Continues from part 1 . . . .
Philip Jenkins in his reaction, The Myth of the Mythical Jesus, has an even more blunt response to anyone who ventures into the “far swamps of extreme crankery” by pursuing questions that have no place among biblical scholars:
“Scholarship is what scholars do, and if they don’t do it, it’s not scholarship.” That is by far the most important point against the mythicists, and really, nothing more needs to be said.
Jenkins remains silent about Carrier’s book, the book that largely prompted Brian Bethune to ask serious questions about the evidence for the existence of Jesus. One can only conclude Jenkins has not read it and that his confidence that he knows all he needs to know about mythicist arguments is perversely misplaced. After all, it’s not a view “done” by scholars so it would be a waste of time bothering with it. One cannot imagine a more classic illustration of contempt for (ideologically incorrect) public interests.
Such ignorance gives him the confidence that merely repeating a few mantras to a few informal mythicist bylines he may have heard second hand or from some “over zealous riff-raff on the web” is all that he needs to do to persuade right-thinking people to stay clear of the danger zones around those far swamps.
The affirmative evidence for that existence is easily offered, consisting as it does of a sizable body of writings dating from within a half century of the events described.
Those documents are, without question, the most closely debated and analyzed in human history. A vast body of scholars works on those texts and their implications, and they come from a wide body of religious backgrounds – Christians of every possible shade, Jews, skeptics and atheists, and people of various other faiths. Within that scholarly universe, the number of qualified scholars who today deny the historical existence of Jesus is infinitesimal. The consensus on that matter is near-total. (My bolding and formatting in all quotations)
“A paper I had written on a disturbing, ridiculous, and idiosyncratic method used by historicists was rejected by a prominent society of Biblical literature, but was later accepted by a general historical research organisation – forgive me if I feel a smug sense of vindication. This paper dealt with what I call Ehrman’s law, which shall be explained later and discussed throughout this book. My presentation of the paper was very successful, with almost everybody (a room full of proper historians) agreeing with me that this method used by Biblical ‘historians’ is ridiculous and not typical of historians proper.
“ Raphael Lataster, “The Gospel According to Bart: The Folly of Ehrman’s Hypothetical Sources” (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Historical Association, Sydney, 7th July 2015).”
Lataster, Raphael (2015-11-12). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists (Kindle Locations 400-405). . Kindle Edition.
Mainstream biblical scholars often point to atheists among their ranks as evidence that they are not swayed by Christian bias. Craig Evans in the debate mentioned in my previous post did this when he spoke of the atheist James Crossley arguing that the Gospels were written considerably earlier than even many Christian scholars concede. What Evans was doing in reality was demonstrating that atheist scholars can only survive in the Christian dominated field of biblical studies as long as they conform to the minimal ideological foundations of Christianity. Arguing a Marxist model of Christian origins naturally conforms admirably with the values of many liberal Christians.
In fact neither Bethune nor anyone denies the “near total consensus” in the public face of the biblical studies guild. When prominent authors like Philip Jenkins not only demonstrate their ignorance of the arguments of those “infinitesimally” few scholars but even despite their ignorance insult them as belonging to the “far swamps of crankery”, one has to wonder if Raphael Lataster is quite correct when he writes that the historicity of Jesus is a debate that cannot be conducted among biblical scholars but can only move forward in other history and religion departments.
Hence reaction, neither engagement nor education, is the response.
Jenkins sees no need to bother with anything Carrier might have written nor even with the actual problems raised by Bethune. Leave all that to the “swamps of extreme crankery” — a nice intimidating phrase attached to the pointy headed doubters among those leprous masses.
And so Jenkins proceeds to address what he blindly presumes anonymous ignoramuses argue. The challenging questions of Bethune and Carrier are lost in the far swamps of Jenkins’s awareness and are replaced by some vague general points from the minds of an undefined “they”.
The first vague point unrelated to any of the questions troubling Bethune and that is posed as a substitute for Bethune’s questions:
- *Contemporary writers do not refer to Jesus
Jenkins’s ignorance of serious mythicist arguments is palpable. Sweeping aside the issues of concern to Brian Bethune and many readers of the Macleans article, Jenkins embarrasses any slightly knowledgeable reader with this “explanation”:
All the canonical sources depict a very plausible Jesus in a very identifiable early first century historical setting. More significant, there are clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of those gospels.
Plausibility is a condition of historicity but that is a long step from being an argument for any particular scenario. Historical fiction works because it is equally plausible, set as it is in real times and places. That this point is ever raised as a serious argument for the historicity of Jesus is truly an embarrassment to our intellectual elites. Craig Evans made much of it in his debate with Richard Carrier. Why? It’s so obviously a red-herring, a non sequitur, an offence to anyone who has read any historical fiction, including ancient historical fictional writings.
As for the second point that there are “clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of the gospels”? Well, yes, there certainly are “clear and well understood” imaginative constructs of what scholars who presume a core historicity behind the gospel narratives believe must have existed. Of course there is no evidence for those oral traditions. Indeed, works that have seriously challenged the prevailing presumption that “there must have been oral traditions” passed on from eyewitnesses to eventually reach the authors of the gospels have been largely ignored. (See discussions of some of these in the oral tradition archive, as well as other posts on scholarship presenting evidence for literary mimesis.) Yet Jenkins presents the presumed model of oral tradition as part of a “clear and well understood chain of evidence“!
Clearly unaware of his ignorance that the mythicist case for Jesus as an “otherworldly being” is grounded in the writings of
- the New Testament epistles
- and Revelation,
- other Second Temple Jewish literature,
- and documents such as the original form of the Ascension of Isaiah dated by mainstream scholars to the end of the first or very early second century,
Jenkins surely mystifies readers of Macleans and Carrier’s book when he writes:
Accounts of Jesus as a mythical otherworldly being without worldly roots belong to much later sources, in alternative gospels of the second or third centuries, or later. Citing alternative works from that era – or much later Jewish texts – as if they have some kind of superior hotline to the historical reality of the 20s AD is just not permissible, and is actually scandalous.
Such a statement further demonstrates Jenkins’s own inability to read the early evidence through anything other than the eyes of the status quo.
Jenkins then dogmatically delivers another utterly fallacious line that he expects ignorant readers to swallow:
Let me put this as simply as I can: Jesus is better documented and recorded than pretty much any non-elite figure of antiquity.
The comparison is sometimes made with Socrates but the evidence even for this other counter-establishment teacher who left no writings of his own is far superior to anything we have for Jesus. See Comparing the Evidence for Jesus with Other Ancient Persons for details. (One can even show that the evidence for Cicero’s slave and to Seneca’s stammering rival philosopher are of superior quality with respect to establishing historicity than the evidence we have for Jesus.) But mainstream scholars appear to be uninterested in engaging with such challenges to their traditional assumptions.
- *Jesus features in no contemporary secular or non-Christian literary sources.
Jenkins does not deny this but sets out a list of ad hoc rationalizations for why there should be none. And when he does concede that we do know of at least a “tiny” number of historians reporting on the area of Galilee at the time of Jesus without mentioning him, he glosses over the fact by implying a few historians is as good as no historians. The standard apologetic explanation is given to explain the absence of evidence: the man who changed the course of history was a nobody. One might wonder if a nobody changing the course of history is as great a miracle as anything we read about in the Bible.
- *Jesus does not feature in early non-Christian literary sources who might have been expected to mention him.
In blissful ignorance of the illogicality of the standard apologetic arguments for Josephus having written about Jesus and then later referencing him as “the Christ”, Jenkins declares:
Josephus, in short, wrote about Jesus as a real, known, individual, who served as a useful point of reference (“You know who that James was? Why, he was the brother of Jesus”). . . . .
. . . . here he is, cited as a real historical character by a very well informed historian who knew Galilee well.
The most common argument about that first Jesus passage in Josephus (the “Testimonium Flavianum”) is that the reference to “Christ” is an interpolation (Josephus would never have called Jesus “the Christ”, one reason being that he was desperate to hide from his Roman audience any and all reminders of “Jewish messianism”), yet so often we read that the second reference to “Jesus called Christ” is a genuine Josephan reference. Jenkins repeats the usual apologetic once again failing to notice the contradiction it entails: if Josephus did not mention Christ in the first passage then the second passage cannot have been a pointer to it. Moreover, Jenkins appears to be unaware of the many scholarly arguments relating to the anomalous context of the first reference to Jesus, the passage’s connections to biblical and Eusebian passages, its place in the record of the Church Fathers, and ignorance of the scholarly arguments relating to the Josephus’s second reference. I suppose if you are sure you are right you have no need to alert yourself to any contrary viewpoints.
- *There are no contemporary references to Jesus in non-literary sources, bureaucratic or otherwise
Er, yes. Correct. I have no idea whose arguments Jenkins is thinking of here.
- *Jesus left no writings.
No, really, I have seen that objection made with a straight face.
Okay, that’s nice for a chuckle. But where are the questions raised by Bethune? Does Jenkins even know about Carrier? Jenkins is bringing up straw-man nonsense arguments to ridicule “mythicists”. He demonstrates not the slightest interest in engaging with anything raised by Bethune. The game seems to be: ignore, or rather, mock the public who read Ehrman and Carrier. Ignore questions posed by the “tiny few” scholars and many unwashed outsiders. Chuckle along within the ivory tower confines of the intellectual elites.
- *”Jesus” was actually a disguised or confused memory of another historical character, such as [insert ludicrous candidate here, from Teacher of Righteousness onward].
These theories are fun, and much like London buses, don’t worry if you miss one, there’ll be another one along in a few minutes. For the arguments against these various candidates, check out “scholarly consensus” above.
I must give Jenkins the benefit of the doubt and assume he has only heard of Robert M. Price’s speculations second or third hand. But no matter either way: if only a handful of scholars merely propose an idea drawing upon scholarly models they must belong to the crankery swamp.
- *”Jesus” was a mythical figure like those of the ancient mystery religions, with many analogies to figures in other world religions, such as Krishna or even Buddha.
Ah, the golden oldies. . . .
So count the credentialed scholars today who give such “Christ was a version of other myth figures” theories a moment’s credence. Do you get to double figures?
Such is the depth of these highly respected scholars’ answers to Bethune’s questions arising from his reading of Carrier and Ehrman. “We scholars disagree. So that’s the end of the matter — unless you are from the mordant ooze and swamps of extreme crankery.” That’s not likely to persuade Bethune but it may intimidate some otherwise innocent bystanders. Presumably that is the intention of the rhetoric.
Mythicism challenges the ideological foundations of traditional New Testament studies (not to mention historical cultural traditions) and can only elicit visceral reaction, not intellectual engagement. Academics like Porter and Jenkins do not appear to be even bothered to make any effort to seriously address the questions raised by people like Bethune in the Macleans article. Leave the dead to bury their dead. Better to focus on putting the fear of ridicule into the hearts of the bystanders.