Tag Archives: Burton L. Mack

A Secular Approach to Christian Origins Compromised by Faith and Theology


This post concludes my series on Crossley’s Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE).

The previous post is here.  All posts on this book, both the recent ones from 2014 and those from 2010-11, are archived here.


Misguided equivalence

How is one meant to respond to the words of a secular historian who says it would be “foolish and arrogant” to claim that his approach is “inherently superior” to one used by a Christian apologist? How is it possible for a secular rationalist to engage with a faith-grounded apologist as if both perspectives should be evaluated on an equal footing? Does the virtue of “mutual tolerance” require persons with opposing intellectual agendas to somehow find a way to exchange views constructively and productively? Does the pointlessness of “preaching to the converted” mean one’s efforts to exchange ideas among others with a similar philosophical outlook is also pointless?

Imagine the impact if more and more nonreligious, secular-minded historians were to become NT scholars. But if such a hypothetical collection of scholars were to make its impact felt, there must be mutual tolerance and the avoidance of . . . preaching to the converted. It would be foolish and arrogant to claim that one approach is inherently superior to opposing ones. . . . (p. 32)

How can a nonreligious, secular-minded historian possibly not claim his or her approach is inherently superior to an opposing one that “proves” the bodily resurrection of Jesus?

How can a leopard change its spots? How can the Christian apologists ever agree that their methods and faith-assumptions are not superior to those of the secular-minded nonreligious rationalist? What would be the point of being a secular-rationalist if one did not believe that such an outlook was indeed superior to the methods that are justified by faith?

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 11.13.56 pmCrossley confuses particular historical methods and approaches with the philosophical underpinnings most of them have in common: a belief that testable knowledge is more reliably accumulated through secular-rational methods rather than through enquiry guided by and seeking to serve the agenda of religious faith:

Richard Evans has pointed out that the history of history is littered with examples of different hegemonic claims by a given historical theory or practice wanting to dominate the world of historical study but usually ending up as legitimate subspecialities. 

Richard Evans was not addressing faith-histories versus secular histories. He was referring to the various approaches within secular history: postmodernists, psychohistorians, Marxists, feminists, social historians. Crossley has badly misunderstood and misapplied Evans’ point. (See Kindle version of Evans’ In Defence of History, locations 2744 and 3688)

It is not a question of one new method claiming hegemony only to be sidelined to a subspeciality. The real issue is well expressed by Niels Peter Lemche: read more »

Theologians as historians

Alvar Ellegård (November 12, 1919 – February 8, 2008) was a Swedish scholar and linguist. He was professor of English at the University of Gothenburg, and a member of the academic board of the Swedish National Encyclopedia.

. . .  He also became known outside the field for his work on the conflict between religious dogma and science, and for his promotion of the Jesus myth theory, the idea that Jesus did not exist as an historical figure. His books about religion and science include Darwin and the General Reader (1958), The Myth of Jesus (1992), and Jesus: One Hundred Years Before Christ. A Study in Creative Mythology (1999). (Source: Wikipedia)

He wrote “Theologians as historians”, now available online, published originally in Scandia the year he died, 2008. The article addresses arguments commonly advanced by theologians against the Christ Myth idea but it also has much to say about scholarly resistance to even being willing to debate such a thesis. I quote a few passages here from that section of his article. (Headings and bolding are my own.)

Theologians are not living up to their responsibility

It is fair to say that most present-day theologians also accept that large parts of the Gospel stories are, if not fictional, at least not to be taken at face value as historical accounts. On the other hand, no theologian seems to be able to bring himself to admit that the question of the historicity of Jesus must be judged to be an open one.

It appears to me that the theologians are not living up to their responsibility as scholars when they refuse to discuss the possibility that even the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels can be legitimately called into question. Instead, they tend to dismiss as cranks those who doubt that the Jesus of the Gospels ever existed.

Dogmatism is characteristic . . . under cover of mystifying language

It is natural that different historians come to different conclusions on questions for which our sources are late, scanty or biassed. Thus most historians, though skeptical about king Arthur, avoid being dogmatic about him, whatever the stand they are taking. But dogmatism is characteristic of the theologians’ view of matters which are held to guarantee the historicity of Jesus.

That dogmatism, however, is too often concealed under a cover of mystifying language. An instance in point is quoted by Burton L. Mack, who quotes Helmut Koester, characterizing him, very properly, as “a New Testament scholar highly regarded for his critical acumen” (Mack 1990, p. 25). Koester writes:

“The resurrection and the appearances of Jesus are best explained as a catalyst which prompted reactions that resulted in the missionary activity and founding of the churches, but also in the crystallization of the tradition about Jesus and his ministry. But most of all, the resurrection changed sorrow and grief into joy, creativity and faith. Though the resurrection revealed nothing new, it nonetheless made everything new for the first Christian believers” (Koester 19822, p. 84-86).

Mack comments drily:

read more »

Mark’s (Unclean) Bartimaeus and Plato’s (Honoured) Timaeus

English: Close-up of Eric Gill relief, Moorfie...

English: Close-up of Eric Gill relief, Moorfields Eye Hospital The words here,’Domine, ut videam’ (Lord, that I may see!), comprised the answer, according to the Gospel of Mark, to Jesus’s question to the blind beggar Bartimaeus who called out to him in Jericho. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have always been shy of accepting the argument one sometimes reads that the blind Bartimaeus in the Gospel of Mark came by his unusual name (along with its unusual manner of its explanation) from the influence of Plato’s Timaeus.

But a passage in Earle Hilgert’s chapter, “The Son of Timaeus: Blindness, Sight, Ascent, Vision in Mark”, in Reimagining Christian Origins has for the first time opened my mind to the possibility that Plato’s famous work could be behind the name after all. (I’m not saying I am sure it is. Only that I am more open to the possibility.)

After discussing the usual things I have read before in favour of the connection — that Plato’s Timaeus includes a lot of discussion about eyesight and its ability to lead us through observation of those mysterious moving lights seen above the world to come to know the great Eternal Truths of God — Hilgert writes this:

Runia has identified some dozen passages in Philo which are clearly influenced by this encomium, not to speak of its broader impact on Hellenistic thought. Of the Timaeus as a whole, he declares,

Its influence inevitably filtered down to men of letters and even those who had received only a smattering of learning. Indeed the Timaeus was the only Greek prose work that up to the third century A.D. every educated man could be presumed to have read.

In view of such widespread conversance in the Hellenistic world with the Timaeus and with its praise of eyesight, we should not be surprised if Mark reflects acquaintance with it. (pp. 190-191)

Now I’ve been trapped. I have been catching up with some background reading to Hilgert’s chapter — Burton Mack’s 1972 Studia Philonica article and chapters by Hilgert, Mack and others in The School of Moses: Studies in Philo and Hellenistic Religion — with a particular interest in the question of any direct or indirect relationship between what we read by Philo and in the Gospel of Mark. I had not till now fully appreciated the extent of the influence of the Timaeus apparently even in the time of the Gospel’s composition. I would like to track down the evidence on which Runia’s Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus. Hopefully the Google preview will give me enough detail to satisfy my curiosity.

A multilingual pun

Another detail Hilgert goes on to mention is something I know I must have read in Burton Mack’s Myth of Innocence some years ago but had unfortunately forgotten: read more »

Jesus: the Same in both Paul and the Gospels

Revised and updated 3 hours after original posting.

Both the letters of Paul and the narrative in the Gospels speak of Jesus crucified. Jesus’ death is significant. The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus’ blood and Paul refers often to his blood. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke in particular stress his birth from a woman and we find a passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians saying Jesus was born of a woman. The Synoptic Gospels indicate Jesus was descended from David and in Paul’s letter to the Romans we likewise read Jesus was connected with David.

The contexts are quite different, of course. The Gospels are portraying a past narrative of an earthly mission of Jesus and Paul is addressing Jesus’ saving power in the “here and now and soon to be”.

And all of those references to Jesus’ crucifixion, blood, Davidic relationship, flesh, etc are derived from the same source. They are all speaking about the same thing. read more »

More reasons for an early Christian to invent the story of Jesus’ baptism

Bill Arnal and Leif E. Vaage are not the only scholars who have published doubts about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. I mentioned them back in January this year. Another was Burton Mack in Myth of Innocence. (The evidence against historicity is in my view overwhelming. I have shown the weakness of the arguments by E. P. Sanders for its historicity and posted before on how the scene’s can be explained entirely in terms of literary function and artifice without any need to resort to assumptions of extraneous events outside the text.) But for sake of completeness here is Burton Mack’s argument for treating it as entirely mythical. I highlight in bold type the reasons he sees evident for the need or wish of early Christians to invent the episode. Far from the scene being an embarrassment to the first Christians to have heard the story, it was surely welcomed. Only later evangelists reading Mark’s gospel felt embarrassment over Mark’s account because they had quite different views of Jesus.

The framework stories of the gospels are the most highly mythologized type of material. They include the narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances. The transfiguration story is purely mythological, as are the birth narratives, the story of the empty tomb, and the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. Critical scholars would not say that any of these derive from reminiscences.

The baptism story is also mythic, but in this case may derive from lore about Jesus and John the Baptist. Lore about John and Jesus is present in the sayings tradition, in a pronouncement story, and other legends both in Q and in Mark. John the Baptist was a public figure whose social role was similar to that of Jesus and whose followers were regarded by some followers of Jesus as competitors.

Except for the baptism story, however, there is no indication that Jesus and John crossed paths.

read more »

The confessional bias of scholarship’s quest for Christian origins

Scholar and his books by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout
Image via Wikipedia

Even scholars who are attempting to find an “independent” and “socio-economic” explanation for Christian origins (such as James Crossley) are, like virtually all scholars involved in this quest, “driven by the Christian imagination” itself. Burton L. Mack explains the nature of this bias in his introduction to A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins.

The reader who dares to enter this discourse [of Christian origins] from the humanities or from the social sciences, cannot avoid coming to a certain conclusion. The events that center the massive amounts of scholarly learning are exactly those that haunt the average Christian imagination as well. They are exactly those suggested by the Christian gospel, the gospel that sets them forth as inaugural and foundational for Christian history and faith. (p. 8)

Christians well know that the claims in the Gospel that offer them personal conversion or a new life in Christ are very same ones that also explain the origin of the Church. These are:

  • Jesus
  • his teachings
  • his activities
  • the supper
  • the cross
  • the resurrection

And it is these that are the focus of scholarly studies of Christian origins. Mack continues: read more »