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?
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.
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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