2012-11-30

Carrier on Brodie and Rene Salm, at SBL, on Nazareth, Pious Fraud, James McGrath and others

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier has posted a review of Thomas L. Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery. It is here on the freethought blog. I will be posting more of my own thoughts on the book in future posts here. While I agree with much of Carrier’s assessment I do hold back from some of his more “jaded” (his term) expressions: Of course the book is not written as an argument to prove Jesus never existed. It is, as Carrier rightly notes (though I think he loses some balance here in overstressing what the book is not) an autobiographical journey of how Brodie came to conclude Jesus did not exist. While it is certainly logically valid to insist that it is not valid to conclude that Jesus did not exist if all one has is evidence that Jesus was a literary character, but at the same time, in the absence of positive evidence for Jesus’ historicity, it is certainly valid to conclude that there is no reason to accept Jesus as a historical figure. If the only extant evidence is literary metaphor or a theological concept then it is valid to conclude that Jesus was a literary metaphor until other evidence comes along to the contrary. (Carrier will possibly object here by pointing to Paul’s letters, but this is a discussion I will have to leave for another time.)

I do agree with Carrier that Brodie does make some excellent points on the scholarship that has attempted to find historicity in oral tradition, and I have posted in depth on that aspect of Brodie’s book.

René Salm has posted the paper he delivered at the SBL conference recently. I like the way he nails from the outset common dismissals of his thesis that Nazareth did not exist in the time of Jesus (my emphasis):

Not being an archaeologist myself, I am often asked: “How can you date evidence, Mr. Salm?” or: “How can you presume to correct professional archaeologists?” or: “How can you have any opinion on these matters?” However, there is a misunderstanding inherent in these questions, for I have never dated anything at all. I have simply identified the relevant archaeological experts and quoted their published datings: Hans-Peter Kuhnen on kokhim tombs, Varda Sussman on bow-spouted oil lamps, Roland Deines on Jewish stone vessels, Amos Kloner on circular blocking stones, and so on. The case regarding Nazareth does not rest on my opinion at all. Anyone who disagrees with The Myth of Nazareth is not disagreeing with me but is taking issue with the leading archaeological experts in the world. As we shall see, this is fatal for traditional conclusions regarding Nazareth.

and on those popular reports of the house and bath supposedly from Jesus’ time:

The demonstrable material record shows that the settlement that eventually came to be called Nazareth did not come into existence until after the First Jewish War, that is, after 70 CE. We should first agree on what constitutes the “demonstrable material record.” All can agree that it is found in scholarly publications. Note my inclusion here of the word “scholarly.” Many opinions are now current on the Internet and in the popular press which claim, for example, the existence of a house in Nazareth from the time of Jesus, the existence of coins dating to Hasmonaean times, and even that a bath-house in Nazareth existed at the turn of the era—one in which Jesus himself may have bathed. However, these popular claims do not meet scholarly standards of publication, description, context, itemization, parallels, etc. That is, they do not allow other scholars to verify the nature of the evidence and hence to weigh the claims themselves. These non-academic press reports—quite frequent these days—are not what one can term “diagnostic.” Until the evidence is itemized and described in a scientific way, such claims are the equivalent of unfounded opinion, hearsay, and innuendo.

And his conclusion:

The foregoing shows that Nazareth archaeology presents a persistent pattern of error, internal contradiction, and outright fraud—from the mischaracterization of evidence, to the misdating of structural and movable finds to the time of Jesus (and to prior centuries), now to the possible “planting” of Hellenistic coins into an excavation at Mary’s Well. All this error and subterfuge has produced a false history of the site and is totally unacceptable to those of us seeking an understanding of Christian origins.

The only reasonable conclusion is that drawn from the published material record, and it is entirely clear: Nazareth certainly did not exist at the turn of the era.

In closing, I would like to quote from one of my articles which appeared in the January 2009 issue of American Atheist magazine:

We should all look with great suspicion on new evidence ‘coming to light’ which conflicts with the evidentiary profile of the last hundred years, new evidence which astonishingly reopens the case for settlement in the time of Christ. Given the revelations documented in my book, and the lengthy history of duplicity associated with Nazareth archaeology, we have every right to insist that any new evidence be rigorously documented as to findspot, circumstances of discovery, and description (preferably accompanied by photo or diagram). Any claim of new, pre-70 CE evidence, should raise an alarum red flag. Such a claim tells us more about the persons making it than about Nazareth…

Pious fraud

Salm’s paper addresses another aspect of this controversy that is critical and that exposes the sham behind so much of the conservatives offended by Salm’s presentations of the scholarly findings:

In biblical archaeology, there is a considerable looseness of terminology regarding what constitutes an “archaeologist.” Regarding those who have actually dug at Nazareth we may ask: How extensive was their scientific training? How rigorous was that training? These are not idle questions for, over and over, we find that the excavators on Catholic Church property have failed to observe standard guidelines of stratigraphy, documentation, publication, and preservation.

Amnon ben Tor, a respected Israeli archaeologist and the author of the well-known reference work, The Archaeology of Ancient Israel, notes the pervasive need in some circles to validate scripture, a desire which he finds corrosive of archaeological integrity. He observes that many archaeologists active in the Land of Israel “received a large part of their education at various theological seminaries, while their archaeological training was often deficient.” Ben Tor adds: “This is particularly evident among American archaeologists.” He notes that “This state of affairs has given biblical archaeology a reputation for amateurism in some archaeological circles. Modern scientific excavation is so complex that those who have not received adequate training (which is the case with most of those educated at theological seminaries) cannot conduct” an excavation properly (MoN p. 9).

The excavators digging in the ground at Nazareth have by-and-large been seminary-trained priests, pastors, and ministers intent on seeking out “evidence” that corroborates the gospel accounts. On this basis, their work must be characterized as tendentious. “Tendentious” means that they present data lacking adequate foundation in the material evidence and conforming to preconceived conclusions. I call this “pious fraud.”

Hearsay replaces “evidence”?

Accompanying a broadening in the definition of what constitutes an “archaeologist,” there has been a concomitant loosening in what constitutes “evidence” in the field of Christian studies. A major problem with Nazareth archaeology (as also with Biblical archaeology in general) is that mere assertions have often replaced verifiability, including proper publication, itemization, and so forth. Sometimes, scholars consider claims valid merely because one or another of their peers “said it is so.” Thus, reputation has often replaced evidence.

So next time you read cynical critics objecting that René Salm is not a trained archaeologist himself . . . . .

The SBL experience

Salm posts some interesting observations of his own experience at the SBL convention: Part 1 and Part 2.

I liked his remarks about James Linville, one of whose books I would love to discuss on this blog some time. Linville’s views are  reported as follows:

Turning to the contemporary scene (BAR should have been listening), he observed that religion in North America is ultimately consumer driven, that the media overlooks secular scholars in the field, that archaeological discoveries cater to religious conservatives (“nutcases”), that the SBL “does the Church’s work,” and that further separation between secular and religious scholarship is needed.

This blog’s good friend James McGrath is also described along with his presentation:

- “The Mandaean Book of John and the New Testament” (James McGrath, expanded online here). McGrath barks up the wrong tree. Contra Bultmann and Lidzbarski, he bows to the current cultural (and hence academic) imperative that significant elements of Mandeism simply could not have been pre-Christian. IMO this is flat out wrong and sufficient grounds alone to disqualify McGrath’s work on Mandaeism.

McGrath places far too much weight on the late dating of the surviving Mandean corpus. Yet he coyly admits that some “unexplainable” elements could be quite early. In other words, McGrath straddles every fence. He returns over and over to what is “inherently more likely” as if that were an unfailing diagnostic parameter. McGrath doesn’t seem to realize that certain seminal events in history, such as the birth of a religion are—by definition—extraordinary.

McGrath did note some important points, however, such as that “Sabians” is another word for the Mandeans in the Koran (see Chwolsohn’s massive opus on the “Ssabier”) and that Theodor bar Koni referred to the Mandeans as “dostheens”—i.e. Dositheans. The implications of these equivalences are, IMO, fundamental to future research into Christian origins. They show that the gnostic Dositheans, in particular, lie at the heart of the whole matter.

McGrath is surprisingly short (perhaps 5’4”). Regardless of what he is saying, McGrath has an invariable grin perennially pasted to his face. After awhile I found this offputting, like the unchangeable mask of someone not trusting enough to disclose his true feelings.

Salm also describes his meetings with Robert Price and Hector Avalos and others. Interesting reading.

  • W. Goodman
    2012-11-30 19:30:40 UTC - 19:30 | Permalink

    I like this line of yours, and support it as important and definitive:

    “If the only extant evidence is literary metaphor or a theological concept then it is valid to conclude that Jesus was a literary metaphor until other evidence comes along to the contrary.”

  • 2012-12-01 07:06:07 UTC - 07:06 | Permalink

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/11/mythicist-vs-short-smiling-scholar.html

    It has been a while since I have blogged about mythicism. But several mythicism-related blog posts have appeared over the past day or so. I will start with the most entertaining. Rene Salm managed to get a paper accepted at SBL, and not only has he shared his paper online, but at the blog Vridar there are also excerpts from Salm’s account of the conference.

    . . . http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/11/mythicist-vs-short-smiling-scholar.html

  • John Felix
    2012-12-01 08:34:59 UTC - 08:34 | Permalink

    On a personal note, I met Rene Salm for lunch after he finished out the SBL presentations which, if I recall correctly, drew the most Q&A time from the scanty amount allocated. This was the first time I met both him and Dr. Robert M. Price in person, Mr. Salm is both charming and erudite, It was a great pleasure for me to dine with both of these outstanding luminaries.

  • Pingback: More SBL Fallout from René Salm’s paper « Vridar

  • Pingback: Emperor Ehrman Walks Naked Through a Storyland Nazareth 4000 Years Old « Vridar

  • 2012-12-09 22:35:09 UTC - 22:35 | Permalink

    James Linville has objected to the way he considers he was misrepresented by Salm’s account of his words as included in the blog post above. Salm has prominently posted the following on his own blog against his description of Linville’s words:

    [Dr. Linville considers my comments in some ways a mischaracterization. I direct readers to his blog where he clarifies his position in extenso. Incidentally, my being late to the SBL session was by no means intentional (as Dr. Linville suggests) but the result of several factors, some self-induced. For example, I failed to set my alarm clock for Central Time when arriving in Chicago from Oregon the night before. Thus I woke up thinking it was 7:00 AM when in fact it was 9:00 AM!—R.S. 12/8/12.]

    Odd that Linville apparently did not seek to post a correction on Salm’s blog itself. Several scholars have pointed out on my blog where I have at times gotten them wrong (it happens). If I get anything wrong or repeat anything that’s wrong it’s nicer, even plain civil, to be told rather than treated like some unregenerate leper.

  • 2012-12-10 01:54:46 UTC - 01:54 | Permalink

    Hi Niel. I was thinking about commenting on the your blog and Salm’s but my draft got kind of long I thought it would be better as a separate post. Sorry if that was bad form. No slight intended.

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