2018-10-22

Postscript to my Constructive Exchange post

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by Neil Godfrey

Thanks to comment left by db on that post I was alerted to a perspective on the historical Jesus expressed by Jesus Seminar pioneer Robert Funk:

Why did this book [Gerd Ludemann’s The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology] provoke such violent reactions in Germany? The book itself states the reason: “. . . in the church the serious crisis of present-day Christianity is not recognized” (8). Scholars, theologians, and ministers attempt to pave over the crisis with load after load of verbiage, but to no avail. The crisis in what the church believes about Jesus will not go away. The only remedy for Luedemann, as for us, is to face the issues squarely, honestly, with complete candor, and ask, as Luedemann does, whether in the face of the evidence we can still be Christians.

The crisis does not arise merely from the way in which the gospels and later interpreters have treated the resurrection. The crisis arises, in large part, from what we can know about Jesus himself. For example, as a historian I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations. I therefore find it difficult to assent to Luedemann’s final affirmation:

Compare p. 17 of Ludemann, Gerd. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology . [Translated by John Bowden]. London: SCM Press.

If one assumed that the resurrection of Jesus were not a historical fact (so Jesus did not rise, and remained in the tomb – in contradiction to the classical confessions of the church and probably also to Paul), but was grounded in the vision of Peter and Paul, a new explanation would have to be given of whether in that case Easter can still be regarded as an experience from outside (extra nos) or whether it does not prove, rather, to be a wish of the human spirit, as critics of Christianity, ancient (Celsus) and modem, have claimed.

And the further question whether the extra nos is guaranteed is to be answered with an emphatic affirmative, because Jesus is not an invention or a projection. (182) [see insert]

The extra nos refers to something beyond us, outside of us, something of which we can be absolutely certain. While share Luedemann’s conclusion, I do not share his conviction.

In my view, there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt. In the mortal life we have there are only probabilities. And the Jesus that scholars have isolated in the ancient gospels, gospels that are bloated with the will to believe, may turn out to be only another image that merely reflects our deepest longings. Everything I believe in or want to believe in lies in that no man’s-land of uncertainty—a region of anomalous, ambiguous, and indefinite claims. Both as Christians and as scholars, we must stop laying claim to transcendent certain ties and submit to all the conditions of finite existence.

Nevertheless, I can agree with Luedemann that Jesus is the ground of our faith as Christians (182). Even so, we do not learn from Jesus that faith means the overcoming of death or that faith inspired by him is the final faith. On the contrary, we find in Jesus the willingness to accept finitude and the provisional as the basis for liberation. I subscribe wholeheartedly to this formulation of Luedemann:

Christians should live by the little that they really believe, not by the much that they take pains to believe, That is a great liberation, which already bears within it the germ of the new. (184)

If Jesus was an advocate of an unbrokered relationship to God, then we cannot and should not posit the resurrection as the threshold of faith. For if we were to do so, our faith would be made to depend on the faith of Peter or the faith of Paul or the faith of someone else in the fourth decade of the first century. Congratulations to those who have faith prior to and apart from the resurrection!*

Luedemann’s book is a breath of fresh air in the stifling atmosphere of scholarly discourse. It belongs with Sheehan and Spong and Fuller and Crossan as a truly ground-breaking study. . . . .

——

*In more traditional language this beatitude would read: Blessed are those who have faith prior to and apart from the resurrection!

.

I will add an extra note to my commentary on the list of non-Christian scholars that Tim presented as significant for his argument.


Funk, Robert W. (1995). “The Resurrection of Jesus”. The Fourth R. Westar Institute. 8 (1): 9.


 

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Neil Godfrey

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22 thoughts on “Postscript to my Constructive Exchange post”

  1. Funk said “as a historian I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations.” A few sentences later he qualifies what he means by that statement: “In the mortal life we have there are only probabilities.”

    1. He does not qualify his position as a historian. The context explains that his qualification arises from his faith.

      (“Not knowing for certain” is tautology for “only having probabilities”. It is not a qualification.)

      He did not say “He does not believe Jesus really existed.” I expect readers not to read more or less into words like “I do not know for certain” and I give enough text for readers to be left with no doubt about the context.

      Funk allowed mythicists as Fellows into the Jesus Seminar.

      1. I have no idea what you are trying to say with that oddly worded response? McGrath too would say we don’t know for certain Jesus existed, in that historians deal in probabilities. Given that, what’s the point of focusing on Funk, since any critical scholar would admit the same thing? How does your post about Funk add anything new to the discussion?

          1. Exactly what I said. But only if you read the half sentence you cited in context:

            Yet this does not mean that it becomes more probable that they were invented, or were originally thought of as mythical celestial entities and later historicized, simply because the historical evidence available, and the tools of historical study, cannot deliver certainty.

            And so it is certainly true that work on the historical Jesus has featured problematic claims and anomalous methods. Those developments have been challenged, not in the first instance by internet crusaders, but from with the field itself, and the conversations about method and conclusions have consistently been part of a broader conversation encompassing the rest of the discipline of history. Historical study itself has changed significantly over the last century, in many different ways.

            First paragraph: a blatant disrepresentation of the argument. No-one says, as McGrath here clearly suggests, that absence of certain kinds of “hard evidence” means Jesus was a celestial or mythical being. McGrath’s typical disunderstanding and misrepresentation of the point being made!

            Further, the claim that certain kinds of evidence cannot yield certainty is also bogus claptrap and word-games. You see a tombstone and a death certificate then you have certainty that X is dead. Theoretically it could all be wrong but only theoretically, not in the real world.

            Second paragraph: His opening sentence only allows for uncertainty about some of the things Jesus said and did. Nothing more. And his next sentences confirm this: the points challenged in scholarship are the details of what Jesus said and did. No-one challenges his existence because that is assumed, a priori.

            McGrath is talking rubbish when he says the study of Jesus has been “part of a broader conversation encompassing the rest of the discipline of history.” I know he’s talking rubbish because I tried to get him to verify his assertion years ago without any success.

            Yes, historical study has changed significantly over the last century, but biblical studies have not, as a rule, taken any of those changes or methods on board, but instead gone with methods that other historians dismiss as nonsense.

        1. McGrath’s statements are far removed from Funk’s. McGrath believes absolutely that we can know certain things about the historical Jesus “as historians”. He has indeed, like Tim, made the technically correct nod to “probability” but push him on that point and he will (as he has in fact done) prove he means none of it. There is no probability, in McGrath’s claims, that Jesus was crucified, baptized, preached, had followers.

          The Funk post demonstrates that yet one more name in Tim O’Neill’s list is indeed more open to the very concept of mythicism than he wants us to believe. Funk, as I demonstrated in the post, also believes in Jesus as a Christian. But he has enough intellectual nous to know how to separate that faith from his work as a historian.

          Funk reminds me of Schweitzer, another scholar, and one who wrote extensively against mythicist views of his day. But he did so with honesty. And he conceded the problem that strict historical method did not allow us to be certain that Jesus even existed. Tim O’Neill and James McGrath argue the very opposite — that the probability only refers to details about his life and not some “fact” of his existence.

        2. A qualification suggests that one overstated a point earlier. Funk overstated and qualified nothing. He explained that quite apart from his stance as a historian, he had faith, but that faith was limited by his uncertainties that arose from his insights as a historian. If Funk qualifies anything it is the depth of conviction ohis faith — which he says is not as deep as Ludemann’s because of his understanding of historical insights.

      2. Neil, (you’re missing a closing ” and your first ‘context’ would be better as just ‘text’ ie. –

        “I give enough text for readers to be left with no doubt about the context.”)

        please delete this whether you agree or not

  2. Funk (1995) from above –

    In my view, there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt.

    That’s a bit hard to parse and decipher. It might have been better if he had said something like “there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we [presently] can know [with certainty].”

    But the near next passage of Funk’s is nuanced –

    “… the Jesus that scholars have isolated in the ancient gospels, gospels that are bloated with the will to believe, may turn out to be only another image that merely reflects our deepest longings. Everything I believe in or want to believe in lies in that no man’s-land of uncertainty—a region of anomalous, ambiguous, and indefinite claims. Both as Christians and as scholars, we must stop laying claim to transcendent certain ties and submit to all the conditions of finite existence.”

    1. “Nothing about Jesus we can know beyond any possible doubt”– that reads to me like a deliberately provocative statement. Funk knows (or knew- – he is no longer with us) the common “truism” that “the only thing we know for certain about Jesus is that he was crucified by the Romans. Funk is making a statement that is meant to startle even the “extreme liberal” Gerd Ludemann whose work caused such a controversy in Germany. Funk is saying that his historical sense does not allow him the same conviction of faith as Ludemann has.

      The statement strikes me as very easy to parse and decipher. It is very plain and deliberately so, I suggest. Perhaps it’s stark plainness is what is so hard to accept and that leads us to think, No, he must mean something less than that, something more nuanced or qualified.

      Not even Crossan or Borg were so “liberal” or frank in anything they wrote.

      1. “The statement – ‘there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt‘ – strikes me as very easy to parse and decipher.

        lol, me too, now

  3. The “willful ignorance” of secular Jesus historicity proponents is so egregious that they can not tolerate even hearing the following on the bare plausibility of mythicism:

    • Robert W. Funk: “The crisis in what the church believes about Jesus will not go away. . . . The crisis arises, in large part, from what we can know about Jesus himself. For example, as a historian I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations.” [Funk (1995), “The Resurrection of Jesus”. The Fourth R 8 (1): 9].

    • Philip R. Davies: “What I can see, but not understand, is the stake that Christians have in the unanswerable question of Jesus’ historicity and his true historical self.” [Davies (2012), “Did Jesus Exist?”. The Bible and Interpretation NOW BOLDED].

    • R. Joseph Hoffmann: “I no longer believe it is possible to answer the ‘historicity question’. . . . Whether the New Testament runs from Christ to Jesus or Jesus to Christ is not a question we can answer.” [Hoffmann (2009), “Threnody: Rethinking the Thinking behind The Jesus Project”. Bible and Interpretation NOW BOLDED].

    Funk, Davies, and Hoffmann admit to the plausibility of mythicism; but not to its probability, they all believe the historicity of Jesus is more probable. “But even that” Carrier opines, “would be progress, if it became the consensus position [i.e. that mythicism is at least plausible] (as Davies among them did explicitly argue for).” [Comment by Richard Carrier—23 October 2020—per “Formalized Gullibility as a Modern Christian Methodology”. Richard Carrier Blogs. 18 October 2020.]

    1. Add Steve Mason to the above list.

      “Dr. Steve Mason addresses Jesus Mythicism”. YouTube. Harmonic Atheist. 28 October 2020.

      This video is the second discussion between Mason and Youtuber:Harmonic_Atheist. In both discussions Mason goes to great length to recuse himself of being an expert on the question of the historicity of Jesus.

      Mason does opine on why he personally finds historicity to be more compelling—in response to the questions Harmonic_Atheist received from viewers of the previous discussion with Mason.

        1. [00:35:41] What I was trying to say last time [i.e. per the previous discussion] was for me that the option—that he did not exist—is to be taken into account…

          • [At this point Mason gives an informative presentation of 19th century scholarship]

          [00:52:46] If you are going to do science, or you are going to do history [then anyone with an invested interest in the outcome—must recuse themselves]

          • [00:59:40 Harmonic Atheist (Tim Mills) presents content submitted by a viewer of the previous discussion]

          [1:02:20] The assumption is—to restate it in my own words—is that Paul is basically the beginner in all this stuff and Paul only relies on his visions and scripture to put together a tableau and then you get all this disagreement with Paul because other people have other visions and other interpretations with scripture. According to this assumption Paul never refers to anything before, he never argues any events in Jesus’s life; does not talk about it at all and so he is the starting point.

          [1:04:11] The first thing we need to do is have a clear picture of the evidence…

          [1:08:37] The crowning one in first Corinthians is chapter 15, he talks about about the apostles before him . . . My point is, even to just this point (the second letter we have) there all kinds of references in Paul to what happened before he came along.

          [1:17:15] So your questioner said: “There are two options, Paul only refers to visions as a criterion and scripture interpretation”, I do not think that is true.

          [1:17:50] I am not saying: “I am right!”, I am just trying to say that it does not work for me to hypothesize that there was no Jesus, he had no family . . . It is just easier to imagine as a hypothesis that there was a guy and all these people are fighting over his legacy.

          • [1:18:30 Tim presents more content submitted to him]

          [1:25:14] The link between the Jesus who died [on Earth] and the one who rose is pretty clear [therefore Paul is talking about a second coming and not about a first and only one.]

          • [1:27:00 Tim moves on to the James/brother issues in Paul and in Josephus]

          [1:29:00] A way of understanding this . . . is that this James the brother of this Jesus guy, who turns up in the gospels, in Acts, and in Paul’s letters . . . so these are the early Christian texts.

          [1:33:16] Antiquities of Josephus . . . he is talking about this high priest…

          [1:36:10] What I simply think is that the passage does not present any problems. . . . If we take the simplest most economical view. We have a text and he mentions Jesus somehow (it has been retouched, doctored by Christian scribes) I have good reason to think the simplest explanation is that Josephus wrote something about Jesus…

          • [1:49:50 Tim moves on to Luke’s use of Josephus and academic resistance to this viewpoint]

          [1:51:30] First thing, it has not been unanimous scholarly resistance by any means . . . A bunch of scholars have actually built on and support this idea and have used my work on this idea . . . There are other scholars of course who do not like it. They mostly ignore it . . . if they know it at all.

          [1:54:26] Now second is the “why”, in the direction of dependence (why I think that). Here I need to very clear, I am using the standard criteria as a professor…

          1. It’s a TWO HOUR video! Glad I asked for a summary! But the points look interesting. I would like to respond here some time — when I’m ready to sit down and listen for 2 hours!

            1. I’ve watched nearly all of Harmonic Atheist’s conversations and found them really engaging: academic/personal; serious/light-hearted; informative/emotive. They work on many levels and Tim has such gracious and patient manner. It’s a winning formula. It would be great if he could interview you, Neil. How about it?

              1. Someone did approach me a few months back asking if I’d be interested in an online interview but I can’t recall who it was and he never called back (or I missed his message).

  4. We come back to Tim O’Neill.

    “The Problems With Jesus Mythicism – Tim O’Neill”. YouTube. MythVision Podcast. 8 November 2020.

    [00:11:50] I seriously do not care if Jesus existed or not because when I’m talking about Jesus. I am not talking about the magic guy who walked on water and who’s the figure of Christianity.

    [00:14:00] I am not saying mythicists are anything like holocaust deniers but in both cases though they are similar . . . In both cases it seems to be that there is a strong ideological and therefore emotional bias turning people towards—what i would argue is—in both cases a bad historical thesis and many of those people in both those cases are very sincere. Not all holocaust deniers are evil Nazis—though many of them are—but many of them think (I sincerely think that) they have discovered a great truth about history and get quite passionate about it and it’s the same with mythicism.

    [00:15:50] Historical analysis is about working out which of the various many potential valid possible ideas is most likely. So it is possible—I would never argue that it is impossible—that there was no historical Jesus I just don’t think it’s very likely.

    [00:20:00] I have noticed—and this is a generalization, but not a misrepresentation—there is a lot of overlap [in mythicism] between those very fervent fundamentalist Christians . . . I think that mythicism (in that sort of that more dogmatic script extreme view) is very comforting to people who have come from the opposite extreme, so people who have come from it’s all true Jesus is lord; everything in the bible is literally true; everything in the gospels actually happened.

    [00:21:40] For many people—and this again is a generalization—there’s a degree of laziness: if you just say Jesus didn’t exist; none of it is true then; you can just dismiss it and move on . . . with other stuff like saying Christians are stupid or creationism is wrong . . . so there’s a lot of different things being loaded into this.

    [00:67:50] We know that there was a tradition in the the prophetic tradition of Judaism of preaching against the temple which sounds weird but the idea was that the temple represented a corrupt form of of Judaism and it and therefore it had to be cleansed the other thing is we know that the temple was previously been destroyed once because this was the second temple the one that Jesus would have been preaching outside so the idea that Jesus would have been saying something against the temple, it does actually make some sense, it’s part of the apocalyptic tradition that as part of the cleansing of the earth that’s going to come when the apocalypse happens and Jesus is depicted as saying it’s going to happen any day now guys that that the temple would be would be swept away and would be renewed so that that saying kind of makes sense in that in that apocalyptic tradition yeah and then there’s there’s we’ve got other references to prophets around at this time so there’s another guy uh who is preaching about the temple being destroyed referenced in Josephus not long before it was destroyed so this this makes absolute absolute sense.

    [00:80:21] You’re starting to realize that not everything in the gospels can be true and you go looking for an explanation as to how Christianity arose if Jesus wasn’t God. . . you’re going to find a whole lot of videos; a whole lot of blogs; a whole lot of stuff on online about mythicism. What you won’t find is good scholarly analysis of Jesus in the context of second temple Judaism and and Jewish apocalyptic thought. To get that—you won’t find that on YouTube—you have to look pretty hard to get that. You have to read books and some of them are quite dense books with lots and lots and lots of footnotes and that assume a lot of knowledge including assuming that you read Greek so one of the things i am trying to do is to make that kind of stuff more accessible to people so they don’t go off down what i would argue is the rabbit hole of mythicism and they stick with mainstream non-christian critical scholarship because Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet as I’m sure you’ve come to understand is pretty much the mainstream non-christian view.

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