by Neil Godfrey
One never thinks to engage seriously with ticks so when Hoffmann calls his mythicist opponents “mythtics” it is clear he has no interest in taking them seriously. When he does speak of the arguments of those he has described as “ghetto-dwelling disease carrying mosquitoes/buggers” he necessarily keeps them anonymous and never cites or quotes them, but belabors the same tired old straw man points he seems to want, maybe even needs, them to be arguing. I return to this point at the end of the post.
So without a dialogue partner I post here my own thoughts and questions about his method that leads him to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth did exist as an historical person.
He writes in his post, The Historically Inconvenient Jesus (with my formatting):
Given that there is
- (a) no reason to trust the gospels;
- (b) no external testimony to the existence of Jesus (I’ve never thought that the so-called “pagan” reports were worth considering in detail; at most they can be considered evidence of the cult, not a founder);
- (c) no independent Christian source that is not tainted by the missionary objectives of the cult
- and (d) no Jewish account that has not been invented or tainted by Christian interpolators,
what is the purpose of holding out for an historical Jesus?
Actually I think his point (a) is badly expressed. I actually do believe we can and should “trust the gospels” — but only after we first analyze them to understand what, exactly, they are. I believe we can trust the Gospel of Mark as an expression of theological beliefs about Jesus because that’s exactly what it is. I can see no more reason to use it as an historical source for its narrative contents than there would be to use the Gospel of Mary for the same purpose. That means the Gospel of Mark, like the Gospel of Mary, is an excellent, trustworthy source for certain theological beliefs and the ways they were expressed among those who first knew these gospels. I know of no a priori reason to think anyone should bother to read them for kernels of historical events and persons behind their narratives. I can see lots of reasons in the Gospels to think their narratives have nothing to do with historical events.
But that’s just me (and, I think, William Wrede) so I’ll move on and for the sake of argument play the game the way Hoffmann plays it here.
As for starting with a complete absence of reliable external testimonies, Hoffmann is parting company with probably most of his peers. Looks like this position is a legacy from his own time as a “mythtick”.
So Hoffmann is beginning his “quest” for evidence of historicity without gospels, without external testimonies, and without any independent Christian source. Ex nihilo?
Hoffmann explains that the historical Jesus will emerge from “the three C’s”: conditions, context and coordinates.
Simply put, it is the three “C”s: conditions, context, and coordinates.
He explains how the first C, “conditions”, gives us the historical figure:
The political and religious conditions of the time of Jesus plausibly give us characters like Jesus. This is a tautology that has to be confronted. It is possible of course that Jesus was Joshua, that Jesus was Theudas, that Jesus was Judas the Galilean, that Jesus (at a chronological stretch) was bar Kochba, or that he was one of the “others coming in my name” that he is said to refer to in the gospels. But the gospels present a fortiori evidence that there was another figure, Jesus of Nazareth, who also meets the prescribed conditions, and that figure cannot be argued away through analogy. That is to say, why would an analogous figure be preferable to the figure described in the ancient texts? What criterion or canon do we use to defend that preference?
“Characters like Jesus”? How do we know what Jesus was like? That is, how do we know whom to look for? We have just thrown out the gospels as unreliable, along with external witnesses. What’s left?
I don’t want to be putting words into Hoffmann’s mouth, but my understanding is that he really does rely upon the gospels. But he reads them in a way that some cheeky clown might compare to reading tea-leaves. I would never go that far, though. I do know that different religious groups have their own different ways of interpreting the gospels, and to help them get the “right” interpretation they will be given a “key”. A key is a guiding principle through which to interpret what you read. For many NT scholars the “key” to interpreting the gospels has been that Jesus was like some sort of counter-cultural, anti-authoritarian activist — not unlike other popular leaders who fell foul of Rome in that generation. For Hoffmann, the key to interpreting the gospels is that Jesus must have been something like the sorts of figures that we find produced by his three Cs.
If I am wrong and Hoffmann’s three Cs are conclusions and not the a priori assumptions through which he interpreted the Gospels to arrive at his type of Jesus, then he needs to explain — quite apart from reference to his three Cs — how his interpretation is more valid than any other interpretations that have given scholars quite different Jesus-types.
Until he does that (and I am not saying he hasn’t or won’t do that, by the way) then we can only conclude that the Jesus he finds in the gospels is the direct result of looking for such a Jesus via the three Cs, and then using the three Cs to prove that that Jesus existed!
In other words, Hoffmann needs to demonstrate that he is not just arguing in a circle.
Skipping all of Hoffmann’s tiresome bombast against his straw-tick opponents, he eventually comes to the second C, “context”:
The context of Jesus is clearly the context of first century Palestinian Judaism, mediated through the work of Hellenistic reporters, themselves Christian—members of the cult of Christ, the Jesus believers. The clues to understanding what people thought about him—even when they got it wrong or deliberately exaggerated what they knew or heard—does not give us a drama like ravings of the Hercules Oetaeus or the mysteries of Mithras or Persephone.
Well, yes, but only if we trust the gospels that Hoffmann has already said can’t be trusted. Some scholars see evidence of Hellenistic provenances of some supposed sayings of Jesus. Many scholars have argued the settings of sayings and deeds of Jesus have been artificially added by the evangelists (or maybe their sources) themselves. If Hoffmann here relies upon the unanimity of the gospels’ testimony that this is the setting of Jesus, and therefore it must be treated as trustworthy, then he is following the same “methodology” that Dale C. Allison describes in Constructing Jesus.
Allison says that if all our sources say the same sorts of things, even if everything they may say is not historically true or verifiable, then we must accept that those “same sorts of things” are true because that’s the impression they left with all who contributed to producing the gospels. Of course this line of reasoning assumes, without any valid grounds that I am aware of, that the evangelists were recording historical memories. (If you are jumping up to point out Luke’s preface at this point, read What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See?) It would seem that Hoffmann is following this line of reasoning in saying that we can be sure the untrustworthy gospels can be trusted on this point.
But let’s go along with Hoffmann here on his point about context just the same. I don’t see what his point about Mithras or Persephone or Hercules is or how it makes “context” any more likely to be grounds for believing Jesus to be historical. Anyone who has read the popular Greek novels (See Reardon and a recent post on their relevance to NT studies) can read of a host of fictional characters, sometimes interacting with historical ones, all in “correct contexts and conditions”, and all plausible.
Let’s see if Hoffmann fares better with his third C, “coordinates”:
Lastly, coordinates. I said in my previous post that Jesus can be situated between the end of the first century BCE and the end of the middle of the second century BCE. His description comports with two events: rebellion against the temple cult by dissident elements, like Josephus’ “fourth sect,” and the ill-fated, last gasp effort of bar Kochba to redeem the lost city and its cult. A Jesus outside this specific matrix would make no sense—a sui generis apocalyptic preacher in an age of prosperity and contentment?
It is precisely because we can pinpoint the essential dates, figures, movements, factions and effects that Jesus does make sense: he parses. He does not come off as atypical . . .
Hoffmann has not made it clear how “coordinates” actually advances evidence that Jesus existed. All he does here is show that people like bar Kochba existed at the time of bar Kochba. Judas the Galilean, reputed instigator of the “fourth sect” lived at a time when people like Judas the Galilean lived. If a Jesus who was not unlike them also existed at this time and place, in these coordinates, then he existed too. That’s not a very good argument for historicity.
Of course his own construction of Jesus is plausible or not atypical — otherwise he would not be an “historical” Jesus. There seems to be this dogma that holds NT scholars in thrall and compels them to believe that the unhistorical Jesus of the gospels must have originated as a typical person of history. Why? (Sorry, I know the answer to that. Rhetorical question.)
As other biblical scholars themselves have said, they all begin with the assumption that there must be some other humanoid Jesus behind the Gospels. (But why must there be? That is never explained, at least not without begging the question.)
Plausibility of a construct is not historicity
Hoffmann is doing little more than arguing for the plausibility of the type of Jesus he has constructed out of his three Cs, and then using those three Cs to “prove” this person must surely have existed.
I wonder how Hoffmann would explain why his three Cs cannot also be used to prove the historicity of King Arthur or William Tell or Robin Hood or Ned Ludd or Juan Diego or Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay? Don’t each of those (presumably nonhistorical) characters also find a place in the conditions, the contexts and the coordinates of their times and settings?
Now Hoffmann may have a very good answer to this question. I am sure, if he does, that he will present it somewhere, sometime, with all the scholarly condescension and scorn he can muster. In fact, I am pretty sure I can anticipate certain objections to what I have written here. I won’t cover everything in this post because it will make it too long and I have already addressed most of it several times over the years anyway. I’d rather wait to hear specific objections before adding any further discussion.
(One point that is missing so far is that Hoffmann’s Jesus will also need to be tied in some way to the origin of Christianity. None of the other people who were cornered in the three Cs ever left such a legacy. But I think Hoffmann began to explain his version of how this happened some time earlier last year with the beginning of the Jesus Process(c). Still waiting for the promised development of that argument.)
I even wonder if Hoffmann is really too heated in his pointless polemics against straw-man or at least very weak mythicist arguments that surely can be found somewhere on the internet that he has lost focus on what is required to argue a case for the historicity of Jesus.
Or maybe his rambling diatribes against the supposed arguments of his opponents are a kind of subconscious cover to deflect attention from the poverty of his own arguments for Jesus’ historicity. “How can you fault my weak arguments if you keep in mind just how bad I tell you insect arguments are!”