Category Archives: Larry Hurtado


2014-07-28

No Public Engagement, Please. We’re Theologians!

by Neil Godfrey

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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:

read more »


2013-09-11

Scholarly Preaching

by Neil Godfrey

How remarkable that some scholars find confirmation of the literal fundamentals of the Christian faith in their erudition. One of these is emeritus professor Larry Hurtado who would appear to have found proof of the resurrection of Jesus. Of course it is difficult for a scholar who insists that his religious faith does not undermine his scholarly integrity to express conviction that an academically rigorous analysis of the evidence demonstrates the near-certainty of the resurrection, so the point is expressed in reverse. One cannot say that the resurrection of Jesus explains the evidence, but one can say that the followers of Jesus had overwhelmingly experienced something that they came to believe was evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Scholars are happy, thereby. The sceptics can supposedly free to attribute psychotic problems to the disciples. But the believers know what is being said. And his recent audience at Perth’s Trinity Theological College who “commissioned” Hurtado to deliver his address certainly believe in the literal and bodily resurrection of Jesus.

So what is the proof?

It lies in they way two Old Testament texts — Psalm 110 Isaiah 45:23-25 — were interpreted by the “earliest believers in their efforts to understand and express their experiences and convictions about Jesus and God.”

First, the mind-conditioning.

We are hit with a series of descriptors to lead us to interpret whatever is coming as “curious”, “strange”, “astonishing”. That is, whatever is about to come has a strong emotive force — not unlike something that the earliest believers themselves supposedly felt when they encountered something strange in need of explanation.

it is a curious fact that neither [OT passage]seems to have been particularly prominent in “pre-Christian” Jewish tradition.  

Of course we are all aware that the passages are found to be of interest in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, but Hurtado dismisses those inconveniences on the grounds that they are “not necessarily persuasive” and amount to “only a couple” of instances. So we are allowed to dismiss evidence to the contrary of our theories if we only see it “a couple of times” and can dismiss it as “not necessarily persuasive”. True believers are apparently permitted to accord themselves little perks like this in debates.

each of these OT texts receives a remarkable and highly innovative interpretation/usage in the NT texts.

Note that. There is no merely “new” or “deviant” or simply “innovative” interpretation of texts when it comes to the early Christians. No, their new interpretations are “highly” innovative, even “remarkable”.

In an astonishing reading, in vv. 9-11 the OT text is drawn on to portray a universal submission to Jesus as Kyrios, thereby bringing glory to the one God (the Father).  That is, an OT passage that emphatically declares the sole supremacy of the one God is drawn on to declare a dyadic obeisance, to Jesus and to God.  

The earliest Christians “astonish” us — scholars included! Their resurrection experience is being relayed to us all by some form of wave emotion. And of course, the OT is interpreted most dogmatically (or is that word pejorative? should I say “emphatically”) that God is a single entity, period. So let all those radical scholars who disagree be shut outside the door. And yes, Hurtado does have his critics on this point, despite his efforts to inform the public that they are somehow behind the eight-ball. (Recently I spoke to a linguist here at the campus where I work and I asked him about the status of Chomsky’s ideas in the field today. Unlike a good many biblical scholars he did not tell me that what he personally believed as if that were the only story worth listening to. He began with, “It depends on who you talk to!” Yes, he did then give his own view — but made it clear that it was his and his was one among several. How many biblical scholars prominent in the public domain are like that?)

So, what could have prompted these radically innovative readings of these OT texts in earliest Christian circles?

The argument avalanches. It is no longer merely “highly innovative.” It has now become “radically innovative”!

And what is the answer to that question? read more »


2013-04-23

We Are All Mythicists Now

by Tim Widowfield
English: Portrait of Milton Friedman

Portrait of Milton Friedman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are all fill-in-the-blank now

You probably recognize the title of this post as a play on the quotation by Milton Friedman, “We are all Keynesians now.” I hadn’t known until recently that Friedman’s (or Nixon’s) quote is itself a play on the earlier “We are all socialists now,” coined by William Vernon Harcourt back in 1887. The phrase has a tasty ironic ring to it, which is why I suppose it reappears every few years with a new predicate nominative.

And I suppose that’s the same reason it occurred to me while reading Larry Hurtado’s recent post “‘Revelatory’ Experiences and Religious Innovation.” Not that Hurtado is a Jesus mythicist, not at all. However, in a sense, everyone acknowledges that some parts of the Jesus “corpus” are mythical. For example, an inerrantist Christian would identify the Jesus as portrayed in the gnostic gospels as mostly mythic or legendary. A liberal Christian might point to examples closer to home in the canonical books of the New Testament.

Where did the myths come from?

The standard model for the development of Christianity posits a human Jesus who ran afoul of the Roman authorities (perhaps accidentally, possibly on purpose) and was crucified. His followers were stunned and the experience somehow caused them to start seeing visions and interpreting scripture in a radically new way.

The way in which this “post-Easter” sequence of events played out remains a bit murky. You can expect to see lots of hand-waving and hear lots of fuzzy talk. But it’s worth serious discussion in the attempt to come up with a plausible story. The first step, I think, toward plausibility is to describe what kinds of processes must have been at work to create new, mythical representations of Jesus. How, for example, did the view of the risen Christ in heaven come to be thought of as true and real — so real and so immediate, that for someone like Paul it essentially eclipsed the human Jesus?

In discussing the question of how Jesus became a “co-recipient of devotion along with God,” Hurtado points to two processes: (1) revelatory experiences and (2) charismatic exegesis. The first has to do with visions of Christ, the second, with interpreting the Bible in new ways.

While I’m more interested in how the mythical, exalted, resurrected Christ emerged, Hurtado is focused on how the model of worship in which God and Jesus are both venerated could have arisen out of Judaism. We recall a similar question from Hurtado: namely, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? In the current blog post he writes:

read more »


2013-03-16

Who’s the scholarly scoundrel? Scholars of Christian origins bound by bias, immured in myth.

by Neil Godfrey

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I disengaged from the question that was being asked, falling on the last resort of the scholarly scoundrel: “I’m just trying to figure out what really happened! (Daniel Boyarin)

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Most of us [biblical scholars] are just trying to follow the evidence. (Larry Hurtado)

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just-the-factsForget mythicism or the Christ myth debate. That’s irrelevant. Or should be. What matters is the evidence we have, understanding it and explaining it. The evidence we have from the early days of Christianity is a literary and a theological Jesus. No-one I know of in my circle gloats or thinks they are scoring points over whether they can prove or disprove the existence of the historical Jesus. What interests them is understanding the best way to explain both the nature of early Christianity and Christianity’s origins. What matters is making the best sense of the data available. But first we need to have a clear and valid understanding of what constitutes the data to be explained.

In my previous post I noted what should be a simple truism: scholars of Christian origins generally are doing little more than paraphrasing (in scholarly language and with their own qualifying preferences) the Christian myth we have inherited from the Bible.

I have no doubt the bulk of them are very sincere and would sincerely censure me for suggesting that their scholarly pursuits are trapped in the myth itself. This blog has frequently posted observations of the ineptitude of some biblical scholars who seem to fall very short with respect to rigour and understanding of questions of historical methods, awareness of what their peers and foundational predecessors have written, and even the very nature of scholarly bias and the meaning of evidence.

The second of the quotes above struck me at first as a caricature. Surely a professor would know something about the nature of bias in any scholarly pursuit and especially in one as ideological as biblical studies.

Apparently not. I attempted to post a comment addressing the naivety of this view but my comment was rejected. The same professor even remarked that my suggestion of bias in the scholarly field amounted to charge of a “conspiratorial agenda”. Does a professor really believe that the alternative to freedom from bias is deliberate conspiracies? Or is this a defensive response against lay critics who can see the emperors are scantily clad?

So I post here the message that the professor did not appear to want others to read on his blog:

I do not believe biblical studies is unlike any other academic discipline and institution when it comes to questions of institutional (let alone personal) bias. Bias is a necessary part of the human condition and without it we cannot function. Surely everyone knows that the trick is to be aware of our biases and that that is not always a simple matter.

We don’t need to go beyond Albert Schweitzer’s observation that up till his own day scholars had produced an array of historical Jesus figures, each one in the image of his scholarly creator.

The latest historical Jesus figure I’ve encountered was only a few months ago and he, too, is very much the spitting image of his maker, Rabbi Joseph Hoffmann (i.e., all his scholarly peers are failures, only he can rescue them, but they don’t listen to him, he is without a place, and he sure as blazes doesn’t love everybody). I think we can conclude little has changed since Schweitzer’s day in this respect.

No one “simply follows the evidence” read more »


2012-08-03

Only scholars can “know” Jesus existed

by Neil Godfrey

I asked Dr Hurtado point blank:

I grant that there are many questions that require much training in order to make reliable judgements. But what specific expertise do I need to make “to make a reliable judgement” on whether or not Jesus was historical?

The good doctor explained most explicitly: read more »


Lost Responses to Larry Hurtado

by Neil Godfrey

Dr Hurtado asked me for specific and concise responses to his recent comments and I gave them. Presumably they have got lost in his moderation queue because they have not appeared on his blog though later comments from others have since appeared. It gets to the heart, I think, of where historicist reasoning gets warped within its institutionally embedded assumptions. Larry appears to me to be genuinely confusing the logic of the argument involved and is trapped in his own belief that scholarly attention to what Jesus was like by “definition” has taken care of the question of having addressed the historical existence of such a figure. Scholars have found the answers to past questions so easily answered by the historical Jesus model that to now question its logical foundations is beyond their abilities.

In short, Jesus is said to have existed primarily because scholars have found him such a handy reference in all their questions — never mind that the questions were always ultimately predicated upon his existence in the first place.

Larry asked the following:

Neil,  

I stand by my characterization of your stance (and that of Vincent) [that is, that we are intellectually akin to flat-earthers]: I provide you with texts and reasoning, and the typical response has been “oh yes, but it just might also mean something else,” without offering any reason for preferring the latter.   read more »


2012-07-29

Larry Hurtado’s Wearying (and Irresponsible?) Encore

by Neil Godfrey

Larry Hurtado’s initial response to my post did not offer any expectation that he might engage with the larger argument I made. I was surprised to find him refer to it as a post about him (personally) and mystified as to how he could interpret my reference to “some scholars” engaging in insult and ridicule as a descriptor of his approach. I only used his initial post as an example to segue into a more general discussion about the difficulty even scholars (or especially scholars) and others generally often have in listening to the arguments of the Christ Myth theory with any seriousness. But he did attract some discussion from others commenting on his blog post.

I did not read all the comments there — I am unfortunately sometimes pushed to read all the comments on my own blog — so I cannot tell the extent to which his reactions expressed in his follow up post, The “Did Jesus Exist” Controversy–Encore, were justified.

But I will make a few general remarks here. I welcome Larry’s thoughts if he is at all inclined to respond.

No knowledge of the central thesis

He epitomizes what he sees as some “foundations” of the Christ Myth theory:

We’ve had examples of the erroneous, but confidently asserted, claims on which the “mythicist” stance seems to rest. E.g., no evidence of Nazareth as a real village (cf., e.g., J. L. Reed, Archareology and the Galilean Jesus, 131-32; J. L. Rousseau & R. Arav, Jesus and His World, 214-16); or that a figure called “Jesus” was an object of religious devotion before early Christianity (no evidence of this at all); or that statements in Paul’s letters about Jesus’ brothers were later interpolations (no text-critical support or in scholarship on these texts), etc.

If this is the impression Hurtado has gained about the “claims on which the ‘mythicist’ stance seems to rest” then it is very clear he has not himself read mythicist arguments. Perhaps he is relying on incidental blog comments to form a judgment about the entire theory. read more »


2012-07-26

Larry Hurtado’s Wearying Historical Jesus Question

by Neil Godfrey

Don’t get me wrong. I have found many worthwhile nuggets in the publications of Larry Hurtado. I find some of the analysis and conclusions in his “How On Earth Did Jesus Become A God?” very insightful. If I see his name in a contribution or bibliography I generally take notice and follow up. If I ever met Larry in person I would very much hope we could shake hands and enjoy a stimulating discussion. I have no doubts he could teach me much.

So let anyone who broadcasts some nonsense about my supposedly “hating scholars” please take a valium or step outside and water your garden.

And what’s more, I find myself in total sympathy with his weary plight when he writes (only a day or two ago):

The shape of Earth as envisioned by Samuel Row...

The shape of Earth as envisioned by Samuel Rowbotham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot. It’s a bit wearying to contemplate!

Hurtado, I have no doubt, believes sincerely that “the current wave of ‘mythicist’ proponents” is “ill informed and illogical”. According to his post his only acquaintance with mythicist arguments is an eighty-year old book opposing mythicism. It is the most natural thing in the world for him to accept that this book, in 1938 published by the Student ChristianMission Press, would in a cordial and Christian manner give readers a full grasp of the basis of mythicist arguments and with good grace and irrefutable logic and undeniable evidence tear those arguments apart limb by hapless limb.

And he cannot imagine today’s mythicists being any better informed or logical because, to him, the very denial of the historical existence of Jesus is akin to denying the earth is round, the earth orbits the sun, or the moon landings really happened.

And that’s the problem! read more »