2014-09-07

Taking Up Ben Goren’s Jesus Challenge

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by Neil Godfrey

Here is my response to the six point and 500 word Jesus Challenge issued by Ben Goren. I copy his specific challenge questions and respond in blue font beneath each one.

1. Start with a clear, concise, unambiguous definition of who Jesus was. Do the Gospels offer a good biography of him? Was he some random schmuck of a crazy street preacher whom nobody would even thought to have noticed? Was he a rebel commando, as I’ve even heard some argue?

The Jesus of the Canonical Gospels was literary tool functioning as a symbol of spiritual Israel and mouthpiece and demonstration for the different theological perspectives of the evangelists.

2. Offer positive evidence reliably dated to within a century or so of whenever you think Jesus lived that directly supports your position. Don’t merely cite evidence that doesn’t contradict it; if, for example, you were to claim that Jesus was a rebel commando, you’d have to find a source that explicitly says so.

The internal evidence of the Gospels (anachronisms, datable references and teachings that are best explained post 70, the literary relationships discernible among the Gospels, and the theological development evident across them) indicates they were composed after 70 CE. External evidence first evident in the second century is also consistent with this.

3. Ancient sources being what they are, there’s an overwhelming chance that the evidence you choose to support your theory will also contain significant elements that do not support it. Take a moment to reconcile this fact in a plausible manner. What criteria do you use to pick and choose?

The late testimony of the Gospels takes for granted that their narratives are historical. Yet the literary character of the Gospels is unlike any other ancient historical biographical or historiographical work. There is evidence that the earliest Gospel (upon which the others are based) was written in imitation of the Septuagint, including the topos of creating a theological narrative ostensibly set in a historical time and place. Just as Jews and Christians have believed elements in the accounts of the OT to be historical so early Fathers believed the Gospels to be historical.

4. There will be lots of other significant pieces of evidence that contradict your hypothetical Jesus. Even literalist Christians have the Apocrypha to contend with, and most everybody else is comfortable observing widespread self-contradiction merely within the New Testament itself. Offer a reasonable standard by which evidence that contradicts your own position may be dismissed, and apply it to an example or two.

The criterion of embarrassment (the evangelists would not have written about events that were embarrassing to the church) is generally used to dispute the above views, but by applying the normal standards of logical analysis to this and other criteria of authenticity the method has been found wanting by biblical scholars themselves. Events that appear to be embarrassing should be assessed by comparable events that were the fate of all saints in the OT. So the sufferings and death of a man of God (e.g. crucifixion) is a well-known trope that identifies a true man of God, not an embarrassment. Passages in Paul’s letters that appear to indicate a historical Jesus need to be tested the way hypotheses are normally tested: if those interpretations are correct then what else would we expect to find in the evidence?; which hypothesis meet all such expectations? If Paul’s apparent claim to have met James the Brother of the Lord leads to difficulties in understanding why this James was never so identified in any other documents (e.g. Acts) or was always considered hostile to Jesus (e.g. the Gospels) we need to find the best hypothesis (not ad hoc rationalizations) that explains all such data.

5. Take at least a moment to explain how Jesus could have gone completely unnoticed by all contemporary writers (especially those of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Pliny the Elder, and the various Roman Satirists) yet is described in the New Testament as an otherworldly larger-than-life divine figure who was spectacularly publicly active throughout the region.

The  NT epistles in fact indicate Jesus was unknown or unrecognized before 70. Later evidence is when we first hear of such a spectacularly public figure. This portrayal can be identified as an elaboration of OT narratives (e.g. Moses leading Israel). After 70 it would not have been a problem for verisimilitude to have set narrative events in the early 30s, especially among diffuse audiences throughout the Mediterranean. Even today false histories that supposedly happened within our generation are known to gain traction and believers.

6. Last, as validation, demonstrate your methods reliable by applying them to other well-known examples from history. For example, compare and contrast another historical figure with an ahistorical figure using your standards.

The same criteria — genre, testing hypotheses by asking what expectations each raises for other evidence, independent verification, the nature of oral and written transmission, and literary analysis — establish the historicity of other historical figures such as Tiro (Cicero’s slave), leave open to question other figures such as Honi the Circle Drawer, and dispute the historicity of persons such as Abraham and Moses.

Words: 509

(I admit I cheated a little in #6 by pointing to cases that I have in the past demonstrated how the methods establish historicity or raise doubts.)

None of this “disproves” that there was a historical Jesus. But it does render any such historical person irrelevant to the formation of Christianity until further evidence or research tells us otherwise.

13 Comments

  • Giuseppe
    2014-09-07 06:00:33 UTC - 06:00 | Permalink

    …was literary tool functioning as a symbol of spiritual Israel

    you remain of this idea even after reading Tom Dykstra’ Mark, Canonizer of Paul ?

    If I accept the idea that Mark was written in reaction to Paul’s death, the war of 70 CE ceases to be the principal cause of writing of a Gospel (meant as reaction and allegory to the destruction of Temple) ?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-09-07 07:48:32 UTC - 07:48 | Permalink

      you remain of this idea even after reading Tom Dykstra’ Mark, Canonizer of Paul ?

      Definitely. I do not discount the likelihood that Paul is also alluded to in Mark, however. Dykstra has persuaded me on that one. But the evidence for Mark being a response to the War (even though perhaps some years afterwards) is in my view far stronger than it being written as a response to Paul’s death.

      • Paul Thomas
        2014-09-07 22:33:51 UTC - 22:33 | Permalink

        Hi Neil

        I’m fascinated by the relationship between Paul and Mark; after reading Carrier’s recent book “On the historicity of Jesus, why we might have reason to doubt”, I’ll be reading Dykstra’s book, but Giuseppe raises an interesting point – what forced Mark into action? It seems many motivations were already in place for a Euhemerisation in Paul’s day, based on his grief with the ‘superapostles’ in 2nd Cor 11:5 (meaning it was hard to maintain a dogma), Paul’s discussion of new converts being fed milk not meat in 1 Cor 3:2, (meaning there were already facts new converts were not let in on) and influences from the mystery religions already in place. This seems to be a plausible argument for a proto-Mark, minus the temple destruction references (including the women fleeing the tomb in terror), though of course I can’t prove this.

        Thanks

        • Sili
          2014-09-07 22:56:08 UTC - 22:56 | Permalink

          There’s an argument (I think it’s Peppard in The Son of God in the Roman World), that ‘Mark’ is reacting to Josephus’ propaganda that Vespasian is the Messiah prophesied in the Septuagint.

        • 2014-09-07 23:42:28 UTC - 23:42 | Permalink

          While I can see Paul’s influence in Mark’s Gospel, to my mind the apocalyptic character of the Gospel points to the destruction of the Temple/Jerusalem as the primary stimulus for the composition of the Gospel itself. The Gospel is riddled with allusions to that event and Rome’s destruction of the Jewish polity (though in Mark’s typically symbolic/apocalyptic and ironic manner) and the mass crucifixions associated with it.

          Such an event, to my mind, explains the turning point Christianity took after the days of the apostles — as represented in our literature by names like Paul, Peter and John. I don’t know what evidence there is that there were moves towards “euhemerisation” in Paul’s day. I think the conflicts were more to do with the place of the crucifixion versus a more overtly conquering (heavenly) messiah as we find in Revelation and in other cases the role of the law.

          http://vridar.org/category/book-reviews-notes/owens-son-of-yahweh/

          http://vridar.org/2014/04/18/jesus-crucifixion-as-symbol-of-destruction-of-temple-and-judgment-on-the-jews/

          • Giuseppe
            2014-09-08 08:11:46 UTC - 08:11 | Permalink

            I have read the Owen’s book but I ask you if there are other books that talk about the view (70 EC was the first cause of Mark) with more depth (not only the last part of Mark).

            I suspect that the war of 70 EC was the ”official”, ”formal” reason of writing a first Gospel (like other leterature not necessarily Christian), but that the theological reasons (bring Peter in Paul’s camp) are more prominent and pressing even if more implicit and hidden beyond the allegory in Mark.

            • Neil Godfrey
              2014-09-08 09:51:09 UTC - 09:51 | Permalink

              Karel Hanhart does, although he believes an early form of Mark was written prior to 70 but that this was heavily re-written in the wake of the destruction of the Temple. I’ve spoken of his “The Open Tomb” before.

              Several authors allude to the question but in covering other topics. So John Drury in his book on parables acknowledges the historical significance of the parables in Mark and the way they point to the destruction of the Temple/Jerusalem but of course his main discussion is the parables themselves, not the reason for the gospel. Adam Winn comes close with “The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel” but mostly skims the tangential question and argues the gospel was written in response to Vespasian’s propaganda.

              There are several books like these.

            • Neil Godfrey
              2014-09-08 10:28:55 UTC - 10:28 | Permalink

              Re the second part of your comment, there’s a very strong argument that helping to hold on to an identity or mould a new one in the wake of the crushing of Judea and its Mosaic cult was of most critical importance and the gospel’s primary purpose was to this end. The Peter-Paul question was probably the raw material that had been pre-existing 70 with which the author worked.

              The apocalyptic character of the Gospel — from its opening words right through to the end — testifies to this, in my view; whereas if the Paul-Peter question or whatever that represented were the main impetus we would have expected more teaching material. But Mark is highly symbolic and most symbols are about historical changes that were effected with the fall of the Jews and exaltation of the Christians by contrast.

              Nor do we know when Paul died. Death in 64 and response to fire of Rome is a legend, not a fact. Or even where. If he did die before 70 and his death prompted various troubles then might we not expect Mark to have been written prior to 70? But this is all very speculative.

  • maryhelena
    2014-09-07 07:36:16 UTC - 07:36 | Permalink

    “The Jesus of the Canonical Gospels was literary tool functioning as a symbol of spiritual Israel and mouthpiece and demonstration for the different theological perspectives of the evangelists.”

    This theory allows for that “literary tool” to be other than the Carrier-Doherty mythicist theory! Jesus as a symbol allows any manner of possibilities – including the possibility that the Jesus symbol is a composite literary symbol. A composite literary symbol that can reflect historical figures from literal Israel as much as it can ‘reflect’ invisible celestial entities – or the term you used above, ‘spiritual Israel’. (James Bond, for instance, was created from a considerable number of historical figures).

    Wow, Neil, what happened to the Carrier-Doherty mythicist theory?

    The Carrier-Doherty mythicist theory in a nutshell:

    1. Jesus began as a celestial being in the minds of Christians.
    2. This celestial being reveals ‘truths’.
    3. This celestial being had tricked the Devil by becoming incarnate and was crucified by the Devil.
    4. Thereby atoning for all of Israel’s sins and Temple no longer mattered.
    5. Christians conjour the angelic being’s ‘salvific story’ from a pesher-like reading of scripture.
    6. Several decades later – cult members start to “allegorizing the gospel” of this “angelic being” and place him in history as a ‘divine man’.
    7. Jesus is “a cosmic savior, later historicized”.

    http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2014/08/car388028.shtml

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-09-07 08:02:17 UTC - 08:02 | Permalink

      Why the hang-up about the Carrier-Doherty ideas? What’s this “wow” business? I am presenting my thoughts. (I don’t see a contradiction with C-D by the way. — No, I don’t want you to get sidetracked on that and start bashing away at the same old points you seem to be stuck on. My views do not contradict at least one or two other mythicists theories, either. Did you notice my last sentence?)

      I opted to define my Jesus in terms of the Gospel Jesus because that’s what Ben’s challenge seem to be slanted towards. I could have taken another tack and started with Paul’s Jesus. Another day I might do that.

      Now you have suggested a few options in your main paragraph. How about arguing the case from the internal literary evidence — a literary analysis — of the gospels themselves. One that is coherent and explains all their parts. And one that answers alternative explanations/hypotheses. Or simply give your own 500 word response to Ben’s challenge.

      If you do either of those things I will consider your comments to be on-topic and constructive.

  • Nikos Apostolakis
    2014-09-07 13:01:09 UTC - 13:01 | Permalink

    Wow! I’ve been missing a lot. I had subscribed to be notified when a new post is posted in Vridar, but somehow this doesn’t seem to work properly. I need to check the spam folder.

    And I was wondering why Vridar has been so silent lately. Lot’s of catching up to do!

  • 2014-09-16 15:20:59 UTC - 15:20 | Permalink

    Same thing here, Nikos. Same thing.

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