Search Results for: "Brother of the Lord"


2017-12-10

Follow up questions to my post on not seeing myself as a “Jesus mythicist”

by Neil Godfrey

Posting here a few more of my responses to questions that were raised on the BC&H forum about my stance on the Jesus mythicism question. (The first post in this series is Why I don’t see myself as a Christ Mythicist)

On making reasonable assumptions and seeing where they take us

Is it reasonable to assume that the Gospel of Mark was received as about an actual person? Is it reasonable to assume that the Gospel of Mark as written around the 70s or 80s CE, in your mind? What makes an assumption reasonable when it comes to the Gospel of Mark?

That’s not how valid historical inquiry works. Such a method can only produce speculative results. Not historical reconstruction.

According to the normative methods of dating documents the gospel of Mark could have been produced anywhere between 70 and 140 or even later CE. The only reason scholars prefer the earlier date is because of that mother of all assumptions, the presumption that the gospel’s narrative derives from a historical Jesus or events and they need/want the text to be as close as possible to that event so a proposed oral tradition chain does not lose too much in the process. And so the circle turns.

And that’s not even addressing the clear evidence that our form of the gospel is not what it was in the beginning.

What other historical inquiry works with “assumptions” that can never be corroborated from which they build their entire historical reconstruction? I suggest any that do are invalid.

Can you clarify your argument?

Is your argument that although 1st century CE Christians believed in a recently executed historical Jesus, we cannot tell if this Jesus really existed or not ? Or is your argument that we cannot tell whether 1st century CE Christians believed in a historical Jesus or not ?

I don’t argue for either. I leave behind any questions that arise directly or indirectly from the assumption that the fundamental plots of the gospel narratives or any of their narrative details are derived from real historical events. Such an assumption I find unsupportable given the absence of independent corroboration.

I think some biblical scholars work on the same principle: they study the Jesus in the gospels as a literary and theological figure. The question of historicity or otherwise simply does not arise. It is not a question that the sources enable us to explore.

Further, the question assumes the existence of a certain group (“Christians”) at a certain time (1st century CE) that I suggest are derived from the assumption of a historical background to the gospel narratives. What are “Christians” in the question? How are they defined? What is the evidence for them and for existing in the 1st century CE? I am not denying that there are reasonable answers to such questions. Just seeking my own clarification.

(Even if we are relying upon Paul’s letters, I am not sure that even those support the assumption that Paul and his followers belonged to a separate “Christian” group distinct from “Judaism”.)

The best I think we can say is that we have narratives about an executed Jesus (whether “recent” from the time of writing we cannot say with any confidence) and the historian needs to work with these, seeking to understand the nature of these narratives and explanations for their origins and the functions and influences they served. As for what certain people at certain times “believed”, that sounds to me like a very thorny question that will require a reliance upon more than the narratives themselves.

The letters of Paul are another set of documents that give rise to their own questions. The important thing, to me, is to study these questions without introducing traditional assumptions.

Is Matthew trying to squash rumours about the empty tomb?

Do you think Matthew 28:13-15 (if written in 1st CE) could be a actual response against the Jews of 1st CE who believed Jesus body was taken by his disciples after being crucified and thus evidence of historicity?

“Matthew” is writing a story. It’s a story. It could also be an actual response to Jews of the first century etc, but we would need to have independent evidence to support that interpretation. I don’t know how we can say that such a view (that it is an actual real-life response etc) is part of a historical record.

It is dangerous to use the Matthew narrative as evidence that Jews at the time were saying that Jesus’ body had been stolen. In fact, I don’t see how it can be justified by valid historical methods. Of itself, the story reads just like the ending of a Hans Christian Anderson tale that assures children that the shoes or some trinket can be found “to this very day” beneath a certain tree in a certain forest. It adds a teasing touch of verisimilitude.

(As a commenter wrote on my blog just a few hours ago, Matthew also seems to be teasing readers with a call for them to go and speak to witnesses of all the dead who rose out of their graves at the time Jesus died.)

It is just as reasonable to explain Matthew’s story of the bribery of soldiers as an attempt to tidy up a loose end in Mark’s narrative. And a far more parsimonious explanation that postulating all the variables that need to be introduced to support historicity.

Besides, what if the gospel were not even written until the mid-second century? Would there be such a concern for explaining away a historical event a century earlier? We simply don’t know when Matthew was written.

So am I a Jesus Mythicist?

My answer to that question is that I see no evidence comparable to the evidence we have for other known historical persons so as far as I am concerned the question is irrelevant. We cannot assume that he did exist. And I don’t assume he existed. If I were to think there was such a historical person then I would need to be shown clear evidence comparable to the evidence we have for other known historical persons.

For an example of what I mean by a proof-text argument and why I believe it is worthless see Thinking through the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19.

Merely trying to argue a point by apologetic proof-texting is not going to cut it. Historians don’t do simplistic proof-texting; at least not “real historians”. They evaluate the evidence, its provenance, its context, its agenda, before they draw conclusions from it.

We can only work with the evidence we have, and if the ultimate goal of New Testament studies is to understand the origins of Christianity, then the literary Jesus is all we have and the only one we can work with.

(The epithet “mythicist” has become too emotionally charged. Academically, though, there is no need. Many critical scholars acknowledge that the Jesus of the gospels is surely literary and mythical. More biblical scholars are doing a new type of literary analysis on the gospels. It ought to be quite possible, at least in theory, for believers in a historical Jesus and for those who don’t believe there was a historical Jesus to discuss, argue, debate, explore and research the evidence together — as long as all are agreed that the evidence is the written documents we have and not some imaginary constructs that see the figures of the narrative take on a life of their own independent of those texts.)

 


2017-12-06

Focus, Focus, Focus — but Not Blinkered

by Neil Godfrey

Larry Hurtado’s ongoing attempts to defend the reasons biblical scholars opt to ignore the arguments of the Christ Myth theory reinforce fundamental points in my original post, Reply to Larry Hurtado: “Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars”. Hurtado’s latest response is Focus, Focus, Focus. Some excerpts and my comments:

The question is whether the Gospels are best accounted for as literary productions that incorporate a body of prior traditions about Jesus of Nazareth, and on that question scholars over 250 years have broadly agreed that they do.  The earmarks of the traditions are there all over their texts.  The Gospel writers weren’t inventing a human figure, but composing biographical narratives of a figure who had been central from the beginning of the Jesus-movement.  The Gospels mark a development in the literary history of the first-century Jesus movement, appropriating the emergent biographical genre.  But they were essentially placing Jesus-tradition in this literary form.

That the gospels are “biographies” is not a fact but an interpretation, based most often on Richard Burridge’s What Are the Gospels? A number of scholars have found reasons to be critical of Burridge’s arguments, however, as have I. Both Tim and I have discussed Burridge’s book and some of the scholarly criticisms several times now as well as having written more studies on gospel genre generally, introducing a range of scholarly inputs on that question. But let’s stay focused. A “biographical” genre by itself does not mean that the person written about was historical. The ancient times saw a number of “biographies” written about persons we know to have been fictitious, even though the tone and style indicate to a less informed reader that they are about a “true” person. I have discussed several of these in the links above.

Scholars who pay attention to literary studies of the ancient world also know that ancient writers were trained to create details of verisimilitude to make their compositions (letters, novellas, speeches, poems) sound authentic or plausible.

Further, the claim that the gospels “incorporate a body of prior traditions about Jesus of Nazareth” is, in fact, an assumption that is generally “supported” by appeals to details in the text of the gospels that too often are in fact circular. The process is very often an exercise in the fallacy of confirmation bias. The assumption that oral tradition is behind the gospel narratives is the eyepiece through which the gospels are read, and lo and behold, the evidence expected is indeed found to be there. The method has too rarely been checked by controls. A few scholars have applied controls to these arguments, however, and have found that in several cases the evidence that was claimed to be support for oral tradition is, in fact, more directly found to be a sign of literary borrowing. Take, for example, the “rule of three”. Words, motifs, incidents in folktales are often repeated three times and this is said to be an aid to memory. Fine. But what is overlooked is that we find the “rule of three” also liberally populating very literary works with other literary influences.

Yes, I am very aware of studies on oral traditions in the Balkans and Africa and have addressed several of these in posts on this blog. Unfortunately, I have also found that in too many cases a scholar has quote-mined such a study and misapplied its statements to support an otherwise gratuitous claim about gospel origins.

The applicability of those oral tradition studies have been found by a number of scholars not to be applicable to the data we find in our canonical gospels. Again, see some of the posts on Vridar for references to some of the scholarly works addressing this question. I will be posting more in future.

Hurtado continues:

Another reader seems greatly exercised over how much of the Jesus-tradition Paul recounts in his letters, and how much Paul may have known.  Scholars have probed these questions, too, for a loooong time.  E.g., David L. Dungan, The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).  But, in any case, this isn’t the issue of my posting, or even essential to the “mythical Jesus” question.

Yes, and indeed it is “many scholars” who also write in their publications of Paul’s virtually complete lack of interest or even knowledge of the human Jesus. Unfortunately, Hurtado appears to have chosen not to even consider or read any of the criticisms of those arguments that bypass certain critical problems with those common assumptions about Paul’s supposed references to the “historical Jesus”. Again, the works available, by both mainstream scholars and Christ Myth theorists, are abundant and discussed in past posts.

The Pauline question is whether his letters treat Jesus as a real historical figure, indeed a near contemporary, and the answer is actually rather clear, as indicated in my posting.  Paul ascribes to Jesus a human birth, a ministry among fellow Jews, an execution specifically by Roman crucifixion, named/known siblings, and other named individuals who were Jesus’ original companions (e.g., Kephas/Peter, John Zebedee).  Indeed, in Paul’s view, it was essential that Jesus is a real human, for the resurrected Jesus is Paul’s model and proto-type of the final redemption that Paul believes God will bestow on all who align themselves with Jesus.  In Paul’s view, what God did to/for Jesus is what God will do for Paul and others who respond to the gospel.

Here Hurtado is glossing over a number of peer-reviewed scholarly studies that contradict some of his points. That conservative scholars choose to ignore these studies does not change the fact that they exist and stand as challenges to the claims by Hurtado here. See, for example, posts discussing the scholarly debate over a passage in 1 Thessalonians that speaks of Jews in Judea being responsible for Jesus’ death, discussions on the passage in Galatians that speaks of Jesus being “born of a woman”, and even my most recent summary of some (only some) of the points relating to the question of James being a “brother of the Lord”.

Hurtado’s assertions are not facts; they are interpretations that are indeed debated in the scholarly literature. Yes, conservative scholarship might dominate the guild today, and minority views might be ignored. But they do exist and ought to be considered fairly.

Of course, with the Jesus movement of his time more widely, Paul also ascribed to Jesus a post-resurrection heavenly status and regal role as God’s plenipotentiary, and likewise (and on the basis of Jesus’ heavenly exaltation) a “pre-existence”.  But for Paul and earliest believers it wasn’t a “zero-sum game,” in which Jesus could only be either a human/historical figure or a heavenly king.  For them, the one didn’t cancel out the other.

Hurtado here conflates “human” with “historical”. I suggest the equation is not necessarily valid given that the world has seen perhaps as many fictitious humans in its cultural history as non-human ones. Some Christ Myth theorists propose that Jesus was always entirely non-human. My own interests are in a different area, but as far as I understand, it makes no difference to the historicity question if Jesus was thought to appear as a human for a few hours, days, or even years, or even having “slipped through” the womb of Mary in order to be “human”. Let’s stay focused.

The earliest circles of the Jesus movement ransacked their scriptures to try to understand the events of Jesus, especially his execution and (in their conviction) his resurrection.  But it was these historical events that drove the process.

Again, this is mere assertion, an assumption, for which there is no independent evidence. The justifications for the claim derive from circular reasoning, I suggest. Or at least they are simply begging the question of the existence of Jesus. The evidence that is before us allows for quite another interpretation: that the early Christians derived their knowledge of Jesus from revelation, including the revelation of scriptures. Again, such viewpoints have been discussed at length many times on this blog.

Finally, this discussion is about history, not theology or faith.  What you make of early Christian claims about Jesus’ significance, how you view traditional Christian faith, etc., are all quite separate matters from the historical judgement that Jesus of Nazareth was a real early first-century Jew from Galilee.

Oh that that were true! The Christian faith, it must be kept in mind, is faith that a certain event in the past was more than just theological; it was historical. Faith in the historicity of the event is what Christianity is all about for most conservative Christians.

A handful of Christians I know of have found a way to move beyond such an earthly bound faith (as Schweitzer himself believers them to do) and have found a way to remain Christian even without belief in a historical Jesus. (Not that Schweitzer did not believe in a historical Jesus; he did. But that was not his spiritual message. See Schweitzer in context)

So, let’s stay focused, folks.

Indeed. Focused, but not blinkered.

 


2017-05-01

A Case for the “Easter” Appearances of Jesus BEFORE the Crucifixion

by Neil Godfrey

There is an inconsistency in a fundamental argument, or assumption, rather, among critical scholars of Christian origins that has long been bugging me.

The principle was set down by David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century,

when we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of these prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical. (Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, p. 89)

Now that maxim is frequently and sensibly deployed by critical scholars. It is the reason that Burton Mack  (no doubt there are others, too) denies the historicity of Jesus charging into the Temple and expelling the “traders” there.

It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations. (Mack, Myth of Innocence, p. 292)

Many scholars, however, need the “Temple disturbance” to be historical in order to explain why Jesus was eventually arrested so many jettison the principle to make the narrative work as history. (Paula Fredriksen points out the flaw in their argument.)

David Chumney (whose book, Jesus Eclipsed, I have just completed, and which has many excellent points along with a few unfortunate flaws) makes the point loud and clear:

  • Matthew 8:16-17 (& 11:4-5) tell us that Jesus healed sicknesses in fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 53:4 (Unfortunately once again the Strauss’s criterion is put aside by most scholars who require Jesus to have been a healer in order to explain his “historical following”.)
  • The triumphal entry into Jerusalem is acknowledged by more scholars (e.g. E.P. Sanders, Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, David Catchpole) to be a fiction created out of scriptures such as Psalm 118:25-26 and Zechariah 9:9.
  • The magi following the star (Matthew 2:1-12) is based on Numbers 24:17 and Isaiah 60:3, 5-6.
  • Herod’s massacre of the infants (Matthew 2:16-18) is crafted from Exodus 1:15-22 and Jeremiah 31:15.
  • The angel’s announcement of John the Baptist’s birth (to be) (Luke 1:8-20) is woven from Genesis 18:9-15.
  • Mary’s prayer, the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) comes from 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

Robert Price draws attention to many more: the infant Jesus’ escape into Egypt; Jesus baptism; the 40 days in the wilderness and testing by Satan; the call of the disciples; the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and her response; Jesus healing of the paralytic; healing the withered hand; the appointing of the twelve disciples; the instructions given to them on how to go out and preach; Jesus calming the storm; the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac; the raising of Jairus’s daughter; Jesus’ family rejecting him; the execution of John the Baptist; the miraculous feedings of thousands; the walking on the sea; Jesus calling the people to listen to him; Jesus healing the daughter of the woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon; the transfiguration; the rivalry among the disciples for the most prestigious position; the story of the exorcist who did not follow Jesus; . . . . .

And the list could probably be just as long if we itemized each of the “prophesied” details in the Passion narrative. (See Price, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point” in The Historical Jesus: Five Views.)

John Shelby Spong concedes that pretty much everything in the gospels is fiction based a creative reworking of Jewish Scriptures. All except for virtually only one detail: the execution, the martyrdom, of Jesus.

That Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” as the Creed affirms, is historically the most stable datum we have concerning Jesus . . . (Joel B. Green, “The Death of Jesus” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 2383)

. . . not that there is the slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate . . . (John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, p. 375)

There is no doubt both that he was crucified and that after his death he was believed to have been restored to life. (John Shelby Spong, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. p. 236)

Yet it is the crucifixion of Jesus that is the MOST chock-full of Old Testament Scriptural allusions and citations.  read more »


2017-01-08

Albert Schweitzer on the Christ Myth Debate

by Neil Godfrey

Without citing any instances to support his claim, Bart Ehrman charged “mythicists” as sometimes guilty of dishonestly quote-mining Albert Schweitzer to make it sound as if Schweitzer supported the view that Jesus was not a historical person. Ehrman’s unsubstantiated allegation has been repeated by Cornelis Hoogerwerf on his blog (without any acknowledgement to Ehrman); Jona Lendering of Livius.org has reportedly alerted Jim West of Cornelis’s “observation” and Jim has in turn informed his readership of Cornelis’s “excellent post”.

The tone in which the debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus has been conducted does little credit to the culture of the twentieth century. (Albert Schweiter, p.394, the 2001 Fortress edition of Quest) — and ditto for the 21st century!

Here’s an excellent post . . . on the way the Jesus mythicists misrepresent Schweitzer to further their unhinged, maniacal, idiotic goals. (From The Crazy ‘Jesus Mythicists’ Lie About Schweitzer the Way Trump Lies About Everything)

If anyone knows who has quoted Schweitzer to support a claim that Jesus did not exist please do inform me either by email or in a comment below. I am not suggesting that no-one has mischievously or ignorantly misquoted Schweitzer to suggest he had doubts about the historicity of Jesus but I have yet to see who these mythicists are of whom Ehrman, Hoogerwerf and West speak. I do know that my own blog post quotations of Schweitzer have been picked up by others and recycled but I was always careful to point out that Schweitzer was no mythicist, and indeed that was a key reason I presented the quotations: the strength of their contribution to my own point was that they derived from someone who argued at length against the Christ Myth theory.

So I would like to know the identities of the “quack historians” of whom Cornelis Hoogerwerf writes:

To no surprise for those who are a little bit familiar with the contrivances of quack historians, Albert Schweitzer is getting quote mined to bolster the claims of the defenders of an “undurchführbare Hypothese” (infeasable hypothesis), as Schweitzer himself called  the hypothesis of the non-existence of Jesus (p. 564). Part of it is due to the English translation, but another part is certainly due to the fact that quotations of his work circulate without context, and moreover due to the lack of understanding of Schweitzer’s time and his place in the history of scholarship. Perhaps some light from the Netherlands, in between the German and the Anglo-Saxon world, could help to clarify the matter.

There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus.

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence.

. . . .

Now, without context, it seems that Albert Schweitzer rejects the whole project of historical Jesus research. But nothing is further from the truth, for Schweitzer criticises the liberal scholarship that was current in the nineteenth century, which, according to Schweitzer, tried to make the historical Jesus a stooge for their modern religious predilections. That Jesus had never any existence. Schweitzer’s own historical Jesus was the eschatological Jesus, who remained strange, even offensive, to our time.

(Misquoting Albert Schweitzer, my bolding in all quotations)

What is the source of this claim? Has Cornelis Hoogerwerf really read any post, article or book in which Schweitzer has been so quoted for such a dishonest purpose? He cites none. But his wording does have remarkable similarities to the text of Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? when he made the same charge — also without citation of supporting sources.

To lend some scholarly cachet to their view, mythicists sometimes quote a passage from one of the greatest works devoted to the study of the historical Jesus in modern times, the justly famous Quest of the Historical Jesus, written by New Testament scholar, theologian, philosopher, concert organist, physician, humanitarian, and Nobel Peace Prize-winning Albert Schweitzer:

There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus.

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence.

. . . .

Taken out of context, these words may seem to indicate that the great Schweitzer himself did not subscribe to the existence of the historical Jesus. But nothing could be further from the truth. The myth for Schweitzer was the liberal view of Jesus so prominent in his own day, as represented in the sundry books that he incisively summarized and wittily discredited in The Quest. Schweitzer himself knew full well that Jesus actually existed; in his second edition he wrote a devastating critique of the mythicists of his own time, and toward the end of his book he showed who Jesus really was, in his own considered judgment. For Schweitzer, Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who anticipated the imminent end of history as we know it. (Did Jesus Exist? p. f)

I hesitate to suggest that Ehrman’s accusations were made without substance but I have yet to find any “mythicists” quoting the above passage by Schweitzer for the intent that Ehrman and Hoogerwerf claim. Is this an entirely manufactured accusation? Is West alerting readers to Hoogerwerf’s “excellent” relaying of a baseless rumour?

***

Cornelis Hoogerwerf adds a second part to his post: read more »


2016-10-24

Ehrman-Price Debate #2: Price’s Opening Address

by Neil Godfrey

The following is a write up from notes I took at the time of my first listening to the debate supplemented by a second listening earlier today. So there will be more detail than in with my summary of Ehrman’s opener. If anyone thinks I have been unfair to Ehrman then let me know and I may even decide to listen to him again too and add more detail to that post. Or be more certain and fill out details yourself!

Unlike Bart Ehrman Robert Price (RMP) did choose to address the opposing arguments as had been set out by BE in his book Did Jesus Exist? as well as making his case for mythicism. His presentation was written out and read aloud. Being a tightly prepared written speech it seemed to be packed with considerably more detail than BE’s delivery and certainly required more intense concentration to absorb the detail and each point of argument. Ehrman’s spontaneity and speaking without notes was far more dynamic and emotionally moving. So another reason for the greater length of the Price presentation here is, I am sure, the consequence of Price conveying far more detail than Ehrman.

Another stark difference between the two presentations worth noting is that Ehrman spoke dogmatically while Price conceded ambiguities in the evidence and spoke of what paradigm makes most sense to him given the various alternatives given the inability to definitely prove what we would like to be able to prove.

Regularly RMP quoted BE’s words as points requiring responses.

A Modern Novelty?

The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. (Ehrman 2012, p. 96)

RMP is not so sure and cites three ancient indicators: read more »


The Ehrman-Price Debate: Ehrman’s Opening Address

by Neil Godfrey

The following is a write up from notes I took at the time of my first listening to the debate. I have not been able to access the online debate since to check the details of the following.

I think most listeners on the mythicist side would have been disappointed because this was an opportunity for BE to address the extensive published rebuttals (Zindler, Doherty, Carrier) to his book, Did Jesus Exist?

Bart Ehrman (BE) opened by saying that he would not address the mythicist argument (“after all, no mythicist arguments have been presented yet”) but instead present the strongest case he knew for the historical existence of Jesus.

But first, he digressed, he would mention just two of the mythicist arguments.

Mythicist argument #1, Nazareth

Do any mythicists argue that the non-existence of Nazareth disproves the historicity of Jesus? BE did not cite any. It is also apparent that he has not read any of Salm’s work on the archaeological work on Nazareth.

One mythicist argument that he said was commonly found among mythicists was that since there was no Nazareth at the time of Jesus it followed that Jesus of Nazareth could not have existed. But on the contrary, BE assured his audience, archaeologists have discovered the site of Nazareth; its existence is not a debated point because they have found there a house, pottery, a farm, coins dated to the days of Jesus.

“Anyone who says otherwise simply does not know the archaeological record,” BE concluded, adding that whether Jesus existed is not dependent on his being born in Nazareth anyway.

Mythicist argument #2, Tale types

Again I think most on the mythicist side would have been disappointed that BE missed the opportunity to address their replies to this old chestnut. The point is not that legendary embellishment means nonhistoricity, but that mythical tropes in the absence of historical evidence points to fabrication.

The second arguments mythicists come up with, he asserted, related to the Jesus in the Gospels being portrayed according to patterns of other figures in the Old Testament and other gods. Such a portrayal was not an argument against historicity for the simple reason that most historical figures — Washington, Julius Caesar, Baal Shem Tov — the have legendary portraits made of them. Octavian (Augustus) was said to be the son of god and performed miracles and ascended to heaven. The lives of famous people are told in stereotypes, such as the divine saviour or the rags to riches stories.

That a person’s life is told according to a type does not mean that person did not exist.

The Case for Jesus Being Historical: One of the Best Sourced Figures of First Century

Jesus is one of the best attested Palestinian Jews of the entire first century. read more »


2016-10-20

Price-Ehrman Debate Wish

by Neil Godfrey

No doubt there will be to-and-fro on “the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19. I would love to see any such discussion go beyond the face-value interpretation of the words and to explore both the provenance and nature of the source containing that line. That is, some serious discussion of the historical evidence itself:

 


2016-03-31

How Many Bible Verses Does It Take to Prove Jesus Existed?

by Neil Godfrey
The view from where I am writing this post.
A view from where I am writing this post.

There is no need for any argument to prove Jesus existed. In Galatians 1:19 Paul says he met Jesus’s brother so of course Jesus existed. What need is there for any further discussion?

That’s how the case for the historicity of Jesus goes. But some would say that I’m being unfair. Paul also says in Romans that Jesus was descended from David and again in Galatians that Jesus was born to a woman so of course Jesus was a real human being and mythicists who suggest Paul’s Jesus was an entirely celestial figure must be crazy. So some would say even though one verse is enough to prove Jesus existed they can nonetheless provide at least three — or more.

Hence some people (even scholars) can read Richard Carrier’s peer reviewed On the Historicity of Jesus and have nothing more to say of its 600 page argument than that it is wrong because Galatians 1:19 says Jesus had a brother.

I have said before that there is a chasmic disconnect between the way theologians or other biblical scholars “do the history” of Jesus or Christian origins and the way critical historical research is undertaken in history faculties. I don’t have ready access to some of the books I own explaining to doctoral students how to do historical research but I am sure my memory is not failing me when I say that one key step they all point out is that the historian must test his or her documentary sources before knowing what sort of information they might yield.

One form of test is to check to see if a document is genuine or a forgery. Another is to ascertain its provenance. That can have two meanings: one, to know where the manuscript was found, by whom, under what circumstances, etc; two, to know who authored it (not just the name, and not even necessarily the name, but the background and interests/motivations of the author) and when. It is also important to understand its genre in order to assess its probable function and/or purpose. The manuscript history is important. And also important is to learn of its context. It is one thing to make sense of the contents of a document but we fall into a circular trap if that’s all we have to go on. At some point we need to know where and how the document fits into its wider context. What other sources do we have that are related to it in some way? What was its status, or the status of its author, in relation to other sources? How does the content in the document cohere with that derived from other sources? read more »


2015-12-16

“Five Reasons Why Mythicism is Disappointing”

by Neil Godfrey

6444921433_cf424a9405_bDontcha love the patronizing tone of the header? “Five Reasons Why Mythicism is Disappointing”. Our author was SO hoping for such good things to emerge from mythicism, now, wasn’t he. How mythicism has disappointed him!

The post is a response to Valerie Tarico’s Here are 5 reasons to suspect Jesus never existed

Our disappointed scholar explains why Valerie only has 5 “really bad reasons” for even raising the question of the historical existence of Jesus.

1) She says that there are no secular sources about Jesus, neglecting to mention that the notion of secularism did not exist in that time . . . 

In fact Valerie Tarico explains exactly what she means by “secular sources” by quoting 171 words from the historicist scholar Bart Ehrman.

“What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” 

Really bad reason #2:

2) She points out that things like the virgin birth only appear late, as though that is evidence against the historical value of our earliest sources.

That’s odd. Valerie’s original point was “details of Jesus’ life”, “the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus”, the twelve apostles of disciples of Jesus, the ministry and miracles of Jesus — and oh yes, the virgin birth, too.  read more »


2015-06-28

The Casey-McGrath Profiles of Mythicists and Mythicism

by Neil Godfrey

James McGrath’s review of Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? has appeared in RBL. Casey’s work is a diatribe against persons who have been associated with the Christ Myth arguments (even though some of them do not argue a mythicist case themselves), and against a selection of what he asserts (often inaccurately) are their arguments. Casey also takes bitter swipes at others with whom he has had academic disagreements (in particular Paul L. Owen) or who hold other positions with which he disapproves (e.g. Emanuel Pfoh, Niels Peter Lemche).

According to McGrath’s review Casey has given a “highly commendable” presentation of the character of mythicists (who “maliciously malign mainstream scholars”) and the absurdity of their arguments (that “do not deserve to be taken seriously”). I set out below what those characteristics are according to Casey/McGrath.

I suppose the litany of sins is meant to turn anyone unfamiliar with mythicist arguments off the very thought of ever reading them and poisoning the very thoughts of the names of their exponents. Of course anyone who does read the works of Doherty, Price, Carrier, Wells, — or even articles here that often only indirectly may support mythicist views even though they are generally presentations of contemporary work by biblical scholars — will make up their own mind about the honesty of McGrath’s and Casey’s claims.

McGrath approves of Casey’s personal attacks.

The Casey-McGrath Profile of mythicists (the persons):

Mythicists and those addressed as such by Casey are “without relevant scholarly expertise”

Mythicists “typically” engage in “name-calling and other kinds of rudeness” when speaking of scholars; they have “insulted Casey” and “this reviewer (McGrath)”. Mythicists “maliciously malign mainstream scholars”. At the same time McGrath does concede that Casey’s own work is itself “acerbic” and “sarcastic” — though Casey’s tone is of course justified.

  • Casey actually cites no case where anyone has insulted him; he does cite the one time I mocked McGrath without mentioning my subsequent post expressing my regret at having done so or any of McGrath’s (and Casey’s) own ongoing abusive and insulting language directed towards me and others and his repeated rejections of my appeals for a return to the courteous way we began our exchanges.
  • I invite readers to review my many posts and comments on this blog (and anywhere else) and assess for themselves just how “typically” I or Doherty or Parvus or Widowfield have engaged in “name-calling and other types of rudeness”.

McGrath refers to all mythicists as “Internet cranks”  read more »


2015-02-16

“It is absurd to suggest . . .” — Shirley Jackson Case on The Historicity of Jesus

by Tim Widowfield
Shirley Jackson Case
Shirley Jackson Case — Credit: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-01582, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Way back in the previous century, I attended Ohio University at Athens. A young, naive freshman, I headed off one gloomy autumn day to the campus library, searching for source material for an astronomy paper. The stacks were vast; I was looking at more books than I had ever seen in one place.

By New World standards, OU is an old school, founded in 1804, the year after Ohio entered the Union. They’ve been gathering books and periodicals for quite some time.

According to Wikipedia, the Vernon R. Alden Library has switched completely from the Dewey Decimal System to the Library of Congress System. However, back in 1977 they were still in transition. All the old books were in Dewey, but the staff were categorizing new acquisitions using LOC codes. I gravitated to the old stacks, perhaps because I was more comfortable with the older numbering system. Or maybe I just like the smell of old books.

Ready Steady Go!

At any rate, that day I came upon Fred Hoyle’s Astronomy from 1962. Hoyle, of course, believed in the Steady State theory of the universe. This was my first introduction to it, and I found it fascinating. So I wrote a short paper on the subject, based on Hoyle’s treatment. What my naive freshman self didn’t know was that just a couple of years after Hoyle published Astronomy, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson found the echo of the Big Bang — background radiation evenly spread throughout the sky, compelling evidence for the origins of our universe.

[I find it mildly ironic that while writing this post, news has arrived that calls into question the Big Bang. Try wrapping your head around this: “Brian Koberlein from the Rochester Institute of Technology pointed out that while it may appear that the study suggests that the Big Bang did not happen, the event still occurred.“]

While reading Shirley Jackson Case’s The Historicity of Jesus, I was reminded of that incident from my youth. As I recall, the teacher’s aide who graded my paper was more forgiving than I deserved. But I learned my lesson. It’s all right to have some familiarity with older research, but the careful student will always keep up with the most recent work in the field.

On the bright side, because Case’s book is over a century old Google (before it lost interest in such altruistic efforts) has lovingly scanned it and put on line. You can even download a PDF copy or read it at archive.org. On the other hand, because he wrote it nearly 103 years ago, some of the arguments are a little stale.  read more »


2014-09-07

Taking Up Ben Goren’s Jesus Challenge

by Neil Godfrey

Here is my response to the six point and 500 word Jesus Challenge issued by Ben Goren. I copy his specific challenge questions and respond in blue font beneath each one.

1. Start with a clear, concise, unambiguous definition of who Jesus was. Do the Gospels offer a good biography of him? Was he some random schmuck of a crazy street preacher whom nobody would even thought to have noticed? Was he a rebel commando, as I’ve even heard some argue?

The Jesus of the Canonical Gospels was literary tool functioning as a symbol of spiritual Israel and mouthpiece and demonstration for the different theological perspectives of the evangelists.

2. Offer positive evidence reliably dated to within a century or so of whenever you think Jesus lived that directly supports your position. Don’t merely cite evidence that doesn’t contradict it; if, for example, you were to claim that Jesus was a rebel commando, you’d have to find a source that explicitly says so.

The internal evidence of the Gospels (anachronisms, datable references and teachings that are best explained post 70, the literary relationships discernible among the Gospels, and the theological development evident across them) indicates they were composed after 70 CE. External evidence first evident in the second century is also consistent with this.

3. Ancient sources being what they are, there’s an overwhelming chance that the evidence you choose to support your theory will also contain significant elements that do not support it. Take a moment to reconcile this fact in a plausible manner. What criteria do you use to pick and choose? read more »


2014-09-06

Why Historicist/Mythicist Arguments Often Fail — & a Test Case for a Better Way

by Neil Godfrey
Ananus [the high priest] . . . thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. (Antiquities, Book 20 [9,1])

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about a recent comment by a reader taking an opposing position to a statement of mine:

I don’t think Carrier is non-falsifiable (in the looser sense we have to consider non-falsifiability in the social sciences) — in fact, I happen to think it is pretty much falsified by the James passage in Josephus (not, of course, simply taking the passage’s authenticity for granted but considering all the evidence for and against it). I realize my viewing the James passage in Josephus as authentic is not a popular opinion around here, but it isn’t a stupid or ill-considered opinion; I’ve read Carrier and Doherty on the matter and don’t find them convincing at all. (my bolding)

I’ve addressed this sort of response before. One finds such grounds for rejecting opposing views all too frequently in the scholarly literature of biblical scholars. In response to a point made by Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado I wrote

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.

Then when Professor Hoffmann offered a bizarre argument that Paul was fighting against a rumour that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary I refused to play the same game:

It is easy to dismiss his explanation as “not persuasive” or “speculative” but it is also important, I think, to be able to put one’s finger on precisely why a proposition is “not persuasive” or insubstantial. The effort of thinking it through may even lead one to appreciate that perhaps there is more to the argument than first appears on the surface. But even if one finds nothing of value in it, the exercise of examining it methodically can only be a good thing. Scoffing, saying something is bunk or absurd, relying on a vague feeling that something is “not persuasive”, are cheap substitutes for argument.

If a professor can’t explain to you how we know evolution is true or how we know ancient claims that Alexander the Great really conquered the Persian empire are true or the reasons we should be suspicious of paranormal claims you would be right to think there is a problem somewhere.

Another form of proof-texting

Back to the statement about “the brother of Jesus, called Christ, whose name was James” that is found in the writings of Josephus. So often we find defenders of the historicity of Jesus using these words in Josephus the same way different religious sects use proof texts to prove they are right and others are wrong. One professor frequently uses this approach in an attempt to refute young-earth creationists. The professor adheres to an old-earth form of creationism (via evolution — an oxymoron to anyone who correctly understands that the scientific theory of evolution has no room for a divinity at all) and posts regular “proof texts” from the Bible as an “argument” that “proves” his rival religionists are wrong. (The most recent instance of this: Psalm 148:4 Disproves Young-Earth Creationism. It does? Not to a young earth creationist.) He uses the same basic technique to argue against mythicists. Among other arguments he proof-texts from the Bible references such as Paul’s claim to have met the “brother of the Lord” or that we read somewhere else that Jesus was “born of a woman”.

Proof-texting doesn’t work because different people have different ways of interpreting such “proof-texts”. read more »


2014-07-13

Mark, Canonizer of Paul

by Neil Godfrey

dykstra1Until recently I have had little interest in arguments that our apparently earliest written gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was composed as an attempt to teach the ideas of Paul as found in his letters. After reading Mark, Canonizer of Paul by Tom Dykstra I am now more sympathetic to the possibility that the author of this gospel really was writing as a follower of Paul.

Dykstra introduces his argument by pointing out how curiously uninterested the author of the Gospel of Mark is in the contents of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is said to teach with authority and crowds are said to be impressed with his teachings but exactly what he taught in the synagogues or to those who crowded around to hear him in a house is left unsaid. Jesus does teach a lot of parables warning hearers of the consequences of not believing the gospel but the content of that gospel, the detail of what they must believe, is never stated. About the only teaching Mark’s Jesus is said to have delivered is little more than “Keep the commandments”.

Then there is the curious ending: why does Mark virtually leave the resurrection details out of the story altogether?

Dykstra sums up his argument:

The explanation I offer in this book can be summarized as follows. Mark’s primary purpose was to defend the vision of Christianity championed by Paul the Apostle against his “Judaizing” opponents. He undertook this defense because epistles written in the Apostle’s name were no longer deemed adequate, possibly because Paul himself was no longer around to personally defend his authority. Mark didn’t report any new teachings of Jesus because none were available to him: his main sources were the Old Testament, the Homeric epics, and Paul’s epistles, not the disciples or oral tradition. And so he wrote a Gospel that implicitly validated the authority of Paul and his epistles. . . .  My goal in this book is mainly to present the evidence for a literary relationship between Mark and Paul’s epistles. (p. 23, my bolding)

This situation makes sense, Dykstra suggests, if Paul had died and his teachings were in danger of being eclipsed by his opponents.

In chapter two and relying primarily upon Michael Goulder’s argument in St. Paul vs. St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions Dykstra presents a scenario of a sharp divide between two different types of gospels. Goulder was reviving (and responding to criticisms of) an 1831 interpretation by Ferdinand Baur.

Peter’s mission believed that the heavenly kingdom had already arrived and believers were already enjoying the resurrected life, while Paul stressed that the resurrection was yet to come and believers’ present life was more like the crucifixion. . . . Peter’s mission stressed tongues and visions and gifts of the spirit, while Paul’s stressed love and charity; Peter’s mission stressed the need to give away all of one’s possessions since the end had already come, while Paul’s mission advised people to keep working and earning a living. As will be seen, some of these differences are reflected in the text of Mark’ Gospel. (p. 35)

If the evangelist wanted to create a narrative to bolster the embattled teachings and authority of Paul he would need to project a dispute of his own and Paul’s day back into that narrative. The narrative would also need to show that apostles who came prior to Paul, even those claiming to be his brothers and those who were reputed as “pillars” in the church, failed to understand Jesus.

read more »