Daily Archives: 2019-01-23 19:49:59 GMT+0000

Gathercole Dabbles with Counterfactual History

Let me state at the outset here that I fully understand the actual merits of Simon Gathercole’s recent article in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus do not matter. Its mere existence suffices for the task at hand. In other words, it is not necessary for mainstream scholarship to demonstrate that Paul’s writings prove the existence of the historical Jesus; it is only necessary to assert it.

We saw the same sort of effect back in 2017 after Gullotta’s swing-and-a-miss treatment of Carrier’s magnum opus. For example, Gathercole writes, with no hint of irony:

One of the best recent critiques is that of Daniel Gullotta, who notes some crucial weaknesses in Richard Carrier’s volume. (Gathercole 2018, p. 185)

Do you believe?!

Tinkerbell tries to open a cabinet.

Despite the laughably bad anti-mythicist works offered by Casey and Ehrman, both scholars got a pass from their friends, colleagues, and sycophants. More than a pass, really, since both enjoyed backslaps and cheers for participating. They showed up and wrote down some words, by golly. It’s the Tinkerbell Effect in full bloom. Biblical scholars can claim they have refuted mythicism in all its forms as long as enough of them clap their hands and shout, “I believe! Oh, I do believe in the historical Jesus!

So what I have to say here will make no difference in the big picture, but I suppose somebody, somewhere, should say something, before Gathercole’s article inevitably takes its rightful place among “solid refutations” future scholars will point to.

If we had only Paul’s letters and nothing else, how much would we think we knew about the historical Jesus?

At the start of the new year, I started reading a book by Judea Pearl called The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect. In it, he devotes an entire chapter to counterfactuals (see Chapter 8 — Counterfactuals: Mining Worlds That Could Have Been). I had already read Gathercole’s article before that, and it rang a bell. Hadn’t he said something about counterfactuals? Yes, he did.

This article aims to adopt a kind of counterfactual approach to history, in which all of early Christian literature is set aside except the undisputed letters of Paul, in order to try to glean what can be learned from them alone. . . . The only exception is that the New Testament is occasionally used as evidence for Greek idiom. Otherwise, the letters of Paul are not interpreted in the light of, or even in tandem with, the Gospels, but are taken as far as is possible only against the backdrop of non-Christian sources. (Gathercole 2018, p. 187, bold emphasis mine throughout)

I confess I’d forgotten this tidbit, possibly because in the paragraphs that followed he appeared to be taking up arms against docetism rather than mythicism. Or perhaps Gathercole’s supposed commitment to the counterfactual approach had slipped my mind, just as it had clearly slipped his.

I have from time to time tried to imagine what our conception of early Christianity would look like if we had, say, only the Gospel of Mark or only the Gospel of John. Gathercole’s basic idea makes sense — if we had only Paul’s letters and nothing else, how much would we think we knew about the historical Jesus? What are some things we wouldn’t know for certain or, perhaps, at all? Let’s take a look. read more »

If we are going to move the Gospel of Mark to the second century . . . .

Bronze head of Hadrian found in the River Thames in London. Now in the British Museum. – Wikipedia

When we settle on a date for the composition of the Gospel of Mark soon after 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple by the armies of Vespasian and Titus, then it is only natural that we will want to study the lives and times of Vespasian and Titus. Perhaps the most significant political development that formed the backdrop of the generation that was the first to hear and reflect upon the Gospel of Mark was the dynamic thrust of Vespasian’s propaganda machine to demonstrate to the world that he was the rightful new emperor (burying in the hype the uncomfortable fact of his lowly and foreign origins), and a major plank of his propaganda efforts was the building up of the conquest of Judea into a major victory against a significant eastern threat to the empire.

Against such a backdrop our understanding of the Gospel of Mark as a counterimperial narrative, and our interpretation of the procession of Jesus to the cross as a mock-triumph.

If we prefer to see the Gospel being written at a time of persecutions, or at least fear and threat of persecution, then we may wish to place it in the 90s when and where some see the introduction of the Jewish synagogue curse being directed at Christians and where we may further see Domitian’s revival of the imperial cult.

But if we are toying with placing the Gospel in the second century, what we focus on then will depend how far into the second century we are prepared to go.

If we are working on the suggestions that our evangelist (let’s place him in Rome) was incorporating into his narrative some of what he had heard read in Josephus’s Antiquities, then we can place him anywhere in the mid and late 90s or early 100s. (We may prefer to settle on that date if we are persuaded by a reference found in Justin’s writings — let’s say as early as the 130s — that “memoirs of the apostles” spoke about Jesus nicknaming James and John “Sons of Thunder”, a detail found only in our Gospel of Mark.)

We may prefer to opt for a date closer to the mid century, let’s say later 130s or around 140s, if we think the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 makes best sense as a reference to Hadrian’s efforts to set up a pagan temple complete with statue of Jupiter on the site of the old Jewish temple and to Bar Kochba’s “messianic” war supported by the rabbi Akiba.

If we are going to explore where different threads end up by placing the gospel so “late” then another background worth studying is Hadrian’s rule more generally. Hadrian was renowned for more than crushing the the Bar Kochba rebellion. More generally Hadrian promoted himself as a restorer and even second founder of the Roman empire itself. In the beginning of his reign he promoted himself as the god Mars and then in the later years he presented himself (through coins, for example) as the new Romulus, founder of the original Rome. Romulus was also believed to have been the son of the god Mars. Hadrian loved to travel, but he was doing more than site-seeing. He was presenting himself as a second founder of major cities such as Athens. Temples and monuments and processions and such pomp drove home his message about both himself and what he was doing in his restoring of the Empire and the Pax Romana. The imperial cult became especially important. People were expected to turn up and demonstrate their piety when his image was entering a city. When he entered a city or a temple he did so as a god manifesting himself to his subjects. He even identified himself with Jupiter himself, the head god of the pantheon. As Jupiter ruled Olympus, so the emperor, an embodiment of Jupiter, ruled the “world”.

We can look for the time period where we find the most bits of the puzzle seeming to fit and settle on that for the date of the earliest gospel. But such a method will always remain open to question. We need to do more than simply look for pieces that fit, or more likely look for ways to fit as many pieces as possible. Remember our ever-present bane of confirmation bias.