Monthly Archives: August 2010

Explaining the $50 fee & “The Real Jesus Challenge”

I decided to go to the source to ask the reason for the $50 entry fee for the Historicist Prize  (The Jesus Challenge).

I was well aware I was only speculating when commenting on it recently, and others were speculating on it quite vacuously and even maliciously. So why not see what I could learn by checking the source for myself? I like doing stuff like that. I recommend the same for associate professors of religion.

Well, Rene Salm kindly responded, and explained:

  1. the sequence of events that led to the presentation,
  2. the reason for the $50 fee,
  3. and the whole point of the ironical situation of committed mythicists even offering a “historicist prize”

His email response, which I have reformatted, follows. read more »

Doherty, the sublunar realm, and Paul: correcting some disinformation

The Ancient and Medieval cosmos as depicted in...
Image via Wikipedia

My recent posts regarding Earl Doherty are largely for the purpose of offering a public corrective to some common claims about his arguments that are, for whatever reason, simply false. My own views are more exploratory than definitive, especially on Paul’s letters. But I do hate to see any misrepresentation so hopefully this post can clarify a thing or two for some who genuinely want to know.

One common erroneous view is that Doherty’s view of “the sublunar realm”, and the activities of its spirit occupants, does not extend to earth itself. (See, for example, some of the responses to my post Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world. McGrath, apparently relying on internet gossip and smugly assuming that Doherty’s views somehow conflicted with Aristotelian basics, felt it necessary to post links to online articles explaining the Aristotelian cosmology. Despite being informed otherwise he has continued to speak of Doherty’s supposedly erroneous views of ancient cosmology.)

Yet on the first page Doherty where speaks of the place of demons in ancient thought in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, he writes of the demons inhabiting the area below the moon and extending their activities to earth itself: read more »

Would the world really be better without religion?

tamas_pataki2
Tamas Pataki

And it gets better. This is the link to the second part of Tamas Pataki’s address: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2010/08/13/2981969.htm

I was moved by humanity expressed in Pataki’s 2007 book, and it is refreshing to find this expounded once again from a secular humanist viewpoint. read more »

Giving atheism a bad name (On Atheism, Religion, Humanism)

There is a wonderful article by Tamas Pataki at http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2010/08/10/2979163.htm

Tamas Pataki is honorary senior fellow at the University of Melbourne and honorary fellow of Deakin University. His most recent book is Against Religion (Scribe, 2007). This is the first part of an edited version of the address he delivered at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, on 12 April 2010.

I have discussed his book Against Religion a few times on this blog — collated in the Pataki archive.

The whole article should be read for his nuanced views on atheism, religion and humanism.

I’ve tried to bottle a few of the passages that struck a chord with me below, but more for my own record. Read the full article at the above link. read more »

The Real Jesus Challenge, Bart Erhman, and Nazareth

The Real Jesus Challenge
“I think it is historically virtually certain that Jesus existed.”—Bart D. Ehrman

See René Salm’s Reply to Bart Erhman on Nazareth and The Real Jesus Challenge Award. This is an excerpt from the American Freethought podcast with Bart Ehrman, hosted by John C. Snider. Professor Ehrman’s remarks have led to the institution of the Real Jesus Challenge (also known as the 2011 Historicist Prize) sponsored by the Mythicists’ Forum.

On the same page I found these interesting remarks on René Salm’s book on the archaeology of Nazareth — The Myth of Nazareth:

Prof. Thomas Thompson…

…René Salm’s The Myth of Nazareth has been waiting to be written for twenty years now and I am glad to see that someone has finally taken up the challenge.…—Thomas L. Thompson PhD, University of Copenhagen (Emeritus). Author, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel; The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David, etc. read more »

Ten Beautiful Lies About Jesus – and another 2010 Mythicist Prize Result

From The 2010 Mythicist Prize results on René Salm’s Mythicist Prize page.

Ten Beautiful Lies About Jesus by David Fitzgerald.

“Fitzgerald’s is possibly the best ‘capsule summary’ of the mythicist case I’ve ever encountered …within an interesting and accessible approach.”
—Earl Doherty

Fitzgerald’s conclusion:

If Jesus had been a real individual we have a thorny paradox. Either Jesus was a remarkable individual who did and said amazing things — and no one outside his cult noticed him for the rest of the century; or he didn’t — and yet right after his death tiny house communities appear scattered scattered across the empire that cannot agree about the most basic facts of his life. The truth is inescapable: there simply could never have been a historical Jesus.

The other is:

Peter McKenna (Liverpool, England), Honorable Mention: Jesus Nazoraios: hidden truths revealed? read more »

The confessional bias of scholarship’s quest for Christian origins

Scholar and his books by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout
Image via Wikipedia

Even scholars who are attempting to find an “independent” and “socio-economic” explanation for Christian origins (such as James Crossley) are, like virtually all scholars involved in this quest, “driven by the Christian imagination” itself. Burton L. Mack explains the nature of this bias in his introduction to A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins.

The reader who dares to enter this discourse [of Christian origins] from the humanities or from the social sciences, cannot avoid coming to a certain conclusion. The events that center the massive amounts of scholarly learning are exactly those that haunt the average Christian imagination as well. They are exactly those suggested by the Christian gospel, the gospel that sets them forth as inaugural and foundational for Christian history and faith. (p. 8)

Christians well know that the claims in the Gospel that offer them personal conversion or a new life in Christ are very same ones that also explain the origin of the Church. These are:

  • Jesus
  • his teachings
  • his activities
  • the supper
  • the cross
  • the resurrection

And it is these that are the focus of scholarly studies of Christian origins. Mack continues: read more »

Do mythicists rely on arguments from silence and too many assumptions?

No.

This is another common charge against arguments that Jesus was mythical, and it likewise seems to be circulated among those who show little evidence of having read much in the way of mythicist publications.

(I am responding here to remarks made in a comment to McGrath’s post, Why I find mythicism disturbing, since the remarks are repeated often enough to be addressed separately.)

I look firstly at where the argument from silence really does stand within mythicism, and then at a comparison of historicist and mythicist a priori assumptions.

Merton trappist
Image via Wikipedia

Arguments from silence

I do not recall if I have ever read a mythicist argument that relies on silence.

An argument from silence is used to compare one hypothesis against another. It can be useful to show that there is no real warrant (there is too much silence) for accepting the disputed hypothesis.

But the arguments FOR the earliest Christian record speaking of a nonhistorical Christ (at least the ones I have read) all focus on reading what the documents DO say. What they don’t say (the silence) is only the corollary.

Doherty on the argument from silence

Since Doherty appears to be the main bête noir of many of those more viscerally than rationally opposed to the Christ myth arguments, it will be useful to refer to his own position on the argument from silence. read more »

Do mythicists read Paul’s references to Jesus’ humanity as interpolations or metaphors?

No. (But historicists do argue for interpolations and interpret contrary evidence metaphorically.)

This is another misinformed assertion advanced by some who appear never to have read mythicist publications. I most recently noticed it in a response to another post by James McGrath complaining that mythicists do or don’t do or argue this and that, and again without offering any specific examples to inform readers of the basis for his accusations.

I show here that the exact opposite is the case. You know what they say about false accusations being projections etc. It is indeed the historicists who explain away contrary evidence as metaphor, and it is the “historicists” who are the ones who have made the arguments for interpolations.

Humanity and Historicity

The first point one needs to address in the implication that humanity of Jesus, or his existence in the flesh, must by definition mean Jesus was a historical figure. This is a false assumption. Many mythical figures have been described or implied as “human” or having “bodies of flesh”.

The accusation, I think, usually is targeted specifically at what the person believes Doherty argues.

Interpolations

The only interpolations singled out in Paul’s letters by anyone who advances a mythical Jesus (at least from my readings) are those that are strongly argued to be interpolations by scholars who have expressed no interest in mythicism, and who almost certainly would accept a “historical Jesus”. read more »

Jesus was no physician

Christ healing a bleeding woman

Jesus’ miracles of healing in the Gospels are often taken as evidence that the historical Jesus himself was a healer. Studies have accordingly been undertaken into ancient healing practices. The associations between ‘medicine’ and ‘charms’, the physical and the supernatural, is well-documented. We have books about Jesus titled “Jesus the Healer” and “Jesus the Magician”. (I like much that I find in these, by the way.)

Presumably the gospel stories of Jesus’ miracles of healing are thought to be based on traditions that Jesus really was a healer of some kind. Crossan, for example, argues from anthropology and the social nature of illness that Jesus’ acts of healing “worked” because he brought, for example, the outcast leper, into a communal fellowship.

But what if we take the miracles of healings in the Gospel of Mark just as they are written. Let’s not presume they are exaggerations of historical deeds.

Let’s instead read them “just as they are” and see how they might compare other “just as they are” narratives and look at the literary and ideological traditions in which they are written.

I believe that when we do that we will find another source for the miracle stories that really leaves no room for any “historical tradition”.

Thomas L. Thompson has said somewhere in a similar context that when we attempt to historicize or rationalize the miraculous in the Bible, all we end up doing is destroying the original stories. Not all that different from Douglas Adams quip that if you take apart a cat to see how it works, all you end up with is a non-working cat.

A consideration of the wider context offers a quick and obvious answer to the question of the author’s inspiration for the miraculous healings of Jesus.

First, a few examples of what we are talking about here:

Mark 1:30-31 —  But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever, and anon they tell him of her. And he came and took her by the hand, and lifted her up; and immediately the fever left her

Mark 1:42  —  And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed.

Mark 2:11-12  —  I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house. And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all

Mark 3:5  —  he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other.

None of these sound anything like a witch doctor or shaman healing processes. But there is another very obvious set of analogies.

Not all, but much, of the first two following sections is derived from my current reading of The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy by Gilbert G. Bilezikian.

The literary and theological purpose of the miracle stories in Mark read more »

Historicist Hocus Pocus (Or, What on earth would happen if a course on logic were introduced into biblical studies!)

Rage Against the Machine
Ned Ludd: Image via Wikipedia

Since I now have time to go over older posts critiquing the mythicist view of Jesus, I have decided to address head on some of the arguments against mythicism that appear to have been left dangling. Such an exercise, of course, does not argue “for” mythicism. But it is important that bogus arguments, especially from professional scholars, are exposed for what they are.

I select first of all Mythicist Mythunderstanding simply because it happens to be near the top of my zotero list.

McGrath’s argument is, in fact, a classroom classic in circular reasoning.

James McGrath begins:

I’ve long been perplexed by the frequent complaint from mythicists (i.e. those who claim that Jesus was a purely invented figure, not even based on a real historical human individual) that those working on the historical Jesus simply assume as a presupposition that Jesus existed, rather than addressing the question directly.

I think such individuals are looking for a demonstration by historians, in the introductory part of their book about Jesus, “proving” he existed, before going on to discuss anything he may have said or done. That this is what is meant seems clear because one may cite a saying or incident that is generally considered authentic, only to be met with the retort, “But how do you know he even existed?”

Yes, a few introductory remarks in an introduction would be helpful. One does sometimes see exactly that sort of information in books about Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, for example.

It is not hard to find scholarly explanations for how it is known that Julius Caesar existed. The primary evidence is fairly conclusive.

This, in turn, raises the probability that certain names and events associated with Julius Caesar and related in certain types of secondary evidence are also historical.

As for Socrates, we have no primary evidence [evidence physically located at the time of the person or event], so the probability of his existence cannot be as high as that for Julius Caesar, but nonetheless, there are strong arguments in favour of his existence that are derived from multiple yet truly independent secondary sources.

Further, not too long after McGrath posted the above, I did demonstrate in detail how a scholar such as E. P. Sanders really does attempt to decide what Jesus said and did entirely on the assumption that he did indeed exist. All the arguments for a particular deed, e.g. the “cleansing of the temple”, being authentic were predicated on the assumption that Jesus existed. One can argue with more justification (fewer a priori assumptions such as the historicity of Jesus) that such a deed in the narrative is entirely the work of fiction. James McGrath never replied to my demonstration of this, or similar posts in which I again demonstrated the same point.He did eventually, when pushed, merely say that he “disagreed” with me. But he at no time demonstrated my argument or case to be false.

It is indeed true that HJ historians do begin with the presumption of the existence of Jesus, and I have demonstrated that, particularly in the case of E.P. Sanders.

The circularity kicks in read more »

Baptism of Jesus is not bedrock fact. It is entirely creative literature.

The baptism of Jesus by John the baptist, as i...
This is how Mark did NOT portray Jesus’ baptism. Image via Wikipedia

The baptism of Jesus by John in the Gospel of Mark

  • is stitched together with images from Old Testament passages, and
  • serves the particular theological agenda of Mark that was challenged by later evangelists

So,

  1. if a passage in the Gospels can be shown to serve a theological agenda of an evangelist, then according to widely accepted standards of biblical historiography, we have reason to question its historical authenticity; and
  2. if a passage can be shown to be a pastiche of other texts certainly known to the author and his audience, and if once we strip away those textual borrowings and are left with nothing that stands alone, or in other words, if once we remove the sheepskin and find nothing left underneath, then we have further support in our doubts as to the historical originality of the event; and
  3. if the only external testimony to John the Baptist contradicts or fails to support our narrative at significant points, then we will need more than three bags full of special pleading to justify holding to any shred of historicity in our little narrative.

To repeat what I won’t repeat here

I have discussed the evidence for the John the Baptist of Mark’s gospel being cut from OT passages, and how this cut-out shape stands opposed to the apparently historical account in Josephus’ Antiquities, and how the episode of the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is disqualified from being historical even on the grounds of one of mainstream biblical scholarly criteria for historicity. (The criterion of embarrassment only applies to those later evangelists, Matthew, Luke and John, who demonstrate embarrassment with Mark’s story, not with any historical event per se.) These demonstrations are in Engaging Sanders point by point: JB, and JB, strangest of prophets, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. Nor will I address the possibility that the baptism reflects an adoptionist or separationist Christology. Nor even the arguments advanced to suggest John the Baptist himself was a mythical creation.

But why would anyone make it up? read more »

Historical methods postcript: Where criteriology leaves us

Just to add here what I left assumed in my previous post . . . .

Enough has been written on the contradictory and inconsistent issues arising from the attempts to establish “bedrock evidence” for the life of Jesus from “criteriology”. (I am not addressing the use of criteria in other historical studies where it has a different function.)

Criteriology leaves the debate open whether Jesus was a political revolutionary, an apocalyptic prophet, a rabbi, a mystic, a teacher, a healer, a magician, a timberman (see #4 by Lemche at http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/sack357908.shtml).

In other words, criteriology leaves us not knowing where to even start a definitive exploration of who this Jesus was.

But in addition to failing to establish who or what Jesus was historically, it leads to the greater sin of avoiding the historical question of Christian origins. Christianity was a faith movement, and its origin and spread needs to be explained as such. The Christ that was spread through the Mediterranean and Middle East was a Christ of faith, after all. A mythical construct, in other words.

Historical method worth its salt will work with the evidence as it exists, as faith literature, and through analysis of both it and its relationships with other ideas of the time, seek to understand its origin and appeal.

Historical methods: how historical Jesus studies fall over before they start

Although a certain professor of religion regularly insists that his historical methods are the same as those of other historians who deal in nonbiblical subjects, he has failed to demonstrate the similarity. Rather, his attempt to establish this particular point is a classic in obfuscation, misrepresentation of the issues and avoidance of the challenges of mythicist arguments.

One thing cannot be reasonably denied. Mainstream historical Jesus scholarship . . . uses the same methods as mainstream historical study. Those who study early Christianity, those who study Jewish history, those who study Hellenistic and Roman history, those who study any of these overlapping areas or some subset thereof, all interact regularly at conferences, in scholarly volumes and publications, and in numerous other ways. While scholars certainly disagree regularly with one another’s conclusions, if we did not share some common scholarly methodological ground rules, such fruitful interaction would not be possible.

Reflecting on this, it struck me that mythicism is very much like intelligent design in at least one important regard. It wishes to redefine the methods of a scholarly discipline in order to accomplish an ideological agenda.

(Mythicism, Intelligent Design, Courts and Sports)

Of course there are many grounds for fruitful interaction among scholars of “early Christianity”, “Jewish history” and those who study “Hellenistic and Roman history” — and more — I would add especially with those who study ancient classical literature. Of course these scholars do indeed “share some common scholarly methodological ground rules”.

But the author uses this statement of the bleeding obvious as a cover to hide the fact he is sweeping under the carpet the key points made about historical Jesus studies in particular. I will explain below.

The mythical claims of a NT historian read more »