Daily Archives: 2013-02-09 18:26:54 GMT+0000

Dear Joseph Hoffmann, . . . . P.S. . . .

I love this remark by classicist Michael Grant:

[A]s J. B. Bury remarked, it is essentially absurd for a historian to wish that any alleged fact should turn out to be true or false. Careful scrutiny does not presuppose either credulity or hostility. (Jesus, p. 200, my emphasis)

This sounds to me like a simple truism. Occasionally someone (even a scholar) may express some question about the historicity of Socrates or Hillel, more recently even of David. There’s no question in those instances of being labelled a “mythicist” or “historicist”. The reason, I suggest, is that those questions are far less invested with cultural ideology and vested institutional interests (at least outside Israel in the case of David).

I don’t know too many “Christ Myth theorists” who stand to lose anything should they eventually be found to be wrong. And I don’t know of any of them who seriously engage with the scholarship who have made a good $$ from mythicism. But no-one can deny that many careers and institutions have been founded upon the belief in the historicity of Jesus.

I don’t even think of “Did Jesus Exist?” as an historical question. Historical questions, in my mind, are directed at explaining the evidence. So we have evidence for the emergence of Christianity. Okay, so the historical question is, “What caused the emergence and growth of Christianity?” (That question, incidentally, is the underlying motif of most of my blog posts. Not mythicism per se.)

The only Jesus that matters is the Jesus in the evidence that we have at our fingertips, and that’s obviously a literary and theological figure. I can understand how genre and criss-crossing strands of evidence can help us flesh out historical characters behind the archaeological and literary evidence of people like Julius Caesar, and of others whom we conclude must have been part of their lives. But let’s be serious. We really do know that the stories of Jesus are not in that range of genre and external corroboration.

Oh, and by the way. I mentioned in my last post that I think belief in Christianity (let’s say the Bible or the Qu’ran/Koran — let’s cover all three “people of the book” religions while we’re at it) has been responsible for much harm. It has. I know. Millions of people know, surely. I’m not talking about just the big issues like war, racism, sexism and slavery. There’s also the “silent” damage it has done to millions of individuals who suffer daily in cities, suburbs and beyond.

But what I want to add here in this P.S. is that I can also look back on my life and see that even in the worst times there is something I can salvage of value and ongoing worth for me and others. Check my posts on “fundamentalism” — see this blog’s Index of Topics — and you will also see that I have made the most of good things that also came out of my religious past and have encouraged others who have likewise suffered to do the same.

The Message: read more »

Dear Joseph Hoffmann, I am writing in response to your recent . . . .

Joseph Hoffmann has introduced his latest post with a misguided reference to me and this blog.

The recent uptick of interest in the historical Jesus is fueled partly by a new interest in a movement that was laid to rest about seventy years ago, but has received a new lease of life from a clutch of historical Jesus-deniers. The rallying point for the group is a site maintained by a blogger by the name of Neil Godfrey, an Australian university librarian who, like many others who have assumed the position, comes from a conservative Christian background.

Let’s take this point by point. And let’s see if we can find any indicator to tell us why this scholar cares enough about me and this blog to bother taking any notice at all.

The Christ Myth idea was “laid to rest about seventy years ago”? That’s not what classicist Michael Grant seems to have understood when he thought “mythicist” G. A. Wells’ books in the 1970s were worth notice and response in Jesus: An Historian’s View of the Gospels. Hoffmann himself appears to have forgotten the preface he wrote for one of Wells’ books, a preface that expressed more understanding of the Christ Myth theory than he has displayed recently.

“A new lease of life from historical Jesus deniers?” Deniers? Being in denial is a psychological problem. It means one is irrationally defensive and stubbornly refusing to face up to an idea or situation that one fears is a threat. Was G. A. Wells a “Jesus denier” when he wrote his books arguing Jesus was not historical? Was his eventual change of mind a psychological cure or an intellectual pursuit? Are Thomas L. Thompson and Robert M. Price “Jesus deniers”? Is it impossible to entertain the possibility that Jesus was not historical without being thought of as psychologically damaged? It seems so, in Hoffmann’s world. So if that is indeed the case, one wonders why he is bothering at all trying to construct intellectual arguments to argue for the historicity of Jesus. Surely what is needed is some other form of therapy if Hoffmann is working from a valid model.

The rallying point for the group is a site maintained by a blogger by the name of Neil Godfrey . . . read more »

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (8)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 8: A Different Kind of Messiah? — An astonishingly persistent misconception

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan
Get Thee Behind Me, Satan! (credit: Wikipedia)

This unit picks up after our mid-stream break in which we answered the question: “What Is the Messianic Secret?

Restatement of purpose

It is not my main purpose to argue for or against Wrede’s thesis. That isn’t why I’ve embarked on this reading expedition. My reasoning is straightforward: Before we agree or disagree with Wrede, we ought to know what he really said. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, The Messianic Secret had a profound impact on NT scholarship. Yet that impact is mostly misunderstood and largely muffled by scholars and laymen who opine on the subject with only the most cursory reference to the actual source material.

I note with some sadness the historical irony here. Wrede continually asked his fellow scholars to stop ignoring Mark. Instead of asking, “Why did Jesus do that?” we first should ask, “What did Mark mean when he wrote that?” Having learned nothing from The Messianic Secret, scholars now ignore both Wrede and Mark.

The vast majority of scholars who talk about the Messianic Secret are clearly ignorant of Wrede’s work. They waste our time by rehashing arguments that Wrede already convincingly addressed and discredited. And they do a disservice to their students and the reading public who get a distorted view of what the Messianic Secret is all about.

A short autobiographical digression

When I left the USAF back in ’92, I ended up working for a consulting company that specialized in information technology (IT) management, and which also dabbled in business process re-engineering (BPR). We became heavily involved in helping the Air Force with the merger of the old AF Systems Command and AF Logistics Command into the combined AF Materiel Command. Specifically, we were to assist them in deciding on a single set of IT standards, methods, processes, etc.

I found myself in the unexpected role of facilitator in round-table discussions, with a group of high-ranking, strong-willed people who had larger-than-life egos. They were all rulers of their fiefdoms, and quite unaccustomed to being told how to run their businesses.

My job was to keep the discussion on an even keel, to make sure everyone contributed to the discussion, and to gently guide the group to a consensus. One of the rules that we followed (and which I enforced) was this: Before anyone could disagree with a previous point, he or she had to restate it to the satisfaction of the person who had made that point. You would be amazed at how well this rule works not only in de-escalating tensions but in saving time.

How does it save time? Well, people don’t hear very well when they think they and their cherished beliefs are under attack. So when Mr. X would speak up and say, “I disagree with Ms. Y, because the real problem with . . .” My job was to say, “Hang on. Explain what Ms. Y said.” Immediately his posture would change. Instead of leaning forward aggressively, he would usually sit back, reflect a moment, and say: “Well, I think she said . . .” The ensuing give-and-take helped to clarify the issues at hand, and more often than not, Mr. X would admit that he had misunderstood Ms. Y. Frequently they found that they were actually in “violent agreement.”

I tell this story to explain why I have such a strong conviction about understanding a work before criticizing it or proposing “better” explanations. The vast majority of scholars who talk about the Messianic Secret are clearly ignorant of Wrede’s work. They waste our time by rehashing arguments that Wrede already convincingly addressed and discredited. And they do a disservice to their students and the reading public who get a distorted view of what the Messianic Secret is all about.

“Don’t get the wrong idea about me.”

I almost hate to bring up Bart Ehrman again as a bad example, because it’s starting to look as if we’re unduly picking on him. He is not uniquely wrong at explaining Wrede; in fact in some respects he’s better than most. However, his assessment of the Messianic Secret motif is very instructive with respect to the idea of “different kinds of messiahs.” In his survey textbook, The New Testament, he summarizes Wrede’s thesis. He misses many of the nuances of Wrede’s arguments, but he’s generally accurate.

However, because Ehrman sees the gospel of Mark as an “ancient religious biography” (see Chapter 4), and because he fails to understand that Wrede’s questions are more about Mark, not the historical Jesus, he finishes his assessment by shooting over the heads of Wrede and Mark, offering the following historical explanation to what is essentially a form-critical question:

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