conference presentation that isn’t in either. None of which is in this chapter. Again, a great loss, as the material actually presented would have made this chapter, and with it the whole book, required reading. I can’t fathom any editor not agreeing with that and convincing Trobisch of it and thus getting the best chapter in the book (particularly as it was the actual conference paper), rather than this one, which is mediocre, and won’t convince anyone of anything.
Carrier found Trobisch’s conference paper convincing:
Then up was David Trobisch (who studied under Theissen and was most recently professor of the New Testament at Bangor Theological Seminary). I was very keen to hear his talk, after reading his provocative “Who Published the Christian Bible?” in CSER Review 2.1 (2007: pp. 29-32) and finding it very convincing in light of other research I’ve done. His talk summarized some of the elements of this, and his book The First Edition of the New Testament (2000) well beyond his CSER article, which altogether made his case even more convincing.
What is his argument? That the present New Testament canon is based on an actual four-volume codex edition published around 150 A.D. (+/- 20 years), partly in response to Marcion (Trobisch has also argued that Polycarp is the most likely redactor and publisher–although he admits we can’t prove this, several clues make Polycarp a strong candidate). Trobisch’s case fits the evidence so well, and explains so much so well, it’s hard to doubt he’s right (at least in most respects). Trobisch also makes a good case that the named authors of the Gospels were fictional additions invented at this time, when the whole NT also underwent considerable redactional activity that essentially solidified what we now call the Textus Receptus (and therefore, IMO, this is actually as far back as we can reconstruct the text–what the documents looked like before this publication is almost entirely inaccessible to us now).
I must say I’m convinced. He brilliantly employs physical evidence, paleography, literary and textual analysis, and other well-established tools and facts (some of it often overlooked), which all converges on the same conclusions. Trobisch’s argument also entails, BTW, a late date for our Luke-Acts (which was heavily redacted from earlier drafts now lost, as has long been argued already, e.g. Strange’s The Problem of the Text of Acts 1992), and corroborates MacDonald’s conclusion that even the original Luke-Acts is late. Indeed, the world’s leading expert on Acts, Richard Pervo, now argues (on similar and additional evidence) that Luke-Acts dates to the first half of the 2nd century, in Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists (2006). So this seems to be the trend today in biblical scholarship on Luke-Acts. . . .
Dennis R. MacDonald: An Alternative Q and the Quest of the Earthly Jesus
MacDonald’s chapter in this book is a highly technical bare-bones survey of the comparative results of his new theory that Mark, Matthew, and Luke all used not Q but a lost “Deuteronomy Gospel” in which the story of Jesus parallels, point for point, the entire book of Deuteronomy (mythically constructing Jesus as a new Moses). As such the chapter is purely a reference work for people wanting to pursue the theory, not an argument for that theory, and most readers will find it unintelligible or unreadable. Hence its being the first chapter in the book, after Hoffmann’s indulgently irrelevant “preface,” is one of the weirdest editorial choices I’ve ever seen.
As editor I would have told MacDonald to compose instead of this a chapter more like what he presented at the conference, and circulated beforehand: an actual survey of the evidence and argument for this proposed reconstruction, not the actual reconstruction itself. And this wouldn’t be difficult, as MacDonald would need merely excerpt and adapt the pages on this from his forthcoming book, which he precirculated, so I know this excellent material exists, and so should Hoffmann. No editor worth his salt would let this go. As it is, no one is going to be persuaded by MacDonald’s chapter that his thesis is correct, and many won’t even be able to grasp what his thesis is. And that’s a terrible shame, because MacDonald has really good arguments and evidence supporting this thesis, and for it not to be here is a scandal. I wonder if MacDonald was even consulted about this (or if Hoffmann just grabbed one piece of MacDonald’s precirculated material and slapped it in), but even had he been and asked this be done, I (like any good editor) would have persuaded him not to go with that, but something more persuasive and summarizing, using the other material I already knew he had. Instead, this chapter is a lost opportunity, and is not really worth reading, unless you are a serious bible scholar keen on reverse-engineering his thesis from a long, raw list of its results.
Carrier on MacDonald’s conference paper: “In the end I think he’s right”
Next up was Dennis MacDonald, a professor at Claremont School of Theology, whose work on the emulation of Homer in the Gospels I’ve long admired (see my old review of his first book on this subject). His theory of Homeric emulation is certainly correct as a whole, although I think he over-interprets many cases, where there probably was no intended connection. I find emulation of the Septuagint in the Gospels is far more extensive and fundamental, extending even to their overall structure, and the Homeric link only a secondary addition padded on. Now I learn MacDonald is heading in that direction, too. In fact, his conference paper was an enormous surprise to me, and brilliant, heralding a book he is currently writing (and shared excerpts of before the conference began, and summarized in his talk), which solves the Synoptic problem in a way that is not only entirely novel, but IMO most probably correct.
After reading recent work criticizing the traditional Q theory (e.g. Goodacre’s The Case Against Q and Goodacre & Perrin’s Questioning Q) I was starting to despair that we’d ever have a coherent and defensible theory of the relationship of Mark, Matthew, and Luke and their lost sources (and once again starting to realize that New Testament scholars love to parrot a consensus built on sand as if it were settled on rock). Then along comes MacDonald and his new thesis, completely departing from his focus on Homer, and tackling the Synoptic problem, and yet nailing it in a way I didn’t expect anyone could. I’m not sure everyone was convinced, but I’m also not sure they read through all the materials he had circulated.
In a nutshell, he argues that Luke used as his sources the Gospels of Mark and Matthew (as Q-deniers have long maintained), as well as the Dominical Logia referred to by Papias, and that in fact this Dominical Logia was used as a source by all three Synoptic Gospels, Mark included, and in effect represents the original (and now lost) Gospel of Jesus (as I would put it). The clincher for me is the fact that a surprising effect arises from the reconstruction that follows from his theory: the Dominical Logia appears to be a mythical emulation and transvaluation of the Septuagint book of Deuteronomy. As this fit is highly improbable unless MacDonald’s reconstruction is correct, I think MacDonald is going to win this argument in the long run.
Another thing MacDonald argues (in fact, IMO, even more convincingly) is that Luke-Acts was written after Papias and is in fact a deliberate response to Papias and the Gospel situation he described and lamented. His demonstration of this fact is fairly persuasive (e.g. Luke’s preface is so obviously an emulation and transvaluation of Papias’ remarks that it’s a Eureka moment when you see it). MacDonald dates Papias early, however, c. 100 A.D., but this still puts Luke-Acts 105-115 A.D. (which actually agrees with the recent trend in Luke-Acts studies, e.g. the latest work of Richard Pervo and David Trobisch, below). I’m skeptical of his date for Papias, however, since it’s based solely on the tense of a single verb implying he knew living Disciples of Jesus (but that interpretation is not so secure, IMO, nor is Papias reliable enough to trust on such a point) and contradicts the report in Irenaeus that Polycarp and Papias were good friends (since Polycarp is mid-to-late second century).
Nevertheless, his take on these things will be argued (with thorough scholarship and clear reasoning) in his next book, so keep your eye out for it. That will also contain a reconstruction of the lost Dominical Logia, which I expect will eventually replace what we now mean by Q. Throughout the conference MacDonald emphasized that his work and others’ essentially entail the Gospels should be entirely taken off the table when attempting to get at the historical Jesus, as they are not at all useful for any historical data (almost the same conclusion reached by Burton Mack, Randel Helms, and many other mainstream scholars of recent times). In MacDonald’s view, we can only extract from the Gospels what their contents meant to their authors (their underlying meaning, and purpose for being written), and he recommends this is all we can do, and thus all we should do. I partly disagree, as there is still work to be done first (as I’ll explain below), but I think in the end he’s right.
Other papers Carrier discusses are also informative. I’m pleased to have come across his positive comments on Bruce Chilton and James Tabor. I had only known these authors from some of their books that I found far from persuasive, but Carrier shows us the human and professional personal side of these scholars, something I much appreciate.