In a “response” to a recent post of mine about historical method, James McGrath illustrates well the very problem and question-begging that my post was intended to highlight.
McGrath’s opening statement affirms that he simply fails to grasp the argument I am presenting.
[Neil Godfrey’s] post begins by stating and commenting on the principle which was the focus of my [McGrath’s] post: “If all we have is a story that has no corroboration external to the narrative itself to attest to its historical status, then at the most basic level we have no way of knowing if the story has a historical basis or not.”
Whether this describes the situation in the case of the Gospels or not is perhaps best left to one side for now. Certainly the Gospels are not without a context provided both by Paul’s earlier epistles and by their reception history.
That second paragraph that I have highlighted demonstrates a failure to grasp the meaning of the words of mine he has just quoted. McGrath says the “context” of the Gospels consists of the early epistles of Paul and their reception history, but this “context” is not the same thing at all as providing external corroboration or controls that can testify to the historicity of the narrative of the gospels. They may indeed provide “context”. But that misses the point. The epistles of Paul and the receivers of the Gospels are all part and parcel of the Christian community itself, so do not at all represent anything “independent” of the Christian narrative as I have pointed out a number of times, now, and have even cited Schweitzer ad nauseam because to the same effect. Neither Paul nor the receivers of the Gospels testify (whether independently or otherwise) to any narrative element within the Gospels at all.
Context is one thing, independent controls to enable us to assess the historicity of a narrative is something else entirely.
But let’s follow McGrath here and leave this point “to one side for now.”
The next point McGrath makes is:
The idea that a piece of literature may consist of “bits and pieces from other literature” seems to reflect the view of the Gospels, so popular at Vridar as well as in the writings of John Shelby Spong, as works composed by taking details from stories in the Jewish Scriptures and elsewhere and using them to compose a new story.
McGrath here associates the literary arguments I have often made about the Gospels with those of Spong, and indeed in recent posts I have discussed a number of Spong’s arguments. McGrath might also have noted that I have also made clear that Spong is by no means a mythicist. He might also be surprised to learn that by scrolling through the list of author names in my “Categories” drop-down search box that this is a point I have often discussed through the works of many scholars, and that Spong is very much a latecomer here. In addition to Spong I have drawn on scholarly publications for this particular theme by Allison, Brodie, Collins, Crossan, Fredrikson, Hock, Levenson, MacDonald, Mack, Nickelsburg, Pervo, Petersen, Price, Riley, Thompson, Watts and no doubt others I do not recall at the moment. It is impossible to read across such a range of authors and not be aware that the sort of literary analysis they engage in (some more than others) stands at odds with the more traditional methods of form criticism. I don’t apologize for that, and believe I can justify this approach as do the likes of Hock and others listed here.
But my use of these works in my blog posts is not usually directed at establishing an argument for mythicism, per se, at all, as McGrath implies here by going beyond my original post and seeking to drag in references to other posts he appears to have glanced at only cursorily. I think I am consistent in making it clear whenever an author I might be discussing does not hold the views or questions I myself might raise from his or her works. My primary purpose in using such works is to explore the nature of the Gospels and Acts as literature, and to understand the nature of the early evidence for Christianity itself. Usually any mythicist connotations, if I point to any at all, are added as little more than an invitation to follow certain arguments through to their logical conclusions.
McGrath then addresses my reference to genre:
The subject of genre is then discussed . . . . . . .
So far, so good. One important question we need to ask at this stage is whether the alleged genre of taking tidbits of stories and turning them into completely new stories was in fact a genre in this period in history.
Once again McGrath completely misses the point I am addressing. Yes, I referenced my earlier posts on genre where I did discuss “genre” itself in relation to the gospels, in particular to Mark’s Gospel. But when McGrath responds by questioning whether “taking tidbits of stories and turning them into completely new stories was in fact a genre in this period in history” he shows he has completely overlooked everything I have in fact discussed about genre. He certainly indicates no concept of the meaning of literary genre itself as offered by Bakhtin, and appears to have no concept of genre beyond a checklist of formal points of comparison as we find in the work of Burridge.
But if McGrath wishes to suggest that “taking tidbits of stories and turning them into completely new stories” was not a practice in our period of history, he will need to propose alternative explanations for the origin of the story found in the Aeneid (can he argue this is not a new story created from tidbits of stories in Homer?), and for the satires of Lucian, and for all the passages in the Gospel of Matthew that Dale C. Allison himself attributed to retellings of tidbits from the Pentateuch. Will he deny that any of the miracles of Jesus were the product of turning miracles by Elijah and Elisha into completely new stories?
McGrath then writes:
In fact, what is being described [in the Gospel narrative] seems to have emerged through a process akin to “Chinese whispers,” in which something that scholars have proposed gets turned into something slightly different at each step of the way, the further you get from its origin and from a scholarly setting.
I am not sure how to interpret this statement since I can see two possible ways of understanding what McGrath means. At first I thought he was simply begging the question, but I will leave it to McGrath to explain further if he is interested in a response.
Next, McGrath raises Crossans’ question of whether we are reading scripture historicized or history “scripturalized”. He states that in some instances either interpretation is as good a candidate as the other. I would disagree on formal logical grounds. If we have a narrative that can be explained in terms of scriptural inspiration then that is a more economical explanation than the one that says we can additionally postulate that there was a real event there as well.
It seems here that McGrath is on the verge of formulating his own mutation of Occam’s maxim by saying: “All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best one, unless a more complicated one supports historicism.”
McGrath in fact illustrates how this razor of his works when he argues:
In some instances, at least, the former is at least as good of a candidate for what is going on, with Christians turning to their Scriptures not to fill in gaps in their knowledge about Jesus’ life, but in an attempt to account for uncomfortable details in what they did know about him, attributing them to a predetermined divine plan.
This is a classic case of question-begging, of the old arguing in a circle. He is justifying his more complex explanation (McGrath’s “razor”) by appealing to his assumption of the historicity of the narrative!
Then McGrath slips into his regular tack of leading readers to think I have said something quite different from anything I have ever stated, but that does offer him an easy target:
But even if we were certain in such instances that they are all cases of “Scripture historicized,” does this lead naturally to the view that all the stories in the Gospels are examples of this? Hardly.
Of course, McGrath knows I have never argued any such thing. I have never argued that because some stories are “scripture historicized” it follows that all are.
He then says there are three main points to note:
1. First, Spong, Price, Godfrey and others seem to think that this approach to composition is in fact what the rabbis called “Midrash.” It is not. It does not resemble what scholars call midrash, nor does it fit with any known compositional technique for creating entire stories evidenced in any ancient literature with which I am familiar.
I am glad that McGrath here says that “Godfrey . . . seem[s] to think”, because by so saying he is informing us that he is not addressing anything I have written or argued, but rather what his own extra-sensory mind-reading powers register with him. Not even Spong any more uses the term “midrash” but, in response to critics, has opted for the less specific term “midrashic”. But McGrath did not seem to have read that in any of my posts on Spong or in a linked review of his work, let alone in any of the quotations I used from Spong.
McGrath says he is not familiar with any compositional technique in ancient literature comparable to the way the Gospels apparently imitate and refashion Old Testament stories. This indicates either a simple lapse of memory or an astonishing lack of awareness of the common literary technique of emulation and mimesis that was part and parcel of every student’s education in the arts of reading and writing Greek during this era, and is certainly evidenced both in classical, Jewish and even biblical texts. I cited a few examples above.
2. Second, they seem to think that if you can find a slight similarity with another story, then it automatically becomes preferable to treat the later story as an invention based on the earlier one. That might not follow even if the similarities were clear; it certainly does not when the alleged parallels and points of contact are few and unconvincing.
This is classic McGrath, I am sorry to say. Even though I have written often about criteria for establishing the probability of “imitation” or “inspiration” of other literature, and even though in my original post I made it clear I was speaking of literature for which we have good reasons for believing it was known to the author and hence a part of his literary culture, McGrath reduces my point to a straw man of his own making: “they seem to think if you can find a slight similarity with another story, then it automatically becomes preferable to treat the later story as an invention based on the earlier one.”
One of the very first works I ever read about Gospel borrowing from earlier literature was Dale C. Allison’s work The New Moses” A Matthean Typology. I have listed Allison’s six criteria, alongside criteria proposed by Andrew Clark and Dennis MacDonald, in 3 criteria lists for literary borrowing. Allison tests a number of “slight similarities” and rejects them as cases of literary borrowing. I have known MacDonald to have done the same. I have read some mainstream scholarly articles suggesting the story of John Mark is based on the story of Jonah, and that the meeting of Jesus and Zacchaeus being based on the account of Rahab in Jericho. I find it difficult to be convinced.
The important question in any such study is the validity and application of the criteria. Simply ignoring the method and blithely dismissing an argued parallel because it is subjectively “unconvincing” is not a sound argument. Nor is grasping at possibilities that do not meet previously argued and justified criteria at significant numbers of multiple points and in significant depth.
Does McGrath think that Allison’s criteria for a Matthean typology are invalid and that few if any of his proposed cases of borrowing are “unconvincing”?
Has McGrath responded to Spong’s own examples of borrowing by addressing any known and widely accepted criteria? Or has he merely dismissed them all as “few and unconvincing”? Perhaps I could do more posts in which I set out some of Spong’s examples beside Dale C. Allison’s or Andrew C. Clark’s list of criteria (that appear to work well for Moses/Jesus and Paul/Peter) to give McGrath an opportunity to grapple substantively with an argument instead of describing mere impressions.
But the real point here should surely be that McGrath is not taking exception to arguments that are argued in the scholarly literature by mythicists.
3. Finally, to the extent that this approach to composition may fit some details in the Gospels, this compositional technique makes sense as part of Christians’ attempt to fill in their knowledge of Jesus from Scripture, which they considered an authoritative source. But it makes much less sense as a means of creating a purely fictional Jesus taking inspiration from earlier literature.
Again this is nothing other than an appeal to a begging of the question.
Besides, is McGrath suggesting that the gospel authors really preferred the scriptures as an authority on the life of Jesus over the authority of presumed eyewitness reports? Now if we had a life of Jesus that is comparable in scope to a life of another historical figure such as, say, Hadrian or Alexander, then should we not expect to find some details of that life that are not covered by a scriptural overlay. Hadrian presented himself as a Hercules figure; Alexander’s life was interpreted as a new Dionysus. But beneath those mythical garments we can see protrusions of the historical figure that defy total assimilation into the mythological figures. Remove all the mythical or literary garments of Jesus and we are left, I believe, with the invisible man. (I still recall that scene in a black and white movie from my childhood days. Only a cigarette in his mouth gave away his presence.)
But even if there was no Old Testament overlay in any of the Gospel narratives, would we be any closer to establishing the historicity of Jesus? That would depend. Is the person a real human or is he sired spiritually by a divinity, capable of walking on water, reading minds, attracting a large following despite either talking in riddles and/or having nothing new to say, rising from the dead? In addition to the gospel narratives is there any reliable independent contemporary corroboration of his life?
And of course, before the Gospels were written, we already had individuals like Paul expressing the belief that Jesus was the anointed son of David and had been crucified. Thus far, mythicists have not managed to successfully account for or distract attention from potentially the biggest problem for mythicism: it is much easier to account for belief in Jesus as the crucified anointed descendant of David in terms of a historical individual who was believed by his followers to be the Messiah and who was crucified, than in terms of fiction-writing. Because it is not simply the telling of a story about a crucified messiah that needs to be accounted for. It is the creation of such stories by an originally Jewish movement that was seeking to persuade other Jews that this crucified man was the awaited Davidic anointed one. Simply saying that “sometimes people come up with strange ideas” doesn’t make the mythicist account seem more probable than that of mainstream historical study.
This is scarcely the question, really. The issue is not how to account for a story about Jesus who was believed in the end to have been “the awaited Davidic anointed one” after all. The question is to account for a story about a crucified criminal being exalted to divine status alongside God as the very Son of God, the one who existed from the beginning of time in glory with God. This was far, far more than “the awaited Davidic anointed one”, as my recent post outlining Vernon Robbins’ argument on the significance of the Son of David acclamation in the Bartimaeus and following episodes demonstrates.
I suggest that it is nonsense to try to explain the origins of Christianity in terms of a few individuals being persuaded through some unexplained psychological transformation or awareness that a man they had never understood while he was alive, and who dashed all their expectations, was now exalted as the Son of God and was even the replacement of the earthly Temple — AND that they could convince countless others in foreign lands of this story, as well as former enemies and unbelievers in their homeland. That, frankly, is incredible.
It is a mere paraphrase of a story of the miraculous. Remove the miraculous from that story and we are left not with a naturalistic explanation but no explanation at all. Now that is “unconvincing”. One way for it to win acceptance is for adherents to believe in the unique qualities of Jesus himself — in other words, they must remove Jesus himself from the norms of historical experience. Crossley has attempted to explain Christian origins in terms of entirely socio-economic models, but succeeds only in describing a generic movement that draws tendentiously on whatever words in the teachings of Jesus fit the model. He fails completely to account for the uniqueness of Christianity — the position and function of its Christ figure.
Before concluding, let me paraphrase a remark in a recent comment. I’ll call the principle it describes “Godfrey’s Razor” in honor of my conversation-partner in this post. The principle is this: “All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best one, unless a more complicated one supports mythicism.” That seems to me an apt description, when someone treats the creation of a fictional story (by an extremely convoluted process not evidenced outside of the minds of a few modern authors and completely at odds with what little we know about ancient compositional practices) as preferable to and more persuasive than historical processes that are familiar from other comparable cases, and fit more simply and straightforwardly with the evidence.
The various methods of the creation of the fictional story that I have discussed are nothing other than those addressed and accepted in varying degrees by mainstream biblical scholars from Dale C. Allison to Rikki Watts. Not even Spong is a mythicist by any means. All I have done is ask questions that I think do arise from such studies.
The methods of composition that these scholars have addressed are studied within the contexts of similar models of composition well known among Classical and Jewish literature. To think that they are “at odds with what little we know about ancient compositional practices” is to be misinformed.
When McGrath speaks of a model fitting “more simply and straightforwardly with the evidence” he is expressing his own failure to re-examine the evidence from an alternative perspective. When he says
Thus far, mythicists have not managed to successfully account for or distract attention from potentially the biggest problem for mythicism: it is much easier to account for belief in Jesus as the crucified anointed descendant of David in terms of a historical individual who was believed by his followers to be the Messiah and who was crucified, than in terms of fiction-writing
he is himself distracting attention from his failure to address the central point of my argument to which he claims to be responding. His naturalistic paraphrase of the Gospel-Acts explanation for Christian origins is certainly an unsuccessful explanation. It only works if the miracles are kept in the original story.
My argument is not essentially even an argument for mythicism. It is an argument to justify a certain approach to the evidence (any evidence in any historical studies). “Mythicism” is the conclusion I lean towards as a result of pursuing that method. But my real focus is not on arguing for Jesus being mythical. My real interest is in understanding Christian origins and the nature of the earliest evidence pertaining to that. A nonhistorical Jesus is one part of a broader set of conclusions I arrive at. (I think the term “mythical” is not really an accurate description of what I suspect was the evolution of the Jesus idea.)
McGrath’s argument reminds me of those who in a former age dismissed contemptuously the arguments of the few who were arguing that the earth itself rotated on its axis, rather than the sun orbiting it every 24 hours. They continued to argue their case by repeating over and over all the obvious evidence before their — and everyone’s — eyes. If the earth were moving then simple experience and observation demonstrated that the wind would always be blowing against us and we would always be struggling to hold our balance. Balls tossed into the air would never fall straight down again but always somewhere behind us. It was utter nonsense to suggest that the earth was moving. It defied the plain evidence we could see in the case of movements around us. Contrary arguments did not have to be taken seriously. Just keep repeating one’s own reasons for believing what everyone could see was “obvious” for ages past and find ways to ridicule any contrary argument. He cannot grasp that there could be a legitimate alternative way of viewing the same evidence so resorts incessantly to repeating his own arguments rather than grappling with the alternative.
McGrath likes to mock his straw-man perception of my argument with his Godfrey’s Razor parody. Truth is, it is the historicist explanation that is the one that must draw upon the additional hypotheses to make it work.
The argument that I am proposing is not even a mythicist argument as such, as I have said. It is an argument for a method that avoids the circularity of argument. It could in theory go either way, but the evidence points to an origin of Jesus from within the matrix of literary and theological ideas.
The historicist explanation for the origin of Jesus requires the additional hypotheses of
- unknown psychological processes among early followers,
- remarkable powers of persuading former disbelievers and foreign peoples that their experiences had objective reality,
- unbelievable scenarios such as Jews believing one they rejected as a criminal and were glad to see crucified turning around and believing that same person was on the throne at the right hand of God in heaven, had existed from eternity and was the sustainer of the universe
- gospel authors finding it preferable to copy large chunks of other gospels or re-write Old Testament scenarios without leaving any trace of independent knowledge or awareness of eyewitness traditions that preserved details that did not coincide with any of these literary or theological rubrics
- that there was a series of historical events that coincided with or underlay the narratives we read in the gospels
- that there was an oral tradition — or even some written “traditions” such as “Q material” no longer surviving — between those historical events and the composition of the Gospel narratives
No, my argument is simple. It is not complex. It is not even an argument for mythicism. It is an argument for a method that I believe is consistent with how good history is done elsewhere (even ancient history), and that I also believe leads to an explanation that embraces a nonhistorical Jesus for Christian origins. This should not even be controversial. Not a few biblical scholars, I believe, accept that the Christ of the Gospels is an entirely theological construct. Belief in Jesus having died historically is a matter of faith, is it not? Paul certainly called it a mystery known only by revelation.
My argument is summed up in the following and McGrath has failed to address it in his reply:
Moreover, in the case of Jesus . . . there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.
From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.
only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.
from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123).
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47 thoughts on “Response to McGrath’s circularity and avoidance of the methodological argument”
My response is here: http://tomverenna.wordpress.com/2011/02/10/historicized-scripture-a-response-to-james-mcgrath-on-niel-godfrey/
The witness of Paul is key. For Paul, Christ was described as being visibly crucified in Galatea: “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?”
This is the kind of context for the Gospels that Paul gives.
It’s a good thing there weren’t any mystery religions in the Roman Empire that put on scripted performances that depicted the stories of their deity allegorically, or one would have to seriously consider this as a possibility.
“This is scarcely the question, really. The issue is not how to account for a story about Jesus who was believed in the end to have been “the awaited Davidic anointed one” after all. The question is to account for a story about a crucified criminal being exalted to divine status alongside God as the very Son of God, the one who existed from the beginning of time in glory with God. This was far, far more than “the awaited Davidic anointed one”, as my recent post outlining Vernon Robbins’ argument on the significance of the Son of David acclamation in the Bartimaeus and following episodes demonstrates.
Neil, I think you have here either unintentionally missed or else intentionally mischaracterized McGrath’s point on this issue (I prefer to believe the former). For Jews of the Diaspora to become devoted to Jesus, they had to be convinced that He was the Messiah promised by the Scriptures. That He may have been far more (in the characteristics you cite) or far less (as in the minds of those who had been expecting Messiah to rout the Romans first) is secondary to that primary issue. McGrath’s point here stands unless you have a better way of addressing it.
“For Jews of the Diaspora to become devoted to Jesus…”
Forgive me for wandering slightly off topic, but this subject intrigues me. If we read the NT starting with Paul instead of with the Gospels and Acts, we see a different scenario for the spread of Christianity. Acts would have us believe that Paul always went to the synagogues first, then to the surrounding gentile community.
But Paul’s letters tell us:
1. Jews (in Judea) had rejected Jesus and his message.
2. For Jews everywhere, the cross was a stumbling block.
3. Paul’s addressees often seemed to be entirely gentile. (For example, he talks about them turning away from idols.)
4. Paul worked among the gentiles, paying his own way (setting up some kind of workshop in town?) and spreading his gospel.
I just wonder how many Jews were really convinced by the message. I suspect that “Christian Judaism” was a tiny sect that had few, if any, adherents outside the Levant.
Good points Tim. Again, Richard Carrier has done wonderful work on the subject of the “miraculous spread” of christian belief. You can find whole chapters online from his works on this subject, and they put to rest most of the concerns that Mike (and others) have.
Evan, that is the english translation and it loses its Greek connotation. In the Greek, the word for “before whose eyes” is προγραφή (which means ‘forewritten’). Paul is talking about the interpretation of scripture in this verse; he does not mean to suggest that literally, they *saw* Jesus crucified. They couldn’t have…unless Jesus was crucified in Galatia.
A followup to that last bit; it can also mean a public notice (if used as a noun, which is not the way it is used in Galatians). But the meaning is similar in that he is speaking about ‘reading’ (a public notice in antiquity was read aloud, since most people could not read in antiquity). Paul is referring to scripture which he is interpreting as prophetic in this verse.
Tom, I did investigate the Greek, and I appreciate that the translation doesn’t do it justice and that prografo can mean forewritten. But what does the kat ophthalmous imply, that they read it with their eyes? How else could they read it? To me this suggests more than simple reading, but an actual performance of some sort (quite possibly a performance of something written down in advance).
I don’t believe it does. I think it’s rhetorical; “you’ve read this yourself, with your own eyes” or “you’ve heard this read aloud” so “how is it you still disbelieve”?! That is what I think Paul is saying. I don’t think it has anything to do with a performance; maybe they did have some sort of initiation performance, but I don’t believe we have a record of it, nor do I believe there is enough evidence in Paul’s Galatians to make that sort of judgment.
We know there were two baptisms and the baptism of water was the Baptism of John. Is there any evidence what the second Baptism was (I genuinely don’t know)? It seems to me this may be what we are seeing referenced here.
In my reading, I understand the baptism to be significant of Paul’s two-body theology. One baptism is of the flesh while the other is of the spirit.
This comment by McGrath is a prime example of the unwarranted assumptions that are brought to the epistles, based on the Gospels. That first sentence contains some padding, either deliberately or from ignorance. Who are the “individuals [plural] like Paul”? In fact, there is exactly one passage in the entire epistolary record of the first century which makes any mention of the idea of Christ being a descendant of David: Romans 1:3. No one else, and Paul nowhere else, shows the slightest interest in it, much less seeks to persuade others of this belief. So instead of it being a problem for mythicism, it is actually a problem on the other side. Why are the epistle writers so silent on their Messiah’s legitimacy in terms of being a human descendant from David? In Gal. 3, Paul has to make a dubious, almost laughable, scriptural exegesis based on a singular noun to make his argument, with nary a hint about physical descent from either Abraham or David. Not even in Romans 1:3 does he clearly make such a point, for he has just told the reader (v.2) that this item of information has been found in God’s gospel of the Son in the prophets. In other words, it is presented as scripture-derived, not as a known feature of the historical man. And mythicism is quite capable of demonstrating that such ‘prophecies’ about a Messiah “of David’s seed” could have been regarded by early Pauline Christians as applying to their spiritual heavenly Christ and not meaning literal human descent (see Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.167-172).
As for the ‘fact’ of being crucified, nowhere in the epistles is that crucified entity described as a human being, recently living and dying on earth, let alone supplied with a time and place for his crucifixion. We can see 1 Cor. 15:3-4 as declaring such data as derived from scripture (kata tas graphas), and even the Lord’s Supper scene (11:23f), with its attendant reference to “the night he was delivered up,” falls into the category of something derived, as Paul has identified it, from personal revelation. It might be easier to account for a belief in a human individual being crucified in history if such a thing were anywhere presented in the first century epistles. But that assumption is being read into them, and thus the ‘ease’ that is being claimed by McGrath for his side of the equation is an artificially manufactured one.
Incidentally, Hebrews 7:14 about Christ being “sprung from (the tribe of) Judah” is not interested in a descent from David (and in fact physical descent as a principle is denied as relevant by the writer in 7:16, quite unlike the issue in the Gospels which McGrath has read into the epistles). Rather, in his presentation of the supplanting of the priesthood of the old Temple cult by a new heavenly High Priest (Christ), the author declares that this requires a change of tribe (7:12-13): Judah offers itself not due to any connection with David but rather to the figure of Melchizedek, who is associated with Judah but now treated as a heavenly figure (as in the DSS), known and given authority within scripture (Ps.110:4). It is actually from the line of the heavenly Melchizedek, not David, that Hebrews declares Christ’s legitimacy, and for all this, the author of Hebrews is entirely dependent on scripture. (See Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.228-31.)
“In fact, there is exactly one passage in the entire epistolary record of the first century which makes any mention of the idea of Christ being a descendant of David: Romans 1:3. No one else, and Paul nowhere else, shows the slightest interest in it, much less seeks to persuade others of this belief.”
What then do you make of 2 Timothy 2:8…and Revelation 3:7; 5:5; and 22:16? (Of course, there are also Davidic references to Jesus in Acts, but perhaps you meant to exclude it when you said “epistolary”)
“In Gal. 3, Paul has to make a dubious, almost laughable, scriptural exegesis based on a singular noun to make his argument, with nary a hint about physical descent from either Abraham or David.”
Notwithstanding whatever criticisms you might have of Paul’s exegesis, what meaning do you ascribe to “Abraham’s seed” if not physical descent?
“We can see 1 Cor. 15:3-4 as declaring such data as derived from scripture (kata tas graphas), and even the Lord’s Supper scene (11:23f), with its attendant reference to “the night he was delivered up,” falls into the category of something derived, as Paul has identified it, from personal revelation.”
Do you think the ‘personal revelation’ included the direct quotes in 1 Cor 11, such as “This is My body…” or did that come from the scripture?
“Judah offers itself not due to any connection with David but rather to the figure of Melchizedek, who is associated with Judah but now treated as a heavenly figure (as in the DSS), known and given authority within scripture (Ps.110:4). It is actually from the line of the heavenly Melchizedek, not David, that Hebrews declares Christ’s legitimacy, and for all this, the author of Hebrews is entirely dependent on scripture.”
Melchizedek was a contemporary of Abraham, not of Abraham’s great-grandson Judah. That leaves the author of Hebrews with no reason to bring up Jesus’ physical descent…unless he knew it was “evident” (as he acknowledges in 7:14) to his readers that Jesus was descended from that tribe. For this reason he makes clear that it was by virtue of the resurrection and not by virtue of physical descent that the Melchizek role was added to His Davidic role.
‘Do you think the ‘personal revelation’ included the direct quotes in 1 Cor 11, such as “This is My body…” or did that come from the scripture?’
You mean a ritual cultic meal where the body of the founder is conjured up in a secret ritual has nothing to do with mythicism?
That passage stinks of mythicism.
Or perhaps instead, Jesus , blissfully unaware of his forthcoming betrayal, decides that his movement needs a meal to remember him by after his death, as though the historical Jesus would do such a thing.
A) Jesus did not know he was going to be betrayed.
B) If he had done, he would have naturally supposed that his followers would be attacked and killed as well.
C) An historical Jesus would never have thought any Jesus movement would survive his death.
D) If he had done, any historical Jesus would have told the Jesus movement what exactly they were supposed to be doing after his death, apart from drinking blood and eating flesh so that they would not forget that they had been in a Jesus movement.
E) Real people don’t tell their followers to eat their flesh in a symbolic meal.
You took a poll of gurus or something? One cult leader had his followers cut their balls of, another had them drink poison, some slept with all their followers wives, you deeply underestimate depravity. Good work with the 2000 year profile. Hang out with some hippies man, you will hear all kinds of $hit. I think that is where your missing this, your to uptight! I mean their good points Steve, but I find it hard to predict the kind of people that others would think are messiahs, I don’t know what they never do, and these books aren’t describing an accountant.
Mike, Steven is making a serious point and you are failing to make any substantive critique. In fact, the examples you give make his argument more serious. The founder of Heaven’s Gate, Marshall Applewhite didn’t set up any rituals before the mass suicide, he just had everyone commit mass suicide and left a videotaped message. He even thought he was JESUS and he didn’t set up a ritual. Jim Jones as well before the mass suicide in Guyana did not set up any rituals. He just had everyone commit mass suicide. So the facts support Steven’s point, not yours. Can you come up with one example of a founder of a religion setting up a main ritual feature of the religion the day before he died (especially, in this case, not knowing he was going to die).
We know that other mystery religions in ancient imperial Rome had sacred meals, and that they told stories explaining why they did so that went back to the mythical founder. Mithras, for example, killed the sacred bull and then ate a meal on the hide of the bull he slew.
Isn’t it MUCH more likely that this story is an etiological myth?
What is there to critique? Steve makes a number of assertions based on his opinion of what he would do in such a situation. He has demonstrated no particular insight or knowledge of anything he is discussing.Completely useless analysis. At an rate Applewhite had a ritual. They were all dressed identically with a cloth on their face. That he didn’t give instructions for the future is not surprising.
Mike, it’s hard to argue with your statement here because you aren’t even speaking in complete sentences as you complain about other people being “useless” as you dismiss rather well-created arguments with rhetoric. Do you have data to support your position that this is not an etiology?
What evidence is there that it is? I think you should demonstrate a works has a particular feature, not lacks them. And how did you well create your arguments? you present no evidence that any of the premises were true. Am I supposed to now prove what a person would do on their last night before being killed, or what ever he did not think was going on?
At any rate I can’t be sure it is not an etiology. That isn’t my position , i simply say you can’t know to any degree of accuracy what Jesus would know, what he would do, or what he would think.
Is your last statement “Real people don’t tell their followers to eat their flesh in a symbolic meal” your thesis statement? “Well I can tell you what they didn’t do, they didn’t tell their followers to eat their flesh in a symbolic meal” that is awfully specific:) So you are OK with people who volunteer to be eaten by cannibals, people drink poison at some ones command, but no one could tell their followers to eat their flesh in a symbolic meal. Maybe in a real meal, we have precedence for that. This is quite an overreach there is no way you could know that. It is really one of the saner things I’ve heard people say.
As for your other points, I have doubts we could reconstruct the events well enough to know what was said, if any one was betrayed, if Jesus knew, with confidence. Maybe a different study will convince me. For now I am very flexible on details.
I hope you don’t regard 2 Timothy as a first century epistle (which is the limit I stated when I said that nowhere outside of Romans 1:3 does anyone show any interest in Jesus being a descendant of David). There are very few within critical or even traditional mainstream scholarship who do not regard the Pastorals as 2nd century forgeries in Paul’s name. Besides, 2 Timothy’s passing reference to Jesus Christ as “seed of David” sounds like a quote of the phrase in Romans 1:3, an item of identification in both cases about a feature of Paul’s gospel. And we see in 1:2, as I said, where that gospel came from: scripture.
Revelation is usually dated around 96, and is not an epistle. But I read those references to “the root of David” as also scripture-derived, in a scripture-saturated piece of (future) mythology. The figure of Christ/the Lamb throughout Revelation is entirely heavenly. Similar to Paul, there is no ‘descendant of David’ in an earthly or human record and no concern with promoting such a thing.
What meaning would you ascribe to the gentiles in Romans 9:6-8 about whom Paul says: “the children of the promise [i.e., gentiles] are regarded as (Abraham’s) seed.”? In Galatians 3:29, he says: “If you [the gentiles] belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed.” Clearly, this is not physical descent, but a mystical relationship. Earlier in Gal. 3 he needs to first establish that Christ is of Abraham’s seed, so that the gentiles can ride into the promise on his coattails. Does he do this by pointing to his historically-known nature as a Jewish man who is thereby a physical descendant of Abraham? That is all the gentiles would have needed once they joined themselves to Christ. No, he appeals to that laughable exegesis involving the singular noun, as though that is the only tie he can conjure up between Christ and Abraham.
Scripture was usually involved in any revelation, since that is where the basic ideas would mostly have come from, given a new twist in the mind of the interpreter who was then convinced that he had had a revelation from God. In this case, I doubt “This is my body” came out of scripture; such an idea, certainly in anything resembling Paul’s context, would have been blasphemous to the Jewish mind. Rather, Paul is probably offering his own rendition (perhaps influenced by the mystery cult sacred meals) of a mythical precedent by Christ in order to sacramentalize the communal meal at Corinth, which is what he is seeking to do or wishes to emphasize.
(By the way, I note you capitalize “My”. That tells me a lot about you and the basis of your objections.)
I don’t quite get your reasoning in your opening statement here. In any case, I referred throughout to the tribe of Judah, not the human individual. And Hebrews 7:14 has it “evident” by virtue of scripture (which is all he puts forward), not by historical knowledge. You are inserting a Gospel element where it is nowhere in evidence; in other words, it is a ‘reading into’ the document. That, of course, is done all the time. Also, it is not “by virtue of the resurrection” that Christ the High Priest obtains his legitimacy through Melchizedek. Was Melchizedek resurrected? You are misreading the text. Following on 7:14, the writer shows how it was “evident” in scripture (v.16):
“And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek arises, not according to a law about physical requirement, but to the power of an indestructible life.”
The latter does not refer to the resurrection, earthly or heavenly. In fact, the author goes on immediately (v.17) to tell us where he gets the idea of an “indestructible life.” There is no mention of a resurrection. It is a quote from Psalm 110:4: “Thou art a priest forever in the succession of Melchizedek.” The indestructibility is in the ‘forever-ness’ of the priesthood in heaven, just as Melchizedek was now regarded as a heavenly priest in whose ‘forever’ line the heavenly Christ could be represented to be. (See Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.229)
One has to take off one’s Gospel-colored glasses when reading the epistles.
Your view of what constitutes “traditional mainstream scholarship” says more about your bias than it does about Pauline authorship of the Pastorals.
As for Galatians 3, Paul could have made the same point with a plural version of “seed” but is emphasizing the uniqueness of Christ among all Abraham’s descendants. Romans 1:3-4 confirms that uniqueness and its linchpin nature (i.e., Christ is tied to Abraham in the flesh, enabling Him to bring in the Gentiles in the spirit – hence the Romans 9 passage). Therefore, physical descent (i.e., historicity) is essential to the argument – without it, the Gentiles have no hope. You may find it laughable that the Scripture was prophesying Christ when Moses wrote a singular “seed” for Abraham, but even if warranted, such laughter wouldn’t void Paul’s fundamental assertion that Paul was tying his entire gospel to the historicity of Jesus.
Your suggestion that Paul concocted on his own the direct quotes of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 11 flies in the face of all logic. Peter was known to the church at Corinth and could have made Paul look pretty foolish by saying, “I was there that night and you weren’t – so let me tell you that’s not what He said.” Moreover, this statement by Jesus was no more of a crowd-pleaser in that day than it is in ours. If it’s a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest scenario you are trying to paint for the promulgation of a mythical gospel, this is not the sort of adaptation that increases species life expectancy.
As to the Hebrews passage, you are stumbling all over the point you say is absent. That resurrection is in view has been made plain by the context of the letter itself which has already established Jesus’ resurrection to the right hand of God after the suffering of death as having been prophesied by Psalm 110:1. Therefore, his quote of Psalm 110:4 is inextricably tied to it. It’s even repeated in verse 16 which you quote (…another priest…arises…). The author knew he would have to address the tribe issue because his readers, fully bought into the legitimacy of Jesus’ lineage as Messiah, would need some explanation of how a descendent of David could ever qualify as a priest. The resurrection – that is, the transformation of his earthly life to a heavenly one – gave it.
More broadly, by insisting that the epistles deal extensively with the historical aspects of Jesus’ life as if these were the apostles’ apologetic tracts, you impose on these letters a purpose for which they were never intended. There are no epistles written to unbelievers. They are all written to people who have previously heard the facts about Jesus and drawn a positive conclusion about them. The recipients need no convincing. Therefore, in such letters you would only expect to find fleeting references to such issues as descent from David – which is exactly what you find.
But none of this really matters to you, Earl, because of your methodology of ascribing anything “scripture derived” as being non-historical (e.g. you do with Rom 1; 2 Tim 2; Rev 3, 5, 22 and so on). By assuming that these two characteristics (i.e. scripture and history) are mutually exclusive, you introduce an amazing twist on the apostles’ practice. Their point was “We saw this stuff happen and – shazam! – it’s just the way the Scripture said it would. Your twist is to say “getting it from the Scripture was enough for the apostles and proves there was no such life actually lived.” While you’re saying the story was invented from the Scriptures, the apostles are saying “His life was according to the Scriptures but we never recognized that until He was raised from the dead and explained it to us.” While your methodology lacks logic, it possesses the utilitarian virtue of allowing you to build a case for mythicism without the encumbrance of having to fully deal with facts or logic.
Yes, you and I each have our bias (our set of glasses, as you called it). My bias, a conclusion reached by process of first examining the facts, is very clearly with Jesus Christ our Lord. However, that should not be considered bad news for you because, if you haven’t heard me say it before, everyone is going to heaven.
Peter was known to the church at Corinth and could have made Paul look pretty foolish by saying, “I was there that night and you weren’t – so let me tell you that’s not what He said.”
More ‘could have’s.
Can’t somebody produce some evidence,instead of saying ‘Could have this’ ‘could have that’?
As it happens, John’s Gospel made Paul look an utter fool, just like Mike said Christians would make Paul look a fool if he was lying, as John’s Gospel makes no mention of these sayings.
It remains a fact that a ritual cultic meal where the body and blood of the founder is conjured up stinks of mythicism, rather than somebody having the remarkable timing to tell his followers to remember him , just hours before he was betrayed against his knowledge.
They are all written to people who have previously heard the facts about Jesus and drawn a positive conclusion about them.
Could we have some evidence that these people had ‘heard the facts about Jesus’?
What facts had they heard? Paul tells them outright that he has kept things back from them because they were not ready?
Just produce the evidence that these Corinthians had ever heard of Judas, or Lazarus or Thomas.
Just some evidence ,please. If I beg nicely, will you produce some evidence that Paul had ever heard of Lazarus or Joseph of Arimathea?
What is your point, Steven? You seem to be suggesting that Paul and also the Corinthians were ignorant of certain facts about Jesus’ earthly life – though it may be different facts in each case. Which facts do you think each should know and why does it matter to you?
You beg people for evidence, and they just ignore you.
Why is it so hard to get evidence for the life of Jesus?
Why is no evidence for the existence of Judas, Lazarus, Bartimaeus, Thomas ever forthcoming no matter how blatantly you make it plain that people are embarrassing themselves by publicising the fact that they cannot back up their beliefs that these people existed?
Why do people have such thick skins? They must realise how they are projecting themselves by their constant ignoring of any, all , every and repeated requests for evidence.
McD is showing himself more and more as a christian apologist in his latest postings.
You’ve made the very same argument many times. You demand that the historicists provide non-Christian evidence, and they argue that internal and circumstantial evidence suffices. This argument never will be resolved. You’re just repeating yourself endlessly.
I have changed my own mind and essentially have joined your side. However, your arguments along the lines that there is no non-Christian evidence were not decisive — although they did influence me. I was able to counter-act those arguments by considering that Christianity did prosper after all, so lots of rational people who lived during the first century apparently felt they had good reasons to believe that Jesus was a real person.
I flipped decisively as I read Doherty’s many, many indications that the epistles failed to mention concrete information about Jesus’ life in places where such mentions blatantly would have been fitting and desirable. The weight of all those indications finally convinced me that the epistle writers simply did not have any knowledge of the details that now appear in the gospels. The details still did not exist even as oral stories.
This was an argument that worked entirely within the Christian canon. The evidence for a mystical Christ was this contradiction between the epistles and the gospels. The epistles are ignorant of the wealth of details in the gospels, and so I recognized that the details must have been concocted after the epistles were written.
Of course, I was ready to flip by the time that I read Doherty. Other arguments had prepared me to flip.
The other decisive factor for my own flip was reading The Ascension of Isaiah, which was introduced to me here on the Vridar website. That text gave me an alternative framework for structuring my new thinking about how Christianity originated.
We see in McGrath’s treatment of mythicism the same tactics used by biblical scholarship for over a century now — dismiss, ignore, poo-pooh the radical arguments, but never engage them seriously. Always put the fear of denigration into anyone who might be temtped to flirt with them. (He will tell you he has “engaged” with me many times, but that is his way of saying that he has, like a politician, managed to avoid directly addressing most of my responses, as he does in his new reply to my post.)
I find the repetition tedious, too, so you’re not alone. I could ignore McGrath when he decides to post blatant falsehoods about my arguments on his blog. I really am surprised McGrath ever bothers with me because as I pointed out here my argument is not “for mythicism” at all. It is simply an application of normal historical methods applied to New Testament studies — in the same way as “minimalists” applied normal historical methods to Old Testament studies. It is entirely a matter of methodology and stands quite apart from any conclusion such as “mythicism”.
He has responded to this post of mine now. You will be pleased to know I am happy to let his response stand as witness to his failure to address my argument. He is either so viscerally bigoted that he simply cannot comprehend any argument that comes within a cooee of “mythicism”, and refuses on principle to give any person making such an argument the benefit of even being capable of making a valid point, or he has some problem with lying straight in bed.
I agree with you. McGrath and others do not discuss your arguments fairly. I am saying only that repeating the same arguments over and over has reached a point of diminishing returns.
I can understand McGrath’s arguments too. Essentially he argues that Christianity’s early spread is evidence that it was based on a real Jesus. From a very early time, people believed the stories, so that is evidence they were true. You obviously reject that argument, so there never will be a meeting of the minds between you.
“Essentially he argues that Christianity’s early spread is evidence that it was based on a real Jesus. From a very early time, people believed the stories, so that is evidence they were true.”
I’ve gathered from his more recent posts that he’s arguing something else, something — dare I say? — more subtle. Here’s what I think the HJ current consensus is, followed by McGrath’s corollary.
1. We have texts that go back to an oral tradition.
2. Some unknown fraction of that oral tradition goes back to an historical Jesus of Galilee.
3. The historical Jesus was a Jew who preached publicly and somehow ran afoul of the authorities in Jerusalem, which got him killed.
McGrath and probably most of his friends would contend this explanation — that a tiny historical seed accrued layer after layer of embellishment — is simpler than the theory that it’s all myth. Therefore the HJ thesis is more likely to be true. In his latest posts he goes even farther than that, contending that it would be impossible for the story of Jesus to have occurred as the result of a myth.
If I’m reading him correctly, he thinks that the gospel writers (and the tradition-tellers before them) could and did invent characters, events, and sayings. He believes they added miracles and fictional characters to the story. He would argue that a gospel writer could change what Jesus said, move the location of events to different locations, change the day of the crucifixion, change the color of Jesus’ robe from purple to red, invent peripheral characters like Nicodemus or Jairus, invent sayings of Jesus on the cross, delete sayings of Jesus on the cross, move the location of the ascension, invent or rename members of the Twelve — the list seems endless.
Yet, for some reason that isn’t clear to me, inventing Jesus himself would be impossible. McG’s corollary, “You can make up everything in the story except Jesus,” reminds me of Creationists who say micro-evolution can occur, but speciation can’t. Individuals within the so-called “kinds” can mutate, but they have to stay inside their magical boundaries.
It seems to me that a bold claim like that deserves some sort of explanation beyond mere assertion. To those sifting the wheat from the chaff, I ask, “How do you know it isn’t all chaff?” Why, for example, would it be possible to invent the the Transfiguration, but utterly impossible to invent the star character in attendance at the Transfiguration?
Does McGrath actually quote or cite particular mythicist arguments or would that require him taking them “seriously”?
It is more charitable to presume simple incompetence rather than malice, or in this case perhaps indolence rather than ineptitude.
Tim: “McGrath and probably most of his friends would contend this explanation — that a tiny historical seed accrued layer after layer of embellishment — is simpler than the theory that it’s all myth. Therefore the HJ thesis is more likely to be true. In his latest posts he goes even farther than that, contending that it would be impossible for the story of Jesus to have occurred as the result of a myth.”
Well, lets be logical here – a story with some base in history is a far easier sell than a story that is completely mythological, ie. a story without any relevance to historical reality. It’s a case of pure imagination or a story with a reference point in history. Not only is the former an easier sell, but people would be able to call upon their own historical memories or the memories of others, ie. a groundswell of oral traditions. Logically, myth must come of second best here. Sure, in time, memory becomes dim and allows mythology to take things away and beyond any relevance to history.
Consider a myth in the making. Nelson Mandela. Few men in history can be credited with what Mandela accomplished. The freedom of his people from a political system of racial oppression acknowledged as a crime against humanity. Talk about ‘second comings’ – Mandela’s was probably one of the most watched TV events of the century. Yes, even in life, Mandela has been transformed into a symbol of human dignity and ‘salvation’. He is also known by many names. Rolihlahla, Madiba, Tata, Dalibhunga, Khulu. Madiba being his clan name and perhaps the name that has become the more affectionate name by which he is known. For any future mythmakers, the life of Mandela is a source beyond compare. Mythmakers can take this life of Mandela and ad infinitum what suits their particular purpose in their retelling of the meaning that they, themselves, are imputing to that life. They could use the affectionate name of ‘Madiba’ for their mythological retelling – or they could find something else.
One day, if the Mandela mythmakers do their job well, Nelson Mandela, the historical man, could well be lost to history. In his place would be Madiba (or another new name) – the cherished memory of a man who set alight a dream of ‘salvation’ in Africa that time will not extinguish. A new story, a mythological story, with a life of its very own.
Go back around 2000 years – which is the most probable scenario. A free floating myth without any connection to history – or a myth that sprung up from a grounding in historical reality?
Mythicism without a connection to history, without a connection to an event, to a life that inspired others, is on a mission to nowhere; right up that cul-de-sac and knocking it’s head against a brick wall. But that is not mythicism at all. It is, if you will, pseudo-mythicism. Mythicism only denies the claimed historicity of the gospel Jesus. Mythicism does not, cannot, deny, a historically relevant life that inspired others to, as it were, reach for the stars.
So, I would suggest, that when the term ‘mythicism’ is being used that one needs to clarify what one means by the term. If one’s definition of this term includes more than it’s basic meaning – then, methinks, one is substituting ones own bias for logic.
Denying the historicity of the gospel Jesus – a figure that is mythological from its virgin birth to resurrection – is not to deny a historical undercurrent to the NT storyline. ‘Salvation history’ requires real history. Only concentrating upon the NT salvation history is to put the cart before the horse. Sure, the Jesus historicists are in the same boat here – but what they have on their side is their insistence that history matters. Albeit their argumentation regarding JC is faulty. In other words; mythicists who deny any historically relevant undercurrent, core, to the NT storyline, and those who claim historicity for the gospel Jesus figure, are two peas in the same bod. Both need to put ‘salvation history’ aside, and that goes for the OT as well, and try to discern what was it in Hasmonean/Herodian history that could have generated the type of mythological Jesus (salvation history story) that we have in the gospels.
maryhelena: “Go back around 2000 years – which is the most probable scenario. A free floating myth without any connection to history – or a myth that sprung up from a grounding in historical reality?”
Do you actually know of any mythicist who thinks the gospel stories arose “without any connection to history” — or were you presenting me with a false dilemma?
Tim: The gospel Jesus figure is a literary construct. The only mythicist that I’m aware of who does acknowledges that a real human figure was relevant to the creation of that gospel mythological figure is G.A.Wells. His gospel Jesus is a “fused’ figure. A created literary figure that has had some colouring, for want of a better word, from the life of a real flesh and blood human figure. If you know of any other mythicist who thinks that Wells has made, in this insight, a valuable contribution to the understanding of the gospel storyline – and hence to early Christian history, I would love to know.
There is always going to be a historical/cultural framework at play when expressing ideas. And in the case of Jesus, there might have been a “connection to an event, to a life that inspired others.” Most mainstream Christianity that demands a specific historical person for its theology(ies) would not dispute that. Was Jesus a kind of mythologized Mandela figure who got lost in history…
However, it’s also logical to entertain the idea that literary characters were invented to portray meaning. What meaning? Some might say contextualizing mystical experiences or mental abstractions or just their general human experience in this world via their contemporary cultural climate.
How specifically earliest Christians were reacting to historical undercurrent is something to be investigated, but we need not automatically assume that a particular earthly man or event precipitated a later mythology.
Pearl: “How specifically earliest Christians were reacting to historical undercurrent is something to be investigated, but we need not automatically assume that a particular earthly man or event precipitated a later mythology.”
And the alternative is – Christ cults popping up like mushrooms…Spontaneous eruptions as a reaction to what exactly? 70 ce.? Why 70 ce and not 586 bc – no new religion followed from the ashes of that fall of Jerusalem and the burning of it’s temple and the forced exile of it’s people. (50 thousand people marched off to captivity in Babylon by one online account). So – looks to be that this new religion of Christianity needed far more than the 70 ce fall of Jerusalem for it’s conception.
History plus salvation history; history and it’s interpretation; history and whatever flavour of prophetic viewpoints one fancied. The old story – cause and effect. We have the effect – the gospel mythological, or figurative or symbolic, Jesus storyline and Christianity – what we don’t have is the cause. And that cause has to be rooted in history and not in the imagination of the apostle Paul. We surely do those early Christians a disservice to imagine that they were so un-Jewish as to deny history, and historical figures, relevance for their interpretations.
maryhelena: “And that cause has to be rooted in history and not in the imagination of the apostle Paul. We surely do those early Christians a disservice to imagine that they were so un-Jewish as to deny history, and historical figures, relevance for their interpretations.”
There were early Christians who did not deny historical relevance for their interpretations. But can we say with the same assurance that all historical figures were real, flesh and blood human beings and not concocted because of a perceived need for earthly, historical roots to interpret?
We can say that Christ cults originated at some point during a general historical timeframe and that there is extant, related literature from this period. But that does not sanction as fact that a specific, historical, flesh and blood human being was the cause without primary evidence or reliable external controls. We also can speculate as to whether Paul existed or which epistles were authentic and how much might be later redactions, or whether Paul really envisioned a mystical Christ or a space alien, or whether he was an authentic, spiritually savvy person or else schizophrenic or a fraud or an amazingly successful, magnetic, narcissistic cult personality.
We can investigate. And what you say is possible, maryhelena, but I don’t share your certainty.
pearl: “There were early Christians who did not deny historical relevance for their interpretations. But can we say with the same assurance that all historical figures were real, flesh and blood human beings and not concocted because of a perceived need for earthly, historical roots to interpret?”.
Who were they and what did they consider relevant in history for their interpretations? Historical figures are real 🙂 Flesh and blood humans are not necessarily historical figures. To take the step to being considered historical figures they need to have left behind some evidence of their existence. (that is if being a historical figure is to have any substance to it).
pearl: “We can say that Christ cults originated at some point during a general historical timeframe and that there is extant, related literature from this period. But that does not sanction as fact that a specific, historical, flesh and blood human being was the cause without primary evidence or reliable external controls.”
And the historical evidence for the mushrooming Christ cults is? Talking here about a pre NT time period. Once the NT storyline was up and about – well, obviously, mushrooming cults are possible. It’s the pre-NT time period that is relevant. In other words, the time period of the development of what became early Christianity.
Lets not forget that in a Jewish context – and a pre 70 ce context as that is when the gospel storyline is set down – that a Christ cult would be a Messiah cult. No, not some mystery religion spiritual Christ cult. But a Messiah cult involved with a flesh and blood Messianic ‘pretender’. After all is that not what the gospel Jesus storyboard is about?
Mark 8:29-30 : “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.”
pearl: “We also can speculate as to whether Paul existed or which epistles were authentic and how much might be later redactions, or whether Paul really envisioned a mystical Christ or a space alien, or whether he was an authentic, spiritually savvy person or else schizophrenic or a fraud or an amazingly successful, magnetic, narcissistic cult personality.”
Sure, we can write everything of as speculation – and just leave those Jesus historicists in their comfort zone. But that’s not the way intellectual evolutions happen. It’s thinking the unthinkable – speculation upon speculation until a way opens up through that fog of centuries. If one does not try then the other side has no reason to worry about their positions.
Did Paul exist? Great question. Name changing seems to have been a great pastime back then – as it is today re authors, film stars – and anyone else who takes a dislike to their birth name. Many reason can lead one to a name change. I would imagine that a specific individual did have some new insights, some new idea re interpreting certain historical realities – and decided to put forth these ideas. And most probably reaped some backlash from those who held earlier understandings of such historical realities – that’s just the way new intellectual insights work. The question as to whether his real name was ‘Paul’ is an open question…
The NT is a glorified and imaginative origin story; it is not a history of the origin and development of early Christianity. It has stood the test of time and there is no reason why it should not remain as a literary monument; a literary monument to our human need to conceptualize our search for meaning and depth to our ordinary lives. However, for those of us to want the facts of things, those pesky facts that may well be unpleasant to our sense of what should have been – well now – without some measure of certainty one will not have the necessary drive to forge a way forward…
maryhelena: “Sure, we can write everything of as speculation – and just leave those Jesus historicists in their comfort zone. But that’s not the way intellectual evolutions happen.”
When you quoted me you left out my next line, “We can investigate.” I don’t believe we should leave it at idle speculation; I agree with you, even if what we end up with at times is informed speculation. So, I don’t understand your point. Also, many Jesus historicists seem to be taking comfort in a deeply entrenched circular zone, regardless.
We were not connecting as far as what was meant by “early Christians”. Although I think it is good you are researching ”Hasmonean and Herodian history”, I’m not convinced that second century CE was not important in investigating Christian origins. Also, just a final note: You don’t want to use the NT gospels, but in your reply later to Tim, you refer to the gospel story in trying to determine “earlier historical events” that “could have played a major role”:
pearl: “You don’t want to use the NT gospels, but in your reply later to Tim, you refer to the gospel story in trying to determine “earlier historical events” that “could have played a major role”:
Maryhelena: “Indeed 70 ce was a very big deal to the people living in Jerusalem at that time. However, what is of concern is what relevance that destruction had towards generating early Christian ideas. And since the gospel story is placed prior to this destruction it does seem that earlier historical events could have played a major role and 70 ce was simply a historical footnote that, if anything, only confirmed ideas that were already in existence.”
I think you might have this back to front 😉
I look to history in order to understand the salvation history story that is within the gospel. History comes first and is primary. One is not going to get history from salvation history. One cannot get history from pseudo-history. One cannot use the gospels as a history book. All one can do is keep the gospel story in mind when one investigates the history of the time period in which the gospel story has been set.
2nd century important. Certainly. But for the development of Christianity not for it’s origins.
Hi, maryhelena. Just a short note. Thanks for your clarification. My point is that the story timeline itself is part of the salvation history. And in this case, gospel timelines do not appear to coincide with possible dating of authorship.
So, I think your investigation is very important, considering real historical events during the story time period. But I think as far as historical interests, there also should be focus on any implications of real history surrounding possible later dates of composition. For instance, you stated in another reply:
This, of course, raises the issue of what role Alexandria played in early Christian thinking. We do of course, a bit later, have Philo. A man who lived during the time period in which the gospel Jesus story is set down.
Philo is still very early, but it could be fascinating to see what you discover here, too, in addition to any later historical influences surrounding possible authorship dates of earliest Christian literature, should that ever be your interest.
maryhelena: Why 70 CE and not 586 BCE? –- No new religion followed from the ashes of that fall of Jerusalem and the burning of its temple and the forced exile of its people. (50 thousand people marched off to captivity in Babylon by one online account).
In the sixth century BCE nearly all followers of Judaism (as practiced by the cult leaders of the Josiah revolution) lived in Eretz Israel. In fact, I would argue that most lived in the general vicinity of Jerusalem; the rest of the population probably gave lip service but still practiced (when they could) the old Israelite/Hebrew religion.
Fifty thousand? That’s way too high. Jeremiah says 4,600. Finkelstein says 8,000. That’s generous.
In 70 CE there was a huge population of Jews in the diaspora who had to come to terms with the fact that Herod’s temple had been burned to the ground. And after 130 CE, no Jew could even enter the new city of Aelia Capitolina that stood were Jerusalem once lay. Judea and Israel were wiped from the map, with Syria Palestina taking its place. The Hebrew calendar and Torah were outlawed.
This was a big deal.
So yeah. Rabbinic Judaism was a new thing that grew out of a sacrificial blood cult. And apparently, so did Christianity, although it seems to have some affinities with mystery cults from the same period. Did lots of variations spring up like mushrooms? Damn straight. Have you read the stuff from Nag Hammadi?!
It should not be overlooked that there are arguments that do say that Judaism was born in the wake of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and captivity of many Jews. Some “minimalists” would go further and say that there was no such thing as “Judaism” until it developed over time in Palestine AFTER the planting of new/”returned” peoples there by the Persians.
I think the minimalists have a good case here.
Tim : “Fifty thousand? That’s way too high. Jeremiah says 4,600. Finkelstein says 8,000. That’s generous.”.
I’m not going to argue figures,it was only a side point and not fundamental to anything important. Perhaps the website writer got his figures mixed up as another website mentions 50,000 returning from exile.
Tim: “In 70 CE there was a huge population of Jews in the diaspora who had to come to terms with the fact that Herod’s temple had been burned to the ground. And after 130 CE, no Jew could even enter the new city of Aelia Capitolina that stood were Jerusalem once lay. Judea and Israel were wiped from the map, with Syria Palestina taking its place. The Hebrew calendar and Torah were outlawed.
This was a big deal.”
Indeed 70 ce was a very big deal to the people living in Jerusalem at that time. However, what is of concern is what relevance that destruction had towards generating early Christian ideas. And since the gospel story is placed prior to this destruction it does seem that earlier historical events could have played a major role and 70 ce was simply a historical footnote that, if anything, only confirmed ideas that were already in existence.
Consider 37 bc and the siege of Jerusalem by Herod the Great. Did Jerusalem and it’s temple become violated when ruled by a foreigner? And thus ceased to have any spiritual relevance. Necessitating a new temple, or at least an altar, in Alexandria. (Rome being out of the question for any Hasmoneans seeking a new home). Did the reign of Herod the Great over Jerusalem necessitate a re-think of what Jewish spirituality involved? It is so often said that it was 70 ce that propelled Judaism to re-examine its theological ideas – but the die was cast far earlier.
Herod the Great, a man from a ‘vulgar family’, with ‘no eminent extraction’ – a man who led a siege against Jerusalem that led to the slaughter of innocent old men, women and innocent children – and the Hasmonean Jews, deprived of their King/Priests, are willing to accept such a man and his grandiose re-built temple?
Whatever were the plans of Herod the Great re his Jerusalem temple – the horse had bolted….the bird had flown – the spirit had departed…etc… Thus, a futile attempt at maintaining appearances – a charade that would not fool any Hasmoneans. Come 70 ce and all that was destroyed was the charade – the illusion that Herod’s temple was in any way a legitimate reflection of Jewish spirituality. I doubt any Hasmoneans shed a tear over the fall of Herod’s temple. They would have already moved on without any need for that Herodian temple in Jerusalem. (and let’s not forget that the very history of this time period that we rely upon has been written by one, Josephus, who claims Hasmonean decent – a heritage that could well have coloured his historical reconstructions…)
This, of course, raises the issue of what role Alexandria played in early Christian thinking. We do of course, a bit later, have Philo. A man who lived during the time period in which the gospel Jesus story is set down.
Tim: “ Have you read the stuff from Nag Hammadi?!”
No, I’ve not read them. But they are much later and it’s the very early days of Christian development that I am interested in, ie Hasmonean and Herodian history.
“Thus twelve of these books (one missing its cover) and the loose pages survive. The writings in these codices, dating back to the 2nd century AD,”
Here is something that might be of interest re Alexandria, from Stephan Huller:
“There is nothing in the Torah that requires a temple; only an altar for sacrifices but this theoretically could be carried out in a tent in the desert. The problem was that THREE altar locations had been established since the restoration. The Gerizim altar had been destroyed by John Hyrcanus of course and the Samaritans (especially the Dositheans) managed to get along just fine. The issue in the first century CE was that there were still TWO functioning altars. Every indication from the rabbinic literature is that the Alexandrian altar continued after the destruction of the destruction of the Jerusalem altar in 70 CE.
“While it has been customary to speak of the destruction of the Jerusalem altar as ‘the end of sacrifices’ the rabbinic traditions infers that this wasn’t exactly true. From the end of the Jewish War to the Trajanic revolt in Egypt there was probably a functioning altar and priesthood in Alexandria according to those sources. No one ever talks about this because quite frankly it makes everything a lot murkier and more complicated (and contradicts the general inherited presuppositions from the Catholic Church that Jesus came to end sacrifices PERIOD)”.
pearl:”My point is that the story timeline itself is part of the salvation history. And in this case, gospel timelines do not appear to coincide with possible dating of authorship. “
Yes, of course, the story timeline is part of the salvation history, ie it’s the historical time frame from which the salvation history interpretation has been made. It’s a good 70 years though. Luke 3:1 – from the 15th year of Tiberius back to 40 bc and the rule of Lysanias of Abilene.
Re the dating of manuscripts: What is being dated are copies – which are copies of copies. When the Jesus story was first put in writing is a difficult question – and in what form. Most probably not in the final version that we have today. And if the wonderworker story in Slavonic Josephus is the earliest version of the story that is available – then dating of that version would be soon after 70 ce – when Josephus published an early version of ‘War’. And quite probably he was not the originator of the wonderworker story – possibly heard it orally or had access to a copy. (the dating of the Slavonic version is the dating of a translation not a dating of the wonderworker storyline). What should be of interest re the gospel story is tracing the story back as far as it will go – tracing it not as though one is tracing or trying to recover history of the events detailed in that story – but tracing the story as a story, tracing the story as a piece of literature. The bare bones, as it were, of the story. And, if that is done, then, methinks, the bare bones story that is preserved within Slavonic Josephus will be seen to be a vital source. It is a story that welcomes developments like embellishments.(an argument that would see the Slavonic Josephus wonderworker story as a later off-shoot of the gospel story makes no literary sense at all – although now that I think about it – those Jesus historicists who strip the gospel Jesus of everything but his crucifixion under Pilate – should be jumping for joy – their de-mythologized crucified preacher preserved in Slavonic Josephus…)
pearl: “Philo is still very early, but it could be fascinating to see what you discover here, too, in addition to any later historical influences surrounding possible authorship dates of earliest Christian literature, should that ever be your interest.”
I go along with Rachel Elior (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) that Philo’s Essenes were not historical. They were a philosophical ideal. Sure, she has her critics – but so do the mythicists who deny the historicity of the gospel Jesus. 😉
If Philo has placed an ideal philosophical community in the land of Palestine – supposedly during his lifetime – then would we not have here an example of a non-historical people that later become viewed as historical – as did the gospel Jesus. At the very least, Philo’s Essene creation should warrant a deeper investigation. Placing unusual, non-historical, goings on in Palestine around the time of the gospel time stamp should, at the very least, be ringing some alarm bells. Who knows – but it would be a fascinating idea – the Essenes as a trial run for the far bigger story to follow: the story of the wonderworker crucified under Pilate. A story that could be embellished by others long after the death of it’s originator. Philo died around 50 ce (Wikipedia). No historical gospel Jesus means that the Jesus idea had to come from somewhere. It had to originate in someone’s mind. And Philo certainly had the wherewithal, being a Jewish Biblical philosopher, (Wikipedia) to move, intellectually, from an idealized, philosophical, Essene community – to an idealized individual man.
(just thinking out loud here – before someone shouts for evidence…)
Rachel Elior: “Is it reasonable to assume that thousands of people had lived as celibates in the Land of Israel for many generations, as the well-known Greek and Latin sources suggest, while no reference to this prohibited existence, which contradicts the first biblical law of “be fruitful and multiply”, will be found in any Hebrew or Aramaic text? Is it possible that thousands of people had lived in communities of communal residence and communal money with no private property and not a word will be found about it in any Hebrew source?….
“There exists no known Hebrew or Aramaic text before or after the Common Era which supports any of these exceptional traits and ideal society that presumably had existed for many generations and thousands of years. It seems to me that this is a description of an ideal society in Utopia that Philo had imagined, and not a real society in the land of Israel in the first century CE”
(no online link I’m afraid – her responses to her critics were on Jim West’s old website and are not on his new site. I have a Word file from Rachel Elior with her two main responses).