2019-09-23

Review part 2: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster – Some Definitions

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by Neil Godfrey

Definitions, a necessary complement to the previous post and clarification for future posts. . . .

Raphael Lataster asserts that he is “not a mythicist per se”, with the term “mythicist” meaning, in this context, “the view that Jesus did not exist.”  He explains,

I do not assert that Jesus did not exist. I am a Historical Jesus agnostic. That is, I am unconvinced by the case for the Historical Jesus, and find several reasons to be doubtful. (pp. 2 f)

Lataster compares the term “mythicist” with “strong atheist” and “hard naturalist” and the term “historicist” with “theist”. The “historical Jesus agnostic” is compared with the “God agnostic”.

I understand the comparisons but feel they do not sit comfortably with those mythicists who have continued to hold fast to their Christianity.

Lastaster proposes a third term, “ahistoricist“,

to encompass both the ardent ‘mythicists’ and the less certain ‘agnostics’. This avoids the false dichotomy, which I think historicists (much like theists) have been taking advantage of. They often frame the debate as only being between the right and the wrong, the reasonable and righteous historicists versus the silly mythicists, ironically appearing as unnuanced and dogmatic fundamentalists in the process. With my proposed terminology, it shall become much more transparent that there are many more scholars that question Jesus’ historicity than is typically thought; that this is not such a silly idea. (p. 3)

I can say that I find the evidence for a historical Jesus to be inadequate and conclude that there is no need to postulate a historical Jesus to explain the letters and gospels and origins of Christianity. In that sense I could call myself a mythicist, but my position would be tentative. I would remain open to new evidence and insights emerging to change my mind. That sounds the simplest and most “scholarly” approach to me, but I have to admit that terms have long been charged with prejudicial associations and for many people the term “mythicist” implies an unnecessary dogmatism. Or would Lataster’s definition make me an “agnostic” — one who does not believe in the historicity of Jesus until further evidence or insights are presented? So I can understand Lataster’s point. Except that scholars like Thomas Brodie — who are Christians who believe Jesus was not a literal historical person — would surely prefer a comparison that did not carry associations with atheism. I suspect liberal Christians who are atheists yet believe in a historical Jesus likewise would not fit comfortably into the comparison. The world is a complex place and the making of definitions is often hard.

Raphael Lataster introduces yet another term, the Celestial Jesus. This is the Jesus of Paul, Lataster explains (p. 13). It appears to me that Lataster is following Richard Carrier at this point. Carrier’s definition of a “minimal Jesus myth” consists of the following five points:

  1. At the origin of Christianity, Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity much like any other.

  2. Like many other celestial deities, this Jesus ‘communicated’ with his subjects only through dreams, visions and other forms of divine inspiration (such as prophecy, past and present).

  3. Like some other celestial deities, this Jesus was originally believed to have endured an ordeal of incarnation, death, burial and resurrection in a supernatural realm.

  4. As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which placed him on earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an earthly depiction of his ordeals.

  5. Subsequent communities of worshipers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only ‘additionally’ allegorical).

(Carrier, p. 53)

Lataster writes

[W]e can refer to the Biblical Jesus, or more specifically, the Gospel Jesus, as the general version of Jesus portrayed in the Gospels and held dear by believers, while the Celestial Jesus refers to the possible early Christian view of a Jesus that did not appear on Earth, as portrayed in the Pauline Epistles. (p. 13)

I fear the terms “mythicists” or “ahistoricists” may run into difficulties up ahead with such a foundation. Though Earl Doherty (whom Carrier follows), and before him, independently, Paul-Louis Couchoud, postulated a Pauline Jesus who was entirely “celestial”, Paul’s letters can be read differently. As Roger Parvus has shown, it is possible that Paul’s letters allow room for a Jesus who came to earth for a short time in order to be crucified.

Another “mythicist” option is also plausible: it is not inconceivable that Paul’s “crucified Christ” was preached in opposition to another Christ, a conquering Christ, as per the Book of Revelation, a Christ who was at no point crucified — according to Couchoud’s thesis (see “The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity” by P. L. Couchoud at vridar.info).

Carrier is following Earl Doherty’s thesis at this point, yet despite Doherty’s monumental contribution to raising public awareness of the question of Jesus’ historicity, I do not think that a “celestial Jesus” is a satisfactory notion of an equivalent to a “mythicist” Jesus. To express the point in its crudest terms, myths do not have to be restricted to “celestial realms”. And in the case of the “Jesus myth” idea we do have other options. Other “Jesus myth theories” have postulated a narrative arising in B.C.E. times, in particular around the time of Alexander Jannaus who is on record as having crucified 800 (mostly) Pharisees.

For the sake of compatability and consistency with Raphael Lataster’s discussion, I will try to keep in mind the need to refer to “mythicism” as the more inclusive “ahistoricism“.

The Gospel Jesus

The Gospel Jesus is evidently a figure crafted from a wide range of literary sources. The question for the study of Christian origins is Who/What gave rise to those gospel narratives? Somewhere along the line the Pauline notions gained dominance, although through the second century certain powers found opportunity to forge new concepts in his name. But before that time there were others with quite different notions of “Jesus” — one who had been slain in heaven, another who had been crucified by Herod (not Pilate), and one who had in the meantime descended into a place below the earth in order to release lost souls.

Any definition of a Jesus who is an alternative to a “historical figure” ideally should allow for all such apparent notions of “Jesus”, and more.

We will move on and next look at Raphael Lataster’s analysis of Bart Ehrman’s argument against the “ahistoricist” view and for the “historicist” Jesus.

 


Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Lataster, Raphael. 2019. Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse. Leiden: Brill.

 

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Neil Godfrey

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12 Comments

  • Peter Grullemans
    2019-09-23 11:49:13 GMT+0000 - 11:49 | Permalink

    I think if we asked Raphael, he’d say that Christians do not believe in a historical Jesus, because they believe in the Jesus of faith. That’s the impression I get, and I don’t think it’s a helpful view to take to bring people together. I think it’s more helpful to understand that to Christians, the Jesus of faith and the historical Jesus are the same. Also that if you believe in a historical Jesus then you must be in one of two camps, either that this man was a mere mortal like us, or that he was somehow of supernatural origin. When I was a Christian I was in the latter camp. To be born again, for many of us, changes our perspective dramatically and suddenly. It’s like ripping a band-aid off a hairy sensitive area to allow the would to heal. To be deconverted is the opposite, it’s like being starved of oxygen until you get sleepy, snooze and wake up very slowly from the dream, to be able to apply the lessons you learned in your dream to real life situations. I don’t want to criticise all those beautiful people I met in my dream, they are like me, with real needs and feelings and they have reasons for believing what they do. It’s great meeting them down the road after many years to share how our dreams have developed and if they think they’ve woken up, are waking up or still in the magic world of faith.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-09-23 18:56:32 GMT+0000 - 18:56 | Permalink

      Yeh, I also recall it felt like I had been living in a fairy tale world for so long. Finally woke up and entered reality.

  • James Barlow
    2019-09-23 12:03:21 GMT+0000 - 12:03 | Permalink

    It’s easy to forget how much distance there may have been between the original apostles and the following generation of theological arbiters, whose relation to the original progenitors was sketchy at best.

  • 2019-09-23 16:07:02 GMT+0000 - 16:07 | Permalink

    I tend to agree with you Neil. I myself have never been very comfortable with the term “mythicist” either. It does have baggage, and it doesn’t necessarily convey the complexity of what may have happened. I only use it no because of its widespread recognition, but I often put it in quotes.

    I also don’t think that we need to come up with an exact explanation of how Jesus worship developed in order to show that the preponderance of evidence indicates that Jesus wasn’t a real person.

    While there may be some people who claim to be Christians and to accept that Jesus wasn’t a real person, I find this fairly amusing. In truth, the case for Christianity rests on the historical literal truth of the Gospel narratives. It’s plain to see that the case for why Christianity was true in exclusion of the rest of other religions was based entirely on arguments derived from the Gospels. The Gospels were always the evidence that “proved” Jesus was a real divine savior and that all others were imposers. Without the Gospels being literally true, there just really isn’t any case to be made as to why Christianity should still be seen as an exclusively true religion.

    So, while I appreciate the scholarship of “Spiritual Christians”, I find the idea of actually believing in a spiritual Jesus as the savior of the world quite nonsensical. As I understand it, for example, Robert M. Price does not fall into this camp. My understanding of RMP is that he’s more of an atheist who still finds merit and and beauty in Christian theology and ritual, even though he doesn’t literally believe in it. I can agree with that.

    As to whether Jesus was purely celestial or not, I agree that issue is of lesser significance. I think the real issue is that the earliest Jesus of worship, the Jesus of Paul, was a figure that was “revealed through scriptural divination.” As to the nature of that figure, that may be difficult to pin down, but the point is that the figure of Jesus same not from some person named Jesus, but from interpretations of the Jewish scriptures, that’s the main point. It’s certainly possible that within that context, some subgroups described a purely celestial figure and others described and early being, but in any event, all of the descriptions came from scripture.

    And what I’m focusing on now a lot in my research is the role of millenarianism in the rise of the cult. As it turns out, the year 44 was a sort of height of millenarianism within the Roman world. This looks a lot like the time that Paul started his efforts.

    The interesting thing about this that the Romans saw the new era as the end of Roman rule. Indeed the Etruscan priests at the head of Roman religion were in a frenzy of predictions about the end of Roman rule around this time. At Qumran what we see is Jews taking the opposite side of that coin. Jews saw the new era as their time. Roman rule was going to end as Jews would become the new world power, ruled by the Priestly Messiah. The War Scroll from Qumran talk specifically about how this would all happen with the war of Armageddon.

    The Paul comes along, and what does Paul do? He tells the Gentiles (the Romans) that instead of the new era being one where Romans would lose power and the Jews would dominate, the new era was going to be the final era, where the whole world would be destroyed and all people who believed in the Jewish messiah would be reborn in a new heavenly kingdom, free from the strife of the material world.

    This is where Paul, I believe, was in conflict with James and the others. James and the others were preaching more along the lines of what we see at Qumran. They were preaching a Jesus who would punish the Romans and bring about Jewish salvation.

    And who is Jesus? Jesus is Joshua. There were several cults of Joshua in the first century that believed Joshua would return and be the messiah who would lead the Jews into the new era. Jesus is just a re-interpreted version of an eternal heavenly Joshua, much like Enoch and Melchizedek had been re-interpreted as eternal heavenly beings.

    I think what happened was that in the 40s CE, during the height of millenarianism, this Joshua cult sprung up and Paul glommed on to it and claimed to have had visions of the resurrection and developed a line of theology that appealed to the people who thought they were going to be on the bad end of the new era, giving them a way to hitch their wagon to the new savior. (The prophecies were that a powerful “race of men” would fall and a “race” that was oppressed would rise to power).

    Then, when the First Jewish-Roman War happened and the Jews were decimated, the Gospel of Mark was written as a sort of statement against the Jews who had believed, like those at Qumran and, I argue, James and his crew, that the new era would be one of Jewish supremacy.

    I’m still working out all the details, but this is how I currently see things. And, the issue is that this is far more in line with real history than the widely accepted concept of Christian origins, which really requires a bunch of special pleading about this super-unique guy named Jesus who sits apart from the rest of history and defies traditional analysis, understanding, and who breaks all the standards and rules of the time.

    • Peter Grullemans
      2019-09-24 01:06:03 GMT+0000 - 01:06 | Permalink

      I want to give all you guys a hug as we are left puzzling and smiling about the lead character in the gospel story. Ideas that affect our view on our eternal destiny are bound to be sensitive and as diverse as our personalities. I would like to call myself a Christian as RM Price still does, but cannot yet fathom how. By the way, RMP is “Bob”, but RG, are you also a Bob or a Richard so we can simplify the comparison ?
      .
      Trying to stay to the original post, yes thanks Neil, I think that while it is important to be semantically correct in the context of R Lataster’s ideas, my persuasion is that we may never know the historical truth about the Gospel story (as RMP often says), unless some world shattering events cause the Vatican to be invaded, its secret library(ies) impounded and exposed and their leaders interrogated. The historical knowledge based on the true records that we have so far is probably less than the tip of the iceberg.
      .
      For the past three hundred years it seems that we are still on a journey of discovering what is probably not true. Let’s accept that and be lighthearted and united about what is true. While we accuse Christians of being biased because of the cognitive dissonance that results from their view based on faith vs reason, let’s keep our own personal backgrounds in perspective.
      .
      I hope we have the debate between Lataster and Dickson in Australia, on the subject of the reliabaility of the gospels or the historical existence of the Jesus of the Gospels. I will encourage it through my friends at Macquarie Uni’s religious history section. It would be a sort of RMP vs Ehrman debate in the US.

  • db
    2019-09-23 16:51:30 GMT+0000 - 16:51 | Permalink

    OP: “Carrier is following Earl Doherty’s thesis at this point”

    Doherty’s position on “Q source” is outdated, it is apparent and simpler that Matthew, Luke, and John are not separate independent sources as Bart Ehrman claims. But are embellished redactions of Mark (the first story/narrative of Jesus), there is no need for a hypothetical “Q source” anymore. Mark Goodacre is the leading scholar on this position, see his blog post “How similar are the Synoptics, and how do we represent it?” @ https://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2019/05/how-similar-are-synoptics-and-how-do-we.html

    Which I commented to Jerry Coyne, who plans on reading Doherty’s work (1999 apparently?) @ https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2019/09/22/what-are-we-reading/#comment-1772966

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-09-23 19:08:05 GMT+0000 - 19:08 | Permalink

      This comment belongs somewhere else; the quote is not from this post. But the quote was referring to the notion of the celestial Jesus, not Q.

      As for Doherty’s position being “outdated”, I would be very surprised if a majority of biblical scholars today embrace Mark Goodacre’s arguments. (Maybe Mark G can correct us on the extent to which his views have been accepted.)

      As for Bart Ehrman’s view, he does not suggest that Matthew and Luke are independent sources but acknowledges the universal view that they are both dependent upon Mark; and a good number of scholars likewise see relationships of various kinds between John and the synoptics. What are “separate independent sources” in Ehrman’s view are the hypothetical sources for Matthew, Luke and John. Mark is a “real” source, but the common view is that Matthew also had M and Luke L sources and it was M and L that were “separate independent sources”.

      I actually find myself in the strange position of sometimes defending arguments for Q even though I personally prefer the Farrer-Goulder thesis being developed and promoted by Goodacre. The reason is the arguments for Q are not simplistic or naive, but often quite detailed and complex and worked out over many years. I cringe when I hear some people scoff at Q as if it is an idiotic theory, or even “a lie”.

      • db
        2019-09-23 21:29:54 GMT+0000 - 21:29 | Permalink

        Without getting the lawyers involved, Ehrman’s characterization of Matthew and Luke as “partially independent”, translates to independent attestation for the historicity of Jesus.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2019-09-23 19:10:43 GMT+0000 - 19:10 | Permalink

    Guys, rg and db, can you please keep your comments relevant to the posts. Comments that become predictable and regularly lengthy and on side-issues, I suspect, are glossed over, left unread, by most.

  • Al Cannistraro
    2019-09-24 15:18:22 GMT+0000 - 15:18 | Permalink

    Neil referred to “scholars like Thomas Brodie — who are Christians who believe Jesus was not a literal historical person.”

    I’m wondering who some of the other scholars might be. I’m not a scholar, so I know only of Brodie, and I think of him as being sui generis. I also wonder if Brodie sees himself as part of a class of scholars who are Christian believers in some sense yet openly admit they believe Jesus to be ahistorical.

    • db
      2019-09-24 18:30:31 GMT+0000 - 18:30 | Permalink

      Godfrey, Neil (4 July 2019). “Religion Prof Watch (Quote Mining a Review on Nazareth)”. Vridar.

      <

      blockquote>

      One interesting detail in McGrath’s post — he writes of “mythicists”:

      All of them have an anti-religious bent, whether it be Communist or modern online atheist opposition to religion in general . . .

      Now that is simply not true. Thomas Brodie? Timothy Freke? Peter Gandy? Herman Detering? Paul-Louis Couchoud? Arthur Drews? Tom Harpur? Robert M. Price? Edward van der Kaaij? Francesco Carotta? Even René Salm . . . .  from what I see they have all sought to promote what they consider to be a higher form of spirituality or religiosity than anything that relies upon literalist dogmatism.

      <

      blockquote>

    • Pofarmer
      2019-09-25 23:22:53 GMT+0000 - 23:22 | Permalink

      Tom Harpur would be another one.

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