Monthly Archives: March 2010

Biblical history, literary criticism and logical method

The comments originally sent to my previous post, and my replies to them, were lost. I have retrieved the comments of others but my own are lost (unless someone reading this did catch them in an email — if you can forward them to me that would be great, thanks — my address is in the contact info on the right margin.)

A big thanks and free virtual beer to the subscriber who was able to email me my original comment. It was written early in the morning when I was alert, unlike the ponderous and detailed response of this post that was written late at night at the end of a long day. My original brief response is now returned and reunited with the comments of the previous post.

Anyway, I am replying here more fully to James McGrath’s original comment on the off-chance that there are others also reading this who share his criticisms of my original post. James wrote in his first paragraph:

Two things, neither of which has to do with Crossley’s or Seeley’s arguments but which have to do with methodology. First, you wrote “Crossley does not like literary criticism when it counts against historicity (as it so often does).” I’ve never encountered a literary critic who considered their method as a means to answering historical criticism. Literary criticism treats a text as a piece of literature and sets aside historical questions. Historical criticism asks historical questions. To say that literary criticism counts against historicity sounds to me like utter nonsense, but perhaps you wish to clarify.

Literary criticism and history

Certainly. I was responding to what I understood were James Crossley’s views of the role of literary criticism in history. I my original post I quoted part of a sentence of his in Dating Mark that spoke negatively of those approaching historical questions from a literary critical perspective, and this jells with what he writes in a book Crossley co-edited, Writing History, Constructing Religion:

Some historians have been completely unaccommodating to all things post-modern. One of the most famous critics was G. R. Elton who claimed that historians are, in a way, fighting for their lives in the face of ‘people who would subject historical studies to the dictates of literary critics’.

So it looks as though post-modernists and a few others do at least acknowledge an overlap between literary criticism and history. But I had only read that sentence of Crossley’s in its original context in his “Writing History, Constructing Religion” book after I published my blog post. I had originally encountered that quote in a context that led me to think Crossley himself was as opposed to the role of literary criticism in history as was Elton. But that is clearly not so, as I have since learned. Live and learn. Always check sources for oneself even/especially if they’re from your grandmother!

But literary criticism at some level is inevitable in the historical process — even in biblical historical studies.

If a historian reads a text as a factual historical account she is bringing to that text a certain literary-critical perspective or judgment. Conversely, if she reads it as a totally fictional piece of escapism, she is bringing to her reading a different literary-critical judgment. Neither perspective means that the text is 100% historical fact or 100% fictional. Actual historical data might still be a matter of a second layer of judgment, but the initial literary-critical assumptions brought into play will inevitably steer the way a historian analyzes the text.

And at a more micro level, we can take the Temple Action of Jesus as a case in point. Seeley, Mack and Fredriksen all question the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus. And they do so on the grounds that the narrative details of this pericope are best explained by broader literary-thematic interests of the author when compared with the rationales offered for it as an historical event. Fredriksen (as originally quoted here along with Mack et al) sums up the literary critical basis for denying its historicity:

Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly

If one can see an immediate tangible literary explanation for a detail in a narrative and has to balance the odds of its historicity against a number of layers of assumptions (with no visible means of support) of oral transmission, theological interests and genuine historical events, then what does Mr Occam advise?

I side with Seeley, Mack, Fredriksen and a few others I am sure who believe it is literary critics who beat the historicists in the detail of the Temple Action of Jesus.

In my original (previous) post I pointed to Crossley’s use of literary criticism in coming to his estimation that the author of Mark’s gospel was exaggerating with respect to point X rather than narrating a literal exact fact. Crossley, and no doubt most historians, acknowledge that some degree of literary criticism is necessary in order to sensibly determine what an author is really intending to convey.

So literary criticism works at several levels of reading in any text, and each one is to some extent unavoidable in any endeavour to assess the historical value of a text. We may not always be conscious that we are making literary-critical assumptions or judgments when we read a text, but it is always inevitable that we are in fact doing so whether we realize it or not.

Part Two of James’ comment

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How (most) biblical “historians” work: a case study

Christ cleansing the Temple
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

James Crossley’s argument for the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus (in The Date of Mark’s Gospel) demonstrates the hollowness of biblical historical assumptions generally. It’s not that James Crossley is any different from other biblical “historians” (e.g. E.P. Sanders, James McGrath, Craig Evans, James Dunn, Maurice Casey, Richard Bauckham, etc) in what he does. I am using here his response to David Seeley’s argument that Jesus Temple Act never happened to illustrate how biblical “historians” base their arguments for historicity on arbitrary assumption.

A surreal game

Seeley takes the view, in effect, that if Jesus had really gone into the temple and started throwing tables around and angrily shouting for the money-changers to get out, the most natural thought that would have come to the minds of onlookers was that he lost his cool on discovering he was cheated over the price of a dove. (D. Seeley, ‘Jesus’ Temple Act’, CBQ 55, 1993 pp. 263-283)

He is specifically responding to Craig Evans’ claim that Jesus was protesting against a corrupt priesthood. There are two problems with this, he argues:

  1. Jesus is giving the money-changers the hard time, not the priests.
  2. There is no evidence for such financial abuse anywhere outside the gospels.

The first thing to notice here is that Seeley does not address any evidence for historicity that Evans might have advanced. Evans is

  1. simply making an assumption that the Temple Act is historical
  2. attempting to find plausible rationales for what he assumes really happened.

Seeley responds by challenging Evans’ rationales and showing they are either not plausible or lack supporting external evidence.

This is a strange game being played here. In order to knock down one scholar’s rationale, another scholar declares that it lacks supporting external evidence. Yet neither scholar appears to notice that the absence of supporting external evidence for the very historical existence of Jesus or historical origin of any of the gospel narrative! It’s like those cartoon characters who are so preoccupied with making the most of a task at hand that they fail to see that they have run off a cliff and are standing in mid-air while continuing obliviously in myopic “reality” until they decide to look down. But these scholars never seem to look down. They are standing on nothing but tradition.

But Crossley takes Seeley to task and attempts to restore grounds for believing this Temple Act really did happen in history. Recall the first of Seeley’s points in which he discounted the rationalization that Jesus was protesting against corrupt priests:

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Mark’s rent-a-crowd

crowdI love the ease with which Mark can get a crowd together any time he likes, and dismiss them just as easily whenever he needs them out of the way. And most amazingly of all, he can even have a crowd of thousands organize themselves methodically and efficiently into groups of 100s and 50s. Event organizers today would surely be more impressed with that miracle than merely leaving 12 basket loads of food scraps to clean up after the event.

First of all, John the Baptist has to prepare the way of the whole nation, so the whole nation conveniently comes out to him. Being in the wilderness was no problem. It was just like in the days of Noah when all the animals came to the ark.

And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem. (Mark 1:5)

When it came time for the story of the paralytic being let down through the roof (Mark 2:1-12), he needed a device to get him up on to the roof in the first place, and the crowd blocking the doorway did the trick. But once healed, Jesus tells him to take his bed with him and skip off back home. Suddenly we have a clear passage way at the door and off he goes. The rumour of just another healing miracle about to take place seemed to have the effect of instilling one giant collective yawn among the mob and off they went muttering how they had seen it all before.

And the crowds came just from the right places, too, on cue, to re-enact the Exodus scene. The king and his court plot to kill him, he escapes with a vast mixed multitude, towards the sea. Instead of bringing down great curses, however, he had won fame far and wide for removing plagues. Thousands were suddenly free to take time off work and  leave their homes and travel vast distances to join the event at this right time. And then he ascended a mountain with just a few close associates, all in perfect emulation of of the ancient Mosaic event.

6And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him. 7But Jesus withdrew himself with his disciples to the sea: and a great multitude from Galilee followed him, and from Judaea, 8And from Jerusalem, and from Idumaea, and from beyond Jordan; and they about Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, when they had heard what great things he did, came unto him.

9And he spake to his disciples, that a small ship should wait on him because of the multitude, lest they should throng him. 10For he had healed many; insomuch that they pressed upon him for to touch him, as many as had plagues. 11And unclean spirits, when they saw him, fell down before him, and cried, saying, Thou art the Son of God. 12And he straitly charged them that they should not make him known.

13And he goeth up into a mountain, and calleth unto him whom he would: and they came unto him. 14And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach (Mark 3)

There was also that need crowd of just the right size to fill a house and no more. Jesus had come down with his twelve disciples, entered a house, and in came the multitude to sit around him. There was no room for anyone else to get in, so his family had to stand outside asking for him (Mark 3:19-35). The coincidence of the symbolism was just perfect. Mark, obviously an eyewitness who was standing just inside the doorway, could see that his family were on the outside and Jesus was able to address those on the inside as his brethren, his mothers and true family.

Also amazing was Jesus’ power to be able to get away at will from a crowd that had assembled just to see him. A deaf and dumb man asked Jesus in the midst of a crowd to heal him, so Jesus simply took him aside away from the crowd, and the crowd magically just stood there without any natural curiosity as to where he was off to or interest in seeing another miracle and let him get away. Then the man came rushing back to them — had he and Jesus hidden behind a tree to perform the miracle? — to show them he had been cured. Mark 7:32-36:

32And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. 33And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; 34And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. 35And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain. 36And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it;

Crowds were much more cooperative in those days.

So cooperative, indeed, that when they were needed to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem as the coming Messiah and King, they all assembled at the main road and gateway and cheered him on in (Mark 11:8-10):

8And many spread their garments in the way: and others cut down branches off the trees, and strawed them in the way. 9And they that went before, and they that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: 10Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest.

And when they were needed to ensure Jesus had a bit more time to preach a few more things to be recorded in the gospel, and to get away with disturbing the peace in the Temple, the crowd was there to keep him safe (Mark 11:18):

18And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine.

What is most amazing here is the remarkably perspicacious insights of this mob. They could tell immediately that Jesus was acting out something quite meaningful here, and definitely not just throwing a tantrum because he had been cheated by a money-changer (Seeley, Jesus Temple Act, CBQ, ’93, Vol. 55, p.263).

They were also needed to give him time to give us all the Last Supper, too. So they were there when needed once again (Mark 14:1-2):

1After two days was the feast of the passover, and of unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take him by craft, and put him to death. 2But they said, Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar of the people.

But when they were needed to have him crucified, then they could all cooperatively (for the sake of humanity’s salvation) switch from adulation and insight into a lynch mob at the behest of a few priests.

11But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them. 12And Pilate answered and said again unto them, What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews? 13And they cried out again, Crucify him. 14Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him. 15And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified. (Mark 15)

David Seeley comments on this:

the unexplained ease with which the crowds are turned against Jesus makes one suspect that to a large extent they are simply a literary device, functioning as protectors or as betrayers as narrative need dictates. (D. Seeley ‘Jesus’ Temple Act’ CBQ 55 1993 pp. 263-83)


And their literary function extends as far back as chapter 1. As a deus ex machina they even get more use than God and demons.

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Elijah manifests a Sun God?

In a Singapore bookshop I recently picked up a reprint from an 1877 publication date and titled Mythology Among the Hebrews and Its Historical Development by Ignaz Goldzhier of Hungary (translated by Russell Martineau). And even more recently I was listening to a podcast by Robert M. Price in which he mentioned the same book. So I pulled it off my shelf and decided I’d see if I should get around to reading it at last.

I have sometimes heard that so many of the characters from the Jewish Scriptures can be traced to mythological figures, but not knowing anything about this field of study I simply did not know what to make of the claims, so generally shelved them.

Today I looked up Elijah in the index and here is what I found:

Hairiness was a typically associated with the Sun, representing its rays of course.

The Sun punished the earth with drought.

The Sun also regenerates life.

The Sun is also symbolized by a pool or well of water.

The Sun descends into water before rising again to bring renewed life.

There are also sunny descriptions associated with David (stone throwing and ruddy complexion) and Samson (blinded at the end of his days).

It still looks like a Rorschach inkblot test to me. But then I see in the translator’s introduction a note about comparative mythology not being studied in England, etc. I don’t know this field. I don’t know what the current studies “in England” or any English speaking country are.

Still on the question shelf with this one.

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The origin of the ‘Oral Tradition’ hypothesis

Thomas L. Thompson has hit the nail on the head when he explains why “historians” of the Bible place so much emphasis on oral tradition. Oral tradition, of course, is not a fact. That it existed cannot be verified. It is nothing more than a hypothesis, or really more an assumption of necessity than a hypothesis. And the necessity is the trap that scholars have built for themselves by assuming — the great unquestionable assumption — that the gospels ultimately get their stories from some historical events and persons.

Before we can speak of a historical Jesus, we need a source that is independent of Matthew, Mark and Luke and refers to the figure of the early first century. Such an ideal source, of course, is hardly to be hoped for . . . . The problem with using the far from ideal gospels as sources for history has attracted great attention to oral tradition.

And the necessity for these oral traditions?

They could help, however, in bridging the considerable gap between the time in which the gospels were written and that earlier time in which they set Jesus.

Enter the Gospel of the Gaps

Before the Gospel of Thomas was discovered, this oral source for the sayings common to Matthew and Luke (Q) was defined by the striking similarity of Jesus’ sayings in a fourth-century translation reawakened these old speculations about Q. . . . [This Gospel of Thomas was] corroborating evidence for an oral tradition of sayings [that] supported the hope that a comparison of Q with Thomas could help in distinguishing earlier from later sayings. If the sayings in Thomas are earlier than the gospels, scholars would be closer to identifying the earliest of them as Jesus’ own.


Necessity, once more, was the mother of invention. Even though the Greek original of the Gospel of Thomas could hardly have been earlier than the second century, the similarities of the sayings in Thomas to Q have seduced many. Thomas can fill the gap separating a historical Jesus from the earliest of the gospels and therefore it does.

Leaving Thompson aside for a moment, Nicholas Perrin’s book (sorry April DeConick), Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron (link is to Google books) points to many word plays and various Syrian literary linking details that set the work apart as a literary, hardly an oral, creation.

The unlikely assumption (again)

This accepts the unlikely assumption that the sayings from Thomas were based on an oral tradition, rather than on the known gospels or on a tradition harmonizing them.

Thompson then alludes to Crossan’s and others’ efforts to distinguish the wisdom sayings from the apocalyptic ones. The idea of this distinction has been to identify the sayings of a wisdom ‘historical’ teacher from a later layer of apocalyptic sayings introduced subsequently by followers. Thompson rejects this distinction and argues (from a range of Jewish scriptures and other Middle Eastern sayings) that the apocalyptic and wisdom motifs as a rule went hand in hand throughout the centuries.

So why the conjuring up of oral tradition?

The tendency to evoke oral tradition to transmit the sayings from event to the writing of the gospels is required only by the assumption that the text is about a historical Jesus. The projected function of the sayings of Q and Thomas as oral sayings is to link the gospels with their text’s heroic teacher.

What’s wrong with what we’ve already got?

If, instead of Q and the collections of sayings in Thomas, we were to consider actually existing Jewish collections and sayings, such as the proverbs of Solomon, the songs of David or the laws of Moses, would we also conclude that such sayings originated with the figure to which the Bible attributes them? . . . . Such collections tell us nothing about a historical Solomon, David or Moses — not even whether they existed.

There is much more, of course. I’ve just hit a few salient points for a quick read on a blog.

Thompson’s book does not attempt to cover all that needs to be covered. He makes it clear that his goal is to demonstrate, in response to the historical Jesus research of Schweitzer and Crossan, that the sayings of Jesus can potentially derive from a far deeper pool of known literature than “fictive texts like Q”.

Unfortunately his work lacks the detail required to settle the question. But it is a provocative starter. Hopefully he will publish more to begin to flesh out some of the possibilities in detail.

The above quotations are from chapter one of Thompson’s The Messiah Myth.


Robert Price on Earl Doherty’s new book

Following on from Professor Stevan Davies comments on Earl Doherty’s initial appearance in a Crosstalk discussion in 1999, here is Robert Price on the latest version of Earl Doherty’s argument (Jesus: Neither God nor Man) for a mythical Jesus:

“Another book you might want to look out for, I don’t think it’s on Amazon quite yet, is by Earl Doherty, and it’s a double-size expanded version of his great book, The Jesus Puzzle, and this one is called [Jesus] Neither God Nor Man, and it is really super. This man has just this incredible x-ray vision into the text. I’ve studied the New Testament from various perspectives for decades, and I’m reading this guy and I’m thinking, ‘What an idiot I am! Why did I never see this? Why did I never think of that?’ Just astonishing stuff. Some may object and carp that, ‘Well this can’t be much; he had to resort to publishing his own book.’ Yeah, well so did Hume. Enough said.”

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The Benign, Attractive Persona of the Bible

One of the books I read while in the process of questioning my faith some years ago was The Mind of the Bible Believer by Edmund Cohen. I loved parts and hated much of it. My copy of the book is still penciled through with many indignant notes I made at the time. Now I can look back and see these notes as indicators of how I was struggling at the time with leaving religion and how there was much I could not immediately bring myself to admit.

He begins a chapter on “The Evangelical Mind Control System” with a section headed the same as this post. I have seven penciled marks in this two page section (pp. 170-1), questioning and disagreeing strongly with what he wrote. I read it now and see what a different person I was back then.

He begins:

The best things in the Bible are superficial. . . .

What I mean by persona of the Bible . . . is an apparent relevancy of teaching and promise of benefit that finally turn out to have totally different from what the new inductee was led to think. . . . Little by little, newcomers are brought along to understand the teachings to mean something altogether different from what appeared on the surface — and oriented toward the next life, not this one. But one kind of promise, the kind that indicates a tranquilized, soporific, guilt-assuaging state of mind will be experienced, is kept, albeit by a means with a net detrimental effect on mental health.

This was written in 1988 before the advent of “prosperity gospel” fad. But then again, the idea that God blesses materially the righteous has been around ever since the Protestant Reformation. I recall living in dire economic straits through much of my religious life, and whenever a small blessing or boon, however temporary, came my way, I would be so thankful for such a small or momentary blessing, or slight relief. It mattered not that my basic condition was not substantially better. One learns to interpret the smallest and ephemeral chance lucky breaks as showers of blessings from heaven.

Cohen shows how the believer is weaned away from

the surface notion that ministry to assuage physical want and suffering is called for, toward the view that only ministry of the salvation message is proper, to bring the huddled masses of the world into bliss in the next life so as to make irrelevant whatever whatever they may have suffered in this one, and away from the notion that freedom in the Bible means political freedom, toward the “insight” that there is no such thing as freedom, except from bondage of sin.

This is surely one of the most pernicious of biblical/evangelistic teachings. How many wives endure beatings because they feel they must never let a sinful thought or feeling raise itself against their husbands. How many injustices are observed with an aloofness borne of one self-obsessed with the purity of one’s own thoughts and feelings. Or with a Pharisaical detachment that convinces oneself that nothing significant can be done in this life, so all one can do is pray for the next one to come. (I know, Pharisees weren’t historically like that as a group really. I’m using the term with the meaning it as come to acquire from the gospel teaching.)

the believer must be weaned away from the come-on notion that healing of his own or his loved ones’ physical illness — or this-worldly personal success or prosperity — is in view, or else practical experience will conflict with the religious scheme and discredit it. . . .

Yup. Exactly how it was. And it’s deadly. Too many die in the process. Both from the administration of prayer instead of medical care and from poverty that is inevitably associated with a shorter life-span for a host of reasons.

the more deeply indoctrinated convert softens himself up to be sold some reactionary political teaching, and if he gets well enough indoctrinated to know that teaching to be unbiblical, he goes on doing his discipline relentlessly and ends up despising nothing so much (or so defensively) as genuine human spontaneity and cheerfulness.

And there are real innate radicals and lefties in such religions. But they keep it under wraps and manage to think in some kind of double-bind.

But that last sentence there brings to mind a brief discussion I once had with a Bishop, John Shelby Spong, whom I thanked for his book that helped me on my way to atheism! 🙂  He’s heard it all before, of course, because he remains disappointed that his own biblical studies mentor, Michael Goulder, became an atheist. I remarked how much more relaxed and “at peace” I felt since becoming an atheist, which was ironic because I always thought as a believer I was imbued with a real inner peace of God. (Recall, rather, Cohen’s more honest description above: “a tranquilized, soporific, guilt-assuaging state of mind“.) Spong replied that he has noticed this many times with those who leave the faith and become atheists, and noted how there really is “an uptightness” about so many (most, I think) believers. And that’s what came to mind when I re-read that last line of Cohen’s above, “despising nothing so much . . . as genuine human spontaneity . . .” That, thinks the believer, is the way to sin.

If a picture is worth a thousand words a joke is equal to the two pages I discussed here:

Sam and Joe are taking a walk, when they come upon a church. A sign says “CONVERT AND RECEIVE A THOUSAND DOLLARS”. Sam says “You stay here. I’m going in to convert. “Some time later, he comes back out. Joe says, “Well, did you get the thousand dollars? “Sam says, “What’s the matter? Is that all you people think about?”

the joker The Dark Knight
Image by ♠NiJoKeR♣ via Flickr
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Another Professor’s Response to Earl Doherty

Given the hostility some mainstream biblical scholars have demonstrated (recently, again) against Earl Doherty’s argument for a mythical Jesus, I am copying here the bulk of a comment by Stevan L. Davies, Professor of Religious Studies at Misericordia University, that he made in response to the peremptory reactions of a number of his academic peers to Doherty in 1999.

Davies is not a mythicist. (Well, I am assuming he is not. I don’t really “know”. He wrote Jesus the Healer, summarized here.) His following statement is copied (with permission) from the 1999 Crosstalk discussion forum where a number of scholars and others discussed the historical Jesus and Christian origins. In the course of these discussions, the topic of Earl Doherty’s Jesus Puzzle was introduced, Earl himself joined the discussion on February 10 ( and a very lively series of exchanges followed. After one of the contributors complained that he wanted to hear no more about a new  paradigm regarding the historical Jesus, Professor Davies wrote:

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Introducing Doherty: his preliminary observations on ‘A Heavenly Christ’

Cosmic Christ
Cosmic Christ by Alex Grey: Image by eworm via Flickr

In between (re-)reading at least half a dozen other works I have had a chance to catch up again with Earl Doherty’s new book, Jesus: neither God nor man: the case for a mythical Jesus. My last post with reference to Doherty was my response to the introduction to this work. Here are some comments on my reading of his first chapter.

My notes do not by any means represent the extent and depth of Doherty’s work. I am merely picking out tidbits that I find easy and interesting enough to share in a few words.

The natural way to preach the message

Doherty refers to Peter’s speech in Acts 2:22-36 as being the sort of message that one might expect the early Christian evangelists to preach among new audiences. He talks about Jesus the man, his astonishing deeds on earth, and though crucified, how he was exalted to heaven where he was made Lord and Christ.

This would surely have been the most natural and inevitable way Christian discussion and preaching would proceed. The movement had supposedly begun as a response to a human man. (p.19)

It was the man Jesus who had had such a profound impact on his followers and that led them to abandon their homes and families, their old customs and livelihoods.

But it’s not how the evidence tells us it happened

But what do we find in the letters of Paul and other early writers? They start with the divine Christ, the figure of the Son in heaven, and make their faith statements about him. And there is no equation with an historical man, a human preacher and prophet who had recently lived. Paul believes in a Son of God, not that anyone was the Son of God. (p. 19)

Paul summed up the core of the message he had passed on to the Corinthians:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor.15:3-4)

Doherty wonders why the identity of the human incarnation of this Christ was not part of the central message — even why the incarnation itself is not central. But he grants that we may suspect Paul omitted such “preliminaries” in a summary like this. So he turns to Paul’s “definition” of Father and Son:

yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (I Cor.8:6)

Doherty opines:

This is language very reminiscent of Greek philosophy. But it would seem that a fundamental description of the Son is not to include the fact that he was incarnated in the person of a human Jesus, the man through whom information about the Son was presumably derived. Such an idea Paul never mentions. (p. 20)

Faith is very important in Paul’s writings:

  • Faith in Jesus as the way to life
  • Faith God raised Jesus from the dead
  • (Faith that Jesus died, apparently from some passages)
  • Faith God has revealed the mystery about Christ now
  • But no reference to faith that the man Jesus of Nazareth had been incarnation of this Son, etc.

Other epistles contain “quite fantastic” descriptions of this Son:

He is the image of the invisible God, his is the primacy over all created things. In him everything in heaven and on earth was created. . . In him the complete being of God, by God’s own choice, came to dwell. Through him God chose to reconcile the whole universe to himself. . . . (Col.1:15-20 NEB)

Here is a being who is the very reflection of God, the very agent through whom God created the universe, the same one through whom he holds it all together, yet there is not a single mention in the entire letter that this same supremely exalted being was once a man on earth who had died the death of a criminal and had been exalted to become part of the Godhead. Was not faith in such a man able to find any place any such writings? Compare also the book of Hebrews.

The question that scholarship has never asked, yet is the most natural one of all

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G. A. Wells on mythical and historical Jesus’s

I have frequently encountered claims that George Albert Wells has somehow had his Damascus Road experience and now believes that there was a historical Jesus somewhere at the start of it all. It is certainly a mirepresentation of what one reads in Wells’ own writings of 1999 when he was supposed to have published the details of his conversion in The Jesus Myth.

What Wells argues is that the Jesus of Paul and most early Christians was not historical. For Wells, Paul’s Jesus was a pre-existent being who descended to earth briefly in the flesh before returning to heaven. This was the Jesus of most of the earliest Christians. He was not historical.

There was one exception, and that was a Galilean community who produced Q.

In sum, the religious community responsible for Q cultivated the memory of a Jesus as their founder figure, an authoritative teacher who should be obeyed. (p.102)

Something like the Jesus of Q, rather than the Pauline Jesus, seems to have been what minority groups of Jewish Christians — branded as heretical by the Fathers — persisted in worshipping. (p.103)

Wells goes to pains to stress that the Jesus of Paul and most early Christians was not the same as the Jesus of Q. The name Jesus means Saviour and is a natural one to apply to any figure seen to be performing this role. Paul warned vociferously against others teaching another Jesus. So there was more than one floating around.

I have treated both the Galilean and the Cynic elements less skeptically in The Jesus Myth, allowing that they may contain a core of reminiscences of an itinerant Cynic-type Galilean preacher (who, however, is certainly not to be identified with the Jesus of the earliest Christian documents). (Earliest Christianity)

Wells also suggests that the author of the Gospel of Mark fused the two in an attempt to bring the minority Galilean community over to the majority Christian view of Jesus. Unlike the Q Jesus, Paul’s Jesus was a pre-existent being who descended to earth to die a salvific death. He was modelled on Jewish Wisdom figures and influenced by pagan mysteries.

the Jesus of the early epistles is not the Jesus of the gospels. The ministry of the latter may well be modelled on the career of an itinerant Galilean preacher of he early first century; the former derives largely from early Christian interpretation of Jewish Wisdom figures, with some influence from redeemer figures of pagan mystery religions. (p.112)

The Jesus of the religion of Christianity, the one who was crucified for our sins and resurrected, is the Jesus of Paul and, according to Wells, mythical. Mark attempted to fuse this Jesus with an itinerant Jesus of Galilee who left teachings in Q. Matthew and Luke incorporated those teachings in their gospels. But Christianity was widespread quite independently of any Q teacher, and the Q followers always remained a minority sect until their extinction.

The details of Jesus’ career in the gospels are so redolent of Elijah and Elisha and other OT figures, though, that I can’t see any room for a real person behind them at all. Otherwise, why not refer also to that person somewhere in there to which one is applying all those OT types? And if Q falls, then so does this small glimmer of a historical Jesus who seems to have accidentally intruded into an historical movement, a bit like Brian did in the Monty Python film of the Life of Brian.

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Taking the historical Jesus for granted

The following is my own adaption from Philip Davies’ In Search for Ancient Israel, and is not to be taken as representing Philip Davies’ views on the question of the historical Jesus. In 1992 Davies argued that the scholarly search for “ancient Israel” was at the time always based on the unquestioned assumption that there was an “ancient Israel” to be found. It was always taken for granted. The research was only about deciding how much of the biblical literature was historical, and what this ancient Israel must have looked like. Since I began studying the scholarly works about Christian origins and the historical Jesus, it has struck me that the same flawed assumptions and circular reasoning lies at the heart of these studies, too.

Someone responded that the situations are completely different because the Gospels are written within the same time frame as the events they purport to describe. But it can be shown that the logic of this rejoinder is also circular. (Nonetheless, Davies’ argument about the study of “ancient Israel” is based in part on the ability to set the composition of the literature to Persian and Hellenistic times. Since this is a literature about an entire Kingdom and claims to be set within the time of that kingdom, this is necessary. The Gospels are not about a nation, but about a single person who was said by some sources to have been unrecognized in his time, and do not specifically claim any particular date for composition. They have been dated everywhere from the 30’s or 40’s to the 130’s or 140’s. But as with the Old Testament literature, most of the earlier dates are based on an assumption of the historicity of parts of the narrative itself.)

Nor do I see this as a negative or anti-Christian question. My atheism has not led me to question the Bible or God or religion. It was my questioning of these that led, rather, to my atheism. What I find fascinating is the study of Christian origins. My ongoing interest is an intellectual one and has nothing to do with finding supports for faith or reasons to reject faith. If that study uncovers a historical person at the heart of the process, then so be it. But so far I have seen no methodological or evidential reasons for positing such a person as a satisfactory explanation of the nature of the evidence.

In what follows, I have replaced Davies’ references to “Israel” with references to “Jesus” or “Christian origins”. The page references are to In Search of Ancient Israel. The following are not Davies’ views in this book. They are entirely my own adaptation of a few aspects of Davies’ argument to historical Jesus studies.

Opening up the question, not closing it

Now let me be clear: I am not as yet saying that the literary [Jesus] must be assumed a priori to be unhistorical. What I am saying is that it is literary and that it might be historical.” (p.24)

Seems absurd

The very raising of the question might seem absurd, deliberately provocative, programmatically negativistic. Virtually a whole discipline, after all, is predicated on the existence of an [historical Jesus]. But it is not absurd at all to ask the question. . . . It only seems absurd because scholars have never opened the question, so that it seems entirely off the agenda. It is the kind of question that threatens with a new paradigm, like the absurd idea that the earth orbited round the sun or that slavery was not  a divinely-ordained institution. The student of the Bible gets the impression that [the historical Jesus] really did exist because she or he reads about [him] all the time.  One might doubt that the Bible is not history, but one can surely not doubt a battalion of professors!” (p.25)

Compromise has ruined everything

We have not set about arguing that the literary [Jesus] is an historical entity . . . . we have from the outset assumed it. Literary periodization becomes historical time, literary figures are transmuted into historical figures. There are some exceptions, of course: [the slaughtered babes of Bethlehem, Gabriel] and maybe even [Judas Iscariot and Joseph of Arimathea] (for the daring) are eliminated. But taking these figures out makes matters worse rather than better: the result is something that is neither historical nor biblical, but scholarly rationalisation of the literary and the historical. Literary criticism of the Bible became, for generations of students, an historical enterprise.” (p.24)

Never a hypothesis, never a reason to doubt

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“Why Christianity Happened”. Reviewing chapter 2 of James Crossley’s book

Why Christianity Happened, James Crossley
Why Christianity Happened, James Crossley

There’s a lot I like about James Crossley’s publications. I found myself relating in many ways to his views expressed in “Jesus in an Age of Terror”. We have a lot in common politically, and I share some of his views on the peculiar scholarship that Christian dominance of biblical studies has generated. I have  referred to his observation on the relationship between a scholarly emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus and broader socio-political changes since World War 2 , alongside April DeConick’s similar views of the evolving treatment of Judas in the same context, and built on both of these to suggest a similar explanation for the post War changes in scholarly views on the evidence of Josephus for Jesus.

I have also appreciated his calls for far more involvement of traditionally nonbiblical methodologies to be applied to biblical studies. However, here I only go along with half his proposal. Crossley expects nonbiblical scholars to engage seriously with the insights of Christian scholarship (p. 33 of Why Christianity Happened). There are many insights worth serious attention.

What Crossley is calling for is an application of secular models and explanations for the origins of Christianity. A history of ideas and theology needs to take second place to hard economic and social realities as dynamics that explain Christianity. Fair enough, but I see a bigger problem with Jesus studies that Crossley overlooks.

What need addressing are flawed methodologies and assumptions that would never be tolerated in historical historical studies of other academic disciplines, and that even Crossley appears accept without question.

I get these out of the way first before going on to discuss the specifics of his socioeconomic explanation for the rise of Christianity.

The fallacy underlying nearly all historical Jesus studies

Hobsbawm on method

Crossley draws in part on insights of the renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm’s studies of bandits and bandit culture in South America. But Hobsbawm’s statements about methods for evaluating sources and determining whether or not a narrative (whether oral, written or even an eye-witness report) has any historical basis to it, ought to embarrass any and all biblical historians who study the Gospel narratives with the assumption they must contain some historical core.

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ’social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. (p.142)

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

Schweitzer on method

This echoes a remark by Albert Schweitzer about the presumption of historicity that cannot be brought to the Gospel narratives about Jesus simply because they lack “independent evidence” or external controls:

Moreover, in the case of Jesus,. . .  there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty [of there being a historical basis to the narratives] cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

This basic principle is really simple logic and normal “street smarts” and should not even be controversial. But when it comes to the studies of Jesus, my experience tells me it is very controversial, so controversial that it is silenced and excluded from the discussion, or scorned and ridiculed if it intrudes.

Davies on method

It was controversial when applied to “Old Testament” studies by Philip R. Davies in 1992. Back then he argued in a ground-breaking monograph, In Search of Ancient Israel, that we need to confirm the events of the Bible independently of the Bible itself. This means comparing the Bible record with other historical records. It is naïve to take any book, the Bible included, at face value. We need supporting evidence to know when it was written and if its stories have any truth behind them. (See my outline of notes from Davies’ book on my website.)

Schwartz on method

And I never tire of reminding anyone willing to listen that this basic method of determining historicity of a narrative was warned about way back in 1904:

only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.

The exceptionalism of biblical/Jesus studies

So why do nearly all historical Jesus or Christian origin studies begin with the assumption that the Gospel narrative, without any independent evidence or external control, contains evidence of real history?

How is it that scholars of biblical studies can get away with declaring a particular action or saying as “historical” ultimately on the basis that they can’t think of a reason why anyone would just make it up, or that it is so embarrassing (to somebody, usually the author, although we don’t know who the author was) it must be true?

How is it that in the case of the Gospels, scholars can determine what is “historical” solely on the basis of analyzing the narrative details themselves and comparing these details with what we know from independent sources of the geographic or other background setting of the narrative?

Can anyone imagine Eric Hobsbawm declaring a particular bandit to have been genuinely historical on the basis of this sort of analysis of a written narrative? Goodness, he had a reputation to maintain!

The need for independent attestation of the Gospel narrative does not exist with this area of biblical studies.

Why does it appear that biblical studies, in particular any studies relating to the Gospel narrative, are exempt from the norms that require independent witness to verify their historical status?

But this is just the beginnings of what I find lacking in Crossley’s attempt to find a socioeconomic cause for the birth of Christianity.

Peasant Unrest and the Emergence of Jesus’ Specific View of the Law

This is the title of Crossley’s second chapter, and where I begin with this post. This title indicates that there is something unique or special about Jesus’ particular view of the Law that can be directly explained as a response to the socioeconomic conditions of Galilee. However, in his explanation, he grants that the same “specific view of the Law” is one found “deeply embedded in the Pentateuch, biblical tradition, and post biblical tradition”. So I am forced to wonder what was so “specific” about Jesus’ view that requires a particular socioeconomic situation to explain.

Jesus’ view of the law reflected a key aspect of his general teaching: the immense problems that come with socioeconomic inequality. The relationship between socioeconomic reality and the Torah is quite explicit in such texts as Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 16:19-31. These related concerns are not difficult to find in Jewish law: they are deeply embedded in the Pentateuch, biblical tradition, and post biblical tradition. But why do such concerns run consistently and densely throughout Jesus’ teaching? Why specifically did Jesus’ concerns emerge when and where they did? These questions are crucial because Jesus emerged at a time and in a place of socioeconomic upheaval that eventually resulted in full-scale revolts against Rome. (p. 35)

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Why would the Gospel authors have made it up?

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One of the most common arguments I read and hear for the historicity of any part of the Gospel narratives is: The church would have had no reason to make it up.

When I first encountered this remark I assumed it was just a passing phrase and that the real argument would soon follow. But it never did. I took me some time to grasp that even leading scholars (I could understant apologists) regularly relied on this mantra to completely close the question on any point of historicity.

I had never heard the argument used as a proof of anything in my university studies. I only encountered for the first time in a serious context when I began to study mainstream biblical (in particular New Testament and Jesus) scholarship.

Not surprising, I suppose. Most of those in the field of biblical studies have probably relied on this fallacious reasoning in other contexts through much of their lives — like their belief in God in the first place. As for the atheists in the field, maybe they are just being intellectually lazy.

Compare the following from The Skeptic’s Dictionary

divine fallacy (argument from incredulity)

The divine fallacy, or the argument from incredulity, is a species of non sequitur reasoning which goes something like this: I can’t figure this out, so God must have done it. Or, This is amazing; therefore, God did it. Or, I can’t think of any other explanation; therefore, God did it. Or, this is just too weird; so, God is behind it.

This fallacy is also a variation of the alien fallacy: I can’t figure this out, so aliens must have done it. Or, This is amazing; therefore, aliens did it. Or, I can’t think of any other explanation; therefore, aliens did it. Or, this is just too weird; so, aliens are behind it.

Another variation of the fallacy goes something like this: I can’t figure this out, so paranormal forces must have done it. Or, This is amazing; therefore, paranormal forces did it. Or, I can’t think of any other explanation; therefore, paranormal forces did it. Or, this is just too weird; so, paranormal forces are behind it.

This is merely a circular assertion of one’s starting assumption. Is it used as the reason to establish “a fact” in any scholarly discipline apart from biblical studies?

Of course when alternative explanations are presented, those who had rested on this fallacy are able to do little more than scoff in disbelief at any alternative, just the way staunch believers in the paranormal will despise the “ignorance” of genuine rational explanations. Well, it is also called the fallacy of incredulity.

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Contrasting methods: “nonbiblical” historians vs “Jesus” historians

Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm

I have argued (repeatedly) — and demonstrated — that mainstream historians of “the historical Jesus” do not follow the basic procedures in evaluating evidence practiced by regular “nonbiblical” historians. Here is another specific case that illustrates this fact, and demonstrates once again the validity of Thomas L. Thompson’s claim that “historical Jesus” scholars have “always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe.” I came across this particular case when doing some background reading on a nonbiblical historian, Eric Hobsbawm, whom James Crossley draws upon in his study of Christian origins.

The point of the following quotations is to demonstrate that “mainstream historians of nonbiblical topics” understand the basic premise that a narrative cannot be assumed to be based on historical persons or events. In all cases there is a need for external attestation or “controls” to establish this.

Yet “Jesus” historians have ignored this basic principle and assumed there is a historical Jesus to describe. They then proceed to assess what parts of the Gospel narrative are more plausible given plot analysis and reference to ancient customs, etc. This is called “digging beneath the text” to find its “historical core”. This is NOT how renowned historians like Eric Hobsbawm have worked when handling both the literary evidence and first hand reports in their attempts to understand the historical nature of bandits, or any particular bandit, in South America.

In all cases we need independent evidence

Richard W. Slatta quotes Eric Hobsbawm’s statement (in Bandits) stressing the need for external controls before deciding if a given narrative has any historical basis:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ‘social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. (p.142)

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

Slatta himself adds:

Researchers inclined to take folk tales at face value would do well to consider John Chasteen’s conclusion about the creation of caudillo mythology on the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. “Borderlanders collected, refashioned, or even invented outright memorable words of their political protagonists. . . . borderland Federalists constructed an image of the hero they wanted.”

Many scholars have found popular and literary sources, folklore, and first-hand reports by “just plain folks,” to be fraught with difficulties. (p.25)

Exactly like “the minimalists” (& Schweitzer & Schwartz) said

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