2017-12-27

What’s the Matter with Biblical Scholarship? Part 3

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by Tim Widowfield

Horse Racing Near Apsley House, London  by Francis Elizabeth Wynne

The horses are on the track

In Daniel Gullotta’s “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts,” we see a phenomenon common in nearly every apologetic debate, but comparatively rare in print: namely, the Gish Gallop. It works better in a live, oral/aural environment, of course, because the wave of information washes over and stuns the opposition, while on the other hand, it impresses supporters with its sheer volume of facts.

However, it loses its power on the page, since we all read at our own pace. We can pause. We can look away and reflect. I still, nevertheless, must offer Gullotta kudos on giving it the old college try. Here’s just a portion of a Daniel Dash:

In conjunction with the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion by Romans is depicted in every one of the earliest narrations of his death, one can also examine the reaction to early Christianity by Greco-Roman critics to see a widespread reception of Jesus as a crucified man. Lucian called Jesus a ‘crucified sophist’; Suetonius describes Jesus as ‘the man who was crucified in Palestine’; Celsus depicts Jesus’ death as a ‘punishment seen by all’; and Marcus Cornelius Fronto scoffed at how Christians could ‘worship a crucified man, and even the instrument itself of his punishment’. One of the earliest visual representations of Jesus carved into a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome (ca. late second century CE), the Alexamenos graffito, is one of mockery, depicting the Christian Alexamenos paying homage to a naked figure on a cross with the head of a donkey, scrawled with the words: ‘Alexamenos, worship [your] God!’ (Gulotta 2017, p. 333, emphasis mine)

There’s even more after that; the paragraph continues. But slow down. Take a breath. The power of the Gish Gallop is its sudden rush of data points, so many that the listener will be lucky to recall any one of them once the flood has subsided. Bewildering the opponent adds to the mystique of the speaker. “He knows so much!” they whisper among themselves.

The weakness with the Daniel Dash is persistence. We can look away. We return to the page, and it remains. The Gallop is ephemeral, but the Dash hangs around. When I read the above passage, I immediately thought to myself, “Suetonius never wrote that.” I had the luxury of pausing in mid-dash. I could take time to think. I could even stop and shoot Neil an email. 

Me:

Gullotta wrote: “Suetonius describes Jesus as ‘the man who was crucified in Palestine’;”

What’s he talking about?


Neil:

That was Lucian, of course. It appears that Gullotta has not read Suetonius but has only taken notes on note-cards on what he has read in different books about what Lucian, Suetonius etc say, and he has got a Lucian saying mixed up with Suetonius — and his reviewers had no interest in reading 37 pages of detail reviewing a crank so it got through to be published.

Imagine being essentially paid to read but not really having an interest in what you’re reading. I’ve tried, and I can’t. I remember reading The Twelve Caesars at the University of Maryland. I can recall listening unabridged recordings of it behind the wheel and while doing yard work. I even read Michael Graves’ book with the same title, but it isn’t nearly as entertaining.

A fundamental lack of interest

To those who study the Bible for a living, however, the reason they know about Suetonius, Lucian, or even Josephus is that they “prove” the historical Jesus. Each little fact gets memorized, ready to be offered up in the appropriate situation. But the overall work has no purpose, no consequence. It’s learning by note card.

I’m convinced their fundamental lack of interest in non-biblical things explains why so many scholars still cling to the Chrestus reference in “The Life of Claudius” as a supposedly obvious reference to (Jesus) Christ, albeit “misspelled.”

Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome. (LoC, 25:4)

That’s probably the note card Gullotta should have pulled.  But anyone who has actually read Suetonius would know that in the very next biography, “The Life of Nero,” Suetonius wrote about Christians:

Punishment was inflicted on the Christians [afflicti suppliciis Christiani], a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. (LoN, 16:2)

If you have at least a passing interest in ancient history, you will know that the Romans admired ancient traditions. The Jews received special dispensation in their rather odd beliefs and customs precisely because their civilization was “old and respected.” To be sure, tensions sometimes flared up between the minority community that would not and could not assimilate and the majority culture that suspected them of mischief. After the Jewish War, of course, nothing would be quite the same.

Still, the second quote from Suetonius contains important, basic information. First, Suetonius knew how to spell Christian, so we may safely assume he knew how to spell Christus. Next, he refers to Christianity as “a new and mischievous superstition,” which is precisely the opposite of how the Romans viewed Judaism.

I will be the first to admit that Suetonius is almost certainly dealing with secondary sources here. But the plain reading of the first text is that a living person named Chrestus somehow whipped up the Jewish population in Rome, and that they were expelled from the city for a time.

Now check out the elaborate story James D. G. Dunn cooked up to explain the Chrestus quote to his satisfaction.

Most infer that Suetonius misheard the name (the pronunciation of Christus and Chrestus would have been very similar) and misunderstood the report as a reference to someone (Chrestus) active in the Jewish community at the time. The broad consensus is that the disturbances referred to had been occasioned by some strong reactions within certain synagogues to Jewish merchants and visitors preaching about Jesus as the Christ. (Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Christianity in the Making, p. 142.)

Where is the supporting evidence for Dunn’s claim? Why, the “broad consensus,” presumably among scholars who also wish it were true.

Not reading, not caring

Getting back to Gullatta’s gaffe, as Neil pointed out, his friends and editors had little interest in what he wrote. The fact that he wrote it overshadows the actual content of his article. By now I should expect such behavior from biblical scholars, and yet it’s always a bit of a jolt.

I keep thinking back on Le Donne’s reference to Helena as the wife of Constantine. At the time I wrote “The Memory Mavens, Part 5,” I was certain he knew Helena was Constantine’s mother. I mean, he had to know better, right?

However, in the nearly three years since that post I have continued to read modern scholarship, and what I have read has changed my mind. I don’t think he knew, and I don’t think the scholars who read his dissertation knew either. Nor do I think they care. It’s simply outside their field of vision.

The chief reason today’s scholars misunderstand works concerning social memory, oral tradition, cultural context, history, sociology, and a hundred other subjects is a fundamental lack of interest in those external fields of discipline. They will fish for quotable paragraphs. They will look for supporting sentences. They will raid their fellow Bible-scholars’ works for handy, usable quotes.

But none of them really has a passion for these things. Even the great Bart Ehrman fell into the trap of quoting Jan Vansina without really understand him or reading his entire corpus.

Conclusion

In the end, does it matter? I would have to answer, somewhat cynically, “Apparently not.” Today’s scholars, for the most part, are skimmers. They don’t know what the Form Critics actually wrote, but they have pretty good notes from a college course where a trusted professor summarized it all for them. They’ve never read Bultmann or Wrede, but they have expert, informed opinions on what they wrote.

But let’s be serious. Who’s got time to read all of this stuff, anyhow? And who’s foolish enough to spend all day looking for books and reading for pleasure?!

Well, I suppose that would be us.

19 Comments

  • Bob Jase
    2017-12-28 00:30:57 UTC - 00:30 | Permalink

    And everybody knows Davey Crockett went down fighting at the Alamo.

    Ecept for the contemporary Spanish record that says he and others were captured and later executed.

  • Vinny
    2017-12-28 01:32:27 UTC - 01:32 | Permalink

    I’ve recently gone through another round of “all the early sources agree that James the Just was Jesus’ biological brother so it’s hyper-skeptical to question it” ….except, as I point out, Luke/Acts doesn’t corroborate James the Just as Jesus’ brother and Josephus doesn’t corroborate Jesus’ brother as being James the Just. Even Ehrman hadn’t thought the point through.

    Nonetheless, I’m sure that I will hear again from the exact same people that everyone agrees.

  • 2017-12-28 02:07:46 UTC - 02:07 | Permalink

    Biblical scholars are just as up-to-their-necks in fashionable nonsense as the post-modernists:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashionable_Nonsense

    ^ If you read it, the parallels between biblical scholars misusing memory theory and postmodernists misusing mathematical and scientific concepts are striking.

  • MrHorse
    2017-12-28 03:17:40 UTC - 03:17 | Permalink

    “..Suetonius describes Jesus as ‘the man who was crucified in Palestine’

    That account is actually in Lucian of Samosata : The Passing of Peregrinus which is “An account of the life and death of a Cynic philosopher who for a time in his early life went over to Christianity, practicing it to the point of imprisonment under a very tolerant administration ..”.

    It starts –

    ‘Best wishes from Lucian to Cronius.’

    1. “Unlucky Peregrinus, or, as he delighted to style himself, Proteus,2 has done exactly what Proteus in Homer did. ..”

    Midway –

    11. “It was then that he [Proteus] learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And —how else could it be?— in a trice he made them all look like children, for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.

    12. “Then at length Proteus was apprehended for this and thrown into prison, which itself gave him no little reputation as an asset for his future career and the charlatanism and notoriety-seeking that he was enamoured of. Well, when he had been imprisoned, the Christians, regarding the incident as a calamity, left nothing undone in the effort to rescue him Then, as this was impossible, every other form of attention was shown him, not in any casual way but with assiduity, and from the very break of day aged widows and orphan children could be seen waiting near the prison, while their officials even slept inside with him after bribing the guards. Then elaborate meals were brought in, and sacred books of theirs were read aloud, and excellent Peregrinus —for he still went by that name— was called by them ‘the new Socrates.’

    13. “Indeed, people came even from the cities in Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense, to succour and defend and encourage the hero. They show incredible speed whenever any such public action is taken; for in no time they lavish their all. So it was then in the case of Peregrinus; much money came to him from them by reason of his imprisonment, and he procured not a little revenue from it. The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once, for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk.”

    • MrHorse
      2017-12-28 03:29:21 UTC - 03:29 | Permalink

      Doh. Tim then commented on that (I know Suetonius’s references to Christians and knew that passage wasn’t in them, so searched without reading Tim’s critique further).

      It’s still interesting that, for all the references to Christians in Lucian’s The Passing of Peregrinus, there is only a reference to “he [who] introduced this new cult into the world” as merely “that other … whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine” -ie. no reference to Jesus.

      Lucian’s The Passing of Peregrinushttp://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/lucian/peregrinus.htm

  • Paxton Marshall
    2017-12-28 12:40:28 UTC - 12:40 | Permalink

    Do Biblical scholars really think that Suetonius or Lucian had any first-hand information about the man Jesus? 70-150 years after his death in a distant part of the empire? No contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life or ministry have survived to the present. If there had been some in the time of Lucian or Suetonius, wouldn’t Christians have preserved it? Do Suetonius or Lucian claim to have any? Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, Lucian, if the textual references are truly theirs, provide good evidence of an active Jesus movement at the time they wrote, but provide no evidence that the man Jesus actually lived. At least that’s my take as a non-scholar. Am I wrong?

    • MrHorse
      2017-12-28 18:58:03 UTC - 18:58 | Permalink

      You’re right, no-one provides information that could be construed as ‘good evidence’ that the man Jesus (of Nazareth) lived as has been and is universally portrayed. There is no primary, contemporaneous source information about ‘him’ and there is no suitable trail to say there ever had been.

      Most of the textual mentions you refer to are actually to Christians (or Chrestians), or a non-specific Christ (or Chrestus), not to Jesus per se. The subsequent posts below by J. Quinton and Der Gottesverachter address some of the issues. Pliny, Tacitus, & Suetonius were contemporaries, as was Hadrian who is supposed to have written a letter to Servianus in 134 a.d. in which he is supposed to have said –

      The worshipers of Serapis are called Christians, and those who are devoted to the god Serapis call themselves Bishops of Christ.”

      Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan concerning the Christians has also been brought into doubt by a 2017 publication –

      Tuccinardi, Enrico (2017) ‘An application of a profile-based method for authorship verification: Investigating the authenticity of Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan concerning the Christians’ Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (Vol 32, Issue 2, June 2017), pp. 435–447.

      Abstract
      Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan regarding the Christians is a crucial subject for the studies on early Christianity. A serious quarrel among scholars concerning its genuineness arose between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th; per contra, Plinian authorship has not been seriously questioned in the last few decades. After analysing various kinds of internal and external evidence in favour of and against the authenticity of the letter, a modern stylometric method is applied in order to examine whether internal linguistic evidence allows one to definitely settle the debate.The findings of this analysis tend to contradict received opinion among modern scholars, affirming the authenticity of Pliny’s letter, and suggest instead the presence of large amounts of interpolation inside the text of the letter, since its stylistic behaviour appears highly different from that of the rest of Book X.

      The only references to Jesus are in the highly doubted Josephus Antiquities 18.3.3 section (the ‘TF’) and the vague Antiq 20.9.1 / 200, which also seems like an interpolation/redaction –

      Allen, NPL (2017) ‘Josephus on James the Just? A re-evaluation of Antiquitates Judaicae 20.9.1′ Journal of Early Christian History, 7; 1-27. part Abstract: “…by highlighting a number of Origen’s key philosophical and theological refutations it becomes evident that, apart from the unlikelihood of Josephus ever writing about James, Origen must now be considered the primary suspect for what is possibly a third century CE Christian forgery.”

      There have been arguments about why Tacitus Annals might not be authentic, too.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-12-28 19:43:00 UTC - 19:43 | Permalink

      Do Biblical scholars really think that Suetonius or Lucian had any first-hand information about the man Jesus? 70-150 years after his death in a distant part of the empire? . . . At least that’s my take as a non-scholar. Am I wrong?

      That’s exactly the point that historians, in particular notable historians of ancient history (e.g. Finley), have endeavored to point out as the critical problem with ancient sources. They add that there are no convenient tools to guide the modern historian in discerning fact from fiction in those writings. Biblical scholars, many of them at least, live in a universe quite alien to the one where scholars are trained in valid historical methods.

  • J. Quinton
    2017-12-28 13:45:48 UTC - 13:45 | Permalink

    Another thing that bothers me about this is that they always assume the Christianity encountered by Romans was the one that eventually became the orthodox version. It seems to me that the simplest explanation — “new superstition”, etc. — is that they were talking about a heterodox version of Christianity that had either completely severed its ties to Judaism or its connection to Judaism was so tenuous and wrapped up in deepities that it might as well not exist, and thus could not claim to be “old”.

  • Der Gottesverachter
    2017-12-28 15:58:10 UTC - 15:58 | Permalink

    Of course there are no reasons to insist Chrestus is Jesus, but the question if Suetonius wrote about christians is not so simple.

    All extant manuscripts of Suetonius (and almost everything we have) are medieval. But ancient manuscripts and inscriptions never say christians or Christ, it’s always chrestians or Chrestos.
    For example in Sinaiticus the word chrestians had been corrected into christians, same thing had been done to the Tactitus passage, even though the manuscript is very late. Obviously there was a trend among scribes to change these things.

    That means if any medieval copy says christians or Christ, we can’t be sure what it said initially.

  • Greg Shelley
    2017-12-28 16:06:49 UTC - 16:06 | Permalink

    His comments read more like Josh McDowell type Christian apologetics rather than scholarly analysis.
    The people a hundred years later that we have on record as mentioning Jesus put him in a historical context. So what? Even if we put aside that sometimes we have to be very generous to translate them that way, all it would show is that these people outside Christianity thought that there was a historical founder maybe 50 years after the first gospel was written.
    The leap between that and “so the writers of the gospels believed it to be about a historical man” and then to “so he was” seems insurmountable, but they don’t even try.

  • 2017-12-28 17:50:42 UTC - 17:50 | Permalink

    In interest of fairness: From December 12 I have an email from Gullotta stating the following:

    “On page 333, there is a misquote, ‘The man who was crucified in Palestine’ is from Lucian, not Suetonius.”

    That being said, I still have many criticisms of the paper, especially his take on the Homeric Epics. Below are some specifics that I originally posted on Euangelion.

    • 2017-12-28 17:52:20 UTC - 17:52 | Permalink

      Gullotta says, “If Mark intended his audience to notice and understand his ‘Homeric flags’, then this would mean that only

      MacDonald (and his followers like Carrier) have been intelligent enough to spy Mark’s original intentions.”

      Why that’s nonsense: In “The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark” MacDonald repeatedly points out that ancient people did see the Homeric connections; The Santiaga cult in Spain understood that James and John were Christianized Dioscuri (Homeric Epics p.30-32), and that later Christian legends about John and James were clearly modeled them after the Dioscuri. Ancient artistic depictions (that is: paintings) of the cleansing of the temple are deeply similar to the artistic depictions of the very scenes MacDonald suggests Mark emulated LITERARILY (For example: ancient paintings of both episodes include people using trapezia [small tables] as shields, see p.35).

      Gullotta asks, “[W]hat possible polemical situation which centered on Homer would have motivated Mark to write his gospel?”

      Homeric polemics were not the *primary* reason Mark’s Gospel was written, and one can posit Homeric polemics without believing that said polemics were the primary reason the gospel was written. Easy as that.

      Gulotta: “Carrier cannot reasonably justify why Mark chose to subvert the image of Odysseus, when other and more logical candidates were available.” [Gulotta suggests the Caesars and Romulus as alternate choice].

      John Dominic Crossan’s book “The Power of Parable” also discusses connections between the Caesars and the gospel depiction of Jesus, though I don’t know that Crossan specifically dubs these similarities “polemics.” One way or another, similairties between Jesus and the Caesars indicate the author trying to depict Jesus as on par with the former. As for Romulus, I would refer you to Richard C. Miller, “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity” Journal of Biblical Literature. Gulotta seems aware that there are indeed polemics / connections between the Caesars and Greek gods, and says, “To put this another way, Jesus rivalling Caesar makes sense, but Jesus rivalling Odysseus does not.” But if Jesus already “rivals” various Jewish Patriarchs and heroes like Moses and Abraham and Joshua, Caesars, and Romulus, why *wouldn’t* he also rival Greek heroes like Odysseus?

      Gulotta complains that, “Also problematic is that many of MacDonald’s comparisons, and in turn Carrier’s appeal to them, come across as extremely forced and farfetched at times.”

      The point of MacDonald’s book was to see how many parallels there were between the Homeric Epics and the gospel. Critics of the book inevtiably zoom in on the weaker parallels and invariably ignore the stronger ones. The same situation exists with the gospel and the Old Testament: there are weak parallels (Hosea 6:2 and the resurrection, for example) but there are also parallels that are undeniably strong (like the slaughter of the innocents in both Moses’ and Jesus’ life) and the former don’t negate the latter. In fact, MacDonald makes the same point I’d say one of MacDonald’s strongest examples is James and John as the Dioscuri, but you’ll never hear a critic of MacDonald offer a reasonable alternative explanation for the supporting facts that that’s built on.

      To return to a point Gulotta makes early on in his review, “Because Carrier’s presuppositions about the Gospels’ genre, style, and meaning is so indebted to MacDonald’s work, much of the criticism applied to MacDonald’s claims can be equally applied to Carrier’s.”

      If Gullotta means that Carrier is wedded to MacDonald’s *specific* thesis about Homeric borrowing, that would be false: Carrier’s thesis requires only symbolic interpretations for the gospels, not Homeric ones in particular. If Gullotta means that Carrier’s thesis requires use of, say, MacDonald’s criteria (or something like them) to detect emulation between the Old Testament and the Gospels, that may be true, but then again, nobody at all including Gulotta denies such emulation, nor is it reasonable to deny such. Who would deny that the scapegoat ceremony of Leviticus 16 is emulated in Mark? In a nutshell, the scapegoat ritual in Leviticus 16:6-10 prescribes that (a) We take two goats (b) release one (c) sacrafice the other for remission of sin. Now look at Mark’s Barabbas narrative (Mark 15:6-15). Little known fact, Barabbas means “son of the father” and Jesus, of course, is a “Son of the Father.” The plot of the story is that (a) We have two sons of the father (b) One is realeased (Barabbas) (c) The other (Jesus) is sacraficed for remission of sin. These parallels cannot be said to be only in Carrier’s head: Matthew strengthens the connection by dubbing Barabbas “Jesus Barabbas” (Matthew 27:15), and the early church father Origen, one of the first on historical record to comment on this, also noticed Scapegoat imagery in this passage, see for yourself:

      https://books.google.com/books?id=nqbzCb_2wNkC&pg=PA167&dq=Barabbas+Scapegoat+Origen&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjS4vyqw6vYAhWyRN8KHRMqBOgQ6AEINTAC#v=onepage&q=Barabbas%20Scapegoat%20Origen&f=false

      I could go on, but I’m not going to continue spoonfeeding you like an infant. You’re a big boy, try being open minded, get curious and hear other people with an open ear before forming an opinion about them. Allow not your view of reality to be determined by your opinion, allow your opinion to be determined by observable reality. Then maybe you’ll be able to tell us what is *really* wrong with Carrier’s thesis, instead of citing Gullotta’s horrible review in ignorance of just how unbecoming of a scholar that review of his is. Have a great day! 🙂

      • Tim Widowfield
        2017-12-28 18:19:20 UTC - 18:19 | Permalink

        I take it the “spoonfeeding” remark is from the original context.

  • Blood
    2017-12-29 01:14:59 UTC - 01:14 | Permalink

    “The chief reason today’s scholars misunderstand works concerning social memory, oral tradition, cultural context, history, sociology, and a hundred other subjects is a fundamental lack of interest in those external fields of discipline.”

    Correct. “Secular” Biblical scholars like to believe that the space separating them from Josh McDowell-style pop apologists is as wide as the Grand Canyon, when, in reality, it’s as narrow as the Jordan River. All of it actually is apologetics, in reality. Bible scholars didn’t read Hall’s “Beyond Culture” because they were interested in low-context culture theory; they read it because they needed a good-sounding excuse for the silence in Paul’s letters about the historical Jesus. The basic motivation was apologetics; no different than Josh McDowell.

  • Timothy Bagley
    2017-12-31 11:59:58 UTC - 11:59 | Permalink

    Thank you, Tim, for these important observations. The old phrase “ad fontes” must ever be the historian’s mantra. Keep up the good work of reading and analysis that you and Neil are doing.

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