2013-11-07

How Can We Know If the Jesus Narratives Are Memories Or Inventions? (Revised)

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by Neil Godfrey

Anthony Le Donne has written a book that I find is both chock-full of many fascinating nuggets in the Gospel narratives and riddled with startling revelations (if only discerned between the lines) about the foundations of “Gospel Narrative Origins” studies, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David. (This post does not address Le Donne’s main thesis. I have addressed core aspects of that in Searching for a Good Fantasy, though I would like to explore his thesis in more depth in a future post. Here I focus on Le Donne’s foundations for believing there was anything historical at all in the Gospels.) I say “Gospel Narrative Origins” studies in preference to “Historical Jesus” studies for several reasons, one of which is that the term “Historical Jesus” presumes that there was an “historical Jesus” to study.

Historical origins of the icon we call “Jesus”

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...Further, I believe the question of “the historical Jesus” is fundamentally an ideological or dogmatic expression. Its meaning derives from the most fundamental core doctrine of Christianity — that in some sense God historically appeared in or through the person of Jesus. After two millennia of Christian heritage the concept of “Jesus” has come to transcend religiosity and become a cultural icon advocating hosts of idealistic aphorisms. The true question for the historian, then, ought to be concerned with how to explain the origin of Christianity. That includes explaining the origin of its Jesus. If the best explanation leads us to an historical Jesus, then, and only then, will we have a valid rationale for attempting to explore such a figure.

Bultmann’s test for insanity

Readers who find the above line of reasoning far too radical to swallow can find solace in Rudolf Bultmann’s words quoted by Anthony Le Donne:

Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community. (Bultmann, Jesus, 13. Cited in Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus, p. 36)

Bultmann is surely being deliberately provocative here, since in his own day there were several very intelligent (and far from insane) scholarly persons (e.g. Georg Brandes, Paul-Louis Couchoud, Arthur Drews, and several notable others) questioning the authenticity of Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer himself acknowledged. (Robert M. Price has, if I recall correctly, even suggested that Bultmann was cornered into making such “protesteth too much” denunciations because some readers were inferring the non-historicity of Jesus from his own studies.) Theologians have since found a place in George Orwell’s dark visions as the guardians of correct thought who declare insane (or misfits of some variety) any lesser life-forms who question the historicity of Jesus.

Soviet asylum for the insane, that is, for those who expressed incorrect doubts.

“Unfounded and not worthy of refutation”?

Now I could well understand someone saying that doubt as to whether Augustus Caesar really existed is “unfounded”. I would baulk at going so far as to saying it is “not worth refutation”, however. Surely any doubt is worth a valid refutation. Scholars don’t want to isolate themselves into exalted ivory towers out of touch with ordinary folk, do they? If ordinary folk are hearing rumours that Augustus Caesar did not exist, but was a conspiratorial invention of Latin school teachers or whatever, or if they are hearing Intelligent Design advocates arguing that evolution is not true, then I am sure scholars would be happy to open up and spill out all the evidence to reassure them otherwise. In the case of Augustus Caesar they could point to

  • primary evidence (real physical remains testifying to be from the actual time of that Caesar),
  • the secondary evidence of surviving historians whose claims are in varying degrees of validity supported by their record of verifiable identity and provenance,
  • the independently established genre of the above records and what this, on probabilities, indicates about the intent of the authors,
  • the clearly established independence of these sources from one another,
  • the overwhelming explanatory power of all of the above for the events that clearly followed.

Or let’s take a more lowly figure like Socrates who left no monumental evidence. We have relatively strong evidence for his historical existence as a real person, too:

  • Independent testimonies from people who appear to have known him personally (followers Plato, Xenophon) or at least knew of him in their generation (satirist Aristophanes),
  • and about whom we know enough to appreciate
    • their reasons for wanting to write about Socrates
    • and their ability to know anything about him,
  • and whose works/testimonies are in the form of genres not inconsistent with an interest in relaying historical realities.

The evidence for Socrates is far from iron-clad proof but it is enough satisfy most, even those of us who are mindful of the way genres can be turned inside-out in order to write a spoof or otherwise deliberately deceive readers. At the same time one can find reasonable grounds for at least asking if it is possible that Socrates was nothing more than a literary figure. So if doubts about the historical existence of the person Jesus are indeed “unfounded” as Bultmann said, what are the foundations for his existence?

How can we know?

The closest Anthony Le Donne comes to addressing that question directly is when he asks of Gospel narratives:

Does the story have an origin in perception or invention?

That is, are we reading in the Gospels stories that originated in the perceptions of certain eye-witnesses and that were filtered through other ideas, values, beliefs, biases of some of those witnesses, and that were then transmitted through others who also had their own filtering biases and interests? Or are we reading in the Gospels stories that an author or his source completely made up? How can we know? Anthony Le Donne answers but unfortunately there is nothing new in his answer:

In answering . . . . [t]raditionally, historical Jesus research has employed authenticity criteria to support arguments for historicity. With some qualification, the present study relies on some of these criteria. (p. 87)

Criteria! Criteriology, in all its well-paraded fallacious glory, is déjà vu all over again. Just when we picked up a new book offering a new approach to historiography in the quest for Jesus, we find the entire enterprise is built on the same old foundations as the last quest.

Maths for dummies theologians

And once again we read the fallacious mantra that the application of multiple criteria supposedly increases the certainty that an event having really happened.

Criteria are always applied in plurality. I never appeal only to one criterion alone. (p. 88)

 

How unlike the evidence for Socrates

In sum, what Le Donne is effectively telling us, as some regular readers here might well know by now, is that theologians have NO real primary data to indicate the existence of an historical Jesus. They have NO evidence for the existence of Jesus that is comparable to the evidence even for Socrates. And not just for Socrates, but for any other low-profile person known from history: Cicero’s slave Tiro, Publius Vinicius the Stammerer, Honi the Circle Drawer. . . (See various posts for fuller discussions.)

We really do have historical evidence testifying to the existence of relatively low-profile people in ancient times but we have no comparable quality of evidence for one who was supposed to have been so famous, we are told, that he even came to the notice of Josephus!

The historical Jesus really IS an assumption. And all “proofs” that are pulled out to “prove” otherwise — Paul speaks of his flesh and blood and of his ancestry, no-one would make up a crucified messiah, he had a brother — are little better than ad hoc rationalizations. I say that because they are all debatable and are debated and refuted in various quarters, or are contradicted by other studies with different agendas.

So Bart Ehrman can in one venue say that we have no way of knowing if our current letter to Galatians was what was originally penned by Paul, and others arguing for key passages being interpolations, but when it comes to the question of the historicity of Jesus, suddenly key proof-texts in Galatians become as certain as sacred dogma.

And scholars all know that the criteria they use are debatable. They all know that some of their peers have demonstrated their fallacies both in terms of logic and of known evidence.

Look again at Socrates for a moment and think about the comparison with the evidence for Jesus.

At least in the case of Socrates we have some knowledge of the provenance of our sources and are thus in a position to make certain judgments about their reliability; we also have sources that are written by those who appear to have directly known Socrates.

Classicists and/or ancient historians do not have primary data (in situ monuments) that indicates the existence of an historical Socrates. Socrates left no monuments or coins as would be expected of a conquering or ruling king, but classicists and ancient historians do have clearly independent testimonies from persons purporting to have known Socrates personally (or at least to have belonged to his generation) — e.g. Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes. And those disparate accounts sit well with what we independently know of the political and social situation in Athens at the time, and they also help explain a lot about what followed in the “history of ideas”.

Conclusion: While it is certainly possible that Socrates was a mere popular literary cipher who represented a certain “attitude” of the day, given the absence of evidence to the contrary in the face of evidence for the hypothesis, it seems very likely that Socrates was a very real historical person.

Contrast the evidence for Jesus

We have theological tales that are directed at encouraging readers to believe in the supernatural. Patently mythical tales are told about Jesus, many of which various scholars have identified as having been derived from other narratives in the Jewish Scriptures. We have no way of knowing the identities of the authors of these narratives or whether they wrote 40 or 80 years after the supposed events. The arguments for oral tradition have been countered by a number of scholars so that we cannot assume oral tradition as an unquestionable source of the narratives.

The evidence from Paul is also, at best, ambiguous. Certainly it is debatable.

What is disconcerting, however, is that so many theologians do not attempt to address the debates or ambiguities but so often resort to appeals to their collective credentials and ad hominem attacks on outsiders. That sort of response only increases the suspicions that they really do know that the entire question of Jesus’ historicity ultimately comes down to faith, or assumption.

The very best efforts I have ever seen by a few scholars to establish the historicity of Jesus consist of little more than the recitation of the usual mantras: no-one would invent a crucified messiah, Paul speaks of Jesus’ flesh and blood, etc. I call them mantra recitations because they are repeated without any attempt to address the many arguments that have been amassed against them. When one repeats proof-texts without any apparent consciousness of the detailed refutations against them, then one is doing little more than mouthing catechisms for the faithful.

So let’s look once again at the criteria that is so foundational to their faith in the reality of the historical Jesus. This time we take them from Anthony Le Donne’s list. Le Donne insists that a single criterion is insufficient and that only the application of multiple criteria will do — an easy enough mistake for a non-mathematician to make (as I pointed out above).

Multiple Attestation

Le Donne means “independent” multiple attestation. We all know by now the fallacy here. There is an abundance of multiple attestation (much of it independent, we might say) for alien visitations. So we won’t explore all the relevant nuances involved in the validity or otherwise again here.

But Le Donne points explicitly to some major problems with this criterion in relation to historical Jesus studies, although he presents them as positives.

Multiple attestation works best, he suggests, if the Gospel of John is independent of the Synoptics and if Q is accepted as a literal pre-gospel source. In other words we must infer that scholars who believe the Gospel of John is based somehow on the Gospel of Mark and/or who conclude that the author of the Gospel of Luke copied from the Gospels of Mark and Matthew — we must infer that these scholars have fewer grounds for accepting the historicity of Jesus than those who think otherwise.

In other words, we don’t have an “evidence” that can be labelled “multiple attestation”. We only have theories.

Embarrassment

embarrassed

embarrassed (Photo credit: cheerfulmonk)

This is one of the most fallacious of the criteria that has been exposed as a nonsense too many times for me to repeat here.

The idea is that the Christians sought to exalt Jesus so they would not have invented anything that diminished his status.

But of course the evidence does tell us that the stories that are said to have “diminished” Jesus (such as his family rejecting him) did appear long after the earliest Christian evidence — Paul’s writings. The ad hoc nature of the arguments is obvious when scholars then argue Paul did not mention such things because they were well-known already! But really, of course, there is nothing in the Gospels that “diminishes” the character of Jesus. Like any other literary hero, Jesus is exalted by his noble response towards efforts to humiliate him. By having Jesus family reject him the evangelists are ensuring Jesus is lined up alongside the greats like Joseph, Moses, David and the other pious ones praised in the psalms.

Contrary Tendency

swimming against the tide

swimming against the tide (Photo credit: Leonard John Matthews)

Le Donne explains this with an example. If Luke’s tendency is to stress the significance of Jesus to the Gentiles, then anything in his gospel that does not serve this function needs special explanation — such details are “best explained as early memory”.

That sounds like the fallacy of the false dichotomy to me. Maybe such details mean we need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of Luke’s gospel.

Multiple Forms

The baptism of Jesus is portrayed as a narrative and it is also referenced as a saying. That’s an example of an event being found in multiple (genre) forms.

The only way. I think, that such a phenomenon could be considered a “criterion” for the historicity of the event is if we assume that the author was working like a quiltmaker taking a patch from this tradition and something else from another.

Again, we don’t have evidence for historicity here. We only have theories of composition.

Coherence

This refers to an episode that is compatible or coheres with something that is firmly established about Jesus. Of course, this begs the question about what can be known for certain. Le Donne says there are very few points of universal agreement among scholars on what Jesus did. I have seen other scholars say there is nothing that all scholars agree on. Le Donne thinks this is one of the weaker criteria and should only be used, therefore, in conjunction with two other criteria.

Semitisms and Semitic influence

As with “Coherence”, Le Donne relegates this criterion to one of the weaker set that should only be pulled out of its box if there are already two stronger ones out there taking the heavy load. Reasons for its weakness, as listed by Le Donne:

  • Such features might simply betray the author’s spoken language
  • There are often alternative grammatical explanations for these supposed Semitisms
  • Some historians (theologian?) think Jesus spoke Greek (some also think the Gospel of John relied upon Mark and that there was no Q)

But where a phrase presupposes a Semitic word play, then it presumably can be reasonably assumed it must have come from Jesus and none other.

Don’t think history is black and white

Anthony Le Donne would not be content if I left readers with any sense that he thinks an absolute knowledge of something that really happened is possible. All witnesses, memories, perceptions, are filtered through biases, viewpoints, world-views, etc etc. I think most historians have always taken that as a truism. Even the reputed arch positivist Leopold von Ranke understood that much. But such an idea appears to be quite novel among theologians if the amount of space Anthony Le Donne devotes to explaining it is any guide.

It is somewhat embarrassing to read such an in-depth introduction to how R. G. Collingwood understood the nature of history (as primarily a matter of interpretation) after having encountered a few theologians who have loudly insisted they are true historians, even pioneers in the “science of history”. In reality they know very little, many of them, as Anthony Le Donne’s introductory chapters seem to indicate.

And worst of all, they do not know that what they call “evidence” for the historicity of events or persons is not the same sort of data historians think of as such evidence. Historical Jesus studies really have tended to confuse evidence with theories and assumptions. Not surprising, given that their roots are, after all, rooted in dogma.

(But there are also some really interesting points in Le Donne’s book that I hope to post on not too far from now.)

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35 Comments

  • 2013-11-07 12:55:00 UTC - 12:55 | Permalink

    Three thoughts:

    (1) I like the distinction you make between “Historical Jesus” and ““Gospel Narrative Origins”. But why not keep it shorter and say, “Gospel Origins”? or better yet, if you are going to object to assumptions within questions, why not say “Jesus Story Origins” — why let assumptions in that the stories are “good news” (Gospels) or truth (“the gospel”). How about S.O.J.O (“Stories of Jesus Origins”).

    (2) Concerning probability — did you do a post on that?
    Mine is rusty, but the calculation of combined probability depends on the dependence or independence of the events (if I remember correctly). Would that figure in here. Stats is tough because it is counterintuitive, but human cognition offers up all sorts of wrong data (hallucinations of vision, sound and cognition abound).

    (3) You said,

    I believe the reality is that any argument is only as strong as its weakest link.

    But like you said, if arguments are piles and not chains, then pointing out the weakest item in a pile is not valid. This takes us back to #2, I think.

  • 2013-11-07 16:17:30 UTC - 16:17 | Permalink

    If we have a critierion that makes a story 50% UNLIKELY to be true, and then find another criterion that also makes that story 50% UNLIKELY to be true, is that story then 25% UNLIKELY to be true?

    The math is a bit of a distraction. Multiple criteria can definitely be taken as evidence that a thing is more likely to have happened; there is no mathematical formula for this, it would be as arbitrary to assign numerical probabilities to them as it would be to decide what operations to use to come up with an aggregate probability in this context.

    Also surely any argument is as strong as it’s STRONGEST link? If I have a weak criterion and a strong criterion as evidence for a story, why would I discard the strong criterion because the weak one exists (unless the storng criterion relied on the weak of course… which would make it not strong at all).

    Otherwise really great stuff!

    • Ken Browning
      2014-05-07 17:30:33 UTC - 17:30 | Permalink

      I’m coming late to the ball game but I am leaving this for those who might reference it in the future.

      This statement does not represent the valid applicability of criteria:
      “Multiple criteria can definitely be taken as evidence that a thing is more likely to have happened….”

      The formal structure of criterion statements is that of a syllogism. Hence they are deductive arguments. Therefore, associating such arguments by way of percentages or by way of statements that represent percentages such as “more likely” in the above example is incorrect. This is the case because it presents an inductive argument within a deductive argument without attribution to the necessary underlying data base that must exist to make an inductive, probabilistic argument.

      The only way that probabilistic argumentation can find its way into a deductive argument is by way of outside evidence that supports the belief that a premise of the syllogism, and not simplistically the syllogism itself, is supported inductively. In short, syllogisms are not evidence but the premises can be supported by relevant inductive evidence. So, an adequate use of percentages in the discussion of criteria arguments would involve something like this: ‘As can be seen here we have the presence of the criterion of embarrassment. Since we know from scholars X, Y and Z who have done exhaustive research into relevant historiography and have clearly shown that where this criterion is found there is a 78% correlation between the criterion and historicity, we can conclude absent other arguments, that this literary example is moderately likely to be true. We are confident of this because the data supports the key premise of the criterion.’

      Of course, in real HJ studies, where corresponding relevant data is rare, non-existent, muddled or cross-contaminated such an applicable data base with a large enough field would be very difficult, if not impossible, to produce. But most importantly, of themselves one deductive statement added to three or thirty-three more deductive statements tells us nothing about probability. Further, the need to drop an induction into a deductive argument is suggestive that the user may be trying to quantify an intuition. Be wary.

      None of this is intended to denigrate the many valid uses of deduction in historiography or the way in which induction and deduction can work together synergistically.

  • 2013-11-07 16:45:59 UTC - 16:45 | Permalink

    “If a story is 50% likely according to one criterion, and 50% likely according to a second criterion, then we don’t conclude (or at least we should not) that the story is therefore 100% likely to be true. The mathematical reality is that if the two strands of inferences each separately make an event 50% likely, then their combination reduces the likelihood of historicity to 25%. We would be better off having only one such criterion pending the arrival of something that truly could give us some certainty.

    (I confess I myself have been late in coming to grasp this basic point, and I owe a special thanks to the commenter who once explained this common error on this blog.)”

    I don’t think this follows. If analyzing a single story we add multiple evidences (criteriology, in this case), then they are all acting to increase the likelihood of that same story. What brings down the probability is adding additional details to a story, or adding smaller stories within the larger story.

    A person named Jesus who existed in 1st century Palestine is more likely than a person named Jesus who also had 12 disciples. A person named Jesus who had 12 disciples is more likely than a person named Jesus with 12 disciples who also had a mother named Mary. A person named Jesus who had 12 disciples who had a mother named Mary is more likely than a person named Jesus who had 12 disciples, a mother named Mary, and was also baptized by John the Baptist. And so on. This is adding more and more facts, bringing down the probability.

    A Jesus who was baptized by John the Baptist is more likely than a Jesus who was baptized by John the Baptists who also rode on a donkey into Jerusalem. A Jesus who was baptized by JtB, who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey is more likely than a Jesus who was baptized, rode to Jerusalem on a donkey, and also cleansed the Temple. A Jesus who was baptized by JtB who rode on a donkey into Jerusalem, who cleansed the Temple is more likely than a Jesus who was baptized by JtB, who rode on a donkey, cleansed the Temple, who also preached to crowds while standing in a small boat. This is adding more smaller stories to the larger narrative, bringing down the probability of the narrative as a whole.

    Each additional “fact” or smaller story you add to the narrative makes the narrative more unlikely. There’s no other way around it. Worse, the entire narrative can only be equal to or lower in probability than the least likely “fact” or story. If one thinks that there’s a 99% chance that there was a guy named Jesus in 1st century Palestine, a 99% chance that he was baptized by John the Baptist, a 99% chance that he had a mother named Mary, a 99% chance he was crucified, and a 5% chance he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the entire narrative must be less than 5% likely. Unless you apply Occam’s Razor and snip that 5%, or apply Bayes Theorem to increase the 5% to some higher likelihood.

    • 2013-11-09 23:49:02 UTC - 23:49 | Permalink

      I’m not sure I’m following this. If a story is 50% likely according to one criterion and 50% likely according to another independentcriterion, the story is true if either criterion is true and the odds of that are 75%. However, if the story is true only if both the criterion are true, then the odds go down to 25%.

      • 2013-11-12 17:07:07 UTC - 17:07 | Permalink

        I think the confusion is due more to criteriology being a fallacious method of investigation. It certainly would decrease the likelihood if one criterion’s truth depended on the presence of an earlier criterion.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2013-11-07 20:16:50 UTC - 20:16 | Permalink

    You guys are right. I am very embarrassed. I was sensing something wrong but, like scholars who are pressured to publish or perish and who too often post rubbish as a result (as I’ve been posting on recently) I was muddle-headed and unfit to write at the time. I have removed the outrageous portion from the post.

    • 2013-11-09 01:32:24 UTC - 01:32 | Permalink

      Don’t be too hard on yourself, though, as there is some truth to the idea that multiple arguments don’t always tighten a case.

      For example, let’s say that I’m arguing that a man I see walking outside in the snow in winter (without seeing his feet) was wearing shoes. My first argument is that x% of people who walk in the snow wear shoes, so he probably does too. My second argument is that x% of people who walk in winter wear shoes, so he probably does too. My third argument is that x% of people walking outside wear shoes, so he probably does too. By this math, I bump the probability up to near-100%.

      But this is faulty. This can only be done if these are independent probabilities; if, when you break the population down, each of these percentages also hold true for the relevant subpopulations. However, that’s not true. The people that walk in the snow without shoes are a small population with very different characteristics. Those people very often go without shes in the winter and very often go outside without shoes.

      So we don’t actually get much more evidence by developing this into three separate arguments. It reverts back to one main argument with two very weak addenda.

      • 2013-11-09 01:41:25 UTC - 01:41 | Permalink

        Well, Peter, Neil didn’t say “multiple arguments don’t make always tighten a case.”

        He said, multiple arguments (if at all faulty) weaken a case.

        So let him be hard on himself.

        🙂

        • 2013-11-09 06:37:21 UTC - 06:37 | Permalink

          I understand that. I also assume it was in response to this statement: “Criteria are always applied in plurality. I never appeal only to one criterion alone.” (p. 88) There’s a different line of approach to take in response, such as the one I describe.

  • 2013-11-08 15:38:05 UTC - 15:38 | Permalink

    I am a mere dilettante in the historical Jesus issue. In fact, this is the first time I have ever been interested in any historical problem. I have a non impressive science background, with a bachelors degree in biology, and my name on a few publications. Frankly, if I am able to contribute anything to the discussion, it is only as an outsider, someone who has not been embroiled in the battle for years. Someone who can come to the discussion with an appreciation of the criteria of science.

    What really made an impression on me when I started reading the blog entries and discussion of this topic was the framing of the topic.There were two aspects to the discussion that surprised me and which were very much a departure from what I hold as a proper scientific perspective. The first was that the burden of proof was somehow improperly shouldered by those in the mythicist camp, instead of those making the assertion that JC was a historical figure.

    The second aspect to the discussion bewildering to this sometime scientist has to do with the idea of absence of evidence and the argument from silence. It is not unusual at all to read commentary on the topic and see supposedly well-educated parties claiming that absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence. This trope is, AFAICT, a mindlessly repeated misattribution from a quote mining of Carl Sagan, who actually was arguing the opposite case. Absence of evidence is indeed evidence (but not proof) of absence, as anyone with two minutes to analyze the situation can ascertain. And this leads of course to the idea of the argument from silence. And what made a decided impression on me was the success of the apologist crowd to minimize the strength of this argument against historicity by glibly asserting that an inquiry would not be expected to find such evidence of such a small character from that time and place. An assertion which seems to me quite questionable, to put it mildly.

    As Neil has mentioned above, we know quite a bit from historical sources about characters very minor indeed from this nexus of time and place. Neil has mentioned in passing a stammerer and a circle drawer coincident to Socrates. But according to Josephus alone there were at least ten men named Jesus contemporary to the asserted yet historiographically-invisible JC of Galilee. We know their names, their families, their deeds, their rabble-rousings and why they occurred. Sometimes we know how many men followed them, where they had battles. I daresay a motivated researcher could document a very long list of very minor characters not named Jesus from this exact era. Every documentation would add to the Baysian analysis.

    The argument from silence, it seems to me, is properly a much more significant point of evidence than the current apologetic conversation would suggest.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2013-11-08 21:11:03 UTC - 21:11 | Permalink

      We encounter the “absence of evidence” mantra quite a bit from those who attack minimalism. As you point out, at a certain point, the fact that a thorough search has turned up nothing needs to be explained. I’m thinking of things like Proton Decay experiments or the search for quarks.

      What we don’t find is just as interesting as what we do find.

      In the case of early Christianity, what we do find that is fictional is also very telling. When you scrape away the legends that accreted onto the “tradition,” is there really anything left? What we have here is a case of absent evidence that apparently bothered Christians in the early days — so much so that they filled the void using their own imagination.

      But why was it missing? Was it lost? — forgotten? — suppressed? Or did it never exist in the first place?

      • 2013-11-10 07:01:31 UTC - 07:01 | Permalink

        It’s like “The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime.” Absence of evidence where one expects some is indeed a kind of evidence.

  • 2013-11-08 18:41:34 UTC - 18:41 | Permalink

    Meanwhile, at Ehrmanblog-land, Bart writes:
    “The other reason for staying out of the fray is that some of the mythicists are simply unpleasant human beings – mean-spirited, arrogant, ungenerous, and vicious. I just don’t enjoy having a back and forth with someone who wants to rip out my jugular. So, well, I don’t.”

    I am not a paying patron. So, I don’t get to know if Bart does blog about mythicists after all! 🙂

    • Tim Widowfield
      2013-11-08 19:18:37 UTC - 19:18 | Permalink

      “rip out my jugular”? Seriously.

      When did Bart become such a drama queen?

    • 2013-11-08 20:44:03 UTC - 20:44 | Permalink

      Is this the same Bart Ehrman who went on radio to publicly laugh at Murdock for drawing a picture of a statue herself, and saying she had made the whole thing up? (Only to admit a week or so later that the statue really did exist.) And now he is complaining about people being mean?

    • 2013-11-09 17:45:23 UTC - 17:45 | Permalink

      I have a feeling he is talking about Richard Carrier. Richard is brilliant, but I have been shocked at his acrimony. No that it isn’t necessarily deserved, but I don’t think he is independently wealthy. It seems to me he may be burning bridges, instead of building them.

      • 2013-11-09 21:53:55 UTC - 21:53 | Permalink

        Would not be surprised if he does have Carrier in mind. That said, however, I know of few academics who are prepared to shy away from a debate in order to defend their ideas — unless engaging in that debate risks exposing their stance as being fraudulent or fallacious or ignorant. And Ehrman has enough public reputation to know he’ll have all the cheer-squad he needs if he took on Carrier in a debate that risked none of these things but would show him up as having a position genuinely well thought through, informed and savvy. I think Ehrman and Maurice Casey have taken the smarter course to protect their own reputations after seeing the way McGrath and Hoffmann have publicly made utter fools of themselves in taking on even the amateurs in public debate. E and C will hide away from public engagement and speak only from a distance through one-way books.

  • John
    2013-11-09 02:51:37 UTC - 02:51 | Permalink

    Neil wrote:

    ” … the most fundamental core doctrine of Christianity [is] that in some sense God historically appeared in or through the person of Jesus.”

    This makes me think of the history in the Damascus Document that says that God had previously “visited them, and He caused a root of planting to spring forth from Israel and Aaron…”

    The term “root” is an obvious messianic allusion (e.g., Is. 11:1), so what we have here is a messianic sect that called itself the Way and practised “the New Covenant” and believed that God had recently visited them and caused a singular messiah to “spring forth from Israel and Aaron.”

    If there were two second temple era Jewish sects that believed that God had visited them and caused a messiah to spring forth from Israel and Aaron, I have heard of only one of them, the earliest Jewish Christians.

    • John
      2013-11-14 21:10:55 UTC - 21:10 | Permalink

      I can’t stop thinking about the Damascus Document. While I’ve considered it a Jewish Christian writing (along with the DSS pesharim) for several years, I’ve only recently begun to see it is as not only the first “gospel,” but even as the most important we have regarding Christian origins. And I don’t say this lightly.

      I think that the Damascus Document is (Jewish) Christian because it shares “the most fundamental core doctrine of Christianity -that in some sense God historically appeared in or through the person of Jesus.”

      If this is what makes Christianity Christianity, then who were the people who wrote in the Damascus Document that God had visted them in the recent past and “caused a root of planting to spring forth from Israel and Aaron”?

      Not only is “root” a messianic allusion (Is. 11:1), it is used to describe Jesus in (other) early Christian writings (Rom. 15:12; Rev. 22:16).

      When you factor in that this group, in this same writing, mentions the Way and the New Covenant, and two figures who strongly resemble James and Paul (to name only a few of the similarities that exist), I’m convinced that not only is this a Jewish Christian writing, it’s one from which other early Christian writings got their information about Jesus.

      So God recently visited the sect, and “caused a root of planting to spring forth,” and the root is then said to have “prosper[ed] on the good things of His earth …” Given the other overlaps that exist, I’m starting to wonder if this has something to do with Paul saying that though Jesus “was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you would become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). I realize this has generally been taken to mean rich in wisdom or spirit, but it could just as well mean materiallly rich, like in James 5:2, and it also fits the context of chapter 8, which is collecting money.

      I’m out of time now, but I want to add later that there are several other important OT citations in the Damascus Document that are also found in (other) early Christian writings, like the fallen tent of David (Acts), “strike the sheperd” (Mark) and the fountain of living waters (Revelation), all in the context of Messianic expectation.

      • John
        2013-12-02 18:43:55 UTC - 18:43 | Permalink

        I want to add later that there are several other important OT citations in the Damascus Document that are also found in (other) early Christian writings, like the fallen tent of David (Acts), “strike the sheperd” (Mark) and the fountain of living waters (Revelation), all in the context of Messianic expectation.

        I want to expand on the idea that early Christian writings were aware of the Damascus Document.

        While I agree with Neil that Acts was aware of Paul’s letters, yet seeks to smooth things over due to a “catholisizing” agenda, I also think that there is also another James underlying Acts, that Luke needed to smooth over. This seems clear enough just from comparing the Antioch incident in Gal. 2:11-14 with Acts 15 (and 21:17-26).

        So if there was arguably “another Paul” underlying Acts’s agenda, Galatians alone indicates that there was “another James” as well.

        So while Luke could have gotten his information about James (and Jewish Christianity) from Paul’s letters, I think he was also aware of the Damascus Document, because he knows that Christianity was originally called “the Way” and the theme of the importance of “the Name,” that the Messiah had revealed the Holy Spirit, and Amos’ prophecy concerning rebuilding the fallen tent of David, all of which are in the Damascus Document.

        I don’t have enough time today to go into the evidence I mentioned in my comment above, but suffice to say that Acts is not the only early Christian writing that uses OT prophecies cited in the Damascus Document, it is across the spectrum.

        While I’m comfortable with this idea, I feel compelled lately to go out on a limb and wonder if the Damascus Document is also behind Papias’ statement that “Matthew wrote [also translated as “collected” and “put together”] the oracles [also: words, sayings] in the Hebrew language, and everyone interpreted [or “translated”] them as he was able [or, “as best he could”].”

        I know that this has been argued to mean various things, and I’ve tried them out over the years, without coming to any any strong conclusions. But now I strongly suspect (bearing in mind all the uncertainties about anything Papias said) that this is another indication of early Christian awareness of the Damascus Document.

        In this case, I propose that the famous “oracles” (logia) refers to the messianic OT prophecies in the Damascus Document, which are in the Hebrew language (or “dialect”), and that, like Mark, Revelation, Luke/Acts, and even Paul), “everyone translated [or “interpreted”] them as best he could.”

        While it’s not clear if this is a reference to the *gospel* of Matthew, it is clear enough that “everyone” translated these “oracles,” not just Matthew. That’s the word that sticks out in my mind the most: “everyone,” followed by “translated” or “interpreted.” “Everyone” would apply quite nicely to Mark, Matthew, Revelation and Luke/Acts, all of which are aware of Hebrew messianic “oracles” in the Damascus Document.

  • 2013-11-09 15:07:24 UTC - 15:07 | Permalink

    Regarding Socrates, I would also note that classicists readily acknowledge the difficulty in knowing what he really said and did as opposed to what actions and teachings Plato attributed to him for his own purposes. Classicists acknowledge this difficulty despite having the writings of three people who actually knew Socrates. Historical Jesus scholars, on the other hand, are convinced that they can tease out things that Jesus really said and did with certainty from decades of oral tradition.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2013-11-09 18:46:13 UTC - 18:46 | Permalink

      Hi, Vinny. I just rescued your message out of the spam pile. I’m not sure why it landed there.

      We have a serious spam problem here, with hundreds of bogus messages arriving every day. It becomes impossible to sort through them all, so I worry that we may be deleting legitimate comments, and that people might think they’re being censored.

      • 2013-11-09 19:59:34 UTC - 19:59 | Permalink

        Thanks for letting me know. I haven’t commented over here recently so I don’t think anything of mine has been lost. It seems like I’ve been getting myself censored more recently, but I didn’t think I had said anything to piss off anyone here.

        • Tim Widowfield
          2013-11-09 20:20:42 UTC - 20:20 | Permalink

          Have you been exasperating li’l Jimmy again?

          • 2013-11-09 23:05:27 UTC - 23:05 | Permalink

            It seems so. It’s interesting having him all to myself. In the old days, there would always be a half dozen mythicists arguing with every one of his posts and many of my comments would get no response.

            • Tim Widowfield
              2013-11-10 00:07:17 UTC - 00:07 | Permalink

              I see the little feller is as feisty as ever: “Doubting historians and scholars in a field with which you show yourself to be poorly acquainted is easy to do and unimpressive. . .”

              It’s almost as if he’s trolling his own blog. Hmmm. . . “Self-trolling” — Is that a thing, now?

              • 2013-11-10 00:42:06 UTC - 00:42 | Permalink

                I did wonder at times whether he wasn’t trying to provoke some intemperate response from me. Luckily, I had eight older brothers and sisters who used such tactics on me when I was growing up and I no longer succumb to them as easily as I once did.

              • Tim Widowfield
                2013-11-11 06:12:46 UTC - 06:12 | Permalink

                Your patience is remarkable.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2013-11-10 01:56:14 UTC - 01:56 | Permalink

                I must admit I have on occasions referred Larry Hurtado and R. Joseph Hoffmann to their respective blog policies on comments asking them to abide by them and send themselves warnings for misbehaviour. Gentlemen that they are they always do so quietly behind the scenes to avoid embarrassment.

  • Mark Erickson
    2013-11-10 05:20:20 UTC - 05:20 | Permalink

    Off post topic, but right on blog topic, an article at Bible and Interpretation on the field of biblical history. Starts really slow, but contains many interesting tidbits by the end.
    Naming and Framing New Testament History
    http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2013/08/she378019.shtml

  • Giuseppe
    2013-11-12 18:46:23 UTC - 18:46 | Permalink

    Hi Neil,
    a question, please: did you read the book of Per Bilde, The Originality of Jesus ?

    http://www.v-r.de/de/title-22-22/the_originality_of_jesus-1009956/print/9783525536094.pdf

    There is some hope that this book from an atheist scholar addresses the issue of historicity seriously, unlike others?
    Or it commits the same mistakes and gratuitous hypotheses and so on?

    thanks,
    Giuseppe

    • Neil Godfrey
      2013-11-13 00:47:00 UTC - 00:47 | Permalink

      Hi Giuseppe,
      I take it you have not read it either? It’s very expensive and from the ad blurb I don’t know if it actually questions the historicity of Jesus. Do you know anything more about it apart from that linked page?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2013-12-12 04:56:14 UTC - 04:56 | Permalink

      I have the book now and can say that Bilde does not approach the historicity of Jesus any differently from the standard approaches of his peers: the usual criteria are at the base of any reconstruction. So Bilde goes with E.P. Sanders and others who have finally decided that these criteria yield a few “historical facts” — 1. that Jesus was baptized by John and began his career as a follower of John; 2. that Jesus was executed by the Romans; 3. that Jesus had a positive attitude toward the Mosaic Law and the Temple.

      His book is really examining how “original” the “historical Jesus” was compared with similar figures.

  • Giuseppe
    2013-11-13 06:20:15 UTC - 06:20 | Permalink

    No, I don’t read it, sorry, precisely because it is really expensive.. I was wondering if there were historicist scholars who take seriously the question of historicity, and if Bilde was just one of them.

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