We now come to what I think is Raphael Lataster’s strongest argument yet for being agnostic about the historicity of Jesus. It’s the last part of chapter 6 addressing “problems of Paul”.
Lataster begins by pointing out the well-known divergences between the accounts of Paul and the gospels and what these divergences specifically suggest about the theologically fractious evolution of the Jesus narrative. The argument then moves to what Paul tells us of his relations with followers of Jesus before him, especially James, and the many serious questions his comments raise given the assumption that those followers knew or were even related to an impressive prophetic figure now believed to have ascended to heaven. And that brings the argument to that ever contentious passage in the mythicist-historicist debate, “James, the brother of the Lord”.
Again Lataster’s broader knowledge of religion studies (as distinct from the narrower speciality of New Testament) and the histories of newly developing religions enables him to inform readers of the interesting possibility that biological relationships were created to co-opt pre-existing religious ideas into the new faith. Not that Lataster relies upon mere possibilities. Mainstream biblical scholars — in particular two who are “historicists” — are identified as either disputing the authenticity of the “brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians or (again with Bart Ehrman) at least provide enough caveats to lead one to have doubts about its authenticity. I think Lataster is on more secure ground when he develops the in full the argument for this passage not being original to the epistle than he is when reminding readers (as he also does) of the various arguments that the phrase has a range of meanings, especially in religious contexts, and does not necessarily point to a biological relationship. Many conservative biblical scholars reflexively recoil from suggestions of interpolation but Lataster is correct to point out that this reflex is in the main a product of religious conservatism. When the broader context of the dates and conditions of our manuscripts are considered, along with what is well-known about literary reproductions (including forgeries and theologically driven “redactions”) of the day, then it is only sensible and fair to be open to reasonable arguments for interpolations.
At this point Lataster drives home the biases of too many biblical scholars by demonstrating how even reputable names among them publish citations that simply do not support their assertions at all. One has always to look up and check the sources cited because so often vague passages are taken and assumed to be saying something specific in support of conventional understandings, and those works are subsequently cited by other scholars as having long settled the matter. Scratch the surface, however, and one finds that such assertions and citations and recycled quoting are all based on vague or irrelevant sources. The specific case Lataster refers to is Dan G. McCartney’s assertion that one of the church fathers “simply accepts that James was Jesus’s younger half-brother”, yet the three sources cited do not even mention James; and then James McGrath is cited as confidently appealing to McCartney’s assertion as having established that point. Worse, a biblical scholar is quoted making assertions about the church father’s views that directly contradict the explicitly stated words of that church father in the same paragraph. Such is some of the worst of biblical scholarship engaged in arguments against mythicism that Lataster exposes.
Lataster’s case for interpolation of the “brother of the Lord” passage is strong, being based on the use of the relevant epistle by the church father Tertullian who was using it to attack a view of a heretic that Jesus was not truly human. Tertullian points out that the heretic had problems with other gospel passages asserting Jesus had brothers but fails to drive home to the Paul-loving heretic that Paul himself claimed to have met “the brother of the Lord” — even though he quotes verses either side of that passage.
The only slight lack in Lataster’s argument is when he raises the question of why an interpolator would not make the “brother of the Lord” passage even less potentially ambiguous than it is. He fails to consider a common source of interpolations, a marginal note made by one scribe that confuses a later scribe who incorporates that note into the main text.
Myriads of other difficulties with the historicist view of Jesus are raised in Lataster’s discussion of Paul’s letters, yet these “difficulties” appear to have a quite natural provenance when the evidence is all laid out chronologically.
There are clear and subtle differences between the disparate portrayals of Jesus which leads mythicists to suspect that the story of Jesus had evolved over time; the Gospel writers took Paul’s basic story, placed Jesus in a specific time and place, and added the details. An interesting pattern emerges if the various sources for Jesus are considered diachronically, excluding of course, the vast majority of Ehrman’s innumerable hypothetical sources. First, there are the Pauline (and perhaps other) Epistles. These are potentially followed by sayings collections, such as Q and the Gospel of Thomas. Then comes Mark, the first narrative proper of Jesus of Nazareth. Mark is followed initially by Matthew, then Luke, and eventually by John. Generally, the remaining books of the Bible appear later, as do most of the early Church writings. Let us elaborate.
(Lataster, p. 323)
The evolution of the Jesus narrative is then as clear as the fossil layers point to biological evolution. This is especially so when the intertestamental literature (the immediate context of the New Testament writings) is recognized, given its interest in the Son of man figure, celestial “messiahs” and eschatology. Lataster explores the implications of the Gospel of Mark being a “half-way” text, written as an allegory of Paul’s Christ figure. (Lataster also explores what happens when we remove the miraculous and spiritual elements of the story, leaving no story worth the telling at all, thus suggesting the implausibility of the gospel narratives being elaborations of historical memories.)
A related limitation with conventional biblical studies is its frequent and limiting division between literary and historical approaches to the texts. Lataster writes:
If only the mainstream New Testament specialists were more receptive to the insights, such as intertextuality, of those in related fields. Thompson concurs:
I think a less polemically minded Bart Ehrman would recognize that this project on reiterated narrative, based in an analysis of comparative literature, can only be furthered by one who is familiar with Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern literature. Nevertheless, his crude dismissal of the relevance of inter-disciplinary perspectives undermines my confidence that he understands the problems related to the historicity of a literary figure, except from a historicist – even fundamentalist – perspective.250
250 Thomas L. Thompson. “Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son? A Response to Bart Ehrman,” accessed 04/04/2014, http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/tho368005.shtml.
Finally, Lataster introduces other scholars from the mainstream who are prepared to acknowledge at least the possibility that Jesus was not historical and that a historical Jesus is not necessary to explain the origins of Christianity. Religion itself is never simply about real-world “facts” and there is abundant reason within the New Testament writings and the intertestamental literature from which they emerged to justify at least the question.
Of course, none of that rules out the possibility that there was a historical Jesus; no matter how many issues are found, Jesus’ historical existence will always be possible, even if a hypothetical Pauline letter dated from 35 ce proclaimed the Jesus story a complete fiction. But is it probable? . . .
We simply don’t know that Jesus existed. We should not base our viewpoint on what we’d like to be true but on what we can reasonably conclude from the evidence. If the evidence is not good enough to conclude, either way, then so be it. We ought to be agnostic.
(Lataster, 344, 346)
Lataster, Raphael. 2019. Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse. Leiden: Brill. https://brill.com/abstract/title/54738.
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15 thoughts on “Review part 7: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 2)”
Gut-feel and common sense can be helpful ways to interpret the New Testament. Without wishing to dismiss the position of biblical inerancy and divine inspiration, and I know others will say that I am being insincere, when I “impose” my world view on the question of the historicity of Jesus, it simply makes more sense to me that the Bible was concocted and manipulated, rather than being the gift of God to mankind to lead us into all truth. Hence I am quite open to the possibility that passages about the “brother of the Lord” could well have been inserted later or that the whole story was devised or created to give a certain (false) impression during the hundreds of years between its origin and the translations from which we have the copies.
Having said that, I know others will want to tear apart the concepts of gut-feel and common sense as likely to be uninformed and biased. All I can say is that it’s so hard in today’s western world to believe in the supernatural.
That’s a good thing, isn’t it? 🙂
The hardest deception to detect is self-deception.
It’s a good thing there were only 4 Gospels or there would be even more contradictions with Paul.
Only four? You mean only four voted in gospels don’t you? There are plenty more.
Yeah, it’s interesting how little people address the issue of accidental insertions of notes into ancient manuscripts. As you know, this is what I propose is the way that the works of Josephus were corrupted. I think part of the issue is that Enlightenment era Protestant scholars were quite conspiratorial in their views of Catholicism and many of the criticisms of manuscripts originate in Protestant scholarship, which was quick to propose deliberate Catholic fraud. Thus, the foundational arguments against the authenticity of many passes are rooted in these Protestant diatribes and that tone has tended to carry over to later scholars who see the possibilities only as either that passages are original or that they were intentionally manipulated, though in fact accidental modification was widespread.
Still, I think what really important here is what I address in DtG, which is that it doesn’t really matter what the explanation for the passage is, what really matters is what the other evidence outside of this passage tells us. I make that perhaps even more clear here: http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/james.html
Regardless of how we explain this passage, and we may never exactly know where it came from and what it’s supposed to mean, the fact is that none of the other early sources support the idea that James was a literal brother of Jesus. And, as you’ve pointed out I believe, Bart Ehrman has completely bungled this issue by claiming that ACTS of all things support the idea that James was a brother of Jesus, when in fact the opposite is the case! Ehrman’s claims about Acts are in fact disgraceful. I wish he would have addressed that issue here. Acts is actually one of the strongest pieces of evidence against the idea that James was a brother of Jesus, while Ehrman completely lies about it and claims otherwise (or is so daft that he doesn’t understand it).
Oh, also, what I’m doing in my new book is addressing this issue by looking at the evolution of lore around the Sibyls in particular. I’m using the Sibyls as an example to show how these types of confusions took place and lead to the development of fabricated people. My new book actually doesn’t deal with NT material much at all, I focus most of the attention of non-Christian literature and prophecy. But what the focus of the book is on is basically establishing that the “mythicist case” regarding Jesus has essentially been widely and uncontroversially accepted by classical scholars regarding dozens of other figures and stories from antiquity. So a big part of this book is moving beyond just rehashing discussions about how to parse NT scriptures into a broader understanding of the classical context.
I think the point about the “fossil layers” and the “historicity of a literary figure” are key to the institutional and demotic prejudices. The naive view is that the gospels are historic documents. The view of scholars/intellectuals is that, while the gospels are not exactly historic documents, kernels of history can be gleaned from them by means of (what amounts to) rationalization. An interdisciplinary and intertextual approach, even one limited to gospels both canonical and non-canonical, strongly suggests that Jesus is, in fact, a literary figure. He keeps changing every time you see him, yet he’s always doing magic. I don’t even think you can begin an analysis unless or until you can agree on this one fact. And you probably can’t get that agreement.
“He [Lataster] fails to consider a common source of interpolations, a marginal note made by one scribe that confuses a later scribe who incorporates that note into the main text.” How “common” is this error? Could Lataster have cited likely examples? And, @ r.g.price, are there specific examples in the Sibyl Oracles or Josephus?
I don’t have an example off-hand (though I may dig some up later) but in my old web article I provide some images of old manuscripts that show the use of marginal notes: http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/jesus_myth_history.htm#10
Scroll down till you see them.
I think its easy to see from there how such confusions can arise.
“Gloss” is the technical term that escaped me at the time. They are referenced in texts on manuscript histories (e.g. Metzger, Aland) as part and parcel of the data scholars need to be aware of.
One of the problems of “Paul” is that Paul himself is poorly attested. So much so that there is some conjecture that “Paul” is a made up figure. That doesn’t help, either.
“At this point Lataster drives home the biases of too many biblical scholars by demonstrating how even reputable names among them publish citations that simply do not support their assertions at all. One has always to look up and check the sources cited because so often vague passages are taken and assumed to be saying something specific in support of conventional understandings, and those works are subsequently cited by other scholars as having long settled the matter. Scratch the surface, however, and one finds that such assertions and citations and recycled quoting are all based on vague or irrelevant sources.”
It is pretty alarming to discover the extent one finds oneself repeatedly running into this sort of thing. The work of J. Dominic Crossan on GThomas, where he proclaims descent of one parable or saying from the Synoptics upon the former, even though from the standpoint of narrative features, vocabulary similarity, pericopic form or meaning there is no case for dependency literary or otherwise whatsoever, is about the worst modern example of this I can think of–along with Casey—but it’s all over the older scholarship too e.g. that of R.H. Charles like a bad rash.
OK I break with Latester at the very end: “If the evidence is not good enough to conclude, either way, then so be it. We ought to remain agnostic.” Why?
It is always possible to believe certain things have existed simply because in the past persons once believed they did. But if the current requirement making it so must include my faith in the faith those before me have had, I can’t regard the evidential value of such belief to contain a legitimate possibility the things once believed were true.
If Christ existed as a supernatural being who did things to free the souls of persons who have existed or still exist in history then he had to have himself been part of that history.
The first gospel wasn’t so much an allegory as it was the last history, the end of history.
And since it IS history’s end, there’s a lot of lassitude and leeway left to the imagination to demonstrate just that as the only relevant factuality.
Lataster is trying to coax scholars to adopt an agnosticism viewpoint—the kid gloves should not be taken off at this point.
Lataster writes, “Ehrman should recognise that the middle ground is usually where the most rational views reside, and would also do well to recognise that the Historical Jesus agnostics should actually be paid far more attention than the sometimes ‘extreme’ mythicists” and further “Ehrman appears to set up a false dichotomy, a black or white scenario, as many Christian believers do in arguing over God’s existence and other Christian claims, with no reasonable middle ground.”
re “If Christ existed as a supernatural being who did things to free the souls of persons who have existed or still exist in history then he had to have himself been part of that history”, – if Christ was a supernatural being, he wouldn’t have existed as such: he would have been a literary figure, and the influence on persons who have existed (or still exist) would be through perceptions of the narratives of that figure.