Tag Archives: Christ Myth

Some Thoughts on the Nature of the Evidence and the Historicity of Jesus

You have the right to remain silent

Over on The Bible and Interpretation web site, James McGrath once again takes up his jousting lance to do battle against the big, bad mythicists. He raises an interesting point:

If we were to combine a number of recent and not-so-recent proposals related to Jesus, we could depict him as a gay hermaphrodite mamzer, conceived when his mother was raped by a Roman soldier, who grew up to pursue multiple vocations as a failed messiah, a failed prophet, a magician, and/or a mediocre teacher of Stoic ethics. From the perspective of traditional Christian dogma, one imagines that for Jesus never to have existed would be slightly easier to stomach (or at least, no more difficult) than some of the claims made by those who are convinced that he was a historical figure, and propose interpretations of the historical evidence which disagree with and even undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety. (emphasis mine)

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here’s the question: Is a mythical Jesus more palatable than a historical reconstruction that imagines Jesus as something other than the Son of God and savior of the world? To answer that question, we might consider the difference between descriptions of an object versus the question of its existence. Emanuel Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument comes immediately to mind. Kant claimed existence is not a predicate, but is categorically different from other properties.

You may not agree with Kant, but more practical considerations come to mind. The historicity of Jesus, whether argued for or merely presumed, must precede the discussion of who or what Jesus was. It necessarily forms the foundation of the ensuing arguments. If we cannot demonstrate that Jesus probably existed, all subsequent arguments are moot. Hence, Christians may intensely dislike reconstructions of Jesus that would tend to “undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety,” but I think they would dislike even more the idea that the evidence calls into question his very existence as a historical figure.

A story problem

And so, here we are again. All roads lead back to the question of the nature of the evidence. If you will indulge me for a minute or two, I’d like to present a parable.

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Casey: Taking Context out of Context

English: Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud glowers disapprovingly. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Observant readers will recall that we tackled this subject once before in When Is Paul's Silence Golden?]

Ad hoc soup

The standard historicist response to the question of Paul’s silence on the historical Jesus relies heavily on Freudian Kettle Logic – to wit, “(1) Paul did mention Jesus quite a bit; (2) We shouldn’t be surprised that Paul didn’t mention Jesus very much at all, for the following ad hoc reasons; (3) You’re an idiot for bringing it up.”

The different ad hoc reasons given for Paul’s silence vary over time. And it’s hard to justify spending too much time refuting them, because they’re functionally equivalent to yelling “Squirrel!” in the middle of a sentence. Perhaps it’s because of the honor/shame society Paul and Jesus lived in. Maybe Paul was an egomaniac. Maybe . . . Squirrel!

Say what you will, but at least there’s plenty of variety. If you don’t feel like hopping on the current ad hoc bus, stay put; another one is coming in 15 minutes. Quote miners in the Apologia Mountains are working ’round the clock to serve you. Pardon the mixed metaphors.

A cave-in down in the quote mine

While reading Maurice Casey’s new book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, I was dismayed (but not surprised) to find that he’s still using that tired old Context Canard to explain Paul’s silence on the historical Jesus. His preferred ad hoc rescue for Paul’s silence has to do with cultural context, as described in Edward Hall’s Beyond Culture. Apologists argue that the people of the Ancient Near East (including, apparently, Asia Minor and the entire Mediterranean basin) lived in a high context culture.

What does that mean? On the high end of the Hall scale people use implicit language to express themselves. Body language, gestures, facial expressions, shared cultural memory and subtexts, along with other nonverbal modes of communication provide the full range of expression that outsiders will often miss. On the low end, people use explicit language to express themselves. They will often repeat themselves, just to be clear. They do not rely as much, if at all, on nonverbal cues or cultural subtext.

Casey argues:

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Jesus Forgotten: Faulty Memory or No Memory?

We have deep depth.*

In a recent interview focused on Jesus mythicism, Dale Allison said:

Re memory: My wife and I disagree about our memories all the time. About things that happened years ago, months ago, weeks ago, days ago, or hours ago. It happens so often that it’s a standing joke, and we’ve reconciled ourselves to the fact that, when there is no third witness, we can’t figure out who is right and who is wrong. Heck, sometimes we both must be wrong. But we’re not mythographers, because what we are almost always misremembering is related to something that happened. It’s faulty memory, not no memory. (emphasis mine)

Dale Allison

Dale Allison

He likens the issue of reliable memory in Jesus studies to the problem of how Socrates was remembered differently by his contemporaries. But Socrates, he asserts, still existed. He then likens the problem of the historical reliability of the New Testament to a court case. (I refer to Neil’s recent post on the Criterion of Embarrassment as to why a court case is a terrible example.)

It’s also worth thinking about conflicting testimony in court. When people disagree on their recollections of an accident or crime scene, we don’t conclude there was no accident or no crime. We just say that memories are frail and then try to find the true story behind the disagreements. I’ve argued in Constructing Jesus that we can try a similar approach with the sources for him.

That concept — finding “the true story behind the disagreements” — leads us to the notion that the gospels (and Paul) provide the gist of the stories about Jesus. They can tell us, Allison imagines, what Jesus was really like, even if the details have been changed over time because of our “frail” memory.

English: New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra i...

English: New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra in a 1956 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s like déjà vu all over again.*

As our pal McGrath wrote:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

Or as Yogi Berra put it:

I really didn’t say everything I said.

I’d like to believe that Yogi really said most of the things he said, but I also know that we humans love our myths. And one of my favorite myths is that Yogi is some sort of unwitting Zen master who spontaneously utters cryptic, timeless Yogi-isms: nuggets of wisdom wrapped in apparent nonsense.
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O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #7: Generalities on the lack of corroborating evidence

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.

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quote_begin What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis . . . . (O’Neill, 2013) quote_end

.

Tim O’Neill (TO) leads readers to think that David Fitzgerald (DF) argues that

– because there is no contemporary record for miraculous and other clearly spurious events . . .
– therefore Jesus did not exist
.

Thus Fitzgerald goes on to detail things in the gospels which he argues should have been noticed by writers of the time: the taxing of the whole Roman Empire, the massacre in Bethlehem by Herod the Great, Jesus’ ministry generally, his miracles . . . . . For anyone other than a fundamentalist, this argument has zero force. Critical scholars, including many Christian ones, would simply chuckle at the idea that things like the story of an Empire-wide census or the Massacre of the Innocents are historical, so arguing they did not happen counts for nothing much when it comes to arguing against the existence of a historical Jesus.

Fitzgerald even seems to think that the fact the “Star of Bethlehem” and the darkness on Jesus’ death are unattested and therefore most likely did not happen (which is true) is somehow a blow against the existence of a historical Jesus (which is not).

Does DF suggest that arguments against the impossible count against the historical Jesus?

With respect to the empire-wide census, on pages 22 and 23 of Nailed DF makes it very clear that we would expect some record of such an event if it really happened. At no point does he link this absence to the conclusion that not even a more modest Jesus of the scholars existed. In fact, as we have already seen in previous posts in this series, DF explicitly points out that even though we have no evidence for all the miraculous or unlikely events we may still wonder if there is a “lesser Jesus” who really existed.

TO’s review suppresses this clear fact about DF’s argument and implies that he argues the very opposite — that DF thinks by disputing the empire-wide census and miraculous events such as the star of Bethlehem that he is somehow striking “a blow against the existence of [even a modest, non-Gospel] historical Jesus”. read more »

O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate, #6: Comparing Sources for Jesus and Hannibal

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.

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If Tim O’Neill (TO) is true to form he won’t let the fact that he insisted there is only one historian from antiquity who mentions anyone who might be considered a messianic claimant in the Jewish war of 66-73 CE dismay him. He will in all likelihood dismiss his oversight as insignificant, and claim that the opposite of the fact he was trying to make to support his case will be interpreted as equally strong evidence for his point! That’s how he responded when someone pointed out another claim of his — that we have no contemporary records of Hannibal — was also wrong. (O’Neill 2011)

TO’s sophistic analogy

Despite his fame then and now, we have precisely zero contemporary references to Hannibal. If we have no contemporary mentions of the man who almost destroyed the Roman Republic at the height of its power, the idea that we should expect any for an obscure peasant preacher in the backblocks of Galilee is patently absurd. (O’Neill 2011)

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman...

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman knights killed at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC). Marble, 1704. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But TO’s comparison of the evidence we have or don’t have for Hannibal is misleading. He is drawing a quite false and confused analogy when he says that we should not expect any contemporary evidence for “an obscure [and "unimportant"] peasant preacher in the backblocks of Galilee” because we don’t even have any surviving contemporary records of Hannibal and other famous ancient persons.

This is simply very bad reasoning. Sophism at its “best”. The first premise of the argument is that contemporary records of the great and famous like Hannibal and Boudicca and Arminius did not survive. The second premise is quite unrelated: there were no records that were ever made of Jesus. The reason we have no contemporary records of some famous people of ancient times is that they were lost. Yet the argument for the absence of records about Jesus is not that they were lost but that no-one bothered to make any in the first place.

For the analogy to work we would have to believe that there were records of Jesus made but that they also were lost in time.

But the fact is Christians themselves came to assume responsibility for what ancient writings were preserved, so there was a powerful motive and means for those interested to preserve records of Jesus if they did exist, or at least preserve mention and epitomes of such records.

Further, though we do not have contemporary records of a number of famous persons we do have records that are derived from contemporary sources about them. If we only had anything similar among secular sources for Jesus it is almost certain that no-one would ever have questioned the historical existence of Jesus.

Imagine if a Roman or Greek historian wrote something like the following about Jesus. The historian Polybius is discussing the cause of the second Carthaginian War:

Why, then, it may be asked, have I made any mention of [the historian] Fabius and his theory? Certainly not through any fear that some readers might find it plausible enough to accept: its inherent improbability is self-evident . . . My real concern is to caution those who may read the book not to be misled by the authority of the author’s name, but to pay attention to the facts. For there are some people who are apt to dwell upon the personality of the writer rather than upon what he writes. They look to the fact that Fabius was a contemporary of Hannibal and a member of the Roman Senate, and immediately believe everything he says must be trusted. My personal opinion is that we should not treat his authority lightly, but equally should not regard it as final, and that in most cases readers should test his assertions by reference to the facts themselves. (Polybius, Book 3, from Ian Scott-Kilvert’s translation, Penguin, pp. 186-187)

So we do, in effect, have more contemporary sources for Hannibal than TO want to concede, but they are explicitly conveyed to us through later historians such as Polybius. Yes, agreed we do not have direct access to them. But we do have evidence that they existed, that there were contemporary recorders of Hannibal. We have no evidence for the same with Jesus.

Why not treat the Gospel sources equally with the Historical writings? read more »

O’Neill-Fitzgerald: #5, Should We Expect Any Roman Records About Failed Messiahs?


All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.


Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailTim O’Neill (TO) writes some very true words that enable us to identify a “careful” and “honest” treatment of a work:

What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis . . . . (O’Neill, 2013)

So let’s see if TO himself has followed his own advice and given his readers a “careful, honest or even just competent treatment” of David Fitzgerald’s (DF) book.

Read TO’s second part of that above sentence:

but Fitzgerald does not even acknowledge this middle ground position – that of a historical Jesus who was not miraculous and does not conform closely to the Jesus of the gospels – even exists.

It is very difficult to approach a topic calmly and with dispassionate reasoning if one is predisposed to have a deep loathing for what one believes is in the printed page. It is almost impossible in that mood to grasp the original meaning of what one is reading. One will project into the page what one believes is there. One needs to let go of all defensiveness in order to read stuff like that fairly and respond meaningfully. That’s no excuse, of course. Any competent writer will recognize that sort of bias, confess it, and work against it.

As we saw in our previous post DF does indeed not only “acknowledge this middle ground position” but he frames his book with it: the opening pages and closing chapter are dedicated specifically to it. The same position further appears throughout the body of the book. So TO does not simply fail or neglect to deal with the full argument of David Fitzgerald’s (DF) book, he ‘carelessly, dishonestly or even just incompetently’ tells readers the opposite of the truth about its contents. I am reminded of several James McGrath’s “reviews” of Earl Doherty’s Neither God Nor Man. If “mythicism” is such an incompetent and silly proposition why do people need to write brazen falsehoods in order to refute it?

But maybe we are being harsh and he was tired and distracted while reading the arguments in DF’s Nailed that he tells his readers are not there.

So let’s give him another chance.

Another of TO’s damning indictments begins:

Fitzgerald insists that there are elements in the story of Jesus which should have been noticed by historians of the time and insists that there is no shortage of writers then who should have recorded some mention of them . . .  (O’Neill 2011)

He quite correctly quotes DF to support this:

There were plenty writers, both Roman and Jewish, who had great interest in and much to say about (Jesus’) region and its happenings …. We still have many of their writings today: volumes and volumes from scores of writers detailing humdrum events and lesser exploits of much more mundane figures in Roman Palestine, including several failed Messiahs. (Fitzgerald, p. 22)

DF did say that these other writers, both Roman and Jewish, did have enough interest in Palestine of the day to make mention of it in their writings — and he does say that their writings “included” mention of “several failed Messiahs”.

Manipulator or Debater?

TO then moves in to close the semantic trap. He accuses DF of saying that “scores of writers” wrote of failed Messiahs in Palestine: read more »

O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate the Christ Myth: #4, A False Dichotomy?

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.

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Tim O’Neill (TO) excoriates Dave Fitzgerald (DF) for

consistently depict[ing] the topic as some kind of starkly Manichaean conflict between Christian apologists on one hand and “critics who have disputed Christian claims” on the other (O’Neill 2011)

What’s more, he produces the evidence. It’s found in the “first pages” of Nailed. By “first pages” he does not mean the first two pages — he skips those, and for good reason, as we will see — but the third and fourth pages where he complains that DF mentions

evangelicals, conservative Christians and populist apologists like F.F. Bruce, R. Douglas Geivett and Josh McDowell in rapid succession. . .

So from the start Fitzgerald sets up an artificial dichotomy, with conservative apologists defending a traditional orthodox Jesus on one hand and brave “critics who (dispute) Christian claims” who don’t believe in any Jesus at all on the other. And nothing in between.

This is nonsense, because it ignores a vast middle ground of scholars – liberal Christian, Jewish, atheist and agnostic – who definitely “dispute Christian claims” but who also conclude that there was a human, Jewish, historical First Century preacher as the point of origin for the later stories of “Jesus Christ”. . . .

Most critical scholars have no time for the McDowell-style Jesus either, so the Jewish preacher they present as the historical Jesus behind the later gospel figure is left totally unscathed by Fitzgerald’s naive arguments. (O’Neill 2011)

That sounds pretty damning.

To anyone who has read Nailed, however, it sounds pretty confusing.

Confusing because anyone who read the first page would wonder what TO is talking about. Anyone who went on to read the second page would wonder why TO has chosen to ignore DF’s clear statement of purpose for the book. TO claims to be “reviewing” the work so it is astonishing by any standard that he makes no reference anywhere to the author’s clearly stated intentions.

One would also wonder why the “reviewer” failed to notice how DF presented “scholars” and “historians” throughout Nailed, in particular the way they are so very often depicted as holding positions opposed to those of most apologists and conservatives!

Before continuing, I have an apology to make. I promised to keep posts in this series down to around 1000 words. In this instance, however, in order to do justice to the claims of both TO and DF that is impossible.

So let’s begin. How does DF explain what the book is about and what its purpose is? Let’s start with the first two pages — the two pages TO overlooked.

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O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate #3, Are Most Biblical Historians Christian Preachers?

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.

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In Nailed David Fitzgerald (DF) wrote:

It’s true enough that the majority of Biblical historians do not question the historicity of Jesus – but then again, the majority of Biblical historians have always been Christian preachers, so what else could we expect them to say? (p. 16)

Tim O’Neill (TO) responded:

This is glib, but it is also too simplistic. Many scholars working in relevant fields may well be Christians (and a tiny few may even be “preachers” as he claims, though not many), but a great many are definitely not.

Leading scholars like Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey, Paula Fredriksen and Gerd Ludemann are all non-Christians. Then there are the Jewish scholars like Mark Nanos, Alan Segal, Jacob Neusner, Hyam Maccoby and Geza Vermes. Even those scholars who describe themselves as Christians often hold ideas about Jesus that few church-goers would recognise, let alone be comfortable with and which are nothing like the positions of people like Geivett and McDowell. Dale C. Allison, E P Sanders and John Dominic Crossan may all regard themselves as Christians, but I doubt Josh McDowell would agree, given their highly non-orthodox ideas about the historical Jesus. (O’Neill 2011)

DF answered:

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O’Neill-Fitzgerald Christ-Myth Debate; #2, Point of Agreement

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.

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The Ambiguity and Difficulty of the Evidence

Tim O’Neill in his initial review:

No-one except a fundamentalist apologist would pretend that the evidence about Jesus is not ambiguous and often difficult to interpret with any certainty, and that includes the evidence for his existence. This, of course, merely means the idea he did not exist is simply valid, not that it’s true. (O’Neill 2011)

Dave Fitgerald’s response:

So much of what I argue should not sound controversial. O’Neill admits as much when he dismisses Myth No. 1 (“The idea that Jesus was a myth is ridiculous!”) as “not really controversial” and that: “After all, no-one except a fundamentalist apologist would pretend that the evidence about Jesus is not ambiguous and often difficult to interpret with any certainty, and that includes the evidence for his existence.” He and I are in almost in perfect agreement here. (Fitzgerald, 2012)

In the following series of posts it might be worth keeping this little exchange in view.

Which one of the debaters does in reality concede that any point relating to the historical existence of Jesus might indeed by “ambiguous” or “difficult to interpret with any certainty”.

In the following post we will see TO accuse DF of framing the debate in a black and white manner, but readers should note the ensuing exchange and decide which of the contestants is taking a dogmatic stance and denying any possibility of ambiguity or “uncertain interpretation” in the evidence under discussion.

 

 

The O’Neill–Fitzgerald Debate over the Christ Myth: Round 1, the Agenda

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.

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I don’t imagine very many people interested in the debate over the historical existence of Jesus would have the time to read Tim O’Neill’s 12,000+ word response David Fitzgerald’s response (10,000 words) to Tim O’Neill’s review (7,500 words) of David Fitzgerald’s Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All. Even fewer interested readers, I am sure, would have the time to stop and compare each of O’Neill’s points with its related Ftizgerald passage. However, it is only by comparing point by point claim and counter-claim that one can make a fair assessment of the validity of each of O’Neill’s responses.

Well, it has been a very quiet set of rainy days here so I have had time to set out the three articles side by side in columns and colour-code the matching sections of the discussion. So that makes it a little easier for me to follow and evaluate the arguments that have spanned tens of thousands of words and two full years.

But I promise I will not attempt to cover it all in a single post. I’ll do it in small chunks — I really will try to keep every post to around 1000 words — one point at a time.

I will attempt throughout these posts to censor O’Neill’s language to make it fit for readers who prefer exchanges to be civil and respectful in tone. And as usual all bolded font is my own emphasis. I’ll be adding my own perspective from time to time, too.

The Agenda!

One of the first points O’Neill made against Fitzgerald was that he represents a group of Christ Myth theorists who are driven by a desire to undermine Christianity. read more »

Comedian Tim Minchin Explains McGrath’s Problem with Mythicism

The honorable associate professor of Butler has once again posted mischievous assertions that I wrote things I did not at all write in my recent post, When “Trusting the Expert Consensus” is Wrong. It makes perfect sense that James McGrath would want to misrepresent this post of mine since in it I explain why the sorts of appeals to authority that the theologian himself is fond of making are fallacious. (This is a common tactic of McGrath, Larry Hurtado, Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, Rabbi Joseph Hoffmann, and a handful of others.)

So there is no rule against calling McGrath a mendacious idiot?

Professor Paul Krugman could almost have had James McGrath’s (and the other names above) track records of responding to mythicists in mind when he wrote in an article, Do You Know Who I Am?,

But academic credentials are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for having your ideas taken seriously. If a famous professor repeatedly says stupid things, then tries to claim he never said them [see, for example, the "McGrath Wisely pretends he never said that" refrain in Carrier's post], there’s no rule against calling him a mendacious idiot — and no special qualifications required to make that pronouncement other than doing your own homework.

Conversely, if someone without formal credentials consistently makes trenchant, insightful observations, he or she has earned the right to be taken seriously, regardless of background.

English: Tim Minchin at the Melbourne Comedy F...

Tim Minchin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If only the honorable theologian had taken time out from watching Dr Who to listen to the occasional address of Tim Minchin that he gave on the day he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters [See the video clip at this post]. He would surely have come to his senses and grasped what I actually wrote and never have ventured to resort, yet once again, to blatant falsehoods.

Tim Minchin’s point number five:

5. Be Hard On Your Opinions

A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arse-holes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arse-holes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.

We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege.

Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.

Note again that last paragraph about nuance. read more »

Mythicism and Arguments from Authority

History is not rocket science. It is easy to explain to the general audience the evidence for the existence and career-outline and various assessments of the significance of Julius Caesar. Historical argument is as “easy” as presenting

  • the “historical events/hypothesis”
  • the sources upon which the above scenario is based
  • the evidence for our understanding of the nature of those sources
  • the reasons we interpret those sources and their contents the way we do.

That sort of information can be explained in a good, educational TV documentary.

Take Socrates, for example.

  • Hypothesis/events: Socrates was executed for inspiring others to question the traditional views and values of society
  • Sources: Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes, Thucydides . . . . some self-attested pupils of Socrates testifying to Socrates as a contrary figure and the general social situation
  • Nature: Genre and style compared with other texts established by primary (“in situ”) evidence . . . apparent independence of sources of a “truth-message/fact-narrative” style . . .
  • Reasons: Analogy of past configurations to their equivalents in today’s first-hand established understandings . . . .

Now that’s not as strong as the evidence for Augustus Caesar that could be linked (at point #2, Sources) to coins and first=person imperial monuments, but it does have a lot of “probabilities” built in there and that your average literate person could understand.

So I cannot help but be quite dismayed reading a post commended by Richard Carrier, an academically qualified ancient historian, that tells all readers to rely entirely upon the counsel of the intellectual elite, to trust the academics, when it comes to questions about the historicity of Jesus.

Carrier commends an article by Finke, saying Finke Is Right. . . . when Dan Finke writes (my bolding)

I [Dan Finke] personally want to take this chance to discourage my fellow atheists who are not historians from publicly making a big deal out of the historicity of Jesus, and especially when engaging with Christians. Why? Because the historical consensus is that there was a historical JesusResponsible, mainstream, qualified history scholars who judiciously disregard supernaturalistic claims about Jesus and have no agenda to promote Christianity nonetheless, as a matter of academic consensus, believe there was a historical Jesus. Could they be wrong? It’s possible. But if they are, that is for qualified historians to prove, not laypeople. And it is for the field of ancient history to be persuaded to change its consensus before laypeople go around making claims that Jesus did not exist.

I don’t recall ever having to assert that the historicity of any event is something that can only be established and preserved by an intellectual elite such that all others can do nothing more than defer to their asserted conclusions.

The first clause that needs to be stopped for questioning in the above quotation is this

the historical consensus is that there was a historical Jesus

Garbage. There has been no “historical consensus” on this. There have been theologians and biblical scholars writing from the assumption of an historical Jesus, but that is not the same as saying that “historians” themselves have established some sort of “consensus” on this question. For that to happen, “historians” (not “theologians”, most of whom, even the most liberal ones, have a personal interest in maintaining the belief in an “historical Jesus” of some kind) would need to come together in an effort to address that very question — “Was there an historical Jesus?” — as opposed to simply making passing references to him as a taken-for-granted figure of popular culture the same way they assume the earth orbits the sun. Have historians “come to a consensus” of astronomy through themselves addressing the physical arguments or simply deferred to popular understanding on this? read more »

The Propaganda War Against Mythicism

As their weapon of choice against the Christ Myth hypothesis (“mythicism”), theologians, religion and Biblical scholars appear from where I stand to regularly deploy the instruments of propaganda. The motivations appear to me to be to maintain

  • their status and reputation in a society infested with critical and anti-establishment influences, and
  • their control over the terms of religious debates, dictating what are legitimate topics for review and what are not.

I use the term “propaganda” because it’s yet another valid way of explaining what is happening. Simpler expressions are “labeling” and “framing the debate”. Adding the concept of “propaganda” to the list might help us understand more clearly what is actually happening in these “discussions”.

Lasswell

Harold Lasswell

To me the word “propaganda” stands for the opposite of true education, democratic or honest intellectual engagement and dialogue. Here’s a description of “what propaganda is” from some passages from the classic article “The Theory of Political Propaganda” by Harold Lasswell and first published (as far as I am aware in 1927) in the American Political Science Review:

Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols . . . Collective attitudes are amenable to many modes of alteration . . . But their arrangement and rearrangement occurs principally under the impetus of significant symbols; and the techniques of using significant symbols for this purpose is propaganda. . . . [As opposed to education] propaganda to the creation of valuational dispositions or attitudes. [What I would call honest dialogue] implies the search for the solution of a besetting problem with no desire to prejudice a particular solution in advance. The propagandist is very much concerned about how a specific solution is to be evoked and “put over.” And though the most subtle propaganda closely resembles disinterested deliberation, there is no difficulty in distinguishing the extremes. (my bolding)

Propaganda, I suggest, is the primary weapon used by the academy of biblical scholars and theologians against the Christ Myth theory. I have encountered very few genuine efforts of academics to “educate” the public (that is, “educate” as opposed to sway them by “propaganda”, given that “propaganda” is a process akin to “indoctrination”) or even to “educate” their peers of the deficiencies in any one of the “mythicist” cases.

One of the key characteristics of propaganda is that it manipulates symbols with the intent of bringing about social control. The symbols must have major significance for the audience, significant enough for them to hold real power over tan audience’s emotional reactions — “ideally, symbols of the Sacred and the Satanic.” (Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, p. 12)

Understand the power of symbols.

Symbols are related to the psychological phenomenon of the stereotype. A stereotype is a seeming value judgment, acquired by belonging to a group, without any intellectual labor. . . The stereotype arises from the feelings one has for one’s group, or against the “out-group.” . . .  In propaganda, existing stereotypes are awakened by symbols. (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, p. 163)

Probably the most used symbol in the propaganda war against mythicism is “The Scholar”. This symbol has siblings: “peer review”, “published in a reputable/academic journal”, “PhD”, “scholarly training”, “skilled in relevant languages”, to identify some.

Now I know some people will jump on that above sentence and accuse me of suggesting that “scholarly training” and being “skilled in biblical languages” are nothing more than worthless empty symbols. And such an effort will itself be demonstrating how propaganda works. By ignoring nuance they will be reinforcing the power of the symbol itself and the mechanics of propaganda. They will be reaffirming that “The Scholar” is sensible, wise, naturally right, while the critic who is associated with the enemy, “mythicism”, is vacuous, unavoidably silly, dumb and risible.

Recall the Sacred and the Satanic. read more »

Amanda Witmer on “Jesus, the Gospels and Historicity”

It seems the topic of the day is Amanda Witmer’s article in The Bible and Interpretation, Jesus, the Gospels and History. It covers many points I have addressed often enough here, and that others have addressed at length, so I will refer only in brief to some of these arguments in my little contribution to the discussion below.

Amanda begins her argument by erroneously framing the Christ Myth position as an extreme form of dogma that insists on absolutes. The same paragraph ironically calls for the necessity for “an open and enquiring mind”

In some quarters it is now fashionable to argue that Jesus did not exist! At the opposite end of the spectrum we find the position that every word of the Bible is literally true and that the gospels provide us with an unfiltered historical account of Jesus’ life. This is a false dichotomy rooted in our human tendency to insist on absolutes and true or false claims. Neither position takes the evidence seriously. As it turns out, historical information about Jesus can be found, but sifting through the data requires some work. An open and enquiring mind is also a necessary requisite.

Facts:

The Christ Myth idea is hardly a current “fashion”. It has been with us since the eighteenth century, and in some variant of its modern form since Bruno Bauer.

Advocates of the Christ Myth view, and others who are in some way neutral on the position, are no more “absolutist” in their claims than are most who argue for the historicity of Jesus. Given that a number of Christ Myth advocates do think that the Christ idea began with a belief in the appearance at some time of a human entity or a figure appearing as a human on earth, we have to acknowledge that there is as wide a range of discussion about the nature of the origins of the Jesus myth among “mythicists” as there is among “historicists” debating the nature of the historical Jesus and how much, if anything, can be known about him.

Witmer’s introduction unfortunately appears to be ignorant of the simple fact that the Christ Myth arguments are indeed arguments that address the scholarly literature and methodologies and are very conscious of the degrees of uncertainty that must necessarily exist on both sides of the debate.

Witmer is right to call for an open and enquiring mind, but if one wants to address an opposing argument one does need first to be open to enquiring what the opposing argument does argue. Witmer does not appear to have done that in the case of the Christ Myth theories; but the serious “mythicists” who appear to be concerning theologians today do know and understand and address the arguments of the historicists. Had she done so, she could not have written that the Chrsit Myth exponents are unaware of, or do not take seriously, the evidence that has been advanced in support of the historicity of Jesus.

As time passed and memories were formed, faith began to shape the way in which the early Christian community viewed and wrote about Jesus. As a result, the portrait of Jesus we find in the gospels is nuanced, containing a mixture of biography, historical information, memory, faith and myth. . . . It is now generally accepted that the gospels can be fitted broadly into the genre of ancient Greco-Roman biography.

Facts: read more »