Tag Archives: Niels Peter Lemche

Why Historical Knowledge of Jesus is Impossible: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 5

Emanuel Pfoh‘s chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ raises the questions that I think get to the very heart of what the “historicist-mythicist” divide over Christian origins is really all about. It’s a favourite of mine, and once again like another favourite that I’ll mention again in this post, comes from an anthropological perspective. The title of his chapter is “Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem”.

His chapter concludes the first of the three divisions into which the book is divided:

1. These first five chapters — by Jim West, Roland Boer, Lester L. Grabbe, Niels Peter Lemche and Emmanuel Pfoh — tackle “some problems and issues of past scholarship regarding the historical Jesus”.

2. The next section of three chapters (Robert M. Price, Morgens Müller, Thomas S. Verenna) raises “fresh perspectives regarding the figure of Paul and his epistles as our ‘earliest testimony’ of the figure of Jesus”. (I finally have come to appreciate the reference to “the figure of” Jesus as opposed to (simply) “Jesus”: the “figure of Jesus” is an umbrella term that can cover imaginary, mythical, historical-conceptual, or literal-physical-DNA Jesuses.)

3. The final section of the book consists of four chapters (James G. Crossley, Thomas L. Thompson, Ingrid Hjelm, Joshua Sabith) on the “intertextual literary reading and the significance of the function of a rewritten Bible for literary composition”, and a fifth and final chapter by K. L. Noll as a theoretical discussion of “the history of Christian origins without a historical Jesus.”

Emanuel Pfoh

In this chapter Pfoh examines the current research into the historical Jesus in the context of the “historical milieu of previous scholarship”. He draws lessons from the past — how social, political, ideological and intellectual contexts of past studies have influenced the results produced by that scholarship — and makes some incisive observations about the real nature of current historical Jesus studies as a result.

“But he’s not a New Testament scholar”

Emanuel Pfoh begins by clarifying his “outsider” status to the field of New Testament studies. His special interest is in historical anthropology of Syria-Palestine/the Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages. That would seem to immediately disqualify him from any contribution to the discussion of Jesus according to Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey and James McGrath. (These have each rejected statements by Thomas L. Thompson on those grounds.)

What his chapter is about

Pfoh explains that he offers

only general statements and thoughts . . . regarding epistemological and methodological issues for the history-writing of the Near Eastern world, in which the figure of Jesus together with the whole of biblical traditions should be understood.

My main aim is to reflect, from strictly historical knowledge and what is to be deemed myth or mythic creation by ancient writers. (my emphases and formatting throughout)

That is, his chapter can be seen as

reflections of the methodological problems of the search for a historical Jesus in New Testament studies that should be acknowledged, addressed and responded to by scholars, but also as a plea for a critical understanding of the nature of ancient literature and the intellectual worlds supporting such.

What I believe Pfoh’s discussion does — though this is not something he directly addresses — is undermine the validity of the application of “historical criteria” to uncover a “historical Jesus” beneath the Gospels. Quite apart from the logical validity of the criteria themselves (criteria of embarrassment, double dissimilarity, coherence, multiple attestation, etc) Pfoh’s reflections argue that it is no more reasonable to think they can uncover a “historical core” beneath the Gospels than they might uncover an historical Achilles or Odysseus if applied to Homer.

Some will immediately fault such an approach as “sceptical” as if scepticism is a bad word in academia. Pfoh will later point out

All this is not a matter of scepticism, but of an awareness of the conditions of our knowledge and of an attempt to treat the extant and available data critically. (p. 85, my emphasis — ironic that a scholar appears to sense a need to defend against a potential charge of scepticism)


The Figure of Jesus and the Mythic Mind

The main reason for holding to the historicity of the figure of Jesus . . . resides not primarily in historical evidence but derives instead from a modern theological necessity.

Pfoh writes that “the presence of the mythic mind in the intellectual world of antiquity” is not always taken seriously by “biblical scholars”. read more »

Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 4

Niels Peter Lemche is the author of the fourth chapter of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, “The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus”. He frames his case around the parable in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that tells of Christ being arrested on his return to earth in the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor informs the imprisoned Christ that he will have to be burned at the stake because he is a danger to the Church. But there is a subtle twist in the parable which is the key to understanding the paradoxical argument that follows.

But before starting, let me point out that this post is different from earlier ones discussing chapters of this book. Rather than sequentially paraphrasing the argument I take some core arguments in Lemche’s chapter as a springboard for discussion of my own observations. (So I omit all reference to the origins of historical-critical scholarship, liberation theology and third world exegesis, Philipp Gabler‘s famous lecture on the conflict between historical theology and ecclesiastical dogmatics, the various ways both Catholics and Protestants have historically controlled the reading of the Bible, Marcion’s and von Harnack’s complaints about the inclusion of the Jewish scriptures in the Christian Bible . . . . , that Lemche covers in this chapter.) Now back to the parable. . . .

Ivan Karamazov (John Malkovich)

The parable is told by Ivan Karamazov who appears to side with the Inquisitor in objecting to the Jesus Christ who walks straight out of the pages of the Gospels and begins performing miracles etc just as he did there. (There is much more to the original story, but let’s roll with the details Lemche selects for his analogy.) The irony for Lemche is that this same Ivan also represents those who in other ways question the Church. The Grand Inquisitor thus turns out to be something of a double-edged sword. “Perhaps there are more layers represented in this novel than appear at first sight.

For Lemche, the Grand Inquisitor represents “the position of the well-educated clergy of the Church“. The threats it faces come from two opposing sides, and one of these sides finds itself in an ambiguous position:


Threat #1 — the pious laity with their Bible

Yes, there is the threat from “the pious laity having read too much of the Bible”:

The difference between the Christ of the Church and the Jesus of the Gospels becomes dangerous when explained to the laity. (p. 77)

Elsewhere Lemche has argued that pious people should not be allowed within a hundred metres of the Bible. “Reading the Bible has not done them much good.” Some who would follow in Christ’s footsteps have been rendered harmless by being incorporated into the constraints of the Church itself (e.g. the Franciscans). Others have gone down in history as suicide cults. I and many others would add a vast array of dysfunctional mental, physical, financial and social legacies among too many of the faithful. read more »

So it’s true: Today’s Biblical Scholars Really Never Have Read Wellhausen

Julius Wellhausen

Julius Wellhausen: Image via Wikipedia

A conservative evangelical student, asked to read Wellhausen and discuss the reasons for his ordering of sources in the Pentateuch, will not want to read Wellhausen and will try, if possible, to escape from the imposition: what he will do is to read a work which will tell him why Wellhausen was wrong. His pastoral advisers, if he has any, will council him to read this kind of book: they will not advise him to read energetically the works of Wellhausen himself, or of de Wette, or of Kuenen. (James Barr, Fundamentalism (London, SCM, 1977), pp. 121-122.)

Below I have copied an article by Tim Widowfield demonstrating the apparent truth of this state of affairs with a response to Dr James McGrath’s remarkable post, The Best Evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis is in the Psalms. Tim, by the way, is a supporter of the Documentary Hypothesis but would rather find company among others who understood what they were talking about. Does a professor of biblical studies really not understand the facts of the Documentary Hypothesis? (Not that Dr McGrath would describe himself as a “conservative” scholar, but he undeniably does have confessional interests and there are such scholars who do find ways to “apologize” for God and the Bible even if their efforts are dressed up in more modern sophisticated “liberal” motifs.)

Before Tim’s post, however, a word about the quotation above. James Barr’s words were used by Niels Peter Lemche to open his 2003 online article, Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion. One of a number of explanations for this decline in standards, Lemche  suggests, is the shift in the geographic centre of scholarship:

A generation ago the center was definitely Europe, and here German scholarship was unquestionably the flagship. European scholars were all brought up in the shadow of de Wette, Wellhausen, Kuenen, Alt, Noth, and von Rad, and without accepting these scholars as leading stars; nobody would be allowed to enter the temple of academic biblical studies.

That has changed:

Now days, biblical scholarship is dominated by American scholars, presenting a much more colorful picture. Historical-critical scholarship has no monopoly like it used to have in Europe; academic institutions may be — according to European standards — critical or conservative, but in contrast to the European tradition, these very different institutions will communicate, thus lending respectability also to the conservative position.

This definitely represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition. Entertaining a dialogue with an opponent who has different goals from the ones of the critical scholar means the same as diluting one’s own position: in the universe of the critical scholar, there can be no other goal than the pursuit of scholarship — irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her.

Tim Widowfield’s Response to “The Best Evidence for the DH is in the Psalms.”

On his blog today Dr. James F. McGrath makes a startling claim: “The Best Evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis is in the Psalms.” Who would have thought that one could find evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) in the Ketuvim, a collection of works which probably made their way into the canon about seven centuries after the Torah was recognized as canonical? And not just any old evidence, but “the best evidence”? Certainly not me.

Just what in the world is he talking about? And does he have a point? I will attempt to present Dr. McGrath’s argument as fairly as possible and explain why he’s wrong. I welcome any corrections. read more »

Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1

Kurdistan  .Yazidis  .Judaism . Christianity ....

Kurdistan .Yazidis .Judaism . Christianity .Islam (Photo credit: Kurdistan Photo كوردستان)

This post is based primarily on a few pages in The Mythic Past by Thomas L. Thompson. It is slightly supplemented by fewer notes from a different but complementary discussion on the biblical meanings of “the people of God” in The Israelites in History and Tradition by Niels Peter Lemche. (All bold fonts for emphasis or highlighting key points for ease of reading are mine.)

I conclude with my own thoughts on what all of this means for the first of our Gospels.

The biblical tradition informs us of the meaning and understanding that the biblical authors’ contemporaries attributed to the past. Archaeological evidence points to a different reality of the past.

The religious understanding of Israel’s origin myth

The primary biblical referent for Israel’s ethnic and family identification is found in the stories and metaphors of “exodus”, “wilderness”, “exile” and “return”. Even in the Books of Kings the narrative is couched in the suspense of threats and promises of exile from the land. These themes centre on the motif of the children of Israel as the “people of God”, as Jahweh’s “first-born” and God’s “inheritance”.

These stories all are solidly rooted in the self-defining, grand epochal line of a God without a home or a people [and who was] searching for a people without a home or a God. It is in this metaphor that we find the foundation and matrix for the ethnographic metaphor of all Israel. This metaphor gives voice to the ‘new Israel’ with its centre in Yahweh’s temple of the ‘new Jerusalem’. This is an identity that is formed from the perspective of the sectarian theology of the way. (pp. 255-56, Our Mythic Past by Thomas L. Thompson)

Compare Niels Peter Lemche’s observation of the nature of Israel’s origin myth: read more »

Will the real Canaanites please stand up!

In yesterday’s post I quoted a brief outline of the variant meanings that have been assigned “Canaan” and “Canaanites” throughout supposedly biblical times. But there is much more to be said, or at least suggested. Niels Peter Lemche discusses these concepts in depth in The Canaanites and Their Land and here I lay out one of the many facets making up that book: — that Canaanites for the Bible’s authors really meant fellow Jews who stood apart as religious rivals.

After surveying in depth the historical references to whatever was truly Canaanite in the second and first millennia b.c.e. (and demonstrating how alien each historical reference is to anything about Canaan and the Canaanites in the Bible) Lemche addresses the treatment of the term in the various books of the Bible. In his concluding chapter he addresses conclusions that may be drawn — or rather postulates that may be aired — if we think of the historical books as being written in the late Persian or Hellenistic eras. read more »

Who wrote the Bible? (2) Challenging the Documentary Hypothesis

Русский: Распределение документов Йахвист, Эло...

Image via Wikipedia

This post continues from my post some weeks ago in which I covered primarily Philippe Wajdenbaum’s account of the rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. At that time in one of the comments I explained I had paused to take stock of how best to address the challenge that has arisen against the Documentary Hypothesis. This is a study I undertook some years ago and so thoroughly enjoyed that it is easy for me to cover way too much detail. Maybe I will have to return to address some of the specifics in separate posts later. Once this is out of the way I would like to post another explaining how political anthropology offers a cogent explanation for the character of the biblical books as Hellenistic productions.

First, to recap the Documentary Hypothesis. This is the idea that the Old Testament was essentially a result of four separate sources that were originally written over a span of some centuries:

  • a Jahwist/Yahwist (J) written in the southern kingdom of Judah around the time of Solomon – 10th century bce / later shifted to the Babylonian Exile period:
    • Gerhard von Rad in 1944 “considers the time of Solomonic enlightenment to contain all the prerequisites for literary production, including history writing. It was first of all a time of political stability and economic prosperity. On top of this came the need of a new state to provide a history of its past. Finally the creative impetus following in the wake of the establishment of an Israelite state created this new literature.”
    • Subsequent scholarship revised this, arguing that “External circumstances were thought to provide the most likely background for this kind of literature.” (pp. 158-9 of The Israelites in History and Tradition, Niels Peter Lemche)
  • an Elohist (E) composed in the northern kingdom of Israel – 9th or 8th century bce
  • a Deuteronomist (D) in the southern kingdom of Judah at time of Josiah – late 7th century bce
  • a Priestly source (P) during the Babylonian Exile – 6th century bce

The dating of the sources is central to the hypothesis:

Essential to the history of scholarship expressed in Wellhausen’s synthesis [the DH is the result of W’s synthesis of two generations of OT historical-critical scholarship] was that these four discrete sources of the pentateuch were to be understood as literary documents created at the time of their written composition, and hence as compositions reflecting the understanding and knowledge of their authors and their world. (p. 2 of Early History of the Israelite People from the Written & Archaeological Sources, by Thomas L. Thompson.)

This meant, for example, that the Pentateuch was not a reliable source for the events it narrates, such as the Patriarchal period and Exodus.

But in recent decades biblical scholars are not so united in their acceptance of this explanation for the Bible or “Old Testament” portion of it.

Basically, the old consensus that had developed around the Documentary Hypothesis has gone, though there is nothing to take its place (Rendtorff 1997; Whybray 1987). Some still accept the Documentary Hypothesis in much its original form, but many accept only aspects of it or at least put a question mark by it. There has also been much debate around the J source (Rendtorff 1997: 53-5) and the P source (Grabbe 1997). It seems clear that the Pentateuch was put together in the Persian period (Grabbe 2004:331-43; 2006). (p. 44 of Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? by Lester L. Grabbe)

So where have the cracks appeared? read more »

Another Possible Interpolation Conceded by Historicists of Old (and a question of heavenly trees)

"The Seed of David" by Rossetti Llan...

"Seed of David" by Rosetti: Image by Martin Beek via Flickr

Once more into the fray with A. D. Howell Smith in his arguments against the Christ mythicists of his day. . . .

This time it is with a historicist’s concession that Romans 1:3 — the statement that Jesus was born of the seed of David — could well be part of a passage that was only later added to Paul’s original letter.

Here is what he writes on page 135 of Jesus Not A Myth (1942) with my own emphasis and formatting:

Couchoud follows Rylands and other Mythicists in regarding the Crucifixion as a mystical and transcendental event. The Christ is slain by the “Archons” in some sub-celestial, but super-terrestrial, region.

Most careful readers of Paul’s Epistles will consider this view of his teaching as grotesque. Couchoud makes Paul a Docetist, one who believed that the body of Jesus was not of flesh, but only appeared to be so.

The phrase “born of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Rom. i, 3) may well be an interpolation, as it is part of a long, clumsy sentence, which is suspiciously overloaded with phrases that seem to be dragged in for polemic purposes. . . . . read more »

The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche)

Diversionary tactics

Image by tompagenet via Flickr

In 2003 Niels-Peter Lemche posted a blunt article addressing the unscholarly tactics of conservative scholars. He noted how even historical-critical scholars had come to resort to the same polemics as conservatives in their efforts to “crush so-called ‘radical’ critical scholarship.”

There may be a number of explanations for this strange fact. One may be that the majority of critical scholars originate within a religious milieu and at the bottom of their hearts are conservatives without probably realizing this. Thus, critical scholarship represents a kind of breaking away from one’s own background. The changing attitude towards even more critical scholars questioning, e.g., the very existence of King David, may have to do with the fear of totally losing the tradition-after all Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem so the new David could be born there! Somehow there seem to be questions that we are not allowed to ask.

The above is cited from Niels Peter Lemche’s 2003 post, Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion on Bible and Interpretation.

Surely we find the same motives for these same tactics among those biblical scholars who are most vociferous in their polemics against the very idea of questioning the existence of Jesus Christ, also.

I quote sections from Lemche’s article here that look very like the same sized shoe that fits the reactions of biblical scholars against Christ-mythicism. read more »

Scholarly trench warfare to defend the Bible by means of rationalistic paraphrase

This post is based on a discussion by Niels Peter Lemche in The Israelites in History and Tradition. It begins with a quotation from Assyriologist Mario Liverani:

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events, they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.— Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.  (Cited p. 149 in The Israelites in History and Tradition)

Liverani is addressing historians of Hittite history here. Historians of the Hittites felt they had all they needed to know to get started by the discovery of a decree by King Telipinus. This presents an outline of Hittite dynastic history that has been used by many Hittite historians. But Liverani showed that the “history” had little to do with actual reality. It was a highly ideological text designed to establish a (fictional) rationale for King Telipinus’s usurpation.

Lemche adds:

In few places is Liverani’s warning against naively accepting an ancient text as a historical source as relevant as in biblical studies, where the amount of rationalistic paraphrase has in fact been overwhelming. (p. 149)

Lemche is speaking specifically of Old Testament studies. But my observation is that it applies at least equally strongly among New Testament studies.

Some reasons for this that Lemche offers: read more »

The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book? (and other digressions)

Niels Peter Lemche has a chapter in Lester Grabbe’s Did Moses Speak Attic titled, “The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book?” Here are a few highlights from it. The first point here should stand out as equally relevant for New Testament studies.

NT studies digression

Historical Jesus/Christian origin scholars should have this framed and displayed on their work desks — or used as their computer wallpaper:

It is an established fact that a literary product must be considered a reflection of its age of origin, as nobody can escape being a child of his or her own time. This is absolutely commonplace but, on the other hand not to be forgotten by, say, narrative analysts who may claim that it is possible to understand an argument by a person in the past without knowing in advance the specific values attached to his age to certain beliefs and concepts. The same applies to the study of the biblical literature, although written by anonymous authors. It is surely extremely naive to believe that the meaning of biblical books can be properly exposed without knowledge of their date of composition, about the ideas current in that age or the beliefs common to their audience; and it is of no consequence whether the subject is a narrative as a whole or parts of it or just single concepts and phrases. (p. 295)

This statement here — surely a simple truism — goes to the heart of many historicists’ errors. Acknowledgement of Lemche’s point here is what gives Earl Doherty’s interpretations of Paul’s writings the lay down misère advantage over orthodox mainstream interpretations. I would go further than Doherty, however, and suggest the significance of the common themes in both Paul’s and second century writings. But the most significant error that comes from New Testament scholars overlooking this basic fact is their interpretation of the Gospels themselves.

What Lemche’s paragraph builds on is an equally pertinent observation on historical method that is generally overlooked by mainstream New Testament scholars. Lemche complained that among OT scholars

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the Old Testament to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage point should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (p. 294)

But though it is in the second century that we are best informed about the appearance of both the Pauline epistles and Gospels, to follow Lemche’s truism here and apply what would be considered standard scientific procedure by “almost everybody else” is generally dismissed as an extremist or fringe position!

So much for the digression. Now for some highlights of Lemche’s discussion arguing for a very late date for the Old Testament.

More Greek philosophical inspiration for Genesis

I recently posted on the possibility that Genesis myths were inspired by Plato‘s philosophical myths.

Lemche discusses another Greek philosophical concept found in Genesis 1. read more »

Some “training in history” for Craig A. Evans, Richard Bauckham, et al.

final editing about 2 hours after first posting . . .

In my last post on Fabricating Jesus I discussed Craig Evans’ put-down of sceptical conclusions on the grounds that “no-one trained in history” would entertain such “extreme” doubts as to whether we can know anything historical about Jesus at all or even if he existed. Evans isn’t the only bible scholar who has made such a comment, and my last post was not my final word on the subject. Will elaborate a little on that earlier post here. I’ve included Bauckham in the heading because his “historical” reconstruction of the gospels in another series of posts I submitted here also displays an abysmal ignorance of the most basic historical “training”. Since my last post began with von Ranke, a natural segue would be a discussion drawn from Niels Peter Lemche in The Israelites in History and Tradition. He, too, begins with von Ranke. (See earlier post for discussion of one of von Ranke’s contributions to historiography.)

Fundamentalists will dismiss Lemche because his methods do not lead to conclusions supporting their beliefs, but I challenge them to find historiographical, or even simply logical, rationales for overturning the historical principles he works by. But Lemche is by no means a one-off. After I finish with Lemche I hope to dig out a list of other names from my notes and edit them to post here with similar discussions about valid historical methodology, from both ancient and modern history. read more »