Focus, Focus, Focus — but Not Blinkered

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by Neil Godfrey

Larry Hurtado’s ongoing attempts to defend the reasons biblical scholars opt to ignore the arguments of the Christ Myth theory reinforce fundamental points in my original post, Reply to Larry Hurtado: “Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars”. Hurtado’s latest response is Focus, Focus, Focus. Some excerpts and my comments:

The question is whether the Gospels are best accounted for as literary productions that incorporate a body of prior traditions about Jesus of Nazareth, and on that question scholars over 250 years have broadly agreed that they do.  The earmarks of the traditions are there all over their texts.  The Gospel writers weren’t inventing a human figure, but composing biographical narratives of a figure who had been central from the beginning of the Jesus-movement.  The Gospels mark a development in the literary history of the first-century Jesus movement, appropriating the emergent biographical genre.  But they were essentially placing Jesus-tradition in this literary form.

That the gospels are “biographies” is not a fact but an interpretation, based most often on Richard Burridge’s What Are the Gospels? A number of scholars have found reasons to be critical of Burridge’s arguments, however, as have I. Both Tim and I have discussed Burridge’s book and some of the scholarly criticisms several times now as well as having written more studies on gospel genre generally, introducing a range of scholarly inputs on that question. But let’s stay focused. A “biographical” genre by itself does not mean that the person written about was historical. The ancient times saw a number of “biographies” written about persons we know to have been fictitious, even though the tone and style indicate to a less informed reader that they are about a “true” person. I have discussed several of these in the links above.

Scholars who pay attention to literary studies of the ancient world also know that ancient writers were trained to create details of verisimilitude to make their compositions (letters, novellas, speeches, poems) sound authentic or plausible.

Further, the claim that the gospels “incorporate a body of prior traditions about Jesus of Nazareth” is, in fact, an assumption that is generally “supported” by appeals to details in the text of the gospels that too often are in fact circular. The process is very often an exercise in the fallacy of confirmation bias. The assumption that oral tradition is behind the gospel narratives is the eyepiece through which the gospels are read, and lo and behold, the evidence expected is indeed found to be there. The method has too rarely been checked by controls. A few scholars have applied controls to these arguments, however, and have found that in several cases the evidence that was claimed to be support for oral tradition is, in fact, more directly found to be a sign of literary borrowing. Take, for example, the “rule of three”. Words, motifs, incidents in folktales are often repeated three times and this is said to be an aid to memory. Fine. But what is overlooked is that we find the “rule of three” also liberally populating very literary works with other literary influences.

Yes, I am very aware of studies on oral traditions in the Balkans and Africa and have addressed several of these in posts on this blog. Unfortunately, I have also found that in too many cases a scholar has quote-mined such a study and misapplied its statements to support an otherwise gratuitous claim about gospel origins.

The applicability of those oral tradition studies have been found by a number of scholars not to be applicable to the data we find in our canonical gospels. Again, see some of the posts on Vridar for references to some of the scholarly works addressing this question. I will be posting more in future.

Hurtado continues:

Another reader seems greatly exercised over how much of the Jesus-tradition Paul recounts in his letters, and how much Paul may have known.  Scholars have probed these questions, too, for a loooong time.  E.g., David L. Dungan, The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).  But, in any case, this isn’t the issue of my posting, or even essential to the “mythical Jesus” question.

Yes, and indeed it is “many scholars” who also write in their publications of Paul’s virtually complete lack of interest or even knowledge of the human Jesus. Unfortunately, Hurtado appears to have chosen not to even consider or read any of the criticisms of those arguments that bypass certain critical problems with those common assumptions about Paul’s supposed references to the “historical Jesus”. Again, the works available, by both mainstream scholars and Christ Myth theorists, are abundant and discussed in past posts.

The Pauline question is whether his letters treat Jesus as a real historical figure, indeed a near contemporary, and the answer is actually rather clear, as indicated in my posting.  Paul ascribes to Jesus a human birth, a ministry among fellow Jews, an execution specifically by Roman crucifixion, named/known siblings, and other named individuals who were Jesus’ original companions (e.g., Kephas/Peter, John Zebedee).  Indeed, in Paul’s view, it was essential that Jesus is a real human, for the resurrected Jesus is Paul’s model and proto-type of the final redemption that Paul believes God will bestow on all who align themselves with Jesus.  In Paul’s view, what God did to/for Jesus is what God will do for Paul and others who respond to the gospel.

Here Hurtado is glossing over a number of peer-reviewed scholarly studies that contradict some of his points. That conservative scholars choose to ignore these studies does not change the fact that they exist and stand as challenges to the claims by Hurtado here. See, for example, posts discussing the scholarly debate over a passage in 1 Thessalonians that speaks of Jews in Judea being responsible for Jesus’ death, discussions on the passage in Galatians that speaks of Jesus being “born of a woman”, and even my most recent summary of some (only some) of the points relating to the question of James being a “brother of the Lord”.

Hurtado’s assertions are not facts; they are interpretations that are indeed debated in the scholarly literature. Yes, conservative scholarship might dominate the guild today, and minority views might be ignored. But they do exist and ought to be considered fairly.

Of course, with the Jesus movement of his time more widely, Paul also ascribed to Jesus a post-resurrection heavenly status and regal role as God’s plenipotentiary, and likewise (and on the basis of Jesus’ heavenly exaltation) a “pre-existence”.  But for Paul and earliest believers it wasn’t a “zero-sum game,” in which Jesus could only be either a human/historical figure or a heavenly king.  For them, the one didn’t cancel out the other.

Hurtado here conflates “human” with “historical”. I suggest the equation is not necessarily valid given that the world has seen perhaps as many fictitious humans in its cultural history as non-human ones. Some Christ Myth theorists propose that Jesus was always entirely non-human. My own interests are in a different area, but as far as I understand, it makes no difference to the historicity question if Jesus was thought to appear as a human for a few hours, days, or even years, or even having “slipped through” the womb of Mary in order to be “human”. Let’s stay focused.

The earliest circles of the Jesus movement ransacked their scriptures to try to understand the events of Jesus, especially his execution and (in their conviction) his resurrection.  But it was these historical events that drove the process.

Again, this is mere assertion, an assumption, for which there is no independent evidence. The justifications for the claim derive from circular reasoning, I suggest. Or at least they are simply begging the question of the existence of Jesus. The evidence that is before us allows for quite another interpretation: that the early Christians derived their knowledge of Jesus from revelation, including the revelation of scriptures. Again, such viewpoints have been discussed at length many times on this blog.

Finally, this discussion is about history, not theology or faith.  What you make of early Christian claims about Jesus’ significance, how you view traditional Christian faith, etc., are all quite separate matters from the historical judgement that Jesus of Nazareth was a real early first-century Jew from Galilee.

Oh that that were true! The Christian faith, it must be kept in mind, is faith that a certain event in the past was more than just theological; it was historical. Faith in the historicity of the event is what Christianity is all about for most conservative Christians.

A handful of Christians I know of have found a way to move beyond such an earthly bound faith (as Schweitzer himself believers them to do) and have found a way to remain Christian even without belief in a historical Jesus. (Not that Schweitzer did not believe in a historical Jesus; he did. But that was not his spiritual message. See Schweitzer in context)

So, let’s stay focused, folks.

Indeed. Focused, but not blinkered.


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17 thoughts on “Focus, Focus, Focus — but Not Blinkered”

  1. “on that question scholars over 250 years have broadly agreed that they do”

    That should read Christian scholars.

    Oddly enough, Jewish scholars, Muslim scholars, Hindu scholars, Buddist scholars, etc don’t broadly agree but they don’t count as only Christians do.

  2. As a working researcher (albeit in a different discipline), my experience is generally that people who speak of ‘peer-reviewed’ research out themselves as not-real-scholars. Working scholars don’t talk this way. It’s a given that everything worth considering has been peer reviewed, and peer review doesn’t confer some special degree of legitimacy on an article. Carrier’s response to Hurtado falls all over itself to remind us that his book was peer-reviewed, as though this intrinsically makes it worthy of consideration. Any working scholar can point to dozens of articles that they’ve read that made it through peer review but that are total garbage. The defining scholarly characteristic, the thing that separates “the men from the boys”, as it were, is not the ability to get an article through peer review, but rather, evidence of prudent scholarly /judgment/.

    1. I’m loath to defend Carrier on this point – his self-aggrandisement really grates – but I think his point is that most work on the ‘historical Jesus’ can’t even clear the low hurdle of peer review. Secondly, that the standard dismissal of work on mythicism is that it *isn’t* peer reviewed.

  3. Do you know what he is referring to when he says Paul wrote of Jesus’ ministry to the Jews? I know Carrier and other mythicists deny this, but is it a case of differing interpretations of some particular passage(s) or as Carrier says, people assuming Paul would have said this and not bothering to check?

    Also, do you know how Hurtado is establishing what parts are based on oral tradition and what if any were made up by the writers to set a parallel with a particular Old Testament figure, or demonstrate some theological point?

    1. I don’t know, sorry. Can you point me to where this is discussed? Where does Carrier or anyone else discuss the question?

      I can’t really tell you what Hurtado relies upon for his view of oral tradition as a gospel source. I can guess, assume, but I don’t know. The oral tradition model for gospel origins is pretty much a dominant view, as far as I am aware, among most biblical scholars.

      1. For the “Ministry” claim

        I have seen him talk about this before, but it is mentioned in his reply to Hurtado

        “Paul never mentions Nazareth or Galilee; he never mentions Pilate (or Romans or Jews) as executioners; he never mentions Jesus ever having a ministry (or being a prophet, miracle worker, or exorcist); he never mentions Jesus gathering a band of followers (the first time Paul mentions anyone ever even seeing him, is after his death—in visions); he never even mentions anyone witnessing his death or burial, but cites only scripture as his source for that.”

        “And I am willing to bet, nearly all the “experts” Hurtado says form the consensus he wants us to lean on, aren’t actually aware of all these facts. They still think Paul mentions “Disciples,” or that Jesus ministered to the Jews. ”

        and just before the conclusion, he repeats this
        “Indeed, he gets sloppier and sloppier, eventually adding the careless claims that “Paul ascribes to Jesus…a ministry among fellow Jews” (nope; Paul never mentions any ministry; not even when he says Jesus was a “servant,” diakonos, to the circumcision) and “individuals who were Jesus’ original companions” (nope; Paul never says they were his companions; Paul never mentions anyone ever even so much as seeing Jesus before his death).

        1. The passage that speaks of Christ being a “servant to the circumcision” to fulfil the promises made to the fathers is Romans 15:8.

          Carrier writes of this passage in his book On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 571-572:

          Sometimes it’s claimed Paul referred to Jesus having had a ministry among the Jews when he said, ‘Christ has been made a deacon of circumcision for the sake of God’s honesty, in order to confirm [his] promises to the patriarchs’ (Rom. 15.8). But all Paul is saying here is that Jesus had to be given a Jewish body (fonned from the sperm of David: see §9) and appear first to Jews (Element 20) to fulfill scripture. That does not entail an earthly ministry. The word ‘deacon’ (diakonos), which is sometimes translated ‘minister ‘, as in preacher, actually means ‘servant, attendant’, someone who does another’s will. As such it can mean someone’s messenger or a temple attendant. But it does not refer to ‘having a ministry’ in the sense historicists require. It means (in this context) doing God’s will. It can mean doing God’s will by relaying God’s will, and as such it can refer to ‘having a ministry ‘ in an indirect sense, but as such it would equally apply to revealing God’s will from heaven. This passage is therefore, once again, ambiguous. It cannot be confidently anchored to an earthly event. To the contrary, as we saw in Rom. 10. 14- 17, Paul appears to say Jesus had no historical ministry of the kind historicists want.

          I have reservations about Carrier’s argument re a “Jewish body” from “David’s sperm”, but do not disagree with the main point that the phrase does not describe an earthly preaching and healing ministry of Jesus in Galilee.

          Paul knows nothing of any such earthly itinerant gospel-like ministry. He regularly says that Jesus has appeared or been made known “in these last days” through revelation. He has been revealed to the Jews, and the gentiles, too. Read it in the context: Paul is saying that Jesus is God’s servant now fulfilling the promises of the prophets to Jews and gentiles.

          1. Thanks
            I wish the historicists would take these arguments seriously rather than dismissing them by saying they dont need to be addressed or have already been refuted.
            For me as an outsider, Carrier’s explanation of the term is much more convincing. I’d like to see Hurtado tell us why he thinks it much more likely to refer to a historical ministry. Even if someone doesn’t like the maths of a Bayesian approach, I would think that any Historian would accept the best way of finding out what is most likely true is to look at all the evidence, assess how likely it is on your hypothesis, compare to how likely it is on an alternate one and then somehow combine it all – accepting that there may be things that are unlikely if yours is correct (such as Paul’s silence), but when the evidence is considered as a whole, one comes out on top

            There seems to be a similar attitude with the gospel stories, they come from oral tradition and any argument that disagrees is not even worth considering. Some of them are obviously not historical, but did the gospel author make them up, did he modify them from some tradition? Did he take the tradition and give it accurately?, if it was tradition, did someone else make it up, or did it originate in a real event and get distorted? Ehrman’s argument (from what I understood of his historical Jesus book) to be that people would have told stories about Jesus and these would have come to the gospel authors who then wrote them down, which proves there was a historical Jesus. Unless I am missing something, this seems to be the main argument for how we know them to be based on such oral tradition.

            1. You are not mistaken, if I understand your point. Yes, Ehrman et al base their “proofs” on circular reasoning. Or at least they simply beg the question: there arguments begin with the assumption that there was a historical Jesus.

  4. I’m going to repost a comment I left languishing at the end of the original Hurtado post by Neil, as it is relevant to this line of discussion, and it’s my personal bugbear, this idea that Paul is aware of any “ministry” or teaching tradition:

    Paul knows of a body of teachings ascribed to Jesus, and uses them on several occasions, as in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11

    Every time I see this argument, it’s “several occasions” and yet this passage in Paul is always the only evidence adduced. Anybody else notice this? Anyone got a counter-example that they know of, where Paul’s knowledge of a teaching tradition is supported by any single other verse than 1 Cor 7:10-11? Because that right there is curious, is what it is, that they should allude to others but never produce them. You’d almost think it was a dishonest argument.

    And here’s the thing about 1 Cor 7:10-11: Paul is almost certainly quoting Malachi 2:16. It’s not just that he could equally well have been quoting Malachi –that alone would be enough to call into question the one-legged stool that the Emperor is always at pains to emphasize has “several” legs. It’s that the logic of Malachi much more directly serves Paul’s own argument as he extends it from what “not I, but the Lord” says, to the next few passages in the name of “I, not the Lord”. For the reason given in the previous verse (Mal 2:15) is “Godly offspring”. And what is Paul’s extended reasoning in 1 Cor 7 12-16? I quote v14 in full (ESV):

    “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”

    So, we have a clear thread, conceptually, from Malachi 2 to Paul’s argument. And the shift from “not I, but the Lord” (that is, direct paraphrase of Malachi) to “I, not the Lord” (rhetorical extension) is because in verses 12-16 he is speaking about Christian believers and unbelievers and does so by maintaining the emphasis on the fruits of marriage, that is, “holy children”.

    Compare to Mark 10 and Matthew 19, where, yes, Jesus condemns divorce, but on entirely other, scriptural, grounds: “what God has joined together, let no one separate” by reference to Genesis 1. Nary a word about Godly offspring, though, admittedly, such concerns are always going to lie behind concerns about divorce and adultery, they are about paternity and inheritance, but here not explicitly as it very much is in Malachi.

    I hate the Pauline proof texts. It’s a fundamentally unserious way to argue about Paul’s witness as regards the nature of the Christ.

  5. I am copying here my comment on a posting and subsequent response by Larry Hurtado (Focus,Focus, Focus) as he will not publish my latest comments on his blog.


    Larry considers the comment is not related to the issue of the posting. Readers will need to decide if the content is relevant/important but a discussion board in which Larry can make his unsupported assertions but his interlocutors are censored stinks. In my opinion my comment addresses his response point for point and has implications for our understanding of the “real” Jesus.

    “Grant Willson: I agree with you that ancient writers employed a “diverse practice”. But you are not addressing my assertion that as part of this practice GMatthew’s author employed literary theft. It’s not my “particular view” that this was the process rather it’s an observation based on the textual evidence. Neither is it only my “particular view” that literary theft is wrong. Take a look at your universities website or the pre-gospel evidence mentioned in regard to Vitruvius (which you have not addressed).

    Your proposal that the anonymous nature of the documents provides a fix for the situation is one I will leave to the ethicists-although the thinkers at my local coffee shop don’t agree with you. We must leave open the possibility that Richard Bauckham and the bulk of traditional Christianity might be correct and the authorial ascriptions were linked to known members of the early Christian movement. In that case the very act of the author making the gospel public creates the ethical dilemma that I am highlighting.

    I am troubled that you won’t clearly state for your readers and students that the gospel writers engaged in literary theft-even if they may have been ignorant of the unethical nature of their activity. Furthermore as an academic I would consider it an embarrassment to the University of Edinburgh if you do not clearly speak out against plagiarism whether ancient or modern.

    You propose the example of the raising of the holy ones as a possible case of legendary material. But how can scholars determine that? The event has the hallmarks of being as “real” as any other in the gospel (presuppositions aside): (1) the event is meshed into the surrounding narrative i.e. the tombs open presumably in response to the earthquake; (2) a named group is involved in the incident i.e the holy ones (presumably their identity was clearer to the original readers/hearers);(3) the incident has a specified chronology in that the holy ones after their resuscitations wait in their graves to enter the city only after Jesus is resurrected; (4) the geography is specific and consistent with the narrative in that the holy ones appear in the holy city (Jerusalem);(5) the author is clear that there were witnesses (presumably real people in Jerusalem)and they were many in number. It is almost as if the author of GMathew is inviting the reader to go and check out the story.

    In my non-scholarly opinion this illustrates that the author of the GMatthew is an adept writer of historical fiction. Indeed the author is a master at dressing up a legend and possibly imagination as real events. If scholars can’t agree about this passage what hope have they of providing solid evidence that any events or persons within these narratives are “real”.

    Unfortunately the author of GMatthew doesn’t tell us, who they are, or what sources they used nor do they comment on whether they are writing non-fiction or fiction. Given that the author of GMatthew incorporates literary theft into their methods and tries to purvey legend as real events I would argue that one needs to be exceedingly skeptical about the reality of the entirety of the gospels content.”

    Thanks Vridar for facilitating public discussion.

    1. It is unfortunate that Larry Hurtado did not respond to your submitted comment or even allow it to be posted. It contains a number of points that are very pertinent to the question of gospel origins. Even if Larry does not like the implication that the author of GMatthew was somehow practising dishonesty in lifting much of GMark, I for one would have liked to have heard his response and for him to explain what I am sure are a number of divergent scholarly views on that question.

      But I particularly like your point about GMatthew’s implicit appeal to eye-witnesses in his unique crucifixion and resurrection narrative. Your observation tells us a lot about the genre — and even expected reception — of GMatthew and the gospels generally. It’s the sort of thing scholars ought to engage the public with when the question is raised.

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