Some theologians (I won’t mention any names) continue to call themselves historians despite never having majored in any historical studies. One renowned (or infamous to some) biblical scholar understood this as a serious problem in historical Jesus studies. He wrote of the anomaly of Jesus-studies supposedly having so much “primary documentation” yet being so fraught with unknowns, uncertainties and unresolvable disputes:
Yet Jesus should be one of the better known figures of antiquity. We have at least half a dozen letters from Paul, who perhaps knew Jesus during his lifetime (II Cor. 5:16), and joined his followers within, at most, a decade after his death. We have four accounts of Jesus’ public career – the canonical gospels – written anywhere from forty to seventy years after his death; these are generally thought to rest, in part, on earlier written material. Few public figures from the Greco-Roman world are so well documented, but none is so widely disputed. This suggests that there is something strange about the documents, or about the scholars who have studied them, or both.
Probably both. Most of the scholars have not been historians, but theologians determined to make the documents justify their own theological positions. This has been true of liberals, no less than conservatives; both have used “critical scholarship” to get rid of theologically unacceptable evidence. But not everything can be blamed on the scholars. They could not have performed such vanishing acts had there not been something peculiar in the evidence itself.
Let’s close 2010 with a wonderful New Yorker article from May this year. It is a cleverly written discussion of the state of Historical Jesus studies by Adam Gopnik, What Did Jesus Do? Reading and Unreading the Gospels. One might even suggest that Gopnik demonstrates the ability of complete outsiders to see how starkly naked is the emperor of historical Jesus studies. I quote the opening paragraph and highlight some key points.
When we meet Jesus of Nazareth at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, almost surely the oldest of the four, he’s a full-grown man. He comes down from Galilee, meets John, an ascetic desert hermit who lives on locusts and wild honey, and is baptized by him in the River Jordan. If one thing seems nearly certain to the people who read and study the Gospels for a living, it’s that this really happened: John the Baptizer—as some like to call him, to give a better sense of the original Greek’s flat-footed active form—baptized Jesus. They believe it because it seems so unlikely, so at odds with the idea that Jesus always played the star in his own show: why would anyone have said it if it weren’t true? This curious criterion governs historical criticism of Gospel texts: the more improbable or “difficult” an episode or remark is, the likelier it is to be a true record, on the assumption that you would edit out all the weird stuff if you could, and keep it in only because the tradition is so strong that it can’t plausibly be excluded. If Jesus says something nice, then someone is probably saying it for him; if he says something nasty, then probably he really did.
Some people might be disturbed at the suggestion that Jesus did not exist, but surely all good people would be happily hopeful were they to hear an argument that very symbol of anti-Semitism has been nothing more substantial than an unhappy fiction. After reading Bishop John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes some years ago I was naive enough to conclude that most biblical scholars (of the nonfundamentalist variety) were well aware of the evidence that Judas was nothing more than a literary creation. I would still like to think that is the case, and that those scholarly works that speak of Judas as a real person of history who in fact did betray his master really are an aberrant minority in the current field of Gospel scholarship.
Don’t misunderstand, though. By no means does John Shelby Spong deny the historicity of Jesus.
Is there then no literal history that is reflected at the heart of the Christian story? Yes, of course there is; but it is not found in the narrative descriptions of Jesus’ last days. (p. 258)
But who was Judas?
Was he a person of history who did all of the things attributed to him? . . .
Or was there but a bare germ of truth in the Judas story, on which was heaped the dramatic portrait that we now find in the Gospels? Can we identify the midrashic tradition at work in the various details that now adorn his life? . . .
Or was he purely and simply a legendary figure invented by the Christians as a way to place on the backs of the Jewish people the blame for the death of Jesus?
(p. 259, my formatting)
The rest of the post follows Spong’s argument that Judas was created by “Christians [who] made Jews, rather than the Romans, the villains of their story. [Spong] suggest[s] that this was achieved primarily by creating a narrative of a Jewish traitor according to the midrashic tradition out of the bits and pieces of the sacred scriptures and by giving that traitor the name Judas, the very name of the nation of the Jews.” (p. 276)
It may be possible to quibble over Spong’s use of the term “midrash”, which some scholars define as something that is known among the Dead Sea Scrolls but not quite found in the Gospels. But regardless of the term used, the identification of the details of the Judas narrative in the Hebrew Scriptures remains a telling argument that Judas was a literary creation of the Gospel authors.
The post is in two parts. The first part here outlines the main argument for Judas being a late fictional creation and reflecting a mounting anti-semitism within the Church. The second part looks in more detail at the inconsistencies with which the different Gospels present the Judas narrative.
Earlier I outlined Spong’s discussions of the way the Gospel of Matthew mined the Hebrew scriptures to portray Jesus as a new Moses, and the way Luke’s Gospel found in the same Jewish scriptures ways to present him as a greater Elijah. This post repackages Spong’s discussion of how the author(s) of the Gospel of John turned to the same Scriptures, but added to them from the Wisdom literature of late Judaism in order to create a Jesus who was the embodiment of the Wisdom found there.
Before looking at the Wisdom literature from which John drew, Spong covers some of John’s cuts from the Old Testament that he used to build his Jesus. (I have expanded Spong’s Wisdom and Biblical citations into tabular form, with quotes and/or links.)
By the time the Gospels were written, the Old Testament had been culled again and again, looking for treasures of interpretation and hints that might prefigure the Christ. A common body of material had emerged. . . .
This series of posts (previous one here) on Dungan’s summary of arguments for the Gospel of Mark being the last of the canonical Gospels to have been composed is contrarily working backwards. My first post (the one previous to this) outlined Dungan’s final points in his chapter. I am saving his “first points” for last. They address an interesting phenomenon in biblical studies that mythicists certainly know exists among these scholarly ranks: winning arguments by means of ad hominem attacks and declaring the opposition “long since defeated” when it has merely been ignored. (Well what do you expect from a vestigial religion study from medieval days?) And don’t forget the circular reasoning that becomes so embedded in the conventional wisdom that most who read it tend to be hypnotized by the spiral and come to believe they are travelling through the straightest of tunnels.
But to continue here with one of Dungan’s argument for Markan posteriority from somewhere in the middle of his discussion . . . .
Dungan structures his discussion on Mark being the last written of the canonical Gospels around B. H. Streeter’s formulations. In chapter 7, The Fundamental Solution, of The Four Gospels (1924),
The primitive character of Mark is further shown by
(a) the use of phrases likely to cause offence, which are omitted or toned down in the other Gospels, (b) roughness of style and grammar, and the preservation of Aramaic words.
The Author’s Forward from the novel published 1956:
“It is a serious fact,” wrote Professor Archibald Duff some years ago, “that virtually all men are wondering just what Jesus was.” It is a curious fact that they should wonder, for the truth of it was given by a great Jew nineteen hundred years ago. “Yea,” cried Paul, “though I had known Christ after the flesh, yet now would I know such a Christ no more!” There it is, all of it, and the truth of it still endures.
“It is an unpardonable historical blunder,” said Weiss, “to suppose that the faith of primitive Christendom was based on the impression of the earthly image of Christ.” The same thought, Paul’s thought, has been stated by many other scholars. “We must not confound the Nazarene,” said Professor Guignebert, “with the ideal which he has come to represent since the birth of Christian dogma.” “The religion of Jesus,” said Professor Bacon, “must be accepted, if at all, on authority. The religion about Jesus is eternally self-verifying because it is a religion of the Spirit.” “He is beautiful, strong, and good,” said Couchoud, “because of the multitudes of men who have given him the best of themselves.” Continue reading “Jesus Came Again: A Parable — Vardis Fisher”
I was going to keep this a Christmas-free zone but the quiet here today is screaming at me to say something. I can understand atheists in Western countries who feel uncomfortable with Christmas. There it is closely tied up with religious associations.
The strength of these religious trappings varies, I am sure, with each cultural locale. There are many who can and do love Christmas without giving a thought to its religious origins.
While living in Asia I could not resist asking some Chinese whom I knew were either Buddhists or Taoists, if anything, why they were wearing Santa hats and wishing all and sundry Merry Christmas. Their answer: “It’s Christmas. Everyone loves Christmas.”
I even saw a Moslem girl happily wearing a Santa cap over her head-scarf.
But seeing Christmas being celebrated alongside the Chinese New Year alongside Deepavali alongside Hari Raya and a half dozen others it drove home to me that it just one of many social rituals that would have to be invented if it did not exist from time immemorial. Humans are social creatures and rituals are important to us as social creatures and that’s that. There’s always room for the odd individual to bow out for a time, shorter or longer.
The fact that it has religious associations probably has more to do with the centrality of religion in the lives of people than with the festival itself, if that makes sense.
So I hear from commenters that a new foray into demolishing mythicism has been launched by James McGrath with yet one more account of the “criterion of embarrassment”. The curious — yet tedious — thing about this is that while McGrath in particular has faulted mythicists for (supposedly) failing to engage with the scholarship on the historical Jesus, he himself, and some of the other more strident critics of mythicism, have notably failed to engage with the mythicist responses to those scholarly arguments.
I have not yet seen . . . . a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion.
So when I proceeded to engage E. P. Sanders himself “point by point’ — and one of those points was Sanders’ argument for the historicity of the baptism of Jesus — I was disappointed that there was no response from McGrath. But he can no longer say that he has not yet seen a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion. I still await an opponent of mythicism to engage with the argument for the non-historicity of the narrative of the baptism of Jesus that I made in the following posts:
There are many possible reasons why McGrath did not respond to these. But what is not clear is why he would still use the criterion of embarrassment, with the baptism of Jesus as a principle case-study, as if no mythicist argument had ever been mounted against it. Why simply repeat the same argument that mythicists have long since responded to and found wanting? Continue reading “Embarrassing failure of the criterion of embarrassment”
There is nothing . . . improbable that for certain purposes an abbreviated version of the Gospel might be desired; but only a lunatic would leave out Matthew’s account of the Infancy, the Sermon on the Mount, and practically all the parables. (Canon Streeter, The Four Gospels, p. 158, cited in Dungan . . .)
David Laird Dungan cited the above passage from Canon Streeter’s The Four Gospels, p. 158, in his chapter in Jesus and Man’s Hope.
Dungan does proceed to offer evidence from the second century Patristic writings that someone really might have written an abbreviated Gospel that removed all the birth narrative and a very large portion of the teachings of Jesus. He quotes Irenaeus:
[Marcion] mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord . . . (Against Heresies, 1:27:2)
For indeed [Marcion’s] Gospel appears to resemble Luke, but having neither beginning, middle, nor end [!], giving the appearance of a garment gnawed by many moths (Pan. adv. Haer. 42.11 — Dungan’s quotation, with his emphasis)
I like the idea of blog comments being threaded to enable replies to specific comments to be kept together, but a few times (not often) the comments do get quite numerous and it can be easy to miss someone’s latest contribution if it is nested in the middle of a long series of posts. The alternative is get rid of nesting altogether and have all comments listed in chronological sequence. I am in two minds about it, so am soliciting other views.
If interested do register an opinion in the poll I have set at the top of the left margin or here:
The first essential step in any historical inquiry
This is a heartening introduction to the essential basics of valid historical methodology that has been very fudgy in the field of historical Jesus studies. The first thing any historian needs to grapple with when undertaking any inquiry is the nature of his or her sources. While probably most biblical scholars have acknowledged that the Gospels are theological narratives that depict a “Christ of faith” rather than a “Jesus of history”, there has at the same time been an assumption that that theological layer has been created to portray what the “historical Jesus” meant to the authors and their readers. Given this assumption, it has been believed that it might be possible to uncover some facts about the historical Jesus nonetheless. Historical Jesus studies have in this way been confused with the question of Christian origins.
The contributions in this book are from a diverse range of scholars. The introduction explains the purpose of the volume:
The essays collected in this volume have a modest purpose. Neither establishing the historicity of an historical Jesus nor possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods in the hopes of enabling the central question regarding the function of New Testament literature to resist the endless production of works on the historical Jesus. Our hope is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity much in the spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History, which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine.
This sounds a little like an approach I have been suggesting on this blog and elsewhere for some time, so I find such a statement personally encouraging.