Author Archives: Neil Godfrey

Woe to those who love Jerusalem

The idiot has tweeted:

I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

In one sense, though, this is progress, if we are prepared to measure the pace of progress in generations rather than months or years.

It makes it all the more inevitable that one day Israel is going to have no option but to grant full citizenship and equal rights to all Arabs living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as part of a single nation. (Despite occasional meaningless echoes to the contrary, the two-state possibility is surely long dead.)

One day Israel is going to have to decide to become a “normal” democratic nation, not a racial one built on an unjust occupation. The wall will have to come down one day.

 

 

Focus, Focus, Focus — but Not Blinkered

Larry Hurtado’s ongoing attempts to defend the reasons biblical scholars opt to ignore the arguments of the Christ Myth theory reinforce fundamental points in my original post, Reply to Larry Hurtado: “Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars”. Hurtado’s latest response is Focus, Focus, Focus. Some excerpts and my comments:

The question is whether the Gospels are best accounted for as literary productions that incorporate a body of prior traditions about Jesus of Nazareth, and on that question scholars over 250 years have broadly agreed that they do.  The earmarks of the traditions are there all over their texts.  The Gospel writers weren’t inventing a human figure, but composing biographical narratives of a figure who had been central from the beginning of the Jesus-movement.  The Gospels mark a development in the literary history of the first-century Jesus movement, appropriating the emergent biographical genre.  But they were essentially placing Jesus-tradition in this literary form.

That the gospels are “biographies” is not a fact but an interpretation, based most often on Richard Burridge’s What Are the Gospels? A number of scholars have found reasons to be critical of Burridge’s arguments, however, as have I. Both Tim and I have discussed Burridge’s book and some of the scholarly criticisms several times now as well as having written more studies on gospel genre generally, introducing a range of scholarly inputs on that question. But let’s stay focused. A “biographical” genre by itself does not mean that the person written about was historical. The ancient times saw a number of “biographies” written about persons we know to have been fictitious, even though the tone and style indicate to a less informed reader that they are about a “true” person. I have discussed several of these in the links above.

Scholars who pay attention to literary studies of the ancient world also know that ancient writers were trained to create details of verisimilitude to make their compositions (letters, novellas, speeches, poems) sound authentic or plausible.

Further, the claim that the gospels “incorporate a body of prior traditions about Jesus of Nazareth” is, in fact, an assumption that is generally “supported” by appeals to details in the text of the gospels that too often are in fact circular. The process is very often an exercise in the fallacy of confirmation bias. The assumption that oral tradition is behind the gospel narratives is the eyepiece through which the gospels are read, and lo and behold, the evidence expected is indeed found to be there. The method has too rarely been checked by controls. A few scholars have applied controls to these arguments, however, and have found that in several cases the evidence that was claimed to be support for oral tradition is, in fact, more directly found to be a sign of literary borrowing. Take, for example, the “rule of three”. Words, motifs, incidents in folktales are often repeated three times and this is said to be an aid to memory. Fine. But what is overlooked is that we find the “rule of three” also liberally populating very literary works with other literary influences.

Yes, I am very aware of studies on oral traditions in the Balkans and Africa and have addressed several of these in posts on this blog. Unfortunately, I have also found that in too many cases a scholar has quote-mined such a study and misapplied its statements to support an otherwise gratuitous claim about gospel origins.

The applicability of those oral tradition studies have been found by a number of scholars not to be applicable to the data we find in our canonical gospels. Again, see some of the posts on Vridar for references to some of the scholarly works addressing this question. I will be posting more in future.

Hurtado continues:

Another reader seems greatly exercised over how much of the Jesus-tradition Paul recounts in his letters, and how much Paul may have known.  Scholars have probed these questions, too, for a loooong time.  E.g., David L. Dungan, The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).  But, in any case, this isn’t the issue of my posting, or even essential to the “mythical Jesus” question.

Yes, and indeed it is “many scholars” who also write in their publications of Paul’s virtually complete lack of interest or even knowledge of the human Jesus. Unfortunately, Hurtado appears to have chosen not to even consider or read any of the criticisms of those arguments that bypass certain critical problems with those common assumptions about Paul’s supposed references to the “historical Jesus”. Again, the works available, by both mainstream scholars and Christ Myth theorists, are abundant and discussed in past posts.

The Pauline question is whether his letters treat Jesus as a real historical figure, indeed a near contemporary, and the answer is actually rather clear, as indicated in my posting.  Paul ascribes to Jesus a human birth, a ministry among fellow Jews, an execution specifically by Roman crucifixion, named/known siblings, and other named individuals who were Jesus’ original companions (e.g., Kephas/Peter, John Zebedee).  Indeed, in Paul’s view, it was essential that Jesus is a real human, for the resurrected Jesus is Paul’s model and proto-type of the final redemption that Paul believes God will bestow on all who align themselves with Jesus.  In Paul’s view, what God did to/for Jesus is what God will do for Paul and others who respond to the gospel.

Here Hurtado is glossing over a number of peer-reviewed scholarly studies that contradict some of his points. That conservative scholars choose to ignore these studies does not change the fact that they exist and stand as challenges to the claims by Hurtado here. See, for example, posts discussing the scholarly debate over a passage in 1 Thessalonians that speaks of Jews in Judea being responsible for Jesus’ death, discussions on the passage in Galatians that speaks of Jesus being “born of a woman”, and even my most recent summary of some (only some) of the points relating to the question of James being a “brother of the Lord”.

Hurtado’s assertions are not facts; they are interpretations that are indeed debated in the scholarly literature. Yes, conservative scholarship might dominate the guild today, and minority views might be ignored. But they do exist and ought to be considered fairly.

Of course, with the Jesus movement of his time more widely, Paul also ascribed to Jesus a post-resurrection heavenly status and regal role as God’s plenipotentiary, and likewise (and on the basis of Jesus’ heavenly exaltation) a “pre-existence”.  But for Paul and earliest believers it wasn’t a “zero-sum game,” in which Jesus could only be either a human/historical figure or a heavenly king.  For them, the one didn’t cancel out the other.

Hurtado here conflates “human” with “historical”. I suggest the equation is not necessarily valid given that the world has seen perhaps as many fictitious humans in its cultural history as non-human ones. Some Christ Myth theorists propose that Jesus was always entirely non-human. My own interests are in a different area, but as far as I understand, it makes no difference to the historicity question if Jesus was thought to appear as a human for a few hours, days, or even years, or even having “slipped through” the womb of Mary in order to be “human”. Let’s stay focused.

The earliest circles of the Jesus movement ransacked their scriptures to try to understand the events of Jesus, especially his execution and (in their conviction) his resurrection.  But it was these historical events that drove the process.

Again, this is mere assertion, an assumption, for which there is no independent evidence. The justifications for the claim derive from circular reasoning, I suggest. Or at least they are simply begging the question of the existence of Jesus. The evidence that is before us allows for quite another interpretation: that the early Christians derived their knowledge of Jesus from revelation, including the revelation of scriptures. Again, such viewpoints have been discussed at length many times on this blog.

Finally, this discussion is about history, not theology or faith.  What you make of early Christian claims about Jesus’ significance, how you view traditional Christian faith, etc., are all quite separate matters from the historical judgement that Jesus of Nazareth was a real early first-century Jew from Galilee.

Oh that that were true! The Christian faith, it must be kept in mind, is faith that a certain event in the past was more than just theological; it was historical. Faith in the historicity of the event is what Christianity is all about for most conservative Christians.

A handful of Christians I know of have found a way to move beyond such an earthly bound faith (as Schweitzer himself believers them to do) and have found a way to remain Christian even without belief in a historical Jesus. (Not that Schweitzer did not believe in a historical Jesus; he did. But that was not his spiritual message. See Schweitzer in context)

So, let’s stay focused, folks.

Indeed. Focused, but not blinkered.

 

WHY? Why of course — now it makes sense….

Since reading PZ Myer’s Why post I have come across something else, an article by Max Blumenthal, that does make sense of what Trump is doing:

Michael Flynn’s Indictment Exposes Trump Team’s Collusion With Israel, Not Russia

I can imagine the Christian Zionists will be thrilled to bits. Another step closer to Armageddon.

I’m not alone

I’m not the only one to have been deplored by Larry Hurtado’s recent unfortunate posts: Nicholas Covington of Hume’s Apprentice has also responded at length. Some might consider his language and tone to be more honest than mine.

 

 

WHY?

My thoughts, exactly: https://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2017/12/05/why-3/

It’s almost as if he’s looking for a magic switch he could flip to generate international incidents to distract from the corruption and criminality he’s fomenting at home.

On Larry Hurtado’s Response

Professor Hurtado has followed up with another post (“Mythical Jesus”: The Fatal Flaws) that was prompted by my earlier criticism of what I considered his flawed, even unprofessional, treatment of Carrier’s arguments in particular and the arguments of the Christ Myth hypothesis more generally.

In his reply Hurtado accused me of “dismissing” and “impugning” a huge body of scholarship as “gullible or prejudiced”. That is simply false. I have never “dismissed” any critical scholarship that I am aware of. I have learned much from — and greatly appreciate — that “huge body of scholarship” as the many, many posts on this blog amply testify. He further implied that I think there is some “conspiracy” involved and that scholars are “gullible and lazy”. What rot. Authors like Carrier and Doherty and Price and Brodie, in fact, engage critically with the “huge body of scholarship” and by no means suggest it is “gullible” or “conspiratorial”. That’s a farcical accusation.

Larry Hurtado, please indicate a few scholars that you believe I or Christ myth advocates have “impugned” or “dismissed” as “gullible or prejudiced”.

I can only surmise that Hurtado superficially skimmed my post with hostile intent and read into what is simply not there.

I have criticized certain arguments of certain scholars, and my recent post was to criticize Hurtado’s treatment of a view that he finds “tedious” to engage with and that he appears not to have bothered to investigate beyond a very sketchy glance at a few web articles. His treatment of those articles, and even of my own post, indicates that he has read them impatiently to the point of misconstruing or failing to grasp critical details that belied several of his claims. (For example, with respect to my own post, in another comment Hurtado said I misrepresented his post by failing to recognize that he was addressing only scholars in certain relevant fields. In fact I explicitly addressed his very words and claim about scholars in those said relevant fields. And if he seriously read my post he could never have claimed that I was “impugning” or “dismissing” scholarship, etc.)

Hurtado in his new post simply underscores his earlier claims and insists everything he wrote was fair and accurate — including his “three strikes” against Carrier’s argument.

In doing so he has failed to defend his remarks against specific criticisms. He refuses to even read the arguments of mythicists apart from summary short articles online. In other words, he refuses to take the argument seriously (which is fair enough, since he hasn’t read it and clearly remains uninformed of its main substance) and has no desire to even attempt to do so. The very thought appears to be tedious to him. That’s fine. I don’t bother to look into things that don’t interest me, either. But I don’t claim to know all I need to know about those things or bother writing criticisms of them. That would indeed be tedious and worse.

Recently I thought I read that Hurtado boasts that he regularly presents both sides of an argument on his blog. That claim is true, I think, of only a handful of viewpoints that he addresses. My early encounters with Hurtado were actually to challenge him to present alternative views to the one he argued in a post (and no, the topic had nothing to do with “mythicism) and that was published by his scholarly peers.

I don’t understand why Hurtado wrote his second post with reference to me since he does not engage with my primary concerns and criticisms. He simply repeats his unprofessional personal accusations and the same criticisms that I attempted to demonstrate were ill-informed and adds a few more remarks that fall somewhat short of total accuracy.

Hurtado concludes:

So, ignoring the various red-herrings and distortions of the “mythicist” advocates, the claims proffered as “corroborating” their view have been shown to be erroneous. And this is why the view has no traction among scholars. There’s no conspiracy. It’s not because scholars are gullible or lazy. The view just doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny.

And that about sums it up. Hurtado has very little knowledge of the mythicist arguments, refuses to read the books, contents himself to skim reading (if not skim reading then reading with hostile intent) and distorting what is found on a couple of websites, and then claiming that the arguments have been subjected to “critical scrutiny” and “shown to be erroneous” and that’s why “the view has no traction among scholars”.

Hurtado’s recent posts have demonstrated in fact that that’s not the reason the view has no traction among scholars. There is evidently something else involved and the hostile, less than professional attitudes and accusations from Hurtado surely are the symptoms of that “something else”.

 

 

 

Friedman’s Exodus: Another View

A month ago I posted my view of a scholar’s claim to be able to extract “nuggets” of historical events from a textual analysis of the biblical narrative of the Exodus: Can we extract history from fiction?

I see today that another blogger, James Bradford Pate of James’ Ramblings has begun to post a series on the same book: Friedman-source criticism as key to the Exodus event

James no doubt has quite a different view of Friedman’s argument from the one I hold, but I mention his posts for the benefit of anyone interested in further exploration of this topic.

I will soon be posting something on the archaeological evidence relating to the biblical Exodus.

 

Thinking through the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19

Some time ago I was attempting to think through the pros and cons surrounding the disputed claims over the significance and meaning of James being described as the brother of the Lord in Paul’s letter to Galatians. I set out the various factors in a discussion of Bayesian probability. But since Bayesian analysis is a scary phrase for some people I have extracted the different pros and cons from that post and set them out here for reference purposes. Being lifted from the original post, some of the points appear here to be in no particular order.

Before I do let’s have a look at another quotation from a historian:

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence that will answer a particular question (G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, p.88)

If that’s what historical research is not, Elton goes on to explain what it is:

it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p.88)

That was the kind of thinking that led to the following list of pros and cons. I’m not interested in dogmatically proof-texting any argument like an apologist. I am interested in attempting to approach questions and evidence according to normative historical principles.

–o0o–

How typical would it have been to identify someone as a brother of the Lord?

1. According to the Gospels Jesus did have a brother named James.

2. Now if in Galatians we read that “James [was] the brother of Jesus” then, of course, we would all agree that such a phrase points to a sibling relationship.

3. But we do have many instances where “brother” is used of Christians and in Hebrews Jesus speaks of having many brethren.

4. “Lord” is a religious title, not a personal name, so there is some small room for “brother of the Lord” being used in a spiritual or non-familial sense.

5. We know of no other instances of people in this context being called the “brother of a spiritual Lord” (or God) so this reduces the chances that Paul was saying James was the brother of the spiritual Lord.

6. But we also have another tradition that Jesus had no siblings at all. So how can that little detail be explained if it were known that James had been the brother of Jesus?

7. We also have information that James was reputed to have been a renowned leader of the Jerusalem church, and his relationship with God was so close that he was known as old ‘camel-knees’, a repetitive strain injury/side-effect from overmuch praying. Our interest is in the likelihood of such a phrase in this context being an indicator that James and Jesus were siblings. So if James were such an unusually holy man then maybe there is some plausibility in the idea that he was known as a special “brother of the (spiritual) Lord”.

8. Another circumstance we do know was common enough in ancient times was the tendency for copyists to edit works, usually by adding the odd word or phrase or more. Sometimes this was entered as a gloss in the margin by way of commentary, with a subsequent copyist incorporating that gloss into the main body of the text. That’s a possibility, too, given what we know of both Christian and “pagan” texts.

9. Given what we know about the evolution of texts, the alterations to manuscripts and so on, it is by no means sure how secure any wording, especially a slight one, in a New Testament text should be considered which is far removed from the original letter of Paul. How can a decision be made about key questions based on this inherent degree of uncertainty, an uncertainty justified by the general instability of the textual record visible in the manuscripts we do have? And yet arguments are formulated on such slender reeds all the time.

10. On the other side of the ledger we have the likelihood that if Jesus were known as a Son of David then it is reasonable to imagine that his royal heir would be his next-in-line brother, probably James. So “brother of the Lord” may not be such an unusual way to describe him in the letter.

 

How likely or expected is the evidence we have if James really were the brother of the Lord? read more »

Why the “Biographies” of Socrates Differ

Remains of the site of Socrates’ trial

A historical study of Socrates echoes numerous points of interest in biblical studies, both in the Old and New Testaments. Following on from my reference to a point in Robin Waterfield’s Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths I want to note here Waterfield’s explanation for why we have quite divergent accounts of Socrates’ apology (or defence speech) at his trial, one by Plato and the other by Xenophon.

Neither Plato nor Xenophon wrote as disinterested biographers of Socrates. Each had his own agenda and used the figure of Socrates as a representative and advocate for his own interests and values.

Both accounts are fiction, Waterfield believes. How did he arrive at that judgment?

Plato is “too clever”, he says. The apology he sets out is evidently Plato’s own.

The differences between the two versions are enormous; they cannot both be right. So whom does one trust?

It is tempting to rely on Plato’s version, because it is brilliant – funny, philosophically profound, essential reading – whereas Xenophon’s is far more humdrum, and is in any case an unpolished work. But this is the nub of the whole ‘Socratic Problem’, as scholars call it: we want to trust Plato, but his very brilliance is precisely what should incline us not to trust him, in the sense that geniuses are more likely than lesser mortals to have their own agendas. And in fact no one doubts that Plato had his own agenda, and came to use Socrates as a spokesman for his own ideas; the only question is when this process started and how developed it is in any given dialogue. (p. 9, my formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Waterfield opts for the Goldilocks answer to his question:

The most sensible position is that no dialogue, however early, is sheer biography and no dialogue, however late, is entirely free from the influence of the historical Socrates. Plato, Xenophon and all the other Socratics were writing a kind of fiction – what, in their various views, Socrates might have said had he been in such-and-such a situation, talking with this person and that person on such-and-such a topic. For one thing that is common to all the Socratic writers is that they portray their mentor talking, endlessly talking – either delivering homilies, or engaging others in sharp, dialectical conversation and argument.

I suspect Goldilocks solutions are founded more on aesthetic preference than carefully evaluated options — and here Bayesian analysis offers to help out — but, let’s move on.

We saw in the previous post that another reason for believing the accounts of Socrates are fiction is the sheer fact that there are so many variations of them. Each writer has his own opinion; if genuine reports of Socrates’ speech were documented then they would have been sufficient and there would have been no need for ongoing variations.

Further, Socrates was said to have entered the court as an innocent, without any in depth preparation for what he was about to say. Plato’s version of Socrates’ speech does not portray someone who was unprepared:

If there is any truth to the stories that Socrates came to court unprepared, a rhetorical innocent, Plato’s Apology certainly begins to look fictitious: it has long been admired as polished oratory. (p. 10)

But can’t historians somehow find a way to peel back the fictional layer of the narrative and expose nuggets of historical fact (at least strong probability of historical fact) behind some of the sayings? Not to Waterfield’s knowledge:

Given the unlikelihood of our ever having objective grounds for proving the fictional nature of either or both of these two versions of the defence speeches, it is gratifying, and significant, that we can easily create a plausible case for their fictionality. (p. 10)

And a little later we learn that, unlike biblical scholars of the gospels, the historian does not have any “criteria of authenticity” to bring into the fray:

There may be nuggets of historical truth within either or both of the two works, but we lack the criteria for recognizing them. We will never know for sure what was said on that spring day of 399 BCE. (p. 12)

So we can prove their fictionality but not their historicity. read more »

Ad Hoc explanations for all those different biographies of Jesus …. (or Socrates)

Here’s an interesting twist to the standard argument explaining why we have so many gospels all with different accounts of Jesus.

Different eyewitnesses report different details about the same event, it is said, and that explains the multiple “reports” of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, resurrection, etc. But check the following by a scholar of Socrates:

The trial rapidly became so notorious that a number of Apologies of Socrates were written soon afterwards, and at least one prosecution speech purporting to be that of Anytus. If the object had been to report the actual speech or speeches Socrates himself gave in the course of the trial, there would have been no need for more than one or two such publications, and all the rest would have been redundant. The fact that so many versions of Socrates’ defence speeches were written strongly suggests that the authors were not reporters of historical truth, but were concerned to write what, in their opinion, Socrates could or should have said – which is what characterizes the whole genre of Socratic writings that sprang up in the decades following Socrates’ trial and death. (Waterfield, Robin. 2009. Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths. New York: W. W. Norton. pp 9-10 — my bolding)

 

Reply to Larry Hurtado: “Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars”

One of the purposes of Vridar is to share what its authors have found of interest in biblical scholarship that unfortunately tends not to be easily accessible to the wider lay public. (Of course, our interests extend into political, science and other topics, too. For further background see the authors’ profiles and the explanations linked at the what is vridar page.)

Some people describe Vridar as “a mythicist blog” despite the fact that one of its authors, Tim, is an agnostic on the question and yours truly regularly points out that the evidence available to historians combined with valid historical methodology (as practised in history departments that have nothing to do with biblical studies) may not even allow us to address the question. The best the historian can do is seek to account for the evidence we do have for earliest Christianity.

There are some exceptional works, however, that do follow sound methods and draw upon an in-depth knowledge of the sources and the wider scholarship to argue strong cases that Christian origins are best explained with a Jesus figure who had little grounding in history, and this blog has been a vehicle to share some of those arguments, usually by means of guest-posts. If a hypothesized historical Jesus turns out to be the most economical explanation for that evidence, then that’s fine. We are atheists but neither of us has any hostility to religion per se (we respect the beliefs and journeys of others) and I don’t see what difference it makes to any atheist whether Jesus existed or not.

Unfortunately, in some of our discussions of biblical scholarship both Tim and I have found what we believe are serious flaws in logic of argument and even a misuse or misleading “quote-mining” of sources. In response, a number of biblical scholars have expressed a less than professional response towards this blog’s authors and what they wrote. Some years back, in heated discussions, I myself occasionally responded in kind but I apologized and those days are now all long-gone history. Fortunately, a number of respected scholars have contacted us to express appreciation for what we are trying to do here at Vridar and that has been very encouraging.

(For what it’s worth, this blog has also often been the target of very hostile attacks from some of the supporters of less-than-scholarly arguments for a “mythical Jesus”.)

So with that little bit of background behind us, I now have the opportunity to address Larry Hurtado’s blog post, Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars.

Fallacy of the prevalent proof

A fact which every historian knows is not inherently more accurate than a fact which every schoolboy knows. Nevertheless, the fallacy of the prevalent proof commonly takes this form — deference to the historiographical majority. It rarely appears in the form of an explicit deference to popular opinion. But implicitly, popular opinion exerts its power too. A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples.  — David Hacket Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies. See earlier post for details.

Hurtado begins:

The overwhelming body of scholars, in New Testament, Christian Origins, Ancient History, Ancient Judaism, Roman-era Religion, Archaeology/History of Roman Judea, and a good many related fields as well, hold that there was a first-century Jewish man known as Jesus of Nazareth, that he engaged in an itinerant preaching/prophetic activity in Galilee, that he drew to himself a band of close followers, and that he was executed by the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

That is a sweeping statement and I believe it to be misleading for the following reasons.

I doubt that the “overwhelming body of scholars” in any of the fields listed, apart from New Testament and Christian Origins, has ever addressed the question of the historicity of Jesus. Certainly, I can accept that probably most people in the West, not only scholars, who have discussed ancient times have at some time heard or made mention of Jesus as a “historical marker”. The life of Jesus is public knowledge, after all. And public knowledge is culturally (not “academically”) transmitted. I suspect that “the overwhelming body of scholars” in all fields who have ever mentioned Jesus in some context have never investigated the academic or scholarly arguments for his existence. That doesn’t make them unscholarly. It simply puts them within their cultural context. I also suspect that for “the overwhelming” majority of those scholars, the question of the historicity of Jesus made no meaningful difference to the point they were expressing.

Hurtado in his opening statement is appealing to what historian David Hackett Fisher labelled the fallacy of the prevalent proof.

These same scholars typically recognize also that very quickly after Jesus’ execution there arose among Jesus’ followers the strong conviction that God (the Jewish deity) had raised Jesus from death (based on claims that some of them had seen the risen Jesus). These followers also claimed that God had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory as the validated Messiah, the unique “Son of God,” and “Lord” to whom all creation was now to give obeisance.[i] Whatever they make of these claims, scholars tend to grant that they were made, and were the basis for pretty much all else that followed in the origins of what became Christianity.

Here we have a continuation of the above fallacy. Yes, what Hurtado describes is what most people (not only scholars) in the Christian West have probably heard at some time and taken for granted as the “Christian story”. Again, what Hurtado is referring to here is a process of cultural transmission. Very few of “these same scholars” have ever studied the question of historicity. We all repeat cultural “memes” the same way we quote lines of Shakespeare.

After 250 years of critical investigation

The “mythical Jesus” view doesn’t have any traction among the overwhelming number of scholars working in these fields, whether they be declared Christians, Jewish, atheists, or undeclared as to their personal stance. Advocates of the “mythical Jesus” may dismiss this statement, but it ought to count for something if, after some 250 years of critical investigation of the historical figure of Jesus and of Christian Origins, and the due consideration of “mythical Jesus” claims over the last century or more, this spectrum of scholars have judged them unpersuasive (to put it mildly).

This statement is a common but misleading characterization of the history of the debate. I think it is fair to say that in fact scholars have not at all spent the past 250 years investigating the question of the historical existence of Jesus. Their studies have, on the contrary, assumed the existence of Jesus and sought to resolve questions about that historical figure’s nature, career, teachings, thoughts, impact, etc. Forty years ago the academic Dennis Nineham even described the importance of the historical foundations of the story of Jesus to meet the needs of theological and biblical scholars. (See earlier posts on his book, The Use and Abuse of History.)

The number of biblical scholars who have published works dedicated to a refutation of the “Christ Myth” theory are very few and, though often cited, appear to have been little read. According to Larry Hurtado’s own discussions, it appears that he has only read one such work, one dated 1938, that I think few others have ever heard of. See “It is absurd to suggest . . . . “: Professor Hurtado’s stock anti-mythicist. (He may have read other such criticisms, and more recent and thorough ones, of which I am unaware.)

The fact is that the few scholars who have historically “come out” to argue that Jesus did not have a historical existence, beginning with Bruno Bauer, have been ostracized and soon ignored by the fields of theology and biblical studies.

In normal academic debate an author is given a right to a reply to criticisms of his work. I have yet to see a mainstream biblical scholar actually address (as distinct from ridicule or insult) any of the responses of Christ myth supporters to those works that are supposed to have debunked mythicism, such as those of Shirley Jackson Case, Maurice Goguel and now Bart Ehrman. One gets the impression that many scholars are content to accept that scholars like Ehrman have “taken care” of the arguments and the matter can be safely left at that. In fact, most replies to the works of Case, Ehrman and others are demonstrations that they have failed to address the core arguments despite their claims to the contrary.

Sometimes an offensive manner is used as an excuse to avoid engaging in serious debate or responses to criticisms, which is a shame because I have seen rudeness and other lapses in professionalism on both sides. Mainstream scholars would, I think, be more persuasive among their target audience if they took the initiative in seizing the high ground of a civil tone and academic rigour in all related discussions. Unfortunately, several academics are even on record as saying that they fear to show normal standards of respect and courtesy with mythicist arguments for fear that they would be interpreted as giving the view a “respectability it does not deserve.” That sounds to me like a reliance upon attempted persuasion by means of condescension, abuse and bullying.

The reasons are . . . 

read more »

How Ehrman’s Gospel “Truth” Gives a Pass to Trump’s “Truth” of Fake Videos

“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders told reporters. “[Trump’s] goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

At least one of the videos was later described as “fake” by a Dutch news outlet. Sanders said that didn’t matter. “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders told reporters. “[Trump’s] goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”Sanders continued, criticizing reporters for pressing her on whether Trump should verify the content of videos before sharing them with his 43 million followers on Twitter.“I’m not talking about the nature of the video. I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing,” she said. “The threat is real, and that’s what the president is talking about.” (Gabby Morrongellio, Sarah Sanders defends Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets: ‘Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real’ in The Washington Examiner, Nov 29, 2017)

I’ve heard something like that before.

Think . . . .

Yes, that’s right, I remember now. That’s the logic used by scholars who attempt to defend the “fake” stories in the gospels as being somehow “true”.

Bart Ehrman earlier this year wrote about True Stories That Did Not Happen and reminded his readers of what he wrote nearly twenty years ago:

There are stories in the Gospels that did not happen historically as narrated, but that are meant to convey a truth. . . . But the notion that the Gospel accounts are not 100 percent accurate, while still important for the religious truths they try to convey, is widely shared in the scholarly guild . . . .

Can there be such a thing as a true story that didn’t happen? We certainly don’t normally talk that way: if we say that something is a “true story,” we mean that it’s something that happened. But actually, that itself is a funny way of putting it. . . . 

In fact, almost all of us realize this when we think about it. Just about everyone I’ve ever known was told at some point during grade school the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. As a young boy, George takes the ax to his father’s tree. When his father comes home, he demands, “Who cut down my cherry tree,” and young George, who is a bit inclined toward mischief but does turn out to be an honest lad, replies, “I cannot tell a lie; I did it.”

As it turns out (to the chagrin of some of my students!), this story never happened. We know this for a fact, because the person who fabricated it — a fellow called Parson Weems — later fessed up to the deed. But if the story didn’t happen, why do we continue to tell it? Because on some level, or possibly on a number of levels, we think it’s true.

On the one hand, the story has always served, though many people possibly never realized it, as a nice piece of national propaganda. . . . The United States is founded on honesty. It cannot tell a lie. . . . 

On the other hand . . . the story functions to convey an important lesson in personal morality. People shouldn’t lie. . . . . And so I myself have told the story and believed it, even though I don’t think it ever happened.

The Gospels of the New Testament contain stories kind of like that, stories that may convey truths, at least in the minds of those who told them, but that are not historically accurate. (Ehrman, B. D. (1999). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press. pp. 30-31)

More recently, in Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (2016) Erhman goes so far as to describe historical truth in the sense of factual truth as a matter of “dry, banal, and frankly rather uninteresting to anyone except people with rather peculiar antiquarian interests” in “brute facts“. (p. 229)

Same with the ugly stories of Judas. read more »

The Classical and Biblical Canons — & the importance of identifying authors

Sarcophagus of the Muses

The ancient community of scholars attached to the Alexandrian Museum had a “religious character” since it was headed by a royally appointed priest and devoted to the service of the goddesses known as the Muses. This community produced the classical canon consisting of Homer, Hesiod, nine lyric poets, various playwrights and philosophers. Another collection of divinely inspired texts followed.

What is noteworthy about this development of the classics or “canon” of Greek literature is the way in which it anticipates the similar development of the “canon” of the Hebrew Bible. It begins with Homer as the undisputed authoritative “canonical” work for all Greeks in the same way that the Pentateuch became the most important work for the Jews. To Homer and Hesiod, the great epics, the Alexandrians added other categories and works, but none drawn from their own time. They were all the great works of a past era. For the most part, the works were accepted as those of the first rank, without dispute, not only within the Hellenistic world, but especially by the Roman literati as well. . . . . 

One important aspect of the so-called Alexandrian canon is the fact that it comprises lists of persons, epic and lyric poets, orators, historians, philosophers, and so on, along with their genuine written works and excluding the works that were spuriously attributed to them. Canonicity therefore entailed known authorship.

Now a problem with most biblical literature is that it is anonymous. Yet it is precisely this impulse to follow the Hellenistic practice of creating an exclusive “canon,” a list of the classics of biblical literature that also came from the age of inspiration, that leads to the impulse to ascribe all of the works within this inspired corpus to individual authors: Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, and so on. Indeed, it is this notion of authorship that accounts, more than anything else, for the inclusion of some works, such as Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, into this fixed corpus.

Furthermore, there can be no canon, whether classical or biblical, without known authors, because anonymous works were undatable in antiquity; and if they could not be attributed to “inspired” persons from the age of inspiration, they had to be excluded. It may also be noted that most pseudepigraphic works were specifically attributed to “canonical” authors or the notables who belonged to that ancient period.

(John Van Seters, The Edited Bible, pp. 40-41 — bolding and formatting mine. Italics original.)

The “Nugget” Theory

[S]ound historical method must lead a scholar to distrust any source much of which can be shown to be false — unless truly reliable material exists outside that source as a check. 

Sometimes, however, we find that a scholar writes history

on the principle that a historian can safely mine “nuggets” out of otherwise worthless ore.

Both quotations are from Chester G. Starr in “The Credibility of Early Spartan History”, (Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte Bd. 14, H. 3 (Jul., 1965), pp. 257-272) …. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4434883

Chester G. Starr