Daily Archives: 2010-02-15 14:42:35 UTC

Schweitzer’s comments on the historical-mythical Jesus debate

Albert Schweitzer argued against those who denied the historicity of Jesus, but he also had a few things to say about the way in which the debate between mythicists and historicists was conducted in his day. This post lists some of those thoughts that I believe are still relevant. His advice about what mythicists need to do also resonates well with my own reflections that I have attempted to express at times in this blog and on other discussion boards.

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. (p.394, the 2001 Fortress edition of Quest throughout)

Schweitzer squarely laid the blame on the “mythicists” of his day: they gratuitously provoked “mainstream biblical scholars”, and the latter in return “generally answered in an unfortunately similar manner.” Today the situation is reversed. It is mainstream scholars who have initiated the bloodletting today. I witnessed this around ten years ago on the Crosswalk discussion list when Earl Doherty made an appearance, and then some time later, René Salm.

But even then on that first Crosswalk discussion list there were academics who did their profession more credit. As in Schweitzer’s day, it is true to say

However, there was no lack of attempts to establish a peaceful and worthy discussion. (p.395)

Dilettantes and Fathers

It is not surprising that the dilettantism of the [mythicists’] presentation received full, indeed sometimes immoderate, coverage in the debate . . . .

Refutations were almost too prompt and numerous.

For impartial observers it was all most instructive. The proceedings gave them some notion of the Gnostic battles of the middle of the second century AD. The mentality of many free-thinking theologians began to reveal a strange and bitter resemblance to that of the fathers who battled against heresy at that time. Like them, they felt themselves called upon to protect the spiritual welfare of the defenceless masses who were in danger of being craftily deluded.(p.395)

One might see the same happening today also in relation to agnostic and atheistic bible scholars who feel a need to protect the “intellectual integrity” of their audiences.

Thus H. Weinel added a ‘practical appendix’ . . . to his book Is the Liberal Picture of Jesus refuted?, which was intended to instruct clergymen on the logic and facts with which they could best confound Drews and his companions at public meetings. (p.395)

This has its modern counterpart with the abundance of web pages professing to give their readers lists of counter-arguments against Doherty’s web and print publications.

Superficial responses

As the polemical works for and against the historicity of Jesus were on the whole written rather quickly and were intended to be within the intellectual grasp of a wide, in fact the widest possible, readership, their level of scholarship was not generally very distinguished, and sometimes, in view of the authority of the writer, remarkably low.

We again see this so often today. So often a “mainstream scholar” will dismiss an argument from a “mythicist” with a reply that he would surely never dare expect to share with his peers. Arguments and presumptions that are widely treated as working hypotheses are presented as absolute facts. As a layman I came to learn that when I read a scholarly article apologizing that a particular point had not been extensively researched, it as often as not seemed to mean that it had not been researched at all. I also came to see how certain interpretations changed in line with more general social and cultural developments through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was not hard to see that some assumptions and interpretations reflect wider political developments rather than any new evidence or methodologies. Many scholars know all this, of course. But some among the field of biblical studies seem to overlook it all when it comes to exchanges with “mythicists”.

When I was studying in depth the Jesus passages in Josephus, I sought out scholarly articles in the literature, both new and old, and read all I could that offered any sort of depth to the discussions. When on Crosstalk I pointed to a fallacy or weakness in a common argument for “a Josephan core” reference to Jesus, I was advised by one good doctor of biblical studies to seek out and read Bruce’s single page dot-point summary of the “core” argument. This, I was assured, would bring my knowledge of the discussion up to the required standard to participate in a discussion with the learned ones. In other words, one had to have the correct conclusions to participate.

One also reads arguments that declare without qualification that there was a widespread and single form of popular Jewish expectation of a messiah at the turn of the century in connection with these discussions. Yet such scholars surely know that such a concept is nowhere to be found or repeated in their literature that deals specifically with this question. (Fitzmyer included, aspects of whose work I have discussed here and on other sites.)

These and other similar personal experiences eventually led me to wonder if some academics themselves rely merely on such summary tracts or undergraduate introductions when referencing supporting assumptions to their main works.

In the main the strategy of the debate has been to reveal the opponent’s mistakes. Those who deny the historicity of Jesus point out the many and profound weaknesses which the thoughtless popularism of modern theology has displayed for ears and which have made theology particularly vulnerable; the defenders of the traditional view fasten on the shortcomings of the philological and historical hypotheses of their opponents. But on both sides, as in the Gnostic struggles, only the most superficial and obvious aspects of the problem have in fact been considered. No attempt has been made to tackle the full extent of the question. (pp.395-6)

One bible scholar has repeatedly pointed me and others to chapter 2 of Weaver’s book, The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century: 1900-1950, to read when and where the “mythicist” case has been repeatedly rebutted and is no longer worth discussing. It seems that such a scholar is satisfied that so long as someone has published a counter argument, and so long as the question has been effectively ignored by the mainstream, then the case has been “rebutted”, and that long ago and ‘many times’. When I respond with actual citations from Weaver and some of those so-called rebutters themselves, and some of the responses their arguments have elicited, and with these citations open his assertions to question, the discussion invariably comes to an end and he withdraws for a time. A reply and a bypass do not equate with a rebuttal. (I know there have been several “replies”, but I also see that they are in the main echoes of one another, and are substantially the one reply that for most part addresses twigs, straw men and red herrings.)

Addressing the complexity of the problem

The complexity of the problem is such that there are four main questions to be considered: these concern the philosophy of religion, the history of religion, the history of doctrine and the history of literature. (p. 396)

1. Philosophy of religion question

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