For subscribers to this blog who received notice of a published post a few moments ago, I must apologize and plead the excuse that there appears to be a glitch with WordPress in that at a certain stage of editing an “Update” button suddenly turns into a “Publish” button, with result that the unwary editor can be easily misled. What should be a routine keyboard “update” click actually ends up launching a Mars mission before they had time to board the astronauts, the gyroscope, the instrument panel, and the computer communication systems.
First let it be clear where I am coming from. This is not an attack on any scholar or the scholarship of theologians in general. It is an attempt to address what strikes me as very muddled thinking in many works about the historical Jesus. That is not a denigration of the scholars in question or the works they have produced. It is forthright attempt to address an assumption or understanding that appears to be generally overlooked. If my views are wrong then I would expect someone somewhere who knows better can point out in a reasoned explanation where and why they are wrong. That would cause me some embarrassment, no doubt, but at least I would be given the opportunity change my views. I resolved long ago to be prepared to take the consequences of striving to be honest with myself in place of living a lie. But if the only response continues to be ridicule or insult or silent dismissal I will have no reason to think my criticism is invalid.
Often when I read a scholarly study of the historical Jesus I am a little dismayed at the woolliness of the ideas addressed. I have slowly become convinced that very few scholars who have written about the historical Jesus have ever studied what history even is. Very often historical evidence is confused with stories or an assumption that a story must be derived from real happenings.
Scholars have written hundreds of books about Jesus . . . . A good number of these books, mainly the lesser-known ones, have been written by scholars for scholars to promote scholarship; others have been written by scholars to popularise scholarly views. The present book is one of the latter kind . . . . (p. ix)
The woolliness of thinking about the distinction between the narrative of an event and evidence for a real historical event, and even about the nature of history itself, is a critical consideration given that Ehrman also writes in the same preface:
The evidence itself plays a major role in this book. Most other popular treatments of Jesus rarely discuss evidence. That’s a particularly useful move — to avoid mentioning the evidence — if you’re going to present a case that’s hard to defend. Maybe if you just tell someone what you think, they’ll take your word for it. In my opinion, though, a reader has the right to know not only what scholars think about Jesus . . . but also why they think what they think. That is, readers have a right to know what the evidence is. (p. x)
Since my first draft of this post a new book by Ehrman has appeared (Did Jesus Exist? =DJE) in which he underscores the same fallacies running through JAPNM and adds a raft of new ones. For example, he lists a number of sources that he says historians can rely upon to establish the historical existence of a person while failing to notice that a number of the sources he lists can just as easily be used to argue for the historical existence of several pagan gods and demi-gods. (No wonder he finds they conveniently support the historicity of Jesus!) Equally bad, almost all of them ultimately beg the question of historicity rather than confirm it. I will discuss the logical fallacies inherent in his list in a future post.
What is history?
There are two fundamentals that I learned in about history in my senior history classes.
The first thing I learned in my history class at senior high school was what history is not. History is not a list of facts, dates and events. A list of events is a chronicle, not history. History is the study of past events, an exploration in understanding those events, the composition of a narrative to convey some story or meaning from those past events. Such a narrative invests the “facts” with interpretation and meaning.
The second was that when it comes to ancient history historians can only study questions for which we have enough raw material to research. We can’t write a biography of Socrates examining the range of formative influences upon his thinking and assessing how much of his contribution to Greek philosophy was unique to his own genius, for example.
If you are atheist, a bit worried about Muslims at the same time, like ideas like love and compassion as the glue that holds us together, might respect reading recommendations from A. C. Grayling, are curious about where and why Australians have a different take (at least from North Americans and the British) on atheism and religion in the world — how to be laid back about it all — and basically what atheism means to all of us of whatever religious background and in particular how ex-Muslims handle it all, then do yourself a well-deserved favour and listen to the interview with Alom Shaha on Australia’s national radio program Big Ideas:
Atheist Alom Shaha: Imagine you live in a strict Muslim community. You’re taught not to question your religion. But you don’t actually believe any of it. Your interest lay in the world of science, ideas, and books. This is the world of atheist, Alom Shaha – a Bangladesh born science writer, film maker and teacher, who’s lived in London since he was young boy – who is in conversation with Paul Barclay.
In this section Wrede lays out the various ways in which Jesus hides his true nature from the public, and at times even from his own disciples. It’s worth mentioning again that the author of Mark and the readers of his gospel have no doubts about who Jesus is. The narrator tells us from the very start that he is the Christ, the beloved Son of God. However, Mark keeps us in suspense while we wonder at the inability of everyone around him to see the obvious.
“I know who you are!”
Now that Jesus has been possessed by the Holy Spirit (as Wrede puts it, “equipped with the pneuma“), the other actors in the supernatural dimension, the demons, become acutely aware of his presence. They tremble in fear for their lives. They beg not to be disturbed. It would seem they fear not just simple eviction, but that the Son of God’s presence on earth signals the imminent eschaton, in which they will meet their doom.
While reading the gospel, we cannot help noticing that the exorcisms in Mark follow a recurring pattern. The presence of Jesus agitates them. They cry out to be left alone, often throwing the demoniac to the ground. Jesus commands them to be silent and casts them out. The ex-demoniac is cured and “in his right mind.”
If you’re one of those arm-chair anti-religionists who speculates that people who pray the most probably have some psychological malfunction and are expressing a need to communicate with an imaginary friend given their inability to relate to the real world, then the research findings are against you.
If you have rejected western religious traditions and think you are a much nicer person than the average for having found value in the regular practice of Eastern meditation instead, then again the science is against you. But what do you care for quantifiable observations of this crass material world!
The findings were that those who pray the most (in the conventional or traditional sense of the word) are jolly good types who fit in well with wider social expectations. Plato would be happy. Wasn’t he the one who said a strong dose of conventional religious belief and fear was a necessary thing to keep the masses well-behaved and in line?
To be specific, the researchers conclude (using the Eysenck personality model) that those who pray the most are at the low end of the “psychoticism” dimension of personality and are thus most likely to be found to be
I kid. We love the good doctor. Salt of the earth and all that. So what’s happening over on the Matrix? Sure, he’s peddling his latest book, but the subtitle is “What Does History Have to Do with Faith?” so I guess the pingback is legit. In yesterday’s post, Demolishing and Reconstructing the Burial of Jesus (and Christianity Itself), McG asks: “What, in short, should Christianity look like in the aftermath of historical study?”
This subject marginally interests me. I’m curious about religions and what people believe, but the ways in which people accommodate ancient superstition with modern reality makes me uncomfortable. Not that there’s anything wrong with accommodation, it’s just that the part of my life where I tried to salvage the good parts of Christianity in light of — well, in light of reality — is over. The mental gymnastics involved just weren’t worth the effort. It felt too much like keeping two sets of ledgers: one set of books with cooked numbers that add up to God and another set that actually make sense.
The ancient Egyptians believed that Kephri, a god with the head of a sacred scarab, pushed the sun along its path, just as the dung beetle pushes a ball of dung across the ground. They were convinced that the beetle existed in male form only, and reproduced by fertilizing its dung ball with beetle semen. This life-giving attribute relates to Kephri’s ability to resurrect the sun each morning.
The irrational anti-supernaturalist would dismiss these beliefs out of hand, while the credulous, unlearned person might simply accept them without question. But the reasonable, wise, modern scholar takes the middle road and declares, “How do I know? Neither the scientific method nor the historical-critical method can account for miracles.”
We call this perspective “methodological naturalism.” It skirts the issue of whether the world in reality is affected by supernatural forces. Rather, it asserts that having only naturalistic tools in our bag, the only things we can measure and be sure of from a scientific standpoint are natural phenomena. We don’t assert radical materialism; we just operate that way.
But let’s be honest. We’re not talking about just any supernatural forces. Egyptologists don’t have to calm down their students by telling them “we’re just not sure” about how the sun moves and whether dung beetles have no wives. No, we invoke methodological naturalism only when existing religions with existing beliefs in the supernatural intersect with historical studies.
We don’t do it for other ancient gods and defunct ancient religions. We don’t do it in modern forensic science. We don’t do it in scientific research. We only do it when we look at ancient texts that are revered by modern people.
If we don’t drill a hole in your head, then how will the demon get out?
Many conservative scholars (e.g., Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd) argue strongly for a new “Open Historical-Critical Method,” wherein we give our ancient “witnesses” the benefit of the doubt when it comes to little things like the resurrection of the dead, but surely they do not also argue for an “Open Theory of Disease.”
Maybe you have a chemical imbalance, or maybe you have a demon. Perhaps you have cataracts, but let’s leave open the possibility of some supernatural creature that’s living inside your eyes.
They wouldn’t argue that, would they? I mean, this is the 21st century, right?
This evening I was heartened to find an idea that has long been lurking in my mind suddenly out in the light of day, in print, in a 1939 Hibbert Journal article by French scholar Paul-Louis Couchoud. Couchoud was replying to M. Loisy’s critique of “Christ mythicism” and within a few pages he said it. He said that while he has argued Christianity did not begin with a historical Jesus and that it is futile to think a “historical kernel” can be found somewhere in the Gospels, he has never said Jesus was “a myth”.
What exactly are we reading about when we read of the earliest Jesus in our records, in particular in the New Testament epistles? Troels Engberg-Pedersen has studied Paul’s letters from the perspective of Stoic philosophy and sees in Paul’s religious ideas a striking similarity of function between the Stoic’s Logos or Reason and Paul’s Christ. Both figures effect “salvation” through reaching down to the would-be convert, exalting those in whom they are revealed or awakened into a new identity that sets them apart from the world and their past lives, and leads them into a new way of life “in Reason/the Logos” or “in Christ”. Some of these ideas are found in the Engberg-Pedersen archive. I can’t think of “Reason/Logos” as a myth, and it is hard for me to think of Paul’s Christ a “myth”, too. A spiritual idea, yes. But that’s not the same as a myth.
This heavenly Christ, this religious conception or representation of a God-Man idea
has no relation to the conception of a man elevated to divinity nor to that of the anthropomorphic God, both of which were familiar to the religion of antiquity. It is an intimate and unique synthesis in which God retains his glory in its fullness and man his mortal destiny in its bitterness, without change of God into man or of man into God. It was a new idea, and it was by this new idea that the world was conquered. (Couchoud)
I think Couchoud here hits on a subtext in historicist-mythicist arguments. The end-result, the Christ in heaven, is far too a-human or non-human to be the kind of figure one would expect of a real man who had evolved into a deity. And he certainly is no counterpart to Homer’s Olympian gods.
Turning to a genuine work of scholarship in biblical studies, even one 80 years old, can be such relief after enduring time in search of a stimulating and challenging argument among so much contemporary theological debate with apologetics always lurking in the subtext. One theologian has scoffed at mythicism by glibly asserting that no-one would have made up a saving deity and given him such a common name as “Jesus”. No research required, no argument necessary, it is enough to bounce off one’s mouth whatever falls off the top of one’s head.
But one scholar did give this matter of the name “Jesus” some serious thought. Unfortunately, perhaps, this scholar was (a) French and (b) not at risk of confusing his academic integrity with a defence of his personal faith. His scholarly interests were entirely secular and rationalist. Some might like to be reassured that he was also a defender of the historicity of Jesus, attacking mythicist arguments with bitter sarcasm. In all of these he could be seen to be following Alfred Loisy’s footsteps.
Charles Guignebert, Professor of the History of Christianity in the Sorbonne, did see “a problem” with the name “Jesus of Nazareth”, and not just with the “Nazareth” epithet.
Granting the historical existence of Jesus, we are at once confronted with the problem of his name, Jesus the Nazarene. (p. 76 of Jesus, English translation 1956 but first published in French in 1933. My emphasis)
Before I continue with the reasons Guignebert finds a problem with the name “Jesus the Nazarene”, I must refer once again to a contemporary scholar, a classicist, who has approached the name of Jesus from a perspective of the wider classical literary and mythological world from which the Gospels emerged. John Moles has written an extensive article titled Jesus the Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and early Christianity for the online journal of ancient historiography, Histos. I have discussed some aspects of his article in Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names (compares the meaning and role of the name Jason) and Creativity with the name Jesus the Healer in the Gospel of Mark. Of course Jesus was not an uncommon name as we learn from Josephus, but anyone who attempts to dismiss the name of Jesus merely as a common name (that by mere lucky coincidence happened to prove apt for the one who was exalted to divine status by his followers) needs to tackle the article of John Moles and the literary evidence that testifies otherwise.
In anticipation of the imminent publication of Bart D. Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist?” (March 20, 2012) I’ve added to my website a book review (well, it’s really a chapter review) of his “Misquoting Jesus” (2005). It’s at http://www.renesalm.com/mp/ehrman_mj.html
Ehrman’s style is pretty uniform across his two dozen or so books which seek to reach the educated layperson. In quest of this goal (which sells books) Ehrman dumbs down the argument so much that I argue he loses his compass–categories overlap and a dangerous imprecision takes over which permits that the most immodest claims of the tradition hold the floor. Ehrman happens to be a scholar who is good at detail and terrible at generalities. He needs to be called out. Mythicists need to show that the context of Ehrman’s thought is totally bogus.
At bottom Ehrman’s a defender of the tradition. He’ll lean on assumption, speculation, and illogic–the very antitheses of good historical method–when the chips are down and when it comes to placing his (sometimes carefully researched) specifics in context.
As far as I’m concerned Ehrman has sold out. He’s now primarily a seller of books. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, because he has/had all the equipment to be a fine historian. But the origins of Christianity are complex. One can simplify only so much before the argument becomes very wrong. And Ehrman is very wrong.
One of the things that struck me while reading this section is Wrede’s clarity of thinking, especially when it comes to making judgments about what the text of Mark means. In each case we have to try to come to terms with several distinct layers. I would include among them:
The text as we interpret it today.
The text as the early church fathers understood it.
The text itself. (Often ambiguous.)
The author’s intended meaning. (And what the first audience would have inferred.)
The tradition as it came down to the author. (Whether it came from the first Christian communities or from Jesus himself.)
What Jesus actually did, said, and thought.
The Son of Man sayings
I’m jumping ahead a bit, but I think this is a crucial matter, and one that is sometimes ignored in current scholarship. Wrede cites Mark’s use of the term “Son of Man” as a probable indicator of messiahship. Many modern scholars would likely dismiss that characterization out of hand, because we know so much more now about bar nasha, thanks in part to works like Maurice Casey’s The Solution to the Son of Man Problem. Presuming Jesus did exist, he likely spoke in Aramaic. Hence, his pronouncements such as “The son of man is lord also of the Sabbath” probably meant “Man is master of the Sabbath” (i.e., the Sabbath was made for human beings and not vice versa).
But Wrede knew that. It was already well known in his day that bar nasha is an Aramaic idiomatic expression for “the man” (or “a man” or “a guy”). He writes:
This would naturally make the passages no longer usable as proofs for an earlier use of the messianic title by Jesus. But this judgement is premature. Our primary concern is with Mark, not with Jesus. The original sense of the passage is completely immaterial here. The one thing that remains established is that Mark is here speaking of the “Son of man” in the same sense as he is everywhere. [p. 19, emphasis mine]
Scholarship has moved on since Couchoud and there are a number of areas where refinements are necessary; I and others have pointed to shortcomings in Couchoud’s arguments. But there remains much that is thought-provoking nearly a century after his works were first published.
When I began posting on Couchoud’s book I intended only to address the few chapters on his views of Gospel origins. Given the interest generated I decided to continue posting to cover the whole book even though that meant the chapters would be out of sequence. So my next post will be links to the complete contents in their correct order.
Here is the final chapter. I have included the page references in square brackets.
JESUS has been definitely formed. His features have been determined and composed. He is still the great heavenly Judge of the Day of Doom; that he has been from the beginning; it was his first function and for long his only function. His Judgment will be preceded by the Resurrection of the Body; on this point the doctrine of the Roman Church has overcome that of St. Paul. It will be followed by eternal life. His Kingdom on Earth will last a thousand years, and in the eyes of God a thousand years are as a single day. His true Kingdom is not of this world, and the expectations founded upon it are not material. The oppressed may not dream of an earthly recompense from him, but after the Judgment is over they will put on as a garment their heavenly glory. The Advent withdraws to a remote future, and the dead will find paradise or hell till the coming of the awaited Day. In the meantime the Church makes its plans for its earthly continuation. The grand descent in glory will be Jesus’s second visit to earth; the first, in humiliation and sacrifice, is henceforth to be the subject of the Christian’s meditation. Continue reading “Jesus Formed (Couchoud)”
The previous post was Couchoud’s discussion of view of Christ as a mystical and heavenly being according to early Christian literature, and how in the Epistle of the Hebrews we encounter the first sign of a belief that Jesus took on a flesh and blood body while still operating entirely in the heavens, offering himself as a heavenly sacrifice, and in acting as our celestial high priest. From here it was but a small step to imagining Jesus visiting humankind on earth. In Couchoud’s view it was Marcion who took this critical step with his composition of the earliest form of the Gospel of Luke.
Much has been written about Marcion since Couchoud wrote. Here, however, I will present Couchoud’s argument with very little reference to more recent works on Marcion and Marcionism. The sharing of ideas is not for the sake of others embracing them whole, but in order to stimulate new thoughts by mixing what we know today with what others have thought before us.
Marcion the person and his contribution to Christianity
Couchoud introduces the person of Marcion in much the same colours as another scholar of his day, von Harnack, had done: as a revolutionary or reforming and noble spiritual figure who takes his place among other greats in the history of Christianity.