Category Archives: New Testament Studies


No Public Engagement, Please. We’re Theologians!

by Neil Godfrey


Otto Günther, Disputatious Theologians [Disputierende Theologen] (1876)

Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado is a well respected scholar who has made significant contributions to his field. I have read four of his books (How on Earth Did Jesus Become God? — which I have discussed favourably on this blog; One God, One Lord; Lord Jesus Christ; and The Earliest Christian Artefacts) and have a fifth (“Who Is This Son of Man?”) on my shelf waiting in line to be read soon. I have learned a lot from Professor Hurtado. I especially love to follow up footnotes and I have learned much from other readings to which Hurtado’s works have led me.

However, I also have some differences with the Professor. That’s only to be expected. Probably none of will ever find anyone with whom we agree on everything. In an exchange some time ago I realized just how deep our differences were when I asked him for what he considered the bare raw data that any historian of Christian origins needs to be able to explain. His reply demonstrated that he is fails to distinguish data from interpretation. (I described this interaction and illustrated Professor Hurtado’s confused reply in Who’s the Scholarly Scoundrel? — Do excuse the editorial choice of heading. I do not believe Larry Hurtado is really a scoundrel. I once almost had the opportunity to visit the university where he resides and had looked forward to shaking his hand had the trip come off.) I found this confusion of data and interpretation/conclusions drawn from data alarming in someone who claims to be a historian. But then long-term readers of this blog will know how I have often pointed out the stark differences between the way historians of other fields when at their best employ methods that are unlike anything found in theology departments. Richard Carrier is not the only historian to point to Bayes’ theorem as a tool that can help historians monitor their biases and lapses in valid analyses of data and prod them towards more reliable results. Historians of the New Testament have a lot of catching up to do.

But there was another exchange with Professor Hurtado that shook me even more. He appeared to declare that one is only qualified to make a sound judgement on whether Jesus existed if one spends years in the studies of ancient languages and textual analysis and more:

Anything is open to question, of course. But to engage the sort of questions involved in this discussion really requires one to commit to the hard work of learning languages, mastering textual analysis, text-critical matters, historical context of the ancient Roman period and the Jewish setting of the time, archaeology, and more. And we know when someone has done this when they prove it in the demands of scholarly disputation and examination, typically advanced studies reflected in graduate degrees in the disciplines, and then publications that have been reviewed and judged by scholarly peers competent to judge. That is how you earn the right to have your views taken as having some basis and some authority. I’m not an expert in virology, or astro-physics, or a number of other fields. So, I’ll have to operate in light of the judgements of those who are. Why should I distrust experts in a given subject? Why should I term it “intellectual bullying” if scholars in a given field asked about a given issue state the generally-held view in a straightforward manner, and ask for justification for rejecting it? (Larry Hurtado’s Wearying Did Jesus Exist? Encore)

Professor James McGrath has said the same:

Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally(and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong. (Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?)

I won’t repeat here what should be the very obvious counter-arguments that I have spelt out in the related posts linked above, especially Can A Lay Person Reasonably Evaluate A Scholarly Argument?

Professor Hurtado’s latest blog post repeats this point:

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Biblical Scholars in a “Neoliberal-Postmodern” World

by Neil Godfrey

jesus-in-an-age-of-neoliberalism2This is part 2 of my review of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by James G. Crossley. (Once again I invite Professor Crossley to alert me to anything he sees in these posts that he believes is a misrepresentation of his views.)

The point of chapter 2, Neoliberalism and Postmodernity, is to

provide the broad contextual basis for analysing some of the ways in which Jesus has been constructed in scholarship and beyond in recent decades. (p. 21)

To explain postmodernism and postmodernity Crossley directs us to Terry Eagleton’s understanding in The Illusions of Postmodernism, p. vii:

The word postmodernism generally refers to a form of contemporary culture, whereas the term postmodernity alludes to a specific historical period. Postmodemity is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms, it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which breed a degree of scepticism about the objectivity of truth, history and norms, the givenness of natures and the coherence of identities. . . . Postmodernism is a style of culture which reflects something of this epochal change, in a depthless, decentred, ungrounded, self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic, pluralistic art which blurs the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, as well as between art and everyday experience.

Crossley explains that he will attempt to link “postmodernity with the political trends in Anglo-American culture”, if not precisely, then by means of a “general case” that itself will be “a strong one”. We’ll see how strong it is as we progress through these reviews.

Crossley did say (see the previous post) that

This book is at least as much about contemporary politics, ideology and culture as it is about Jesus, and in many ways, not least due to unfamiliar approaches in historical Jesus studies, this is almost inevitable. (p. 10)

Now there is much about Crossley’s politics that I like. I share his despair at the political conservatism, the lack of critical political reflection and awareness among his biblical studies peers. I like his idealism and frustration with his peers as well as his respect for their individual decent natures. Unfortunately I sense that too often Crossley loses himself in his efforts to politically educate his peers that he only maintains the most tenuous links with how these political views influence the shape of the historical Jesus produced by these scholars.

The chapter is wide-ranging as we expect when discussions of postmodernity and postmodernism arise. The cultural, economic and political context involves a broad-ranging discussion that consists masses of data: “near hagiographical treatments of the ‘material girl’ Madonna and her MTV stage”,  “Steve Jobs, advertizing his iPoducts as the machinery of the casually clothed”, the politico-cultural symbolism of decaffeinated coffee, television parodies of entrepreneurial culture, 1970s Chile, the recession and oil crisis of 1973, the “sharp rise in personal image consultants in the 1980s”. . . .

Only passing mentions to biblical scholars are found in this chapter (for the reason I mentioned above) and I will focus on those in this post. read more »


What the Context Group (and Casey) Missed

by Tim Widowfield
What Is Social-Scientific Criticism?

What Is Social-Scientific Criticism?

Social-Scientific Criticism

In an earlier post — Casey: Taking Context out of Context — we discussed the disturbing habit in NT scholarship of explaining away textual difficulties by playing the high-context card. For example, in What Is Social-Scientific Criticism? John H. Elliott of the Context Group writes:

Further, the New Testament, like the Old Testament and other writings of antiquity, consists of documents written in what anthropologists call a “high context” society where the communicators presume a broadly shared acquaintance with and knowledge of the social context of matters referred to in conversation or writing. Accordingly, it is presumed in such societies that contemporary readers will be able to “fill in the gaps” and “read between the lines.” (John H Elliott. Kindle Locations 125-128)

Similarly, Bruce Malina explains why Paul’s writings are often “misunderstood”:

The New Testament was written in what anthropologists call a “high context” culture. People who communicate with each other in high context societies presume a broadly shared, generally well-understood knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing. (Bruce J. Malina; John J. Pilch. Social-science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (p. 5). Kindle Edition.)

Hoping to explain away the messianic secret, David F. Watson says:

The necessity of protective secrecy was exacerbated in the ancient Mediterranean context by the “high-context” nature of the culture. A high-context culture is one in which people are deeply involved in the everyday activities of those around them and in which information is widely shared. . . . Within the high-context setting, secrecy would be an important and necessary means of protection. (Watson, Honor among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, p. 25)

Useful but misused

I want to be clear up front. I would never argue that social-scientific criticism is in itself a misguided approach, but I do wish to point out a few observations that indicate a pattern of misuse. We continually read that the people in Jesus’ and Paul’s time lived in a high-context culture, with little in the way of demonstration.

However, a scientific approach demands that scholars provide evidence for their assertions. Besides proving that NT writers lived in high-context cultures, scholars must also prove it follows that their writings will always reflect that high context. Because it is stated flatly as a “known fact,” we miss out on important points of the discussion. For example:

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The Arbitrary Approach to Miracle Stories In “Historical Jesus” Scholarship

by Neil Godfrey

* Removing the miraculous from a story does not bring us closer to history; it only destroys the point of the story.

* Two-step miraculous healing of the blind (e.g. spit on the eyes followed by touching them, Mark 8:23-25) are evidently symbolic of the double-efforts to open the (spiritual) eyes of the disciples.

* Jesus’ miracles of exorcisms and healings as portrayed in the canonical gospels are not comparable to the way healers and exorcists really worked. The former are the work of a single divine utterance as befits a creator God or his Son; the latter involve magic formulae and arcane rituals.

I have posted on miracles and what the scholarly literature has to say about them before.* This time I take a different tack.

In my recent post, Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”, we saw that the “type of discourse” and “language categories” of the Gospels group them with fantasy literature and separate them from the sources we rely upon to identify historical persons and events.

This post continues that theme but compares the place of miracles in the Gospels and other ancient literature.

Before we begin let me address common objections.

Yes, we all know the Gospels include many accurate historical and geographical features. (They also contain errors and anachronisms.) But references to real persons and places no more makes ancient narratives “historical” than it makes James Bond movies historical or ancient/modern historical fiction “historical”. See, for example, Ancient Novels Like the Gospels: Mixing History and Myth and History and Verisimilitude: “Real” vs. “Realistic”.

And yes, we all know that miraculous events are found in ancient works that we classify as historical. But there is a clear difference in the way miracles are narrated in works by ancient historians and what we read in various gospels, both uncanonical and canonical. These differences return us to the theme of the previous post, the difference in verbal categories that identify different types of discourse. In historiographical works (at least in all cases I can recall) the discourse conveys an author’s self-conscious apologetic to justify their inclusion in the book. The reason for this is that the historian understands and accepts and writes within the conceptual framework of an “empirically stable reality”. If miracles are introduced the author must explain in some way why he mentions them or how he justifies their appearance in a work that is otherwise about “the real world”. (They were reported by so-and-so; I would not repeat this except that. . . ., etc.) But now we are sequeing into the theme of this post.

Whittling the sources down to the canonical gospels

So how do historical Jesus scholars justify their reliance upon works that are evidently theological tracts riddled with miraculous events? read more »


The Buddha Comparison Fallacy in HJ Studies

by Neil Godfrey
English: Christ_and_Buddha_by_Paul_Ranson

English: Christ_and_Buddha_by_Paul_Ranson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only a day after posting the John Meier’s Nixon/Thales fallacy, as if right on cue Larry Hurtado has posted his own version of a similar fallacy, a comparison of the evidence for Buddha with that for Jesus.

Recall the Nixon/Thales comparison fallacy:

When John Meier in his opening chapter of volume one of The Marginal Jew discusses the “basic concept” of “The Real Jesus and the Historical Jesus” he creates the illusion of starting at the beginning but in fact he leaves the entire question of historicity begging.

  • Of course we can’t know “the real Jesus” given the time-gap and state of the records; after all, we can only partially know “the real Nixon” despite his recency and the avalanche of material available on him.
  • Of course it becomes increasingly difficult to assess “the historical” the further back in time we go; it’s hard enough knowing what to make of Thales or Apollonius of Tyana “or anyone else in the ancient world” and the evidence is just as scant for Jesus.

Owens identifies what Meier has done in making such comparisons (my bolding in all quotations):

An implication exists in the double comparison, which is that Jesus is as real as Nixon and as historical as Thales but the explicit point is that there is less ‘reality’ data on Jesus than on Nixon, and as meager ‘historical’ data on Jesus as on Thales.

We note that what we might consider the “first question” of any book purporting to deal with the issue of a ‘historical Jesus’ – the question of whether or not Jesus existed — is being set up to go begging. ‘Reality’ is impossible, and ‘history’ is impossibly difficult, so we are to assume both, as we do with Nixon and Thales.

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 216-221). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

See how Larry Hurtado has fallen into the same implicit fallacy with his Buddha comparison: read more »