The Fundamentalist Mind of the Historicist Scholar

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the pots and kettles theme . . .

The Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University has posted the following under The Fundamentalist Mind:

Samantha Field has written an excellent post about the fundamentalist way of thinking. Far from being irrational, Field suggests, the fundamentalist might be called hyper-rational. There is a desire for absolute consistency and clarity, which is precisely why fundamentalist atheists who embrace mythicism, as well as fundamentalist Christians who embrace Biblical inerrancy, cannot tolerate the kind of uncertainty that historical inquiry, for instance, must treat as par for the course.

I think the Chair has missed some of the core points of Samantha Field’s article (an article that I largely agree with, by the way) and added some of his own elaboration (e.g. the reference to “clarity”) but it is interesting to compare his own dogmatic certainty about his opponents and his own absolute belief in the historicity of Jesus with the following passage from a mythicist who, I think, can be fairly considered to speak for Carrier, Doherty, Price and others:

All it [Bayesian reasoning in historical inquiry] does is indicate what theory is most rationally believed, at that time. Just like sound historical reasoning. There is a reason for that. Sound historical reasoning is Bayesian. Indeed, sound reasoning in general seems to be Bayesian. Bayesian reasoning simply symbolises and formalises what already takes place in the heads of logical people. In fact, we can take comfort by the fact that this probabilistic approach allows us to make judgements even when evidence is scarce, as it is with the issue of Jesus’ historicity. Bayesian reasoning informs us as to what is more reasonably believed, based on the currently available evidence. As we gather more evidence, our conclusions may change.

Even those that disagree with a scientific-mathematical representation of history can at least agree that history then becomes ambiguous and shall not give us certainty[ 545] – so that the inappropriateness of historicists claiming certainty is illuminated, and agnosticism over Jesus’ history is already justified. . . . 

While we may never know the truth with absolute certainty,[ 548] Bayes’ Theorem allows the scholar to objectively compare how revealed evidence and background knowledge fits various theories, and thus should prove to be very helpful in historical Jesus studies; more so than the popular Criteria.

Lataster, Raphael (2015-11-12). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists (Kindle Locations 3068-3086). . Kindle Edition.

Would that the Chair could demonstrate the same tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. . . . .


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15 thoughts on “The Fundamentalist Mind of the Historicist Scholar”

  1. This post, apparently from Richard Carrier, is so good, that any comments on it would only be a distraction.

    Mythicists and nonbelievers are not “fundamentalists”. But all historicists and many believers, Christians, clearly – and often literally – are.

    Specifically, historicists like Mike Bird, are often the new fundamentalists: “evangelicals.”

  2. The New Testament records that Jesus was accused of being a glutton, a drunk, and consorting with undesirables: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Matthew 11:19). It would seem curious that the author of the Gospel of Matthew would preserve these attacks on Jesus if there weren’t some truth to them. It seems to add to the probability of Jesus being a glutton and a drunk that other New Testament sources confirm Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

    1. Do we have a reason to assume the author was “preserving” anything? Do we have other evidence to support the view that he was a creative writer? Or if he was “preserving” pre-existing material, on what grounds do we suspect that the material was “historical”?

      Why would such an accusation be problematic for anyone wanting to present an image of a saviour who suffered injustice, lying accusations, ignorance, cruelty, scoffing, humiliation — just as all martyrs have, from Joseph, to David, to Socrates….. ?

      1. The account in Matthew seems to recount an event where critics of Jesus SAW him drunk and indulging in overeating. Hence Matthew has the critics use the word “BEHOLD (Matthew 11:19).”

        1. Surely the following sentence makes it clear the deeds of Jesus are righteous. He was not a sinner or extortioner as they judged by appearances of him feasting in their company, nor a glutton or drunkard. Matthew calls the enemies of Jesus hypocrites and false accusers as he portrays Jesus in the train of other righteous ones.

          And the preceding sentence makes it clear, I would have thought, that the accusation was as extreme and false in the opposite direction to the charge that John was demon possessed.

          If Jesus was a drunkard then John was demon possessed but Jesus says he is able to heal the sick and raise the dead so obviously the charges are false.

          1. Matthew 11:18-19 says 18″For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ 19″The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

            The point seems to be that John really wasn’t eating or drinking, and so his critics responded to that. The rest of it seems to say that Jesus really was drunk and gluttonous and associating with undesireables FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF JESUS’ CRITICS, but that these things really weren’t that bad (like eating unclean food).

            1. On the other hand, contrary to my earlier point, there is good reason to think Jesus did not associate with sinners. A fascinating story from Acts is Simon Peter’s famous “tablecloth vision” from Chapter 10 [It will be recalled that “Peter” (i.e., “Rocky”) is a nickname that Simon has acquired, presumably because his support of Jesus was “solid as a rock”.] Peter is going to be invited to dinner by a centurion, Cornelius from the Italica regiment in Caesarea, who is improbably described as “fearing God”, “giving many gifts to the poor”, and “supplicating God continuously” (Acts 10:1-2). Peter has a vision in which a heavenly tablecloth descends, covered with various animals, which he is instructed by a voice to “kill and eat. ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ ” (Acts 10:13-15). Later, Peter summarizes his visit: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has [now] shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28). This story seems to suggest that the whole “inclusivist message”, which is directly attributed to Jesus via innumerable Gospel stories, was in fact completely foreign to the historical Jesus. Otherwise, it would not have been necessary for Peter, one of his closest and “rockiest” supporters, to receive an instructing vision about it well after Jesus’s death. Thus, this story, by itself, suggests that vast portions of the Gospels, in which Jesus is pictured as associating and engaging in table fellowship with all kinds of forbidden persons (tax collectors, prostitutes, etc) and dismissing Jewish dietary law in favor of a universalist, humanitarian message (“What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean.” Matt 15:10), are just invented from whole cloth.

              1. The nickname “Rock” for Simon Peter could have been ironic given his impulsive behavior and changes of mind. Ditto “thunderstones”[?] for the sons of Zebedee (Luke 9.54). The use of sarcasm and humor by Jesus on many occasions may indicate that we are reading about a real preacher with a clever and imaginative turn of mind, “the first Jewish stand-up comedian” (Robert Funk).

                But who knows what is fact and what is fiction, or what are the best criteria to distinguish them, so many centuries later?

              2. Mary Ann Tolbert (https://www.librarything.com/work/25054/book/7606757) makes what I think is a very sound analysis of the Gospel of Mark in which she argues the author attributed the name “rocky” to Peter as the leader of the “rocky soil” into which the seed of the word fell. Rock in this case would have begun as an appropriate epithet for the disciple representing those who like the rocky soil produced growth for a while but under persecution they dropped away.

                Later authors may have tried to turn that epithet around to something more respectable.

            2. A couple more thoughts:

              Matthew 11:19 says ″The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

              The fact that Jesus’ critics said they saw Jesus going around getting drunk, being a glutton, and consorting with cheats and sinners, while it doesn’t prove Jesus was doing these things, it does imply Jesus’ opponents thought that Jesus was not a heavenly mythical deity, but rather a person walking around on earth and doing stuff.

              1. Back to the old question: Was a god given a human biography or a human given a celestial theology, or a bit of both? And why? On the only available literary evidence, and assuming that texts attributed to Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, Papias &c are all necessarily faked, are the likeliest explanations?

              2. The author is in control and he is the one creating the characters and dialogue. Sometimes he creates very artificial scenes for the sake of setting up a scenario as a backdrop for a message. Crowds appear and disappear in a flash in the most artificial ways; Pharisees appear beside disciples out in cornfields on the sabbath; and critics of Jesus appear outside the window or whatever of a house where Jesus is feasting with sinners (very much like a parable). These are all mini episodes very much in the style of mini episodes we find in the Elijah-Elisha cycle. They all have a theological function. I cannot see any reason to impute historicity to them.

              3. On the other hand, another possibly fruitful position could be to argue with Dr. Barrie Wilson (author of “How Jesus Became Christian,” http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Became-Christian-Barrie-Wilson/dp/0312361890/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1458485890&sr=1-1&keywords=how+jesus+became+Christian ) that the mythical Christ of Paul was one interpretation of Jesus in the ancient world, which was at odds with the portrayal of the human Christ in the later gospels:

                “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the anti-christ.” (2 John 7)

                2 John is an important work. See what it says about love. Love isn’t just a warm feeling. It’s tied into keeping Torah, walking in God’s commandments. Sounds like it’s aimed against Paul’s position.

  3. Good points, Neil, about the artificial settings & the Elijah-Elisha comparisons.

    Some names in the gospels possibly show “narrative”-development from root-words or even narrative-suggestion; e.g. “Iscariot” (in Aramaic) and “Arimathea” (in Greek).

    1. James McGrath recently posted something about the story in Genesis about Adam being so “obviously” a symbolic tale because of the symbolic meaning of the name and experiences of Adam yet I venture to suggest there would be no such insight were one to point out the tale of Jesus is grounded in symbolic names of main characters (Jesus, Peter, Judas, Jairus….) and both fictional and real place names (Bethsaida, Bethphage, Galilee, Capernaum…..) and numbers.

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