2012-03-16

Miracles and Historical Method

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by Tim Widowfield

Is the sun a ball of dung?

Unknown species of Aphodius (Dung-beetle).
Image via Wikipedia

The ancient Egyptians believed that Kephri, a god with the head of a sacred scarab, pushed the sun along its path, just as the dung beetle pushes a ball of dung across the ground. They were convinced that the beetle existed in male form only, and reproduced by fertilizing its dung ball with beetle semen. This life-giving attribute relates to Kephri’s ability to resurrect the sun each morning.

The irrational anti-supernaturalist would dismiss these beliefs out of hand, while the credulous, unlearned person might simply accept them without question. But the reasonable, wise, modern scholar takes the middle road and declares, “How do I know? Neither the scientific method nor the historical-critical method can account for miracles.”

Methodological Naturalism

We call this perspective “methodological naturalism.” It skirts the issue of whether the world in reality is affected by supernatural forces. Rather, it asserts that having only naturalistic tools in our bag, the only things we can measure and be sure of from a scientific standpoint are natural phenomena. We don’t assert radical materialism; we just operate that way.

But let’s be honest. We’re not talking about just any supernatural forces. Egyptologists don’t have to calm down their students by telling them “we’re just not sure” about how the sun moves and whether dung beetles have no wives. No, we invoke methodological naturalism only when existing religions with existing beliefs in the supernatural intersect with historical studies.

We don’t do it for other ancient gods and defunct ancient religions. We don’t do it in modern forensic science. We don’t do it in scientific research. We only do it when we look at ancient texts that are revered by modern people.

If we don’t drill a hole in your head, then how will the demon get out?

Close-Up: Trepanning in Neolithic times
Close-Up: Trepanning in Neolithic times (Photo credit: NeuroWhoa)

Many conservative scholars (e.g., Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd) argue strongly for a new “Open Historical-Critical Method,” wherein we give our ancient “witnesses” the benefit of the doubt when it comes to little things like the resurrection of the dead, but surely they do not also argue for an “Open Theory of Disease.”

Maybe you have a chemical imbalance, or maybe you have a demon. Perhaps you have cataracts, but let’s leave open the possibility of some supernatural creature that’s living inside your eyes.

They wouldn’t argue that, would they? I mean, this is the 21st century, right?

Right? Guys? Continue reading “Miracles and Historical Method”


2012-03-13

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (4)

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by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

English: A layered pound cake, with alternatin...
Image via Wikipedia — A layered pound cake, with alternating interstitial spaces filled with raspberry jam and lemon curd, finished with buttercream frosting.

Part 4:  Mark — “Some Preliminaries on the General Picture of the Messianic History of Jesus.”

This unit covers Part 1, Section 1 of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret.

Layers upon layers

One of the things that struck me while reading this section is Wrede’s clarity of thinking, especially when it comes to making judgments about what the text of Mark means. In each case we have to try to come to terms with several distinct layers. I would include among them:

  1. The text as we interpret it today.
  2. The text as the early church fathers understood it.
  3. The text itself. (Often ambiguous.)
  4. The author’s intended meaning. (And what the first audience would have inferred.)
  5. The tradition as it came down to the author. (Whether it came from the first Christian communities or from Jesus himself.)
  6. What Jesus actually did, said, and thought.

The Son of Man sayings

I’m jumping ahead a bit, but I think this is a crucial matter, and one that is sometimes ignored in current scholarship. Wrede cites Mark’s use of the term “Son of Man” as a probable indicator of messiahship. Many modern scholars would likely dismiss that characterization out of hand, because we know so much more now about bar nasha, thanks in part to works like Maurice Casey’s The Solution to the Son of Man Problem. Presuming Jesus did exist, he likely spoke in Aramaic. Hence, his pronouncements such as “The son of man is lord also of the Sabbath” probably meant “Man is master of the Sabbath” (i.e., the Sabbath was made for human beings and not vice versa).

But Wrede knew that. It was already well known in his day that bar nasha is an Aramaic idiomatic expression for “the man” (or “a man” or “a guy”). He writes:

This would naturally make the passages no longer usable as proofs for an earlier use of the messianic title by Jesus. But this judgement is premature. Our primary concern is with Mark, not with Jesus. The original sense of the passage is completely immaterial here. The one thing that remains established is that Mark is here speaking of the “Son of man” in the same sense as he is everywhere. [p. 19, emphasis mine]

Continue reading “Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (4)”


2012-03-10

Fear and Loathing in the Bible

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by Tim Widowfield

Is God mad?

I grew up in a church that took the Bible very seriously. It was the inerrant Word of God. It was our rock, our comfort. But the funny thing about taking the Bible literally is the unspoken assumption that God is a very dangerous character. He’s interested in every little thing you do, every little thought that crosses your mind, and if he’s displeased — why, there’s practically nothing he won’t do.

For instance, a rather large number of people in my country (all the members of my former congregation, in fact) believe that God once got so angry that he flooded the earth and killed every man, woman, child, fetus, animal, insect, arachnid, etc. If you stop to consider it, this story of wild rage makes every 20th-century dictator look like a piker by comparison.

And yet this story is something children are taught at a very early age. In fact, you can buy Noah’s Ark plush toys from Amazon. Aren’t they cute? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the story of the Ark, and how the animals came two-by-two. However, I don’t much recall the details of the stinking, bloated, rotting corpses of the millions of dead creatures that God killed. What, no plush “floaters”?

Seriously, is God mad?

The idea of an insane god with unlimited power and a malevolent personality is a staple of speculative fiction. One well-known example is Billy Mumy’s portrayal of the ill-tempered god-child in the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life.” (Spoiler alert!) Continue reading “Fear and Loathing in the Bible”


2012-03-05

Three Votes Away

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by Tim Widowfield

The parable of the burning trees

English: Park County, CO, June 27, 2008 -- Saw...
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Once there was a man who lived in the woods. His cabin was surrounded by 51 trees, one of them, a large oak so close that its spreading branches shaded the roof. He lived there happily for many years. Eventually, there came a season so hot and so dry that when the sparks from a nearby campfire flew in and touched them, the trees practically exploded into flames. The man watched in horror from his kitchen window as the trees were consumed, one by one. Finally, the firemen arrived and put out the conflagration, but not until 48 trees had been destroyed.

Relieved, the man wiped his forehead and vowed to take preventive measures immediately. So the next morning he called his insurance agent. “I need to protect myself and my property,” he said. “How much will it cost for full flood insurance?”

Religious privilege over personal rights

This past week the U.S. Senate barely voted down an amendment to a highway bill that would have allowed employers to opt out of paying for their workers’ insurance for any medical service they believe is “contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer or other entity offering the plan.” (For those who aren’t familiar with the crazy American system, the most common way we get health coverage here is as a benefit from our employers. The recently passed Affordable Health Care act mandates coverage, which has brought the issue to the forefront.) In the media, it was mostly framed as a debate about birth control, with the right wing calling it a freedom-of-religion issue.

But the truth is the law was so vaguely worded that it would have permitted an employer to deny funding for any procedure, any drug, anything at all if he or she has religious qualms. If your boss is a Jehovah’s Witness, he might opt not to pay for your husband’s blood transfusion. If he’s a Christian Scientist, he might not want to help pay for your children’s vaccinations. Does he have moral objections about your upcoming heart transplant? Then maybe you should pay for it out of pocket. His “conscience” trumps your health.

The meaning of the parable

The 51 trees represent the smallest majority vote possible in the Senate. The 48 burned trees are the Senators (3 Democrats and 45 Republicans) who voted to privilege religious beliefs over personal human rights. The cabin is our secular republic. So who is the man in the cabin? That would be Dr. Robert M. Price, aka The Bible Geek.

Continue reading “Three Votes Away”


2012-03-02

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (3)

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by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 3:  Introduction

Gospels are stories

Illuminated Manuscript, Ethiopian Gospels, Eva...
Illuminated Manuscript, Ethiopian Gospels, Evangelist portrait of Mark, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.850, fol. 60v (Photo credit: Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts)

In the previous installment, we read through the front matter of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret. This time, we’re going to look at the Introduction, which while technically part of the front matter, is a meaty chapter unto itself.

Quite recently, Neil remarked on this blog:

The most striking thing that hit me in Richard Carrier’s online discussions or articles on Bayes’ theorem was the point that one needs to stop and distinguish between whether we know X happened (e.g. someone saw an empty tomb) or whether what we know is that we have A STORY THAT SAYS X happened.

Apparently, we’re still re-learning the things that Wrede said over a century ago. Indicting the current “defective critical method,” he wrote:

First of all, it is indeed an axiom of historical criticism in general that what we have before us is actually just a later narrator’s conception of Jesus’ life and that this conception is not identical with the thing itself. But the axiom exercises much too little influence. (p. 5, emphasis original)

The story is not the event. The map is not the territory. He then drives the point home even harder, declaring: Continue reading “Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (3)”


2012-02-29

Mark Goodacre, Criteriology, and the “Appearance” of Science

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by Tim Widowfield

In his latest podcast Mark Goodacre turns his attention to the problem of applying criteria selectively after the fact:

. . . I think that there can then be problems when one tries to make historical Jesus criteria like multiple attestation, like the criterion of embarrassment, do too much. When you take them beyond the introductory student level, into mainstream work on the historical Jesus — because after all, historians don’t work with a great big tool bag of criteria.  Historians don’t, you know, hold up a tradition and say, “OK, let’s kind of dig into the bag and see if we can find a criterion that satisfies this tradition.”  

I just don’t think that’s how historians work a lot of the time.  History’s much more complex than that.  It’s more nuanced; it’s more detailed.  We’re looking at things in all sorts of different ways.  And so I think we have to be a little bit careful about the way that we react to these kinds of criteria.  They can be terribly wooden.  They can be excuses often not to think very clearly.

And worst of all, sometimes what historians of the New Testament — sometimes what historical Jesus scholars do — is they’ll take a tradition they rather like the look of subjectively and then they’ll find some criteria that they can use to make it sound like it’s more plausibly historical.  So the criteria are often applied after the fact, rather than before the fact.  So there’s sort of the appearance of science, the appearance of a sort of scientific validity to what they’re doing.  It’s often just an appearance.

This kind of honest discussion is a breath of fresh air.  For years now, Vridar has been the lonely voice in the wilderness, warning that the historical Jesus scholars were using their criteria to do too much. Besides trying to use criteria that were designed to assign relative probabilities to determine absolute historicity, we’ve noted here countless times, again and again, that HJ scholars appear to apply the criteria selectively, after the fact in order to prove what they wish to be true.

Kudos to Dr. Goodacre. Maybe the next time we have another friendly tussle with Dr. McGrath, Mark will come to our defense — you know, on the side of right — instead of coming to the aid of a beleaguered fellow member of the guild who has once again gotten in over his head.


2012-02-27

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (2)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

English: William Wrede (1859-1906) Deutsch: Wi...
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Part 2: Front Matter

A turning point in the quest

In the first installment, we introduced Wrede’s watershed book on the Gospel of Mark. And watershed is a fairly apt description of The Messianic Secret, since for many scholars it marks a turning point in The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In fact, as you may recall, Albert Schweitzer subtitled his classic work on the quest: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. For Schweitzer (and many others), Wrede signaled the end of the first quest.

If Wrede’s contributions to New Testament studies had such an impact, you would think today’s scholars wouldn’t simply skim over the Messianic Secret, concluding with a dismissive “Nobody believes that anymore.” Even if that were true, we should still like to know why he made such an impact in his day. What was it about the book that caused such a stir when it was published? Why did it have such a lasting effect on NT studies through most of the 20th century? The only way to be sure, I think, is to read Wrede’s work for ourselves. Continue reading “Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (2)”


2012-02-25

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (1)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

A four rotor Enigma machine.
Image via Wikipedia — Enigma

Part 1: Preface

Game-changers

A handful of works in the field of Biblical studies have the reputation of revolutionizing the field. Later scholars refer to them as ground-breaking, game-changing, or seminal. These works arrive on the scene and immediately change the nature of the debate, often providing an entirely new thought framework. More than that, they supply scholars with fuel for generations to come as the original work is reinterpreted, recast, and re-imagined.

Some examples come to mind immediately: Wellhausen′s Prolegomena, D.F. Strauss′s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, and Bultmann′s History of the Synoptic Tradition. These important works in the tradition of historical-critical scholarship have much in common besides being seminal works. First, they often unwittingly create a cottage industry for apologetic rebuttals. Dreadful little pamphlets and books hit the street almost immediately that attempt to debunk the new perspectives. These rebuttals, written by people who clearly aren’t up to the task, appear like mayflies: they burst forth, have their day in the sun, and then are entirely forgotten.

The unread classics

Among the common traits these ground-breaking classics share, we would have to include the way in which they become known to modern scholars and students. They are not so much read as “absorbed” through the membrane of other scholars. That is, students read what other scholars think the original work said, or they come across a synopsis of the work, and this serves a stand-in for actually reading it and understanding it on its own merits. The original tract is reduced to footnote fodder with writers pretending to have read the work, when really all they’ve done is skimmed a summary, a passing reference, or an interpretation.

You’d have to look long and hard to find a better example of an unread classic than William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret (1901). Unavailable in English until 1971, Wrede’s book was at first largely ignored in the US and UK (see J.D.G Dunn’s “The Messianic Secret in Mark,” (warning: link leads to PDF) Tyndale Bulletin 21 (1970) 92-117). Apparently, by the time the English-speaking world took notice of it, so much had been written on the subject that scholars began to lose sight of the original thesis, while others simply misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented Wrede’s very description of the problem. Continue reading “Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (1)”


2012-02-22

Uncommon Tantrums over a Common Era

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by Tim Widowfield

English: A hungry baby yelling and crying.
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People get upset over the strangest little things. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, I recall the fervor with which his administration tried its best to “undo the horrors” of the Carter years. For example, almost immediately they ripped the solar panels off the White House roof and set aside plans to move the US to the metric system. I suspect they didn’t really hate solar power or particularly love feet and inches; they just hated the people who advocated those policies.

When you see people throw tantrums over seemingly unimportant things, you start to look for the underlying issues that the indicators signify.  Of course it’s no mystery why fundamentalist Christians have been howling over the switch from AD (Anno Domini) to CE (Common Era) and BC (Before Christ) to BCE (Before the Common Era).  For them it betokens the erosion of Christian supremacy in our culture.  It indicates their loss of dominance in national affairs.  And besides, they hate change.  That much is understandable.

However, what are we to make of a non-believing, free-thinking professor who jumps on the bandwagon? Dr. Richard Carrier is last person I would have to expected see rending his clothing and sitting in sackcloth and ashes over what is essentially a simple unit of measure. He doesn’t just dislike the change in nomenclature — he hates it. Carrier tells us that CE and BCE “should be stuffed in a barrel filled with concrete and tossed to the bottom of the sea.”  Wow.  That’s the sort of vitriol I reserve for really important evils, such as flavored coffee or misplaced apostrophes. What’s the hubbub, bub? Continue reading “Uncommon Tantrums over a Common Era”


2012-02-20

Dr. McGrath’s Carnival Game

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by Tim Widowfield

“Step right up and win a plush toy for the little lady. Step right up!”

Ring Toss
Ring Toss (Photo credit: burakiewicz)

Have you ever gone to the carnival and tried your hand at the ring toss? Ever tried to pop the balloons with a dart, or knock over the milk bottles with a ball? And did you come away suspecting the game was rigged?

Well, odds are the game was rigged. In some cases, the game operator can tinker with the target, give you a sharper dart or a larger ring – he can let you win whenever it suits him. However, in other cases, you’re never going to win. It looks as if you could win, but it’s impossible. It’s rigged.

Sometimes real life is like that. It appears as if you could win the argument, or at least get a fair hearing, as long as you could just tick the right number of boxes, develop that airtight case, build on the most relevant scholarship, use the most felicitous language. But you can’t win. The game is “gaffed.”

If you visit McGrath’s carnival, “Exploring Our Matrix,” don’t expect to bring home a teddy bear. The rules won’t allow it. Step right up and read Creationists, Mythicists, and the Schroedinger’s Scholar Fallacy, and you’ll see what I mean. Do you question the validity of the historical Jesus consensus? Then you’re already wrong. What’s that you say? You say you’ve read a whole lot, and while you respect the mainstream scholars, you disagree? Well, you see, that’s not your prerogative. That’s off the table. Continue reading “Dr. McGrath’s Carnival Game”