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Current Debate Jesus Agnosticism/Mythicism – Raphael Lataster and James McGrath

The Bible and Interpretation website has published an article by Raphael Lataster discussing his book (published by Brill) Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse.

Some excerpts:

Now, within five years of each other, there are two comprehensive academic monographs arguing the other way. Those wanting to know why we ought to accept the Historical Jesus’ historicity generally have to make do, if they do not directly engage with the sources themselves, with the specialist scholars merely asserting their opinions, and some popular books, like those recent ones from Ehrman and Casey.

On Bart Ehrman’s attempt to address the Christ Myth hypothesis:

Apart from his use of hypothetical sources, Ehrman highlights two key points that apparently make Jesus’ existence a sure bet. The first is Paul’s relationships with Peter and James, who surely knew a historical Jesus. The big problem is that we know of this from later documents. Ehrman and other scholars read the later documents into the earlier Epistles. Reading the Epistles without Gospel-tainted glasses will lead to some intriguing possibilities, as we shall soon see. There are other problems, too, such as the general unreliability of the Epistles (just as with the Gospels), and the fact that such passages were tampered with (as Ehrman himself published on; see his The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 238-239).

The second is that Jews would apparently never invent a suffering Messiah. This is utter nonsense. Ehrman is wrong in principle and in fact.

On Maurice Casey’s follow up diatribe:

Casey outright admits, like so many theologians and cryptotheologians, that “the criteria reasonably used by historians writing about important political figures such as Julius Caesar need modification in dealing with the historicity of Jesus” (p. 66). No Casey, you do not get to alter the rules of what is historically probable because you know that your evidence simply isn’t good enough. The other great innovation that Casey brought to the debate is the radically early dating of the Gospels, almost laughably unjustified, as well as the identification of the earliest Gospel writer.

Raphael Lataster follows with a summary of his case for “agnosticism and an alternative hypothesis”:

Thinking of early Christianity in this way address a lot of the problems with the state of the evidence. . . . [T]he Gospels are simply allegorisations of the earlier teachings, something that scholars are increasingly accepting. Did earlier Jews believe in such Celestial Messiahs? Yes! One need only turn to the fairly recently discovered intertestamental texts, to see that there were Jews who expected a Celestial Messiah who would bring abut somewhat of a spiritual victory . . . .

Interestingly, these ideas are gaining ground. Scholars in fields related to New Testament are increasingly adopting agnostic views about Jesus. Even within the field, there are scholars willing to be agnostic or sympathetic to agnosticism. I fully expect that a torrent of abuse will come my way. Though I expect that, like the Old Testament minimalists, I, and the few like me, will eventually be vindicated, fairly quickly. Even in the early years of my career, the likes of Brill, Springer, Cambridge, and Oxford are seeing the value in my research. And I see many younger New Testament scholars asking more questions about the reliability of the extant sources and oral transmission and memory. The time is ripe for change.

Very quickly a reply from James McGrath followed: Exorcising Mythicism’s Sky-Demons: A Response to Raphael Lataster’s “Questioning Jesus’ Historicity.”

You will have to read McGrath’s article for yourself lest you think any criticism I make will be an expression of personal bias. As for substantial argument McGrath falls back on Paul’s letters as the primary evidence for the historicity of Jesus without realizing that in doing so he is simply repeating the very methodological problem Lataster pointed out with this approach: it relies on interpreting Paul through much later sources like the gospels. McGrath fails to comment on the fact that the scholars he is defending against Lataster’s criticism – Ehrman and Casey – reject McGrath’s own reliance upon the epistles as the bedrock evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

The general point of McGrath’s response can best be summed up by the following . . .

Indeed, Lataster’s article consists of rhetorical ploys, insults, and insinuations far more than substantive argument, and it is thus not only appropriate but necessary to look closely at what is being said and how it is being conveyed.

Lataster resembles other prominent mythicists in his use of insult and denigration in place of argument.

. . . he is not taking the discussion at all seriously or approaching it in an appropriate academic manner.

Lataster simply does not grasp what scholarship entails at its most fundamental level, or is simply happy to engage in misrepresentation and flights of fancy if doing so seems to support his preferred ideology.

But you be the judge.

B&I posted a response by Lataster to McGrath’s article, When Critics Miss the Point About Questioning Jesus’ Historicity

Given the amount of errors McGrath makes in his response, I decided to respond, and the The Bible and Interpretation team have kindly allowed this.

Firstly, I wish to leave the rhetoric to one side. It is often unfair, and leads to unending accusations about the ‘other side’ being more polemical and many misinterpretations . . . .

and concludes with

Carrier published his academic book in 2014 and I have published mine in 2019. We are still waiting for a proper refutation of my case for agnosticism and his more ambitious case for outright mythicism. I suspect that this will never occur, because ‘at least agnosticism’ is very sensible. The sources are terrible, with the best ones being anonymous, and portraying a character reminiscent of earlier non-existent figures. The Celestial Jesus theory also seems increasingly plausible, given all we are now learning about early Christian diversity and pre-Christian Judaisms, with all their varied views about celestial beings and the Messiah. Hopefully, like Davies, Avalos, and Crossley, more scholars of the New Testament will eventually come to admit that nothing like a case for certainty about Jesus’ historical existence can be offered, and that questioning Jesus’ historicity is very reasonable indeed.

We shall see.