2016-04-23

Biblical Scholars Reacting to Public Interest in Mythicism: Part 1

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Biblical scholars are reacting uncomfortably to signs of public interest in the view that Jesus did not exist. Not all biblical scholars, though. A tiny few do publicly welcome and accommodate this mythicist view of Jesus with their Christian faith and others who have confessed to being open-minded on the question. (For details see Who’s Who: Mythicists and Mythicists Agnostics.) But it is no secret that biblical studies is dominated by the Christian faith, both its liberal and conservative wings, so when articles questioning the most fundamental precept of that faith appear in prominent media outlets like The Washington Post, Salon.com, and most recently Macleans, some of those scholars let their indignation and impatience show. Unfortunately for their cause, however, while they focus on defending their traditional assumptions they all too often completely ignore (or misrepresent) the actual reasons many intelligent and educated people continue to have doubts.

My own position on mythicism: Following is my (slightly modified) email reply to someone who recently asked me if I was an agnostic on the mythicist question. —

Yes. It is the best we can argue. The evidence and critical methods we have can only allow us to argue that our New Testament literature can well be explained without recourse to a historical Jesus but that fact does not itself prove their was no historical Jesus. Even some “historicists” admit that the historical Jesus is essentially irrelevant to what became Christianity.

Personally I see no reason to believe in the existence of a historical Jesus but I cannot prove that position, so I must remain agnostic. The best I can do is to demonstrate how the evidence we have for Christian origins can be explained far more cogently without reference to a historical figure.

[A danger some mythicists fall into is an ideological desire to prove Jesus was not historical but the expression of some other deity or cosmic phenomena,] — that is, looking only for evidence to support their theory. That approach is susceptible to confirmation bias. If we can’t find ways to test our hypotheses and identify how they could be disproved then we are not using valid historical or scientific reasoning. [I think a more interesting and profitable pursuit than trying to prove or disprove the historicity of Jesus is to explore and understand the evidence that sheds light on Christianity’s origins.]

In posts on Vridar I’ve said several times that by explaining the origin of a gospel narrative as an adaptation of another story (say, Jesus stilling the storm from the Jonah story) we do not disprove the historicity of the event. Ditto if we find mythical associations with Jesus: even known historical emperors described themselves and were described by others in ways comparing them with mythical persons. What matters is what the evidence we have points us towards. If we have evidence for a literary or mythological borrowing, and that is all there is, then — all other things being equal — it is reasonable to tentatively assume that that the literary or mythological source is the origin of our narrative. But our conclusion is tentative – pending the discovery of additional evidence that there is also a historical source.

In this series of posts I will address the public responses of two mainstream scholars, Philip Jenkins and Stanley Porter (who responds jointly with Hughson Ong, a relatively new name in the field), to Brian Bethune’s discussion of Bart Ehrman’s new popular book, Jesus Before the Gospels, in the context of questions raised by Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. The two articles:

Both responses are clearly written with considerable impatience:

In debates about Christian origins, one tiresome canard is going to come up sporadically, and usually, it’s not worth wasting time on. (Jenkins)

Here we go again, chasing after another ill-conceived theory about the Bible, this being one that periodically rises from the mordant ooze. (Porter-Ong)

And both responses completely sidestep Brian Bethune’s core questions. By way of reminder here are those unaddressed questions that arise from Ehrman’s book:

Q1. Almost entirely from the Christian tradition

Ehrman’s memory book, in effect, is more an appeal to the faithful to accept historians’ approach than a new way of evaluating evidence. His list of what historians, including himself, think they can attest to hardly differs from a list he would have made a decade ago:

  • Jesus was a Jew,
  • an apocalyptic preacher like the man who baptized him, John the Baptist;
  • his teaching, rooted in Torah, was delivered in parables and aphorisms;
  • Jesus had followers who claimed his message was validated by the miracles he wrought;
  • in the last week of his life, Jesus went to Jerusalem, where he caused a disturbance in the Temple that, some hours later, led to his arrest;
  • Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor found him guilty of sedition and had him crucified.

However appealing and reasonable such a list is to modern skeptics, it is still drawn almost entirely from within the faith tradition, with buttressing by the slimmest of outside supports—brief references from Roman observers. (My own bolded emphasis and formatting in all quotations)

Q2. Buttressed by the slimmest of outside supports

Bethune then shows us just how slim the most “rock-solid” of those outside supports are:

Consider one item on Ehrman’s list, perhaps the most accepted and certainly the one with the largest claim to historical accuracy embedded within it: Pontius Pilate executed Jesus. Scholars are almost universally on-side, as are most Christian churches. Pilate is the sole figure from Jesus’s trial for whom we have undoubted archaeological evidence, and he’s also, perhaps coincidentally, the only one to become part of the Nicene Creed, the most widely embraced capsule statement of Christian faith: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

But that wasn’t what all early Christians thought.

  • The apocryphal Gospel of Peter says King Herod signed the death warrant.
  • Others who thought Jesus was nearly 50 when he died believed that happened in the 40s of the first century, long after Pilate had been recalled to Rome.
  • The Nazorians, an intriguing sect of Torah-observant early Christians discussed by a fourth-century scholar, believed Jesus died a century before the canonical Gospels, around 70 BCE. (And, since they were descended directly from the first followers of Christ, called Nazarenes before they became known as Christians, the Nazorians cannot be easily dismissed. The Babylonian Talmud, composed by the fifth century, notes the same.)

Yet Pilate is in Mark as the agent of Jesus’s crucifixion, from which he spread to the other Gospels, and also in the annals of the Roman historian Tacitus and writings by his Jewish counterpart, Josephus. Those objective, non-Christian references make Pilate as sure a thing as ancient historical evidence has to offer, unless—as has been persuasively argued by numerous scholars, including historian Richard Carrier in his recent On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason For Doubtboth brief passages are interpolations, later forgeries made by zealous Christians. . . .

The Gospels are forthright in their agendas to serve theological and not historical needs. Mark may have pinned Jesus’s death on Pilate because he knew or believed it to be true, says Carrier, or he may have been practising “apocalyptic math.” [“Apocalyptic math” is a reference to the interest in that day of finding a timetable for the appearance of the messiah in the mysterious numbers in the Book of Daniel.]

Craig Evans interlude

Uh oh, is Carrier befuddling the public with the question begging “interpolation” card? Is he blithely sweeping aside contrary evidence as possible forgeries? That’s how Craig Evans, another mainstream scholar, chose to react to Carrier’s case in a recent debate. But in a live debate situation Carrier was able to respond on the spot and remind the audience that far from any question begging, detailed and abundant evidence for the claim of forgery was used to back up the assertion. (Bart Ehrman himself not very long ago even wrote another popular book demonstrating just how widespread forgery was in the early Christian world.)

http://ksutv.kennesaw.edu/play.php?v=00030027

When Craig Evans brushed aside Carrier’s assertions he was brushing aside all the evidence and argument upon which those assertions were grounded. That’s not addressing the arguments; it’s reacting to them in a way that leaves the critical public unpersuaded.

Meanwhile, both Jenkins and Porter-Ong quietly leave aside that other detail of concern to Bethune, the problematic theological function of the Christian sources.

Q3. Thinking through Paul’s silence and the Gospels’ details

Bethune thinks through the implications of Paul’s non-interest in the historical Jesus:

Carrier’s rigorously argued discussion—made all the more compelling for the way it bends over backwards to give the historicist case an even chance—is the first peer-reviewed historical work on mythicism. He’s relatively restrained in his summation of the absences in Paul’s letters. “That’s all simply bizarre. And bizarre means unexpected, which means infrequent, which means improbable.” Historicists have no real response to it. Ehrman simply says, “It’s hard to know what to make of Paul’s non-interest; perhaps he just doesn’t care about Jesus before his resurrection.

Other historians extend that lack-of-curiosity explanation to early Christians in general, which is not only contrary to the usual pattern of human nature, but seems to condemn the Gospels as fiction: if Christians couldn’t have cared less about the details of Jesus’s life and ministry, they wouldn’t have preserved them, and the evangelists would have been forced to make up everything.

Bethune identifies the wobbliness of mainstream scholar’s responses. When Ehrman attempts to squash any thought of using his sceptical arguments to doubt the very existence of Jesus by insisting that the Gospels remain very important documents, Bethune steadies the boat with:

And so they are, to the history of Christianity and Western culture in general, but not to the history of Jesus, as Ehrman’s own foray into memory study demonstrates: Biographical details, the assurance of physical actuality, are the greatest missionary tools.

Ehrman is correct that the stories we read in the gospels served a meaningful purpose for those people who were responsible for first recording and embracing them. If those people were involved in missionary work then the gospel stories serve as ideal templates for them. Bethune:

Soon enough, as the tendencies of human memory predict, the cosmic Christ, like central figures in other contemporary mystery cults, was “factualized” to better attract adherents. Again, given the way social memory is really all about the problems of now, the Gospels display their interest in issues liable to confront any missionary: prophets without honour in their own lands (that is, treated skeptically in their villages, where people remember them); faith healings that don’t always work out (it’s the fault of those who lack faith); why your allegiance should be to your faith family, not your biological kin (Jesus pushed away his own siblings).

So Brian Bethune, after reading Bart Ehrman’s new book on the nature of the evidence we have for Jesus, is left with serious unresolved questions and expresses these in a widely read forum.

Enter the impatient professors

(I should say that I have enjoyed immensely one of Jenkins’s books and look forward to reading more; I have also found Stanley Porter’s works of interest and use in my own personal studies. My criticisms here are limited to their inability to cope with ideologically incorrect challenges from outside their academy.)

And not only impatient, but indignant.

Unfortunately they let slip a little arrogance and even some bullying that I can’t imagine working well in their favour among honestly questioning bystanders.

Example: Porter-Ong even take Bethune to task for being so misguided as to raise questions posed by Carrier’s arguments and apply them to the implications of Ehrman’s study! Thinking outside traditional paradigms is NOT how their mainstream profession does things! Carrier’s arguments have no business being set against Ehrman’s work. Since Ehrman himself does not doubt the historicity of Jesus Porter-Ong stress that in their view it is invalid to bring the question of the historicity of Jesus into his study.

It is unfortunate, however, that Bethune in his article has totally misconstrued the issue by juxtaposing Richard Carrier’s doubting Jesus’ existence and Bart Ehrman’s advocacy of social memory theory, as well as misrepresenting the utilization of social memory theories in Gospel studies by citing (only) Ehrman . . . .  In short, it is not a theory of history and cannot be used to determine historicality (such as whether or not Jesus existed). 

And again,

The use of social memory theories in Gospel studies is at most for purposes of elucidating and understanding the social constructs and the oral traditioning process of the Jesus stories in the Gospels, and definitely not for arguing for or against Jesus’ existence.

The theory certainly cannot be used to determine “historicality (such as whether or not Jesus existed)” and Bethune clearly is aware of that, but Porter-Ong are choosing to ignore the questions concerning “historicality” that inevitably arise as an unintended consequence of that theory. Porter-Ong further attempt to belittle Bethune and his readers by telling us that they are being foolishly and ignorantly misled by a faddish book written by a popular hack (Ehrman) rather than a real authority on the subject. (I agree that Ehrman has shortchanged other scholars in the field who have been working on social memory long before his own work appeared, but this is irrelevant to the concerns of lay readers represented by the Macleans article.)

Porter-Ong are bold enough to admit that they do not even need to have read Ehrman’s and Carrier’s books to justify their patronizing criticism of someone entertaining questions after having read them both:

It is not our intention here to directly critique Ehrman’s or Carrier’s work, for we have not read them in full yet. Nor is it our objective to join in this ongoing social memory fad . . . . 

I like the face-saving “in full yet”. Fact: their criticisms elsewhere in their article leave the more informed lay readers in no doubt that they have not read much of Ehrman’s book (it’s very short and easy to read by scholarly standards) and effectively none of Carrier’s book at all. Yet they bring the full weight of their professional status to bear down heavily on a lay reader who has questions arising from a reading of both.

From admitting to not having read the books the move on to downright ignorance with the following:

Milman Parry and Albert Lord speak of the Serbo-Croatian bards composing new songs in every act of performance, they also say that the new composition is still based and draws upon known “oral formulas” that will fit the metrical lines or patterns of the new song. In short, “an act of creation” does not imply “an act of fabrication.” With respect to social memory theory, it is doubtful whether Ehrman is the appropriate and accurate authority to cite in terms of the scholarly research done on the subject. He may just be, as he has been before, trailing along in public support of the latest fad.

I think that passage is intended to impress the ignorant masses with data that only the erudite professionals would know and that supposedly refutes the entire “social memory” theory. In fact the Milman Parry and Albert Lord work on Serbo-Croatian bards is not about social memory theory as addressed by Ehrman or any of the post-modernist social-memory theorists in biblical studies. I guess such an irrelevant gaffe is to be expected from scholars who in one breath say a certain theory is too complex to be understood well by a populist writer yet in the next breath insist that same theory is a mere fad. They appear not to have bothered with Maurice Halbwachs any more than they have with Ehrman. In sum: Porter-Ong appear to have made their minds up that the gospel authors derived their stories from oral tradition and that oral tradition worked according to a century old study of Balkan bards and no further theories or books that might challenge their conclusions need be seriously addressed or even read. It follows that the only way they can respond to outsiders’ challenges is through intellectual intimidation.

The desperation of the Porter-Ong defence becomes almost amusing with their second point:

[W]e should also understand that historians, while they evaluate the reliability of their sources, also depend on those same sources to do their work. To claim that the Gospel materials contain ahistorical information about Jesus does not automatically negate his existence; this is a huge leap from scholarly studies of historical sources to a denial of an actual historical fact. To be clear, to believe that “eyewitnesses tend to offer the least trustworthy accounts, particularly when recalling something spectacular or fast-moving, like Jesus walking on water” (39) is certainly different from arguing that the multitude of eyewitnesses who saw Jesus walk and live on earth (1 Cor 15:5-8; 1 John 1:1-3) lied about his existence. This kind of skepticism makes it hard to think that we know anything from the past, whether ancient or modern.

Yes, scholars do need to believe in the core historical reliability underlying the gospel narratives or else they won’t be able to do any more work based on the historical core underlying the gospel narratives! Once again Porter-Ong have chosen to remain ignorant of the challenges thrown up by the mythicists. The gospels really are not like other ancient historical and biographical writings. As Bethune rightly implies, historians do not normally rely almost entirely upon theological tracts as the foundation of any other historical reconstructions.

Towards the end of their article Porter-Ong bring out a most absurd claim, so often made in defiance of all we know about the range of literature both ancient and modern, that a narrative set in a real geographical or historical setting should itself be assumed to be essentially historical!

  • the fact that archaeological artifacts also attest to and corroborate much historical information in support of the Gospel accounts should also prompt us to study and assess our presuppositions and arguments further, before making any hasty and preposterous conclusions.

Their inability to deal with Bethune’s questions finally collapses into desperate farce:

  • if Jesus really did not exist, how about his contemporaries, did they exist? The Gospels indicate that Jesus lived amidst a very dense and multiplex social network. How are we to make sense of this social network, if we say that Jesus did not exist, but that the people in his social network did exist? 

Yes, well. . . .

Brian Bethune must be wondering if this is the best the defenders of the historicity of Jesus can do so let’s move on to Philip Jenkins.

Jenkins has an even more blunt response to anyone who ventures into the “far swamps of extreme crankery” . . . .

For the next post….. Part 2

53 Comments

  • Tim Widowfield
    2016-04-23 06:32:59 UTC - 06:32 | Permalink

    Ong and Porter betray some laughable ignorance by bringing up Parry/Lord. It’s hard to know where to start when the bar is so low.

    But I will agree with them that Bart does like to take advantage of whatever fad is out there.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-04-23 07:15:06 UTC - 07:15 | Permalink

      But I will agree with them that Bart does like to take advantage of whatever fad is out there.

      Don’t scoff. Think of the charities being served.

  • Paul
    2016-04-23 08:27:59 UTC - 08:27 | Permalink

    John the Baptist is mentioned by Josephus, (his fate clearly elaborated and misrepresented in the gospels) but strangely the one “greater” than him, Jesus of Nazareth crucified under Pontius Pilate on a weekend of high drama does not get a mention, even as an unelaborated and properly represented character of the period. Why, why, why?

    • Steven Carr
      2016-04-23 08:30:39 UTC - 08:30 | Permalink

      Doesn’t Bart Ehrman somewhere claim that Josephus said John the Baptist was an apocalyptic preacher?

  • Bob Jase
    2016-04-23 17:35:03 UTC - 17:35 | Permalink

    Of course Jesus ‘needs’ to exist because Adam & Eve ‘existed’ – yet most Christian apologists reject their existence. A little dissonance here.

  • 2016-04-23 20:08:35 UTC - 20:08 | Permalink

    If you were going to just make up a life of Jesus.
    Why not have Him appear just before the Jewish Revolt and have Him
    warn the Jews of their immediate destruction if they do not repent and follow Him ?
    Then you have the destruction of Jerusalem as proof that He was sent from God
    and then just have one Gospel written after 70 AD.

    Nice and tidy, why go to all the trouble of multiple Gospels…

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-04-23 21:09:09 UTC - 21:09 | Permalink

      Several points in response:
      1. No-one “just made up a life of Jesus”. The gospels are not biographies (bios = life) of Jesus. I included a link in the post to where the differences between normal historical or biographical writings and the gospels are listed and there are many posts on the same topic here. The gospels do not tell us about the sorts of details that interest biographers or people wanting to read biographies. They are carefully constructed stories built upon typically Second Temple Jewish ways of reading their Scriptures and they are all a series of theological messages, often symbolic. Happy to discuss.

      2. The very scenario you suggest — Jesus appearing just before the invasion of Rome and destruction of Jerusalem — is the very one that one of the Church Fathers from the middle of the second century wrote about. That was the story Justin Martyr understood happened. He wrote at a time there were various gospel narratives floating around and there was no special status given to our canonical gospels. He had a range of story possibilities to choose from and wrote that just after Jesus was crucified, resurrected, sent the twelve (not eleven) disciples out to preach around the world (not stay in Jerusalem) the Romans came in and destroyed everything as punishment for the killing of Jesus.

      So the question is why was such a scenario invented and then later set aside by the most politically powerful sect of Christians in favour of our canonical story.

      3. One gospel would make a lot of sense if there was indeed just one life of Jesus to write about. But that we have some stories setting Jesus in the time of Claudius, others in the time of Tiberius, others in the time of Alexander Jannaeus, some denying he was a real human but only took the form of a human, some saying Herod crucified him and others saying it was Pilate, — I think such evidence makes it pretty clear that there was no historical life to which people were looking, but that many people were trying to manufacture a life that would “work” the best. And that life was not really a biography but a set of stories based on Jewish scriptures, as I said above. Example, the calling of the disciples is a retelling of Elijah’s calling of Elisha, etc. Mainstream scholars have provided much evidence for this.

      There was no standard life of Jesus; there were many attempts to create the most useful one, and each sect had its own beliefs expressed in these various gospels. And the evangelists (gospel authors) knew they were making things up from Jewish scriptures because no-one took existing gospels as “the truth” — they all felt free to change details according to how they understood the Scriptures.

      A historical Jesus who left eyewitnesses as authorities would have meant all this rival creative confusion could have been avoided.

    • larry jeffery
      2016-04-26 01:40:51 UTC - 01:40 | Permalink

      Indeed why bother with the prophecies, Moses and the whole shebang. Eve’s daughter could have given birth to a son of god and been killed by some locals if that is so important to god so many souls could have been saved. Or as Christopher Hitchens brilliantly asked by wait for 200,000 of years of human history and begin with an illiterate shepherd in the desert. The Chinese could already read and write.

  • Tim Widowfield
    2016-04-23 21:13:37 UTC - 21:13 | Permalink

    “. . . arguing that the multitude of eyewitnesses who saw Jesus walk and live on earth (1 Cor 15:5-8; 1 John 1:1-3) lied about his existence.”

    Hang on a minute. They’re citing Paul’s second-hand account of people who supposedly saw the risen Jesus as “eyewitnesses who saw Jesus walk and live on Earth”? Are they seriously trotting out this passage in Corinthians as proof of the historical Jesus? And if I deny it, am I calling Paul and the other “witnesses” liars?

    These passages are confessions of faith. Don’t they know that?

    I’m embarrassed for them. NT scholarship ain’t what it used to be.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-04-23 21:21:25 UTC - 21:21 | Permalink

      Damn. I had intended to return to my comment on that section and expand upon it. There was much to discuss there. Ditto with some of the points made by Jenkins. But one can only battle so many spot fires in a single day.

      • Tim Widowfield
        2016-04-23 21:45:29 UTC - 21:45 | Permalink

        Like fish who don’t recognize the water that surrounds them, they don’t realize that they’re swimming in their own apologetic stew.

        And this nugget here —

        The Gospels indicate that Jesus lived amidst a very dense and multiplex social network. How are we to make sense of this social network, if we say that Jesus did not exist, but that the people in his social network did exist?

        — just may be the best articulated version of the Yellow Brick Road Argument ever laid down in print.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-04-23 22:32:01 UTC - 22:32 | Permalink

          That section left me speechless, as you can see. We see why someone like McGrath can get away with his idiocies and even be asked to speak at conferences on mythicism. It really is no bother to these scholars that unread works can be reviewed and persons and viewpoints flatly lied about. It’s to be expected. It all serves the good purpose of alienating the most fundamental challenge to the whole show.

  • HoosierPoli
    2016-04-25 08:58:38 UTC - 08:58 | Permalink

    The contention that Paul was simply not interested in the life of Jesus strikes me completely and obviously absurd. If Paul was not interested in the life of Jesus, that would make him basically the only Christian in HISTORY with that peculiar quirk. Everyone else, from the Gospel writers (ostensibly) to Justin Martyr onward to the present day is essentially OBSESSED with the life of Jesus. How Bart Ehrman can say that the one writer who was best positioned to investigate this perennial Christian obsession simply couldn’t be bothered is beyond me. It involves the most ludicrous doublethink and makes me doubt him as an honest author.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-04-25 09:09:16 UTC - 09:09 | Permalink

      I think you’ll find that Paul’s lack of interest in the pre-resurrection earthly Jesus is by and large mainstream consensus. One only has to read his letters. You are quite correct when you say that the obsessive interest in the pre-resurrected Jesus is only found after Paul.

      • Bob Jase
        2016-04-25 12:30:55 UTC - 12:30 | Permalink

        Perhaps because Paul, shadowy character that he is, knew there was no earthly Jesus?

        • David Ashton
          2016-04-25 21:36:46 UTC - 21:36 | Permalink

          By “shadowy” do you mean “dishonest”?

          • Lowen Gartner
            2016-04-25 23:13:48 UTC - 23:13 | Permalink

            Reminds of when someone says “Let me tell you the truth” you then know they often don’t. Paul spent way to much claiming what he said was true. If he knew it was, he wouldn’t have to claim it.

            • David Ashton
              2016-04-26 21:49:42 UTC - 21:49 | Permalink

              Depends on his readers and their skepticism.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2016-04-26 22:57:03 UTC - 22:57 | Permalink

                Scepticism is a very healthy trait. It should be the very foundation of all scholarship. Leave the hermeneutics of charity to the Bauckhams.

              • David Ashton
                2016-04-27 11:41:13 UTC - 11:41 | Permalink

                I meant the skepticism of Paul’s congregations, not ours today. “Jesus was seen by….”

              • Damon
                2016-04-27 14:39:59 UTC - 14:39 | Permalink

                The National Inquirer has probably reported dozens of occasions when people saw Elvis alive after his death. So there’s some cause for skepticism regarding eyewitnesses generally. Undoubtedly ancient reportage was even less reliable.

              • Bob Jase
                2016-04-27 18:58:43 UTC - 18:58 | Permalink

                Especially when the bible itself say that Jesus’ followers didn’t even recognise their returned-from-the-dead leader – seriously did he have plastic surgery & dye his hair or something.

      • HoosierPoli
        2016-05-03 07:44:47 UTC - 07:44 | Permalink

        I’m sure that’s true, but Bart Ehrman has more than two brain cells to rub together, so he cannot possibly fail to see that the scholarly consensus here is ludicrously implausible.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-05-03 19:51:14 UTC - 19:51 | Permalink

          Yes indeed, but human brain cells do not always operate according to strict intellectual logic. They are most capable of believing two contradictory things at once and failing to recognize that they are bunkered down in group-defensive mode no matter what the cost.

          • Pofarmer
            2016-05-04 04:00:07 UTC - 04:00 | Permalink

            The thing that gets me about Ehrman, is that he instructs his students to treat the Gospels as seperate stories, and then immediately goes and reads the Gospels back into the Epistles.

    • larry jeffery
      2016-04-26 01:48:54 UTC - 01:48 | Permalink

      Have you read Paul’s letters. Where does it say things about an historical Jesus. Paul was trained in Ephesus a major center of Dionysian learning. They believed in celestial and spiritual beings which is clearly what interests Paul. It would seem Paul did not believe Jesus was a physical person.

      • David Ashton
        2016-04-26 21:48:21 UTC - 21:48 | Permalink

        Paul’s letters refer to Jesus who was a physical person but is now a celestial being. The questions are why he referred to Jesus, his death and disciples at all, and indeed what were his motives in writing these letters to religious communities.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-04-26 22:56:10 UTC - 22:56 | Permalink

          Your statement is not a fact but a presumption about the meaning and nature of the evidence which are in fact highly problematic — at least they are to anyone who does not approach the evidence from the perspective of Christianity’s doctrinal assumptions. Paul never makes any references to disciples of Jesus.

          • David Ashton
            2016-04-27 14:03:28 UTC - 14:03 | Permalink

            Presumably the references to disciples in Galatians & I Corinthians are interpolations (designed to fool us all for centuries).

            • Damon
              2016-04-27 14:25:59 UTC - 14:25 | Permalink

              References to disciples of Jesus are in part references to earlier folks like Peter. Who earlier had confusedly assembled, conflated, many related stories about many heroic lords, into more or less, one master model. One archetypal Lord.

            • Greg G.
              2016-04-28 15:06:53 UTC - 15:06 | Permalink

              I don’t think the word for “disciples” is used anywhere in the epistles. Paul calls them “pillars” but expresses disdain for the position and says God agrees with him. I think Paul is also being sarcastic when he calls them “super-apostles” in 2 Corinthians as he saying they present themselves as such but that his knowledge is not inferior to theirs.

            • Neil Godfrey
              2016-05-02 01:43:29 UTC - 01:43 | Permalink

              There are no references to “disciples” in Galatians or 1 Corinthians. To suggest there are is to fallaciously read the later gospels back into Paul’s letters and thereby add meanings to Paul’s words that are not original to Paul.

              Paul knows nothing of Jesus having disciples. He only knows of apostles who knew Jesus as a spirit being through visions or hallucinations.

        • Damon
          2016-04-27 06:00:27 UTC - 06:00 | Permalink

          Possibly it was a simple mistake by Paul, with no particular motive. He had heard of gods who came to earth, and godlike heroes who had been killed, and perhaps resurrected. Even of a sage named Jesus bin Sirach. And he just, out of simple confusion and misunderstanding, got them all jumbled up together.

          No particular motive. No deliberate, conscious brilliantly integrative fabrication. Just simple ignorance, folk “concretion” or conflation, was enough to create Paul’s very sketchy “Jesus.”

          Simple confusion created Jesus. In Paul and any uneducated illiterate folk sources. Like say, Peter. The illiterate fisherman.

          Later gospel writers were more sly or more deliberate. Filling in the gaps with made-up or also eclectic sage dialogue

        • Bob Jase
          2016-04-27 16:15:21 UTC - 16:15 | Permalink

          Did paul refer to Jesus as a formerly living person or did his editors do that? Paul’s ‘letters’ have been shown to be scraps of writings edited together into letter form – they may have originally been letters but the versions that survive are not.

        • Damon
          2016-04-27 17:07:32 UTC - 17:07 | Permalink

          Years before Paul, many people like the Greeks had claimed there were now-invisible gods in heaven. Plato situated his Ideal Forms in Heaven too it seems. Other peoples spoke of invisible spirits, visions.

          So the notion of ideal but invisible figures in heaven was in the Mediterranean mix, long, long before Paul. And it was quite possible that Paul picked some of that up in his travels. Indeed, Paul’s Jesus seems very, very spiritual, as per Dougherty. And not very earthly. Paul only sees him in a “vision,” for instance. Indeed, Paul rather puts down the earthly, and “flesh”ly.

          If there are any apparently earthly elements at all in Paul’s Jesus? If there were, then 1) perhaps they were later interpolated into his writings, by folks who wanted more concrete-seeming heroes, and who did not relate to Platonistic abstractions. Likely 2) any “realistic” “historic” or material-seeming elements of Paul’s Jesus were probably borrowed from many various semi-historical heroes. Like a) Jesus bin Sirach; b) the dying and rising sons of God in 2 Maccabees 6-7; the c) dying sons of the Lord Herod and Mary; etc..

          Myths are often quite eclectic. Often they incorporate many different figures into one. Paul’s Jesus seems mainly borrowed from Platonistic, Marcionist ideas. But with a few realistic elements added in, from earlier semi-historical Jewish and other heroes. Including some named “Jesus” or “Joshua.”

          • David Ashton
            2016-04-28 10:00:56 UTC - 10:00 | Permalink

            Of course, one can propose a variety of speculative alternatives, each possible and often contradictory to others, to the simplest non-miraculous explanations of the evidence. Teachers can eventually become divinities, e.g. Confucius, though the process was rapid in the NT case.

            I still think some immediate followers of an executed Jesus had visions and Paul “followed suit” in due course. Flesh was added to the skeleton of fact as time went on. The “dying and rising gods” mythologies formed a conveniently persuasive context for the new missionary religion which had its origins amid the Judaisms of pre-70 Palestine. Daniel 9.24-27 was influential in shaping the NT narratives and “chronology”.

            • Damon
              2016-04-28 13:13:14 UTC - 13:13 | Permalink

              That sounds OK. Though I’m seeing the origins of Chistianity, of “Jesus,” beginning long before Jesus. So there as actually plenty of time for mythic ideas to develop around any historical cores.

              Greeks brought themselves, and their myths like Dionysus, to Judah in 332 BC. Then Jesus bin Sirach presents a Jewish sage named Jesus, c. 120 BC.?

              There was plenty of time for this kind of root, to be bent into dozens of variants, by the time the apostles began narrating and updating stories of “Jesus,” around 5-30 AD. Plenty more time for editors to edit it all too, c. 55-110 AD. Without any nearby witnesses to contradict them. Especially not after 70 AD.

              No historical Jesus in 25 AD therefore, was required. Nor would local witnesses for or against such an entity be very effective. Since the events were already long past. Particularly, even more recent memory would be effectively wiped out when Jerusalem was burned in 70 AD.

              That’s my current scenario. Later writers made up incorrect dates, and got the extended time frame wrong. Collapsing it into a mere 35 years or so.

    • Greg G.
      2016-04-28 14:57:06 UTC - 14:57 | Permalink

      Paul refers to Jesus as “Jesus”, “Christ”, “Jesus Christ”, or “Christ Jesus” about 300 times in about 1500 verses in his authentic letters, mostly in adoration, but the few times he makes any mention of an earthly Jesus, it seems to be a quotation or an allusion to the Jewish scriptures so the “according to the scriptures” is not so much “in accordance with the scriptures”. The Greek word for “appeared to” is the same word for everyone mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, including himself, so he doesn’t seem to think the other apostles “appeared to” is any different than his own.

      In Galatians, he identifies James, John, and Cephas as “pillars” and expresses some disdain for them. I would think that they would be included as the “super-apostles” in 2 Corinthians 11:4-6 and 12:11 where he says his knowledge is not inferior to theirs. That would be a tough claim to make if he thought they had known Jesus as a first century person.

      • Damon
        2016-04-28 18:26:49 UTC - 18:26 | Permalink

        For that and other reasons, I might move the first apostles, if the word is broadly understood, to as early as 167 BC.

      • David Ashton
        2016-04-28 18:43:35 UTC - 18:43 | Permalink

        Agreed: similar “visions” (NOT a resuscitated body, a la Josephus). Matthew 28.17 = “500” ?- cf. Fatima & Lourdes. We do not know how the original Mark ended. Matthew and Luke get the time and place differently. Matthew has other resurrections and an angel paralyzing the guards, while Luke has an ancient version of the “ghostly-hitchhiker” urban myth. Jesus is not recognized at first and his appearances seem associated with a meal (psychoactive?). John transcends the synoptic themes with theological drama (just conceivably acted out in real life). The NT sequence of events show successive editorial embellishment, the reverse of a god-to-man process.

        • Damon
          2016-04-29 02:49:37 UTC - 02:49 | Permalink

          I see the story of Jesus forming out of a mix of spiritual and many semihistorical figures. Beginning as early as 332-167 BC.

          The apostles of this growing legend were confused and unreliable folks. For that matter, the Bible itself said they were unreliable. James admitted “we all make many mistakes”. Paul called himself” the worst of sinners,” while calling Cephas or Peter an insincere hypocrite. Peter turned on Jesus, and Jesus called Peter “Satan”, in Mat. 16.

          So the apostles – and therefore, the earliest reports of Jesus – are unreliable. Leaving open the possibility that there was no single historical Jesus at all. Just dozens of conflicting rumors, based on a mix of dozens of spiritual and dozens of only half-historical heroes. Later this unholy mixture was wrestled, edited, expanded, into one narrative figure. By later scribal, clerical advocates. Around 55 to 100 AD. Who wrote in the name of, or from unreliable accounts by, earlier apostles. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter.

          • David Ashton
            2016-04-29 10:01:03 UTC - 10:01 | Permalink

            Close textual analysis of the earliest Christian literature does not entirely support your generalizations.

            • Damon
              2016-04-29 14:56:59 UTC - 14:56 | Permalink

              Yes, my theory is quite unconventional. But I’ve justified it at length elsewhere.

              For example, how does Plate get into the picture?Later material on Pilate was added in the later stage. As this longstanding tradition of heroic martyrs encountered one last opponent.

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2016-04-25 16:37:58 UTC - 16:37 | Permalink

    It’s discouraging to see so much of this debate centering on Carrier’s use of Bayes’ Theorem.

    I fail to see the value-add of applying a statistical tool, useful for estimating the probability of an event based on multiple past events, to a one-off event (the existence of an ‘historical Jesus’, however one may define that.)

    I get how one could place a bet on a racehorse, by taking its actual record, then adjusting the odds according to track conditions, the jockey’s record, etc. Those data exist. Where is the Jockey Club database equivalent for ‘historical accounts of historical messiahs?’

    Even if one could avoid the GIGO pitfall of Bayes, and pull accurate ‘priors’ out of … the air, of what use is assigning a .41307 or whatever probability, instead of simply stating: the evidence is persuasive/compelling/overwhelming?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-04-25 20:00:37 UTC - 20:00 | Permalink

      Numbers clarify what words like “overwhelming” mean. Assigning .4 is just another way of saying the chances are about even or close to 50-50. In a recent post I cited a case of what happens in the real world when we rely on vague terminology or words that mean very different things to different people: http://vridar.org/2016/04/15/what-does-probably-mean-to-historians-and-forecasters/

      Too often “possibly” or “plausibly” become a certainty in the course of an argument. That would be a lot less likely to happen if the writer explained what he meant by those words in the first place.

      Bayesian thinking is done all the time as we begin by assessing the likelihood a thesis might be true and then seek to update our belief in the light of each new piece of evidence we encounter. That’s all Bayesian reasoning is — the numbers help keep us honest.

      Does “overwhelming” mean we are 99% certain or, say, 80% or 60%? If 80%, then we are obliged to equally recognize that there is a 20% chance we are wrong — and it is only right to keep an open mind, holding our view to be tentative at best. Our confidence then does not become dogmatism. That’s a good thing, yes?

      • Matt Cavanaugh
        2016-04-28 01:24:49 UTC - 01:24 | Permalink

        Thanks for your response. I had previously read your linked post, and Ehrman’s ‘certainty-creep’ is indeed annoying. Yet in the scientific realm, labels such as ‘persuasive’, ‘compelling’, and ‘overwhelming’ are used all the time with no trouble. One needn’t assign a P=.97512 to Evolution to assert that it is certainly true.

        Though I am not unfamiliar with Bayes’ Theorem, am still confused as to: 1) how it can be applied to a singular event; 2) how setting ‘priors’ in such an instance can be anything other than M.S.U. So far, I have seen nothing in Carrier’s arguments showing that the probabilities he assigns are based on anything other than a feeling.

        Given that Carrier plugs in his assumptions to arrive at his a priori conclusion, while Unwin & Swinburne plug in theirs to arrive at theirs, it seems that the problem is with not the formula itself, rather the unsuitability of the formula for this sort of query.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-05-02 01:41:46 UTC - 01:41 | Permalink

          So far, I have seen nothing in Carrier’s arguments showing that the probabilities he assigns are based on anything other than a feeling.

          I don’t understand how anyone who has read Carrier can say this. Can you give an example of where his probability is based on nothing more than a feeling?

  • larry jeffery
    2016-04-26 01:30:44 UTC - 01:30 | Permalink

    I find the use of the tool over done. The evidence of the Jesus of the New Testament is so thin that arguing the point with believers is over long before Bayesian tools are offered up.

    If 60 per cent of Americans believe in Angels and a majority accept some version of creationism then scientific or scholarly tools are useless. Good alternative stories work.

  • 2016-07-25 16:12:50 UTC - 16:12 | Permalink

    The authors of the Gospels (whoever they were) used two “sources” for their information: the Scriptures and The Heavens. Origen even noted that the topography of Galilee in the synoptic gospels was wrong but he maintained that the reason for this was because the authors were using a “celestial topography” rather than an earthly topography and so had to be “mystically interpreted”.

    When reading the Gospels “correctly” it may be noted that the career of Jesus follows the same “career” as the Sun going through the circuit of the Zodiac. Interestingly, the name Galilee means “circuit”.

    So the “witnesses” did “witness” the “career” of Jesus but they did so “in heaven” and in “the Scriptures”, not on earth (which is why there is no earthly record of Jesus outside the Gospels).

    • Lowen Gartner
      2016-07-25 20:47:57 UTC - 20:47 | Permalink

      “Jesus follows the same “career” as the Sun going through the circuit of the Zodiac. Interestingly, the name Galilee means “circuit”.”

      Jim, I would be interested in a brief/bullet point source/description of this that doesn’t involve buying books. For example: Capricorn – Jesus did something, Pisces, Jesus turned water into wine, etc. Is there such a source? Cool idea.

      • 2016-07-26 14:35:39 UTC - 14:35 | Permalink

        You don’t have to buy any books. Just Goggle “Jesus story” and astrotheology or solar religion and you’ll find lots and lots of information, both for and against the theory. As they saying goes, “if it quakes like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”

        • Lowen Gartner
          2016-07-26 16:21:51 UTC - 16:21 | Permalink

          I am familiar with the subject and have read books. I thought since you brought it up that you might have a convenient condensed source for your assertion that Jesus’s life was a journey through the astrological signs.

          • 2016-07-26 17:22:46 UTC - 17:22 | Permalink

            The information you’re looking for is out there, Lowen. Just structure your search accordingly.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *