Daily Archives: 2012-09-30 19:25:41 UTC

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)


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 »