2013-01-09

Hoffmann’s historical Jesus argument for dummies — with a graphic to clarify it all

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s try to make it clearer with a picture. Mark Erickson has attempted to have Joseph Hoffmann and Stephanie Fisher clarify their central argument for the historical Jesus:

“The political and religious conditions of the time of Jesus plausibly give us characters like Jesus. This is a tautology that must be confronted.”

Hoffmann attempts to clarify with this (unedited):

The poltical (sic) conditions of the time of late republican Rome give us characters like Antony and Caesar. Not characters like Sargom(sic), Elijah or Darth Vadar (sic). if (sic) then I have literary artifacts that conform to those condtions (sic) and contexts, how should they not be facors (sic) in establoishing (sic) the historicity of it. It’s basic historical process–the 1000 pound premise mythtics (sic) routiney (sic) dance past in their quest for improbable substitutes and “parallels” that explain the sources.

I think what Hoffmann means is that he gets cranky with anyone who suggests the source of the Jesus we find in the Gospels was, ultimately, not a historical Jesus and but some other mythical deity like Attis or Hercules.

I don’t think the evangelists were thinking of Attis or Hercules when they wrote about Jesus, and I don’t know many mythicists who do think like that, so as far as I’m concerned I’m not the least interested in his having a go at something that looks like a straw-man.

But let’s look at his “one airtight argument” Hoffmann has for the historical Jesus. As Stephanie expressed it:

The one airtight argument in [Hoffmann’s] piece [is] that the conditions for the existence of Jesus necessarily produce people of like description, so to choose an analogous over a known figure is non-parsimonious and tautologies are eo ipso true statements.

Question for Steph: Steph, are you saying that Hoffmann’s argument is true because he has expressed it as a tautology?
Tautology (rhetoric), using different words to say the same thing, or a series of self-reinforcing statements that cannot be disproved because they depend on the assumption that they are already correct

Let’s start with a graphic to try to get this clear in our heads. (See the previous post where the 3 C’s are explained: Conditions, Context and Coordinates):

 Hang on! Isn’t this the same text-book fallacy we (should) know so well?

Mrs Smith’s farm produces green apples.  (The 3Cs produce this type of person)

This is a green apple. (Jesus is this type of person)

Therefore this apple comes from Mrs Smith’s farm. (Therefore the 3Cs produced — historically, not just literarily — Jesus)

And that’s before we even get to finding out how Hoffmann managed to find (something like his own reflection in the Gospels and call it) Jesus with the 3C traits. (I look forward to reading how Hoffmann does that without begging the question.)

If I am wrong and am misrepresenting Hoffmann I am sure Steph or someone will let me know. . . . .

1. The three Cs (conditions, context, coordinates) produce people like within the range of V to Z.

2. Jesus Christ (the one Hoffmann has discerned lying behind the gospels conforms to people within the range of V to Z.

3. Therefore the simplest explanation for this Jesus is that he really did exist within that range.

Hoffmann will quickly add that concluding #3 is a lot simpler than concluding that the gospels drew upon some character from range A to D (say, Apollo to Dionysus) instead.

Hoffmann’s quick addition is right as far as one accepts all of his premises. But it does nothing to solidify his own argument for historicity.

Look at it this way.

1. The three Cs pass on their genes to people we can see ranging from V to Z. All these people have 3C genes, let’s say.

2. Jesus Christ also has 3C genes (that’s the JC Hoffmann found behind the gospels) — so he falls within the V to Z range.

3. Therefore it is entirely reasonable, even the simplest explanation of all, to conclude that Jesus existed.

Did that last step elude you a bit?

Let’s work this thing backwards, then. And then the graphic. . . .

1. How do we know Jesus Christ came from the 3C gene pool?

2. Because he has 3C genes.

3. How do we know he has 3C genes?

4. Because that’s what Hoffmann saw when he examined his genetic code in the Gospels.

5. We can therefore be confident Jesus existed.

Still not quite sure how that last point follows?

Nor am I. Let’s home Mark Erickson can elicit clear explanations from Hoffmann. As far as I can see, all Hoffmann has done is to argue that a literary character or source of the day and that day’s culture will be a product of that day and its culture. Historicity has nothing to do with it.

Lots of literary characters were created in that day who are just like real people of that day. What does this prove?

How about one more time:

1. How do we know Jesus came (historically, of course, not as a literary figure) from the 3Cs?

2. We know he came from the 3Cs because he has all the genes (characteristics) that 3C people have.

3. How do we know he has all those 3C genes?

4. Because Hoffmann has examined his genetic code in the Gospels and will explain it all in his book.

Another point I’d be interested to hear Hoffmann explain is this one:

The poltical conditions of the time of late republican Rome give us characters Antony and Caesar. Not characters like Sargom, Elijah or Darth Vadar.

I’d be interested to hear Hoffmann explain, unambiguously, how characters like Antony and Caesar are different from characters like Sargon — with reference to the 3Cs of course.

But that’s just the beginning of a number of questions his argument raises.

.

I’ve spent enough time on Hoffmann. He doesn’t even want to engage with mythicists — just denounce them. I think he’s wise for taking this approach. It protects him from the risk of coming face to face with the fallacies of his argument and he hasn’t even written it up in his book yet.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2013-01-10 00:23:35 GMT+0000 - 00:23 | Permalink

    “The political and religious conditions of the time of Jesus plausibly give us characters like Jesus. This is a tautology that must be confronted”

    This seems like a “possible therefore probable” fallacy. Or at the least, a failure to note that the alternative hypothesis (mythicism) could also account for the evidence; we can substitute other mythical characters to show why this tautology doesn’t really help us.

    “The political and religious conditions of the time of John Henry plausibly give us characters like John Henry. This is a tautology that must be confronted”

    “The political and religious conditions of the time of Nedd Ludd plausibly give us characters like Nedd Ludd. This is a tautology that must be confronted”

    Moreover, if one assumed that Jesus was invented, he was invented by people who lived in the same political and religious landscape as Jesus! Well, besides the anachronisms like calling Jesus “rabbi”. Of course they would invent a character that plausibly reflected the political and religious landscape of the era; they couldn’t have done anything else. Assuming Socrates was invented, he would have been invented by people who lived in the same political and religious landscape that Socrates would have lived in.

    What this tautology only shows us is that there isn’t a massive timescale, say hundreds of years, between when Jesus lived (assuming he lived) and when people decided to write about his actions. But again, there’s no massive timescale between legends of John Henry being circulated and when he was supposed to have lived.

  • 2013-01-10 09:02:44 GMT+0000 - 09:02 | Permalink

    Joseph Hoffmann has replied to this post without linking to it and (as has now become characteristic of him) without bringing himself to even mention my name.

    He speaks of the logical argument I raise as if the general principles of logic are idiosyncrasies unique to mythicists:

    The three C’s I have invoked, therefore, have to be addressed not by counter-propositions (and trivial, mainly useless appeals to “logic” as the mythics have come to use the word) but by evidence:

    Is Hoffmann really saying that he does not agree that his argument is logically fallacious and only a mythicist would think so?

    For all the scorn Hoffmann has piled on me personally in the past he has evidently read very little of what I have written, since his appeal to Occam’s principle of parsimony (he explains it all as if it is unheard of outside his own ivory tower) — and above all ‘evidence’ — are the very core of many of my own posts addressing historicist arguments. So I look forward to responding in a post soon. It is parsimony where Hoffmann’s own model fails disastrously.

    Besides, a parsimonious solution is not parsimonious at all if it rests upon a logical fallacy. At best it is mere speculation.

    Hoffmann seems to think that by simply producing yet one more HJ reconstruction (all the others were wrong, only his is the right one, as all HJ reconstructionists have always been saying or implying) then he can solve the problem.

    • 2013-01-12 08:31:56 GMT+0000 - 08:31 | Permalink

      I saw that he made a dig against Bayes Theorem. Which is funny, because Occam’s Razor = law of parsimony = conjunction fallacy = probability theory. When someone says the simplest solution is more likely to be true, they are basically explaining why the conjunction fallacy is a fallacy.

      • 2013-01-12 08:44:22 GMT+0000 - 08:44 | Permalink

        Interesting. Now Hoffmann has listed 35 characteristics that make this Jesus supposedly more likely the “real one”. If we are generous and allow question begging into the mix, etc, and give each point a 0.9 probability, then by the time we get to around point #35 we have a probability of 0.027 for Hoffmann’s Jesus.

  • Will
    2013-01-10 11:24:43 GMT+0000 - 11:24 | Permalink

    I agree with Neil and Quinton… maybe you guys can help me.. it seems to me like Hoffman is just repackaging the criterion of “contextual plausibility”. I just think he is using very pretensious language to express it and make it sound like it’s something new. Carrier addresses the problems with this criterion on pg 176 of ‘Proving History’.

    • 2013-01-10 13:13:00 GMT+0000 - 13:13 | Permalink

      Hoffmann using pretentious language?? Perish the thought!!

  • Marella
    2013-01-10 11:27:13 GMT+0000 - 11:27 | Permalink

    The poltical conditions of the time of late republican Rome give us characters Antony and Caesar. Not characters like Sargom, Elijah or Darth Vadar.

    I presume he means that a mythical Jesus is like Darth Vader, this is the one I want to see explained.

    • Grog
      2013-01-10 13:27:51 GMT+0000 - 13:27 | Permalink

      An interesting example might be Jack Crabb, from Berger’s novel Little Big Man. Jack Crabb is purported to be a historical figure, the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn. While the events recounted take place in the 1870’s, the real relevance and context of the story is the 1960’s when it was written. Jack Crabb would meet RJH’s 3 C’s for the 1870’s, though. Darth Vader as a construct fits the Cold War era. Jesus fits his times, that doesn’t mean He actually ever existed.

      • 2013-01-10 13:59:43 GMT+0000 - 13:59 | Permalink

        This is where Hoffmann’s argument gets terribly unparsimonious. First he must find a Jesus who is not in the Gospels (one hidden behind the Gospels, who coincidentally looks not completely unlike Rabbi J. Hoffmann); then he must explain how and why a historical version of this character came to be written over into someone else so utterly unlike him; he must also explain how this reconstruction started a movement that had nothing in common with his original person and life; and — to return to your specific point — he must explain why this person had to be a historical individual and not a legendary or literary-popular hero or whatever.

        Hoffmann talks about historical method. But real historical exercises have actually passed many NT scholars by. McGrath has pointed to a couple of excellent books that explain the basics of historical inquiry but unfortunately he himself never had the time to read them — or at least only used them to quote-mine a couple of points via the indexes without grasping the primary arguments. He has never thanked me for quoting the relevant sections of those books back to him, busy man that he is. Time for Hoffmann to be introduced to History Methods 101.

        • Blood
          2013-01-11 02:22:11 GMT+0000 - 02:22 | Permalink

          “…he must explain why this person had to be a historical individual…”

          That’s easy. “No one would invent a crucified savior figure, therefore it passes the criterion of embarrassment.” The mother of all Jesus as historic figure apologetics.

          Sometimes, this is expressed as, “The Jews would not have invented a crucified savior,” as if it’s impossible that non-Jews had anything to do with Christian origins — which is especially bizarre given the highly inflammatory anti-Jewish polemic of the New Testament and all early Christian writing.

          • 2013-01-11 05:47:53 GMT+0000 - 05:47 | Permalink

            This is the standard response of historicists but it assumes an oral tradition passing on the message. This fails to take into account the studies of recent years that demonstrate that the model of oral transmission assumed by NT scholars is not found in evidence in the Gospels, and that the Gospel sources can be much more parsimoniously explained without appeal to any oral tradition, let alone one for which there is no standard model in the standard studies of oral history.

            So by appeal to parsimony and to evidence as found in the Gospels themselves Hoffmann’s arguments falls to the ground along with most of the other historicist hypotheses.

            And this has not even reached the point where we appeal to other historicists who acknowledge that the Jews did, indeed, invent such a figure.

  • 2013-01-10 13:48:36 GMT+0000 - 13:48 | Permalink

    Much obliged for taking up my question in a full post. I thought I was right to question the “confront the tautology” line, but for a while I worried that tautology must have some special meaning in historiography. Guess not! Hoffman clearly thinks he has noblesse coming out his ears, if only he could find some oblige, he might be sufferable.

    • 2013-01-12 01:47:55 GMT+0000 - 01:47 | Permalink

      My recent comments on this Hoffman post and “Parsimony with that salad?” (which is also extremely flattering to have inspired) have been not accepted. Good riddance to bad trash!

      • 2013-01-12 07:02:58 GMT+0000 - 07:02 | Permalink

        What were your comments? Hoffmann said he welcomes anyone interested to engage with his ideas and join the discussion, but of course we also know his track record for banning critical comments or only allowing critical comments that he can lampoon. He has even stopped allowing any links to my own posts and won’t even mention my name. He was welcome here to defend himself but of course he only came in with abusive and scoffing manner and went out cursing us in Hebrew when amateurs pointed out the fallacies of his argument. He’s made himself a caricature.

  • 2013-01-10 16:58:55 GMT+0000 - 16:58 | Permalink

    HOFFMAN
    ‘Alternatively, they need to show what events, causes, and conditions may have led first century writers, of no apparent skill, to fabricate the basic elements of their story.’

    I guess Hoffman is one of those people who demand to know who wrote Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, why and when, before he will accept that it is fiction.

    What is the most parsimonious explanation of people writing a Gospel where the main character walks on water, raises people from the dead, has Moses return from the grave to speak to him and is born of a virgin?

    You or I might think that such a figure is a figure of fiction, but that is because you and I are idiots.

    Hoffman patiently explains ‘ It is notable that they do not see that a simple statement–that the gospels present material typical of their time and place and that the figure they present is a typical figure of his time and place–is a parsimonious statement accounting for the existence of the gospels.’

    Yes, a ‘typical figure of his time and place’ had Moses speak to him.

    Hoffman’s Jesus of the Gospels is an invented figure, formed by removing anything from the Gospels which is obviously fictional, and declaring that anything which is not obviously fictional must be true.

    • 2013-01-10 18:23:49 GMT+0000 - 18:23 | Permalink

      I also like the way he resolves gospel contradictions by harmonizing them into a new story none of the evangelists knew, just like the evangelicals do today. So to reconcile the Synoptics and John he has Jesus finding a home in neither Galilee nor Judea so he continually wanders back and forth between them both, always arguing with them, never loving them, like a New Testament scholar who finds fault with his peers on his left and with those on his right, or a Humanist who finds all the other humanists wanting, confused and bad, or an instigator of Jesus Projects and Processes that never take hold . . . .

  • 2013-01-10 17:03:26 GMT+0000 - 17:03 | Permalink

    Mind you, Hoffman does make some good points.

    Would a typical Jew of that time and place be circumcised?

    Yes,

    Do the Gospels say that Jesus was circumcised?

    Yes.

    Now do you accept that Jesus of Nazareth must have existed?

  • 2013-01-11 06:02:45 GMT+0000 - 06:02 | Permalink

    Simply, Hoffmann in all his posts to date attempting to argue for historicity of Jesus is so obsessed with attacking vague straw-man arguments of mythicits that he is losing the plot. He comes across as thinking that so long as he can produce anything that sounds more reasonable or scholarly than the windmill (that he calls a giant) that he says he is attacking, then he has somehow “proved” Jesus’ historicity and debunked mythicism.

    Of course, he never sources any of the “giants” he claims to be substituting withe better arguments. The reason is clear enough. He does not find those mythicist arguments he says are so silly in Carrier or in Wells, and I have seen no evidence that he has read the arguments of any other mythicists. He seems to be appealing, instead, to vague nonsense he claims to find on the internet. I can find any nonsense I want on the internet for any purpose at hand.

    For a credible argument Hoffmann needs to be able to make one without any reference to any of his giants/windmills or, if he does reference mythicist alternatives, he needs to cite them specifically so we know exactly whom and what he is supposedly refuting.

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