2010-04-20

Jesus and the lotus petals, and the missing dimension in historical Jesus studies

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

The strangest thought hit me while sight-seeing yet another Buddhist shrine or worship area – this time in the Ancient Siam park (official site still calls it The Ancient City). Attached to (certainly nearby) probably every Buddhist public temple area is a place where one can buy appropriate offerings (such as flowers, prayer sticks, candles) to place around the statues. The people behind the tables selling these items are clearly not the main pillars of the establishment rituals. They are certainly not the clerics — whether monks, priests, or whatever. And they always convey the happy and peaceful spiritual demeanor appropriate to the place of worship.

I tried to imagine Jesus storming up, violently wrecking their stalls and roaring accusations of overpriced lotus petals.

The thought made so much sense of the argument of those scholars who have complained that Jesus’ supposed attack on those who sold offerings for the Jerusalem temple does not strike one as an action of the most rational of men. Why attack the “little guys”? What did this have to do with “the system” that he was supposedly seeking to address? Apart from those pressing around the immediate vicinity, who would have noticed, anyway, in such a crowded, noisy place that was off-centre stage anyway? And what would even those relative few have thought of someone committing such a destructive and out-of-control act?

The Avignon Exchange was created in a theologi...
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Note the outrageous $6 price tag for a cheap lotus flower candle and fantasize Jesus descending to scare the daylights out of that greedy, money-hungry elderly lady lotus-candle-flower seller. Of course, it helps if you re-image the scene to anti-semitic stereotypes.

Story sense; historical nonsense

As Vardis Fisher remarked in relation to his novel, Jesus Came Again: A Parable, the story gospel makes no sense as history. It only works as a parable.

Even Jesus Seminar founder, Robert Funk, warned that any event that can be explained as a fulfillment of prophecy has its explanation. If there is no other evidential reason or support for the reality of an event, then it is simplest and most reasonable to accept that the author created the event to demonstrate the prophetic fulfillment.

Come to think of it, isn’t the very existence of Jesus told as a prophetic fulfillment? But consistency has rarely been a strong point among scholarly arguments relating to “explaining the history” behind the Bible.

King Arthur really does have a lot to say

Hector Avalos nearly hit the nail squarely on the head in The End of Biblical Studies when he drew detailed attention to the frequently made rhetorical case of the historicity of King Arthur as a comparison for evidence for the historical Jesus. Avalos showed that the fact that we have some of the most detailed narratives of King Arthur’s words and deeds means nothing against the other fact that there is squat evidence for the existence of Arthur himself.

Title page of The Boy's King Arthur
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Most of us are happy to credit “astonishingly” creative powers to the imaginations of authors of a medieval romance or a book of Mormon, but a significant number of biblical scholars seem to balk at the suggestion that a gospel author could write any of our stories of Jesus with anything but a “tradition” that can “only” have been derived ultimately from some “eyewitness report”. Not even similar miracle stories on the part of Elijah could be enough to stimulate any imagination to create a variant in a different setting.

I said Avalos “nearly” hit the nail on the head. He failed to address the simple logical fact that a single narrative can never be assumed to be either historical or fictional unless we have some reason that is external to the narrative itself to confirm it either way.

The simplest truth

Every parent finds some occasion to teach a child not to believe everything they hear or read. Legal systems are built around the testing of all witness claims and evidence. Elementary philosophical classes distinguish between what we can “know”, what we can “believe on reasonable grounds”, what we “believe on faith”, etc.

But when I quote the simplest and most obvious principle that historians need to be sure they corroborate a narrative before assuming it points to historical persons or events, a liberal Christian biblical scholar (James McGrath) objects that the particular historian I quote is “a communist” and therefore even his historical methods are not to be trusted. Another biblical scholar who boasts of methodological “independence” from faith or religious interests (James Crossley), but who nonetheless makes the same basic methodological error of assuming the historicity of the central character of a narrative without corroboration, complained that I had “spectacularly” misrepresented his work when I demonstrated his commission of the same fundamental error — despite using other work by the same historian. (I am still waiting for his reply to my request that he support his complaint.)

If we find that we can relate events and persons in a narrative to the sorts of events and persons we normally experience only in fantasy or mythology, and there is no competing evidence to indicate otherwise, then we are justified in assuming a narrative is fictional.

If we find that a key character in a narrative is attested in primary evidence (as we do in the case of many of the Caesars, for example), we have very reasonable grounds for believing that such a person really did exist. Other external factors will also come into play to help us decide the level of belief in the existence of supporting characters in the same narrative.

We have no primary evidence for the existence of Socrates. And classical historians are sensible enough not to launch a quest for “the historical Socrates”. What are of interest to them, and a question which their evidence does give them some means to approach a tentative answer, is the reasons for the origins of Greek philosophy, as well as its earliest character.

Historians can do the same with the canonical and other early Christian literature in an effort to understand the origins of Christianity. But so far most of their efforts have been built on fairy tales. They have assumed, without the corroborating evidence, the core historical veracity of the narratives they read in a small subset of that literature. They think all they have to do to uncover “history” is to do a bit of plot analysis of the play or poem or mini-epic, compare it against what we know of the background of its setting, and this is called “discovering what really happened”. They fail to notice they have skipped the very first essential step. Without this first step they are merely shadow boxing. They have no more reason to assume that their Jesus is any more historical than King Arthur.

When scholars get cornered

When pressed, some point to the Galatians verse that speaks of James being a brother of the Lord. Atheist biblical historian R. Joseph Hoffmann, if I recall correctly, pronounced that this verse was enough to convince him that Jesus (who is not even mentioned in the verse) was a historical figure that is in some measure, however meager, found in the gospels. This is not a scholarly claim. There is no evidence for the existence of the letter in which that sentence appears until towards the middle of the second century, and there is no evidence that the phrase in question was known till later still — in fact, the evidence we have (Tertullian using the letter to argue against Marcionites) suggests that phrase was not known as early as the letter itself.

The reason there is such hostility and contempt so often expressed among mainstream biblical scholars against the likes of Earl Doherty and other mythicists is that they have the potential to expose the methodological vacuity of what passes for “historical” studies of the New Testament. Mythicist arguments do not assume to know or believe what are in fact only assumptions on the part of many mainstream scholars.

And the evidence supporting my claim is the reaction of mainstream biblical scholars themselves who appear to be unable (consistently, over time, despite many opportunities) to dismantle the core arguments of mythicists in particular, or even to rebut with evidence and clear argument some of my own posts. This is how informed sceptics and scientists manage to address the claims of the moon-landing deniers, the Atlantis believers, the claims of those having supposedly seen Noah’s ark, etc. There are a few (e.g. Eddy and Boyd) who have attempted to address some of the arguments. But authors such as these present slanted arguments and evidence that is generally accepted among only a single bandwidth of scholarship (usually the more fundamentalist one). As I have shown here, some of their arguments contradict the published views of more liberal scholars. Authors like Doherty and Wells are well aware of much of the current scholarship and so such fundamentalist publications fail to really hit their mark. Meanwhile, one waits to see responses to core mythicist arguments from more liberal scholars, at least more scholarly than those that rest their entire case on a single, late attested and tangential Bible verse.

 

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Neil Godfrey

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  • C.J. O'Brien
    2010-04-21 01:10:44 GMT+0000 - 01:10 | Permalink

    Even if Paul wrote “James the brother of the Lord,” so what? There were “Brothers of the Lord,” and James was one of them. First among equals, perhaps, and so “the brother.” (I hate to appeal to corruption or scribal alterations, but when you’re down to the point of arguing that a single article proves the historical facts, you’re stretching; we simply don’t know the original contents of Paul’s writings to that level of certainty.)In any case, it’s nowhere near enough, stacked against essentially the whole rest of the Pauline canon, to say that it proves that Paul thought of Jesus as a near contemporary, executed in the past decade or two.

    • 2010-04-21 13:08:31 GMT+0000 - 13:08 | Permalink

      I can understand our reluctance to appeal to scribal alterations, but scribal corruptions etc have been the norm, not the exception, in Christian and non-christian classical texts. This fact, I would think, would make us more humble about the strength of some of the “facts” we think we can establish from our sources.

  • 2010-04-21 11:03:30 GMT+0000 - 11:03 | Permalink

    Hoffmann is not an ‘atheist’ and you don’t remember correctly. He does not proclaim that one verse in Paul convinces him that Jesus was a historical figure. Also Paul refers to ‘Lord Jesus’ numerous times as well as Lord, Lord Jesus Christ etc etc.

    • 2010-04-21 13:37:05 GMT+0000 - 13:37 | Permalink

      I’m happy to be corrected on whether or not he is an atheist, but can you give me a source for verification? I am trying to locate a comment of his in which he definitely has said that the Galatians verse alone was sufficient to convince him of the historicity of Jesus. Till then, if you have sources to verify I am mistaken then please do use them to correct me.

      Memory can fail me in the details, I admit. — Perhaps I should not have written what I did so specifically — I could have chosen other statements by other scholars to the same effect, — that is, that a verse or two here and there is sufficient evidence for historicity of the events and persons at the source of the gospel narrative.

      Your reference to the phrase “Lord Jesus” found in the Pauline corpus illustrates my point about assumptions being used in an unscholarly way to establish “facts”. The author of the passage in Galatians, whether Paul or not, may have thought the Lord here was Jesus, but we don’t know that. We may have strong reasons for suspecting it to be the case, but given the other possible interpretations, and the uncertain provenance of the letter in question, and this phrase in particular, we cannot justify using it as the foundation of a “fact” or “knowledge”.

      One sees a similar assumption made often enough by a scholar in regard to Pliny’s letter — this has been used as evidence of the existence of a historical Jesus even though it contains no mention of Jesus or anything historical about him or “Christ”.

      • maryhelena
        2010-04-21 16:41:01 GMT+0000 - 16:41 | Permalink

        Hoffmann an atheist?

        A quick look over some articles on his blog showed up a few interesting comments. The fact that Hoffmann often takes issues with the New Atheists and atheist newbies should not cloud the issue re his own position…..

        Other Christs as Paedophiles

        http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2010/04/01/other-christs-as-paedophiles/

        I was an altar boy. Most of the abuse cases now being brought against the Catholic church date from the time when I served Mass, polished candlesticks, smoothed the linen on the altar, filled cruets with wine and water, helped priests on (and off) with their vestments and rang bells at the consecration.

        By age ten I could rattle off both the priest’s part and my own in Latin without understanding a word. By age fifteen, a little less fervent, and with other things on my mind, the Mass was drifting irrevocably into English. By age twenty, the Latin Mass was a museum piece and I was an un-outed atheist.

        Being and Atheism

        http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2010/02/08/being-and-atheism/

        I am an atheist in the sense that I do not believe a singular unseen X stands behind any of these formulations. I don’t deny their importance as intellectual events in human understanding. They are simply ideas. They are expressions of how thinkers have thought about their world. I think that their interest or importance cannot depend on their rightness, because they are, as far as I can tell, mistaken views…………………..

        It may be the case that the vague God of the Philosophers cannot be negated because his defining properties have receded to an Archimedean dot; but it is not true that the God of the Bible cannot be disproved. History disproves him in the same way it disproves Marduk, Isis, the Monster Humbaba, and Vishnu.

        That ancient God, the God of the Bible, is a god from whom I ask to be saved intellectually and possibly also morally…

        But I think most Christians—especially those in freshly pressed white shirts-would not be satisfied with a god who has been emptied of attributes, the All-Nothingness, the Eternal Absolute (I’ll take my math with tea, please, not incense) and I consider it dishonest to go on calling this being or axiom or hypothetical something god, just as I would have trouble calling a horse a horse if you forbid me to use ears, tail, hooves, mammal, four legs and oats as part of my definition.

        My argument is this: the God of Christian theism, Islamic theology, and Jewish scripture does not exist, and the God who is left over when that theology is scrubbed–as postulate, variable or merely “unknown”– is so useless as (in John Wisdom’s great phrase) to amount to the same thing—useless to move, love, inspire, create…..

        I have no reason to imagine such a being, neither as a piece of intelligent cosmic protoplasm filling the interstices of what we call space, a flying spaghetti monster, or a vastness beyond the vastness. There is no way to disconfirm any unobservable absurdity, and hence there is no reason to believe in it………….

        To the theologians who have rejected the God of the books. To the theologians who have created the false dilemma of asking us to choose between X and X–a God who is not the God of revelation, but is a God in some irrelevant sense–who requires neither prayer nor sacrifice nor petition nor good behavior. To the theologians who in conscience must know that they are dabblers in unreality and illusion. To the theologians who have created a god less real than the God of the Bible, who for a couple of millennia had, at least, time and faith on his side. To the theologians who have lost faith like Bo Peep lost her sheep, but talk on and on.

        Is there a God? Swinburne v. Hoffmann

        http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/hoffmann-v-swinburne-is-there-a-god/

        Let me say at the outset that you should put aside any assumptions you may have about this being a debate between an atheist and a believer. It is a debate about what we can know and meaningfully say about God……

        I maintain that there is no difference between a God who does not exist and a God about whom nothing can be known. That being so, what we know and “where” we know it from becomes immeasurably important………………………..

        To summarize: God is a false person whose story runs from the purely mythological to pseudo-philosophical attempts to restate and revise the primitive data. The suggestion that God is a false person is not based on classical atheist objections to the existence of God but on historical judgment that weighs heavily against the view that God exists.

      • 2010-04-21 17:10:40 GMT+0000 - 17:10 | Permalink

        I can’t recall where I got the idea of his being an atheist, but it was no doubt reinforced by his many publications through Prometheus Books. As you imply, attacking “new atheism” means little about one’s own position. I also find some things (not everything) I dislike when reading atheism books by Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris.

      • 2010-04-21 23:17:01 GMT+0000 - 23:17 | Permalink

        oh so you’re asking me to verify a negative? or are you referring to his secular humanism. Why don’t you read his blog posts? It’s all there. As for this ‘comment’ he made, you shouldn’t have chosen those words, you shouldn’t cite from memory from non published work. You may as well stalk him in the supermarket and eaves drop what he might say, or sit under his bedroom window and listen in there. I assumed you meant it is in published work which it isn’t. You can’t go round pulling things off emails and blog comments and accusing them of not being academic. That’s the whole reason I don’t like commenting. Things require much demonstration, evidence and argument. He would never publish comments like that without argument and evidence (and he just wouldn’t say that). People speculate all the time on blogs – the whole point about scholarship is the detail and background, the research and arguments. Blogs are not academic.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-04-21 15:00:47 GMT+0000 - 15:00 | Permalink

    Even Steph must know that Paul refers to God as ‘Lord’, as well as to ‘Lord Jesus’, so brother of the Lord is by definition ambiguous, until we find confirmation in , say, Acts, James, or Jude that this church leader was a brother of Jesus.

    And that a lot of Jesus brothers were active in the church, at least according to 1 Corinthians 9.

    Hoffman writes ‘And there are many thousands of stories about persons who have never existed, whose stories are so improbable that they disprove rather than support their historical reality.’

    A Jesus who met Moses and Elijah is not a Jesus in an improbable story?

    • 2010-04-21 15:39:30 GMT+0000 - 15:39 | Permalink

      I find the gulf between what biblical scholars say and what they know to be a curious pheneomonon. I recall James McGrath, as one recent example, arguing that the Jewish view of the Messiah at the time of Jesus did not comport with the views of Christians who came to view Jesus as the Messiah. When I pointed out that there was no “Jewish view” but a multiplicity of views that undermined his argument, he said that of course he knew that. James Crossley indicates that he knows that any narrative must be independently verified before assuming the veracity of its tale, but when it is pointed out to him where he fails to do this himself he can only respond that he is being “spectacularly” misrepresented.

  • maryhelena
    2010-04-21 17:42:26 GMT+0000 - 17:42 | Permalink

    Well, here is another article from Hoffmann’s blog – so, methinks the best one can say is that R.Joseph Hoffmann is a work in progress…..(anyway, whatever the man is – his writing makes him one of my favorite blog writers – along with Neil, of course……)

    So, for Hoffmann its being a ‘realist’ not an ‘atheist’ that has primary meaning – not a bad position at all. For when all is said and done – being an atheist is only a very small part of who we really are….so good for him to hit the nail on the head and thus, hopefully, move the New Atheists and the atheist newbies along the road to a more comprehensive and all embracing world view….

    What I Think I Am

    http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2009/12/10/what-i-think-i-am/

    I am a humanist. I do not believe in an afterlife but (to quote Woody), “Just in case, I’m bringing a change of underwear.”….

    I am an Unbeliever, of sorts. Joylessly so. I have no axe to swing at the necks of believers. I dislike the word “agnostic.” It sounds as precious in tone and as pretentious as the era when it was coined. It sounds as though we wait patiently for some impossible verdict to emerge from the skies confirming our hunch that we were right to disbelieve all along, Descartes and Pascal be fucked. But it’s not really about evidence, is it? It’s about hunches……

    I am not an atheist. But it is a noble thing to be, done for the right reasons. …

    There are plenty of good reasons to be an atheist–most of them originating in our human disappointment that the world is not better than it is, and that, for there to be a God, he needs to be better than he seems. Or, at least less adept at hiding his perfection…

    I am a realist. I believe (with a fair number of thinkers, ancient and modern) that human nature is fundamentally about intelligence and that the world (by which I really mean human civilization) would be much further on if we stopped abusing it. I regret to say, religion has not been the best use of our intelligence, and it has proven remarkably puissant in retarding it. Science is always to be preferred, except in its applied, for-profit form (as in weapons research) because it expands our vision and understanding of the world while religion beckons us, however poetically, to a constricted view of cosmic and human origins.

    • 2010-04-21 19:14:02 GMT+0000 - 19:14 | Permalink

      I’ve been through my “I don’t like the word ‘atheist’ for several reasons therefore I won’t call myself one” phase, and who knows, I may have another such phase for some different set of reasons again one day. My reasons for my atheism (to use a the word that conveys the meaning people are seeking) are much more Dawkins-like than anything that can be attributed to hunches or disappointment. I never really understood existentialism when an undergrad, but whenever I read something now that is said to be definitively existentialist, I find myself identifying with it to a tee. Maybe I should call myself an existentialist. But a thorn by any other name . . . .

  • 2010-04-21 21:02:43 GMT+0000 - 21:02 | Permalink

    secular humanism is distinct from atheism. It is not theistic for a start. neo secular humanism to be precise.

    • 2010-04-21 21:55:12 GMT+0000 - 21:55 | Permalink

      I’m a secular humanist and an atheist and a naturalist and an existentialist and a rationalist and a sceptic and an activist and an anarchist of some sort and a vegetarian and an expat and a blues and roots lover.

      • 2010-04-21 23:09:44 GMT+0000 - 23:09 | Permalink

        just as long as you know that Hoffmann disguishes himself from ‘atheism’. I’m a neo secular humanist as defined by Paul Kurtz. And a pacifist, fruiterian, cattist, cellist and swimmer.

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