Search Results for: allison circularity


2011-01-26

Wrong link to Allison’s discussion of circularity in historical Jesus studies

by Neil Godfrey

In my previous post I misdirected anyone interested in following up where I posted on Dale Allison’s discussion of circularity in historical Jesus studies. I have since corrected that link. Here it is again:

Clarity about circularity by Dale Allison

The point being that Hobsbawm’s insistence on the need for independent evidence is designed to avoid just this circularity that is at the core of historical Jesus studies. His attempt to equate Hobsbawm’s historical concerns with those of Allison curiously manages to avoid this central point and difference between the two approaches to history.

It does not do to try to change the rules and say we have to work without independent evidence in the case of the gospels because it doesn’t exist. If it doesn’t exist then we need to ask questions of the evidence that will allow us to work within the norms of a valid logic that avoids circularity.


2010-12-10

Clarity about Circularity from Historical Jesus Scholar Dale Allison

by Neil Godfrey

James McGrath has given Dale C. Allison’s latest book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination and History, a bit of a bad press in his recent review of it. He famously wrote that Allison explains how a historian can learn the true sense of what a historical person was about through studying fictional material about that person.(See Games Historical Jesus Scholars Play.)

I have not yet read Dale Allison’s latest book so am unable to comment what McGrath attributed to him, but I have been catching up with his 1998 book Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. I had earlier read Dale Allison’s book on the question of Matthew’ “mimesis” of Moses for his portrayal of Jesus, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology, and was impressed with his caution and his thoroughness and consistency of methodological application to exploring how much of Matthew’s Gospel can be attributed to a conscious effort to re-write stories of Moses into the life of Jesus.

I can understand why Dale Allison has one of the more honoured reputations among biblical scholars. He does demonstrate a clarity of thought and understanding of what he is doing when he writes about Jesus that is not always evident among historical Jesus scholars, their peers, or their students.

I have often attempted to point out the circularity of arguments of Historical Jesus scholars in their efforts to “discover” or authenticate any of his words or deeds as historically true. (The circularity extends even to the very idea of the existence of Jesus.)

Dale C. Allison recognizes and admits to this circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies. He can acknowledge that conclusions are reached because they are inherent in the premise behind the questions asked. read more »


2013-01-07

Hoffmann’s arguments for an historical Jesus: exercises in circularity and other fallacies

by Neil Godfrey

One never thinks to engage seriously with ticks so when Hoffmann calls his mythicist opponents “mythtics” it is clear he has no interest in taking them seriously. When he does speak of the arguments of those he has described as “ghetto-dwelling disease carrying mosquitoes/buggers” he necessarily keeps them anonymous and never cites or quotes them, but belabors the same tired old straw man points he seems to want, maybe even needs, them to be arguing. I return to this point at the end of the post.

So without a dialogue partner I post here my own thoughts and questions about his method that leads him to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth did exist as an historical person.

He writes in his post, The Historically Inconvenient Jesus (with my formatting):

Given that there is

  • (a) no reason to trust the gospels;
  • (b) no external testimony to the existence of Jesus (I’ve never thought that the so-called “pagan” reports were worth considering in detail; at most they can be considered evidence of the cult, not a founder);
  • (c) no independent Christian source that is not tainted by the missionary objectives of the cult
  • and (d) no Jewish account that has not been invented or tainted by Christian interpolators,

what is the purpose of holding out for an historical Jesus?

Actually I think his point (a) is badly expressed. I actually do believe we can and should “trust the gospels” — but only after we first analyze them to understand what, exactly, they are. I believe we can trust the Gospel of Mark as an expression of theological beliefs about Jesus because that’s exactly what it is. I can see no more reason to use it as an historical source for its narrative contents than there would be to use the Gospel of Mary for the same purpose. That means the Gospel of Mark, like the Gospel of Mary, is an excellent, trustworthy source for certain theological beliefs and the ways they were expressed among those who first knew these gospels. I know of no a priori reason to think anyone should bother to read them for kernels of historical events and persons behind their narratives. I can see lots of reasons in the Gospels to think their narratives have nothing to do with historical events.

But that’s just me (and, I think, William Wrede) so I’ll move on and for the sake of argument play the game the way Hoffmann plays it here.

As for starting with a complete absence of reliable external testimonies, Hoffmann is parting company with probably most of his peers. Looks like this position is a legacy from his own time as a “mythtick”.

So Hoffmann is beginning his “quest” for evidence of historicity without gospels, without external testimonies, and without any independent Christian source. Ex nihilo?

Hoffmann explains that the historical Jesus will emerge from “the three C’s”: conditions, context and coordinates.

Simply put, it is the three “C”s: conditions, context, and coordinates. read more »


2011-02-11

Response to McGrath’s circularity and avoidance of the methodological argument

by Neil Godfrey
Logarithmic spiral

Image via Wikipedia

In a “response” to a recent post of mine about historical method, James McGrath illustrates well the very problem and question begging that my post was intended to highlight.

McGrath’s opening statement affirms that he simply fails to grasp the argument I am presenting.

[Neil Godfrey’s] post begins by stating and commenting on the principle which was the focus of my [McGrath’s] post: “If all we have is a story that has no corroboration external to the narrative itself to attest to its historical status, then at the most basic level we have no way of knowing if the story has a historical basis or not.”

Whether this describes the situation in the case of the Gospels or not is perhaps best left to one side for now. Certainly the Gospels are not without a context provided both by Paul’s earlier epistles and by their reception history.

That second paragraph that I have highlighted demonstrates a failure to grasp the meaning of the words of mine he has just quoted. McGrath says the “context” of the Gospels consists of the early epistles of Paul and their reception history, but this “context” is not the same thing at all as providing external corroboration or controls that can testify to the historicity of the narrative of the gospels. They may indeed provide “context”. But that misses the point. read more »


2011-01-09

Thoughts on Dale Allison’s thoughts on memory and historical approaches to the study of the Gospels

by Neil Godfrey

Having just read the first chapter of Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History by Dale C. Allison I can finally comment on what surely strikes most people as a curious statement to come from someone who claims to be a historian. In reviewing Allison’s opening chapter McGrath claimed that Allison was contending that

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

This certainly does capture what Allison writes of his approach to finding “the historical Jesus” in the Gospels.

Allison considers the results of a wide range of studies on human memory and considers what these must mean for the accuracy of the Gospels, given the assumption that the Gospels are records of what was passed down about Jesus via fallible memories of those who had met him.

Allison even writes:

All this is why fictions may contain facts; an accurate impression can take any number of forms. Even a work as full of make-believe as the Alexander Romance sometimes catches the character of the historical Alexander of Macedon. Similarly, tales about an absentminded professor may be apocryphal and yet spot-on because they capture the teacher’s personality. The letter can be false, the spirit true. (pp. 13-14) read more »


2016-12-15

Some preliminaries before resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

by Neil Godfrey

I originally wrote the following as an introduction to my next post on Russell E. Gmirkin’s new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. On reflection, it was too long to be part of a post addressing the book so here it is a separate introductory post instead.

Our historically conditioned deafness to oblique [and not so oblique] allusions in the Bible can sometimes lead us to doubt their very existence. — The New Moses (1993) p. 18

That was written by Dale C. Allison when he was arguing that the evangelist who composed what we know as the Gospel of Matthew was inspired by the story of Moses when he composed his particular Jesus figure. If it is difficult for many readers to accept that the figure of Moses was woven into the lineaments of Matthew’s Jesus, how much more difficult might it be to accept that much of the Pentateuch and other works in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament were modeled on the literary, philosophical, political and cultural worlds of the Greeks?

If that sounds like too much to take in at first consider the following:

The Religious Tolerance website lists the following evidence for Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch:

There are about two dozen verses in the Hebrew Scriptures and one dozen in the Christian Scriptures which state or strongly imply that Moses was the author. Consider the following passages from the New Living Translation (NLT):

  • Passages in the Pentateuch itself:
    • Exodus 17:14Then the Lord instructed Moses, ‘Write this down as a permanent record…‘”
    • Exodus 24:4Then Moses carefully wrote down all the Lord’s instructions.”
    • Exodus 34:27And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write down all these instructions, for they represents the terms of my covenant with you and with Israel.‘”
    • Leviticus 1:1The Lord called to Moses from the Tabernacle and said to him, ‘Give the following instructions to the Israelites…‘”
    • Leviticus 6:8Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Give Aaron and his sons the following instructions…‘”
    • Deuteronomy 31:9So Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests.”
    • Deuteronomy 31:24-26When Moses had finished writing down this entire body of law in a book…
  • Passages elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures:
    • Joshua 1:7-8…Obey all the laws Moses gave you.
    • Joshua 8:31-34He followed the instructions that Moses the Lord’s servant had written in the Book of the Law…
    • Joshua 22:5…obey all the commands and the laws that Moses gave to you.
    • 2 Chronicles 34:14…Hilkiah the high priest…found the book of the Law of the Lord as it had been given through Moses.
  • Passages in the Gospels which show that Jesus and John the Baptizer believed Moses to be the author:
    • Matthew 19:7-8…why did Moses say a man could merely write an official letter of divorce and send her away?”, they asked. Jesus replied, Moses permitted divorce…‘”
    • Matthew 22:24Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children…‘”
    • Mark 7:10For instance, Moses gave you this law from God…
    • Mark 12:24…haven’t you ever read about this in the writings of Moses, in the story of the burning bush…
    • Luke 24:44…I told you that everything written about me by Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must all come true.
    • John 1:17For the law was given through Moses…
    • John 5:46But if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me because he wrote about me. And since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?
    • John 7:23…do it, so as not to break the law of Moses…
  • Passages elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures:
    • Acts 26:22…I teach nothing except what the prophets and Moses said would happen…
    • Romans 10:5For Moses wrote…

The earliest books of the Bible themselves tell us that they were written by Moses. See the side box for details. But we are not children so we do not blindly believe everything we read, although even children sometimes want to know how we know certain claims are true. The Book of Enoch testifies that it was written by the “seventh from Adam”/the great-grandfather of Noah and it was quoted faithfully in the New Testament (Jude 1:14 and elsewhere) as the true words of Enoch by the same kinds of people who believed Moses wrote the Pentateuch. The self-witness alone of any document or literature requires some form of independent testimony before we know how to interpret its historical value:

. . . . only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

Those words are from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher. If you want something more recent, try Philip R. Davies in his ground-breaking 1992 work, In Search of Ancient Israel. I have outlined his essence of his argument at The Bible – History or Story? Or if you don’t want to skip to another page then read on. Davies, himself a biblical historical critic, goes for the jugular of traditional biblical historical criticism when he writes of the circularity of its methods:

This circular process [that is, assuming a self witness of a document is true and then arguing the document is true on the basis of its self-witness] places the composition of the literature within the period of which the literature itself speaks. This is precisely how the period to which the biblical literature refers becomes also the time of composition, the ‘biblical period’, and the biblical literature, taken as a whole, becomes a contemporary witness to its own construct, reinforcing the initial assumption of a real historical matrix and giving impetus to an entire pseudo-scholarly exercise in fining the literature into a sequence of contexts which it has itself furnished! If either the historicity of the biblical construct or the actual date of composition of its literature were verified independently of each other, the circle could be broken. But since the methodological need for this procedure is overlooked, the circularity has continued to characterize an entire discipline—and render it invalid.

The panoply of historical-critical tools and methods used by biblical scholars relies for the most part on this basic circularity. (Davies, 1992, p. 37)

Anyone can write a story pretending its narrator really lived in a time long ago. This can be done for any number of reasons . . . Testing the claims of our sources is not hyper-scepticism: it is the most fundamental rule of historical inquiry.

In other words, anyone can write a story pretending its author really lived in a time long, long ago. This can be done for any number of reasons ranging from entertainment to philosophical or religious instruction. Every witness in a court of law is required to establish its credibility, first at the outset by pointing to verifiable independent external witness and/or then under cross-examination. That’s not “hyper-scepticism”. Testing our source documents is common sense and the most fundamental rule both of any form of detective work and historical inquiry. It is also fundamental to basic literary analysis and criticism.

Or even more recently, move forward to 2001 and Niels Peter Lemche’s chapter, “The Bible – A Hellenistic Book”, in Did Moses Speak Attic: Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Era:

It seems obvious to most scholars that our estimate of the age of a certain book of the Old Testament must be founded on information contained in the book itself and not on other information, and the estimate should certainly not be based on the existence of a historical background that may never have existed. Although seemingly self-evident, this method is not without fault, and it may easily become an invitation to ‘tail-chasing’, to quote Philip R. Davies. By this we intend to say that the scholar may soon become entangled in a web of logically circular argumentation which is conveniently called the ‘hermeneutical circle’ . . . .  Another point is that it is also supposed that the reading of a certain piece of literature will automatically persuade it to disclose its secrets — as if no other qualifications are needed.

The first point to discuss will be the circular argumentation that is based on a too close ‘reading’ of the biblical text. Here the first example will be the books of Samuel [containing the stories of Kings Saul and David]. Some assume that these books must be old simply because they say that they are old. The exegete who claims that the books of Samuel must perforce be old will . . . have to accept the claim of the books themselves by either rather naively assuming that Samuel could be the author (as the later Jewish tradition did proclaim) or by more sophisticated argumentation, for example, of the kind formerly often used to prove narratives like the ‘Succession Story’ to be old because only an eye-witness would have been acquainted with the particulars of the family of David.

How to escape this circularity?

In order to escape from the trap created by this circular method of argumentation and the rather naive understanding of the biblical text that lies at the bottom of such claims, it will be necessary to go further and find arguments not necessarily part of the biblical text itself but coming from other sources. Such information alone will be able to disclose to the reader that the books of Samuel were composed, not at the moment when Israel got its first king, but at a much later date. (pp. 292-94, my emphasis)

Scientific procedure or its reverse?

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the Old Testament [Gospels] to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (p. 294, my emphasis)

The Book of Daniel likewise claims to set in the time of the Babylonian empire but few critical scholars, I believe, would accept this narrative claim at face value. No doubt that’s mostly because this book gives the game away too easily by making prophecies that can be followed in our history books right up to the third century BCE. (There are historical anomalies that also betray the fiction, but alone I suspect that those anomalies would be “less persuasive” for many.)

So after the above preliminaries hopefully those for whom the idea that even the Pentateuch and other books in the Old Testament could possibly be late Hellenistic works appears to be outlandishly novel are a little more amenable at least to its possibility. I have presented aspects of the opening chapters of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible in previous posts; one more will follow soon.

 

 


2015-10-01

What Biblical Scholars Say About Historical Jesus Studies

by Neil Godfrey
Dale C. Allison (November 25, 1955-) is an American New Testament scholar, historian of Early Christianity, and Christian theologian who for years served as Errett M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He is currently the Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. — Wikipedia (2nd Oct 2015)

historicalchristI like reading Dale Allison. He is open and forthright about his methods. When some biblical scholars indignantly insist that their field is faith-neutral (after all it includes atheists and agnostics and Jews!) and that they are as on the level as any other historians could possibly be, I wonder if they have ostracized Dale Allison from their community.

Allison acknowledges the circularity at the heart of historical Jesus arguments and that the Gospel narratives are largely midrashic parables. But he is a serious historian nonetheless (according to the lights of historical studies within theological circles) and does the best he can to know “the historical Jesus” despite the challenges thrown up by the nature of the sources:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned. (See Dale Allison on Memory and Historical Approaches to the Gospels)

In The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus Allison clarifies what he means by the above:

What matters is not whether we can establish the authenticity of any of the relevant traditions or what the criteria of authenticity may say about them, but rather the pattern that they, in concert, create. It is like running into students who enjoy telling tales about their absent-minded professor. A number of those tales may be too tall to earn our belief; but if there are several of them, they are good evidence that the professor is indeed absent-minded.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 839-841). Kindle Edition.

(Think that “historical method” through for a few moments.)

With thanks to Anthony Le Donne for alerting me to Dale Allison’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus here are a few more of Allison’s insights worthy of note:

I have never been without theological motives or interests. Until a few years ago, however, I had not attempted to pursue those interests with much diligence or to examine my motives with much care. Recent circumstances have pushed me out of my historical-critical pose. After accepting a teaching post at a Protestant theological seminary, I soon discovered that future pastors are not interested in undertaking historical labor without the prospect of theological reward. In order, then, to keep my audience, I was compelled to complement my critical inquiries with theological deliberations.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 20-23). Kindle Edition.

Don’t misunderstand. Dale Allison firmly believes he is professional enough to recognize (at least in hindsight) when his historical reconstructions of Jesus have been guided by theological interests as the following quotations will demonstrate. Before making those acknowledgments, however, he draws on his experiences in the wider field to recognize what his peers are also doing.

In recent years we have seen works by Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham arguing for the earliest “Christians” attributing to Jesus a very high divine Christology from the very beginning of their faith. If you have wondered if these professors might be influenced by their own conservative faith, Allison encourages your suspicions. He tells us we can also predict the personal beliefs of scholars who flatly reject any form of high christology:  read more »


2015-04-17

Unrecognized Bias in New Testament Scholarship over Christian Origins

by Neil Godfrey

From time to time someone – lay person or New Testament scholar – publicly insists that there is no more bias among the professional scholars of the Bible than there is among any other academic guild. The question arose recently on the Bible Criticism and History forum and I found myself scrambling quotations from members of the guild themselves to point out what surely is obvious to most outsiders. There are individuals who recognize in greater or lesser degrees just how bound in hidden bias on the question of the historical Jesus are the majority of their peers.

Of course most scholars will openly confess to acknowledging bias to some extent but in practice few appear to truly grasp the extent to which the historical Jesus question is grounded in interests that are not fully scholarly.

Here is the list that came most readily to hand.

Hal Childs, “Myth of the Historical Jesus

If interest in Jesus, whether historical or theological, has a strong, if not predominant, emotional dimension, this is usually not acknowledged, nor named as such. Emotion has a bad name in scholarship, and both methods and literary style have been designed to apparently exclude it from scholarly pursuits and results. If scholarship can be said to have repressed emotion, then, as Freud said, it returns in other forms, perhaps as ideology or dogmatism. It is always present as an invisible hand guiding interest, commitment, choice, judgement, and the framing of meaning. (p. 15)

Scot McKnight, “Jesus and His Death

Since I have placed Carr and Elton in the same category of modernist historiographer, I must add that many if not most historical Jesus scholars tend to make a presentation of Jesus that fits with what they think the future of Christianity holds, as E.H. Carr so clearly argued. While each may make the claim that they are simply after the facts and simply trying to figure out what Jesus was really like—and while most don’t quite say this, most do think this is what they are doing— nearly every one of them presents what they would like the church, or others with faith, to think about Jesus. Clear examples of this can be found in the studies of Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, and B.D. Chilton—in fact, we would not be far short of the mark if we claimed that this pertains to each scholar—always and forever. And each claims that his or her presentation of Jesus is rooted in the evidence, and only in the evidence. (p. 36)

From James Crossley: To date the study has been approached too narrowly, “being dominated by Christians”.

As it stands presently, NT scholarship will always get largely Christian results, be they the nineteenth-century liberal lives of Jesus, the Bultmannian dominated neo-Lutheranism, or the results of smaller subgroups, such as the social reformer/critic Cynic Jesus associated with the Jesus Seminar: all different but all recognizably Christian. (p. 23)

Crossley quoting Maurice Casey:

But when 90 percent of the applicants [to New Testament studies] are Protestant Christians, a vast majority of Christian academics is a natural result. Moreover, the figure of Jesus is of central importance in colleges and universities which are overtly Protestant or Catholic, and which produce a mass of books and articles of sufficient technical proficiency to be taken seriously. The overall result of such bias is to make the description of New Testament Studies as an academic field a dubious one. (p. 23) read more »


2012-02-05

Hypocritical Christ-mythers: Cameron’s response to Neil Godfrey at Vridar — & my response back

by Neil Godfrey
Русский: Григорий Распутин . English: Grigorij...

Theologian

4 evolutionists (1873)

Evolutionists

Herodotus and Thucydides

Historians

Cameron, a critic of Dave Fitzgerald’s Nailed, has responded to my remarks (Are Mythicist Sceptics Hypocritical for Attacking Creationists) about his accusation that those who reject the historicity of Jesus are hypocritical if they also criticize Creationists for rejecting an academic consensus. As seems to be par for the course with these sorts of attacks, derisive labels and character attacks are deployed against anyone who argues that Jesus was not a historical figure. Hence the generic title of his response: Hypocritical Christ-mythers.

Cameron begins his response thus:

In my review of David Fitzgerald’s book Nailed, I criticized Christ-mythers for ignoring the consensus of biblical scholars on the historical Jesus, while simultaneously attacking creationists for rejecting the consensus of scientists on evolution. Fitzgerald didn’t like the comparison, and neither did Neil Godfrey over at Vridar. But he’s wrong for the same reasons Fitzgerald is. His comments are in quotes, followed by my responses.

“Of course there is one professor who asserts that to the extent that biblical studies does have a degree of certainty (even though only a fraction of anything in the sciences), to that extent mythicists should respectfully submit to this consensus just as creationists should be rational and accept the authority of scientists. That one discipline is the foundation of all our modern progress and the other is a Mickey Mouse course doesn’t matter. What matters is that the most honourable professors in each have certainties. One just happens to have greater certainties than the other, that’s all.”

Of course there’s a degree of uncertainty involved when investigating historical figures, but to call biblical history a “Mickey Mouse course” is to reach a new level of special pleading. People like Godfrey make the entire field sound like a collection crazy, right-wing evangelicals bent on defending their worldview. The truth is that these scholars, whatever their ideological commitments may be, are interested in the truth. That most of them (even those skeptical of Christianity) have rejected the Christ-myth speaks volumes about its lack of validity. Furthermore, if mythicists are aware of the limitations of history, though they exaggerate them, don’t you think historians areas well? Yeah…they are. But somehow the experts rarely throw up their hands and exclaim, “well we weren’t there; Jesus probably wasn’t real!”

Whatever their ideological commitments?

Cameron portrays theologians who study “the historical Jesus” as reasonable enough to set aside their ideological commitments in order to objectively seek out only “the truth” of the matter. This is a naive Pollyannish portrayal of a scholarly field dominated by faith-committed theologians. Let’s break down Cameron’s comment and examine each piece.

Biblical studies is probably the most ideologically oriented of all academic disciplines. Hector Avalos has shown that clearly enough in The End of Biblical Studies. R. Joseph Hoffmann remarked on this blog that the reason the Christ myth theory is not given more attention among scholars has more to do with conditions of academic appointments than common sense. Stevan Davies recently pointed out that a list of the Westar Institute Fellows shows nearly all are or have been affiliated with seminaries and theological institutions. Most of the scholarly books one picks up on the historical Jesus contain prefaces or concluding chapters in which one reads reflections that sound more like homilies or spiritual confessions. James Crossley has publicly denounced the way biblical scholars so regularly open their academic get-togethers (seminars, workshops) with prayers. Blogs of theologian scholars are dominated by spiritual reflections and sayings. Atheists and atheism are generally derided. Ideology is important. The Christian faith dominates the entire field of biblical studies. To suggest that these scholars are all committed to setting aside their personal faith and seeking truth regardless of where it may lead sounds about as plausible as expecting Nazi era scientists to set aside their political ideology in order to study the biological grounds for racial differences.

That most of such scholars have rejected a model that undermines the entire ideological and faith foundations of this scholarly field tells us absolutely nothing about its lack of validity. read more »


2011-11-03

What mythicists need

by Neil Godfrey

What mythicists need is a competent, knowledgeable and intelligent historicist to challenge them. One who doesn’t resort to ad hominem or outright insult. One who doesn’t see “mythicism” in every nook and cranny — whether in creationism or the Piltdown man or even Shakespeare! — wherever he or she even half way suspects he/she just might possibly find it.

Recently I responded to one scholar who has picked up the anti-mythicist cause when he wrote:

There is no more circularity (and no less) in investigating a historical Jesus than a historical Socrates or John the Baptist or Shakespeare.

I disagreed. I had referred to statements by historical Jesus scholars who have had the intellectual honesty to concede the circularity of their enterprise. (I have posted on these several times now — quotations by Albert Schweitzer, Stevan Davies and Dale C. Allison.)

I had pointed out that the evidence for the historicity of Socrates is not circular and referred to my earlier posts demonstrating this simple fact. We have multiple independent contemporary sources for the existence of Socrates — at least one from a devoted pupil and another from a scoffing playwright, one from a friend and one from a(n apparent) foe — and so the probability for the historical existence of Socrates is at least positive. Schweitzer lamented the fact that we have no comparable evidence for the historicity of Jesus since all the sources for Jesus are traced 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. (p. 402, 2001 edition of Quest) read more »


2011-10-09

It all depends where one enters the circle

by Neil Godfrey

Reading Jesus the Healer by Stevan Davies alongside Constructing Jesus by Dale Allison is an interesting exercise in chiaroscuro comparisons.

Both agree on the nature of circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies. Davies begins with a quotation from E. P. Sanders:

In regard to Jesus research E. P. Sanders correctly observes, “There is, as is usual in dealing with historical questions, no opening which does not involve one in a circle of interpretation, that is, which does not depend on points which in turn require us ot understand other [points],” and he insists that “one must be careful to enter the circle at the right point, that is, to choose the best starting place.” The best starting place, it follows, is one that is historically secure with a meaning that can be known somewhat independently from the rest of the evidence. It further follows, as he rightly says, that one should “found the study on bedrock, and especially to begin at the right point.”

In the field of Jesus research, however, one person’s bedrock is another person’s sand. I cannot honestly think of a single supposed bedrock event or interpretive stance that somebody has not denied. Nor, to my knowledge, are there any two constructions of the “authentic” sayings of Jesus that are identical. One might compile a short set of parables, proverbs, and aphorisms that are universally conceded to be from Jesus, but they will be that set that conveys the least inherent meaning . . . and where one can go from there I am not at all sure. (p. 43, my bolding)

Davies opts, then, to embrace as his bedrock two details upon which “scholars agree almost unanimously”: that Jesus was believed in his time to have been (1) a prophet and (2) a healer and exorcist. read more »


2011-03-26

Finding Jesus Under the Stone: The Gospel of Thomas Guide to the Scholarly Search for the Historical Jesus

by Neil Godfrey
Sefurieh - Plain of Buttauf, Palestine, 1859

Image via Wikipedia

Edited to add quotation from Dale Allison on the circularity of the method used by scholars in historical Jesus studies. -- March 27, 2011

There is a passage in the Gospel of Thomas that would seem to encapsulate the historical methodology some scholars use to reconstruct the historical Jesus:

77 Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained.

Split a piece of wood; I am there.

Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

Professor Bruce Chilton‘s book Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography is a classic case study of how biblical scholarship can be so consumed by its idée fixe that “the historical Jesus” will be found everywhere the faithful scholar looks:

  1. beneath every stone the archaeologist lifts in Galilee,
  2. behind the fabulous tales of miracles and supernatural characters in the canonical gospels,
  3. wedged within every extra-canonical text one cares to split apart. read more »

2011-01-31

Respecting the honesty of conservative historical Jesus scholarship

by Neil Godfrey
1913 Reinhardt College Bible Study Class
Image via Wikipedia

I have been catching up with two conservative historical Jesus scholars and once again I find their honest perspectives about their historical methods refreshing.

Luke Timothy Johnson in The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels is quite upfront with stating the obvious: the historical Jesus model does not work as an explanation for the start of Christianity unless, at minimum, there really were a series of resurrection appearances to a widespread number of witnesses. (Or you could just read the subtitle if you were in a real hurry to know his views.)

To try to suggest that the religion took off light bolt lightning around the Mediterranean world because one or a few disciples had inner-experiences that convinced them that Jesus was still somehow “alive and with them” in a mysterious way just does not cut it.

And if Christianity began with a string of real resurrection appearances then its origins are completely beyond the norms post Enlightenment historical methodology. It is beyond secular historical inquiry.

Here are the words of LTJ (with my emphasis): read more »


2011-01-26

How a biblical scholar uses sleight of hand to argue against mythicism

by Neil Godfrey

McGrath has linked to my post critiquing his comments on the Christ myth proposition and managed to avoid totally the whole point of my post — and the whole point of the particular quotation from Hobsbawm in question. But that is the normal way he “responds” to such critiques.

He also seeks to imply that those who use this quotation are ignorant of Hobsbawm’s arguments and are misrepresenting them, and he does this be showing he has at last got his hands on a copy of a book in which the quote does not appear, even though I have often cited the source of the quotation on my blog.

I have regularly cited the source: From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004). That is not easy to locate anymore, but the article is now available in pdf format at http://www.ncsu.edu/project/acontracorriente/spring_04/Slatta.pdf. (McGrath has asked more than once for evidence and sources (purportedly) to help him understand how nonbiblical historians work, and I have given him sources several times but he seems not to have followed them up.)

McGrath has completely sidestepped the whole point of the quotation and of my previous post, which is the importance of independent evidence for uncovering historicity of narratives.

“In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ’social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.”

It is instructive that McGrath originally elicited this quotation from one of his commenters by asking point blank:

Evan, Perhaps you can clarify, with reference to historians and historical methodology, how you are using the term “fact.”

Evan then responded with the quotation (and some others) along with his explanation in direct answer to McGrath’s request to clarify what he meant — with reference to historians and historical methodology — how he was using the word “fact”

Unfortunately, McGrath appears to have become derailed at the Evan’s cogent response as requested, and turned on him for “quote mining” and ripping words out of context.

But the quotation was not out of context. It explained exactly how Evan was using the term “fact”, and he did so with reference, as requested, to historians and historical methodology.

First time round McGrath dismissed Hobsbawm’s quote as a commie plot!

McGrath has had a hard time with Hobsbawm. When I first presented his words to him he responded that they were not reliable because they were part of a communist plot to re-write history.

Second, it seems that your quote from Hobsbawm indicates once again that, unless you have some sort of evidence other than texts, you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events. You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?

Note also that even then McGrath misused the quotation erroneously thinking that it was arguing that one needed “evidence other than texts” to verify historical facts. I had made no such argument at all, and Hobsbawm was certainly not arguing that. Yet that is how McGrath chose to use the quote.

Now that these words have resurfaced on his own blog he has once again used sleight of hand to misuse them. Just as he earlier attempted to argue that Hobsbawm was arguing a position neither he nor I ever suggested, he now uses the quotation to argue that they say something far less than they actually do. He has a hard time with reading its last sentence: In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.

And that is exactly what we lack in the case of the actions of Jesus. Even his existence is, by the same standards, theoretically open to question, as Albert Schweitzer himself pointed out:

[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] 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. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)

And that could be why McGrath is clearly determined to get rid of this Hobsbawm quote by any trick in the book, fair or foul, he can find.

To cap off the McGrath’s misapplication of Hobsbawm’s methods, he even compares Hobsbawm’s work with biblical scholar Dale Allison’s on the historical Jesus. Allison, as I showed in a recent post, has the honesty to recognize the circularity of methods used in historical Jesus studies. Will McGrath suggest Hobsbawm’s requirement for independent evidence means that his work is also grounded in circularity? It is, of course, only by means of independent evidence that one can escape circularity.

I discussed this in my previous post about how we can know anyone existed in ancient times, and what is meant by “independent” evidence.

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