Associate Professor James McGrath is apparently bored again, or maybe he is still smarting over his public inability to actually respond to anything I said with a reasoned and supported argument.
He has written a post linking three times to my blog posts and unfortunately demonstrates his understanding of “mythicism” is still egg-bound in his old misconceptions about the very nature of “mythicism”. But that is not surprising.
It is also interesting to see how he is subtly re-writing some of the more embarrassing details of his earlier exchanges. He now implies that certain accusations were made despite his having read so many books by mythicists. Of course, at the time he fully admitted that he was relying on blog posts for his understanding.
Oh yes, those three links to my blog he puts in his sentence: that sentence, surprise surprise, is what they call an of “untruth”. But I gotta admit it does serve the purpose of making his insults and strawmen look like a most formidable arsenel of intellect.
So much for professional ethics and intellectual integrity among some scholars of the Christian religion.
But I am bored with James and going over the same old. Is there any scholar anywhere who is prepared to discuss, explore, dialogue in a reasoned and civil manner any of the arguments I have presented in relation to this topic. I’m surprised, since I’ve argued nothing different from what secular and Old Testament scholars have all argued and asserted is a defensible starting point for historical enquiry. I don’t expect them to respond to this blog, but I would love to be told that the issues are addressed publicly somewhere.
The idea of a holy anointed one, a messiah that is, who liberated those captive to sin through his death, who represented the pious before God, who was subject even to the wrath of God for the sin of the people, such an idea was arguably a pre-packaged concept among some Jews long before Jesus was ever thought of.
Evolution of an idea or historical reinterpretation of a crucified criminal?
Indeed, the very concept of Jesus Christ as found in Paul’s epistles could quite conceivably have evolved out of the contemplation of passages describing the roles and functions of the priests in their role as “anointed ones” (“messiahs”) in the Jewish scriptures and Sirach.
Levenson has demonstrated the similarity of the Second Temple Jewish view of the atoning death and resurrection of Isaac with the subsequent Christian a figure who atones for the sins of his people by his shed blood.
Thomas L. Thompson looks at several other passages in Jewish Scriptures that foreshadow the explicit Christian concepts of Messiah. He rejects the common (yet unargued) belief that “messiah” was a term that was applied to contemporary historical kings of Israel, noting that in every occurrence of the word in connection with an Israelite king, whether in “story or song”, it is always applied to Israel’s past. And as for “the developing transference of an historical [Messiah] — the king — to a unique and future-oriented, super-terrestrial savior, [S. Talmon] attributes to a ‘second temple period’, which culminates in an idealized figure after 70 AD.”
So what of the concept of messianism around the time Paul and other NT authors are thought to have been writing? What does an exploration of the meaning of “messiah” or “anointed one” in texts known to these authors suggest?
So they still exist! Last I read about them was in Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen.
Until Theodore Herzl created the modern Zionist movement early in the 20th century, the biblical injunction to return to Israel was widely understood as a theological construct rather than a pragmatic instruction.
Most Orthodox Jewish leaders before the Holocaust rejected Zionism, saying the exile was a divine punishment and Israel could be restored only in the messianic age. The Reform movement maintained that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality.
“This country is our Palestine,” a Reform rabbi in Charleston, S.C., put it in 1841, “this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple.” The Reform movement’s 1885 platform dismissed a “return to Palestine” as a relic akin to animal sacrifice.
Only when the Reform leadership, on the eve of World War II, reversed course did its anti-Zionist faction break away, ultimately forming the council in 1942. Its discourse was simultaneously idealistic and contemptuous — a proposed curriculum in 1952 described Zionism as racist, self-segregated and non-American . . . . .
In preparing to compose a post on literary criticism and contributions of David Clines, I turned to check a contrasting reference in James McGrath’s The Burial of Jesus and unfortunately got sidetracked with the following blurring of opposing concepts (sorry, Rich — I know, I’ve done this one to death, and I cannot outdo my comprehensive treatment of the methodological issues here, but I’ll hit this button just once more before returning to my literary criticism discussion):
Historical study deals with evidence, with the question of what we can know about the past, and with what degree of certainty. Christians cannot afford to ignore or bypass such historical investigations. And yet many of Christianity’s traditional claims, including (but not limited to) the resurrection of Jesus, may not be able to be proven with certainty, “beyond reasonable doubt”, from our perspective in time and space. (p.13)
It is a pity that logic and clarity of thought are not prerequisites for doctorates in all fields of study. Here we read the language of the courtroom, such as the idea of being unable to prove that something happened “beyond reasonable doubt”. But at the same time he blurs the distinction between the concepts of “evidence” and “claims”. The content of a mere claim is not evidence. Evidence is an indisputable fact that you might make a claim about. The claim itself is distinct from the evidence.
The idea of proving beyond reasonable doubt that a suspect murdered his mother must first start with evidence that is itself without any doubt as to its existence. A fingerprint, a bloodstained knife. There can be no possible doubt about the existence of these. Even more, a cadaver with mortal wounds. Now that is evidence of a murder. Where the “beyond reasonable doubt” bit kicks in is over the guilt of a particular suspect. Now that means that the visible, tangible evidence about which there can be no doubt whatsoever must be interpreted according to certain rules.
Now what each witness says or claims is not a fact or evidence in the same sense that the fingerprint or the cadaver itself is a fact or evidence. But we need to have real evidence that gives us a number of starting points from which to test these claims of witnesses.
Without some tangible indisputable certain evidence to begin with, claims bear no necessary relation to the real world at all. Merely claiming that a mother was murdered without any evidence that there was a murder at all is gossip, rumour, slander, fiction, fantasy, wishful thinking, paranoia, suspicion, but it is not evidence.
And this is what other (nonbiblical) historians generally understand and how they work. They have primary evidence for Julius Caesar, his nephew Augustus, the Roman empire, the Senate. Coins, epigraphical evidence, archaeological remains. From this indisputable set of absolutely certain evidence we have a starting point for interpreting certain texts as making historical claims. Literary criticism can assist us in sifting out narratives that are fictional from those that are historical. Some claims are “factional” — fiction written in the guise of fact (so Clines). But the starting point that always gives historians some basis for knowing when a text is at least addressing genuine historical events is primary evidence that is tangible, real.
It is slightly amusing, also disheartening, to see the way theologically biased biblical scholars make a complete mockery of their attempts to explain Christianity historically.
James G. Dunn did not like implications that could conceivably be drawn from the recent discussions of Bauckham and Hurtado over attempts to explain historically how Jesus came to be given a divine-like status and to be catapulted so early after his death to a position alongside God “at the center of their devotional life, including their worship practices”. Hurtado’s most recent book summarising many of the arguments and attempting an historical answer is provocatively titled: How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?
But throughout his valiant response to ensure that pure Christian doctrine is not compromised in anyone’s minds — and hence his Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? — Dunn apparently remains oblivious to the historical implausibilities and contradictions he is creating for himself, and his orthodox model of Christian origins.
His worry is not primarily historical, but theological. He writes:
[T]here are some problems, even dangers, in Christian worship if it is defined too simply as worship of Jesus. . . . Christian worship can deteriorate into what may be called Jesus-olatry. That is, not simply into worship of Jesus, but into a worship that falls short of the worship due to the one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I use the term ‘Jesus-olatry’ as in an important sense parallel or even close to ‘idolatry’. . . .
So the danger with a worship of Jesus is that the worship due to God is stopping at Jesus, and the revelation of God through Jesus and the worship of God through Jesus is being stifled and short-circuited. (p.147)
(my emphasis etc)
Here Dunn has cast off his historian’s hat and is batting exclusively for “the pure faith”. He warns of dangers, deterioration, “our” Lord Jesus Christ, and the violation of the second of the ten commandments. Oh dear. No room for history students here. Of course I have no problem with Dunn taking this stance. But if he also claims to be “doing history” he is discrediting his efforts and declaring that on this particular topic he is totally in the service of The Faith.
Dunn then finds relevance to his argument in the late antiquity and early medieval debate within Christianity over the meaning and place of icons. The New Testament says Jesus is an icon (eikon=image), not an idol.
For, as the lengthy debate in Eastern Christianity made clear, the distinction between an idol and an icon is crucial at this point. An idol is a depiction on which the eye fixes, a solid wall at which the worship stops. An icon on the other hand is a window through which the eye passes, through which the beyond can be seen, through which divine reality can be witnessed.
Paul also says a man, any man who does not cover his head while praying, is an icon of God!
For a man indeed ought not to cover [his] head, since he is the image (eikwn) and glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7)
Christians in particular are also said to be the very images of God himself:
and have put on the new [man] who is renewed in knowledge according to the image (eikona) of Him who created him (Colossians 3:10)
But I should leave that little question for the theologians to resolve.
I have often questioned myself over a certain kind of similarity of my positions on both religion and politics. The similarity has forced me to ask myself whether I am responding to “everything” from some sort of knee-jerk desire to be different. So I am constantly questioning and testing my own methods, facts and assumptions to see if I am being as fair as I can hope to be. How likely is it that any of my views might be sustainable after I am gone?
My political views are more easily subject to reality checks than my views on the Bible. “Political” can be a confusing term. What I mean by it are my views on human rights and justice. People suffering, being dispossessed of their homes and rights, and being killed, are objective realities that one has to simply say Yes or No to. Surprisingly, most people do say Yes to these things in the real world, even though they say “no” to them in theory. The reasons vary. But for many, it is because their grasp of reality is shaped by their “tribe”, or the larger groups with which they primarily identify.
I witnessed a classic example of the dynamics of this some years back when I attended presentations first by an Israeli and then by a Palestinian expressing their different perspectives on the conflict between them. The Israeli presentation was held in an upper floor lecture room, with security guards posted at several points one had to pass to reach the venue. The identities of each attendee were recorded. The talk spoke of grand sweeps of historical and geographic portraits, and fear and threats. Then after several delays, the Palestinian view was allowed to be expressed. This was held in an open ground-level hall, with no security guards, no recording of identities of those attending, and the talk was all about personal experiences, daily life, photos of people (not maps), harassments and punishments.
One side spoke of fears and a historical view; the other side spoke of daily life and personal experiences.
That is, one side spoke of beliefs; the other of evidence and facts.
And that, I am coming to realize, is exactly the same schizoid dichotomy at the heart of biblical scholarship, too. Facts are replaced by “criteria” in order to manufacture “facts” to support beliefs.
One still reads enlightened (or benighted) twenty-first century scholars asserting that there can be no purpose in life, no standard for morality, if we are “merely nothing more” than a set of chemicals and our minds the product of “nothing more than electro-chemical reactions”.
By couching the argument in the rhetoric of “merely” or “nothing more”, I am reminded of Douglas Adams’ famous quip:
If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.
That our level of consciousness, aesthetics, ethics, and all that goes to make us the species we are, have evolved as the products of chemistry and physics is not something to be dismissed as a “merely” or a “nothing more”. It is a staggering, mind-blowing thing to grasp. What makes it so damn hard to get my mind around is my inability to comprehend the vastness of the time involved.
None of our abilities, apart perhaps from our language faculty, is a sudden or unique leap that stands in total isolation from everything else. Consciousness is not unique. We can see gradients of consciousness across various species. Social and personal rules of conduct, with punishments for breaches, are observed in many other species that live in social groups. There even seems to be some sort of aesthetic sense at work among bower birds who plant blue objects in a nest to impress a mate, and will notice if human vandalizes their efforts by relocating a blue peg in their nest, and will immediately restore the original layout.
I loved watching the magpies in my backyard in Australia. If a male found a particularly interesting grub or beetle, its female partner would only have to sing out and the male would bring it over for her to eat instead. A kookaburra agonized us all at the office one day by perching on our office window ledge and holding a struggling lizard in its beak. Why wouldn’t it eat the thing quickly and put it out of its misery? We waited some minutes till finally its partner flew up to stand beside him. We realized he had been waiting for her when he then gave her the lizard to eat. Our agonies over the distress of the lizard turned to “Ohhs!” on seeing this act of affection or love in another species. An ill mouse that could not make it up the ladder to its bed of tissues was soon covered in those tissues to keep it warm — its partner had dragged the tissues down and covered its ill mate with them.
Are all such animals “merely bunches of chemicals”? If in one sense they are, it only magnifies the grandeur and mystery of it all. We can either attribute all this to an imaginary being wrapped up in a mystery itself, or we can attribute it to the laws and evidence we see in operation around us. To my mind, the latter attribution is cause for the greater sense of awe and wonder. Being able to explain it all eventually will not rob us of any of this feeling. Continue reading “If we are “merely” a bunch of chemicals . . .”
Evangelical Textual Criticism discusses the successfully defended thesis of Gunnar Samuelsson that the ancient textual evidence fails to support our image of Jesus dying on a cross. From the ETC site:
Last Friday Gunnar Samuelsson successfylly defended his thesis “Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion” at Gothenburg University (supervisor Samuel Byrskog).
This study investigates the philological aspects of how ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew/Aramaic texts, including the New Testament, depict the practice of punishment by crucifixion. A survey of the ancient text material shows that there has been a too narrow view of the “crucifixion” terminology. The various terms are not simply used in the sense of “crucify” and “cross,” if by “crucifixion” one means the punishment that Jesus was subjected to according to the main Christian traditions. The terminology is used much more diversely. Almost none of it can be elucidated beyond verbs referring vaguely to some form(s) of suspension, and nouns referring to tools used in such suspension. As a result, most of the crucifixion accounts that scholars cite in the ancient literature have to be rejected, leaving only a few. The New Testament is not spared from this terminological ambiguity. The accounts of the death of Jesus are strikingly sparse. Their chief contribution is usage of the unclear terminology in question. Over-interpretation, and probably even pure imagination, have afflicted nearly every wordbook and dictionary that deals with the terms related to crucifixion as well as scholarly depictions of what happened on Calvary. The immense knowledge of the punishment of crucifixion in general, and the execution of Jesus in particular, cannot be supported by the studied texts.
The same blog site offers contact details for purchasing the dissertation, and additional notes from its concluding chapter. There is also a discussion of the archaeological evidence.
I picked up The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible is Scientifically Accurate by Andrew Parker curious to see what arguments could possibly earn back cover blurbs like ‘Parker’s arguments seem very plausible to me’ by none other than Francis Crick of DNA fame, through to the Daily Mail’s “Jaw dropping – an astounding work . . .” Okay, I wasn’t really persuaded by the Daily Mail cites, but I was curious when I noticed the author really IS a reputable scientist.
Amidst what I see as the chaff in the book there is something I really did see as A Good Thing. After pages of warming up to less than inspiring arguments supposedly proving the divine inspiration of the Bible by claiming that its Genesis account is a “metaphoric” template of the facts of evolution, he pulls no punches in declaring to his readers that evolution really is a fact. Evolution is not a theory, he insists. Evolution is true. He deplores Creationism and its modern deceitful garb of Intelligent Design.
And both demonstrate how a biblical scholar is subject to the tyranny of the Gospel narrative when framing questions about the narrative’s historicity.
Meier here has fallen into the trap of assuming that there was a single church entity that started out recording certain events on account of their historical nature, but over time came to see some of these as PR liabilities, and accordingly set about re-spinning them.
But his scenario actually raises more questions than it answers, and there are simpler explanations for the existing evidence that it overlooks.
I have discussed the fallacies at the heart of this criterion a number of times from different perspectives. The whole idea of using “criteria” to “discover bedrock evidence” is itself fallacious; this particular criterion stands in conflict with other criteria; and what the evidence points to is the embarrassment was over rival theologies or christologies among different communities, not over what we would call historical facts themselves. All of this has been discussed in previous posts that I have archived here.
But since John P. Meier lists this criterion as # 1 of “primary criteria”, I am adding to those posts a response from a slightly different perspective this time.
The reversal of the principle of burden of proof in favor of those who claimed authenticity of material that was obviously and thoroughly shaped by faith in the continued presence of Jesus after his death did not happen by way of methodological argument but by way of decree.
The creation and Adam and Eve narratives are often said to be nice moral tales that convey spiritual truths. Being myth does not disqualify them from containing meaningful messages for modern readers.
So at wedding ceremonies and in Sunday school classes bible-believers are regaled with the “beautiful story” of the God practising a bit of psychic surgery as his hand penetrates Adam’s side to pull out a rib which he used to create Eve. And since this story is not something that has been uncovered in modern times among cuneiform tablets alongside myths of sea-monsters and sky-gods, but is one we have been as familiar with as our soft pillows and teddy bear toys since childhood, we call it a “beautiful metaphor” of the marriage relationship.
And I suspect many theologians would prefer to keep it that way. Meaningful myth or symbol is sophisticated. Literal images of God taking the penis bone from Adam and using it to create Eve, thus explaining both marriage and the reason males of humans alone (almost) lack this bit of anatomy would probably go a long way to discrediting not only a “beautiful and meaningful story”, but opening up a few more people’s minds to the irrelevance of the Bible in an enlightened age.