Given the recent fiasco of Joseph Hoffmann thinking he could easily toss challenges to his Galatians 4:4 nonsense but then walking away, muttering curses in Hebrew, without addressing a single one of the actual criticisms of his thesis detailed in two posts here it is easy to relate to much of René’s argument. (To avoid unnecessary embarrassment we will overlook that unfortunate attempt to spin a morphological argument presumably intended to befuddle others into thinking how unwrong he really was with his slip-ups over the dictionary meaning of a Greek word and misidentifying another word in the manuscripts.) If this is the historicists’ answer to Ehrman’s dismal attempt to rebut mythicism, mythicism’s future looks promising. By the time hostile critics of mythicism begin to grasp that in certain quarters mythicist arguments really do deal with the scholarship and the scholarly tools and the full range of the evidence, it may be too late to regain control of the wider public agenda. Or maybe deep down they do realize their intellectual vulnerability and that they really do have no weapons other than personal attack and ridicule.
My recent encounter with Matthew Novenson’s Christ among the Messiahs has led me to a few other publications of his and one of them I found particularly surprising and interesting: Why Does R. Akiba Acclaim Bar Kokhba as Messiah? that appeared in a 2009 Journal for the Study of Judaism (40). (Bar Kokhba was the leader of the second Jewish rebellion against Rome in the 130s CE. The Jewish Talmudic record preserves a tradition that the leading Rabbi of the time, Akiba, declared Bar Kokhba to be the Messiah. Unfortunately for Akiba’s hopes Bar Kokhba’s rebellion failed.)
What grabbed my attention was the way Novenson analysed the documentary evidence to understand its nature before accepting its narrative content at face value — something that should strike as such an obvious thing to do but also something that very few historical Jesus scholars seem to follow through seriously. Note the present tense in the title of Novenson’s article: “Why does R. Akikba . . .” — that is significant in that it tells us Novenson will be addressing the literary Akiba in the narrative. A rationale for this might be that the literary Akiba is all we have today to analyse. Or as Thomas L. Thompson might say, we need first to deal with the Akiba we do have (the figure in literary texts) before we can move on to knowing how we might understand a historical Akiba behind the texts.)
A significant feature of Novenson’s method of argumentation is that it touches on a few criteria and methods frequently used in historical Jesus studies. We will see that he applies them not as rhetorical questions with “obvious” answers but as real questions requiring genuine investigation:
Why would any Jew make up a story embarrassing to a great rabbi of history?
Why would anyone make any of it up at all?
The characters are historical, the setting is historical, and the narrative is plausible and coherent. Why should we not believe the narrative is historical?
Now in historical Jesus studies these sorts of questions are raised less as gateways to inquiry than as rhetorical affirmations. There seems to be something about Jesus as a subject of historical inquiry that shuts down imaginations and brings out The Fossil’s Creed in NT scholars. “Why of course this or that story must be based on a true event! Why would anyone make it up? Why would anyone make up a story embarrassing to a respected rabbi? Of course it cannot be made up! It has to be true!”