Some Very Funny and Some Very Serious History

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by Neil Godfrey

I don’t mean “ha ha” funny; I mean “something fishy” funny.

I posted not so long ago a biblical scholar’s sophistry in order to effectively erase any difference between a historian’s “facts” and a historian’s “hypothesis”. Clearly not having read even some of the most foundational discussions about the relationship between a historian and his/her facts (e.g. Collingwood, Carr, Elton, Finley, Evans) our biblical scholar argued that it was a “hypothesis”, an “argument”, that Germany invaded Poland in 1939, “justifying” the claim by resorting to theoretical models of probability. Well, the argument sounded good enough for another biblical scholar to write up praise of such an “informative” post and encourage others to read it by bizarrely declaring the post to be a

really . . . great example of the kind of balanced perspective on the matter that is all but universal among mainstream historians and scholars in related fields.

Doing History Fearfully or Intelligently

The same scholar encouraged readers to take in a lesson set out by another blogger, Steve Wiggins, who did have a more serious and saner message than the one confusing real-world facts with arguments and hypotheses. We move on now from the fishy funny and get to something more serious. Wiggins is writing as a believing Christian and the problems such a person faces when trying to recover the original faith as it was first delivered:

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  [The Bible is] a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely. 

That is from a post aptly titled The Problem with History. I have no intention of arguing against Steve’s faith or the dilemma he faces, but what I find interesting is the opposite approach to history, one that I much prefer to embrace, in an article by Philip R. Davies that I read not long ago. (Some readers may recall that a Martin Lewadny offered to post an article for other readers and I am linking to it here: Reading the Bible Intelligently.)

just as no modern expert on Plato is expected to be a Platonist (even of the Middle or Neo-sort), no Bible expert should be expected to accept the ideas it puts forth, far less believe in its god(s) or its divine origin. . . .

The Bible is far too interesting and enjoyable — too important, even — to be left to the religious, who have done as much damage as good with it.

Davies is speaking specifically of the Old Testament but exactly the same point applies for readers of the New Testament:

(there is no need to treat the narrative as historical unless you want to miss the point entirely).

Of the contradictions one finds in the various “historical” narratives Davies says

Again, these separate visions do not argue with each other, but are laid out side by side, inviting — requiring — the reader to discriminate, interrogate, decide on what the perfect society might look like. It is both a more eloquent and a more open presentation than, say, Plato’s Republic: it is, as followers of Bakhtin would declare, dialogic. Thus, its multiple voices demand intervention from the reader. They are not presented as authoritative, even though each comes from the mouth of the same god. They demand to be discussed! . . . 

The Bible is rich in philosophy: only the unintelligent, or those let down by the experts, think that it is merely myth, history, or divine law, or oracles, or sacred poetry.

. . . . it is more comfortable to view the Bible as obsolete mythology or merely as wonderful literature.

Parachuting Before the Plane Takes Off

And one more example of “two ways of doing history”. . . .

In the latest edition of Review of Biblical Literature is a review of Roman Montero’s All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians by Alan Mitchell. The brief extract available to the public says of this work on the history of the earliest church:

Description: All Things in Common gets behind the “communism of the apostles” passages in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37, using the anthropological categories of “social relationship” espoused by David Graeber and other anthropologists. Looking at sources ranging from the Qumran scrolls to the North African apologist Tertullian to the Roman satirist Lucian, All Things in Common reconstructs the economic practices of the early Christians and argues that what is described in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 is a long-term, widespread set of practices that were taken seriously by the early Christians, and that differentiated them significantly from the wider world. This book takes into account Judean and Hellenistic parallels to the early Christian community of goods, as well as the socioeconomic context from which it came, and traces its origins back to the very teachings of Jesus and his declaration of the Jubilee. This book will be of interest to anyone interested in Christian history, and especially the socioeconomic aspects of early Christianity, as well as anyone interested in Christian ethics and New Testament studies. It would also be of interest to anyone interested in possible alternatives to the ideology of capitalism.

Subjects: Bible, New Testament, Acts, Greco-Roman Literature, Early Christian Literature, Literature, Methods, Social-Scientific Approaches, Anthropology, Dead Sea Scrolls

The bolding in the main text is mine.

Now that sounds like a very scientific approach to the historical inquiry. It’s all about getting “behind” the text and seeing what’s “out there”.

Here is another approach to the same data, one found in a chapter in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative, “The Summaries of Acts 2, 4, and 5 and Plato’s Republic” by Rubén R. Dupertuis. Rather than attempting to get into heavy scientific models in order to elicit new “data” from “behind the text”, Dupertuis first analyzes the nature of the text itself. Maybe once having done that there are no grounds for justifying another search “behind” it.

I will suggest below that recent awareness of the widespread practice of literary imitation in the Greco-Roman world with its emphasis on the imitation of models has made difficult the task of making a distinction between the use of a widespread topos or motif and a direct allusion to a specific author or text. Furthermore, I will suggest that the portrayal of the early Christian community in Jerusalem is modeled in part on Plato’s guardians as described in the Republic and related dialogues. . . . .

I suggest that the Luke’s portrait of the early Christian community in the summaries is specifically modeled on Plato’s description of the guardians in the Republic. Reading the summaries in light of his literary model may help explain at least a few the inconsistencies often noted in the section. . . . . 

In light of Luke’s apparent use of the Republic as literary model, these difficulties might be understood as narrative inconsistencies the author sacrificed in order to score more important allusive, theological, and apologetic points. Immediately following the symbolic founding of God’s kingdom on earth, Luke presents the credentials of the leaders of this new polity using the narrative language of Plato’s philosopher-kings.

Bernier, Jonathan. 2019. “Critical Realism and the New Testament: Revision and Dispute.” Critical Realism and the New Testament (blog). January 3, 2019. https://criticalrealismandthenewtestament.blogspot.com/2019/01/revision-and-dispute.html.

Davies, Philip R. 2011. “Reading the Bible Intelligently.” Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception 1 (1): 145–64. https://doi.org/10.11157/rsrr1-1-392.

Dupertuis, Rubén R. 2005. “The Summaries of Acts 2, 4, and 5 and Plato’s Republic.” In Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, edited by et al Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, and Chris Shea, 275–95. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Godfrey, Neil. 2019. “The Poverty of Jesus Historicism (Sorry, Popper).” Vridar (blog). January 7, 2019. https://vridar.org/2019/01/07/the-poverty-of-jesus-historicism-sorry-popper/.

McGrath, James F. 2019. “Jesus, Probably.” Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath (blog). January 19, 2019. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2019/01/jesus-probably.html.

Mitchell, Alan C. 2019. Review of Roman A. Montero, All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early ChristiansReview of Biblical Literature, January. https://www.bookreviews.org/bookdetail.asp?TitleId=12049.

Wiggins, Steve. 2019. “The Problem with History.” Steve A. Wiggins (blog). January 4, 2019. https://steveawiggins.com/2019/01/04/the-problem-with-history/.





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29 thoughts on “Some Very Funny and Some Very Serious History”

  1. Reposting what I wrote for another blogpost in this blog about the same author: “And this is precisely the attitude that one does not want in someone studying the origins of Christianity. How many leads will go unfollowed, how many assumptions will go unquestioned, because the scholar believes that if he/she make a given conclusion damaging to the Christian faith, he/she will spend an eternity in a hell-realm? At least with Buddhism, even those scholars who, through their studies of Buddhist texts, cause a schism in the Sangha (such as Dolpopa) are not considered to go to hell-realms eternally – merely for a very long time.”

  2. Re: “Jesus never wrote anything down”: The following is from Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Penguin 1993), p. 61-62: “The third century church at Edessa claimed as its founder one of the 72 disciples of Jesus named Addai, sent in answer to a letter written to Jesus by King Abgar the Black (c. A.D. 9-46). They could produce Jesus’ reply promising Edessa freedom from conquest. The correspondence between Abgar and Jesus came to be a popular amulet, inscribed on houses to avert evil. (The earliest known example comes from fifth century Asia Minor; copies may still be found in twentieth-century Britain.)” Maybe it’s like all those pieces of the true cross scattered throughout Europe?

        1. How funny. Biblical Scholars like Jim West or Jonathan Bernier who viscerally loathe anyone coming close to tolerance for the Christ Myth theory also heap scorn on Wikipedia.

        2. I’m confused now about the definition of a “conspiracy theory”. Nothing in my thesis has anything to do with any conspiracy or anything even remotely improbable. And furthermore, my thesis isn’t even much different from many such others, like Doherty. Really I see my book as more of just providing additional evidence to support Doherty’s thesis. A core claim of Doherty’s was that Mark was the first Gospel and everything else was copies of it. And the idea that such a claim is preposterous is itself preposterous.

          I mean really, it’s a “conspiracy theory” that the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John were all derived from Mark? Wow, I didn’t know that such a position, held by literally thousands of scholars, was a “conspiracy theory”. All that’s different about people Dhoerty and myself claim is that the first Gospel, Mark isn’t based on history, it’s made up, which is also a claim shared by many other biblical scholars, like Spong.

          The knee-jerk reactions are absurd.

          1. It’s something I’ve learned to live with. People who make those allegations are not interested in engaging with the work but only with turning others away from reading it. It is clear they have never read the work themselves but are hostile towards its reported conclusions. This blog itself was becoming a regular among the top 10 biblioblogs each month so the scholars got together and reclassified the members of the show and cast vridar out as a “conspiracy theory blog”.

            We saw the same sort of thing recently with our guest Roger Pearse. He enthusiastically endorsed books he had not read and condemned others even though he refused to give any example of the nonsense for which he claimed to justify his condemnation. See https://vridar.org/2010/10/27/the-tactics-of-conservative-scholarship-according-to-j-barr-n-p-lemche/

        3. BTW, Tom Dykstra has posted a critical review of Deciphering the Gospels on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R2CQTHP8A0BSCH/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=1483487830

          It’s not a glowing review by any means, and his criticisms are largely valid, but overall he agrees with the thesis of the book. And, frankly, while Carrier is certainly more well known, Dykstra’s assessment carries more weight, at least IMO. I was very impressed with his Mark Canonizer of Paul and he’s a much more neutral observer.

        1. Per Wikipedia policy, Vridar is not “unreliable” per se, but does not fit the policy for citation of a blog in general, i.e. blog material from an expert on the topic of their expertise. Given the unique status of “Christ myth theory” expertise, the Ehrman and Carrier blogs have been accepted to date.

        2. Per Vridar: “not a place where they wanted to direct readers”.

          In regards to Wikipedia policy, AFAIK, directing readers to sites that sell non-expert material for profit or the sites of their “agents” is verboten, e.g. applied to any site that mentions Acharya S or her material.

          NB: Jesus historicity proponents often misrepresent Wikipedia policy, so you have to read the policy yourself.

          1. It might be worth a third party pointing out to them that Richard Carrier has endorsed the “reliability” of this blog and does from time to time link to it himself. See also the commendation from Carrier in the top right margin here.

            The sweeping dismissal of “ridiculously unreliable” without being bothered by any thought of a justification sounds like a Roger Pearse/James McGrath/Tim O’Neill voice.

            1. [Per Joshua Jonathan] There’s a difference between WP:RS and notes. But what makes Godfrey unreliable in regard to his summary of chapter 1 of this book? Joshua Jonathan -Let’s talk! 07:32, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

              [Quote by an anonymous IP contributor] Neil Godfrey and Tim Widowfield, who both write at Vridar . . . happen to be some of the most astute and well-read amateurs you can read on the internet on the subject of biblical historicity. I call them amateurs only for the reason that they don’t have, so far as I know, advanced degrees in the subject. But I have often been impressed with their grasp of logic and analysis of scholarship. I don’t always agree with them, but I respect their work.
              — Richard Carrier, March 2014

              [Per Jeppiz] I agree with Wallingfordtoday, we should probably not include blogs. As for the quote the IP left, it’s a bit beside the point. Someone can be absolutely right without being RS. RS is not necessarily about knowledge. Amateurs writing blogs are not RS, no matter how insightful they might be. Jeppiz (talk) 15:32, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

              [Per Wallingfordtoday] Yep, Jeppiz is right. You can’t include a source because this or that blog written on it is insightful. I’m going to go ahead and remove all references to vridar. Wallingfordtoday (talk) 16:34, 28 January 2019 (UTC)

              1. That’s a post hoc avoidance of the originally stated motive: “ridiculously unreliable”. If genuine, there would be as diligent an effort to remove all blog citations from wikipedia, including all citations pointing to Tim O’Neill’s History for Atheists blog.

                I use software created for academics to organize their sources. That software includes templates not only for books and articles but also for forum posts, newspaper articles, web pages and blogs.

                To claim blogs are not valid sources is to return to the mentality of the pre-internet days of knowledge sharing. Blogs are as valid as web pages in the internet world and at least as valid as wikis — which is the basis of Wikipedia.

                So if I move my posts to a web page they would become citable?

                Are blogs by McGrath, Hurtado, Carrier cited in Wikipedia? Is Tim O’Neill’s History for Atheists or a forum post cited at all? What of John Loftus’s blog?

                A lot of books are garbage; that does not mean books are not citable.

                To target blogs is to target the information carrier, not the content. Consistently targeting technical carriers would mean demolishing wikis for encyclopedia material.

      1. Reverted content per “Christ myth theory: Difference between revisions”. Wikipedia. 28 January 2019.

        [Jesus is being studied by a number of scholarly disciplines, using a variety of textual critical methods.] Since the late 2000s, concerns have been growing about the usefulness of these criteria. According to Keith, the criteria are literary tools, indebted to form criticism, not historiographic tools. They were meant to discern pre-Gospel traditions, not to identify historical facts, but have “substituted the pre-literary tradition with that of the historical Jesus.” According to Le Donne, the usage of such criteria is a form of “positivist historiography.” According to Chris Keith, an alternative to the search for a historical Jesus “posits a historical Jesus who is ultimately unattainable, but can be hypothesized on the basis of the interpretations of the early Christians, and as part of a larger process of accounting for how and why early Christians came to view Jesus in the ways that they did.” According to Keith, “these two models are methodologically and epistemologically incompatible,” calling into question the methods and aim of the first model. Chris Keith and others argue for a “social memory” approach, which states that memories are shaped by socially determined interpretative frameworks, which in turn are shaped by the needs of the present. Any Gospel unit is shaped and interpreted by the ones who remember; the distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic” is therefore useless. Instead of searching for a historical Jesus, scholarship should investigate how the memories of Jesus where shaped, and how they were reshaped “with the aim of cohesion and the self-understanding (identity) of groups.”

        1. The last time I read Le Donne’s discussion on criteria he was saying that despite their faults they were, in effect, the only way to secure a historical Jesus at all. Keith disputed Le Donne’s point but did not explain how or why he has any grounds for thinking that there was a historical Jesus to be remembered. The remembering is supposed to be the evidence, but the force with which he insists that those memories are expressions of church interests and needs of the day leaves him with no way to break his circular reasoning.

          Keith also seems to overstate his point about “the” historical Jesus can only by hypothesized and in reality be “unattainable” — I don’t think there have ever been too many scholars who have said that they can reconstruct the “real” Jesus (maybe apart from apologists). Keith seems to be misrepresenting previous scholarship on this point.

    1. A friend also got banned from reddit’s AcademicBiblical subreddit a couple of days ago for replying to some profoundly anti-mythicist comment-posts by a couple of people, one being a moderator: they told him he was ‘spamming unsourced mythicism nonsense’ which ‘will not be tolerated here’ and accused him of being you, ie. of being rgprice.

  3. Bloody Platon. It’s getting like parallelomania. Everything is not a nail.

    Okay, these numpties at Talk: Christ Myth Theory have done Wikipedia out of the hundred quid I usually bung their way at Christmas. I might find Neil and Tim etc. annoying at times but this carry on is bang out of order.

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