2010-12-22

Double implausibility of the historical Jesus narrative

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by Neil Godfrey

A number of biblical scholars have insisted that the historical Jesus narrative makes far more sense as an explanation for the rise of Christianity than the Christ myth alternative.

At the same time one observes that historical Jesus scholars are often preoccupied attempting to explain two central pillars of the historical explanation that they concede sound implausible.

One is: How to explain why a man who did and said nothing but good came to be crucified (while his followers were not) — such an idea does not make sense;

The other is: How to explain why a man crucified as a criminal was subsequently exalted to divine status by Jews and gentiles — this also does not make sense.

Scholars do propose a number of hypotheses to explain these implausibilities. The explanations must necessarily depart from the gospel narratives as we read them, however. Alternative narratives must be proposed to replace what we read in the gospels. Now no doubt many of these are very scholarly reconstructions. And we all know that no conclusive models or single reconstruction has been found for all to embrace.

So the point remains that it is surely inconsistent to sweepingly assert that the historical Jesus model is “more plausible” or the only one that “makes sense” of the evidence.

The historical Jesus model comes ready packed with the twin implausibilities mentioned above, and requires multiple competing scholarly explanations — in place of the Gospel narratives we read — to attempt to make sense of it all.

Now what are the implausibilities inherent in the Christ myth model?

The only ones I can think of are those that come with historicist assumptions — such as “who would make up a false story so soon after the supposed events?” Maybe the stories did not appear ‘so soon after the supposed event’. Maybe the stories were originally understood as symbolic — as I recently showed that some (even historical Jesus) scholars (e.g. Spong) argues.

So when someone says the historical Jesus model makes much more sense of the evidence, I have to wonder how they can say that, given the core implausibilities of the HJ model that leave scholars divided and that demolishes the historical narrative as we know it.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • The very Arrogant...Henk van der Gaast
    2010-12-22 16:52:32 GMT+0000 - 16:52 | Permalink

    Neil, just sometimes…

    This is never placed implicitly;

    1) the probability of the full blown Big Jesus is so tiny its relatively homeopathic. Only a religious person ascribes to this very real (for them) Jesus.
    2) the probability of an Islamic Jesus (say Big I.J.) is also unlikely unless you are Islamic.

    3) the probability of a somebody who was jesus (say little j) who had some historicity is only of value for a historian who is seeking something that may be a jesus, a james, a judas or a john etc etc.

    The value of a little j to a theology student is very small. It may be all the above people and may be all the above people as once. The compelling reason to maintain a little j is only for the apologist (say W.L Craig) to say, if little Jesus is possible, I ask you then, Big Jesus is claimed (and yes he did this with miracles v Bart).

    So historicity then lies in myth and adherence.

    There isn’t any evidence for Big J and little j is useless to us all. If he was a person, he was just a person.

    The value of religious thought and it’s practice and dissemination at the time (and place) produced us polemicists.

    A historical jesus had nothing to do with it. Even if his name was Elijah or Moses.. or as implied in Hebrews, given the authority of Melchizedek.

    Its hard for me not to just drift a little mathematical and I hope you all can see I have tried to avoid states as much as I can.

    PS
    Have a great festive season guys. I hope you all get a lovely book! Thanks Neil for all this wonderful output.

    Maybe an Islamic Jesus article would make another historicity/history thread roll.

  • rey
    2010-12-23 06:38:46 GMT+0000 - 06:38 | Permalink

    Neither model works by itself. Neither explains everything.

    The mythicist model explains the origins of Pauline Christianity / Gnosticism.

    The historicist model explains the origins of Jewish Christianity / Ebionism.

    You need both.

    NT scholars think they only have the creation of one religion to explain. They have two:

    (1) Jewish Christianity which clearly was more associated with an actual human Jesus, a historical Jesus. They didn’t believe in virgin births and men being gods. They believed in a human Jesus who preached against the sacrifices and made morality more important than ceremony. He gets executed by the Sanhedrin by an unspecified mode of death (we will leave it open whether he was stoned and hanged on a tree by the Sanhedrin on its own authority as both Acts and the Talmud would suggest or crucified by the Romans due to pressure from the Sanhedrin as per the gospels). His martyrdom fuels their devotion to his cause and his brother James takes his place as leader. Yet they maintained identification with Judaism and circumcision for Jews (though probably not for Gentiles, as Acts says of James when it discusses Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem that he was Ok with Paul telling Gentiles that they didn’t need to be circumcised but not with Paul telling Jews that they didn’t have to circumcize their sons). They believe as in James’ epistle that “he that does righteousness is righteous” and “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to help the orphans and widows in their time of need, and to keep yourself unspotted from the world” and are therefore adverse to the later doctrines of Paul. If they had a Eucharist, it was much more like the one in the Didache than the one in the gospels, since in the Didache there is no mention of it symbolizing Jesus’ flesh and blood. It is rather observed as thanksgiving for Jesus’ teaching.

    (2) And Pauline Christianity, including both what is called ‘orthodoxy’ today, as in Catholicism and Protestantism, and what we call Gnosticism. Gnosticism, docetism, the idea that Jesus is just a god and not a man at all, that he didn’t have real flesh, all of this derives from Paul. Even if Paul himself didn’t go that far in his mythologizing, this was all not more than a generation removed from him and is clearly the result of his mythologizing tendencies. The concept of justification by faith alone and the importance of the Lord’s Supper are from Paul, especially the interpretation that it represents (or literally is) his flesh and blood. This ceremony is made to trump morality.

    Mythicism doesn’t explain the Jewish Christians. Historicism doesn’t explain the Pauline lunatics. We need both. (not both sects, but both explanations)

    • rey
      2010-12-23 07:16:33 GMT+0000 - 07:16 | Permalink

      No discussion of this is complete without the Toldoth Jesu’s claim that the Sanhedrin hired Paul to separate the Notzrim (Jewish Christians) from Israel by giving them “new ordinances.” Paul’s invention of the new ordinance known to us as the Lord’s Supper, or at least his new interpretation of the eucharist as being Jesus’ body and blood, is indeed the thing that separates Christianity from Judaism irrevocably along with his view that Jesus is God. These are things that were not originally believed by the Notzrim or Jewish Christians. These are things that certainly began with Paul. And the Toldoth Jesu claims Paul was hired by the Sanhedrin to do this. Acts also claims he was working for the High Priest when he persecuted Christians. So then the final piece of the puzzle of Christian origins may simply be to recognize that Paul never truly converted, that he simply pretended to because it was necessary to fulfill his mission of destroying the religion of Jesus’ initial followers: his mission was to destroy the Notzrim, the Jewish Christians, and in order to do this he created a new derivative, Christianity a we know it, which eventually wiped out the Notzrim. Mission accomplished.

      • rey
        2010-12-23 07:21:00 GMT+0000 - 07:21 | Permalink

        For Christians who have a problem with Paul to claim this is one thing. But for unbelieving Jews to agree that Paul was hired to do this, that is astounding. It would have been simpler for them to say that Jesus never lived and the whole thing is foolishness. Instead they state almost with pride that the Sanhedrin hired Paul to do this.

  • Mike Wilson
    2010-12-24 17:45:14 GMT+0000 - 17:45 | Permalink

    “So when someone says the historical Jesus model makes much more sense of the evidence, I have to wonder how they can say that, given the core implausibilities of the HJ model that leave scholars divided and that demolishes the historical narrative as we know it.”

    I say that because your implausibilities aren’t implausible to me at all.

    HJ scholars aren’t any more divided than MJ scholars when one compares the number of people working in HJ theory vs MJ.

    For other implausibilities with the MJ theory, the ones I puzzle over are 1.why is there so little evidence that any one in antiquity subscribed to a mythical Jesus? By so little I mean the few lines from the epistles that a couple maintain are references to a Christ myth and Mark as really a Christ Myth parable. It is the last few unpopped kernels at the bottom of a bag of HJ popcorn. 2. How many examples are there of a heavenly being who is converted into a contemporary historical figure? Even if your right about your late dates for the gospels, which is highly unlikely, you have only 150 years between Paul’s conversion and the Gospels? And there is no evidence of Christianity at much earlier than Paul (I’ll just go ahead and dismiss the claims of those who would have the folks at Quamran as Christians)

    What precisely is the historical narrative as we know it that is being demolished?

    • 2010-12-24 17:56:35 GMT+0000 - 17:56 | Permalink

      Have you read any mythicist arguments? Which ones?

      • Mike Wilson
        2010-12-24 18:14:51 GMT+0000 - 18:14 | Permalink

        Am afraid I’m really only familiar with the some of the arguments presented by Price, Doherty, Carrier, the folks at zeitgeist and the numerous commentors here and else where. I’ve passed over a few due to bad reviews from all involved, both HJ and MJ, and I’m not familiar with the older scholars. I am no expert in Jesus Myth theories, but none of the arguments presented have convinced me that it is a worth while avenue of study. I don’t think there any really great arguments that have been hiding and only the worst are put out front. I had thought that may be the case until reading some essays from Price, his arguments are in fact quite popular here. The work from Thompson seems interesting, the guy has proven he is no dummy and I would like to get a hold of that when it becomes available, to see if he has anything new to add.

        • 2010-12-24 18:54:41 GMT+0000 - 18:54 | Permalink

          A number of basic texts have been recommended to you here in earlier comments. It sounds like you are relying on the vagaries of this or that bit of information across the internet. If I relied on “bad reviews” before I chose to read a book and assess it for myself I would probably have read only a miniscule fraction of what I have read. Reviews need to be assessed in the light of the biases, interests, background etc of each reviewer. There are times when I see a bad review, but knowing a little about the reviewer, I can suss out that the very points that upset him/her are the points I suspect the reviewed work is really spot on. It’s only by wide reading (of books and journal articles) that one eventually arrives at a place where one can begin to make relatively independent judgments and not have to rely on this or that opinion or review etc.

          You should be able to access on interlibrary loan some excellent basic summaries of the arguments that many brief internet references are based on (without repeating in full):

          G. A. Wells: The Jesus of the Early Christians
          G. A. Wells: Did Jesus Exist?
          Earl Doherty: The Jesus Puzzle

          Anyone discussing mythicism or engaging with mythicists should have read at least one of the above books by Wells and the Doherty book. If you have not read either because of “bad reviews” then I suggest you are allowing yourself to be misled by the agendas of others. These books are easy to read introductions to the basics. (Some arguments have certainly been superceded, but they still deserve to be understood.) I encourage you to read a couple of times each section to be sure you understand each point — and then think it through for yourself.

          You should be aware even from casual internet references that most New Testament scholars who deride mythicism either give no indication that they have read mythicist publications for themselves, or even explicitly boast that they have not read them. It sounds like you are in much the same boat as they.

          • Mike Wilson
            2010-12-25 05:38:10 GMT+0000 - 05:38 | Permalink

            The people passed over for bad reviews were Acharya S. and Freke/Grundy, I was forced to watch Zeitgeist by a friend, though I am aware that Carrier thought it was garbage too.

            In genral I don’t feel that being selective in reading is a bad thing, who has time to read everything? For instance I avoid books on religion by super-naturalist. They can argue, “well if your read pastor X’s book you would believe. but the possibility of someone having supernatural powers is so remote to me that I won’t waste time reading their book unless they can present me wit ha good argument that this book will in fact challenge my lack of belief in the supernatural. Same thing with UFO books, Big foot, or what ever.

            If wanted to devote my self to polemics against the Christ myths I would read more into in the same way anyone wanting to challenge the beliefs of fundamentalist should read fundamentalist literature. My interest is only to see if any of the proposed Christ myths has merit. I don’t think it would be a good use of my time to really try to change anyones mind if they subscribe to any of the Christ Myths.

  • maryhelena
    2010-12-25 02:54:30 GMT+0000 - 02:54 | Permalink

    That darn crucifixion! The cross the very symbol of Christianity and at the same time it’s most hideous element…

    Well, this xmas eve Dawkins is at it again…..

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/dec/24/pope-benedict-thought-for-the-day

    “But there’s something else for which the pope should go to confession, and it’s arguably the nastiest of all. I refer to the main doctrine of Christian theology itself, which was the centrepiece of what Ratzinger actually did say in his Thought for the Day.

    “Christ destroyed death forever and restored life by means of his shameful death on the Cross.”

    More shameful than the death itself is the Christian theory that it was necessary. It was necessary because all humans are born in sin. Every tiny baby, too young to have a deed or a thought, is riddled with sin: original sin. Here’s Thomas Aquinas:

    “. . . the original sin of all men was in Adam indeed, as in its principal cause, according to the words of the Apostle(Romans 5:12): “In whom all have sinned”: whereas it is in the bodily semen, as in its instrumental cause, since it is by the active power of the semen that original sin together with human nature is transmitted to the child.”…….

    The creator of the universe, sublime inventor of mathematics, of relativistic space-time, of quarks and quanta, of life itself, Almighty God, who reads our every thought and hears our every prayer, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God couldn’t think of a better way to forgive us than to have himself tortured and executed. For heaven’s sake, if he wanted to forgive us, why didn’t he just forgive us? Who, after all, needed to be impressed by the blood and the agony? Nobody but himself.

    Ratzinger has much to confess in his own conduct, as cardinal and pope. But he is also guilty of promoting one of the most repugnant ideas ever to occur to a human mind: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).”
    —————-

    To assume, as Christian theology does, that this is what the gospel crucifixion story is about, betrays not only ones moral depravity but also imputes such to the gospel writers themselves.

    The only way out for Christianity if it wants to present a humanitarian face to the world – is to ditch the claimed historicity for the gospel Jesus – thereby ditching a historical crucifixion along with all the anti-humanitarian theology that has been based upon it.

    • 2010-12-25 06:08:03 GMT+0000 - 06:08 | Permalink

      I love it. And the double irony is that while human sacrifice is glorified as the epitome of divine love, human love, sexuality, is deemed so foul that the sacrificial victim could never be born out of anything as “polluted” as that.

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