Monthly Archives: September 2012

Michael Turton on the Mythicist-Historicist Debate

I recently caught up with Michael Turton’s review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? — all too belatedly. His remarks apply to probably most historicist scholars who have commented on the mythicist question. But this section struck me as worthy of catching a wider attention:

In reality, the mythicist-historicist debate is a clash of competing interpretive frameworks, a clash over the same body of data over which there are divergent interpretive views — one of which claims success because it has powerful social support. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the social and historical sciences.

Readers who are familiar with the history of science can probably name many examples of how social approval in a historical or human field for a given interpretation of the data hindering consideration and acceptance of new ideas. The struggle to overcome the Clovis First interpretive framework that came to dominate North American archaeology until about three decades ago is a good example (the battle is still ongoing, and will likely end when the last of the Clovis Firsters dies off). Another good example is the way paleoanthropology was changed by the influx of females in the 1960s; the interpretive frameworks had been dominated by males and their points of view. Every August in the US we see another example of the clash of competing interpretive frameworks over how the atomic bombings of Japan should be understood.

Thus, the reader should be aware that the clash between mythicists and historicists is not a clash between loons similar to those who think the moon landings were faked and NASA, or between Creationists and real scientists, as Ehrman would have it. That is mere rhetoric, lazy, cheap shots.* In evolutionary biology or climate science the methodologies are robust and testable and the evidence overwhelming and the Denialists on either part are essentially anti-science. Historical explanation is not like scientific explanation (though it may draw on it), and scholars who bluster that mythicists are like Creationists are (probably deliberately) making a serious category error.

In historical Jesus studies both mythicists and historicists learn the same ancient languages and study the same texts, using the same methodologies. Both sides keenly appreciate and esteem good scholarship and hold basically the same set of New Testament scholars in high regard, including Ehrman himself. I suspect that if you compared the bookshelves of most people writing on mythicism with Ehrman’s own, they would look very much alike. None of the major mythicist writers can remotely be described as anti-science or anti-scholarship. Again, the problem is not denial of reality, but a clash of competing interpretive frameworks. . . . . read more »

Was Paul’s Jesus an Historical Figure? — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 8

The eight chapter of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ is “Born under the Law: Intertextuality and the Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus in Paul’s Epistles” by Thomas S. Verenna. He takes those passages commonly used to support the claim that Paul’s Jesus was indeed an historical person — his crucifixion, being “born of a woman, born under the law”, being of the seed of David, passing on the teaching of the Last Supper, and Paul meeting James known to be the “brother of the Lord” — and attempts to argue that all these references by Paul are best understood as derived from his interpretations of the Jewish scriptures and/or have spiritual as opposed to earthly-historical meanings. In his introduction Verenna explains that his argument will be based on reading Paul “intertextually” — that is, he will interpret these passages through Paul’s pre-Gospel “cultural milieux” and his literary training in “the practice of [“imitation”] and [emulation]”.

.

Preliminary remarks

Verenna begins with an extensive set of “preliminary remarks” that I encapsulate here:

  • Most scholars believe Paul understood his Jesus to have been a historical person but he did not elaborate on the biography of this Jesus because his interest was in the meaning of the present heavenly Jesus to his converts.
  • Verenna will argue that, on the contrary, Paul never believed his Jesus was historical, and that Paul’s Jesus was crafted entirely from the Jewish Scriptures. Paul accomplished this by the well-known ancient literary practice (and Jewish tradition) of re-writing earlier literature.
  • Paul’s Jesus is “an allegorical” figure taken from Scriptures. (p. 133)
  • Since “Christianity” is a second century designation it is incorrect to say Paul converted to Christianity: he “converted to a sect of Judaism” from within which he used Scriptures to argue for his understanding of “the coming of . . . the suffering servant and redeemer.” (p. 134)
  • Scholar’s (e.g. Crossan’s) attempts to argue that Paul used Scripture to interpret historical events are based on “assumptions rather than . . . on an unbiased investigation of the state of the evidence.” (p. 134)
  • “Ancient literary traditions [meaning in particular “imitation/imitatio” or (Greek) “mimesis” and “aemulatio/emulation”] have a large part to play in Paul’s interpretation of Scripture”.

After establishing these points Verenna serves us with a “Brief Overview of Methods” as part of these preliminaries before moving on to the body of his article:

  • This chapter’s goal is to present an alternative to the current consensus (and readers are asked to keep in mind that scholarly trends change and that consensuses come and go);
  • This chapter will buck against the current and past tendencies to interpret Paul through all we believe to be historically true about Jesus through the Gospels, and (as above) attempt to interpret him through a pre-Gospel and pre-Christian “cultural milieux” — and as one educated in both the literary practices and the Jewish Scriptures of his day;
  • Verenna promises to investigate the epistles “within the socio-cultural framework” that is supposedly ignored by modern scholarship that spends more effort looking at the historical Jesus in Paul’s letters and about whom Paul does not express interest. This will mean Verenna will dwell upon the “esotericism” (that fills Paul’s letters) in the context of the literary custom of “emulation” — and thereby show that Paul’s conceptions of Jesus pre-dated the Gospel view of Jesus. (p. 136)
  • Two literary traditions that Verenna will dwell on in particular as having special relevance for interpreting Paul’s references to Jesus are “emulation” and “imitatio“.
    • Emulation, in this study, means establishing intertextuality; this investigation will be combining several disciplines in order to make a strong case for intertextual references in Paul’s epistles. . . . .
    • “That imitatio was part of a students’ (sic) education is well-established. And it is a well-accepted perspective that earlier literature was emulated wholly by authors in the Greco-Roman period. To quote Thomas Brodie, ‘Virgil did not just allude to Homer; he swallowed him whole.'” (p. 137)
  • We need to keep in mind that Paul, being a Jew, did not depart from the interpretative practices of his fellow Jews in interpreting Scriptures — “innovative readings which disclose truth previously latent in scripture”. (p. 138)

Definitions

Unfortunately Verenna is not clear about what he means by “both the practice of [imitation] and [emulation/rivalry]” that he says he will use to explain Paul’s references to Jesus. This may be confusing for the uninformed reader who is not aware that imitation and emulation are not two separate literary practices but that emulation is simply one specific type of imitation. read more »

Criteria’s Demise and the Black Hole of Historical Jesus Studies: Concluding Chapter 1 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Continued from the previous post . . . .

We have a problem

Chris Keith explains that the serious problem for the criteria approach to historical Jesus studies is that the assumptions about the “nature of the gospel tradition” upon which those criteria (and form-criticism itself) were built upon “have now been shown to be untenable.”

My own view is that it is a mistake even to speak of “gospel tradition” at this stage since such a concept is itself an untested assumption. What we have are gospels. Scholars generally assume they are products of authors compiling traditions. But I don’t know if this has been argued with reference to evidence by anyone — though I have seen many arguments for it that are based entirely upon the hypothesis (or cultural tradition) that the core narratives ultimately originated with the life of an historical Jesus.

Keith points out that studies since the time of the classical form critics have shown that scholars may have overestimated the extent to which the Gospel authors reshaped the traditions they inherited. Further, the form-critical assumption that the Gospels can be dissected into various layers of traditions is now in serious doubt.

More specifically, Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism demonstrated conclusively that the distinction between early Palestinian Christianity and later Hellenistic Christianity, which the form-critics took as axiomatic and Bultmann even acknowledged was “an essential part of my inquiry,” was a false dichotomy. This distinction provided for the form critics the foundational justification for separating the written Gospel texts. Scholars now routinely note its widespread rejection. (pp. 37-38, my bolding here and in all quotations)

Surely this fact (that Palestinian and Hellenistic Christianities are a false dichotomy) leaves us with less reason to assume that the Gospel authors were garnering and weaving “traditions” into narratives that so clearly appear to be creative imitations and adaptations of other literature.

But this assumption of “pre-gospel traditions” is not questioned by Keith. Another tool must be found to study these assumed traditions:

[I]n the words of Kirk, “Little of this tradition model can survive scrutiny in light of advances in research on the phenomenology of tradition.” In view here are those Gospels scholars working in the increasingly-overlapping areas of oral tradition and social/cultural memory-theory. (p. 38)

So the problem with the criteria approach is not only that criteria are the wrong tools to uncover history (see previous post for details), but that “the Gospels are not the type of ground in which one can dig.”

It is now widely accepted that

one cannot peel through the layers of faith to an “original”: “We can never succeed in stripping away that faith from the tradition, as though to leave a nonfaith core. When we strip away faith, we strip away everything and leave nothing.”

Thomas L. Thompson has said essentially the same in another context:

Removing miracles or God from the story does not help an historian, it only destroys narratives. One can never arrive at a viable history with such an approach. (The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past, p.44)

Historical Jesus scholars appear to be on the way to replacing one set of failed tools with a lot of postmodernist mumbo jumbo.

At this point Keith writes on behalf of many historical Jesus scholars when delves into abstract complexities that appear to be necessary solely because there is no evidence for Jesus that is comparable to the sorts of evidence historians generally study. The idea of first analysing the documentary evidence to assess what questions can be asked of it (as is correctly done in other historical studies) remains far from scholarly consciousness here. The tradition shapes the question and the evidence must be made to answer it no matter what. read more »

The Rise and Fall of Criteria in Jesus Studies: Chapter 1 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

.

.

The above exchange is the message of Chris Keith’s opening chapter of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. My “idiot’s guide” is a tad unfair to Käsemann, however, since he did have willing accomplices and Keith mentions Norman Perrin and Reginald H. Fuller as guilty of formalizing more criteria of authenticity. The above may also be unfair to Morna D. Hooker whose arguments Chris Keith is supporting. But this post is about what I see as the good, the interesting and the missed opportunity in Keith’s chapter, so he gets the starring role above.

The title of this chapter is “The Indebtedness of the Criteria Approach to Form Criticism and Recent Attempts to Rehabilitate the Search for an Authentic Jesus”.

In the first part of this chapter Keith shows how the criteria used by historical Jesus scholars (criteria of embarrassment, of multiple attestation, of coherence, of dissimilarity, etc.)

  • originated as a tool for form criticism;
  • rely upon the discredited form-critical assumption that it is possible to distill pre-literary traditions from theological narratives of the Gospels;
  • were designed to identify pre-gospel oral traditions, not actual history (or historical persons) behind those traditions.

After discussing this and briefly the second part of this chapter I will conclude with a return to Anthony Le Donne’s arguments for “triangulation” and “memory refraction”, this time with another critic’s more positive evaluation, than I raised in a recent post.

But before getting into the detail of the chapter here is my explanation of the “cartoon” above: read more »

Nazareth Boondoggle

From René Salm, author of The Myth of Nazareth and the Nazareth Myth website . . . . .

Last week I received via snail mail (from a contact in Israel) a just-published book entitled “Nazareth: Archaeology, History and Cultural Heritage” (Nazareth Municipality, 2012). On glossy paper, with color photos, bound with thread, it’s a pretty slick production. . . In it is an article by Stephen Pfann (University of the Holy Land, the “brains” behind the Nazareth Village resort), and also an article by the now infamous Yardenna Alexandre. . .

I’m hereby alerting you that the entire book is benign except for one sentence by Alexandre. On p. 32 she announces:

In the excavations at Mary’s Well undertaken in 1997, Late Hellenistic pottery shards and ten coins of the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus (103-73 BCE) were found in the earth fills below the fountain house.

WTF!? But, in truth, I half-expected this. It’s  not entirely a surprising, for this coin allegation has been rumored for some time (see my latest Scandal Sheet, http://www.nazarethmyth.info/scandaleight.html). This, however, is a leap to another level–we’re no longer dealing with a rumor but a statement by the archaeologist who excavated at Mary’s Well.

This  represents a colossal challenge to myself as well as to mythicists. IMO, the tradition is now resorting to “planting” evidence. That is a  shocking but desperate development by any standard. read more »

Why were Jesus’ miracles told “plainly” in the Bible but “fancifully” in the Apocryphal Gospels?

One common argument of Christian apologists — both lay and scholarly — in favour of the Gospel accounts being based on “authentic” historical traditions and written by authors motivated by, or limited to, telling “the truth” as they understood it, is that the miracles of Jesus are told “plainly”, “matter-of-factly”, without any garish flourish. Miracles of Jesus in the much later “apocryphal gospels”, on the other hand, are rightly said to be told quite differently and with much embellishment that serves to impress readers with the wonder and awesomeness of Jesus’ power.

The difference, we are often told, is testimony to the historical basis of the Gospel record.

I used to respond to this challenge with a dot-point list of miracle types. What? Are you really suggesting that walking on water or stilling a storm or rising from the dead are not “fanciful” acts?

But I was trying to kid myself to some extent. Of course they are fanciful, but being fanciful in that sense is the very definition of a miracle, however it is told.

The point the apologist makes is not that miracles are indeed miraculous, but that the Bible relates them most simply and matter-of-factly quite unlike the presentations of miracles we read in the apocryphal gospels.

Read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and one quickly comes face to face with an infant from a horror movie. A child strikes mockers dead on the spot for mocking. His art-work steps out into reality and disbelievers are struck dead or blinded with no thought of asking questions later.

And the Gospel of Peter knows how to narrate a resurrection. None of this “Joseph sealed the tomb and they all went off to keep the sabbath and by the time Sunday-morning came around . . . .”. Nope. Let’s have Jesus emerge from the tomb with guards being awakened and rushing to call their commander to witness the spectacle, and great angels descending and re-ascending with their charge fastened between them and his head exalted through the clouds, all accompanied by a great voice from heaven and responses from below . . . . Now that’s a resurrection scene!

There is a difference in tone between the miracles of Jesus in the canonical gospels and those found in their apocryphal counterparts.

The apologist — even the scholarly one as I mentioned above — jumps on this difference as evidence that the “plain and simple” narration of the gospels is evidence of intent to convey downright facts.

Unfortunately, this conclusion is evidence of nothing more profound than the propensity of the faithful to fall into the fallacy of “the false dichotomy“. read more »

Mark’s Parables as Simonian Allegories

AN ATTEMPT TO VIEW MARK’S PARABLES FROM THE INSIDE

Samuel Sandmel, in his The Genius of Paul, made this observation:

The parable of the sower in Mark (and in Matthew and Luke) is so presented in the Gospels as to have us believe that, clear as it was, the disciples did not understand it and they require explanation in private. The Gospel would have us suppose that there was more in the parable than meets the eye. Unhappily, there is not. The same is true in page after page of the Gospels. (p. 214)

Mark’s presentation of the parable of the sower does hint quite loudly that there is more to it and its gospel (“all things”, Mk. 4:11) than meets the eye. Its author asserts that his Jesus deliberately hid his meaning from those “on the outside”. And even though he makes his Jesus give a “private” explanation of the parable, his letting any and every reader and hearer of the narrative have access to that explanation shows that the beans have really not been spilled at all. Furthermore, he warns us that just reading or hearing the parable and its explanation will not be much help, for there are many who “look and see but do not perceive, hear and listen but do not understand” (Mk. 4:12). And he drives that point home in the rest of his gospel by relating how the Twelve themselves—even after being given their private explanation—still failed to perceive or understand.

To know what if anything is hidden [in the parables], one would first have to know who the Markan insiders were. Their identity is the key to correctly understanding their gospel.

But I think that Sandmel is wrong to rule out that there is really something more below the surface. To know what if anything is hidden there, one would first have to know who the Markan insiders were. Their identity is the key to correctly understanding their gospel. And, unfortunately, the provenance of Mark’s Gospel has never been securely determined.

I have explained in comments on a few other Vridar posts* why I think the Markan insider circle was Simonian, i.e., composed of followers of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria. As I see it, canonical Mark is a proto-orthodox reworking of a Simonian gospel, urMark, that sometime between the end of the first century and 130 CE was put together using two components:

  1. an earlier succinct myth about a divine figure, the Son of God, who briefly descended to this world to trick the princes of this world into wrongfully crucifying him. He did this by transforming himself and surreptitiously switching places, as Simon Kyrenaios, with a failed Jewish Messiah being led out by the Romans for crucifixion. To this was prefaced
  2. a cryptic allegorical portrayal of the apostolic career of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria.

The seam between the two parts is Mk. 15:15, the release of the Son of the Father (Barabbas).

That a Simonian would compose such a two-part life of the Son of God was fitting, for Simon claimed to be a new manifestation of the Son “who seemed to suffer in Judaea” (Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, 6, 19).

In this post I conduct a kind of experiment. . . . If the creators of the parables were Simonian, what was it they were looking to express by them, and what was it they were looking to hide?

In this post I conduct a kind of experiment. I assume— just to show where it can plausibly lead—that my identification of the insiders as Simonians is correct, and I examine how that identification changes our perspective of the parables in chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel.

I attempt to answer the questions: If the creators of the parables were Simonian, what was it they were looking to express by them, and what was it they were looking to hide? What was it they wanted outsiders to see but not perceive, hear but not understand?

.

Hippolytus, in a few short chapters of his The Refutation of All Heresies (which I will abbreviate, going forward, as RAH), describes the teaching of Simon of Samaria as it was presented by his Great Proclamation (the Apophasis Megale). Hippolytus’ exposition, short as it is, is the fullest explanation of Simon’s system that is extant. It provides enough, I submit, to reveal what the Markan parables are really about. The translation of the RAH I will use is that of G.R.S. Mead in his Simon Magus (link is to full-text online). read more »

All this Muslim business

Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and no doubt many other atheists have landed especially hard blows against the Muslim religion recently, prompted specifically by the recent wave of deadly protests over the trailer for the film Innocence of Muslims. So here are my two bits.

Sam Harris dismisses the idea that murderous violence of Muslim rioters should be ultimately blamed upon Western foreign policies (a euphemism for invasion, occupation, exploitation, support for violent overthrow of some dictators and democratically elected governments alike, and support for the violent entrenchment of other dictators among the Muslim states of the Middle East).

Sam Harris has countered that if it were not for the particular religious teachings of the Muslim religion then Muslims would not react with blood-lust against makers and facilitators of a satirical movie mocking their religion. Christians don’t react the same way when someone insults their faith. So it is clear that there is something more rotten in the state of Islam than in other religious faiths.

One of the problems (there are several) I have with this argument is that the Muslim violence we have been experiencing has not been with us until quite recent times. Violence and terrorism used to come from anarchists and secular political movements in Europe and the Middle East. The pioneer suicide bombers (in Lebanon in the 1980s) included Christians and Socialists (See Dying to Win by Richard Pape). The current wave of Muslim violence is not one of history’s constants but is a new thing.

Presumably Sam Harris’s complaint is that a more civilized religion would not see its adherents so seethe in response to whatever geopolitical shifts or Western policy intrusions into the Middle East have occurred in recent times, so that when an insulting work raises its head, devotees of more benign faiths would still manage to behave themselves.

But that just leads to the next question: Why do the majority of Muslims not react so violently but have instead been embarrassed by the violence and have loudly urged their brothers and sisters to simply ignore the ridicule? And another question: How do we explain the quiet of the Muslims for so long until quite recent times? Did no one ever publish a blasphemous or satirical cartoon or work until recent times? Or did Muslim communities generally ignore anything like that however offended they may have personally been? read more »

‘I told you so!’ Why Criteria for Historical Jesus Studies Don’t Work

Morna D. Hooker

Morna D. Hooker cried out in the academic wilderness forty years ago against the validity of “authenticity criteria” — criteria of coherence, criteria of dissimilarity, in particular, but also of embarrassment, multiple attestation, etc — then being used to supposedly uncover the historical Jesus. Her reflections on the state of play since that time are found in her foreword to Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity and can be downloaded as a pdf file. (It begins with the ‘I told you so’ of the title for this blog.)

Her arguments in 1970 and 1972 were ignored, such (Morna believes) was the pressure on her peers to “produce a scientific result”. Criteria were seized upon by theologians as if they could be worn as badges proving to the world that they were not letting their religious beliefs influence their research, “but were motivated by the same scholarly impartiality shown by those working in other disciplines.”

Chris Keith supports Morna Hooker’s earlier views in his first chapter of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, and adds to her criticisms that the problems is

also with the notion that the proper historical task consists of digging in the Gospels in this manner in the first place, and especially with assuming that one can get closer to the actual past by eliminating Christian interpretation from the reconstruction effort. (p. 48)

Keith reinforces Hooker’s view when he writes that

criteria reached a quasi-canonical status because of their appearance that they were objective scientific common ground between scholars of different theological persuasions. In the excitement and effort to function like the hard sciences, then, scholars overlooked (or were simply unconcerned with) the criteria approach’s foundations. (pp. 27-28)

This post looks at those foundations and returns to one of Morna Hooker’s earlier articles. So before discussing Chris Keith’s chapter I thought it useful to cover one of Hooker’s publications on which his own chapter is based.

It is “On Using the Wrong Tool” and appeared in Theology in 1972.

Morna Hooker (MH) argues that the tools used by scholars to discover the historical Jesus “cannot do what is required of them.”

Authenticity grew out of form-criticism so MH begins with that foundation. read more »

Historical Jesus Studies ARE Different Methodologically From Other Historical Studies

Well, well, well. After all of Dr James McGrath’s attempts to tell everyone that historical Jesus scholars use the same methods as any other historians, and that I was merely some sort of bigoted idiot for saying otherwise, what do I happen to run across while serendipitously skimming my newly arrived Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity? This:

Jens Schröter

The idea of formulating certain “criteria” for an evaluation of historical sources is a peculiar phenomenon in historical critical Jesus research. It was established in the course of the twentieth century as a consequence of the form-critical idea of dividing Jesus accounts of the Gospels into isolated parts of tradition, which would be examined individually with regard to their authenticity.

Such a perspective was not known to the Jesus research of the nineteenth century and it does not, to my knowledge, appear in other strands of historical research.

In analysing historical material scholars would usually ask for their origin and character, their tendencies in delineating events from the past, evaluate their principal credibility — for example, whether it is a forgery or a reliable source — and use them together with other sources to develop a plausible image of the concerned period of history. (pp. 51-52, my formatting, underlining and bolding)

That’s by Jens Schröter, Chair and Professor of Exegesis and Theology of the New Testament and New Testament Apocrypha at the Humboldt University.

But don’t misunderstand. Jens Schröter does understand why this difference has arisen and explains his view of the reason. Historical Jesus studies have traditionally been necessarily different because the earliest sources about Jesus’ life (the Gospels) are theological narratives, and as a consequence,

historical data are interwoven with quotations from Scriptures of Israel, early Christian confessions, and secondary elaborations of earlier traditions . . . It has been argued that the faith of earliest Christianity has imposed its character on the historical data and must therefore be distinguished from Jesus’ word and deeds themselves.

It is at this point that Schröter sees historical Jesus studies as having jumped the rails. What has happened is that HJ scholars have taken this starting point as a rationale for trying to locate a more authentic event or saying that lies behind the Gospel narratives. That is not how other historical studies work. read more »

Searching for a Good Fantasy: A Postmodernist’s Historical Jesus

My copy of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity arrived today. I had the impression that there is some curiosity “in internet land” as to whether this work will be of interest among Christ Myth theorists. If I am not judging too hastily, I will say, “No”. Everyone knows that the criteria used to establish “historicity” of a saying or deed of Jesus are shot through with logical fallacies. This has surely been well enough publicized by many mainstream and minorstream scholars by now. Or perhaps I don’t wear the same blinkers as many theologians who confuse apologetics with historical research.

The book does not address historicity. Note the title. It says “Authenticity”, not “historicity”.

There’s an interesting Introduction by Anthony Le Donne that I’d like to post on some time. He surveys the history, especially “American” meaning U.S. history, of historical research related to the Bible and Jesus. It reminds me of the title of a book by Ashleigh Brilliant, I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy. (Ashleigh Brilliant, I have read, is always on the warpath against anyone who uses one of his epigrams without first paying him for the privilege, so I hope he doesn’t object to my freely promoting one of his many published titles for him here instead.)

I have long looked forward to doing posts on historiography again, and in the process place the postmodernist historiography in its context. In that series I would certainly refer to Anthony Le Donne’s earlier book, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?. That little volume is a handbook for theologians on how to save or redirect a new quest for the “historical Jesus” through a postmodernist approach to sources.
It contains a foreword by Dale C. Allison Jr. He was the scholar, some will recall, cited by James McGrath as being one of the pioneers responsible for paving the way for a whole new revolution in historical studies across the board. (See my post, New Testament Scholars Are Pioneers In Historical Methods.) McGrath learned from Allison the following:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned. (Review of Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus)

Here is one way to illustrate how postmodernist historical research into the ‘historical Jesus’ works. The illustration is taken from Anthony Le Donne’s Historical Jesus. Le Donne spices up the explanation with geometric and arboreal diagrams and phrases like “moving on from positivism”, “patterns of memory”, “thought-categories”, “memory refractions” and “spiraling memory traditions”. This is a Good Thing™, because it shields the reader from direct exposure to the befuddling logical circuitry behind it all.

First, find two contradictory Jesus “traditions”.

Next, place these two “traditions” 5 centimeters apart on a sheet of plain white paper on a flat table.

Thirdly, sprinkle lightly with extra-fine grade authenticity powder.

Now, with some geometry tools and an HB pencil, draw straight lines from those two “traditions” to a third point so as to form an equilateral triangle. (Don’t worry about the powder. That will add to the final effect.)

Now erase those straight lines and replace them with spirals. (Replace the scattered authenticity powder.)

You have now recreated the original memory refraction that was further refracted through spirals to reach our extant contradictory evidence.

Finally, focus one eye on the start of each of the spirals, roll each eye back through the spirals to their other point, and you will come to understand how we arrived at our extant contradictory evidence.

Ergo, Jesus existed.

Okay, that was tongue in cheek. But it is not far off what Le Donne writes anyway, seriously. Only in Theology Departments!

Le Donne’s case-study read more »

What if the Gospels did cite their sources and identify their authors?

English: Herodotus_from_Bodrum Български: Стат...

Herodotus_from_Bodrum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Would the Gospels be any more credible if their authors clearly left their names in them, along with a little biographical information clearly linking them to known historical persons, and if they at every point in their narrative informed readers of their sources for each set of sayings by Jesus and for each incident. Some sources they would explain were oral witnesses, some were official documents, maybe even some inscriptions that could be verified by any person in the region in their day.

Supposed a critic still dismissed them as fabricated tales. Would we be outraged that such a critic was completely biased against the Gospels and that she would never be so sceptical of secular writings with such an abundance of confirming testimony?

The answer ought to be that “it all depends”. It all depends on a critical analysis of all of that information. That would not be being biased against the Gospels. It would be treating the Gospels in exactly the same way scholars worth their salt treat their secular sources.

Take studies of Histories by Herodotus for instance. Herodotus has long been considered an essential source for our knowledge of the ancient world. By his own testimony he traveled widely, examining cultures first hand and gathering information from a wide range of sources, oral and written. Sure some of his tales are clearly fabulous, but why should we doubt that even those have some historical core in many cases?

1989 saw the English translation of Detlev Fehling‘s Herodotus and His ‘Sources’: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art, originally published in German in 1971. I will post from time to time on aspects of this book but for now let me outline his main arguments as summarized by Katherine Stott in Why Did They Write This Way? Reflections on References to Written Documents in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Literature (2008): read more »

Paul: Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’

 

Chapter 7 of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ presents what I understand are the arguments of mainstream New Testament scholarship that Paul’s epistles testify to the existence of an historical Jesus. Its author, Mogens Müller (MM), is responsible for what has been praised as the best work to date on the expression “Son of Man”. He is also a leader in a project undertaking a new look at the relationship among the canonical Gospels that extends to recognizing their place in the wider Gospel literature, including apocryphal and gnostic gospels. In this chapter he places the Gospel of Luke around 120-130, which is interesting, and not very far from views often expressed on this blog, though I suspect MM’s reasons would be to some extent different from my own. His view that the synoptic gospels — Mark, Matthew and Luke — are successive stages of theological and narrative development surfaces regularly in this chapter. (I also like the look of his book The First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint.)

This is the irony one encounters when reading many New Testament scholars’ works. There is so much that is so interesting and thought-provoking. But when it comes to addressing the historicity of Jesus one is struck by the way the reader is asked to accept tenuously justified assumptions and sometimes what looks at least to this layman like circuitous reasoning. So my bias will show in what follows.

MM argues that the primary evidence for the historicity of Jesus is the impact such a figure had on believers after his death. read more »

Plato’s template for the Bible

Before continuing with Book Two of Laws, there is a major theme in Book One that I ought to have included in the previous post as a significant point in common with one of the primary biblical themes. Both Plato and God emphatically stress the importance of testing the character of their people. The purpose of this test is to produce citizens worthy of the new state or kingdom. They will demonstrate their purity of character by obedience to the laws, living a holy life and hating everything that is against “nature”, “wisdom” or a “noble spirit”. Plato speaks of several ways people need to be tested for character so they can learn self-control and master their base passions and so become worthy citizens. Worthy citizens must learn to overcome unhealthy fear and the temptations of pleasures.

For you are the only people known to us, whether Greek or barbarian, whom the legislator commanded to eschew all great pleasures and amusements and never to touch them; whereas in the matter of pains or fears which we have just been discussing, he thought that they who from infancy had always avoided pains and fears and sorrows, when they were compelled to face them would run away from those who were hardened in them, and would become their subjects.

Now the legislator ought to have considered that this was equally true of pleasure; he should have said to himself, that if our citizens are from their youth upward unacquainted with the greatest pleasures, and unused to endure amid the temptations of pleasure, and are not disciplined to refrain from all things evil, the sweet feeling of pleasure will overcome them just as fear would overcome the former class; and in another, and even a worse manner, they will be the slaves of those who are able to endure amid pleasures, and have had the opportunity of enjoying them, they being often the worst of mankind. One half of their souls will be a slave, the other half free; and they will not be worthy to be called in the true sense men and freemen. . . .

One is reminded here of Herodotus’s infamously curious line that concludes his Histories:

and [the Persians] chose rather to dwell on poor land and be rulers, than to sow crops in a level plain and be slaves to others.

Recall from the previous post the same theme of healthy and unhealthy fears that Plato spoke of through his characters. Note the last line of the following extract: the ideal legislators must bring their people to face many fears to learn to have the right kind of fear — which is the same dialogue explains is reverence, or fear of God. read more »