The opening publication of R. Joseph Hoffmann, the leader of “The Jesus Process: A Consultation on the Historical Jesus”, is a curious puzzle of blended words and concepts that have the power to overwhelm his choir with the sense that they are listening to a view so original, unique and erudite that they are bound to think:
Now here is our prophet! I do not understand what he is saying but it is clearly incomprehensibly deep. I must bookmark this and tackle it again another day when I will not feel so intellectually incompetent if I do not understand his every word. Till then, I will highly praise and recommend it to others . . . .
Unless I have misunderstood Hoffmann’s publication (he speaks of his blog post as an “essay” “now published!” along with much terminological pretentiousness such as “Process”, “Consultation”, copyright insignia) he almost entirely avoids the question of whether or not Christianity began with an historical Jesus. That appears not to be his intention at all. For Hoffmann, the historicity of Jesus is a given. Hoffmann describes his essay
as a preface of sorts to a more ambitious project on the myth theory itself and what we can reliably know – if anything — about the historical Jesus.
The question of what we can know about the historical Jesus has been the starting point of all hitherto quests we have seen for the historical Jesus. Necessarily it begins with the assumption that there is indeed an historical Jesus to know about.
Hoffmann sums up the myth theory itself as
largely incoherent, insufficiently scrupulous of historical detail, and based on improbable bead-string analogies . . . . [guilty of] methodological sloppiness with respect to the sources and their religious contexts . . . . [and] almost entirely based on an argument from silence, especially the “silence” of Paul.
One has to wonder why any such theory is deserving of any scholarly attention at all or how Hoffmann himself can ever justify his own history of support for the mythicist team.
If the fear is that a misguided public are ignorantly being persuaded by arguments so inept, then why not present a simple and direct point by point exposure of the sham? Hoffmann would respond to this question by declaring that such point by point exposures have been published since 1912 —
- S. J. Case, The Historicity of Jesus (Chicago, 1912)
- F. C. Conybeare, The Historical Christ (London, 1914)
- Maurice Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene, Myth or History (London 1928; rpt. Amherst, 2008)
- R. T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (London, 1986)
- Morton Smith, “The Historical Jesus,” in Jesus in History and Myth, ed. R.J. Hoffman and G.A Larue (Amherst, 1986)
Yet bizarrely the same R. Joseph Hoffmann who writes in his Jesus Process essay that Goguel’s arguments are a “clear refutation” of mythicism, and who in the Introduction in a reprint of Goguel’s book wrote that
Goguel poses real challenges to the theory that Jesus never existed (p. 35)
also wrote on this blog two years ago that Goguel’s arguments were “weak and dated“, that the reprint of his book had “historical interest” but was otherwise “pretty insignificant“, that to demolish his arguments, as Doherty has done, is nothing worth mentioning, and that the myth theory is kept at arms length from academia for reasons other than its intrinsic merits:
The work is of some historical interest, but I agree that his arguments are weak and dated, but deserve exposure and examination for that reason. I don’t think it a particularly valorous or useful act to “demolish” them; but you may have other reasons for calling this pretty insignificant reprint to task. Anyway, I highly recommend the fruitfulness of having a look at the succession of French scholarship, beginning with Renan and Loisy even, but certainly including Guignebert (Loisy’s pupil for awhile) and the Protestant Goguel. I should also mention that the biggest reason for the shyness of scholars with respect to the non-historicity thesis had/has to do with academic appointments (as in security thereof) rather than common sense. As a middle-of-the road Hegelian like Strauss discovered.
Hoffmann also wrote in the same Introduction that
Goguel is by far superior to other defenders* of historicity . . . . (p. 32)
His footnote to “defenders” singles out only one name: Shirley Jackson Case. So one must wonder why Hoffmann sees fit to post a chapter of Case’s book given that he has written that Goguel’s arguments, “weak and dated” and easily demolished today though they are, are nonetheless “far superior” to anything Case has written!
Given these words of Hoffmann from June 2010, we must conclude that our scholar has been undergoing some struggle with his deconversion from mythicism. The same words may further help explain Hoffmann’s often logically and factually flawed and incoherent attacks on mythicism, his vicious personal assaults against Carrier, Doherty and yours truly, and some of his less than comprehensible arguments for historicism.
Strange description of the “Christ-myth” thesis and the threat it poses
Hoffmann writes that mythicism is “an argumentative approach to the New Testament” that is “based on the theory that the historical Jesus . . . did not exist.”
This essay is in part an attempt to clarify procedural issues relevant to what is sometimes called the “Christ-myth” or “Non-historicity” thesis—an argumentative approach to the New Testament based on the theory that the historical Jesus of Nazareth did not exist.
Does Hoffmann really mean this? Does he really believe that mythicism is itself an assumption that Jesus does not exist that is seeking to justify itself by “an argumentative approach” to the New Testament? If so, he is not giving himself any room for honest engagement with mythicist arguments. To declare your opponent as merely being “argumentative”, or seeking to rationalise an assumption, from the start is to declare that you have no intention of taking seriously anything your opponent has to say. Shut down the debate. Shirley Jackson Case has said it all.
Hoffmann approvingly quotes Morton Smith’s response to mythicist G. A. Wells faulting him for supposedly arguing “mainly from silence”. In the original chapter Smith did not dispute the silence but, as far as I am aware, nor did he address the arguments of Wells that Paul was not silent about what he did believe about Jesus. When mythicists point out that the Christ myth is attested in the pre-Gospel literature — the epistles (not only Paul’s), Hebrews and Revelation — historicists, Morton Smith included, reply that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of an historical Jesus. Silence is something to be explained, says Morton Smith. The historicist theory must hold despite the silence.
Hoffmann sees his own role as leading the scholarly guild to its salvation, a position thrust upon him since he appears to be the only one capable of the task:
I have come to regard this thesis as fatally flawed and subject to a variety of objections that are not often highlighted in the academic writings of New Testament scholars. The failure of scholars to take the “question of Jesus” seriously has resulted in a slight increase in the popularity of the non-historicity thesis, a popularity that—in my view—now threatens to distract biblical studies from the serious business of illuminating the causes, context and development of early Christianity.
Hoffmann begins his essay with by presuming Jesus’ historicity and the assurance that the New Testament itself is the most extensive evidence for this “fact”:
While the New Testament offers the most extensive evidence for the existence of the historical Jesus . . .
So here the door appears to be shut in the faces of anyone — New Testament scholars included — who has argued that the Gospels are literary and theological fictions.
. . . the [NT] writings are subject to a number of conditions that have dictated both the form and content of the traditions they have preserved.
That is, he begins with the conventional assumption that the NT writings are preserving historical traditions. It is this assumption that mythicism questions. But Hoffmann ignores the question as if it doesn’t exist and crashes on through:
These conditions did not disappear with the writing of the first gospel, nor even with the eventual formation of the New Testament canon. They were expressly addressed by Christian writers in the second and third century who saw an incipient mythicism as a threat to the integrity of the message about Jesus.
This will be news to many of Hoffmann’s peers who have always insisted that one of the arguments against mythicism is that there never was any controversy at all over whether Jesus was mythical or not in the early history of the Church.
But Hoffmann is only warming up. He moves on to argue that the early Church writings were both preserving and separating the received traditions about Jesus, or what was “known” about Jesus, from what was “believed” about him and from “the corrosive effects of a pervasive salvation myth” that had become attached to him.
Hoffmann believes that the Gospel authors were never completely overwhelmed by salvation myth or credulity and thus were able to record in their works
a stubbornly historical view of Jesus . . . reliable information about his life and teachings.
Future essays by Hoffmann will no doubt inform us whether his views of what content is historically reliable coincide with the passages voted red by the Jesus Seminar. Hoffmann does appear to be disagreeing with his peers who have argued that the Christ of the Gospels is a Christ of faith (only) and that any historical content has to be recovered from “beneath” the text by means of various criteria.
The historical Jesus, Hoffmannn believes, was a teacher —
like dozens of other Hellenistic teachers.
The difference was that Jesus lacked “sophisticated ‘biographers’ to preserve his accomplishments”. The “only” reason Jesus is distinct from the others in the record is that his memory was perpetuated though the ritual and worship of the cult that formed around him. On the other hand, other ancient figures who were worshiped through their own cultic following are known to us “through literary artifacts”. Jesus only had “texts” to preserve his memory alongside his cult.
Jesus is distinct only because the cult that formed around him perpetuated his memory in ritual, worship, and text, while the memory of other attested personalities of antiquity, even those who enjoyed brief cultic popularity like Antigonus I, Ptolemy I and Demetrius of Macedon are known to us mainly through literary artifacts.
Hopefully follow-up essays by Hoffmann will explain the difference between “texts” and “literary artifacts”. Does he mean that the “texts” perpetuating the memory of Jesus were influenced by the ritual and worship of Jesus while other “literary artifacts” were not because the “cultic popularity” of other figures was only “brief”? But Hoffmann has also said that the “texts” contain “reliable information about [Jesus’] life and teachings” and a “stubbornly historical view” of him.
Hoffmann’s essay continues with a discussion of “The Literary Matrix” of the gospels. I may or may not address that section in a future post. Those efforts may be brief, however, since I find it difficult to see their relevance to the mythicist debate. They are also based in part on some factual errors about ancient historians such as Livy.
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