I would like anyone who has produced a blogpost or knows of a blogpost discussing what has happened to the Vridar blog to drop a comment and link, here, please. Also — any online discussions maybe.
I have left comments on a couple I chanced upon and would like to reestablish contact with those (and I do apologize — last few days have been a bit chaotic and I haven’t kept records to recall who I have visited recently). We’ve lost all our old blog links and subscriber lists as far as I can tell and need to reestablish these from scratch. I’d also like to offer personal thanks to any blogger who has commented on this fiasco and perhaps give an explanation on any blog that has been misinformed about the facts.
Cheers and many thanks,
Here’s one I came upon a few moments ago. I’m sure there are a couple more somewhere (including another I commented on recently) . . .
James McGrath has posted a revealing reply to my critique of a single point in his review of Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery. Ironically he appears to be unaware that his every point is illustrating the very problem I was trying to address and that is close to the core of the historical Jesus vs Christ myth controversy. (One can hardly call it a two-sided intellectual debate or exchange at this stage.)
I concluded with the message that McGrath “brings a hostile intent to every page” he reads by a mythicist.
In my critique of a single point in McGrath’s review of Brodie’s memoir I pointed out that McGrath unfortunately failed to establish his claim with any factual reference to what Brodie had written. Indeed, when one reads the pages that McGrath cited as support for his view, one finds that Brodie’s words belie McGrath’s claims. How is this possible?
McGrath explains. He draws on his own personal experience and personal weaknesses and reasons that these should guide his and our reading of Brodie’s book. It’s called projection.
McGrath’s explicit reliance upon his own experience while at the same time dismissing and/or ignoring anything Brodie says to the contrary is a classic case of this all too common bit of the human condition. McGrath fails to see that his own experience is irrelevant unless he can directly relate it to the evidence Brodie states — not to “impressions” McGrath gets from putting unspecified inferences he brings together from various pages.
The point I was making in that section of my review was about the fact that Brodie drew a conclusion about whether Jesus was a historical figure even before learning how to do scholarship in the appropriate manner. I can tell you that I myself had all sorts of ideas that I thought were brilliant, publication-worthy insights as an undergraduate. Few withstood the testing to which I subjected them in my ongoing studies.
No, Brodie did not come to the conclusion that Jesus was not historical before “learning how to do scholarship”. McGrath originally said that that was his impression and now he is saying that this was “a fact” he was trying to point out. I have been discussing Brodie’s book in detail and it is clear that McGrath has nothing but his own “impression” — no data — to support what he now says is a “fact” about Brodie.
But it does not stop there. In his original review McGrath invites his readers to share in this projection. He does this by pointing to general motherhood statements that most others can relate to from their student days and invites readers to think of Brodie’s argument through this perspective. Continue reading “How Did McGrath Get Himself Inside Thomas Brodie?”
On 26th June I wrote a post exposing the incompetence and culpable ignorance of Joel Watts with respect to a particular point he was using in an attempt to lampoon mythicism.
That blog post contained a detailed, point by point criticism of Joel’s post. Whenever criticizing the works of others I habitually bend over backwards to be sure I am fair to the other side and let their own views be understood. And since Joel Watts had always had a Creative Commons license condition attached to all of his blog posts (I also have a Creative Commons license) I saw nothing amiss in quoting his blogpost in full — especially seeing it consisted of nothing but a list of 25 web links, a tweet from someone else, and no more than about half a dozen lines of typical Watts-like puerile insult. I made sure I linked to the original site, and that I identified the author, and that the views of the post did not reflect mine. After all, all of those conditions were in large measure the whole reason for my post.
At no time before my blog was deactivated did I receive any notice from Joel Watts, the owner of the blog post I copied for critical discussion, or from WordPress warning me or asking me to remove or modify the post. My email account is Gmail and files can be verified and in the event of legal proceedings I would welcome such a check.
Joel Watts did not follow the specified steps to contact me directly with a complaint about my blogpost. This was in contradiction to Automattic’s direction to complainants according to their directions at http://automattic.com/dmca/ :
2. Contact the blogger directly. Go to the blog post in question and leave a comment with your complaint to see if the matter can be resolved directly between you and the blogger.
Well, we’re alive again. Did I miss anything while we were dead?
“Waaaah! They stole my content!”
Here’s the short version of what happened. In one of Neil’s blog posts, he copied the content from one of Joel “Takedown” Watts’ posts, not to steal content (heaven forbid), but to prove that Joel had merely scraped Google for links related to “the science of history.”
Joel took issue with it and claims he sent Neil an email. Perhaps he did. Neil still can’t find any evidence of it, not even in his spam pile. Joel then complained to WordPress.com, and demanded that the post containing his stolen property be taken down.
As far as we can tell, what happened next is that the WordPress guys put that post on private, but neglected to tell us why. Yesterday, Neil asked if I’d changed a post’s status to “Private,” or if we were experiencing another WordPress glitch. I said I might have fat-fingered something. I had been setting some posts I was working on from Draft to Private, because I was worried I might accidentally publish them.
“Nice blog ya got here. It’d be a shame if sumpin’ was tuh happen to it.”
So Neil, unaware of the storm brewing on the horizon, set the post back to Public. At that point, it appears WordPress interpreted our behavior as evidence that we were flouting the rules and ignoring the DMCA takedown order. Please note that neither Neil nor I received any warnings from WordPress about the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.
It seems to me, from the interview, your summary and the blurb on Amazon, that what she claims is beyond refute. It’s historically demonstratable and what I once thought was commonly understood. I do wish those who dismiss Islam with assumptions about a ‘heart’ etc, would honestly read a bit of history. The more I dwell on it the more convinced I am that this book, combined with Espositos must be read for the sake of a future – for god’s sake world, read them and understand….:
Stephanie’s remarks about reading and knowing a little history turn out to be a most pertinent message of both my new books.
Another commenter recently asserted, in effect, that the failure of Muslim populations of the Middle East to change their governments demonstrated that they loved oppressive and dark religious authoritarian rule more than freedom and an open society. I wish such readers could have a look over my shoulder as I read the first page of the introduction to Muslim Secular Societies:
In the wake of the political sandstorms unleashed by the “Arab Uprisings,” almost every Arab state faces serious political challenges and pressures to reform. Authoritarian governance, both Islamic and secular, has been resoundingly rejected by the Muslim masses. Also resoundingly rejected by the Muslim masses are the violent methods of militant Islamists. (p. 1)
While preparing the next step of my posts on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, a Google search brought to my attention a review of this same work by James McGrath back in February this year. It also recently came to my attention that McGrath is to present a paper[Link //drjimsthinkingshop.com/2013/06/academic-freedom-and-biblical-scholarship/ and blog is no longer active… Neil, 23rd Sept, 2015] on academic freedom and that he has chosen to use Brodie’s experiences as he describes them in this Memoir as a case study.
So I read McGrath’s review of Brodie’s book, expecting to find a much more professional treatment of a scholarly peer than he had ever bestowed upon the amateur Earl Doherty. In “reviewing” Doherty McGrath explicitly defended his refusal to explain Doherty’s arguments because he did not want to lend any respectability to mythicism. When I asked McGrath why he sometimes claimed Doherty wrote the very opposite of what he did write, or accused him of not addressing themes and arguments that he clearly did address and at length, I received in return either no reply or an insult.
I did not expect to find the same treatment of Thomas Brodie. But that’s exactly what I found. One difference is that McGrath couches much of his language in tones of condescension whereas he was belligerently abusive towards Doherty.
I will write a complete response to McGrath’s entire review in a future post. However, for now I am incensed enough at his outright incompetence (or is it plain old intellectual dishonesty?) and failure to write a straight and truthful account of Brodie’s Memoir that I will address just one of his remarks.
McGrath writes in his second paragraph:
Brodie indicates that . . . his inability to find a publisher very early on was a result of things like poor grammar, lack of footnotes, refusal to accept criticisms of and feedback on his claims and interpretations, and attempting to find a Christian publisher for what he wrote on the subject (pp.32,35,40,42).
I am singling out this section because it directly relates to a section I was preparing to write up in my next blog post so registers most strongly in me at this moment. What McGrath has written here is not at all what I recalled from my reading of Brodie so I checked the page references. (Like Joel Watts, it seems McGrath assumes that it does not matter if he leaves bogus citations; that if he doesn’t follow up such things then no-one else will bother, either.)
While teaching a class in Trinidad during the late 1960s Thomas Brodie found himself repeating a line he had heard from an experienced Dominican teacher in Rome, Peter Dunker:
the biblical account of Abraham was a story, a powerful meaningful story, but not historical.
His students challenged him. What did he mean by this? In Trinidad, with no-one else to ask, he was forced to rely upon his own studies in the library, to apply historical-critical methods in his need to keep ahead of his students.
His initial answer was to explain that the early chapters of Genesis, Creation to the Tower of Babel, did not reflect historical stories of real persons, but that the rest of Genesis, from Abraham on, was different and did appear to be recording the lives of real people.
But the more he studied and questioned, the harder Brodie found it to accept as historical even much of the remainder of Genesis and the primary history (Genesis to 2 Kings):
Did Abraham and Sarah really have a child in their nineties?
Could Moses and Joseph have really played such prominent roles in Egypt yet have left no trace in the Egyptian records?
Jericho’s walls simply fell down flat?
What facilities would be required for Solomon’s thousand wives and concubines?
Above all: Solomon built such a magnificent temple yet not a trace of it was to be found by archaeologists?
Then the archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon established that the walls of Jericho had been demolished well before 2000 BCE, centuries before the supposed Exodus and time of Joshua.
Around the same time Trinidad was in political and social turmoil. The Church could not remain aloof. Demonstrators occupied the Catholic Cathedral and denounced an economic system that exploited the poor.
Some called for the demonstrators to be expelled the way Jesus had expelled the money-changers from the Temple. The demonstrators said they were in the role of Jesus expelling the wicked. Saint Paul was declared to be on the side of the revolutionaries: “He who does not work, let him not eat.” But Paul was also, Brodie comments, on the side of the oppressors. The motive of his charity was nothing but an example of Christian manipulation,
to heap fire on the person who received it. The Irish priests were an extension of the British Empire. (p. 22)
Dominican priest Thomas Brodie has written an autobiographical narrative of how he came to the realization that the New Testament writings about Jesus, in particular the Gospels, do not derive from reports about the life and teachings of an historical person at all but are entirely sourced and re-created from other theological writings. The Jesus of the Gospel narratives was created as a kind of parable or theological symbol.
Eventually Brodie’s literary studies of the New Testament led him to go even further than realizing the Jesus narratives were entirely theological-literary creations. The same even had to be concluded of the persona behind the bulk of the New Testament epistles.
More, it is also a survey of the history of scholarly interpretations of the Bible, sweeping the reader through a panoramic view of how we got to where we are today with how we critically read the Bible.
Anyone not aware of Brodie’s background can learn a little more from my earlier posts in relation toBeyond the Quest. (Check the Index of Topics drop-down list in the right margin to see posts on other works by Brodie.)
Beyond the Quest is divided into five parts. Below are the intellectual themes of each part. These are narrated within the context of Brodie’s own life-experiences, exchanges with other (sometimes highly prominent) scholars, personal aspirations and challenges. He also reveals the background to each of his major publications.
Learning the fundamentals of historical criticism. . . .
Discovering literary sources of the Gospels
Discovering the practices of the wider literary world and how they illuminated the New Testament writings in unexpected ways
Grasping the first rule in historical inquiry (see my earlier post for an outline of Brodie’s chapter here), understanding the flaws in the oral tradition arguments (posts one, two, three, four detail his arguments from his earlier book), and the fate of Paul.
The book concludes with an epilogue reviewing Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?
In this post, Act 1, Scene 1, I’ll highlight the principle intellectual discoveries in Brodie’s early career as a student. These in themselves are well-known today among most readers with a critical interest in the Bible. They do not themselves directly lead to Brodie’s mythicist views. But we need to start at the beginning. There is much of Brodie’s own personal experiences that form the background to his education, and I encourage anyone interested to read his book to appreciate a little the personal odyssey this proved to be for Brodie. There is much of human interest as he relates his intellectual journey to his personal and wider social experiences.
And more than that, the reader will likewise begin to share Brodie’s learning and understanding of the sweep of critical biblical studies since the eighteenth century and even earlier.
The First Revolution: Historical Investigations
At one moment in his high school years Brodie was struck by the “extraordinary experience of depth and calm and truth” in Jesus’ farewell speech in the Gospel of John. He went on to learn by heart that entire Gospel.
One day an older Dominican remarked casually that the words of Jesus in the Gospels were not necessarily the exact words Jesus spoke. Brodie describes the slightly disheartening feeling that probably many other young believers have felt on first learning this.
But that is the sort of stuff most of us go through in our teen years. We learn to understand more the ways of the world, accept reality, and move on with faith unshaken or even cemented.
Then in the 1960s Brodie was taught in the tradition of Jerusalem’s Dominican-run biblical school, Ecole Biblique, a school that emphasized history and archaeology. Here is where Brodie was introduced to the historical-critical method.
“Historical” means trying to establish the facts.
The process is like that of a wise court-room where the facts of a case are in doubt, or of a calm history department in a university. The various biblical accounts of an event or life are examined individually, compared with one another, and compared also with other accounts or with other pertinent evidence. (p. 4)
In the past I have posted on biblical scholars I have caught out promoting and citing Wikipedia articles, books, journal articles, archaeological finds in support of their views that in fact directly contradicted their arguments and claims. Mercifully the names of these scholars have been relatively few. I have posted far more on many excellent biblical scholars who produce informative and interesting work.
But there is one more published biblical scholar who has come to my attention as another charlatan. I would hope that this post will embarrass him enough to pull him up and lead him to mend his ways. I really would much rather argue with a competent and honest scholar than an incompetent charlatan.
Normally this sort of ignorance can be overlooked. But Watts is a PhD student and a published scholar so he has attained the status of being a “public intellectual”. As a public intellectual he deserves to be held accountable for what he publicly writes.
Joel Watts has no specialty in historical studies that I am aware of. I suspect few New Testament scholars have any idea of landmark names in the history and philosophy of historiography like von Ranke, Collingwood, Carr, Elton, White or the various schools of history. Yet he is quite prepared to publish on something he knows nothing about and insult others who do know what they are talking about.
Joel, if there’s one lesson I’d like you to take from this post, it is this: Don’t treat your reading public as fools. They really are smarter than you think. You even explicitly call us stupid, imbeciles, etc. yet you produce blatant charlatanry like the following.
Guess he does have a special sort of b.s. as well.
Remember, what is here are links with a variety of resources, including some responses against the idea. If you can’t understand the use of a multitude of sources… oh wait… some do not even get the idea of sources.
So what is Joel’s method here? How does he prove his point that history is a science? It appears he Googles the phrase “history is a science” or similar, collects a quick grab-bag of URLs that pop up, and posts them as a “There! Gotcha!” But he can’t help but notice a few at least don’t support the idea, so he mentions that too.
What he doesn’t grasp is that the whole collection is nothing but a testimony to the fact that history is not today considered a science — the main exceptions being some Marxists. The days when many historians thought of it as a science are now over a century gone.
This is the very method that his good friend and Associate Professor at Butler University has been caught out doing repeatedly — and unrepentantly — with Wikipedia articles on historical method and with citations from historians. How is it possible that such “scholars” continue to do this sort of thing? I can only presume they assume everyone else is as lazy and incompetent as they are and no-one will bother to check their citations.
Unfortunately for Joel Watts I have checked every one of those links and not a single one of them demonstrates that history is a science. Many/most (not “some”) of them actually argue the very opposite! Many plead that they would like it to be a science, and most of these are from the nineteenth century or modern Marxists.
If you haven’t had a chance to catch Joel Watts’ response to my previous post on his HuffPo hot mess, by all means, go take a look. It’s the post with a color photo of the lovely Cecilia Bartoli near the top of the page and a black-and-white self-portrait of Joel farther down.
To the charge of reckless disregard for intelligible language, Joel pleads not guilty by reason of “nuance,” and deflects the criticism back at me, writing:
. . . in spite of not needing to answer imbeciles, I wante [sic] to speak to the use of several of these phrases — phrases that cannot be googled.
If Joel or anyone else did not understand me, I regret that I wasn’t clearer. When I read works by talented authors, and I encounter an odd turn of phrase, I endeavor to grasp the meaning. Consider the oft-misquoted line (and title!) from Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Many people will insist on turning the word “gentle” into an adverb. But the master poet used an adjective. Why did he do that? It’s worth digging into, but only because we know that Dylan Thomas was a great writer — an artist, not an oaf hiding behind the fig leaf of “nuance.”
“What is the nature of the employment, Mr. Marriott?”
“I should prefer not to discuss it over the phone.”
“Can you give me some idea? Montemar Vista is quite a distance.”
“I shall be glad to pay your expenses, if we don’t agree. Are you particular about the nature of the employment?”
“Not as long as it’s legitimate.”
The voice grew icicles. “I should not have called you, if it were not.”
A Harvard boy. Nice use of the subjunctive mood. The end of my foot itched, but my bank account was still trying to crawl under a duck. I put honey into my voice and said: “Many thanks for calling me, Mr. Marriott. I’ll be there.”
In a recent Huffington Post article, noted “scholar, author, and blogger” (and non-Harvard boy), Joel Watts, asks: “What if [sic] Jesus Was [sic] Real?” (Note: I’m linking to Joel’s blog rather than directly to the HuffPo.)
That’s a difficult question for many to read. It could mean, possibly, this author believes Jesus was not real or at least has doubts as to the existence of a Jesus.
Since Joel did not employ the subjunctive, we may wonder whether he believes it is more likely that Jesus did exist, or whether he simply has problems with English grammar. Did he really mean to insert the indefinite article before Jesus, or is it a typo? By “difficult to read,” did he mean “hard to understand”? It is, indeed, always more difficult to comprehend prose written by an author who has a tenuous grasp of the mother tongue. For example, in broaching the subject of Jesus mythicism, he writes:
We see this almost constantly with the advent of new “ideas” such as Jesus was the King of Egypt, or Jesus was an alien, or worse — Jesus isn’t real, just a story told like other divine imaginations, to help out one person or another in achieving something of an ethical collusion, or mythicism. (emphasis mine)
It is difficult to make sense of this concatenation of words, because although it looks at first like so much random lexical noise, I cannot shake the suspicion that Joel had intended to write something rather clever. As a last resort, I Googled the terms “divine imagination” and “ethical collusion,” but reached no satisfying conclusions. Of course, I am no scholar, so I’m at a disadvantage here.
Joel continues by dredging up the tired accusation that mythicists are just like creationists.
Palestinian suicide bombing operations are now (hopefully) history. The last one was five years ago. It is still good (even if painful) to understand them, however. (I have certainly found much of the reading preparation for this post to be painful; sometimes I could not bring myself to repeat certain details of what I learned.)
Having said that, let me say now that I am vain enough to think that Vridar readers are in some respects like me and share an interest in learningfactsabout terrorism and suicide bombings (along with any related role of Islam) from investigative journalists and in particular from scholarly researchers who specialize in the relevant fields: anthropology, sociology, political science, Islamist studies among them. To this end my reading list to date consists of Amin Saikal, Ghassan Hage, Jason Burke, Robert Pape, John Esposito, Riaz Hassan, Greg Barton, Scott Atran, Mohammed Hafez, Zaki Chehab, Lily Zubaidah Rahim, Amin Saikal, Tariq Ali and Tom Holland.
I am interested in studying the data these researchers gather in support of their conclusions. That’s what these posts have been attempting to do ever since November 2006: to present some sound and verifiable research data and tried and tested explanatory models of human behaviour to counter the pop polemics from public figures (think Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne) who clearly have no more specialist understanding or knowledge of this area than a twelve year old madrassah pupil has about evolutionary biology or neurology.
It is also disturbing to learn through some of the rhetoric of critics of these posts (and the writings of Harris, Dawkins and Coyne) how very little they know about the “facts on the ground” and the history of the Middle East. I am dismayed that one such figure, Sam Harris, even publicly ridicules and blatantly misrepresents the findings of one of the most prominent and politically influential anthropologists who has risked his life to learn first-hand, in field research, how terrorists think.
In what other area would a public intellectual think to ridicule his intellectual peers while at the same time promoting the popular prejudices and CNN sound-bytes and Fox News stories as reliable and responsible datasets and founts of wisdom?
So far I have posted thoughts and research from publications by
Ghassan Hage — anthropologist with interesting insights, though some of his views relating to suicide terrorist motivations have been superseded by subsequent researchers
Robert Pape — political scientist responsible for a landmark study of all suicide terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2003.
John Esposito — professor of religion and Islamist studies; draws upon Gallup polling
Riaz Hassan — sociologist drawing upon a Flinders University Database 0f terrorist actions as well as other polling studies
Scott Atran — anthropologist who has been advisor and confidante to many governments and government bodies. (Have also posted on another book of his on the evolutionary basis of religion, “In Gods We Trust”.)
Mohammed Hafez — political scientist specializing in studies of Muslim societies in Middle East
Tom Holland — historian who has raised controversial questions about the origins of Islam
And yes, I’ve also read Sam Harris (two books), Chris Hitchens (four books), Richard Dawkins (six or seven books plus interviews), Daniel Dennett (one book) and even Jerry Coyne (one book and lots of blog posts) and what they have had to pontificate against their perceptions of Islam.
For the benefit of newer readers who have been upset by my posts on this theme, note that these posts began in the first month of the creation of this blog. This is not some new-found interest of mine. The by-line of this blog from the beginning has been, Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science. Only this year have some readers seen fit to complain that they do not think that these posts meet Vridar standards of presenting reliable scholarly research and sound argument.
I was prompted to obtain a copy of Hafez’s study of the terrorist attacks in Iraq after hearing of yet one more horrific spate of bombings that once again killed dozens of Iraqis. (Why are they targeting fellow Muslims? Especially now that the U.S. has left? It turns out that there is a strong motivation among a good number of people to maintain Iraq as a failed state.)
This post primarily addresses Hafez’s findings about the motives of individual Palestinian suicide bombers. I conclude with a few related explanations from Scott Atran. (Sorry, that was my intention when I began this post, but the post turned out way much longer than I anticipated. More on Scott Atran’s views later.)
A popular Western view is that the Muslim world has a fatal enchantment with martyrdom. Religious fanaticism is one of the most common explanations of why individuals volunteer to become human bombs. (Suicide Bombers in Iraq, p. 218)
Some of the most sensible words I have read about the Gospels are in a 1954 lecture by Ernst Käsemann. Käsemann makes no strained attempt to “explain” how similar the Gospels are to “history” or “biography”. Rather, he works with what we all can see as plain as day: the Gospels are what some scholars have called “faith documents”: they are written to support faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Saviour of “the world”. They are written like, well, books of the Bible. Believe or die.
History is only comprehensible to us through interpretation. Mere facts are not enough.
Rationalists, for example, have sought to show that Jesus was an ordinary man like us. That’s all the facts allow us to acknowledge.
Supernaturalists, on the other hand, have sought to show that Jesus is a “divine man” who performed real miracles. The facts allow us to believe nothing less.
But what is the point of either view? If Jesus were an ordinary man like us, so what? Did not Schweitzer show that each scholar saw in that mere man a life just like his own? This observation is said to have effectively put a hold on historical Jesus research in many quarters.
And if the facts told us Jesus really did perform miracles and even rose from the dead, then in what way would he be any different from other lives embedded in other religions that also wielded supernatural powers?
No one has ever been compelled (in the true sense) to make his decision between faith and unbelief, simply because someone else has succeeded in representing Jesus convincingly as a worker of miracles. And nothing is settled about the significance of the Resurrection tidings for me personally, simply because the evidence for the empty tomb has been shown to be reliable.
The handing own of relatively probable facts does not as such provide any basis for genuinely historical communication and continuity. (Käsemann, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” in Essays on New Testament Themes, p. 19)
How did the Gospel authors learn about Jesus? They are generally thought to have only begun writing forty years after the death of Jesus — from the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple around the conclusion of the Jewish-Roman War of 66 to 73 CE. Historical Jesus scholars have (reasonably) assumed that that gap of forty years was filled mostly by followers of Jesus, and followers of those followers, passing on the stories of Jesus by word of mouth. With this chain of “oral tradition” securing the events of Jesus to the gospels we can have some confidence that what we read in Mark, Matthew, Luke (and some would say even John) has some real connection to what historically happened in Galilee and Jerusalem during the time of the governorship of Pilate.
However, scholars need more than assumption. They need evidence. So how can one have evidence of the contents of conversations that people relayed by word of mouth to each other many generations ago? The answer is in the way the words came together in the earliest gospel narratives.
Do they betray traces of the way people naturally speak compared with the way they write more formal or literary prose?
Are the gospels themselves, or at least the supposed earliest gospel, Mark, quite “unliterary” and clearly a crude compilation of oral reports?
By comparing the other gospels with Mark can scholars see patterns of how stories were modified and extrapolate back to how they must have changed during the oral transmission process?
Can modern historians (e.g. Jan Vansina) who specialize in oral histories of African peoples help us out here? What about scholars who study the oral transmission of epic tales told among the Balkan peoples? Does research into the psychology of memory help us out? Can we combine these studies with new philosophical approaches to the nature of history and “evidence” to write a valid history of Jesus?
Much work has been done by New Testament scholars exploring all of the above pathways in their efforts to arrive at what Jesus “probably” or “plausibly” did and said. Through such processes many scholars have concluded that the parables of Jesus are the most “certainly” indicative of Jesus’ original teachings.
Meanwhile, Doctor Doubting Thomas is kept waiting outside.
Several scholars have published studies that argue the gospel narratives are based upon other literary stories, especially others found in the Old Testament. Some have even challenged those arguments that claimed to have found evidence of orality in the gospels. One of these, Barry W. Henaut, has argued that even the parables of Jesus as told in the oldest gospel, Mark, are more certainly derived not from oral tradition but are indeed literary creations of the author.
In Oral Tradition and the Gospels Henaut has investigated the arguments that the narratives and saying of Jesus in the gospels are derived from oral tradition and found them to be all based on questionable assumptions. A closer look actually indicates that the same evidence is more validly a sign that the gospel writings are indeed literary creations and not attempts to document or edit oral reports.
The previous post in this series concluded with questioning the arguments of Bultmann and form critics that presupposed “oral tradition” as the source of Gospel narratives about Jesus.
This post looks critically at the oral tradition arguments of one of the more significant critiques of form criticism, the “Memory and Manuscript” school of Harald Riesenfeld and his pupil Birger Gerhardsson. These Swedish scholars looked to the processes of transmission apparent within rabbinic Judaism as the model for oral transmission of the words and sayings of Jesus.
Since there were indications that the Jewish rabbis passed on certain teachings by means of oral tradition until these were put in writing around 200 CE (the Mishnah), was it fair to suggest that the teachings of Jesus were passed on in a similar way by his disciples?
Yes, if the portrayal of the apostles in Acts 6:2 is reliable. There the apostles are said to be primarily responsible for preaching and teaching. And the earliest messages they are depicted as giving are outlines of the life of Jesus.
Besides, Paul’s letters can be read as if they are alluding indirectly to the sayings of Jesus. Scholars have read them as if they assume a knowledge of the teachings and deeds of Jesus that must have been passed on by oral tradition. And does not Paul speak of doctrines being “received”? What else can this mean other than oral transmission?
The rabbis, Riesenfeld pointed out, likewise orally transmitted teachings. They did so within a controlled process, however. A leading rabbi had the supervisory function of this transmission. The words passed on and remembered were rigidly controlled. Pupils who were invited to share this privilege were especially approved. Pearls were not entrusted to any old swine who snorted an interest. The whole process was formally controlled by rabbinic supervisors and pupils who had proven themselves reliable to ensure that not “one iota of the tradition” would be lost.
This was surely the model behind the apostolic teaching in Acts 6:2 and that formed the background to Paul’s letters.
Hence the Gospel tradition was not shaped by an unlimited and anonymous multitude, but transmitted by an exactly defined group within the community. (Riesenfeld, Gospel Tradition, p. 16)