2013-06-24

What If Jesus Were Real?

by Tim Widowfield

“What is the nature of the employment, Mr. Marriott?”

“I should prefer not to discuss it over the phone.”

“Can you give me some idea? Montemar Vista is quite a distance.”

“I shall be glad to pay your expenses, if we don’t agree. Are you particular about the nature of the employment?”

“Not as long as it’s legitimate.”

The voice grew icicles. “I should not have called you, if it were not.”

A Harvard boy. Nice use of the subjunctive mood. The end of my foot itched, but my bank account was still trying to crawl under a duck. I put honey into my voice and said: “Many thanks for calling me, Mr. Marriott. I’ll be there.”

Farewell, My Lovely (p. 42) — Raymond Chandler

In a recent Huffington Post article, noted “scholar, author, and blogger” (and non-Harvard boy), Joel Watts, asks: “What if [sic] Jesus Was [sic] Real?” (Note: I’m linking to Joel’s blog rather than directly to the HuffPo.)

English: A fresco from the Vardzia monastery d...

A fresco from the Vardzia monastery 
depicting Jesus Christ
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He begins:

That’s a difficult question for many to read. It could mean, possibly, this author believes Jesus was not real or at least has doubts as to the existence of a Jesus.

Since Joel did not employ the subjunctive, we may wonder whether he believes it is more likely that Jesus did exist, or whether he simply has problems with English grammar. Did he really mean to insert the indefinite article before Jesus, or is it a typo? By “difficult to read,” did he mean “hard to understand”? It is, indeed, always more difficult to comprehend prose written by an author who has a tenuous grasp of the mother tongue. For example, in broaching the subject of Jesus mythicism, he writes:

We see this almost constantly with the advent of new “ideas” such as Jesus was the King of Egypt, or Jesus was an alien, or worse — Jesus isn’t real, just a story told like other divine imaginations, to help out one person or another in achieving something of an ethical collusion, or mythicism(emphasis mine)

It is difficult to make sense of this concatenation of words, because although it looks at first like so much random lexical noise, I cannot shake the suspicion that Joel had intended to write something rather clever. As a last resort, I Googled the terms “divine imagination” and “ethical collusion,” but reached no satisfying conclusions. Of course, I am no scholar, so I’m at a disadvantage here.

Joel continues by dredging up the tired accusation that mythicists are just like creationists.

Both groups [i.e., Young Earth Creationists and mythicists] are known to abuse science (and in the mythicist’s case, the science of history) to their own ends, with one embattled mythicist resorting to a highly technical field outside of his own in an attempt to cast doubt upon the historical person of Jesus. Indeed, this later mythicist, because he refuses the title of mythicist, has lost many fans among the one true sect of mythicists.

I think Joel is obliquely referring to Neil here. The post to which Joel refers on Dr. James McGrath’s site, Exploding Our Cakemix, actually harms Joel’s case, but — true to form — that fact escapes both Joel and his fellow scholar. Before I forget to mention it, I love the unintended irony of Joel’s comment about “resorting to a highly technical field outside of his own.” And I will resist the urge to question the use of the term “the science of history,” despite its interest to me personally, since such a discussion would take us too far afield.

Anyhow, back in February 2012, Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrman engaged in a public debate over the text of the New Testament. At one point during the proceedings Wallace breathlessly announced that a new fragment of Mark had been found, which he (or rather a palaeographer with “no theological bias”) confidently dated to the first century CE. He implied that this early fragment would prove that, contra Ehrman, the later canonical text of Mark had deviated very little from the authentic text of Mark.

To read more of Wallace’s take on the debate see:

http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2012/02/wallace-vs-erhman-round-three/

To read Bart’s view (some of it behind a paywall) see:

http://ehrmanblog.org/first-century-copy-of-mark-part-1/

Ehrman writes:

But let’s say that the dating is right, and that now we have a scrap of Mark from the first century. Let me be the first to say that I think that would be absolutely fantastic! It would be great! May many more appear!

To which I would add, “Hell, yeah.”

But to scholar Joel, such a finding would, he thought, deal a severe blow to mythicism. He wrote:

If this manuscript is really before that [i.e. before the optimistic dating of P52, between 100 and 150 CE], we can expect some rebuttals, although as they usually are, nonsensical, from the mythicists. How will this affect my thesis work? Not sure. First, we have to see if it is a complete Mark and, then, what the date is.

I would never presume to challenge Joel’s authority on all things nonsensical, but I do have to wonder why an early dating of Mark would produce “some rebuttals . . . from the mythicists.” Naturally, Dr. McGrath didn’t take the time to wonder. He snorted:

As for the question on Joel’s mind, will it spell the end of mythicism if it turns out to be true that a first century manuscript of the Gospel of Mark has indeed been found? Of course not. Has any evidence for evolution ever spelled the end to young-earth creationism or Intelligent Design?

You may notice that James (and apparently Joel, as well) assiduously uses the modifier “young-earth” when deriding creationists. That’s because he and other fans of BioLogos-style accommodation believe in “evolutionary creation,” which is a fancy term for “old-earth” creationism. OEC woo is more “scientific” than YEC woo.

Joel writes in his HuffPo opinion piece:

There are no answers, facts, or otherwise a mythicist will take as valid, just as the young-earther will continue to deny evolutionary science.

Of course, an “old-earther” would accept evolution — as God’s tool for creation. How anyone can reconcile the bizarre life cycles of parasitic species with a loving God is beyond me. Not in my wildest nightmares could I have conceived of the Cymothoa exigua. But again, I confess that I am not a scholar, so perhaps I don’t possess the necessary skills for this sort of accommodational thinking.

(Note here that scholar Joel asserts without fact the position that mythicists will not accept facts.)

Getting back to last year’s Cakemix post, Neil interrupted James’ and Joel’s odd little HJ victory dance, commenting:

Pst. Mythicists George Albert Wells and Earl Doherty have always dated the Gospel of Mark to the first century — or at least Wells has dated it from 70 on and Doherty up to no later than 90. Even Arthur Drews put it at 70 onwards. And Price also, iirc, is happy with a first century date as a valid option.

Perhaps Dr McGrath hasn’t got to page 3 of Doherty’s book yet.

That last jab refers to James’ penchant for misreading (or not reading) Doherty’s book, which he pre-panned on Amazon. To such prodding James is, of course, impervious.

You’ll notice that Neil’s comment was focused on a rather obvious point. Most published mythicists agree with the modern consensus on the dating of Mark — around 70 CE. Joel’s and James’ unawareness of this fact brings up an interesting question: If they don’t know such basic facts about the people they continually vilify, then is their rabid animosity a result of a distaste for the conclusion rather than (as they claim) a disgust for their methods? If the former is true, it would help explain McGrath’s clairvoyant review.

McGrath finally defended himself in a later comment:

There are indeed some mythicists who date the Gospel of Mark to the first century, just as there are some who attribute them [sic] to Marcion or anti-Marcionites. Since mythicism is not based on evidence, no particular view of the date of sources corellates [sic] with it and no evidence will ever be considered to refute it. At least from the perspective of the mythicists themselves. That was my point, for those who may not have grasped it.

Let us ponder James’ logic. Evidence that Mark was written in the first century CE would affirm what “some mythicists” (viz., Doherty, Wells, et al.) already believe to be true. But mythicism is not, according to Dr. McGrath, based on evidence. Hence, “no evidence will ever be considered to refute it.” It is, sadly, unclear exactly why mythicists should change their minds when faced with confirming evidence.

Neil responded with many questions. However, James doesn’t like lots of questions, so he declined to answer them. However, he did deign to write another post in which he asked, “Is Mythicism Falsifiable?” (It’s a classic case of McGrathian misdirection.) And this is the post that Joel refers to in his HuffPo piece.

In it, McGrath wrote:

As Neil Godfrey helpfully drew attention to in a comment, there seems to be no agreement among Jesus-mythicists about when the earliest Christian sources were written, which sources are the earliest, or which ones are authentic.

This ought to raise suspicion that mythicism is a preordained conviction in search of any arguments that can be used to try to promote it, rather than a conclusion.

Nicely done. Neil reminds the forgetful James and Joel that Doherty, Wells, Drews, and probably Price agree with the mainstream consensus that Mark was probably written around 70 CE. James somehow turns it around to claim that mythicists cannot agree on “when the earliest Christian sources were written, which sources are the earliest, or which ones are authentic.”

It is unclear why they should be in agreement (either among themselves or with the mainstream) on these matters. Nor is it clear why disagreement on any matter in NT studies should automatically point to a “preordained conviction.” In fact, the accusation of a “preordained conviction” hovers dangerously close to a well-known, but little-discussed, real problem in NT scholarship. Let’s see if we can spot it in Joel’s HuffPo article.

The real Jesus was a Jew, one nearly unrecoverable in the present — but this doesn’t mean he didn’t exist. It just means we have to live constantly with the doubt we may never really find him. As a Christian, this doesn’t bother me much because I have the guidance of Tradition. As a scholar, however, there are times I wish I could simply stop looking, but knowing I cannot, trudge along. (emphasis mine)

I don’t have the “guidance of Tradition” to help me get to know the real Jesus. I suppose if I did, a lot of the problems in NT studies would become much easier to resolve. For one thing, I would already know that Jesus exists since I’d be chatting with him every day. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of preconceptions, which is why I’m an agnostic on the Jesus question.

So, what does Joel think is recoverable from the historical record regarding his Lord and master?

What I believe is recoverable is not the stuff of legends or myth, but one of a real person embroiled in a dangerous tango of revolution. 

I have never been embroiled in a tango, but it sounds painful. I kid. Normally, I have no problem with mixed metaphors (e.g., “to take arms against a sea of troubles”) unless they’re poorly executed, like the one Joel just offered.

He continues:

During this time, when nerves were exposed to the wintry mix of the whispers of ‘Revolt!’ any man heralded as a prophet, and especially one who spoke against the Temple’s corruption and the extravagant inequality between the classes would meet an apprehensive Rome (we have historical examples of this).

All right, maybe it’s just me, but Joel’s writing gives me an ice-cream headache. “When nerves were exposed to the wintry mix of the whispers of ‘Revolt!’?” Yes, it’s true that George Orwell recommended never using well-known similes and metaphors since they were apt to be so well-known as to evoke no emotional response. However, if a writer lacks the ability to invent new, well-crafted figurative expressions then he or she should write in good old simple English.

Perhaps it is impolite for me to bring up the problems Joel clearly has with language. In my defense, for me it’s like walking down the street and witnessing some ruffian mugging an old lady. How can I walk by and not do something? The least I can do is shout, “STOP!”

I can only assume that Joel’s intent was to lay out a scenario and then argue that this possible chain of events is plausible and therefore the most probable explanation for the birth of Christianity. Unfortunately, much of what he says is lost in blistering barrage of babble:

Well, if he is going to rule the world, doesn’t that mean he is going to save the world too? And if he saves the world, isn’t he something more than a prophet? And doesn’t the world also include Gentiles? Where’s Hillel in all of this and what is Paul talking about anyway, Peter?

What? Who said anything about Hillel . . . or Peter?

Finally, at the end of Joel’s train wreck of an article he says something I can almost agree with.

Jesus is a historical person, but we may not like what he looks like — if we ever find him.

I would instead put it this way:

If Jesus turns out to have been a real, historical person, we probably would not be able to identify with him, agree with his beliefs, or even like him very much (even if he was a handsome son-of-a-godgun) — but we’ll probably never find him.

I don’t really understand how liberal Christians can simultaneously look for the historical Jesus and believe in the spiritual Christ. However, it could just be a personal problem. I’ve always had difficulty believing in contradictory models of the universe. I can’t seem to reconcile the belief that Jesus is both the Lord of Creation and a dead, misguided, failed Jewish prophet, nor can I find any accommodating middle ground that explains the horrors of human history with the existence of a loving God.

But I am not a Christian scholar.

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16 Comments

  • 2013-06-24 05:04:38 UTC - 05:04 | Permalink

    I suspect that McGrath (and others) would howl if Neil said something like: “The evidence seems to point to Jesus actually having existed, but as a mythicist that doesn’t matter to me, since I have the guidance of the Tradition (of people like Doherty and Wells).” But to me that seems similar to what Joel is saying :S

    • 2013-06-24 05:08:12 UTC - 05:08 | Permalink

      Ah, but Joel has an out. He follows Tradition with a capital “T.” Neil could only follow the (lower-case T) tradition of mythicists.

      Preconceptions based on Tradition and Faith have special dispensation

  • 2013-06-24 08:05:35 UTC - 08:05 | Permalink

    I have Watts’ piece in my open tabs to read, so I’ll wait a bit about the main thesis, but

    Since Joel did not employ the subjunctive

    this is petty. The subjunctive is all but dead in modern English and sicing a “was” is just ridiculous.

    Anyway, it is correcter to call in “irrealis than “subjunctive”.

    • 2013-06-24 11:27:58 UTC - 11:27 | Permalink

      Jens wrote: “The subjunctive is all but dead in modern English . . .”

      I have news for you, Jens. It was all but dead even before 1940, when Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely was published. That’s why the bit about Marlowe calling Marriott a “Harvard boy” is so funny. I guess you missed it.

      Jens wrote: “. . . sicing a ‘was’ is just ridiculous.”

      It’s a joke, but it’s OK if you didn’t get it. Sure it’s petty. I could have been less kind and pointed out a more glaring error in a later paragraph in which he wrote:

      . . . the land of Judea had lay [sic] in a bitter calm as Rome marched on . . .

      Verbal moods may now be in the realm of pedantry, but any “scholar” should be able to conjugate the verb “to lie.”

      Jens wrote: “Anyway, it is correcter . . . ”

      “More correct” is more correct than “correcter.” That’s a petty joke, Jens. I hope you enjoyed it.

      Jens wrote: “. . .to call in [sic] ‘irrealis’ than ‘subjunctive.’”

      I’m sorry, but you are wrong. The subjunctive mood falls under a group of moods called “irrealis.” Other moods that fall under irrealis include the optative — which you may recall from ancient Greek — and the jussive — which you may recall from ancient Hebrew.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irrealis_mood

      If you need further help understanding either grammar or humor, I’m here to help.

      • 2013-06-24 11:57:23 UTC - 11:57 | Permalink

        Since we’re all okay with pedantry, why did you put the first sic in Joel’s title? “What if [sic] Jesus” Since your title has the same first three words.

        • 2013-06-24 13:06:21 UTC - 13:06 | Permalink

          Mark asked: “. . . why did you put the first sic in Joel’s title?”

          The word “if” in his title is a subordinating conjunction, and as such should be capitalized. By the way, I applaud the fact that he capitalized “Was.” Many people don’t capitalize “to be” verbs in titles, but they are verbs and should be.

          • 2013-06-24 13:51:11 UTC - 13:51 | Permalink

            Ah, but Joel didn’t capitalize “was” on his blog, so your praise should go to the HuffPo editor, who probably wrote the hed to begin with, which complicates matters.

            • 2013-06-24 14:35:52 UTC - 14:35 | Permalink

              The HuffPo has editors? That’s adorable.

              • Mark Erickson
                2013-06-25 00:55:41 UTC - 00:55 | Permalink

                Attention grabbing heds don’t write themselves. “Editor” should have had scare quotes. SEO manager closer to the truth.

  • 2013-06-24 12:47:14 UTC - 12:47 | Permalink

    Reports of the death of the subjunctive are greatly exaggerated. It may not be in full health but it is no closer to extinction than the elephant, at least in educated circles. If the failure of proper grammar in the title were Watts’ only crime then it would indeed be petty to highlight it, but considering the nature of the rest of his article it is just the tip of the iceberg and fair game in my opinion.

    • 2013-06-24 13:25:21 UTC - 13:25 | Permalink

      I like the subjunctive. I’m even somewhat fond of “whom,” although I can understand why its usage is fading. But then I’m an old fart.

      I agree with you. Scholar Joel’s usage of poor grammar and mangling of the language represent merely the tip of the iceberg.

  • geoff
    2013-06-24 15:09:46 UTC - 15:09 | Permalink

    Joel says: “The real Jesus was a Jew, one nearly unrecoverable in the present — but this doesn’t mean he didn’t exist. It just means we have to live constantly with the doubt we may never really find him. As a Christian, this doesn’t bother me much because I have the guidance of Tradition. As a scholar, however, there are times I wish I could simply stop looking, but knowing I cannot, trudge along.”

    The issue with these scholars who claim certainty of the existence of an actual Jesus of Nazareth is that they fail to recognize, or perhaps even understand, confirmation basis. The statement above is a clear indication that this is what is going on. Tradition is confirmed by bits and pieces of evidence that can be fit into the traditional Jesus story. This is circular reasoning that is sustained by confirmation basis. Evidence that doesn’t fit this picture is dismissed. To me, Romans 13 completely undermines the belief that Paul’s understanding of Jesus included a crucifixion at the hands of either Roman or Jewish authorities. It’s a recognized problem in the field (see Keck, for example, on this question). Yet in the face of a clearly positive statement that seems to preclude the execution of an innocent Jesus, Jesus scholars want to insert the word “Romans” into 1 Cor 2:8. 1 Cor 2:8 then confirms the already drawn conclusion that Paul is talking about the gospel story of Jesus’ execution. These are unquestioned assumptions that undermines the credibility of the scholars in the field. To me, without confirmation basis, Romans 13 outweighs 1 Cor 2:8 which makes no mention of a crucifixion at the hands of Romans, let alone a particular Roman named Pilate.

    As an aside, I sometimes try to challenge myself on the basis that my personal views on this question go against the consensus of experts in the field. I rarely find myself on the opposite side of the experts. I side with 99% of climate scientists on the question of climate change, 99% on evolution. I am not a conspiracy theorist and do not hold contrary views on 9/11, the murder of JFK, UFOs (including the Roswell crash)…IN all these cases, I find the arguments of the experts to be convincing, compelling, and encompassing. That is not the case when I look at the question of the historical Jesus. I see strongly stated positive statements that are not sustained by the supporting evidence. Contradictory evidence is ignored or swept aside with thoroughly unconvincing ad hoc rationalizations aimed at smoothing out or avoiding cognitive dissonance. Dealing with the issues raised by critics who believe the Jesus-meme evolved out of a process of accretion causes too much discord.

  • 2013-06-25 03:07:33 UTC - 03:07 | Permalink

    “Jesus is a historical person, but we may not like what he looks like — if we ever find him.”

    We may never find him, but we are quite sure (99.99% sure, wasn’t it Bart?) that he existed! :)

    • 2013-06-25 04:20:14 UTC - 04:20 | Permalink

      When a scholar like Joel talks about finding Jesus, I can’t help but think of Vonnegut’s Slapstick and the characters in it who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped.

      He was so absorbed in firing ardent glances this way and that, that it was wholly uninteresting to him that he had just handed a leaflet to the President of the United States.

      “May I as what you’re looking for, young man?” I asked.

      “For our saviour,” he replied.

  • 2013-06-25 04:07:25 UTC - 04:07 | Permalink

    The comparison between mythicism and creationism exposes how intellectually bankrupt Joel’s position is. He thinks that the ToE gets its respect from “tradition” just like his own scholarship, when in fact the ToE gets its respect from its methodology; a methodology that I’m sure he would (if he hasn’t already) flatly reject.

  • Pingback: Scholar Joel Explains Nuance | Vridar

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