2010-05-30

IN BRIEF: dates, Q, Aramaic, heavenly or earthly — they make no difference to the mythical Jesus view

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by Neil Godfrey

  1. An early or late date for the gospels does not, of itself, make any difference to the arguments for or against the historicity of Jesus;
  2. Whether one accepts or rejects Q, or whether one accepts Aramaic or other sources for the Gospels, makes no difference to the arguments for or against the historicity of Jesus;
  3. Whether one views Paul’s Jesus as an entirely heavenly entity or an earth-dwelling human makes no difference to the arguments for or against the historicity of Jesus.

Every detail of Jesus’ life that is asserted by Sanders, Meier, Crossan, Crossley, Fredriksen, Wright, whoever, to be historical rests on a circular argument. Every one of their arguments for whether Jesus said or did this or that begins with the assumption that there was a historical Jesus.

It is not true that this circularity of itself means that the was no historical Jesus. There may have been, but we need external evidence to break the circularity and increase the probability level.

Contrasting with other persons from ancient history

It is not true that these Jesus historians use the same starting assumptions and methods as nonbiblical historians.

Nor is it true that if my criticisms were taken on board by other historians then we would have to declare just about every other person we know about in ancient history to be a myth.

We have primary evidence — that is, physically contemporary evidence, for the existence of other persons from ancient times (e.g. Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great) — and this gives us good probability grounds for thinking other persons, those associated with these definitely historical people in a literature that can elsewhere be independently verified, may also have existed.

Dating the gospels

What is important about the gospels as evidence is their nature as literature. If we can see that they describe Jesus in ways that are drawn entirely from other literature, and if after removing all that can be attributed to other literature from the Jesus accounts we have no-one left but an invisible man, then it makes no difference to the question of historicity as to when the Gospels were written.

Other historical figures are also described in mythical terms, but we always see a real person being described. The mythical is added on to other features and details about the real person; in the case of Jesus we have someone made up entirely of mythical or borrowed literary elements.

Equally important is that the gospels are but one small subset of early Christian literature. But that’s another discussion.

Q or Aramaic or other?

It makes no difference if the Gospels relied on an Aramaic or any other source, written or oral, to the arguments that Jesus was not historical. To assert that a particular source is earlier to when the events in a certain narrative are supposed to have happened, is to assume that the narrative is historical to begin with.

In other words, it is circular reasoning to claim that an earlier source of the gospels is evidence of the historicity of their narratives. It makes no difference whether we think that source was in Aramaic or Greek or merely oral tradition in either language.

Earthly or heavenly Jesus

It is “immaterial” to the question of historicity of Jesus whether Paul argued for a part-time earthly human or an entirely heavenly spirit Jesus. Doherty’s view of the mythical Jesus (an entirely heavenly entity) is recent, and mythicist arguments have been working with the ‘part-time earthly human’ Jesus ever since the eighteenth century.

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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “IN BRIEF: dates, Q, Aramaic, heavenly or earthly — they make no difference to the mythical Jesus view”

  1. It’s nothing to do with believing or not believing “history”.

    It’s about logical fallacy.

    And it’s about the simple truism that one should suspend judgment until independent testimony confirms or disconfirms a story. That’ all it is.

    And it is what McGrath, Crossley, Antonio, Steph and some earlier fundamentalists all fail to address, having nothing but insult or red herrings by means of “rebuttal”.

  2. Anybody who reads the Epistles of James or Jude or Romans will realise that the historical Jesus had made almost no impact on early Christians, who looked to Abraham, Job, Enoch, Michael etc for their examples of remarkable human beings.

  3. You are absolutely right in this post Neill. I don’t agree with Price and Doherty on so many issues, yet I agree with them that the Gospels are probably not based on a historical person.

  4. Yes, the whole “minimalist” supposition is flawed from the get go! To remove, or seek to remove the basic “historical” reality of the Death of Christ, is certain fallacy! We “have” St. Paul & his life and letters, the Synoptic Gospels, and perhaps too the “Priority of John”. As Steph says, this is just a “mythical” hobby-horse, for those that just don’t, or will not believe “history”! And it should not be included in the real “Historical Jesus” work.

    1. If the whole “minimalist” supposition is flawed from the get go, then the whole historical methodology of ancient historians and classicists and historians of any other era and archaeologists is all flawed from the get go. Because all the “minimalists” were doing was arguing for the methods used by historians and archaeologists in all other (nonbiblical) studies to be applied to biblical subjects. If all this was flawed from the get go, then only Albright was ever right.

      1. My point is simple. Circular reasoning. Independent verification. You are obfuscating these simple points. Those points are what the “minimalist” arguments have been all about.

        Your particular details about Albright are non sequiturs.

      2. Albright worked for the authentication of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And he believed and wrote on Yahweh. He also worked on the Anchor Bible, the books of Jeremiah, Matthew and Revelation.

        And I don’t believe you really want to even go into ‘logical fallacy’ and philosophy. How about empiricism?

      3. Neil,

        No I am not “obfuscating” (to obscure) at all, but simply seeking to connect the whole of people, their history.. and thus their work and perhaps arguments. We all come from somewhere. I noted you said nothing about “empiricism”? In philosophy, it is the theory that experience is the only source of knowledge. Certainly in the West this has been so lost in the human sciences. When we look at the “history” of Christianity, it is surely central. It is here also that we must engage the “Resurrection” of Christ. Especially on the effect of someone like St. Paul, note 1 Cor. 15! No, you cannot shake the experiential of the whole of the Judeo-Christian world-view, nor its history therein.

  5. Indeed, dating has no relevance to a mythicist position re Jesus of Nazareth. That position stands squarely upon the gospel’s self testimony to this figure.
    Dating is important – as the gospels themselves are dated, particularly by Luke. Sure, this dating could just be part and parcel of the storyline – as many a novel is placed within a specific time frame. However, it could be otherwise in this case. This Jesus storyline is just not any old storyline – it is a Jewish storyline. A storyline that deals with prophetic fullfillment, prophetic time frames – something that has a long history within the OT. Thus, we should not simply discard the gospel dating as of no historical relevance – relevance not to the Jesus storyline but relevance to the historical time frame in which early christianity finds its origins. If, as we seemingly are, dealing with salvation history within the gospel storyline – then the history upon which that salvation interpretation is being based, and its time frame, are relevant.

    1. If I understand your point correctly, then this would suggest that dates implicit within the gospels are in fact there to indicate some prophetic fulfilment. And according to one of Robert Funk’s criteria, that would mean they are probably creative fiction — and hence the dating becomes an argument in support of mythicism after all. 🙂

      1. But Neil, I think the original point of your blog post was that mythicism, a non-historical Jesus figure, does not need to be dated. I don’t know what Robert Funk’s point was/is….

        Prophetic fulfilment, re OT interpretations, related to historical events – however, arbitrarily applied. The gospels, by putting the Jesus figure into a historical time frame, a prophetic time frame re fulfilled prophecy, are not, thereby, equating a spiritual construct, Jesus, with a historical fulfilment of OT prophecies – how could that possibly be done? No historical evidence could be forthcoming – it would all be game playing, flights of fancy. As it is Luke contradicts Matthew anyway – hence an indication that Jesus is not a historical man – as no man has two birth dates. All that is being attempted, in the gospel time frame, is to put down historical markers that are relevant to the historical origin story of early Christianity. Historical markers that are themselves the product of prophetic interpretations re time frames. In that connection, the Jesus figure is simply a marker, a place marker, in a time slot that was noteworthy in the developing story of early Christian origins.

        A lot of the dating does reflect an interest in 70 year time slots: Luke’s 6 ce birth date being 70 years from 64/63 bc and Pompey’s siege of Jerusalem. Luke’s 29/30 ce date being 70 years from the 40 bc dating of Lysanias of Abilene. Matthew’s dating is not specific – but with its mention of the slaughter of the innocents – could well be taking his time frame right back to the siege of Jerusalem by Herod the Great, 37 -bc – which, if one wants to use John’s 3 year ministry, is using another 70 year time slot to 33 ce. So, basically, historically – early Christian history is set down, re the gospel time line, within a 70 year period – which is of course, itself, a prophetic or symbolic number. However, I would think the general idea is that the origins of early, or pre-Christian, history go way back further than the short life span and short ministry given to the Jesus figure.

      2. Josephus. Antiquities Book 14 ch.16

        2. Now the Jews that were enclosed within the walls of the city fought against Herod with great alacrity and zeal (for the whole nation was gathered together); they also gave out many prophecies about the temple, and many things agreeable to the people, as if God would deliver them out of the dangers they were in;………….

        …………. he made an assault upon the city, and took it by storm; and now all parts were full of those that were slain, by the rage of the Romans at the long duration of the siege, and by the zeal of the Jews that were on Herod’s side, who were not willing to leave one of their adversaries alive; so they were murdered continually in the narrow streets and in the houses by crowds, and as they were flying to the temple for shelter, and there was no pity taken of either infants or the aged, nor did they spare so much as the weaker sex; nay, although the king sent about, and besought them to spare the people, yet nobody restrained their hand from slaughter, but, as if they were a company of madmen, they fell upon persons of all ages, without distinction;

        ….no pity taken of either infants…..and prophecies being given out – looks like Josephus knew a thing or two about the mood of the Jews from the time of Herod’s siege of Jerusalem in 37 ce….

  6. “Every one of their arguments for whether Jesus said or did this or that begins with the assumption that there was a historical Jesus.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with your statement, but an equally fallacious assumption lies at the core, and that is the presupposition that the gospels and Paul’s epistles must contain kernels of truth. Take for example, one of the pillars of mainstream NT scholars: The Cleansing of the Temple. By the criterion of multiple attestation (viz., the story is present in the Synoptics and in John), they claim it is likely to have happened. Since they posit that Mark is the earliest, they say the Synoptic chronology (i.e., that it occurred just before the arrest) is more likely, and that it probably happened just before Passover and precipitated (or at least played a role in) his apprehension and eventual execution.

    As Paula Fredriksen pointed out in “Gospel Chronologies, the Scene in the Temple, and the Crucifixion of Jesus”: “Multiple attestation of itself demonstrates not authenticity, but antiquity: a given tradition predates its various manifestations in different witnesses, if those witnesses are independent.” This statement should be shouted from the rooftops. Often NT scholars start out by saying a act of Jesus is historically more likely to have happened than some other act, and that’s fine. Unfortunately, they cross the line far too often and behave as though “more likely to have happened” is synonymous with “probably true.”

    But I digress. My point here is that Ehrman, Crossan, et al. believe (with unwarranted optimism) that they can use historical tools to winnow away the chaff until they have the historical wheat. I think there’s ample evidence within the gospels themselves that the writers knew they weren’t dealing with real history or real events, which explains, for example, why John was completely comfortable with moving the day of the crucifixion. We see it happen again and again when Luke and Matthew take liberties with Mark’s text, softening phrases here, adding dialog and characters over there. In short, the internal evidence of the gospels should lead us to mistrust them as sources of anything except doctrine.

    This bias toward believing that the gospels contain nuggets of truth is pervasive and exceptionally strong. It lies beneath the surface, invisible to most scholars. It’s part of the background, a deep assumption that nobody questions because they don’t even know it’s there.

    1. Nice to hear my imput…..Oh well. Just so you know, I’m a fully fledged mythicist of many years standing – and don’t take kindly to any arguements, assertions or ideas re a historical Jesus of Nazareth. I’m not interested in debating that particular issue – been there, done that and moved on. I won’t be replying to any talk re a historical Jesus. Alternative ideas re the gospel storyline are where my interest lies. So, if you come with any theological nonsense expect to be ignored…

      That said, irishanglican – regards from an irishmythicist…

  7. Maryhelena,

    I knew you were not a believer, I could tell from “your” presuppositions, the “Jesus marker”, etc. But you were civil, unlike mr. rey. But, I will always contend the “mythicist” is not a position of righteous history or method! Yes, I am a historic “Churchman”. And on this blog (Neil’s), I am on foreign ground certainly. But I am seeking to dialogue.

    1. I don’t get why your type are always trying to persuade people when their whole theology is based on the notion that people have no free will. You say asinine things to me like “determinism is the truth and you need to try to be more humble before God’s malevolent Sovereignty” as such-like, but what you are really suggesting is contrary to your theology, because for me to try and be humble would require free will: you are making an appeal to my free will in attempting to persaude me to reject free will. Therefore your theology is totally nonsense. Anywhere you are at is a place without logic. And as they say, a place without logic is hell.

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