Continuing from the previous post: The Carrier-Goodacre Exchange (Part 1) on the Historicity of Jesus.
I have typed out the gist of the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus as argued by Richard Carrier (RC) and Mark Goodacre (MG) on Unbelievable, a program hosted by Justin Brierley (JB) on Premier Christian Radio. My own comments are in side boxes.
JB: The main sticking point so far — for MG, the references in Paul cannot be attributed to him believing in an entirely celestial being in a heavenly realm. So many (even throw-away) references in Paul seem to reference historical people who knew Jesus. But RC is adamant that all these references can be seen through the mythicist lens as references to a purely spiritual, heavenly Jesus.
RC: Yes. Paul, for example, never says Peter met Jesus. Peter came first. That was the problem. The other apostles had prior authority to Paul.
Peter was thus the first, but the first what? He was the first to receive a revelation. 1 Corinthians 15 thus says Jesus according to the scriptures* died and rose again and he was THEN seen by Peter and the others. There is no reference to them seeing him before he died. No reference to them being with him, chosen by him, etc. (The issue of Peter seeing and knowing Jesus personally never surfaces in their debates.)
MG: But Paul is talking about resurrection there, so of course he’s not talking about other things. “But what we have to do as historians is to look at what people give away in passing. And what he gives away in passing there is his knowledge of an early Christian movement focused on someone who died.” And then there are the other characters who appear elsewhere in Paul’s epistles whom Paul has personal conversations with in Jerusalem.
RC: Yes, these are the first apostles. These are the first to receive the revelations of the Jesus according to the myth theory.
There is no clear case where Paul gives the answer either way – – –
JB: If I was reading Paul without ever having read the Gospels, would I come away thinking Paul was talking of a heavenly Jesus? It strikes JB that there was enough to make one think there was something that happened in real life.
RC: But Paul doesn’t, really. His talk is really about abstract mythological concepts of dying and rising. There is no specific detail. Example,
- “being born of a woman” (not born of Mary at a particular time, for example)
- “of the seed of David” (but he doesn’t say how he knows that) **
** Woops. Paul does indeed say how he knows that — he says it is known according to the Scriptures.
MG: Dying isn’t mythological and abstract according to Paul. Paul speaks of dying as happening all the time in his own communities. He often links death and resurrection of people in his communities with the death and resurrection of Jesus. It wouldn’t make any sense for Paul to be appealing to these sufferings of Jesus in this context (that Paul shared with) if these sufferings hadn’t actually taken place on earth.
RC: Gives a second example, a more concrete piece of evidence, the Ascension of Isaiah, from second century, probably originally from first century. This has been heavily redacted by Christians and it is easy to see these layers — references to Pilate, etc. In the early part of this document Isaiah is shown Jesus who is a pre-existent being who will descend to the lower heaven and assume a body, and Satan and the demons will crucify him “in the firmament, in the lower heavens”. Then he rises again and Satan and his demons see who he really is, the resurrected Christ.
So we have to explain this as either the original teaching that evolved over time or that the later Christians adopted the celestial Jesus view and took Jesus out of history.
JB: Why would Christians who started out with a heavenly Jesus known by revelation only want to later make him a historical figure?
RC: You could ask that question of all the other gods in antiquity. You start out with the celestial deity who is then put on earth in history. You want to know the possible reasons they were doing that. We KNOW they were doing it.
One of the possible reasons is argued by Kurt Noll, last chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, “Investigating Earliest Christianity without Jesus”: he argues there is a polemical and basic natural selection advantage to a church that packages its deity as a historical figure and creates a tradition that it can trace back. So creating this idea that Peter knew Jesus personally and was the first in the tradition and it can be traced back to him is rhetorically useful.***
**** Embarrassing? That’s the apologetic line but it does not stack up against boasts over the crucifixion;
****Paul persecuted the church in the canonical tradition, yes, but what was the origin of this claim? Who doubted it?
**** The idea of a Messiah being crucified, or at least put to death in the first time of his appearance, does indeed find a place within Second Temple Judaism — as Levenson and others discussed here have demonstrated. RC skirts closely to one of these ideas when he speaks of a belief in the actual (atoning) death of Isaac.
MG: One of the problems with this view is that early Christians actually had a lot of trouble explaining the crucifixion. Paul said the idea was a stumbling block to the Jews. This is something they are not spending time manufacturing, but rather spending time attempting to explain. It’s kind of embarrassing to them at first.**** So Paul at first persecuted the Christian movement,**** and presumably persecuted it for coming out with this preposterous idea that the Messiah would be crucified. So they are working with a tradition or idea that was horrifying to many others – that the Messiah in the recent past was crucified. ****
JB: It’s the idea of the criterion of embarrassment often used in HJ studies.
JB then asks MG if he thinks this [preaching an ’embarrassing’ doctrine like this] to be a likely thing in a Jewish culture, though it may have happened in pagan cultures.
MG: The Gospel of Mark is trying to explain that the idea of a crucified Messiah is not barmy. He admits the disciples are thinking, “This can’t be right.”
The early Christian gospel was always “this great struggle with this great paradox”.
JB: Turns to RC and challenges him with the idea that if one was to make up a story then one would not make up this one because it’s going to be too hard to sell.
RC: Creating absurd and embarrassing and paradoxical religions was very common at the time. Example, god Attis died through castration and to be a priest one had to be castrated. This is not an argument for a real Attis who really castrated himself.
Many demigods die and rise from the dead — always called “suffering/passion” — and by believing in this the devotee could also be saved from death.
RC refers to his book Proving History in which he has an extensive section on the problems of this criterion of embarrassment.
JB: Asks MG if, quite apart from the question of Paul’s references, he thinks the idea is plausible that a god would be historicized as this mythicist scenario claims.
MG: “I find it extraordinarily difficult to grasp historically.” Reason: We know quite a lot about Judaism of this period.
Christianity does not emerge in some great vacuum. We know how lots of Jews thought, so when we see Paul and other writings about Jesus we know they’re not just randomly making it up. It coheres with how we know Jews of the time thought and how lots of them reacted to the early Christian movement.
MG: Shares some of RC’s caution about the criterion of embarrassment — he doesn’t think the early Christians were “ultimately” embarrassed about what they were preaching — that Christ died for our sins, etc. What they are concerned about is that they know other people think it sounds odd. And the reason they know it sounds weird is because they are Jews who know what their fellows think.
That’s why mythicism is so hard to get one’s head around — because we have some idea how Jews at this time thought about these things.
RC: Thinks this explanation is somewhat misleading. There were dozens of Jewish sects and we know nothing of them. We know of the rabbinical and Qumran Jews, but we can’t extrapolate and say that all Jews thought that way. This is an argument from ignorance. There was more diversity than we are aware of. We can’t launch from arguments like “We know what rabbinic Jews thought so we can know what all Jews thought at the time.”
MG: No, we don’t know what ALL of them though. We have a good idea what lots of them thought. And to understand Christian origins we have to understand the Christian sect as one of those elements within Judaism. And one of the things Paul shared with other Jews like the Pharisees and others is that they believed in the resurrection of the body — and it had to die on earth first.
Once we understand this context it is easier to see how Jesus (historical) fits into that picture.
RC: To give an example of how diverse Jewish views could be: In The Life of Adam we have Adam being buried in heaven. Or if one reads Hebrews 9 shows that even a sect believing in a literal sacrifice of Isaac would have been quite at home in Jewish religious thought.
JB: We don’t think Hebrews was written by Paul.
MG: But even in Hebrews, the argument works because Jesus has been “tempted” and the believer has gone through trials, but none as great as the experiences of Jesus. So the author compares the way the contemporary Christian lives with the way Jesus lived — as a human being on earth that went through these sorts of things — real, bodily suffering on earth.
RC: If Hebrews said that then there would be no debate.
If we read Philippians, for another example, we see a testing or temptation of a celestial being in a celestial state — and that he did not succumb and take equality with God but humiliated himself instead.
JB: But I read that passage and attribute to it the incarnation of Jesus as a physical human being.
RC: That is what’s going on — it’s just not going on on earth according to mythicist theory.
MG: But he takes on the form of a slave, and that’s the whole point about crucifixion — it was a slave’s death. So once again we come back to the historical event of the crucifixion having taken place on earth in the same way a slave has been crucified. It’s the lowest of the low, not even the lowest heaven, but down here on earth.
RC: It doesn’t say that though. That’s one way of interpreting it. But it’s so vague it can actually be interpreted the other way as well. It could fit the original redaction to the Ascension of Isaiah or it could fit the Gospel of John. That’s why I think certainty can’t be found here. We don’t have a smoking gun either way. So what we want to look at is, “What is the overall best explanation of all of the evidence?”
And there are other points that haven’t come up yet:
- One of these is that we do have in Jewish pre-Christian theology a pre-existent being named Jesus, who was the first-born son of God, who was the high priest of the celestial temple, just like Hebrews explains, and was also called the Logos, the Word of God, (an archangel). This is in Philo, a contemporary of Paul.
So read the Philippians hymn within the context of this pre-Christian Jewish theology of this other Jesus, you can see it in the same sense as the Ascension of Isaiah. So it makes sense in that context.
RC says it is his obligation to document and extensively prove these claims and this the subject of his next book.
MG: One has to be careful not to make these sorts of big leaps. RC is intelligent and well-read but tends to make these big leaps into material, and only ever uses an analogy to disprove the historicity of Jesus. This is not the way to approach history.
The historian has to try to get inside the way Paul and the Gospel writers are talking about these things, and ask if this makes best sense as people who are talking about the human being living in recent history. In each case it makes so much more sense this way.
And in some of the earlier writing they actually knew people who knew him, they knew his family, they had met these people, ate with them, argued with them. When Paul spoke to James in Jerusalem, James would have been horrified if Paul thought his brother he had grown up with and eaten fish with never existed. *****
JB: The Gospel of Mark is generally seen as falling in the genre of historical biography. Does it seem reasonable at all to think that this would not be telling us about the historical deeds of Jesus?**** Or is there another genre of literature a heavenly messiah should fall into and does our Gospel genre look like that at all?
MG: There is later literature (noncanonical gospels and revelation-type discourses) that is much more suited in genre to talking about a purely celestial being. The gospels do have important analogies with the bios of Greek and Roman persons. But the Gospels are still gospels, trying to sell a message. But the message they are trying to sell is that Jesus is a real flesh and blood character. They are thoroughly persuaded that Jesus is a real character in history.
RC: They want their readers to be persuaded of this.
MG: Yes absolutely.
RC: Another analogy that would bring more agreement: Compare the accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels of Mark and John. (And you can see the same development in the other gospels too.) It is clear John is trying to muster all the evidence he can think of to prove that Jesus actually rose in the flesh. John shows his wounds, discovery of empty tomb, and burial cloths, etc. — He’s embellishing the story specifically to sell a particular view of what happened at the resurrection. MG would surely agree this is all fiction.
If you can do that for the resurrection, you can do that for Jesus in general.
Luke and John — in these we can especially see this process at work.
Mark and Matthew are slightly more debatable. In Mark, Jesus’ first parable is to hide the meaning from the public but to explain only to the insiders. And this is a clue as to what the whole Gospel of Mark is about. This is the subject of John Crossan’s latest book, The Power of Parable. — That is, that the Gospels are not just parables from Jesus but are parables about Jesus. This is what the Gospels are about. You can see this Jesus is being used to sell a particular doctrine, and that once that is done, it becomes more useful to sell a real historical Jesus.
JB: The question JB faces is whether the Synoptic Gospels are fiction from the start, entirely made up, to put this heavenly Jesus in this historical earthly plane. JB finds this hard to accept.
RC: That is the subject of his next book. This is a question that requires a lot of background and explanation, and a rigorous presentation of the logic. MG referred to leaps of logic. RC wants to find a way to identify any such leaps, and this will be the goal of the new book — to easily identify flaws in the argument if they are there.
JB: Asks MG if it seems utterly implausible that it was all made up from the start. **
MG: In any writing we have layers upon layers of interpretation. There is no such thing as an unvarnished truth or uninterpreted memory, for example. The job of the historian is to take all of these traditions “as seriously as he or she can” and penetrate them (these “refracted memories”) and work out what it is we can say with confidence. *
* This is the new post-modernist case being made by Anthony Le Donne, Dale Allison and others, and that I recently addressed in several posts.
This is the extrapolation of hypothetical data from material that is assumed to be derived from memories of the historical Jesus. It is, as far as I am aware, a form of “historiography” unique to HJ studies. James McGrath has boasted that it makes HJ scholars pioneers in the wider field of historiography.
Among the rocks it crashes against are the literary studies of those scholars who demonstrate that the texts are not sourced from memories at all, but from other texts.
We create many problems for ourselves if we take the historical Jesus out of the picture. We have to make “so many strange leaps if we assume that there is no Jesus in the picture.” More than anything else, we don’t just have Jesus in this picture. We have many other characters that are in the story, too, and that only hyper-scepticism would cause us to doubt.
In ancient history, people only survive in the record insofar as they are remembered by the people they make an impact upon. So of course we won’t find physical remains as we do of Pilate. But the evidence we do find is exactly what we would expect to find — that is, Jesus surviving in the memories of those who were closest to him. And of course those memories are influenced by all kinds of things — legendary things, creative things, that come their way. But that is exactly the kind of historical evidence we would expect to find — to find it in the memories that become the traditions of that early communities.
And this stuff goes pretty early. Paul is “pretty early” — he is mixing with these characters in the 30s. Even with the gospels were are talking of events only a couple of generations before they were written — so we are “pretty close to the events”.
It becomes torturous after awhile if one pursues the mythicist argument. There are simply too many problems if we take the HJ out of the picture. The argument becomes terribly explained. “Sometimes” in history we have to go with the simplest hypothesis, and the simplest one in this case is the one that explains all the evidence best, and that is that there was a historical figure called Jesus.
One must be careful to not to let a healthy scepticism become hyper-scepticism.
RC: Using the mere absence of evidence to argue for the non-existence of Jesus is hyper-scepticism.
There are ways to build plausible historicist theories. (e.g. that Jesus was an obscure person and the gospels greatly exaggerate his fame.) Though there are problems with that case, too.
It is not that mythicism creates problems, it is the case that mythicism attempts to solve some of the problems that the historicist case creates.
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57 thoughts on “Carrier-Goodacre (part 2) on the Historicity of Jesus”
I think we should take a moment to clarify a big misunderstanding about “absence of evidence” and whether it can ever suggest “an evidence of absence”. I agree with both Mark (and Richard) that there are certain types of historical evidences that we ought not to expect for Jesus of Nazareth (coins, monuments, etc.), given that he was not a ruler or famous politician or some such. That’s fine. But what good does it do to defend a minimal Historical Jesus if at nearly ever turn we have to distinguish this HJ from the Jesus of the NT? Consider Goodacre’s caveat about hyper-scepticism…what could be meant by avoiding hyper-scepticism except, at some level, to trust that Paul said what he meant to say. In other words, we can’t treat him as a mental case, just because he claims to have had a vision of Jesus…to do so would undercut any real effort to understand his thoughts and convictions. Ok, fair enough. But that same Paul clearly thought (and taught) that you can’t define Jesus as whoever you want. For Paul, if you want to be a Christian, there are non-negotiables that you must adhere to. The main non-negotiable regarding the identity of Jesus is that he actually rose from the dead! Therefore, these minimal Historical Jesus characters, those admired by Borg, Crossan, other Seminar “believers”, and liberal scholars in general, would all be firmly denounced by Paul, the very person that they would cite as the best source for any HJ. The irony is staggering to me.
My point here is really about what evidence to expect as a historian. In no case would we expect coins and monuments. But if Jesus rose from the dead, as Paul insisted and cohered his entire theology, then we would expect much more than what we have historically. If a man rose from the dead (or even if he didn’t but convinced a great number that he did), then YES, we should expect historians from Greece or Rome to have found cause to investigate this extraordinary claim and document their findings. Also, perhaps it would have been prudent for the Jews who denied Jesus’ messiahship to write their reasons for denying the resurrection, if it was a historical claim. The fact that we have nothing on this order is a conspicuous absence indeed….not proof of mythicism, but a decent tally in its favor. I don’t think Carrier or any other mythicist thinker should shy away from this. And if the historicist across the table says, “I’m not talking about the Jesus of the Gospels who walks on water and rises from the dead” (perhaps like the HJ that Bultmann believed in), we must immediately ask the question in response, “what’s the value of talking about this minimal Jesus then?”. Because this is no longer the non-negotiable Jesus that Paul was talking about in 1Cor15. It does no good for the historicist to say that they can depart from Paul’s understanding of Jesus at any point they please…I mean….sure you CAN, but then you’re just as guilty of hyper-scepticism as any mythicist ever could be. In other words, you can’t have it both ways….if Paul’s writings are your “big gun” as evidence (or proof) of a historical Jesus, you can’t very well turn around and say “With all due respect, Paul, let me tell you where you seem to misunderstand who Jesus was”. Am I the only one who feels that this tactic (or maneuver, or whatever you want to call it) has gone beyond absurd?
The minimal Jesus approach, whatever it’s contradictions or problems re the gospel JC and Pauline ideas, is basically an attempt to uphold the premise that what we are dealing with is not all imagination, that it’s not all mythical. And that is the approach also of George Wells.
The ahistoricist/mythicist position does not, cannot, exclude historical realities from being relevant. The core of that position is simply that the gospel JC figure is ahistorical, is not a flesh and blood figure. That historical figures were relevant to the gospel writers in the creation of their JC story is upheld by Doherty:
“I can well acknowledge that elements of several representative, historical figures fed into the myth of the Gospel Jesus, since even mythical characters can only be portrayed in terms of human personalities, especially ones from their own time that are familiar and pertinent to the writers of the myths.”
A minimal Jesus, as your post indicates, is worthless as a theological construct and worthless for any historical investigation. However, the premise that position is endeavoring to articulate, regardless of how inadequately it is doing so, is that reality matters; that historical reality matters; that flesh and blood matter. It’s not all mythical. The historicist camp is not going to surrender that basic core of it’s position. Jewish history is relevant to the gospel JC story.
What the historicists have to surrender is their idea that the gospel JC figure is a historical figure. What some ahistoricist/mythicist have to surrender is their idea that it’s all mythical. The meeting place from which both camps can move forward, move forward with both sides keeping their dignity intact, is a historical meeting place. A meeting place that allows Jewish history to become the road map to an understanding of early christian origins.
But do you agree, that to use a source (like Paul, to use the best example) as a demonstration of someone’s historicity, it would be better if that source had their grounding in what we normally think of as the real world? If all you want to focus on is theological forces, spiritual transformations, and the nature of salvation, then would you be surprised that later readers find your works to be noticeably untethered to historical reality? If it’s important that the spiritual acts one speaks about be seen as occurring in earthbound time/space, as opposed to only in celestial realms, wouldn’t it be wise to ground your letters in a familiar context of time/space? At least a little bit? Like maybe, mention one commonly known place that Jesus definitely visited or one commonly known person that Jesus definitely interacted with…. is that really too much to expect of Paul?…if any small part of the Gospel Adventure is historical fact, then I should think not.
But the Pauline writer has grounded his argument. Yes, contentious for some mythicists – but we do have the references to seed of David, born of a woman. That’s plain English is it not? Flesh and blood. From that grounding in physical reality, Paul is able to reach for the sky. It’s only the illogical arguments of some mythicists that deny Paul’s argument a foothold in physical reality. Why does the Pauline writer not fill out his flesh and blood argument with greater, gospel, detail? A few ideas below:
1) Paul is interested in a theology/philosophy of neither Jew nor Greek. All are one in Christ. Placing primary emphasis upon a Jewish figure, however important that figure might have been for Jewish messianic idea, would have, potentially, caused his theory to backfire. He would be shooting himself in the foot!
2) All Paul’s theory, of neither Jew nor Greek, has to acknowledge is that prior to that theory, things were very different i.e. very Jewish. Very concrete bound to Jewish history. i.e. New ideas develop from old ideas. The old idea can be placed in the museum of historical curiosities; but the old idea is a legacy to which the new idea is bound. It’s the old idea that allows the new idea to shine brightly! Intellectually, we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us….
The Pauline writer achieves these two objectives with his reference to seed of David and born of a woman. That’s all he needs to do. Indicate that his new theory is related, connected to, a previous reality. Paul has not cut off his spiritual/philosophical theory, re neither Jew nor Greek, from reality. A link, a legacy, to the old theory is upheld. But even here the Pauline writer is able to, as it were, have his cake and eat it too…..While a link to the past reality was necessary for the Pauline new theory (as it is with all theories) the Pauline writer has not allowed that linkage to the past to be specific, to be able to identify any specific individual. A messiah figure from the seed of David? History does not support that idea.
What history does support is a Hasmonean messiah figure, Antigonus; executed by Rome in 37 b.c. So, while the Pauline writer is acknowledging the relevance of past realities, of flesh and blood, Jewish, royal, flesh and blood – he would not want, in anyway whatsoever, to call attention to the execution of Antigonus. 1) because it would defeat his purpose re a new theory of neither Jew nor Greek. 2) Rome and Jewish messianic hopes were at cross purposes.
The last thing the new Pauline theology/philosophy needed was to re-open old wounds re the Roman execution of Antigonus – for both of the above reasons.
In other words: the gospel JC story is about reflecting, mythologizing, Jewish messianic hopes and ideas. Pauline theology/philosophy, while indebted to all of that, has moved in a very different direction. Consequently, to expect Paul to backup in great detail the gospel JC story, is to ask Paul to inflict damage upon his own forward moving new ideas. A legacy is to be appreciated and honoured – but it is not something that can be allowed to restrict or cause harm to living a life in the moment.
So, for us today who want to search for early Christian origins, it’s not interpreting the Pauline writings that are going to help us. That’s simply the update, as it were. The historical roots, the Jewish roots, are entwined within the gospel JC story.
I think you think I’m making an argument that I’m not really making. I’m not expecting Paul to write gospels instead of epistles. I’m not even expecting historical background “in great detail” at any point. I’m expecting SOME detail, the very small amount that I think would be unavoidable if you’re talking about a real historical person. I’m fine with Paul’s emphasis being these forward-thinging theological ideas, but my concern has been all along that, far from “great detail”, he actually says ZERO about the history of Jesus.
“but we do have the references to seed of David, born of a woman. That’s plain English is it not?”
On the contrary, I think those two statements are about as vague as could be! Especially “born of a woman”…that’s a complete joke as evidence of historical anchoring. Note that one or two words changes it completely, though. If it was “born of (ANY WOMAN’S NAME)”, then the nature of the sentence is completely different, and you would then have something bona fide to appeal to for historicity. I’ll grant that “seed of David” is slightly harder to account for on the mythicist view, but only slightly. I mean “seed” does seem to make most sense as denoting “progeny/descendent” (on earth). But in a world where people could apparently consider John the Baptist to be the return of Elijah (Matt 11), without a specific notion of reincarnation within their religion….is it really that far-fetched to think of a celestial Jesus as the furthering of a famed Jewish king, who was promised (wrongly) that his line would never end? Add on top of that how nebulous a character David really is. Archaeologists have tried in vain to locate his glorious kingdom, but alas, the father of Solomon seems to be little more than a tribal leader. Plus he was many centuries before the supposed time of Jesus. So although the straightforward translation of the words in Paul might suggest a placement in history, the greater context and import of those words shows how little light they could ever shed on history. So I’m sorry, but I still find the relative absence of any clear historical details to be as conspicuous as it ever was. And please don’t say I have an unfalsifiable theory since you can argue about what’s “clear” all day. Please do keep in mind that I declared my own theory null and void if only one word from Paul was different (i.e., if we had a NAME, instead of “a woman”). That would be all the “clear historical detail” I would need to consider historicism as more likely than mythicism. But alas, given the absence of that one simple name (could have been mentioned anywhere in the Pauline corpus, too), I see things as the other way around.
I think we both agree that the primary Pauline focus is on the new, the no Jew no Greek philosophy/theology. If we grant that to Paul – we cannot then turn around and ask him to name some Jewish name – as though naming names is going to help move his new theory forward. Yes, it might help settle once and for all, for some people, the modern day HJ/MJ debate – but come now, do you really think that words in a manuscript are able to settle such a question? Words – the testimony of Paul? How do you know that Paul was a historical figure? Can you establish his historicity? No you can’t. Consequently, one cannot rely upon words attributed to a character whose existence can be questioned. The very idea would not get as far as the courthouse door.
The Pauline writings are great for speculation – and playing a game of linguistic one-upmanship – that’s it. They are not evidence for anything whatsoever.
As to the HJ/MJ debate – both positions are able to interpret the NT to their theories. The theory that the gospel JC was a historical figure that was later embellished is a very plausible theory. That the gospel JC figure was ahistorical is also a plausible theory. I often think the debate is a bit like that vase picture – the one where one either sees the two faces or one sees the vase…
The HJ/MJ debate cannot, will not, be settled by using the very material from whence the JC story comes. To further this debate, to side-step the present check-mate, it is necessary to reach for a history book. History, Jewish history, Hasmonean history – that’s the road forward here. We need primary evidence. Primary sources. The NT is not a primary source.
A while back I put up a chart on FRDB. It lists the the primary sources we do have, the historical sources – and alongside these sources is put the gospel story. From that comparison it cannot easily be maintained that the gospel JC story is a story without input from historical realities. Yes, lots of literary constructs, OT musings, mythological colouring – but also historical reflection. The chart does use material from Philo and from Josephus – while the writing of both can be questioned – the historical existence of the figures they write about cannot, i.e. we have the Hasmonean and Herodian coins. The least that can be said for the comparisons in this chart is that the gospel writers utilized the writings of both Philo and Josephus in the creation of their JC composite figure.
The gospel JC story is not history; it is a mythologizing of history; an interpretation of history; salvation history. History viewed through a Jewish philosophical and a prophetic lens. The story stands on it’s own feet – it does not need the Pauline writing. And if we are wanting to search for early christian origins – it’s the gospel story – not the Pauline writings – that have the potential to indicate a way forward. It’s the gospel story that is giving us the historical reflection – but to see clearly we need the history books.
“I think we both agree that the primary Pauline focus is on the new, the no Jew no Greek philosophy/theology. If we grant that to Paul – we cannot then turn around and ask him to name some Jewish name – as though naming names is going to help move his new theory forward.”
I think you fundamentally miss the point, then. Naming a Jewish name (or an involved Roman’s name – would be equally helpful) would not be a deliberate attempt to “move his new theory forward”. Of course not! It would be incidentally, but my point is those kind of incidentals would be absolutely inevitable if the person you’re talking about was historic and publicly known. In other words, you couldn’t spill that much ink about a historical person and NOT accidentally mention a few historical details! We’re not talking about the nature of epistolary literature here, we’re talking about how humans invariably communicate about things they believe in. If it was important to Paul that Jesus was historical, then he would have communicated that belief unconsciously, even if he didn’t need to deliberately. THIS is why I think the silence of Paul indeed matters.
As for your doubts that words in a text are the units that confirm or deny historical claims…I don’t know what to tell you. Words in texts are pretty much ALL WE EVER HAVE to confirm or deny claims, for better or worse. The first stage in historiography (or maybe second, after gathering as many pertinent sources as possible) is to try to evaluate the reliability of those sources, using external controls and internal analysis. We already know that we have no external controls for the NT, and that may be what you’re hinting at when you say “the NT is not a primary source”. True, we have none of the original manuscripts of NT docs, but this is the case for 99% of all historical figures. In the sense that historians normally use the term, the NT docs are in fact the ONLY primary sources that exist about Jesus. “Primary” here means direct account, not taken or cited from someone else. In this sense, Paul is the most primary, for he is most direct and least derived. Mark would be the next most primary, and we’d have to debate about oral traditions to determine how primary he is exactly. Matthew and Luke claim to be primary (direct accounts) but are clearly derived from Mark, Q, etc. And so on and so on. So by the time you get to Josephus, Tacitus, and others of their day, they are necessarily secondary sources, because they admittedly have no direct connection to the events/persons in question (let alone the fact that they’re another 30-50 years removed in time). I frankly don’t see what Hasmonean history and Herodian coins would ever help us see about the historical Jesus. I do see your point that Paul’s aim was not to write a history, but rather to do theology. I’m taking that into account, I promise you. But as much as it might disappoint us, Paul’s letters remain the closest we can get to Jesus…so we MUST reckon with them as our principal material, despite their genre being epistolary rather than historical. And since there’s no external controls to establish reliability for them, I therefore make my point on the grounds of internal analysis, and that’s nothing other than evaluating the WORDS we have from him, sorry to say. And so I ask, “If I’m writing theological treatises and instructions to churches across the whole of the empire, AND IF my theology centers around an actual historical figure that lived less than 20 years ago, wouldn’t I be bound (even unknowingly) to include some basic historical details about him?” What I’ve said in previous posts comprise, what I consider to be, the most logical answer to that question.
Think about this: For Jewish messianic ideas, naming names would be important. Vital. And for a historical search into early christian origins also vital. For Pauline theology/philosophy such names are irrelevant. OK – I’ve already said that 😉 Why? Because there is no ‘salvation’ in any man. No Jewish based theological ideas is going to elevate a man to such importance. Jewish messianic ideas are earth bound. Crucifixion, execution, death of a man has no moral value. Pauline theology/philosophy has found value in an execution. How did he do that? A stumbling block for Jews – and anyone else that has any grain of logic let alone moral fiber in their being.
“Among all the ideas ever to occur to a nasty human mind (Paul’s of course), the Christian “atonement” would win a prize for pointless futility as well as moral depravity.”
Pauline theology/philosophy has taken the reality of crucifixion, of a flesh and blood execution, the Jerusalem ‘below’ and set up a counterpart, a new context, where execution, where life, death – and resurrection, rebirth, can have supreme ‘salvation’ value, supreme ‘moral’ value. The Jerusalem ‘above’ – spiritual, intellectual, Jerusalem. In that context, In that new context, crucifixion, execution, is the fundamental value. What is immoral in a flesh and blood context becomes ‘moral’, becomes valuable, within an intellectual context. i.e. life, death and rebirth of ideas.
Jewish messianic ideas – and their ‘fulfillment’, their historical relevance, are the root from which Pauline theology/philosophy sprung. Paul acknowledges that with his seed of David i.e. royal messianic ideas. But in the Pauline new world, the intellectual world of ideas, there is no Jew nor Greek. History has given way to reflection, to interpretation, to philosophy.
NateP – as to ‘words’ being the way forward in the HJ/MJ debate: Words are not going to help in a search for early christian origins. Words, even at the best of times, can fail us. We can be misunderstood. Language develops. Words can include multiple meanings. A mother’s love for a child and a man’s love for a woman – horses for courses here 😉 Of course words are a necessary part of how we communicate – beneficial and often inadequate at the same time! In the context of words within the NT, we are met with a use of words that is problematic. Words that are used in the furtherance of theology, philosophy, prophetic interpretations, allegory, metaphor, mythology and just plain old storytelling. No words are immune from this literary quagmire. Not even that ‘seed of David’. All words are subject to having to be interpreted. Face value is not what the NT is about! Yes, we have to interpret the words and their setting, their story. But how are we going to do that? Debate one word over another world – a linguistic one-upmanship – as though words can be so tamed!
No, what we need is to turn to outside sources, historical sources. Yes, these too can be problematic. The bottom line is historical artifacts. In the case of the NT, what we have is the Hasmonean and Herodian coins. These give us evidence that specific individuals were indeed historical figures. Bottom line is that this is all we really have. Evidence that certain figures were historical. We can then turn to ‘stories’ about these figures. Philo and Josephus, for example. What do these stories tell us – and how do these non NT stories relate to the NT story. That is about all we can do. Attempt to draw a picture of the landscape from which the gospel JC story emerged. If we can then use that landscape to further our search into early christian origins – then we would have achieved something. The present debate over HJ/MJ is not really a debate at all – there is no evidence for HJ – and all that debate achieves is wasting time for the real work that faces us – the search for early christian history.
NateP – the Pauline writer named no names for his JC figure. We can come up with reasons why we would have liked him to do so – and what the consequences are for his lack of doing so. But that’s all just speculation anyway. The HJ/MJ debate does not hinge on anything that the Pauline writer decided to write. It does not hinge on any words that are attributed to this writer.
PS to the above post.
The quote is from Richard Dawkins. Unfortunately, the article is now behind a paywall….
I’m sorry Helena, but you’re simply misinformed about how historians do history. You are free to disagree about what Paul would drop into theological works in terms of historical details. I’m confident that most modern historians would agree with my logic, but if you do disagree about the inevitables of human conversation, then there’s no more arguments I can put forth to convince you of my position.
The question of sources is another matter altogether, and you’re just flat out wrong. Little (if not nothing) about Hasmonean history and Herodian coins has anything to do with the Jesus we’re inquiring about….you can mention them a million times, and you’re still going to convince no one, because we who have studied biblical history know better. And in no way are they the historical artifacts that we have to reckon with. Again, parrot it as much as you want, but historians know better…it’s why NO historians (mythicist, historicist, or otherwise) are writing papers about Hasmonean clues to the Historical Jesus. It may be the case that we have zero relevant artifacts for the HJ, and that will have to be a reality that we come to terms with. Otherwise, if you want to deal with the flawed sources that we do have, you have to wade into the murky waters of words and their various interpretations. Wish I could make it a cleaner reality for you, but I can’t. We have to work with the hands we are dealt in this discipline.
NateP – “….working with the hands we are dealt” = don’t don’t play the game then! Throw that hand in and start digging in the historical trenches….;-)
You and I are not going to get anywhere as long as you want to play that hand. And you know what – the dice is against you. The cards are stacked – the house will win.The HJ/MJ debate will not be settled. The debate will continue to ensnare the unwary with the chance of a lotto win. And to top it all – the JC historicists will be laughing all the way to the bank of popular opinion.
That is the reality of ‘working with the hands we are dealt”.
“don’t don’t play the game then! Throw that hand in and start digging in the historical trenches” – Motivational Mary
With all due respect, your ideological pep-talks are both exhausting and annoying. If you don’t like the hand that is dealt to those investigating the HJ, then YOU go invest your time/energy to the field of archaeology….I hope you dig up something that changes the landscape. If not, then stop trying to ask historians to drop their methodology. They won’t. I won’t. I’m still interested in the subject, despite you proclaiming that the “deck is stacked”. What you call stacked, I (and historians) call sparse information, that needs to be carefully sifted through. I’m not worried about “the bank of popular opinion” – the masses tend to be a dull lot anyway. I’ll handle the difficulties of convincing others after I’ve convinced myself through proper method, thank you very much. I can’t ask you to unpost the entry below, but I can ask that you stop trying to steer this thread with ideology and antiestablishment rhetoric. There are countless other blogs where that would be welcomed.
After further thought I’ve removed my “this road is closed” sign to this discussion. I only ask that we keep to the evidence. I have been as interested in Mary’s views of Christian origins as any other approach, but for an exchange of views we all need to be on the same page, and that means avoiding declarations of what motivates people unless we can relate that directly to the evidence.
“JB: Why would Christians who started out with a heavenly Jesus known by revelation only want to later make him an historical figure?”
Origen provided the answer to that. While an intellectual priestly elite like him understood the rich allegories of scripture, and could think in abstract terms, the average person could not, and needed a simple, direct, literal story that they could comprehend.
“MG: “Sometimes” in history we have to go with the simplest hypothesis, and the simplest one in this case is the one that explains all the evidence best, and that is that there was a historical figure called Jesus.”
Ah, if it were only that “simple”! But we are not just dealing with plain, one-dimensional, linear “history” here — we are dealing with ancient theology, prophecy, mythology, soteriology, and, as RC rightly stresses, a mentality where visions and revelations are continually transmuted into literary “reality.” Occam’s Razor becomes a dull blade indeed when used upon texts and social situations where religious fantasy and historicity are constantly interacting with and informing one another.
“MG: And to understand Christian origins we have to understand the Christian sect as one of those elements within Judaism.”
Ah, but there’s the rub. Is Mark a “Jewish” writer? He is not. He’s a Greco-Roman writer-mythologist. The reason the crucifixion is not embarrassing to him is that it was a horrible crime against humanity perpetrated by “the Jews.” They killed the Lord Jesus, as the Pauline writer also explicitly proclaims. The Christians are now the Chosen People of God because of the execution of Jesus, which God acknowledged by the destruction of the Temple.
Better to say: to understand Christian origins, we have to understand how or why Greeks and Romans became attracted to Judaism, to the point of trying to destroy the Jews with their poisoned pens.
And not only trying to destroy the Jews with their poison pens, but also hijack their scriptures!
MG: “In ancient history, people only survive in the record insofar as they are remembered by the people they make an impact upon. So of course we won’t find physical remains as we do of Pilate. But the evidence we do find is exactly what we would expect to find — that is, Jesus surviving in the memories of those who were closest to him. And of course those memories are influenced by all kinds of things — legendary things, creative things, that come their way. But that is exactly the kind of historical evidence we would expect to find — to find it in the memories that become the traditions of that early communities. And this stuff goes pretty early. Paul is “pretty early” — he is mixing with these characters in the 30s. Even with the gospels were are talking of events only a couple of generations before they were written — so we are “pretty close to the events”.”
I cannot understand why MG does not perceive the anomalies and fallacies in this scenario. In fact, by his own argument, we have to conclude that Jesus did not exist because he does not survive in the memories of the earliest writers, namely of the epistles. Calling the Christ “the seed of David” because it is found in scripture (according to Romans 1:2 which introduces that piece of data in verse 3), does not constitute the memory of an historical man. Turning a “brother of the Lord,” spoken in a manner similar to many other “brothers” who are simply members of the sect, into a sibling of a never-mentioned Jesus of Nazareth does not constitute the memory of an historical man. There isn’t a single clearly earthly tradition attached to the epistolary Christ, with the exception of being “killed by the Jews” in a widely-judged interpolation in 1 Thessalonians. (And Pilate in 1 Timothy comes from the 2nd century.)
Paul is “mixing with these characters in the 30s” but who are they? They are never linked to an earthly Jesus. Paul never says they gave him any information about a Jesus whatsoever, and in fact denies that anyone did. Even the “Lord’s Supper” scene comes from Jesus himself. And what about all the missing characters that are part of the Gospel story? Jesus’ parents, Mary Magdalene, Caiaphas, Herod, Judas, Simon of Cyrene, any number of which could have served Paul’s “occasional” interpretive and instructional purposes. MG talks of Paul being “pretty close to the events” but what events? A death and resurrection which are never located in any historical time and place, with never an earthly agency responsible (and contradicted by the “rulers of this age” as the crucifiers which even ancient commentators took as a referring to the demon spirits, and by the anomaly with the sentiments of Romans 13).
MG is once more doing what every NT scholar has done for ages. Read the Gospels into the background of the epistles. MG talks of those memories of Jesus acquiring “legendary” and “creative” embellishments. But such things are utterly lacking in Paul and others because the basics on which such embellishments can be based are also lacking. Simply declaring the “death” and “resurrection” mentioned throughout the epistles as implying the events of the Gospel story is a colossal case of begging the question, quite apart from ignoring the impossibility that all these references could never once have an earthly setting clearly attached to them. And there is certainly nothing that looks like a legendary or creative embellishment. Getting crucified by the demon spirits, or bringing his blood into a heavenly sanctuary, or having God deliver up Jesus for us all, is not creative legend-making. It is mythology, pure and simple, and heavenly mythology at that. Why not, then, locate such “events” in the heavens?
So what is it that has survived from Jesus’ life in the memories of early believers and writers? Nothing that I can see. Jesus is not even used as an example of how believers ought to live their lives here on earth. The only ‘temptations’ he is given are those which relate to his role as sacrificial savior, and they are operable just as well in a heavenly setting as an earthly one.
“JB: Why would Christians who started out with a heavenly Jesus known by revelation only want to later make him an historical figure?”
This is a pretty naive question. But it also overlooks an intermediate step. It is very possible (and I have presented many arguments in such a direction) that the Gospel writers did not intend to represent history, or even an historical character. It is later readers of those Gospels who misinterpreted the story as an historical one, for all manner of personal reasons. Read the letters of Ignatius, for one. In his mind, for his own sufferings to have any meaning, Jesus had to have suffered in human flesh, on earth. Other reasons were political, for groups to legitimize themselves. Understanding how sects behave and how they rework their origins also gives us insight into this question.
MG weighs in on some of this: “Dying isn’t mythological and abstract according to Paul. Paul speaks of dying as happening all the time in his own communities. He often links death and resurrection of people in his communities with the death and resurrection of Jesus. It wouldn’t make any sense for Paul to be appealing to these sufferings of Jesus in this context (that Paul shared with) if these sufferings hadn’t actually taken place on earth.”
Of course, there is no basis for this claim. No epistle writer ever addresses it or seeks to make such a point before Ignatius (or whoever forged his letters probably soon after his death). MG seems ignorant of the whole ancient aspect of paradigmatic parallelism, the counterpart relationship of character and experience between a heavenly paradigm figure and his devotees on earth, something which contradicts MG’s contention. A death and resurrection by a god in the spiritual realm could as easily serve to guarantee salvation to earthly believers.
The entire ethos of the Greek mystery cults demonstrates this. Earthly devotees were guaranteed (a Greek style of) salvation through mythical activities of the savior god, who had hardly undergone his saving acts in any identifiable history, let alone recent. If they placed the latter in a primordial time on earth–a “sacred time” as styled by anthropologists like Eliade, distinguishing it from normal historical time–it was because they had nowhere else to put it until Platonism had developed and such things could be transferred to a higher counterpart realm to earth, as sects like those of the epistle to the Hebrews or the Ascension of Isaiah (prior to its earthly interpolation in ch.11) have done. And apparently Paul in 1 Cor. 2:8.
MG: “One of the problems with this view is that early Christians actually had a lot of trouble explaining the crucifixion. Paul said the idea was a stumbling block to the Jews. This is something they are not spending time manufacturing, but rather spending time attempting to explain. It’s kind of embarrassing to them at first.”
MG ignores what is really missing here. The “folly” and “stumbling block” was in presenting a Messiah that was crucified. How does Paul justify it? By calling it a mystery and God’s wisdom. Nowhere does he argue in favor of a human Jesus as deserving to be considered the Messiah and redeeming the world by virtue of his crucifixion (no reference to his teachings, miracles, much less God’s incarnation). None of it is to define exactly what his “messiah” was. To do that as constituting an historical man would have opened a can of worms which the epistles show no sign of. Since Paul and the other epistle writers clearly present their Jesus as divine, even as an aspect of God (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20, Phil. 2:6f) this would have meant Paul was presenting an historical man as the crucified divine Son of God! If offering a crucified messiah was a stumbling block, identifying an historical man with God would have sent most Jews into apoplexy. There is not a murmur of such a thing in the epistles.
Thanks for the summary and transcription, Neil. i think it’s pretty fair to what I recall of the conversation. One minor correction: “The Gospel of Mark is trying to explain that the idea of a crucified Messiah is not balmy”: that should be “barmy”, i.e. bonkers, nuts.
I enjoyed your comment, “Classic Ehrman-style question-begging”. If I remember correctly, I think I was trying to be funny (and no doubt failing) at that point. But more broadly, the limits of the medium mean that one has to go to summaries of one’s views based on careful analysis of the evidence and reflection upon it — one can’t rehearse every stage in an argument in this kind of forum and unfortunately one has to try to summarize in as lively a way as possible for the audience.
Sorry I missed the humour, Mark. Have corrected the original comment.
Mark, Earl Doherty is very succinctly pointing out problems with your assertions and objections.
I think that it would be quite useful if you would be willing to engage with him, which you don’t seem inclined to do for some reason.
MG: It become torturous after awhile if one pursues the mythicist argument. There are simply too many problems if we take the HJ out of the picture. The argument becomes terribly explained. “Sometimes” in history we have to go with the simplest hypothesis, and the simplest one in this case is the one that explains all the evidence best, and that is that there was a historical figure called Jesus.
Close but no cigar! The simplest hypothesis is that when a HJ is taken out of the picture we are left with facing actual historical realities. That is where both the HJ camp and the MJ camp need to go. Yes, the HJ camp is not wanting to surrender historical reality to the MJ vision centered theory. But they are failing to see that they don’t have to do that. Historical reality, material reality, needs to be placed center stage – some mythicists notwithstanding.
On the other hand, ahistoricist/mythicists arguments that fail to accommodate historical realities, are shooting themselves in the foot.
Both sides in this debate need to go back to the drawing board if this debate is to move forward. This continual check-mating each other’s arguments is a futile endeavor. Interpretations of the JC gospel story have to give way to a study of the relevant historical time period. Only then can one attempt to interpret or understand that story.
Yes, Neil, I know, I’m always harping on history being relevant for this debate. But you know what, I’ve been an ahistoricist/mythicist for nearly 30 years and not once, not once, did it ever enter my mind to reject the relevance of history for that gospel JC story. Of course, we can debate what history was relevant to those gospel writers – but to allow a vision (Paul’s) to trump history is a slippery road to follow. Mythicist arguments that the gospel story about JC is a historizing of Paul’s visionary JC are wrong. That story, the gospel JC story, is a mythologizing of history, Jewish history. That story stands on it’s own – it does not rely upon Paul or his visions. Dating documents does not trump the content of the gospel story.
Whenever, wherever, that story was first composed is, of course, of interest. But it’s the story itself that has to be dealt with. A story about a Jewish messiah figure executed by Rome. That’s it, that’s the story. That is all we have. Even the time period in which this story is set down can be questioned. Prophetic interpretations of Daniel etc. The core of the story is what is relevant for a historical investigation. A Jewish messiah figure executed by Rome. Full stop. That is the historical claim of the gospel JC story.
To do, as some mythicists are wont to do – to claim it’s all in the mind of Paul and a historizing of his vision – is to jettison the prospect of ever furthering investigation into early Christian origins. If this debate is going to move forward it’s going to have to start digging in the dirty trenches of history. Heavenly visions are child’s play and provide no help or support for a historical investigation.
That the gospel story is full of literary elements, mythological elements, symbolism etc – does not remove the central claim of that story. A Jewish messiah figure executed by Rome. That is a historical claim. That is a claim that roots the gospel story to Jewish history. And without that historical claim having ‘roots’ in history – the JC story would not have had ‘legs’ to walk. Visions might fool some of the people some of the time – but not all of the people all of the time. Visions are two a penny – and last only until the next best thing comes along. Historical reality, on the other hand, is a living experience that is shared by all and needs no argument. Not forgetting, of course, that history is as much a prominent facet of Jewish identity today – as it was way back when.
To remove history from an investigation into early Christian origins – is to remove it’s very Jewish origins – and float free on that magic carpet ride with Paul. Great for the enjoyment of speculation – but it won’t bring home the bacon, it won’t put bread on the table – it won’t further the hard task of digging in the dirty trenches of historical research.
OK, Neil, I’ll get off my hobby horse now…..thanks for your review of the RC and MG debate.
“A Jewish messiah figure executed by Rome. Full stop. That is the historical claim of the gospel JC story.”
Not quite. It’s actually the Son of God executed by “the Jews.” The gospel writers have no interest in Jesus’s ethnicity beyond establishing his literary credentials as the seed of David. And the only reason “Rome” is in the story at all is to demonstrate that they were not guilty of the crime. This is clear tendentiousness of the myth’s Greco-Roman, anti-Jewish bias being present right from the start, not a later development after the “Christian Jews” mysteriously disappear from history.
There is no son of god – that is theology. If it’s early christian origins that we are seeking – lets keep this debate on a historical footing.
That footing is the gospel crucifixion story of a Jewish messiah figure; a Jewish anointed figure, executed under Rome. That is what we have to deal with. Theology only muddies the waters and offers no rational basis upon which to search for early christian origins. What we should be looking for is the backbone to that gospel JC story – the historical backbone. A historical backbone without which that story did not have a hope in hell of becoming the catalysis for the myriad of speculative stories that developed. All stories revolving around a historical root, a pivot: The execution via Roman hands of the last King and High Priest of the Jews, Antigonus, in 37 b.c.
Re-read the story below. Re-read it not through a theological lens or a Pauline lens. Re-read it through a historical lens. A historical lens, leaning on Josephus, that puts responsibility for the execution of Antigonus not only on Rome and Marc Antony but also on Herod the Great – that hated ‘convert’ to Judaism. Anti-semitism has no place in this story – it’s the hated ‘Jewish’ Herodians that are reflected, implicated, in the execution of the last King and High Priest of the Jews, a King of pure Jewish
Re-read this story and then ask yourself the question – is there a reflection of the history of Antigonus in this gospel JC crucifixion story? Yes, JC is ahistorical, a composite figure. But JC is a literary figure that is reflecting historical events relevant to the gospel writers and their story.In this case, the execution of Antigonus at the hands of Rome and the Jewish convert, Herod the Great. Yes, the gospel writers have ‘replayed’ the Antigonus history within a different time frame – the 70th year anniversary of that great tragedy that befell a Jewish King and the Jewish people.
King James Version (KJV)
1 And straightway in the morning the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council, and bound Jesus, and carried him away, and delivered him to Pilate.
2 And Pilate asked him, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answering said unto them, Thou sayest it.
3 And the chief priests accused him of many things: but he answered nothing.
4 And Pilate asked him again, saying, Answerest thou nothing? behold how many things they witness against thee.
5 But Jesus yet answered nothing; so that Pilate marvelled.
6 Now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired.
7 And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection.
8 And the multitude crying aloud began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them.
9 But Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?
10 For he knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy.
11 But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them.
12 And Pilate answered and said again unto them, What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews?
13 And they cried out again, Crucify him.
14 Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him.
15 And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified.
16 And the soldiers led him away into the hall, called Praetorium; and they call together the whole band.
17 And they clothed him with purple, and platted a crown of thorns, and put it about his head,
18 And began to salute him, Hail, King of the Jews!
19 And they smote him on the head with a reed, and did spit upon him, and bowing their knees worshipped him.
20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple from him, and put his own clothes on him, and led him out to crucify him.
21 And they compel one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross.
22 And they bring him unto the place Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, The place of a skull.
23 And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not.
24 And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them, what every man should take.
25 And it was the third hour, and they crucified him.
26 And the superscription of his accusation was written over, The King Of The Jews.
It should be noted that Roman Catholics strongly emphasize Jesus as God. I don’t think this gets said often enough. These debates often seem perplexing to me because I have no contact with this Protestant interest in making Jesus ‘historical’ to the point of being almost ordinary. Jerome notes at the beginning of his commentary on Galatians (which he mostly stole from Origen) that this notion of Jesus being God and man is a problem for both those who want to make him all man (a heretical position) no less than those who want to make him all God. I happen to think that the ‘all God’ position is the correct one, because of the fact that the Marcionites were the oldest organized form of Christianity. But it isn’t like those arguing for Jesus being ‘all God’ are the only heretics. Those who emphasize his humanity too greatly would have traditionally been viewed as heretics too. Hence I think it is a little unfair for those who make the case for a ‘historical Jesus’ to be understood as arguing for ‘tradition.’ The emphasis on Jesus being ‘historical’ – i.e. what I take is the assumption of American Evangelical Christianity – probably represents an even grosser form of heresy – even the ‘rational position’ taken by many scholars who see themselves as ‘defending’ what they think of ‘orthodoxy.’
The Catholic position is that a God became human through a virgin. While this isn’t Marcionitism, those who want to make Jesus ‘fully historical’ can’t just wish away the god part to make Jesus ordinary. The religion always understood itself to be presenting something baffling and quasi-mythical (at least from the outside world’s perspective).
Another anomaly in the historicist argument is the emphasis on the death of Jesus — as if that per se establishes his humanity/reality. But of course death is a generic thing at best, but in this context it is totally theological. Death is the atonement of sin. It is a theological event. There is simply no evidence that there was a specific death that led to a period of confusion and doubt that was eventually resolved through discovery of a theological meaning. Further, the argument (disingenuously, I think) tries to sidestep the fact that death is the theological (ahistorical) prelude to the real message, which is the very non-human resurrection.
Considering how important James was in the early church it is surprising that Luke/Acts, James and Jude never make any mention of Jesus having a brother called James.
As Luke/Acts knew that Mark (Gospel writer, not Goodacre) called one of Jesus’s brothers, James, the only logical explanation is that he went out of his way to correct any mistaken impressions anybody could have had that James the church leader had been a brother of Jesus.
Acts puts the brothers of Jesus backstage when discussing who was to be an apostle. They are placed on the scene when the decision is being made but the brothers of Jesus don’t even get to enter the draw to become an apostle.
Just how clearly does Luke have to signal how unimportant he thought any James, the brother of Jesus was, than by portraying him as being available for selection, but being totally snubbed?
Neil: There is simply no evidence that there was a specific death that led to a period of confusion and doubt that was eventually resolved through discovery of a theological meaning.
Firstly: I think there is an argument to be made: We have 1) the gospel story about the execution of a Jewish messiah figure by Rome. 2) Paul and his ideas about salvation through the resurrection of JC. This is a story about finding theological value, meaning, in a death.
Secondly: The historical execution of Antigonus, the last King and High Priest of the Jews, by Rome, in 37 b.c. That Jewish history can become a basis for the later theological speculations regarding crucifixion and resurrection. i.e. death is viewed as having a spiritual value. Logically, a human death can have no value whatsoever. In order to gain value from ‘death’ the ‘death’ has to be transposed to a non-material context. An intellectual or spiritual context. Or as Paul proposed – the Jerusalem ‘above’ corresponds to the Jerusalem ‘below. Physical realities have their ‘heavenly’ counterpart – with a twist. One execution, the physical, has no value; the other, the intellectual or spiritual, can have value. (i.e. life, death and rebirth of ideas….)
Third; the gospel JC execution story is set down around 33 c.e. (gLuke and gJohn) – 70 years from the execution, by Rome, of Antigonus. The linkage, via prophetic or symbolic numerology, indicates a replaying, in the gospel crucifixion story, of the earlier historical event of 37 b.c.
(No, Antigonus does not equal JC – the JC figure is a composite figure. Antigonus is only the ‘model’ for the crucifixion/execution element of the gospel story.)
Hi Mary. Paul’s ideas are not an exploration to find a meaning for a death. He knows the meaning from the beginning and there is no search for it.
Paul, whoever he was, had some ideas re finding value in a death. That’s all there is to it. The rest is speculation. How, when and why, he came to his ideas about finding value in a death, we will never know. The issue here, for some mythicists, is whether it was all his imagination or whether he looked out the window, saw daylight…..and let the sun shine in…;-)
In other words – did Paul let reality show him the way – or did he choose to let imagination entrap him?
But the idea of an atoning death was found even in Isaac among some Second Temple Jews. There was no need for an historical event to give rise to that belief. In fact, it was the myth that gave encouragement to Maccabbean martyrs, at least according to the study of Levenson (“Death and Resurrection of Isaac“).
There surely is a world of difference between an OT story and the brutality involved and the humiliation of a Jewish King and High Priest executed by Rome? A King of the Jews that was executed via a great deal of money changing hands between Herod the Great and Marc Antony (the Josephan story) History has a far greater impact than imaginary stories. Yes, perhaps the atoning ideas were in the air – but ideas need to link up with reality if they are to provide any real time value. An idea needs a linkage to reality in order to provide forward movement.
The Antigonus history could be viewed as the forward push – a one time historical demonstration that there is no atonement, no salvation, in the execution of a human life. Dead end. Open season for new ideas. Transference of the idea of atonement, salvation, value, to an intellectual or spiritual context. The Antigonus history could be viewed as a pivotal moment in early Jewish/Christian thinking – and of course in Jewish history. It changed everything – forever.
The Issac story might well suffice for a mythical interpretation of the gospel story. But, Neil, it will not sell, it’s going nowhere. It has no roots – it’s all imagination.
We know a lot about what a lot of American Protestants thought in the 18th century and we know quite a bit about the early days of Mormonism from both inside and outside the religion, but it is still very hard to figure out exactly how Joseph Smith came up with his ideas.
We may know a fair amount about what some Jews thought in the 1st century, but we know very little about the earliest days of Christianity and everything we do know comes from Christian sources. I find it very hard to believe that we can do anything more than identify some possible influences on Paul’s thinking.
But we know that most of the Protestant apologists for a historical Jesus who do so to defend their Christ and Savior (i.e. not Ehrman) are utterly misguided because their ultra historical human Jesus would be condemned as heretical by the authorities who they typically nestle in their bosom (i.e. Jerome etc). There is a tendency to view with suspicion anyone who argues too strongly for a fully divine Jesus. But the same should be recognized to hold true for those who promote the American evangelical ‘JC’ guy, the ‘cool preacher’ who announced a message that ‘everyone be nice to one another.’ This is full heresy too.
Even if we assume that many of the religious apologists aren’t so stupid as not to see that there are problems with this fully human, fully historical Jesus we still have acknowledge that true orthodoxy as defined by Christians in the beginning (i.e. man and God) doesn’t allow for a lot of wiggle room. The neo-Protestant attempts to extract a ‘historical man’ would necessarily be condemned as heretical just as those who promote only the God Jesus.
The intellectual dishonesty of these people (and I don’t know Mark Goodacre well enough to accuse him of any of this) is that they still view themselves as being on the side of orthodoxy and ‘goodness’ (as opposed to those bad mythicists who promote a fully divine Jesus). They are manipulating the historical record just as much as they accuse Doherty of doing. They just have this amazing inability to see that because they belong to a ‘tradition’ (= neo-Protestantism) which engages in this dishonest ‘realizing’ of a fully historical man Jesus as a collective group. They also ‘confess’ their belief in Jesus and ‘his message’ so somehow that protects them from the charge of heresy.
The point is that you don’t rescue orthodoxy by tampering with the original formula. The two sides are mirror images of one another. It’s just that the apologists have accepted this stupid idea that if ‘their heart’ is pure, if there intention is to ‘save Jesus’ or defend his Church then they aren’t heretics. Stupid.
Shall I take the fact that no one has responded to my first post on this thread to mean that people generally agree with its point?
Off the top of my head, I’m not sure that I agree. If mainstream scholarship is correct, then Jesus of Nazareth likely lived his life in relative obscurity and went unnoticed outside a small group of illiterate peasants until such time as he annoyed the authorities sufficiently to get himself crucified. This isn’t the kind of person that we could count on to leave much in the way of a historical footprint. By the time the belief in his resurrection gained enough adherents to attract the attention of Greek or Roman historians several decades later, I question whether there would have been much in the way of surviving sources that they could have investigated.
If mainstream scholarship is correct, then Jesus of Nazareth likely lived his life in relative obscurity and went unnoticed outside a small group of illiterate peasants until such time as he annoyed the authorities sufficiently to get himself crucified.
Exactly the sort of person Gentiles would have flocked to worship.
Mainstream scholarship simply cannot explain how such a person could come to be thought of as the Messiah, especially as they claim that a crucified Messiah was unthinkable for Jews. (The logic of that escapes me as we can be pretty certain that there were Jews who thought a Messiah could be crucified. Their writings can be found in a work, called , I believe ,’The New Testament’.)
And what exactly was Jesus doing with 12 disciples? Who goes around with a fixed number of disciples?
What was their job description? The idea of Jesus and the 12 disciples makes exactly zero sense.
You can imagine the conversation when Thomas , one of the disciples, met an old school-friend.
‘Hi Thomas, How’s it going?’
‘Pretty well thanks, I’m a disciple of Jesus.’
‘Yes, he is rather obscure isn’t he?’
‘What does being a disciple involve?’
‘Well, there are 12 of us, and we hang around being obscure, and generally wait to see if he will be the Messiah.’
I’m sure that if you ask politely, I’m sure Mark will refuse to tell you the name of any other religious leader who had a fixed number of disciples.
Joshua Messiah and his 12 Apostles. Sounds contrived to me.
What mainstream historical Jesus scholarship is doing is creating another version or retelling of the biblical myth of Jesus (I’m taking this from Wajdenbaum’s appeal to Claude Levi-Strauss.) Jesus only comes to public attention as a political subversive, is crucified, and his nobody handful of followers convert others into believing he was something else entirely and even cause them to worship him as a god. Now that’s no less a myth of the fabulous kind than the Pentecost story. Scholarly myths are usually more plausible than that.
“By the time the belief in his resurrection gained enough adherents to attract the attention of Greek or Roman historians several decades later, I question whether there would have been much in the way of surviving sources that they could have investigated.”
Vinny, I think that statement is, in a sense, self-refuting. If we take 1Cor15 as authentically Pauline, and he was writing that letter around the midpoint of the century, what do we make of the statement “he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living”, if not that this is an easily investigable matter? Paul is downright daring people (on the historicist view) to look into this for themselves with this verse. If by late40s-early50s there were churches in Ephesus, Phillipi, Corinth, Thessalonica, and Rome (even if they were rather small assemblies), then that’s still thousands of people, probably even thousands more than any other mystery cult or syncretistic sect of the day. Surely some historian in the whole of the empire would want to investigate resurrection claim if it indeed it was said to have occurred under the nose of one of Caesar’s procurators. This didn’t supposedly happen in a desert wasteland or along some rural riverbank. It happened on Pilate’s watch! So no, I wouldn’t expect the parables and teachings of some obscure rabbi or sage to, in and of themselves, leave a historical footprint. But YES, I think we would say that a real resurrection, or the greatest hoax of all time, which converted/convinced many thousands (a large number considering the panoply of Greco-Roman options on offer) should reach the ears of a few ancient historians in 10 years or less. I would also expect such a claim to tickle those ears.
What I make of Paul’s statement is that he is passing along a story that he heard which he believed to be true. When I went to Catholic school in the 1960’s, the nuns would tell us stories about the thousands of people who witnessed the appearances of the Virgin Mary at Fatima in 1917. Some of those people would still have been alive in the 1960’s, but I don’t think that any of the nuns who taught me had spoken to them or could tell me how to find them. I would characterize the idea that Paul was “daring” the Corinthians to check out his stories is the apologist view rather than the historicist view. Paul was writing to people who viewed him as delivering revealed truth. I think he expected to be believed on his own authority, just as the nuns expected us to accept their stories about Fatima.
Even if a Roman historian could track down a witness to the appearance to the 500, that would only provide evidence that people really were claiming to have encountered the supernatural being who was the risen Christ. It would not verify any historical details about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. For that, he would likely have to go to Galilee and find someone who remembered him. Not an impossible task, but neither would I think it easy.
Even if there were thousands of Christians by the 50’s, if they were distributed in relatively small groups among a number of cities, they might not attract much general notice. I can’t be sure, but I wouldn’t be so surprised if they didn’t. I suppose we could look to see whether any comparable groups at the time attracted any attention from historians.
I sort of agree on the apologist versus the historicist point, but only precisely because Paul was an apologist himself, not a historian. In other words, I think he had to know the complete implausibility of someone from Corinth looking into these matters for themselves, given the logistics of the ancient world. He knew that he could have gotten away with claiming anything due to the impracticality of real follow up. But it’s theoretically very easy to follow up on – and THAT’S why it sounds so damn convincing! Readers would likely react with “Well I can’t imagine Paul would mention all these appearances to people that are still living, if it didn’t really happen. His reputation would shrivel into oblivion if he were lying to us, so I think we can trust him on this!” THIS is precisely one reason that Paul was a rhetorical genius – knowing how much he could get away with the logical fallacy of appeal to authority/ad populum/etc. Please NOTE that the effectiveness of these rhetorical tactics can be the same on the mythicist view as it is on the historicist view. We’d be talking about interviewing people that saw revelations of the resurrected Christ rather than bodily appearances…but the same (im)practicalities of investigation apply. But if we contrast Paul the apologist with contemporary historians who aren’t already Christian, they would want to take nothing on faith. They would want to investigate to a much further degree, regardless of the exact contingency of Christians at the time, if for nothing else than because of the relevant political implications of a real resurrection under the watch of Pontius Pilate. This is where your analogy to the Catholic nuns breaks down: Of course Catholics would be prone to believe the Fatima account, given their established trust in the Church. But historians did not simply accept it…they knew they needed to investigate it, and after they did, they gave numerous accounts of how this could be explained naturally and therefore not a miracle.
As to how much notice the early (50s) Christian cult would attract, I’ve done a little homework along those lines. The historians of that time did speak a bit about many movements, sects, and cults at that time, but they didn’t spill a to of ink on any one – I’ll grant you that. However, I think I can safely say that the Christian cult was in a category of its own, in one important regard: It was a religious group that a) had a speedy rate of growth AND b)hinged on the veracity of an historical event that supposedly occurred in public view, both before the eyes of Jews and Romans. Other mystery cults of the day did not have foundational doctrine that involved specific actions of Roman procurators. This is what separated the Christian belief (if it indeed had a passion narrative anchored in real history). And again, this is why I wouldn’t expect historians to comment on an HJ’s teachings or wonder-working career in Galilee, but I would very much expect them to comment on these very public (and politically charged) spectacles if indeed they happened at all like the Gospels say.
Manoj, I completely agree with you here, well said on all points! Also, I don’t think you’re directly at odds with Carrier after all, since after reading Proving History, I think it’s clear that he values the “argument from silence” to varying degrees, depending on which Jesus is being argued for. I think his only mistake (if it can be called a mistake) is to allow the historicists to argue for an extremely minimal Jesus without making the point that you (Manoj) just made. I think Carrier would simply say that ALL this comes out in the wash when Bayes Theorem is rigorously applied. i.e. what’s there as evidence, as well as what’s not there (silences) are all taken into account.
I certainly think its a possibility that Paul was conscious of the fact that no one was likely to check out his story, although I think he mentions something about some Corinthians taking gifts to Jerusalem. However, I also think it’s possible that he truly believed the story and believed that anyone who checked it out would find some of the 500. I’m not sure I can pick one possibility as more likely than the other.
I agree that historians might have taken an interest if there had been a public ministry anything like the one described in the gospels.
Nate, I am a big Richard Carrier fan-boy and I couldn’t agree more with his handling of the “argument from silence” in Proving History. I also suspect that the case he is going to be making in his next book is that even if we are not “hyper skeptical”, there is a case to be made for ahistoricity. We’ll see. But I still cringe at his suggestion of ‘hyper-skepticism’. 🙂
What mainstream scholarship is doing is similar to what it is doing to the Testimonium Flavianum – reject what can’t be defended and claim that the rest is authentic. Cut out ‘if one ought to call him a man’, ‘he was the Messiah’ etc and we get an authentic Testimonium! Disprove that!!
Similarly cut out the miracles and the obviously legendary gloss. Keep just the kernel. We now have a minimal and obscure Jesus who, it is now claimed to be *definitely* authentic.
This is also similar to the Catholic claim that while the OT and parts of NT can possibly be considered allegory/fiction, the rest of NT and the catholic dogmas are true and infallibly so. Cut out anything that can be clearly disproved and you get 100% authentic stuff. 🙂
“This isn’t the kind of person that we could count on to leave much in the way of a historical footprint.”
Part of the problem is that the mainstream scholarship has constructed such an obscure person because and only because there is no historical footprint. The question they seem to asking is, how much can we salvage from this shipwreck (tongue in cheek).
What I find annoying is that what ever has been salvaged is dogmatically asserted and one is considered a hyper-skeptic if one dares to doubt.
I guess I disagree with Carrier here. If there no historical footprint (other than the Christian texts), being skeptical of claims is the right attitude to have and the right starting point.
I agree that skepticism is warranted when evidence is lacking, but I think skepticism both ways is warranted. The question I am trying to get at is whether we can infer non-existence from the lack of evidence. In order to do that, we need to show that evidence of existence would be expected.
Vinny, I applied again to you, and to Manoj, above. I’m not seeing that reply on my own screen right now, but I expect it to post soon. Hope you get a chance to read/interact further. Thanks.
Thanx, Neil. It helped to listen to the lecture while reading your post. I must say, I was very impressed by RC. MG seemed to use rhetorical devices to avoid admitting the problems. It may not have been intentional, but it was obvious.
And I came at this biased — I expected MG to have better arguments than RC. I am not sure why I felt that, but I did.
Instead, now I am even more excited about his upcoming books.
One of the many commenters above asks why I haven’t responded, to which I plead a week’s worth of marking papers that eats up every hour in the day. I’m sure it goes without saying that I failed all the students arguing a mythicist case. (Joke). There are far too many remarks here for me to comment on so perhaps a few general comments:
— Sorry to those who were disappointed with the show, or my part in it. Please bear in mind that this is just a show, a conversation, a chat, a debate even; it’s not a “case”. I must admit that I enjoyed the opportunity to engage with Richard, who is clever and lively and whose discussion of method repays reflection. However, any such conversation is only going to be partial, frustrating, incomplete.
— My use of humour does seem to have annoyed some people, but let me explain how I think it can help. Many of the listeners to a show like this do not have grounding in scholarship on Christian origins and so might not have given much thought to things like Paul’s occasional epistles. So when I point out that in 1 Cor. 15, Paul is dealing with the resurrection because it is an issue in Corinth, I think it helps to say that he is not going to pause to tell the parable of the Sower first; he is going to get cracking on what matters in context, resurrection traditions.
— I think it’s worth underlining that the idea that 1 Thess. 2.14-17 is an interpolation is made without any manuscript / textual evidence. Conjectural emendations are always possible, especially in weakly attested works, but should be avoided in cases like this where the impetus appears to be to eliminate a key piece of evidence, the apparent location of Jesus’ death in Judea.
— To read some of the comments here, one would think that studying history were always black and white, a matter of truth v. fiction, the ordinary vs. the fantastic, But studying history is richer and more nuanced than these simple either / or models allow. Frankly, it’s far more interesting once one actually engages in it in all its depth. Although some commenters here appear to realize that historical Jesus scholars are not all conservative Christians, the rhetoric still works a lot of the time with that kind of model.
Well, those are just a few scattered thoughts as they come to me. Sorry again that I don’t have the time to respond to individual points that are made above.
“I plead a week’s worth of marking papers that eats up every hour in the day. ”
You have my sympathy. I’ve done it many times, and a more disheartening task is difficult to imagine.
Why would Paul call his followers “the temple of God” when the gospels call the physical temple in Jerusalem the temple of God and “my father’s house”? That is, if the gospels are written long after the epistles of Paul and are written by Pauline Christians, why are the gospel writers contradicting Paul? Why would Jesus be so angry at the money changers if he did not consider the temple in Jerusalem the temple of God? After all, he supposedly predicted that temple’s destruction in his own generation. It makes no sense to me unless the gospel writers had never read the Pauline epistles, or that the Pauline epistles were written after the destruction of the physical temple.
The gospels were not written by Pauline Christians, or at least they were willing to add a great deal on to Pauline Christology. For Doherty and Carrier, the evangelists took Paul’s spiritual realm Jesus and historicized him. Paul likely would not have appreciated this project.
I’m sure others could elaborate better than I, but this thread is long and getting old, so I wanted to at least respond with this.
I think the original gMark was written by followers of Paul (i.e., “Paul” /Simon of Samaria) and that it was an allegory about him. Its Simonian author purposely wrote it such that it would be understood one way (the correct way) by those on the inside and misunderstood by those on the outside. Assuming this is on target, insiders would recognize that the gospel Cleansing of the Temple episode was in reality an allegorical portrayal of the ruckus Paul/Simon caused when he went up to Jerusalem for the last time and entered the Temple (Acts 21:27). Outsiders, on the other hand, would read it the way you did: that Jesus was just against buying and selling in the Temple.
Notice that the quotes used in the Markan episode (“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of thieves”) can be understood in a Simonian sense. Prayer is something spiritual. The world “house” too can be used, as in the Pauline letters, in a non-material sense. And Jesus’ words of disapproval can be understood as taking in more than buying and selling: “He would not allow anyone to carry ANYTHING through the temple” (Mk. 11:16). What good is a so-called house of God without any material things? What about animals for sacrifice? And bowls of blood ? And candelabras and other sacred paraphernalia? If you’re not going to allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple you might as well shut it down. And that indeed may have been the (Simonian) idea behind the episode.
The other two Synoptic gospels, as I see them, were written by proto-orthodox Christians to replace gMark. They aimed (and succeeded!) at modifying and co-opting the Simonian allegory for their own purposes. And what they did to Paul’s rejection of the Temple can be seen most clearly in the Acts part of Luke/Acts. The truth does get a hearing (“this man is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the Law and this place” (i.e., the Temple; Acts 21:28), but it is all explained away as an unfortunate misunderstanding by certain Jews from Asia. The proto-orthodox author of Acts assures us that Paul had no problem with the Temple. And we all know what his reassurance is worth.
And don’t forget what Stephen was accused of in Acts 6:9-14. Just because the authors of the Acts said they were “false witnesses” doesn’t mean that they were. After all, we know what the later Christians thought of the Jews and Judaism and of the hatred against anything Jewish for the last 1900 years.