Search Results for: pz myers tim


2018-09-30

PZ Myers on “the Tim O’Neill Treatment”: Jesus Mythicism and Historical Methods

by Neil Godfrey

PZ Myers has responded to some points by Tim O’Neill about the question of the historicity of Jesus and historical methods — Uh-oh. I get the Tim O’Neill treatment — and I cannot help but adding my own sideline remarks here. Perhaps it’s because I have only just a few hours ago completed a fascinating book by a French scholar that I did not know when I started reading would come to the conclusion that Christianity did not begin with a historical Jesus. But most interestingly his argument for Christian origins was commended as worthy of study by none other than Jacob Neusner. (I will be posting about his work soon.) I have not read Tim O’Neil’s post, only PZ’s, so it’s only a few points raised by the latter that I cover here.

PZ quotes and discusses the following passage from Tim’s post:

The problem is that the whole of Mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition – that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed – which has no sound evidential foundation. And Occam’s Razor makes short work of this kind of idea.

This is how the Principle of Parsimony applies to the question. It is not merely that, as Myers seems to think, the idea of a single person as the point of origin is “simple” therefore it is most likely. It is that the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect and all of the alternative explanations for how this could be is based on a weak foundational supposition which can, in turn, only be sustained by contorted readings of the texts which are also propped up by still more suppositions.

On the first paragraph, I am not sure that it is correct to charge that “mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition — that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed.” Several mythicists authors I have cited certainly came to that conclusion through an analysis of the evidence but I don’t know which mythicist authors Tim has in mind whom he believes “base their supposition” on the existence of a form of early Christianity that lacked an idea of a historical Jesus.

The second paragraph, however, is indeed problematic and points to some confusion about the nature of many mythicist arguments and methods.

No, it is simply not the case that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin”. I don’t know that any critical scholar (I am not speaking of apologists) who would say that the four canonical gospels depict a historical preacher. My understanding from reading a good many of them is that they concur that the Jesus of the gospels is a mythical or theological construct. He is certainly not a historical figure. Indeed, they argue that they must look behind the gospels and into inferences about the sources of the gospels to try to find a historical figure who acted more in accord with our understanding of how the world works.

Even most of the letters of Paul posit a Jesus and crucifixion as theological (not historical) constructs. Paul never attempts to “prove historically” that Jesus existed or was crucified. There is a passage (said to be partly inauthentic by some researchers) where he attempts to prove the resurrection by naming persons the readers are supposed to recognize as eyewitnesses. But only apologists would take his testimony as serious historical evidence for the resurrection. Others have argued that there is some kernel of truth behind Paul’s claims about the witnesses to the resurrection in that disciples had visions or became inwardly convicted, etc. But you see the problem for the historian here — we are moving away from the evidence and changing it to say something it doesn’t actually say so that it fits our preconceived model of Christian origins.

So we are reminded of a point that several ancient historians have made when addressing sound methods and that I narrowed down to just one quotation in a post a few months ago. Philosopher of history Aviezer Tucker was addressing the question of whether or not something (in this case a miracle) in the gospels really happened. He explains:

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

Tucker, p. 99

And that hits the nail squarely on the head.

Tim O’Neill appears to be repeating the argument for the conventional wisdom among biblical scholars that is based on a naive reading of the sources: that we should assume they are just as they appear — “biographies”, however exaggerated, of a historical figure. But Tucker is saying that this approach begs the questions. The historian’s first task is to understand why the gospel narratives were written. It is a mistake to simply assume that though they are about a mythical or theological figure and persons who behave most unlike real persons we know from history (even Pilate is depicted as very unlike his portrayal elsewhere) they must nonetheless have originated in history and transmitted through oral retellings until set down by the evangelists. To make that assumption is to sweep aside much scholarship that has indeed suggested other sources for many of the narratives in those gospels, and to sweep aside critical scholarship that has indeed questioned the biographical nature of the gospels. (And there remains the question of how ancient biographies worked anyway since not all of them, despite appearances, are really about historical figures.)

One prominent Old Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, Philip R. Davies, who was a pioneer of what became known derogatorily as “minimalism” in Old Testament studies — a movement that has continued to gain momentum since the 1990s and many of whose views are now mainstream — wrote the following in one of his last publications:

I … have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . .

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.

The ‘minimalist’ approach he was referring to is nothing other than the way ancient historians (at least the scholarly reputable ones such as Moses I. Finley) work with evidence in fields other than biblical studies. I outlined his starting assumptions and questions on a webpage, In Search of Ancient Israel. I copied the main points of his discussion about faulty assumptions we bring to our reading of the biblical narratives in a blog post, too. Essentially, Davies and those who approached the history of “biblical Israel” in the same way argued that the biblical narratives must not be assumed to be based on historical events, but that such an assumption needs to be tested against other independent data. Archaeological data is not going to help us settle the question of the historicity of Jesus but one can compare other independent texts. Such a comparison will not exclude a comparison with other Greco-Roman literature in order to gain a deeper appreciation for the nature and potential purposes of the gospels. Some biblical scholars have ventured into such comparisons but some have also done so tendentiously. That’s another question that biblical scholars themselves are debating and that needs another post for a thorough treatment.

Here’s how another scholar put it:

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

(Magne, p. 23)

That’s just another way of saying what Aviezer Tucker said:

But this [did this story happen?] is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

And when a scholar sees that the evidence points to the gospels not being more widely known until well into the second century, and that by that time they had been heavily redacted, and that their narratives are clearly influenced by comparable stories in the Jewish Scriptures, and that at key points in their narratives they even appear to be deliberately targeting pre-existing beliefs that their narrative is not grounded in historical memory at all, then that scholar has a challenge ahead.

One more point. I have been attempting to get some handle on the nature of religion itself according to current anthropological and related studies. It has been a fascinating study. One point that has stood out for me is that models of how new religions start or how sects break off from mainstream religions to promote their own rituals and identities is just how infrequently such developments can be attributed simply to the appearance of a charismatic stand-alone figure who becomes the object of worship and co-creator of the universe, and how unreliable mythical explanations for the origins of their rituals and practices ever are.

As PZ Myers rightly points out, it means nothing to an atheist whether or not Jesus existed historically. (Unless the atheist is one of those idiots who likes to just pose nonsense criticisms for the sake of mocking alone.) But grappling with the evidence itself and attempting to assess it with clear-eyed and sound methods is a fascinating exploration.

 


Davies, Philip R. 2012. “Did Jesus Exist?” The Bible and Interpretation. August 2012. http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/dav368029.shtml.

Davies, Philip R. 1992. In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.

Finley, M. I. 1999. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. ACLS History E-Book Project.

Kosso, Peter. 2001. Knowing the Past: Philosophical Issues of History and Archaeology. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

Magne, Jean. 1993. From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Pr.

Tucker, Aviezer. 2009. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Reissue edition. Cambridge University Press.

See also posts archived under Ancient Historians, Ancient History and Greco-Roman Biography


 


2018-10-20

A constructive exchange with Tim O’Neill on the question of the historicity of Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

Tim O’Neill has given up much of his time to write a detailed post (over 8,700 words) as a guide for non-historians to find their way through the mass of nonsense on the web about Jesus never having existed.

Tim is responding to posts by biologist PZ Myers who is asking questions of a “professional historian” (with a degree from Cambridge, Tim stresses), Eddie Marcus. In this post I address his references to historical methods and to the question of the power (or not) of Christian bias. (Maybe another day when I am at a loose end and looking for another idle time-filler I’ll address the second part of Tim’s post.)

Do ancient historians rely upon late sources?

Early in his post Tim laments the way some listeners of Eddie Marcus’s discussion seemed to pre-judge what he was saying and miss his point. (As with my previous post I will try to replace the original unhelpful language with more neutral or constructive phrasing — italics and square brackets.)

One [commenter], “weylguy”, [wrote] “I stopped watching the video around the 3:00 mark, when the ‘historian’ claimed that the New Testament is “wonderful evidence.’” If “weylguy” had [listened] a few seconds more, he would have heard Marcus explain that the gospels are great evidence for what the communities of believers they were written for believed about Jesus, not [that] they were necessarily evidence about the historical figure of Jesus.

I think Tim is being overly generous to Eddie here and that weylguy’s comment was not so far removed from Eddie’s meaning.

Eddie Marcus is stating over and over how he would love to have such evidence for the subjects he studies and he is not talking about the study of an obscure community of Christians around 100 CE. He is obviously talking about the evidence we have for the study of Jesus Christ as a historical person. He explains that the beliefs of that late community are “best explained” by the “fact” of the historicity of Jesus and clearly wants listeners to believe that those gospels are indeed therefore “very good” evidence, even “enviable evidence”, for Jesus’ existence. (Mythicists themselves say the gospels are “good evidence” for what the later communities believed. But we find here another assumption creeping in and determining the argument’s conclusion: the Jesus and other characters in the earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, are so “unrealistic” and evidently very often theological ciphers that we cannot presume their original readers understood them as historical anyway.)

Listen to the video around that 3 minute mark to check this out for yourself.

Further, I know of no study of ancient history that does not stress the absolute importance of contemporary sources (not ones a generation or more later). Yes, many of our surviving historical documents are from much later times but the sources the historians rely upon are those in which they can find a reliance upon sources, usually identified and testable in some way, that do go back to the times being narrated. See, for example, Comparing Sources for Alexander and Jesus; also The evidence of ancient historians.

Little informed discussion of how historical method works

Tim continues: read more »


2018-09-11

How a historian approaches the question of the historical Jesus: concluding the PZ and Eddie Marcus discussion

by Neil Godfrey

Previous posts:

  1. PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism (2018-09-05)
  2. How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional? (2018-09-06)
  3. How do we approach the question of Jesus being historical or mythical? (2018-09-07)

I have as a rule paraphrased main points that each person spoke in their exchange.

–o–

PZ: You (Eddie) say it is unlikely that anyone would conspire to create a Jesus myth, but compare Mormonism. Joseph Smith invented this “ridiculous past history for the North American continent”. And people believe this.

Eddie: It’s not a question of what people believe. We have to account for the evidence. History of Mormonism would start with historical techniques. So it would start with a real Joseph Smith. And using the tools of history we can analyse the Book of Mormon itself and identify disparate sources and influences.

Comment: I think Eddie has missed PZ’s point here.

–o–

PZ: We can do all of that, yes, but that does not give any credence at all to the mythology that was created and believed.

Eddie: Let’s look at what a historian means by “the historical Jesus”.

— The earliest accounts of Jesus are Paul’s writings. Paul believed “the historical figure of Jesus” becomes Christ, the Messiah, at his death or resurrection.

— Then the gospel writers thought there had to be something more to this Jesus before his death so they created the gospels.

— Mark says it (becomes the Messiah) happened at Jesus’ baptism.

— Then others said it (Messiahship) happened at his virgin birth.

— Then John pushed him right back to the beginning of time/creation.

Such is a linear presentation but in actual fact it would not have been so tidy; rather it would have been different community groups arguing with one another.

The point of this is to split the historical Jesus from the figure of Christ.

So we can account for why we have a virgin birth, using standard historical techniques. It is naive to say that a miracle could not happen so there was no historical person behind the stories. It’s part of an ongoing discussion about at what point Jesus becomes the Messiah.

Comment: Technical point. In Romans 1 Paul writes that Jesus became the son of God at his resurrection, not the messiah or christ then. Same with the gospel writers shifting the moment back further, to baptism, to birth, to the beginning of time. What they were shifting back was when Jesus became the son of God, not messiah.

I take Eddie to be meaning that we can explain why miraculous or mythical stories emerged by means of rival interests and search for deeper meanings etc among the communities following Jesus. He appears to be saying that this is how historians “find” the historical Jesus. They package their historical explanations for the miraculous tales as a narrative and this is the evidence for the historical Jesus. At least this certainly appears to be Eddie’s message later in the discussion.

To say that the narrative itself is “the evidence” sounds a bit like one of the less conservative postmodernist views of what constitutes history. My readings about history and how history is done by historians thankfully assure me that not all historians accept this view.

–o–

PZ: So there could probably be a kernel of truth there but the communities were adding layers of myth to the story.

Eddie: The gospel writers added the myths because of what they meant to convey (though they may have also believed they really happened) — e.g. virgin birth. But that doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t really born.

PZ: Granted all of that. But where did the mythmaking start and end, and where was the reality? read more »


2018-09-05

PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism

by Neil Godfrey

PZ Myers of Pharyngula has posted an interview with a historian in order to discuss The ontology of historical figures — with a particular view to the question of this historicity of Jesus.

I intend to post a critical commentary on the remarks by the historian, Eddie Marcus (I think that was the name but correct me if I misheard). Marcus may be a specialist in Australian history (again, correct me if I misheard — I will need to listen a second time as I do my review posts) and was clearly out of his depth when it came to knowledge of the breadth and depth of scholarship relating to Christian origins. Most frustrating for me was his failure to clearly conceptualize the questions, regularly slipping in and out of references to “evidence” and the assumption that the narrative characters had a historical origin == question begging in other words.

One detail I will mention here before I start …..

PZ Myers asks the very valid question: how do historians deal with now-lost oral traditions? And right there, at the very start, we are faced with the depth in which our cultural assumptions and the question itself are so difficult to view at arms length. The very idea that there were oral traditions containing variants of the gospel narratives preceding our canonical gospels is itself based on an assumption that the narratives in those gospels is “true” to some extent. The idea is that from Jesus or some sort of “easter event” stories arose that were later put down in gospels. A significant section of biblical scholarship is constantly showing the evidence that much of what we read in the gospels is not from oral tradition at all but from literary borrowings and artisanship. I have posted on some of the New Testament publications addressing the unsupported assumptions of oral tradition on this blog several times and will create easy to find archival lists of those posts as I discuss Eddie Marcus’s discussion.

Meanwhile, I left the following on PZ’s blog:

The historian being interviewed clearly has only a shallow or popular notion of New Testament scholars’ arguments about earliest Christianity and the nature of the evidence — he even admits he prefers to read the trade books by Bart Ehrman than check out the “serious research” being done. His statements about the NT evidence were grounded in assumptions and hypotheses that are simply not facts at all (as any serious look into NT studies will soon show) and his understanding of the very question appeared clouded in circular reasoning. I was reminded of many of Tim O’Neill’s straw man arguments and misrepresentations.

For what it’s worth I will be posting a series on my own blog dissecting key statements by the historian in the interview. I have often posted on this very topic, addressing the methods used by ancient historians to establish historicity, and will critique this fellow’s statements against the actual works of ancient historians themselves, and against what NT scholars themselves actually say about their evidence.

PZ — you have had discussions with Tim O’Neill. I have several times now offered to debate Tim O’Neill in any online forum on one condition: that he refrain from personal insult and innuendo in his discussions. He has declined till now. If you were to be a mediator of such a debate I would welcome the opportunity.

See also youtube:

 


2019-07-26

Understanding the Hostility to the Christ Myth Theory

by Neil Godfrey

Questioning the historical existence of Jesus attracts something other than mere curiosity or intellectual debate among many biblical scholars and some of the public who don’t even have any personal interest in religion. I can understand people with a personal faith in Jesus either simply ignoring the question with disdain or amusement or responding with some hostility. (One would have to be gauche indeed to even raise the question with them.) But some of us have been mystified by some people, not scholars, who proudly identify as atheists, who can be found to react with visceral invective towards those questioning the historicity of Jesus. Similarly among biblical scholars. Even the non-believer Bart Ehrman dismisses “mythicists” as animated by dishonest motives and culpable ignorance.

The answer to that question, at least in my own mind, is now as clear as daylight. Many of us internalize the values and ideology of society’s established intellectual class.

And in fact, most of the people who make it through the education system and get into the elite universities are able to do it because they’ve been willing to obey a lot of stupid orders for years and years—that’s the way I did it, for example. Like, you’re told by some stupid teacher, “Do this,” which you know makes no sense whatsoever, but you do it, and if you do it you get to the next rung, and then you obey the next order, and finally you work your way through and they give you your letters: an awful lot of education is like that, from the very beginning. Some people go along with it because they figure, “Okay, I’ll do any stupid thing that asshole says because I want to get ahead”; others do it because they’ve just internalized the values—but after a while, those two things tend to get sort of blurred. But you do it, or else you’re out: you ask too many questions and you’re going to get in trouble. (Chomsky, 236)

(I use Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power as the structure for this post because a fellow ex-Worldwide Church of God member reminded me of it in his book of his experiences in that cult, Showdown at Big Sandy. The author, Greg Doudna, spoke of many attempts that both he and a colleague, Russell Gmirkin, made to address doctrinal questions with the hierarchy.)

Some lay people who have been through much of the education system have even gone to such an extreme that they even justify the ruling powers who forced Galileo to recant! Tim O’Neill, author of History for Atheists, is perhaps the best known for this authoritarian stance. Questioning “the consensus of experts” is a sign of arrogance:

* The complaint that a questioning and critical analysis of orthodox views amounts to a “lack of understanding” of them has a long heritage. Back in the days of Galileo and Descartes the rector of the University of Utrecht deplored challenges to the expert consensus views of his day in the following words (1642):

First, it is opposed to the traditional philosophy which universities throughout the world have hitherto taught on the best advice . . . Second, it turns away the young from this sound and traditional philosophy and prevents them reaching the heights of erudition; for once they have begun to rely on the new philosophy and its supposed solutions, they are unable to understand the technical terms which are commonly used in the books of traditional authors and in the lectures and debates of their professors. . . . And lastly, various false and absurd opinions [follow], opinions which are in conflict with other disciplines and faculties and above all with orthodox theology.

(Voetius’s letter to Father Dinet, quoted in Cottingham, 395)

Then analogy [between creationists and mythicists] is not to the degree or nature of the evidence. It’s the lack of understanding* of the material and the arrogance of assuming they know more than the consensus of experts that is analogous. So the analogy is completely apt thanks. (Oct 2, 2018)

The same atheist critic even goes so far as to defend the consensus of the intellectual elites embedded in the Catholic Church against Galileo!

[T]he Church’s opposition to Galileo and heliocentrism was primarily based on this clear scientific consensus. (https://historyforatheists.com/2018/07/the-great-myths-6-copernicus-deathbed-publication/)

Galileo received high praise and encouragement from the Pope down. . . . It was not until Galileo strayed into theological questions with his widely-circulated “Letter to Castelli” in 1615 that the Inquisition began to take an interest in him (https://historyforatheists.com/2018/08/sam-harris-horrible-histories/)

O’Neill elaborates with a citation of a letter by Cardinal Bellarmine that superficially suggests that he was ready to call for a study into revising church doctrine if the new views in astronomy proved true, but overlooks the fact that the Holy See itself flatly rejected such “liberalism” and that Galileo was in branded a heretic for his heliocentric view that contradicted the Bible. (O’Neill following even says Galileo was not charged with “formal heresy” without identifying the source of that term or explaining how “formal heresy” differed from “heresy” per se. Nor should one overlook the words of Galileo’s contemporary, Descartes, who expressed fear for himself at the news of Galileo’s trial. See green side box.)

So we see here a crusade for “better history” by a lay non-historian, an atheist, who cherry-picks quotations and rationalizes submission to the consensus of intellectual elites all the way back to the seventeenth century. Now that’s ‘internalization of the university elite’s values’!

On hearing of Galileo’s fate Descartes wrote in a personal letter, 1634:

Doubtless you know that Galileo was recently censured by the Inquisitors of the Faith, and that his views about the movement of the earth were condemned as heretical. I must tell you that all the things I explained in my treatise, which included the doctrine of the movement of the earth, were so interdependent that it is enough to discover that one of them is false to know that all the arguments I was using are unsound. Though I thought they were based on very certain and evident proofs, I would not wish, for anything in the world, to maintain them against the authority of the Church. I know that it might be said that not everything which the Roman Inquisitors decide is automatically an article of faith, but must first be approved by a General Council. But I am not so fond of my own opinions as to want to use such quibbles to be able to maintain them. I desire to live in peace and to continue the life I have begun under the motto ‘to live well you must live unseen’. . . . For I have seen letters patent about Galileo’s condemnation, printed at Liège on 20 September 1633, which contained the words ‘though he pretended he put forward his view only hypothetically’; thus they seem to forbid even the use of this hypothesis in astronomy. For this reason I do not dare to tell him any of my thoughts on the topic. Moreover, I do not see that this censure has been endorsed by the Pope or by any Council, but only by a single congregation of the Cardinals of the Inquisition; so I do not altogether lose hope . . .

(Kenny, ed. pp. 42f. The message sent to Descartes was that Galileo was not even permitted to teach his view as an unproved ‘hypothesis’, contrary to the weight O’Neill assigns to Cardinal Bellarmine’s apparent statement otherwise. Still, as can be seen from D’s conclusion, he continued to hope for better days.)

Surely we have here a credible explanation for the vociferous backing of the “mainstream scholarly consensus” among certain lay persons, atheist or otherwise.

But there is more than years of indoctrination and internalization of such values.

And there are many other subtle mechanisms which contribute to ideological control as well, of course . . . .

Or just take the fact that certain topics are unstudiable in the schools—because they don’t fall anywhere: the disciplines are divided in such a way that they simply will not be studied. That’s something that’s extremely important. . . .

Well, these [corporate controls of political systems and national resources, including national populations] are major phenomena of modern life—but where do you go to study them in the universities or the academic profession? That’s a very interesting question. You don’t go to the economics department, because that’s not what they look at: the real hot-shot economics departments are interested in abstract models of how a pure free-enterprise economy works—you know, generalizations to ten-dimensional space of some nonexistent free-market system. You don’t go to the political science department, because they’re concerned with electoral statistics, and voting patterns, and micro-bureaucracy—like the way one government bureaucrat talks to another in some detailed air. You don’t go to the anthropology department, because they’re studying hill tribesmen in New Guinea. You don’t go to the sociology department, because they’re studying crime in the ghettos. In fact, you don’t go anywhere—there isn’t any field that deals with these topics. There’s no journal that deals with them. In fact, there is no academic profession that is concerned with the central problems of modern society. (239-242)

And ditto for the study of the question of the origin of the Jesus figure. New Testament scholars study Christology and the different views of the Jesus figure in the various sources, but they take for granted as their starting position that such a historical figure did exist. Hence in 2012 Bart Ehrman was able to confidently write:

Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it (Ehrman 2012)

Before commenting let’s finish Chomsky’s words:

And it’s extremely important that there not be a field that studies these questions—because if there ever were such a field, people might come to understand too much, and in a relatively free society like ours, they might start to do something with that understanding. Well, no institution is going to encourage that. I mean, there’s nothing in what I just said that you couldn’t explain to junior high school students, it’s all pretty straightforward. But it’s not what you study in a junior high [course] . . . .
(Chomsky, 242)

Daniel Gullotta

Simon Gathercole

It is at this point that we find an explanation for a type of response by the Ehrmans, the McGraths, and others against mythicism. I am talking about the default targeting of personal motives, even personal morality and character, of proponents of the Christ Myth view. Equally depressing is that these accusations are coupled with bizarre distortions, misrepresentations, blatant “misunderstandings” of the mythicist arguments. Recall the somewhat bizarre reviews of mythicism by Daniel Gullotta and Simon Gathercole in scholarly Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus for biblical scholars. (The general public can read one of its articles if they are prepared to pay $US30 — per article — for the privilege.) We saw how both Gullotta and Gathercole [see side box for references] clearly felt free to not pay any serious attention to the arguments they believed they were discussing and gross misrepresentation was par for the course. Compare:

MAN: What I’m struck with in each of the . . . major misunderstandings that are used against you. . . . is how much your views have been distorted and oversimplified by the press. I don’t understand why you’d want to keep bringing these ideas to the mass media when they always insist on misrepresenting them.

[Chomksy:] But why is that surprising? First of all, this is not happening in the mass media, this is happening in the intellectual journals. And intellectuals are specialists in defamation, they’re basically commissars [Soviet officials responsible for political indoctrination]—they’re the ideological managers, so they are the ones who feel the most threatened by dissidence. The mass media don’t care that much, they just ignore it, or say it’s crazy or something like that. In fact, this stuff barely enters the national media; sure, you’ll get a throwaway line saying, “this guy’s an apologist for this that and the other thing,” but that’s just feeding off the intellectual culture. The place where it’s really done is inside the intellectual journals—because that’s their specialty. They’re commissars: it’s not fundamentally different from the Communist Party. (Chomsky, 206)

“It’s the ideology, stupid!” It is easy to be dismayed (as I know I have been) at the utter “disunderstanding” of the arguments they say they are addressing. But notice that there’s another explanation:

But if any of you have ever looked at your F.B.I. file through a Freedom of Information Act release, you’ve probably discovered that intelligence agencies are in general extremely incompetent—that’s one of the reasons why there are so many intelligence failures: they just never get anything straight, for all kinds of reasons. And part of it is because the information they get typically is being transmitted to them by agents and informants who are ideological fanatics, and they always misunderstand things in their own crazy ways. So if you look at an F.B.I. file where you actually know what the facts are, you’ll usually see that the information has some relation to reality—you can sort of figure out what they’re talking about—but by the time it’s worked its way through the ideological fanaticism of the intelligence system, there’s been all sorts of weird distortion. And that’s true of the Anti-Defamation League’s intelligence too.

But this stuff certainly is circulated around—like, probably somebody in this area received it from the regional office, and there’ll be some article in the local newspaper tomorrow that’ll pull a lot of junk out of the file, that’s what usually happens when I go places. And the point is that it’s used to close off the discussion: since they can’t deal with the issues, they’ve got to close off the discussion—and the best way to do it is by throwing enough slime so that maybe people will figure, where there’s smoke there’s fire, so we’d better not listen.

. . . But there are plenty of others who do the same sort of thing—because this is really the institutional task of the whole intellectual community. I mean, the job of mainstream intellectuals is to serve as a kind of secular priesthood, to ensure that the doctrinal faith is maintained. So if you go back to a period when the Church was dominant, the priesthood did it: they were the ones who watched out for heresy and went after it. And as societies became more secular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the same controls were needed: the institutions still had to defend themselves, after all, and if they couldn’t do it by burning people at the stake or sending them to inquisitions anymore, they had to find other ways. Well, over time that responsibility was transferred to the intellectual class—to be guardians of the sacred political truths, hatchet-men of one sort or another.

So you see, as a dissident, you shouldn’t be surprised to get all of this stuff done to you, it’s in fact a positive sign—it means that you can’t just be ignored anymore. (207f)

read more »


2018-10-18

The Phlogiston Jesus

by Neil Godfrey
Fourcroy (Wikipedia): “There are now nearly as many theories, as many different kinds of phlogiston, as there are defenders of phlogiston.”

PZ Myers: A consensus doesn’t necessarily mean anything. 200 years ago there was a consensus phlogiston existed. The key thing is: show me the chain of evidence and the logic that you use to derive this.

(From video discussion with Eddie Marcus; see also transcript/paraphrase.)

….

Tim O’Neill: If we look at relevant non-Christian scholars, both current and recent, we find people like Maurice Casey, Zeba Crook, James Crossley, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Robert Funk, Jeffrey Gibson, Michael Goulder, Amy Jill Levine, Gerd Ludemann, Jack Miles, Christina Petterson, Alan Segal and Geza Vermes. None of these people accept or accepted Mythicism.

Nor, as far as I am aware, have most of these scholars ever published or publicly stated a view about mythicism, either for or against. Nor have they all even published a perspective on the historical Jesus, either. It is probably fair to say, however, that in their writings they all have, when and where relevant, embraced the assumption of a historical Jesus.

And to [suggest] that these scholars are simply too unimaginative or too timid to examine and accept the idea that there was no Jesus at all is [without foundation]. [Some of these names are] the leading proponents of conceptions about Jesus and the origins of Christianity that are so much at odds with orthodox Christian ideas that conservative Christian apologists write whole books warning their faithful to beware of their supposedly wild and radical theories. . . . So if [some] leading non-Christian scholars are so shackled to the Christian idea of a historical Jesus because of the vast influence on them of Christian culture, [we need to explain why] this highly Christian influence [appears to be] so narrowly focused and selective. Why is it only on the question of Jesus’ existence that this supposedly pervasive Christian orthodoxy has such influence on these non-Christian scholars, but not any other ideas? How is it that this supposed Christian control only works on the historicity of Jesus, but somehow fails completely on topics such as the rejection of Jesus as

  • a Jewish apocalypticist,
  • or the promotion of the Farrer Thesis over the Two Source Hypothesis
  • or conservative views on the dates and authorship of the gospels
  • or any of the dozens of other issues on which the scholarship is sharply divided between non-Christians and orthodox Christian scholars?

Why can and do these scholars present Jesus as

  • a Jewish preacher,
  • a charismatic hasid
  • or a Cynic-style sage

– all ideas substantially at odds with Christian orthodoxy – yet baulk at the idea that he did not exist? . . . It makes no sense that this supposedly powerful cultural bias would only affect non-Christian scholars on historicity and not across a much wider range of disputed topics.

(From O’Neill, Tim. 2018. “PZ Myers and ‘Jesus Agnosticism.’” History for Atheists (blog). September 29, 2018. https://historyforatheists.com/2018/09/pz-myers-and-jesus-agnosticism/.)

I have replaced words in Tim’s original post that I believe are not in the best interests of a sober discussion (some contain rhetorical flourishes laced with unprofessional attitudes; some are sweeping, misleading or incorrect statements) with my own hopefully more neutral words in square brackets and italics. The bolded highlighting and dot-formatting is my own.

Tim’s question is clearly intended to be rhetorical but actually a little reflection on PZ Myers’ reference to the scientific consensus on phlogiston will suggest a ready answer. read more »


2018-10-08

On mythicism, creationism and the wrath of ancient kings

by Neil Godfrey

Someone asked me who among atheists were critical of Jesus mythicism when I posted Atheist Hostility to Jesus Mythicism … making sense of it and a number have questioned my own view of why they do, or at least have offered alternative viewpoints. All fair enough. Meanwhile, someone on Facebook chided me for not having read Tim O’Neill’s article addressing PZ Myers’ “historical Jesus agnosticism” and attempting to explain how the relevant historical analysis works. So today I did finally at least skim quickly through O’Neill’s PZ Myers and “Jesus Agnosticism”, Eddie Marcus’s explanations, and a few of the comments. And whaddyaknow — there I read more of the exact criticisms I had been addressing in my earlier post about “atheist hostility to Jesus mythicism”. They once again demonstrate, to me at least, that the primary objection to mythicism is that it sets itself apart from mainstream scholarship and for that reason is seen as “essentially” one with creationism and holocaust denial.

There was something unexpected, though. What I found especially intriguing was Tim O’Neill’s admonition to his readers to not even read arguments that had been posted against his own views! Recall Niels Peter Lemche’s point about how conservative scholarship has worked to steer scholars away from radical criticism: The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche). Tim certainly goes overboard to smear me every time he seems obliged to mention me at all. He certainly is doing all he can to turn readers off anything coming from this quarter. That’s not so bad in itself, except that he seems incapable of doing so with dispassionate reasoned argument. Ancient kings (and more recent totalitarian regimes) who were obsessed with erasing all memory of opponents and/or cursing them to the limit would be most impressed.

From Tim’s page — with my highlighting of the key points:

Biosaber says:

Similar in their rhetoric and explaining-away of evidence. And are just as impervious to reason. Mythicism is to history what YEC is to science. But ok, they’re Atheism’s halocaust deniers

Then analogy is not to the degree or nature of the evidence. It’s the lack of understanding of the material and the arrogance of assuming they know more than the consensus of experts that is analogous. So the analogy is completely apt thanks.

One more:

Tim O’Neill says:

“I could provide examples of where the consensus of experts has been wrong (you know like some of science!) so that in and by itself is not disqualifying.”

Everyone knows it is not necessarily disqualifying. But most of the time the experts know better than some online nobody who’s watched a couple of YouTube videos.And even the cases when the maverick contrarians have been right and the consensus has been wrong are well known because they are so rare. Yet, like the Creationists, these twerps think they are the smart ones.

So there you have it. The sin of mythicism is that it disputes the conventional wisdom of the academy of biblical studies. And we even have the biblical imputation of motive for that sin — pride, arrogance. Can anyone with such a mindset help themselves from reading any mythicist arguments with hostile intent?

–o–

Here’s the surprising bit. Tim added an addendum to his post that had been written after PZ Myers responded to it (and after I had made my own comments on PZ’s response).

P.S. I would suggest you avoid reading the comments from the Mythicist true believers on Myers’ articles – most of them are so dumb they will make you lose the will to live.

And to reinforce the point, when one commenter asked

Biosaber says:

Hey Tim have you seen PZ’s post about this post, “The Tim O’Neill Treatment” (and Neil Godfrey’s post about it)?

Tim replied

Tim O’Neill says:

Yes. Note my addendum to my article above, which addresses Myers’ response. I pay no attention to Ol’Grandpa Godfrey though – he and the other jabbering boneheaded contrarians who gather in his little Treehouse Club for fringe weirdos are not worth the time.

 


2018-10-06

Atheist Hostility to Jesus Mythicism … making sense of it

by Neil Godfrey

I’ve been thinking through how best to complete the second part of my post, Atheists Do Not Understand Religion, trying to figure out the clearest way to present the results of the anthropological research which means trying to get them ever more clear in my own mind first. At the same time I have found myself attempting to apply these particular ways humans work to understanding the answer to the question of why some atheists are so hostile towards Jesus mythicism.

I was working towards an understanding back in March this year but what I have read again in Boyer’s book I think has helped crystallize my understanding with a theoretical or research backing.

We “essentialize” things. Or the words used by Boyer are “essentialist” thinking and “essences”. So in many cultures there is something about, say, blacksmiths that makes them essentially different from “respectable society”. There is some indefinable internal quality about blacksmiths that make them different from everyone else, that makes it unthinkable that your daughter would ever marry one (unless you yourself are a blacksmith). Boyer speaks of an “essentialist inference system” that applies to the way we recognized different classes of objects and even groups of people.

One of the “essences” that many atheists see characterizes their “group identity” as atheists is a sense that they are smarter, more intelligent, more reasonable, than other groups of people who believe in angels and miracles. One essential difference perceived between the two is that the atheist sees himself accepting of the world’s scientific heritage while others either reject much of it outright (young earth creationists) or at least accept it only with qualifications (evolution but with God’s guiding finger).

Other groups that contain the same essential quality of rejecting established scientific and scholarly wisdom are holocaust deniers, flat-earthers, moon-landing deniers, anti-vaccers.

What they all have in common, or the “essential” difference between them all and the atheist, is that they all reject some plank of the scholarly wisdom as established in the trusted centers of learning, public universities and research centres.

One constant that has come through loud and clear from atheists who scoff at the very idea that anyone would claim Jesus did not exist is their pointing to “what the scholars say”. They appeal, always, to the mainstream intellectual academy, and its “consensus”. That appeal, I think, is a constant. We even see some biblical scholar comparing the rejection of the beliefs marking their field of study with the rejection of evolution among biologists or paleontologists.

I think what is happening when certain atheists ridicule or deplore Jesus mythicists is they are intuitively “essentializing” them with the same classes of people who reject the mainstream scholarly institutions in favour of their own idiosyncratic views about the shape of the earth or how old it is and how life got here.

We know they do equate mythicists with such people because they say so openly. But I think many others of us have never understood quite why they do and we have tended to think that if only they heard the arguments they would see things our way. But it doesn’t work like that, does it.

We know they will sometimes listen to the arguments but then reject them outright, often misrepresenting some of them in return. What is going on here?

Boyer also speaks of “coalitional” intuitions. We seek out coalitions that bring likely reward and reduce likely costs in our lives. And sometimes this means that we have to rationalize away certain assumptions about our “essentialist” thinking with other groups:

Now Fang lineages span territories so huge that everybody has lineage “cousins” they seldom interact with. In these rare cases, essentialist understandings of lineage would suggest that you can trust them anyway (these people are the same substance as you are, you know their personality type and therefore their reactions) whereas coalitional intuitions would recommend caution (since this is a first-time interaction and will probably remain a one-time event, why should they do you any favors?). People in such cases generally follow their coalitional intuitions but then reconcile this with their essentialist concepts by saying that they are not in fact certain that these people really belong to their lineage.

(Boyer, Religion Explained, p. 289)

We find ad hoc reasons to reject evidence that contradicts our interests. Atheists who see themselves as “bright” or at least intelligent enough to know God is not real and that genuine knowledge is found in the halls of academic and research institutions will as a rule side with those institutions to maintain their self-image or identity. Evidence that would otherwise lead them to challenge such a position is rationalized away.

Yet there are indeed a good many academics themselves who do indeed question the historical existence of Jesus, or are at least open to the possibility that there was no such figure. We have seen most recently PZ Myers “come out” here; others we know of are Jerry Coyne, Hector Avalos, Philip R. Davies, Paul Hopper, Burton Mack, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Greta Christina, Michel Onfrey, Thomas Brodie, Kurt Knoll, Arthur Droge…. and others. I believe what is happening here is that a good number of people long embedded within the institutions of academe know full well just how flakey some scholarship can be and they do not hold the same unqualified reverence for all its branches and persons as many outsiders do.

 


2018-10-02

Neil the Pettifogger?

by Neil Godfrey

This morning I was slightly surprised by a criticism of my posts, in particular with reference to PZ Myers on “the Tim O’Neill Treatment”: Jesus Mythicism and Historical Methods, that I make sophistic distinctions and nuances, or that I quibble over precise meanings for the sake attacking an otherwise very evidently sound and sensible argument. I know Tim O’Neill has indicated that he certainly thinks that is what I do with his posts, but I was a little surprised that someone else should make the same charge.

Godfrey is okay sometimes, but he seems to pettifog too much and comes across as uncharitable. Reading his articles is sometimes a chore. I didn’t read the whole thing, I stopped after I became annoyed. Example:

. . . .

Second example soon after:

//No, it is simply not the case that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin”. I don’t know that any critical scholar (I am not speaking of apologists) who would say that the four canonical gospels depict a historical preacher. My understanding from reading a good many of them is that they concur that the Jesus of the gospels is a mythical or theological construct. He is certainly not a historical figure. Indeed, they argue that they must look behind the gospels and into inferences about the sources of the gospels to try to find a historical figure who acted more in accord with our understanding of how the world works…[more words]//

Ok, clearly Tim means that they are assuming Jesus to be/depicting Jesus as if he were a real human being who lived in the past, i.e., a historical figure, despite whatever theological interpretive overlay, legendary embellishments, etc., they spun on their ideas about Jesus.

I responded that I did not see my point as pettifogging but as a concern to ensure the discussion is governed by clear thinking. But I did wonder. Obviously some readers do see me as a nitpicker. And it’s not only Tim.

In the example I have cited I can well understand the critic’s point of view. Yes, certainly, the evangelists did place Jesus in a historical setting and gave him a historical biography. In hindsight I see that I would have been smarter to have made it known that I clearly understood that point before hitting the point of disagreement.

My disagreement was with the way Tim’s point was expressed. The problem as I see it is that to say “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin (of Christianity)” is a subtle question-begging interpretation of the sources and not a strictly correct or objective way to portray the gospels. That’s why I saw the point as a problem of unclear thinking. We need to sift out question-begging and casual conventional assumptions (even if they are common among biblical scholars themselves) and set them aside whenever we are addressing the actual data before us.

I suspect that my critic is so very entrenched in the conventional assumptions about the gospels that it is very difficult for him to see that they are indeed a question-begging interpretation that should be examined and tested, not casually repeated as if fact.

The data itself is a set of narratives in a historical setting and with historical biographical trappings about a character who is very obviously mythical. I mean Jesus is mythical as he is portrayed in the gospels: he talks to spirit beings and they to him, he does all sorts of miracles, returns from the dead. I’m not saying that that means there was no historical figure of Jesus behind the stories. As I pointed out in my original post the only way to find a historical figure from the gospels is to do exactly what scholarship does: make inferences about the origins and sources of the narratives and hypothesize about such a figure through those inferences. That approach, of course, has led to myriads of different historical Jesuses.

Probably at least some of the gospel authors did believe the Jesus they were depicting was historical but that is hardly a point in favour of historicity and is no grounds for saying that they explain Christianity began with a historical figure — unless we are also prepared to say that the cults of Dionysus and Heracles are portrayed as having historical founders (Dionysus and Heracles) and to say that as if we have grounds for a prima facie case that they were truly historical.

Maybe it’s a finer distinction than we might all grasp quickly. I should try to remember to clarify points of agreement and acknowledging where I understand the grounds for the view I am challenging. But at the same time I wish my posts were shorter, not longer. C’est la vie.

Okay, I skipped the first example my critic gave. Lest I be charged with self-serving misrepresentation let me address that one now, too. read more »


2018-09-23

Fake History for Atheists

by Neil Godfrey

Not long ago PZ Myers responded positively to certain arguments in the post by Tim O’Neill, Jesus Mythicism 3: “No Contemporary References to Jesus”. PZ was not to know of the presumably inadvertent misrepresentations Tim O’Neill made of David Fitgerald’s arguments in that post. In a followup post by PZ, Tim reminded readers that he had, he believed, demonstrated the incompetence of David’s arguments.

It’s not enough to demonstrate a silence in some sources – you have to show that any of these sources SHOULD have mentioned Jesus. This is where Fitzgerald and his ilk fail every time. I discuss this at length here:

https://historyforatheists.com/2018/05/jesus-mythicism-3-no-contemporary-references-to-jesus/

Now I am sure Tim is convinced of his sincerity and genuinely believes that his criticism of David’s arguments are entirely just and reasonable. I also think that the emotive language Tim so often uses betrays an emotional investment in his viewpoints that blinds him from his bias and accordingly from noticing details in David’s book that contradict his (Tim’s) perceptions (better, pre-perceptions).

A few examples follow. (Not many. To do an exhaustive review — as I did for Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus in a  leading journal dedicated to the study of the historical Jesus — would not be healthy for my emotional well-being, but at the same time I am quite willing to take the time to respond to any particular claims made by Tim that readers might think do carry genuine critical weight. The reason I post at all this response at all is because, well, I don’t like to see misrepresentations stand without challenge.)

I first address Tim’s criticism of David’s argument concerning Seneca’s silence concerning Jesus. It will be useful, first, though, to read the passage by David that Tim criticizes. Here is David’s section on Seneca:

Seneca the Younger (c. 3 B.C.E. – 65) Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Stoic philosopher, writer, statesman, and de facto ruler of the Empire for many years, had three compelling reasons to mention Jesus at least at some point in his many writings.

  • First, though regarded as the greatest Roman writer on ethics, he has nothing to say about arguably the biggest ethical shakeup of his time.
  • Second, in his book on nature Quaestiones Naturales, he records eclipses and other unusual natural phenomena, but makes no mention of the miraculous Star of Bethlehem, the multiple earthquakes in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death, or the worldwide (or at the very least region-wide) darkness at Christ’s crucifixion that he himself should have witnessed.
  • Third, in another book On Superstition, Seneca lambasts every known religion, including Judaism.1 But strangely, he makes no mention whatsoever of Christianity, which was supposedly spreading like wildfire across the empire. This uncomfortable fact later made Augustine squirm in his theological treatise City of God (book 6, chapter 11) as he tried mightily to explain away Seneca’s glaring omission.

In the 4th century, Christian scribes were so desperate to co-opt Seneca they even forged a series of correspondence between Seneca and his “dearest” friend, the Apostle Paul!

(Nailed! p. 34 – my formatting)

David Fitzgerald is addressing throughout his book the views of Christian believers, those who believe the gospel narratives about Jesus. For example:

In the case of Jesus, his believers are left with two unhappy choices:

  • either the Gospels were grossly exaggerating Jesus’ life and accomplishments, and Jesus was just another illiterate, wandering preacher with a tiny following, completely unnoticed by society at large –
  • or he was an outright mythical character.

(Nailed! p. 43 — again, my formatting)

At no point in any of David’s discussions of the various silences can I see him saying that any particular silence somehow “means Jesus did not exist”. Notice his conclusion above. David concludes that the cumulation of certain silences in certain contexts leads to a number of “unhappy choices” for believers in the gospels: one of these is that Jesus was indeed what many historical Jesus scholars claim, that he was “just another wandering preacher with a tiny following, completely unnoticed by society at large.” We will see the significance of this point by David when we come to Tim’s criticism.

David made the focus of his argument clear from pages 14 and 15 of the opening chapter of his book:

The supposed historical underpinning of Jesus, which apologists insist differentiates their Christ from the myriad other savior gods and divine sons of the ancient pagan world, simply does not hold up to investigation.

On the contrary, the closer we examine the official story, or rather stories, of Christianity (or Christianities!), the quicker it becomes apparent that the figure of the historical Jesus has traveled with a bodyguard of widely accepted, seldom examined untruths for over two millennia.

The purpose of this all-too-brief examination is to shed light on ten of these beloved Christian myths, ten beautiful lies about Jesus:

1. The idea that Jesus was a myth is ridiculous!
2. Jesus was wildly famous – but there was no reason for contemporary historians to notice him…
3. Ancient historian Josephus wrote about Jesus
4. Eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels
5. The Gospels give a consistent picture of Jesus
6. History confirms the Gospels
7. Archeology confirms the Gospels
8. Paul and the Epistles corroborate the Gospels
9. Christianity began with Jesus and his apostles
10. Christianity was a totally new and different miraculous overnight success that changed the world!

(my bolded emphasis)

Notice. David has chosen to address the myth that Jesus was wildly famous! David is arguing that the miraculous stories surrounding Jesus that so many Christians believe in have no basis in the historical record, despite what too many apologists (he mentions Josh McDowell and Douglas Geivett) assert.

Tim appears to have overlooked this point, purpose, target of David’s discussion about the silence of Seneca. I have bolded the sections that directly conflict with David’s actual argument as set out above. read more »


2018-09-18

Miscellaneous point — Mount Vesuvius and the argument from silence

by Neil Godfrey

I was following up PZ Myers’ interest in a particular claim by Tim O’Neill in a larger criticism of Jesus mythicists —

….. in particular his rebuttal to the “argument from silence”, which claims that Jesus should have been mentioned in many historical sources if he had existed, but he isn’t, so he didn’t. Most telling was his listing of the feeble number of brief mentions of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in classical records — if the Romans didn’t leave us many documents of this colossal disaster in their backyard, why should we expect them to have mentioned some minor Jewish preacher off in some provincial backwater? He also points out how rare it was for any writings to have survived from 2000 years ago, which lit up a lightbulb floating above my head.

This is exactly the same as the common creationist argument that if evolution were true, we ought to be neck deep in tyrannosaur and stegosaur and diplodocid bones, and because the fossil record is so spotty and incomplete, evolution is false. Never mind that taphonomy shows that finding the bones of a dead animal surviving for even a decade is rare and requires unusual conditions.

It turned out that PZ had unfortunately misread Tim’s point and Tim, even though he joined the commenters at the end of PZ’s post, failed to correct PZ’s misconception. In fact Tim lists five surviving ancient references to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. What he claims to be the significant silences for his argument is the failure in the ancient record to mention the names of the two major urban areas (Pompeii and Herculaneum) destroyed by the eruption. If those towns were not major political and cultural icons in the ancient world then I would suggest that the failure to find accounts of their burial mentioning them by name is not particularly surprising. It would, indeed, have been surprising if we lacked some reference to the eruption of Vesuvius itself.

A quick reading of Tim’s essay has led to the impression that if the ancient records failed to leave us a trace of such a major event as the eruption of Vesuvius then how much less likely is it that we should find a reference to an obscure preacher, Jesus, in Galilee. That is not the actual argument of Tim, however, so that rhetorical point about the particular argument from silence regarding Jesus does fail.

But the question that does arise is an important one.

What sorts of things did people write in documents, books, etc? Who or what institutions had an interest in preserving what sorts of documents, records, literature, etc?

No doubt chance plays its part. But it is a mistake to assume that what has survived has done so entirely by chance. As with dinosaur fossils, special conditions, not merely chance alone, account for the preservation of some and not others.

read more »


2018-09-07

How do we approach the question of Jesus being historical or mythical?

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism and How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional?

–o–

PZ Myers asks: How do we approach this kind of topic?

Eddie Marcus, introduced as a professional historian, responds:

Eddie Marcus informs listeners that his expertise is in Australian culture and history, not first century Palestine. He has a business webpage, History Now, and a blog, Dodgy Perth. His LinkedIn page informs us that he has a BA in history from Cambridge and a Post Graduate Diploma in Cultural Heritage from Curtin University of Technology.

there is a lot of commonality between how science approaches evidence and how history approaches it, and that way we could get there slowly.

Comment: Eddie unfortunately does not explore this “slow” option of determining the historicity or otherwise of Jesus (or any historical figure). This is a significant oversight, in my view, because it is that “scientific approach” that is the one used by the major authors of the Christ Myth theory, in particular Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price. (I am not suggesting that their arguments are infallible; like many scientific approaches they find themselves in need of testing and revision.) It is also the method used by some historical Jesus scholars (e.g. John Dominic Crossan) to reconstruct their interpretation of what Jesus was like. As with any scientific exploration, results will likely vary according to the assumptions underlying one’s starting questions. Carrier’s book on Proving History is one excellent discussion of how a “scientific approach” to history is ideally undertaken. (For anyone who thinks that Bayesian reasoning is not used by historians I recommend a work by the philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker. Bayesian reasoning does not have to involve numbers, by the way. More simply and immediately, one can see how a more valid approach to evidence has been advanced by an Old Testament scholar, Philip R. Davies. Davies, by the way, urged biblical scholars to take up seriously the question of Jesus’ historicity in order to become a more academically respectable guild.

–o–

Top to bottom: Tucker, Davies, Lemche

Eddie refers to the scientific method sets it aside in order to launch instead into the discussion at “the deep end”. How, he asks, does a historian approach “the resurrection”.

But to start at the deep end, consider the resurrection. We have “loads of evidence” about the resurrection. It’s what we do with the evidence that becomes history.

The best evidence Eddie cites (he calls it “amazing” evidence) is our collection of four gospels. They are written, he says,  “comparatively close to the events they say they are describing.”

Most ancient historians would kill for that kind of evidence. I wish I had it for most of the stuff I study.

Comment: Right from the start Eddie jumps in the deep end of biblical scholars’ interpretations and models, bypassing the evidence and methods themselves. It is not a “fact” that the gospels were written “comparatively close” to the events they narrate. Such a claim is an interpretation and one that is grounded in the theological desire to date the gospels as close as possible to Jesus in order to buttress their credibility as historical sources. (Christian theology is for many though not all theologians grounded in belief in historical events: see Nineham.) To see how documents are dated “scientifically” I recommend Niels Peter Lemche’s discussion that I have summarized at Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels. Lemche was referring to Old Testament texts but the same principles apply. Cassandra Farrin set out a comparable set of points to consider in relation to New Testament texts.

It is possible that the four gospels as we know them in their canonical form did not exist until at least the mid second century. I think there are very good reasons for dating our earliest canonical gospel, Mark, soon after the year 70 CE, but there are also very good reasons advanced by some scholars for dating the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles to the mid to latter half of the second century.

But even if the gospels were all written according to biblical scholars’ conventional dates in the last decades of the first century, by the standards of historians of ancient times that does not make them “amazing” or “close” enough to the events narrated to be worth “killing for” (as Eddie says). The highly renowned ancient historian, M.I. Finley, discussed the problems we have with ancient sources that I think many New Testament scholars would profit from reading: An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally. Ancient historical works are of value to the extent that their sources and provenance can give the modern scholar some degree of confidence in their reliability. In the case of the gospels we have no information about their provenance (only speculations) or their sources (only the hypothesized oral tradition). See, for example, Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons.

If the only evidence Eddie had for an historical figure said to have existed forty years earlier, and the story was riddled with tales of the fabulous, and their was no way to identify its author, then I do not believe Eddie would consider such evidence as having any worth as testimony for the historicity of that person at all. This would be especially so if he found on closer inspection that that story (or “biography”) could be seen to have adapted many phrases and motifs from Alice in Wonderland.

–o–

Eddie describes the gospels as biographies.

He further says that we know exactly why Luke wrote his gospel because he tells us so in his preface: it is to assure Christians of the origin stories that justify their rituals, like the eucharist and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. read more »


2018-09-06

How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional?

by Neil Godfrey

PZ Myers is a biologist with a curiosity about how historians determine whether a person appearing in ancient records is considered historical or otherwise. He asks:

How does one assess people and events that are contradictory, vague or preserved only in stories passed on by word of mouth?

And many more, including surveys of works by leading specialists in oral traditions such as Jan Vansina.

But if we are to ask PZ’s question as a lead in to the Jesus myth debate then it is worth pausing and taken one step back first.

Contradictory accounts? Yes. The gospels are certainly contradictory accounts of Jesus.

Vague? Yes. Some of the earliest statements about Jesus, such as some in Paul’s letters, are certainly vague.

Preserved via word of mouth before being written in the gospels? That is the general idea we encounter whenever we pick up a study of gospel origins. But how do we know that the gospel narratives were picked up from oral reports?

The reason we think they were is because this is what the stories in the gospels and Acts implies. The stories tell us that Jesus’ followers went out preaching after the resurrection, and since the first gospels were written by a subsequent generation we assume “the obvious” — that the material for these stories came to the authors from word-of-mouth preaching and traditions. But recall how this model of how the stories came to be known is circular by both New Testament and Old Testament scholars alike. We saw how the late Philip Davies pointed out this circularity with respect to the Old Testament accounts: “How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?”. We have also seen New Testament scholars acknowledge the same difficulty with respect to the gospels: It all depends where one enters the circle.

Yes, there is a passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that speaks of a teaching being passed on, orally, about the resurrection. Nonetheless Paul also speaks of learning his “truth” through visions and the scriptures without owing any debt to a fellow human.

The truth is that the idea that oral tradition lies behind the gospels is a hypothesis. It is not a fact. Indeed, we have posted at length on the work of two scholars who have questioned that hypothesis: see the Brodie and the Henaut archives.

At the same time I think that surely all critical scholars of the gospels acknowledge that at the very least some of their narratives have been shaped by other literary narratives such as those found in the Jewish Scriptures. Some may add that the literary allusions to, say, Moses and Elijah are ways the authors have chosen to shape stories that originated in oral tradition. That’s fine, too, and it is another hypothesis that we need to consider in the light of the evidence and background knowledge of how Jewish and other authors worked.

It is often heard that the gospels are biographies, even very much like other ancient biographies. So it follows we can treat them as accounts of a genuine person. No, it doesn’t follow, unfortunately, because we even have ancient biographies that appear to be about historical persons but in fact are arguably entirely fictitious. Previous posts have demonstrated that even straightforward biographies of ancient persons, by contemporaries, such as the biography of Demonax, require historians to exercise caution: Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’ and Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? Besides, it is not a fact that the gospels are biographies. Other scholars disagree. So it is a hypothesis or an interpretation. There are other interpretations.

All of the above was written to address just a single point in the original question. If anything, I have hoped to point out that even the way we frame our questions can be an indication of our assumptions and therefore influence the answers we might find.

As we posted not so long ago, a philosopher of history reminds us that the real historical question is not: Did this event (e.g. a miracle) happen? But rather, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

So we begin. I will in future posts comment on some of Eddie Marcus’s statements in the light of what various professional historians have written.


2018-08-23

Just what do you mean… HISTORICAL JESUS?

by Neil Godfrey

Fellow-former members of the now defunct Worldwide Church of God will recognize that cult’s influence in the title. (It is tongue-in-cheek, an in-house joke.) It came to me after reading the following by PZMyers:

Now I have to recalibrate. What does “Jesus mythicist” mean? Apparently, rejecting the idea of the Son of God wandering about Galilee, and thinking that many of the tales that sprang up around him were confabulations, does not make one a Jesus mythicist. I also don’t know what the “historical Jesus” means. If I die, and a hundred years later the actual events of my life are forgotten and all that survives are legends of my astonishing sexual prowess and my ability to breathe underwater, what does the “historical PZ” refer to? Does it matter if my birth certificate is unearthed (and framed and mounted in a shrine, of course)? Would people point to it and gasp that it proves the stories were all true <swoon>?

Exactly. What do we mean by “historical Jesus” in any discussion about him, most especially the very existence of such a figure. (PZ begins by asking what Jesus mythicist means and that’s a good question, too. Most critical scholars, at least among the critical ones I have read, would say that the gospels do present a mythical Jesus, a Jesus of myth. The quest, they would say, is to find the “historical Jesus” behind the “mythical Jesus” of the gospels.

So we return to my previous post and I have thoughts of revising the conclusion of it to discuss the idea of definition more explicitly. Others may disagree but I think we can replace the concept of “reference class” with “definition”.

Outside the more fundamentalist-leaning believers few people would believe the historical Jesus is the Jesus of the canonical gospels: a miracle working, water-walking, temple-cleansing power who instilled such fear and jealousy among the leaders that they had him crucified, etc.

Many say something quite the opposite, that he was someone who was essentially a nobody that no-one was particularly interested in apart from a few village followers — hence we have no record of him until the movement his followers started somehow remarkably reached a critical mass that included gospel-writing literates who recorded how this nobody was remembered as the turning point in human history.

In general we have those two theories of historicity, the reductive theory (Jesus was an ordinary but obscure guy who inspired a religious movement and copious legends about him) and the triumphalist theory (the Gospels are totally or almost totally true).

Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 30

The “reductive theory” confuses me sometimes, though. Some of those who say he was a “local nobody” also say that he was a political rebel not very unlike other political rebels (or maybe a prophet of “the great tribulation” before “the wonderful world tomorrow”) we read about in the Jewish historian Josephus, and who therefore was not so obscure at all. For some reason Josephus did not speak of this Jesus in the same way he spoke of other political rebels or apocalyptic prophets who met their demise at the hands of Roman power, but spoke of him as a good man without any hint of him having political ambitions or rebellious modus operandi — even though Josephus is typically hostile to all other political and religious outsiders. Nonetheless, that is the “definition” of historical Jesus that some critical scholars embrace. (For those not familiar with the arguments, they believe this to be what Jesus “must have been” because that’s the only way they can understand how he came to be crucified as a supposed claimant to be king of the Jews. Of course that leads to another question that they then must grapple with: why did the Romans in this one case execute the leader and ignore his followers?)

Notwithstanding the logical problems that surface with either definition — that he was a nobody who made no ripple in the history of his own day; that he was a political rebel who supposedly made a notice in Josephus unlike his portrayals of any other political rebel — these are the commonly advanced depictions of what is meant by the “historical Jesus”.

But scratch the surface of historical Jesus studies and we find that there are many more views on what this historical Jesus was.

So the quest at the turn of the millennium is characterised by the production of different ‘types’ of figure which more or less plausibly capture the Jesus of history:

the Jewish ‘holy man’,70

the rabbi,71

the Pharisee,72

the Galilean peasant,73

the Cynic philosopher,74

the social revolutionary,75

the sage, the seer,76

the prophet of the end-time,77

the true Messiah.78

70  Vermes, Jesus the Jew and The religion of Jesus the Jew.

71  Chilton, Rabbi Jesus.

72  Maccoby, Jesus the Pharisee.

73  The Jesus Seminar and Crossan, The historical Jesus.

74  Crossan; and Downing, Christ and the Cynics.

75  Horsley, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs and Jesus and the spiral of violence.

76  Witherington, Jesus the sage and Jesus the seer.

77  Sanders, Jesus and Judaism and The historical figure; Allison, Jesus of Nazareth; Ehrman, Jesus.

78  Wright, Jesus and the victory of God.

Mitchell, Margaret M., and Frances M. Young, eds. 2006. The Cambridge History of Christianity, Volume 1: Origins to Constantine. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 23 (my formatting)

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