Schweitzer in context

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by Neil Godfrey

My response to Cornelis Hoogerwerf’s post on Γεγραμμένα, Misquoting Albert Schweitzer, has raised the question of the intended meaning of Schweitzer’s words in relation to historical probability, common sense, and more. Cornelis has said my own explanation of S’s words is wrong; I attempted to explain why I disagreed. But rather than leave the discussion hanging with as a “you are wrong; no I am not wrong” exchange I copy a fairly large section of the relevant section from the Fortress Press edition of Schweitzer’s Quest so that readers can hopefully have a more secure handle on the evidence in order to make up their own minds about the meaning and significance of S’s words.

Before I do let me comment on a new post by Bart Ehrman in which he explains that “some” biblical scholars are also “historians”. The gist of his explanation appears to me to be that if a scholar chooses to study and write about “history” then s/he can be called a historian. Of course that makes perfect sense. But is such a scholar any better at “doing history” than an amateur historian without training or background knowledge in the philosophy and methods of historical research and history writing? I have found that some of the best history writing about “biblical times” has come from those pejoratively labelled “minimalists”. It is their work, and in particular their explanations of their methods, that resonates with the best historical research I read among those writing in other (non-biblical) areas. Most significantly, (a) they do not begin with the assumption that a text’s provenance can be understood entirely from its own self-testimony; (b) they understand the importance of independent confirmation of its contents in order to establish its degree of reliability; and (c) they “take seriously” the question of genre and wider literary matrix of the text prior to deciding how to interpret it, and do not assume that its content is essentially a window through which readers can look to see “true history” in the shadow of its narrative. These may sound like simple basics but they are very often overlooked by many biblical scholars who aspire to write “history” from the Gospels. Unfortunately Bart Ehrman fails on all three of those points. Among some of the best historians working with the “Old Testament” texts are, in my view, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson and Russell Gmirkin. There are a few names I would consider genuine historians among later biblical-related history, Steve Mason being one.

It is in that context that I read with interest Schweitzer’s words. Even though Schweitzer was not a mythicist and argued extensively against the Christ Myth theory, he did acknowledge the theoretical importance of the above historical principles, especially point (b).

To return to Cornelis’s post, I do see that he has since acknowledged his debt to Bart Ehrman for the views and complaint he expressed in the first part of his post. Given his failure to cite a single “mythicist” who has misquoted Schweitzer in an attempt to mislead readers into thinking S himself presented an argument against the historicity of Jesus, I conclude that no-one has done so and that efforts from certain quarters to mislead readers and repeat baseless rumours related to my own quotations of S are entirely mischievous.

In our recent discussion on my post Albert Schweitzer on the Christ Myth Debate other differences arose. Cornelis believes that scholarship since Schweitzer’s day has indeed raised the level of probability that Jesus was historical to as close to 1.0 as one might wish. Again, his reasons unfortunately indicate a poor grasp of how historical methods and epistemology is understood outside the field of biblical studies.

Schweitzer, pages 400-402

I have highlighted some sections and inserted Cornelis’s translation of a critical passage.

p. 400

Thus the result was a narrow and impoverished form of religion. All statements had to be based on history and the ‘experience’ that it suggested. Direct thinking about being and living, the finite and the infinite, God and the First Cause, man and mankind, the world and its destiny, were eliminated. A religion had been discovered which its adherents alleged could dispense with the need and the power to search for the final synthesis of all understanding and desire. But in fact it is only by working towards this synthesis that it is possible to arrive at an elementary metaphysic and a religious orientation such as each generation and each individual must create anew.

It was the self-sufficiency of this attitude which theology considered to be its strength and greatness. It did not notice that it had lost all links with the wider thought of its time and that for all its noble and pure desires it no longer understood and was no longer understood by those with whom it wished to have some influence.

Those who entered theology at the beginning of the 1890s, which was the time when this new direction was being determined, and who preserved a sober judgment, had the uneasy sensation that the instruction of future clergy mainly consisted of critical and historical scholasticism, so that although they were well schooled in historical research and judgment, the idea that history was everything caused a distortion of their religious thinking.

On all sides there was evidence of a new philosophy which, although it often revealed a lack of depth, was linked intrinsically with the classical German philosophy, venturing to invigorate it with the knowledge and thinking gained from natural sciences and giving a strong emphasis to metaphysical and religious needs. But theology sought no contact with it, continuing on its own way and choosing merely to settle with the Kantian scholasticism to which the majority of the official representatives of philosophy had retreated. So it avoided having the religion it had distilled from history disrupted by discussion with materialistic and speculative ideas. But at what a price!

Its main activity consisted in popularizing its ‘reliable’ and ‘assured’ historical conclusions together with the reflections that these involved. It was hoped thus to regenerate the masses. But the result was merely a protectorate which became more and more oppressive as time went on.

As for the basic problem of religious thinking, on these it maintained a firm silence, and did not seem to notice that it was precisely these points which most needed clearing up. Thus with its unmetaphysical religion it gave stones to the hungry in place of bread. Finally, in the latter stages of popularization, even the real study of religion was unable to produce much of real worth. How little the last twenty years have given us in the way of really important historic research into the origins of Christianity!

The evidence put forward by Wrede and thoroughgoing eschatology to

p. 401

show that these historical conclusions were not correct at first aroused indignation. It was not easy to abandon a view of history which could be translated so comfortably into religion, nor to admit the philosophical objections to a purely historical religion. But gradually, while conventional theology happily continued its popularization of history, it came to be realized in certain quarters that the big problem of the relationship between religion and history must indeed finally be tackled seriously, and that some agreement must be reached in the philosophy or religion about the relation of the historical Jesus to modern Christianity.

Before this line of thinking could produce any far-reaching results, Drews’ work appeared, and theology was compelled to enter the controversy over the historicity of Jesus.

Apart from J. Weiss and C. Clemen, the theologians who undertook to refute Drews belonged chiefly to the group which was so confidently popularizing. They concentrated chiefly on a historical refutation, attracted by the weaknesses evident in his historical hypothesis. They refrained from raising the problem of the philosophy of religion, not only because it lay beyond their range of vision but also because it would have brought the untenable aspects of their own position to light. What could they say about the hypothetical possibility of a total renunciation of the historical Jesus when a generation of modern dogmatists had attempted to enforce the fiction that all the doctrines of modem Christianity went back to him and were upheld by him! So they kept within the limits of a historical refutation.

However, the effect would have been far greater and more impressive if at the same time theology could have demonstrated that should its own views on the personality of Jesus prove untenable, much indeed but not everything would be lost, and free-thinking Christianity would then continue on the basis of the spiritual insight and energies of immediate religion which is independent of any historical foundation. But this was an argument it could not present, for it had prepared the ground too thoroughly for a historical foundation to its religion, and had paid too little attention to spiritual needs. As things lay then, it would have lost everything by giving up the historical Jesus.

Thus there is a false note in all this confident work of refutation. That theology should have to defend to the death its assertion that Jesus is historical because its religion depends on it is depressing.

In any case, neither the positive nor the negative can be demonstrated conclusively if we are to meet the requirements of strict scholarship. Every historical assertion depending upon evidence from the past which is no longer directly verifiable must ultimately remain a hypothesis. To assert that the historicity or unhistoricity of Jesus has been proved is a way of speaking which, though common enough in everyday conversation, in the sphere of strict scientific

p. 402

thought means no more than that according to the available evidence the one is very probable whereas the other is not.

More than once in the writings directed against Drews it is stated that even what is self-evident can nevertheless be made clear only if the will is there to be swayed by the evidence available. The writers call on ‘sound judgment’, a ‘sense of reality’, or even on the ‘aesthetic feeling’ of the man whose views they are opposing, that is, if they do not console themselves with the idea that nothing can be revealed to him who will not see. In reality, however, these writers are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability.[“Thus even an increase to the highest degree of probability is not possible.” — Cornelis Hoogerwerf] 9

So nothing is achieved by calling on sound judgment or on whatever else one likes to ask for in an opponent. Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. A theology which does not take account of the problem of the philosophy of religion exposes itself to the most incalculable contingencies and cannot claim that its method is scientific. It resembles an army which marches without cover and which can therefore be ambushed by even the smallest enemy forces.

Thus the problem which faces the philosophy of religion is far more important then any historical proof or refutation. Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past, and which can be recreated afresh at every moment and in every religious subject. If it does not possess this direct and inalienable quality, then it is a slave to history and must live in a spirit of bondage, perpetually vulnerable and perpetually threatened.10

. . . . .

Endnote 9 directs readers to the remarks about evidence for Jesus in secular history on pages 358-62.

p. 358

The Quest of the Historical Jesus

them with new meaning and a deeper sense by eliminating the peculiarities of each particular tradition and finally trying to discover in all of them one and the same idea of redemption.

This new knowledge of the past led scholars to believe that those who had hitherto been studying religion had been working with too narrow a concept of Gnosticism by using it to summarize the aspirations and attempts of the church fathers of the second century of Christianity and their followers. New research seemed to justify interpreting the entire development of oriental religions, myths and cults as Gnostic, and to view the reconciliation of ideas of very different origins and the progress from exoteric to esoteric as typical of the evolution of religious ideas.

It is easy to see how historical research, which had been tracing the rise of Christianity with no adequate consideration of the ancient oriental religions, was bound to come into disrepute as a narrow-minded and backward discipline. All emphasis was laid on the history-of-religions method as the key to solve all problems. The creation stories of the Old Testament and late-Jewish and Christian eschatology were studied for their relation to mythical ideas, and the yield was high. Even the earliest christology linked to the figure of Jesus was considered to reveal or at least imply the most varied connections with the redeemer figures of mythology.

The theology which developed along these lines revelled in discovery. Paul came to appear more and more as the product of Graeco-Oriental Gnosticism. The history of Christian sacraments seemed to be illuminated by extensive analogies both ancient and modern to sacramental eating and drinking ceremonies and to washing ceremonies of the cults. It was felt that that the form taken by the forces which had influenced the shaping of early Christianity could be determined and measured quite clearly by the religions generally.6

These new impulses brought the history-of-religions trend in academic theology to the point where to some extent it assumed that Christianity had a double origin. It took the first origin to be the appearance of the historical Jesus; it found the other in the Gnostic and syncretistic ideas with which the disciples and Paul raised that figure to the level of the dead and risen saviour, creating a mystery religion which in the course of time was to surpass all others. The idea of early Christianity as first and foremost a movement within Judaism became more and more neglected. In the face of this situation, the Synoptic writers’ report of what Jesus did and taught become less and less significant. The Jesus of the Gospels evidently had nothing to contribute to an explanation of the rise of early Christianity: the latter, represented by Paul, was almost exclusively concerned with expounding the death and resurrection of the divine Saviour, and seemed to have no use for such facts as were known about the Galilean master’s public ministry and his teaching.

The more the Jewish-eschatological limitations within which Jesus appeared

p. 359

and early Christianity arose were left unconsidered, the more the natural association between the two was weakened. In the end, the reports of the Synoptic writers came to be seen merely as a kind of prologue to the rise of Christianity, which was declared to owe its origin to general principles and the evolution of thought. And because these reports were difficult to accommodate within the wider framework laid down by the history of religion, they were bound by a certain necessity to become historically suspect.

Thus the ground was prepared for doubt. Added to this, attestation of the existence of Jesus in secular history was by no means abundant, and what there was of it seemed fairly easy to question.

In the Antiquities of Josephus, as handed down to us by Christian copyists, Jesus is mentioned twice. The first instance, Antt. 18, 3, 3, can be translated as follows:

About this time arose Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it be lawful to call him a man. For he was a doer of wonderful deeds and a teacher of men who gladly accept the truth. He drew to himself many both of the Jews and of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, on the indictment of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not cease to do so, for he appeared to them again alive on the third day, the divine prophets having foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things about him. And even to this day the race of Christians, who are named from him, has not died out.

This note is either inauthentic or so extravagantly interpolated that it can no longer be presented as credible evidence.7

The other mention of Jesus does not raise such grave doubts. Josephus reports in Antt. 20, 9, 1 that the high priest took the brother of Jesus, ‘the so-called Christ’, James by name, together with some others, and accused them of violating the law, condemning them to be stoned. Whether this passage is genuine cannot be determined with certainty. In any case, Josephus is ruled out as a reliable secular witness to Jesus.

Tacitus reports in the Annals (XV, 44), written in the time of Trajan in about AD 110-120, that Nero, in order to still the rumour that he had set Rome on fire, ‘fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin,’ he continues, ‘suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.’8 This testimony can hardly be questioned. What is said of the Christians here does not suggest that it was the result of Christian interpolation.

p. 360

Suetonius, writing in Hadrian’s time, mentions in his Life of Claudius (ch.2.5) that disturbances broke out among the Jews at that time and attributes them to a certain ‘Chrestus’.9 He probably means Christus. The details are not clear. It almost seems as if Suetonius, who can be accused elsewhere of not checking his information as thoroughly as he might, held the view that the man he named had himself been present in Rome and had participated in the disturbances.

Whether these mentions of Christus or Chrestus by Tacitus and Suetonius are authentic or inauthentic is of no great interest. Even if they do belong to the original texts – which could well be so – they can hardly be considered reliable evidence that the Lord was a historical figure. Neither of these Roman historians indicate that they have original and direct information about Jesus. They report what the Christian communities of their time were handing down. At best, therefore, they attest that at the beginning of the second century the church believed in Jesus’ existence and his death by crucifixion.

Why there is so little secular evidence of Jesus’ existence can be explained in various ways. That the original Josephus text probably did not name Jesus could perhaps indicate that the Jewish writer held him in veneration; if he had hated him and the movement which resulted from him he is likely to have intimated as much to his Roman readers, choosing his words so that Judaism itself would not be compromised. It is also conceivable that he did not mention the Galilean teacher and what became of him because he wished to say as little as possible about the messianic expectations of the people.

As for the silence of the Roman and Greek writers, it can be asserted that as only part of their literature has survived, it is feasible that there was further mention of Jesus in lost writings. But it can also quite fairly be pointed out that the condemnation and crucifixion of a Galilean who had no political importance either before or after his death was an event of no great interest to those studying secular history, even if they did hear of it. And even though his execution gained a certain significance over the course of time because of the religious movement which it brought about, the Roman historian had no reason to make any special research into his early history, trial and sentence. Besides, even if they had wished to do so, they were hardly in a position to undertake such a study, for there were no documents available and no eyewitnesses to question. Thus they were fulfilling their duty quite conscientiously when, like Tacitus, they simply reported the information which came to them from the Christian community.

It would be possible to make a more or less objective evaluation of the little evidence there is in secular history of Jesus’ ministry and fate by studying generally the extent to which historiographers, in both ancient and modern times, mention the appearance of unpolitical religious figures. Italy has two outstanding messiahs of the nineteenth century, Oreste de Amicis (182.4-89), the ‘Christ of the Abruzzi’, and David Lazzaretti (1834-78), whom the carabinieri shot on the highway as he led a procession.10 To take these two typical cases,

p. 361

what reports of their actions and their fate have come down to us through contemporary historical writing? What would we know about them if these reports were all we had, and we were forced to take no account of the direct and indirect information transmitted to us by their followers? This does not even allow for the fact that these Messiahs were active for years and had time to bring themselves to the notice of all sorts of people, even those indifferent to them, whereas Jesus’ public life lasted only a few months.11

Once attention had come to be focussed on the fact that we possess no evidence for Jesus which is definitely independent of the Christian tradition, the thought must automatically have arisen that there was a formal possibility that the narrative about him might be eliminated from general history. Anyone who felt so disposed might play the game. Those who wished to take it further might also elaborate on the consequences and difficulties which would arise. And if someone could go so far as to forget that Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius no more prove that Jesus was unhistorical than that he was historical, then he could feel justified in leading this course of operation.

A further attraction in denying the existence of Jesus was that it was not possible to gain a clear picture of his public ministry merely from the information provided by the two earliest Synoptic writers. Of his teaching, too, much had remained obscure. The question whether there were real facts taken from the course of a man’s life was therefore to some degree justifiable; attempts to make a fresh interpretation of the reported facts should not be rejected out of hand.

Finally, however, these theoretical possibilities would not have sufficed in themselves to attract some scholars to revive the old method with the aid of the new knowledge of mythology if interests of a practical nature had not existed as well. They risked the attempt because, as they understood it, religion and philosophy of religion were peremptorily demanding an end to the veneration of the historical Jesus as practised in more liberal Protestantism.

Even with Hegel the relationship between the theoretical interpretation of religion and the historical appearance of Jesus as a religious authority is such that the latter is either superfluous or an irritant. However, the problem is concealed by the fact that Hegel did not gain his idea of Jesus empirically but created and moulded it in conformity with his own view of things.

But, as historical research became independent, it was natural that religion on the one hand and the person and teaching of Jesus on the other should fall further and further apart. It was perceived that religion evolved by its own inner laws, and that the authoritative figures which might arise within it from time to time could not anticipate later developments. So it had to be concluded that those who identify the worship of a Jesus whom they consider to have historical significance with their religion are flying in the face of progress. They are disregarding the importance of the higher redeemer religion which is proclaimed in

p. 362

the ancient myths and which is latent in the fundamental thinking of any time as the ultimate knowledge. They believe that religion can be derived historically from some doctrine, and fail to see that it is timeless and is perpetually renewed and deepened by that yearning and acknowledgment which men address to the infinite universe.

The problem here is the difference between absolute and historical religion, which Schleiermacher had recognized but immediately obscured again, and which the practically-minded modern liberal theologies, having lost all living contact with philosophy and thought in the last decades of the nineteenth century, either wilfully avoided or chose to enwrap in empty phrases.

Their attitude, too, towards the eschatological view in the teaching and ministry of Jesus was basically determined by the desire to avoid this wider problem, though this was not admitted in the debate. They would not accept the most self-evident statements for fear of having to acknowledge a strange Jesus, a Jesus who moreover could no longer be presented, as in the past, as the authority behind modern Christianity and the absolute religion which was more or less identified with it.

But in the long run this game of hide-and-seek and the policy of shrewd scrupulousness which was practised in the philosophy of religion could not work. Those who wished to sever modern Christianity from the figure of Jesus could choose one of two alternatives: they could either try to prove that from an objective viewpoint the historical personality of Jesus was by no means the moral and religious ideal he had been made out to be in the history of theology; or else they resolved to deny his historical existence.

. . . . .


  • RenéT
    2017-01-15 01:19:20 UTC - 01:19 | Permalink

    Sorry for the perhaps trivial comment, but his name is Cornelis, not Cornelius.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-01-15 01:34:56 UTC - 01:34 | Permalink

      Not trivial. Thank you for the correction. (I suppose we’re sort of even since he misspelled my name, too :-/ )

  • R Pence
    2017-01-15 17:09:39 UTC - 17:09 | Permalink

    I get the feeling this disagreement is something of a tempest in a teapot. First on a basic point and something I’ve long wondered about, isn’t ‘The Quest of the Historical Jesus’ dodgy English? A mistranslation of a German genitive? After all, in English we have the ‘Quest for the Holy Grail’. The ‘quest of the historical Jesus’ to my mind leads directly to the question ‘for what?’ Maybe the Quest of the Historical Jesus for the Holy Grail…. The quest ‘of’ the historical Jesus ought to be *for* something.

    That aside, I’d like to see specific examples where so-called mythicists take Schweitzer’s quote to mean he didn’t believe there was a historical Jesus. Because as I understand it, Schweitzer’s famous book was meant to show there was a historical Jesus who was an apoplectic, er, I mean apocalyptic preacher, etc. Is anyone really saying Schweitzer was a mythicist? I doubt it.

    If not, then there is probably no dispute unless someone is being disingenuous. Here I mean Cornelis Hoogerwerf, linked above, who accuses mythicists, if I understand him right, of ‘quote mining’.

    What puzzles me is that Hoogerwerf’s post starts off with the assertion that mythicists were misinterpreting/misusing Schweitzer, but then goes on to give a series of running quotes of Schweitzer. How does this prove anything about what mythicists are saying? It’s as if I were to start a blog post saying ‘Neil Godfrey doesn’t think the sky is blue’, and then give a series of scientific explanations for why the sky is blue. The one doesn’t follow the other.

    I suspect what’s happening is that in the case of the first quote Hoogerwerf mentions, mythicists have taken this quote and presented it as Schweitzer letting the cat out of the bag, inadvertently letting slip a fact which he himself interprets another way – namely, that there’s no real evidence for a historical Jesus. Because Schweitzer still has such a central, universally respected place in the field, if he himself makes a passing observation that seems to be the crux of the whole debate – whether any of these latter-day secular visions of a historical Jesus have any basis in evidence – then mythicists would be sure to jump on it.

    If this, indeed, is all Hoogenwerf is referring to, then it’s disingenuous in the extreme – and here it’s no surprise that he models his arguments and presentation after Ehrman – to say that someone is ‘misquoting’ Schweitzer. If Schweitzer is in any way pointing out a fundamentally tenuous relation between the historical evidence and fanciful reconstructions of Jesus’ life, then someone else referring to Schweitzer doing so is not mis-quoting unless someone factually (and incorrectly) asserts ‘Schweitzer didn’t believe in a historical Jesus’.

    Hoogenwerf’s post thus seems to conflate two points. First, Hoogenwerf seems to assert that Schweitzer was only talking about 19th century liberal scholarship when he was talking about historical Jesus constructs. But as I mentioned, to the extent that Schweitzer’s observation(s) have any general bearing on the relation between the extant evidence and historical Jesuses, Schweitzer is fair game. Second, Hoogenwerf brings in Schweitzer’s own views on whether there was a historical Jesus. I don’t see the need in this unless somebody out there is really asserting Schweitzer was a mythicist. In presenting these two points as if they were somehow one – by conflating them – Hoogenwerf tries to say that BECAUSE Schweitzer was a historicist, you are only permitted to use Schweitzer’s observations IF you are a historicist. As if by drawing out implications from what Schweitzer says, by building on it, you are somehow ‘misquoting’ or misinterpreting him. This is nonsense.

    I think this is Scholarship 101, and again, it’s no surprise Hoogenwerf seems to mimic Ehrman.

    • A Buddhist
      2017-01-15 18:26:33 UTC - 18:26 | Permalink

      By the logic that you attribute to Hoogenwerf, only Christians should be allowed to interpret the Gospels. But this is a nonsensical interpretation. I hope that you are wrong in your interpretation of Hoogenwerf.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-01-16 06:42:27 UTC - 06:42 | Permalink

      Indeed. C. Hoogenwerf has provided no reasons for anyone to believe he has actually read any serious mythicist work for himself, and certainly no evidence that any mythicist has ever tried to suggest Schweitzer was a mythicist. Yet we have Ehrman, West, Hoogerwerf and Lendering all involved in spreading the claim that mythicists do indeed misquote and misrepresent Schweitzer to make him their ally. I don’t think anything is lost by attempting to jump in and call them to account from the get-go.

      As you observe, once one of these gentleman does choose to respond to the charge that they are spreading “fake news” they nonetheless find a need to defend themselves and find fault anyway — the goalposts need to be shifted and some other detail needs to be said to be a false use of Schweitzer. (Ehrman and West have had opportunities to respond to calls to come up with evidence for their accusation but chosen to remain silent.)

      So what has happened with Hoogenwerf is an adversarial stance from the start. No evidence; simply repeating a groundless accusation. Found out that it’s groundless? Well then, everything else that was said was false, anyway. Mythicists are assumed to be dumb and dishonest and that’s the premise. Notice C.H.’s tone and points made in defence of historicity — he clearly has no idea what he is up against from the mythicist side. He has no inkling that serious mythicists often know the applicable fields of biblical studies as well as many others with advanced degrees.

    • Matt Cavanaugh
      2017-01-17 17:50:21 UTC - 17:50 | Permalink

      … isn’t ‘The Quest of the Historical Jesus’ dodgy English? A mistranslation of a German genitive? After all, in English we have the ‘Quest for the Holy Grail’. The ‘quest of the historical Jesus’ to my mind leads directly to the question ‘for what?’ Maybe the Quest of the Historical Jesus for the Holy Grail…. The quest ‘of’ the historical Jesus ought to be *for* something.

      The “of” seems to have been superseded in recent times by “for”. In any case, an needlessly loose and loaded translation of Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung. (History of the Life-of-Jesus Research’)

  • Giuseppe
    2017-01-15 18:26:30 UTC - 18:26 | Permalink


    …and David Lazzaretti (1834-78), whom the carabinieri shot on the highway as he led a procession

    Only recently I have known about this kind of Italian ‘Joseph Smith’.
    He seems more someone like Paul (when he claimed identity with Christ himself in a cryptic and implicit way) than like any portrait of the ”historical” Jesus to my knowledge.
    But his death – a bullet on his forehead during a procession, reported in the newspapers of the time – was seen as something of ”divinely written” in his destiny as he was already considered a special person by his disciples for other reasons (charisma, spirit possession, etc.).

    The Jesus of the early Christians, instead, seems to be considered special only in virtue of the his obedience ”to the point of death—even death on a cross”. For anything else.

    Only the suffering on the cross defines the ”DNA” of Jesus, in Paul. More than a man, a spirit or an animal could do the same thing so mechanically.

    • A Buddhist
      2017-01-15 18:28:53 UTC - 18:28 | Permalink

      In fairness, Jesus is presented as a teacher, even in Paul – Paul claims to have received teachings from Jesus.

      • Giuseppe
        2017-01-15 19:37:01 UTC - 19:37 | Permalink

        Yes, but the risen Christ is a teacher in Paul. I allude to what defines Jesus ALIVE. Only the suffering.

        • A Buddhist
          2017-01-15 19:47:33 UTC - 19:47 | Permalink

          There are other traits attributed to Jesus as alive – born of a woman, of the seed of David, etc.

          • Giuseppe
            2017-01-15 20:22:33 UTC - 20:22 | Permalink

            These traits are introduced in an allegorical context (the “law” being a particular “woman” named shortly after in Gal 4). And Jesus having a body is part of the his “emptying” himself finalized uniquely to his death.

            • Greg Pandatshang
              2017-01-15 23:58:45 UTC - 23:58 | Permalink

              It’s almost impossible to interpret Galatians 4:4 except as something funny going on, because if you take it at face value it simply says “this guy was born and had a mother” … you don’t say! There must be some reason why it’s worth mentioning.

              The kata sarka seed of David thing is more interesting to me. But I think it does make sense given the history of the idea of the Messiah: from that perspective, it’s not really that strange. Originally, the Messiah redeemer figure was conceived as a human being. By the time of Paul, according to a mythicist theory, the idea had developed of a Messiah as a purely magical being, but the figure they had in mind retained vestigial human traits, such as that it is somehow a descendant of David. Note the passage from Philo (quoting Zechariah) that Richard Carrier brought to light “‘Behold, a man whose name is the East!’ A very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul; but if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of the east has been given to him with great felicity. For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father …” Here, Philo has taken the character of the man called East/Rising (or Branch/Sprout) from Zechariah, who seems to be a human being when Zechariah describes him, and says that he is really an eternal, magical being.

              The idea that an eternal, heavenly, firstborn son of God could somehow also be a descendant of David, despite having existed before David, might strike us as mindbending and bizarre to us … except that is, of course, exactly what is taught by all Christian doctrine today.

              • 2017-01-18 23:39:02 UTC - 23:39 | Permalink

                Originally, the Messiah redeemer figure was conceived as a human being.

                What sources offer us the evidence that the Messiah was a redeemer figure and what does “redeemer figure” mean, exactly?

                What do you mean by conceived? “Conceived” in imaginations as a human or conceived biologically as a human? If the former, what is the evidence informing us of the identities of those who so imagined the messiah and when? If the latter, again what is the evidence that this was believed so and by whom?

                I ask because I suspect that come very common views about the messiah in ancient/biblical Judaism are repeated as if truisms but in fact lack supporting evidence.

              • Greg Pandatshang
                2017-01-19 05:43:23 UTC - 05:43 | Permalink

                Right, I meant the former: “conceived of as a human being”.

                To be honest, I don’t feel knowledgeable enough to answer those questions at all thoroughly. When I wrote that, what I was trying to say was, here’s a hypothesis that explains why Paul believes Jesus is a descendant of David even if we assume most of the conventional view of the Messiah idea, and according to this hypothesis the Messiah redeemer figure was originally conceived of as a human being. I’d really like to apologise if I gave any other impression. In other words, I was saying “Since it’s generally accepted that X, therefore it stands to reason Y” and if someone tells me I’m wrong about X, I say not “No, you’re wrong and I’ll prove it!” but “Sounds intriguing; tell me more.”

                However, I can give you a general idea of my line of thinking. I’ve heard Robert M. Price say many times that originally “Messiah” just meant the king, “anointed” by God to rule. So, in that sense, Messiah=any old king, a human being. Later, in the Persian period, there’s no king, but a high priest is substituted instead, which appears to me to be what Zechariah is about. Zechariah has a specific human being, Jesus son of Jehozedek, in mind and ties him to this figure, ṣemaḥ (“growth”, “sprout”, “branch”), of whom much is predicted, a redeemer figure in the sense that he is appointed by god to set things right by solving problems which are not necessarily clearly stated in the text. I have taken this to be indicative of the course of the development of the Messiah idea.

                However, I will also note that Zechariah 3:8 describes Jesus son of Jehozedek as a “symbol” which leaves open the interpretation that, while Jesus is a mortal, ṣemaḥ could be seen already as a supernatural being.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2017-01-21 02:41:58 UTC - 02:41 | Permalink

                Messiah means “anointed one” and an anointed one could be a high priest, a prophet and a king. They were all “anointed ones” or “messiahs”. Some of the origins of common misconceptions (even among scholars) about the messiah are set out in an old post: vridar.org/2012/06/17/christ-among-the-messiahs-part-2/

                No need to apologize. I apologize if I sounded as if I was expecting an apology 🙁

      • Neil Godfrey
        2017-01-16 06:47:43 UTC - 06:47 | Permalink

        Yes, but the risen Christ is a teacher in Paul.

        Jesus is certainly a revealer, but that is not the same as a teacher.

        As for “born of a woman” and “seed of David”, Greg has touched on some of the problems with these passages. Anyone who brings them up as “common sense” reasons for rejecting mythicist arguments is unfamiliar with the mythicist arguments. There are many problems with such phrases as “proofs of historicity” and we know that from our engagement with mainstream scholarship.

  • James D williams
    2017-01-18 21:35:49 UTC - 21:35 | Permalink

    Bread and wine once blessed are “seeming”. In “reality” the bread and wine are the body and blood.
    Therefore we might have a Jesus who is as human as Donald Trump, but a Jesus who appropriatley ‘blessed’ is only “seeming”.

    Maybe, passively the bread and wine give up their wheat and grape…
    and Jesus actively gives up his body.

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