- PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism (2018-09-05)
- How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional? (2018-09-06)
- How do we approach the question of Jesus being historical or mythical? (2018-09-07)
I have as a rule paraphrased main points that each person spoke in their exchange.
PZ: You (Eddie) say it is unlikely that anyone would conspire to create a Jesus myth, but compare Mormonism. Joseph Smith invented this “ridiculous past history for the North American continent”. And people believe this.
Eddie: It’s not a question of what people believe. We have to account for the evidence. History of Mormonism would start with historical techniques. So it would start with a real Joseph Smith. And using the tools of history we can analyse the Book of Mormon itself and identify disparate sources and influences.
Comment: I think Eddie has missed PZ’s point here.
PZ: We can do all of that, yes, but that does not give any credence at all to the mythology that was created and believed.
Eddie: Let’s look at what a historian means by “the historical Jesus”.
— The earliest accounts of Jesus are Paul’s writings. Paul believed “the historical figure of Jesus” becomes Christ, the Messiah, at his death or resurrection.
— Then the gospel writers thought there had to be something more to this Jesus before his death so they created the gospels.
— Mark says it (becomes the Messiah) happened at Jesus’ baptism.
— Then others said it (Messiahship) happened at his virgin birth.
— Then John pushed him right back to the beginning of time/creation.
Such is a linear presentation but in actual fact it would not have been so tidy; rather it would have been different community groups arguing with one another.
The point of this is to split the historical Jesus from the figure of Christ.
So we can account for why we have a virgin birth, using standard historical techniques. It is naive to say that a miracle could not happen so there was no historical person behind the stories. It’s part of an ongoing discussion about at what point Jesus becomes the Messiah.
Comment: Technical point. In Romans 1 Paul writes that Jesus became the son of God at his resurrection, not the messiah or christ then. Same with the gospel writers shifting the moment back further, to baptism, to birth, to the beginning of time. What they were shifting back was when Jesus became the son of God, not messiah.
I take Eddie to be meaning that we can explain why miraculous or mythical stories emerged by means of rival interests and search for deeper meanings etc among the communities following Jesus. He appears to be saying that this is how historians “find” the historical Jesus. They package their historical explanations for the miraculous tales as a narrative and this is the evidence for the historical Jesus. At least this certainly appears to be Eddie’s message later in the discussion.
To say that the narrative itself is “the evidence” sounds a bit like one of the less conservative postmodernist views of what constitutes history. My readings about history and how history is done by historians thankfully assure me that not all historians accept this view.
PZ: So there could probably be a kernel of truth there but the communities were adding layers of myth to the story.
Eddie: The gospel writers added the myths because of what they meant to convey (though they may have also believed they really happened) — e.g. virgin birth. But that doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t really born.
PZ: Granted all of that. But where did the mythmaking start and end, and where was the reality?
Eddie: There were many faith communities all with the one core figure of Jesus. You have the gentile communities, the Jewish communities, adding their own myths. I’ve never heard a convincing explanation how this could happen. It had to spread from somewhere. There had to be a small group of believers at the start.
If Jesus never existed, where are the faith communities who worshiped an ethereal spirit and never believed in his actual body. We find them 200 years later. A conspiracy theory? We burnt all their texts? You’ve got to have some explanations for this.
Comment: Woah, Eddie. The epistles of John in the New Testament are very clear evidence for other Christians as early as the first century (not 200 years later!) who believed Jesus did not come “in the flesh”. The author calls them antichrists. Clearly these groups existed prior to the letters of John that warned against them. Many scholars also believe Paul was quoting a hymn in one of his letters, a hymn which said that Jesus came “in appearance or form of flesh”. That was a pre-Paul belief. There is other evidence for a very early belief in a Jesus who was more spirit and heavenly than flesh on earth, or at least the evidence is ambiguous at best.
One big problem I have with the conventional explanation that Christianity essentially started as a movement around one man is that I cannot see how it can explain why some very early Christians rejected the idea that Jesus was ever a flesh and blood human.
PZ: I can imagine stories spreading rapidly based on their psychological appeal. e.g. Robin Hood. Was he real?
Eddie: Robin Hood goes in and out of being historical with every generation. Early 90’s he was real. About 40 – 50 years (?) Socrates stops being a real figure. These things happen in historical community, because somebody finds a new narrative for the same facts.
Comment: I don’t know about Robin Hood but only days/weeks ago I was collecting scholarly publications on the historical Socrates debates. All of them said that there was a historical figure behind all the stories but one side said virtually nothing could be known about that person. All our accounts of Socrates present him as a literary figure and nothing more. I did hear as an undergraduate studying ancient history that some scholars doubted the existence of Socrates but I have not seen those arguments in print. If anyone knows of any do let me know.
Eddie: Readers expect historians to believe what they write about. Historian won’t just say in the preface to a book “these are the things that best explain the archival records” while not believing it.
King Arthur a generation ago wasn’t real. He’s real again now.
We have the amount of evidence we would expect for a royal figure, an outlaw figure, etc.
We have exact amount of evidence we’d expect for a troublemaker preacher in Galilee who was crucified and never heard of again until around 70 when people are setting down mythical accounts. — These gospel stories are difficult to unpick but there are accounts that can be made that can argue for a historical figure behind them. The historic Jesus is the best narrative account to explain the origins of the evidence we have. Historian can say philosophically it’s just a construct but “deep down knows/believes it’s true”.
PZ: Yes, we wouldn’t expect evidence for a rabble rouser preacher in Galilee. And we have no evidence for that.
Eddie: No, we have the gospels. They are difficult to use. Four in one gospels is evidence that lots of stories were circulating. We know they were written for faith communities. We know they were engaged in eucharist and reciting Lord’s prayer. We can tell this from the gospels and tiny amounts of other evidence. So it’s not the case that the stories suddenly spring into existence, they are first written down about this time (70 CE). Therefore gospels really are evidence.
I’m not interested in minutiae like did Jesus really feed 5000 people. Jesus’ big mission is so much more interesting. I’m interested in the core thing his disciples picked up on, which was: God is everywhere, this centralized Temple is complicit with Roman occupation, we need to get rid of this temple system and return to more localized worship of Yahweh, which his disciples probably got muddled up with a mission to overthrow Rome, decided he was the messiah, but he dies, they are then traumatized, and some reinterpreted his death to mean something much more important than just kicking Rome or the Temple out. So when Temple was destroyed in 70, then disciples would have been impressed as they remembered Jesus prophesied it would be destroyed.
An account like that makes sense of a lot of the evidence (the gospels). You have to be careful how you treat the evidence.
PZ: Yes, and also need to be careful about what they are evidence of. We have this window pre 70 where a faith community began. We can assume a slow dissemination of oral stories.
Eddie: Bart Ehrman shows spread of Christianity was really rapid. There was something in the cultural psyches of the time that really wanted this message.
PZ: Before it was written down we can assume decades of faith communities telling stories.
Eddie: And we know some of them. Four gospels tell us of the debates. And we can go back to a single starting point, the historical Jesus.
PZ: But that’s an inference. We have the gospels that tell us about different faith communities, but all the stuff below that is reasonable inference that gets progressively murkier the father back you go.
Eddie: Yes. That’s just how ancient history works. If you want “The Truth” about Jesus you need Jesus to speak to you personally.
I can’t convince you. To convince you I’d need to sit down with you and look at all the sources. We’d be in to minutiae. I can’t do that because not fluent in koine Greek. But it is very uncontroversial in historical circles that Jesus existed. But the mythicist view doesn’t have explanatory power comparable to the historical Jesus explanation. That disciples had to find a meaning in J’s death fits explanation much better.
Comment: Firstly, we have no evidence that communities were “telling stories” about Jesus before the gospels wrote them down. The idea that there were oral traditions preceding the gospels derives from belief that the gospels contain at least a historical kernel that derived from the historical Jesus and his followers. The model is circular.
Eddie on the one hand says the gospels are evidence for the historical Jesus. But on the other hand he seems to be saying that it is his reinterpretation of the gospels, his “rationalizing” them to arrive at a story of a political or religious leader that is the evidence for the historical Jesus. His interpretation or model of a historical rebel of sorts makes the best sense of the gospels, and is therefore evidence for the historical Jesus.
I disagree. His re-interpretation of the gospel mythical tales is not evidence for the historical Jesus at all. Nor would a mythicist interpreting the gospels as originating as entirely allegorical tales be itself proof or evidence for mythicism.
But Eddie has said and will say again that he thinks the story that historians tell to explain the evidence is the evidence for the historical Jesus.
There must be a name for that bit of illogic. It’s not coming to me now.
PZ: A consensus doesn’t necessarily mean anything. 200 years ago there was a consensus phlogiston existed. The key thing is: show me the chain of evidence and the logic that you use to derive this.
Comment: Yes, and that’s how Earl Doherty, G.A. Wells, Thomas Brodie, ….. right up to R.G. Price most recently ….. that’s how they go about the argument.
Eddie: I can’t, not on this particular chat. The best way to do it would be to pick up one of Bart Ehrman’s excellent books. He gives the summary and assures the details are checked by the experts. The specialist books are too complex, comparing verb constructions, etc. I just want the headline summary of the evidence. I have to trust the experts. You have to rely upon the majority opinion of quantum physicists, for example. I have to rely on people who are experts in certain fields. — like that Greek verb construction stuff which is “utterly necessary” in this field. You have to do koine Greek, Coptic, Syriac, Aramaic. We have Bart Ehrman, he’ll do fine as my god.
Comment: I would have liked Eddie to try to explain why one needs to understand ancient Syriac and Coptic in order to understand the historical evidence for the historical Jesus. Is history really that difficult. Is a historian unable to “show PZ the chain of evidence and the logic that you use to derive this” without resorting to a complex discussion of Greek grammar?
Is there any other person or event in history that is too complex to prove to the lay person that it really happened?
PZ: Compare bioinformatics to infer there was a common ancestor for these two species. But if you talk to the experts they will tell you that’s an inference.
Eddie: Nothing historians love doing more than attacking other historians’ theories. No-one abides by the professional code of conduct.
Compare Reza Aslan. It doesn’t convince. In history the message is the medium. If I can convince you through my narrative that it meets all of the evidence. Narratives will always change but deep down it means we believe there was a Jesus worth writing about who gave rise to this account.
PZ: Historians are writing about Jesus as a construct that gave rise to Christianity, but that does not demonstrate to me that there had to have been one man rather than a dozen obscure Jewish rabbis who were combined into a Jesus figure, say.
Eddie: I can’t convince you over this brief chat here. (I am fascinated by history of Christianity because of my dad.) When someone has a new insight that explains something a bit better, etc — lights go on and we believe it is true because it feels true.
Comment: PZ is thinking like a scientist. He understands the difference between fact and inference. Eddie said at the beginning that history is like science, or something to that effect. Other historians I have read also know the difference between inference and fact. Something seems to trigger a derailment when it comes to Jesus.
PZ: Does the message of Jesus contradict what was emerging out of that area at that time? That would tell me that there was some unique message.
Eddie: Historians find that unconvincing. It has to FIT with the evidence.
PZ: But that idea, that Jesus was compatible with what was simmering out of Palestine at that time, that’s also compatible with idea he was a construct of many different preachers.
Comment: Aha! PZ has hit on one of the key “criteria of authenticity” that many historical Jesus scholars have used for some time now, despite some challenges to those criteria more recently. Historical Jesus scholars call his idea the “criterion of dissimilarity”. The scientific approach is indeed to set up a test, to ask what we would expect to find to support or contradict a hypothesis. What is unique coming out of this time and place? That is, what is dissimilar from the prevailing context? That would tell us that there was someone doing something strikingly different.
There is in fact a conflict between the criterion of coherence, that X has to “fit the context” and the criterion of dissimilarity, that X must be different from the context, or “sitz im leben”. Scholars write about such problematic contradictions in their tool-kit. Some have abandoned the criteria completely.
Normally the criteria have been used to work out what Jesus was like, not whether he existed. Existence is the a priori assumption.
Eddie: How many things can I guarantee Jesus said? Only two things: some version of Lord’s prayer, and something close to “take, eat, this is my body”. How do we know? Because these are among the earliest core record at centre of faith. Paul tells us this. Prayer is important because it’s not traditionally Jewish. So we don’t need other teachers to make a composite.
The Jesus Project (sic) through much detailed study concluded the various things that Jesus said and didn’t and maybe said.
Comment: Unless I am mistaken, Eddie means to refer to the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar published volumes explicating their reasons for suggesting what we can be confident Jesus said, maybe said and didn’t say. It determined, contrary to Eddie’s assertions here, that Jesus most unlikely said, on eve of his death or at any other time, “take, eat, this is my body, …. drink, this is my blood”. Those words in the Gospel of Mark were coloured black indicating a definite rejection of the idea that Jesus said them, according to the Seminar Fellows.
PZ: I’m looking for the unique features. Like Lord’s Prayer as you said.
Eddie: Passover is comparable to the eucharist, but among Christians the eucharist made you part of the community. Jewish passover just made you part of the family. Christians obsessed over the eucharist.
The reason we think it MUST have been Jesus was their obsession over it. ALL faith communities have this in common (and only this?) — this bread and wine ritual obsession. Something triggered that. Easiest explanation for that ritual is that one person did it.
It’s odd, but not radically different from what was happening in that era.
Comment: Eddie seems to me to be conceding that the eucharist is not unique in its originating context. The Passover did indeed mean that the Jews were part of their own community or family. There were fierce debates in Church history over when and how often the eucharist should be taken, but these were in the later second century (Polycrates of Ephesus versus Rome).
As for a ritual being most simply explained by someone “starting it”, Eddie appears to be unaware of the range of theories on myths and rituals, and whether myths are actually created to explain them or give them meaning.
As I said in an earlier post, among our very earliest data (the Didache, according to a good number of scholars) the eucharist had no association with the flesh and blood of Jesus at all. And Justin Martyr (mid second century) indicates that he believed Jesus gave the eucharist to the disciples after his resurrection.
I wonder if Eddie here is following one scholar, Bart Ehrman, unaware, if so, that such views are not generally accepted by most of the critical scholars (as opposed to apologists).
PZ: So it seems reasonable there was a common person behind the diverse communities, but that’s still a stretch, an inference, from the data and subject to revision given further data.
Eddie: Further back you go the less evidence, so more work you have to do to extract blood from the stone. Ancient history is about getting blood out of a stone. That’s what makes history so exciting, that we can get so much blood out of a stone by using our brains.
Comment: Eddie is clearly not an ancient historian. No, if he reads the works about how ancient history is done by leading lights in the field such as M. I. Finley (as discussed regularly on Vridar) he would know that ancient historians tailor their questions and limit their enquiries to what the nature of the evidence will allow. If it were possible to “get blood from stones”, and valid to do so, then it follows that the same techniques would be valid in the interpretation of documents for more recent events. I cannot imagine most historians agreeing.
PZ: I can concede that it is a reasonable argument that there was a common starting point for all the later sects. But the evidence is weak. As a scientist, as a historian, we all emphasize the importance of data to support our conclusions, but there isn’t any text contemporary with Jesus.
Eddie: In ancient terms gospels are contemporary with Jesus. In ancient historical terms we “don’t have hardly anything to compare with that.”with other historical figures of ancient times.
PZ: We have to admit that the quality of evidence for Jesus is very poor.
Eddie: Would you want to defund research into an area where there is little evidence? Teachers show students how to work hard to get blood out of a stone.
Comment: PZ is spot on. That’s how historians do work, too, even those of ancient times. If the texts they use are much later than the events they address the historian checks first how and why the text came to be written, by whom, and whether the person had access to various types of sources or not; and the historian examines the text itself to look for indications of what sources were used by that ancient writer, and indications whether and to what extent they should be trusted. It always goes back to contemporary witness.
Eddie is simply wrong to say that the gospels are “by ancient standards contemporary with Jesus”. They are not, and they identify no sources that we can think were contemporary with Jesus. (Luke’s prologue notwithstanding, as we have seen from various scholarly discussions that I have posted about on this blog.)
Further, to imply that the alternative is not to try to do history of ancient times at all is not a worthy rebuttal.
PZ: I agree history shouldn’t be recitations of facts. It’s all about learning how to critically evaluate the evidence.
Eddie: In 20 years we will have a slightly different Jesus. You as a scientist find that disconcerting.
PZ: I don’t find that disconcerting at all. That’s what I expect in biology as well.
It’s not: Here’s my conclusion and I think it is true: it is, here’s what I think is the answer and here is the evidence to back it up. That means there is a lot of room for interpretation and change as new evidence emerges.
I see huge bias towards Jesus being historical.
Let’s concede it (historical Jesus) as “a best explanation” , but to present that as a fact bothers me.
Eddie: No facts, we tell stories.
PZ: With HJ I can say I lean in this direction but it is an extremely tentative position to take.
Eddie: A story that moves and convinces you — you come to believe it. You know intellectually it’s an explanation but deep down you believe it.
Comment: PZ is following the approach of the historians I regularly read. Eddie’s approach may be acceptable among certain postmodernists but there are many historians today who reject what they might call an extreme position. (e.g. Evans, In Defence of History)
PZ: But this is conflating the story with the historical evidence.
Eddie: No, the story is the explanation for the evidence. It is the narrative that best accounts for the evidence — and if I write it well enough that should persuade you
PZ: History is also the body of evidence, not just the story. You can’t conflate the story with the evidence.
Eddie: I would say the Kevin Costner movie is evidence about the Robin Hood. It becomes evidence about Robin Hood because it draws on streams of folklore.
Comment: As per comment(s) above. Actually, I am not sure that even many postmodernist historians would deny the difference between the story as “evidence” and the data as the evidence on which the story is based. I wonder if we are getting into philosophical questions of “what is history” again.
PZ: The Robin Hood story appeals to humans — Jesus story also appeals, sacrifices self to save world.
Eddie: Really? Jesus is concerned about the Temple and its collusion with Rome. You say the myth is compelling.
PZ: Feel we are talking past each other now. The myth is evidence for what we wish was true.
Comment: No comment.
Eddie: The same evidence can be looked at in light of new concerns. E.g. feminism.
PZ: There is a deep cultural predisposition to believe Jesus is historical.
Eddie: You write a paper to prove that assertion (that historians are influenced by such bias) and I’ll get the historians to revise their view of Jesus.
PZ: I don’t think it is surprising that there would be bias.
Eddie: I’d like to get message to atheists that gospels are good evidence. Manuscript differences are very minor. I will leave thinking I am right.
Comment: That the manuscripts essentially support the canonical text we have today is not evidence that our gospels or Paul’s letters are today in their original draft forms. Critical scholars address evidence for our texts, and even Paul’s letters, being heavily redacted, modified, expanded, over time before reaching their canonical forms. Hence we have ur-Mark, ur-Luke, and arguments for a “pastoral stratum” of passages running through Paul’s letters, etc.
My biggest frustration with the discussion is the professional historian’s failure to acknowledge the potential for cultural bias among his peers. This failure strikes me as naive in the extreme given the history of history and historians in all ages. One does not have to be a believer to have such a bias. The historical Jesus is in the warp and woof of our cultural heritage. Jesus is as much an icon for secular ideals and causes as for religious ones. But even apart from that, when a belief or assumption has been entrenched among scholars for millennia, or even just a few generations, I suspect it’s not easy for everyone to admit that assumption has been founded on sand all that time.
See also posts and comments on PZ’s blog:
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