by Neil Godfrey
I recently posted on Eric Zuesse’s Christ’s Ventriloquists: The Event that Created Christianity with a link to David Hamilton’s views of the book. The book also comes with nice endorsements from Richard Dawkins and James Crossley and others.
The author had sought a similar endorsement from me and I sent him my conclusion of his thesis:
Given the assumptions on which your thesis rests, it is a consistent and valid argument.
So when David Hamilton finds the thesis interesting but not quite convincing, and when other readers, scholars and non-specialists, find the book’s thesis likewise interesting, I can understand and respect where they are coming from, and to some extent I share their viewpoint. I am quite open to the possibility that some of the assumptions underlying the author’s case — assumptions shared by many scholars, too — will eventually prove to be established certainties. But I’m not ready to take that leap yet.
Unfortunately Eric Zuesse turned upon me with some hostility when, after pressing me to spell out the reasons for my reservations about his thesis, I attempted to clarify why I was not ready to accept the assumptions upon which he builds his argument. So I have little personal interest in writing a formal review for Eric’s sake now, but readers know my stake in this argument and can judge the following in that light.
I post here my criticisms of Eric Zuesse’s book that I wrote him under pressure from him to explain my reluctance to embrace his thesis. Keep in mind that this was written at at time I was attempting to avoid offending Eric who was becoming increasingly acerbic in his replies. But I give most space to trying to clarify what I think is the essence of his own viewpoint and how the studies of Christian origins should be pursued.
First, here is the book’s introductory outline of its argument:
Christ’s Ventriloquists is a work of investigative history. It documents and describes Christianity’s creation-event, in the year 49 or 50, in Antioch (present-day Antakya, Turkey), 20 years after Jesus had been crucified in Jerusalem for sedition against Roman rule. On this occasion, Paul broke away from the Jewish sect that Jesus had begun, and he took with him the majority of this sect’s members; he convinced these people that Jesus had been a god, and that the way to win eternal salvation in heaven is to worship him as such. Paul here explicitly introduced, for the first time anywhere, the duality of the previously unitary Jewish God, a duality consisting of the Father and the Son; and he implicitly introduced also the third element of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost.
This work also explains and documents the tortuous 14-year-long conflict Paul had had with this sect’s leader, Jesus’s brother James, a conflict which caused Paul, in about the year 50, to perpetrate his coup d’état against James, and to start his own new religion: Christianity.
Then, this historical probe documents that the four canonical Gospel accounts of the words and actions of “Jesus” were written decades after Jesus, by followers of Paul, not by followers of Jesus; and that these writings placed into the mouth of “Jesus” the agenda of Paul. Paul thus effectively became, via his followers, Christ’s ventriloquist.
A work such as this can be documented and produced only now, after the development (during the past 70 years) of modern legal/forensic methodology. Previously, the only available methods, which scholars have used, simply assumed the honesty-of-intent of all classical documents, especially of canonical religious ones, such as Paul’s epistles, and the Four Gospels. Only now is it finally possible to penetrate deeper than that, to reach the writer’s intent, and not merely his assertions, and to identify when this intent is to deceive instead of to inform. Whereas scholars have been able to discuss only the truth or falsity of particular canonical statements, it is now possible to discuss also the honesty or deceptiveness of individual statements. This opens up an unprecedented new research tool for historians, and Christ’s Ventriloquists is the first work to use these new methods to reconstruct, on this legal/forensic basis, not just how crimes took place, but how and why major historical events (criminal or not), such as the start of Christianity, actually occurred.
The author explains: “What I am doing in this work is to reconstruct from the New Testament the crucial events that produced it, without assuming whether what the NT says in any given passage is necessarily true or even honest. Instead of treating the NT as a work that ‘reports history,’ the NT is treated as a work whose history is itself being investigated and reported. Its origin goes back to this coup d’état that Paul perpetrated in Antioch in the year 49 or 50 against Jesus’s brother James in Jerusalem, whom Jesus in Jerusalem had appointed in the year 30 as his successor to lead the Jewish sect that Jesus had started. The Gospel accounts of ‘Jesus’ reflected Paul’s coup d’état – not actually Jesus, who would be appalled at the Christian concept of ‘Christ.’ That concept was radically different from the Jewish concept of the messiah, and Paul knew this when he created it.”
I always have a problem when I see someone purporting to write history comparing his or her efforts with those of the legal profession. Wasn’t it a lawyer, Frank Morison, who was able to use his legal training to prove that Jesus really rose from the dead in Who Moved the Stone?
My initial response was this:
My position is more closely aligned with the old Dutch radicals who questioned the authenticity and integrity of the Pauline epistles. [This was November 2010 -- I am less inclined to the position of the Dutch radical school now]. That is, if we rely on external controls for verification, on the understanding that self-witness of a narrative alone is insufficient to establish authenticity, then we have no certainty that the Pauline letters were composed earlier than the second century. They are first testified as belonging to Marcionite and other “unorthodox” Christianities. Further, when we find them discussed by the likes of Tertullian, it often appears that neither he nor his opponents did not know the letters in the form in which we have them today. It appears they have been subject to a series of redactions that reflect theological/political power struggles of the second and third centuries.
To extend the courtroom analogy, no witness is accepted solely on his own claims about his own identity and story. There has to be some external control for the court to be satisfied that the witness really is the person he is claiming to be. This is especially important in the case of early Christian literature which is well-known for its use of pseudonyms. Additionally, Christian schools traced their foundings back through legendary/mythical genealogies of teachers or apostles.
Rosenmeyer has written an exploration of the way epistolary literature was often used to create or propagate fiction in the ancient world. Scholars who argue for the authenticity of just seven of the Pauline epistles do so with circular logic. They identify a common emotional thread through those seven, then say that Paul had that emotional disposition, so these letters are genuinely Pauline, but the reason we know Paul had that disposition is because he expresses it in his letters! All the common emotional thread legitimately tells us is that a common school of thought was behind the core of the letters as we know them today.
A substantial amount of mainstream biblical scholarship is based on such circular fallacies. Whenever I mention external controls to biblical scholars, and the circular reasoning on which their hypotheses rest, some of them become very offended and hostile towards me.
So my position is that given the assumptions on which your thesis rests, it is a consistent and valid argument.
All the best with it,
Eric responded with the quite correct claim that Paul’s letter to the Galatians is considered by scholars to be the gold standard of evidence concerning the start of Christianity. He added that my argument (above) would, in his view, nullify Sophocles’ plays just as much as Paul’s letters. More than that, if I was starting from a position that questioned the soundness of using the text of Galatians as a historical source for the events of early Christianity, then I would be “nullifying practically all of ancient ‘history’.”
I often hear criticism along these lines, but this criticism misses the point of the original argument: In the case of other literature we have independent external corroboration for the existence of certain authors and events. We have nothing but self-testimony in the case of Paul’s letters. Far from undermining the historical enterprise, a few biblical scholars themselves have pointed out the circular fallacies that are accepted among mainstream biblical scholars. The “revolution” within Old Testament studies has begun (if not in the US so much, though) to bring OT studies in line with normative principles of historical inquiry, but the same methods have yet to make the first dent on NT studies.
We hit a brick wall at this point. Zuesse did not see how my view undermined what he had already said. He believed I was being very “shoddy” in the way I was supposedly “dismissing” and “casually rejecting” scholarship. I was directed to read his introduction on methodology. I will attempt here to highlight the main points of Zuesse’s methodology with a few extracts that I hope will be acceptable within the bounds of fair use.
Eric Zuesse’s Methodology
Eric Zuesse stresses the uniqueness of his approach. It is quite unlike anything biblical scholars have attempted, he says:
[T]his book is not like others about history . . . . The reader will therefore be reading history here in a different way – the way that a jury reconstructs, from the evidence, a history of how and why and when and where, and by whom, a crime was committed, and renders a verdict saying that this is the history (of the crime), and that any other alleged account (of this event) should be considered to be partly or wholly fictional, on the basis of the evidence. However, a verdict is rendered not only on the basis of the evidence; it’s rendered also on the basis of the methodology, which here is legal/forensic methodology – what’s used in courts of law in democratic countries. Legal/forensic methodology is the scientific methodology for reconstructing history from evidence; and, on this basis, you, as a juror, will be reading, directly from the evidence, the actual history – no mere story, no fiction at all – the event that, in fact, started Christianity.
Being a responsible juror requires immense attention and care, far more than does simply reading a mere narrative “history” of an alleged event. In the present instance, investigating what might possibly have been the biggest deception in all of history requires a degree of intellectual concentration which will greatly sharpen the mind. Anyone who is prepared to engage in such an analysis will find the process itself to be rewarding, not only because of the new information and understandings which result, but also because the methodology, that’s used in this discovery, possesses wide applications, far outside courtrooms. A skill in recognizing liars (and their lies) protects one against deception, no matter what the particular subject might happen to be; and this increases one’s intellectual capacities. . . . .
At the end of his book Zuesse explains why the canonical gospels are dismissed as worthless evidence for Christian origins. At best they are recollections of witnesses and recollections are notoriously unreliable. Sometimes witnesses even lie. A professional magician’s job is to routinely deceive people into thinking they are witnessing something other than what is really happening. Besides, the gospels were written to persuade people to convert to Christianity so they cannot be considered objective history.
So, on many major grounds, no reasonable person would assume the Gospels to be historical accounts of how Christianity started. . . . .
I suspect Zuesse’s criticisms of the gospels can at some level apply as much to the letters of Paul, yet he believes his totally new method is able to cut through those problems there to get to the truth.
Zuesse certainly sees his book as a radical pioneering way to reach the real truth about how Christianity started. He can even uncover the intentions of persons of long ago:
In order to achieve an authentically historical account of Christianity’s start, we shall here rely upon new methodological advancements for examining evidence: advancements which developed after World War II in courtrooms in democratic countries throughout the world, during trials of white-collar crimes, where the evidence has (like the evidence about Christianity’s start) consisted largely of documents – which in these cases were memos, e-mails, etc. – and where the motives of the authors of those documents have been as much the focus of investigation as were the allegations which those people made in those documents. For example, sometimes, in order to reconstruct, from evidence, a sequence of events – or a “history” – that can explain how a given contract came to be written the way it is, misrepresentations are crucial to identify in the prior communications between the two negotiants, and the intentions (and not merely the words) of the writers are crucial for the court to interpret accurately. Sometimes, it’s necessary to get beyond merely what the words say, and to reach the mental state and intentions of people, in order to become enabled to reconstruct a history accurately, from a given body of evidence, and so to explain the contract or other outcome.
This has been done here, concerning the start of Christianity. The documentary evidence, in this case, has been explored, identifying not only what it says, but also what the agendas of the individual writers were. . . .
New Testament scholars are a poor lot compared with those of the legal profession. Lawyers know far more about how to do history and science than theologians:
Simply put, the procedures that courts employ, at each and every step of the way, in order to separate fact from fiction, are far more careful, and far more bound by rules to exclude forged or otherwise bogus “evidence” from being considered and from misinforming and thus misleading jurors, so that to prove a case in court is vastly more challenging, and far more bound by the rules of science, than merely a scholar’s routine, regardless of how sophisticated the latter might be. . . . .
The reader of this history thus experiences here the first-ever scientific analysis of the evidence concerning Christianity’s start: a scientific reconstruction of history . . . .
Nonetheless, Zuesse accepts the consensus of theologians as his starting point:
Scholars widely recognize that the authentic letters (or “epistles”) of Paul in the New Testament were the earliest-written parts of the New Testament, and were written before the Gospels – the parts in the New Testament which describe Jesus. This consensus has been accepted here.
Zuesse explains why he accepts this consensus of theologians while rejecting their interpretations of Galatians:
The reason that the present work accepts scholars’ consensus opinions regarding the authenticity and approximate dates of documents, even while barring use of scholars’ opinions about the meaning of those documents, is that these are two very different subjects, from a legal/forensic standpoint, and that a court of law in a democracy makes a clear distinction between these two competencies and admits into evidence the opinions of experts regarding authentication and dating of documents, but not regarding the meaning of documents – which is left for the jury to determine.
Furthermore, no reason exists to reject the consensus opinions of scholars regarding the authenticity and dating of these documents. If an acceptance of this evidentiary consensus failed to produce a legal/forensically sound solution to the problem of how Christianity started, then the necessity would exist to repudiate that scholarly consensus and to explain why, and to provide and document an alternative theory to explain when and by whom these documents were created, before formulating and presenting in court a theory of the case. Fortunately, that did not happen here. A consensus of scholars can therefore be accepted as authoritative regarding the authentication and approximate dating of these documents.
That sounds a bit like saying that a method is validated if it gives us a result we are looking for. I can understand why lawyers would consider this principle to be valid, but here we are dealing with historical manuscripts with nothing but their self-witness to authenticate them and with no way of testing any of their claims or relevance against living witnesses or victims.
Zuesse continues with a train of thought that demonstrates little acquaintance with philosophical discussions among historians on the nature of history:
As a general rule, the aim of science is to solve problems, whereas the aim of scholarship is to preserve problems. When a problem is solved, this solution becomes, in turn, a tool to solve the next frontier of problems, and so science makes progress. If, however, the solution is found to be deficient, then more research is done on the original problem, and so a better (more accurate) solution is found, which, in turn, becomes a better tool to solve the problems at the new frontier. However, only science can solve problems. Thus, if a problem in a scholarly field is ever solved, it’s solved by means of introducing science to that field, and the scholarly field is gradually abandoning scholarship, and adopting science instead. This is what has been happening when scholars more accurately date documents in the New Testament. No longer is the scholarly prejudice that favors the priority of the canonical Gospels being accepted. Instead, scientific means of authenticating and dating documents are applied. Until the present instance, scientific means of interpreting documents have not been applied within the traditional fields of scholarship. The chief epistemological purpose of this work is to introduce science to the interpretation of these documents.
So scholars use “scientific methods” to establish the authenticity and dates of ancient documents? They use carbon-14 to date Paul’s letters? Or course not. I recently posted one scholar’s observation that his New Testament peers do NOT use “scientific methods” to date the Gospels — or for that matter, even the letters of Paul: See Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels.
Zuesse accepts scholarly “scientific” views for the dating of the works of Paul (without explaining what those “scientific methods” are), but faults scholars for taking Paul at face value when he alleged to be a follower of Jesus:
Paul’s assertions alleging himself to be a follower of Jesus (such as his repeated statements that he was an “apostle” of Jesus), are taken at face-value by virtually all scholars but the work you’re now reading will assume neither that he was, nor that he wasn’t, and will conclude, from the best evidence of all, which is Paul’s authentic letters, that, during the period of his life (late in his career) when he was writing these letters, he definitely wasn’t a follower of Jesus, but that he was instead an enemy of the sect of Jews which Jesus had established – an enemy who had departed from this sect in the year 49 or 50, with the intention to replace it by an entirely new religion, which Paul designed specifically to satisfy the Roman Imperial regime that had executed Jesus.
Zuesse argues that the four Gospels and whole of the New Testament were all written by enemies of Jesus — Paul and his followers — and not by followers of Jesus.
Zuesse believes his method trumps anything produced by biblical scholars because he knows how to discern and rely upon the “best” evidence — a method lost to the biblical scholars. This is why he relies upon Galatians as “evidentiary gold” for his argument. For the first time ever, valid methods that can only come from lawyers will be applied to the epistle of Galatians and reveal at last the true origins of Christianity:
A court presents to the jury not (as scholars are accustomed to doing via huge bibliographies and numerous footnotes) the largest quantity of evidence regarding a particular matter, but instead the highest quality of evidence regarding any specific question. For example, DNA evidence trumps witness testimony, and that’s why many convicts have been released from death rows after the advent of DNA testing. . . . Similarly, the best-evidence rule is employed so as to winnow out evidentiary gold from evidentiary chaff, to avoid contaminating jurors’ judgment by less reliable “evidence” which prejudices rather than informs judgments. . . .
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is widely considered by scholars to be the best evidence regarding early Christianity. That consensus also is accepted here. Not only is Galatians accepted as direct witness testimony to the events it describes (which, for example, the Gospels were formerly widely thought to be, but no longer are: they’re second- or third-hand accounts at most, just hearsay), but, as The Oxford Companion to the Bible stated in 1993, “None of the letters bearing Paul’s name is so indubitably his as Galatians. Galatians is, indeed, the criterion by which the authenticity of other letters ascribed to him is gauged.”
If any of the evidence (either inside or outside the New Testament) that concerns earliest Christianity is authentic, it’s Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This is thus the strongest foundation upon which to build an authentic history of Christianity.
A legal/forensic analysis of Christianity’s origin will therefore be based upon that document, the best evidence. And under its first-ever legal/forensic analysis, Galatians will, indeed, reveal how, when, where, why, and by whom, Christianity started.
Eric Zuesse thus assures his readers that by following a much narrower range of evidence than is normally found in scholarly works, they are in fact following along with the best evidence, and will as much as possible be reading the facts “directly from Paul’s testimony” instead of reading “third-hand from what some pre-selected group of ‘experts’ . . . say he meant”. (I understand Zuesse to be explaining that our choice is between a pre-selected group of experts and a self-appointed expert.)
Zuesse embraces the assumptions of New Testament scholars that suit his purposes, however. He “knows” as well as New Testament scholars apparently do the respective audiences of the letters and gospels, and which of these documents experienced checks from people interested in assuring their historical accuracy. He also “knows” Paul was writing in a context of peoples who had known and followed the historical Jesus:
Those seven letters from Paul are considered by scholars to be the earliest-written of all Christian documents, and the ones written closest to Jesus. Unlike all other documents in the New Testament, only these seven were written to an audience of people who were living during the time when Jesus’s disciples – the people who had known Jesus personally, and who had heard him speak – were still around to comment about Jesus, and about the veracity of what these seven documents were saying about him and about his authentic disciples. All other documents in the New Testament were written for readers who had no way to verify them – no one to consult who could say, with any credibility, whether they were true or false, or what in them was true, and what was not. . . . .
the writer of Paul’s letters knew that anything he said which was blatantly false about Jesus and about what Jesus’s religion was, would be exposed as false by representatives sent from Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem, people who had known Jesus while Jesus was alive.
Thus, these letters from Paul are in a class by themselves, far more reliable than any other New Testament documents or than any other evidence regarding Christianity’s start.
Zuesse explains that his method is to “start with the first line of Galatians and proceed forward, line-by-line, until we reach the climax, toward which each of those earlier lines has been building.” And it is this climax — 2:11-21 — that will be Paul’s account of the event that started Christianity.
As he exegetes each line he will sometimes turn to other letters of Paul to clarify a point. Thus “Paul is used to interpret Paul”. What is different about Eric Zuesse’s exegisis is that it is “the first-ever legal/forensic exegesis of Galatians“. This makes “all the difference” in not only what the findings are, but in how reliable they are. Since his argument will be based on the “best available evidence” — that is Galatians — we will have a more certain claim to know how Christianity really started.
But I do wholeheartedly agree with Zuesse’s observation of the way New Testament scholars have generally approached the study of Christian origins when he writes:
. . . . virtually every “historian” until now has chosen to use the four canonical Gospels, plus Acts, in order to formulate their theory of “The Birth of Christianity” (a common phrase for these, essentially, retellings of myths; they’re not actual histories of Christianity’s start), and then has used the seven authentic Pauline epistles (if at all) only to fill in details of their thesis which has been formulated upon the basis of the Gospels and Acts. They formulate their theory of the case upon the basis of the later documents (such as Acts), and then add to that dubious “historical” reconstruction some details from the earlier evidence (such as Galatians). So, they have chosen to start with the Christian myth.
That’s true. As anthropologists Claude Lévi-Strauss or Philippe Wajdenbaum would say, all these scholars have done is to write another version of the myth of Christian origins.
Eric Zuesse claims his interpretation is superior to anything presented till now because it is based exclusively upon the “most reliable” evidence and uses the forensic methods applied to documents in criminal trials after the Second World War.
[T]he thesis in the present work is formulated from only the seven widely-viewed-by-scholars as being the highest-quality items of evidence, which are the generally-agreed-as-authentic letters from Paul; and the canonical Gospels and Acts are employed here solely to fill in more details of that thesis. This procedure does the most that can possibly be done to avoid using tampered-with or otherwise unreliable “evidence” as the basis for reconstructing history from the available body of evidence.
So much for all the work of scholars who have published on the evidence for the way that Galatians itself has been tampered with, interpolated, redacted, and so forth. So much the worse for the scholarly observation that the very notion that Paul himself really persecuted early Christians is entirely a “(proto)orthodox” Christian notion that is nowhere to be found among its “heretical” rivals. So much the worse for more recent scholarly research into literary analysis that has offered us good reason to see Galatians as a well-crafted stylistic work that can only be accepted as a genuinely personal outpouring of emotion and autobiography on a naïve reading that is ignorant of the conventions of ancient literature.
Sorry, Eric, but the Nuremburg-trials model does not necessarily work when applied to the question of Christian origins.
The fallacy or Eric Zuesse’s method is surely becoming apparent:
The reliability-ranking of evidence, prior to the interpretation of evidence, is crucial in this process. Thus, for example: One can reasonably ask whether an allegation in Acts supports Galatians, but one cannot reasonably ask whether an allegation in Galatians supports Acts.
Zuesse fails to see that Galatians is just as much an historical literary artifact as is Acts. The letter-genre does not change this simple fact. (Hence my Rosenmeyer reference above.) On what basis can we opt to claim that the self-testimony of one is genuine (that is, it is really written by the one whose name appears at the opening, that this name is really the name of the real author and the author of other documents we have in hand, that it is really a spontaneous letter to address a situation that is genuinely historical, that there is an honest link between this letter and the Christian church that we see emerging one or two hundred years later, etc etc) while the self-testimony of the other is suspect?
Unfortunately for Zuesse, he relies upon New Testament scholars for far more information than he is prepared to admit.
I certainly did read your work before responding as I did.
I can only repeat that my views are hardly my own idiosyncratic quirks, but are based squarely on the work of biblical scholars themselves such as the Dutch radicals and the principles enunciated by the contemporary “Copenhagen school” — and are consistent with normative secular historical methodologies.
Thomas L. Thompson is hardly a lightweight when it comes to historical methodology, and he is beginning at last to address New Testament assumptions, too, by bringing over the same principles one finds among classical and ancient historians into the realm of New Testament studies just as he and a handful of others initiated with Old Testament studies a couple of decades ago. I mention him as only one example, but certainly one of the most well-known and reputable in his field.
Eric then asked me what I consider to be the “best evidence” if I don’t roll with his views. I replied:
I read your draft, and I will often discuss Christian origins within the mainstream assumptions about the Pauline letters. But that is because I have to allow for the possibility that they are “true”, so arguments relying on those assumptions are worth testing and exploring. Yours is one of these.
My preference is, however, to work with evidence as it is understood through external controls. In the case of the Pauline corpus, I find it interesting that our first external testimony to its existence appears at the same time as external witnesses first pointing to other Pauline literature — the Pastorals and the Acts of Paul and Thecla and the Acts of the Apostles. The themes of each of these suggest, furthermore, a world of ideological or theological disputes. And this is the time that Marcionism is first witnessed in the literature. This suggests to me a striving to claim ownership of Paul within a context where Paul’s authority was important. Why was Paul so important at this time? Who was he? Is there significance in his name supposedly meaning “small” and the regular references in gnostic literature to the new convert as a “small” one? What of the many echoes we read bouncing between the lives of Peter and Paul? What of the genealogies of heresy and orthodoxy and their links with one or more of the Simons? Is there anything to the view that Galatians was really written by Marcion and was the trip to Jerusalem a cipher for Marcion’s trip to Rome?
William Walker, Winsome Munro and others have argued some excellent cases for interpolations in the Pauline letters. I think many scholars who are not in the conservative camp are persuaded that the arguments of Birger Pearson (1971) and Daryl Schmidt (1983) that the 1 Thess 2:15-16 passage is an interpolation.
I don’t know. The numbers of questions (and their nature) that present themselves leave me suspending judgment.
So the position I opt for is to study the gospels and letters as works in their own right — that is, not assuming their narratives are based on historical reports, but to attempt to see what we can understand about them as literature and as theological discussions in comparison with contemporary or similar literature. What do we learn about their authors, audiences, views, from such studies?
I suspect Christianity began in much the way Judaism began — not as a inheritance from a literal Abraham and Moses, but as a response to a traumatic catastrophe or loss in collective identity and a need to establish a new identity to survive as a collective unit. In the case of Judaism, this was occasioned by the deportation and resettlement of peoples into the land of Palestine under the Persian empire to establish the province of Jehud. (We have Assyrian, Babylonian and even biblical testimony that deportees were sometimes told that they were in fact returning to the lands and/or gods of their fathers.)
In the case of Christianity, this was occasioned by the destruction of the Jewish nation by Rome. Two of the responses that attempted to deal with this crisis were Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Gnosticism going its own way may have been a third. Christianity appears to have spun off from the Enochian and other Second Temple sectarian views (e.g. the atoning and saving blood of a literally sacrificed Isaac) that dwelt on visions, sons of God, angels, etc. Christianity’s struggle for the new identity of the “new Israel” against Rabbinic Judaism is reflected in the Gospel conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees and Jerusalem priesthood.
This still leaves the letters of Paul and others in the NT canon hanging in limbo. That leads to the question of how they might be understood if read without gospel narrative presuppositions.
This probably sounds way off the ball, given that it is a synopsis and not an argument that covers the details.
But as I said, I am also willing to test Paul’s Galatians as a first century document and to take its contents at face value. But when I do I always have in the back of my mind the question as to why the author spoke of a Peter and a Cephas as if they are the one person within a short passage. Why use two names for the one person? And how do we account for the differences in content between the canonical Galatians and Tertullian’s commentary on it at the end of the second century? How can we be sure what we read in our NT canons is what Tertullian himself read, and more important, what the original author actually wrote? Tertullian accuses Marcion of mutilating the letter. Is he right? Or is Marcion? How can we know?
Sorry Eric, I have more questions than answers.
That is why I will probably never get around to writing a book and why in some ways I envy you!
Eric and I then bogged down a little into the question of what is meant by “historical facts”. My final response to this segment of our discussion was:
When a historian speaks of Julius Caesar he speaks of Julius Caesar as a person, a “fact” of history, and justifies this concept of “fact” on the basis of primary evidence and secondary evidence that allows for a range of probabilities.
Just picking up a collection of letters that themselves claim to be by someone and include indications they were written in a certain period, without having any means of external corroboration until a century later, when they first appear serving a very specific set of political agendas, and in an age when literary fabrications were par for the course, and then taking the claims of those letters at face value, is not a judicious way of handling them as “evidence”.
To which Eric replied that if I could not produce anything concrete about “an event” that started Christianity then I had no way of arguing for how Christianity started. That struck me as invalid. Why assume that Christianity started with ‘an event’?
To which Eric replied that if I was saying that some things are not “clearly definable” then I was repudiating science itself, since all science depends upon clear definitions.
Unfortunately the rudeness of the response around this time led me to cut off any further correspondence with Eric. The point I was trying to make was that the idea that there was “an event” that “started” Christianity is itself entirely a hypothesis. Not all major social revolutions begin with, and then snowball from, a single “event”.
I am sure if Eric has any further rejoinders to add he will do so here.