Monthly Archives: February 2018

The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (3)

In the previous post I promised to discuss a group of scholars who changed the perspective of biblical scholarship. I was referring to those whom we commonly group into the religionsgeschichtliche Schule. In English we call this the History of Religions School. The German term, religionsgeschichtliche, implies a secular, critical-historical approach toward religion. The reputation of the History of Religions School has not fared well over the past few decades.

A withering review

For example, in Ben Witherington’s scathing review of Robert Price’s Jesus Is Dead, he writes:

In any case, one of the things that movies like ‘The God who is not There’ and the Zeitgeist movie, and Robert Price’s book have in common is a reliance on the old, and now long since out-dated and refuted notions of the Religionsgeschichte Schule [sic] when it comes to the issue of Jesus and the origins of Christianity. It seems that my former Gordon-Conwell classmate, Bob Price, and various others as well did not get the memo that these sorts of arguments are inherently flawed, have often been shown to be flawed, and shouldn’t be endlessly recycled if you want to argue cogently that Jesus didn’t exist and/or didn’t rise from the dead.

What is the Religionsgeschichte Schule [sic], and why is this school now closed? The history of religions approach to early Christianity, and to Jesus himself, involved as its most foundational assumption that the origins of what we find in the NT in regard to Jesus, resurrection, etc. come from non-Jewish culture of various sorts, particularly from Greco-Roman culture, but also (as the Zeitgeist movie was to remind us) from Egyptian sources. In short, anything but an origin in early Judaism is favored when it comes to explaining the NT and Jesus. (italic emphasis Ben’s, bold emphasis mine)

Just for the sake of accuracy, Religionsgeschichte is a noun; religionsgeschichtliche is the adjectival form. He got it right in the title, but muffed it four times in the body of the review. Still, you have to hand it to him; he actually mentioned it. These days, you’d hardly know the History of Religions School had ever existed, and most scholars don’t — other than it was “flawed” and “refuted” and “outdated.” Just learning those pejorative modifiers would appear to suffice, or at least to keep you in good standing within the guild.

When is a school not a school?

We may find it somewhat difficult to describe a school whose members often insisted there was no school. In “The Dogmatics of the ‘Religionsgeschichtliche Schule,'” Ernst Troeltsch explained: read more »

Putting 4 sticking points on the historical/mythical Jesus argument into perspective

On the AFA forum someone suggested I address the following 5 points often used to argue for Christianity originating with a historical Jesus.

how about addressing the main points of the evidence offered up by the historicists?

1. The Brother of The Lord
2. Born of a woman
3. Born in the line of David
4. Born of the flesh
5. Born as a Jew in Judea

In my previous post I copied my  response to point #1.

That leaves four to go, #2-#5. But they bore me.

The reason debates about them bore me is that they do nothing either for or against the question of whether Jesus was a historical person. Look at them. No-one goes around saying, “Hey, I think you should hear what I’ve got to say about this incredible guy I’ve heard about. He was actually born of a woman, and reckons he can trace his family tree all the way back to Adam. How cool is that! And he was born flesh and blood even. And just to stick it to all you folks who worship Heracles and Asclepius he was a Jew in Palestine. But here’s the thing: he now lives in me and I die daily in him and he’s gonna come and take us all up to the sky very soon now.

Sorry, but that’s not how one normally talks about people — even omitting that last bit about “here’s the thing”.

Those claims, being born of a woman and in the flesh etc, are theological claims. They are made to stress certain theological doctrines. Presumably some rival theologians were saying he was not born flesh and blood. And it was a Jewish theology, so it was important to identify the guy with David and Israel.

Even the crucifixion is only ever mentioned as a theological datum. The crucifixion is only ever introduced to talk about salvation and freedom from the Jewish law. It is always and only ever raised as a theological fact and never addressed as a “historical event” with dates, who, how, why, witnesses, etc. (The only “why” is again theological, not historical: it is to show how much the Jews are all wrong about their religion.)

None of that “proves” the guy was a historical figure. All it proves is that someone had a bunch of theological ideas about a certain figure he only heard about from others and who he claimed “revealed himself” mystically “inside” him.

So that’s why I tend to tune out whenever discussions start up about whether or not any of those four points above (nos. 2 to 5) are “proofs” for the historical Jesus.

Not one of them is a piece of historical evidence a historian can latch on to in order to get some sort of grip on what happened in Palestine around 30 CE.

Paul’s letters are all very fine for gleaning something of the beliefs of some of the early Christians but they are not much use for researching events he never claims to have witnessed and that he never reports on. He even says he has no interest in the “Jesus of the flesh” but is only interested in his “spiritual Jesus”. The only eyewitness reports he passes on are of the resurrection. So that’s not a promising start for the historian. He does say something about a tradition or words he heard but never gives us a clue as to what his sources are — unless it is his own imagination from reading Scripture or hearing/seeing some vision.

How historians (not theologians) work

So how does one go about doing historical research on the life of Jesus?

Why not use the very same methods of research, of analysing sources, as other historians follow? It is a pity that the question of Christian origins has been confined to an academic guild that has only clung on into the modern age by sheer force of tradition. Theology may have been the mainstay of universities in medieval days but we have lost out by leaving the whole business of Christian origins to theologians. We would have been smarter to have removed theological studies exclusively to seminaries and left historical questions to historians.

Historians aren’t perfect and there’s a lot of bad history out there, but at least the bad rubs shoulders with the good and we can compare and learn by comparing the two.

But one essential point historians are taught is to test the authenticity and reliability of their sources. (Pick up manuals for budding historians about to start their doctoral programs to see what I mean.) That means a source — both its origins and what it says — must be corroborated independently in some way.

Really that’s only common sense applied to scholarship. Depending on the degree of importance of knowing the truth of something we make sure we are being told the truth by checking such things as:

  • who is telling us this?
  • how do I know if I can trust them?
  • can their claims be confirmed somehow?
  • how do I know if this document is genuine?
  • etc.

Just to be really sure when people’s lives are at stake we have court systems set up to test claims and evidence, to cross examine them, to try to falsify them, etc.

A famous theologian who rejected the Christ Myth claims of his own day (Albert Schweitzer) nonetheless confessed that proving the historicity of Jesus cannot pass the above “common sense” tests:

read more »

Does “Brother of the Lord” settle the Jesus myth question?

On another forum I recently posted a discussion of the passage in Galatians where Paul says he met James, “the brother of the Lord”, setting out why I believe the passage is not necessarily the “slam dunk” that many say it is to prove Jesus was a historical figure. I have other posts on other topics I want to do for Vridar but till I can sort those out I will double up and copy here what I posted on AFA.

Part 1

A passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is often touted as irrefutable proof that Jesus was a historical figure:

1:18 Then, after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days; 19 But I saw no other of the Apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 And the things I write to you— see!— before God, I am not lying.
(Hart’s translation)

All manuscripts of Galatians agree that James is said to be “the Lord’s brother”. No exceptions.

If Paul met James who was recognized as the Lord’s brother then obviously the Lord’s brother was a real person. And for good reason “the Lord” is generally assumed to refer to Jesus.

It is obvious, then, that Jesus existed.

Some have tried to object on the following grounds:

1. Paul often speaks of all Christians as “brothers” and “sisters” so in Galatians 1:19 he is simply singling out James as a Christian for some reason.

Or,

2. The Lord more commonly refers to God. Therefore “the brother of the Lord” is really some sort of spiritual title. Even if “Lord” did refer to Jesus the phrase was still a spiritual title that described an inner group of leaders or elites in the assembly.

Therefore, it is argued, Galatians 1:19 does not prove the historicity of Jesus.

Those objections are objected to, however:

1. It makes no sense to call James “the brother of the Lord” if that simply meant to point out he was a Christian like all other “brothers and sisters”. The context alone tells us James was a Christian. But so was Cephas (= Peter) whom Paul also met.

2. There is no evidence that an inner group known as “the brothers of the Lord” existed in the early church or that “brother of the Lord” was used as a title for anyone.

I think those objections are sound. (They are possible, but I think more evidence is needed to establish either one as a completely satisfactory alternative to the mainstream view that the passage is telling us that James was the biological brother of Jesus.)

So, then, we are left with a letter by Paul indicating that one of the three great leaders (Paul says they were reputed to be “pillars”) of the Jerusalem church was named James who was the sibling of Jesus.

But that’s where our problems start. read more »

Sex and Death

Well I just had to laugh (I even saw the photographs) . . .

I first heard of the custom when living in Singapore. Strippers hired to perform before an image of the deceased as part of the ceremonies pending the actual cremation. I thought the idea was to give the deceased one last good time. Maybe it’s hard to grasp if we’re not familiar with the Chinese custom in crowded Singapore of setting up a marquee or special area for the coffin of the deceased on the property of the apartments where he or she lived, or nearby, with friends and relatives coming to visit over the days prior to the cremation ceremony. Candles, decorations of models of the things the deceased loved in life (paper cars, boats, money…), other religious paraphernalia all around, and lots of chairs and water bottles for the visitors. There would always be someone there to maintain the vigil, even through the night.

And some (by no means all — unless I was protected by the locals from ever finding out) of these spaces, I learned, even arranged for a private striptease dancer to perform before the picture of a male deceased.

And all of that was before the last day when crowds would assemble, with musicians and dancers, to drive the coffin off in a specially decorated truck leading a street procession to the place of cremation. What a send off.

Well, today I was reminded of all of the above with the following news:

China cracks down on funeral strippers hired to entertain mourners, attract larger crowds

Hired to attract crowds! Now that was different from the Singapore custom, that’s for certain. If I can ever remember where I filed it I will dig out the Singapore newspaper photo of the Chinese dancer there definitely facing and performing for the deceased. But in China the image is definitely indicative of a more general entertainment:

Now that’s definitely not what Singapore Chinese modesty was all about. Unless, as I said, I was protected because I was considered to be just another foreigner who would not understand.

What piqued my more serious interest in the story this time, however, was the suggestion that the ceremony might be traced back to “fertility worship”. One last ditch effort to ensure the deceased would still be able to, well… I’m not quite sure what. Anthropologists would be able to explain it, no doubt.

And given the eclectic interests of Vridar, I am further reminded of the Gospel of John. See Novelistic plot and motifs in the Gospel of John where I look at an article by Jo-Ann Brant discussing the way that gospel plays with the idea of a marriage anticipated by Jesus really being his death.

It all seems rather appropriate, I supposed, given that what made death possible (as opposed to evolving like ever dividing cells that go on forever and never die) was sex. Perhaps the story of Adam and Eve and their Fall is all about the way cell death evolved to remove and discard the less good bits from the mix.

 

 

The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (2)

In the first part of this post, we examined some instances of New Testament scholars employing historical criteria before the advent of Formgeschichte, demonstrating that these criteria and methods did not differ significantly from what we would later call criteria of authenticity. In this post, we’ll look more closely at the ways source critics argued for the “genuineness” of passages, insisting that some terms, concepts, and sayings in the NT “must have” come from the historical Jesus himself.

Christ before the High Priest — Gerrit van Honthorst

Big Questions

Historical Jesus studies, like many historical endeavors, has several “big questions.” For example, Did Jesus think he was the messiah? Even the painfully pious Anglo-American scholars of the early twentieth century, who took as much as possible in the NT to be true, asked such questions. Granted, in most cases German (or perhaps Dutch or French) scholars spurred them to write what were essentially apologetic rebuttals; nevertheless, they dared to ask the questions.

Regarding the question: Did Jesus use the term “Son of Man”? Julius Wellhausen in Das Evangelium Marci, had said, “Er ist gleichzeitig mit der Erwartung der Parusie Jesu entstanden.” (It emerged simultaneously with the expectation of the parousia of Jesus.) In other words, only later in the church did the belief arise that Jesus must have foreseen his suffering and death, and that he predicted his return when he will “appear in the clouds of heaven.” (Wellhausen 1903, pp. 65-69)

But Willoughby Charles Allen disagreed.

Wellhausen, for example, argues . . . [The Church] put into His mouth the words, “The Man of whom Daniel spoke will appear in the clouds of the heaven.” This was soon interpreted as equivalent to “I will return.” The next stage was to make the Son of Man the subject in the prophecies of death and resurrection where it becomes necessarily a designation of Christ Himself. Finally, the phrase was introduced into non-eschatological sayings, where it becomes equivalent simply to “I.”

Now Wellhausen is a brilliant philologist, but he is often a very bad interpreter, and his exposition of the development of this phrase in the Church is contrary to all the evidence. (Allen 1911, p. 309)

In a footnote, Allen said he was happy to discover Adolf von Harnack believed the phrase was genuine and that its use by Jesus himself was a secure fact. We may note here that, despite what some Memory Mavens suggest, discussions about which traditions were authentic and which were apocryphal or secondary did not start with the form critics.

How should we evaluate the evidence in the New Testament to determine whether Jesus used the term Son of Man? And if we decide that he did, how do we know what he meant by it? Simply by asking these questions, we have admitted that what Jesus actually said and what the gospels have recorded might not be the same.

What we’re looking for, then, is the truth behind the text. read more »