Category Archives: Historiography


2015-03-22

The Memory Mavens, Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance (2)

by Tim Widowfield

This is the second section of Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance. In the previous post, I tried to explain how modern Memory Mavens often read Maurice Halbwachs selectively. For example, Barry Schwartz (see Part 3) and Anthony Le Donne (see Part 5.1) inexplicably failed to read the earlier chapters of The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: A Study of Collective Memory (La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective).

In a similar fashion, some modern authors seem all too ready to conflate Halbwachs’s generalized treatment of the “localization” of memory with his specific discussions about locations, places, etc. To be fair, we might argue that part of the problem is Halbwachs’s use of the term.

Localizing individual memories in social frameworks

Couverture du livre de Maurice Halbwachs, Les ...

Couverture du livre de Maurice Halbwachs, Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire, 2 édition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So let’s try to be clear from the start. In his 1925 work, Les cadres sociaux de la memoire, partially translated in On Collective Memory (see Chapter 3, “The Localization of Memory”), he explains that recent individual memories “hang together” only if we can place them within an overall framework. That is, they make sense to us when “they are part of a totality of thoughts common to a group.” He writes:

To recall them it is hence sufficient that we place ourselves in the perspective of this group, that we adopt its interests and follow the slant of its reflections. Exactly the same process occurs when we attempt to localize older memories. We have to place them within a totality of memories common to other groups, groups that are narrower and more lasting, such as our family. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 52, emphasis mine)

In its first iteration, then, localization in general refers to two things: (1) the placement of individuals within the perspective of a group and (2) the placement of individual memories within the larger framework of group memories. Hence, for Halbwachs, we cannot understand how memory works unless we take into account the associations between individual recollections and the group or groups to which that individual belongs.

We can understand each memory as it occurs in individual thought only if we locate each within the thought of the corresponding group. We cannot property understand their relative strength and the ways in which they combine within individual thought unless we connect the individual to the various groups of which he is simultaneously a member. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 53, emphasis mine)

Conceptual localization vs. geographical localization

Clearly, Halbwachs is not talking about geographical places here, but “locations” within conceptual, sociological frameworks. However, it’s easy to conflate the two ideas by mistake, which Elizabeth Castelli does in Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making:   read more »


2015-03-16

A Tribute to Maurice Halbwachs

by Tim Widowfield
Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs, French Sociologist, 1877-1945

In a recent post on memory theory, I erroneously stated that of The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: A Study of Collective Memory (La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective) was published posthumously in 1941. In actuality, Halbwachs died 70 years ago on this date in 1945, in the German death camp called Buchenwald. His health had failed, and he did not survive to see the Allies free the camp just 19 days later on 4 April.

And sadly, that date as posted on Wikipedia — 16 March — is probably not correct. According to The American Journal of Sociology (see Vol. LI, No. 6), it happened back in February, and that may be right. On the other hand, the official death report from the Buchenwald archives (transcribed here) says it happened on the 15th of March.

On the day he died, his one-time student, Jorge Semprún, had the terrible job of erasing the memory of Maurice Halbwachs, his friend and teacher. At the camp office, he explained the ritual that represented the annihilation of a person. read more »


2015-03-11

The Difference between Story and History in the Bible

by Neil Godfrey
James Barr

James Barr

In 1980 the influential biblical scholar James Barr produced a “seminal essay” that classified “the narrative complex of the Hebrew Bible as story rather than history” and contributed to “[many retreating] into an historiographic scepticism”(Whitelam, 1987, 2010). The focus of Barr’s essay (and Keith Whitelam’s reference to it) is the Old Testament. It is important to understand, however, that “historical nihilism” is not the inevitable destination if we find our sources are more story than history.

Certainty is not a prerequisite to understanding. It is the will to understand rather than simply the will to know for certain that is the driving force for the inquiry to be undertaken here. (Whitelam, p. 20.)

I think that the same principles carry over to the New Testament’s Gospels and Acts, too. That’s too controversial for many today, however. The Gospel narratives must stand firm as grounded in historical memory of some kind. Whitelam in his 2010 edition of his 1987 book lamented the failure of the critical potential to blossom in the field of Old Testament studies:

The rise of the biblical history movement and ‘new biblical archaeology’ means that the project envisaged a quarter of a century ago is even further away from realization today than it was then. (p. xiii)

How much further away we must be from applying the same critical questions to the stories of Jesus!

Following is how Barr explained the differences between history and story. It comes from “Story and History in Biblical Theology: The Third Nuveen Lecture” in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 1-17. Published in Explorations in Theology 7, 1980.

Old Testament narratives cannot be described as ”history” but rather as containing “certain of the features that belong to history”. Examples: read more »


2015-01-25

The Memory Mavens, Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance (1)

by Tim Widowfield
The Historiographical Jesus

The Historiographical Jesus

Earlier this month on The Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne, one of the main Memory Mavens let us know that he had publicly posted a chapter of his monograph, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David. (You can, incidentally, read the original version of Le Donne’s thesis at the Durham University web site.) While I expect to have more to say about Le Donne’s book in a later post in this series, for the time being I would like to focus on three criticisms he has about Maurice Halbwachs‘s study of the sacred sites of Palestine.

Before going further, we should note that Halbwachs’ study was seriously deficient in several ways. The first is that he relied heavily upon the account by pilgrims of Bordeaux and neglected any part that Constantine played in the localization of holy sites.[14] Also, he inexplicably presupposed that the Synoptic Gospels took written form in the second century and perhaps over a century after the events to which they attest.[15] This poorly defended position was foundational to Halbwachs’ conclusion that the Gospels are mostly invented and fictive in nature.[16] Halbwachs also misrepresented (and oversimplified) the relationship between Jewish and Christian religious belief.

[14] Eusebius, Vita Constantine, 2.46; 3.30–32. Constantine’s wife Helena is also reputed to have traveled to Bethlehem and Jerusalem to establish monuments at the place of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives. See H. Lietzmann, From Constantine to Julian: A History of the Church, vol. 3 (London: Lutterworth, 1950), 147.

[15] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 209.

[16] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 213.

(Le Donne, 2009, p. 44, emphasis mine)

Constantine’s . . . er . . . wife?

Before continuing, we ought to address the elephant in the room. Seriously? Constantine’s wife? Helena was, of course, the mother of Constantine. How is it possible that “the first book-length treatment of Social Memory for historical Jesus research” managed to undergo intense scrutiny from a PhD examination board, extensive peer review, editing by a major publishing house, glowing reviews from scholars around the world — all without noticing this strange little error?  read more »


2015-01-09

The Memory Mavens, Part 4: The Analytical Power of Failure

by Tim Widowfield

Another lifetime ago, back when I was a U.S. Air Force field training detachment commander, one of our instructors came into my office with a worried look. He told me he had been teaching basic circuitry to a group of enlisted students. “Lieutenant,” he asked, “when you were in school what did they teach you about the flow of electricity? That it goes from the negative terminal to the positive, right?”

When I agreed, he continued, “Well, I’ve got this squid in my class, and he said in the Navy they taught him it goes from positive to negative!” He was flummoxed. (At the time our detachment on Beale AFB was the only certified DoD training facility from Sacramento up through Oregon, so we often played host to reservists and military members from other branches.)

I said, “But the math works both ways, right? I mean in circuit models it doesn’t really matter.” He found the whole thing terribly unsettling. It was as if I’d told him up was down and down was up.

Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.

– George E. P. Box

George E.P. Box

Statistician George E. P. Box (1919-2013)

All models are wrong

Often while trying to understand how processes work, we build representational, mental constructs or “models” to help us understand them better. These models don’t correspond identically to the real world; instead, they’re subsets of the world — small enough to fit inside our brains. Our models of simple electronics are like that.

What can we can learn from our little story above? First, the fact that we can swap logical current flow in a circuit diagram and still make it “work” (for our purposes) might suggest that our model doesn’t fully correspond with reality. It’s just a representational subset, after all. It’s fiction. But that’s all right, as long as our model gives us the answers we need.

Sometimes a model we know is wrong around the edges can still serve us adequately in general circumstances. We’ve refined the standard model of gravitation quite a bit since Newton’s day. However, if our only task is to launch a projectile at a castle wall, then the older, simpler model will probably suffice. On the other hand, if we want to launch and maintain an array of geosynchronous satellites for precise global positioning, we’re going to have to take into account the effects of relativity — trading in Newton for Einstein, so to speak.

Whenever we use a scientific or mathematical model to help us make real-world predictions, we need to be aware of its limits. We need to know the range of conditions within which it works reliably. And we need to know whether and how its performance degrades as it approaches those limits.

Actually, we can apply that last lesson to the real world, too. That’s why car manufacturers slam their vehicles into walls. We can’t fully understand a system’s range of acceptable behavior until we find the points at which it fails. Moreover, we can learn a great deal from discovering where and how a system begins to degrade. We don’t smash cars because we want their safety systems to fail; we do it to find out where those failure points are. read more »


2015-01-07

A Historian’s Explanation for Bible Contradictions

by Neil Godfrey

David Fitzgerald has been reading through Matthew Ferguson’s post on the Κέλσος [=Celsus] blog and has singled out this one from 2013:

Bible Contradictions: Why Are They There? What Do They Entail?

It is a refreshing read for anyone who has become mired in the sorts of apologetic nonsense too many believers who like to call themselves “historians” write. Here is a sample from his post:

The biographer Suetonius Tranquillus (Vit. 17.2) records the following [about the death of emperor Vitellius]:

“At last on the Stairs of Wailing he was tortured for a long time and then despatched and dragged off with a hook to the Tiber.”

However, the historian Cassius Dio (64.21.2-22.1) writes:

“At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city. His wife later saw to his burial.”

Wait! What happened to Vitellius’ body? Was his body thrown into the Tiber like a condemned criminal or did his wife have the opportunity to bury his body?  read more »


When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?

by Neil Godfrey

PhD student Matthew Ferguson on Κέλσος blog has just posted When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?. It’s reassuring to see some of the same fundamental principles that we have expressed here for some years now. But now you can read the fundamentals from someone in the process of completing his PhD in the classics and ancient historiography.

His article begins

One of the most misunderstood methodological issues that surrounds debates over the historical Jesus is the relevance of contemporary or early written sources to reconstructing a reliable biography of Jesus’ life. Very often comparisons are made to other historical figures, such as Alexander the Great, who (allegedly) do not have any contemporary sources for their lives, despite the reliability of our historical information about them. Apologists thus argue that the lack of contemporary sources for Jesus, and the fact that all ancient writings that mention Jesus date to a gap of decades and centuries after his death, do not make the historical Jesus more obscure or less knowable than other famous figures from antiquity.

As I exposed in apologist Lee Strobel’s interview with Craig Blomberg in The Case for Christ, this mistake is usually made by apologists confusing the earliest extant sources (those that have survived medieval textual transmission) with the earliest sources that were written (and available to subsequent historians) in antiquity.

Thanks to Leucius Charinus on the Biblical Criticism and History Forum for drawing attention to this blog article.


2014-12-26

The Memory Mavens, Part 3: Bethlehem Remembered

by Tim Widowfield

As you may recall from the first part of this series, Maurice Halbwachs wrote an important and detailed treatise on social memory and its relation to memorialized places (les localisations), which he called The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: A Study of Collective Memory (La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective). In it, he chronicled the succession of Christians who memorialized various key places in Palestine: Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, etc. Pilgrims, as well as those who could only imagine those places, combined the shared memory of events in the gospels with the ritual observance of those events within the social framework of their religion.

O, little town of Bethlehem

Grotto of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity, west part. Bethlehem.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While reading the English version of Halbwachs’ piece, we would do well to remember two points. First, it is an unfinished work, published after his death. Halbwachs had intended the book — translated and introduced by Lewis Coser and appended to the volume, On Collective Memory – as an attempt “to deal with some of the objections of critics of his earlier work on the subject.”

Coser writes that the work . . .

. . . is akin to a skeleton. One may doubt that the author himself would have been willing to publish it in what seems to be an unfinished state. The book nevertheless contains many further developments of Halbwachs’s thought in regard to such matters as the relation of space and time to collective memory as well as fruitful definitions and applications of the differences between [1] individual, [2] collective, and [3] historical memory. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 2, emphasis mine)

I have highlighted the three elements above, because if we don’t understand them, we will completely miss what Halbwachs was writing about. For him, the individual recollections of the disciples (imperfect, distorted, and incomplete as they may have been) formed the basis of the collective memory of later Christians. History, as we understand it today, is the product of critical research, and we shouldn’t confuse its results with our study of the collective memory of Christianity. Halwachs writes:

Collective memory must be distinguished from history. Historical preoccupations such as we think of them, and which each author of a work of history must be concerned with, were alien to Christians of those periods. It is in the context of a milieu comprising believers devoted to their religion that the cult of the holy sites was created. Their memories were closely tied to rites of commemoration and adoration, to ceremonies, feasts, and processions. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 222)

How still we see thee lie

The second point we should keep in mind is that the work in French contained extensive notes by the author, with each chapter representing a different locale. The English version omits these earlier sections. Coser explains in a footnote:

The whole thesis and documentation of La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective is found in the conclusion, which has been translated in full. Earlier chapters are preparatory in character, discussing sources, documentation, and the like. They are primarily of interest to specialists in the area, and have not been translated here. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 193, emphasis mine)

Anyone seeking to engage Halbwachs’s conclusions and criticize them needs to take those words to heart. It struck me after writing my first post on the Memory Mavens that I had perhaps been too harsh with Barry Schwartz. After all, according to Anthony Le Donne, he is peerlessread more »


2014-11-30

The Memory Mavens, Part 2: A Case Study at Ellis Island

by Tim Widowfield

Legends that stick

Some myths have extraordinary staying power. Because modern media causes us to believe we’re witnesses to real events, we often reject good evidence that disproves what we think we saw and heard personally. I grew up thinking that the embarrassing mistakes Kermit Schaefer presented on his record albums were completely authentic. We all rolled on the floor laughing as we listened to cuts from Pardon My Blooper, but what my family and I didn’t know was that if Schaefer couldn’t obtain the actual recordings, he’d pay actors to recreate them.

“Goodnight, little friends, goodnight.”

Lots of people still think they know Uncle Don referred to his audience as “little bastards” over an open microphone. Even after you tell them that Schaefer forged the recording (with no warnings on the record, by the way), and even after you show them evidence that it never happened, they’re just so sure of their memories, they can’t quite believe it.

There’s something about hearing it on the radio or on a recording, or seeing it on television or in a movie that makes us complicit in the social memory of an event. We don’t think of the event as something “out there” in the past, but rather something we’re part of. In a sense, the event is part of us. So, for example, even a fictional story like The Godfather can become part of the fabric of our memory, especially the cultural memories of place and time: namely, the United States in the early 20th century.

Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries...

Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries–Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor. (Half of a stereo card) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“They changed our name.”

In The Godfather II, we learn that Vito Corleone’s real surname is Andolini, but that the workers processing immigrants at Ellis Island mistook his home town for his last name and made Andolini his middle name. In the public’s mind these sorts of mistakes went on all the time. Sometimes, it turns out, they just bungled the transcription, and people had to live with their new, misspelled names. Worse than that, sometimes, perhaps many times, those faceless bureaucrats would force immigrants who had strange names to change them to something that sounded more “American.”

Yet, despite the widespread belief in such events, it’s all a myth. In fact, in the novel Vito Corleone deliberately changed his own name. And in real life, we know immigrants were not given new names at Ellis Island. The workers who processed immigrants simply took the names from the ship manifests (usually compiled at the port of embarkation) and transcribed them. They had no authority to modify what they found on the manifests, and they would not have had any incentive to do so.

Nor were they confused by the foreign languages of the incoming passengers. Most of them could speak and read those languages (Italian, German, Polish, etc.), or they could rely on translators standing nearby to help them.

Family memories

This social memory of Ellis Island as a place where heartless government administrators arbitrarily Americanized people’s names corresponds to the family memories of many next-generation ethnic Poles, Italians, Serbs, Croats, Czechs, etc., who learned early on that their name in the Old Country was one thing, but upon arrival, “They changed our name.” Sometimes the new name began with the same letter, but was Anglicized. Or sometimes it was simply translated. So, perhaps Wallechinsky became Wallace or Schmidt became Smith.

read more »


2014-11-27

The Memory Mavens, Part 1: A Brief Introduction to Memory Theory

by Tim Widowfield
Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs, French Philosopher and Sociologist, 1877-1945

A muddle of mavens

For several months now, I’ve been poring over works written by a contingent of New Testament scholars who I like to call the Memory Mavens. This group claims that “memory theory” offers new perspectives on Jesus traditions and provides new insights on how those traditions eventually found their way into the written gospels. Some of the best-known authors in this subfield include Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, Anthony Le Donne, and Chris Keith. In this introduction we’ll examine some of the basic ideas in memory theory, while attempting to nail down some definitions and core concepts.

Unfortunately, the often imprecise and confusing language in use under the umbrella of “memory,” tends to impede our understanding. Much of the ambiguity in terminology stems from the broad range of meanings that encompass the English word “memory,” which can refer to a personal recollection, the human faculty or ability to remember, a commemorated event, or a given period of time in which things are remembered. But the addition of psychological and sociological layers aggravates the problem, especially when people simply use the word “memory” without clear context or antecedent.

If you search for works on memory, you will find countless examples of self-help books whose authors promise to improve your recollection of names, numbers, events, and anything else you want to remember. On a somber note, you will also find many books discussing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Generally speaking, when most people hear the term “memory theory,” they think of the faculty of (individual) human memory or the physiological and psychological aspects of personal recollection.

The constructed past

“A specialised area of research is ‘collective memory’, which is the notion that people remember together with other people and that memory is constructed in, by and for a social group. Collective memory in relation to smaller groups is sometimes called ‘social memory’, whereas, in relation to whole cultures, it tends to be called ‘cultural memory’. Both types of collective memory include ‘memory sites’ such as works of art, ritual acts, symbols, celebrations, memorials, libraries, writings and much more, all of which reinforce the collective identity of a people.” (Duling, 2011, p.1)

However, when the Memory Mavens talk about “memory,” they usually mean collective memory. In the 1920s, sociologist Maurice Halbwachs observed that we do not remember the past independently, but within groups, and that we understand and interpret all memories, even those we experience directly, within social frameworks. Hence, we have no access to the direct past; we see only the interpretation of the past as it is shaped by present circumstances.

Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory may at first seem paradoxical. It changes our focus from the past to the present, while it diminishes the role of the individual in favor of the group. The past, then, is not so much retrieved from our personal recollections, but rather constructed in the present by means of our current social frameworks.

[T]he collective frameworks of memory are not constructed after the fact by the combination of individual recollections; nor are they empty forms where recollections coming from elsewhere would insert themselves. Collective frameworks are, to the contrary, precisely the instruments used by the collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 40)

Taken to the extreme, collective memory theory erases the past, replacing it with the present, and equates tradition history with fiction, leaving us nothing but mere constructed stories. As a result we see scholars periodically chastising “presentist,” “constructivist” sociologists for being too skeptical. For example, Jan Vansina wrote:

read more »


2014-11-16

Ten Elements of Christian Origin

by Neil Godfrey

pentecost1Richard Carrier addresses the question of the historicity of Jesus in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt in the following order:

First, he defines the points that will identify a historical Jesus and those that will be signs of a mythical one.

Second, he set out 48 elements that make up all the background information that needs to be considered when examining the evidence for Jesus.

Third, only then does he address the range of evidence itself and the ability of the alternative hypotheses to account for it.

What Carrier is doing is enabling readers to think through clearly the different factors to be assessed in any analysis of the question: the details of the hypotheses themselves, our background knowledge (none of it must be overlooked — we must guard against tendentious or accidental oversights) and the details of the evidence itself. The book thus sets out all the material in such a way as to enable readers to think the issues through along the following lines:

– given hypothesis X, and given our background knowledge, are the details of this piece of evidence what we would expect? how likely are these details given hypothesis X and our background knowledge?

and (not “or”)

– are the details of this particular evidence what we would expect given the alternative hypothesis (and all our background knowledge)? how likely are these details given our alternative hypothesis and our background knowledge?

That, in a nutshell, is what his Bayesian analysis boils down to. The point of the assigning probability figures to each question and simply a means of assisting consistency of thought throughout the entire exercise. (At least that’s my understanding.)

I’ll put all of this together in a more comprehensive review of Carrier’s book some time in the not too distant future, I hope.

Meanwhile, I’d like to comment on the first ten of his background elements: those of Christian origins. read more »


2014-11-13

“The Jesus Story Cannot Possibly Have Been Fabricated”

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier presents a “mock analogy” to illustrate the absurdity of so much of the reasoning that lies at the heart of the bulk of serious historical Jesus scholarship today. In fact the analogy is similar to ones Tim and I have independently made here. (One scholar who took himself far too seriously was so offended that he even accused me of extreme disrespect for drawing the analogy. I was reminded of the embarrassed crowds shushing and scolding the boy who dared yell out “The king is not wearing any clothes!”)

Here is Carrier’s version (with my formatting and bolding):

Imagine in your golden years you are accused of murdering a child many decades ago and put on trial for it. The prosecution claims you murdered a little girl in the middle of a public wedding in front of thousands of guests. But as evidence all they present is a religious tract written by ‘John’ which lays out a narrative in which the wedding guests watch you kill her.

Who is this John?

The prosecution confesses they don’t know.

When did he write this narrative? 

Again, unknown. Probably thirty or forty years after the crime, maybe even sixty.

Who told John this story?

Again, no one knows. He doesn’t say.

So why should this even be admissible as evidence?

Because the narrative is filled with accurate historical details and reads like an eyewitness account.

Is it an eyewitness account?

Well, no, John is repeating a story told to him.

Told to him by an eyewitness?

Well . . . we really have no way of knowing how many people the story passed through before it came to John and he wrote it down. Although he does claim an eye witness told him some of the details.

Who is that witness?

He doesn’t say.

I see. So how can we even believe the story is in any way true if it comes from unknown sources through an unknown number of intermediaries?

Because there is no way the eyewitnesses to the crime, all those people at the wedding, would have allowed John to lie or make anything up, even after thirty to sixty years, so there is no way the account can be fabricated.

(On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 251)

It does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation

Below is a comparable absurdity set out by Tim back in 2011. For me his punch line is “Our imaginary detective rejected the case because it does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation.” read more »


2014-11-01

McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 2, Ascension of Isaiah

by Neil Godfrey

Related pages:

After addressing the introduction to James McGrath’s initial post reviewing Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus I now discuss his primary focus — the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI). I should be able to say that I will discuss McGrath’s treatment of what Carrier himself writes about the AoI but just as we saw with McGrath’s treatment of Earl Doherty’s mythicist case McGrath gives readers very little idea of what Carrier himself is actually arguing.

One does read at length McGrath’s own viewpoint but without fairly addressing Carrier’s own point the reader has no way of understanding the potential validity of McGrath’s criticisms. No-one reading McGrath’s review would realize, for example, that Carrier includes strong arguments for believing that significant sections of the original text describing the details of Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath (including a one and a half year span of time in the lower firmament) have been lost.

Anyone who has read Carrier’s book also quickly realizes McGrath has read little more than the pages he is discussing.

Carrier introduces the AoI as part of his definition of “the minimal Jesus myth theory”.

For those not aware of the AoI, the AoI is an early Christian composite text:

  1. chapters 1 to 5 describe Isaiah’s altercations with false prophets and culminate in his martyrdom;
  2. the second half (6 to 11) narrates a heavenly vision in which a Beloved Son, one who is predicted to be called Jesus on earth, descends to the lower regions to be crucified, resurrected and exalted again in the highest of the seven heavens;
  3. nested in this second part is another section (11:3-22), in the view of many scholars evidently much later and quite out of character with the style and theme of the surrounding vision, that pictures graphic details of Jesus’ nativity and his crucifixion outside Jerusalem.

That outline is a simplified overview (other verses are also thought to be interpolations and there is some debate about sequences of interpolations) but the general idea can be grasped from this image (also simplified). I have also tried to capture the different viewpoints one is likely to encounter in the various studies on this text:

ascisaiah

1995 was a turning point in the study of the AoI. That year saw two pivotal Italian works that have paved the way for a new consensus:

  • Ascensio Isaiae: Textus, ed. P. Bettiolo, A. Giambelluca Kossova, E. Norelli, and L. Perrone (CCSA, 7; Turnhout, 1995);
  • E. Norelli, Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius (CCSA, 8; Turnhout, 1995).

These were both included in volumes 7 and 8 of the Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum in 1995.

Significance of the AoI

Richard Carrier, like Earl Doherty, argues on the basis of the New Testament epistles that the earliest Christian belief about Jesus was that he was understood to have carried out his works of salvation in the heavenly realm and not on earth. Other texts from the era are drawn in as supporting evidence for this belief. Both Carrier and Doherty see in one of these supporting texts, the AoI, direct evidence external to the epistles for an early Christian belief that Jesus was crucified by demons in a region above the earth.

How Early is the AoI?

read more »


2014-10-31

McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 1, the Introduction

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 8.43.31 amJames McGrath has begun to review Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus at the Bible and Interpretation site. The tone of his review makes a striking contrast to his “review” or Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. McGrath explains that he will cover Carrier’s book in several posts. This opening assessment, Did Jesus Die in Outer Space? Evaluating a Key Claim in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, McGrath explains, will

seek to interact with one key element, and a central one at that – a core part of what Carrier calls the “basic myth hypothesis” or the “minimal Jesus myth theory.”

That “key element” is the Ascension of Isaiah.

I will address the details and rationale for McGrath’s choice of Carrier’s pages 36-48 discussing this text in my next post. For now I am only commenting on McGrath’s introduction. This first instalment of McGrath’s review exceeds 3400 words and the introductory paragraphs 500. I single out his introduction here because is an ominous warning that despite McGrath’s new-found professional tone in his criticism of mythicism we are still going to encounter the same failure of logic and explanation of the arguments he claims to be critiquing.

And a great many details are compatible with more than one scenario. This is one reason why Carrier’s claim, that multiple contradictory reconstructions show that there is a methodological problem with mainstream historical methods, is actually disproven by his own book, which acknowledges time and again that certain details are true of the evidence regardless whether there was a historical Jesus or not.[1] If the same historical data can be compatible with more than one interpretation – and all historians know that this is often the case, particularly when it comes to matters of ancient history, when the evidence is often piecemeal – then a plurality of interpretations is bound to be par for the course. . . 

[1] Carrier p.11; see also for instance pp.85-88.

McGrath’s point is simply wrong. Carrier is not contradicting himself or disproving his own point in his book. The fact that certain evidence is decisive for neither historicity or mythicism is not a question of “interpretation” in the sense McGrath uses the word but a question of fact and logic that can and must be agreed upon by both sides. read more »