You have the right to remain silent
Over on The Bible and Interpretation web site, James McGrath once again takes up his jousting lance to do battle against the big, bad mythicists. He raises an interesting point:
If we were to combine a number of recent and not-so-recent proposals related to Jesus, we could depict him as a gay hermaphrodite mamzer, conceived when his mother was raped by a Roman soldier, who grew up to pursue multiple vocations as a failed messiah, a failed prophet, a magician, and/or a mediocre teacher of Stoic ethics. From the perspective of traditional Christian dogma, one imagines that for Jesus never to have existed would be slightly easier to stomach (or at least, no more difficult) than some of the claims made by those who are convinced that he was a historical figure, and propose interpretations of the historical evidence which disagree with and even undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety. (emphasis mine)
So here’s the question: Is a mythical Jesus more palatable than a historical reconstruction that imagines Jesus as something other than the Son of God and savior of the world? To answer that question, we might consider the difference between descriptions of an object versus the question of its existence. Emanuel Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument comes immediately to mind. Kant claimed existence is not a predicate, but is categorically different from other properties.
You may not agree with Kant, but more practical considerations come to mind. The historicity of Jesus, whether argued for or merely presumed, must precede the discussion of who or what Jesus was. It necessarily forms the foundation of the ensuing arguments. If we cannot demonstrate that Jesus probably existed, all subsequent arguments are moot. Hence, Christians may intensely dislike reconstructions of Jesus that would tend to “undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety,” but I think they would dislike even more the idea that the evidence calls into question his very existence as a historical figure.
A story problem
And so, here we are again. All roads lead back to the question of the nature of the evidence. If you will indulge me for a minute or two, I’d like to present a parable.
Suppose I hand you a scrap of paper and tell you that it came from an abandoned high school in the U.S. Midwest that was recently torn down. The scrap is a fragment from an algebra exam, administered in the second half of the 20th century. I ask you to try to solve for the unique and correct values of x and y. Here it is:
x + y = 8
No doubt you would tell me that you can solve for a set of possible answers, but not the answer. You might continue by explaining that it’s a linear equation with an infinite number of answers.
But I insist there’s only one right answer. I then provide more clues. I tell you that experts like me believe that most algebra tests from the period almost always had solutions with positive values for x and y. In fact, most teachers would probably put the correct answer to these problems somewhere between 0,0 and 10,10. So, for example, an answer of (3,5) is way more plausible than (10,-2).
At that point you should tell me that sounds like a dubious basis for solving a math problem. What we need is a second equation if I want the real answer.
“A second equation? I have one!” I tell you, and show you a second scrap of paper.
x = 8 – y
You quickly realize that it’s the same equation as the first, stated slightly differently. It tells us nothing we don’t already know.
Now I’m simply exasperated. “All right, I will tell you the right answer. According to my careful reconstruction, x equals 1 and y equals 7. It’s very plausible. In fact it is the most probable answer. You can trust me on this one; I’m an expert. I have been studying problems like this for many years.”
Now that I’ve made it clear I’m some kind of crackpot, you smile and back away slowly.
True enough, historical questions are not the same as mathematical problems, but we can take note of at least two similarities between our parable and the historical Jesus problem. First, the best data we have for the historical Jesus comes from a set of documents collected in a single source — the New Testament — which were copied and preserved by a single entity — the Church. We lack external controls. Second, because the authors of the source documents never intended to present the biography of an ordinary human Jesus, each “plausible” Jesus reconstruction must accept some data, reject other data, and reinterpret the rest. Hence, we’re left with many possible Jesuses in our solution set.
What’s missing is a second equation, i.e., external evidence. Otherwise we are stuck with scholars deciding whether they are “convinced” or not by the arguments of other scholars. I’m not exaggerating. If you’ve read enough of this stuff, you must have noticed by now that authors will often dismiss an argument they dislike not with logic or evidence but with a simple wave of the hand and the words, “fails to convince.”
There are known unknowns
Since all we’re left with is internal evidence and plausibility, some scholars will judge the effectiveness of a given reconstruction by how well it explains all the evidence at hand. However, that rule of thumb has the inherent problem of deciding which evidence is likely to be authentic in the first place. In Bart Ehrman’s most recent book, How Jesus Became God, he writes:
For years I had thought that whatever else we might think about the stories of Jesus’s resurrection, we could be relatively certain that immediately after his death he was given a decent burial by Joseph of Arimathea and that on the third day some of his female followers found his tomb empty. I no longer think that these are relatively certain historical data; on the contrary, I think both views (his burial and his empty tomb) are unlikely. (p. 7, emphasis mine)
Now that admission is simultaneously refreshing and surprising. It shows how abruptly a pillar that props up the HJ edifice can turn to sand. Many have argued than nobody would ever invent stories about the women finding the empty tomb. “Why would anybody make it up?™ Who would believe them?” they ask earnestly. I think a better question would be, “Why don’t the four evangelists agree on who was there and what they saw and did on Easter morning?”
Given the nature of the data we have concerning the historical Jesus, the fact that reconstructions rely upon internal consistency along with contextual credibility shouldn’t surprise us. Every reconstructed Jesus must stand on the presupposition of existence. Hence, each reconstruction must depend on circular reasoning.
The longest journey begins with a single step
Recognizing the problem is the first step, and it’s a step that Old Testament scholars have already begun to face. The question “Which writings can we attribute to Isaiah?” should be preceded by “Was there a historical Isaiah?” In The Old Testament: Between Theology and History Niels Peter Lemche writes:
When scholars argue in favor of the existence of a prophet of this name attributable to eighth century BCE, it is no more than the scholar’s assertion, which has no support in other ancient documents. This does not mean that there never was a prophet of the name of Isaiah; it only tells us that we have no information that proves his existence. We assume that Isaiah is a historical prophet and proceed on this basis to argue that certain parts of the book carrying his name must go back to the prophet himself.
When the procedure of historical-critical scholarship is dissected in this logical manner, it crumbles like a house of cards. Circular argumentation is false and will always remain false. Nothing can change that. A scholarly assumption may look like a legitimate argument, but contrary to genuine argument, it cannot be falsified . . . It is characteristic of such cases that there is no tertium comparationis, no external evidence that may prove the argument to be correct and not a baseless assumption. (p. 111, emphasis mine)
We can’t get past the ambiguous nature of the reconstructed historical Jesus, because the arguments cannot be falsified. One scholar may argue for a Stoic philosopher Jesus while remaining “unconvinced” by another scholar’s apocalyptic prophet Jesus. Another scholar may argue for a zealot Jesus while disagreeing with other reconstructions. But they all remain viable options, because none is falsifiable.
Amateur psychoanalysis and demonization
Incidentally, the fact that each reconstruction precludes the others cannot falsify one over the other; it merely reinforces the point that we’re dealing with internal arguments and circular reasoning. That concept seems beyond Dr. McGrath’s understanding. He writes (in note 7 of the current Bible and Interpretation article):
It must be noted at this point that some of the various competing cases for mythicism [are] mutually exclusive. Earl Doherty claims that Paul did not think that Jesus was a terrestrial figure, and that the Gospels subsequently historicized him. Brodie, however, views the creation of Jesus and of Paul’s letters as a literary phenomenon. Both cannot be correct simultaneously, at least not in their present form. This does not mean that one of the cases cannot be correct. But it does suggest that, if someone appeals to both Doherty and Brodie in arguing for the validity of mythicism, they are doing something inherently self-contradictory, suggesting perhaps that the aim of their appeal is ideological rather than principled or based on the finding of the authors in question persuasive. (emphasis mine)
I wouldn’t hold it against an HJ proponent if he or she cited works by both John Dominic Crossan and Bart Ehrman, would you? The fact that the two scholars’ reconstructions are incompatible and cannot be simultaneously correct is not really an issue. It’s simply what we get with the sort of evidence we possess — inconclusive, incomplete, and contradictory — and the types of argument we have to make — circular and based on internal textual criteria. But for McGrath, entertaining ideas from Doherty and Brodie could mean that a person is driven by ideology. Oh, those nefarious mythicists!
Let’s return to the question occasioned by our favorite Whovian’s essay: Is a mythical Jesus more palatable than a historical reconstruction that imagines Jesus as something other than the Son of God and savior of the world?
To test the hypothesis that Christians or anyone invested in the existence of Jesus would react less favorably to a mythical Christ than even a blasphemous reconstruction, we might consider how some scholars reacted to the idea of a mythical Abraham or a mythical Moses. Did they respond to Biblical minimalism with a casual ho-hum? Here are some of the accusations that were offered by noted scholar Gary Rendsburg in his hit piece, “Down with History, Up with Reading: The Current State of Biblical Studies” from just 15 years ago:
To answer my second question, who are these people, these revisionists, these nihilists? What drives them? To give you the names of the four best known among them, they are Thomas Thompson, Philip Davies, Niels Lemche, and Keith Whitelam. Some of them are driven, as I indicated above, by Marxism and leftist politics. Some of them are former evangelical Christians who now see the evils of their former ways. Some of them are counterculture people, left over from the 60s and 70s, whose personality includes the questioning of authority in all aspects of their lives. (emphasis mine)
Your mother was a hamster
The guild will always let you know if you’ve gone too far. The gloves will come off and the beatings will commence. Those “nice people once you get to know them” will accuse you of almost any thought crime they can think of, right Gary?
But with the current group of revisionists, as I intimated earlier, ideology, not objective scholarship, governs. If it is not actual Marxism, it is leftist politics in general. If it is not revolution against the sins of one’s youth, the sin being once having identified as an evangelical Christian, then the issue is anti-authority culture in general. Furthermore, and I do not hesitate to use the terms, these scholars are driven by anti-Zionism approaching anti-Semitism. (emphasis mine, hysteria his)
If you question the historicity of David, you might get called an anti-Semite. If you doubt the historicity of Jesus, you might get called anti-Christian. There are no penalties, by the way, for these slanders. There is no shame in this shameful behavior. And isn’t it funny how both Rendsburg and Casey both managed to bring up the specter of Marxism and the sinister accusation of having an evangelical Christian background? Mediocre minds think alike.
I bring up these unpleasant reminders of anti-minimalist propaganda to show how closely the vicious personal attacks against them mirror the attacks against mythicists. Both are called nihilists and are accused of wanting to erase history. How blithely do the guild and their hatchet men engage in armchair psychoanalysis and red-bating. “What’s wrong with these people?” is the underlying question. “Ignore those crazy people,” is the underlying advice.
In Keith Whitelam’s “Representing Minimalism: The Rhetoric and Reality of Revisionism” (warning: PDF) I found this interesting aside about calling people’s sanity into question.
Recently, Michael D. Coogan in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, can say of the minimalist approach that ‘such radical skepticism recalls the view, which no responsible scholar would now accept, that the absence of contemporaneous evidence for Jesus of Nazareth means he did not exist‘. Clearly, ‘responsible’ is a rhetorical marker to go alongside ‘commonsense’ and the ‘traditional middle ground’ . . . It is even claimed that the sanity of certain individuals has to be called into question. Iain Provan . . . talks of their ‘principled distrust’ of the Hebrew Bible: ‘We generally regard it, indeed, as a sign of emotional or mental imbalance if people ordinarily inhabit a culture of distrust in testimony at the level of principle, and most of us outside mental institutions do not inhabit such a universe.’ (emphasis mine)
I suppose it goes without saying that NT scholars who come out of the closet and admit to Jesus agnosticism or mythicism will need pretty thick skins. They will be ridiculed, demeaned, insulted, hounded . . . and they might even lose their jobs. I can’t blame them for wanting to keep their heads down. However, I do think we’re going to see more of them come forward in the future, and if they can survive the initial onslaught (while proving they shouldn’t be institutionalized), it will augur a healthy change for NT scholarship.
My hope is that a new standard of historical rigor will someday take hold within the guild.
I’ll close with another quote from Lemche:
It has to be firmly stated: a text is not a historical event in the real world. A text may refer to the world outside the text, but it is primarily testimony about itself. Any information found in the text relating to the world outside the text will be valid only if it is in one way or another confirmed by other sources. Historical-critical scholarship has often made deductions from the biblical text to the world that is supposed to be reflected by this text. This is a break against another part of logic, the idea of different logical categories discussed by philosophers since the days of Aristotle. A deduction is made from one category to the next, but is it valid? (p. 112)