Neil Godfrey’s response 2: @ Stephanie Fisher

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by Neil Godfrey

Kakadu Escarpment

Kakadu Escarpment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am continuing here with another quick and easy response because real life distractions prevent me at this time from addressing Hoffmann’s and Casey’s posts against mythicism. I will address both when work and family situations permit. Right now I am relaxing after sharing with family experiences in Kakadu — plan to return tomorrow some time.

I will also probably say more about Stephanie’s criticism of Carrier’s Bayes’ Theorem, too. But for now my response is light and only concerns what she has to say about me.

Stephanie nowhere addresses my arguments about historical methodology. No-one reading her post would know that this is my main focus in any discussion of Christian origins — and that my focus is on the question of Christian origins rather than mythicism per se. (This latter focus is exactly what Hoffmann himself says he wants to see so one would think that I might be given a little credit for seeing eye-to-eye on such a basic point with “The Jesus Process” folk 😉 I will be addressing Hoffmann’s post as soon as circumstances permit.

R. Joseph Hoffmann appears to be wanting to distance his, Maurice Casey’s and Steph Fisher’s “rebuttals” of mythicism from what they appear to see as crass internet blogging for the ignorant masses — (they pour scorn on the internet and blogging community) — and has presented their posts on his internet blog as a corporate “The Jesus Process”, complete with (unnecessary but pretentious) formal copyright notices. (The “creative commons” license is presumably far too common for these elitists.)

Unfortunately for any hopes that “The Jesus Process” might be taken seriously by anyone but the Hoffmann (threesome?) choir, the hotheaded Stephanie Fisher has been included. Anyone who has observed Stephanie in action with contrary opinions knows she has nothing more to offer than hyperbolic indignation, personal attack, non sequiturs and a stubborn failure to demonstrate any ability to comprehend the views she believes she has to attack.

Misrepresenting Fredriksen?

Stephanie faults me for supposedly quoting Paula Fredriksen’s words out of context. Stephanie at no point presents and dissects my own arguments that relate to mythicist conclusions. Rather, she dregs out issues that bugged her when she was commenting — and finally trolling — on this Vridar blog in 2010 and picks up where she left off. She has learned nothing since, and has no more grasp of what she believed she was opposing back then. She writes:

Atheist blogger Neil Godfrey, an Australian ‘meta-data’ librarian (sic), thus plucked her brief comments completely out of context, and cited her in favour of the opposite interpretation.

Baloney. I did no such thing. And Stephanie does not even attempt to demonstrate how my quotation was “out of context” or how I cited her words for a view opposed their meaning. She does explain what Fredriksen’s context was, and that it was to highlight the Jewishness of Jesus’ heritage. Fredriksen is suggesting that the naming of Jesus’ brethren was an artifice to serve this ideological function. And I fully accept her explanation. I always have.

It was because of Fredriksen’s context — in exactly the way Stephanie herself repeats it — that I chose to refer to Fredriksen’s words. Fredriksen indicates that the names assigned to Jesus’ brothers are not “natural” but an artifice to support an ideological view of Jesus. So I wrote and quoted:

Although the names may have been common, to find these particular names all bracketed together is still striking. Jacob, Joseph and Judah are three of the most prominent of Israelite patriarchs, and Simeon, too, is strongly associated in this status with Judah. As Paula Fredriksen remarks:

It’s a little like naming a string of Olsons Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin: the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past. (Jesus of Nazareth, p.240)

In another post I made a similar point:

(We later learn that his brothers are named Jacob, Joseph, Judah and Simeon: “the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past”, comparable to a family of Olsons being given names Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Franklin, according to Paula Fredriksen in Jesus of Nazareth, p. 240.)

This narrative doublet announces that the traditional Jewish claims to a special status with God — the law (Jerusalem) and blood (family descent) — are insufficient to enable them to understand Jesus. . . . .

I understood perfectly Paula Fredriksen’s statement and reasons for it — its context — and so I added to it — i.e. Fredriksen’s claims, innuendo and context — other reasons (the lack of faith among Jesus’ brethren and their rejectionist function in the gospel) for believing that the names of Jesus’ brethren were nothing more than an artificial literary construct to serve a theological purpose.

So did I somehow, or at any stage, twist Fredriksen’s words to mean anything else, let alone the “opposite” of what she intended to convey? Not at all. I referred to Fredriksen’s words and then explicitly added additional points to them to present a case for something quite different. Stephanie correctly quotes me:

Add to this the fact that the names are introduced within a narrative that serves the purpose of likening Jesus’ family situation to that of other biblical heroes, like Joseph and David to name only the most prominent ones, and thus conforms to the biblical pattern of being rejected by his own family, and we are entitled to hold some reservations about the authenticity of the list.’

Now taking a range of points from different venues and bringing them together to make a new point is hardly twisting any one of them into meaning the exact opposite of the original. Gosh, all I said was that this range of points, including the one made by Fredriksen, entitles us to question the historicity of the family of Jesus!

That’s all. I didn’t suggest Fredriksen’s point meant that Jesus was a myth. I said it gives us grounds for caution. What is the basis of our knowledge of the family of Jesus? Is it a report evidently regaling readers with biographical data or is it an apparent theological trope setting Jesus within the traditional mould of pious heroes rejected by their own? If the latter (and does not the apparently theologically motivated artifice of the names suggest this is a realistic possibility?), how confident are we entitled to be that we can know anything about a real family of Jesus or even if there is anything to know about such a family at all? Surely it is quite reasonable to entertain such caution and questions.

And that has always been the thrust of my argument — method, and grounds for questioning historicity vis à vis nonhistoricity.

But if Stephanie had ever understood my methodological arguments she may not have blindly assumed that I was somehow distorting Fredriksen’s meaning.

No Historicist Argument Can Ever Be Summarized Honestly

While Stephanie was a regular commenter on this blog she regularly excoriated any attempt to summarize a point by either Maurice Casey or James Crossley. Always, Stephanie made clear, such summaries were “misrepresentations”. No, she could not summarize the arguments herself because the arguments could only be understood through reading the entire books. Summaries, it seemed, are by definition misrepresentations in Stephanie’s view.

That is what lies behind Steph’s accusation that I make “misleading comments on the work of Casey, Crossley” et al.

Atheist blogger Neil Godfrey [why does Steph regularly attach to my name the epithet “atheist blogger”? Why not “Caucasian licensed automobile driver Neil Godfrey” or “Bushwalker and blues-lover heterosexual Neil Godfrey”?] defends himself for his misleading comments on the work of Casey, Crossley and other scholars whom he has criticised for ‘circular reasoning, begging the question and special pleading’ after conveniently replacing their learned arguments (which he did not understand) with simplistic and misleading summaries which is all he can understand. It is also apparent he does not read whole books, once claiming on his blog ‘I’m a librarian, but I never see or touch a book.’

I only ask Stephanie (again) what I asked her then: if I have misrepresented anyone’s argument then kindly point out to me where and how I have done so. In the past Stephanie said she could not do that because it would mean having to explain everything at book length. Every time — and not only in response to me but also to Steven Carr — Stephanie insisted that she could never explain why or how we supposedly misrepresented Casey or Crossley until she had the time and opportunity to write an entire book to explain our errors. Yeh, right.

It is my experience that unless one can summarize a lengthy or even complex argument it is often the case that one has not fully grasped or understood it. And if any summary is a misrepresentation then anyone else who understands the matter can point out an error in a few words.

I won’t repeat the silliness of her claim that I apparently don’t read whole books — and her ensuing anti-semitic innuendo and implications that I was somehow trivializing earthquake victims — since I address all of this gumpf in the post and comments at Response #1.

Quoting Schweitzer Out Of Context?

Stephanie (and no-one else I know) also asserts that I quote Schweitzer out of context:

Mythicists also love to quote old scholarship out of its historical context. Schweitzer is one of their favourites for this. For example, atheist blogger Godfrey comments, apparently trying to demonstrate mythicists don’t use Schweitzer to support their claims, but his comment merely demonstrates that they do. He is oblivious to the fact that nobody suggests that mythicists pretend Schweitzer was a mythicist. This is further demonstration that Godfrey shows utter ignorance of what misrepresentation of scholarship is. Mythicists misinterpret Schweitzer to claim there is no historically valid evidence for historicity of Jesus.

I have pointed out on numerous occasions that the very reason I quote Schweitzer’s statement on historical methodology is BECAUSE he is a “historicist” and “not a mythicist”. His words would hardly have any force for my own particular point, otherwise. Stephanie is simply flat wrong when she says I am “oblivious to the fact that nobody suggests that mythicists pretend Schweitzer was a mythicist”. I made that clear to Steph when she was commenting on this blog, too, but it obviously never registered with her. Of course Schweitzer was not a mythicist. That’s my whole point. Schweitzer believed in a Jesus who was historical (though we could not know that historical Jesus). Why Steph thinks I might think otherwise is beyond me and does “The Jesus Process” no credit or credibility.

So it is perplexing to see Steph attribute my use of this quotation to “mythicists.” I don’t know of a single mythicist who has ever quoted the words I refer to — they certainly don’t support mythicism. And I have never used them to support “mythicism”. Again Stephanie quotes me correctly but without any comprehension. I wrote (as per Steph):

Schweitzer understood the limitations of what generally passes for historical method far better than nearly every contemporary historical Jesus scholar I have read:

In reality, however, these writers [those arguing for the historicity of Jesus against mythicists] 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 402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.)

That is not an argument for mythicism. I have always in discussions stressed that the methodological principle is NOT an argument for mythicism. It is an argument for an understanding of what constitutes a valid historical methodology.

Yet Stephanie has failed at every point — both in our earlier discussions and since — to see that my whole argument is about a valid methodological approach to the study of Christian origins. If that leads to a mythicist conclusion, then so be it. But the methods used cannot predetermine the outcome — for historicism or mythicism — or they would hardly be valid methods.

Yes, I do believe that valid methodology does lead to a conclusion that Christian origins, and the Christian myth in particular, had no foundation in anything like oral traditions relaying historical events pertaining to a historical Jesus. But a valid methodology will also show how such a conclusion can be falsified. Schweitzer is, in fact, foreshadowing a fundamental principle of historical methodology that has since been picked up by some scholars of the Old Testament who have concluded biblical Israel (e.g. David, Solomon, the united kingdom) is more a theological construct than a historical reality. These scholars draw their methodologies from those historians more accustomed to non-biblical topics on the understanding that the same principles should apply to both biblical and nonbiblical historical topics. Schweitzer understood the validity of historical methodological principles in the abstract — according to logical validity — something that very few NT scholars today do. Most NT scholars are committed to interpreting everything through “historicist” paradigms.

I often quote another passage by Schwartz from even earlier — 1904 — because it also demonstrates an understanding of valid historical methodology. This quote does not establish mythicism any more than the Schweitzer quote does. But it does argue for a methodology all too rarely employed by NT scholars today. No-one ever criticizes me for quoting Schartz as often as I quote Schweitzer for some reason.

These are not arguments for mythicism. Stephanie fails to grasp that point despite my many reminders. They are arguments for a valid method of inquiry that is an advance on the criteriology (criteria of embarrassment, coherence, etc) by NT scholars today and that has been demonstrated as fallacious by even NT scholars themselves.

Stephanie barely understands Schweitzer’s point when she writes:

[Neil] ignores the fact that . . . Schweitzer was a committed German Christian and was not inveighing against the historicity of Jesus or advocating an end of the search to establish his actual historical coordinates. As such, Schweitzer believed that salvation was by faith, not by works, and historical research was merely a ‘work’. This is what he considered ‘uncertain’ about all historical research. It has nothing to do with what present-day historians or incompetent bloggers mean when they think that something is ‘historically uncertain’, which normally indicates that it may or may not have happened . . .

Of course Schweitzer was not inveighing against the historicity of Jesus and nothing I have ever written has suggested that he was. But Schweitzer also argued that any “true” understanding of the historical Jesus was impossible for us now. He was not as a rule talking about whether or not he existed but rather he was generally addressing the question of what he was “like” historically. But Steph has completely missed the point I have always made with my reference to Schweitzer.

So Bart Ehrman in his recent book, Did Jesus Exist?, curiously accused “mythicists” of citing Schweitzer to give them some scholarly “cachet” to support their position. He referred to a passage that no-one, for all I know, but R. Joseph Hoffmann also quoted in a forward of a book (“The Jesus Legend”) by the then mythicist, G. A. Wells, wrote. That is the only instance I know of a quotation by Schweitzer appearing in a book arguing that Jesus was a mythical construct.

See http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/how-could-ehrman-possibly-have-read-the-books-he-cites/#comment-28333 :

There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence.

These words by Schweitzer have no bearing whatever upon the mythicist-historicist debate. Every New Testament scholar knows that the Jesus of the Gospels is a Jesus “of faith”. That is why the “historical Jesus” is so often said by these scholar to be someone who must be “extracted” or “excavated” from the surface-narrative of the Gospels.

Stephanie Fisher’s contribution to the debate can do nothing to undermine the mythicist case. Her contributions can do a lot, however, to besmirch the integrity of the ‘anti-mythicist’ cause. I have placed on my “to do” list a response to Steph’s regrettably vacuous assault on Carrier’s Bayes’ Theorem arguments. And no, Bayes’ Theorem is not, in my view, the strike to cut the Gordian knot. But if “The Jesus Process (c)” aspires to make a serious contribution to the “required debunking” of the Christ-Myth it is going to have to refrain from diluting their efforts with the uncomprehending Stephanie Louise Fisher.

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  • Badger3k
    2012-05-27 23:19:24 UTC - 23:19 | Permalink

    The “atheist blogger” is just another attempt at poisoning the well. It fits the idea promulgated by both Ehrman and Hoffman that mythicists are rabid anti-theists who simply want to destroy religion, and highlighting that you’re an atheist is an attempt to marry the two ideas in people’s heads so they can disregard anything you say. Complete bollocks, of course, but par for the course with Hoffman and his ilk.

  • David
    2012-05-28 02:18:49 UTC - 02:18 | Permalink

    Been following this “conversation” and was going to respond to Stephanie directly but felt it was not in my best interest to have her send her vitriol my way. But first, I am not a mythicist, I believe Jesus did exist so actually that would put me on her side here but if I was just paying attention to this back and forth Stephanie is losing this battle, handily. I was surprised by her talk of credentials as if that means no one else could have anything to say of value but then she trashes Burton Mack who has more credentials and is more well respected among his peers than ever Steph could hope to be. Of course, I saw where she was an expert on Q but doesn’t believe it ever existed. She lost all credibility with that one anyway.

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    • 2012-05-30 17:31:59 UTC - 17:31 | Permalink

      So Stephanie Louise Fisher has chosen to respond to my post not on Joe Hoffmann’s blog (where she made her Processed Jesus debut) but on a blog whose owner will not allow any comments at all from me — Unsettled Christianity, Joel Watts’ blog. Her response is @ http://unsettledchristianity.com/2012/05/stephanie-fisher-responds-to-neil-godfrey/

      And what’s more, it does appear that Joel Watts has given Stephanie’s attack on me (she calls me malicious, ignorant, spiteful, etc etc) a special configuration that will not allow anyone — not only me — to respond with a comment. (Steph also posts on the Remnants of Giants blog and in the past I have attempted to respond to here there, too, but there, likewise, my comments never made it through moderation — even when I was simply trying to clear my name from offensive character attacks.)

      It’s all very sad. Her response is nothing more than a louder shouting of her original points. There is no engagement with my response to those points when she made them the first time — except to simply repeat them more vociferously and with more invective. Thus is the standard routine of any attempt to engage Stephanie in discussion — as I remember well from her days of commenting on this blog.

      She will not engage the actual words I quoted from Schweitzer, nor their context in the wake of his two chapter discussion of the mythicist views of his day. No, She will not refer to the unprofessional and abusive, shall we even say immature, behaviour of herself (and at least one other) that prompted me to draw on colourful analogies when I chose to describe it.

      As long as Joe and Maurice continue to team with such a rabidly hostile person who appears incapable of serious intellectual engagement with an issue, and even promote her intellectual prowess, they will be digging themselves further into a pit of obscurity with their own related posts, too.

      What malice and spite is there in any of my posts? That Stephanie sees them riddled with malice and spite surely has more to say about her unfortunate disposition. Stephanie — I have tried on numerous occasions, including via personal emails, to establish some reasonable and tolerant and mutually understanding grounds for communication between us. Why you persist in your shouting the same points over and over without any obvious indication of an effort to understand my criticisms is beyond me. But you have brought upon yourself little more than ridicule and contempt for the positions you advocate by your strident tone.

      Oh, and Steph likes to call me an “atheist blogger” as if that explains all she is trying to say about me. But last time I discussed atheism with Steph I learned that she, too, is an atheist. The difference is that she finds the term “atheist” an over-simplifying “label” that does not do justice to the complexities (so-called) of her “real position. The same as Hoffmann — some atheists are just too damn elitist to ever let anyone apply such a common label to them.

      Oh, and Stephanie my job means I have to keep abreast of copyright matters, in particular in relation to any web publications. You have a lot to learn about this and just claiming I am ignorant is not the best way to start.

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